Paul Adams

Interview with Chelsea Martin

By Paul Adams

Awst Press sat down with featured author Chelsea Martin for an interview, and we're happy to introduce readers to her thoughts on art, literature, labels, and hand-modeling.

I'd like to start by asking about your reading; what are you in the middle of right now?

I just got my hands on Last Mass by Jamie Iredell and have just flipped through it. It looks insane.

 And what was the last book you read that genuinely excited you?

I got to read a galley of Paulina & Fran by Rachel B Glaser. I was really excited to read it and was continuously surprised and inspired by it.

Can you tell us a little about Paulina & Fran? What was so surprising?

The book follows a couple of art students who are equally attracted to and repelled by each other, and how that dynamic plays out for them even after losing touch completely. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting it to be, and I kept feeling surprised by where the book went. It is out on Harper Perennial Sept 1.

What about the under-appreciated or under-recognized? Is there anything recent that really moved you but didn't get the attention it deserved? 

So many small press books don’t do as well as I want them to. I guess one example would be Sarah Jean Alexander's Wildlives. I was hoping to see a lot more hype about it.

Well, it's not too late for you to hype it a bit. What's most remarkable about Wildlives?

What is striking to me is that each poem seems to simultaneously embody all of these contradictory emotions: sad, serious, silly, playful, surreal, poignant, apathy, strength, weakness. Like a poem’s tone and meaning could change completely depending on the reader’s mood.

If we could pivot to your own work for a second, I wanted to ask about your current projects. What are you writing at the moment?

I'm working on a novella about an artist who loses contact with her mother and whose life then sort of spirals into chaos, as well as a collection of personal essays.

About your own life?

The essays? Yeah.

One thing I admire about your work is that its able to resonate with the reader's common human experience while simultaneously pursuing those very precise and personal examinations. How do you tease out those "universal themes"?

Thanks. I think most decisions and behaviors come from a basic desire to feel understood. Becoming a CEO of a massive company, talking to a homeless person at a bus stop, wearing makeup to the gym, telling a friend about your unsuccessful attempt at flirting, only wearing clothes that your parents give you... these are all examples of trying to communicate to others who we are, or how we see ourselves.

I like to focus on the tiny, almost trivial examples of this, because they feel so personal and intimate and at the same time illustrate this much larger truth.

So the universal can be found in anything?

I think so, if you give it enough of a chance.

What can you tell me about your book Introduction to Hand-Modeling

The book is, on the surface, a tips and tricks manual for aspiring hand models. But within the lotion recipes and hand exercises, the author’s personal story is revealed, along with some of the dark relationships she’s made within the industry.

You've written about hand-models, independent arms going away to college, a dental prosthetic...is there something about individual limbs or disembodied parts in isolation that attracts you?

I also did a series of floating arm illustrations for an early chapbook, Dream Date I don’t know. Maybe that's something I'm unconsciously dealing with.

We've had several people featured who work in multiple genres, but I think you may be the one who is most accomplished in the most disparate forms: fiction, poetry, comics, illustration, screen-writing, films, and you even started a design company. Do you have one artistic identity that trumps the others?

 I don't really feel that my work is that disparate, honestly. I work in different mediums but I feel I'm coming from a similar place regardless of where or what I'm working in. I guess 'artist' is the term I feel most okay with. I like that it is really broad and almost meaningless.

Is that also what you'd like people to call you?

Thinking about yourself in labels limits what you expect yourself to do. Nonfiction, fiction, poetry, comic artist, graphic designer, conceptualist, minimalist… These kinds of descriptions seem more limiting than useful, for someone who is creating work.

I think labels can be useful when talking about other peoples’ work, and I'm fine with people using any of those terms to describe my work if it helps them communicate or find meaning, but I don’t identify with any of them or prefer my work be described any certain way.

You're definitely our first cartoonist. Can you tell us about Heavy-Handed

 Heavy-Handed is a comic I published bi-weekly on The Rumpus for a little over a year, I think. It was a mostly complete piece of writing when I started turning it into comics. I had been working on it for a while, but it never felt complete, so I decided to try it in the comic form. I had always wanted to try to do a comic, and even though it wasn't what I had planned for that particular project, I think it worked.

What was it like creating a biweekly comic for The Rumpus?

I contacted The Rumpus after I made just a few of them, and they put me on for the biweekly comic. It was really challenging to turn them around so quickly, even with the text already written. I think it was really good for me to have the challenge of the constant deadline.

Do you think we'll ever see a Heavy-Handed book, or was being a webcomic essential to its identity?

The project changed a lot as I made them... that's one difficult thing about publishing before a project is finished. I couldn't go back and edit, I had to commit to what I'd done. The story changed so much for me that the rest of my material didn’t work. So I stopped before the project was complete. I'd like to finish and put a book out at some point, maybe.

Would you consider returning to the comics form?

I think I'll work in comics again at some point. I don't have any projects in mind but I love the form. It's a huge undertaking though, so I think I'd like to be more prepared next time.

How do you think comics are doing at this time, in terms of vitality and respect from the literary community?

My impression is that comics and graphic novels are being taken more and more seriously. There are a lot of exciting things coming out.

Speaking of literary communities, how influential have online literary communities been in your development as a writer and artist?

I think being aware of online communities that support writing has made me more productive. It’s not always easy to find people IRL who are excited about reading, unfortunately. Having these large communities talking about and publishing and sharing writing is really encouraging.

I don't know, despite feeling supported by "online people" I've never really felt a part of an online community... I think it may be part of my personality to reject being connected to a group of people.

But with so many great artists working today, it can be a challenge to find your audience. Can they help with that?

Online communities are valuable in that sense. I think the real advantage online communities have is that outsiders can listen in on discussions without being invited or involved. Anyone can benefit from these conversations if they’re interested.

Of all your writing and art, what are you proudest to have created?

I feel pretty equally proud of and embarrassed by almost all of my work.

Ok, but what about the test of time: if one of your works could go in a time capsule to represent this era in human history, what would it be?

I think if I were actually doing a time capsule I would put something really dumb that was only meaningful to me.

Such as?

(Follow this link to Chelsea's image. Viewers may find this image objectionable, so we've moved it to a separate, stand alone page designated NSFW. The intent is to support the author without censoring while giving viewers the choice of seeing it or not.)

Yikes! Any context we should know about?

I was asked to take this image off my website a few years ago, after accepting a new job. I took it down and felt bad about my integrity ever after.

Well, we don't have to put that explanation in the capsule. Retain an air of mystery. Thanks so much for doing the interview, Chelsea. Before we go, I just wanted to give you the chance to leave us with some parting words or wisdom, thank-yous, shout-outs, or record corrections. What else is on your mind?

I think I’d like to keep this air of mystery going, so I’m just going to link this video and not explain myself.




 

Interview with Nalini Edwin

By Paul Adams, Contributing Editor

Awst is glad to feature author, Nalini Edwin, and we'd like our readers to know a little more about her. We sat down to get her thoughts on reading and writing, commercial language, arts education, and promoting more diverse literary voices.

As usual, we'll start off by asking the essential question; what are you reading?

Right now, I'm midway through Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, but in parallel I'm reading some books that dear friends have put out recently. I have to shill them right now, because they’re stunning: Montana Ray's Guns and Butter, Liz Clark Wessel's Isn't That You Waving at You?, and Morgan Parker's Other People's Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night. I also just finished Wayne Koestenbaum’s My 1980s and Other Essays, and reread Lynne Tillman’s Weird Fucks. And I just ordered Ottessa Moshfegh’s McGlue, because I went to graduate school with her and everything she writes is so fucking good. I’m delighted to see her being acclaimed. 

Can you tell us a bit about those?

Absolutely! I discovered Ferrante through an essay in n+1 that examined her novels in the context of Italian feminism, especially a fascinating idea called entrustment, in which women build what the essay called “a tissue of preferential relationships” across generations. And that’s just one of the dozens of ideas and critical frameworks that Ferrante’s works bring up. I haven’t read novels that have inspired and enriched my thinking this way in a long time, maybe ever. As for my friends’ books, they’re great examples of the smart/vital Venn diagram in contemporary poetry, and it’s no coincidence that most of the people working in that space are women. I can’t say anything about Wayne Koestenbaum that someone else hasn’t said more effusively and clearly, and on the subject of Weird Fucks, I just love Lynne Tillman. I’m always here for a Kerouac takedown. 

Interesting. Are you reading towards a particular goal or a project of your own?

I think everything I read goes toward projects I'm working on. That seems like a cop-out, but I really do feed everything into the ol’ wood chipper. (My dreams are really weird.) Although, to extend this a little: when people ask me this question, I also tell them what I’m watching and listening to, because I work with various kinds of media, and I consume video and audio just as avidly as I do books.

Great, we'd love to hear about them! Awst Press really appreciates authors who are trying to expand, mix, and hybridize media.

I love that about Awst. I mean, I'm always on the cheer squad for that point of view. So yes! I'm listening to a lot of psychedelic music right now. I have a playlist on Spotify called "Dirge Barge" that is like, a bunch of Love albums and a comp album called "Forge Your Own Chains," which I think is hilarious but is so good, and really excellent music for working.

And in terms of movies, TV, or video?

Tv-wise, I'm watching Hannibal, Halt and Catch Fire, and a lot of period-set British crime. On the movie front, a lot of grim ‘70s movies about surveillance, although I’m on the hunt for a subtitled copy of Satyajit Ray’s Sonar Kella. So that's my plate.

Oh, I like Hannibal! Are you enjoying it?

YES. As people often note, it's so visually horrifying! But also so beautiful and painterly. I really feel like it's a fatted liver of a show. There’s just so much lavished on the eye and ear. We don’t deserve it. Have you noticed how they'll often come back from an ad break with some sort of gratuitously pretty, abstracted shot, like milk spreading through coffee, and spend 10 seconds on it, when it's simply a cup of coffee carried through the scene by an extra? That excess. It’s gavage for your visual cortex.

Yeah, it's one of those shows you could enjoy on mute. So what are you working on right now?

I'm working on a couple of projects right now. Two are things I've been working on for quite a while, two to three years. The first is a collection of ... I guess they're prose poems because they don't pour into any other container neatly. In them, I'm trying to process what it was like to work in a few different bloated industries as a low-level employee during the years of 2006-2009.

And the second?

In the other, I'm trying to play with legibility. There are a few people in digital art/media art who have been working with this idea for some time — i.e., is it literature or even language if you can't read it?

Legibility?

Of course, that could mean a number of different things. I'm choosing to focus on the "can't read" part and think about legibility in terms of register, and how that can be politicized. It's my favorite thing to work on right now.

That sounds like a fascinating project! Do you have a title in mind?

It’s not really at the point where a title could do anything for it, which is fine.  

Can you tell us a little more about it?

Sure, although it’ll sound cagey. I don’t mean to be, it’s just that it’s not fully formed yet. But, that being said, the series of pieces that this is coming together as — the sort of mass of it — involves a lot of interaction design that upends the idea that someone can necessarily interact with a piece of content (text/image/video) housed online in the usual or default ways. Which is to say: the ways that cater to the rich, the white, the male, the straight, the cis, the non-disabled, the English-speaking.

How did it come about, and was there a specific inspiration?

I started on it when I was working as a visual designer, and brought the question of ADA compliance to a project I was working on. I kept thinking about how we retool things retroactively to be legible for those users — websites, texts, products, etc — and while doing that, also considered other ways in which the accessible Internet is an internet of accommodations, many of them afterthoughts or grudgingly made. And I thought, What if I start making work that insists on flipping this? And of course the question then is, Flip it for whom? And who are you to do this flipping? With all of the responsibilities and implications that carries. 

Where might this lead in the future?

I am interested in doing that for registers of language as well and have been — related and parallel to this part of the project — making some work that does that. But I'm not at the point with either where I feel that they could work together, either braided conceptually or as a suite. Right now I just want to amass these pieces, and then look at them critically.

When you say "registers", I think of your work Junk Movements. I loved that piece and the sly use and subversion of commercial language; could you tell us a little about it, or about the dialogue between literary and commercial language more generally?

Thanks for the kind words! In Junk Movements, I do think of my re-purposing of the copy as archaeological. I like thinking of the text below the copy as the secret subregister in which all advertising copy is written.

Secret?

The secret language of products and producers. You know — buy a decoder ring, figure it out. Haha. I kind of feel like "buy a decoder ring and figure it out" is the secret subtext of the capitalist mandate.

How do you respond to the tension between the language or register of consumerism and that of poetry and literature? Do both have value?

To your question about literary and commercial language, I think I feel as if there isn't really a formal meniscus between the two? Or at least, if there seems to be, that's a function of positioning, which = marketing, which = commercial. Isn't that depressing? We might as well make things out of it.

I often admire the literary ambitions and talents of anonymous commercial writers; you sometimes see a lovely phrase on a ketchup packet.

Oh definitely! I mean, my day job is to head a copy team, and while I haven't worked on ketchup, I feel a certain sting of embarrassed nostalgia when I'm in an airport and see things like branded cartons of hand-held sudoku games. IT ME. I used to try to work in literary references and other sly allusions when writing copy, but now I just enjoy noticing it when it emerges.

You've taught in various capacities and worked as a fundraiser for Bronx schools; can you tell us briefly about that?

Access to education, especially arts education for youth, is deeply important to me. My fundraising work for The Highbridge Green School, which is a public middle school in the south Bronx, is volunteer, but the volunteer work I’ve done grows out of my experience teaching.

Is your work with education important to your identity? Does it influence your work?

I really love teaching, and have done it for years, for pay and as a volunteer, but I'm not sure that it enters my own creative work to a discernible extent. It absolutely does integrate with my feelings about community, which is the basic unit of my world.

You've also worked in the past with programs that encourage girls and young women to write, including facilitating mentorship with established women writers. Can you tell us a little about that?

I ran the digital media mentoring program at Girls Write Now, which is a really neat extension of their flagship writing & mentoring program. Organizations like GWN — and Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, DCTV, Urban Word, 826, and others — understand that a crucial part of nurturing young writers and artists is the support and championship a mentor provides. 

Can you tell us about your experiences and your thoughts on strategies for encouraging and promoting more diverse literary voices? What are some organizations or individuals who are working in that direction?

There are a number of organizations, like the ones above, doing incredible work to encourage diverse literary and artistic voices. I think it's especially important to do that for children and adolescents, to bolster them on two fronts: the creative process itself, which can be agonizing regardless of any combination of privilege, and — this is where I feel it's crucial — to make them not only feel, but understand, how much a part of the conversation they should get to be.

Which is still a tremendous challenge?

I phrase it that way — should get to be — because we're nowhere near diversity, much less parity, which I feel is the second and more important (and difficult) frontier in social justice. Because it's like, Sure, get all the voices at the table, yes, great … but whose voices are we already primed to listen to?

That's exactly right. But in your own experience, you've been very impressed with the young people you've worked with?

Oh yes. The girls are so special.  I love working with teenage girls — teenagers generally, but girls especially. There's a dazzling amount of awareness and energy. It's legit like looking into the sun.

Have they inspired you to create anything new?

A project that I have kind of been twisting around in my brain is a young adult novel about fanfiction, which is to say, fiction. Most kids who start writing these days come to other genres of literature through poetry and fanfiction.

It is a genre that hasn't been taken seriously enough to get much critical attention, but there's weird vital stuff going on there.

Exactly! I would love to see it get the welter of critical attention that other, more loftily positioned forms of metanarrative receive.

Could a novel like that provide a bridge to more 'serious' literature from YA and fan fiction?

I think bridges are important, but I also think it's good to ask what makes something “more serious.” Because I do feel that when work gets called unserious, it's often because it's pitched at a register that is deeply discomfiting to people who feel that register is punching up at them.

Is it possible to make the writers and consumers of marginalized genres into part of a broader literary community without being dismissive or condescending?

Of course! It’s not only possible, it should already be.

How can we prevent people who want to write outside that very specific Serious Literature mode from losing faith in the importance of their own writing?

That’s tricky. I’ve been there myself, and I’m not sure what would have helped me. I spent all of my MFA time in a depressive crouch, although it was not so much my program, to be fair, as the effect MFA programs can have on some people. I was lucky enough that I a) had a tight-knit, supportive community to return to, and b) had some time after graduating to pull out that drawer of feelings and pick each one up and kind of chew on it for a while, until I stopped feeling like it was not worth showing my work to anyone. Maybe that’s the prescription: friends and time.

Well, we're glad you did, and really enjoyed reading your work. Before we go, do you want to offer any parting words, sage advice, shout-outs or, thank-yous?

I’d like to thank you and Wendy, and Mike Young for soliciting me; I’d also like to thank the editors at Gigantic, extramural, Anomalous, and Fringe (RIP) for their kindness. I owe thanks to my best husband and to our friend Sasha Fletcher for always asking to read my work, even when I’m squirrelly about it. Shoutout to Rachel, Gene, and Ella. As for sage advice, never trust anyone who compliments you with the word “actually.”

Check out Nalini's page to read her work or find out more about her.


Paul Adams is an author and MFA student at Texas State University.





Interview with Gene Kwak

By Paul Adams, Contributing Editor
 

Awst is glad to feature author Gene Kwak, and we'd like our readers to know a little more about him. We sat down to get his thoughts on reading and writing, his own work, his life, literary magazines and the future of publication.

Let's dive right in; what are you reading?

I normally balance a few different types of books at one go: essays, criticism, stories, poems, etc. But right now I'm working on a bigger thing and I'm also trying to be aware of what is feeding that work. So, I'm really only touching back on this short novel, Saguaro, by Carson Mell. It's a weird, little, hard to find gem that was recently re-released digitally by Electric Literature. But the physical copy is rarer than a bald eagle since Mell apparently released it himself. Amazon’s got it for the price only a bullion-swimming duck could afford.  

So you try to read things that will inform or influence your own writing?

Years ago my buddy Blake Butler would post his reading list for a year on HTMLG. Mike Young used to do it too. And Blake and I had conversations about how he would consciously curate his intake (books, films, TV, etc.) to help revitalize or hone or inspire his particular project at the time.

Can we go back to Saguaro; what makes it so compelling?

Saguaro is about this character, Bobby Bird, who's basically the top of the totem pole musician of his era. Only it's a little bit past his era and he's sort of recollecting all these wild adventures over the course of his lifetime. It’s a drug-addled, knuckle-bumping yarn full of lost loves and cults and befriending babies. Honest though, it’s not really about the plot. None of my go-to’s have ever been about the what, but rather the how. The song. The squawk. The yap.   

You said you were re-reading it partly to inform your own work. What is it you're trying to learn or borrow from Mell's work?

Mell's biggest strength is that he's so good at hitting weird particular details of characters that make them feel like “living tissue”—to borrow a Barry Hannah line. He has done a lot of TV writing for shows like Eastbound & Down, Silicon Valley, and also written and illustrated some incredible short, animated films that are available on YouTube. The novel doesn't make any grand proclamations about life or anything, but it's akin to saddling up next to a tatted-up, weirdo grandpa at your shithole bar and hearing him riff. If that grandpa was Bob Dylan. Or a Bob Dylan type. But maybe meaner. Or more honest at least.

And you're writing something with similar themes?

I'm not writing about music or a man in a pink polo who's past his prime (Bobby Bird). But Mell is one of the best when it comes to walking that line between vivid characterization and one-liners. That's really helping my current project. Also Bobby Bird is a bit of an egotist and a blowhard and so is my character. But hopefully the narrator in my novel isn’t such a big asshole who's off putting.

What is your new project?

It's a short burst of a novel centered around amateur wrestling, Native American culture, race, the Midwestern sky, and parenthood.

Are those themes you've worked with before? Do you have any recurring themes or preoccupations that appear in all your work?

Some of them have been recurring. I'm not sure there are many big themes that continue to show their faces. Religion (I am born and raised in Nebraska) and assholery seem to find purchase in my writing. Basically I like to try and write characters who are troubled or troubling and have them mash up against other similar characters and still, hopefully, rope the reader along for the ride. I'm not exactly aiming for sympathy, maybe more empathy on the part of the reader.

Can you tell us a little more about that distinction?

I think when you sympathize with someone it probably comes from a place of kind-hearted, human-to-human, I-feel-you emotional connection. Compassion, at it’s best or best intentioned anyway. But it can also come off as pitying or patronizing. Empathy, for me, is more about trying to understand where someone is coming from. Trying to get into their frame of reference, even if that’s near impossible. Mostly it’s about stepping outside of the self.

But, this is part of a larger conversation about whether a character needs to be "likable." And how men are sort of afforded those dickhead roles and characters to inhabit (Both Steve Carell & Ricky Gervais in The Office; Will Ferrell in almost everything, but especially Anchorman; Danny McBride in almost everything, but especially Eastbound & Down) while women get the same inane questions about likability as authors and/or actresses. I think about Lena Dunham's take on Hannah Horvath in Girls, for example. In my writing, I'm basically saying there are few winners, just people trying.

Do you find that to be true of real life? How much of yourself can you see in your main characters?

I’m writing fiction for a reason. Maybe there’s a grain of truth in everything. Maybe there are a few more grains in particular stories. Or lines. Or utterances. But again, I do hear from women writers and creators and storytellers that they get asked the question about “likability” and how much of their narrators’ or speakers’ stories are based on their own experiences quite often. Definitely more often than their male counterparts. There’s also just a whole spectrum out there of fiction/non-fiction fuzziness that people have simplistic notions about, because a librarian told them when they were in third grade that this half of the stacks are fiction and this half are non-fiction and the non-fiction section is true and the fiction section is made-up. A grown man once told me he never read fiction because it was all lies. He was a lawyer, mind you. A lawyer. That one’s too easy.

What about the opposite case; how do you feel about creating characters with radically different experiences? Are there different ethical standards for authors writing across race, gender, and other identities?

There are definitely huge responsibilities. Not to be taken lightly. I mean, because I don't want to write a bunch of stories about dude narrators, sometimes I'll change the gender or sexuality or race of a character. And I hope none of those stories has come off as inauthentic. But also, while making those changes will obviously affect certain aspects of the story, I think most of my stories center on relationships between friends; siblings; parents and children; co-workers, etc., and most of us have experienced the highs and lows of those types of relationships so that I can find some grounding in writing those stories.

But the situation would be different if the writing had a political agenda or departed a great deal from the author's lived experience?

I think it's a whole different thing if you're inhabiting the skin/gender/culture of someone else and writing a piece that takes a hard line position on that culture. Even if that position is inadvertent. Or the position is to speak for the culture. Or passing judgment on the culture. Like Adam Johnson winning the Pulitzer writing that novel about North Korea. A ton of Korean people were hugely offended by that book. I haven’t read it so I can’t say one way or the other.

Adam Johnson did a reading in San Marcos recently and said that he'd cut the middle third of that book, which was set in a prison camp, because he thought that experience was simply beyond his understanding and he wouldn't be able to do it justice. But if some people felt that was true of the parts he didn't cut, how can we draw that line? Is there a rule of thumb?

I think you have to do your research and make sure you're writing things in a nuanced way and getting honest feedback from members of that group. And that may still not ring true for many people of that group. It's a tough balancing act. And I also think that if you’re a card-carrying member of the majority you should ask yourself whether you need to be the mouthpiece to tell this group’s story. If the story is what’s really important to you, maybe you should leave it to a member of that group to best tell their story.

Speaking of Korean, do you find yourself tackling the issue of race in your work?

I don't write immigrant stories and my narrators aren't necessarily outright Korean. So people may assume things about race whether I've said them or not. Sam Lipsyte once mentioned that Venus Drive was overlooked for a Jewish book award. And he was told it was because the book wasn't Jewish enough. He responded by saying something to the effect of how his book was the "the most Jewish book out there." That’s my stance. My book will be the most Jewish book out there.

What about the use of place in writing; is your region an important influence?

Maybe one of the most important.

So your writing and your life have been strongly shaped by Omaha?

I love this city. At times I do feel the need to move away and explore other pockets, but I love that Faulkner line about writing about his "little postage stamp of America." I wouldn't be who I am if I wasn't raised in Omaha. I came to find Barry Hannah's work because the weirdos and fringe characters he wrote about reminded me of my friends in Omaha. I'll always come back here. I have friends and family here.

What are some of the city's greatest features?

It's always at the top of the list for cheapest cities in the U.S. But also, thanks to that Saddlecreek push in the 90s, we're a huge music town. Simon Joyner, The Faint, Conor Oberst, still, obviously. But also new up-and-comers like Sean Pratt and the Sweats. Nathan Ma and the Rosettes. Mike Schlesinger. Manic Pixie Dream Girls. And on and on.

When Austin was 'discovered', we expanded very quickly and became known as an offbeat city with a strong cultural and artistic center, but that led to terrible traffic, lost charm, and aggressive gentrification. Do you think Omaha is ripe for a boom, and how would you feel about that?

Omaha's been sort of growing in the last few years as one of those cities, though definitely not at the level of Austin. There are a lot of big wigs who come around because of Warren Buffett and a few other Fortune 500 companies. I both fear and love it. We definitely need to do a lot more work. There are a lot of social conservative old timers that push back progress. We need better public transportation. More food options. Better immigration and LGBT awareness and local law reform. But it's still really dirt cheap to live here and we have a great visual art and music scene.

What's the Omaha literary scene like?

The lit scene doesn't really exist, but it's starting to make a little yelp. I've tried my best to spread the gospel of this town and when I have organized a few Lit events in town, people have come away from here raving. Mike Young, Mike Schlesinger, and I went on tour and our kick off was my birthday party that had something like 150+ people at it. That's a reading. Rich Smith, Hannah Gamble, and Kyle McCord recently came through and they sold a ton of books and had a helluva time. This place will support you and sustain you if you also support and sustain it.

Speaking of literary scenes, how do you feel about online communities of writers and readers?

Even in Omaha, a city of more than 1 mil (with surrounding areas) we have very few good bookstores. Actually more like none. And very few writing groups outside of academia. Imagine all those aspiring writers in even smaller townships. Where are they supposed to find avenues to read and publish? Online literature has been great for marginalized voices as well.

So online literary communities have been influential in your writing life?

If it wasn't for online publishing, community, lit, etc. I also would've been a very different writer. When I got into my MFA program the first question the instructor asked us was who were we reading? I mentioned Barry Hannah, Mark Richard, and Mark Anthony Jarman. Nobody in my program knew any of those names. I found solace and comfort and knowledge and kinship in writing to "online" writers who kept blogs like Blake Butler, Mike Young, and Rachel Glaser. They were reading and writing the kind of stuff that piqued my interests.

I will say that with all the terrible stuff going on in the poetry-online literary community, members of the community (of which I am one, although I don’t write poetry) need to make sure that we’re being vigilant and responsive and careful. One of the great things about publishing things online is that it allows for less gatekeepers and anyone can really work their way up. But that ability can also allow terrible people to assume positions of power and to leverage that power in really horrific ways.

What do you think online journals can do to gain respect?

The only thing I hope for is that going forward online avenues will also take themselves seriously. No cheap free blog addresses or misspelled mission statements. Better design work. Quality writing. Yadda yadda. A lot of places have been doing these things in spades, and I'm so glad Awst is adding its name to the fray.

What interested you in Awst?

To be honest, when (Mike) Young vouches, I listen. Pretty sure he could coax me to take a swan dive out an open window. Leap of faith in my pal’s pointed finger. I thought the project sounded inspired and the design elements looked like Wendy took things seriously. It’s a massive undertaking and I really respect everyone involved.

Thank you, that's great to hear! We really appreciate your doing the interview, Gene, but we're almost out of time. Do you have any thank-yous, shout-outs, or parting words of wisdom?

Only what I tell my students. Reject fatalism and cynicism. Korean writers are rare as fucking unicorns. If I’d buzzed along on the path most intended, I’d probably be rich and miserable right now. Instead of decent and full of stupid joy. Which is all I can ask for in life.


Paul Adams is an author and MFA student at Texas State University.