Author Archives: Kelsie Doran

Ampersand Interview Series: Desiree Evans interviewed by Kelsie Doran

Checkout our latest interview in our Ampersand Interview Series with Desiree Evans.

In the latest Ampersand Interview, Assistant Managing Editor, Kelsie Doran, spoke with Desiree Evans about quarantine, forgiveness, and her piece, “Flesh” which will be published in the forthcoming Arts & Letters Issue.

Kelsie Doran: “Flesh” is a very raw and rich story that allows space for the reader to ponder their own morals, the definition of what’s wrong and what’s right, and how to forgive the past. Did writing Bootleg’s character help you with any personal moral dilemmas or allow you to forgive more freely in your own life?

Desiree Evans: Writing Bootleg’s character definitely gave me space to ponder how we forgive ourselves and others. It also really allowed me to reflect on the idea that we are more than our greatest mistakes, and to really think hard about what a transformative vision of justice can look like personally and on a larger political level. What does it mean to forgive ourselves? How do we learn and grow from our own mistakes? How do we hold ourselves and others accountable for harm? It’s something I’m still working through, as I learn more and more what it is to try to build accountable communities.

KD: Although this is a work of fiction, part of the reason this piece works so well is because of how real it feels, and the deep well of human emotions this story explores.  Did you have people or events in your own life that helped shape the characters in this story or did you draw more from your imagination?

DE: Bootleg for me represented so many young men I grew up around, who got caught up in something that really didn’t reflect what they wanted to be in their lives. Often times, they were locked away and punished for nonviolent criminal offenses. Being institutionalized changed them. The process of returning “back” to the community was made even more complicated because of the trauma they experienced in those jails and prisons. In many ways I wanted to write a “post-war” story, but the war wasn’t a war being waged in another country. This was more about how I saw an entire generation of people my age behind bars, having grown up in impoverished and in resource-starved communities. When they returned to the world so many of them didn’t know how to be in the world, having spent their youthful years in institutions. The symptoms of trauma were there — shell shock, PTSD, an inability to return to any idea of “normal.” So I wondered: What does it mean to live again? How do you even begin? This was the seed for my story.

KD: The imagery and details within this piece helped bring the reader straight to the story – especially the scene that describes Bootleg’s time in solitary – so heartbreaking.  Did you have to do a lot of outside research on this piece to arrive to those descriptive details?

DE: I definitely researched into the details around solitary confinement, especially in Louisiana. There was an article I read a long time ago that talked about the size of a solitary cell being the size of a twin mattress, and it really stuck with me. I also remember studying the case of Albert Woodfox, who served more than 40 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s Angola Prison, and just the idea of that much time in solitary always haunted me. I wanted to explore what it would mean to spend days, weeks, months, years, in a cell like that. What would it do to one’s psyche?

KD: Where do you write most often? Do you like to have a specific writing space?

DE: My ideal working space: my desk in my office surrounded by large stacks of books and notebooks that help to inspire the project I’m working on. I also have a wall of quotes and images that hang above my desk that speak to whatever project I’m working on as well. And I am a morning writer! When I’m working with my most ideal schedule, I love getting up at about 6am, when the world is still quiet/dreamlike, and prepping my desk for a morning writing sprint.

KD: What is your advice for writers who are shy or unsure about dipping their toes into the fiction genre?

DE: It can be terrifying, I know. I was afraid for years to try to write down my own stories, fearing not being good enough. I loved reading, and read voraciously growing up. I would say reading saved me in so many ways, but I couldn’t imagine ever being someone others read. But I realized the characters inside my head, the stories I made up about them to put myself to sleep at night: I realized how much it healed me and invigorated me when I actually wrote their stories down. To see them come to life before my eyes through my own words has been simply transformative. The creative drive is what feeds me to keep going, day in and day out: I love building worlds and crafting relationships between characters and sending them on journeys. For any writer unsure about writing fiction, I say this: there is so much power to seeing your characters come to life in a story of your own making. Step into that power, that wellspring of infinite possibility. It could be the very thing that changes everything you know about yourself and the world.

KD: How has quarantine affected your writing life?

DE: It’s been a hard quarantine. Fear, exhaustion, and constant worry about my family and the world. So many writers are empathic people, taking in a lot of energy from the world, and when there is a crisis, and so much pain around, it can be overwhelming, and sometimes incapacitating. All that to say, I’ve not written much, but I would say that I’ve learned a lot about myself, about what I need to keep going, about what I want for myself and my community and the larger world. And in many ways I’ve learned so much about our society and how it works (the good and the bad); the sort of realizations that will feed my fiction for years to come.

KD: What do you want to do next in writing? Is there anything you can share about forthcoming projects?

DE: I want to do it all, honestly. I just signed with an agent to work on my first novel projects, which I am so excited about. I am working on a children’s book at the moment, and I’m beyond excited to write for kids, teens, and adults. I am also interested in writing both fiction and creative nonfiction, and I love hybrid works that toe the line between nonfiction prose and poetry, so it’s my hope that I get to dabble across genres in the future to tell all the stories I hope to tell. A lot of my writing is regionally-focused, and I’m so excited to take readers into my home communities in the Deep South, into the rural landscapes that inspire so much of my work.

Desiree S. Evans is a writer from South Louisiana. She holds degrees in journalism from Northwestern University and international policy from Columbia University. She most recently was an MFA Fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied fiction and poetry. Her writing has been supported by the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA), the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Kimbilio Fiction, and the Hurston/Wright Foundation. Her short fiction has appeared in journals such as Gulf Coast, The Offing, and Nimrod Journal, among others. Visit Desiree on the web at desiree-evans.com, and on Instagram and Twitter: @literarydesiree.

Ampersand Interview Series: Karyna McGlynn interviewed by Kelsie Doran

Checkout our latest interview in our Ampersand Interview Series with Karyna McGlynn

In the latest Ampersand Interview, Assistant Managing Editor, Kelsie Doran, spoke with Karyna McGlynn about the 1980s, puberty, and her poems which will be published in the forthcoming Arts & Letters Issue.

Kelsie Doran: We have selected three of your poems to publish, “Upon Being Shot by the Shrink Ray”, “I Stand Outside This Woman’s Work”, and “Love Song to a Wicked Stepsister Who Peaked in the 80s.” Were these poems written around the same time during your writing process or were they scattered?

Karyna McGlynn: “I Stand Outside This Woman’s Work” and “Love Song to a Wicked Stepsister Who Peaked in the 80s” were basically written back to back, and relatively recently. I have a whole series of these late 80s poems that originated from a writing exercise I did with fellow Memphis poet Marcus Wicker. “Upon Being Shot by the Shrink Ray” had a more difficult birth. It’s one of the oldest poems in my new manuscript. It’s been through many incarnations over the last seven years. For the longest time it was called “Pursephone” (Get it? Like Persephone, but in a purse!). I thought this
was very clever but everybody in my poetry workshop hated it–half of them thought I meant “purse phone” (Like a phone that’s in a purse? Like I somehow don’t know the term “cellphone”?) and the other half just thought I didn’t know how to spell “Persephone!”


KD: There is a very raw voice throughout your poems, and you deal with the adolescence a lot. Would you consider your youth to be one of the rawest times of your life?

KM: Absolutely. Isn’t youth one of the rawest times of everyone’s life? We’re like soft-shell crabs, scuttling around all awkward and vulnerable, silently thinking “Please don’t eat me!” And it’s even worse when you’re a sensitive or artsy kid. For me, growing up in Texas in the 80s and 90s was profoundly strange. But nobody I knew ever seemed to acknowledge how strange (even
wrong) everything was. It’s like you weren’t supposed to talk about anything interesting, or question how anything was done. I was always getting in trouble after trying (and finally failing) to stay silent. Sense memories from my youth are particularly charged with that accreted silence, and I do try to convey that charge in my syntax and word choice.

KD: The Miracle of Birth is a movie we all dread when we are being told about childbirth in school, what inspired you to make a poem out of this usually avoided subject?

KM: OMG. Yeah, so this actually relates back to your previous question. My poems are often direct confrontations with my fears, and childbirth has always been one of my greatest fears. I was baffled at the way everyone acted like birth was perfectly normal and natural, and obviously part of every woman’s life plan. The Miracle of Birth horrified me–I wasn’t prepared for how raw and alien it all seemed. Isn’t that awful to admit?! It took years for me to deal with this discomfort in a poem so directly.

KD: Where do you write most often? Do you like to have a specific writing space?

KM: I used to write almost exclusively in coffee shops, but now I write at a canary-yellow table on my sun porch. I have a bunch of plants and candles, so it’s really magical. I have a separate work space inside, but it’s now been completely taken over by my collage supplies.

KD: The verbs and adjectives you use are so crisp and bring the reader straight into an image – do these usually come with the first few drafts of writing or do you spend a lot of time finding them?

KM: Thanks! I’m so pleased you think so. I try to emphasize imagery and diction in my work, and I would probably say that sensory/sonic detail is one of my strengths. It’s something I really value in other poets’ work as well. I’ve always been in love with the music & muscularity of language.
And I love projecting weird little movies into the reader’s mind.

KD: What/who inspires you most as a poet?

KM: Kate Bush, visual art, stand-up comedy, Alice Notley, stop-motion animation, TCM, 80s music videos, dance & Diane Seuss.

KD: When did you first consider yourself a poet?

KM: Embarrassingly early. It was the first thing I ever felt good at. I won a prize for a little chapbook I made in fifth grade and I was like, “Oh my god! This is WHO I AM.” I’ve been doing it in one form or another ever since.

KD: What is next for your writing? Is there anything you can share about forthcoming projects or poems?

KM: Yes, the poems you took are from my new manuscript, 50 Things Kate Bush Taught Me About the Multiverse. I’m also co-editing this excellent anthology with Erika Jo Brown: Clever Girl: Witty Poems by Women.

Karyna McGlynn’s is a writer & collagist living in Memphis, TN. She is the author of four books of poetry, including, most recently, Hothouse, which was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Poet Lore, Missouri Review, Ninth Letter, Georgia Review, New England Review, and The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day. Karyna is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing & English Literature at Christian Brothers University. She’s currently working on a book about Kate Bush and co-editing the anthology Clever Girl: Witty Poetry by Women.

Ampersand Interview Series: L.I. Henley interviewed by Kelsie Doran

Checkout our latest interview in our Ampersand Interview Series with L.I. Henley

In the latest Ampersand Interview, Assistant Managing Editor, Kelsie Doran, spoke with L.I. Henley about Jim Morrison, pain, her dream car, upcoming projects, and her piece, “Drive! (You’re Lost Little Girl, You’re Lost)” which will be published in the forthcoming Arts & Letters Issue.

Kelsie Doran: First of all, us here at Arts & Letters are big Jim Morrison fans. Having Jim as a figure running throughout the piece was a fun fantasy treat; at what point in the writing process did you decide to bring Jim in? 

L.I. Henley: I’m glad to hear that! The decision to include Jim as a kind of imaginary friend in the essay came early on. At seventeen I was completely enamored with Morrison’s sultry voice, transgressive lyrics (and those black leather pants!), and I really did imagine him as my co-pilot. When I sat down and began writing notes about the experience of driving as a young female on the desolate roads of the Mojave Desert at a time without cell phones, iPods, or helicopter parents, my mind immediately went to the music that kept me company. I thought about albums by the Talking Heads, Frank Zappa, The Dave Brubeck Quartet, David Bowie, Annie Lennox…all of which I raided from my mom and stepdad’s CD collection. But The Door’s self-titled debut and their second album, Strange Days, really captured the tone of my long drives to school and my failed searches for house parties across the impossibly dark mesa. The existential and mythological implications mixed with blues and psychedelic rock that made up The Doors’ early sound (“no safety or surprise/ the end”) captured the volatile desert (and the west at large) and foreshadowed the even stranger days of early adulthood that were coming my way.  

KD: This piece is very vulnerable, was it harder to write the more personal scenes or was it therapeutic in some way?  

LH: Well, anything truly therapeutic is probably going to feel like hard or even painful work at times. Pain is pleasure’s wrestling mate, I think. Physical therapy hurts, lifting weights hurts, accepting and telling the truth hurts—but hopefully we get some sense of relief as well. I believe that by being open in regards to having chronic illness I can make others feel less alone, that I can do my small part to challenge the stigma associated with invisible disabilities. I do think that there is strength in being vulnerable, and that the essay shows how the rugged environment of my childhood made me more resilient and self-reliant.  

KD: Besides Jim Morrison, who else do you like to rock out to? Do you listen to any artists or albums specifically to get you into the writing mood?  

LH: I’m still a big fan of all the performers I listed above, but my heavy rotation now includes Run the Jewels, Scissor Sisters, Puscifer, Die Antwoord, and other contemporary artists. I like to listen to Massive Attack and The Knife when I’m working on my visual art. I listened to Tool and Marilyn Manson when I was writing my desert noir novella, Whole Night Through. I’m currently working on a novel set in my hometown of Landers during the early 80’s, and I listen to what I think my UFO obsessed, up all night, down-and-out characters would listen to: Patti Smith, Shuggie Otis, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed.  

KD: Where do you write most often? Do you like to have a specific writing space?

LH: When I’m working on an eco-poetic piece that is rooted in the experiential, I sit outside where I can observe and have experiences in real time and write about them in real time. I’ve written a few chapbooks sitting in the backyard of whatever desert house or cabin I was renting at the time, just going, “Oh, that jackrabbit is looking at me,” “Oh, that cricket lost a leg,” “Oh, the ants are devouring my toes.” But writing outside is not always practical (wind, sun, heat, fire ants on my feet) and I do find myself at my standing desk quite a lot, surrounded by corkboards covered in ephemera I’ve cut from Life Magazines and bookshelves full of field guides (which is where I am writing this right now).  

KD: What/who inspires you to write the most? 

LH: As an only child living in “the sticks,” I started writing stories and poems when I was old enough to read. I think it was partially because I wanted to feel less alone but also because I was critical of the world I saw and had a lot of opinions about the adult behavior that I couldn’t voice otherwise. I was born a critic, which makes me a true optimist, because I believe we can do better. My partner, JM, doesn’t necessarily inspire me to write but he does something better—he doesn’t get in my way. He is a dedicated percussionist and composer who is always cooking up something new; we both like to be in our work. He’s also a damn fine editor and has no problem giving me unbiased, no B.S. criticism.  

KD: What would you tell someone who has just started their writing career?  

LH: Well, I guess I’d have to ask the person what they mean by “career.” I once visited a graduate poetry class at USC and a student asked me what it was like for me financially now that I had “made it as a writer,” and my response was that I hadn’t gotten the memo that this was or could be true for me. If by “career” we are talking about a calling, a life’s work, an obsession, I’m more suited to give advice, but it’s not very fancy. Read as much contemporary writing in all genres as you can. Read work that is different from yours. Write as much as you can. If you can’t be content in life without writing, then you are a writer.  

KD: We read about your first car – the used, white, Nissan Altima. But we are dying to know, what is your dream car if money wasn’t a factor?  

LH: Great question! I’d love a fully electric car that still has some cargo space in it. A fully electric camper van—does that exist yet? I’d buy one of those. I have to say I’m pretty stoked on our used Dodge van we bought off Craigslist—my partner built a bed and drawers inside of it. There are even two small laptop desks that fold down off the double doors in the back so we can work and write on the road. When I have trouble falling asleep at night (i.e. the world currently being on fire) I just remember that we can live in our van with our dogs if we have to—and we may have to because we are both adjunct English professors who lost our classes for the spring semester due to low enrollment.  

 KD: What is next for your writing? Is there anything you can share about forthcoming projects or pieces?  

LH: I am nothing if not prolific. I have a brand new eco-poetic chapbook out with symbolist painter Zara Kand called From the moon, as I fell, which was written during quarantine. Through our book sales, we are trying to raise money for the California Fire Foundation, which gives aid to families displaced by California wildfires. I am also sending around a collaborative chapbook manuscript I wrote with my best gal Jennifer K. Sweeney called The Book of Questions. I am still hoping to do some readings and interviews for Whole Night Through, which JM has made a soon-to-be released soundtrack for that includes the voices of Marsha de la O, Kristin Bock, James Cushing and other writers. I’m continuing to write personal essays centered on my experiences with autoimmune diseases and have another one forthcoming in the fall issue of Ninth Letter. I’m also working nearly every day on collage, erasure, mixed-media artwork.  

L.I. Henley’s work has most recently appeared in Diagram, WaxwingTupeloDiodeZone 3TinderboxThe American Literary ReviewThrushThe Superstition ReviewNinth Letter, and The Indianapolis Review. “Drive! You’re Lost Little Girl, You’re Lost,” is part of a collection-in-progress documenting her struggles (and epiphanies) living with a triad of autoimmune diseases. She lives and teaches in the Mojave with her partner, musician and poet JM. Visit her at www.lihenley.com.