A Lagniappe with Mary Alexandra Agner

agnerRecently, Shenandoah had the pleasure to talk with one of our contributing writers, Mary Alexandra Agner, about her short story, “Abstract Math and Honeyed Apples.” Her writing is featured in the current issue of Shenandoah. More of her work can be found online at http://www.pantoum.org and in her recently published book of poetry, The Scientific Method. In her mini interview, Agner discusses the hour and a half long writing process and the connection her story has with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Are there any parts of this story that are autobiographical? 

No.

Did any specific life event inspire your choices for setting, plot, characters, etc?

I read a nonfiction piece on Alan Turing which mentioned his mother was the daughter of a railway man.

From writing the original draft to perfecting the final product, how long did this story take to produce? Were there any interesting or silly obstacles that you encountered throughout the writing and revision process??

I wrote this out the first time in nearly the same form that R. T. Smith accepted it for Shenandoah. I’d say it took about 90 minutes to get the majority of the work down.

Your story really incorporates fairytale genre tropes with a mix of modern day technology. Were there any specific fairy tales or characters that you emulated? Is this what you would imagine a fairytale to look like at this day in age?

I was interested in exploring the idea that Alan Turing’s mother was influenced by her father’s engineering career and my assumption, unfounded, that she too was interested in railroads and engineering. I believe it was the fact that Turing purportedly died by choking on an apple that made me think of his life in light of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Have you thought about extending this story from a flash fiction piece to a short story or a longer work?

Two previous editors have suggested this, but the palindromic form of the piece is the right one and isn’t sustainable at greater length.

 

 


Anna Dibenedetto is a junior English major with a minor in Creative writing at Washington and Lee.  She is from Greenville, S.C., but hopes to migrate to NYC and flourish in the magazine industry.

A Lagniappe with Daye Phillippo

Recently, Shenandoah had the pleasure to talk with one of our returning contributing writers, Daye Phillippo, about her piece, “Wild Turkeys.” Her poem will be featured in the upcoming issue of Shenandoah. Having earned her MFA for writers from Warren Wilson, Phillippo is the recipient of the Elizabeth George Grant and a Mortarboard Fellowship for poetry. Here’s an exclusive look into Phillippo’s writing technique and her experiences with turkeys.

Are there any parts of this poem that are autobiographical?

Oh yes, that group of eleven young turkeys really did straggle through my backyard one morning. We live on twenty acres—pastures, woods, and the Little Shawnee River running through—in the midst of farmland, so we see wildlife regularly: deer, coyote, raccoon, opossum, rabbit, squirrel, a fox now and then, and a host of songbirds and insects. I’d spotted adult turkeys before but never young ones, and never that large of a group. It was especially odd to see them so close to the house and garden.

Did any specific life event inspire your choices for setting, plot, characters, etc?

Plot? I can’t say that I had one in mind, though the turkeys might have. They had designs on my garden, I’m sure. Seriously though, I had no idea where this poem was going when I started trying to get that first image down, so maybe it was the poem itself that had ideas. Those poems are the ones that are the most thrilling to be a part of. That old, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader,” as Frost put it. This poem definitely surprised me.

As far as the setting, it’s this landscape where I’m blessed to live. I was a city dweller for the first forty years of my life so waking up to horizon and trees and wildlife every morning still seems like a gift, even seventeen years later. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it.

The characters who showed up in this poem are a pretty unlikely bunch, aren’t they? I learned while writing this poem that they’re all somehow associated in my head, wild turkeys being a part of that since they figured so largely in that first Thanksgiving feast. I’ve always enjoyed Early American history, especially the time period of the Plymouth Colony through the Revolutionary War. I mean, the risks those men and their families took! I can’t imagine. And the Native people, all they went through. Such turmoil and instability. The earliest English settlers and the Wampanoag were able to keep the peace and live harmoniously for fifty years. If only that had continued. . . Our family visited the re-created Plimouth Plantation village and the Wampanoag Homesite more than twenty years ago and it’s still with me.

From writing the original draft to perfecting the final product, how long did this poem take to produce?

This poem was written in “just one day,” the same amount of time it took the storybook Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel, Marianne, to dig the cellar of the new town hall, which is a much more impressive feat than writing a poem in the same amount of time, don’t you think? I read to grandchildren a lot, in case you’re wondering. Just to clarify, this isn’t the way writing a poem usually goes for me. Not at all.

Later that day, after the poem had run its course, I became curious about the ink used to write the Declaration of Independence, and later the Constitution, so I did a little research and was delighted to learn that the ink was made of a substance obtained from oak galls. Since oaks are majestic, long-lived trees that grow from such small beginnings, it seemed fitting that our nation’s seminal documents were penned in oak gall ink, so I went back to the poem and revised to include that.

On the day those turkeys wandered through, I texted an entomologist friend, Steve Mroczkiewicz, a guy who knows a lot about the habits of wildlife, to tell him about this strange thing I’d seen and ask what he thought about some of the birds looking ragged while others looked well groomed. He explained that turkeys have a pecking order too and are, “No kinder to each other than chickens.” Young birds in a group that size traveling together, he said, meant that they were “probably clutchmates.”

The other thing that drove the speed of writing of this poem was that I had a grad program deadline to make, and those turkeys and this poem arrived when I was right down to the wire. “Wild Turkeys” was a last-minute addition to my graduate thesis.

What influence did Moore’s quote have on the poem—did it inspire the piece or was it put on after the poem’s completion?

 Those turkeys inspired the piece, but I was reading Marianne Moore’s Complete Poems at the time, and came across the poem “The Mind is an Enchanting Thing,” a title that is also the first line of her poem. It seemed the perfect epigraph for my poem. I’m sure that being immersed in Moore’s fanciful, free-ranging poems at the time of writing “Wild Turkeys” contributed to being in the mindset that poem required. With Moore’s wit and insight, everything was poem material and her range of interests was mind-boggling: mythology, the Bible, nature, human nature and society, etc. That particular collection of poems represents more than sixty years of Moore’s writing life. Reading it front to back is transportive. And then, too, that personal sartorial flourish of Moore’s—wearing that cape and tricorn hat—was fresh in my mind. I was definitely under Moore’s spell at that time.

What is your experience with turkeys?

My experience with wild turkeys, with exception to reading about them, has been limited to occasional sightings of adult birds at the woods’ edge, and to hearing their calls off in the woods from time to time. In the wild, turkeys are elusive birds that avoid human contact which only adds to their aura of iconic mystery for me. For example, just last week on my walk down our long drive to the mailbox, I found a trail of very distinct turkey tracks in the snow so I know the birds are still in the area though I haven’t actually seen one for months and months.

turks

 

 

 


Anna Dibenedetto is a junior English major with a minor in Creative writing at Washington and Lee.  She is from Greenville, S.C., but hopes to migrate to NYC and flourish in the magazine industry.

A Lagniappe with Theodore McCombs

Recently, Shenandoah had the pleasure to talk with one of our contributing writers, Theodore McCombs, about his short story, “Faked Deaths in My Family.” His story will be featured in the upcoming issue of Shenandoah. Read on to find more about McComb’s somewhat autobiographical inspiration and his development of the story’s characters.

Are there any parts of this story that are autobiographical?

Many of the scenes—each of the faked deaths, in fact—borrow from old family stories, but these stories are vehicles for my own experience. For instance, my mother did lose a garter snake in much the same way Ellie does; but the interiority, Ellie’s struggle to own and assert her outrage, is mine. So, while the story isn’t autobiographical, it’s certainly personal.

Did any specific life event inspire your choices for setting, plot, characters, etc?

This story grew out of its final image—Nana convulsing in fits beneath the door while her daughter steps over her for a night out. I used to have rather dramatic panic attacks as a teenager and I’ve literally been stepped over like that. I’ve also been the one who (more figuratively) did the stepping-over. That tension between the cruelty and necessity of refusing to take on someone else’s pain has always fascinated me.

From writing the original draft to perfecting the final product, how long did this story take to produce? Were there any interesting or silly obstacles that you encountered throughout the writing and revision process?

It depends on what you consider the original draft! In one sense, I banged out this story in two summer afternoons on the Lighthouse porch, and that was largely the final version. In another sense, I wrote the original draft ten years ago, after my model for the mother, Rachel, died. The original version was all about her. Almost the only thing I kept from that version is the final image.

The most irritating issue I had was Ellie’s voice in the first paragraphs. The tone of this piece travels a great deal in a short amount of space, and Ellie sounded so twee at first, it made the rest of the story pretty gruesome. The trick was to work in that grimness early, just underneath the humor, so that when the tone shifts, it’s subtle.

With the characters who commit a fake suicide, including Richie and the narrator, does that speak to their need for more love and attention? For example, would you say that the narrator fakes her own drowning in order for her grandmother to worry about her?

When I picture these five characters in a room, they’re all shouting at each other to be heard. For Ellie specifically, her dilemma is how to get a witness to genocide to take her anger seriously. How do you penetrate that starchy hide of grief and trauma? Is that even something you have a right to do, or is Ellie just reiterating the same destructive patterns of her family? One of the ideas that excited me in this piece, which dictated its structure, was to stage the same conflict with different players and positions, to see what changed and if I felt differently about it each time.

What exactly happens with the mother in this story? Her character seems to be the most intriguing and I wonder what her character arc looks like. From being young and in love to hiding herself away in the room, what happened in between those two time frames?

Rachel is the saddest of the five, because at least the others have some say in how they hurt and ignore and intrude on each other; Rachel just degrades.

Some years ago, my cousin obtained FBI records through FOIA and we learned our grandmother, who was bipolar, had informed on her husband’s colleagues at Princeton during the McCarthy persecutions. She was so smart and winning, it took years for the feds to realize she was totally delusional. Who knows what she thought she was doing? You wanted to make her see the damage she’d done, but then again, you really, really didn’t. That’s the frustration and fear I was going after in Rachel: a more genuine, and therefore more unsettling Harold Skimpole sort—“I am but a child, a mere child!”


Anna Dibenedetto is a junior English major with a minor in Creative writing at Washington and Lee.  She is from Greenville, S.C., but hopes to migrate to NYC and flourish in the magazine industry.