“A Glinting Sliver That Can Cut Flesh”: A Collaborative Interview with Peter Ramos & Kim Chinquee

Kim Chinquee’s SNOWDOG and Peter Ramos’ Lord Baltimore are both due out on January 15, 2021, with Ravenna Press. Chinquee and Ramos are English Department colleagues at SUNY-Buffalo State. 

Chinquee is the author of seven collections, most recently SNOWDOG, due out in January 2021 with Ravenna Press. She is the recipient of two Pushcart Prizes and has published in several journals and anthologies including NOON, Denver Quarterly, Fiction, Story, StoryQuarterly, New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction, Buffalo Noir, Conjunctions, The Best Small Fiction 2019 and others. She is Senior Editor for New World Writing, and Associate Professor of English at SUNY-Buffalo State.

Ramos’ poems have appeared in New World WritingColorado ReviewPuerto del SolPainted Bride Quarterly, Verse, Indiana Review, Mississippi Review Online, elimaeMandorla and other journals. Nominated several times for a PushcartPrize, Peter is the author of one book of poetry, Please Do Not Feed the Ghost (BlazeVOX Books, 2008) and three shorter collections. Lord Baltimore, his forthcoming book of poetry, will be available in January 2021 on Ravenna Press. As Associate Professor of English at Buffalo State College, Peter teaches courses in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature

 

 

 

Peter Ramos: It’s an honor and a privilege to interview you, Kim. We’re colleagues, friends and now fellow writers on the same press. I’m indebted to you for your help and support, and, as I’ve said before, I’ve long admired your writing. Your work manages to capture stunning details that compel an entire narrative with language honed and scintillating as diamonds. Even the titles of many of your books capture these qualities I find most transfixing in your fiction: PrettyPistolShot GirlsWetsuit; it’s your special gift of welding together the fragile and the fearless, the sleek and the elegant, the often-but not always-feminine and ultimately dangerous, a glinting sliver that can cut flesh.

With your latest forthcoming collection of flash fiction, SNOWDOG, you bring the animal in your title into almost every one of your pieces. There is also in the collection a speaker who has her own dogs and who is in a relationship with someone who also owns dogs. I’m interested in how you view the dogs and their relationship to their owners in these fictions—I mean beyond the fact that speaker and boyfriend live together with them. I kept feeling like there was another kind of metaphor or relationship between the dogs, how they cuddle with the couple, how they get along with each other (and at times fight) and this couple who live together. I’m intrigued by the dogs as a kind of vehicle beyond the also interesting fact that they are a part of the couple’s daily life. In Part III there’s a flash piece called “Luck” in which the speaker’s dog is choking and dying and the speaker cannot help the poor creature. It’s devastating. Again, I’m interested in the way you bring in these loving animals as a way of shining a different light on the speaker, alone or with her boyfriend. And of course, as you know, I own a dog whom I love so much.

Kim Chinquee: Peter! First of all, can I say what an honor it is to have this conversation with you? You’ve been one of my best advocates and colleagues, and friends. And as you know, I’ve been a long-time admirer of your work. And an advocate, so it only makes sense for us to be brothers and sisters of the same press who believes in our work. (And is bringing our books out into the world on the same day!) Thanks for doing this interview with me, for the generous words and great questions! Before answering your questions, I’d first like to acknowledge what I admire in your work, most notably Lord Baltimore. You have such a gift for capturing images and the nuances of memories and life.

As far as dogs, when compiling the collection, I hadn’t had a title yet, and in compiling them, I realized there were a lot of dogs in the pieces. And a lot of snow. I played around with title ideas, and SNOWDOG seemed to fit best. And then I looked in my inventory and added more of my stories that include dogs. And the pieces that didn’t include dogs, I inserted one somewhere in the story so it would fit somehow in the overall collection. And then I liked the stories even better with the added dogs in them! I also have two dogs, as you know, and used to live with a partner, who also has two dogs. That’s a lot of dogs, and they just become a part of my life and wind up in my stories. And now that I live alone again, (at least human-alone), my dogs have been such great company during this pandemic.

PR: I’ve always loved the way your flash pieces seem to take me on an unpredictable journey, the final destination of which is almost always a surprise. When you write these pieces, do you know where you’re going at first, the way they will ultimately end? Often I can’t really rationally understand why the pieces end where they end, and yet, this unpredictability makes the endings all the more thrilling or powerful or sad or haunting. I have a feeling you’re drawn to phrases, strange words and images more than “plot.” Is that accurate? I guess what I’m asking is, how and when do you know that you’ve arrived at the end of the piece while you’re writing, revising, and editing it?

KC: Thank you. And you got it! I have no idea where they’re going as I write them. I use daily prompt words that I post for my online writing group Hot Pants that’s been going strong since 2002. Often I’ll take an odd word that strikes me during the day and take a mental note of it and use that for my set of words. Or sometimes it’s just a random word that has a sound and/or texture and/or ring to it that seems to juxtapose the other prompt words. (I post five.) And then I’ll offer up a first sentence, which sometimes becomes the title. Or embedded somewhere in the story. And as I write, I put the prompt words together in a piece, kind of like connect-the-dots with stuff in-between. So, yeah, I’m really drawn to strange oddities and like to look at the situations in my pieces from a unique angle. I tell my students a lot that we’re writing even when we’re not physically writing—it’s helpful to look at the world with the eyes of a writer: a participant and keen observer.

PR: I’m more and more impressed with the meter and prosody of your flash fictions. I kept hearing anapestic meter or even occasional iambic meter in SNOWDOG. Here are two lines from “Dogfight”: “My boyfriend sells cars and he got me a deal” and “One of the stools from the bar has fallen, tipped.” When you write, edit, revise your flash pieces, do you hear a meter that you want to maintain? I don’t think your use of meter falls into predictable patterns; you can and do vary the rhythm of the sentences often and this adds a musical variety to the texture of the prose, but do you ever hear and enjoy when your lines occasionally fall into a recognizable meter?

KC: I grew up in a musical household. I played piano for many years, and growing up in a Lutheran school and my parents were regular church-goers. There was a lot of Bach—in hymns, and naturally I think that became a part of me. My mom loves to sing and was in Sweet Adelines, and was also a piano player. Along with my sister. I also sang in choir in high school. And was in a production of The Sound of Music as a kid. Sometimes as I’m typing on my keyboard, I feel like I’m singing, or playing the piano, as if the music is coming out in words. Or at least, that’s my hope. I love the sound and sensation of my fingers on the computer keyboard too, like the sensation of my fingers on the piano. Notes. And revising to me is like practicing the piano. Fine tuning. I love that parallel.

And there’s such a musicality about your work. I know you’re a drummer and a great musician! I’ve seen you read your poetry and have also seen you perform live in a band before audiences. How does reading your poetry factor into your role as a talented performing musician? How does music factor into your poetry? Does your mind revert to music as you write? And does your writing play into the stories as you perform on stage? Or at home? How do you perceive/compare your audience when you perform on stage with the audience on the page when you’re writing?

PR: Thank you for the kind words, my friend. And thank you for these thought-provoking questions.

I am a musician and so rhythm has long been something I’m drawn to. I think some of my best lines of poetry came to me when I wasn’t writing. I could hear the rhythm or meter in my head or as I said the lines aloud. I do write and keep journals in which I record the seeds of my poems. And I write and revise with pen and paper before I type them and print them. I revise after that point as well. But I like to hear the meter or rhythm of the poem, at every stage of the creation, revision, editing process. In some ways, I think rhythm in poetry matters as much as or even more than the words, themselves.

In Lord Baltimore, there are five poems whose titles come from pop or rock song titles. In these particular poems, I try to connect the poems to the titles in unexpected ways. I grew up listening to and loving these genres, and my early life and adolescence was filled with music. My parents listened to French popular music—Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf—but the closest they got to rock music was Neil Diamond, which was all fine, but at an early age, seven or eight, my brother and I wanted to listen to newer popular music. Our baby-sitters would bring rock and roll records over—Kiss, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper—and that music really affected us. As did the actual records, the way they felt and looked, the cover art, the liner notes, etc. I got my first drum set, a toy drum set from Kids”R”Us, when I was eight years old. I could go on and on, but yes, music has long been a part of my life.

I’m not sure if I’m conscious of my writing when I’m playing the drums. I tell my students that the following moments were equally terrifying to me: the first time I played drums in front of an audience (I was fourteen); the first time I read poetry in front of people (at an open mic; I was twenty-two); the first time I stood in front of a class and taught (I was twenty-two); the first time I read an academic paper in front of people (at a literature conference; I was thirty-one). But I’ve always been a ham and I love performing, so I got over the fear pretty quickly.

KC: I’ve seen you perform. And read. You definitely have a gift for performing!

And not only are you a talented poet and musician, you’re also a scholar. How does teaching literature differ and inform you as a poet and musician?

PR: I think teaching literature and writing literary criticism differ from writing poetry and playing music in a few ways. As I’ve said before in other interviews, when I teach and write literary criticism, I’m trying to make a certain kind of point or argument. But when I write poetry, I’m not trying to make a point in the same way. When I write poetry, I’m trying to invite more mystery and atmosphere or mood. So, for me, there’s something more rational in teaching and writing criticism. And when I play music, I feel like I rely on a different part of my mind, something above reason altogether. I don’t think anything moves people as much as music can. It’s closer to the spirt than anything I know. I have a few poems in this collection that allude to early to modernist American authors or their work—Emerson, Dickinson, Thomas Jefferson, Faulkner. And at one point I was cutting up some of my lecture notes (I write them on legal pads) and re-arranging the words in a kind of William Burroughs cut-up method and this became a poem in this collection.

KC: You also had a book published recently called Poetic Encounters In the Americas. How was the process of publishing and writing that different than Lord Baltimore?

PR: Oh, wow. It was a much different process. In many ways, it required more time and patience and effort. Some of those chapters began as articles of literary criticism. I began working on one of the chapters (as an article) back in 2005. It’s been a long road. And I began working on the book as a serious project nine years ago. In 2016 I had found a press to publish it, but they eventually—after months of revisions and a contract—passed on it. Then I had to find another publisher (Routledge Books), and between signing the contract with that press and the book’s publication, I spent two or three years revising the book. Finally, before Routledge would publish it, I had to track down and then pay the estates of many of the poets whose poems I quoted passages from in the book. It was a lengthy and expensive process. And it was my first book of literary criticism. I’m proud of that book. I’m also proud of Lord Baltimore, for some of the poems of which you offered helpful suggestions (thank you). But it will be my fifth collection of poetry, and so I feel like I knew the ropes better for that. For books of poetry, I usually just collect poems that have been published since my last collection of poetry. In the case of Lord Baltimore, I already had a shorter collection of poetry called Television Snow (Back Pages Books 2014) that I could use for this full-length collection. Back Pages folded in 2017, so it’s great to have many of those poems come out in Lord Baltimore and on Ravenna Press, whose titles are so compelling, whose books are so handsome.

KC: How do you find a balance between academic writing and creative writing?

PR: That’s a great question. As I wrote, I’m proud of the work I did for Poetic Encounters in the Americas, but I would add that I wrote and published more articles of literary criticism before I received—and in order to get—tenure. As you know, I was hired by Buffalo State College to teach American literature, and while the department appreciated my poetry publications, I was really under to gun to publish articles of criticism. But for the last thirteen years, I’ve been lucky that my wife and children have allowed me to go to artist retreats to work on my creative and critical writing. Since 2008, I’ve been a father, and I haven’t been able to spend a lot of time writing poetry, except when I’ve gone away for two weeks or less to an artist retreat.

KC: Do you think you bring your academic writing into your poetry?

PR:  Well, besides the authors and their work and my lecture notes I mentioned, I also teach modern poetry, and I’m sure that informs and helps sustain my passion for writing poetry.

On another note, if it’s fair to assume that the speaker in your flash pieces in this new collection is always the same person, I really admire the way the speaker looks back on her life as a young mother who raised a child by herself and how meeting her now adult son affects this looking backward. Although I like that in section II, the point of view occasionally becomes third person, limited and we begin reading about Jim and Elle. Here are some lines from “Snowstorm” where this contrast (the speaker’s past and her present moment) feels so powerful: “The daughters were slim in their suits, their long hair slick, and I wondered if they realized how beautiful they were, if they thought of their lives ahead … My son was in the army. He used to grab onto my hand.” Yet the speaker rarely asserts how she feels about these issues. It’s as if the spare and elegant language does all the work. Was this something you were conscious of as you were writing SNOWDOG?

KC: Not really conscious of it, I guess. I believe that a narrator can reveal feelings to the reader by the tone and what she’s noticing and is inclined to share. I’m grateful for my mentors in graduate school and in my early writing life who taught me to cut the things that tell. I studied with a lot of the “minimalists”: Frederick Barthelme, Steve Barthelme, Mary Robison. And have been publishing in NOON under the editorship of Diane Williams for over eighteen years. They’ve taught me to cut out the stuff that weighs. And I think that also helps me to look at things that way: the things I notice are not so much feelings, but the images and other sensory details that may trigger/recall memories, and fictionalize in some way.

Likewise, I sense a lot of place, and home, and music in Lord Baltimore as I do in your previous collections. How do you think this might be different from your other books, as you’ve evolved as a writer. There are a lot of tributes to your father in this book. I’m very sorry that you lost him last year, and I know you were very close. Does this change how you feel about the book? About your writing?

PR: Thank you. I was grateful that you and others were there to console me in that period. I wrote many of the poems in Lord Baltimore before my father got sick. But he has long been a presence—as an immigrant figure, an archetype, loving but a bit absent and compellingly elusive—in many of my poems. He and I got to know each other on a more intimate and personal way when I was in my last year at college. But yes, his shadow falls on some poems in this collection, directly or indirectly. I think and hope I’ve taken more chances in this collection, that there are more happy accidents and experiments, in terms of language and form.

And of course, I grew up near and in Baltimore until I was thirty before I moved to Buffalo. I will always love and identify with that city. The title poem, which is a longer sequence poem, has to do with a speaker (not unlike myself) who is going through very difficult times in his twenties and living alone in Baltimore. And I think the distance of time and location have allowed me to look back and use my experiences from that time with more clarity and maybe compassion.

KC: I also noticed you dedicated Lord Baltimore to your children. I make a habit of dedicating my books to my son. They become our hearts, yes? Our own legacies? That’s my assumption. Eager to hear your thoughts about that.

PR: Yes! That’s well said. And to connect my answer from the previous question to this, I think that LB is also my way of letting go of the city of my birth. And having children that I’m trying to raise with my wife in Buffalo is very much a part of that. I think that’s one reason I dedicated this book to them. We’ve been making our life here. And I think it’s important also to state the obvious, that it might be unhealthy to believe that the city of one’s birth will always be some kind of safety zone of comfort and fond memories. This looking backwards can start to become a narcotic, an escape, when life is and should be in front of us. My last full-length collection of poetry is titled Please Do Not Feed the Ghost. I always thought of that title as a warning against taking nostalgia too seriously. I hope that even in the long title poem, the speaker realizes that idealism is always different than the occasionally hard cement of the present.

I really enjoyed this. Thank you for the great questions. And thank you for your candid and illuminated answers!

KC: Thank you, Peter! I so enjoyed this, too!

Lord Baltimore is available for purchase at Amazon and Ravenna Press.

SNOWDOG is available for purchase at Amazon and Ravenna Press.

What’s HFR up to? Read our current issue, submit, or write for Heavy Feather. Buy our merch.