Behind the Words: Michael Dwayne Smith

Posted by on Oct 11, 2013 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

Michael Dwayne Smith proudly owns and operates the English-speaking world’s most mysterious name. His apparitions can be seen at Word Riot, kill author, Monkeybicycle, BLIP, Northville Review, Blue Fifth Review, Orion headless, WhiskeyPaper, Cortland Review, Heavy Feather Review, and other haunts. A recipient of both the Polonsky Prize for fiction and the Hinderaker Prize for poetry, he lives in a desert town with his wife, son, and rescued animals—all of whom talk in their sleep.

His flash piece, “Preservation Project,” was published in the first issue of Spry Literary Journal.

 

“Preservation Project,” your piece featured in Spry, is a lovely example of flash fiction. In very few words, you manage to capture both the reality of aging and the joys of rekindling a marriage. What inspired you to explore these characters and themes?

Love and friendship and sex become this kind of job over time, a preservation project. When we’re younger, we just run around with this kind of faith in the seeming natural order of a relationship—attraction, promises, emotional attachment, and so on—that this mysterious natural order will hold things together.

Decay is not a concern, especially if there’s a selfish streak that can allow one to walk away from caretaking, maybe get distracted, endlessly, by the new, shiny objects always dancing through our lives. Taking care of decay in people and buildings and everything else is something we’re collectively pretty bad at in American culture. Blow it up and move on to what’s next is our credo.

The lucky among us wake up to see the miracle partner: someone who values deep feeling for relationship as preservation project, and who relishes the life-long creative enterprise of remaining intimate, of using changing circumstance to develop whole new levels of desire, resonance, loyalty.

All too rare, such partners, but I am one of the lucky ones. So, I decided to try and demonstrate the intricate, darkening joy of aging together by way of compressed experience. To have succeeded a little in such a complex task is gratifying as only the writing flash can be.

 

What drew you to flash fiction? Who are some of the flash writers you most admire?

Flash is alluring.

The affinity between short story and poetry was clear to me early on. Push me, pull you. Push at it with prose poems. Pull at it with flash fiction. Operating within that relationship rather than a sense of form or formula is a much sexier date with language.

Narrative, metaphor, deep image, dialog, bring anyone and everything to the party. Storytelling tricks and poetic devices. Use them all. Compress them. Break them apart, then glue pieces back together in the wrong places. So much more satisfying to be guided by joy and invention than rules and conventions. Such breathtaking surprise!

The more pedestrian attraction is the perfect fit with all our digital gadgetry. High impact writing in small spaces between our myriad distractions. The technology demands distillation. Distillation extracts some of the best writing any of us could hope to pen. Affinity. Boom.

 

One of my flash-writing friends says that after she writes a draft of a story, she then makes it a flash piece by taking out everything she possibly can–everything non-essential. What is your flash-writing process? How do you decide what is and is not essential?

Countless ways to get at a story, distill it, as mentioned, and working through subtraction can be effective.

The trick still lies in defining what is “non-essential.” Limitless ways to respond. Also, one can’t forget dominoes or ripples or butterfly effects. Every addition, subtraction, or modification emits energy in all directions. Identifying that painting on the wall as a Kahlo maybe lets me eliminate explanatory phrases, descriptions, sentences. Making it clear the owner is obsessed with Frida, perhaps even more.

Or have I now loaded the story with too much off-stage baggage? Created more questions than I wanted to answer? Maybe even altered my story-thinking such that I no longer want to write my old one, and go off chasing a new one. No good or bad here. Just expanding and contracting realities.

I’m with Ron Carlson on this aspect of story. Every sentence resonates through every other. Flash most of all. This is part of its proximity with poetry. Poets can and will spend months or even years on a line. In the end, every piece is its own world and has to make up its own rules about the necessary.

The only way out is through!

This means play, bricolage. Embrace potential, complexity, experiments, the SWAG system (scientific wild ass guess). Mechanical approaches can and are fashioned to one’s own ends, but then a writer is building machines—heartless, by definition. A story must of course create its own integrity. And that integrity must carry the emotional and intellectual weight of the author’s work. Still, the struggle of the damn thing should be what resonates. The humanity. Boring is boring, no matter how technically proficient. Stakes must be authentic and, often, quite high.

I accordion text a lot, whether that gorgeous first draft is brief or long. Contract, expand. Remove ruthlessly, vicious and obsessive. Add old or new bits back, Miles working around sheet music so deep in memory he don’t even look anymore. Rinse and repeat and pay attention to how far I’ve strayed. If it feels too far, slide it back some. If the stray feels exciting and surprising, follow the bliss. Take the risk. Leave it all on the stage.

Sometimes draft a prose poem, then convert little by little into more conventional narrative structure, or the reverse: draft an intentionally tiny story, then try working it into prose poetry, slowly.

As I tell my students, flash is flash not because you can “read it in a flash”, but because the “flash” is its modus operandi: the writer’s “in a flash” compression bringing people, places, things, actions, histories, combinations thereof, into powerful, resonant focus.

What is and is not essential can only be defined in relation to what comes before and after and the resulting flavor profile. One must attempt to re-learn, again and again, the passion and precision of a master chef, always with new ingredients and always in new environments.

 

You also write poetry. Do you alternate between the two forms? Do your flash pieces help inform your poetry-writing, and vice versa?

Absolutely alternate. It’s not unusual for a piece to be worked as prose poetry, poem, flash, until it finds form and voice. Some even lock into an undefinable space between, the literary limbo deemed “hybrid” writing by some.

Frankly, that space is my favorite place of late, in reading and re-reading—Susan Steinberg, Clark Coolidge, Maggie Nelson, all the DIAGRAM anthologies—and with writing, in which I find myself pulling up and out at texts from various directions until they hover somewhere for me unexpected, hard to classify, describe, or explain. The process has been revealing and hot with surprise. How beautiful and terrible the river of words. Broken, awkward graces with scars that alternately read as impasto strokes or haphazard kitchen counter spills.

The current process has also generated a fetching number of rejections—large numbers, even for me! (Um, that’s a lot of a lot.) Editors’ comments on these declines are invariably kind: “fantastic writing,” “poetic prose,” and always caboose with a lovely “but” on the backside. What the hell am I trying to get at by way of these creatures? Don’t have answers. Only more little monsters where the questions ought to be.

The here and there acceptances, of course, have been satisfying.

 

You’re the editor-in-chief of Cease, Cows Literary Journal and an editor at Red Fez Literary Magazine. How has your editorial experience helped your writing? What advice would you give emerging writers who are seeking publication?

Objectifying a submission, evaluating, letting it simmer in the mind and work on me subjectively before determining if a story or poem coalesces as publishable, that whole process helps pull me out of relationships with my own work which may have become too intimate and familiar.

Extensive lit reading gets me there, too, but it’s interesting how nimble one becomes while donning the representative cap of a journal’s editorial standard. Possible solutions to faltering lines, passages, narratives, forms, dialog spring freely. It’s a feeling and a frame of mind more easily reproducible in editing my own projects. A workable distance, not cold, not hot, just uninhibited and hungry.

I read as a staff member and expect to be surprised or beguiled or moved—impacted in some combination of ways. Owning those reader expectations matters a lot because of an unfortunate tendency toward building insular worlds when I write. Sometimes I sew the doors and windows shut. Have to go back and rip some of those stitches out, let the outside world in again.

My confidence as an editor has had exponential and rewarding growth. This will soon be evidenced by the launch of my own literary small press and journal, Mojave River Press and its sibling, The Mojave River Journal. I’m excited to take my work with excellent writers and poets to the next level.

 

For writers interested in flash fiction, whose work would you recommend they read? Which writers have influenced you most?

The teacher in me says read everything. This is one vastly superior aspect of digital and online magazines—sheer volume. So many stories, prose poems! It’s a never-ending supply of what people everywhere are trying to do, or maybe even get away with, as Warhol might add. Read, read, read. Find writers who wake you up. Slap you around, even. Then buy their books. Read everything they’ve written. Don’t even care why and never stop.

There are so many great flash books, but I’d recommend including on any list: Mary Miller’s Big World and Less Shiny, Rose Metal Press’ flash chapbook collection They Could No Longer Contain Themselves, Meg Pokrass’ Damn Sure Right. These books are clock stoppers for me. Re-read them all the time. Also wonderful are Jeff Landon’s Truck Dance, Amelia Gray’s AM/PM, Pamela Painter’s Wouldn’t You Like to Know, and Lydia Davis’ Break It Down. Not to mention numerous solid anthologies. Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever is a novel, but an engaging and innovative story rendered in 527 little segments.

While not strictly story collections, I’d also recommend Rose Metal Press’ Field Guide to Flash Fiction and Field Guide to Prose Poetry. Great examples and insights in both volumes; since flash fiction and prose poetry are so closely related, they read great back to back.

Poets and writers resonant and instructive for me on a personal level include: Larry Levis, Mary Miller, Sam Lipsyte, Lynda Hull, Barry Hannah, Bobbi Lurie, Frank O’Hara, Aimee Bender, Julio Cortázar, Jack Gilbert. More, too, but let’s stop there.

Let me end with all the best writing advice I ever received, distilled into two shot glasses.

First and foremost, lower your standards. Write anything and everything you want. No writing too small or large, too pedestrian or complex. Haiku, experimental novella, Cheever-esque story, Thirteen Ways of Throwing Beer Bottles at a Blackbird (an actual poem of mine), write ‘em all, and in the same week. Screw expectations. Expectations only become suffering.

Second, and closely related to the first, Ira Glass is right. You aren’t good or bad. (Dorothea Lasky, a poet whom I adore, says “There’s no such thing as bad writing.”) You inhabit the gap between your skill level and your taste level. The whole idea of an artist’s life is to keep working toward closing that gap. But remember what I said about expectations—the gap will never really close, so don’t expect it to close. Instead, think of the master Hokusai, who painted for nearly nine decades and on his death bed said he was “only beginning to learn how to paint.”

That, dear friends, is the life.

 

Rachael Warecki is an alumna of Scripps College, Loyola Marymount University, and the Teach for America corps. She recently received her MFA in fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Masters Review, The Los Angeles Review, and Midwestern Gothic, and is forthcoming in Connu. She lives in Los Angeles and is currently at work on a novel.

1 Comment

  1. Excellent interview!

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