An Interview with Manuela Williams, author of Ghost in Girl Costume

Cailin (for BPL): If you could be a bird which type would you be?

Manuela Williams: I would be a hummingbird. A couple of years ago, I had a blue and purple one tattooed on my arm in honor of my grandmother. There is something so elegant about hummingbirds and I try to emulate their gracefulness as much as I can. So far, I’ve been only moderately successful. The other day, I almost fell off an elliptical at the gym. I’m still trying, though.

BPL: What time of the day are you the most productive?

M: Since we’re on the topic of birds, I would say that I’m a night owl. I work my best between 9 PM and midnight.

BPL: If the planets that NASA just discovered are habitable would you move to one?

M: I could see myself moving to another planet, but I would be slightly concerned about the potential for dangerous wildlife. I still get nightmares about Alien.

BPL: What kind of costumes do you wear?

M: I’m still searching for the perfect costume. By that, I mean I’m still trying to figure out who I am. I just received my undergraduate degree, which is such a big step, but also terrifying. I’m at a point where I’ve learned so much about myself, yet I’m also just getting started in life. I feel like I’ve tried on so many different costumes already: the traveler, the free spirit, the scholar, the rebel, the writer. Each one of those costumes has taught me something. Now it’s all about taking the best from each costume and creating something really spectacular.  

BPL: If you knew you would be stranded on a desert island what three things would you bring with you?

M: If I didn’t have to worry about the fact that I have absolutely no survival skills, I would bring a copy of Margaret Atwood’s “Bodily Harm,” shampoo, and a way to make coffee. Besides “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Bodily Harm” is one of my favorite books by Margaret Atwood. It is both witty and devastating, the two things I look for in a good book. As far as the shampoo and makeshift coffee-maker go, if my hair is not shampooed on a semi-regular basis, I go crazy. The same goes for coffee; I am hopelessly addicted to caffeine and would probably go insane after the first week of not having it.

BPL: Where can you be found writing most?

M: Up to this point, most of my writing has been done when I wasn’t really supposed to be writing. Last summer, I took a literature course and the professor would hand out packets we were supposed to read; instead of reading, I would fill the margins with lines of poems I wanted to write. Some of my best poems came out of those margin notes. Now I have a lot more time for writing, so I’ve set up a little office space for myself in my room. When my boyfriend is home, I’ll write on my own laptop, but when he leaves, I use his computer (I like his keyboard better).

BPL: What word most describes you?

M: I am a giver. When I first learned that BPL wanted to publish “Ghost in Girl Costume,” I knew that I wanted to find a way to build awareness around mental illness and give back to the community. I decided to donate any money I made from chapbook sales to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Suicide prevention is a cause that is very important to me and, thanks to the generosity of many readers, I have raised over $200 to donate.

BPL: You ask the reader “Are you in love with my dramatic line breaks” and we did love your line breaks, do you love your dramatic line breaks? How did you decide where to break your lines?

M: I have to admit, I’m completely smitten with my dramatic line breaks. As a kid, I was told multiple times to stop being so theatrical. Now days, I try to keep it in check, but sometimes I just can’t help myself. My mentor actually bought me a magnet that says, “I over-exaggerate because everything is just so awesome.” Since I can’t be as theatrical as I want in real life, I try to inject some drama into my poetry. I try to end each line with a “cliff-hanger” of sorts, something to keep the reader interested and reading. With each line, I ask myself “Is this as dramatic and interesting as it can be? If I were listening to this, would I want to hear the next line? The next?”

 

You can get a copy of Manuela's book here.

An Interview with Dan Mahoney, Author of Quantum Entanglement

Cailin (for BPL): What is your favorite type of tree?

Dan Mahoney: Jacaranda.  Not too many of these trees in Maine but I see them when I’m back in Los Angeles or in Mexico.  Love that damn tree.  There’s a street near where I used to live in LA that is nothing but jacaranda trees on both sides.  When they are in bloom the whole street is covered in a purple haze.  It’s pretty majestic.

BPL: Who is your hero?

D: shut up

BPL: Why do you write?

D: The honest answer is that I pretty much suck at everything else.  I can teach too.  I can write and I can teach.  I can also do minor home repairs and fix small electrical devices.  I can make some damn fine roasted tomatillo salsa too.  But that is all I can do.  With all the other stuff I can see a tangible result:  the salsa is made, the student taught, we go buy another blender, but with writing the result is usually I’m a complete basket case.  I love it when it is going well but I’m super neurotic obsessive about it and it consumes my life.  Writing is like being possessed and good writers learn how to get out of their own way.  I love this possession and how it sweeps me away and yet brings me closer to who I am.  I’ve stopped all drugs and alcohol so writing is the last thing an old addict like me uses to get high.   ((don’t tell my kids this, they’ll make me stop))

BPL: Should we keep birds as pets? Explain.

D: My brother had a cockatiel for a number of years.  He never clipped its wings or anything like that so it could still fly.  He’d leave it in his room with the cage door open all the time.  It used to sleep with him and shit on his head.  He’d wake up in the morning all crazyheaded with this crusted shit in his hair.  It was troubling.  Later he traded that bird for a quarter ounce of weed which I thought was a pretty good deal at the time.  That bird got us sky high and we never said thank you.   I’m not sure this answers your question.

BPL: What are you working on now?

D: I’m working on how to be an editor of a literary magazine / small press (Bateau) AND be a dedicated writer at the same time.  As writers we get pulled so many different directions during the course of a day/week/month that if we don’t keep the work front and center it’s easy to shove it to the “things to do” pile.  This used to make me nervous.  I would have thoughts like:  what if it’s over, what if I never write again…  But I know that I will be able to make the time and that it’s not over and I have plenty more to say.  I’m in it for the long haul, both as an editor and a writer.

BPL: If you had any advice for your twelve year old self what would it be?

D: In about 10 years you will meet a woman at a party Brooks Hayward is throwing.  You will be a bit disgusting in your winery clothes but that doesn’t matter.  You will talk to her most of the night until her brother tells her he needs to leave.  Listen closely:  OFFER HER A RIDE HOME.

BPL: When and where can you be found writing most?

D: During the course of a day I wear many hats:  father, teacher, spouse, editor, cook, writer, and man about town.  Most of these are day jobs that bleed into night.  When night arrives, after the kids have gone to sleep, my wife and I are a wreck.  I used to be a night writer, a stiff drink setting me off into the early a.m.  But I cannot sustain that sort of thing anymore.  I discovered my sweet spot at 4 a.m.  No one is awake.  The house is quiet, the small office attached to my bedroom is warm, and my head is clear.  4 a.m. is where it’s at!

BPL: In your chapbook I enjoyed how you described different spaces, both temporal and physical, and how interactions with these spaces change from childhood to adulthood and how the size of the world seems different. Do you think of this as evidence of an ever expanding personal universe?

D: Wow.  This is a good question.  I’m not sure about the “ever expanding personal universe.”  I’d like to believe as we grow older we get more expansive in our thinking and don’t sweat the small stuff so much, but what if the small stuff is your universe?  There’s that great scene in Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy where a huge battle fleet is coming to destroy earth.  They travel vast distances all full of rage and just when they are about to unleash their attack a small dog swallows the entire fleet…  Writing Quantum Entanglement was an act of memory and an act of demolition.   Was that Bobby Cox who got hit by a car or was it some other kid?   What exactly did that stoner girl say to us as we sat on the curb?  If my personal universe is ever expanding why do I keep asking these questions of the past?  And why am I constantly drawn back to the field?  In physics a field is a physical quantity that has a value at each point in space, says my physicist friend.  Fields used to be thought of as necessary only to measure other things but now scientists realize that empty fields have momentum and energy on their own.  So the universe is expanding, my own personal universe might be expanding, but what I’m interested in is the momentum and energy of the empty field.  How does an empty field become the stuff of poetry?  I’ll keep banging my head against that question for the rest of my life.

 

You can get a copy of Dan's book here.

An Interview with Jennifer MacBain-Stephens, author of R O B O T

Cailin (for BPL): If you could have dinner with any person, living or dead, who would it be? What would you eat?

Jennifer: It might be a poet cliché--but I would love to have dinner with Sylvia Plath. I’d eat whatever she wanted. But if she was in a mood, than I would also like to invite Amy Schumer and then we could be like “Come ON Sylvia, let’s blow this popsicle stand and hit the bar or a movie.”

BPL: What kind of bird would you want to be?  

J: Definitely a crow because I really like how they are confident problem solvers and they seem to have a sense of humor if I can write that without sounding crazy. I’m writing a lot of stuff now with crows in them and it’s interesting to see what comes up.

BPL: What is your favorite type of flower?

J: Lilacs because they remind me of my grandmother’s backyard where I climbed trees every day after school when I was little.  Or sunflowers just because they have large, bright faces but also look kind of freaky at the same time.

 BPL: Do you remember your favorite food when you were six?

 J: What was it? I liked this beef stew that my step-mother used to make. To this day I still love mushrooms and everyone around me hates them. I am a lone mushroom lover: it’s lonely.

BPL: Where do you find the most inspiration?

J: I find a lot of inspiration through different kinds of art, reading other poets, or just free associating/writing and seeing what appears on the page. Oh and other people’s conversations.  (Just the other day- I overheard this at Starbuck’s: “and then the tail grew back. I almost threw up.”)

BPL: Do you think we should be worried that robots will rise up? Think Terminator.

J: I think this is a no-brainer: definitely.

BPL: When and where can you be found writing most?

J: Usually hiding out in my basement office that I painted myself or out somewhere in nature sitting on a bench where I can people watch, or at a café if I am lucky.

BPL: One of my favorite moments in the chapbook was Robot #13. What was your favorite to write? What section do you find yourself most drawn to read again?

 One of my faves was the sex one actually (#7) because that sort of cracked me up. (And then when I posted about it on Facebook, I was like “HI DAD.”) I think sometimes when I look at the poems again- I pause with Robot #17 (the Robot Ball,) and also with # 18 (meal plan.)  With #17 it makes me think that oh, in this universe, robots and humans probably got together and planned a huge dance for the Robots to attend. Did they discuss ticket price? What did the invites look like? Did Robots understand how to rsvp? I sort of like thinking about that existing in our present day world.  And with “meal plan,” I like how it sort of hints at the idea that--even if one follows directions down to the last detail—(like with following a recipe,) it might not be enough--we need creativity, we need impulse, we need a little luck, sometimes, for our projects (or anything,) to turn out well.

 

You can get a copy of Jennifer's chapbook here

Announcing 2017's Hard to Swallow Chapbooks

We were absolutely floored with the quality of our first year's submissions. It was agonizing choosing three collections to publish, but this sort of problem reminded us why we're here in the first place--there's more great writers than there are publishers to publish them. We are pleased to announce that we will be publishing the following three manuscripts in April 2017:

Dan Mahoney's Quantum Entanglement
Jennifer MacBain-Stephens ROBOT
Manuela Williams Ghost in Girl Costume

We are incredibly grateful for everyone who submitted, as this contest would not have been possible without the good faith of everyone who trusted us with your work. Thank you all, and check back here for updates about the chapbooks and BPL in general.

Submission Tips for Writers

Obviously I can only speak for our own magazine, but some of this advice will be more general.

1. Pet Peeves

All three of us read these submissions together, so we can talk about and discuss each piece in real time. Having three editors go over your work is a good thing because we all have our little idiosyncrasies and pet peeves. And rarely do the three of us unanimously and strongly agree that a piece should go into the magazine. Without naming any names, below are some of our editors' biggest pet peeves.

Poetry:
Line breaks that end carelessly on a preposition
Poems whose alignments are centered
Poems that rhyme loudly

Prose:
Pieces that rely heavily on italics to convey emphasis
Pieces that spell things phonetically to convey an accent but still use proper grammar/syntax
Walls of text

2. Don’t Overstay Your Welcome

Too often we reject poems or stories just because they go on too long. Without fail every issue we accept a poem with the condition of cutting a stanza (usually the first or the last) out of the poem. The conventional wisdom is: the shorter your piece is, the less room there is to mess up. If you are reading something over that you’re submitting and the ending is some sort of gesture towards, “And the moral is…” or “and we all learned…” think about cutting it out. Trust your reader to be smart enough to get the message or point of your piece without you having to explicitly tell them.

3. Don’t Be Overly Verbose

“Show don’t tell” is probably the most conventional wisdom thrown at people, but there’s one that’s just as important: If you can write it in ten words but choose to write it in twenty, there’s a problem. Also shorter syllable words are easier to control both visually and sonically, so in most cases, stick with words like “crash” instead of words like “collision.” Finally, the three of us all got our college degrees and have pretty good vocabularies, so if you use a word that none of us know there’s a problem. Don’t count on your dictionary website’s word of the day for inspiration.

4. The Lunch-Break Contradiction

There was a study of judges that found how appeals cases could be decided simply by where your case was in line. When it came to deciding cases before a judge’s lunch break, 100% of the appeals were rejected. I bring this up to say that we are human beings, and while we try to be very vigilant editors who try not to let our personal lives affect how we read a piece, our lives very well can. Without getting into our process of editing pieces, we do a lot of things to try to read work as objectively and thoroughly as possible, but this is a problem all editors at all magazines deal with. Sometimes your work may just get rejected because it reminds the editor of a style of writing their ex used, or your poems were in the last packet the editor had to read before they went to lunch with their friends and they were in a rush. If your peers keep telling you the work is great but you’re striking out with the editors, it really may just be bad luck.

5. There’s Always An Exception to the Rules

I don’t want to be handing down “rules for writing.” There’s a whole market of books for that, and fortunately for us the English language is flexible enough that sometimes you can break all those rules and still come up with something exhilarating.

We’re living in an exciting time where there are more artists and writers than ever creating work, and while that may make it seem crowded and difficult to get your voice out there, don’t back down from that challenge. If you keep trying to improve and keep putting the work out there, it will find a home. Ultimately, if we pass on your piece and you want to query us asking why, feel free to. Just be prepared for some honest criticism of your work.


--John McC

ON THE WEBSITE MOVE

Let's face it, BPL's wordpress site is, quite frankly, ugly, and neither me or Nicole had the skill to work a wordpress site into something decent looking using HTML. We were always aware that the website did not look great, and as I was making new year's resolutions for BPL this year, this goal became one of them. If we're going to improve the quality of the magazine, we should start with a face lift. Everyone judges a book by the cover after all, whether we like to admit it or not.

We discussed our options and settled on squarespace after some shopping around. Part of the decision was just that we could just get it cheaper after plugging in the right SPECIAL OFFER code. We also went here because it was easier to work with than wordpress. We knew it would not be the perfect fit. The perfect fit would be a custom built website with our own domain (and hey, if you're reading this and want to do some pro-bono work, hit us up). But for now, this will be BPL's home for the next year until we feel the need to migrate again. Birds can be fickle like that, if we don't stay in one place forever, we'll be sure to let people know where they can find us.

--John McC