January 10, 2013

Contributor Notes: Dora Malech

Interviews and guest posts from the writers and artists of Versal 10. This week, we hear from Dora Malech he author of Say So (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2011) and Shore Ordered Ocean (Waywiser Press, 2009). Her poems have appeared in publications that include The New Yorker, Poetry, American Letters & Commentary, and Poetry London. A graduate of Yale and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, she has been the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship, a Writer's Fellowship at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Italy, and inclusion in the International Writing Program's "Life of Discovery" creative exchange in China. She has taught writing at institutions that include the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop; Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters in Wellington, New Zealand; and Saint Mary's College of California, where she served as a Distinguished Poet-in-Residence. She lives in Iowa City, where she writes, creates visual art, teaches, and directs the Iowa Youth Writing Project, an arts outreach program for children and teens.

Have you been to Amsterdam? What did you do while you were here? If you've not been yet, what do you think you'd do in our fair town?

I have. I visited the amazing Jane Lewty and Wade Geary at Thanksgiving 2011, and it was most likely the best Thanksgiving of my life. I ate my weight in stroopwafel, had my mind blown across the spectrum of human emotion and ideas by art and history (visiting the Anne Frank house, going to the Rijksmuseum, taking a tour of the canals), and met some incredibly welcoming and brilliant writers and artists (including the Versal crew!). I also gave a reading at the English Bookshop and gave a Q&A with Jane's students at Universiteit van Amsterdam. I felt so grateful to have had the chance to see Amsterdam through the eyes of a tourist, but I felt even more grateful that Jane and others allowed me to simply live their Amsterdam lives with them for a few days.

I was also on a deadline to finish a piece as part of an International Writing Program collaborative exchange and performance. I went to Amsterdam with all of my thoughts and notes, and I spent most of my mornings there writing and revising in Jane and Wade's spare room. I ended up finishing the piece there and reading it for the first time at the English Bookshop reading. The piece is not "about" Amsterdam, but it deals with travel and flight and distance, and it will forever be linked to Amsterdam for me.

What is the first creative thing you ever did?

I know that when I made colorful crayon scribbles as a very small child, and my mother asked me to tell her what I was drawing (a house? a dog?), I would cryptically tell her that they were "designs." I hope that doesn't make me sound like I was a pretentious toddler. I also think that playing pretend was (and still is?) a big part of my creative life. I have an older sister, so for a long time, my creative life was collaborating with her on imaginary identities and worlds.

What is the dumbest thing anyone has ever said to you about being a writer?

I can't say the dumbest, but I can say the most obnoxious. When I finish giving a reading, I always feel very raw and pretty vulnerable and dazed. Whether or not it shows to the audience, I feel like I put it on the line emotionally when I read. It is, therefore, the worst possible moment for someone to play weird power games with me (intentionally or not), because I am off balance and overly receptive. Multiple times, someone (and yes, it's usually a man, and yes, he's usually older than me) comes up to me and says "Can I give you some advice?" Rather than saying, "Buzz off. Who just gave a reading, me or you?" I say "Sure." Then I get a lecture on what he would have done differently (I've gotten everything from "Don't give any context for your poems; leave the audience wondering" to "Don't look at your watch; it's distracting.") I always wonder if these folks give lectures to everyone, or if I have some kind of "kick me" sign on my back. Perhaps they're well-intentioned, and it's obviously not a huge deal in the greater scheme of things, but I keep hoping I'll come up with a witty retort for the next such occasion. I suppose it falls right into Rebecca Solnit's "Men Explaining Things" paradigm. 

If you were an angle, what kind of angle would you be?

I would be my Chihuahua mutt. Backstory: I named my dog "Angel" in a moment of pure, unadulterated sentimentality when she came into my life. She was a puppy that fit in my hand, and I was a weepy 20-year-old college student. She is my favorite creature on earth, but she is not angelic. At a certain point, we stopped calling her "Angel" and started calling her any number of different names, including "Angle," which is a much more accurate name. So, yeah, I'd be that Angle. 

If you could meet a writer from the 15th, 16th or 17th centuries, who would it be? And what would you talk about?

Oh lord it would be Shakespeare. We'd talk about everything. Everything. Everything. And then we'd spoon for a while. 

Tell us something few people know about you.

Well, I just told you that I want to spoon with Shakespeare, so my fantasies about other dead writers won't seem that revelatory now. I'll go less personal: I have an extra vertebra in my spine.

Other than Versal (which has clearly been awesome), what's one great place you've been published?

I've loved being published in Anti-, because it seemed like the editor, Stephen D. Schroeder, really believed in my work at a point when I didn't necessarily believe in it myself. I'm also just in great company with the other writers and artists he publishes, and I was psyched that Anti- included both my poetry and my visual art at different points.

Why did you send work to Versal? Be honest.

I met the Versal editors in Amsterdam and also got to spend some quality time with Versal 9. I felt like it was an aesthetically gorgeous and exciting publication, and it felt "curated" like a good art show, not just kind of thrown together. Megan Garr encouraged me to send work, and I was more than happy to do so. 

What has lasted you ten years?

My red Schwinn bicycle. A brown corduroy jacket with a fake-fur hood from TJ Maxx. Some amazing friendships (I started grad school in 2003, so I'm coming up on the ten-year anniversary of some of my dearest poetry-friendships).

Tell us what you're working on right now.

I'm working on a third book of poems that's still in flux, and on a number of other projects. Bringing my visual art and text together. Exploring anagrams as heuristics. Working on longer poems. Trying to find my way from one word to another.