Randall Mann Discusses His Use of Form: "It Gives Me Something To Push Up Against"

Randall Mann took the time to discuss the use of form in his poems, and much much more, in an interview conducted by Fourteen Hills: The SFSU Review poetry editor Tera Ragan. Here's an excerpt:

14H: Many of your poems can be called formal poems, with your use of traditional forms: villanelles, sestinas, pantoums, etc. How do you think these forms influence or affect your work specifically?

RM: I take every poem and the subject matter of every poem individually. I’m grateful that I was trained with the tools to be able to use formal mechanisms. I can’t imagine not being able to turn to subjects the way formal poetry allows you to turn to things, or the way it compresses arguments and reveals new insight.

If you think about one of the most famous formal poems, Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle, as you go through her stanzas you know what she is saying, while at the same time knowing that more information is being kneaded out.

In my mortician poem, which is a sestina, we already know what happened to Harvey Milk, that’s not the question. I chose the sestina form because it let me look at this really huge historical moment both in terms of my queer history and in terms of how it changed this city.

But, how do you look at something so well known? Especially when the publication comes serendipitously after the release of the film Milk—now everyone knows him and gets this lesson of what happened—then the question becomes: how am I able to put my stamp on it and say something new? I didn’t feel comfortable doing that in free verse because sometimes I don’t know how to say something fresh or complex without the benefit of form. It gives me something to push up against and I trust those boundaries. They're really helpful to me as a writer.

14H: Do you feel that sometimes the form chooses you or do you have the form in mind for the poem in advance?

RM: I definitely choose the form but I’m cognizant that certain forms might work well. I have a poem in my book called “Career." It’s a bit of a satire about a younger poet sleeping with an older poet for a blurb, that’s told in trimeter tetrameter with rhyme. The music of that formal choice helped to bring out the satire of that particular moment. It shocks you and yet you have the comfort of the movement of form.

I think that titillating subject matter and traditional forms work extraordinarily well together because while there may be a shock, there’s also shock of the recognition of the poem.

Read the full interview on our website: 14hills.net

Randall Mann is the author of two collections of poetry, BREAKFAST WITH THOM GUNN (University of Chicago Press 2009) and COMPLAINT IN THE GARDEN (Zoo/Orchises 2004), winner of the 2003 Kenyon Review Prize; and the co-author of the textbook WRITING POEMS, Seventh Edition (Pearson Longman 2007). He lives in San Francisco.

- Daniel Lichtenberg, Fourteen Hills managing editor


Questions for Marcus Pactor, 14 Hills 16.1 Contributor

A young man overhears his neighbors’ violent relationship, calls the police, and then goes fishing with the policeman who comes to investigate. Sound intriguing? We thought so, which is why we included Marcus Pactor’s short story, Let Me, in issue 16.1 of Fourteen Hills: The SFSU Review.

Mr. Pactor, a Writing Instructor at the University of North Florida, flew all the way out to San Francisco to read at our release party in December. We were so intrigued by his work, and also impressed by his reading, and so we decided to feature him here on the Fourteen Hills blog.

14H: We published your story, Let Me, in our volume 16.1, because we felt it raised some interesting questions. We are curious about what inspired the story, and what it is about your characters that make them work so well.

MP: I think I hinted at the inspiration (if that's the right word) at the reading. I've lived in some places with thin walls. Twice, I've lived next to some seriously dysfunctional types. I guess I have a hero complex, or maybe I'm just stupid, but I've made it my business to try to help these abused girls. Those attempts never worked out well. One of them was so grateful to me that she nailed me with a phone to the back of my skull. So I imagined a guy who decided not to help, and everything ran from there

14H: We couldn't help but notice that although the policeman (Timmons) and the neighbor (Sarah) are named, the protagonist himself goes unnamed. Was that a conscious choice? If so, why?

MP: The narrator's namelessness just kind of happened as I was writing. He never seemed to need one, so...

14H: Your story explores themes of loneliness, as well as the paradox of needing and offering help. At one point, the main character distills the main idea to: "“We don’t help when we need to, and we do help when none is necessary. And we can’t possibly help ourselves.” When writing this story, did you start with this idea in mind, and then construct the characters around it, or did the story come first?

MP: I came across the idea as I was writing. I start with people, and as they find their way through the maze, they usually lead me to some idea or other. I know some writers come up with an idea and shape a story around it, but I'm always afraid that if I tried it, I'd end up with some Ayn Rand cut-out characters, 100-page speeches, and a lot of lousy moralizing.

14H: You live in Florida. Perhaps coincidentally, one of the story's main scenes takes place at the beach. How important is the setting throughout?

MP: Setting's always important to me. A story with a good setting suggests knowledge of particular places and particular worlds. When a reader trusts a setting, he can begin to trust the story. Particularity, specificity--these are friends to a writer.

14H: What is your writing routine?

MP: I teach four classes and I cook on weekends, so I write whenever I can, an hour here, twenty minutes there. Some days I get a magical three-hour block. But I can't wait for them.

14H: How did you first hear about Fourteen Hills?

MP: My ex-girlfriend was very good at finding places for me to send me work. I guess this was one last nice thing she did before we said good-bye

14H: How has your career as a writing instructor influenced or affected
your writing? Or, has it at all?

MP: Teaching is like detective work. When I read a student's story, and things go awry, they always go awry in a unique way. I have to read again and search for clues in order to solve the mystery and, later, offer some advice. It's made me a much colder reader and editor of my work.

14H: Sound advice. Thank you again for contributing to Fourteen Hills, and for reading your work at our party!

Marcus Pactor is a writing instructor at the University of North Florida. His work has also appeared in Peeks and Valleys.

- Julia Jackson, Fourteen Hills staff


An Interview With Yiyun Li: Featured Content From Issue 16.1

After her first novel, The Vagrants, was released, I had the honor of sitting down with Yiyun Li to discuss the book and talk a little about her writing process. Here are a few of the highlights from our interview, which is featured in the current issue of Fourteen Hills:

14H:  In your short stories and in The Vagrants, parents of girls born with physical or mental handicaps, like the parents of Beibei and Nini, often wish aloud that their children were dead or had never been born. Here, wishing away children is certainly taboo. Do you take such cultural disparities into account when you are writing?

YL:  Well, I think people here, probably some of them, do wish. It’s just that they don’t speak. And I think it’s more of a cultural thing, where at that time people would make those comments, but they were only meant half-heartedly. A mother would say to a child, “I wish I’d never given birth to you. You are such a trouble.” But it didn’t mean she hated her child so much. Although I think Nini’s parents did wish, in a moment, that they didn’t have her.

But I was just reading Lydia Davis, her latest book, and there was one part about a teenage boy and a teenage girl who had a baby together. The baby was prematurely born, and the grandparents, especially the boy’s mother, wished that the baby would die in the ICU. It would be so much better for everybody. Those are the kinds of things people don’t talk about in their everyday lives. Those are the things I think writers should push to know. People do have those moments of doubt. It’s important to portray. Deep inside, it’s within human nature. I don’t think we should run away from those things.

14H: The fate of girls and women in Communist China plays an important role in your work. Your female characters are martyrs, caretakers, mother heroes, and orphans, yet you often choose not to portray your female characters sympathetically. Most of the time, you do the opposite. Why?

YL:  That is a very interesting observation. And I don’t mean I hate women, and of course I can’t hate women because I’m one of them. But I do think, consistently, that communism turned Chinese women into less feminine, less loving, less gentle creatures, and I’ll always believe that. Because I’ve grown up with all these women. My mother, aunties, all these people. I feel that some traditional, beautiful things they didn’t keep.

Women’s nature, as a whole, got lost in forty years of revolution, and that was a huge loss. I’m not saying women should be weak or submissive, but I’m very close to how Teacher Gu felt about these things. These beauties he really appreciated and cherished were shut up. Women were not supposed to have long hair, they were supposed to have short-cut hair and wear very neutral colors. The system was taking away feminine beauty. It is a generalization that there would be less maternal love, after all this, but that’s how I see it.

14H: A New York Times book reviewer suggested your novel was comprised of a series of horror stories, and indeed, no thread leaves your reader without a palpable sense of despair. Has your work achieved a desired effect, leaving us feeling haunted?

YL:  I think that feeling haunted is one thing, and despair is another. I notice that people always talk about the horrors. I think there is a lot of humor as well, but not all the reviewers talk about those moments. To me, they are a very important part of the work, and they were very important for me to write. Because otherwise, I would have just been writing a dark, dark novel without any hope. There are actually some very funny moments. I was laughing, maybe I shouldn’t have been. Some of the reviewers picked up on the lightness. I’d say about one-sixth of reviewers picked that up, and I was very happy for them.

You can read the full interview in the most recent issue of our  literary magazine, plus many wonderful stories and poems. The journal is available through Small Press Distribution, and look for it in  a bookstore near you

-Amy Glasenapp, Fourteen Hills fiction editor


Now In The Archives: Bob Hicok’s “Trying To Stay In Shape”

Happy 2010! Here at Fourteen Hills, we’re continuing to update our online archives. As part of that process, I just read a poem that took me back to my childhood. It takes a very special and honest poem like Bob Hicok’s “Trying to Stay in Shape” to unify my experience with his storytelling.

Here’s my favorite section:

…When I was a kid
I lied and said chlorine hurt my penis
so they’d leave me to land, where I understood
breath. I hadn’t thought of that in years,
I’m cringing, hoping I’ve become
a better swimmer, better liar…

This poem has such a wonderful voice. Every line breaks and sifts down. I'm most taken with his  ability to combine a surreal and witty narrative inside such concrete diction. Hicok talks of values without sounding preachy. And his confession sounds like he is simply being himself.  Every time I read it, I  feel as though he's talking to me.

If you want to see how Bob Hicok succeeds in the rest of the piece then check out the full poem which appeared in the Fall of ’07 in Issue 14.1. While you’re at it, look for more established and emerging writers in upcoming issues of our literary magazine!

R.R. Reese, Fourteen Hills staff