Fourteen Hills 16.1 Contributor Austin LaGrone on Bukowski’s Tender Heart

A few days after the spectacular release of Fourteen Hills 16.1, Poetry Editor Hollie Hardy rendezvoused with Brooklyn-based contributor Austin LaGrone to discuss his unpublished poetry manuscript, Ascension Parish, and to ask questions about important things like women, liquor, cigarettes, religion, poetry, and New Orleans. As you read excerpts from the interview, try to imagine the poet’s answers in a delicious southern accent, drawled with the rhythm of extemporaneous poetry.

14H: Ascension Parish is the title of your current manuscript, which contains the poems Goosing the Muse and Psalm, both published in Fourteen Hills 16.1. There seem to be two elements at play in decoding that title: the religious connotations of “ascension” and “parish,” and the fact that “Ascension Parish” denotes a specific area, a county or district of Louisiana. This duality parallels your explorations of specific places (like Acadiana, Jackson Square, One-Eyed Jack’s and Trixie’s Palace) but in a subtler more off-handed way, religion is there, just below the surface (like “the love doll we resuscitated by the church bus”). Can you talk about the title and the significance of place?

AL: The whole notion of Ascension Parish is sort of absurd and beautiful, the idea that all the members of the county between Baton Rouge and New Orleans—everywhere else they are counties, in Louisiana they’re parishes—every member of that community has bodily ascended into heaven and now they are back among us—gambling, drinking, dancing, doing all the shit they were doing before, but now they’re somehow holy. That’s ultimately the meaning of naming a parish “Ascension.” And I think that’s sort of interesting and strange.

But for the manuscript, I’ve extended the borders of the parish to include Louisiana on the whole. Because this idea of redemption—it’s a Whitmanian notion, a Whitman-esque notion; wherein which Whitman is sort of a turbo-Christ almost, a turbo-redeemer. Christ is down with the prostitutes and the taxman. But Whitman is like No, everyone! Not just the prostitutes and the taxman, even more! Whitman is basing his language and his rhythms in large part on the Old Testament. He was deliberately trying to bring everyone in. All the bad stuff and all the good stuff collectively. So in some sense the title suggests that each of the characters, however flawed they are, have themselves bodily ascended. Characters that I’ve invented and characters that I’ve known. Like my friend Sunny Michelle, when he got a bottle broken across his head and he stood up with blood running down his forehead and said, “It takes two. It takes two bottles.” Now Sunny Michel is a crazy human being, but in my manuscript he is redeemed because of this title. All of my characters are.

Then there’s also, Ascension Parish, just hearing it. If you were just to hear it, you would probably assume perish p—e—r, as in die or destroy. And in that sense it’s quite the opposite, Ascension Perish, this idea of finding one’s community, finding salvation here among the living. This is a very Gilbertian notion—Jack Gilbert—this idea of finding the things that will redeem us not in a different world, but right here in the normal rituals of existence. Whether it’s through intimacy or risk or whatever.

14H: In addition to an affectionate view of the ordinary lives of poor people in the South, there’s a good deal about drinking, smoking, women, cheap motels, and people-watching in bars that goes on in your poems. Are you a fan of Charles Bukowski?

AL: If you ask anyone how they feel about Bukowski they downplay their love of him and they’ll tell you something like, well I love the way a broken old man can blah blah blah. They create a kind of distance. But I find him incredibly tender. And I think that he has a really beautiful secret heart. If you are easily put off, you don’t need to be reading him anyway. You should go back to the Crystal Worship Isle or something like that.

14H: Your poem, High Water Blues is one of the most authentic-feeling poems I’ve read about Hurricane Katrina. Where were you during that tragedy?

AL: Ah hell, I was in a college town in Bloomington, Indiana. My father had been the assistant DA [in Louisiana] but when my grandmother died, his mother, we moved further north. But it’s always been a kind of home for me. It’s where I learned to walk. It’s where I learned to talk. So it really affected me. I had a little money in savings and I took all of it. I gave my car to my dad and borrowed his truck and went down to New Orleans to help out a bit.

When I saw all of the destruction, I stayed. It was a fascinating time. You could drive clear across the city with no red lights. All the cops were downtown guarding the French Quarter so the whole town was cop-free. You could speed anywhere you wanted to go. All the bars were lit with candles. There was no electricity. Acoustic guitars. And for the people who came back early, there was this huge camaraderie…

To read the entire interview, including Austin’s philosophy of private languages, cigar store Indians and ancestor worship, please click here.

Born in Baton Rouge, Austin LaGrone got his first rifle at nine and his first Chevy at thirteen. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Brilliant Corners, Black Warrior Review, The New York Quarterly, and Fourteen Hills. These days he lives happily without weapons or trucks in Brooklyn and is an MFA candidate at New York University.

-Hollie Hardy, Fourteen Hills Poetry Editor


Fourteen Hills In The News: A Small Press With Great Art

We were just featured in the SF Examiner’s series on Bay Area small presses. Even though the article calls our managing editor D.W. Lichtenberg a poetry editor, it gets into the meat of what makes Fourteen Hills: the SFSU Review worth watching:

"The journal doesn't exist to make itself look good," says Fourteen Hills faculty advisor Matthew Clark Davison. "If we solicit something from an established writer and what we get is not something we feel we can stand behind, we don’t print it." Read the full article here.

The art of the Fall issue of our literary magazine also shows up on the NewPages.com blog.

Here’s what they have to say:

"Fourteen Hills has always had the talent for selecting cover-poppin' art, and their latest issue is no exception. ‘Stuck on Morning Thoughts’ by the Pfeiffer Sisters is the appetizer for the center portfolio section of the journal, which features more of their sadly/sweetly haunting characters."

Thanks, NewPages! If you haven’t seen the amazing portfolio by these very talented artists in our last issue, you can buy a copy at any of these bookstores. We’re also looking for new subscribers. Don’t be shy, help us keep independent publishing alive! And please come to our reading next week, in the Poetry Center. RSVP on Facebook and ask questions for our panelists here.


Ever Wanted To Ask Peter Orner A Question?

New Standards, a selection of the best fiction of Fourteen Hills’ first decade, is being reprinted in two weeks. To celebrate its re-release in bookstores and libraries near you, Fourteen Hills is sponsoring an evening of literature and discussion on March 25, 2010, at 7 p.m. at the Poetry Center (Humanities 512).

San Francisco State faculty members Nona Caspers and Peter Orner, as well as contributors John Clearly and Eireene Nealand, will be reading from New Standards and taking your questions about process and craft. Admission is only $10 and includes a copy of the fiction anthology (a $15 value).

We are taking questions via our blog (leave a comment below), via email, or you can tweet us a question anytime before 10 a.m. on March 25.

If we ask your question at the event, you'll get a free back issue of Fourteen Hills: The SFSU Review at the event.

Here’s a little bit more about our special guests:

Nona Caspers is the author of Little Book of Days (2009) and Heavier Than Air (2006), which received the Grace Paley Prize and was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. She has received a 2008 NEA Fellowship and an Iowa Review Fiction Award, among others. Her stories have been widely published in journals and anthologies including Cimarron Review, The Iowa Review, Ontario Review, Women on Women and the Hers Series.  

Peter Orner is the author of The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and Esther Stories. He's also the editor of Underground America. He proudly teaches at SF State.

John Cleary lives and writes in San Francisco. He is currently an editor for Sidebrow, a literary press dedicated to collaborative experiments in publishing.

Eireene Nealand graduated from San Francisco State in 2005. Her short stories, poems and translations have been published in ZYZZYVA, Fourteen Hills, Transfer, The St. Petersburg Review, and Sidebrow, among other places. She has won numerous awards, including the Elisabeth Kostova and Ivan Klima Fellowships in Fiction. She is currently an associate editor for the literary magazine Tarpaulin Sky and a resident at the Tannery Arts Center. She teaches creative writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz where she is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in contemporary Russian literature.

When established writers take time out of their schedules to talk to students about their own hang-ups, habits, and driving forces, we get the unique opportunity to examine what works for them and what doesn’t. We might consider how their methods could apply to our own work, and at the end of the day, we might find ourselves trying something new.

Start asking questions; we’ll get you some answers.

-Editors, Fourteen Hills


Bay Area Featured Writers' Conference: The Tomales Bay Workshops

We recently got wind of a writers' conference that sounded absolutely phenomenal. Pam Houston and Terry Tempest Williams are the featured instructors!

Here are the details for you.

The Tomales Bay Workshops
University of California, Davis · Creative Writing Program
October 27-31
Marconi Center, Tomales Bay, Northern California
Four days of working with an established author, receiving constructive feedback and generating new material.

More info at:

Should be great. Maybe we'll see you there!

- Daniel Lichtenberg, Fourteen Hills Managing Editor