Friday, May 18, 2012

Tampa Review Profile: Julie Iromuanya

For the past year, fiction writer Julie Iromuanya has been one of the two fiction editors at Tampa Review and a judge for the Danahy Fiction Prize. She has also taught First Year Writing and creative writing courses here at the University of  Tampa. 
Julie just completed her first novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, and her short stories and excerpts from her novel have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Passages North, The Cream City Review, and other journals. Before she slips away next year for an appointment at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago—where she will have the opportunity to teach fully in her fields of creative writing/fiction and Africana literature—we want to introduce her to those of you who haven't had a chance to meet her.
Our questions for Julie caught up with her in the midst of a summer trip through Europe.
What are you doing right now?
Right now as I type I’m on a train from Paris to Madrid. I love trains, but not this particular one. We’re cramped in a stinky four-person sleeper cabin. It’s a little bit claustrophobic and the view is blinded by one of our many bags propped on the windowsill. But I think under this grime is a really good story. Trains are fascinating to me because we’re all strangers coming from and going to different places, but for one single frame in the story of our lives we’re in the same place and it happens to be such an intimate place.  In addition to that, one of the things that struck me during my travels were the various local demonstrations—marches, encampments, even festivals. I took some awful, blurry photos that I don’t think can really grasp the energy of these different movements so I think instead I’ll write a story.

Do you remember your first short story?
I really don’t remember my “first” short story. What I do remember is writing and typing up a lot of stories that involved green slime when I was a kid—and trying, unsuccessfully, to get them published. When I was about eight or nine I even sent one off to Putnam Press and Bantam Books. I wrote a cover letter telling them that my favorite writer was Ann M. Martin and I was in the third grade in Mrs. Cederholm’s class and that I had four siblings. Putnam Press swiftly rejected my efforts with a form letter explaining that they did not read “unsolicited works.” I still remember pulling out my dad’s giant red Merriam-Webster to find the definition of “unsolicited.” When I was in the fifth grade, I made my first venture into writing a longer work, a “novel” entitled Mathew’s Journey. I spent months writing this novel and every week Mrs. Gauthier would have the class sit in a circle so I could read them the latest chapter. I think about it now: What a great teacher to allow such a shy kid a few moments to share her work with her class. It’s strange that I devoted so much of that year to writing that novel—typing it too—and all I can remember now is that it was about a boy who encounters ghosts.

What was it like teaching in Tampa and editing the Tampa Review?
I love the diversity of the student body at UT. Sitting in my freshmen writing classes, I was surrounded by students from all over the globe—the Caribbean islands, Albania, Kenya, Eritrea, Puerto Rico, Morocco, Kuwait, Denmark, Sweden, India, to name a few. On several occasions I witnessed moments when students would stop to ask questions about other parts of the world and find peculiar commonalities. I still remember a Ukrainian student who recognized the African American slave era folk tales that we were studying as the very stories that his grandfather used to share with him when he was growing up in Ukraine.  That was pretty cool. With my creative writers, I really love the talent and interest they have for writing, literature, and even the culture of writing. The Open Mics, conferences, visiting writers series, and the student journal are all student initiated and I love that so many students identify, not just as students, but as writers, and I think that’s so important for developing writers.

What's the most important thing you try to get across when teaching or introducing a new student to writing fiction?
I think we need to read and revise constantly, but I also think it’s important for new writers to develop a thick skin. Rejections come with the work we do, but we still have to press on. I tell my classes this routinely. Then I usually remind them that our artist friends, the actors, get rejections right to their faces but we writers get a typewritten slip in the mail that politely declines our work; it could be worse.

Could you comment on the story behind your piece Only in America? It’s going to be published in the next issue of Tampa Review, and we accepted it long before we had met you—before we knew you would one day come to teach at the University of Tampa . . .
“Only in America” is taken from a couple chapters in my novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor. In this section, I set out to develop Job and Ifi, the married couple’s relationship through their child, Victor. Most of the main conflict and tension pivots around Victor. Job and Ifi are counterpointed. They have very different ideas about how they see America at this point in the novel and it’s acted out through the choices they make about how they’ll raise him. I think this is the story of many immigrant families in America—the choices that couples must make about their children because so much of their future is invested in them. The thing is, Victor’s a kid, so he senses the tension in his parents’ relationship but he doesn’t really understand why. So I thought it’d be interesting to tell parts of the narrative from his point of view to develop some interesting dramatic irony. And then he’s also a little bit spoiled and he’s a little bit of a tyrant, so he enjoys mischief. He’s a cyclone from the moment he is introduced in “Only in America.”

How much of your own cultural background was used or reflected in that story?
Coming from an immigrant family—my parents are Nigerian immigrants—I understand some of the questions that immigrants have to ask themselves as they settle into a new land. In terms of the small, tangible details of the story, I remember developing this fascination with artifacts of Americana during garage sale season, just going through piles and piles of kitsch and leafing through this junk in search of a prize. Some of those objects that Victor discovers—the snow globes, the skates, the abacus—are things that I remember from such hunts. I think of an immigrant in some ways as having the same sort of childish fascination with the stories such objects tell about the new culture. I don’t know if people still go to garage sales as much as they did in the eighties, but it was an event. So the immigrant feels out of place at the garage sale, fully immersed in the new culture, but in terms of imagining the world of the immigrants, I tried to place them at the gatherings where immigrants feel the most at home and I remember from growing up that the moments when immigrant voices were the loudest happened to be at big cultural celebrations (birthdays, for example) and pickup games of soccer in the middle of the summer. Although it’s not so much the case with Americans, soccer has a funny way of uniting the various immigrants.

An Interview With Newly Appointed Utah Poet Laureate Lance Larsen

Poet Lance Larsen (at microphone) with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. Photo by Trent Nelson
Why does poetry matter?  There's a great quote by William Carlos Williams that touches on this question. “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” This suggests to me that without poetry something in us perishes.  Poems help us cultivate Intuition, honesty, emotional vibrancy—call it what you will.  It wakes us up to the mystery of our own lives.  In the right hands, it is as elemental as air or water. It is also a good dirt, in which we bury that which we hope will grow.

Of all the genres a writer can choose, why choose poetry? Truth be told, the boundaries between genres are breaking down, and many writers work in more than one field.  For instance, besides poetry, I write personal essay and memoir. That said, poetry seems especially well tuned to what cannot be articulated directly—what one feels breaking through between lines, between words.  Poetry is both the most solitary of the literary arts but also the most communal. After 9 / 11 it's what readers reached for. Poetry seems supremely suited to telling emotional truths more piercing than straight fact, more dazzling than the most inventive of fictions.

How would you say that Utah has shaped your poetry? It has shaped my poetry in the same way that my formative years in Idaho have shaped it, and two years in Chile, and five years in Houston, and visits to England, France, Italy, and Spain: all these landscapes have insinuated themselves in subtle ways into my thinking and perceptions, my syntax and grammar. I frequently write about liminal places, where suburbia bumps up against the wilds.

Are there any specific poems that you feel are especially in tribute to or reflective of Utah? In my forthcoming book, Genius Loci, the following poems reflect my evolving sense of place: “Americana,’” “Backyard Georgics,” “Witching for Water, Etc.,” “Tabernacle,” “Owning the Snake,” “Like a Wolf,” and “Late Morning Salvage.”

What funny stories have happened since the appointment? Nothing funny of late, though I’m sure all I have to do is wait.  The former poet laureate, Katherine Coles, has a story worth repeating.  On her first morning as Utah’s poet laureate, she received a phone call at 5:30 a.m. from an older gentleman.  Luckily, she was already up.  Her sense was that he’d been waiting since 4:00 a.m. to phone.  What he wanted to know was this: what should he do with the poems of his deceased wife.  Her response was right on the money: make copies of them at Kinko’s and distribute to family members.

What do you feel the next 5 years will be like? How does one prepare for something like this? Busy, and with lots of frequent flyer miles registered on my odometer.  The poet laureate is a kind of itinerant preacher of the word (lower case), or a Johnny Appleseed of the literary artifact.  In either case, it’s not so much shoe leather I’ll be wearing out, but the tires on my Toyota Corolla.  The only preparation is to write lots of poems and to memorize the counties in your home state.  I have some homework to do concerning the latter.  Concerning the specific duties I’ll take up: one learns by doing.

What is your advice to young poets? The usual things: read yourself silly; keep a journal; treat writing like a vocation not an avocation, which means sitting your butt down at least an hour or so a day; don’t quit your day job just yet; become an aficionado of something, whether it be quarter horses, Andrei Tarkovski films, Chinese porcelain, or the art of hybridizing daylilies.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Congratulations to Lance Larsen! Tampa Press Poet Named Utah Poet Laureate.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, right, announced Lance Larsen as the state's new poet laureate on Thursday, May 3, 2012, at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley City.

University of Tampa Press poet Lance Larsen was appointed Poet Laureate in ceremonies earlier this month by the Utah Governor. Lance, who won the Tampa Review Prize for Poetry for his collection entitled In All Their Animal Brilliance (University of Tampa Press, 2005), will serve a five-year term as Utah’s Poet Laureate. The University of Tampa Press will be publishing his fourth collection of poems, Genius Loci, this fall and also previously published his third book, Backyard Alchemy, in 2009. You can read details of the appointment in the Salt Lake Tribune at this link. And you can hear a short reading by Lance at the Utah Division of Arts website.

Titles from Lance Larsen published by the University of Tampa Press include: Backyard Alchemy and In All Their Animal Brilliance. Larsen's forthcoming book of poetry Genius Loci will be available in Fall 2012.