The Sunday Spotlight: Writer Penny Guisinger
Today’s featured writer: Penny Guisinger
The featured writing: “Marriage” and “Marriage Two” published at Bluestem, excerpts from Penny’s new book Postcards from Here, a semi-finalist for the Vine Leaves Vignette Collection Award published by Vine Leaves Press (February, 2016), available in paperback and as an ebook.
When I received my copy of Postcards from Here in the mail, I was surprised at the slightness of it. The book is slim in volume, at sixty-five pages, and tiny in size, resembling a stack of postcards. Indeed, each page of the text is designed to look like a postcard. At first I thought, Really? That’s it? But it didn’t take long for me to realize this little volume is the epitome of that old saying “good things come in small packages.” Penny’s collection reminds me of River Teeth‘s weekly “Beautiful Things” column because each vignette in the book is singularly beautiful and stands on its own. The effect, however, in reading the entire collection, from one vignette to the next, is like sitting down to a gourmet meal of tapas—a succession of interesting and delicious small courses to feast upon, leaving you quite satisfied.
For me, I found a lot to relate to from the descriptions of gardening and putting food away for winter to glimpses of motherhood. But these vignettes go further, describing a place rich with community and alive with the details of the seasons and the natural environment, alongside family, relationship, and the internal space of the author’s keen observations.
Reading these vignettes left me in awe of Penny’s precise language and ability to capture moments so effectively it is like slowing down time and looking through a microscope. To get a feel for Penny’s writing and her book, you can read two of the vignettes online. Here is an excerpt from “Marriage“:
My wife catches porcupines with the trash can and the lid the way you or I catch spiders with a glass and a piece of paper. Porcupines are bad neighbors. They let themselves into the garden, and take one bite out of every tomato, every squash, every cucumber. They climb up our ornamental trees and rip off the branches, leaving ugly holes near the top. We can’t decide if they’re brazen or just stupid, the way they ransack the place in daylight, with us standing right there. They know enough to run, though, when Kara bounds toward them with the trash can.
And an excerpt from “Marriage Two“:
He was a super model. A presidential candidate. A porn star. He stood in the field in front of our house, basking in his own light. The spectacle stopped me, quite literally, in my tracks. I had not seen this before, and it took several seconds for my brain to understand the information coming in over the retinal wire. He was as grand as he could make himself — feathers puffed out, almost standing on end, and tail opened like a fan. Not only standing, but slowly turning himself in place, to show every angle, every facet. He looked like he had walked right off the front of a Thanksgiving card from Hallmark, so perfect was his tom turkeyness.
Reading these excerpts doesn’t do Penny’s work justice, and while you can read “Marriage” and “Marriage Two” at Bluestem, which is a delight in itself, it is not like reading the full collection of vignettes in Postcards from Here, so go on, order a copy!
Penny Guisinger is the author of the book Postcards from Here, published by Vine Leaves Press. In 2015, one of her essays was named a notable in Best American Essays and another was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity Magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine.
A few questions for Penny:
As an essayist, do you primarily work in the short form? How did you come to short prose? Was it a natural instinct of form or something you diligently practiced to accomplish?
My instinct is to write essays that are either 250 words or 8,000 words. I seem to have a harder time hitting that sweet spot of the 3,500 – 5,000 word range. (I call it the sweet spot, because that’s the length that’s easier to publish.) Once I started writing the pieces that became the book, there was certainly a diligence I had to adopt, primarily in the revision process. When an idea comes that’s clearly an idea for a “postcard,” it’s an idea that wants to be expressed in that form. The urge of each of those pieces is to capture something very small—even if it’s some small aspect of something much larger—and so the form is a response to the idea or topic at hand. For example, when I wrote “Death of a Neighbor,” which is about the night that our neighbor suddenly and unexpectedly died, I wasn’t trying to write about the magnitude of that loss. That piece is about this question I had about a particular emotional aspect of that night: he was a paramedic and his own crew was right there while he was dying, and so the piece grapples with the emotional complexity of that. It’s a small aspect of this gigantic event and it called (to me) for a small piece. So I am never trying to wrestle a huge story into a small form, but during revision I am most definitely working to hone it even closer to the core of the thing. That’s where the diligence comes in. However, I don’t think there’s any more of an imperative to be concise or crisp or use sensory words and images in short prose than there is in longer pieces. That’s always the mandate, right? To me, the length is determined by what idea or story the piece is trying to express.
Can you talk a little about the evolution of Postcards from Here? Did you know as you were writing the vignettes that they would all be collected into one collection?
There’s a story, actually. I started writing Postcards as a student at the Stonecoast MFA program, which has a low-residency format. My mentor that semester, Debra Marquart, and I were on the phone one day, talking about whatever work I had most recently sent her. My friend and fellow student, the writer Marco Wilkinson, had Deb as a mentor that semester as well, and I inquired about him in the call with her. She said, “Oh, Marco’s doing great. He’s travelling a lot this semester, so he’s writing postcards and sending them to me.” I didn’t know exactly what she meant, and I still don’t, but I had this flash of—something—and knew immediately that I was going to write a collection of short pieces called postcards. I’ll never forget it.
In part, I’m sure it’s because I had multiple longer pieces in the air at that time, and most of them were early drafts. I felt a little like I was drowning in longer pieces. Writing a long essay is a lengthy undertaking—mine all span time frames measurable in years. So these short pieces became another outlet. They were something I could actually finish in a few sittings, and then dive back into the ocean of the longer pieces which seem like they are never quite done.
Also, I was in my mid-forties when I started my MFA, and was very clear that I wanted to publish. I spent a lot of years writing for myself, and I was done with that and wanted to get work out into the world. So, yes, right out of the gate I knew that this would be a collection and that I would work to get it published as such. I think sometimes we’re not supposed to be so nakedly ambitious, but I am ambitious. I don’t imagine that I’ll ever make a living at this work, but I do want to be part of a working, publishing, writerly universe because it keeps me closer to this art form that I love so much. I am not content to watch anymore. I wanted a book, so that’s what I set out to write. I did not know that it would be my first book. I imagined that my first book would be another memoir-in-essays called Shift. Instead, Shift is still in progress and Postcards is out in the world. (And now there’s a third book in progress that may actually eclipse Shift and become the second book. I’ve stopped trying to control the order!)
Short prose seems to require an incredible attention to detail and, much like poetry, a disciplined hand at precise language for brevity. What kind of influence has poetry had on your short prose writing? Do you see the vignette as an offshoot of poetry or strictly as narrative?
Beautiful, concise prose is exquisite on its own merit, and does not aspire toward anything else. I can’t say how much of an influence poetry has on me, though I do read quite a lot of it. Good writing is good writing, no matter the form. I get bristly at the suggestion that poets have somehow cornered the market on precision and beauty. (You did not make that suggestion, but many other people do!) I do not see the pieces in Postcards as an offshoot of poetry, no.
I also don’t know what to make of distinctions we make between prose poems, vignettes, flash nonfiction, micro-essays. I sent one piece from the book to a lit mag with a cover letter that clearly identified it as an essay, and the editor wrote back saying he would love to publish my poem. And he did. It said “poem” at the top of the page. That’s fine with me! As the writer, I’m not thinking very much about what these things will be called when they’re published. I think the drive to identify pieces as a particular thing is pretty market-driven. (And I use this word “market” lightly since there’s not much actual money changing hands here.) Postcards is a collection of vignettes because that’s what Vine Leaves Press publishes: collections of vignettes. That other piece was a poem because that’s what that particular editor thought it should be. I’m an essayist, so I think of them as little tiny essays. But I don’t think it really matters what we call them as long as they do the thing they’re designed to do: tell the story of some moment or idea, and as a collection, capture something about my experience. The collection, remember, is a memoir. So it’s big-picture job is to tell some aspect of its narrator’s story and capture a particular experience in a particular time and place. There are multiple forms at work here. Hopefully, somehow, it’s all functioning.
You are the founder and conference director of Iota: Short Prose Conference, a new conference on an island off the coast of Maine. Can you share how you conceived the idea for Iota and tell us about the conference?
Iota is my favorite thing! It’s four days and three nights on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada, which is just over the bridge from Lubec, Maine, the easternmost point in the U.S. We hold it at Roosevelt Campobello International Park, which includes the summer home of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s a very luxurious, magical location. Conference events take place on both sides of the border, which is appropriate, because Iota explores the perceived borders between short prose forms. Workshops are mixed genre, so poets are in with literary nonfiction writers and fiction writers, and every participant studies with both faculty members. This year, we’re very lucky to have Dinty Moore and Mark Doty as faculty. (When I say “we are lucky” what I mean is “I am on my knees with gratitude.” Just to be clear.)
I conceived of the conference when I was an MFA student. We all had to do a third semester project—something beyond our own writing. As I said, I was very driven and strategic as a student and wanted every decision I made to move me closer to a writerly life. So I wanted to do a project that would outlive my grad school experience. My MFA experience was so transformative to me—having that opportunity to immerse in all things writerly for multiple days at a time—I wanted to create that for other people. Those urges came together as this conference. Currently, Iota is partnering with Stonecoast MFA, and because of that we’re able to offer a full scholarship to one local, rural Maine writer. That’s also really important to me because I care very much about the community of writers where I live. I can’t offer the whole thing for free, but I have been able (with support) to maintain this one annual slot for someone who otherwise would never be able to afford it.
Who are your favorite writers of short form nonfiction?
Oh, this feels like such an impossible question! Can I hide under the furniture instead of answering this?
I read and edit for Brevity, and so I see many stellar examples of the form, but as soon as I start listing writers I feel like I can’t possibly list them all and I’m in danger of leaving out someone really important and amazing.
Can I list my influences instead? I’m going to list my influences instead, even though that’s also fraught because it changes by the hour. There are so many writers doing such amazing things that I feel like the works I’ve read show up in my brain as needed and push me this way or that, depending on what the moment calls for. But I’ll try!
Pat Conroy is on my mind today because he died last night [Friday, March 4, 2016]. He was not primarily a short form practitioner, but The Prince of Tides was one of the first books that reached out and shook me hard. I was a teenager when I read it, and I remember my mouth falling open in awe at his imagery and his capacity as a storyteller. Not very long ago, I read the memoir about all the fallout he experienced for writing about the people in his life, and I really needed to read that because that happens to all of us, but it had just started happening to me. I already miss knowing he’s in the world, and I’ll be grateful forever for that early influence. I know I am not alone in that sadness.
Pam Houston, with her collection of short stories, Cowboys are My Weakness was the first writer who made me understand that my voice could also be that honest and clear – it was like permission to be who I am on the page. Everything Mark Doty writes flattens me completely. Barbara Hurd (who mentored me as an MFA student)—her work is so brave and she finds meaning in every stone, every twig. Sven Birkerts’ The Other Walk is such a wonderful collection of little thought-nuggets. I love it so much. Dave Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is one I keep close for its twisting, self-doubting narrative style. And speaking of sentences, Bill Roorbach has crept up on me as an influence, for his sentences! I love his sentences, and he’s also really adept at being sly and funny while also being incredibly serious. Cheryl Strayed’s essays—oh, her essays! The Love of My Life is so wonderful and so hard. When I read that, I went back and read it a few more times, just trying to understand how it worked. I like to lift the hood and see the engine, see what makes a good piece go.
That’s such an incomplete, inadequate list of influences. Everything I read influences me. Not very long ago, I read Sarah Einstein’s award-winning memoir, Mot, and was so struck by her bared-open compassion for self and people around her. It’s still with me when I sit down to work. I just read William Bradley’s collection, Fractals, and the pieces are these delightful workhorses—playful and concrete. They’re so grounded. That will influence me. I have Patrick Madden’s book, Sublime Physick, sitting next to my bed, ready to read, and I see that the first essay is about spit! That will gross me out, but totally influence me. I haven’t even read it yet, and I’m thinking about that. Oh, and I also have Mary Karr’s book about memoir writing ready to read, and she is (of course) a major influence.
The question is too hard! (Dives under couch.)
You live what seems like a fairly natural lifestyle, gardening and enjoying nature. What are some of your favorite non-literary activities?
I live in one of the most beautiful places in the world. My family and I are very fortunate to live on the water and to have a nice piece of land. We love hiking and camping. My dad and I co-own a small sailboat, and even though I’m a very fair-weather sailor, I do love being on the water. We love to cook. I have kids, so we do a lot of whatever the kids are into, which means a lot of swim practice and Legos. We have dogs and find them endlessly entertaining. My wife and I also play a lot of music together, and we love to travel. We binge watch Netflix sometimes.
Do you have any advice for going through the process of publishing a first book?
Wouldn’t it be great if I did? (Thinks hard.) The book is so new that I feel like I’m still learning how to have a book out! My editor, Jessica Bell, made the process pretty painless, really. (For me. I can’t speak for her and how painless or painful I made it for her.) If pressed to offer advice, it would be this: keep the faith. Keep submitting. And trust your editor, when you find one.
That’s my advice about all publishing, actually: trust your editor. I’ve taken some very hard edits from people whose job it is to make the piece as good as it can be. I don’t always like it, but I try to get myself out of the way and let it happen. A good edit is like a ferocious massage: sometimes it hurts, but it’s good for you.
Some writers are very protective of their in-progress work and won’t talk about it with the public. Are you willing to share with us what your current project is?
I don’t mind at all! The two books I mentioned earlier are the current works-in-progress. Shift tells the story of my transition from being married to a man to being married to a woman. It all takes place in this very rural area and against the backdrop of Maine’s two referendums on same sex marriage. High drama! The other book doesn’t have a title yet, but it’s basically about my life with the PTSD that came as the result of a terrible car accident 19 years ago. It’s challenging to write for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the brain injury I suffered has wiped away all memories of what actually happened. But the research and explorations for the book have taken me to some fascinating places, including to the home of one of the volunteer firemen who extracted me from the car that night. Shift is a collection of essays. The other book is an even more fragmented narrative – it’s trying to mimic the effects of trauma. Plus, I don’t know any other way to write it.