Joshua Cobb interviews Heidi Czerwiec about her latest collection of essays from Pleiades Press, Winner of the Robert C. Jones Prize, Fluid States.
Poet and essayist Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the recently-released lyric essay collection Fluid States, winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining. She teaches and writes in Minneapolis. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com
Joshua Cobb: The first section of Fluid States, titled “Decants” repeatedly uses perfume as a vehicle for storytelling. What inspired this?
Heidi Czerwiec: During a summer when my husband was working in Minneapolis as a law intern and our infant son and I stayed in North Dakota where I was teaching, I fell down the rabbit hole of perfume. I read perfume blogs and ordered samples and in the evenings after my son was in bed I sniffed two scents per night to fill my time. And perfumes themselves are such great stories – the stories of their composers, their histories, and even how they unfold from top to middle to base notes. As a writer, I liked the challenge of trying to write about the ephemerality of fragrance, and the haibun form seemed like a good pairing to embody this.
JC: In pieces like “Anatomy of Outrage” and “Consider the Lobster Mushroom” you talk about the impact that precision and form have on language. Did you struggle when trying to create a balance between writing that is factual and writing that is more poetic? Did you worry that by writing in a way that favors one genre more you’d lose the impact and precision you desired?
HC: I’ve never really had a problem combining nonfiction and poetry. I come to writing creative nonfiction prose from writing poetry, and those poems rarely relied on personal content. I tend to write poetry that’s heavily researched, using and citing nonfiction sources, on topics such as Fifties bondage pinup Bettie Page or monstrous births. And I’m always concerned with finding the right form for a piece, whether that’s in poetry or prose, and I think that form helps to inform how to read a piece, how its information is being structured, which frames the impact or precise effect I want. I do want to give readers more than just a pile of weird facts I’ve amassed, though, and that’s where the lyric language comes in, language that allows imagination and wordplay to transform the facts by adding meaning or metaphor. In fact, it’s the lyric mode that’s the constant, whether I’m working in poetry or prose – really, I’m deciding on whether to use lines or sentences as the primary delivery. For this book, it was prose. I liked how the short prose gives the researched facts some authority, but its brevity keeps it light, makes a reader more willing to give it a try because its apparent that there’s no great time commitment. This brevity and the velocity of prose sentences mean that a reader will be propelled through the more lyric language, where I make imaginative or lateral leaps, because they’re caught up in the momentum. But the lyric language can reveal deeper connections that the facts along might not, which is how in a piece like “Cuir,” I can talk about the twinned history of leather and perfume and take us from “cured” to “cuir” to “queer.” Sometimes the most precise language contains its own fluidity.
JC: The content of Fluid States is a blend of essays, poetry, and nonfiction. Were you afraid this mixture might make some readers feel isolated or turned off to the collection?
HC: Really, you can only write what you write – I mean, you want to invite the reader along, but I’m not sure it helps to try and write for what you’re guessing readers want. Plus, shorter prose collections don’t have an enormous readership, which frees me up to write whatever I want.
It’s funny – I think of the pieces that comprise Fluid States as, like you say, all a blend of these things, but not a mixture – like, I don’t think the book contains poems and essays and nonfiction. I consider it to be a lyric essay collection, with all the pieces existing in that fluid, hybrid continuum between genres (prose versus poetry) and modes (lyric/narrative/instructive). Some may lean a little more into the lyric language, like the “Decants” section, while some are more narrative or informative. But I don’t have much interest in trying to pin them down more than that.
I actually thought the format of the pieces was fairly consistent – even the longer works are comprised of shorter pieces strung together. I was more worried about the book having too wide a range of topics – perfume and fracking in western North Dakota and canning tomatoes –hence the collection’s title as an attempt to yoke them.
JC: Are there any specific pieces in the collection that you struggled to write more than others? If so, why do you think that specific piece was challenging to write? How rewarding did it feel to finally nail it and get it written?
HC: Emotionally, “Anatomy of an Outrage” was the hardest to write, because anytime I worked on it, I would start having panic attacks again, even though by the time I worked on it seriously, I was living in another city. About a month after the initial incident, where I mistook a badly-planned and unmarked ROTC exercise for an active shooter situation and called 911, which led to me being the target of online gun, paramilitary, and right-wing groups, I wrote down as much about the experience – the details and my reactions – as I could, and copied all the hatemail to a file. But I couldn’t write the essay for more than six months after that. Once I did write the final essay, it all went pretty quickly. I think the reward was being able to make something artful and meaningful out of that shitty experience.
“Bear” was the first creative nonfiction piece I ever started, though it was one of the last I finished. I showed an early version of it to Nicole Walker, a friend from grad school who had also gone from poetry to nonfiction prose. I asked her if it was worth pursuing, and she was very kind and gave me a lot of feedback, but I didn’t feel like I knew enough about writing nonfiction at that point to revise it. Part of the difficulty was learning how to write it, especially getting the narrative pacing right, and part of it was trying to portray my ex- fairly without making myself out to be the good guy. When it was finally published, a few people who know him told me I got it right, which was gratifying.
JC: Who are some of your favorite authors? Did their style or work specifically inspire Fluid States in any way? Are there any pieces in the collection where this influence is evident?
HC: Lucie Brock-Broido is a well I go back to for language over and over. Eula Biss and Brenda Miller and Maggie Nelson all work in short prose with close attention to form, and I think that’s evident in my work at large. Nicole Walker and Lee Ann Roripaugh are two friends who move between poetry and nonfiction and made that path seem possible to me – I think Nicole’s influence shows up when I use humor or lateral wordplay, and I got the idea for using the haibun form for my “Decants” from Lee’s Dandarians. And I aspire to the conceptual hybridity of Sun Yung Shin’s Unbearable Splendor and how it uses language to create or tease out linkages between and within complex systems like adoption and identity and borders.
Joshua Cobb currently attends the University of Central Missouri. He is pursuing his BS in Crisis and Disaster Management with an emphasis in Environmental Hazards and minoring in Creative Writing. In his free time, Josh likes to both listen to music and play the electric bass.