Author Q&A: Justin Bigos

Justin Bigos is the author of a book of poems, Mad River (Gold Wake, 2017), as well as the chapbook Twenty Thousand Pigeons (iO, 2014). His writing has appeared in publications such as Ploughshares, New England Review, Indiana Review, The Seattle Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly, and The Best American Short Stories 2015. He coedits the literary journal Waxwing and lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Justin Bigos

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, or intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

I began writing poems and stories as an undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University. I was a history major and gender studies minor, but I had started reading writers like Sharon Olds, Nikki Giovanni, Charles Simic, and a bunch of stuff on the CMU Press roster like Cornelius Eady and Larry Levis, and I was curious to try it out. I switched my major once I was hooked. Jim Daniels was a very important teacher, who pushed me to write a lot and to begin sending out my work. I later attended the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and they beat me into shape. I love that program, and I’m amazed at how the faculty and my fellow students are not only writing some of the best stuff out there but continue to stay close as a very supportive community.

What can you tell us about your experiences as a creative writing professor at Northern Arizona University?

I am now in my fifth year of teaching creative writing at NAU. I mostly teach poetry—to undergrads and grad students—and one or two undergrad fiction workshops per year. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, and I love my students. I’m not just saying that to be rah-rah-rah. I know some writers consider themselves writers first, and the teaching is second. That’s cool, but for me teaching is fuel for my writing. I have the freedom at NAU to design all my classes, and so what I’m usually teaching is directly linked to my own reading and writing projects. So, my students are the people I get to talk to about issues I’m most interested in: lately, persona poetry, metafiction, ars poetica (an obsession), and other stuff. I teach four classes per semester, so I really don’t write when I teach—but all the accumulated energy gets let out over winter and summer breaks, when I write a ton. So: teaching poetry and fiction for me is the ideal job. I’m lucky.

In your interview with Best American Short Stories, you mentioned how, in “Fingerprints,” you “wanted the story to be about storytelling.” Have you always been interested in metafiction? If so, what about writing metafiction do you find most interesting or appealing?

I can’t remember. Probably not. I think it was Gilbert Sorrentino who first got me into metafiction. I love Sorrentino, even when he’s at his most prickly, like in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. But I think the story “The Moon in its Flight” was what I read first by him—and it’s still one of my favorite stories. In that story, the narrator will sometimes speak directly to the reader, but that’s of course not the only possible characteristic of metafiction. Like ars poetica, I think anything that signals an awareness of the writing as writing—even the most subtle nod or wink—can be considered “meta.” Of course, you could then argue any highly stylized prose could be metafiction. And then ask what stylized even means. And then go have a beer. I like the messiness and question of “metafiction” as a category, and I love playing with the idea in my own fiction.

In the same interview, you mention dropping out as a fiction student from the MFA program at Warren Wilson College, before eventually returning to complete the degree in poetry. Can you talk about the journey you undertook in finding yourself as a writer?

That’s a personal story in some ways, and so I won’t share that part. Just life stuff. I had to leave the program. In the couple years or so after I left, I found myself writing a lot more poetry than fiction, which is pretty much the reason I decided to go back in poetry. I think I also felt that studying poetry was more difficult and challenging—that I could learn a lot more about writing poetry or fiction from studying poetry. I still think that’s true, at least for me. My fiction comes from the study of poetry much more than my poems come from the study of fiction. I think.

Do you think there is a way to bridge these two genres of literature? Storytelling and poetry? Is it possible, do you think, to become a master of both forms?

I’m not sure if I think of it in terms of bridges. I think of them as different impulses. Or as different versions of some hidden thing. Lyric and narrative can obviously be found in a given story or poem. They are not ends of a continuum; they are different ways of breathing. The pressure is different. But it depends on the poem or story at hand, so I’m hesitant to make too many distinctions. I’m also not sure I believe in mastery of anything. Not to say I don’t think there are brilliant writers out there—but one of the reasons they’re brilliant, I’m guessing, is that they never stopped, never believed they had reached some consummate level like mastery. I mean, Don DeLillo is still writing. Toni Morrison is still writing. Ellen Bryant Voigt is still writing.

One thing I’ve come to realize about artists is that they typically don’t limit themselves to producing art in one medium in particular. Aside from writing, do you find yourself engaging with art in other ways? If so, what are they, and would you say they’ve helped propel your understanding of the art of writing, of creation?

Sad to say not much of anything. I write. I used to draw and sketch all the time, then began painting in high school. But I stopped for some reason. If I’m ever in an art store—which is almost never—I sometimes look at the sketch pads and think of buying one. But aside from my own art, I love film. I would love to make an amateur film or two, but I have no idea how to do something like that. Maybe that’s good. I think it would be like a super-pretentious Jarmusch and who wants to watch that (aside from me)?

What would you say is the most important element for crafting a line of poetry (or a sentence), or for discovering a new mode of creativity?

Wow, no idea. I’m not sure there’s one thing. I guess the line before it, the sentence before it? I love the chaining of language, the connective tissue of good writing. Like Carver said, one sentence after the other. That’s what writing is. Same with poetry: one line after the other.

One aspect of your writing that I find most inspiring is your ability to take bold risks. What advice might you give to aspiring writers/artists who wish to break the traditional mold of storytelling?

I appreciate the compliment, but I’m honestly not sure what you mean by traditional. I guess I think of metafiction, for example, as a traditional kind of writing at this point. Lots of Postmodern moves could of course be found in Modernism, and beforehand. I think we sometimes get bogged down in notions of “experimental” writing versus “traditional” writing. The “tradition” of the sonnet encompasses hundreds of years of experimentation—and that’s just sonnets in English. So I don’t mean to disrespect your question, but my honest answer is I think 99.9% of writing is traditional in that regard. The truly whackjob writers are rare, and a gift. But even they have their influences. In terms of advice to writers for breaking molds, I guess just read as much as you can read, and let your love of your favorite writers free you up to try it a different way. And always think about form—even you prose writers. A story has a form the same way a sonnet, pantoum, or lyric free verse poem has a form.

In terms of publication, is there something you look for in a literary magazine before submitting work to it? “Fingerprints” was published in McSweeney’s, but you’ve also had work published in Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, and The Gettysburg Review. Do you have a dream magazine in which you’d love to see your work represented?

I send to the journals I read, which are the ones I think are publishing really good writing. I don’t have a ton of time these days to do anything but teach, parent, edit, and watch a little football on Sundays, but there are a handful of journals I read and subscribe to. I just renewed my subscription to New England Review this morning. That’s a journal I love. It never lets me down. And that was my dream journal, since you asked. Then-poetry-editor C. Dale Young took two of my poems a few years ago, and that felt like some miracle. And McSweeney’s was surely a dream journal, too. I’m not sure if I have another. I try not to rank journals, think of them as “first-tier,” “second-tier,” and all that. It feels a bit poe-bizzy and snotty. I’m not out to help codify notions of prestige. One of my favorite journals is Forklift, Ohio, and I doubt they’d even want to be considered prestigious. But the journal kicks ass. Every issue.

Now that you’ve had a chapbook of poems published and a short story represented in Best American Short Stories, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

Gold Wake Press just published my first full-length book of poems, Mad River. That felt enormous to me, as I’m sure it does to every poet. The oldest poem in the book is nineteen years old, so in a way the book took me almost twenty years to write. I have not a single poem at this point to send to a journal. I feel like I have no hinge, no transition, between Mad River and the next book. I kind of like the clean break. So the next book might be more of a “project book,” rather than a slow accumulation over the years. I’m thinking of punching something out with a daily, deliberate schedule this summer. I have a few ideas, and for some reason they all revolve around centos and/or erasures. Maybe a new way to hear the voices in my head, and to add some more.

As for fiction, I’m pretty close to finishing my first collection of stories. I’ve got a few ideas for new stories, and I plan to write one or two over winter break. Most of the ideas are blatant retellings of other stories—literary homage—including Hawthorne’s “Wakefield,” Chekhov’s “Grief,” and Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Since so much of my writing is paying tribute to the writers I love, I figure why not just announce it upfront. Imagine if someone did that with one of your stories or poems. How wild would that be?

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