Interview with Boston Literary Magazine
with Robin Stratton
(Interview provided courtesy of Boston Literary Magazine, reprinted by permission.)
Measuring the Distance
Blue Light Press
Robert, welcome! It’s always a blast to hang out with you!
Hi, Robin. Great to be with you. It’s always a pleasure.
I want to start by saying that of all the poets published by Big Table, you hold the distinction of being the only one we’ve ever pulled on our boots and gone after. We were such fans of the pieces you’ve had published here at Boston Literary. Was I ever glad you said Yes, and the result was The Night Sings A Cappella (2011).
Those are the kinds of singular distinctions a writer can never get enough of. I was familiar with Big Table Publications, and admired what you were doing with the press. Had seen several Big Table chapbooks to that point, and was taken with them. When you asked me to send a book proposal for consideration, I was thrilled and immensely grateful. It’s rare when the scenario plays out like that. The Night Sings A Capella was the happy result.
I have so many things I want to say about Measuring the Distance, Robert… I should start by saying that I’m just in awe of your writing. As I flip through the book again, I keep feeling amazed at the way you capture so many moods here, you are just a master at setting a stage swiftly… I think that takes more skill than people realize.
Thank you so much for that. I’m very comfortable working in small spaces. It really helps. I enjoy the immediacy of flash fiction and the implications—the tacit allusions that are built into it. It allows the reader a bit of partnering, in terms of nuance and fillers. There’s no room for verbal flab and hefty exposition. Flash pieces are usually very fit. A lot like poetry in that regard. I think all my years of writing short poems prepared me for very short fiction. The challenge is not just what to put into a piece, but what to keep out. It’s a genre that suits me.
Plus I just heard that the book was a Finalist for The da Vinci Eye Award (for excellence in book design) and received Honorable Mention for The Eric Hoffer Book Award (for excellence in fiction). What a thrill!
Yes, I was very pleased with both!
Any projects on the horizon, a novel, maybe?
Not a novel. I’d love to join your esteemed ranks but, as it regards literature, I’m a sprinter. I’m currently putting together a group of very short (micro/prose poem pieces), I feel work well together. I’m in the process of writing more and currently marketing to magazines.
I don’t want to sound like I’m nagging (would I love a novel by you!) but long fiction is like that too, ya know… ! Remember that old joke, How do you carve an elephant out of cheese? Take away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant? Come on, might you change your mind and do a novel some day?
I’ve never heard that joke. It’s an apt one. Certainly not a traditional novel. I could envision a group of interlocking short pieces that build momentum and continuity as a whole. The way Sandra Cisneros did with The House on Mango Street or Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas. That, I feel, might be doable and would more than likely be autobiographical. About growing up in my East Harlem neighborhood.
Keep us posted if you decide to do it! So what’s the submission process like for you? Do you have some favorites, or do you try to hit as many as you can?
I find Duotrope an invaluable search resource, and use it regularly to research markets. I try my best to read what various journals are publishing and carefully go over the guidelines and their mission statement. There are also many magazines I’ve been published in, that I go back to. I believe in a considered, targeted approach.
I have to ask the usual question – how old were you when you started writing?
I was a young teenager, and wrote songs, then epic poems, and eventually free verse and short stories. Emily Dickenson was an early discovery, and I was amazed at what power she created in terms of mood and emotion, so succinctly, and with such fresh, stunningly crisp language. It was an eye-opener. I published my first poem in a high school yearbook. It’s buried somewhere, and I don’t dare unearth it.
Nothing is more embarrassing than the stuff we wrote as kids! Even stuff I wrote as an adult… I was one of those writers who knew something about the book wasn’t right, but assumed the editor at the big publishing house would “fix” it for me. What was the poem about?
A camel, rhubarb, and a can of red paint. Only kidding. I don’t really recall, but it was probably something equally profound.
You won Zone 3’s Rainmaker Award in poetry. Tell us a little bit about that.
Zone 3 is a wonderful university quarterly out of Tennessee. Some of my poems were accepted, and automatically entered into the competition for the Rainmaker Award (2003). It came with a $500 cash prize. That was quite a bit of money for me at the time. I was honored to receive that award.
What was the poetry about?
It was autobiographical—about my old Italian, East Harlem neighborhood. About living in a tenement built for turn-of-the-century immigrants. About family and what it was like coexisting in that world. The judge that year was the poet, essay writer, and memoirist, Patricia Hampl.
How different is the poetry writing process for you from the short story writing process?
With poetry, I find myself (for whatever reason) leaning toward personal history. But with fiction, it flips somewhat the other way. There are at times, fragments, or even critical elements that are lifted from what I’ve seen or lived. But mostly it’s fiction. I start a new piece, pushing off of a line or title from one of my notebooks—a scrap of an idea, or detail, and let the story develop as I go. It’s exciting to me to see the essence of a story reveal itself. When I started writing fiction, I felt a need to work out many of the details in advance. Now I find, the less I know, the more there is to discover. And I like that.
Also, poetry differs (for me) in language and cadence. Poetry, it seems, is more elegantly language-based, more metaphorical—philosophical. Prose poems, of course, are a wonderful blending of the two. Another genre I’m very drawn to. Flutter Press published a chapbook of my prose poems in 2010.
Do you teach writing?
I don’t. But feel I am still a student every time I sit before a blank page, and with new stories I read by writers I admire.
Okay, now the book. Tell us about this wonderful cover! This is one of the best looking covers I have ever seen in my life!
Many images were considered. Diane Frank, the editor of Blue Light Press, was kind enough to allow my input. I’d been looking online for images, and saw the one currently selected. It took a great deal of detection to find out who owned the rights. We finally did. The artist, Achille Beltrame, was one of Italy’s most famous illustrators. It’s an eye-grabber and seems to fit the title well. Blue Light’s book designer put it all together beautifully. I’m very happy with how it’s turned out.
Are there any very short fiction authors that you admire?
Yes. Dozens and dozens. Some favorite authors that have print collections are: Linh Dinh, Stefanie Freele, John Jodzio, Darlin’ Neal, Matt Bell, Kim Chinquee, Claudia Smith, Etgar Keret, Randall Brown, Pedro Ponce, Ethel Rohan, and Meg Pokrass. There are many, many more. And, there is a plethora of very fine writers working with very short fiction forms, I see featured in literary journals regularly. Writers, I admire, who do not yet have their own published collections. I’m hoping that will change.
Yes, I see a lot of exceptional writing, not just at Boston Literary (although we do get the crème de la crème here) that I find myself hoping will come out with a collection at some point. Hey, so, Robert, thanks so much for stopping by! Is there a way for readers to contact you?
Yes, I’d love to have people visit me at www.RobertScotellaro.com.
And here’s the link where people can buy your latest: Amazon
Thank you, Robin, for inviting me here to discuss my work. You’ve made it a pleasure to do so.
Keep in touch, Robert!