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Literary Prestidigitations on Display

15 Questions: An interview with Travis Cebula


Here is the second 15 Questions interview in our new series at BlazeVOX. In fifteen questions we hope to introduce you to our authors and poets. Each writer has a story that brought him or her to write a book. Through in-depth interviews with detailed questions and searching topics being covered as writers from all walks of life talk about the highs and lows in their writing. It is my pleasure to bring you an interview with a wonderful poet, Travis Cebula. His two books with BlazeVOX , Ithaca: A Life In Four Fragments and Under the Sky They Lit Cities.



Author:  Travis Cebula 

BlazeVOX Books: 

Ithaca: A Life In Four Fragments

Under the Sky They Lit Cities


Bio:  Travis Cebula writes, edits, and teaches creative writing in Maryland. He graduated from the MFA program at Naropa University in 2009—the same year he founded Shadow Mountain Press. His poetry, stories, essays, reviews, and photography have appeared internationally in various print and online journals. He is the author of five chapbooks and two full-length collections of poetry. In 2011, Western Michigan University awarded him the Pavel Srut Fellowship.

Ithaca: A Life In Four Fragments 

Book Preview here


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Kindle Edition available at the Amazon Kindle Store


15 Questions:


Tell me about your book.


Ithaca is my second book of poetry with BlazeVOX, and I’d say it’s quite different from the first. It tracks the course of a lifespan, the cycle of a life, of either a daughter, a religion, or a country, depending on how one reads the book. A lot of the book depends on perspective, probably even more than everyday experience does. The various ambiguities are intentional, and are meant to manifest as parallels between these potential entities: Ithaca (person), Ithaca (city state), and Ithacism, I suppose? I’m trying to get at what the similarities are between countries, religions, and people—how they develop, how they flourish, how they pass away eventually.


That describes the narrative structure of the book; it’s a biography of sorts. On another level, a linguistic and meta-literary level, it’s a response to James Joyce’s UlyssesIthaca addresses that language, taking the ordinary-day-stretched-into-a-book and breathing some of that language back into a longer history.


What influenced this book?


The two most obvious influences on the book are Ulysses and Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, The Circular Ruins. Most people know at least a bit about Ulysses (it’s near-legendary inaccessibility in the public sphere, at least), but I think that the Borges story might be a little more obscure. In short, it tells of a magician in a jungle who goes to sleep every night and tries to dream a son into existence, detail by detail.


I think this is an extremely powerful metaphor for the writing process in general, but in this case I tried to take the analogy a little more literally, creating a multi-faceted entity and following them through a life.


One way I describe how the two intersect in Ithaca is this:  imagine dreaming a book into existence, a daughter, and bits of found language from Ulysses form her spine.


I tried not to make a book that relied completely on these influences to be effective, but if someone is familiar with Joyce, and looking for it, some references are embedded throughout the book.


Where does this book fit into your career as a writer?


One of the reasons this book is so exciting to me is that it is the last manuscript that I started during graduate school, and it represents my direct attempt at addressing the mass of pre-existing literature that all contemporary writers are, in one way or another, indebted to. Ithaca is a conscious attempt to overcome the fear of influence that seems to plague so many young and emerging writers. I suffered heavily from these sorts of irrational concerns for years, obsessing over a need to write something “original” at all costs. Ithaca represents the arrival of a little wisdom and liberation in my journey as a writer.


Of course language will have been used before. Of course parts of what I write will refer to other pieces of literature, whether I want them to or not. I’ve started to get over it—and perhaps even to embrace it.


If you had to convince a friend or colleague to read this book, what might you tell them?


Taking into account that I think the vast majority of the poetry written in this country is read almost exclusively by friends and colleagues of the poet, I’d have to say the most likely thing I’d say to convince those people in my life to read the book would be, “Please?”


Tell me about the last literary reading you attended.


The last reading I attended was a book release celebration for Ithaca at Unnameable Books in Brooklyn. I had the privilege of reading with dear friends, Sara Nolan, Sarah Suzor, and Daniel Dissinger, who put on the best show of poetry and performance I’ve ever seen. I was in awe.


Before that was a holiday book fair and reading at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where I teach poetry workshops. The Writer’s Center took a Saturday to feature its instructors and offer them an opportunity to share their own work with participants (as well as sell some books). Each instructor had a few minutes to read… It was a very eclectic, but also very enjoyable event.


Prior to that I attended a few readings in the Philadelphia area, which has an almost surreally vibrant reading and experimental poetry scene right now.


When did you realize you were a writer?


The really honest but a bit cliché answer is this:  I’m still becoming a writer, and every day I work a little closer to the goal.


But that implies that being a writer might have an end, rather than being a journey. From the perspective of a journey, becoming a writer relates more to making a commitment…


For me, I think the moment I became a writer was probably when I made the decision to stop being a chef and go back to school to focus on all my creative energy on poetry. If that wasn’t the moment, then it was probably halfway through my thesis semester when I decided that some of the editorial suggestions I received didn’t necessarily fit with my vision for my thesis manuscript. So I drew a line for myself, for the book, and didn’t cross it—without being combative, either—I feel like the fact that this rebellion of sorts didn’t scare the bejeezus out of me probably meant I had matured a bit as a writer. I was ready to move out into the world with the training wheels removed.


Tell us about your process: Pen and Paper, computer, notebooks ... how do you write?


The process varies day to day, depending on the circumstances I find myself in and the resources I have available. I do a lot of my writing when I’m traveling or on a walk. By and large my poems get written mentally—a composition based on the reader/writer/duende/martian/muse/voice in my head.


In those cases I tend to compose at least a few fragments of a poem in my head, then write very rough drafts down in notebooks (always with a pen, I hate pencils). These drafts are then edited at least once on the spot, with many scribbles, arrows, and marginalia being added. When I transcribe the poems into my computer later on I edit them again. Sometimes it takes over a year to get to this stage, partly out of procrastination and partly out of a desire to establish aesthetic distance for better editing.


If and when the poems become a manuscript I edit them individually one more time, sequence them, and refine the titles. Then it’s time for more edits on the computer, this time from the perspective of making the book work as a whole, until it all feels like it’s able to live and exist on its own without my help. Then I leave it alone.


How do you handle a bad review of your work?


Honestly, if anyone engages with my work enough to dedicate energy to writing a review, either good or bad, I consider that a success on one level or another. If the work was genuinely that bad, a reviewer would likely just dismiss it into a circular file somewhere rather than taking the time to write a review. So, there’re usually some positive nuggets that can be taken away from any review.


But I should also say that I haven’t received that many reviews of any sort, so my opinion on this question may change drastically if and when negative reviews start to pile up. 


Which writer would you most like to have a drink with, and why?


Right now? Probably Elizabeth Robinson, my mentor and a great friend. I haven’t seen her in several months, and she’s always good for a great conversation about the world, literary and otherwise.


If not Elizabeth, then Sarah Suzor. Sarah and I are frequent collaborators, and have a book coming out together in 2014. Some of our best riffing has come when we’ve shared a glass of wine together.


If the question is of a more historical nature, I’d have to say, “pretty much any writer who was in Paris in 1926 or so.” It would be noteworthy to see a truly gifted drinker at work. 


What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?


I submitted some work to Poetry Magazine without reading an issue first. It turns out that was not a good fit.


What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?


I think any attempt to discourage an inexperienced writer is misplaced. I’ve seen a fair amount of what I would consider hazing in workshops. I agree that there is plenty of writing in the world that probably isn’t good enough to be published, but publishing isn’t the same as writing.


I think that everyone can get something out of the act of writing, some benefit to their life, and should be encouraged to do so at every available turn, regardless of whether or not the current objective standard says the results are “good” or not. The world as a whole would be a better place of everyone took some time to write, and put some attention to it.


What scares you the most?


Black widow spiders?


The idea that I might pour my life’s creative energy into an endeavor that I consider to be essentially social in nature, and that the result may never be read… that the social aspect of the labor will go unfulfilled.


Where do you buy your books?


It really depends on the book I’m looking for. Wherever I find the book I want? I buy direct from the publisher when I can (poetry and experimental literature), but also from independent book stores (poetry and popular books), Small Press Distribution (poetry and experimental literature), used book stores (whatever I can find), Abe Books (first editions and hard to find or out of print books), chain stores (mainstream novels), and Amazon (pop fiction and cookbooks) from time to time.


Who are you reading now?


As far as poetry goes, I’ve got Stacy Szymaszek, CA Conrad, Frank Sherlock, Elizabeth Robinson, Paul Hoover, Joshua Marie Wilkinson, James Belflower, Joe Hall, and Bin Ramke on my desk at the moment. I’m also reading Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery for my novel fix.


Bonus Round:


When I was growing up my parents ran the family business out of the basement of our house. This business, which was started by my maternal grandparents shortly after World War II, was making eyes for taxidermists. For a few decades they had an exclusive (but I think everyone would agree on specialized) market in North America. On my way to and from school every day I passed through our basement on my into or out or the house with my bicycle. One result of this was that our basement, always filled with thousands of glass eyes—lions, bears, wildebeest, deer, elk, alligators, fish—stared at me as I went. I’ve been focused on the mystical, physical, and political powers of eyes ever since.