An Interview with Author Thomas Heise

Christopher J. Johnson of the Collected Works Bookstore staff interviews Thomas Heise, author of the recent MOTH; or how i came to be with you again.  Heise is a poet and teacher who spends his time between Montreal and New York City.  He is an Associate Professor of English at McGill University.

CJJ:  The structure of your book is very unconventional. There are uniformly no paragraph breaks in your book from chapter to chapter. The sensation I receive from it is similar to viewing uncut blocks of sculpting stone, but rather than bare stone the sides have been painted on. On what level does this aesthetic play into Moth and its story?

TH:  The book is all form, but that is not to say there isn’t a “story.” I think of story as the sensation or the affect created in the reader by form. Feelings of breathlessness, exhilaration, disorientation, wonder – that is Moth’s story. For me, the closest analogy for Moth isn’t sculpture, but film, because of its built-in sense of movement through time – sliding into the past, propelling into the future – but also movement in time, the time of reading, that duration for the sedentary traveler for whom there is no break, no place to pause as the theater of the mind moves.

CJJ:  Your book has a rolodex of authors and artists from the more well known like Goya and Turner to the less known and obscure like Khlebnikov and Lili Brik. Is this a little bit of Thomas Heise’s passion slipping into the metaphors or is it uniquely the unnamed narrator’s preoccupations?

TH:  The distinction between the narrator as a character and the narrator as the author is blurry. The opening of the book, as well as a few other encounters, suggests that the difference might be minimal. I take to heart Rimbaud’s rabbit-hole of an insight, “Je est un autre,” or “I am an other.” So the short answer is yes.   

CJJ:  Your book presents a number of places, for instance, a café that are destroyed in some way or in a state of disrepair. Is this a response, say, to the eerie and personless worlds of the popular imagination found in books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? I read in your book a sort of post-rapture tranquility, is that simply my own doing or is it an intended thing?

TH:  Ruins fascinate me. Decaying factories, abandoned houses, industrial lots that are turning back into fields: these are places where we can see time, where time becomes visible through the erosion of the material world. When we enter such spaces, we come “after” but we can see “before” because it leaves a trace in the dust, the crumbling walls, the shoes scattered on the floor, the drawers filled with papers. Such places are haunted with memory, but they also are evidence that we ourselves have survived.

CJJ:  The title of your book, MOTH; or how i came to be with you again, refers to what? I guess I’m asking if there is a light somewhere in the “you” of the title that the rest of the book is drawn to?

TH:  Among other things, Moth itself is short for “mother” and it contains the letters of my name, “Thom.” I like this interplay, which the book also plays with in scenes of pregnancy and writing.  The narrator, at one point, imagines his mother pregnant with him and then re-imagines the same scene as his mother pregnant with the need to write as the seed of an idea begins to gestate. That seed of an idea is the writer giving birth to him- or herself.  I suppose the “you” in the subtitle is anyone and anything for which we are always in pursuit, for which we desire, but which we can never light upon for long without risking the extinction of desire.

CJJ:  When you are writing a poem or a book how do you keep track of your ideas? Do you keep notes in a notebook or put them down as suddenly as they come onto napkins and credit card receipts or, perhaps, type them into your phone? Is your process nothing like this at all at all?

TH:  I keep a notebook. I write by hand and I write by computer. I do so to capture image so I won’t lose them. But whatever I imagined I would say about them invariably changes when I finally sit down to draft.

CJJ:  Lastly, a standard; if you had only two books, but you could carry them easily in your coat sleeves and so have them with you always, what would those two books be?

TH: An impossible question, ha! But let’s go with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood.

Moth; Or How I Came to Be with You Again Cover Image
ISBN: 9781936747573
Availability: Temporarily Unavailable with our Distributor (Disregard for Forrest Fenn books - always in stock)
Published: Sarabande Books - July 2nd, 2013

Moth; or how I came to be with you again Cover Image
ISBN: 9781936747566
Availability: Available Now
Published: Sarabande Books - June 13th, 2013

Thomas Heise and the Haunted Box.


Thomas Heise is what scholars call “a writer’s writer”. He is the author of two books, a collection of poetry entitled Horror Vacui (2006) and the recent MOTH; or how i came to be with you again. MOTH is a startlingly experimental novel of run-on sentences and no paragraph breaks whatsoever. It is dense as a brick and binding as the bricklayer’s cement.

What is the plot of MOTH? Memory, childhood, consciousness itself. The paragraphless text is kin to the denseness of our very own thoughts, an unending shower of retrospection through words, a ceaseless question about our most uncertain certainty: the past, memory.

The book is accentuated with scholarly references: Mayakovsky, Goya, Turner, and Khlebnikov pepper the text with a metaphoric depth intended for the initiated, the literati level reader. The devotee of art, especially slightly out of date and fashion art, will delight over this book and find it, perhaps, suited to the interior of their own internal dialogues.

Heise’s style is reminiscent of so much that one can only surmise that it is unique. Readers of John Hawkes’ New Directions years or the early works in English of Vladimir Nabokov will find this book irresistible. It is a book without linear structure. A book that attempts, like memory, to defy time itself by parceling moments into fragments and viewing them through a kaleidoscope. Time, memory, and the narrator are MOTH’s central figures. Other reoccurring characters are few and far between: the narrator’s mother and father are ghostly and mostly guessed at apparitions; a love interest or two is denoted simply with S., M., and other assorted initials.

MOTH is a dream that suffers from the clarity and haze of dreams. It sticks in one’s mind like the brief moments of a pre-impact car crash. Time slides, the surroundings spin, and there is something strangely, unearthly slow in the space between recognition and outcome. The narrator may have nowhere to go, but where he is going is so vastly interesting, he wonders in his thoughts throughout a Europe of his past as one might imagine an explorer wondering into the dense and uncharted Brazilian rainforest Heise’s jungle, however, has for its flora and fauna pipes, zoos, dilapidated buildings, ghostly women, cafes and antique furniture. It reminds one of the bizarre urban environments of French Symbolist poets like Baudelaire and LaForgue and, later on, a young T.S. Eliot.

Heise is a talent to watch. It will be interesting to see what he, as a writer, grows into throughout the years. MOTH is a huge change from the earlier collection of poetry. Like John Hawkes of William Faulkner, Heise is making a major transition as an author between mediums, but still under full influence of earlier, highly poetic roots. Heise will be known, but it is a little early to tell exactly in what ilk. Be assured it’ll be haunting and glorious.


Christopher J. Johnson

Moth; Or How I Came to Be with You Again Cover Image
ISBN: 9781936747573
Availability: Temporarily Unavailable with our Distributor (Disregard for Forrest Fenn books - always in stock)
Published: Sarabande Books - July 2nd, 2013

Moth; or how I came to be with you again Cover Image
ISBN: 9781936747566
Availability: Available Now
Published: Sarabande Books - June 13th, 2013

An Interview with Poet Sophie Cabot Black

All questions asked by Christopher J. Johnson and answered by Sophie Cabot Black

CJJ: Did you always have an affinity for poetry; I mean, did you always want to be a poet?

SCB: I am tempted to say that that an affinity for poetry first began in utero-- the heartbeat of my mother and my own as they intermingled-- I know it sounds rather esoteric and even far-fetched, but some germ began there. Childhood landscape is where I return, often, to begin entering a poem (the idea comes first, then the entering) and also, where I think much of my own longing and sense of disquiet stemmed from.

Also I believe music, rhyme and being read to kept me in a kingdom of sound: Mother Goose, Robert Louis Stevenson, Edward Lear.

But the one moment I came to realize the power of getting down my own line  of poetry was at school when I was 11, and a teacher had put on the board a selection of photographs pulled from LIFE magazine-- she asked us to pick one image and write to it, and either she, or myself, gave the extra task of writing only in one line. I so loved this-- the distillation and the pressure, something to be puzzled out.

CJJ:  Is being a poet a job?  Is it sustainable in the sense of work?

SCB: This is a hard one. I think if you are a poet, there is nothing else you can do as well. To be a good poet, you cannot veer away from the path of poetry. It is not something to dabble in. But as far as making a living at it: there are a precious few who really can. Most of us supplement by teaching.  But sustainability-wise, if you must write poems in order to live, then that already is part of the equation of your own preservation.

CJJ: What are your influences in literature?  Strictly poets?  Any novelists or dramatists and so on?

SCB: In poetry, I tend to go back to the dead greats: Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, the Metaphysicals. There are a few (live) poets whose work I follow and always go to when there is a new book from them: Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, C.D. Wright. Also W.S. Merwin, Mark Strand, Anne Carson. But I think much influences us in the world by surprise, and so all forms of literature and wordsmithing I look forward to.

CJJ: Desert island books?  Do you have any?  Do you think it’d be possible to choose, say five or so?

SCB: Today’s desert island books (this changes all the time): Cormac Mccarthy’s THE ROAD, Italo Calvino’s ITALIAN FAIRY TALES, a complete Shakespeare, the Collected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, and a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus.

CJJ: What habits are crucial to building a poetic craft?  For instance, do you keep a notebook of any kind?  Do you have a drafting process?

SBC: I think it complicated to analyze or even speak of one’s own process, but I do use both computer and notebook. Most of the time, in the current phase of my life (mother, domestic engineer, etc.), I cannot get to the desk to write for many many days. Sometimes the whole summer is gone, as I am also summer camp. So I take notes all the time, and however I can. But I also believe in reading out loud the many drafts-- but now it is only to myself, as those whom I did this with in the past have died or disappeared.

CJJ: What is your favorite time period in literature?  Is it our own?  The Italian Renaissance?  Augustan Roman Period?  Russian Futurists?  What voice in time do you feel the strongest gravitational pull towards?


SBC: I don’t think I have read enough from any one period to land in any one place. I have loved many books, and our current time is fairly burgeoning with them. In fact, I feel I need a curator to get me to the right ones, given how many are being published.

CJJ: Lastly, what is your favorite moment as poet?  An award, for instance, or inauguration or particular publication?  Maybe it was something in your inner world instead, a realization or feeling of successful growth...


SBC: My favorite moment as a poet? The one right after I have looked up from the page, convinced the poem is done. But this is also the same moment just  before I re-read the poem to realize it is still undone! That is a wonderful in between world to live in-- albeit for just a little while-- with the in-door behind you and the out-door not yet apparent.



The Exchange Cover Image
ISBN: 9781555976415
Availability: Temporarily Unavailable with our Distributor (Disregard for Forrest Fenn books - always in stock)
Published: Graywolf Press - May 7th, 2013

Richard Matheson

Richard Matheson.

Writer Richard Matheson passed away at the age of 87. His might not be a household name, but his stories are widely known and often satirized. He is the author of Nightmare at 10,00 Feet upon which the famous episode of the Twilight Zone is based wherein a hysterical William Shatner watches a Gremlin no one else can ever quite glimpse tear apart the plane piece by piece. Matheson wrote many Twilight Zone episodes. He also wrote the iconic story and sci-fi classic The Incredible Shrinking Man. He wrote Stir of Echoes, What Dreams May Come and, The Duel which were all turned into well known movies.

But his most cult and most crowning achievement is as the author of I Am Legend. I Am Legend follows the trials and tribulations (and scientific curiosities) of the last man on earth in a world overrun by ghoulish vampires. Matheson evokes a scene we have all become familiar with as the survivor ekes out a living among the daylight ruins of his former town and the quiet nighttime desolation of his fortified home. Matheson brought the concept of the vampire into a broader sense. No longer was the vampire a loner, hiding in the crypt with a “bride” or two, rather he shows himself to be a social creature who, like all creatures, must face the inevitability of population demands: feast or perish. Previous to Matheson’s book there were few examples of this concept and certainly none as captivating as his.

I Am Legend and Nightmare at 20.000 Feet share one feature that may be hard to miss.  Not because it I expressed subtly, but because it is expressed in opposites.  In Nightmare we have a man who  alone witnesses something; alone he sees the gremlin outside the plane window, no one else views this with him, no on else is aware.  In I Am Legend the lone survivor must experiences everything alone though he fruitlessly searches for others to partake in his survival, which is the survival of humankind itself.  Similar themes can be found in nearly all of his work both for page and screen.  Time and again Matheson gives us consciousness without validation.  This has become an underlying current in films and novels.  The mind alone.  The mind, if you will, in apocalypse. 

Over the span of his career, Matheson wrote about 20 novels, half a dozen short story collections and about 100 television scripts. His mark is broad and will last for many generations to come.  Many of his achievements have sunken into the popular mind and will be told and retold again for generations to come.


-Christopher J. Johnson

Nightmare At 20,000 Feet Cover Image
ISBN: 9781429913683
Availability: Available Now
Published: Tor Books - March 31st, 2007

On Drafting

On Drafting

In my several experiences working with high school teens in creative writing one idea that reoccurs is, drafts? I don’t do drafts. My poems/stories express how I felt while I wrote them. If I change them now the feeling will be destroyed. It is a pretty idea, but it contains a tragic flaw. If the feeling is so fragile and so one-off how shall anyone else recognize it? The idea simply denies the role of readership.

The reality is that drafting a literary work clarifies it. No author is devoid of this need in their original drafts; some comment somewhere says of Nabakov’s manuscript for The Real Life of Sebastian Knight that the editor was surprised to find hardly even a spelling error (the hardly here is very important). What I mean to say is, nobody’s perfect.

In writing something one anticipates a readership even if that reader is only ourselves. Nobody looks at a cup, functional or not, without seeing in it the idea of drinking something or containing; the same concept goes for how nobody actively writes a word without the idea of its being read. So, drafting a work lets one be read well. It is an opportunity to make sure that what has been written is understood just as the author wanted it to be understood.

We’d certainly be at odds if we set out to find a work of literature that hasn’t seen at least a draft or two. If we consider Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey, for instance, we discover that these epic poems were composed approximately 400 years before the written word; there is a long and famous passage in the Iliad that lists all the Greek ships that set sail for Troy, among these ships is an Athenian ship (and a few others) which is surprising as Athens wasn’t a city state in Homer’s lifetime. The fact is is that Homer’s famous epics existed in oral tradition and were passed by word of mouth and in such a way were they refined by a long oral tradition. In fact, when we consider the works of the Greeks it is important to note that many surviving Ancient Greek texts were preserved solely in Arabic in Arabian libraries after the Great Fire of the Alexandrian Library wherein many original texts in their original language were lost to us forever. Only in the Renaissance were these many missing texts rediscovered and retranslated into Greek from Arabic.

What am I getting at? I am suggesting that essence is the lion’s share of a literary work. The order of words in a piece of prose or poetry might be moving and very well put, but the aftermath of a book is its essence. Very few of us in our modern era remember the exact words as they fell out in a paragraph, poem, or block of text; what we are more apt to remember is the moral, feeling or information in a text.

Thus, an author is at odds to make that moral, feeling or bit of information memorable and palpable. This view is in direct opposition to that old high school feeling of, drafts? I don’t do drafts. My poems/stories express how I felt while I wrote them. If I change them now the feeling will be destroyed. Drafts allow that feeling to move from a personal and potentially closed experience to a universal and transmutable experience. After all, to deny a readership is to deny the meaning of the written word.

-Christopher J. Johnson




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