Five Questions with Rivka Galchen by Washington Square

Image credit Sandy Tait

Image credit Sandy Tait

Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances, the short story collection American Innovations and the non-fiction book on motherhood, Little Labors. She regularly contributes fiction and essays to The New Yorker, Harper's and The London Review of Books. This semester, she's teaching a graduate fiction workshop at NYU.

We caught up with Rivka via email to ask her a few questions about her medical background, children's lit and the best things about growing up in the Midwest.  

1. You are a licensed psychiatrist! (I just found this out from classmates). What is the most surprising similarity you've found between medicine and writing?

I'm not, really! I do have an MD. But I never 'practiced' medicine. I did, however, like the hospital at night, when everyone, the patients and the staff both, are basically in pyjamas. That intimacy reminds me of writing. 

 2. If you had to live in a children’s book which one would you pick?

Aye-yie. The kids are almost always orphaned. There are tesseracts. Other than Harold's Purple Crayon, I think they're mostly too scary. And even with Harold, I don't think I would maintain that beatific bemusement in his position, he nearly drowns.

3. Best advice your mother ever gave you?

Wear your hair like Joe in The Facts of Life.

4. We heard you had an undergrad creative writing class with Jonathan Safer Foer; is this true? Do you remember anything specific about that class or about him? Did anything magical happen that lead you both to have successful careers in writing?

And Joyce Carol Oates was the professor! I still remember that one of Jonathan's stories, about a lip transplant, was titled "Beautiful Lips," which left Joyce having to say, "Now we'll workshop Jonathan's 'Beautiful Lips.'" That's my main memory of the semester.

5. Our workshop has quite a lot of Midwesterners in it; what was growing up in Oklahoma like? Do you feel like the Midwest informs your writing at all?

I'm still trying to recover from my happy childhood. Going to the drive-through of the bank was so exciting, the tension of wondering whether the teller would include a lollipop when sending back the capsule through the vacuum tube.  

Bonus: What is the most unusual thing you believe in? (vampires, religion, people as inherently good, etc. etc.)


'American Gods' and 'Lincoln in the Bardo': What Book Is in Your Bag? by Washington Square

On a blustery Monday at the Creative Writers House, we asked Rivka Galchen's fiction workshop to answer one question: What book(s) are you currently carrying in your bag?

The answers were wonderfully diverse, ranging from assigned class readings and book club selections, to the new George Saunders and even Dr. Seuss. What are you currently reading?

Katie Bockino — American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Lisa Gerard — The Same Door by John Updike

Lindsey Skillen — The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint for Zadie's class and my Kindle: All Books Known to Man

Caroline Goldstein — Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders 

Jessica Ramirez — Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Alyssa diPierro — "Swann's Way" by Marcel Proust

Brittany Shutts — Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Megan Swenson — Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides


Andrea Boerem — Children of the New World by Assia Djebar

Hallie Newton — Daisy Miller by Henry James

Tess Gunty — The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson

Hannah Gilham — The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

Rivka Galchen— What is Life by E. Schrödinger
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi
ABC of Relativity by Bertard Russell
Oh! The Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss
Kitten's First Full Moon by Kevin Henkes             

To Write Or Not To Write by Washington Square

Rainbow "Inauguration aka WTF" Sweater, knitted by Azzure Alexander 

Rainbow "Inauguration aka WTF" Sweater, knitted by Azzure Alexander 

Sometimes, the poetry and stories flood out of you, uncontainable, bursting, and you’re behind your laptop feeling like the most brilliant scientist, sparks flying from the top of your head. But other times, the words are lurking in the back of your mind, and you know what you need to do, but instead, you suddenly realize your apartment needs some Swiffer-love, that curtain you bought months ago should probably go up, and perhaps it’s time to finally check out that new music video your favorite artist just released. Yes, writers, sometimes you want to do anything but write. We all look for distractions to keep ourselves from writing. A few NYU-CWP students and Washington Square Review staff members share their guilty distractions:

"Distraction usually comes into play when I'm revising. The moment I decide to return to a poem is often followed by realizations that my desk is cluttered, my plants need water, and I should really be brushing my dog's teeth everyday."

  • Holly Mitchell, Poetry

"So I never intend to distract myself from writing—especially when I know I need to get work done—but sometimes I'll be like, "Oh I should look up how to properly hold a sword on YouTube (I write about the medieval times a lot).” Then, eight hours later, I'll find I'm watching a video on balloons or why the ending of The Sopranos sucked. Did I ever watch The Sopranos? No. But I'll watch a twenty minute video about the show anyway. Falling into a YouTube black hole is my biggest distraction!"

  • Katie Bockino, Fiction

"Writing Washington Square interviews, checking Facebook and emails, reading books that are not required for class, texting other writers who are also procrastinating and seeing if they want to get a drink."

  • Hannah Gilham, Fiction

"I started knitting about a year and a half ago. Partly because I wanted to try a type of object-focused meditation (I’m a yoga teacher so I have to keep up zen appearance and I have crazy anxiety—but don't we all?), but mostly because the prices of an oversized sweater are absolutely ridiculous (and I do love a frumpy cardigan). I thought I could do it so I did and I realized how much I enjoy making things. It's relaxing and addicting and it helps me feel productive in my many hours of procrastination. It's a nice contrast to writing something that only exists in my head."

  • Azzure Alexander, Fiction

"Sometimes I am tired of words. I just want to move."

  • Alexandria Hall, Poetry

But we all know that in the end, despite our efforts, we just can't get away. It's all we have. 

"Writing used to be my distraction from my undergrad studies, but now it’s my distraction from the absurd reality of life."

  • Adham Mahmoud, Fiction


Five Questions with Major Jackson by Washington Square

Photo by Erin Patrice O'Brien

Photo by Erin Patrice O'Brien

Major Jackson is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. His latest collection is Roll Deep (Norton: 2015), winner of the Vermont Book Award.  He lives in South Burlington, Vermont with his wife, poet Didi Jackson. 

I met Major Jackson about four years ago at the University of Vermont, where I had the privilege of studying with him during my time there as an undergraduate. I spoke with him over email to ask a few questions.

—Alexandria Hall

1. What was the first poem you fell in love with?

Gwendolyn Brooks's "Beverly Hills, Chicago," followed by Yusef Komunyakaa's "Venus's-flytraps," then Robert Duncan's "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow."  When it comes to poems, I am polyamorous. 

2. Why does the line break?

The line breaks because we break and reconstitute ourselves towards some terminus of exaltation.

3. What's the worst writing advice you've ever heard?

Write what you know. Writing poetry is chiefly exploratory, a cognitive act of inquiry that leads us inward to discover our multiple selves.

4. What book is in your bag or on your person right now?

Yannis Ritsos Late into the Night, Marie Howe's early copy of Magdalene (wow! wow! wow!), and Helen Oyemi's What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours.

5. Is there a particular line of poetry or a quote that has stayed with you recently or obsessed you? What is it and why has it been important to you? 

Again, I have many different lines that have stayed with me. The ending of Lowell's "Waking Early Sunday Morning," 

peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war – until the end of time
to police the earth, a ghost
orbiting forever lost
in our monotonous sublime.

and Auden's lines from "September 1, 1939,"

All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

Both speak to the perpetual state of human conflict that backdrops our quotidian lives. 

Bonus Question: Do you have any hidden talents?

My family will tell you I am a fine cook. Someday I hope to open a restaurant serving only soup, my specialty. 

Editing, Taking Risks, and the Politics of Language: Getting to Know the Washington Square Fiction Editors by Washington Square

This time of year, the Washington Square Review team is starting spring semester, second years are planning their theses, some members are teaching their first undergraduate class, and the editors are reading hundreds of poetry, fiction and translation submissions. And this year, we have extended our fiction and translation submission deadline to FEBRUARY 15, so we asked our own Fiction Editor Bruna Dantas Lobato and Assistant Fiction Editor Alyssa diPierro a few questions about life, art, and the submission process.

Assistant Fiction Editor Alyssa diPierro (LEFT) and Fiction Editor Bruna Dantas Lobato (RIGHT) pretend to flip through old Washington Square Review journals at the Creative Writing House.

Assistant Fiction Editor Alyssa diPierro (LEFT) and Fiction Editor Bruna Dantas Lobato (RIGHT) pretend to flip through old Washington Square Review journals at the Creative Writing House.

1. Briefly, what drew you to writing fiction in the first place? To editing it?

Fiction Editor Bruna Dantas Lobato: A mix of things: An obsession with words and wordplay. Gratitude for the books that saved me in one way or another. Living in one language and then living in another. An incessant need to tell stories. As for editing, I can’t separate it from my writing practice. I love to read other writers’ texts, to think about what makes them work and how they’d go together in the journal. I learn a great deal about writing that way.

Assistant Fiction Editor Alyssa diPierro: I grew up surrounded by books, and my parents read to me constantly (until I was old enough to read to them!). Eventually, I figured out I could write the books I wanted to read. My interest in editing came much later, but basically, I wanted to help fix the problems or brainstorm solutions to friends' stories who needed advice. I also realized what I enjoyed most about my own writing was editing. Writing is extremely difficult, editing is very pleasurable for me. 

2. When you two are choosing fiction and translation pieces for Washington Square Review, what is the first thing you look for in a piece? The second?

B: A singular voice and a willingness to take risks with content and form. I am drawn to stories that traffic in subtleties, that present people and things in a new way (“at a slight angle to the universe”), without ever depriving them of their mystery.

A: The first thing I'm looking for is a tie between the language and the topic. I can look past weaker language if the characters and plot are strong, and vice versa. Secondly, I'm looking for something I haven't seen before. Surprise me, but in a believable way (logical for the world of the piece). Even if it's an everyday story of someone going grocery shopping, if the stakes are high enough, that could be a very interesting trip to the store. 

3. When choosing pieces, do you notice yourself being drawn to certain voices/themes/types of work? Which ones and why?

B: I’m always seeking stories that embody a strong sense of place—or placelessness. The ones that excite me most open doors to a multiplicity of perspectives and sensibilities, and leave me seeing and thinking differently.

A: I'm almost always drawn to pieces that take relatable and everyday situations, and present them in a unique way or add a fresh twist to them. It's what I try to do in my own writing, so when I find it elsewhere, I get really excited! 

4. With everything going on right now in the world and particularly in America, do you feel that fiction is more or less important, or has its role changed at all?

B: I’m in the camp that believes all literature is inherently political because language is inherently political, in that it carries particles of history and associations and contradictions. It also allows us to bear witness, to render “the substance of the human spectacle” (to quote Henry James)—and that’s no small thing. All that said, everything going on right now has been going on for a long time. To me, it’s neither more nor less important. It’s as urgent as ever.

A: Fiction is extremely important right now, and I think it always will be. And I think it's important to read and write fiction that's political or makes a statement on our current climate, but it's also important to escape. My own fiction is not political at all, and I sometimes feel silly writing it at a time like this, but we all need to escape every once in a while. 

5. If you weren't writing and editing fiction right now, what would you be doing?

B: Writing poetry. Or a play. I just can’t imagine not writing at all.

A: Right this second? Probably trying to avoid social media and failing terribly. Or knitting, or cooking, or working out. And feeling guilty that I'm not reading or writing or editing. 

6. The last piece of fiction or translation that made you cry?

B: Claudia Rankine's Citizen has made me cry more times than I care to admit, though that's not technically fiction. I was also moved by Amy Hempel's "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried," James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues," David Kaplan's "Your Only Mother," and Calo Fernando Abreu's "Beauty, a Terrible Story" (which I translated from the Portuguese recently).

A: It's really hard to get me to cry just from reading, but A Little Life left me bawling. 

7. What was your favorite part of editing issue 39?

B: Working with the authors on their pieces, for sure.

A: This was my first time editing specifically for the journal, so that alone was a joy! To have the opportunity to have an input in not only what's in the WSQR, but work with the authors on their pieces was an honor. 

8. What advice do you have for writers trying to get published in Washington Square Review?

B: Read our previous issues, don’t be afraid to take chances with your stories, and try reading your work out loud before you hit send.

A: Workshop your stories! Workshops are immensely helpful. If you don't have access to a workshop, find a few trusted friends (preferably fellow writers) to help work on your piece. It's almost always obvious when a piece is submitted that has glaring mistakes or plot holes, and clearly no one but the author has read it. 

9. How many fiction pieces typically make it out of the slush pile?

B: We picked 6 pieces after having read over 500 submissions. This means that nearly all the pieces in Issue 39 came from the slush pile.

10. What's your least favorite question to be asked as a writer and/or editor?

B: What’s your book about? Sure, I can give them my elevator pitch. But I’m always disappointed that the description can’t match the experience of reading it.

A: As an editor, I hate: "What are you looking for?" That's such a hard question to answer because I honestly don't know. Just send me your best stuff, and we'll go from there!

Five Questions with Lydia Davis by Washington Square

Photo by Theo Cote

Photo by Theo Cote

Lydia Davis is the author of one novel and seven story collections, the most recent of which was a finalist for the 2007 National Book Award. She is the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship and was named a Chevalier of the Order of the Arts and Letters by the French government for her fiction and her translations of modern writers, including Maurice Blanchot, Michel Leiris, and Marcel Proust. She is at work on a translation of Madame Bovary.

I spoke with Lydia Davis over email.

—Alisha Kaplan

1. Which punctation marks are most and least dear to you?

Well, already the question is difficult, because part of what I love about punctuation marks is their individual potential and power—and that power is immense, at certain moments, in certain sentences.  The marks I love the most are the comma and the period, because they are the simplest and the most versatile.  But I also love the precision with which a semi-colon sets off different statements from each other, and the way a colon introduces material.  I am probably least happy using an exclamation mark!

2. What were you like at fifteen?

At fifteen, I was romantic, excitable, sometimes lazy, sometimes very hard-working, sometimes reckless, sometimes mean, sometimes dishonest, sometimes lonely.  I liked boys, I liked writing and reading, I liked playing and singing music and studying music theory, and I liked the animals and natural landscape where I lived (in Vermont).  Not necessarily in that order.

3. Is there a lost writer you think would merit rediscovery?

The lost, or rather invisible, writer that I used to wish more people would read is now being read, and that is Lucia Berlin, the story writer.  A poet who is good and not mentioned nearly often enough is William Bronk.

4. Do you feel connected to any type of animal?

About animals—well, there is not any one particular type of animal I feel connected to, but in general I pay attention to all animals, and even insects.  I live with cats, and I live in a rural place where there are various sorts of pastured animals not too far away—horses, cows, alpacas, sheep, chickens.  There are deer and flocks of turkeys by the roadside.  A ring-necked pheasant used to come by every morning, making the rounds of the neighborhood.  I take great pleasure in looking at animals and insects, they intrigue me, they are fascinating in their sameness (to us) and difference (from us). 

5. Tell us something that gets lost in translation. 

I remember the end of a novel by Maurice Blanchot that I translated years ago and that included a long passage about thought—thought became almost a character.  In French, "thought" is a feminine noun.  So not only did Blanchot use the word "pensée", he also referred to thought using the pronoun "elle", which is "she".  That suggestion of the feminine was more or less lost in the English, although I had to hope that the way he talked about "thought" and "it" would carry some suggestion of the feminine.

Happy new year: here is our favorite Good riddance 2016 literature by Washington Square

It's not difficult to list the reasons why 2016 was a rough year. We lost numerous icons of pop culture and artistry, elected the first POTUS who will simultaneously produce the Celebrity Apprentice and we saw civil and political unrest worldwide. But today is a new day, a new year, and here are our favorite good riddance poems and books to shake free of a heavy 365 days.

Francisco Márquez 
Second Year Poetry

The Wild Iris by Louise Glück. I got broken up with twice, got the heart broken on the eve of the year, the American political world was shook and my friend’s, my mother’s immigration threatened, my heroes murdered by life, and I can’t blame a year, but I can blame a world’s problems.

Julie Block
Second Year Fiction

Can I just have "This is the Year of Our Fucking Discontent"?  

Alexandria Hall
Web Editor, Second Year Poetry

In a year that felt like a poorly written apocalyptic novel, there is at least some comfort in well-written apocalypses. "The end of the world / Proved to be nothing drastic // when everything was made of plastic," writes Elizabeth Bishop in "The Moon Burgled the House..." As we brace ourselves for whatever 2017 may have in store for us, lets bid adieu to this hellish year and let out "a long sigh--sweet / sigh—"

Alisha Kaplan
Web Editor, Second Year Poetry

My most beloved F*** You poem is “Badly Chosen Lover” by Rosemary Tonks. Most people have never heard of her, and of those who have, many were surprised to learn of her death in 2014, having assumed she was already long gone. Tonks, one of my favorite poets, was a notable part of literary society in 1950s London and considered one of the best female poets of her generation. Then she disappeared. She became a recluse so devoted to religion that she burned her poetry and read only the bible. We could, in retrospect, look at “Badly Chosen Lover” as a condemnation of Tonks’ first life as a modern, metropolitan poet. But I prefer to take the poem at face value: a strange, visceral, knife-twisting-in-the-gut middle finger to an ex-lover. What most jolts my heart is the moment of bare candor when Tonks writes: “My spirit broke her fast on you.” Goddamn, that line gives me shivers every time. 

P.S. You may have a lot to regret this past year, as I surely do, but you won’t regret going over here to listen to Rosemary Tonks read “Badly Chosen Lover.”

Hannah Gilham
Assistant Web-Editor, First Year Fiction

Ah 2016; if only we could have descended into Alice Notely's haunting The Descent of Alette rather than this year's swirling political and cultural despair. Exploring Notely's epic piece of poetry as she paints the mythical post-modern feminist underground subway reminds us of the beauty in dark and strange places.

Razmig Bedirian
First Year Fiction

“This siege will extend until we teach our enemies the paradigms of our Jahili poetry.”  Mahmoud Darwish. 

Wilson Ding
First Year Fiction

It was the best of times, it was the worst of was the worst of times. Dickens (assist: Wilson)

Colin Dekeersgieter
Second Year Poetry

"I know, / if thou were not granted to sing thou would'st surely die." 

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", Whitman's elegy to Lincoln, reminds us of the poet's ability to condition their own mourning through poetic perception. It also demands that we mourn honestly, by which is meant continuously. Whitman's "I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring" calls us back to Chaucer, whose traveler's set out each April to properly mourn at the shrine of the Archbishop of Canterbury. This practice of remembrance is quickly fading due to the world's many distractions. Whitman teaches us to never forget our losses, big and small, but instead to commemorate them perennially in whatever way we choose. 2016 was difficult in many ways, but do not be blind to the world's beauty. Remember the losses and keep an eye on the lilacs.  

Five Questions with Rowan Ricardo Phillips by Washington Square


Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of two books of poetry, The Ground and Heaven, both published by FSG; as well as a book of literary criticism, When Blackness Rhymes with Blackness, and a translation of Salvador Espriu's Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth. He is the winner of a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the PEN/Osterweil Award, the GCLA New Writers Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, is a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the PEN Open Book Award, and the National Book Award.

I had the pleasure of taking part in Rowan's Craft of Poetry class at NYU this semester. I caught up with him via email to ask a few questions. 

—Alexandria Hall

1. What was the first book you loved? 

A copy of the complete works of Shakespeare that my uncle gave me for Christmas when I was 10.

2. What is the most important object you've ever had and lost? 

The art of losing has been hard for me to master: I tend not to lose things. I'm also a rationalizer par excellence, so things I have lost tend to lose importance to me. I'm not wired to pine much over lost things; it's not in my temperament.

3. I'm interested in what you've said in class about writing in your head. What is your writing ritual like? (Coffee, tea, wine? A first draft in long hand or on your laptop?)

I don't have a ritual, per se, as I never wanted to idealize a context in which I can work and thereby absorb into my way of writing its opposite—a context in which I cannot work. I'm very much a get-it-down type of writer. Although that act for me isn't necessarily writing it down immediately as much as living with an emergent lyric someway somehow. I love to walk and I usually write in my head while walking. After a while I get to writing down what I was working on in my head but I don't rush to write down my thoughts. I don't trust that process as the mind produces quicksilver stuff that should run out and spread as it will for a while. I suppose this goes back somewhat to losing objects: if I'm not worried about losing a line of poetry, an image, a conceit then I'm not going to be too worried about losing an object. If it's good you'll remember it in some form or another. Eventually, things end up in my notebook. Sometimes I write straightaway on my computer. I don't produce and keep multiple edits of a poem. I just work through one document, erasing, re-writing, getting-it-down. In the end, I end up writing the poem over and over again until I'm repeating it down to the punctuation marks. That's when it's an object of its own accord and I leave it be. 

4. What is your favorite word? 

If I told you, it wouldn't be my favorite word anymore. Anyway, it's not an English word. I can tell you my least favorite word: whatever. 

5. Who is your favorite artist or musician?

I'm simply grateful for art. I don't play favorites. Artists you admire should be capable of disappointing you and artists you don't expect much of should be capable of moving you in a profound way. My mind is utterly against hierarchy. Besides, you can learn much about art by studying what doesn't work. And you can be left feeling pretty overwhelmed if not useless if you only immerse yourself in favorites. This is one of the things I enjoy about teaching. I never teach a collection of my favorite artists and texts. There are some works you may not be crazy about but are incredibly useful to students; and there are some works you may absolutely love that would be of little value to teach. The idea of a favorite work of art brings me back to myself. Yet, one of the glorious things about art is that it transports you from yourself and into a great beyond.