Author spotlight: Virginia Konchan

Virginia Konchan is the author of three poetry collections, Hallelujah Time (Véhicule Press, 2021), Any God Will Do and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon UP, 2020 and 2018); a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017); and four chapbooks, as well as co-editor (with Sarah Giragosian) of Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems (University of Akron Press, 2022). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, and The New Republic.

Your academic and publishing background is largely American. How did you find your way to Nova Scotia?

Serendipitously! I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and I moved to Montreal in 2014 after having lived in Chicago for five years. Prior to Chicago, I lived, worked, or went to school in Austin, Virginia, Wisconsin, Phoenix, Hawaii, Paris, and Prague.

After finishing the last year of my PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago remotely in 2015, I remained in Montreal until 2019, when I met my partner Kourosh who was visiting from Halifax, and I decided to move to Nova Scotia to live with him.

Has your time on the East Coast influenced your writing in any way?

Living in the same province where my favorite 20th century poet Elizabeth Bishop spent her early years, in Great Village, has inspired me deeply. I return to her work often for its perceptual acuity, and as a reminder that the best poetry supersedes the categories imposed on writers (confessional/formalist, for her), and also because I relate to her more than any other American poet, for having been educated in America yet living elsewhere for much of her adult life (contributing to a charged sense of apartness, exile, and home).

I moved here just before the pandemic began, and I am writing this a day before our third lockdown ends, so though I haven’t really been able to explore Halifax or the province yet, I’m greatly looking forward to it, and to putting down roots in this magical place.

But on the molecular level, I think my writing has also been influenced by living on a peninsula where there is no given spatial coordinate less than 50 kilometers from the ocean, the fresh produce and seafood, clean air, and lack of sound and light pollution. It’s also difficult to travel to Nova Scotia by car, and, during the pandemic, by plane. I haven’t seen Canadian or American friends or family since 2019, and I think the relative solitude I have experienced since I moved here has also opened up space in my thinking and being, altered my relationship to music and silence, and helped me better appreciate what it means to listen, to observe, and to be comfortable with not speaking, not writing.

Your website lists an impressive number of recent publishing credits, including three poetry collections between 2018-2021. Did you find that a continuum or through line developed among these three books, or did you consciously try to differentiate them and cover new creative ground each time?

Both. They’re definitely each their own collection in terms of questions and concerns (writing women into art and literary history, critique of spectacle culture, metaphysical questioning, and phenomenological and epistemological meditations), but united in the establishment and development of a poetic consciousness and aesthetic (intertextuality, ekphrasis, metapoetics, aporia, ellipsis, rupture, and a mix of high and low registers). The tonal through line, if there is one, is bathos: I delight in thwarting expectations, undercutting assumptions, creating moments of levity, and trying to deconstruct what I believe to be an extremely difficult period of history for artists, writers, and poets.

If artists were artisans in the Renaissance, bohemians in the nineteenth century, and professionals in the twentieth, a new paradigm is emerging in the digital age, that of the multiplatform, entrepreneurial artist, as cultural critic William Deresiewicz writes. Lyric subjectivity is under siege in our brave new hypermediated technocracy, like much else. My poems in all three collections are about trying to survive with soul and mind intact.

A reviewer of The End of Spectacle said that the collection asks the reader to assume responsibility for their own role as a spectator, and seeks to dismantle romantic/Romantic conceits, which historically draw power from the separation between subject and object, and a reviewer of Any God Will Do said it is essentially a book about betrayal. The book description for Hallelujah Time says the speaker’s fast-moving monologues confronts the contemporary need to constantly adjust our masks to appease impossible standards, and our desperate fear of having our true selves be seen and understood. I am grateful for all these readings, too, and think they are true and equally valid as any answer I could give.

In addition to your publishing projects, you’re also a teacher, freelance editor, and co-founder of Matter journal. What’s your secret to managing your time and conflicting priorities?

I taught time- and stress-management workshops to fellow students in undergrad, which remains one of the greatest ironies of my life. A decade of data collected by researchers at Stanford University reveals that heavy multitaskers have reduced memory capacity, among other cognitive deficits. No one can have, be, or do it all, but the expectation that you can are fierce, as Anne-Marie Slaughter argued in The Atlantic. I’ve found that the external and internal pressures to fractalize my time and energy into smaller pieces only results in mediocrity and shortchanging the people and projects I’ve committed to. Jia Tolentino’s essay collection Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion also speaks brilliantly to optimization culture in the West, and its impact on women specifically.

I will say, however, that setting an egg timer when grading papers helps enormously, and that it’s never too late to learn to say no, or to “fail better,” as Samuel Beckett quipped.

Have I even mentioned your short story collection yet? Anatomical Gift was published by Noctuary Press in 2017, so I’m sure you were probably working on these stories alongside your poetry collections. How has fiction writing influenced your poetic practice, and vice versa?

I think of my fiction and poetry as parallel worlds, but when they collide, I would hope that a heightened sensitivity to language and rhythm in poetry lyricizes my prose, and that a sense of pacing, plot, and dialogue expands the rhetorical possibilities for verse.

I also tend to think of poetry theatrically, in terms of personae, staging and performance. A poem is a dramatic situation with a volta, and I’m most interested in character-driven stories and psychological fiction. I also favor poetry collections that have a lyric or narrative arc: not Freytag’s Pyramid per se, but inner coherence, an architecture.

When working with emerging writers, are there any common issues you’ve come across that can hamper their ability to tell a compelling story?

Fear of not knowing enough in The Information Age, conformism, and timidity.

Technique can always be learned. Confidence, vision, and voice comes from within, even if it’s by imitating other writers one thinks are more confident and visionary. Don’t underestimate the power of mining your own self, life, and life experiences for material, and resist second-guessing yourself into abstraction or silence. Even the most theoretical, archival, historical subjects are filtered through the lens and perspective of the self. Fortune favors the bold, which in this political climate can mean speaking your truth.

Zoom readings: do you think they’re here to stay, or should they go away?

Hopefully stay—they provide an intimate, albeit virtual space to readers and listeners who otherwise often wouldn’t be able to gather. The Eve of Poetry reading series I started in 2020 went virtual, actually, and our fifth reading is on July 10th, with poets Heather Treseler, Sarah Giragosian, Alyse Knorr, and Kate Partridge. All are welcome!

If you could go back in time to a point when you had not yet published any work, what would you want to tell your younger self about the writing process?

Haters gonna hate, digital footprints will follow you forever, and when in doubt, READ. Even neuroscience proves that learning how to read like a writer has enormous benefits. Also, try to accept failure and rejection gracefully, and use it to spur yourself forward.

What’s next for you? Are there any upcoming projects you can give us a glimpse into?

Hallelujah Time, my first full-length poetry collection in Canada, is forthcoming this September from Véhicule Press’ Signal Editions poetry series, alongside new poetry collections by Erik Lindner and Jenny Boychuk. I’m thrilled, honored, and excited.

In early 2022, the craft anthology Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems I co-edited with Sarah Giragosian will be published with University of Akron Press, featuring 12 stellar essays that demystify the undertheorized process of manuscript assembly and explore the manifold, complex considerations of this idiosyncratic process.

And I’m working on an autobiography from a generational perspective, as an Xennial who grew up on the cusp of the Generation X and Millennial demographic cohorts.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

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