Luke Rolfes: Lisa Fishman, author of seven poetry books (including the recent Mad world, Mad Kings, Mad Composition from Wave Books) is out with a new collection of stories from Gaspereau Press called World Naked Bike Ride. This fantastic collection of stories consists of mostly vignettes and flash/micro fiction. In this book, Lisa Fishman enters the prose game armed with the broad imagination of a fiction writer and a master poet’s handle of language. Thanks for giving us some of your time, Lisa!
LR: If I remember correctly, this book was born out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Could you talk a bit about the genesis of this collection and how it came into being? Did any particular art, books, music, etc. inspire this collection? And what led you to transition from poetry to prose for this project?
LF: Thank you for these welcoming questions! I’m afraid I always have Too Much to say, so maybe if I delineate each response to your three-part question, it will be kinder to the reader . . . First, about the genesis of this collection and how it came into being: I had a winter semester sabbatical starting in January 2021, and the options for travel were still very limited then; vaccines were not yet available. Because I’m a Canadian citizen, I was able to go to Nova Scotia (only Canadians or permanent residents were allowed over the border). Ordinarily, I would have probably had visitors, including my husband, during the four months that I was gone, but the pandemic meant that I was in nearly total isolation the whole time, starting with a very strict 14-day quarantine in a hotel room in Halifax. My base after that was a tiny borrowed house on the island of Cape Breton, perched over the Atlantic with almost no neighbors. Although the few scattered neighbors I had were friendly, no one could socialize casually; the island was in semi-lockdown all winter and spring. Also for the first two months, there were frequent Nor’easters when everyone lost power for a day or two at a time. I had no cell phone service and intermittent internet, and have never been on “social” [sic] media anyway.
Starting with the 14 days in a Halifax hotel (I had brought a giant suitcase of non-perishable food, needing a grocery delivery only once at the very end), I did nothing but write stories day after day. I’d brought a few books to read and finished those quickly. Since I don’t watch tv or movies, the space and time were perfectly luxurious for doing nothing but writing––although I did bring a jump rope for exercise, since there was no way anyone in quarantine in Canada could even think about leaving the hotel room. I e-mailed my drafts to the front desk, where the kind staff seemed happy to print them out for me and slide them under my door; we spoke on the phone about it a few times. Then I would read the work on paper, make revisions, and e-mail it again to the invisible (to me) front desk and wait for the new version to be slid under my door. This went on all day long and into the night, so that the front desk people and I felt quite endeared to each other by the end––they cheered when I first came out of quarantine into the lobby and we met for the first time. Were they reading the stories, at least the very short ones? I didn’t ask them not to, so one can only hope. Anyway, I wrote about 12 stories in 14 days that way, with thanks to the Lord Nelson Hotel for its role in the process. It was a very intense time––I never felt bored or confined; in fact I felt that there still was not enough time for the work, even though there was not a single other thing that one could be doing. I actually added two days on to my stay at the end because I didn’t want to leave when the quarantine ended.
My relationship to writing was much the same for the subsequent three and a half months in the little house in Cape Breton. Apart from reading novels and stories––which I sometimes did all day long––and daily walks on the cliffs or along the harbor, writing is all I did.
LR: Did any particular art, books, music, etc. inspire this collection?
LF: I would say it’s a life-long gestation: Yes, all the writers whose sentences and tones and ways of thinking have ever imprinted me over years and decades are underneath or within or behind this collection. In other words, very many! I’m glad not to be able to say exactly how, but inevitably and maybe invisibly, here are some prose writers I’m likely to have most deeply absorbed, or who at least feel the most important to me, whether or not their imprint is discernible in my book: Elizabeth Bowen, D. H. Lawrence, Henry James, George Eliot, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble, Alice Munro, Claire-Louise Bennet, and certain Jewish storytellers and fabulists such as S. Y. Agnon, Bruno Schulz, I. B. Singer. Just before and during the time that most of World Naked Bike Ride was being written, I was newly immersed in Robert Walser, Edna O’Brien, Patrick Modiano, David Malouf, Margaret Laurence, Lucia Berlin, Clarice Lispector. I respond intensely to both Virginia Woolf and Flann O’Brien but cannot claim to have read very much by either of them yet. Further-further back, Balzac, Turgenev, Forster, Pynchon’s shorter works, Ntozake Shange, Hemingway’s stories and Faulkner’s novels, and an under-rated English novelist named Elizabeth Taylor. Because of my work with a community Shakespeare theater company devoted to uncut productions, I can’t ignore the likely imprint of certain plays such as Twelfth Night (as you can tell from one story in WNBR in particular) and King Lear. Theater itself, with the existential questions it raises, is in somewhat high focus throughout the stories in various ways.
LR: And what led you to transition from poetry to prose for this project?
LF: My first love and most voracious and sustained reading has always been novels. So there’s been a half-century’s apprenticeship to fiction, an apprenticeship that includes years devoted to literary research and scholarship (19th-century English poetry and Modern America poetry) and to writing and publishing poetry. My poetry, though, is not primarily narrative. Perhaps at some point, the desire for story-telling and sentences insists on being attempted––I did not attempt it until now because it has seemed unimaginable, so complete is the magic of the writers I love.
For a few years before committing to that attempt, I studied novels and stories paragraph-by-paragraph (twice with graduate students in a seminar I called “What May Poets Learn from Novelists?”) in order to trace their workings––how they are made––sentence by sentence. What you learn is that, for the most part, in really good novels and stories, such as Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, there is hardly any “forward-moving action”: only observation, detail, digression, and non-linear movement (backward or sideways in time––hardly ever, actually, forward). The extreme patience needed by literary fiction writers means that what we think of as plot or action is, on a sentence-by-sentence level, unfolding almost imperceptibly over pages and pages and pages. Once you observe that everything is always one word and sentence at a time, the prospect becomes slightly less immobilizing.
With regard to what can be called flash fiction in World Naked Bike Ride (the very short pieces, often a paragraph long), the way-of-becoming was akin to poetry, which hinges on the energy of what’s left out by way of what’s included. In that sense, I think of the book as hybrid; many of the stories were first published in poetry journals as prose poems.
LR: A collection of flash fiction or vignettes, in my experience, is tricky to build. My theory: Readers, when reading a collection of poetry, expect poems to talk to each other and share similar voice and themes. Readers of flash fiction books, I’d argue, don’t have this same expectation. Flash books seem to be more of a mixed bag. I’ve read some flash collections that have a lot of linking and connectivity. I’ve read some in which each piece seems part of its own universe. As a writer of prose and poetry, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. When building a prose collection, should a writer emphasize connectivity, or should a writer focus on range to keep the reader guessing? How did you decide which pieces belonged in this collection and which ones did not?
LF: I tend to encourage my poetry students to resist the notion that a book of poetry needs consistency of the kind that one can point to. The things one can’t point to––a feeling of intrinsic necessity, voice as one’s idiosyncratic tones of thinking, an ear attune to the poem’s internal music and its “emergent form” (Michael Palmer)––will likely mean that the collection has a sound-feeling that, invisibly but audibly, results in the work’s integrity as a whole, in the sense of its mysterious connectedness. But this, in poetry, does not come from “subject matter,” concept, intention, or “consistency” in a constructed way, which is why I steer students away from “project”-oriented poetry. Just as each poem is unpredictable (if it truly has life as a poem), a book of poems will move in unpredictable ways among myriad moments and phenomena. What links the poems is ineffable. The poems will be talking to each other no matter how different they may seem from each other, not just within a collection but also across collections. Poets need to trust that possibility; it’s the only possibility in which real poetry resides.
In your excellent book, Luke (Impossible Naked Life), you seem to have had the poet’s intuition of the truth of unpredictability––your stories are wonderfully different from each other, and the narrators all have different voices, genders, ages, socio-economic and geographic backgrounds, but they emerge from a single sensibility (yours, however multiple any single sensibility always is), and so you didn’t try to impose a patina of conceptual consistency on them, correct? The result is a dynamic, richly layered whole. If the only constancy in life is change itself, then accuracy inheres in changeability.
That said, I would not propose that a writer should focus on range “to keep the reader guessing,” since that implies a motive or an intended effect. A writer should not have designs on the reader (nor on the work, really). Rather, across any body of work there will be range, if the writer has let the work emerge of its own intrinsic necessity. For that reason, I hope, there are a few “sets” of stories in World Naked Bike Ride that are linked. Some characters did not let me feel finished with them. Aviyette, Herschel and Bruno kept coming back, as did Anna Ferguson and Edward Afton, not to mention Clara Tornante and especially Else. So when each or any combination of them reappeared in new stories, I let them, and that’s how there got to be some linked stories in the book.
LR: How did you decide which pieces belonged in this collection and which ones did not?
LF: There are several stories I wrote but did not include, the criteria being whether I felt they were good enough or “done,” rather than whether they “fit” with each other. The hard part is figuring out the order of the stories, with some being more immediately accessible to readers than others. That part of the process was endless and very difficult, and it drove my publisher mad, because my rearrangement of the order of stories continued until the last possible minute, even after all final proofreading and typesetting. In the end, I’m sure I didn’t get it right, because maybe there is no definitively right order. To try to pin down the “final” order may be like going after a butterfly with a pair of pliers, as I think Jorie Graham said about the challenge of interpreting a poem.
LR: One of my favorite stories in this collection was called “Among the Sunflowers,” and it narrates the story of Edward and Anna, two lovers who are eight feet tall. How did this piece come to fruition? What inspired these two?
LF: In “Among the Sunflowers,” the two characters are eight feet tall . . . but in the linked story, “Insouciance,” the narrator is trying to make sense of the fact that on some days Anna and Edward, whom the narrator only glimpses, are that tall and on other days very short. The lovers are inconsistent: one day 8 feet tall, the next day maybe 4’3”. This might have to do with the mercurialness of any character, something both vexing and wondrous in fiction-writing itself. Also perhaps the strangeness of love or being-in-love: Are Anna and Edward preposterously tall (and at other times very short) because they are in love, insofar as being in love begets fabulous, unstable realities? If being in love is never the same from one day to the next, in that condition might anything be possible? The name, “Edward Afton” came to my ear sounding like “Ever After,” those well-known words at the end of fairy tales.
All that said, my Anna was inspired by a real person, Anna Swan (1846-1888), born and raised on the North Shore in Nova Scotia. She was later known as “The Giant of Tatamagouche,” who, at 16, was hired by P. T. Barnum as “the tallest woman in the world.” I didn’t know about her until my husband and I were in a small museum in Tatamagouche a couple of years before the pandemic. (That museum is mentioned in “Heptagon,” a story in which the real Anna Swan appears.) The museum, a former creamery, contains a small, second-story room with information about Swan and a cardboard cutout of her dress to help you imagine her standing there, 7 feet 11 inches tall. I guess it was the basic outlines of her biography as well the visual image of this giant cardboard silhouette, like a larger-than-life cut-out for a paper doll, that implanted itself in my mind as the seed from which the Anna Ferguson stories grew. Anyway, “Among the Sunflowers” was my first published story ever (in The Fairy Tale Review). Thank you for asking about it.
LR: Place plays an important role in these stories. One of the loveliest pieces in here is called “Dear Sister” in which the narrator encounters a mother seal on shore. There seems to be something meaningful about living near a coast or shoreline to these characters---a place where worlds collide and land transitions to sea. What are your thoughts on place in your work?  What about the maritime landscape appeals to your sensibilities as a writer and the themes in these stories?  
LF: You’re right, many of the stories are catalyzed in some way by the ocean or sea, including the stories literally set there, whether in Nova Scotia or southern Italy. I think your verbs are apt: “transitions” and “collide.” The point of contact between land and water is liminal, a space or site of “both-ness,” where one element transitions into another and where disparate phenomena blur into each other. Possibly a sense of how such things might have the capacity or freedom to merge and become something else–– or at least to change each other––underlies the stories set beside the Atlantic Ocean or Mediterranean Sea.
In general, the physical reality of any place is deeply generative for me as a writer if by “place” we can also mean its histories: geologic and natural history as well as social and human histories. So I mean “place” not just as a pictorial background or setting, not landscape as decorative. Sometimes the effect of place plays out internally or psychologically, as in “Next and Then First” and “I, Pioppi.” A few stories seem to happen primarily in the mind, more free of “place,” such as “A Conversation” and “You May Wish.” More often, I hope there is a commingling of the internal/conceptual with observed reality and its historical layers, however fleetingly probed
––as in “Dear Sister,” which I’m so glad you have a strong response to. The most sustained investigation of place, as both geography and history, is “Things She Intended to Do.”
LR: Another recurring theme that pops up in this book are written artifacts---letters, manuscripts, postcards---the text of which characters can respond to and interact. “Things She Intended to Do” and “Possibly Rachel’s,” among others, employed this technique in a fascinating way. I wouldn’t necessarily describe any of these pieces as epistolary, but your characters do seem to carry a reverence for correspondence. Talk a little bit, if you could, about this particular theme and how it functions in your work.
LF: I’ve always been fascinated by the remnants of people’s lives. For a while I studied 19th-century women’s autobiography, which is largely composed of private writing: letters, postcards, journals . . . The writing is often amazing for its candor, detail, humor, voice. Even in isolated, rural areas, so many people used to be able to write (no matter how humble the medium) in ways that are being lost. When I read what ordinary people were writing in their daily lives, whether recipes, weather reports, or letters and journals, I find it very moving. A feeling of curiosity can permit a kind of connection and become a haunting, so that one feels compelled to live within it in whatever ways are possible. Anonymous writing from the past reminds me of Emily Dickinson’s notion of a poem as her “letter to the World / that never wrote to Me.” And so, writing in the midst of others’ journals and correspondences can feel like writing back to the dead or writing them into existence, but now as someone else. Of course it’s also a way of writing oneself into existence, but always as another: as others.
For me that process and its sensations were especially intense with the longest story in the book, “Things She Intended to Do,” the one most overtly concerned with the ghosts of history and its erasures in a place. It’s the first story I ever wrote (took four years to finish), all prior to the pandemic.
LR: Really short fiction (flash, micro, vignettes) is something that writers I’ve talked to have approached in several different ways. I’d love to hear your take on this question. Imagine that a full-length story is a 10X10 image. A flash fiction, then, is: A) a 2X2 cropping of a 10X10 image, B) a resizing of a 10X10 image to fit in a 2X2 frame, or C) a 2X2 image that has nothing to do with a 10X10 image? (I hope that makes sense!)
LF: Ah! I have to sit here and really visualize the differences as you’ve conceptualized them. Which leads me to say: Not A, not akin to a portion of a larger story. For some people whose very short fiction I admire, it may be often B (a resizing of a 10x10 image to fit in a 2x2 frame). For me, in terms of what the compositional process feels like, I would have to go with C: a 2x2 image that has nothing to do with a 10x10 image. This brings us back to what I was saying in response to one of your first questions: how a flash or micro story happens for me as a poem, and that several of mine were admittedly first published as poems.
LR: Did one of the pieces in this book come to you more easily than the others? On the flip side, was there a story in here which was difficult to bring to life?
LF: When I was stuck in that single hotel room in Halifax, the most spontaneous of the stories  appeared, such the three Else stories: “Magic,” “World Naked Bike Ride” and “Midnight.” Also “Pilgrim Fool.” You mentioned “Dear Sister,” which was written quite seamlessly as well, toward the end of my months in Cape Breton. An older story, “I, Pioppi,” emerged quickly while I was sitting in the tiny town square with my notebook in Pioppi, Italy.
The most difficult ones were “Heptagon,” “Ear to the Ground,” “Orbital Cake,” all of which I nearly gave up on at times. I even asked my publisher to omit the latter at the last minute. But he talked me into keeping it, invoking Jewish fables and tales of the more absurd kind. It’s true that while I was writing “Orbital Cake,” Daniil Kharms came to mind, and I should have previously mentioned that Kharms’s marvelous, uncategorizable stories and prose in Today I Wrote Nothing, translated from the Russian by Matvei Yankelevich, felt like an invitation or catalyst early in the fiction-writing adventure.
LR: I love your tone and voice in these vignettes. Let me offer a quote from the opening of “You May Wish,” as an example: “If the wind is blowing and the snow is falling where you are sleeping, that is where the story begins. If the snow is blowing and the wind is falling and rain comes while you are sleeping, that is where the forest begins. If there is no snow and no rain and no wind, then your sleep is neither here nor there, not this or that, and the night is a mask you can slip out from under.” That opening blew my mind! In this book, you’ve done a wonderful job of balancing lyrical tone with narrative, plain-spoken action. I’ve always thought of prose in a similar way that I think of dynamics in music. Loudness only works if you give the audience softness. If it’s all loud (or all soft) the audience will never hear the difference. How self-conscious of balance are you when writing in prose? Do you think about lyrical balance when working in different forms? 
LF: For you, which is loud and which is soft? (Lyric propulsion or plain-spoken narrative?) In either case, your music analogy sounds right to me. Weirdly, though, I find it hard to say, to discern, whether I’m aware of an interplay or balance when I’m writing prose­––does this mean I’m not self-conscious of it, per your question? It doesn’t necessarily mean that, since I prune away a lot of content in the process of writing. Perhaps that’s when a concern for balance comes in. However, with the story you kindly quote, “You May Wish,” nothing got pruned or edited. The more lyrical pieces tended to emerge just as they are, as poems do via listening; i.e., letting the words and sounds (the music) determine­ what comes next.
However, in the process of organizing the manuscript––trying to figure out which stories go where––I definitely considered the question of balance. Do the lyric pieces go all together, or do pieces in different forms get interspersed with each other? I opted for the latter . . . So I think that the answer to your question is: I may not be thinking about it while writing, but when I’m looking at a body of written work before it’s published, I’m interested in the reading experience and the auditory reception of the pieces in relation to each other. I try, then, to shape the whole so that all of its forms can be in the same space somehow. Balance, echo, movement, alteration and recurrence are all part of that.
LR: Lastly, what’s next for you and your work? Are you back to poetry, or are you going to keep writing fiction? 
LF: I would love to keep writing fiction. It seems just as impossible now as it ever did, though––unimaginable to undertake. Every book, of course, feels like the last one you’ll (I’ll) ever write.
I have a new book of poetry coming out that I wrote in the summer of 2020, during my first experience of quarantine. I had crossed into Northern Ontario, being again the only one in my family allowed to do so, and spent two weeks in a very rudimentary, one-room cabin in the forest overlooking a lake surrounded by cliffs, with no one around except my kayak. (The kayak became a kind of life-form too.) The book, One Big Time, is forthcoming on Wave Books. But I can’t help hoping that the next new writing to occur, if it occurs, will be stories or a novel.

Lisa Fishman is the author of seven poetry collections, including Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition (Wave Books, 2020). Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and has appeared in such journals as Granta, VOLT, jubilat, Denver Quarterly, and American Letters & Commentary. With dual roots in Montreal and Michigan, she now lives on a farm in Wisconsin and teaches at Columbia College Chicago.
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