Meet the Author: Judith Pulman

by Katie Walker on February 17, 2015

UTGTPulmanJudith Pulman writes both poetry and prose in Portland, Oregon where in between working as a teacher, administrator, and editor, she also translates poems from Russian to English—just to keep things light. Judith has been published in or has work forthcoming from The Writer’s Chronicle, Los Angeles Review, Brevity, New Ohio Review, and Basalt. Read more about Judith and her own work at her blog here.

Judith’s piece, “Prelude to the Performance,” masterfully levels her readers upon an equal canvas, bringing us back to the magic and wonder of being eight years old. We are intimately woven into the piece by her ability to recollect specific details of the first time visiting her mother at the Kennedy Center where she sang in the opera. Through sound, sight, textures and feel, we are transported. When she recalls her heart surging at the “gorgeousness and terror” before the performance of Tosca, we feel the same anticipation and awe.

Watch Judith read an excerpt of her piece from the recording of Gum Tree Live: follow this link to 18:30 minutes.

Q: Is it one of your strongest memories for you to remember it so well?
A: I went to the opera from when I was five to when my mother died when I was twenty, so this is more or less a culmination of some experiences and an attempt to explore the confusion I felt at that time. My mother was a chorister, and the Kennedy Center was my cathedral along with my place to know magic. I knew no children who also loved the opera; the opera was a world of adults and the elderly when I went there. This situation made me feel both isolated and very special, depending on how my world outside the opera was going.

Q: Or, did your childhood consist of frequenting the opera, so was this story a culmination of multiple experiences?
A: Opera is one of the most lavish art forms available, and in the ’90s and early 2000s when I was attending, directors hadn’t really been casting actors or trying to make productions anything close to realistic (the Metropolitan Opera’s regular Live in HD broadcast has changed the game). So I grew up seeing these stories that didn’t make any logical sense and accepting them as a matter of course. Opera stories are thus: Tragedy happens, people die and are ridiculed, affairs happen, timing is generally awful, love is random and sudden and not usually advantageous, and hate can motivate one to ruin their own lives. Did growing up loving these stories prepare me for life better than watching “Full House?” The verdict is still out.

Q: Your story really comes alive with the specific details: the “thud-clack-thud-clack” of your heels on the “rust-tiled concrete,” or the hushed and sultry conversation of the loungers at the top-tier bar, even the multiple references to the angelic voices of the opera singers. It is a piece about music, but the sounds you captured are acutely precise. Did you intend for your piece to be very aware in and of itself with sound?
A: Thank you! I intended for the piece to be sensory since everything about the Kennedy Center is beautiful, and the hall before you go into the Opera House is enormous and full of sound. There are three tiers and everything is so high up, sound does interesting things in a place like that. Also, opera is unique in its performance since the singers aren’t generally miked—so their voices have to be huge to fill that space. I always thought that this was an incredible fact and from the second tier would try to pinpoint my mother’s voice among the women’s chorus.

You can see a 3-D view of the Kennedy Center’s Grand Foyer here. It is as stunning as I remember it looking. Side note: There’s a bronze bust of JFK before the steps up to the opera house that weighs 3,000 pounds and is eight feet tall. It looks like his skin is melting off and it always scared the hell out of me to see it. I took it to be a symbol of national grief since he had been killed but now I don’t know.

Q: In your piece you write, “I wonder what will happen when I grow up; who will be there to see the world behind the apparent world?” What did you intend that to mean? Children really do have this amazing perceptibility that we as adults lose in the process of growing up. But at that time, why then did it register to you that you didn’t want to lose that keen ability?
A: It’s hard to continually hold in one’s consciousness of how everything in life has its own brand of sacredness—both objects that fill the world and life forms that fill it. Even now, as I’m sitting here at the computer eating chips with two guinea pigs, and a dog in a house in the amazing city where I live, am I remembering how special and precious every bit of it is? Nope. Because I’ve got work to do and money to make and commitments to keep today. When I was a kid, I was acutely aware that the opera was sacred, even though it was my mother’s workplace  (she usually talked about it as if it were sacred!). When I walked around with my grandmother before the opera or talked to the people sitting next to us, it became clear that few adults recognized how special this show was and that it was, in fact, a once-in-a-lifetime event,  since it was live theater. And lord, those ticket prices—$300 or something! And then some people would fall asleep during the show: How distressing to hear a person snoring or unwrapping cough drops in the second act of La Traviata. Why did they come if not to worship and give it their full focus?
As Mary Oliver puts it: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. /  I do know how to pay attention…”

Q: In the second to last paragraph, you seem pretty willing to abandon your family’s religion if it’s in exchange for a more lavish lifestyle like those of the regular opera goers, which, to an eight-year-old, doesn’t seem like a bad tradeoff at all. But what was behind that thinking?
A: I was different as a kid and couldn’t explain my identity in terms that others understand. Perhaps this is why I took up poetry and writing, because I wanted to explain the beauty and needed to find common language (or uncommon language, but at least, language that reached across the table.) Growing up in a family with extremely talented parents was difficult. I sang in the children’s chorus twice but early on it became obvious that no amount of training would make me into an opera singer. This was heartbreaking, but hey, there’s another reason that I took up writing. The abandonment issue is something that I’ve heard therapists refer to as “rejecting the rejector.” I was willing to abandon the religion because it made me strange but not strange in a way that I understood as beautiful, strange because I had no idea what it would look like if I owned that Jewishness that was mine. I had no good models of what it looked like to be Jewish (we didn’t go to temple, just celebrated some holidays), so, why would I accept the stink eye from some people who didn’t like Jews if I didn’t know what the benefits of that religion would be?


Meet the Author: Heather Quinn

by Katie Walker on January 21, 2015

HeatherQuinn3x5Heather Quinn is originally from San Diego, California but currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is an MFA candidate at Portland State University. Her work has been published in The Rumpus, The RiveterCutbank, and now in Under the Gum Tree!

Heather’s piece “Memento Mori,” is the skeletal framework and existence of the things that encompass a life in its whole. By interweaving writing and photography and by her exploration through barren, desert landscapes, Heather first lays the foundation of her story. It is by ushering readers through her different stages with memorable markers of a place, thing, or an experience that we begin to see the progression of Heather’s life—and much like we see within our own lives—the many shapes it takes. We feel the everyday mundanities in our lives undergo change, defined by new meaning as she shows us a hair brush is not just a hair brush when its last and final usage is before her mother submits to the hospital for treatment and surgery. And a camera is much more than a body and a lens through which to view the world; it is a preserver of the histories of a life that sometimes go untold. This story transports us constantly from undeveloped desert, to home life and some of its own foreign places we are forced to confront, and back to desert, all in one sweeping continuum, where along the way Heather exposes what it is we should be seeing but sometimes miss.

Q: Right away your title is striking: “Memento Mori.” Most all of us have heard the term carpe diem at some point which translates to “seize the day,” however, memento mori is something which alludes to death and implores us to sort of remember death. What was your thought process behind deciding on this title?

A: The title is based on a quote by Susan Sontag, from her essay about photography, “In Plato’s Cave.” She says “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” This really rang true to me, but through most of my reading of the essay, I found myself arguing with Sontag more often than not. Her view of photography is particularly negative—she characterizes photography as a form of violence, of appropriation, and even equates the act of taking a picture to a rape or a murder. My response as a reader, and of course as a photographer, was that there is nothing unique about photography that makes it more prone to these issues than any other art form. When Sontag talks about memento mori, she seems to be implying that this act of engaging with the mortality of others is a similar act of violence, but we don’t need a camera to have these kinds of experiences. Any time we interact with other people or engage with the world around us, we are involved in the mutability of things. There’s a tremendous intimacy and tenderness that can come from sharing that kind of vulnerability with another human being, whether that sharing comes through the act of taking a photograph or from just living life around other people. In my essay, this idea of the memento mori was a guiding principle. I wanted to look at how photography can, at times, enlarge these moments of being present in the face of vulnerability and mortality, and maybe even lend these moments some kind of redemptive power.

Q: Interestingly enough, upon reading the first sentences and unknowing of where Jacumba is, it seems this was a piece about exploring distant lands oversea. Everything you write about the sand dunes and the landscape is so exotic; the colors of the green-yellow insects glued to your windshield, the rust-colored rocks, even your description of ascending through the mountains and life and vegetation all but disappearing enacts a shallowness of breath like high elevation’s thin air. However, although your piece begins with the most sensational, and almost foreign images, you gradually descend down your mountaintop to vignettes of life that are increasingly domestic. The first camera received on a sixteenth birthday, a step-father’s arrest and his time in jail, even your mother’s failing health. This progression in actuality feels like the narrowing of a camera lens, was this intentional and if so, what was behind your motivation?

A: I love the idea of a camera lens narrowing in focus. I can’t say that that was my intention literally, that I had any notion of recalling something photographic with how the piece was structured, but it was my intention to start with a landscape that seemed utterly foreign—as it did to me on my first visit—from a distance, and as the piece progressed finding ways to connect more directly with certain smaller scale aspects of the place. The California desert really is foreign, and exotic, which—coming as I did from the coast—was stranger for the fact that, as different as the landscape seemed from what I was used to, there is a lot of the desert in the rest of the arid state. When I was living in San Diego, for instance, much of my drinking water was brought in across the desert from the Colorado River. The existence of this vast desert, the lack of water, is very central to life in Southern California, but it’s a world that many Californians simply have not explored. To me, this desert represented a kind of shadow world to the one I was living in. I hoped to bring this out somewhat in the piece by progressively taking a closer look at the landscape and the ruins I found there, and by connecting my own personal experiences with these discoveries. So, for instance, the story of my mother’s passing becomes connected, in the piece, to the discovery of a forgotten photo album in an abandoned home. Both of these vignettes are about bearing witness to loss, about what gets left behind.

Q: Seeing as how your piece so highly focuses upon photography and the use of cameras, we wonder if you do any photo journalism or ekphrastic writing? Your writing is already so vivid with all your detailed description that the pictures that would be paired with some of the things you describe seem unimaginable.

A: I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never heard the word ekphrasis before, but after looking it up, it’s a great way to describe a lot of my writing. I love what happens when you attempt to translate the impressions from visual art or music into the written form. You always end up with something completely new and fresh that’s a dialogue with, rather than derivative of, the original work. In my case, I often start with photographs before I write anything down. My writing about the Colorado Desert started only after I had been taking photographs there for some time. In fact, my first piece on the subject was an artist statement that accompanied a portfolio of black and white prints of desert landscapes that I exhibited in a group show. I don’t tend to write a literal description of my photographs into a piece of writing. Instead, I might get out some prints, or open some images on my computer, and have a look through them. They place me back in the landscape, remind me in a more visceral way than simply reading through my notes just what it was that moved me about the scene, allow me to recall those first impressions much more directly than I would be able to otherwise. So I guess there’s a kind of ekphrasis in that exercise.

Q: In the final paragraphs you relay that after your mom’s passing, you took the camera back up with a sense of urgency. Naturally something of a comfort and catharsis for you, but when you returned to the dunes, what were you looking to find? Was there a connection to the place because your mom had first suggested you to trek and photograph there?

A: I guess there is some sense of connection to her simply for the fact that she first suggested I visit there, but the direct connection between the place and my mother really ends there. She was this incredibly joyful, energetic person, totally full of life when she was alive. The desert, on the other hand, is almost completely devoid of life. It’s such a hostile and desolate landscape. So whatever I’m looking for out there, it certainly isn’t her. I think it’s that emptiness itself that attracts me. It’s impossible to enter this kind of wilderness and not feel that, there’s this palpable atmosphere of death and sterility that hangs over the place. It sounds morbid, but I found this comforting. I’ve had a lot of death in my family—my mother, my father, my grandfather—and too often in our culture we are encouraged to move through the process of loss and grieving too quickly. I felt I could relate to the desert in a way, to this landscape of death. I appreciated how unapologetic it was in its sheer desolation and emptiness. Like I said, there’s a lot of the desert in all of Southern California, but in most parts of the coastal cities the aridity is covered up by cleverly irrigated landscaping. In the Colorado Desert, the dryness, and the desolation, is just naked and raw. I liked the honesty in this, and I liked finding the beauty in all that ugliness and death. In a way, it helped me learn how to tell my own story of loss. I found these visits incredibly healing.

Q: Lastly, it seems you have the wish that beauty always be found and explored in everything. You write that in the abandoned homes and ramshackle desert highway, “I was haunting a dead world, stalking some beauty left behind.” How does this have bearing in your own life and your artwork, writing or photography? 

A: I’ve always had this fascination with things that are abandoned, with things or people that are typically overlooked. I guess it’s just about being awake to what’s around you, being present in your surroundings. When you see something that other people don’t, it’s almost as if it exists just for you, or maybe like you exist just for it. In the Colorado Desert, there are a lot of legends of secret and forgotten gold mines. Amateur prospectors and rock hounds still go out into the wilderness looking for these fabled treasures. I can imagine the feeling is similar to what I get out of looking a little more closely at these abandoned homes. When I find something beautiful in these places, when I can frame the perfect photograph of some secret scene in an out of the way place, that’s like finding my own kind of buried treasure. But more than that, there’s a satisfaction in finding ways to tell stories that would otherwise be lost or forgotten. I think that motivates a lot of writers and photographers.


Meet the Author: Steven Simoncic

January 9, 2015

Steven Simoncic is a playwright and writer of both creative nonfiction and fiction. His plays have received productions, readings and, workshops at The Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, The Second City, Pegasus Players, The Baruch Center for the Performing Arts, Stageplays Theatre, and The Soho Theatre in London. Steven’s play, Once Upon a Time in Detroit, […]

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Meet the Author: Mary Collins

December 22, 2014

Mary Collins moved to the United States from England, where—as you’ll come to read—she had been writing “expressionless” research based articles for medical and nursing journals. She first discovered her passion for creative writing late in life when she set out to untangle the knots of childhood and put the conflicting tales of her father […]

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Meet the Author: Jonny Blevins, on his piece “Which Person She Is”

December 12, 2014

Jonny Blevins is pursuing his MFA in creative nonfiction at Chatham University. He is also a Henry Reich Teaching Fellow and student-coordinator for Chatham’s Words Without Walls program and is an active member of West Virginia University’s Appalachian Prison Book Project.  In the past Jonny taught ESL in China. We are extremely happy to have given […]

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