INTERVIEW I Rikki Ducornet

In her new collection of essays, The Deep Zoo, artist and writer Rikki Ducornet looks at where imagination, violence, dreams, and fairy tales represent the deep zoo at the core of humanity. Here, Ducornet discusses further the ways in which art and the written intersect in our lives and relations with one another, where the creative impulse lives within all of us, and ultimately, as Ducornet describes here, how “We come into the world wired to make art. The creative imagination is what drives us, nourishes us, gives us the taste and the capacity for life.”



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Chelsey Clammer: In the title piece in your collection of essays, The Deep Zoo, you write, “The texts we write are not visible until they are written.” At the end of this piece you state, “Writing is a reading of the self and of the world.” I’m curious, then, what it is you think our writing means before we actually sit down to write. In other words, what do you think about how we see ourselves (“read” ourselves) and the world before we are able to get our thoughts outside of our heads? Can we identify with them, or are our identities and conception of self not fully developed until we are able to write about them?”

Rikki Ducornet: I began as a painter and a printmaker. Writing took hold unexpectedly; it would surface in my paintings as lines of poetry. And then it began to pounce. It was very like being stalked! Stalked by a wild thing from the woods! And it was a wild thing from the woods! Because it was the subconscious that was stalking and pouncing. The first short story I wrote came to me in a bathtub. It was called “Aunt Rose and Uncle Friedle.” Sopping wet I ran for a pen and wrote it down. The stalker was imperious you see! I sent that story to my mother who was dying of cancer in another country and her reaction was: “Some nightmares are best kept to oneself.” But I knew better than to keep the nightmares to myself. And I also knew that my mother was impervious to black humor.
Later I came to see that all that stalking and pouncing wanted a home for itself, wanted a book. And I wrote that first book, The Butcher’s Tales, under the influence of an imperious need to begin to grapple with the world and myself within it. The pouncing had all to do with a longing for moral understanding, a visceral need to confront abusive authority in its many forms and to fully engage the beautiful. So, yes, writing became a way to actually see, on the page, what the questions were that needed my attention. And the fact of seeing my inquiry written down revealed to me my own inadequacy, as well as my own fearlessness and even capacity for transcendence. The stories often made me catch my breath because they were revealing me to myself just as they were leading me deeper into the world of ideas. And they made me laugh. They were subversive and vivifying! In other words, my own experience of being a person in the world has been extended dramatically by the process of writing. I don’t think writing is the only way, but I do think it is a real gift. And the marvelous paradox is that when we are writing from an authentic place that is uniquely ours, others respond. Because that place is the holding ground of the breath of Eros, the place of essential reveries. It is uniquely human. The deep zoo has deep roots within all of us.


CC: I have another question about the essay that opens your collection entitled “The Deep Zoo,” because I’m absolutely in love with this essay and could probably talk about it forever. Since we don’t have forever, I’ll have to settle on one more question. You present a great concept towards the end of the essay in which you say, “If a book is a place to think, it is a pragmatic place, a place of experiment.” Thinking about public and private spheres, where do you think the best place is to experiment with you thoughts? A room of one’s own? An encouraging mental space? On the page itself? Something else entirely?

RD: We need all of it. We need the public spheres; we need the sorts of friends who quicken us, who delight and amuse and touch us, who disrupt us, whose conversation empowers us; friends with whom to share waking dreams. Friends with whom we may dare be outrageous, ridiculous. Friends we need to walk away from, too.  We need the cinema, the stage; we need to be shaken to the core by ideas, by beauty unlike anything we have known before; we need rd quotethe silence and safety of our own rooms; we need the museums and we need the wilds. We need the wilds alive with the others, the creatures who are vanishing. Because they are imbedded within us, not only our memories and our dreams, but our very blood and bones and marrow. We have shared an impossibly long and complex voyage together, and as those many respirations are snuffed out, we are ourselves overcome with losses. We are about to find ourselves terribly alone with one another and we cannot bear it. The only animals left will be the ones who have been bred to be our food or our companions, and the neurotic few who pace the world’s many cages. In other words, we need not only our own book, but the world’s book. What will we have to say to one another once all the others are gone?

CC: What I believe to be one of the main driving forces of The Deep Zoo, is this concept of how the core of our humanity can be seen through art. The artwork included in your collection is not just complimentary to your writing, but I would say vital to the book as a whole. If art is where we become visible, and thus able to discover our “unknowns,” what aspects of our core do you think are discovered when text and image intersect?

Deep ZooRD: We come into the world wired to make art. The creative imagination is what drives us, nourishes us, gives us the taste and the capacity for life. The life breath is all about picture making, storytelling, singing, moving the body in experimental ways. All we need to do is watch our children! When I interviewed Linda Okazaki, she revealed the nightmare that fractured her childhood, but also the “powers,” the memories and beauties that never ceased to nourish her. Her paintings, informed by her dreams, are very strange and very beautiful; they are compelling. We do not need to know her story to be taken by them. But her story gives us vital keys to a greater understanding. For example, the animals she paints have a totemic significance; water is an expression of her own private mythic world. As Linda spoke, memories surfaced that she had forgotten or pushed away. So that her work was, in fact, informing both of us with new knowledge. She created new paintings in response to this.

I find when I am writing I am often thinking cinematically. And that when I am painting, the ongoing reverie in my mind informs the process, and that the process informs the reverie, but all this is somehow ineffable. It remains mysterious. My texts and my paintings are always all about revelation. I have no interest in repeating myself. I don’t want to know where it is I am going. If I could speak to Eros I’d say: “Hey! Take me somewhere new!” I want to astonish myself and I want to push on further into the wild.

CC: Nature is a reoccurring theme throughout The Deep Zoo. What types of connections between nature and text do you see as contributing to our core of humanity?

RD: In The Deep Zoo, I talk about the early Egyptian glyphs that contained a small world. The glyph itself had a sacred significance and a sacred power. To say the name of a plant, say, was thought to activate the plant’s medicinal benefit and awaken the sacred breath held within it. And the glyph contained medicinal information, too, as well as the name of the god who dwelled there. All that! Language was born of and in nature, and everything communicates! rd quoteDid you know that birds and whales have family names? And plants warn one another of predators? In the wild everything is communicating, reverberating; the world is alive with stories. The question is why all this is being betrayed, and irretrievably. It is interesting that the most repressive among us fear the bodies of wolves as much as they fear their own bodies, fear the wild as much as they fear the stranger. The most repressed and repressive people I know fear politics as much as they fear poetry, fear life as much as they fear death. There is a gnostic terror of the body in our culture and it is not serving us well.

CC: The Deep Zoo is a very intelligent and engaging collection of essays. I would imagine you did a lot of research and reading in preparation for writing these pieces. In the context of your researching and writing process, what are some of the successes, challenges and/or surprises you experienced?

RD: The essays had a way of leading me into places I could not imagine. How marvelous to learn that the male monarch seduces his mate with fragrance! That the Marquis de Sade found one of his own books to be so unsettling he could not, himself, read it! That Cortazar learned of his own mortality as an infant in his crib when he heard the crowing of a cock! That virtual reality is about to transform our culture, utterly!


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CC: What are you working on now?

RD: In a few years Bloomsbury Books in London is bringing out a three-volume encyclopedia of Surrealism, from its beginnings to the present. I just learned I am included among the many wonderful artists and writers who have been engaged in the Surrealist adventure, and I have been asked to write several essays for the volume devoted to subjects of particular significance to Surrealism: the Marquis de Sade, the Imagination, Gnosticism and Metamorphosis.


CC: Is there anything else you would like readers to know?

RD: Writing is exhilarating, demanding and lonely. But writers and readers are of the same tribe; we inform one another, we enter into a deep reverie together, we share a particularly exciting place in the wild wood, that place of far seeing and aesthetic adventure, of the unbridled imagination, of knowledge and transformation, of clairvoyance and delight! For me the journey into a book is no longer lonely because I know my tribe is there, has taken me in and I am really grateful.


The Deep Zoo is a part of the Eckleburg Book Club. Check it out HERE.


The author of nine novels, three collections of short fiction, two books of essays and five books of poetry, Rikki Ducornet has received both a Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award For Fiction. She has received the Bard College Arts and Letters award and, in 2008, an Academy Award in Literature. Her work is widely published abroad. Recent exhibitions of her paintings include the solo show Desirous at the Pierre Menard Gallery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2007, and the group shows: O Reverso Do Olhar in Coimbra, Portugal, in 2008, and El Umbral Secreto at the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende in Santiago, Chile, in 2009. She has illustrated books by Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Coover, Forest Gander, Kate Bernheimer, Joanna Howard and Anne Waldman among others. Her collected papers including prints and drawings are in the permanent collection of the Ohio State University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Museo de la Solidaridad Salvador Allende, Santiago Chile, The McMaster University Museum, Ontario, Canada, and The Biblioteque Nationale, Paris.

Chelsey Clammer has been published in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, The Water~Stone Review and Black Warrior Review (forthcoming) among many others. She is the Managing Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review. Clammer is also the Nonfiction Editor for Pithead Chapel and Associate Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. Her first collection of essays, BodyHome, is forthcoming from Hopewell Publishing in Spring 2015. Her second collection of essays, There Is Nothing Else to See Here, is forthcoming from The Lit Pub, Summer 2015. You can read more of her writing at:

INTERVIEW | Richard Gold and Pongo

Writing as a way of healing from traumatic experiences, has recently gained attention and respect in the mental health field. The Pongo Teen Writing Project has been doing this work for 20 years with underserved youth inside juvenile detention centers, homeless shelters, and psychiatric hospitals. It has received recognition through two recent TV news stories, on PBS NewsHour (with U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey) and on KING5-TV in Seattle (which won an Emmy). Now Pongo is propagating its therapeutic model around the country through a new book, Writing with At-Risk Youth, and through the resources (including writing activities) on the Pongo web site. Richard Gold, the founder of Pongo and creator of the Pongo Method, talks here about the challenges that the youth face after trauma, and about the ways both mentors/teachers and youth can use poetry as a way of healing.


Chelsey Clammer: Obvious first questions: What is Pongo? Where did the name come from?

Richard Gold: The Pongo Teen Writing Project teaches and mentors personal poetry by youth who have suffered childhood traumas, such as abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence. We especially focus on young people who have a hard time expressing themselves. To accomplish our goals, we run and support trauma-informed writing programs inside juvenile detention centers, homeless shelters, psychiatric hospitals, and other sites. We provide youth with the opportunity to write about the worst experiences imaginable – often for the first time – but in a way that feels safe, offers relief, brings creative joy, leads to openness, and facilitates healing. Pongo’s mission is to help our authors understand their feelings, build self-esteem, and take better control of their lives. Pongo is a 19-year-old nonprofit in Seattle that has served 7,000 youth, and that now teaches our methods around the country with the expectation that we will help thousands more youth in the years to come.

The name “Pongo” comes from a character in my own poetry. He’s a puppet, like Pinocchio, who is searching for what it means to be human. In my poetry, Pongo deals with some funny and risqué experiences, as well as serious topics. But in the end, he realizes that compassion is what will transform him.


CC: What different sorts of needs within a variety of communities does Pongo serve?

pongo quoteRG: Pongo’s work is “trauma-informed.” In other words, we have an understanding of the deep impact of trauma on the inner lives of our writers, where trauma leaves people with a fragmented experience of life (cut off sometimes from memory and feeling), with a terrible sense of personal defectiveness, and with an alienating sense of isolation. But we have a methodology that facilitates openness and that supports new writers in discovering personal writing. We have facilitated poems recently that dealt with incest, with watching a father beat mom bloody, with watching mom overdose (and feeling responsible), with dealing with a dad who is manic depressive, with being beside a cousin who is murdered in a drive-by shooting. Painful as these subjects are, our writers benefit from writing about their difficult histories. In our surveys of 1,000 of our writers, 100% report enjoying writing, 98% report feeling proud of their writing, 82% report feeling better after writing, 75% report writing about things they don’t normally discuss, and 94% expect to write more in the future.

Pongo works closely with prominent community psychiatrists from the University of Washington School of Medicine. We collect data, we share our authors’ stories (anonymously) with the larger community, we serve as advocates for the healing power of poetry.

Most important, today we not only run writing projects locally in Seattle, but we train people nationally in our methods, along with providing a number of free resources to teaching artists, counselors, teachers, and youth on our web site.


CC: Often times, if not always, rap/hip hop is the main form of expression within the working class and communities of color that your organization serves. How do you work with the different messages that rap gives the youth—both positive and negative?

RG: Youth sometimes first come to us expecting to write rap, but we explain that we want them to “write from the heart about who you are.” We direct them toward personal writing, which is ultimately very gratifying and healing for them. Young people and institutions come to value the courage, human qualities, and connection that are associated with openness in creative expression.


CC: While we are aware of the challenges that the youth face, what are some of the challenges that the counselors, teachers, and other adults who try to help them face?

RG: This is a very important point. Pongo has its volunteers write their own poetry, in their own writing group that meets before they sit down with the youth. Poetry serves the volunteers by helping them process the trauma they hear from the youth – and process the trauma in their own lives that is recalled in the process of working with the youth.


CC: How did Writing with At-Risk Youth come about?

pongo quoteRG: About 12 years ago I met Kay Adams, a journal therapist who was then head of the National Association of Poetry Therapy. Several years ago Kay was asked to edit a series of books on expressive writing for the publisher Rowman & Littlefield Education. Kay contacted me to write a book in the series.

But more fundamentally, the opportunity to write my book, Writing with At-Risk Youth: The Pongo Teen Writing Method, enabled me to realize my dream of recording my 20+ years of experience in order to propagate Pongo’s important work.


CC: Is there any youth poetry or other creative works by/about the youth you would like to share?

RG: Here is a sample Pongo poem:



by a young woman in juvenile detention, age 13

I just thought you should know what I’m doing now. I’m addicted to drugs and in juvie a lot. I am an unloved person who spends a lot of time doing drugs to feel better and not abandoned.

I just thought you should know how I’m feeling. I just hate you. I hate my dad, too. I hate you because you left me one night when I was 7 and never came back. The police broke down the door to take me to foster care. But even before that you brought home men who hurt me and did bad things to me. I hate you for pimping me out. I hate you for packing my nose full of white powder, which is why I have breathing problems now. I hate you for getting me into drugs. I hate you because I ended up in a gang. I hate you.

I just thought you should know what I’ve been through. Since the last time I saw you I’ve been in more foster homes than I can count, but 45-50% of them were abusive. I always ran, but the system found me, didn’t believe me, and put me in another, and another. The time that I was going to be adopted was especially important. They came and picked me, and I lived in their house for a week before they found out about my history and they sent me back.

I just thought you should know what I wish for the future. I hope that somehow I can yell at you without having to see you, to blame all this crap on you. Though it would do nothing for me, at least I wouldn’t have to hold it inside any longer.

I just thought you should know what I don’t miss about you….I don’t miss you at all. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about you leaving me again and not coming back.

I just thought you should know that there is nothing at all that I miss about you.

I just thought you should know that no matter what, you’ll always be my mom, and I’ll always love you.

Dedicated to my mom


Richard Gold founded the Pongo Teen Writing Project, a nonprofit that offers unique therapeutic poetry programs to adolescents who are homeless, in jail, or in other ways leading difficult lives. Pongo authors will often write about childhood traumas, such as abuse or loss from violence, but in a way that helps them understand their feelings, build self-esteem, and develop tools that help them in the future. In its 19 years, Pongo has worked with over 7,000 teens.

Before founding Pongo, Richard was managing editor of Microsoft Press. In 2010, Richard was named a Microsoft Integral Fellow, honored for his work with Pongo, by Bill and Melinda Gates and the Microsoft Alumni Foundation. The award was judged by journalist Tom Brokaw and the heads of five prominent national foundations.

A book of Richard’s illustrated poetry, The Odd Puppet Odyssey (Black Heron Press, 2003) introduces the character Pongo. Pongo is a puppet, like Pinocchio, who struggles awkwardly with becoming human, until he discovers the importance of compassion.


Chelsey Clammer has been published in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, and The Nervous Breakdown among many others. She is the Managing Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, as well as a columnist and workshop instructor for the journal. Clammer is also the Nonfiction Editor for Pithead Chapel and Associate Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. She has two essay collections forthcoming in Spring 2015.

INTERVIEW | Brad Zellar

Writing about loneliness and isolation, in House of Coates, author Brad Zellar makes intriguing and vital observations on types of character traits that defy cultural assumptions and stereotypes of masculinity. Combining vivid writing with photographs by Alec Soth, the novel becomes an enlivened testament to our complicated associations and relationships with the world and each other. Here, Zellar speaks more to these themes, as well as discusses different innovative writing craft techniques.


Chelsey Clammer: There is the stereotype in American society that men must be tough, ruthless, unconquerable, even. House of Coates, in a way, looks at what happens when these expectations are challenged and broken. I’m curious about how you think loneliness and the sense of being broken impact the social constructions of masculine gender roles. What do you think are some of the consequences of these gender stereotypes when they are instilled, but also subverted?

Brad Zellar: I wonder a lot about gender and coping strategies for things like loneliness and disappointment. It seems to me that most of the women I know handle isolation in a more constructive way, but I could be wrong about that. I do know, though, that there’s this ingrained thing with a lot of guys where they feel the need to run and hide, and to try to reinvent themselves as self-sufficient. It’s the action-male instinct, I think, the thing that drives survivalists and all sorts of men who maybe watched too many westerns or ingested a bit too much Thoreau or Kerouac when they were younger. Active isolation. Be a moving target, even if no one’s really gunning for you.

There’s no question that the masculine stereotype of the stoic—the cowboy, the mountain man, etc.—exacerbates loneliness, depression, economic struggles, and all manner of other hardships. And I don’t think American society and culture does a very good job anymore of preparing anyone for those stereotypical masculine roles (probably to its credit) and the result is that a lot of these lonely drifters are just soft, bad actors who don’t have a clue or an audience. Lester B. Morrison is a guy who is crippled by a very common strain of romantic and toxic mythology.


CC: The beginning of the book weaves setting and character together—the two bounce off of one another, then slowly merge and form a very stark and vulnerable story about Lester B. Morrison. What role do you see setting/place having in this story? Other than location, what purpose do you think it serves?

BDZ quote 1BZ: The setting was a very deliberate choice. And it’s a real place, more or less. I’ve always been attracted to John Ruskin’s idea of the pathetic fallacy, and if misery truly loves company than I think it stands to reason that somebody who feels desolate and fouled will seek out a landscape or an environment that mirrors what they’re feeling. It’s obviously not healthy, but I can attest from personal experience that it happens. The area around that refinery south of the Twin Cities—particularly in the dead of winter—is about as inhospitable a place as you can imagine. I’d spent a good deal of time poking around there, and when I was writing House of Coates it just seemed like the natural place to do it. I had no plans initially to set the story there; I was just looking for a suitable spot to hole up and work without distraction. But once I was hunkered down in a little strip motel up the highway from the refinery—and this was in the middle of a particularly dreadful Minnesota winter—the environment became a major distraction and a central part of the experience, and I started seeing Lesters everywhere.


CC: While the writing and content create that beautifully stark tone I spoke of earlier, I feel like the photographs are not just a part of the narrative, but a part of the actual writing of House of Coates, as well. How do you see the photographs interacting with the text? What parts, themes, and/or topics do you think come alive because of the mixed media?

BZ: The original drafts of the book were much, much longer, and there was much more in the way of description. The beauty of working with photographs—and Alec Soth (who took the pictures with a disposable camera) and I have worked together on a number of projects—is that you always know you have a lot of freedom to pare things way down. The pictures carry so much of the weight, and let you off the hook in terms of having to unpack everything. In this instance, they could not only show the place, but also reflect Lester’s point of view. And not only what he was seeing but how he was seeing it and how it was affecting him. So much of the book’s mood and atmosphere are established by those woozy, off-focus photos. When I’m working with photos my models are always the picture books that I read as a child; the great ones are such models of economy and collaboration, and I find that when I remember them I’m no longer sure which parts of my memories are related specifically to the words, and which to the pictures. You’re always shooting for that sort of a marriage.


CC: In Adrienne Rich’s poem “Song,” she writes:

You want to ask, am I lonely?

Well, of course, lonely
as a woman driving across country
day after day, leaving behind
mile after mile
little towns she might have stopped
and lived and died in.

Do you think there is any sense of freedom that can be found within loneliness? Or is it a trap from which we can never fully escape? And finally, as spirituality becomes a theme later on in the novel, how do you think spirituality fits in with this?

BZ: This is where it’s easy to get hung up. I think so many of the more romantic notions of “freedom” are fraught with loneliness once you actually try to make your break. The whole question is also, of course, much more complicated at a time when there are so many ersatz virtual communities in cyberspace. The bottom line is that I believe that most people, no matter how introverted or solitary, really crave some sort of connection and some sort of engagement. Real world connection and engagement. And a lot of that requires an assertiveness that many lonely people don’t have. Spirituality—or an even more old-fashioned term, faith—is a form of connection that can either lead people back into the world, or even farther away from it, and I’m not trying to disparage it by saying that it often worms its way into people’s lives when they’re most vulnerable or in need. Of something. Some sense that they’re not invisible and that their do have meaning or purpose. I’m all for it if it fills the hole, just as long as people don’t use it as a hammer or a wedge. 


BDZ quote 1CC: I want to provide some examples of how the language, pace and structure of each sentence in the novel is, well, astounding.

“Have you ever had the feeling that there wasn’t a soul left on the planet that remembered your name or face or the sound of your laugh? That was a Lester question, and his answer was yes.”

“The poisons were making their way through two or three feet of snow and creating swirling scarves of steam in the freezing air.”

“It’s not about light. It’s about finding a way to live in the darkness.”

There isn’t a question here—I just wanted to point out the lyricism and power of the actual writing in House of Coates, and also to thank you for bringing such beautiful sentences into the world.


CC: What are you working on?

BZ: I’m always writing fiction, but I do it mainly because it’s what I enjoy, and I have never really done anything with it, or at least not for more than 20 years. For the last several years Alec and I have been traveling all over the country and working on a project called The LBM Dispatch. It’s a shifty—and sort of shape-shifting—combination of documentary work, travelogue, and basic storytelling using words and pictures. We’ve pretty much wrapped up our travels (and have published seven newspaper installments of the work) and are in the process of putting together a book about the experience. I’m also finally trying to pull together some of my fiction to toss out into the world. It’s a giant archaeological project. 


CC: Is there anything else you would like readers to know?

BZ: Try to be nice to each other. There are a lot of people out there who feel insignificant and invisible. It doesn’t take much to make a small difference in their lives.


Brad Zellar has written and published fiction, and worked as a writer and editor for daily and weekly newspapers, as well as for both regional and national magazines. A former senior editor at City Pages, The Rake, and Utne Reader, Zellar is also the author of Suburban World: The Norling Photos, Conductors of the Moving World, and House of Coates. For the last three years he has been collaborating with the photographer Alec Soth on “The LBM Dispatch,” an irregularly published newspaper that chronicles American community life in the 21st century. Soth and Zellar are presently at work on a book documenting the experience.

Chelsey Clammer has been published in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, and The Nervous Breakdown among many others. She is the Managing Editor and Nonfiction Editor for The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, as well as a columnist and workshop instructor for the journal. Clammer is also the Nonfiction Editor for Pithead Chapel and Associate Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. She has two essay collections forthcoming in Spring 2015.