Rachel Hoge: Hi, Scotty. Thanks again for agreeing to discuss your upcoming book launch! To begin, can you describe Arkansas Ghoulash—its themes and aesthetic, genre and structure, whatever aspects seem significant to you?
Scotty Lewis: Let me start by saying that the title is meant as a play on the idea of both a mixture of ghosts and lyrical variety. There are sections composed in the measure of ballad, American Haiku, blank verse, and free verse. There are sections originally composed to the length and measure of sonnets. The chapter entitled “Khaddish” is my prayer to the dead. Formulaically it is a goulash, a stew with a variety texture and spice. Thematically, Ghoulash deals with domestic abuse, racism, and the disconnectedness being an adopted child, as the narrator recalls the circumstances that lead him (me) to killing his brother. There are elements of epic poetry at work. We certainly follow the narrative voice into the ‘underworld’ in a psychological sense. I certainly hope that there is a sort of beauty in the aesthetic, but I think the language is often terse, and the images and tone are often violent. A cadaver dissected into a prayer. Though reading it may be a disorienting experience, I think I have left enough on the page for an intelligent critical conversation.
RH: You graduated from the Arkansas Writers MFA program in 2015, and Arkansas Ghoulash was your graduate thesis. How did the MFA faculty and thesis defense process help shape your book of poetry?
SL: Lucidly describing the process of the defense may be a challenge. This project ranges beyond the definition of a ‘chapbook,’ which typically reaches a maximum breadth of about 25 pages. This is a full length book in the poetry world.
Was the process of defending this as a thesis project helpful? I’d say it was invaluable. I think there are few places where I would have felt safe enough to tackle a project like this. It was emotionally exhausting. Every time I sat down to write, I needed to break down the psychological distance I have created from the central incident. I feel like I rarely succeeded. But in the moments when I did find myself in the state of mind to feel my way through the night I shot my brother, the amalgamation of emotion and lyric bled into the work.
I remember feeling that it would be impossible to read from this piece on the day of my defense. I worried that my committee would ask questions that would send me fleeing from the room in a panic. Of course, neither of these things happened. It was a question about the landscapes presented in the poem that, for a moment, left me on the edge of tears. It’s strange to learn in such a circumstance, which details will trigger the pain attached to the memory.
I suppose I can only say that the process was difficult. But I found the sort of mentorship and support that I needed with the MFA faculty. Mark Spitzer kept me working when I was terrified to write another line. James Fowler and Stacy Kidd provided invaluable feedback. Even the members of our faculty who did not sit on my committee, whether they knew it or not, contributed to the text by allowing me construct pieces of the manuscript in their classes. This wasn’t one of those things I necessarily wanted to write. It was something I had to write. It seems miraculous to me that I found my place here.
The afternoon that Stephanie Vanderslice called to offer me a seat in the program’s inaugural class changed my life forever. The spirit of openness and inclusion that she and the rest of our faculty champion made this possible for me. I found an atmosphere where I could take the risks I needed to take. I will always be grateful for the opportunity this program provided me. My heart will always be invested in the success of its writers, both faculty and students.
RH: Arkansas Ghoulash is your debut book publication. What advice would you give to others attempting to publish their first full-length manuscript?
SL: My advice to folks who are looking to publish a book: find your community. Invest in it. Attend conferences. Participate in readings. Read the works of your peers. Be kind and generous and thoughtful. Real art, meaningful art, is not created in a vacuum. Cultivate relationships that will last beyond your years as a student. I don’t know what anyone else will decide to write. But I think refining our voices is best accomplished in an atmosphere of trust.
RH: How can readers purchase their own copy of Arkansas Ghoulash? Are there any upcoming readings or promotional events?
SL: Anyone can buy the book on Amazon.They may also pick one up at my opening reading at the Faulkner County Library in Conway on the evening of September 27th at 7:00 p.m. Future readings are in the works as well. I intend to find a venue in my hometown of Hot Springs sometime in the fall. There is also a reading being planned in Six Gallery Press’s neighborhood in Pittsburgh this December.
Click here for more information on Scotty’s upcoming reading at the Faulkner County Library in Conway.