Erin Dorney loves a good list and is the author of I Am Not Famous Anymore: Poems after Shia LaBeouf (Mason Jar Press, June 2018). Her writing has been featured in Dream Pop Press, Entropy Magazine, Yes Poetry, Passages North, and The Laurel Review, among other publications. Erin is cofounder of FEAR NO LIT and volunteers with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. You can find more of her writing plus events and updates at erindorney.com and at @edorney.
Curtis Smith: Let’s start with a bit of a disclaimer—we know each other a bit in real life. You, along with group of other young people, helped breathe some real vitality into the Lancaster-Harrisburg, PA lit scene. Can I start there—with the importance of community and involvement? Do you believe writers owe it to the community to be active and reach out? We tend to be a solitary lot after all. We all know the benefits of such actions to the community—but what personal benefits/rewards have you found as the organizer of these events/initiatives?
Erin Dorney: I don’t know if I’d say that writers “owe it” to be involved in their communities, per say. But I think it’s one way that we can connect to other people and defeat the stereotype that writers prefer isolation/solitary existence. Yes, some writers do well on their own, but I don’t like when that is the default when you tell someone that you’re a writer. Particularly with building and participating in literary communities (whether that is in the small town or large city you live in, on the internet, or through a group text with your friends), it’s a chance to get out of your own head—which is what we’re asking readers to do when they engage in something we write, isn’t it?
When Tyler and I founded The Triangle in 2013 (and subsequently FEAR NO LIT in 2016), we wanted to build an unaffiliated/unrestricted space where we could explore the many facets of being a writer and also engage people who would never consider themselves writers in the first place. I think we all know that blank stare you get 10 seconds after someone asks you what you do and you say you’re a writer… We’re trying to raise the visibility of writers as artists but show that we’re everyday people, too—we have a favorite guilty pleasure album, we wrote poorly before we wrote well, our tote bags are full of crumbs, and our lives are just as messy as anyone’s.
Some of the personal benefits of doing work like this are that I get to meet more writers (which leads to reading more—and different—work), find new collaborators, help writers develop non-literary content (through our website series), and spread the word about writers I love.
CS: Was it always writing and nothing else for you? If so, can you trace your interest back to its genesis? If not, what were the other avenues that called (or that continue to call) you? If there are other pursuits, do they exist in separate realms or do you find them coexisting or even feeding off of one another?
ED: I studied and started writing poetry as an undergrad, but kind of left it behind after that. I went to grad school and became an academic librarian for about six years. I picked writing back up again when I went to grad school a second time, which was a requirement for my tenure application. I studied with Kim Bridgford and wrote a collection of poetry as my thesis project. It wasn’t until about 2013 that I started sending out poems for publications and really engaging with the literary community.
Writing’s always been there, in one way or another… It just hasn’t always been poetry. These days, I’m a freelance writer, so I do a lot of business and marketing writing (copywriting, press releases, articles, etc).
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been experimenting more and more with writing that’s not on a page. I’ve showcased some of my literary art/mixed media projects in juried art shows in Minnesota and had a large-scale erasure installation in Minneapolis over the summer of 2017. I’m really interested in exploring unique ways to bring poetry into the paths of the general public, instead of in the pages of a book that mostly other poets will read. Not that I don’t appreciate that readership, but I want to be part of showing people that poetry has really transcended the dead-white-guy-poems they probably studied in school. Not all poems have to rhyme… They don’t have to look a certain way. Stuff like that.
CS: A book’s journey, especially a first book, is often an interesting—or at least a pretty nonlinear—story. Can you tell us how you and the good folks at Mason Jar Press came together?
ED: Absolutely! I first heard about Mason Jar Press when I was visiting a friend in Lancaster and saw a copy of The Black Ladies Brunch Collective’s Poetry Anthology, Not Without Our Laughter, sitting on her living room table. I picked it up and read it during my visit, and I was blown away by the poems but also the quality of the book. It was well designed, felt good in my hands, and was obviously made with care. Those things are important to me because it indicates that the press is honoring the work. I looked up MJP and saw they were somewhat local (Baltimore, MD), in an open reading period, and had published some other pop-culture-related books, so I sent the Shia manuscript. It’s funny because the manuscript had been rejected a couple times before that and I was about ready to give it up and move on to the next thing. But, a couple months later I heard from MJP that they had picked my manuscript (along with books by Danny Caine and Tyrese Coleman) out of about 200 that came in. And they wanted me to expand it from a chapbook to a full-length! I didn’t even know that was a thing that happened. So, I guess that’s our origin story. They’ve been amazing to work with so far—letting me be very involved in the process and going along with a lot of my weird ideas.
CS: Can I admit that while I recognized the name Shia LaBeouf, I knew nothing about him? I did some research and made myself familiar with him—his celebrity and controversies. What was it about him and his situation that made you pick him as the book’s focus?
ED: That’s cool. I know the feeling—I wasn’t familiar with LaBeouf’s work before I started this project. I knew who he was but I have still never seen a lot of his early work (Holes, Even Stevens, Transformers). I found out about him when he was dealing with his own controversies on intellectual property and plagiarism, and that’s how the project started. “Plagiarizing the plagiarist” seemed like an intriguing project and things just grew from there. Now, after reading 60+ interviews spanning 2005-2016, following his own art projects, seeing some of his more recent films, and using his words for these poems, I feel much more sympathetic to his “situation,” as you call it. The process of putting the book together and do press for it has forced me to confront/interrogate a lot of my ideas about the cult of celebrity, artistic transformation, and society in general. I’m still sorting a lot of it out.
CS: Let’s talk structure—I’m a fan of daring structures, and after I understood where you were going with this book, I found myself drawn in. Without giving too much away, each poem is linked to an online article about LaBeouf (doubting it, I looked a number up). First, that’s pretty cool. How did this come to you? Was it big picture first? Or had you written a few poems and then the structure came to you? In the end, what do you think the structure brought to the book?
ED: There are a lot of different ways that the relationship between erasure poetry and the source text it’s drawn from can be displayed in a book. In Chase Berggrun’s book “R E D”, twenty-seven erasure poems are sourced from “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. Since there is a single source text, they reference it at the beginning of the book (A Note on Process) and indicate the source chapters as poem titles. In “Obliterations: Erasures from the New York Times” by Heather Aimee O’Neill and Jessica Piazza, the URLs, titles, authors, and dates of each article used to make a poem are listed in the Notes section at the back of the book. In Isobel O’Hare’s book “all this can be yours,” a collection of erasures of celebrity sexual assault apologies, they elect not to cite the source texts at all (see O’Hare’s “catalyst” section for further discussion).
After a couple of discussions with my publisher, we decided to place the source texts for each poem at the bottom of the page. I think it works with the scope of this project,—as an additional exploration into high/low art. Can there be a poem hidden in a GQ article? Cosmo Girl? Entertainment Weekly?
CS: I’m interested in the relationship between the online articles (“Shia LaBeouf and Dane DeHaan Talk LAWLESS, Sampling Moonshine, and Bringing These Characters to Life” or “Shia LaBeouf: ‘I kiss trouble’”—one could go on and on) and the poems. Do you view them as commentary? As extensions or tangents? As flights of imagination or flowers from strange seeds?
ED: Each source text provides a different set of language, and a lot of that depended on where LaBeouf was at that point in his career. I think he made around 20 films between 2005-2016, and was constantly doing press interviews to promote them. I remember an interview where he was discussing Transformers, for example, and that poem ended up with a lot of mechanical/technological language. The goal of erasure for me, for this project, has been to transcend the source text. I aim to create something brand new that could not have existed without the precise combination of this source text and this poet.
CS: What’s next?
ED: I’m pretty focused on promoting this book (I had no idea how much work goes into getting a book out into the world) but I’m also applying for grants and residencies to work on a new erasure project. This one incorporates objects from nature that literally cover up the source text. I’m also working on a text-object project for Container, but I’m not allowed to tell you much more than that!
Request a copy of I Am Not Famous Anymore: Poems after Shia LaBeouf at your favorite local bookstore or pre-order the book from Mason Jar Press.
Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chapbooks, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing published Kurt Vonnegut: Bookmarked, a collection of his essays about Slaughterhouse Five, and his fourth novel, Lovepain, was just released by Braddock Avenue Books.