Interview by Lara Lillibridge
While perusing booths at AWP, I was drawn to Whisk(e)y Tit’s booth with their neon logo. I mentioned my love of experimental and unexpected books to Miette, who handed me a perfectly square book entitled, Knickpoint by M.B.F. Wedge. Of course I purchased it at once, and then proceeded to carry it around in my backpack for a few months while it waited to come up in my reading rotation.
I don’t read paper books much. I am nearsighted and prefer to zoom text on a digital device, but this book had physical presence and demanded I find my reading glasses. I finished it in one sitting, and as soon as I finished Wedge’s lyrical prose I contacted Whisk(e)y Tit to arrange an interview.
About the book:
This breathtaking collage memoir in stark prose poetry takes place in a post-industrial upstate New York town. With gimlet-eyed clarity, the author gives equal weight to the momentous and the mundane, spanning the arrest of her former lover for pedophilia, her work as a rehabilitation counselor for the severely and persistently mentally ill, and the death of her mother and aunt. Knickpoint’s characters exist at the fringes of accepted space; their struggles reveal the conflicted spirit as a landscape both bright and dark.
About the author: M.B.F. Wedge is a middle school English teacher. She does not recommend her book to her students, but it was a finalist for the 2017 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize.
Lara Lillibridge: First of all, what is your writing process like? Do you start with longer pieces, and distill them into fragments, or do the fragments emerge as a thought, and you build on them from there?
Margaret B.F. Wedge: I do a lot of writing in parking lots and on the side of the road, actually, or like, in an MRI machine or something. I usually start with an image that is only mildly related to what I want to say and tease out the relationship between the two to clarify it. Stuff just seems to hang together on the racking in my mind; maybe this process is like downstocking shelves?
LL: Do you consider yourself primarily a poet or a prose writer?
MBFW: Prose, but there’s a rock in my mouth about it. I mean, I’m constantly trying to make sure the prose is right, sounds right. Conveys the most possible meaning in the fewest words. Sometimes the meaning gets distorted by what sounds beautiful to me, and I suppose a lot of the work I do in my writing is balancing those two truths.
LL: So then, is this book typical of your style, or more of an anomaly?
MBFW: It’s typical, insofar as it goes. I write a lot of Instagram captions. Ha! I continue to be proud of this book because the author Jess Walter says something like, ‘people don’t tend to be smart enough to make their best work in one sitting. But flashes of good writing get compounded and worked on in a larger piece over time, and what you eventually come out with has the potential to be better writing than you yourself could produce on any given day.’
I love that. So true and smart.
LL: I love that, too. Do you have a writing group or regular critique partners you turn to, or are you more of a solitary creator?
MBFW: I’m a big fan of ignoring suggestions until I come around to their value on my own. I much prefer unadulterated praise. I did a lot of reading these pieces to my husband, whose quizzical or disengaged or hurt looks often told me more than his feedback might have. Still waters run deep, they say.
LL: Can you explain how you landed on the title?
MBFW: This book was entirely a Goddard College project. I had the great fortune of working with stunning writers like Michael Klein (Track Conditions), Douglas A. Martin (Wolf), Richard Panek (The Trouble with Gravity), and Elena Georgiou (The Immigrant’s Refrigerator). I got something profound from each of them. Michael read a draft of KP (which for a hot second was called _Self Preservation Test_) and commented that there seemed to be a lot of erosion and decay imagery. It’s a book about love, though, isn’t it, sort of, at least, and I’m fascinated by frame tales a la Chaucer, so I asked myself how one love, in particular my first real love, my 9th grade science teacher, informs the other loves. I did some digging in old Earth Science textbooks, et voila.
LL: What was your publishing journey like?
MBFW: I went to Goddard on the recommendation of my friend Jill, an amazing New York City therapist, whose friend Cara Hoffman (Running) went there too. When my book was done, I shopped it around to some contests and some agents and, evidently, it’s not really the sort of book an agent has any use for. Cara suggested Whisk(e)y Tit, and I fell in love with the marathon-running, pig farming, curious and delightful Miette and her Vermont decampment, including the best writer in Vermont, Joey Truman.
LL: I love that the book is square. How did that come to be?
MBFW: Isn’t everything secretly or not so secretly derivative of something else? Michael Klein wrote a tiny chapbook of essays called “States of Independence” that is square. I love it, and my book felt so unconventional that it needed an unconventional style too, plus a physically larger book would put even more waste into the world since the pages are so textually short. It was also really exciting to go through the process of making the cover; I sent a copy of the questionnaire they give to newly charged sex offenders in New York state (it’s barbaric and probing in a skin-crawly sort of way) through Miette to the painter Jack Warren in New York City. He does a lot of dark and searching art, so it was a magical match, in my opinion. They actually gave me the canvas once they’d photographed it for the cover.
LL: I liked that you wrote it under M.B.F. Wedge. Going into the book, I didn’t know if the narrator was male, female, nonbinary, etc. and that was exciting for me, I had to give up my preconceived notions. I also thought it created a distance between reader and writer that echoed the prose—I will tell you this, but not that. Can you speak about that decision?
MBFW: I think a lot about implication. To be direct, Miette decided I should go by M.B.F. for the sake of brevity, probably, and because Margaret is a grandma name (my words). But implication, as well as making a setting speak for me, is in part a trauma response. There are just some things that hurt too much, are too ugly to write directly. I mean, not my name. But like. To your point. (At least one page of my book gets left out in public readings, because I’m ashamed of it). Implication is a safe space in a narrative, for me and for potential readers. My friend Dana likes to say that good reading is an act of writing between the lines. You’ve got to make your own meaning at least some of the time, or what’s the point? I try to nudge readers in that direction while still sticking true to my own perception.
LL: In amassing these fragments, how did you determine when it had enough substance to hold together as a book?
MBFW: The deadline for this project was three days after my mother died from having ovarian cancer for five years. I went to a shitty, freezing, dark bar in my town and drank and shuffled pages for hours. I did a lot of abandoning stuff I didn’t know how to deal with (um, speak to my family about that). But I was able to keep going back to the frame of the story, at least, and ask, over and over again, how does this fragment fit the memory, how does it fit the frame? Some good stuff I got rid of, and some stuff just accidentally got lost? I look back and I’m like, wait, where did that piece go? Ah, wasn’t meant to be, I guess. And there was always a clear sense of the story I wanted to tell. I thought a lot about how to tell it without talking out of school, if you know what I mean. At least one person from the book has told me I shared a secret that wasn’t exactly mine to share. Oops.
LL: Your book reminded me of Jenny Boully’s book-length essay, “The Body.” Are you familiar with it? What books have most influenced you as a writer?
MBFW: No! Though it sounds like I should be. I started this project after reading Karen Green’s Bough Down. It fascinated me not only because of its dealings with the ways grief fragments memory, but also because it’s the story of a woman who deeply loved a man (David Foster Wallace, her husband) who struggled a lot and in the public perception wasn’t the best guy. “I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down.” Goddamn that line haunts me, because of course she is referring to his literal kneecaps after his hanging suicide in their garage. The pets! It just makes me cry.
I also adore the poet Tom Hirons, whom I continually confuse with Michael Sheen (they look alike in my mind) who reads part of Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood” on a National Theater Youtube, I mean, that isn’t his greatest accomplishment, is it, but it might as well be. Damn! (Run don’t walk). In writing KP I also really valued Rebecca Brown’s Excerpts from a Family Medical Dictionary, speaking of bodies.