The Interstate Just Looks Like Subject Matter Now


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Like the motels and fast-food joints along America’s interstate system, billboards are a ubiquitous roadside feature, a revealing (if archaic) format that refuses to disappear in a digital age. In Missouri, where there is a billboard surplus, these low-budget advertisements can seem like a back-and-forth shouting match in the culture wars, with their commentaries on sex, gambling, firearms, unions, and religion.

The “I-70 Sign Show” is a yearlong event launched in April that engages the Missouri landscape by exhibiting art on an interstate billboard near Columbia, halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City. Six artists are on the main board for two months; then their work rotates to an available board elsewhere on the interstate for another two months, a different location each time. I talked with “Sign Show” organizer Anne Thompson, an artist and writer living in Columbia, about her curatorial agenda.

—Joe Marianek

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I. THE BILLBOARDS ARE THE SCENERY

THE BELIEVER: How did Missouri become a billboard capital of the U.S.?

ANNE THOMPSON: It goes back to the Kennedy Administration, when the interstate was new. There were federal subsidies to regulate signage, and Missouri turned those down. Since then—and I’m really simplifying—there’s been this contest between highway-beautification efforts and a powerful ad-industry lobby with money and political clout. About 15 years ago, when it looked like a regulation law might pass, billboard companies went on a construction binge because existing signs would be grandfathered in. Going by state transportation data, which isn’t that current, Missouri has at least 15,000 billboards, which—allowing for states with no billboards (like Maine) and states with lots (like Florida)—winds up being roughly five times the national average.

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"Connected but facing out at life alone, and separated in that aloneness."

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An Interview with Amina Cain

Amina Cain’s second book, Creature, came out last November from Dorothy, a publishing project, and its inner-workings have only grown more mysterious to me as time goes on. Her stories use language to get to a place entirely outside of language, to the maid’s room in Clarice Lispector’s The Passion of G.H., a room inside of your home where you haven’t been for a while, that when you enter, nothing’s as you had expected, and when you leave, whoever it is that’s leaving is different from whoever had gone inside.

Amina Cain and I emailed about Creature over the course of several months, and the conversation is as follows.

—Hayden Bennett

I. A KIND OF CONTAINER

THE BELIEVER: Your writing feels very far away from speech—like it may have been spoken at one point, but that now it’s been culled and shaped into the bare containers of speech, and it makes me wonder about the level of rhetoric in your writing. In shaping stories, do you feel like there’s someone you’re addressing?  

AMINA CAIN: I love that idea: that the writing may have been speech at one point, but becomes a kind of container. When I’m writing, I don’t feel a distance from language, necessarily, but as if I am using it to get to something else, some place, so a container does make sense to me.

In terms of address, there have been times when I am oriented toward another (real or fictionalized) when writing a story (like someone I once loved, or Vitória in Clarice Lispector’s The Apple in the Dark), and that includes a few of the stories in Creature. And then there are times when what I’m facing is more like a landscape (the desert, a tropical farm, the mountains), or an intense experience, or a simple one, in which I felt very connected (riding my bike on a summer evening), or even a whole swath of time (when I felt very close to a group of friends). I think I address things as much as I address people, and sometimes I address writing others have done that I feel some deep kinship towards. In the novel I am now working on, I seem to be addressing, very lightly, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.

I hope that those others, those landscapes, those texts, and those experiences are also addressing me. In many ways I think so, yes; it’s maybe why I’m called to say something too. 

BLVR: Does writing come out of a response, then? If you were stuck in a bare room for the rest of your life, would you still feel pushed to write?

AC: It’s probably always a response, if even to my own mind. If I were stuck in a bare room I would still write, imagining my way out of it. The need to respond might even be stronger—to the past, to some future.   

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Go Forth (Vol. 28)

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Go Forth is a series curated by Nicolle Elizabeth and Brandon Hobson that offers a look into the publishing industry and contemporary small-press literature. See more of the series.

There are many literary journals and publishing houses in the indie realm. This year’s Pushcart Prize had eight-thousand nominations from journals, which means that if each journal sends four nominations, that’s at least two-thousand journals that participate. And considering not every journal participates in the competition, that’s a lot of journals. Rescue Press is one of them.

We do these interviews because sometimes readers say, “I keep reading the same people and the same journals” and while we are very pro reading what one just plain likes, we are also very pro the outside guy. Also, I think it’s really important that people who want to participate can read and say, “Well that’s how that guy did it and maybe even so can I.” Believe in yourselves, and add positively to the craft of writing, ok?

Love, Nicolle Elizabeth

NICOLLE ELIZABETH: Hi Danny. What is Rescue Press?

DANIEL KHALASTSCHI: Hi Nicole! Rescue Press is an independent publisher of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and hybrid texts. As our mission states, we are “a library of chaotic and investigative work,” and we aim to publish books that transform us. Together with my co-editor, the talented poet and essayist Caryl Pagel, we have spent the last five years seeking out manuscripts that haunt our brains completely. The collections, novellas, anthologies, experiments, and genre-bending projects we share with the world are not only books we emphatically believe in, but they are also books we feel showcase the wild possibilities of contemporary literature. With that, it’s important to note that both Caryl and I are writers and readers first. Even if I didn’t co-own/manage Rescue Press, I’d still want these beautiful books on my shelf. Is that a nerdy thing to say?

NE: Define haunt.

DK: Gladly. When I say we seek out manuscripts that “haunt” us I mean we look for books that refuse to leave us alone. In other words, Rescue Press produces books the reader can’t shake; the authors we work with shock, surprise, confuse, bewilder, entertain, and recalibrate us in astonishing ways, and that’s exactly what good literature should do. I mean, doesn’t that sound like a lovely kind of haunting? Who wouldn’t want ghosts like that in their lives?

NE: And what is Rescue Press’ manuscript acquisition process? i.e., do you seek out authors?

DK: That’s a great question. Though we continue to solicit work from writers we admire, we also publish manuscripts that come to us through our Open Prose reading period and our annual Black Box Poetry Prize. The Open Prose Series is edited by the phenomenal writers Zach Savich and Hilary Plum, and our goal is to support the wider discussion of contemporary literary prose. Submissions are open each year during the month of January, and the first book in the series (Anne Germanacos’s Tribute) was just released May 1st. The Black Box Poetry Prize is entering its fourth year, and writers can submit full-length poetry collections to the contest during the month of June (there’s no singular aesthetic here—we’re interested in all forms, styles, and voices). Past winners of the contest include Blueberry Morningsnow (Whale in the Woods), Todd Melicker (Rendezvous), and Bridgette Bates (whose debut collection will be released next fall). Oh, and I should mention that we are very excited to announce that this year’s Black Box Prize will be judged by Maggie Nelson. More information can be found here.

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