Steven John Interviews Theresa Wyatt about her story in NEW MICRO (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018)
SJ: In ‘Gettysburg, July, 1863’ published in the Norton New Micro Anthology, you encapsulated the tragedy and compassion of war, and the horrors of 19th century surgery, in four sentences. Please talk us through your revision and editing process for this piece.
TW: First, let me say thank you for your takeaway of compassion. That means a great deal. There was very little revision for this piece as I wrote it purposely to enter Prime Number Magazine’s 53-Word Story Contest back in 2016. I was researching Gettysburg eye-witness accounts at the time and those four sentences just flowed out of me. The prompt was ‘melting.’ My first try came in at about 57 words, so then a little subtraction and two commas. The judge, Jeffery Hess, a US Navy veteran, chose this story as the winner which set it in motion. I was grateful.
SJ: It’s been said that the candles in ‘Gettysburg’ are a metaphor for the beginning and end, for the light and dark. Should we as writers start out with these idioms in mind or should meaning be found by the reader?
TW: No absolutes, I’d say. Intended or not, if the use of metaphors and idioms enriches the writing by adding more layers of meaning for all involved – the author, the work, and the reader, well then, I think it’s a win-win. A few of my friends who read this story said it brought to mind how luminarias are used on days of remembrance at Gettysburg and Antietam, a beautiful segue. Besides my literal use, the candle associations that you mention are a gift to any Civil War writer.
SJ: You’re known primarily as a poet. How did it feel to have a piece of fiction chosen for the Norton anthology?
TW: I was elated. I felt encouraged. I’m a rookie amongst these incredible fiction authors. All the editors involved in pushing this very micro forward did so with kindness and respect. I felt lucky.
SJ: We’ve recently commemorated 100 years since the end of the First World War. The poetry from the likes of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Herbert Kaufman is well known. What new lens, if any, can modern writers look through at the great conflicts of the 20th century?
TW: Through a willingness to examine and confront the effects of war as we pass through one generation to the next, I think, is where the new lens will always be found – and diverse voices and women’s voices will increasingly be a part of the sharpening focus. Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey’s poetry in Native Guard, which underscores our nation’s racial contradictions, impacts me beyond words. Tara Lynn Masih’s fresh new novel, My Real Name is Hanna, brings a 14-year-old teenager and the events of the Holocaust to a whole new generation of young adult readers. Take a look at Ron Koertge’s arresting story “War” in the Norton New Micro. Author and veteran, Jeffery Hess, editor of Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform, serves to inspire others with similar projects. All four of these contemporary authors/editors, to name a few, illuminate the complexities of war through their own genres of poetry, novel, micro fiction, and the short story. They exemplify the willingness I refer to. Few writers take on war continuously though which is why I love focused anthologies for this subject. The Poetry of Vietnam (The Poetry Foundation) and Poets of World War II (American Poets Project), the later edited by Harvey Shapiro, are invaluable. They provide the ‘collective lens.’
SJ: I’ve read some of your remarkable work in ‘Hurled into Gettysburg’. What was it about that particular period in history that captured your imagination?
TW: Thank you so much. I’m grateful to BlazeVox for taking a chance on this book. The institution of slavery is the behemoth stain on American history. I like to think of the Battle of Gettysburg as the game changer that propelled our democracy forward. I’ve always been interested in the poetry of eulogy. The extraordinary citizen biographies from the Gettysburg era, such as Elizabeth Thorn and Basil Biggs, inspired me no end. Imagination? When I stood in the middle of the town square and envisioned 163,000 soldiers converging in and around the peaceful area, my mind was set on fire.
SJ: If you were to cast your creative eye now over another period in American military history, where and when would that be?
TW: I don’t see myself veering away from the Civil War period, but if I did, it might be the War of 1812. I live close to Lake Erie and one of biggest naval battles of this war, The Battle of Lake Erie, was in 1813. But for now, I’m stepping back from the theme for a little while.
SJ: Gettysburg is obviously a place you’ve visited. How important is it for a writer to be physically in the geography of their subject matter whether that’s a battlefield or a hotel bar? What can they absorb from their surroundings that they can’t from reference books or from the mind’s eye?
TW: Depending on the writer’s goals, I think it’s extremely important. I can tell you with 100% certainty that if I had not visited Gettysburg several times, I would never have written about it. Being able to visually take in the magnitude of the landscape versus the size of the town and then overlay textbook on it pulled me right in. The major benefit of being ‘on location,’ wherever that might be, is that all our senses are engaged. Obviously, we can absorb more details, give authentic framework to the subject. Unexpected things can happen. At Gettysburg, being able to touch witness trees and visit hiding places deeply moved me, took me by surprise and informed the work. That said, I write vicariously often, especially during winters in Buffalo.
SJ: Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was just 271 words. What does that tell us about economy with words?
TW: I think it tells us that a brief masterpiece, written with precise intent, can endure the test of time. The economy ensured its essence and ease of recitation and study. What always strikes me though when I think about this famous address – was that Lincoln was not the featured speaker for the Dedication of the Soldiers’ Cemetery. A retired statesman, Edward Everett, was the invited keynote speaker and he spoke for two hours. Imagine that.
SJ: What are you working on currently? Do you have any plans for more micro fiction?
TW: I’m working on some poems that deal with issues of illness and healing, sometimes referred to as ‘narrative medicine.’ For balance, I like to make ekphrastic poems inspired by visual art. As I enjoy writing in general – that’s a yes for more micro fiction too!
TW: And a last, but not least comment, thank you Steve and Meg for having me.
Theresa Wyatt’s collection of poems, Hurled Into Gettysburg, was published by BlazeVox [Books] in 2018. She was both a finalist in Prime Number Magazine’s Award for Poetry and the Best Small Fictions in 2017. Her work has appeared in A Celebration of Western New York Poets, Spillway, Steel Bellow, The Medical Literary Messenger, and The Healing Muse. Earlier poems appeared in Earth’s Daughters, Hektoen International Journal, Raving Dove and the Yale Journal for Medical Humanities. A former visual artist and teacher for the New York State Department of Corrections, Theresa resides near Buffalo, New York.