One of the great things about working from home is I get to hang out with my dogs during the day, and occasionally take random belly rub breaks or dog walks. (When it's cooler, at least. No daytime dog walks during the scorching New Mexico summer.) Usually, though, they're just lazing around. But, since they're corgis, they're never lying in a normal position. I'm much more likely to find something like this:
No, she didn't fall off of my desk, that's just how she's hanging out.
The places I'm most likely to find my dogs during the day are the stairs and the couch. And with surprising consistency, I'll find them in these positions where I just have to stop and ask them, "This is comfortable? You chose that?" And they'll either blink at me and keep lazing, or they'll contort themselves out of it (sometimes with great, awkward effort) and demand a walk.
I can't always understand the comfort of my pups' chosen sleeping positions, but then again, I have been known to fall victim to the "Awkward Reading Position" problem. Having practiced yoga for more than a decade, I should know better how to keep my neck from aching or my leg from falling asleep as I twist and contort in my reading chair, but who thinks about posture and alignment when you're caught up in a story?
Sometimes, though, I find my dogs snuggled up in a good spot and I have to think, "Yep, they've got this 'comfy' thing figured out."
I first met Matthew Burnside a massive Facebook group called MFA Draft when we were both applying to MFA programs. The group was set up so applicants to the many creative writing grad programs could share support and anxiety while they waited for those acceptance calls or rejection notices. Matthew was one of the many memorable personalities in that group. I, certainly, was not, but many of them friended me anyway, and I love seeing where their paths have taken them now that we've all finished our programs. Matthew Burnside's Facebook feed alternates between the most ridiculous, awkward memes and the most inspirational, heartfelt manifestos about writing and art. See the interview below and you'll get a taste of what I mean.
Matthew's first full-length story collection, Postludes, is out today from Kernpunkt Press.
Sarena Ulibarri: The most important question first: is that a corgi on the cover? Is there a corgi in this book?! I must know.
Matthew Burnside: There are at least two dogs in Postludes, but I never specify that either is a corgi. I actually asked the cover artist to just “envision your most precious pet” and a corgi was the result. Pets are inextricably linked to childhood, nostalgia, and most notably our early conceptions of loss I think, so they definitely had important roles to play.
SU: In a nutshell, what was the path from manuscript to publication for Postludes?
MB: Postludes is a jigsaw of mostly formal experiments I did over the years, some preceding my MFA but many of them completed while I was in my program. Finding a home for the collection was difficult because they aren’t traditional pieces, some have more in common with poetry than prose, and a cohesive theme proved elusive for the longest time. In short, it was a monster to market. I feel like much of my work feels like B-sides, not in quality hopefully but in tone and variety. Prose that feels more like poetry at times (or vice versa) can be really alienating to readers, but it’s how I write for better or worse. Plot or narrative doesn’t interest me nearly as much as conveying a feltness or visceral emotion through landscapes of language.
SU: You earned an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop—what advice do you have for young (or not so young) writers struggling through the MFA application process?
MB: I know when I first started trying to crack the MFA code (I was rejected by 50+ programs before Iowa finally said Sure, come on in) I was doing it for the wrong reasons: I needed validation. To feel like a writer. I needed people who had already been successful to pat me on the head and go, Yes, little one you have my permission to write your little things. And then, of course, you look around at all the other really talented writers and do your best to follow their example. To publish where they’ve published and how they’ve published. You try to sound like them and maybe look like them and think like them, too. This is the mistake I think, because it means latching on to a path that’s been tread a thousand times already instead of maybe footing it and exploring your own path, which can be scary and lonely but may lead you to yourself---your own unique identity as an artist. At a certain point when I was at Iowa, I remember some of my peer’s words ringing in my ears, regarding this weird new media project I had made: “How in the HELL are you ever going to sell this?” And I remember thinking I HAVE NO IDEA and then promptly thinking, How Exciting is That? Maybe it doesn’t matter if I sell it at all? Maybe it shouldn’t? That doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy investment of time and craft. That doesn’t negate its value as an artful endeavor. That acceptance changed a lot for me. Since then, I’ve just sort of been exploring and writing what’s interesting to me. Some things have been successful, most haven’t, but it’s all one big exploration now. So, I guess my advice to younger writers would be Forget Trying To Make It Into the Cool Writers Club. Forget carving a fail-proof career out of art. Forget perfectly padded CVs whispering the promise of tenure and wide-eyed admiration from little versions of you. Accept Loneliness Now. Invite Failure Now, the more ambitious the riskier the better. Accept being an outlier, an outsider, an under-the-radar obscure no-name Nobody. Because there’s tremendous creative freedom in that, to work on what you want how you want for your own pure-as-ice joy. If you want rabid fans, if you’re desperate for attention, go start a cult. Writing is not a way to get love from others, or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s about finding a key to unlock rooms you never knew you had inside of you.
SU: Much of your work can be classified under that fuzzy label of “Experimental Writing.” What does “experimental” mean to you, and how has your understanding of it morphed over your writing career?
MB: It used to mean WRITER WHO WILL NEVER MAKE MONEY EVER. It still means that, mostly. But it also means being a Serpentine Disciple of Yes in a narrow valley of mediocrity. It means a willingness to die again and again through your work for the off chance to be reborn as something better. It means restlessness and motion sickness and a stubborn refusal to wear the same hat even if it is the prettiest and most comfortable of hats.
SU: What books, authors, or films most influenced you while writing Postludes?
MB: I’ve already spoken of the influence Akira Kurosawa’s DREAMS had on the book in another interview, but there are others too: Chris Van Allsburg’s The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, the dream fog logic of David Lynch, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, the dancing of Martha Graham, the science of Stephen Hawking, cartoons, video games, even the comedy of Mr. Bean.
SU: Do you have any readings or signings coming up? Where can readers find you?
MB: None scheduled. I find that my work doesn’t really lend itself to performativity. I mostly prefer to leave it as a thing that exists on the page or screen, but in 2017 that may be something I try to change. I’d welcome the opportunity, especially if it involves working with young writers, as the classroom is where I feel most comfortable.
Until then, I live on the internet at http://matthewkburnside.wixsite.com/2017 and currently teach fiction and creative writing for new media at Wesleyan University.
Matthew Burnside’s work has appeared in Best American Experimental Writing, DIAGRAM, Ninth Letter, Kill Author, PANK, and Pear Noir! among others. He is the author of several chapbooks and numerous digital works. He currently teaches at Wesleyan University and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Find your copy of Postludes:
Small Press Distribution
Husband, leaving for work: "I'm off to save the world."
The Dog: *whines*
Me: "This dog appreciates it. He doesn't want to be a post-apocalyptic dog."
Husband: "Yeah, he doesn't look good in spikes. He's not tough enough to hang with the other post-apocalyptic dogs."
Me: "It's true. All the dogs you ever see in post-apocalyptic stories are, like, Pit Bulls and German Shepherds. You never hear about post-apocalyptic poodles."
And so he went off to work, the dog eventually stopped whining, and I wrote "Post Apocalyptic Poodle."
Charles Christian, the editor at Grievous Angel, bought the story because, as he says in his introduction to it, "I've a dachshund who came from a rescue charity but who I suspect is actually an alien in an unfortunate disguise." Everyone needs mirrors in fiction, even alien-eyed shorty dogs.
I started to say just now that I try not to write apocalyptic stories, but my own publication list belies that claim. There's "The Bolt Tightener," where a seawall is the only thing keeping the monsters from their final victory; there's "Natural Selection," a maybe-it's-a-virus, maybe-it's-zombies survival struggle; there's "As Dust Rolls Toward the Mountain," a contemporary Cassandra retelling about an asteroid strike, there's "Breath Over the Mouth of a Bottle," where an unnatural snowstorm has engulfed the whole planet.
So. I guess I do write the occasional apocalyptic story. But I'm a little tired of them, to be honest, which is why it was easy to for me to satirize the genre in "Post Apocalyptic Poodle." It seems to be impossible these days for writers to imagine a future that isn't an apocalypse or a dystopia. I'm very interested in the nascent Solarpunk subgenre, which challenges writers to imagine an optimistic future. Even most supposed solarpunk I've read is still dystopic or post-apocalyptic in nature. It's like the crash is so inevitable at this point that we can't even conceptualize of it not happening.
"Post Apocalyptic Poodle" is just over 500 words, and it's online to read for free. Give it a read, and then click through to see the other fun stories Grievous Angel has published.
Post-apocalyptic Poodle has no master. She runs free in the ruins of her former master’s city. She ravages the Dumpsters, the roadside recycling, the industrial bins. Other survivors skulk around the alleyways and snarl at her. She rolls in mud until it cakes her hypoallergenic locks, positions sticks along her back like spikes, and snarls back.
If you enjoy this story, check out my other "dog story," "Working Like a Dog," published in Bartleby Snopes.
I promised you gratuitous corgi pictures, didn’t I? Well, here we go. Although, since this is a story about a corgi, they’re not really that gratuitous.
“Working Like a Dog” is another absurdist story — I was really into that for a while, and maybe it’s what I’m better at than straight-up fantasy and science fiction. For some reason, my husband and I used to make jokes about our corgi getting a job or helping out around the house, and one day I just took that joke and ran with it.
I guess we joked one too many times about the dog getting a job; he finally did it. I stopped to get gas on the way home from the shop one day and there he was, wearing a little backwards uniform shirt and restocking the chip aisle in the convenience store. My wife said he'd seemed more tired than normal in the evenings, but we figured he'd just spent the day chasing squirrels out of the back yard.
I workshopped this story along with a couple of other flash fiction pieces in the first semester of my MFA. I don’t remember the original title, but I know it was fellow corgi owner and kickass writer C.T. Hutt who told me regarding the title, “the corgi puns practically write themselves.” So I ended up with “Working Like a Dog.” This actually inspired a whole series of stories that took common idiomatic sayings and considered them literally: “Son of a Gun,” “Brain Child,” “Take it With You to the Grave,” and “Cry Me a River” (which became “The Riverhead”), as well as a handful of others that were written but never published.
“Working Like a Dog” is probably the only story I’ve ever submitted for publication that was accepted at the first place I sent it to, and I chose that magazine because I knew it was a perfect fit. Not only because I’d read a number of other stories they’d published, but because I’d read a number of stories by the editor, Nathaniel Tower, and knew that he wrote with a similar surreal, absurd aesthetic. Could it have been published somewhere else, perhaps at a higher-paying market? Maybe. We’ll never know. But I said, “This is a Bartleby Snopes story,” and indeed, it was. (Now if only that would come true the next time I’m sure “This is a Clarkesworld story” or “This is a Beneath Ceaseless Skies story.” But it’s a tough market out there, especially at the pro level.)
This story is absurd and humorous, but like many good absurdist works, it has a societal critique and a sadness at its core. This is a story that comes out of having just lived through the 2008 financial crisis, of four-dollar-per-gallon gas prices, of fear and uncertainty about the future. But all that’s softened and wrapped up in a nice ball of corgi fluff.
“Working Like a Dog” is online and free to read at Bartleby Snopes, and it’s flash fiction at about 800 words — only slightly longer than this blog post. Give it a read sometime, and let me know if it made you laugh.