Today, I’d like to share an interview with you that I conducted with Christine Conte (CC) a writer I’ve known and followed online since 2005, who has recently had two poems published in Uno Kudo volume 2.
I conducted the interview by email from my desk in New York City beamed all the way to her desk up there in Maine. In the future sometime, maybe we could just teleport to a spot somewhere in the middle (let’s say Niagara Falls) and just shoot the shit in person.
Christine Conte (1968-) was born and raised in Connecticut, and through a very fortunate series of events, ended up in Portland, Maine. Over the years, Christine has published zines, written blogs, worked as a copy editor for the USM Free Press, and interned at Moon Pie Press, a well-respected small poetry publisher in Maine. Most recently, she has two poems published in the art and literature anthology Uno Kudo Vol. 2: Naked.
So, CC, first off thanks for doing this interview. First, let’s talk about your two poems from UK. Can you tell me a little bit about each one please?
“Persephone at Breakfast” is about feelings of regret and guilt after letting yourself be really vulnerable. The negative consequences of getting naked. That ugly morning after- it wasn’t a great idea, but you did it anyway, and now it’s time to beat yourself up about it. Yes, this is based on real events, but dramatized A LOT. I did drop a pomegranate on the floor while berating myself over doing something dumb. The pomegranate led to thoughts of Persephone, which led to the myth’s story of being trapped in Hell during the winter.
“Scenes From a Parallel Universe” was inspired by a Woody Allen short story called “The Whore of MENSA.” It’s in the noir style, a detective investigating a brothel filled with highly intelligent women for hire. It’s a place for men who crave the kind of intellectual conversation they can’t get at home from their trophy wives. They say the brain is our biggest erogenous zone, and my poem just took that idea to the most literal and absurd extreme. I had a lot of fun with the brains/breasts analogy.
- here is CC’s poem “Scenes …” followed by the Woody Allen quote that inspired it——————————————–
SCENES FROM A PARALLEL UNIVERSEBy Christine Conte
Will you please stop staring at my brains?
Yes, I’m aware– painfully aware– of how prominent they are.
They’re inescapable, I know, and I try so hard to contain them.
They just seem to have a mind of their own!
I see your attention jumping from right to left hemisphere and back,
finally coming to rest upon my corpus callossum.
Don’t think for a minute I didn’t notice; I did.
So, please stop. No, I am flattered, truly. But frankly it’s tiresome.
Ever since I started developing intellectually, it’s been an issue.
When my standardized test scores came in… oh! What a ruckus!
But my heart aches for my dimmer sisters, watching them vie for attention
from men who are only after one thing: evenings of lively intercourse
and debate over the news of the day and existential philosophy.
The world is unfair, for sure…
Ahem. My eyes are down here, sir.
No, no… it’s not your fault and I can’t blame you, really.
I know you don’t see brains like mine every day of the week.
They’re real and they’re spectacular. I can’t hide that fact.
But if you would only look a lot less deeply, you would see
I’m not just a piece of gray matter.
“Red flocked wallpaper and a Victorian decor set the tone. Pale, nervous girls with black-rimmed glasses and blunt-cut hair lolled around on sofas, riffling Penguin Classics provocatively. A blonde with a big smile winked at me, nodded towards a room upstairs, and said, ‘Wallace Stevens, eh?'”
—- Woody Allen, “The Whore of Mensa”
I like how you blend what you do with what Woody Allen started there. That’s a very cool way to go about making your own art. A reaction to someone else’s. What’s your writing process like?
It’s a very sudden and usually short-lived form of demonic possession. I get an idea- either spontaneously, or inspired by something I see or hear- and I just write until I’m spent. When I have a particular scene in mind, I write it before I lose it, and then fill in the rest around it. I’m very linear about most things in life, but writing is definitely not linear for me. It’s fragmented and piecemeal. I always struggle with plot and wrapping up a story is really hard for me. Not sure I could do a novel, but a serialized version of a longer story appeals to me. That’s probably what my biggest project will end up being. Discipline would be great.
Tell me about Maine, what’s it like where you live?
I love Maine! I’ve been here just about 7 years now. It’s a beautiful place, with a slower pace that suits my nervous system. I’m a super-introvert and get overwhelmed by too many people and too much stimulation. Portland is the best place I’ve ever lived. It’s big enough to be interesting and artsy, but small enough that there’s no traffic and you never feel lost in a crowd. Portland is all about bicycles, food, and dogs. I just need a dog and I’ll be a whole Portlander. Sometimes I’ll be driving around town and feel overwhelmed by how much I love it here.
Do you think living in New England gives you ideas?
Definitely. New England is old. It has history. It has a vibe. Maine in particular has a distinct vibe- there’s a certain creepiness that is, I think, I hope, mostly harmless. Stephen King never made much sense to me until I moved here. Now I’m a big fan. I have a few stories in the works that take place in a fictitious Maine universe where the creepiness is turned up to 11. I like to cut the creepiness with some humor, though. I don’t take myself that seriously. Christopher Moore is a writer whose writing is dark and macabre but very funny. I like that.
I whole heartedly agree with that creepy New England sentiment. My aunts house in New Hampshire was probably haunted. You ever come across that kinda thing up there?
We often joke around that our house is haunted. It’s one of the oldest houses in town. Weird noises at night, the occasional odd vibe. We call our alleged ghost The Captain, because the landlady told us a sea captain built the house. We got a shot glass with a pirate on it, and we’ll sometimes pour a shot of rum for The Captain. Too many times I’ve thought Matt was sneaking up on me, really felt a presence, but nobody was there.
What’s been your proudest moment?
I finally got my bachelor’s degree last year! I went to college right out of high school. When I was 19, I dropped out and transferred to the University of Poor Choices, with a double major in Poverty and Shitty Jobs. I also minored in Photography and Writing, which were extremely satisfying.
When you went back to college was it like that Rodney Dangerfield movie, “Back to School”?
Hahahaha! No, hardly. I didn’t quite have his resources, and I wasn’t so obviously old and out of place. I don’t really look my age, so I mostly blended in. Never lied about my age if anyone asked, but I definitely kept it on the down low. It was kind of a culture shock, though. Kept reminding myself, I was once 19 and clueless, too. 19 and clueless was precisely why I was in my 40’s and still trying to finish college.
What’s been the weirdest thing you’ve seen?
Years ago, I was in a diner with my friend Dawn. At the next table, there was a family- grandma, mom, son, and daughter. The boy was maybe 9, the girl maybe 7. The boy was kinda cranky and whiny, pushing the food around his plate, pissing his mother off. She was harping on him for a while, nagging him to eat his dinner and stop whining. Suddenly, she’s had enough and yells “STATUE OF THE CRANE! STATUE OF THE CRANE!” The boy hangs his head in shame, stands up, and assumes the position right in the middle of the diner. So there he is, standing on one foot, his knee up high, his arms raised. Grandma, mom, and sister just keep eating like nothing unusual was going on. She made him stand like that until they were done eating, probably 10-15 minutes. It was disturbing. I also once saw a guy in a pink bunny costume riding a motorcycle.
What kinds of jobs have you had?
I worked in the photo lab business for close to 20 years, but digital photography killed that industry a few years back. I’ve also been (in no particular order) a McDonald’s cashier, a Hallmark store cashier, a bank teller, a radio station receptionist, an ad agency administrative assistant, a Wal-Mart cashier, an ice cream shop scooper, a copy editor, a library assistant, a nursing assistant, and a customer service rep. I’ve done a lot of things, observed a lot of people. People-watching is always fodder for writing. Everything gets stored away in the mental file cabinet.
Working at Walmart had to be interesting. Tell me about that.
If you can endure your body and soul being devoured whole on a daily basis, it’s a rich source of writing fodder. I actually worked there on two separate occasions, entirely out of desperation. The most recent time, my co-workers included an ex-carny, a little person, and a legally blind guy who assembled grills and bicycles. You can’t make that shit up, and I haven’t even gotten to the customers yet. Speaking of shit, at least one customer defecated in the store each week. I mean, right out in the open, like in the middle of the aisle next to the kitchen tools. Just dropped trou and squatted right there. And even the ones who make it to the bathroom go on the floor or in the sink. I have to wonder what the thought process is, what makes this the best available option.
Where in Connecticut did you grow up?
West Haven. It’s best known for sandy beaches, political corruption, and lots and lots of Italians. Kids from other towns called it “Waste Haven”. I once met a friend-of-a-friend in a bar, and he said to me, “You’re from West Haven? But your hair. It’s so… small!” The only thing I really miss about West Haven- and Connecticut in general- is the pizza. Mainers just can’t make apizza right. Joe Saldibar of Uno Kudo comes from West Haven, too, but we didn’t know each other until Facebook a few years ago. He probably misses New Haven pizza, too.
What’s New Haven pizza like?
It’s like the smile of an angel, but edible.
Ever been arrested?
Ever been seriously injured?
I fell off a pool slide and broke my elbow when I was 6. The ER doctor asked me if someone hurt me, but I really did fall off the slide. My mom was immensely pissed when I told her that.
What are you interested in that would surprise people who think they know you?
It’s a weird interest, and morbid to most people, but I’ve always been fascinated by old graveyards. They’re places where you can get an education in the humanities- history, art, religion, anthropology. The art of old gravestones is pretty amazing. Connecticut has some graveyards dating back to the 1600’s, but Maine wasn’t populated until much later, so there’s not much to see here. Evergreen Cemetery here in Portland, though, was designed according to romantic Victorian ideals- a beautiful park meant for lingering and reflecting quietly, that Victorian image of the mourner plucking petals off flowers at a loved one’s grave. I don’t find it morbid at all.
Tell me about your daily life.
I live with my darling boyfriend Matt in an old house built in 1807. We’ve lived here three and a half years, and we love the neighborhood, if not always the upstairs neighbors. One day while doing yard work I found a Bruins hockey puck, signed in silver paint marker by Ray Bourque #77, in the bushes outside. I looked around, and then up, and saw a puck-shaped hole in the upstairs kitchen window. Those kids were a huge pain in the ass. Anyway, I read and write a lot, am into all kinds of domestic stuff (knitting, sewing, crocheting, cooking, baking), and have a shop on Etsy where I sell my crafts. Still struggling to find gainful post-college employment. I work in customer service on second shift right now, and expect to be laid off at any time. I hope the whole writing thing works out some decade.
What kinda stuff did you copy edit.
My college’s student newspaper. Mostly music reviews, opinion pieces, and sports. It was a good experience. I learned a lot about the writer-editor relationship. Some writers can’t stand being corrected, even if you can point to an entry in the AP style book that explains the rule. Others are very appreciative and just want their piece to be as good as it can be. Gentle diplomacy goes a long way in life.
What are your plans for 2013? Are you working on a book?
Getting published in Uno Kudo in 2012 was a huge accomplishment, and I hope to do much more this year. I have any number of unfinished stories in the works, and hope to finish at least some of them. I’ve been wanting to publish a literary magazine of my own. It would probably be online, as much as I love print. 2013 may be the year for that. I used to publish a humor zine called Postmodern Toad back in the 90’s. I miss that. My eyes are on Uno Kudo 3, too.
I love zines, hand made ones, they really do it for me. I send submissions to them sometimes. Places like Citizens for Decent literature made by Michele McDannold, the Filth, the Idiom by Mark Brunetti, Martha Grovers excellent Somnambulist out of Portland … What interests you about zines?
I’m not too familiar with the current state of zine culture, so I’ll have to check those out. But the 90’s were a great time to be creative and have access to a copy machine. Factsheet 5 was a major zine that reviewed zines. It was THE source. My zine was reviewed in F5 a few times, and people from all over saw it and sent me their zines to trade. I love getting mail, and it was so much fun to see what other people were thinking and doing. Self-publishing fascinates me- bypassing The Man and doing it yourself. Getting your ideas out in the rawest form, cut-and-paste layouts, crazy Dover clip-art, hand-drawn cartoons, rants and reviews and conspiracy theories. There was a zine for every occasion and every philosophy. Obviously, there were some zines I didn’t care for, but that says more about me than the people who made them. I always respect people who do creative things, even when I don’t get it.
What would your zine be like if you made one today?
My old zine was all cut-and-paste, because I didn’t have desktop publishing software to lay out the pages. Just printed out the text in columns from MS Word or whatever I was using. Glue sticks and scissors. My bosses let me use their copy machine, I just had to buy my own paper. So it was pretty cheap to do. Print everything out, collate, staple. If I did a print zine today, the layout would be a lot more streamlined. I would probably find somebody who prints on inexpensive newsprint. Print-on-demand would be ideal, so I wouldn’t have to pay up front. I know lulu doesn’t do anything like that, but somebody must.
What would your website be like? Have you thought of a name? What would you look for?
For Senior Project, we Media Studies majors each had to create an online portfolio showcasing our work. Mine had writing and photography. The writing was mostly stuff I wrote for classes. That portfolio is on a free site. That’s about all I have for a website. I do own the domain christineaconte.com, but haven’t done anything with it.
When you say, “if the writing thing works out some decade” where do you see yourself if it does work out. What would you want to do if you could?
Realistically, I’d be happy to make some money from writing. Haven’t been able to quantify exactly how much “some” means, though. I need to set some solid goals.
That’s a noble and totally achievable goal! I’ve known you since 2005, we’ve never met in person. Will we meet in 2013?
I hope so!
Also of note: Uno Kudo submissions for Volume 3 are open: send your poetry, fiction, non-fiction and artwork to firstname.lastname@example.org