the museum speaks to Issue Five contributor Keith Lesmeister about his flash piece “Under the Cottonwood Tree.”
We were struck by the juxtaposition in your flash piece “Under the Cottonwood Tree,” which places an iconic Iowa landscape against the backdrop of a cross-cultural relationship. Can you tell us what inspired the work?
KL: The piece started with these two young people, one of whom was keeping a secret (a secret that evolved throughout the revision process). As for the tree, I do stroll past a gigantic cottonwood everyday and I’ve always been struck by its enormity and age, and how the bark is so pronounced. For whatever reason, it came to me that this couple’s conflict might be realized if they were alone. And then the cottonwood made its way into the opening sentence and it, too, became a major character.
You reside in Iowa, and are currently in the low-residency creative writing program at Bennington. What has the experience been like so far?
KL: I’ve loved my experience at Bennington. The community of faculty, staff, and students is supportive and engaged–a wonderful balance between taking the work seriously without taking ourselves too seriously. And given my full-time job and family, the low-residency format suits my schedule. But again, I can’t stress enough the wonderful and supportive community. For me, that’s what’s really made the experience.
The Midwest is not looked upon by many as a region of ethnic diversity, but in recent years it appears to be changing. We’re wondering what your experience is in this regard and curious to know your thoughts.
KL: I think you’re exactly right. Demographics have shifted greatly over the last decade, and even more so in the last few years. As families think about quality of life issues, the Midwest, with its good natured people and unhurried pace, becomes attractive. There other factors involved. In Iowa, tech companies have moved into Des Moines, and the alternative energy boom has given way to more opportunities and jobs. In addition, religious organizations have been sponsoring various ethnic groups who might be enduring conflict in their home countries. This has been happening for decades and those populations have grown significantly. The Twin Cities boasts one of the largest Hmong and Somali populations in the United States.
This notion of ethnic diversity in the Midwest is also deeply personal for me. My mother was born and raised in the Philippines, and my father in Iowa. My siblings and I were all raised in Iowa too. So you could say I had a foot in each culture. Instead of steak and potatoes, I was eating rice and vegetable stir fry, and lots of fish–all with my hands! It helped that I went to a high school in Cedar Rapids that was over thirty percent ethnically diverse. That doesn’t sound like a huge percentage, but given this area of the country it was quite large. And I think the school did a nice job of celebrating diversity.
The brevity of flash fiction demands both precision and concision, a difficult but rewarding form. Can you share with us a little about your process when writing flash?
I usually don’t start with the idea of writing an actual flash piece. I start with an image or a character who I find compelling. Then I’ll start writing a scene and it usually occurs to me within a page or two how long the piece might be. Dialogue really helps me to understand a character. Once he or she speaks, once I have that voice, it’s like a portal into their personality. With “Under the Cottonwood Tree” I had in mind these characters and their conflict, but I wasn’t sure what to do with it. When I realized that the entire episode would take place in the prairie, under the tree, and once they started talking to each other, the rest of the story took shape. After that, it was revise, revise, revise.
We’re curious, what writers have influenced you, and how?
At Bennington I’ve had the privilege of working with David Gates, Bret Anthony Johnston, Amy Hempel, and Wesley Brown. All of whom have had a tremendous influence–both their writing and their instruction.
When I first started out, some of the widely anthologized work stayed with me: “Gryphon,” by Charles Baxter, “White Angel,” by Michael Cunningham, “Emergency,” by Denis Johnson, “You’re Ugly Too,” by Lorrie Moore, and “The Pugilist at Rest,” by Thom Jones.
And, more recently, these authors: Charles D’Ambrosio, Elizabeth McCracken, Ron Rash, Ann Cummins, Kevin Canty. Dozens more.
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Keith Lesmeister lives and works in rural northeast Iowa. He’s an MFA candidate at the Bennington Writing Seminars. His stories and essays have appeared in Meridian, River Teeth, Midwestern Gothic, Monkeybicycle, The MacGuffin, and elsewhere.