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the dictionary project author interview: ander monson

Today, we feature an interview with Ander Monson, author in all genres and known innovator in the world of nonfiction. I think what I appreciate most about Ander’s work is how he brings to the forefront the unexpected and neglected musings that are often relegated to the sidebar, the footnotes, the parentheses. These ideas are investigated, interrogated, violently disassembled and put back together again in surprising, compelling, and sometimes confounding ways.  As he once told me, the essayist’s job is to show the inner workings of the writer’s brain on the page. Enjoy these synapses, these nerve endings.



1. Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:

I’ve collected old dictionaries for years, starting mostly when I lived in Alabama, and happened on a whole pile of them at Alabama’s Thrift Store, now named, instead, America’s Thrift Store. I’d buy them all. I must have had forty. They were all well outdated. I wondered what worth there was in an outdated dictionary. But they had the most lovely images: etchings, woodcuts, weird handmade diagrams of things. I got excited. I kept them for four years, acquiring more, but had to discard most of them when my wife and I moved to Michigan. They weigh a ton. They take up too much space. But first I pillaged them. Now I restrict myself only to specialist dictionaries (medical dictionaries, photography dictionaries, tool-and-die dictionaries, mathematics dictionaries, etc.) and to my OED condensed, 1971, in micro-script. It comes with a magnifying glass.

2. What is your current favorite word?


3. What is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?



4. What word has been your (recent or past) muse?

I almost never think of words as muses. To me they’re tools—sometimes worlds.


5. Could you talk a little bit about the interaction of words and space in your work? 

Well, that’s a big question. I’ll narrow it down a bit. The piece I wrote for this, Dear Sepulcher, is part of this book project I’m finishing up this fall in which I write short, associative, compressed essays in response to things happened on in libraries: five words (in this case), a passage from a book, a striking image, an snatch of overheard conversation, a human hair, a punch card, homophobic marginalia, a packet of seeds, a due date stamp, just to name a few. Once written, they are originally published back into the book in the library in which I found the originating thing. So they’re words written in response to words I found in any one of a series of particular spaces (libraries, loosely defined), and published back into that space as a communication to a future reader. In this way I’ve been thinking of the library as a medium, a meeting space for brains to find each other. I’m also collecting these short essays as 6×9 cards, unbound, unordered in a box. So in their production I’m thinking about space and language, image and design (as I often do in my work). How language can be a tool of design—or design a tool of language. Either can serve the other, but they work best when they can have a conversation.


6. Please respond to the following words and definitions*, picked exclusively at random for you:


se·pul·cher  (ˈse-pəl-kər),  n.  [ME. & OFr. sepulcre; L. spulcrum < sepelire, to bury],  1.  a vault for burial; grave; tomb.  2.  a place for the safekeeping of relics, as in an altar.  v.t.  to place in a sepulcher; bury.


Al·a·bam·i·an  (ˌæləˈbæmɪən), adj.  of Alabama.  n.  a native or inhabitant of Alabama.


ken·nel  (/ˈkenl),  n.  [ME. kenel, keneil;  OFr.  *kenil; LL. canile < L. canis, a dog],  1.  a doghouse  2.  often pl. a place where dogs are bred or kept.  3.  a pack of dogs  v.t.  [KENNELED or KENNELLED (‘ld), KENNELING or KENNELLING], to place or keep in a kennel.  v.ito live or take shelter in a kennel.


Pa·pe·e·te  (pəˈpētē), n.  a seaport on Tahitia: capital of the Society Islands and French Oceania: pop., 8500.


re·ta·li·ate  (riˈtalēˌāt),  v.i[RETALIATED (-id) RETALIATING], [<L. retaliatus, pp. of retaliare, to require, retaliate < re-, back + talio, punishment in kind < talis, such}, to return like for like; especially to return evil for evil; pay back injury for injury: as, if he is hurt, he will retailiate.  v.t.  to return an injury, wrong, etc. for (an injury, wrong, etc. given); requite in kind.







*Definitions taken from Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, copyright 1955.



Ander Monson is the author of a host of paraphernalia including a decoder wheel, several chapbooks and limited edition letterpress collaborations, a website, and five books, most recently The Available World (poetry, Sarabande, 2010) and Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir (nonfiction, Graywolf, 2010). He lives and teaches in Tucson, Arizona, where he edits the magazine DIAGRAM  and the New Michigan Press.

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the dictionary project author interview: Nicole Sheets

Welcome to a new addition here at the dictionary project: author interviews!

The second and fourth Wednesday of each month, we will feature non-traditional author interviews, where instead of responding to direct questions about their life or work, guest authors will discuss their relationship to words and attempt to provide answers to dictionary project words bibliomanced specifically for them.

We are so pleased to announce our first featured author is Nicole Sheets!




1.   Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:

When I first started graduate school, one gentleman caller mailed me a two volume compact Oxford English Dictionary, the kind with a magnifying glass in the little drawer. I discovered a Friday night game: split a bottle of red wine and the OED with a friend, and look up words as they pop into your head. Sometimes you need to swap volumes with your friend if she has the letters you need.

My OED has moved hundreds of miles with me. It sits on my floor next to one of my bookshelves, largely ignored by my cats, often commented on by dinner guests.


2.   What is your current favorite word?

“Buoyant.” I’ve been feeling pretty up lately, like an unsinkable Cheerio. In my memory of the commercial, those Os bounce to the bottom of the cereal bowl and back, through a cascade of milk.

Also, I recently learned “arctophile” when I clicked on a link at dictionary.com ( I confess that I often use an online dictionary in my office rather than the hardback Random House College Dictionary because I’m in a hurry). Isn’t it great that there’s a word for a lover and collector of teddy bears?


3.   What, in your opinion, is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?

I’m cheating here because I asked some students to think about this question after reading Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. One student included “microwave” in her list, and that hit home with me. I dislike microwave’s nasal “r” that bunches up in my nose. My grandmother Hazel refers to her microwave as a “radar range,” which is a far superior name.

When I hear “microwave,” I also think of the microwave in the lunch room at my school. It’s not really a lunch room but more like an open kitchenette next to an alcove that thinks of itself as a lounge. Students and faculty microwave users are rather neighborly minded. Even so, the microwave deflates the meal experience. When you pop open the door and insert your single serve pyrex dish of last night’s stir fry, you see the ring of grease or splotches of overspill on the glass turntable and the sweat on the inside of the microwave door. On your hand you feel the moist breath from someone’s Lean Cuisine.

4.    Please respond to the following words and definitions, picked exclusively and randomly for you:


un·faith·ful  \ˌənˈfāTHfəl\ adj  1  :  not observant of vows, allegiance or duty: DISLOYAL  INACCURATE, UNTRUSTWORTHY < a ~ copy of a    document >


Last year I tried being an engaged lady. John proposed, and I thought about the proposal for three weeks. And then I called him late one afternoon to tell him I would marry him after all. I had just finished a short run on the Centennial Trail. I thought it would be romantic to say yes by a waterfall. But the rush of water was so loud that we couldn’t hear each other, so instead I said yes in the parking lot of a nearby fish restaurant. I felt buoyant. It was a feeling that lasted about three weeks.

We broke off the engagement well before the vows. Now I have a ring the man doesn’t want back (“It isn’t really the kind of thing you recycle,” he said) and a white, unworn, fitted, lace confection bagged up and hanging in the back of my closet.



-less  \ləs\  adj suffix  1 :  destitute of : not having < childless >   2  :  unable to be acted on or to act (in a specified way) dauntless


I recently turned 35, and I’ve been thinking a lot about childlessness. Last fall, I visited friends in Moscow, Idaho, who have three lovely daughters. Frankie, the three-year-old, asked “Do you have kids?”

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“Because your car has so many doors.”

“Count your blessings,” one of my favorite sing-songy hymns instructs. And I do. The number is high. I can make up many verses. Even so, I feel the –less of my childlessness. I’m not yet hopeless. I’m far from fearless.



ex li·bris  \eks-ˈlē-brəs, -ˌbrēs\  [L]  :  from the books of  —  used on bookplates 


At the Huntington Mall, a habitat of my youth, I spent more time looking at stationery than at books at a bookstore. I would spend at least a couple of hours at the mall every Thursday with Hazel, my grandmother, after she picked me up from my piano lesson. We’d have dinner at the food court or at Morrison’s Cafeteria and be back at her house in time for The Cosby Show. In that era, there were two bookstores in the mall, Waldenbooks and Coles. Coles’ logo and storefront were yellow, and the white floor glared at the fluorescent overhead lights. I browsed the day-by-day calendars and fingered the tassel fringe of the circular racks of laminated bookmarks and bookplates with ex libris printed in scratchy calligraphy.



2branch  \ˈbranch\  vb  1 :  to develop branches  2 :  DIVERGE  3 :  to extend activities: <the business is ~ing out>


On the wall of my grandparents’ kitchen hung a small wooden tree. Its outline was rounded, cartoonish. The texture of the tree was green with small pale dots, and each member of the family had their name printed on an orange, wooden button. Nana and Grandaddy rested in the top branches. My dad, mom, and me down the right edge, and my dad’s sister, my uncle, and my cousins Melissa and Allison took up a fuller bough because there were more of them. Allison’s button was a slightly different shade of orange, suggesting that the tree was a gift before Allie was born. This was a few years before my brother was born and even more years before Allie died the summer after high school graduation.

The living orange buttons haven’t been together since Nana’s funeral. My remaining cousin branched out, got married, had two kids. The family branches stretch so far apart, we might as well be in separate trees. There’s no neat break from an axe’s clean tooth. Just a rot, slow and silent.



poor \ˈpür, ˈpȯr\  adj   1 :  lacking material possessions <~ people>  2 :  less than adequate : MEAGER <a ~ crop>  3 :  arousing pity <you ~ thing>  4 :  inferior in quality or value  5 :  UNPRODUCTIVE, BARREN <~ soil>  6 :  fairly unsatisfactory <~ prospects>; also : UNFAVORABLE <~ opinion> — poor·ly adv


I accidentally misquoted the Bible in a fellowship application, but, reader, I still got the money. When I was a kid, I memorized Bible verses for church all the time, inscribing them on my heart etc. For this fellowship, I was thinking about the word inheritance, and I rewrote the Bible so that it’s the poor who inherit the earth (in fact, it’s the meek. Consolation: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”). I was so sure in my rewrite that I didn’t even look it up to see if I was correct. I guess the fellowship committee liked my version, too.

I’m surprised when Mother Teresa, who lived among the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, expressed compassion for the West. When she accepted her Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, Mother Teresa remarked that in her visit to a nursing home, the residents had material comforts but no one to visit them. Loneliness, lack of love, these are real poverty, Mother Teresa insisted. “I want you to find the poor here, right in your own home first,” she said, “And begin love there.”



 Nicole Sheets teaches and writes in Spokane, Washington. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Image, Hotel Amerika, Cream City Review, and DIAGRAM. As WanderChic, Nicole blogs about travel and style for Wanderlust & Lipstick. She can be reached by email at nsheets@whitworth.edu.


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