Featured Alum: Austin Veldman

Austin Veldman is the founder of the literary journal Twyckenham Notes as well as an artist, author, musician, and dedicated father. He received both his BA and MA in English from IUSB and was the 2018 editor of Analecta. Currently, he teaches first-year writing and creative writing classes at IUSB and is active in the South Bend arts community.

INTERVIEWED BY EVA MONHAUT

In Twyckenham Notes your focus is on poetry and art. Can you talk a little about the process of founding the journal?

Look—I don’t really know what I was thinking when I started Twyckenham Notes. During the spring of 2017, I was in the midst of obtaining my MA from IUSB, had a few poems published in magazines, and my first son was about to be born. What I am saying is, I don’t think from the outside looking in that I possessed anything that might make someone think “oh, he knows what good poetic writing is” or “yeah he really would be a good editor.” I didn’t have any credentials—and my son was about to be born. In fact it was that same week that we brought Theo home that I started the magazine.

I may not have started with any credentials, but what I have always had, since a child, was a love for art—the whole process of art, from the idea, to the moment of creation, to the final version of the piece, to how it is displayed in the world. I have always been a part of that process. It is a part of my being. Up to the spring of 2017, I existed merely as a creator or art—drawings, music, fiction, & poetry. The inception of Twyckenham Notes was an avenue to explore this last part, the process of bringing art to more people. That is what I love about Twyckenham Notes, that it allows me to put beautiful art in front of as many eyes as possible.

I can say all of this now looking back—but at the time it was not so clear. I mean, I started a magazine the same week my son was born! That sounds crazy. Maybe I was determined to not let the looming cloud of fatherhood overshadow this new love of poetry that had arisen in me. Perhaps it was a set way to stay engaged with that art-form, a solid reason to be reading and writing poetry in a world that now had this grave new concern—caring for and raising another human life. On a another level, I was responding to the transformation of South Bend. Here was a rust belt city recovering from the age of Studebaker, remaking its identity. I saw an undercurrent of culture emerging—poetry readings, songwriters, bands, art shows—and I wanted to add something to the mix. I wanted to develop something that could be a part of the South Bend arts scene, that would put South Bend on the map, that would say “look at us here, we know what good art is, too!”

Looking back, it is a bit surreal to see how Twyckenham Notes began and what it has become. Now, we are paying poets and artists and have been recognized by several national organizations. Craig Finlay’s poem, “Four Winds Field,” was named a finalist for the Best of the Net Anthology, a yearly compilation that recognizes the best of internet literary publishing. Ron Stottlemyer’s “Falling” will appear in the 2020 Pushcart Anthology, the most prestigious yearly compilation in the literary industry. We were just recognized as a finalist by the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) in the Best Debut Magazine Category. And we run a poetry contest named after the late poet, Joe Bolton. What started as a small online press has, in two years, developed into a legitimate and trusted voice in the American literary scene.

When you were studying at IUSB, what prepared you the most for your work outside of the University?

David Dodd Lee’s poetry classes and workshops were definitely the most helpful for me as a whole. The classes were focused on poetry, but really there was this way the experience of them informed my approach and understanding of art as a whole. Art became meaningful in a very serious way. At one point while I was in high school a more old-school member of my family had said, when I mentioned that I wanted to be a musician, “oh so you want to be a beggar on the street?” With Lee’s classes, art was vaulted into this serious dimension in my life again. That is important for any artist, to feel that what they are doing can and should be taken seriously, that it means something beyond the fiscal lens that the world is infatuated with. I also took a publishing and editing course with David, which is where I discovered an interest in that side of the literary industry. Writing classes with Kelcey Parker Ervick, Ken Smith, and Joe Chaney have made me a better fiction writer and essay writer—I just wrote the introduction for a book of paintings by an artist in New York City (Ko Smith—he is great, look him up). I would not have felt up to the task without their instruction. The collective experience of the IUSB English Department has been life changing—I cannot say that enough. As for my personal poetry writing, the poetry of Joe Bolton and Jack Gilbert has been particularly effective in inspiring more creative work.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

Inspiration is not something that you can sit around and wait to come into your life, at least for most people. Inspiration is a level of engagement with the world—if you are fully into the world and are invested in lived experience, if you are attuned to the minutiae that exists and is available in every moment of experience, inspiration will come over you like a wave. Inspiration is a mind-set, an approach to the world, an understanding of what it means to be alive. There is an element here of living in the moment, of nowness—it is about the moment of making art itself. The creation of art itself is a moment of engagement with the present moment in which time seems to be suspended and even disappear. People who are not engaged with the world, who allow themselves to be distracted, who see the world and think “meh”—they are not living the inspired life. To be able to be alive in this world and be bored—that is insanity. There is so much in the world that works to beat down or silence our naturally inquisitive and introspective spirit. You cannot give in!

All of this is to say that I am not compelled by any one thing, but rather a wonder for being alive. I think that this is where my drive to create comes from. There is so little time. Our short lives are but the smallest of blips on the cosmic timeline. It is mind and soul-crushingly cruel. But at the same time it is what makes everything we might do meaningful. We cannot change life’s final outcome, but we can choose how we engage with the world while we are here and, for the most part, what becomes of our lives.

You also do a lot of work with music; how do you see your work with music complementing or contrasting your work as a writer and editor?

My understanding as a writer was directly informed by my musicianship. All through grade school and high school I was in bands and writing songs. Essentially, even though I had no idea that I was doing so, I was writing poetry all this time. It was not until my third year of my undergraduate that I took a poetry class with David Dodd Lee and really discovered what I was doing. It was then that I discovered the limitless capacity of poetry—the voice changed. Instead of this voice that was writing songs towards this ideal of what a song is supposed to be, I was free to go anywhere that my creative mind wished to go. It was a cataclysmically freeing moment that really changed the course of my life—I changed my major to English and returned after the completion of my bachelors to get my MA in English with a writing concentration. I did not know what I would do with this degree, but that I needed to develop this skill, that I needed to become the best writer I could be. Taken all together, I think what this points to is an understanding of art as a whole. Each art form informs the next—they are all connected and can enrich each other. In this way, being a musician makes me a better poet. And vice-versa.

What other interests and hobbies do you have?

I really love history. I believe this comes from the fact that my grandfather and grandmother lived through Nazi occupied Holland during the Second World War. Their stories fascinated and captured my imagination. Also, there is this looming specter of our troubled past—there seems to be something vital to understanding the human experience that can only be attained when we look back and study the terrible things that have occurred in human history. If we can understand the mistakes that we have made as a species, we can then better work in the present to avoid such circumstances coming to fruition again. A historical perspective makes us better people in the present. A historical perspective makes a better future more attainable.

How would you say your family as changed the trajectory of your work and your focus in life? Have they influenced your writing?

Well my sons have begun to find their way into poems. I mean, it is impossible to be a father or mother and not write about it. It is a life-changing experience. There is all this joy that you don’t know what else to do with it besides either stand in awe at it, or try to write about it. But even that is difficult—the work quickly gets too sentimental. But that is the challenge of working with new experiences, with a new version of yourself, and trying to get that into writing. That is the point of writing—to communicate to others a facet of lived experience. Overall, the trajectory of my work has not changed. It has only slowed down. I still intend to finish all of these writing projects. Finding a balance is a struggle that I am not always winning.

What stands out to you the most out of the work you have completed so far?

I don’t think I’ve made that personal creative milestone yet. I have not produced a “masterpiece.” I believe all artists are capable of a masterpiece—and I mean something that shines in this way in their own heart, something that they can look at and really be proud of regardless of what sort of wider recognition it may or may not receive. That is what I would consider something that would mean the most to me. That is what I am seeking as an artist—to create something that quiets that inner critic, that is fully a representation of the creative work that I feel that I am capable of. So, I certainly have not achieved that. I believe it will come in the form of some manuscript, be it poetry or fiction. In all, I’ve published about ten poems in literary journals. I have several manuscripts of poetry and fiction in the works. This is to say, that as a writer I haven’t really achieved anything. I feel like I still have a long way to go, a lot more writing and work to be done.