Cleaver has been in operation for over five years now, and Lise Funderburg—our Senior Nonfiction Editor—has been with us since nearly the beginning. Author of two nonfiction books: Pig Candy and Black, White, and Other: Biracial Americans Talk about Race and Identity. Essayist, and lecturer in Creative Writing at UPenn as well as the Rutgers-Camden MFA Program. Lise has helped shape the past, present, and future aesthetic of Cleaver Nonfiction.
For this interview, we spoke briefly and via email. Having read several of her essays—available on her website lisefunderburg.com—as well as her book, Pig Candy beforehand, I had a hard time containing my enthusiasm for getting to know Lise, if even just a smidge, better.
Rosie Huf: What sparked your initial interest in joining the Cleaver team?
Lise Funderberg: Karen Rile’s irresistible enthusiasm. There are just some people in the world you can’t say no to. Plus I’m a sucker for a well-designed journal. I think it makes such a difference in the reading experience to have legible, elegantly laid-out text set into a gorgeous frame.
R: How has your perspective on publishable work evolved since day one? What frustrates you most when reading submissions? What excites you most, thus moving you to submission acceptance?
L: I don’t remember when “Day One” was for me, but over time, I’ve expanded my sense of what the “emerging writer” can comprise. It’s a category that recognizes effort, intent, and promise, and it’s been fun and liberating to look at work through that lens. On the other hand, general submissions are (rightfully) held to a much higher standard. They need to be well-realized, engaging, and distinctive. They need to demonstrate mastery of form and content. Cleaver welcomes all manner of nonfiction, but it’s funny: the great pieces tend to stand out to all of us. I find that Karen, Christine Larocco, and I are in agreement 98 percent of the time.
I don’t know if this will be helpful to those submitting, but I’ll share this anyway: I intentionally do not read cover letters before I read submissions. In the same way that I don’t let students hedge or qualify before they read their pieces in workshops, I’m interested in the work standing on its own. Cleaver readers aren’t going to see those cover letters, so they’re not the place to try to close the deal by filling in missing details or engendering sympathy. That said (harshly, I fear), when I do go back and read the cover notes after reading the piece, I occasionally find information that should have made its way into the piece, and particularly in the case of emerging writers, I might mention it in the feedback we send.
R: What is your favorite story, essay, or poem published in Cleaver? Why?
L: I’m biased towards the work that’s come from former students, including Angelique Stevens, Sara Schuster, and Allegra Armstrong. All outstanding. Another of my favorites is Dan Morey’s “Hanginaround.” It’s an essay that makes a town (Erie, PA) into one of the principal characters, and it uses an inventive structural device that the writer keeps control of throughout.
R: You have written several essays and two books, including my favorite, Pig Candy, dealing with the fact that you are a bi-racial woman trying to understand her place in the world. Why is the issue of mixed-identity so important to you?
L: We all have our particular lenses on life, lenses that are formed by birth, by circumstance, by our natures. So the simple answer is that who I am is important to me. My experience is also a particularly American experience, peculiarly so, to borrow from the euphemistic label historically applied to slavery, “the peculiar institution.”
Issues of race, racism, institutionalized privilege, and disenfranchisement threaten all of us, personally and as members of a larger society. Those of us who aim to shed light on these topics necessarily bring our own histories with us; sometimes it’s useful to engage with and make transparent those histories.
Also, as someone involved in a creative practice, specifically one that is engaged with refracting and making sense of the world around me, there’s a habit of consideration that comes with growing up in a bi- world. I think that applies to any bi- experience, including geographic, religious, cultural, etc. We embody Chimamanda Ndichie’s advice to “reject the single story.”
R: How important would you say it is that literature address social issues and affect social change?
L: That’s a little bit like asking: how important is it that we, as humans, breathe? In other words, it’s such a natural causality that it resists qualification. In still other words, super important, but often less effective when rooted in doctrine versus rooted in the art that actually makes the deep connections and lasting impressions.
R: The second most popular topic about which you write is food. When reading Pig Candy, “Bloodlines,” or “Food: A Lust Story,” the reader comes to understand that, for you, food is another form of narrative. When did you realize you had such a deep connection to food? What was the importance of this non-verbal language in the relationship between you and your father? Your mother and sisters?
L: So many writers have kept journals and do keep journals. I’m not one of them. In fact, when my mother moved out of my childhood home and my sisters and I had to stop using it as our personal storage facility, I found a box filled with false starts, journals that never contained more than a week or two of entries. What I noted, though, was that most of the entries were about food.
I relish the various facets of my personal food history, which places me in time (Mr. Hangey’s egg truck cruising through the neighborhood! Actual prizes in the Crackerjacks’ box! The amazing invention of cinnamon swirly raisin toast!), and also exposed me to a wonderful sense of regionalism, a kind of middlebrow terroir. Philly cheesesteaks (specifically, pizza steak with fried onions, mushrooms, and cherry peppers). Rhu-ras jam from my mother’s Midwest. Fried chicken and pressure-cooked green beans flavored with streak-o-lean from my father’s South.
But I digress. I love your point about it being non-verbal language, particularly with my Dad, who could be so defended and remote. In the midst of that, there’d always be his countering refrain, the one that suggested a boundless desire to nurture and nourish: “There’s plenty more in the kitchen.”
R: Do you think mastering the art of narrative on a plate has influenced your ability to master words on a page, or vice versa?
L: Writing about food, like writing about travel or love or death, is hard to do without falling back on clichés and hackneyed tropes. Specificity is what saves us.
R: Aside from Cleaver, which literary magazines do you follow?
L: Brevity, Poets & Writers, Philadelphia Stories, Prairie Schooner, LitHub and then a steady stream of leads I get from pals on Facebook and Twitter. Latest discoveries are N+1 and Catapult.
R: As a lecturer in creative writing at UPenn, what is one piece of instrumental writing advice that you share with your students?
L: Be curious.
Rosie Huf is the Senior Editor of Cleaver Magazine’s Life As Activism feature and manages the Editors’ Blog. She received her Master of Liberal Studies degree from Arizona State University, the concentration in Nonfiction and Publishing. Most recently, she had a nonfiction piece published in Sundog Lit. Her book reviews and interviews can be found in Cleaver Magazine and Superstition Review.