Unusual Drama: Cardboard Clouds by Ben Niespodziany
I can safely say I’ve never read anything like this before. Featuring a cast of Death, A Business Man and a Magus (as well as Baby, God and Various Monsters), Cardboard Clouds by Ben Niespodziany is certainly unique. It’s a novella written in one-act plays, something I’m delighted to hear is A Thing. With memoir-in-flash, memoir-in-verse and novella-in-flash, there are certainly a lot of interesting things happening when it comes to form in the writing world. It is published by X-Ray Lit Mag, who now have their own press. They promise to pulbish “uncomfortable, entertaining, and unforgettable prose that shines brighter than the skeleton in your body.” It’s safe to say that this novella fits into that category.
From the outset I was off-balance. We’re immediately asked to question who is acting, who is the audience, and if there even is a theatre. Death ages, the cast throws things, and above it all float the cardboard clouds. It reads more like a prose poem than a play, with impossible stage descriptions and fluid movement. We come back to ideas of death, of connection, of fear, of confusion. ‘The audience are encouraged to…’ invites the reader to ponder their responses to the illogical things happening on stage, while blurring the boundaries between performer and the audience. Reading it was an immersive waking dream, and I was fascinated to find out more about where such an unusual piece of writing came from!
Read on to find out.
Death names the clouds at the beginning of each one-act play
What an unusual read! I have to say I was completely blown away by the surreal nature of it. How did you come around to writing a novella in a series of one-act plays? A truly unique idea.
Thank you so much! “Unusual” is a great descriptor for this strange book. In 2018, I began writing tiny plays, or theatrical prose poems, or Broadway microfictions. Little boxes that took place on stage. It turned into a very generative process, where I would approach the blank page with “On stage…” and go from there. About 80-90% of the entries in the book begin with ‘on stage’ and it was a way for me to really dive into these theatrics, limiting myself to a few characters and a few objects at a time and allowing myself to run wild.
Each scene is so vivid and utterly stacked with ideas. The characters we come back to are Death, the Business Man, The Magus and of course ever-present are the cardboard clouds themselves. Why did you centre it around them and where did they come from?
I took an online writing workshop with Tyler Barton, who introduced the class to the hermit crab form, where we were encouraged to write a piece that resembles another type of found text. A poem that looks like a grocery list, for example, or a short story that looks like a driver’s manual. I wanted to write about the many different types of clouds, as I had no idea what the names were and what their differentiations were. It led to a deep dive where I wrote ten prose poems about the ten types of clouds. It was published in Maudlin House as one long sequence and this sequence later became the section breaks of this book, split up with our narrator Death describing the clouds (and using vocabulary that foreshadows what’s to come). Once that structure was decided, all of the many micro stage plays started to really come together and arrange rather organically. Years and years of tinkering, but it felt organic nonetheless.
Characters shift and change throughout, so we’re unsure of any real sense of identity
The idea of audience, actors and indeed the theatre itself are completely thrown in the air here. Why did you want to play around with the idea of performance and who is doing the watching, and is it something you like to write about?
When I first started writing plays, it was a new world for me. A way to approach the page and stray a bit from the lyrical and abstract prose poems that had become my norm. I continued to work in brevity, but I wanted to experiment with dialogue (something I continue to struggle with) and I wanted to experiment with large group interactions. A community on the page. It felt like being a kid again, sitting on the floor with six figurines, a McDonald’s commemorative cup, and my own imagination.
At the time when I began writing these, 2018 and 2019, I was reading “Exit, Pursued” by Dalton Day, and “Clockfire” by Jonathan Ball, and “The Performance of Becoming Human” by Daniel Borzutzky, and so many others (Mary Zimmerman, Annie Baker, Daniil Kharms). Seeing and learning about new ways to approach the blank page, including stage directions and recurring characters, was (and still is) very exciting for me.
What will you see in the clouds? You can get your copy here
What was your route to publication?
As I mentioned earlier, the ten-part cloud sequence was first published at Maudlin House in 2020, and that was before I really had this manuscript figured out. I simply had a sequence as well as some one-off stage plays, but I didn’t know what to do with them. I continued writing and submitting single pieces, with acceptances in HOOT Review, Tiny Molecules, Otoliths Magazine, and Okay Donkey. I also posted one to the Neutral Spaces blog (an ongoing comfort zone for my writing) and even posted one on Twitter to gauge a reaction from my followers. Over time, I realized I had enough to assemble a manuscript, and right around this period in 2021, X-R-A-Y slid in my DMs asking about a novella. I spent that season assembling and finalizing the manuscript (and having thespian Jeremy Radin help with overall structure and dialogue and finding a through-line). I sent the manuscript to X-R-A-Y and the rest is history. All in all, it was about five years from the time I started the first play to the time the book was in my hands.
What writing advice do you have for others?
Keep going! Develop a routine/practice that feels natural but steady. Don’t force the writing if you don’t want to write, but try to make it part of your daily/weekly discipline. I also strongly encourage you to try new genres and styles. I have no history in theater, and I have very little expertise in horror, yet I’ve tried these genres and grown as a writer for having attempted these new territories. Even if it’s not a fit (no one will ever read my horror attempts), you come out of the experience with an expanded toolkit. Try to write a comedy, try to write a romance novel. Write routinely, yes, but also don’t get too comfortable in our own styles and genres.
Benjamin Niespodziany is the author of the chapbooks The Northerners
(above/ground press, 2021) and Pickpocket the Big Top
(Dark Hour Books, 2022). A former Olive Garden waiter, his work has been featured in Fence, Crazyhorse, Fairy Tale Review, Salt Hill, and other journals. His debut full-length poetry collection is out now through Okay Donkey Press. More can be found at neonpajamas.com