Dennis Staples

“A Door That Can’t Stay Shut,” an essay

Dennis E. Staples is an Ojibwe author from Bemidji, Minnesota. He is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction and Yellow Medicine Review. He is a citizen of the Red Lake Nation.


This Town Sleeps (Counterpoint Press)

Our Interview

Why did you decide to start this essay in the form of a letter? Did you experiment with any other formats before deciding on this one?

DS: The letter inspiration started with writing I’d been doing in the years after my friend’s death. At first I’d avoided it as an exercise and preferred to explore those themes and emotions in fiction, but eventually I started writing letters addressed directly to jacob (is this supposed to be in lower case?). I was inspired by memoirists like Terese Marie Mailhot, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Melissa Febos, all of whom I met at the Institute of American Indian Arts. I’d also been reading the non-fiction memoir The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky at the recommendation of another writer I met at IAIA, Chip Livingston. Chip’s poem “Ghost Dance” from his collection Museum of False Starts was also a big influence. I was lucky enough to hear him read it to us, and his diction made it one of the most memorable, beautiful works of art I’ve ever heard. I’d been hesitant for years to write in the style of a direct letter because I didn’t want a cynical or resentful voice to take over. The last time I’d attempted such a thing, it was addressed to someone with whom I hadn’t been on good terms, and anger was not a muse I liked to channel. Instead, when I finally attempted creative nonfiction, I only wanted the poetic cadences I’d been hearing from grad school to influence the piece.

MR: “A Door That Can’t Stay Shut” not only plays with styles of narration, it also includes excerpts of the speaker’s writings to Jacob, a text message, and internal dialogue. It’s also spaced into separate sections. How did the decision to include these different forms influence your process? What led you to describe the piece as an essay, rather than a hybrid text?

DS: To be honest, the idea of a hybrid text isn’t one that’s crossed my mind a lot consciously. In the past I’ve come across a few other writing concepts like interactive novels/games, and visual poetry that aim to push writing bounds, but when I wrote this, most of my thoughts were about letters and essays. I think that has to do with the nonfiction books I was reading at the time, like the aforementioned The Narrow Door and the creative nonfiction book Tell It Slant. I think I just default to nonfiction in the realm/idea of essays because that’s what I’ve been most familiar with through school and have seen a lot of experimental nonfiction writing labeled this way. I think I was also reading a lot of lyrical essays at the time, so those forms with their separated sections might’ve been an influence.

Dennis Staples’ novel, This Town Sleeps, was released in March of 2021.

MR: The essay keeps returning to themes of time, as in the Gregorian calendar and the Little Spirit Moon in Ojibwe. What is the significance of time to your process? Culturally?

DS: Culturally speaking, the Ojibwe followed time in the context of the changing seasons and the work that came with each. For example, late winter/early spring was the time for making maple sugar, while summer was for recreation and dances, fall for harvest, and winter for sacred stories. But in middle school the Ojibwe curriculum also emphasized a lot of language adapted to the Gregorian calendar, each month a different, usually seasonally themed moon, and standard analog time. I’m gonna out myself as a millennial here, because as a kid I stubbornly resisted being taught to read analog clocks because I grew up with digital and didn’t want to learn. If it weren’t for learning analog time through Ojibwe, I’d probably struggle harder to read a clock face than I do now.

On a personal level, I think I emphasized time so much because it was such a devastating feeling to me to find out my friend passed not long after a stay in treatment, and the next few years post-undergrad just felt so surreal—knowing we had only a precious few times together and would never have any again. That culminated one cold winter morning when it suddenly came to me that I was now older than he was at the time of his death.

MR: In many passages, the speaker moves between self-reflection and directly addressing Jacob. How do you consider the relationship between the speaker and the audience, and the relationship between the audience and the people in the essay?

DS: I went back and forth on whether I wanted an audience to read things I’d normally prefer to be private, especially the words that were in theory only meant for Jacob or mainstreeter’s eyes. Partly, I think the style I was going for was inspired by David Sedaris’ essay style. I was introduced to him via audio before I ever opened any of his books, so the cadence of his voice stuck with me. I think I wanted the audience to feel as if they’re getting an honest glimpse into my mind, both intimate and impersonally humorous, if that makes sense. As far as the audience and the two men addressed, I can only hope they find them as charming and attractive as I did.

“I think I wanted the audience to feel as if they’re getting an honest glimpse into my mind, both intimate and impersonally humorous, if that makes sense.”

MR: Did the length of this essay shift from its initial to its final drafts? How so?

DS: This is hard to answer because a lot of the content was meant to be smaller, separate sections that were eventually put together for one piece. I think I did envision it shorter, but other times I wish it could be maybe twice as long.

MR: There are multiple references to social media and technology within the speaker’s relationships. What was it like to use those resources in writing this piece? How do they speak to the themes of time and timelessness, and the implication of a door that stays shut?

DS: Gay writers from rural areas all seem to know intimately the struggles that come with that. Gay men in general maybe. When I think about the influence of social media on our lives, it’s a moving target. When I first had access to a social media sphere, it was MySpace, circa 2006, but by the end of that decade all my friends had vacated and moved onto Facebook. It seems a lot of gay men see technology as their only way to make the connections they’re seeking, and once upon a time it did sort of feel like an autonomal kind of place, very abundant in choices. So much so that it’s been a bit of meme in queer circles that some straight people marvel at how “easy” it is for us to find people through WiFi and hook up—which the community is usually dismissive and defensive of, because of how difficult its been in the past and how catered to straight interests other aspects of society are (bars, ladies nights, etc.)

MR: Could you speak a bit about the significance of flooding and portals? What was it like to bring those ideas to your work?

DS: It felt really freeing and motivating because those were the types of stories that had always captivated me, but this was during a time when I felt my interest in fantasy/spec fiction waning. My interests (hyperfixations, really) are a revolving door, and even though I wasn’t writing the hard genre fiction I’d always wanted to at the time, I still was able to work it into the nonfiction I was experimenting with. When it comes to floods, I think about a few things; the movie Titanic, which terrified me as a child as the water slowly and then quickly takes over; the Ojibwe deluge story, which is about not underestimating underdogs; and wave pools.

When I was a kid I loved swimming in lakes, but for a year or two as a young teen, I grew averse to them because I’d been in a wave pool during a trip to Wisconsin Dells, and even though that experience was thoroughly amazing, the dreams about drowning that came after were not.


  1. The Ojibwe People’s Dictionary is a digital resource that provides a talking Ojibwe-English dictionary. The voices featured are the voices of Ojibwe speakers, with thousands of audio entries and new entries online weekly.