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This variety of spider is born dead, Noll told us. Stiff packets of chitin and darkness. Teensy tiny organs rattling like dried beans if we listened with the right tools (which Noll had). Out-of-state scientist come with his white van and silver knives to explain to us what our forest held. Only when someone warmed these spiders, he said, provided a violent friction from the mashing of flesh (like their mommies) or the point of a needle (like Noll) did they wriggle to life.
• • •
Noll asked could he pick us up at midnight and we said, Okay. Yawning the word as if our maiden chests didn’t hum under threadbare dresses. Okay. Whenever. Midnight was when the spiders grew active and stirred from spider dreams. We lapsed into dreams of our own while waiting, tangled into a many-legged organism of sisterhood breathing with one sticky breath. Our lids grew heavy. We yawned, rubbed gunk that crumbled from our lashes like tiny eggs.
The world flared red and a thousand thin legs danced in the veins of our shut eyes. Noll’s van swinging up the drive. Shoot, we said, shielding our faces. Cut your lights. His sweaty hands helped us in. We sucked the sweets he fed us and grew heavy, stretched out to sleep across the plastic tubs laid in the back. Each one just long enough for each of us. Felt him touch us then like a husband in the dark, his knife parting our clothes. We smiled at the tickle. Two hours later woke up as Noll poured our clacking bones into the forest.
• • •
We went along because he’d asked so nice. A pretty blue fire he built us, that night he proposed our forest trip. I want to know what’s in there, he teased as he tapped our heads, and we giggled.
Used to be that marriageable girls went collecting for wedding trousseaus in these parts. When these were mountains and not nubs, when there were husbands to be had. When we had tongues we rolled the word around: Trousseau. Imagining ancestral mothers and aunts garlanded with flowers, animal pelts scribbled on their nether sides with ropy veins. Strictly superstition, frowned the scientists. Now open wide and say AH! Same way they always spoke of the centuries before they kept a record, before their cameras arrived bobbing along our misty roads. Planted beside our sag-mouthed scarecrows. Hoping to spy the secret of our long mountain lives. We chain-smoked, stared into the blinking red eyes. Inconclusive, the scientists sighed and back they went. Except for Noll. Different, him. A hunger to prod and rip and taste and know everything we showed. He even ate possum, tearing the meat bare-handed with no mind for its bloody drips. Fixing us all the while with his pretty green eyes.
So we spread our knees at his chemical flame, warming. Eying him sideways and long-lashed, in the manner of deer observing the hunter from behind a blind of trees: hard-horned but shy.
• • •
Sure enough we tumbled out the van at the hour of spiders. Lay studying their shiny mandibles, their characteristic bristle pattern. As Noll had instructed. Hours passed, then years, before we remembered to yawn. Time moves funny in our forest. The scientists who siphoned and magnified our blood declared us inbred, deviants, but it wasn’t on purpose like they said. How were we to avoid our own great-great-grandaunts and cousins wandering out of the forest with lace collars flapping on their high breasts, a mess of kids raised before realizing: oops. You’d need keen eyes to tell that style of collar hadn’t been seen since eighteen and ninety-two when the machines unhooked our mountain and left it a laceless, coalless scar. Real keen eyes and us half-blind from the acid fog. Anyhow, we implore you to think on what scientists know and don’t—they who “discovered” extinct fish swimming cool as you please in our caves. Time moved funny. Trees molted, mold grew, animals died and turned to mush then bog then peat then coal and all of this happened again and again every second. We yawned and remembered our original purpose. Gone collecting. By the time we rose, shaking off years of dirt, we’d acquired skeins of spider silk. Egg sacs bumping on our ribs like dark jewels. A worthy trousseau.
• • •
No one had to tell us marriage is the end of the fairy tale. Noll’s no prince. We saw his flaws a while back. Under his beard, his weak chin. Under his carpet, bloodstains. Still. Make a meal of what you got, our mother and great-great-grandaunt said. She’d managed to raise us before anyone realized she was dead, and even after that she soldiered on, dropping fingerbones into bread dough and clattering advice from her jaw: That price is a joke. Rain coming heavy this year. We’d even dug her up to ask about Noll before we went collecting. Her verdict: Mean but whip-smart. The right women can make him into something. We accepted that he was work. So when we turned up on Noll’s doorstep some years later (walking slow without muscles) and found the green bleached from his eyes, we accepted this, and when he crossed his liver-spotted hands and opened his gums to scream, we accepted this, and when he stomped the spiders we’d carried so thoughtfully between our ribs we were a little angry, sure, but we had centuries to learn each other’s ways and looking at him we remembered our wedding night in the van, him bearing down in the dark so dear and skinny and hungry, silver tools penetrating us down to joy and bone. The way he peeled off dresses, skins, muscles. Most of all the way he cradled our brains so tenderly in his tubs. Studying us as if we were the precious things. Us! We would have blushed if we could. The spiders’ legs went pitter-patter among our ribs. Hi, honey, we said.
C Pam Zhang is an MFA candidate at Vanderbilt University. Her work appears or is imminent in Day One and The Moth. She’s been recognized by The Masters Review contest and the Summer Literary Seminars contest. In recent years she’s lived in Nashville, Bangkok, San Francisco, and on Twitter as @cpamzhang.
As we continue to take applications for our upcoming Winter Workshops, we check in with a few of our faculty to discuss their own classroom experiences.
Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop?
Lidia Yuknavitch: My very first workshop experience was as an infiltrator, which pretty much describes most of my life as well…heh.
I was not in the MFA program but I snuck into classes and tried to look like I was. First at Harvard, where I had a job right near Harvard square at a clothing store. I got kicked out of that one pretty quickly.
Later at the University of Texas in Austin where I was a receptionist at a personal injury law firm. I lasted a little longer in that workshop because the teacher liked my brazenness. He directed me to a course I could actually afford to take at Austin Community College.
It was the beginning of something for me. I could feel my bones vibrating but I didn’t yet understand why.
TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in a workshop?
LY: Never surrender. Ken Kesey. University of Oregon (where by the way, I was again an infiltrator–only undergraduate in a graduate MFA class. He let me stay.)
TH: Strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?
LY: Well, I don’t often experience terror as a participant or instructor in writing workshops — it’s the world that terrifies me — whereas writing workshops and painting studios were always “safe spaces” for me…but I was fairly shit-your-pants scared my first day in Ken Kesey’s workshop. Because duh, Ken Kesey. But we bonded quite quickly when he walked over and whispered into my ear, “I know what happened to your daughter. Death’s a motherfucker.”
It was the death of a son/daughter that we bonded over. So from there, writing was a real place I could meet him without fear. On the page, inside language and imagination, there is no hierarchy.
TH: We tend to listen to a lot of records during the workshop weekend. Do you have a favorite “at the ocean” album?
LY: You mean besides the ocean? I’d likely pick either Portishead / Dummy, This Mortal Coil / It’ll End In Tears, David Bowie / Blackstar, or John Coltrane / A Love Supreme.
TH: A favorite winter poem, story, or book?
LY: The novel Snow by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, and the poetry collection Trilogy by H.D. (because of these lines which have haunted me for life: I go where I love and where I am loved/into the snow/I go to the things I love/with no thought of duty or pity).
Lidia Yuknavitch is the acclaimed author of seven books, including The Small Backs of Children (Harpers) and The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books), and a TED Talk titled The Beauty of Being a Misfit. Her next book The Book of Joan is due from Harpers April 18th. She is a seasoned teacher of writing & literature, and has crafted her body-centered art-making philosophy into a groundbreaking workshop practice—Corporeal Writing. She is the recipient of the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction for the Oregon Book Awards, as well as two Reader’s Choice awards, a PNBA award, and was a finalist for the 2012 Pen Center creative nonfiction award.
Lidia will be teaching at our CNF Winter Workshop.
At three years old, I saw a man in a mask climb over the balcony of our apartment. He stood by the pots of forget-me-nots and looked through the sliding glass door, and I was on the other side looking back. Terrified, I ran to wake my parents and tell them what I had seen. They went with me to investigate; there was no longer any man. They told me I’d had a nightmare. To this day, I have an image of that man, frozen in place, staring at me through the sliding glass door, and I cannot tell you if he was real or not.
Does it matter if the memory is real?
I do not carry the past like a backpack. I cannot point to a physical object when you ask where I hurt. I only know that the past shadows me. I still flinch when a man raises his voice and gets too close. Even if the last time a boy clenched his fist around my throat was 15 years ago.
You wrote to me years after we’d both graduated from high school. By then, you were in Iraq, fighting yourself, knowing the enemy was inside and not out there in that desert that took your sleep, too many of your friends. Those were your words. Also your words: that you’d had a lot of time to think and needed to apologize. You said my father beat my mom when she was pregnant with me, she almost lost me, I was born with anger in my veins.
You said you understood then why you had hurt me. That I had seemed so much better than you and you needed to bring me down to your level, so you wouldn’t lose me. An act of love. And here I was thinking I’d always been nothing, less than nothing even.
I’m packing for graduate school. I find the notes we wrote each other in those hazy first-love high school days. I read about things you did to me that I don’t even remember. I read about your ridiculous ambush with balloons and roses on Valentine’s Day and how special I felt when they were delivered to my homeroom. I read about my humiliation when you punched the glass window on the door of my photography class when I hadn’t done your homework, how it shattered and your knuckles bled, how the security guard who walked you out when you were suspended turned to me and said, “Honey, he’ll do the same thing to your face, you know?” I did know.
And I didn’t answer your letter from Iraq. But if I had, maybe I would have said something like: I remember running my fingers over the scars that never left your knuckles, the same arm that bore a tattoo of my name. And the truth is that I want that type of scar, too, that kind of visible blood-letting I can point to and say, now you can feel, see, taste that it’s real.
As adults, some still say we’re making things up, that such heavy memory doesn’t square with childhood. Best to bury it with the rusty swing sets and broken dolls. Best to file with memories of Santa Claus, Tooth Fairies. Everything as Magic.
Some will say a 15-year-old girl is really a woman, some will say our parents are at fault, some will ask where were the adults with a shake of their heads, some will say they’re sorry young girls suffer from a lack of self-esteem, we need to do something about these girls. As in the same thing they said to us, as in what we always feared was true: we grew the roots of our own pain. We laid the match to each other; we watched our innocence burn and—we were children—must have called it a path to love.
Some will say, simply: Get over it.
I couldn’t go back to sleep when I was sure a man in the shadows was coming to hunt me. I’m 31, and I still can’t.
Gabriela Garcia is an MFA candidate in fiction at Purdue University and Fiction Editor of Sycamore Review. She tweets @gabimgarcia.
Elissa Altman can write you an appetizing culinary scene, but she’d really rather not. While it’s true she wrote about the glories of home cooking in her James Beard Award-winning blog and first book, Poor Man’s Feast, her new memoir finds her more interested in the sensation of wrongness: the clothes that aren’t you, the culture that doesn’t welcome you, the country that pushed you out or the one that only reluctantly lets you in, and—the most visceral of all these examples—the food you shouldn’t have eaten. Altman covers all this ground with humor, verve, and compassion, but it would be a mistake to think Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw is a story about refusal and regret. It is not. Treyf is about the seeking that never really abates.—Michelle Wildgen
Michelle Wildgen: One of my favorite recurring descriptions in here is of your fashion choices, or maybe I should say, the fashion choices made for you. Can you talk a bit about this, and the role clothes play in telling this story?
Elissa Altman: Fashion was a tool in Treyf. My parents had a natural affinity for fashion and polar opposite senses of style. To my father the conservative traditions of Brooks Brothers and J Press represented Cheever-esque safety, formality, and an American, WASPY tradition that he was not born to but grasped for. My mother, on the other hand, possessed — and still possesses; she’s almost 81 now and only stopped modeling twelve or so years ago — a rebellious, edgy fashion sensibility: she has always paired very high style together with low and pulled it off. Yet my father loved to dress her as the idyllic, cool Katherine Hepburn he was desperate for her to be. Ultimately, it didn’t stick: for her, fashion is all about attention and sex, not Harris tweed.
When their marriage started to fail, my parents wielded clothes against each other via me: deposited in my father’s care on Saturdays in the 1970s while my mother worked as a model, I was hauled around to places like the original Abercrombie & Fitch, the boy’s department at Brooks’ Brothers, and Kaufman’s riding shop. By the time we picked my mother up, I looked like I was going yachting or fox hunting. My father almost always preferred dressing me in boys’ clothes — he said they were better made — which, of course, infuriated my hyper-heterosexual mother, who responded by putting me in elastic tube tops and see-through voile blouses just as I was beginning to go through a particularly sulky, spotty, busty puberty. I felt like I was in drag, although I had no words for it. To this day, my mother is sure that I am a lesbian because my father made me wear boy’s clothes; I always have to remind her that at eight, I was in love with Susan Dey, and not David Cassidy. It had nothing to do with Brooks’ Brothers. Although I do like a good suit and wingtips.
MW: There is also a lot of, shall we say, physical discomfort in here—people eating things and regretting it. Was it ever hard to write about food in such an uncomfortable way, that maybe rebels against expectations for a completely delicious culinary memoir rather than something more complex?
EA: Writing about food is not that different than writing about any other sense experience, like sex, and always depicting it as yummy sanitizes, homogenizes, and de-humanizes it. I’m interested in the things that leave a strange taste, that make me squirm, that force me to think about what sustenance really is.
Everyone knows what good food and good food experience looks like; I want to talk about the mistakes, the faux pas, the cultural and practical blunders. I distinctly remember my maternal grandmother cutting herself when she sliced potatoes into the Hungarian goulash she knew I loved; her soul, and her blood, were in what she cooked for me. I thought about taking that section out of the story, but it would have been a mistake: it was representative of the sheer ferocity with which she nurtured me, queasy-making or not.
Treyf is the story of a tribe yearning for home; it’s about three generations on the outside looking in. There’s a certain bitterness that comes along with that sense of constant displacement, and in my life, it was expressed at the table. When I was eleven my paternal grandmother tried to feed me a boiled calf’s brain — plain, on a plate, like we were in a laboratory — the day after I saw Young Frankenstein. Borscht tastes to me like mud, like death, like the sorrow that enveloped us at my grandparents’ apartment when everyone switched languages so I couldn’t understand them, but I knew they were talking about the family who stayed behind and were murdered in the Holocaust. To this day, I can’t be in the same room with it; it’s the food of doom.
MW: Your first memoir, Poor Man’s Feast, deals with (among other things) love and food. This one seems to delve into tougher territory— familial stresses, belonging or the lack thereof, in particular. Can you talk about moving from one subject or tone to the other? How did the processes compare for you as a writer, as a person delving into your past?
EA: In Poor Man’s Feast, food and love were catalysts; one transformed the other, and that was the primary thread running through what was essentially a very linear story. But Treyf is more cyclical; it’s about appearances, the tug of the past on the present, about religion and sex and violation, and the human compulsion to find sustenance and acceptance in a world to which one has only been tentatively invited.
The narrative in Poor Man’s Feast was generated by food — the actual cooking of it as opposed to the eating of it. There was a very clear beginning, middle, and end from the outset, and I always had a strong sense of how it was going to unfold on the page. At the time I wrote it, my wife and I had been together for twelve years, my mother-in-law was still alive, my father, who figures heavily in that book as a food mentor, had passed ten years earlier; I was still very connected to his family.
Between the time I was starting Treyf, my extended family structure was in utter chaos; my connection to the people who had been my anchors had vaporized. I dealt with the grief the only way I knew how — by writing my way through it. Where there is sorrow and loss there is a natural hunger for nurturing and safety. And that is what the book is about at its core.
The lightness that pervaded Poor Man’s Feast was no longer there, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate or authentic. Which is not to say that there aren’t moments of humor in it, but Treyf is a much more complicated story, written from a very different place and at a time when I was feeling like I’d just stepped off a ship — wobbly, a little nauseous. It was only when I finished the first draft that I realized that I, like every person in the book, was searching for my place in the world, and for a tribe that I had lost. Continue reading
Look at the photo
an Art Forum magazine
is cropped off
It says Manhattan
in the painting
but it isn’t Manhattan
It’s just impressionistic
in the countryside
with no city in sight
Zoe Brezsny is a writer from Oakland, California who is now based in Brooklyn, New York. She holds a BA from California College of the Arts and an MFA from Columbia University. She is the author of two chapbooks, POV andPolyorchid.
There’s a girl, Cherise, pronounced sure-EEZ, in my yoga class that meets in the church every Tuesday night at eight. She used to come to class with her boyfriend, a tall guy with a beaky nose and they would stand with their arms around each other, smiling. Or he would lie on his mat, and she would lie at a ninety-degree angle to him with her head on his stomach. I avoid people who are touching. In a yoga class, boundaries are loose. You might wonder why I’m in this class: it’s a test I’m giving myself.
A while ago, the beaky guy stopped coming, but Cherise didn’t. The second Tuesday that she came without him, I left class during Half Warrior because I had to pee. When I came back, she was in the hallway, crying. At first I thought: She’s doing a pose. Her back was straight and she leaned at a seventy-degree angle with her forehead to the wall. Then I noticed her breathing, which was quick intakes and big, shaky exhales.
I dislike touching. The dampness of skin is something I find very disgusting, but the hallway was narrow, especially with one person leaning. I didn’t know what to do. Then I had the idea to put my hand on her hair, so I did. Maybe it was another test.
I pretended to be Graham, our instructor, checking her form, except that I just stayed there holding her head, like it was one of the singing bowls Graham always bongs at the start of class. His bowls are stupid but I am disappointed when he forgets them, which is about every other week. Graham weighs ninety pounds and wears his hair in a French braid but has a girlfriend, which I don’t understand.
Cherise kept crying so I said, “I’m sorry” and she breathed out like she’d been holding the air and my words helped her release it and she felt slightly better. Maybe ten degrees better than the moment before. I don’t usually know what people feel, even if they angrily ask me why not, so this was new.
She didn’t talk to me after class and I didn’t help her when she couldn’t get her mat into her bag. I just let her struggle by herself. I think that’s what you have to do with people and their problems. It’s a test they’re doing. It’s not for me to fix.
Kris Willcox lives in Arlington, MA with her husband and two boisterous children. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Beloit Fiction Journal, Cimarron Review, Literary Mama, and Cleaver Magazine among other publications and she is regular contributor to UU Worldmagazine.
I was following a path in the woods when the toe of my boot nearly crushed an ant. I withdrew the boot. There, paddling an inch one direction before reversing course and paddling in another, was an ordinary carpenter ant. It was plain black. It looked like the minute droppings of a slightly larger critter, except for its moving around. I was prepared to bypass the ant and continue down the path when the little monster bristled wings from its shoulders and set them whirring at light speed and rose into the air.
I deduced very rapidly that this was a flying ant. It wasn’t unusual to encounter flying ants in those parts, nor I suppose in any parts. The flying ant, in fact, is one of the most successful dry flies that a fisherman can tie onto his tippet, from Montana to Vermont to Argentina to New Zealand, so it can’t be that rare. Plus, I’m given to understand that flying ants aren’t even actually a species unto themselves. They’re simply a larval stage or whatever of ordinary ants. Like a portion of the ant eggs get smothered in nutrient-rich jelly or some other such nonsense and out come the wings.
But the commonness of wingèd ants notwithstanding, it was as if, when this small fucker flew out from under my boot, I’d never before laid eyes on such a thing. And, strangely, I was indignant about its existence. “Now what is that?” I wanted to shout at the ant as it sailed away through the forest. “How is that appropriate?”
You see, it oughtn’t happen that one organism, alike his fellows in every discernible respect, should be awarded, exclusively, a tool so miraculous as wings. It isn’t how evolution is supposed to work. The way I understand evolution, an individual of a given species is supposed to be born with some trifling aberration, glossy eyelids or something along those lines—perhaps longer feet, a narrower tongue—that in the near term provides no pronounced advantage. Only over the course of a thousand generations is the freak characteristic supposed to leverage its slight—I repeat slight—advantage, and breed its way through the species. In this way, Nature keeps her subjects feeling positive about themselves. We’re all about the same, you and I of this genus-phylum.
Not so when it comes to fucking wings that enable a creature to fly off of the ground into the sky. When that happens, it’s no longer possible for the more, shall we say, pedestrian members of the species to value themselves. I mean, just hypothetically, take coyotes. Say we’re all coyotes. We’re sniffing around for rabbits, we’re yipping at the moon. Except wait: now some of us have chainsaws for paws. Do you see what I’m saying? You wouldn’t want to be the coyote who didn’t get the chainsaw paws. You wouldn’t feel like a full coyote.
Or I don’t know, maybe this is exactly how things work. Maybe one day you’re a young man with uncountable decades stretching ahead of you, and a day later you find yourself surrounded by other young men, the truly young men. They’ve sprouted wondrous appendages, it seems, and are enjoying the use of them in a sunlight that’d once fallen on your shoulders. They’ve flown into the sky and intercepted that sunlight. You’re several years their elder, and in that sense are traveling ahead of them, but it’s as if these nimble youngsters have sailed past you, and are vanishing in the trees.
Ben Nickol’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Redivider, Boulevard, Fugue, CutBank, Hotel Amerika and elsewhere, and he’s the author of two books: Where the Wind Can Find It (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2015) and Adherence (Outpost19, 2016). His work has been honored by the Arkansas Arts Council and Best American Sports Writing, among other organizations. For more, visit www.bennickol.com.
I credit the Victorian novelist George Gissing with curing me of a misunderstanding about the literary life. It always seemed to me that late-nineteenth-century England must have been the ideal time and place to be a novelist. George Eliot was revered. There was no television or Internet to siphon away the attention of the masses. Publishers did not need to make megabucks for corporate owners who also produced toasters or ran theme parks. The world was quieter then, and slower–seemingly good circumstances for the production of meaningful literature.
Then I read New Grub Street, Gissing’s 1891 novel about this supposed golden age. I came across the work of Gissing, whose name rang a distant bell, on the fifty-cent sale shelves at my local library. It was a different novel I discovered first: his wonderful The Odd Women, about turn-of-the-century English feminists. I was impressed that a book written by a man in 1893 could offer such a rich and sensitive account of what happens to women deprived of choices in love and work. After that, I knew I wanted more Gissing. So I found my way to New Grub Street, which I was able to obtain only secondhand, through an online bookseller.
New Grub Street is probably Gissing’s best-known work today, although it’s hard to find anyone who’s read it, even lovers of Victorian literature. This a great shame, and surprising, too, for Gissing has Dickens’s knack for comic caricature, Eliot’s psychological insight, and Edith Wharton’s understanding of class. If you’re a writer who’s ever felt sucky about your pitiful advances, the lack of reviews for your books, or your inability to place your literary work altogether, you will finish reading New Grub Street feeling much, much better. Because in the Golden Age of the Novel, things were actually much, much worse.
New Grub Street centers around two very different writers: Edwin Reardon, a talented writer of lyrical, psychological, rather plotless novels, and his friend Jasper Milvain, whose ambition is to become a sought-after and financially comfortable writer of reviews and articles about other people’s books (he knows very well that fiction doesn’t pay). The novel opens as it is dawning on Reardon that he has made a terrible mistake with his recent marriage. His first two novels were critical successes, but the income from them, enough to support him when he was on his own, will not stretch to keep a wife and young child fed and warm through the long, chilly London winters. His wife, Amy, doesn’t understand why Reardon can’t just write a potboiler and make a whole lot of money, and her disapproval and growing coldness deeply wound Reardon and eventually undermine his ability to write at all. The numerous, agonizingly detailed passages about Reardon’s alternating writer’s block and grim, forced attempts to write something the public will find “sensational” are some of the most frightening a fellow writer can read. Gissing recognized that for an artist the greatest terror is the fleeing of the muse or, as he puts it, the “outwearied imagination.” Financial anxiety, he suggests, is one of the fastest routes to that exhaustion.
Meanwhile, his counterpart, Milvain, who enjoys boasting about how shallow and venal he is, is steadily rising in reputation. Milvain knows how the literary world really works. He understands that its mechanisms are primarily social, and so he has to court important editors and silly benefactresses and praise books he dislikes. As he explains it, even a good book “will more likely than not . . . be swamped in the flood of literature that pours forth week after week . . . . If a writer has friends connected with the press, it is the plain duty of those friends to do their utmost to help him. What matter if they exaggerate, or even lie? The simple, sober truth has no chance whatever of being listened to.” Milvain acknowledges that a “genius” may eventually be celebrated regardless, but New Grub Street is precisely a book about the problem of the nongenius writer, an effort to show what happens when the merely very talented make art in a thoroughly monetized culture.
Reardon’s depression and escalating money troubles lead to the undoing of his marriage, conveyed with a dreadful intensity and inevitability that reminded me of two much more recent novels, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. If Gissing has one point he wants to hammer home, it’s that, in Reardon’s words, “poverty degrades.” It destroys love, work, and character. Otherwise decent, honest, and loving people become harsh and unprincipled for lack of money. Reardon grows withdrawn and frankly a bit unhinged; his similarly struggling colleagues torment their wives, turn to drink, commit suicide, or, if less devoted to their art, find solutions like Reardon’s friend Whelpdale, who discovers he can make a bundle advising other people on how to write their novels. (Tout ca change . . .) The gentle and charming Biffen remains unmarried so as not to fall into the same difficulties as Reardon, then withers of loneliness. Always attentive to the particular problems of women, Gissing also shows, through the character of a grouchy critic’s daughter, how sensitive and intelligent women writers were even less likely to make their way than their male peers.
Gissing knew the hardships of the writing life firsthand. While he seems in retrospect to be the success Reardon is not, publishing twenty-some novels before his early death at age forty-six, he did not experience himself as one. He was constantly strapped for money, given the draconian publishing arrangements of the time, under which writers sold the copyright to their works rather than earning royalties. Even when a book like New Grub Street went into extra printings, Gissing never saw a penny of the profit. His books received mixed reviews. He was under pressure, like Reardon, to write much and write quickly. His health was not good, and he had two terrible and distracting marriages.
While Gissing was resentful in life, he was generous as a novelist: Jasper Milvain, who could have been loathsome, has appeal and even his noble moments. It’s clear that Gissing admired and even envied his character’s vitality, optimism, and sheer instinct for survival. The ambiguity that animates every character makes New Grub Street not just a great, plotty read (there is also a love match beset by obstacles and a rich relative whose will offers surprises) but a novel of enduring interest. Gissing saw that men collude in their own failures and that the world needs its hustlers and finaglers as well as its oversensitive dreamers. Still, his message is unmistakable: there are no viable lives for the serious writer. Reading New Grub Street today, you can look at our culture of welfare benefits, free emergency-room visits, NEA grants, and MFA teaching jobs and say things are certainly better now. Or you can feel that the oppressive structures are still intact, the game is still rigged, failure still a near certainty, but that you’ve just spent several hours in the company of a writer and characters who understand. Either or both. I vote for both, which must be why I always close this dark, rather bitter novel feeling remarkably cheerful.
Pamela Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal, and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for the best book of fiction published in 2013. Pamela’s debut novel, The Understory, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in publications such as Virginia Quarterly Review, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Millions. Her third novel, Eleven Hours, published in May 2016.
Translated from the original Georgian by Rebecca Gould
The Late Horse Race
I dream of a horse race.
I mount my nag.
From every poem I know
only my shame remains.
Neither crusader nor knight,
my battlefield has fled.
Fly away with me, my dream,
do not linger, wretchedly.
My pool of blood stirs sadly.
Armed or weak, we swim in words.
We will battle fatefully.
Our fight will be brave.
My blood swells like a second sea.
Who will lance my wounds?
Who will pierce the bubble of my pain,
and release the fluid into the ocean?
When will my wounds be clean?
One word remains to this swan whose throat is slit.
She is the voice of my poetry.
I await her melody, my sad Agamemnon.
Titsian Tabidze (1895–1937) was one of most eloquent and innovative Georgian literary modernists of the twentieth century. His poems were translated during his lifetime by the Russian poets Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam. Like many Russian and Georgian poets of his era, Titsian perished in a purge organized by Stalin and his subordinates. To date, Titsian’s work has only been systematically translated into Russian, but an interview with his daughter and granddaughter illuminates his struggles as an outspoken poet in a time of political oppression. His poems have appeared in English translations by Rebecca Gould in Prairie Schooner, Seizure, Lunch Ticket, and RHINO.
Rebecca Gould is the author of Writers and Rebels: The Literatures of Insurgency in the Caucasus (Yale University Press, 2016) and the translator of After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems of Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (Northwestern University Press, 2016), and The Prose of the Mountains: Tales of the Caucasus (Central European University Press, 2015). Her translations from Georgian, Persian, and Russian have appeared in The Hudson Review, Nimrod, The Atlanta Review, and Washington Square. She teaches Comparative Literature and Translation Studies at the University of Bristol in the UK.
Nick Flynn and Roy Scranton both explore the intersection of memory, imagination, and pain, teasing out the complicated language of grief and complicity, meditating on the entanglements between personal tragedy and global trauma. Flynn is an award-winning poet and memoirist, perhaps best known for his trilogy of memoirs, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, The Ticking is the Bomb, and The Reenactments. His most recent book is My Feelings: Poems. Roy Scranton is the author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, and the new novel War Porn, which portrays the Iraq War through three interconnected stories, nested together like Russian dolls: a young American woman making a fateful choice at a late-summer barbecue, an American soldier in Baghdad, and an Iraqi mathematician watching his country fall. Sam Sacks at the Wall Street Journal called War Porn “One of the best and most disturbing war novels in years.”
Flynn and Scranton crossed paths in Houston, Texas, where Flynn teaches writing and Scranton was doing research on global warming. Meeting at a performance of the one-man play Thom Pain (based on nothing), a careening monologue of self-disgust and rage, they connected over Consequence, the haunting, austere memoir by their mutual friend Eric Fair about being an interrogator at Abu Ghraib. The publication of War Porn gave them the opportunity to keep talking, over email, about the poetics of the global war on terror.
Roy will be reading from War Porn at Powell’s City of Books in Portland on Monday, September 12.
Nick Flynn: War Porn starts with babble—“babylon”—something that could have been generated by a computer, maybe from fragments of government propaganda, more poetry than narrative. It’s a wild way to introduce us to what’s to come. I was thrilled, but then I’m a poet, and there’s a long shadow on poets in this book. Can you talk about the “babylon” sections and the role of poetry in War Porn?
Roy Scranton: The “babylon” sections are the connective tissue holding the different narrative strands of the novel together: the collective unconscious, as it were—as if the Global War on Terror could dream. It’s largely a mash-up of different discourses about war, journalism and epic, song lyrics and movie quotes, press briefings and military handbooks, a lot of found text mixed in with different bits of my own. I was inspired by the prose poetry tradition going back through French surrealists such as Eluard, Cendrars, and Ponge, but the more direct antecedents are William S. Burroughs’s “cut-up” technique and John Dos Passos’s “Newsreel” sections in the USA trilogy. The book is about our narratives of war, language and war—one of the meanings of War Porn—so it’s almost inevitable that poetry would come into it. What is that Pound said—epic is a poem with history in it?
For many years, I’ve been trying to understand what Wallace Stevens wrote in his prose statement on the poetry of war, how the poetry of war and the poetry of the work of the imagination are two different things, and I knew that it had to have something to do with what he was trying to make sense of when he wrote in Notes toward a Supreme Fiction:
Soldier, there is a war between the mind
And sky, between thought and day and night. It is
For that the poet is always in the sun,
Patches the moon together in his room
To his Virgilian cadences, up down,
Up down. It is a war that never ends.
There’s a lot to say about this bit of poem, from which I take War Porn’s epigraph, but what might be most useful is to notice the correspondence Stevens is suggesting: Both war and poetry are ways of remaking reality, one in blood, the other in words, and these ways of making (poiesis) are in conflict. They are two kinds of poetry, the poetry of war and the poetry of the work of the imagination, and they are not only different things, but antitheses.
There are a lot of poets in War Porn: Wendy is a poet, Othman is a poet, and of course Wilson is a failed poet. All of them struggle to fight their poetic war, the war between the mind and sky, against that other war, the violence that rends lives and souls. At least one of them loses. I don’t know if any of them win. But the thing about the war between the mind and sky is that “it is a war that never ends,” in part because mind and sky are mutually constitutive, in part because there is no mind and there is no sky. There is only matter and perception.
So then we come back to the “babylon” sections, which are the formal embodiment of the poetry of war, which Stevens called the consciousness of heroic fact. What does that mean? The “babylon” sections are one response.
NF: Another poetry flash: Early on stateside, the poet Wendy, who’s dating Aaron—just home from the war—tells a long story about a coyote, which seems a type of duende moment.
RS: In Wendy’s coyote story, she talks about hitting a coyote on the road but then not finding any trace of its body. Later, the coyote reappears at her home as if haunting her. In telling this story to her friends, Wendy’s trying to process and explain something to herself about her relationship with Aaron, but the way she does that is through this dramatic self-representation: she wants to keep other peoples’ interest. Or maybe the coyote is a duende, which might be another way of saying metaphor, another way of saying magic. One of the pleasures of writing fiction is that I don’t feel an obligation to discriminate between reality and imagination. I don’t have to pick a side in the war between mind and sky. I don’t even need to know what really happened, because all I need to know is what the characters see and believe.
NF: Most of what we see of the American occupation is through Private Wilson’s eyes. The first Iraq scenes are literally a series of wrong turns, attempting to drive to Baghdad. It’s incredibly tense and nothing really happens. Nothing of the glory of war here. Why show the war through the eyes of somebody who already seems so cynical?
RS: I knew a lot of cynical guys in the military, and I knew a lot who just wanted to do their time and get out. Really internalizing military values, at least in the Army, takes a while, because complaining and resentment are practically sacred rights among the lower enlisted, especially when it comes to complaining about officers. You can go back to Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe cartoons from World War II, right, Kilroy was here, even Beetle Bailey—or Bill Murray’s character in Stripes, Matthew Modine’s Joker in Full Metal Jacket. There’s a tradition of acerbic alienation within American military literature, and I see Wilson as part of that tradition. It’s one of the few ways we have in this country to talk about class.
At the same time, I wanted to present the war as I saw it, which was as a private driving a humvee in Baghdad. And the war I saw was a complete shitshow. What struck me most about what I saw in Iraq was how stupid the occupation was, how negligent the planning that went into it, how idiotically and wastefully it was run. The horror of the war might be in the fact that it was unnecessary, based in lies, all about oil, and a flagrant violation of international norms, but I think, for me, at the end of the day, it’s in the fact that hundreds of thousands of innocent people died because of American stupidity. Continue reading
Too often, when writers try to write an essay, they stumble on common pitfalls like cramming too much information into too small a space, giving too much back story, or trying to write an essay for a particular column rather than writing an emotionally true one. We all have read memoirs that take our breath away, but how does a writer manage to produce that effect in under 3,000 words?
In this lecture from our 2014 Summer Writer’s Workshop, Ann Hood offers up ten steps to help you write a kick-ass essay.
From our 2009 Summer Workshop, Steve Almond and Aimee Bender—both the offspring of therapists—discuss how and why less experienced writers manage to sabotage their own fiction. Among the topics covered are: simplicity phobias, the artistic unconscious, OMD (obsessive metaphor disorder), fear of emotional exposure, prose envy, and obfuscation in the service of the id.
Anthony Doerr takes the pre off the dictable with a talk on defamiliarization and how its usage in art can alter our perception of the known world.
Like the best of his writing, Doerr’s 2008 Summer Workshop lecture ends up being more than just a display of craft: It’s a blueprint for life itself.
There was a time in my mid-twenties when I came to believe that everyone in our family, including my brother Eliot, would be better off if Eliot were dead. I loved him dearly. That was not the point. Dark-haired and dark-eyed in a family of fair-haired people predisposed to good cheer, Eliot was a perfect character to me, and I loved him exactly as one loves a book character whose days are so obviously numbered.
Once—this is just a single example—Eliot interrupted our dinner chatter to say, “I have discovered my nature, and it is the saturnine nature of the melancholic.” He was six years old. We cheered and laughed, because we had no idea what he was talking about. Philip, the oldest and most beloved within our family, liked to say that Eliot was possessed by the spirit of an eighteenth century consumptive. Eliot’s announcement did nothing to dispel his belief. I myself was four years older than Eliot and kept a reasonable emotional distance, thinking of him less as a family member than as a sort of deranged but entertaining pet, one that for example chases imaginary flies to exhaustion, or howls beneath a streetlamp she imagines to be the moon—amusing, but best to avoid getting too attached.
The summer after Eliot ran off with Greenpeace or maybe the Peace Corps, I found myself quite unconscionably thinking about things, for no good reason. This included Eliot and his melancholic disposition. It puzzled me and I wanted to solve the puzzle. I began to wonder—on sleepless nights as I lay beside some nameless whore; in a stoned haze as I stared up at the sky from my city balcony; in the bleary tender moments upon waking up beside Philip’s wife—if there wasn’t a solution after all. And so I imagined one. The news of the illness borne through the phone line. The sense of rupture within the family, the depth of which surely no one would find more surprising than Eliot himself. The late-night confessional phone calls, begging for a catharsis denied. The absolutely epic bedside vigil. The family’s great coming-together in the ancestral home, and the beginnings of a gorgeous reimagining of Eliot’s history. And Eliot himself, finding validation and the love and attention he must always have craved. And then death! to carry him above it all. Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, etc. Or at least not to be, which was also to be above it all at last: triumphant.
Oh, how I wanted to call him at that moment!
The years passed. We were all scattered by the time I heard the news. “We are not all scattered,” said Philip, but I was already hanging up the phone. Because he couldn’t understand. He’d never understood. I rested my face against the cool stone tile of the veranda, and I thought about my brother, my brother, who was gone.
Tom Howard’s fiction has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Booth and Willow Springs, and individual stories have received the Willow Springs Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Fiction, the Masters Review Short Story Award, and the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction. He’s in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.
Tin House invited a select number of early readers to read After James, a new novel by critically-acclaimed author Micheal Helm. Set in great cities, remote regions, and deadly borderlands, the story is told in three parts, each gesturing toward a type of genre fiction: the gothic horror, the detective novel, and the apocalyptic. For fans of Joshua Cohen and Ben Lerner, After James captures the dystopian strangeness of our current world. Enough about what we think—we surveyed Tin House Galley Club members, and here’s what they had to say.
Michael Helm is the author of the novels Cities of Refuge, a Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize finalist, a Giller Prize nominee, and a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year; The Projectionist, a finalist for the Giller Prize and the Trillium Book Award; and In the Place of Last Things, a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His writings on fiction, poetry, and the visual arts have appeared in several North American magazines, including Brick, where he’s an editor. He teaches at York University in Toronto and lives in semirural Ontario.
Please Don’t Feed the Spirit Animals
I saw a pair of mechanical polar bears
getting it on at the Vienna Prater. It was
unexpected—his bucking her from behind
while I slid by unobserved in a no-rail
cart. Knees to my chin, bar low and tight
across my lap, I dropped the fake
camera I’d been instructed to use.
They were polar bears in everything
but spirit, I decided—or else all spirit,
no polar bear. I couldn’t know. Who
signed them up for this? Were these
exhibitionists in another life, banished
to a special circle of pseudo-Antarctic hell?
Or was this a celibate’s reward? Sex in heaven,
perpetual love-making, no threat of offspring.
A giant crab looked on from across the way.
And how was he supposed to feel,
lit up only by his own florescence?
Hannah Dow is a PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers, where she is an Associate Editor for Mississippi Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Harpur Palate, American Literary Review, and Spoon River Poetry Review, among others. She also received an honorable mention in the 2015 Intro Journals Project.
Gifted with a voice that could command an audience in any era, Dorothy Allison treated the participants of the 2011 Summer Workshop to a spirited discussion on how characters should speak on the page. Not only ‘he said, she said, none of them said a thing’, but a whole range of language issues–what is said and not said, dialect and rhythm, pacing, patterns in speech, and most importantly, the language of gesture and avoidance.
Yes, there was a bit of cursing involved in the lecture, but to be cursed at by Dorothy Allison is an experience to be treasured. Trust us, we have firsthand experience.
In our newest issue, Issue 69: Sex, Again?, we asked some of our favorite writers to describe some of their most awkward positions. The poet D. A. Powell was kind enough to respond with a rare foray into prose:
Remember when you could just walk up to someone on the street and have sex with them? Before even saying hello? Most relationships ended backward, and quickly, and though we know the streets to be rough, I’m sure some of us are still out there, quivering in the moonlight. I do not think of those profligate days as particularly glorious, but different. It was a different time, when the noodle bar used to be a hard-core bar, before the pharmacy expanded and annexed the trashy old dance palace. San Francisco had sex the way Louisiana has churches, abundantly and with as much true spirit. Porn ran up and down these blocks like marigolds, the scene a twenty-four-hour donut shop for the transient and sexually desperate. Muscly women, muscly men, bearded, hunky, slender, lithe, kinky, twinky, clean or stinky. Candor. Fetish. Outness. It was Playland at the Beach without the sand up your crack. (Everything else, though, that could fit.) Talk was minimalized by the thumping homegrown music conjugated by producers at Megatone Records or Moby Dick, a label named for the popular tavern where patrons pressed into each other close and hard like a big box of matches waiting for just enough friction to be lit. We danced to the driving pulse of tracks like “Mandatory Love” and “Cruisin’ the Streets” and “Die Hard Lover,” songs that exploited and exposed the language of homo desire. At the Jackhammer, the Pendulum, the Headquarters, the Shed—music, bodies, the relief and thrill of being reflected and surrounded by a world in which one need not explain oneself. Untenable for the long term. Oh, but it seemed such a short-term life.
We lived illegal, illegitimate, marginalized in and by our own country, unprotected in every way. Any film that portrayed a serious homosexual told us we’d die; it was the code of a movie industry many of us loved that we would not be permitted happiness on-screen (or off), lest our form of sexual desire spread like a pod from outer space or werewolfism. It did not help that we acquired immune deficiency within our community, that the public treated homosexuality like an illness we all had to prevent from spreading. I speak of the past as a complex of repressive forces so powerful that simply to love felt like an act of rebellion. Sex was affirmation. Solidarity. It was proof that we were numerous and visible and therefore not an anomaly. Natural variants in a scale of genders and attractions, occurring across all the other spectrums of humanity. Sex was easy and communal, like when you pass a bottle of wine around at a picnic and fill strangers’ cups, too, because, hey, here we all are on the grass together.
But sex is just one kind of promiscuity. Poetry is another. Writing, in general, is the promiscuous use of language, and every writer or poet I know has started far more interactions with the page than ever saw the light of day. But it’s impossible to count the number of times we’ve kissed a new sunrise, turned to the scribble next to us on the nightstand and crumpled it up like a phone number we’ll never dial. I stop in the middle of writing this to open a package from Alex Dimitrov. I stop to read half of Honorée Jeffers’s The Glory Gets. I go to Lily Hoang and Marilynne Robinson. I’m listening to Sylvester, watching Rachel Maddow with the sound off and the closed captioning on (I prefer not to hear her voice but I want her ideas), and looking up the Cathy Park Hong essay everyone is talking about. Then Brecht’s love poems and Jamaal May. And this is all before breakfast. All these poems touch me in different ways, while I’m still in jammies; the essays penetrate me in ways I’ve never been penetrated before, and I am speaking tender words back to each writer. I am on the crowded dance floor of diction and it’s having its way with me. I run my fingers across sentences and lines, I finger and mouth each one of them, and sometimes I just lie there and listen and let the words take me.
I rarely finish what I write and I often don’t finish what I read. And don’t even ask me to get past the first paragraph of a relationship. I’m a good starter, though. I have joined the Twitter world, a perfect marriage of promiscuous interaction and lack of physicality. It is the divey cocktail bar of the imagination, where I can be stimulated in so many other ways—music, poetry, politics, science, news, quirky personalities. A dose of realness that can be ignored without dying on you, unlike, say, a cat. It is everything and nothing, like the present-day Castro neighborhood, a theater of liberation that has become so liberated that it no longer resembles itself except as a museum piece. I am glad to see we’ve been invaded by Starbucks and Pottery Barn—it means we are no longer in need of a fortress of identity and safety in numbers. I just hope that marriage freedom doesn’t become marriage expectation. There is no victory in a convention. What we fought for in these streets was not middle-class morality and well-behaved kids. We stood against the assumptions of heteronormativity, said yes with our hips, with our hearts, with our eyes. Made sexual play and sexual pleasure as easy and as enjoyable as poetry. If I belong anywhere and with anyone, it is everywhere and with everyone. Or at least as many as I have desire for. Of course I love being flirted with. But my drag name is no longer Clearance.
D.A. Powell‘s books include Repast and Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He lives in San Francisco.
Black Wave is a dystopic memoir-fiction hybrid forthcoming from Feminist Press.
Michelle had had her best celebrity sighting yet about one week ago, a life-changing experience. So far, the celebs at the bookstore had been impressive but minor. Alan Quartermaine from General Hospital came in with his boyfriend, oh yes, Michelle was sure, that was his boyfriend, Alan Quatermaine was gay! Michelle couldn’t believe she hadn’t realized that, all those years watching General Hospital in the 80s! She had much more respect for the actor. He played straight so convincingly.
Many shoppers had faces that nagged at Michelle. That was life in L.A. She had seen them, in commercials, speaking a single line on a sitcom, the silent villain in every movie ever, but she could not place them. She stared, but they probably liked that. All actors were narcissists, Kyle told her this. Kyle said that many non-narrcissistic actors were completely talented, but it took a narcissist’s particular and terrible skill set to make it in the industry. Michelle stared at a customer with unruly, black curly hair. She was on the verge from giving up when it came to her: Booger from Revenge of the Nerds! She phoned Joey at home to tell him.
That actor was on Moonlighting, too! He added.
Then Matt Dillon came in. Apparently, Matt Dillon came in all the time. He collected old rockabilly records. Beatrice kept a stack for him in the back room. Michelle had become obsessed with Matt Dillon at a young age, after watching him die in a hail of bullets in Over the Edge, a great 70s movie about disaffected youth shooting guns, having sex in unfinished suburban tract homes and lighting their school on fire. The obsession was stoked when he fucked Kristy McNichol in Little Darlings, and went totally haywire when he embodied all Michelle’s favorite characters in all her favorite S.E. Hinton books: The Outsiders, Tex, Rumble Fish. Michelle was crazed with him in Drugstore Cowboy. Any movie where Matt Dillon got shot was an amazing movie. He was the number one influence upon her sexuality, a bigger influence than queerness itself as everyone Michelle had ever been hot for resembled, in some vague way detectable only to her, Matt Dillon. And now he was in her store. And he wanted to talk to her. He had brought to the counter an ancient rockabilly record and asked her to play it on the turntable in the kiosk.
It looks good, no scratches, I just wanna make sure, he said in that lacksadasical voice, the voice of Dallas Winston in The Outsiders. Michelle’s hands were trembling. She got the record on the turntable without smashing it, though the needle was dropped into the groove a bit sloppily. She turned back to the register. Matt Dillon was leaned into the counter listening to the scratchy record, an old man’s voice and a shaky guitar. It sounded good, it sounded very old and unknown. Matt Dillon liked it. He smiled.
Let me see your tattoos, he commanded Michelle.
Like all tattooed females, Michelle went through the world dodging the grabby fingers of men who did not know how to look with their eyes, not with their hands. People reached out and stroked Michelle’s arms in ways they would never touch another stranger. The bounds of common courtesy and basic privacy were breached daily. Lemme see your ink, Douchebags would mumble, their hands already wrapped around her forearm. Nice tatt’. Nice ink. Or the grossest, Nice body art. It filled Michelle with rage. But this was Matt Dillon.
Michelle extended her arms and the actor seized them. Matt Dillon’s hands were upon her. He manhandled her limbs, twisting them to get better looks at each piece, flattering them with his attentions, studying even the crappiest among them – the faded word doubt scripted blurry on her wrist, the pokey tattoo a friend had given her with a needle and India ink. He particularly enjoyed the illustration of a young devil child peddling a Big Wheel up her shoulder.
That makes me think of that band, Gay Bikers On Acid, Matt Dillon smiled up at her. You know them? Michelle nodded, mute. Her personality, her thoughts and charisma had shrunk up inside her body like testicles dropped into cold water. Here was Matt Dillon, fondling her tattoos, making small talk, and she could not respond. Gay Bikers on Acid, he repeated. He swallowed, staring at her, his Adam’s apple dancing in his throat. There’s Lesbian Dopeheads on Mopeds, too, you heard of them? Michelle nodded. She had heard of them.
Michelle had the word ‘Lezzie’ tattooed on her shoulder, right above the devil child he’d been admiring. Michelle wanted to disclaim the Lezzie tattoo to Matt Dillon. Or, maybe she should flaunt it. You never knew with a guy. It didn’t matter anyway, Michelle was so unable to converse with Matt Dillon that he eventually dropped her arms and returned to the record bins in search of more obscure rockabilly, leaving Michelle alone at the kiosk to sink into a shame spiral about her clothes. She was wearing a pair of cut-off camouflaged pants for god’s sake, like a man, like a butch. Her t-shirt — armless, thank god — had the Nike swoosh with the directive RIOT above it. She had gotten it at an anarchist book fair. It was impressively punk, expressed an admirable impulse, but was it sexy? No. It was enormous on Michelle. She wore combat boots on her feet, boots she had idly scrawled stars over with a paint pen one night, bored and drunk in Stitch’s room. Her hair was crunchy, and blue. She had given herself bangs during a recent bout of PMS. The only time Michelle felt deep regret at not having a lover with her in her studio apartment was when she gave herself this haircut. A lover would have stopped her. The bangs of course looked awful. Michelle could look forward to the hair poking her in the eyeballs until she gave in and pinned them back like a small dog humiliated with hair accessories.
Michelle was powerfully hungover, as she was every morning, and she had picked her outfit blindly. She wore no makeup. What was she thinking? She lived in Hollywood. The most beautiful people in the entire world lived in Hollywood. People whose good looks commanded millions of dollars, people who then used those millions to become more beautiful still. Michelle had learned a valuable lesson: Do not leave the house unless you look ready to meet Matt Dillon. If she had looked cuter perhaps she would have had the confidence to speak to him. From thereon, each morning would look into the broken full-length mirror, found curbside in the Mission and lugged to Los Angeles. She would stare into its glass and asked herself: Am I ready to meet Matt Dillon? She would took the time to ring her eyes in kohl or stick a pair of earrings through the holes in her lobes, but it hardly mattered. She figured Matt Dillon would never return during one of her shifts. These sorts of things rarely happened twice.
Michelle Tea is the author of five memoirs: The Passionate Mistakes and Intricate Corruption of One Girl in America, Valencia (now a film), The Chelsea Whistle, Rent Girl (illustrated) and How to Grow Up (Penguin/Plume), currently in development with Amazon Studios. Her novels include Mermaid in Chelsea Creek and Girl at the Bottom of the Sea, part of a Young Adult fantasy trilogy published by McSweeneys, and Rose of No Man’s Land. Forthcoming works include Black Wave Castle on the River Vistula, the final installment of the YA series, and Modern Tarot, a tarot how-to and spell book published by Harper Elixir.
One morning on a small harbor ferry heading to Granville Island she’d watched the boat taking its level with False Creek and felt a kind of weightlessness that seemed telling. Anja had asked if they could meet now, today, and as she’d taken the call Ali felt a flutter in her own voice. It would not be good news from the trial, of course, but that wasn’t what the voice and the weightlessness meant. They meant somehow that she was getting less sure of herself and generally less certain, not just to herself but to others, as if she’d become doubted by higher powers, harder to believe in. Her decision not to seek a pregnancy returned now and then in this way, eroding her supposed selfhood, something she anyway thought of only as a cluster of changing biological conditions. But even self-betrayal is betrayal, an ancient constant that never loses its effect.
They walked along the seawall. Anja’s news was that, switched to the placebo, through growing despair, Subject 11 had written less and less. The slowing made sense but she couldn’t tell him that his crisis of faith was chemical. Then last week, eighteen days before the trial was to end, he dropped out and disappeared. Anja needed to know that he hadn’t had a seizure, lost his memory or his mind, but he returned no calls or emails. When she went to the apartment he’d listed, she was told by a young landlady that he’d moved out, no forwarding address.
That morning at the clinic she’d received a small package in the mail, addressed to “Maker,” care of her. It was a box the size of a large basket of strawberries. They took a bench seat.
“What if he’s cut off his hand or something,” Anja said.
“He couldn’t have wrapped it so well with the other one. Maybe it’s fresh strawberries. It’s for me, I’ll open it.”
The box had weight but wasn’t metal-heavy, more fruit than cannonball. The hand-printed letters in the address looked sane, unhurried.
She opened it to find a glass ball the size of a grapefruit, inside of which was one of the plastic identity bracelets issued to test subjects, with bar-coded personal and vital information. He’d twisted the bracelet once and reattached it into a loop, then suspended the resulting möbius strip inside the clear ball.
It came with a typewritten note.
Are you there?
You’ve left me unfinished.
So I’ve left you and your pharma con.
I wanted, then needed what you were making of me.
But you weren’t up to the making.
This ball is all you get.
Take it and fuck off.
No other ending.
“That’s literally twisted,” said Anja. Her voice, though not yet her face, expressed relief. “But I practically expected a bomb.”
Ali held the object up against the water, the sky, the new ugly condos across the water. It maintained a sure beauty. Subject 11 had lost his faith, lost his sense of irony about their relative positions, lost his belief in her.
“He used to be charming,” said Anja. “You okay?”
That night Anja called her at home to say that when she’d quoted the note to her unemployed classicist husband, he’d found another twist.
“He says ‘pharma con’ is a pun on a Greek word.” Somewhere in Plato was a story about an Egyptian god who offers a king a remedy for forgetting, the pharmakon of writing, writing as a memory aid. The king turns down the offer, knowing it will have the opposite effect and cause forgetfulness. The king uses the same word, pharmakon, to mean poison. Remedy and poison. “One and both, so either, depending.”
The ball sat now on a small china plate on Ali’s dining table. Maybe mornings before work it would catch a little gray windowlight that might, in time, disarm it.
“So it isn’t just he thinks I conned him. He thinks I poisoned him.”
“I don’t know, Ali. I don’t see how.”
“Poisoned by loss. Withdrawn revelation. Before the trial he was happy knowing what he knew, seeing what he saw. Then he took the pills and saw more. Now he knows he’s blind to the real size and intricacy of things. He’s been poisoned with a knowledge of his blindness.”
“That sounds pretty grand, actually. You haven’t read the pages he sent me. He’s not some great visionary. He’s just a guy telling a story, and then we switched him to the placebo and he couldn’t finish it.”
When she asked Anja to describe the story, she said she’d put her husband on, said his name, Roland, who was better at these things.
“There’s nothing so original about it.” Ali remembered him now, his voice, a kind of high-snouted tone. “The usual horror themes and tropes. Violated Nature. Science and Art, fire and flood, madwomen and monsters. It clips along for a while but he never sent the ending.”
They forwarded the file that night. Ali read the first page. There was already a body, a gun going off, the usual dumb mystery, cheap violence. It settled her to know that the story was only an entertainment. If this was all the vision he’d had, all he’d lost, she’d done Subject 11 a favor, she thought. Four days later he was dead.
She went to Carl with the news. His house had a cedar porch that in damp weather smelled like a sauna. He invited her to sit on his fraying string chairs but she stayed on her feet. She couldn’t find the words at first and they ended up looking out at the neighbors’ lawns and houses in the soft focus. Even at plus two degrees the gray could get so thick you expected whales to float by. There hadn’t been sun for a week.
When she told him, he tried to come close but she held both palms out and took a step back.
“We have to stop the trial.”
“This has nothing to do with the trial. He wasn’t even on Alph.”
She knew the line was coming and had tried to prepare but she hit him anyway, slapped him hard. He actually bent over briefly and said fuck.
“Now we know who you are,” she said. “You’re the bad guy who plays the company angle.”
She hadn’t known she would slap him, and having done so felt it was dopey, not genuine, a mimicking behavior. Then she thought she should feel better but didn’t, especially. Maybe he wasn’t the bad guy but the guy who’d sampled the drug and was now a true believer. Either way he was dangerous. As she walked to her car he straightened but didn’t follow. He held one hand to his face where she’d reddened it, as if in thought.
“You’ve signed docs, Ali. Remember your legal position.”
Beside the steps was an unpruned rosebush. The drooped-headed blooms were chilled into, what, awkwardness? shame? Were they like kids staring at their feet? No, they were just blighted flowers. As she pictured them in memory now, a shadow grew over them and a whale passed by overhead.
Michael Helm is the author of the novels Cities of Refuge, a Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize finalist, a Giller Prize nominee, and a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year; The Projectionist, a finalist for the Giller Prize and the Trillium Book Award; and In the Place of Last Things, a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His writings on fiction, poetry, and the visual arts have appeared in several North American magazines, including Brick, where he’s an editor. He teaches at York University in Toronto and lives in semirural Ontario.
was from the Musée d’Orsay: the bright, vaulted windows, gilded finishings, and me, smiling underneath. I thought I’d have time to see most of the museum before the kids’ school let out, but I moved too slowly among the impressionists, then had to hurry with the rest. I did stop for several minutes in front of Bonnard’s Women in the Garden. So comfortable, in their happy dresses among all that growth; they fit. They might have been less comfortable had they known a painter was crouched among the shrubs, hurriedly sketching their every contour. Or maybe they did know, and didn’t care. No—they knew, and enjoyed pretending not to.
I’m cultivating my digital poker face. The album is called “Paris in the Fall,” like Ella sings. It always makes me think of the optical illusion:
Your eye doesn’t see the second the because your mind doesn’t want to.
I BOUGHT A CHICKEN
at the butcher on my way home. It’s in my tiny oven now. Smelling good. I dressed it with lemons and rosemary and garlic, which is more than they do to the ones they have turning in the window, and theirs are delicious alone like that.
With the baking dish perched on the two-burner stove I transfer the chicken to a plate, using a spoon and fork, nearly dropping it on the linoleum. I dump the juices and dressing things into a skillet, splashing some on the glasses stacked in the draining rack. The sink warps—snap!—under the hot casserole. I love the steam that answers with a hiss when I turn on the faucet; I love seeing the sticky bits start to come loose from the bottom.
I pour some of the Sémillon from the fridge into a tumbler and some into the pan on the stove, seeing that the casserole melted a corner of the front burner knob. For a few minutes I sip and stir. Wine for the chicken and wine for the cook, just like Julia Child, another American that Paris made room for. I watch the sauce reducing, thickening. The rosemary pops and crisps; the needles are so nice when they’re lightly burnt.
The breasts I’ll save for sandwiches. Tonight, a thigh and a hunk of baguette, some more wine, the second half of yesterday’s artichoke. Me at my little desk. The slowness that made this plate is warm around me.
all my clothes and bedding, are holding tight to the stink of roast chicken. I wasn’t sure if it
would be noticeable, but of course most things are noticeable to children.
“Anna, you smell funny.”
“So do you, mes animaux.”
The kids’ tutor, Leo, is over at the Dufour’s flat this afternoon. We chat in the kitchen during a break in their lesson. He doubtless smells the chicken, too.
“So, how are you finding the city?”
“Oh, I love Paris.”
“And the Dufours, they’re good, ah? You’ll be with them for the year?”
“Mm. The kids behaving?”
“A little distracted today, maybe, taking advantage with being…”
“On their turf.”
“Yes, exactly. The turf.”
“I’ll come sit with you guys, they’re still a little scared of me.”
“Yes, thanks, fear is, uh, the first ingredient for learning.”
IN THE METRO STATION
there’s a poster, words from Edith Piaf, which I think translate:
The Paris metro
on the Paris roofs
has spun silver yarn
and slides, slides, slides, slides, slides.
All my metro rides seem to me one continuous sliding. When I am down here I rejoin a parallel self, the one that is always moving, in the thick of everything, underneath it.
A MAN WITH AN ACCORDION
boarded the 9 at Bonne Nouvelle, and I turned to the window by my small seat. But when he heaved into song it wasn’t the usual polka, he was playing “Poker Face,” and I looked back to him fast. Lady Gaga? Where did he get that? A silly grin distorted his full apple cheeks, but there was nothing false to him, and nothing apologetic. The commuters smiled against themselves. He got off with me at République, and his florid wheezing pushed me and the tide of commuters all the way to the Line 11 transfer.
IN THE HEADLIGHTS OF THE TRAIN
I almost always have something, not a vision or an impulse, but some idea of jumping onto the tracks. It doesn’t come from wanting to do that. I’m not sure where it comes from.
I want to go home and write to my family, friends, tell them that if they survive me, if I die in something that looks like an accident, or any way at all for that matter, it won’t be by mistake, and it won’t be their fault.
I want them to know that I am unafraid. I am quite suddenly sure that when I go, whatever the circumstances, in truth it will be only this: my nod, into an eye large and distant, saying, “Now will do.”
But this is not a thing you tell people. This is not a feeling that translates.
A SERIES OF TEXTS FROM MY LANDLORD
who is supposed to fix the heater tonight:
An opera singer crossed the restaurant where I was sitting
Singing aloud like on the Bastille opera scene
Singing a love song to the waitress
Then singing upstairs, where even the king goes alone
Now I’m close to jumpin into line 8 flying to Balard.
But they have no direct flight
I left my camera on the bus. I call you back.
IN MY STUDIO,
in the evening’s wifi glow, I am alone with my notifications.
I wonder about getting a cat.
I think I see my phone light up with someone’s distant affection. But it is only light from something passing by my window, which reflects off the screen, seizing me, and moves on.
Amanda McCaffrey holds an MFA from NYU’s Writers Workshop in Paris. She lives in Oakland, California. This is her first publication.
Cooler than a polar bear’s toenails…….
We are thrilled to announce the faculty lineup for the fourth annual Tin House Winter Workshops. Taking place at the Sylvia Beach Hotel, these sessions combine the rugged beauty of the Oregon Coast with a weekend immersed in all things literary. The program consists of morning workshops, one-on-one meetings with faculty, afternoon craft discussions, and generative exercises. Evenings are reserved for chowder, karaoke, walks on the beach, and other coastal revelry.
In addition to our much beloved fiction and creative nonfiction weekends, we are excited to welcome our poet friends into the mix this year.
Also new this year, SCHOLARSHIPS!!!
General Application Deadline: November 7th, 2016
Scholarship Deadline: October 19th, 2016
More info and applications can be found here.
I am sappy when it comes to love. I’m one of the first in line for a romantic comedy, even the ones that are simply a distraction from the heat, rain, or mosquitos. John Reed’s wonderful new book Free Boat: Collected Lies and Love Poems gives me that same type of humor, love and quirkiness that I crave, while being a more interesting and fulfilling artistic experience.
Containing 54 sonnets intermingled with a continuous narrative and some of Reeds personal photographs, Free Boat takes you on a journey that you don’t want to let go of. Love poems with built in lies and upside down truths, in which you can find a story of your own— and how you think about relationships.
The narrative that runs alongside the sonnets is one part fiction, one part John Reed’s own history, and one part surrealist dream, a painting come to life. Which makes sense given the fact that Reed’s parents are both New York artists – painters. There is a yearning in looking at a painting that’s akin to reading this book.
I met John Reed when I moved to New York to get a college degree at The New School, where he teaches. I never could clear enough conflicts in the scheduling to be in one of his classes, but I learned from every one of his books and the discussions we’ve had in the writing department. I’ve been to his readings in bars, parks, seminar rooms, and art galleries, where we all would stop from peering at paint and clay to absorb his carefully chosen words, spoken at a rate one can both enjoy and hold onto.
I was lucky enough to catch up with him over email right before the fall semester began.
Susan Marque: The first thing that strikes me is the title? How did that come about and are you suggesting that we all have lies we tell ourselves or that we see those we love through a kind of lie?
John Reed: On the subtitle, yes on both counts. We are willfully wrong about ourselves, and we are willfully wrong about those we love. Love, to some degree, is a mutual and collaborative deception, or, if we want to be romantic about it, love is art.
Free Boat. I would repeat it to myself. I’m sure by now I see more than is actually there: humor, meaning, pathos. I could do better on where the title came from. Years ago in Southampton, I was walking along with my to-be wife and we passed an old, decrepit boat on display. A sign offered: “Free Boat.” The last sign you’ll ever read.
SM: I find that I can read and reread both the poems and the narrative, enjoying more than I did the first time through. It’s like getting two books in one. Where did the idea of juxtaposing the forms together come from? How did this book begin?
JR: In the last few years I’ve seen more poetry/prose hybrid books. I confess that I don’t often think those kinds of projects come together. Usually the poems feel jammed in there, or the prose feels jammed in there. One of the problems with reading poetry, to me, is the overbearing nature of the poet, the biography of the poet. Identity—relating to our love and lies discussion—is experiential, yes, but it’s also self-imposed. A friend and colleague tweeted his summation, and I think he probably summed up my logic more succinctly than I could. Would it be an indulgence to lean on him?
@easyreeder John Reed’s “Free Boat” is an incredible mix of vivd. contemporary lyrical sonnets and a prose demolition of them
— Nicholas Birns (@nicholasbirns) August 4, 2016
SM: The main character mentions he studied both poetry and fiction. Is that true for you? Is that how you came to write a book with both? How much of this is memoir?
JR: I did study both. Hmm, how much of this is true? Can poetry answer that question? I guess all the poems are true. The prose? Good gracious. I don’t even know. It’s a love letter. How does one measure the deception in a love letter?
SM: What do you see as the role of experimental fiction and/or poetry in society? Neither seem to get the recognition of other forms of writing, and yet you are taking a specific type of poem – the sonnet – that stems from Shakespeare, and making it modern. Why? and Why now?
JR: I don’t really think of the project as experimental. The prose is a bit performative. I guess I’d concede “meta,” but that’s old hat. And sonnets of course, while associated with Shakespeare, have held their place in poetry for four hundred years. I began this sequence in maybe 2007, around the time I finished All The World’s A Grave (Penguin, 2008), which took apart the known works of Shakespeare and put them back together as a new play. I had the meter, I’d been working with that, so sonnets were something I thought I’d try. Their structural form is extremely appealing: succinct and elegant. And their logical structure is no less seductive; sonnets are arguments, concise arguments. Minus rhyme scheme, the sonnet is perfectly modern. I did make some adjustments to the rhyme.
SM: Why sonnets specifically though? You could have experimented with other forms, lengths, etc. Was it just from this work the idea sprung to create a series of them? Concise arguments around the theme of love?
When we first asked Luis Alberto Urrea to give the closing lecture at our 2016 Summer Workshop, he responded by saying he would “throw love notes over the wall,” and “bread to the disrespected.”
It was in this spirit, that Luis took to the podium on our final Saturday together, opened a tiny notebook that he had been composing in all week, and declared “I am here to sing hymns to the broken. We all need a place to stand. I will tell you where I stand and offer you a place or two in your own art where you might pitch a tent.”
It’s 2016, just after gravity’s first speech.
Here I am, lying in the dirt, attempting to sense
the rotation of an earth I imagine
to be singular in space.
I watch the breathable take
shape, though my eyes are inadequate, poised
between nanobes and primitive galaxies. You’ll find me
at my sewing machine, soon enough, mending
the spacesuit I inherited
from a chimpanzee who never knew he was
heroic or beloved. I’m running
on memory, congratulating myself on having survived
prehistory, when my clothes rotted off
and my hair was its own
ecosystem. I want my cave back. I want the paintings I exhaled
in my own blood
to be saved in Technicolor, for the earth to unswallow
a feast of dawns, just so I can pierce
the heart of an unnamed animal.
Devon Walker-Figueroa lives in Iowa City, where she serves as the poetry editor of The Iowa Review and as co-founding editor of Horsethief Books. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in BOAAT, Permafrost, Fjords Review, and Southword. In her free time, she plays the harp and dreams of adopting a capybara.