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Wordstock Week: Melissa Broder

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This week, we’re proud to feature work from some favorite Tin House contributors who’ll be appearing at Wordstock, Portland’s book festival, on November 5th. Catch Melissa Broder, author of Last Sext, on stage at two events on Saturday. Details here.

Tiny-House

BORING ANGEL

Now I know the trick is fantasy

I always knew it

But I didn’t know the problem of bodies

Or I didn’t know it entirely

How you must abandon the bones of the real

No angel wings projected on the ribcage

I had bloodstained sheets and I could not let go

I noosed myself on them in the woods

And hung there for eighteen days

Until I myself became an angel

Now I make love with no body

I do it with my halo chanting

Set me alive and fucking

A boy attached to no reality

He who needs no milk or punishing

He who will never abandon

How I love my celestial being

He who will never corpse

We are only air my seraphboy and me

Fucking with no eyes and flying

Tiny-House

Melissa Broder is the author of three previous poetry collections, most recently Scarecrone. She is also the author of the essay collection, So Sad Today. Her poems have appeared in POETRY, The Iowa Review, Tin House, Guernica, Fence, The Missouri Review, Denver Quarterly, Washington Square Review,Redivider, Court Green, The Awl, Drunken Boat, et al. She lives in Venice, California.

Posted in Events, Poetry

Comments: 0

Lost & Found: Samuel Annis on Christopher Manson’s MAZE

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When I was a child, I was given a book that was not really a book at all.

It tricked me at first. I believed anything with pages to turn, words, and pictures was a book, but as I turned this object’s pages, read its words, looked at its pictures, I felt myself in the presence of something fantastically different than the other books scattered throughout the house. In a book, I began at page one, moved to page two, and by this way eventually found myself at the end. No matter what occurred on the pages, if I kept reading I would eventually reach the final sentence, whether I wanted to or not. The thing disguised as a book, on the other hand, did not take me from page one to page two. “This is a building in the shape of a book,” it said. It elaborated, told me it was a maze and that by traveling through the rooms I might find my way to the center. Clues lay hidden in each room to suggest where to go next. Not all the clues were going to help me. Some would try and get me terribly lost. Unnerving as this was, it was also irresistible, and I spent many hours on my stomach, the maze before me on the carpet, as I wandered through the rooms, trying (unsuccessfully) to untangle the clues, and continually opening a door leading to a room that was pitch black except for the dozens of eyes staring at me. A room where I died over and over and over and over and over again.

Room-01

The title of this work that consumed large chunks of my childhood is MAZE (with the flavorless subtitle, Solve the World’s Most Challenging Puzzle). It is one of a handful of works written and illustrated by Christopher Manson, and though his others are similar in their use of fairy tale and mythic elements, MAZE alone possess a hypnotic power, transcending its binding and reaching toward something else.

Each double-page spread depicts one of MAZE’s 45 rooms. The left page contains between seven and thirteen lines of text while the right page features a lush pen-and-ink drawing of the room itself, eerie as a de Chirico with its impression that either someone has just left or will shortly arrive. Manson loosed his prodigious imagination in the creation of these spaces, crafting each room with a general theme and them cramming most of them with a mix of baroque furniture, shrubs manicured into geometric shapes, exotic birds, Kafkaesque machines, musical instruments, trap doors, lamps, crumbling porticos, strange glyphs and signs carved into the walls. Or, instead, a room may be empty except for a fire raging inside a hearth whose cavernous depths are crowned by mantle carved to look like a gaping mouth. Inside each room are doors, and each door will take you to another room. You are challenged to find a way to room 45 and then back to room 1 using the fewest steps possible. Furthermore, a riddle is hidden in room 45, and the riddle’s solution is tucked away in the other 44 rooms.

What sounds simple at first becomes morbidly, maddeningly difficult. Rather than not having enough information, the challenge becomes one of over-saturation as each elaborately arranged room and block of narrative text provides numerous pointing fingers (sometimes literally) without there being indications as to which are more valuable than others. Will the solution to a particular room become clear only after you turn the room upside down? Is a face hidden in the carving over the door?  Should you rearrange the letters in words spoken by the characters? As you move from room to room you find yourself going in circles, collapsing back into already experienced scenes, and you can’t help but wonder, as though this were really a book by Robbe-Grillet, whether or not something obscure but crucial has changed.

Room-26-1

Of course, things have changed. As you reenter a previous room, the returning images—an umbrella leaning against a doorway or the shadow cast by a bowling pin—become new in light of something else recently seen. Each room builds on your lexicon of figures, signs, and your MAZE language. Your perception deepens, and so, to adapt the Zen koan, you never enter the same room twice.

In the attempt to unravel MAZE’s devilishly hidden secrets, a possible solution something greater presents itself. If we can take something away from this work—other than an appreciation for cross-hatch shading technique and unsettling dialogue—it is the idea of repetition as a path towards sublimity.

Room-41

Our lives are, it seems, composed of a few recurring acts and motions, such as making dinner and falling in love. Once these repetitions are noticed, it can become difficult to see anything but constantly overlapping patterns tying your birth and death together in a bow. The patterns become avenues towards disquiet, the sense that we are now and will always be stamping over the same worn ground. And this is true. We are now and will always be stamping over the same worn ground.

MAZE’s major triumph lies in urging us to recognize the inexorability of continual repetition, something that becomes even more crucial in our increasingly labyrinthine world. We live with the expanding illusion of different and unique rooms, each seeming to offer momentary justification for our existence. We bound through chambers of experiences and believe ourselves to be continually ascending towards…what? Enlightenment? God? A consciousness-shattering orgasm?  But the elaborate approaches to fundamental anxieties are not new rooms so much as rearranged furniture. The rooms are the same, a fact we don’t realize until we suddenly recognize our surroundings and think, “how is it possible I am still here dealing with this?” We hold the proof of our varied and wild experience, but proof does not equate with meaning, and the awareness that our hands are gripping shrinking fistfuls of sand begins to feel like the darkest moment of our lives.

Room-22

MAZE recognizes our learned desire to progress and then creates an environment where such progress is almost impossible. “You haven’t spend nearly enough time here,” MAZE seems to say, “keep looking.” At first this can seem like a punishment. We want to move upwards and onwards! How dare someone deprive us of our right to ascend! But, and this is a beauty of the printed page, MAZE does not respond to our rage. It sits patiently on the shelf until our curiosity bests our petulance and we take it down again. Then it continues from where we left off: at room number 1.

Of course, the 31 years since the book’s publication gave people a chance to solve most—I hesitate to say all—of MAZE’s puzzles. If you want, you can simply Google the answer. You will find websites and podcasts dedicated to MAZE exegesis and emulation, where fans of the work debate the meaning of symbols drawn on a scroll or the importance of an apple partially hidden in shadows. They will also tell you the identity of the narrator and how to reach room 45. However, I will caution you: knowing the solution to the riddle or the shortest path through MAZE will not unlock the secret of the work.  That can only happen by accepting the puzzle as it presents itself, in all its opacity, in all of its chaos.  Anything less is—to use a key MAZE theme—a red herring. You may think you’ve reached the center, but in reality you will have only skirted around the outer rim, never allowing yourself to be swallowed whole.

Room-24-b

I have never reached the 45th room, which means I am always starting and continuing through MAZE. I’ve stopped expecting I’ll find the shortest route, and I can’t even think about solving the riddle. Now I enter primarily to breathe the strangeness of the spaces and to show friends who haven’t ever heard of MAZE: Solve the World’s Most Challenging Puzzle. Because I always follow the rules and enter with disbelief suspended there are several rooms I haven’t ever seen. I’m sure I’m missing something obvious, and maybe this should bother me, but I am content to wander through the rooms whose surroundings I recognize and provide continual delight. In room 7 an abandoned toy duck looks up at me.  In room 20 a tortoise crawls across the carpet. In room 26 several devils perform a play. In room 42 a small bear holds a sign reading “saints that way sinners this way.” And in room 45? That’s something you’ll have to find out on your own.

Tiny-House

Samuel Annis is a writer and bartender in Madison, Wisconsin.

Posted in Lost & Found

Comments: 0

Wordstock Week: Helen Phillips

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This week, we’re proud to feature work from some favorite Tin House contributors who’ll be appearing at Wordstock, Portland’s book festival, on November 5th. Just in time for Halloween, here’s otherwordly fiction from the always-extraordinary Helen Phillips from Tin House #66. Catch Helen with Jonathan Lethem, Dana Spiotta, and Isaac Fitzgerald on a panel this Saturday. Full details here.

Tiny-House

CHILDREN

How can I talk about them. The aliens, the form they chose to take. The pinafore, the suspenders. The broad white collars and the big black buttons.

You’re the one who dresses them that way,” Thomas would say irritably. “Those are the clothes you made. And you are their human mother. So enough, okay.”

Thomas doesn’t believe, and I don’t blame him. It isn’t easy to believe that when I was sewing those clothes there was something else guiding my fingers, something outside of me, something green and glowing.

I have two of them, a boy and a girl, and they’re always looking upward, or almost always, always pointing up, up, branches, birds, planes, moon, stars, planets, and there’s no way I can keep them inside now that the tornado is here. Their sticky feet rush them down the stairs, out the front door, across the porch, down the steps, across the yard.

I stand in the doorway screeching their names, the human names we gave them when they arrived half a decade ago—Bill! Lill!—but they’re already past the gate, bound for the road. They look back at me kindly (pityingly?) but continue onward, fast, their bare feet unstopped by the gravel, the lost nails. See, it’s just small hints, like the toughness of their soft feet, miniature clues—but that’s how we know. Or rather, how I know, since Thomas doesn’t believe, nuzzling their damp heads on watermelon nights in August as though they’re children like any others. In the summertime they sweat and glow all night long, those two, and that’s another clue right there.

I step out, away from the doorway and onto the porch. The row of trees Thomas planted soon after the aliens arrived is flattening in the wind, I mean flattening, and then a handful of tin cans shoots past the house like birds of the future, and my dress is alive with a will of its own, and I cling to the railing and scream for them, but they’ve already scooted under the barbed wire.

BILL! LILL! LILL! BILL!

Thomas is yelling something, hanging on to the stone foundation, coming around from the backyard, where he was checking on things. I can’t hear him but I know he wants to know where the kids are.

I don’t answer him, I keep shrieking their names. They’re still within sight, but barely, dark figures on the far side of Field 1. The air is green and the wind is clever.

Thomas curses when he spots them. “You couldn’t keep them inside.”

He’s just saying it, he’s not accusing me. He knows better than anyone how they are, always talking to each other in a language we don’t understand, always putting jam on their hot dogs. They’ve never belonged to us, not even for a second.

Thomas lets go of the stonework and takes a wind-bashed step across the front yard toward the garage.

“The county said no motor vehicles on the roads,” I say, coming down the steps and across the yard behind him. My dress blows up into my face, smothering me.

Thomas yanks me into the cab of the truck. The wind slams the door. I pull my dress away from my face and look at him. He’s got a big head, my husband, big like the head of a Saint Bernard, and my head is nothing to sneeze at either. While Bill and Lill have small shapely heads.

“Center Road to Field 5?”

I nod. It’s as good a plan as any. They’ve got to be halfway through Field 3 by now. Thomas jerks the truck into reverse.

“This is dangerous,” I say.

“Oh yeah,” Thomas says. I can’t tell if he’s agreeing or being sarcastic or what. Isn’t it weird how you can be married to someone for eleven years and still not know.

“But maybe not for aliens,” I add.

“Spare me,” he says.

We’ve been through this a million times. He refuses to admit what they are. Though they never bleed, not even when they get their vaccination shots or skin their knees. A puncture dot, a raw spot, but never a drop of blood. “Why do they never bleed?” I’ll ask him, and he’ll say, “They never bleed because they’re our kids and they’re tough as nails.”

But the reason they never bleed is because of their alien skin. Sure, it’s a subtle enough thing, it’s not like you’d pick them out of a crowd of kids, but when you’re the one who bathes them and lotions them and scratches their backs as they fall asleep, you know these things, and I know that their skin has a plastic quality, a durability far greater than mine.

I’ve overheard Thomas telling the guys that I’m crazy, on that front at least. I love her to death, but. She thinks the kids are aliens.

Aw, hell, Mark or Matthew or Tim or whoever says, putting his feet up on the porch railing. Yeah. My kids are aliens too. God, they’re monsters. They’re zombies. Hell, I don’t know what they are. Trolls.

And I go silently about my planting or weeding or whatever while my aliens do somersaults on the grass around me like any other kids. His ability to deny them is a testament to their artful, maybe even desperate, efforts to blend in.

“You know,” Thomas says now, making the sharp right onto Center Road, “if you keep talking this way about the kids, one of these days I’m going to have to leave you.”

Thomas will never leave me, but before I get the chance to remind him of that, a raccoon flies across the road. The creature seems surprisingly calm, soaring alongside a cluster of dirty napkins. I look at Thomas and Thomas looks at me. If this tornado can lift a twenty-pound mammal off the ground, what does that mean for our two forty-pounders?

Their slender skeletons, their halos of wild hair. Their oversized eyes.

Because let me be clear: them being different doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to a mother’s love. It’s just a funny little fact about them, a little secret I know, the way you’d know if your kid still wet the bed or sucked her thumb in third grade. Do I worry sometimes that it’ll become a problem someday, that their nature will make itself known at the wrong times, that they’ll be filled with cosmic longings impossible to satisfy? Well, yes, of course. But for now it’s a harmless enough thing.

The wind pushes against the truck like a giant palm. Thomas and I have a duet of muttering and cursing and hoping as he steers past Field 3.

“There!” Thomas shouts.

They’re not running anymore, they’re standing in the dead center of Field 5 like aliens awaiting their long-lost spaceship.

And I begin to panic for real. I’ve known all along, with a mother’s knowledge, that they’ll survive the tornado. They’ve done more daredevil things than I can count, things involving sleds, tire swings, train tracks, this disregard for their physical safety another hint of what they really are, but I’ve never considered the possibility that they might leave me. That they might actually pick up and head back to wherever they came from. They’re mine, through and through, and I don’t care a bit about the rules of some other planet—I’ve loved them and raised them with the best love there can be on any end of the universe, so help me.

In the height or depth of my labor, when everything was blurry and impossible, when I was vomiting and humming and the sky was day and night and day and night at the same time, I found myself suddenly calm, perched on a narrow precipice of calm, and here they came, luminous twin bubbles floating toward me in a beam of green light that overmastered the hospital’s fluorescence, and I opened my mouth and the beam sizzled on my tongue and deposited there its greenish gift and I swallowed the two elegant bubbles, and the calm was gone and I had to hum and hurt and hum and hurt for a while longer, and then they were stuck, halfway in and halfway out, and the nurse said, Feel the head! Feel the head!, and I felt a head, and it felt sublime, it felt wrong to feel a head coming out of your self like that, and then they were born all at once, both of them within ninety seconds, my tiny perfect children, a detonation in my heart. I’ll never know what happened to the other pair of twins I carried for nine months, whether the aliens infected them with their alien souls, or whether they replaced them altogether, or whatever.

But anyway, from that very first instant, I was ferocious about them. The clichés don’t begin to do it justice—I’d throw myself in front of any bus, I’d give them every shirt off my back, I’d drain myself dry over and over again, forever, gladly.

Though Bill and Lill have never needed such gestures from me. They’ve been self-sufficient from the get-go, they’ve always owned themselves, and I guess that’s another hint. Sure, they’re affectionate enough with us—they’ll nuzzle up against us when they get sleepy, and when they were babies they’d crawl over to us croaking Mamama Dadada in their brand-new voices. But there’s always been a line in the sand, a not-needing, as though we’re just icing on the cake. When they were toddlers they’d pick things up off the floor, a piece of thread or a crumb, and slowly, blissfully examine whatever it was for so long that I got scared. No matter how many times I called their names, they remained focused, showering the pebble, the key, the spoon with more attention than they’d ever shown me or Thomas. And when they sleep, their faces become so still and solemn, their limbs so shiny, that I can tell they’re traveling far away, to ingest the mercury or helium or whatever it is they need.

Here, now, in the middle of Field 5, they laugh up at the tornado like bullies, their broad white collars plastered to their skinny necks. Thomas parks the truck askew and we leap out and run across the field with the wind pushing us forward, and I feel hot and cold, hot and cold, and they’re waving at us like we’ve just showed up for a picnic. A tennis racket swirls above them, a frying pan, a flowerpot. We’re halfway to them when the wind flips on us and then it becomes as hard as walking in a rowdy crowd. We have to elbow our way through the wind toward them, but I don’t mind fighting through something to get to them, I always feel that way anyhow.

They’re holding hands, hopping up and down, the wind blurring their faces, twisting and torturing every sound they make.

“NA!” Lill screams.

“DO!” Bill screams.

“TOR!”

“NA!”

“DO!”

The exact second I realize, with knee-weakening relief, that it’s human syllables they’re shouting—it’s right then that the sheet of corrugated metal shoots across Field 5, shoots as if someone shot it from a gun, it comes so swift and sudden, bisecting the field, skimming fast toward Bill and Lill, slicing the slim bellies of my aliens. I grab my own midsection, it’s as though I’ve been cut, my dress ripped open, my gut ripped open, my arteries—the twins sink to the ground, blood seeping out all around them, I’m beside them as if by magic, as if I teleported the twenty feet dividing me from them, I’m trying to gauge how badly they’re damaged, I’m holding the pieces of them together, the flaps of skin beneath her sliced pinafore, his sliced suspenders, Bill’s wound in my left hand, Lill’s in my right. It’s not for nothing I took those nursing classes—quickly I determine that their cuts are not as deep as they seem, which is a very good thing, because I have no way to acquire transfusions of alien blood, this gooey blood with its uncanny glow, my hands all syrupy now with its brightness.

They aren’t crying—another hint, as if any more are needed—but instead gaze up at me with strained, shocked, oversized eyes. Their lean arms, their lean legs, small bleeding stars against the wheat and the dirt. We’re crouched down so low to the ground that the wind can’t find us.

“Are we dead?” Lill wants to know.

“Not at all!” I tell her. “Not even a little bit.” Continue reading

Posted in Events, Fiction

Comments: 0

Hey Neighbor

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Week One of PLOTTO: THE MASTER CONTEST OF ALL PLOTS brought in an overwhelming array of great stories. We found ourselves in busy train stations, fish markets, and test labs. Strangers passed each other cryptic letters, time-travel talismans, howling babies. And then they vanished, leaving us eager for more.

Congratulations to last week’s winner, John Lawton, whose hauntingly funny “Hey Neighbor” has us eyeing our Nextdoor accounts with extra suspicion.

The prompt for Week Two can be found here. See you next week!

Tiny-House

The posts on Hey Neighbor fell into three buckets: Prayer Group, Lost Dog, and Suspicious Individual(s). Miller hated Hey Neighbor.

His wife Jennifer read the post “Saturday Picnic” out loud. “This sounds fun.”

“Sounds like work.” It was probably a search picnic for the Crandalls’s beagle Dixon.

“We’re going,” she said.

“I miss Louisville.”

“You hated Louisville. You missed Denton, once we got to Louisville?”

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll make my potato salad.”

The picnic was in Coolidge Park, along the river. Long tables were set up in a U-shape and blankets were scattered about. Miller scanned the faces, trying to match each with a Hey Neighbor post. His potato salad had been a hit.

Miller got up to use the restroom. He spotted the woman in the greasy blue fleece seconds before she plowed into him. He apologized. She was young–twenty maybe. Her hair was matted and oily, like she’d slept under a car.

She looked at Miller, her eyes wide. “I shouldn’t have looked.”

“What?”

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” She thrust a small tube into his hands and broke away. No one noticed.

The tube was a rolled up document. Not paper, it was like thin worn leather, soft.

He flinched as Jennifer came up behind him.

“What’s that?”

“I don’t know.” He knew enough not to show her.

 

That night Miller waited until Jennifer was asleep and went to the porch. He unrolled the tube–the pink surface was a crudely drawn map of his street. Without lifting his eyes he slowly made his way to the sidewalk. He looked up at the McNeil’s house across the street. When he looked back at the map the words “Hates his son for eating the last piece of cake” appeared over the house. Miller thought he was imagining it but looked back down and there it was.

He stepped out into the street and the map shifted. He looked at the next house—“Steals from tip jars.” Miller smiled; a bit more than prayer groups were happening here.

He picked up his pace. He hadn’t moved like this in years. He stood in front of a two-story house with the state flag in front—”Pees in the sink.” A green shingled house with a screened in porch—“In love with her brother in law.” Miller ambled along, losing track of the hours. “Happy his brother got fat.” “Pretended to cry at her mother’s funeral.” “Fucks his wife’s shoes.” “Poisoned Dixon.”

Pink light filtered through the trees as Miller made his way home. He knew he was going to have to look. Things hadn’t been easy for them over the last two years: he hadn’t wanted to move again.

He got to his yard. It really was a nice house. Jennifer was right about the camellias. They made the yard come alive. He held the map in front of him. Without her they’d be out on the street with all the lost dogs.

Tiny-House

John Lawton is a writer living in Chattanooga, TN. A graduate of the MFA in Fiction program at NC State University he is currently putting the finishing touches on a series of stories set in the fine state of Rhode Island and is working on a novel that revolves around the Newport Folk Festival. He’s also considering doing a podcast from the shed behind the house, because what else could it be there for?

Here’s the Plotto prompt that, er, prompted John’s story: {A}, proceeding about his business and caught in a crowd, is confronted suddenly by a strange person, {BX}, who thrusts a mysterious object, {X}, into his hand and, without a word, disappears.

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTSIn the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays, Tin House Books

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Wayward Heroes: An Excerpt

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An excerpt from the forthcoming release from Archipelago Books.

Translated from Icelandic by Philip Roughton

Tiny-House

THE SWORN BROTHERS had their men fish, hunt, and forage, and they berthed their boat in little inlets in the evening. They never strayed far from the boat. They took great pleasure in the sport of searching cliffs for seabirds and their eggs, lowering themselves on ropes from the brinks of the cliffs and ransacking the ledges and crevices for spoils. The cliffs that men descend for seabirds can often be a hundred fathoms or more, and those who forage them feel safer after they have abandoned their footholds entirely and dangle freely in the air than they do inching themselves over their edges. This task is one of the most enjoyable of any done on Hornstrandir.

The men kindled fires beneath overhangs and sometimes under the open sky, for plentiful firewood was found there on the beaches, and they slept in tents on the land when the weather was fine. When the weather took a turn for the worse, they went to farms and offered to fight for lodging, though the farmers would give up their beds to them without a word. Young men stared at the heroes, captivated, and in their presence, other men seemed of little moment. Young women stared as well; some offered to wash the heroes’ clothing, and others to rub their heads with soap. As for slaughter and plunder, they achieved little, for the farmers had a natural defense in their poverty and paltriness.

The sworn brothers often sat on bright evenings in calm weather on the grass-grown clifftop of Horn, which looks northwest over the sea toward the end of the inhabited world. They watched for the wakes of great fish on the surface of the sea, and the columns of spray from the spouting of whales. Dolphins leapt and seals frolicked, and a pod of porpoises headed due north to the heart of the ocean. More than once, they discussed how any man with the strength to capture these creatures, and to take their blubber and tusks, would have the means to trade for a longship and make war on more people than those who inhabit Hornstrandir. Swans would also fly in from the sea, stretching their necks and sounding in flight. Then the heroes would sit silently, for they knew that these were the dísir of the Lord of Hosts, women superior to any other, who select champions for Valhöll and turn their backs on cowards. The sworn brothers declared it the highest wisdom in the world to be able to understand the din of such birds and to interpret their flight.

One day as they sat at the edge of the clifftop, watching their men fishing at the base of the cliff, their conversation went as follows. Þormóður asked:

“Are there any two men in all the Vestfirðir who live as contentedly and cheerfully as we?”

“That I do not know,” said Þorgeir. “It seems more remarkable to me that no one has ever heard of two equally doughty men sharing such fraternity, either in the Vestfirðir or elsewhere – and may the hour never come when either of us begs for life or mercy from any man.”

Þormóður Kolbrúnarskáld said: “Can a better place exist than the one we inhabit now? None dare oppose us, and all as one give us whatever we demand, without a word, while women ask us our leave to hunt out our lice.”

Þorgeir said: “I think that any place where we might make enemies worthy of death at our hands, or of cutting us down with their weapons, would be better than here.”

“Yet it is hard to forget that Egill Skallagrímsson, the greatest hero ever to have lived in Iceland and its best skald, died in his kitchen in the company of crones,” said Þormóður.

“No man is a hero who is well married and has beautiful daughters, as Egill did,” said Þorgeir. “A hero is one who fears neither man nor god nor beast, neither sorcerer nor ogre, neither himself nor his fate, and challenges one and all to fight until he is laid out in the grass by his enemy’s weapons. And only he is a skald who swells such a man’s praise.”

Þormóður said: “Are there two men living anywhere whose friendship is so strong that nothing could ever diminish their concord and sworn brotherhood?”

Þorgeir replied: “Truth to tell, there is no firmer friendship than when two men are such great champions that neither need look to the other in anything, until one of them is slain – at which point the other shall do all he can to avenge him.”

Growing on the cliffs that rise from this sea – the outermost of all seas – high up on their faces, on narrow, hard-to-reach ledges, is a certain herb, whose like in fragrance, nutriment, and healing potency is not found in hayfields or gardens. This herb has a hollow stalk nearly as tall as a man, and its upper part is pliant and sweet and a cure for most ailments. Due to this herb’s enticing sweetness, heathens have named it “cravewort,” whereas Christians have given it the Latin name angelica, after the angels and archangels seated nearest the throne of Christ in Heaven.

In late spring, the sworn brothers often climbed down to cliff ledges to gather cravewort. One fair-weather day as they were enjoying themselves in this task, Þorgeir was cutting stalks so enthusiastically, yet heedlessly, that the edge of the narrow cleft where his feet were wedged crumbled beneath him, and he lost his balance. The cleft’s surface was so loose that all it took was the weight of one man to break it. Since the hero had not yet been claimed by Hel, however, he was able, as he fell, to grab hold of a cravewort stalk growing out from a tuft of grass in a crevice in the cliff face, and hang onto it. Below him was a drop of a hundred fathoms, whereas above, only a few fathoms separated him from a narrow path leading to the cliff’s brow.

On the cliff face where Þorgeir now hung, there was neither a shelf nor a spur nor any other toehold, nor any chink or handhold by which he could heave himself up. His only life-thread now was one pitiful stalk of cravewort.

As for Þormóður, he had clambered down onto another ledge to gather this herb, and lingered there doing so for quite some time. He and Þorgeir could not see each other. Upon cutting his fill, Þormóður tied what he had gathered into a bundle, placed it on his back, and hoisted himself to the top of the cliff. The weather was calm and the sea still, and the sun shone in a clear sky.

Þormóður lay down on the overhang to wait for his sworn brother, but the cries of the seabirds lulled him to sleep. In fact, the sworn brothers were not that far away from each other – if Þorgeir had called out even a little loudly, Þorgeir could easily have heard him. Yet on this, the old books all tell the same story: nothing could have been further from Þorgeir’s mind at that moment, hanging as he was from the cliff, than to call his sworn brother’s name only to beg him for help.

Þormóður, the books say, now sleeps soundly on Hornbjarg, eventually waking late in the day. He wonders about his sworn brother, and starts calling to him from over the brink. Þorgeir does not answer. Þormóður climbs down to a ledge, whence he shouts loudly, startling birds into flight all over the cliff. Finally, from down below him, Þorgeir replies: “Stop scaring the birds with your shouting!”

Þormóður asks what is taking him so long.

Þorgeir replies, saying: “It matters little what is taking me so long.”

Þormóður asks if he is finished gathering cravewort.

Þorgeir Hávarsson then gives the reply that has long been remembered in the Vestfirðir: “I think that I will be finished when the one in my hand comes out.”

Þormóður begins to suspect that not all is as should be with his sworn brother’s cutting of cravewort, and he clambers hastily down to the cleft from which Þorgeir has fallen. He peers over its edge and spies his sworn brother hanging from the cliff. The cravewort stalk is quite frayed, and on the verge of breaking. Þormóður tosses a rope to Þorgeir and manages to pull him up to the cleft. They then climb the narrow path to the top of the cliff.

Þorgeir Hávarsson did not thank his sworn brother for saving him, nor did he express gratitude for it in any other way – in fact, it seemed as if he harbored some sort of grudge against Þormóður for the incident, and things grew colder between the sworn brothers from that point on.

Tiny-House

Halldór Laxness (1902-1998) is the undisputed master of modern Icelandic fiction. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955 “for his vivid epic power which has renewed the great narrative art of Iceland.” His body of work includes novels, essays, poems, plays, stories, and memoirs: more than sixty books in all. His works available in English include The Great Weaver from Kashmir, Independent People, The Fish Can Sing, World Light, Under the Glacier, Iceland’s Bell, and Paradise Reclaimed.

Philip Roughton was born in Colorado and lives in Iceland. His translation of Iceland’s Bell received the American-Scandinavian Foundation Translation Prize in 2001 and second prize in the 2000 BCLA John Dryden Translation Competition. His translation of Halldór Guðmundsson’s The Islander: A Biography of Halldór Laxness was recently released in the United Kingdom. His translation of The Heart of Man won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize for book-length literary translations in 2016.

Posted in Excerpts, Fiction

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A Brief Episode In Music History

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First, music went from ephemeral—song as performance, never sung exactly the same way—to physical object. Through records, cassettes and CDs, we captured songs; then, finally, came the Internet. Music has been returning to the ephemeral ever since.

Cassettes consisted of a case and two spools wound with magnetically-coated tape. They came pre-recorded or recordable, “blank.” Each represented different possibilities; each offered a way of preserving a particular moment in time.

Cassettes were maligned for their low fidelity by our parents, but they were important to us. We thought our technologies would last. After all, records had lasted; people still play records to this day. And if eight-tracks hadn’t, they’d vanished so neatly that we—the cassette tape generation—barely knew they had existed.

Tapes were easy to copy, and durable. A beloved tape—Metallica’s Kill ‘Em All, for example—could be forgotten on the floor of a car, shoved in the pocket of one’s faded black jeans, or stuffed in a backpack with one’s undone homework and comics and an uncapped tube of black lipstick, and suffer no damage. Tapes could survive heat, cold, neglect. Though they eventually wore down with use, they did so gently: The playback warbled, faint, as if the sound travelled from a greater distance as time passed.

Through tapes, underground music penetrated the Iron Curtain. Tapes were also instruments for musical education amongst American teenagers, who recorded artful mixes. A teenage girl might cherish her friends’ mixes nearly as much as the friends themselves: An Ozzy mix from Steve, the coworker she crushed on who said she seemed like “someone who could appreciate Ozzy;” Pink Floyd from Eric, who took her to see Star Wars. She might keep these, long after abandoning her other tapes. They might occasionally turn up in boxes while unpacking moves in her twenties.

Tapes varied in length. 120, 90, and 60-minute tapes were common. It was perhaps a 60-minute tape that played in the car on a road trip that began in Maryland and ended in Massachusetts; three girls in the car, one leaving home for the first time. They smoked Marlboro Reds; they drove fast with the windows down. They had only the one tape, with songs by Marilyn Manson, Siouxsie Sioux, and My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult. Also, inexplicably, Taco’s “Putting On The Ritz.” After several hours, they decided not to play it again for the remainder of the trip.

Tapes included protection to prevent accidental erasure: They had tabs that could be snapped off so the indentation triggered sensors to prevent recording. A beloved mix might thus be afforded some protection. But if needed, sticking adhesive over the indentation bypassed this prevention. Tapes were durable, but nothing is indelible.

Sometimes mechanical problems also occurred. Tapes suffered “wow and flutter,” frequency wobbles from playing speed fluctuations below or above the 4Hz sweet spot. Or a player might rotate the supply spool faster than the take-up, or not release the heads, and the tape would spew out of the cassette and tangle in the player. Tape players sometimes “ate” tapes, destroying them altogether.

In Massachusetts, a teenage boy once painstakingly rewound an eaten tape for his girlfriend because it was her favorite, a mix that reminded her of her Maryland home. He rewound the spools and re-sealed the tape ends. Afterward the player lurched as the adhesive daub passed through, but the tape played fine. The girl would long remember this kindness, how carefully he had treated something she treasured.

Cassettes peaked in the 80’s and were overtaken by CDs—the return to ephemeral was primed to begin. Perhaps it began on an elementary school bus, 1987, on the last day of school. On the bus, a boy held a cassette in his hand.

He snapped the tape inside, as a girl next to him watched. Holding the end of the tape, he flung the cassette out the bus window. The tape unfurled, flying out behind. It sparkled, seal-gray and nearly weightless, fluttering, suspended there, before finally it dropped onto the road. The girl felt troubled by the boy’s wastefulness, but it was somehow tragic and exhilarating in equal measure.

The tape ribbon sparkled in the sun as the bus turned a corner and then, just like that, it was gone.

Tiny-House

Elizabeth O’Brien lives in Minneapolis, MN, where she earned an MFA in Poetry at the University of Minnesota. Her work—poetry and prose—has appeared in many journals, including New England Review, The Rumpus, Diagram, Sixth Finch, Radar Poetry, PANK, Cicada, and the Ploughshares blog. Her chapbook, A Secret History of World Wide Outrage, is forthcoming from ELJ Publications.

Posted in Flash Fidelity

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PLOTTO: THE MASTER CONTEST OF ALL PLOTS, WEEK 2 of 5

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“FIRST AID TO TROUBLED WRITERS,” the Boston Globe announced in 1928—“GRINDS OUT PLOTS WITHOUT ANY FALSE START.”

 

Calling all writers who are obsessed with plot and obsessives who can write a mean story. We want you!

 

THE RULES:

Every Wednesday for five weeks, we post a prompt from William Wallace Cook’s classic how-to manual Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. Simply use this prompt to write your own 500-word (or less) story. Stories must be submitted by Monday, October 31 at 5:00pm PST.

Click here to submit via Submittable.

We’ll be back next Wednesday with a new prompt!

 

THE WEEK’S PROMPT:

 

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In the book, {A} indicates male protagonist and {B} indicates a female protagonist, but for our purposes, feel free to write from the point of view of any gender.

 

THE RICHES:

Weekly winners will be published on tinhouse.com, read their stories on OPB’s “State of Wonder,” and receive the new paperback edition of Plotto.

After five weeks, Grand Prize Judge Paul Collins—Guggeinheim fellow, author of nine books, and mastermind behind the Introduction to Plotto—will crown one winner the Plotto Writer-in-Residence. The Plotto Writer-in-Residence will be awarded a long weekend writer’s retreat at the Tin House studio in Portland, travel expenses paid.

Click here to submit!

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTS

In the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

 

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Hear more about Plotto and the Master Contest of All Plots on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s State of Wonder.

 

 Tiny-House

Terms and Conditions

Open to U.S. residents aged 18 or over only. One entry per person per week. Entries must be the original work of the entrant and not previously published anywhere else. Entrants will retain copyright in their submitted entries; however, by entering, all entrants license Tin House a worldwide royalty-free perpetual license to publish and use each entry in any and all media (including print, radio, and online) for publicity and news purposes. There is no cash or other alternative to the prize stated and the prize is not transferable and no part or parts of the prize may be substituted for other benefits, items or additions. By entering, any subsequent winners agree to allow the free use of their names and general geographic locations for publicity and news purposes during this and future promotions by Tin House. Completion and submission of a short story will be deemed acceptance of these terms and conditions.

Winners will read their stories on OPB’s State of Wonder, which will require them to sign a material release permission form. The Grand Prize Winner will be notified by phone; the phone call will be recorded for an episode of State of Wonder.  

Posted in Events, Fiction, Tin House Books

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Standing with Standing Rock: An Interview with Waniya Locke

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In September, my nine-year old daughter and I went to the Standing Rock Reservation, where we joined the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a 1200-mile pipeline set to carry fracked oil under the Missouri River and through the states of North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois. For the last few years, I have been working on a book that combines found poems “mined” from a book about geology with poems written in the voices of indigenous ancestors. What began as a project of experimental poetry turned into an awareness of how mining—and our dominant culture’s exploitive relationship to the land—underwrote the genocide of Native peoples and attempted the erasure of their culture and stories. The work sometimes felt like exhuming voices, and it took me to the Dakotas several times where I entered into humble friendships with Lakota elders from the Pine Ridge and Standing Rock communities.

This time, I wanted to talk to Waniya Locke, one of the four women who began the protest in early 2016. Waniya is not an activist, but a mother and teacher who uses social media with uncommon clarity and intimacy. In her Facebook posts, she gives statistics about fracking and pipeline leaks. She shows peaceful protestors being attacked by mace and guard dogs. Sometimes she cries. I knew that I wanted to interview Waniya, but I had no idea if or how I would meet her. The camp had grown to thousands of people by the time we arrived, and many leaders had moved on to Iowa to try to halt construction of the pipeline there.

For those of us who love the earth or are environmentalists, it has been difficult to see what our dominant culture calls “progress” as anything but a wrenching narrative of loss. Loss of land and entire species of animals and plants, loss of consciousness of connection, loss of the old stories that taught us more deeply about place, loss of woods and marshes for the same Walmart or Big Lots or Buffalo Wild Wings. But even that first night in Standing Rock, I could feel a sense of return, a kind of cycling that was going to put remembrance in touch with itself. If one elder remembered a verse to a song, and another elder remembered another, and if they taught that song to a child, what more could be connected? What would change if we made our decisions with this child and her grandchildren in mind?

The next morning, we woke to shy sunlight and steam rising from the tents and cars. We ran up the hill that had been dubbed Facebook Hill because it was the only place in camp where people could get a signal and use cellphones and social media. There were a handful of people there that early—campers and journalists, looking out. It seemed almost miraculous to me, but when I got to the top, I realized that the one woman there was Waniya herself, doing a post before she left for Iowa. I asked if I could interview her, and we walked down the hill to our camp, where we sat down at the fire circle.

• • •

Rachel Jamison Webster: Waniya, one of my hopes in coming out here was that I would get to interview you. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

Waniya Locke: First of all, I am one of many women. It is important to understand that, that I am one of many. It was women who initially opened camp up. It was all done by prayer. We went and had ceremony done first, where were given very specific directions that we couldn’t use violence, we couldn’t use weapons. That was specifically told to us. They told us to trust the Spirits and to allow them to guide us.

So again, I’m one of many. Continue reading

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Lost & Found: Andrew Engelson on Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz

Contrary to what Orson Welles asserted in The Third Man, the cultural output of Switzerland amounts to more than the cuckoo clock. As anyone who’s enjoyed Paul Klee’s playful paintings or read the subversive stories of Robert Walser knows, the Swiss have contributed their share to the arts.

Like Swiss wines, the writers this tiny country produces aren’t well known beyond its borders. Most of us, for instance, have never heard of the twentieth-century novelist Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz. I only learned of his existence while spending money.

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I was living in Switzerland, trying to complete a novel I’d been working on for five years. My partner had taken a job with a global health nonprofit and we’d moved our family from a posting in Hanoi to Geneva. I was the trailing spouse, at home typing on my laptop like a hermit. The village we lived in was an orderly suburb where rough-timbered barns have been converted into apartments for bankers, diplomats, and employees of acronym-laden organizations. My daughters were enrolled in local schools, where their nimble minds soaked up the new language like sponges. I wrestled with my manuscript and bought groceries.

While paying for my gruyère and Cheerios, I glimpsed Ramuz’s worried face on the Swiss 200-franc note. A quick Google search provided scant information: Born in Lausanne in 1878, Ramuz was a poet, essayist, and experimental novelist whose formative years were in Paris, where he befriended the likes of Andre Gide and Igor Stravinsky. In 1914 Ramuz married the Swiss painter Cécile Cellier and returned to Switzerland after to the outbreak of the First World War. From 1930 until his death in 1947 he lived in a stone house overlooking the vineyards near Lausanne, where he wrote deeply existential books. Most have never been translated into English.

Intrigued, I bought one of Ramuz’s early novels, La Grande Peur dans La Montagne (Terror in the Mountains) and attempted to read it in the original French. Let’s just say I have a complicated relationship with the language. Enamored of Foucault and Deleuze in college, I studied French for a semester, but it never took. During my three years in Geneva, I chose to learn by osmosis rather than taking classes. It was not a successful experiment. While my daughters became fluent, my studies were limited to the checkout lane at the supermarché: I know my aubergines from my courgettes, but any time I utter complete sentences at home, I’m mocked mercilessly by my children.

With the help of a dictionary and Google Translate, I muddled through to the end of La Grand Peur. It’s a tale of misfortune set in a village high in the mountains of Valais. Imagine Heidi rewritten by Cormac McCarthy.

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Five impoverished men decide to lead their cattle to summer pasture in a remote alpine meadow. The village council, however, forbids them because the place is subject to a centuries-old curse. Defiant, the herdsmen guide their cows to the rich green fields. Cooped up in a tiny cabin, the men begin to argue and bicker. Vague, terrifying noises penetrate the starless night. One of the men is killed by a malfunctioning rifle. Another, a twitchy teenager, flees down the mountain in terror. One herder, a superstitious old codger, keeps a mysterious paper tucked in his threadbare coat, confident it will protect him. But the cattle contract an unnamed, contagious disease. The president of the village council, accompanied by a veterinarian (who in his black cape resembles the Grim Reaper) condemns the men to exile. One of the herdsman, who is in love with a girl in the village, flaunts the order and attempts a secret rendezvous. He’s discovered, and as the accursed band attempts to descend from the high country, a group of vigilantes assembles to prevent them from returning. A gun battle ensues in the town graveyard. It doesn’t end well.

Ramuz, who was a poet before he was a novelist, doesn’t concern himself with anything resembling a plot. The strength of the book derives from a mood of dread, sustained by Ramuz’s surprising imagery. In one scene, the pine needles of a forest floor are “embroidered with golden sunlight.” In another, a man’s bloody hand is held aloft like a lamp. And in the most striking scene in La Grande Peur, a man ventures to a lifeless place of rock and ice to prove he possesses the tiniest tincture of will:

“It seemed that no one had come here since the creation of the world and nothing had ever disturbed it, except for at that moment a man proceeded to write the evidence of his existence as if here were placing letters, one after the other, one phrase and then another, disturbing the first page, that beautiful blank page, with his footsteps.”

Passages like this resonate deeply with me, as I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains, whether in the Olympic range near Seattle, or among golden larches at the foot of the Matterhorn. Even so, living in Switzerland I felt like an outsider. I began to feel guilty about not fitting in. With all its beautiful scenery, precise train service, and fantastic quality of life, why couldn’t I love Switzerland?

  Continue reading

Posted in Lost & Found

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La Grande Guerre

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A parasol and a stone seawall and a polished lady clad all in white: ostrich feather hat, fringed purse, silk gloves. Her posture lovely, her coiffure tight. But Mag has planted a flower in front: a blue hydrangea pom-pomming preposterously. Star-shaped blossoms facade what Georgette would most like to see: is the lady’s face as pretty as her dress? But Georgette confesses to Loulou the Pomeranian that she likes that her husband has denied them that.

The three of them are on a walk to get groceries in the morning after a gray spring rain. The air is hung with a purple smell: lilacs. Some petals on the ground, some still attached. Hydrangeas, though gorgeous, have no scent.

Some people, some climates, can be too nice, oppressive in their mildness, a mildness unto death. Her husband has a wildness. A perversity without which the conditions of their marriage could become adverse. He can be terse and steady, but he is not without temptation.

In line at the butcher’s, they hear a woman ask for “Two nice kidneys, please,” and Magritte whispers to Loulou and Georgette, “I’m tempted to ask for two horrible ones.”

Georgette’s father was a butcher. As a butcher’s daughter, she grew used to the slaughter of animals for food. “Would you ever eat me?” Loulou had asked when he was a puppy. “Of course not!” Georgette had said. “Forget about that.” But she understood why he’d wonder.

When they walk by the American consulate on the way home, Mag is tempted again: “Maybe I’ll go in and ask them to do the necessary paperwork to make me the King of America tomorrow.”

The image is called The Great War, and the glory of the woman’s attire conflicts with the violence of her not-so-long-ago era. If Magritte were king, then Georgette would be queen, and Loulou would be both heir and court jester. They have, in their family, a defiance of common sense.

Mag seems staid, Georgette knows, to people outside their isosceles triangle, but he’s got his darkness and he’s got his edges. He suffers from what he calls “the bizarre affliction” – the source of his ills and his melancholic progress: ennui. As their friend Suzi has said, he lives it as a metaphysical condition, and about his pursuit of painting he at times manifests “an almost constitutional dislike, feigning something between boredom, fatigue, and disgust.”

Georgette imagines that if you took the hydrangea away, you’d find the woman to be blind. She looks like the kind to say Pro Patria, and to shut her eyes, stop her ears, and sing a popular song. “Right?” says Loulou. “Like, La la la, everything’s sunny and nothing’s wrong.” Ugh.

Tiny-House

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait. Co-editor of René Magritte: Selected Writings, she is also the author of seven books of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, including, most recently, the novel O, Democracy! and the novel in poems Robinson Alone. Her second novel, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in 2017.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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A Writer Is Not Smarter Than Literature: An Interview with Eliot Weinberger

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Essayist, editor, translator, political commentator, and occasional poet—Eliot Weinberger is one of this century’s busiest literary polymaths. Whether cataloging the translation history of a single poem, or tracing the influence of classical Chinese poetry on the European avant-garde, or even reading George W. Bush’s memoir through the critical lens of Michel Foucault, Weinberger brings a fierce erudition to bear on each of his varied subjects. His essay collection The Ghosts of Birds—newly published alongside a reissue of his now classic Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, a close reading of different English translations of a single Wang Wei poem from the Tang Dynasty—is a sprawling record of found poetry, cultural encounters, and historical anecdotes, all of which Weinberger, ever the modernist, makes something like new again. 

Tiny-House

Hal Hlavinka: Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei was originally published three decades ago, when literary translation was still very much an activity at the margins of the market. Were there any specific developments in the translation community— methodological, cultural, social; or perhaps a fight or two—that you considered when drafting the new section of the book?

Eliot Weinberger: It’s true that since the book was written in 1979 (and published in book form in 1986) there is now a greater recognition of translators, excellent presses devoted to translation, and an academic industry (which I avoid) of conferences and works of translation theory. But when it came to expanding the book for the new edition, none of this mattered. What I found interesting is that the English translations in recent decades are all written with an awareness of the original book—that is, of the many previous translations of the poem. So there’s a pressure to come up with something new, which isn’t easy. (And, for those who remember the old book, the new one has more wacky stories about my nemesis, the Furious Professor, the one who accused me of “crimes against Chinese poetry.”)

HH: The combination of fragments, translations, and poems that make up An Elemental Thing—the serial essay which comprises part one of The Ghosts of Birds—are striking in how disparate yet oddly comfortable they seem when set aside one another. What draws you to a particular piece that ends up in the project?

EW: The idea was to write a serial essay, in the manner of the American open-ended serial poem, which can go on forever. The subjects keep changing from essay to essay, but images and even phrases repeat. Maybe that’s why they’re “oddly comfortable.” I’m glad you think so. I always want my books to be a kind of couch. You read a few pages in the late afternoon, fall asleep, and have a memorable dream.

HH: Several of the essays and pieces you originally wrote for exhibition catalogs. How does your compositional process change when you’re collaborating with another artist, particularly when you’re bringing text to accompany a visual medium?

EW: I love collaborating with visual artists, but the understanding is that I will not write directly on their work—I’m not an art critic—but rather will write something somehow inspired by their work, a kind of parallel text. In this book are collaborations with two artists: the Cuban-American Teresita Fernández and the Maori painter Shane Cotton, both of whom contacted me out of the blue. In Teresita’s studio, I saw crates and crates of rocks that she uses for her installations and a work in progress of 31 small gold-plated metal rectangles, partially painted over in black ink, which were intended as a calendar. So I decided to do a calendar of stones—ordinary stones, not precious ones. But mine is a lunar calendar, with 28 sections, and the whole thing waxes and wanes: the texts grow longer up to #14 and start getting shorter after #15. In the case of Shane Cotton, I incorporated some of his imagery of birds, rock cliffs, and Maori translations of the Bible into my text. But mainly his work sent me into Maori bird lore and the stories of various birds that no longer exist, that now are ghosts.

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HH: Your essay “Béla Balázs’s Chinese Dreams” begins with a glancing definition of one of modernism’s goals: “In the first decades of the 20th century, a committed modernist had two ambitions: to make something new and to recover something old.” This strikes me as an apt description of your own work. Do you think of your project as an extension of a modernist aesthetic?

EW: Yeah I’m just an old-fashioned modernist, not very happy with postmodernism, whatever that is. Modernism always played with the tension between sincerity and irony, between making connections and severing them. Now, at least in the avant-garde—whatever that is—it’s all irony, which I find tedious. A writer is not smarter than literature.

HH: I found myself often overwhelmed by the odd historical details you find, which stick out in the mind long after reading. I’m thinking of things like the bone from Josaphat’s spine that closes “That Impostor Known as the Buddha,” or the grandfather clock without a pendulum or weights in “William Sharpe,” or the anecdotal shape of “The Wall.” When you’re reading or researching, what is it about a specific detail that clicks for you—that you know it might echo loudly in a piece?

EW: I try to write my essays like poetry, listening to the sound, trying to include telling images. There are no rules or general description for these details. They hit me when, in my research, I discover them and, as a writer, I hope they’ll hit someone else.

HH: Your work has a restless, world-devouring quality that’s hard to pin to any specific critical genealogy, perhaps aside from Pound. Who would you estimate looms the largest behind the recent work in The Ghosts of Birds?

EW: Well, no one. There are cases where a certain writer is tremendously influential on another, but I don’t think that’s a universal rule, and it has been vastly overrated—as has anxiety. (I, for one, feel anxious about everything except writing, which I find oddly calming.) When I was a teenager, DH Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature and the writings of Artaud first opened my mind to the possibilities of the essay, but obviously I don’t write like either. My model for the narrative bits of my essays is the Icelandic sagas. My models for condensing large amounts of information are Lorine Niedecker and Charles Reznikoff. And everything else comes from poets.

HH: Aside from the stories and fragments that you clearly take in by the hundreds, are you a collector of any kind? Rocks and minerals, perhaps? Or maybe you’re a birder? Everyone’s a birder these days.

EW: I don’t collect anything, except dust, even books—in the sense that my books are for reading, and are not acquired because of their rarity. I love watching birds, but am not a bird-watcher. (I once said this to Jonathan Franzen, passing the time as we coincidentally were waiting by the luggage carousel in the Sydney airport, and he looked at me with utter disdain.)

 

Catch Eliot Weinberger in conversation with Justin Taylor this Sunday, Oct. 23rd,
at 7:30 at Powell’s in Portland! 

Tiny-House

Eliot Weinberger has published books of literary essays and political commentary, anthologies of poetry, and translations of Latin American and Chinese literature with New Directions since 1976. He is the series editor of Calligrams: Writings from and on China and the literary editor of the Murty Classical Library of India.

Hal Hlavinka is a writer and critic living in New York City, where he works as the event coordinator at Community Bookstore. His work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, Music & Literature, and The Quarterly Conversation, among other places.

Posted in Interviews

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Field

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Field

The plaque said this was the oldest wall in the state.

It was stone, set by hand, and ran the length of a field,

splitting an unused road from incongruous grasses.

It was no less true to say the wall bisected the field.

(I could draw a diagram if provided paper.)

Let me start over:  The wall sat along a field and an unused road.

It bisected them.  Its line was shared by a mangled hedge,

or the suggestion of one.  A jug of bleach, emptied and faded,

was jammed in there, in the wall, where maybe a stone had been,

where a stone once was.  That doesn’t matter much

because here’s the thing:  The field was glowing,

its busted patchwork woven with light from who knows where.

The weather-beaten stone, the mangled hedge, the incongruous

grasses:  All glowing.  Something was broken with this field,

like a mess of florescent tubing fallen from a busted sign box.

But I could’ve been wrong.  Either the field was glowing

or I was full-on making this shit up, failing to see

the field as it was, as it would’ve been without me.

You want to take in the world plain, to know it clear,

to see so clean it’s like a thought.  Like with this

felled wall running the disused road or the grass

like a busted patchwork.  If I’ve yet to say it without adornment:

this field was teeming, totally lit up.

The field was blushing up on me.

I was blushing, full-on girlishly engrossed.

Like my merely standing there was gossip.

Like if I were here I shouldn’t say so.

Like if I was here it was wrong to know it.

Tiny-House

Brandon Kreitler is the author of Late Frontier, selected by Major Jackson for the Poetry Society of America’s National Chapbook Fellowship, to be released in the spring.  He’s from Arizona and lives in New York City.

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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PLOTTO: THE MASTER CONTEST OF ALL PLOTS, WEEK 1 of 5

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“FIRST AID TO TROUBLED WRITERS,” the Boston Globe announced in 1928—“GRINDS OUT PLOTS WITHOUT ANY FALSE START.”

 

Calling all writers who are obsessed with plot and obsessives who can write a mean story. We want you!

 

THE RULES:

The prompt below is from William Wallace Cook’s classic how-to manual Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. Simply use this prompt to write your own 500-word (or less) story. Stories must be submitted by Monday, October 24 at 5:00pm PSTSubmit here via Submittable.

We’ll be back next Wednesday with a new prompt!

 

 

THE WEEK’S PROMPT:

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In the book, {A} indicates male protagonist and {B} indicates a female protagonist, but for our purposes, feel free to write from the point of view of any gender.

 

THE RICHES:

Weekly winners will be published on tinhouse.com, read their stories on OPB’s “State of Wonder,” and receive the new paperback edition of Plotto.

After five weeks, Grand Prize Judge Paul Collins—Guggeinheim fellow, author of nine books, and mastermind behind the Introduction to Plotto—will crown one winner the Plotto Writer-in-Residence. The Plotto Writer-in-Residence will be awarded a long weekend writer’s retreat at the Tin House studio in Portland, travel expenses paid.

Click Here to Submit!

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTS

In the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

 

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Hear more about Plotto and the Master Contest of All Plots on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s State of Wonder.

 

 Tiny-House

Terms and Conditions

Open to U.S. residents aged 18 or over only. One entry per person per week. Entries must be the original work of the entrant and not previously published anywhere else. Entrants will retain copyright in their submitted entries; however, by entering, all entrants license Tin House a worldwide royalty-free perpetual license to publish and use each entry in any and all media (including print, radio, and online) for publicity and news purposes. There is no cash or other alternative to the prize stated and the prize is not transferable and no part or parts of the prize may be substituted for other benefits, items or additions. By entering, any subsequent winners agree to allow the free use of their names and general geographic locations for publicity and news purposes during this and future promotions by Tin House. Completion and submission of a short story will be deemed acceptance of these terms and conditions.

Winners will read their stories on OPB’s State of Wonder, which will require them to sign a material release permission form. The Grand Prize Winner will be notified by phone; the phone call will be recorded for an episode of State of Wonder.  

Posted in Events, Fiction, Tin House Books

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Coastal Craft: Michelle Wildgen

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As we continue to take applications for our upcoming Winter Workshops (SCHOLARSHIP DEADLINE IS TOMORROW!), we check in with a few of our faculty to discuss their own classroom experiences. 

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Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience (as a participant)?

Michelle Wildgen: I’m not sure I remember my first workshop, which would have been when I was 15. But I do remember the feeling of it, how exciting it felt to realize what writing could be like, the feeling of being happily overwhelmed at how much there was to read and to learn about it.

TH:What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?

MW: Too many to pick out only one favorite. I have lucked out and had one amazing teacher after another. But here are some: Anything that frees you from fear of changing your drafts.

One thing that is so obvious, yet I had to be told, so I tell other people: Save separate numbered drafts and you feel free to tear into a story or novel and experiment. You can go back if you need to, but I rarely do.

Also: stop freaking out about cutting this little paragraph or that precious page! You’re a writer. You have more great writing in you.

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TH: Strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?

MW: I was in a workshop in which one of the other students would try to chat with her neighbors at full volume during the actual workshop. Just a sidebar commentary, but really loudly. It’s not like she was even way at the back of the room, either. We were all around a small round table.

TH: We tend to listen to a lot of records during the workshop weekend. Do you have a favorite “at the ocean”album?

MW:A winter ocean is a whole other ballgame, so I guess it can’t be too shiny and poppy, and yet it feels important that it be something we can drink red wine to and that won’t make us all stare Plath-ily into the blank gray ocean.

TH: A favorite winter poem, story, or book?

MW: I love returning to Jane Eyre in the winter. It feels cozy to me, which may be perverse, given the consumption and madness and whatnot.

Tiny-House

Michelle Wildgen is a writer, editor, and teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to being an executive editor at the literary journal Tin House, Michelle is the author of the novels Bread and Butter, But Not For Long, You’re Not You , and the editor of an anthology, Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast. Her fiction, personal essays, and food writing have also appeared in publications including The New York Times, O, the Oprah Magazine, and anthologies such as Naming the World and Other Exercises for the Creative Writer, Best New American Voices 2004, and Best Food Writing 2004 and 2009.

Posted in Craft, Workshops

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Get Up Every Day and Do an Unseen Thing: A Conversation with Nicholas Mainieri

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I first encountered Nicholas Mainieri’s fiction in those great baseball issues that Hobart used to put out every spring. His first published story “The Tools of Ignorance,” which appeared in the spring of 2008 and was titled after an old nickname for a catcher’s gear, carried itself with such authority and deep-in-the-grain understanding of our national pastime that it stuck with me for months afterward. Later that same year, I accepted a two-year position at The Southern Review at Louisiana State University, and, knowing Mainieri lived nearby, I looked him up and we began to meet regularly to watch baseball—my beloved Phillies won the World Series that fall—and talk about writing stories, including a novel he was just beginning to formulate. Back then, his book had a sort of Heart of Darkness sound to it.

When I got the chance to guest edit an issue of The Southern Review devoted to stories, essays, and poems about baseball, Mainieri may have been the first person I reached out to. (Other contributors included Pat Jordan and Witold Gombrowicz.) His story in that issue, “This Game Do That To You,” contains what remains one of my all-time favorite lines in a work of fiction, in which a less-than-charitable clubhouse attendant refuses to console a player who strikes out to end a low minor-league game: “‘Not your fault tonight, big fella,’ Leroy say. ‘Blame the fucking scout what signed you.’”

In the years since then, I’ve watched Mainieri’s voice and his vision grow even sharper and more nuanced, more fluent in different vernaculars and capable of deeper emotional resonance. His stories have appeared in Southern Humanities Review, Salamander, Sou’wester, and he now appears to be part of the house band at The Southern Review, with three stories in those esteemed pages. The arrival of his star-crossed, coming-of-age debut novel The Infinite (Harper Perennial) signals the next step of an already marvelous career. Emailing with him about it in early October felt like old times, like the sort of conversation we used to have along the first-base line at Alex Box Stadium at LSU.

Tiny-House

Andrew Ervin: Tell me about the route you took from your first published story “The Tools of Ignorance” to having copies of your first book arrive at your door.

Nicholas Mainieri: Thinking about it now, it was eight years, just about to the day, from that story’s publication online in a Hobart baseball issue to a box of The Infinite galleys showing up at my house. You and I became friends because of that story, man! It was published alongside your great “Phillie Phanatic” story. The phrase “the tools of ignorance,” in baseball, describes catcher’s equipment—the implication being that catchers, were they any smarter, would play another position. As a former catcher, I like the phrase. It can be tongue-in-cheek, but it also suggests something about the hard work of existing at the game’s heart. And it seems to me now that toiling in the dirt and getting the crap kicked out of you for little glory provides a good analogy for the route from first published story to debut novel—or for the writer’s life itself. Work really hard, focused on whatever seems most essential. Experience a lot of rejection. Major successes occur mostly in obscurity (appreciated, if you’re lucky, by your family, and the writer-friends you’ve made, who understand). But, in general, “success” only means that you get up every day and do an unseen thing. It takes a long time to finish a novel and a long time to find a home for it. Someone might glance at those solitary years of work and wonder why in the hell you’d want to do that. I can take pride in that, and hope that I’ve made a thing that will be useful to someone somewhere. Anyway, hefting that box full of copies of the real thing was just really cool.

AE: What was the hardest part of writing the book?

NM: I don’t know how you or other novelists feel, but I found rewriting a novel to be especially hard—in both practical and intellectual ways. I get all screwed up when I try to edit a piece of writing in an existing document. When I rewrite I literally have to retype. Physical, marked-up manuscript on desk, new blank document on screen. By the end of this novel, I had retyped the complete draft from start to finish nine times. Inefficient, maybe, but it was the only way I could get it done. It was also best from an intellectual standpoint, however. Writing a story requires one really long sustained thought, one trail of logic—if this then this, over and over. But there’s a spirit hidden in there, too, somehow. The characters’ experiences become a kind of proof for ideas only understood through the rigor of repeating (rewriting) that complicated sequence again and again.

AE: I’m not letting you off the hook that easily. What I want to know is: what were the challenges specific to your story?

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Everyone

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This isn’t one of those stories where someone has cancer. In this story, everyone has cancer. Everyone is sitting in a room with an old friend, while the sunlight fades behind a stretch of Victorians and old oaks, and the room goes dark and only the candle light illuminates their faces, and they talk about cities in Eastern Europe that they haven’t been to, but have seen in pictures and dreamed of like the invisible cities of Calvino. Everyone in this story is in a hospital room, watching the yellowed water in a vase of flowers — fat-headed sunflowers, bunches of pink yarrow, lilies, and sprays of indistinct white flowers with small, plentiful blossoms.  Everyone is looking out the window at the rain falling fast on a brown hillside, pooling in the low places that used to be channels for a river. Everyone in this story is calling a loved one, or thinking about calling a loved one, and regretting the time they said they didn’t love their mother, their father, the Mets, the Thanksgiving turkey, a family trip to Arizona; made an idle remark about the Grand Canyon being overrated, which wasn’t even true. It was a wonder! Everyone in this story is sitting beneath a tree’s yellow and orange leaves on a picnic blanket reading a story in which someone, maybe a child, has cancer, or a pig that needs to be slaughtered, or a dead parent, or a series of obstacles to overcome in order to achieve adulthood, which is, upon reflection, if the book went on, not all it’s cracked up to be with the bills and mortgages and children who build train tracks and then abandon them without having once pushed Thomas beneath the series of intricate bridges. Everyone in this story is laughing at a gif, warming a sleeping child on their stomach, waking up for a short swim, a long run, or to call someone who is living briefly in an Eastern European city. Everyone in this story is conflicted about the nature of their lives, wondering what philosophy to follow, what show to watch, thinking that they’ve heard good things about The Wire, but who knows, wondering what hobby to take up or start doing again, wondering about their wives and husbands their children and their lovers, whether they’ve loved or been loved as they wanted. Everyone in this story just got a call letting them know that their life is going to end someday. Fuck. Fuckity fuck. Everyone in this story is taking the car in for an oil change, changing the light bulb in the garage, masturbating to a picture of an ex on Facebook, crying in the front seat of a car at a funeral, a wedding, stopping off on the long dusty road sheltered by a copse of trees and thinking about a day when they were very young and their father, now dead, took them to the zoo and held them on their heads when they were tired of walking. Everyone’s father holding their chubby white legs as if they would never let them go.

Tiny-House

Andrew Bertaina currently lives and works in Washington, DC. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in more than thirty publications including: The Three Penny Review, Hobart, Fiction Southeast, Sierra Nevada Review, Apt, OxMag, Prick of the Spindle, Bayou Magazine, Catamaran, and Isthmus. He is currently a reader and book reviewer for Fiction Southeast.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Shelter in Place: An Interview with Alexander Maksik

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Natalie Bakopoulos and Alexander Maksik met at a book festival in 2013, after Bakopoulos reviewed Maksik’s second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, for the San Francisco Chronicle. Since then, they have continued a conversation about books and writing. This interview took place over email in September 2016, regarding the publication of Maksik’s third novel, Shelter in Place.

Tiny-House

 

Natalie Bakopoulos: Several years ago in The New York Times, Katie Roiphe noted that the “youngish” generation of male novelists writes sex with a “convoluted, post-feminist second-guessing.” She argued that “the current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex.” I am happy that Shelter in Place does not follow that path, but your sex scenes do subvert the paradigm of previous generations (Mailer, Roth, Bellow, and so on). For one, they do not privilege bravado and conquest in the matter to which so many feminist critics have objected. Your work is always focused on the sensual. What is essential—and extraneous—for you in a sex scene? What do you shy away from?

Alexander Maksik: To begin with, I’m not much interested in writing about sex as a form of conquest because I’m not much interested in people who approach sex that way. Or maybe I’m not interested in writing about men who do. And to be honest, that’s not because I’m such an evolved or righteous person. More than anything, it’s because I’m so repelled by certain clichés. And what’s duller than a man whose identity is wrapped up in collecting women? So while I certainly consider myself a feminist, my primary objection to writing about those men is literary. Of course, the two things can’t ever be separated. The idea that men are one thing and women another is as terrible for the world as it is for art.

As for sex scenes in particular, the very notion that writing about sex is somehow separate from any other kind of writing is anathema to good fiction. What is essential in a sex scene is the same as in any other and I want to write every scene well. I do notice, however, that a lot of contemporary fiction seems to treat sex as farcical and/or disastrous. Disastrous sex is particularly popular. Terrible sex. Humiliating sex. Or, worse yet, it’s ignored altogether. Young urbanites embrace in the yellow light of a bodega and the next thing you know someone’s making a very specific blend of coffee in a very specific vessel, and they’re talking about whatever malaise happens to be haunting them that morning.

Personally, I’d prefer less about the origin of the coffee beans and more about the sex. There’s a real prudishness there, an underlying terror of giving offense. A cuddle is a hell of a lot safer than whatever you believe its opposite is and that instinct toward safety is born out of fear. I find all that disconcerting.

Who becomes an artist out of a desire for safety? The aversion to writing about real intimacy is symptomatic of what I see as our growing cultural aversion to sincerity. And far more frightening, is a growing atmosphere of caution. Since when have good writers been cautious? Are we so afraid to offend? To use the wrong language? To run afoul of the professionally outraged? To fall subject to an increasingly popular and powerful ad hominem moral criticism. Those who’ve taken it upon themselves to tell us what we may and may not write? I think the answer, too often, is yes. That fear is ubiquitous and dangerous. It’s a dry rot and it not only affects writers, but editors and prize committees, and critics who are so often terrified of backing the wrong writer, of being caught supporting the wrong book. And this obviously extends far beyond the subject of sex.

I don’t understand it. I have always been drawn to art because it is an utterly lawless world, limited only by a person’s courage and imagination. So what do I shy away from? Cowardice. I revile cowardice in art. I revile the idea that we should be writing benign and careful books.

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NB: Rage, particularly female rage, is a key element of the book. And Tess is one of my favorite characters of recent fiction: restless and compassionate, driven by principle and anger, enraged by cowardice, with intense moments of both vulnerability and power. Like all the book’s characters, she resists gender stereotypes. How do you see her as emblematic of the book’s larger preoccupations?

AM: I’ve been struck by how divided readers are when it comes to Tess. There are those who adore her and those who abhor her. People see her as brave and powerful, or careless and cruel. My sense, though, is that if she were a man she’d be a far less polarizing character. We have a vastly greater tolerance for men who possess the characteristics she does. And indeed, what you describe is really a description of the same old male hero we’ve seen repeated in a thousand novels and films. All those tales of restless men, angry and driven by principle, who set out to slay the dragon, solve the crime, seek revenge, fight the good war, who return, bruised and bloodied, along a rose-strewn path while at the end of it waits a patient maiden smiling on the porch, bosom heaving.

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The Drop

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Ethan Feuer is an MFA candidate at the University of Virginia. Previously, he has worked as an architect in New York. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature / Okey-Panky, SmokeLong Quarterly, and DIAGRAM. He is presently at work on a novel. On Twitter @hellofold.

 

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Bull & Finches

Flash Fidelity

In eleven seasons, the bar depicted in the television show Cheers was almost never crowded. Almost never was it besieged by a throng of patrons struggling to get their servers’ attention. And I think I can tell you why: Sam Malone. He doesn’t drink. Not only does he never drink, but on top of this he’s a retired ball player, still an athlete in the bedroom. And that hair. And that tan. And that jaw. He is maleness in full. Who could possibly loosen their burdens and their neckties while drinking in the shadow of a bemused and sober phallus? Well, Norm can. And Cliff can. But they are already saturated with self-loathing and distrust. They are inured, insensate. They leave the bar, and the shadow comes with them.

Tiny-House

Ben Reed’s work has previously appeared in Big Fiction, [PANK], and West Branch, among other places. His story “My Neighbor the Pilot” recently won the Texas Observer Shorty Story Contest. Ben teaches writing and literature at Texas State University, and he is the fiction editor at Arcadia Press. He lives in Austin with his family, and online at benjamin-reed.com.

Posted in Flash Fidelity

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The Three Dreams of Mark Glass

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Mark dreams of the desert: every fall his father buys instant oats and canned beans and unrolls the sleeping bags from the crawlspace. His mother fills two-gallon jugs of water and they pack the car and drive south along the river. Mark associates the changing season not with tingeing leaves, but with the bedroom warmth of the station wagon’s backseat crowded with mildewed quilts, the rowers gliding alongside his window in boats as liquid light as bird bones.

The drive takes three days and they always spend the first night outside of Chicago, where Mark’s grandmother lives. She smells of cloves and is called only Boo Boo by everyone. Boo Boo plays a game with him about rowing a boat, only instead of a boat it’s the couch; Mark falls from the cushions and becomes a mischievous fish. He has never been in water deeper than the bathtub, but Boo Boo says it doesn’t matter and casts her line over and over into the carpet, reeling him in from out of the itchy blue depths. Boo Boo tells him he is an incorrigible little salmon who will taste delicious on a bagel.

They always leave Chicago so early that the sun isn’t up, so early that the next thing Mark remembers is his father twisting in the passenger seat to shake him awake, saying, “Maka, it’s Nevada.” His mother rolls down her car window to grasp hands with a smiling woman who says, “Welcome home.”

In the desert Mark is always falling asleep in one place and waking up in another: on his father’s back; in a hammock; curled on the wine-stained passenger seat of a stranger’s camper van, the heat rising off the playa through the windshield and both his parents passed out beside him. There are other children around sometimes, but he rarely plays with them. Instead, he follows his parents through sunbathed wooden rooms where faceless figures wander mystical-naked, sprawling, multi-level cities tattooed across their collarbones in indigo ink. Sometimes Mark chases the water truck between tents, howling with laughter, the water silky on his face as he flies, lifted by his mother and, on the other side, a man who isn’t his father, a friend of his parents who wears a rubber suit and a beard down to Mark’s eye-level. After, his mother combs his hair with her fingers and the man in the rubber suit plays “This Land is Your Land” on the banjo and his father sings and they all eat tomato and melty cheese with toast. Mark wears wool socks at night because at night, the desert is cold.

Also at night, the desert bursts to wheeling, mesmeric architectures. Multi-level cities come to brilliant, psychotic depths on the sand. Mark grips his father’s hand and stumbles back through the cold between campfires. His father, in nothing but a pair of gym shorts and a paisley handkerchief, bends to tuck Mark into a sleeping bag. Only once, their final year in the desert, does Mark manage to stay awake to watch the concluding celebration, a towering nighttime incineration that he nonetheless anticipates every year with certain manic desire.

Once, that same year, he unzips the flap door of his parents’ tent and finds his parents and the man in the rubber suit, except without the rubber suit, the man grinding his hips on his mother’s, her breath fast, her eyelids fluttering, her mouth open on his father’s. Once, in the blue wash of a cold Nevada dawn, Mark’s mother holds him hard against her skinny chest and says, “We used to share a body.”

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Tin House presents PLOTTO: THE MASTER CONTEST OF ALL PLOTS

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“FIRST AID TO TROUBLED WRITERS,” the Boston Globe announced in 1928—“GRINDS OUT PLOTS WITHOUT ANY FALSE START.”

Calling all writers who are obsessed with plot and obsessives who can write a mean story. We want you!

THE RULES:

Every Wednesday for five weeks, we will post a prompt from William Wallace Cook’s classic how-to manual Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots. Use the prompt to write your own 500-word (or less) story before the following Monday at 5:00 PST.

See the prompt for Week One here!

 

THE RICHES:

Weekly winners will get to read their stories on OPB’s “State of Wonder,” see them published on tinhouse.com, and receive the brand-new paperback edition of Plotto.

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After five weeks, Grand Prize Judge Paul Collins will crown one winner the Plotto Writer-in-Residence. The Plotto Writer-in-Residence will be awarded a long weekend writer’s retreat at the Tin House studio in Portland, travel expenses paid.

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TIN HOUSE JUDGES: Masie Cochran, Thomas Ross, and Sabrina Wise.

GRAND PRIZE JUDGE: Paul Collins—Guggeinheim fellow, author of nine books, and mastermind behind the Introduction to Plotto.

PLOTTO: THE MASTER BOOK OF ALL PLOTS

In the 1920s, dime store novelist William Wallace Cook painstakingly diagrammed and cataloged his personal writing method—“Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict”—for the instruction and illumination of his fellow authors. His efforts resulted in 1,462 plot scenarios and Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots was born. A how-to manual for plot, Plotto offers endless amalgamations to inspire limitless narratives. Open the book to any page to find plots you may never have known existed, from morose cannibals to gun-wielding preachers to phantom automobiles. Equal parts reference guide and historical oddity, Plotto is sure to amaze and delight writers for another century.

Hear our Grand Prize Judge talk Plotto on NPR here.

We’ll be back with the first prompt on OCTOBER 19!

 

Tiny-House

Terms and Conditions

Open to U.S. residents aged 18 or over only. One entry per person per week. Entries must be the original work of the entrant and not previously published anywhere else. Entrants will retain copyright in their submitted entries; however, by entering, all entrants license Tin House a worldwide royalty-free perpetual license to publish and use each entry in any and all media (including print, radio, and online) for publicity and news purposes. There is no cash or other alternative to the prize stated and the prize is not transferable and no part or parts of the prize may be substituted for other benefits, items or additions. By entering, any subsequent winners agree to allow the free use of their names and general geographic locations for publicity and news purposes during this and future promotions by Tin House. Completion and submission of a short story will be deemed acceptance of these terms and conditions.

 

Winners will read their stories on OPB’s State of Wonder, which will require them to sign a material release permission form. The Grand Prize Winner will be notified by phone; the phone call will be recorded for an episode of State of Wonder.  

 

 

Posted in Tin House Books

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Liking

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My friend asks me why I like her, but I don’t know what this question means, let alone how to answer it. Liking is a fundamentally unstable state with its own laws. There are some people who I agree with in every way and yet I don’t like them at all, while there are others who are in disagreement with everything I think, yet with whom I feel sympathy and even warmth. How can I explain to my friend that the things that to many people make her unlikable are perhaps the things that make me like her most of all?

If I told my friend, I like you because I have a precedent for liking you, and I like you when you’re in certain moods and I’m in certain moods, and when you’re absent I like the memory of you, and I like our shared history, and I like how you might someday become despite the fact that by that time we might no longer like each other—what would she think of that?

I don’t know what liking is but I know it increases in savor with each separation and reunion. I know it’s a satiety, which means it must be preceded by a hunger. Maybe liking is like that judge and his pornography—you know it when you see it. Maybe that is what I should tell my friend—I know it when I see it. I know you when I see you. When I see you, I like.

Tiny-House

Emily Dezurick-Badran is a writer, librarian, and roller derby player living in London. She’s currently working on an archive podcast and a detective novel.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

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Past Midnight

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And an icy tower was rising out of the sea. A wingless man was

filling a bag with pickaxes and asking for directions

to our house. The moon was expanding like a balloon and

I was worried it might go pop. I could already

see through it and there was nothing inside, no bibles or yolk of

wedding rings. A wax sedan was melting on the hill

and we were the two lovers in the back seat, the spools of

our hair twisting like wicks. Below us, berries

clustered together like dead stars. And we were both still hungry.

Tiny-House

Zack Strait is pursuing his PhD at Florida State University. His poems have recently appeared in Poetry, Slice, and West Branch and are forthcoming in Ploughshares, The Common, and Poetry East. 

Posted in Broadside Thirty, Poetry

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Breaking Tradition

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A friend lent me two hundred dollars to see a psychic named Linda Bell, a heavy-set woman wearing a turquoise kaftan, hair blown into a high bouffant. With a dramatic flourish of her arm, she gestured me, a shy seventeen-year-old girl, into her house.

“Welcome, welcome,” she uttered, her voice, pitched to a low, breathy seriousness.

I explained, breaking periodically into tears, why I’d come, and for a few moments she seemed not to breathe, then asked quietly if, instead of a formal session, we could just chat.

“But I need your help,” I said, taken aback.

We went into her small consultation room filled with spider plants and ferns, and sat in two facing chairs. I’d asked her not to close the curtains, and in the bright afternoon light, a series of hanging crystals threw prisms on the floor and walls.

“I’m going to call your father into the room,” she said.

“You don’t have to, he’s here,” I replied as my body began quaking, not from fear exactly but from the overwhelming sense of his presence.

“Oh yes,” she said. “I see him.” She was looking at the wrong part of the room, and I waved my left arm, though I wouldn’t turn to look.

“He’s here,” I said, gesturing behind me.

She told me that suicides sometimes did not realize that they were dead and this was probably why he had been haunting me. “Speak to him. Explain this to him,” she urged.

But I couldn’t. I shook as if my bones would break, bending forward, gasping for breath. When I did speak, I yelled “Daddy!” in staccato bursts.

“I’ve called someone else into the room,” she said, “a dead man, a man your father met in his lifetime.” She said this man, who my father recognized, was going to show him where to go, a place where he would be able to rest and where people would help him. A gentle authority had come into her voice, and aching to believe in her, I felt myself begin to calm.

She told me that my father and the man were leaving together, and still sitting forward, my face streaming with tears and snot, I repeated, “I love you, Daddy,” again and again.

When I sensed him gone, I sat up straight and the trembling grew less intense. Linda Bell looked thoughtful, her eyes wide. “He’s all right now,” she said. I nodded and smiled, telling myself that even if she hadn’t seen him at the beginning, she eventually had, and that my father was now better off.

As I was about to leave, I reached into my bag for the money my friend had loaned me.

“Oh,” Linda Bell said, “You don’t have to pay me.”

Relieved that I’d be able to give it back to my friend, I expressed my gratitude. For some reason, though, I showed her the wad of fives and tens, maybe just to prove that I had intended to pay. Her eyes narrowed as she focused on it, and just as I was about to put it away, she reached out her hand. I gave it to her and it disappeared into a hidden pocket in her kaftan. She colored, and for a split second, neither of us moved, until she raised a heavy arm, bracelets jingling, and in a guiding gesture, led me to the door. “You and I knew each other in several past lives,” she whispered.

I looked at her expectantly, even as a tightness came into my chest.

“You were my mother and I was your daughter in ancient Galilee. We used to walk through the dust to hear the prophet, Jesus.”

At my mother’s insistence my father’s face had been reconstructed so that the wake could be open casket in the Irish Catholic tradition. The face in the casket had only been partially his. Instead of his rounded Irish nose, a pointed one. And the chin was too short, the jaw shaped wrong. My father had shot himself after closing the bar where he worked a second job.

I’d grown up intensely Catholic. Suicide was the one unforgivable sin, worse than mass murder or torture. Horrific acts inflicted on others could be forgiven, but not the act of despair. My father’s funeral Mass had been sanitized of any mention of it, too shameful, too unspeakable for the priest or any of the mourners to acknowledge.

Linda Bell may have been a charlatan, but that day in her consulting room, something important had happened. I imagined for the first time, a different, gentler kind of afterlife, where maybe my father would not have to suffer harsh judgment and eternal torment, but be met with compassion.

And I daydreamed about what she’d said about our past life together as mother and daughter. What had felt false and jarring when she’d said it, became a source of comfort. While my own mother was growing more and more remote in the wake of my father’s death, only months away from her own suicide, I’d sit with her in silence in the living room and imagine this other mother and daughter joined in a quest for spiritual sustenance.

Hours after seeing Linda Bell, my father had come back. But he did begin to come less often, and when he was there, it wasn’t his terror I sensed so much as his sadness.

Forty-two years later, on the edge of sleep, my guard sometimes falls away. A door inside me blows softly open and I feel my father’s presence. I squeeze my eyes shut and wait for him to go. Sometimes, if I’m more awake than asleep, I whisper to him, “You’re exhausted, Dad. It’s time for you to get some rest.”

Regina McBride is the author of four novels including The Nature of Water and Air and The Land of Women. The recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the New York Foundation for the Arts, she lives in New York City.

 

Banner art from Claire Winter Photography.

Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

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Coastal Craft: Melissa Febos

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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. 

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Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience (as a participant)?

Melissa Febos:I think it was a local workshop, led by one of my old babysitters? All I remember is this line from someone’s in-class writing: “milky belly.” I still love it. Milky belly is my “cellar door.”

TH:What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?

MF:This is kind of an implicit piece of advice, but I once heard an anecdote about Flannery O’Connor in a workshop at the Iowa Writers Workshop that has always stuck with me.

Apparently, the class (mostly men, and then O’Connor) was workshopping a truly abysmal story. No one could think of anything to say. The instructor called upon O’Connor, who rarely spoke in class, and she simply said, “The part about the alligator was real nice.” Allegedly, the part about the alligator was the single redeeming moment of the entire piece.

The most helpful feedback I’ve gotten from workshop leaders was of this kind, the kind that says, “Here. Follow this pulse to the rest of your story.” They didn’t always have to say “Ditch the rest,” because I’d figure it out eventually, if I followed that one hot spot.

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TH: Strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?

MF:In my first college creative writing workshop, I wrote a secret admirer letter on the back of someone’s workshop story. I saw her looking right at me as I slid my notes to the bottom of the pile of critiques and knew I was busted.

TH: We tend to listen to a lot of records during the workshop weekend. Do you have a favorite “at the ocean” album?

MF: Well, I grew up by the ocean, so I associate all my early favorite albums with the ocean. But mostly, the way I listen to music defies geographic influence. That is, my obsessions are like a human centipede of unstoppable song repetition.

Right now, I’m obsessed with Frank Ocean’s new album. Wrong kind of ocean, but still. When I wake up in the morning I almost always listen to dancehall, or a playlist called “Emo Witch.” So I hope that you either have some Beenie Man records, or some sad sack lady singer music, like Jolie Holland or Natalie Merchant or Billie Holiday. I’d also like to submit for the record an official request that we have a dance party.

TH: A favorite winter poem, story, or book?

MF: Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone.

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Melissa Febos is the author of the memoir, Whip Smart, and the forthcoming essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury 2017. Her work has appeared in The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Guernica, Glamour, Post Road, Salon, New York Times, Dissent, Bitch Magazine, and elsewhere. Her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner, Story Quarterly, and The Center for Women Writers. She is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), and serves on the Board of Directors for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. 

Posted in Craft, Workshops

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