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On the Tongue

Flash Fidelity

The dumplings were not as I remembered.

I had recalled them in exquisite detail: their pliant, near-translucent skin, the spiraling closure of exactly eighteen hand-wrought folds. The pressure of chopsticks squeezed the skin enough to lift a dumpling from the base of the bamboo steamer basket, but not enough to rupture it before it had been deposited into the mouth, upon the tongue, where, because the temperature of the broth within was hotter than the outer skin, and because the meat within was firmer and more substantial, the dumpling possessed a living, organ-like quality; it seemed to pulse, and biting into it gave one the impression of biting into a beating heart.

When you bit into a pork and crab dumpling at Din Tai Fung Restaurant in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, the skin ripped to release a surge of fragrant broth. As the broth pooled in the lower pockets of your mouth, you chewed into the soft lump of meat, seasoned with ginger, chive, sesame and soy, a dark flavor, fermented and faintly sweet. The whole process —bite, chew, swallow—took a few seconds. The sensory experience contained within those seconds is, I think, the closest I have ever come to ecstasy.

• • •

The year we lived in China, my fiancé and I made pilgrimages to Din Tai Fung on special occasions: Christmas; birthdays. We’d order pots of pu’er tea and pitchers of chilled plum juice, chicken thighs marinated in Shaolin rice wine, chopped cucumbers in vinegar and sesame oil, dumplings by the dozen. We’d eat ourselves into a stupor and then, in states of dizzy bliss, wander back out into the city to walk the long way home.

Three years later, after we were married, we returned to Beijing. My former fiancé, now my husband, had been awarded a Fulbright to do research in China, and I’d come along for a few weeks to get him settled.

I was afraid of the year ahead, the thousands of miles and dozen time zones that would separate us. We had already been apart for two years by then, attending graduate schools in different states, and I feared that a terrible, non-geographical distance was growing between us. But I couldn’t articulate these fears to my husband, nor even to myself. I was not willing to admit the possibility of doubt.

Before I left Beijing, we returned to Din Tai Fung and ordered our favorite soup dumplings. Were they as flawless as they’d been three years earlier? I don’t know. I was distracted, and couldn’t taste much at all.

• • •

I had not eaten soup dumplings since then, but recently I had occasion to attend a conference in Seattle, which is home to one of the only branches of Din Tai Fung in the United States.

The restaurant was miles from the conference, technically not even in Seattle but the nearby suburb of Bellevue. Still—as I assured friends I was trying to recruit—it wasn’t impossibly far, and the dumplings were worth it.

So one night, a friend and I set out from Seattle to add our names to the restaurant’s long wait list. Other friends would join us within the hour. As our taxi crossed Lake Washington toward the suburbs, I rested my hands on my fluttering stomach, giddy with anticipation: soon I’d be in the presence of the sublime.

Everything after that was wrong. Din Tai Fung Beijing had been an upscale restaurant of leather banquets and white linen tablecloths. Din Tai Fung Bellevue was in an overlit mall of furniture stores and video arcades; it was as loud and glaring as any cheap chain.

The friend I’d come with fell ill soon after our arrival and caught a cab back to Seattle. Then my other friends called to cancel after getting terribly lost en route. I hung up and paced the halls, contemplating the sadness of solo mall dining. My friends called back minutes later to say they’d come, after all, but they did not sound pleased about it.

I kept pacing. I took a photo of the restaurant’s exterior and debated sending it to my husband.

It was nine months since he’d returned from China, and we were no longer together.  We’d been undone by predictable things: time and distance and change. Since we’d separated, I often wrote letters to him with no intention of sending them. I wrote them in my head, or on the back of a napkin, or typed them as memos on my phone. There were things only he would understand, things I didn’t know how to tell anyone else. We’d been together nine years. I’d only ever been to Din Tai Fung with him.

My friends arrived after more than an hour in the taxi, looking battle-worn and grim. When we sat to eat, their eyes flicked impatiently around the room, their jaws pulled tight. At least our food came quickly: soup dumplings in bamboo steamers, side dishes of shiny greens. “The dumplings are really good,” my friends said, which was their kindness to me, because we’d arrived at this table at great time and expense—it wasn’t worth it—but we were stuck here, in horrible Bellevue, at the horrible mall, and they were trying to make the best of it.

I was trying not to cry. The whole ordeal was my fault, and in forcing it I had profaned a thing I loved.

I stretched my chopsticks toward the steamer basket and began another letter to my husband in my head. I’m sorry, I wrote, the dumplings were not as I remembered.

But I raised one to my mouth anyway, and set it on my tongue, and perceived for a moment the hot and pulsing heart of it before I bit through the skin.

 

Ariel Lewiton‘s essays and stories appear in Vice.com, The Paris Review Daily, Ninth Letter, Wag’s Revue, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and is a former writing fellow at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She lives and teaches in Iowa City.

Posted in Flash Fidelity

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Grass Baby

 

Allen Crawford’s WHITMAN ILLUMINATED: SONG OF MYSELF will be hitting stores any day now, and it’d be tough to overemphasize how beautiful the book came out. The linen cover stamped with Walt’s likeness, the richness of the color, the texture of the paper . . . it’s something you just have to hold and flip through and pore over to really experience. But, of course, it’s Allen’s vision that carries the thing. So for the next week, we’ll be running a few of our favorite spreads along with the thinking and inspiration behind them.

 

Whitman’s poetry generally shuns metaphors, which makes them a challenge to illustrate. His scope in “Song of Myself” is especially broad, so he tends to make lists or point at things, and then his gaze moves on. He rarely ever stops to meditate over a single subject, like William Carlos Williams or Wallace Stevens might. But in this particular passage, he speaks of the grass as being a “babe of the vegetation”, which gave me license to combine these symbols of life (a blade of grass, a baby) and then combine them with a sly intimation of death (a shroud, a mummy), a theme that also runs throughout the poem. The art in this spread may have a strange, even unsettling undertone, but it isn’t sinister. Death in Whitman’s work isn’t really sinister: it’s just another phase in life’s endless cycle.

The concentric circle motif throughout the book is meant to allude to the patterns found in microcosms (cells, motes of dust) and macrocosms (planets, galaxies).

Allen Crawford is an illustrator, designer, and writer. He and his wife Susan are proprietors of the design/illustration studio Plankton Art Co. Their most notable project to date is the collection of 400 species identification illustrations that are on permanent display at the American Museum of Natural History’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life. Under his pseudonym, Lord Breaulove Swells Whimsy, he wrote, designed, and illustrated The Affected Provincial’s Companion, Volume One, which was optioned for film by Johnny Depp’s production company, Infinitum Nihil. He lives in Mt. Holly, NJ.

Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892) was an American poet, essayist and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works.

Posted in Tin House Books

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Your Weekly Forecast: Charles Dickens

“There are times when, the elements being in unusual commotion, those who are bent on daring enterprises, or agitated by great thoughts, whether of good or evil, feel a mysterious sympathy with the tumult of nature, and are roused into corresponding violence. In the midst of thunder, lightning, and storm, many tremendous deeds have been committed; men, self-possessed before, have given a sudden loose to passions they could no longer control. The demons of wrath and despair have striven to emulate those who ride the whirlwind and direct the storm; and man, lashed into madness with the roaring winds and boiling waters, has become for the time as wild and merciless as the elements themselves. —Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge

Posted in General

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April Gems

Desiderata

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): In reading Susan Orlean’s My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere, an anthology of her best travel writing, I’ve been thinking about what makes Orlean’s nonfiction genuinely charming where others’ writing in the same vein can feel twee to me. So much of her material here might seem to write itself; how could an essay about tiger hoarders in suburban New Jersey or little league basebull under the thumb of Castro be anything less than a slam dunk? And yet there’s plenty of nonfiction out there that I think misses these shots by trying too hard, by being too smug or too contrived or too cute instead of letting the greatness of the story be the greatness of the story. I’ve come to hate that adjective “quirky” and most of the not-so-truly-quirky stuff it often tags. It’s a term that one might be tempted apply to these essays, too—but they’re better than that, because Orlean approaches them with heart and honesty instead of ironic distance. Let’s call them instead perceptive, precise, well-researched, engaging. I recommend you read them all, especially the one about the tigers.

Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): Samba + jazz + bossa nova = the rich and languid tunes of Brazilian singer Bebel Gilberto, daughter of super-famous singers João Gilberto and Miúcha. Her cover of Bob Marley’s “Sun is Shining” from her 2009 release “All in One” is best listened to with a chilled drink in hand, and most every track on her 2000 album Tanto Tempo is cool and smooth. For me, the most delightfully soothing tunes from Tanto Tempo are “So Nice” and “Samba e Amor,” and a little glass of Sancerre—or an icy glass of beer if preferred—pairs beautifully.

Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): I only knew two things about Under the Skin before watching it: the basic premise (a woman, played by Scarlett Johansson, roams the streets of Scotland, preying on men . . . something something aliens) and that it’s based on a novel by Michel Faber, the author of the story collection, Vanilla Bright Like Eminem, which I enjoyed, but also The Crimson Petal and the White, a novel that I still loathe eight years after slogging through it. My concerns vanished within the first minute, when it became clear that director Jonathan Glazer took his stylistic cues from Tarkovsky (specifically Solaris) and Kubrick, among others. The movie is a slow burner with a bit of an art film vibe. It’s gorgeously shot and Johansson is superb. Creepy, seductive, and sad, Under the Skin is my favorite film of the year, so far.

What Time It IsThomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): I’ve tried to get into Sting’s new rock opera or concept album or soundtrack or whatever the hell he calls The Last Ship, but to no avail. I don’t know if it’s the heavy-handed production on the album not striking me right or just the bone-deep itch I have to listen to Todd Terje’s It’s Album Time over and over, but I can’t finish The Last Ship. While Sting repeatedly mines narrow swaths of Quadrophenia, Terje is all over the place, blending spacey disco and bossa nova with house and techno touches, occasionally turning singer-songrwriter for a spell or glitchily scratching a track to shreds. It feels like it might have been written for a great remake of a nineties video game—I keep expecting that old drawn-out sung “Seeee-gaaaa” tag that preceded Sega Genesis games, or the sound of Sonic the Hedgehog picking up gold rings in a Casino Night zone . . . Maybe that’s just me. Regardless of your touchstones, Terje plays the past against the future and comes up with a bright, dancing album that provides a perfect counterpoint to the dog-driving-a-car theatrics of Sting belting out “The Night the Pugilist Learned How to Dance.”

Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): Been a good month, culture-wise. Read Matthew Zapruder’s incredible new collection of poems, Sun Bear, in which he bends and bubbles syntax like Chihuly does glass. Turns out Tony Doerr’s new novel, All the Light We Cannot See, is as good as the excerpt we published last spring promised it would be. But my most impactful media experience came in the form of a cocktail. One part Adam Curtis’s documentary, The Century of the Self, and one part Astra Taylor’s new book, The People’s Platform. Curtis’s movie is, hands down, a masterpiece of the documentary form (h/t to another Curtis, White, whose The Science Delusion should be out in paperback soon). It shows how Edward Bernays used Freud’s (his uncle’s) ideas to found what we know as PR and marketing and then how that trickles down to give us our current conceptions of happiness as self-realization. Movie’s moral can be summed up swiftly: shit is fucked. And then Taylor. Lord. This book cuts through all the Pollyannaish hype of Internet enthusiasts, all the apocalyptic talk of its naysayers, and dwells in a kind of littoral zone of ambiguity. It is so, so good. It feels like it’s been written in conversation with Lewis Hyde’s two classics, The Gift and Common as Air, as well as Trow’s Within the Context of No Context. But it is wholly her own, wholly new. If we’re not careful, she seems to suggest, future generations could make a documentary about us called “The Century of the Persona.” Basically, this is a book that we should all be reading (or at very least buying).

Masie Cochran (Associate Editor, Tin House Books): The NBA Playoffs mark my favorite time of year—the best basketball played by the best teams.  Not to mention the best postgame interview fashion. I love the ritual at my house during The Playoffs. Out come the good luck t-shirts and the game time grub. We stand until our team scores and for the last two minutes of every game. I vacuum, sweep, or fold clothes when we are losing. I yell D-FENCE and clap along with the home crowd when we are winning. Right now my team is off to a shaky start, but with this guy on the floor I think we can turn it around.

Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): 

Posted in Desiderata

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Jasper Johns

Flash Fridays

My dad had waited for Trina his whole life.  That’s what he told me anyway.  Trina had one leg and that had something to do with it.  He couldn’t explain it.  He just kept saying, “She has one leg.”  Then he’d look at me quizzically.  When I tried to give words to the thoughts, he’d just shake his head like I didn’t understand.  “She has one leg,” he’d say again.

The day of the wedding, we all waited in a Lake Tahoe government marrying office for the minister.  The ceiling was short and we could hardly stand without our heads touching it.  My dad sat in the front next to Trina.  She wore a red pants suit and black cowboy boots.  You couldn’t tell she was one-legged.  The fake leg was plaster and the night before in the woods by the lake, she let me knock on it.  It sounded hollow.

“You’ll break it,” she said.

“O.K.,” I told her.  “I’ll break it.”

Then she threw back a drink from a bottle of wine and flashed an inky smile at me like a smear of stars in the sky.

The minister arrived, a man in his sixties, short, balding, wearing a three-piece suit.  He stopped in the door and leaned against the jamb.  He was drunk.  Then he fell down and crawled to a podium at the front of the room.  He was holding himself on one elbow on the podium, flicking through a pile of papers stacked there.  He pushed his glasses up on his nose and held them there with a hand around an eye.  He pointed at the open door and someone in the back closed it.  He looked at my dad and smiled.  Trina grabbed my dad’s hand and held it in both of her hands.  It was the middle of summer but my dad wore the leather motorcycle jacket he’d worn since I was a kid.  I painted an American flag on the back for him when I was twelve, copied from an art book I took out of the library and never returned.  I still have the book.  It’s sitting under a toolbox beside the water heater.  Shit tends to disappear but I still know right where that book is.

My dad had found the jacket.  He walked into the house one afternoon and said, “I got a new jacket,” and threw it on the kitchen table then spread it out on its back, the arms laid straight out.  It was beat to hell, like someone wore it in a motorcycle crash.

“I can see you in that,” my mom said.  She’d come in from some part of the house without us noticing.  She was smiling.  She had long teeth.  She had hard teeth and proved it once by biting me on the foot.  She said that all of her people had hard teeth.  Something in the soil, she said as if they had all gone around finding teeth in the fields and pressing them into their gums.

“Looks antiquated,” I said.

My dad glanced at me and then looked away quickly.  He didn’t like to look at me.  “Why would you say that?” he said.

My mom bit the end of her finger, staring at me apologetically, like she’d forgotten to teach me something important.

“Don’t people like antiques?” I said.

“He reads too much,” my dad said.  I couldn’t tell if he was talking to my mom or to himself because she’d made a fast exit.  Dematerialized.  She’d been practicing white magic with her friends.

“Where the fuck did she go?” I said.

“Fuck if I know.”  He turned back to the jacket.  I stood a little closer to him in the haze of our shared manliness.

“In any event, I like your new jacket,” I said.

He put it on and examined the road-rashed sleeves.  “It’s not new though, is it?  Maybe it is an antique, like you said.”  He tried to look at me, but it was hard.

“Where’d you find it?” I said.

“Oh you know,” he said.  “Shit turns up.”

“You mean like how shit disappears?”

“Something like that.”

“Turn around,” I said.  There was a big splotch of pink paint on the back where the colors should be.  “Wait here,” I told him and went to my room and under the bed where I’d hidden the art book.  I flipped through it and found what I was looking for, the Jasper Johns painting of the flag.  Carefully, I tore out the page.  Then I took it to my dad and showed him.  “I’ll paint this on the back.”

He was nodding slowly, staring at the page I was holding.  “It looks like the flag, but it’s not,” he said.

“Something like that,” I said.

Later, I tacked the Jasper Johns page over my bed.  It stayed there for a long time, years probably.  Then one day it was gone, but I couldn’t tell you which day or even what year.  It was just gone, like things are sometimes gone without you noticing.

 

Aaron Peters is a graduate of UC Irvine’s Programs in Writing and a 2013 recipient of the Henfield Prize for fiction. He lives in San Pedro, CA, where he is working on a novel.

The Open Bar is now accepting submissions for a new feature, Flash Fidelity: Non-Fiction in 1000 Words or Fewer. Submissions to The Open Bar may be sent in the body of an email or as an attachment, with the category of the submission in the subject line, to theopenbar@tinhouse.com.

Posted in Flash Fridays

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Tin House Reels: Jasmine Holt

Tin House Reels is pleased to screen Jasmine Holt’s The Mariner, her interpretation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of The Ancient Mariner.

Holt made her film in response to a graduate school assignment to animate an assigned audio clip. Although she first felt limited by not choosing the poem or the voice for her film, the process of call-and-response with someone else’s poem opened possibilities in her creative process. “I first thought of creating a partially-underwater collage in a sink, using the imagery of ships and sailors to my advantage. However, I quickly realized that it was impractical to put a paper collage underwater. The next idea was to try using fabrics to create a stop-motion animation in Adobe Photoshop and Premier. I ended up making most of my imagery on an embroidery hoop, stretching transparent fabric samples and adding layers, via Photoshop, from magazines and other found materials. I spray painted my type. I love typography, so I wanted to be in full control of the type. I love the resulting effect—those spray painted words on fabric. I picture them being on tote bags and t-shirts.”

Holt does think of the blurred lines between art and other parts of popular culture, like movies, clothing, and advertising, with optimism: “The lines between disciplines are blurring faster in the creative world, and it somehow seems that maybe now we shouldn’t have to pick one discipline; we should just learn how to visually communicate ideas. If we design something stunning or memorable, we plant ideas. When I see a great advertisement, or I watch a really intelligently designed movie, or a title sequence, or anything that clicks in my brain and says, ‘Keep this on your reference list,’ it strikes me that one day, I could be one of the people who help make those cleverly designed pieces. I strive to design things that people want to put on their mental reference lists.”

Her interpretation of Coleridge is one of those memorable objects:

Jasmine Holt is studying art at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design (DJCAD) in Dundee, Scotland.

Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.

We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to tinhousereels@gmail.com. You may also send us a file directly.

Posted in Tin House Reels, Videos

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The Blow Received Before the Stroke: Adam Soldofsky’s Blind Swordsman Poetry

Poet Adam Soldofsky is the mind behind The Blind Swordsman Poems, his inspired series of poems composed of screenshots from Japan’s cultic Zatoichi films. Via word and image, Soldofsky craft poems that are part charming, quizzical, Zen koan, part pop culture haiku. Each finds the song in the film’s subtitles and the slant connections between its frames. We talked to him about his project, Zaitoichi, and language in translation.

Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: For the uninitiated, can you describe what we’re seeing and reading in each of these poems?

Adam Soldofsky: I suppose what you’re looking at is a sort of double haiku – one consisting of texts and one of images. Hopefully it is even a triple haiku if you are attempting a real-time synthesis of image and text. This third approach is my favorite because it is so simultaneous and self-defeating as to thwart a final reading, and for me at least, to invite a return of the eye to the poems.

EKH: What led you to this project? Did it exist in some other form before its present shape as a tumblr? And how long have you been working on it?

AS: This project is just a fantasy of mine, basically, realized via the relative user-friendliness of our new technology. There is this phenomenon that I’m sure others have experienced watching a movie with subtitles, where the text appears on screen before the actor has spoken, or even better, lingers after the voice has decayed. In these moments there is a strange over-emphasis on the text hovering before you, where you evaluate the language beyond its context, without leaving the context altogether. The images on screen become a tableau that maintains the logic of the story, its universe of environments, characters and tropes, but abstracted somehow. And over this a text appears, in defiance and/or in concordance with the scene, but also completely independent of it. For whatever reason this is rapturous to me!

I automatically begin to imagine joining all these moments in some sequence. The Zatoichi series has a superabundance of these moments. All that was left to do was watch the movies again on my wife’s computer. The assemblage did not take very long at all once I had a good stock of the screen-shots. Continue reading

Posted in Interviews, Poetry

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The Art of the Sentence: Denis Johnson

“Usually we felt guilty and frightened, because there was something wrong with us, and we didn’t know what it was; but today we had the feeling of men who had worked.” —Denis Johnson, “Work”

Jesus’ Son is the one indispensable story collection I own, the slender book I would slide into a coat pocket before banishment to Siberia. In graduate school, I read Jesus’ Son in one sitting on a too-small couch. The couch is one of two things I remember vividly about the apartment, the other being the too-tall bookshelf, which attracted the few grad students who visited, one of whom removed my copy of Ulysses and unjustly accused me of crossing out sentences I didn’t like. My favorite story in Jesus’ Son rotates between “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” “Emergency,” and “Work.” The first two appeared in Best American Short Stories after debuts in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, respectively, and are better known than “Work,” which begins with the unnamed protagonist shooting heroin in a Holiday Inn with his girlfriend and ends with him drinking in a bar with his friend Wayne. In between, the protagonist and Wayne work, which consists of removing copper wire from the walls of an abandoned house. The house is–or was, allegedly–Wayne’s. The protagonist feels “guilty and frightened” with Wayne, but just what they feel guilty about and frightened of is unclear. Taking the copper wire doesn’t particularly bother them. Johnson follows the introductory independent clause with a dependent clause, which clarifies only that “something was wrong.” He then adds a second independent clause, noting they “didn’t know what it was.” There is something artful and sad in juxtaposing the certainty that something is wrong with the uncertainty over what that thing is.

The protagonist has plenty to burden him. Upon leaving the Holiday Inn, he elbows his girlfriend in the stomach before college students, who take her away in their car. In violation of Chekhov’s axiom that a gun introduced in the first act should go off in the third, Johnson never returns to her, though the protagonist takes mournful interest in women throughout the story. It’s likely that whatever worries him has to do with women, whom he refers to variously as “beautiful,” “delicate,” “nurse,” and “mother.” There’s a lot going on here, but I hesitate to suggest much self-awareness on the protagonist’s part. The story–the entire collection–offers flashes of lucidity, yet for much of the book, the protagonist is too high or drunk (or both) to trust his own storytelling. The reader should not expect reliability, if that is something a reader should ever expect.

Continue reading

Posted in Art of the Sentence

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The Faltering Defense of Self: An Interview with Leslie Jamison

The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison’s debut essay collection, is a remarkable book. Although it deals with heavy issues—pain, suffering, the limits of understanding—it does so with a suppleness and grace that brings to mind one of Calvino’s lectures in Six Memos for the Next Millennium,where he posits a “lightness of thoughtfulness.” This lightness, which serves as an antidote to “the weight, the inertia, and the opacity of the world,” is not easily attained. It takes great technical skill, intelligence and, yes, empathy, for a writer to convey this weight as fluidly as Jamison does here. Whether writing about the West Memphis Three (“Lost Boys”), Morgellons disease (“Devil’s Bait”), or the epic Barkley Marathons (“The Immortal Horizon”), she manages—with a novelist’s eye for detail and scene setting—to come across as a Montaignian figure, full of doubt, heart, and a yearning to expand the boundaries of the fragile self.

I met Leslie earlier this year in Seattle. We talked briefly in a hotel bar—about, what else?, past lives—and began corresponding after I wrote to tell her just how impressed I was with The Empathy Exams. Our email exchange veered toward the voluminous and digressive. Much of what we discussed is included below, though I’ve edited out several asides on shame (I’ve never read Faulkner), long sentences (I’ve never read Faulkner), books left in storage units (whatever Faulkner I own is in a storage unit), and whales (no relation to Faulkner), among other less embarrassing (for me) things.

The last question I asked is the first here.

Stephen Sparks: The epigraph to your book, which you’ve since had tattooed on your arm, is a quotation from Terence: Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. [“I am human: nothing human is alien to me.”] Do you think this assertion is risky?

Leslie Jamison: It’s funny that you mention the risk inherent in asserting or wagering that nothing human is alien to me. I feel very alive to the impossibility of the statement—of course things that are human are alien to me—but I love that too, the challenge of it; it’s more like an asymptote than a statement of fact. And I once had a very odd and unsettling and powerful encounter with a security guard about the tattoo in which he basically reprimanded me for the arrogance of the quote: did I know how much people suffered? How could I possibly think I understood that suffering? And for various reasons I felt his presence was invasive—more to do with body language than sentiment, though both were colluding—but I was interested by his vehement relationship to the notion on my arm; the way it made him want to rise up in response.

I want to believe that some of those counter-vectors are held in the statement, too: it holds its own argument. Maybe that’s just of wanting to have my cake and eat it too: I agree and disagree with myself! but god yes, the struggle past individuality towards something more universal. That’s been something I’ve been coming around to so much these past few years.

SS: What led you to write about the subject(s) in The Empathy Exams?

LJ: Maybe because we were talking about my shame-seeking superpower, but when I started thinking about this question I was thinking that many of them actually had their roots in some kind of shame: the shame of using too many artificial sweeteners, the shame of writing a first novel wholly obsessed with female “issues” I was afraid would be understood as melodramatic; the shame of being a tourist in the developing world, the shame of being a tourist in Los Angeles, my own city. I think shame is a powerful signal—like a fever—of some internal struggle. I mean, shame comes attached to many things—often traumatic things, and I would never want to reduce those traumas to mere sites of interest—but there are kinds of shame that are like arrows pointing to something tangled and subterranean, a faltering defense of self or an ache that hasn’t yet figured out its origins.

SS: I got the sense that being attacked in Nicaragua—which is a story you tell in “Morphology of the Hit”—played a large part in the origin of these essays. Was there something specific about the attack, besides, of course, the trauma of it, that led you to write about empathy and pain?

LJ: When I came back from Nicaragua, I felt a weird sort of shame about talking about getting hit in the face there—partially because there’s something strange about presenting to others in language a moment when you were utterly physically powerless—it enacts some sliver of that powerlessness, or asks you both to imagine it together—but also because I felt, from the very start, that no matter how I talked about the incident I would be somehow “making too big a deal” of it (this shame runs through the whole collection)—inflating my tiny moment of pain into something larger than I deserved. So I’d backtrack and minimize and then fight back against my own minimization. It was just a hot mess, honestly, my trying to talk about getting hit. And it happened that I was just starting my PhD at Yale that fall—2007—and reading all this theory about how stories are put together, and I read Propp—slicing Russian folktales into his taxonomy of narrative moves—and the idea struck me as an experiment: what if I tried to tell my story with his pieces? It was almost like writing a lab report in eighth grade: I had a problem, I had a set of materials, I had a method; I didn’t know what would happen.

You know how you sometimes have conversations that sear into memory—for whatever reason—not just the subject but the place itself, the landscape of it happening, because in the moment of that conversation something necessary was crystallized for you? I’m thinking about two of those conversations. One happened with another artist, a filmmaker—we were doing a residency together in Wyoming, and we’d driven out to try to find this llama farm we’d heard tell of, and we were talking about tourism (maybe how tourists are always compulsively seeking quirky travel experiences like llama farms?) and how many tourists are ashamed of the “beaten path” and construct their identities in opposition to it. That was a moment where something clarified about shame for me: it’s not just something negative but some kind of arrow, it’s pointing at something, some confusing blend of fear and desire. There was liberation in that, thinking of shame as something to follow, like a path—rather than simply something to be paralyzed by, or try to dissolve, or become second-level meta-shamed by (i.e. “I shouldn’t even be having this feeling of shame…”)

The second conversation was with a friend, in the Co-op where I used to shop, in the little Midwestern college town where I used to live. Iowa. I was telling her about submitting these essays to the Graywolf Prize. I think that was the moment where I realized how much I wanted these essays to come together into a collection. I wrote most of the essays without any sense of their eventually composing a collection, but I wrote the rest with the knowledge that they’d be gathered together—once the unfinished manuscript had won the prize, and I knew Graywolf would put it out—and then I revised the title essay several times after I knew it would open the collection. Some of its broader considerations of empathy are a product of that knowledge, I think. I mean, I revised that essay so many times; a story in its own right—essay as archeology; many layers of memory revisiting experience with a different cast each time.

But I’m so glad that I wrote a lot of these pieces separately, rather than thinking of them in chorus from the start. The connective threads feel organic rather than over-determined; and there’s not the feeling of everything happening in one tidy box; vectors are splayed every which way. With one piece I wrote after knowing about the collection (the Morgellons piece) I found myself using the word “empathy” over and over and over, compulsively—the theme was riding me too hard. I had to fight that.

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Your Weekly Forecast: Charlotte Brontë

“Spring drew on: she was indeed already come; the frosts of winter had ceased; its snows were melted, its cutting winds ameliorated. My wretched feet, flayed and swollen to lameness by the sharp air of January, began to heal and subside under the gentler breathings of April; the nights and mornings no longer by their Canadian temperature froze the very blood in our veins; we could now endure the play-hour passed in the garden: sometimes on a sunny day it began even to be pleasant and genial, and a greenness grew over those brown beds, which, freshening daily, suggested the thought that Hope traversed them at night, and left each morning brighter traces of her steps.” ―Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

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What We’re Reading

 

Desiderata

Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine):Poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert wrote, “Even if happiness forgets you a little bit, never completely forget about it.” These past weeks I’ve been reading Paroles: Selected Poems with translations by Lawrence Ferlinghetti from the City Lights Pocket Poets Series. Prévert’s poems are unadorned and vibrant and often talk about Paris just after Second World War and many of his titles make their own heady spring impression—“To Paint a Picture of a Bird,” “The Red Horse,” “Breakfast,”“The Return to the Country,”  ”Birds, At Random,” and “Sleeping In.” In English or French, Prévert’s poems make for lovely company on a terrace or in a writer’s study or on a park bench.

Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): I’m rereading Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a novel about a man who endeavors to feel authentic through increasingly bizarre reenactments of the mundane. After an accident, the details of which he is not allowed to disclose, he finds himself hyperaware of (and displeased with) the way in which he moves through the world. He uses his settlement money to buy and renovate a tenement building, which he inhabits with a staff of characters, cast from a vision. In orchestrating this environment, he tries for moments of pure ease and grace, moments in which he feels a slight buzz of the sublime. I return to Remainder again and again for McCarthy’s odd story and engaging prose, but also because I relate to the protagonist and his obsessive drive for authenticity far more than I’d like to admit.

Meg Storey (Editor, Tin House Books): At the 2005 Tin House Writer’s Workshop, I bought a copy of Charles D’Ambrosio’s debut collection, The Point, had him sign it, read it (or so I have assumed for many years), and tucked it away in my bookshelves. This fall, Tin House Books will publish an expanded edition of D’Ambrosio’s essay collection and so, a couple of weekends ago, I decided to reread The Point. Turns out, I hadn’t read it—it’s been sitting on my shelves for so long, I just assumed I had. It also turns out that The Point surprised me. I’ve read the stories in the second collection, The Dead Fish Museum, several times (of this, I am 100% certain), and the earlier stories feel different to me—grittier, seedier, sparser, though still carefully crafted and emotionally poignant. D’Ambrosio’s work has been described as “tightly controlled,” but for me The Point was almost claustrophobic, in that it hit closer to home: many of the stories are set in Seattle—a Seattle that no longer exists, that has already changed in the ways that I am now watching Portland change—and several of them feature characters struggling with the idea of faith and how Catholicism defines a family (like D’Ambrosio, I grew up in a Catholic family). But the claustrophobia was comforting, somehow, like the blanket I was wrapped in as I lay on my couch reading, occasionally looking up at my bookshelves and wondering how many other of my books I only assume I’ve read.

Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): As I wait for contracts to be signed, and prepare to dig into edits on a (great!) new memoir, I’m reading Sven Birkerts contribution to Graywolf’s unflaggingly excellent “The Art of” series, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. He crystalizes what I appreciate about the genre and the type of books I find myself drawn to, and he’s instructive about weaving “the now and then (or many thens)” to approximate the “sensation of lived experience, of recollection merging into the ongoing business of living.”

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The Vanishing

Flash Fridays

The cold blade lodged in my throat like it always did, the glare of the spotlight hot on my face. What I had to do was hold the sword for a few moments, my tongue pressed against the base of my mouth, and exhale as I lifted it out, its edge sliding against my throat, between my front teeth. Afterward, I was meant to quickly bow and move ringside so the stallions could rear wildly, followed by the standing elephants, then Sarro, the ringmaster, who whipped the air to sparks. It wasn’t hard to know what went wrong. I tasted my saliva souring, and as the drums crescendoed into a rush and a piercing stillness took the tent, the blade turned, catching on my molar and digging into my gum. In the version of the story I planned to tell Miles, I would blame my sweating palm, the widening of my throat with a gagging cough. I wouldn’t tell Miles it happened just as I decided to look for him in the crowd—the shock of his greying hair, a bright polo pulled tight with muscle—and realized he wasn’t there.

It took me a long time—or, it felt like a long time—to be able to think all this through: the neighing of the horses as they were held back. My careful lean onto the padded orange gurney, the doctor whose job it was to gently hold the silver hilt, which winked with light as I passed beneath the entrance marquee. My eyes glazing with warm tears. The sudden cold of the night, the reminders to breathe. The distant chirring of crickets. The vibration of the metal in my throat with the revving ambulance, nurses with hands over their mouths in the ER.

I didn’t know until a few days later, after I was discharged, that Miles had left me a voicemail, given me a reason. Is this a good idea? he said. There was a pause I would hang on in the months that followed, considering what that silence had meant to him. It sounded like he was eating as he spoke, his attention split between me and something else. The first time I listened, I swallowed so hard it felt as if the blade were back in my throat, pitching it open, willing me to respond. Look, I heard him sigh into a finish. I just don’t think this is a good idea.

• • •

It would take me a few years to return to performing, though I’d practice raising the sword in my kitchen and bedroom during nights when I couldn’t sleep, its blade catching moonlight through the windows. Things would be different. I would be more careful, hold the sword every time as if it really could kill me if only I blinked the wrong way. And when the spot rose again from the worn dirt of the ring and onto my face, its heat on the bridge of my nose, I wouldn’t be looking for Miles. I would bow, let it linger. I would stand outside the tent after shows talking to families, promising that the sword is real. I would wait a few years and throw the old sword away, but before I would I’d look for any indication of the accident—a scratch, a film of dried mucous. But there would be nothing; I would be able to see my whole face in that blade.

At some point during my time away, the show added another act. I see it each night now, from under the stands, between the legs of families. Sarro calls it The Vanishing. It’s placed just before the bows. Three clowns, some new hires, stand against a white wall that’s rolled to the center of the ring. They each strike a pose against it, as if blown back by a great wind. There is a piercing flash of light—the whole tent briefly consumed with a golden mist. And when sight returns, there it is. Applause takes the tent in a fever. All three have become silhouettes, shadows.

Tonight, I ask Sarro if I can sit in the audience to see it. It’s one of our last runs of the season. He says okay, that I owe him. I nod and walk around to the back. Several rows are empty, and I sit near the exit. The air is sour, sweet. I wonder what I look like in the ring from this distance. I wonder if there’s ever a way to see myself like that—really.

When the time comes for The Vanishing, I make a point to watch for what happens to the clowns, but the light is too bright. I blink, and I miss it.

After the show, I find one of the contortionists at his spot outside the tent. He doesn’t look like he wants to talk—his black under-eye makeup has smudged to grey—but I ask him anyway. “Where do they go?”

“Hell,” he says, plucking the cigarette from his mouth. “Even I don’t know.”

 

Peter Kispert‘s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Slice Magazine, South Dakota Review, Columbia: a Journal of Literature and Art, and other journals. He is an editorial assistant with Electric Literature.

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Tin House Reels: Bianca Stone

Epitaph in Reverse, today’s feature from Bianca Stone, includes the sort of artistic play that shows the author’s permissive relationship to her own creative mind. There is an elasticity to Stone’s process- she lets ink drops bleed, invites smudging, and whitewashes sections of her drawings for an explicit redo.

“Since I end up eviscerating the art during the filming, I sometimes start with old drawings that I’m ok deconstructing,” Stone says. “It’s really a trial and error. Which is fun as hell. I like to think of the process of making the video as a big part of the final product. In other words, you see a lot of my process in the final product.”

Stone describes her method of creation as such: “I sit at my drafting table and use my iphone usually, with a tiny tripod and a bright light on. I’m always alone. I have a beer. I first start taking pictures of the drawing I’ve started. I draw and photograph, draw and photograph, until my phone gets too hot. Then I load the photos into imovie and play with speed and filters. I find a song that fits or record my own music on GarageBand. A video takes me about five hours, depending on the length of the poem.”

The result is wild play, with guts.

Bianca Stone is the author of Someone Else’s Wedding Vows (Tin House/Octopus Books, 2014), and the co-author of Antigonick, (a collaboration with Anne Carson). She is also the co-founder and editor the Monk Books , and chair of the Ruth Stone Foundation. Her poems have appeared in magazines such as American Poetry Review, Tin House, and Crazyhorse. Her blog, Poetrycomics.com, is a space to explore the relationship between poetry and visual art.

For this film, Stone wrote and performed the lyrics on her guitar.

Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.

We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to tinhousereels@gmail.com. You may also send us a file directly.

 

 

Posted in Poetry, Tin House Books, Tin House Reels, Videos

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Weems Talks Back: Carrie Mae Weems Uses the Guggenheim’s Margins to Counter Chauvinism

 

A glance back at any totalitarian dictatorship is testament to the seductive power of rhetoric, and the Italian Futurist Manifesto, showcased in the Guggenheim’s current exhibition, is no exception, evoking fervor in any unsuspecting reader with its call for unfettered revolt:

We want to glorify war — the only cure for the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of the anarchists, the beautiful ideas which kill, and contempt for woman…

We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice.”

Unless, that is, you’re standing in a museum, hate guns, and are a woman.

I headed to the exhibit anticipating the painterly experiments with motion (à la Giacomo Balla’s Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash) I remembered from my high school art history class but was sorely disappointed when I passed from the futurists’ pompous declarations—sustained throughout the exhibition in manifestos lining the walls and glass display cases—to the art itself. The paintings, drawings and ceramics fall short of the manifesto’s pageantry and the movement’s ambitious ideals, constituting a vapid body of work that weakly emulates Cubism, Pointillism, and Expressionism.

Fortunately, I was to discover a thirty-year photo and video retrospective of the work of Carrie Mae Weems tucked in the Guggenheim’s annexes. Like the futurists (whose production of manifestos was as prolific as it was bombastic), Weems incorporates text as an integral part of her work, so my weaving back and forth between her work and theirs became a sort of call-and-response that exposed the Futurists’ proclamations as a caricature of fascism and misogyny lacking depth and staying power.

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, image courtesy MOMA

Among the movement’s major tenets, futurists furiously boycotted Italy’s romantic past: “What can you find in an old picture except the painful contortions of the artist trying to break uncrossable barriers which obstruct the full expression of his dream?” Frustrated with Italy’s sluggish response to the Industrial Revolution that brought prosperity to its Western neighbors, Filippo Thomas Marinetti, futurism’s founder and most zealous propagandist published the manifesto on the front page of Le Figaro in 1909. Marinetti called for a break from Italy’s romantic artistic tradition and cultural institutions—condemning them as artifacts of the bourgeois—in favor of technological progress, speed, and war. But the handful of truly great futurist works embodied the contradiction manifest in the movement itself. Following the manifesto is displayed Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, a bronze sculpture of a human-like form whose limbs and trunk fan out in wing-like billows. Contemplating the human body rippling in motion, the sculpture is a magnificent reflection of the futurists’ fascination with speed and mechanization but an (if unconscious) nod to history: while its bronze casting points to technological progress and modernity, its triumphant posture and propulsion forward inevitably evoke the Winged Victory of Samothrace of ancient Greece.

Weems at sixty, still as vibrantly productive as ever, counters Futurism’s very core in her photographs, embracing the past as a means of confronting issues of gender, race and class. Through a range of media, she spotlights traditionally marginalized groups to condemn intolerance and inspire progress toward social justice.

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The Other Side

Flash Fidelity

From the windows in the apartment I share with My Boyfriend I can see a brick wall, so close I could almost reach out and touch it. Between our windows and the brick wall, there is a shaft of light, a small alleyway that leads out to the street. There is only one window in our apartment that looks out toward that light, in a little alcove where we’ve put an armchair, a lamp, and an ashtray. On the days when I do not take classes or teach, this is where I work, my annotated copy of a postmodern Irish novel, or a stack of student papers, or poems from workshop spread out on my lap. My Boyfriend walks to work in the morning, and at noon he comes home for lunch, though we only lie down in bed together and nap. At night, I write poems while he paints, or replants his aquarium, or designs at his desk. If he reads one of my poems, he says things like, The image at the end reminds me of what Blavatsky says about the finite’s relationship to the infinite. And then he goes to pull a book off the shelf and shows me an illustration and then we are having a conversation about that.

At night, I stay up long after he has fallen asleep beside me in the bed, his arm draped over my waist, listening to the voices coming through our window from the alleyway, the men and women, all drunk, stumbling out of the bar downstairs. Now a woman yells, You’re an asshole, a fucking asshole! Her voice growing hoarse with the force of every syllable. I remember that hoarseness, how it scratches from my throat into my chest, into my fingers and toes. I remember how The Man I Used to Live With stands above me, his red face contorted, the veins full to bursting in his forehead. He’s squeezing my face in his hand. Now the woman cries softly in the alleyway. The man calls her baby. Baby, he says. C’mon, baby. From this bed, where I am almost sleeping, it makes a kind of sense: this is why I could not love him the way he wanted to be loved.

­ ­ ­***

My sisters and I spend the holiday together, like usual: all of us on Christmas Eve at Mom’s house, all of us on Christmas Day at Dad’s. Mom’s house—the house she shared with my father, the house she got in the divorce—feels dark and empty this year, even with all of us here: all of the doorways closed or covered with blankets, the heat vents in my old bedroom closed, the floral-print couch pulled into the dining room off the kitchen. My sisters and I exchange questioning looks. It doesn’t usually look this way, I whisper to My Boyfriend as we sit down. I’m happy, Mom tells us over dinner—a pot each of chowder and chili—happier than I’ve ever been. She’s sewing more than ever. She’s taken a part-time job. She’s dating someone from church. My Boyfriend asks to see something she’s working on and she shoots him down with a look. Don’t expect me to get attached to you, she tells him, as my sisters and I file off to bed. I’ve learned nothing is permanent.

 ***

Dad greets us at the door in a new sweater: pine-tree green. Fern-shoot green. A smile stretching from ear to ear. His New Wife emerges from the kitchen to hug us all, even My Boyfriend, though this is the first time they’ve met. In the Victorian house they’ve bought together, glass beads hang on strings from every window, casting prisms around the rooms. Dad insists we sit on the new gray corduroy couch: me, each of my two sisters, My Boyfriend. His New Wife pours glasses of wine. My grandmother arrives and we all sit down to dinner: spaghetti and meatballs, a loaf of crusty French bread, a salad of spring greens. This is not what I would consider holiday food, my grandmother says, in her way. She turns to My Boyfriend. Now tell me: What kind of man are you?

***

­Four years after the kidnapping I learn I’ve been accepted into a prestigious writing program in Texas for a PhD. My Boyfriend and I trade in both of our crappy cars for one that can pull all of our belongings in a U-Haul trailer. My Boyfriend finds work quickly in our new city. He drives the new car to work each day while I catch a ride to campus. In the evenings, my classmates invite us out to dinner, where we talk about semiotics or the ubiquity of ampersands in workshop lately, or the landscape as form in avant-garde poetics. At these dinners, My Boyfriend talks to the spouses or boyfriends or girlfriends of my classmates about more interesting things. They plan to make a band together called The Significant Others. None of us know how to play instruments. YET! As a present for his birthday, I arrange a behind-the-scenes tour at the downtown aquarium, where a short executive with shaved hands leads us through the rooms and rooms of filtration systems and lets us peer into the tops of giant glass tanks. In the pump room for a 150,000-gallon aquarium in the restaurant, the short executive with shaved hands introduces us to a scuba diver, who is preparing to jump in. It happens sometimes, the short executive says. Let’s say a couple is dining at the restaurant. He wants to propose. For a nominal fee, the scuba diver will jump in and hold up a sign: WILL YOU MARRY ME? The scuba diver nods, shows us the sign. The executive asks if we want to go down to the restaurant and see. I think, Is it us? Is he proposing to me? My Boyfriend holds open the door of the pump room, follows me down the stairs. The short executive with shaved hands leads us down into the dining room, where a man is already kneeling in front of a table. The woman is crying, nodding. People in the restaurant are clapping. My Boyfriend claps; he’s watching the man stand up. He looks at me. He takes my hand.

He asks for nothing in return.

­Five years after the kidnapping, a friend from my writing program throws me a birthday party at her house. I buy a dress to celebrate all the things that are suddenly going so well. There is music and food and it seems like hundreds of people. All of my new friends are there, and My Boyfriend’s friends from work. At midnight, my friend brings a cake out with twenty-seven lit candles and everyone sings, just to me. It makes me so happy I could nearly explode. They ask me to toast. I say something a little silly, a little drunk, about how I am feeling so very grateful.

As everyone raises their glasses, My Boyfriend interrupts, insisting he also has something to say. He says, I love you. I want to spend my life with you, and pulls a velvet box from his pocket. I am completely surprised, completely not expecting it, struck completely mute. I am crying, covering my mouth with my hand. I take him in my arms and say Yes yes yes.

­ ­ ­

***

In the photos of our wedding, we both look radiant and happy. We gather at the park with our family and the friends we have made in this city. My parents stand beside me, Dad with His New Wife, Mom with the man she has married only weeks ago. Beside My Husband stand his father and sister and godparents and aunts. The vows we exchange are simple.

I promise to treat you as my equal in all things.

Lacy M. Johnson is the author of Trespasses: A Memoir.   The Other Side is forthcoming from Tin House Books in July 2014. She is currently Director of Academic Initiatives at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at University of Houston, where she teaches interdisciplinary art. She lives in Houston, TX.

 

Posted in Essays, Flash Fidelity

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American Dream Machine Giveaway!

 

 

In honor of the paperback release of Matthew Specktor’s American Dream Machine, we are running a film inspired giveaway on Facebook! Respond with your favorite movie from each decade and be entered to win a free paperback copy of what was hailed by the New York Times Book Review as “Sprawling, atmospheric. . .[American Dream Machine has] a feline watchfulness and a poetic sensibility that echoes Bellow’s and Updike’s prose rhythms along with their voracious, exuberant intelligence.”

A winner will be announced every day this week!

 

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Let It Fly: An Interview with Ted Thompson

In the well-to-do, Connecticut commuter town where Ted Thompson’s debut novel takes place, things tend to happen like clockwork: from the trains pulling into and out of their stations, to the holiday party invitations that appear in mailboxes each year. The place is nicknamed “The Land of Steady Habits,” after all. But what happens when someone goes off script? What does a middle-aged man do when he refuses to live the life that’s expected of him? If this man retires unexpectedly, leaves his wife, moves out of the house he’s worked so hard to afford and away from the family he’s worked so hard to support, who does he become? This is the premise of Thompson’s heart-rending, highly compelling, and gorgeously written first book:The Land of Steady Habits.

By happy coincidence, I was able to meet Ted in Westport, Connecticut—the commuter town where he grew up—to discuss his book. Though New York City is just a short train ride away, the town feels bucolic. Stately renovated farmhouses sprawl along the roads, separated by enormous lawns, long driveways, and lovely stone fences. As we drove, Ted pointed out the house where Martha Stewart once lived, and then the charming downtown Starbucks that used to be a strip club. These incongruities—the suburb that is also rural, the tasteful decorator who is also a criminal, the former-nightclub that now houses a global coffee chain—seem integral to the fabric of the place. Though it initially appears flawless, the town is in fact much more complicated, and interesting, below the surface—a truth that The Land of Steady Habits explores with both humor and insight.

 We finally parked at the handsome private academy where Ted attended middle school and set one of the novel’s scenes. He hadn’t visited the school in seven years, and as we walked up and down the snowy paths surrounding the place, he marveled at how much had changed: the traffic guards at the gated entrances and exits, the new sports fields and lower school buildings, the modern home now marring the school’s (still-stunning) view of Long Island Sound. Since his days growing up in Westport, Ted lived for several years in Iowa City (where he attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) and now resides in Brooklyn with his wife and dachshund. He is a product of this Land of Steady Habits, but also a keen observer of its idiosyncrasies. Most importantly, with this tremendous debut, Ted Thompson has proven himself a daring and talented new voice in American literature.

LIZ WYCKOFF: How did the idea for this novel come about?

TED THOMPSON: It started as a story a long time ago. I think it was in the period when I had graduated from college and I hadn’t yet found a job, when I was sitting at home, trying to figure out how to be an adult and what to do with my time. I had started a lot of stories, but this was the one that I couldn’t figure out how to end. I started obsessing over it, as if it was a puzzle that I could solve. And then it sort of evolved from there to a workshop instructor telling me it could get longer. I called it a novelito for a long time, which is a form I invented. And then finally in grad school I got around to having the guts to call it a novel.

LW: Do you think you considered that it could be a novel before grad school? Or did you really not let your mind get there until you’d worked on it for a while?

TT: I remember showing an early draft of the story to a friend and her saying, “It seems to me this is your first novel.” I said, “No, no, no way!” I remember thinking: No, I’m going to write something ambitious. This isn’t ambitious enough. I had this young man’s idea that a first novel should be some grand statement, some sort of noble declaration of myself in the world. In a way, this novel was so far from my life as a young person that it felt like an exercise, more than anything else.

LW: So much of the book, I think, is about the concept of home—several different characters run away from their homes, and some are also trying to build homes in new places.

TT: That’s something that’s emerged through drafts and drafts and drafts. I was always interested in thinking about this particular place as its own society with its own set of assumptions and rules. There’s an impermanence built into the way that it functions as a commuter town. People don’t stay here. They come and they raise their kids and they leave. It’s just too expensive or it’s not practical to pay the property taxes or whatever it is. So, it becomes this kind of way station. At least, it did in my experience. That’s what I was toying with, and it came through on the page as people running away from home or looking for home or trying to find permanence in a place.

LW: Also, a lot of characters are running away from expectations, trying to create their own paths instead of falling into the paths that have been laid out for them.

TT: One of the things that’s fun for me as a fiction writer is taking characters out of their expected roles and watching how they behave, once the mores have been stripped away. It’s fun to write about a suburban commuter town because those roles are so clearly defined. So, writing scenes in which the characters can kind of break from their roles is partly just me entertaining myself.

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Posted in Fiction, General, Interviews

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Your Weekly Forecast: Stephen Colbert

“All weather is sin-related. Lust causes thunder, anger causes fog, and you don’t want to know what causes dew.” ―Stephen Colbert, I am America (And So Can You!)

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What We’re Reading

Liz Lampman (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): I’m reading, better yet wrestling with, Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. This meditational essay addresses Wiman’s own struggle with understanding the purpose of Art and of Faith within the context of his long battle with cancer. Wiman’s approach, not surprisingly, is both broad and deep, and he offers wisdom from Wallace Stevens to Simone Weil to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Gerard Manley Hopkins and countless other prominent voices. I picked up this book at my mentor’s suggestion, and I continue to read it because it calls into question the imaginary barrier that’s been erected between the way that Art and Faith attempt to understand mortality and other, even more pressing, matters of the soul.

Sophia Archibald (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is one of many classics I didn’t get around to until recently. And boy, have I been missing out! The story details a series of misfortunes of one Ignatius J. Reilly in New Orleans, simultaneously the most loathsome and lovable character in literature. The only thing motivating this perverse thirty-year-old—living with his mother but educated with a master’s degree, and the vernacular to prove both—to gain employment is his competitive correspondence with Myrna Minkoff in New York City, the equivalent of a ‘lover’ for our abstinent protagonist. I haven’t laughed out loud at a book in a long time, and with this one I can’t stop.

Victoria Savanh (Summer Writer’s Workshop Intern): In Portland the sun has been making brief appearances, and I’ve been spending more and more hours reading beside open windows and on sidewalk cafes. I’ve fallen under the spell of Joy Williams’s State of Grace recently, staying out reading it till sunset. Bound to her father in an intense, lurid relationship, the narrator Kate attempts to escape through college, sex, and marriage. Haunting and strange, the stream of consciousness narrative is so captivating that I often forget I’m holding a solid book in my hands. I’m strung along as she jumps from image to image, snapshot vignettes steeped in murky encounters and filled with repressed urgency. I close this book each time almost in a state of mourning. Simultaneously, perhaps naturally, that’s accompanied by an overwhelming sense of peace. “And things were always out of my hands. I have always been grateful for that.”

Miles Jochem (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I have been wandering through the semantic labyrinths of Tom Blood’s The Sky Position. Not a text for the traditionalist, this winner of the 2007 Oregon Book Award is disconcerting, off-centering, and altogether intriguing. Be prepared for nouning verbs, verbing prepositions, and impossible fantasies set in the dark, liminal spaces above and below the normal use of language. But within the manic, surreal verses (ex: “ . . . but then the nevering in our dawn that sheets over as dragons/ in the under will where whales spawn to black dark butterflies/ and the bags unpack to our momentary sensation . . . ”) there can be found pathos, humor, a profound sense of wonder in the face of reality, and a lovely playfulness that takes advantage of a wide range of poetic devices. This is poetry at its furthest remove from standard prose and narrative, and Blood rejoices in the liberty of his medium. This book will shatter your conceptions of what words mean and do, and force you to accept and enjoy, if not always understand.

Brandi Dawn Henderson (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): As someone who has dedicated a good portion of my life to the on-the-move pursuit of place and culture, I’m fascinated by the idea of what is left behind. Aren’t we all visited by the ghostly memories of old friends’ quirks, vague recollections of booths at favorite diners, the frustration of not being able to remember the name of those flowers that can turn inside out to make ladies in ball gowns? It was this curiosity that drew me to Ann Eichler Kolakowski’s poetry collection, Persistence: Poems of Warren, Maryland. The book is dedicated to Kolakowski’s grandmother who, at the age of 103 when she died in 2006, was the last known surviving resident of an underwater town.

For over a century, the town of Warren, Maryland was a thriving community until some sneaky folks (picture some real moustache-twirlers here) sold the town to Baltimore in a secret deal. As you might expect, the townsfolk were not thrilled about this, so the sale was delayed for about 12 years, but come 1921, all of the 900 residents had been kicked out and the town was flooded and gone forever.

Based on newspaper clippings, photographs, anecdotes, and her own imaginings of the folks of Warren, Maryland, Kolakowski weaves Warren back together, single-handedly, fascinatingly, restoring the image of the town her grandmother called home as a girl.

Posted in Desiderata

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Dizzy

Flash Fridays

On our walk to preschool lately we’ve been passing the carcass of a headless bird, just lying there on the red-brick sidewalk, rotting.

The first time we passed by the dead bird, my preschooler called it a “dizzy bird.” I thought she called it dizzy because its head was missing, but after further reflection I thought maybe it was because whenever we play Ring Around the Rosie she gets dizzy and falls to the ground, dead-like. Whatever the reason, I decided I didn’t want her to have the wrong idea about that bird.

“It’s not dizzy, darling: it’s dead,” I said. “It’s a dead bird.”

“Why is it dead?” she said.

“I don’t know why. Maybe a predator killed it or old age or something else. Somehow, though, it died. So it’s dead. Not dizzy. That bird is dead.”

I pushed the double stroller that held her and her younger brother further along our route and watched the back of her head. I imagined that I could see inside her head, that I could see tiny people, homunculi-like, responding to my words, using some sort of elaborate computer system that cross references incoming information against a collection of memories, experiences, and known words and concepts, trying to piece together what “dead” meant, and coming up with nothing out of all that young knowledge. So I tried to help.

“It’s not…” I said, and I paused, grasping, looking for a way to say something that would help make it make sense to her. “It’s not living anymore. Sort of like the bird went away, but left its body behind. I guess the best way to explain it is that living things eventually stop living, and when that happens we say that they are dead.”

Killed, died, dead…I wanted to take those words back out of fear that she’d ask me if one day I was going to die, or if one day she was going to die. I hadn’t yet thought out how I’d answer those questions when they eventually—when they inevitably—did come. Fortunately, during the remainder of our brief walk that morning, she didn’t follow-up.

• • •

It’s been three weeks since we first saw the dead bird, but every day on our walk to preschool, without fail, the carcass is still there, broken and waiting for us. My one-year old son hasn’t displayed any signs that he’s even noticed the bird, but my preschooler, from the moment we leave the apartment, she starts talking excitedly about how we’re going to see it.

Today as we approached it, she shouted, “There it is! There’s the dead bird, daddy.”

“Yes,” I said. “I see it.”

“Why is it still there?”

I pushed the stroller just past the dead bird so it was out of the children’s line of vision and stopped to look closely at the battered carcass. A wing, with splayed black and bright yellow feathers, was nearly severed from the rest of the weathered and shrinking carcass. Little gray bird feet were curled in the way that dead feet curl in. It was a decaying mess. But odd as it may be, the thought that occurred to me right then and there was, What beautiful feathers.

“I don’t know,” I said, pushing forward. “I don’t know why no one has moved it yet. That’s a good question.”

• • •

After preschool my daughter’s teacher, Ms. Patricia, said, “Tara and I had a conversation today about a dead bird…”

“Oh yeah,” I said, “Well, for the past few weeks on our route to and from here there’s a dead bird that’s been lying on the sidewalk. She seems pretty interested in it.”

“Ah, I see,” Ms. Patricia said, nodding, as though I just helped her solve the puzzle of the day. “I couldn’t figure out exactly what she was talking about, but I sensed it was something like that.”

“Yeah, it’s been there awhile,” I said, looking at my daughter, who seemed to be paying attention to a game a couple of her classmates were playing. “Maybe I’ll bring a plastic bag tomorrow and, if the bird’s still there when we walk past, I’ll pick it up and throw it away.”

“Maybe that’s not such a bad idea,” Ms. Patricia said.

 • • •

On our walk home, as we approached the dead bird, my daughter turned around in her stroller seat, looked at me.

“Daddy,” she said, “I don’t want you to throw the dead bird away.”

“Oh,” I said. “And why not?”

“Because,” she said, pausing, checking in with the tiny people at central command. “Because I don’t want you to throw it away.”

“Okay, darling,” I said, thinking that her request seemed fair enough. “I won’t throw it away.”

We moved closer to the dead bird.

“Daddy,” my daughter said, covering her feet with her backpack, “I don’t want the dead bird to get me.”

“The dead bird won’t get you, sweetheart,” I said. “Don’t worry. It definitely won’t get you.”

“And don’t throw him away. Okay?”

I didn’t understand why she didn’t want me to throw away the dead bird, or why she was afraid that the dead bird would get her. But, once again, I thought, fair enough. “Okay,” I said. “I won’t throw the bird away. I promise.”

“Burr!” shouted the one-year old, pointing up at the sky, where a blue jay was flying overhead, screeching.

“Yes, Jackson,” I said. “That’s right. There’s a bird.”

The blue jay soared higher and higher, up above and then past a group of oaks, out of view.

The three of us, with our varied misunderstandings, experiences, and perspectives, with our collective yet incomplete knowledge, we carried on. A moment later we quietly strolled past the dead bird, toward home.

 

Peter Wittes stories have been published in ARDOR and Hobart (web). A native of Illinois, he now lives near Washington, D.C. with a philosopher, two children, and a handsome dog.

The Open Bar is now accepting submissions for a new feature, Flash Fidelity: Non-Fiction in 1000 Words or Fewer. Submissions to The Open Bar may be sent in the body of an email or as an attachment, with the category of the submission in the subject line, to theopenbar@tinhouse.com.

Posted in Flash Fridays

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Tin House Reels: Sarina Nihei

Sarina Nihei’s Love-Hate Relationship is a story sent from the non-verbal, netted unconscious but is beautifully drawn by a conscious hand.

The thin pen drawings in this film —colored-in with what looks like magic markers—launch a child’s story. But the color scheme, with its browns, yellows, and reds, feels bruised by the stories of human beings, and emotions are sunk in a family trauma that plays out in scenes of oral fixation: An old man offers up the door code for home with his tongue, a half-naked couple threateningly suck a cigarette in the hall, a mother slugs from a wine bottle even though a glass is handy. Mom— her lipstick, her rouge, and her fiery hair, all in red—gives her son a last oral fix he seems too young to drink, a coffee that overflows. Pain seems swallowed, and talking heads march over the pages of books like they do in The Play of Independent Heads (a previous film from Nihei).

Nihei’s brand of visual storytelling is likely to make more strictly verbal writers long for the freedom of animation: her pictures speak her insides with immediacy. Nihei said that a teacher in college liberated her style: “There was an encouraging professor called Mr. Katayama, who sadly passed away when I was in the third year. He encouraged students to do hand-drawn animation rather than working digitally because the students in the graphic design department at Tama Art University had been through tough entrance exams for design skills. He wanted to see how the art students who didn’t know about the technical aspects of animation could own their brilliant imaginations. He showed us art animations from all over the world, which was fascinating for me. He didn’t teach us to animate or to build up a story. We could do whatever we wanted to make by our hands.”

The result is a short story distilled into hand-drawn images with the power of a Rorschach test.

Sarina Nihei is an animator and illustrator who lives in London and is currently completing her MA in Animation at the Royal College of Art.

Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.

We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to tinhousereels@gmail.com. You may also send us a file directly.

Posted in General, Tin House Reels, Videos

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Like A Beggar: A Conversation with Ellen Bass

Over the past two years, I have followed Ellen Bass through her publications in Tin House to the pages of the New Yorker and countless other journals. I was thrilled to have the chance to speak with her over the phone recently, as we discussed a wide range of topics: repetition, heart, invisibility, the god of atheists, the first peach. Speaking in a melodic voice, with an ebullience that would transcend any telephone line, she left me with a line that I have come to again and again as the weeks have gone by: It’s really the poet I turn to and who reminds me that I am not alone in this.”

Kendall Poe: I saw today that you had studied with Anne Sexton.

Ellen Bass: I did. At Boston University. Getting a chance to study with her was life changing. She was an absolutely wonderful teacher. When she gave readings she was flamboyant and dramatic, but as a teacher, she was thoughtful, respectful, supportive—really engaged and interested in her students. She wasn’t flashy.  She was really about teaching and the students. I think she loved teaching. She was just great.

KP: Being a good poet does not necessarily mean being a good teacher. That’s nice to hear about her.

EB: That’s a long time ago. Young women were not encouraged in the same way they are today. Even though Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Muriel Rukeyser and others had broken a lot of ground for women’s writing there was still more attention paid to the young men than to the young women. I had a rough time with some of the other teachers who were committed to revision by deletion. It felt like the only comments I got were, “Take this out.”

My poems weren’t good. There’s no doubt about that. But instead of teaching me how to go deeper and get more precise in ways that would be richer and more evocative—just stronger poetry, it was just, “Cut this, cut this”—until what little life it had was cut out of it. I was very discouraged my first semester. Then the following semester I started to work with Anne and she said, “No. No. Write more. Expand. Extend. Fill it out.” Really, without her I might have given up.

KP: That’s definitely a function of the teacher that I have appreciated—helping you or guiding you to a fuller expression of an idea. When I first started writing I took a few poetry workshops and I read The Poet’s Companion co-authored by Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio.

EB: Such a wonderful book.

KP: And from your most recent collection Like a Beggar—what was the title of the poem?—“Women Walking.” It’s a very endearing portrait of two poetry teachers. Have you thought about writing a guide?

EB: No. Of course everybody thinks about it, but no I am not going to do it. I think that at this point in my life, I am going to just focus on writing poems. And there are so many great guides that already exist.

KP: I had this teacher who emphasized that in poetry there were only morning poets and night poets. One or the other and they could not understand each other. In conferences they would come up to ask one another, “Are you a morning poet or are you a night poet?” Does this theory apply to you?

EB: (Laughter) I am a morning poet, but I want to explore the night more. I think I am missing out too much on that experience. But being a morning person, I don’t feel like I can’t understand the poets of the night. I love them too—maybe even more.

KP: Interviewers often ask about authors’ morning routines, whether it is a fiction writer or a poet, you find that they are very specific about their morning routines. Like, I get up. Floss my teeth in bed, comb my hair to the right.

EB: When I was younger, I had more of a routine. I would try to get to my writing as early as possible in the morning. I think I had more of an appreciation for or a need for structure and regularity. The older I get the less I think about it in that way. Of course you need a certain amount of structure. You need to get your tush in the chair or else you are not going to have anything on the page. But it’s more irregular for me now. It would be wonderful if I had no other responsibilities and I could write every day, and I guess that theoretically I could. Many poets, William Stafford, sat down to write every morning. Look at his productivity. It’s overwhelming. But as time goes on I become a little more accepting of the way it seems to work for me. I don’t like to ever be away from writing for too long, though.

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Posted in Interviews, Poetry

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Life is a Combo Platter: an Interview with Craig Lucas

 

It was one of those unexpected 65˚ days in mid-March and I was sitting outside the Cherry Lane Theater in Manhattan, considering the many great playwrights whose work has graced the stage inside, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neil, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, and Sam Shepard. How appropriate, I thought, for Craig Lucas to now be among that historic list. Mr. Lucas’ prolific body of work has been seen on Broadway three times: Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless, and The Light in the Piazza. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and has been nominated for the Tony twice. His new play Ode to Joy, produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, opened at Cherry Lane February 12th and has been extended until April 19th.

Ode to Joy is about addiction. But it is also about unconditional love, forgiveness, making amends, and, as Mr. Lucas writes, “Joy, motherfuckers. Joy.” As someone who has been open about his own battle with addiction, there are plummeting depths in this story that are not for the faint of heart—or stomach. But there is a glimmer of hope, of humor, that shines from the round opening of each character’s [played by Kathryn Erbe, Arliss Howard, and Roxanna Hope] personal oubliette. With heartfelt honesty, Mr. Lucas discussed the process of writing this piece, as well as the influences that drive him forward as a theater artist.

 Sarah T. Schwab: “Ode to Joy,” produced by Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, is about addiction. In a recent interview with the New York Times, you said that you had originally suggested that this play was your own “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” but it ended up “changing things for you.” Can you discuss the process of writing this piece, and what changed in your life?

Craig Lucas: When I began writing this play, I was on a sabbatical in Florida for a yearlong Hermitage writer’s residency. I thought, “If I’m going to tackle something scary, then maybe this is the time to do it.” I knew I was going to have plenty of time to steep myself in a certain amount of contemplative preparation and thought. It’s very difficult to write about things that are close to you, because the personal meaning of certain events might outweigh what might be universal; how [Eugene] O’Neill managed to tell a version of his family’s history is a mystery to me. Very soon upon being at the writer’s retreat, I realized I couldn’t do that. I have to make up a number of components to a story in order to be able to enter it. I’ve only ever written one thing that was purely autobiographical, a one-act play called, “What I Meant Was.”

So, I started by writing a seduction scene between a [male] widower and a slightly younger woman and it turned into about an hour-long play. Then I set it aside and I started to write about the woman and her relationship with to another person, which was a female, and I realized I had a play about someone who had been in a heterosexual and a homosexual relationship during a 15-year period. I was thinking a lot about painters and their process, and I was trying to imagine how she might engage with her work and maintain a commitment to it through troubled relationships. The play became funnier and funnier the more I worked on it, and the funnier it got, the truer it seemed to get. I soon realized that I didn’t have anything remotely in the ballpark of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” It appears to be my place in life to write these things that sometimes deal with very shocking, or upsetting, or challenging circumstances, and to see within that the comic potential, along with the more serious aspects. Maybe that’s something with the way I was raised, or the way I experience life. It’s a combo platter: that the farcical and the tragic, the witty and the sorrowful are often intertwined and juxtaposed. Separating them out feels artificial to me.

STS: Some critics have described the play as a “romantic comedy.” Others have called it a “traumatic comedy.” However you decide to define it, I think you can agree that there is a fair amount of suffering in the play. Some artists believe that great suffering is the stuff of great art. Do you believe that to be true?

CL: I think it depends what art and what artists you’re talking about. For instance, I think there are great visual artists, where what’s communicated to me, anyway, is not essentially about suffering. I think it’s possible to be a visual artist and perhaps a composer and to have work that is about serenity and beauty and kindness, whereas with the narrative arts, without conflict, without loss or the threat of suffering, it’s hard to maintain interest in the story. We don’t go to plays to see how young lovers fall in love, meet no obstacles, get married and have rewarding, healthy lives and brilliant children all of whom do wonderfully in the world without ever suffering any losses or setbacks. I don’t think that’s what we look for when we’re looking for narrative. I think if the worst loss one has ever encountered in life is not having gotten on the team for the Ping-Pong tournament, then perhaps you have to imagine greater sufferings to create a compelling narrative. I’d be thrilled to see someone defy that rule, but I don’t know that one could. When we’re watching narrative, we’re viewing it with our perception of suffering. So, you could write a dialogue that went on for 20 minutes in which no one appeared to conflict at all, and we would read into it the subterranean understanding that there was conflict. That’s the nature of how we invest in stories, I suspect. Continue reading

Posted in Interviews

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Siamese Cats in Brocade Jackets

Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel

Published by Black Balloon Publishing

I’m in Lisbon. I arrive a day before the others, after the miraculous feats of bravery I had to pull off in Bulgaria to get here. The hotel is gradually filling up with lots of writers I don’t know. We’re about to take off on a two-month train trip around Europe in an attempt to start seeing ourselves as united.

I miss the sign-up for the organized tours of the city, which have been booked up by all the Westerners.

From the first instant I know that I’ve lived here at some time. I know everything. I want to see two things: Fernando Pessoa’s café and the ocean.

I stumble across the first immediately. Accidentally. A dark, long café, with heavy mirrors in Baroque frames. I imagine how Pessoa loved sitting in the very back under the clock, eaten up by anxiety. Now in that spot a tiny old man is asleep, pen in hand.

The city is soft, light, perched on seven hills, with little streets, Moorish white houses with green windows and blue doors and lattices, which slice through pale female faces, their gazes fixed on the street outside.
In front of the doors, there are Siamese cats dressed in little yellow jackets edged with brocade, tied up in front of the entrances like dogs.

As a prank, someone has turned all the buildings with their bathrooms inside out. The walls with their cheerful tiles perfectly weather the rain and the tourist’s caress—cold, glazed with an Oriental cleanliness that pushes me toward the ocean stretched out in the valley below. It turns out to be the Tagus River.

Pessoa’s café is on the peak of one of the seven hills, more modest than the rest. It is sufficiently steep, tormenting one little streetcar, which, once it has finally clambered up, immediately flips its backside into the air and disappears toward downtown. Like all idiot tourists, I take my picture in a poetic pose in front of the bronze Fernando, who has sat down once and for all on his favorite square.

It isn’t mine, though. I set out to look for it. At the last moment I hurl myself onto the streetcar and we flip up our backsides on the way down.

God, how it judders along, coming a hair’s breadth from the corners of the buildings, constantly sideswiping some dark magenta bushes, while inside I feel like I’m at a wedding—flowers go flying, snug little aunties in black chatter away and dangle their short, fat little feet shod in neat black shoes.They examine the day as if it were a bride, trading impressions. On the Lisbonites’ faces, you can discover traces of all the world’s cultures—here an Indian peeks out, there an Arab; the Caucasian has imposed itself on the face, yet the body possesses the grace of an African. At one point the streetcar stops. Some car is parked on the tracks. We wait. We check out the groom. A conversation starts up. The group is cheerful.

A weekday. Around 11:30. They’re laughing. The driver sits calmly up front. Now and again he, too, adds something to the party in the car. How funny could it be? We’ve already been sitting here half an hour. Behind us other likewise out-of-breath streetcars have lined up, other cars, too. Outside, policemen pass by. Nobody notices anything out of the ordinary.

At a certain point, a frightened Indian jumps out of a store across the way with a huge beach umbrella in his hand, tosses his new acquisition in the car, and frees up the tracks. Applause bursts out, the aunties are worked up, their eyes are glittering, the ceremony is in full swing. As we set off, one policeman carefully grasps the Indian by the elbow and presents him with a ticket.

The streetcar shakes me off on the highest hill with the fortress precisely on the spot I will return to over the two remaining days, because. Because this turns out to be my hill.

How should a city be explored? Where should you begin? Maps, guidebooks. Yes, that’s the way. They prescribe museums. But since I’m already way outside any type of itinerary, I sit down by a green wooden kiosk at the foot of a gigantic cypress, get myself a beer and a sandwich, and turn the delicate stool in the direction of the river above all those pale pink rooftops. The wind in Lisbon is broad and generous like the overflowing river-ocean. Now here in this place, that refrain about l’insoutenable legerete de l’etre floats up again, such lightness, and a place for fado opens. Music about sorrow and the unbearable beauty of being. Then Jeremy Irons appears from around the corner. Tall, lean, drawn, with two thin brackets between which lips are stretched, outlined with the thinnest moustache in the world. The singer on my hill. They’re working for me in this city, I say to myself, and am all ears, because fado is sung softly.

The next day at the same time. He is singing again. I hold him with my gaze, he’s a little pale, he points at his throat, explaining with a gesture that his voice isn’t in great shape today.

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Posted in Essays

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Your Weekly Forecast: Cormac McCarthy

“In the spring or warmer weather when the snow thaws in the woods the tracks of winter reappear on slender pedestals and the snow reveals in palimpsest old buried wanderings, struggles, scenes of death. Tales of winter brought to light again like time turned back upon itself.”- Cormac McCarthy, Child of God

Posted in General

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