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It has been ten years since Richard Siken’s first collection Crush was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Since its release, I have turned to Crush many times to take pleasure in the images and voices that populate its poems. Pleased to discover that Copper Canyon Press will soon release his second book War of the Foxes, I invited Mr. Siken to correspond with me through email to discuss this long-anticipated collection. The poet’s resistance to answering certain questions—and his generosity in responding to others—reveals a deep respect for his art, which I am grateful that he shared with me.
[Ed. Note-You can read two of Richard's poems in the latest issue of Tin House]
Peter Mishler: In your new collection of poems War of the Foxes there are lines that express concern about art’s ability to represent reality. This is your first collection in ten years. Do these questions of representation have anything to do with the significant length of time between books?
Richard Siken: Even before I could attempt to address my concerns about the problems of representation, I had to come to terms with the ramifications of having already made something. After Crush was published, many people accused me of contaminating their bookshelf or bedside table with my melancholy. You never make me happy, but you can always make me sad, they said. I hadn’t anticipated this response and I wondered about what kind of culpability I might have. I, personally, was being held responsible, rather than the work—which had the undertone of “poetry isn’t art” because they refused to, or were unable to, understand that I had made a thing. They didn’t see the thing, they only saw me.
Additionally, readers began to ask me if the poems were “true,” by which they meant, “Did they really happen?” which seemed both beside the point and also intrusive. I realized that if they thought poems were biographically accurate, then they could walk away, knowing I was just a sad little man. If, however, the poems were crafted and framed with intent, then they would be confronted with a piece of art. No longer able to simply pity me, these readers would have to take ownership of their feelings and reactions.
And even more additionally, poets use the materials of conversation for not-conversation, and this makes people angry and confused. So I had several immediate problems to solve before I would be ready to share new work. I needed to take myself out: I had to sidestep the premises of “you are the work” and “the work is true” while making the not-conversation of it all (lying and singing) worthwhile and engaging. That’s what took years, ten years, between books.
The first lines in the first poem of the new work insist that an artist can be faithful to the world or the representation of the world, and the speaker declares that he will be faithful to the paint and not the landscape. Later, in the same poem, the speaker says, “they see the field but not the varnish” to remind the reader, perhaps even redirect the reader, to the concern of the work: the varnish. Put simply, this is lying and singing. This is storytelling.
PM: I am impressed with a sense of conflict when reading these poems—do you have a sense of whom or what this conflict might be with?
RS: I don’t know what you’re asking. Or, if I do, I insist it’s the responsibility of the reader to deal with. All art has conflict. Explanation is easy and the truth is boring. What are you really asking?
PM: What do you find yourself writing against? Are there particular worldviews, principles, occurrences—aesthetic or otherwise—that you find yourself abraded by, or in conflict with, that lead you to start writing lines of poetry?
RS: I’m still not sure I understand what you mean by conflict. And when I don’t understand a concept, I’m usually so immersed in it that it’s invisible to me. In an early interview, right after Crush was published, I was asked why my aesthetic vision was so violent and grim. I answered, truly without guile or hostility, “What world do you live in? Because I want to live there.”
It seems to me that everything in the world is actively trying to kill everything else in the world, on every level, and always has. I think we live in a world of palpable abrasion. Microbiology is the study of conflicting entities; and Chemistry, Geology, Thermodynamics, History, Anthropology, and Literature are as well. I guess poetry seemed like an arena where I could investigate these abrasions.
PM: Could you describe your development as a poet, pre-Crush, pre-War of the Foxes?
RS: I started keeping a journal in high school. I didn’t write anything interesting before reading dozens and dozens of books. My development as a poet increased at the pace with which I read. School helped, peers helped, working with literary journals helped, but if I ever feel disengaged, I read. I’ve also noticed that I feel discouraged when I only read work I love. When I read work I hate, I get motivated to make something in opposition to it. Perhaps this is part of the answer to the “conflict” question you asked.
PM: Did you have any early experiences with poetry that have informed or shaped your work in significant ways?
RS: I loved it when I first discovered work that had concerns other than plot. Gertrude Stein and Thomas Pynchon rattled me. Attention to language was important, they assured. It was electrifying.
PM: You are also a painter. What has painting taught you about making poems?
RS: After I wrote Crush, I had nothing left to say. I went back to painting. I opened the tubes and looked at the colors, pushed them around. Not much happened, not for a long while. Eventually, I began making things that were worth keeping, that evoked. I realized the hand could say what the voice could not. That helped inform the new work.
PM: Can you elaborate?
RS: I made paintings and then wrote about making paintings. The elaboration is the book.
From our 2010 Winter Reading issue (#46), Dan Chaon’s To Psychic Underworld.
Critter was standing outside the public library with his one-year-old daughter in his arms when he saw a dollar bill on the sidewalk.
It came fluttering by, right next to his tennis shoe, carried by the wind along with a leaf.
He hesitated for a moment. Should he pick it up? He adjusted Hazel’s weight. She was straddled against his hip and watched with silent interest as he bent down and snagged it.
He’d had the feeling that it wouldn’t be just a normal dollar and he was right. There was writing on it. Someone had written along the margins of the bill in black ink, in a clear deliberate handwriting that he guessed might be a young woman’s. “I love you I miss you I love you I send this out to you I love you please come back to me I will wait for you always I—”
This written all around the edges of the bill, and he was standing there studying it when his sister, Joni, came down the steps of the library toward them. He had come to pick her up. That was one of the conditions of his current circumstance. He used Joni’s car during the day so long as he was there at the library to pick her up from work.
“Hello, soldiers,” Joni said brightly. “How goes the war?”
“Mm,” Critter said, and Hazel stared at Joni sternly.
“And what have we here?” Joni said, indicating the dollar bill he was still clutching between his fingers. “A little offering for your dearest sister, perhaps?”
She took the love-dollar from him and looked it over. He watched as she read the writing on it, one eyebrow arching. “Ye Gods!” she said.
“I just found it,” Critter said. “Just right here on the sidewalk.”
Their eyes met. She was still his older sister, though she was also a tiny librarian woman with short hair and a pointy face, and he was an unemployed Sasquatch of a man a foot and a half taller than she.
She handed the dollar back to him. “Yikes,” she said. “Geez, Critter, you’re quite the magnet for freaky notes lately, aren’t you?”
He was, yes. A magnet, he thought, as they drove back to Joni’s house. That was one way to look at it.
He’d found the first note a few weeks after his wife’s funeral, on the sidewalk not far from his apartment. It was written in spiky block letters on an index card:
OTHERS (ANIMALS TOO).
ANIMALS ARE NOT
MADE OF HATE.
CEASE AND DESIST.
I take my truck to Jiffy Lube for an oil change. It’s a 2000 Toyota 4Runner, a big battered muscular machine that’s served me well in Colorado. I’m not a terribly mechanical person. I marvel at the complex innards of the engine when the hood is up, but I don’t have much interest in learning how to change my own oil or diagnose worrisome noises myself. So I am always somewhat at the mercy of car mechanics, and can only try to gauge their honesty and character.
In the Jiffy Lube garage I am standing with one of the employees at the computer where they chart your various fluid levels, your front and rear differentials and so forth. The computer screen is stationed alongside the open maw of my truck, and I’m admiring the tough, dusty elegance of my loyal 4Runner’s motor when I happen to peer down into the hollow compartment which houses the air filter they’ve just removed. Something tiny and pink is moving around in there. I step closer and see a ball of fluffy nest material in the air filter compartment, a mix of laundry lint and leaves. Half a dozen baby mice—hairless, blind, helpless on their backs—are squirming on the hot plastic bottom of the box.
Soon all the guys in the garage are peeking down into this miracle. They are tattooed and Latino and, to my relief, find the baby mice adorable and heartbreaking and have no intention of wantonly destroying them. “Aw man, so cute,” one says.
Then the mother mouse appears, silver-brown and quick; she grabs one of the babies in her mouth and disappears into some pipe leading off the compartment. We all cry out in unison, as if reacting to a clever interception in a football game.
It is decided to remove the nest material, and as the mechanic is delicately extracting the wad a hidden baby mouse falls onto the plastic lip of the compartment’s top, limbs kicking, eyes sheathed in blue skin. I put out a finger to stop it from falling off the edge into the engine, and am startled at its fragility, so soft and weak it has no weight, it barely feels there. I can’t even pick it up between my fingertip and thumb for fear of pulling it apart. I slide it onto a sheet of paper and return it to the litter.
The mechanic forms a plan—he’ll attend to the oil first and wait for the mother mouse to collect all her young, as she seems to be doing. Already she has snatched up two more and vanished into the labyrinth of my vehicle which she seems to know like a maze runner. One by one she will relocate her family—birthed in the amazingly protective air filter chamber, which until now was sealed and mostly filled with the fuzzy white air filter, itself—to some other unknown mouse-sized niche, away from the slowly probing human giants. Once the mother has collected the lot of them, the mechanic will reinsert a clean air filter.
Foolishly—or serendipitously—I did not see the operation through; instead I ran an errand nearby. When I returned I was told the plan had succeeded, and the mother had come back for them all. This meant, of course, that the family was now either nestled somewhere else in the engine, exposed to god-knows-what when the truck started—or that they had abandoned the truck altogether. But we couldn’t dismantle the whole motor to find out. I had no choice but to assume they were safe, and drive home.
Mice are recurring characters in my life. My roommate and I rent a rustic drafty wooden house on a horse ranch a few miles north of Boulder, in a grassy valley of the foothills. A small family of field mice has their run of the place; several generations of the lineage have grown from bald sucklings to adults over the year of our cohabitation. They hide by day and scamper like racing cars over the carpet and counters by night, usually two of them at a time—mates or siblings. They nibble into whatever they can, and leave their tiny black rice-like pellets behind in the oddest places, inside frying pans or shallow cups in the cabinet. It sounds disgusting, I’m aware, but really the droppings are easy to clean and the mice are extremely cute. Neat and brown with huge black eyes, agile and precise, skirting the walls but sometimes making a bold dash across the open floor. Sometimes they’ll lose their traction on the kitchen tile and skid like cars on ice, careening into a table leg or a cast-off sock. My roommate and I have this pipsqueak falsetto voice we give to our little invaders as we mimic their defiance of our rule—jauntily telling us to go fuck ourselves and calling us “pussies.” In these scenarios we are the over-tolerant, beaten-down parents: “Come on, guys, really? In the Scotch glass?”
I know about mousetraps. I’ve seen the aftermath over the years. The sharp snap in the night, the disjointed bloody body in the morning. Or far worse, the odious glue trap, snaring the wretched rodent by the paws and tail and making it shit like a machine gun and clatter over the floor and shriek in terror when you come to investigate. When you use a glue trap you have to perform a coup de grace on the poor mouse, clomping frantically across the floor in futile escape.
Every now and then in our ranch house, one of our mice will die of “natural” causes, occupational hazards. One got crushed in the mudroom by the heavy hiking boots strewn about. Another fell into the tall garbage can while we were away for a few days; there was no bag in the can and the poor thing clawed and smashed itself to a pulp against the walls of the plastic oubliette. When a death occurs, there is a brief cessation of nocturnal activity, and my roommate and I will jokingly take credit for the elimination and mimic the bereaved cowed falsettos of the mice: “They got Louie! These guys aren’t fucking around anymore!” But soon enough the nightly circus begins again.
Most people would call the exterminator. “I mean, they’re vermin,” said Tom, the ruddy jovial maintenance man for the property, when I asked him about the problem. Vermin is an ugly word. We reserve it for the animals we regard as dirty, inconvenient, serving no immediate purpose. Mice are quite clean, however, far more fastidious than the large slobbering shedding dogs people keep in their homes. And mice do serve humans a purpose. It’s a noble and horrible service that we do not like to consider.
My younger brother Andrew is a scientist, working through the PhD portion of his MD-PhD in a prestigious lab studying Regulatory T cells which modulate the immune system and help prevent autoimmune disease. He conducts his research on mice, as do thousands of scientists around the world. Mice are particularly conducive to disease research. They have essentially the same organs and cell types as humans, and the genes and proteins are conserved between our two species, meaning that the processes by which we develop diseases are often similar. Mice are small and storable in great numbers, and they mature and breed with rapidity; generations can be bred and studied within months. And the genes of mice are also, interestingly, easy to manipulate; it’s easier to insert or to “knock out” a particular gene in a mouse than in a rat.
The rabbit lives in a suitcase in my husband’s closet and rarely sees the light. She’s grey with pink ears and her best friend is a stuffed bear that used to belong to my father and also now lives in the suitcase. I’ve sewn both of them back together several times. The bear is missing his mouth and nose. The rabbit’s fur is coarse and stained. Each winter, I open the suitcase to take out our coats and the two come tumbling out together in a ball of familiar must.
I used to buy books for the children’s section of a bookstore and my biggest love was for picture books. I watched hundreds enter and leave the section but my favorite remained The Velveteen Rabbit. Among the children’s books shelved next to our bed is the abridged Golden Book edition my parents read to me when I was young. Recently, I pulled it out and read it to my husband. I could call many passages my favorite, but one strikes me with each reading.
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints, and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
The rabbit was an unusual gift from my grandmother. She’s a loving woman but not sentimental, and most of the gifts she’s given me over the years have been jewelry or clothing we picked out together at Nordstrom. Though I was getting to be too old for this, I began sleeping with the rabbit every night, and eventually, her soft fur wore down and became patchy, and her body flattened, and her white face grew yellow.
My grandmother has lived near my parents in Florida since my grandfather’s death. My aunts and uncles and cousin flew in for Thanksgiving, and at the end of the night, my husband and I drove my grandmother back to her independent living facility. She occupies an apartment in a building with 200 other people after 65 years of living alone with my grandfather, in their home in Cleveland.
The space was cluttered, though a woman comes once a week to clean it. Papers sat stacked atop the kitchen counter next to an open bag of individually wrapped Ghirardelli chocolates and two large, potted orchids. Gift bags were lined up in a cardboard box on the sofa, each containing pieces of costume jewelry she’d bought as Hanukkah presents from a vendor who made rounds in the retirement facility. Entering, I asked my grandmother if she needed us to help with anything, but – as so often happens nowadays – she didn’t answer. Instead, she led us into her bedroom, where my grandfather’s engagement photograph hangs next to hers.
“He looked like a movie star,” she said.
“He was a very handsome man,” I said honestly. I reminded her of a conversation we’d had when my grandfather was still living. I’d called to wish them a happy anniversary, and asked my grandmother how she managed to make a relationship work for almost sixty years when I couldn’t even make one last six months.
“You said he was cute,” I said.
“He was. Then he went and died on me.”
It upsets my husband when I tell him I know what he’ll look like when he’s old. I know the bones of his face so intimately, it’s easy to imagine how his skin will hang around them. His cheeks will hollow; he’s already thin. The lines around his mouth will grow more defined. Folds will deepen across his forehead – worry lines. His eyes will still be bright and curious.
We often acknowledge how lucky we are to have met at a young age. Neither of us are in the best shape, but we’re limber and energetic, can stay up late and make love for hours, and have the privilege of enjoying bodies that don’t yet know cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, or any of the myriad scourges that rob people of their vivacity.
While my grandfather was dying, my grandmother would rage against the cancer eating away at invisible places inside him that she couldn’t heal. In his final days, while he lay on a Hospice bed in their living room barely conscious, she suggested we try to get him up and walk him around. It was inconceivable to her that he’d never again be the man who approached her at the Valentine’s Day dance in 1946.
It upsets my husband when I bother him about smoking. I tell him how frightened I am of someday not hearing him breathe while he sleeps. I tell him how painful it will be to struggle to inhale, how it will be even more painful to exhale. I tell him I worry he’ll suffer intensely and I’ll have watch him. Though I know it’s inevitable, I worry about our children suffering the excruciating truth that their father can die. Even before I know them, I want to shield them from this pain.
I worry this will happen before we’ve enjoyed the best years of our lives, that they’ll be stolen from us.
When I was a child, it seemed the Boy’s scarlet fever sat someplace outside the Rabbit’s story, that the fever had little to do with the Rabbit. Now I know that it wasn’t for the Boy that the Rabbit stayed with him. It was also for the Rabbit.
I stand in the doorway of the Bibliothèque Nationale reading room, the soaring sanctum before me, above me the ceiling a grandeur of opaque glass wreathed with names of great cities: Alexandria, Athens, London, Babylon, Jerusalem, Byzantium, Peking. I’m here in search of Rainer Maria Rilke. Strapped for cash, unschooled, twenty-seven years old and devoid of curricula vitae save years of ardent reading, I’ve already spent an absurd, obsessive half-decade writing a novel about him. It’s grown to more than one-hundred-fifty-thousand words. I hope to complete it in Paris.
The roundness of this room suggests a vast egg enclosing the world’s knowledge. I want to swim forth through the bluish light, amid the desks and along the curving walls shelved four stories high with books, but the clerk at the entry explains that I cannot come in. I lack the proper license: the coveted carte de bibliothèque. Malte, the main character in Rilke’s single novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), cherishes the card permitting him entrance to this room — not only for the learning the card allows him, but because the card puts an honorable seal on his otherwise dissolute life. A young scion of erstwhile aristocrats in Denmark, Malte has fled the land of his ancestry to fin de siècle Paris where he will live as a poet — or die a nobody, as his notebooks’ agitated first words suggest: “So, people do come here to live. I would have sooner thought that this is where one dies.” Malte’s health is failing him. Destitute, squalidly housed in the Latin Quarter, he fears he’s becoming indistinguishable from his neighbors: the sick, the desperate, the mad. His library card saves him, temporarily at least, from the spiritual degradation shown in those impoverished “husks of humanity” who ambulate the grim cobbled warrens around his apartment. “It is possible that one day it may occur to them to come as far as my room,” writes Malte while sitting in the hush of this salle de reference.
They certainly know where I live, and they will take care that the concierge does not stop them. But here, my dears, here I am safe from you. One must have a special card in order to get into this room. In this card I have the advantage of you … I am among these books, and then taken away from you as though I had died, and sit and read a poet.
Discontent to stand in the doorway, I decide I must get a card of my own. Fumbling through the necessary questions in my quasi French, I’m referred to one attendant after another. Finally, at the Accueil, an English-speaking clerk directs me across the library’s palatial foyer to the enclosed area marked “Orientation des Lecteurs.” Bureaucracy-phobes acquire nightmares here.
Wound up and out of sorts, I breach the shrine and install myself in a chair before a librarian’s desk, babbling. Gatekeepers make me nervous. And now I’m much too aware, in my tongue-tied foreignness, in my pullover and backpack and scuffed sneakers, that I cut the figure of a failed pretender, a would-be tourist-cum-scholar. Worse, I give the impression, despite myself, of knowing my own charade, knowing I cannot claim legitimate candidacy for the access I seek. The library wardens — officious, serious, and thoroughly French in their skeptical decorum — reduce me with every sidelong glance. They won’t grant a card to just anybody. As my stuttering interview concludes, I’m instructed to return with passport and proof official of my status as an author; e.g., a published book. I will thereafter be informed of materials in the library relevant to my research.
Rattled, I exit the marbled lobby, cross the cobbled courtyard to the ravine-like rue de Richelieu, and start back toward my cramped studio apartment on the Left Bank. As I walk I pocket my clammy hands and replay the interview. Did I call myself un écrivain or romancier? Which was more correct considering my motive? I know I said recherche — that was a kind of lie. But how can I explain that I’ve got nothing to research, at least not in the manner they mean? How explain that I simply wish to sit and work in that reading room, that the spirit of the room itself is what I’m after?
A Vespa skirls past, the rider’s shadow splayed like the covers of an open book, half on sidewalk half on stone wall. The green dome of the Ópera swells beyond the buildings ahead, the sun shafting low along its bulge. The river, when I cross the Pont du Carrousel, will be a blinding glare. I’m not sure whether I’ll follow through on today’s attempt. I do have a published book, but for some reason I demur to brandish it like a business card. “Merci, mais non,” they could say, dismissing book and boy with a wave of the hand.
Arriving here in his disturbed autumn of 1902, applying to the library wardens behind their imposing desks, twenty-six-year-old Rilke himself probably worried they’d deem him ineligible. He’d likely rehearsed the process in his head, working out the French phrases (he was far from fluent yet). He would explain that he meant to do research about their great sculptor Rodin — this was true, he was writing a monograph, a commission for which he’d left his wife and small daughter at home in the north of Germany. But he probably felt the stony dusk of the foyer reducing him, and he knew he lacked the brio of a credible academic. Thank God, then, that his publisher supplied him a letter. This letter would render his intentions official, it would work like ersatz confidence, he could brandish it and let it be his brio.
How would Rilke have comported himself in the absence of a letter? It’s important, from this obscure future, to wonder such things. I was intimidated, to be sure. But as Rilke’s own work attests — as Malte demonstrates — a sufficient sense of helplessness can return one powerfully to one’s beginnings, and for an artist this is proper. Exposed and vulnerable, one avoids a numbing insularity. One senses the world anew. If the library personnel have sensitized me to my status as an unapproved, unaffiliated outsider, they’ve done me a peculiar service. A few words from Rilke’s Letters on Cezanne ring in my head, a fine affirmation for just such a moment: “One has to be able at every moment to place one’s hand on the earth like the first human being.”
Rainer Maria Rilke strove unceasingly to wrest poetic creation from experience, “to see in everything I encounter a challenge, a task, a claim to artistic transformation.” That was his drastic lifelong vow, made early on and relentlessly fulfilled, so that this everything included even Rilke’s final experience, his death. In Switzerland in 1926, as his last bleak hours steepened with pain, he barred his door and refused all visitors. Not even his wife Clara was admitted, for Rilke had pledged himself to this, if death was what it was; he would embrace it without intermediary. He was fifty-one. For weeks he’d writhed with what his physician would call leukemia, but Rilke allowed no one to tell him the name of the disease undoing him. In striving to confront his fate, to create by unmediated perception that last experience, he refused all medicine. If it was torment, it would be his own — not the doctor’s, not the disease’s. Unnamed, pure, and purely awful, it would be his death, a thing achieved, a thing as suited to him as his birth and no less singular. What else, as Rilke saw it, could being a poet mean? What, but to begin and begin, to remain endangered, to embrace one’s honorable obscurity and accept its absence of reward, to reconcile oneself to life’s mortal loneliness, to nurture one’s vision in that solitude and sing? Art, as Rilke wrote to the young poet Franz Xaver Kappus in July of 1903, “means loving one’s solitude and bearing its pain by making beautiful sounds of one’s complaint.”
“Young person anywhere, in whom something is rising up that causes you to shiver,” says Malte Laurids Brigge, “make use of the fact that no one knows you. … Beg no one to speak of you, not even contemptuously.” Though the protagonist pens them, these words belong as rightly to the author himself. One of the great self-chroniclers of all time, Rilke dispatched more than eleven thousand letters over the course of thirty-five footloose years. This correspondence rehearses the story of his life, stringing the narrative onto an armature of a few key episodes, obsessively testifying to their importance. They include: Rilke’s mother rearing him as a girl following the death of an infant daughter prior to his birth; that mother’s inculcation of a superstitious spirituality in the boy, accounting for the poet’s lifelong sensitivity to ghosts and the sub harmonic vibrations of the paranormal; a young and sickly René Maria (as the pious mother christened him) suffering five miserable years of military boarding school; the poet’s artistic coming-of-age under the influence of Lou Andreas-Salomé (lover, Madonna, muse); the poet’s reverence before his Master, Auguste Rodin, who became idol and surrogate father in one. From unpromising beginnings through his ongoing tribulations of homelessness and alienation, adoration and heartbreak, his incapacity to be loved, his brushes with incandescent beauty, the letters chronicle everything important to the poet, all experienced in the name of art. Rilke presented to the world the persona of the unadulterated artist committed wholly and exclusively, at every living hour, to his work — and committed no less to that work’s frequent lacunae in which, semi-religiously, he strove to “be inactive with confidence.” As he wrote to an aggrieved Clara in 1906, amid years of separation for the sake of this work, “I am absolutely determined to miss none of these voices which are to come. I want to hear each one.”
Teddy has been sitting on the same brown sofa in the family room for over ten years, staring at Rita’s photograph across from him. There’s a faraway look in his droopy eyes, and from the way he stares at my wife’s photograph, I can tell he is trying to say something, but can’t get the words out. After Rita passed on, I laid him down on the sofa. He has been there ever since.
Teddy is a chubby little stuffed bear. Sepia brown in complexion, he measures about a foot and a half. He came to Rita soon after her surgery as a gift from Millie, our only daughter, and stayed with her for two years until she said her last goodbye.
“Call me after the surgery,” Millie had said when I phoned her the day before to give her the bleak results of her mom’s colonoscopy.
I did. Waves of sobs followed the news of the presence of malignancy. She took the earliest flight to Austin. As soon as we got home, she rushed upstairs where Rita was resting. After a long hugging and crying, she gave Rita the stuffed bear. Despite the sudden upheaval in her life, she had not forgotten her mom’s love for stuffed animals.
Rita never parted with Teddy until the day she left. He was her constant companion. I often wonder if Rita ever spoke to Teddy when they were alone. Perhaps she asked him questions she couldn’t ask anyone else. Perhaps his answers gave her the strength and the will to carry on her fight. When he was not lying next to her, she would hold him close to her chest, or sit him up on her lap and mumble sweet baby talk to him as they watched TV together. She carried him in the crook of her arm like a baby wherever she went.
I did not let go of Teddy after Rita left us. I wanted to hang on to him as my bridge to her memory.
“I think we should dress him up in a fancy outfit,” I had told Rita soon after Teddy came into her life.
At first Rita thought I was being funny and laughed at the idea.
One day we went out in search of an outfit for Teddy and found a shop that had hundreds of fancy dresses for stuffed animals. Rita picked up a beautiful blue satin outfit.
“Do you think it will look nice on Teddy?” she asked.
“Yes, of course.”
She put the outfit on Teddy when we got home. Her face glowed with affection as she held him up and looked at him. She clasped on to him for the longest time as she carried him around and showered him with hugs and kisses.
“Doesn’t he look cute?” she said.
That outfit has been on Teddy ever since. I’ve often thought about adorning him with a new one, but every time I thought about doing so, I’ve been held back by a desire to keep him just the way Rita had left him.
On Friday evenings when I get home from work, I sit across from him, ready to pickle my brain. He engages me in a voiceless conversation, keeping me company in the silence of my lonely sanctuary. For a while, I’m quite cognizant of his presence until I reach the moment of euphoria and begin to float in the Pink Clouds. Gradually I reach a point when my world is filled with disembodied figures engrossed in hushed confab. I’m no longer alone. Teddy has helped me get there.
On some of these evenings, when I can inspire myself to practice music, he’s the only one in my audience, listening in rapt attention to whatever melodies I can belt out. “Keep yourself occupied with music,” Rita had said more than once when she realized she wouldn’t make it through her battle. As my baritone voice reverberates in the melancholy rendition of timeless songs, I see in Teddy’s glassy eyes his pain of lost companionship. I pick him up and mourn with him our mutual unspoken grief. I feel a lump rising in my throat and can hardly breathe.
What will happen to Teddy when I get my own clarion call? Will someone adopt him as a bridge to my memory, or will he be tossed away with the clutter of this house?
I wish Teddy an eternal life. I would like him to be the bridge between generations, a wellspring of strength, a crutch to lean on through cycles of birth and death. Maybe someday, in the dead of night when the rains come down hard against the windows and the winds screech and whistle through the trees, Teddy, from his permanent perch on a brown sofa in someone else’s lonely sanctuary, will finally let out a cry of anguish, pleading that his failures were not his own doing, but the will of some unseen forces to whose rhythms we all dance.
Shiv Dutta’s essays have appeared in River & South Review, The Evansville Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Hippocampus Magazine, Eclectica Magazine, Epiphany, The Evergreen Review, Silk Road Review, Front Porch, and other journals. He has also produced many technical papers and co-authored two technical books. One of his personal essays was nominated for Pushcart Prize. He lives in Round Rock, Texas.
As we continue to take applications for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction winter workshops, we thought we would check in with a few of our faculty to get a perspective on their own history inside the classroom.
Next on the dock, Justin Hocking.
Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience as a participant?
Justin Hocking: Sophomore year at the University of Colorado, over twenty years ago. I studied psychology, but my first writing workshop felt much more important and consequential than Behavioral Neuroscience or Statistics. I wrote a poem, in ALL CAPS, about the Buick I drove at the time. The title of the piece was, unsurprisingly, “MY BIG ASS BUICK.” During workshop, the instructor said the the piece had “pizazz.” I savored his words for days afterward—my poetry has pizazz! It’s all a little embarrassing to think of now. But it was the only class where my own life seemed to matter, beyond my ability to memorize facts and fill out scantron tests. It taught me the importance of meeting students where they’re at, giving gentle encouragement, and staying open to every writer’s creative potential.
TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?
JH: I had the privilege of taking a workshop with Barry Lopez. He entered the classroom and immediately began futzing with the computer monitor connected to the overhead projector. We thought he was getting his Powerpoint ready, but in fact he was removing the entire computer from the classroom. He just carried it out into the hall and left it there. It was his way of meeting us on an authentic, human level, without the ever-present distraction of technology. He also wanted us, as writers, to bust out of the one-dimensional mindset that so often sets in when we stare at a computer screen for hours on end. I’m also consistently blown away by Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing and unconventional teaching methods. I once heard her tell a group of young writers not to worry so much about genre boundaries or labels when you’re drafting, to instead just let the language and images and stories pour out of you onto the page, without inhibition, like water. That’s some of the best and boldest advice I’ve heard.
TH: Your strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?
JH: My roommate in graduate school had an unusual writing practice. It began in the late afternoon, when he spent an hour or so online, pricing out the best champagne for under $20. Later, he’d come home from the liquor store with two bottles of bubbly in his knapsack. Over the course of the evening and well into the night, he drank all the champagne and typed up short stories that were part Hunter S. Thompson, part Dudley Moore. They made for some strange workshops, indeed.
TH: Is there a book of craft you find yourself going back to time and again?
JH: I’m a fan of Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola—lots of solid advice re: drafting, revising and publishing creative nonfiction. It also contains one of my favorite craft essays of all time: “A Braided Heart” by Brenda Miller. In it, the author recalls the revelation of discovering lyric essayists like Albert Goldbarth, who braid in multiple narrative threads, themes, images, etc. into single works. The concept of braiding sparked a major breakthrough for Miller—her essays began diving into more deeply personal material, while simultaneously expanding farther outward, weaving in news of the wider world. Miller relates all of this via a brilliant craft essay that is itself braided with multiple sections about the collage artist Joseph Cornell, French braids, and even recipes for challah bread.
Justin Hocking served as Executive Director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center from 2006 to mid-2014. His his work has appeared in the Rumpus, Orion, Thrasher, The Normal School, the Portland Review, Portland Noir, Poets and Writers, and elsewhere. His memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, was published by Graywolf Press in early 2014. Wonderworld was a Barnes and Nobel Discover Great New Writers selection. Hocking is a recipient of the Willamette Writers’ 2014 Humanitarian Award for his work in publishing, writing and teaching. He is a cofounder, with A.M. O’Malley, of the yearlong Certificate Program in Creative Writing at the Independent Publishing Resource Center, and also teaches in the Wilderness Writing MFA program at Eastern Oregon University.
My doctor always asked how I would prepare it, the placenta. Powdered and encapsulated for my Yuki—two, three, four or more a day depending on my level of sadness and how much I believed the vitamins and hormones within the tissue would make me whole again. Pan fried and stuffed into dumplings for Toru. A smoothie and two yakitori for Keiko. But my doctor remains silent this morning, collapses into the deepest bow, and offers the plastic container as I get situated in a wheelchair. Somewhere in the building Ayu’s tiny body, caught in the strained expression of her first and last cry, rests in drawer, waiting for someone to fetch her.
When we get home from the hospital, I put the placenta in the freezer. Recipes and tips for preparation cover the fridge. The children, young as they are, know enough to keep their distance, to remain silent, and move slowly through the house like ghosts. I hear their footsteps outside my door. I hear my husband whispering to them. I flip through a legal pad in bed covered with notes about ancient Chinese methods for dehydrating the placenta—Zi He Che—(steamed with ginger to shrink the organ before heating in the stove), variations of herbal blends for tea. My husband has created a fort of pillows and blankets around me. He says:
“We don’t have to do it this time—just because we have it.”
“We should do it because we have it,” I say. I write down daal and naan. I write cumin and cardamom. But I’m not sure if I want to do Indian. “I need to do something.”
Despite being regarded as unusual, eating the placenta (placentophagy), can help women restore hormonal balance after labor and provide much needed vitamins and nutrients: Iron, B6, B12, Estrogen, Progesterone. Before I had Yuki, I was determined to do everything possible to ensure that I would be okay, that motherhood would not leave me. Most mammals in the animal kingdom eat their placenta to solidify the bond with their offspring, to ease pain, and encourage lactation. Ingesting what has given life in order to connect to life and ensure survival. I once watched a lioness in a documentary lap at her placenta, licking it clean of blood before consuming it in a couple of bites. I admired the instinct, envied it.
The Baganda of Uganda believe the placenta is a spirit double and plant the organ beneath a fruit tree. When the fruit is ripe, the family has a big feast after which the parents make love, delivering the copy of their child’s spirit into the mother. In Iceland, the placenta is called fylgia, which means guardian angel. Placed beneath the floor of the mother’s bed, the guardian angel would be protected and grow into an ox, a bear, a wolf, or whatever guide best suited a child. These traditions brought me comfort with my other children. But I am not a lioness. We do not have a yard or a tree to plant (and I cannot wait). And if there was a guardian angel somewhere inside the purple membrane inside our freezer, a cub, a wolf pup, an eaglet, she failed to do her job.
Later, in the kitchen, my husband stands behind me as I slice my placenta into jerky-like strips, running my fingers over the thick tangle of veins that streamed life to my daughter for the past several months. I do not know what I am going to make, but I turn around and ask my husband to get the olive oil, as I take down our largest frying pan and turn on the stove.
I pick up a piece of placenta and instead of placing it on the pan, I hold it in my hand for a while, its cold, jellyfish-like consistency between my fingers—a leech, a sea slug, the flat worms my Yuki said he dissected in school that could duplicate itself if you cut it. I pour a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau for myself and my husband and pop a slice in my mouth, barely chewing, letting it slide down my throat. My husband stares at me, his mouth agape. I grab two more slices and give him one. He examines it, sniffs it. I hold his free hand and tell him, “On three.” And we swallow. And we sit across from each other at our dining table with the tray of placenta between us. And we will stay there until everything that connected me to my daughter, all that allowed her to be for the span of a breath, is taken back from the world and absorbed inside us.
Sequoia Nagamatu‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in ZYZZYVA, Conjunctions, West Branch Wired, Redivider, Puerto Del Sol, Bat City Review, and The Fairy Tale Review, among others. He is the managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine and a visiting assistant professor at The College of Idaho.
It’s time again to plaster the digital streets with Broadside Thirty, our showcase of poems in thirty lines or less by poets thirty or younger. This installment features Jameson Fitzpatrick.
at the window
throwing the keys down
in the doorway
in black athletic shorts
legs the same shape
as yours but
thicker with hair
the curls on his neck
still wet from his run
salt on my tongue
and he has been waiting for me
at the window, Hector
throwing me down
on the bed on top of me
pulling his shorts down
past the dark shock of his sex
no gray anywhere
and nothing soft about him
except how much
he looks like you
in your first author photo
twenty-five years ago
Jameson Fitzpatrick holds a BA and an MFA from New York University, where he now teaches in the Expository Writing Program. His poems have appeared in The American Reader, The Awl, The Literary Review, and Poetry, among elsewhere; he is also the author of a chapbook, Morrisroe: Erasures (89plus/LUMA Publications), which comprises 24 erasures of a single text by the artist Mark Morrisroe.
My daughter stood on the footpath in Crab Wood, under her blue umbrella. She pointed out sticks for me to pick up. The sticks needed to be long, but not too long; thick, but not too thick; and straight, without leaves. It was August in England, and although we’d had a fine summer, it had been raining all day and the sticks were muddy. I picked them up without complaining. My daughter didn’t speak much, even though the idea that we should recreate the US cover of my novel had been her suggestion. Still, I was happy to be spending time with her, because she is seventeen and I don’t get to do that very often any more.
When I was her age I came home from school one day, and my mother handed me a copy of our local newspaper in which she had circled some rooms and bedsits that were available to rent. She gave me the phone and she told me to start calling. A couple of weeks later, when my A’ level exams were finished, I packed a suitcase, put my spider plant and few books in a box and left home. Of course my mother making me leave didn’t come out of the blue – we hadn’t been getting on for months, in the usual way in which mothers and teenage daughters often don’t get on: I was moody and uncommunicative, and had a boyfriend she didn’t approve of; she was intolerant and unempathetic, and now, looking back, I think she found it hard to be the mother of a teenage daughter.
I moved to a city I barely knew and into a house shared with strangers. I negotiated my way around the housing benefit system, lived on toast and marmite, learned how launderettes worked, joined the local library and forged my mother’s signature on my university application form, which in those days needed to be signed by the applicant’s legal guardian. And I didn’t see or speak to my mother for the next four years.
They say that only when you have a baby of your own, do you understand the fiercely protective attitude your parents had. It hasn’t been like that for me. Now that I have teenage daughter of my own and a wonderful relationship with my mother, I will never understand how she could have forced me to leave home without knowing where I was living, or even if I was alive. But, what I did come to understand when my daughter hit her mid-teenage years, was how difficult it can be to live with a teenager, and why my mother struggled with me. My daughter is often moody and uncommunicative, and she is suffering from the aftermath of her first relationship, which, it so happens, I didn’t fully approve of. She is almost an adult and I am trying not to repeat history. There is nothing she could do that would make me force her to leave home, but it is painful to recall how we used to get on, the fun we would have together, and how much she used to talk to me. Every day I miss the child she once was.
So when my daughter suggests we do something together, just the two of us, I jump at the chance. Back in Crab Wood my daughter decided we had the right number of sticks. I put them in the back of the car, and we drove along the wet lanes of Farley Mount Country Park, my daughter staring out of the passenger window at the trees flashing past, neither of us speaking. After a while we came to a suitable field: uncut, a gentle grassy slope, no livestock. She climbed the five-bar gate, I passed her the sticks and followed her; the photograph of the book cover in my pocket. The rain stopped and the sun came out and I took a picture of my daughter amongst the tall grasses with the bundle of sticks tucked under her arm and I knew that when she is twenty, or twenty-five or thirty, or any age, I am going to miss my moody, uncommunicative seventeen-year-old.
Claire Fuller lives in Winchester, England. Our Endless Numbered Days (Tin House, March 2015) is her first novel.
Tango classes started later in the fall than you might expect, like around now, in November. The dance studio was on the third floor (walk up) of an eighteenth-century building in the northern-most part of Paris, with scarred hard wood floors and tall windows gone dark by the time class started (8:30 p.m.). It was the kind of room that had seen other dances, other evenings. The class was for beginners, like me.
This was five or six years ago and months before the class started, I’d bought tango shoes in anticipation: black leather heels with a single band across the open toe. I wasn’t sure how I was going to navigate any of it: the high heels (strange and unfamiliar after months of sandals and tennis shoes), the pivots and turns, the shift in weight and direction that meant one minute you were sliding backward and the next you were gliding forward.
I remembered the tango lessons last month when I came across Djuna Barnes’s essay, “The Tingling, Tangling Tango as ‘Tis Tripped at Coney Isle,” originally published in the Brooklyn Eagle on August 31, 1917: “Beneath the glare of the electric lights, under the seductive charm of the band behind the palms, the straight black eyes of Therese glow; the large, red mouth is smiling; the low-coiled hair gives to those eyes the magic that the undertow gives to the swell of the wave.” The piece follows Therese and her unnamed dance partner one late night at a crowded dancehall at Coney Island.
Barnes’s prose is like walking into a dancehall that is splendid and vast and a little shadowy, where you have to get accustomed to a different, darker light. Women are “bright spots among the smoking men;” a plate of seafood has “vivid red splashes of silent sea crab laid out upon its bed of green;” Therese is “a queen in black, with a hat of a thousand feathers;” and for a passing couple on the dance floor, “the man bowed above the little woman held close, like a butterfly pinned to his breast.”
Part pattern, part instinct, full of ardor and appetite, the tango is the driving force of the essay. The effect is disorienting and mesmerizing and Barnes doesn’t lose direction in the essay, or maybe she does. Whatever way the piece is going—forwards or backwards or sideways—the direction is the dance and the reader is right there and it is dazzling. “But never one step did she [Therese] lose of the dancers clinging, gliding, twisting, losing grip, coming together . . .”
With the tango lessons now years ago, I’d had a hard time counting out the steps. It didn’t matter that the numbers didn’t go very high and that the pattern always returned to the number one. It had something to do with the intricate math of the dance that was precise and a little bit improvised at the same time. Maybe it was the undertow of the tango—the pulse of the music pulling one way, my dance partner leaning another and finding some sort of steadiness between it all. Early on in Barnes’s essay, Therese’s unnamed dance partner suggests that they order dinner, “to get out of the uncomfortable position of a person who has been stopped by the excess of a wonderful motion; the catch in the music that makes the feet move.” Maybe sometimes changing directions isn’t so bad.
Heather Hartley is Paris editor at Tin House and the author of Knock Knock and Adult Swim (forthcoming), both from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in or on PBS NewsHour, The Guardian, and The Literary Review, among others. She has presented writers at Shakespeare & Company Bookshop’s weekly reading series and lives in Paris.
The Hilltop, Assaf Gavron’s fifth novel, opens with the language of Genesis: “In the beginning were the fields.” We soon meet Othniel Assis, who, “so it came to pass,” hiked until his beard grew long and he found the land that would become the West Bank settlement of Ma’aleh Hermesh C. As the novel unfolds, Gavron’s confident, often playful narrator portrays interpersonal drama with humor and heartbreak as we follow the wide cast of characters who call the settlement home.
I was not surprised when Gavron told me in an email that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom had an impact on the scope and structure of his book (“At least I hope it did,” Gavron wrote). But The Hilltop is also a heavily researched novel. At least as much as any writerly influence, the book feels influenced by life. As he did with his novel Moving, Gavron puts himself in his characters’ shoes. For two years, he traveled weekly to Tekoa Dalet, a real West Bank settlement community, in order to “feel what the characters feel.” Grounded in this intention, even Gavron’s subtle satire adds to the nuanced realism and deeply empathetic account.
Rebekah Bergman: Your novels reveal the layers of complexity in intensely polarizing issues like terrorism in Almost Dead and now the West Bank settlement in The Hilltop. What fears and doubts do you battle as you show the shades of gray that exist in these situations?
Assaf Gavron: The main fear is that the black/white viewers will not bother to read my books and that they will form their opinions on their preconceived notions and ideas—about me or about these subjects. Another fear is being misjudged, failing to tread the fine line, and being viewed as a mouthpiece for a side or accused of taking part in a political game. That is not what I intend to do with my fiction.
RB: How do you avoid letting your own stance and opinions interfere?
AG: I write about people and not about politics, even if the people I write about are part of a tense political situation. I present the story as I know it and let the readers make their own decision and form their own opinions. There is enough writing that is opinionated. I totally respect that and read it, and sometimes write it. But not in fiction. Fiction for me is about showing a deeper, more complex and nuanced picture of human behaviors.
RB: Much of your work shares the goal of promoting empathy. I’m thinking here not only of your novels but also the videogame you wrote and your work with the story-telling organization Narrative 4. How does fiction relate to these pursuits?
AG: In both Peacemaker and N4, by assuming another character, by stepping into the shoes of someone else, you learn to view life and its obstacles and challenges through their eyes, and ultimately empathize with them. This is also what being a fiction writer, and reader, is about. “Being” in the head of someone else.
AG: To think, I hope. To realize things are not simple. To realize that people, and situations, are multifaceted and that some of these facets can be conflicting to the point of absurdity.
RB: On that note, a lot of the absurdity in The Hilltop begins with bureaucracy. As your character Othniel states, “The right hand has no clue as to what the left one is doing.” While absurd, these moments also resonate with truth. To what extent does bureaucracy present a barrier to progress and change?
AG: Bureaucracy can be frustrating. I’ve experienced it first hand in England, Germany, Israel, and the US–countries I’ve lived in for at least a year. The bureaucracy’s role in The Hilltop is to prevent anarchy, which is a good thing. The problem is, it doesn’t know how to enforce order. Or perhaps the settlers are too smart to get enforced by it. So anarchy prevails. It is a fascinating process, and absurd, and I try to capture that in the novel.
RB: Much of The Hilltop is satirical and funny, yet the novel’s ultimate power rests in its realistic account of life. How do satire, humor, and realism relate?
AG: Humor is inherent in life. It must be. Otherwise we’re doomed. I see humor in every situation, and I find a lot of humor even in the tense, decidedly non-jolly West Bank. Satire is something else. I am not saying there are no satirical parts in The Hilltop, but it is not only satirical. The satire is gentle, I think, and no side is immune to it.
RB: What context would an Israeli reader of The Hilltop have that an American reader might lack? Can the translation ever compensate?
I was at the hibachi restaurant in the dream. The chef wore a white hat embroidered with moons. He tossed endless shrimp at my father’s mouth but they bounced off his head. I remember thinking my sister’s camera was too big for her body, poor sis, she needs a smaller camera to forever capture dad catching the shrimp. The lights dimmed with every attempt. Shrimp with sad pepper flake eyes sailed slower through the air. He just couldn’t do it. He just couldn’t catch a shrimp in his dad mouth. The chef squirted tequila from a bottle in the shape of a naked baby with a knob hole for a penis across my father’s eyes. He yelled for him to move closer then punched him in the stomach. My mother said tilt your head back, why can’t you do anything right. She said she hated him for every year of their marriage except year seven when she drank rum from soda cans and painted ceramic turtles in the garage. Some people just don’t possess the skill to catch flying food, said the chef. Just look at his face. Everyone in the restaurant looked at dad’s face. See, there’s something wrong with his mouth, it’s deformed and won’t allow him to catch a shrimp from my blade here, to his mouth, there. Pitiful, really. We nodded in agreement. Now you, he said and pointed his knife at me. You have the golden third. The top part of your body was birthed to do nothing in this life but catch flying food. Long neck! Giant jaw! Shelf lips! Move back as far as you can go, it’s show time. Some people abuse the golden third, but not you. You will raise trophies in this life and be alone because of them. Look around, all these people will forget you. Your throat will be remembered by television. I moved back in my chair until I was through the wall and in the parking lot. Tall trees filled with chefs wearing their moon hats sat on the branches. My body was little again. My body was interesting again. As the shrimp flew through the air it expanded and when it grew skin I woke up.
Shane Jones is the author of three novels, most recently, Crystal Eaters. His work has appeared online in The Paris Review, The Believer, BOMB, Diagram, and VICE, among others. His first novel, Light Boxes, was optioned for film by Spike Jonze, translated into eight languages, and named an NPR Best Book of the Year. He lives in Albany, New York.
Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New & Collected Essays is out this week. To celebrate, we’re running a few of his nonfiction pieces that didn’t quite fit the book but that we adore nonetheless. This essay first appeared in The Oxford American in 2005.
I grew up indiscriminately loving all the songs that came on the radio, but it was the fact of the radio itself, the little box on the floor by my bed, that brought the music to life and made it a kind of magic for me. The radio was a Zenith back when that brand-name wasn’t ironic and it had a single big knob for steering through all the AM stations. I’d covered the beige case with decals of the sort that used to be included in packs of baseball cards during the era of Curt Flood and Boog Powell. I dialed in my favorite stations as attentively as a safecracker but the radio always sounded rough and out of tune, between frequencies, blaring reedy pop from a hole in the plastic. At night, when the reception was better, I’d drag the radio into bed with me, holding its single speaker to my ear, searching for the sweet spot where the bass was deeper and more resonant, the voices clearer, and the treble of the cymbals sounded less like static. Our family wasn’t particularly musical and my father was an angry man who demanded silence in the house but I had a hunger for just about anything on the radio. We owned a few records—operas, mostly, and some Gregorian Chants, plus the Monkees and the soundtrack to The Sound of Music—and out in the living room we had the sort of hi-fi people who don’t care about music buy, a Magnavox console, the most compelling feature of which, at least for me, was the lamé cloth covering the speakers—whenever my father was away, I would listen for hours, lost in the music, running an idle finger back and forth, tracing out the gold threads as if they’d been sewn into the grille by Ariadne herself. But it was really in my bedroom, alone, with the cheapest, tinniest radio ever made, that I came to understand music, or at least my particular relation to music.
What I learned in all those idle hours is that I’m not an aficionado and that my tastes are plain—I like radio stuff. In high school when the kids in my class first began to elaborate a taste for the arcane I felt out of it, unable to forge a similarly deep, urgent narrative from the hodgepodge of songs and styles I liked. In my lonely radio democracy Tommy James and the Beau Brummels had always been the peers of Dylan and The Rolling Stones and so when it came time to draw sharper distinctions—when matters of taste were becoming fatal social moves—it was like I couldn’t quite get with the whole enterprise of hierarchy. Anything that got piped in over the airwaves was okay by me. That’s where the Beatles had come from, and Elvis, and Otis Redding, and I’d leaned my ear to those greats just as eagerly as I had the Lemon Pipers, Del Shannon and Clarence Carter. It was all radio music to me, and that was the only music I cared about. I didn’t know other discussions were going on. I didn’t know you could dig down into other, deeper layers of culture and come back with whole new sounds. Even today the only music I really listen to arrives stamped and approved by some form of consensus, either through popularity or the imprimatur of a trusted friend’s good taste. And while I admire enormously people for whom these things are vital, people who follow out a thread of sensibility until it leads them to some really select or recherché stuff, I can only admire them from a distance, with a tinge of regret, knowing that I’ve missed out on a very important conversation. I never really saw songs as a way to connect, and so, for all the music I listened to, I grew up in silence.
This is a roundabout way of coming to Joe Tex, who of course was somebody I heard on the radio, no doubt mistaking him for Sam Cooke or Hank Ballard. He had a string of pop successes in the sixties and seventies and a final smash hit that lightly mocked disco in 1977. He was born Joseph Arrington Jr. and would change his name twice, first to Joe Tex, the stage name he was known by, and then to Yusef Hazziez, following a decision in the mid-Seventies to bag the music business altogether and join the Nation of Islam. Somewhere along the way he must have said that he entered show biz to make enough money to buy homes for the two women he admired most (his mother and grandmother) because it’s one of the biographical bits that gets sentimentally repeated in everything you read about him. It sounds like hokum, but I hope it’s true. His rise to fame, his journey from Joseph Arrington to Joe Tex, followed a pattern that was probably standard for a black man of his time and place. Song and dance routines to supplement his work shining shoes and delivering papers, singing in school and church choirs, winning a local talent contest (over Johnny Nash and Hubert Laws, no less), where the prize, a week-long trip to New York, gave him a chance to perform at the Apollo in Harlem. After high school, he returned to New York and got his first contract, with King Records, but it wasn’t until he hooked up with Buddy Killen that his music made just the right sound—and by that, I mean the kind of sound that would get airplay, and reach me, a kid in the Northwest who dragged his radio to bed like a pet dog and lay under the covers with an ear pressed against the plastic, listening.
I culled the factual information above from various official sources because, of course, I’m not an aficionado—of southern soul, of balladeers, of Joe Tex. I don’t know this kind of stuff, not off the top of my head, anyway. I don’t really know King records or its role in the world of pop except that Little Willie John also did some fine work with them, and I only know about him because he stabbed a man in Seattle, was sentenced to life in prison, and eventually died in the state pen on McNeil Island. But being knowledgeable hardly matters; I’m not negotiating with anyone. I remember the Joe Tex I loved on the radio, particularly “The Love You Save,” an achingly beautiful lament whose lyrics still kill me, and “Skinny Legs and All,” a funny song that’s half-spoken and comes with its own laughtrack and for all I know may have been recorded live. I loathed his biggest hit, “I Gotcha,” and even today it seems pointless and unpleasant, an ugly novelty, all the more sickening, I have to say, for its continuing popularity. The song struck me as a personal betrayal and it’s success only widened the sense of loss. “You Said A Bad Word” isn’t much better, unfortunately. By the time it was recorded, his voice had grown thin, the sweetness had become grating, and the song’s early-Seventies funk is more of an imitation or shallow put-on than a genuine sound that grabs the soul. The song anticipates Joe Tex’s exit from the business, the whole thing going the way of mockery. But there’s no dignity or sense in remembering a man by his lesser performances. I’d rather hang on these words, as I once did, somewhat desperately, climbing into bed and cradling my radio.
I’ve been taken outside
And I’ve been brutalized
And I had to always be the one
To smile and apologize.
But I aint never in my life before
Seen so many love affairs go wrong
As I do today—So stop, find out what’s wrong.
Get it right, or please leave love alone.
Because the love you save today
May very well be your own.
Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of two collections of short stories, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the essay collection Orphans. He’s been the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Lannan Fellowship, among other honors. His work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, as well as in Tin House, The Paris Review,Zoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space. He teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His most recent book, Loitering: New & Collected Essays, is out today and available wherever fine books are sold.
Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New & Collected Essays is out this week. To celebrate, we’re running a few of his nonfiction pieces that didn’t quite fit the book but that we adore nonetheless. This essay first appeared in the Portland broadside The Organ.
I’m not an art critic, and I’m hopelessly corny—qualifications enough to say a few words about Grandma Moses. For a while in the fifties her small hard wizened face was as folksy and familiar as Robert Frost’s; but where Frost’s persona—his shock of silky white hair and rumpled avuncular suits—buried from sight the darkest lyric poet America’s ever produced, Grandma Moses seems to have painted as she lived, happily and without guile or much bother of any sort. Their lives overlapped, and similar amounts of snow fell through their work, his isolating and anxious and modern, hers more like soapflakes in a glass globe, quaintly falling over a souvenir scene. But her paintings are too joyously full for the elegiac mood–there’s no loss—and occupy instead a genial present that’s just a little idiotic, although it feels carping to say so—her stuff’s folk-art, and shares a sturdy narrowness of function and the same lack of ambiguity you’d find in a clay pot or wooden spoon or quilt. If anything, she’s a utopian, and her paintings give us not a look into a vanished past, but a visionary’s idea of the future. There is snow but no cold; there is work but no backache. It sounds like heaven, and, indeed, as hardworking and diligent as her people are meant to be, shoeing horses or tapping maple trees, they float around her chalky snowscapes like the angelic figures in Chagall. In a less pragmatic culture, or in an artist who hadn’t spent her first seventy years scrubbing floors, the energy might have found a more florid outlet, probably in religious icons. With Grandma Moses, though, the religious impulse is confined to duty. It’s all work, but the work itself seems celebratory, prompted by the seasons rather than economic necessity. There’s no voice inside her paintings but the one expressed communally—you can’t imagine a complaint. There are no individuals, and all the people have those strange folk-art heads, shaped, it seems, by mongolism. I kept trying to imagine myself in her scenes, some mopey fuck, some blurry guy skulking around the distant woods while the good folks in the foreground dip candles or shear wool—but that Frostian thing (“Come In,” “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Acquainted with the Night,” etc), that strolling poetry of suicide and despair, doesn’t make it into Grandma Moses. Just trying to imagine yourself alone in those frozen woods and hearing, far off, the voices of shared love and duty, voices with that ringing clarity, that timbre that travels so well in the cold, you feel yourself totally bashed by sadness. Perhaps that’s the appeal of her paintings, your shitty self gone, the weight of life lifted, everything dissolved in a conformity, the quaintness of which partly accounts, I think, for the peaking of her popularity in the fifties. Her work offers a benign version of mass culture, of television as community, of the American Way. It’s Beaver in the sticks instead of the suburbs, a society whose adhesive stuff, all that impossible goodness, that inhering sense of obligation and purpose, is so idealized you feel it palpably in her painting—and the deep-down soothing emotion is this: that someone once believed it was beyond argument. We’re far enough down the line that her work now digs back into a nostalgia for nostalgia, a longing for an old longing, for the coonskin caps and reproduction flintlocks, for the train sets and toy Winchesters, for all the boyish Xmas booty that, fifty years ago, was already about a certain homesickness. There’s just enough space in here for irony, but her work resists that sort of positioning, certainly a lot better than the nightmarish realism of Norman Rockwell—Rockwell, whose sweet faces are always just a push away from Alfred E. Newman. It’s hard to locate or imagine the ideal world she depicted –Martha Stewart’s hints about how to archaize life borrow from Grandma Moses, leaving out the sinew, the social cohesion arrived at through duty. It’s been a long time: a century ago Grandma Moses was forty-two years old. Late in her career, the limning blurs and a pleasant haze like failing eyesight softens the pictures. The vistas are foreshortened, the horizons drawn in, but the impressionism is most noticeable in the things you’d expect to hold the clearest lines, in the buildings, the civic base of houses and churches and schools that make up her huddled little villages. It wasn’t the past that was dimming, but the future. The time sense in her work, though, is hard to track. It’s found more in the cycle of seasons, in the round of what used to be known as women’s work, so that the past and future are always held to the present –among the many things that don’t exist in her world (and at times her pictures seem arrived at entirely through blind exclusion) most noticeably absent are birth and death. But if utopia is, broadly defined, the future without the stink, then I’d say Grandma Moses was a futurist, since we’re all standing stupidly downwind of death and don’t smell it. We know the past is foul, but there’s none of that in her work, and her late popularity was a sign, a recognition, that her vision of the future could be good, it could be alright, but that we weren’t going there.
Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of two collections of short stories, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the essay collection Orphans. He’s been the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Lannan Fellowship, among other honors. His work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, as well as in Tin House, The Paris Review, Zoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space. He teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His most recent book, Loitering: New & Collected Essays, is out now and available wherever fine books are sold.
As we continue to take applications for our upcoming fiction and nonfiction winter workshops, we thought we would check in with a few of our faculty to get a perspective on their own history inside the classroom.
Next to the Principal’s office, Whitney Otto.
Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop experience as a participant?
Whitney Otto: During my junior year in college I decided to enroll in a fiction workshop, led by a current MFA student, an awkward young man who seemed surprised to find himself in front of a class. The second thing we read was an excerpt from a novel by a grad student in the sciences. He was a few years older than everyone in the workshop, and was pretty dickish about the age difference. His novel, despite all his supposed “life wisdom that the rest of us lacked,” was cliché, overwrought, and narrated by a hardboiled “hero” who talked tough and spent a lot of time thinking about Jessica. Jessica was sexy and feral and their love was like a feeding frenzy in one of those Wild Country Safari drive-thru theme parks. They “devoured” each other while “drinking each other in.” It was a three-star Zagat kind of thing. He frequently fingered the long scar on his cheek, left there by Jessica, who cut him with the jagged edge of a broken bottle. I knew nothing about workshop protocol, so when my asked my opinion, I gave it, beginning with my admiration for his working in some sort of satirical, neo-noir vein. I think I used the word “cheesy.” Then I began to laugh. Every time I tried to address a line of dialog, or a description, the whole thing struck me as hilarious all over again. My mirth was beyond my control; I was almost in tears. My teacher looked alarmed. Apparently, there was no satirical, neo-noir aspect. I was horribly embarrassed, but when the writer of the piece—and this I recall clearly—looked as though he wanted to take the jagged edge of a broken bottle to me as he spoke through clenched teeth, his fury barely contained, I found myself laughing harder. It was terrible. I never went back to the class.
TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in workshop?
WO: On the first day of my MFA workshop, my professor (the founder of the program) said that no writer needs an MFA to be a writer. An MFA simply gives you time and focus and other readers. He said, in terms of writing, that two years in an MFA program is probably equivalent to five years without one. He wasn’t blowing smoke—he really meant it. I mention this because it comes up quite often in writing workshops, sometimes in a combination of desire and panic. Don’t panic. If you write, you’ll be a writer.
TH: Your strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?
WO: When I was teaching an upper division, undergrad fiction workshop at a California university, I had this big, kind of hulking guy in my class. Sometimes he came in in full motorcycle leathers. He wrote about his “25 friends who had all died,” not all at once, in some cataclysmic event, just, you know, here and there. I asked them to keep a journal of story ideas and he used his to write about how he would commit suicide (jumping off a building will shooting himself, which I wanted to point out was rather excessive, but then this was a guy who had characters “wading through pools of blood”—literally, more blood that is found in a single human being). His stories were poorly written and violent. He came to my office a lot because he thought I “got” him, and he thought all his classmates were phonies. He also talked endlessly about his dyslexia, as if dyslexia was the most debilitating thing that could happen to a person. The class was very patient with him, until, nine weeks into the class, someone said that her brother had dyslexia, whereupon he walked out in the hall and put his fist through a plate glass door. I don’t know why I wasn’t afraid of him, but I wasn’t. Probably because I was too overworked at the time and being scared just seemed like it would be one more thing for my to-do list.
TH: Is there a book of craft you find yourself going back to time and again?
WO: I like Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. She’s a bit of a curmudgeon, and I don’t agree with everything, but it’s one of my favorite craft books just the same. For example, she writes “It’s always wrong to say that you can’t do this or you can’t do that in fiction. You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten way with much.” She also says that one cannot “teach the spark.” (How many craft books are even willing to acknowledge that indefinable something in art?) And, “The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene.” I would also say the best craft books in the world are the books you love, the ones that got you wanting to write in the first place. Reading deep, I guess you would call it, is the best teacher.
Whitney Otto is the author of five novels: How To Make an American Quilt, which was a New York Times Best Seller (as well as other bestseller lists) and NY Times Notable Book; nominated for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award, and adapted into a feature film produced by Steven Spielberg. Now You See Her was nominated for an Oregon Book Award, and optioned for film. The Passion Dream Book was a Los Angeles Times bestseller, optioned for a film, and an Oregonian Book Club selection. A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity was a Multnomah County Library selection. Here latest novel, Eight Girls Taking Pictures, was published by Scribner in 2012.
Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New & Collected Essays is out this week. To celebrate, we’re running a few of his nonfiction pieces that didn’t quite fit the book but that we adore nonetheless. This essay first appeared in The New Yorker in 2007.
As a kid, I rarely went to the movies. My one memory of a summer movie is of a movie about somebody else’s summer, a nostalgic look back—way back!—to the “Summer of ’42.” I believe the movie is famous for a funny scene about buying condoms, but perhaps all summer movies feature some amusing scene with condoms. I wouldn’t know.
I grew up one of seven children in a family where making plans took up about as much time as executing those plans, and even the most meticulously arranged and carefully orchestrated day failed to satisfy everyone. One person’s idea of a good time always bored somebody else. The older kids were jaded about what the younger ones were just beginning to experience. A piano lesson would be scotched because a trip to the dentist couldn’t wait. Over time, invisible strings slowly tethered one child to the next, and those two hooked up with a third, and so on and so on, so that movement by one led to a lot of jerking of the others, and freedom, if not impossible, was always a tangled mess.
That we all managed to eat together every night and squeeze into a church pew on Sundays was exhausting enough. My general sense was that summer movies, like summer itself, belonged to other people. When friends talked of movies they’d seen—or hiking or fishing trips they’d taken—it sounded to me like bragging. My vacations were vacant, an emptiness filled with feral joys, but still I felt vaguely gypped and carried some resentment at missing out on a part of the year that seemed to have been invented just for kids.
Once in a while, though, I’d be invited along with one of my friends. Most of my official summer fun happened in the presence of other people’s kind parents, but even then I would worry, in a child’s intuitive way, about the aspect of charity these outings involved. I could never quite lose the helpless and bewildering sense that I was merely being tolerated. I’m sure that this sensitivity is fairly common in children, simply because they are so attuned to the dynamics of power, being without it themselves.
My father always made sure that I had money. At the back door, he drilled me on manners, concerned about propriety and appearance in the wary way of men of his generation, men whose parents were immigrants and had a roughness that no amount of time in the New World would ever smooth over. It was like living with a protocol officer, and I learned my lessons, perhaps too well, delivering on these occasions an imitation of a boy, a twelve-year-old martinet. I was hoping to come off as earnest and polite, of course, but I can see now that the effect was probably comic, like watching a monkey bake a cake.
The trip to see “Summer of ’42” involved, to my horror, a casual dinner with my friend’s parents beforehand. I had trouble chewing or swallowing in front of other people and was convinced that I’d choke or else blow milk through my nose. But my friend and his parents ate and talked in a light, relaxed way, with an inflection that was largely modulated by all the food in their mouths. The easy bantering flow of conversation baffled me. It moved too fast. Typically at our house, during dinner, you arranged a syntactically perfect yet cumbersome sentence in your mouth and then gently, slowly, set it in its proper place in the topic at hand. A trowelful of silence worked like mortar; you patted a scoop of it between every sentence to keep the course true. But with my friend’s parents the conversation moved so fluently I could hardly get my thoughts into it, and when I did they seemed outdated and had this orotund speechy quality that made a stupid thud, exactly as if I’d heaved a brick on the table.
On the drive to the theatre—the old Neptune, in Seattle—I sulled up, silent in the back seat, watching out the window as the familiar streets reeled by. The marquee was a brilliant slab of white in the dusk. My friend’s mother wore a batik skirt that flowed softly from her hips like light through a lampshade. She was lovely and sophisticated, and I was infatuated. Questions tumbled through my mind at a frightening pace. I had always used my manners to hide my real feelings, and I blurted out a desire to buy popcorn for everyone, but my friend’s father told me to put my money away. I had been holding a wad of crushed dollars in my fist as proof. By the time the red velvet curtains swept aside and the lights went down, I was glad to be in the dark.
Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of two collections of short stories, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the essay collection Orphans. He’s been the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Lannan Fellowship, among other honors. His work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, as well as in Tin House, The Paris Review,Zoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space. He teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His most recent book, Loitering: New & Collected Essays, is out today and available wherever fine books are sold.
An excerpt from Peter Turchi’s A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic.
For more information about the book and its author, be sure to click over to Fiction Writers Review for an interview between Peter and Robert Boswell.
My wife has a fantasy, a desire she often expresses, which I feel certain she would be delighted to have me share with you.
“Let’s just float in the pool and drink gin and tonics,” she’ll say. “Let’s bake like lizards.”
We live in Arizona, where we have a pool, and where gin is sold in every grocery store, and where it is no challenge at all to bake like a lizard.
From this you might understandably presume that my wife is an aspiring alcoholic, or an idle and frivolous person. But in fact the -holic my wife is closest to becoming is a worka-; and as I am writing this, at eleven o’clock at night, she is standing in her study, playing her viola. She’ll do this for an hour, maybe longer; she does it virtually every night. My wife is not a professional musician. While she’s played violin or viola since she was eight years old, and she has played in any number of quartets and chamber groups and orchestras, the vast majority of her playing is not for other people to hear. For a while, when we lived in Asheville, North Carolina, she was a regular on the wedding circuit, making pocket money playing, as she cheerfully put it, “the same damned tunes. Pachelbel’s Canon, Handel’s Water Music, and the Mendelssohn. Most of the time people wouldn’t know if it was us playing or a radio.” She stopped playing weddings not because we became independently wealthy, not because she didn’t enjoy the other musicians, not, she assures me, because she’s become cynical about marriage, and not because “playing” had become work—but because the work had become tedious.
In contrast, the other night she drove to a church where, with about sixty other musicians she had never met, she sight-read Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. They played it beginning to end, without a break, without an audience. She came home exhausted. “That was glorious,” she said. “It’s so complicated.”
“Complicated,” I said, trying to look sympathetic in a knowing way, when in fact I am a heathen. I can sing along with “Morning, Noon and Night” and “Chug-a-lug,” but I can tell you nothing about Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. I can’t even tell you with complete confidence that Mahler had previously written four other symphonies. I asked my wife, “But you had a good time?”
“Glorious,” she said again. Then, shaking her head: “It was terrifying.”
I would have given her a hard time about the apparent contradiction except for the fact that I am currently learning how to ride a bike. I exaggerate only a little; I never rode much as a child, I have virtually no sense of balance, and my feet are attached to my legs nearly perpendicular to the desired angle for feet, so situating myself on a potentially fast-moving, foot-powered object requiring some combination of balance and dexterity never seemed like a good idea. A month or so ago, though, my doctor suggested I take up swimming or biking.
My wife would not look kindly on my splashing and making a lot of commotion in the pool; it dilutes the gin. So for the past week I’ve been riding out to a desert park in 104 degree heat, then turning around and riding back. Most of the last mile is uphill, part of it fairly steep, and I have not yet been able to make it to the top without pausing. There are many other places I could bike, flat places; but I ride out to the park every day now, then turn around and try to climb that hill.
“Did you have fun?” my wife says from her blue pool float, glass in hand. “You look like you’re going to have a heart attack.”
“Nah, it’s great,” I tell her before going under. “Damn it.”
I don’t think my wife and I are unusual in this: most of us lie to ourselves. We say we want the good life, we say we want to live on Easy Street, but we suspect it’s true that heaven is a place where nothing ever happens, and it sounds pretty dull. So while we might lounge in the sun for a while or have a drink, before long we dry off and make trouble for ourselves.
Not everyone is like this, but most writers (and other artists) are. Most of us are, at least for periods, unsatisfied with our current degree of fluency. Sometimes—maybe often—we find writing frustrating, even aggravating. Absolutely no one is telling us to do it. The financial rewards are, for nearly all of us, modest. And yet we continue, trying to do a difficult thing well.
To argue for the pleasures of difficulty is not to promote the products of laziness, self-absorption, or hostility—that is, work that is intentionally vague, obscure, or encoded to prevent accessibility, work that doesn’t intend to communicate with readers but which instead exists as a fortress without doors. This is the sort of writing some of us produced as teenagers in a misguided display of (we thought) superiority that was, in fact, a fear of being understood, and so revealed to be not unlike other people. (Tom Wolfe argued against that kind of elitism years ago in The Painted Word.) I am not arguing here for fiction or poetry that only certain trained readers can hope to understand and admire. While we may say that we read to be entertained or enlightened, often we find that the books we return to, the books we find most valuable, are the books that disturb or elude us, defy us in some way, even as they appeal to us.
I first read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita as an undergraduate English major. Over the years I’ve reread it many times; I’ve read and reread The Annotated Lolita; and I’ve taught the novel to undergraduates and graduates. I’ve referred to the novel enough that one student, only partly kidding, said she wondered if I could teach an entire course without mentioning it. “You must love that book,” more than one person has said to me. But “love” is a word I would never use to describe my feelings toward it. “You really understand that book,” one or two people have said to me, but I strongly doubt my understanding of the novel—which is to say, I have an understanding of the novel, but that understanding has certainly changed over time, and is very much open to interrogation; I feel challenged every time I return to it. Poet C. Dale Young described a similar—though superficially opposite—experience reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The first time he read it, he said, the book seemed perfectly clear. Why did people make such a fuss? Moved to reread it, he found Conrad’s tale increasingly elusive, more complicated. Richer. However it happens, the appeal of the books we return to is often, at least in part, a fascination with what we can’t quite reach.
Within a sentence, diction can be used to clarify or to strategically obscure. The first sentence of Antonya Nelson’s short story “Strike Anywhere” is, “This was the next time after what was supposed to be the last time.”
There’s nothing about that language or its arrangement that is hard to comprehend; the difficulty comes from the fact that we have signifiers, but no specific content. What is “this”? we think. The next time for what? The last time for what? All we know for sure is that “this” is an occasion, and it’s significant because it wasn’t supposed to happen. The sentence appears to be telling us something, and we understand the logic of its grammatical construction, but we need to know more—a deliberate mystery pushes us forward.
Charles D’Ambrosio’s Loitering: New & Collected Essays is out this week. To celebrate, we’re running a few of his nonfiction pieces that didn’t quite fit the book but that we adore nonetheless. This essay first appeared in The New York Times in 2006.
I haven’t had much success with home, as a child or an adult. I’ve lived in strange places without feeling their strangeness. I suppose I never learned to want anything better.
For a while I lived in a place my friends called the shoe box, a tiny room in Seattle with a sink and a toilet and a hot plate for cooking. I didn’t have a telephone, so I used the pay phone in the parking lot next door.
This was O.K. for making calls, but receiving them was an athletic event. I lived all year with my window open, and my friends understood that when they called they had to let the phone ring long enough for me to run out the door, crawl through a hole in the laurel hedge, jump down the rockery, race across the lot and pick up the receiver. They also knew that half the time random weirdos would answer.
Before the shoe box I lived in a furniture warehouse in a derelict section of Chicago, a cavernous place with no shower or stove or refrigerator, none of the stuff that makes up the vital, innermost heart of a home. I slept on sofas that were wrapped in plastic, ate off tables marked for discount sales the next day.
I didn’t have to pay rent, but I was expected to set out glue traps after the store closed and check and dispose of them in the morning before we opened.
The worst part of the deal was when a rat stepped into a trap late at night. It wasn’t easy to locate a crying rat in the dark of that vast warehouse, but I always got up, making my rounds by flashlight. Otherwise it would drive me batty, listening all night, because a trapped rat, believe it or not, makes a horrible high-pitched cry like a very faraway, very tiny lost baby.
During these years, no matter where I lived, I spent a lot of time walking through good neighborhoods, wondering how people managed. I peeped in so many windows that I came to believe that inside was an end to suffering. I knew otherwise, of course, but such is the nature of longing that one will go right on believing the most ridiculous things just because one’s heart says to.
None of my strange living was done for the artsy romance of it, although, not surprisingly, the characters in my fiction share a similarly complex, troubled idea of home. Taking a quick census of the people who populate my recent stories, I count a kid in an orphanage, two men in mental hospitals, a father on the verge of shipping his schizophrenic son to a halfway house, a Salvadoran exile sleeping on a beach, a couple of dodgy drifters who manage to insinuate themselves into the idyllic life of an elderly farmer in Iowa and the scion of a wealthy family who finds his journey coming to an end on an Indian reservation in the remote northwest corner of Washington State. Hardly anyone in my fictional world has a real house, and even those who do discover soon enough that home too is a fiercely disputed territory.
As I was writing the last of these stories, my wife announced that we were going to buy a house, our first. My immediate reaction was to lose my mind and accuse her of being crazy. I said, Are you nuts? I said, Impossible! I said, What about the money!
In truth, I was worried about finishing my book and rather patronizingly promised her that we could look for a house just as soon as the last word was written. I wanted peace and quiet in the meantime. So naturally my wife immediately drew up a list of the documents I would need, and made an appointment with a mortgage broker.
Next my wife told me that we had to find and buy a house within two months, because her brother would be moving in with us. She also informed me that the house had to have a good-size garage so that their band, Eux Autres, would have a practice space. Ever since high school I’ve wanted a girlfriend who sang, and my wife does, in fact, sing, but I guess I imagined that this girl would be a mellow and sensitive songstress like Emmylou Harris, strumming a guitar quietly. My wife plays the drums.
As it turned out, my wife and I bought a house right on schedule—a house with pink vinyl siding in a neighborhood so lacking in distinction that I’m not sure it has a name. When people ask where in Portland I live—ask that way, when they’re trying to figure out who you are—I tell them I don’t know.
Now I drive up to the house some nights and think to myself, with relief: how square, how sensible, how very believable. The loss or fear or woundedness I’ve carried around for years fueled in me not a wish for grandeur or riches but a desire for the reasonable and the sensible, for things that I can trust because I know their limits. Things that are common, that aim for sameness and easily strike the wide mark of community. At this point I understand our pink house and its pleasures the same way I, as a writer, understand suffering, which is through the eyes of others: I can see that my wife loves the house, and so, through her, do I.
In setting up the garage, my wife bought rugs to cover the concrete floor, and she hung red paper swag lanterns from the rafters. We’ve got all that equipment, her sparkling blue drum kit, her brother’s guitars and his Silvertone amp, microphones, black cables snaking around and squares of eggshell foam over the windows that darken the place and dampen the sound, lest we disturb our neighbors.
The band is just my wife and her brother, so there’s a sibling intensity out in the garage. When they fight it’s awful, inarticulate, aggrieved, and when they’re in high spirits they’re in their own world, like children again, with their own language and a lifetime of history and lore to draw on.
I’m excluded, but I don’t mind. When they practice I often go outside, just to listen. Kids on bikes skid to a stop in the drive and tell me how much they like our band, as if the house itself had its own sound.
And now the house has two bands. My wife and three other women recently started an all-girl Bee Gees cover band, the Shee Bee Gees. Music is taking over: our house is crazy with chanteuses, more than I ever dreamed of. With the girls, the energy is hard to characterize. It’s unleashed, it’s high and loopy and loose; it’s like boys, with no boys around.
I try to stay out of the way, try not to listen too intently, as if I might break the spell by leaking creepy male vibes. Instead, I cook for them. I cook up spaghetti Bolognese and leave the kitchen door open a crack, listening. These girls can spend hours tweaking the four-part harmonies, writing new melodic lines, finding the music, just to make the most beautiful thing—this lovely, consonant sound in our house.
And so we’ve begun to live in our pink house—we’re inside—and even though it’s not a story I would naturally think to tell, it feels as if it all happened once upon a time.
Charles D’Ambrosio is the author of two collections of short stories, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, which was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the essay collection Orphans. He’s been the recipient of a Whiting Writer’s Award and a Lannan Fellowship, among other honors. His work has appeared frequently in The New Yorker, as well as in Tin House, The Paris Review, Zoetrope All-Story, and A Public Space. He teaches fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His most recent book, Loitering: New & Collected Essays, is out this week.
After the concert, when the band had left the stage, and the lawn was littered with paper plates and beer cans, the rains came. But we had no umbrellas. Charlie said, “I should have checked the forecast,” but planning has never been his strong suit. Down the hill, the crowd clogged the gate. Everyone was rushing, trying to get out of the park. “Fuck,” I said, because my sandals were filling with water and the ground was dissolving to mud. Galoshes, I thought, and wished I were wearing them. How quickly the evening’s mood had shifted, from the magic of twilight picnicking—watermelon cubes, baguettes torn by hand—to downpour-fueled panic. I squeezed my tote bag against my chest—trying to keep my phone from getting wet and trying to stay close to Charlie. Jabbing from strange elbows as we all pushed toward the exit. Kindness evaporated; the storm had made people tense. Lovers were quarreling—“I told you we should have left before the encore!” My shoes kept sliding and squishing in the muck. No one was prepared for that crack of thunder or that sky-shattering bolt; a storm so close, it seemed to surround us. “Owen!” I heard, alarming in pitch. Police sirens before I understood what had happened. Quickening pulses. Ravenous fear, we were all swallowed up. Sky looming black, screams coming loose. “The lightning—I saw it strike,” someone said. Under a tree, a boy, fallen still. “Vital signs,” someone said, but there weren’t any. “Where’s the ambulance?” we cried. “Xavier, stay away from that tree!” a mother wailed. “You’re not supposed to stand under trees during thunderstorms,” she said, but wasn’t it too soon for a teaching moment, when that other boy, a boy who looked about twelve or thirteen, a boy who still had acne on his chin, a boy who would never go to prom, or to college, was being carried away under a sheet? Zealous caution, I’ve learned, can’t always save us.
Elliott Holt‘s first novel, You Are One of Them, was published by the Penguin Press in 2013. Her short fiction has appeared in various publications, including The Pushcart Prize XXXV (2011 anthology).
All of us at Tin House were thrilled to hear the news that Ann Hood’s essay “Tomato Pie” was included in the 2014 Best Food Writing collection. First appearing in our Memory issue, the essay concludes with a wonderful recipe that most of our staff indulged in over the summer. This includes Tin House executive editor Michelle Wildgen, who introduces the essay below.
I share Ann Hood’s love for the work of Laurie Colwin, except that somehow I had never tried Colwin’s famous recipe for tomato pie–a decadent, semi-insane, thoroughly American concoction of biscuit crust, cheese, and tomato and basil, with just enough mayo to make it feel like the 1950s– whereas Ann has wisely made a lifestyle of it. But what makes her essay on tomato pie so much more than a reminiscence is its undercurrent of grief and loss, her humane understanding of how people are always surprised by these inevitable sorrows. And maybe we simply have to be, or else how could we enjoy anything? She does not do anything as facile as tell us to be comforted by food. It’s more that in this essay she sees the cycle of it all: the seasons, the people, the hopes sprouted and dwindled, and the rituals we return to, for changing reasons, again and again.
It is that time in summer when the basil starts taking over my yard and local tomatoes are finally ripe, red and misshapen and so juicy that after I cut into one I need to wipe down the counter. In other words, it’s the perfect confluence of ingredients for tomato pie. And not just any tomato pie, but Laurie Colwin’s tomato pie, a feast of tomatoes and cheese and basil baked into a double-biscuit crust.
I first discovered this recipe back in the nineties, in a long-ago Gourmet magazine. I ripped it out and took it with me for a week with my parents and assorted relatives in a rented house at Scarborough Beach in Narragansett, Rhode Island. There, in the hot, outdated, Formica-linoleum-avocado-green 1970s kitchen, I made loads of tomato pies, maybe even dozens. The recipe got splattered with tomato guts and mayonnaise—yes, mayonnaise is an ingredient, too, but only one-third of a cup—the words smearing in spots. But it didn’t matter, because by the end of the week I knew the recipe by heart: You place a layer of biscuit crust in a pie pan, cover it with sliced fresh tomatoes, sprinkle with chopped basil, and top with shredded cheddar cheese. You then pour a mixture of mayonnaise and lemon juice over the filling, cover it all with the second crust, and bake until it’s browned and bubbly. The smells of that pie on a hot summer day make you feel dizzy, so intoxicating are they.
No one in my family knew just how important that tomato pie was to me. Not just because it used the freshest ingredients at their prime deliciousness. Not just because eating tomato pie is something akin to reaching nirvana. Not even because it made me popular and look incredibly talented. No, this tomato pie was important to me because it wasn’t just anybody’s recipe.
Can there be people out there who do not know Laurie Colwin’s writing? Yes, she wrote a Gourmet magazine column in the nineties, but she also wrote eight books of fiction, both short stories and novels. Back in the late seventies and early eighties, when I was working as a TWA flight attendant and dreaming of becoming a writer, Colwin was one of my heroines. This was before she began doing food writing, when her stories would appear like little jewels in the New Yorker. When I would read lines like these from “Mr. Parker”: “He was very thin . . . but he was calm and cheery, in the way you expect plump people to be.” Or: “As a girl she’d had bright red hair that was now the color of old leaves.” I would smile at just how apt her descriptions were, and at how perfectly she captured real people. “‘I don’t work. I’m lazy. I don’t do anything very important . . . I just live day to day enjoying myself,’” a character tells us in Colwin’s 1978 novel, Happy All the Time.
To me then—and now—Colwin was a kind of Manhattan Jane Austen. Her novels and stories examine ordinary people and ordinary lives, the very kind of writing I wanted to do. Even though she tackles themes like marital love and familial love, themes that might be construed as sentimental, Colwin appreciates and plumbs the ambiguities of relationships with a sharp eye. In Happy All the Time, at a dinner party with her new husband, her character Misty thinks: “How wonderful everything tasted . . . Everything had a sheen on it. Was that what love did, or was it merely the wine? She decided that it was love.” But just when Colwin appears to be veering perhaps too near sentimentality, she throws a dead-on observation at us. Misty says to her husband: “‘You believe in happy endings. I don’t. You think everything is going to work out fine. I don’t. You think everything is ducky. I don’t.’” She then goes on to explain: “‘I come from a family that fled the Czar’s army, got their heads broken on picket lines, and has never slept peacefully anywhere.’” Colwin does this again and again in her fiction. In A Big Storm Knocked It Over, her posthumously published 1994 novel, the character Jane Louise observes of other women: “Their pinkness, their blondness, their carefully streaked hair, nail polish, eyelash curlers, mascara, the heap of things . . . that Jane Louise never used made her feel they were women in a way that she was not.” She is generous to her characters. And funny. And honest.
The first time I saw her was in the eighties, long before I baked a tomato pie. I was writing what I thought were interconnected short stories (they later become my first novel). Colwin and Deborah Eisenberg were reading at Three Lives bookstore, not far from my Bleecker Street apartment. In those days, the New Yorker ran two short stories a week, and sometimes the writers read together at Three Lives. I remember it as a January or February night, cold with an icy sleet falling as I made my way to the reading. I arrived late, or maybe just on time: they had not yet begun to read but a hush had already fallen over the packed store.
For a moment, I paused in the doorway and stared at the two women sitting together at the front of the crowd: Eisenberg, skinny and dark-haired, her legs folded up like origami; Colwin curly-haired and plump and grinning at the audience. She looked up and, I swear, in that moment, I thought she was grinning at me. I thought—and this sounds crazy, I know—but I thought she was beckoning me in, not just to the little bookstore, but into the world of words and writers. A woman, annoyed, in charge, began waving her arms at me to come and sit. And then the irritated woman pointed at the only place left to sit, which happened to be right at the feet of Laurie Colwin.
Although my family did not flee the Czar’s army or get our heads broken on picket lines, we were—like many in Colwin’s fiction—a waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop family. There was an aunt dead during a wisdom-teeth extraction. An uncle dead on a dance floor on Valentine’s night. But also like Colwin’s characters, who find “the experience of having a baby exactly like falling madly in love,” as Billy does in Another Marvelous Thing, we love fiercely. And those weeks in those rented beach houses in the early nineties could have, in many ways, stepped right out of Happy All the Time: “We’re all together. We’re a family and we’re friends. I think that’s the best thing in the world.”
We have always been a public beach kind of family—no pool clubs or private cabanas for us. Growing up, I spent most of my summers sweating in our backyard or watching game shows on TV, sitting in front of a fan and eating root-beer popsicles. My mother worked at a candy factory, stuffing plastic Christmas stockings with cheap toys and candy all summer. But she got Fridays off, and she and my aunt would load us kids into one of their station wagons and drive down to Scarborough Beach, where my cousin Gloria-Jean and I sat on a separate blanket and pretended not to know the rest of the family. We had plans, big plans. To leave Rhode Island and our blue-collar, immigrant Italian roots behind. Even at the beach, we toted Dickens or Austen, big fat books that helped the hot, humid summer pass.
I did escape. Continue reading
A series of brief but wide-ranging interviews with authors about ancestry.
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng’s intimate, prickly, and elegantly coiled first novel, is a psychologically layered mystery with a disappearance right out of Twin Peaks — if Twin Peaks were a small Ohio community in the 1970s and Laura Palmer and her siblings were the only mixed-race kids in town. Ng and I share an agent and editor, so I expected to enjoy the book. I didn’t expect it to be a story that reckoned so tenaciously and beautifully — from four distinct points of view! — with so many things I’ve been thinking about, myself.
The book opens by revealing the first of many secrets: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” Her family has called the police because Lydia is missing, but no one apart from the reader knows her fate this early-on. Unbeknownst to her parents, Lydia’s schoolmates and their neighbors by and large view the family as a kind of dubious experiment to be watched from afar. As her mom, dad, brother, and sister contemplate Lydia’s disappearance and her death, and all the ways it seems she misled them, they keep coming up against their own secrets that have prevented them all from fully knowing her and each other.
Maud Newton: In Everything I Never Told You, as in life, every character has secrets— worries or ambitions or misdeeds no one else knows, mostly because no one is paying the right kind of attention. Only the reader knows exactly why Lydia ended up drowning in the lake. Did you intend from the outset for this to be a book about secrets in families?
Celeste Ng: Yes—they fascinate me. We tend to think of family secrets as big, earth-shattering things: a child out of wedlock, finding out your father isn’t really your father, etc. How can you not be fascinated with those? A few years ago, I learned that my grandmother had a sister who was kidnapped by bandits. She was never heard from again, though there were rumors that she was alive and living with the bandits. But she was seldom mentioned in the family after she was taken. Those memories were just too painful, so those things stayed secret by default.
But there are small secrets too, things that aren’t intentionally kept private but just never end up being shared. When I was about ten, I took a trip to China with my parents, and we visited the house in rural Canton where my father was born and spent his childhood. It had been uninhabited for years, but as we walked through, my father told me little tidbits about his life there: how his father used to catch fish in the nearby river for the family to eat, how he and his brothers would jump down through the hatch in the kitchen ceiling to scare their mother.
Were these stories important, life-changing family secrets? No. But they helped shape my perception of my father, and where my family had come from—maybe even more than the “big” secrets. He hadn’t kept them from me on purpose; he’d just never had an occasion to remember them, let alone tell them to me. Often, things go unsaid and get lost because there’s no occasion to jog our memory or nudge us to reveal them. So I’m fascinated by the big secrets, yes, but I’m just as intrigued by what information gets transmitted—and what information gets lost—as stories get handed down over generations.
MN: Marilyn reacts against her mother’s home-ec, MRS-degree world by planning to be a doctor. When that doesn’t work out, she projects her own ambitions onto Lydia without seeing that, in her own fashion, she’s repeating history. Do you think all parents, however loving, however accepting and well-meaning, are likely to do this in some way?
CN: I do. Parenting is inherently rather arrogant: you believe your genes are worth passing on and (at least fleetingly) believe that you’re qualified to raise another human being. There’s often a godlike desire to create in your own image—you want your kids to be just like you in all the ways that you like, and to one-up you by avoiding all of your own shortcomings and mistakes. If we like who we are, we encourage our kids to emulate us or surpass us, from very early on. This is one of the reasons we have things like toy Dyson vacuums and toy chainsaws (note the copy: “Just like Dad’s!”). And it only goes on from there.
All this comes from a good place: the desire to help your children lead a better life. But that of course assumes you know what “better” means and how to get your children there—and that your experience can be mapped onto theirs, which often isn’t true. Parenting is this potent combination of projection and wish-fulfillment. I feel it myself every day, and try to resist it, but I’m not sure it’s always possible.
MN: James thinks Lydia, whom Alexander Chee describes in his admiring review as “a blue-eyed Amerasian Susan Dey, the most white-looking of her siblings in her mixed-race Chinese and white family,” fits right in. It’s only when he reads a newspaper article after her death that he “finally starts to see his family as the town does: a living exhibit on the question of whether an Asian man and a white woman should marry.” Was it easy or difficult for you to imagine the kinds of things people might have projected on this family in the 1970s in a small Midwestern American town?
CN: I grew up in a Chinese-American family in a small town in the early 1980s—not too very long after the events of the book—so I had a fairly good sense of what it might be like to be the only Asians in a mostly white area. I’ve said this elsewhere, but all the instances of racial tension except one were things that happened to me or to people I know. For example, an Asian friend told me how her (white) husband’s (white) mother was curious if they planned to have children, because—as she put it—“The children won’t be white.” Those kind of things happen way more often than many people realize.
I don’t want to pretend that this book speaks for everyone, by any means. But a lot of readers have written to me to tell me that this book spoke to or even captured some of their experience, and I’m so grateful for that. After his review came out, Alexander Chee and I were chatting on Twitter. When I said some readers found the racial tension hard to believe for the 1970s, he said, “Having lived through the 70s as a mixed Asian kid I’ll tell anyone, yes, it was like that.” That meant a lot to me as well.
On today’s Nooner, you get sneak peak listen as Mat Johnson reads from his forthcoming novel Loving Day.
Recorder live at our 2014 Summer Workshop, the reading centers on Warren Duffy who has returned to America for all the wrong reasons; his marriage to a beautiful Welsh woman has come apart; his comic shop in Cardiff has failed; and his Irish-American father has died, bequeathing to Warren his last possession, a roofless, half-renovated mansion in the heart of Philadelphia.
Mat Johnson was born and raised in Philadelphia, and has lived most of his life elsewhere. He is the author of several novels and graphic novels including Pym, Drop, Hunting in Harlem, and Incognegro. Johnson is a faculty member at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program and lives in Texas with his wife and children.
Welcome to the second installment of Broadside Thirty, our new feature for young poets. Each digital broadside will feature one poem under thirty lines by a poet under thirty years old. Today we feature a poem by Michael Prior.
The War Came As If a Dream
Our children volunteered our eyes, for they
had seen more through them than us. Iron-clad,
sulfur-borne, we lived a field of camphor
that embalmed our every step. It’s true:
we shot a man and stole his home to sleep.
Later, like wind-up birds, we sang our way
to ruin, passed cities gutted and aflame.
Lanterns shattered glassy nights on rooftops,
the papers good for naught but kindling.
Our dreams grew greater than we could explain,
while our prayers chose clarity over colour,
colour over light. I fear we will remember
everything in a single shade. Eternity
opened up but once. Our answer was a gun.
Michael Prior is currently a student in the University of Toronto’s MA in Creative Writing Program. His poems have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Collagist, Geist, Lemon Hound, and The Malahat Review. The winner of The Walrus’ 2014 Poetry Prize and Grain’s 2014 Short Grain Contest, his first chapbook will be published in 2014 by Frog Hollow Press and his first full-length collection will be published by Véhicule Press’ Signal Editions in 2016.
Submissions to Broadside Thirty (poets under thirty years old may submit up to three poems, each under thirty lines) or any other categories on The Open Bar may be sent to email@example.com with the category name in the subject line.
Joan’s sunglasses sold for the price of 8% of a corvette in support of the Kickstarter campaign to make a documentary of her life and work. So far the project has raised $168,709, exceeding its $80,000 goal with 23 days to go. Visit filmmaker Griffin Dunne‘s Kickstarter page to learn more!
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan‘s work has appeared on NPR’s Selected Shorts, and in TriQuarterly, Public Books, and No Tokens Journal. She owns only one pair of sunglasses, and they are snapped.