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Flash Fridays

It’s twenty degrees and my toddler Iona’s parka is so stiff she’s liable to fall, so I carry her up the steps onto the green metro bus. She squirms until I put her down, then stomps her boots and grins at her freedom while I pay the fare. She’s happy when she can get what she wants, frustrated when she can’t.

“Da-da,” she says, pointing at the metro employee, because she hasn’t yet learned words like bus driver. He’s not paying attention, so I don’t have to explain she doesn’t actually think he’s her father.

Today the only seats available are those ones in the front that face each other, made for folks who have difficulty getting around, which in a way includes us. We could just as easily have taken the sedan, but I want Iona to be around people other than just me. She needs so much affection, and I have so little to spare. Crowds fill that void and help me to lighten up, so the bus has become part of our daily routine.

We sit down and the airbrakes release. A few passengers smile. I imagine they picture a home life full of games and discoveries and tickling and laughter. They’d be right. Iona’s also a good sleeper, giving me time to think, something I used to covet.

She’s now eyeballing a young couple across from us dressed in the drab colors of winter—I say young but really they’re probably a year or two younger than me, if that. The two of them look tired but satisfied, like embers still smoking the morning after a bonfire. Then again, maybe they’re just poor sleepers. In the months before Iona was born, my wife rustled around all night. Books, television, Internet—anything to feed her obsession over not just the pregnancy, but the myriad dangers our daughter would face in the future. She was concerned for Iona while I got eight hours. These days, I’m the one up at three in the morning, trying to be interested in some magazine but really perseverating over whether three years form now the kids at school will treat Iona right. Sometimes I think the worry is my wife possessing me. In a way, it’s comforting.

Iona points at the woman across from us and asks, “Ma-ma?”

The couple laughs, embarrassed.

I say, “Don’t worry, she calls all women mama,” not realizing until after that I should have added that in a week she’ll know more words. But they’re already whispering and it doesn’t take much to guess all their guesses. I smile, tussle Iona’s hair, and pretend to be oblivious.


Ross McMeekin’s fiction appears in Shenandoah, PANK, Passages North, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere. He’s the recipient of a 2013-14 Made at Hugo House Fellowship and lives in Seattle.

Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

Comments: 1

Tin House Reels: Abigail Warren & Scout Cuomo

This week’s feature from Tin House Reels, A Field Guide to Salmon, is the sort of collaboration between visual and verbal artists that we get excited about—a playful interaction between words and pictures that changes the spirit of both.

Looking to collaborate with a painter, poet Abigail Warren found Scout Cuomo at an art show: “Scout and I went to Smith College 15 years apart, but we both live and work in Northampton, home to Smith College. Scout loves fish, and all things under water. She did a series of paintings of underwater scenes, which I saw at a show she did. We were both competitive swimmers growing up; when I saw her water paintings, I thought, she’s got it, she really understands it—i.e., being under water. I went up to her and said we have got to make a video about a poem I have about the life of salmon.”

Their collaboration followed through a series of charcoal drawings: “[Cuomo] focused the video into sections, following the three stanzas of the poem: sunlight, laying eggs, growing light, swimming downstream, the return, and the final stanza that draws in the human element. She sent me various versions over several months. I went to her studio and she demonstrated the process, a Zen-like progression in which a new picture needs to be created as soon as the last is done.”

“I gave feedback,” Warren said. “We pulled in a soundtrack person for the underwater sounds we both thought were needed. We played around as to when my voice should come into play in the video. We negotiated where each stanza in the video needed breathing space.”

The result is a mobile sequence full of feeling.

Abigail Warren has a BA in English and Philosophy and an M.Ed. from Smith college and teaches at Cambridge College. She is a recipient of the Rosemary Thomas Poetry award.

Scout Cuomo was born in 1984 in Dallas, Texas, has a BFA from Smith college, and paints in Northhampton.

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

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



Posted in Poetry, Videos

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The Perpetual Muse

The month before I turned nineteen, I traveled to Sydney, Australia for a semester-long study abroad trip that I was convinced would be the first of many adventures. Beside me on the flight sat a fellow sophomore named Robby, someone I didn’t know but recognized from campus, where he’d breeze by on a skateboard to class, chin-length blonde hair flying, or meander down the sidewalk, entwined with his girlfriend, a petite, pretty brunette named Natalie. He talked warmly about her, showed me a stone she’d given him to remember her by, and then the conversation turned to the books we were reading, sights we intended to explore in the months ahead. Beyond the surfer-boy appearance, he was pensive and polite, and thoughtful when he spoke. I liked him immediately.

I was a writer then, but wasn’t writing. For the last two years, I hadn’t been, although I didn’t find this unnerving—on the contrary, the recess felt right. At the time I didn’t understand why. Now I recognize that I had fully flung myself into the experiences of youth so that I might soak them up and draw upon them later. The impulse for conjuring fiction simply wasn’t there; I did, however, diligently keep a journal. Long gone, those carefully scrawled accounts, but no matter. I couldn’t have foreseen how a few months in that distant corner of the earth would etch not only upon my heart forever, but my imagination.

In Sydney, Robby and I became fast friends. We sat next to one another in every class, grabbed lunch and hung out in between. At day’s end we rode home to the suburbs where we lived with host families, an easy, joyful feeling welling inside me whenever we were together, whether talking or sharing music or in silence. I had fallen in love. But what could I do about it? Could it be possible he was feeling the same way, for as much as he talked about his girlfriend back in Florida? I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. We kept hanging out, ducked into pubs with our friends, the two of us doubled-over in laughter at some silly, private joke, brushing and bumping into each other, the sexual tension palpable. Our friends on the trip exchanged glances, and the two girls I roomed with teased me, urged me to wait it out.

Inside, though, I felt like I was being tortured. Weeks passed, and I waited for Robby to make a move. He didn’t though, and halfway into the semester, dejected and determined to have some kind of romantic fling during my Australian escapade, I hastily went after another young man, one who was nothing like Robby except that he, too, had a passion for surfing and traveling. But we didn’t care very much for each other, and fell into a casual exchange that was only about sex. Initially the fling proved a welcome distraction, but by semester’s end left me feeling empty and hurt, and worse, still pining for Robby. On outings he and I still gravitated towards one another, but there was a sense that we’d made some grievous error, the two of us too naïve and nervous to ever bring it up.

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Posted in Essays

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Who Needs Us?

A rather gloomy spring day here in Portland has us going back to an essential question, last asked by Dorianne Laux in Issue 42.


Who Needs Us?


The quiet, the bitter, the bereaved,

the going forth of us, the coming home,

the drag and pull of us, the tome and teem

and tensile greed of us, the opening

and closing of us, our eyes, in sleep,

our crematorium dreams?


The brush of us one against another,

the crumple on the couch of us,

the spring in our step, the sequestered dance

in front of the cracked mirrors of us,

our savage suffering, our wobbly ladders

of despair, the drenched seaweed green

of our tipped wineglass hearts, our wheels

and guitars, white spider bites blooming

on our many-colored skins, the din

of our nerves, our pearl onion toes

and orangey fingers, our effigies

and empty bellies, plazas

of ache and despair, our dusky faces

round as dinner plates, our bald pates,

our doubt, our clout, our bold mistakes?


Who needs the footprints of us,

the glimpse of us in a corridor of stars,

who sees the globes of our breath

before us in winter, the angels

we make in the stiff snow,

the hack and ice of us, the glide

and gleam and busted puzzle of us,

the myth and math of us,

the blue bruise and excuse of us,

who will know the magnified

magnificence of us, could there be

too many of us, the clutch and strum

and feral singing, the hush of us,

who will hear the whisker of silence

we will leave in our wake?

Dorianne Laux’s most recent collections are The Book of Men and Facts about the Moon, and she has co-authored a handbook on writing, The Poet’s Companion. Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry, and Smoke. Recent poems appear in The American Poetry Review, Cimarron Review, Cerise Press, Margie, The Seattle Review, Tin House and Orion Magazine. Laux teaches poetry in the MFA Program at North Carolina State University and is founding faculty at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program.

Posted in From The Vault, Poetry

Comments: 0

Wild Milk

On the first day of Live Oak Daycare, all the children are given shovels and a small bag of dirt. “We encourage the children—even the babies, especially the babies—to work hard, imaginatively.” Miss Birdy, my son’s teacher, winks. She sits my baby boy in the middle of the floor with his shovel and dirt. He is not even a year old. I look around. The babies are happy. I have never seen such happy babies. Chewing on their shovels. Spreading around their dirt. Miss Birdy gives me a hug. I wave goodbye to my boy, but he doesn’t see me. “Go, go,” says Miss Birdy. “He’s in good hands.” She shows me her hands. They remind me, for some reason, of my hands.

Three hours later, I come to pick up my boy. He is wearing a bright orange poncho that does not belong to him. He crawls towards me, like a searchlight.

“Your child,” says Miss Birdy, “is a phenomenon.” I blush. “Oh, thank you. We too think he is very special,” I say. I want to ask about the poncho, but Miss Birdy goes on. “I mean, your child is a mana mana,” says Miss Birdy. “What I mean to say is that your child is a real man.” Miss Birdy softly pinches her tongue and pulls out a long white hair. “Oh, that’s better,” she says. “I mean, a ma.” She makes little, tiny spits. “I mean, a no one. Your child,” says Miss Birdy, “is a real no one. No, no. That’s not it either.” Miss Birdy smoothes her stiff cotton skirt. It’s pink with tiny red cherries on it. “What I mean to say, most of all,” says Miss Birdy, “is that I love not being dead.” “Me too,” I say. “Oh, good! says Miss Birdy. Here’s his bottle. He drank all his milk and then cried and cried and cried for more.

In the hallway, I pass a mother covered in daughters. I count approximately five. I hold up my bundled son, like a form of identification. Like he will provide me safe passage across the border. “No daughters?” she asks. “No,” I say. “No daughters.” “How come?” she asks. She seems to be blaming me, unfairly. “By the time they arrived,” I explain, “the daughters had turned.” “Rotten?” she asks. “Not exactly rotten but gigantic.” I hand her my boy so I can spread my arms wide. To show her how big. I take my boy back. “Gigantic,” I repeat. “And mealy. I sent the whole bin back. The whole bin of daughters back. The brave thing would’ve been to keep them, I know, but they seemed so impossible to name.” The mother nods. She still seems to disapprove, but before I can be certain her daughters lift her up, hungrily, and carry her away.

The strange thing about being a mother is how often I’m interrupted. Like something is happening and then something else is happening. It is difficult to get a good grasp on things.

The next day Miss Birdy is peeling vegetables. The babies are watching, transfixed. I have come early to pick up my boy, but I don’t see my boy. Miss Birdy points to a child the color of chicken broth. “Yours?” she asks. “Definitely not mine,” I say. She points to another and another, as if I lost my ticket for the coat check. I don’t see my boy. It is becoming difficult to breathe and I am suddenly freezing cold. The floor opens up beneath me and just as I begin to fall through my boy crawls out from underneath a bassinet. In his fist is a tiny book. On the cover is a picture of a plain brown mouse. He holds it up. “MOUSE,” he says. This is his first real word. “MY MOUSE,” he says. I am amazed. I am relieved. His pronunciation is perfect. I want to pick him up. Reward him with kisses. Hold him and never let him go. But Miss Birdy stops me. “No, no,” she says. She softly wags a finger at my boy. “That’s not your mouse. That’s no one’s mouse.” Her voice slows. “That mouse.” Miss Birdy coughs. “That mouse,” she says, “is alone in this world, and barely…” Miss Birdy stops. “What was that?” she asks. “What was what?” I say. “That sound,” says Miss Birdy. “I don’t know,” I say. “What did it sound like?” “It was a sound that sounded like a sound,” says Miss Birdy. “Like a sound a sound would make. Never mind. Where was I?” “You were with the mouse.” “Oh, the mouse! Do you know him?” “No,” I say. “Unless you mean…” “Neither do I,” says Miss Birdy. “And this is my point. That mouse…” Miss Birdy is now looking at my boy. “That mouse is alone in this world and barely…” Miss Birdy sucks in one long, beautiful breath. “Exists,” says Miss Birdy, triumphantly. “That mouse is not unlike you.” She is still looking at my boy. “When I call out for that mouse in the dark does the mouse come? No, the mouse does not. Do you? So far not even once.” My baby puts his whole hand in Miss Birdy’s mouth, and leaves it there for what seems like days.

On Monday Miss Birdy’s bright pink blouse is fluttering with excitement. “Your boy wrote his name today all by himself!” She hands me a piece of construction paper. Someone, not my baby, has written on it  S H R E D S. I hand the paper back. “That is not his name.” “Oh,” says Miss Birdy. She looks at the paper and her face crumples. “I am sorry,” says Miss Birdy. “I don’t know how this happened.” “I don’t know how anything happens,” I say. We hold hands. “I’m so lonely,” says Miss Birdy. “I’m so lonely too,” I say. “I thought you were my hiding place,” says Miss Birdy. I picture her skull. “I thought you were mine,” I say. Miss Birdy ties a yellow scarf around her head. “Stop picturing my skull,” says Miss Birdy. She is clearly upset. Her lips are cracked, and begin to bleed a little. She looks at the construction paper, and traces each letter with her thumb. “If this isn’t his name, then whose name is it?” She sorts through the other babies. She pats me down as if searching for something. She touches me on the thigh. She feels like she’s about to snow.

The next day, there’s a message from Miss Birdy. “We cannot give your boy his bottle.  The milk you left was wild. Please bring better milk.”

I rush to Live Oak. I have no better milk. This is the only milk I have. I point to each breast. Miss Birdy is holding my baby. He is shivering and hungry. Miss Birdy is snowing. Hard. I try to walk towards her but there is a great wind and I can barely see through the big, white flakes. “THIS IS THE ONLY MILK I HAVE.” I am calling to Miss Birdy and my boy through the snowstorm. My arms are outstretched. “Come to mama,” I cry. I say my baby’s name. It sounds smaller and flatter than I ever imagined it. I can’t get to him. Miss Birdy is a blizzard that could last all winter. “I AM SORRY.” I am shouting. Miss Birdy has my baby and she is snowing. It is all my fault. I should never have left him. I AM SORRY I AM SORRY I AM SORRY.  I am punching at the snow. I am fighting against nature when I know I have no choice but to wait until spring. The mother covered in daughters kneels beside me. This time I count approximately fifteen. “Climb on,” she says. “I am so sorry,” I say. “It is the only milk I have.” “Of course it is,” she says. “Is there room?” I ask. “Around my neck,” she says. I climb around it, loosely. The mother covered in daughters is warm and I am so tired. “Go to sleep,” says the mother. “I will wake you up when it’s time to go.” But the mother never does wake me up. Which is how you know this story is true.


Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Her poems and stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in American Short Fiction, B O D Y, The Believer, The Collagist, Black Warrior Review, and in the anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales. She lives in Athens, Georgia with her husband, Reginald McKnight, and their two sons. 
Posted in Fiction

Comments: 2

What We’re Reading


Curtis Moore (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): I’m back to reading Dune. I was spurred to finally reading this after seeing that Jodorowsky’s Dune is playing in town and realizing I have heard so much about this book over the years, yet have no idea what is actually between its covers. What I’ve discovered, 100 pages in, is Herbert’s preternatural ability to keep me hooked despite an almost near lack of “action.” Oh, yes, people are training with knives and dodging drone assassins and traveling across the epic vastness of space, but mostly they’re talking and, more, thinking. There’s this sense of an authorial fascination with how the thinking mind interacts with the world around it, primarily through speech, through conversation. So the surprise for me as a reader is that what I came looking for—wild, imaginative landscapes and fantastical sci fi tech—pleasingly takes a backseat to an investigation into the dynamics of discourse and how fragile an endeavor speaking to another person can be.

Rebekah Bergman (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I am diving into Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, a novel published in the US as The War of Dreams in 1972. In it, a super-villain wages war against an unnamed Latin American city by distorting reality. Needless to say, it is a highly theoretical novel, steeped in post-modernism, post-colonialism, and feminism. Carter possesses a unique ability to stage complex theoretical questions without losing sight of her story, her imagery, or her language. Theory aside, I’ve been delighting in her turns of phrase, lines like (on page 5) “[A]nyone could see that I myself was a man like an unmade bed.” The landscape is surreal and so richly imaginative and realistically conveyed I feel like it is distorting my own reality as I make my way through this bizarre world.

Colin Houghton (Publicity Intern, Tin House Books): I heard about Per Petterson’s I Curse the River of Time a few years ago in a New Yorker article by James Wood. He mentions that the friend of his, who recommended Petterson’s novels, had typed out the entire I Curse the River of Time manuscript just to see what it felt like. This seemed to me an insane thing to do, but like most American readers, I haven’t read much translated work, especially anything contemporary, so it seemed fitting. Not to mention, I convinced myself that based on the amazing title, I would undoubtedly love the book. And I did… I sprinted through it, slowing down only briefly to make sure I was savoring the wonderfully crafted sentences that Petterson seems to do so well. Bottom line, read it.

Molly Dickinson (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I can’t say my repertoire of comic books/graphic novels is very extensive, but a copy of Julia Gfrörer’s Black Is the Color made it into my hands recently. Gfrörer manages an exquisite balance between heavy plot and slight instances of snarky humor. The limited dialogue allows the illustrations to speak for themselves: they are strikingly full of movement and depth. Though the characters use words sparingly they are accessible and relatable. This is a world full of bleakness, yet Gfrörer manages to illustrate a persisting (although perhaps deluded) faith in love and companionship. A must read for comic book appreciators and those new to the genre.

Miles Jochem (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): You know you’re in for a doozy when the most famous literary appraisal of a book ends with the warning, “There are the Alps, / fools! Sit down and wait for them to crumble.” These lines, written by Basil Bunting, are about Ezra Pound’s Cantos, one of the pillars of Modernism. Pound ranks among the most controversial of writers, not least due to his open sympathy for anti-Semitic fascists. In fact, the US government charged him with treason in 1945 and he spent years in captivity, first in an outdoor cage in Italy, then in an insane asylum in the States. But if we judged writers by their personal failings there wouldn’t be much left of the literary canon. The book itself is a behemoth – 120-odd sections comprising a modern epic in the tradition of Dante, but borrowing material from countless sources spanning global recorded history. You need help with this, unless you are a polyglot with an encyclopedic knowledge of economic, political, and literary history (not me). For example, the first canto is Pound’s translation of a 16th century Latin translation of part of Homer’s Odyssey, written in Pound’s take on ancient Anglo-Saxon poetic meter. Confused yet? I still am, but William Cookson’s excellent guide to the poem is helping me limp, slowly, through the dark forest of Modernist pretention. I’m still in the beginning cantos, but with any luck I will catch a glimpse of what the poet himself described as “the marrow of wisdom” contained within the words.

Posted in Desiderata

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The Seduction of Angelito

Flash Fridays

Mariela waited for the American boy in his bedroom. The bedroom had been Mariela’s once—hers and Hector’s—before Hector died. She could hear the boy playing cards down the hall in the miners’ room. She liked how sweet his face was, like a painting in the church; his skin was so white, it was almost blue.

The night before, he’d been studying Spanish verbs after dinner as she washed the dishes, and when he smiled shyly up at her, she imagined, for the first time in many years, what it’d be like for a man to touch her.

Mariela wasn’t sure the boy desired her, but she would make it up to him. In the mirror, the red lace slip protested the girth of her hips, and her breasts threatened to flop sideways. She adjusted the small triangles of the lingerie’s top to cover her nipples, but as she did this, the spandex retreated over her hips to expose her ass again. She examined her profile and gave the slip’s hem another tug. It was useless. She decided to wait for him on the bed where things might stay put.

When the American boy had passed the open door of the miners’ room, they’d called him in: Hey, American, do you play cards?

The miners staying in Mariela’s boarding house—Luis, Mateo, and Alejandro—were proud of their Johnny Walker bottle, and Luis, the oldest one with the crossed teeth, made a little show of pouring the boy a glass. The boy was twenty-two and had been in South America for several months then. The week before, a British girl told him that tourists could visit the silver mines in Bolivia, that tourists brought the miners gifts of alcohol and cigarettes. She’d seen pictures, she’d said. But because the miners were drunk, there were often accidents. She refused to go down there, she told him, for moral reasons.

Luis said they liked it at Mariela’s, even though she was so strict. She made them leave the kitchen after dinner each night, so they had to drink in the room. But, Luis knocked on the card table, she did surprise them with this little table.

Mateo stared at the boy as the cards were shuffled, which made the boy uneasy, and finally, Mateo said, You have this face. Mateo brought his hand up to his own face like a mask. Like a baby angel.

The miners laughed when the boy blushed.

Do you have girlfriends in America? Alejandro asked.

He said, she doesn’t love me anymore.

The boy was surprised he admitted this to the miners, but the men took his admission seriously, nodding.

Mateo asked, is that why you look so sad all the time?

That’s just the way I look.

By the time Mateo had emptied the bottle between their cups, the boy had lost several rounds of poker. But he didn’t care because they were just playing with centavos. They all felt very friendly with one another. Alejandro re-counted his winnings. Luis threw his cards down with a sense of finality.

The boy stretched his arms overhead. All right, he said.

All right? Luis asked.

Yeah, it means, like, entiendo.

All right, Luis said.

They all shook hands. There was a lot of feeling in those goodbyes, a firmness in the handshakes. The boy felt much drunker when he stood, and he had to trace the wall toward his room with his hand to keep upright.

There was no moonlight that night. The boy didn’t notice Mariela at first. In the dark, he searched the walls for the standing lamp. Mariela watched him from the bed as he fumbled along the wall. He knocked the lamp over, and she laughed.

He gasped. I’m sorry, he said. I’m lost. I’m so sorry.

She made a gesture that he took to mean, forget it, and she extended her arms up to him. He looked to the door and then to his backpack leaning in the corner. He sat down on the bed, his back to her knees, and she stroked his arm. He felt like he’d stepped off a spinning top. She pulled him down next to her and worked on his back. She pressed her thumbs under the wings of his shoulders. The boy’s leaden hands kneaded her thigh and up to her hip.

Okay, he said, and then he turned to face her.

Some time after the boy had left Bolivia, Mateo asked Mariela, what ever happened with the American boy?

Normally, she served them as if they were ghosts at the table. But instead she said, I taught that boy all he needs to know about making love.

Alejandro shot up from his chair. Let’s have a drink!

She didn’t usually let them drink at her table, but she consented, and as they drank, Mariela told them the old wives’ tales for restoring virility, some of Hector’s stories, just the funny ones, and even about the schoolboy with a slanted-eye who had loved her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d talked like that. It didn’t matter that she had lied, that after the boy had had a hand under her slip, his face changed, and she’d had to guide him to the bathroom, where he vomited. She held his head over the toilet, pulling his blond hair out of his face, which she’d done years before, for her husband.

When she’d put the boy to bed, he’d started to cry, and told her about a little girlfriend named Katy. He said he loved Katy too late. Mariela wanted to comfort him, but she still thought of Hector. We could have had fun, she thought. There were many things Hector was not, but he had been a light-hearted man. She couldn’t remember when she began to punish him for it. Even his expression, the mischief in his face as he’d offered the lingerie between a thumb and forefinger, had angered her. Hector juggling dishes. Hector casting cat food in the yard. Hector, eyes glazed, pulling her onto his lap outside. Hector who’d look down before he answered her, as if the answer was in the earth.


Joselyn Takacs grew up in Virginia Beach and holds a BA in creative writing, French, and film studies from Virginia Tech, and an MFA in fiction from Johns Hopkins University. Her fiction has appeared in Narrative Magazine a Story of the Week and Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art as their 50th Issue Fiction Winner. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and teaches creative writing at Johns Hopkins University.


Posted in Fiction, Flash Fridays

Comments: 0

Dirty Words

I am sick of listening to and reading the words of men like George F. Will, a pulitzer-prize winning journalist currently writing for The Washington Post. His most recent piece, published this past Friday, sets out to mock academic institutions that have found themselves embroiled in Title IX suits over allegations of misconduct related to the treatment of sexual assault on college campuses. If these institutions eventually find that federal oversight “diminishes their autonomy, resources, prestige and comity”, Will argues, it “serves them right. They have asked for this.”

I am sick of men like George F. Will, who can deploy this brand of rhetoric used by rape apologists — “she was asking for it” — without consequences. The misogyny and implied violence in that particular statement isn’t even the most offensive thing about this column. The most offensive thing about this column isn’t calling rape a form of “micro-aggression” or even the way he throws around the terms “victim”, “victimization” and “victimhood”, as if they mean the same thing.

Men like George F. Will use the word “victim” as a slur, and I take that personally. On July 5, 2000, a man I knew — a man I had once loved and trusted — held a taser to my throat and took over the use of my car; he drove me to a basement apartment he had rented for the sole purpose of raping and killing me. He said he would kill me if I didn’t have sex with him, if I didn’t make love to him and make him believe it was real. In the police reports regarding that case, I am identified as Lacy Johnson, VICTIM. There isn’t a day that passes when I don’t try to shirk that label. I hold my head up high. I work at my job. I shower my children with kisses. I shop and walk in the street.

What is most offensive, most sickening, about the recent column by George F. Will is how he positions himself as an authority on the experience of a woman he’s never met. He quotes at length an article from Philadelphia magazine about Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts institution enrolling less than 2,000 students, where there has been a recent upsurge in complaints of sexual misconduct. Of the many complaints and allegations the original article reports — by women who have been pinned to beds, or against walls, or to the ground, women who can’t recount these stories without tears — George F. Will singles out one woman, who was in her room one night in 2013 with a former sexual partner:

“They’d now decided — mutually, she thought — just to be friends. When he ended up falling asleep on her bed, she changed into pajamas and climbed in next to him. Soon, he was putting his arm around her and taking off her clothes. ‘I basically said, “No, I don’t want to have sex with you.” And then he said, “OK, that’s fine” and stopped. . . . And then he started again a few minutes later, taking off my panties, taking off his boxers. I just kind of laid there and didn’t do anything — I had already said no. I was just tired and wanted to go to bed. I let him finish. I pulled my panties back on and went to sleep.’”

Will’s comments about this account are brief: “Six weeks later, the woman reported that she had been raped. Now the Obama administration is riding to the rescue of “sexual assault” victims.”

It is clear that Will has chosen this woman’s story because he believes this is not, in fact, an account of rape, but of the “supposed campus epidemic of rape”, not of sexual assault but “sexual assault.” According to Will, the woman is not a victim, but “hypersensitive, even delusional,” a “survivor” not of trauma but of her own persistent victimhood.

Will apparently shares this view with the administrator to which the woman reported the assault in 2013, six weeks after it had occurred. Will’s column doesn’t quote this section of the article, but the woman goes on to recount how the administrator told her she must be mistaken because the student she accused was “such a good guy.” Why is it that men in positions of authority, like this college administrator, like George F. Will, would rather believe their own distant social impressions than the word of a woman asking for help?

In recent weeks there have been fervent — sometimes bitter, sometimes transcendent — discussions about sexual violence in the United States. I hope these discussions will continue, in both public and private ways. But what concerns me is that we haven’t yet found a way to address what’s at the root of this violence. Whatever it is, it’s not uncommon. Days after George F. Will expressed his everlasting apathy toward the experience of young women, W. Bradford Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson co-argued that young women would be raped less if they simply got married to men who could protect them from rapists. Originally titled “One way to end violence against women? Stop taking lovers and get married”, the article suffers from the same sickening indication of the misogynist beliefs far too many people hold: the body of a woman, especially a sexually active woman, can belong to anyone but herself.

I want to make one thing abundantly clear to men like George F. Will: any time a woman is forced or coerced into having sex, she doesn’t become a victim by reporting it. She doesn’t gain anything: no protection, no “special privileges,” no “coveted status.” In fact, she often puts herself at tremendous risk: maybe the man will seek some kind of violent retribution, maybe she’ll be shunned or ostracized, or asked degrading questions by a college administrator. Maybe a so-called journalist will gaslight her in the pages of The Washington Post, where he will judge her, will put her experience in scare quotes.

The fact is, it doesn’t matter if a woman has been “hooking up with that guy for three months” or even if she hooked up with him that same day. If a woman says no, and a man has sex with her anyway, it is rape. If she reports it, she’s not delusional, or hypersensitive. She’s brave.

Lacy M. Johnson  is the author of The Other Side and Trespasses: A Memoir, and she is co-artistic director of the location-based storytelling project [the invisible city]. She lives in Houston with her husband and children.



Posted in Essays, Tin House Books

Comments: 10

Two by Charles Wright

Today, the Library of Congress names Charles Wright as the new Poet Laureate of the United States. In honor of Charles’ well-deserved title, here are two of his poems from Issue 39, Appetites.



Unlike despair, happiness knows no final answer.

As one who has carried discontent

Like car keys,

why should I silence the music of their ping and jingle?


I turn to the Master of No Speech

And seek his counsel.

In the dye-glare of Zattere waters,

He opens his hands: five elements and the ten celestial stems.




The older I become, the more the landscape resembles me.

All morning a misty rain,

All afternoon the sun uncovered and covered by cloud snares.


At night, in the evergreens,

The moonlight slides off the wind-weary branches, and will not stick.

No movement, the dark forest.


Charles Wright is the author of over 20 collections of poetry, including A Short History of the Shadow, Scar Tissue, and Caribou. Today, he was named Poet Laureate of the United States of America.

Posted in From The Vault, Poetry

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Tin House Reels: Carolina Melis

Tin House Reels is excited to share the work of Carolina Melis this week. Melis’ short film Le fiamme di Nule combines live footage and animation to tell the story of three weavers, Anna, Rosa, and Maria, competing in a contest in the Sardinian village of Nule. When all is revealed, the women create three very different tapestries, the result of which is as surprising to the characters as it is to the audience.

Drawing from her past as a choreographer, Melis transforms the making of the textiles into a flamenco like dance, giving the women’s labor a hypnotic quality that draws out the grace of their movements. Animated sequences of black silhouettes, as well as stark photographs of the village broken by textile patterns, give the short a feeling of cinematic folklore, with a tinge of high fashion. Given this combination, it is not surprising that the rich grayscale cinematography and high contrast lighting calls to mind such Italian black and white classics as Il Posto, The Bicycle Thief, and the oeuvre of Federico Fellini.

The story was inspired by Melis’ visit to Nule, where she became fascinated with their traditional textile-making techniques. Melis often works on projects with fashion companies like Max Mara, Prada, and Chloe, so she pays special attention to fabrics, pattern and collage. After making the film, Melis started to be commissioned to design tapestries that were then made by artisans in Nule.

“I almost feel like I’m becoming part of my own film!” she said.

This film was made in conjunction with the Istituto Superiore Etnografico Della Sardegna.

Carolina Melis is a filmmaker, illustrator, and art director who has created projects and work for BBC, IKEA, MTV, Adidas, Microsoft, Volkswagen, Max Mara, Prada, Chloe, Vogue, and Sony PSP, to name only a few. She also produced music videos for Colleen, Metronomy, and Four Tet. Her work on the ongoing BBC3 re-brand Threeworld, has won her a Brand Identity award at Eurobest.

Alison Pezanoski-Browne is an editorial intern at Tin House. She is a writer and producer, focusing on music, documentary, and experimental media. She is currently pursuing her master’s in Critical Theory and Creative Research at Pacific Northwest College of Art.

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

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


Posted in Poetry, Videos

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The Last Memory

In my father’s truck was this: an extra pipe, orange bailing twine, a bottle of Gink (“World’s Best Dry Fly Dressing”), a black film canister full of fishing flies (bought for a buck each from his barber), Dr. Grabow pipe filters, an “Emeritus” parking permit for the university, a Stetson cowboy hat size 59-7 3/8, a bottle of mouthwash, and dust and bits of hay and a few ear tags for the cattle.

This was twelve years ago and it is exactly the last memory of him I have before the Alzheimer’s. The last moment I had with the Regular Him, the man I’d grown to know both as a child and as an adult. The last moment I can conjure up that is pure and unadulterated by disease, when his smile was a simple smile and his words were confident and secure.

A simple moment: I was sitting in his truck, snooping around while I zipped on my raincoat, watching him fish in the Yampa River in northern Colorado. I was, in fact, wanting to notice the details of his life, which is why I checked the hat size and laughed at the mouthwash, because it was an old family joke—my mother hated how he tried to cover up the smell of tobacco, because then he smelled like pipesmoke covered in mint, she said.

He’d come up to meet me—a father-daughter day—in Steamboat Springs. I’d escaped for the weekend to think and to relax—because my own life was chock-full: two toddlers, a writing career, dog and chickens and gardens. I had a life that looked like the inside of his truck, full of a mishmash of messy and wonderful details.

So maybe I should forgive myself. For not having more solid memories of him before the disease became apparent. Somewhere in the next year or two, there should have been more moments like this one. Why aren’t there? It’s hard to know or remember exactly when the shift occurred, when I started noticing strange slips of memory, but there was a bit of time in there where we must have had a great conversation or happy moment. And yet. I have no memory before the slip of his.

Since I can’t recall or conjure anything into being between this fishing trip and his diagnosis, I often close my eyes and focus on what I do have: I’d been staying in the old hunting cabin he built the same year I was born. He and his brothers did most of the work, and none of them were carpenters, and so it was crooked and a bit falling apart. It was my favorite place to go, though, because it was familiar and alive and because my toddler handprint was put into the cement pad at the corner. He’d come to visit me for the day and asked I wanted to go fishing. No, I told him, I didn’t want to go that year – I didn’t even have a license – but that I’d like to go and watch.

Which is what I did that day. My father looked so happy, so fluid. He’d cast upstream, let the fly sink a little as it drifted down, and at a particular moment known only to him, he would jerk and reel the fly back in. I left the truck and sat in the mottled pebbles on the beach, sifted the small rocks through my hands. My father was smoking his pipe, an old corncob thing, out of fashion but his favorite, and he always smoked Middleton’s Cherry Blend tobacco, a red and white package I have known from earliest memory. He was wearing a bright turquoise Western shirt and Wranglers and had traded out his cowboy boots to brown hip waders. His hair was all white, as were the unshaved whiskers poking from his tough skin, and he was smiling even with the pipe in his mouth. His line periodically wisped above me close enough that I ducked.

“Had one a while ago,” he said at one point. “Hook didn’t set.” Then he mumbled to himself: the low levels of water, this particular fishing hole wasn’t the same, the drought. He had a snag. He waded out into the water, following the line, came back, successful, cast again.

Suddenly, he had a fish on the line. He bent backwards and sideways to get the hook set, reeled it in, crouched to take it off. A puff of pipe smoke filled the air, and then the fish, a rainbow, flapping its tail furiously, was slipped back into the water. The details of its mottled side flashed before it disappeared. “Oh my,” my father said, looking over at me. “That was a pretty one.”

Laura Pritchett is the author of the novels Stars Go Blue (Counterpoint Press, June 2014), Sky Bridge (winner of the WILLA Fiction Award), and Hell’s Bottom, Colorado (winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and the PEN USA Award). She is also the author of Great Colorado Bear Stories (nonfiction) and editor of three anthologies: Pulse of the River, Home Land, and Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers. She teaches fiction, nonfiction, and environmental writing at various workshops around the country and is a member of the faculty at Pacific University’s low residency MFA program.


Posted in Essays

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Total Utter Madness: A Story of Soccer

As Thursday brings us the the 20th installment of the World Cup, we look back on writer Michael J. Agovino’s personal history with the sport that will come to dominate global discussions for the next month.

From Issue 43, Games We Play.

I. AUGUST 7, 1982:

FIFA/UNICEF World All-Star Game, Live at Giants Stadium

The day of my first soccer game began in the Bronx, where I was from. We didn’t have a car, my father didn’t drive, nor did he make any apologies for that, so we took a city bus, the QBX 1, to the number 6 subway at Pelham Bay Station. This didn’t take us to any game or stadium, but first to 125th Street, where we, the only white people, crossed the platform for the 4/5 express, to Grand Central, then to the shuttle, and finally to the Port Authority Bus Terminal.

The steps from the subway, menac­ing and dark in those years, to whatever was above—a plaza, a street, light, safety in numbers—usually brought an exhale and relief, but at the Port Authority, it was the opposite. It was an ascension into still more, and diverse, rings of despair—and the pent-up energy of wants and needs. It was at once the most alive of spaces and the most terrifying, besides, that is, the number 6 train that we had just taken, a portable mural of affirmation and rage, the elevated tracks buttressed by tenement carcasses.

Weeks before, this ad had appeared in the New York Times: “For the first time in history, the world’s greatest soccer play­ers—selected on the basis of their perfor­mance in the 1982 World Cup—will col­lide in an international All-Star match. Above all else, they’ll be fighting for one goal: to help the world’s children.” The game was sponsored by UNICEF; tickets were pricey at fifteen, eleven, and seven dollars. If you couldn’t make it, the ad said, be sure to make a donation to UNICEF on East Thirty-Eighth Street. It was billed as “Europe vs. The Rest of The World.”

My father, who knew little about soc­cer but encouraged my newfound interest in it, bought us tickets high in the upper deck. It would be hard to get to, he said, but there would be buses from the Port Authority. We’d been to Shea and Yankee stadiums together and Madison Square garden, but never to Giants Stadium and never on such a journey, across two rivers, to see a game.

The bus to Giants Stadium was crowded, unlawfully so I’m certain, not an inch of standing room to be wriggled. But the law likely didn’t care about us; we were “other.” If there were white people, and there were a few, none aside from us appeared to speak English. Mostly, though, there were non-white people, with every texture and curlicue of hair, every shade of skin, from caramel to onyx, but different, it was clear—through speech, gait, stance— from the black people I lived amongst in Co-op City or on the 6 train or at 125th.

It may have reeked of an admixture of perspiration and, with windows wide open, bus exhaust, but it may have been the most comfortable uncomfortable coach ever to depart from Forty-Second Street and Eighth Avenue, everyone giddy, full of smiles and harmonies. They couldn’t wait to see their countryman, or neighboring countryman or someone at least from their part of the world, in performance: Thomas N’Kono of Cameroon, Faisal Al­dakhil of Kuwait, Julio César Arzú and Roberto Figueroa of Honduras, Lakhdar Belloumi of Algeria, Jaime Duarte of Peru, Júnior and Socrates of Brazil, and Astolfo Romero of Colombia and Hugo Sánchez of Mexico, even if they weren’t even in the World Cup. Soccer was the game of Europe—Italy, young men with names and faces and noses like mine, had just won the World Cup, beating, to the delight of everyone it seemed, the West Germans— but this was the game of the Third World, of poor people. For that, I liked it more.

Outside the stadium, soccer balls ping­ponged up and down, to and fro, off feet, thighs, and foreheads all over the vast parking lot, which appeared interminable, concentric circles of sterility in middle-of-nowhere New Jersey brought to life by people from every latitude. If there were “real Americans”—whatever that means— they were the minority and arrived in cars.

It was intimidating, the sheer size of the crowd and the steep incline of the upper deck. Yankee and Shea hadn’t been like this. It usually had no more than ten or twenty thousand, maybe forty if the Yan­kees had a key rival in town. I’d never sat so high up in those stadiums. It felt as though it was so crowded, we’d all spill out of the upper tiers.

Just before kickoff, Danny Kaye, the entertainer and UNICEF ambassador, told us, on behalf of all the world’s children, to scream. he said to us, “Make the loudest noise ever heard!” And we did, the 76,891 of us, the second largest crowd in the history of U.S. soccer, and Giants Stadium shook. The game program, like everything from that night, was different in the best ways. It was sophisticated, worldly, informative, not merely photos of Mr. Met juxtaposed with Schaefer Beer ads. The first page had a letter from President Ronald Reagan. When my father saw his picture, he said, in his East Harlem Italian inflection, “disgrazia,” disgrace. It had a letter from João Havelange, as stately as any U.N. Secretary General, who was the president of the world governing body known as Fédération Internationale de Football Association in Zurich, Switzerland, FIFA for short. It had a profile of UNICEF, of its mission, and photos of handicapped kids, about my age, fourteenish, in Rwanda, at the Gatagara Mission Center, trying their best to kick the ball on a dusty patch. Another photo showed starving children in Somalia’s Sabaad Refugee Camp. Rwanda, Somalia, now I’d have to find them in the Britannica Atlas, my favorite book, just the way I’d had to find Cameroon, its capital Yaoundé, Kuwait, Honduras (and Tegucigalpa, but Daddy, how do you pronounce Tegucigalpa?), Vigo, Gijón, La Coruña, and Zaragoza in the previous weeks when I came across this game I knew little of that now obsessed me.

Someone named Brian Glanville, “a soccer correspondent for the London Sunday Times,” wrote about the different national styles of soccer. What a thought. I never heard of this in baseball. There was no Brazilian way of playing baseball or English way, we couldn’t blame the Scots for ruining baseball, as Glanville was blaming them now for screwing up soccer. Glanville wrote that the Czechoslovaks were known for their “Danubian deliberation and pattern weaving.” There was a byline from someone named Juvenal, just Juvenal, who wrote for the Argentinian magazine El Grafico, and Rob Hughes, another “correspondent” for the London Mail on Sunday. I loved how they used that word, “correspondent,” and how these pieces read like serious, global concerns. It made sense that there were soccer correspondents. Could I be a soccer correspondent? It had profiles and a photo of each player: Rossi, the hero; Keegan; Rummenigge; Platini; Camacho; Antognoni, like the director, almost, who scored the winner past the great N’Kono in the final minutes. They played for wonderful-sounding teams, not the London lions or Paris Panthers but Tottenham Hotspur, Juventus, Alianza Lima, Canon Yaoundé, Corinthians. Zico, who shared my birthday, played for a team called Flamengo. There was a World Cup quiz and primers of all the great players from days past. It was all there, in this Baedeker of the game, its past, present, future. Another headline read, and this was a delight: “U.S. Soccer: The Time Is Now.” There was a photo of an American player for the Portland Timbers of the NASl who represented U.S. soccer’s future. his name was Glenn Myernick.

I read the game articles the next day in the New York Times. One claimed that Belloumi, the Algerian who helped shock West Germany a few weeks earlier, left his honeymoon early to be there. Falcão, the lanky Brazilian, attended despite his father having just suffered a heart attack. I clipped these articles and attached them, with the ticket stubs, to the program. I’d keep them forever, even if it turned out to be worth something, no matter how much I might need the money.

We made the loudest sound ever—you should’ve heard us—just like Danny Kaye wanted. And then, over the PA system, they played John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

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Posted in Essays, From The Vault

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The Other Side

Flash Fidelity

Dad tells only one story about me, his middle child, a toddler, found pecking the buttons on the television console with a fat, sticky finger. He scolds me, tells me to stop. I ignore him, keep pushing the buttons, switching the channel each time. He raises his voice, and I ignore that, too. He smacks my outstretched hand. Hard, he says. But you don’t cry or wince or turn away. You set your jaw, raise your hand, keep pushing that button.

Mom reminds me how, when I was a teenager and arguing with her every day, she started putting this hex on me: When you grow up and have children I hope one of them is exactly like you.

I think now that maybe that hex came through: If I tell my daughter to stop jumping on the bed, she climbs onto the dresser. If I ask her to behave while I take an important call, she throws a tantrum before drawing a beard on her face with a red permanent marker. If I tell her to pick up her toys in the kitchen, she empties a box of cereal on the floor. I might put her in time out, or yell until I’m blue in the face. She does not cry or wince or turn away.

It makes me furious. I want her to behave, even just a little. But she fights me about which shoes to wear, which bowl to use for cereal. She fights me about which clothes she’ll wear and ruin. She fights me about the punishment she gets for fighting me. She can’t win these arguments, because no matter how big and loud and strong she gets, I can always get bigger, louder, stronger. I want her to be a little afraid of me. It’s the only way to break her, I think. This defiant, fearless child. And it’s all I want right now: to break her. Just a little.

***­ ­ ­

But then we are driving to the house where my daughter attends preschool; she is thrashing in her car seat, screaming at the top of her lungs. The body takes a breath, turns up the radio. My daughter spits milk in a wide stream on the upholstery of my first-ever brand-new car and pushes Goldfish crackers irretrievably into the horizontal crevice between the back passenger window and the door. The body takes a breath, adjusts the rearview mirror. But when my daughter starts kicking the back of my elbow with the pointy toe of her pink cowboy boot, I snap, and lean into the backseat of the car and smack her knee. Hard. Hard enough that she grows silent and stares out the window with giant tears rolling down her cheeks. I drag her and her tiny little backpack into the preschool house. The teacher greets us at the door.  Before my daughter has taken off her tiny little coat I’m driving away in the car.

I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t talk to myself or roll down the windows. I try to relax in the silence of my solitary body, but all I can think about is the force of my hand coming down on her knee. I hit her, hard. For nothing at all. For being nearly three. I hit her because she doesn’t know how to control herself, and I don’t know how to let go.

I know how to tighten the cold hard fist of my heart.

I don’t remember how to open it.

The small space of my car closes around me. The air grows hot and stale, and I can’t breathe it in. My back sweats; my heart races. And just as I’m about to let the panic wash over me, I start screaming. It’s not a scream that comes from my throat, or from my lungs, but a scream that comes from the shut place I carry inside me, a scream that could swell and swell without end. It’s made of equal parts terror and rage, multiplied and multiplied by the silence of all these years.

­ ­ ­***­ ­ ­

By the time I get to work, I’ve composed myself again. I’ve cleaned the streaked mascara off my face and reapplied my lipstick. I don’t tell my colleagues what has happened in the car: not about smacking my daughter’s leg, not about the screaming. I teach a class. I meet with students. I eat lunch at my desk.

At the end of the day, I drive back to the preschool house to pick up my daughter. When I knock on the door, I can see she’s just inside, waving to me, her mouth stretched open in a crooked, gap-toothed smile, her arms open and reaching toward me, her eyes open and shining with joy. The door opens and she throws herself into my arms. She holds nothing back.

With her head against my shoulder, the weight of her tiny body against my chest, I hold her tight and don’t let go. I want nothing to break her. Not even me. Not ever. Not even a little.

Lacy M. Johnson is the author of Trespasses: A Memoir.  She is currently Director of Academic Initiatives at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at University of Houston, where she teaches interdisciplinary art. She lives in Houston, TX.


Posted in Essays, Flash Fidelity, Tin House Books

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What We’re Reading

Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I just finished Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland, which follows one-time indie darling Anna Brundage on her hopeful comeback tour. The novel zigzags from the present tour to her past and back again, especially her artist father and the long but slowly weakening shadow he casts as artist and inspiration. The book’s most wonderful passages are all about music, how it feels to play it, to soar in it, to struggle for it and sometimes to fail at reproducing that elusive shimmer you first heard in the brain. It’s the details hat burrowed into me as I read: Anna and her band on stage, the languorous but bold sex scenes, the album titles D’Erasmo came up with for Anna that are so well chosen they show me Anna’s whole career.  I keep wanting to see the album covers for Whale and Bang Bang, and really they should have been made just to become the book’s cover. (Paperback editors, take note!) The novel even comes right out and says that Bang Bang was a disaster, but I refuse to believe it because I’m pretty sure I can hear this music in my head now. It is possible I have become over invested in this, but D’Erasmo is such a potent, intoxicating writer, who makes artistic creation feel so tactile and many-chambered, that seriously, how can you blame me?

Rob Spillman (Editor, Tin House Magazine): Coming out of the horror that is BookExpo, there were a trio of September novels that literary folks were excited about, galleys being snapped up quickly: Dylan Landis’ Rainey Royal, which will be out September from Soho Press (an excerpt staring the fierce Manhattan teen who has to navigate the surreal jazz-house her father runs, appeared in Tin House #56 and was just chosen for an O’Henry Prize; David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (coming from Random House, and it is next on my nightstand stack); and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Part David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, part Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, part Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it is a post-apocalyptic (by pandemic flu) literary puzzle, jumping time and characters effortlessly as it follows an itinerant Shakespearian and musical troupe as it wanders the blighted US landscape. I urge you to pre-order all three.

Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): Faithful readers of Tin House #FridayReads will remember my effusive gushing over mysterious French author Antoine Volodine’s short stories written under the name Manuela Draeger. On the recommendation of those stories’ faithful translator, Brian Evenson, I recently picked up another Volodine project, We Monks and Soldiers, a collection of linked stories written under the name Lutz Bassman (translated by Jordan Stump). Post-apocalyptic and strange like the Draeger stories, the Bassman collection is darker, drearier, and more experimental. For instance, the same story appears twice, told differently and with slightly altered details, and by the second telling, the world Bassman invents is more complete and the shards of hope seem smaller, but shine brighter in the very dark world Bassman evokes. The stories are populated (and usually narrated) by post-human beings (Angels? Bird people? I don’t know, they have wings.) trying, desperately or idly, to save humanity from its self-inflicted death, or at least comfort it in its dying moments. (Please, someone suggest something lighter for me to read!)

Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): I recently came across the work of Lynd Ward, specifically his graphic novel God’s Man, while researching art for a book cover. Ward published six wordless novels of woodcut illustrations between 1929 and 1937. His Expressionist prints have strong Art Deco elements, with an obvious German influence, as well. In 139 panels, Gods’ Man tells the story of a struggling artist who sells his soul for fame and fortune. This morality tale is predictably dark and Ward’s art is effective in communicating isolation, ambition, and violence.

Posted in Desiderata

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Big A, Little A

Flash Fridays

The boys had arrived at camp in West Glacier from different towns, but wearing the same stained sneakers, torn jeans, and black T-shirts scrawled with the names of punk bands as old as their fathers. Now they wore collared button-ups. Pressed khaki shorts and white knee socks. Hightop boots with thick laces. In this bizarro teenage summer, outdressing the park rangers had become a means of rebellion.

“Gimme your gum,” Little A said, holding out his hand. The cabin was quiet and the bunk springs groaned as Big A leaned over the railing to spit the wad of spearmint into Little A’s palm.

“Don’t worry,” said Little A, “I ain’t gonna put it in your hair.” Then he plucked a brown pine needle from the nightstand, where the Crass record sat propped beneath the window like a moonlit altar.

Little A pressed the base of the pine needle into the gum. The smell of spearmint made his mouth wet. Big A seemed to understand without a word what was in the works. His thick fingers parted the record sleeve and slid the vinyl loose. The boys sat beside one another on the lower bunk. Little A slid a pencil from his breast pocket and set its eraser on his thigh. He gripped the pencil firmly upright and waited for Big A to lower his gaze to it.

Outside, the lake glinted and its dark water churned patterns that the boys steered the motorboat over every morning. Little A spoke to the tourists through an intercom while they lathered sunscreen over their children. “Mountain pine beetles only care about mountain pine beetles,” he’d say when they pointed at the tips of the trees that had dried out and turned copper. The radio wire’s connection was iffy and Little A wrapped the cord tightly around his little wrist before speaking into the receiver. “That’s why the male pheromone pouches work,” he told them. “We hang them from the healthy trees. Just one sniff keeps the other males away.”

In the afternoons, the boys would navigate the forest armed with a staple gun, a topographical map, and backpacks filled with the white plastic pouches. They’d been a unit like this all summer. Out in the forest, Big A was nimble. He’d crouch before Little A, who climbed his back like a picket fence to reach sturdy branches. Little A noted beetle damage on the white pines and tucked the dead needles into his pockets like they might be clues to the mystery of nature’s selfishness. As they hiked, the boys grunted punk rock tunes, taking turns on rhythm guitar and vocals. But it was never as good as the real thing.

In the cabin that night, Little A whispered, “Ok,” and Big A lowered the record’s hole carefully over the sharpened point of the pencil. Then he slapped his wide palm gently along the record’s edge until it came to speed.

Little A clenched the wad of gum between his front teeth and slowly lowered his head. He’d thought of this moment often, of the sound of the record pulsing in his mouth, and the anticipation was a forest fire. Big A lowered his head too, peering at the needle from the side. Big A gripped Little A’s hair between the fingers of his free hand and directed his head gently into place. As the pine needle found the groove, the boys sat quiet. Intent. Listening for it. Little A closed his eyes and breathed through his mouth, which tasted like Big A’s mouth, like an entire summer in the forest.

Big A turned his head and pressed his ear to Little A’s cheek. The cartilage was warm from excitement and matched the curve of Little A’s face.

“Do you hear it?” Big A whispered.

Little A had listened to the record so many times, it shouldn’t have taken anything at all to trigger it in his head. But the pine needle was brittle and Little A’s mouth couldn’t project it right. Saliva pooled under his tongue and ran over his lower lip. The music came in whining scratches, the scuttling of pine beetles, a memorized national park tour over a shitty motorboat intercom. But Big A pressed harder against Little A’s cheek, his ear almost inside his mouth, and Little A could hear Big A’s pulse thumping hard against his gums. The perfect time of his heart buzzing his little teeth.

“You hear it?” Big A asked again.

“Yeah,” Little A whispered. “Fucking punk rock.”


Andrew Bales lives in Wichita, Kansas, where he works on the staffs of NANO Fiction and American Short Fiction. This fall he will join the creative writing PhD program at the University of Cincinnati.

Posted in Flash Fridays

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Tin House Reels: Kirsten Lepore

Story from North America, this week’s Tin House Reels feature, seems to come from another moment in time. Animated to look as though it was created in Gustaf Tenggren’s studio, the film fluctuates between a Kafkaesque nigthmare and the giddy hallucinations of a college acid trip.

In creating the look of the film, Kirsten Lepore and her collaborator Garrett Davis employed the time-consuming process of animating individual drawings rather than going with a digital approach. The short is a departure for Lepore in other ways as well. “Story from North America was pretty much the opposite of my normal animation/storytelling process—which was a pleasant change,” says Lepore. “Usually I board every scene meticulously and stick pretty closely to my original plan. Even my storytelling process usually begins with some material or technique I want to explore, which I then develop a story around.”

Lepore and Davis met while attending MICA, the Maryland Institute College of Art, where they collaborated to animate Davis’ “The Spider Song,” which became Story from North America. Davis’ song was recorded only once, and Lepore wanted to extend the rawness of the song to the animation style. This resulted in a looser process, which Lepore found to be liberating.

“We decided from the beginning that we weren’t going to storyboard the film at all. Instead, we’d have a quick meeting where we each took a different verse, vaguely discussed the direction we wanted to go in for that scene, and then just split up and did our thing separately. It was really exciting to come together to shoot our verses as we would finish—since we had no idea what either one’s would look like. To keep with the ‘raw’ spirit, we also agreed that we wouldn’t pencil test or redo any animation. It was all about just going straight ahead and embracing any weird idiosyncrasies that would arise in the animation.”

There is a unique humor and openheartedness to much of Lepore’s work. Combining that warmth with Davis’ bizarre, Grimm-influenced storytelling instincts proved to be the perfect combination for the cauldron, as Story from North America casts the sort of spell that stops time and allows you to forget that feet are meant to stay planted on the ground.

Kirsten Lepore is a director and animator based in LA, with an MFA from CalArts. Her films have taken top prizes at SXSW, Slamdance, the Stuttgart Animation festival, Florida Film Fest, Arizona Film Fest, the Vimeo Awards, the Annie Awards and many others. She’s given presentations everywhere from Pixar to Portugal and has also been featured in Juxtapoz, Shots Magazine, Animation Magazine, Focus Features, and named one of the 50 most creative people by Creativity Magazine.

Alison Pezanoski-Browne is an editorial intern at Tin House. She is a writer and producer, focusing on music, documentary, and experimental media. She is currently pursuing her master’s in Critical Theory and Creative Research at Pacific Northwest College of Art.

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

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

Posted in Videos

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Summer Reading: Manuel Gonzales

Manuel Gonzales’ story “When We Realize We Are Broke,” is now available to read online. Our managing editor Cheston Knapp coined a new phrase to describe it: berzankrupt. We asked Manuel a few questions about writing the story, writing in general, and reading.

Tin House: What was the biggest obstacle in writing this story?

Manuel Gonzales: The biggest obstacle for this story was coming up with the right tone for the ending. I wrote the story, the first draft, in about a day, and then spent the next four or five months rewriting the very last page. My first stab at the ending was clearly a cop out — on my part as a writer but also on the narrator’s part, as a character. It was all too easy the way I originally ended it, and then I ran through a number of versions in which everything was outsized and over the top, and only at the last minute realized that something normal, something quiet might be the most crushing thing for this guy telling this story.

TH: When you read this story in the future, what do you think you’ll associate with the period of writing it?

MG: Looking back at this, I think I’ll associate this story with two main things: this sense of having just barely escaped being on the cusp of what this narrator goes through, and a sudden urge to play around with a story that hews more closely to realism. There aren’t any unicorns or faeries or zombies or robots in this story, just a guy in a relentless downward spiral, losing all control of life and his own ability to reckon with it honestly.

TH: Do you have any writing rituals?

MG: Lately, a very frustrating writing ritual — or pattern, anyway — is that I will try to work for two or three hours, very early in the morning, I will get absolutely nowhere, and then two hours later, when I am unable to do anything about it, some clarifying idea will arrive fully formed in my head. And so it will seem as if I’m working out of synch.

TH: What was the last sentence you underlined in a book?

MG: So, I don’t underline in my books, or I haven’t in maybe fifteen years. I’ve just finished packing away all my books, and so I can’t get to any specific sentence, but the last book I underlined in was IN THE HEART OF THE HEART OF THE COUNTRY, by William Gass, in the introduction.

TH: What is the next story I should read?

MG: If you picked up this issue of Tin House, you’ve got at least three of the next stories you should read, starting with Jamie Quatro’s  story, then moving to Jess Row, and then Adam Johnson, which are the three I read in quick succession as soon as I received my copy.

Manuel Gonzales is the author of The Miniature Wife and Other Stories and the forthcoming novel The Regional Office is Under Attack!

Posted in Interviews

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Hungry For Home

Germans have the same complaint about American baked goods and Hollywood happy endings: too sweet. Since moving to Berlin six years ago, I have received ample criticism for my cobbler, a simple recipe I received from my late grandmother in Mississippi: one stick of butter, one cup of sugar, one cup of flour, one cup of fruit, little bit of salt, little bit of baking soda. This recipe was my go-to crowd pleaser in the States, and I don’t have a huge repertoire standing behind it (my second option is a bowl of strawberries served with chocolate squares. Third and final option: ice cream and toppings).

As much as I wish my adopted countrymen would beg me to bake them cobbler, I understand where they’re coming from. I dislike many of the pies I sample here, which taste like everyone’s still on GDR rations. I put sugar on top of my (unsweetened) whipped cream in restaurants, which draws looks of disgust. Moreover, I can easily summon my most wrenching cake experience, which occurred not in Germany but in Shanghai, China, on my twelfth birthday, in 1993.

We had arrived in Shanghai just a few hours earlier. We weren’t on a family romp through China, to take a few pictures of the Great Wall and head back to Atlanta: we were moving there, as per instructions from my father’s company. Over the next two years, Dad would be setting up a joint venture with a Chinese firm, while my sister Blair and I attended the American school, where my mother would also teach. On paper, it sounded fine, even thrilling. But through the smeared taxi window, on the nighttime drive from the airport to our hotel, things looked grim. Streetlights were few and far between, and their dim yellow halos briefly illuminated concrete housing blocks and dirty tile buildings. Bikers wove in and out of our lane, momentarily lit by our taxi’s headlights like deep-sea creatures swimming past a diver’s lamp.

By the time we reached the hotel, we were tired and hungry. We schlepped over to the Shanghai Jax, a hotel restaurant that promised “Western cuisine,” including hamburgers and Caesar salad. After the waiter took our orders, Blair held her water glass up suspiciously. “What’s this white stuff floating in here?” she asked. “It’s fine,” Dad said. My mom hailed the waiter. He brought Blair another glass of water, with just as much white stuff, and Blair, to my surprise, was allowed Sprite – a windfall for her, since we were usually just permitted milk or juice.

After dinner, Mom and Dad exchanged secretive glances as three waiters suddenly surrounded our table and burst into a heavily accented rendition of “Happy Birthday.” A fourth produced a glistening slice of chocolate cake, topped with slick white icing and a single candle was placed before me. “Not bad,” Blair said. I batted her hovering fork away, blew out the candle and took my first bite.

It was a big bite, which was a mistake. The cherries tasted gluey and rancid, and instead of safe, comforting chocolate, my mouth was filled with a sharp, unfamiliar flavor: amaretto, which the chef had included in stunning proportions. I wanted to protest, to send it back; or even better, to send myself back to Atlanta, where they knew how to make decent birthday cake. I could feel Mom and Dad’s expectant gaze. Blair, meanwhile, dug in. To buy time, I took a sip of the water, which looked like it had tiny shreds of paper towel floating in it. I was counting on Blair to complain about the cake, so I wouldn’t have to be the ungrateful one.

Unfortunately, she licked her fork clean, and reached over for more. I felt alone in my disproportionate disappointment, betrayed by the cake and by her cheerful tucking in. But I didn’t want to blow my twelfth birthday by acting like a four-year-old, so I smiled and took a small bite of icing. That night, in our hotel beds, we each fell into a deep jet-lagged coma, four strange white particles drifting to sleep in a city of fourteen million Shanghainese residents. The next morning, we woke up foreign.

My six years in Berlin are the longest I’ve lived anywhere. And while I understand most of the German being spoken around me, I still remain leery of many German dishes. Early autumn, when cabbage is everywhere, is especially rough. In the farmer’s market, as Berliners beam at the dark purple heads like they’ve won the lottery, I sigh and reach for the last sad-looking tomatoes of the season.

One German culinary tradition I can truly get behind, however, is “Abendbrot,” or “evening bread,” which basically involves taking everything out of the refrigerator, arranging it on platters in an appealing manner, and calling it dinner. Unwittingly, I was an “Abendbrot” aficionado for years before I even set foot in Germany (often to the disappointment of my dinner party guests), just as I was routinely making “Apfelschorle” (apple juice and seltzer water) without knowing there was a country where this most delicious of beverages was readily available, even at gas stations, with the ingredients mixed in just the right proportions (slightly more apple juice than seltzer water).

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Posted in Carte du Jour, Essays

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Issue #60: Summer Reading

The writer’s job is not simply to make the reader look at the world differently, but experience it in a new way. E.L. Doctorow says, “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader—not the fact that it is raining but the feeling of being rained on.” In their stories, Jamie Quatro, Ken Calhoun, and Joan Silber take you inside three wonderfully strange families, bathing us in details that make us feel as if we are with them. That rain isn’t always a gentle summer shower. Sometimes it’s a storm. This is what Adam Johnson does in his artful and disturbing short story, “Dark Meadow.” In the simplest terms, the story is about child pornography. Yet Johnson, who won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son, moves beyond the sensationalism of the conceit and into the deeper realm of empathy and pathos, which is the stuff of true art. I am proud that we are publishing it.

Karl Ove Knausgaard has been called Norway’s Proust for his painfully and precisely observed autobiographical six-volume novel (or memoir), My Struggle. On the occasion of the third volume being translated into English, Scott Esposito talks to Knausgaard about his attempts to come to grips with “the place of death in our world, the complex legacy left by one’s parents, alcohol and addiction, the struggle to be moral, and the place of masculinity in the modern world.”

On the other end of the length and breadth spectrum, poets are the masters of the distilled moment, stopping time to focus all of one’s being on a single phrase or word, life and death captured for an instant, forever changing the reader. Here Nick Flynn stops on the unknowable, Monica McClure the baffling treasures, Meg Freitag the ages of dwelling.

Wherever you are reading this—on the beach, in a field of flowers, on the subway, sneaking it at the office—we hope that you have moments where time stops and art takes over.

On Sale Now.

Posted in General

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May Gems


Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): My best cultural encounter this month? I’m so glad you asked! You have to, have to, have to go see We Are the Best! (Vi är bäst!), which is positively the greatest film I’ve seen so far this year. Set in 1980s Stolkholm, We Are the Best stars pre-teen punk Bobo, a totally charming social outsider whose round glasses and apple cheeks give her a decidedly Moomintroll look, and her fast-talking, instigator friend Klara. After a group of older boys at their youth center (youth centers! bless you, Scandinavia!) make fun of Bobo and Klara, the girls take their revenge by co-opting the boys’ band’s practice space, which requires starting a band of their own. Totally unphased by their lack of musical qualifications, Bobo and Klara cross enemy lines to recruit their devoutly Christian classmate Hedvig to teach them guitar. This spurs debates about the ethics of punk, DIY haircuts, and a great scene in which Hedvig outplays the youth center organizers who try to mansplain the guitar to her. (Added bonus: apparently the youth center guys are played by two real Swedish punk musicians from the 80s.) Best of all, unlike just about every other film where outsiders triumph by winning the approval of their peers, Bobo and Klara and Hedvig are all nothing but themselves from the movie’s beginning to the end, peers be damned. Sweden. Pre-teen ansgst. A song called “Hate the Sport!.” What more could you ask for?

Heather Hartley (Paris Editor, Tin House Magazine): Duke Ellington called Canadian jazz pianist Oscar Peterson “the Maharaja of the keyboard” and in his more than sixty-year long career, the Maharaja played in duets, trios and quartets with everyone from Count Basie to Dizzy Gillespie. At six feet three inches tall, with eight Grammy Awards and a style that is a little bit swing music, a little bit blues and lots of groove, when he sat down at the piano, people listened. Lately, it’s been hard to choose between his “Boogie Blues Etude” and “Waltz for Debbie.” (And then there’s his fantastic “Chicago Blues.”)  And as June comes on with warmer nights, longer evenings and weekend picnics, you might want to pour a little glass of something chilled and sweet and add the Maharaja’s “Summer Samba” to your list of favorite tunes.

Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): Fun month! My favorite comic book, Saga, came back from a seasonal hiatus. I finally saw the new X-Men and Godzilla movies. I binged on the first season of Arrow and wished, for just one awesome moment, that Enrique Iglesias had played Oberyn Martell on Game of Thrones. Yet the most fun I had this month was catching the last half of Orson Welles’ F for Fake last night on TV. I hadn’t seen it in years, but I immediately fell back into the fun of watching fat old Orson’s bleary bloviating at a hippie picnic or a thousand-course dinner; Clifford Irving‘s insanely cagey one-man dance around the Hughes hoax; and Elmyr de Hory’s charming, nonsensical defense/denial of his habit of art forgery: “I don’t feel bad for Modigliani . . . I feel good for me.” It’s funny to watch these self-obsessed fraudsters congratulate themselves on deceiving one another, but the real thrill is just in trying to figure out what the hell Orson Welles is doing with this movie. Is it a film essay about deception, or maybe just a portrait of that peculiar glint in the eye of a master trickster? It’s the last rite for Orson Welles’ induction to the canon of great tricksters: Loki, Hermes, Eshu, Coyote, Orson Welles.

Lance Cleland (Workshop Director): The Northwest Film Center is currently showcasing the wonderful films of French auteur Leos Carax, whose five features represent some of the most memorable and daring filmmaking of the last thirty years. Boy Meets Girl, his debut (and a film I had previously not seen), could have easily been titled Boy Meets Godard, so strong are the marks of its influences. Like so many of those New Wave films, you can’t help but get caught up in the monumental love for cinema that Carax displays. I mean, how do you watch a scene like this and not wish you could step into the frame and walk the same streets as Denis Lavant?

Posted in Desiderata

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Flash Fridays

On the terrace of the Presidential Palace you lay glued to the scope for less than an hour before you have to take the shot. Tourist or terrorist: It was always going to be your call. You are applauded for taking the shot and saving the nation, although you are not allowed to rise off your elbows, the knobs of which have begun to ache. A hand—the same hand that occasionally guides a straw into your mouth—reaches around to pin a medal on your lapel. You keep watch for another twenty-five years, your elbows flattening into steady stands, when the same terrorist, or maybe the terrorist’s son, arrives with a bouquet of flowers and drops it on the site of the original killing.

You take the shot again and watch the paramedics carry off the body before the media can get there. They give your sniper scope another thumbs-up sign; you have done well, as a prompt second medal proves.

You begin to realize that you are profiling the visitors to the Presidential Palace on the crudest criteria: skin tone, nose size, turban or no turban, beard or no beard, a certain innate glower to the eyes. Every twenty-five years, you take another shot at a nearly identical looking man, never quite wiping out his recalcitrant line. It is as though his terrorist descendants are drawn to memorialize one ancient wrong on the birth of a male child every quarter of a century. You have over a dozen medals on your lapel; thanks to you, the nation is sure to last a long time. Still, you wonder whether you identified that first terrorist correctly; whether that first killshot prompted the descendants to become terrorists and necessitated all the subsequent killshots.

At last, forty medals later, the nation safe for a thousand years, the rifle is extricated from your grasp and you are peeled off your perch. The Secret Service wheels you upright into the Presidential Palace, where you join the rows of other snipers who have protected the President for millennia. A great triumphal chorus blasts from speakers in the four corners of the hall. Your arms, like those of your many predecessors, are frozen in position: one hand curled close, trigger finger pointed almost at your heart; the other flared above your head, cradling the absent barrel, index finger pointed almost at the ceiling. Your jaw is massaged until it lowers. Now you, too, look like a tenor, singing from the heart. You, too, are part of the choir.

Amit Majmudar is a poet and novelist. His latest book of poetry, Reincarnal, won the 2011 Donald Justice Award and he has recently had poems published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Review of Books. In addition, two of Amit’s poems were chosen to appear in the 11th edition of the Norton Introduction to Literature (“Dothead”) and the Best American Poetry 2012 (“The Autobiography of Khwaja Mustasim”). As a novelist, Amit is the author of two critically acclaimed books: Partitions and Abundance (both with Metropolitan).

Copyright © 2014 by Amit Majmudar

Posted in Flash Fridays

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Tin House Reels: Zbigniew Czapla

Zbigniew Czapla created this week’s Tin House Reels feature, This World–a short based on the poem of the same title by Czeslaw Milosz–at the invitation of the Fundacja Pogranicze, as part of a multimedia exhibition at the Museum of Czeslaw Milosz in Krasnogruda. Czapla calls his project “a catastrophic vision and poetic perspective on human life as a set of secrets, accidents, and misunderstandings.”

After graduating with a master’s degree in Graphic Arts from the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, Poland, Czapla decided that animation, which had been an early fascination for him, entailed too many cumbersome stages for creation. As such, he switched his focus, working for the next ten years in painting and commercial design.

But in 2010, he tried his hand at animation again as “a test of my ability and to try to redefine my artistic language.” He created Ritual, a film that establishes a vocabulary built through inky paintings. “Ritual” quickly received attention and has since been shown in over 100 film festivals worldwide. For Czapla, “it was a signal that I should concentrate on animation.”

“Poetry is a difficult subject for animation,” Czapla said. “It should at all costs avoid banality, infantile associations, and overwrought pathos. The text and sound work together around themes, as in jazz improvisation. Topics connect, overlap, and move away from each other in a game of associations.”

“Animated experimental film is a way for me to combine my various fascinations. Painting, music, theater and literature are like pieces of a puzzle, which I try to organize in a new way. If the end result for me is mysterious and unknown, that it is worth doing. The expected effects do not interest me. A lot of the work ends up being unsuccessful, but that always comes with artistic risk.”

Zbigniew Czapla is a screenwriter, director, animator, painter and graphic artist. He graduated from the Graphic Arts Department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow and has won prizes at several festivals including KLIK!, Semafor, Tindirindis, and Message to Man. He has received scholarships from the Elizabeth Greenshields Foundation, DAAD, and the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.

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

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

Posted in Poetry, Videos

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The Art of the Sentence: Alistair MacLeod

“The tide was going out when they vanished, leaving nothing but a lantern—perhaps tossed on to the ice by a sinking hand and miraculously landing upright and continuing to glow, or perhaps, set down after its arc, wildly but carefully by a hand, which sought to reach another.” —Alistair MacLeod, No Great Mischief

Alistair MacLeod, who died in April, wrote just one novel, 1999’s No Great Mischief.  Like his short stories, collected in the US under the title Island, the novel is distinguished by his elegant, humane prose. We’re accustomed to talking about literary pyrotechnics in terms of complicated syntax or elevated diction, but MacLeod’s work is often dazzling in its simplicity, each perfectly composed sentence buttressing the next, landing in rhythm as musical as the Gaelic songs his characters sing.

This sentence describes the deaths of three people who drown one evening while walking across inadequate ice to their lighthouse home. The lanterns they carry on their journey are visible from shore, so that the accident is witnessed by their family and, indeed, an entire community that knows them.  Two lanterns go dark, and a third remains lit, a ghostly, mysterious beacon.  The community waits with held breath as rescue parties set forth, not knowing what they’ll find. In this sentence, the rolling, swaybacked sequence of clauses bridged by alternately dark and hopeful words—perhaps; sinking; miraculously landing; perhaps; wildly; carefully–imitates the swinging of the lantern at the moment the ice breaks as well as the emotions of the family as they watch, wavering between optimism and the early, shattering intimations of grief.

In MacLeod’s work, the landscape of Cape Breton exerts a constant, unflinching force. While describing its specific beauty he is never sentimental about its hazards or its hardships. It’s not a backdrop to human life but the condition of it. So the sentence starts with the ongoing, ineluctable action of the water—“the tide was going out.” And it ends with a single, finite human gesture—the hand reaching out for another—which is typical of the way his characters live and work and survive together. His people are often beleaguered, but they are never alone.

Tellingly, the sentence also describes with shivering precision an event that the book’s own first person narrator has not seen. The narrator’s parents and brother die when he is a child; too young to have witnessed or comprehended it, he learns about it from his other brothers and the grandparents who raise him. But they have told him the story so vividly that he can describe it as if he were there.

The narrator is a figure whose position appears over and over in MacLeod’s stories—the child who (like MacLeod himself, who left a family of miners and fishermen to become a university professor) escapes the harsh conditions of home. He is always exploring the complicated privilege and burden of being the one who survived, the one who went away. And he captures the way that landscape continues to dominate the lives of its characters even after they leave—off to be university professors or doctors or lawyers, off to the city, off to the shifting present—like a lantern that keeps shining after the person holding it is gone.

I first read No Great Mischief while I was in graduate school in Texas, amid a landscape about as different from Cape Breton as you can find, and I felt transported—somehow deeply homesick for a kind of life I myself had never led. The experience was emotional, intense, though not maudlin. As an expatriate Canadian, I’m often guilty of romanticizing my home, but MacLeod’s work doesn’t encourage that; though it often looks to the past, addressing love and loss, its gentle, steely tone is a curative for nostalgia.

What I learned from MacLeod, in reading both No Great Mischief and his stories, is how a writer makes a territory his own, and how endlessly he can plumb it. Macleod’s work never sought variety. Over and over again in his stories, the same characters appear—the bookish child, the doomed or alcoholic brother, the grizzled father, the stern, strong mother or grandmother. Relatives who are lost but remembered. They are clan attributes that recur across generations, like red hair. Taken together, his work resembles a genealogical ancestry, a branching, connected family tree.  Story after story, sentence after sentence, the family fractures and reassembles itself into recombinant DNA, the particular gene sequence MacLeod both inherited and made his own.

Alix Ohlin‘s novel Inside was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and many other places.

Posted in Art of the Sentence

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Distracted in Portland II

One collected hermit crab racing shells. Another, napkins from restaurants. Paintbrushes, bottle caps, swizzle sticks, twigs gnawed by beavers, single socks left in dryers, objects secreted in pianos.  A woman named Nova collected nail clippings, bits of herself, stacked like brittle moons in tiny jars.


Notes found in libraries.

Will you go on a date with me? YES or NO.

New teacher’s resolution:

1. ignore Andrew  

2. work harder  


It was typical of Portland to find me the Faux Museum, with its current exhibit “Collections and Anomalies,” just when I was being most distracted by collecting. I don’t collect. Not really. I buy art when I can, but calling it a collection feels obnoxious. And that cabinet I have full of bones and skulls and nests, dead birds and dead snakes, that’s not really a collection, at least not yet. Last week it was someone else’s collection I was obsessed with, my friend Billy Jamieson’s. The auction catalogs—“William (Billy) Jamieson Collection”—arrived in the mail for me at Tin House and next thing you know I was spending hours scouring the database of CITES, the UN convention regulating international trade in endangered species, and zooming in on Billy’s butterflies to see if that white one with the red dots really was a Parnassian Apollo, because the auction was happening in Canada, and if I won a lot containing any endangered butterflies, like the Parnassian Apollo, and tried to bring it across the U.S. border—never mind that all the butterflies, Parnassian and otherwise, were collected and mounted on boards nearly two centuries ago—I would languish for decades in a dank Canadian prison.

Okay, probably not, but a hefty fine was possible. Billy once paid one when he tried to sell an endangered curlew on eBay. Then there were the Nisga’a mummies that he had to return to the tribe. They were sitting-up mummies, not lying down, so he seat-belted them in the backseat of his yellow Austin-Healey convertible and drove them to their native home in Western Canada. That was before he bought the electric chair from the Auburn Prison that had supposedly been saved from a fire in 1929 and kept hidden for all these years, but after he acquired the Victorian aquarium made from the rear of a hearse that was so haunted it freaked out his former girlfriend when she housesat . . .

I can’t separate Billy’s collection from Billy and the stories he told about it. Billy died three years ago, suddenly, shockingly, which is why his collection is being auctioned off. That, to me, is tragic, and evocative in its tragedy, and thus I was mooning over the whole idea of collecting when fate introduced me to the Faux Museum where I found other collector-less collections.

Can you feel me right now?

It sucks the happiness out of people.

Reasons why you should get the book:

1. it is a great book


“You want to hold a shrunken head?” Billy asked the first time I met him. He thrust one towards me. “This guy’s a white guy! So this head is extra valuable.”

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Posted in Essays

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What We’re Reading


Emma Komlos-Hrobsky (Assistant Editor, Tin House Magazine): Only Roz Chast could get me to read about aging, death, and taking care of failing parents. Her new memoir, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, illustrated in her usual snarky style, is not exactly what I can describe as a fun read, but it’s about as honest and sympathetic an account of dealing with her parents’ incredibly difficult last years as one could wish for. Chast is serious in the right places here but also finds the best comic material in inherently dark territory, particularly in her portrayal of her mom and dad’s sweet and unhealthy codependency, the lucid dreaming of the senile, and the absurdities of Senior Living in a Place.

Lance Cleland (Workshop Director): Mention you are from Colombia to your average U.S. citizen and you are bound to get some careless joke about cocaine thrown your way.  A wink about the sugar you put in your coffee; a smirk about a corbata colombiana. As I am about to marry a beautiful woman from Medellín, I can both attest to how ignorant these remarks can be and how they annoy to the bone. I thought a lot about those jokes as I read The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez, a novel that is set in post-Escobar Bogotá but is haunted by that mad king’s rein. Those looking for the warm hues of Marquez’s coastal Colombia will be surprised to find themselves in the muted streets of the capital, where much of the savagery of the drug traffickers took place. Rather than give a blow-by-blow history of all that transpired, Vasquez allows the mistrust and bitterness of a group of people who have lived through the siege to stand in for the collective scars of a nation. The plot follows the “ever present ghost” of a victim of the drug wars, as his friend, who witnessed his assassination, seeks answers as to why he was killed. The resulting search touches on the many ways Colombians were affected by the violence, summed up beautifully by Vasquez early in the novel: “There is a sound that I cannot or have never been able to identify: a sound that’s not human or is more than human, the sound of lives being extinguished…the sound of things falling from on high…that is forever suspended in my memory, hanging in it like a towel on a hook.” Literature often humanizes events that otherwise come to us as clichés, bringing to the surface what otherwise might stay submerged under the weight of history and the way it has been reported to us. I can’t imagine anyone who reads this novel ever making a joke about Colombia’s white lines again.

Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer, Tin House): I’ve spent the month slowly rereading House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski.1 House of Leaves is an academic study on The Navidson Record, a documentary film about a family that moves into a new home, only to discover a number of unsettling spatial discrepancies.3 House of Leaves is a portrait of Zapanò, a reclusive, blind man and the author of an academic study about a documentary film he may or may not have fabricated. House of Leaves is a novel about Johnny Truant, editor of Zampanò’s papers, who is driven mad by the specter of the house. It is a horror novel. It is a love story.4

1 See Appendix A for the transcript between myself and Mr. Ross, regarding sophomore efforts by authors of strange debut novels.2

2 Mr. Vala did not provide us with these records.—ed.

3 Danielewski, Mark Z. Chapter IV. House of Leaves. New York: Random House, 2000. (pp. 24). Print.

4 It also has a lot of footnotes.5

5 And nested footnotes, which I am unreasonably excited by.

Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): This week, intimidated by the stack of unread books at my bedside (fine: spilling onto my bed), I bummed around the internet, stocking a hypothetical anthology of online fiction. I was taken by Daniel Kowalski’s post-apocalyptic-O-Henry story “Our Meat” in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading series, in which Kowalski cutely subverts the common trope of the mysterious cataclysmic event by calling it “The Thing That Happened.” Another favorite was a Kevin Clouther story from his collection We Were Flying to Chicago, on Black Balloon’s blog, The Airship. The story, “On the Highway Near Fairfield, Connecticut,” is a strange, moving (and stopping) story that superimposes one moment over another unexpectedly. It’s hard to explain, even to myself, but that it can be so inexplicable and stay so grounded in the mundane is part of its odd charm.

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