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Our parents had failed five months in a row to make a baby, and Father was growing frustrated. He couldn’t figure out what our mother was doing wrong. For his Christmas/Chanukah present she gave him a skiing vacation in Steam Boat Springs, Colorado. She secretly thought it would give her a break from him, but he insisted she join him, so he could continue his spermatazoon campaign.
At first, it was tranquil. They stayed in a cabin in front of a hot springs. Father, the chef-owner of a health food restaurant in Santa Cruz, California, made whole-wheat chapattis on a camping stove the night they arrived. Mother, an elementary school teacher, suggested they take turns describing the highlights and lowlights of their day. The next morning they awoke and went down to the hot springs, where the old man who ran the place floated naked in an inner tube, wielding a ski pole to spear any debris that had fallen into the springs the day before. Our father thought the steaming water might damage his potency, so he did his 250 push-ups on the edge while our mother slipped in. Mother saw a mountain goat scrambling along the cliff above the pool.
But that was the end of the tranquil part of the vacation. Father was an experienced backcountry skier, and Mother began disappointing him on their first day out. He tried to help her. He told her she was leaning too far forward, locking her knees, raising her heels too high, holding her poles too far out.
The conditions were icy, and she fell and skidded on the crusty snow while he made perfect, whirling turns down every slope, then called up complicated directions through clenched teeth.
Have we mentioned what they look like? He: blond curly hair, a gladiator face, Roman nose and cleft chin, and then a wrestler’s body, no neck, all chest, bandy legs. Our mother is skinny, long neck, long arms and fingers, wide flat hips. She’s like a curvaceous paper doll with the curves all on the edges.
Because she was ovulating, at night they continued their sexual exertions. She lay there while he performed his quick, efficient operation. She felt like she was the mortar and he the pestle.
On the fourth day, they woke in the morning to a pretty blanket of powder over everything. Our father was elated. The old man floating in the tube said the new conditions were dangerous, but father said the old geezer didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground.
In early afternoon they came to a slope that was more like a cliff. She was exhausted, on the verge of tears, her face cold and wind burned. Her legs were shaking and her arms ached. She said she’d wait at the top for him.
Father said, “You’re hysterical. Irrational. Just follow my directions.” He told her she needed to grow a spine, “Man up,” he said. He continued his pep talk.
Finally, she said, “Okay, fine, I’ll do it.”
He wiped her nose with his sleeve and tapped his fingers twice on her forehead. “Think, buddy, think,” he said. “Keep those knobby knees tucked, pivot on the pole.”
She looked down the smooth white drop. She allowed herself to slip over the edge. She fell head first on her second turn, her poles clattered away, one ski came off. Her left cheek was scraped raw from going through the ice just underneath the snow.
She sat up.
She wasn’t going to the hospital again, no way. It smelled like pee there and her mother always yelled at her to stop kicking her foot against the leg of the chair while they waited for the doctor. She didn’t like the hospital, despite what her dad said: “Well, for not liking it, you sure do end up there, a lot, Gee.” Gee was her nickname, the one Pap gave her. It was the only thing she answered to that summer.
She didn’t eat the peach seed because she wanted to go the hospital. She was bored. She was sitting on the back porch and thinking about running out into the pasture to play Under the Ocean, her new favorite game. Brown Dog could be the shark—he was good at it, he nipped at her heels. She would be a mermaid, the fireflies were tiny, glowing fish, and the grass was coral that swayed gently in the ocean current.
But she knew the dew would already have started to form on the grass. It would get her favorite red slip-on shoes all wet. If she went barefoot, her feet would wrinkle and prune and then the touch of anything against them would be too much.
“Brown dog, don’t!” she yelled. He lifted his head and wagged his tail. He wasn’t doing anything bad. She just wanted to hear her own voice against the muffled sound of the TV inside.
She stared at the peach seed in the palm of her hand. It looked like an almond. A tiny bite was missing. She lay her hand across her stomach, feeling for something that might be happening inside.
She wouldn’t have taken a bite of the peach seed if she had a swimming pool. If she had a pool, she could really play Under the Ocean. She could get one of those masks the people on the nature shows wore. Brown Dog couldn’t play then, but that was okay. If she had a pool, she wouldn’t have climbed the barbed-wire fence and got the cut on the inside of her thigh that needed stitches. She wouldn’t have broken her wrist jumping out of the treehouse. She wouldn’t have taken a bite of the peach seed that she was now certain was poisonous.
If her parents yelled for her, she’d tell them. She’d wrap the peach seed tight in her hand and walk into the living room. “I took a bite of this,” she would say. “A really tiny one. And I spit most of it out.” She would stand in the middle of the living room floor, like being on stage for her piano recital all alone. All the attention would be on her. Her dad would turn the TV off at last. “It’s too late to go to the hospital,” she would tell them. “But I’m pretty sure I’m going to die.”
“Brown Dog,” she whispered. He beat his tail once against the wood of the deck and then rolled over onto his back, waiting for her to rub his belly. “Brown Dog, you’ll have to get by without me,” she said. She ran her hand along his soft underside. “Will you miss me, Brown Dog?”
Robyn Ryle started life in one small town in Kentucky and ended up in another just down the river in southern Indiana. She has a chapbook, The Face of Baseball, as well as stories in CALYX Journal, Midwestern Gothic, Paper Darts, and WhiskeyPaper, among others. You can find her on Twitter, @RobynRyle.
The assignment I gave myself was to do something I’ve never done before, every day, for approximately one hundred days. And to write it down. I tried to be brief and true to myself. As the days added up an amusing and often unsettling self-portrait emerged. –Robert Leaver
November 30, 2014
I brush my teeth before bed facing the corner of our bathroom. Jammed in tight—nose a few inches from the corner. Hoping my wife will walk in and catch me. I want her to see that I am not always the same man, doing the same things, in the same way every day. But she is already in bed.
I push the elevator button with my forehead. My only child, a ten year old son, is confused.
“What the heck, Dad?”
The button is cool and round and I feel my forehead push it in and I feel the ding sound vibrate my skull.
I walk down to the north end of my subway platform. The number one train at 157th Street. I take a few steps off the platform and into the tunnel. I stand there for a little while in the dark until I can see the light of the next train coming down.
At Fairway supermarket just off the west side highway I shoplift a can of cheap sardines. Afterwards in the rain across the street I try to feed the sardines to seagulls. No takers.
On train I see the “We Can’t Breathe” headline on the cover of The Daily News . Cops got off after choking a man to death. I hold my breath in the dead man’s honor from 137th Street to 125th Street.
I run to pick up my son, from school, two miles along Hudson riverside path. I think I’m moving along okay. A woman runs by me, twice as fast, pushing a toddler in stroller.
I stand on the corner of Houston and Clinton at night and let the raindrops fall into my open eyes.
Alone in the apartment near sunset making soup. I wander down the hall into my son’s room. Purple dusky light. Batman posters and Lego. I lay down on his bed and weep.
In Guatemala visiting my mother. At a bar called Café No Se I drink homemade Mezcal shots with a young man I just met named Matt. His two shoulders were dislocated the night before during the annual Satan burning ritual.
“They burned the devil next to the gas station,” he says.
“How did your shoulders get dislocated?”
“No idea, man. None whatsoever.”
After midnight on a desolate Guatemalan street I get down on my hands and knees and crawl the last few steps to my mother’s door.
I whisper a memorized Robert Frost poem into my mother’s ear during the intermission of an outdoor Guatemalan version of Handel’s “Messiah.”
Open a bottle of Gallo, Guatemalan beer, with an ice cream scoop.
Help a Guatemalan man stack a cord of Guatemalan oak behind my mother’s house.
I tell my mother she looks beautiful.
Back in NYC after dinner I drink wine and fold laundry, alone, wearing my wife’s panties on my head.
From the memoir Cockroaches, out next week from our friends at Archipelago Books.
Arriving at the Lycée Notre-Dame-de-Cîteaux with the little card-board suitcase once used by my brother André, and then by Alexia, I was filled with hope and apprehension at the same time. My apprehensions were more than justified, but I never lost hope.
I’d seen violent and even deadly persecution in Nyamata, but the solidarity of the ghetto gave us the strength to endure it. At school, I would know the solitude of humiliation and rejection.
I hadn’t shed my Tutsi status when I crossed the Nyabarongo – anything but. And in any case, there was no way to hide it. Every student was issued an ID card marked with their so-called ethnic group, like a brand on a cow. When I was forced to show it to one of the sisters, her look and her attitude changed immediately: wariness, disdain, or hatred? I didn’t want to know. They also discovered that I came from Nyamata. I wasn’t only a Tutsi: I was an Inyenzi, one of those cockroaches they’d expelled from the livable part of Rwanda, and perhaps from the human race. Among my schoolmates, too, I soon came to feel different. Or rather, it was they who made that dif-ference cruelly clear to me. They made me ashamed of the color of my skin (not dark enough for their tastes), of my nose (too straight, they said), and of my hair (too much of it). It was my hair that caused me the most trouble. Evidently it was Ethiopian hair, irende, the sup-posed mark of the Inyenzi. I spent my time putting water on that Inyenzi hair so it would shrink down to a little ball, tight as a sponge. Most often, I resigned myself to shaving it off. That hurt me: in spite of the mockery, I was fond of my hair.
They divided us up into teams, and we took turns doing the dishes, cleaning the refectory or the dormitories. The team leader was always a third-year girl. My leader was named Pascasie. I was the only Tutsi on the team. Pascasie and the rest took an immediate dislike to me. The hardest chores always fell to me. In fact, I soon realized it wasn’t my place to wait for orders. I always volunteered. As the mayor of Nyamata had said, the Tutsis had lost the right to be proud.
The teams all ate at the same table. Mealtimes were the hardest part of the day for me. A thousand times, I wished I didn’t have to eat. My throat went tight with terror whenever a meal was near. We walked into the refectory in silence. We prayed, and then sat down in silence. A bell signaled that it was time to begin eating, and we had permission to talk. The room filled with the sound of conversation, but no one ever spoke to me. I could feel them staring at me, telling me I wasn’t supposed to be there, that my presence disgusted them, that it wasn’t by choice that they were living – and, even worse, eat-ing – with an Inyenzi, a cockroach. I grew used to serving myself after all the others. When there were bananas or sweet potatoes, there was nothing left in the dish by the time it came to me, and I had to make do with the maggot-ridden beans no one would touch. And I grew used to peeling the sweet potatoes in the others’ place, doing the dishes, cleaning the toilets. I never rebelled, even if I wept when no one was looking. I found all this almost normal. A strange curse hung over me. I was a Tutsi. Worse yet, I was from Nyamata, I was an Inyenzi. I wasn’t supposed to be there at the Lycée Notre-Dame-de-Cîteaux. It was a mistake, an oversight on the part of those who’d expelled us from the Rwandan community, the people of the majority. For that reason, I made myself a paragon of zeal. I was always on the front bench at Mass, I was first in line for confession. I wanted to be beyond reproach. I was convinced that good grades alone could protect me.
Sometimes I think I never slept in all those three years at the school. At home the nights were short, but at school there was no such thing as night. The few other Tutsi students knew as well as I did that they had to be among the best, and so they worked night and day, particularly night. When dinner was done, a bell rang. We headed off to the dormitories. We washed our feet as we entered, then took our places by the bunk beds. A bell rang. We knelt. We prayed. A bell rang. We turned back our bedspreads. We got into bed. I slipped very carefully under the covers, letting no one see that I had only one sheet. The monitor made a few more rounds to silence the chatter, and then the lights were turned out.
But we Tutsis were waiting for our moment. We waited until everyone was sound asleep, until no one was getting up to go to the bathroom, until the sisters had gone off for the night. Then Agnès, who was in her third year, shook the piece of green canvas that was our standard-issue bedspread: this was the signal. We quietly got out of bed, wrapped ourselves in our bedspreads to ward off the nighttime cold, and followed after Agnès. She was a tiny girl, and her bedspread dragged behind her on the ground: we called her Monseigneur. The silent parade ended in the bathroom, the only place where a nightlight stayed on all through the night. We gen-tly closed the door, and one of us sat down with her back pressed against it, in case someone came along. We had our study room for the night. Often we studied our lessons and did our homework until morning. Everything I learned at Notre-Dame-de-Cîteaux I learned in the toilet.
The teachers seemed to be completely faithful to the regime and the system. Most of them were Belgian, except the French teacher, who was French, and the English teacher, who was English. The only Rwandan was the Kinyarwanda teacher, Victoria, a Tutsi. In any case, we had to beware of the teachers. The older girls had warned us of that as soon as we got there by telling us the story of Sylvia. Sylvia was from Nyamata. In a composition – I never found out what the subject was – she made the mistake of alluding to the displaced people of Nyamata and calling for fairer treatment. They said the paper was immediately sent on to the Mother Superior, Sister Béatrice. And Sylvia was expelled. You were supposed to say that Rwanda was a country blessed by God, as the priests claimed. That Kayibanda had created a little paradise in the heart of Africa. A waiting room for heaven. Before he came along, there was only dark-ness and barbarity. I memorized the islands and the cities of Japan: Hokkaido, Nagasaki, Yokohama . . . It sounded like Kinyarwanda.
• • •
As we continue to take applications for our upcoming Winter Workshops, we check in with a few of our faculty to discuss their own classroom experiences.
Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop?
Matthew Zapruder: My senior year in college I took a poetry workshop taught by a grumpy visiting Polish poet who was justifiably appalled by our late 80’s ignorance about poetry, or really anything except U2 lyrics and crumbly weed.
I still remember the only line I wrote that he liked, “short sharp pink perspiring houses,” which is a. terrible and b. stolen from John Cougar Mellencamp.
TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in a workshop?
MZ: Well, I don’t know if this counts as advice, but I remember bringing a poem into workshop with James Tate, and having him just look at me after I read it, and with exaggerated delicacy turning the paper over and putting it back down on the table and saying just one word: “No.” And realizing he was totally right.
I walked down to my freezing, shitty little Honda Civic in the parking lot, and put my head on the steering wheel, reviewing my wintry mistake of a life. Then I resolved to start getting up at 5 in the morning and writing for several hours each day, which is when I started writing the poems in my first book.
TH: Strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?
MZ: See above.
The scariest thing I ever did as a workshop instructor was, early on in my teaching life, when a very talented student brought in a terrific poem, and I praised it so wildly that she was terrified to bring in any more poems for the rest of the semester, for fear of disappointing me. Nothing I could say or do could change that. I realized that praise is as dangerous as criticism, as is allowing oneself to allow the students to fetishize your authority.
TH: We tend to listen to a lot of records during the workshop weekend. Do you have a favorite “at the ocean” album?
MZ: Argybargy, Squeeze
Bryter Later, Nick Drake
Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Desire, Bob Dylan
TH: A favorite winter poem, story, or book?
MZ: A bit depressing, but I love this from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus … I remember having my mind blown by “among these winters there is one winter so endlessly winter/ that only by wintering through it can our hearts survive.”
February by James Schuyler makes me think of also this great poem by Ted Berrigan, also about February in New York, which probably seems romantic only to someone living on the west coast, in mild exile.
Matthew Zapruder is the author of four collections of poetry, including “Come On All You Ghosts,” a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2011, and “Sun Bear,” published in 2014. “Why Poetry,” a book of prose, will be published by Ecco Press in the spring of 2017. An associate professor in the English department and the director of the M.F.A. program in creative writing at Saint Mary’s College of California, Zapruder is also editor at large at Wave Books, and The New York Times Magazine’s poetry column editor. He lives in Oakland, California.
Metaphor frustrates me. It has no limbs or limits,
and I have no idea where it came from. I’ve learned
the way for me to tell my father I love him is a game
of HORSE, but the hardest way to love him
is to witness his shooting percentage decline year
after year—today he missed three free throws and a scowl
with each, his gelatinous arms aching in effigy.
I wonder if everything has an ache to be something
more than what it is? If this is the basis of metaphor.
But now is not the time, Father. The poem is yours.
I want you to know that I have found the principle
of mean reversion as useful to me as all
the birds and the baselines and the little critiques
you give me tenderly about my jump shot.
What haunts me is not the end of our games
soon approaching, or the pain I’ll suffer when
you’re gone. Or even the fact that I’ll get over it
and revert to myself more or less. Wide-eyed,
knock-kneed, cow-licked—banished to my
seven-year-old sense of self—there is no
metaphor for how I feel. My mind, a blunt
instrument, bangs away at the universe we were,
and are, and will become. I cannot dent it.
John Fenlon Hogan lives in Virginia. His poems have appeared or will soon appear in 32 Poems, Boston Review, Cincinnati Review, and West Branch, among other journals.
I grew up wedged between two wars. Behind me: World War II. In front of me: Vietnam.
My older brother and his friends played not Cowboys and Indians but Nazis versus Allies. I can still remember a song they used to sing, their toy guns and swords raised, that began: Hitler, he only had one ball, Goering had two, but very, very small . . . Even stronger than my memories of that game are my memories of the World War II veterans who formed a backdrop to my childhood. Like my Uncle Chuckie, sent home from France destroyed by what he saw there. Even now, at eighty-six, he weaves tales of his experiences. He liberated Auschwitz. He stormed the beach at Normandy. He fought in the Pacific. None of us know the truth, except the basic one, which is that his duty was brief and ruined him forever. Frenchie, a friend of my family’s, lost his arm at Iwo Jima, and the empty space beneath his shirtsleeve provided hours of grotesque pleasure for all of us children. In my small Rhode Island town, the veterans marched in parades and we were told to put our hands over our hearts when they passed.
I watched the Vietnam War unfold on the six o’clock news every night. One of my clearest early memories is sitting in front of our Zenith television and sharing a pan of Jiffy Pop with my brother, the scorched popcorn with its metallic taste bitter in my mouth while soldiers in Vietnam moved across the screen.
I believe that everyone has a war that speaks to her. But by the serendipity of a late Saturday afternoon when I was eleven or twelve, my war is neither of the ones that bracketed my childhood. Instead, I claimed World War I as mine. I was a precocious and voracious reader who vacillated between trashy books by the likes of Harold Robbins and sophisticated Russian and French novels. On that long-ago day at the library, my finger landed on the broken spine of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
I was enthralled from its first page, but it was the novel’s epigraph that struck me most, so much so that I copied it into the purple notebook I carried everywhere in those days: “This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” How could I know at such a young age that this idea of a being destroyed by invisible wounds would haunt me for most of my life? Continue reading
This variety of spider is born dead, Noll told us. Stiff packets of chitin and darkness. Teensy tiny organs rattling like dried beans if we listened with the right tools (which Noll had). Out-of-state scientist come with his white van and silver knives to explain to us what our forest held. Only when someone warmed these spiders, he said, provided a violent friction from the mashing of flesh (like their mommies) or the point of a needle (like Noll) did they wriggle to life.
• • •
Noll asked could he pick us up at midnight and we said, Okay. Yawning the word as if our maiden chests didn’t hum under threadbare dresses. Okay. Whenever. Midnight was when the spiders grew active and stirred from spider dreams. We lapsed into dreams of our own while waiting, tangled into a many-legged organism of sisterhood breathing with one sticky breath. Our lids grew heavy. We yawned, rubbed gunk that crumbled from our lashes like tiny eggs.
The world flared red and a thousand thin legs danced in the veins of our shut eyes. Noll’s van swinging up the drive. Shoot, we said, shielding our faces. Cut your lights. His sweaty hands helped us in. We sucked the sweets he fed us and grew heavy, stretched out to sleep across the plastic tubs laid in the back. Each one just long enough for each of us. Felt him touch us then like a husband in the dark, his knife parting our clothes. We smiled at the tickle. Two hours later woke up as Noll poured our clacking bones into the forest.
• • •
We went along because he’d asked so nice. A pretty blue fire he built us, that night he proposed our forest trip. I want to know what’s in there, he teased as he tapped our heads, and we giggled.
Used to be that marriageable girls went collecting for wedding trousseaus in these parts. When these were mountains and not nubs, when there were husbands to be had. When we had tongues we rolled the word around: Trousseau. Imagining ancestral mothers and aunts garlanded with flowers, animal pelts scribbled on their nether sides with ropy veins. Strictly superstition, frowned the scientists. Now open wide and say AH! Same way they always spoke of the centuries before they kept a record, before their cameras arrived bobbing along our misty roads. Planted beside our sag-mouthed scarecrows. Hoping to spy the secret of our long mountain lives. We chain-smoked, stared into the blinking red eyes. Inconclusive, the scientists sighed and back they went. Except for Noll. Different, him. A hunger to prod and rip and taste and know everything we showed. He even ate possum, tearing the meat bare-handed with no mind for its bloody drips. Fixing us all the while with his pretty green eyes.
So we spread our knees at his chemical flame, warming. Eying him sideways and long-lashed, in the manner of deer observing the hunter from behind a blind of trees: hard-horned but shy.
• • •
Sure enough we tumbled out the van at the hour of spiders. Lay studying their shiny mandibles, their characteristic bristle pattern. As Noll had instructed. Hours passed, then years, before we remembered to yawn. Time moves funny in our forest. The scientists who siphoned and magnified our blood declared us inbred, deviants, but it wasn’t on purpose like they said. How were we to avoid our own great-great-grandaunts and cousins wandering out of the forest with lace collars flapping on their high breasts, a mess of kids raised before realizing: oops. You’d need keen eyes to tell that style of collar hadn’t been seen since eighteen and ninety-two when the machines unhooked our mountain and left it a laceless, coalless scar. Real keen eyes and us half-blind from the acid fog. Anyhow, we implore you to think on what scientists know and don’t—they who “discovered” extinct fish swimming cool as you please in our caves. Time moved funny. Trees molted, mold grew, animals died and turned to mush then bog then peat then coal and all of this happened again and again every second. We yawned and remembered our original purpose. Gone collecting. By the time we rose, shaking off years of dirt, we’d acquired skeins of spider silk. Egg sacs bumping on our ribs like dark jewels. A worthy trousseau.
• • •
No one had to tell us marriage is the end of the fairy tale. Noll’s no prince. We saw his flaws a while back. Under his beard, his weak chin. Under his carpet, bloodstains. Still. Make a meal of what you got, our mother and great-great-grandaunt said. She’d managed to raise us before anyone realized she was dead, and even after that she soldiered on, dropping fingerbones into bread dough and clattering advice from her jaw: That price is a joke. Rain coming heavy this year. We’d even dug her up to ask about Noll before we went collecting. Her verdict: Mean but whip-smart. The right women can make him into something. We accepted that he was work. So when we turned up on Noll’s doorstep some years later (walking slow without muscles) and found the green bleached from his eyes, we accepted this, and when he crossed his liver-spotted hands and opened his gums to scream, we accepted this, and when he stomped the spiders we’d carried so thoughtfully between our ribs we were a little angry, sure, but we had centuries to learn each other’s ways and looking at him we remembered our wedding night in the van, him bearing down in the dark so dear and skinny and hungry, silver tools penetrating us down to joy and bone. The way he peeled off dresses, skins, muscles. Most of all the way he cradled our brains so tenderly in his tubs. Studying us as if we were the precious things. Us! We would have blushed if we could. The spiders’ legs went pitter-patter among our ribs. Hi, honey, we said.
C Pam Zhang is an MFA candidate at Vanderbilt University. Her work appears or is imminent in Day One and The Moth. She’s been recognized by The Masters Review contest and the Summer Literary Seminars contest. In recent years she’s lived in Nashville, Bangkok, San Francisco, and on Twitter as @cpamzhang.
As we continue to take applications for our upcoming Winter Workshops, we check in with a few of our faculty to discuss their own classroom experiences.
Tin House: What can you tell us about your first workshop?
Lidia Yuknavitch: My very first workshop experience was as an infiltrator, which pretty much describes most of my life as well…heh.
I was not in the MFA program but I snuck into classes and tried to look like I was. First at Harvard, where I had a job right near Harvard square at a clothing store. I got kicked out of that one pretty quickly.
Later at the University of Texas in Austin where I was a receptionist at a personal injury law firm. I lasted a little longer in that workshop because the teacher liked my brazenness. He directed me to a course I could actually afford to take at Austin Community College.
It was the beginning of something for me. I could feel my bones vibrating but I didn’t yet understand why.
TH: What is the best piece of advice you have received or heard given in a workshop?
LY: Never surrender. Ken Kesey. University of Oregon (where by the way, I was again an infiltrator–only undergraduate in a graduate MFA class. He let me stay.)
TH: Strangest, most terrifying workshop experience as a participant/instructor?
LY: Well, I don’t often experience terror as a participant or instructor in writing workshops — it’s the world that terrifies me — whereas writing workshops and painting studios were always “safe spaces” for me…but I was fairly shit-your-pants scared my first day in Ken Kesey’s workshop. Because duh, Ken Kesey. But we bonded quite quickly when he walked over and whispered into my ear, “I know what happened to your daughter. Death’s a motherfucker.”
It was the death of a son/daughter that we bonded over. So from there, writing was a real place I could meet him without fear. On the page, inside language and imagination, there is no hierarchy.
TH: We tend to listen to a lot of records during the workshop weekend. Do you have a favorite “at the ocean” album?
LY: You mean besides the ocean? I’d likely pick either Portishead / Dummy, This Mortal Coil / It’ll End In Tears, David Bowie / Blackstar, or John Coltrane / A Love Supreme.
TH: A favorite winter poem, story, or book?
LY: The novel Snow by Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, and the poetry collection Trilogy by H.D. (because of these lines which have haunted me for life: I go where I love and where I am loved/into the snow/I go to the things I love/with no thought of duty or pity).
Lidia Yuknavitch is the acclaimed author of seven books, including The Small Backs of Children (Harpers) and The Chronology of Water (Hawthorne Books), and a TED Talk titled The Beauty of Being a Misfit. Her next book The Book of Joan is due from Harpers April 18th. She is a seasoned teacher of writing & literature, and has crafted her body-centered art-making philosophy into a groundbreaking workshop practice—Corporeal Writing. She is the recipient of the Ken Kesey Award for Fiction for the Oregon Book Awards, as well as two Reader’s Choice awards, a PNBA award, and was a finalist for the 2012 Pen Center creative nonfiction award.
Lidia will be teaching at our CNF Winter Workshop.
At three years old, I saw a man in a mask climb over the balcony of our apartment. He stood by the pots of forget-me-nots and looked through the sliding glass door, and I was on the other side looking back. Terrified, I ran to wake my parents and tell them what I had seen. They went with me to investigate; there was no longer any man. They told me I’d had a nightmare. To this day, I have an image of that man, frozen in place, staring at me through the sliding glass door, and I cannot tell you if he was real or not.
Does it matter if the memory is real?
I do not carry the past like a backpack. I cannot point to a physical object when you ask where I hurt. I only know that the past shadows me. I still flinch when a man raises his voice and gets too close. Even if the last time a boy clenched his fist around my throat was 15 years ago.
You wrote to me years after we’d both graduated from high school. By then, you were in Iraq, fighting yourself, knowing the enemy was inside and not out there in that desert that took your sleep, too many of your friends. Those were your words. Also your words: that you’d had a lot of time to think and needed to apologize. You said my father beat my mom when she was pregnant with me, she almost lost me, I was born with anger in my veins.
You said you understood then why you had hurt me. That I had seemed so much better than you and you needed to bring me down to your level, so you wouldn’t lose me. An act of love. And here I was thinking I’d always been nothing, less than nothing even.
I’m packing for graduate school. I find the notes we wrote each other in those hazy first-love high school days. I read about things you did to me that I don’t even remember. I read about your ridiculous ambush with balloons and roses on Valentine’s Day and how special I felt when they were delivered to my homeroom. I read about my humiliation when you punched the glass window on the door of my photography class when I hadn’t done your homework, how it shattered and your knuckles bled, how the security guard who walked you out when you were suspended turned to me and said, “Honey, he’ll do the same thing to your face, you know?” I did know.
And I didn’t answer your letter from Iraq. But if I had, maybe I would have said something like: I remember running my fingers over the scars that never left your knuckles, the same arm that bore a tattoo of my name. And the truth is that I want that type of scar, too, that kind of visible blood-letting I can point to and say, now you can feel, see, taste that it’s real.
As adults, some still say we’re making things up, that such heavy memory doesn’t square with childhood. Best to bury it with the rusty swing sets and broken dolls. Best to file with memories of Santa Claus, Tooth Fairies. Everything as Magic.
Some will say a 15-year-old girl is really a woman, some will say our parents are at fault, some will ask where were the adults with a shake of their heads, some will say they’re sorry young girls suffer from a lack of self-esteem, we need to do something about these girls. As in the same thing they said to us, as in what we always feared was true: we grew the roots of our own pain. We laid the match to each other; we watched our innocence burn and—we were children—must have called it a path to love.
Some will say, simply: Get over it.
I couldn’t go back to sleep when I was sure a man in the shadows was coming to hunt me. I’m 31, and I still can’t.
Gabriela Garcia is an MFA candidate in fiction at Purdue University and Fiction Editor of Sycamore Review. She tweets @gabimgarcia.
Elissa Altman can write you an appetizing culinary scene, but she’d really rather not. While it’s true she wrote about the glories of home cooking in her James Beard Award-winning blog and first book, Poor Man’s Feast, her new memoir finds her more interested in the sensation of wrongness: the clothes that aren’t you, the culture that doesn’t welcome you, the country that pushed you out or the one that only reluctantly lets you in, and—the most visceral of all these examples—the food you shouldn’t have eaten. Altman covers all this ground with humor, verve, and compassion, but it would be a mistake to think Treyf: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw is a story about refusal and regret. It is not. Treyf is about the seeking that never really abates.—Michelle Wildgen
Michelle Wildgen: One of my favorite recurring descriptions in here is of your fashion choices, or maybe I should say, the fashion choices made for you. Can you talk a bit about this, and the role clothes play in telling this story?
Elissa Altman: Fashion was a tool in Treyf. My parents had a natural affinity for fashion and polar opposite senses of style. To my father the conservative traditions of Brooks Brothers and J Press represented Cheever-esque safety, formality, and an American, WASPY tradition that he was not born to but grasped for. My mother, on the other hand, possessed — and still possesses; she’s almost 81 now and only stopped modeling twelve or so years ago — a rebellious, edgy fashion sensibility: she has always paired very high style together with low and pulled it off. Yet my father loved to dress her as the idyllic, cool Katherine Hepburn he was desperate for her to be. Ultimately, it didn’t stick: for her, fashion is all about attention and sex, not Harris tweed.
When their marriage started to fail, my parents wielded clothes against each other via me: deposited in my father’s care on Saturdays in the 1970s while my mother worked as a model, I was hauled around to places like the original Abercrombie & Fitch, the boy’s department at Brooks’ Brothers, and Kaufman’s riding shop. By the time we picked my mother up, I looked like I was going yachting or fox hunting. My father almost always preferred dressing me in boys’ clothes — he said they were better made — which, of course, infuriated my hyper-heterosexual mother, who responded by putting me in elastic tube tops and see-through voile blouses just as I was beginning to go through a particularly sulky, spotty, busty puberty. I felt like I was in drag, although I had no words for it. To this day, my mother is sure that I am a lesbian because my father made me wear boy’s clothes; I always have to remind her that at eight, I was in love with Susan Dey, and not David Cassidy. It had nothing to do with Brooks’ Brothers. Although I do like a good suit and wingtips.
MW: There is also a lot of, shall we say, physical discomfort in here—people eating things and regretting it. Was it ever hard to write about food in such an uncomfortable way, that maybe rebels against expectations for a completely delicious culinary memoir rather than something more complex?
EA: Writing about food is not that different than writing about any other sense experience, like sex, and always depicting it as yummy sanitizes, homogenizes, and de-humanizes it. I’m interested in the things that leave a strange taste, that make me squirm, that force me to think about what sustenance really is.
Everyone knows what good food and good food experience looks like; I want to talk about the mistakes, the faux pas, the cultural and practical blunders. I distinctly remember my maternal grandmother cutting herself when she sliced potatoes into the Hungarian goulash she knew I loved; her soul, and her blood, were in what she cooked for me. I thought about taking that section out of the story, but it would have been a mistake: it was representative of the sheer ferocity with which she nurtured me, queasy-making or not.
Treyf is the story of a tribe yearning for home; it’s about three generations on the outside looking in. There’s a certain bitterness that comes along with that sense of constant displacement, and in my life, it was expressed at the table. When I was eleven my paternal grandmother tried to feed me a boiled calf’s brain — plain, on a plate, like we were in a laboratory — the day after I saw Young Frankenstein. Borscht tastes to me like mud, like death, like the sorrow that enveloped us at my grandparents’ apartment when everyone switched languages so I couldn’t understand them, but I knew they were talking about the family who stayed behind and were murdered in the Holocaust. To this day, I can’t be in the same room with it; it’s the food of doom.
MW: Your first memoir, Poor Man’s Feast, deals with (among other things) love and food. This one seems to delve into tougher territory— familial stresses, belonging or the lack thereof, in particular. Can you talk about moving from one subject or tone to the other? How did the processes compare for you as a writer, as a person delving into your past?
EA: In Poor Man’s Feast, food and love were catalysts; one transformed the other, and that was the primary thread running through what was essentially a very linear story. But Treyf is more cyclical; it’s about appearances, the tug of the past on the present, about religion and sex and violation, and the human compulsion to find sustenance and acceptance in a world to which one has only been tentatively invited.
The narrative in Poor Man’s Feast was generated by food — the actual cooking of it as opposed to the eating of it. There was a very clear beginning, middle, and end from the outset, and I always had a strong sense of how it was going to unfold on the page. At the time I wrote it, my wife and I had been together for twelve years, my mother-in-law was still alive, my father, who figures heavily in that book as a food mentor, had passed ten years earlier; I was still very connected to his family.
Between the time I was starting Treyf, my extended family structure was in utter chaos; my connection to the people who had been my anchors had vaporized. I dealt with the grief the only way I knew how — by writing my way through it. Where there is sorrow and loss there is a natural hunger for nurturing and safety. And that is what the book is about at its core.
The lightness that pervaded Poor Man’s Feast was no longer there, and it wouldn’t have been appropriate or authentic. Which is not to say that there aren’t moments of humor in it, but Treyf is a much more complicated story, written from a very different place and at a time when I was feeling like I’d just stepped off a ship — wobbly, a little nauseous. It was only when I finished the first draft that I realized that I, like every person in the book, was searching for my place in the world, and for a tribe that I had lost. Continue reading
Look at the photo
an Art Forum magazine
is cropped off
It says Manhattan
in the painting
but it isn’t Manhattan
It’s just impressionistic
in the countryside
with no city in sight
Zoe Brezsny is a writer from Oakland, California who is now based in Brooklyn, New York. She holds a BA from California College of the Arts and an MFA from Columbia University. She is the author of two chapbooks, POV andPolyorchid.
There’s a girl, Cherise, pronounced sure-EEZ, in my yoga class that meets in the church every Tuesday night at eight. She used to come to class with her boyfriend, a tall guy with a beaky nose and they would stand with their arms around each other, smiling. Or he would lie on his mat, and she would lie at a ninety-degree angle to him with her head on his stomach. I avoid people who are touching. In a yoga class, boundaries are loose. You might wonder why I’m in this class: it’s a test I’m giving myself.
A while ago, the beaky guy stopped coming, but Cherise didn’t. The second Tuesday that she came without him, I left class during Half Warrior because I had to pee. When I came back, she was in the hallway, crying. At first I thought: She’s doing a pose. Her back was straight and she leaned at a seventy-degree angle with her forehead to the wall. Then I noticed her breathing, which was quick intakes and big, shaky exhales.
I dislike touching. The dampness of skin is something I find very disgusting, but the hallway was narrow, especially with one person leaning. I didn’t know what to do. Then I had the idea to put my hand on her hair, so I did. Maybe it was another test.
I pretended to be Graham, our instructor, checking her form, except that I just stayed there holding her head, like it was one of the singing bowls Graham always bongs at the start of class. His bowls are stupid but I am disappointed when he forgets them, which is about every other week. Graham weighs ninety pounds and wears his hair in a French braid but has a girlfriend, which I don’t understand.
Cherise kept crying so I said, “I’m sorry” and she breathed out like she’d been holding the air and my words helped her release it and she felt slightly better. Maybe ten degrees better than the moment before. I don’t usually know what people feel, even if they angrily ask me why not, so this was new.
She didn’t talk to me after class and I didn’t help her when she couldn’t get her mat into her bag. I just let her struggle by herself. I think that’s what you have to do with people and their problems. It’s a test they’re doing. It’s not for me to fix.
Kris Willcox lives in Arlington, MA with her husband and two boisterous children. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Beloit Fiction Journal, Cimarron Review, Literary Mama, and Cleaver Magazine among other publications and she is regular contributor to UU Worldmagazine.
I was following a path in the woods when the toe of my boot nearly crushed an ant. I withdrew the boot. There, paddling an inch one direction before reversing course and paddling in another, was an ordinary carpenter ant. It was plain black. It looked like the minute droppings of a slightly larger critter, except for its moving around. I was prepared to bypass the ant and continue down the path when the little monster bristled wings from its shoulders and set them whirring at light speed and rose into the air.
I deduced very rapidly that this was a flying ant. It wasn’t unusual to encounter flying ants in those parts, nor I suppose in any parts. The flying ant, in fact, is one of the most successful dry flies that a fisherman can tie onto his tippet, from Montana to Vermont to Argentina to New Zealand, so it can’t be that rare. Plus, I’m given to understand that flying ants aren’t even actually a species unto themselves. They’re simply a larval stage or whatever of ordinary ants. Like a portion of the ant eggs get smothered in nutrient-rich jelly or some other such nonsense and out come the wings.
But the commonness of wingèd ants notwithstanding, it was as if, when this small fucker flew out from under my boot, I’d never before laid eyes on such a thing. And, strangely, I was indignant about its existence. “Now what is that?” I wanted to shout at the ant as it sailed away through the forest. “How is that appropriate?”
You see, it oughtn’t happen that one organism, alike his fellows in every discernible respect, should be awarded, exclusively, a tool so miraculous as wings. It isn’t how evolution is supposed to work. The way I understand evolution, an individual of a given species is supposed to be born with some trifling aberration, glossy eyelids or something along those lines—perhaps longer feet, a narrower tongue—that in the near term provides no pronounced advantage. Only over the course of a thousand generations is the freak characteristic supposed to leverage its slight—I repeat slight—advantage, and breed its way through the species. In this way, Nature keeps her subjects feeling positive about themselves. We’re all about the same, you and I of this genus-phylum.
Not so when it comes to fucking wings that enable a creature to fly off of the ground into the sky. When that happens, it’s no longer possible for the more, shall we say, pedestrian members of the species to value themselves. I mean, just hypothetically, take coyotes. Say we’re all coyotes. We’re sniffing around for rabbits, we’re yipping at the moon. Except wait: now some of us have chainsaws for paws. Do you see what I’m saying? You wouldn’t want to be the coyote who didn’t get the chainsaw paws. You wouldn’t feel like a full coyote.
Or I don’t know, maybe this is exactly how things work. Maybe one day you’re a young man with uncountable decades stretching ahead of you, and a day later you find yourself surrounded by other young men, the truly young men. They’ve sprouted wondrous appendages, it seems, and are enjoying the use of them in a sunlight that’d once fallen on your shoulders. They’ve flown into the sky and intercepted that sunlight. You’re several years their elder, and in that sense are traveling ahead of them, but it’s as if these nimble youngsters have sailed past you, and are vanishing in the trees.
Ben Nickol’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Redivider, Boulevard, Fugue, CutBank, Hotel Amerika and elsewhere, and he’s the author of two books: Where the Wind Can Find It (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2015) and Adherence (Outpost19, 2016). His work has been honored by the Arkansas Arts Council and Best American Sports Writing, among other organizations. For more, visit www.bennickol.com.
I credit the Victorian novelist George Gissing with curing me of a misunderstanding about the literary life. It always seemed to me that late-nineteenth-century England must have been the ideal time and place to be a novelist. George Eliot was revered. There was no television or Internet to siphon away the attention of the masses. Publishers did not need to make megabucks for corporate owners who also produced toasters or ran theme parks. The world was quieter then, and slower–seemingly good circumstances for the production of meaningful literature.
Then I read New Grub Street, Gissing’s 1891 novel about this supposed golden age. I came across the work of Gissing, whose name rang a distant bell, on the fifty-cent sale shelves at my local library. It was a different novel I discovered first: his wonderful The Odd Women, about turn-of-the-century English feminists. I was impressed that a book written by a man in 1893 could offer such a rich and sensitive account of what happens to women deprived of choices in love and work. After that, I knew I wanted more Gissing. So I found my way to New Grub Street, which I was able to obtain only secondhand, through an online bookseller.
New Grub Street is probably Gissing’s best-known work today, although it’s hard to find anyone who’s read it, even lovers of Victorian literature. This a great shame, and surprising, too, for Gissing has Dickens’s knack for comic caricature, Eliot’s psychological insight, and Edith Wharton’s understanding of class. If you’re a writer who’s ever felt sucky about your pitiful advances, the lack of reviews for your books, or your inability to place your literary work altogether, you will finish reading New Grub Street feeling much, much better. Because in the Golden Age of the Novel, things were actually much, much worse.
New Grub Street centers around two very different writers: Edwin Reardon, a talented writer of lyrical, psychological, rather plotless novels, and his friend Jasper Milvain, whose ambition is to become a sought-after and financially comfortable writer of reviews and articles about other people’s books (he knows very well that fiction doesn’t pay). The novel opens as it is dawning on Reardon that he has made a terrible mistake with his recent marriage. His first two novels were critical successes, but the income from them, enough to support him when he was on his own, will not stretch to keep a wife and young child fed and warm through the long, chilly London winters. His wife, Amy, doesn’t understand why Reardon can’t just write a potboiler and make a whole lot of money, and her disapproval and growing coldness deeply wound Reardon and eventually undermine his ability to write at all. The numerous, agonizingly detailed passages about Reardon’s alternating writer’s block and grim, forced attempts to write something the public will find “sensational” are some of the most frightening a fellow writer can read. Gissing recognized that for an artist the greatest terror is the fleeing of the muse or, as he puts it, the “outwearied imagination.” Financial anxiety, he suggests, is one of the fastest routes to that exhaustion.
Meanwhile, his counterpart, Milvain, who enjoys boasting about how shallow and venal he is, is steadily rising in reputation. Milvain knows how the literary world really works. He understands that its mechanisms are primarily social, and so he has to court important editors and silly benefactresses and praise books he dislikes. As he explains it, even a good book “will more likely than not . . . be swamped in the flood of literature that pours forth week after week . . . . If a writer has friends connected with the press, it is the plain duty of those friends to do their utmost to help him. What matter if they exaggerate, or even lie? The simple, sober truth has no chance whatever of being listened to.” Milvain acknowledges that a “genius” may eventually be celebrated regardless, but New Grub Street is precisely a book about the problem of the nongenius writer, an effort to show what happens when the merely very talented make art in a thoroughly monetized culture.
Reardon’s depression and escalating money troubles lead to the undoing of his marriage, conveyed with a dreadful intensity and inevitability that reminded me of two much more recent novels, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. If Gissing has one point he wants to hammer home, it’s that, in Reardon’s words, “poverty degrades.” It destroys love, work, and character. Otherwise decent, honest, and loving people become harsh and unprincipled for lack of money. Reardon grows withdrawn and frankly a bit unhinged; his similarly struggling colleagues torment their wives, turn to drink, commit suicide, or, if less devoted to their art, find solutions like Reardon’s friend Whelpdale, who discovers he can make a bundle advising other people on how to write their novels. (Tout ca change . . .) The gentle and charming Biffen remains unmarried so as not to fall into the same difficulties as Reardon, then withers of loneliness. Always attentive to the particular problems of women, Gissing also shows, through the character of a grouchy critic’s daughter, how sensitive and intelligent women writers were even less likely to make their way than their male peers.
Gissing knew the hardships of the writing life firsthand. While he seems in retrospect to be the success Reardon is not, publishing twenty-some novels before his early death at age forty-six, he did not experience himself as one. He was constantly strapped for money, given the draconian publishing arrangements of the time, under which writers sold the copyright to their works rather than earning royalties. Even when a book like New Grub Street went into extra printings, Gissing never saw a penny of the profit. His books received mixed reviews. He was under pressure, like Reardon, to write much and write quickly. His health was not good, and he had two terrible and distracting marriages.
While Gissing was resentful in life, he was generous as a novelist: Jasper Milvain, who could have been loathsome, has appeal and even his noble moments. It’s clear that Gissing admired and even envied his character’s vitality, optimism, and sheer instinct for survival. The ambiguity that animates every character makes New Grub Street not just a great, plotty read (there is also a love match beset by obstacles and a rich relative whose will offers surprises) but a novel of enduring interest. Gissing saw that men collude in their own failures and that the world needs its hustlers and finaglers as well as its oversensitive dreamers. Still, his message is unmistakable: there are no viable lives for the serious writer. Reading New Grub Street today, you can look at our culture of welfare benefits, free emergency-room visits, NEA grants, and MFA teaching jobs and say things are certainly better now. Or you can feel that the oppressive structures are still intact, the game is still rigged, failure still a near certainty, but that you’ve just spent several hours in the company of a writer and characters who understand. Either or both. I vote for both, which must be why I always close this dark, rather bitter novel feeling remarkably cheerful.
Pamela Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice and was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New Republic, Library Journal, and Salon. The novel was a finalist for the John Gardner Book Award for the best book of fiction published in 2013. Pamela’s debut novel, The Understory, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her essays, articles, and reviews have appeared in publications such as Virginia Quarterly Review, Elle, Vogue, The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Millions. Her third novel, Eleven Hours, published in May 2016.
Translated from the original Georgian by Rebecca Gould
The Late Horse Race
I dream of a horse race.
I mount my nag.
From every poem I know
only my shame remains.
Neither crusader nor knight,
my battlefield has fled.
Fly away with me, my dream,
do not linger, wretchedly.
My pool of blood stirs sadly.
Armed or weak, we swim in words.
We will battle fatefully.
Our fight will be brave.
My blood swells like a second sea.
Who will lance my wounds?
Who will pierce the bubble of my pain,
and release the fluid into the ocean?
When will my wounds be clean?
One word remains to this swan whose throat is slit.
She is the voice of my poetry.
I await her melody, my sad Agamemnon.
Titsian Tabidze (1895–1937) was one of most eloquent and innovative Georgian literary modernists of the twentieth century. His poems were translated during his lifetime by the Russian poets Boris Pasternak and Osip Mandelstam. Like many Russian and Georgian poets of his era, Titsian perished in a purge organized by Stalin and his subordinates. To date, Titsian’s work has only been systematically translated into Russian, but an interview with his daughter and granddaughter illuminates his struggles as an outspoken poet in a time of political oppression. His poems have appeared in English translations by Rebecca Gould in Prairie Schooner, Seizure, Lunch Ticket, and RHINO.
Rebecca Gould is the author of Writers and Rebels: The Literatures of Insurgency in the Caucasus (Yale University Press, 2016) and the translator of After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems of Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (Northwestern University Press, 2016), and The Prose of the Mountains: Tales of the Caucasus (Central European University Press, 2015). Her translations from Georgian, Persian, and Russian have appeared in The Hudson Review, Nimrod, The Atlanta Review, and Washington Square. She teaches Comparative Literature and Translation Studies at the University of Bristol in the UK.
Nick Flynn and Roy Scranton both explore the intersection of memory, imagination, and pain, teasing out the complicated language of grief and complicity, meditating on the entanglements between personal tragedy and global trauma. Flynn is an award-winning poet and memoirist, perhaps best known for his trilogy of memoirs, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, The Ticking is the Bomb, and The Reenactments. His most recent book is My Feelings: Poems. Roy Scranton is the author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, and the new novel War Porn, which portrays the Iraq War through three interconnected stories, nested together like Russian dolls: a young American woman making a fateful choice at a late-summer barbecue, an American soldier in Baghdad, and an Iraqi mathematician watching his country fall. Sam Sacks at the Wall Street Journal called War Porn “One of the best and most disturbing war novels in years.”
Flynn and Scranton crossed paths in Houston, Texas, where Flynn teaches writing and Scranton was doing research on global warming. Meeting at a performance of the one-man play Thom Pain (based on nothing), a careening monologue of self-disgust and rage, they connected over Consequence, the haunting, austere memoir by their mutual friend Eric Fair about being an interrogator at Abu Ghraib. The publication of War Porn gave them the opportunity to keep talking, over email, about the poetics of the global war on terror.
Roy will be reading from War Porn at Powell’s City of Books in Portland on Monday, September 12.
Nick Flynn: War Porn starts with babble—“babylon”—something that could have been generated by a computer, maybe from fragments of government propaganda, more poetry than narrative. It’s a wild way to introduce us to what’s to come. I was thrilled, but then I’m a poet, and there’s a long shadow on poets in this book. Can you talk about the “babylon” sections and the role of poetry in War Porn?
Roy Scranton: The “babylon” sections are the connective tissue holding the different narrative strands of the novel together: the collective unconscious, as it were—as if the Global War on Terror could dream. It’s largely a mash-up of different discourses about war, journalism and epic, song lyrics and movie quotes, press briefings and military handbooks, a lot of found text mixed in with different bits of my own. I was inspired by the prose poetry tradition going back through French surrealists such as Eluard, Cendrars, and Ponge, but the more direct antecedents are William S. Burroughs’s “cut-up” technique and John Dos Passos’s “Newsreel” sections in the USA trilogy. The book is about our narratives of war, language and war—one of the meanings of War Porn—so it’s almost inevitable that poetry would come into it. What is that Pound said—epic is a poem with history in it?
For many years, I’ve been trying to understand what Wallace Stevens wrote in his prose statement on the poetry of war, how the poetry of war and the poetry of the work of the imagination are two different things, and I knew that it had to have something to do with what he was trying to make sense of when he wrote in Notes toward a Supreme Fiction:
Soldier, there is a war between the mind
And sky, between thought and day and night. It is
For that the poet is always in the sun,
Patches the moon together in his room
To his Virgilian cadences, up down,
Up down. It is a war that never ends.
There’s a lot to say about this bit of poem, from which I take War Porn’s epigraph, but what might be most useful is to notice the correspondence Stevens is suggesting: Both war and poetry are ways of remaking reality, one in blood, the other in words, and these ways of making (poiesis) are in conflict. They are two kinds of poetry, the poetry of war and the poetry of the work of the imagination, and they are not only different things, but antitheses.
There are a lot of poets in War Porn: Wendy is a poet, Othman is a poet, and of course Wilson is a failed poet. All of them struggle to fight their poetic war, the war between the mind and sky, against that other war, the violence that rends lives and souls. At least one of them loses. I don’t know if any of them win. But the thing about the war between the mind and sky is that “it is a war that never ends,” in part because mind and sky are mutually constitutive, in part because there is no mind and there is no sky. There is only matter and perception.
So then we come back to the “babylon” sections, which are the formal embodiment of the poetry of war, which Stevens called the consciousness of heroic fact. What does that mean? The “babylon” sections are one response.
NF: Another poetry flash: Early on stateside, the poet Wendy, who’s dating Aaron—just home from the war—tells a long story about a coyote, which seems a type of duende moment.
RS: In Wendy’s coyote story, she talks about hitting a coyote on the road but then not finding any trace of its body. Later, the coyote reappears at her home as if haunting her. In telling this story to her friends, Wendy’s trying to process and explain something to herself about her relationship with Aaron, but the way she does that is through this dramatic self-representation: she wants to keep other peoples’ interest. Or maybe the coyote is a duende, which might be another way of saying metaphor, another way of saying magic. One of the pleasures of writing fiction is that I don’t feel an obligation to discriminate between reality and imagination. I don’t have to pick a side in the war between mind and sky. I don’t even need to know what really happened, because all I need to know is what the characters see and believe.
NF: Most of what we see of the American occupation is through Private Wilson’s eyes. The first Iraq scenes are literally a series of wrong turns, attempting to drive to Baghdad. It’s incredibly tense and nothing really happens. Nothing of the glory of war here. Why show the war through the eyes of somebody who already seems so cynical?
RS: I knew a lot of cynical guys in the military, and I knew a lot who just wanted to do their time and get out. Really internalizing military values, at least in the Army, takes a while, because complaining and resentment are practically sacred rights among the lower enlisted, especially when it comes to complaining about officers. You can go back to Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe cartoons from World War II, right, Kilroy was here, even Beetle Bailey—or Bill Murray’s character in Stripes, Matthew Modine’s Joker in Full Metal Jacket. There’s a tradition of acerbic alienation within American military literature, and I see Wilson as part of that tradition. It’s one of the few ways we have in this country to talk about class.
At the same time, I wanted to present the war as I saw it, which was as a private driving a humvee in Baghdad. And the war I saw was a complete shitshow. What struck me most about what I saw in Iraq was how stupid the occupation was, how negligent the planning that went into it, how idiotically and wastefully it was run. The horror of the war might be in the fact that it was unnecessary, based in lies, all about oil, and a flagrant violation of international norms, but I think, for me, at the end of the day, it’s in the fact that hundreds of thousands of innocent people died because of American stupidity. Continue reading
Too often, when writers try to write an essay, they stumble on common pitfalls like cramming too much information into too small a space, giving too much back story, or trying to write an essay for a particular column rather than writing an emotionally true one. We all have read memoirs that take our breath away, but how does a writer manage to produce that effect in under 3,000 words?
In this lecture from our 2014 Summer Writer’s Workshop, Ann Hood offers up ten steps to help you write a kick-ass essay.
From our 2009 Summer Workshop, Steve Almond and Aimee Bender—both the offspring of therapists—discuss how and why less experienced writers manage to sabotage their own fiction. Among the topics covered are: simplicity phobias, the artistic unconscious, OMD (obsessive metaphor disorder), fear of emotional exposure, prose envy, and obfuscation in the service of the id.
Anthony Doerr takes the pre off the dictable with a talk on defamiliarization and how its usage in art can alter our perception of the known world.
Like the best of his writing, Doerr’s 2008 Summer Workshop lecture ends up being more than just a display of craft: It’s a blueprint for life itself.
There was a time in my mid-twenties when I came to believe that everyone in our family, including my brother Eliot, would be better off if Eliot were dead. I loved him dearly. That was not the point. Dark-haired and dark-eyed in a family of fair-haired people predisposed to good cheer, Eliot was a perfect character to me, and I loved him exactly as one loves a book character whose days are so obviously numbered.
Once—this is just a single example—Eliot interrupted our dinner chatter to say, “I have discovered my nature, and it is the saturnine nature of the melancholic.” He was six years old. We cheered and laughed, because we had no idea what he was talking about. Philip, the oldest and most beloved within our family, liked to say that Eliot was possessed by the spirit of an eighteenth century consumptive. Eliot’s announcement did nothing to dispel his belief. I myself was four years older than Eliot and kept a reasonable emotional distance, thinking of him less as a family member than as a sort of deranged but entertaining pet, one that for example chases imaginary flies to exhaustion, or howls beneath a streetlamp she imagines to be the moon—amusing, but best to avoid getting too attached.
The summer after Eliot ran off with Greenpeace or maybe the Peace Corps, I found myself quite unconscionably thinking about things, for no good reason. This included Eliot and his melancholic disposition. It puzzled me and I wanted to solve the puzzle. I began to wonder—on sleepless nights as I lay beside some nameless whore; in a stoned haze as I stared up at the sky from my city balcony; in the bleary tender moments upon waking up beside Philip’s wife—if there wasn’t a solution after all. And so I imagined one. The news of the illness borne through the phone line. The sense of rupture within the family, the depth of which surely no one would find more surprising than Eliot himself. The late-night confessional phone calls, begging for a catharsis denied. The absolutely epic bedside vigil. The family’s great coming-together in the ancestral home, and the beginnings of a gorgeous reimagining of Eliot’s history. And Eliot himself, finding validation and the love and attention he must always have craved. And then death! to carry him above it all. Now thou dost dismiss thy servant, etc. Or at least not to be, which was also to be above it all at last: triumphant.
Oh, how I wanted to call him at that moment!
The years passed. We were all scattered by the time I heard the news. “We are not all scattered,” said Philip, but I was already hanging up the phone. Because he couldn’t understand. He’d never understood. I rested my face against the cool stone tile of the veranda, and I thought about my brother, my brother, who was gone.
Tom Howard’s fiction has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Booth and Willow Springs, and individual stories have received the Willow Springs Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Fiction, the Masters Review Short Story Award, and the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction. He’s in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.
Tin House invited a select number of early readers to read After James, a new novel by critically-acclaimed author Micheal Helm. Set in great cities, remote regions, and deadly borderlands, the story is told in three parts, each gesturing toward a type of genre fiction: the gothic horror, the detective novel, and the apocalyptic. For fans of Joshua Cohen and Ben Lerner, After James captures the dystopian strangeness of our current world. Enough about what we think—we surveyed Tin House Galley Club members, and here’s what they had to say.
Michael Helm is the author of the novels Cities of Refuge, a Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize finalist, a Giller Prize nominee, and a Globe and Mail Best Book of the Year; The Projectionist, a finalist for the Giller Prize and the Trillium Book Award; and In the Place of Last Things, a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. His writings on fiction, poetry, and the visual arts have appeared in several North American magazines, including Brick, where he’s an editor. He teaches at York University in Toronto and lives in semirural Ontario.
Please Don’t Feed the Spirit Animals
I saw a pair of mechanical polar bears
getting it on at the Vienna Prater. It was
unexpected—his bucking her from behind
while I slid by unobserved in a no-rail
cart. Knees to my chin, bar low and tight
across my lap, I dropped the fake
camera I’d been instructed to use.
They were polar bears in everything
but spirit, I decided—or else all spirit,
no polar bear. I couldn’t know. Who
signed them up for this? Were these
exhibitionists in another life, banished
to a special circle of pseudo-Antarctic hell?
Or was this a celibate’s reward? Sex in heaven,
perpetual love-making, no threat of offspring.
A giant crab looked on from across the way.
And how was he supposed to feel,
lit up only by his own florescence?
Hannah Dow is a PhD student at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers, where she is an Associate Editor for Mississippi Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Harpur Palate, American Literary Review, and Spoon River Poetry Review, among others. She also received an honorable mention in the 2015 Intro Journals Project.
Gifted with a voice that could command an audience in any era, Dorothy Allison treated the participants of the 2011 Summer Workshop to a spirited discussion on how characters should speak on the page. Not only ‘he said, she said, none of them said a thing’, but a whole range of language issues–what is said and not said, dialect and rhythm, pacing, patterns in speech, and most importantly, the language of gesture and avoidance.
Yes, there was a bit of cursing involved in the lecture, but to be cursed at by Dorothy Allison is an experience to be treasured. Trust us, we have firsthand experience.
In our newest issue, Issue 69: Sex, Again?, we asked some of our favorite writers to describe some of their most awkward positions. The poet D. A. Powell was kind enough to respond with a rare foray into prose:
Remember when you could just walk up to someone on the street and have sex with them? Before even saying hello? Most relationships ended backward, and quickly, and though we know the streets to be rough, I’m sure some of us are still out there, quivering in the moonlight. I do not think of those profligate days as particularly glorious, but different. It was a different time, when the noodle bar used to be a hard-core bar, before the pharmacy expanded and annexed the trashy old dance palace. San Francisco had sex the way Louisiana has churches, abundantly and with as much true spirit. Porn ran up and down these blocks like marigolds, the scene a twenty-four-hour donut shop for the transient and sexually desperate. Muscly women, muscly men, bearded, hunky, slender, lithe, kinky, twinky, clean or stinky. Candor. Fetish. Outness. It was Playland at the Beach without the sand up your crack. (Everything else, though, that could fit.) Talk was minimalized by the thumping homegrown music conjugated by producers at Megatone Records or Moby Dick, a label named for the popular tavern where patrons pressed into each other close and hard like a big box of matches waiting for just enough friction to be lit. We danced to the driving pulse of tracks like “Mandatory Love” and “Cruisin’ the Streets” and “Die Hard Lover,” songs that exploited and exposed the language of homo desire. At the Jackhammer, the Pendulum, the Headquarters, the Shed—music, bodies, the relief and thrill of being reflected and surrounded by a world in which one need not explain oneself. Untenable for the long term. Oh, but it seemed such a short-term life.
We lived illegal, illegitimate, marginalized in and by our own country, unprotected in every way. Any film that portrayed a serious homosexual told us we’d die; it was the code of a movie industry many of us loved that we would not be permitted happiness on-screen (or off), lest our form of sexual desire spread like a pod from outer space or werewolfism. It did not help that we acquired immune deficiency within our community, that the public treated homosexuality like an illness we all had to prevent from spreading. I speak of the past as a complex of repressive forces so powerful that simply to love felt like an act of rebellion. Sex was affirmation. Solidarity. It was proof that we were numerous and visible and therefore not an anomaly. Natural variants in a scale of genders and attractions, occurring across all the other spectrums of humanity. Sex was easy and communal, like when you pass a bottle of wine around at a picnic and fill strangers’ cups, too, because, hey, here we all are on the grass together.
But sex is just one kind of promiscuity. Poetry is another. Writing, in general, is the promiscuous use of language, and every writer or poet I know has started far more interactions with the page than ever saw the light of day. But it’s impossible to count the number of times we’ve kissed a new sunrise, turned to the scribble next to us on the nightstand and crumpled it up like a phone number we’ll never dial. I stop in the middle of writing this to open a package from Alex Dimitrov. I stop to read half of Honorée Jeffers’s The Glory Gets. I go to Lily Hoang and Marilynne Robinson. I’m listening to Sylvester, watching Rachel Maddow with the sound off and the closed captioning on (I prefer not to hear her voice but I want her ideas), and looking up the Cathy Park Hong essay everyone is talking about. Then Brecht’s love poems and Jamaal May. And this is all before breakfast. All these poems touch me in different ways, while I’m still in jammies; the essays penetrate me in ways I’ve never been penetrated before, and I am speaking tender words back to each writer. I am on the crowded dance floor of diction and it’s having its way with me. I run my fingers across sentences and lines, I finger and mouth each one of them, and sometimes I just lie there and listen and let the words take me.
I rarely finish what I write and I often don’t finish what I read. And don’t even ask me to get past the first paragraph of a relationship. I’m a good starter, though. I have joined the Twitter world, a perfect marriage of promiscuous interaction and lack of physicality. It is the divey cocktail bar of the imagination, where I can be stimulated in so many other ways—music, poetry, politics, science, news, quirky personalities. A dose of realness that can be ignored without dying on you, unlike, say, a cat. It is everything and nothing, like the present-day Castro neighborhood, a theater of liberation that has become so liberated that it no longer resembles itself except as a museum piece. I am glad to see we’ve been invaded by Starbucks and Pottery Barn—it means we are no longer in need of a fortress of identity and safety in numbers. I just hope that marriage freedom doesn’t become marriage expectation. There is no victory in a convention. What we fought for in these streets was not middle-class morality and well-behaved kids. We stood against the assumptions of heteronormativity, said yes with our hips, with our hearts, with our eyes. Made sexual play and sexual pleasure as easy and as enjoyable as poetry. If I belong anywhere and with anyone, it is everywhere and with everyone. Or at least as many as I have desire for. Of course I love being flirted with. But my drag name is no longer Clearance.
D.A. Powell‘s books include Repast and Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry. He lives in San Francisco.