Timber Winter 2015

 

Logo For Timber Winter Issue 2015

Prose, Poetry, and Interviews

 

“Alignment in a Ford F-150” by Kristen N. Arnett

I know that the truck didn’t have air conditioning.

The memory gets cloudy when I think about his face, because faces all look filmed over when you’re young, like you’re remembering three different versions of a person. I know that I was four years old, because I hadn’t started school yet, but I could read my uncle’s name on a paper in the center console. We were sitting in my uncle’s truck and we were parked in the side yard of my grandparent’s house. It was my uncle’s big red truck, the one with the back rusted out from pockets of rainwater that never wanted to drain, the one that my brother and I liked to climb inside and salvage bits of scrap metal. It was late morning; I know this because my grandparents weren’t home. They owHéctor Ramírezned an antique store that they called Emily’s Post after my grandmother, whose name was Darlene, but she went by Emily, and my grandfather hauled around a big trailer to pick up used furniture. He kept blankets in the back of that long white trailer. Sometimes my brother and I made forts out of them or pretended we were natives, hiding out in our wigwam, an old doghouse at the back edge of the property. That morning my brother was out back in the doghouse and I was out front with my uncle, in the big red truck, parked over in the side yard.

I know that the vinyl seat burned my legs.

Certain smells have stayed with me, but nothing concrete. The odor of rot and dead wood, the damp smell of grass in Florida that reminds you that mildew and algae can grow anywhere it wants. The best I have are snapshots of how the inside of the truck looked – how the seat was shiny red with off-white stitching, that the knobs on the stereo were ribbed black with matte silver faces. There was a big pack of gum on the seat between us, and my uncle was offering it to me. I was chewing two pieces already, and then he handed me a third. I think I licked the wrapper, because that’s what I always did with candy, and my tongue came away bright and sugary like when I’d tried to eat the sweet ‘n low packets at the church picnic. I cradled my thighs in my palms and the skin felt hot and sweaty, then I put my feet up on the seat to try and cool down. I was wearing jelly shoes that were muddy on the insides and my toes felt slimy. The way that the shoes smelled was like the garden hose that we used to fill up the plastic kiddie pool, or like the rubbery worms that my father bought in slimy packs for fishing in the retention pond.

I took my shoes off because my uncle told me that I could, I remember that. I know that was something that happened.

My parents never let me take my shoes off in the car. They said I might lose them under the seat, and they didn’t want to have to dig them out when we got to wherever we were going. My mother said she didn’t want me to step out onto the dirty ground and crouch down to dig underneath the seat, because maybe I was wearing a dress and then my underwear might show when I bent over. My father said my feet probably smelled bad, and he didn’t want to test that theory. My uncle didn’t care about my bare feet, he told me I could take my shoes off, so I did and I put them flat up on the seat.

Out of the shoes, my sweaty feet were dirty and I know I felt embarrassed.

There were small black pinholes in the vinyl and I picked at them even though I shouldn’t have, because it wasn’t my truck. It was summer or maybe spring, but the windows were rolled up and the sun was baking my skin through the passenger’s side window. I know that I had on a tank top because my shoulder felt hot and smelled warm and yeasty like baked bread. There was a big oak tree in the yard that my brother used to climb. I know I wished that tree would shade the truck because I was getting sunburned and it hurt. My uncle touched my foot with one of his fingers and I laughed and I moved it away from him. I did that because it tickled and because my foot was dirty and it might have smelled.

I don’t know why we got in the truck together.

There are big chunks of people’s lives where they do things because their family asks them to, and you do them, because you don’t question your family. That is normal behavior, especially for children, this is what I tell myself. When my feet were on the seat, I could see that they were dirty, and I could also see my weird middle toes. My middle toes did not look like the rest of my toes, though they were just as dirty. I liked my middle toes because they didn’t look like anyone else’s toes – they curled in on themselves like they were tiny pink shrimp. Like they were hiding from the rest of my foot. I used to tell my brother that they were my shyest toes, and when she was helping me put on my tights for church my mother told me that they would come out when they were finally ready. My uncle took his hands and pulled my middle toes out from their hiding place and curled them so they rested on top of my second toes, until they were stretched out in an uncomfortable shape.

I know I tried to uncurl them and my uncle told me to leave them alone.

Sometimes when I wore sandals people could see my toes and they would talk about how weird they looked. There was a girl in my Sunday School class who said they were gross. The girl who said my toes were gross had a big red bow in her hair. I remember that because I always wanted my mother to put big bows in my hair, but she said my hair was too thin and that it would just fall out and I’d lose it. My uncle was tapping at my toe and it didn’t tickle, but it felt funny and I didn’t like it very much. I tried to pull my foot away from him and he held onto my ankle.

There was too much gum in my mouth and I know I felt like I was choking.

My uncle pulled on my leg until my foot was resting in his lap. I know he was wearing jeans because he always wore jeans, at least before he got the nice job in Atlanta where he wore a lot of suits and ties and had to shave off his facial hair. I was worried that I was going to get his pants dirty because my foot was dirty and I didn’t want to get in trouble. My mother was always upset with me because I couldn’t keep anything clean. All of my clothes had stains on them, including my church dresses, but she wouldn’t stop buying me things in pale pink and yellow. That was before my baby sister was born and my mother started buying her all of the pastel things. Then I just wore an older cousin’s hand-me-downs, what my mother called leftovers, clothes that my aunt gave us in a big black garbage bag.

He scraped the bottom of my foot with his fingernails and I know that I laughed.

When someone tickles you, you’re laughing, but it doesn’t necessarily feel good. It usually feels bad, like you just want it to stop. That’s confusing because when you hear someone laugh, you think they’re having a good time. When you’re being tickled, you know that’s not true, but then it’s like you forget. You’ll tickle someone else even though you know that they’re not really laughing, they’re really saying stop. My uncle tickled my foot and I laughed, and I remember that his teeth were very white. When he smiled his brown mustache lifted up in the corners, and it was like he had two smiles instead of just one. He held my foot and his hand was warm and my foot was sweating and I was embarrassed. At least it seems like I would be embarrassed, because ladies don’t sweat. Except I would always sweat when I got hot or upset, and sometimes it would show up in rings on my clothes and my mother would make me change them so I’d look fresh and clean.

I know that when he twisted my toe, I screamed and the gum fell out of my mouth and landed on the seat.

There was a second when it didn’t feel like anything, it was just a strange popping noise. My uncle wasn’t smiling anymore, he was grimacing, and he wasn’t looking at my face because he was staring at my foot. When the pain came, it was like a rolling wave. It started at my middle toe and it moved up into my ankle and then into my calf and thigh, and up my torso until my mouth opened and I was sobbing. I started crying without knowing what had happened, or maybe I did know what had happened, but it didn’t make sense. When you’re young, your family takes care of you: this is what television tells you, and it is also what Sunday School told me when I drew the pictures of “god’s family” and it included all of my relatives. My grandmother put that picture up on her refrigerator with the banana-shaped magnet and the paper was all curled up from the humidity.

My gum was on the seat and I know my uncle told me to pick it up.

I put it back in my mouth, but it wanted to fall out again. He never told me to stop crying. He kept holding my ankle, but he let go of my foot. I wanted to put my shoes back on, but I didn’t feel like my foot was part of my body anymore. I thought maybe since other people could break it so easily, that my foot was accessible to anyone and it could maybe be everyone’s body part. When he finally let go of my ankle, I cried again because I wanted to put my shoe on and it had gotten kicked under the seat. I’d have to squat down and look under the seat and maybe I would flash my underwear at the street, just like my mother had said I would when I took my shoes off in the car. When he tried to touch my other foot, I screamed and yelled no, and that’s when he told me to be quiet. I didn’t yell anymore, but I kept crying. He didn’t seem to mind that, even though he still wouldn’t look at my face. I didn’t look at his face, either; at least I don’t think I wanted to look at it.

I know that he gave me the pack of gum to keep when we got out of the car.

I threw it away in the tall kitchen garbage can, or I gave it to my brother, or I hid it under a big clump of Spanish moss in the front yard. I know that I put the gum from my mouth in that moss and I could still see it shining yellow-green even when I was already ten steps away from it. The mint taste made me sick and I wanted to drink some water. I walked over to my grandparent’s house and my toe throbbed. My uncle stayed out in the truck with the windows rolled up, even though it was hot and his face was dripping sweat, except maybe the windows were down, and maybe he had his door cracked open. I didn’t wipe my feet on the mat outside the front door, but the bristles dug into my soles and it tickled like someone was scraping at the bottom of my foot. When I got inside my mother yelled at me for walking outside with no shoes on, so I put them on right there in the doorway and felt ashamed of myself.

Now my feet look different from each other, I know that for a fact because they are my feet and they are a part of my body.

When I showed my mother my foot later that night in the bath, she said it looked better than before. She didn’t look at my face when she said this to me, or maybe I wasn’t looking at hers when she said it. I know that her hands felt strong when she tipped my head back and poured the cup of water over my head, and I know that she shielded my eyes from the soap so that it poured around the sides of my face and dripped into my ears. I know that I trusted her with my safety because she was my mother and that is what your body does. I know that when she hugged me goodnight that she kissed my mouth, because that is how she always kissed me goodnight until I hit puberty and we stopped kissing each other. My foot stopped hurting after a few days and then I didn’t think about it anymore.

___

Kristen Arnett is a fiction and essay writer who has held fellowships at Tin House and Lambda Literary Foundation. She was an honorable mention for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers as well as a finalist for the 2014 William Richey short fiction contest at Yemassee Journal. Her work has either appeared or is upcoming at North American Review, The Normal School, Superstition Review, The Rumpus, The Toast, and Burrow Press Review. You can find her on twitter here: @Kristen_Arnett 

 

 

“Between Places” by Thaddeus Rutkowski

I’m living in a rented house with my wife and daughter. We’re sharing it with people we don’t know. We have our own apartment, but sometimes we go into other people’s rooms, and sometimes they come into ours. No one seems to mind this arrangement. We’re leaving the house soon, anyway.

*

There is material on my work-computer screen that I don’t want other people to see. I look at a window on the monitor, careful that no one is watching me.

Someone comes to my desk to ask a question, then sits at my keyboard and starts to type. The private content is one layer below what shows on the screen. The person won’t leave my desk.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the secret material is on my home computer, not my office computer. I wouldn’t put those kinds of images on my computer at work.

*

I’m copying Chinese text onto sticks. I’m holding half a dozen pieces of wood that look like tongue depressors. The Chinese characters are aligned in vertical rows.

I’m finding these words in a source book, and they are being duplicated automatically on the wooden sticks, as if by a Xerox machine. I don’t have to do the copying by hand. All I have to do is make my wishes known.

I’ll show these coded sticks to people and hope they understand the words.

*

My wife, daughter and I are moving out of our apartment. We have only a few boxes and bags to pack, but I can’t gather all of them. Each time I reach for something, I find something else I need to bring. I pick up a plastic bag, and I’m going to stuff it into a larger bag, but the larger bag is filled with cookies for our trip. I eat a couple of the cookies and leave the plastic bag alone.

The rooms now have no furniture, just carpeting and bare walls. I don’t know what we slept on or sat on during our stay here.

*

My office has been moved to a new space, a sort of large terrace, with a slate floor. There is no office equipment, no desks or computers. There are some tables with wrought-iron legs—patio furniture.

The people I’m working with are new, too. They are taking over the operation. One is a woman—I used to work for a female boss. The new people seem nice enough, but I suspect they won’t need me around much longer.

*

I decipher the Chinese characters I’ve copied onto sticks. The ideograms form a poem about drinking. The poet is spending the night outdoors and alone. After a few drinks, the moon and his shadow are his friends. The three of them do some singing and dancing. I understand his state of mind.

*

I go back to the apartment we’ve moved out of to see if we’ve left anything behind. I find a number of things, mostly shoes. There are about three pairs of my wife’s shoes on the floor, and one of her shoes that has no counterpart. I look into a closet and see a couple of pieces of luggage: a large backpack and a long, thin case for something like a fishing rod or a rifle.

I see that I can fit these things into my backpack. Somehow, the larger pieces are collapsible. I’m going to have to carry all of this stuff with me to work, then bring it home when the day is done. My wife will be surprised and happy to see the retrieved items.

*

Our new apartment’s front door is flimsy. It’s a folding door with a small knob in the middle, at the seam. It looks easy to break into.

I’ve forgotten where the subway entrance is. It is far from our apartment, but it used to be clear in my mind. Now, I can’t find it at all. I walk along unfamiliar streets, looking for the entrance.

When I get home, I see that my Chinese texts have been defaced. Someone has written sarcastic comments next to the characters and made serious words into jokes. “Moon,” a scrawled note reads. “Ha!”

Otherwise, I see no evidence of breaking and entering. Nothing has been taken.

*

I come out to the car I’ve rented and see a traffic officer leaving a parking ticket on the windshield. “I’m going to move the car now,” I say, hoping to avoid a fine.

It turns out not to be a ticket, but a crime report. “Someone broke into your car,” the cop says.

I was carrying paintings in the car. The canvases were small, but some were valuable. I don’t know where I got these paintings.

I also don’t know if I’m able to drive. I broke my right arm months ago, but it’s still weak. I can’t lift it into a horizontal position without using my other, healthy arm. Once I get my hand on the steering wheel, I can clench my fingers and hold on for a while before the injured arm starts to ache again.

I look into the back of the car and see some jackets and hats—they haven’t been stolen. Only the paintings are gone.

I’m waiting for my daughter. Obviously, I left the car parked too long. My daughter and I were inside a house, doing something, not paying attention to the car. Now, a lot has gone wrong.

*

Our daughter is going to China by herself. She is packing bags—she has several of them. They are not all suitcases. Some are shopping bags.

She has tasks here, where she lives. One is a big test in school. But she’ll miss these duties while she’s in China.

If she needs our help there, we won’t be able to go. I don’t even know how we’ll communicate with her.  She has Chinese hosts, but I don’t know them. I’m not sure if they are trustworthy.

I always knew there would come a time when she would move away from home. I just didn’t know it would happen this way.

“Don’t worry,” she says to me. “I’m not leaving yet. We have time to play a game. You know, the one where you and Mom hold my hands and swing me up while we’re walking.”

“I’ll try,” I say, even though I can’t lift much weight with my injured arm.

___

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the novels Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. All three books were finalists for an Asian American Literary Award, and Haywire won the Members’ Choice Award, given by the Asian American Writers Workshop. He teaches at Medgar Evers College and the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in New York. He received a fiction fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

 

 

Three Pieces by Jennifer E. Brown

 

“The Story of Russell”

Russell was the darkest person I ever knew—I mean, the one who did the most drugs. He had lustrous black hair and petal-white skin. His neck smelled like pine tar, loam, and molasses.

He had lived with his girl in a flat for eleven years. In his matter of fact recountings he would say her name and I could never understand it. It just passed through the air between us, heavy and thudding. He would open the tall cupboards and bring out glasses for us. It was cold in summertime. He showed me the rooms they lived in. She had tried to kill herself in that very apartment. If I lived there, I wondered, would I sleep with Russell and try to kill myself too? It seemed like a natural progression.

The place was tepid and bristling. We were throwing ourselves through time. His songs were always playing: inscrutable men singing about spaced-out girls; love that ruins you, things that happened in New York. He took a man’s life on the street outside of his place late one night. He said it had been an accident. Something about suffocation or strangulation. I don’t know which exactly. No one will.

This was on Twenty-Second Street, the corridor that leads from one man to another. Everything was starting and ending there and had been going on before anyway. The jasmine grew recklessly. The air was overbearing.

Russell was selling a short life filled with the rewards of an unweighted ascent. He asked me to marry him at city hall in February. The birds were singing crazily at midnight. The sky was the color of a cloudy white marble. We stood on the grey steps under the bare trees and ice-cold winter raindrops.
 
 
 “The Last Night”

“I see you have your Quadrophenia outfit on,” John St. Cloud said to me in the church on Sixty-third Street. I was seated directly above an old grate where the heat blew out onto my feet and face. It blew the greasy blonde hair of the woman sitting in front of me up off of the back of her chair. Her boyfriend kept kneading her shoulder, squeezing her with his hands, and occasionally turned back at me and smiled. I could see trash in the vent below— a coin and a wadded up wrapper covered in dust. I imagined how they felt to the touch and something in my stomach churned.

It was the Saturday night that comes at the very end of November, pressing us under the lows, a mantle of freezing night air. The day had slunk away abruptly. Strings of white lights crisscrossed the road against the weak sky. The neon at Spenger’s and the freeway overpass beyond it bled out into a flat shell-colored haze.

When John took off his jacket I could see that he was wearing a fine plain grey wool sweater. His hands looked swollen and abused; like they had been hit with a hammer. At the end of the hour he vigorously wrested a splinter from the fleshy underside of his ring finger. We prayed and went to the kitchen for water. Adjoining the cooking area was a dark carpeted room, and an eerie yellow light streamed into it from stained windows in the doors on the other side. It smelled like mildew and something heavy and oily; rotting wood. It was dim and while he leaned with his back to the wall and his hand in a pocket, I traced my fingers on the edges in the mottled glass.

“I remind you of someone,” he said to me with a solemnity that made me afraid I’d met him long before any of this and had no recollection. But he didn’t remind me of anyone, just the type of boys that grew up in Berkeley in my time— they had lived below the sheltering woodland hills, the eucalyptus and redwoods snapping and hissing in the summer heat. I had gone to the liquor store with boys like that, I had been in the bedrooms of their parents’ houses.

I could see the way his hair grew from the nape of his neck, that it was incredibly soft and straight. He had glinting pebble-grey eyes and the sort of teeth that turn inwards and seem delicate and beautiful in a strange way. And I knew then that something was coming, a feeling would arrive in the world, deep in winter. In the icy darkness the city burned along the skyline, glowing on the water, blinking in the air.
 
 

“the volunteer state”

is it hot in tennessee? she asked smiling. the question contained a small joy. yes, but in tennessee they have air conditioners, he answered and turned away so that she could see a crease in the back of his head. even his shins were sweating. the sky had set. all the tires, every road and voice from open windows, the vague sound hung on a city. her legs fell asleep at night. not from a lack of circulation, but because they were dead. imagine this kind of pain in your heart. just imagine it.

___

Jennifer E. Brown is a writer from San Francisco. Her work appears in Lungfull!The Indiana ReviewFourteen HillsThe New Orleans Review, and other American literary journals. Presently she has been nominated by Short, Fast & Deadly for the 2015 Pushcart Prize. She holds a master’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and works at Mills College in Oakland, California.

 

 

“Love Song for Joe Biden on the Eve of the 2012 Vice-Presidential Debate” by Bryant Davis

Listen, Joe. Before you go on stage, I need to tell you something. Joe, you were born a Pennsylvanian, and that makes us brothers. Joe, I know you’ve spent a lot of time down there with that softhearted man who believes that if we hold each other’s hands in friendship, we can come together to do good things in the world. Piss on that, Joe. Joe, remember your birth. Joe, we are not a kind people. Joe, we are a people who see the smashed to clay face of Mussolini on a meat hook and feel warmth in our hearts. Joe, I want you to make that fresh-faced boy cry. Joe, I want you to make that boy confess that John Maynard Keynes was the one true God. Joe, I want you to make that boy fall down on the floor and admit that writer he likes was terrible at writing. Joe, you owe this to me. Joe, when all my bleeding heart liberal friends bitched about you and your stupid jokes and your stupid drug laws, I stood up for you because you were a Pennsylvanian and I knew when this moment came, when that “above-it-all” man didn’t have the stomach to crush his enemies, you would. Joe, I want you to fuck that boy like Joe Louis fucked Max Schmeling. Joe, I believe in you. Joe, I need this. Joe, I can’t take any more heartbreak. Joe, I don’t love my girlfriend but she loves me. Joe, I’ve sent you all I can, fifteen hundred dollars. Joe, the money is running out. Joe, when I sit down to dinner alone in my kitchen I wear a little button with your name on it just so I don’t forget whose looking out for me. Joe, I’m scared the voting machines might be rigged. Joe, my job is dropping me from its health insurance plan and they say it’s your fault. Joe, the other day when I was screaming, I called a white congressman from Illinois who never pays his child support a nigger just to make a point, and I’m sorry. Joe, my yard is small and I can only fit so many signs. Joe, I get pains in my stomach when I see the wrong colored bumper stickers. Joe, I want you to make him beg for a sweet kiss on the lips from FDR’s polio-mangled cock. Joe, I want my kids to know how to do sex right in schools so that they can live better lives than I have. Joe, nobody likes my Facebook posts anymore. Joe, I yelled at my mother in a restaurant. Joe, I’m getting fat again, I know it, I need to stop eating. Joe, I’m so goddamn afraid all the time. Joe, the knuckles on my hands are bleeding. Joe, I’m scared that God is against us. Joe, I’m scared that everyone is right, and I’m wrong.

___

Bryant Davis was born between a cornfield and a forest in the suburbs of Townville, Pennsylvania population 300. For many years his only friends were stuffed animals and bookish boys who loved Hitler more than was appropriate. Eventually, he and his stuffed friends escaped to the promised land of northern Indiana, where Bryant was able to find work first as a graduate student, then as a writing fellow, and then finally as a general interest internet content creator. You can find oceans of his writing at theunion4ever.com.

 

 

“This is Not That Kind of Hiking Story” by Michael B. Tager

 

In most stories, Pamela takes a break from her hike, from the sun overhead that cuts through the leaves as if they’re invisible, and the plot proceeds organically. In other stories, her appearance is presented subtly, through thoughts and actions.

Pamela’s dressed appropriately for hiking in April – heavy boots, t-shirt and sweater, jeans, a plain baseball cap over dirty black hair. She’s Asian-American. She has a flat stomach and a small overbite.

In most good stories, external and internal problems emerge gradually, through plot-points and through dialogue.

Pamela’s been hiking for a month on the Appalachian Trail and arrives at a fork in the path. The split is just a split, of course, but too often it represents her life.  One fork is well-traveled and the other unkempt. One fork travels through visible valleys and is full of beautifully disparate foliage: reds and brilliant greens. The other, the uphill one, is strewn with rocks and grey mist. In most stories, the comparison to Frost’s poem is intentional.

In one story, Pamela has a lover she’s unsure of. His name is Riley and he’s Catholic; his father is a Vietnam War vet who tosses around racially-charged phrases with a perverse joy. Pamela and Riley are in a decades-long love affair, beginning in college when they were a legitimate couple and now, since Riley’s been married for several years, in dingy hotel rooms and in her Subaru. It’s a problem for her. She embarks on a multi-state hike because she can, because she wishes to cleanse her mind.

This version of Pamela comes to the fork in the road and says, “What am I doing? Am I sticking with what I know, because it’s comfortable?” Of course, she says this elegantly, because it’s an understated story. She chooses the unkempt road and experiences quiet reflection, punctuated by an encounter with Casey (who could be a man or woman, depending on the story), which nudges her to break it off with Riley. Maybe she pursues Casey, or vice-versa, but the resolution is unclear. Maybe, she thinks, she should be alone for awhile. She’s never been alone. The sigh is implied.

Pamela’s internal resolution, however it happens, is clear. Change and adventure and strife lead to personal growth. She’s a stronger person at the end of this first story, if still unformed. But there are other versions of the story.

Here’s one: In this, Pamela’s a happy-go-lucky sort, free-spirited and drama-avoidant. She’s from a loving middle class home and her boyfriend is faithful, blond and remarkably boring. Her father doesn’t approve – the boy is white, after all – and she’s not sure how to tell him about the engagement. But that’s why this Pamela is on this hike; in this story, Pamela loves adventure. In her youth she loved ponies and princesses. As a teenager, she liked bad boys (but not too bad) and theater. In college, she experimented with the soft-skinned, full-lipped roommate. Now, she works with … I don’t know … African children with AIDS and takes fabulous vacations – but only when she can spare the time.

This Pamela is uninterested in extra hardship, so foregoes the dark, foreboding path for the one of less resistance: this is a lark after all! She has tremendous fun: the path is gentle, the sky blue, birds chirp, other beautiful things. She rests on a log overlooking a calmly rushing brook. This, she knows, is what she came for. Nature fills her. This is why she’s alive, to feel living.

But there was foreshadowing earlier that we skipped over. Another hiker, travelling the opposite direction who tells Pamela about “a serial killer.” There are other options – escaped convicts, a vengeful spirit, statistics of rape on uninhabited stretches of the trail (which is most of it) – but regardless, it’s now clear what kind of story this is going to be.

In the story of Pamela and the easy path, there is disfigurement and murder. She encounters disreputables who, at first, seem harmless and witty, if edgy. One of the men is blond the other dark-haired.  She flirts with the blonde over a campfire and discusses her favorite Arctic Monkeys record, the state of affairs in Nepal and her Baltimore hometown. He seems shy and they laugh. The other is stoic and smiles grimly, eventually offering her a beer.

Pamela drinks the beer and it is at this point that the story takes a sharp turn.  Tension emanates from the dark-haired man and humor disappears. The blond-haired man turns sullen and barely-veiled jokes about Pamela’s femininity erupt, “What’s the difference between a woman and a grapefruit?” At this point, Pamela reacts and loses her agency until well after the rape (because of course there’s rape, there’s always the worst kind of violence in these kinds of stories).

She escapes of course, though scarred, and the men are punished; one even dies at Pamela’s hands. She stands over his body, the rock falling from her trembling fingers. In the distance, above the sound of larks, she hears her own voice, singing. It was only a few days before that her biggest worry was what she was to tell her father. She wishes she was still that Pamela, but she’s not. Not after this. But the story isn’t about Pamela or about her choices, instead about sex and power and horror. These stories are never about ‘Pamela.’

Here’s another story about Pamela. In this one, Pamela is there because she’s there. She has a husband (dead) and a child (also dead) and she shows up at this crossroads and sits for a moment. She’s very tired. This is all of her given back story.

After she sits, a magical being comes out of the shadows during the sunset. The magical being’s visage is unimportant, because it’s a made up magical creature, but its name is Genon and it’s an elf. The elf tells her that she’s the chosen one and she must “come quickly, before all is lost.”

Pamela listens to Genon in disbelief but accepts it because she came to the Appalachians to get lost in the mountains and simply says, “Sure. Lead on, Macduff.” And the elf takes her to a cave with a magical door inside and she walks through. And now the story is about Pamela’s destiny and the magic she encounters and the people she meets.

She meets a wise old man, a grizzled soldier and plucky dwarves who conspire to protect her and facilitate the Deus ex machina. The story ends when she comes back to the real world with a newfound zest for life. There’s a hint when she goes to sleep and looks at her newly-regal features in the mirror, chiseled by pain and privation, that she is destined to go back to the magical world because she belongs there. She sees the blue-fire tattoo blossom on her cheek. Her lips, thin, tired, turn up at the corners and she closes her eyes, ready for whatever may come.

In other words, when Pamela meets the fork-in-the-road, there are possibilities. Here are three more in rapid succession.

1)      Pamela goes back the way she came and is mauled by Cubby the bear. Cubby has back story as well and the story is really his story.

2)      There’s a forest fire and Pamela sits alone in the middle of the fork, feeling the heat encircle her, waiting for death calmly, just like her grandmother taught her. But a fire jumper, Craig, arrives from the sky and he fights the memory of his dead girlfriend in order to save her. This story has an appropriate amount of sex.

3)      Yet another Pamela eschews all paths and off-roads it instead. She meets a wise, aesthetic teacher/father-figure, who becomes her lover and she comes out of the experience refreshed and re-invigorated. The sex in this story is of a more lurid kind.

There are other paths for Pamela to follow. In some, she’s one way, in others, another. Her history changes, the plot changes, everything changes, but the one thing that doesn’t is Pamela’s choice. Because these are not the kinds of story that are decided by Pamela, by her understanding of herself. None of these stories are about Pamela; they happen to her.

This is a different kind of story.

In this story, Pamela sits in the dirt and rubs her naked feet, groaning when her long fingers knead the tender spots in her arches where her Nikes don’t give her flat feet the support she needs. In this story, sweat pours down her back and plasters dark hair to the nape of her neck. In this story, damp thighs and buttocks itch and she wriggles on the hard earth in an effort to scratch.

In this story, Pamela studies for the LSAT; in this story, she doesn’t really like reading. In this story, her best friend is dying and she doesn’t want to think about what it’ll be like when she’s gone, but does anyway, because that’s what maturity is. In this story, her father is dead because people’s parents die. In this story, she doesn’t want a boyfriend.

Pamela is at a crossroads but only she chooses which path, when the fork in the road resembles memory (the memory introduced pages ago). In this story, she’s the only one who chooses what happens. This is the story that should be written, the story you should walk away from thinking, “Yes. She’s real.”

This story has an ending, but it’s not satisfying, because life’s only real ending is death, and this won’t end that way, because it’s not that kind of story either. This ending, which you won’t read here, ends the way it began.

 

___

Michael B. Tager’s work has appeared in Baltimore Fishbowl, Theaker’s QuarterlyAtticus ReviewTypehouse Literary MagazineThe Light Ekphrastic and more. He has work forthcoming from Ambit and Bards and Sages Quarterly. He is the Managing Editor of Writers and Words, a monthly Baltimore reading series. He likes Buffy and the Baltimore Orioles. More of his work can be found at www.michaelbtager.com.

 

 

 

“Last Words” by Kat Finch

 

I found Rome brick
    I leave it marble,

my Florida water – now
    I can cross the shifting sands. Now
excuse me, I have

    to go, this
is the fish of my dreams.

    All is straw. Do you hear
the rain? Do you
    hear the rain? All

my possessions for a moment
    of time.

I haven’t had champagne
    for a long time, you sons
of bitches, give my love

    to mother! Just
don’t leave me
    alone. As this earth will suffocate

me, I implore you
    to have my body opened

so that I will not be buried
    alive. Please
don’t leave me. Please don’t

    leave me. We are
beggars: this is true. Hello.

    You got me. That picture
is awful dusty – only you
    have ever understood me

& you got it
    wrong. I hope

the exit is joyful
    & hope never to return. Boy,
fetch my fiddle, I feel

    something that is not
of this earth: I shall

    overlive my executioner!
Everything is an illusion –
    I always take

my vitamins, say my prayers,
    & drink my milk. No!
I didn’t come here

    to make a speech. I came
here to die. I did not

    get my Spaghetti-O’s, I got
spaghetti. I want
    the press to know this:

roses plural
    or Rose’s roses with

an apostrophe? I don’t
    know. I did
what I could. There is

    but one reliance.
This is no time
    for making enemies,

we are running on line north
    and south, now

comes the mystery: moose…
    Indian. I did not know
that we had ever quarreled.

    It must have been the coffee.
Damn it! How

    will I ever get out
of this labyrinth? I must go
    in, the fog is rising.

I see black light:
     get my swan

costume ready. Play that last measure
     very softly…
& will you rule

    better? Every
damn fool thing you do in this life

    you pay for. Please
leave the window open, I am
     just going

outside. I may be
     some time. Why?

I am right at the height
     of the rifles. The revolution
is like Saturn:

     it devours
its own children. Don’t

     worry, wasps probably aren’t good
flyers. They couldn’t hit
     an elephant

at this distance. Where
     is my clock? Further &

further to the north –
     do you have it now?
It don’t matter; I figure

     I licked
the rock anyway. I should never

    have switched
from Scotch to Martinis. I should
     never have been taken

alive – a king
     should die

standing. Did you think
     I was immortal? Okay,
just wondering.

    I don’t think they even heard me.
But the peasants,

     how do the peasants
die?

     Surprise me. I shall
have my uniform on – don’t
     make a mess

of it. It’s not meant
     to go into the bloody

ear. When I am dead, you will find
     Philip & Calais engraved
on my heart. It is

     the little shadow
which runs

     across the grass
& loses itself
     in the sunset. Go on, get

out! Last words are for fools
     who haven’t said enough! It is
the breath of a buffalo

in wintertime. It is
     walking towards me,
without hurrying.

___
[Author’s Note: Text is composed of last words from the famous and the unknown.]

Kat Finch is a second-year poet in the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program. Her work may be found in Sixth FinchBirdfeastQuaint Magazine, & others. Her first chapbook, Birds with Teeth, is recently out from Alice Blue.

 

 

from Stop It Crown by Patrick Culliton

It begins with a banana
hung from high
branches and relief

when the giant arrives in
time, gulps
it in stride and plays

air drums on the horizon.

Quiet, love.
If he hears us bumbling
to America, into the bindle we go.

What hungover god stuffed this ocean into us?
Let’s offer him our finest night terrors,
tithe against the tide that keeps rejecting our layup.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
What sunlight today.
Don’t say things like that.
Say what horses hear.
Talc in seawater.

Death rests in bears,
pawed in gray gauze.
They against kneeling
knee the hymn’s side.

Death lasts Tennessee minutes,
cicadas locked  in blue wax.

Death collects sticks and ties
them with twine, should you
find one spinning from the rafter.

Death rips us open
like a bag of chips
at a picnic one pavilion over.
 
 
 
  

Remember how we hated disco/
weren’t born yet? Best train the fright,
freeze it on speed dial.

Don’t think in a pictograph that pits
the heart beside a red rubber coin purse
unless you want permanent dyspepsia.

We can only sail to America via doubt
in any engine other than the tongue.
Just ask farms. They’ll be there,

manufacturing our shared nightmare
of being born anyone but water’s children.
When we have sex we’re a thresher

separating a kernel so small
even the sun can’t reach it with her swords.
 
 

I wish you happy hammers
now that you’re a comb
missing seven

teeth in the barbicide.
Earside, my barbress cuts
half a sea from my head.

Death is a vine behind the mirror.
I’m afraid six of you

will emerge and slap me
with a sack of cold powder
when I dream we take

a metalworking class and
keep making each other small

music stands.
 
 

 

In fall, the most sincere
form of money, we
tent out in fatass dark.
Our teeth flash
like America’s ghost
meat and we forgot
to pay the water
bill. You’re right.

We shouldn’t pony
up for anything
more than half our body
when in supervised woods
we can name the hurricanes
on our thumbs, issue
a Cadillac of a warning.

___

Patrick Culliton lives in Ohio.

 

 

Four Poems by Eric Baus

 

Wrong Cloak

The calm squad blottered me and my brother’s bulk into a gored together corpse. They lured an abscessed mop into whatever hurts form how we will be found. They sprayed WRONG CLOAK across the door to the datura plains and erased the space between clots. There I learned how lice can tame a mane. I learned that I was an intern pox for the crops to spurt loam from, but now I am training to be a glue ambassador for the corps. After another hour of helmeted breath, their clops returned to treeing peasants.

 
Mylar Cocoon

Huffing on a falcon while leaning in a lopsided tree, I fell into the ether-capped falls. I woke where all the swan eggs are copied from a single dead slug eye. The extinct oracle’s seedlings reflected my tenor. Its tubers produced a bassoon.

 
 Mute Casting

The pupa’s ghost escaped its octave. Begging to wander in a different cape, it walked until the distant, papery sound it was made from veered. It began to want to beast up. It begat a llama. A shuddering strum. It became a walnut. It ate our rain.

 
An Ancestral Cul-de-sac

The king’s prior steeds were buried here a hundred cemeteries ago. The height of their extinguished crowns reached the knees of the clear-cut forest. They folded into a lone transitory foal for stalking sunning frogs. They preyed on teeth and burnt up beaks along an ancestral cul-de-sac.

___

Eric Baus is the author of The Tranquilized Tongue (City Lights, 2014) and other books. He teaches at Regis University in Denver.

 

 

Three Poems by Matthew Johnstone

 

Dear Trud,

Trees that lean, or skull / stared in, on distances, teethed
up / sky. Torso lost to, tail, not / pressed itself in from
abysses, us let towns cover / cities for this, I am being a way of
being unmade, legs asleep up the waist. It was warm where
you were going, blind / though edgeless. The slender veins
the impact gardens / the surface been cloud and shut around.
 
 
 
 
Dear Trud,

Implicit if place, tree to no forest, cordage of lungs / far,
long, saw mouthing preparations of space / of it at rest.
Masks made to single weathers to / now be, to said.
It was warm where you were ending, distorted islands /
braided tongue. Some / too, over a lack of capacities,
much / whom on where is put / the front of the face / says
your womb is haunted / these, other, veins I do not access.
 
 
 
 
 
Dear Trud,

Since the spaces opened, what let / been chasing black
chickens, your teeth more now / hand language, heats
end on / gum feasts, irreducible, pushed into color,
resonant, since / through the sheet / no sun left, what / sea
lice, narrowed at. It was warm where you were away, to be
in assume / if in the room house they built the room for.

___
Matthew Johnstone has recent writing in Gesture, N/A, and Opon. His book is “Let’s be close Rope to mast you, Old light” (Blue & Yellow Dog, 2010). He is one half of the arts journal ‘Pider, of Tennessee, Nashville, America.

 

 

Four Poems by Brian Foley

Tone

I was told
young to watch
your tone

my tone
was extreme
which the view was
was not

amicably received
it had the ambitions
of a vice
president waiting
to unseat

& lock eyes
for breakfast
shaving down
desire in you, a speech
       few can read

I went on
catching
up to it, recalcitrant
as

stopped water
hounds
pause to lap from

I went
on struggling lips
sprucing up
slobber on
a wild fang

domesticated
only when
someone’s watching

telling you
to watch it

On The Dull Necessity of Motes

Maybe because
I don’t see anyone
walking home
it seems
the night’s cold’s
a good offer
that extends
casually cheer
to things that don’t
mean too much

when someone gives
you no choice
without you knowing it
a pill-like sure
pulls up a spring put aside
explains your color
without describing it

so maybe because
I don’t see anyone
home
I am walking
now in the hand
of someone gone
through the plural
anger of impossible
full of certainty
they now know
is impossible to chew

I like the idea of it
but more I like
the idea
of the idea
that everybody
knows
something good
is with them and still
this is a land where
nothing is solved

 
Integrity

Dead are
our sentences
mutuality if
our organisms be
ignored.

I feel
my nature trying
to get me       invisible
with those productions
morning glorifies
into mystic quiet.

       O say
I open a newspaper
       & it takes me
to the nearest nervous
house of bells.

Soon there will be
a past, it’s
blood locked
in someone else’s epic.

I wear its uniform.
I smuggle
each day free
from nothing
but its doctors.
 
 
 Joins

Do I go down?
The pond’s thrush
thickens toward me.

Where they are
down you bet is dull.
That nobody finds.

Persuaded they’re why-
less swimming in the little
while that they live

the dock the drab
grass near to and
no less unloved.

At best familiar
things collapse into
average palaces.

What hour’s left?
I abuse myself with
       ponds.

___
Brian Foley is the author of The Constitution (Black Ocean, 2014). He’s authored several chapbooks, most recently TOTEM (Fact-Simile Editions, 2014). His poems have appeared in Boston ReviewThe VoltaDenver QuarterlyThe FanzineEveryday Genius and elsewhere. He is the founder and editor of Brave Men Press and attends the University of Denver Creative Writing PhD Program.

 

 

from Chlorosis by Michael Flatt & Derrick Mund

 

our splayed plumage against the unrest of a crested sun

in its worn-out gums.

beaten like sage

is Mothra on any saturday afternoon.

I say “I” after I think the two of us will be gutted

                    is the mothlike sun of your midwest

                    certain there is a set of radial spokes in place;

                    I say “then what lakeless non-nation have we infested with our floundering?”

I say “I woke up to the sound of chickens.” I thought I was dead.

it was a sound that did not make sense.

I had not heard it for a very long time.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
the serrated edge is geological;
a single-celled sea is the house you die in
is still the still earth.

the difference precedes
and postdates without difference
this wilderness;
nothing within us is the way we waver
like a disobedient animal
drunk and hoping for someone
is to be so unwaveringly open

that to do so, we age
like rocks
ored from the earth
in countries
we couldn’t give a shit about.
 
 
 
and so then how come things have been going so great for me during Mercury in reception, or whatever the fuck? do you want to spend your thirties herding these philosophies? justifiably cross-dead in their pleather skin-masks?

call me king hat.

call me floss-flushed and denuded.

carrion fidgeting peptides.

the time has come to stow me in the backseat under a tarp, sliced up with your jingle poems.

in every sense of the word in the blank of the impossible you, I have nothing left but your moisturizer, an enormous plaid scarf, and a backpack with your parent’s address on the tag.
 
 
 

we found each tree in an outline of the riot squad squatting to piss in the barracks

we found each storm drain; a cover song fondling a gun of the earth smeared rotten with oceans.

we found our secret cleft-lipped chants bobbing in the aforementioned sea.
 
 
 

this sort of ending finds me standing at the local frozen margarita stand,

watching a buddy watch a flirtatious girl be his flirtatious wife, thinking “project stability, project tolerance, project purpose.”

there are thirteen ways to slam my dick in screen doors

of a blackbird

but when we walked you made a wake beside me in a burning notebook.

I edit you like dust brushed from a dear friend’s shoulder
after they’ve been passed out and ashed on.

____
Michael Flatt is a Ph.D. student in poetics at SUNY Buffalo. He is the author of Absent Receiver (SpringGun, 2013) and, with Derrick Mund, Chlorosis (Bon Aire Projects, forthcoming).

Derrick Mund lives in Denver where he co-curates the Leon Affair reading series. He is also the poetry editor for SpringGun Press. His work can be found.

 

 

Brotherhood, Constraint, Resolution: An Interview with Jericho Brown on The New Testament 

By Erin Armstrong and Connor Fisher

 

Photo of Jericho BrownErin Armstrong: First, I’d just like to thank you for taking the time to speak with us. I was introduced to your work when you were a visiting author for a writing weekend at Georgia Regents University a couple of years ago, and I was struck by how musical it is. You mentioned in a July 2014 interview for the Loggernaut Reading Series, “I literally refused to write the words “song, ” “voice, ” “tune, ” etc., in anything on which I was working.”

In your new collection, The New Testament, how difficult was this constraint on yourself? Since you do use these words (pages 18, 19, 21, 29, 41 etc.) was it a conscious decision to add them? After giving yourself this limitation towards sound, did you find yourself trying to use words that might mimic or bring to mind sound in some way?

Jericho Brown: Thank you for asking me to do this, Erin.  I love answering questions as it gives me the chance to better articulate for myself what I’m thinking.  I sometimes don’t know what is on my mind until I’m asked a question that leads me to see the truth of my own thoughts.  Constraints, formal and otherwise, can work this way as well when composing.  Constraints can point us toward saying truth we may not otherwise have the chance to say. 

As an artist, I’ll always be inventing constraints for myself that allow me to turn toward knowledge I have but don’t know I have.  Then, to test the value of that knowledge, I’ll break the constraints here and there that I’ve set for myself. 

Though I didn’t want to write as directly about sound in The New Testament as I did inPlease, I do believe that every poem is—and should be—about sound. 

EA:  There is a seeming absence of female figures in the book. Of course, there’s Angel and the narrator’s mother, but otherwise they’re sparse. What role did these women play in your writing, and how large are their roles meant to be?

JB: The New Testament is a book about brotherly love in a nation that criminalizes brotherhood and love between men.  In order to discuss these things, the poems also had to ask question about what masculinity and manhood are or are not.  I’m concerned that we live in a world where one’s manhood is so often measured by what kind of dominance that one has over women.  The women in the book are central to its making and the proper reading of it.  I don’t know that there are more than five main characters in the book.  Two of them are women.  Two to three doesn’t seem “sparse” to me, especially if they are two strong black women who aren’t as confused as the male characters in the book seem to me to be. 

EA: One thing that struck me was the shame throughout–– the shame the reader feels at times and the shame the characters feel. What I found to be one of the most interesting things about this, and I loved the work more for it, was that homosexuality didn’t come off as one of those shamed aspects. It had this celebratory, triumphant tone in most of your references that, while reading as a possible negative for the narrator in the beginning, comes off as strong and accepting in the end. As a gay author, how did you decide to present this in The New Testament?

JB: So far, when I organize poems for a book, I do so as if I’m writing a single Shakespearean sonnet but over the course of several poems.  I present a problem, then complicate that problem, then offer various possible outcomes, and then offer some sort of resolution.  I imagine any gesture toward resolution after so many turns may feel quite celebratory indeed. 

Also, I think it’s a good idea for me to be all the things I am.  I actually recommend being gay.  I’m having a great time of it and won’t allow anyone to impose their tragic assumptions on my life.  The book is probably reveling in some of that feeling.

Connor Fisher: In The New Testament, I noticed that your poems use language in many different registers / capacities, whether as prophesy, as narrative, as a re-writing of Biblical passages, or as (psuedo)-confessional. How do you see these different textual functions working together to make The New Testament a unified, cohesive work of art?

JB: I think I’ve answered some of this in the last questions about structuring the book.  But there is one other thing:  trust.  Trust, Connor.  Faith.  EX FIDE, FORTIS as we used to say back at Dillard. 

I’m a poet, and I believe that I’m a poet and that I’m capable of all that comes with being a poet.

Hugo famously puts it this way: “Make the subject of the next sentence different from the subject of the sentence you just put down. Depend on rhythm, tonality, and the music of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write meaningless sequences. In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of imagination, all things belong.”  And he later continues, “…when you are writing you must assume that the next thing you put down belongs not for reasons of logic, good sense, or narrative development, but because you put it there. You, the same person who said that, also said this. The adhesive force is your way of writing, not sensible connection.”  So it is with what you call “different registers/capacities.”

CF: In the poem “Heart Condition,” you write: “I only want / African sense of American sound” (68). Earlier in the poem, you wrote, “I wander like any other African American, Africa / with its condition and America with its condition.” My mind initially goes to William Carlos Williams and his endeavors to typify an American lexicon and cadence, but I think that your collection refers to a different “American sound.” I’m curious about what those terms mean and how they interact with one another.

If the desire for “African sense of American sound” inhabits the collection beyond this single poem, could you explain how these terms work with one another and how they present themselves throughout the rest of the collection?

JB: Considering the context of every trap this nation sets for black people, I’m ultimately curious about how it is possible to be a black citizen without going insane enough to kill oneself or kill someone else.

___

Jericho Brown is the author of two books: Please (2008) and The New Testament (2014). He is the recipient of the Whiting Writers Award, and has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Radcliffe Institute at the Harvard University. Jericho holds an MFA from the University of New Orleans and a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Houston. Prior to his doctoral work, Jericho worked as the speechwriter for the Mayor of New Orleans. He now works as an Assistant Professor of English/Creative Writing at Emory University.

Erin Armstrong is an MFA candidate at CU-Boulder in Creative Writing–Fiction.

Connor Fisher was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and currently lives in Denver, Colorado. He has an MA in English Literature from the University of Denver and is working towards an MFA in Creative Writing—Poetry from the University of Colorado at Boulder.

 

 

Hip Hop, the Divine, and Brutal Truths: Erin Armstrong interviews Victor LaValle

 

Erin Armstrong: First, I’d like to thank you for taking time to speak with me. I’d also like to ask you to brace yourself, because I think we may be hopping all over the place with this one. As I’ve told you many (possibly too many?) times, I love your work. Something I come back to time and time again in your writing is this inherent brutality in your characters, but there’s a sharp humor there that makes them endearing and honest. How would you explain this juxtaposition of darkness and humor, and the truth of character that results from it?

Photo of Victor LavalleVictor LaValle: There are never too many times to tell writers you love their work. I tell it to myself once or twice a day just to offset the crushing self-loathing. It’s a damn good tonic actually. I suggest all self-loathing writers try it.

As for brutality I often wonder at this. I must admit I never think of my characters as brutal, but of course brutal people never do. I suppose vain people never realize they’re vain either, instead they just think of themselves as astute. So maybe there is a brutality to my characters and if so I’d like to credit it to growing up in an almost thrillingly honest household. My mother and grandmother raised me and my sister and neither woman understood tact. I don’t mean they yelled at others or were quick to curse, in fact they were both incredibly rule bound and obsessed with decorum. But they almost always told the truth in a way that could feel, well, brutal but also couldn’t help but make you laugh. (Make me laugh, at least.)

My grandmother and mother were from Uganda but my sister and I were raised here in the United States. There were pictures of my grandfather in old photo albums but he never came to Queens and I only met him once, when my mother took me back to Uganda, and I was only one so I sure don’t remember it. I remember asking why my grandmother and grandfather didn’t live with us, why he stayed in Uganda and she came to Queens. My grandfather was an educator. He fought to end British colonial rule in Uganda and once the British left he worked tirelessly to build schools deep in the rural areas of the country because he so believed in education as the means to personal independence. But while out in the bush, as they used to say, he fell victim to certain personal shortcomings and marriage between him and my grandmother became strained to the point of breaking. Finally, when my mother wrote from Queens saying that she needed my grandmother’s help raising me in Queens (my sister came along years later) she made a deal with my grandfather: you get Africa, I get the United States. He agreed only after my grandmother apparently made the seriousness of her bargain quite clear. He never traveled to the US once my grandmother arrived and she never returned to Uganda. My grandmother explained all this to me when I was quite young—maybe seven or eight—and told it all without shame or reservation. Only as a young adult did I realize some might see this kind of story as brutal, or at least too unguarded for a child to hear, but she took it for granted that I should hear the truth. In this way I think she began to train me as a writer.

Because, to be clear, that story is also hilarious. My granddad was rubbing elbows with Malcolm X! I’ve got a photo of the two of them meeting, it hangs proudly in our home. He went toe to toe with the British Empire, which has never been known for being gentle. But for all that granddad never dared to face off with my grandmother. That’s about as complex and interesting as life gets.

EA: I get such a strong sense of place that comes from your writing. I have the feeling that the place is not just a kind of lodestar for your characters, but is an actual character in itself. I think this is most evident in Slapboxing With Jesus. For me, it’s in “Ghost Story” where you write, “in the Bronx you can see the sky, it’s not blotted out. The whole place isn’t standing or on its back, the whole borough lies on its side. And when the wind goes through there, you can’t kid yourself––there are voices.” How much is the city influencing you and your characters, and vice versa, while you’re writing?

VL: I can’t think of any writers I admire who aren’t great writers of place. Shirley Jackson’s small New England towns, Ralph Ellison’s Harlem, V.S. Naipaul’s Port of Spain. I could keep going. A writer without a sense of place is like a tree without roots, it’s simply not grounded enough to grow. Since I grew up in New York City I felt quite comfortable describing the place. I think I got in a little something about all the boroughs except maybe Staten Island. Your locale inevitably affects your perspective, even your personality, so when writing about people it seems essential that you also write about the place, or places, that reared them. Sometimes younger writers avoid specificity about location because they want their stories to appear more universal, but this is wrong-headed. In order to be universal one should write with absolute specificity. If it matters to be precise about language, or character, then it’s just as important to describe your locations with care.

EA: Something that has shown up multiple times in your characters is mental illness, or the looming threat of it, and how dismissive people can be towards them. Mos Def named his 2009 album after your book, The Ecstatic. He said of the title, “The term was used in the 17th and 18th centuries to describe people who were either mad or divinely inspired and consequently dismissed as kooks.” You’ve been pretty open about your own battle with mental illness in the past–– did you ever feel dismissed because of it? With that, how much of these characters are yourself as you could have been or were, and how much of them are people you have known? How important still is it for you to give a voice to those who would be otherwise written off as “kooks”?

VL: Mental illness has absolutely been one of the fundamental concerns of my early work, or really all my work up until the novel I’m writing now. Only five books in before I finally decided to give it a bit of a rest! It’s an essential concern for me because of my own struggles, but even more so because I’ve got a few generations of family members who’ve dealt with clinical issues of mental illness and so, inevitably, it’s become a part of my world view. In truth I didn’t even understand it was a somewhat unique way to experience life until my best friend in grad school, Mat Johnson, gave me the reality check. Really he was trying to help me see the uniqueness of my perspective. Once I realized this I ran with it and people my stories, and novels, with the kinds of people I actually knew and, maybe more importantly, actually loved. I think my family, and my upbringing in Queens, allowed me to get to know all of the kinds of people who are generally overlooked, written off. The mentally ill, immigrants, blacks and Latinos, Asians and working class whites, and much more. It’s important to me that all those kinds of people get the chance to be vivid, vital, villainous, and memorable.

EA: Going off that same question, your characters are the marginalized: youths, the poor, the mentally ill, addicts, people with weight issues, etc. This is something that seems to be closely connected with hip-hop and metal, genres you referred to once as “working class male power fantasies.” The two genres have grown in popularity since the 80’s and mid-90’s, sometimes referred to as the “golden age” of hip-hop. How do you see the changes both have gone through as connectors with these people now?

VL: Well, I’d say that hip-hop has managed a much better, or more long-lasting, life than heavy metal. I do think about why this is the case sometimes. Hip-hop became a global phenomenon, a commercial behemoth that easily took its places along pop music and dance music. Rock and roll hasn’t even fared as well. Meanwhile heavy metal has largely shrunk into a series of specialized circles. The last metal group to really turn into some kind of popular scene was probably Slipknot and even that was a decade ago. Maybe hip-hop was, in the end, more mutable than heavy metal. While many claim that hip-hop is dead or dying it just doesn’t seem to get the news. Of course the music has changed and it would only be right for a person of my generation to say that it was better “back then.” But of course it wasn’t better, I was just younger.

EA: You said in a 2003 Essence article, “I found that when I was fattest, women trusted me most.” I noticed that the men in your books have this obsession with the meaning and sense of the word ugly. Rather in a sexual context or equating it to trustworthiness, as in Big Machine, the men have a fascination with it. What is it about ugly that these men are so attracted to and simultaneously repulsed by?

VL: Ugliness is more interesting than beauty, for me, because I spent so many years of my life convinced of my own ugliness, what I took to be my essentially unlovable nature. This had nothing to do with my body, but once you’re convinced you’re ugly you will find ample proof. Over time my obsessive inspection of my own body, my myriad faults, turned outward. I used to wonder if everyone felt as ugly as me. In my childish vanity I assumed no one could. (If only I’d known quite a few other people thought they were the one and only.) That level of personal inspection made me quite aware of other people’s bodies, too. I compared and contrasted with other boys and, as I grew older, other men. I surveyed women just as closely once I turned about twelve or thirteen and became a being of free floating lust. What I found—in both the men and the women—was that the most interesting things about nearly every body around me were the things we often generally call faults. Underbites and lisps, limps and “weird” thumbs, eyes set too far apart or too close together, long feet or short toes, big noses or small ears. I began to feel that people hid their humanity in their flaws and this only made them beautiful to me. I’m not going to pretend there wasn’t repulsion, judgment, dismissal a lot of the time (if I was doing it to myself why wouldn’t I do it to others?) but it wasn’t only that. My editor has pointed out to me that few current fiction writers pay as much attention to bodies as I do and I think he’s right. But so much of a person’s character is written on their body, a language much more honest than almost anything he or she might say. I’m in love with that.

EA: I want to talk about young writers, and the atmosphere–– for lack of a better word I can think of–– they’re writing in now. With numerous lit journals and new MFA programs springing up all the time, do you think this is a good thing, or is it watering down the experience? What was the scene like for you in your 20’s?

VL: I entered my MFA program having made a total mess of my undergrad years. I barely passed many a class and in my junior year I got expelled. The dean who expelled me told me he would personally see to it that I never returned to Cornell for as long as he was around. I felt like John Belushi in Animal House. (Though really, at that time, I was more like Flounder.) I left school and lived in town with friends and worked temp jobs as a mover for half a year. Then that dean went on sabbatical. I had been keeping a close eye on him. And as soon as he was gone I begged another dean, who had no animosity toward me, to let me back in so I could graduate. She did so and I managed to get through.

I tell that story to say that I may have a somewhat warped view of what the MFA scene was like because I arrived feeling utterly desperate to finally prove myself worth a damn. I showed up to my first day of my first workshop with twenty copies of my first story in my bag for God’s sake! That’s how keyed up I was. And that gave me a kind of tunnel vision about the program. I didn’t fuck around as much as I could have (and should have) with my fellow students. I went to class, I went to work, I read, I wrote. That’s all I did for two years. As a result I produced a fantastic amount of writing (and a small percentage of it actually approached being fantastic). So for me the two kinds of MFA experiences I know of are the ones where the students are almost pathological about writing and succeeding (which really just means writing and writing and writing) and there are the folks who seem to be in the program to dabble with writing, to try it on for a while. I don’t state that as criticism. Some people want to write and others realize they’d rather do something else. They might become agents or editors or publishers or publicists, all of which are grand and noble professions that always desperately need smart, driven human beings. Or they might have lives that interrupt their writing time and don’t return to the lessons they learned until they’re forty, sixty, eighty years old. I met my best friend in the program, a writer named Mat Johnson, and we bonded because we were both just desperate to be writers right now. You’ll find those people in every class of writers and writing programs. That can’t ever be watered down. That particular quality is insoluble.

EA: All writers, I think, go through these egoistic moments where we know we’ve done something worth something and feel like we should be recognized for it. On the flip side, while still self-absorbed, we go through times where we feel like we aren’t good enough and don’t belong. What was the best advice you have ever received about dealing with “fraud syndrome”?

VL: I’m guessing that most intelligent writers, or just most intelligent human beings, feel like frauds now and again. This is simply a natural part of being intelligent enough to understand you aren’t divine. This can’t be avoided. And, in fact, I don’t think it should be. That feeling of fallibility is what helps a writer to improve. It can help to remember that just about every writer you’ve ever admired has experienced the same thing and still continued to write. Take some consolation in that when you can. I know I do.

But then there are other times when I need to light a fire underneath that fraudulent feeling, need to see it turned to ashes just so I get myself ready to write. In those instances I like to repeat a phrase of some kind to myself. Call it a mantra or a prayer or a chant. I change it every few years, after the magic has gone out of the words. The one I used for the longest time was a line from a song by Tricky. He was somewhat big in the nineties, a British trip-hop artist (though I think he hated the term). There was one song off an album called Pre-Millennium Tension. My Evil is Strong. That was the title. I just loved that phrase as a kind of reminder to myself. I liked it so much I’d print it out in 48 point font and tape it to the wall above my computer. If I sat down feeling a little shaky, a little unsure, I’d look up at the wall and see it:

MY EVIL IS STRONG

Fuck yes, I’d think. It sure is. Then get back to work.

EA: My final question, at the request of my best friend: what is Sean’s next move at the end of “Raw Daddy”?

VL: Do you know I had to go use Google Books to read the end of that story and remind myself how it ended? I couldn’t find a copy of it anywhere in our place. Anyway, in keeping with the theme running through that story, Sean is about to go upstairs and, for a short time, convince both himself and Lianne that they are both divine.

___

Victor LaValle is the author of one story collection and three novels. His most recent novel, The Devil in Silver, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2012. He has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, and the Key to Southeast Queens. He teaches creative writing in Columbia University’s MFA program.

Erin Armstrong is an MFA candidate at CU-Boulder in Creative Writing–Fiction.

 

 

Experiment is the Mainstream and Everything Else is Perverse: Jeffrey DeShell on Experimental & Innovative Literature

[The following survey was distributed by Timber Journal to contemporary authors asking them to investigate the labels “experimental” and “innovative” when they are applied to literature. The questions were composed by Héctor Ramírez.] 

 

1) What are your thoughts on the label “experimental” with respect to literature, in a general sense? What does the phrase “experimental literature” even mean to you? Can it be adequately defined?

I might be the only or the last to defend the word “experimental.”  I think it’s an important word and an important process.  I would distinguish the term from other terms like “innovative,” “conceptual,” “avant-garde,” and whatever recent iteration of “alt-lit” is or will be in currency.  I’m going to have to insert this long Adorno quote, partly as a way of beginning to articulate my defense for the term “experimental. And partly because it will make it seem like I know what I’m talking about:

It would be superficial to think that the experimental is the uncertain, is what is built on air and can be destroyed tomorrow; and to take the non-experimental for what is certain.  It is precisely that which does not experiment, which keeps right on going as if it were still possible to do so, which continues to compose as if the old preconditions were still secure, that is consigned, with apodictic certainty, to downfall and oblivion. . . The experimental is not automatically within truth, but can equally well end in failure; otherwise the concept of the experiment would have no sensible meaning at all.  It is undeniable that many so-called experiments already discount, in themselves, the possibility of their failure. . .    

“Difficulties,” Essays on Music

Although I don’t have as much optimism as he has for the oblivion on the non-experimental, I do think some of his other points are valid.  I’m especially interested in his first sentence and his thinking of risk, of the possibility of failure. The first sentence suggests that the experimental is that which is “built on air,” and the non-experimental as that which is certain.  He’s writing about music here, but the point is valid for the other arts: the tradition of Western Art is a tradition of experiment, of moving from what is certain to what is not.  Experiment is not antithetical to the mainstream: experiment isthe mainstream.  In literature and music, in the 20th century this was tradition tuned on its head, and Realism made the dominant mode, and everything else the perverse outlier.

What’s perhaps more interesting in his thinking about risk, about the very real possibility of failure.  It’s not Beckett’s recuperable failure of failing better, which is simply (or not so simply) Hegel, but the very real possibility of having something blow up in your face, or of creating a true monster.  As an aside, this is where I would argue the experimental differs from the conceptual, in that the conceptual has no capability for failure.  It is the nature of experiments to get out of hand, become undomesticated, become monstrous, unmarketable.  The burden on the experimenter is not to repeat yourself: if you create identical monsters, you don’t have any monsters at all: you have a family or a concept.  Or a career.  It’s fortunate that language and literature are so vast that it’s possible to avoid recreating experiments.

This leads one to think about the ideas of failure, and its converse, success.  And I wonder how much these concepts are shared, and how much they differ, from writer to writer certainly, but even from project to project.  I was flipping through television channels about a year ago, and I heard the History Channel report that Hitler was “a failed artist.”  This got me to thinking what it meant to be a “failed artist” or “failed novelist.”  If one manages to write a novel, is that a “success”?   Two novels?  Doespublishing a novel make one a successful novelist?  Getting paid?  Getting reviewed?  Having lots of readers?  Acquiring capital, either cultural or otherwise? For me publishing, when I finally have that artifact in my hand, is the antithesis of success: here I hold the book, the physical object, a thing in the world that makes all the other possible versions of the book impossible.  It’s an objective manifestation of failure, the failure to be something else, something better, something closer to what I imagined.  But there it is.  And if it’s truly a successful experiment, I’m not sure what it is.  Except this failure.

 

2) Do you find “experimental” useful as a category? If useful, is it more useful for writers, publishers, teachers, or readers (or equally useful across the board)?

“Categories” seem so intertwined with market forces that the question seems to demand a discussion based on these forces.  I’m not sure it’s that useful if it’s applied after the fact.   On one hand, everyone’s a realist, in that we all are trying to carve out/express a version of the world that is “true,” on some level.

 

3) Whatever “experimental” might mean, in the very least it’s probably safe to say that it attempts to describe a particular subset of writers who try to distinguish themselves from “popular” literature. But: is there also a mainstream sense of experimentalism with respect to literature, distinct from other forms of experimental literature? What does it mean to be a “trendy experimental” writer/artist?

I honestly can’t remember what it means to be trendy.  Alas.

 

4) It seems to us that, when it is deployed, the term “experimental” changes depending on who is doing the experiment. Would you agree with that? If you disagree, is there a better way to understand the function of experimental literature? Or, if you do agree, in what ways does the “experiment” change based on the subject position of its author?

I think the experiment would have to change with the person doing the experiment, yes.  I can’t imagine otherwise.  Moreover, I think the experiment would change, necessarily, from project to project.  The writer who has finished one book is fundamentally a different person than the writer who has not. Unlike scientific experiments, which purport to be objective and reproducible, artistic experiments can’t be objective—the subject is implicated in the act of writing—nor should they be reproducible, in that experimental writers aren’t trying to prove what they know, but what they don’t.  The conditions are too variable, the elements too volatile, and the experimenter too unstable.  Let’s see what will happen is hard to reproduce.  So I would say not only does the experiment change based on the subject position of the writer, but that the experiment changes the subject position of the writer. In many many ways.

 

5) Is there (or maybe, should there be) a significant difference between “innovative” and “experimental” with respect to labeling? If so, can you describe that difference?

I’m not sure what “innovative” means.  Of course I’ve heard the term before, and I just mentally substituted “experimental.”  Ray Federman and Carole Maso have at least this in common: they both resist(ed) the term experimental.   I assume “innovative” was just used because people wanted to stay away from either the lab coated mad scientist connotations, or the tentative, not sure what we’re doing connotation attached to the term. As I hoped I’ve explained, I like the word.

___

Jeffrey DeShell has published six novels, the most recent Expectation (2013) and Arthouse (2011), both from FC2 , and a critical book of Poe’s fiction. He was a Fulbright Teaching Fellow in Budapest,and has taught in Northern Cyprus, the American Midwest and Bard College.  Currently he’s a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he lives with the novelist Elisabeth Sheffield and their two children.

Héctor Ramírez is a writer and teacher living in Boulder, CO. He received a B.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University and is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado. He reads fiction submissions for Timber and is an editor and staff writer at Vannevar (www.vannevar.net). His work has been published in The Café Irreal, Buffalo Almanack, American Book Review and elsewhere.

 

 

You Don’t Know What You’re Doing: Stephen Graham Jones on Experimental & Innovative Literature

[The following survey was distributed by Timber Journal to contemporary authors asking them to investigate the labels “experimental” and “innovative” when they are applied to literature. The questions were composed by Héctor Ramírez. ]

 

1) What are your thoughts on the label “experimental” with respect to literature, in a general sense? What does the phrase “experimental literature” even mean to you? Can it be adequately defined?

​It’s a term that’s always bugged me. Never knew really why until I heard Brian Evenson say once somewhere that ‘experimental’ suggests that you don’t know what you’re doing. Some stuff that gets called ‘experimental,’ you can definitely feel that, too, that this writer really has no idea what she or he was doing. Not that they don’t stumble into good stuff every once and again. But it’s kind of just like you’re in the basement mixing random stuff together. ‘Innovation,’ though, that’s a term I can go for. Innovation has a purpose. You’re mixing chemicals to achieve X or Y effect. You can see where you want to go, you’re just having to make stuff up to get you there. Innovation is so economical, it can save so much time.​

 

2) Do you find “experimental” useful as a category? If useful, is it more useful for writers, publishers, teachers, or readers (or equally useful across the board)?

​In a lot of magazine and journal’s submission guidelines I still see ‘experimental,’ yes. And I think that tells a lot of writers that, hey, this crazy thing I wrote, they might actually look at it. So it’s useful that way. Not sure how it’s useful to publishers or teachers or readers, though. Well, except to those who use it as a Do Not Enter sign.​

 

3) Whatever “experimental” might mean, in the very least it’s probably safe to say that it attempts to describe a particular subset of writers who try to distinguish themselves from “popular” literature. But: is there also a mainstream sense of experimentalism with respect to literature, distinct from other forms of experimental literature? What does it mean to be a “trendy experimental” writer/artist?

​There’s Egan doing Powerpoint stuff, there’s MZD jacking with typography (as a way to jack with narrative), there’s Vonnegut drawing in his books, there’s Coupland playing in the margins . . . I don’t know. I can’t figure if there’s a difference in mainstream experimentalism and garage experimentalism or not, aside from level of success. I mean, didn’t people call Everything is Illuminated ‘experimental?’ ​Not necessarily because it was breaking new ground, but because it didn’t look like everything else on the shelf that season.

4) It seems to us that, when it is deployed, the term “experimental” changes depending on who is doing the experiment. Would you agree with that? If you disagree, is there a better way to understand the function of experimental literature? Or, if you do agree, in what ways does the “experiment” change based on the subject position of its author?

​Well, if you’ve got the seal of approval from a commercial press, and they’ve got serious marketing money behind you, then your ‘experiment’ kind of automatically gets considered amazing by most of the readers. Not because they’re into what you’re doing so much as if they say they’re not, then they’re no longer hip or smart. Whereas if you’re hotwiring words in your garage for you and thirty friends, truly and really inventing new ways to tell a story, you’re kind of automatically a crackpot, because you’re not reaching for that brass ring every time around. Neither’s better than the other, don’t get me wrong—well, the second, it has the chance to sneak new DNA into fiction, while the first, the commercial, it can get replicated in MFA programs across the country until it’s hollow of meaning. So, no real answer, I don’t think . . .​

___

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of fifteen and a half novels and six collections.

Héctor Ramírez is a writer and teacher living in Boulder, CO. He received a B.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University and is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Colorado. He reads fiction submissions for Timber and is an editor and staff writer at Vannevar (www.vannevar.net). His work has been published in The Café Irreal, Buffalo Almanack, American Book Review and elsewhere.