Poem for David Rubin
What if the returns
aren’t right for recast
options swinging an old hinge
from its door?
Well the music’s shed—
worthy & fresh.
The song’s a way to
stave off the present
by stalling it with
the work of beauty.
A little bit of dirty fucking
& a couple hundred
thousand bad movies tonight.
The Cineplex Bleak House,
the rhythmless rots
at t-town & tenth street
laughing on the porch in a
monsoon & can I have a cigarette?
Poem For Nas
How long you been
hanging out by the pool
with a 1/5th of Bushmills,
two glasses, & nobody
Poem for C.S. Giscombe
You know that Super8 Motel
in Rogers Park? I met Cecil
in the lot & we went to
the Lucky Platter for pancakes
It’s funny, sad writing in the form
of the songs lost to mechanized
radio in the downstate
rhythms of the style.
What’s trouble but a suggestion
put low into the bar noise
with some beer? & so anyway
who says so?
Poem for John Keene
What’s love got to do with it?
I don’t know, anything?
Most everything, maybe. Finally
at your reading at Danny’s I get
the rhythm of the Stackhouse drawings.
The outward rutting of
the treadle, in a thinkerly almost
feeling that, I want still more of.
Ellen & ‘lil-Ellen & I were cleaning up the house. It had been a wet winter & the basement had gone musty. Since the weather had turned warm, one-by-one, each neighbor on the block had hauled batches of black plastic bags to the curb. Ellen decided it was our turn.
Because I kept the box that contained my arm in the closet next to the front door, beside the lawn games, behind the winter coats no one wore anymore, & though neither of us said this out loud, that closet was my duty. I had everything out on the floor: puffy down coats laid out next to dingy jackets that had once been white, a dart board from an old house, bags of stringy mittens & weird scarves. I stacked a croquet set in a dissolving cardboard box atop of Nerf lawn darts in an unopened box. I would never guess so much crap could fit into one closet.
“Get rid of it all,” Ellen said. “Trash it.” It seemed drastic but I didn’t have any argument against it.
Lil-Ellen walked up to the pile & without saying a word pulled two jackets out. She walked up the stairs to her bedroom on the third floor. Not many parents name their daughter after the mother but Lil-Ellen has never said anything about it.
I got the box of trash bags from the kitchen & Ellen & I began stuffing everything into one. Once or twice I considered keeping one of these old coats, in case I would ever take up skiing or snowshoeing. But Ellen was right, we hadn’t worn these things in years, decades.
She held the bags open & I picked up one coat at a time, wedging them into the bag, my one arm sinking deep into the soft. We ended up with three plumb black plastic bags, looking like tumors.
The only thing I hadn’t taken out of the closet was the box containing my severed arm. After my arm got cut off I had bought a nice glass box for it, but I stored that inside another cardboard box so it wouldn’t get scratched or shattered. The glass box was sealed. It didn’t smell or anything.
Even though it was a normal looking box, it looked wrong in the dark empty closet. Isolated, even lonely.
In the days after I hung the glass box containing my arm over the mantle, there was more silence around the house. I knew Ellen wouldn’t like it & she didn’t. Lil-Ellen, if she noticed, expressed her reaction through her usual quietude & rolling of eyes. Perhaps there was a deeper quiet to her, a more fervent rolling of the eyes. Perhaps not.
The arm was a pale brown color. I’d cleaned the glass box with Windex, measured it out so that it was perfectly placed above the mantle that held photos of me & Ellen holding the tiny newborn version of ‘lil-Ellen & my folks & her folks & other such important people.
I explained to Ellen repeatedly that I wasn’t intending it as a joke, that it made me feel good to have the arm there. But even I have to admit, it was not beautiful.
One time, long before I’d lost my arm, before lil-Ellen was born, Ellen & I had borrowed a boat from a friend & were on a big late in Wisconsin. We found an island in the middle of the lake. We could barely see the coastline from the island.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live here?” I asked Ellen. “To disappear & build our own house & gather food from the woods?”
Ellen looked at the sun in the sky & the deep green canopy of trees above her. “Can we” she asked “eat the boaters who come to visit the island on weekends?”“We’ll need to.” I said. “We’ll have to protect our land.”
We dug a pit & built a fire. We gathered wood from the trees & logs to sit upon. There was a blackberry bush & I came back with my hat full of blackberries. I was frightened by the immensity of our decision, but I also felt like I’d stepped into the universe I’d been born in, after a lifetime away.
After we had sex in the grass we laid naked in the sun. Ellen’s eyes were closed. I crawled between her legs & licked her pussy as she arched her back. I could taste myself inside her, but I didn’t care. She came & squeezed her thighs around my head. The grass tickled my naked groin.
I was woken up by Ellen throwing my clothes onto me. “C’mon, she said, it’s getting dark. Never be able to find their dock in the dark.”
“Sure” I said & stretched. My neck felt weird from sleeping on the ground.
We got into the boat & I rowed back toward what I thought was their house. By the time we got there it was well after dark. Our friends had put four huge lanterns onto the dock to attract us.
It’s difficult to notice changes in things you see every day. You never think of how much you hair has grown each day, it’s just that one day suddenly you wake up needing a haircut.
But I was certain that the color of the arm had changed. I was looking more like flesh.
I didn’t say anything to Ellen & if she noticed she didn’t say anything to me. She had begun to spend more time in the living room. She used to read in bed, now she read on the couch. I’d pour her a cup of coffee in the morning & she’d take it in there.
I was in the basement when Ellen called me up, trying to fix the washing machine, but really merely putting in an effort before we called a professional.
Even before I lost the arm I was a mess with tools, & afterwards I couldn’t really do much. But I try to keep from getting cynical.
“What is that?” she asked, sounding displeased.
She was pointing at the arm. “That’s my arm,” I said.
“Shut up, I mean this.”
I got up close & looked. There was something coming out of the arm, where it would meet the socket if it were still on my body. It did not look like mold. It looked like a bubble.
“Don’t know,” I said.
“Is that normal?” she asked.
“I have no idea. We’ve had it in the closet for years,” I said. “Maybe it does this.”
“It looks weird,” she said & looked at me.
“Yep,” I said. “It sure does.”
We looked at it for about ten more minutes, hypothesizing.
We’d begun eating meals in the living room. Ellen had some big project at work that she was preparing at home. She’d spread all her papers out on the kitchen table every evening & then would pile them back up for dinner, then spread them out again. One day she moved us all into the living room.
It was nice to eat in there. It felt like a vacation. We no longer ate with the TV on. We talked. Even ‘lil-Ellen would say a few words, occasionally laugh when I’d make my bread dance like little cabaret feet.
The bubble had expanded. It was beginning to press against the glass case.
After one dinner lil-Ellen was looking at the arm. We were always guessing about what was causing the bubble. It had become something of a family game that we all enjoyed.
“Fuck!” lil-Ellen yelped.
“Ellen Norman!” Ellen said with narrowed eyes. “We do not use that kind...”
“It’s a fucking eye!” lil-Ellen yelled.
We were up.
She was right. It was an eye.
It looked like the eyes you see on fetal animals filmed inside the womb. Mammal eyes that hadn’t yet opened. But I could see the white, brown & black of the eyeball behind the thin layer of skin.
Ellen grabbed my arm so hard that it felt electric. I knew she’d drawn blood with her fingernails. But I wasn’t thinking about that at all. The eye was twitching.
Over the next week it grew more & more rapidly.
I’d shattered the glass case to get the arm out & where a stray fragment of glass had grazed it a line of watery blood had formed at the wound’s lip.
We placed it on the guest bed. It was growing not like a developing animal but like a body pushing itself out of the arm head-first. Eyes the first day, face the next. The mouth covered by a layer of stretched skin. The parts were all half-formed, like sketches.
The fingers grew next, pulling the end of the arm wider. The next morning a leg had pushed out, then the next another leg.
A day later we covered its developing genitals with an old pair of my boxers. Like the rest of its body they were doughy & vague.
By then the head had begun making noises. Grunts & gasps. Its eyes followed us across the room as we watched it. Ellen was disgusted, she claimed, but checked in on it every chance she got. Lil-Ellen was taking photos of it, tracking its development.
After I realized that the face on its shoulders was my face, I visited the guest room less & less.
I was looking at it in the mirror: my shoulder, my stump, my wound. The place where my body ended surprisingly like a blink.
It was just a fact about my life. Where other people had a mass of muscle & bone connecting their chest to their left arm, I has a mountainous geography of scars. I had never wanted a prosthetic.
Ellen came into our bathroom. We made eye contact in the mirror. I wanted to cover my shoulder up, to put a t-shirt on.
“He said my name,” she told me.
It could say her name & ‘lil-Ellen’s of course.
It could say book, cup, beer, pen, newspaper. Window, bed, brush, shirt.
Within a few days it had strung words together in a pidgin English. It asked for things & we got them for it. Soon it could control its lolling head & move its hands toward objects, though the fingers would not grasp.
Every time Ellen entered the room he followed her with his eyes & head like a loyal puppy. When I entered the room with Ellen he gave me no notice. But when I went in alone it stared at me intently, its eyes scouring my body.
I tried to keep its gaze, to not back down, but it was difficult to look at. It was like a cross between me & an amphibian. But it did have two arms. That it did.
I didn’t notice the first night Ellen stayed in the guest room with the Me. I go to sleep early & she goes to sleep late. We don’t press up against each other when we sleep.
When I got up, just before the alarm went off, as always, I thought she must woken up before me. I walked down the stairs but the kitchen was dark. The house was quiet in that predawn way. I walked up to the third floor. I found myself stepping carefully to avoid the floor creaking. Quietly I turned the doorknob & opened the door to the guest room.
She was still wearing the sweats & t-shirt she’d had on last night. She had the covers curled around her sleeping body & she was facing away from the Me. He slept on his back, breathing heavily & noisily, just like I do.
I closed the door & stepped silently down to the kitchen. I started the coffee & put some bread in the toaster. I turned the radio on.
She wasn’t in his arms, I thought to myself. She still had her clothes on.
The Me was up & about. I’d come home from work to find him on the couch with his feet up, wearing my comfy t-shirt, reading a book I’d had on the shelf for years & always meant to read.
I gave him wide berth. If he was on the couch I went outside & mowed the lawn. If he was in the bedroom looking through the closets I went to the basement & sorted the laundry. I tidied the house constantly, giving me reason to avoid the room he was in. Being in the same room as him made me feel like a faded photograph.
The house was cleaner than it had ever been. I was starting to get better with tools, finding any excuse to use them. Ellen & ‘lil-Ellen seemd to be talking more.
If he noticed my presence at all, it was to look up at me & stare. He would look at my face & touch his own. Look at my belly & rub his hands over his. When he looked at the space where my arm was not & touched his arm, my arm, he turned his head & looked at it. He ran his other hand up & down the arm. Stroking it devotedly.
When Ellen & I were first dating she used to love to play newlyweds. “Carry me over the threshold, my darling,” she’d say in a Gone with the Wind voice.
I’d pick her up, cradle her in my arms & walk into the library or the thrift store or whatever. She was so light. I loved the surprise each time of how easy it was to pick her up. She hated to be thrown over my shoulder, but I thought it was hilarious. We’d be walking in the woods & I’d pick her up & toss her over my shoulder like a bag of flour. She’d struggle, but she’d be laughing as well. The way I remember it, we’d usually end up with our pants around our ankles, her legs wrapped around my waist.
After my arm got cut off, after it all healed, I could still pick her up. We did it a few times, but she had to lean into me just so. We’d have to have to try a few times. It seemed like serious work & eventually we stopped trying.
At dinner one night he asked ‘lil-Ellen how her day was. When she rolled her eyes at him I smiled to see him rebuked just as I would be. But then he held her hand between his two hands, looked gently into her face & said “I understand your resistance, I really do. I know this is a crazy world that none of us will ever be able to understand, but I’d really like to know what your days are like, what your life is like.” She sat still for a few moments. Her hand in his soft grip. And she began telling him.
I never knew how much she cared about that clarinet in the battered black case. Whenever I saw her play I could only watch her fingers slip up & down the metal keys. There was something comforting in the dexterity of her motion.
I never knew how much stress ‘lil-Ellen felt. As she opened up to the Me, I realized that this girl with whom I’d shared a house with her entire life was something empty to me, the cicada skin on the screen door, a plastic mask the grocery stores sell at Halloween.
The guest bed was not above our bedroom, but I could hear the noises. After two weeks of sleeping in the bed alone, I waited until the Me & Ellen were on one of their walks. I moved some of my clothes into the guest room. I moved the clothes of mine that he had claimed down into the bedroom. I took back my Brooks Brothers shirt, though. It’s my favorite shirt.
And Still We Gather
beach chairs topple
for no one I love
drag the waters
just as space curves
I’m wearing my favorite shirt
Concussed by a Club of a Hundred Feathers
white is my headwhite
only touch the swollen side
only milk in it a minute
and stay upright
with all the red nubs
Try naming the bones
the last mouth you remember
from Good Death Will Come and Drink the Rabbit Water
& last light Pilgrim of Pine Island, of my truck bed, bled out, seizing
a constellation ahead, guiding us, aiming at southern states to poison, dip
its arrows in, & me & Missouri in the front seat, low country road
trying to find a place, safe, to take Pilgrim, as time, like as sick, crawls
in the kid’s limbs & we couldn’t see, separate, his red from the cranium toxin
unwound ribbon of prairie grass rattle, Crotalus horridus, hidden
& I’ve seen just how quick the venom can go make a kid come aswamp
fix its justice from ankle to apex, Odessa, Harmony, Willow, into Jerico
I hit the roads with All-Wheel making the dust kick up white
like history’s totality heel-stuck after a decent jam session in the jakes
an A chord, aching, long after the song’s been unpinned, brought in with the linen
when you hear that coffin sound you best know I’m six feet down
when we feel now quivered round, when by
Missouri, in the front seat, she says to me, says, Sugarboy, you know
what’s coming is coming to cry aim, coming with rumble, with war drums
to the flutes
to the moment
like a fleet of rafts rocking, all taking a swallow of the shallow water
so much in sleep, men & women sweating, mouths like broken
too many colors, coming by grave, chapel, cornfield, killing floor, & she’s right
to want to go, to keep to high beam, leave behind how the way, the fire, how
the last propane tank took first
You write both prose and poetry, and your piece “A Primers…” is very language based. What is the relationship between poetry and prose for you? How (if at all) do you adjust your writing process?
What I’m learning is that I’m not able to switch back and forth anymore like I thought I could even months ago. I’m losing the distinction between genres, save the false ones like line-breaks and meter. It’s all words now. Used to be I’d work in Poem Mode or Story Mode, one or the other, each requiring a different stance. “Now I’m going to forward a resonant plot”; “Here I’m going to compress grand claims of being.” No mixing. When I started slowing down the process, focusing on the word as a unit, boxing up my notions of PLOT and ACTION and POETIC (in that I did believe there were intrinsic rules to each and don’t anymore), I found out the only way I liked working–regardless of medium–was unit by unit. A word is a world and we must respect that. All my writing happens the same way now, which is something itches and I try to get at it however I’m able, using my very limited mind.
What does “innovative” or “experimental” literature mean to you? Are innovation and experiment things that you consciously strive for in your work?
I wish I was intelligent enough to articulate my few thoughts on experimental/innovative literature in a way that’s both interesting and informed, but my conception is spare: go places I haven’t gone. The more places, through time and mostly failures, the farther I’m willing to go. I imagine a majority of writers would be considered innovative using that definition, and if that’s the case, so be it. Truth is, I don’t think I’m doing anything more experimental than trying on new pants. It’s an experiment on my end, not necessarily within the larger discourse, if that distinction matters. But I guess I do consciously strive for newness, as I’m so easily bored by nearly everything after days. I can’t imagine a scenario where I’d keep writing if I wasn’t pushing myself out of familiar spaces. I’d just go fishing instead.
Which writers today do you feel are “innovating”? Which journals?
Looking at some books on my floor, I can point to Bhanu Kapil, Gail Scott, Donald Dunbar, Melissa Broder, Ariana Reines, César Aira, Matt Bell, Joyelle McSweeney, Noëlle Revaz. Each of these folks in a word or way twists my head, keeps me thinking. There are others I’m forgetting. As for journals, the usual suspects: Fence, Octopus, Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM. Lately I haven’t been keeping up with journals like I used to. Cloud Rodeo and DREGINALD–both online journals in various grades of “newish” and run by good people–are exciting.
Are you drawing from any particular inspiration when you use an ungrammatical or anti-grammatical voice, as you do in “A Primers…”? What challenges and opportunities come with manipulating your sentences this way?
Anyone who’s ever read a first-year English paper knows how participatory they are. You can’t put up your feet on any sentence. You have to work. If we presume writing is an experience rather than an object about an experience, then the reader has to take up responsibility in making meaning. Grammar is one thing few people want to fuck with, and yet estranging it opens up so many more avenues in terms of participating with a text. My first semester teaching, I used to wrench student sentences into Standard American English, since I figured students would be expected to write in that framework at least for the next several years. Not anymore. First of all, why? You don’t want to erase voices or identities. You’d be amazed how clear ideas can be even in the face of disjunctive syntax, typos, homonyms, etc. The point, if believed in, will glow through.
Before all of this, though, the initial idea came from watching Jacob’s Ladder. In it, there are mysterious apparitions whose heads shake unsettlingly fast to the point of blur. I was and still am very interested to know what it sounds like to be in those heads. The challenge, as has been pointed out to me in workshops, is knowing whether a piece is worth the work the reader puts into parsing it, and a deep concern of mine is not wasting anyone’s time, because who can spare any? However, garbling the sentence presented me with an interesting choice; you can make your words reflect the world, or you can make a new world. No false dichotomy intended, but I went for it.
Nathan Blake’s chapbook Naming the Dead is forthcoming from Winged City Press. He is currently an MFA candidate at Virginia Tech and can be found at http://incisorhands.wordpress.com/
Okay wells I didn’t knew if you has witness or not but there are like slaughter transpired right now outsides your window and I’m talk way nastier individual without heads throat and asses clutters the lawn where you wouldn’t daily seen them sort of a things yet really I guesses it have already transpiring as you yourself are dead and rot and is just like spirit or whatevering’s left up inside you meat after you’ve clock out for exampled me so I’ll sorry to being the poor news borer of this instant but there you give it your been dead forever and evered chiefs and I’m like really truly sorrow.
Why even though should I been the individual who of this instant are like really truly sorrow when it’s you who is total begged for thin ice and purchaser every alive individual like a whole fifty ton of it saysing craps liked No Peace Without Freedoms and Don’t Treaded On Me and et cetera right into these faceshield of uniforms individual clutch their automatical weapon plussed boots shine all overt with bloodmucks prepare to kick some seriously asses and says all those craps even before then?
Like you idiot.
Neverminds took a look rightly outside your very own window if you weren’t believe what it’s I am talked about while I floats or sort of like vibrating in this cornered which are dues to my intensingly angers display at also to been dead forever myself because of all them writtened checks with your mouths your ass could not cashing BOOM I AM BLOWED UP THAT LAMP BESIDE YOURSELF WITH MINE MIND FOCUSES CAN YOU FELT IT!
And by a way thank a bunches for that for really okay lets me told you.
For you and likes much million other individual quoten upon television and radio during what you refers to protest solidarities civical dutied etc. and when them was took from us the internets and magazine next which was toughed because of importantly stuffs likes football kickass shoes bikini and etc. and when them were forbid too what about that littling slip of paper pass hands to hands or even just use with your mouth to yelling things with innocent which guesses what no one even really gived a care for when alive and now we is just clock out and still none one gived a care and that’s what’s I for one are like thankful for dues to me being total interest in what you has to sayed NOT!
Boom There Is Going Another Lamps!
Listens I will gived these words correct as they are caming out of my mouth because it to be important for you heard them you idiot even though I founds difficult for me to gived out these words correct as because the statics shined all the time inside my skull now that I stooded clock out here alongsides you when it feel like an individual are digging a fishhooks through yours brain like on a treasured hunter except like there ain’t any treasured to find oh well kept on digging I’ll guess fine by me.
Whose are I kidding you yourself had already feelings it for sure I bet or just waited a little longer you will.
There will probable many thing you wonder of this instant and I is deliver here rightly in your very owned homes for counselor dues to you’ve clock out tonight of some idiot thinged you do and I am clock out many many day now and becomes super at it so kept up you idiot in case my geniused destroy you feeble heads which like who can blaming you BOOM BEWARES DID YOUR SAW THAT WARNING FROM ME?
Sometime I myself could saw from mine apartment window where a birdhouses using to stood with it little birds so happiness and pride like plops out egg hered and thered lalalalala ruffling them feathers and etc. and see instead in that places fire spin on a individual’s heads stucked there unto the post because some other individual with opinion did thus to pronouncing somethings like I AM THIS UPSET!
If that were you then your like suck your freaker idiot and if its weren’t you well then okay your are stills just a plained idiot.
As if it’s even mattered for me right now sees as how you and me shared the similar boat which are that we aren’t even gone on alive like expecting whenever you awoken each day think for granted well it sure are splendid to be a alive individual this very moments look at that sun right there pulsed so shinier and kickass and that homeless idiots want for pockets change even though stop whined it’s a really great sidewalked he’s be homeless on and those chipmunk humpings one anothers so feverely like they explode if they doesn’t get all their humpings out this instant and I am missed witnessing those so much!
What I myself for one would gave to see some chipmunk humpings right of this instant not like a sick things but to proving that sure I’ve a alive individual.
Well I guesses like toughed titties for me whose never gave a care about any politicaled mess other than wanting to seen televisioning at night or player pokers by mine bud Tim and mine bud Rob except that have to stopped when them tracers began explode atop my apartments building ever ten minute to scary out them idiots and uniforms individual breaken downed our doors with automatical weapon up in my faces and sayed Remove You Yourselfs From This Premises Or Else then takes away all the foods oils weapon children and etc. upon the premises overed and overed and mine bud Tim and mine bud Rob were like we’ve done with those mess seen all many good buds been hitted and killed by uniforms individual so both want ahead and not removed them themselves from this premises when told by swallowing them like fifty bullet eaches because of how poor to been a alive individual and there were nothing for me to do of that instant alone but just sat atop a trashcans and count how long is there quiet in between bangs bangs bang.
Until I too have clock out I am not sure howed but duh here’s I am.
Boom I am Broke The Hell From Them Lamp Of This Instant Watching and Learns From my Super Techniqued!
You wanting to be expert at these clock out and knew what to does with your yourself of this instant well firstly of all just forgot all them names place buds bikini and etc. from before becaused like they are sayonara to you yourself now for instant if you wants to thought about a boyfriend or girlfriends whose hold you hand at one pointed or anothers very sweetedly to make you felt like a alive individual well okay like kept dreaming chiefs them boyfriend or girlfriends perhap in Florida been using as a torchlights which are a very faraway vector so like toughed titties yourself are luckier enough to float or vibrating in you own homes while I am like one hundred hundred thousandth miles away from where I use to living and when I stills thought about boyfriends or girlfriends or chipmunk humpings or kickass shoes I am not knowning where I’m even am.
Nothing are the samely from before okay not even a alive individual around to sayed hello upon the mornings so I’ll guesses you yourself obtain a wish you idiot yet really all individual are like the sames now as none one are hurtsing none one are gotten the higher handed all individual are honkedy dorkedy dues to uniforms individual push the bigs button too many time greatly job chiefs sayonara world guess it were like kickass while it’s lasting.
Boom The Lamp They Will Paid For What You Yourself Has Doing Your Idiot!
Probable you is thought well here’s a individual who’ve heads happened to be filler up with instead of brain actual craps because these individual is sayed that I myself am clock out due to instigate a fulls-on wartime revolutioning with my molitovs cocktailen terroristly activities theft solidarities literatured and etc. and like please gave me some whatever these individual is smoked because boy howdly it are some wilder stuff!
You idiot that are exactly what I will sayed.
BOOM I HATE THESE IDIOT JOB AND I NEVER EVENT ASKS FOR IT!
Okay wells greatly we are out of lamp now and you stills probably didn’t got the pointers you idiot and all we get now is this statics which are like real real cooled though difficult to done muchly of anything with it in your heads and a newer homes every night where you don’t knew where you are and well okay I guessed you passes these test if that what’s you want your are readier to knew what to do with you yourself of this instant which are just this and counselor others like me myself to you of this instant so my times here is doned amen but not event that because there’s not god in these fucked up place so whatever cames after amen when you say it that’s what I says right here okay amen and that amen and that.
Beast of Some Kind
This hotel’s a beast of some kind
and we’re dancing right in it
outside the ballroom
its fur all matted
inside the ballroom
its clustered lungs
everything smells like biting
into decorative fruit
under its liver my question
why haven’t you longed
to whisper you love me
into the guts of an animal
don’t you admire
the sharp turn of my heel
on a floor draped in intestines
if the music wasn’t gurgling so
if to the beast we were somehow cruel
but everyone loves us here
loves you, the suit
little birds in your mouth
we tickle the beast
tongue full of rude hair
I say nothing
but can shuffle things around
like how I ask you closer
by spelling out in the meat
what can be more worth speaking about
than this thing we are doing
to this other thing’s insides and how
your cheek is warm
and how it is about to be
Somewhere in pursuit
of what it loves the muscle
good gone off for good
pressed out of it
as the forge occurs against a surface
to push off from will be important
if there are to be these futures
we can see the distant heat of
in one the shape
of the old heart’s rafted away
left you listing into a sink
you choose against sink
if this is choosing
Say we begin with things
I say I see
there’s a house
then to smooth out the part
where I think
I’m not being clear
I cut my bangs to see
so that house
will look less
like a house
with hair out front
I can sit here
with this face to try
to make my looking clear
to look like
from possible faces
I can choose squint
which is narrow
and hurts and things
in the vision field
who made vision
who built that house
to look like a house
in the way
say I address you
of the unmown yard
say I tell you
I see but what for
is a way to get at
you saw dandelions
when I said field
and meant houses
until we can cut
some part of us back
long is how things
not knowing exactly
how to look at
look at or what
to get out of the way
Laura Eve Engel‘s work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in the Boston Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Crazyhorse, Tin House and elsewhere. She was the 2011-2012 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, and in the summertime, she is the Residential Program Director at the UVa Young Writers Workshop. She tweets things as @lauraeveengel.
“The Chronicle of Everything” seems to occupy a space between poetry and prose. How does your poetry inform your prose, and vis versa? What role does hybridity play in your work?
Hybridity plays a pretty big role. I started out writing only poetry. My entire interest in writing came from being fourteen and starting a band with a few friends. I sang and wrote a lot of lyrics, and that evolved into poetry, which I wrote almost exclusively between the ages of fifteen and twenty one, in many different styles. I started writing fiction after a difficult and transformative period in my life. An artist I’ve known for years who I’m friends with named Ameara started doing a art therapy exercises with me and one day asked me to write something outside of my comfortable style. So I wrote a noir detective rural fairy story titled “A Death in Willow Park” and never went back to poetry really. I guess I felt like I took it as far as I could, and I really enjoy fiction. It’s a new challenge.
Since I have experience with both styles I honestly have a hard time finding the difference between them. I view writing as writing. I never liked referring to myself as a “poet” or “fiction writer.” I just prefer “writer.” All writing, whatever the genre, whatever the style, if it is good, gives me the same feeling. It’s a hard feeling to describe. It’s like my mind is firing on all cylinders, I’m seeing things between the words, realizing new ideas, I feel elevated, and it all happens very fast. Obviously poetry and prose look different (sometimes), but the more experimental you get, the more boundaries you push, the more the differences start to fade, especially when you get into prose poetry and flash fiction. That’s what’s nice about avant-garde writing. It breaks down the barriers and just becomes a pure expression of words, instead of being rigidly restricted to certain styles and frameworks.
You have a background in education. How would you approach someone looking to improve her or his writing?
I don’t like it when writers hand down lists of hard and fast rules they think everyone should abide by. If Cormac McCarthy followed Elmore Leonard’s rules, he’d never have written a word. Only Faulkner had good advice when he said something to the effect of how there’s no set technique to writing, you just have to learn by your own mistakes and do what works for you, whatever it takes to tell the story. That said, to improve writing technique, I would make someone practice reducing or eliminating their use of passive voice entirely. Avoiding this can be challenging in non-fiction, opinion pieces or stream of consciousness work, but when you’re simply telling a story of things happening, you should avoid it at all costs. That’s something I learned in a University course on professional writing I took. The professor, a man named Duncan Koerber, hated passive voice and tried to drill it out of us.
You’ve been writing seriously for more than six years. How do you see your development as a writer over this period of time? Are any of the pieces you’ve published especially important to you?
I see my development as a writer like this: it feels like I’m constantly setting then meeting small goals, on my way towards some vague ultimate achievement that I may or may not get to, but the existence of such an achievement is irrelevant because what’s important is how that vague goal drives me forwards. First I set out to write a decent set of song lyrics, then I wanted to learn about writing poetry in various styles, then I wanted to develop my prose voice and so on.
The first piece I ever had published is pretty important to me. That was a poem titled “Revenants of the Ocean Hourglass” for a dream/nightmare issue of a college magazine at York University. If you went to York you were divided into one of the different colleges that made up the school. A couple of the colleges published their own little arty magazines that they gave away free on campus, along with the York student newspaper. However, that poem and a few others were only written because I was trying to make something, anything, that might fit the theme of the upcoming issue, so while I did my best, I never viewed those publications as being “true” because it wasn’t me. It was me trying to fit a mold. I have particular fondness for the first poem I published that wasn’t written to meet a theme, which was called “Electric Balloon Testing.” The first thing I published outside of a York affiliated magazine is also important to me. Finally, and I’m not trying to suck up here, but the publication of “The Chronicle of Everything” is important to me because it’s my first published piece of prose. That means a lot because prose is almost exclusively what I do now. It feels like vindication for the new phase of my writing life.
Does writing flash-length pieces allow you to take any risks that you might not take with longer works? What opportunities does the short-short length afford?
Flash fiction allows a writer to risk ambiguity, to risk trusting the reader to make leaps of imagination on his or her own. In fact, flash fiction requires this, so the presence of suggestion cannot be attacked as a stylistic choice, since there is no other way of writing flash. Even if the flash story is something hard and concrete, it is only the small heart of a bigger story, so what came before and what follows after are only suggested. It’s a further distillation of storytelling to an even purer essence. Flash is an extreme example of the theory that all short stories are really just small slices of novel length ideas.
Most of “The Chronicle of Everything” takes the form of “addenda.” How does form inform content (and vis versa) in your work?
I don’t play with form and content as much as you might think after reading “The Chronicle of Everything.” I do think that both components are essential, that both must co-exist, and that neither should be more important than the other. Any piece of writing that goes too far into one camp feels off balance to me. For me, form and content have to reflect each other. Your writing style should be influenced by what is happening in the story’s content (a scared character should speak in disjointed fragments) and your style should influence how you treat the subject (the subject of an imagist poem should be tackled through metaphor and imagery. When I do play with form and content though (such as a poem I wrote where the title is the whole text of the poem and the poem’s body is just the five word title, arranged stylistically) what interests me is the insight one can gain from overlooked places. In that way, the title pages, cataloguing information, and dedication pages of books are (to me) very similar to corners of the house you never sit in and those mysterious service doors in public places one never sees opened. Those often seen but overlooked places are ripe for exploration. I want to play in those places, and see what can happen.
Paul Edward Costa lives just outside of Toronto, Canada, and has been writing poetry and short fiction seriously for six years. He’s previously published six poems in York University college magazines (three in ‘MacMedia,’ three in ‘The Flying Walrus’) and one in the webzine ‘Shorthand.’ At York University Paul earned a Specialized Honours BA in History and a BA in Education. He currently teaches high school with the Peel District School Board in Mississauga and Brampton.
……then it all vanished quietly and without ceremony.
1. The permanent confusion of memory prevented a description of the beginning (but it did begin). So now that we’re free let’s say the genesis took place on a bed of soft moss near a handmade log cabin in a forest so filled with light the whole place became blinding emerald green. And the deer gathered around to watch.
2. All respiratory and circulatory systems functioned quietly behind the scenes.
3. Both directions on any road went uphill.
4. It might go without saying, but the flowers we saw blossoming in colourful patterns while feeding hummingbirds also clutched the earth with twisted roots. These resembled tentacles smeared with dirt and caressed by faceless worms. Logically, larger flower heads kept balance with bigger and more dank roots hidden underground. The flowers also fed bees.
5. Challenge me all who remain. Anyone?
6. Throughout it all everybody regularly ate food, consumed liquid and used the washroom (contrary to popular belief). They dined out of sight. Behind closed doors men touched up their appearances in bathroom mirrors and elegantly beautiful women squeezed out painfully large bowel movements of feces.
7. There were always tears in secret when laughter rang out in public.
for Keith and Jen
Friends I am here to modestly report
seeing in an orchard
in my town
a goldfinch kissing
again and again
dangling upside down
by its tiny claws
steadying itself by snapping open
like an old-timey fan
again and again,
until, swooning, it tumbled off
and swooped back to the very same perch,
where the sunflower curled its giant
swirling of seeds
around the bird and leaned back
to admire the soft wind
nudging the bird’s plumage,
and friends I could see
the points on the flower’s stately crown
soften and curl inward
as it almost indiscernibly lifted
the food of its body
to the bird’s nuzzling mouth
I could hear from
oh 20 or 30 feet away
and see from the tiny hulls
that sailed from their
which good racket, I have to say,
was making me blush,
and rock up on my tippy-toes,
and just barely purse my lips
with what I realize now
was being, simply, glad,
which such love,
if we let it,
makes us feel.
When After Some Time, Finally, Your Kids are at Their Dad’s
is to be sunk in this muck-
fisted tussle this must this mud
this panty-yanking kung-fu
this reptile pre-fuck
of slurps and growls
of grunts and hisses
our eyes gone weird and filmy
our teeth squirming in our gums
the lightning writhing off our backs
and when I put my tongue
through you to read with it
the scrawl crawling your skull’s craggy walls
which is kind of like
sucking your brains out
but more literary
I get scared I’m hurting you and stop
but you say please don’t
and bite a hole in my throat
through which the moon
unbuckling her bonnet of bone
into the swamp we’ve made
of our want.
Sharing with the Ants
a euphemism for some
yank and gobble
no doubt some
jungle tumble or other
or hiding the salami
of course your mind
loosey-goose that you are
me too! me too!
you have a favorite
I’ve heard you say them
tending the hive
eating the melon
how’s the tunnel traffic
or as a “massage therapist”
would say to my pal
when his loneliness
dragged him to a carpeted room
in an apartment building
where the small hands
lathered his body
open the door
sharing with the ants
some entymologic metaphor
the chronic yoke
not only of body to body
but life to death
sharing with the ants
or the specific act of dragging with the tongue
one’s sweat-gilded body from the tibia’s
look-out along the rope bridge
of the Achilles marching
across the long plains of the calf
and the meticulously unnamed zone behind the knee
over the hamstring into
use your imagination for Chrissakes
but I will tell you it is dark there
sharing with the ants
but actually that’s not at all
what I’m talking about
I mean actually
sharing with the ants
which I did September 21
a Friday in 2012
when by fluke or whim or
prayer I jostled the crotch-high
fig tree whose few fruit had been
scooped by our fat friends
but found shriveled and purple
into an almost testicular papoose
smuggled beneath the fronds
of a few leaves
one stalwart fruit which
I immediately bit in half
only to find a small platoon of ants
twisting in the meat
and when I spit out my bite
another 4 or 5 lay sacked out
their spindly legs
pedaling slow nothing
one barely looking at me through a half-open eye
the way an infant might
curled into his mother’s breast
and one stumbled dazed through my beard
tickling me as it tumbled
head over feet over head
over feet back into the bite
in my hand the hooked sabers
of their mandibles made soft kneading
the flesh their claws
heavy and slow with fruit
their armor slathered plush
as the seeds shone above
the sounds of their work
like water slapping
a pier at night
and not one to disrupt an orgy
I mostly gobbled around their nuzzle and slurp
careful not to chomp a reveler
and nibbling one last thread of flesh
noticed a dozey ant nibbling the same
toward me its antennae
just caressing my face
slowing at my lips both
of our mouths sugared
and shining both of us
twirling beneath the fig’s
seeds spinning like a newly
that’s been there forever
Ross Gay is the author of Against Which and Bringing the Shovel Down, and he is co-author, with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, of the forthcoming collaborative book of garden poems which is as yet untitled, though will be published by Organic Weapon Arts next year. He is also working on a non-fiction book about African American farming. Ross was a founding board member of the Bloomington Community Orchard, a nonprofit, free-fruit-for-all public orchard. He teaches at Indiana University and is a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow.
Can you tell us a bit about the genesis of your short short collection, My Mother Was An Upright Piano? Also, has the reaction to the book been different than what you anticipated?
The book contains 56 of what I call “fictions” because some of them were published as poems or prose poems so I felt that the only thing I could say about them is that they are fictions. They weren’t written with any thought of being collected together in a book, but when Tangent Books said they’d like to publish a collection, I looked through the 150 or so very short fictions I’d written over about 4 years and picked my favourites. I felt very fortunate to be able to do that! They weren’t picked according to any theme at all, and we deliberately tried to order them in the book not according to themes we might perceive that they have – once again not wanting in any way to prejudice the reading experience. It’s always immensely thrilling when anyone I don’t know has read the book, it’s not something I take for granted at all, it’s a very moving experience to hear what someone thinks about my stories, I love it. I feel that with this book, my second, I was calmer about how it might be received. I feel that I have let go of most ideas I have of what my stories are about and welcome any reaction to them at all. I didn’t really anticipate anything when the book came out and feel very lucky to have had some amazing reviews by reviewers who see things across the stories that I hadn’t seen myself, but once they are pointed out, I realise that these were preoccupations of mine at the time. It’s a wonderful feeling when someone reads your work, perhaps someone half way across the world, someone who doesn’t know you, and they get it. It’s a bit of a miracle.
There is a persistent sense in My Mother Was An Upright Piano of an obscurity of self, a slippage of identity. Do you imagine fully-fledged characters when you write your fictions, or do the “characters” come from somewhere more primal?
There’s not really any planning that comes when I write, especially the shortest pieces, which were often written in one sitting and often using prompts. For me, the writing process is about the avoidance of thinking, of involving my rational brain – and I often do something else like playing a game of online Scrabble while I write in order to distract my logical mind so that I can be pretty much uninhibited while I write. I feel the characters strongly myself, I have just finished a new story this evening and am feeling very affected by it, and can only hope that a reader might feel a small amount of that when they read. I have no idea where the characters come from, no conscious idea anyway, but I really like the slippage of identity, it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently: what is the “self” and surely we are made of multiple constantly-shifting selves, rather than one immutable self? If in some way I convey this, that makes me happy.
I read an interview in which you indicated that you were “coming home” to poetry. Do you see yourself moving in that direction? How is the poetry process different than the prose process for you? There is a lyric quality to your prose – are you ever unsure what form a nascent piece belongs in?
Hmm, that’s an ongoing challenge for me. I feel shy around poetry, reading and writing it, but also recognise that something has been happening with my prose for the past few years, that people tell me it’s a bit like poetry. I love language, I love rhythm, I often write for radio, to read aloud, and this has become very important to me. But I am finding now that I am trying to write poetry, with line breaks, that there are different needs and requirements here. For example, I like to use repetition in prose, but that doesn’t seem to work in my poems, they require far more stripped down language, and I am learning to use the line breaks, the silences and pauses, the punctuation, in a different way. I am finding writing poems to be a bit more like solving crosswords, a process that takes a long time, trying out a word, replacing it with another word. It’s completely different from the way I write prose. As for forms, I once again prefer to leave it to other people to say whether what I have written is poetry or prose – often I think I straddle the line and a piece might be a prose poem, a form I love!
What does “innovative” literature mean to you? Is innovation something that you consciously strive for in your work?
This is a very interesting question and hard to answer. I guess personally what I like is a writer who plays – whether that is playing with language, structure, content, I don’t know. Something non-traditional, that might be the best I can do, this doesn’t necessarily mean anything specific like fragmented sentences or non-linear narratives. I think rather than “innovative” I prefer the word “imaginative”, that is what I love to read, truly imaginative fictions that make me think, that involve me in the story, so that I’m not an observer watching it go by. I definitely don’t strive consciously to do anything in my own work, I try as much as possible to stay out of the story’s way and let it tell itself the way it wants to, which is immensely difficult, as any writer knows. I can tell when I’m not staying out of the way enough, I can feel it! I leave it to others to put any kinds of labels, such as “experimental”, on my work, I’ve learned that that is not really up to me. I prefer – especially with very short pieces – not to lead the reader to expect anything in advance of reading it, and labels do tend to try and tell you how to read what you’re about to read.
Which writers today do you feel are “innovating”?
There are a lot of writers whose work I absolutely love, and it’s difficult to come up with a list here because many are friends of mine and if I inadvertently leave someone out, that gets messy! I believe that every great short story writer is innovating, they take the short story and they make it their own. Some writers writing today that inspire me include Roy Kesey, Anthony Doerr, Aimee Bender, Lydia Davis, Edith Pearlman, Janice Galloway, Ali Smith … and some of my all time favourites include Richard Brautigan, Donald Barthelme, Grace Paley.
What’s your goal when you write? Do you write for a particular audience?
I write to tell myself stories, to move myself, to get inside other people’s heads, to try on their skins, to take myself to situations I have never experienced – and may never experience. It is how I try and learn about the world, which is what makes it always miraculous if anything I write speaks to someone else.
What tells you when a fiction is done?
A gut feeling. Sorry, can’t be more precise than that! But when it’s done, it’s done, for me.
Do you go back to read your own work? How do they hail you when you come back a year or two later?
I tend to submit new pieces quite soon after I finish them, so I don’t often let them lie for very long. But if they don’t get accepted or for some other reason I leave them for a while, it’s really a fantastic thing to read something a year or two afterwards. Really, nothing beats time in order to see your own work as if through someone else’s eyes – and I wish I had the patience to do that more often, but I do like the “hit” of seeing a story published, it’s my weakness, it’s a joy that doesn’t diminish! I feel like I am always learning about my own writing process, it’s ongoing and evolving. I have just begun a PhD in Creative Writing and am eager to see what happens now that I am immersing myself in a 3-year, book-length project, which will involve writing short fictions, short non-fictions, prose poems and poetry. It’s an experiment. I never want to stand still.
Tania Hershman’s second story collection, My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions, was published in May 2012 by Tangent Books. Her first collection, The White Road and Other Stories, was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers.
You scramble forward and pretend not to see but how not to see? He sees you not seeing and he lifts it higher. He is on his knees. You are like an animal. A squirrel in the trees is watching. Shouting. And it’s you. The squirrel starts and slips and you stop and he drops it and all three of you are frozen then and there, and there is where you’re found, afterwards. So long afterwards that you – are you still you? – are only bones and he is only bones. And the squirrel? Only dust.
Now, you and he float above and watch the finding of you, watch them scrabble and unearth, under mounds and under years. He is still trying to show you something as you shimmer in your cloud. And you are still pretending not to see. The squirrel speaks. It is no surprise. Earth, sun and moon, we forget, are spirits too.
After Objects I'm Showered Out
(after Brian Foley)
is my kind.
me any story
Proving a Bird
is no wild
thing: I speak,
to strange men.What walk
on a grey
Proving a bird,
I play lamely
at the feet
of the sun.
I call upon
A Body in Distress
I am wrought
I can lie
is it an object I love
or the faithful,
what is this precious sickness
for which I never pay,
a pillared light
a smooth surface
can never be alone,
back our way
Leora Fridman lives in California. Her chapbook “Precious Coast” is available from H_ngm_n B_ _ks. Her chapbooks “On the architecture” and “Essential Nature” are forthcoming from The New Megaphone. Her chapbook of translations of Eduardo Milán is available from Toad Press. With Kelin Loe, she edits Spoke Too Soon: A Journal of the Longer.
Alvarado O’Brien is the pen name of Jacqueline Doyle and Stephen D. Gutierrez, who live in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has work published and forthcoming in New Plains Review, Ninth Letter online, South Loop Review, Confrontation, Southern Humanities Review, and Southern Indiana Review. His most recent book Live from Fresno y Los (Bear Star Press) won an American Book Award. His work can be found in Sudden Fiction Latino (W.W. Norton), New California Writing 2013 (Heyday), and numerous literary journals. His collection of stories and essays The Mexican Man in His Backyard (Roan Press) is forthcoming this fall.
Can you describe the collaborative writing process? What are the particular challenges and benefits of writing with another person? How is the finished product different than something you might create on your own?
Jackie: Steve is a born storyteller and what started as a potential lyric essay immediately transformed itself into a narrative with characters jumping off the page. The piece became something very different than I anticipated. I went back to my two guys in the bar (only hinted at in a cryptic fragment of dialogue in the first draft) after Steve took them to Kmart. It was fun weaving in and out of the kind of story Steve tells.
Steve: It was relatively easy, painless, after surrendering my ego and its usual position in all questions compositional. I was no longer in charge but forced to respond to Jackie’s gestures on the page—my own inspired her next response to look more like mine, while my movements increasingly looked liked hers. At the end, some kind of symbiosis was achieved. The hardest part is that initial surrender—just to agree to do it in good faith, I suppose—and the best part the fun of that surrender. No longer claiming full responsibility for the text, a new kind of playfulness may emerge that yet remains faithful to the basic seriousness underlying the project. My story would have ended in the aisle with blood. But this one is true, too.
“Night of the Virgin” strikes a balance between humor, politics, and religion. Do you try to hew to a line when you deal with these issues? How do you see them inform each other?
Jackie: It’s a worldview that we share, I think, rather than an intentional literary effect. Being raised Catholic probably leads to a blend of humor and blasphemy. Along with living in California, teaching in an institution with a considerable bureaucracy, and reading the daily newspaper together at the breakfast table.
Steve: I think humor, politics, and religion are good bedmates and shouldn’t be separated. In fact, I think they’re excellent bedmates as far as providing a good tussle that can amuse the reader. They’re made for each other. But I don’t think you should consider anything sacred, as far as religion goes (and I am religious), nor anything out of bounds as far as politics go (I am not political, per se, definitely not a good liberal. Nor a progressive. Nor a conservative. Just a disenchanted American unable to deeply respect any governmental institution anymore). And humor is the element that can crack anything open. At the end of it all, there’s going to be one, big laugh. “Ha, ha!” In the blackness of the universe, nobody will hear it. But it will be funny.
Do you want to plug some of the pieces that you’ve published elsewhere?
Steve: Hell yes, all of them. But most recently, three, no four come to mind. They’re soon to be out or out by now: the prologue to a play in Third Coast, a story in the online magazine Tattoo Highway, a story in The Catamaran Literary Reader, and an essay in Alaska Quarterly Review. But mostly my new book with Roan Press is what I want to plug, The Mexican Man in His Backyard. Thanks for the opportunity here.
Jackie: Two segmented essays out this month in Southern Indiana Review and South Loop Review and a riff on “Lady Lazarus” in Tattoo Highway. My experiments for the sheer fun of it include hybrid essays in Prick of the Spindle, Rio Grande Review, Thin Air Magazine, and Ninth Letter, where I won a zany online meta-essay contest. See “About” on my website for details on these publications and others: www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.
What does “innovative” or “experimental” literature mean to you? Are innovation and experiment things that you consciously strive for in your work?
Steve: The words mean little outside a fresh pop on the page. Even the most formal, traditional story can elicit my admiration as “different” if it’s good enough. Anything that breaks through the usual wall of acceptable prose—the regular tone, stance, sensibility at work there—our inescapable liberal humanism broken down perhaps—anything venturing into new psychic terrain qualifies for the term “experimental.” The formal structure of the story, in other words, can have little to do with it. The spirit is the determining factor if something is truly experimental—groundbreaking, fresh, new. I don’t sit down to write something experimental (or traditional or whatnot). Just to write something decent, good, alive, fresh. Just to cure my blues.
Jackie: Experiment emerges in my work when the content calls for it. My creative nonfiction tends to be more innovative than my fiction, in part because the genre feels more flexible and capacious to me, in part because of the exciting challenges of negotiating the boundaries between the experienced, the remembered, and the imagined. It’s a hybrid form, fluid, full of possibilities.
What’s your goal when you write? Do you write for a particular audience?
Steve: To write a good story returning to certain forgotten and even dismissed literary values or features is a goal of mine nowadays. Plot is undervalued, so is theme. Too many stories are exercises in obliqueness, they’re puzzles to figure out at the end. I’d like to write stories that are pretty damn clear, thematically. Do you know how many stories are about nothing? Plenty of doings but no real theme? You do. Too many. Everybody should know a story’s theme in the way that you know a great pop song’s theme. It seems a sin to be clear nowadays, but it’s the greatest challenge to do so with distinction. My particular audience appreciates this aesthetic; it is sophisticated in its understanding of the short story but basic in its want: a good story.
Jackie: I’m grateful for readers, though I don’t exactly write for them. Once a piece is finished: any audience!
Are you working towards a particular writing project in the future?
Jackie: I will have a lyric essay in Birkensnake’s “Thing Theory” issue (originally published in Otoliths), and I’d love to explore the borderlands between poetry and prose further. I thought “Night of the Virgin” was going to go in that direction …
Steve: Yes, but I don’t know what it is. That’s what makes it worthwhile. Who knows what the present work will yield? I hope it takes me to an interesting place.
Hail Mary full of grace, calamity, disgrace, last-minute miracles. Hail Mary as the football hurtles in the impossible pass toward the end zone, the basketball hovers in the air like some goddamn Holy Ghost about to bless the losing team in the closing seconds of play. Blessed art thou among athletes, immigrants, widows, derelicts and drunkards. White Virgin with simpering smile and downcast eyes. Brown Madonna robed in midnight blue and stars. Black Mother holding black baby Jesus, his right hand raised in benediction. Blessed be the fruit of thy womb. Grandmothers fumbling with rosaries, mumbling a prayer for each crystal bead. Skin like yellow parchment. Pray for us now and at the hour of our.
Silver metallic garlands and tiny colored lights festoon the mirror behind the bar. The bartender swipes the counter with a dirty rag and then pulls off his Santa Claus hat. “Last call was twenty minutes ago.”
“Shit.” Stanton says. “We got to go, Lenny.”
“Okay, okay, let me finish.” He downs his beer in one gulp, burps.
“Hey, man. You sure you can drive? C’mon. Give me your keys.” Stanton holds out his hand, palm up.
I’ve seen a lot in my life, but nothing like this, not in a long time anyway. It’s the Virgin Mary standing in line at Kmart, all made up like the one down in Mexico. Must be on her way home from a part in a play or something, pretty little thing, too, all virginal but with the sly eyes of fucking, just like I think the real one had. Because she didn’t get knocked up by no holy spirit but by Joseph himself, he entered her, yup, he did, and she cried to the Lord above, that being God the father who gets all confused with his son later, and asked for help.
He, being kindly, gave her the right excuse. You know the rest. He comes down from heaven, saves us, la de dah.
“Well, Jesus Christ,” I say to myself. She’s holding this baby in her arms, whipped out of somewhere, a plastic doll, rocking it, cradling it like it’s one of her own children, a flesh and blood brat needing looking after. You know she had a brood of them after Jesus, don’t you? Well, she did.
But this one is, well, el primero. You can tell. But a fucking doll!
“Jesus Christ,” I say, again.
She’s looking down on it so fondly, batting her big eyelashes at it, cooing, “Mi hijo, mi hijo, my baby, you’re going to save the world.” She’s twitching too when she’s not gazing lovingly at him.
“Meth bitch,” I’m thinking. I’ve seen them all.
“I can drive.” Lenny staggers off his stool, fumbles with his wallet and slaps a few bucks on the counter.
“Christ on a crutch. You’re kidding, right?”
“No man, I’m cool.” He nods, poker-faced. The bartender unplugs the colored lights.
“Right. Give me the keys.” Stanton reaches into Lenny’s jacket pocket.
“Cut it out!” Lenny assumes a boxing stance, swaying on his feet. “I told you. I’m like. Totally. Okay.”
“You are so not okay,” Stanton snorts. “We’re both wasted.”
“Just chill, man. Let’s go to Kmart and see if they’ve got any of those badass Santa Claus hats. Angie’ll love it. You got to laugh at a dude in a Santa Claus hat.”
Just about then, I kid you not, the bar spills out into Kmart. The one across the street lets out and the Super Kmart’s open 24/7 just in case one of them meth dealers takes a notion to upgrade his TV to the best available and come on in and plunk down a wad of cash before he can change his mind. I’ve seen it happen too many times to surprise me anymore. And of course I’m thinking, “She ain’t in no play, what the fuck am I thinking?” There’s a community college down the street that runs some this time of year, La Navidad, La Pastorela, whatever. Got dragged to one before the common era by my old lady herself.
Took a class there. Met her. Burned out.
Got me a job doing appliance delivery for Mel’s Appliances, one of the last independents in the area, the greater desert region. You don’t need to know where exactly, do you?
We’re in fucking Nazareth, Bethlehem, Galilee inside the big bazaar tent with the TVs against the wall and her highness herself edging forward at a snail’s pace cooing to this thing that I swear is now slobbering. Either that or she’s licked him between my twirls and swirls looking real nonchalant with my jumbo box of Cracker Jacks pressed to my belly for my own midnight fix and the two men approaching her from the other aisle, entering ours in that space between us, drunker than I been in a long time, saying, “There’s the baby fucking Jesus.” One’s got his arm around the other, and they’re both leaning on each other laughing. They’re carrying two Santa Claus hats and one of those light-up outdoor reindeers, you know the kind I mean.
The loudspeaker crackles. “Attention Kmart shoppers. See aisle 7 for today’s special on Fruit of the Loom boxers and underwear.”
Sweating under the lights, the boxer in the corner lets go of the ropes, jogs in place, shakes his arms loose, then feints, jabs. The Virgen de Guadalupe tattoo on his brown back seems to weep as he drips with perspiration. Santa María, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores. The gong sounds. The boxer crosses himself with his right hand, large glove clumsy, and dances into the center of the ring.
A Kmart clerk leans on his push broom and watches the match on a large screen TV in the Electronics section.
“Stanton, take a look here, it’s the Virgin Mary.”
I get to know these guys real quick. They’re drunk enough to spill their innards without noticing the mess. I call them L & S.
“She is looking beautiful, too. Radiant with life.” L scoots up to her, grinning. “Did Jesus give you that? I mean Joseph.” He points at the baby.
“Lenny, don’t be a fool. It’s a miraculous misconception.” S is sweeping the whole store with his arm, doing his best to keep that reindeer pressed to his side with his free elbow. “I know the story, all the stories. I know how this one ends, Señorita. With everybody dying happily ever after or something. Shit, we’re wasted, Lenny. What’s your baby’s name, Miss?”
“The King. I found him in Vegas. He was so alone, wandering the streets. I took him home and he kept crying, saying he wanted to return to earth. I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, you know? We believe in the Second Coming. Everybody gets a second chance. I put Elvis inside me and let him rest and sleep, and when the church bells rang he just popped out. I live on 44th over there by the railroad tracks. They call me Virgencita but I’m not, I’m corrupt, but I can still rock Elvis because it’s going to be a better world, it is.”
“Amen to that,” L’s buddy S says, and he gets down on his knees and holds out a hand to her. She takes it and lifts it to her lips and kisses it.
L’s also down on his knees, looking up at her pleadingly. “That’s the best story I ever heard. I was born the day Elvis died. I think something big is going on here. What do you say, Señor?” He turns to me.
I shrug my shoulders. “It’s a strange world. Don’t let them tell you otherwise.” Then what I do is real simple. I reach in my pocket and pull out a Virgin medal I’ve been carrying like a lucky charm all these years even though I don’t believe in any of this shit.
“If you wear this on the night of the Annunciation you’ll be saved.”
“How come you ain’t wearing it?” L asks the logical question.
The cashier behind the counter is just looking at us, shaking her head.
“Because I been saved so long ago I just need Cracker Jacks.” I shake the box at both of them kneeling on the floor in Kmart like two devout Catholic boys waiting for Communion.
They squirm and sigh. They’re kind of caught in a bind in Kmart on their knees, looking foolish whatever they do next. I guess that’s why the one just starts blessing himself and the other one looks over at him and hiccups and mumbles, “I’ll be damned,” before praying himself over the second announcement of the Fruit of the Loom sale.
Meantime she’s just standing there transfixed, with a little smile.
“They are the fruit of your womb,” I say to her seriously.
She looks down on them both with pity.
Hail Mary, Cracker Jack mama, Saturday night tattoo special, bodega queen. Pray for us sinners. Oblivious to the scene unfolding by the cash registers, the clerk at the back of the store does a waltz with his push broom.
Resplendent on the big screen, the beaming boxer rotates in a slow circle at the center of the ring, holding a golden belt aloft with both hands. One eye is swollen shut and crusted with blood. His body glistens with sweat. The tattooed Virgin on his back gazes at the roaring crowd, her smile enigmatic. Salve Regina!
Alvarado O’Brien is the pen name of Jacqueline Doyle and Stephen D. Gutierrez, who live in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has work published and forthcoming in New Plains Review, Ninth Letter online, South Loop Review, Confrontation, Southern Humanities Review, and Southern Indiana Review. His most recent book Live from Fresno y Los (Bear Star Press) won an American Book Award. His work can be found in Sudden Fiction Latino (W.W. Norton), New California Writing 2013 (Heyday), and numerous literary journals. His collection of stories and essays The Mexican Man in His Backyard (Roan Press) is forthcoming this fall.
Connor Fisher: I first heard about The Loving Detail of the Living & the Dead from Julie Carr — we discussed it last spring. Julie mentioned that, in reading Loving Detail, she was impacted by how influenced the work was by H.D. I read the book with this in mind as well; H.D.’s influence seemed present in a hermetic, sealed quality to many of the poems (in a good way) and your use of focused — yet diffuse — imagery or symbols from nature. To whatever extent this was intentional, how did you approach the influence and presence of H.D. in constructing these poems?
Eleni Sikelianos: H.D. didn’t influence these poems in any direct way, but I consider her one of the great poets of the 20th century, so it makes sense that she’s in the background. I’d have to go back to her in a deep way now to think about notions of the hermetic (she was of course playing with her own initials when titling her book Hermetic Definition — but her whole path can be seen as linked to that taken name, and its self-sufficiency and condensation). What I can say might unite these poems with H.D. is a notion of the self-sufficiency of the poem itself. That all vision, thought, investigation, and spirit might be embodied there. That real work might be done there, by both the writer and the reader.
“Hermetic” in relation to H.D. makes me think of the cartouche — that circle around an Egyptian hieroglyph (usually the king’s name) that indicated everything the sun encircled. Her poems are like that — self-contained and expanding out to touch everything at the same time.
I don’t really see the poems (or poetry) as separate from nature (or other parts of the world), so I don’t see what’s operational as symbolic (or even, strangely, as a use of imagery — since I would say imagery uses me, or the poem, more than I use it). The poem arises from the world (visible and otherwise) and from language (the part of our world that allows us to think), and is not separable from them.
Just after typing this, I happened to be reading Fanny Howe’s essay, “Bewilderment”: “An aesthetic that organizes its subject around a set of interlocking symbols and metaphors describes a world that is fixed and fatally subject to itself alone.” At the same time, language itself is symbolic, so we are engaged in a relationship of deferral and approach at root. That is part of poetry’s drive, to explore those proximities and distances between thought, self, and world.
CF: Loving Detail deals in many ways with the idea of death — whether by honoring and commemorating the recently deceased, or by expressing a child’s concerns with death’s finality. In reading these sections, I began thinking of them as somehow cathartic — both to the persona of the poems, as well as to a sort of “ideal reader.” In writing these poems, what was your engagement with the idea of catharsis — not so much for yourself personally, but in the ways that the poems could enact cathartic processes?
ES: The explorations of death came about for a number of very real reasons, the first being that several people close to me died in the time period I was writing these. So death was around me. I was also linked to death by birth — you have suddenly to worry about the death of someone you’ve given birth to (how do you protect someone from death?), and you have also at some point to figure out how to explain death, because the child will ask (how can death be explained?). My father died over 10 years ago, and that is a death that’s always around (death has a habit of hanging around), and that was also an absence that had to be explained. In a third fork, I woke up every morning for a time thinking “I am going to die, maybe today, maybe not.” In this I felt linked to Dante in the middle of his dark woods, which he hit in midlife. You live to 35 or 40, and it may (or may not) be the middle of your life. You are nudged to thinking about what else you will (or will not) do in the time left.
I was seeking to handle (literally, to palpate) death, with detail and care. Catharsis wasn’t a concern, though I suppose when one sets out on these inquiries, it has to do with coming to terms. (Catharsis has been a more significant side-effect of other books of mine.) Death can’t be purged, obviously. Though our vision of it can be burnished. I think that’s something poems do — they allow us to polish an idea or possibility or reality (which come in images and sound), not so that these things become smoothed over, but so that they do shine with more relationship.
CF: At the &NOW conference at CU Boulder, I attended a reading by Laird [Hunt] in which he described fiction as “a type of thinking” and a means of thought. I often note similar effects in poetry, including your own . . . poetry enacting thought-like processes through its engagement with concepts, placing meaning in objects as symbols, etc. When you compose poems, do you consider them to enact a type of thought — or — do you feel that poetry is itself a type of thinking?
ES: Absolutely, both. Poetry is a vehicle and method of thinking, exploring, experiencing, and also of consciousness. “Thinking with the things as they exist,” as Zukofsky had it, but also thinking with things as they don’t exist.
The Hand Therapist
In the hand world, all sens-
ation is sutured at the tips.
Flavus digitalus profundus
A chiasmus, a crossing, she says, we call it
Zone 2, No Man’s Land, tap
taps the knuckle. I know
horses are making the crossing from the
superficial to the deep
tendons where they make the
X after the bone, thirsty.
She wants me to know but maybe
She doesn’t want me to know too much.
When I describe the world
this is about the body.
Your finger is making layers and layers of scarring
like 40 strata of stiff Saran wrap, enough
for New Jersey. You’re making
enough for 10 bodies, I’m trying
to slow that drapery down and
smooth it so
things can slide around.
Anne told me Cecil Taylor once swaddled himself
in Saran wrap and wandered the halls
of the Boulderado otherwise
naked. I believe
the manager asked him to leave or
at least return to his room.
The body can manage a sliver of glass
but there are other foreign entities
that flummox it, she says and my hand
heats on the table like
Cecil Taylor’s wrapped physique
under the ceiling lights.
She taps my finger’s tip
This is the most sensate
part of your body. Open.
In the hand world
she says again
the tendons cross deep in the flesh
She is my Hand Therapist
with an accent she brought with her from Virginia
just as she would a pocket full of acorns.
Dreamed: split rail fences, healing scars,
The next time I see her the Hand
Therapist cries and
tells me to wear gloves
all the time. Then she says
your scar tissue feels
real good. Must feel like Cecil
Taylor in cellophane tapping
on 88 tuned drums but
my stitched finger drops
the stitch into
decay and can
no longer open the good jar of tomatoes.
What damage the hand can
wreak on the world the world
gives back to it.
Eleni Sikelianos is the author of the memoir, The Book of Jon, and poetry collections, which include The California Poem, The Monster Lives of Boys and Girls, and Earliest Worlds. A California native, she has lived in New York and Paris and now lives in Boulder, Colorado where she teaches at the University of Denver.
The Cucumber King of Kédainiai is the latest, and long anticipated, story collection from Wendell Mayo, who returns to one of his favorite fictional subjects: the country of Lithuania, where the writer has traveled repeatedly in the last twenty years, and which he captured so unerringly in his 1998 novel-in-stories In Lithuanian Wood. If you are a fan of Mayo’s work—his deft touch, his gentle acquisition of the bizarre, his ability to invent situations that overthrow every readerly expectation—The Cucumber King of Kédainiai will hardly disappoint. Indeed, it only proves this master storyteller has gotten better.
Similar to the stories of In Lithuanian Wood, Mayo is both achingly precise in his depiction of downtrodden, post-communist Lithuania—a land that as Mayo shows it has hardly thrown off the memory of its recent occupation—and at the same time consciously mythological. So many of the characters in the book are fighting off one mythology or another, not at all successfully, and under great stress: the unnamed narrator of the title story who when brought face to face with a disarmingly charming crime boss is forced to give up his addiction to the idea that his traveling companion might marry him; Grigoryev in “Breshnev’s Eyebrows,” who is made to confront the fact that his girlfriend’s paint-by-number paintings are more attractive to art buyers than his own soul-stirred creations; the American English teacher in “Spider Story” who comes to understand that his Lithuanian pupils—and by extension the whole country—have not needed or ever really wanted his instruction; and the family of “Cold Fried Pike,” an unnamed daughter, mother, and grandmother who cannot agree on whether or how the grandmother’s entire family was executed long ago by KGB, a mythology they toss back and forth with the same dispassion as talking about, yes, that night’s failed dinner.
Passages in this book read like poetry, but at no time does Mayo’s style ever seem heavy-handed or excessive. Instead they are perfectly illustrative of the devastating emotional environments in which his characters find themselves trapped. Mayo is an expert at capturing awkward clashes between people of different nationalities, and we see repeatedly in the book a type of character he’s written about before with great pathos: the well-intentioned but out of place American, who usually ends up being thrown over by all that he cannot predict or understand. Some of these stories border on the magical realist, but that’s a border that the book as a whole doesn’t cross. They mostly end up being playfully weird, a particular talent of Mayo’s. On the other hand you have the little gem “Mountain of Dreams,” a piece of the tripartite story “Universal Store.” “Mountain of Dreams,” clearly written out of the folk tale tradition, is a haunting, gorgeous little nugget. But what’s more amazing is how beautiful all the stories are, even when they are suffused with sadness and desperation and the burden of history.
John Vanderslice teaches writing at the University of Central Arkansas, where he also serves as Associate Editor of Toad Suck Review. His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in dozens of journals, including Versal, Seattle Review, Southern Humanities Review, Sou’wester, Laurel Review, 1966, Exquisite Corpse, and Crazyhorse. His short story collection Island Fog is forthcoming in 2014 from Dialogos/Lavender Ink Press.
[The 2013 Timber will be featuring lovely new work from Megan Kaminski’s recent chapbook, This Place (Dusie Press 2013). Though the poems in This Place are discussing travel, they do not stumble into the genre of travel poetry; rather they offer a lushly distinct landscape that embraces and questions space, the blending of space, and the invasion of space. Here language sharpens the Hawaiian coastline with rich precision.]
Megan is the author of six chapbooks, as well as Desiring Map (Coconut Books 2012), her first full length collection. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Kansas, where she directs the Creative Writing Exchange and Undergraduate Reading Series. She also curates the Taproom Poetry Series in downtown Lawrence, recently named one of the top 10 reading series in the Midwest. I first met Megan as an undergraduate at KU and have been enamored of both her poetry and activism in the poetry community ever since. Megan kindly corresponded with me by way of email about This Place, resulting in the following interview.
AS: The idea of place is so essential to your book Desiring Map. It seems that this theme continues in your chapbook This Place, but in your newer work the character of a tourist or visitor becomes more prevalent and also somewhat politically charged:
invasive: having spread
oneself in a way that is
detrimental to those who
Here, the body is a visitor and an even somewhat intrusive vessel; a part of the space it inhabits, but also a foreigner. Could you discuss how your focus of place has shifted in this later chapbook?
MK: Yes, there is definitely a conscious shift in these poems—both for theoretical and for practical reasons. The more I write, read, and think, the more I become committed to an ecologically and socially engaged practice. It is clear to me that we are at a crisis point—in terms of environmental devastation (carbon levels, global warming, mass extinctions) and in terms of the crisis of late capitalism (look at this map of global protests; the world is on fire). And I don’t believe that it is desirable (or even possible) to try to write outside of these realities. So, I guess, in many ways I am writing a poetry of crisis. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t beauty and pleasure in the poems, but there is also an urgency, a sense of underlying emergency—the body, our bodies (all animals and plants), the larger ecosystem, under attack.
So on one hand, I was very much working toward a more direct ecopoetics, and on the other hand, I was clearly in a place, Maui, in which I was a visitor, an interloper. As much as I felt connected to that place in the few months that I had spent there, I was very much an outsider. I didn’t want to leave out my love for the place and the experiences that I had there, but the last thing that I wanted to do was to write poems in which I as an outsider came to “explain things” or talk about my precious travel experiences. I did not want to write “travel poems.” I especially did not want to write “white-lady-comes-to-far-away-island-on-holiday-and-is-moved-by-the-exotic-place/people-poems,” and I was conscious always to point back to and undermine my position.
AS: A sense of ecopoetics seems profoundly significant in your new chapbook, This Place. Could you talk about your personal interpretation of this word and how it applies to your efforts in poetry, not only as an author, but also as a member of a larger poetic community?
MK: From my perspective, ecopoetics is a term that can encompass a broad range of practices. Obviously, these approaches are all concerned with ecological systems and our place in them, and I also think that the poetics of the work has to be deeply tied to that relationship. Of course, Jonathan Skinner’s definition looms large in my mind: “’Eco’ here signals—no more, no less—the house we share with several million other species, our planet Earth. ‘Poetics’ is used as poesis or making, not necessarily to emphasize the critical over the creative act (nor vice versa). Thus: ecopoetics, a house making.” Skinner’s writings (his poems and critical work) and his work as editor of Ecopoetics have been formative to the way I think about these things. “Ecopoetics” existed as a term long before I was writing seriously, so I am a bit of a late-comer to the conversation.
That said, it’s a conversation that I am deeply invested in. So when I think of ecopoetics, I certainly think of poems discussing subjects of environmental import. Moreover, I’m interested in poems that employ formal strategies that seek to create a larger paradigm shift. A poetry of innovation and engagement, rather than one of remove. I’m also interested in a sort of human decentering, in which the self functions as only a part of the larger ecosystem. I think of Evelyn Reilly’s discussion of a “search for a language congruent with a world that is not filled with objects or subjects, that is not ‘the context,’ nor ‘the setting’ for subjects or objects, but that is a permanent state of flux between subject-objects and object-subjects.” I think of poets like Skinner and Reilly, and also Brenda Iijima, Sherwin Bitsui, Bhanu Khapil, C.S. Giscombe, Juliana Spahr, Michelle Naka Pierce, CA Conrad, Marcella Durand, Matthew Hall, Linda Russo, Dan Beachy-Quick, Joshua Corey, Stephen Collis, Cara Benson, Brenda Hillman, Forrest Gander, and others.
AS: The problem of defining memory becomes a repeated theme. For example, in “This Place” you write: “place sheltering misplaced memory of belonging/ and not.” Also in your poem “Dictation”: “easy to remember/ no names for this.” How do you see the struggle of memory interacting with the definition of place and body in these poems?
MK: The poems are certainly grappling with memory and representation. In some ways, memory can work as profound embodiment—the way our muscles store the memory of motion, of sensations, and also the way that memory can record our personal experiences in order to replay and repeat them. That said, memory is more a creation-in-flux than a reliable record. It often seems that memory is an unpredictable and unwanted guest, showing up when it is least expected. The way a certain scent or touch of wind on your skin can bring you back to all sorts of people and places. Memory can certainly create and inform our present experiences. I don’t think we can know what it would mean to say “what really happened.” I’m skeptical of memory, for sure, but memory is so tied to our reality that it seems inextricable.
There’s a lot of layering of memory and experience in the poems. The very sensation of floating in the ocean, or stepping into hot sand, is so ingrained in my conscious from some of my earliest memories. So the ocean for me holds years of memory and experience, even if I am seeing myself as very much existing in the present.
AS: Not to be ridiculous, but the effort or lack of ability to name things in these poems brings to mind the infamous lines of Shakespeare: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ by any other name would smell as sweet.” How do you interpret these boundaries—between things and their names, the human struggle to name, and the incapability to capture a “finite thing” (from “The Pacific”) within a name? Furthermore, how much is this struggle due to the possible failure of language as a definitive thing?
MK: I don’t believe that language can fail us—perhaps we are failing language? There is certainly a struggle around the act of naming—and most of that, for the poems in the book, at least, is tied to the politics of naming, rather than a failure of language. In some poems the problem with naming comes from me honestly not knowing what something was named. Of course, I could use Google, or do some other research (I did look things up in most cases), but I wanted to capture that experience of not knowing. I also didn’t want to do that thing that happens in travel poems, the listing of specific (and mostly unfamiliar) names as a way of credentialing, like proof of a somehow “authentic” experience or a deep personal knowledge of the place that somehow allows me to speak authoritatively about that place. I guess I am a somewhat self-loathing tourist. I’m not interested in those kinds of ideas of authenticity or authority. I’m also not that interested in the ego/persona of the speaker (Megan as the “I” of the poems). Instead, I’m interested in capturing the experience and making it permeable to others.
In Maui, the politics of naming come up in light of Hawaii’s colonial history—and its present status as a state in the US, as opposed to an independent, self-governing state. When talking about plants, animals, and places in Maui there is often a choice between a Hawaiian name or an English name. Naming is a fraught thing. We can do a lot of fucked up things with language—I don’t think the fault there lies with language, though.
At the most recent &Now conference, Julie organized a panel on dance/text collaboration. Not only did she provide some insight into the history of this work, but her long time collaborator, K.J. Holmes, also performed a dance set to an audio track Julie had made. I’ve always known Julie was a dancer. I’ve probably read it into her work – seeing as it moves with an ease and incisiveness she maneuvers so well. But the panel really made me want to know more, understand more of how her experiences dancing have found their way into her poems, her process, her thinking, etc.
Below is an excerpt from the audio track she created. Throughout it you can hear different textures colliding: family, friends, noise, weather, silence, lines from Julie’s own poems. We’ve also published excerpts from Julie’s forthcoming RAG and her current project, Real Life: An Installation, as well as an interview we conducted over the course of the semester in which we discuss dance, dance/text collaboration, process, improvisation, gender & sexism, poet-minds, and the body as a site of resistance.
Interview with Julie Carr:
Alexis Almeida: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with me! I want to start by asking a bit about your background in dance. What led you to start dancing, and when did you start? I know you were living in New York in your 20’s – what kinds of dance projects were you taking on then? Did you feel it might play a role in your writing one day?
Julie Carr: So, I began dancing a bit late – I was twelve, and friends had all kinds of physical skills I didn’t have, so somehow I found this thing that no one else was really doing. I wasn’t particularly good at it, but I could count and remember steps and keep a rhythm – the rest I had to work really hard at. When I went to college I had “given up on dance,” and had decided to “be a writer”! But then immediately on arriving (Barnard), I fell in with the dancers and got very involved. In the summer of my sophomore year of college I got a study grant and found myself at the American Dance Festival studying with Steve Paxton, the originator of Contact Improvisation and a leader of experimental dance. I was drawn to experimental forms – maybe because I was the daughter of a hippy and had been involved in punk and hardcore scenes all through high school. It was not like I was going to do ballet!
That summer I followed the improvisers around – going to Santa Fe for another festival and then, on returning to New York, finding the classes they were teaching and jams they were having. That’s how I met K.J. Holmes – she was teaching improvisation – and I also met Clarinda MacLow, daughter of Jackson MacLow – and lots of other downtown dancers. The East Village scene was, like the poetry scene then, very experimental, very interested in radical performance of various kinds – growing out of the Judson Church era of dance experimentation. Our heroes were people like Tricia Brown, Pina Bausch, and even more fringe performers like Pooh Kaye, John Kelley, Sally Silvers, Jennifer Monson and others who were working with performance and dance in new ways.
After college I started performing – not just improvisation, but also with choreographers who were working in the downtown scene. It was very busy and very fun. Somehow I made a living and performed pretty regularly in venues of all kinds: streets, parks, churches, bars, Dance Theater Workshop, The Kitchen, PS 122, Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church…. I even did a piece that ended up on TV (Entertainment Tonight), and made one music video.
I didn’t think it would play a role in my writing – more I thought my writing would play a role in dancing, which it did in various ways.
AA: Aside from being interested in this music video (!!), I want to ask about the role of improvisation in your early dancing career. I remember during your panel at &Now, your collaborator, K.J. Holmes, incorporated found objects into her dance performance – so much so that they became key elements. What drew you to improvisation in the various dance scenes you were involved in? Though I know improvisation implies a lack of preparation, spontaneity, it seems to go hand in hand with a certain amount of self-assuredness, in this case at least a bodily awareness or willingness to conjure certain instincts formed over time. Do you find that your experience improvising continues to show up, not just in your writing, but in your teaching or in other aspects of your life?
JC: Dance improvisation was introduced to me by Cynthia Novack, a dancer and dance anthropologist at Barnard College who has since passed away. Cynthia wrote a book about Contact Improvisation – Sharing the Dance – and worked with her students on improvisatory scores. From there, I studied improvisation with Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, Nancy Stark Smith, and K.J. Holmes. Most of the contemporary dance choreographers were using improvisation, if not in performance, then as a way of creating dances with their dancers in a more egalitarian manner, so it was everywhere, a skill everyone was developing. We often went to “jams” – basically big dance parties that could last for days where we improvised with one another, usually not to music. So in this sense, dance improvisation was like social dance, but in other ways it was not at all – since so many of us were thinking always about performance, which is to say, about making something, about theater, and about training ourselves in certain physical skills – not just about having fun.
But dance improvisation is not about a lack of preparation at all. You have to be incredibly prepared if you’re going to perform improvisation, or even practice it in a meaningful way. You have to train yourself to be aware on all sensory levels – awake to what is happening around and within you, listening to the audience and to your fellow performers. You have to be “open,” yes, but also discerning. It’s not all “anything goes,” it’s about making theater with what is actually happening in the moment. You can tell when an inexperienced improviser is working – he or she will be very internal or extremely presentational. When really excellent improvisers work, you can watch their minds in action, you can see them making decisions and playing them out and abandoning them, you can see their own surprise and their range of expression in where they take themselves. As a viewer I loved that – I loved how improvisation (like jazz) allows you access to an artist’s process, to their mind, to their intelligence. I also love watching people get carried away, lose themselves, go places they never expected they’d go – and then come back to a place of thinking or observing. When dancers are doing set choreography, I’m thinking about the choreographer’s vision – about the design and theater of the piece. But when dancers are improvising, I’m thinking about how individuals function together – how they figure out (if there’s more than one) how to make a community – how to listen and respond and make room for one another and also how to assert, how to demand change, how to break things. This, to me, is very exciting and very important.
I suppose that years of practicing this in studios and on stages has to have an effect on how I write or how I live. But it’s hard to say. I think it teaches a lot of patience and trust – you have to trust that something interesting will happen and that you’ll recognize it when it does. Writing is, of course, always an improvisation at first. I go into writing never knowing what will happen and I do think I have a large amount of patience for not knowing, and even for not liking or being interested in what’s happening. I have developed a kind of faith that the language and I will figure something out – something we want to do together. Maybe that comes from all those years of being in studios with people and listening, watching, trying things out without too much attachment to product.
As for living – I can only wish I could be more improvisatory. On the other hand, I thrive by ritual and routine, so perhaps if I have a goal it is to be as open to surprise as possible, and to take as many risks as I can while doing more or less the same things every day.
AA: I really like this idea of “making theater with what is actually happening in the moment.” I agree that it’s really exciting to see a good improviser’s intelligence and decision-making process laid bare, to “see their own surprise and their range of expression in where they take themselves.” For me, I’ve mostly experienced this seeing music performed – watching a musician get carried away and then fall back into familiar chord progressions before breaking from them again, meanwhile listening and remaining aware of what other musicians are doing around them. I like the way you describe dance improvisation as involving an ability to assert, demand change, and break things, because it frames listening as an active, creative process rather than something that is passive or uninvolved. Are there any performances you’ve been to (or participated in) in which you felt the interaction between performers was particularly powerful on stage – dance, music, literary or otherwise? Are there poets whose choices or thought processes feel particularly dynamic on the page, who have compelled you to respond to them in your own work?
JC: I’ve seen many dance performances that blew me away because of the listening and responding going on. But I think it would bore our readers to list them. So let me talk about poets and poetry. We’ve all become really accustomed to associative leaps, sudden shifts, juxtaposition, and strange logic in poems. But I think those techniques can be too easily latched on to; they can add up to nothing. What interests me is when the writer (like the dancer) reveals a thought-process through these methods. Sometimes what’s driving a shift is an emotional outburst or interruption, sometimes it’s a mental association, sometimes it’s a sonic or rhythmic response to what’s come before. (These, by the way, are many of the same impetuses for shifts in dance improvisation – though one would have to add physical sensation to that list.)
The poets whose minds I like to watch move in this way include, right now, at this moment, Lisa Robertson, Kate Greenstreet, Fred Moten, C.D. Wright, Andrew Zawacki, and Susan Howe – and I say “at this moment” because these are the people I’ve been rather obsessively reading in the past year(s). But there are many others! And yes, I’ve been compelled to the page by their work.
In these writers, there’s a kind of searching going on, an intellectual restlessness that often comes through as urgency. There’s a lot at stake in the work, it’s not just playing around – but there’s also no final arrival. The shifts in form and media you see in these writers speaks to me about that restlessness.
In all these writers, there’s an intelligence revealed and explored and it’s not other than the emotions and sensations that are also alive in the work.
AA: That’s a great list of poets! I’d like to come back to these techniques you mention, especially juxtaposition, but first I want to move on more specifically to your recent presentation at &Now. Before the performance, you played a video montage of various dance companies performing from the 80s to the present day. All of the videos featured dance/text collaborations, though the stylistic range among the performers was very broad. Can you talk a bit about your association with some of these groups – how they may have shaped you ultimately as a thinker and why you felt it was important to provide the context of the video?
JC: I don’t have much of a personal association with those works except Anne Carson’s collaboration with Rashaun Mitchell – and that’s only because her work, her writing, has had a big influence on me as a writer. I did see the Steve Paxton Lisa Nelson collaboration when I was very young – 21 or so – and it opened up worlds for me. Before then I did not know that dancers improvised on stage, and I didn’t really know that dance and text could cohabitate a space without one needing to dominate the other. We chose to show those works because they exhibit a range of approaches to the dance/text collaboration over time. The impulse was pedagogic. A way to situate what we were doing within a context of others working within similar questions.
None of that work is available online. That was the other reason to show it – one can’t simply google these dances and watch them on youtube! It took a lot of work to compile and edit them. I’m afraid that if one does not live in New York, San Francisco (maybe), or LA, or frequent the Walker Arts Center, one’s dance education is almost necessarily going to be slim.
AA: Perhaps it seems fitting that many of these performances have not been anthologized, given how we normally think of dance as being best experienced in the present-moment, but what was so interesting about your panel was the way it challenged certain binaries and assumptions – suggesting ways the gestural, ephemeral aspects of dance performance can work alongside the archival tendencies of text. This certainly happened when the two of you combined a sound-score (excerpted above) and K.J.’s dance at &Now. Though I know much of this dance was improvised (at one point she shined a flashlight at certain audience members, telling them to “look away”), much of it was also choreographed, and I know you put a lot of work into the audio clip. What can you tell me about it? I notice a lot of looping, repetition, voices (some familiar, some not), and counting – how do you see these textures working together, and how do you see them interacting with the dance performance occurring at the same time?
JC: K.J. and I have been working together in one way or another since about 1990, so we have a very intuitive way of communicating. That said, there were some clear guidelines that she set for this work – she wanted to steer clear of there being any specific speaking subject, any specific “she,” which is why I used multiple voices throughout. She wanted a sense of chaos in the text, to locate language at the borders of sense. I was interested in the edges of language as well; numbers seem to me to be one edge or boundary (less troubled correlation between verbal utterance and concept or thing), and pure emotive sound being another – which was why we begin with counting, but move through speech into laughter and non-verbal crying out. At once point I thought I’d record people just sounding the vowels, but I got wrapped up in other things and didn’t get to that. I do love J. Michael Martinez’s demonic laughter coming through!
K.J. is always interested in edges and boundaries – and she thinks of this portion of the piece as troubling the concepts of “sanity” and “insanity.” Those words aren’t as resonant for me as, perhaps, reason and unreason, but it amounts to a similar set of questions. I selected text from the huge draft of “Real Life: An Installation” and tried to avoid anything too continuous. Layering my voice against Aaron Angello’s meant that nobody’s speech could be heard clearly throughout. The other sounds, the sampled and looped female voice in the cafe, the rhythmic mechanical sounds, the boy calling from far away – these were all manipulated in order to create pools of intensity and rhythm.
We’ve only performed this twice, and because of the aspects of improvisation, each has been distinct. I don’t think I can say much yet about how dance and text interact, unless it would be to describe what happened. I come to it with curiosity. I have a lot of trust in K.J. I’ve been watching her dance for so long, and I am never tired of it – she speaks with her body very clearly, but it’s not easily translatable into this kind of language.
AA: I’d like to move onto one of your current projects, Real Life: An Installation. What strikes me most, at least from what we’ve excerpted here, is the panoramic range of the work. Though much feels written from an intimate space, touching on issues of the body, of motherhood, of things we might associate with the “private” domain, the “installations” seem to demand their own exposure to the public, often reconstructing the concerns of other sections in a way that wants to frame them for an audience, if not directly involve that audience. How important was it for you to bring the ideas of public and private into close proximity here? Can you talk a bit about how this divide is gendered and how that might have contributed to the project’s concerns?
JC: This is such a great question because it lands on one of the central concerns of that whole project, and probably of everything I’ve written. In this instance, I got interested in how the term “real life” gets used, and began writing it down each time I heard someone use it. What I discovered is that people often speak of returning to “real life” after intense experiences: war, illness, falling in love, childbirth, but also playing games, seeing art, sex, violence, etc. So what is this “real life” that is not all of those things? It seemed to me that people used the phrase to refer, basically, to work. Real life is the mundane, the dull, the ordinary, the daily, but it especially means going to work. So in this book I want to mess with those divisions – what is “real” what is imagined, dreamed, desired, felt through our contact with others, rather than our individualized experience? Is any of this not “real life”?
It’s not easy to map those divisions onto “public” and “private,” but you are right to notice that I wanted very much to bridge those supposed divides. One of the ways that poetry gets read in our circles is as either intimate or political, as either about the “self” or about the world. I absolutely reject those divisions, and not because “the personal is political,” though it is, but because my sense of what an intimacy is, what a self is, what a domestic or quotidian space is is entirely twinned and twined with whatever we construe as public or political life.
“Why should I care about your divorce?” is really the same question as “Why should I care about your war?”
The installation is fascinating to me because of how it re-imagines interior space (the home, the office, the gallery) as a place where “you” – which is to say anyone – is invited to participate. It’s performative, but it pretends not to be. One walks into an installation as if walking into an abandoned room. Everything is there except the people who made it that way – and sometimes they are there too. The installation speaks to our impulse to peer into windows, to go on a “house tour” (not that I’ve ever been on one), to use google maps to get down into the streets where other people live. There’s a whole history of installations that are really just houses that people have done stuff to – from Kurt Schwitters Merzbau to Womanhouse from 1972, to the current work of Theaster Gates. I’ve also written imagined histories of the installation that trace the movement between private and public in the installation.
As for gender: well everyone knows that the private has historically been gendered female and the public, male. I think we retain the traces of those divisions even when we aren’t living them out anymore (and often, we are). Why, for example, has conceptual poetry been thought of as so male? Is this because we think men are less interested in writing about the self? About emotion? Well, as soon as we look at the works of Kenny Goldsmith, for example, we see that’s not even a good way of understanding conceptual writing since many of his works are obsessed with the private spaces of the self. When we think of “domestic” writing, or writing about the body, we tend to think that it is done by women. But is this really true? Is the work of CA Conrad not, somehow, about the body? What about the work or Ronaldo Wilson? What about Anselm Berrigan’s domestic poems? On the other side, what about the very publicly oriented work of C.D. Wright, of M. nourbese Philip, of Anne Waldman (just to grab a few ready and contemporary examples)? So you see that these gendered divisions break down immediately, but still we think them.
This is, I believe, just internalized and externalized sexism that continues to want to limit the work of women, to locate it in a smaller “sphere” and to consider it irrelevant. So, while first of all we have to understand that women continue to write into all kinds of material, second of all we have to see how these so-called private spaces are not, and never were, private. There are no concentric circles, it’s the wrong geometry.
AA: Your response makes me think of the “Untitled Essay” in Nilling, where Lisa Robertson refers to the domestic sphere “…in terms of a mediating skin, rather than in terms of a private interiority conceptually opposed to a social outside.” For her, as for you, the suggestion that the domestic sphere isn’t and never was private takes on political importance – “In this shift away from the spatial metaphor of the domestic, a displacement of power occurs.” I’m curious what writers you think have reframed the idea of domesticity in a particularly radical way. I’m thinking specifically of Victorian poets, for whom the domestic, the every day, was especially important, and whom you’ve written about in your book Surface Tension?
JC: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh comes to mind, for there she levies a direct attack on the feminization of the domestic sphere, or the domestication of women. Aurora recognizes the danger of a domestic space where women are given only “Their right of comprehending husband’s talk / When not too deep,” and are expected to “keep quiet by the fire / And never say ‘no’ when the world says ‘ay,’ / For that is fatal,–their angelic reach / Of virtue, chiefly used to sit and darn/ And fatten household sinners–” Browning has Aurora respond to this servitude first by embroidering scenes from mythology in which women, in various ways, destroy men, and secondly by having her run off to become a writer. Eventually she recreates domestic space as a partnership with another woman and her child. The Pre-Raphaelites were absolutely re-imagining domestic space, marriage, and heteronormativity through their actions as well as their poems: Dante Rossetti, WIlliam Morris (in his Utopian novel News from Nowhere, marriage is abolished as a form of private property), Swinburne of course, and then there’s George Meredith’s Modern Love.
Often people read the Victorian’s as turning to the domestic as a kind of refuge or escape from political matters:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And yes, in those lines it does seem that Arnold wants the lovers to turn away from sights of war and toward one another for security (though there’s not much security to be found there). But I think that instead so many of these writers were working with and unveiling how very political the domestic realm really was. In a time of great change around the concept of the human – and the development of democracy is nothing less than that – the idea of family, of intimacy, of home, all of that becomes a site of upheaval and challenge.
I recently wrote an essay about Lyn Hejinian’s great verse-novel Oxota, which is a terrific contemporary example of a work that absolutely refuses the division between the public/political and the private/domestic. Glasnost goes on in the living rooms and kitchens of friends, in the flirtations between lovers, and in whatever might be cooking on the stove.
AA: Lastly, I want to ask about the poems we’ve excerpted from your forthcoming book, RAG. Aside from wanting to know a bit about the project, I’m in love with these lines:
I practice the body / with red implements for probing / and slices of fruit / fluid swords and light bulbs in the right places / I don’t care who likes or understands my methods
In the two poems you’ve shared with us, the body becomes a means of exploring, or rather encountering issues of race, class, gender, but what draws me to these lines is their awareness of the body’s limitations and relative position. Here, it is not only a site of resistance, where a reinforced, personal logic is used to ward off outside judgment, but also a site on which certain expectations are imposed and absorbed – in essence, it can never be fully separate from what surrounds it. I guess my question is: what does it mean to “practice” the body in the poem? And what meaning can this practice have within a broader social context, even within the context of personal interaction on the smallest scale?
JC: Hmmmm. I guess I think, to be kind of glib, we are always “practicing the body.” There is no “body,” in the sense that there is no stable, knowable, satisfied corporeal self. Instead, the body is a sight of constant change, constant desire (or disgust) – it’s where we locate pain, pleasure, appetite, illness, aging, excess, lack. There’s nothing but practicing, when it comes to the body. There is no “it,” actually, because whatever the body is is always changing at every instant, entirely fluid, a fluid-form, and there is really no distinction, or no absolute or really meaningful distinction, between my body and its surroundings. Everything I touch (or everyone) becomes me because it enters me, literally through my skin and other senses.
At the same time, as a woman, one is distinctly aware of one’s body as “thing,” as a thing that others are aware of – this is especially true for young women, but becomes true in a different way for mothers, and differently true again as you age. Whatever stage of life a woman is in, she’s going to have to try really hard not to be hyper aware of her body as a kind of appendage she’s carrying around, displaying or not, decorating or not, liking or not. And so, as much as the body is not ever a thing, it is also not (at least for women) ever less or more than a thing.
This is certainly one of the cruxes I want RAG to be about. Events happen to women’s bodies throughout that book – or they do things to their own bodies in order to “use” their bodies, or in order to escape from other people’s use of their bodies. A lot of the material was found in mythology: there’s the girl who cuts off her own hands in order to avoid having to marry her brother, there’s the one who gouges out her own eyes, again in order to avoid having to marry. There’s a woman who buries herself standing up, and another who (this is a real-life person) impregnates herself and forces an abortion over and over, and then there’s of course the mundane example of women who starve themselves. Well, it gets a bit gory, but that is the point: the body of a woman has a public dimension (as all bodies do), and violence to that body is such a given in our culture that performing that violence on the self becomes a kind of resistance.
I’m trying to think about, as you say, the body as a site of resistance even as, or perhaps because, it is also a permeable and constantly transforming and ultimately unknowable space.
Julie Carr is the author of six books of poetry, most recently 100 Notes on Violence and the forthcoming books, RAG and Think Tank. Surface Tension: Ruptural Time and the Poetics of Desire in Late Victorian Poetry came out with Dalkey Archive in 2013. A co-edited collection, Active Romanticism: Essays on the Continuum of Innovative Poetry and Poetics from the Late 18th Century to the Present, is due out from the University of Alabama Press in 2014. She is the co-director of Counterpath Press, lives in Denver, and teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Colorado, Boulder.