Mommy, What if It’s Terrorists?

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Fireworks from the beach along the La Promenade des Anglais

 

French National Day commemorates the July 14, 1789 storming of the Bastille by a mob of enraged Parisians looking for ammunition in the fortress-prison that symbolized the tyrannical Bourbon monarchy.  The Bastille’s fall marks the beginning of the French Revolution. On Bastille Day this year, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove a nineteen-ton white Renault truck into crowds gathered for a fireworks display, killing more than eighty people and injuring, at least, another three hundred. It was the eighty-seventh terrorist attack world-wide since the beginning of the month.

Let that sink in. Eighty-seven counts of terrorism before mid-month. By the time Bouhlel breached barriers that were erected on the Promenade des Anglais to create a pedestrian-only area for viewing the celebratory fireworks and plowed into the throng, there had been more terrorist attacks than occurred in all of 2001, the year when President George W. Bush declared a global war on terror in response to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

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UA Flight #175 approaches the South Tower

My younger son, Parker, not yet six months old on 9/11, slept through the early morning hours as al-Qaeda militants hijacked American planes and piloted them toward the World Trade Center in New York City. He was still asleep as the sun rose in Southern California when Peter Hansen, a passenger on hijacked United Airlines flight #175, called his father.

“It’s getting bad, Dad. A stewardess was stabbed. They seem to have knives and Mace. They said they have a bomb…I don’t think the pilot is flying the plane. I think we are going down. I think they intend to go to Chicago or someplace and fly into a building. Don’t worry, Dad. If it happens, it’ll be very fast.”

Three minutes later, along with Hansen’s father and millions of others worldwide, I watched live on CNN as Los Angeles-bound United Airlines flight #175 crashed into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

I prayed that day. Stunned, more grief-stricken than afraid, it was the only thing I could do.

*     *     *

What, if any role, do writers have as observers of and participants in diffuse wars like the War on Terror? In addition to military action, diffuse wars include guerrilla strategies and tactics, as well as a multiplicity of political measures, designed as much to placate as to protect the public. Think Cold War-era bomb shelters and civil defense training to contemporary airport security screening and domestic surveillance schemes.

The destruction and chaos of war has proved to be a potent catalyst for writing as a creative act that is culturally valuable because it helps us to understand the world. According to Kate McLoughlin, acclaimed for her study, Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq, war writing “warns against pursuing armed conflict, exposes its atrocities, and argues for peace. It records the acts of war with as much accuracy as is possible, and it memorializes the dead. It is voyeuristic, exploitative, and sadistic; it is also tender, selfless, and comforting. It is gleeful and angry; inflammatory and cathartic; propagandist, passionate, and clinical. It is funny and sad.” Stephen Crane’s war novel Red Badge of Courage tells the story of Henry Fleming, a young Civil War soldier, who grapples with the choice between self-preservation or self-sacrifice in battle. Paul Bäumer, the protagonist in Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front, asks this question of his “lost” generation following World War I: What was worth the deaths of eight million men?

Regarding the current century, author and Iraq War veteran Matt Gallagher’s search for the “great novel about the War on Terror” yielded mostly memoirs, press accounts, and personal testimonies. Perhaps this result is appropriate. Author Graham Swift opined that today’s 24/7 media stream of news and commentary makes journalists and other nonfiction writers the best source of information and social support.

I’m not so sure.

*     *     *

Nearly a decade after the September 11 attacks, Parker found a tiny video card on the sidewalk outside of our local Rubio’s restaurant. He wanted to keep it. Before I could articulate my first thought, “Sure you can…,” his envious big brother yelled, “Drop it!”

“No!” Parker screamed. He wrapped his fingers around the tiny bit of 21st-century technology, and dug in for a fight.

“Take it into Rubio’s, in case someone comes looking for it,” I said. I hoped this suggestion would forestall a sibling brawl.

“No!”

“Parker, just put it down,” I said. “Why do you want it so badly, anyway?”

“I have to see what’s on it.”

“Who cares? It’s not yours…”

“Mommy, what if it’s terrorists? What if they left it for someone? What if they’re planning an attack?”

Whoa! I thought. Dumbstruck silent rather than wise, I did not laugh.

“Parker, just put it down. I don’t think the card has anything to do with terrorists. Someone just dropped it.”

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Makeshift Memorial, San Bernardino, CA

The idea of terrorists targeting anywhere in Inland Southern California seemed ludicrous at the time. The region does have plenty of hotels, shopping centers, places of worship, transportation hubs and corridors, and schools, all of which make prime targets due to their potential for large numbers of people to congregate. But locations in Riverside and San Bernardino counties are nowhere near as likely as those in Los Angeles or San Diego to draw the media’s attention and the sizable audience that terrorists desire.

Yet, in December 2015, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik attacked an office holiday party at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, where Farook worked. They killed fourteen people, and injured twenty-two.

*     *     *

Mommy, what if it’s terrorists?

*     *     *

Fear is chief among children’s psychosocial responses to terrorist activity—whether that exposure is due to media, overheard adult conversations, or physical proximity. Any assurance that terrorism is not an existential threat to the nation simply cannot trump fear of attack and a deep-seated desire for protection. Yet, results of a recent Wall Street Journal poll indicate it’s Americans over thirty-five, those who were children during the Cold War, that fear terrorist attacks most. The way adults experience vulnerability to terrorism today is arguably related to how well they managed war-related distress as children. In contrast to the unpredictability of terrorists’ behavior, the social construction of the Cold War in books and films, as well as in the news media and history texts, contained the Soviets within clearly-defined and heavily armed borders.

Children during the first decades of the Cold War could rely on Captain America, Ironman and other heroes for protection. When novelist and nature writer Brenda Peterson ducked and covered under her school desk in Virginia during the 1960s-era civil defense drills, for instance, she imagined R. Tyranno would grab the bomb and “hold it high until he could defuse it with his amazingly agile hands”; Brontosaurus would bend over her, “a gentle bodyguard against shattering glass”; and Iki would “offer her dorsal fin and speed off to safety” (118).

By the Cold War’s final decade, the size, location, and targets of U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals were common knowledge and Americans were optimistic about superpower cooperation to reduce nuclear arsenals and support democratic elections in Eastern Europe. As a result, children generally understood that nuclear war was more likely to result from some accident than from rational action, though fiction and films marketed in the 1980s made it clear that life for those who survived a nuclear attack would be perilous. Journalist Chris Lites characterized The Day After, the top-ranked film about two Midwestern towns following a nuclear war, as “terrifying.”

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Jennifer Gray in Red Dawn

It never occurred to me as a child that the USSR might attack my Southern California “backyard.” With the exception of the Soviets’ invasion of Colorado in Red Dawn, a violent cult film based on Kevin Reynolds’ Ten Soldiers, the era’s bad guys stayed conveniently outside of the United States, and would be easily identified anyway–by their bulky coats, Russian fur hats, and heavy accents. In contrast, Millennials, and members of the so-called “Homeland” generation that follows, never experienced an environment over which they felt control. As adults, they are inured to the anxiety associated with the unpredictability of attacks by organized terrorists and “lone wolf” radicals.

*     *     *

Responding to the dearth of literature about the War on Terror, young adult novelist Alan Gibbons suggested that it’s just too soon. Literature about the world’s great conflicts—from A Tale of Two Cities and War and Peace to Oscar and Lucinda, March, and All the Light We Cannot See—has been written long after they occurred. Alternatively, it’s possible that too few people have been directly involved in the War on Terror compared with conventional wars of comparable scale. World War II involved nearly two billion combatants and was responsible for as many as eighty million deaths, including soldiers, civilians, and those who died from disease or starvation. Though data on the War on Terror remain incomplete, we do know that more than two and a half million U.S. and British troops served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; including casualties from terrorist attacks, at least two million people worldwide have died. Surely millions are enough.

Finally, perhaps the War on Terror, which includes distinct military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as many hundreds of terrorists acts and related conflicts globally, is too big for a single voice to capture. The trickle of fiction and literary nonfiction amid the tide of more immediate, informational prose supports this explanation.

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Reading in Iraq

Notable literature on the War on Terror includes Roy Scranton’s “War and the City” series in The New York Times, short story collections such as Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, Redeployment, and The Corpse Exhibition: And other Stories of Iraq, Jonathan Foer’s experimental Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and the The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers’ haunting war parable. Much of the work that appears on recent lists of contemporary war writing is less well known and does not yet capture the enormity our individual and collective experiences of the War on Terror. Those who endeavor to remedy this situation might begin by reading the literature that does exist, as well as the broader body of work on terrorism, which includes Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Don Delillo’s Mao II.

This relatively small yet wide-ranging body of work provides exemplars of what writers of war and terror ideally strive to achieve: historical accuracy and truthful interpretation. Beyond that, they approach narrative, characters, and relevant historical contexts in their own ways. The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center are central to Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud, much as the “Luddites are important part to the backdrop for Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. The war in Afghanistan provides context for Trent Reedy’s young adult novel, Words in the Dust, like the Napoleonic Wars inform the milieu of Jane Austen’s novels.

*     *     *

Flight #175 crashing into the World Trade Center felt like an unexpected punch to the gut. Breathless and unable to speak, my mind sought comfort in long forgotten verse. Do not fear, for I am with you. I felt there was nothing more I could do. Terrorist attacks have ceased to shock me. I was saddened by the appearance of Bouhlel’s attack in Facebook newsfeed, disgusted even, but not speechless. I remembered Parker asking, “Mommy, what if it’s terrorists?” and I began to write.

 

 

Reading List:

Blasim, Hassan. 2014. The Corpse Exhibition: And other Stories of Iraq. Penguin.
Brooks, Geraldine. 2006. March. Penguin.
Brontë, Charlotte. 2006. Shirley. Penguin.
Carey, Peter. 1997. Oscar and Lucinda. Knopf Doubleday.
Crane, Stephen. 2007. Red Badge of Courage. Norton.
Conrad, Joseph. 2007. The Secret Agent. Barnes and Noble.
Dickens, Charles. 1998. A Tale of Two Cities. Dover.
Delillo, Don. 1992. Mao II. Penguin.
Doerr, Anthony. 2014. All the Light We Cannot See. Scribner.
Foer, Jonathan.  Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud.
Klay, Phil. 2014. Redeployment. Penguin.
McLoughlin,Kate.  2014. Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq. Cambridge.
Peterson, Brenda. 1991. Nature and Other Mothers. Ballantine.
Powers, Kevin. 2014. The Yellow Birds. Back Bay Books.
Reedy, Trent. 2013. Words in the Dust. Scholastic.
Remarque, Erich Maria. 1987. All Quiet on the Western Front. Ballantine.
Scranton, Roy. 2013. Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. Da Capo.
Tolstoy, Leo. 2008. War and Peace. Vintage.

Writers Read: Dated Emcees by Chinaka Hodge

writersread_datedemcees 2On the Friday following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, Chinaka Hodge performed selections from her newly released poetry book, Dated Emcees, at 826LA to benefit the literacy organization. With poems honoring Jordan Davis, references to Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, and tributes to Tupac and Biggie, Hodge has no shortage of words for black men whose lives were prematurely punctuated by bullets.

what about you’s small
no not legend, not stature
real talk just lifespan (12)

Equal parts liner notes and lyrics to the mixtape of the narrator’s love life, Dated Emcees serves as a little black book of sorts. As a lover, friend, peer, daughter, black woman, and citizen, Hodge’s narrator admits her questionable choices with a combination of pride, power, and wit that reverberates the spirit of hip hop. Flipping the pages, hip hop takes turns as subject, voice, lens. Hodge’s “small poems for Big: twenty-four haiku for each year he lived” and “2pac couplets: one line for each year he lived” eulogize today’s rap legends in old school poetic forms, simultaneously capturing the brevity of their lives while placing them in the continuum of the poetic tradition.

our sweetest thing, our prism and its light
lynched by bullet, won’t survive the knight (14)

[blockquote align=right]Equal parts liner notes and lyrics to the mixtape of the narrator’s love life, Dated Emcees serves as a little black book of sorts.

“Drake questions the deceased, Vegas” (23-24) continues examining how the brevity of life cements one’s status as a cultural icon. We find Hodge’s Drake at the spot Tupac was shot in Las Vegas, summoning his spirit for an interview. The poem acknowledges the Canadian rapper’s roots, how he can “sing of danger but never face it” (23), a privilege of safety that many Americans are considering in the possibility of a Trump presidency. Offering a play-by-play of the final moments of Tupac’s life, the people and places that comprised his last memories, it’s not hard to imagine this séance as the inspiration for Drake’s actual lyrics repeated at the end of the poem, “oh my god/oh my god/if i die i’m a legend” (24).

Hodge’s narrator posits fame as “a hate crime against black men” (24), echoing sentiments in the penultimate couplets of her earlier Tupac tribute. In the ‘90s, the shootings of Big and Tupac reached national attention because of their existing celebrity. Today’s technology facilitates instafame with devices that are both means of media production and distribution; we know the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile because, in the same week, they were fatally shot by police officers and their deaths were recorded and shared virtually instantly. Fame, death, hate crime: decades apart, different order of operations in the same equation.

writersread_chinakahodgeNot all of Hodge’s characters are doomed to this fate. Granted, they aren’t all at that same high risk level of fame. Nevertheless, we can feel their own versions of systemic pain and violence through the pages of Dated Emcees. If there is any denial that black lives matter, Hodge’s writing can school those fools.

Although the reading began with a moment of silence out of respect for the week’s casualties, Hodge’s voice, as she read and rapped her way through Dated Emcees, was a reminder to find strength and solidarity in the words we share, in how we choose to fill in the negative space.

Hodge, Chinaka. Dated Emcees. San Francisco: City Lights, 2016. Print.


Nikki San Pedro

Nikki San Pedro is a global city girl: born in Manila, raised in Toronto, studied a semester in Sydney, and adulting in Los Angeles since ’09. She’s pursuing an MFA at Antioch University, using poetry and creative nonfiction to confront pain with humor. You can find her rhymes on Rat’s Ass Review and in the next issue of Angels Flight Literary West.

Making Art from the Everyday

When I was sixteen I read a Christian men’s book called Wild At Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul. The book was about how to unleash the inner William Wallace (from the film Braveheart)and live a life of adventure and danger (within, of course, the bounds of traditional gender roles and conservative, evangelical Christianity). It pains me to remember reading this book. It is both embarrassing to remember what kind of person I was—an awkward teenager growing up within the church—and also achingly nostalgic, because I was a young man full of hopes, dreams, and ambitions. As a result of reading the book, I thought my life was supposed to resemble that of the male archetype hero from Hollywood movies. As I grew older, I became frustrated by the mismatch with reality. This Wild at Heart book set up a dichotomy for me that I spent the next twelve years of my life trying to understand: one, ultimately, about expectations.

braveheart2What if your life isn’t like Mel Gibson’s William Wallace or Russell Crowe’s Maximus from Gladiator? What if, instead of stampeding down the green fields of Sterling or overthrowing the Roman Emperor, you were simply worried about pimples in the mirror and boners in math class? And what if, as you got older, you saw that life was not filled with epic battles or daring romances or high-speed car chases, but with trips to the grocery store and lines at the bank, and doing the dishes, and fighting with your partner?

What do you do with these two disparate visions of reality?

For Americans, around 30% of our lives are spent working, and another 33% sleeping. For the average person, that leaves only 37% left: for fun, leisure, art, exercise, social obligations, parenting obligations, yard work, and (if you’re William Wallace) fighting for independence from England.

wild_at_heartThe great tragedy of adulthood is in realizing that your once-imagined epic life is basically reduced to “making it” or “surviving.” Call it a fallout of the advertising of the American Dream.

The conceit of Wild at Heart is not unique. It’s not found only in the self-help or Christian-living sections of the bookstore; it exists all over our culture, from movies and magazines to TV and social media. We fantasize a sort of life that is nowhere near the reality. No one wants to think, post, or brag about what’s going in our lives in those moments of sleeping, working, emailing, driving, and so forth. If movies used to reflect reality, now reality seems more recognizable if it resembles the movies.

Perhaps this is an issue better worked out in a therapist’s office. Still, this whole thing has me really, really, bothered. Maybe it’s my lapsed religious upbringing, or what I didn’t learn as a young man that a young David Foster Wallace learns in his book, The Pale King:

. . . that life owes you nothing; that suffering takes many forms; that no one will ever care for you as your mother did; that the human heart is a chump . . . that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.

I’ll always love epic adventures. I’ll be a Lord of the Rings fan and can watch Game of Thrones until The Mountain bursts my eyes out, but what interests me lately is art or writing that deals not with the fantastical, the projected, and pseudo-self-help, but with how to navigate the trenches of daily, monotonous, real life. The authors and artists I love now are ones who elevate the banal elements of life to something sublime and beautiful. One such author is Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Art often exists on a spectrum between imitation and imagination, between realism and idealism. For some, art is mimesis, the imitation of reality. A painting of a lake. A portrait of a person. But for others, art is a launching pad for the undiscovered: a distant planet, a magical world, the Marvel/DC Universe.

Most of what one might call traditional narrative structure involves a synthesis of imitation and imagination. Many films show improbable events played out in everyday life through largely manipulated and idealized scenarios, depicting only the most dramatic events of the narrative. This makes sense, because to be compelling, stories need drama, action, resolution, and so on. As writer and MFA mentor Peter Selgin recently said about plot, “You cannot dramatize the routine.” But my frustration remains, because the majority of life is routine. I believe Selgin would readily admit there are exceptions to his rule: Routine can be made compelling by those willing to take the plunge. But you have to dive deep.

Enter Karl Over Knausgaard. He’s the latest writer to plumb the minutiae of human experience. Comprised of six volumes, his book, My Struggle (Min Kamp, in the original Norwegian), is a novel with tremendous scope, almost as daunting as Marcel Proust’s classic seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time. What Knausgaard does very well is to observe and replicate the tension and anxiety in everyday events. His perspicacity for detail and ability to pay attention to the habitual or quotidian events unfolding around him, combined with an aptitude for creating suspense and anxiety, make him fascinating to read.

This is the central set-up: Knausgaard wants to do something heroic and has within him the “ambition to write something exceptional one day,” but finds himself too embroiled within the tasks of everyday (i.e., cleaning, cooking, taking care of his children, etc.) to do anything about it. But what keeps us reading is Knausgaard’s attention to detail, his ability to take us alongside him in his awareness.

The sentence structure and imagery of Knausgaard’s writing do not quite have the richness of Nabokov. He is not as elaborate as Proust or Woolf. However, he writes wonderful observations with astute detail choice. And the details are not few and far between: they are what constitute the entirety of My Struggle. You could call the work (or Knausgaard himself) self-involved, pretentious, and navel-gazing, however the writing itself is none of these things. It is simple, elegant, non-pretentious prose.

Because of the length of My Struggle and the overall tone and observations Knausgaard builds over pages, it’s difficult to quote passages. His observational detail, and slow, tense writing cannot be succinctly parsed. The mood and length lend extra gravitas. Multiple pages are spent on the quest to smuggle beer to a party in high school; nearly two hundred pages on the four to five days after his father’s death.

It is the job of the writer to pay attention. What sets Knausgaard apart is his eye for detail on the ordinary alongside the extraordinary. His writerly observations equally focus on the big themes of death, love, family, and anxiety, as on forests, crossing a street, riding in a car, or toilets. He pays as much meticulous attention to death and marriage as he does to cleaning, cooking, and walks through various landscapes.

It’s these observational details applied to crude, everyday, banal, adolescent actions that make My Struggle intriguing. For me, through Knausgaard, I’ve found this to be the solution to my question of how to make art out of the everyday: simple awareness. The catch? That true, empathetic, and lucid awareness is not really simple. It takes a lot of freaking effort.

I am older now and my expectations are lower. I’ve spent the last decade struggling to figure out how to appropriately set my own expectations of life. I often wonder how much of my earlier expectations were learned through my religious upbringing, or if they came naturally from my own sense of romanticism and ambition. Who knows. We humans are complex conglomerations of influence, personality, and upbringing. So this is what interests me now: exploring this complication inherent within all of us—and sometimes I am just as excited by this prospect of self-inquiry as I am by any kind of heroic battle.

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Spotlight: Burning Nettles

The train ride from Osaka to Arashiyama took an hour. Noriko rested her head against her husband’s shoulder and drifted off into a light sleep. She was exhausted from long days working at the Tesagara Tea Room and taking care of their two-year-old son, Eiji. Disembarking at the station, Ichiro instructed the cab driver to take the couple to the Togetsutei ryokan, where he had a reservation for an afternoon of forest bathing and a sumptuous meal. They passed the soft hills dressed in a vibrant coat of maples leaves.

Stepping out of the taxi, Ichiro felt light-headed. He had taken an extra dose of his medicine, but he was afraid that he had overdone it. The tuberculosis strain that ebbed and flowed through his body was tightening its grip on him, day by day.

From their private room, the young couple watched the Oe River flowing east underneath the wooden pylons of the trestle bridge. In another month, the hillside would be wrapped in a gray shroud and the cedar branches filled with pillows of white snow. For now, the autumn air was a refreshing change from the polluted air of downtown Osaka.

An attendant dressed in a traditional kimono slid the shoji screen of their private room open and brought a lacquered tray with a brazier, which she placed on a tatami mat. The dishes of a traditional kaiseki banquet appeared one by one. Ichiro watched with pleasure as his wife Noriko relished each dish. “It is good to see that you have an appetite today. It must be the mountain air. In ancient times the monks used to wrap a kaiseki, a heated stone, on their stomachs beneath their robes to ward off hunger during their climb up the mountain. We are much more fortunate than they.”

Noriko nodded. “Yes, in one way. But in another we aren’t because they achieved enlightenment through abstinence. We struggle to understand our purpose in life on a full stomach. Perhaps we would have greater clarity with sacrifice.”

“Is that what your religion teaches you? I was near starvation during the war, and all that filled my mind were thoughts of food—even if that meant grasshoppers and rats. Sacrificing for the Emperor Hirohito added up to nothing in the end. Japan lost the war, and most of us barely made it out alive. Even you.”

“I suppose you are correct, Ichiro, but my priest says that when we sacrifice for the good of others, it is not really a sacrifice. It is a way to bring joy to another person, and that is the greatest virtue of all.”

Ichiro did not have the strength or the inclination to argue further with his wife. Besides, he had much more on his mind than a rehashing of their personal histories. He walked out onto the veranda, and Noriko followed him. The sun was warm on their faces, but the breeze from the river was cool, and Noriko began to shiver. She put her hand in the steamy water of the hot tub. Ichiro took his clothes off and stepped in. Noriko could see his ribs protruding from beneath his pale skin. She turned away, unbuttoned her blouse and skirt, and slid into the water beside her husband. He pressed his body against her. She cupped her hands to hold the water and slowly dripped it over his head and onto his face. “This is to wash away all your sorrows, my beloved husband, and make you well, again.”

Ichiro sighed as she slid her fingers down his back. He touched her between her legs and kissed her neck. The twisted branches of the pine trees hid the couple from view, and they took advantage of nature’s privacy. Ichiro found the strength to penetrate Noriko’s body, while murmuring “Star of Mine,” over and over again. Making love to her was his only pleasure. He was afraid that all too soon, she might turn away from him or that she too could contract the disease that would not release its hold on him.

They stepped out of the hot tub and wrapped themselves in black kimonos. A teakettle had been placed on the brazier. Noriko’s cheeks were pink, but Ichiro’s complexion was pallid despite the steamy bath water.

Ichiro’s heart was pounding, and his throat felt like he had swallowed a bowl of burning nettles. He caught his breath while Noriko finished her tea. When she put her cup down, he said, “There’s something I must ask of you. I have given this much thought, and I believe that what I’m about to propose is the only way out of our predicament.”

“What predicament?”

“I am not getting better. Doctor Shizumi has recommended that I go to a sanitarium for up to six months.”

Horrified, she asked, “What else did he say?”

“He says that working as hard as I do is impeding my chance of recovery. Your sister Setsuko has been most generous keeping me on at the restaurant, but I don’t know how much longer she’ll put up with me. Her husband has been complaining to her. She doesn’t mention this, but I hear him growling at her when he comes back from the pachinko parlor. I no longer have the capacity or the will to do a proper job. My father once told me that I must always be proud of myself and do my best. I am defiling his memory; I am failing you, I am failing our son, and worst of all, I am failing myself.”

“Somehow, we will manage. And if necessary, I’ll ask my father to lend us some money. His sushi business in Matsue is thriving. He has come to my rescue before, and he can do it again. I can still see him on his bicycle riding through the ruins of Hiroshima to find me at school and bring me home, while the other children were stranded in the fire and ashes.”

Ichiro tried not to raise his voice, but he could not help himself. “Yes, Ryo is your hero, but he is not mine. I would never ask him for money. What would he think of me? I’d rather be a beggar on the street than accept a handout from him.”

“Ichiro, you are not making sense.”

He realized he had lost his focus and needed to get his point across now. “We are hardly ever together as a family, which is not good for our son. You work all day, and I work all night. Eiji needs a father capable of earning a living and a mother who is not forced to go to work.”

“What are you saying? No two parents could love their son more than you and I do. Eiji and you are my whole life. If someone were to tell me that I could become a star on the stage of the Takarazuka Theater if I gave up my son, even for a day, I would turn them down. I gave up that dream a long time ago. You and Eiji are my present and my future.”

Ichiro forged ahead. “Noriko, I have asked my sister and her husband to adopt Eiji. They can give him a better life in the United States. They have written to say that they will adopt him, so long as you are in agreement.”

Noriko felt like a bird trapped in a frozen pond with her wings beating against the air, trying to free herself. She hissed, “You would give our son away? He did not come into this world as ours to be given away, even to your sister.”

“But neither did he choose to have a father who is too sickly and unclean to take care of him properly.” Then he spoke the words that both of them feared, “And what if you should become sick? No, no one will judge us harshly. We have no other choice.”

Crying, Noriko blurted out, “If we give Eiji away, what will fill my starving heart? Will I need to tie a hot stone over my heart so as not to feel hunger? Perhaps one of the monks—whom you seem to know so much about—will lend me a kaiseki to carry around for the rest of my life?”

Ichiro held his breath. Whatever he might say would only make matters worse. He waited for Noriko to say something more.

“I can’t give you an answer now, Ichiro. I must think about this very carefully. I must ask my priest what she would advise me to do.”

“Can’t you think for yourself? You don’t need to consult with your priest. This is between us, and we need to make a decision soon. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be for Eiji. I am just hoping that there will not be any complications and that the United States will open its doors to our son. Just think of it. Our little boy will be a rich American someday.” Then Ichiro starting singing in a strange voice, “Home, home on the range. Where the deer and the antelope play. Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day.”

Noriko thought, Has Ichiro lost his mind?

Her husband blinked and then continued rambling. “Noriko, I am struggling to get through each day. Sometimes, I feel as if I do not exist—that I have crossed over into an invisible world where only ghosts live.”

Noriko said, “You are scaring me. I see you with my own eyes. I can touch you with my own hands and taste you with my own mouth. Were you not just making love to me? Or was that my imagination between my legs?”

Ichiro forced a smile. “I didn’t know I still could. It must have been one of the miracles of Tenrikyo that you like to pray to.”

Noriko slapped his face, trying to wake him up from some terrible dream. “I will never let you go, and I don’t want to let Eiji go either.”

She walked back out onto the balcony. The first star had poked through the evening’s canopy, and the moon was hanging low in the sky between the rise and fall of the nearby mountain. Ichiro slipped his hand inside Noriko’s kimono and whispered, “If you love me as much as I love you, you’ll do as I ask.” His hand felt cold on her breast, and she stepped away from him.

Noriko and Ichiro changed back into their street clothes, without saying a word. She watched him put on his father’s navy blue silk tie and wrap his white scarf around his neck—the same one he wore the night she fell in love with him as he played the piano in the tea room, and she sang “You Are My Everything.” That night seemed like a thousand years ago, and while the words she had sung then were still true, her heart had expanded to encompass another love: their son, Eiji. How could she ever let him go? As his mother, she had a right to claim him for herself. He was still part of her, even if the cord which had carried the blood from her body into his had been cut.

Loren Stephens - Photo_ResizedLoren Stephens is president of the Los Angeles-based Write Wisdom (www.writewisdom.com), which provides ghosting services to famous and not-so-famous clients alike. Under her own name, Loren has penned essays and short stories (two of which were nominated for Pushcart Prizes in 2014 and 2015) that have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Peregrine, The Montreal Review, The MacGuffin, Forge Journal, The Summerset Review, North Atlantic Review, and Eclectica Magazine to name a few. She has just completed with Cliff Simon a memoir/adventure, Paris Nights: My Year at the Moulin Rouge, which will be published in July 2016 by Waldorf Publishing; and her novel, All Sorrows Can Be Borne, to be published in 2017.

 

 

Subway Home

Home is that accumulation of memory and sensation, not always sweet but invariably familiar. The familiarity is a gift which never ceases to orient me to my place in the world. As a memoirist, I draw on the abundance of this gift to excavate building blocks of story buried deep in my subconscious. My long association with New York City’s subway system offers me much opportunity to fish that subconscious well. Recently I visited family in Brooklyn. I had no reason to take a train ride. But I did anyway. You might think, Who in their right mind wants to spend one minute more than they have to in a New York City subway car?

I do.

There is something about being underground amidst the movement and noise that evokes home for me. Many years of regular exposure to this very public space, with its controlled chaos and surprising corners of tranquility, has impacted my nervous system. The subway both fueled my younger frenetic energy (I learned to move to the tempo and rhythm of the system), and provided me the space to retreat into my own mindful interior. The ceaseless stimuli honed a sense of observation, an acute alertness and worldview. No place on the planet is quite right to me if everyone there looks the same. In that way, the New York subway system played a minor role in shaping the person I’ve become as well as the writer I’m becoming.unnamed (2)

My first rides were with family. I have an early memory of standing on an elevated platform, a train conductor patiently waiting while my mom struggled to drag my baby sister onto the train. Was it my little sister’s first ride? I’m not sure. But the sound of the train rumbling into the station, the enormity of its presence as it slowed to a stop and the doors slid open, must have appeared monstrous to her at perhaps two or three years old. She must have felt as if we were about to be consumed by some giant metal beast, and so she screamed and kicked in defiance, while the Conductor held the doors open and my young mother finally got the three of us inside.

At age twelve I began riding the Myrtle Avenue Elevated line alone. Running short errands for my mom, I took the Q Train downtown. Between the Broadway-Myrtle Avenue station—where the neighborhoods of Bedford Stuyvesant and Bushwick meet—and the downtown Bridge-Jay Street station, there were nine stops, all above ground and easy enough for an alert young girl to traverse during the day. One of the original elevated lines, the Myrtle Avenue “El” was 81 years old in 1969. The old station platforms were made of wooden slats and provided views of what remnants remained of original Brooklyn: a New England landscape peppered with church steeples. Before neighborhoods like Flatbush, Bedford Stuyvesant, Bushwick, and Williamsburg were connected, they were towns separated by farmland. Because of dwindling ridership, most of the elevated trains were discontinued in the 1970s and the above ground stations and rail tracks were disassembled overtime. The Myrtle Line was one of the first to go, closing down on October 4, 1969.*

I remember one of my very first trips alone. The ride cost twenty cents and I needed a token. (Tokens replaced coins in 1953, when the fare rose to 15 cents, since turnstiles couldn’t handle two different coins.)

“One token please—” Handing the token booth attendant my two dimes.

“You don’t plan on coming back home?” The young black man looked at me askance.

“Oh—” I said, pushing two more dimes through the slot.

“Here you go.”

“Thank you.”

Did he wink? I don’t remember. His tone was paternal and protective, the chastisement getting under my adolescent skin, just as I was beginning to chafe under my own father’s directives.

The token booths were flimsy wood and metal structures with only vertical bars separating the attendant from the public. When I picture them, I think of jail cells inside the Sheriff’s Station or Post Office booths in old Hollywood Westerns. I remember the attendants wearing coats and hats during the cold months, and running portable fans in the sweltering heat of New York City summers. The 1970s brought even more change to the system. An uptick in urban crime forced the MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) to better protect its employees with bullet proof glass and air conditioning underground, while machines requiring exact change were installed on city buses.

During high school and college my confidence grew, and the subway system became a source of adventure as well as my only mode of transportation. While attending The High School of Music and Art (at that time ensconced on the City College campus at 135th Street and Convent Avenue), I traveled the A train back and forth between Harlem and Brooklyn. Riding alone most days, I occupied myself with books, but with friends, I found ways to make mischief. There were three of us from George Gershwin Junior High who had been accepted to Music and Art and we had a habit of gawking at weird, sometimes sad, sometimes unexplainable sightings below ground. One day, on a trip home, we caught notice of a derelict woman. The old woman wore a scarf wrapped around her head in an attempt to hide a large knot of some kind protruding from her skull. She watched us, three teenage girls whispering and giggling among ourselves about her appearance. Looking directly at us, the woman suddenly pulled her false teeth out of her mouth. I suppose this was her way of giving us something to laugh at. We fell to the floor convulsed in laughter, tears streaming down our faces. By the time we recovered, the woman had moved on and other commuters entering the car wondered what the hell we were laughing at.

While attending Hunter College on East 68th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues, I rode the New Lots number 2 train to Nevins, there switching to the IRT 4 or 5 to East 59th Street and Lexington. During the spring and summer, I walked the nine extra blocks. But on cold days, I waited for the local 6 Train, which made the 68th Street stop. The Upper East Side of Manhattan was a mere subway ride away from my neighborhood called East New York in Brooklyn, but in reality it was a world away. I explored the shops, restaurants, and art house movie theaters, becoming a shop girl along Lexington Avenue during my years at Hunter.unnamed (3)

The 1970s came to symbolize the difficult days of urban decay. Labor strikes, rising crime rates and budget cuts defined a city government overwhelmed by cultural change. The Great Black Migration and White Flight transformed neighborhoods in all of the five boroughs. Subway maintenance was underfunded; trains ran with two to three non-working cars. A lack of air-conditioning in the sweltering summer heat became the norm. Delays were common. Gang tags and graffiti blanketed the underground and became synonymous with urban blight. The Straphangers Campaign, a NYC public interest research group that advocated for riders of public transport, recruited interested college students to go into the stations and begin to document the conditions. I joined. Along with others, I took notes on busted doors and out-of-service cars as filthy trains rolled into stations. I protested the dilapidated conditions in my own way as well, by refusing to pay my fare, sneaking into subway stations even though I had a school pass. My dad and I quarreled about this. An MTA bus driver, he reminded me that the only people hurt by my actions were the workers not responsible for the conditions but who would be blamed at the next labor negotiation.

In the early 80s, a receptionist by day and a drama student at night, I was seen as part of the Bridge and Tunnel crowd. That was what the yuppie set from elsewhere, all aspiring to live only in Manhattan, called the rest of us. But the joke was, they were afraid of unruly underground New York, and I was not. The system had become part of me, a place where a fair amount of living had occurred. The subway was such an intrinsic part of my existence that my life couldn’t help but play out partly below ground. Homework was completed between stops. The platforms were for lover’s quarrels, the rides home alternately providing carnival-like disruptions and opportunities for quiet reflection. I met my first husband on a city bus. The most beautiful Puerto Rican man I had ever seen. I handed him a performance flyer for “School Girl,” the a cappella group I was a member of at the time. He showed up and later he asked me on our first date while riding the IRT number 4 Train.

Days after 9/11, I cried while looking out onto the still smoldering wound from my seat on the D train as it made its way across the Manhattan Bridge. Trains closest to the disaster were allowed to resume their routes, but the stations nearest the World Trade Center remained closed. During the weeks and months of salvage and cleanup at the site, the trains slowly churned past those dark and deserted stations as we on board shared our collective grief and bore witness to their eerie quiet.

I have favorite stations. I like the Nevins Street station, downtown Brooklyn (with its easy transfer from the 2 or 3 train to the Lexington Avenue 4 and 5) for its sidewalk grating above my head that allows in sunlight on nice days but somehow manages to keep out the rain; Grand Army Plaza for its simple spaciousness and access to Prospect Park and Public Library; Grand Central Station and 42nd Street where you can transfer to almost any line and head anywhere in the City; and the N Train station stop at 57th Street and 7th near Carnegie Hall, my absolute favorite corner in Manhattan.

Men propositioned me. Others exposed themselves to me. Still others politely offered me a seat. One minute avoiding eye contact, the next carrying on conversations with total strangers. Some folk used the car as their own private living room. For a brief time, there was a rash of gold chain snatchings. Occasionally, someone jumped or got pushed in front of an oncoming train. And there were times I witnessed the most endearing moments of personal courtesy. It was an absurdist distillation of life in urban America playing out all around me underground.

If environment shapes the artist and individual, I’ve been partly shaped by life underground. My next trip home, I will travel again from my mother’s place in East Flatbush to what is called The Junction—the Nostrand/Flatbush Avenue station near Brooklyn College. Boarding a subway train on the IRT line, I’ll sink into a seat and breath in the atmosphere. Will the experience trigger a long buried memory or simply remind me of my younger self? I won’t know till then. But it’s sure to make me feel very much at home.

“Where thou art, thou is home.” Emily Dickinson

* Withering Myrtle: The Last Days of the Myrtle Avenue El. – Forgotten New York

Writers Read: Bending Genre “On Convention” by Margot Singer

In “On Convention,” Margot Singer is less interested in defining what creative nonfiction is, and more interested in what it is doing and what it can do. She seeks to understand the evolving nature of the art of the genre, and how it blurs the lines between the “conventions,” of good writing—an imitation of mimetic literary prose—and the cultivated voice of creative nonfiction. Her belief is that creative nonfiction seeks to blend, or bend, conventions but also challenges the understanding of what creative nonfiction is by addressing the marriage between fact and imagination resulting in something she refers to as the Naked I.

The essay examines how the imitation of fictional literary prose, mimetic writing, is used to create stories that feel as though they’re true and real. This is done through the traditional tools used in all creative writing: showing not telling, developing compelling characterization, well-crafted dialogue. But she also posits that in attempting to tell the story in this approach that it might read as true, however it is often less truthful than it would appear to be—the factual story doesn’t happen as easily as it appears to happen in linear nonfiction narratives. She believes that this blurring of fact and imagination is where the true art of CNF is coming from, particularly in the resulting voice of this amalgam.[blockquote align=right][Creative nonfiction] is often less truthful than it would appear to be—the factual story doesn’t happen as easily as it appears to happen in linear nonfiction narratives.

Singer argues that the language of creative nonfiction, the eschewing the omniscient narrator, to expose the writer’s feelings is a way of baring the prose to expose the author’s “voice.” Voice is what Singer suggests is the true distinction between fiction and creative nonfiction, as well as creative nonfiction and purely factual texts.

Margot Singer, co-author of Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction.

Margot Singer, co-author of Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction.

The Naked I, while often still using the conventions of mimetic literary writing, is a self-reflexive narrative voice that embodies the actual living “I” of the writer. Singer describes this voice as a combination of “hubris and humility.” Even when adhering to the Henry James standards of well-constructed writing (i.e. showing not telling), creative nonfiction is profoundly influenced by the writer’s relationship with this exposed Naked I. This voice necessitates the writer to address who they are in the relationship to the world that they are writing about, and how they find themselves when they are within that society. It can be done in the first person as in The Orchard Thief; the third person as in In Cold Blood; in semi-fictional accounts such as What is the What?, and even in unreliable nonfiction narration such as Amis’ Money.

Blurring the lines between what creative nonfiction writing is, and what creative nonfiction writing can do, turns away from the traditional voice of nonfiction texts to expose the bias and emotion of the narrator. The Naked I is coming from a new place, its voice unveils and confronts even while asking, “Is this the truth or what the writer believes to be the truth?” [blockquote align=right]This voice necessitates the writer to address who they are in the relationship to the world that they are writing about, and how they find themselves when they are within that society.

By combining the imitable qualities of conventional literary prose and crafting voice through the authentic revelation of the Naked I, is where Singer finds the art in creative nonfiction—definition of a formal term, she finds, is unnecessary.

Singer, Margot, and Nicole Walker. Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. Print.

 

Jane-Rebecca Cannarella is a writer living in Philadelphia. She’s the editor at HOOT Review and a contributing writer for SSG Music. Her work can be found in, and is forthcoming at, Hobart, Whiskey Paper, *82 Review, Paper Darts, and New South, among others.

In Service of Writing

The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars. / Where did it all go wrong?

~John Berryman, “Dream Song 4”

Next year I will turn forty. Thirty-nine feels dire some days, at the edge of oblivion. I walked away from my career last year to start grad school and focus on writing, and now I work part-time in a restaurant as a server, like I did in my teens and twenties. I’m good at it—the timing, the charming repartee with my customers. At twenty-six, I was ready to be done waiting tables, done waiting. In those days, I’d look at the older servers, in their thirties or forties, and think, just kill me if I become an old waitress.

At that time, restaurant jobs had already served me well for thirteen years, half my life. Service jobs allowed me to move around: to Los Angeles, Chicago, and Maine. I made good money and fantastic friendships forged in endless side work, little sleep, Sunday brunch marathons, and getting stoned under the stairs on smoke break. Service jobs meant I could take classes at the schools I wanted to attend, earning credits from undergraduate programs across the country. I got around. And I learned an employable skill that does not outdate. But I always considered it temporary, a means to an end.

*     *     *

When I left restaurant service in my twenties, it seemed like my job choices were fated, each one a valuable step on a career path. When my husband and I moved to rural Vermont in 2003, we somehow both found work and a place to live over one weekend’s visit. I found my job in the local classifieds: barn help, mornings, four hours a day, Monday thru Friday.

photo credit: Katelyn Keating

VT Winter, credit: Katelyn Keating

This would be the best job of my life. For one year, my daily grind was to care for horses. The Zen of cleaning something intended to be dirtied again spoke to me. While cleaning a stall, listening to NPR in the background, I was often inspired to write. I composed and edited opening sentences, incubated ideas while I banked shavings and scrubbed water buckets. The physical work was muscle memory from a childhood steeped in horsemanship. I would have done this job forever, but the business moved. My employer was finally able to fulfill a dream to buy her own farm, and moved too far for me to follow.

A few months later, I graduated with my humanities BA and felt that pull of fate again, when I saw a job posting for a new equine hospital: horsemanship required, no medical background necessary. Maybe it was a calling. With my years of caring for damaged animals, I would go into medicine. It was awesome work—the soothing routine of horse care, plus sometimes saving lives—but the physicality was terrible on the body. My back broke down, my neck broke down, and after five years and a cross-country move, I advanced into veterinary practice management—that sad office in the back of the hospital where we settled scheduling disputes, and managed inventory, and went weeks without laying hands on an animal. It’s often compassion fatigue that forces a person out of a veterinary hospital, but that wasn’t it for me. It was more like insidious aspiration. I launched a LinkedIn account: I was a woman with a career in veterinary medicine, and career people climb. Right? And so, after another cross-country move, I climbed up into veterinary pharmaceutical sales.

To get that territory—company car, travel, autonomy—one must first pay her dues with inside sales. I wore business casual from Banana Republic Factory Store and sat in a drafty cube under UV lights. Some days I made two hundred phone calls. At home, I could barely talk. This was the worst job of my life, the first time creativity was excluded from my work. After only eighteen months in sales, it was time to make a big change, in the form of a low-residency MFA program that accepted me even though I applied three months late.

Cube, credit: Katelyn Keating

With my loss of income and our monolithic debt in mind, my husband and I humbled ourselves and asked for help. We gave up our 1906 two-story Craftsman with hardwoods and a fenced backyard and moved in with my parents in Florida, our five pets in tow. And I got a great restaurant job.

When school started, being immersed in ideas and words again felt important, a ritual rediscovered. I experienced that rush in a seminar when an idea sparks with another from an earlier seminar, or a book on another subject, and a new idea is born in the intersection. I remembered the feeling, and craved the feeling. Then partway through my first term, I became suddenly preoccupied with my future career. The insidious aspiration reared its head. People started asking, and then I started asking:  What will I do with this degree?

*     *     *

As someone who generally spreadsheets everything, I think I intentionally under-researched possible post-MFA futures in my excitement to jump out of my old career and back into school. Before accepting my admissions offer, I’d thought vaguely about the future, some notion of cobbling together an artist’s life with writing, leading workshops, volunteering, maybe a few adjunct gigs. I pestered mentors and administrators in my program for a few months, asking endless questions. What types of careers are open to low-residency graduates who don’t get teaching experience in school? What volunteer opportunities best compliment this absence of teaching experience? Is there another road into academia? What will I do with this degree? Etc., ad nauseam.

This past March, I made the pilgrimage to the 2016 AWP Conference to seek answers, diligently taking notes during such panels as, “PhDon’t,” “From The Drudges: Sustaining a Writing Life from Outside of Academia,” “From MFA to JOB,” and “Alternative Careers.” There was a guy on one of those panels who works as a bartender in a brewpub, drives for Lyft, and is studying in a PhD program. But he wasn’t overtly stressed out, or unhappy. And the software programmer on another panel loved her day job. And everyone underlined how difficult it is to return home to your art of writing when you write meaninglessly for your job. The panel audiences were earnest and large in these career discussions, full of note-takers like me.

I also attended craft panels about things I love—like science, and road-writing, and archival research—all of which sparked writing ideas. I hung out with friends in a modern loft with views of an unrecognizably posh downtown LA, and saw two of my mentors give readings in a sharp little gallery. During a panel called “The Violence of the Page,” I listened as Maggie Nelson read from her magnificent memoir, The Red Parts. I was particularly inspired at AWP—note that the full conference name is Association of Writers & Writing Programs—when presenters challenged and called out the systematic privilege in our very institutions. In other words, at AWP I went seeking one thing to feed my writing life and got something else. But to be clear, I did synthesize the career advice—for creative writing MFA grads, the legion whose ranks I’ll join in another year, the message resounds: don’t quit your day job.

*     *     *

Soon after, I started frenzied research into ways to improve my CV. Should I transfer to a residential program and get TA experience? Where could I volunteer to compliment my studies? Will I need a fellowship or another degree to become an attractive candidate for hire someday for something? Admittedly, I spun out a bit. More than a bit. And then a friend asked, “Do you even want to teach?”

A week later, I hit my head really hard—concussion short-term-memory-loss hard. All I remember is walking down the street, and then being in the hospital. I was missing three hours and thirty dollars. I may have been mugged. I lacerated my face and my eye was filled with blood; and, suddenly, I didn’t care about my career options anymore. It was like my brain rebooted. I had started writing a novel earlier in the year, and after the concussion, that’s what I turned back to: writing pages every day.

I’m newly comfortable in the quiet of not asking what comes next, of just writing and reading and annotating and discussing and researching—living the writing life. Truth is, I don’t actually want another career. I care about writing: the discipline, the ritual, the craft. Immersion into the academics of my MFA is intoxicating, and enough right now. I simplified my life for this education, and I take it seriously. Most low-residency MFA programs advise spending about twenty-five hours per week on studies. I solve that equation with my restaurant job, working evenings after writing most of the day at my desk.

Cap's on the Water, credit: Katelyn Keating

Cap’s on the Water, credit: Katelyn Keating

During June’s MFA residency, I attended an open discussion about the ways writers balance work. Listening to other writers share their stories reminded me of what community is, and that we are students, but we are also writers. We build community in service of our art, and our art serves our community.

I am a thirty-nine-year-old server. People won’t stop asking, what will you do with your degree? My restaurant customers in particular like to ask, so they can reconcile for themselves that their older server must just wait tables in service of a grander purpose. But I’m not stressed out anymore or unhappy in my job. I derive meaning from my writing; my art is separate from my income. And both ventures benefit from this arrangement.

Next year I will turn forty. I am a server. I am a writer.

Spotlight: Each Time We Enter Costco / By Morning / Nothing of Me Will Survive


Each Time We Enter Costco

I cannot help myself. I have to say,
“See that? Free hearing tests!” To which I add,
“Can’t hear me?” He ignores that, so, “Eh? Eh?
What’s that?” His brittle bearing flashes mad.
The cart gets filled in silence. Stuff we do
not need in ludicrous amounts: pintos,
potato chips, a gallon-sized shampoo,
a pound of chili powder, and God-knows
what else. I lag behind. When he’s like this,
I see his father’s thin-lipped pout. Perhaps
he does, too—getting deaf and old as piss,
each year bringing bitter new handicaps.
The young cashier he smiles for. Even she
can hear the creaking of mortality.

 

By Morning

starting with a Dickinson line (#113)

Our share of night to bear, our share of morning.
Fade-in: two men trapped in the lair of morning.

A galaxy of stars tessellates the ceiling.
The walls’ shadows foretell our fear of morning

I listen to you talk to creatures in your sleep.
You wake to the hairy-bellied bear of morning.

We look like mummies cocooned under layers.
Do you hear the not-so-subtle jeer of morning?

We listen to the leaves, clattering like shields.
How might we prepare for the war of morning?

It’s how hordes of words lose meaning overnight.
It’s how the phone rings in the blare of morning.

Fade-out: Tex-Mex, tequila, beer-bloated sex.
Oh God, I need coffee, our prayer of morning.

 

Nothing of Me Will Survive

a cento using only first lines from poems in
Jill Alexander Essbaum’s
Heaven

Even as he sleeps, I hear
my body lifted from the fold of yours.
First it is a kiss, and then that strange twine.
I blame you for most of this. The evidence?
This bridge of moon on bended knee above us.
(Imagine me elsewhere and kneeling.)
It’s the devil in me, I suppose.
Every night, it is one drunken orbit after another,
laughter, the grief of happiness.
The blanched dunes and disembodied wells,
everywhere I look is something new to grieve.
It is bone-cold, the night of all betrayed.
Now I think I understand:
If the martyr is made when the breaking heart breaks open,
the answer I seek is one I do not truly wish to know.
This is what’s become of us: I am
at the midnight of our trouble.
It always hurts to be this clean.

Scott WiggermanScott Wiggerman is the author of three books of poetry—Leaf and Beak: Sonnets, Presence, and Vegetables and Other Relationships—as well as the editor of several volumes, including Wingbeats: Exercises & Practice in Poetry, Lifting the Sky: Southwestern Haiku & Haiga, and Wingbeats II. Recent poems have appeared in Naugatuck River Review, Red Earth Review, Pinyon Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and the anthologies, This Assignment Is So Gay, Forgetting Home: Poems about Alzheimer’s, and The Great Gatsby Anthology. He is an editor for Dos Gatos Press of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

 

 

 

Thank You

This is a letter of gratitude.

Gratitude for having had the opportunity to serve as Blog Editor here at Lunch Ticket for two issues.

Gratitude for my peers in the writing community.

Gratitude for being given the privilege of editing and writing among such a talented gaggle of writers (an inkwell of writers? a creed of writers?).

Gratitude for the poetry that binds us.

*     *     *

Writing is lonely business. There is no way around it. Sure, we collaborate occasionally. We write pantoums. We drink wine (or whisky) and read our bad love poems to one another. We play with call-and-response prose. We huddle around tiny tables in crowded bars, pass folded sheets of paper, and giggle at the inanities we scrawl. But this is play. And while I don’t mean to downplay the importance of play—it unlocks us in ways that severity and seriousness will never allow—in the end, we scamper home, sit at our desks (or curl up in bed next to cats), and write. In that moment, faced with a blank page—or worse, a page filled with those same inanities that seemed quaint and cute at the bar—we are alone. Our adversary is our self. Whether creating new material or editing what we’ve previously written, what we embark upon is a staring contest with the mirror. Though necessary, it can be infuriating exercise.

When I first arrived at Antioch, I was lost. I felt like I did not fit. I stood in the quad and smoked cigarettes dolefully (this is the only way to smoke cigarettes if you’re a writer) and gazed at my fellow students—watched them gesture wildly, pull out books from their satchels to hand to one another, or hug generously and often. I stood in the shade of the tall evergreens overhead, watched the ants march single file between the cracks of the pavement. My social skills are the stuff of myth—though my resume once boasted that I am a “people person,” this was a blatant lie. I am a character person. I can concoct all sorts of ways in which people on a page might interact with one another; when it comes to actual humans, I am about as social as a surprised koala.

Over the course of my first residency—an intense ten days of seminars and readings and workshops—something happened. I found myself among a chorus of clamoring voices. A tribe formed between strangers. We spoke the same language. Not English (though that, too), but curiosity in the ways in which we communicate ideas. Word nerds thrust together for a short period. Prying ourselves apart at the end of those ten days was less a tearing of band-aids and more a peeling of skin.

When I joined the staff of Lunch Ticket, first as a Creative Nonfiction editor and then as Blog Editor, this feeling of community intensified. Though, our geographic locations and the nature of a low residency MFA program meant that the members of my team and I rarely met face to face, we formed a bond based on trust—trust that we would treat each other with respect and frankness. We learned one another’s strengths and insecurities, and carved paths to the parts of one another’s minds we felt were yearning to be tapped. Perhaps a word emerges in an essay, a tick that a cursory read would simply ascribe to carelessness. But a careful colleague sees this word, this tick, as a glimmer of possibility, a glimpse of meaning below the surface of the writer’s intent.

Though I surrender my post as Lunch Ticket Blog Editor with a heavy heart, I can offer this bit of advice: if given an opportunity to join a collective of writers in any capacity, take it. Jump at it. Continue jumping throughout, reeling with joy, swimming through the words of others. Open your arms to the vulnerability of laying the fruits of your lonely labor out on a platter, of giving these fruits willfully to your peers, a sampling of the goods your thrashing mind has produced.

Three things happen when you share your work. The first is that your work leaves the confines of your cozy brain—an open feedback loop of never-ending doubt or confirmation—and seeks refuge in the interpretation of others. In spite of ourselves, as writers, we have ideas about what we mean to say. And ideas are the enemies of creativity. It’s best to free yourself of these cognitive chains as soon as possible. Out in the open world, words find their true meaning, for it is in the reading that words gain significance. You may have induced the fall of timber, but, as the clichéed adage goes, there must be someone present to hear the echo lest it go unnoticed. The timbre of your timber remains a mystery until Becky with the good ear describes it to you. A woodpecker’s cadence. The ticking of a scarab. The gentle spread of moss on dampened tree stump. Listen for this hallowed resonance, let it wash over you, then speak to it. Yes, receiving criticism, even well-intentioned criticism, is difficult. We, as writers, would like to believe in our own precociousness, in our unique outlook, in the idea that people just don’t get us. But we need those people—readers—to show us the image we project onto the page. We are the light. They are the screen.

The second thing that happens when you share your work is that it loses its preciousness. Your words are no longer yours. They belong to the collective, poured into a river of creative knowledge. That section you wrote about your mother, the one that caused you to dam your tears and drink, like, five cups of chamomile tea (or five tumblers of bourbon)? It’s nice writing, but perhaps it doesn’t belong in this particular essay. Seen through the critical eye, an eye loaned to you by a gracious friend, your work becomes just that—work—rather than a beloved baby you’ve nurtured since what was likely a painful and uncomfortable labor. Your words are reflected back at you, inverted, almost the same, but not nearly as dear: changed just enough that they seem new, given to you by a stranger. This distance—of your essays or poems leaving you and traveling back via kindly intermediary—is precisely what you need.

The third, and perhaps most important, thing that happens when you participate in peer editing is that you read a whole lot. This is what I’m most grateful for—for the vulnerability of my peers, allowing me to see their work before it is ready for the world, half-finished, surrounded by scaffolding, rambling, barely formed but delightfully un-self-conscious. You get to see the progression—the messy blood-and-sweat covered rawness of new words to the gleaming landscape that eventually emerges—and you get to marvel that this beautiful tapestry of thoughts came from humble, often awful, beginnings. And you become a better writer. In spite of yourself, in spite of your pride and your ideas about what you are and how you write, you become a better writer.

*     *     *

I’ve just returned from my fifth and final residency at Antioch University Los Angeles. Knowing that this would be my final residency as an MFA student, I stretched the limits of my endurance—sneaking naps in secret nooks around campus—and attended as many seminars as I could. Guest lecturers poured their hard-earned wisdom into our willing brain buckets. We learned about the absurd world of prose poetry. We learned of the oft-forsaken craft of punctuation. We were given a set of tools to embark on the fraught path of self-publishing. We sat in a room and bemoaned the woeful state traditional publishing, forcing ourselves to admit that most of us will probably, as writers, have to supplement our income through other means—we obstinately refused to abandon our quests. I drank it all in, alternately scrawling words in my notebook or sitting quietly and listening.

On the penultimate day of residency, half asleep and reeling from the maelstrom of lesson that churned in my mind, I stalked into a seminar by guest lecturer Fred Moten—a Los Angeles-based poet and lecturer at University of California Riverside—entitled “Under Common Ground.” The description for the seminar sounded terribly abstract, even to my poetic ear. The seminar promised to discuss the concepts of “repurposing and disavowal,” and to confront the “double edges of refusal of burial.” I was at a loss, but the lecturer was a poet, so I wandered in nonetheless and took a seat near the back. Fred Moten sat in front, behind a small desk on which he had set up a small Bluetooth speaker; he spoke softly but forcefully, choosing his words with the type of care we should all have. “How can we be human in the world?” he began. What followed was a discussion on race and humanity that I cannot possibly reproduce here; I can only say that his words resonated in the way I once thought only poetry could—reaching to the very heart of truth.

At the end of the seminar, Fred asked if we wanted to hear some music. Heads nodded excitedly. Fred pressed play. James Brown filled the room, but not before the signature sound of a crowd clamoring before the start of one of his songs—a live recording. Next song, same result: another crowd, James Brown’s voice rising up as if borne of the collective. Next song, new singer, same result: voices rising and falling, organic and delightful, a singular voice emerging from the din. The lesson? Art is never the result of a single person’s creative endeavors. It emerges by virtue of the collective space we occupy, as the result of minds working together, placed together for a common purpose—art is communal.

I am grateful for community.

I am grateful to be a part of the din.

I am grateful for you, kind reader.