How Many Ohios?

 

“…everything was marvelous and everything became gray and irrational and everything sparkled again, as when a cloud passes over the sun and the sun appears to flee, a timid, pale disk, near extinction, but now look, once the cloud dissolves it’s suddenly dazzling again, so bright you have to shield your eyes with your hand.” Elena Ferrante

I’d never been to Ohio when we moved to Dayton in August 2006. My husband is in academia, and this was where he’d landed a job, a great job that would pay him well and challenge him and respect him: an offer that we couldn’t refuse.

The Midwest was unknown to me—the way sky cups the land, the uninterrupted horizon, the endless reorganization of clouds, the city blocks striated with farmland, the abandoned factories, the squatter-occupied Victorian homes, the shredded curtains waving from broken windows, the box-store pattern of suburbs fanning out toward fields of soybeans, fields of corn. We drove through Dayton for the first time on the way to the apartment my husband had rented on Craigslist. The streets were hugged by bungalows—the former homes of factory workers—that would have sold for half-a-million or more in California, and dotted with storefronts, dressed with mid-century signage that would have been kitsch on the West Coast. By the time we arrived in Dayton, most of the big factories had packed up and moved on. The once-grand department stores downtown were long-shuttered. There was no kitsch, because nostalgia is not ironic in a city that’s been left behind

*     *     *

Dayton, Ohio prides itself on being the “Birthplace of Aviation,” the childhood home of Orville and Wilbur Wright, a city of innovation, the US city with the most patents per capita at the turn of the twentieth century. The first airplane was designed in Dayton, as were cash registers and ATMs, and the ignition that starts your car. By the mid-twentieth century, the city and its environs, nestled in a Southeast Ohio fertile river valley, the Miami Valley, was home or second-home to burgeoning mid-century industrial giants such as General Motors, National Cash Register, and Mead Paper. The city was an expression of the post-war American dream; ranch houses, postage-stamp lawns, picket-fences. But we’ve all heard the story: industry departs, the wheels of capitalism crank and move forward. Today, to much of the country, Dayton is the rustbelt, flyover country, the kind of place that, according to the coastal imagination, birthed the rise of Donald Trump, pop-culture shorthand for a dead dream. Over the past several decades, Dayton’s population plummeted, while unemployment and poverty multiplied. The intersection of I-70 and I-75—the crossroads of the Midwest which once served the steady flow of industry—now aid Dayton in its new role as the epicenter of the national heroin epidemic. Dayton, Ohio, heroin queen, a heartbreaking crown.

*     *     *

I have no right to write about Dayton, no right to write about Ohio. In a part of the country where many of my friends trace their ancestry back for multiple generations, I am an outsider. As I approach the eleventh anniversary of our move, despite the fact that this is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere, I know I will always be an outsider, a curious interloper looking in the window, trying to understand.

*     *     *

During the most recent residency at the Antioch University MFA program, I attended a seminar led by the writer Sarah Van Arsdale on setting and atmosphere. Van Arsdale emphasized that atmosphere is emotion, that setting in literature is imbued by the emotional context of the point-of-view inhabited by the narrator. In August 2006, I arrived in a shaky but hopeful Dayton. Newly married, I was six months pregnant with my first child, and despite being in an unknown place, I prepared to live the life I’d always dreamed of living. A home, a family. My fantasy of permanency. Everything was scary, and beautiful, and imbued with hope. I imagined that the abandoned lots and fields of Dayton could bloom into lush, permaculture gardens, the abandoned buildings could become artist colonies and settlement houses. The tide could turn. The hourglass ran out on George W., and the country was on the cusp of the Obama administration. My husband and I had a baby, bought a house, adopted a kitten, had another baby. We made new friends. My husband loved his job, I started a successful business. Barack Obama won Ohio—twice, three times if you count the primary! My husband and I, with our babies, campaigned for Obama in white, working class neighborhoods, knocking on doors and handing out flyers. No one seemed to blink at our multi-racial family. They took our flyers, wished us a good day. The sun was shining. Change and hope, hope and change. It was a beautiful, beautiful Ohio.

*     *     *

While many white liberals, myself included, basked in the post-racial myth of the Obama administration, in Ohio, as elsewhere in the United States, unarmed black men and boys continue to die at the hands of law enforcement. Dayton is not exempt from this tragedy. On August 5, 2014, while I finished up paperwork in my office, John Crawford III, a loving father of two children, was murdered while shopping in a Walmart in the predominantly white Dayton suburb of Beavercreek, less than ten miles away. In this particular incident of state-sanctioned murder, Crawford was killed after a fellow shopper, a young white man, called 911 and lied to the operator, informing her that Crawford was pointing a gun at people, when in fact, he was loosely carrying an air rifle—merchandise he had picked up in the store—while talking on his cell phone. John Crawford’s back was turned to the officer who shot him. No criminal charges were brought against that officer, Sean Williams, of the Beavercreek Police Department.

Although a steady group of protesters, organized largely by Black Lives Matter Miami Valley, showed up at events at the Walmart, the nearby mall, the county courthouse, and elsewhere, traffic never stopped flowing down the suburban streets, and life went on as usual. At one of the larger protests, white shoppers continued to shop, blithely stepping over protesters who lay on the glistening floor of the mall, while red-faced security guards screamed inches away, and police loaded protesters into vans. This image, of white people stepping over the bodies of protesters in the name of consumerism, is emblematic of the apathy and denial that chokes progress. Nevermind justice, the shopping must go on.

There has been no justice for John Crawford or his family. Apathy is implicated here, as is the Obama era version of hope which turns out to be a pretty mask on the face of denial. White Ohioans, myself included, shoulder the responsibility of breaking down apathy and denial, these diseases of the white soul that devastate communities of color, in Ohio, and across the country. The road ahead is long, and necessary.

This is a terrible, terrible Ohio.

*     *     *

That which was festering erupted. On Election Day, 2016, after repeatedly yelling at the television, “Come on, Ohio! Come ON, Ohio!” I went to bed before the state results were called. My husband stayed up. He looked grim. He let me sleep through it. Seven more hours of a fantasy. In the middle of the night, the sound of horns blaring and loud male voices cheering careened through the streets of my town. I put my pillow over my head to muffle the sound. The next morning we took the children for a walk before we all went our separate ways for work and school. The sky was gray, a heavy cloud cover hanging over us. The streets were almost empty. We passed a woman clutching her coat around her body. She was crying. Friends of ours had campaigned for Hillary Clinton in the same white, working class neighborhoods where my family had knocked on doors four years ago. They told us they’d been chased out. They’d been threatened with dogs.

*     *     *

My husband, who is Asian-American, took the children to a restaurant in Beavercreek. He noticed that everyone else in the room was white. He told himself he would be fine.

*     *     *

There are Confederate flags in windows and on bumper stickers. There are billboards, and Trump signs and placards with monstrous Hillaries that say “lock her up” and banners the size of small houses.

In the era of Trump, how much has my new home changed? How much has white, middle-class privilege blinded me? The statistics point to the possibility that many of the same people who voted for Obama voted for Trump. How do I get my head around Ohio?

And since Ohio election results typically point to the winner of the national election, perhaps what I’m really asking is, how do I get my head around this country?

Time has not stopped. Since the election, pockets of protest and resistance grow, even in sleepy Dayton. Ironically, the most recent census has revealed that Dayton’s population is stabilizing, thanks to growing immigrant and refugee communities. (Take that, Trump.) 

It’s not easy to hope. But to give up hope is worse, a paralysis as toxic as denial. At the end of hope, that’s where time stops. My children were born here. They love Ohio; this is their home. To do right, I have to dig in, to learn how to grow within an imperfect place, a place that, bit by bit, I belong to. And to belong, I take responsibility. What’s wrong with Ohio is what’s wrong with this country. What’s wrong with this country, is what’s wrong with me. 

I want people in other parts of the country to imagine what life is like here. I want people on the coasts to feel how we are connected, how abandonment and denial in the rustbelt are connected to gentrification and denial in the more prosperous coastal cities.

It is a beautiful Ohio. It is a terrible Ohio. How many, how many Ohios?

 

Melissa Benton Barker lives in Ohio with her family. She is an MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles and currently serves as the Managing Editor for Lunch Ticket. Her work can be found on Smokelong Quarterly, Gravel, and Literary Mama.

 

 

Denise Tolan

Spotlight: Because You are Dead

[fiction]

You don’t know I have a picture of you, because you are dead.

Before you were dead, I wondered what it would be like to be trapped in your mouth for eternity, like a wedded Jonah. Whenever you said honey or Leeza or, more likely, Lisa, I would feel the rib cage constrict.

I have some regrets from before you died.

 

Once you wanted a burger from Sonic. You were working and I was not, so I went to get one for you.

Pickles, onions, cheese, but no mustard, you said.

Pickles, onions, cheese, but no mustard, I repeated into the speaker.

When I handed you the burger you opened it, then looked at me as if I’d broken your crayon.

Mustard, you said, pointing to the offending yellow.

I stood in front of you, wondering what had gone wrong.

I wish I’d done a better job with the burger order but only because, somehow, you are dead.

 

Once, after a late dinner with your co-workers, we sat in your car while you decided what to do. You were tired, but there was a possibility of sex in the air; distant, like the sound of wind or waves.

Tell me a fantasy, you finally said.

Tell you a fantasy, I repeated as a question, as if I was giving it thought.

I needed sleep too, but I told you what you wanted to hear – the girl who lived downstairs from me – you, sticky with new moisture – three mouths, taking in, spilling out.

I’d unbuttoned my shirt and lazily played with one nipple as I spoke.

Let’s go inside, you said. I knocked on her door as we passed by.

I wonder if, for the dead, that makes up for the mustard.

 

You held out your hand once revealing a single green disk the size of a tear.

Beach glass, I asked?

You brought the glass closer to my face, as if it might be some kind of ancient tell, like when children hold buttercups to their throats as a predictor of their affinity for butter.

You saw me in that glass, beautiful and valuable and different. I wanted to believe you were not wrong.

It was me. Is me.

But in the end it was common glass. Washed ashore. Held in the mouth of the sea until it was spit out, edges smoothed by the force of its current disdain.

The dead, most likely, let go of regret and beach glass.

 

The picture you don’t know I have is from your obituary. Before you were dead someone you loved must have taken it because you forgot to guard your eyes when you looked into the lens. The photograph is in Sepia, which makes so much sense, since you were always the color of an ancient map; never really accurate, but promising adventure nonetheless.

 

Denise Tolan Denise Tolan teaches amazing students at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio, Texas. She is a graduate of the Red Earth MFA in Creative Writing Program at Oklahoma City University. Denise has been published in places such as Reed, Southern Lit Review, The Great American Literary Magazine, The Tishman Review, and Gravel. Denise’s creative nonfiction won the grand prize in SunStruck magazine and she was a finalist in the 2017 Saturday Evening Post fiction contest.

“Because You are Dead” is a Best Small Fictions 2018 winner, selected by Aimee Bender. Congratulations to Denise Tolan!

Hail Mary

I texted the Lunch Ticket Editor-in-Chief Katelyn Keating late last night to say I didn’t know what I was going to do about this blog. Both of us are working on finishing our graduation requirements for the MFA in Creative Nonfiction this week at Antioch University. Neither of us is sleeping very much. There’s a lot to do. I am stupidly trying to squeeze work conference calls into my final school residency. Katelyn is maintaining this journal, building and training its new staff. We are required to give graduate presentations, we have to read our work aloud, we have to turn in final manuscripts. The two years we devoted to allegedly mastering this fine art are coming to a head and we must show how we deserve the degree. When I gave my reading, my legs shook so hard I thought they would dance off my body. I am still drafting the twenty minute presentation I’ll give tomorrow. About the prospect of writing a blog to publish this Friday, I think my wording via text was that I was “effd.” Katelyn has been patient while I promised her I would come through. I did not want to write a terrible blog.

As is my inclination most of these days, I wanted to write something political. I had in mind an essay about how I believe satire will save the republic. But the essay would not write. Then this morning I went back to an email exchange with my mentor from earlier this term. I had written a confusing piece, that started with one subject but, like most of my essays, quickly devolved into confused diffusion. He said I should write him a letter and say why I was writing. I didn’t want to do the assignment because I didn’t want to get it wrong.

Though this might amount to a Hail Mary play of blogs, I’m sharing that letter here as a sort of suggestion, but also as a way of creating a contract for myself. For here is my biggest fear: What if, for fear of failure, I never write again after this MFA?

 

Hi Brad,

Happy Friday. Hope you are doing well. I’m drowning in work at the moment, not getting a lot of sleep or vitamins. But I’m making good on my promise to write this letter to you or myself or the universe. You can read it now, or later or never.

I’m challenged by the question of why I write, and the sub question of why I write what I write. Maybe the question is what do I want. Over the past week I’ve thought about this a lot; while driving, while bathing, lying in bed, sitting in my work chair. I’ve attempted to solve my desire like a riddle. I came up with a few ideas. I don’t know if they are cohesive.

For a long time I assumed everyone wanted to be a writer. When, over years in school, someone would say they hated English class, that they hated having to write, I thought they were being disingenuous. My suspicion was that anyone who has ever loved a book would obviously want to write one. To write has been like tapping my foot to a beat. Likewise, at a concert or a wedding and there are people sitting in their seats, not dancing, I assume they are suppressing a strong urge—that there’s a little war under their skin that they are barely winning. I have been sure that not expressing one’s self turns a person into a dangerous burstable dam, but maybe (certainly) I just indulge in feeling my feelings too much and I’m being over dramatic and ultimately sort of narcissistic and that’s why I can’t imagine not wanting to write. I understand now that there are people who don’t want to write. Or read, for that matter. I get it. There are also people who are not moved by a beat. I resist presuming they are dead inside.

I was not an English major. In college I studied Spanish and Italian to proficiency. I took French and Portuguese too, though I have no mastery there. But I had no real desire to speak to anyone in a foreign language; I wanted to hoard those words and elegant structures, to visit them alone and enjoy their multitude. I have new ideas about why I looked into foreign language. I feel often that there’s a barrier between me and the world; in conversations or lectures I struggle to understand what’s happening. The barrier exists in relationships too, and that’s as big a problem as it would seem. I went to other languages to try and find a window. I’ve described what I feel as a learning disability, but that’s probably not right. What I mean is that life comes at me in gibberish. Writing is the activity of making sense of ideas and objects and conversations, making constellations of a field of bright points.

*     *     *

I am trying to understand my life. The MFA was a question I asked myself: What if you do the thing you love? What could happen? It’s expensive, for one thing. But the biggest problem is that I might be bad at writing, and that would devastate me. So I suppose what one needs, what I need, (though I may try to avoid it) is the courage to be bad at writing. I’m happy to say that I every day I get better at writing poorly. And then one out of every twenty or so sentences will please me very much. For at least twenty minutes.

What else could happen, if I keep this project going? The world might start to connect; the people and things might take shape. The little letters sit side by side, they are arranged into lines. They start and stop. They bulk into paragraphs they lengthen to pages. I figure out how to live. And that seems like a salient reason not to quit.

Katelyn: here is your blog, but it’s more of an exhortation. We should not let ourselves off the hook. Let’s go forward even when we’re tired and full of doubt. One in every twenty sentences will be a real beauty.

 

Mary Birnbaum is the Lunch Ticket blog editor and editor of the Diana Woods Memorial Award in Nonfiction. She studies creative nonfiction in the Antioch LA MFA Program. She resides in San Diego, California. You can find her on Twitter @ailishbirnbaum

Writers Read: Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth by Warsan Shire

Book CoverThere is a real casual ease by which the poems in Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth present themselves. They are not struggling to find a voice, but are grounded firmly in their style and language. This little chapbook feels solid, weighty, and Shire does a fine job of creating consistency in such a short amount of space. Particularly, her poetry in this small chapbook is marked by a strong sense of narrative, clear scene work, fresh body imagery, and a thematic consistency around femininity.

Though the chapbook is bookended by two very short poems, most of the pieces include distinct things happening to distinct characters in distinct places. For instance, in the second poem, “Your Mother’s First Kiss”, in four quatrains we move through four scenes, dislocated in time. The first is clear: “she remembers hearing this/ from your uncle, then going to your bedroom and lying/ down on the floor. You were at school.” Then the second, “Your mother was sixteen when he first kissed her.” The third, “the friend laughed, mouth bloody with grapes,/ then plunged a hand between your mother’s legs.” And the final quatrain: “Last week, she saw him driving the number 18 bus” (8). Shire builds a small narrative of rape and its consequences rolling out through time on the mother’s life in 16 lines.

Warsan Shire

Warsan Shire

On page 11, the poem “Grandfather’s Hands” also really plays into one of Shire’s strengths: talking about/to the body. We have nine stanzas, couplets and triplets mixed, and each one includes a close-up on the grandfather or grandmother’s body. We move from knuckles being kissed, fingers tracing shapes in a palm, wet fingers dragging across the soft flesh of his wrist—“Some nights his thumb is the moon/ nestled just under her rib.” Though the zooming in is unrelenting, the poem is also relaxed, intimate. If any of these poems called itself into being with indifference to its author, it was this one.

“Grandfather’s Hands” and “Your Mother’s First Kiss” are only two examples of many, and with this hyper focus on body imagery and scene building, Shire seems at once to ground and transcend her usual themes—ground them because the reader’s body is being activated, spoken to so directly. Your wrist feels the wet lips, your palm the tracing, your mouth aches to bite something. But the poem also transcends, draws your attention above themes of innocence or violence or the oppressiveness of patriarchal authority.

Shire, Warsan. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. flipped eye publishing limited; Mouthmark edition, 2011.

Joshua RoarkJoshua Roark is a poet living in Los Angeles, graduating with his MFA from Antioch in 2017. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Frontier Poetry. His poetry has been published in 4th & Sycamore, 3 Elements Review, and others.

Word from the Editor

“Every creature on earth has approximately two billion heartbeats to spend in a lifetime. You can spend them slowly, like a tortoise and live to be two hundred years old, or you can spend them fast, like a hummingbird, and live to be two years old,” wrote Brian Doyle in “Joyas Voladoras.” His recent death left my heart weary, in this year, this season, this month that had already delivered so much sorrow. May 2017: we mourned for Richard Collins, and then for Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and Rick Best, three men murdered by white supremacists—homegrown terrorists. We memorialized wordsmiths Doyle and Denis Johnson, each gone too soon from cancer. We grieved the events in Manchester and Kabul, and remembered so many—too many—who didn’t live all of their two billion heartbeats. Doyle’s passing at the end of a particularly brutal week left me in despair. I knew him only through his words. So I turned to my community of writers with his words resonant in me: “We all churn inside.”

Reading earlier “Words from the Editor” in our archives, I revisited our responses to contentious elections, to white supremacy and terrorism in our streets, in our churches, in our institutions of higher learning. We, the collective we of Lunch Ticket, have been here for five years and eleven issues shining light into as many dark corners as we can find. Our community of forty volunteer graduate students shares a commitment to social justice, a commitment to speaking up. We grieve but we write. And here we are again, publishing art and writing in a version of the United States of America that seemed impossible before the 2016 election illuminated the depths of our darkness. Through our pain in the dawn of this 2017 reality, we came together with language to resist the call of the post-truth sirens; to bring you this issue.

Within Lunch Ticket Issue 11: Summer/Fall 2017 are seventy-seven works we are honored to share with the world. This issue’s essay section confronts the myth of a post-racial America. Featured essayist Amber Wong revisits the question she posed in Issue 10: “Are We There Yet?” Spoiler alert: we’re not. In “The Heavy Bag,” she shares her feelings of isolation and visibility as “the only minority—in a sea of white” that is Seattle. In “Ambivalence,” young writer and activist Ty Kia writes of casual racism in the Midwest: “no amount of privilege will rescue you from the stereotypes your complexion conjures in others.” And Californian Caesar Kent writes of the “correlation between Mexican men and crime—or, at least, convictions that put callused brown hands to work” in his flash essay “Weekend Work Program.”

Many of the pieces in this issue explore questions of diversity. In our Lunch Special, Lunch Ticket staff blogger Angela Bullock discusses Negroland with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Margo Jefferson. Jefferson says, “One of the many barriers for black people has always been the imposition of simplification, stereotypes, assumptions, even definitions of what the best kind of black person is or what a real black person is.” In conversation with our creative nonfiction editor and blogger Meredith Arena, writer and teacher Geeta Kothari discusses “the other” in fiction. Newbery Medal-winning author Matt de la Peña, interviewed here by YA assistant editor and blogger Kim Sabin, describes a new diversity and the importance of young people seeing themselves on the page. And in our featured interview, author and translator Katrina Dodson speaks with Gabo Prize and translation editor Lauren Kinney, lamenting the necessity of defending literature’s usefulness in this divided world: “Obviously this is important for humanity, thinking about our own interior experiences and how they bump up against other people’s interior and exterior experiences, so I always feel tired out by the weak position of literature and always having to defend it in this capitalist society, or usefulness-driven society.”

Our narratives counter American myths. From our features come explorations of identity: in both “Arroz y Dulce,” fiction by Rebecca Komathy, and “Scented Brains,” YA fiction by Scarlet Jones, two young narrators face the challenges of biracial identities. In creative nonfiction, Sossity Chiricuzio’s memoir excerpt explores growing up poor and queer in the American West. Nancy Au’s flash fiction, “She Is a Battleground,” is about an old woman finding her voice. N’kenge Feagin writes with “powerful imagery” and “subtle humor” paired with “devastating self-awareness” in her Diana Woods Memorial Award-winning essay, “Dead Daddies and White Castles.” Gabo Prize-winning translator Anne Gutt brings “alive for us the strange and magical world” found in Ukrainian poet Ganna Shevchenko’s “Quotidian Blues.”

Within these pages are voices from around the world, from writers and artists of many colors and genders and ages—from many identities—from Nigeria to El Salvador to Iraq to India, from eerily dystopian to satirical to heartbreakingly real. Our translation pieces originate in French, Spanish, Italian, Urdu, Chinese, and Farsi. The voices are urgent: torrin a. greathouse searches “for porn with bodies like mine / that are not made fetish” in their poetry; Tiffane Levick’s translation excerpt of Emmanuel Adely’s powerhouse multi-POV novel looks unflinchingly at the never-ending war in Afghanistan: “making blood run to defend the free world that is why they are here why they are hot why they are sweating why they are tense why they are concentrating why they are preparing;” visual artist Mellissa Redman’s portfolio seeks “to make the hidden external, to depict how swallowed fears and anxieties would appear if made tangible and visible.”

At Lunch Ticket our mission includes a call to engage with issues of social, economic, and environmental justice. As we celebrate Issue 11 with you, we also prepare to launch Issue 12’s production team. We have re-committed ourselves to our mission, and will have some exciting projects to share with you soon. Our torch stays lit. When you read our journal please share in our passion—fresh literary and visual art balanced with conversations about social justice and community activism—by telling others about us.

“So much held in a heart in a lifetime,” Doyle writes. “So much held in a heart in a day, an hour, a moment.” Take heart in your community and thank you for sharing in ours.

Katelyn Keating

King: A Street Story

Writers Read: King: A Street Story by John Berger

King: A Street StoryThe blurb for the paperback printing of King reveals the title character, our narrator, is canine. But John Berger blurs species lines in this poignant tale of twenty-four hours in the life of the marginalized inhabitants of a French homeless camp. With Berger’s spare, lyric prose, King is granted first person point of view. He serves as empathetic witness to the central human characters, Vico and Vica, and the other members of their encampment. King is more than a silent companion: he speaks and is understood by the humans in his group, though not by outsiders. This is not a dystopic conceit by Berger—he does not world-build to explain how King communicates with the homeless. It is simply so. Throughout the novel, Berger leaves space for us to interpret as we will; King might be canine or human. Never heavy-handed or moralistic, the real truth in King is that the discarded of all species are observed as less than, as other, as one species to look away from.

Berger opens in Saint Valery, the homeless encampment built in a dump: “There are no words for what makes up the wasteland because everything on it is smashed and has been thrown away, and for most fragments there are no proper names” (King 6). The residents of Saint Valery are robbed even of language. In fact, King observes that Vico “has read thousands of books in his life, and here he reads no more. To read, a man needs to love himself, not much but a little” (King 12). On the one hand, King’s consciousness is beyond what contemporary science and humanity are willing to attribute to dogs. But on the other, true to his canine narrator, Berger never reveals the type of details that a dog wouldn’t know, like what year the action is set in, or what the historical or political significance might be for King’s particular group of companions to be living homeless in Saint Valery.

Berger’s 1977 essay, “Why Look at Animals?,” gives us access to his critical lens, how he sees the marginalized as represented in nonhuman animals. As part of the collection, About Looking, this essay explores the human-animal gaze among other concepts:

The eyes of an animal when they consider a man are attentive and wary. The same animal may well look at other species in the same way. He does not reserve a special look for man. But by no other species except man will the animal’s look be recognised as familiar. Other animals are held by the look. Man becomes aware of himself returning the look. (4-5)

Throughout King, our narrator is looking. King attributes canine characteristics to the humans around him: “the pointed face of a fell hound” (King 12), “young terrier eyes” (King 20), “the eyes of a Great Dane” (King 44); whether canine or human, this is King’s way of seeing, and Berger’s trail of breadcrumbs to the closing scenes.

Berger wants his readers to decide King’s species for ourselves, if it matters to us. Our narrator licks, barks, and growls. He also admits, “I have a strange way of talking, for I’m not sure who I am. Many things conspire to take a name away. The name dies and even the pain suffered doesn’t belong to it anymore” (King 59). Later in the text, when King explains “how names can be wrong” and that “men aren’t strong at naming”(King 79), this is Berger muddying division between human and canine. The correct name may just be marginalized. When King observes humanity observing him and Vico and Vica, he explains: “The passerby see three more plague victims. Deep down everybody knows that nobody is telling the truth about this plague. Nobody knows whom it selects and how. And so everywhere there is fear of infection” (King 115). The inoculation against homelessness is to avert the gaze.

John Berger

Toward the end of the novel, King’s human companions begin to morph into dogs, as the encampment at Saint Valery is destroyed by authority in the spotlight glare of a bulldozer. The characters begin to bark. King explains: “A bark is a voice which breaks out of a bottle saying: I’m here. The bottle is silence. The silence is broken, the bark announces: I’m here” (King 185). As King leads them to safety, the characters formerly understood to be human are now described as a terrier, a spitz, a xolo; a “wild pack of running barking dogs” (King 187). And then King realizes he is alone: “All this I believed until we reached the river… I looked back for the first time and found there was nobody behind me” (King 188).

The marginalized other—human, canine, blurred—is alone within community and then ultimately alone. It doesn’t matter if King is a dog or a man. Or if Vico and Vica and the others are human or canine. They are all the dogs of society, living in the “Age of Dogs” (King 148), the last period of civilization. Arguably, a civilization already irreparable as seen through Berger’s lens. The epigraph to King is telling: a couplet from a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca, translated to the English as, “and a horizon of dogs barked very far from the river.” Berger’s characters are our dogs, voiceless, nameless, and very far from the river of life.

Berger, John. King: A Street Story. 1st Vintage International ed., Vintage, 2000.

—. “Why Look At Animals?” About Looking. 1st Vintage International ed., Vintage, 1991, pp. 3-28.

Katelyn KeatingKatelyn Keating serves as Editor-in-Chief of Lunch Ticket, where she formerly edited the Diana Woods Memorial Award and the nonfiction genre, and wrote essays as a staff blogger. She’ll earn an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles in 2017. Hailing from New England, she lives in St. Augustine, Florida, with her husband, two dogs, three cats, and several of her parents. She concurs with Agent Mulder regarding the location of the truth. Her work is forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review and the anthology, What I Found in Florida [U Press of FL, 2018]. Follow her on Twitter @katelyn_keating.

 

Let’s Put on a Play

In Ross Gay’s poem, To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian, a group of pedestrians spontaneously gather around a fig tree and begin to savor the figs together. “Strangers maybe never again,” Gay writes. I think about this poem often; how good it makes me feel when I read it aloud. I love the image of the community spontaneously forming on the sidewalk. It is a feeling of safety and joy that I work to cultivate throughout my life.

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In 2009, I am thirty-three and working with a group of fifth and sixth graders. Our daily class begins at 3 p.m. when they are explosive. They are sometimes angry at each other or their teachers or at the unfairness inherent in being a child inside a school building. This frenzy is how their bored confusion manifests at the end of a school day. The anger sometimes turns to tantrum, a form of acting out/testing boundaries. They mock one another with glee and are easily hung up on any provocation, silliness or tangent. They love to waste time by asking nonsense questions and playing around. I often sit through this and engage them, allowing one to throw himself on the floor and spin around, or listening to an argument about who did what to whom. I try to be present for them and to engage them in some critical conversation, or distract them with the day’s planned activity. We spend the afternoon working on our mask-making project, practicing the skill of being part of a creative community. By the end of the day, they have relaxed and hopefully feel good about their work.

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Creative communities have made me who I am today: a person, an artist, who wants to nourish and mentor healthy happy communities of youth. Funding for creative communities often comes from NEA, NEH, or 21st Century Learning, which the new national budget seeks to butcher or eliminate.

Trump’s budget cuts show how little he cares for the safe development of children, not just the children he openly despises—brown, black, immigrant—but all children, because all children benefit from the programs that will be cut. According to The Washington Post, in 2016, the NEA and NEH each received about 0.003% of the overall federal budget. This money funds a vast array of programs all over the country.

Take the Arts Education Partnership for example, which works so that, “by the year 2020, every young person in America, at every grade level, will have equitable access to high quality arts learning opportunities, both during the school day and out-of-school time.”

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I am five years old in a Montessori classroom. I get to choose whether I want to play with blocks, read, or play outside. I play with other children in an unstructured way.

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I am seven years old. Both my parents work. My cousins and I attend YMCA summer camp in Staten Island. We play outside. We swim. We put on plays every single day.

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I am ten years old. On the weekends and some weekdays, I attend rehearsals for community theater. I fit in here more than I do with kids in my elementary and later, middle schools. I laugh, play, memorize lines and am mentored by older kids and full grown adults. I make friends that I still know thirty years later.

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I am thirteen years old, attending LaGuardia High School for the performing Arts, a magnet school where I meet kids from all over New York City. We rehearse for five months of senior year for our final productions. Over that time, the cast and crew members of each production become tight-knit caring communities.

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I am nineteen in a study abroad program. The twenty students are an unlikely community from all over the United States. Throughout the year, we visit communities throughout Mexico to learn about their activism. I learn about myself and relating to others, and to speak Spanish. I bring this learning into all my future work environments.

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Twenty-five years old to present, I work as a teaching artist in after-school programs that are free for students in New York City and Seattle. Most programs I have worked with are connected to public schools. Parents are grateful that their kids have a place to go while they are at work. They report that their children love the programs. I watch students grow emotionally, creatively and academically through participating in a variety of artistic disciplines. Most of the students I work with are poor or working class. Over half are immigrants or children of immigrants. I know that these programs exist all over the country and all over the country, they serve poor and working class students and families.

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I am enrolled in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angles and I serve as Creative Nonfiction editor of this journal. These writing communities help me to feel connected and encourage me throughout each semester. Coming together twice a year for residencies is challenging. We don’t all know each other and, even though we are all writers, we are very different types of people; but ultimately, I come away from each residency feeling very full. Ready.

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Every moment of teaching is like a new experiment with the guiding question, who can I be in this world? Much of any student’s reactionary behavior is based in the assumption: “I cannot be anything in this world.” Our culture doesn’t seem to give students much choice beyond what they see on television—depictions of people who look like them portrayed by racist media. They see self-worth associated with money, power and violence.

That time, between 3 and 6 p.m. is when we help them experiment with who they can and might be. This describes many of the programs I have taught in. What my colleagues and I do is create a safe community for youth to be themselves, to create and to think critically. After-school programs range from arts to academics to sports to pure daycare. Every program I have worked in has nurtured a community among students. It is no wonder I have chosen to return to these environments. They contain the elements that nurtured me from an early age, starting with Montessori school.

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Because big city museums and art organizations often have multiple funding sources, including large corporations and trendy local businesses, the arts in rural areas will be more sharply affected by the NEA cuts. According to a Quartz article, “cutting federal support for the arts will have the greatest impact in rural areas and on the vast swath of America that sits between its coasts.”

I once attended a 21st Century Learning conference in Albany, NY. Most of the after-school providers were from New York City, with some from rural areas in New York State. On panels and in private conversations, they shared how their youth lacked enrichment activities and how funding was too short to serve all the youth who needed to be engaged. Coming from the city, this was a new perspective for me. Arts education has been my anchor for as long as I can remember. Rural areas might not have the plethora of opportunities that I took for granted, that have helped me to grow throughout my life.

The cuts to 21st Century Learning, which serves children in all 50 states—over one hundred thousand in Texas alone—are devastating. According to an article in Youth Today, “Thousands of after-school programs serving low-income kids across the country could sink or be injured.”

Combined cuts to NEA and DOE will directly and indirectly affect hundreds of thousands of children throughout the country. Here is an example from LA in The Daily News:

L.A.’s Best… organizes after-school programs for about 25,000 kids in Los Angeles, serving them snacks, involving them in activities and helping with homework. Eric Gurna, president and CEO of the organization, which is housed in the Mayor’s Office, said L.A.’s Best could be affected indirectly by cuts in federal arts funding, after it passes through the state.

Oh right. that’s another thing. Almost every afterschool program feeds children.

It feels important to mention that the NEA also funds programs like Creative Forces, which works with the Military Healing Arts Network to:

… place creative arts therapies at the core of patient-centered care at 11 clinical sites throughout the country, plus a telehealth program, and increases access to therapeutic arts activities in local communities for military members, veterans, and their families. These programs serve the unique and special needs of military patients who have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury and psychological health conditions.

So while the proposed budget increases military spending, it cuts the programs that have proven beneficial to veterans, which reveals a type of violence underlying the new proposed budget.

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As a young person, I was privileged to be surrounded by opportunities to be part of creative communities. My priorities in life are a result: I want youth to have lots of opportunities. I am angry and I want more than simply to fight against these cuts. I want our communities to be represented by a government that puts people over profit. The goals of capitalism are at odds with our well-being. This was true before Trump and it is true now. I do not want the funding to be cut, but if our communities will not be funded, we will work to keep them thriving.

In a talk at Antioch University Los Angeles in 2016, the poet Fred Moten told us that “sharing is way more complicated and interesting than killing.” I think about this now in light of brutal cuts to arts funding, how they seek to injure the idea of community. “My poetry is concerned with what we do,” he said, as opposed to what the oppressors are doing. What we do is share, not kill, and that is where we need to hold our focus, not on their violence, but on our love. I am using this to guide me, both in my objection to the budget cuts, but also in my future actions.

I am not sure why Ross Gay’s words return to me now. Perhaps because I typed an expletive before the name Trump and then deleted it­­ because this is about what WE do. This is about us and our “gleeful eating out of each other’s hands.”

That is where I want to take this. Let’s go to the fig tree. Let’s eat and talk and work though our differences, and then let’s put on a play.

 

Meredith ArenaMeredith Arena is from New York City and resides in Seattle where she works as a teaching artist in the public schools and facilitates meditation for adults. She is a student in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. She is a Creative Nonfiction Editor on Lunch Ticket. Her work has appeared in Entropy, Lunch Ticket and SHIFT Queer Literary Arts Journal.