Writers Read: Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions is indeed an essay responding to the absurdity of 40 certain inquiries. Yet, it is much more than that. The “tell me how it ends” refrain quotes a plaintive request from Luiselli’s daughter, who was five years old when Luiselli served as a volunteer translator for an immigration law non-profit in New York. The non-profit took the cases of undocumented immigrant children pro bono, as floods of children escaping gang violence and trafficking in Central and South America arrived in the United States. Luiselli wrote the book as a reaction to this refugee crisis, weaving her stories around the 40 questions required by US Customs and Immigration to be asked of unaccompanied migrant children, many of whom have suffered severe trauma and loss.

Tell Me How It Ends is a case study of this crisis. It is also a case study of education at work—Luiselli’s class in Advanced Spanish Conversation at Hofstra University begins discussing the influx of children at the US-Mexico border, vowing to help the undocumented teenagers now living in the US in constructive and sustainable ways. Tell Me How It Ends is also a tender, personal, and funny story about a rough-around-the-edges Honduran boy, the first child Luiselli met in her volunteer translation work.

One can imagine Luiselli’s early drafts, wrought with dismay and helplessness. The final essay wrings its hands with the same distraught tone, but tinged with hope—Luiselli’s call to action was heard not only by her university students but by non-profits willing to take on children’s cases pro bono. But, as we all know from recent media coverage, the Trump administration has not relented in its commitment to making life for migrant children as difficult as possible. This engrained racism, reflected by ever-more stringent immigration policies, is a clear symptom of the current administration’s lack of understanding of the US’s complicit role in this refugee crisis.

Throughout the book, Luiselli makes neat categorization of an often unclear situation. The essay comprises four subsections: “Border,” “Court,” “Home,” and “Community.” The 40 questions are interspersed in the essay, between Luiselli’s incisive observations and harrowing depictions of the typical child migrant experience aboard La Bestia—literally “The Beast,” a cross-country network of Mexican freight trains that fleeing underage refugees often use to
traverse Mexico more quickly on their way to the US.

These migrant children, usually fleeing gang violence in their home countries, often face graver dangers on their journeys to the border—robberies, rapes and other violent crimes, kidnappings, and extortions. The scenes Luiselli depicts left me in tears as I read the book in late September, just as the current caravan of migrants, most of whom are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, began gathering to seek asylum in the US.

Luiselli also weaves these children’s stories with her own path to legal citizenship; she waited several long years for her and her family’s green cards while writing the book and volunteer-translating. Luiselli could not legally work in the country, ironic given that her role as a writer enriches the lives and minds of her US-based students. So instead, she volunteered. As the Trump administration continues to ratchet its fear-mongering in the media regarding migrant caravans, I keep thinking of the migrant teenagers Luiselli describes, one in particular who walked the dry, hot plains of New Mexico for hours before two US Border Patrol officers mercifully found and detained him, providing him with life-saving water. I wonder if that would have happened had he traveled in a large group, with the protection of a common cause, the potential presence of relatives, and the ability to forge connections and make friends on the road—a strength in numbers. Migrating people are safer in caravans.

The haunting tale of the first refugee Luiselli met as part of her volunteer translation work winds through the essay. After the teen’s best friend dies in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, shot by members of the now-infamous Barrio 18 gang, the teen fled to the US, aided by his aunt, who hired a coyote—a paid guide who leads unaccompanied minors to the border—to guide him north. Luiselli recounts his response to questions 35 and 36 of the unaccompanied minor intake questionnaire, which ask if the child or his family experienced any problems with the government in their home country, and if so, what happened. The teen shows her the copy of the police report he filed in Honduras against the gang, after the murder of his best friend. The police never did anything, and the teen promised his aunt he would not leave the house until he was able to leave the country for good. He wasn’t able to attend his friend’s funeral. Cue my second crying jag in less than one hundred pages.

Valeria Luiselli

For this reader, Luiselli’s essay shook the bedrock of my humanitarian core. Drug consumption in the US “is what fundamentally fuels drug trafficking in the continent” (85), Luiselli writes, referring to the drug circuit and its many wars as a “hemispheric war” (86)—“one that begins in the Great Lakes of the United States and ends in the mountains of Celaque in southern Honduras” (86). If the involved governments would acknowledge the hemispheric problem and connections between drug wars, gangs, arms trafficking, drug use, and the massive migration of children, Luiselli writes, maybe authorities would rethink the language surrounding these problems and devise potential solutions.

“No one, or almost no one, from producers to consumers, is willing to accept their role in the great theater of devastation of these children’s lives,” (86) Luiselli writes. “… A ‘war refugee’ is bad news and an uncomfortable truth for governments, because it obliges them to deal with the problem instead of simply ‘removing the illegal aliens’” (87). Finally, some major media outlets, albeit more than a year after the publication of Tell Me How It Ends, have begun examining the US’s economic and drug control policies and pointing at these policies as at least partially responsible for the refugee crisis and the ensuing, asylum-seeking caravans. The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, VICE, and The Guardian all published articles to this tune—addressing the US’s problematic drug control in connection with fleeing refugees—in the past two months.

Going forward, my only concern about the US-Mexico border is our all-encompassing, collective obligation to our planet’s children. Like Luiselli’s daughter, though, I want to know how it ends. Do these children ever make it to relative safety? Do US policies change? What the hell is taking so long? Perhaps if more people read this book—more fully understand the need for the US to acknowledge its responsibility in the migrant crisis—those children at last will be safe.

Luiselli, Valeria. Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. Minneapolis: Coffee House
Press. 2017.

 

E.P. Floyd is lead blog editor and weekly content manager for Lunch Ticket, and an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Lunch TicketLitbreak Magazine, Reservoir, and BusinessWeek. She is at work on a novel and short story collection and lives in rural Wisconsin. Find her online at epfloyd.com.

Nicolas Poynter, Avenida Juárez #2, 2017, Medium digital image, 12” x 12”

Spotlight: Cicatrices (Mexico City After the Earthquake)

It wasn’t just the one earthquake. It was the one before it as well, which woke me from a sound sleep. The curtains were swinging as if there was a breeze but moving the wrong way, side-to-side, and then I remembered that I kept the windows closed at night because of the mosquitoes. I heard the doorman screaming and that must have got me going […]

À La Carte: bifurcatin’ blues

Ma Rainey on my parade,
anyday. Wear suits to that rodeo
and yield it your birthing hips.

Sway ‘em on stage and own the gaze
of them who owned you. Heaven
can’t be white when you are nutmeg
ground for God. Speak easy to me

and rest real hard, tomorrow will be
another long one. I say hi to the ladies
and I love my thighs in loving theirs.
I walk my way home open,

because there are two alleys and I took
them both, I swallowed them up.

They said nobody could eat a street,
but look at me, I did.

 


Koby L. Omansky is a writer whose work has been published in FIVE:2:ONE, Moonsick Magazine, anthologies by Thoughtcrime Press and Platypus Press, and more. She works in youth advocacy in Brooklyn.

Litdish: Jody Chan, Poet

Jody Chan is a writer and organizer based in Tkaronto/Toronto. They are the poetry editor for Hematopoeisis, a 2017 VONA alum, and the 2018 winner of the Third Coast Poetry Contest, selected by Sarah Kay. Their first chapbook is forthcoming in 2018 with Damaged Goods Press, and their poetry is published in BOAAT, Looseleaf Magazine, Nat. Brut, The Shade Journal, and elsewhere. They can be found online at https://www.jodychan.com/ and offline in bookstores or dog parks.

1. Tell us a little about your writing process—how often you write, what your desk is like, etc. Do you still write in longhand? Quiet? Music?

I write in snatches: while riding the subway, in my head while biking (this is sometimes dangerous), during my lunch break at work, on my phone in the washroom. Everything my senses run into is a potential prompt—and then the ideas get captured in an ever-growing stash of phone notes. It doesn’t work for me to set goals for frequency, like writing every day or even every other day. It makes me beat up on myself too hard when I don’t meet my own goal, and then writing becomes a guilty obligation instead of something I get to look forward to.

2. Do you consider yourself classically trained? Are you influenced by a certain group of poets? Language poets in particular?

My writing education has come from attending workshops with VONA, The Speakeasy Project, and Winter Tangerine; I have been most heavily influenced by those teachers (Danez Smith, Luther Hughes, Yasmin Belkhyr, jayy dodd) whose lessons I carry with me into every poem. My work also looks to queer poets of colour like Franny Choi, Chen Chen, Angel Nafis, Hieu Minh Nguyen, Natalie Diaz, and Fatimah Asghar who address themes of intergenerational trauma, queer identity, and queer joy. My writing often wrestles with questions about language—its openings, its limitations, how it can be used as an instrument to create meaning. Sometimes, though, I do want language to take an unobtrusive backseat to the image or the narrative in my poems.

3. You experiment quite a bit in your writing (I absolutely love the new addition to your website— “Superstitions”) using Chinese characters and composition by field. Why? Do you gain freedom of expression this way?

 I usually make choices about form based on each individual poem, and what I think would serve the content best. In the case of “superstitions,” I wanted the form to convey the breathless, weighty accumulation of beliefs and exhortations that I have received from my family. Using punctuation would have given me, and the reader, too much space to rest, and time to filter these received superstitions through a lens of “common sense” or judgment. I use Chinese characters in many of my poems as an active refusal to translate for a white audience; when I use phonetic translations of spoken Cantonese, I don’t italicize them for the same reason. My poems often speak directly to people (my mother, most frequently) with whom I would naturally use Cantonese to communicate. This is all complicated by the fact that Cantonese is a language I don’t know how to read very well, and can’t write at all—which means that I myself was only able to get there through Google Translator. I know a lot of diasporic kids, like me, who feel shame about not knowing their own language; so in some ways, my poetic choices are a defense against my own shame as well.

4. What do you consider to be a “good day of writing” in your world?

The meaning of a “good day of writing” depends on what I’m working on at the time. With some poems, a whole draft might emerge in one sitting. Others struggle much harder and more slowly, in which case unearthing a single solid line or image might feel really good. There are other activities—like reading a new book of poetry, or adding words to my word bank, or listening to a podcast interview of a brilliant poet—that I consider poetic exercising, and can define amazing writing days on their own.

5. What does your editing process look like? Are you part of a writer’s group? Do you workshop pieces with trusted friends…etc?

I have a few trusty editing exercises that I put all my pieces through. For example, I circle all the verbs in one colour and all the nouns in another, to make sure each one is pulling its weight. I read it out loud, and cut one quarter of the lines. I tend to hold onto all my drafts in the same document, so I can see how the poem has evolved over time. My baby first drafts go to my writing group, which is made up of two trusted friends. We meet monthly to workshop pieces across the genres of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Our feedback does focus on craft, but it is also holistic and human: we celebrate each other’s achievements and lift each other up.

6. Inspiration? What inspires you to pick up your pen?

One of the main engines of my work is obsession. I find it difficult to write when I am not actively obsessed with something—which, thankfully, isn’t very often (as my browser tabs can attest). Once, I spent two hours watching a giant Pacific octopus breathe in the corner of its tank at the Seattle Aquarium for a poem about parenting and captivity. Once, I dug up twenty-year-old Internet forums speculating on the cause of death for Teresa Teng, a beloved Taiwanese singer—conversations that ended up informing a series of poems about her life and personal and political impact. I’ve found that my obsessions are ways into talking about the themes that propel my work: sickness and sexuality, trauma and joy, family and community.

7. What would you like for your poetry to accomplish?

I believe that all art is political. I have a responsibility as an artist to continually orient my work in relationship with movements fighting for justice. I want my voice to weave together my mother tongue (English) and my mother’s tongue (Cantonese), to weave spells of care and safety for my blood and chosen kin, who are the people I want my work to have meaning for. I think every poem can have a different purpose: sometimes, a poem wants to be angry, smash windows. Sometimes, it wants to be a deep breath of refuge in between bouts of yelling and chanting at rallies to denounce a racist, colonial government. Other times, a poem is a crystallized moment of joy between friends at a dance party. But I hope for all of my poems to be in service of my people.

8. How important is language to an aspiring poet? What are your words of encouragement to someone who is learning to write?

I’ll only speak for myself, but I think that I’m a poet because I believe in the power of language: what it can do for us, between us. And that includes both violence and healing. At the end of the day, I also love language and try not to take it for granted. I have fun seeing what rules I can subvert. The advice I want to pass on is advice that I’ve received, over and over, from some of my own teachers: you have to let go of your expectations, let go of the (capitalist, ableist) pressure to produce something every time you sit down to write. Just write. A lot of us are always thinking about the people or communities we’re writing for. This shift was life-changing for me. I don’t write about things that don’t matter to me, and that can feel weighty enough, without also demanding that my every attempt at art goes somewhere, or that it always be intentional.

9. How often do you venture out to writing circles/readings? How important is it for poets to be part of a writing community?

I never go to as many in-person writing circles or readings as I think I should. I tend to cultivate writing community in a less organized way, but there’s no such thing as art in isolation; I wouldn’t be able to do any of my work without my ties to community. My people are the ones I write for, and they’re the ones who take care of me so I can write. I’ve also been amazingly lucky to build relationships with so many folks through online and offline writing workshops like VONA and Winter Tangerine—many of whom don’t live anywhere near me, but who continue to support and love on each other’s work constantly.

10. How do sensitive issues make themselves known in your work? Your poem “Telling my Mother I’m not Her Daughter” is excruciatingly beautiful… “meaning sometimes I want to be a wall / & sometimes a pillow / 阿媽 / do you understand? / I do not want to be a woman / because I am not / a woman / hold up a mirror / every time / your body / dismantles / its own shell / & finds / the imprint / of an invisible yoke / 媽 / I burrow these questions / through my skin /”   These issues are not for the faint of heart…but there they are, twinkling like stars between the lines….  How do you do this?

Thank you for saying that! I don’t think I make conscious decisions to pursue “sensitive issues,” per se. I just don’t shy away from the aspects that make us whole people with complicated relationships. Everything worth writing about is at least a little bit scary; there’s always risk involved in naming something true. I often think through writing. There are things I’ve written about that I never articulated before they came out in a poem, and then I came to understand my own feelings, or a new perspective on a familiar wound, through the poem. I think the bigger challenge is navigating the line between what feels like exploiting trauma (mine, others’) for artistic credibility with white audiences, and what feels more like being honest about experiences of pain and oppression. At those times, I think about the fact that I am both an individual and part of a collective, and thus hold part of a collective responsibility for the people around me. How can I write about shared trauma and grief in a way that heals, or bears witness, without doing further harm to my communities?

 

Janet Rodriguez is an author, blogger, teacher, and editor living in Sacramento with her husband, extended family, three dogs, and one cat.  In the United States, her work has appeared in Salon, American River Review, Greensleeves, Calaveras Station, and Sacramento Family Resource Guide.  Rodriguez has also had essays, stories and two biographies published in South Africa.

Her writing usually examines identity and morality in faith communities, as well as the mixed-race experience in a culturally binary world. Currently she is a Cardinal cohort at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she serves the magazine, Lunch Ticket, where a bunch of younger nerds keep her on her toes.

À La Carte: Olam haBa

I’ve been awake so long that my computer
illuminates the wet of its reservoir
with a whisper:

The last time I was out on a Friday night I was
taking transit on shabbos.
It’s against halacha to kill yourself
so I’m waiting for Masada,
praying for a neighbour to pick my name–

To bleed out into sand,
a bone-red body dragged to Jerusalem.

But this is fine, this is close enough;
Thornhill will do.

The buildings dressed and minced as G-d-kept gates—

the synagogue down the street; the high school I avoided because I hated Jewish Girls my
age. The convenience store I still visit when I’m really fucking high.

Don’t separate me from the earth
(but please don’t make me leave my room
or make me get dressed).

Will this third beer cure me?
Hunched-over, asking in the language of
knotted and tired DNA,
What remains of my family?

I will not lift myself from this bed
until you beg for my forgiveness.

 

Syd Lazarus is a 24-year-old queer, non-binary, Jewish, Torontonian with a passion for making anti-oppression based art. Graduated from Ryerson University with a BFA in film, they are currently working on co-writing and co-directing a horror-comedy about Horse Girls. Their writing has been exhibited in Shameless Mag, McClung’s, and The Eyeopener. They can be found taking cute selfies and posting art at @lazaruswitch on Instagram.

Writers Read: Wilder by Claire Wahmanholm

Claire Wahmanholm’s debut poetry collection Wilder at times feels like a bedtime story, full of ghostlike beings, ash-blanketed landscapes, corpse-flowers, and Cassandran prophecies echoing through it all. That might sound enchanting and more than a little spooky, but quickly things feel uncomfortably familiar. Isn’t this our world? Are those our voices? Or worse, those of the children we claim to love? In other words, Wilder is the kind of story that will keep you up at night, with the creeping notion that it isn’t just a story.

Wilder takes its title from the archaic root word of bewilderment (pronounced as it sounds at the end of “bewilder”) and Walhmanholm opens the book with the word’s definition: “1. To cause to lose one’s way, as in a wild or unknown place; to lead or
drive astray; 2. To render, or become, wild or uncivilized.”

Despite the title, the reader is set up to be quite oriented. The stage is set by introducing us to the speakers, who are described first in an epigraph by Auden: “children afraid of the night” who’ve become “lost in a haunted wood.” Wahmanholm continues: “whose eyes have never really opened” and “whose sockets grow tall bitter stalks/ that sprout small bitter buds/ that crawl with aphids.” (1).

These “children” retell the saga of the world’s end. In “Advent” some lines appear on page seven that already feel uncomfortably close to home:

When our ears began to ache from the pressure,
we sent out our augurs.
 
A great fire, they said,
is blowing from the east.”

I read those lines in the abnormal light of Sun choking through wildfire smoke: a curtain thrown across California by the most destructive fire in the state’s history (this due primarily to uncharacteristically severe temperatures and drought.) The fact is, whether literally or metaphorically, every reader of this book will do so in the light of the fires of climate change. “Advent” turns its attention away from the “we” and toward other beings affected, such as plants and animals:

We were out of songs to hum. Our throats were boxes
            Of soot. In our orchards, no more insect thrum,
            no swallow quaver.” (8)

The children here sound a bit like the voices the artist Anohni inhabits in her song “4 Degrees,” where she begs through an eerily bombastic stadium-ready anthem, to burn the earth and see its animals die. Only, the children’s reflections in Wilder take place long after those consequences have struck. They regret. They are stunned by their own selfishness. And they confess to a common theme in the book—Denial:

How did we dare have children we couldn’t save?

If we closed our eyes, the falling apples
            sounded like heavy rain.” (8)

The forms Wahmanholm employs throughout the book are expressive and differ greatly from each other. In one of several prose poems titled “Relaxation Tape” the children recount their attempts to ward off the disaster they helped to wreak upon their world.

We listened to relaxation tapes to help us sleep. The purple sky was too bright…”

“We would not panic. Clench your fists, said the voice. I clenched my fists. Focus on where it hurts. I did. Then I relaxed and let the tension float away like smoke on the wind.” (61)

On one hand, the story recounts life on the planet as it decays, but interspersed throughout the book are unnamed poems which look like drifting murmurs: words strewn widely across pages of mostly blank space in near disarray after pyrrhic return from the grave or disaster. These poems vaguely recall M. NourbeSe Philip’s radical scattering and tearing of the found text in her brilliant project Zong! Wahmanholm’s language foregoes the disintegration of words, instead they float like pieces of space debris.

Many of the poems address outer space and planets directly. One ends with the words, “brave sailors in/ an/ unexplored/ sky.// we/ strayed from home// and/ failed utterly/ on/ the shores of space.” This is a recurring theme which flies in the face of how space exploration gets fetishized as some salvation for humanity.

This indictment seems to continue in more subtle forms. “Red Rover,” one in a number of poems named after popular children’s games, recounts with a stark coldness the proceedings of the game mechanics:

We are placed in a field

We are told to wield our bodies
                                                       against each other
like wrecking balls or rockets,
                                                   to target the weakest links
in the chain
                    of other children’s bodies—” (35)

Claire Wahmanholm

The earthly damage of a wrecking ball proceeds to rockets, almost a direct progression from destruction to fleeing the scene of the crime. We know marginalized and poorer communities will be the first and most severely affected by ecological harm, and it’s all but sure only the very rich will be able to board any kind of escape pod from Earth, but the poem stays rooted in the language of the game, as if it was all once just a harmless bit of (slightly violent) fun. The title itself suggests a planetary Rover.

But the whole scene, heartbreakingly, begins in a field—a landscape all too easily assumed to be eternally green, with air blowing above it. But on a second reading, the reader may see this poem not as narrative at all, but an elliptical journal, detailing another listless activity for ghosts above a lifeless plain.

In another series of prose poems, each titled a single letter of the alphabet and serving as a kind of hyper-alliterative microcosm
of the book’s narrative, “B” starts with a lush pastoral scene:

B is for Brown Bear, for berries and beehives, buds and blossoms,/ a babbling brook.” (37)

Yet, things quickly turn slightly harsh:

Brown Bear lumbering through the balsam firs/ toward the baton and bludgeon.”

Eventually the surroundings deteriorate to an emerging hellscape:

B for the blood and badge and bullet. B as in behave, beware. As in bereft… B is for barren and the burning den. For how bulletins are bursting with the bodies of brown bears and the alphabet is just beginning.

Even more than a dystopic vision like Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas, which at least still finds Earth alive (albeit beneath pustulating and charred plagues), Wilder feels hopeless at times. But this serves as solidarity with those who rightly know their pessimism is informed by reality.

In any case, Wahmonholm’s chorus here exists in a tradition of environmentalist art that is completely varied. When the urgent deployment of every strategy and timbre of warning over years by every expert and lay-witness feels at last entirely futile, here is a vision of internalized terror turned lyric, doom become song.

But making itself is an act of faith. Perhaps in the hope that, like music, the poem of all things can break past defenses to turn the ear and the mind toward meaningful change. In Fanny Howe’s famous essay, “Bewilderment,” she practices the ethics of obliquity detailed in her earlier paragraphs by ending the piece with this confounding statement:

“After all, the point of art is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.”

Wilder’s many registers can’t boil down to a single point, but perhaps a central one is this: to show people that the Earth is worth living on, by showing when it isn’t.

 

Jordan Nakamura is a poet and serves as the graphic design lead as well as co-lead editor for poetry and visual art for Lunch Ticket. He was born and raised in Hawaii and lives in Los Angeles.

Spotlight: Pranam

[fiction]

It smells the same, even after all these years—the smell of tens of thousands of prayers exhaled above palms pressed to the heart, thousands of bare feet padding into the prayer room, thousands upon thousands of incense sticks lit in front of the same statues, day in and day out.

How could this building have the bones to help me mourn my mother? It had not even existed during those years when she was one of the temple’s most loyal visitors.

I begin removing my shoes. I balance on one foot to slip off one sandal. The scratchy straps of the sandals have bitten away at the polish. My mother had always insisted that unpainted nails with sandals were an affront to humanity. She had a lot of opinions on such things; I had only listened with half an ear.

Putting the sandal into one of the cubbies lining the wall, I switch to the other foot, the cold tile prickling at the newly unshod foot as I struggle to take off my second sandal.

A sign above the shoe cubbies, in crooked lettering, admonishes all “patrens to Pleeze remove ALL shoes before entering the TEMPLE.” The corners of my mouth start to lift into their customary sneer at this blithe disregard of how the English language should look, but the sneer dies, half-formed.

My mother’s spelling had been the same. “Ma, when are you going to learn how to spell in English?” I don’t know how many times I must have asked that question.

“If you learned to read Bengali, Hindi, Burmese or one of the other six languages I can spell perfectly in, perhaps I would not have to use your ugly language,” she would retort in Bengali, hands on her hips, shaking that crooked index finger at me until we both started to laugh. Despite my teasing, she never stopped putting notes in my lunches, notes that said that I should listen well, be respectful to my teachers, learn everything. I tossed all those notes away with the rest of the meal scraps, never suspecting that there would come a day when I would wish beyond wishing to have the chance to look at her handwriting just once more.

I shuffle into the main room of the temple. The cheap carpeting should be supporting cubicles in some corporate building rather than clumps of barefooted individuals milling around to find a place on the floor to wait for the prayers to begin.

I follow my father and brother toward the front of the room to make the obligatory offering to the deities. My father stuffs money through the opening in an ornate wooden box, one bill for each of us.

Any depiction of the Hindu pantheon will invariably be festooned, garlanded and overrun with flowers, and these icons are no different. When a deity presides within the four corners of a frame, that frame will in turn support twice its own weight in flowers. And the statues…from the minute one of these clay beings is carved, no millimeter of his or her holy personage remains pollen free—from the tip of Shiva’s head to the arch of Durga’s foot, pink, red, yellow, and orange petals mingle and mutter into each other, quarreling for space.

Before we were shunned from the Bengali community, my mother was one of the volunteers who would go to the temple early on the day of any puja (a festival celebrating one god or goddess or another) to help the priest prepare the pictures and statues. I call it a temple, but it was always just a rented space in the same strip mall as a McDonald’s. And I call him a priest, but he was really just Mr. Chatterjee, who always smelled like faintly moldering leaves, or laundry that has been closed up in an idle dryer too long.

Sometimes I would accompany my mother on these early morning trips. I would carry the extra flowers, but she always carried the garland she would have made that morning, special for the statue of Durga. She would have woken before the sun, bathed, and then spent hours picking the roses she had managed to wrestle from the Georgia clay, stringing them with the chrysanthemums that lined the front walkway. The chrysanthemums always grew much more exuberantly than any other flower, spilling over each other, eager to disprove their last-place status in the flower world.

Bengali pujas were really the only part of Hinduism I ever liked. The people of Bengal are too filled with their own self-importance to ever be truly humble to their gods. As a result, they are able to throw a pretty decent puja with more food than the stupidities of religious dogma. At least, that was the way it once was.

An usher-type individual places a hand on my shoulder and tries to move me away from my father and brother, “Women to one side, please, please women to that side, men on this side.” She gives me a slight push.

“What do you mean?” I blink at her, uncertain I have heard correctly.

“Women to one side, men to this side,” she repeats, her singsong accent triggering the anger that accompanies me everywhere these days.

“This is a Hindu temple,” I say, the words oozing past my clenched jaw. “Since when do we make men and women sit separately?”

“This is how it has been for a long time.”

“Tell me where it says anywhere that we are supposed to separate by sex?” I say, allowing my voice to increase in volume on the word sex, watching its effect ripple through the room as an ocean of heads turn towards me. My father and brother do not notice—they are too busy looking for a place to sit. I watch them shy away from the crowded regions of the floor to find a relatively unoccupied corner toward the side.

Another woman walks up and whispers in the usher-woman’s ear; the usher shrugs and turns away to find someone else to herd. I recognize the whispering woman. It is Lena-mashi. She had once been one of my mother’s closest friends. She turns away without meeting my eyes.

This separation by gender must have been put into practice during the years my family was ostracized from the community. Apparently, Hindu self-awareness had spilled over to even the Bengalis, and they had responded in their typically anti-climactic way by messing with seating arrangements.

It had started even before 9-11, this swing to conservative practices—more time on prayers and chanting, strictly vegetarian meals at the pujas.

“This is not how Hinduism is supposed to be practiced,” my father would intone at the various puja-committee meetings. “Where is it written that vegetarianism is holy? Where is it written that we must have this chant before that one? These are ignorant practices we have brought from the villages. They have no place here.”

Eventually, my father’s indulgence in the sound of his own voice went from being tolerated to becoming a point of contention, and then from being a point of contention to being the last straw. Three planes were taken off course, the Towers fell, and we were no longer welcome at the Bengali society’s functions. Dissent during wartime isn’t tolerated, particularly in the confines of a middle-class immigrant community.

And yet, a decade later, here we are, once again.

My father and brother are sitting on the floor, an island amongst a crowd of people. They both sit with straight backs, staring ahead without speaking. I settle down next to them, becoming tangled in the lengths of the sari as I lower myself to the floor.

I had chosen the sari from my mother’s stash that morning, randomly picking it amongst all the ones neatly ironed and stacked in the almira. When I opened the almira’s doors, her scent had rolled toward me—spicy curry with a dash of the sweet powder she would rub into her skin after every shower.

I stood there in front of that brutish piece of furniture for a few minutes, breathing in the scent of my mother. I reached out to touch the brightly colored silk, but a jagged edge of my bitten nails snagged on the cloth, causing a few threads to pull tight and pucker the fabric. My hands trembled as I tried to smooth it out, hide what I had done.

The process of attempting to put on that sari became a glowering testament of all that I had never bothered to learn. I wrapped and unwrapped the silk, unable to get the pleats right, looking at the clock every few seconds, nervous at how much time was passing in my ineptitude. My father hated to be late.

At one point, I sat down on the floor, the silk of the sari rippling around me.

My brother came into the room and stood for a moment to look at me in the glory of my inability. He went over to the almira and picked out a sari of raw silk, a coarser fabric than the slippy-shiny stuff I had been grappling with all morning.

“I heard her teaching one of the neighbors how to put one of these on once. She said that it was easier to do with the raw silk. Something about the fabric.” I took the cloth from him. We stared at each other for a moment, and then he walked away.

Now in the temple and finally safely on the floor, I look around the room, recognizing more faces. Many of these people had been such claustrophobic influences over my childhood. My memory of them all is betrayed as I see what ten years does to the physical self. As I stare, some stare back. Others whisper behind their hands as they look from me to my father to my brother back to me. Others turn away, trying not to see our three orphaned souls huddled together.

Our ouster from the community had not happened all at once. It had been gradual. My mother had noticed the signs early on.

“Chatterjee-da had a barbecue last week for his son’s graduation. He invited so many people, but not us,” she commented one day over dinner.

“Oh, that old man is angry over what I said at the last committee meeting. It does not matter,” my father responded, turning back to watching Jeopardy, his fingers suspended over his plate, a few stray pieces of turmeric-stained rice dotting his fingers. My mother looked worried, but said nothing.

Then, invitations from members of my parents’ own favorite circle—the so-called “younger set”—began to come further and further apart. My mother would spend dinnertime wondering why everyone was always too busy to come by for a quick meal of dal and rooti. My father laughed it off, saying that everyone would come to their senses eventually.

After a few months, my father was not quite so sanguine, and my mother was despondent.

Lena-mashi came over one day to tell my mother in whispered tones: “Sujo-da should stop talking so wrongly, stop starting so many arguments, otherwise, no one will want you to come to their houses, Boudi.”

“He is just saying what he thinks. Why is that so wrong?” I recognized that note in my mother’s voice—it is not for nothing that the tiger is Bengali. I half suspect the tiger learned its fierce trade from a Bengali wife.

“Boudi, I am sorry. I just wanted to tell you. They are going to ask Sujo-da to leave the puja committee.” My mother did not say another word and simply showed Lena-mashi the door.

As a founding member of the puja committee, my father had expected to be part of it until the day he died. When he was no longer welcome at the meetings, it was clear we had been dismissed from the community.

An institution that had played such a large role in our lives was gone, just like that. True to form, we simply pretended it had never existed. We discovered other things to occupy our time and attention.

My father joined a group of meditation devotees who formed an investment club. Meditation and making money seemed to my father to be the very best blend of East and West. When the club started making money, the group felt that it was the reward of a higher power.

“Mila! We made over $200 in one day! Can you imagine how rich our meditation investing will make us?” I was away at college, and his voice reminded me of everything I missed and was running from at the same time.

The group’s belief in its destiny made them reckless, and they responded to losses by investing even more “daringly”, until eventually, there was nothing left. My father had a crisis of faith. My mother said nothing.

My brother had many friends in the Bengali community, childhood friends who had been born within months of each other, had taken baths together, had started toward adolescence as a unit. After our ouster, their parents would no longer allow them to spend time with him. These lost friends were replaced by soccer team friends, tennis team friends, and then eventually by legions of girlfriends. He was able to ignore all of the house rules my parents had put into place during my own teen years, partly because he was a boy and partly because my father was simply too distracted with his meditation-investing, and then his meditation-losing, to care. My mother said nothing.

I had gone away to college soon after the ouster. Freedom, friends, and classes all helped relegate our loss of community into the “not such a big deal” column in the tabulation of my life.

It was really only my mother who suffered. Despite her facility with languages of the Asian continent, she had never learned the language of her adopted country to any level of fluency. Her social circle was comprised of other Bengali matrons. Without them, she was left to her own limited devices. The rest of us did not notice. My mother played her role as the self-sacrificing Bengali mother a little too well. We did not even take her for granted. We simply forgot she existed outside her role as supporting actress in the drama of our own lives.

While we were busy not noticing, my mother’s existence turned inward, much like a dying star that increases its density and mass around a central point until there is nowhere left to go. The thing about dying stars is that, eventually, something in space and time must be ripped apart to release the pressure.

Spring break my freshman year, I walked into the house with a bag of laundry and dumped it in a corner of the kitchen.

“It is the right of every American college student to bring home her dirty clothes for her mother to clean,” I explained to my mother. My mother always seemed to enjoy my soliloquies on axioms of American life, particularly enjoying ripping the axioms apart with ferocity. This time, she simply smiled at me and then turned back to her cooking. I was a little surprised, but quickly lost sight of that thought as my father and brother followed me into the kitchen and my father’s inevitable questions began.

“How are your classes?”

“Fine.”

“How many math classes are you taking?”

“Just the one, Dad.”

“But you could take more if you wanted to?”

“Yes, but why would I want to?”

“Because math is important.”

“Maybe, but there are other subjects out there.”

“Like physics?”

“No Dad, like literature, languages, history, those kinds of things.”

“What? Those subjects are hobbies. I am not paying so much for your schooling to have you waste your time taking useless subjects.”

And from there went the usual clichéd argument. It lasted through dinner and almost to the time we all went to bed, with a break for the evening showing of Jeopardy. None of us noticed that my mother had not participated in the conversation.

It was not until toward the end of my visit that I almost realized something was wrong. I was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking the tea+milk that magically appeared in front of me every day, no matter when I dragged myself out of bed.

“Ma,” I said, “why are you letting me sleep in every day? You hate people sleeping late.” My mother shrugged and smiled, turning back to cleaning the inside of the microwave. I took a few more sips of my tea, wondering how I was going to get some money out of my father for the jacket I had seen on sale at the mall.

“Ma, in psych class we learned that the transition from adolescence to adulthood can be made more traumatic if parents try to keep children heading into their twenties to the same habits and likes and dislikes they had as teenagers. Is that what you’re doing here? Letting me sleep late to break a habit from my childhood? How did you know to do that?”

My mother just shook her head. Puzzled, I looked at her back, which was still turned to me.

“Are you mad at me, Mom? What did I do?”

She smiled and put a plate of food down in front of me, placed her hand on my cheek and then walked back to the microwave. I began to eat, putting her strangeness off to her being old. All adults over the age of thirty were strange and old.

Somehow successful in parting my father from some money, I made it to the mall that day. The route home took me past the site where the new Hindu temple was being built. The community was graduating from a strip-mall existence to a free standing building complete with its own parking lot.

As I waited for the car ahead of me to disgorge a mildly alarming number of bespectacled older women in cotton saris, I looked over to see my mother standing in front of the half-constructed shell of the temple with a group of Indians. Even to my purposefully unknowledgeable eyes it was apparent that these people were not Bengalis. It surprised me to see my mother out of the house among people that I did not know. They were all listening to one woman, whose arms were gesturing in that hyper excitable way that all beings from the South Asian subcontinent seem to practice, as if the most important ideas require exertion of physical energy to make sense. I wondered what they could possibly be discussing. I lost track of that thought as my favorite song came on the radio. I continued driving along home, my mother forgotten in the storm of whatever inane thoughts were rattling around in my head that day.

A year later, it became clear that I was one of the few people who had ever seen my mother amongst those who were now referred to as her “associates.”

“Miss,” said the agent from the Department of Homeland Security, “this is important. Can you give me any details about any of the people around your mother that day?” I could almost see what was going through his mind. Was I protecting someone? Was my family part of a larger conspiracy to bring down apple pie and the American Way? How to explain that I was so self-centered that I could not recall a single detail about any of the people who would eventually be the architects of my mother’s death?

“The woman doing all the talking was dressed all in black,” I said, looking down at the table and picking at an invisible splinter.

“Dressed all in black, that’s all you remember, that this woman was dressed all in black?”

“That was unusual for an Indian woman, even a non-Bengali,” I answered. The agent sighed.

They eventually let me go, finally convinced that I truly was just stupid and not part of some huge South Asian conspiracy.

As it turned out, my mother had made friends with the kinds of people she would once have warned me against. Radical. Non-Bengali. Some not even Indian. They spoke of revenge for murders of Hindus in Bangladesh and Kashmir, of needing the world to understand the dangers posed by fundamentalist Muslims, of the American government and its ineptitude in ridding the world of danger. They spoke of these things, and my mother listened. As she listened, she formed a plan. As was her way, my mother’s plan was one in which she was the only one who got hurt.

My mother is dead, and here I am again in our local Hindu temple.

For the past year, I have been unable to stop myself from imagining her last moments. Was she scared? Did she figure out that there would be children at that prayer service in the mosque? Is that why she never went inside, is that why she stayed in the parking lot? How much pain was there? What did those friends say to convince her that self-immolation was the answer?

“We will go to the puja tomorrow,” my father announced one year and twenty-eight days after her death. My brother and I looked up from our uneaten dinners in surprise.

“Baba,” my brother said slowly, gently. “We can’t go. They don’t want us there.” I nodded.

“Your Lena-mashi was here yesterday. She said they were going to say a special blessing. We will go.” My father nodded, as if the matter were decided. But then, looking at us, he became unsure. “I just think we should go…” he began, in an uncharacteristically pleading tone. He did not have to finish the thought. We would go, because she would have wanted it.

And so here we are. The room begins to hush, and I hear the priest shuffling behind the stage, readying the bells and other accoutrements of a Hindu prayer. I can’t remember the protocol…Do they blow a conch shell at the beginning? Is the shanti water going to be used today, that holy water that is supposed to bring peace to anyone who receives it? There had always been a joking moment in previous years, when the priest would pour a handful or two over my outspoken father’s head. He would always make the same joke, asking whether it would turn the gray hairs back to black.

My mother is dead, and I am using all my strength to not run screaming from this room. We had been summarily dismissed from the community these walls represent, and, as we now know, one of us spent years looking for a way to get back. The only one of us who would be happy to be here today, within these walls, is the one who was sacrificed.

There was once a demon so powerful it could be killed by no god, and a woman was brought in to solve the problem. Durga, the mother goddess. My mother offered a prayer to her whenever we left the house, saying “Durga, Durga” to remind the goddess to take care of our home in our absence, one mother to another.

I never noticed the clues to the end of my mother’s story. Now, it is all I think about. Her story’s end is what has brought the three remaining members of the family back together, what has allowed us to see each other again. I reach out and place my fingertips on my father’s and my brother’s arms. I hope that somehow my mother knows what she has accomplished.

Durga, Durga.

 

Image by Ana Talukder

Gargi Talukder seeks to explore the ideas of multiculturalism and diversity, and how relationships are developed and deepened under the umbrella of ethnic and cultural heritage. With a background in neuroscience, Gargi is the author of numerous articles on subjects related to medical and biological research that have been published in a wide variety of general interest newspapers and periodicals. Her short stories have appeared in Open Spaces Magazine and Lake Anthologies, among others.

Writers Read: Surge by Michelle Whittaker

In Michelle Whittaker’s debut collection, Surge, we begin in the after. After what is not as important as the life lived after trauma—an afterlife. Though we arrive having already crossed this border safe and sound, an epigraph from Susan Sontag reminds us that we’re still dual citizens: passport carriers from “the kingdom of the well” and “the kingdom of the sick.” Though we prefer to show the first credentials to the world around us, the second is still a part of who we are. A double identity that will have to be acknowledged and reconciled.

Soon after we leave Sontag, the poems begin to cast spells of illusion, disappearance, and deflection. “In the Afterlife,” we’re told:

but we don’t really need to talk about that fact
and we don’t really need to talk about the thunder
thundering inside the house
where he died

And oh what lovely spells the poet casts to convince us that we’re no longer in the kingdom of the sick, “citizens of that other place,” as Sontag says. Whittaker is a poet with an ear for music, which is apparent in the sound and rhythm of language. Just listen as the body sings a madrigal:

The last “o” in morto
sacred in whole beats
almost strongholds
a sonogram seated
below the copious ribs

Sing as the body might against the violent memory of “the masked intruder / who knifed this home,” there is no holding back the surging storm on the horizon. It finally arrives in a “WARNING REPORT” and a tornado, which Dorothy-and-Toto-style lands us first in the emergency room and then in the second section of the book.

The surge of stormy light splits the narrator’s “we” into a highly differentiated “I” and “you.” The “I” begins the work of individuation through the negative: “I’m not Your work.” This refrain, which recurs throughout the section’s “Interludes,” begins building a new sense of self by stripping away the old. Gregory Orr writes in Poetry as Survival: “What certain poets of trauma intuit is that their old self cannot survive the suffering it has experienced without succumbing [to death]. Thus necessity permits and compels imagination to create a new self, a self strong enough or different enough to move through and beyond the trauma and its aftermath.” Negation becomes the framework for this imaginative act of re-creation—one that leaves the “I” with a dizzying multitude of possible “I am’s.”

The creation of this new “I” begins with staring into “A Mirror of a Mirror,” trying to sift through memories that bend and create blind spots even as we look. Tricks of the eye and sleights of the hands threaten to overwhelm the narrator, who tells us a few poems later in “Letting Go Seeds”:

I know
it would be
better to
let it go
and let it be
but these hands
want to
let the whole
damn thing
gong

When we arrive at the poem of “Identification,” the speaker must find a way to claim passports to both the land of the after and the land of before. Here the “I” is finally able “to give up.” In a stunning musical image, the poet writes that the refusal to forget what was is “like a four-handed duet folded / into an embalming fluid.” These immortal hands, silent and still, will not make music again. A new song from new hands finally emerges at the end of the poem, giving up their last thought before “…driving in / after the last of Schubert’s thirds.” This song ushers us into the third section of the book and wields the deeper magic that the earlier spells lacked. We arrive with the narrator at a second childhood, in the after. Yet the arrival “In the Afterlight” has left our narrator with a litany of questions:

What is the speed of forcible suspension?
Or the permanency of no return?
What is the speed of saying no? And the meaning no more?
Is it like the speed of being chased down?
Or the speed of light? Or the sly
Of a streaming bullet?
Is it like the speed of ripping through cells?
I wish I understood the physics… 

Michelle Whittaker

The poem is dedicated in part to Jordan Davis, a relative of the poet whose own life was ended at 17 by “a streaming bullet.” The physics of the violent country the poems have entered is indeed foreign. A vulture, a child, and a cameraman hover suspended in time and space. A woman laying in a hospital bed falls asleep and transforms into “a dead world.” An invisible woman becomes visible only when hung from a tree. Through this strange new universe, lined with more mirrors and humming with prayers, the “I” continues to try to call into being this new child of the afterlight. In “Process,” we leave a self who is still working toward that light. Yet, the series of “I am” statements and yeses that close the book read like a benediction:

As I console the yes, here I am still
Somewhere in the quilted damage
Hushed in a mountain
Dumpster green
Where I will be resting
And Yes
I’ll be resting with you.

Whittaker’s Surge leaves us there, at the foot of that newly visible mountain, saying yes and amen.

 

Erica Charis-Molling is a creative writing instructor for Berklee Online and a librarian at the Boston Public Library. Her writing has been published in Glass, Dark Matter, Anchor, Vinyl, Entropy, Mezzo Cammin, and Apricity. She was the assistant editor at About Place and the Eco-Justice Anthology Support Intern at Split This Rock. She’s an alum of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and is currently pursuing her MFA in creative writing at Antioch University.

Spotlight: Immigrant

you have to learn to live with emptiness
my mother told me           I drank water
when I was hungry           I drank water
the way people hustle onto trains rushing to another city

the rain begins in one window
but always finds its way to all the others

your dog scratches at the white couch I brought with me
the only thing left of mine I can still touch
in this place stuffed with dreams that stopped talking         long ago
we mistook the pelting of rain
and the refrigerator humming
and the sound of the mailman thunking our bills
into the box for our dreams still talking

your dog tears the fabric of my couch           the way lightning
rips open the belly of sky so you can’t look at it without seeing
disaster

you call someone and they show up with a truck
hoist the couch out of the corner and into their arms and haul it out
the door I once entered       hungry       coins sewn into the stuffing
plunk to ground one by one and I think about what it means to follow

someone to the edge of nothing

the truck grumbles down our empty road         the rain answers

you have to learn

I sweep the wooden floor bereft of its face
I mop the place the couch covered like clothing
I wipe the fat baseboard with a rag wet with rain

I am so quiet now your breath has its own language
I still don’t understand

 

Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is the author of memoir, The Going and Goodbye (Platypus Press, 2017). Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Brevity, The Rumpus, Santa Clara Review, New Madrid Journal, and Cider Press Review, among others. Her website is www.shulycawood.com.

Litdish: Dorothy Chan, Poet

Dorothy Chan is the author of Revenge of the Asian Woman (Diode Editions, Forthcoming March 2019), Attack of the Fifty-Foot Centerfold (Spork Press, 2018), and the chapbook Chinatown Sonnets (New Delta Review, 2017). She is the Editor of The Southeast Review. Visit her website at dorothypoetry.com.

10 Questions for Dorothy Chan:

1. What’s the most recent thing you’ve written?

I’m currently working on my third poetry collection, titled Hong Kong Recipes. I’m studying my parents’ Cantonese recipes—the food I ate growing up, my favorite food in the world, like Cantonese-style lobster, tofu with tomato sauce, char siu, steamed fish, and corn soup for instance. I also really love dim sum and Hong Kong street food and could write and write and write about all of this stuff all day. There’s this great street food vendor in Kowloon, close to my grandparents’ apartment. It’s got curry fish balls on a skewer, grilled squid tentacles, egg tarts, fried pig intestines, stinky tofu, and lots of other goodies.

2. What inspires you the most?

Anything with some element of kitsch. I was building another house on The Sims 4 the other day, and it’s magnificent: orange leopard-print carpet, glass windows, “Princess Cordelia” busts, a rocket ship-themed pool deck, knights in shining armor statues guarding the master bedroom, indoor and outdoor gnome statues, wallpaper that pays homage to the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel Martinique wallpaper, etc. And while I was doing this, that scene from Behind the Candelabra when Michael Douglas’s Liberace walks around his Las Vegas mansion with Matt Damon’s Scott, and says “I call this palatial kitsch” kept playing in my head. Coincidentally, my parents live in Las Vegas right now. And also, coincidentally, Kitsch is the name of my favorite undergraduate-run literary journal from my alma mater, Cornell. But my love of kitsch goes back even before that: I remember being ten and visiting Las Vegas for the first time. That was the height of Caesar’s Palace, and I just loved it. I remember there was a Disney Store in the Forum Shops, and I loved how taking the escalator up, I saw a ceiling painting with Mickey and friends wearing Greek outfits. The whole anachronism of Caesar’s Palace still amuses me to this day—I mean, just what is/was “Caesar’s Palace?”

It’s important to write every day: no, you don’t have to write a whole poem every day, but you should be thinking about your poems, researching, and taking vigorous notes. You should also listen to your teachers and mentors. Finally, don’t try to be like anyone else. Do what you do best well.

I was also a teenager during the early 2000s, and my entire wardrobe was once Juicy Couture (not just the tracksuits). That entire brand is so kitschy in the best way possible: rhinestones and crowns and big jewelry and charms, etc. I loved how the JC stores use to have these eighteen-century style paintings in gilded frames, spray painted, and magenta chairs that looked like thrones. Kitsch is so much fun. My brain goes in a million directions whenever I see something kitschy. When I see a painting that strays on the sentimental and saccharine, the art history snob in me is at first really bothered, but then I start to analyze more. And when I see something that is aware of its own kitsch factor, I’m really amused. It’s tongue-in-cheek, and I like that.

3. Was there a specific person or writer who inspired you? 

I was a really lonely kid growing up, so I turned to classic film, visual art, and fashion. I wasn’t interested in sports or dances or dating anyone in my hometown; instead, I wanted to watch Milan fashion shows and figure out the secrets of Andy Warhol’s life and listen to Robert Osborne’s commentary on TCM. I wanted to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art for Christmas and eat duck in Chinatown. And when I was bored on weekends after studying, I’d go shopping at Bloomingdale’s. I’ve always loved fashion, and I know this sounds cheesy, but fashion is moving art. Or I’d shop for snacks at the local Asian market, making me crave the snack aisles of Hong Kong grocery stores.

All these early interests initially inspired me to write. And then I’ve been really lucky to have some of the best poets in the world as my mentors: Norman Dubie, Barbara Hamby, David Kirby, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, Jeannine Savard, and Alberto Ríos. My mom has also always been very supportive of all my artistic pursuits.

4. What’s your writing practice like?

I write as much as possible.

5. How does your day job inform your writing?

I’m currently a graduate student instructor and Editor-in-chief of The Southeast Review. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is mentoring young women and young writers. Every semester, I introduce my Southeast Review interns to poets and writers that they haven’t encountered yet. I always need to keep up with my reading, which then helps my own writing.

6. What advice would you give to emerging poets and writers?

This may sound obvious, but it’s important to be dedicated to the craft. It’s important to write every day: no, you don’t have to write a whole poem every day, but you should be thinking about your poems, researching, and taking vigorous notes. You should also listen to your teachers and mentors. Finally, don’t try to be like anyone else. Do what you do best well.

7. What are you reading right now? What should we be reading?

This list is by no means exhaustive, but right now, I’m really excited for Cha’s “Writing Singapore” issue. Tammy Ho Lai-Ming is a lovely person and does such an amazing job with the journal. I’m also totally in love with Timothy Liu’s latest collection, Luminous Debris. I’ve been enjoying the work of Rae Gouirand, Hoa Nguyen, Ching-In Chen, Aja Couchois Duncan, Taneum Bambrick, Shauna Barbosa, and M’Bilia Meekers. I’m excited for my poetry dad, Norman Dubie’s latest collection, coming out this spring. I’ve been enjoying Dana Diehl’s chapbook, TV GIRLS, published with New Delta Review.

I love The Boiler’s latest issue. It’s one of my favorite magazines, and Sebastian Paramo does such an amazing job.

Ai’s Vice is one of my all-time favorite poetry collections. So is Barbara Hamby’s On the Street of Divine Love. Lucy Grealy’s As Seen on TV is a text I always go back to, as well

Of course, I’m also reading Vogue and Elle.

My father and I keep talking about doing tai chi together. I really should get to that book he gave me…

8. What is the most important thing(s) you want to get across in your writing?

 

My brain goes in a million directions whenever I see something kitschy. When I see a painting that strays on the sentimental and saccharine, the art history snob in me is at first really bothered, but then I start to analyze more. And when I see something that is aware of its own kitsch factor, I’m really amused. It’s tongue-in-cheek, and I like that.

I don’t like to be abashed in real life or in my writing. Maybe I come across as too tough, but I swear I have a soft side. I hope both of these sides (and more) come across in my writing.

9. What are your interests outside of the literary world?

So many things! Food, fashion, Japanese culture, architecture, travel, etc. All these interests inform my poetry. I had such a great trip to Tokyo this past summer. I’ll also be in love with Tokyo, because it was my first trip alone, overseas. I was nineteen, and that trip is still one of my fondest memories.

10. What question do you wish I asked you, and what’s your answer?

What are you craving right now? I’d really like a slice of cake. I’m pretty low-maintenance, but I always need snacks around when I’m writing.

 

Kristina Ortiz is an elementary school teacher and MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles where she is the associate managing editor and web team manager for the literary journal Lunch Ticket. She lives in Ventura County, California with her fiancé, golden retriever Bella, and cat Lara.

Ana Jovanovska, Experiment with A Fictional Alphabet, 2013, engraving on zinc printed like relief and 2 color silk screen, 76x57cm

Spotlight: From Text to Abstraction

Ana mainly explores and depicts themes that have a social element, applying elements of tactile reality such as collage and found objects to issues and situations (non-materials, intangibles) to the reality of today’s society. She is interested in exploring how perspectives work with human conditioning […]

À La Carte: IDIOPATHY

[creative nonfiction]

This is the year I got old.

The orthopedist says there is little I can do. Not about growing older—I already know that—but about my left shoulder. It’s not the athletic injury I thought it was, and there’s no definitive cure. It simply has to run its course, he says, dismissively. The only thing I can do is a daily series of painful stretches that literally have me climbing the walls.

I want to strangle him.

I have Frozen Shoulder. The medical term is Idiopathic Adhesive Capsulitis. Another name, one that is carefully avoided around women my age (early fifties), is Menopause Shoulder. An insulting, yet apt term given that seventy percent of people affected by this idiotic condition are women between the ages of forty and sixty If only our hot flashes could thaw our frozen shoulders, we’d have no need for indifferent male orthopedists.

No matter what you call it, it’s an excruciating and disabling disorder with no known specific cause other than inflammation. The signs and symptoms typically begin gradually, worsen over time and then resolve, usually within one to three years.

One or three years? I’m not going to make it.

I’m used to being in control of my body. I’ve always been very active and crave movement and the endorphins that come with it. I recently bragged that I can still touch my palms flat to the floor and plan on doing so well into my eighties and nighties. But the nonsensical adhesions in my shoulder prevent me from sticking to any part of my daily workout routine.

It’s as if someone squeezed a tube of Krazy Glue inside my arm, bonding every muscle, tendon, ligament, and tingling nerve together, then sealing the shoulder socket in place so that it can no longer rotate in the cuff. The joint is so tight and stiff that it’s nearly impossible to carry out simple movements. I can’t raise my left arm past my hip. I can’t pull my hair back into a barrette, since that requires two hands. I’ve had to stop running because, not only does the jostling make me want to scream, but I literally get stuck in my sports bra (the sight of me half in and half out makes my husband laugh as he unbinds me). The pain is usually constant and even worse at night, so I can’t sleep. I’m exhausted, irritable, anxious, and depressed.

After two months of suffering the futility of the orthopedist’s pessimistic treatment plan, I finally get up the nerve to seek help elsewhere.

*     *     *

The physical therapy office takes up the entire second floor. It is crisp and clean, with youthful, fit therapists walking the halls and guiding aching bodies to one of dozens of rooms. There are “group” rooms, where sweatpanted patients sit on large inflated blue orbs or lie prone on tables. I look at the older men and women, with their hunched postures and stiff limbs and pray that I don’t end up like that.

Someone brings me to a private room. New age music filters in soothingly from hidden speakers. It makes me want to take a nap. On the wall is a large, framed photograph of a naked woman’s toned, smooth legs diving into a crystal blue pool. The faceless model is the epitome of health. Her perfect, youthful buttocks glisten as they hit the water.

I’ve been told this physical therapist has frozen shoulder expertise. She enters, takes out a protractor-like tool, has me move my arm in various directions—none of which I can do—and assesses my lack of mobility. It is substantial. She jots a few things down in my chart.

Take your shirt off, she tells me. She is lean and fit in tight belted jeans and a form-fitting, black t-shirt emblazoned with Relax, we’ll take care of you.

She has not given me a robe, nor is there one in sight. I struggle to lift my baggy t-shirt over my head. This is one of the things I can’t do, I say. She nods, knowingly, and helps me undress.

She leads me over to the therapy table and places bolsters and rolled towels under my neck and shoulder so that I’m able to lie on my back. Helpless and exposed, I let her try to move my arm again. She is both gentle and firm. I know this hurts, she says, as I wince. She palpates each adhesion with her fingers, moves my arm in ways that it refuses to move. I bite my lip and resort to the meditational breathing I did during childbirth more than two decades earlier.

Let it go, she says.

I try, but I’m really resisting more. Letting go is not something that comes easily.

I can’t help you if you won’t let go, she says.

I’m lying on the table, bare-shouldered, my un-toned belly uncovered, my well-worn bra strap dangling limply off my shoulder, when her male assistant (I’ll call him Ryan) comes into the room. I can’t see him, but I hear his responses as she tells him what to do.

Fifteen minutes on the trigger point, she instructs him. She then explains to me that there is always a point of origin to this type of pain and that if Ryan can locate it—and if I can release it—I’d start to feel much better. Try to let go, she says, dimming the lights as she leaves the room.

Ryan comes into view then. He can’t be more than twenty-five—the same age as my older daughter. Thick brown hair, big brown eyes, strong and kind and fully dressed. He adjusts the small towel to cover my half-exposed breasts, and another so that it covers my belly. He places another bolster under my knees to relieve the pressure on my pelvis and hips.

Let’s find that trigger point, he says. He touches me. Gently moves my hair out of the way—I still haven’t been able to pull it back and it’s long and messy over my shoulders. His dips his fingers into a container of lavender-scented lubricant and slides them under my left scapula.

Tell me when I’m on it, he says.

I strain to keep my eyes open as he explores the sore spots in my back. I have no idea what I’m supposed to feel.

Is that it? I ask when he probes a particularly tender area. I’m not sure.

It could be, he says. It’s definitely tight. The palm of his hand rests on my latissimus dorsi muscle, his thumb touching the back of my shoulder. Once in position, he applies pressure with his index and middle fingers.

Ow.

Only Oh. I suppress a moan. It’s been a long time since I’ve been touched by such a young man. I could be his mother. I really am losing my mind.

You ok? he asks.

Yes, I say. I’m fine.

I’m going to apply pressure until you release it, he says. Let me know when you feel it go. He is patient and silent. His fingers readjust ever so slightly so that they hit the entire trigger spot. The knot doesn’t give. He’s just behind me and I can no longer see his face. But I can hear his relaxed breathing, the parting of his lips as he—I don’t know, licks them? Swallows?

We sit like this for what seems like hours. His fingers start to shake and I feel him readjust them again. His hand is getting tired.

How is it now? he asks. Does it feel like it’s letting go?
I can’t tell. I shift a bit, leaning into his fingers, hoping for release, not wanting him to stop.

But he does.

Is he disappointed? I know I’m disappointed.

It’s ok, he says. Sometimes it takes a while. But this should help a little. He stands. You can sit up. I’m just going to clean off your shoulder.

I sit, clutching the tiny towel to my chest. The one over my belly falls to the floor. Except for the minimal coverage my bra provides, I’m naked again from the waist up.

Ryan brings a clean towel over my shoulder and back, the spots that he’s just been working on, and wipes off all the lavender goop. He does not replace the strap of my bra. See you next week, he says, turning up the lights. The door clicks shut behind him.

I sulk for a moment before struggling first to pull up the bra strap and then to raise my arm high enough to get my shirt on. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Old is what I see, and turn away.

*     *     *

My husband and I have been together since we were nineteen. It’s a long time, I say to him. It’s forever, he says, laughing.

We lie in bed that night, and I struggle to find a comfortable position. I haven’t been able lie flat for weeks because of the pain, so I prop myself up on pillows with a rolled up towel under my bad arm like they did in physical therapy. Still, I get little relief.

Do you still love me? I ask.

He turns and looks at me.

Even though I’m old? I say.

You’re not that old, he says, kissing my shoulder. You’re going to be fine.

I so want to believe him. On both counts.

*     *     *

When he was forty-eight, my husband had a motorcycle accident that resulted in a complete fracture of his fibula and tibia. It happened at the end of our driveway, and when I heard him go down, I ran out to find him clasping his ankle to keep the sharp, jagged bone from piercing through his shin. During emergency surgery, the orthopedist inserted a 14” titanium rod from the knee to the ankle, held in place by three titanium screws.

Later, these screws would become a problem. You could see them through the skin. The one in the knee was especially protruding and uncomfortable and eventually had to be removed during another surgery.

That was a real injury, and my husband has the scars and chronic pain to prove it.

My frozen shoulder is not a real injury. But it is the first of many betrayals I now know to expect from my body. I massage it, willing it to loosen up, wishing I were still as lithe as that naked woman on the wall.

*     *     *

Over the next seven months, my physical therapist, Ryan, and I get into a groove. I become less self-conscious—and less distracted—and my shoulder begins to thaw. It’s a fascinating process, once I stop resisting. “Let it go” takes on a new meaning as my arm becomes something separate from my body. I’m able to let go of some control without letting go of me.

It becomes less awkward with Ryan, too. After someone hits your trigger point, you can’t help but want to know more about him. I start to ask him questions while he works on me, and he answers. He tells me about his girlfriend, his sister, his dreams, what he wants to do with his life. He reminds me of my daughter and her friends with their whole lives ahead of them. If I were younger, he might have flirted with me, and vice versa. Then again, if I were younger, he would never have been allowed in the room because my half-naked body would have made it inappropriate. So I listen, because that’s what a mom does. I’m back in a familiar role. Now I know what to do. Now I know what to say. Now, whether I like it or not, I’m reminded who I am—and how the world sees me.

 

Laurie Ember’s essays and creative nonfiction have appeared in Tahoma Literary Review, ROAR Magazine, The Citron Review, Cheat River Review, Huffington Post, and others. She has a BA in psychology from Wesleyan University and, more recently, a Certificate in fiction writing from the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. She lives and writes in Los Angeles, CA, was raised on Long Island, NY, and spends as much time as she can in Fairfield, CT. You can find her online at laurieember.com.

Spotlight: my sister-wife

chews on the strange stillness of his quiet unravel. she knows
the undoing—like thread—will be slow & always.

same as when he first moved inside of me—i remember. the both of us
wide open, one exhale after the other scrawled between my legs.

the ground sweats against my foot, familiar with the work.
all things come to & from but knowing this will not keep me

from digging into his brother. i too have learned to chew. suck in salt. crack
my jaw. open & spit out the shell. nothing is safe. nothing is sacred.

i wonder where the water went. lay my palm against my bone.
berate the mangled hair. paddle along my heavier thighs. whine

with my hips rusted over & unattended to. weep for where
the dents of his teeth were. faint lesions on the cuff of my ashy legs.

out of necessity. each night turns out like this. out of necessity.

 

Faylita Hicks is a black queer writer, mobile photographer, and performance and Hip-Hop artist from San Marcos, TX. She was the 2009 Grand Slam Champion of the Austin Poetry Slam. In 2018, she was an inaugural Open Mouth Readings Writing Retreat participant and was awarded a SAFTA Residency. Her poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, Glass Poetry Press, Kweli Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Matador Review, American Poetry Journal, and others. Her visual art has been exhibited in the Texas State University Common Experience Gallery and featured in Five:2:One art and literary print magazine. She received her MFA in creative writing from Sierra Nevada College’s low residency program and lives in San Marcos, TX.

Photo Credit: Alison Papion

Shari Epstein, Shark, 2007, Mixed Media, 24” x 48”

Spotlight: Rising

Living on Sandy Hook Bay in New Jersey gave me a personal stake in global warming. Superstorm Sandy took a devastating toll on our neighborhood and our beach. I completed the Rising Series five years before Sandy. The series helped me to express the fear 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina imprinted on my psyche. Each year as the destruction from storms stretches around the globe […]

Spotlight: Note from a Loving Friend / Love and Loss in Ludhiana

Note from a Loving Friend

I.
For weeks, high school girls giggled, slipped folded notes
to each other, their noses pruned, leaving me on the outskirts,
alien that I was. True I had my green card, always in my wallet, but still
I did not know why I felt alone in their company.

I read their note to me folded so pretty
with numbered pages and bubbly letters. The gist:
“Please do not be angry with us. We have discussed
this with each other and the school counselor
and you need deodorant. It is unpleasant to be around you.”

II.
I want to reach forward, tell the girl she will love
a friend with long brown curls and a kiondo
rich with books and lipstick. I want to tell her Mani
will teach her to eat wings, how to see beyond
the squares and rectangles of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie
and see the lights of New York City, neon and traffic signs pulsing.

I want to tell the girl that one day she will become woman and dream
of amethysts, her womb a sparkling geode and she will discover her true
scents of moonlit jasmine, sandalwood and ginger, when in company
with a loving friend.

 


 

Love and Loss in Ludhiana

After Gwendolyn Brooks

Glass shards jagged along the brick where
our house separates a plot of forest amid city, it’s
cuckoos chatter, song pierced by street vendors, skimming rough
edges, selling potatoes, snake gourd, squash and
back at home, a woman on haunches washes dishes, feet untended
dry skin cracking like a fault in the earth, I ride my rusty bike and
enjoy the bumps, my seat jostling a narrow path, hungry
for grandmother’s lunch with radish pickle, careful not to crush weeds
growing between man-made surfaces. Here, night jasmine grows,
its vines, creeping along the back wall, over and around a
glass glimmering in light as the girl’s

aunt waits for the signal from her lover. She looks out her window to get
a glimpse of the boy, sick
when he never arrives, tired of
being the only one in college who never gets a rose.

She does not wait like Madam Butterfly; instead I
take her hand and we tread light through the untrammeled forest wanting
nothing but to be endowed by light filtering through falsa and champa, to
be surrounded by wild crow song, go
away from the manicured garden, in-
stead peer into the trumpet flower and see the
bee nestled and buzzing, embraced in back-beyond
bliss, away from the pruned papaya tree and maybe
down
the
alley.

 

Sonia Arora has been teaching literature and humanities for almost twenty years. Her work as a teaching artist takes her into classrooms across Long Island, New York City, and Philadelphia, where she explores oral history, digital media, poetry, activism, and film-making with youth in elementary, middle, and high schools. She has published short fiction, poetry, and essays. She has been published in Apiary, Putting the Movement Back Into Civil Rights Teaching, Prompted, an anthology printed by Philadelphia Stories, 3-2-1 Contact, Sonic Boom, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, bioStories, and more. One of her poems was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has studied writing with Frederic Tuten, Terrance Hayes, Porochista Khakpour, and Jenn Givhan.

Litdish: Sherri Cornett, Artist, Art Curator, Activist

Sherri Cornett’s German immigrant and pioneer roots are set deep into the homesteads around the small south Texas town of Cuero, where both of her parents grew up, met, and married. By the time she settled in Billings, Montana, in 1993, she had lived in eleven cities and, in some of those, several homes. Out of this came an enjoyment of discovering new places and taking on adventures—hiking, mountain and rock climbing, traveling, skiing, sailing, scuba diving—and a propensity for saying “yes” to interesting, but hitherto unknown or unconsidered opportunities. In her art world, this led her to rewarding projects, such as co-directing “Woman + Body” in South Korea and directing “Half the Sky: Intersection in Social Practice Art” in China.

Influenced by degrees in political science and art, as well as her advocacy, activism, and campaign work around issues of women’s rights, human rights, environment, and education, her art and curatorial practices engage the psyche and soul of viewers She encourages them to ask questions of themselves and the world and build relationships around the search for answers. Underneath all of this is her passion for community building. Her work has exhibited in China, Korea, California, Chicago, Michigan, New York, Idaho, and Montana. www.sherricornett.com

10 Questions for Sherri Cornett:

1. In your opinion, how can art impact or influence social justice?

Books, articles, and essays have been written on this topic, but, from my experience as a curator, artist, and a past UN representative for the Women’s Caucus for Art, I have seen how art transcends language and cultural barriers. It provides an entry point to dialogue around social justice issues. The art attracts the eye, brings people closer, and can then encourage viewers to ask questions: Why this theme? Why this media? Why this depiction? Integral to most activist-themed art is an accompanying statement, which may answer some of these questions and can also elicit more questions. The goal is often to present viewers with a new angle for consideration, to encourage viewers to absorb another layer of understanding, to question their own knowledge and leave room for perhaps an initially uncomfortable recognition that previously held opinions might be wrong or incomplete or unhelpful.

Facilitating "In Conversation with the Artists" during Social Justice: It Happens to One, It Happens to All exhibition

The art is the starting point for the dialogue that occurs in front of the works, within the gallery, between viewers, within curator-facilitated community conversations, during field trips by student groups, through sharing of personal stories by the artists and those who interact with the works. All of these experiences ripple out from the venue as viewers discuss what they have experienced. I have seen new alliances form, actions created, opinions shared with policy makers, and policy makers themselves interact with the art.

2. What’s the most recent thing you’ve created or curated?

I am currently working with ForFreedoms.org and their project to organize activations in all fifty states between September first and the mid-term elections on November 6, 2018, with the goal to engender socially-engaged, art-based civil discourse around issues of freedom. This idea comes from the Four Freedoms speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941, during which he spoke about the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear.

The activations in Billings, Montana, where I live, will focus on Native American lives and include other underrepresented and under-recognized members of our community. A Native American Race Relations and Healing Series community conversation will be started by Northern Cheyenne Chief Judge John Robinson and Jeanine Pease, who among many important education related projects, founded Little Bighorn College on the Crow Reservation.

Events on the campus of Montana State University Billings will include a community conversation with international students, students from the Women and Gender Studies program and others—again, focused on freedom. Throughout these events, yard signs will be created that depict individuals’ perspectives on freedom. These will be installed on the MSU Billings campus. Other entities in Billings, including the Western Heritage Center, are tying in their programming to this project.

3. What or who inspires you most in your art?

Photo by Christine Giancola

My first degree was in political science, which informed my various activist and advocacy work. All along, my creative side was visualizing and manifesting 3D works and some photography and video. While in art school, I discovered the Women’s Caucus for Art, a non-profit focused on activist art since 1972. I crashed one of WCA’s meetings while visiting NYC years ago, learned about their international effort with the United Nations and immediately saw a way to connect these sides of myself by using art to create community and dialogue around social and environmental issues. Within a year, I was co-directing a feminist exhibition in South Korea, followed by one in northern China. The connections and conversations within these projects fed my soul and inspired me to do more such work.

4. How does your day job inform your art?

I am lucky to be able to say that my day job is curating and, too-infrequently, making art.

5. What advice would you give to emerging artists?

I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, in which she advises creatives to think of their work as a vocation, but not necessarily a way to support themselves. Creating art may be an imperative for us—we must get these ideas out of our head and into the world—but there is no imperative for the world to compensate us for those ideas. We must have thick skin and create even though it comes with much rejection. The satisfaction of making something, creating something, facilitating something is in itself an end goal. If it comes out of a deep, genuine place in our soul, we will continue to be motivated. Outside acceptance is secondary.

I see the spirits of younger and/or newer artists, writers, musicians, and performers crushed by the unmet expectations that, if they create something, someone will want it. It is unfortunate that our country’s culture and policies, unlike those of some other countries, does not more broadly and financially support creative professions. But that shouldn’t stop us from creating. We just have to work harder, have more discipline, and create our own communities and collectives in which to encourage each other.

Develop fortitude—rejection is frequent—and professionalism. At least half of being a professional artist is the business of art—maintaining a website, social media presence, learning how to write about your work and your message, perhaps through a blog and self-promotion.

6. What is the most important thing(s) you want to get across in your art?

As I say on my website, I agree with those who believe that we must continue to investigate and discuss the grand narratives used to explain the world and that each of us should reformulate our questions and seek new answers as we learn and grow. My work is often a physical manifestation of these questions and answers. I develop exhibitions, projects, art and correlating events that engage the psyche of viewers and participants to the point where they, too, become moved to question, to consider, and to act.

7. What are your interests outside of the art world?

"Points of Many Connections" dome (collaboration with Sandra Mueller) and interactive events with Chinese during Half the Sky: Intersections of Social Practice Art

Photo by Christine Giancola

My passion for community building and being in community extends outside the art world. Beyond that, I seek out adventures and peace in the mountains and waters, here in Montana and during travel.

8. What is your process like when starting a new project?

When I am presented with a new idea—through reading, through a conversation, through an observation—my brain often immediately begins to play with how it fits into my current Weltanschauung, my worldview. And, if it is intriguing, how I can best share it with others, through physical art, through a conversation, through an essay, through an event or an exhibition. I capture any related thoughts or research in my journals and sketchbooks—some may have little connection, but I keep them together until enough have been collected that a pattern starts to appear. I often think of those artists whose ideas seem to come forth fully-formed as Athena from the head of Zeus. My process is far from that. It’s more of a messy collection of ideas and materials and then, in far-too-rare moments of quiet mindedness, a way to bring them all together develops. Even then, during the compiling and building, there is much experimentation, rethinking, taking apart and reforming, stepping back to get as systematic, as overarching a view as possible, listening to how my spirit responds and then going back in to edit.

9. What art exhibition should we all go see?

There are so many exhibitions coming out in response to the world tumult now. Just plug in the words, activist, exhibition, art, and social justice, and see what comes up in your area.

10. If you could ask yourself any question, what would it be and what would the answer be? 

Hmmm. How could I make my life, my work, even more fulfilling?

I know that striving for balance in one’s life is a key component of the answer to that question. With a creative and curious mind, balance is a constant challenge. My mind is easily distracted by some observation that sends me down rabbit holes of thought and research, and thus, that part of my brain gets privileged at the cost of quiet and peace and simply being. If I am in the mountains or sitting beside a creek, this comes more easily. My seemingly never-ending quest is how to create that peace in my daily life.

 

Kristina Ortiz is an elementary school teacher and MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles where she is the associate managing editor and web team manager for the literary journal Lunch Ticket. She lives in Ventura County, California, with her fiancé, golden retriever Bella, and cat Lara.

Jerrell Gibbs, The bird whisperer, 2018, Oil on Canvas, 40" x 30"

Spotlight: Hiding in Plain Sight

I create art to inspire change. I draw inspiration from artists whose creations are a means to construct dialogue around taboo topics. My art is focused on societal issues that are expressed through painting. Hiding in Plain Sight is a body of work that documents the people of our century, in order for future generations to have an understanding of our present-day experiences. These portraits represent the urban community […]

À La Carte: Damage [trigger warning]

[fiction]

4

My babysitter is an old bat. Old and mean. She makes me drink water standing by the kitchen table. She won’t let me sit down. After I drink, she pushes me back outside to play. She won’t let me in until lunch at eleven.

I play with the other kids in the yard. There’s another girl whose name is also Beth. And there’s a boy. He has long hair and thick dark eyebrows like a grown-up. I like him because even though he’s pale, he’s nice to me. We make a game out of jumping over the dog doo that’s turning white in the grass. We run, jump, and never land on the dog doo. Some of it’s sticky and some of it’s hard if you poke it with a stick.

“You two are gross,” Beth says. She tells him, “You shouldn’t let her make you gross.”

I don’t know what time it is, but I have to pee. I knock on the door, and call to be let in. Then I whine. Then I cry. When I can’t hold it anymore, when I let go where I stand, the babysitter yells at me, then makes me sit in the corner with my wet underwear on my head. She makes me wear a diaper the rest of the day.

Her children still live at home. Both of them are also old. The girl child, she’s growing a baby in her belly, even though she’s not married. You don’t ask questions about it. I like to watch her chewing her breakfast. She chews on one side only, her jaw sticking out, popping as she chews. I try to chew crooked like her.

The man child lives in the basement. He walks around the yard wearing just a tiny swimsuit, and his belly moves like Jell-O.

After lunch, I hide in my babysitter’s coat closet. It’s hot in here, crowded with smelly coats. It’s also dark, and I focus my eyes on the thin line of light coming in beneath the door. I stare at it a long time, until my eyes are dry. Cigarette smoke clouds the light. I’m sweating, watching cigarette smoke coming in beneath the door. The man child is home. He’s smoking, looking for me, but he won’t call for me. His mother is taking a nap. He won’t risk waking her. All I can do is wait, pressed in between the coats, my feet hidden in adult-sized snow boots.

 

5

The man child grabs me by my arm, drags me down to his bedroom in the basement. He doesn’t turn on the light. There are high windows, dirty, smoky. Dirty clothes thrown on the carpet. The other children are there, too, the boy and Beth. Both of them look at the carpet.

He gives us a choice. We can do what he says, or else we’ll get a licking. I don’t want to get a licking. Only naughty children get spanked.

His Jell-O belly comes closer. Too close. I don’t even know the words for the things he shows me, for the things I do. He makes me do things to him. He makes me do things to the other children. When he’s done, he cleans himself up with a dirty sock.

I always find new places to hide in my babysitter’s house. The closets, the bathrooms, even the garage, even in the cold. No matter where I go, the man child always finds me.

 

6

My babysitter renames me. I used to go by Beth, but she says I’m to be called Liz or Eliza.

“My granddaughter is ‘Beth,’ and I won’t have my own kith and kin sharing a name with a nigger child.”

These are all the new names I’ve learned today: Liz, Eliza, Nigger.

“Choose. Now. And hurry up, before I get angry.”

 

7

A lady from the school visits the house to talk to my mom. They’re worried because the babysitter sent me to school in a diaper.

“Your seven-year-old should be potty trained,” the lady tells my mom.

“What do you mean?” My mom says. “Of course she’s potty trained.”

“Why was she in a diaper?” The lady asks.

“Why was she what?”

When the lady has gone, my mom asks me if it’s true. When I tell her yes, she doesn’t believe me. She checks my butt, and finds it covered in diaper rash. I tell her other things, everything, about the man child, about the things he makes me do. She looks angry and sad and scared and tired.

“You shouldn’t make up stories,” she tells me. “It’s the same as lying.”

After that, I don’t have to go to the babysitter’s anymore. My life before quickly blurs—the house, the babysitter, the girl child, the man child, the other Beth, even the boy. They become like something I saw on T.V., something I shouldn’t have seen, and now I can just forget.

 

12

A friend from school, Mary, invites me to a slumber party. Bonfire, hayride, hot apple cider. We T.P. the house down the street, then stay up late talking, conversation that turns serious fast. She tells me her parents are divorced too, that she seldom sees her father, that he raped her when she was eight. We bond over our similar damage.

 

13

In eighth grade, after one of our classmates gives birth to her second baby, Mary and I start the V Club. We even have a hand sign, which is just a peace sign, and we flash it at each other to pledge allegiance to our purity. I wonder whether this is a lie.

Gloria is our first member. She sits in front of me in history class. Gloria is raised by her single father, a man I don’t trust. She’s a slumpy girl, one who won’t look you in the eyes when you talk to her, and she stares at her feet in the showers in gym class.

Gloria starts dating a guy who doesn’t go to our school. In fact, I don’t think he goes to school at all. I meet him at a football game. He has a bowl cut and a beer belly and an old letterman jacket that the leather is cracking on. He buys hot chocolate for all of Gloria’s friends.

Soon, Gloria stops returning the V sign when we flash it at her. She starts biting her nails, chews them away to nothing. She no longer talks to us, or anyone else in school. She’s always been quiet, easy to overlook, but she’s somehow transparent now, folding silently into herself. I am able to miss her, even when she is sitting in the desk in front of me in class. Within a few weeks, she stops attending school altogether. She disappears so gradually that I don’t notice her gone, not at first, until all at once one day I remember she used to be there.

 

15

Rainy day at summer camp, and we two lock ourselves into the van to play Truth or Dare. I choose Truth, like a wimp. He asks if I’ve ever given a blowjob, and I say no. I don’t think it’s a lie, because “given” implies consent.

When he chooses, I dare him to suck my toes. I’m a sandal-wearer. I bathe maybe once a week at summer camp. I like to splash in the puddles on the dirt paths. Even so, he does it, and from then on, I will forever keep my feet clean, the callouses scrubbed away, my toenails painted, because he sucks my toes and, oh, I like it. I like it.

 

16

My friend and I play Penis in choir class. It goes like this: I say ‘penis,’ and then my friend says ‘penis’ louder, and then I say ‘penis’ louder, and we keep going like that until we get caught. We don’t ever get caught, because we’re altos and stand in the back row, and because we’re playing while everyone else is singing. Also, our choir director is too busy mooning over Alexia, the red-headed soprano in the first row, to bother with much of anything else. He and Alexia are dating. It’s supposed to be a secret, but this is a school of only five hundred students, and just about everyone has seen them at the mall holding hands.

“It’s so gross,” my friend says, and I nod along. “I mean, he has buck teeth and wears gay vests,” she says.

I don’t tell her that part of me signed up for voice lessons with him after school because I imagined being the student who got seduced, like in a movie, I could be the student whose talents had gone unrecognized until now. A few weeks later, we find a heart drawn on one of the music stands, with “Alexia + Mr. Henley” written inside. It’s drawn in pencil. You can only see it against the black lacquer of the music stand if the light hits the graphite just so. I wonder if she calls him Mr. Henley when they’re alone together. I can’t even imagine what his first name is.

 

18

On more than one occasion, my roommate wakes me up in the middle of the night to ask if I’m okay.

“Whatthefuck does it look like?” I say. “I was sleeping fine.”

“No you weren’t. You were screaming.”

 

22

I set up a dating profile. My name is now Loves2Laff.

The profile reveals just enough. My age, my hobbies, that I work as a chef. A picture of me in makeup and a sunhat and a tight tee shirt. These men see through the picture, the name, into the damage inside me. It draws them to me like flies to garbage.

They ask for my measurements. They ask for a full-body picture of me. They ask if I shave my pubic hair. They ask me to shave. They ask what I like to drink. They ask my dating history. They ask how many sexual partners. They ask me how tall. They ask my panty size. None of them ask my name.

They tell me they want to take me to the hot tubs. They tell me they want to eat my cooking. They tell me they want to take me for drinks. They tell me I remind them of someone. They tell me they want to eat my pussy. They tell me what trucks they drive. They tell me they love my lips, I have nice lips, my lips are big and soft and firm and snug. They tell me they want my number. They tell me they want to take me out. They tell me they want to lick my ass. They tell me I will love it. They tell me my picture looks sad, that they can make me smile for real. They tell me I look familiar. They ask my cup size; they tell me they’ve always wanted to date a D. They tell me they’ve never dated a black girl. They tell me about med school, about fireman training, about working construction, about their grad programs. They tell me I look nice, I look fun, I look sexy, I look cute, I look shy, I look like a daddy’s girl, I look light. And when I give them my number, they don’t call, and when I ask them why, they don’t message me, and when I ask again they block me or they say I’m pushy, they say Bitch, what’s your damage? They say they want a girl who is whiter or darker or taller or thinner or thicker, who wears more makeup, who wears less makeup, who knows how to have a good time, who has a better education, a better job, who drives a better car, who shares their interests, who has a daddy, who dresses better, who can hold a conversation, who can hold their gaze, who can hold herself together.

 

23

First date with the fireman. I want to date him because of his muscles, and because he wears nerd glasses, and because he tells me online that firemen work hard and play harder. I’ve never been a party girl, but I want to try. I pay for dinner, to see if he’ll let me, but also, I don’t like to feel like I owe anyone anything.

Even so, I find myself in a park with him in the dark. He sprawls out on the grass, pulls me on top of him. He’s kissing me drunkenly. He’s not a bad kisser. His hands go down my body, and I think he’s feeling me up, but then I hear he’s unzipping his pants. I’m drunk too, but not drunk enough to be okay. He stops kissing me, pushes my head down. I get to his belly before I come back up, but he pushes my head down again.

I can do this. I can know how to have a good time.

Second date with the fireman, and in his truck on the way home from the movie, he tells me his friend is also dating a black girl. His friend says black girls will let you do anal, you just got to throw it up there, ha ha. Dummy that I am, I’m not sure why he’s telling me this.

Back at my apartment, after he drinks all my wine coolers, he gets my clothes off quick. He flips me over and goes for it.

“That kind of hurts,” I say, but he keeps fumbling, keeps trying. “I mean I don’t like it.”

“You’re hella blunt,” he says, but he stops, goes back to plain old vanilla. And I should have told him to get out, not to let the door hit him in the ass, but instead I let him finish because I never was good at thinking quickly.

 

24

I move in with my boyfriend after we’ve been dating for six months. I cook him butter burgers. I bake him hand pies. I clean his apartment. I wash his laundry. I want to keep this one.

He’s invited to a friend’s house, and I’m not invited to go with him. I don’t want him to go. I don’t know why, but it feels important that he not go. When he goes anyway, I am wrecked. On my way to the bathroom, to dry my face, I bang the wall with my fist. The drywall is damaged. He doesn’t leave me alone again for a while, until he can’t stand it anymore, until he leaves me alone for good.

 

26

I meet a good man. I tell him nothing for fear I will tell him everything. It seems to work. He thinks I’m normal, whole. He finds me attractive. He says he only wants to know me, because knowing is loving. He tries so hard to make me feel good, his head buried between my legs. We lie in bed in the morning, our bodies so close. I’m not attracted to him. I remind myself that he’s a good man. I tell my body to shut up its cravings; the mind wins this time. He’s the kind of man I would want my son to be. I manage to seem whole long enough that he marries me. I take his name, shedding my own like dead skin.

I give nothing, have nothing to give. I am nothing. My insides have been scooped out, have been buried, rotten, in someone else’s yard. What little of me is left I’ve shoved down deep, hoping to hold onto it, terrified of it being discovered.

But my husband is smart. He intuits the pieces of me I’ve shoved down deepest. He asks me about myself, and when I’m evasive, he asks, “Why so secret?” He only wants to know me.

“You’re inscrutable,” he says. “Unknowable.”

I hate him for making me remember that I’m insufficient. I hate him for not knowing me, for not guessing.

After our son is born, a change takes my husband like a cold front. Practically over night. It’s subtle: he leaves piles of folded clothes on the floor; he cooks all the meat from the freezer, then lets it spoil in the fridge; he makes a full pot of coffee and only drinks a cup; he turns the air conditioner down to sixty-five without telling me. To compensate, he buys me sweaters, three sizes too big. He buys five gallons of orange juice and leaves them to ferment in the fridge. He moves us to a bigger house, a bigger yard, a bigger city, more space to lose each other in. He plants a garden that takes up the entire yard, then lets it go to seed and weeds, green and glossy and so thick the grass underneath dies.

I tell him all this: he doesn’t take care of himself, he doesn’t take care of me, he doesn’t take care of the house, the yard’s a mess, he won’t pick up after himself, he doesn’t appreciate all I do around here, he puts too much into work and not enough into this marriage, he doesn’t know how hard I work. He paws at me constantly, wants my body, demands my body, as if he could dig into me, as if he could unearth me.

Our two-year-old son latches onto the chaos. He upends a box of Cheerios onto the kitchen floor. He pulls the pots and pans from the cupboard, moves around the house clanking them against each other. He fills the dog’s bowl until it’s spilling over. He empties the silverware drawer, a cymbal crash on the floor. He does this all quickly, with more speed than I would have thought such a tiny body capable of. When I catch him, he’s reaching for the drawer that houses the kitchen knives.

I’m seven months pregnant with our daughter, and my belly is so big it looks like I’m lugging a boulder in front of me. My husband cowers from the excess. I hate him for making me feel like I’m too much. He comes home later and later, he’s sullen when he’s home, a presence that feels like an absence. Our daughter is born in one of those absences, and she fills the void with her howls. She screams my heart out, all of the words I’ve kept inside for decades come pouring out of her in that eerie music that predates language.

As I suspected, my husband won’t take her raw emotions. He won’t wake in the middle of the night to comfort her, he barely wants to hold her. He comes home even later from work. Then, one night, he doesn’t come home at all.

The next time I see him in person, we sign divorce papers.

I slip back into my old name, and with it, all the violence, the anger, the humiliation, the damage it has endured. My name is a garbage bag, tied around my head. If I am to ever breathe again, I must begin the slow work of ripping it wide open.

 

Jeni McFarland holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Houston, where she served as a fiction editor for Gulf Coastmagazine. She is a 2016 Kimbilio Fellow, with an essay appearing in The Beiging of America(2Leaf Press), and fiction in Crack the Spine, Forge, and Spry, which nominated her for the storySouth Million Writers Award. She was a finalist for the 2015 Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction from the Doctor T. J. Eckleberg Review. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and many cats. Follow her on Twitter @jeni_mcfarland

Spotlight: ache / therapy session 1

ache

  1. when you came here, you were a shadow on the wall of the episcopalian church on the water, fourteen hours away. you had your mother’s face and father’s eyes. limbs that bent into edges and straw, skinny red lines frowning across your left wrist. a hunger you couldn’t name yet rustled beneath your ribs.
  2. you met the first man in a lightning storm of your own design. you were possessed by the liquor, big blanks of time stretched out in the backs of your eyes, one wrong turn and a flashing light away from a felony. he watched you skin your knees and poured rum-coke down your waiting throat, threw you on the bed when he thought you were gone enough.
  3. imagine a montage: grime, holes-in-the-wall. the sparkle of eyeshadow and lipstick and blow. imagine saying no and him, not stopping. imagine saying yes because it sounds better on your tongue. imagine saying nothing because it doesn’t make a difference.
  4. there are bruises, blue-black bloomings. there are nails in your throat, red-eyed, white-crust nose. a ringing in your ears that only stops when his hands press tight ‘round your neck. you imagine what it would be like to break as his fingers find your thighs.
  5. one night, you are sitting on the balcony with the man you think you love. the beer is crawling down. his hands are sliding across your body. you remember the church on the water, how your parents are still in love where your freckles meet the corners of your eyes. you feel no growing in your stomach, pushing its way toward your mouth. you let the drink pass your lips, his breath touch your neck, swallow it back down.

 


 

therapy session 1

i have forgotten gentle. say
gentle. i have forgotten hips
not marred by barbed wire
teeth, blue-black
bruises shaped like lips
and knuckles. say
tender. what is sex
but a split
lip? what is fuck if not hair ripped
from scalp, fingers curled in cold
noose around neck? say slow. i can’t
remember a time without whip-
lash, a leash made
of leather and slur. slowly.
i am nothing
but a gap
between my thighs, stripped
every night, bleeding
out each morning.

 

Charlotte Covey is from St. Mary’s County, Maryland. She currently lives in St. Louis, and she earned her MFA in poetry in spring 2018. She has poetry published or forthcoming in journals such as The Normal School, Salamander Review, CALYX Journal, The Minnesota Review, and The Monarch Review, among others. In 2015, she was nominated for an AWP Intro Journal Award. She is co-editor-in-chief of Milk Journal and managing editor of WomenArts Quarterly Journal.

 

Litdish: Tami Haaland, Poet

Tami Haaland is the author of three poetry collections, What Does Not Return (2018), When We Wake in the Night (2012), and Breath in Every Room (2001), winner of the Nicholas Roerich First Book Award. She earned a BA and MA in English literature from the University of Montana and a MFA in creative writing and literature from Bennington College. Her work has appeared in many publications, including The Ecopoetry Anthology, Unearthing Paradise: Writers in Defense of the Greater Yellowstone, and has been featured on Verse Daily, Writers’ Almanac, and American Life in Poetry. Haaland has offered creative writing workshops in prisons, schools, and community settings. She was Montana’s Poet Laureate from 2013 to 2015, and she was recently named a recipient of a Governor’s Humanities Award for the state. She is a professor at Montana State University Billings.

10 Questions for Tami Haaland:

1. What’s the most recent thing you’ve written?

The most recent book is What Does Not Return from Lost Horse Press. It was published this spring, and I’ve been giving readings, teaching workshops, and participating in panels. I always enjoy this process.

In terms of things that aren’t published, my notebooks and computer are full of drafts in various stages. Eventually some of them will find their way into the world.

2. What’s your writing practice like?

 

The mad desire to escape boredom usually leads to the unexpected.

I write first drafts pretty quickly. I carry a notebook with me almost always, though it contains all kinds of things—notes from lectures I’ve heard, quotations I like, whatever crosses my path, and then drafts of poems. At some point I transfer poems to the computer and begin revising.

My ideal writing situation would include hours of concentrated work revising, figuring out how poems connect to each other, researching, and making notes. Realistically, that happens far less often than I would like.

3. How does your day job inform your writing?

Early in my career, when I was working as an adjunct in various classes and everything seemed new, the sheer exposure to so many essays and my proclivity to enthusiastically show students how to revise had its effect on my own writing. I learned faster because I had so much connection to the writing of others who were engaged in the process. Something similar happened when I worked for publishers or as a journal editor at various stages of my life. Editing academic or literary publications and working as a freelance editor helped me learn quickly because I was involved with so many writers, styles, and audiences.

Full time teaching, especially in various creative genres tends to spark my own ideas. In the past ten years, I’ve been involved in administrative work, overseeing an Honors Programs and an academic department, and I’ve spent time developing intensive graduate programs, primarily for teachers of writing. In many ways this conflicts with the concentrated time necessary for writing. On the other hand, I love the exposure to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Sometimes when I feel the pressure of deadlines in my working life, poems will surface quickly. Or in the swirl of problem solving, I see what to do with a troublesome line or discover what image will work best.

4. What inspires you the most?

I can always count on art, music, and the natural world. I love history and science and the way the imagination can run with the details. Travel, poetry, novels, people’s stories, the mystery of genealogy, and migration are great sources of inspiration. The mad desire to escape boredom usually leads to the unexpected.

5. Was there a specific person or writer who inspired you?

Yes, at various stages. As a teenager, my English teacher, Laurel Walker, encouraged me. She allowed me to take extra credit, go outside and draft poems. Richard Hugo and Madeline DeFrees were early teachers, and then I turned toward fiction. Later, I met Eleanor Wilner who told me to “continue.” Around the same time, I shyly told Olga Broumas that I couldn’t seem to write a complete poem, that I wrote in fragments. She said, “then write in fragments.” And there have been many others: Maxine Kumin, my teachers at Bennington, and my friends Sandra Alcosser and Melissa Kwasny. The people who gave me a nudge, or a few words, acceptance and a space to write—they’re the ones who inspired and kept me going.

6. What advice would you give to emerging poets and writers?

Play, experiment, put yourself through exercises, explore. Read. Don’t be too hard on yourself and understand that writing is a long journey. Trust that the work will come if you create an opening for it. You never know when something might take hold of you and turn into a poem.

7. What are you reading right now?

Henrietta Goodman, All That Held Us
Anne Fitzgerald, Vacant Possession
Agni, Issue 87

When I travel, I listen to audiobooks, currently Russell Shorto, Amsterdam

I recently finished Sue Miller’s The Arsonist, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, and Alice Oswald’s Memorial.

8. What is the most important thing(s) you want to get across in your poems?

That’s not something I think about usually. Instead, I follow the poem where it wants to go and try to find the best images, words, and rhythms to suit the subject. Often I discover more of what the poem “gets across” after it’s written or after someone else points it out. And of course when a book comes together, I have to think about what fits and what doesn’t in order to create some arc and coherence. But in terms of the writing, the poem and I are in this place where we’re just working things out, moment by moment, word by word.

9. What are your non-literary interests?

I’m a really curious person, and I like to be in motion—hiking, traveling, discovering how things work, how processes in the natural world take place, and reading about new scientific discoveries. I love gardening.

10. Why do you write?

I made a conscious decision to write poetry when I was about twelve, or rather, I decided to be a poet. I don’t know why, except that I was very certain, and since then it’s just been a long process of practicing this art.

 

Kristina Ortiz is an elementary school teacher and MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles where she is the associate managing editor and web team manager for the literary journal Lunch Ticket. She lives in Ventura County, California, with her fiancé, golden retriever Bella, and cat Lara.

À La Carte: IN THIS BODY, EVERYTHING ALREADY LOOKS LIKE DEATH

[creative nonfiction]

Where did it begin, the pain, the images that haunt me?La Prieta, Gloria E. Anzaldúa

Tyler Clementi was eighteen in 2010.

Before he ever became eighteen, he was a toddler. He was a kid with exceptional abilities, and he was known to have taught himself how to play the violin, accompanying it with his love for both bicycles and unicycles. He performed in numerous orchestras and was awarded for his contribution as well.

He was in the third grade when he began playing the violin. Exactly the time I was doing nothing with my life. He must have descended from Jupiter.

The summer after his high school graduation, Tyler disclosed to family and close friends he was gay. He had wanted them to know, not like he needed anyone’s permission to be who he was. He had hoped to let everyone around him embrace him for who he was.

That same period in my house, I could still not say the word “sex,” because God was always patrolling with whips waiting to pound anyone who ever said rotten things. We never saw him, but he was everywhere. Even in Tyler’s home, because after he disclosed his sexuality, as he confided in a friend, his mother “basically completely rejected” him.

Jane Clementi, who attended a different church from my mum’s—Evangelical Church, learned the same thing my mum learned: homosexuality is sin. And that’s fine, maybe, because all the religions of this world administer pain as a necessity to making paradise. A life full of peace has to come from being heartbroken and rejected by folks.

Tyler became one of the two freshmen who made it into the graduate orchestra of Rutgers University. That was August; same time I had my first boy crush who would later always end up on my lips.

In September, God decided to give me a break. He was headed for New Brunswick, New Jersey. He took over Ravi, Tyler’s roommate. And Ravi set up a cam to spy on his new roommate, who he barely ever spoke with, the content of which he later broadcasted online. “Found out my roommate is gay,” Dharun Ravi tweeted.

It was just for him to do this because straight people are God’s children and privacy is a faux illusion. How can we ever respect that?

He promised a season two on Twitter, because God had shown him in his dream to be a filmmaker. He was going to be popular. Opportunities to prove your worth in Hollywood rarely comes.

Tyler saw what happened—a movie in which he was the man cuddling, kissing, and undressing another boy, his boyfriend.

As an actor, you’ll have to learn that it is difficult to claim your life once it gets out there. The boy’s expelled from my school for homosexual acts could never get theirs back. The ones the junior students caught having sex in the classrooms never got their lives back. The news had gone round the school. People could drop notes with “HOMO” inscribed on them, just to taunt them.

I am praying the contents of these bottles don’t kill me for in this body, everything already looks like death.

Tell me, what do you do when your extremes have been reached, and you can’t expand anymore?

*     *     *

“Seriously I’ve heard about people like that but never met any.” She stops talking, perchance trying hard to remember what else to add to make her not look dumb. She bites her lips and searches for a million words in your eyes.

The air is arid and ghostly. And even though the sound of silence has grown stronger now, the wind still rumbles in your eardrum. Your head goes blank. And that is also the time she grabs your hands in hers. She exhales and holds you to a stop that your faces appear as if you two would start kissing any moment from now. You are nervous.

“Tell me, can a man really fall in love with a fellow?”

You smile, saying nothing.

“You mean to tell me that with the big boobs and butts, one can still choose to desire…”

“Yes. Desire the fine, fine lips, accent, body, soul, and footsteps,” you say already tired of the conversation. You don’t care if she understands but you don’t fail acknowledging her cold hands.

“You are really gay?”

You smile again because that is the only thing you know how to do best. You smile because you are an axolotl. No one hides pain better than you. Some minutes ago you defined what pansexual is to her. She nodded and you thought she understood. A win for you, you thought. The atmosphere is uncertain.

Aimee Nezhukumatathil in What Wonder Can Do writes: this salamander (axolotl) has the best little smile of all the smiley animals with no bones.

You are broken but you are still smiling.

*     *     *

The first girl I told about this nervousness I felt whenever a cute guy came around or sat close to me, stopped talking to me. We were in our sophomore year in the university, and she was the only person I ever told the truth about the T in my official name. If she saw me coming her way, she’d take another route. She always avoided eye contact, and even when I called her on the phone, she gave her friends the phone to tell me she wasn’t available. I was scared—frightened to death that she must have told another person. Or maybe, went on Twitter or Facebook to write a different version of Ravi’s tweet on 20 September 2010.

“Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

I was afraid. I was always afraid of public spaces; I would wait to be the last person to enter the class, and the first to leave. Who knew who else she might have told?

*     *     *

There’s a popular misconception that only the medical personnel can quantify the amount of pain a patient feels, but according to Watson’s Clinical Nursing and Related Sciences (sixth edition), “the person with pain is the only authority about the existence and nature of the pain, since the sensation of pain can be felt only by the person who has it.”

On the seventeenth of December 2017, I am driving a nail into wood. I am changing the net at my doorpost. It is old and torn and mosquitoes have taken advantage of it to feast on me every night. They deflower me every night.

Bang.

I miss the nail, but the hammer doesn’t miss my left thumb. I drop the hammer at the speed of light, jump to my feet, locate a seat, slump in, and want to enjoy my cry in peace, but my nephews and nieces are at my side sympathising with me. I always feel better after drowning in my tears. I just want to let the tears flow and cry to my satisfaction till I can’t feel anything anymore.

Circumstances determine your response to pain—to withhold or show the brokenness right away. Just not to be labelled cowards or babies, we can go to the extremes.

I force a smile to my face. Tell them I am alright, while making sure the already swollen thumb is out of sight. The pain is immeasurable. I know am crying but not openly. Smiley faces are conceit.

Eula Biss writes in The Pain Scale, “the sensations of my own body may be the only subject on which I am qualified to claim expertise. Sad and terrible…”

Mother who wasn’t around when this happened, takes my hand in hers, examines it the way every Nigerian mother does, carefully, and maybe lovingly, and with a feeling of I-wish-I-can-take-this-pain-away. “Good this is not much, it is a small stuff,” she says, and I think I don’t understand what she means. Does she mean the size of injury determines the amount of pain to be felt?

“You’ll be fine. Take a hot water therapy, you’ll get better. I’m sure it doesn’t hurt much.” I want to say something concerning the last statement but don’t.

“Don’t be a woman,” she finishes.

Researchers are yet to agree on which of the genders feel pain the most. It is believed that pain is perceived differently by individuals. And if that is the truth, pain doesn’t know sex or age. Thus, WCNRS affirms: “there is therefore no research evidence to support a consistent pattern of pain appreciation related to sex.”

*     *     *

Darling you are not yourself when you look into the mirror. You are faceless. You know this, you can feel this. This person in the mirror, looking back is not you.

On the evening of September twenty-second, Tyler Clementi updated his Facebook status: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”

*     *     *

Four weeks after she stopped talking to me. Four weeks of avoiding me, she ran into me at the hallway leading to the faculty’s library. She was wearing a smile. I have to confess. Smiling makes one younger and more beautiful. She looked like she had just come out from a plastic surgery. Her complexion had brightened, and I wondered if she had started patronising Dove™.

“I’m sorry for not calling all these days,” she said.

“Pas de probleme,” I responded wishing to bring the discussion to an end.

“We have a program at the church. I am inviting you.” Her face beamed, “My pastor can help you.”

“With what?”

“The word of God. He can cast the demons away.”

Talking about the axolotl, Aimee continues: “the axolotl’s mouth is pulled naturally into what we humans would call a smile.”

I smiled.

“You can cut the limbs at any level—the wrist, elbows, upper arm—and it will make another.”

No one can say all physical injuries cause pain. According to research, as reported by the Independent, “about one in a million people are thought to be born without a sense of pain…”

This condition is known as Congenital Insensitivity to pain.

For people with this disorder, pain is nothing. While Ashlyn Blocker, a girl with this disorder admitted feeling pressure, she never felt pain.

Wikipedia states that “indifference to pain means that the patient can perceive the stimuli but lacks an appropriate response. They do not flinch or withdraw when exposed to pain.”

Tyler’s response when he found his roommate was a bully, was to request for a room change, but he wasn’t taken seriously.

Axolotls, though they regenerate every cut limb, elbow, arm, etc., are labelled CRITICALLY ENDANGERED. This is as a result of the urbanisation of Mexico City, where they are mainly found. And maybe because they are known to always regenerate, no one paid attention to them, till they started drifting into nonexistence.

On twenty-ninth of September, Tyler’s body was found in the Hudson River, north of the George Washington Bridge. Autopsy stated “drowning” as the cause of death.

And many years later in June of 2017, in a gathering of queer people, someone termed us “the endangered species.” Everyone laughed, though taking that to heart because it is a lived reality in Nigeria. Endangered because the law is against every queer body; endangered because the people are against queer bodies; endangered because queer bodies exist only in small vacuums created for them; endangered because bullies are always scouting for perfect preys to ambush.

In this [queer] body, everything already looks like death.

Do broken bodies stop laughing?

“I am trying to be that good friend,” my friend says. “Let me help you with this abnormality.”

I am smiling again as if assuring myself of my safety; still wondering how many other people have heard this thing we discussed. And as if reading my mind she quickly adds, “I haven’t told anyone else.”

*     *     *

In Australia in 2016, New York Post reported the death of Tyrone Unsworth, a thirteen-year-old gay boy. He committed suicide because he believed everyone in his class wanted him dead. His friend, Gypsie-Lee Edwards Kennard revealed that other students did call him nasty names like: faggot…

He felt like no one wanted him and he really didn’t belong anywhere.

Sometimes the pain in your head pushes you off the cliff of yourself and you feel you can’t hold on anymore. No one feels this but you.

*     *     *

Sometimes, our attitudes toward pain manifest differently depending on what is involved, like someone searching for the eternal “light” subjects themselves to all forms of pain, and still feel nothing about it because of the greater goal—the thing to be benefitted—which is redemption, a pass into the spiritual realm.

I want to wake in the morning feeling better and never scared someone is trailing me. I want to look myself in the mirror and see how amazing my face is. I want to feel no pain. I am tired of smiling, regenerating my broken self every time.

I want to stop seeing dead bodies in my dream. I want to stop dying in my dreams. The train is moving fast.

There’s a clear difference between the pain one subjects oneself to and the one others subject one to. They hurt differently. What do I stand to gain if someone sets my body on fire?

It is well argued that relief for pain comes with age. Pain management comes with a number of grey hairs on one’s head. This means that if two people who are ten years older and younger and of the same sexual orientation are kept in a room, the chances of the younger one harming themselves after being bullied, molested, and harassed are higher than that of the older who has seen it all in life.

This argument comes from the saying that adults should always face their shit.

But that’s not true—it is baseless. Sometimes adults recoil and when they can’t take it anymore, they explode.

*     *     *

The second person I told about my sexuality laughed. I liked that they laughed. I liked they didn’t believe me. They laughed some more, stopped, gazed upon me, swallowed their saliva, and told me better to hang myself than bed a fellow man.

“I mean, this is unthinkable. How can a girl bed a fellow, not to even think of a man penetrating a fellow man?” They hissed. “Man, better suicide than this. God will understand.”

I am dirty. I smell.

*     *     *

On page 140 of Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Hᴓeg, Smilla Jasperson notes: “nothing in life should simply be a passage from one place to another. Each walk should be taken as if it is the only thing you have left.”

I have no life left—not even my strength, not the desire to continue living. I have lied to a lot of people to stay afloat. In this stream of constant rejections, I am drowning.

And when in 2015 I woke in the hospital bed, someone said they found me writhing in pain, holding my chest and breathing fire like I was going to die. I was found in my room. I had taken cards of paracetamol, piritone, amoxil, and artesunate. I had overdosed, but I didn’t say.

My saviour, the someone who was also my neighbour where I lived, thought as usual I had had cardiac arrest.

*     *     *

You have lied about many things, but never the numbness you feel. Neither the pain nor how you see other humans coming closer to you as predators.

In an English class mocking the eighteenth century England, the clean shaven lecturer asked what could be done to keep one’s dignity untainted.

Death, you said, but only in your head.

There’s a popular European myth that the white stoat, alias ermine because of its winter coat, would kill itself when being pursued, rather than soiling itself.

A week later, you returned to the hospital. In the news, another gay boy shot himself.

This body feels so strange. In this body, everything already feels like death.

*     *     *

In 1971, Melzack and Torgerson developed the McGill Pain Questionnaire. It consists of seventy-eight adjectives arranged into groups. Patients select a word from each group that best capture their pains. This questionnaire was developed in an attempt to help medical doctors understand what their patients feel, better.

  1. Flickering, Pulsing, Quivering, Throbbing, Beating, Pounding
  2. Jumping, Flashing, Shooting
  3. Pricking, Boring, Drilling, Stabbing
  4. Sharp, Cutting, Lacerating
  5. Pinching, Pressing, Gnawing, Cramping, Crushing
  6. Tugging, Pulling, Wrenching
  7. Hot, Burning, Scalding, Searing
  8. Tingling, Itchy, Smarting, Stinging
  9. Dull, Sore, Hurting, Aching, Heavy
  10. Tender, Taut (Tight), Rasping, Splitting
  11. Tiring, Exhausting
  12. Sickening, Suffocating
  13. Fearful, Frightful, Terrifying
  14. Punishing, Gruelling, Cruel, Vicious, Killing
  15. Wretched, Blinding
  16. Annoying, Troublesome, Miserable, Intense, Unbearable
  17. Spreading, Radiating, Penetrating, Piercing
  18. Tight, Numb, Squeezing, Drawing, Tearing
  19. Cool, Cold, Freezing
  20. Nagging, Nauseating, Agonising, Dreadful, Torturing

And even though this questionnaire after completion would allow seven words that best describe your pain, I feel all. I still feel all. I am always feeling all.

To test the weight of the adjectives against each other, I consult the dictionary and play with them, even if it means repeating same words several times. For what is pain if you still pay attention to structure and meaning?

I am not interested of course in the measurement of pain, for even after it is quantified, what else? Does it go? What do I do to make it go?

In this body, everything already looks like death.

*     *     *

People who are inflicting pain on you usually think they’re doing you good, like the man flogging a child or the girlfriend suggesting conversion therapy.

Your phone beeps. It is your friend from previous night, and she texted to let you know Jesus loves you. You smile, say amen, and delete the message. In your head you are shouting: of course he loves me, why won’t he? Does he have an option?

That’s when you call home, telling your mother you have something very important to tell her. You may never say this, but she says she is ready whenever you want. You say it again making sure you heard yourself, and you keep saying this in your head, not because you actually want to, but to repair the injury before it spreads to the other parts of the body.

“Mum, I think am queer… yes, yes, I don’t mean your dead dog. Hello, hello, are you there, ma?”

 

Akpa Arinzechukwu is a writer and translator, the author of City Dwellers (Splash of Red). Their work has appeared in Transition, Sou’wester, Saraba magazine, ITCH, New Contrast, Brittle Paper, and elsewhere.

 

Spotlight: LEMONADE

Googling flowers that sound country enough
to create my own lemon on a step
because it is smart to discuss a field
of goldenrods rather than the hood
flying up on the old eighty-four ford ranger
while we were doing seventy on seventy-five
because the truck was a lemon
held together by bungee cords, electrical tape, and prayer,
but lord, how you made lemonade,
and taught me to make it as well,
and to believe that discussing poverty
did not have to mean discussing trauma.
we sang songs, our own apartment building
hymnals, we took our WIC down
to save-a-lot to pick up communion
milk, juicy juice, a block of government cheese,
take a shopping cart to the corral for a quarter
spear soda cans on the side of the road
fire department fed us christmas dinner
and we thanked god we had it all

 

Tucker Leighty-Phillips is a student and writer living in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. His work has recently appeared in Atlas Obscura, WhiskeyPaper, and Maudlin House.

Writers Read: feeld by Jos Charles

The poet Vijay Seshadri said that “the purpose of poetry is to deal with unprecedented experience.” Poets will use unprecedented language, but few have made poems mostly made up of entirely unprecedented words. Jos Charles’s feeld accomplishes just that, living in an invented and unnamed dialect that is as new as it is familiar. Her text at first appears aberrant, yet bears the resonance of an original—as in, older and perhaps more faithful—English. At the same time, it has a clear sense of invention and modernity, reading like an ancient folio, an SMS with spelling from the future, an alternately evolved present-day speech. Charles’s amalgamation of medieval, modern, and historically speculative language renders her scenes of trans life in an uncommonly unique music.

The word glome appears throughout the book as a mysterious action, imbued with fluidity and life, possible of any number of definitions. Various places emerge and reappear throughout the book: the guarden, markett, feemale depositrie room, whorld, the linden... Among these too is the title’s feeld, which can be seen as a guide: though the poems are numbered in order, they form a landscape that recontextualizes every other part of itself and, much like the body, often goes on feel while the past (tense) and history is always there.

Each poem stands on its own, and the fragments comprising them deepen and morph when heard by themselves.

XXI:

bieng graselesse / mye breasthes
foldeing for the firste /
the cruelest retoric
fore givennesse   /   & ther big browne beerds
lik pubik slugg            / i muste
re member / plese kepe ur handes
2 urself / i meen this
ontologicklie /
nayture is sumwere else         

Perhaps more than any other poetry collection in recent memory, feeld lays bare the runic quality of language down to the word, the letter. The way “mye” carries both my and ye presents a multiplicity of meaning that both clarifies and obscures in its branching. “Breasthes” of course too immediately recalls breaths, or the sound of life, effortful and inevitable, both invisible and the means to surviving the body and thus being seen.

Charles writes in her author’s note: “Where there is no call is, now, where we must listen. Not to ask to see or be seen, but to be committed, again, and always again, to what we have always consented: unto the wood of the table, its form and time, to the room, the ash, its form, and its time.” And the runes return us to commitment:

foldeing for the firste /
and again:

re member / plese kepe ur handes

Far from merely a mental act, the appearance of “re member” suggests an alternate etymology that is more tactile and physical. Then the invocation of the active again-ness of keeping one’s hands. Then the oneness of “one” is challenged:

2 urself / i meen this
ontologicklie /

Charles’s script questions itself and the modes of bringing us to bodied considerations: her version of ontologicklie replaces ‘ally’ with ‘lie.’ Though, this is not deconstruction resulting in abandonment, the poem remains in the difficulty and wonder of commitment:

nayture is sumwere else

Perhaps this implies the nay is somewhere else, and the yes is present. But the yes here is more complex. Charles continues in her author’s note, “We stake a claim—this is my body, my breast, even as we doubt the words that lead us there, doubt the mineness, the body, and whose breasts are afforded purchase.”

Just as Charles needed to invent to produce language due to what she describes as a lack of existing satisfactory words to describe trans existence, the reader is invited to apply the closest reading possible. Any given word is potentially its own poem with origins in a parallel invented timeline. The poems when read out loud can sound as though coming from a person learning to speak for the first time… the reader in the moment must translate each moment, form the words slowly, sounding and sorting the inscriptions out in the mouth and the mind which conflict and harmonize in surprising ways. It sounds like a close reading, one that is always fruitful.

Throughout, the speaker seems to grasp their potency, as well as that of all language. From LV:

i kno
no new waye / 2 speech
this / the powre off lyons

Her address is likewise double, as an internal exploration and a more public discussion, addressing not only public spaces like bathrooms, but public behaviors like the “struktured responce” of shock (LVII), which is often a performance seeking absolution. Within the field of shapeshifting and ever-deepening exploration lies moments of undeniable clarity. Charles writes in LVII:

/ did u kno
not a monthe goes bye / a tran i kno doesnt dye / just
shye off 27 / its such a plesure to be alive /

Or sometimes it’s a clear question, which itself is a form of answer. From LIV:

/ o
u who unforl me / how manie
holes wuld blede / befor
u believ / imma grl

The problems of visibility come to the fore, resulting in statements that ascribe its startling weight and consequence, “a loss /               being seen” (XLI.) or “it is horribel // off corse to be // tangibel” (IX.) or “it is tragyck / bieng undre // stood” (LII.)

For Charles, the element of sacrifice in creating and sharing this work is apparent. Yet, the voice in

Jos Charles

feeld remains committed, and gesturing toward a view of seeing as a daily-ness and a process. From XV:

                                       it is pleesing
2 understande laybor as a feeld / a felt
                        past thru / i wuld see

                        u / grene inn that lande
 
And again, towards the end of the book, from LIX:

 wee laybore
                        at mornynge / this is not
            its seeson / i wil
            herold the seeson

feeld is a difficult, rending, and immensely pleasurable book, magnetic in its immediate world of sounds and forking paths garden of linguistic innovations. A work to be savored and lost in, and entered as a beginning of the invitation to seeing and hearing what we may never fully have the language for.

 

Jordan Nakamura is a poet, co-Lead editor for Poetry and Visual Art, and lead designer for Lunch Ticket Magazine. He was born and raised in Hawaii and is an MFA candidate at AULA. He’s been published in Zócalo Public Square and The Curator, and currently lives in Los Angeles.

Starr Page, I bring YOU Presents, 2017, ink and watercolor, 11 x 14

Spotlight: We the WOMEN of Changing Girls

I consider my work a contemplation of the contemporary image. I create through scribbling twisting and interlacing lines creating this mass of interesting shapes. A vital expression is then released and an innovation of an image emerges. I enjoy delving into the psychological portion of my mind through drawing […]

À La Carte: another Black Body takes on the role of narrator

i dream about time
i dream, that it loves me
that time will give Black Bodies more of itself

this poem is about a universe where time runs the world
this poem is about a universe where time aint got no time for Black Bodies
a universe in which time plays chess with Black Bodies

check mate.

the speaker of this poem has died
another Black Body takes on the role of narrator

this poem is about a universe where time runs the world
this poem is about a universe where Black Bodies don’t make it to the bbq
                                                                   some call it CP time, but I know
this poem is about a universe where time aint got no time for Black Bodies
therefore,                               Black Bodies don’t always make it to the

the speaker of this poem has died
another Black Body takes on the role of narrator

this poem is about a universe where

the speaker of this poem has died
another Black Body takes on the role of narrator
another Black Body takes on the role of narrator
another Black Body takes on the role of narrator
another Black Body takes on the role of narrator
another Black

 

Maurisa Li-A-Ping is an Afro-Caribbean Black Queer Woman. She is a storyteller and educator raised by a village of Black women in Brooklyn, New York. Maurisa utilizes poetry as a site for social justice and inclusion to promote student learning and development on college campuses. Her performances have allowed her to touch stages at the world-famous Apollo Theater, United Nations, Poetic License festival, Barclay Center and more. Her dedication to her craft has led her to receive the Ernst Pawel Award for literary excellence, and national and regional honors from The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. Maurisa is currently continuing her education as a Master’s student at Indiana University Bloomington and has forthcoming publication in Black Diasporas: Essays on being Black and Bicultural and Wusgood Mag.

 

 

Litdish: LeVan D. Hawkins, Writer, Poet, Performance Artist

LeVan D. Hawkins is a writer, poet, and performance artist formerly of Los Angeles and based in Chicago. In Chicago, he has appeared at the You’re Being Ridiculous storytelling series at Steppenwolf Theatre, Links Hall, the Homolatte Reading Series, This Much Is True Chicago, OUTspoken!, Fillet-of-Solo-Storytelling Festival, and Center on Halsted. Hawkins’s prose has appeared in such publications as EDNA: The Magazine of the Millay Colony of the Arts, Lunch Ticket, Bleed literary blog, LA Times, LA Weekly, LA and SF Frontiers, Sante Fe Reporter, and Sacramento News and Review. A MacDowell Colony of the Arts fellow and MFA recipient from Antioch University Los Angeles, he has traveled across the country reading and performing and has appeared in the New York International Fringe Festival and the National Black Theater Festival. In LA, he has performed at venues such as the UCLA Hammer Museum, Redcat Theater at Disney Hall, and Highways Performance Space. He is currently completing his book, What Men Do. 

10 Questions for LeVan D. Hawkins:

1. What inspires you the most in terms of your writing and performances?

I’m sitting here battling with definitions. Am I being asked what inspires me or what influences me? Or does she want a combination of both? I’m going to cheat and go with influence. Church comes up. Not necessarily what was said in church, but the rituals, the presentation. I grew up in the church much in the way James Baldwin did. His “Go Tell It On The Mountain” reflects my life more than any other book; yet as I think about this statement, my mind is downloading all the ways I am different. I’ll say this: I read that book at fourteen and recognized its authenticity and DNA. In his essays, he combined anecdote with fact. Baldwin used his life in his work, who he was, what he had experienced. The good son, the animosity you face being that, the obligation of being anointed with talent by God at an early age, his gayness that I recognized in the main character’s admiration for Elisha, the young minister. So, yes, the church. More so, the black church. The theater of it, the emotion in the sermons, the objective of sharing stories to make the world better, the repetition ministers use to stir the congregation, the call and response from the congregation when they are moved, the intensity of the singing, the squalls, the majesty of the Bible verses. It is where I come from though I recognize how often religion is twisted to oppress people and that there are inconsistencies and contradictions and sometimes a lack of clarity in the storytelling, things I would be dinged for in my personal writing.

2. Was there a specific person who inspired you?

Ok, I’m going to cheat again and say, excellence inspires me. Artists who are dedicated to their craft and who give their all excite me. I saw playwright and performance artist Luis Alfaro do a presentation and Q & A at Victory Gardens Theatre in Chicago and he just blew me away, his innovation, his passion for work and his community. Playwright and actress Charlayne Woodard is one of my sister friends. To see how hard she works, to see how she’s always improving, is inspiring and life-changing. They are my standards. I’m honored to call them “friend.” Influence? My aunt, our church clerk, a leader of charity organizations, a village trustee who was always writing, giving speeches, researching, producing shows, and advising me on presentation when I was young. I gave my first speeches, my first poetry readings at church at six or seven.

Grit your teeth and bear it. You don’t have to do what they recommend; they could be wrong. But respect the notes and consider their points. This process helps you develop good taste, which is necessary for making choices.

 3. What’s the most recent thing you’ve written and/or performed?

I recently wrote and performed a story for the You’re Being Ridiculous storytelling series at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago for Pride month. I studied the work of acclaimed storytellers before I began. I wrote about a church adversary, both of us smart, ambitious, and gay. We should have been friends, but we were sworn enemies. He later returned to church as a trans woman. That was the impetus for the story.

4. What’s your writing process like?

I begin by pondering—there’s always the danger of that going on too long—then I sit down and free associate and write everything I think or remember about my subject. I type that up then expound on what I’ve written, write transitional observations, stories, and anecdotes. I’ve never had any trouble coming up with material, though sometimes it’s difficult to simply begin. I repeat the process. I keep working attempting to make the words flow into words creating stronger sentences or thoughts. Then I focus on making the sentences flow creating paragraphs with intention; the aim is for the paragraphs to flow creating the through-line for the piece. Through-line is more of a theater word, I suppose, but that’s how I think. Then I try to clean up the language, work on rhythms, and make the writing sound like I’m thinking and speaking, which is important for me. I am influenced by public speaking, theater, and film. I keep working on my vision until time runs out. Very rarely I am done. Occasionally, I’m impatient and will send something out too early. Mistakes are part of growing. My goal this year is to spend more time on polish.

5. What advice would you give to emerging poets and writers?

Allow yourself to be bad—I love the chapter, “Shitty First Drafts” in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Don’t censor in those early drafts, just transcribe what you’re thinking, seek seemingly unrelated items that give power to the points you’re trying to make. Read your work aloud as much as you can. Keep asking what is this sentence, paragraph, chapter, book about? Find fellow writers you respect and ask them for notes. Do the same for them. Seek out hard-to-please writers. Writers who will give you specific feedback not assuage your insecurities. And don’t defend your work when you receive it. Grit your teeth and bear it. You don’t have to do what they recommend; they could be wrong. But respect the notes and consider their points. This process helps you develop good taste, which is necessary for making choices. Don’t give anyone the first drafts of your work. Sweat a little before you send it out. When you’re pleased, find an open mike and read an excerpt that has a beginning, middle, and end. And I know it seems cute to go on and on about our neurosis and procrastination (maybe a little too much of that in Bird by Bird), but you really must get some words down.

6. What are you reading right now?

I am reading This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff, for the third or fourth time. I’m examining the ways Wolff created himself as a multi-dimensional character. In the book, he’s semi-thuggish but yearns to be good. Who this character is, is evident at the end of the opening scene and continues to the end. The narrator is self-aware, reflective, admits to his flaws, and plays up his contradictions and shortcomings all the way through. Wolff plays up this dichotomy until he makes his transition into adulthood.

Some writers seem to forget their own character development—I’m referring here to first person non-fiction. It’s easy to do—it requires some emotional distance to access who we are as human beings. It doesn’t have to be completely true but there needs to be truth in it. Some don’t use enough well-executed motifs for me to remember what’s important for me to take away. We view ourselves as these steadily-evolving beings, but change is slow; there is more character consistency in our behavior than we wish to admit. I don’t think one anecdote illustrating character followed by a lot of “then this happened” and “this happened” without finding ways to return to revealing character and its nuances is enough.

 

If I had one day to live, what do I want to leave behind as my last words? Knowing I won’t be around for the clapback. Knowing I must be clear because I won’t be around to get my point across. Whatever I come up with, that’s what I should be writing about. Today, I say my last words would be about communication and the necessity of empathy.

7. How do you prepare for a performance?

At least once, I slowly go over the manuscript in terms of words to sentences, sentences to paragraphs, and paragraphs to through-line. What is the purpose of the word, sentence, paragraph, through-line? Writing and performance are similar. If something doesn’t read well, something’s probably wrong. If you can’t remember it, perhaps it’s because on a subconscious level, something’s wrong with the thought process behind the words, they’re not flowing in a logical manner. I am constantly editing as I rehearse. I try to read the manuscript aloud as much as possible. Fast, slow, exaggerated voices, anything to break it up and come up with new line-readings. Who am I talking to? What needs to be emphasized so there’s a payoff ? What’s the intention of what I’m saying? When does it change?

I mark my manuscript for stress and emphasis, but my goal is do the work at home then get up on the stage or behind the podium and just let it rip. Don’t be married to the work done in rehearsal. I am attuned to the audience, my scene partners. I compare interacting with them to having sex and being aware of my partner’s responses to what I’m doing. You switch up, emphasize, slow down, speed up when it’s good.

8. What the most important thing you want to get across in your writing and performances?

I want to take you into my thought process, my head, my life. I attempt to tell what happened and what I see and how I felt in that moment without adding a lot of editorial.

9. What are your interests outside of the literary world?

So much of my time is taken up focusing on looking after my mother who has dementia. As in writing, there are actions involved in caregiving that go beyond the obvious. Doctors, deciding who to listen to, ordering medicine, giving medicine, shopping, cooking, cleaning, paying house bills, etc. In writing, there’s reading others’ work, keeping up with current events so you can know what people are going through and what they need, applying for grants and fellowships, reading your friends’ work, writing book proposals, doing research etc. When is there time for anything else? Though this writer could use some romance.

10. If you could ask yourself any question, what would it be and what would the answer be?

If I had one day to live, what do I want to leave behind as my last words? Knowing I won’t be around for the clapback. Knowing I must be clear because I won’t be around to get my point across. Whatever I come up with, that’s what I should be writing about. Today, I say my last words would be about communication and the necessity of empathy.

 

Kristina Ortiz is an elementary school teacher and MFA candidate at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she is the associate managing editor and web team manager for the literary journal Lunch Ticket. She lives in Ventura County, California with her fiancé, golden retriever Bella, and cat Lara.

 

À La Carte: Safe House

[creative nonfiction]

“Every year, hundreds of thousands of American families become homeless, including more than 1.6 million children. Even a seemingly minor event can trigger a catastrophic outcome and catapult a family onto the streets.”

The National Center on Family Homelessness

 

December in Philadelphia had closed in fast, with a sudden shift from the delightful days of autumn to the callous chill of winter. It was the kind of cold that our coats couldn’t protect us from—we had spent far too much time outside. But this is where most of my possessions were sold: out on the sidewalk.

“The posters are five dollars each. Both the Manet and Monet are in perfect condition.”

Each day I had propped my household goods on the stone slabs across from the busiest coffee shop in the neighborhood. I knew the baristas, most of whom had provided the affection that I fed on as a new mother.

“Oh, those, no, my mistake…I can’t sell those. I’m sorry…the Rumi and Rilke are not for sale, but those cookbooks are fifty cents each.”

It was here where I finally had made some new friends, having only recently moved into town. These women were also new moms who were at home with their babies and half-awake after another sleepless night.

“Aren’t those chairs amazing? They’re antique. Fifty-bucks for the pair.”

These women were all seeking company that could validate their post-partum thoughts of how motherhood had changed their identity. I wondered whether their spouses had withdrawn their love as much as mine had. Watching neighbors go in and out of the coffee shop, I hoped that they would buy something from my sale on their way home.

*     *     *

The girls took long naps and stayed warm in the van while I hustled my goods, but I had to get them back to the house before sunset in order to fix up the little camp. A streetlight beamed in through the naked windows, and luckily there was one rooted directly in front of the old row house or the darkness of winter skies would have been too overbearing. Sawdust, the chaotic compilation of boxes, toppled furniture, tools, tangled extension cords, dust, and more dust surrounded us as the sharp air seeped in through the gaps in the window frames. Our bodies intermingled beneath the covers, and my daughters snuggled so close that we breathed as one body. Lying between the past and the uncertain future, it had been five days sleeping here, but it was our last night in the old row house.

My children suckled their designated breast, Ruby on the right and Jade on the left. It was my daughters’ ritual while falling asleep, their bellies filled and their energy expired after having to work for the warm milk they loved. The girls were just over a year apart, nestled into the hollows under my shoulders, oblivious to the precarious situation we were in. When they dropped their heads and were sleeping like stones, I carefully slipped from between them and stood up, wrapping an extra blanket around my back. Stretching my spine, I checked on my minivan parked a floor below on the street outside.

A fresh layer of snow had covered the dark green roof that protected the only belongings we had left. Swallowing the brittle fact of homelessness, and moving from one shelter to another, I gave away everything that I couldn’t sell. Watching the snowflakes, I thought to myself, “Nothing else is as white; perhaps they signify a new start.” Yet I was left with my mind’s stirring a strange concoction of loss and liberation, because everything was gone—everything, including the girls’ father and any hope of reassembling the future I had imagined.

*     *     *

Just after dawn, we hit the highway, going southbound before the traffic got insane. Looking out the window, I reminisced about the first warm day after a harsh winter when I had taken Ruby out for her initial spring stroll. I recalled myself as a joyful new mother, pushing the carriage, still hopeful that my young family would thrive. How lovely the warm sun had caressed my chest that day as I cruised along wearing a halter top that I had just crocheted to match Ruby’s hat. I was the sort of woman who loved to expose the perfect curve of her abdomen, certain that the fetus could feel the same soft sun as I did while walking to mommy-and-me yoga class. When we arrived at the cottage where mommies coddled with their babies and assembled in a circle, I began my deep breathing. As I tickled Ruby, who rolled between my legs, I imagined the new baby girl inside me, at peace, growing all her parts, and let her know that she was already thoroughly loved.

*     *     *

After hitting traffic in DC but then passing quickly through Virginia and the Carolinas, we neared Savannah, Georgia, and I began to picture the beach, eager for the sun and the shaking off of frost. We stopped for the night at a cheap motel on a mossy, tree-lined street. The bed’s slope, the petite coffee maker, and the thin, hard, dry soap, wrapped like a package, were perfect for the night. We could jump, tickle, and play. Forgetting all else, we began to laugh. Sometimes laughter begets itself, stretching time, pushing the past back and the future forward as if it were its own form of procreation when silliness reigns supreme and you wonder why you ever cried. When joy is so fulfilling, its expanse pushes out the excess fluid from your body, and you just have to pee, or weep, or both. You weep that you have wept before, and you weep still because you have finally stopped weeping. That makes only more laughter, and you look at each other realizing that you are each laughing for a different reason, and that makes the moment funnier. Then the laughter sounds funnier because one of you heaves, another makes a snort, and then you can’t catch your breath. It’s running to the utopia of the beach faster than you can catch it. It is wild and free and has nobody to answer to, and that makes you laugh and cry simultaneously until you taste the salt of your tears dripping from the gutter above your upper lip. Descending notes of laughter and several sheets of tissue, signify the beginning of the end. But one of only four channels on the TV fills the room with “doo doo doo doo, doo doo doo doo. There is a fifth dimension…,” and again the imminent tsunami called Hilarity draws near and begins to suck you in. You remind yourself that you can take it; these elongated happy moments, these images and sounds, have been a long time coming. Afterward, you will ache in your belly, maybe even in your jaw. Here it comes, all over again. Hold on. You can take it.

*     *     *

We set out early the next day—the monotony of highway travel always made my babies sleep. How far could four wheels take us? Only one hundred ninety-two miles until we reached Miami, but there was a cluster of recent memories invading my mind as I drove:

 

January 2009

It was our third day in the hospital and we were set to go home. Jason hadn’t come back to see us since Jade was born. She was perfect and ate well. My newborn slept on my supple stomach. It grumbled and she twitched; I picked up the phone and decided not to call him again. Instead, I ordered another Philly cheesesteak from the cafeteria. Jade had a full head of blond hair, which was a shocker, but her face looked just like his to me. I never did assume his last name. He never actually proposed, though he introduced me to his tattoo clients as his wife when he was working. I think a pregnant wife just got him bigger tips. But my regret diminished as I admired the face of this miniature miracle in my arms, so peaceful as if she were recalling what it was like in heaven. Then she let out a wide and heavy exhalation, larger than her tiny frame would be expected to yield, as if to say, “Hey, Mama, don’t forget: you have me.”

 

July 2009

The lease to our apartment was about to expire, and Jade was only seven months old. It was not up for renewal because of the demolition that was rapidly approaching. Jason had not returned from Louisiana after having been summoned for yet another beguiling family drama. The stories of medical fraud, house burning, baby stealing, bloody fights, insurance scams, shots fired, his ex-wife demanding money, slander in need of squelching, and always another funeral were a tangle of tales that I couldn’t keep straight. He called apologizing that he couldn’t send me any money. He was broke. With no family in town, I was forced to pack up the entire houseful of stuff, find somewhere to store it, and appeal to a local shelter.  Weeks became months. Jade began walking, and Ruby talking. While I read another rejection letter from the housing authority, I watched them play among the tombstones on the side of the church where we were staying. Each evening, we were due inside for curfew at 7 p.m., ate supper, and then went to our cots. I would lie down, a horizontal pillar of comfort, my babies’ well-being my only purpose, before we all had to vacate at 7 a.m., rain or shine.

 

October 2009

I often sat with my babies in a church basement around a table set for five or six. After I put on my shawl and gave my breast to my baby, I was shot the same offended looks that I got every night from the other moms I roomed with. I was “the crazy white girl” who breastfed that no one in the shelter really wanted to talk to. So I was destined to have the same conversation every evening with the volunteers who served us, and to answer the same questions:

“So, how old are your children?”                                                     

“Ruby is two, and Jade is almost a year.”

“Where is your husband?”    

“Well, he abandoned us.”

“Have you found a job yet?”                                                

“Actually, I was in college until…”

Then a middle-aged woman in a floral dress sat across from me with a pinched smile. She had confirmed with her friends that none of them knew me and that I must be one of them. “Would you like a brownie?” she asked as my oldest reached for one. Jade dropped my keys and then the invisible veil fell over my face—the veil that I hoped would hide my stare into nothingness. I was an outcast in the shelter, as well as in my country. Then I felt the extreme tickle of my baby fondling my nipple, and I remembered that so did millions of other women.

 

December 2009

Our time limit in the shelter was almost up, but it was the stomach flu that ended our stay there. We were vomiting all night long, both girls were inconsolable, and exhaustion was killing me. It was pouring rain outside. Jade was crying on the floor, and Ruby was pulling at my coat. I was bug-eyed and bloodshot, stuffing a garbage bag with sickening sheets when a social worker picked up my youngest and said, “It appears that you need help, and I mean you look unfit as a mother. I am going to recommend a program to help your children receive proper care.” And she started dialing her phone; never before had a fear so cold consumed me. Stiffened at the thought of having my children taken away, I managed to reach for my daughter, who dove out of the woman’s arms and into mine.

As panic and illness threatened my composure, I methodically told her, “I have a sack of filthy, wet sheets that I need to take to the laundromat.” And balancing Jade on my hip, I hitched numerous straps over my shoulders. I stuffed bags with toys and blankets, certain not to miss the diapers, wipes, towels, toothbrushes, coats, sippy cups, soap, and snacks. In a fury, weak and knowing I looked senseless; I took Ruby’s hand and headed for the van. While standing in the rain and fastening the girls in their car seats, I thought to ask that nice guy from the coffee shop if we could stay at the extra house he bought, the one not ready to live in.

*     *     *

The girls woke up. I stopped and slipped in my favorite West African CD. A smile spread across my face when the female choruses came in—so smooth and so joyful. Ours was the only car in the parking lot. The moon was bright, and we were far enough south that it was warm at three or four in the morning. Ruby took off, ecstatic that she was allowed to move as she pleased. Jade and my second fingers tightly linked as Jade gathered her equilibrium and released her grip, becoming a silhouette in the neon glare.

The next morning, I stopped at a store in Miami to shop for the essentials we needed for camping by the beach. I had raised more than 2,000 dollars from my sales to live on for as long as it would last. I had an air mattress and a cooler I had saved. I also had some cookware and towels, rope and masking tape, buckets and flashlights, clothes, blankets, and a port-a-potty. I decided to buy a kerosene grill, a nice tent, a lantern, food, and ice. Rolling down the Seven Mile Highway, we reached the Florida Keys, which was as far south as we could get.

The state parks were booked solid. Traversing bridge after bridge that connected small islands, and habitat for tiny Key deer, we passed stores that sold Key lime pie and conch. We found vacancies at Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge which was packed with gigantic RVs and dozens of snow birds from the north: Michigan, Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Maine. This merry crew of retirees was busy decorating the social hall for the approaching Christmas Party. After entering this tropical wonderland, and discovering the list of activities, I was convinced to book a site. There were crafts for kids; the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Claus on a fishing boat, a play the children were invited to participate in; and a dance featuring contests in the jitterbug, the two-step, and the twist. The humble cashier handed over a shiny new key to the main entrance; I thought to myself, “Wow, we’ve made it. People were happy here: happy to be warm, happy to treat each other like family, happy to see the children.” The ladies assured me that more youngsters would be arriving from up north—they came every year at Christmastime—and that there was a playground next to the showers. I was in no hurry to get to work on the campsite, so I let the girls loose on the dance floor while holiday songs played, and someone gave me a cup of heavily spiked eggnog. I almost wept. It was the bourbon and brandy in it that tasted so good.

Strings of lights were wrapped like candy cane stripes on every pole and palm on the lot. A picnic table stood under the large butterfly bush on our campsite, providing a strong elevated surface for the girls to stand on while decorating. My instincts had been in high gear during my sidewalk sales—I had not sold my ornaments. As the girls and I were hanging them up our neighbor appeared from around the bush and introduced herself with some tinsel to share.

“Hello, welcome to the fishing lodge. My name is June. My husband’s just coming back from the boat. Harold is his name. He’s been growing his beard out for a long time to play Santa Claus, and Christmas Eve is only a day away.” June gave Ruby and Jade two tiny stuffed penguins wearing elf hats. “You girls made it just in time.” Harold poked his head out carrying something.

“A fish! Mommy! A fish!” Ruby called out.

“Fish!” Jade mimicked. The shimmer of the wet scales coating this big and beautiful fish had the sheen of a shiny knife.

“Well, hellooooooooo! I hope you girls are hungry. We sure have a lot of fish to go around.” And the white of his beard stunned me with its beauty. I had been wrong about the snow. There is something as white. Harold looked me over, and I thought he was admiring my vintage polka-dot dress. He confidently said, “I would bet a million bucks you are a dancer.”

“You’re right.”

“Well, my sweet June injured her hip not long ago, though she has been the reigning jitterbug champion for a few years running, and I’m looking for a partner. I’d be tickled if you’d accompany me.”

“I’m in. Hi, I’m Angie,” I said shaking his hand. It had been too long since I’d felt the “click” of being in the right place at the right time.

“Mommy! Look!” And a small deer squarely stepped onto our site, approaching us completely unafraid.

June got some lettuce and gave some to the girls. “Don’t be frightened, children. You can feed them. They’re very gentle.”

“Mommy! He’s eating!” Ruby said as the deer’s wet nose moistened her fingers and the lettuce slid in its mouth and crunched.

June asked, “Have you seen the beach yet? It’s just around the bend there.”

I took the girls, one in each hand, and we walked slowly down the path. Once through the tall, inviting grass, Ruby took off flying across the shallowest of shorelines. For a long way, the cove appeared as if the ocean were just one huge puddle. It was so quiet that the pitter-patter of Ruby’s footsteps, and her giddy laughter, sounded like they were out of a utopian dream. The heat penetrated my sundress, loosening my pale skin underneath. I finally relaxed. I sat on a rock, with Jade at my feet playing with the dry sand. Ruby fell into my lap, breathing quickly and beaming from her jog. Hugging my daughters, I looked up and over the calm and vast waters, watching the bluest of skies. I wondered what it would be like to live here. Maybe I could find a job, here in a slice of paradise.

*     *     *

Night noises inhabited the tropical air: rhythmic sounds mixed with the random snaps of the fire I fed. With fresh fish in my belly and the sun soaked in my skin, I felt restored. With the babes asleep in the tent, I watched the smoke drift straight up until it disappeared. With each stick tossed into the heart of the flames, I considered what to do next:

I could drive across the country and park in front of the beige stucco house where I grew up. Surely, I would nick my big toe on the crack in the slanted walkway as I had often done as a child. I would pass by the bushes that looked like tumbleweeds rooted in the ground. The metallic knock on the ridged screen door would beckon my mother to greet us. She wouldn’t have changed a thing in that beige house, with beige carpet and beige paint, and I would have to listen to how my ex had reminded her too much of my father, who couldn’t grow accustomed to life with a family either.

Jade grumbled a request for a midnight feeding. I went into the tent, kissed her soft hair, and placed a breast within her reach. Lilting between being awake and dozing off, I became absorbed in the beats of the night. As the sounds grew louder and the rhythms became increasingly intricate, the feeling of relief over took me and memory shrouded my mind. I recalled the summer evening at the shelter when fireflies had lit up the field next to the church. After we’d been told to come inside, someone scolded Ruby for running indoors. Ruby stopped, turned around, and looked at me as if to say, “But Mama, they don’t know that I’m free.”

 

First, Angie is a single mother of two delightful girls, 9 & 10. Angie has traveled the world mainly in the 1990’s for nearly a decade, before 9/11 and before technology became a household commodity, which led her to sometimes remote areas of Asia and Africa and an overall very unique experience. She graduated cum laude from CSUN with a major in creative writing in 2013 with an interest in creative non-fiction. “Safe House” was birthed from actual homelessness in 2010 when Angie and her girls found themselves with nowhere to live due to a series of events in Philadelphia. Marginalized communities are a main topic in Angie’s writing ranging from mental illness to sexuality, abuse to street singers. She explores the taboo expressing humanity in the characters. She also enjoys writing songs and plays and hopes to venture into screenwriting and a book of short stories about her travels. She also has a dream to write a children’s series with her daughters, Jade and Ruby.

Spotlight: What to Expect When You Become a Bell / Sea Route

What to Expect When You Become a Bell

There will be hands. A litany of them.

You will be lifted by the saffron cuffs of a temple priest,
tuned lip tapped against your sister’s to synchronize
every supplicant heart to the beat of rapture. But don’t fear—
between blows, something will persist.

You will be pressed by fingers on an unattended counter,
to placate the impatient and summon the indifferent.
Options will be limited.

You will be hitched to a yoke in the eaves of a small-town
steeple, made to swing on Sundays by a rookery of hands
on a time-darkened rope. We need your song, you see—

to comfort or inspire. Because a bell is a special kind of vessel
                        (No one has more respect for bells than I do)

A battery of hands.

You will be picked up and swung, side to side. Tiny hands
that will grab you by the clapper and you’ll be silenced.

You will want to find your own tone, timbre. To tie yourself
to the ankle of a cowherd—to be a charm on the wrist
of a 12 year-old girl who has no time for the rhythm
of others. To perch in a storefront doorway on 53rd and Ellis
so you can clang all day in warning. Or the harness of a sleigh
in winter as if good things may yet be coming.

You will dream of a lone ringer, safe grip of a single owner.
Surely that would be better—loving hands to make you sing
in strict and scripted measure. You’ll have questions
for the bell-founder. You will start to wonder where bell ends
and hand begins—even doubt your existence. You will secretly
hold your skirt so you can’t be rung above a whisper.

Your voice is dangerous. It cannot be unrung.

You will hunker in the space between soundings, contemplate
your hammered shoulder, your polished wounds and sutures.
Doesn’t your tongue dance freely on its pivot? And your heart’s cry
echo in the chamber? They’ll try to tell you that the song is in the hands:
It’s in the bell. And in ringing, you’ll remember.

 


 

Sea Route

When your small face enters the water
your heart will slow
the airway close
blood pool in the thorax.
The tools of evolution marshalled
to keep you alive.

There is oxygen in the muscle. Hemoglobin.
It is the only thing of value you carry,
your limbs soft anchors
severed from the body’s industry

treasures tucked in your palm
long since lost.
You can no more grip the prow
than your mother hold you fast
in her bluing arms.

The sea will rock you now—
colossal lung, that breathes in
bleak Atlantic
Nile waters
winds off the Levant

and spits out a murk
of salt and scale beyond fathom—
wreck of a thousand Roman journeys
sunk in the undercurrent.

Who could imagine so dark a crossing
far from the limestone shores?

Or death that waits so close
to the sun-warm surface.
In sight of asylum.

 

Laura Ring’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Rogue Agent, Stirring, and Rise Up Review, among other places. She grew up in Vermont, in the shade of Mount Hunger, and now lives somewhere between skyscraper and shoreline on the South Side of Chicago.

Photo Credit: Jon Zich

Litdish: Ruth Madievsky, Poet

Originally from Moldova, Ruth Madievsky is the author of a poetry collection titled Emergency Brake (Tavern Books, 2016). Her poetry and fiction appear in Tin House, The American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, The Rumpus, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a second poetry collection and book of linked short stories. When she is not writing, she works as a pharmacist in Boston.

10 Questions for Ruth Madievsky:

1. Where are you writing us from?

I’m writing you from sunny Los Angeles, though by the time you read this, I might be freezing my ass off in Boston! I was born in Moldova (part of the former Soviet Union) and emigrated to America in 1993. Other than a brief stint in Cincinnati, I’ve lived in LA for most of my life. But for the next few years, I’ll be living in Boston, where my partner will be attending grad school. Leaving the place I’ve lived for most of my life is scary, but I’m excited to see what it’s like to live in a new city. And I hear that Boston has an amazing literary scene! If you or any of your pals/enemies have Boston recommendations, let a girl know.

2. What’s the most recent thing you’ve written?

The most recent thing I’ve written is actually my first article for a science journal! It’s a review article summarizing the latest evidence for diabetes drugs that can also have cardiovascular or kidney benefits and will be out soon in The Permanente Journal. But in terms of poetry, which is probably what you’d rather hear about, I wrote a little ode to a beloved foot clinic in Echo Park. It’s got this rotating sign that people call “Happy Foot Sad Foot.” One side is this beaming foot holding 2 thumbs up, and the other side is this sad, fucked-up-looking foot on crutches with bloodshot eyes. LA lore says that whichever sign is flashing as you drive by is an omen for how your day will go. You can read about it here: https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-happy-foot-sad-foot-sign.

3. What’s your writing practice like?

The only writing method that works for me is ass-in-chair, so I pretty much have to hold myself hostage in order to get anything done. I’m never struck by inspiration per se, in the sense of being out in the world and realizing I need to write a poem about something. For me, writing is more of a ritual. I don’t write what I think—I write to figure out what I think. Reading a lot helps! Like many (most?) writers, I prefer reading to writing. Reading all kinds of voices in all kinds of genres and forms helps me see all that writing can be and can do.

4. How does your day job inform your writing?

Ha, my work as a clinical pharmacist definitely informs my writing, but not in a way I can parse out easily. I work very closely with people who are ill (both acutely and chronically) and that kind of work requires a lot of care, attention, and empathy. And also a lot of neuroticism because drugs are dangerous! It’s very easy to hurt or under-treat someone if you’re not extremely meticulous. Those dynamics definitely make their way into my writing and revision process. I tend to revise as a I write, agonizing over every word, rather than getting it all down in a shitty first draft. In my day job, the stakes are very high and fucking up is not an option. Which is probably why I get restless and unsettled when I write something that I know is bad and have to figure out how to make it better. And of course, you’ll definitely see lots of pills and bodies in my work!

5. What are you currently reading? What should we be reading? And why?

Currently, I’m reading Chelsea Hodson’s essay collection Tonight I’m Someone Else, which I’m loving—it feels like a dreamier version of Maggie Nelson. In my to-be-read pile, I’ve got Cheston Knapp’s essay collection Up Up Down Down, Denis Johnson’s last short story collection The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, Evie Shockley’s poetry collection Semiautomatic, and Tarfia Faizullah’s new poetry collection Registers of Illuminated Villages

In terms of recently read-and-loved: Douglas Manuel’s poetry collection Testify is all kinds of gutting and brilliant. Diana Arterian’s poetry collection Playing Monster: Sieche was originally two manuscripts (one about a mother dealing with a stalker and another about growing up with an abusive father) that ended up being sewn into one incredible book. I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of Lisa Locascio’s novel Open Me, which is an erotic coming-of-age story in rural Denmark. And Ottessa Moshfegh’s dark, hilarious, and always fucked-up short story collection, Homesick for Another World is one of the best I’ve ever read.

6. What’s your favorite album?

I’m terrible with choosing just one favorite of anything (which is why buffets fill me with child-like wonder), but the most recent album that completely took me is St. Vincent’s Masseduction. I had never listened to her before, and when I heard this album, I fell hard for her. The songs are so sexy, sorrowful, and unapologetically weird (which, to be honest, is the blurb I’ve always wanted for my own work). My favorite songs off that album are “Hang On Me,” “Pills” (obviously, lol), “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” and “New York.” I recommend that anyone who doesn’t know Masseduction listens to it, has a cathartic cry on a dance floor, and makes out with someone under a full moon.

7. What are some of your non-literary interests/ pastimes?

I’ve recently been indoctrinated into the cult of skincare? My mom has a skincare line called LUMINOUS that I’ve been helping her get off the ground. In the process, I’ve spent a lot of time on the Skincare Addiction reddit, and suddenly I have a lot of opinions about vitamin c serums and snail mucin.

8. What’s a piece of advice you’d like to pass on to young/ emerging writers? Or a useful piece of advice you’ve received.

Read more than you write! Read so, so much. It’s the best way to become a good writer, IMO. Also, imposter syndrome is real and will fuck you up in all kinds of ways, so just know that going in. Being part of a writing community (and focusing on what you can contribute to that community rather than what you can get out of it) helps.

9. Why do you write?

I started writing seriously in my early 20s, after many years of reading work that moved me deeply. I wanted to make people feel the way that certain life-altering poems made me feel. I still remember the summer that I realized that poetry could make meaning out of something that was only ever traumatic and shitty. That quite literally changed my life. Of course, there are many other incredible things that writing can do, but with where I was in my life at the time, that particular transformative quality drew me in the most.

10. What question do you wish we would’ve asked you and what’s the answer?

“What is the strangest pet you’ve ever had?” A hedgehog named Boo Radley, who helped edit my poetry collection! Rest in peace, sweet one.

 

Adrian Ibarra is poet and weirdo living in beautiful Oakland, CA. He is an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles where he is the managing editor for their literary magazine, Lunch Ticket. His work, which focuses on poetry as an object that exerts the will of the poet as a force into the physical world, has appeared at The John Lion New Plays Festival, in Burningword, Metaphor Magazine, as well as other journals and magazines that don’t exist anymore.

Ray Crest, 2018, Sculpture, Pinewood, Willow, H 55” x W-40” x D- 35”

Spotlight: archiTERRA

“The map is not the territory”-Alfred Korzbyski This quote reveals the physical motivation behind my involvement in creating sculpture. The source of my ideas comes from nature and nature also provides the materials for the pieces themselves. Willow, dog fennel, phragmites, hibiscus, pine bark, bamboo and marsh elder are examples […]