Wizard Grits: The Secret Life of the Indie Publisher

I never thought I’d be doing this. I recall sitting in a foxhole as a paratrooper, reading the book of Psalms and thinking, hey, I kinda looove this. I always thought the point of poetry was to confuse.  Thousands of couches later, five books and literary festivals all over the world, I want to take a second to share the addictive effects of writing which led to the strange world of becoming a full on publisher.

For the last ten years I have been launching books of poetry into the world via my press, Write Bloody Publishing, which began as a labor of love for poets I’d meet on the road who only had crappy looking chapbooks to sell. Our first year we sold 40 books. This year we sold over 22,000 physical copies. Our small mode of success all came from “punch in the gut” lessons that led to nuggets of truth. I want to share these with you, so you don’t have to make the same mistakes, as an author or publisher. So you load up on some useful knowledge which can be applied to your own writing or book-producing life.

Write Bloody now has over 100 titles, but when I looked back I realized I blew it, in some way, every single year. As I was mentoring a local young press here in Austin, I realized I have spent many years dumbfounded and naïve in terms of making money at publishing. It shouldn’t take you this long. I don’t want you to have to pull your hair out, sweating over the returned books and bizarre profit margins.

Most of us have the same goal in the indie publishing world of hunting down the unknowns and letting their voice be heard. I hope my chuds and fails, I hope they can help that vision expand. Here are your nuggets.

Make them like the first poem. Every book is a first date. They gotta like the way you look and then see what you’re about.

AS PUBLISHER, ONCE YOU HAVE A GOOD COVER, DON’T FIDDLE
I spent a lot of time on cover art, hashing it out with the authors and tweaking every little nuance. Don’t do this. Once you have something cool, which means cool enough to suck the eye in and let the book be opened, stick with it. That’s all you want and, even more so, need. Also, don’t let authors choose cover artwork. They are talented but don’t speak the language of design. Learn the language of design so the cover artist isn’t pulling their hair out when you say, “It doesn’t pop,” or, “There’s too much orange going on.” Work with authors and ask them their current favorite covers, but don’t let them grind you down when they might not even be sure of what they want. There will always be tiny changes that DO NOT MATTER or help the movement, mood, or sale of the book. Put it in the contract that authors can comment but the final design will be determined by publisher. Authors don’t have a clear idea that time equals money and the more edits they make to the art will not increase the sales of the book, or the “wow” of the cover. Tinkering will grind down your budget fast. You can also just save a ton of money and do a minimal approach like Wave books to cover art. Their books look great, and they show their great taste in author selection with great font design.

THE FIRST POEM IN THE BOOK SHOULD BE SHORT AND POWERFUL
Make them like the first poem. Every book is a first date. They gotta like the way you look and then see what you’re about. If the cover looks good and the first poem rules, you have sold a book. It isn’t always like that. 50 Shades of Grey has a horrible gloss cover with no spatial design or fascinating color palette. They still sold a ton of books. But if you are struggling in a tiny market like poetry or short fiction, your covers have to rule.

HIRE PEOPLE IF YOU SUCK AT SOMETHING. P.S. YOU PROBABLY SUCK AT COVER DESIGN
I know what works, but I am not good at texturing and adding dimension in Illustrator. I hire freelancers and hunt them down if I like another cover, or a rock poster. If design isn’t your strong suit, don’t skimp on hiring someone to do the cover, but don’t hire the most expensive. Make talented friends.

TOP SELLING AUTHORS PUT ON GREAT LIVE READINGS
You will have some bigger sellers than others. I have learned, as author and publisher, that the bigger sellers love the people. They have long lines to get books signed after an event, and they sign something unique in each one. At the end of the Sarah Kay reading at AWP, there were over 120 people in line. We learned to have a handler prepping the names, a money taker, and the author sitting to sign. The handler keeps the conversations down to 30 seconds max. The book becomes a souvenir of the reading, and you gain a life long fan once it is signed.

POETS CAN TOUR MORE THAN NOVELISTS
Use this to your advantage. Do you have an author that can be funny, tell stories and be moving? Put them on the road. Our bigger sellers were champions of the road. They didn’t oversaturate their hometowns. They did a great huge book release party at home and then hit the libraries, theaters, house shows, and slams of the U.S.

SIGN AUTHORS THAT HAVE THE FORESIGHT TO HIT THE GROUND RUNNING BEFORE THEY ARE SIGNED
The big sellers, before we signed them, had a website, press kit, press photo, mailing list, and merch. They had merch beyond just their book on the road. Cool hand towels with sayings on them, book bags, posters, koozies. It all made the road a place to make money, instead of just a promotional money dump by the press.

LET THE AUTHORS KNOW YOU ARE A PUBLISHER, NOT A PUBLICIST
We tried to run a booking agency, and financially it wasn’t doable. We realized we can’t pay for the tours. But we realized that telling the author to hit the road did something to the touring author: If they didn’t put on a good live reading, they wouldn’t sell books, and thus wouldn’t be able to afford the hotel room or a good meal, and then would be tired for the next reading. Every reading, all of sudden, really matters. Being on time matters. Being nice to promoters and signing books matters. The audience begins to feel like the author gives a shit about being there, and they are often rewarded financially and with a lasting fan-base.

ARE YOU SURE YOU ARE READY TO HIRE PEOPLE AND EXPAND?
The constant tricky decision and choice that can make or break a press came up this year: Do we order 1000 copies and pay 2 bucks a book in China, or order 250 for 3.90 a book and print IN THE USA? You aren’t sure how long it will take to move 1000 copies. One mis-step, where you hire three new authors and all the books tank and take too long to make back the money can fold and shut down a press. It was important for us to print in the USA. We had to pay more but we also get to hold our head up higher. And the smaller quantity meant less profit, but less risk. Less risk is key in the beginning. This was so important. We also only had a storage unit for the copies so less was better and the slow growth meant we didn’t need a loan.

ONLY PAY ROYALTIES ONCE A YEAR
We used to pay quarterly. Big mistake for a small press. You should only pay royalties once a year. Books have returns. I was paying out money that didn’t exist—meaning that I should’ve waited to see how the year played out, January to December, and then waited 4-5 months due to the delay in returned books showing up. I used to pay an author for their sales of 200 books and that money was gone. 5 months later 120 of those copies would come back as destroyable returns but I had already paid out the money on 200 like an idiot. I had no idea when I started that if a book is opened and there’s a crease on the spine, that book is no longer sellable if returned. The glue makes it an awful recycle option. This was the year we cut into our profits a little more by using Eco-Libris to plant trees for the first run of books. It was a good lead to drumming up press for our publishing house, and the authors thought it was badass. It never made us get more sales, but it felt good.

GET THE BEST DISTRIBUTION AND KEEP ACCOUNTING RECORDS
2007 was the year I knew we needed better distribution. I had no idea how to cold call a distributor, one that had a sales team and hit all the trade shows for us. I thought distribution made you rich. I found out that amazon takes 50% and a distributor takes 27%. They wanted to see three years of accounting records before they would sign us. A big mistake was that I kept no records. I paid my taxes, but couldn’t show growth. The distributor told me to not get my hopes up, because most poetry titles they had didn’t sell. I became determined to keep better records and hire an accountant to help me keep monthly records. It was a hard time for poetry book sales. Bookstores were folding. I found that collecting money myself from 50 bookstores across the USA was a nightmare. The manager wasn’t in, some books might have been stolen, the check is delayed, etc.

Some writing is for the journal and stays asleep. Some is purely for the book. Some is for the book that sounds wonderful out loud. Find those pieces and create a relationship where you are on the audience’s side.

AS YOU GROW, DON’T LET SHIPPING KILL YOU
I also found out this year that shipping grinds you down. If you ship 200 books a year, no problem. If you start shipping 500 a year, it steals 8 hours out of every week. I found U-Line and they can send bubble mailers next day way cheaper than Staples or OfficeMax, and I started using Endicia, a program that helps with labels, printing shipping labels, and storage of addresses. I tried having a third party ship, but there were a lot of mistakes. I for sure needed distribution to handle it all.

LEARN FROM YOUR AUTHORS
Have a debrief when an author comes back from the road. Find out which cities and readings sucked or ruled. Ask if they want to tour with others. You make more money alone, but it can wear you out. I recommend touring with one or two authors max, so you can stay in one hotel room and save dough. It also gives you more stage time, which leads to more book sales.

DON’T OVER DO IT
When you do a reading, if you are at a venue with an open mic, or other readers and folks are drinking, 25 minutes is plenty. An hour is good if you are a headliner at a college and are famous. Adjust your set once you are there. What if the mood is grim and you planned all your fart haiku’s based on Eileen Myles’ Peanut Butter poem? Adjust your set, wear a watch or set your cell phone stopwatch on. NEVER ASK IF YOU CAN DO JUST ONE MORE. If there’s a standing ovation, you don’t need to ask, just do it. Have that piece planned. Never say thanks for coming out. Never say “are you still with me?” It is not your job to express yourself, and if they don’t get it, fuck ‘em. It is your job to make them know. Make them know. Some writing is for the journal and stays asleep. Some is purely for the book. Some is for the book that sounds wonderful out loud. Find those pieces and create a relationship where you are on the audience’s side. They do not need your enlightenment. They are honoring you with their time, sometimes money. Do not shit on them. Every time you do, you shit on the next 100 writers that have to fight to change their minds.

HATE MAIL
You will get hate mail from scorned writers that don’t realize that your position of power as a publisher is miniscule. They will think you have all the cards and aren’t being fair. Let them go on. When sending rejection letters, make suggestions for where else you appreciate as a press.

For us we have a mission: We know most folks think poetry is a drag and we are determined, as long as our family of authors have the energy to keep going, to change an audience’s minds and let them know that a great line of poetry is a bullet and a novel is a slow strangle.

MONEY
When you get distribution, you will need to put around 100 of each title in stock, more for the hot titles. Get that money ready ahead of time if all your records for growth in 3 years looks right on.

DIGITAL NOTHING
We were asked to make ebooks. Ebooks are only 10 percent of our profit. Poetry is different. People want to smell poetry books and rub them on their butts. They want to crack them, dog ear, and rip apart and put them onto their bulletin boards. This is beautiful.

THE MARK OF THE BEAST
Amazon is a beast. But the public loves it. We link all our titles to only Powells.com, but most our sales still come from Amazon. They have a new rule where if your distributor runs out of stock, they will reject orders. Keep your stock hot and up to date. Strange things will occur where you didn’t know you were out of stock because a book store snatched up a load suddenly. You will be playing constant chess regarding having some money, needing to buy book stock, and not having the actual money for 6 months. Hopefully you have a financial wizard on your team. Or a real wizard made of grits.

WHY IN THE HELL WOULD YOU WANT TO DO THIS PUBLISHING FUZZ?
Why am I still making books after ten years of struggle and unforeseen obstacles? Why are any of us in the indie lit world pushing up against the behemoth of the mainstream publishers? Is it a war? Is it a winnable war? Is it a war worth winning? I think we have a little something extra. For us we have a mission: We know most folks think poetry is a drag, and we are determined, as long as our family of authors have the energy to keep going, to change an audience’s minds and let them know that a great line of poetry is a bullet and a novel is a slow strangle. To show them the evidence that poetry is working class. Poetry is the future of lit. Its power is becoming common and greater. I can feel it.

swiss_derrick_061109DERRICK C. BROWN is the winner of the 2013 Texas Book of The Year award for Poetry. He is a former paratrooper for the 82nd Airborne and is the president of one of what Forbes and Filter Magazine call “…one of the best independent presses in the country,” Write Bloody Publishing. He is the author of four books of poetry. The New York Times calls his work “…a rekindling of faith in the weird, hilarious, shocking, beautiful power of words.”

Word from the Editor

I knew that being the editor of Lunch Ticket would require filling some pretty big shoes, but it wasn’t until I was directing the journal that I fully understood the extent of what that implied: it wasn’t just a matter of successfully leading a staff of almost 40 volunteers, but of building upon what the editor before me had established. The goal of that structure, though, wasn’t just to stitch together various pieces of writing and art that we thought were good, and call it our latest issue. The goal of that structure was to curate a publication that mattered.

But who am I to say what matters? And who are we to say that our publication matters? Well, that’s a great question. But hear me out, and then decide for yourself—because that, I think, is the point.

As it is affiliated with Antioch University Los Angeles, Lunch Ticket has a social justice-oriented mission. Accordingly, we seek to publish work that pushes this agenda. But how does a piece do that?

Pieces that are social justice-minded show a capacity for the moral imagination. That doesn’t mean it has to be sugar and rainbows—in fact, it tends to be the opposite: they ask the hard questions; they look issues squarely in the eye that people generally shy away from; and they tell the reader that they now have to make a conscious choice. The reader, once the piece has been put down, has been made aware of things through a point of view not necessarily their own, and must take newfound responsibility for the way they act in relation to all others. These pieces are simply trying to make sense of the world, but they do so in a way that reveals something about the state of humanity that forces us to make a choice about it, whether personal or extra-personal, because we find that it isn’t necessarily the world itself that has to be made sense of but the people inhabiting it. And as such the effects of that choice ripple outwards. These pieces close the gap between what is you and what is not you; and in so doing, their purposes pass from simply invoking feeling to having true meaning.

Therefore, I think it matters what a piece of art, in general, has to say. The pieces in this issue, then, as with all others, aren’t just shouting into a void or adding to the noise: people are listening. And I think they listen more carefully than we give them credit for.

David Bumpus
Editor-in-Chief

Kiese Laymon, Author of Long Division

If you haven’t read or written or listened to something at least three times, you have never really read, written, or listened.

++++++++++++iTrue/False

++++++++++++++++++++++++i—Kiese Laymon, Long Division

 

Long DSome authors write along the questions, Is it true, is it necessary, is it kind? Long Division is true. More than ever, it is necessary. But is it kind? Rarely are things in this complicated world that are true and necessary also kind. Long Division does not shrink away from this dichotomy—instead, it rises to meet the challenge. The bravery of writing a story without shrinking away from the violence, the ugliness, the disappointments, and the sorrow of it, while still running full-tilt towards unabashed, unashamed love is itself a revelation and a revolution.

Long Division is one of those rare novels whose opening hook is so engaging, so vibrant, so off-the-page-and-walking-next-to-you-alive, that it’s almost less like reading a book with characters than it is like being pulled into a story with some people you just met—that’s how wholly formed and fully realized the characters feel. Much of that is attributable to Laymon’s gift for capturing the natural, authentic flow of speech, and the ways in which dialect and location work together to become a character in its own right. Rather than having the calculated sense of I AM A DISTINCT VOICE, the unique nuances of each character’s speech—from City and LaVander to Baize and Shalaya—are distinctive, rich, complex, and resonant. They are voices that are glaringly absent from the books comprising “The Canon.” They are the voices that readers need to hear. They are the voices that remind us of many truths that are inconvenient to white MFA students. That, in itself, is an inconvenient truth. Which is why Long Division is necessary.

There’s a lot of that kind of messy truth in Long Division. Not all of it is comfortable to sit with—in fact, most of it isn’t, and that’s precisely the point. A lot of these truths, and the subsequent questions they raise, are difficult issues to deal with in our realities—issues of race, of class, of location, intersectionality, and the “queering” of bodies—despite the difficulty of these topics, the way that social critique works inside Long Division is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Through City (both of him), Laymon truly allows his readers to lay down their defenses and honestly listen. But most importantly, through each twist and turn of the narrative, Laymon asks the reader a very important question—one that they will hopefully carry back out into the “real world” and keep in the forefront of their minds: What does is truly mean to make social or political “progress,” and if we buy into the popular political narrative, that we as a country have made so much progress over the past century, then Why does it still hurt?

Long Division is adept at sidestepping a classification—while reading it, you’re going to move through a series of questions: Just what is this novel, anyway? Is it literary fiction? Is it sci-fi, or does it live in that nebulous realm of slipstream? Is it magical realism? What am I reading and how am I supposed to feel about it? As in life, so is it in art: the genre lines are blurry, because human beings are blurry, and no matter how desperately we try to squeeze each other into neat little boxes, the truth of the matter is our stories just won’t fit. Which is why the metanarrative, the “story-within-a-story” format, works to the advantage of the novel and its three distinct timelines (1964, 1985, and 2013). In the novel Long Division that we are reading, the protagonist of our novel, City, is reading a different novel, also called Long Division, about a different character, also named City. All three timelines are fictional, but due to our reader suspension of disbelief, we are working under the assumption that the 2013 timeline is “true” and the 1964/1985 timelines may or may not be true, depending on whether we believe that (our) City’s Long Division is a journal [true] account of time travel, or if we believe that the second Long Division is just a novel. Were it not for Laymon’s name on the cover of the book, the suspension of disbelief would be wholly intact, and the reader alone would be in charge of deciding who was the “real narrator” of the book—Laymon’s structure places a lot of faith in the reader, a decision that is risky but pays off through the unifying message of love that is woven into the tapestry of the narrative arc of each unique timeline and the places where the different world collide. You can easily work Long Division into the same discussion you’d have about Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Audrey Niffennegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, or Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle—and you should—because this story has earned a place beside these authors.

“LaVander Peeler cares too much what white folks think about him,” but thankfully—Kiese Laymon does not. What he does care about, though, is love. The love that these characters have and build for each other. The questions about how these characters want to be loved, whether they think they deserve to be loved, and most importantly: How can a community love each other in the face of a dominant culture that does not love them? How can a community hang onto each other and become stronger, instead of climbing down into the hole alone? Many readers will see accurate reflections of their world, and rejoice in finding themselves in the pages, celebrated on their own terms, and subject to the same pivotal moments that define the world of a novel. Other readers may be invited into a world that exists right next to their own—like a trapdoor in the forest—close to their world, but still removed. They will be asked to be quiet in this world, because through that trapdoor is what’s most important: listening. Really, truly listening, and for once, hearing what is being said, without just waiting for their turn to speak.

–Allie Marini Batts, Lunch Ticket Managing Editor

prose_section_divider
kieselaymonKiese Laymon
is the author of the novel,
Long Division, and the essay collection, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. Long Division was named one of the Best of 2013 by a number of publications, including Buzzfeed, The Believer, Salon, Guernica, Mosaic Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and the Crunk Feminist Collective. Laymon has written essays and stories for numerous publications including Esquire, ESPN.com, Colorlines, NPR, Gawker, Truthout.com, Longman’s Hip Hop Reader, The Best American Non-required Reading, Guernica, Mythium, and Politics and Culture. Laymon is currently a Professor of English at Vassar College. He proudly calls himself a black, southern writer, and unabashedly addresses racism and cultural issues in his work. His outspoken and honest approach to conversations about social justice evidence his leadership in the literary and activist communities. 

Antioch alumni Daniel José Older and Jamie Moore spoke with Laymon about writing, language, cultural standards, and love in our communities.

Daniel José Older: One of the things that we love about Long Division is that it tells a great story while guiding us through so many layers of power, history, and pain. Complex in both theme and narrative structure, but City’s voice and honesty carry us along lovingly. How did you set out structuring the novel?

Kiese Laymon: Hmm. Man, real interview, huh?

DJO: Bwahaha. Sorry, brother.

KL: No, that’s great. That’s great. I feel like you kind of have to scrap three or four structures—or three or four or fourteen structures before you find one, and for me, the primary structure initially was—I wanted to think about this in terms of days—like, over how many days actually did the novel take place? And the first big draft, it was about seven days. And then structurally, that didn’t make too much sense because really, the meant of a lot of this stuff happened on a Sunday, and so then I just thought I needed only two, three, four days. And then, I was like, “I can have the equivalent of seven days if I break it up into three different time periods.” So I was kind of stuck on this idea of seven or eight days, somehow, some way. And I just ended up still having seven or eight days, but just in three different time periods instead of having it just consecutively one time period. I don’t know if that’s a great answer, but that’s true.

DJO: Once you had that structure, did you find freedom within that structure? Did everything take off from that?

KL: Yeah. You know, that’s how I feel. I feel like once you find the structure, then you can kind of really play, and you can actually create the flow and resonance, you know? So that’s what I felt. But you know, this book is kind of tricky because for the longest, I didn’t—we didn’t know if it was going to be sold as two different books. I wanted it to be like, a book where if you read it like this, and then you could flip it and read the other one like this, but the publisher decided they wanted to do interspersed chapters, so that—when they made that decision, that dictated a lot of how the structure actually changed, because you know, you needed to be kind of thoughtful about how certain chapters ended and how other chapters began, because sometimes chapters would end and begin in different time periods. Yeah, so I don’t feel like I nailed the structure at all. But I’m working on this new thing, and I feel like I got it. I feel like I got it now.

DJO: Hmm. Would you do something different?

KL: If I could do it over again?

DJO: Yeah.

KL: Oh, yeah! Most definitely.

I think like, authorship is crucial to the narrative. Like, you know—who’s writing whom? Who’s creating whom?

DJO: Structurally, specifically?

KL: Yeah. Structurally, if I could do it over again, I—I mean, what I really want to try to do is I want to try to start that book in 1985. Yeah. Structurally, I would start it in 1985, and I think that the interspersed chapters—I mean, you know—I don’t think I would do it. Now I think that I’ve sold the book, I’d have a bigger say. I actually would try to like, yeah, do what I wanted to do with it. First of all, not have any author’s name on the book, start the book in 1985, have the flip book start in 2013 and have a middle section that was 1954. That’s what I wanted to do. I just didn’t have enough pull to pull it off.

JM: Yeah, definitely the way that the reader interacts with the text physically, too. I think that definitely would change the reader’s experience.

KL: Yeah. I mean,absolutely. I think there’s something to say about, you know—first book coming from a person of color being this kind of difficult—structurally difficult book. Which I keep hearing people say. And I think that’s important but, you know, I’m all about revision, and if I could do it over again, I’d definitely try to do something different. But the main thing I want to do, is I just really wanted my name nowhere on the book.

DJO: Why’s that?

KL: I think authorship is crucial, right? I think like, authorship is crucial to the narrative. Like, you know—who’s writing whom? Who’s creating whom? And I think when you see my name on the book, like, I understand why it might have to be there, but—you know, at the end of that book, I’m still interested in who’s writing Long Division? You know what I’m saying? Like, which City is writing Long Division? Is Baize writing Long Division? I just think the way to—I think the way you have to push it out to the market is just—you know, I couldn’t do what I wanted to do. But that’s all good. We can’t always do what we want to do, but next time I’m gon’ do what I want to do.

DJO: I mean, for me, the structure, you could’ve done that, or you could’ve done the other way, and the book still would’ve sung to me, because at the core of it, what I took from it was: yes, an amazing story, yes, characters that I both loved and believed in deeply, but also that it spoke to what it means to be an artist of color on an emotional and intellectual level at the same time. And no essay I’ve ever read has done that, and no book I’ve ever read has done that the way that Long Division did. Because it’s fucked up out here, and Long Division

KL: It’s fucked up out here.

DJO: It’s fucked up out here, and Long Division knew that. And so my question is like, did you go in—in your head, were you like, “It’s fucked up out here, and I’m gonna write a book about it”? Or were you like, “I’ma write a book.” And during the course of it, you’re like, “Damn, it’s fucked up out here.” Like—[Laughs]—you know what I mean?

KL: Yeah. You know, I wrote—I knew it was fucked up out here when I wrote, when I started it, and I wanted to see if I could propel a flat while kind of constantly talking about how fucked up it is—

DJO: Yes!

KL:—and how beautiful it is out here because have a lot of—because we have to rely on one another and need like—

DJO: Yes.

KL:—you know, sometimes intimate, sometimes terrible ways, and ultimately, you know, I just think—I think the people are trying to write us off the face of the Earth.

DJO: Yes.

KL: And I just wanted to write a book that was unafraid of actually talking about being written off the face of the Earth—

DJO: Yes.

KL:—so that’s what I tried to do.

DJO: You did it, brother.

KL: Thank you.

JM: I have a question about language, and I think this is a conversation, Daniel, that you and I have had before when I was preparing for this lecture about reclaiming voices for our MFA program. Whenever we have characters that are speaking any type of slang or any kind of urbanly-identifiable language, we are questioned about the authenticity of our characters. I know that you have ongoing conversations about the necessity of having your characters speak a certain way that reflects the region, so I was wondering if you could expand on that a little bit.

KL: Yeah. I mean,—[Laughs]—I don’t want it to be a doom and gloom interview, but you know, this American literary enterprise—it doesn’t just attack our bodies—the major attack is on our language, and I think that is the fucking craziest attack, because like, we, black and brown folk, have like, broken and bended and breathed life into this bullshit-ass language that we were given, and then people see our language often, and they’re like—literarily they’re like, “No,” you know, “So-and-so’s not gon’ get it. Middle America’s not gon’ get it. Blah blah blah blah blah.” And the book literally is about how we navigate being present in our language and growing in our language. So the first sentence, “LaVander Peeler cares too much what white folks think about him,” I’m thinking about—that’s an important sentence to start the book. It’s important that another black boy is talking about how another black boy presents himself to white folk.

And at the end of that sentence, it’s, you know—he’s acknowledging—he knows he’s talking to a lot of different people, but he also knows white folk are listening, and even at fourteen he knows what he’s not supposed to say to white folk, so I just think—I’m trying to say like, we’re not like, all super rhetorically flexible, but I think we’re—I think most of us are kinda sorta like, rhetorically flexible by necessity. And I just wanted a book that was aware of that. But at the same time, I feel like Paul Beatty already wrote a book of like, some you know, super hyper-literate, fucking, “read everything in the world” kind of narrator. And I like that book. I love that book. But I didn’t want them to be like, super literate, you know? I wanted them to be literate, but not super literate.

DJO: Were there moments for you, when you were writing this book, that you just stopped in your tracks and had to take a moment, either literally, right then and there on the page, like, “Holy shit,” or like, you just had to step away from the process, either out of awe or frustration?

KL: Yeah, I mean, that’s a great question. I feel like—you know, that’s a really good question. Nobody ever asked that question before. There were three moments, I think, that fucked me up for a few days. The first was when I realized what LaVander Peeler was gonna have to do at that—at that contest. That got me. That got me misty for a while and just kind of—kind of broke my heart in this way that was good, but ultimately I was just like, “Fuck.” And later on in the book, when City is leaving Baize in the hole, that got me. A lot. That—that really got me. ‘Cause you know when you write a novel, these characters are real, and—to you. And that—that broke me. And then the last scene, which I wish I could write over, but—you know, when they’ve gone through all of this, and you know, he’s looking at his hands, and he’s thinking about what he’s been through, and his grandmother’s going down the street—you know, I just see the image of him walking into these woods with his grandmother’s car slow-crawling down the road, and they’re literally about to get in this hole together because they don’t feel like they have anywhere else to go. And I feel like the book starts with this question of like, what is love, and how does love look between like, two black boys? And I think that answer at the end is a really fucking sad, sad, sad, also slightly hopeful scene for me. So when I wrote that scene, I was like—I knew I was done with this book. This book is—I just—I didn’t know what to feel about that last scene. And ultimately, I didn’t—I just hated that I felt like I was telling the truth.

And your book in a lot of ways is your heart. And so, I’m just like, yo. I trust that there’s people out there that’re gonna do right by my heart. And I’m sure a lot of people out there aren’t, but as long as a few people do do right by it, I think we gon’—you know. We gon’ be alright.

DJO: Yeah. I think what makes that book so real in part is that it asks the question that it takes an entire book to answer.

KL: Right.

DJO: You know?

KL: Man…

JM: But I feel like when you reach that truth, it’s harder to put your work out into the world. You’re almost afraid to share those things about culture—about black love that aren’t necessarily talked about. How do you deal with that personally, I guess? How do you deal with the fear of that conversation out in the world? Because once it’s out there, you know, people will talk about it and take it out of context and do whatever. Do you have fear about that?

KL: Oh yeah. I have, like, immense fear. Especially in this hyper-mediated world, where people can look and see what everybody is saying about your book or your article or your short story—I was really afraid. But I mean, that book is really about community, you know? Like, I didn’t want that boy—I didn’t want City to be in the hole by himself, the way Invisible Man was, because I just think that that’s not us, and I don’t want that to be us. We all have to navigate that state of aloneness, but I just think community is essential. And so putting this book out there, telling the kinds of truths I think I’m telling, or exploring the kinds of truths I think I’m exploring, was made a little easier when you just think that there are other folks out there who are kinda sorta dealing with the same shit, or dealing with differently intricate or differently and fucked up shit, and you just trust that there’s a community of people out there who want to read. And want to write. You know?

You know, what you—yeah. And so you just trust. And I just think about love, right? At some point, you just gotta be like, “Here. Here’s my heart. You can do whatever you want to it.”

DJO: [Laughs]

KL: I mean, at some point!

JM: Right.

KL: And your book in a lot of ways is your heart. And so, I’m just like, yo. I trust that there’s people out there that’re gonna do right by my heart. And I’m sure a lot of people out there aren’t, but as long as a few people do do right by it, I think we gon’—you know. We gon’ be alright.

DJO: Wow.

JM: Yeah.

DJO: Whew. Shifting gears, although I just want to stay right there for a second—[Laughs]. Okay. How to Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America: it was a revelation in voice storytellling and truth-telling. It feels like an almost spontaneous purge because the flow is so on point and unflinching. But like with Long Division, there is so much rigor in its construction and meaning. Did you sit down knowing that you were going to write like, “Oh my fucking god! Rah!” And just vomit it? Or were you like, “Hmm, let me be strategic about this. Let me do this with construction.”

KL: I was just in a really bad place in my life, man. And I was just kind of writing to try and stay alive and not hurt people. And initially, I would write all of those pieces to my uncle—when he was alive, actually. I was writing it to him, but I didn’t—you know, I didn’t have the—like, I was talking about in the book. I didn’t love him enough to like, show him these essays. And then ultimately, I had written all the essays—I mean, the book was a lot bigger. I had written a lot more essays, but I had never written that story, the actual piece called How to Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America—I had written that. And then one day, my editor was like, “Yo, there’s like, a gap between seventeen and twenty that you don’t really talk about.” And then I said, “Alright.” So I just told myself, “I’m just gon’ sit down and try to remember.” So when I initially published it, it was called How to Slowly Kill Yourself And Others In America: A Remembrance, ’cause it was—I hate when people say it wasn’t writing (___), because it was literally just like, I was just trying to remember. But that was the last piece that I’d written in the book, and—I don’t know how to say it other than just like, I was just trying to keep myself—keep the valuable part of myself alive, man, and I just—the only way I could do it was through writing.

DJO: Mm. Mm.

KL: That just sounds mad, like—

DJO: Nuh-uh.

KL:—bullshit.

DJO: No, that sounds real. Do you feel more at home writing fiction or non-fiction?

KL: Man, that’s a great question because—the best part of that question is “at home,” right? I feel most at home in fiction, but non-fiction is easier for me to do. In fiction, you know, I’m literally in a home. I can get—my job is to get lost in the home of these characters. My job is literally to be at home. You know what I’m saying? When I’m writing fiction. But non-fiction, because there’s an immediate audience, and you know, you’re dealing with a smaller unit of analysis, I feel like it’s easier, but I definitely feel more at home in fiction. But that shit is harder. I don’t care what nobody say—I mean, that shit is harder.

DJO: Wait, really? You find fiction harder?

KL: It’s harder for me, man, ’cause like—

DJO: That’s so interesting.

KL:—page 270 has to somehow reverberate with page 2. And you gotta let all kinda motherfuckers come through your brain, and you gotta try to like, let those people breathe and talk and fucking shit and do all that stuff—

DJO: True.

KL:—in ways that people want to continue to read, and you can’t count on there being an audience. Like, this is the thing for me, right? With essay writing, it’s easier for me because—it’s easier for me to voice, because I can write to whom I know want to listen. I know there’s gonna be a group of people out there who’s gonna read the shit I write.

DJO: Right.

KL: So that audience propels what I’m doing. But with fiction, for me, it’s just harder. It’s just too many things to balance. I like it more, you know? I’m more at home. But it’s a lot harder. But for you, it’s easier, huh?

DJO: Man, when I tell you that I sit down to write a short story, and I’ll just be like, “[Rapid fire sound effect],”—I mean, I’ll stop and shit, but I just like—I see it, and I get excited, and I write it, and it’s smooth. When I sit down to write an essay, it’s like, “[Violent stomping sound effect]—[Groans].” I cannot do that shit!

KL: [Laughs] What about you, Jamie, what do you think?

JM: I feel like fiction is easier for me, too, as well. And that’s maybe, for me, because I’m allowed to not directly confront any emotions as my own and instead, I kind of put echoes of myself into other characters, and I’m allowed to let other people play out situations that I’m too afraid to confront.

KL: Right.

I mean, the—there’s a lot of answers to that question, but—I mean, the first one is that I think we gotta ask ourselves like: How do we want to be loved? And how do we deserve to be loved? And do we have the capacity to do that?

DJO: That shit’s real.

KL: That makes sense.

DJO: I did want to ask if you have just a general—you know, like we’ve talked about. We all out here kind of trying to figure out our path, and the system is fucked up, and white supremacy is real in the publishing world and even saying that, you know, like, becomes a problem somehow for people. So fuck all that, but what are the conversations that we need to be having with each other that we’re not, and what are the—you know, what are the words that need to be spoken that aren’t being spoken amongst ourselves, not to white people?

KL: I mean, the—there’s a lot of answers to that question, but—I mean, the first one is that I think we gotta ask ourselves like: How do we want to be loved? And how do we deserve to be loved? And do we have the capacity to do that?

DJO: Wow.

KL: And I think that’s a fucking—them’s three questions motherfuckers lifetimes avoiding.

DJO: Yes.

KL: You know what I’m saying? How do you want to be loved? Like, how do you deserve to be loved, and do you have it in you? To love that way? And I think those questions go to the root of like, white supremacy, and they go to the root of like, black and brown love. I think they go to the root of—shit, everything that I value, but I just think we run away from that, man. And you know, I think we all run away from it, but men tend to run away from it in the most violent ways, I think.

DJO: That’s real.

KL: Or in differently violent ways. In ways that hurt people more, I think. But yeah, so—so that’s one of the questions. And I think another question I think we should be willing to ask each other—and this is real. This is real to think about writers. This is real about people who, you know, are janitors, who are administrators, who are teachers—I think the question has to be like, can somebody pay you enough to not love your people?

DJO: Damn.

JM: Mm.

KL: You know what I’m saying?

DJO: Yeah.

KL: Can you get paid—’cause I think that’s what people trying to do. Can they like—and, and if the answer is yes, I think we need to be clear about: What’s your rate? You know what I’m saying? Like, what is your going rate? If motherfuckers can pay you enough to not love your people, how much is that? Is that eighteen dollars an hour? Is that a hundred thousand dollars? Like—ultimately, I think we need to get the point where the answer to that is no.

Fanm-084Daniel José Older is the author of the upcoming young adult novel Shadowshaper (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015) and the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, which begins in January 2015 with Half Resurrection Blues from Penguin’s Roc imprint. Publishers Weekly hailed him as a “rising star of the genre” after the publication of his debut ghost noir collection, Salsa Nocturna. He co-edited the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History and guest edited the music issue of Crossed Genres. His short stories and essays have appeared in Tor.com, Salon, BuzzFeed, the New Haven Review, PANK, Apex, Strange Horizons, and the anthologies Subversion and Mothership: Tales Of Afrofuturism And Beyond. Daniel’s band Ghost Star gigs regularly around New York, and he facilitates workshops on storytelling from an anti-oppressive power analysis. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic, and hear his music at ghoststar.net/ and @djolder on Twitter.

 

Jamie Moore (headshot)Jamie L. Moore is the author of the novella, Our Small Faces (ELJ Publications, 2013). She is a 2014 Kimbilio Fellow and an alum of the VONA workshop and Squaw Valley Writers Workshop. Her work can be found in Blackberry: A Magazine, Mojave River Review, Emerge Lit Journal, Drunk Monkeys, and Moonshot Magazine. She currently works as an Adjunct English Professor at College of the Sequoias, and is working on completing a novel.

Lev Grossman, Author

Lev Grossman

Photo: Amy Sly

Lev Grossman graduated from Harvard College in 1991 with a degree in Literature.  He also attended a Ph. D program at Yale University for three years. Grossman is a New York Times national and international best-selling author. His first novel, Warp, was published in 1997. His second novel, Codex, became an international bestseller. The Magicians, the first book of a trilogy, was a New York Times Best Seller, won the 2010 Alex Award, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His follow-up, The Magician King, was an Editor’s Choice pick for The New York Times. The third installment of the trilogy, The Magician’s Land, is set for release by Viking on August 5, 2014.

Grossman is Senior Writer and book critic for Time. He has interviewed Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Salmon Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen, J.K. Rowling, and Johnny Cash. Grossman has also written for The New York Times, Salon.com, Entertainment Weekly, TimeOut New York, The Village Voice, and The Wall Street Journal.

Lev Grossman has served as a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle and as the chair of the Fiction Awards Panel.  He attended Antioch University of Los Angeles as a guest artist and lecturer during the MFA Creative Writing Winter/Spring Residency, 2013.  

Lev lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, Sophie Gee, and three children, Lily, Benedict, and Halcyon.

David A. Napier interviewed Lev Grossman online via Skype on April 24, 2014.

David A. Napier: You live in a creaky old house in Brooklyn, New York. Does historic architecture inspire or influence your writing? Do you have a favorite place where you choose to write?

Lev Grossman: My house is certainly very old. I wouldn’t actually call it historic, but technically, it is historical. Actually, old places are really important to me. Especially as a fantasy writer, I think fantasy is a lot about history, and it’s a lot about deep time, and it’s a lot about feeling as though the place you’re in has a rich history that’s gone back a long ways. In Tolkien, they’re always walking around, and you get a real sense they’re passing places with history. There are these old barrows and these places that have names you don’t even know where they come from. And the characters don’t even know the names mean either. You get a sense that this place has been inhabited thousands of thousands of years. So, I like old places and I feel drawn to them. And that’s probably the reason why I bought the house that I live in. I guess my favorite place to write would be, probably is my house, it’s certainly one of my favorite places to write. I find that I have less and less choice about where I write these days. So I try not to get too attached to any one place.

DN: What inspires you to write magical fantasy fiction?

LG: I feel like novels tend to have many multiple sources of inspiration, which kind of combine to get you over the bar to actually sit down and write them. Certainly, like a lot of people, I was infatuated with fantasy fiction when I was little. In particular, the Narnia books, but also Tolkien, TH White, Anne McCaffrey, Fritz Leiber, Piers Anthony. I read, you know, whatever I could find. This was back before the real heyday of mainstream fantasy, before Harry Potter and all that stuff. So you kind of had to dig a little to find that stuff. But I definitely dug. And I kept on, I remained a fantasy reader even as I grew up, which isn’t true of everybody. But when I started writing The Magicians, well, I had a long history of being a fantasy reader. Interesting things were happening with fantasy at that time. You were having people like Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, who were doing things with fantasy that nobody had ever done before. George R. R. Martin. I mean people were really expanding what you could do with fantasy. I suddenly thought, wow, this is exciting. I’ve got to get in on this. The background reading. And then in a funny way writing fantasy was a reaction against my education. My upbringing in a family as the son of two English professors who were very committed to literary fiction and the most strict, rigorous sense of the word, I thought it would piss them off a little if I wrote fantasy. I don’t think I was entirely wrong about that. So, you know, it came from a lot of places.

DN: In one of your blog posts, you mentioned taking a break from writing fiction for a while. Was this a sudden impulsive thought, or an idea that may soon become reality?

LG: Oh, I never take a break for very long. Sometimes I say I’m going to take a break in order partly not to jinx myself. I think it’s a bad idea to say, alright, now I’m going to write a whole ton of fiction. But I’ve already started a couple of other novels since I finished the last one. You know, it gets pretty compulsive after a while, so you can’t really stop.

I am less interested in impressing people and more interested in communicating with people.

DN: Faulkner learned his craft while working in a post office in Oxford, Mississippi. You switch hats between book critic for Time magazine and fiction novelist. Does multi-tasking help or hinder your creativity?

LG: An example that I always think of is Kafka, who was a lawyer by training, but I think he worked at something like an insurance adjustor, and it involved him reading a lot of grisly accident reports sort of disastrous industrial accidents that required a lot of insurance payouts. And I’m pretty sure that made its way into his fiction. With Time, it’s less the connection, it’s less direct, and it’s certainly very good. It trains you to write as opposed to sitting around thinking about writing. You know, when you have a weekly magazine job, you really can’t sit around and wait for the muse to come and inspire you. They give you a page, you fill it with words, it’s going to be shipped out on Wednesday and they’re going to print three million copies. You can’t mess around. And I think some of that, I don’t want to say perfectionism, but learning to skip the kind of the contemplative, meditative, waiting for inspiration to strike stage, has been a real help for my fiction. And my fiction has probably gotten more accessible over the years, and writing for a popular audience like Time’s audience has definitely influenced me. I’ve become very interested as a novelist, I’m interested in people reading, writing stuff that people read. I am less interested in impressing people and more interested in communicating with people.

DN: You mentioned Kafka and several other authors. Do you have a favorite fictional quote?

LG: “There is plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hopebut not for us.” – Franz Kafka.

DN: In storytelling, how do you best describe things that don’t exist?

LG: I always maintain that describing things that don’t exist is not a particular problem of the fantasy writer but a general problem of the fiction writer, because none of this stuff exists. Mrs. Dalloway doesn’t exist. You know, none of this stuff exists. But when it comes to writing things that really don’t exist, I don’t know, I think I have one of these unhealthy escapist imaginations. My therapist once told me he thought I would stop writing fantasy once my treatment was completed. And we’re still arguing that one out. It’s very easy for me. I have a very active imagination. It’s very easy for me to slip out of this world and into different worlds that don’t exist. I think I’ve been doing it since a very young age. It’s very easy. And those worlds seem very real to me. You sort of go in your mind, you sort of think about it, add little touches, you know. Someone’s casting a spell and there’s smoke coming out of his fingertips…what sort of sounds does it make? You think about these things happening and you demand the same level of detail that reality has, and sure enough, those details kind of appear. When you say to yourself, what does it sound like when a hippogriff lands on your lawn? What sort of sounds does it make? You think about it, and you think, oh, right, that’s what it sounds like, and you do your best to describe it. The details kind of come when you ask for them.

DN: So does it strictly come from your internal imagination, or do you use the external environment? Do you walk the streets of New York? Go to an amusement park? Go someplace where you have a connection, an ah-ha moment, where you say to yourself, I can use that in my work.

LG: I wish I could come up with a specific example because I know what you’re talking about. It’s not something I go out and look for, but every once in a while, you’re walking down the street and you see something real and you think, oh, that’s it, I can use that. I am seeing a little aspect of this unreal thing that I’m trying to describe and, you know, maybe it’s, I don’t know, I’m struggling to think of a good example, but you see a texter, or you hear a sound, or you smell something, and you think, right, I’m going to take that and match that up with this thing that isn’t real, and it’ll feel more real.

DN: What advice can you offer to emerging writers who strive to publish in today’s marketplace? 

LG: It’s a challenging one. Well, it’s both more and less challenging than the one I entered. And God knows it took me long enough to get published myself, so I’m familiar with the struggle. The first step for me in getting published was getting an agent. And that solves about 70 percent of your problems. The skill of writing and the skill of getting published are not always united in the same person. It’s very good to be able to find somebody on your behalf. If you’re trying to get yourself published, it’s like trying to defend yourself in court. Never a good idea if you could avoid it. You are somebody who could do it, and knows what you’re doing. Yeah, that’s probably the first thing I’d do, because it’s very hard to find an agent. But if you could do that, that’s sort of your first option. Of course, there are a lot of other options to getting published. I see people break out, having begun telling their stories as podcasts, a lot of self-published authors are breaking out these days and selling a lot of copies, so, of course, that’s very increasingly a viable channel. And then, it poses different problems. It’s easy to self-publish. It’s hard to get your work discovered in the marketplace of self-published work. So it creates a different problem for you. The last thing I’d say is, you look at people who write the kind of work that you feel you’re writing, and you look and see who’s publishing them, who’s representing them, what editors buy that kind of work, what publishers put it out. You look at someone else, see how they did it, and see who’s mining the same veins you are.

DN: When I fly on airplanes, I often peruse the aisles and calculate how many passengers read paper books versus e-books. Do you have any personal preferences in terms of how you like to read? Any thoughts on reading hard copy versus e-reader?

LG: I’m about as reactionary as they come. I don’t read e-books. I don’t read things on screen. It’s not the same experience as reading things on paper.

DN: Why not? Why isn’t it the same experience for you?

LG: That’s a good question. It’s a hard thing to put into words. Partly, I am fond of typography. And good typography basically doesn’t exist in the world of e-readers. When you’re reading a paper book, each page has been laid out specifically in that way by a typographer who knew what they were doing. I find that the rhythm of turning pages is part of it for me. The sense of solidity. I don’t like the fact that words on a screen disappear when you turn off the device or throw away the file. I like the fact that when I close a book those words still exist, and I can put it on my shelf and have a kind of visual reference: here’s this thing that I read. I like the fact that I can look around my study and see all these books that I’ve read. I think it’s a different experience from opening up a Kindle and looking at the menu of books that are there. I’ll be able to pass these books to my children. It’s just incredibly important to me. I’ve already started doing that. My library is migrating upstairs into my oldest daughter’s library. These are things that paper books do for me that e-readers don’t. That said, you know, people buy my books as e-books, and I take the money, so obviously they have a great deal of value. But they don’t have the same kind of value to me as paper books.

DN: What techniques do you employ to drop readers into the fictive dream?

LG: It’s a good way of putting it because that is the goal. It’s my goal. I think of it as trying to remove barriers, remove barriers to entry. I get rid of anything that will stop the reader from sliding down into this imaginative world that you’re trying to create for them. So I tend to think of it in negative terms, what’s not there. Pacing is very important to me, especially at the beginning of the book. I don’t mess around. I try to get things going as soon as possible, and am very economical. Humor is very important. Vocabulary. I don’t set about beating people over the heads with long words until twenty or thirty pages in where hopefully they’re already stuck. Making characters likable. If you can show a character who suffers misfortune in a stoic way early on, I feel as though the reader is very rapidly on their side. I didn’t do that in The Magicians, but it’s a trick I’ve learned since then. It’s terribly important, though. There are some sentences that you cannot quantify, there’s something unexplained about them that the reader wants to solve. You know those sentences when you see them, but it’s tough to reverse engineer them. The openings, I rewrite the openings a hundred times. It’s the most important.

If you look at the opening of The Magician King, you’ll see that the opening paragraph is, sentence-for-sentence, lifted almost entirely from the greatest opening passage that I could think of which is the opening of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. If you were to compare those two paragraphs, I literally typed out the first paragraph of The Big Sleep, I wanted to do something similar. And I never came up with anything better. The Chandler paragraph ends, “I was everything a private detective should be. I was calling on a million dollars.” And it became, “He was everything the king of Fillory should be. He was hunting a magic rabbit.” I’ve employed the cheapest tricks imaginable.

DN: Most successful writers develop a toolbox of craft techniques to help them write. Do you have any specific tools that help you?

LG: Yeah, I suppose I must. I outline a lot. I am a big believer in outlining. I’m not a big believer in sticking to your outline, but having an outline in place when you begin writing, I find, is invaluable in helping you to face the void. It doesn’t seem quite so empty when you have an idea, which may be a delusional one, but at least you have an idea of where you’re going. Some days, what I’m writing seems so terrible to me that I’ll just decide, I’m not even going to revise what I am writing, I’m going to write the most terrible thing I can imagine, I’m just going to write the stupidest thing I can think of next and just go with that, and I’ll fix it later, but just getting my fingers moving, getting the words on the page, even if they’re terrible, might lead to something good. I spend a lot of time trying to find ways to come at my writing as if I were seeing it for the first time. I use software called Scrivener. I don’t know if you know of it?

DN: I’ve heard of it.

LG: I resisted it for many years because of the complicated learning curve, but it’s software created for novelists with the idea of writing long narratives. It’s optimized for that. And when I used it, I realized that Microsoft is a tool for writing business letters, and I was using the wrong tool this whole time. Scrivener, it’s pretty useful, and I recommend it to everybody.

DN: Have you ever considered using software like Dragon, to record your voice and have it type for you?

LG: I’ve never tried it. As you may have noticed, when I speak I hesitate a lot. I’m a much more fluent communicator when I am writing. I think writing would become even harder for me if I had to say it aloud. At this point, I function better with the keyboard than I do with my actual mouth. Likewise, writing things longhand, I know lots of people who write first drafts that way. I can’t do it.

DN: At what point in your writing process do you know how a story will end?

LG: I know before I start. If I am considering writing something, I’ll never start a story or a novel unless I know how it’s going to end. That’s the most important and maybe the only requirement. I have to write towards a goal, otherwise, I can’t improvise one. I have to know from the start.

DN: Do you believe it’s important to teach what you know? If so, how so?

LG: I only teach once or twice a year. It’s funny. Both of my parents are teachers, but I don’t teach very much. How would you teach what you don’t know?

DN: I meant the importance of passing your knowledge on to other people.

LG: I don’t have much experience at being a writing student. I didn’t go to an MFA program, but not for the lack of trying. I didn’t get in to any of them when I applied. The idea of teaching writing is still one that I am learning to understand and trying to figure out what aspects of it can be taught. I don’t actually believe that you can teach somebody to write. Everybody has to teach themselves to write. But it’s possible that you can teach people to teach themselves how to write. I think that might be teachable.

DN: When you’re writing, do words come easily to you, or do you struggle with wordsmithing? Are you in the trenches constructing sentences and they’re just a blur, not making sense, or do words come naturally to you?

LG: On the level of sentences, on the level of putting words together and putting them on a page, that stuff flows quite easily for me. I don’t meet a lot of resistance. And that partly comes from being a professional journalist and literally doing this day in, day out. And sometimes it’s nonfiction and sometimes it’s fiction, but at this point, matching words to ideas and words to things isn’t where the challenge is. The challenge lies elsewhere. It lies in knowing the characters, accessing the deep feelings, and knowing what this sort of compelling vision is. That’s the hard stuff for me. And that is as hard today as when I started out. But actual composition is not the hardest part for me.

DN: Are you a fan of “how-to” craft books on the topic of creative writing?

LG: I don’t know. I’ve never looked at one. I’ve often thought that I probably should, and I never have. I don’t even know what the good ones are, but I should look at them because I am very much of believer in learning that way. And I’m sure I have stuff to learn from them.

DN: The craft books I’ve read discuss the importance of the narrative, finding a balance between characters, dialog, description, how to develop themes and motifs. Some of that must come naturally to you. Or is it a skill you’ve acquired through trial and error?

LG: I wasn’t born with any writing talent whatsoever. When I was in high school and college, I wasn’t a particularly distinguished writer, so everything I’ve learned comes from repetition. You’re reminding me, though. About six months ago, somebody sent me a link to a short article by Chuck Palahniuk, the guy who wrote Fight Club. He wrote this short essay, which was basically, I have one writing tip for you and it’s going to make you a 20% better writer. I’ll be damned if he wasn’t right. So, I should probably read more stuff like that.

I’ve always had a problem of convincing fantasy readers to read this thing that’s probably a little more literary than they’re used to, and convincing the literary readers to read something that’s kind of in a genre that they wouldn’t normally pick up. I’m always fighting that battle on two fronts.

DN: What big obstacles did you encounter with respect to creative writing? Did you overcome them? Or do they still gnaw at you?

LG: Some I learned to avoid after a while. I have no particular gift for short stories. You tend to start out writing short stories, and one thing I had to overcome was I don’t have a good feel for them as a writer or a reader. And I spent years trying to write short stories. I only started finding my voice when I switched to trying to write a novel. That was a big challenge for me. What else, other than lack of self-esteem and all that other stuff. My parents are both writers. It took me a long time to find the confidence to forge my own voice because I felt so overshadowed by theirs. I never really found my voice as a writer until I started writing fantasy. But I write fantasy in a more literary way than most fantasy writers do. And so I’ve always had a problem of convincing fantasy readers to read this thing that’s probably a little more literary than they’re used to, and convincing the literary readers to read something that’s kind of in a genre that they wouldn’t normally pick up. I’m always fighting that battle on two fronts.

DN: The Magician’s Land is the third book of a trilogy set for release in August 2014. Do you feel exuberant or relieved?

LG: [Laughs] I don’t think those are mutually exclusive. I would definitely say two of the things I feel are exuberance and relief. It’s good to feel you’re on the downslope, feeling a certain kind of heavy lifting is done. Relief? Yeah, I feel a lot of relief these days. Writing novels is one of these things where gratification is very much delayed. You get up, you write a bit of your novel, and no one is applauding you or congratulating you. It takes two or three years usually before anybody says, “Hey that was pretty good that thing you did.” Sometimes it’s hard to keep going. So it’s wonderful to finish something and have people read it and react to it, because I haven’t done that since 2011, and I missed it, a lot.

DN: What does keep you going?

LG: It’s easier now than it used to be. With The Magicians, after it came out people wanted the next one, and I thought, oh, great, people actually want this. I don’t know what kept me going. Codex took six years. The Magicians took five years. It was nothing healthy. It was compulsion. It was an appetite for total neglect. It was hard to keep going. That was the hardest part about it. People often ask me, “Oh, when you were writing The Magicians had you already planned out a whole trilogy?” I didn’t even think The Magicians would be published, so I never bothered to plan out any books after that. I would sit down to write and think, you idiot, why are you spending years of your life doing this when it probably won’t be published? Keeping going was very hard. I’m proud of anybody who keeps going and finishes a novel. Whether or not it gets publishedthat was a hard thing they did.

DN: True. Are you sure The Magician’s Land is the third book, or will there be a fourth one? What would they call that, a quadroset? I don’t even know the term for a fourth.

LG: Oh, I don’t know. [Laughs] It’s like when Douglas Adams ended up writing six books in his Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy. He just kept calling it a trilogy. He would say here’s the fifth book in the trilogy. I don’t expect another Magician’s book to happen ever. I feel I got out everything I had to say that I could say in that way. Although, I think of Ursula Le Guin who wrote the Earthsea trilogy, which was a big influence on me, and then twenty years later, she went back and wrote a fourth book. And I feel like if Ursula Le Guin does it, then it’s okay: I can do it, too. So perhaps we’ll have this conversation again in 2034. And we’ll have the fourth book in the trilogy.

David A. Napier

Photo: Tom Dochstader

David A. Napier is an MFA candidate at Antioch University of Los Angeles. He is a former senior executive with an international consulting firm in San Francisco. He currently resides in San Diego, California and serves the needs of the community as a holistic health practitioner while completing his first novel. Napier is a contributing writer for Annotation Nation. He owns the front-half of a black Labrador Retriever named Tucker.

Cosme Cordova, Artist and Community Arts Organizer

Cosme Cordova

Photo: Kiandra Jimenez

Cosme Cordova was born in San Pedro de la Cueva in Sonora, Mexico, and brought to Riverside, California at five years old, where he still resides. Cordova is the owner of Division 9 Gallery (Riverside, California). In 2002 he co-founded Riverside’s Arts Walk along with Mark Schooley (Riverside Community Arts Association), which has run monthly art shows in Downtown Riverside since its inception.

His artwork has been exhibited throughout California, Arizona, and Mexico. Some of those galleries include Galleria Rustica and Bunny Gunner Gallery in Pomoma, CA; Dennis Rogue Gallery in Palm Desert, CA; Rockrose Gallery in Los Angeles, and the Riverside Community Arts Association, Riverside Art Museum, Sweeney Art Gallery, Riverside Metropolitan Museum, and others in Riverside, CA. Cordova has also curated many art shows and hosted citywide art events such as the annual Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) Celebration, which attracts thousands of people, and Artnival, an art themed carnival produced by Cordova and local artists.

Cordova has been honored as the City of Riverside’s Artist of Month.

Lunch Ticket’s Art Editor Kiandra Jimenez interviewed Cordova at Division 9 Gallery in April, 2014.

Kiandra Jimenez: You are an artist who is deeply involved in the arts community in your town of Riverside, CA. You founded the Riverside Art Walk, and you run a gallery, Division 9 Gallery (D9G). What motivated you to spend all that effort on behalf of your community, versus having a solo studio practice and focusing strictly on your own creative work?

Cosme Cordova: In the beginning I didn’t really think about it too much, I just went ahead and did it. I was showing in different places: Pomona, Los Angeles, Palm Desert. I found myself traveling far and wondering why the same type of galleries or venues didn’t exist in Riverside for our artists. When I first started there was Back to the Grind [a local coffee house], and I would show there, but Riverside didn’t really have many galleries or other institutions that embraced local artists. So, I said let’s figure out a way that we can create a Riverside arts community.

Coming from a low-income community I only lived three miles from downtown, but I never came to downtown. I was in my little neighborhood, the group of people that I hung out with and was raised with. But when I started attending Riverside Community College (RCC) I was introduced to downtown. When I eventually did make it to the institutions that did showcase artists, I didn’t feel really welcomed. I didn’t feel a warm feeling. That is another reason why I decided to do something for myself—to represent the people I was raised with, and present different cultural images from artists that had different points of view about life.

Now that I’m older I look back; I was 30 then, now I am 42. I felt there was nothing for me and I wanted to do something for myself. I was angry, so I used that anger as a vehicle to open doors for myself. When I was younger I would be upset that there weren’t venues, but as I got older I realized that was my vehicle, my tool to open my own doors and create my own venues, and share my own imagery. I wanted to make sure that it didn’t matter how poor, how rich, how educated or uneducated you were as an artist. The artwork had to be unique, your own image, not a representation of other artists who are well known.

Division 9 Gallery in Riverside, CA

Division 9 Gallery in Riverside, CA

Artists come in and show me their portfolios and they look like Dalí’s, Picasso’s, or Pollock’s artwork. That’s fine, but I want to make sure that I represent artwork that represents them and you can see their own identity on the paper or canvas.

KJ: Do you have some advice/jewels of wisdom for those of us who want to devote some aspect of our creative careers to service? How do you balance your creative work with your involvement with community?

CC: We all have something that makes us tick; we all have something that makes us go forward. When we wake up we look forward to doing that one thing. Whatever that one thing is, you need to invest your time in doing it. What I mean is you have to be dedicated to something you love.

Unfortunately, nowadays we all need to have a job, but there are plenty of jobs in the art world, you just have to find something that coincides with your world.

KJ: So how do you balance your creative work with your involvement with the community, your gallery work? Would you see yourself as the artist with his brushes in the trunk, who’s driving and putting all his focus in his community and gallery work, or do you take time to pull over and paint every few miles?

I’ve been trying to get myself more organized so I have more time to create. I feel like I’m a slingshot. My energy to create pushes the rock back, I’m always stretching it as far as I can. It’s stretching, stretching, but while I’m doing that I’m actually creating ideas or concepts in my head; I’m constantly thinking of ideas I want to create. Eventually, I have free time and I create twenty, thirty images.

I think I’m blessed because I’m doing things that I love to do. I put events together, I organize events, I do my artwork, I do graphic arts for people, from business cards to logos to brochures. I get to install artwork. I get to meet people.

Cosme Cordova, Prolific Dormant I, 2012. Mixed media (drypoint etching, monotype), 16. 5 x 10.5 in.

Prolific Dormant I, 2012

KJ: Let’s switch focus and discuss your own art practice. Describe your work and the ideas behind it—specifically what are you trying to communicate?

CC: The basis of my work all comes down to where I was born. I was born in Mexico and brought at the age of five to the United States. So, my perspective on United States and Mexico is interesting because it is not a normal point of view. My parents came from a very poor town. When we left, I believe there was only one TV and one telephone in a town of two thousand. Dirt floors, we were born on dirt floors to give you an idea.

So coming from a very poor background and coming to United States is like the experience of normal people here going to Disneyland. I always tell people, United States is like Disneyland. The streets are clean, the grass is clean, there is violence, but it isn’t as violent as other places, things do change if enough people get behind something, whereas in Mexico and other countries they don’t. You almost have to have a revolution for things to change.

So my artwork is always based on that perspective of making sure I don’t forget where I come from and the world that I live in, which is the United States, is Disneyland.

Cosme Cordova, Prolific Dormant II, 2012. Mixed Media (Drypoint etching, monotype), 18 x 12.5 in.

Prolific Dormant II, 2012.

The recent work I did was pronto plates, etchings, and monotype, a combination of the three. It all started because I had an old iMac that I had for five years and it broke down. I felt like I couldn’t throw it away. So what I decided to do was take it apart. And once I took it apart I found all the pieces interesting and I wanted to create jewelry or something with it. Long story short, I came across this story of China or Japan, where there were three hundred employees that were on top of a roof, they were going to commit suicide because they were not treated right in their work area. I forgot for what computer company, but when I opened up the Mac I was like ‘wow, this is intriguing, this is a lot of work put into one computer.’ So I wanted to exhibit artwork that represented and showcased those workers.

I ran some of the motherboard through the press, and inked it. And I did some etchings. I used flies, rats, roaches in the imagery, my interpretation of them, because that is how these people were treated as humans.

I did this painting of a big old chunk of steak in the shape of the United States. I wanted to showcase that we are the meat and potatoes of the world. People come from afar with nothing in their pockets, don’t know the language when they get here, all to get a piece of the steak. It’s a huge painting, and I hung it on barbed wire. Barbed wire represents to me you have to cross the border, you have to cross the lines. It’s forbidden to come over here. But if you get pass the barbed wire…

KJ: You get steak?

Cosme Cordova, We Are United, 2006. Acrylic on canvas, 50 x 46 x 3.75 in.

We Are United, 2006

CC: [Laughs.] Yeah, you get steak.

KJ: What about the one that features the boot?

CC: The boot is in the shape of Mexico and also hung from barbed wire. The barbed wire represents people who had to cross the border. The boot comes from a story my father told me about when he came over illegally. There were several times where he was hired to come over to pick fruits and vegetables. There were times when the United States would actually go and get Mexicans to work here with papers. But, there were other times when my father had to cross the border illegally. He’d have to pay a coyote, which is the person you pay to cross you over. My dad told me he’d put his money in his boot, because you never trusted the guy who was going to get you across. Or, if you were chased or robbed, the last thing they would take is your boots. I mean, if they take your boots they’ve taken everything. [Laughs.]

Cosme Cordova, Crossing Borders, 2006. Acrylic on canvas, 36.5 x 33 x 3.75 in.

Crossing Borders, 2006

So I wanted to create imagery of my dad’s story. Also, you’ll see the United States tree way in the distance.

KJ: You work a lot with the shape of the United States, borders, and birds in your work. What significance does these themes have for you, and how has that significance expanded through your career. Have you always used these symbols?

CC: The United States symbols came later in my career. But I embraced the bird more as a symbol of freedom, flight. To be able to go to Mexico and come back to United States freely—I wish the world was like that, where we didn’t have any borders and we could go from one place to another.

Birds symbolize a spirit of freedom. They’ve come into my life, not just my artwork, often. I have interesting stories of crows. I’ve walked everywhere till I was 25. I never had vehicles, my parents didn’t have vehicles, and so I’ve always walked or taken the bus. So the majority of times when I was walking by myself and thinking about things somehow a crow would appear, so I always felt a connection with them. I don’t know if it’s because I am intrigued with them, but I always seen them do interesting things. Their knowledge fascinates me.

KJ: How long have you been an artist? What/who inspired you and what continues to inspire you?

CC: The inspiration for being an artist was my grandmother. She did a lot of pottery and weavings with palm fronds. She would create flowers, crosses, tortilla holders, mats, intricate designs. She was even asked to weave one for a famous Catholic Church in Mexico City because word had spread of her work. There was a TV channel that interviewed people from different towns, well, they came to our town and interviewed her. That was an inspiration for me.

KJ: Now what town do your people come from?

CC: San Pedro de la Cueva [San Pedro of the Cave] in the state of Sonora.

KJ: You’ve been very forthcoming about your battle with dyslexia. You don’t have to disclose it, but you chose to, why?

CC: I just think it’s important because a lot of people don’t. It’s been embraced more now, but when I was younger it wasn’t. I didn’t realize I was dyslexic until I got to college. I believe many teachers thought because I spoke Spanish I was trying to translate and so things got confused. So I was in Special Ed classes through high school, which allowed me to be more creative. [Laughs.]

About a week into college my professor told me to go see a counselor to see if I had a learning disability. I had to take a test and sure enough I was dyslexic. My whole world changed, which sucked because I had to restart the whole engine. I had to relearn English, relearn reading, math.

I really tried hard. I had friends who had other people write their stuff, but I really wanted to do it on my own. It was very frustrating and stressful. I still remember the day I was riding down the highway and I just saw it all as a boxing match—me fighting with dyslexia against what you consider an average normal person going to college and getting their degree. And so I was fighting myself, questioning if I should continue. My counselor would tell me, “you’ll get there, it’s just going to take you eight years.”

But that’s what dyslexia is and I was never afraid of telling people about my fight: showing people that you can get things done with dyslexia. I traded a lot of artwork for people to help me write. Or I helped other people in my creative work by doing graphics, logos and in exchange they would read something for me, write something for me, respond to an email for me.

Dyslexia is not a disability; it’s actually a gift. Dyslexics think differently. The normal brain, the normal institution makes you believe that two plus two equals four. But my brain makes me believe that I can add one plus one, plus one, plus one to get four.

KJ: Do you feel like the life of an artist includes sacrifices or compromises non-artist does not have to make? If so, what’s the trade-off?

CC: I sort of wish I was not an artist sometimes. [Laughs.] Its not like I chose it, people say, “well you can stop being an artist.” No, you can’t.

It’s like you look at something on a table and you see something different. Someone throws something away and you think, “I can make something out of that.” You look at your garden, everybody plants their roses in a single file line, and you say, “I want to get a yellow one, blue one, and make a face out of them.”

Being normal as in you wake up, take a shower, go to work, have lunch with your buddies in the office, come back home, have dinner, watch TV, weekends free, benefits, dental, health, vacations, save money for retirement. I don’t have those things, but I feel like I’m retired dealing with no retirement money. [Laughs.]

Yeah, there are trade-offs. They should put that in the dictionary. Artist means to struggle. It shouldn’t be, a creative person who likes to work with different mediums. No, you’re struggling. [Laughs.]

KJ: Thank you, Cosme; it was a pleasure.

CC: You’re welcome, and thank you.

Kiandra JimenezKiandra Jimenez is an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles. A writer and artist, Kiandra lives in Moreno Valley, CA, where she homeschools her children and writes poems from her organic vegetable garden. Her work is forthcoming in the anthology Orangelandia: The Literature of Inland Citrus.

Elizabeth Earley, Author

Elizabeth EarleyElizabeth Earley holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her stories and essays have appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The First Line Magazine, Fugue, Hair Trigger, and Glimmer Train, among other publications. Elizabeth is the recipient of the David Friedman Memorial Prize for Fiction, has twice been a finalist for the AWP New Journals Award, has received two pushcart nominations, and was a finalist for the 2011 Bakeless Literary Prize for Fiction. She is the editor of Bleed, a literary blog from Jaded Ibis Press. Her debut novel, A Map of Everything, was published in March, 2014.

Lunch Ticket’s contributing editor Ashley Perez talked to Elizabeth via email in March, 2014 about her debut novel, the publishing industry, and the writing process.

 

Ashley Perez: How has the journey been for your first novel? From writing to publication?

Elizabeth Earley: Long. There was a long period of time between beginning this novel and finishing it when I tried to write other books. From start to finish, it might have been about four years. After my agent, Malaga Baldi, sold the novel to Jaded Ibis Press, it was about a year before it was published. Since publication, it’s been a whirlwind with a debut at AWP and a 6-city book tour. All of the events have been a lot of fun. People showed up, old family and friends I hadn’t seen in many years, so it was both a book tour and a reunion tour. The tour began at the beginning of March, which coincided with National Brain Injury Awareness Month. This was a perfect synchronicity, as all of the author royalties I make from the sales of this novel will be donated to people with traumatic brain injury (TBI).

AP: In A Map of Everything, each chapter/section is indicated with an element of the periodic table. In Rob Roberge’s blurb he calls it, “the most structurally inventive and emotional remarkable books.” Was it organic during the writing process or something that came about in revision?

EE: I didn’t think about structure while I was writing. I just powered through. Later, when I had all of the raw material, I went back through to break it up and arrange it in a meaningful way. It was when I read back through and edited and plotted out the arrangement that it occurred to me to make the periodic table the frame. It was just such an obvious and perfect fit because Andy (a character in the novel) says that whatever god is, it can’t be articulated, but it can be approximated by calling it everything, the organizing principle of everything, and the intelligence that presides over that organization. The periodic table is a human-made chart that represents everything that exists. It’s an attempt to break everything down into its base elements and organize those, which is kind of a joke. Human intelligence can be so arrogant! There’s so much it doesn’t account for. There are so many gaps between what we’re given as scientific explanations for the world and what we actually experience, what we actually live through. This story traverses those gaps, exposes those questions, and pulls the reader into them. It doesn’t offer answers, but it offers hope. And reverence. Reverence for the questions and the patterns and the raw experiences.

AP: You also have shifting points of view that provides a wonderful experience for the reader that allow them to experience the different characters. How did that come about?

EE: That was a function of a class I took in graduate school called Prose Forms. In it, we were encouraged to experiment with different prose forms including letter, parable, first person, and “how to” or second person as a way of getting at the nerve of truth. I found it incredibly effective for this material in particular. Different prose forms offer unique ways to access and experience universal truths through story. For example in this novel, the second person, used when the protagonist has lost control, distances the narrator from the pain of the experience and offers insight and direction while allowing a more intimate involvement of the reader. The overall effect is a darkly humorous, fast-paced voice that teases out important absurdities and nuance in the action.

AP: A Map of Everything is a duel narrative of A. The narrator growing up, dealing with relationship and addiction issues and B. How her sister’s accident and subsequent brain injury affects the entire family over a two decade timeline. The narratives were intertwined so beautifully that I wonder did you ever consider telling them separately? Or could one not exist without the other?

EE: I never considered telling them separately, no. They certainly could not exist, at least not in the way they now exist, independent of one another. They are, by nature, intertwined. One of the major concepts of the novel, inherent in the story as well as the structure and the way it’s told, is that everything is interconnected, intertwined—events, relationships, people, and even time.

AP: In your essay “Is This a Fiction Novel?” (published on the Jaded Ibis literary blog, BLEED), you call A Map of Everything an autobiographical novel. You also mention being very protective of your family. What was it that made fiction a safer venue for you to explore this narrative?

I don’t think it was safer. It’s never safe to write about one’s family and one’s truth.

EE: I don’t think it was safer. It’s never safe to write about one’s family and one’s truth. And the decision to write a novel wasn’t inspired by a desire to protect my family. Rather, it was inspired by my love of fiction and the form of the novel. I’ve long admired writers who’ve pushed the form, evolving it into something better and more intricate. My goal was to push the form even further. I wanted the novel to be suggested by facts, by my own real experiences, but not bound to them. Still, when we write what we know and what we’ve lived through, the voice is so authentic that people inevitably take it as literal truth. For example, my publisher actually thought that at one point. She was ready to position the book as a memoir, and this was after I signed the contract. I told her that, although inspired by real events, the book is fiction. She was particularly disappointed to learn that my mom in real life didn’t give birth to twins on her bathroom floor.

AP: How was the experience for you at AWP this year as a debut novelist? You did a reading and a signing, right?

EE: It was a whirlwind! There were more people there than I can fathom, and at the signing event I did received huge support. My books sold out from the table by the end of the hour. And, I got to see and hug and talk to so many people I’ve either only ever met online or hadn’t seen in years.

AP: This is your first book tour. What has been one of the most memorable moments for you?

EE: In Phoenix, a woman came to the event with a copy of my book looking worn and well-read. There were many paper clipped pages and the edges of yellow sticky notes poked out from everywhere. She told me that she worked with families of traumatic brain injury survivors, had heard about my book, and got an advanced copy. She said it was the best profile of the spiritual, psychological, physical, and relational effects of TBI that she had ever come across and that she was recommending it to every family she worked with. I was very moved and honored. I felt an acute sense, for the first time, that this book is much bigger than I am and will reach much farther than I ever could.

AP: You recently did an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for the book’s publicity with proceeds of the book going towards the Brain Injury Association of America. How have people responded to that?

EE: Just to clarify, I am going to be donating 100% of the author royalties that I earn from sales of the book to charity as well as directly to people I know and love with TBI. People have responded warmly to the idea.

AP: Why did you pick that particular charity?

EE: BIAA is a charity that benefits people with brain injuries, but I’m open to considering other charities that specifically benefit people with traumatic brain injuries, especially children.

AP: Can you tell us about your writing process? What does a day of writing look like for you?

EE: When I’m working on a book, I typically give myself a daily word count to meet that feels realistic. This could be anywhere from 500 to 2,500 words per day. The discipline of the daily word count helps me to produce material, whether usable or not. At times, I’ve held myself accountable to another writer or group of writers for meeting daily or weekly word counts. And I never have a specific time set aside for writing. Instead, I steal whatever time throughout the day that I feel particularly inspired or that just turn up as available. Riding on the train, waiting for a friend at a coffee shop, my lunch break, anything.

AP: What are you working on now?

EE: I’m not exactly sure. I started working on a memoir then stopped. Now, I’m thinking about working on that same memoir again. Or, another novel suggested by facts. Or, a nonfiction book about public bathrooms. I’m up to my knees in that stuck-in-between place, but I think (I hope) the wet cement is starting to recede.

AP: You mentioned being at the stuck-in-between phase right now in terms of writing projects. After being focused for so long on one project, what do you feel is the most important thing about moving on to another project?

EE: Just to clarify, I wrote two complete novels since finishing Map. My agent is now pitching the most recent of those. So it hasn’t been a matter of focusing on this one project, A Map of Everything—I’ve always been good at immediately moving on to a new project once finishing a draft of a previous one. This time though, after finishing my last novel, I became pregnant. I wasn’t prepared for the way that being pregnant, especially in the first trimester, would cripple my concentration and creativity. The stuckness has mostly been about that. But now I am getting into the initial research part of a new novel, which is one of my favorite parts.

AP: Any advice for new writers?

EE: Write a lot, read a lot, make friends with other writers, make professional connections, and ask people for help. Then, when you’ve eventually achieved some success, be generous in helping other writers.

AP: Thank you!

Ashley PerezAshley Perez lives and writes in Los Angeles. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. Ashley’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Weekenders Magazine, BLEED, Drunk Monkeys, The Weeklings, and the anthology First Time: an Anthology about Lost Virginity.

Douglas Kearney, Poet

Douglas Kearney

Photo: Eric Plattner

Douglas Kearney is a poet, performer, and librettist from Altadena, California. Kearney has received a Whiting Writers Award, a Coat Hanger Award, and fellowships at Cave Canem, Idyllwild, and others. His work has appeared in a number of journals, including Poetry, nocturnes, Pleiades, Callaloo, Fence, LA Review of Books, The Iowa Review, and The Ninth Letter. His produced operas include Sucktion, Mordake, and Crescent City. He lives with his family in California’s Santa Clarita Valley. Kearney teaches at CalArts, where he received his MFA in Writing.

Kearney’s first full-length collection of poems, Fear, Some, was published in 2006 by Red Hen Press. The Black Automaton was published in 2008 by Fence Books, which was a PEN Center USA Award finalist in 2010 and Catherine Wagner’s selection for the National Poetry Series. His chapbook-as-broadsides-as-LP Quantum Spit was released by Corollary Press in 2010. His chapbook SkinMag was published in 2012 by A5/Deadly Chaps. His most recent poetry book, Patter, was released March 2014 by Red Hen Press.

Candace Butler spoke with Douglas Kearney via telephone.

Candace Butler: Your new book Patter is an emotional outpouring: at times crude and witty but overall real, emotional, and serious. How long did it take you to write and assemble the 46 poems in Patter?

Douglas Kearney: Well, the vast majority of that book was written between 2010 and January of this year. There were a couple of poems that existed as far back as 2008. For example, the “Goooooo or Goooooo or Goooooo” poem—I think the first draft of that would be from 2007 or 2008. “The Pool, 1988” is the oldest in the book, but the bulk of those poems were written between 2010 and now. So they are really highly concentrated in that they’re grappling with the process of becoming a parent and responding to my wife’s pregnancy, which was basically from summer of 2009 to March 2010. Our twins were born in March 2010, so the bulk of the book has been the last four years.

CB: Patter has a unique blend of wordplay, structure, and creativity. Two of my favorite poems are “Sonnet Done Red” where words overlap without becoming obscure and “The Miscarriage: A Poetic Form” where one word carries the weight of the entire poem. Then, “Word Hunt” is not like any poem I’ve read before. Could you explain your inspiration for “Word Hunt”? What do you hope readers will find in this poem?

DK: What I hope people will find in the book as a whole—are you saying the book as a whole or specific, individual poems?

CB: I said the poems, but you can speak to both.

DK: I’ll go with the particular poems that you mentioned, “Sonnet Done Red” and “A Poetic Form.” “Sonnet Done Red” is trying to make it’s way through two questions at once—that you point out beautifully. One is the nature of poetic composition. How does poetic form order thinking? So “Sonnet Done Red” means to visualize the Elizabethan sonnet’s approach toward reckoning questions of and arguments essentially about, in this case, love. For me, the conundrum that warrants that is, “I love your body. I hate it.” As it travels through the rest of the book, it becomes a question around how does a male, or let’s say the person who isn’t carrying the child, cope with fertility issues and miscarriage in light of a physical trauma experienced by the child-bearer. How do I talk about the love that I have for, in this case, my wife as a person who isn’t there just to make children with? How do I deal with that question when we are trying to have children, when there is a miscarriage, or when there are other reproductive blocks?

For me, a big challenge of the book was how to write about my wife’s body without either turning it into this mythological mysterious space where the woman’s body is unfathomable or this site of failure. Both of which are problematic ways men have written about the female body as this Other state that is mysterious, beautiful, and horrible. I wanted to document attempts at that. Even if those attempts fail, I wanted the reader to be aware that the initial question—I wanted to document those failures. The “Done Red” poems all document a kind of attempt to write around that process and write to that process. With “Miscarriage: A Poetic Form”—to go back to what I was saying earlier—this kind of collision between this refined, rhetorical poetic structure of certain formal approaches to writing are difficult, raw, and emotional. Initially, I had written down the poetic form, and I was going to write a poem that would fit that poetic form—several internal rhymes, perfect rhymes, slant rhymes, then a broken internal rhyme; though if you look at some literary guides, it’s impossible to write a broken internal rhyme because a broken rhyme happens at the end of the poetic line. The final rhyme is actually impossible. It’s not viable—to use a term that would apply both to matters of pregnancy and composition. So within that poem, it’s really just about how to write about something that is so difficult to articulate. What happens when all we have left is the form of what was supposed to exist?

CB: You make bold typographic and form choices, your language can be dense or brash. Your strong emotional content can, and does, evoke a strong response from readers. “Blues Done Red” is even a flowchart. Because your poetry is so edgy and different from other American poets, do you ever fear that your work will be perceived as having an element of shock value?

DK: That’s always a possible risk. My only real response to that is I feel like I’ve done the work to move beyond that. If someone does not wish to engage the work, then ultimately there’s nothing I can do about that. And I’m aware of that—that some people may not ever engage the work. They find it shocking. They’re not interested. They don’t like the cover of the book. Any number of reasons. I feel there are so many things to keep a person from reading a poem that for me—and I use this term a lot—the “contract” that I have between the reader and myself is that if I make a decision to typographically set a poem a certain way, you know, that is a compositional decision that I make.

Sometimes we choose a word for its sound or another word that might essentially be the same thing but might not be as raw—we choose this other word. For me, for example, if we’re talking about “Kronos: Father of the Year,” which uses the word cunt—that isn’t necessarily a word for an erotic poem. It’s a word you might not want to use in conversation, but Kronos is an entity who ate his children for fear that they would supplant him. This is not a person who thinks much of bodies that are not his own, so why would he be gentle? There’s a level of contempt he has for other bodies. He converts his children, essentially, into shit. He feels that they are shit. Or that they will haunt him later. This isn’t a character who would speak in a lovely way. It would be off-key. It wouldn’t make sense to have him blush at the c-bomb. And, ostensibly, we could all agree that saying a mean thing about somebody is preferable to eating them. (laughs) I don’t think that he’d be like, “Oh, but I can’t say that.”

So, maybe there are people who will be shocked. There are people who will feel like that’s all I’m doing, just trying to shock, and to them I would say read more closely because there is more to it than that. And that’s my job—to make sure there’s more to it than that. If they read it closely, and they still decide, you know, “I still don’t think there’s much to it,” then both of us have done all that we can do if we’re being honest at that point. But the “Fathers of the Year” poems—they’re not about nice people. If they are possibly nice people, they’re appearing in this work in a moment where we are being very skeptical of what it is they’ve done.

I think that cultural literacy is very important….I’m very suspicious of terms like tolerant and sensitive because I think both of those things displace responsibility.

CB: Can you discuss your vision of the audience for your poetry? To whom do you hope to speak?

DK: I was asked this question a couple weeks ago. I think that—and this is to me an honest answer—anybody who wants to listen or wants to read closely. And when I say read closely, I don’t mean it to sound so self-important or patronizing. When I say read closely, I don’t mean pore over it like every line I drop contains a universe of wisdom, and you are there simply to receive it and be edified by it. I guess I just mean somebody who is willing to go along for the ride and be alert to what’s happening in the poem. If I did not feel that the poems were worth considering—if I didn’t feel like there would be something that would amount to something pleasurable, that would amount to something worth your time, I wouldn’t have published the book. I am the first and harshest critic, I think, of whether a poem I’ve written gets into a book. They’re not compendiums of everything that I’ve written over a short amount of time. There are poems that don’t get in there. There are poems that I like very much that don’t get in there, but they don’t get in there either because they don’t build on anything that another poem doesn’t do better or they’re really only talking to me and a very, very, very, very small circle of people. Those kinds of poems I’m not going to publish. Facebook is for that. CC on an email is great for that. For a book, though, I want people who are willing to read closely, who are willing to have an experience that might surprise them. If you already know what I’m going to say and how I’m going to say it, then there’s no point for you to read it. But I’m hopeful that somebody who reads the work is willing to be surprised by something. It’s not always a happy surprise, but I don’t think people who read poetry are always only looking for a singular, simple experience of pleasure or affirmation or, on the other end, tragedy or horror. I want people who are alert to a complicated set of emotional responses not always delivered in a way that’s complicated and difficult to follow.

CB: Your live readings engage the audience. And that’s one definition of Patter, a speech geared toward audience participation. Does the audience always react the way you hope they will?

DK: You want to know what my main hope is for an audience reaction? I want people to ask questions. Even if the question is, “wait, did he just say what I thought he said?” That’s a fine question. Hopefully the question isn’t, “why the hell did I just waste my evening being here?” I’m really interested in people having to actually think to themselves, “how am I supposed to respond to this?” Not in a defensive way. In that way where a listener thinks, “this seems to be about a really horrible thing, but the tone doesn’t seem like it was horrible; how am I supposed to understand that?”

Or from “The Miscarriage: A Minstrel Show,” for example, “why are there minstrels in this poem space?” Or “is that just there to shock?” Well, what better way to talk about the notion of shame and having to behave as if everything’s okay than the image of the minstrel? Especially if you’re talking about black subjectivity, right? It’s literally putting on a happy face that does not contain the actual, real experience. That’s the kind of question that I’m interested in. I had a poem in my last book, “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-folk” about the Middle Passage,and people were asking, “Should I be laughing?” That’s the kind of response I’m generally looking for: should I? I love should when people are talking about their own personal reactions because it means that they’re actually asking themselves a question. It means they’re engaging the work.

If people laugh at certain parts during a poem, I usually don’t get too revved up. Sometimes there’s a surprising work where somebody laughs or there’s a work where somebody doesn’t laugh, but the reaction I want—the only reaction I feel that you have a right to ask of an audience—is just that they listen. If people are on their cell phones texting or something, I get pissed. Other than that, the response belongs to you. I can’t say what that is. I can say of a certain poem, I felt like this is what I was communicating. But if there are ambiguities in the poem or ambiguities in the delivery or somebody missed a part of it, then you have to allow for responses you, as the writer, didn’t expect. That’s really important and that’s part of why we write.

By the same token, people are skeptical of artistic intention sometimes—and maybe in other art forms that’s there—but we’re talking about poetry, which is based on language. We use language every day to get an intended result without thinking about it. If you call me and say, Are you ready to do this interview? and I say, Yeah, I guess. If you’re ready, that would be different from, Yeah! I’m ready. We’re skilled at understanding what someone else is saying on a daily basis. If we were not, we wouldn’t be able to get shit done. So I think that while I can expect certain things from just basic communication we have going, I also recognize that poetry creates a space where we pressurize things or make them more complicated. Generally, I get the range of responses I think are likely to happen.

CB: Do you have any writing rituals?

DK: When the kids were born, I really got back into writing freehand. Before, I started writing on the computer. When I wrote The Black Automaton, a lot of that was written directly into the computer because I had more time. I had time to sit down at the computer and know I was going to be able to sit there for a couple of hours without any kind of interruption. And once we had the kids, that really changed. Just trying to sit in front of the computer made it harder because sitting down there, locking eyes with that screen, becomes a kind of disengagement with the external world for me. It’s harder. It takes longer. Whereas if I’m writing in my journal, I can scribble something down in a minute and then get up and get back to whatever I was doing. Or standing up in the kitchen, I can kind of just scribble it down and move on. I’ll be honest. If I set my laptop up at the table, and my children ask me a question—we have twins—it’s like, you just interrupted me. Clinically, it would register on a Richter Scale. It’s very different if I’m just scribbling something down. I actually feel bad in most cases writing in my laptop when I am with the kids because my patience drops. In some kind of way, the freehand allows me to describe the color of the idea if I haven’t found the right word, the right sentence. It preserves it better than when it’s all left in line in the computer. I don’t feel like I’m chasing it in quite the same way.

CB: You mentioned once that you had several unpublished manuscripts in your files. Do you ever draw from those manuscripts? Do you have any unfinished poems you look at occasionally?

DK: I allow there to be a fair amount of distance between me and those. I look at them, and one of the harsh things I have to tell myself is, are you looking at that because you’re desperate for content, or are you looking at it because you feel like you can actually pull something from it? The manuscript that has the ghost life that stays with me, in a way, from other manuscripts is the first full, chapbook-like manuscript I wrote, all based on this Romare Bearden collage called “The Dove.” I do feel like I could publish those as a book. They’re very different from the way I write now, I think. And I feel like, except for maybe two or three of those poems, they were solid. At the same time, I do wonder what it would be like to go back and look at that book now and revise those poems. If I ever wanted to do a collection that was all ekphrastic poems, I would certainly pull from them.

I do go back to other manuscripts. I do feel like there’s certain things that can inform my newer writing. A couple of those manuscripts were really project-based: I’m going to write all about x, y, z. And in those cases it’s really hard to imagine going back and really taking any of those poems. I think that whatever gymnastics I had to do in my head to write them has now become a part of a skillset that I have. And now, I can go back and maybe use some of the techniques. That, to me, is all that’s there. That, to me, is kind of like freestyling in being a rap artist. You don’t record all of your freestyles and turn them into full songs, but you turn the phrase in your head at some point. You realize that you can extend a rhyme into a song at some point. And so The Dove Sessions—that’s what the name of those poems are, I think—I do sometimes imagine I could go back and work with them. And then I pretty much pillaged all I could of Drowning the Cities for The Black Automaton. There’s still maybe 35 or 40 pages in that one that I didn’t use in The Black Automaton, which could make a short book or maybe a chapbook. But I feel like The Black Automaton improved on so many of the things that I was messing with in Drowning the Cities that to go back to that would literally be a going backward. I wouldn’t be making progress. I would be putting forth work that wasn’t as good as what I’d already published.

CB: You designed both The Black Automaton and Patter. How did you come to incorporate these images of red ants that invade Patter, which are bright red on the cover but by the end of the book are gray, flattened, and dismembered? Can you talk about your design process, from idea to execution?

DK: Yeah, absolutely. I’m so glad you used the word invade. They really are invading the book. The last poem, or series of poems, in The Black Automaton is called “The Six Cities.” The “Goooooo or Goooooo or Goooooo” [poems] were published some time ago in MiPOesias.com, but The Black Automaton ending with “The Six Cities” was in some ways a kind of artifact of the Drowning the Cities manuscript. They engage the question of infertility. So with Patter coming in sequence after that book—five years after [The Black Automaton] came out—I wanted there to be a kind of connection between the two books, so the ants are carrying the last line from The Black Automaton into Patter. When you open the book, the words are the last line of The Black Automaton. They’re bringing back that connection into the book. I always thought that if I were going to have the opportunity to design a whole book, ultimately where I would like to get is where the poems in the book would begin on the spine of the book or the cover of the book. If you’re designing an entire book, then that means you can do something that most poets who don’t design their own books or designers who don’t write poetry don’t get the opportunity to do, which is to really make the entire object of the book the poem. And in some ways, Patter is closer to that. It’s by no means the accomplishment of that notion. It’s closer, I think; it edges out into the end paper of the book, you know? It hasn’t gotten to the spine. It hasn’t fully gotten to the cover, but that’s something I think about as being a really interesting possibility.

Coming up with the section breaks for The Black Automaton, there is a logic behind all those different cities. I kind of think about those sort of dividersas themes. I think about it like an Easter egg. I wouldn’t want to publish what that is, or I wouldn’t want to say what that is. But if someone else figured it out and published it, that would be fine. So if I told you, it would be kind of off the record. But there is a logic behind that, and many poets work with images, visual things abstracted, that sort of structural constraint. For book covers as well as for those dividers in The Black Automaton, it’s like giving the image part of your brain a chance to work. Because I happen to be able to make those images, it becomes fascinating for me. You have all the representations of The Black Automaton itself, including the book cover, posters, and flyers I made—or the design of the website. I always wanted those representations to not be 100% clear about whether that great big automaton figure was dancing in a city that happens to be on fire or was violently destroying that city. With varying degrees of success, I tried to make that more ambiguous. I will say that if I had wanted it to look like the automaton was destroying the city, I would have drawn it differently. Again, a person might look at it and say, “well, it looks like it’s destroying the city to me,” but I know on my end of things that I would have made different choices if I wanted that to be the one way to read it, to see it. And the way the ants move from the cover, from that kind of invasion, from serving a purpose that seems to be working mostly for the book to being crushed at the end definitely follows a kind of a trajectory—a different narrative that’s acting in concert with the poems and the book as a whole. Did that answer your question at all?

CB: Yes, definitely. Thank you. As you know, Antioch University has a strong emphasis on social justice. Can you talk about what is important to you in shaping ideas about justice and social activism?

DK: I think that cultural literacy is very important. And that is to say I’m very suspicious of terms like tolerant and sensitive because I think both of those things displace responsibility. If you’re tolerant of something, you’re tolerant of things that are not going correctly. You don’t have to tolerate a healthy heart, a so-called regular heart. So it still puts the person who is being tolerant in a position of being able to define what is normative; they have the power to decide whether or not they are going to tolerate it, so it’s a bit problematic. I think saying somebody is culturally sensitive is similar. We’re sensitive to things that are sore or tender or delicate. Also because so much of our language is patriarchal, “being sensitive”—often considered a feminine trait—requires us to “weaken” ourselves. That is how a patriarchy mobilizes and understands that term. Someone else is weaker, and we have to be nice. Again, we haven’t shifted the power dynamic at all when we say, “culturally sensitive.” I think cultural literacy is more important because it puts the responsibility on the person who must be culturally literate to acknowledge what’s happening in culture.

The dominant group expects everyone to be literate in its culture to the point that they can sometimes forget that they’re actually talking about culture. They think they’re talking about nature. And so cultural literacy, to me, is something like in the poem “Thank You But      Please Don’t Buy My Children Clothes with Monkeys on Them.” The company—Keystone Keepsakes—called a doll that had a little black girl, “Lil Monkey.” I’m not sensitive to the association of black people to monkeys any more so than a person who does not wish to insult an entire community of people would—I mean, why did that person do that? Why did that company do that? It’s just stupid. Unless you’re actually trying to insult somebody. And if you are trying to insult somebody, then own that shit and say it.

To me, another part of cultural literacy is to understand the range of how cultural [representatives] are pulling from a performance of a kind of cultural literacy that I think a lot of us actually have access to, whether you’re talking about the quotation of hip hop lyrics and pop music in The Black Automaton to references to modernist poetry. I think these are all things that are parts of our cultural milieu that we all kind of have access to should we choose to take it. And if one doesn’t have that access, in the age of Google it doesn’t take much energy to get that access. So that’s one thing that I’m interested in. I am interested in access: who gets to get things. When you close a door, who doesn’t have access anymore? And who do you let into the room before you close the door? In some ways, access is one of the fundamental questions around social justice. Do we all get to make the same mistakes? Do we all get to make the same advances?

So access is something that I’m questioning. For Patter, I actually created a notes page on Tumblr (http://dkpatter.tumblr.com/) so that you can go to the Tumblr site as opposed to the notes in the back of the book, which there do exist in Patter. There’s this place on the web where you can go and link to an article or music video, and it’ll say, “Page 43.” That’s another kind of access. Students, they read this. Teachers, they read this. Buyers of poetry, they read this. How can I increase the access in some way without assuming that a reader needs every clue, every reference?

You know, bringing children into the world is a difficult thing. And when you’re living in a society where certain children are seen as disposable, seen as threats, seen as less valuable than other children, these are more complicated questions; someone figures: we don’t have to kill them if they’re not born. I think that Patter, in some ways, builds a question around social justice particularly as we see through a lens of race, which is a lens. Typically, race is more often a lens than an actual subject in poems. I mean, African American poets are called upon to speak about race. I think oftentimes we’re not speaking about race so much as we’re talking about cruelty, shame, and violence. And racism and race then becomes a lens by which we view these things. I think people are equipped to dismiss race dynamics because they don’t think they have to deal with race when they are not black, not Other. And so they kind of ignore the fact that racism happens to fucking humans. Racism doesn’t happen to computers. It doesn’t happen to trees. It doesn’t happen to animals. It happens to people. And if you’re a person, ostensibly you should be interested in people. Those are the kinds of questions around social justice that I am interested in. The poems in the section “It Is Designed for Children” are directly commenting on some of these kinds of questions, such as what it means to terrorize people and how come everybody doesn’t get the same kind of care.

Cultivate the pleasure of writing poems. Try not to feel guilty about spending two hours deciding whether or not its blue or azure.

CB: How do you start a poem? How do you know when a poem is finished?

DK: Ah, the beginning and the end. I think that I’ll start at the back and move forward. There are some poems where I feel like I’ve gotten the perfect balance of ideas and a raw, energetic space; craft and more reflective layers. There are times when I feel like I’ve gotten the maximum tension out of a poem that I can get. Then three weeks will pass and I’ll be like, “I can’t believe I thought that was the right word.” Then you go in there and you change one word, and suddenly there are all these new sonic possibilities. There are times where I have revised a poem incorrectly. By that I mean, I might look at a poem and decide that what the poem needs is a tighter sonic construction, and that comes at the expense of something else. To me, that’s an incorrect revision. It doesn’t mean that revising makes your poems weak. In fact, I think when I revise correctly, what is strong about the poem is strengthened through the process of revision—not the other way around. The beauty, of course, is that I can go, okay, this poem has lost its way. Let me go back to version, you know, 12. I think that was where I was right before I started doing this thing that I felt ruined the poem. I can go back to version 12, and I can pick up there and not let that happen. I have this knowledge that this is going to fuck it up. So if I just don’t do that, and I go back to 12, I can make a stronger 16. I can make a stronger version 23. I love revision. And I love revision enough to sometimes say that perhaps getting to the stage where I’m tweaking and tweaking and tweaking a poem is really my happiest place. I have to be alert to whether the poem is done or whether I’m just twiddling with it because it’s easier to revise a poem that is almost done than it is to start a new one.

Starting a poem. There’s the start that is the gift poem, and that is when you sit down—you’ve been thinking about something in the back of your head. Maybe you have a title. Maybe you have a turn of phrase or something. And the poem just kind of spells itself out, and you’re basically transcribing. That happened a couple of times. That was the case with “Swimchant,” “The Chitlin Circuit,” and a couple of other poems that really felt like they were there when I sat down. And my revisions were really minor. Those are great. Oftentimes, I’ll have an idea or premise for a poem that gets me very excited. And I’ll sit, and I’ll try to get it down. And, you know, the first draft toward it hasn’t figured it out yet. And I just have to be patient when that happens. I have a premise, you know, a kind of a project will come to mind, and I just have to sort of figure it out. And something else that kind of gets me started, I’ll read some criticism and the writer’s identifying some interesting approach that he or she is finding in a number of different poems, and that makes me go, “Oh, that sounds pretty cool. Let me go try that.” It’s like a restaurant at that point. Oh, I’d like to try that. Let me see. (laughs) Let me try that food. Let me try “the nearly baroque.” I’d be interested in trying that.

There’s pretty much any way into a poem. I guess the only thing I’m reluctant to do—Like lots of folks, I listen to NPR a lot, and NPR is always full of stories that make me think, “Oh, wouldn’t that make an interesting poem?” But I have a feeling that there are, you know, 3,000 other poets listening to the same broadcast and thinking, “oh God! That’s perfect. They’ve genetically created a monkey that glows in the dark. That’s what I’m writing a poem about!” Like, naw. Just, naw. I can’t. I don’t want to do that because there’s probably going to be a thousand poems on that. And I think the idea of two poets—a hundred poets—writing about the same thing doesn’t bother me—it’s just, you know, the snarky essay that’s going to come out later, “clearly, these poets all listened to the same broadcast.” I don’t want to be on that list. That’s horrifying (laughs).

CB: How do you keep challenging yourself?

DK: Just not wanting to be bored or boring. I feel like when I finish a book, then at some level I’m telling readers I’m done with x, y, z. And not in a collapsing-over-a-sofa-I’m-done but a sort of okay, I did that, you bought that, you read that, probably don’t want to do it again because you have it. If you want Patter again, you’ll read Patter. So when I finish a book, it’s very difficult for me in some ways to revisit. I think having those ants drag in that last line is a way to create a linkage, but also a way to transform at some level that poem from The Black Automaton to this new space. I might realize in two years that I still haven’t written the poem about miscarriage that helps me make sense of the miscarriage my wife had. I might write that poem, but I will tell you it would take a whole lot of hand-wringing for me to put that in another book because in some ways I feel like, well, I’ve written about this. And I’m completely aware that there are things I’m writing about over and over and over even now. I think there’s something different about taking on a trope or taking on philosophical questions or taking on a public event and revisiting it. There’s something a little different—and this is not a judgment on anybody who does so—but for me it feels a little different to talk about a personal event and publish it and then write about it some more and publish it again, especially after a book like Patter where that was the focus. If I wrote two or three more poems about fertility, infertility, and miscarriage and included them in another book that wasn’t focused on that, I’d honestly be a bit leery. I might keep them, but I don’t want to rewrite Patter.

So for me, whenever I’m faced with a new book or a long pause in writing, the phrase that comes to my mind is, I have to find a new language. I have to find a new language to justify another book of poems. It’s restless and it’s frustrating, but I find it rewarding. If I’m writing the same way I wrote in The Black Automaton, I would feel like I was pulling one over on people. I finished The Black Automaton in 2008: it’s been six years. If I’m still writing the same way—if I’m still thinking the same way—if I haven’t come up with another way to solve compositional problems, then that’s something that I pay attention to. I stay alert to that impression or that possibility.

Of course I know that the interrogative mood—the interrogative mood in a sentence—has not been exhausted. There’s always another way to go back to the interrogative or the imperative. But for me, I’m trying to do as robust and as rigorous work as I can. I feel like that’s one of the things that poetry offers us the chance to do. I feel like that is part of the deal. If I’m going to write another poem, let alone another book, then at some level I’ve got to be thinking, is this enough?Have I learned anything from the last poem I’ve written? And if not, you know, what’s that about? It’s not always self-censoring: I write anyway. It does affect what I choose to try to publish, what I choose to send out to journals, what I choose to put into a collection.

I’m working on another collection right now. And just this last weekend, I chucked about 10 poems out of it, which is a significant setback in finishing the manuscript. But they were slack. They might have been interesting, but they didn’t do what I felt they needed to do. They were ideas that felt too facile to pursue. So I kind of just chucked them. I probably won’t be able to generate an entire manuscript that I won’t be using this time around. And this was literally Monday of this week. So in the time between Monday and today, I’ve decided on a new title for that project that I think captures much more of what I think I can do. I’ve kicked out those poems, I’ve written one new poem, and I’ve started a couple of other poems that I think are helping me position where I think about this manuscript. How I do it is I listen to or read different poems, essays, music, arguments, and critical engagements to try to find new ways of entering the sentence—to try to find new ways to think about the problems I’m still thinking about. You’re running, and you’ve reached your limit. And you have to convince yourself to run one more lap. You have to say, you’re so close to writing a good poem. What you learned from that one—how can you go further? It’s kind of a mind game.

CB: Some of your poems rely heavily on rhythm and sonic quality. You mention an embarrassment of pop rap radio in “Rallying” in Fear, Some, and there are references and allusions to entire musical styles as well as individual songs throughout your work. What musicians have you been listening to lately? What’s on repeat in your playlist?

DK: I’ve been listening to that group Haim.

CB: Really?

DK: It’s one of those things where I feel like I’ve got to one day just buy a Haim T-shirt and walk around with it like,yes, I’ve been listening to Haim. On a basic level I enjoy it, the punched way they sing. Even though there’s one main lead singer, they all sort of take on this adaptation of clenched-teeth sort of t-t (sound), this very rhythmic, percussive singing that I find really interesting. I also like the vocal samples that I push through—that hey!—these kinds of interruptions in punctuation.

At the same time, I have been listening to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain a lot because of how narrative the tracks are, how evocative these pieces are. They’re not using the kind of riffs or circular structure that a lot of the music I typically listen to uses, whether it’s hip hop samples or jazz riffs—jazz phrases. I feel like it stretches out in a way that I’m trying to get to myself because I do feel like my default is to write very tightly. Not necessarily tight in a precise way but a constrained way: as in I have 15 words, and I’m just going to use those 15 words over and over and over. That reminds me a lot of hip hop production and the loop. But sometimes I feel like I need to somehow allow myself a sixteenth word.

I find myself listening to a lot more rock in general. Queens of the Stone Age is a group I listen to. But I think the album that’s given me the most pleasure—where I’m kind of just sitting there like, wow, I could really listen to this a lot—is probably Haim. I don’t know what that’s going to do to the work, butI’m not listening to it strategically like that.

I’m about to get some software that will allow me to go back to making beats. I used to make beats, and the software I had died. So I haven’t been able to do that. Once I have that software again, it’ll probably change a lot. I was listening to a podcast today talking about the rapper Jean Grae. I’m really excited about her project, which is called Gotham Down. I was listening to her on that, and I was like, “Oh holy shit, I need to get that.”

Also, L.A. beat music! I’ve been listening to a lot of Flying Lotus and Mad-lib Instrumentals. There’s something about how expansive those things can get with just the presence of a single sample—not in the way that I tend to think of samples in relation to a rapper or when a rapper’s going to rap over a track, which is what The Black Automaton was about. I think that when a person is making beat music—and they’re not concerned about somebody speaking over it—it allows for all kinds of weird little disembodied yet associated things to happen. That’s really something I’m interested in: like, how to make a poem that looks like a wall of graffiti. Andyou’re kind of like, okay, I see why all these things are in the same space, but they seem like they were written by very different people at different times and are only associatively connected. I’m not really sure how that connection is working, but it feels like graffiti or a message board or one of these places where multiplicity happens.

So I guess I would say Haim, Miles Davis, beat music, and Queens of the Stone Age.

CB: What’s next?

DK: Okay, so the next book is called, well, right now is called Minstrel Cyborg Spider Radio, a collection of my opera libretti, and that’s supposed to come out in the next year or so. And then another one that I’m working on right now, which is more poems, until Monday was called Stagger Put Work In, but now I think it’s just going to be called Buck.

CB: Buck?

DK: Buck. B-u-c-k. And I told that to my wife today, and she laughed. Usually that’s a good sign. Both of these should be out within the next couple of years. So that’s what’s next. And the other projects that I’m working on include a few operas that won’t be in Minstrel Cyborg Spider Radio and then poems.

CB: What advice do you have for aspiring poets?

DK: Well, this is my mantra that I use for aspiring poets, which is—because we as poets often have to deal with people who aren’t really paying attention to what we’re doing—and so I say, “If nobody’s watching, at least be naked.” You might as well be naked. And then that way, if somebody does watch and say, hey, show me some more of that, then you know they were actually after what you have and what you’re interested in and not necessarily your take on official verse culture or whatever that phrase is, right? Do the thing that you find most interesting. Because, to be honest, if you wanted to be a conformist, you should get into a job where being a conformist would reward you much more handsomely than it does in poetry. Getting a teaching gig is a great blessing for a poet, but hell, if you’re going to do something you don’t really want to do, become a banker so you can get a yacht or some shit (laughs). Maybe getting a sabbatical every five years, why conform to get that? If you’re going to write poetry, write the shit that lights your fire. That doesn’t mean that you don’t pay attention to craft. It doesn’t mean you don’t ever read anybody else’s work. It does mean developing your approach, developing your eye, honoring your eye, honoring your voice. That’s something worth pursuing.

The other bit of advice that might be more practical is learn to love the writing of poetry. It’s not the same thing at all as publishing poetry. It’s often not the same thing at all from having finished a poem. Cultivate the love of writing the poem, and then your access to the joy will be much higher. If you’re interested in publishing poems, you can be happier by becoming a poem publisher because there’s always somebody making poems. If you just want poems out in the world, then become a publisher or copy your friends’ poems and post them on a website—that’s another way to think of publishing. But cultivate the pleasure of writing poems. Try not to feel guilty about spending two hours deciding whether or not it’s “blue” or “azure.” Love the act of writing the poem. Publishing poems after that is a completely different discipline. They’re not the same thing. You have to be really alert to the fact that they’re different, and that might be easier than cultivating the love of writing the poem. Know the difference between writing a poem, finishing a poem, and publishing a poem—and appreciate the difference. That’s the most practical advice I can give you.

Candace ButlerCandace Butler is a writer, artist, and musician residing in her hometown of Sugar Grove, Virginia, a small rural town in the Appalachian Mountains. She is an MFA candidate in the Creative Writing Program at Antioch University of Los Angeles (AULA). Her publications are listed on her website: http://www.candacebutler.com.

D. J. Waldie, Author

 

D. J. Waldie

Photo: Earle Church

D.J. Waldie is the author of Holy Land: A Suburban MemoirWhere Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles, and other books about Southern California. He also is the authorwith Diane Keatonof two architectural studies: California Romantica and House.

Jennifer McCharen: What are you working on right now?

D.J. Waldie: For some years I’ve been writing a blog twice a week for KCET public television. I write about some political subjects, some cultural commentary, a little bit of history, a little bit of memoir. In addition to that I am waiting to hear from editors at Design who are putting together a book series on issues of place, which they hope to have published by Princeton University Press. My book would be about suburban places in Southern California.

JM: You’ve said that your writing, “might be a guidebook to civic romance: how to fall in love with the place in which you are.” Why do you think it’s important for people, and especially for writers, to fall in love with the place in which they are?

DJW: I generally speak in those terms about civic identity and civic engagement, and the capacity for places to become fit places for people to live through the prolonged and deep engagement people might have with their place, rather than just being a sojourner or a tourist. They become possessed of their place, and possessed by their place. But speaking specifically of writers it strikes me that a grounding in a particular place, its character and history, gives a writer a degree of substance that they might not otherwise have. And so I often think of the regionalist writers of the twentieth century. Writers that I find valuable are unwilling to be place-less. They are best when they are place-connected. That’s not altogether easy because of just the character of our lives today. Connection to place might seem like a burden or a useless bit of baggage that one needn’t carry around. But for me place is invested with so much emotional, spiritual, and psychological presence that it almost seems impossible to be without a sense of place. I think a sense of place is as essential to a person’s existence as a sense of self.

JM: When you talk about a sense of place, what is that made of for you? What does a sense of place involve specifically, tangibly?

Photo: Courtesy of the City of Lakewood

Photo: Courtesy of the City of Lakewood

DJW: I’m no philosopher of a sense of place. I’m more of a preacher than a theologian. But it seems to me a sense of place has several dimensions. One dimension is history: an understanding of where the place has come through time. A sense of place has a tangible dimension: sights and smells and touches and tastes and all of the sensory input that one might get by being intimately in a place. So that, just peripherally, it’s difficult to develop a sense of place from driving through it. It’s better to walk. Another dimension of a sense of place is what one might call the capacity for connecting to a community. A hermit might have a sense of place through the first two dimensions, but it seems to me that a full sense of place requires intercourse, commerce, conversation, interchange with a purposethe purpose being the formation of some kind of viable community that persists through time. Another dimension of place is one Gaston Bachelard would agree with: that a sense of place comes from what might loosely be called daydreaming. A sense of place arrives from conscious dreaming so that a place is not simply a collection of data, or a list of facts in the past, or even a well-functioning organization like a community. A sense of place requires that imaginative faculty which I call a moral imagination—the ability to conceive of the elements of a place in a way that evokes one’s sympathy. So those are at least four dimensions of what I might consider a sense of place.

JM: My next question is about your book Holy Land. The book ends with lines from a Catholic hymn that are directed to the cross itself, “Sweet the wood, sweet the nails, sweet the weight it bears.” This image relates directly back to the detailed descriptions of the frames of the houses of Lakewood being nailed together one after another and the effect is very poignant. At what point in your writing did you know that image would be the end?

DJW: Fairly early on I understood that the book would end the way it does. I had indiscriminately collected lots and lots of phrases, sentences, incidents, bits of history, and some reflections. But when I began seriously reforming those materials and had maybe thirty or forty or so bits, I understood it was going to end where it ended—it was going to end with those words. It was going to not end in a place of triumph. It was going to be somewhat open-ended in the sense that it sort of ends in the middle of things as opposed to ending at the end of things. And that was the direction toward which the writing went naturally. In other words, I don’t think the writing is controlled by that ending. It just gets the reader there.

JM: Following up from that, because it’s such a clearly faith-bound image, how does faith play into your life as a writer?

DJW: I’m very hesitant to make any sorts of claims at all. Let me only say that the question of faith, a question of attempting to engage in a life that has a particular religious faith more or less at its center does shape my work as a writer. I would hesitate to say that it’s anything at all like Flannery O’Connor, but that might be an easy analogy—although it’s sort of like comparing a paper airplane with a 747. But my work as a writer and as a public official has centered on the notion that faithfulness is a meaningful component of lives. That faithfulness has a power to shape the viability and success of communities. And that faithfulness between individuals, and faithfulness between an individual and his or her place is a value that I understand, and have embraced although I might not be able to defend it rigorously. It’s more of a choice of the heart than a choice of the head. But I would argue that faithful communities work, and that they’re not an illusion imposed upon incoherent circumstances. My work as a public official for Lakewood has always been trying to show residents of Lakewood why loyalty (that’s Josiah Royce’s word) to a place like Lakewood is something they might want to acquire.

Faithfulness can also be a collection of habits, things that become so ingrained in one’s behavior that one does not have to puzzle out what should I do next? I have a tendency to believe that although habits have a bad rap, because there’s a prejudice in western thought to examining everything always all the time, it seems to me that everyday life is habitual in many of its forms, and that faithfulness can be a habit too.

JM: That makes me think of writing, and how one has to keep the faith with your writing.

DJW: That’s precisely the case.

JM: Definitely. That leads into my next question: this idea of “suburbia.” Very smart and insightful people still use that word as an epithet—as if it describes a homogenous substance. Why do you think this happens? What do you think it is about suburbia that disturbs certain people?

DJW: First let me just say that I’ve tried to scrub that word from my language and generally don’t use it, although sometimes editors and reporters and headline writers throw it into the text because that’s what comes immediately to mind.

Photo: Courtesy of the City of Lakewood

Photo: Courtesy of the City of Lakewood

There are lots and lots of reasons why places that are various and diverse and beloved by the people living there get turned into this thing called suburbia. And at the risk of just raking over old arguments, suburbia comes out of a resistance to the ordinary, a resistance to the everyday. Suburbia comes out of complaints about the making of working class housing in the immediate postwar period that disappointed so many architectural activists who were also social activists. Turning these nondescript places into the thing called suburbia is also a reflection of what some cultural critics have called aesthetic privilege. That is, in order for one class to frame its stature above another class, one way is to focus on the aesthetic values of the upper class and denigrate the aesthetic values of the underclass. And so I think for political reasons and cultural reasons suburbia gets to be the thing that is spoken about as a substitute for actual suburbs.

I’ve written on many occasions that it seems to me that the mass-produced suburbs like Lakewood of the period 1946-1960 disappointed so many architects and social critics and advocates of social planning because it didn’t look good. It didn’t look like the gleaming Modernist superblocks of Le Corbusier or the gleaming concrete and steel constructions of the Bauhaus. It just looked like…Lakewood. And it was very disappointing to them.

JM: Because it was this massive physical building project. And yet it wasn’t Corbusier.

DJW: Or even Neutra or Schindler. It was a little house on a little lot.

JM: I guess they expected utopia to produce something shinier.

DJW: Or grander. I think their expectations were that the postwar period would be marked by a sort of grandiose aesthetic achievement, and it wasn’t.

JM: That is so interesting because something else was built and that thing was: a place where real people could live. 

DJW: Exactly. You’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s exactly what did get built, and wasn’t that a grand achievement.

JM: Wasn’t it? I wonder why our culture has such a hard time holding that up as our grand achievement. I think the class question might be part of it.

DJW: There has been a tension in American culture between everyday-ness and the need for exception and idealization. And part of the whole cultural trend from the late 19th Century onward in which intellectuals in America abandoned the straight-laced and burdensome everydayness of small towns in the Midwest and moved into the great cities with their great energy and also their physical appearance, the intellectual class in America got trained to be unsympathetic to the little places that are very ordinary.

JM: That’s a good segue to another thing I wanted to ask you. It’s something that comes up in the book Real City. In that book you talk about longing and how this feeling has shaped the city of Los Angeles. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that.

DJW: Los Angeles is a particular example of how desire created a place.

Bear in mind that L.A. was nothing more than a typical southwestern cowtown when it became American in 1860—when it became more firmly within the orbit of the nation. It was a wide spot in the road with just a few rather rough buildings and a very heterogeneous population that didn’t get along with each other very well. The anglos hated the Mexicans and the Chinese, the Mexicans hated the Chinese, and everyone hated the African Americans. And everyone was exploiting everyone else. But the people who arrived in the period between 1860 and 1880 had powerful ambitions. All across the west great fortunes were being made, great cities were being built. And they wanted L.A. to be one of those places. There was an economic rivalry with San Francisco, which was the economic capital of the entire west. And L.A. was under the thumb of San Francisco finance. If you wanted money to build something big in Southern California you had to borrow the money from San Francisco bankers, and they set the tune. So this first generation of entrepreneurial types in L.A. desired to change their little wide spot in the road into something much more significant and they went about it with the determination of a military campaign—and they were largely successful. Their greatest success however was to look around them and see that though there wasn’t very much to market there was something: sunshine, the air, and the dirt under their feet. And romance. You could spin sunshine and air and dirt into something else if you put enough romance into it. So they quite deliberately framed L.A. as a place where aspirations—however incoherent they might be—could be fulfilled. And from the mid-1880s onward L.A. became the most successfully advertised lifestyle product in the history of the country. It was marketed in every possible medium of the time from lantern slideshows in church halls to novels. L.A. and Southern California were boomed by the weaving of romance into desire.

Photo: Courtesy of the City of Lakewood

Photo: Courtesy of the City of Lakewood

There’s a wonderful book by Alexander McClung called Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles (from which I steal all these ideas), and he makes a very interesting case for how that process of selling romance to the rest of the country worked. So Los Angeles is burdened by that history. Everywhere we turn there are suggestions that we should be delighted by where we are because it is the summit of our desires satisfied. And yet of course it isn’t, and so it becomes unsatisfying. And so we have this bizarre tension between the city we want to live in, which we think we’ve been sold, and the city we do live in. And this leads to all sorts of problems with governance and how we relate to one another because we’re always trying to live in a different city. A city of the imagination. A city of prolonged daydream, not the city we actually have.

JM: Not the city of Bachelard’s conscious daydreaming in place. Los Angeles is a strange place.

DJW: That’s right, but the strangeness has a history. It’s not something weird about L.A. that you can’t put your finger on. You can put your finger on it rather firmly: these are the things that led us to where we are today.

JM: Writers at Antioch think a lot about social justice and what it means for us. What are your thoughts about that? What does social justice mean for a writer?

DJW: Well we have been talking about that in reference to me. I don’t necessarily use the phrase social justice, but if we are to imagine social justice to include the concept that we sustain one another in our community and that we value the ordinariness of our lives to the extent that we resist disrupting that ordinariness for no good reason, then all my work is about that kind of social justice.

It’s sort of counter-revolutionary in some ways in that it suggests that a careful appraisal of ordinary lives might suggest a reluctance to disrupt those lives. Whereas I suppose that for most of us social justice might imply righting wrongs. Well, there are a great many wrongs everywhere, and a great many wrongs in Lakewood, too, and they should be righted, and lives made better. I seem to spend more of my energy on the lives made better side of that equation. But this is to suggest to your readers that there are many different ways to advance the condition of the lives around you. And I have chosen (maybe wrongly, or delusionally) the route that leads me through engagement with people as they are right now. That leads me through consideration of their past as a reality, not something to be ignored. And it leads me to the conviction that the partial victories in the past should not be regarded as total failures. And there’s a certain tendency amongst social and cultural critics to do that: to think that the partial victories of the past because they were necessarily partial are somehow failures.

JM: What specifically are you thinking of when you say that, what victories?

DJW: Well it’s often brought up when talking about Lakewood (and) the racial demographics. Because of federal policy, bank policy, lending policy, and the behavior of builders and the sales agents for places like Lakewood, there were only seven African American families in Lakewood in 1960. That is a failure, a very obvious failure, and one that I have been more than once reminded acutely of. On the other hand, you had 17,500 houses settled by all sorts of people from all kinds of places with markedly differing cultural expectations and habits, even language and foodways and all sorts of ways. And yet they successfully got together and built a working community out of that and indeed built a working city out of that. So that’s a partial victory, but it shouldn’t be understood to be a failure. At all.

But I’ve had conversations with African American men and women my age and a bit older who are quite bitter—justifiably so—that they weren’t able to buy into the kind of successful community and ultimately successful city that Lakewood became after the homes were sold.

I’ll give you a further example of partial victory: although the developers of Lakewood, due to federal lending policy, bank policy, et cetera, didn’t sell houses to African Americans they did sell them to Jews, which was progressive at the time. So in the very early days of Lakewood it was one of the few communities in Southern California where working class Jewish families could afford to buy a house. Lakewood immediately became a destination for Jewish families who wanted to buy their own home. And so Lakewood had a very large Jewish population when it opened for business in 1954.

JM: As writers we have to make all kinds of choices but I suppose that in looking at those partial victories there’s something to be said for just telling it like it is.

DJW: Precisely. So as a writer my job has been to dispel mythologies, to question received wisdom and common knowledge, and to suggest that we should have a more nuanced understanding. That’s my task as a fifth rate popularizer of local history. But my larger purpose, my larger social purpose, as you said at the very beginning of this conversation, is to find ways to encourage people to fall in love with where they are. Because I think there is a strong social purpose in that.

Jennifer McCharenJennifer McCharen writes nonfiction and poetry, including translation. Her video work has appeared on MSNBC, and her writing has appeared in the Tampa Monocle, Elan Magazine, and is forthcoming in the anthology MOTIF-4. She currently serves as Translation Editor for Lunch Ticket, and resides in Montgomery, Alabama where she works to fight voter suppression.

Grandma’s Poems: Sex in an Apartment Building

Grandma’s Poems: 5. Sex in an Apartment Building

“My neighbours make love every night!”
I complain, itching to give her all the juicy details.
The woman’s moans and the man’s grunts
sneak under my quilt stitched with maple leaves
of every colour,
hop along my penguin and iceberg-adorned pyjamas,
wet my skin intoxicated by cheap perfumes
bottled on ships and sold at a lower price in
convenience stores on Yonge street,
until my nipples harden, my marrow surges in my bones,
hotter and hotter.
“Good for them!” My grandma cuts me off, glancing at me
without a trace of sympathy
as if it were all my fault!

Maybe she didn’t understand me, but if I explain,
she’ll stroke my hair
full of pity
“My neighbours…”
Grandma shrugs and begins to rock
left to right, right to left,
a pendulum that measures how long we thirst for life
in a calendar year.
“Maybe they’re Asian, because the woman…”
Every night, I imagine that in the sixteen bedrooms
on the sixteen floors above
men and women go about making love
in every language on Earth.

“Building full of immigrants!” grandma shouts exasperated
but I still hurry to answer her.
“And what’s wrong with…” but the moment has passed
because suddenly she begins playing her harmonica
ignoring me.
My neighbours get louder and louder
and my breasts get harder and harder
until the man starts to cry,
maybe they’re both crying, maybe I’m fantasizing it.
Grandma has zoned out, staring at nothing
as if she’s remembering something important.
++++++Did you ever laugh the choked-off laughter of your dead?
Finally silence and a familiar feeling
like the memory of a hug from old times.

prose_section_divider

Poemele bunicii: 5. Sex la bloc

-Vecinii mei fac dragoste în fiecare noapte!
mă lamentez, dornică să-i dau toate detaliile.
Gemetele femeii şi icnetele bărbatului
se strecoară sub plăpumioara mea inocentă
garnisită cu frunze de arţar în toate culorile,
alunecă lasciv de-a lungul pijamalei cu pinguini şi gheţari,
umezindu-mi pielea intoxicată cu parfumuri
îmbuteliate pe vapor şi vândute cu preţ redus în magazinele
de mărunţişuri de pe Yonge
până când sfârcurile se întăresc, iar măduva
începe să tremure în oasele din ce în ce mai fierbinţi.
-Bravo lor! mi-o retează bunica, uitându-se la mine
fără nici o urmă de simpatie
ca şi cum ar fi numai şi numai vina mea!

Poate nu m-a înţeles, dar dacă îi explic,
o să mă mângâie pe creştet
plină de milă–
-Vecinii mei…
Bunica dă din umeri şi începe să se legene
stânga-dreapta, dreapta-stânga,
o pendulă care măsoară durata poftei de viaţă într-un an
calendaristic.
-Poate sunt asiatici, pentru că femeia…
In fiecare noapte, îmi imaginez bărbaţi şi femei
care fac dragoste
în cele şaisprezece dormitoare de la etajele superioare
exact deasupra dormitorului meu
în toate limbile pământului.

-Bloc de imigranţi!, se răsteşte bunica exasperată
şi totuşi mă grăbesc să-i răspund.
-Şi ce e rău în…, dar am pierdut momentul pentru că
deodată
începe să cânte la muzicuţă ignorându-mă.
Vecinii mei sunt din ce în ce mai zgomotoşi,
iar sânii mei din ce în ce mai pofticioşi
pănă când bărbatul începe să plângă,
poate plâng amândoi, poate mi se pare.
Bunica a rămas cu privirea pierdută în zare ca şi cum
şi-ar fi amintit ceva important.
++++++-Te-ai auzit vreodată râzând cu râsul morţilor din tine?
In sfârşit linişte şi o senzaţie familiară
ca amintirea unei îmbrăţişări de pe vremuri.

Translator’s Note:

Traditionally, translators are said to be a writer’s closest readers, the sensitives who try to be in tune with in (though not necessarily to process intellectually, analytically) every word, root meaning, register of vocabulary and labyrinth of connotations, every figure of speech, the sounds and rhythms of the original, its stylistic texture, and so on. Then, impossibly, they aim to reproduce, evoke, approximate, create a parallel verbal universe, often in a disparate language family as in the case of English (Germanic) versus Romanian (Romance). These are heady goals, although to the translator of poetry, it would be an admission of defeat to aim for less. Worse, the translation process would be a lot less stimulating, challenging, enticing…fun.

I began translating blissfully unaware of any of this. In the spring of 1981, when I was a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Bucharest early in the last, worst decade of Romania’s communist dictatorship, a colleague there asked me to look at her versions of work by a poet from the city of Timișoara. What immediately struck me was how enjoyable the translation of poetry is, how creativeco-creative, or re-creative, if you will. Trans-creative? It brought back a younger self, a wannabe Beatnik undergrad who yearned to be a poet. As I reworked my colleague’s initial versions to improve and polish them, after we’d first gone over them together, I began to understand what it means to serve as the substitute voice, the living mask or performer in English of another person’s words. I became fascinated by not only the obligation to fidelity (fidelity to what? the words? the inner poem?) but also the wide range of possible interpretive solutions that reach inward so as to involve the translator’s imaginative resources and outward in contrary directions, ahead to the reader, of course, and simultaneously back somehow to the initial impetus, impossible to know yet seemingly near at hand—that is, hidden right there in the original text. I have been known to say that a translator of poetry is likely the last writer who truly believes in the Muse, because He or She is no ancient wispy figment but embodied on the page in black and white.

For a collaborative translator, this process, in everyday practice an isolated one, the translator alone at a desk, is also social. Unless writer and translator think, and email, poison darts at each other (that happens, and that’s social too, I guess), it’s a personal connection with a co-translator who, in my experience, frequently is the author as well. With Diana Manole, our relationship began a decade ago when she contacted me at the suggestion of a mutual friend. By now, there’s a freedom and intimacy in our exchanges. Though we’ve never met in person, I feel we’re close friends.

I asked Diana Manole for her perspective, and I’ll let her voice conclude these comments, just as it is her voice that ought in some way to come across in her poems that we have translated:

“For over 12 years after immigrating to Canada, despite many academic papers written in English, I’ve only been able to write poems in my mother tongue. Then, suddenly, in March 2013 poems began to ‘come’ to me in English. Two of them have already been published. Yet, trying to render in English the poems written in Romanian has remained more of a burden than a joy. After translating two of my collections of poems, I learnt one thing: I can’t do it alone!

Without Adam J. Sorkin’s help, my Romanian poems would have never found their way into English. He was the one who made my first rough translation drafts ‘sound’ like poems. He worked his magic and the lines started regaining the flavour, often the humour, the indefinable mystery I knew they had in Romanian. With slightly different words. A comma. A metaphor that was literally distant from the original but close in feeling. Sometimes, with words and idioms I didn’t yet know. With an in-depth understanding of what I wanted to say when I was paradoxically unable to see it for myself. Over countless emails and even more hours. For all of this, I can only be grateful. And hope that I’ll be able to publish and share with the English-speaking readers more and more of my poems. ”

Diana ManolePoet and playwright Diana Manole’s books include Angel with a Canadian Visa (2011); Oh, That’s Too Much! (2000); Evening Habits (1998); and Love on the Elevator (1997). Her work has appeared in English in The Nashwaak Review and Maple Tree Literary Supplement in Canada, Third Wednesday, and Poem (U.K.).

 

 

 

Adam SorkinAdam J. Sorkin’s most recent books of translation include, in 2012, Mouths Dry with Hatred by Dan Sociu, translated with Sociu (Longleaf Press), and The Flying Head by Ioan Flora (Toad Press), and in 2014, A Sharp Double-Edged Luxury Object by Rodica Draghincescu (Červená Barva Press).

His Last Word Was Silence

To S.B

If I’m not dead, if somebody isn’t dreaming or imagining me, then I’m rocking back and forth and it’s cold.

Back and forth. To the rhythm of the thing that for such a long time I’ve called heart. Back and forth. Without effort, to and fro.

The difficult part is departing, leaving the room, walking, step by step, synchronizing feet and cane, crossing the hallways, greeting the nebulous residents of the home, arriving at the huge picture window that faces the garden, imagining that it’s actually a painting, reaching the door, stepping onto the grass, feeling the happiness of the change in surface and arriving at the bench from which I can see the whole garden, and sitting down and starting to rock, back and forth; the only difficult thing is starting.

After a while the body is like a pendulum that swings on its own, tic-toc, back and forth, and you can let it be, and think that the movement will prevent your ancient body from stiffening, that at least this time the joints and bones won’t decide to fuse forever. Tic-toc, back and forth, and then to think that Sam hasn’t come out to the garden this morning, that he shouldn’t be long now.

Tic-toc. While he makes his way I can imagine him like the first time, scared, disconcerted, resigned, looking out on the garden from the door, observing everything with his owl-like eyes and later starting his walk to the bench, nervously supporting his legs on the grass, as though he were afraid he’d break it, long, ungainly, my friend, my companion on many mornings, cold and hot, the solid presence of a very wrinkly face, the stone-like calm that sat next to me on the bench, who rarely talked because, as old friends, we decided from the first look that it wasn’t necessary to talk, that we wouldn’t fill the garden with unnecessary words.

The days we woke up feeling loquacious we would exchange two or three words.

That’s how I learned about the passing of his wife last summer, about his decision to move his octogenarian body to this old folks home, about his now remote distance from the world. I think that was the day that he talked the most, that’s if I didn’t dream his words as he sat beside me, stiff, with that eternal expression like the beginning of a smile.

It took him a long time to confess to me that he had been a writer and it took me even longer to believe him. Him? Sam? Someone that eluded words had writing as a profession? It must be a mistake.

But the next morning he gave me a book. It was a weird book, nothing happened, just a long and monotonous voice that condensed its existence in words.

Then I understood why Sam didn’t talk to me. Everything he had to say to the world was there, on paper, and nothing else was missing.

After that he said very few words. I would await his arrival, his bird-like face peering out at the garden, his careful journey to the bench and his slow and uniform way of sitting down, of finding a position to immobilize himself, with his huge, bony hands over his knees, still, perhaps sad, showing signs of life with a muffled cough that gave away his presence.

I, in the meantime, would rock, back and forth, tic-toc, and I’d open the book and imagine to myself that it was him who was talking, that his voice was pronouncing those long threads of words, monotonous, sad, gloomy, purifying.

When I asked him the name of his last book he responded “Silence.” That was his last word.

I never knew if it was his answer or if he was just asking me to be quiet.

Tic-toc. It looks as if he won’t come. It seems that the rumors about his death are true, the ones I heard or imagined.

It must have been easy for him, he didn’t seem to have an excessive attachment to life.

Back forth.

I’m going to read him anyways, although this garden will miss his presence.

I will miss him too, this rocking hunger for certainty that I am.

That’s if I’m not dead, if somebody isn’t dreaming or imagining me.

prose_section_divider

a S.B

Si no estoy muerta, si no es que alguien me sueña o me imagina, me balanceo y hace frío.

Adelante y atrás. Al ritmo de aquello que por mucho tiempo he llamado corazón. Adelante y atrás. Sin esfuerzo, ir y regresar.

La única dificultad es comenzar, salir del cuarto, caminar, paso a paso, sincronizando pies y bastón, cruzar los pasillos, saludar a nebulosos compañeros del hogar, llegar al enorme ventanal que da al jardín, imaginar que es un cuadro, llegar a la puerta, saltar al césped, sentir con alegría el cambio de superficie y llegar al banco desde donde se ve todo el jardín y sentarme y empezar a balancearme, adelante y atrás, la única dificultad es comenzar.

Al poco tiempo el cuerpo es como un péndulo que oscila por su cuenta, tic y tac, adelante y atrás, y puedes desentenderte, pensar que el movimiento impedirá que tu anciano cuerpo se petrifique, que las coyunturas de los huesos por esta vez no podrán tomar la decisión de fundirse para siempre. Tic tac, adelante atrás, y entonces pensar que Sam no ha salido al jardín esta mañana, que no debe tardar.

Tic tac. Mientras llega puedo imaginarlo como la primera vez, asustado, desconcertado, resignado, asomándose al jardín desde la puerta, observándolo todo con sus ojos de lechuza y luego emprendiendo el camino hasta el banco, apoyando con recelo sus piernas en la hierba, como si temiera quebrarla, largo, desgarbado, mi amigo, mi compañero de muchas mañanas de frío o de calor, la sólida presencia de cara muy arrugada, la quietud de roca que cada mañana se sentaba a mi lado en el banco y rara vez hablaba pues, como viejos amigos, decidimos desde la primera mirada que no era necesario hablar, que no llenaríamos el jardín de palabras innecesarias.

Los días que amanecimos locuaces alcanzamos a cruzar dos o tres palabras.

Fue así como supe de la muerte de su esposa en el verano pasado, de su decisión de trasladar su octogenario cuerpo a este hogar de ancianos, de su ya remota lejanía con el mundo. Creo que ése ha sido el día que más habló, si no es que soñé sus palabras mientras permanecía a mi lado, petrificado, con ese eterno gesto parecido a un comienzo de sonrisa.

Tardó mucho en confesarme que había sido escritor y yo tardé aun más para creerle. ¿Él?, ¿Sam?, ¿alguien que eludía las palabras tenía por oficio la escritura? Debía tratarse de un error.

Pero a la siguiente mañana me regaló un libro. Era un libro extraño, no pasaba nada, sólo una larga y monótona voz que cifraba su existencia en las palabras.

Entonces comprendí por qué Sam no me hablaba. Lo que tenía para decirle al mundo estaba ahí, en el papel, y no hacía falta más nada.

Después de eso pronunció pocas palabras. Yo esperaba su llegada, su rostro de pájaro asomándose al jardín, su cuidadosa peripecia hasta el banco y su lenta y uniforme manera de sentarse, de encontrar una posición para inmovilizarse, con sus enormes y huesudas manos sobre las rodillas, quieto, quizás triste, dando señales de vida con una tos apagada que lo traicionaba.

Yo, mientras tanto, me balanceaba, adelante atrás, tic tac, y abría el libro y me imaginaba que era él quien hablaba, que su voz pronunciaba esas largas hileras de palabras, monótonas, tristes, lúgubres, purificadoras.

Cuando le pregunté el nombre de su último libro me respondió: “Silencio.” Ésa fue su última palabra.

Nunca supe si era su respuesta o sólo me pedía que callara.

Tic tac. Parece que no vendrá. Parece que son ciertos los rumores sobre su muerte, que escuché o imaginé.

Debió ser fácil para él, no parecía tener un excesivo apego por la vida.

Adelante atrás.

De todas maneras lo voy a leer. Aunque a este jardín le hará falta su presencia

Y a mí, a este balanceo ávido de certidumbres que soy yo.

Si no es que estoy muerta, si no es que alguien me sueña o me imagina.

Translator’s Note

The inspiration behind the translation of “Su última palabra fue silencio” is certainly multi-faceted and of personal significance. First and foremost, I was attracted to this text by my interest in the teaching and creative work of Colombian writer Gustavo Arango, as well as his role in the modern Latin American narrative. “Su última palabra fue silencio” belongs to a collection of short stories of the same name, originally published in 1993. Arango’s treatment of the themes of silence, solitude and the ambiguity of human existence are recurring themes in this collection of short stories, which represent the early stages of his literary career.

“His Last Word Was Silence,” set within the walls and garden of a nursing home also reflects key elements of my personal experience, as I was raised in a family-run elderly care home with kind, yet sometimes “nebulous” residents. As a child, I frequently gazed upon faces that spoke with expressions of silence which seemed to capture infinite ideas and condense them into seconds, much like the narrative voice of this story.

From a thematic standpoint this story includes the presence of writing and literary creation which can be observed as recurrent themes in Arango’s work. The transcendence of Sam’s existence through the act of writing and being read aloud in the garden inspire us to reflect on the process of writing and its lasting effects on both reader and writer.  My personal enjoyment and reflections as a reader have inspired my translation.

With my translation of “Su última palabra fue silencio,” I hope to make Gustavo Arango’s work available to English readers so that they might experience his treatment of the many facets of human existence. I am fortunate to enjoy a close personal relationship with the author, which helps to inform my understanding and appreciation of his work and which also impels me to make it available to the English-speaking public.

In addition to this text, Arango’s novella El país de los árboles locos (The Land of the Crazy Trees) has already been translated and scheduled for release. A complete translation of the anthology His Last Word Was Silence is scheduled for completion by Spring, 2015.

Sean Cook
Binghamton, NY
March 25, 2014

Gustavo Arango

Gustavo Arango is the author of several novels, including El origen del mundo, winner of the Premio Bicentenario de Novela (México, 2010), and La risa del muerto, winner of the Marcio Veloz Maggiolo Prize (New York, 2002), for the best novel in Spanish written in the United States. He has also published three collections of short stories and journalistic works, including Un ramo de nomeolvides, a biographical account of Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, which chronicles the early stages of his writing career. He was the honored author at the 2013 Hispanic/Latino Book Fair of New York. He teaches Spanish and Latin American literature at the State University of New York, Oneonta.

 

Sean Cook

Sean Cook is an instructor and graduate student of Spanish and Latin American literature at Binghamton University in upstate New York. He completed his undergraduate studies in Spanish and Secondary Education at the State University of New York, Oneonta, where his love of literature and literary translation first began. He specializes in translation of contemporary Latin American authors, and also enjoys teaching, traveling, and creative writing.

 

Leaving

Processing

They delivered the news of his death with a sharply creased flag. She was nursing their two-week-old girl-child on the worn couch, lulled by the glow of the television then the hard rap on the door snapped her awake. She yanked her breast back into the nursing bra and bounced the squalling baby in the crook of her arm. The NCO stood at the door haloed by the morning sun. He was wearing dress blues. The golden buttons and white gloves beamed against the terrible sameness of this cul-de-sac. Her mouth was dry.

We regret to inform you. Killed in action. Your husband. In service to this nation and the beloved Corps. His beloved Corps. Regret. Taking fire.

She felt the officer’s fingertips as he pressed the triangle of the flag into her left hand.

Identification

She named the girl child Jonathan Rene after her dead father, whose remains were so damaged the Interment Officer touched her wrist and shook his head when she asked him to open the black bag.

“We have DNA testing now.”

She smiled, all teeth, and stroked Baby Jonathan’s arched lips. “Open it.”

The officer pulled the zipper and she peered into the dark slit. A pile of teeth heaped in the middle of a stubbled jaw. An arm with a tattoo of a skull in a top hat nestled against part of a rib cage. She couldn’t stop grinning. Her breath puffed in front of her and the skull peered at her through a monocle.

“Where is his heart?”

“Ma’am?”

“His heart? His blood? His tongue? Where did it all go? Where is his cock?”

“We were unable to recover all of the remains, ma’am.”

She pressed closer to the officer and pulled the baby blanket away from Jonathan’s face.

“This is our child. Do you think she looks like him?”

He flicked his green eyes to the door and put his arm around her. She could smell formaldehyde and deodorant and sweat and Big Red gum.

“His personal items will be sent within 5-7 days after they are processed, inventoried, and cleaned. His weapon will be issued to another soldier. You will receive his uniform. You will also receive a lump sum of one hundred thousand dollars.”

His voice hung around her as she stepped into the light of the waiting room. Jonathan yawned pink and settled into the creases of her own neck. She never cried. She just opened and closed those fat fists and pulled on her momma’s scabbed tit like a calf with that cruel little mouth.

Interment

Lance Corporal Jonathan Selzer’s funeral was brief.

She sat between framed photos of their dead parents and watched some NCO lift the flag from the fiberglass box and snap it in half with another glassy-eyed officer.

She always killed the catfish they caught. He was too softhearted and couldn’t stand the way they gaped at him from the cooler. He said it sounded like they were talking to him.

She remembered him whole. She remembered him when she was young and he was young, deep in the woods that ran along the river where they fished for yellow mudcats. Before he became a pile of teeth, before he pulled his laces tight, before her pussy stretched and a creature turned inside her, they pinched worms in half and threaded them onto golden hooks. Coors Light nestled in the dirty ice of her daddy’s Styrofoam cooler on the bank of some forgotten inlet of the Mississippi. It was always too warm and the perch nibbled the worms off the hooks, flashing their yellow bellies as they flipped away from her bobber. A couple of times she fucked him out there when the fish weren’t biting, but the deer flies were. They specked his pale thighs with tiny dots of blood. She liked his resolve. He was a born leader.

She always killed the catfish they caught. He was too softhearted and couldn’t stand the way they gaped at him from the cooler. He said it sounded like they were talking to him.

She hauled them out onto a cinder block that they dragged up from the bank, and rubbed her thumb over the soft spot on their heads. She stabbed a straightened wire hanger through the weak skin and wiggled it until they quit flopping. She hacked off their tails and bled them in the cooler until the ice was pink and gray. She couldn’t let things smaller than her suffer in a crowded bucket, better to kill than to let die slowly.

Now her husband wasn’t. Mist beaded on the Class A casket paid for by the United States Marine Corps. Seven more Marines stood to the left, gripping their rifles in the fog. Twenty-one reports and the brass drone of “Taps.” People coughing. The rustle of fabric and a General Brigadier kneeling in front of her pressing another flag against her chest. His MO: sympathy, empathy, candor, and grief. He let a single tear trail down his nose, mapped with broken capillaries from nights in foreign bars where he smashed glasses and had his money stolen by laughing whores. She twisted a damp napkin from the Waffle House around her pointer finger and looked at a single stray hair in his right nostril. She leaned into him and wondered if he thought about her breasts touching his shoulder. They put some of Lance Corporal Jonathan Selzer in the ground.

Housing

Weeks passed. Their lease was up. She sat in her gray manufactured house and listened to an odd bubbling rendition of “Für Elise” coming from the sticker-dotted ice cream truck. Baby Jonathan jerked her pink hands around, batting at her mother’s chest.

The music from the ice cream truck had always made a hard lump stick in her throat. From the time she was six or seven, the tinkling from a music box or the odd mechanical notes drifting through the air made her pull at her eyebrows and bite her thumbnail. She knew it happened on her uncle’s dairy farm. Whatever it was. There was a burn barrel and the neighbor boys throwing chicken bones in the air. They chased her to the shed. It was something, something to do with thrown out dish soap in her eyes and hard hands gripping her shoulders. Something to do with a pink porcelain ballerina balanced on one toe, crushed under mildewed magazines ready for the fire, and the mechanical plinks of a sad song. Something.

Once, when Jonathan was deployed, she sat rubbing her pregnant belly in the same little off-base house and waited for the ice cream truck to come. She stumbled outside when she heard the music, waving bills at the ice cream man, and begged him, “please please please, turn off your music, I’ll buy everyone here ice cream, but please, no more.” The children from the neighborhood pressed their hot little bodies all around her and put their sticky hands on her arms. She looked down at the crusted nostrils and red Kool-Aid stained skin around flaked lips and handed them Tweety Birds with blue bubblegum eyes and Chocolate Rockets and orange Creamsicles. The smells of fake fruit and vanilla and sun-warmed chlorine drifted around her. She gave the ice cream man her phone number and hoped he’d call her even when he wasn’t coming into the neighborhood. He was so young and pretty, with a thick-lipped gap-toothed grin, his fingers brushing hers as she reached for confection after confection.

Now, she pressed her scabbed nipple against the side of Jonathan’s face, praying for a latch this time. Toys and blankets, all in primary colors, were sprinkled over the worn carpet. Unfolded moving boxes leaned against the refrigerator. A straightened coat hanger with threads of hair still clinging to it, from when she tried to unclog the bathroom sink, teetered on the back of the reclining couch. The mail was heaped on the counters and his smell had disappeared before he had even died. She picked up her breast again and squeezed from the base, just like the nurse told her. A pearl of milk grew and dropped on Jonathan’s wrinkled forehead.

“I hate you,” she whispered through clenched teeth. “Just fucking eat, God damn you.” She wrenched Jonathan up and gripped the limp child under the arms, looking straight into her hazy gray eyes. “Do you want to die?” Her sore tit hung from the unclasped nursing bra. “Your daddy wanted to die. He wanted to die the moment he was born. Maybe you got that sickness, too.”

She twisted down beside her now sleeping baby on the faux velvet couch, only to be awakened by her now intact husband crouching in his desert fatigues beside her, holding a catfish by the gills.

Custom and Tradition

She had been sitting on the broken recliner couch for two hours. The baby still wouldn’t eat. Jonathan cried and crinkled her forehead specked with scaly cradle cap. The truck was circling the block again. “All around the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel, the monkey thought it was all in good fun, pop goes the weasel!” The low rattle of the cicadas reminded her of her grandmother’s story about seeing the devil in the Mississippi woods. The same woods where she and her husband had fucked and caught catfish and hooked their fingers trying to impale grasshoppers. She put the baby down on a pillow with a snoozing puppy printed on it, and pressed her forefinger to Jonathan’s rose petal lips.

“Shhhh, Jonathan, I’ma tell you a story about the time that The Son of The Morning came and told Meemaw just what she needed to do. She was only a little girl, just a few years older than you. She was playing in the woods by the river because the grownups in the house told her that her momma needed privacy. They didn’t know Meemaw had scarlet fever, so they sent her into the bright sun with her rag doll and told her to be back for dinner. Meemaw felt so warm and tired that she sat down by the creek and started to cry. She was so very hot and her knees and elbows were just hurting from the fever. Then, from the other side of the creek, she heard someone crying. She saw a tall man with hair so red and skin so pure, sitting, sitting just like she was, crying. She asked him why was he crying and he said his momma was with the angels just like hers was. She told him that he must think she was someone else because her momma just needed privacy, because Santa Claus was bringing her a little sister for an early Christmas present. The red-headed man said he’d show her where her momma was, and that all she needed to do was come with him to the deeper water. When she asked who he was, he laughed and his laugh sounded just like a tinkling music box, it was so clear and pretty. The man came across the creek to her and offered his hand like a fancy gentleman, and his hand was as soft and creamy as a lady’s. He even had perfect, filed fingernails. Meemaw said she don’t remember where they went, but that his hand was as cool and smooth as magnolia petals. They found her half-asleep on the bank of the Mississippi, nestled in the cold mud. Only thing that had kept her from burning alive from the fever, they said. And guess what? Her momma, my great-grandma, was with the angels. She had died from giving birth to my Great Uncle Eustace. He died in World War II. Isn’t that something?”

Absent Without Leave

She twisted down beside her now sleeping baby on the faux velvet couch, only to be awakened by her now intact husband crouching in his desert fatigues beside her, holding a catfish by the gills. He smelled like gunpowder and dirt, like little boys do when they’ve come out of the sun. His black hair was dusted with pale, powdery sand. He put his finger to her lips and raised the catfish up with his other hand. It spoke in the static silence of the room.

“I am,” it said.

Blood soaked her husband’s sleeve. The catfish’s tail had been hacked off and a crimson bead formed on the soft spot on the top of its gray head. Jonathan grinned. His nicotine-stained teeth gleamed.

“See? They sound like they’re talking.”

The catfish sounded just like Jesus in those church films they watched in Sunday school sometimes, when Ms. May was sick and couldn’t teach. “Let the little children come unto me.” The catfish flopped out of Daddy Jonathan’s hand and shivered on the floor, its gills working open and closed until her husband pushed her eyelids closed with his warm palm and pried her mouth open with his tongue. She wasn’t asleep. This was not a dream. He was here again.

Until he wasn’t, and she was holding Baby Jonathan to her stretch-marked breast trying to force her to eat again in the dirty living room. Jonathan’s silky baby skin was very cold and almost slick. A diamond pool of blood on her baby’s head streamed in long ribbons and pooled in the crevices of her elbows. A straightened coat hanger was caught in the fabric of the couch and dangled over the stained carpet. It was coated in blood. The setting sun filled the room with strange light and long slotted shadows from the blinds.

Separation

She felt a warm calm and knew where to take her child. There would be no caskets or paperwork. No flags or death-quelling Lilies of the Valley. She would not sit in a plastic chair in a glinting forest of framed dead faces. No. She would take Baby Jonathan to the mighty river and let her tiny body feed the turtles and the fish, and maybe get swallowed whole by a great mudcat. And when that fish was wrenched from the water and eaten by some family by the delta, they would drink beer and play cards in the front yard, until the night closed over and the warm fat raindrops drove everyone inside hollering. Mommas hushing the drunk men and the teenagers with their fat titties, eyeing their daddy’s friends with that wetness. “Don’t y’all wake them babies. You hear me?” The frogs burping love songs and the patter of rain on the tin roof of some trailer. Maybe her blood, mixed with that catfish blood and sweetish, malty Coors would make some girl dream about the devil and forget that boy with resolve.

R. Peralez HeadshotR. Peralez is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at the University of New Orleans, where she teaches Freshmen Composition. She graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a B.A. in English. She is from DeRidder, Louisiana. She is also the fiction editor for Quaint Magazine. She writes short stories about the South and the characters who inhabit it.

My grandfather dies at CJ’s Motel

Then in the motel room
they rented
by the month—with the kitchenette

& the microwave & the mini-refrigerator
& cable tv

When he sat upright & peered at the ceiling
each lung an ocean

eyes wide & hands tight on the arms
of the recliner

My father swears he saw the host of heaven
call him home

An ocean in my head
I wish
I were certain

*

Then in Texarkana
her heart heavy
as a rented room—with the kitchenette

& the microwave & the mini-refrigerator
& cable tv

When she sat & peered at her laptop screen
solicited prayers from an ocean

My father swears heaven is a host of people
family you want most

The fast-rising tide
I wish
for less blood in the water

*

My sister sits in the lecture hall
daydreams of
the trailer she bought—& end of the day

& her boyfriend & the kitchenette
& cable tv

Scrolls through the newsfeed
a rising tide

An ocean asks her to pray
for her dead

An ocean fills her head
she wishes
it had not soaked through

*

Then in the motel room
I have built
in my head—with the kitchenette

& the microwave & the mini-refrigerator
& cable tv

The channel is tuned to static & the volume
turned up

The bathtub is filling & the sinks
have overflown

My father swears that heaven is an ocean
& grandfather has a boat

Water surges into the room
I wish
I could swim

Tyler Atwood HeadshotTyler Atwood was marooned on this planet as an infant, and has been searching for home ever since. His first collection of poetry, an electric sheep jumps to greener pasture, is forthcoming from University of Hell Press, and his work has appeared in Perpetually Twelve, Danse Macabre, Housefire, and elsewhere. He lives and works in Denver, CO.

Perry and Vega

[flash fiction]

Thinking about cunnilingus in the elevator is hardly a cause for concern. That was what Dr. Wendy Savannah told Vega while they were having lunch this afternoon. It’s every time I ride the one at work though, replied Vega. I think it’s because my husband won’t do it right. Dr. Savannah looked out the window and said, perhaps a therapist would be more appropriate for this matter. Will you do it right? asked Vega. Now she’ll be seeking a new physician, too.

Vega wants to tell her husband about the woman in the elevator. There’s a young attorney you should know about, Perry. I want to rip her blouse open and shove her face up my skirt right there and not stop, even when the bell chimes to let other people on. Let them watch. And she thinks, maybe that image will get him to do it right. It’s higher, she told him once. His face reddened deeply and they stopped right there. It’s not a Gin Gin, she said another time. Perry left right then and came back soaked in blended whisky. Just explain to him why that sort of satisfaction is important to you, suggested Dr. Savannah. Then maybe he’ll be willing to learn. She is a good doctor, thought Vega, now on the metro home. She is sound. I shouldn’t have said what I said. I should have said Perry does many, many, things right and I should have said it defensively, to let her know I love himto reassure myself that I probably won’t leave him.

At home, Perry is doing one of those things he does right. He isn’t watching TV or looking at his mobile phone. He isn’t masturbating or looking at his mobile phone while masturbating. He is reading a novel in the dim, late afternoon light coming in through the street side window. Ray Bradbury, it looks like. He does that right too, thinks Vega, as she greets her husband. Tell me something good, says Perry. He throws the book on the couch and Vega swings her leg over to straddle him. That works, he says. And then he kisses his wife.

It’s all okay if you don’t cheat, said Barry, back at the bar. It’s all allowed. Perry wasn’t as sure as his friend was. He felt guilt for lusting all the time. I would never cheat on Vega, he said to Barry, maybe more to reassure himself than to state a static truth. That’s what I mean, answered Barry. Everyone knows that. Vega knows that. So what if your eyes linger a second longer at the way the bartender fills her blousemy god how she fills that blouse. So what, Perry? You take inches where you can to keep the balance. Marriage is a long time, he said, and sipped his beer. It’s better to think of these moral strictures like rubber bands, not wrought iron fences. Trick is not to let them snap and send you running.

I guess it’s pretty characteristic of a married man, thought Perry. On the one hand, he agreed with Barry and didn’t think that telling Vega—telling her how there isn’t a room, restaurant or bar that he’s been to in Chicago where his eyes haven’t caught a pleasant stretch of jean here, or a black stocking creeping up a thigh there—would be much of a blow. So what, she might say. Are you fucking them or are you fucking me? Only ever you, Perry would say. But the fact that you’re just like other men, he thought—the fact that your eyes wander like the rest of these assholes—wouldn’t that wilt some flower inside Vega’s heart, some fragile thing worth holding on to?

Oh Jesus. Perry looks down at the page and realizes he hasn’t processed a word in some while. The light is growing dim off the street, and Perry squints to find the last sentence that registered in his brain before he started thinking about all the things he sometimes thinks about. Now Vega is coming in, bundled up for the cold the way he likes, wearing her scarf and jacket and leather boots. God, he thinks, watching her mouth a hello and a how-are-you-doing. He throws Bradbury to the couch and watches how she takes off her coat, the way her shoulder blades glide as she unwraps her scarf. She steps out of her boots and walks over to him, her hips swinging like they’ve always swung. You are the book, he wants to say to her, but she is on him now. You are the book and nothing will ever keep me from returning to the page. That’s good, Vega will say. That’s fine, Perry. Now shut up and put me in your mouth.

Anthony MartinAnthony Martin (@pen_tight) is a mutt whose favorite word is subtext. His work appears, or is forthcoming, in WhiskeyPaper, Mojave River Review, Cheap Pop, and pacificREVIEW.

 

This Is the Way We Wash the Clothes

FACT: I am fourteen years old. I already know more than my mother does. She doesn’t drive. She doesn’t work. My mother quit school after eighth grade and went to vocational school. Now she has kids in grade school, junior high, and high school, plus four more at home, three in diapers, cloth diapers. Every day she stays at home. She washes clothes in the wringer washer in the cellar.  During commercial breaks from Search for Tomorrow until One Life to Live many hours later, she takes out the last load, puts in another, and hangs clothes on the line.

Her coffee cup and saucer sit beside her on the couch arm rest. If we interrupt her while her stories are on, she sometimes says, “Leave me alone!” She sometimes says, “I just don’t feel ambitious today.”

FACT: We live up north, in the boonies, the sticks, further back in time than the town. I go to high school. My teachers say I will go to college. I am in choir. I am in debate. I wear micro-miniskirts. I have babysitting money. I do not watch soap operas.

My mother has a scar on the inside of her arm between wrist and elbow, white pudding-y streaks on the skin and a bumpy bone that pushes up. She kept it out of sight, close to her side for years. I never really noticed. She got her arm caught in a wringer. That was one of only two or three brief stories about her childhood. Her brother drowned a cat in a bucket of tar Grandpa was using to fix the roof. She got her head shaved and the kids at school pulled her scarf off and chased her home, yelling “Lice head! Lice head!”

My mother set her hair with bobby pins and used home permanents and powdered her face on Sunday when she wore her blue dress. My mother was pretty. Her voice when she sang “Winds Through the Olive Trees” or lullabies, was low, and I realize now, beautiful.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes.

Summer vacation. I am bored, ambitious, and superior, so I graciously do the laundry, sure I will do a better job than my mother. My sister, Grace, comes down the cellar steps to help. She is four or five with dark wispy hair, an age that admires teens. “I wish I had pimples like you,” she says.

At the bottom right of the wooden steps my father made is a barrel stove on a dirt floor; on the left is a concrete floor and a wringer washer. Behind the washer are cobwebby wooden shelves filled with jars that gleam in the dimness: twenty quarts of tomatoes, thirty quarts of sweet and sour beans, apple butter, pieplant, pickled beets, plum jam with white paraffin on the top, a few big jars of pickled herring. In the fall and winter, piles of pumpkins and squashes lie there too, and potatoes whose eyes grow a foot long, reaching out like white umbilical cords.

The wringer washer, a stout lady on four iron legs with a roller bar like crossed arms, is already groaning and sloshing, plugged into a temporary electrical outlet which screws into the light socket. The light bulb screws into the other end; when you pull a string to turn off the light, the washer suddenly stops.

FACT: I don’t remember every detail. Twin rinse tubsgalvanized tin on legs with rollersare filled with water from a hose attached to a spigot somewhere. My mother has already filled the tubs. We open the washer lid, the agitator stops, and we fish the laundry out of the washer. Grace feeds the clothes between the dough-colored rollers into the first rinse tub. I stand on the other side helping them through. We both like the squiSsSSSHHHH of water hissing through the white pockets of jeans and spraying in our faces.

FACT: The wringer strips the newness out of clothes. My favorite tee shirt will be rough and stretched out on the bottom, faded from the sun; it will never feel soft again. It makes me look different and I long for a dryer like my school friends have, the ones with piano lessons, who swim at the Y and have lots of shampoo and conditioner in their bathrooms.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes

We wash all our clothes in the same cold washwater. First pillowcases, towels, sheets, and not-too-dirty things. Add more Fels Naptha from the shiny green box, then do underwear and t-shirts. Add more soap until the water is slippery and gray. Put in diapers. Last of all, Dad’s overalls stiff with concrete. There’s sand in the bottom of the washer. When all the clothes are washed and rinsed and wrung and hung on the clothesline outside, we’re still not done. We have to empty the washer and the two rinse tubs. Unhook the stiff black hose from the washer’s edge, fill a pail, and carry it up the outside stairs and all around the house, past the lilac bush, past the clothesline, across the driveway out to the garden; because there’s no drain in the cellar floor. That’s why we don’t change water for every load.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes

Grace and I are probably doing towels. Suddenly Grace cries, “Help!”  Her fingers are stuck between the rollers.

“Pull!” I say. It seems obvious enough. How could it be hard to pull her fingers out?

“I am but they won’t come out.” She whimpers.

I am certain I can get them out. I reach over and pull hard. “Ouch!” They won’t come; pulling only stretches her skin. The most I can do is keep her hand from going further in. My confidence evaporates. What will we do? What will we do? Then I notice the flat white bar on top of the wringer arm with words on it like “Safety Release” or “Emergency Release,” It should have been obvious but it wasn’t. I slam it hard with the palm of my hand. Nothing happens. Dammit. I slam again and press down. Like magic, the rollers come apart, and Grace pulls her hand out. Her fingers are cold and red but nothing is broken.

“Thank God!” I hug Grace. “Someone invented that after people got their hands caught,” I tell her. I am SO grateful to whoever it was.

FACT: “The revolving rollers exert 800 pounds of pressure.” Consumer Product Safety Commission website.

FACT: The plaintiff, who was eight months pregnant, was feeding some wash into the wringer… Her fingers became entangled in the wet clothes and were pulled into the wringer…, causing her to sustain injuries to her arm. The washer was equipped with a safety release mechanism. However, it was located to the right of the machine and the plaintiff, while she was able to reach it, was not able to exert enough pressure on it to release the wringer.

Grace and I take a minute to calm down, and then go back to doing laundry. The flattened clothes fold into the clothesbasket in layers like Christmas ribbon candy. Together we carry the bushel basket with the falling-out bottom up the concrete steps. The thin metal handles dig into our hands as we pass the lilac bushes, and dump the load under the clothesline pole my father made. We hang up the wash.

On the way back we stop in the living room and tell my mom what happened. “Are you all right?” she asks.

“Didn’t you get your hand caught in a wringer when you were young?” I ask.

“Oh yes, I sure did,” she says and turns back to her soap operas.

Many years later, I ask her more.

FACT: My grandmother was a trailblazer. In the 1940s when only movie stars got divorced, she got divorced. Twice. She had eight kids and worked as a cook in a bar. My mother stayed home, watched her younger brothers and sisters, and did the chores.

Although I’ve asked my mother, I don’t have all the facts: She probably stood on a chair to feed the clothes through the wringer. She was all by herself when the rollers sucked her fingers in. She must have pulled; but the rollers pulled back, sucked in the hand, twisted the skin, swallowed her arm nearly to the elbow. She pulled till the skin came loose, twisted it around to the other side of her arm, tore it open to make those scars. She may have had the wits to try to pull the plug, to turn the machine off, but couldn’t reach that far. How do you fight the machine with only a girl’s strength? How do you pull back against a thing that never tires? The pressure, the tightness became unbearable until her bone cracked. She must have screamed, cried for help, with no one around but her younger brother and sisters. How long did she cry and scream before a neighbor heard her and came over? How did they get her arm out? With a crowbar? A claw hammer? Was there a release bar on that washer?

My mother says she went to the hospital and wore her arm in a sling, but how could a sling be enough when a bone is sticking up?

FACT: When this happened, my mother was six years old.

My mother has a scar on the inside of her arm, a dramatic striation like layers in onyx, and on the inside between wrist and elbow, a bump pushes the skin up. She showed me how she can’t spread her fingers out straight, something I never noticed. It was never a big deal. She got used to the damage, an echo of one day when a girl of six did the family wash.

FACT: My mother is not bitter.

FACT: My mother’s flawed arm lifted ten babies and carried fire logs and dishpans of water and bushel baskets of wet clothes up the cellar steps out to the clothesline.

 

This is the way we wash the clothes.

Lita KurthLita Kurth (MFA Rainier Writers Workshop): work accepted or published in FjordsReviewReduxRaven ChroniclesMain Street RagTikkunNewVerseNewsBlast Furnaceeliipsis…literature and artComposeTattoo HighwayComposite ArtsVerbatim Poetry, the Santa Clara ReviewVermont Literary Review, and othersHer work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

First Season, Shotgun

A mild winter meant a busy first shotgun season for hunters in the rolling hills of southern Iowa. My father and I had made the hour drive from Des Moines south on I-35 to my grandfather’s land midday Friday for the hunt that night. When we arrived, the evening air was cool, but not cold, and the snow covered the ground in patches. Now I found myself finally out in a deer stand, listening to the reports of shotguns miles away.

The stand my father had suggested for me was a metal ladder attached to a metal seat that leaned against an oak tree. It wasn’t very high—only eight feet—in comparison to some of the fancier stands hunters used that made it easy to climb trees and sit twenty to thirty feet off the ground. The idea was that if you were really high up the deer wouldn’t be able to smell or see you. My stand wasn’t like that. It relied almost entirely on location. My stand was on the middle of a finger in a thickly wooded area, with deep draws on either side running down to meet a stream at the bottom of a valley. I could see a large portion of a slope to my right, a slope with a deer trail tracing its way between trees and rocks down into the draw.

The sun became blood red as it set, the silhouette of timber striping it black. Slowly it dipped lower and lower on the ridge to my west until it vanished, leaving a pink sky filled with long thin ribbons of clouds so far away I wondered where exactly sky ended and space began. My breath showed in front me for the first time that day. The warm weather had made slush of the snow and I regretted choosing sleep instead of hunting all day. When the woods started to look gray in dusk’s fading light I knew to pay attention. My father had explained that at the end of the day, hunters would be coming home for the night in trucks and on four wheelers from the public hunt that butted up against my grandfather’s land, and the noise of the engines would put pressure on the deer to make a quick getaway. The deer, just waking up during twilight in the woods and starting to forage for food in adjacent fields, would slip back into the shadows of the oaks. The trail on the slope across the draw from me was one of those avenues deer would use to jump off the main paths to escape danger and circle back around to the fields, listening for pursuit.

I opened the chamber of my shotgun to make sure I’d remembered to load it. The big gun lay across my lap, loosely held in my gloved hands. I’d never killed anything large before in my life; sure, some frogs and a few possums, but nothing bigger than me. As I stared at the cracked bark of an oak tree in front of me I wondered what it would be like. I daydreamed about shooting a big buck with one clean shot right through the heart, dropping it in its tracks. How I’d drag it back to my grandfathers house in a feet of Herculean strength and proudly hang it in the barn to be skinned and gutted by another, lesser hunter while I ate and rested. A man from the government would come out and measure the antlers. He’d measure and remeasure, always stopping to shake his head and recheck his math. Sure enough, I would take the state record. My father would stand in awe of such a huntsman, accomplishing something he had never been able to.

I could see the deer’s eyes register the gun, and then look back at me.

I blinked hard a few times and tried to keep the oak’s bark in focus. As the world got grayer the intricate cracks in the peeling bark were harder to make out. Twilight seemed like a dream place between day and night where I couldn’t trust my eyes. Sometimes they would play tricks on me when I looked around at the gnarled trees on the forest floor. One knobby bush in particular had morphed many times, from a dog, to a bear, then to a man. I wondered if twilight was playing tricks on my mind as well, making me imagine strange visions of my own hunting prowess. I slapped myself in the face a few times to make sure I was fully alert and wondered if this period of mistaken eyes and straying thoughts was why my father cautioned me to be careful at dusk.

“In the dark, things will be different,” he had said. “You will need to keep your wits about you, and trust yourself.”

I started to doubt everything. The visions of hunting prowess were replaced by missed shots and falling out of my stand. When small creatures made noise in the dark thickets I jerked up straight in my seat, my heart banging my chest. The grayness of twilight became richer until it was nothing more than a thin film of white on a dark world. Soon I wouldn’t be able to see across the draw to take a shot at a deer. I sat as quietly as I could, willing my heart still and slowing my breath to a noiseless exchange of air. Then I heard it: a faint cracking of sticks at the top of the far slope, near a dirt road. I listened to a deer slowly walk in from the road, trying to make as little noise as possible, but unable to be completely quiet as it worked through the trees to the deer trail.

I turned my body sideways in the stand and trained my eyes on the trail. The deer walked into view and stopped for a second. I didn’t have a good shot; the deer was behind too many branches. The shot to the trail was a long one at around forty yards—too far for such an amateur marksman. I trained the bead of my shotgun through a clear place in front of the deer and waited for it to walk forward. The deer just stood there, though, listening and looking around. I was afraid to move, to set down my shotgun, because if I could see the deer then it had a line of sight to me. For agonizing minutes I held the heavy shotgun still. Sweat started to bead on my forehead and my shoulders grew white-hot with pain. I wondered how much longer I could hold up the gun when the deer started walking.

I held my breath. I knew I shouldn’t but I couldn’t help it. The deer walked until it was in the middle of the shaking bead on the end of my shotgun. For a second I hesitated, wondering if I shouldn’t wait for a moment, let the deer walk a little closer. The bead on the end of the barrel kept coming and going out of focus, alternating clarity with the deer behind it in my vision. For a moment the bead would be crisp, the only thing in the world I had in my sight, then the woods would snap back into focus all around me, then the deer would be crystal clear. The moment I realized the deer had antlers I pulled the trigger.

The blast deafened me. I pulled the shotgun’s stock from my shoulder, holding the gun like a soldier at port arms while I looked around, bewildered at the sound of bells. I blinked hard, trying to get the striped imprint of trees illuminated by the blast out of my eyes. Slowly I pulled down on the wooden fore-end on my Remington 870 Express. The spent red cartridge sprung out of the chamber flipping end over end, arcing first upward, then down in a crimson streak. A sweet, acrid smell filled my nose and mouth; the gunpowder announcing its fruition to all of the senses. I slowly slid the fore-end of the shotgun up to its original position, listening carefully for the sound of a new cartridge seating in the chamber.

I strained to see where the buck had fallen on the path. The slope struggled to focus in my vision while I tried to see through fluorescent blue stripes left by the trees lit by the blast. I caught sight of the buck as it staggered back to its feet on wobbly legs. I fired again, and again as it bound a few yards down the path. I pumped the shotgun quickly this time like a piston. Each time the woods would light red, the trees leaving yellow and blue negatives in my eyes, the ringing sound around me so complete I existed in reverberation. The third time I fired the buck fell forward on its chest while at a dead run, sliding a few feet face down in the slush before stopping. I stood with my mouth open.

Holy shit, I actually killed it, I thought.

My hands shook badly as I tried to fumble ammunition from its pouch into the shotgun’s feed. I kept dropping the cartridges. They fell to the ground to join the spent ones in the mud, little red spots in the dark. I managed to reload the shotgun and was slinging the gun to climb down the ladder when I heard a strange sound, a quick crashing through the undergrowth. The buck was moving through the woods like some kind of creature I had never seen, using its back legs to propel the entire body over the ground on its stomach. I stared in complete disbelief for a second, then raised my shotgun to track its course down the slope to the draw.

KA-BLAM, cha-chunk, KA-BLAM, cha-chunk was the sound of my barrage as I fired and pumped the shotgun.

The deer worked its way down the slope like something out of a nightmare, jerking into the underbrush, head twisted to the side as its antlers caught the undergrowth. Only its back legs moving it, sliding on its stomach. When it reached the bottom of the slope, crossed the draw and started up the slope of the finger I was on I panicked. I don’t know if I thought the creature was coming for retribution or if I doubted the lethality of my weapon, but I started firing wildly, frantically jamming new cartridges in the gun like my life depended on it. I lit the woods up like strobe light, firing again, and again, not even sure if the bead lay over the fuzzy form of the buck—just firing.

The buck propelled itself up to the top of the finger thirty yards downhill from me, got tangled in a thicket, and lay still. I stood in the stand for fifteen minutes waiting to see if it would reanimate until finally I mustered the courage to climb down. I carefully slung the shotgun over my shoulder and descended the metal ladder, grasping the rungs with hands that trembled, until I felt the slush under my feet. I pulled a headlamp out of one of my pockets and put it on, its small white light showing the ground in front of me. As I walked around my stand I heard a noise come from the thicket, a strange ethereal sound that started as a high pitched cry and ended as a gentle moan.

“Oh my God,” I said.

Training my weapon on the thicket I slowly walked toward it. I tapped the safety off and kept my finger on the trigger; afraid the animal would rise and charge, I clung to the shotgun like a life preserver. The weapon made a rattling sound as my hands shook. I squinted through the fog of my breath. I didn’t know what I would find in the brambles, what kind of thing had moved across the ground in such a grotesque manner. When I got to the thicket I cast my headlamp’s light on the buck. One of its antlers had snagged on something during its descent of the slope and snapped off. The front legs sagged off its body and lay on the ground; I’d shot through its front shoulders, the slug obliterating bone and severing sinews. The buck’s back left leg was now a bloody stump six inches above where a hoof should have been. Several other entry and exit wounds oozed onto the deer’s shiny coat.

The buck looked up at me.

I didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The deer was supposed to get shot and then die quietly somewhere, either on the trail or off in the woods a little ways. The bloody, barely alive buck missing an antler in front of me bore no resemblance to anything my imagination had conjured. I vaguely remembered my father telling me if I downed a deer and needed to finish it off not to shoot it in the head. A deer with no head was messy and hard to hang by the neck in the barn.

I leveled my gun at the buck’s neck, right in the middle. I could see the deer’s eyes register the gun, and then look back at me. I pulled the trigger. The deer’s body convulsed in a whipping motion as an ounce of lead slammed through its neck. I pumped the shotgun, sending a red cartridge spinning off into the brush. I broke a twig in half and pressed the sharp end to the deer’s eye to see if it had died. I thought this act important, to make sure the buck had passed beyond misery. If the deer didn’t blink then it was dead. But the deer blinked when I pressed the sharp end of the twig into its eye. I jumped back and stood stalk still. The deer lay on the soft carpet of grass, mud, and slush in the thicket. A puddle next to its shoulder was slowly turning black like an oil spill.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

KA-BLAM, cha-chunk, KA-BLAM, cha-chunk filled the woods as I shot the buck twice more in the neck. Blood sprayed up onto my clothes.

I sat near the thicket on a downed oak and collected my thoughts. I’d come to the stand with twenty-five slugs and now only had six left. I’d shot the deer to pieces. The buck only had one antler now and it hadn’t crossed my mind to count the tines. I gutted the dear, felt the warmth of its innards in my hands, cut its heart out and held it like something precious. Eventually I walked back to my grandfather’s house in a trance and used a four wheeler to retrieve the animal.

My father laughed and called me a bad shot when he saw the condition of the deer.

“We thought all that shooting was three guys who’d been walking together and kicked up a buck,” he said. “What were those last few shots, at the end, all close together?”

“It wouldn’t die,” I said. “I had to finish it.”

My father fell silent.

“At least you got one,” my grandfather said.

I didn’t say anything.

I think of the first time I killed a deer a few times a year, whenever hunting is in season. Someone will ask me if I hunt, and I’ll say no. I’ll say I haven’t been hunting since I got back from Iraq and that usually ends the conversation. But I think about it for days afterward. I think about the deer lying there, the little bit of life left in its eyes when it looked up at me. I don’t have it in me anymore, what it takes. I worry if anything looked up at me like that again I’d throw my gun down and start walking.

I’d never come back.

Jason ArmentJason Arment is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he served as a machine gunner in the USMC. Jason is now pursuing his MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Vol. 2 and War, Literature & the Arts.

Phantom Language

Some years ago—never mind how long precisely

“I don’t remember anything that happened to me.” Michael lifts his hands to chest level as if he is about to catch something. He has beautiful hands that make neat stitches on a hem or trace in the air music’s rise and fall.

Now they feel the emptiness in front of him, searching its parameters, the borders of this forgetting.

“I don’t remember anything, really.” He looks up and to the left as if the memory hangs somewhere in his periphery.

“My time in jail is a blank time.”

His memory, attuned to the finest details, was one of the first things I noticed about him. We both volunteer in the food bank’s garden and, as we eased lettuce seedlings into the ground, he told me a story saturated with particulars: what everyone wore, how they sat, the type of wood the table was made from, how its grain aligned.

I had noticed a tattoo peeking out from under his sleeve as we weeded. It is a cross, lightly colored, mostly scar, the size of a silver dollar. When I asked about it, he continued to dig for a few moments. Then straightened up and faced me.

“I don’t usually tell people this, but I don’t want to lie to you. I got it in jail.”

I wait for the story, but the prison—its walls, its people, its colors—is blank.

What he remembers is this: Moby-Dick, An American Tragedy, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Look Homeward, Angel­—paperbacks he read in the prison library. He can recite the first chapter of Moby-Dick from “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely” to “one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air,” shaping the sentences with his hands, marking commas with his index finger.

Shortly after leaving prison, he let two friends trying to break into the business tattoo the left side of his back with a saucer-sized black circle caught in a net of angular tendrils that reach over his left shoulder and down to his lower back, scooping around his waist. Nearly a decade and a half later, he chose a tattoo for his right side and hired an established professional to render the spectral cherry blossoms of Ando Hiroshige, with subtle browns and pinks, little blue sepals cup each blossom. The delicate branches mirror the crude tendrils, reaching toward the blank space over his spine.

 

Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon

In hundreds of minute gestures, our bodies speak memories, wordless ones where language shears off, the ones which remind us of our precariousness, remind us our intellects won’t save us, remind us we are animal—the sudden crack of the ice, the rearward tilt of the ladder, the lunge of the dog’s teeth. Those times when our bodies, gripped by pain, become foreign to us, even antagonistic. When relating these stories language retreats and the body takes over narration. One rises from the chair, lifts the arms, or drags the collar down to show—there, there is where it broke.

I rise almost without realizing in the thin hospital gown and say, “I was like this.”

Say, “He had me like this.”

Then even those fragments break apart, separating from one another like petals as a blossom scatters in a strong wind, and the nurse takes me to the table so my body can continue telling. Telling with blood, with swab, telling with flinch, telling the needle, telling the stitch. The single stitch. The nurse’s hand on my shoulder telling me we can stop at any time.

 

Take almost any path you please

Browsing in a used bookstore, I found an ancient botany book, pages stiff with age, crenulated from water damage. The author, whose name was obliterated when someone tried to pull the title page from the cover, writes, “Poppies deflorate with such rapidity that their loss of identity is nearly instantaneous.”

 

Nothing will content them but the extremist

The injury resulting from violence is a particular species of injury, distinct from the broken ice, fallen ladder, startled dog. It is the result of force as defined by Simone Weil, “[T]hat x which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing” (3).

In hundreds of minute gestures, our bodies speak memories, wordless ones where language shears off…

When violence is inflicted on the body, the body is evacuated of self; it becomes a vacant site upon which another acts, a blank where the aggressor inscribes their own narrative. Once I saw a photograph of a man who had been lynched and set on fire. His body slumps against the tree, a shell of ash, the ribs and sternum whittled down by heat, legs sprawl in front. He still wears black dress shoes and patterned socks. His head is gone; his name not recorded.

The photograph was in Without Sanctuary, an exhibit I saw at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. As I stood in front of the photo of the decapitated body, I saw that we, the mostly white viewers, were reflected in the glass, our apparitions interspersed with those of the mob.

The photographs were presented with little historical context, as objects meant for our gaze, matted on dark gray paper, framed in silver.  This crowd of well-educated museum-goers was probably already aware that lynching occurred with astonishing frequency up through the 1960s, and continues, though sporadically, into the present. What new knowledge did these photographs bring us? Why had I come to the exhibit?

We learned nothing of the man in the photo. He remains evacuated, a space upon which our gaze rests. Like the mob, we look at this man as wholly body, a mute thing. Like the mob, we stand in the serenity of our belief that we were not the ones who did it; we are not the violent ones.

 

Sleeps his meadow

Though the act of representing violence arises from the laudable intention to expose abuses, it carries the risk of replicating Weil’s formula: to make our looking “[T]hat x which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” This particular critique of the image was raised after the release of the Abu Ghraib photos by a variety of critics and writers. In Remaking/Unmaking: Abu Ghraib and Poetry,” the poet Philip Metres argues that the “mass media’s recirculation of visual images of naked and dominated Iraqi men completed the acts that Charles Graner and other United States military police had begun” (1596). Metres implies that torture requires spectatorship. The humiliation of the prisoners involved the threat the photographs would be seen. By looking at them, we help Graner make good on his threat.

Metres asserts that looking at such photographs amounts to participating in maintaining the structure that allows for, even encourages, these brutalities. He writes that the photos inspire “a psychic defense against identifying with the victims that imperial ideology requires to maintain hegemony of its beneficiaries-subjects” (1597).In other words, we guard discomfort by imagining what it is like to be the torturer instead of the tortured. In identifying with the perpetrator, our impulse is to seek justifications for their actions rather than retribution for the victim.

The Abu Ghraib photos lend themselves readily to this reading; victims’ faces are always obscured and the bodies arranged in abstract planes and shadows, while the aggressors look directly at the camera, engaging with the viewer. As Arthur C. Danto writes in The Nation, “When the photographs were released, the moral indignation of the West was focused on the grinning soldiers, for whom this appalling spectacle was a form of entertainment. But the photographs did not bring us closer to the agonies of the victims.”

However, the danger of a photo objectifying its subject must surely be outweighed by the need to expose wrongdoing. Amnesty International reported incidences of torture at Abu Ghraib as early as July 2003. Only after the photos were shown during an April 28, 2004 episode of 60 Minutes II did the Army begin a serious investigation of prisoner abuse. How do we balance the need for information with the inherent danger contained in the images of tortured bodies? More importantly, why do we need these photos? Why does empathy require the image?

 

Should you ever be athirst

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I loved to go to Buhl’s Planetarium to watch the Foucault’s pendulum in the vaulted entryway. I would peer over the brass railing into the marble well and follow the path of the copper bob as it swung back and forth above a disk of green stone set in the floor. As my sisters scattered into the museum I would wait for the bob to tip over one of the silver pegs. If I went late in the day, I could watch the final peg fall.

After the assault, it took me a month to realize what had happened. I had a hundred ways to explain it away: a mishap, mistake, or miscommunication. In a strange echo of Metres’ theory, I sympathized with my attacker. I thought he didn’t understand what he was doing. Maybe I gave him mixed signals. It was no big deal, he apologized. I bet he feels terrible. I arranged all my explanations like little silver pegs in a circle around me.

However, I experienced continuing health issues and needed to return to the doctor. Unable to face the examining room alone, I reached out to a friend. As I told her the version of events I had concocted to protect myself from feeling like a victim, I watched her face reveal horror. She put her hand on my arm and said quietly, “But you said no.” The final peg fell and rolled into some dark recess. I could barely catch my breath as the realization opened up a well of grief inside me.

Then I wanted to talk about it all the time, to whoever would listen. I was shocked by the insistence, my need to speak into the blank left by the attack, to assert myself against that X reducing me to a thing. To say, “I was raped” is to use “I” as a subject. To say, “I survived sexual assault” is to use “I” as a subject in an active sentence construction. To say, “Though I survived sexual assault, I am starting to feel less afraid” situates the subject in a grammatical construction that suggests time, suggests the subject exists prior to as well as after the verb in the dependent clause.

 

Will not suffice

In the months following the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs, fourteen detainees testified before a military tribunal. More than a hundred pages of this testimony were leaked to the New York Times. Without the photographs, would the voices of these men ever have been heard?

These photographs are valuable because they created a space for the subjects to tell their own stories. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that because torture produces little useful military intelligence, it is not a military tactic, but instead a tactic to destroy the personhood of the victim. It reduces the person to a “state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned” (4). To relate a story is an attempt to undo that process, to return to a state of language, to begin to reconstitute subjectivity through the act of speaking. To tell a story is to organize an event and our reactions to it into a meaningful, legible narrative. It is to interpret, an act that asserts our human-ness, and declares we are not a thing, we are a subject who speaks.

When I saw Metres present his own poetry based on the testimony of the ex-detainees at Indiana University, he said, “Their ability to tell their stories is a testament to survival.” Ability is the subject of the sentence, not story, suggesting it is simply the act of telling that testifies to survival, that survival is embedded in narrative, regardless of content. If a detainee chose to tell a different story—the birth of his daughter, graduating from university, learning how to bake bread—he would still be testifying to survival.

 

But here is an artist

Michael loves to tell stories. His photographic memory and affection for detail can make listening to his stories trying.

“The wood is oak,” he’ll begin. “It’s not overly finished, so you can see the grain and the spalting, which makes a black honeycomb pattern.”

At first, I would get distracted during his stories.

“No tablecloths, just these long wooden tables, you know maybe from here to about there. And the walls are made of a similar wood. Maybe a bit lighter. So you sit at this long table. One side is a continuous bench built into the wall and on the other side—well, they aren’t stools exactly because they have a little back, maybe three inches or so.”

Over time, I have learned to be patient and enjoy the way his stories invite me to settle in, allay the endless spinning in my mind through the lists of things I have to do. Then I can see how the level of detail is not self-indulgent; rather it is his attempt to allow me to participate in the experience, as if I was really there with him.

When we tell each other stories, we arrest time, we open a pocket of stillness for the listener; we invite them into another space with us, like welcoming them into our home or leading them to our favorite painting in a museum.

When we share stories, we stand in relation to one another as listener and teller, a relationship that creates continuity between each other.  The source of this continuity is, to borrow a phrase from Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, “the way each affirms the aliveness of the other” (89). In this relationship, “each ‘welcomes’ the other: each—to return to the word’s original meaning—‘comes into accordance with [the] other’s will’” (90). The root of accordance is Latin: cord, or heart. Literally, accord means to bring heart to heart. This does not suggest passive submission to another’s will, but an active agreement to come into harmony with the other.

In other words “to come into accordance with the other’s will” is to create a relationship of mutual consent.

Scarry argues that justice rests on the “symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other,” borrowing a definition from John Rawls (93). In other words, the practice of justice begins with a decision to bring ourselves into accordance and acknowledge our mutual aliveness. This is analogous to the relationship between teller and listener of a story, which also requires a recognition of each other’s mutual aliveness. Moreover, storytelling requires a recognition of one’s ability to speak and the other’s ability to comprehend—both human activities. Therefore it is not merely a recognition of mutual aliveness but of mutual personhood. Because it creates this relationship of symmetry and mutual consent, storytelling can be an act of restoration after violence.

With violence there is no symmetry. One is forced to submit to another’s will. How is the balance of right relations restored? In cases in which the violence is intimate, the perpetrator known, the place your own house or even your own bed, legal action becomes treacherous. For many women the choice is between the silence left by brutality or speaking into another brutality, the brutality of questions that imply our complicity or guilt. But didn’t you invite him in? Were you not his lover? Hadn’t you said yes before?

And I am left with fantasies of crowbars, broken bottles, and most of all my fist so that I could actually feel the bone’s snap, so that he would know what it is like to be this close to someone, to be held in their arms as they break into your body, reduce it to a thing. And it occurs to me this is how it happens, this is how we have run amok in the thousands of gestures—large and small—where we fail to recognize the other’s aliveness.

 

It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life

I couldn’t watch the 60 Minutes II on Abu Ghraib. Instead I read a transcript of the show without the photos. Eventually they were unavoidable, the naked and hooded men, the pyramid of curled bodies, the soldier flashing thumbs-up over a corpse.

What was avoided, however, was the fact that there were forty-two female prisoners in Abu Ghraib. In a quick news search, I learned the brutality visited upon them was indeed photographed, and that Congress has seen these photos, but they have not been released to the public.

This is as far as I can go, because I can barely bring myself to think about those women. Just to hear the sentence there were women there crushes me with a fear I can neither name nor speak my way around, nor away from.  Though I intellectually recognize my experience is in no way equivalent to these women, the sentence there were women there aches in my body, in my joints that I wrenched against his weight. I flee into books and articles, philosophy and science, even the dictionary—for any word to say aloud to remind me I am human.

 

old hunks in that particular instance

Just to hear the sentence there were women there crushes me with a fear I can neither name nor speak my way around, nor away from.

Because rape is considered to be a great shame on a family, the lack of a full account of what happened to the women in that prison allows for continued terrorism against former detainees and their families. Accusations that women were raped in Abu Ghraib have become another weapon in Iraq’s ethnic conflict. Doctored photos of rivals’ wives and daughters in the center of a circle of American soldiers are dropped off on doorsteps, circulated on grainy flyers. My government’s refusal to conduct a full investigation of prisoner abuse leaves these women in limbo, makes them a blank upon which contradictory narratives about the American invasion are inscribed. One story claims the invasion led to their liberation, and the other claims it led to their subjugation.  And I stand, helpless, on the other side of the world.

Instead, I search the blurred faces of the mob in the lynching photo, looking for particulars, something to make one of those people recognizable. I want to ask them: How could you visit such violence on your neighbors? How can you reduce those who share your quality of aliveness or personhood to objects? But I also want to ask, how can we do this? How can we visit violence—if just by looking or even by looking away—on others? More importantly, what can we do now, with our voices and our bodies, to begin restoration, even if we know it will never be complete?

 

There is now your insular city

At first it seems the two male dancers are mirrors of the women, who stand slightly in front of them. They arabesque when the women arabesque, they jetté when the women jetté. Their movements so exacting they are mesmeric. Then the women draw their bodies upward on pointe, arms lifted—high and slender—to the ceiling as the men plié deeply, legs wide. The men shift their weight to the left leg, extending the right outward. The women grasp the outstretched leg for support as they lean, lifting their own leg skyward. Just at the moment when they can’t go any farther, where any more forward tilt would cause them to fall, they release their partner’s leg and cantilever forward into his arms.

We move in relation to one another’s bodies, stepping aside slightly so the other can pass, squaring ourselves on either side of a heavy object before lifting together, leaning our weight back into the belayer’s harness as the climber ascends. In dance bodies move in relation to one another in a way that is completely non-teleological; they are not trying to get anywhere, lift an object, or climb something. The goal is the relation between bodies; the relation between bodies is not a means to an end but the end itself.

What if in the negotiations of our private relationships, in the planning of our cities, and in our political lives we thought of our relations to one another not as teleology, but as choreography?

 

Wade knee deep in tigerlilies

We tell each other stories.

We tell each other stories in this relationship of welcome, of mutual consent.

My grandmother had a great glass jar of smooth grey pebbles she collected on the various beaches she visited during her life, and she would take them out and let me hold them. That is how I think of these stories we tell each other, lifting each pebble out and passing it across the table. We take the same pebbles out each time, lining them up in a row.

This is the thing my mother said that hurt me.

This is the time I felt alone.

This is how my father left.

My need to announce my assault to the world vanished as quickly as it came and just as inexplicably, so I’ve told Michael very little about the actual assault. Instead, I tried out different pebbles.

 

The house I grew up in had decorative windows in the entryway that acted like prisms, scattering rainbows all over the dark carpet where I would lie on my back reading.

 

My father loved to make fresh pasta. He would crank yards and yards of spaghetti out of a pasta maker and drape them over two brooms balanced between the chairs. When I was small I loved to crawl under the chairs and imagine I lived in a pasta house.

 

When my mother and I were in Portugal we ate fresh figs every morning. We would wake up, go to the market and sit on the stone stairs of the cathedrals and alternate a bite of fig with a bite of cheese, watching the city wake up.

 

And, still unable to conjure that blank time, he hands me what pebbles he can.

 

I remember my father had all these fruit trees. When I would visit him in Florida, I could eat peaches directly off the trees and I would have to bend over so the juice wouldn’t spill all over me.

 

When my family lived in Tennessee, my brother and I found this enormous stone in the woods behind our house and that’s where we would play. We were out there for hours, days even. Whenever I think about Tennessee all I see is that stone.

 

The first night I bought my house, my friend came here—there was no electricity or anything—and we sat on this porch and split a bottle of champagne and planted that poplar tree.

 

two and two there floated into my inmost soul

The fall crops were done. Michael and I dug up a dozen turnips and the greens were too spare to make harvest worth it. Packing up the shed at the food bank’s garden for the last time, Michael said to me, “If you ever want to tell me what happened, you can.”

But I didn’t want to tell that story—a story of pain and devastation. Instead, I talked about writing and literature and photography, speech that held the grief at bay. I never told him the full story of what happened; the traumas that originally brought us together ultimately made being together impossible. However, over those months from sweet peas to collards, Michael and I told each other hundreds of stories, reminding me that what defines us is not a series of events, or an accumulation of traumas. In fact trying to pin down “what defines us” is an impossibility. We are—if we are lucky—like dancers, always in motion and in relation to one another.

 


 

Works Cited

“Accordance.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd ed. 1989. Wells Library, Indiana University, Bloomington IN. <http://dictionary.oed.com>

Danton, Arthur C. “The Body in Pain.” The Nation. 26 November 2006. <http://www.thenation.com/doc/20061127/danto>

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Norton, 2002.

Metres, Philip. “Remaking/Unmaking: Abu Ghraib and Poetry.” PMLA, vol. 123, no. 5, 2008, pp. 1596-1610.

————-. “The Writer in the World.” Artsweek Presentation. Neal Marshall Center, Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana. 26 February, 2009

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP, 1985

————-. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999.

Weil, Simone. The Iliad or a Poem of Force. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1956.

Elizabeth HooverElizabeth Hoover is a feminist poet who enjoys working on projects with conceptual or research elements. Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in PANK and The Los Angeles Review. Her essay “Phantom Language” was a finalist for the VanderMey Nonfiction Prize.  She is the assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University.

Did You Know That Witches Speak With Their Vaginas?

[flash fiction]

It started when she was thirteen. It started because she was always cold. When she was cold her knees would knock echoes down the mountains. The sound tested avalanches. It was a thing that was sistered to womanhood. A movement from within, like the beginnings of an itch.

She started like her mother and her mother before her and before her and before. It lived in her bloodline too far back to map. Like all things it must have started somewhere. It has something to do with the myth of her saint. The saint all women of her family share. The saint that changed her mind in the middle of the book of Kings and became something she was not supposed to be.

It started with her the way it starts with other women. But that is where the sharing ends. Her blood continues until it is a gushing, trailing path. Blood exiting a body at that rate changes the expected color of it. Close to her lips it is a cobalt. By the time it reaches her knees it is something else.

By the time she is fourteen she can control it. She knows when it is coming and can predict its mood. Her mother teaches her how to harness its power. And soon it is clear that she is a natural talent. She begins with the scripts her mother assigns but is quickly able to converse with her saint freely. When the saint stops visiting her mother and instead chooses to remain with the girl they know it is a sign.

Before the saint lived in the woman of her family’s wombs she had a vision. This was before the book of Kings but after the book of Esther. The vision was of a young girl that was able to commune with the spirits through her openings. Her intimate conversations will pull the moon closer and change the path of the seas. We will know the girl by the color of her blood and the tenor of her voice. The women of her family think that she is the girl from the saint’s vision.

The woman of her family will not tell her what they think they know. They will think that telling her will keep the vision from coming true. It is a superstition. The women of her family can feel her difference by how the blood comes to them. By the time she turns seventeen the thoughts will turn into certainties. The girl has known from birth who she was going to be but kept it to herself like all the women of her family do.

Dana Green HeadshotDana Green is currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Denver. She holds an MFA from The University of Massachusetts. She has a pet. He is a cat.

 

Gladys

You park in front of the restaurant where you’d agreed to rendezvous. You met him on the plane. How often such chats filled the space of the hours of flight, sometimes against your will, sometimes with it. You weren’t the one who started the conversation. It was almost never you. It was the man on the other side of the aisle who wanted to know what you were reading. His interest seemed genuine; he told you about his college. You thought he was interesting. He was older than you and unattractive, but you were clear that interest wasn’t synonymous with seduction, and you were even clearer that a guy like him, chatting from the other side of the aisle on the Buenos Aires-México City flight, could be useful for your projects. He was president of a university in the interior of the country; you sold cultural and educational videos. Like a ring on a finger. So you gave him your phone, your email, and your name. Your name last. Two weeks later he called when he happened to be in town. “This is Daniel Sánchez,” he said and you asked, “Who?” You’d forgotten his name. His card was buried in the bottom of your wallet. He had to identify himself as “the guy from the plane,” with whom you had talked. He very much wanted to continue the conversation. It seemed perfect. The bacon didn’t come home by itself: it needed projects, money. Money, the object of your scorn, was something you’d never been able to manage well or keep. You only chased after it. Fine, Daniel. You suggested the time and place. On arrival, you asked for his table; he was waiting for you with a Cuba already half-gone. To begin with, you were disgusted that he was drinking a Cuba. It wasn’t a proper apéritif. How ugly he is, you thought. Being seated on the plane had disguised his size, his lack of charm. You took a deep breath. You like to eat well and drink good wine but prefer to choose your company. He sat very close to you at the uncomfortable round table he’d picked. You defended yourself with square tables, whose corners fend off invasion of personal space, that bubble someone had explained to you we all have around us and within the boundaries of which it’s difficult to let anyone pass. But they also say everything’s in the eye of the beholder and while to you it was convenient to meet with someone who could buy your products, to him that encounter on the plane had been magical, and ever since, he confessed, he had been very agitated. You buried your face in the menu, seeking refuge between the garlic shrimp and tongue in green salsa, wished you could turn yourself into a dragon and exhale garlic as a repellant for certain kinds of men. You tried mentioning the videos that you’d produced, their themes, and the institutions that had purchased them, but the man from the plane looked at you without hearing your words. From his jacket pocket, he retrieved the poem he had written and you were grateful for the interruption of the waiter bringing the shrimp. The situation was beginning to oblige you to abandon your style. You thought of chewing with your mouth open, belching, but you still had hopes that the All Powerful would agree to some project; in an attack of practicality, even thought that you could use his veneration for your own ends. Machiavelli sat down on your shoulder to observe. Daniel began to read his poem that spoke of destiny and seats shared in an airplane row, above the clouds, in the air, in the firmament. You hated the word “firmament.” But you forced a smile between bites of tongue taco. You thought suddenly that it had been imprudent to order tongue: what if it occurred to this stubby man to ask if you liked tongue tacos? He handed you the paper while you wiped your mouth with the napkin and told you that he hoped that the next time you met, you would know it by heart. Your eyes widened. This guy assumed there’d be a next time and that you wanted to please him. You felt like a slave. I have a very poor memory, you stalled. But you just gave me such a resume of your work as few could recall, he retorted. Machiavelli was no longer listening. Daniel’s cell rang. You exhaled and seized the opportunity to hide his poem, which you’d trash when you got home. “I’m with some friends,” you heard him say. You already felt his boot on your back. You would stand and demand, “Who do you take me for?” But he hung up nervously and came back to the table with sheepish eyes. “This is so special, Gladys,” he told you. And you, who were not Gladys, who surely was waiting for him in front of the TV, believing her Adonis was conquering women harmlessly, you felt like a telenovela actress, but B grade (the telenovela and the actress) because you couldn’t complete your one-act farce nor stand abruptly, nor smack him with your purse nor tear that poem to pieces before his astonished face. You finished your tongue tacos and said goodbye with “thanks, Sergio, it was an enchanting evening.”

prose_section_divider

Te estacionas frente al restaurante donde han quedado de verse. Lo conociste en el avión. Cuántas veces esas charlas llenan el espacio de las horas de vuelo, a veces contra tu voluntad, a veces por tu voluntad. No fuiste tú quien comenzó diciendo algo. Casi nunca eres tú. Fue ese hombre al otro lado del pasillo quien se interesó en lo que leías. Te pareció genuino su interés, te habló de la universidad que él presidía. Te pareció interesante. Era mayor que tú y muy poco atractivo pero tú tenías muy claro que lo interesante no era sinónimo de seducción, es más tú tenías muy claro  que un tipo como aquel que te hablaba al otro lado del pasillo en el vuelo Buenos Aires-Ciudad de México podría ser útil para tus proyectos. Presidía una universidad del interior del país, tú vendías videos culturales, educativos. Como anillo al dedo. Por eso le diste tu teléfono, tu correo electrónico y tu nombre. Tu nombre al final. Te habló a las dos semanas pues casualmente estaba en la capital. Habla Daniel Sánchez, dijo y tú preguntaste ¿quién? Habías olvidado su nombre. Su tarjeta yacía en el fondo de tu cartera. Tuvo que identificarse como “él del avión”, con el que habías charlado. Estaba muy interesado en seguir la charla. Te pareció perfecto. El horno no andaba para bollos, se necesitaban proyectos, dinero. Ese dinero objeto de tu desprecio que no habías podido administrar ni guardar nunca. Sólo lo perseguías. Muy bien, Daniel. Sugeriste el lugar y la hora. Cuando llegaste, preguntaste por su mesa; te esperaba con una cuba a medio beber. De ante mano te disgustó que estuviera tomando una cuba. No te parecía un aperitivo.  Que feo es, pensaste. Sentado en el avión disimulaba su estatura y su poca gracia. Tomaste aire. Te gusta comer y beber buen vino pero prefieres las compañias de tu elección. Se sentó muy cerca de ti en aquella incómoda mesa redonda que había elegido. Abogaste por las cuadradas cuyas equinas defienden de esa intromissión del espacio personal, de esa burbuja que quién sabe quién te había explicado todos llevamos puesta y nos es difícil tolerar que alguien se acerque demasiado. Pero bien dicen que cada quien mira según el cristal y mientras a ti te pareció conveniente la charla con quien podía comprarte un proyecto a él le pareció mágico aquel encuentro en el avión, después del cual, confesó, se había quedado muy intranquilo. Tú hundiste la cara en el menú buscando refugio entre los camarones al ajillo y una lengua en salsa verde, deseaste volverte dragón y exhalar ajo como repelente para ciertos hombres. Intentaste mencionar los videos que habías producido, los temas, y las instituciones que te los habían solicitado, pero el hombre del avión te miraba ausente de tus palabras. Del bolsillo del saco extrajo el poema que había escrito y tú agradeciste que el mesero interrumpiera con el plato de camarones. La situación comenzaba a obligarte a perder el estilo. Pensaste en masticar con la boca abierta, en eructar, pero aún tenías esperanzas de que el todo poderoso se inclinara por algún projecto, incluso en un ataque de cordura pensaste que podías utilizar su reverencia para tus fines. Maquiavelo se sentó en tu hombro para observarte. Comenzó a leer el poema que hablaba del destino y los asientos compartidos en una fila de avión, sobre las nubes, en el aire, en el firmamento. Odiabas la palabra firmamento. Pero sonreíste forzada entre el mordisco al taco de lengua. Pensaste de golpe en lo imprudente de pedir lengua ¿y si al hombre bajo se le ocurría decirte que si te gustaban los tacos de lengua? Te entregó la hoja mientras te limpiabas la boca con la servilleta y te dijo que quería que en el próximo encuentro te lo supieras de memoria. Abriste los ojos. El hombre asumía un próximo encuentro y tu deseo de complacerlo. Te sentiste como una esclava. Tengo muy mala memoria, te defendiste. Pues me acabas de soltar una lista de trabajos que no cualquiera recuerda, te reviró. Maquiavelo se había mudado de oreja. Sonó su cellular. Respiraste y aprovechaste para ocultar aquel papel firmado por él, que tirarías al llegar a casa. “Estoy con unos amigos”, escuchaste pronunciar al hombre a boca de jarro. Ya sentías su bota sobre tu espalda. Te levantarías y dirías ¿por quién me tomas? Pero el colgó nervioso y  se volvió con ojos de borrego. “Esto es tan especial, Gladys”, te dijo. Y tú que no eras Gladys, quien seguramente lo esperaba frente a la television creyendo que su adonis conquistaba mujeres a mansalva, te sentiste actriz de telenovela, pero mala (la telenovela y la actriz), porque no pudiste hacer tu sainete ni levantarte de prisa, ni darle un bolsazo ni hacer cachitos el poema aquel frente a su semblante atónito. Acabaste tus tacos de lengua y te despediste con un “Gracias, Sergio, fue una velada encantadora.”

Translator’s Note:

The challenge on first translating any writer is becoming acclimated to her vocabulary, syntax, rhythm—all the things that make up individual style. Counting “Gladys,” I’ve translated ten of Monica Lavín’s stories. Many aspects of her writing have become intimately familiar, the way they only can if you’re translating them. There is no closer reading of a text than translation. As Simon Leys said, “Translation is the severest test to which a book can be submitted.” You start noticing phrases a writer likes, ways of putting a sentence together. You become better at rendering them, at being able to say, “I know what she means here and I can find the way to say it in English.”

“Gladys” is a second-person account with a clear-eyed view of a professional woman in a classic situation. The voice is brisk and no-nonsense. Our nameless heroine (who is not Gladys) is hoping for a sale but cornered into finding a way out of an awkward encounter. The menu at this restaurant offers “lengua en salsa verde,” a dish exotic to us, and a good reminder that what we’re reading in English is actually a contemporary urban Mexican story. And the sexual reference, which occurs to our heroine, since the dish is tongue, works fine in English, too. The chief translation challenge with “Gladys” was maintaining the rhythm and pace of the original. The story is one paragraph, no breaks, and has a punch line. It has to keep rolling right to that moment.

Mónica Lavín is one of Mexico’s important writers in this generation and deserves to be more available to readers in English.

As for translation in general, I’ve developed a reliable process:

Step 1: Read the story en español, usually twice. Do I like it enough? Translation is a commitment, much like signing a teaching contract: too much work to dedicate to something I’ll be tired of next week. Do I have a sense of what the problems will be and whether or not I can resolve them?

Step 2: First draft off the top of my head, at the computer with the original next to me. Do it like a free write: don’t stop, don’t think. Anything I can’t figure out as I’m typing, input in Spanish, often a word, sometimes whole sentences. Just get the draft done, no matter how ugly. As Raymond Carver said, you write first drafts so you’ll have something to revise.

Step 3: Begin the painstaking work of poring through dictionariesamong others, an old Velásquez, a Harper Collins, several Mexican slang dictionaries and a Larousse Ilustradoto work over the draft. Don’t discount online translators. Their renderings are often wrong, almost always awkward, but can provide a needed hint. Compile lists of possible alternatives for expressions that shouldn’t be translated literally. This phase takes hours, may require pacing, getting a headache, or giving up and doing the dishes instead.

Step 4: Enter draft two and repeat Step 3. Input drafts three and four, same process. Weeks go by. By draft four I’m ready for one or two English-only readers who will tell me if it “doesn’t sound right,” if I’ve missed some proofing, if there are oddities of phrasing or culture that haven’t quite made it into English.

Finally, I send the story to the writer. Responses vary. The author may not be competent enough in English to say much. Or just competent enough to suggest something that doesn’t really work. Or have very good English and give you great insights or corrections. Mostly, they are grateful.

Mónica LavínMónica Lavín is a Mexican writer with eight collections of stories and eight novels. She won the Gilberto Owen Literary Prize for her short story collection: Ruby Tuesday no ha muerto. Her 2009 novel Yo, la peor, won the Elena Poniatowska prize for fiction. Her latest book of stories is Manual para enamorarse, 2012.  Lavín lives in Mexico City. www.monicalavin.com

 

 

Pat DubravaPatricia Dubrava’s translations of Lavín stories have appeared in Metamorphoses,  Reunion: The Dallas Review,  and the Canadian journal K1N. Others are forthcoming in The Norton Anthology of International Flash Fiction, The Dallas Reviewa second story—and Lunch Ticket. Dubrava lives in Denver, CO and blogs at www.patriciadubrava.com

Nuclear Fallout

While the one divides into two: the heart and its shadow,
The world and its threat, the crow back of the sparrow.

-“Of Ancient Origins and War” Brigit Pegeen Kelly

 

“Doesn’t look like much,” Mom said, as we pulled into the parking lot of the Titan Missile Museum.

The main building was low to the ground. A few small buildings, which looked like garages or tool sheds, and large equipment were scattered throughout the fenced property.

If I hadn’t known where we were, I would have thought it looked like a work site with a few trucks and what seemed to be oil tanks, not a nuclear missile site. Looking over the denuded ground and its desert setting, I could almost sense the danger, the power, of the place. But nothing visible attested to it.

As my husband pulled into the parking space, Dad opened his door prematurely, and Marshal braked quickly. “Whoa, sorry,” Dad mumbled. After the car stopped, he rolled his body out the door, wincing as his feet hit the pavement.

We all got out, stretching ourselves as if we had been driving far more than fifteen minutes from Mom and Dad’s condo to the museum.

Only a little earlier, we’d been back at Mom and Dad’s condo, debating what to do with the last day of our visit.

“We’ve already been to Tubac a hundred times,” I said. I hated sounding like the surly teen of decades before, but the last thing I wanted to do was walk into the shops with Mexican crafts made for Americans and watch Marshal buy a wind chime while Dad fumed in the corner. Dad saw a purchase like that as impractical, a waste of money. He preferred to buy run-down real estate and several-times-a-week golf and to peel a Franklin from his money clip to pay for our dinner. Dad kept the smaller bills nestled inside a hundred dollar bill which faced outward in the clip. When I was younger the big denomination was just for show, but as I got older he began to spend it.

“The cathedral?” Mom’s voice sounded bright, like artificial lights. The four of us sat in their condo living room. I could hear a ballgame on the TV my adult son Marc watched from the couch in the tiny den. Breakfast dishes were done, and we couldn’t leave for home until at least 4PM. Not much to do in Green Valley, Arizona. I felt suffocated in their winter home, with the mismatched remnants of their travels and the fruits of Dad’s puttering.

Dad had stamped every surface with his imprint. His gourd masks and roughly crafted wreaths lined the walls. A little table next to the armchair sloped to one side as the metal sculpture he had made for the base of the tile table top was higher on one side than the other two.

“We did that before. Remember?”

Dad’s face tipped downward in a pout. “I still think you need to see the observatory.”

“Marshal just can’t handle the altitude.” My father’s face told me he resented that I couldn’t go because of my husband’s auto-immune troubles.

“What about the Titan Missile Museum then?” Dad’s voice hit a defensive note. He explained it was nearby, in Sahuarita.

“Sounds good.”

I had shepherded Dad into the passenger seat up front in our SUV, across the console from Marshal. Marc sat between his grandmother and me in the rear seat. Slouching back, he hid his face under the brim of his Yankees cap. I glanced at Mom, worried that every day she had to ride in their car with Dad driving. The summer before, distracted, he’d driven right into the closed garage door of their Michigan house.

I figured Mom had prepared for more togetherness with a finger of Scotch or what she called nerve pills. At some point she’d changed from the sensitive child-woman of my childhood to a brittle stoic.

Marc whispered to me, “Why didn’t you tell them no? This sucks.”

Mom either didn’t hear Marc or she ignored him. Looking trim in her sweater and matching vest, she stared straight ahead with a neutral expression. Once she cleared her throat and pursed her lips. Her short gray hair was immaculately cut, as usual. With the car windows closed, I could just make out her light, flowery fragrance.

Glancing at Dad, I wondered if he was still irritated about the observatory. Or how I had made sure he rode shotgun. “I was driving way before you were born! Thanks for treating me like an old man.” People were always telling me that my parents were the cutest old couple, and sometimes they looked that way to me, too. This was not one of those times.

So that I could catch him just in case he were to fall, I stood by Dad as he slowly climbed out of the vehicle, then walked with him up the walkway, matching his very slow and determined steps. “My hip still gets me a bit,” he said. I nodded that I knew.

We milled around the low-ceilinged lobby until we were directed to a small theatre to watch a short film. Afterward, the tour guide insisted that anyone over 5’6 wear a hard hat. Both Dad and I had been measured as 5’6 when we were younger. But he’d grown smaller, shrunken with age. He insisted on wearing a hard hat.

Of the group of twenty adults, Marc, at twenty-five, was the youngest. The guide led us down 55 stairs which meandered around a central hub. Finally we arrived at a small window. Motioning for us to peer inside, the guide pointed out that we had been winding around the missile, tensed in its silo.

The Titan Missile Museum, as Mom had said, didn’t look like much when we drove up, but the sense that its energy hides just under the surface had begun to take root from my initial impression.

Our guide took us down into the underground launch control chamber, where we positioned ourselves in a rough circle to listen to his speech.

I stood across from Dad—the empty chair in front of the controls in the center between us—and when I looked over at him concentrating on the guide, I saw how taut his body was, as if he were a little kid trying hard to keep himself under control.

Is Dad working himself up at not being the center of attention…or is it something else?

The guide droned on. “The launch control center is a reinforced concrete structure 37 feet in diameter. It contains three levels and is shaped like a dome.” The word dome resonated. It sounded religious. I wanted to watch the guide, look at the controls, but my gaze kept moving back to Dad, as he stood stiffly there at the edge of the group.

“These three floors within the launch center are suspended from the ceiling. This is to minimize blast shock, permit a static floor load of 100 psi. The launch control and communications equipment were housed in the center. So was a mess and sleeping quarters for the four person crew.”

The guide pointed out we were now at an angle to see an actual Titan II missile in the launch duct.

Dad still looks pissed off.

Was he mad at me?

Or Marshal, his son-in-law? That hostility traveled as if through an electrical conduit.

Or Marc, who looked gloomy, bored by the ancient history?

Maybe my mother had irritated him and he was fueling his anger like the driver of a car stuck in mud gunning the motor?

Is he mad at me?

People were always telling me that my parents were the cutest old couple, and sometimes they looked that way to me, too. This was not one of those times.

I never knew when something would set him off, but times with Dad weren’t always bad. When I was a kid, I preferred spending time with Dad and his engagement with the task at hand over spending time behind the darkened draperies of my mother’s silence. When I was little, Dad’s workshop, with its noises and warmth, was the center of our home.

All my memories of my father working in the workshop have collapsed into one. From the kitchen, I heard the teeth-jarring screech of the chainsaw in the basement. I almost choked on the last rushed bite of mashed potatoes, so I could run downstairs to watch.

At the bottom of the wooden steps to our basement, the workshop bustled with activity. Vibrations from the fluorescent light which hung suspended on chains felt like a beehive’s humming.

Almost every night he worked bent over the workbench, its thick wooden surface scarred by slick hammer blows and nail holes. It reminded me of the cobbler’s bench from “The Shoemaker and the Elves,” where the elves finish the shoes while the shoemaker sleeps.

As I approached the workshop doorway, I heard the creak of a nail my father salvaged with the claw of his hammer. I walked past a pile of rotting lumber on the floor of my playroom just as Dad tossed another board out of the workshop. It flew a scant inch over my head. “Watch it, Hon,” he warned.

I ducked out of reflex. “Whatcha doing?”

“Ah, this old crate will make some good firewood. Just saving some of these perfectly good nails.”

“Whatcha need firewood for? We don’t have a fireplace.” I reached out and touched the wood in Dad’s hands and drew back. “OUCH!” I examined my finger; a large wood fragment stuck out from my skin like a miniature sword. I held it up to Dad’s face. “Look!”

Dad plucked it out, dumping it in the trash under the bench. “Lots of splinters. It’ll come in handy some day.” Dad yanked the last nail and hurled the board out the door. He turned and looked at me. “How about I look at that truck of yours?” He picked up one of many toys stacked at the end of the workbench and examined it.

While he worked, Dad played a paint-spattered radio to keep him company. He turned down the volume so he could hear me.

“Whatcha doing?”

“I’m fastening the lug nuts on your truck.”

“What’s lug nuts?”

“Bolts to put wheels onto trucks.” My father scowled at the truck as if to see better.

“What’s bolts?”

“Fasteners.”

“What’s that?” I pointed to the tool in Dad’s hand.

“It’s a wrench.” He paused. “If it was a real truck, I’d be using a lug wrench, but for a toy, I can just use this.”

“Why?”

Dad was concentrating hard on fixing my truck so, when he didn’t answer, I didn’t ask three whole questions that came to mind. I watched his hands over the surface of the bench, which he had constructed with a board thick as butcher block—pitted and pocked and flecked with paint. He’d found it in an old mill which was collapsing into the ground just outside of town. From this headquarters underneath our kitchen he planned and executed his dreams for his house, using whatever materials he could scavenge or finagle.

He handed me my own small wooden workbench, the sort with the wooden pegs to be pounded all the way down and then pounded back again when the “workbench” is flipped upside-down.

“Get to work,” he said. I pounded the pegs hard.

The wooden studs and plywood of the subfloor above were exposed, and the floor I sat on was cold concrete, but I didn’t mind. Every square inch of wall and ceiling space was accounted for by some cherished tool or belonging. My favorite treasure in the workshop hung from the ceiling—a pair of snowshoes. His army green sleeping bag was stuffed onto a shelf right below.

“Tell me again about the sleeping bag and snow shoes,” I said, peering up at my father.

Dad lay down the tool he held. He picked me up at the waist, setting me down on the workbench. “You remember that old story?” I nodded. “I was issued those snowshoes and sleeping bag during the Korean War. I was in Alaska and Korea, and it was fiercely cold all the time. I had to sleep in that very sleeping bag on the ground, in the snow, that’s how cold it was! You know how cold that is?”

I knew what came next, but it was my job to ask, “How cold, Daddy?”

“It was so cold that my nose froze into a Popsicle one night.”

“What flavor, Daddy? Orange, Daddy? Or cherry?”

“Must have been red like cherry, Hon. In the morning, when they blew the horn and woke us up, I had to put on my snowshoes and walk a long way in the snow. Do you remember how I walked in those snow shoes?” I shook my head, and he tried to pantomime how he walked on snow with the big woven pads, but I could not understand because winter seemed far off on that summer night.

*     *     *

When I was six, Dad moved all his tools out of his workshop and up to the garage.

I first noticed as he made his umpteenth trip up the stairs with his arms loaded.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“Moving everything from my workshop to the garage.”

“Why?”

“Hon, you’re getting in the way,” he said. “Watch out!”

“But why are you moving the workshop?” I felt as if the fire was going out in the hearth. Although we didn’t actually have a fireplace, the workshop felt like one to me.

Somehow he had gotten that thick and heavy workbench out into the garage himself. He’d set it up on its sturdy legs without me even seeing what was happening. Now he screwed a pegboard to the wall above. “Mmm,” he said, two screws sticking out of his mouth.

“Daddy, why?” I wiggled around from side to side behind him.

Dad roared at me to get out of his way. Not sure if he was angry or just busy, I ran back into the house and pulled out my fairy tale book, pretending I was far away from the ruined workshop.

I was still reading the book when Mom called me to supper. While my parents discussed how Dad was arranging the workshop in the garage, I kept quiet.

After helping Mom clear the table, I went back into the garage, hoping to see the workshop had been magically transported out there. Dad was concentrating very hard on hanging up his treasures. “Daddy?” I said very quietly.

He didn’t seem to hear me. “Daddy?” I raised my voice a little. Still no answer. “Daddy!” I shouted.

“Hell’s bells. What do you want?”

“Do I have to move my playroom?” My playroom was downstairs, just outside Dad’s workshop. Most of my dolls, my doll high chair, and a toy box full of blocks and baby toys were stored there. So was Grandma’s neckpiece, which fit me as a stolewhite rabbit fur with its one spot of black meant to hint at ermine. Dad didn’t answer me, so I left.

When I snuck back to the garage later to watch without talking, I saw that he had put his snowshoes and fighting helmets and army green sleeping bags up in the rafters of the garage. A few days later, Dad set up a little space heater, but it was dangerous, and I was no longer allowed to play in the garage.

One night after dark, the workshop room now emptied, Dad brought home a load of cement blocks in the back of his truck and dumped them behind the house. He carried each brick down the basement stairs by himself.

Dad was grumpy and busy, so I knew enough to stay out of his way.

My mother came down with a basket of laundry. Her Keds made a squeak on the wooden steps. “Mommy, what’s Daddy doing?” I said.

“Can you keep a secret?” She searched my face, her blue eyes mirroring mine.

“I’m good at secrets.”

“Yes, you are,” Mom said. “Daddy is building a nuclear fallout shelter.” As Mom walked to the laundry room, I followed behind. She set down the basket and began to sort into piles. “Do you want me to try to wash that skirt?” She nodded toward the Hopalong Cassidy skirt I wore over my pants. “I might have to hand wash it because of the fringe.” The vest had disappeared at some point in the previous three years, and the skirt was too short to wear without the pants.

I pulled out the plastic handled pistol from my gun belt and tried to twirl it like I’d seen on TV. It slipped from my hand and fell to the concrete floor.

I shook my head vigorously and changed the subject back. I had to be on my toes with my mother because she excelled at subject changing. “Why isn’t somebody helping him? It’s too heavy,” I said.

“Because it’s a secret,” Mom said. “You can’t tell anybody about it.” She ran a slender hand through her short brown perm and then smoothed it down.

“A secret!! What’s a nucular fallen shelter?”

“A bomb shelter.” She pulled her lips into a straight line.

“Jiminy cricket!” I felt like throwing myself to the floor in disbelief, but I was a watchful kid.

The rest of the week Dad worked downstairs, the Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole from his radio trying to smooth the edges of the sounds of slamming concrete. He stacked the blocks alternately by row, in a quadrant-shaped domino pattern, creating a shelter two blocks deep. The bricks were stacked without mortar like my wooden blocks, the roof plywood topped by a double thickness of bricks.

My mother sat in front of a Leonard Bernstein concert on TV on the last evening, one of our rickety aluminum tray tables in front of her, her light blue scuff slippers poking out in front. The table wobbled under the pressure of her pen on the list evolving under her hands. “We’ll hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” she said without looking up.

Next day I went down to check out Dad’s work. Mom came downstairs with two full grocery bags and saw me looking at a brochure.

“Those are the plans for the shelter,” Mom said. “Daddy followed their specifications, and now I’m going to stock the shelter with the items they suggest.”

The brochure said U.S. Federal Civil Defense Administration. These words were difficult, and I didn’t understand them. I studied Mom’s spiky handwriting on the list:

2 foldable army canvas cots

2 army style double sleeping bags

4 blankets and sheets

1 8″x 32″x 72″ shelf unit for canned goods

meat, tuna, fruit, beans, bread, crackers and candy

2 sixteen gallon GI water cans plus 6 or 8 two gallon water containers

2 galvanized garbage cans for waste

Coleman two burner stove

2 Coleman gas lights with two gallon gas supply

reading materials

box games, generic Raggedy Ann type doll, puzzles

Porta Pottie, toilet paper

camera

tools, crowbar, hammer, ax, pick, ice pick, and hand tools

portable radio

medicines

2 flashlights

4-6 extra 2x4s for emergency bracing

one change of clothes each

several changes of underwear each

sweaters and coats

toiletries

1 22 cal single-shot rifle with ammo

one baseball bat

double compartment wood orange crates and apple boxes (for storage)

The next weekend, after Dad finished building the bomb shelter, I played hide-and-seek with some neighbor kids. I got the idea of hiding in the shelter since nobody could find me there. Alone, in the dark, the walls of the small room loomed right over me in a teepee effect, as if the walls were coming down at me, closer and closer.

I sat on a cot, in the shadows; it was cold and damp, like the root cellar at my mother’s parents’ house, and I shivered.

The bomb came straight at Kalamazoo, as clearly in my mind as if it were on television. Dad would scoop me up in his arms, and he and Mom would run for the shelter. Now they close the door behind them. My friends and neighbors are left behind. We hear the bomb hit and explode. It reverberates, and the block walls shake. Across town, my mother’s family—Grandmom and Grandpa and Aunt Alice—have been blown up into teeny pieces. We sit on the two cots, Mom and me on one and Dad on the other. We look at each other, then put together all the jigsaw puzzles Mom has stacked inside the maroon-painted apple crates. They were my parents’ first furniture when they were married, and now they are with us for the end of the world.

We stare at our laps until Mom decides we’ll eat the baked beans and mandarin oranges. I don’t want the Spam, but Dad insists I swallow. I choke as it goes down my throat. Mom and Dad and I are still looking at each other, and the food is almost gone. Dad yells at Mom. “Jesus Christ! Stop your complaining. What do you want me to do about it?” Mom cries.

I didn’t like where the fantasy was heading. I realized I couldn’t live forever in this tiny cement tent with just my parents.

The baseball bat and the rifle propped up in the corner of the bunker gave me another scenario. I imagined Dad closing the door behind us and before the bomb exploded, the neighbors discovered our bomb shelter. They pounded on the door, trying to break it down. Dad gave Mom the rifle and showed her how to shoot it. He held the baseball bat as if he was ready to beat the first person to get through the door.

My hands and legs trembled. As my chest tightened, I wondered if I’d stop breathing.

Eventually, I slinked out of the shelter, up the stairs, and into sweater weather, the air crisp, but still leaf-scented. I breathed deeply.

I still wanted to go back inside the bomb shelter. It called to me like a scream in the distance. But I readily admitted to myself that I wasn’t going in there alone again.

When I could stand the fear no longer, I awoke in my bed, crying and shaking.

That night I had my first nightmare. What happened after I fell asleep was a sudden hurtling downward into a black and unknown space. I sensed walls, boundaries of some kind, not too far from my touch, but fell unimpeded through this openness. With no sense of a bottom to this and no end to my falling, I felt no control over my fate. The terror rose from my stomach and ballooned to my arms which had parachuted perpendicular from my body. When I could stand the fear no longer, I awoke in my bed, crying and shaking.

Not long after the bomb shelter was finished, the weather changed; the temperature dropped ten degrees. Wearing fall jackets, Mark from next door and I played in his sandbox with my yellow cement mixer and his orange dump truck. Mark usually reminded me of Humpty Dumpty, but as he directed all his intensity on ramming his truck into mine, he looked like a tough guy on TV, his expression hard and focused, his buzzed blond head giving the impression of a Marine sergeant.

“Want to see something neat?” I said.

“What?”

“Can’t tell you. But I can show you.”

“Okay. This better be good.”

I led him into my basement.

He looked around as if he was marching into Disneyland, with his mouth open and his head rotating.

“Ka-boom!” Mark made loud noises like bombs exploding. “This is the best thing anybody in this whole neighborhood has! You’re so lucky!”

Mark noticed the rifle and grabbed it. “Your Dad can get the Commies with this gun!” He examined it and pointed it at me. “Pow, pow, pow!” Mark made noises like a semi-automatic. “This is so neat!” he said.

Goose bumps pimpled my arms. “Mark, better put it down.” Dad would have a cow if he found out. I wasn’t allowed to touch his gun. I knew a gun could kill people.

“It’s pretty nifty!” Mark set the gun down and shivered. “It’s cold in here! Come on, let’s get our bikes and go up to Gull Road.” He’d already lost interest in our bomb shelter.

That night Mom told Dad I had brought Mark into the bomb shelter.

“Did you forget it’s a secret?” she said.

“I didn’t know it was a secret from Mark,” I said. Uh oh! I’ve done something wrong! I felt shame, but I wasn’t sure why.

“That’s a load of bullshit!” Dad said, getting a red face. “I’ll teach you to open your mouth when you shouldn’t!”

Dad spanked me right there in the living room. As he struck me, he said, “You will NEVER bring friends to the shelter again! Do you hear me?!”

As soon as he let me up on my feet, I rushed to my room and shut the door. I didn’t want to make the same mistake again. I recited to myself, the bomb shelter is just for the three of us. The bomb shelter is just for the three of us. There is no room for friends, neighbors, or Grandmom and Grandpa. It’s just for the three of us.

That night I read the story of “Bluebeard” in my fairy tale book about a husband who forbids his wife from opening one room in the house. Her curiosity gets the better of her and she enters the room when he is away. She discovers his dead ex-wives hanging from hooks in the blood-spattered room.

The story gave me a nightmare fraught with more intensity than those which preceded it. I cried out, which woke up my mother. She took the fairy tale book from me.

I didn’t say anything when my book turned up missing. I looked in the garbage when Mom was in the back yard hanging some sheets on the clothesline. My book lay in there, underneath some coffee grounds and orange peels.

All these years later, standing among a group of mostly strangers, I felt a deeply rooted longing for that book. The Titan guide was still talking. “The heart of the Titan II operations was the Combat Crew, which was responsible for day to day operations of the missile complex. They also had to respond to the launch order that, thankfully, never came. Each crew consisted of two officers and two enlisted.” Like Mom and Dad and me and Ted. “The crews had to be informed about conditions which affected alert status.” When baby Ted came home that day from the adoption agency, we had been living over the bomb shelter for a year.

Chains tightened around my stomach. Propellant met pressurization in my head.

“Many Americans constructed bomb shelters as a form of reassurance. They mainly had symbolic value.” The guide rambled on and on.

As a child I’d stayed clear of the bunker in the basement and as an adult I’d begun to forget, but now I remembered how I began to imagine it as a meat locker, a freezer, an abandoned igloo on empty frozen tundra. How I had felt the shelter’s merciless icy presence chilling our house.

As the guide finally wrapped up his monologue, we drifted out to the yard. As if he could barely stand, Marc leaned against the chain link fence, pulling his cap down further on his face, while the rest of us shuffled through the gravel to peer at the roof of the missile silo, which barely rose above ground level, as if the entire housing for the missile were a whale with its back just visible above the water line.

Under the sun, Dad’s staccato walk and fidgeting were both more obvious and less intense, as if part of his compressed energy blew away with the wind.

In the car, Mom said, “The Hoovers, remember them? Bob and Sylvia? They were in our golf league. Well, their youngest granddaughter is studying engineering at Northwestern.” I couldn’t remember who the Hoovers were because there were so many and I had never listened very well when Mom gave me her friend updates. “Wasn’t it engineering? Was it Northwestern or Illinois?” My father, staring ahead, seemed transfixed by the road ahead. “Do you remember?”

Dad uncoiled himself and turned to look at her. “Engineering. I don’t know what university. Something that is supposed to sound good.”

By the time we got back to the condo, Dad’s mood shifted toward center. “How about I grill that salmon now?” he said.

Marc made a beeline for the tiny den. Marshal turned on the TV in the living room as Mom and I started rustling in the kitchen and Dad fired up the grill. I heard the sound of a 24 hour news channel. When I brought Marshal a glass of Coke on ice, he spoke so only I could hear. “I’m waiting to see if something happened outside of Green Valley. I sure hope so.”

As Mom pulled together the ingredients for the rest of dinner, I watched to make sure she didn’t confuse the teaspoon and the tablespoon measurements as she had the night before. I purposely didn’t notice that she snuck sips of Scotch from a glass nestled behind the blender. She didn’t gulp as she was a master of moderation.

While Mom stirred her sauce on the stove, I paced between the food preparation counter and the patio where Dad watched over the salmon, his body straight and still except for the rhythmic flexion of his knees.

“Smells good,” I said, filling a gap.

Dad smiled at me. “It’s my specialty.”

Luanne CastleLuanne Castle taught at California State University, San Bernardino before moving to Arizona, where she now lives with a herd of javelina. Her writing has been published in 13th Moon, Airplane Reading, The Antigonish Review, Redheaded Stepchild, Visions, The Black Boot, The MacGuffin, and others. Her writing can also be found at http://www.luannecastle.com

You are a Woman

As told through the lips of Nước Hoa.

I stood angry. I entered the waters of the Xepon in a wild and arrogant gait. Meiet, the tallest of all the village teenage girls, quieted my sloppy entry with a stare. It did not register with my tortured mind her appearance. She stood in the river up to her knees. Long braids on each side of her head remained tight, twirling around her hips as she scanned the river surface and the tree line. This behavior was not unusual, but the purple sarong cinched tight on her waist was inappropriate. She was promised to the son of a neighboring village chieftain. Her body no longer belonged to nature, but her future husband. Yet, her style of dress at the shoreline was inappropriate. Why was she covered in front of women and children?

The men of the village were guarding against the marauding spirits that were attacking several villages. The spirits covered with clothing, carrying weapons of great power, kidnapped many children from helpless villages located around Ai Lao Pass. This was not the case with our encampment. The lodges were strong. Our Chiefs sat in the middle surrounded by eight smaller, but still foreboding long houses. Other homes rimmed the central encampment. We were strong.

Bamboo columns held the sturdy grass paneled structure several feet off the ground. Wind, water, or even evil spirits from the dark realm of emptiness could not penetrate our defenses.

She should have been nude as the rest of us. But who was I to argue with her? I was happy she turned her gaze as my behavior improved. A betrothed teen handed me a toddler. With an annoyed expression, I began the loathsome task of washing another’s infant. I wanted my own.

My mother sent me to the shore to help with the bathing of the children. To me it was penance for too many tantrums and too much sobbing. The sun was setting. This seemed an unusual time to do this. But again, I lost the desire to ask or make a fuss. Only minutes before, my father and older brother left the two females of the family yelling and crying. Me crying, my mother yelling.

It was all due to my refusal to act my age. My friend Blata was promised to someone. She entered womanhood the moon before. Her dripping blood signaled a time of maturity and respect. I wanted that. Refusing to be treated as a child, I put my mother’s sarong around my waist, ripping the loincloth from my body. Men and boys, not a grown woman, wore this garment. Young immature girls would stroll with this cover. I am almost a woman, two months older than Blata. This garment is no longer for me. I should be treated as I deserved.

Why be so treated? This is a punishment, due to my body’s inability to bleed. No one could tell me different. My mother’s disgust at the gesture led to the tirade of emotions and my father and brother’s escape.

As the sun began to set, a beautiful array of white light danced on the surface of the Xepon. Mesmerized by the sight, I found myself alone as the mild waves lapped at my hips. At the shoreline stood beautiful Meiet, the majestic young woman whispered something to the crippled daughter of my father’s friend. Ngit was cute of face, but limped due to a shortened left leg. Meiet’s whisper brought a giggle to the oft-pained girl. I observed more after handing the infant to an older girl, and returning to the water. My workday was done.

The striking young woman talked to this lame girl as any friend would. I marveled at the beauty that stood a head above the others. Her authority did not come from height or age. This eldest at the shore possessed a spirit that was for all to see. Though wrapped tight with cloth, stunning braids showed the sparkle that such hair gives off when damp. Breasts pointed as if held up by string. I envied such beauty. I hated such beauty.

Moving toward the shore, I froze at the sight.

Meiet pushed the lame Ngit to the ground, while whipping her sarong into the air. As the garment fluttered its way to the sand, a glint from her hand caused my stumble backward. The blade was hidden in the waistband of her skirt. Now I knew why it was worn. The young guardian looked with intent never seen by my eyes. The other young women, including Blata, stopped any movement, their sarongs already circling their waists.

I fell to my knees due to the clumsy reaction. The water rose to my lips. Attempting to stand, I saw Meiet raise the hand with the blade. She slid the other arm around her stomach, an extended finger pointing to her rear. The path to the village her target. At no time did her gaze lose sight of the jungle.

My father lived as a hunter, or to be more specific, a tracker for the parties that roam the forest for our daily meals. Many times regaling stories of brilliant maneuvers to catch the wild boar and deer that roam our land, he would talk of the silence of the jungle. This seemed strange. The jungle being a cauldron of noise. Sounds of birds, screeching monkeys, and the occasional bellowing of a tiger all joined in the familiar chorus. How could the jungle be silent? The never-ending drone of bugs hummed through the air giving the other lyrical bursts a bass line to follow.

Now, I thought my ears blocked. Silence became so intense my head rang from the muted air. Around me little ripples of water increased as I trembled with fear. Something is going to happen. Something did.

Meiet screamed for the others to run. Her stance remained fixed. With the rising moon’s light I could see the evil spirits that wore clothes.

Another approached Meiet but stopped by the fierceness of her stare, she looked magnificent.

They were the Vietnamese, the people from the east. They came for slaves. Failure after failure to capture our men, costing many the life of a Viet caused enterprising traders to concentrate on children. The girls were to be given to the Court of their Emperor as concubines. Those that did not please the royal selection committee would be sold at auction. The boys would be castrated and given to the Royal House. Eunuchs were prized as potential gifts for the Chinese Emperor.

Screams continued as the evils spirits grabbed the children. Blata stumbled in her attempt at a quick movement. She fell to the ground, only to be pulled up by her hair and thrust into a circle of vine. In a flash, three of the girls were also connected as prisoners held submissively by this long leash.

None of the group at the shore escaped. But the deed would not come without a price. In my preoccupation with the speed of the capture, I did not see Meiet and her blade.

A Viet lay at her feet. Standing with no loss of pride, the nude girl spit at the body of the Viet she had slain. Another approached Meiet but stopped by the fierceness of her stare, she looked magnificent. From the water I saw the leer aimed at her beauty. Would he be willing to pay the price for such pleasure?

All through this standoff, muffled screams from Ngit serenaded the attack. The men realized she could never make the trip to Huế, the Imperial City. They decided to enjoy her fruits on the beach. I saw one man on top of her, then replaced by another. It looked as if a line was forming behind her bobbing head. Her screams muted by a monstrous hand.

The other teenager fumbled with her weapon, also hid in a sarong. It spun from her trembling hand, wilting on the sand. They motioned to Meiet to put down the crimson blade still dripping from its taste of Viet flesh. Her friend whose name I did not know found her knees thrust to the ground as the Viets kept her in a kneeling position. The Viets showed fear of Meiet. Not one would approach her. They wanted this female warrior; as to me she will always be remembered as such, to surrender. She would fetch a good price. Though I could see the other men, as now I knew these were no spirits, possessed the look of a predator eyeing their next meal.

The other teen resigned to her fate remained silent. A kick to her breasts crumpled her further. A Viet with a long blade held it over the semi-conscious young woman. It was obvious; Meiet’s continued fight would lead to her beheading.

It is here where I understood a statement made by my mother.

My father told her, as he looked at the results of another tantrum. “This devil would drive the evil spirits crazy, should they have the misfortune to capture her.”

My mother’s quick response, “Do not joke of such things.” She looked at me with eyes ready to water. “I will slit her throat and then mine before such a thing occurs.”

Meiet held the same opinion. Or so her actions would show. In a move worthy of our noblest warrior she put the knife to her neck, calling to the heavens as the blade sliced through her skin. From my watery seat, I saw her once coconut milk-like skin covered in a tide of blood. Her breasts, that I envied, drenched in seconds.

In disgust, the Viet brought the gleaming blade down on the other teenager. A smack greeted the cheek of the executioner, this being a poor business decision. His leader reacted with another slap. The teenage friend of Meiet squirmed as her head rolled a few inches.

Finally, the cries of Ngit ended. My body felt as if a shrinking of my skin began to take place. I feared the trembling would cause the Viets to notice the stirring at the surface. It was a needless worry. The water became alive with those too young to walk the distance to their Emperor’s Palace. Two infants were flung into the surf as I once saw boys of our village fling rocks into the Xepon, their splashes too far from me to aid. I felt gratitude for this fact. I knew due to my cowardice, my legs would not budge. Amid this scene, I spat at my own soul, for should an infant land by my side, my reaction would be the same.

Hideous laughter circled the beach as the eldest of the young boys, a soft faced eight-year old violated by the fat Viet with long hair, cried out in a wail of pain. Future eunuchs, unlike concubines, fetched the same price, pure or spoiled. An aroma of horror coupled with the sobbing of the captured hung about my head. The only smell worse was my shame at a girl’s cowardice.

I hoped for my father and the other men to save the children. To save me. Though, I knew that would not be. My mother sent me to the river, not for punishment, but for protection. The elders expected an attack from the direction of Ai Lao Pass. They were tricked into believing that. The Viets appeared smarter than the Bru.

There I stayed, a lone survivor of this horrific attack. As the last of the Viets walked, following the neck-bound captives into the jungle, I cursed myself. My shame was of such a magnitude, I thought of wading to the shore and using the knife of Meiet to rip my neck open. Then, as a catfish brushed my leg, I remembered my mother’s expression as she told my father of her zeal.

I would follow the children till I could get close enough to free them, or as my mother would prefer, cut all their throats. It was the only thing that could wash away my shame.

Entrance into the jungle was not without fear. I was Bru, and though schooled in girlish necessities needed for my advance into womanhood, I knew a trail. This fact did not quell the uncertain feeling racing through my body. Holding one blade, I brushed the other hidden in the sarong of Meiet. Walking one foot over the other, I marveled at how well I cut the bottom of the skirt till it fit me as the woman I was. The moonlight pierced through the canopy of the jungle just long enough to show me the clustered tracks of the Vietnamese. Their sandals left scarred marks in the soft jungle bottom. How weak they must be? Being stalked by a woman of the Bru.

My older brother Renko could track a boar, mother, and her piglets before the ninth year of his life. My father took him on the hunt as soon as he could walk. Or so it was told to me. While the boy learned the skill of bow and knife throwing, my hands were used for washing babies and preparing dinner. My mother would take little strolls into the jungle, showing me the area where guavas, pineapple, and mango grow in abundance. As I would reach for my favorite, the slightly toothed leaves of peppermint herbs that would explode with coolness in my mouth, she would explain the importance of using the gifts of the land to liven up a boring meal. Mother would laugh at the thought of my father’s face, when his excitement would show due to the right amount of basil or dill added to a too tough meat.

I recalled words from my father as he tried to end another of my tantrums. I  wanted to know how to read the sky, as he was teaching Renko. My father pulled me to his lap and pointed to the big star and told me where it would be as the night would become day. He whispered that I was his child. The blood of a tracker flowed through my veins. I needn’t worry about such things. My mother would just yell that I was lazy, and would never get a husband.

I never believed what he whispered to me, but now I did. Their trail became a mural that grew larger with each few step. I knew the blood in me. I knew I was my father’s child.

Thump! Thoughts of destiny and greatness shot from me into the darkness of the jungle. The quick tumble showed a lack of agility. The fright at the unexpected obstacle brought my eyes close to tears. Shamed again, as at the water’s edge. I was afraid.

Looking at what I thought was the moist bark of a rotted log my heart skipped a beat. It was the soft-faced boy violated by the fat Viet with long hair. Naked, the boy looked ready to float away on the river of blood that surrounded the bloated body. The tortured face of the boy did not bring the horror I expected. I knelt in the blood of the child. The poor boy must have been too injured to make the trip to slavery; his neck was sliced open. I swore the vengeance needed to wash away the shame of the fat Viet’s act; my muscles grew with the desire fostered by the hunt. My soft stomach hardened as my muscular brother’s, my vow complete. Hate grew in my eyes, as I felt them strain. The bitterness at my cowardice as the babies scrambled for breath a few feet from my safe watery seat turned to anger. My father and the men were nowhere in sight. I heard not a branch stir, hoping for the glimpse of one of my tribe. The decision became my pledge to the spirits of the jungle. I would free the children, or die trying. The sarong was soaked with the blood of the soft-faced boy. My bath of death brought me power. I would kill until all were free. Or all were dead. I advanced.

The Vietnamese were fearful of the jungle. They turned toward the beach, a safe route to the beaten path that would lead to freedom. The fools did not know of their folly. The Bru could easily overtake them. The beach offered no obstacle.

And we feared them as evil spirits?

The group stopped at the tree line. I almost walked into their camp, as they argued and looked everywhere. Their fear was consuming them.

Moving back into the heavy flora of the forest, I sat with full view of the cluster. I needed only to wait. Our men must have discovered the treachery at the water’s edge. I need only sit and wait.

Time passed and I felt my eyes grow heavy. No doubt the blunder of camping at the beach would lead to their undoing. The noise and wail of the children alerted me to the difference.

A boat was in the distance. I could see the cloth that caught the wind. The breezes would bring it close to shore, and my captured people to slavery. Grabbing the naked children, the Viets forced the captives into the river. I did not know what to do.

The wailing prisoners were standing in knee high water. The boat approached, the rushing tide tossing it in the air. That part of the Xepon grew sand bars and collected, rotted tree trunks of the pine that littered the shoreline. I still waited for a plan. Though I knew what must be done.

Standing, I knew I looked as majestic as Meiet when she halted the Viets with a stare. My steps began. I intended to attack, and then it happened.

I whipped the sarong from me and held the two blades as I have seen men do when they practice killing blows.

Deep breaths fortified my resolve. I would run to the water and kill as many of the children as possible. It was the only way to save them.

“No!” My scream tore at my mind. The shame is already too great for I will free all their bodies from the future the Viet’s planned. Then, as a woman, I will join them in paradise. My father and the rest of the Bru men will do the rest.

Standing, I knew I looked as majestic as Meiet when she halted the Viets with a stare. My steps began. I intended to attack, and then it happened.

The fat Viet, finishing an argument with the leader threw a pouch that jingled as it was caught. The man looked the opposite of the sweaty blob, slim with short hair; he waved the fat Viet toward the jungle. Blata followed him by her gripped hair. She did not need to stand as she bounced upon the sand, accompanied by hearty laughter from the other Viets.

My eyes widened as the fat one moved past me deeper into the jungle. Blata looked resigned to her fate. Her movements were non-existent.

Scanning the area, he used a free hand to move the vines that blocked the path. A smile appeared as he saw the rotted tree trunk flat to the ground. Throwing Blata toward the clear area to its front, the fat Viet ripped his pants from his body. The laughter was as a roaring tiger. Though I feel this man possessed none of the spirit or character of the beast. The obnoxious and sinister chuckles covered my movements. I was to his back and delighted in what I saw. His vulnerability was increasing. Standing with legs spread, he picked up my friend. I then decided she was my friend, no matter how her body bled, or the size of her breasts. Throwing Blata over the trunk, he moved over the lifeless body. As so did I. I wanted to thank him for the laughter and belches of noise that allowed me to get even closer. I was behind him, he never knew. As a bloated hand grabbed the part of him that so humiliated the soft-faced boy, my arm moved backward. Bending over Blata, my friend, he gave off a deep moan. I could see the sides of his belly shake. I took a breath, inhaling a foul odor from his body. Before his entrance into her, my blade entered him.

The scream woke the sleeping animals of the jungle. A family of spotted monkeys awakened by the screeching cries flooded the area to our front. It was his last vision before death. Blata revived by the howling cry looked at the shimmering blubber of the half-naked man. His fall to the floor caused a rumble at our feet, Meiet’s blade sticking from his scrotum.

“Quickly girl!” I grabbed the stunned friend and took her by the shoulder as an adult woman might. The men on the beach would be upon us. We ran until the pine trees and thorny vines and rotted dead vegetation all looked the same.

It was impossible, but it was also true. My ignorance led us back to the beach.

The hands of men grabbed us. I am now a captive. The shame I hoped to purge from my soul, would be tripled. I lunged with the other blade, hoping to slice my throat on the blades return. A monstrous hand ripped it from me. I began to cry. I wanted to die.

I wanted my mommy.

Dragged to the sand, the grips of the men were not hurtful. Blata realized, and with no resistance, she would be let go. Hair in front of my face covered my vision. I could only look down; my shame too heavy to hold.

On the ground laid the leader of the Viets. His eyes wide open. But where was his body? Using both hands, I cleared the wild mop of hair from my eyes. The children were free, and crying. The joyful cry of innocence restored. Before me stood my father, holding the blood soaked sarong. Beside him stood my brother, a Viet’s head atop his spear.

The men used my trail to lead them to the Viets. The two that piloted the boat were taken at the shore. Their misfortune being taken alive, a condition that would last for two days.

Seeing my father brought my emotions to a swell. I ran the short distance to his arms and buried my head and body into his grasp. My crying matched or surpassed any that the captives endured. Hands pulled me upward as my father hoisted me to his chest, and then the air above his head. I looked down; frightened as the coward I am, not noticing the smile on my oft-serious father’s face. The men yelled in chants. The chants reserved for warriors. I did not want to hear anything. The sand shook as the men jumped and smacked the ground with their weapons. My hysteria did not ebb, as my father spun me in the air, beaming with pride. What pride could I be? A naked child acting the infant she was.

The screaming became united with one simple mantra. I saw my brother in a matching state of hysteria howling with the warriors of the tribe. My father’s voice was loudest of all. They repeated it over and over again.

YOU ARE A WOMAN! YOU ARE A WOMAN!

A month passed from that fateful night. Upon my return to my mother, not one second would be spent from her side. I often would cling to her bare breast as if a suckling child satisfied with nourishment. She relished my behavior and was with me at nature’s call. For a month to the day of my father’s proclamation, my body chose to act the part.

As I quaked with the preparation for motherhood, my clinging personality only continued. Stomachache and nausea spun about my head, along with the obvious colored discharge. Mother held me, and whispered in my ear. The tone of her words eased my body’s strain.

Her strokes continued as I rested at her chest. She whispered once more. You are a woman. My eyes closed knowing when I awoke, I would be so.

Joseph Allan HeadshotJoseph Allan’s tales profess one agenda. Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Homebound as a child due to illness, loneliness liberated imagination. Poe’s influence runs through his work. Trained as a Counterintelligence Agent by the US Army, J Allan used his unusual mind’s eye developing strategies protecting Americans abroad. The only non-Vietnam Veteran in his airborne unit, he memorized accounts of special operations in Southeast Asia. Coupled with interviews of North Vietnamese veterans and Montagnards his expertise increased. He submitted a screenplay while in China, and a Vietnam War novel thought too controversial for publication.

 

White-Washed

My mother fashioned my hair
+++++iinto rows of wheat.
++++++++++++++++iI am in a plaid button down
++++++++++++++++++++++iand cow girl boots–
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++this is the year
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++iiI will declare
my All-American heritage:
+++++ino more cornrow pleats
++++++++++++++++ior Southern meals.
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++Today I am not my accent
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++iior choice of meal.
I am a black stain
+++++ion a white handkerchief:
++++++++++++++++iAmerica stitched across
++++++++++++++++++++++ithe borders,
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++colors confined,
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++iibetween the right lines.

HeadshotDalia Ahmed is a junior at Miami Arts Charter School attending the Creative Writing Program. She has won keys and medals in Scholastic’s Alliance for Young Artists and Writers and was chosen as a semifinalist for the National Student Poets Program as well as a Foyle Young Poets commendee. Her most recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Dog Eat Crow, Postscript Literary Journal, the Best Young Writers 2013 publication, the Of Love and Dedication anthology, and elsewhere. Dalia also received first place in poetry in the Sierra Nevada College High School Writing Contest. Dalia lives in Miami, FL with a large Afro-Arab family, collections of colorful headscarves, and many bowls of hummus and pita bread.

Death; Jebu Island, and also Rain

deathDeath

 

We shrouded Father’s body,
which could not wash itself.

We carried you to the church
where you used to step boldly inside for mass at dawn
everyday with your arthritic legs.

We carried you all the way to the grave
you couldn’t walk to by yourself
and laid you carefully inside your home.

We couldn’t help it even though
you so hated to owe anyone.

 

jebuisland1Jebu Island, and also Rain

 

It is
raining

Somewhere on Earth,
someone has died standing

so rain falls as a single
standing column.

Returning from the funeral service,
I shower and darkness
seeps into my entire body.

One long night,
seamen that loved the sea with cut wrists
jebuisland2wobble, spilling the sperm of flowers.

Countless abandoned girls on the shore
clean their private parts without a sound.

The seashores are locked into a deep sleep.

At the point when rain and sea are inseparable,
sadness like a string of dark clouds
strangles my neck.

Screams freely
flow out into the world.

 

The root of my desire to translate, which is selfish, is the same thing that keeps me from the perfect translation. Translating Kim Myung Won’s poems, I wanted to break open my own memories of South Korea for the reader: washing dishes in a bucket out on the street, jumping on trampolines over the rooftops of neon buildings, tasting squid so spicy that I shove both nostrils full of mayonnaise. But inevitably, I got in the way of myself. I fixated on the words and how I rearranged them—for my own benefit as a Korean American poet. In the end, I realized her words were only ropes. And what I needed to translate, in fact, were not the ropes themselves, but what those ropes were tied to.

Last summer, my mother introduced me to her childhood friend Kim Myung Won, who was vacationing in the States during her professorship at Daejeon University of South Korea where she taught Korean Literature. Not only did I have direct communication with Kim Myung Won throughout the translation process, my father provided insight behind meanings that I often did not recognize. For instance, it is normal in Korean culture to follow ceremonies from Shintoism at birth, Christianity at the time of marriage, and Buddhism at death. Even more, what many of my colleagues were not privy to: I was reunited just last year with my parents after eight years of separation. Translating these poems with my family was the first thing we had done together, and somehow, we vanished the distance that had been wedged between us—from both verbal communication and cultural differences.

As Jorge Luis Borges said Don Quixote “wins posthumous battles against his translators and survives each and every careless version,” I hope Kim Myung Won’s poems survive me. Rather than override her subjects with impassioned verbosity, I hope to be a vessel for them. For me, my pursuit exists in the tonal, in creating something that sticks to the ribs, and I learned that could not happen with words alone. I aimed to translate her poems less with the mind, and though it took many years to learn, more with the heart.

Kim Myung WonKim Myung Won is a professor of Korean Literature at Daejeon University in South Korea. She earned her BA at Ehwa Womans University in Seoul and authored several books of poetry. Contact her at

 

 

 

EJ KohEJ Koh is a poet, translator of Korean poetry, and author of experimental novel Red (Collective Presse, 2013). Her poems have appeared in TriQuarterly, Southeast Review, Narrative Magazine, Columbia Review, among others. She has work forthcoming in The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics from Black Ocean Press (ed. Andrew Ridker Black Ocean 2014). Her work has been featured in Time Out New York, GalleyCat, Flavorwire’s 23 People Who Will Make You Care About Poetry, and others. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts at Columbia University in New York and was awarded a Kundiman fellowship for poetry. She blogs at http://www.thisisEJKoh.com.

Helen of Troy in Hiroshima

Yesterday, a man walking his monkey on a leash kissed my cheek
offered sweet potato ice cream. A flavor I’ve never tried. This note—
Please burn your bread at the right toaster.

Temple sign teaches what to say before I cross the bridge:
careful of the footing
because the responsibility cannot be assumed
about the accident in case and so on.

I tell you, Menelaus
it’s possible to survive
even if your tongue turns black
your fingers freeze
like tea-brown curled up worms
your blood, still red, turns poison.

It’s dust and ashes, falling hair and ashes,
flower petals, cherry blossoms, autumn leaves and ashes,
school children will fold you origami cranes

and still
ashes.

At start of Fujisan trail I read:
During the season this
trail is not safety.
So we are not responsible
for your life and what you
do.

Yesterday,
regret drowns in tsuyu. So easy to see tears under clear plastic umbrella.
I am beautiful in rain.

Today,
one question—

are these two human hands enough
to hold
all the not responsible burns
and burns and burns.

Catherine Keefe HeadshotCatherine Keefe is a California poet, essayist and former journalist. She’s the founding editor of dirtcakes journal, dedicated to themes suggested by the UN Millennium Goals to end extreme poverty. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have recently appeared in Superstition Review, ArtPrize Anthology, and Minerva Rising. She teaches writing at Chapman University.

 

 

Orientation Week

In 1962 my parents packed four suitcases, one gray trunk with a brass lock, my stereo, my tennis racket (remnant of happier days and therefore a sign of their hope for my future), and me into our white Lincoln Continental. We headed up Route 301 to the University of Florida campus in Gainesville three hundred miles away.

I was going to have fun. Before I left, Uncle Harry said I envy you, Monica. Four years of leisure to study mankind and the universe. Uncle Harry never recovered from not going to college due to the depression. He supplemented his life with a complete set of Harvard classics. The red books lined his office shelves for years unopened. I know because eventually I inherited them, and except for the pages being brown with age, they were in perfect condition. Yet I knew he was sincere. My psychiatrist was less scholarly minded. He said, “What a great time you’re going to have at college, Monica, sitting around drinking cokes, going to frat parties, bull sessions until four in the morning. It’s going to be a great four years.”

I believed both of them. Both scenarios appealed to me. I suppose that’s why when Dr. Davey said the day before I left, Monica, I can’t do anymore for you right now. (He’d already told me that all you could do for teen age girls was patch them up and hold them together until their hormones changed, so I knew what he meant.) So, you’ll be back here next week, or you’ll enjoy four years of college—it’s up to you. His words sank into my brain. When you consider what other words were clamoring in my head it is truly amazing. Words like glass, fire, poison, death, my fault—always my fault. I had to make it at college. It was that or back to Dr. Davey’s couch.

He really did use a couch. That startled me when I first saw it. I thought shrinks having couches was a stand-up comic joke. This one was a green velour job with no arms that always seemed to capture a few strands of my long blonde hair. Did they sell these things in catalogues I wondered? I’d never seen one in a furniture store. Dr. Davey sat at one end on a hard back chair and leaned his head over mine. We’re going to relax now, Monica, stare at the eraser on the tip of the pencil and relax. The dark room would become very quiet, and I would become very relaxed, but eventually I would have to open my eyes and look into his hazel ones and say, what’s up doc, (feeble attempt at humor). Dr. Davey would sit back and sigh. Monica, you’re not trying he would say.

Yet, I did try, wanting to please. I just didn’t trust anybody that much. Later I read that people who were intelligent had no problems getting hypnotized. I decided the reason I had so much trouble was because I had a mind of my own. So we were stuck with regular therapy. Talk, talk, talk. But the talking got out of hand the month before I left for school. It was then that I felt compelled to tell everyone what was going on inside my head.

Mom, there’s glass in the soup, I can see it. Stop it, Monica. Mom, if you eat that soup it’ll hurt you. Mom, I smell smoke. I’m calling the fire department. Mom, the devil is trying to get in me. Mom, don’t cry. I’ll stop. Mom, you’re purple pillows are evil—I can feel it.

When she cried I felt bad, but I still talked. Dr. Davey said, Monica save it all for here—O.K.? Dear Dr. Davey, there aren’t enough hours in the day to tell it all to you. Strange, but this is the one place I don’t have to tell it. I’m safe in your green and brown office, dear Dr. Davey. Is there something calming about green and brown?

The trip to Gainesville was a nightmare. Eight hours of non-stop talking. Dad, if a man’s penis gets glass chips in it, would it be awful? Dad, there was glass in the bathroom this morning, millions of pieces. Mom, don’t scream at me, please don’t scream at me. I would put my hands over my ears. No, Mom, I don’t want to work in a factory. I do want to go to college. Mom, there was glass in the bathroom this morning.

My parents continued up the highway hanging on to Dr. Davey’s vision for me with a tenacity that was incredible. I sat in the back seat and dealt with the hundred thoughts a minute that were clamoring to be told. I only said one in four, but I tried very hard to say them all.

As we drove into Gainesville, Dad finally gave out. This is insane, Lenore, we can’t leave her here. But he couldn’t make a turn on the skinny two-lane highwayit was too crowded. Suddenly I heard voices—real ones—coming from the white columned ATO house. The clear sound of young men’s singing floated across the air to our car like a gift from God. I looked at the bright green Florida campus, the romantic whitewashed fraternity houses, the solid brick Administration building and I shut up. My college career was saved by heavy traffic and singing frat boys—at least for the moment.

When I answered I could hear my own voice pleading and breathless. “Please go. I don’t know how much longer I can keep quiet if you stay.”

My parents were thrilled. Dad kept squeezing my shoulders and saying, Good girl! Dr. Davey was right. You’re going to be O.K. His face beamed as he carried my bags up to my second floor dorm room. Mother smoothed her blonde wavy hair into place. Let’s get your suitcases unpacked, Monica. I wonder who your roommate is.

Only I seemed to understand. Of course, only I was privileged to the craziness still going through my brain. I knew what Dr. Davey had said. If I could just keep quiet, the thoughts would stop. I needed my parents to leave so I could be alone. Please, Mom, you have to go. All right, Dad, but first thing tomorrow you have to leave. I can’t hold out. If you stay, I’ll start talking. Don’t you seeI have a chance here. I don’t know anybody and that helps me keep quiet. Please, you’ve got to go.

The next morning we said good-bye in front of Broward Hall. “Are you sure you’ll be all right?” Mother asked. I could feel her hand trembling on my arm. Her green eyes, so like mine, filled with tears that didn’t quite spill over. I noticed the lines around her mouth. She had never looked old to me before.

When I answered I could hear my own voice pleading and breathless. “Please go. I don’t know how much longer I can keep quiet if you stay.”

Dad stared at me. “What are you going to do after we leave?” All the joviality from the previous evening was gone.

He was standing two steps below me so I could look right into his face. I had never realized his moustache was turning white. I looked past him to the two rows of royal palms that flanked the entrance way to the dorm. “I’m going to walk by myself. If I’m by myself I can’t talk and school doesn’t start for a week.” It sounded so reasonable that I stopped right there before I started to talk about glass or smoke or the devil. If they didn’t go in the next five minutes I was going to lose it. I clenched my hands into hard fists and bit the inside of my cheek hard. I tried to concentrate on the pain in my mouth. I could see my dad’s dark eyes were becoming shiny so I looked down at my brown penny loafers.

“Come on, Lenore. We’ve come this far. Let’s go home.”

I felt them kiss me on the cheek and when I lifted my head they were halfway to the parking lot walking between those tall palm trees, my father’s arm protectively around my mother’s shoulders.

I headed to the northern part of campus. The Resident Hall Reception was in the afternoon. I knew that from reading the Orientation Week events. I planned to skip most of the events. I hadn’t met my roommate yet and hoped to exhaust myself with a ten mile walk before I did.

I noticed the trees first—palm and pine everywhere. I remembered the words to the Alma Mater—where palm and pine are blowing and southern seas are flowing—I wondered what the melody was; I wondered if I’d be here long enough to learn it.

Three hours later sweaty and tired, but calm, I walked into my room and saw two girls sitting on my bed, and another combing her hair in front of the mirror. The one at the mirror turned to greet me.

“Hi, I’m Susan Watson. I hope you’re my roommate.”

“I’m Monica Farelli, and if this is your room, I am.” The room had undergone a transformation since I’d left. Pink flowered bedspreads covered both beds and matching curtains hung at the wide casement window.

“I hope you like the bedspreads. Mom and I decided it was the only thing that would tone down this ghastly floor.” I noticed the green linoleum floor for the first time. “I wanted to paint the walls pink too, but that’s not allowed.” She wrinkled her nose. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll be a Zeta by the end of the week and probably move into the sorority house next semester. How about you? Are you going out for rush? Peggy and Jane aren’t.” She pointed to the two girls on the bed and started to apply bright red lipstick as she leaned closer to the mirror.

All this before I could open my mouth. It occurred to me that I wasn’t going to get a word in edgewise. Great. It also occurred to me that if she was going out for rush, I wouldn’t be seeing much of her. I could see she was the perfect co-ed. Curly brown hair framed an oval face and big brown eyes were set in creamy skin like two smoky topazes.

“Hello, I’m Peggy. I’m three rooms down the hall in 34B.” One of the girls on the bed got up and came toward me with an outstretched hand. “This is Jane.” She turned her head toward the girl still sitting on the bed with the dreamy look on her face. She had straight black hair cut blunt at her chin and bangs that almost came down to her eyebrows. She looked interesting like a character in a mystery novel. I was impressed with her long polished fingernails and the graceful way her hand moved as she waved to me.

“I was just asking Susan if she’d like to walk uptown for some dinner tonight. Would you like to come with us?”

I liked the looks of this girl. She also had brown eyes and hair, but she couldn’t have been more different than Susan. For one thing, she had a million freckles on her face. Something told me I’d better say no. “Sure, what time,” I said.

Six hours later the four of us sat in Woo Ling’s, a Chinese restaurant Susan had picked. Susan and Peggy were talking about school, but Jane and I just listened. I knew Susan had already written me off. Who could blame her? She had been the perfect roommate all afternoon and been met with a monosyllabic response every time. Feel free to borrow my clothes, Monica. Did you break up with your high school boyfriend, too? I do hope Mother doesn’t get upset when I pledge Zeta. She’s a Theta you know. Aren’t mothers pushy sometimes? Of course, mine’s really wonderful, but she’s really being ridiculous about this Theta thing. Don’t you think a person should have the right to pick their own sorority? When she mentioned being the President of the National Honor Society at Carelton High I announced I wanted to take a nap. Uncle Harry and Dr. Davey’s co-ed wrapped into one neat package and she was my roommate. Wonderful. All I wanted was not to say anything stupid at dinner.

Now as I sat in the restaurant I knew my hope for a normal evening wasn’t going to come true. The walls at Woo Ling’s were red and the chairs were lacquered black—bad colors for me. A huge Buddha sat in the center of the room, and a picture of a dragon with Chinese script was hanging right above our table. Evil lurked out of every corner of the room. Peggy and Susan chattered about orientation week, and Jane looked over the menu intently. I dared not lift my eyes from the white table cloth. I heard Jane and the waiter discuss the various satisfactions of General Tso’s Chicken and regular Chicken Szechuan, and I was impressed, but still too terrified to lift my head. When the waiter took my order I pointed to something on the menu while wondering if food prepared in an evil kitchen could make a person bad.

Then I heard Susan, her voice sounding impatient, address me. “Well, who do you like more, Elvis or Pat Boone?”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening,” I answered.

“Peggy was saying she thinks Elvis is gorgeous, but I like Pat Boone more.”

I remembered Susan showing me her new white shoes that afternoon and commenting on how all the Zetas were going to be wearing white bucks this semester—one of Pat Boones big trademarks. I shrugged my shoulders. “He’s O.K. I guess.”

Susan sat back, obviously stunned by such indifference. Then she turned to Jane. “What do you think?”

Jane turned her face toward the Buddha, pursed her lips, and then turned back to Susan. “I think they are both entirely inadequate,” she said. Susan rolled her eyes and looked at Peggy.

Meanwhile I looked at Jane as she stared at the Buddha again. Suddenly I noticed Jane’s black hair and heavily made up eyes. The red walls seemed to surround me and I could feel the urge to vocalize my anxiety spill over like a gushing waterfall.

“Do you think we should eat here? This place is evil and besides I think there are little glass chips on the tablecloth that could get into our food.”

Susan put the water glass that was halfway to her mouth back on the table.

“What did you say?” she asked. Peggy looked puzzled, and Jane turned her head toward me and stared with a long unblinking look. I knew I had to get out of the restaurant.

“Are you O.K.?” Peggy said.

Suddenly Jane leaned toward me and smiled. Then very slowly she began to brush the tablecloth in front of me with her hand. I tried to smile my thanks to her, but I couldn’t quite get my face to work. Instead I pushed back my chair, and mumbling something about having to get back to the dorm, I ran out of the restaurant. The last thing I heard was Susan asking Jane if there was really glass on the table.

I walked until I was exhausted, and Susan was asleep when I got back to the dorm. The next morning I was up and out by seven, deciding after looking at the orientation schedule that I could miss the tour of the library and the lecture on the Dewey Decimal System.

I headed north to the Century Tower and University Auditorium. I stopped for a few seconds to get a look at Albert the Alligator locked safely behind a chain link fence in the middle of the lawn. His pen was all muddy and he just sat in the middle of it. I had heard some fraternity boys had tried to whack his tail off, but it seemed to be firmly attached. I kept walking until I reached the Plaza of the Americas. A hundred pine trees stood straight as soldiers among the walkways that crisscrossed the open space. It had rained at dawn and everything smelled fresh and washed. I turned west and passed the gym and finally headed south toward Lake Alice. There were supposed to be gators in the Lake. I stopped in front of a huge pine with a trunk at least two feet across that lifted into the blue like a straight arrow. “Grandfather,” I said, (it seemed like a grandfather because the trunk was so gnarled) “I blew it last night.” I waited and blessedly there was no answer, just a soft swaying of the top branches from the breeze. I smiled to myself. I had one of Dr. Davey’s yellow pills tucked in my pocket. Don’t take one, Monica, unless you have to. You’re really not as sick as you think. O.K., Dr. Davey, if you say so. Time to check out the gators in the lake.

The lake took up the whole of the horizon, but no gators visible. Everything A.O.K., Dr. Davey, as the astronauts would say. I turned north again, walked slowly back to the student union and sat down on a bench beside the steps. Time to take a break.

The school newspaper was stacked in a pile in a green stand. Next to it was a box stating the cost, a nickel, and the admonition that the University of Florida operated under the honor system. I dug out a nickel and picked up the paper. The headline in black bold type read “Half of All Co-eds Not Virgins.” Just then a guy came up, picked up a newspaper, did not deposit a nickel, and sat down next to me on the bench. He had long brown hair tied with a piece of leather in the back and old dirty blue jeans on. Having troubles of my own I ignored him and plunged into the article about fallen women. Who knows, maybe Sr. Agatha had been right about this so called godless secular university. I could see her face swathed in white wimple. They will try to confuse you about your faith, boys and girls! They will use clever arguments to put seeds of doubt into your mind. Now, I hadn’t met any professors yet, but I had my arguments ready.

I looked up and two men in gray suits who were carrying briefcases (obviously professors) were depositing nickels into the box. The hippie was leaning back on the bench, his arms stretching along the back. I was going back to my newspaper when I heard the one with white hair hold the newspaper out toward the hippy and practically accuse him. “I suppose you think this is great, don’t you.”

The hippie shrugged and started to smile. “Hey, man, it’s O.K. Why shouldn’t the girls enjoy life too?”

Then before I could catch my breath at this nonchalant answer the one with the wire rim glasses turned to me. “And you, do you agree with him?”

I gathered myself together. O.K., Sr. Agatha, here we are center stage. God, classes haven’t even begun and here I am defending virtue. “Well, no, I mean, no, I don’t.”

“Why not?” The white-haired one threw the question at me like a bullet.

O.K., let’s see. The community—virginity and faithfulness are necessary to maintain stability in the community—then, of course, the obvious—babies out of wedlock, disease control. I decided to start with the community. That was less obvious and after all this was college. No obvious answers please. “Well, when a young woman decides to maintain her virginity she is in a sense upholding community values and contributing to the stability…”

“Because it’s wrong. Period. Is that right?” The one with the glasses peered into my very soul.

I nodded my head, but I couldn’t believe my ears. Godless professors! Why they sounded like Sr. Agatha, Sr. Margaret Mary, and every other nun who had ever taught me!

Years of learning the way to act, the way to do, the way to think were crumbling before this innocent fact—there were two ways to iron a shirt.

Three days later I walked out of my room and there was Peggy ironing a white blouse in the hall. I had calmed down quite a biteven trusted myself to spend a few hours a night with my roommate. (She just wanted me to listen while she exploded after the nightly call from her mother who was determined she join Kappa Alpha Theta.) I hadn’t seen Jane or Peggy since the dinner at Woo Ling’s. I decided to try some normal conversation.

“Hi, what are you doing?” Stupid question since I could see what she was doing, but she took it in the social way it was offered.

“Just catching up on some ironing.” She shook out the blouse and put it on the ironing board, folding it in the back along the yoke.

“Got all your classes yet?” I watched as she ironed the yoke, turned the blouse and ran the iron across the front tab without touching the inset at the sleeve.

She nodded. “How about you?”

“I’m seeing a counselor this afternoon.” I couldn’t believe the way she was ironing this blouse. When she started on the collar before she had even begun the back, I stepped up to the ironing board and gently removed the blouse from her hands. “Look, you’re doing this all wrong. This is how my mother taught me to iron blouses.” I shook the shirt out and carefully set the sleeve into the end of the ironing board. “See,” I said, “if you do the sleeves this way and then the back, you don’t get that line at the yoke. The very last thing you do is the collar.” I ran the iron firmly over the top of the collar, careful not to cause any creases at the stitching and handed her the blouse.

“Is that how your mother irons blouses? Well, guess what, my mother does it this way.” She grabbed the blouse out of my hand and slammed the yoke on the board. Her face flushed a bright pink behind her freckles and I stared speechless as she re-ironed the entire shirt. When she was finished, she looked up at me.

Startled I said, “God, I’m sorry.”

Suddenly her shoulders dropped. “So am I. I’ve got a fierce temper. Forget it. Hey, some of us are going downtown later to check out the shops. You want to come?”

“Sure.” I turned to go back into my room. I was relieved she wasn’t going to stay angry, but what she had said and done stunned me. I sat down on my newly acquired pink floral bedspread. Peggy’s mother didn’t iron shirts like my mother! It seemed there were two legitimate, bona fide ways of ironing a shirt! The implications of this fact had to be taken slowly. My life at school and home had been learning the one proper way of doing things. Years of learning the way to act, the way to do, the way to think were crumbling before this innocent fact—there were two ways to iron a shirt.

The next morning I was walking through the lounge when I heard the resident advisor, Miss Simpson, call to me across the room. She hurried up to me carrying important looking papers in a folder. I could see she was a little flustered. Little strands of dark hair had escaped the tight coil at the top of her head and hung down the side of her face. Very unlike Miss Simpson.

“Monica, can you do me a favor?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Can you walk Jane over to the infirmary? They’re waiting for her, and I can’t get away. I’ve got three sets of parents to see”—she held up the folders—“late coming students, and I can’t find Peggy anywhere.”

“Gosh, yes. Is she sick?”

She hesitated a moment and then tapped her finger against her forehead. “Freaked out this morning. Her parents will be here to get her tomorrow, but she’s got to go to the infirmary now. Oh, don’t look so horrified. She’s not dangerous. Come on, I’ve packed her bag and she’s sitting on the bed staring at the wall. And I’ve got three new students that just arrived. What a day!”

I followed her to Jane and Peggy’s room. Jane didn’t look like herself. Her eyes weren’t dreamy anymore; they were vacant and she was staring straight ahead at the wall. She was using her beautiful fingernails to pick at a scab on the back of her hand.

“Oh my God,” said Miss Simpson. “Stop that, Jane, You’re going to make your hand bleed. There’s her overnight bag, Monica. Do you think you’ll be all right?” I wondered if Miss Simpson knew I had a few emotional problems myself. Her next remark convinced me she didn’t. “Honestly, you’d think somebody would warn me.”

I picked up Jane’s overnight bag and helped her off the bed. “I’ll be fine, Miss Simpson.”

“Okay.” She sighed. “Let me know when you get back.”

It only took us ten minutes to get to the infirmary. I held on to Jane with one hand, and her bag with the other. I knew if I tried to talk to her I’d start crying. The nurse put us in a room with white walls, a black vinyl chair, and an examining table covered with a sheet. I settled Jane in the chair and started walking back and forth in the small room while we waited for the doctor.

I wanted to tell Jane so many things. About how walking had helped me, that she had helped me that night at Woo Ling’s, that I hardly knew her, but I thought her hair was beautiful and her fingernails elegant, and that I’d never heard anyone order from a menu with such sophistication. I wanted to tell her there were two ways of doing things, who knows, maybe a hundred ways to do everything, that professors (some of them anyway) were as pure as Sr. Agatha, that she’d be okay, I knew she would. But I didn’t say anything. I heard the door open and a man with a white coat and stethoscope stepped into the room.

“Hello, I’m Dr. Evans,” He glanced at me and went across the room and knelt in front of Jane. Gently he took her hands in his to keep them from picking at her scab.

I brushed my eyes with the back of my hand and I could taste the tears as they rolled into my mouth.

Dr. Evans looked up at me. “Are you all right?” he asked.

Was I all right? I looked around the room. No glass, no burning smells, and the black chair held no demons, just poor vacant Jane.

“I’m fine,” I said and turned to leave.

As I stepped out of the infirmary I stopped. My eyes were so blurry I couldn’t see. I held on to the railing at the top of the steps. Suddenly I shuddered and it was as if I was shedding some invisible skin. I decided I’d call my mom and dad later on. I wanted them to tell Dr. Davey I’d been up until four in the morning talking to Susan, trying to figure out a way to convince her mother she should be a Zeta, and to tell Uncle Harry I’d gotten my books and they were beautiful, and I wanted to tell my parents that I loved them. Right now, though, I wanted to see some pine trees. I wanted to sit on the cool green grass and feel scratchy bark against my back. I walked down the steps and headed east to the Plaza of the Americas.

Natalie Cornell HeadshotNatalie Cornell has a MA in political science and has taught as an adjunct at Santa Fe Community College and the University of Florida. She was a Contributing Writer to the St. Augustine Catholic and her articles have appeared in several other magazines. She lives with her husband, John, in Gainesville, Florida.

Me and Jerry

“Do you like Jerry Lewis?” I ask the stranger next to me in a movie theater. We’ve been making small talk, waiting for the movie to begin, about films and directors, young and old. The conversation has just turned to comedians, and I thought, there’s my cue.

She tilts her blonde head. “He’s not my favorite.”

I’ve heard worse. The last baby boomer I asked answered, “No. And he’s a son of a bitch.”

“But I went to high school with his kids,” she continues. “They were into music. And I knew his wife. She was a very nice woman; and she was very pretty, even though she let her hair go grey.”

She knew Jerry’s family? My heart beats fast. I want to tell her that I saw his oldest son, Gary, sing “Sonny Boy” with his dad on Jerry’s TV show and “This Diamond Ring” with his band, Gary and the Playboys a few years later; that Jerry’s wife Patty, a former singer, managed Gary’s band; that Patty’s hair went grey because Jerry wouldn’t allow her to dye it; that Jerry divorced Patty in 1980 and married SanDee Pitnick, a Las Vegas dancer, three years later; that the only way I could know more about Jerry Lewis is if I broke into his house.

But I’m afraid if I tell her all that, she’ll shrink in discomfort to the other side of her seat. There’s no more time to talk anyway. The lights dim, the theater goes dark, and we face forward to watch the coming attractions, my mind still racing with thoughts of Jerry.

  *     *     *

It’s a Sunday night during the Golden Age of Television. We’re watching The Colgate Comedy Hour. Its hosts rotate every six weeks; but for me, Ed Wynn, Abbot and Costello, Donald O’Connor, Eddie Cantor and even Jimmy Durante—whose “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are…” gets me every time—were just warm up acts for Dean Martin, the smooth crooner, and his sidekick Jerry Lewis, the skinny, hyperactive klutz with the loud nasal voice and the big mouth and the long legs whose nonstop crazy shticklach (as Jerry called it) light up the cramped den where I sit with my family in front of our small black and white TV.

Dean is supposedly the more handsome of the two, but I can’t take my eyes off Jerry. Now he’s catching Dean off guard, kissing him full on the lips. Then he’s jumping into the arms of the bandleader, curled up like an impish toddler who needs protection from his angry, older brother. Then he’s arching his back, spreading his arms, throwing his head back and lengthening his legs like a ballerina ready to be hoisted high up in the air. (Does that sound gay? He wasn’t, even though he sometimes dressed up like Carmen Miranda with a turban of fruit on his head and pantomimed her singing, and even though, by his own admission, he was plain crazy about Dean Martin.)

He isn’t just funny. He’s cute in his nebbishy way, and he’s sweet. And when he isn’t pulling sad or confused faces, or pantomiming or falling down, he sings and dances with musicality, style, and ease. I sing and dance along with him in the doorway even though it annoys my father and brothers.

His ad libs thrill me—they give me a glimpse into the man behind the clown. When a gushing water pipe soaks Dean’s watch, Jerry stifles a laugh, puts his face an inch from Dean’s, drops his high whine an octave and says, “You forgot to take your watch off, huh?” Or when he opens a suitcase and the clothes that are supposed to explode all over the stage lay quietly folded, he approaches the audience to explain how well the gag worked in dress rehearsal and to rebuke whoever was responsible for the malfunctioning spring: “Where will you be working tomorrow?”

At the end of the show, Jerry stands in front of the curtain in his black tux, his bow tie loose, and wipes the sweat from his face with his white handkerchief. “Ladies and gentleman,” he says, “Dean and I want to thank you very, very much.” Then he plugs their latest movie. The pathetic nerd is nowhere to be seen. Here’s a man in total command of his life.

I’m nine years old, and I’m in love.

A year after The Colgate Comedy Hour goes off the air, Martin and Lewis split up. Jerry begins making his own movies. For the next nine years, throughout junior high and high school, whenever one of Jerry’s movies are playing, I beg any and all of my girlfriends who are willing to sit beside me in a dark movie theater on a Saturday afternoon while I silently swoon. They don’t conceal their boredom and disdain. They can’t understand what I see in him. I can hardly understand it myself—I don’t think he’s all that funny anymore, but I’m sure there’s a sensitive, brooding guy in there somewhere who reminds me of a boy I also have a mad crush on, who is also lanky, moody, and impulsive, and whom I also worship from afar, as if he too were a celebrity.

I asked my cousin recently if she remembered my crush on Jerry Lewis. “Of course,” she said, “but if you ask me, you conflated him with Lenny.”

“That’s true,” I said. “But I fell in love with Jerry first.”

 

Dateless on a Saturday night in my senior year of high school, I watch Jerry’s new show. After an hour or so of his usual antics—sticking a cigarette up his nose, running around the stage so that the cameraman can’t follow him, then doubling back and kissing him on top of his bald head—Jerry gets serious, and sings “Come Rain or Come Shine” from his album, Jerry Just Sings. His voice isn’t great, but his timing is; and he sings with passion and a shameless sentimentality reminiscent of Al Jolson.

Dean is supposedly the more handsome of the two, but I can’t take my eyes off Jerry.

This is what I’ve been waiting for. I own the album. I’ve looked long and hard at Jerry’s melancholy face on the cover, his mouth open in song. I know every song, every word, every big band chord. I’ve stood in front of our foyer mirror not far from the hifi in our living room and mouthed the lyrics, as if by doing so, I can feel his heartbreak in “How Long Has This Been Going On?” or his exuberance in “I’m Sitting on top of the World.” My favorite isBy Myself,” (“I’ll go my way by myself. I’m by myself, alone.”) since that is how I feel now that Lenny, who can also sing, and who became my high school steady for a couple of years, has gone off to college where he’s falling in love with one pretty co-ed after the next. Jerry sounds lonely too when he sings, even though he’s married, has five sons and one more on the way.

 

The ratings are so bad for Jerry’s show that despite their five-year contract, NBC cancels it after 13 weeks. I can’t understand why so few people see how brilliant and lovable he is. (I don’t yet know that the French already think he’s a genius.) I don’t agonize about this for very long, though. I go to college the next fall where my tastes and worldview evolve as Jerry’s popularity declines. He becomes old-fashioned, even to me. I don’t think much about him for years except for an occasional glimpse at him while he hosts his schmaltzy Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethons, his dark hair slicked back with too much Brylcreem. But then I read an interview in Esquire Magazine in which herefers to starlets as “fucklets” and praises John F. Kennedy, who he claims had been his good friend, as one of the “great cunt men of all time.” Women’s liberation is in full bloom. Shocked and dismayed that this man whom I so adored is a Neanderthal, I’m done.

 *      *     *

My husband walks into the kitchen. “I found something on Gold Star you’re going to want to do.”

I look up from unloading the dishwasher. A transplanted New Yorker, he’s always hungry for theater deals. Now what?”

“Jerry Lewis is speaking in Beverly Hills tonight. For free.”

Miles has never found Jerry funny, but he knows I was obsessed with him when I was young.

“Oh, God. I don’t know. It’s been such a long time, I’m not sure I care anymore.”

He shrugs. “Up to you.”

He leaves the kitchen, and I rethink: Jerry is 86. This is probably my only chance ever to see him in person.

“Okay,” I call into the next room. “Let’s go.”

 

We join the crawl from the beach to Beverly Hills, arrive late, step gingerly by the people in the last row who, along with the rest of the audience, are standing, clapping and yelling as Jerry makes his entrance. I can barely see his grey head above his short neck and stooped body. He takes a few awkward steps and then collapses deeply into an arm chair opposite his interviewer.

The event is in honor of Jerry’s technical accomplishments as a director. To make it easier to act in and direct his own movies, for instance, Jerry met with Sony in Japan 25 times before they invented the “video assist” for him, used by movie directors today. I don’t care that much about the technical side of movie making, but I am impressed by Jerry’s drive, inventiveness and smarts. And I love the clips of him high up in a crane or zooming around Paramount in his golf cart, looking youthful and vibrant in his red crew neck sweater, white sox, and loafers. And I love the scenes from his old movies, in which he invariably plays the schmendrick who gets the simplest tasks wrong, making life impossible for everyone around him.

And yet, when no one’s watching in Who’s Minding the Store?, he sits at a typewriter and, accompanied by music, transforms the keys and return-carriage into a percussive instrument, his face so alive with focus, surprise and private joy, his timing so perfect, his neck so long and lifted, he is elegance itself.

Or when The Errand Boy finds himself alone in a large office, sitting at the head of an oval conference table, he lights up a cigar and, in time to a Count Basie number, imagines he is a “Chairman of the Board,” pointing to the imaginary businessmen under his charge sitting around the table. As the music builds in intensity, so does his imperiousness. At one moment, he turns his chair around, his back to the camera, only to swivel suddenly back around in response to a loud, climactic chord, crossing his eyes and throwing his arms and mouth open wide as though the sound of all those horns was coming in all its wildness straight out of his kishkes.

Miles laughs and elbows me, “He’s funny. We should go back and watch his movies.”

I feel vindicated.

Jerry asks to be excused. Does he have to use the john? He’s an old man after all. No. He wants to see his daughter, who has recently gone off to college, has just landed in L.A. and is backstage. He waddles off the stage and leaves the interviewer at sea: “Gee, I’ve never been left in the middle of an interview before.”

He leaves an audience of over 1000 to go kiss his daughter hello? What kind of princess must she feel like? I can’t imagine my father leaving any conversation in the middle to talk to me. But Jerry does what he wants. Isn’t his lack of restraint one reason why he was so appealing to me, a dutiful daughter?

When he returns, he takes questions from the audience.

A few hands go up.

“That’s all??” he yells. “Come on!!!”

One woman tells him that she did a small scene with him in a movie a long time ago; that it was so wonderful to work with him, it was her most memorable experience as an actress.

“Lady, sit down. You’re annoying everyone.”

Everyone laughs. I wince.

A young boy raises his hand. Jerry nods. The boy stands. “I’m a great admirer of your work.”

People laugh again, tickled by the boy’s precocious phrasing.

Jerry asks him his age.

“Ten.”

“Young man, would you like to live to see eleven?”

The audience roars. I don’t. Caustic comebacks may be part of his shtick; but in dismissing the gushing actress and the reverent boy, he’s dismissing me.

At the end of the evening, the audience gives him another standing ovation.

“Thank you very much,” Jerry says. “You’ve made this old Jew very happy.”

Even though Jerry poked fun at his fans, I’m hooked again, like I’ve seen Lenny at a high school reunion; and despite his receding hairline, the old fantasy that we were made for each other pulls on me. Like a lover who can’t get enough of her beloved, or a mother who finds her newborn endlessly adorable in his most mundane gestures—a yawn, a grimace from gas, a toothless smile—I watch endless videos of Jerry on YouTube.

In one of my favorites, Jerry enters the stage in a long, formal coat, strides pompously towards a five member glee club, pinches one girl’s cheek, lifts another girl’s chin, punches one guy’s arm, shakes another’s shoulders, and then tweaks the last guy’s nose. Then he leads them in “Oh Danny Boy.” While they sing “…from glen to glen..,” Jerry extends his right arm emphatically on the second “glen” to elongate the note, leaning further and further to the side until he falls into the curtain. A moment later, preparing for the big finish, he turns, marches about 10 feet away from the chorus in three big steps, pivots, then trots back, every trot a leap, in time to “oh, oh, oh.” Reaching them on the final “oh,” he spreads him arms wide and high and leans back and away from them with so much passion for the note that there’s nowhere else for him to go but on his ass.

I always loved falls, or as we called them when I was a modern dancer, “going to the floor.” Mostly, I favored controlled, soft descents, except for the time I was performing a solo in New York at the Merce Cunningham Studio. I was jogging backwards in a large circle, increasing my speed as I went, planning to stop deliberately at the height of the acceleration by abruptly changing my direction and stamping my foot. Excited, perhaps, by the dance celebrities or critics who might be in the audience, my speed got the best of me. I lost control, fell backwards onto the floor, slid about ten feet, and lay there, spread eagle, catching my breath for a few seconds before I got up and continued. Miles remembers it as his favorite moment of the dance: “You went with it, and you made it look natural.”

Watching Jerry as the pseudo-dignified glee club director who abandons himself to the music so thoroughly that he falls on his ass isn’t just natural, and it isn’t just funny. It’s satisfying, like seeing a thing pay off, come to its fullest and right end, like watching the inevitable, like watching the truth. That is what thrilled me at nine. Like the boy in Beverly Hills, I knew genius when I saw it.

 

I read every article and book by and about Jerry I can find. He was born in Newark, New Jersey and had a terribly lonely childhood. (I knew it!) His vaudevillian parents were always on the road. He idolized his father, Danny, for his looks and his talent. And since the ladies liked Danny, Jerry’s mother, Rae, his pianist and musical arranger, stayed near her husband to keep an eye on him.

Left with various relatives, Jerry moved around so much that he didn’t do well in school even though he was a smart kid. At the end of the 4th grade, when all the kids in his class moved into the 5th grade classroom, Jerry was told to stay in his seat. The new 4th graders piled in, stood at the blackboard and stared at Jerry. “At nine,” he says in an interview later, “I knew trauma.”

After that, his grandma Sarah insisted that they leave him with her in Irvington, a suburb of Newark. In a documentary about his life, Jerry, looking tired to the bone at 70, his bronze facial makeup contrasting with his pale neck, describes Sarah as an “apostle.” (Unusual description of a Jewish grandmother—maybe he learned the term from his wife Patty, a devout Catholic.) “When I needed wisdom, information, and…” Jerry sucks on a candy and furrows his brow, searching for the right word “…articulation, and profundity, I’d go to Grandma.”

I still want to know who he is, as difficult as that is.

There’s a picture of Jerry as a teenager with wavy hair and a winning smile, standing outside his grandmother’s modest clapboard house that is not so different from the houses in my old neighborhood, only a few states away in Massachusetts. What if we had grown up together? Jerry had desperate crushes on any girl who smiled at him then. Would he have had a crush on me? Would he have tolerated endless, tortuous make out sessions in the red velvet arm chair in my living room; or would he have pushed for more? Would I have given into his squirms, sighs, and insistent hands and suffered relentless guilt, or broken up with him and made myself sick with longing?

I imagine us sitting on my front porch steps on a summer night (like Lenny and I used to do), our legs touching, my head resting on his bony shoulder. Jerry holds a cigarette in one hand, my knee in the other. My stomach aches, knowing he can’t stay much longer. My father drives up in his dark blue Dodge, spots us, and shines his bright lights as a warning. Jerry doesn’t freeze (like Lenny did). His mobile face makes one crazy expression after the other, as if the headlights were spotlights. Then he gets up, prances down the porch steps, waits for my father to get out of his car, and throws his arms around him like a long, lost relative.

He’s so brave, so funny, I think. How can my father not like him at least a little bit? But my father frees himself from the arms of this weird, wild kid, walks into the house and slams the door. Jerry hangs his head in defeat, then grabs me and won’t let go. It’s the happiest despair I’ll ever know.

 

Grandma Sarah died when Jerry was fifteen. At sixteen, he punched the principal of his high school for making an anti-Semitic remark. Not long after, he dropped out of high school altogether. All he wanted to do was perform. At his theatrical debut at 5 (as part of his parents act) he accidentally kicked in a foot light, heard the audience’s laughter, and that was it.

Having been a dancer, I understand the intoxication of performing—the heat of the lights, the vague faces in the dark looking at me while I handed them whatever part of myself I cared to dress up and share.

 

I gobble up the stories: about his love at first sight romance with the singer Patty Palermo, nee Ester Calicano, six years his senior (I’m jealous.); his ceaseless adoration of Dean Martin (despite the bitter break up and the 20 years of silence between them); their gargantuan fame with “the money and the women flowing in;” his rampant infidelities (I’m not jealous of that.); his split from Dean 10 years to the day after their debut smash performance at the Copacabana; his solo film career, obsessive work ethic as director, writer, and actor; how the American critics disdained him; how extravagant, compulsively generous, tyrannical, and impossible he was to live and work with; and his life-changing fall in 1965.

It’s not clear how it happened—either during his entrance on the Andy Williams Show when he slipped on some water or doing a cartwheel off a piano in his solo act in Las Vegas. However it occurred, he chipped a piece of his spine in his neck; and no doctor in the world could do a thing. To bear the pain, he took over a dozen Percodan a day for 13 years, slept on his couch for hours at a time and disappeared as a father from his sons. Even before the accident, he was such a workaholic that he wasn’t present in their daily lives except for kissing them on the lips hello and good-bye, and disciplining them, often harshly, if they committed the slightest offense at the table, even though he allowed himself to mash chocolate brownies all over his teeth and stick carrots in his ears and nose during dinner.

It’s one thing to learn about Jerry’s lonely childhood; it’s another to discover how that neglect affected him, how insecure and easily enraged he could be; how prone he was to excessive behavior, including extravagant spending—his 400 suits, how he never wore a pair of socks more than once, the 20 pieces of luggage he took whenever he traveled; how his addiction to Percodan made him, as Jerry confesses, “as mean as a snake;” how he took his torment out on those closest to him—his “long-suffering” wife, Patty, and his sons; how the agony of his spinal injury, the narrowing horizons of his career and his “sputtering” marriage drove him one night into his private bathroom in his Bel Air mansion (built originally by Louis B. Mayer) where he took out a pistol and put it in his mouth until he heard his sons playing in another part of the house and put it away.

As sad and sick as the stories sometimes make me, my attachment to Jerry remains. Why am I so loyal? In a New Yorker Profile, Jerry says that his fans were heartbroken when he and Dean split up because they had become like family to them. And I think, yes, maybe that’s it: you are like family to me—Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch, whose ancestors were Russian Jews, whose grandfather was a Rabbi, whose inflections, sighs, and sarcasm remind me of my Uncle Charlie, who delivered his dark humor in such a deadpan that it was impossible to distinguish the affection buried in the insult.

“Hello Ganiff,” Uncle Charlie would greet my 9 year old brother Billy. And to me he’d say, “Hello Meeskite.”

When I asked my mother what the words meant, she said, “Uncle Charlie’s just kidding.”

I insisted that she tell me what he was saying until she gave in: Ganiff means crook, and meeskite, homely one.

Maybe that’s another reason why I didn’t laugh when Jerry asked the 10 year old boy if he would like to see 11. Maybe I remember my Uncle Charlie, whose jokes were too mean to be funny.

 

At least I am not Jerry’s craziest fan. In an interview with Peter Bogdonavich, Jerry tells the story of a woman who approached him on the street and told him that she loved him so much that she was writing her dissertation about him. She got up close, put her hands around his neck and said, “I love you so much. I love you so much. I love you so much.” Realizing that she was choking him, and that he had to stop her, Jerry socked her in the jaw, broke it, and wound up paying her $475,000 in damages.

But perhaps his most insane fan is fictional: Masha (Sandra Bernhardt) in Martin Scorcese’s The King of Comedy, is so sexually obsessed with the talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry) that she helps Rupert Pupkin (Robert Deniro) kidnap him. Alone with him at last, she straps him to one of her French Provincial chairs with adhesive tape from his neck to his shoes. In a sheer black lounging outfit, she sits across from him at a table set with a lavish dinner, tells him how much she loves him and sings Come Rain or Come Shine. (I know that song!) Then she disrobes to her underwear, sits her skinny body on his lap and leans in to kiss him.

Before her lips reach his, Jerry, his eyes both dead and enraged, tells her to take all the tape off. She does. He then picks up the gun which she had aimed at him earlier, fires a couple of phony bullets, walks slowly towards her, slaps her hard across the face and runs out of her apartment into the streets of Manhattan where he keeps running (and he was around 58 when he made this movie) for the rest of the scene. Masha runs after him, still in her white bra and panties and spiked heels, screaming, “Jerry, wait! Jerry! Come back here!”

 

I would never choke Jerry, kidnap him, or strap him to a chair. But having been attuned so early to his vulnerability, I do count myself among the women, who, as Shawn Levy put it, would like to “burp him.” And I agree with Carol Burnett when she says, “When Jerry wasn’t being funny, he was sexy.” Shall I tell you what in his face or physique or tone of voice moves and captivates me? Shall I mention his green eyes, his nice nose, sensual mouth, and his long, limber body?

The lanky adolescent is not the only Jerry I love. By the time he’s in his forties, no longer as lean or as agile, his comedic shticks less compelling, I still like to watch him sing and dance, and I still want to know who he is, as difficult as that is. In interviews, Jerry can be introspective, polished, pompous, vulnerable, defensive, sweet, generous, philosophical, religious, nasty, as business-minded as the provincial Jewish merchants in my home town, or as sophisticated as a cinema auteur. He’s unfathomable. All I can do is guess when he’s being honest, and when he’s telling a version of the story he wants the world to believe.

When he explains why he won’t allow other men to dance with his wife, for instance, that he assumes they would behave like he would (“get cute and hold her very close”), I recall what Patty wrote about Jerry’s terrible jealousy, how he berated her (“brought me to my knees”) with false accusations of her infidelity. When he talks about how much he adores his sons, I remember reading about how neglected they felt and how jealous they were of the love he showed his muscular dystrophy kids, whom he called “Jerry’s kids.” When he claims that he respects Pauline Kael because she’s such a knowledgeable film critic, that he can’t “rap her” even though “the old broad” has no use for him or his movies, I wonder why he’s wearing that phony looking ascot and doubt that he’s ever that sanguine about any critic, having just admitted that he’s emotional about everything (“Patty says I can get upset about a bad sunset.”).

But when he talks about his open set policy, how much he enjoyed “showing off” to an audience when he was directing his movies; and when, many years later, his face bloated from steroids, his voice unnaturally high, he says how fast and hard he and his second wife, SanDee Pitnick, a dancer with great “pins,” fell for each other; (I’m jealous again) that he hasn’t laid an eye on another woman since, over 36 years ago, I believe him.

And I believe him when, in his 80’s, wearing yet another red shirt—red must be his favorite color—his voice gravelly, his eyes as sharp as my grandmother’s were at his age, he extols Carol Burnett for her artistry and heart. “Be careful,” he thinks, watching her fall, knowing what his falls cost him. “She was a clown,” he says softly near the end of the interview, like she was his soul sister. “Anyone who is a clown comes from a very, very unique place.”

 

I still yearn to understand Jerry’s unique place, what particular permutation of sorrow, rage, hurt, love, passion, and genius gave him his “funny bones,” as he puts it, and made it possible for him to sing, dance, act, direct, write and produce, and to draw me and millions of others to him.

Sometimes I think there are two kinds of people in the world—those who love Jerry Lewis, and those who don’t. Although Miles now appreciates his “flashes of brilliance,” most of my family and friends, old and new, don’t. Just yesterday, finishing up a lunch with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, I mentioned that I needed to get back home to finish something I was writing.

“What are you writing about?” she asked, her eyes wide with interest.

“Jerry Lewis.”

“Jerry Lewis?” Her face, tone and inflection all cried, “Who? What? Are you kidding? Why in the world would you write about him?”

“Yes. Jerry Lewis.” Neither of us had time for a longer answer. Either you get him, or you don’t, I thought. And even if I wanted to persuade her that he was worthy of my fascination, where would I begin?

Lisbeth DavidowLisbeth Davidow’s work has appeared in print and online in Alligator Juniper, All that Glitters, Helix Literary Magazine, Mandala Journal, Marco Polo Arts Magazine, Pilgrimage, Prime Mincer, Revolution House, Sliver of Stone, and Spittoon.

Lunch Ticket’s reading period for Issue #5 overlapped with The Southeast Review’s annual Narrative Nonfiction Contest. At the same time that “Me and Jerry” was accepted for publication at Lunch Ticket, it was also selected as a finalist by the nonfiction judges at The Southeast Review. Both publications extend their congratulations to Lisbeth!

 

Swagger

I know you. You’re a swagger. A badass. Someone who went and got his mettle tested and returned stateside to the tea drinkers and powderpuffs with a chip on his shoulder and ribbons pinned to your chest. The world had got a whole lot smaller while you were at war: one day walking proud, the next asking permission. Duck your head. Keep your hands to yourself. Stay within the lines.

Now you’re on the barstool across from me. You’re mouthing off about re-enlisting. You can hardly sit still until you go off and get tested again. Dumb fuck. Doesn’t even occur to you that the second test is but another chance to fail.

My first bid was a hold back. It’s my go-to game. Don’t approach the crush, don’t tell him he’s beautiful. Look away. God forbid eyes should lock and a cool fire of embarrassment stiffen my jaw. Too young, too cocksure, too likely to break a heart. That’s you. Delighted with yourself. Each move a flexed muscle. You knew people were watching.

But subtlety was lost on you, and the night got shorter, and the drinks stronger, and praise God, we mortals need the fierce foot soldiers so fucking bad. Taking my cue, I matched you shot for shot over a game of pool that was all straight lines and sharp cracks.

I murmured, “Badass, tell me stories of war. Remind me of how it used to be.”

“You serve?” you asked. Your eyes sparked. Your skin gave off a whiff of burnt cordite.

“My father,” I explained. “Vietnam.”

New respect opened a spigot. Closest thing to a comrade you had in weeks, and you talked until you set down your pool stick.

“What are you doing later?” I asked.

You looked at me like I was plain stupid.

“Fucking,” you said.

“I’ve still got his medals. My father’s. Back at my apartment. You want to see ‘em?”

You nodded, we left, and as I put the key in the lock, I asked, “What are you into?”

“Bareback,” you said.

I didn’t refuse.

Sure, there was a moment of clench and fear, but having won your attention, I couldn’t not go through with it. Instead, I made a mental note to put a reminder in the calendar: on this date six weeks hence, get tested. (For whose sake?)

“I’m not afraid of anything,” you said with neither pride nor defiance, but only a haunting resignation that was older than you were or I would ever be.

Then I wondered: was six weeks the state of the science? For antibodies to arise, it sounded long and yet short at the same time. Younger people would know, butI’m told, not personal experiencethe young go ahead barebacking on the least assurances of purity, and fuck the bug that took down my generation.

Gratifyingly indifferent, you grunted and came in my ass. I licked my wounds and brought myself to completion, proud you’d done nothing to get me off. I was beside the point. I owed you no debts.

In the morning, you did calisthenics in my kitchen. You trolled the ‘Net to see what else there was to conquer. You traced the spines of certain books on my shelf (Calvino, Heaney, Solzhenitsyn) and delivered an ad hominem coffee-fueled disquisition on the efficacy of microloans in the economies of sub-Saharan Africa the likes of which that I would never would have thought to hear from your filthy mouth. Your erudition briefly shrank you to the size of twice-a-man, almost accessible, before you again resumed being a goddamn hero going home to Mom to tell her you’re heading back to war.

“How old are you anyhow?” I asked.

“What’s it matter?”

“Are you afraid to know how old I am?”

“I’m not afraid of anything,” you said with neither pride nor defiance, but only a haunting resignation that was older than you were or I would ever be.

You prowled the apartment. Observed sightlines from the windows. Measured distance to places where the enemy might take shelter. You opened cupboards. Tried on my clothes. Snacked on raw oats and yoghurt and wolfed down an entire cold chicken.

For an hour, you stared at the cyclids in their tank, their dodge and weave, their fucking, their eating their young. I never knew a man could sit so still. Could cease breathing. The cyclids rushed to and fro and forgot you were there. I never forgot. Not for a second.

You set a mobile in perpetual motion. You flipped an hourglass and let the sand run out. You tested the weight of a cast iron trivet and the hardness of the tile and the looseness of the one floorboard near the stairs. You fixed what needed an extra screw. You drew the shades. You folded blankets with precise corners as if they were a flag from a vet’s casket.

I snuggled deeper in bed. Confident you had secured the perimeter. My house had never been so safe. You can see in the dark. Hear like a dog. You were at the peak of your game. You were born yesterday.

Me? 1968 and glad of it. A decade earlier, and I’d have been the good boy, the closet kill-myself of a prior age. A priest, maybe. A schemer. Maybe not so much predator on little boys or the seminarian in my charge, but who knows? I’ve abandoned all pretensions to superiority, which makes it harder to condemn.

Born after 1968, then what? I might have forgotten I’m controversial. I might have forgotten I’m fierce. Still standing. A warrior like you. A defiant queen of a persecution, backhanding jizz dangling from my chin.

No, complacency won’t do. We gays must always remember to be cock-angry and vicious, gun-toting and axe-wielding. Never forget. I may well have skirted the HIV that cut down my generation, but I pay the price in foreshortened gestures of tenderness like an angry T-Rex with half-sized forelimbs. This is me in San Juan with my former lover. This is me in Miami with a trick. We only ever held hands for these pics after scoping the scene for safety, and by then, the romantic impulse is DOA.

A crash shattered my comfort.

I padded to the living room where you had smashed a side table you had used as a stool to access the top shelf.

You laughed at what you’d done. You blamed the side table for its weakness. The world had unfolded no doubt exactly as it ought to. The strong are strong. The weak, weak.

“Now you’re up,” you said, “get on your shoes/shorts.”

You challenged me to a race to Worcestor Park and gave me two blocks lead.

“Loser bottoms,” you said.

You kicked my ass.

Taken prisoner, I was bodysore and content. Grateful. Overrun. Ransacked. Embarrassed by my fascination with your swagger.

Is there anything worse or more sinful than being obvious? The former most popular kid in the class, the once-upon-a-time rising star, the king of the world in another lifetime, I always wanted to be different.

“You never showed me his medals,” you accused.

“That was just a gambit to get you in the sack,” I admitted.

“Show me his medals.”

I delivered the case of medals and ribbons into your hands as if I was handing you my head on a platter. You scooted down under the covers, pointed at each decoration in turn, and explained what type of service or valor each indicated.

Hope sank. Fear gripped. From the start, your destiny had been to ask exactly the set of unholy questions that would estrange us. There was no such thing as happiness. You were going to war. I never had a chance.

“Tell me about your father,” you urged. “What kind of man was he?”

“Man of habits,” I said mechanically. “Home precisely at 5:20 p.m. Sat at table alone. My mother didn’t presume to ask how his day was. She didn’t presume to ask his needs. We assumed she read his mind. He ate his fill while the rest of us waited. When done, he nodded, and my sister and I scrambled to our places at the table, at attention, wide-eyed, trembling, stiff as pencils.

“Mother served and sat. We all bowed our heads. He never prayed, but instead looked on benevolently as if he were prayer’s object. Before we were done, he retired to the porch for a smoke. We knew better to join him until summoned. When summoned, we roughhoused, indoors or out, according to the season.

“Later still, he’d eye my mother and they’d disappear behind closed doors.”

“You must have loved him.”

“I was afraid of him.”

Your brow furrowed. You couldn’t imagine disobeying the fifth commandment. You wanted unicorns and heroes.

“Don’t you miss him?” you asked. “Aren’t you proud of him? Did he ever tell you stories about how he won these?”

“He hated the word won. He said he didn’t win shit. He said he earned them.”

“Earned, of course, earned,” you acknowledged impatiently.

You looked expectant. I resisted your bullying. I knew how to wait until the table’s cleared.

You wrapped me in an affectionate, intolerable headlock.

“Don’t fuck with me,” you said. “Come on. Never? Really? You never once sat down and ate at the same time as him and talked about what happened over…?”

“The man of the family gets his fill first, because the others depend on him,” I said stiffly, acutely aware I wasn’t the man and you and I were no family.

We were twenty-four into this solitary confinement I ought to have known would be a mistake. Should have gone home and jerked off alone.

“He sounds like a tough old bastard.”

“I never once spoke to him in all my thirty-five years about being gay, but he left me his army duds from Vietnam.”

You said, “He must have thought you earned them.”

You meant it.

Your earnestness was as unsexy as your erudition. I wanted to destroy it.

“When I was a boy,” I said, “I wanted to feel heroic, so I accompanied girls to the dance. I did what I was supposed to. I danced. I told them they were beautiful, but I never could give them what they wanted: to be desired, not just treated with kindness. To be mortified, not simply loved. To be defiled. I could only file their nails and help them choose matching pumps. I was kindness itself.”

I looked you in the eye.

“My father hated me,” I said.

My words punched a hole in that easy confidence. Kicked the stool from beneath you. Struggling for breath and words like a hanged man, you slipped from bed as quickly if I was infected.

I snatched at your wrist, seeking salvation.

“He did say, once, if ever someone knocks on your door and he’s got a black helmet and says he’s from SpecOps Delta, give him a place to sleep. Promise me this.”

“That’s my unit,” you murmured as if in a dream.

“Promise me this,” I said.

You touched my shoulder. You saluted my father’s medals. No more.

“Why would you lie about a thing like that?” you asked. You, who had seen everything. The absolute worst. The nerve of asking me about lies, as if I’d killed Bambi.

You looked as if you’d be happier back in the theater of war, where you knew what was up.

You dressed swiftly in the clothes you came in. I offered you a loan of mine, because I knew they’d fit and this fact seemed like a triumph, an important parting shot.

You touched my shoulder. You saluted my father’s medals. No more. Just name, rank, serial number. Maybe blood type.

What an amazing husband you would have made if you’d just come back to the living and measured your mettle in alternative ways! But then you’d be something other than what you were: undomesticated, savage, a bully, a stiff.

Me? I’m a warm mouth. I swallow them all. I’m capacious. I’m generosity itself.

Your leave is short. Anything is possible. I love you. Warriors like us play by different rules. Test our blood.

Scott David HeadshotScott David has published novels, a memoir, a guide to wine and cocktails, and numerous short stories under various pseudonyms, most recently in Evening Street Review, Apple Valley Review, Ampersand Review, Entasis, Ray’s Roadhouse Review, St. Sebastian Review, Glitterwolf, Blue Penny Quarterly, and Fiction Fix. He lives in Boston and Provincetown, Massachusetts.

On Seeing Swans at the Embassy Suites, & When You Ask About Karen

On Seeing Swans at the Embassy Suites

I wasn’t expecting swans.

You were partial to dark corners
oaken Algonquin lounges smoky
with cigarettes and specters, stories
we spilled across the bar,
but that night you offered swans
their pearled splendor indelible,
dappled promise of what our lives
together could have been
long necked beauties swimming
through a basin of years,

years that carried the cost
of captivity, clipped wings
left to glide though water
pumped fresh with oxygen
and chlorine that stained
what was once pristine
until only the remembrance of flight
Propelled us forward.

We never did go back to see them
and the property has since changed hands,
but I’d like to think memory is enough,
that we lost them
not because we proved unworthy
but because beauty moves on.

 

 *  *  *

When You Ask About Karen

It’s easier to diagnose her
as a mere side effect
consequence of post-partum
that tethered me to interiors
for weeks, until her call,
thoughts of her enough to heat water
wash away breast milk and spit-up
isolation I wore every day
replaced with the waft of want.

Easier to say we were
nothing more than sheets drenched
with infection we called love,
strain of lust I was ripe for contracting,
than admit I signed up
for her auburn-tressed trial,
refused inoculation,
ignored the warnings,
because I thought I knew the risks.

Easier to say she did not matter,
deny that there were some mornings
when only her coffee-laced
phone call coaxed me out bed
rather than tell you I believed in us
with the innocence of a girl
I never was.

Easier to say I never think of her
that no splinter remains, no
tiny cross-stitched space
within the expanse of heart
that now carries your name.

Caridad Moro HeadshotCaridad Moro’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including The Comstock Review, The Crab Orchard Review, MiPoesias, The Seattle Review, SlipstreamSpillway, CALYX, The Pedestal, Fifth Wednesday Review, The Lavender Review, As/Us: Women of the World Journal, This Assignment Is So Gay: LGBTIQ Poets on the Art of Teaching, and others. She is the recipient of a Florida Individual Artist Fellowship in poetry and has been nominated twice for a Pushcart prize. Her award winning chapbook Visionware is available from Finishing Line Press (www.finishinglinepress.com). She resides in Miami, FL with her partner and their eleven-year-old son.