The Boy Who Loved Red Bishops Too Much

[fiction]

When he was nine, he tried to catch a couple.

He thought the Red Bishops, with their striking red and black plumage, would look lovely in his cage.

He sat high on his perch in the mango tree, watching them fly wild and free, chirping busily, in and out of the reeds in the valley below. Hidden by leaves, he bit into the plump orange-red fruit and watched them weave their oval nests with the side porches at the tips of the reeds, safe from the snakes and rats. Sometimes in the nest, sometimes out, sometimes hanging upside down in a blur of fluttering wings.

When the nests were built, he waited just the right number of days before walking down to the reeds. The birds chattered in indignation and flew away. There was a deathly quiet. He bent a reed down towards him and looked inside the nest. Two blue eggs lay cushioned on the soft grass and down.

He continued his watch from his secret hiding place.

At the correct time, he went down to the reeds again. He bent his chosen reed and peered inside. Two chicks, unseeing, turned their heads towards him, entreating him with urgent cries to feed them, their mouths too big for the rest of their bodies. Their plumage was not as resplendent as he had expected; sparse brown feathers barely covered their pink skins. Still, more than anything in the world, he wanted to own them.

The next time, he came to the nest with two pieces of twine, each about half a metre long. He carefully tied each piece of string onto a leg of each bird, just above the tiny foot. He secured the other end to the reed. The mother would feed them, he thought, and then when they were soft and pretty, he would catch them, for they would not be able to fly away.

He saw the Red Bishops fly in and out of his chosen nest for another two weeks, then he went down to claim his prize.

Both strings hung out of the nest. One fledgling had flown away, leaving behind the vestige of a tiny amputated claw. The other hung upside down, dead. Grey-white maggots squirmed in a skeletal cage.

He stood there a moment. With the back of his hand, he wiped away the tears welling up in his eyes.

Many years have passed and the boy is now a man. He lives in a suburb with his wife and two teenage daughters. They all have an affinity for the great outdoors, especially bird watching. He is an active member of the Protect our Wild Birds Foundation.

He watches the doves and the sparrows visit the bird feeder in his garden. The quarrelsome mynahs visit too. And, on occasion, the raucous hadedas make an appearance.

But no Red Bishops grace his garden.

To see them, he must visit the reeds in the valley.

 

Raj M. Isaac is a South African with Indian roots. He is a retired educator, and his field of expertise is the teaching of English. He holds, amongst other qualifications, a bachelor’s degree with honours in literature and a master’s degree in education. He has written articles on aspects of education for journals and newspapers, but now mainly writes short stories and flash fiction. Isaac won the South African Writers’ Circle 2016 Annual Short Story Competition for his story “Lessons in xenophobia,” and has also received recognition for his short fiction “The cat,” “Nexus,” and “No free lunch.”

Polar Nights

It’s Monday at the top of the world. It’s morning, but the sun hasn’t risen in weeks. The elementary school where I teach is a fifteen-minute walk across the tundra and past the lagoon where Arctic swans glide during the brief summer season. In the fall, snowy owls fly overhead in the dusky morning hours hunting the swift aviŋŋaq who burrow and tunnel in the tundra grasses. But this morning, we are deep in the heart of winter. Wind buffets my parka and tears at my backpack as I stumble through uneven terrain. Lifting the goggles that protect my eyes from icy gusts, I squint into the darkness, searching the sky for familiar constellations or the phosphorescent river of the aurora borealis. I didn’t know what I was seeing the first time I saw the aurora. I was new to Alaska, running to my apartment through the night. Stopping at the door to find my key, I looked up and froze. A jagged green scar flickered atop the stars. The universe ripped apart, I thought, slow and shocked, gasping in the frigid cold. The next day, I discovered that what I had seen was the movement of charged particles flung from the sun, crashing into Earth’s atmosphere. This morning, like most mornings, clouds obscure the sky. No stars or particles shine through the thick coverage. I blink away the ice coating my eyelashes and shove the goggles back on my face, carefully tugging down my hat and pulling up my scarf. I have seen skin black with frostbite and take no chances. Arriving at school, I remember I should have scanned for polar bears.

I moved to Utqiaġvik, the northernmost community in Alaska, following a failed engagement and the miscarriage of an unwanted baby. My almost-husband and I met in a post-baccalaureate program in laidback North Carolina town, both working on our teaching credentials. In a required young adult literature class, we batted eyelashes across the table while discussing psychic wounds in To Kill a Mockingbird, conversations that carried over to coffee shops and porch swings. Later, he charmed me with a re-writing of William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say.” (I had no idea, then, all I’d be asked to forgive.) Those late summer days merged into fall, and he sparkled in the clear mountain light. We shared dreams of traveling, and Alaska was to be the first of many teaching adventures. With shiny, new teaching certifications in hand, we signed contracts to teach in a small Alaska Native village at the tip of St. Lawrence Island in the middle of the Bering Strait. Extensive searches on his computer revealed pictures posted by adventurous birders making pilgrimages to the island for bucket list Arctic birds. We researched winter gear and bought tickets that carried us north to Anchorage, then to Nome, the famous site of the Iditarod, before bringing us to Gambell, a subsistence community of a few hundred Siberian Yu’piks.

By the end of the school year, our relationship had collapsed under the weight of the pregnancy we never talked about, the stress of being new teachers, and the isolation inflicted by living thousands of miles from friends and family. We had promised to support each other, but that promise was too big.

As our nineteen-passenger turboprop bounced to a stop on the gravel runway, I panicked, hit by an unexpected wave of claustrophobia. What the hell have we done? I thought. We remained in our seats as the pilot unloaded sacks of mail and cases of soda for the local store. Finally disembarking I was struck first by the wind and then the expanse of gravel stretching to the crashing waves of the Bering Sea and the base of a mountain rising behind what I would soon learn was the village school. Our principal and her husband met us at the runway with their ATVs to ride us and our baggage to our apartment, furnished and generously subsidized by the school district. “We weren’t sure if you were getting off,” our principal said after introductions. “Some people don’t get off the plane?” I asked. “Yeah,” she laughed. “They take one look around and fly back to Nome.” That’s an option? my brain screamed. But I was committed. Committed to my job with a signed contract, committed financially by going into debt to finance the move to Alaska, and committed to my partner. Rather than flagging down the pilot and climbing back onboard the tiny aircraft I flew in on, I perched on the back of the ATV and rode in stunned silence to the old school building that had been converted into apartments for teacher housing. I remember wearing barefoot style shoes without socks and my feet froze in moments. It was early August, and the temperature hovered in the 40s.

Two weeks later, I discovered I was pregnant. I tracked my fertility by diligently taking early morning basal temperature readings. During the fertile periods of my cycle, identified by a subtle increase in temperature, we used condoms, but there had been a day before the trip we had chanced it. Now, an alarming spike in my readings soared off the graph paper used to monitor and chart each cycle. It’s because of the move, I told myself. More days passed, resulting in a missed period. Stress, I said. When we flew to Anchorage for an orientation for new teachers, I purchased two pregnancy tests. I didn’t need the second. The double pink lines were vivid, even brighter than the image on the front of the package. The claustrophobia I felt landing in Gambell rushed back with an urgent need to get the baby out of me. I suffocated in my own skin, fear tearing the breath from my throat. We scheduled an abortion for October, and knowing that I had to spend six weeks carrying a baby I didn’t want drove me to the internet where I read everything I could find about naturally inducing miscarriage and home abortions. Articles about toxic herbs and tiny vaginal vacuums filled my browser history. Stumbling across a few blog posts about high doses of vitamin C successfully preventing pregnancies from taking hold, I ordered pills so large that I had to take them with food in order to swallow them, and maybe it worked because the day we flew to Anchorage for the abortion, I miscarried the baby in the staff bathroom at our school.

By the end of the school year, our relationship had collapsed under the weight of the pregnancy we never talked about, the stress of being new teachers, and the isolation inflicted by living thousands of miles from friends and family. We had promised to support each other, but that promise was too big. We faltered. We stopped having sex, and my green-eyed, soft-lipped boyfriend began secretly fooling around with another teacher. When I found out, I met with my principal and sobbed in her office while she arranged for me to transfer to another village, an Iñupiaq village further north, for the following school year.

They held my broken heart together with their sticky hands. Weekends were a horror. I slept as much as I could, rising late, going to bed early, crying myself to sleep.

Not quite finished disappointing one another, we made the misguided decision to try again over the summer and even got engaged at the start of the next school year. We planned a wedding and made it through with a few well-timed visits, but the relationship felt hollow, forced. Our voices echoed in the emptiness of the miles between us. At the end of May, we flew to Anchorage from our separate homes to reconnect before continuing on to see our friends and family in the weeks preceding our June wedding. The second night of the trip we lay, not touching, on the polyester spread covering the bed in our Anchorage hotel room watching a Coen Brothers’ film. “There’s something I have to tell you,” he said. Tears soaked into his beard as confessed that he was in love with someone else. “I’ll still marry you,” he said, voice wavering and shoulder trembling. “No, you won’t,” I answered, dry-eyed. I moved to the second bed in the room and froze more swiftly, more solidly than had arctic winds gripped me. I can’t feel this now, I told myself, packing my heart in ice. Numbness got me to the airport and on a plane the following morning. Frozen wounds don’t heal. He married that other woman almost exactly one year later. On stronger days, I tell myself that I hope they’re happy.

I needed a fresh start, somewhere I could begin again anonymously. When offered a position teaching kindergarten on the North Slope, the northernmost school district in Alaska, I decided I’d go for one year to gather myself and plan the next step. Two years have passed, now, and I’m still here. There’s no mall or movie theater or bar. No mountains or trees interrupt the vast expanse of frozen tundra. Wifi and cell reception can be spotty, but my life moves in familiar rhythms set by the environment and my role as a classroom teacher. Despite the challenges of waiting weeks for packages sent via two-day shipping and living two months of the year in complete darkness and two months in perpetual light, it’s difficult to imagine leaving. Insulated by hundreds of miles of arctic tundra and polar ice, I am remote, I am isolated, and I am safe.

This year I looped with my kindergarten class to first grade. As kindergartners, they brushed my hair, kept track of my coffee cup, and made me endless of bowls of imaginary soup and plastic sandwiches.

“Is it vegetarian?” I’d ask my subsistence-living students as they handed me an empty plastic plate while I sat at the child-size table.

“Uh-huh,” they’d nod, smiling. “But soup’s very hot.”

They held my broken heart together with their sticky hands. Weekends were a horror. I slept as much as I could, rising late, going to bed early, crying myself to sleep. But the long hours of the weekend felt impossible to fill. My loneliness, my emptiness, my sorrow reflecting off the snow, off the sky, off the bare white walls of my apartment. Monday mornings were a gift.

“It’s Monday,” my fellow teachers would groan as we passed in the hallways.

“Yep,” I’d beam back at them, gratefully rescued from the abyss of the weekend.

This year, my students and I are in another wing of the school for first and second-grade students, and we’ve left the play kitchen behind for the new kindergarteners to use. We have moved to a new room with yellow cabinets instead of orange and a view of the outdoor playground instead of the parking lot. Our procedures and classroom routines have stayed the same, though. We focus on community and kindness and group work. We live in an Iñupiaq village, but we come from all over the world. In our class, we have students from Polynesia and Southeast Asia, as well as Alaska.

In our classroom, we take each other seriously. We gather each morning to discuss the daily schedule and share our thoughts about what excites us, what makes us cry, or whatever happens to be on our minds. One student is moving into a bigger house where he will have to sleep in his own bedroom. Another is newly living with her mother. When it’s my turn, I share my dream from the night before. Looking down at the multi-colored carpet, I say, “Last night I dreamed that my friend didn’t want to be my friend anymore.” Immediately, the squishy bodies on either side of me lean in, molding themselves against me. A boy on the opposite side of the circle looks at me with dark, steady eyes and answers, “We’re your friends.” I smile and say, “I know” because I do, and then it’s the next person’s turn to share. I rely on them too much, I know. But in this icy darkness, sadness gains too strong a foothold in my heart, and my students help to lessen it. I forget myself when I’m with them. Our days are full of fun and learning, and even if the world is dark, our classroom is bright. Even when my home is quiet, I know the classroom will be frothy with excited voices pushing back the darkness. One student is obsessed with Godzilla movies from the 1970s and shares facts with his table group, while another vividly describes a recent hunting trip. Zombies and the ongoing debate of heroes versus villains vie for space and choke out the spread of the pernicious whisperings of self-doubt and self-hate that linger in the shadowy places of my heart.

In our classroom, we gather around wounds. I provide bandages for paper cuts, scabbed knees, dry skin, bruises, and ingrown toenails. Even a sore throat. It can take nearly half the class for a bandage to be applied. The moment the injury is announced, six-year-old medics rush from all corners of the classroom to assess the damage.

“It bleed already,” one expert notes.

“I got one like that,” another nods.

Yet another early responder will rush to the desk drawer where the first aid supplies are kept and deftly rip open the package, releasing that comforting and sterile smell of latex and gauze. The injured party receives a chorus of ooohs and ahhhs while one or more students gently rub her back and the bandage is wrapped securely around the wound. Among us is a survivor of childhood cancer. His scars run from his knee to just beneath his hip. At their widest, they span over an inch of skin. The scars twist like gnarled vines over his knee cap and thigh, trailing delicately up to his pelvis. Eight metal pins hold his femur together. On days when his leg is sore, he, too, will steer his tiny, red wheelchair to my desk. Projecting a confidence I do not feel, I gently press the bit of latex and gauze to his skin and send him back to his book box stuffed with early readers that tell of bike rides, animals that live in ponds, and messy baby brothers.

It’s not the bandage so much as it is what it represents. I understand this more perfectly when one night I slip into a new friend’s apartment to celebrate my first published essay. We are strangers brought together by proximity. We toast to the future as we inch closer to one another on the overstuffed couch. Switching from wine to whiskey, I am drunkenly determined to shove an oversized ice cube into a half-pint mason jar when the glass shatters in my hand. Blood slides down my arm and shards fall to floor. I gather the fragments as she searches for the first aid kit. When she comes to me, I hold out my bloody hand. She gives me the bandage and walks away. The warm glow of the night turns cool. I could never love her, I realize.

During read-alouds, I sit in my chair on the classroom carpet and prop the book on my knee to share the words and pictures. Students press against me to idly touch the parts of me they can reach in that unconscious, free way that kids do. They trace the veins in my feet, rub their palms against the stubble on my legs, alternately pull off and push on my ballet flats. When I join them on the floor, they rest their heads on my shoulder, run their fingers through my hair, lean against my sides, or, if they’re very tired, curl up in my lap. It’s not uncommon for there to be spontaneous group hugs in the middle of a math lesson. They remind me that love doesn’t have to hurt.

Despite the darkness and freezing temperatures, the drum teaches my heart to beat again, deep and strong in my chest.

Friday afternoons drummers occasionally visit our school with their round wooden framed drums with the liver membrane of bowhead whales stretched across the frame. We walk down the hallway from our classroom to the gym in a jiggly line. Not everyone in our group will dance, but four or five students will bounce and stomp vigorously until the buses arrive to take them home. The drummers sit in folding chairs on the stage and the three Iñupiaq language teachers, women from the community, stand before us. Uvlulluataq, one greets us. Good afternoon. We do a mix of motion dances and fun dances. The motion dances have specific moves that I strive to imitate by watching our Iñupiaq teachers and my students, some of whom practice in local dance groups with their families. Fun dances don’t have specific movements, women and girls bounce and move one arm at a time in the air in front of their bodies. Men and boys stomp and whoop with their legs spread, knees bent, and arms stretched wide and strong, as if pulling back a bow and arrow.

Perhaps the first song will be “Tiŋŋun,” the airplane song. “Where will we fly to?” the Iñupaiq teachers call out. “Anchorage!” “Hawaii!” “The Philippines!” young voices cry back. The drummers splash water on the membranes covering their drum frames and set the rhythm, holding the drum in one hand and striking it with a long, thin stick held in the other. A sharper sound when the drummer strikes the wooden frame, a deeper heartbeat sound when they strike against the membrane pulled taut. Water droplets bounce to floor at the feet of the drummers.

They add their voices, and we begin. Together, we make the motions that tell the story of the song’s creator riding in an airplane for the first time. Looking out the windows as she flew through the air and her relief when the plane landed and she kneeled down and pressed her hands to the ground. The songs are short and are repeated twice, and I slowly improve with practice. I stand in a small cluster with my students and we smile and dance together. These motion dances tell stories of Iñupiaq culture. Some celebrate the return of the sun or tell the story of Mother Eagle and the coming of the new year, others celebrate religion or important moments in Iñupiaq history. During a cultural training for teachers, an elder explained that these dances pass along Iñupiaq culture, but also bring people together during the long winters. It’s true, I realize. Despite the darkness and freezing temperatures, the drum teaches my heart to beat again, deep and strong in my chest.

But this place is not my home. I may have eaten whale, but I’m a vegetarian. I may know some Native dances, but I will never be Iñupiaq. I can look at the tundra and the frozen ocean and feel awe, but I will never feel as enmeshed in the landscape as the people who have lived here for thousands of years. I attended a talk in which a local man smiled and sighed and said, “I love the smell of good ice.” No matter how many years I spend in the Arctic, that will never be me smiling and sighing and saying with my whole heart that I belong here, that I am of this place. I will never step from the plane and press my hands to the ground, so thankful to have returned.

 

Megan Donnelly is an MFA Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to moving to Pittsburgh, she lived and taught for six years in rural Alaskan communities. More of her work can be found at megandonnellywrites.com.

Poem in Which You Are the Church

Real boy the love I have made to you is unremarkable,
as it should be in a perfect world, impossible to tell
where you end and I begin.

Real boy I have recessed in your nation,
your looted land, pronounced it dead,
& closed the borders I once bled for.

Real boy I dream of fist un-flung,
forever boy, I have wept on your behalf,
I have wept for the rifle that fires flowers.

I have wept for your father, his secret sorrow
I have wept for your god locked in a bottle
I have wept for the ghost you never knew.

Real boy what do you call a wolf without teeth?
a wolf without fur, exiled by bigger wolves,
a wolf greater than the lack of his parts.

What do you call the boy refracted? His salted sea,
his rivers Jordan, John, and Luke
he who must be touched to be known.

What do you call a cancer by any other creed, that
which consumes the flesh, consumes the need,
what do you call a boy by any other name?

Real boy I have missed you every morning,
your funeral of a face, your
box of shattered pearls, your

mourning for the sake of
all real boys.
No house worships you, no house builds itself.

Real boy I have prayed for your forgiveness,
I have prayed to change you,
I have divided art from artist, divided

truth and nature,
I am bruised blue and pink,
my stomach soured by the fruits of your labor.

Real boy I have been the kindling,
the kerosene, I have been the underbrush,
the evergreen, I have been the root of your disdain,

your soiled seed, Real boy I have taken you
as Hades took Persephone, made you queen
for sake of starving, made

your mother ill with worry, brought
you to the edge of ruin.
Real boy

I have imagined you in the mirror,
I have imagined our bodies intermixed.
I have disguised you

for fear of reckoning, quieted you
for fear of possibility.
I have made you the object

of my unrest. Real boy,
the boy of my invention, the boy
with ten fingers and ten toes,

always I will be here,
stirring the same pot, wearing the
same shoes, missing the same people.

And you will be here, too
regretting nothing, not even
the hair you grew. Fantastic boy,

with your edgeless axe, your petty thunder;
I hold your breath anchor heavy in my arms
and let the burden bring us under.

 

C.J. Strauss is a transgender writer and artist currently pursuing their BA in English at Barnard College. Their art and writing has been published both internationally and domestically by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, The Claremont Review, Vade Mecum Magazine, GREYstone Youth Litmag, Echoes Literary Magazine, The Free Library of the Internet Void, RATROCK Magazine, and the Barnard Bulletin. C.J. presently interns at the Poetry Society of New York and the Visible Poetry Project where their responsibilities include social media management and community engagement. They tweet @cjsxyz.

Jeff Shotts, Editor

Photo by Michelle Allen Photography

On August 14th, I had the honor of interviewing Jeff Shotts, Executive Editor of Graywolf Press in Minneapolis, MN, by phone. A native of McPherson, Kansas, and graduate of Washington University’s MFA program, Shotts began his career as an editorial assistant before going on to edit poetry and nonfiction. After hearing his guest lecture during Antioch University Los Angeles’s summer residency, I was blown away, inspired, and I knew I wanted to talk more with him. During our interview, we discussed his journey through the literary world, the power of becoming a great literary citizen, how to prepare for rejection and acceptance, and the impact and necessity of international literature. Throughout our interview, I learned about the literary world from both the editing and publishing end, all from the kind, genuine, and authentic voice that is Jeff Shotts. He currently resides in Minneapolis, MN, with his family.

Barbara Fant: When did you fall in love with poetry and literature?

Jeff Shotts: Really early. I was always a reader and loved the sound and texture of words. More specifically, I must have been in middle school, maybe thirteen or fourteen, and my grandfather gave me a copy of Tennyson’s poetry. When I look back on that, it’s funny that in the swelter and oppression of central Kansas, that he would hand that sort of book to me. But there was something in it that I just loved and was ready to read, even that sort of Victorian high-power voice. There was something in its overblown majesty that spoke to me; I was taken with that. And like many, I was fortunate to have a wonderful English teacher in high school who introduced me to the history of poetry, how poetry works, what’s good and not good in a poem. That teacher, Carole Ferguson, was so wonderful to introduce us to contemporary voices; voices that sounded like us, and talked the way we were talking. Many of those voices were right there from Kansas, like William Stafford, and Langston Hughes, who grew up in the Topeka area, and Gwendolyn Brooks. So, there was an interesting Kansas strand that I could follow by the time I came to the Twin Cities. There’s such a rich literary and contemporary scene here, not just in poetry. It really helped open my eyes to the contemporary possibilities of literature. It was then that I met the local publishing scene too.

BF: How did you work your way into the publishing field?

 When I look back on that, it’s funny that in the swelter and oppression of central Kansas, that he would hand that sort of book to me… There was something in its overblown majesty that spoke to me. 

JS: I’ve been fortunate in a lot of ways, no question about that. I was always the guy who was working on the school newspaper and working on the school literary and art magazine in high school and college, and just always loved that. I always loved making something public and of course that’s the heart of publishing. So, it had always been in my stream or path and then in my senior year at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, I did a yearlong internship at a wonderful independent review magazine, Hungry Mind Review. They reviewed university presses, small independent nonprofit presses, as well as the larger commercial New York houses. Seeing all those catalogs coming in, everything from Random House and Simon & Schuster to the University of Minnesota, Wesleyan University Press, or Pittsburgh University Press, then of course Graywolf Press, and Coffee House Press, was a huge education for me, in terms of what publishers were doing at that time. This was obviously when people were looking more at print catalogs. You can do this much easier online now.

At that internship, I was so fortunate to do an informational interview with an editor that I really loved named Anne Czarniecki at Graywolf Press. I realized how many Graywolf books I had been reading. Like many people, I read the authors more than the publishing house. When I finally lined that up and realized, that pointed me in a direction. After graduation, I was fortunate enough to land an internship. In some ways, the rest is history. I was just in the right place at the right time. I always loved contemporary literature and poetry, and I think that’s what Graywolf was looking for at that time.

Poetry is such a significant part of our publishing landscape. I learned from being an assistant and an apprentice in 1996 with Fiona McCrae, who is still the director of Graywolf. With publishing and editing and publicity work and all the parts of publishing, you really learn by doing it. I learned by seeing the correspondence of other editors, how they operated, how they wrote rejection letters, how they edited a text, how they were sniffing out exciting new writing, and what magazines they were reading. I soaked all that in and tried to copy it as much as I could. I think it’s still very much like that, though. We say technology has changed the way we read and think about some of these things, yet I think people still respond to the line or the sentence or paragraph or whatever you’re looking at with the sense of human depth and endeavor.

BF: I’m interested in how you choose the books you choose for Graywolf.

JS: Yeah, that’s a big and ongoing question. We have evolved over forty-four years, so next year we are getting ready to celebrate Graywolf’s 45th anniversary. We’ve been on the map for awhile now. We work in a lot of different ways. There are five or six of us in the editorial department and we’re always looking; looking online, looking in print magazines, we’re meeting with magazine editors, visiting MFA programs like Antioch, and elsewhere. I’m going to Breadloaf tomorrow, going to AWP; we try to go where writers are. We try to create relationships with magazines and agents and writers. We’re inside a larger conversation, and that’s exciting.

That’s a part of acquiring work that I really love; listening to what writers are doing on the page and at readings, the way that they talk about what they’re writing about, subject matters that they’re approaching. We find our books by listening. But it’s obviously more than that. We also hope we have created a list of books that beckons to other writers, “Here’s a place for you” if you’re writing poetry or innovative novels. We want to stand as a strong example of a respectful and vibrant home for that kind of challenging writing. We want people to associate Graywolf with that and with a sense of social justice. I hope we communicate that through our books, website, catalog, one-on-one meetings with writers, talks at MFA programs, and through everything that we put out into the world that is meant to say, “Hey, this might be a home for you, keep us in mind, keep us in touch.” And I hope it challenges writers to think about things in less straightforward ways, in terms of literary artful ways of talking about the important topics of our time.

BF: What are some of similarities and differences of editing nonfiction and poetry?

JS: I love being an editor of nonfiction and I love being an editor of poetry. I love that I get to think about certain texts with the same sense of precision. What I mean by that is the nonfiction that we aspire to publish has the same challenging power of language that we associate with the poetry that we publish. And I think that in recent years, in particular, our poetry lists and our nonfiction lists are in communication with each other. I’m thinking of books like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, which is a poetry book, but it’s also an essay book; it’s its own invented genre in a way, but it is so interestingly navigating the lyric and the sense-making that very directly confronts something like race and microaggressions and visual artwork, and all the things that are going on in Claudia’s text. So as an editor, I don’t turn off my poetry editing to edit nonfiction and I don’t turn off my nonfiction when editing poetry. In a way, that’s what Graywolf looks for with our nonfiction prize: works that come at essay writing or nonfiction writing with an innovative structure or innovative language to get at what they’re talking about. I would say this for nonfiction and I would certainly say this for poetry: the voice and style with which those genres are made are just as important as the subject. I think within these last few years, with Claudia Rankine and Eula Biss and Maggie Nelson and Leslie Jamison, there is a real audience that is hungry for that kind of challenging writing and not just a straightforward telling. It’s something that really immerses us into a kind of thoughtful experience. It’s a different way that we read and think and learn. The power of those words seeps into your bones in a different way.

 That’s a part of acquiring work that I really love; listening to what writers are doing on the page and at readings… 

BF: When I started with Lunch Ticket, I was told that working on a literary journal makes you a better reader and ultimately a better writer. How has your editing influenced your writing and vice versa?

 JS: That’s a great question and thank you for asking it. It’s a question I don’t get very much. To get to the first part of your question, I think about my own MFA program. I had a wonderful experience at my MFA, which was at Washington University in St. Louis, and I was in the poetry program and I studied with Mary Jo Bang and Carl Phillips, who are just wonderful and very different teachers for me. It was hard for me to write for the workshop and to feel like I was on deadline, so to speak, and to have that work then talked about. I was the person around the workshop table who cowered a little when my poem was up for conversation, but I was also the person who loved talking about everyone else’s poem. And I think that told me a lot. I think I came out of my MFA a better editor than a better writer. It just showed me something that I needed to know about myself and that was hugely valuable. It made me realize that publishing and editing and list-building and all those things that we were talking about, is what was at my core.

Every once in a while, I will find myself jotting a little line or there’ll be something that pops up and I feel a creative urge to just fragment something, and that’s usually about where it stays. Most of the writing I’m doing now is reports on manuscripts, catalog copy, jacket copy, editorial letters to nonfiction writers and poets and translators. So for me, that editorial language comes from the same creative pool as the creation of my own poetry or essay writing. Some people are able to compartmentalize that, but I’m just not one of those people. It all comes from the same space. And the truth is, I have a family, I have two young boys, and it’s hard for me to imagine what it takes to be a writer, to look away from them and look at my own page; I can’t make that trade. So I guess I would rather be a present editor and a present parent, not necessarily in that order, rather than a present writer. So my own writing is fairly dormant, to be honest with you right now, but there’s always a porch light on.

BF: I read up on a few of your interviews and I noticed that the theme of “service” comes up often in terms of the author being in service to the book and the book being in service to the world. How do you define service? And what advice would you give some one who believes that they’re called to be in service to the literary world?

 JS: Wow, that’s a great question and I think it’s also at the heart of what writers and teachers can be and, I hope, what editors, publishers, and publicists can be. I think everyone has to answer this question for themselves in terms of what they’re in service to. And I think it’s okay if writers say, “You know, I’m in service to my own need to write.” That may sound selfish, but I really respect that and in some cases that’s what writers need to demand of themselves. It’s a very hard thing to look at your own page, to hear your own voice, and to hone it. So that said: I’m in service to the art, in service to the individual book, to the individual writer, and of course, I’m in service to Graywolf. I hope that what I am able to contribute is in service to particular people whose voices matter and can change us and can change me. And maybe that’s the selfish part of what I do. I want my imagination filled, I want to know more than I do, and I want to be changed by the writers that I’m working with or other writers that I’m reading. I want as many readers as possible to feel the same way. And I hope that also means that readers act in the world in a different way: more respectfully, more politically, more aware or astute, more able to see others for who they are and to challenge each other in those spaces.

I think that literature and art in general is such a great space for that conversation to happen. We live in a culture that needs more of that. I feel energized by serving that purpose. I don’t know if it’s a small or a large purpose, but it is what it is. I am so fortunate to be able to work with writers who share a sensibility of wanting their work to challenge people and get under their skin, and sometimes it can rise up and make a large-scale cultural shift. And I think Citizen has changed some of the ways that we have language around race, and that feels very powerful and important to me. I have learned so much from that. I think that’s where translators, for instance, are wonderful people who offer themselves to writers in various genres. They are doing such an amazing service to writers as they offer themselves to language and stories and poems that we are not hearing in this culture and in this language. That seems like a wonderful service, too. I really see small and independent presses, like Graywolf and obviously many others, that are a great enterprise in service to culture as a whole. Our main service is not a commercial one. Obviously, we want our books to do well, we want our writers to be paid and all those things, but that is not the first thing that we’re thinking about. We’re thinking about how these books can reach particular communities that need them.

 I think I came out of my MFA a better editor than a better writer. It just showed me something that I needed to know about myself and that was hugely valuable. 

BF: I know that Graywolf is devoted to diversity; what is your dream for the press and the larger literary world in the near future? How do you envision it?

JS: That is a wonderful question! One part is that I would really like to see American culture be awash in the serious literature of other cultures and languages because we’ve fallen short compared to other countries and what they’re publishing. There is very little global literature coming in or being translated. So one huge way of answering your question is more global cross-pollination and intersectionality across borders and cultures and languages. That’s one place the American publishing scene can grow and change and become more exciting. The more voices that come in, the more influence they have on English and the more they have influence on our own culture. That’s how our language literally changes. That’s exciting to me when you see the shifts in language; you see the changes in vocabulary or thinking. That feels very important. It’s one of the reasons why we try to do so many books from international writers, whether they are writing in English or not. We need more support for those books because they tend to be more expensive books to create. Sometimes those books need something extra, especially if the writers aren’t known or if there is a certain cultural resistance to their writing. Those are challenging books to do, but that’s our mission and our nonprofit status allows us to do them. It’s a thing that writers can do, too, whether it’s a shout out on social media, a review in the New Yorker that says, “Hey, pay attention to this. Here is this exciting book and wonderful book written in Mexico or Brazil, or wherever.” I think it’s a place where individual writers are often really good literary citizens. I see that a lot in author interviews, a sort of advocacy for writers who deserve a place in the literary world and are just not getting it.

BF: At Antioch you spoke about being a literary citizen and a good literary citizen. What did you mean by that?

JS: I think this is a question that everyone gets to answer for themselves. Being a good literary citizen means certainly putting your own work out there, as a writer that needs to be central. But alongside that, finding ways to amplify the voices of other people that you want to see in the world. And there’s lots of ways to do that. Whether that is something as simple as writing a blurb for a new writer, whether it’s introducing them to a magazine editor, or book editor, or agent. Whether that’s just standing as an example for young writers or new writers who need that example. You can never have enough examples. And so many writers are wonderful teachers or activists in the community. The act of writing can point us in all kinds of ways of interacting with our communities: locally, nationally, and globally. Finding ways to hold hands with one another rather than being in competition. Making time to lead each other, take each other into account, and argue with one another. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t always have to be friendly all the time, we don’t always have to agree. That means being shrewdly critical, whether it’s inside of literature or inside the publishing culture, or inside the conference culture or MFA culture. Calling those things out and being willing to have difficult conversations also feels like a citizenship and a kind of service to the art.

BF: In your lecture at Antioch you also talked about preparing to be accepted. How should one prepare to be accepted?

JS: When I talk to MFA programs or young writers, there’s such a focus on getting in the door. And I get that, because it’s hard and possibilities feel scarce. It can be easy for writers to stop there and not get to what’s on the other side. What happens when an editor says yes? Or a literary agent takes you? Or a magazine? Writers can prepare to be accepted by thinking very carefully about where they’re sending their work. The more thoughtful you are about it, or your agent is on your behalf, the more chances you have of being accepted. If you target your approach, your acceptance rate is always going to be better. That goes for magazines or online publications or book publications.

Also, writers can be surprised by the way editors and publishers talk about their writing. You’ve lived with something for a long time and sometimes very intimately and privately, but the moment it gets accepted and is inside a publishing house, that work is being talked about and promoted through catalog copy, blurbs, publisher’s websites. It can quickly feel far away from that intimate space that an author held so dear for so long. Editors and publicists have to write that copy. Those four or five sentences that are a description of your book, whether a novel or short stories, essays, or poetry, those become very, very important because they sort of follow the book around. They’re the catalog copy and that becomes the jacket copy and that becomes what’s on these online platforms and they calcify and all of a sudden they define your book. And of course, at Graywolf, we write these things alongside you. It is a space of collaboration.

But I think one thing to anticipate is that when writers start to submit work, graph your own copy. I would never say do this while you’re composing or creating your work, but when you have a sense of it: what would you want on the back of your book that would encapsulate your work in a way that would be enticing to the reader, but also very assured to your original vision? It’s very hard to do. We all have to read that marketing language that falls into a set of clichés, so how do you escape that? And I think that it’s an interesting challenge for a writer to do that, and it also prepares you to have that conversation with the publishing agency. It will always make the author feel a strong presence inside that way. No one can talk about a book as well as the author, no one. Obviously, a publisher is going to work with you in various ways to hone that and get that right, but that’s one specific thing an author can do to help anticipate a yes.

BF: The literary world seems to be getting younger, especially the poetry field. What would you say to the writer who feels that they’re too late or they haven’t taken advantage of the right opportunities to pursue their writing career?

JS: Don’t give up. Don’t think that. The life of art is long, I hope. And I’m inspired just as much by those writers who come to publishing much later in their lives, and those writers come to their second and third published books with such a different voice and experience, and I’m an editor who loves that. I’m thinking of Mary Jo Bang (my teacher) who we published at Graywolf, who had done many things in her life before she became a published and more well-respected poet. I would say the same about Diane Seuss, and her last book Four-legged Girl was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize, and she came to publish much later in her life. In seeing writers like that getting strong attention, getting reviews, publicity, and spotlight, I find that very inspiring. So I think you don’t have to look very hard to find examples of those who came into their publishing lives later. That doesn’t mean that they came into their artistic lives later. They probably have been writing their whole lives or decades before they started publishing. Publishers are working hard to get these different voices, more established writers, attention. It happens, but it happens in a pathway that might not be expected. The best things that sells books is word of mouth, being out there and being a great reader and performer of your work. Being a great literary citizen in the way we’ve talked about, these are ways that all readers can participate in, and many do. Fear not.

 

Barbara Fant has been writing and performing for twelve years. She has represented Columbus, OH, in nine National Poetry Slam competitions and placed eigth out of ninety-six poets in the 2017 Women of the World Poetry Slam. She is featured in the Greater Columbus Arts Council’s Columbus Makes Art Campaign and Columbus Alive named her in their 2017 People to Watch. She is a TEDx speaker, an author of three poetry collections, and has been commissioned by over ten organizations. She holds a BA in literature and a Masters in theology. Currently, she is pursuing her MFA in poetry at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she also served as co-lead poetry editor on Lunch Ticket. She works at The Columbus Foundation and teaches poetry at Transit Arts. Barbara believes in the transformative power of art and considers poetry her ministry.

 

The Players

[fiction]

Feed

“#DrunkAsFuckGirl”

DAF!!! LMAO!

idk how i feel about what’s going on, but you should of not drank so much…

ur last night on earth wuz a good one. way to go down! DAF!!!

we should of charged that bitch extra!

some people just deserve to have dicks rubbed on their face. LOL!!!

dont wanna be THAT girl tomorrow morning…

how do you brush a giant wad of cum out of your hair? ask the new girl… ROTFL!

who is this drunk bitch on the floor? Is that HER pee? I dont think so…

Drunk Sluts are the BEST!!!!!!!!!!!!!

im sorry, theres NO WAY you sleep through getting stuffed in the butt. hard to wake a DRUNKASFUCK girl I guess!!!

i have no sympathy for whores.

does anyone even know her name?

*     *     *

Player # 82: Lineman

“He/Him, She/Her”

I know what it feels like to be the new kid in school. I was the new kid in school once, but that was way back in eighth grade. I was a fat kid and that’s never good in general, but it’s really bad when you’re in middle school, and it’s really, really bad when you’re in a middle school where you don’t even know anybody.

It took me one day to become famous in this town. It’s not hard in a town like this. Place is so fuckin’ small and nothing ever happens here, so if you have a bad day and someone’s busting your balls about being a fat kid and you smash his face in with your elbow so that blood sprays all over the place—and I mean all over the place, all over our shirts and faces and the desks—then you become famous pretty quick. Some of the girls were screaming because it was such a mess in there. I was sent to the principal’s office. I heard later that they had to get the class out of the room so the janitors could clean up all the blood everywhere. That kind of scene is hard to forget, sticks with people, so like I said, I became famous pretty quick.

After busting that kid’s face open, he left me alone. That was the good part. The bad part is that I kind of got this reputation for being a real tough guy. Funny thing is, I’m not. I mean, I’m big and everything—I’m six feet tall and I weigh a lot and I’m on the football team and all that—but I actually felt pretty shitty after I elbowed that kid. I almost started crying on my way to the principal’s office, and it wasn’t because I knew I was going to get in trouble—and believe me, I got in a lot of fucking trouble for that—it was because I was really mad at that prick for making me feel like shit about myself. The last thing I wanted to do was break the kid’s nose—I just wanted to shut him the fuck up. It worked and everything, breaking that kid’s nose, but it didn’t make me feel any better about getting teased for being fat.

After getting with those two guys, I don’t know, it all just got easier to give in to more and more guys. No use fighting it—one way or another, they’ll make you feel like it was all your idea…

When I came back after suspension, though, a weird thing happened: I was a king around school. Busting that kid’s nose was like the best thing for making friends because, after that, I got all kinds of invitations to do things, like go to other dudes’ houses and sit with them during the basketball games, all from guys I still hang out with now. But that elbow to the face became a running joke. It was like, Don’t fuck with HIM or he’ll bust your face up with his elbow, and suddenly, forever, I’m HIM, the big kid who busts people up with his elbow, even though I haven’t done anything like that since seventh grade. Not even close.

The problem is that it’s a level of respect that’s hard to get from guys you go to school with and you can’t be like, “OK, guys, let’s stop with the breaking noses stuff,” because then you’re a pussy, and it’s way better to be the guy who breaks noses than it is to be a pussy. At least when you’re in high school. And because I’m big and on the football team, people just assume all kinds of things about me that aren’t true.

Like, they assume that I was part of what happened after the party that night just because I’m friends with those guys. Well, I wasn’t a part of it. I might’ve busted some kid’s face open for calling me fat in the eighth grade, sure, but I don’t do mean shit to girls and I don’t think it’s cool to do mean shit to girls.

Except, you wouldn’t know it from the way I acted that night. I was in the pictures a bunch of people took with their cell phones, holding a beer in one hand and doing stupid shit, like giving the thumbs up or pumping my fist with my other hand, like I was celebrating something really awesome while this girl is laying there passed out in the background, arms and legs all twisted up like a rag doll, missing half her clothes.

I see those pictures and I think about how she went from being the new kid in school to everybody talking about her over a weekend. Because of this thing that happened, she’s not a person anymore—she’s just this story everybody is telling about her and the story is everywhere. You say “she” and “her” and everybody knows exactly who you’re talking about. And because of those pictures, everybody’s talking about me and my friends, too. I didn’t do anything to the girl, but I’m the shithead in the background, laughing, drinking, and pumping his fist.

I would like to think that I wouldn’t have acted like that if I hadn’t been so wasted, but even that doesn’t make me feel any better, just like busting that kid’s nose didn’t make me feel any better in seventh grade.

I don’t even remember his name.

*     *     *

The Slutty Girl

“The Wide Receiver”

Last summer, the football players made a list. It included all the girls from the soccer team. We were all given really sexual names. Wanna know what my name was? “The Wide Receiver.” They call me that because, basically, I’ve hooked up with a lot of guys. It’s not a big deal, really—no one takes that sorta stuff seriously anymore.

At least not if you’re a guy.

If you’re a guy, you can hook up with as many girls as you want. The more the better. If you’re a girl, though, it’s not the same. You’re not supposed to hook up with a lot of guys. But if you don’t, then you’re a cock tease for giving guys blue balls. Guys hate blue balls.

Kinda funny, but they named one of the girls “Blue Balls,” too.

I guess I’d rather be The Wide Receiver than Blue Balls. I’d rather be the girl who gets guys off than the girl who gets guys mad. I’ve gotten guys mad before.

There were two guys in particular. And when they get mad at you like that, you don’t know what to do. Giving in is just sorta easier because it’s not like you can push ’em off you or bite down really hard, even if you think pushing off or biting down would make them stop doing what they’re doing.

After getting with those two guys, I don’t know, it all just got easier to give in to more and more guys. No use fighting it—one way or another, they’ll make you feel like it was all your idea, to the point that you’re not even sure they’re wrong, to the point that you’re not even sure you hadn’t put the idea in their heads in the first place.

And then there you are, right in the middle of it, all confused and so fucking awkward. Too late to stop at the moment but far enough along that you might as well just get through the whole pathetic scene of it: him, humping away, making all those awful noises and spastic movements; you, scrunching up your face and trying not to move too much, just waiting for the guy to finish.

At least when they’re done, they’re not so fucking mad anymore.

*     *     *

The Girl in English Class

“The List”

I wasn’t one of the girls on the girls’ soccer team, on The List the football players made. I guess I’m not pretty enough or don’t have big enough boobs or whatever for that kind of attention.

Mostly people tell me I’m the kind of girl you marry, or the kind of girl guys want to be best friends with. I’m not sure what that means, but my guy friends tell me that’s some sort of compliment—it’s a compliment not to be hot. They say I don’t give off the kind of vibe that would make guys think they’d have a chance with me. I don’t know what that means, either, because I’m not stuck up and I like to go out on dates and get dressed up or whatever, but I guess I’m supposed to be relieved that I wasn’t on The List.

Two summers ago, in the weeks before classes started, the football players all came for the summer doubles, the practices that happen twice a day until the start of the season. They were waiting for a thunderstorm to pass one afternoon, so they all went to the locker room and wrote up this list of “positions” for the girls on the soccer team. I guess they thought they were being clever or something by assigning different sexual positions to each of the girls they wanted to get with. And after each of the names, they talked about what the name meant, as if it weren’t already clear.

You’d think the teachers, one of them at least, would cut the girl some slack or, I don’t know, try to talk to her. But they didn’t.

One of the girls they called “The Wide Receiver” because, to use their words, “There’s not a wide hole she wouldn’t receive you with.” I thought it was pretty disgusting that they would say that about her. About anyone, really. She’s got a pretty well-known reputation for being a slut. I feel bad for her. I don’t know if that’s how I should feel about her, but I can’t help it because it doesn’t seem fair. If a guy gets with a lot of girls, he’s a hero, he gets praise from his friends—getting girls is like something for him to brag to his friends about. But it’s not the same for girls. If a girl does something with a guy and the details get out—and let’s face it, guys talk about this kind of stuff all the time, whether what they say is true or not—she’s supposed to be ashamed or embarrassed. I’m not sure why it works like that—I only know that it does.

The weirdest part of the whole thing was that the team didn’t even really get in trouble. I mean, The List was photocopied and left scattered all over the hallways, so everyone—and I mean everyone—saw it, even our teachers, not that any of them would talk about it. The school made this half-assed attempt to address the “behavioral concerns” by sending a letter home to our parents explaining the incident and assuring them that “appropriate measures” would be taken. No one knows what those “measures” were, which most likely means nothing happened at all.

Well, one thing happened: one of the girls ended up in the hospital for cutting herself. They called this girl “The Full Back” because, to use the boys’ words, “She has the kind of ass they want to back up into them.” Her parents pulled her out of school the next day. It was after that that the administration sent the letter home. Last I heard, she’s at a private school, three towns over. She plays soccer there now.

The story landed on the news and everything, but, just a few weeks later, the whole thing just blew over. That’s the way things go around here, and before we know it, that’s what’s going to happen with this story too. It’s a big deal right now, what happened to the new girl, but soon no one’ll even remember what happened and we’ll all be on to the next thing, whatever it is. I know this because there have already been attempts to sweep this under the rug to protect the football coach or the boys in trouble.

People around town are already acting like the whole thing’s been blown out of proportion. I overheard two men talking in the grocery store saying how “it’s such a shame” that this one incident is going to follow these two boys their whole lives, and how it’s going to “ruin their chances” at a scholarship and a football career, and how “they’re only boys doing what boys do,” and that “they’re young” and “don’t know any better…”

That’s what a lot of people around here are saying.

And when The List came out, it was the same thing. I remember hearing kids at school be like, Oh, that’s just guy talk, or, Oh, that’s the kind of things guys that age do. Even the girls’ soccer coach said things like, you know, Boys are stupid at this age and they’re just being boys. I’m not sure he knew what to say, but he could have done better than that because it didn’t make any of us feel any better about the whole thing. He did his best to have the football team shut down for the season, though. I’ll give him that.

He started a petition and everything, and though I can’t prove this, I’m pretty sure he’s the reason the story got onto the local news. I think he was hoping for some support from the people who live around here, but the football coach just rode the whole thing out and now no one’s talking about The List anymore. Coach is old as the town itself, and so many people in this town love him and his winning record that I’m pretty sure him and his boys could get away with anything. The girls’ soccer coach was only in his second season. He resigned at the end of the year.

I don’t know how true that is, though. The whole thing seemed pretty sketchy, him leaving at the end of the year like that, especially with a winning record of his own. But it’s not like we could ask anybody about it. Adults don’t really tell us the truth about anything—they don’t think we know how to handle things, so, instead, they just lie or pretend like nothing is happening until they think we’ve moved on. Most of the time, riding it out doesn’t work—I don’t know why adults don’t get that.

The day or two leading up to “The Full Back” hurting herself, I remember her getting kicked out of class for refusing to participate in the discussion. She wasn’t rude or anything, but the teacher threw her out anyway. The teacher asked her some stupid question about The Scarlet Letter and the girl just looked at her. When the teacher asked her the question again, she shrugged her shoulders and played with the wire spirals in her notebook. That pissed the teacher off pretty good and before we knew it, the girl was gathering her stuff to leave.

You’d think the teachers, one of them at least, would cut the girl some slack or, I don’t know, try to talk to her. But they didn’t. And it’s not like they didn’t know what the football players wrote about her. Wearing baggy sweatpants and refusing to participate in class—I guess those weren’t big enough things for people to notice. But cut yourself up in the girls’ bathroom on the second floor and that will get some attention.

I’m ashamed to admit it now, but, up until “The Full Back” cut her arms up with a razorblade, I felt pretty shitty that I wasn’t on that list. It’s one of those things: if you’re on The List, you feel like shit, and if you’re not on The List, you feel like shit. I’m not sure why it works like that—I only know that it does.

*     *     *

Lineman

“Quinn and the Kitten”

Now that the pictures are all getting out, pretty much everyone who was there that night is in trouble. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t do anything because what a lot of people are saying is that if you were there, you were a part of the whole thing, whether you did anything to that girl or not. And I want to be clear that I didn’t do anything.

Well, I laughed. Is that bad?

Is laughing the same as doing something?

It’s hard to know in these situations. I’ve been in them before.

It’s not exactly the same thing, but before I moved to this town, I watched one of my friends shoot another friend in the head. He killed him. I was there and I saw the whole fucked up thing of it, but just like this party, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t pick the fight that started the whole thing and I certainly didn’t pull the trigger. Fuck, I didn’t even want to see the gun in the first place. Things just got way out of hand so fast.

Adults don’t really tell us the truth about anything—they don’t think we know how to handle things, so instead, they just lie or pretend like nothing is happening until they think we’ve moved on.

It started out pretty simple enough. It was after school one day, we’d just started seventh grade, and Quinn—that was the kid’s name—Quinn told us he had a gun. Well, actually, Quinn’s grandfather had a gun, but Quinn knew it wasn’t locked. He just wanted to show us, that was all. I wasn’t dying to see it or anything—if I’m being honest, guns scare me.

I didn’t play it like that, obviously. You can’t let shit like that out with your guy friends, even at that age. And the need to prove you’re tough only gets to be more and more important as you get older. It’s like this unwritten rule that all guys know starting from really young. We don’t talk about it, but it’s there. And you’re fucking dead if you even think about talking about things like being scared. You can’t be sad, either. It’s all gotta come off as pissed because being pissed, that’s a feeling guys understand.

Sometimes I think it’s the only feeling guys understand.

But Scotty? He didn’t play it right—he let on that he was scared. He tried saying things like, “C’mon, Quinn, we shouldn’t be up here,” and like, “Your grandfather’s gonna be pissed if we’re in here.”

See? Pissed.

And that was, like, all Quinn needed. His whole attitude towards Scotty changed and he was saying shit to embarrass him, even looking to me for approval. I didn’t say anything, but I was laughing. “Oh, you bein’ a pussy, Scotty? A fuckin’ pussy. It’s not even loaded, you little bitch.” Guys hate to be called names like that. I don’t think there’s anything worse. Faggot, maybe. So guys’ll do just about anything to prove that they’re not faggots and pussies, that we’re all men, real men.

And there was Quinn, kinda shoving Scotty on the shoulder every time he called him a pussy or a faggot. It was like Quinn wanted him to feel the words every time he said them: Faggot. Pussy. Homo. Bitch. It started to get pretty intense after like a minute or two of that. I can’t say how long it went on for—felt like fucking forever. Quinn was antagonizing Scotty enough that I could see Scotty start to turn red and breathe heavy through his nose. He might have been trying not to cry because forget it if you fucking cry in front of your boys. They’ll never let you live that shit down.

I mean, friends are really important, but sometimes, I felt like they weren’t good for me. Like, they push me to do shit that I wouldn’t do, and afterwards, I don’t know why I did what I did, only that I have to, like, deal with the fact that I did it. Quinn was one of those kids—he pushed me to do all sorts of things—and I could see that he was pushing Scotty pretty hard. I kinda expected Scotty to lose his shit on Quinn.

I saw that happen once, too.

It was like a year before I came to this school, so we were young, like ten or eleven, maybe. Me, Quinn, and Scotty were walking to the park to shoot some hoops. Quinn was dribbling the basketball when we came upon this little kitten. It was probably one from this crazy cat lady who lived down the street from another kid we knew. She had all kinds of cats just running around the streets of our town and new kittens showed up all the time. Quinn saw one—couldn’t have been more than a week old, it was so small—and he bent down and made a sweet noise. He held out his hand for her to come over to him, which she did. Scotty and me bent down to pet her and try to play with her too.

Then Quinn did the kind of thing Quinn used to do: he stood up real fast, brought the basketball over his head and slammed it down on her tiny skull. Blood and guts shot out onto our knees and sneakers. The kitten let out this awful noise. It was fucking disgusting.

Scotty stood up and screamed, blood all over his hands, trying to beat the shit out of Quinn. I remember Quinn laughing, running in circles around me, trying to deflect Scotty with the bloody basketball.

I just sort of stood there.

When the two of them were tired out from running, they were hunched over, hands on their knees, trying to catch their breath. Scotty looked at Quinn and said, “You’re so fucked up,” then snatched the ball from under Quinn’s left foot and punted it down the street. Quinn walked after it. Me and Scotty walked in the other direction.

We didn’t talk the whole way home because, like, what do you say after something like that? I remember thinking that Scotty looked as shitty as I felt: he was sweaty and dirty, covered in kitten guts and blood, and crying. I didn’t let on that I was upset too—and looking back, I kinda wish I did—but when I got to my room, I cried.

I cried hard.

Cried like a bitch.

I never told anyone about that.

The day that Quinn killed the cat felt weirdly like a warning of what happened the day Scotty shot Quinn in the head: the two of us standing there, breathing heavy, covered in some other body’s blood and guts, crying. It all happened as fast as Quinn and that basketball, Scotty just fucking snapped and grabbed the gun from Quinn’s hand, aimed and pulled the trigger of a gun that wasn’t supposed to be loaded. Turns out Quinn’s grandfather had a terminal disease and his gun was part of some plan to off himself.

I read once that’s how boys kill themselves most often, gun to the head, a sure thing. Girls do things like take a bunch of sleeping pills or drink mouthwash and then, like, text their friends to tell them about it right after, so they always get saved. It’s like they don’t really want to do it, but they want people to know they do. Guys? Guys are just the opposite—they’d rather die before being saved. Guys will pretend everything is fine and then, one day, the school has to contact everyone’s parents to tell them about the tragedy.

It was shortly after Scotty’s suicide—by hanging; Scotty’s grandfather didn’t have a gun—that I came here, to this shitty little town. My parents were worried that I might do something to myself because I always seemed to be mixed up in things, like Quinn and the kitten, and then later, Scotty and Quinn.

And now the thing with that girl. Not involved directly, but always there, somehow, never knowing what to do.

I wonder why that is.

 

Lauren Marie Schmidt is the author of three previous collections of poetry: Two Black Eyes and a Patch of Hair MissingThe Voodoo Doll Parade, selected for the Main Street Rag Author’s Choice Chapbook Series; and Psalms of The Dining Room, a sequence of poems about her volunteer experience at a soup kitchen in Eugene, Oregon. Schmidt’s fourth collection, Filthy Labors, a series of poems about her work at a transitional housing program for unwed mothers, was published by Northwestern University Press/Curbstone Press in 2017. She is currently at work on a young adult novel. The Players, as published in Lunch Ticket, is comprised of non-consecutive chapters in a larger work-in-progresswww.laurenmarieschmidt.com

Can You Remove Your Necklace During Work Hours?

And the first words out of my mouth
do not buck into a shield, do not blast his ears
with refusal, not never, in my quiet defense
something un-proud: it’s not even Muslim,
as I convert that s to a z, and twist, twist my hair
all of it uncovered for his ease and a reminder,
it’s Persian, not Islamic, so uncommon
it is untraceable; I hook my fingers around the plate,
make a roof with my palm and cover it, I designed it,
I explain, release the rose-gold letters so they swing
and impress a thud against my neck; I cannot
even get a nail grip on the clasp, I laugh, at the self
so quick to condemn, to chant in blocked streets,
recite the outrage of my signs until here, this interview,
where the question is asked in the politest tone,
so courtly and elegant, that I deliver a fumbling excuse
instead of no, and each time an image of my parents,
tracing my mother in the hospital bed, pressing it—
now a precious metal heated and cooled—to her firstborn,
and I jump down her throat and pull and pull and pull
everything, my name, out of her postnatal breath

 

Mehrnoosh Torbatnejad is the daughter of Irooni immigrants, a worshipper of space and hyacinths, and an Oscar the Grouch apologist. Her poetry has appeared in Asian American Writers’ Workshop, The Missing Slate, and is forthcoming in Waxwing. She is the poetry editor for Noble / Gas Qtrly, is a Best of the Net poet, Pushchart Prize, and Best New Poets nominee. She lives in New York where she practices matrimonial law.

Butterfly

[fiction]

How do I explain the butterfly if I don’t explain the heat?

My sister and I were walking to the corner store to buy snacks with money from my grandma, who was dying. She had been dying for as long as I could remember though, so it didn’t really bother me. What did bother me was getting dragged to India for my entire summer vacation, just so my mom could feel guilty about abandoning my grandma and vaguely threaten to move us all to India forever.

Chennai was so hot that most days my sister and I stayed inside, picking fights and eating too much until it was finally nighttime. We spent our days waiting for the chance to lay down, blasting the frigid AC, and watching the streetlights through the ornate prison bars on every window. It was the type of heat that turned stray dogs into rabid beasts, and parents into monsters.

At the store, we stared at the aisles, the currency weird and the snacks weirder. In turn, the cashier stared at our shorts and bright tank tops, our ungreased hair and broken Tamil. We were brown in a country of brown people, and she still stared. She thanked me in English and waved goodbye.

We were walking back home when on the side of the road, I saw a flash of something black and electric blue. Perfectly preserved and perfectly dead, the butterfly stuck out amongst the piles of garbage, glinting enticingly. Crouching, my sister pinched the butterfly and shoved it into her pocket. Her knees brushed against layers of garbage, and she got up, sickeningly unaware.

When we got home, my grandma was watching the news and my mom was asleep. My sister pulled the lovely black/blue butterfly out of her pocket, now crumpled and mangled. It was unholy, like she had brought it to life just to kill it a second time. I scooped it out of the trash, and waited until nighttime. Cradling the butterfly’s broken body, I carefully pushed it through those prison bars and watched it fall back to the concrete ground. The air smelled like manure, sweet and pungent and velvety. In her sleep, my grandma groaned.

 

Sanjana Raghavan is a student at George Mason University and lives in Fairfax, Virginia. When she isn’t writing or camping out at the library, she enjoys chasing down random dogs on the street, and going to yoga to nap on the mat (and so she can tell people she went to yoga today).

In the Yard

Ahsan opened the sliding glass door and stepped out. He inhaled deeply and broke into a cough. The air was thick, murky and filled with an unrelenting stink—as if a gang of motorcyclists had fired up their engines and aimed into the yard. Ahsan covered his mouth and walked out farther. His mother had explicitly instructed him to play in his room with the air filter on. He tried to keep himself busy but none of it felt right. He needed the wickets.

Roobi had gone into her bedroom to take a short nap but had fallen into a deep sleep. The conversation from the night before continued to circulate in her head.

Someone did this, Layth said over dinner, his words filled with spit. The guy was a religious fanatic and all the neighbors knew it.

Roobi didn’t respond. If it wasn’t this, it was some other gripe about work or neighbors or parents.

Some guy, pale as the white sand, lights a fire leaving half of the state to burn and all they call him is an arsonist. A goddamn arsonist.

All night, you’ve been complaining about the fire as if it’s the end of the world and now you’re acting like it’s nothing.

Roobi shushed him.

Goddamn, Ahsan repeated and laughed.

Don’t use that word, Layth said in a scolding tone.

Ahsan’s face dropped. Roobi glared at her husband. His harshness had grown since they’d moved to the Villa compound. They had left their life in the city for Ahsan. Their crew of friends—rising editors, media-makers, producers—were all about outdoing each other with their weddings, home purchases and now their children. But with Ahsan, Roobi suddenly didn’t fit in. She found herself shutting down when they talked about how quickly their children were walking, swimming, or riding horses. The schools and the doctors pushed Roobi to put Ahsan on an alphabet of drugs but she resisted. She found a special program near the Villa compound. She realized Layth had acquiesced to the move but not fully agreed.

Can I see the red balls of fire? Ahsan asked.

No, Ahsan. It’s not something to see, Roobi responded.

But what about storm tornadoes?

It’s not here, she said.

Then where? he whined.

Just finish your food, Roobi said curtly, then regretted her tone.

Back in the bedroom, Layth continued to complain. I’m sure they’re going to cancel our fire insurance. Why wasn’t this in the brochure when they sold us the perfect community—prone to fire damage.

We should leave, Roobi said.

What do you mean?

Evacuate. We could rent a place back in the city for a week or two.

They’ll tell us when to go. The river protects us. Plus, the weather is cooling down.

I’m surprised you’re not jumping at the opportunity to move back to the city, she said.

What about Ahsan’s school?

Roobi felt her anger rise up. All night, you’ve been complaining about the fire as if it’s the end of the world and now you’re acting like it’s nothing.

Layth didn’t respond. He was in bed and on his phone. Roobi left the room and sat at the kitchen table. She pulled out her laptop and searched for short-term rentals. The next morning, she and Layth barely spoke. He left for work even though it was a Saturday and she spent the morning with Ahsan. By mid-afternoon, she was exhausted. She instructed Ahsan to stay indoors and went to her room.

Roobi felt a jolt. She thought someone was shaking her but then heard her phone go off. She reached over and saw dozens of messages—a mix of alerts, and missed calls and texts from Layth.

The wickets were lying flat on the ground. Ahsan picked them up and stuck them into the dirt. When they’d gone to Pakistan the year before, he’d seen the kids playing cricket in the streets and wanted to join. His father told him he couldn’t and Ahsan was devastated. Later that day, Layth came home with a cricket set. The bat was too heavy so they created their own version. They set up the wickets in the grass and Ahsan threw a football until they fell down. When they got back home, his father played with him every weekend. As the year passed, Layth made excuses and soon, Ahsan was playing on his own.

Roobi felt a jolt. She thought someone was shaking her but then heard her phone go off. She reached over and saw dozens of messages—a mix of alerts, and missed calls and texts from Layth. Leave, leave now, get out, run. The winds had shifted, the fire had taken a turn, jumped the river and was heading towards them.

Still disoriented, she felt a stillness in the house. Then she realized, she couldn’t hear Ahsan. She called out his name, running from room to room. She looked out the back window and saw red storm clouds rising across the horizon. Down below, she saw her son.

Ahsan threw the ball and the last wicket went down. Now, his day would be okay. He looked up at the sky. It was bursting bright crimson, as if the sun had descended down on earth. Ahsan was mesmerized, he was finally seeing the fire tornadoes. Then, what was cities away was right on top of him. He heard his mother scream and felt her grab his arm, and they were running.

 

Saba Waheed won the 2016 Water~Stone Prize in Fiction and was a finalist for the 2018 Reynold Price Fiction Award. Her work has appeared in The Southeast Review, Hyphen Magazine, Cosmonaut Avenue (fiction prize shortlist 2016), and others. She co-produces the radio show “Re:Work,” winner of a Gracies by the Alliance for Women in Media. Saba works as the research director at the UCLA Labor Center using research as a tool to elevate community stories.

Khadijah Queen, Author, Poet

Photo Credit: Michael Teak

Khadijah Queen (to remix two very famous quotes by Walt Whitman and Lionel Blue) contains multitudes like everybody else, only more so.

In one sense, the scope of her work is so radically diverse in form and genre that it’s difficult imagining all of it coming from one author. Queen describes a literary life that involves reading through a bookstore alphabetically at an early age. It makes sense that an artist with that level of drive and curiosity would explore as many different forms as possible.

But in another sense, it also applies to her personhood and the many valences and roles that Queen lives out through her real life.

Her latest book, I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men and What I Had On, contains a multitude of clothing outfit descriptions and the anecdotes the speaker experiences while in them. Each poem explores the internal engines hinted at by very external details and interactions. The book blooms into an outside-in interrogation of the male gaze and power dynamics at large, a focus and critique that has remained evergreen in our still-patriarchal society. Her poems are also full of humorous stories, recorded banter, and the animated energy of a flood of memory.

She is wise, as eager to laugh as to go deep into theory or historical issues, committed to justice and, with a dedicated but almost casual air, she redefines and challenges what is possible for herself and by extension all of us.

*     *     *

Jordan Nakamura: Hi! First of all, I know I speak for so many of us when I say we are so excited and honored to have you as a faculty at Antioch. Welcome back! And congratulations on your beautiful book.

Khadijah Queen: Thank you.

JN: I thought I’d ask you about I’m So Fine first. In addition to detailing these amazingly vivid and often nostalgic outfits, we get to hear what the speaker has read (Sula, The Salt Eaters, The Autobiography of Malcolm X), almost like “what I had on” includes “what I had on my mind.”

KQ: I love that! I hadn’t even thought of that, but I’ll take it!

JN: Done! It was your idea all along! So, it’s clear that books were on your mind, and I’m curious as to when your writing life started. When did you decide you wanted to be a poet?

KQ: That’s a good way to put it, “decide.” I started writing at a young age and reading at a young age. My dad taught me to read when I was like three, and would read me the newspaper. I don’t remember not reading. We always had books around, and somebody was always reading something regardless of whether or not they went to college.

My grandmother’s living room had one side with a tv and the rest of the walls were all books, and she didn’t finish high school. It was just a part of my life growing up.

So I was writing poetry in high school and I was writing in the [military] service. I still have some of those really bad poems…

JN: [laughs] I’m sure we all do.

KQ: Really bad! But I didn’t say “I want to be a writer” until I took a class called Modern Poetry in undergrad and read more contemporary work. Up until then everybody being taught was dead—I didn’t know anybody alive who was writing poetry. But then I read Lucille Clifton and Czesław Miłosz and I was just like, “Wow, this is amazing, I love this!” and I just started reading more.

There was a Barnes & Noble a block from my house, and I would go there and just start with “A.” I read everything in the bookstore and when I finished that, I went to the library and did the same thing.

Maybe six months to a year after I started writing, I’d start turning in work to be published and they’d just be like “I’m returning what you have sent me” and not even calling it a poem! But it didn’t make me feel discouraged, it made me want to do better. That was in my mid-20s.

JN: I’m So Fine feels like a very especially ‘90s era LA book, not only in that it’s mostly set in LA, but also how it presents a chronicle of life punctuated in celebrity sightings. Like you mention, you and everyone else maybe don’t see so many celebrities everywhere now, but—

KQ: Yes because there was no internet.

JN: Right.

KQ: Like, we couldn’t follow them on Instagram, we had to follow ‘em in the mall. Or at a restaurant or whatever. No online shopping, so the only place they went to get their high-end clothes was the Beverly Center.

 

There was a Barnes & Noble a block from my house, and I would go there and just start with “A.” I read everything in the bookstore and when I finished that, I went to the library and did the same thing.

 

JN: I was thinking about how the book is kind of this record of that time, and so I view it partially as an archive. Do you ever think about archival work, and if so, what are things you are driven to attempt to preserve in your work?

KQ: You know, I hadn’t thought about it consciously, so I’m glad you asked that question, but I definitely do that and am interested in that. I’m reading this book right now called The Work-Shy by Blunt Research Group, which goes through the archives of testimonies of and about people who were in this detention facility for youth where the goal was eugenics, and they were basically imprisoned and forcibly sterilized—and the book is these erasure-poems of those testimonies.

So I’m very much interested in finding things in history that have not been told, or [have been] ignored, or that have been suppressed and bringing those things out in the open. Think about a “great American novel,” for example, we don’t really think about a black girl in South Central LA. That’s not the first thing we think about… but it’s the first thing I think about, because that was me.

But we all can relate to these stories too. I mean, we all have issues with what we are wearing and strive to try to show off what we wear, maybe it’s actively trying to be nondescript or not care, but we all have an opinion about what clothes we have on. And, also, it’s just really fun!

JN: It is! Now, it seems like our country is (finally) starting to have a serious national conversation about accountability, abusers, silenced victims, and institutions. Your book addresses aspects of that conversation on an everyday level, to where it’s not just talking about only prestigious women, and it also speaks across generations. I was wondering at what point in the project did you notice that taking shape, as in, did you set out with it, or did you more realize the work was speaking to that conversation…?

KQ: Not until the revision, when I had a good number of them. I wrote them in a poem-of-the- day project called The Grind and people would respond that they’d want to hear more of them because they were funny. But as I kept recalling these circumstances, these feelings started to accumulate like, hey, wow, this is pretty… horrible. [laughs] But we were trained to laugh about it, we were trained to just move on, we were trained to say this is how it’s supposed to be. And it’s not until you were out of that environment, honestly, that you think how messed up it actually is. And plus, with what was brought up with the election, like we basically have a serial abuser as the leader of our country. But circling back to my family and the archive, in new work, I’m thinking about the legacy of sexual assault and the absence of choice. I’m going back to ancestors of mine who were kidnapped and brought here and forced to bear children for their enslavers and addressing how that has passed down across generations.

JN: You mentioned how these were written as a result of grind poems, which is such a hard thing—or at least it was for me when I’ve done it before. Do you believe in setting aside a kind of regular time, do you just kind of write when you feel “inspired,” etc.?

KQ: I mean, I believe in it generally.

JN: Haha!

KQ: [laughs] And I did it for six years. I wrote every day for six years. That’s how I got four books written! So I recommend it if you respond to it and it’s something you feel excited about and it’s not a weight or a burden. For me it was very powerful because I had gone through a period of not writing for six months, so even if it wasn’t a poem, if it was just a line or a sentence, I just wanted to write something. Then I had surgery in 2015, and I was on medication and my brain wouldn’t let me do anything. Except heal, and order takeout, and watch Basketball Wives, haha.

JN: All under the umbrella of healing!

KQ: Yep, I totally binged on Basketball Wives and Game of Thrones and I did not write, because every time I’d try to write, my brain was just not working. That was tough. That was like a mourning period for me because I had to change the way I thought about my writing practice.

But I did eventually get back to the feeling of working in a burst, and I had all this material that I’d collected from previous writing, and I just sat down and finished two books that following summer, so, like, a year or so later.

So now I think it’s a combination of both: I’ll get in a mode where I need to write every day or I’ll get into a mode where I’ll just do it as it comes. But I find that I write books better after a period of writing every day for a while and then having the time to myself to make the book happen.

 

I wrote them in a poem of the day project called The Grind and people would respond that they’d want to hear more of them because they were funny. But as I kept recalling these circumstances, these feelings started to accumulate like hey, wow, this is pretty… horrible

 

JN: Like in revision.

KQ: Yes.

JN: You’ve shared really valuable advice on literary citizenship. Could you talk a bit about what that means for you, how you practice it?

KQ: I would like to be the kind of writer who participates in making the field more inclusive, and more humane and more expansive creatively. Whatever that looks like in terms of teaching or my professional actions. I try to keep in mind the idea of further humanization and professionalization of the field, just as a general baseline.

JN: Sometimes the idea of citizenship can feel very public, but how do you protect your interior life?

KQ: Yes, I think I’m not necessarily into the whole loud or public part of being a citizen. I like to just watch what’s going on and work behind the scenes, like, “I see you, I see what you’re doing.” But I don’t mind if it comes to me being more vocal and public. I’m not afraid of it, but I want it to be on my own terms and, again, in terms of further professionalization and not anything to do with sensationalism, invasion of privacy, or disrespecting the confidence of people who have confided in me. Their trust is very important to me and that’s the number one thing, I think. I don’t want to be in a position to be asked to impugn my integrity.

JN: I find your work really models a sense of fearlessness and play. I feel like poetry is sometimes boxed in to certain emotions like sadness or frustration, but I wonder how much fun and playfulness get understated. Do you think about this in your work consciously, and how important are the aspects of play and fun in your writing?

KQ: You know, I was talking about this the other day at this place called The Lighthouse Writers Workshop where I teach in Denver, and we were talking about genre concerns. I was saying how it took me forever to write this memoir in the Navy because it was such tough shit, but I finally found the thing that made it fun. So now it’s coming, and I don’t have to stress out about it, I can just write it.

So fun for me is a way to access completeness. It can’t just be, like, a cesspool of sadness. It can’t! I’m not gon’ make it! I have to be able to enjoy my life, what I’m doing. I need joy and fun, especially when I’m dealing with rougher aspects of the content.

JN: What advice do you have for fostering fearlessness, not being worried, retaining the excitement and fun and play of writing?

KQ: I don’t know how fearless I am, I just have to do it anyway. Even when I’m scared. But I have a lot of practice. It just takes practice. When I was in the service, I was afraid of heights. And I’m also not the best swimmer, but we had to dive off a ten-foot diving board and swim across the whole pool in order to get the hell out of boot camp! I was terrified, but we had to do it anyway. It’s fine to be terrified, but have a lot of support, try to have a great community around you.

And sometimes your fear will tell you what you shouldn’t be doing. So if you really are afraid of something, and it will feel traumatic to share, then that might just be for you. I was at a workshop with Sharon Olds, and she said she has multiple books that she has not shared. Because it’s not for anyone else, it’s just for her. So it’s recognizing what your own boundaries are too.

JN: In Fearful Beloved, you write in one of the poems addressed to Fear: “I don’t want to keep looking at what I have already survived.”

And also in I’m So Fine, you write: “so much happened between us I could write a book about it but I’ve lost interest in pain.”

It reminds me of what some poets, in particular poets of color, are coming around to: that a lot of people want us to write about pain in order to be read or seen at all. But it can kind of turn into this re-traumatization cycle that, whether rewarded or not, is at best exhausting. It’s really refreshing to witness what feels like a radical resistance to this in the poem itself. How do you think about life-sustaining habits that support your well-being, your interests, your enthusiasms, to move beyond mere survival?

KQ: Well first of all, I know people might have issues with this but, like, go to therapy. Handle your personal shit so that you can emerge into the writing stronger with a greater sense of who you are and what you’re capable of doing. I’ve certainly did it. I still do it. It’s super helpful! It’s a health issue. It’s like getting a check-up. So that’s number one, as a life habit, if you have access. And if you don’t have access to it, maybe researching some free resources, even through your school, like from Antioch even and saying, “Look, I need some help with this issue, do you know of any free resources?”

Also, I’ll say again, having a supportive writing community, that is non-toxic and uplifting and helps you be at your most productive.

What else… Read me the question again?

JN: I mean what you said is good! Like, “art is not the same as therapy.” Amen.

KQ: It’s not! And it doesn’t mean you can’t say what’s going on with you, but in order to have a little bit of distance to sort of elevate it beyond “this horrible thing happened to me” and to make it relevant beyond your experience, I think it takes dealing with your personal shit.

JN: I’m struck and inspired by your attentiveness to everyday things often overlooked: you wrote letters to your Fear in Fearful Beloved. You wrote a play where small and strange objects take center stage. You weave an LA tapestry through a personal but also what feels like a more collective feminine consciousness through often subtle gestures in interactions and details of outfits. Do you feel any connection to the ecstatic tradition in your love, in your attentiveness? Or what voices or directions do you feel drawn to and who do think are kindred spirits also moving to where your enthusiasms travel and dwell?

KQI certainly love exuberance. Muriel Rukeyser writes about it quite a bit in her book The Life of Poetry which is the first craft book I ever read. I was still in the military and just came across it in the bookstore. And she was a single parent also, so I was really inspired by her work. And she talked about the fear of poetry and that being rooted in the fear of emotion.

And I think that’s something that as a society we are still struggling with, really deeply. Like we are afraid to talk about what we feel because we are afraid people [will] use our feelings against us. But poetry demands that we talk about those feelings, deal with them, and reflect back, you know, our life choices and our thinking around very large ideas captured in these tiny snippets.

So that’s what I love about poetry, I don’t know what else to say about that. I read a lot of Rumi when I first started. I just took a Melville class: he’s super exuberant! Even though he’s super problematic! But he was doing the best he could, I guess, in the 19th century. But he had this deep exuberance and love for writing that I appreciated very much and that I appreciate in some of the newer writers that are coming up. Like, be free. Freedom! Freedom is wonderful.

JN: Shout-out to Freedom! You mention Fred Moten in an epigraph to a poem in Fearful Beloved. Both of you have a strong interest in experimental writing. What does experimental writing mean to you? Perhaps in the sense of how you both explore liberation through the improvisational space of experiment.

KQ: Yes! I love improvisation. I grew up listening to a lot of jazz too, so it just feels natural. And also, I just like to make up stuff. I don’t like having limits on what I can do, I don’t like being told how I’m supposed to do something. Sometimes constraints are delightful; I like forms too. But my interest in experiment came from wanting to do as much as possible.

JN: A lot of people reading this interview will likely be involved in literary institutional spaces at some capacity. Clearly, the literary community has been long in desperate need for swift and serious accountability so that people can feel safe, supported, believed, and overall like they can focus on being an artist. What are some of the ways you are seeing progress in institutional accountability? What are ways you wish more people would practice to help each other along the path toward a safer, more professional, and nurturing environment in institutional (and really any) spaces?

KQ: I want to see our field be more professional. That means treating people with respect, it means listening, it means if someone says, “Hey, this behavior harms me,” correcting yourself—being willing to be corrected. Not using your power to hurt other people. Letting people go to work without interfering, like can we go to work? Let’s do that.

 

So fun for me is a way to access completeness. It can’t just be, like, a cesspool of sadness. It can’t! I’m not gon’ make it! I have to be able to enjoy my life, what I’m doing. I need joy and fun, especially when I’m dealing with rougher aspects of the content.

 

I think that’s probably the work of my life: thinking about how I can just go to work without some creep harassing me or treating me badly because of my gender, race, disability, whatever it is. Can we just make room for everybody who comes to work, to work? It’s very simple.

JN: You’ve graduated from and have taught now at multiple low-res programs. What was your draw to low-res programs as a student and now as a faculty?

KQ: Well, as a student, I was working full-time and I had a kid so I couldn’t do a full residency, it just was not going to happen. For the teaching, I only teach at two, Regis and now at Antioch. Regis just asked me, and they seemed cool, so I was like sure!

And they are, they’re amazing! And the same thing with Antioch. I just like talking about poems. If they’re going to say, “Hey, you wanna come talk about poems,” pretty much I’m going to do it if I have the time to do it.

JN: Yes, I don’t know if it was you who was saying this, but I think you mentioned there is like an advantage sometimes to the way the packets work in low-res programs because of the rigor in terms of feedback on the page—or maybe that was Carol Potter…

KQ: I think that was Carol Potter. I don’t have as much experience as Carol does. It’s definitely a challenge to manage time and give students the feedback that they deserve, so I just try to organize my schedule so I do it in a period when I have that time. And hopefully they’ll be sending their stuff in on time so it don’t mess up my flow!

JN: Haha.

KQ: I love working with students, with both manuscripts and individual poems. For a long time, I worked a regular job, so I’m kinda like a newbie at this whole jam, so I just want to help people figure out what to read that will help them do what they would like to do, and share what I know in this almost twenty years of being a writer.

JN: …So you’re not really a “newbie.”

KQ[laughs] Yes newbie to the academic side, but certainly not a newbie to poetry.

JN: It seems that you’ve had a voracious reading life. What does that look like presently, what kinds of things do you read: genres, titles, time periods, etc.?

KQ: I’m in a PhD program now, so I’m—like my brain’s going to explode, because I’m reading a lot. We had to read all of Melville’s prose…

JN: Wow.

KQ: I might have skimmed some. Such as Pierre, which was horrendous. So, yes, all of Melville. I really like the 19th Century I found out actually, because they have this interaction between race and gender and class that is very stark, but also seems to parallel like the underneath of what’s going on now. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is a poet that I’ve been looking at. She wrote a poem called the “Bible Defense of Slavery”—

JN: Wow…

KQ: —which reminds me of how Sessions is trying to use the Bible to defend his actions.

JN: Yeah, what the hell?!

KQ: Ain’t nothing new under the sun, man! I love world literature. I love contemporary writers. I just bought Not Here by Hieu Minh Nguyen, and one of my colleagues at DU is Diana Khoi Nguyen, whose book, Ghost Of, is fucking incredible. It’s about her brother who committed suicide a few years ago and it has text with cut-outs of her brother because he cut out his picture from the family pictures before he did what he did, and so she made poems in the shape of his absence.

JN: Oh my god…

KQ: I’m saying. And I just finished reading Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and I mentioned The Work-Shy earlier… Oh, one of my favorite books I just read in the last year is Dionne Brand’s Map to the Door of No Return, which is sort of trying to reconcile ancestry that has been interrupted by the displacement of slavery, and tracing those roots across the world.

JN: Yes, Dionne Brand is awesome. In addition to your poetry, we got to hear some of the novels Or is it a memoir, or a novel, I don’t know what to call it…

KQ: Prose? It’s prose.

JN: The prose piece! So I’m not sure how much you want to talk about that since it’s in- process, but I found it refreshing to hear about what many identify as another very male-dominated space, from your perspective. You’ve explored so many different genres. What made you want to tell that story in prose? And what strengths do you find in the other forms you’ve worked in?

KQ: I felt it was too big for poetry. I needed to tell the whole story, but, like, the multiple stories. I have written a little bit about it in Fearful Beloved but, I don’t know. That voice wasn’t going away and I started writing it a really long time ago.

I haven’t seen any military literary work by black women, so I think we need that because there are a lot of us. I think that often, just with military people in general, there’s a feeling that people don’t want to know what really happened. Like, behind that whole “thank you for your service” thing, they don’t really want to know what that service really is. So I’m just being that person saying, “This is what that service is like, in all of its nuances.”

JN: What has been bringing you joy? What do you love that you love right now?

KQ: Oh, man, I love getting my nails done! Haha, they have this new thing called powder dip! Or whatever they call it, dip powder. And it, like, it lasts forever. And it’s all sparkly and it doesn’t break. It’s so awesome. What else? Sleep. Because I’m… deprived.

JN: Somebody once—I feel like somebody tweeted this, something like, “Actually, no-sleep is the cousin of death.” And I never forgot that.

KQ: [laughs] Yes! I love naps, naps are everything. I found that when I started the PhD, that, because I was taking in so much information, I really had to sleep in order to integrate it. I don’t really have, like, traditional ideas of fun. Like, I don’t go hiking, or I don’t go skiing or do any of that. I like to go to the movies. I see the movies that I like more than once.

JN: Oh, yes, repeat viewings are important.

KQ: Like, I just re-watched Black Panther.

JN: If you’ve only seen it once, have you really seen it…

KQ: You haven’t! You really need to wait until you memorize it. And then you see it again and repeat it back to the television. I like traveling. I like hanging out with my kid. And I like talking about poems.

JN: I’m going to borrow this last question from Rachel Zucker, who hosts Commonplace.

KQ: Yes, I love her!

JN: Is there any question that no one has asked you, that you’re like, “How come no one’s asked me this yet?”

KQ: Hmm.

JN: I know it’s kinda strange because I’m like, “Look for what you’ve never seen…” But you seem to be good at that, so…

KQ: Yes… Hmm. One second… “How has motherhood made you a better writer?” That’s what I wish. Instead of the other question which is, “How do you do it?” I’m so over that question. But my son and my writing were basically born at the same time. So I wouldn’t be a writer, I don’t think… or I wouldn’t be the same kind of writer if I wasn’t responsible for this other human life. Thinking about creativity in terms of the kind of world I want him to live in. What kind of intellectual space I would love to present to him to be available for him to occupy.

JN: That’s really good. Yes, I feel like motherhood is kind of an under-explored, or at least really misunderstood topic in literary spaces. That whole idea that somehow you can’t do both or—

KQ: Yes, people presume it’s interfering or whatever and it—I mean, I try to think about it differently. Like it was harder for me to write prose having a kid all by myself, but some writers can do it.

I just want to put it out there that children are not an interruption. Sometimes it can be an inspiration. And however motherhood shows up in your writing life, or not at all, because that is a choice that ought to be respected as well, we do ourselves a disservice when we presume that children are burdensome to our creative output. They can exist alongside one another in beautiful ways.

JN: That’s great. Thank you so much, this was fun.

KQ: It was a pleasure.

 

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

Plaza Hospicio Cabañas (Guadalajara)

perched in a cricket cage
the canary waits to read
your life

you stand, sunbound
eating mamey, guanaba
favas con chile, pan dulce
drinking agua pura y piña

drop a few pesos in the guira
the marimba comes to life
two men like a wind-up toy
or well-trained spider monkeys
play Guadalajara, two mallets
in each hand, fingers spread
to catch mahagony notes
as they fly by

some buzz, some clunk
loose on the stand, worn
as the steps to the iglesia
shading the mercado

gaps between the brown
bars reflected in spaces
where teeth once shone

Arkansas Razorbacks
blares the shirt of the one
playing melody, New York
graces the other one’s hat

the guira hungry but no longer
fed, the song winds down

a moment of smile
wrinkles shadowed faces
before the return of cloud cover
as your hands come together
but your pockets stay closed

but give a peso, and
the canary will select
five slips of paper
to tell you who you are
where you will be
who you will marry
when you will die

brought out of her bamboo hut
put on its roof, feathers pale
on her head like stalks
of harvested corn, she chooses
her vision peck by peck, forgets
she knows how to fly

 

James K. Zimmerman is an award-winning poet and frequent Pushcart Prize nominee. His work appears in Pleiades, Chautauqua, American Life in Poetry, Reed, Miramar, and Nimrod, and among others. He is author of Little Miracles (Passager, 2015) and Family Cookout (Comstock, 2016), and winner of the Jessie Bryce Niles Chapbook Prize.

The Four Walls

[fiction]

There is a room with twenty desks. Five across, four deep.

“Small class size. You should feel lucky,” the principal tells him. Each desk with a book: America the Beautiful: A Sweeping History 1776-2027. Red, white, blue, and all in mint condition. They better stay that way, for his sake.

The desktops are all a greyish plastic with a groove on top for writing utensils to rest in.

A chalkboard, blank except for his name, Mr. Garza, walls the front of the room. The name is written in cursive and stands out strongly against the slate.

The chair in which he will sit is located in the back by his station. It is wooden and squeaks.

He will sit there outside of teaching hours, when he is unbound, to compose emails on the computer supplied to him. Each day he will type twenty reports and email them home. Not all of the Parents demanded this. The truth is most didn’t. But the assertive voices won out and it became required. These voices now make up the Administration—they have total control.

He is to update the gradebook daily.

Please look up.

The tracks on the ceiling are metal, and carve out a path aligned with the gaps between the desks. For safety, but also for equity. Movements are pre-programmed to ensure that the teacher spends time with each student. A forceful dance in which only one is taking the lead. Oftentimes, the harness does not sync up properly with the teacher’s height, so that you will have an instructor who is too short and is forced to float eerily throughout the room, suspended. Or someone who is too tall, so their legs drag behind them along the brown carpeted floor. He is of medium height. Hopefully it fits.

He will be restricted in this manner for at least his first month. If he has no infractions, minor or otherwise, he may be unbound. Of course, that is unlikely. Even the smallest of offenses are counted against them. It is quite easy to add more time to one’s sentence.

According to the government, it’s an incredible solution. The extreme surplus of prisoners and massive deficit of teachers brought together to make a perfect fit, like a key into a lock.

He walks with his hands behind his back as the principal and two Parent guards lead him down the hallway. It’s a hall that looks familiar to you, except the walls are blank and the doors are closed with heavy metal bolts. The library they pass is not recognizable. Old and decrepit books lay randomly scattered within. A severe lack of funding for public schools has resulted in unsatisfactory conditions. The white paint is chipping as they pass the Parent Lounge.

They reach the room. The one he will be in for at least the next ten years for illegally selling bulletproof vests.

The room he used to learn in just one year before.

The Parents shove him in.

“Tomorrow you will teach chapter 22 from the textbook. Get prepared,” the principal states as the door is shut.

He is locked into the room that is his, and theirs, and ours.

 

D.H. Valdez teaches social studies at his former high school. He holds a Master’s degree in teaching from the University of Washington. He and his wife Holly grew up together in Seattle and continue to live in the city. They are avid sports fans and desperately await the return of the Sonics.

Beethoven For Chinese New Year

[fiction]

Mā explained over the phone: a violist sprained his wrist, tumbling after a volleyball, and the octet needed to practice with a replacement before Chinese school celebrated chūnjié tomorrow. She had a habit of molding requests into commands after several hours, so I saved time by consenting. It did excuse me from the January 2003 SAT post-mortem in Panera with my friends. Grace, thoughts on the last analogy in the second reading section? Sorry, can’t answer, my mom’s here to pick me up, have a good Saturday.

The building wasn’t reserved—Chinese school was as Sunday as church and football—so mā drove me to someone’s house as I stared out the window for thirty minutes. Not to look at anything—staring to seem preoccupied and insulate myself from conversation. She wasn’t talking anyway. For the past week, my parents had exhausted all their words; bà flinging accusations and mā with her guarded style, arguing about why they had been arguing, because neither remembered that Jake blowing off his seventh grade history project had set off this latest fight. I stayed out. It wasn’t my job to play couples therapist, ask why they chose each other, and hear, “I made a mistake.” Maybe things changed when they immigrated; I was too young to recall Beijing as home, not as a vacation. My joke was their marriage lay in the difference between the Chinese-American and average U.S. divorce rates, and they waited for a special occasion to narrow the gap: when we were in college, or in med school, or trying to survive on-call. They might accelerate the process if it helped my college application essays.

 

Framed on the wall was my favorite photo of her: a black-and-white shot of a man in a tunic standing next to his bicycle, in which teenage mā wearing pigtails had wandered into the upper-right corner by accident.

 

Last week, my viola teacher had grasped my shoulder and asked, “How long will this slump last?” and I had promised to work harder for my next seating audition, skirting what he meant. This week, a gig for fun. The event became thrilling, redemptive even, when framed that way. It sounded like the fluff some seniors wrote to colleges, a salute to the Western canon like it was a compendium of Chinese-American national anthems.

I didn’t suspect our destination until we rounded the corner and the faded cyan paneling slid into view. In the breeze, the lawn’s one tree waved with familiarity. We hadn’t visited shūshu’s house in six years, and my parents hadn’t mentioned him since. My mind had left him behind with blacktop recess and chocolate milk cartons.

I didn’t understand.

“Grace, dào le,” mā said, without explanation. “I’m going to be shopping, so call bà to pick you up.” Meaning he didn’t object to us being here.

Mute, I grabbed my viola case from the trunk and dragged it along the twisting pathway sheathed in ice. Where other boots had cut across the lawn, grass limped out from beneath the snow. My fingerprint melting in the doorbell’s frost made me realize my gloves were in the car, but before I could go back to grab them, the door opened, mā drove off, and the draft nudged me into the warmth, my feet tiptoeing around the scatter of shoes and instrument cases.

His plaid dress shirt, his silver-stained smile, his leisurely posture. Only the wisps of gray in his hair proved shūshu hadn’t risen from my memory. Shūshu wasn’t actually my uncle; we just called him that, and I had never learned his name.

“Grace, nĭ zhǎng zhème dà le! What grade are you in now?” I mumbled I was a junior and stepped into his embrace. “It’s been that long since you switched from violin? How is viola going?” No trace of hesitance or estrangement inflected his voice.

“It’s okay. Doing New Jersey Youth Symphony right now, had All-State in the fall. I’m not first chair or anything like that,” I said, eyes lowered as I unfastened my case.

“Are you enjoying it? As a kid, you hated playing away from the melody.”

“Oh, I guess I grew out of that. I’m happy playing the viola.” I hurried into the living room where the rest of the musicians gathered, all of them Chinese: two adult violinists including shūshu, two teenage violinists I had met through All-State, one adult cellist, a teenage cellist, an adult violist, and me. Before the teenage violist’s injury, the group had been made of teachers and handpicked students, to mimic a passing down of legacies.

“This is Grace. She was one of my best and favorite violin students,” shūshu said. Not knowing whether to bow or wave, I did half of both, a habit picked up from mā. A round of introductions and gratitude, another bow-wave-smile, then gravity sank me into the spot where I once sat for lessons and the music resumed.

I didn’t expect classical music for a Chinese New Year performance crafted around the idea of inheritance, though not having to foray into a new genre helped. Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4, Movement 1, doubling up on each of the parts. It wasn’t in my repertoire, but my sight reading impressed in auditions and the start of orchestra season, until others overtook me after enough practice. I delivered notes on cue, in rhythm, like a machine directed by the sheet music. Except sometimes I overpowered the first violins, shūshu in particular, or overcorrected into timidity. His and my sounds leapt into the air and crashed heads, screeching to the ground, or we’d both defer, stiffening the music. Solos were easy with no one else to worry about, and the momentum of an orchestra washed over individual stumbles, but a quartet or octet had to balance every person’s voice and present it as effortless to the audience.

After rehearsal, people complimented my technical proficiency despite the late notice. They were too polite to mention my lack of artistry or my uninspiring tone—a functional sound, as my viola teacher put it. The adults left while the teenagers waited for their parents and talked about school, our music instructors, how we celebrated Chinese New Year. The cellist had aunts, uncles, cousins, and even grandparents living in America, so every year they gathered in Houston, Texas; Irvine, California; or Edison, New Jersey, to see each other.

I had mā, bà, and Jake; no one else. Sometimes we passed the holiday by ourselves, and sometimes we attended a family friend’s party, but either way I read a book in the corner to wait it out. Red envelopes and karaoke, feasts and CCTV specials—it didn’t mean much, the people were the same as the other three hundred sixty-four days. The big family reunion Chinese New Year only happened in third grade, when we flew to Beijing. There was one hour, my favorite memory of mā, when she held my hand as we guided firecrackers out of her family’s apartment window and, with giggles and mischievous smiles, dropped them six stories into the car alarms caroling on the road. Framed on the wall was my favorite photo of her: a black-and-white shot of a man in a tunic standing next to his bicycle, in which teenage mā wearing pigtails had wandered into the upper-right corner by accident. I pointed it out. She smiled and pretended not to hear. I didn’t know that was the final picture of her brother, or what the Cultural Revolution was. She didn’t tell me; no one in our family would. Her English-speaking friend visiting from Michigan had to help me understand.

Gradually, shūshu’s living room emptied, and he emerged from the kitchen with a mug of tea, which I declined.

“Grace, I want to ask something,” he said. Me too. “Why did you quit the violin? Was I too strict?”

“No, nothing like that. Our lessons were fine, my interests just changed.” He held his palm above the vapor rising from his cup, withdrew it, and blew across the liquid jasmine surface. We sat on the couch where mā had been whenever she attended a lesson. Relics of those days decorated the room: a ragged and stiff teddy-bear, reams of sheet music, the four toy pendulums suspended in a row.

“How’s school?” he asked, after a while.

“Busy. You know, junior year, it was probably like that for David, too.” Shūshu’s son was old enough, in high school when it happened, so maybe he could help me understand what was going on. What I was doing here. “He’s in college, right? Is he coming home for Chinese New Year?”

Shūshu took a long sip of tea.

“He has a medical school interview in Michigan, so he’s spending it with his mom and stepdad in Ann Arbor.” I used to love David’s sketches and paintings, which still hung in the hallways.

I waited for the next question that never came. We weren’t going to talk about it; he probably didn’t suspect I remembered there was something to talk about.

*          *          *

Around fourth grade, the volume of my violin swelled to a deafening level. Shūshu diagnosed it as budding narcissism. After one lesson, he cooked me dinner because mā was working overtime that day, lectured about vanity, and warned me not to take music for granted. I nodded as if he was right, but the habit had grown from drowning out mā’s and bà’s arguments. They were worse in my childhood, and if I was gentle, their shouts invaded my practice.

Mā arrived mid-meal—hair tangled, face drained, and breath laced with her fifth cup of coffee—and asked if I wanted to keep eating. The two were gone when I finished. I waited with as much patience as a nine-year-old could muster before curiosity guided me toward the laughter bubbling from upstairs.

Mā was happy. She lay on the bed, her fingers draped around shūshu’s back. He was in his boxers; Mā was clothed. When she faced me, her smile became shock and his ease turned to alarm. “Grace,” they both said. “Grace.”

She hurried me out of the room and back downstairs. She went back up briefly and came back down. She held my hand walking to the car and helped me get in, retrieved my violin after she realized we had forgotten it, shoved it into the trunk, and drove off. I held onto the image of mā, radiant, as long as I could.

When it dimmed away, I asked, “Why was he in his boxers?”

“He wasn’t.”

“But—”

“No, Grace, you saw wrong. He wasn’t in his boxers.” I believed her for months, maybe years.

The red glow of the stoplight bathed the car interior as mā turned to face me. I mistook the white in her skin as fury, and it was only years later that I understood it was terror. “Grace, what you said was very wrong. You shouldn’t say it again. Do you understand?”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, just don’t say he was in his boxers again. Don’t tell me, or bà, or anyone.” Scoldings had always made me cry, but for the first time, not one sob escaped into the silence. The red light receded into a distant green dot.

“Okay.” I kept my word.

I don’t remember the rest of the day. We continued with violin lessons until the end of elementary school, when I switched to the viola. There was no sight, no mention of shūshu after that, as if he had never existed.

*          *          *

Bà called me when he arrived. He didn’t come to the door and meet shūshu; he never left the car, whether he picked me up from a music lesson or a friend’s house. The neighbors’ trees masked the moon and the streetlamps, so there was nothing to illuminate the icy path as I slipped toward the car. I almost climbed into the backseat, before he asked what I was doing, and I pretended my intent had been to place my viola case there instead of the trunk.

Sometimes a car’s headlights pierced through the night and a familiar street name or shop flickered, a memory flashing by. My eyes used the light to search bà’s face. The weariness of a day playing tennis and the impatience of a long drive home; frustration with the truck in front and a forward stare hardened from days spent yelling. Nothing unusual. It had been easy to ignore with music to be played and Chinese New Year to complain about, but with my bow and viola locked up, I had only the windy breaths of cars passing by to distract me from wondering what bà knew, or if he knew. I waited for him to ask, mention, say anything about shūshu.

After ten minutes he asked, “Did it not go well?”

“Go well at the lesson? Rehearsal, I mean.” The heat from my face could have melted the snow stuck on the window.

“The SATs. You haven’t mentioned them.” His face was stoic, focused on the road. He lacked the tension or surliness I had expected to hear in his voice. “Mā said you didn’t talk about the SATs to her, either.”

“Oh, yeah.” It felt like days had passed since I had sat down for the test. “It was fine. Math went well, reading section was harder. Still good, I think.” I launched into a detailed explanation to alleviate his worry.

If bà had found out, it would’ve been around the switch to viola. There was arguing back then; there never wasn’t. It was a constant buzz in the background, like city bustle or fans on a summer day. I couldn’t pinpoint which of it happened when I was ten and which at thirteen; it blurred into a single period of time. The phrases I could recall—”There’s nothing to talk about!” he shouted—were my cues to hurry into my room, not stay for the rest.

 

For the rest of the year, Angela would go back to tap and jazz, the girl onstage would return to the piano, but at least they presented something Chinese for Chinese New Year. What was the octet passing down? Beethoven with mā’s ex-lover now and Beethoven in concerts later and Beethoven forever.

 

For dinner, the four of us folded bāozi together. The activity had lost its luster for me years ago, but Jake had continued to wrap them with sloppy enthusiasm, until now. He was the same age as I had been, and I saw his excitement waning. Twelve was a special age for the zodiac after all. At the table, our parents spoke frequently to us and rarely to each other, as was common when a fight had dragged on. They passed the eye contact test, though, which was my version of Groundhog Day: an early spring, or six more days of quarreling.

“You’re using too much water,” bà said. My dumpling unraveled on the yellow foam tray. My next one was too dry, and without a word, I surrendered my mess to mā. In one motion, she swooped the meat into a new wrap, brushed her finger against the water’s surface, swirled it around the wrap’s edge, and folded. She had breezed through the night with a serenity untouched by her usual caffeinated trembling. There were no questions about shūshu, not a single word or acknowledgment.

“Are your hands okay?” mā asked as she plucked another mangled dumpling from my palm. “They must be tired. Kǎoshì all morning, viola all afternoon.”

“I’m okay.” Almost a mention, but no one paused, and the conversation moved on, leaving me to fumble with another dumpling until it tore. Bà feigned interest in Jake rambling about the NFL, and mā continued acting like she was through a second glass of wine. “Sorry, can I go upstairs?” I asked. “Shūshu’s—the recital—it’s been half a day since knowing, about playing this piece. I need more time to practice. Can I go upstairs and eat later?”

“Okay,” mā said.

“Can I go, too?”

“Stay here, Jake.”

In my room, I steadied my hands through a section of the score while pacing through my observations of mā, bà, and shūshu that day: words, tones, gestures, facial expressions; mā’s weariness, bà’s brevity, shūshu persevering through his interrogations; anything that might hint what bà knew, what mā wanted, shūshu’s intentions, mā’s intentions, mā’s feelings, my role. If mā and shūshu had hid the truth from bà, or if the three believed they were keeping a secret from me; if tomorrow served as an excuse to reunite, or if I had been volunteered as a peace offering. All plausible, nothing convincing.

Jake’s fist bashed against my door three times, and without waiting, he creaked it open, as if he was going to leave after delivering his message, but over the course of his sentence, “Mā and bà want me to tell you that you’re playing too loudly,” he slid into my room and closed the door behind him. “Sorry,” I said.

“You never practice anymore.” He said it like an accusation. My bow jabbed toward the door, but he didn’t budge. “I heard shūshu’s playing too?”

Jake had been six when I quit violin, so he probably had a couple memories, shūshu driving him to a doctor’s appointment or bringing him candy, that he had forgotten until today. Curiosity, not concern. A week from now he’d forget again, unless I wanted to say guess what, mā cheated on bà when we were kids, and keep him remembering for the rest of his life. Secrecy ran in the family.

“I have to get this right by tomorrow,” I said. “Go work on your history project, you can’t take an incomplete forever.” He left, and I worked through the music until mā came in and placed a plate of fresh bāozi on my desk.

*          *          *

“We’ll be back around eight. Turn the TV off when you hear the garage open,” I told Jake before we left, guessing he would flip on the Super Bowl and ignore his schoolwork. My slot wasn’t until after intermission, so we sat in the audience for the show’s first half. Mā led our way into and through the room, walking past the surprised waves of several schoolmates who hadn’t seen me at Chinese school since sixth grade. I spotted shūshu stranded among a crowd of empty seats in the far back corner. We cut through one of the middle rows and stopped near the end, next to bà’s friend and her family, with shūshu’s presence lurking five rows back. “Chūnjié kuàilè,” all of us said. It wasn’t really for another week.

Bà swapped rumors about high school seniors and college applications, and it reminded me that next year, my name would join the gossip of dinner parties and Chinese hair salons among parents I never met, in towns I never visited. Mā usually participated, but she remained quiet. Not at peace, like yesterday. Her quiet had the quality of paralysis.

For the first act, costumed children shuffled around and recited three poems bà had me memorize too, as a kid. This was the first time I parsed their words and understood them; from my own mouth it had felt like a song I was too busy playing to hear myself. Dancers lined up second, crouching with their backs facing us, but as the music began and their red gowns spun, the face of my friend Angela beamed at the crowd. When I asked her about it later, it turned out she went every weekend, even after graduating Chinese school, to help instruct the younger dancing classes.

Mā left to find the bathroom. As she walked behind, I locked my head forward, terrified she and shūshu would catch me if I turned back, and counted the seconds until her return: ten, twenty, one hundred. I reached two hundred before giving up. She didn’t know where the bathroom was; it could take her twenty minutes. Bà snoozed in his chair, his head limping toward the right.

A girl strummed an instrument I had never seen outside China, with the sound of a harp and the shape of a keyboard-sized guitar neck. In my program, all the acts were written in unrecognizable Chinese except mine: Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 4, Movement 1, printed in English. A blurb underneath presumably mentioned the inheritance theme. People probably saw that and snickered; I would have, too. For the rest of the year, Angela would go back to tap and jazz, the girl onstage would return to the piano, but at least they presented something Chinese for Chinese New Year. What was the octet passing down? Beethoven with mā’s ex-lover now and Beethoven in concerts later and Beethoven forever.

Mā came back and whispered into my ears, “Shūshu wants you to go warm up with him and the others after this one. He says to meet by the back corner.”

I was the first one there. “Ready?” he asked as the lights dimmed and the girl bowed. “Let’s do a couple scales together, to help us play in tune.”

That was probably the moment, the two of us shielded by darkness and our voices cloaked by applause; the moment to dust off six years of silence; a moment flitting past Earth before it slung off into space—gone.

“Sorry, I don’t say much when nervous,” I said. We exchanged a few words during warmups to make adjustments, but for the most part he left me alone after that.

Onstage, my mind split off my viola. My thoughts drifted as my bow and fingers assembled the music on autopilot. How my seat was too up front and center, and people were watching my nose scrunch and my cheeks puff out, and some of them would take pictures or tease me at school. How the intensity of the light made me sweat, and a bead of sweat rolled down my neck into my dress, and this dress felt tight and scratchy today, and there was an itch on my side. How I wasn’t angled in a way I could sneak a glance at mā, to know which of us she looked at, or if bà monitored her for the same thing.

I didn’t hear the performance until the final note, when it rushed into my ear as a whole. Decent enough for the ordinary template of compliments. Not amazing, like I had hoped, or disastrous, like I had expected. Nothing worth remembering.

Our family lingered at the end for food and talk. My friends found me first, to congratulate each other, while shūshu spoke to a circle of parents and children too young to stray away. Mā stood on his left, and bà stood next to her. When our conversation turned toward the SATs, I tore myself from my friends and approached my parents’ backs.

“Before the schools closed,” shūshu said to one kid, “my goal was to enter college and study chemistry. Music wasn’t serious for me. But people heard Mozart coming from our basement and raided it and shredded the sheet music and took my violin away. Western music was counterrevolutionary, for capitalists.

“After we were sent to the countryside, I met Lí Rúhàn.” He spoke to the entire group now as he gestured at mā. She raised her right hand and wrapped her left around bà’s. I couldn’t see their faces from behind them. Either I hid in their shadows and listened unnoticed, or I could stand on the other side of the crowd and watch them as they watched me.

“She snuck her brother’s violin with her to the village, because he was the only one in her family who played; no one checked her stuff. And she brought books, too. Textbooks, even Western sheet music. She’s so smart, she knew the Cultural Revolution wouldn’t last, and she was determined to prepare. So nighttime we snuck to the river or muted a room by stuffing rags in the door gap, and we studied with moon or candlelight, and took breaks for music. Beethoven and Lí Rúhàn became my best friends. She gave me the violin when she went home.

“I studied and practiced in the morning, during meals, in my dreams. For ten years, until the gāokǎo came back. Chemistry didn’t interest me anymore; I had to become a musician. The Shanghai Conservatory admitted me, and several years later, so did Brooklyn.

“I’m not working in an orchestra, but there’s music every day of my life because of your support. Many of you chose me as your children’s violin instructor. Without you, the musicians of the past, and these young musicians of the future, I wouldn’t be here. Thank you.”

Mā’s right hand moved toward her head. I imagined it brushing tears from her eyes and concealing her smile. Bà’s impassive face was as stiff as their hands, gripped together in a lock.

Later that night, with my viola clamped between my chin and collarbone, I raised my bow toward the ceiling, pivoted toward my bedroom mirror, and forced my neck and shoulders to relax. “I live a good life,” I said, fingers shaking as my bow slid across the fourth string. My viola hummed the first note of Beethoven’s String Quartet. No. Four, but the E fell flat.

 

Morgan Song lives in Seattle, sneaking in time to write stories while pursuing a PhD in the sciences at the University of Washington. This is Morgan’s first published work, in either fiction or the sciences.

David Ulin, Author, Critic, Editor

Photo Credit: UC Riverside Low Residency MFA Program

You’ve probably read David Ulin’s work in The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, The Paris Review, Black Clock, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, Zyzzyva, Columbia Journalism Review, The Believer, and NPR’s All Things Considered. Ulin has also been a contributor to docufilms, such as Lost LA and the upcoming Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time. As a former book editor and book critic for The Los Angeles Times for ten years, Ulin has a unique perspective that takes into account the current sociological and political sphere and his place within it. In 2002, Ulin won the California Book Award for the Library of America’s Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, on which he was an editor. He was a 2015 Guggenheim Fellow and most recently was awarded a 2018 Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship in Marfa, Texas. This year, 2018, also saw the re-release of Ulin’s 2010 book The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, with a new introduction and afterword.

In addition to being a Guest Faculty member at AULA’s low-residency MFA program, Ulin is also an assistant professor of English at USC, and he also teaches in UC Riverside’s low- residency MFA in creative writing program.

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with David Ulin and chat about all things writerly.

Yvonne de la Cruz Sánchez: Okay. How are you this morning?

David Ulin: I’m fine and thanks for doing this in the morning, by the way. It’s always better for me to start at the beginning of the day, rather than the end so it doesn’t cut into the writing—or the non-writing—depending on what’s happening. [chuckles]

YDS: Let’s start with an easy question: What is your favorite genre to write?

DU: That’s a good question. I don’t think I have a favorite. At the moment, I primarily work in nonfiction. Although, I sort of dip in and out of other genres. It’s more of a progression. I started out as a poet. My first book was a chapbook of poems. Then, I sort of slid into fiction writing, what I thought I wanted to do. So, I did both for a long time, and then I became really interested in essay writing for a variety of reasons. I was working as a critic, and being a critic is actually being an essayist of a certain kind. The reviews I wanted to write and read most were ones that function as little essays in their own right. Then, I just became really fascinated with reading contemporary essayists and nonfiction. I wanted to play in that form. It felt like a natural move for me because the fiction I was writing was often autobiographical, and I’m very interested in personal narrative: how it is constructed, and what the relationship [of the narrative] is to actual life.

Because of the intuitive move of the essay, it reminds me of the intuitive and expressionistic flow of writing poetry. So, essay writing seems to pull in a lot of the elements that I find most exciting or attractive about fiction and poetry.

YDS: That’s interesting; I mostly write fiction and I began writing poetry when I was younger as well. But I am feeling my way into nonfiction more and more, so that really resonates with me.

The act of writing becomes an act of directed improvisation and I think the same is true when I’m writing an essay or book or a story or a poem.

DU: Yeah, you know I think we do ourselves a disservice as writers by thinking we have to do only one thing. I know plenty of writers who do one thing and do it really, really well, but there are also a lot of writers who move around [between genres], and I think sometimes the moving around can be really useful in terms of ideas that I can’t express in another way. Certain things just appear for one form, but the forms do talk to each other. It’s interesting to see how they resonate with each other.

YDS: So that transitions well into my next question: what’s your process of writing a book review versus writing a novel or story?

DU: It used to be quite different when I was starting because I felt like I had to say “this” about “this” book for “this” reason. As I continued to write reviews, though, I began to write them in much the same way I write everything else: to know as little as possible going in.

Obviously, I gather my material. If I’m writing a book review, then I’ve read the book. I’ve thought about the book, I’ve thought about my reaction to the book, and I might even have a sense of what things I might want to quote. While I’m reading, I’m taking notes or making comments in the margins or whatever, but I don’t necessarily know what the review is going to say or how I’m going to say it. The act of writing becomes an act of directed improvisation and I think the same is true when I’m writing an essay or book or a story or a poem.

In the act of writing, there’s something that triggers. Maybe it’s an incident or maybe it’s something I’ve observed. Maybe it’s something I’m thinking about or maybe it’s an issue—personal, political, or whatever—and then the writing becomes the exploration of that idea or that question. I don’t necessarily write to come up with an answer. I write to phrase a set of questions [rather than answers]. So when I started writing reviews this way was when my reviewing changed.

Going back to what I was saying earlier, I felt reviewing was about presenting a set of answers: you know, “Is this book good or bad?” “Should people buy it?” “How is this working or not?” I think those are a part of the reviewing process. If you’re reviewing for the newspapers, which is what I did for many years, you are writing an essay, but also, you’re providing a service. People are reading those reviews because they want to see what you have to say. They are also reading those reviews presumably because they’re trying to decide whether or not to put real money down and buy the book.

I think there’s something really interesting about the inquiry [of writing], so the long answer to the short question is that, at this point, the process is pretty much the same. There aren’t a bunch of things I’m thinking about. I sit down, and I just start writing to see where it takes me. Often, I’ll write a review and in the middle of it, I’ll think, “Oh, I had no idea this is where I was going to end up,” or, “I had no idea that’s what I was going to be talking about.” I’m very interested in seeing how the ideas emerge through the process of writing, rather than being predetermined beforehand.

YDS: So with this idea of process in mind, what was it like being a book editor versus being a book critic for The LA Times?

DU: It was complicated, to be honest, but I loved it. I didn’t love it all the time. I loved the work of it. I was there during a strange decade where the paper was constantly in a state of turmoil, constantly downsizing. Because I was a section editor for the first five years, I was responsible for trying to protect that section in some way. I had to figure out how to integrate [the section] into the paper at large and that came with a set of logistical challenges I hadn’t had before. Just on a pragmatic level, if they were downsizing a section, what did that mean? How much space could we get? How could I fight to keep that space? If I had half the space I used to have, how did we intend to use that space to try and have a wider range of coverage? And then, how could I use the web?

I became book editor in 2005, and web presence was pretty minimal. One of the things that I and the other editors were doing at that time was trying to build the website and build web presence. We played around with stuff, and we tried to mitigate the print space with increasing digital space, so those logistical questions were really unique to that experience and sometimes they were quite frustrating. At one point they did cut the section in half in terms of its print space so that was a difficult process. In the end, I think I was always a writing editor—I was a writer first and an editor second—so even when I was editing a section, I was writing a lot of pieces, and at a certain point, I just wanted to go back to writing. I didn’t want to be in charge anymore. I realized through that process that I don’t really love being in charge. So, when I had the opportunity to begin writing full-time as a critic it was great. I really enjoyed that, but then the other challenge of it was that the web continued to assert itself, and the paper belatedly tried to catch up on web strategy, the demand for volume. And, the amount of pieces you were supposed to write radically grew.

One reason [I left] was due to those kinds of demands. Though frankly, I felt that ten years was enough. I had done that job, and it was enough for me. I had learned what I wanted to learn from it. I think one of the important things to consider about those kinds of jobs—particularly for newspaper—is that they turn over. If you read my reviews for five years, you have a pretty good idea of who I am, where I’m coming from, and what my aesthetics are. So then, it should be somebody else’s turn, you know. That is how publications ossify, if somebody does that job for too long.

Though frankly, I felt that ten years was enough. I had done that job, and it was enough for me. I had learned what I wanted to learn from it.

YDS: So if someone were interested in becoming a book reviewer, how should they start?

DU: Well, at this point, I think I would start on the web. I think there are a lot of excellent web-based publications. I came up through alt-weekly media, like LA Reader, which doesn’t exist anymore, and LA Weekly, Village Voice. That kind of stuff. Some of those papers don’t exist anymore either. But at the time, what was great about them is that you could write, write at length, and they were always looking for stuff. You could really learn while you’re doing it, hone your chops. I would say for someone who wants to do it now, the same is available in terms of websites like The Millions or Lithub or Los Angeles Review of Books, sites like that.

Look around at those sites: see what you like, look at the outlets you like, think about what kind of stuff they’re publishing, think about whether you are doing that kind of work, and then pitch. There is a lot of opportunity on the web, there’s not a lot of money in that opportunity and that’s always the problem starting out; the paper/work ratio is, generally, pretty uneven.

In terms of getting work out and having the opportunity to learn in public, I think that’s really key because book reviewing is a kind of a public form of writing. I believe all writing is public, but book reviewing is public because nobody writes book reviews and then sits on them. I do it all the time when I write poems and stories, with no guarantee they’re going to get published. But nobody is sitting around writing book reviews for their own amusement. Well, maybe there are a few. [laughs]

YDS: It also seems like you’re more aware of your audience when you’re writing a book review than when writing for yourself.

DU: I guess we are aware that there is an audience. I mean I always tried to keep an awareness of the audience per say. Not right to the audience, but yeah, if you’re writing a review for a newspaper, you are aware that there is going to be an audience reading that review in a different way than if you’re working on a short story, or a novel, or an essay, or something like that. I mean the audience is less abstract in this case.

YDS: Does being more aware of that audience change your writing or voice in any way?

DU: You know, I don’t think so. Because once I’m in, when I’m sitting at the computer writing, I’m not aware of there being a difference at all because I’m not writing to please anybody, except hopefully myself. Again, I’m writing to kind of see what’s there and that’s the same no matter what form I’m working in.

YDS: I recently read Ear to the Ground, which you wrote with Paul Kolsby and is a really great read, by the way. I kept thinking about the process of collaboration. What was your collaboration like and how is that different than writing on your own?

DU: It’s very different than writing on your own. It’s not something I do very often, to be honest. It’s not something I love doing because I tend to be kind of solitary and I have my own sense of how things go, and I do think that writing is largely an individual process. But in this case, it worked really well. Although the book came out in 2016, it was originally published as a weekly serial novel in the Los Angeles Reader in ’95 and ’96. So, Paul and I were in our early thirties. We’d known each other since college, since we were like eighteen or nineteen, and we had collaborated in loose ways on other creative projects that were more performance oriented. He’s a playwright and we had done a radio serial drama together, like five or six years earlier. So we knew each other, we knew each other’s work. We weren’t best, best friends, but I think it’s better that we weren’t because there was less at stake in our personal relationship.

Because it was a series novel, we agreed to deliver a chapter a week for a year and it ended up running nine months because the story sort of arched in that block of time. So, this ties in with what we’ve been talking about because Paul and I had no idea where this was going to go. We had a general sense of what the arc of the story was; we knew that there was going to be the earthquake prediction and we knew how it was going to play out. We kind of mapped that out, but we didn’t know…well, we certainly didn’t know what was going to be happening in the news, and we wanted to weave that in. We didn’t necessarily know what was going to be happening with the characters and their relationships. A lot of that developed week by week. So the idea of writing a chapter a week on deadline was really daunting.

In that sense, collaboration was essential because what if I didn’t have an idea, but I still had to turn something in? With a collaborator, maybe he had an idea, or maybe I had one and he didn’t. And so the kind of interplay in the collaboration was really helpful because of the pressure of generating content at that pace. The other thing that was really useful is I’m not much of a plotter, but Paul is a great plotter. We didn’t realize this going in, but as we were working, it emerged that we kind of complimented each other. I was good on character and scene. He’s really good on big plot overview stuff. He’s funny; I’m less so. And so there was a balance that was important for the book. I think it was a really interesting and successful process.

The best evidence is that eighteen years later when we finally read it again and decided to try and publish it as a book, there were long stretches of the manuscript where I couldn’t tell who had written what. I remembered writing certain things myself. I remember certain things that Paul had written, but there were definitely stretches where both of us were like, “I don’t know, this could be either one of us.” That says to me the collaboration developed its own kind of voice, its own sensibility, which is all you can hope for. Even if there are two writers, there has to be a kind of unified voice to a narrative or else the reader doesn’t have anything to connect with. But, it was a fascinating process.

YDS: So, did you start off with one of you writing the first chapter and then the other would read that chapter and then write the next one back and forth?

DU: Yeah, the original idea was exactly that. One of us was going to be the writer every other week, right? And we would alternate, but then of course things happened. So Paul, at that time, was traveling a bunch, and I had a six month old son—my oldest—which is always, always a distraction. So there were things coming up where I couldn’t do it or he couldn’t do it, or I would direct three in a row or vice versa. So it became more fluid and flexible just because of life. The original plan, which we did sort of stick to for a while and kind of kept coming back to, was that we would alternate as a lead writer. If it was my job, then Paul would go through them. We would then get together and go over the revised version, and then do a final draft of it.

I think we probably ran through about half that way. Most chapters were 900 words long, but we did these three sort of pillar chapters that were much longer, that ran as cover stories. Those were about 3,500 words long each. We started with one of those. We had one in the middle and one at the end. That was a different process because we worked on them for a longer time, obviously, and they became a key way for us to make really big plot moves.

YDS: That’s a great example of process. I recently read an article you wrote for The LA Times back in 2009, “The Lost Art of Reading,” which seemed to be a precursor to the book.

DU: Yes, in fact, there would be no book without that article.

YDS: One of the main ideas, in the article and the book, is that the reason for the decline in reading for the average person is due to social media culture and our political climate and a sense of immediacy we increasingly desire. With that in mind and thinking of new types of storytelling—audiobooks, podcasts, etc.—do you think that these things influence or alter that type of mentality when it comes to reading?

DU: That’s a good question. I think everything that involves storytelling—with every storytelling medium or mechanism—affects the way we interact with and engage in storytelling. Just as a quick example, let’s look at Madame Bovary. In a lot of ways you could call it the first modern novel because it’s describing a modern sensibility, right? Middle-class bourgeois people. This is the first time you see this in fiction: people with a little bit too much time and money on their hands and the boredom that it provokes. It was very modern when it came out, with its morality moving away from traditional morality. Published in 1857, right? When the Bovary’s get chased out of town and move to another place, Flaubert introduces the second town with a five-page set piece, where he basically sets up the location before they ever get there. You can’t do that in a book in a novel anymore. I don’t think our attention spans are wired to put up like that. We want to cut to the chase. If that novel had been written a hundred years later, chances are he would have adapted cinematic strategy like jump cuts. We no longer expect a novelist to ease us through transitions, but we can move through these kinds of abrupt transitions because we have internalized the vernacular of film just by virtue of the society we’re living in. Even if you don’t go to movies or aren’t a big movie person, we understand how that transition works in a way that 100 years ago or 150 years ago it would have been beyond our ability to imagine.

It’s the same thing with the Impressionists when they first were shown in the late 1800s and they were attacked because people couldn’t process what they were seeing. Whereas now you look at an impressionist painting and it looks like a realist painting. I think as a species we evolved our ability to appreciate various forms of expression and narrative as those forms come up and teach us new ways of thinking. And I think audiobooks are a great example. I think film is a great example. And I think video games are a kind of narrative mechanism, of digital storytelling, multimedia. All of these kinds of things have changed the way we interact. I’m interested in all of that stuff.

When the Bovary’s get chased out of town and move to another place, Flaubert introduces the second town with a five-page set piece, where he basically sets up the location before they ever get there. You can’t do that in a book in a novel anymore.

What I was primarily trying to write about in The Lost Art, at least in that second edition with new material, was really about distraction and the fact that someone like me, who was an avid lifelong reader of hundreds and hundreds of pages a week, was now having trouble reading. This must mean that there was a kind of epidemic of having trouble reading. The reason the book grew out of that essay was because the essay got tons of response. Mostly people would write me to say, “Thanks, I thought I was the only one.” Then a publisher asked me if I would be interested in thinking about this as a book.

There’s a lot of political stuff in the book because there was a lot of political stuff going on at the time. In terms of the current crisis, it was just beginning with the tea party and Sarah Palin and all of that. Although, the roots go back much further, and we weren’t using phrases like “fake news,” but that level of lying was already part of the public discourse. One of the reasons it was working was because people were either too distracted or uninformed to know what the truth was. In that sense the political climate was sort of a subtext to the book. It was really a question about distraction and how we combat distraction. So it is a book about reading, but in a lot of ways reading becomes a metaphor for slowing down, for critical thinking, or for quieting our minds enough to be able to hear somebody else’s voice and engage with it. I really feel this is something that we have lost to our collective detriment. If we were able to actually sit and process information collectively as a culture and think about what it meant and then ask questions about it, we’d be a lot better off.

But the speed of everything and the soundbite quality of the Internet as an information source has created an environment where we are basically conditioned just to react. Just hit a button and read something and our immediate responses are like, “Yeah” or, “Fuck you”. And we’d never really get beyond that. And so I saw that happening in me, and I wanted to explore it.

YDS: I used to soak up books when I was young. Then I got into grad school and I was having the hardest time concentrating. So when I read the article and book it started to click. This sense of immediacy. I teach at a community college and I see it now with students and trying to get them to read.

DU: That’s absolutely right. I’ve noticed it more lately, and certainly since the election, as affecting writing. You know, on a big news day, I’m constantly interrupting my own writing to go see what’s going on, even though if I waited an hour, I’d be just as outraged, or weirded out or disgusted or horrified or whatever. But it feels like if I don’t know immediately, it’s like I will lose further control. And as I was saying earlier, writing is kind of about giving up control or losing control or seeing what happens when you let go.

Yet at the same time, the political environment and social environment is so chaotic and so disruptive of our impulses that we need to know everything that’s happening, so we can at least preserve the illusion that we have some control over what’s happening, even though we don’t. And so I find myself constantly caught between those two poles. Even when I’m writing, things that would’ve taken me a couple of hours—five years ago—now takes me all day, and things that would’ve taken me a day now takes me a week because I’m constantly pulling myself out of the writing and putting my head back into the real world.

YDS: That puts it into perspective. And speaking of reading, what are you currently reading?

DU: I am about to read a biography of the architect Philip Johnson, that a friend of mine wrote, which I’m curious about. I’m reading Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets from my Past and Future Assassins, which I think is completely remarkable. And I’m reading a book by Patrick Modiano, the French Nobel Prize winner, called Sleep of Memory, which is the first book he’s written since he won the Nobel. He’s a writer I’m really interested in because his work is so spare and minimal and also heavily memory-influenced. And so those are really important, at least in terms of what I do.

I’m about to start reading the last book by Canadian writer Helen Weinzweig. She’s a novelist, a short story writer. She lived into her eighties and died a number of years ago, but she wrote three books, starting when she was in her late fifties. I stumbled across the first book and I fell in love with it. I’m about to start reading her last book, A View from the Roof, a collection of shorts.

The other book I’ve been spending a lot of time with this summer is The Years by a French writer named Annie Ernaux. It’s a memoir that does not use first person singular, which I find absolutely fascinating. Basically, she’s trying to write her own story through the collective story of her generation. She uses a lot of first-person plural and she uses some third-person. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. It’s fascinating. I’m always looking for writers who are doing something that I haven’t seen or something vivid and compelling, particularly with voice because I do a lot of first-person writing and I’m curious about how to strip the “I” out of first-person writing.

YDS: You mentioned a new edition of The Lost Art of Translation is coming out soon, what else are you working on at the moment?

DU: I am working on a few things. I don’t normally talk about works in progress, but I will say the main project I’m working on, which I’m pretty well into, is a memoir that’s been kind of fascinating for all the reasons we were talking about in terms of a voice in narrative, of memory and storytelling, of the slipperiness of truth. I don’t really believe in truth. I believe in subjective truth, but I don’t really believe in our ability to comprehend objective truth. Different versions of stories—how the story can exist in different versions depending on who’s telling them—all that stuff fascinates me.

YDS: I look forward to reading that. Finally, what’s the best piece of advice you’d give a working writer?

DU: Well, I’ve given this advice before, and I’ll give it again until I’m dead and can’t give advice anymore: don’t listen to anybody who tells you you can’t do it. As writers, once [you] declare yourself as a writer, everybody has advice and at least half of that is, “You’ll never be able to do this, so figure out something else to do.” And I don’t think it’s meant to be cruel. I mean, sometimes it is, but I think it’s meant to be practical. You’re going to spend your life doing this thing where there’s no money and it’s hard. So why, right?

Well, obviously, the drive is internal. So if you’re offered that advice and you listen to that advice, then you were probably not a writer to begin with. I say, “Be stubborn.” Everybody has their own sense of what good work is. It’s a completely subjective landscape. And if you believe, then don’t let somebody else convince you not to believe. There’s always going to be the opportunity to walk away. And if that’s what you want to do, by all means, you should definitely walk away. It’s hard work. But if you really feel that you’re a writer, don’t take anybody’s negative advice. Just be stubborn and keep your head down and show up to work. And work, work everyday.

All the writers I know are people who just never got up from the chair. They sit down everyday—or most days—and do their work. Maybe the work is good that day. Or maybe the work is bad that day. It doesn’t matter. They don’t get too high from the good work. They don’t get too low from the bad work. They sit down and do it again every day. It’s work. I don’t want to make it totally pragmatic: there are a whole bunch of really interesting, “soulful” things that happen when you’re creating, when you’re being creative. But also, this work, it’s actual practical hard work. You’ve got to show up to the job every day. There will always be people telling you negative stuff, and you gotta get those voices out of your head. Do whatever it takes to do that.

YDS: That’s really great advice. Thank you so much for that, and thank you for talking with Lunch Ticket.

DU: Well, I appreciate your questions and your close reading of the work. That really means a lot, so thank you for that.

 

Yvonne de la Cruz Sánchez is an English and composition instructor and an MFA candidate in creative writing at Antioch University. She is also an assistant editor of fiction and guest blogger for Lunch Ticket. In addition to teaching, Yvonne likes to think she holds the following titles as well: Singer of Bedtime Stories, Maker of Dreams, Believer in the Future, Self-healer in Progress, Wearer of Heart-on-Sleeve, Organizer of Books & Toys, Imbiber of Words, and Humble Writer Whose Work is Wholly Cast from a Bronze Heart. She currently resides in the Central Valley with her husband and three daughters.

Francesca Lia Block, Author

Photo Credit: Nicolas Sage Photography

I still remember the moment I first swiped one of Francesca Lia Block’s books from my big brother’s bookshelf. Splayed out across my family’s living room floor in our downtown Los Angeles apartment, I devoured the modern fairy tales in Blood Roses with a hunger I hadn’t realized was there. Moving on to her other works, I began to see parts of my own life—the troubled-yet-loving Witch Baby from Weetzie Bat, the girl with two moms who goes searching for her long-lost father in the story “Dragons in Manhattan,” the brave girl with the fairy friend who eventually exposes her abuser in I Was a Teenage Fairy. I was a quiet, shy kid, but the fantastic worlds and characters I found in these stories gave me the inner courage I needed to start thinking about who I wanted to be. I came to realize that I wanted to be a writer, not just of entertaining stories, but of important ones—just like Francesca Lia Block. I never dared to dream that almost twenty years later, I would have the good fortune of working with Francesca as my writing mentor. Her guidance has transformed my writing and inspired me to reach further, try new things, and strive to achieve my full potential. She is a compassionate, dedicated human being, and to me, she will always be magical.

Francesca Lia Block is the author of more than twenty-five books as well as numerous stories, poems, essays, and interviews. She received the Spectrum Award, the Phoenix Award, the ALA Rainbow Award, and the 2005 Margaret A. Edwards Lifetime Achievement Award. Earlier this year, she announced to the delight of her fans that her award-winning debut novel, Weetzie Bat, will be adapted into a film starring Anya Taylor-Joy. Her most recent book, The Thorn Necklace, is part memoir and part craft book, detailing her own life experiences as well as her 12 Questions to guide the writing process. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, where she still lives and teaches.

I interviewed Francesca via instant messenger on August 13, 2018.

Adrien Kade Sdao: So, I wanted to start by saying congratulations on the Weetzie Bat movie!!! Such exciting news.

Francesca Lia Block: Thank you.

AKS: I know it’s been a long time in the making. What emotions are you feeling? What challenges still lie ahead?

FLB: A lot. We are still working out financing details, etc. I’m trying not to think about it all too much.

AKS: I can understand how it might be overwhelming.

FLB: I have waited so long so it feels like a lot is at stake. And I also feel responsible to my fans. But the cast seems really great.

I think a lot of young people read books for older people and vice versa. It seems mostly like a marketing issue. I’d have to say try to publish with your target audience in mind to avoid being trapped in a different genre. 

AKS: Yes, they certainly do. You wrote the screenplay, correct? I’m guessing maintaining creative control is very important to you.

FLB: I wrote it and then my friend, director Elgin James, did a pass. I would like some creative input but I’m learning that it’s hard to have creative control unless you are the person with the funds.

AKS: Ah, I understand. Well, I’m looking forward to hearing more about the movie and seeing it of course!

FLB: Thank you! I will keep everyone posted as soon as I know more! I really appreciate all the interest and support!

AKS: I wanted to ask you about something you mentioned in a previous interview (https://robinlmartinez.com/2016/02/13/an-interview-with-francesca-lia-block/). You said that some of your earlier work was written for adults, but marketed to teens. How has this affected your career? How does your writing differ when you’re writing intentionally for teens?

FLB: I honestly never really write for teens. I’m thinking more about the story I want to tell. A few of my books were specifically contracted for younger audiences, so I had to keep that in mind, but I still try to tell the story I feel I need to tell.

AKS: Wow, as someone who read your books from a young age, I find that very interesting. I feel like it shows how mutable the line between teen and adult literature is. What advice would you give to writers in similar situations in terms of their target audience?

FLB: Yes, I think a lot of young people read books for older people and vice versa. It seems mostly like a marketing issue. I’d have to say try to publish with your target audience in mind to avoid being trapped in a different genre. I like to write in many genres, but it is hard for audiences to understand. Branding is important though, and can be frustrating. I always just wanted to write dark fairy tales and myths for myself and my friends. I should say, “dark, literary fairy tales and myths.” That is what I love to read.

I try to be sensitive. I do my best. I make mistakes. I think it is a challenge and it’s important to be sensitive and try your best.

AKS: So you write the sort of thing you would love to read? Are there any recent books that you fell in love with?

FLB: Not always, but in general, yes. I’ve been revisiting all the classics! I’m obsessed with what we are reading for class, for instance—Virginia Woolf, Isabel Allende, Baldwin, Angelou, Morrison, Shirley Jackson. I just read this book called The Magus by John Fowles that blew my mind. The southern Gothic women—Katherine Anne Porter and Carson McCullers. Murakami, Faulkner, Hawthorne, D.H Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, Colette, Angela Carter. I have to get caught up on a lot of contemporary literature, but right now I’m just delving into classics and modern classics. And you might say, those aren’t fairy tales, but actually, I’m writing a paper about the way the fairy tale and goddess mythology is hidden in a lot of literature in the canon.

AKS: Ah, yes! I was enthralled with your seminar last residency and how you related the gothic to Goddess mythology. Do you find that you appreciate these novels more for their stories or for the way they were crafted?

FLB: Thank you! Both! I think it depends on the book but I value plot and craft about equally, depending.

AKS: I suppose it takes a good balance of both for something to become a classic in the first place.

FLB: Yes! Even when a book seems not to be “plot-heavy,” like Woolf’s work, there is a lot of tension and conflict there as well.

AKS: I’m looking forward to reading To the Lighthouse. It’ll be my first Virginia Woolf!

FLB: I hope you like it! I would suggest just letting the words wash over you like waves.

AKS: That’s great advice! Thank you. I’d like to ask you about The Thorn Necklace. What made you decide to write a memoir/craft book instead of one of each? Also, as a deeply emotional person, was writing such a personal work of nonfiction more challenging than channeling that emotion into fiction?

FLB: It was harder than writing fiction because there was no scrim to hide behind. I wanted to write separate memoir and craft books but the craft book idea was a little short and my publisher suggested I combine them. It took me a while to figure out how to do it though. It felt organic in the end, which is what I wanted.

AKS: I’ve always loved how you showed a multitude of human experiences in your work, and you don’t shy away from showing the real consequences of the oppression of minority groups. As an ally, how do you navigate writing about groups you’re not part of? Like writing a trans character as a cis woman.

FLB: It’s tricky these days. I try to be sensitive. I do my best. I make mistakes. I think it is a challenge and it’s important to be sensitive and try your best.

AKS: You said, “these days.” Is it harder now than it was when you first started writing?

FLB: Yes, there is a lot more awareness and sensitivity, which is a good thing, but can feel daunting but, feeling daunted isn’t as much of a challenge as being oppressed so…

It was harder than writing fiction because there was no scrim to hide behind.

AKS: Ha, that’s a great way to put it! It certainly is an ongoing learning process.

FLB: Yes, I feel that is true.

AKS: My final question is: what was your favorite picture book to read to your kids when they were little?

FLB: Well I love Where the Wild Things Are but I think my absolute favorite is Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present by my first editor Charlotte Zolotow. Have you read it?

AKS: I haven’t, but I recognize the name. I’ll have to add that to my endless “to read” list.

FLB: Right? It never ever ends.

AKS: This whole MFA thing still seems surreal–I bet yours does, too, considering you’ve been publishing for many years already!

FLB: Yes, it is weird, but it has helped my work and my teaching. I just wrote a novel in my program and I feel very excited about it. I do think that all the intensive reading and annotating really works.

AKS: That’s great. Hopefully I’ll get to read it eventually!

FLB: Thank you. It’s been lovely to chat with you.

AKS: Yes, I totally agree! You too. Thanks so much for your time.

 

Adrien Kade Sdao writes young adult fiction and works in a children’s bookstore in Los Angeles. They are an MFA candidate at Antioch University, Los Angeles, and they are the lead editor for the writing for young people genre at Lunch Ticket. Their work has appeared in Lunch Ticket and Womanpause. They live in North Hollywood with their cat, Shelly.

 

Betrayed by Blood

In 1973, the Squirrel Cage was just another scummy go-go bar on a street filled with businesses that paired well with scummy go-go bars. It’s gone now, of course; replaced by an above ground pool company—almost an elbow-to-the-ribs attempt at baptismal humor.

The Squirrel Cage sat at the crossroads of Austin Highway and Walzem Road in San Antonio, Texas. In the distance, like a siren’s song, was Interstate 35 luring cars north to Austin. I was almost thirteen then, living with my family in subsidized housing a very short distance from the Squirrel Cage. When I told adults where I lived, they looked away.

There were two playgrounds at the Austin Arms Apartments. One was for real kids—the ones who wanted to swing and teeter-totter and scream a lot; the other was the hang-out for older kids, the ones who sat on the swings, lounged on the monkey bars, and whispered plans for future trouble.

His eyes said he’d been betrayed. Betrayed by blood.

My “because of proximity” best friend was a thirteen-year-old named Liz who stood nearly six-feet tall. Her mother ran promotions at a local radio station. Liz always gave me inside information, like times to call in to a radio show so I could win prizes, but I never made any of those calls. When I saw her mom coming home from work wearing blouses with built-in bows at the neck, I couldn’t see a woman who would jeopardize her job to help a preteen cheat a contest.

“You know so little about the world,” Liz told me over and over. “Winners only win because they know people.”

The older boys at the playground were probably not considered winners by Liz, but they knew a lot about how our small world worked. I listened while they talked about things like the ice house on the corner where you could pay an extra fifty cents to get a six pack of beer without showing any ID. Judging from the number of beer cans littering the sides of the playground, I believed the story.

“You can also say you’re getting cigarettes for your mom and they’ll let you buy them,” Kenny, a regular on the playground, said to a new kid I didn’t know. Kenny’s hair was so blonde it was closer to white than yellow. People said his father was in prison for stabbing a truck driver in Fort Worth. Liz whispered about the knife collection Kenny had in his room, but that information made Kenny seem more sad than dangerous.

“Where is this place?” the new kid asked.

“Right across from the Squirrel Cage,” Liz said. “On the other side of Walzem. Marty’s Ice House.”

The new kid nodded silently.

“Naked girls dance at the Squirrel Cage,” Kenny said, in a hushed voice like he was giving up an answer to a test in school. “They dance in gold cages.”

“Cages? Like bird cages?” Liz asked. She walked nearer to Kenny, making him shield his eyes from the sun as he looked up at her.

“Sure,” Kenny said. “They hang the cages from the ceiling so everything shakes real good when they dance.” He gyrated his hips and cupped his pecs. His tongue stuck out the side of his mouth as he shook.

The new boy laughed.

Liz rolled her eyes and walked away. “You don’t know anything.”

“I do too.”

“Well, I know the girls aren’t all the way naked,” Liz said, looking at me as if we’d won Jeopardy. I went up a rung on the monkey bars. Liz could come across as a know-it-all sometimes.

“They got these little star things over their nips,” Kenny said. “And go-go boots. Otherwise, they are naked.” He paused, waiting to throw out his trump card. “My brother works there.”

“He does?” I said.

“Is he in a cage too?” Liz laughed.

“Nah, but he could probably get you a job there,” Kenny said, staring at my breasts. From my perch on the monkey bars, I crossed my legs.

The next week I went to Solo Serve with my mom so she could buy some new tops for summer. I waited until she went into the dressing room to try on clothes, then I walked to the shoe department. There was an entire rack devoted to go-go boots. I picked up a pair of shiny white boots and hid behind the coats to try them on. The boots were a cheap plastic, not leather at all, and smelled odd. Before I had the second boot zipped, my first leg began to sweat. Still, when I stood up and felt the silky material reach over the top of my knee like an unfamiliar hand, I stuck out my chest and sucked in my stomach.

Before I walked back to the dressing room, I stuffed the boots behind the men’s work shoes, hoping they’d stay hidden until I could figure out a way to buy them.

*    *     *

That night, my brother and I sat in the bedroom we shared, listening to my mother plead with my father to calm down. They were in their bedroom with their door shut, which was never a good sign. Occasionally we heard a slap or a fall or a sharp cry. We didn’t look at each other though, only at the Mickey Mouse rug beneath our feet.

When their bedroom door finally opened, my mother came straight into our room. She was wearing a light blue robe. There were drops of blood around her collar, like she had sewn tiny roses around the neckline. Her right eye was already swollen.

“Let’s go,” she said, reaching for my brother’s hand. He was nine and skinny, like something that could easily be broken in a move.

“Now,” my mother said looking at me and pulling my brother toward the door. I followed.

The three of us ran down the two flights of stairs in harmony, as if we had trained for this event. When we pushed open the hall door, a neighbor opened her door, then quickly shut it. Outside, the cool air surprised me. My pajamas were light cotton. My brother had on short pajama bottoms and tube socks with green stripes. I was barefoot. It had been warm when we dressed for bed.

“Hurry,” my mother said. “Andiamo,” she said in Italian, as if those words were magic carpets that might make us move faster.

I tried to run without stepping on loose rocks or tabs from soda cans. Once we ran past the porch lights, I was glad for the dark so I wouldn’t see what my feet were headed for.

I followed my mother’s robe as she ran toward Austin Highway. When we got to the highway, she abruptly stopped and held her arms out to each side like a human cross. It was as if we stood on a precipice. The wind and noise from the cars sounded like an ocean far below us. My mother looked to her right, toward Austin and the Squirrel Cage, then ran to the left down the side of the busy road. She wore thin slippers and hobbled occasionally when her foot stepped on something sharp. She was not used to hot summer days and bare feet like we kids were.

We ran past tattoo parlors and bars and motels that seemed abandoned but weren’t. I finally saw the shopping center where my mother must have known she’d find a phone booth and safety. The Piggly-Wiggly was already closed for the night, but there were employees inside the store sweeping up and stocking shelves. I looked at the three of us and wondered if someone would call the cops. No one did.

My mother picked up the pay phone and dialed “0” for the operator. “I want to make a collect call,” she said, giving the operator a number. “Marie,” she said a few seconds later. “Ho bisogno di aiuto.” I need help.

While we waited for Marie’s husband Carlo to arrive, my mother went into mother mode. She found a planter box beneath a bright light with a wide ledge where we could sit out of the wind and get off our feet.

“It’s going to be okay,” she said, checking the bottoms of our feet. “Marie has milk for you and then we’ll all go to bed. Tomorrow will be a better day.” My mother’s bottom lip was cracked, but the blood had dried a strange orange color.

It didn’t take long for Carlo to arrive. He was a short, chubby Sicilian man with a thick head of hair he would keep well into his eighties.

“Valli,” he said, hugging my mom. “Let’s go, huh? Hi, kids. Go ahead and get in the car.” We slid off the planter and into his massive Cadillac.

As Carlo drove toward his house, I looked out the window and watched the neighborhood change, like I was a character in one of those movies where people’s fortunes rapidly shift. As we crossed under Interstate 35, lighted coffee shops began to appear along with gas stations and restaurants and fancy furniture stores. When we got to the corner full of churches, I knew we were almost there.

This wasn’t our first late night visit to the Presti house. It wouldn’t be the last. In the driveway, I saw the curtains in the front window open a bit. We walked to the front door and Marie opened it wide. “Vieni dentro,” she said, leading us all gently by the shoulder, like refugees you see on the news at night. Come in, come in.

“Hey,” I heard from down the hallway. I followed the voice and went into Nina’s room. She was two years older than I was; beautiful and thin with a car she couldn’t even drive yet waiting for her in the garage. “Same old, same old?”

“Yep,” I said.

Nina sat back in her canopy bed and patted the other side. The whole room was white and lavender and gold, like something I figured French aristocrats set up for their daughters. “So what’s new?” she asked.

“I tried on some go-go boots the other day.”

“What?” she said, stopping in mid-yawn. “Where?”

“Solo Serve. My mom was in the dressing room. Over the knee,” I said, showing her where the boots had hit my thigh.

“Heels?”

“No,” I said, suddenly disappointed in my choice. “I mean, little block ones. I guess that’s easier to dance in, right?”

“At the Squirrel Cage! Those boots are the first part of the job interview. Boots? Check. Boobs? Check. You’re hired!”

We laughed, then talked about some friends we knew until she fell asleep. It was good to feel normal, like this was any other sleepover with a friend. I had known Nina my whole life. Our mothers met in Europe when we were babies. Both husbands joined the military and ended up in San Antonio. Even though Carlo was an officer and my father was not, we never talked about that difference, or any of the other ones.

While Nina slept, I planned. I figured if I babysat every weekend for a month, I could buy the go-go boots. My breasts were already larger than most girls my age. Maybe, with makeup, I could get a job at the Squirrel Cage. Maybe I could make enough money so we could leave my father behind.

In Nina’s bathroom, I took off my pajama top and found some Band-Aids in the medicine cabinet. I taped my nipples and shook my body up and down and side to side. There was some good shaking going on beneath the Band-Aids.

Taking them off was a different matter. When the adhesive ripped away from the tender area around my nipples, tears sprang to my eyes. I ran a washcloth under cold water and held it to my breasts to stop the pain. I knew so little about my own body, but I had big plans for it anyway.

The next morning, Carlo drove us home. My brother and I got ready for school. My mother cooked breakfast. Their bedroom door stayed shut.

It wasn’t easy to concentrate in class that day. During lunch I took my sandwich to the library, ate it in the bathroom, then grabbed a study table and planned. I wrote down the following:

Money:           + $32.00           saved in the bank
+ $40.00           possible babysitting money for weekends through March
– $29.99 boots
– $40.00?gun

In the light of day, I’d realized that getting a job wasn’t going to be enough to save us. Over the years, I’d heard my father threaten to kill my mother if she ever left him. Sometimes he even said he’d kill us kids first then leave her alive so she would have to live knowing we were dead because of her. There was no simple getting away from him. We would live in fear as long as he was alive.

I was willing to fix that.

My dad worked all night delivering bundles of newspapers to boys on bicycles so they could deliver papers to their smaller routes. When he came home, he slept on the couch almost all afternoon. If I could get a gun, I would come home from school while he was asleep and solve all our problems.

Until that episode aired, I’d never seen a man hit a woman anywhere but in my own home. It felt like a shameful secret we just lived with.

After he died, I would go to school during the day and work at the Squirrel Cage at night to help with bills. We would be a happy family then. My mother was still beautiful. What if she met a nice man who could care for us all? There would be no more late-night trips to the Presti’s, no more neighbors calling the police, no more sleeping on my stomach so I wouldn’t see it coming.

I felt like a hero in the making.

This plan consumed my thoughts for months. I fixated on how to make sure my father would be asleep when I walked in the door. Like a director, I blocked and re-blocked the scene over and over, imagining every possible pitfall. I wanted to avoid hitting a noisy step and causing the dog across the hall to bark. If I dropped the gun or my book bag or my keys, or miss-timed the departure of the postman who always said hello in a too loud voice that echoed in the hallway, my father might wake up. I needed my father soundly asleep when I walked through the door because I knew if he looked at me, I couldn’t kill him.

I spent weekends at the public library researching social security benefits my mother and brother could get from my dead father. I wasn’t sure I would get them too, since I was the one who killed him, but I had the phantom job at the Squirrel Cage anyway. I read about trials where children killed their abusers and were set free or placed in detention centers for a short time. I learned what I was doing was called parricide, the killing of a parent, and I hoped the outcome would not be living in a detention center, but a conviction of manslaughter, probation, and the right to live at home.

I kept notebooks filled with details of the plan. The notebook was my confessor because there was no one else to talk through my plan with. There were no conversations about things like abuse on TV or on the playground or in our kitchen. After a night of beatings, my mother would tell us that my father had just been tired, or worked too hard, or didn’t feel good.

“Everyone has something,” she told me one night. I was suspicious of everyone after that.

I babysat every weekend in March and ended up with $47.00.

“Hey Kenny,” I said, surprising him at school one day when Liz was not around. “Where do people buy guns?”

Kenny shrugged his shoulders. “Why are you asking me?” I raised my eyebrows. “The flea market maybe?”

“Ask your brother for me, okay? Also, ask him how I can get a job at the Squirrel Cage.”

“Sure,” Kenny said, but he looked at me like I had once given him a gift and was taking it back. “My brother doesn’t even have a gun.”

“Just ask him, okay?”

Kenny nodded.

*    *     *

In June of that year, my father surprised us by buying a house. My mother was happier than I’d ever seen her. “I told your father I wanted a house before I turned fifty,” she said, as if she had stumbled upon a winning lottery ticket. “And here it is. I can’t wait to invite Marie over for coffee.”

My plan died there. If I killed my father now, there would be no house. I would no longer be the hero. I let go of the gun, the boots, and the Squirrel Cage, and concentrated on the new house and the new version of our family instead.

In September of 1973, in the living room of our new house, I watched the season two opening episode of the TV sitcom Maude. The show began with lots of references to drinking. The night before, a drunk Walter made obscene phone calls to Maude’s mother, slow danced with his friend Arthur, and fell asleep on the living room floor. The audience laughed as each exploit was recalled. Boys will be boys.

The next morning, somewhat shamed by the night before, Walter and Arthur decide to stop drinking. By lunchtime, Walter is already spiking his Shirley Temple. By dinnertime, Walter is so drunk he ruins his nine-year-old grandson’s birthday cake. The whole time, laughter from the audience. Drunk is funny. Bea Arthur is funny. Hey, she’s drunk too.

Then things turn dark. Maude tells Walter he’s mean when he drinks. Walter tells Maude he drinks because all he sees when he looks into her eyes is how much she resents him.

Then he hits her.

In the face.

Hard.

The laughter stops. You can hear the audience’s collective intake of breath. Walter looks appropriately shocked by his own actions.

Then he cries.

“You didn’t hurt me,” Maude assures Walter. MAUDE ASSURES WALTER. Her tag line on the show was, “God will get you for this, Walter,” but she didn’t utter it this time.

In the morning, Maude sits at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee and a black eye. She tells her daughter she walked into a chocolate donut. Laughter again.

Until that episode aired, I’d never seen a man hit a woman anywhere but in my own home. It felt like a shameful secret we just lived with. And Maude playing it off reinforced what my mother taught us—don’t let people know, pretend it’s all okay, be better so we look better.

The episode wasn’t a total waste though. It taught me to blame everything on alcohol. Though I never saw my father take one sip of alcohol in my entire life, from then on, when neighbors called the police, I had a ready excuse. Thank you, Maude.

We were in our house for a year when I heard my parents arguing through my closed bedroom door. The fight was unusual because it was daytime and because things had been calmer since we’d moved into the house. I walked toward the kitchen and passed my brother sitting on the floor of his bedroom playing with GI Joes.

“What’s up?”

He shrugged his shoulders, not taking his eyes off the action on his floor.

In the kitchen, my father had my mother by the throat. Her head was against the brick wall. The pistachio colored bricks were her favorite part of the new house. I saw blood on her forehead and on the brick.

“Stop it,” I screamed. “Stop it, you asshole.” When he turned toward me, I slugged him, close-fisted, on the mouth. A tooth must have hit his lip and the blood began to flow. He reached up to his face, looked at his hand, then at me.

His eyes said he’d been betrayed.

Betrayed by blood.

While he walked to the bathroom, my mother yelled for my brother. We all ran to the garage, into the car, and back to the Presti’s. None of us said a word until we hit Austin Highway. At the stop light, my mother sighed. “Tomorrow you’ll tell him you’re sorry.”

“No way,” I said. “I’m not sorry.”

“You hit him,” she said. “What did he do to you?”

I’m guessing there is a feeling people get when they realize they are completely alone in the world. It feels like you are drowning from the inside out. The instinct to hold your breath is almost involuntary, like a gift to keep you from speaking or crying out or taking in something that will prevent you from ever opening your mouth again.

We passed the Squirrel Cage and I remembered how that place had once been the church I sent my prayers to. Now I knew that if I had gotten a gun, if I had killed my father, my mother wouldn’t have taken my side. I imagined her in court, talking to the judge, “He never did anything to her. He was a good father.”

I was the one betrayed by blood.

I also became bitter and resentful and keenly aware of how much my mother seemed to best love the ones who hurt her the most. But, like most things in life, we adapt to our roles.

When we returned to the house the next day, the door to my bedroom had been removed. I knew it was part of my punishment, but I couldn’t figure out how. Over the years it became clearer. I could no longer try on clothes for the school week posing in front of the mirror that once hung on the back of my door. I couldn’t dance to records and pretend I was in a Broadway musical, or read plays out loud, acting out each of the parts, or shut out the noise when things got bad.

For the next five years, my father refused to speak to me. All through high school, I was into theater. He never saw one of my productions, not even when we won the State UIL competition. He missed my high school graduation, seeing me go to proms, and taking part in any plans for the scholarships I received to colleges.

For five years, we never ate a meal at the same table, watched TV in the same room, or looked at old family photos. My brother and mother and father still did all those things together. I was the excommunicated one.

At least once a week my mother would come to me like a temptress in a fairy tale: “Just say you’re sorry. Then he will talk to you.”

“I’m not sorry.”

“You don’t have to be sorry. Just say it. Then we can go back to normal.”

There is a long list of things I am not proud of in my life, but not giving in to my father is not on that list.

At the end of my freshman year in college, my mother’s sister and her husband arrived from Switzerland to stay with my parents for the summer and take a tour of the USA. I loved my Zia Armida. She’d confided in me that she’d left Italy at fifteen to become a maid for a family in Switzerland just so she wouldn’t have to stay in Italy and marry an Italian man. In her mid-twenties, she met my Zio Jean-Pierre, a native of the French part of Switzerland. He was a watch engineer and mayor of their small town. My father adored my Zio. He called him his brother.

I was living with my friend Lisa for the summer. Her parents went to the beach every June and July, so living together was a good solution for both of us.

When I drove up to my parent’s house, my Zia was sitting on the front porch wrapped in a blanket.

Così freddo dentro,” she said to me. It’s so cold inside. It was June in San Antonio. It had been hot for so long, we’d already stopped complaining.

“They don’t like air conditioning,” my father said to me. And just like that, we began to talk. I knew it was so he could save face in front of my Zio, but I played along.

My mother hugged me when my father went back into the house.

“See? Everything is good now.”

“Mom, everything is the same. We’re just talking again.”

“Good,” she said. “That’s how it should be with family. Forgive and forget.”

*     *     *

My father finally got too old to be mean, then he died.

My mother lived another three years after his death.

As a child, her family left Italy and moved to France after her father found work in the coalmines. When she was twelve, and World War II began to escalate, they fled France, where the coalmines were being bombed, to return to Italy only to find Russian armies occupying their family land. My mother went through puberty hungry and scared, but entered adulthood strong and cunning.

She picked me as the child to count on because she knew how to survive. When the chips were down, when my family was in crisis, I contacted doctors, lawyers, bankers. I put all the pieces together for all the cracked eggs after all the big falls.

I also became bitter and resentful and keenly aware of how much my mother seemed to best love the ones who hurt her the most. But, like most things in life, we adapt to our roles.

When I talk about my mother’s final days, I talk about her strength and courage. I tell the story of how my husband held her face after the nurse gave her what I always suspected was a larger than usual dose of morphine and said, “Mom, if you can, come back and let us know you’re okay.” She nodded and expelled her last breath. It was a breath of force and finality. She’d made up her mind to go.

A few years after my mother died, my sister died as well. Her kids struggled with their own grief and guilt. They also had to turn to me for help. When my niece texted asking for $350.00, I told my husband I was going to say no.

“We just gave her money a few weeks ago,” I said. “And she never thanked us. She never calls to check on us either. I’m done.”

Before I could finish my text to her, the postman rang the doorbell and handed my husband a certified letter from State Farm insurance.

It was that dramatic.

In the envelope was a check for $349.83. The refund was from a six-year-old audit they had completed of my mother’s insurance policy.

I texted my niece and told her she could have the $350.00. Could there have been a clearer sign from my mother that she wanted to help my niece?

*    *     *

Later that day, I drove to Brackenridge Park. I sat on a concrete ledge facing the green water of the San Antonio River and watched the ugly hybrid ducks swim by. Across the river, families played loud music and sat on blankets in the grass. It seemed appropriate I was on the other side of the divide.

“Sorry,” a woman said as her dog began licking my leg. She grabbed his leash and pulled the dog away. “Do you teach at Northwest Vista College?”

I nodded.

“Miss Tolan?”

I nodded again.

“I had you for Comp II,” she said. “About eight years ago. I loved your class.”

I said I remembered her, but I didn’t.

What I did remember was going to the grocery store with my mother a few months before she died. We’d run into an Italian woman I had never met before.

“This is my daughter,” my mom said to the woman.

“It’s so nice to finally meet you, Olga,” the woman said to me.

“I’m Denise, her other daughter.”

“You don’t work for the basketball team?” she asked. My sister was a temporary usher for the San Antonio Spurs since a back injury and a drug addiction made it impossible for her to continue working as a hairstylist.

“No. I’m the teacher.”

“A teacher?” she said. “What grade?”

“College. I teach English.”

“Valencia,” the woman said to my mom. “You never told us you had a daughter who was a professora.”

I felt a rush beneath my feet. It was what I’d always imagined an undertow might be—something grabbing you by the ankles and pulling you along so fast you wouldn’t have time to breathe. I was drowning from the inside out again.

She’d never even mentioned me.

The story I don’t tell about my mother’s death is from right before my husband took her face and asked her to give us a sign from beyond. I sat by her bed and stroked her arm, hoping she would feel me and know she was not alone. But when I touched her, she scrunched her eyes as if biting down on something distasteful and pulled her arm away. It felt intentional, not reactive, almost like she’d recoiled from something awful.

I never told anyone this happened. I felt shamed by her reaction and stupid that I had ever believed I was anything more than the child who was necessary for her survival.

So when the check from State Farm came—when my mother finally gave a sign from beyond, I wasn’t completely surprised it wasn’t for me. She just wanted to make sure I’d take care of my sister’s kid.

I’d been betrayed by blood.

Again.

 

Denise Tolan has published work in journals such as Lunch Ticket‘s Amuse-Bouche, Hobart, Apple Valley Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and others. Tolan’s piece “Because You Are Dead,” first published in Lunch Ticket’s Amuse-Bouche, was included in 2018’s The Best Small Fictions. She was also a finalist for the 2018 International Literary Award’s Penelope Niven Prize in Nonfiction.

 

Migrations: Mixed Media

Excuse Us & The Dead People of Mogadishu

[translated poetry]

Excuse Us

Excuse us for fleeing
the wars that you fed
with your own arms

Excuse us for getting poisoned
with the toxic waste buried
by your powerful industries

Excuse us if you’ve bled
out our land, depriving us
of any possible resource

Excuse our poverty
daughter of your richness
of your neo-colonialisms

Excuse us for being massacred
and for disturbing your vacation
with our invisible blood

Excuse us for occupying
your detention centers
with our filthy bodies

Excuse us for breaking our
backs in your tomato fields
slaves without any right

Excuse us for living in
your tin huts
stacked like beasts

Excuse us for our presence
that causes each of your crisis
and doesn’t make you live well

Excuse us if your laws
aren’t strict enough
and many of you would love the gallows

Excuse us for existing,
for breathing, for eating
even for daring to dream

Excuse us if we didn’t die at sea
and if we did, excuse us again
the impudence of informing you.

 


The Dead People of Mogadishu

Are unlike those in Las Vegas
killed by an American armed to
the teeth by his own government
the dead people of Mogadishu are shadows

figures told to be forgotten
as a teleshopping of pain
to the global rhythm of a remote control
the dead people of Mogadishu are shadows

no keyboards cry pity for them
no painted flags bloom for them
on faces flaunting fake tears
the dead people of Mogadishu are shadows

invisible ruins to indignation
nobody sings their torn apart spoils
or tells their stories, we know
the dead people of Mogadishu are shadows.

 

Scusate

Scusate se siamo fuggiti
dalle guerre che voi nutrite
con le vostre stesse armi

Scusate se ci siamo avvelenati
con i rifiuti tossici sotterrati
dalle vostre potenti industrie

Scusate se avete dissanguato
la nostra terra, deprivandoci
di ogni possibile risorsa

Scusate la nostra povertà
figlia della vostra ricchezza
dei vostri neo-colonialismi

Scusate se veniamo massacrati
e disturbiamo le vostre vacanze
col nostro sangue invisibile

Scusate se occupiamo
coi nostri sudici corpi
i vostri centri di detenzione

Scusate se ci spezziamo la schiena
nei vostri campi di pomodoro
schiavi senza alcun diritto

Scusate se viviamo nelle
vostre baracche di lamiera
ammucchiati come bestie

Scusate per la nostra presenza
che causa ogni vostra crisi
e non vi fa vivere bene

Scusate se le vostre leggi
non sono abbastanza severe
e molti di voi vorrebbero la forca

Scusate se esistiamo
se respiriamo, se mangiamo
persino se osiamo sognare

Scusate se non siamo morti in mare
e se invece lo siamo, scusate ancora
l’impudenza d’avervelo fatto sapere.

 


I morti di Mogadiscio

Non sono come quelli di Las Vegas
ammazzati da un americano armato
fino ai denti dal suo stesso governo
i morti di Mogadiscio sono ombre

numeri detti per essere dimenticati
come una televendita del dolore
al ritmo globale del telecomando
i morti di Mogadiscio sono ombre

per loro le tastiere non dicono pietà
non fioriscono di bandiere dipinte
su volti che ostentano finte lacrime
i morti di Mogadiscio sono ombre

macerie invisibili all’indignazione
nessuno ne canta le spoglie straziate
o racconta le loro storie, lo sappiamo
i morti di Mogadiscio sono ombre.

 

Translator’s Statement:

Marco Cinque is a major Italian activist poet and his poems explore themes dealing with human, civil, and environmental rights. His poetical world centers on the perspective of the “last ones” of any rank and latitude.

Cinque is a funambulist of the word and layers of meaning lie deep in each of his lines. Translating his poetry is a sort of tightrope walking exercise, moving along the rope of analogy, striving to say exactly the same thing. But, above all, I have tried to be as faithful as possible to Cinque’s voice that is the bearer of a deep, poignant message and the real core of his poems.

“Excuse Us” is a powerful poem on migrants—a topic that is very dear to Cinque—and the subject of one of his most touching books Mari e muri (Waves and Walls). The Mediterranean Sea has become over the past few years the deadliest migration route in the world and Cinque highlights the devastating reasons behind this perilous choice. His irony is clearly directed to the reader, disguised through the sense of guilt of the migrants who must excuse themselves for having fled their homeland for a variety of reasons, including to escape persecution, conflict, famines, droughts, economic instability, and lack of opportunity. The repetition of the words “Excuse us” makes the reader more and more aware of how cynic the world we live in is: victims are forced to feel guilty whereas Westerners have clearly lost their sense of humanity and pleas for help leave them indifferent and undisturbed.

“The Dead People of Mogadishu” deals with victims of terrorist attacks and how, again, Westerners react differently whether such attack takes place in Africa or in the Western world. If we cry: “The horror! The horror!” for people who have died in Las Vegas, we hardly raise our voice for the people killed in Mogadishu. These are indeed, as Cinque writes “figures told to be forgotten / as a teleshopping of pain / to the global rhythm of a remote control.”

 

Alessandra Bava is a poet and a translator from Rome. Her translations from and into English have appeared in Italian and American journals such as Waxwing and Patria Letteratura. She has edited and translated A New Anthology of American Poets (2015) and most recently Anthology of Contemporary American Women Poets (2018), which includes work by Nikky Finney, Joy Harjo, Patricia Smith, Natalie Diaz, Diane Seuss, as well as others. She is currently writing the biography of a contemporary American poet.

Marco Cinque is a poet, a photographer, a performer as well as a musician from Rome. His work has appeared in many publications both in Italy and in the States. He has been defined by San Francisco Poet Emeritus Jack Hirschman as “a social poet whose every breath is grounded in the revolutionary turning of the pages to the new tide of revelation.”

Counting the Beats

I slide a pinky beneath the leather band of my love’s watch and feel his humid skin. I love this virgin bracelet around his wrist, the manacle of tan line where he unbuckles the hours and becomes master of our time together.

We divide one moment from another with embraces, laughter, kisses, breath. My body is a timepiece wrapped around him, the moments gaining speed with our rocking.

Scientists have demonstrated that two living heart cells placed in a petri dish together will gravitate toward one another and their beats will synchronize. I haven’t worn a watch since I was eighteen, wary of anything that outpaced my pulse. A ticking watch might confuse my blood: which is the true heart?

My life has gentler cycles, beginning with the journey of the sun. Sundials are more human-paced; they cast lazy shadows and measure days by half hours, give or take. Before village bell towers, the sundial was king. Shadows slid off the sides of buildings—evening’s laconic striptease.

We once lived in a 400-year old cottage in Buckinghamshire near a parish church that tolled the hour at precisely twenty-three minutes past the hour, every hour. You could set your watch by it. I smiled when I noticed; a village clock set to my own obliviousness.

I tell time by statues, too—each stone shadow morphs and lengthens. Every evening as the sun sets, a muse of lyric poetry leans slowly, darkly, from her rooftop plinth on the Oxford skyline and bends across an alley, slinking onto a medieval wall. By nightfall half of her body has climbed into a window of a student dormitory. When the window is lit, her shadow disappears like a cat thief and all that’s left is her heavy half standing sentinel over the Bodleian. It takes just a second to arrest her movement after hours of progress toward that room.

Last year in a watchmaker’s store window display on via Romana, near Boboli Garden, I saw a still life of a disassembled pocket watch that appeared to float—invisible threads holding each minuscule component mid-air; wheels, cogs, spokes, screws and coils suspended in space as if the watch had been photographed in the act of explosion.

The anatomy of a second.

I can’t think of anything I’d like to do inside of a second. A kiss, even a blink, would fall outside the lines of that seismic tick.

In August I didn’t have to miss the reassuring punctuations of family life: doors opening and closing, laughter in an adjoining room, smells from the kitchen, wet footprints on the bathroom floor. My girls were with me.

In the time it takes to conceptualize a second, or pronounce its syllables, it’s gone. Loss comes soon enough. How thin can you slice a minute? What is its smallest atom?

I’d rather wear an hourglass around my neck than a watch on my wrist. My body is an hourglass, anyway, in shape and function. It tells me what time it is; its hungers and exhaustions toll bells in my mind. I wind my body by curling in a circle and letting my mind replay the day over and over, till I fall asleep.

I write this in January but illustrated nasturtiums still bloom above August on my wall calendar. I’m months behind the days. I sleep with a hot water bottle but refuse to acknowledge winter.

My calendar is just as nostalgic as I am.

If it’s still August, that means my daughters are still here in Florence celebrating my birthday with me and not back starting new lives in the states. They’ll be by my side here, no big deal, acting as though it’s normal to have a mother in exile. We’ll play out our old family routines as best as possible, turning blind eyes.

In August I didn’t have to miss the reassuring punctuations of family life: doors opening and closing, laughter in an adjoining room, smells from the kitchen, wet footprints on the bathroom floor. My girls were with me.

From September to January I curled up in the memory of August and refused to enter autumn; refused to be alone again, in a foreign country, an immigrant jumping at the doorbell and the immigration police that might be waiting on the other side.

In my thoughts I followed my daughters’ wet footsteps across the bathroom floor again and again, in a house many countries away, a world away, a world that I’m deported from, not allowed to enter.

Funny the things we remember. I used to worry about slipping on their slick footprints and cracking my head on the floor. Ever since August I’ve prayed their slippery pathway wouldn’t evaporate, like I’m chasing them, and if I hop from step to step I’ll eventually catch up. I’ve teetered along the elegant arcs of their insteps, carefully, fitting my whole self in each wedge as if I might fall off the cliff of their memory and drown in bathroom tiles.

Another family inhabits that house now. I lurk at the windows, looking for hints of my family.

The Gregorian calendar ought to be a procession of Augusts. I’m not interested in the following months, of a future alone after twenty years with my family, of autumn and its evergreens. Even the word “ever” is a lie, as if green is invincible. Everything browns, rusts, sags, turns. Turns away.

But time moves slower than we imagine.

My timepieces are organic: the sun traveling from my ankle to my knee as I write this, my daughters turning away from my affections, the somnolent nod of tulips on my dining table during my divorce, and the limp in my dog’s leg that led him to the grave – these are the things I orbit, the timepieces I wind over and over in my thoughts.

 

Jalina Mhyana is the author of three poetry collections, one of which won publication in the Pudding House competition, as well as Dreaming in Night Vision, an illustrated hybrid book of prose. Her work appears in or is forthcoming from The Southeast Review, The Cincinnati Review, CutBank, The Roanoke Review, and others. “Counting the Beats” is an excerpt from her memoir about immigration and displacement, for which she is seeking representation. Learn more at http://www.jalina.co.uk.

The Rapids

[translated fiction]

“Martín!”

“Ñoraa!”

“You think the river’s gone up?”

“Definitely, the snowmelt’s really letting loose down the sierra, bursting like you
wouldn’t believe.”

“Will the cows go into the woods?”

“I couldn’t hold them back even if I tried.”

“But be careful on the way back, son, the river’s treacherous.”

“The river won’t get me, mother.”

The boy had just untied the animals and was bravely driving them down a rocky path along the riverbank.

The sun had come up in the sky, lighting its radiant fire on the dense mountain snow, illuminating the whiteness of the distant fantastic landscape with its blinding morning rays. Already by the day before, the valley was clear of snow, which, now taking refuge in a few depressions along the uneven land, added a few strokes of white along the way.

The cattle, imprisoned in their pen during many days of severe weather, were diligently walking towards the fording place, longing for their tender and fragrant grazing grounds, the lush soil of the Ansar, the forested river island. Martín walked joyfully, his chest puffed out in pride next to his smooth-skinned but tick-infested cows, the most striking ones in the village. One of them, with the dappled-white coat of a foreign breed, was straggling behind the others and walking slowly. At the pebbly edge of the river, some fishermen commented on the animal’s arrogance in their usual exaggerating way, and the boy, affectionately patting its flank, said a few times, proudly, “Go on, Pinta!”

“She going to heave it soon?” they asked.

“Yes, before the full moon. Her calf is about ready to come out any minute now. . . . ”

The cows stepped into the ford, which was higher and noisier now, more turbulent from the melting ice, and the fishermen said to Martín the same thing his mother had told him: “Careful on the way back—the snow’s coming down at full speed from up there.”

The boy smiled self-confidently. “I know, I know.” And he climbed up the riverbank, at the top of which was a large plank thrown over the river, forming a makeshift bridge to the Ansar on the other side. Halfway across the teetering plank, the boy stopped to take in the majesty of that Cantabrian view with eyes that were greedy for beauty. The current, swollen and magnificent, roared out its tragic, devastating song; and the woods, turning green with glorious spring growth, gave the landscape a serene note of trust and sweetness, its smooth lawn standing out towards the wild foam and its flowered trees swaying back and forth over the furious rapids. In the distance, on the other side of the Ansar, hemming in that natural orchard was another branch of the river sparkling in the sun.

Martín didn’t want to admit how light-headed that marvelous and terrible vision made him feel, and, mockingly, smiling, he murmured as he closed his eyes over the dizzying waters, “Uf . . . what a racket you’re making!”

Then in one leap, he made it to the other bank, where the little hanging bridge known as “the alder bridge” was fixed to an alder tree. After that, the boy, somewhat shaky, turned his head to the river, and spit at it defiantly, as if to ridicule it. And, still chastising the river, he said, “Go ahead, scream, scream, show off!” And he went into the woods after his cows.

Martín was a handsome, young, agile, and strong cowherd; he was hard-working and determined. He often took the cattle out to pasture; the cattle were the pride and glory of the area, although they didn’t belong to his father outright since he was a sharecropper. From the mountains to the flatlands, Martín knew those easy roads like no one else did; he knew where the rich pastures were and where the clean watering places for the animals were. He knew that the family’s prosperity was dependent on these cows thriving, and living with the threat of poverty hanging over his tender heart, the boy kept vigilant watch over these beasts, with deep interest, at the bottom of which, by the way, was the pride of a fledgling cattle breeder and the greed of a campesino. But these sentiments were still weak in eleven-year-old Martín, and were eclipsed in that healthy little soul by a sweet fondness towards the animals, very characteristic of a good nature and a generous will.

*     *     *

The voracious cows grazed wholeheartedly, and with every bob of their heads, their cowbells added a musical note in the serenity of the woods. Martín sat on a downed tree trunk and smiled, gratified by the gentle tinkling that was the marcha real of this pastoral royalty. He entertained himself during the afternoon crafting wooden flutes, which he made by cutting young, willow stems free of knots and patiently hollowing them out. To peel off the juicy bark, it was necessary—according to the rules for Cantabrian children’s games—to accompany his methodical tapping on the flute with this tune: Squeeze out, squeeze out, crude willow stick; the crazy mule gave a big kick; the more you squeeze, the more you sing.

Martín repeated that magic spell an infinite number of times, and in his pack where he carried his meager daily meal, he now had quite a collection of sonorous flutes. He looked up at the sun and figured it must be around five. The cows were overjoyed and had had their fill; they were chewing their cud in pleasant abandon, drooling sleepily over the daisies, the graceful heralds of spring in the fields of Cantabria.

Halfway through the day now, the Witch’s Wind, which had begun at dawn with lukewarm puffs, began picking up steam. In the first days of March, only this southern wind had such strength. The river’s fearsome screaming was becoming louder, and reached all the way to the back of the woods now, where it was just a solemn whirring sound. Martín thought it was time to go back to the village; it would take the lazy cattle at least an hour to get there, and if they left now, they would arrive just before nightfall.

The boy stood up, and his high little voice interrupted the afternoon stillness and the river’s lullaby. “Let’s go, Princesa, Galana, go on, get up . . . Pinta . . . Lora, let’s go!” The animals began panting heavily, and the bells rang loudly as he tugged at their collars. The six cows began walking ahead of the boy.

After fifteen minutes of walking, Martín started to get worried; the river was roaring like a beast, much louder than in the morning. And as the boy made his way out of the dense woods, he looked at the mountaintops with terror and saw that not one tuft of snow was left from the recent storms; the sun’s fire and the stirring of the Southern Wind had done their magic.

The river must be making its bad-talk, Martín said to himself, The water is probably almost to the bridge by now, and maybe the cows will be scared to wade across. . . .

Impatient, he prodded the animals and quickened the pace. Soon, he was able to see the waters overflowing to the edge of the woods. He dashed for the bridge that would save him to see if it was still in place . . . yes, there it was! He calmed down. . . . Now it was just a matter of the cows wading across as usual. He pushed them forward; they were a little hesitant; they turned their noble heads to the boy, and in their big tired eyes, there seemed to be a flash of uncertainty. A few of them lowed questioningly.

The boy, anxious, prodded them more and more, and soon one of them went into the river determinedly. The others followed her in, meek but with confidence, all except Pinta, who, always straggling, hadn’t taken a step.

Martín pushed her forward, petting her on her back. “Go, stupid girl!”

The cow didn’t move.

The boy began pushing her insistently, but she lowed, obstinate and resisting, until finally, shaking him off with her solid frame, with an abrupt ringing of bells, she turned around and ran past the boy into the woods.

Martín was speechless and dismayed. But he didn’t hesitate for a moment—his duty was to save Pinta from this formidable flood, which would quickly inundate the entire area between the two branches of the colossal river.

The other five cows were more amenable; they were used to that route and valiantly finished wading to the other side. Martín, screaming and gesturing to them from the shore, saw them walking slowly towards the village. Then he ran in search of the stray animal, the best one of the herd, the apple of his family’s eye.

The cowbell tinkled melodically, its song as peaceful as an eclogue in the thick, dreamy woods, and, guided by the sound, the boy found the beast panting and stunned before the second torrent of the river, which was also overflowing into the woods. He tied a rope to her collar, which he had taken off his waist. He berated the beast, very annoyed, and forced her onto the right path.

Pinta did not resist—judging by the meek way she looked at her cowherd as he scolded her, maybe she regretted her insubordination.

“Can’t you see, stupid,”—he was upset but still reasonable—“we’re on an island, as they call it. Can’t you see that all this is going to be underwater any minute now? And if you drown, my father will lose at least forty duros. . . . I should have known you wouldn’t want to cross . . . you’re the fattest one of them!”

The boy’s incessant talking and the soft sound of the cowbell added a brassy note to the deep orchestra of the waters. The wind had died down; it was surely sleeping in some enormous crook of the blue mountains, under the pure, trembling evening star and the red cloud cover.

Martín’s ferocious little heart thumped every time he thought about that flimsy alder bridge.

In the time he lost chasing after Pinta, the river had widened terribly; now the foamy,
bubbling ford would not calm down.

The boy was agitated seeing that night was falling, seeing that tremendous onslaught of water. He tied the cow to a tree and climbed up to check on the bridge. But the bridge. . . . It was gone!

Stunned, Martín stood for a few minutes with his mouth open, completely dumbstruck before that irremediable, terrifying catastrophe. A veil of tears came over his innocent eyes. What was he going to do? He felt a terrifying need to scream for help, but the ominous solitude of the place and the thundering waters got the better of him as he panicked silently, overwhelmed. Automatically, he looked up to the sky, and the sudden hope of a miracle caressed his soul with a light graze, like a kiss. Maybe an angel would come and put the bridge back in its place! And the cowherd tried a few vague prayers, confusingly split between Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Saint Anthony.

But the angel would not come; the river was still growing, and night was falling, undaunted and serene, in spite of his misfortune.

Then, grasping at his only chance for salvation, Martín went to Pinta, untied her, and caressing and caressing her with his trembling little hands, he spoke to her deliriously, begging her to wade across the river and save him. Slowly, very carefully, as he spoke, he mounted her back, gripping the rope he had used to tie her.

Martín began believing in miracles, because the obedient, obliging beast went into the water without hesitating, carrying him on its back. And the terrible incident came to its horrible, frightful climax. The animal sank in the foamy, roaring waters, and slipped and howled in a fit of fear, while the boy, with his arms around the solid mass of flesh, kissed it, sobbing, whimpering a few tremulous words, which were as much directed to God as to Pinta.

The thundering voice of the river overwhelmed that humble, crystalline little voice, when once again the cowherd’s innocent soul felt the kiss of a miracle. Rising above the noise of the water, some voices called to him insistently—there were definitely people on the other side. His parents, his neighbors had come for him. . . .

Martín knew he was saved now. He raised his head in the darkness in a movement of crazy joy, but when his arm let go of Pinta, a rush of water threw him off her and he rolled into the foamy rapids.

Still for a moment, Martín was vaguely holding on to the hope that he would live—he still had the rope in his hand that was tied to the cow’s neck. The current, with a barbaric strength, was pulling the boy down, to the abyss, to his death; and the massive cow, with the brute eloquence of its exertion and its howling, was pulling him to the shore . . . But the rapids were stronger, and now the animal was being dragged behind the boy!

Then the boy, brave and generous in that supreme moment, let go of the rope, and said with a strange, hoarse voice, “Go on, Pinta!”

And still he yelled, “Mother!” He opened his arms, opened his eyes, his mouth, and thought the whole turbid, bitter river was rushing into it; he felt how the screaming current, which had been harassing him all day, was now stridently laughing in his ears, cold and mocking like a threat that has been fulfilled; and finally, he saw how the peaceful evening star twinkled in the sky among red clouds….The rapids swallowed him instantly, helpless and defeated, that poor flower of sacrifice and humility. . . .

Pinta, finally reaching the coveted shore, looked with stupefied, gentle eyes at a group of people surrounding her, and a sad woman, who had heard Martín’s final words in the pit of her stomach, wailed in tragic reply, “I’m coming! I’m coming!”

And the poor woman ran down along the riverbank, sank into the flooded pastures, lost herself in the blackness of the night, and the depths of her pain. . . .

 

—¡Martín!

—¡Ñoraa!…

—¿Habrá crecida?

—Habrála, que desnevó en la sierra y bajan las calceras triscando de agua, reventonas y desmelenadas como qué…

—¿Pasarán las vacas al bosque?

—Pasan tan «perenes».

—Pero ten cuidado a la vuelta, hijo, que el río es muy traidor.

—A mí no me la da el río, madre.

El muchacho acabó de soltar las reses y las arreó, bizarro, por una cambera pedregosa que bajaba la ribera.

Había madrugado el sol a encender su hoguera rutilante encima de la nieve densa de los montes y deslumbraba la blancura del paisaje, lueñe y fantástico, a la luz cegadora de la mañana. Ya la víspera quedó el valle limpio de nieve, que, sólo guarecida en oquedades del quebrado terreno, ponía algunas blancas pinceladas en los caminos.

El ganado, preso en la corte durante muchos días de recio temporal, andaba diligente hacia el vado conocido, instigado por la querencia del pasto tierno y fragante, mantillo lozano del «ansar» ribereño.

Martín iba gozoso, ufanándose al lado de sus vacas, resnadas y lucias, las más aparentes de la aldea; una, moteada de blanco, con marchamo de raza extranjera, se retrasaba lenta, rezagada de las otras. Llegando al pedriscal del río, unos pescadores comentaron ponderativos la arrogancia del animal, mientras el muchacho, palmoteándola cariñoso, repitió con orgullo:

—¡Arre, Pinta!

—¿Cuándo «geda», tú?—preguntaron ellos.

—Pronto; en llenando esta luna, porque ya está cumplida…

Las vacas se metieron en el vado, crecido y bullicioso, turbio por el deshielo, y los
pescadores le dijeron a Martín lo mismo que su madre le había dicho:

—Cuidado al retorno, que la nieve de allá arriba va por la posta.
El niño sonrió jactancioso:

—Ya lo sé, ya.

Y trepó a un ribazo desde cuya punta se tendía un tablón sobre el río, comunicando con el «ansar» a guisa de puente. A la mitad del tablón oscilante, el muchacho se detuvo a dominar con una mirada avara de belleza la majestad del cuadro montañés; la corriente, hinchada y soberbia, rugía una trágica canción devastadora, y el bosque, verdegueante con los brotes gloriosos de la primavera, daba al paisaje una nota serena de confianza y de dulzura tendiendo su césped suave hacia las espumas bravas y meciendo sobre el rabión furioso los árboles floridos. Lejano, en la opuesta orilla del bosque, el río hacía brillar al sol otro de sus brazos que aprisionaba el vergel.

Quiso Martín ocultarse a sí mismo el desvanecimiento que le causaba aquella visión maravillosa y terrible de la riada, y burlón, sonriente, murmuró cerrando los ojos ante las aguas mareantes:

—¡Uf!… ¡cómo «rutien»!…

Luego, de un salto, ganó la otra ribera, en uno de cuyos alisos estribaba el colgante puentecillo, conocido por «el puente del alisal». Entonces el niño, un poco trémulo, volvió la cara hacia el río, le escupió, retador, con aire de mofa, y aun le increpó:

—«Rutie», «rutie», ¡fachendoso!…

Después, internóse en el bosque, al encuentro de sus vacas.

Era Martín un lindo zagal, ágil y firme, hacendoso y resuelto; pastoreaba con frecuencia los ganados que su padre llevaba en aparcería, que eran el ejemplo y la admiración de los ganaderos del contorno. Del monte y del llano, Martín conocía como nadie los fáciles caminos; los ricos pastos y las fuentes limpias para regalo de sus vacas. El pastor sabía que sobre la existencia próspera de aquellos animales constituía la familia su bienestar, y viviendo ya el niño con el desasosiego de la pobreza encima del tierno corazón, guardaba para sus bestias una vigilante solicitud, un interés profundo, en cuyo fondo apuntaban, acaso, el orgullo del ganadero en ciernes y la codicia del campesino. Pero inseguros estos sentimientos en los once años de Martín, aparecíanse en aquella almita sana cubiertos de simpática afición hacia los animales, muy propia de una buena índole y de una generosa voluntad.

*     *     *

Aplicadas habían pastado las muy golosas, y en cada cabeceo codicioso mecieron las esquilas en la serenidad del bosque una nota musical, mientras Martín sonreía, halagado por aquel manso tintineo que era la marcha real de su realeza pastoril; sentado en un tronco muerto, iba entreteniendo la tarde en la menuda fabricación de unos pitos, que obtenía ahuecando, paciente, tallos nuevos de sauce, cortados sin nudos. Para conseguir el desprendimiento de la corteza jugosa, era necesario,—según código de infantiles juegos montañeses—acompañar el metódico golpeteo encima del pito, con la cantinela: Suda, suda, cáscara ruda; tira coces una mula; si más sudara, más chiflara…

Martín había repetido infinitas veces este conjuro milagrero, y tenía ya en la alforjita que fué portadora de su frugal pitanza una buena colección de silbatos sonoros. Miró al sol y calculó que serían las cinco. Las vacas estaban llenas y refociladas; rumiaban tendidas en gustoso abandono, babeando soñolientas sobre las margaritas, gentiles heraldos de la primavera en los campos de la montaña.

Al mediar el día, había saltado el Sur, ya iniciado desde el amanecer en hálitos tibios, que sólo el ábrego puede levantar en los días primerizos de Marzo; iba creciendo el temeroso vocear del río y llegaba al fondo del «ansar», apagado en un runruneo solemne. Martín pensó volverse a la aldea; al paso perezoso del ganado tardaría una hora lo menos; el tiempo justo para no llegar de noche.

Se levantó el muchacho y su vocecilla aguda rompió el sosiego de la tarde, arrullada por el río.

—¡Vamos… PrincesaGalana, arre…; arriba, Pinta…; Lora, vamos…!

Hubo un rápido jadear de carne, con sendas sacudidas de collaradas y sonoro repique de campanillas; y los seis animales se pusieron en marcha delante del zagal.

Al cuarto de hora de camino, Martín empezó a inquietarse; el río bramaba como una fiera, mucho más que por la mañana. Y cuando el muchacho se fué libertando de la espesura intrincada del «ansar», vió con terror que no quedaba en las altas cimas de la cordillera ni un solo cendal blanco de la reciente nevisca; la hoguera del sol y los revuelos del ábrego realizaron el prodigio.

—Irá el río echando pestes—decíase Martín;—habrá llegado punto menos que al puentecillo, y tal vez el ganado tema vadear…

Impaciente, arreó vivo y apretó el paso; y a poco, alcanzó a ver el desbordamiento de las aguas en los linderos del bosque. Dió una corrida para asegurarse de si estaba firme su puente salvador… ¡estaba! Respiró tranquilo… Ahora todo consistía en que las reses vadearan tan campantes como de costumbre. Las incitó: estaban un poco indecisas; volvían hacia el muchacho sus cabezas nobles, en cuyos ojazos mortecinos parecía brillar una chispa de incertidumbre… Hubo unos mugidos interrogantes.

Ansioso el niño, las excitó más y más, y de pronto, una entró resuelta, río adelante; las otras la siguieron, mansas y seguras, menos la Pinta que, rezagada siempre, no había dado un paso.

Martín la arreó, acariciándola:

—¡Anda, tonta, tontona!…

La vaca no se movía.

El zagal, imperioso, la empujó; pero ella mugía, obstinada y resistente, hasta que, sacudiendo su corpazo macizo, con brusco soniqueo de campanillas, dió media vuelta alrededor del muchacho y se lanzó a correr hacia el bosque.

Quedóse Martín consternado y atónito. Pero no tuvo ni un momento de vacilación: su deber era salvar a la Pinta de la riada formidable que, sin tardar mucho, inundaría por completo el «ansar» mecido entre los dos brazos del coloso.

Las otras cinco vacas, dóciles a la costumbre de aquella ruta, acababan de vadear el río con denuedo, y Martín, hostigándolas desde la orilla con gritos y ademanes, las vió andar lentamente camino de la aldea. Entonces corrió en busca de la compañera descarriada, la mejor de su rebaño,
aquella en que la familia toda se miraba como en un espejo.

Sonaba el tintineo melódico de la esquila, con placidez de égloga, en la espesura del bosque soñero; y, guiado por aquel son, el niño halló a la bestia jadeante y asombrada delante del segundo torrente que el río derramaba en el «ansar». Le amarró el pastor al collar una cuerda que desciñó de la cintura y, riñéndola, muy incomodado, la obligó a tornar a la senda conveniente.

La Pinta no opuso resistencia: tal vez estaba arrepentida de su insubordinación, a juzgar por las miradas de mansedumbre con que respondía a las amonestaciones severas de Martín.

—¿No ves, bruta—decíale, afligido y razonable,—que estamos, como quien dice, en una ínsula?… ¿No ves que todo esto se va a volver un mar, mismamente, y que si te ahogas pierde mi padre lo menos cuarenta duros?… ¡Pues tendría que ver que no quisieras pasar!… ¡Sería esa más gorda que otro tanto!…

La charla afanosa del rapaz y el blando soniquete del esquilón daban una nota argentina a la orquesta grave de la riada. Habíase encalmado el viento; dormía, sin duda, en algún enorme repliegue de las montañas azules, sobre las cuales temblaba puro el lucero vespertino, arrebolado de nubes rojas.

El bravo corazoncillo de Martín golpeaba fuerte cada vez que el niño pensaba en el puente liviano del alisal.

Había ensanchado el río atrozmente sus márgenes en el tiempo que el zagal perdiera con la fuga de la Pinta; ahora, el vado espumoso y borbollante no remansaba.

Angustiado el niño, viendo crecer la noche en aquel asedio terrible del agua, amarró la vaca a un árbol y trepó a cerciorarse del estado del puente.

Pero el puente… ¡había desaparecido!

Martín, anonadado, estuvo unos minutos abriendo la boca, en el colmo del estupor, delante de aquella catástrofe irremediable y espantosa. Un velo de lágrimas cayó sobre sus ojos cándidos: ¿Qué hacer?… Sintió una necesidad espantosa de pedir socorro a voces; de llorar a gritos; pero la soledad medrosa del paraje y el estruendo de las aguas, le dominaron en un pánico mudo, aniquilador. Alzó maquinalmente la mirada al cielo, y la súbita esperanza de un milagro acarició su alma con un roce suave, como de beso; ¡si viniera un ángel a colocar otra vez el puente en su sitio!… Y ensayó el pastor unas vagas oraciones, repartidas, confusamente, entre la Virgen del Carmen y San Antonio.

Pero ¡el ángel no venía; el río seguía creciendo, y la noche cayó, impávida y serena, encima de aquella desventura!

Asiéndose entonces a la única posibilidad de salvación, Martín se llegó hasta la Pinta, la desamarró y, acariciándola mucho, mucho, con las manitas temblorosas, la echó un delirante discurso, rogándola que vadease el río y que le salvara. Despacio, con grandes precauciones, según le hablaba, se subió a sus lomos, asiendo siempre la soga con que la había apresado.

Martín empezó a creer en la realización del prodigio, porque la bestia, sumisa y complaciente, entró sin vacilar en el agua, llevándole encima. Y llegó a su apogeo el tremendo lance lleno de temeridad y de horror.

Hundíase el animal en el río espumoso y rugiente, y resbalaba y mugía, en el paroxismo del espanto, mientras que el niño, abrazándose a la recia carnaza vacilante, la besaba sollozando, gimiendo unas trémulas palabras, que tan pronto iban dirigidas a Dios como a la Pinta.

La tonante voz del río empapaba aquella humilde vocecilla de cristal, cuando el alma candorosa del pastor sintió otra vez el beso del milagro. Dominando el estrépito de la riada, unas voces le llamaban con insistencia: había gente, sin duda, en la otra orilla; le buscaban sus padres, sus vecinos…

Martín se creyó salvado. Alzó la frente en las tinieblas con un movimiento de alegría loca, y al soltarse del brazo que daba a la Pinta, un golpe de agua le echó a rodar en las espumas del rabión.

Todavía, por un instante, tuvo Martín asida una tenue esperanza de vivir: conservaba en su mano la cuerda que la vaca tenía atada al collar. La corriente, de una bárbara fuerza, tiraba del niño hacia abajo; hacia el abismo; hacia la muerte. La vacona, con la elocuencia brutal de esfuerzos y berridos, tiraba de él hacia la orilla… Pero, ¡podía más el rabión, que ya iba arrastrando al animal detrás del niño!

Entonces él, bravo y generoso en aquel instante supremo, soltó la cuerda, y dijo con una voz ronca y extraña:

—¡Arre, Pinta!

Aún gritó: ¡madre! Abrió los brazos, abrió los ojos, abrió la boca, creyó que todo el río se le entraba por ella, turbio y amargo; sintió cómo el vocerío de la corriente, que todo el día le estuvo persiguiendo, le metía ahora por los oídos una estridente carcajada, fría y burlona, como una amenaza que se cumple; y vió, por fin, cómo temblaba en el cielo, entre nubes rojas, el lucero apacible de la tarde… El rabión se le tragó en seguida, inerme y vencido, pobre flor de sacrificio y humildad…

La Pinta, dueña de la codiciada margen, miraba con ojos atónitos y mansos a un grupo de gente que la rodeaba, y a una triste mujer que, habiendo recibido en mitad del corazón la postrera palabra de Martín, en trágica respuesta, contestaba a grito herido:

—¡Allá voy, allá voy!…

Y corría la infeliz, ribera abajo, a la par del río, hundiéndose en los yerbazales inundados, perdida en las negruras de la noche, y en la sima de su dolor…

 

Translator’s Statement:

One of the things that makes Concha Espina’s writing so challenging to read is that, while she writes in Spanish, she intersperses her stories with certain Cantabrian words that would be unknown to the average Spanish speaker. The northern region where she is from, also known as La Montaña, is very different from the rest of Spain in terms of climate and vegetation, and it was also one of the only regions of Spain never to have been conquered by the Moors. Today, Cantabrian is classified as an endangered language.

Many of the Cantabrian words she uses have to do with rural life, and these words are very vivid. For example, ansar is the word for island. Towards the end of the story, the boy says to his cow, “We’re on an island, as they call it.” Here he uses the Spanish word.

But another, more difficult example is when the boy meets the fishermen. They say to him, in reference to one of his cows, “¿Cuándo «geda», tú?” which I somewhat unsatisfyingly translated as “She going to heave it soon?” “Gedar” means to calve in Cantabrian and “una geda” is a cow that has recently calved. This fisherman’s question in Spanish is five syllables (but the sounds can blend together so that it almost sounds like four). My translation, however, is seven syllables (or six if you say “gonna” in your head). It also doesn’t quite have that same staccato sound produced by the letters c, g, and t in “¿Cuándo «geda», tú?

The way these fisherman speak is very much connected to who they are—poor fisherman in rural Cantabria. They are “men of few words.” I see them as having that rugged, masculine quality that we also associate with the countryside in the United States.

In English, the question is not quite clear. Without any context, “heave” could mean any number of things here. But most Spanish speakers would also not know what “geda” means right away. The question is made clear by the boy’s answer.

 

Slava Faybysh was born in Ukraine and grew up in the United States. He translates from both Spanish and Russian. He is just starting out in the field of literary translation and has several manuscripts for which he is currently searching for publishers. His translations have appeared on Asymptote and Palabras Errantes.

Concha Espina (1869–1955) was a prolific author of poetry, plays, novels, and novellas. She was the first woman in Spain to be able to make her living exclusively from writing. Though she was a contemporary of the Generation of ’98 writers in Spain, her work is somewhat different from other writers of the period. Her main influences were Realism and Romanticism. Concha Espina was deeply Catholic, and although she did not identify as a feminist, much of her work does have certain feminist themes. Early in her career, she was mainly apolitical. She slowly drifted to the left by the 1920s, writing a book in support of miners. But by the time of the Spanish Civil War, she came to support the fascist Franco government. Concha Espina was a finalist for the Nobel Prize three times in the 1920s, and several of her novels were made into movies during the 1950s. “The Rapids” was one of her earliest works to be published in 1907.

The Fourth Astral Plane & We Have Arrived

[translated poetry]

The Fourth Astral Plane

We bolted from empty stores,
Army bullies,
Chernobyl,
Afghanistan,
Nagorno-Karabakh and
Happy drunkards euthanized in the snow.
We were afraid that tomorrow another curtain would fall,
And the pogrom-happy Czar would return, or the dictator, or the
terrorists,
So amidst the hot Brooklyn spring we came
To the Hasidim dressed in all black,
And to those, who stay black no matter the clothes,
We walked knee-deep in the snow
Circled the Jewish cemetery starving as if for prey
Arguing in hoarse voices about Berdyaev and Shestov,
And we ran away from dull rabbis,
Matronly priests,
And Buddhists, annoying as flies in their complacency,
But terrorists caught up with us like Karma
And we choked coughing,
And covered our mouth
When New York swelled with asbestos dust
From the rotting twin corpses.
And in the snow desert by Chicago
We listened to the howling Tom Waits
And were mocked by the everlasting
And golden San Francisco fall.
We couldn’t bear it and ripped
The shirts off our backs.
And spending our last money
We ripped across the ocean, back to the East.
In a London bar we listened
To the joking oligarch, “I drink only beer,
Where I can see the polonium better.”
And in the Berlin “USSR” bar
We opened the bathroom door
Decorated with a stolen authentic sign
“Embassy of the Soviet Union.”
I wanted to steal it back.
And when we landed in Sheremetyevo,
Boryspil and Pulkovo
At the stores pregnant with merchandise
On Nevsky, Arbat or Khreshchatyk,
We were met by frozen drunkards with hardened, happy eyes
Who welcomed us.
And the Kiev salesgirl pretended
That she knew no Russian,
And the cops frisked us for money
At the Novoslobodskaya metro
And we kissed our sleeping bride on the forehead,
Sure that we would never see her again,
And early morning we left the cozy place
On Bolshoi Karetny.
Played hide-and-seek with armored troop-carriers,
And the OMON lines
Waiting in ambush for marchers,
And when the taxi driver asked, “Where to?”
We lingered, muttering,
“To the Fourth Astral Plane.”

 


We Have Arrived

There was no one there
to meet my mother and I
at JFK airport.

2 weeks before us
my uncle came to america
and got lost on the way.

He did not know english.

In the middle of the terminal
I stood with my mother
with a fountain of bags
and no money. Our own language
not enough currency or food

to be
found
lost

in the lost world.


 
ЧЕТВЁРТЫЙ АСТРАЛ

Мы уезжали от пустых прилавков,
Дедовщины,
Чернобыля,
Афганистана,
Нагорного Карабаха и
Счастливых алкашей храпящих в сугробах,
Боясь, что завтра захлопнется
Приоткрывшаяся дверь
И вернётся Царь, диктатор или террористы
И мы приехали в жаркую бруклинскую весну
К одетым во все чёрное хасидам,
И к тем кто и без одежды полностью черный
И мы ходили по колену в снегу
Вокруг еврейского кладбища
Споря до хрипоты о Бердяеве и Шестове
И мы убежали от тоскливых ребе
Заботливых батюшек
И надоедливых как мух буддистов
И террористы настигли нас здесь
И мы захлёбывались кашлем,
Закрывая рот платком
Когда Нью-Йорк окутала асбестовая пыль
От гниющих трупов Близнецов,
И в снежной пустыне под Чикаго
Мы слушали завывания Тома Вэйтса
И нас раздражало вечная
Золотая осень Сан-Франциско
И мы не выдержали и рванули
На себе рубаху
И рванули тратя последние деньги
Назад на Восток
И слушали как в Лондоне
Олигарх в баре шутил
«Я пью только пиво.
В нем заметней полоний»
И в Берлине в баре «СССР»
Мы открыли дверь в туалет
Украшенной украденной реальной табличкой
«Посольство Советского Союза»
И когда мы приземлились в Шереметьево,
Борисполе и Пулково,
К заваленным магазинам,
На Невском, Арбате или Хрещатике
То нас встретили те же
Счастливые алкаши давно замёрзшие в сугробах
С округлившимися глазами,
Киевская продавщица сделала вид, что не понимает по-русски
Менты обыскали и забрали деньги у метро «Новослободская»
И мы поцеловали в лобик спящую невесту
Зная, что никогда её больше не увидим
И вышли рано утром из уютного дворика
На Большом Каретном,
Посмотрели на затаившийся бронетранспортёр
И роты ОМОНа
Ожидающих в засаде демонстрантов
И когда таксист спросил
«Куда шеф?»
Замедлили и сказали
«В Четвёртый Астрал»

 


Мы Прибыли Сюда Жить

Когда я с матерью прилетел в Нью Йорк
Нас никто не встретил в аэропорту
Мой дядя приехавший в Америку
За две недели до нас
Сам не зная английского
Заблудился по дороге.
Я стоял с мамой посередине
Огромного терминала с
Кучей чемоданов
Не зная языка, без денег
Потерянные в потерянном мире.

 

Collaboration Statement:

Alex wrote the original poems and rough versions of translations which were probably unreadable. Stella (“Fourth Astral Plane”) and Thomas (“We Have Arrived”), both American poets, then helped Alex polish up the poems under his guidance.

 

Poet, social worker, mama, and—perhaps by the time you are reading this—ex-wife, are among the identities of Stella Padnos. Stella’s debut book of poems and subsequently released chapbook—brightly titled In My Absence and Next to Nothing—have been published by Winter Goose Press since 2016. Stella enjoys writing about ambivalence, attraction, and general emotional discomfort.

Thomas Fucaloro is the author of two books of poetry published by Three Rooms Press, most recently It Starts from the Belly and Blooms, which received rave reviews. The winner of a performance grant from the Staten Island Council of the Arts and the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, he has been on six national slam teams. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the New School and is a co-founding editor of Great Weather for Media and NYSAI press. He is an adjunct professor at Wagner College where he teaches world literature and advanced creative writing. He is a writing coordinator at the Harlem Children’s Zone and lives in Staten Island.

Alex Galper was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1971. He came to America in 1990 escaping draft to the Soviet Army. Alex graduated from Brooklyn College majoring in creative writing in 1996. He still writes in Russian and is well-known in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Alex’s short stories about living in New York appear regularly in major Russian periodicals. He works for New York Department of Social Services and does acting part-time. Alex had a small part in HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero. His poems and short stories were translated into English, Swedish, German, and Georgian.

Alone in Company

Before my eyes open, I begin my day by searching for my phone. My hand runs over the covers, under the pillow, along the stack of books on my bedside table. More often than not, I find it and am plunged into the rush of notifications, which I absorb with one eye closed, because of my astigmatism. But some mornings my phone has fallen between the bed and the wall. The first time this happened I tried to carry on with my morning, feed the cats, pee, but a feeling kept sounding the alarm that I had forgotten something. I paced the apartment, into the kitchen, back into the bedroom, the bathroom. My husband was sleeping and to retrieve my phone from between the bed and the wall would be to wake him, which is precisely what I found myself doing. And before the sun was up we were moving the mattress, so I could snatch that which brings me, joy.

Last night I found Garden State streaming on HBO GO. Without weighing my decision, I pressed play. And as Sam and Andrew met and carried on with the dialogue of their un-woke romance, the soundtrack washed over me. I was on the precipice of my college experience that summer, flitting around with boys I didn’t plan on seeing past August, just shy enough in age to look up to the characters as harbingers of my own twenties. I saw the film in theaters three times, fourteen years ago. Nathan Rabine had not yet written the article that catapulted the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl into existence, my grandmother was still alive, Bush was president, and I had been accepted to my dream art school, which I would be attending in fall.

The soundtrack to Garden State is my first studio. Organizing the paints. Being alone for hours in my room with a quill and ink and a pad of paper the size of an infant bed. Falling in love with Sonny and then with Jake. Recovering from the Halloween party of a school filled with kids like me.

Most of the time I am aware of my brand of intelligence. Not enough to be an academic, but enough to know that I will likely never write the next great American novel or amount to much at all.

When I think of all the freshmen college students ready to have their first holidays away from home with friends they have only known for a few months my throat gets tight. Because what time in my life will ever be as important and rich and poised with moment, than the times that have already passed? Parenthood, I suppose is the one coin I have left to collect before I can truly say or feel that my “poised with moment” moments have come to pass. But there is still so much figuring out I have to do before I can be a mother. So many things to write. Books to read. Art to make. Money to be earned. So why do I squander away my time, so many days on my phone, immersed in the scrolling and clicking and taking naps next to a bedside table with a stack of partially read books?

Most of the time I am aware of my brand of intelligence. Not enough to be an academic, but enough to know that I will likely never write the next great American novel or amount to much at all. When does a person amount to something? How does one know when they have amounted? Perhaps we never know and that’s the sort of thing that can only be accounted for posthumously.

Maybe I am lazy with my aspirations because I don’t want for much. Somedays, laying in a sunbeam on my bed, soft music coming from somewhere in the house, my two hilarious, precious, unusual cats curled up on me, Fig on my right shoulder, Budderlamb on my chest, I watch them pull whiffs of our neighborhood with their intricate noses and think, How can I ever want anything more? My husband and I have hung chandelier crystals in our bedroom window. So every fall and winter, when the sun moves lower in the sky, rainbows dance across our walls all day. It’s no wonder I don’t get much done. I am keenly aware that these are The Good Days.

So why, when I watch Garden State, or Good Will Hunting, or read Sylvia Plath or books about the activists in Taiji, Japan, protesting the slaughter of dolphins, do I wish I was smarter? Contributing more to the world? Working harder? There must be something in those things that resonates with me. Is it more than the desire for prestige? More than the validation of a title? Of bragging rights? I don’t really know. I do know that sometimes when I see images and posts of my friends’ successes, I am filled with such a combination of envy and self-loathing that I scroll past, or don’t finish reading about the publication, grant or fellowship that they are over the moon to share. Sometimes I see the post. Let it settle somewhere inside me before liking or commenting on it. And after I am fortified with breakfast, or a shower, or some small victory of my own, will I revisit, explode into an an emojistorm of congratulations. Because I do mean it. I mean it, and everyone is watching.

I crave aloneness. Aloneness from my phone— which I have every opportunity to fling into oncoming traffic or the fountain at Echo Park Lake. I crave aloneness from the news, which is a swipe to the right and new every time.

I have been asked what it means to be an artist in 2018. I hardly know. For me, it is to fear that every word or image is a window into public, political and social tumult. It means you have to be more vulnerable than you or anyone in times previous has ever been. Everything tells us it’s a society poised on the brink of collapse and chaos, more segregated in our righteousness than we have ever been. It is the loneliest time to have a heart with the desire to share anything at all. Social capital is the currency, and if you have none you are poor. Of course, it is a time of great revelations. Of the ground being cracked apart to be re-laid. It’s a jackhammer and a whirlpool and a plague. Relentless in the sludge of information that pours through our screens by the hour. Where are we headed from here? Where can we possibly go?

I crave Inverness. Dancing Coyote Beach and the fireplace in the cottages there. And the nap I took, lulled into a thick sleep by the lapping of Tomales Bay. I crave aloneness. Aloneness from my phone—which I have every opportunity to fling into oncoming traffic or the fountain at Echo Park Lake. I crave aloneness from the news, which is a swipe to the right and new every time. I crave aloneness from the dishes and the plans. And the piles of paper in my studio. The boxes of “art” that have not sold but might. I crave oblivion to offset the aloneness and aloneness from the desire for oblivion, and yet, this is the most alone I may have ever felt.

In college of at the start of my junior year, I didn’t yet have an apartment and the calendar had snuck up on me suddenly. I found myself entirely unprepared for school, in the thick of class sign ups and foundation courses with nowhere to live and a trash bag of cocktail dresses in the trunk of my windowless ‘93 Camry, that I had intended to sell but instead became my temporary wardrobe. I moved into my studio on campus which was a drywall space with an open ceiling in a block of several other similar units. For the first two months of that year, I slept on a futon there, where the overhead lights were on all the time; it often reeked of cigarettes and weed, and you could hear all hours gossip from the other students who didn’t suspect you were silently existing nearby. I showered early in the morning, in the security office and kept a large bowl nearby which I peed into, when the bathrooms were too many flights of stairs to get to in time. On my desk with the art supplies were two boxes of cereal which I couldn’t keep safe from the rats whose chewing kept me awake at night. I painted and sculpted in there, destroying the cocktail dresses from having future homes. And when I felt lonely I would go to the library to see people studying, peruse the books, and to check my Myspace in the computer lab.

That’s what it was to be an artist in 2006.

Now, it feels entirely devoid of that romance. Now, my art is better. I know technical shortcuts and where to buy the materials I need at the best prices. I have evolved immeasurably in my approach and my craft. I have slowed down and quickened my pace. I have a true home. The home of an adult married lady with a closet of clothes and cats and cereal that does not get chewed on by rats.

But I am more scared now than I ever was of making and sharing art. The size of the world seems to have grown with my access to the information in my pocket. And in that, my sense of uniqueness, of necessariness, of relevance has diminished, which before the age of the smartphone, played a subterranean, but crucial role in my creative machine.

In 2012, I was in the worst part of what would be a four-year existential crisis. I didn’t know why humans were here on earth or what the point of it all was. And one afternoon at Bed Bath N’ Beyond sent me spiraling out of control—the isles of Yankee candles and plug in wall fresheners seemed to me, everything that was wrong with the world (in particular a heavy blue Yankee candle with a tiny sailboat on the front called Life’s A Breeze). When I rounded the bend on my crisis I had settled with a personal knowledge that some things were just too big for us to know, and that my particular life was not designed to answer the big questions. I was not meant to see the man behind the curtain or get friendly with the abyss. For it did, as Nietzsche forewarned, begin to gaze back into me. Maybe too, is this VIP pass we’ve created to everything, that we take with us everywhere, too big for my spirit to hold. But how to move forward? Tossing my phone into the LA river and moving deep into the woods of the San Geronimo valley seems as counterproductive as spending four hours of my day engaged with my phone. In the end, they both leave me isolated. At least one of these options gives me the illusion of camaraderie, community. Alone, but in company.

 

Chelsea Bayouth is a writer and Emmy Award Winning visual artist from Los Angeles, California. Her poetry and short stories have been published or are forthcoming in BOAAT, Roanoke Review, Borderlands, Harpoon Review, The Rattling Wall/PEN Center USA, Heavy Feather Review, Stirring Lit, and many others. More of her work can be found on her website www.chelseabayouth.com.

Migrations

The following narrative should be read alongside Tatiana Garmendia’s artist portfolio Migrations.

The doilies function as surrogates for the domestic domain. Their fragility contrasts starkly with brutal memories of the night the G2 Cuban secret police took my father away for a two-year interrogation. Mounted on drone footage from a random suburban Washington neighborhood, they point to the intrusion of state surveillance upon citizens, questioning if there is safety and peace anywhere.

*     *     *

Each handkerchief bears the portrait of a Jose in my family, along with the text to personal letters written to them. Cutting and pulling on horizontal threads to partially distress each, I physically eroded the textiles, illustrating the dissolution of intergenerational ties when a member of the family is forcibly removed by the state.

*     *     *

Beforehand/Afterwards II documents a performance in honor of my father, who was detained and tortured by the G-2 in Cuba. He died at 36 years old. Many of the techniques used against him by the Castro regime are now used by the US government in Guantanamo. Over the course of a month I embroidered a list of these torture techniques on a standard military blanket and wrapped myself in it as an offering of warmth to my father’s memory and the bits of his DNA in me. The embroidered blanket drapes an empty chair and serves as a surrogate for the missing figure, bringing his absence into the viewer’s space.

*     *     *

This series embraces the fluid space between the past and the present, between a homeland lost and a homeland gained. Here each wave meets at my heart with a gesture of embrace. The translucency of the polyester film points to a space between actual and conceptual representations. The viewer can see the recycled wood stretchers, sometimes the wire, and construct in their minds how the image comes to be. Viewing becomes a surrogate to the creative act.

*     *     *

Water has so many states…it can be solid, fluid, or vapor. Like our memories. Some are so concrete they are heavy like a glacier, others vanish like so much mist in a breeze. In this self portrait I wanted to capture the feeling of memories washing over me.

*     *     *

An empty glass and uprooted plants become stand-ins for the gaps in cultural agency experienced by outsiders, like immigrants, occupying the peripheries of society.

*     *     *

Flags and notions of nationhood are both abstract and very real, but both are easily distorted. I used a funhouse mirror to alter perceptions of the flagged still life.

*     *     *

I love the diversity of peoples in this my new homeland. Whatever frictions exist between cultures and races, most of the time we live, learn, and grow stronger together. To me this is still the land of possibility and optimism, which is why I employed the primary triad in the color scheme.

*     *     *

As a refugee, I see my identity occupying a reflective space between two cultures. I meditate regularly on a mercury glass skull, and here reflect on all those who have braved the seas in search of freedom but have drowned instead. Over 70,000 Cubans have drowned crossing the waters to the US.

*     *     *

I meditate regularly on a mercury glass skull. Here I reflect on all those who have braved the seas in search of freedom but have drowned instead.

 

Tatiana Garmendia is a professor of fine arts at Seattle Central College. She has exhibited her work throughout the US, and abroad in Mexico, Italy, Germany, England, and India. Her works are in public collections in Seattle, New York, Washington D.C., Miami, Illinois, California, Ohio, and the Dominican Republic. Synthesizing formal concerns and a humanist engagement with history and culture, the artist’s interdisciplinary work occupies fluid boundaries. Born in Cuba at the height of the Cold War and immigrating to the USA as a youth, the artist’s practice deciphers myths, histories, languages, and tropes from different communal fonts.

Girl’s Dresser – 1991

Girl’s Dresser is not my first attempt at using watercolor, though it’s among the earliest ones on my long journey to becoming an artist.

This piece was created in 1991 after I had turned sixteen. The start of the year was one of my most dramatic teenage years. Second only to the year I became pregnant in my sophomore year of college at the age of nineteen. I was head over heels in love with a beautiful man who was seven years older than me and I was tortured by my parents’ attempt to keep us apart. The strain of it all proved to be more than my fifteen-year-old self could handle and before I turned sixteen, I had ended it, to his (and my) amazement. Essentially, Girl’s Dresser was created shortly after the breakup of my first boyfriend.

I drew inspiration from my own clutter. One night, I made a little space and teetered on my dresser to take it all in. The visual of my own dresser top overwhelmed me and I realized then that I’d have to simplify my vision in order to get it down on paper. As I sketched out my edited and imagined version, periodically I’d again teeter on top of the dresser to keep the core of my vision in my head.

There was no book present, but I wanted to incorporate one in the piece because I had always been an avid reader, though in 1991 I was no longer a reader of the genre of literature the novel I created visually implies. The novel in Girls Dresser titled Tiny suggests some sort of young adult horror literature. It’s more of a reflection of what I had been reading from fifth to seventh grade rather than the literature I devoured at sixteen.

I define clutter as an abundance of things that are unorganized and I place them into two sub categories: (a) things that have sentimental value and (b) things that have a perceived outward world application value.

By 1991, I was reading works like, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and literature about slavery. I knew at the time that the novel I had invented in the painting came across as silly, but I placed no harsh judgment on it and allowed myself to explore the misty paths my imagination took me. The work was not created to be seen but to be adventurous. It was my version of still life, but for my eyes only—and maybe a couple of friends.

When Girl’s Dresser was complete, I tucked it away behind a collection of unhung posters behind my bedroom door. Girl’s Dresser, though always in my heart, never hung on a wall or door. It could almost be seen as a capsule of time that reflected the thoughts and behavior of my much younger self. I was a girl trudging towards womanhood, trying to be pretty, trying to be smart, exploring curiosities and defying her parents—I got into trouble on more than one occasion for keeping my dresser such a mess. I shrugged it off. It was my mess.

My current style and themes veer away from my interests as a teenage girl in wide degrees. For example, in a series of work titled, “Kobiphysics,” all of my paintings touch on the contributions of ancient and modern physicists. In a series titled, “STATIC!” the work addresses police brutality and the abuse of authority. Observation from these few examples illustrates that my more current somber and cerebral topics are galaxies away from the pink swirling whimsy of the study of a girl’s dresser.

Examining my entire body of work (my writing included) up to the present, one of the common threads that weave my first works to my current ones, is a thread I refer to as “clutter.” To be clear, I’m not inclined to categorize clutter as the half hazard placement of things that haven’t made it into the trash from procrastination or laziness. I define clutter as an abundance of things that are unorganized and I place them into two sub categories: (a) things that have sentimental value and (b) things that have a perceived outward world application value. In my writing, you can see it in random lists I create (I’ve always been a list maker). In my art, you can identify it in a collection of abstract images. An example is seen in my latest series, where I create assemblages of random things I own: pearls, painted bottle caps, crocheted t-shirts, Mardi Gras beads… in order to re-envision the idea of traditional talismans. My favorite is titled, “To Ward Off Sneaky-Snake Women Who Try to Kiss Your Man on the Mouth.”

I suspect the influence, the gravitation to the visual aesthetics of the abundance of things, stems from my grandmother, Ernestine Ruthie Mary Anderson Banks, who, in hindsight, I recognize as a hoarder. She was what a psychologist would classify as an “organized hoarder.” Her cups not only lined the inside of the cabinets, but were also nailed to the outside of the cabinets. Grandma had more jewelry nailed to her walls than in jewelry boxes. I’ve spent hours of my life reflecting on the multitudes of perfume bottles (full and empty) that occupied her entire dresser top—lined like soldiers under a cover of dust.

Clutter is to my work as decay is to the work of Salvador Dali; as crowns are to the work of Jean Michel Basquiat; as shame is to the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

My grandmother, Ernestine, passed away when I was twenty-four, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I began looking at her and her collections with new eyes. I’ve reflected on the way she spoke with relish of her collections; the shelves of ashtrays; the wall to wall beverage bottles, the cast iron skillets that hung from beams, the deer antlers on the back wall of the den, the floor to ceiling walls of books… and how she displayed them—like a series of museum installations. I began to look at her, over time, as an artist. The quiltist. The candelist. The pillowist. The found-object installation artist. Now that I think about it, she was also a curator, because everything she displayed was chosen as though diamonds and displayed with parallel mindfulness. As kids, we, her grandchildren, didn’t look at it like that at all. Everyone had grandparents who lived like this. Right?

My clutter was never as artful and Grandma’s. As I grew up and became a mother, I had less of my own clutter and a whole lot more of my daughter’s. Still, subconsciously, the clutter, the disorganized collection of various things, has been the backdrop to my various explorations of themes, concepts and media. A quiet stowaway that I’ve paid little attention to, until my body of work silently expanded. Clutter is to my work as decay is to the work of Salvador Dali; as crowns are to the work of Jean Michel Basquiat; as shame is to the work of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Though I am now open to sharing my work publicly, I consider each to be an experiment as I’m constantly working on both skill and mental evolution as a human being. My great challenge is to create like I did when I was sixteen. An exploration of and for the self. I’ve been striving lately, to be honest with myself. To stand up on my dresser top and look down at my life, to see it for what it is. To share what I want and keep the rest to myself. To recognize the mess. My mess.

 

Girl’s Dresser, 1991

 

Kobina Wright is a second-generation California native with a degree in communications from California State University, Fullerton. Wright is an artist, writer, entrepreneur, and a board member of The G.R.E.E.N. Foundation, an organization that helps to service the community through health education and navigation to support individuals and families to access quality health care.

Never

Yoga

I have bad memories of ballet class, and isn’t yoga like dancing in a way, teaching the muscles how to lengthen, how to lean, how to turn elastic as rubber bands? All my springs are coiled tight for bouncing. My love even calls me Tigger sometimes. I watch her step out of the studio from my warm perch in the coffee shop across the street. Steam rises from her body. Steam rises from all the yogis’ bodies in unison, in pseudo-cirrus reverie. They are shrouded. They are turning to clouds. They wrap scarves around their long, exposed necks, all of them, thin and elegant. They tuck their bony feet deep inside fleece-lined boots. I only have eyes for one of them, but I am watching all of them. Icicles dangle from the eaves, pointing down like arrows as if to say, See here: these bodies have melted into their most fluid selves.

I am solid. I hold a latte in my hand, which I have just ordered so it will be hot for her when she steps inside. The little bell above the door tinkles softly. Her cheeks are still burning from the heated room and the fire that yogis are taught to stoke inside them. I want to kiss her right here, right now, always, but she is not like that—not one for spectacle or display. She is always water flowing away from a scene. I am still land, of course, still solid, but I follow her everywhere with my eyes and with the secret compass lodged inside my throat.

Eventually, I follow her to yoga class. She doesn’t have to ask. People have crossed oceans for love, scaled mountains for love. Why is a mat my mountain? I notice, and then try not to notice, that when I hollow out my back in Cow and raise my chin, my clavicles still sink into my skin. No sharp crescent-moon rises out of the flesh. I notice, and then try not to notice, that when I lift myself into Wheel, there is nothing of the full circle about me. I only creak and cringe.

But there she is on her mat, doing beautiful things with her body. In a small way, we have scaled this mountain together. I feel so grateful and so vulnerable at once. What to do now? My sternum is full of suggestions, that hard ridge above my soft heart. Stop anticipating. Stop analyzing. Just breathe. She touches my hand in Savasana—only a light brush of her fingers, but it is enough. I lie supine and gaze at the stars.

*     *     *

Song

I have bad memories of singing. Not the earliest, not the baby song or the toddler song—nonsense burbling as echo from the womb. Nor even the kindergarten song—sitting crisscross applesauce on the worn carpet, pudgy hands clapping a beat, the wheels on the bus going round and round. But shortly after. When the world began to scowl. Hands clamped to ears. Sidelong smirk. So I shut up after that. Whispered and lip synced whenever singing was required.

But here I am, somehow, in a roomful of women, on a summer Tuesday evening, making strange noises with my breath. We’ve trilled Yoo Hoo! to each other in British accents, and held our hands to our soft bellies while murmuring yum… None of it feels like singing, so we’re able to let go and laugh—yet all of it is singing. It turns out singing begins in the body, becoming aware of the body as an instrument of sound.

And since the body is the instrument, we grow powerful and vulnerable at the same time. When your body is the instrument, any wrong note, any discord, feels as though you, yourself, are wrong. Singing is all about tuning your body, attuning to the slightest shift of posture: the lift of the ribs, the well of the pelvis, the slight rise of an eyebrow. You need to become liquid with song—not the ordinary solid cage of muscle and bone.

We’re in a room with a piano, a small stage, and rickety chairs. It’s the Bellingham Academy of Arts for Youth, and any minute now, children are going to stream in to rehearse The Music Man. I remember watching that movie with my parents and bouncing in my seat, leaning forward and aching to sing: Till there was you… vowels warbling up into the stratosphere.

I am not allowed to fail. I gather other people’s expectations like daisies in a field. I weave them into plain but respectable garlands.

In a few months’ time, I’ll be performing with some of those children in a recital. The youngest will go first, singing the Tigger song, and then the 8-year-olds, and then me: so nervous in my cowboy boots and twirly skirt. But there will be no stopping it: I’ll stand up to the microphone, and my teacher will sit at the piano, smiling her encouraging smile. I’ll launch into it, diving, as my teacher says, into the song that already exists in the air.

Oh, give me a home… And then the lesser known verse: Oh give me a land, with its white diamond sand, and the light from the glittering stream/ where glideth along, the snowy white swan, like a maid in her heavenly dream… And though I know my pitch is in flux, every round “o” floats from me like a bubble (so many songs, it turns out, rely on that long “o” sound, a vowel that opens the back of the throat so music can rush in). Then the audience will join me on the chorus, raucous and alive: and never is heard, a discouraging word, and the sky is not cloudy all day

But for now I’m just humming, deep in my belly, feeling the way the core muscles support every sound. I’m holding my hands at the side of my ribs to feel the way they can expand, and stay expanded, on their own. I feel the stickiness of my lungs as they adhere to the ribs in order to hold more breath. I’m standing on one foot—wobbly, unbalanced, laughing—to ignite the muscles of song.

*     *     *

Failure

“No environment could be better for young women who have feared it all their lives,” Sister Ann Cornelia says as she writes Failure with a flourish on the board. Here I am, somehow, in a roomful of others like me: all of us soon-to-be freshmen, soon-to-be fourteen, future Valedictorians and National Merit Scholars. Or so we’ve been told. All of us promised since infancy that we were fit to be Ivy League.

“Most of you have never been pushed to your fullest potential.” She faces us now, chalky hands pressed against her middle button firmly. She is small and round and sure of herself. Her clothes are dark with white smudges like a winter sky. “But the day will come when your best won’t be good enough. You will fail at something here, for once—I promise you that—and you will be better for it, forever.”

Not me, though. I am not allowed to fail. I gather other people’s expectations like daisies in a field. I weave them into plain but respectable garlands. At Holy Names Academy, my first year, there are only flowers, and I keep collecting them, the way I have learned to do—not stopping to smell them anymore, only bending to pluck, then tuck them in my temperate bouquet: A after A after A. But the next year, there is chemistry. The next year there are numbers doing things I don’t quite understand. There is also Bridget who shares the lab desk with me: Bridget who writes poems on graph paper, Bridget who braids her own hair, Bridget who wants to go to alternative school in British Columbia.

I have chemistry with Bridget. Any way you say it, the statement is true. We start tie-dyeing shirts together. We start writing and casting a play. Soon, I am borrowing hats with crush velvet flowers that flop carelessly over my eyes. I forget I am a Virgo and pledge my devotion to a less exacting sign.

When it arrives, the F appears almost neutral, like a fingerprint that hasn’t been scanned yet—just a lone blue letter centered at the top of a page. It is both unexpected and entirely deserved. I cannot argue with it, this F I have earned through relentless non-attention, and yet I have to lean against the wall to keep from tipping over. My legs are wobbly now, my joints unhinged.

“So what?” Bridget says. “It’s just a letter. Let’s tear up our tests and make streamers!” But alas, I am not the kind of girl who can part ways so quickly and completely with convention.

My lungs are sticky as I try to steady my breath, as I lean over and somberly whisper: “I don’t think we should see so much of each other anymore.”

*     *     *

Success

It’s ridiculous, really: A PhD. A “Doctor of Philosophy.” In my family, doctors (real doctors) are revered; we submit to their authority and do anything they say. And of course, the unspoken Jewish expectation: you’ll meet a nice boy, a doctor maybe, why not? It’s expected of young girls, young women. Sure, you can go to college, but don’t make a habit of it.

I’ve met nice boys, but they’re not doctors or lawyers or shrewd businessmen. They are novelists, poets, teachers, carpenters. None of them are Jewish. Their beliefs fluctuate from day to day. We drink lots of coffee and take long walks. We hold hands. We walk along rivers and mountains and lakes. We walk to funky cinemas with disco balls rotating in the ceiling, making everything sparkle.

Philosophy, in Greek, means “love of wisdom.” So I suppose I’m about to become a “doctor of wisdom,” or a “doctor of love.” But I’m neither of these things. I’ve stumbled into graduate school in complete ignorance, as if I’ve been sleepwalking, inching slowly backward down a dark alley. It’s only now, minutes before my oral exams, that I’ve begun to wake up, take my bearings, turn on the lights. How did I get here? Where am I?

I’m sitting in a windowless classroom, waiting for my professors. I’ve brought a bouquet of irises and tulips; I’ve brought pastries from the groovy shop downtown. Are these bribes? Perhaps. I’ve dressed like an adult, in a nice skirt and shoes with a heel. I’ve even put on lipstick. But my fingernails are bitten down, and there’s a big pimple on my chin. The seams in me always show.

I’ve been studying, spending long hours in the library with Montaigne and Hazlitt and Lamb. I know Didion and E.B White as if they’re old friends. I’ve made flash cards. I’ve memorized quotes. I’ve constructed arguments about representations of the self on the page. But success seems unfathomable, unthinkable, for a girl who’s never had any idea where she’s going. At this moment I feel blank as a new notebook. Nothing has been inscribed.

*     *     *

Manicure

I had dressed like an adult since I was a child, a miniature version of my mother. At eleven, she gave me a tube of lipstick just her shade, rouge, mascara, and powder. She said people might mistake us for sisters and smiled at the thought. By the time I was twenty-one, I was weary from a decade of make-up and polish—the way my mother insisted we must make up for something, the fact we were not “natural beauties.”

No more high heels, I vowed. For another decade at least, not even a dress, not once. I cut up my stockings. I kept my hair short and my face bare. Perhaps others assumed I was marking myself and my love affair with a woman. Perhaps they even inferred that I was “the man” in our relationship. Evidence: hadn’t I also purchased a Pierre Cardin tie, a blush-worthy impulse buy? But I think it was adolescent rebellion at last, years overdue—this stalwart refusal to gussy.

The day before our wedding, also years overdue, my beloved suggests we get a manicure. Our best friend is with us. She knows a place. “It might be fun,” she laughs, “to do something girly together for once.”

Now the most important women in my life are sitting side by side, having their nails done, chatting softly and choosing a color. They are lesbians. They are feminists. They are not worried about the implications of a little gloss and tint on their hands. So why am I? “This your first time in nail salon?” the man at the counter asks. I nod, sheepishly, but still I linger near the door, resisting the chairs and magazines. The seams in me always show.

“Your turn, Miss,” a young woman beckons. Her face is an open door. This is my chance to be normal, to be one of the girls, to participate in the rituals of femininity that have so long eluded me. This time, I can even do so on my own terms.

I place my hands in hers, gingerly, the way I will place my hands in my beloved’s tomorrow, when we stand before the small crowd to exchange our vows. “Your nails are very short,” she observes, a diplomatic alternative to ragged or gnawed. “I will soak your hands first, then push down your cuticles so we can see the moons. Yes?”

All at once, years of longing and fear and other feelings I don’t quite recognize are streaming from my eyes. I blot them quickly before we begin. “You are all right, Miss?”  I want to say how my mother isn’t coming to my wedding, how my mother doesn’t believe in my love. And I want to say how sad I am to be so relieved that she won’t have a chance to ruin everything. But instead, I nod my head, less sheepish this time: “Yes, please, I want to see the moons.”

*     *     *

Highlights

I lean my head into her hands and instinctively nuzzle them, like a cat. My eyes close and I hum quietly—a resonant yum—while she massages my scalp with lavender oil. These days, I get touched like this only by professionals: my hairdresser, my massage therapist, my chiropractor. My skin tingles at their touch. I feel a quick flush of shame at my pleasure.

She lifts one lock of hair, then another. I feel the gentle tug on my scalp, but even when I open my eyes, I can’t see what she’s doing; without my glasses I’m a blur in the mirror, a faint outline of head and shoulders draped with a black cloth. I know she’s pondering what to do with me today. My hair is at the in-between stage where nothing seems quite right.

How about highlights? she muses, almost to herself. Highlights? My hair has always been what I call “chestnut”: brown but with an undertone of red. At certain angles, it’s had a sheen to it, though my bangs get frizzy or oily, depending on the day. Most often they hang in one lanky bunch above my eyebrows. I’ve managed to arrive into my fifties without dyeing my hair, the gray strands barely noticeable until they spring up like coarse wire. I’ve never wanted to get caught in the hair-dyeing cycle, roots showing like flags of age that must be quickly hidden.

But lately, the gray hairs have been accumulating—quietly, like radicals gathering for subversion—and so I now suddenly see wide swathes of them when I brush my hair or push my bangs back with a headband. I see them, but I don’t see them, averting my eyes. It’s not a stylish wing of gray, like Susan Sontag, or a silver sheen like Helen Mirren. My gray is unruly, dowdy, stripping my hair of whatever vital spark it once possessed.

We’ll do it subtly, very natural, she says, gazing at me in the mirror. I can’t see her eyes, but she’s smiling. Her hands cup my shoulders, firm but gentle, as if she’s about to steer me the right direction on a trail. Yes?

How can I resist her, this woman who has examined every inch of my head? This woman who washes my hair and smoothes it against my scalp, who is always happy to see me, who wants only to make me lovely? We’ve talked about everything and nothing. But if I say yes—if I agree to be highlighted—will I still be myself? Will the highlights announce themselves, tell the world I no longer trust my own body to act in its best interests?

She’s waiting for my answer. The phone rings, and I hear the snip of other scissors, the roar of the blow dryer. The sound system is playing Hallelujah, a song I’ve been hearing lately everywhere: …love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah… This song always makes me both sad and happy at the same time; it’s a prayer of longing and not-quite-forgiveness. It’s a voice that wants to shout in jubilation to the heavens—you can it hear it straining to find its pitch—but finds itself hobbled by the failings of an earth-bound body.

It’s a song I’ve been singing my whole life.

Without speaking, I say yes. I nod, and she claps her hands, hurries off to get the foils and dyes. My blurred self and I wait quietly for her return. I know she’ll gently lift each hank of hair, carefully paint each strand until it shines.

*     *     *

Infidelity

Follow your heart! the poets exhort. I shrug my shoulders: What else would I follow? These are the lyrics I’ve been singing my whole life: songs of love and longing, passion and devotion. If I am anything, I am loyal. My eyes never wander. My feet are invariably warm.

But in college, when I begin to listen to radical folk singers like Ani DiFranco, I’m surprised, then riveted by lines like these: We’re in a room without a door, and I am sure without a doubt, they’re gonna wanna know how we got in here, and they’re gonna wanna know how we plan to get out. The song is called “Shameless,” and I play it hour after hour, the repeat button set on my small dorm stereo.

What I can’t get over is how candid the speaker is about covet[ing] another man’s wife. This is the first time I have ever heard a woman express such unabashed desire for another. I flush every time DiFranco’s voice dips low, slices through study time with a guttural moan: Then I get to see how close I can get to it without giving in; then I get to rub up against it until I break the skin. If my roommate walks in, I plunge for the pause button. I consider investing in a pair of headphones.

I once thought I’d have a daughter, a baby I could sing to sleep. I once thought I’d have a husband who would hold this baby lightly in the crook of his arm.

Little do I know that in just a few years I will find myself promised to a man. I will say Yes, OK, to marrying him, No, I’d rather not to the suggestion of a ring. He laughs at me. “You’re never about the bling, are you?” But he knows he can trust me, even with my bare left hand. He knows I’m not one for shirking my commitments. I always call, even if I’m only running a few minutes behind.

So I will not be able to name this. I will not be able to explain this. When I finally pick up the phone, days too late, I will wince at his fury, though I will know it is what I deserve. Shameless, he says, a snake in the grass. Later, in a letter: Men don’t choose a woman like you because you’re the hottest. They choose a woman like you because you’re the safest.

Why I didn’t call him first, why I didn’t sever one cord before I tied another—I couldn’t say. I was raised with Captain Von Trapp telling Baronness Shraeder on the Austrian terrace, You can’t marry someone when you’re in love with someone else. This he does before he kisses Fraulein Maria in the gazebo by the water, before they sing together about having done something good.

My heart, strange Geiger counter, is sending signals only my body can read. Perhaps the gazebo is the room without a door. Surely it is the glass house from which I must never throw stones. I am alone with the woman I love by a lake in darkness. It is spring, and our bodies are acting at last in their own best interests. My place. Her place. It hardly matters where we go next. I can’t even slow this down, let alone stop this. The night is a stringed instrument. The future an encore. We cannot top this, even if we tried.

*     *     *

Fidelity

The root word of fidelity means faith. As in devotion or belief. An infidel is one who has lost her belief. And, as with any faith, doubt comes into play. Doubt, the philosopher Paul Tillich stressed, isn’t the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. Or, to put it more lyrically, from Sylvia Plath: I talk to God but the sky is empty.

Fidelity also means accuracy, exactitude. As in fidelity to the facts. Or it means the quality of sound: high fidelity, as in a record or a film—each note clear and true. So many meanings for one word that, on the face of it, seems so simple and steadfast.

When I think of fidelity I think of my dog. Though her name is not “Fido” (a name that must, I hope, have the same origin), she keeps me always in her sights. She arranges herself in ways that seem meant to guard me from whatever, or whoever, might take me unaware (at the moment, for example, she has curled up behind my chair, blocking the doorway). She often has her eyes closed, but her ears twitch and she can be on her feet in a flash. She’s a small dog—only twenty pounds, with a foxlike face and a white plume for a tail—but her bark is that of a Great Dane’s.

She will bark at mailmen and anyone who delivers a package to my door. She will bark at the jingle of another dog’s collar in the street. She will bark at things invisible to my eye and ear, anything that might be a threat. She will bark to alert me, too, of friends arriving, wagging her tail so vigorously it’s a blur. Her pant becomes a smile, says: look who’s here!

She’s been my dog for almost ten years now, though I dreamed of her long before plucking her from the listings on Petfinder. She came to me as a puppy—all legs and nose and eyes—and I often felt at a loss, consulting my Puppies for Dummies book constantly, memorizing the steps for potty training, leash training, socialization, hygiene. She poked her head out of the cat carrier I’d used to pick her up, tongue lolling, eyes rolling from side to side. I could hardly speak, sure that anything I did might cause irrevocable harm. I touch her flank while we sleep, feeling her slow steady breath. I kiss her snout when we wake, nuzzle her under the chin. We make a full circle.

I once thought I’d have a daughter, a baby I could sing to sleep. I once thought I’d have a husband who would hold this baby lightly in the crook of his arm. I once thought my home would be filled with voices at all hours, a family working together at the mundane tasks—dishes, homework, puzzles—that make up a life. I believed these were facts, and anything else a poor imitation, inaccurate.

But, as it turns out, it’s just me and my dog. We are faithful to one another, and to this house that does not seem to mind its sparse occupancy. My dog roams the backyard, ears alert for any intruder; she comes inside and watches my every move. I stretch into downward dog, crocodile, cat and cow under her scrutiny. I sing to her the songs I’m learning, and she listens, sighing, stretching to make herself long as pulled taffy. Our sky is not empty, oh no. The night is a duet; it teems with a thousand stars.

 

Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, most recently An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016). She also co-authored Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University, and associate faculty at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her website is www.brendamillerwriter.com.

Julie Marie Wade is the author of ten collections of poetry and prose, most recently Same-Sexy Marriage: A Novella in Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2018). She is also the co-author, with Denise Duhamel, of The Unrhymables: Collaborations in Prose (Noctuary Press, 2019). Wade is an Associate Professor of English at Florida International University in Miami and reviews regularly for Lambda Literary Review and The Rumpus.

 

Reflections

“First I use the curry comb.”

Rachel’s in the passenger seat. Outside the window, the sky’s clear while the Tetons hover. The day’s so bright it hurts.

“It’s important to comb against the grain,” she says. “That removes the dirt and grit. Then I use the brush. They love the brush. That’s more like a massage.”

Her hand swipes the air as if the horse’s coat were still within her grasp. Driving, I nod. Yes, I tell her. Yes, I remember. Yes. Yes. Yes. Our conversations are achingly familiar, repetitions circling on one big loop. I finish her sentences, me and my daughter. Years ago, when I was younger, we used to bleed in sync.

“You can tell the horse likes it. Ears forward. Eyes closed. Hocks up.” Then she perfectly replicates a horse’s whinny. Though her face is blank, I can tell that she’s happy. Happier than she’s been in a very long time.

*     *     *

For the last twenty-five years, our family has dodged the Miami heat by vacationing in Jackson Hole. And ever since that first year, Rachel has spent her mornings visiting the ranch. But this July is different. The days stretch from one to the next as we scratch out blocks on the calendar. My husband Michael and I give her what she needs for however long as she needs it.

All families develop a dynamic. Ours has always revolved around Rachel. Born with an open spine, my daughter’s a success story. Corrective surgery at birth. Early intervention. But the problems that surfaced down the line were not the ones doctors warned us about.

That night, she wanders the cabin like a lost soul. Her hair’s damp from her shower. She’s wearing a long cotton nightgown with thick wool socks on her feet.

Rachel’s thirty-eight years old and has Asperger’s Syndrome. Not the new and improved version. Not the everything’s fine if not for a few charming tics. The most mundane multi-tasking stumps her. Driving a car. Riding a bike. Even ordinary chit chat is a challenge. The listening. The processing. The jiggering of words to form just the right reply. Conversation, after all, is a two-step dance. She’s a college graduate and library assistant. Still, we take nothing for granted.

The latest crisis: her marriage, somewhat of a miracle in itself, hit the tenth year mark and sputtered. This is the first time in many years that she’s come to Wyoming alone.

The signs of sadness were there for me to read. A voice registering in all black keys. A perpetual slouch. A dullness where there should have been a light. My daughter’s calling it a “time-out,” but I know different. Though she can’t tap the feelings, her very smart brain digs deep. Lately each conversation, no matter where it starts, ends up in the same place. Her eyes water as she gazes into the distance. A few cows are ambling near the road.

“Ken’s used to me,” she says. “He’s comfortable.” Wiping her cheek with the back of a sleeve, she quietly mumbles. “I’m like an old shoe. I’m broken in. I fit.”

Rachel’s a sucker for romance novels and movies with happy endings. And she’s savvy enough to know how the plots will enfold long before the story’s over. She was hoping, I suppose, that real life follows suit.

“I feel empty,” she says. “Shouldn’t I feel full?”

Animals have always soothed her. We bring apples with us wherever we drive and pull over when the impulse calls. In Wyoming, pastures are everywhere. Sleepy-eyed horses stand stilt straight and nod over open rails. I press down on the brake and stop the car. Then I wait in the shadows while she pets and pampers them. To Rachel, horses are merely overgrown dogs. My heart pounds and my pulse races, knowing they could kill her with a kick.

“Did you know their stomachs are too small for their bodies?” she says. “That’s why they graze. Just to survive they need nourishment all day long.”

Fearlessly, she runs her hand between the bulging eyes then lets it slide toward the muzzle. Teeth the size of dominoes gnash and gnaw the apple’s skin, seeds, core. Then they perilously march up and down my daughter’s arm searching for more. Rachel inches nearer. Close isn’t close enough.

“Did you know their lips are prehensile?” she says. “See how they reach out and grab?”

*     *     *

After the tumult of college, Rachel came back home to live. Though her days were structured with activity, she was lonely. A friend set her up on a blind date with someone who was lonely, too. He was an inch shorter, bald, and almost fifteen years older. Rachel’s blond, blue-eyed. Pretty. Most of the boys she had dated were nothing more than groping hands and thrusting tongues. This guy was different.

On the way home that first night, his fingers clenching the steering wheel, he serenaded her with Broadway tunes. And for the finale, when he pulled up in front of our home, he turned to her and crooned “On the Street Where You Live.” His face was lit by a street lamp, the tune a cappella and off-key. Still he plowed through all five verses. Looking back, it was a sort of a test, I suppose. And Rachel passed with flying colors.

“His voice isn’t very good,” she confessed. “But boy does he like to sing.”

*     *     *

Wyoming’s the yin to Florida’s yang. Our cabin in the woods is perched at an elevation of 6000 feet. The air’s dry. The wind scours your skin. We get home that afternoon tired and thirsty and head to the kitchen.

My husband’s sitting at the table, his fingers clicking his laptop. Meanwhile Rachel ducks her head into the refrigerator.

“It’s my turn to cook, Mom. Remember? It’s the least I can do. You and Dad have done so much.”

Though she and her husband live just fifteen minutes away, so much of what transpired stayed hidden. New habits developed that are just starting to surface. Extraordinary amounts of sleep. Slippage in the hygiene department. And for the first time in her life, my daughter, my child who has never ever lied, is mildly dissembling.

“I’ve got some great new recipes. You’ll like them. You really will.”

Rachel loves to cook. Cooking is therapy. The whir of the Cuisinart, the stirring, the spreading. But unlike me and Michael, she’s a strict vegetarian. If our meals were Venn-diagrammed, rarely does anything in the Rachel bubble intersect with ours.

“I’m thinking a Greek moussaka. Do we have lentils? Or how about some sloppy Joes? I make them with walnuts and cremini mushrooms. You got any eggplants lying around? You’ll like it. You really will.”

I close my eyes and see the beginnings of a grocery list. In a few hours, my kitchen will look like a crime scene. Sauces will fly, grease will drip, a tornado of foods will splotch the walls. While on vacation, my husband and I like to eat out. Why can’t we eat out?

When she looks at the windows, she only sees her reflection. She has no idea that I’m watching her. That the world is watching her. That beyond the protective boundaries of her mind, strangers hide and danger lurks.

“I cook farm to table. Aren’t you tired of eating all those steaks and hamburgers? I mean look outside. What do you see? Cows. Bovines with big brown eyes and swishy tails. It kills me, really. It’s like we’re driving a knife into their hearts.”

This is an argument I cannot win. Rachel knows exactly what’s entailed from the moment a cow leaves the barn until it ends up on your plate. Plus, she’s anxious. First, her husband didn’t return her phone calls. Now, he doesn’t return her texts. When she’s anxious, flexibility flies out the door.

“Sounds great,” I tell her.

Michael, his fingers still clacking, shakes his head and rolls his eyes.

“There’s no harm giving it a try,” I say. “Sure. Why not?”

That night, she wanders the cabin like a lost soul. Her hair’s damp from her shower. She’s wearing a long cotton nightgown with thick wool socks on her feet. Finally, her options narrowed, she wedges herself between me and Michael on the sofa. Though the TV’s on, she ignores it. She’s half asleep when she lays her head on my shoulder, shudders.

Rachel’s always been our early riser. The next morning, the sky is crayon-colored when I’m woken by noise. I blink my eyes and face a clock screaming 5:15. Then I hear Rachel rattling around in the kitchen. She’s making herself oatmeal from scratch. I check the outdoor thermometer and see that it’s forty-five degrees. Even though I’m shivering in my fleece bathrobe, she’s still wearing the thin nightgown.

Except for the clanging and banging of pots, the world is eerily quiet. Our cabin is tucked into a forested subdivision. We leave the windows cranked open, curtainless. I gaze outside looking for wildlife and am startled to see a person power walking down the street. Expensive hiking poles, spandex pants, the whole shebang. It’s no doubt one of my neighbors. Half the homeowners in Jackson are crazy fitness addicts, usually transplanted from LA.

Then I look at Rachel. In her mind, rules are rigid. One setting’s no different from the other. Her home in Miami has shutters on the windows and a six-foot-tall wood fence around the yard. It’s like living in an air-conditioned cave. The windows stay closed. The temperature’s steady. No one sees in and no one sees out.

“Look,” I say. “There’s a guy out there. Racking up points on his Fitbit.”

Rachel doesn’t flinch. She’s stirring the oatmeal, her head slightly swirling with the spoon. Only when she’s satisfied with the oatmeal’s consistency does she look up.

“Do you think we can go to the supermarket today? I have a great recipe for vegan cheesecake. Tofu. Vegan cream cheese. Vegan margarine. You’ll like it. You really will.”

*     *     *

A few hours later we’re back at the ranch. She’s grooming another draft horse. He’s big and brown, a barge on four legs. She has decided that this Percheron is her favorite, sturdy and dependable. On the way home, she once again provides a running commentary.

“Buster’s eighteen hands. Can you believe it? They say he weighs a ton.” Her voice is dreamy, her arms tired, her body lax. The horses, as always, have worked their magic. “The farrier was in today. I got to clean the hooves.”

Most of our days follow a routine. After lunch, we usually take a two-mile walk. Sometimes we foray into town and check out the shops. But today Rachel wants to spend the afternoon in the kitchen. Her husband has finally returned a text. He’s looking for an apartment, he tells her. She spends hours concocting a tofu turkey with a chestnut stuffing plus a ratatouille casserole even the dogs will ignore.

Later, after she’s fed us, when the kitchen’s clean and her work done, she again wanders the house. Though the socks have changed, the nightgown’s the same. I’m reading. My husband’s upstairs working. She turns on the TV only to shut it off seconds later. It’s around ten o’clock and the sun is setting, washing the valley in purples and blues.

“Can someone take out the trash?” My husband yells.

We always forget. The truck just shows up on Fridays. And you need to roll the bin uphill around fifty yards for them to see it. I could use the fresh air and jump at the chance.

The exercise feels great as my elbows strain. The temperature has dropped. And when I get to the top of the driveway, everything’s seen from a new perspective. The fir trees. The sky dotted with stars. It’s so quiet I can hear our tiny creek rippling. When I glance back at the house, it’s blanketed by shadows. Only the windows are lit.

Like a ghost, Rachel is roaming from room to room, her curvy figure silhouetted in her nightgown. When she looks at the windows, she only sees her reflection. She has no idea that I’m watching her. That the world is watching her. That beyond the protective boundaries of her mind, strangers hide and danger lurks.

I leave the bin and about-face. Then I formulate more lists. Lentils. Russet potatoes. Almond milk. I suppose we need to call a divorce lawyer. Do we know a divorce lawyer? An eggplant. Some soy yogurt. A tin of nuts.

In a week’s time another Thursday will roll around. A zucchini. Cauliflower rice. A little anise. We’ll ask Rachel to take out the garbage. Then I’ll stand by the window in my cotton nightgown. Perhaps I’ll find a pair of wool socks. A can of capers. A sprig of parsley. A fake Brie. And afterwards, if the mood is right, we’ll have another conversation. One which we’ve had before and which I suspect we’ll have many times again. One person’s view is different from another’s, I’ll remind her. A bag of apples. A jar of honey. A quart of juice.

  

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, EclecticaThe American Literary Review, and Arts and Letters. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart as well as the Best of the Net Prizes, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award and the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize.

Excerpts from Poems from My Diary

The Clay of Time has Grown Soft

The clay of time has grown soft. The kneading of sunset
after sunset has made it rise. A tiny grain of sand
has suddenly split open in a dream to dispel a mystery,
and only the owl weeps from a silver lock of tangled hair.

The dead have been upright now for quite some time!
They hastily escaped here from the other world, from their heavy load,
and are doing yoga, playing chess and are free and intellectual,
laying siege to the opera and pecking out its box office.

Does anyone still remember who tore their limbs apart?
With weak and unsound teeth one should chew with extra care.
These dead love abstract art and being at loggerheads,
instead of the mark of Cain, Cain wears a mark of Abel.

And only a blind seer, flayed down to the bone,
a prototypical prophet who has never died
and no one knows he rolls away the darkness, could he be the sun?—
He runs from abyss to abyss rescuing the smiles of the sacrificed.

 


Those Green Eyes From Long-Long-Long Ago…

Those green eyes from long-long-long ago are gone. That fir-tree
forest green. Still, as I do just barely see the eyes, it’s a sign:
They see me. And fir-branch-green is also my envy
of starved ghosts, of sounds and of voices.

If God would only recreate their green, that dark green,
He would truly be God. How could they vanish?
I’m wandering in a forest: the sun burns through a cobweb,
green tears rush from green caves among roots.

If that green set of eyes would shut for all time,
worm-eaten seconds would take the place of eternity.
I wander in a forest: it is night. A root pulses, still believing,
after all, the sun through the cobweb here has not gone away.

They see me, that dark green, they wait for a sign,
they shiver side by side with their face opposite mine.
And from the green caves, rushing tears swim
into my visions and leave me their shine.

 


In Memory of Uri Tsvi Greenberg

When all had scattered from the Mount of Olives
and only one remained within the broken stone,
each had gone toward home, as always, alone,
and he, from the burned-out cliff, accompanied them in silence.

And just then a white flame of soul from his deceased breath
reduced the wreath that he had hated during life to ash.
For if he had been covered in scorpion-like thorns—
his deceased fingers would have drawn them to his skull.

And two thin, small voices, and in both exalted tears
came near, settling in like a candle in sand
at grave’s head: his mother’s mournful tears,
and the blooming tears from the trees in his garden.

And just then Jerusalem also approached, in a sunset
that never fully sets, never sets over times and eras—
and she, in the armor of her never-setting twilight,
kissed her pious poet through the face of rock.

 


A Face in the Window

A face in the window. It’s my neighbor with the blue glasses,
resembling flashes of blue lighting in rain: “Take pity
and come quickly to my doorstep, you will hear a mystery
of weeping and perhaps be able to explain it for me.”

We come to his doorstep. My neighbor in the blue glasses
rises on his toes to reach the mezuzah and bring it to his ear,
as if it were the fiddler in a seashell: “Is it my creator
weeping there, my child, or my wife, who was burned to ashes?

The door is open. Yortsayt candles with red peyes are burning.
I become a brother to my neighbor’s fate, and my ear
detects more clearly, like him, the weeping from his mezuzah:
Weeping from his wife of ashes, his child, or his creator?

The yortsayt candles with red peyes are drowning in the room.
The door slams behind us. Outside plays the fiddler.
“I will tell you the truth, as good neighbors do:
The weeping comes from all three separately, all three of them together.”

 


Our Terror Is the Terror of Ponar and Majdanek

Our terror is the terror of Ponar and Majdanek,
Their grass and chamomile—our bread until death.

Our hands will feel shame, though we’ll raise a glass:
To whom? To our savior? To the bliss of a glance?

Our breath belongs to a different kind of society:
To a mother, a grandfather, a snow-buried baby.

We’ll mine the earth the sun has snuffed out, to dig down
all the way to our language of hearth and hometown.

With a flash of iron lightning—with a pen instead of a shovel.
Twenty-two the number of strings on the fiddle.

Our blood will still feed string after string,
we’ll play them with a faith that’s complete.

We’ll play them like so, until the remembrance
splits open within us: for a world full of people.

 


It Drew Us Both Here….

It drew us both here, both the seashell and me,
to bring us together on the seashore in Yaffo,
so that within the seashell that being could send me
a greeting from its creator in the grottos.

The shell around the small pink body is still tender in immaturity,
and warm: a shell-child born in a woman’s head covering.
Still reflecting the caress of its distant arm
and the anguished parting with faultless form.

If I could be the smith of such a seashell,
with the phantom weeping sea and struck up bit of feeling,
with its armor speckled with tiny rainbow rings
and within the rain also rushing, a half shell or a whole:

I would tear myself away from syllables and thoughts—
the ribs of the soul—and like nothing in my nature,
lift the sea onto my shoulders in thanks
and gleam like its gull.

 

די ליים פון צײַט איז ווייך געוואָרן. ס’גייט שוין אויף די קנעטעניש
פון זונפאַרגאַנג נאָך זונפאַרגאַנג. עס ווערט שוין באַלד געשפּאָלטן
אַ זעמדעלע אין חלום צו צעטרייבערן אַ רעטעניש,
און בלויז די סאָווע פּלאַנכעט פון א זילבערלעכן קאָלטן.

די מתים זענען לאַנג שוין אויפגעשטאַנען! זענען האַסטיק
אַנטרונען דאָ פון יענער–וועלט, פון הויקערדיקער משׂא
און מאַכן יאָגאַ, שפּילן שאַך און זענען פרײַ און גאַסטיק,
באַלעגערן די אָפּערע און פּיקן אויס איר קאַסע.

געדענקט נאָך עמעץ ווער עס האָט צעריסן זײַנע גלידער?
צו וואַקלדיק און שוואַך די ציין מע זאָל אַזוינס צעקײַען.
די מתים האָבן ליב אַבסטראַקטע קונסט און קידער–ווידער,
אַנשטאָט אַ קַין–צייכן טראָגט אַ הבל–צייכן קַין.

און בלויז אַ בלינדער זעער ביזן אָפגרונט אַ צעשונדענער,
אַ קדמונדיקער נביא וואָס איז קיין מאָל ניט געשטאָרבן
און קיינער ווייס ניט: קײַקלט ער דעם חושך, איז די זון דען ער? —
לויפט אויסלייזן פון תּהום צו תּהום די שמייכלען פונעם קרבן.

 


ניטאָ די גרינע אויגנפּאָר פון לאַנג–לאַנג–לאַנג. די גרינע
ווי יאָדלעוואַלד. נאָר קוים איך זע די אויגן, איז אַ סימן:
זיי זעענ מיך. און יאָדלע–צווײַגן–גרין איז אויך מײַן קינאה
צו גײַסטער אויסגעהונגערטע, צו קלאַנגען און צו שטימען.

ווען גאָט וואָלט בלויז באַשאַף זייער גרין דאָס טונקל–גרינע,
ער וואָלט געווען דער זעלבער גאָט. ווי קאָנען זיי ניט–ווערן?
איך בלאָנדזשע אין אַ וואַלד: עס ברענט די זון אין פּאָוועטינע,
פון גרינע היילן שורשען צווישן וואָרצלען גרינע טרערן.

ווען די אָ גרינע אויגנפּאָר וואָלט אונטערגיין אויף אייביק,
אַנשטאָט אַן אייביק וואָלטן זײַן צעווערעמטע סעקונדן.
איך בלאָנדזשע אין א וואַלד: ס’איז נאַכט. אַ וואָרצל שלאָגט נאָך גלייביק,
די זון אין פּאַוועטינע איז נאָך אַלץ דאָ ניט פאַרשוווּנדן.

זיי זעען מיך, די טונקל–גרינע, וואַרטן אויף אַ סימן,
זיי ציטערן בײַנאַנד מיט זייער פּנים וויזאַווי מיר.
און שורשענדיקע טרערן פון די גרינע היילן שווימען
אַרײַן אין מײַנע זעונגען און לאָזן זייער גלי מיר.

 


לזכר אורי–צבי גרינבערג

ווען אַלע זענען זיך צעגאַנגען פונעם הר–הזיתים
און איינער איז אין אויסגעהאַקטן פעלדז פאַרבליבן,
אַוועק איז איטלעכער אַהיים אַלייניקער ווי תּמיד
און ער, פון אויסגעברענטן פעלדז, באַגלייט האָט זיי אַ שטומער.

און יעמאָלט האָט אַ ווײַסער ליכטזײַל פון זײַן טויטן אָטעם
געמאַכט צו אַש די קרענץ וואָס ער האָט פײַנט געהאַט בײַם לעבן.
אַז אויבן וואָלטן אים באַדעקט סקאָרפּיאָנענדיקע דערנער —
די טויטע פינגער וואָלטן זיי אַ צי געטאָן צום שאַרבן.

און צוויי קול–דממה–דקהס און אין ביידע הויכע טרערן
דערנענטערט האָבן זיך צו אים, געשטעלט זיך בײַם צוקאָפּן,
ווי ליכט אין זאַמד: לוויהדיקע טרערן פון זײַן מאַמע
און בליִענדיקע טרערן פון די ביימער אין זײַן גאָרטן.

און יעמאָלט האָט זיך אויך צום פעלדז דערנענטערט אין אַ שקיעה,
וואָס גייט ניט אונטער, גייט ניט אונטער איבער צײַט און צײַטן —
ירושלים, און זי האָט אין פּאַנצערדיקער שקיעה,
וואָס גייט ניט אונטער, דורכן פעלדז אַ קוש געטאָן איר פײַטן.

 


אַ קאָפּ אין פענצטער

אַ קאָפּ אין פענצטער. ס’איז מײַן שכן אין די בלויע ברילן
געגליכן צו אַ רעגן מיט אַ בלויע בליץ אין איינעם:
‘‫’דערבאַרעם זיך און קום געשווינדער צו מײַן שוועל, וועסט הערן
אַ רעטעניש–געוויין און אפשר קאָנען עס באַשיידן.”

מיר קומען צו זײַן שוועל. מײַן שכן אין די בלויע ברילן
דערלאַנגט זיך אויף די פיספינגער אַ הייּב צו דער מזוזה
און שעפּט זי אָן אין אויער, ווי דעם פידלער אין אַ מושל:
‘‫’צי וויינט עס מײַן פאַרברענטע פרוי, מײַן קינד, צי מײַן באַשעפער?”

די טיר איז אָפן. ס’ברענען יאָרצײַטליכט מיט רויטע פּיאות.
איך ווער אַ גורל–ברודער צו מײַן שכן, און מײַן אויער
שעפּט אָן העלהערעריש, ווי ער, ס’געוויין פון זײַן מזוזה:
געוויין פון זײַן פאַרברענטער פרוי, זײַן קינד, צי זײַן באַשעפער?

די יאָרצײַטליכט מיט רויטע פּיאות טרינקען זיך אין קאַמער.
ס’פאַרהאקט זיך הינטער אונדז די טיר. דער פידלער איז אין דרויסן.
‘‫’איך וועל דיר זאָגן אמתדיק, ווי צווישן גוטע שכנים:
דאָס וויינען אַלע דרײַ באַזונדער, אַלע דרײַ אין איינעם.”

 


אונדזער שרעק איז די שרעק פון פּאָנאַר און מײַדאַנעק

אונדזער שרעק איז די שרעק פון פּאָנאַר און מײַדאַנעק,
אונדזער ברויט ביזן טויט — זייער גראָז און רומיאַנעק.

מיר’ן הייבן אַ כּוס, נאָר די האַנט וועט זיך שעמען:
פאַרן גליק פון אַ בליק? פאַרן גואל? פאַר וועמען?

אונדזער אָטעם געהערט צו אַן אַנדער מין עדה:
צו אַ קינד אונטער שניי, צו אַ מאַמע, אַ זיידע.

מיר’ן גראָבן די ערד וואָס די זון האָט פאַרלאָשן
צו דערגראָבן זיך צום עיר–והיימישן לשון

מיט אַן אײַזערנעם בליץ — מיט אַ פּען אַנשטאָט רידל.
צוויי און צוואַנציק די צאָל פון די סטרונעס בײַם פידל.

אונדזער בלוט וועט נאָך אָנקאָרמען סטרונע נאָך סטרונע,
מיר’ן שפּילן אויף זיי מיט אַ פולער אמונה.

מיר’ן שפּילן אַזוי, ביז עס וועט זיך צעשפּאַלטן
דער זכּרון בײַ אונדז: פאַר אַ וועלט מיט געשטאַלטן…

 


געצויגן האָט אונדז ביידן דאָ

געצויגן האָט אונדז ביידן דאָ, סײַ מיר און סײַ דער מושל,
מיר זאָלן שליסן קאַנטשאַפט אויפן ים–ברעג אויפן יפוער,
אָז יענע זאָל פון וואַסערהיילן ברענגען מיר אין מושל
אַ גרוס פון איר באַשעפער.

נאָך קינדיש–ווייך דאָס פּאַנצערל אַרום דעם ראָזן לײַבל
און וואַרעמלעך: אַ מושלקינד געבוירן אין אַ הײַבל.
נאָך שפּיגלט זיך די צערטלעניש פון אָפּגעשיידטן אָרעם
און פּײַנלעכע געזעגעניש מיט שלמותדיקער פאָרעם.

ווען קאָנען וואָלט איך זײַן דער גאָלדשמיד פון אַזאַ אָ מושל,
מיט קיינעמסדיקן ים–געוויין און אויפגעשפּילטן חושל,
מיט רעגן–בויגן–רינגעלעך געשפּרענקלטע אין פּאַנצער
און וווּ עס רוישט אַ רעגן אויך, אַ האַלבער צי אַ גאַנער:

אַרויסגעריסן וואָלט איך זיך פון זילבן און געדאַנקען —
די ריפּן דער נשמהס; און ווי גאָרניט אין מײַן טבע,
אַ הייב געטאָן דעם ים אויף מײַנע אַקסלען אים צו דאַנקען
און בלאַנקען ווי זײַן מעווע.

 

Translator’s Note: 

Though these six poems are all taken from the same collection—the expanded edition of Abraham Sutzkever’s Poems from My Diary, published in 1985—writing a forward for all of them as one is difficult, as I have something different to say about each. “The Clay of Time has Grown Soft” strikes me as a work of social criticism. I suspect it may have been influenced by the decline of the social movements of the 1960s, combined with the after-effects of the wars Sutzkever had survived as a European and an Israeli, particularly the then-recent Six Day War of 1967, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Uri Tsvi Greenberg, whom Sutzkever eulogizes in one of these poems, was a towering figure in Yiddish and Hebrew poetry, but, also, in some ways, Sutzkever’s opposite, a reality far from evident in Sutzkever’s respectful poem. While Greenberg’s poetry is widely respected across spectrums, Greenberg took what many would characterize as extreme political positions. Greenberg’s views were influenced by his unlikely survival of the brutal 1918 pogroms in Lvov; by the 1929 pogroms in Hebron, which shaped his outlook on the Israeli-Arab conflict; and by the Holocaust, which he foresaw in his writing and in which he lost his entire family.

While both Greenberg and Sutzkever had initially written poetry in Yiddish and Hebrew, Sutzkever settled on Yiddish early, refusing to switch after he arrived in Tel Aviv in 1947. Yiddish was still his language of “hearth and hometown,” as he writes in “Our Terror is the Terror of Ponar and Majdanek,” and he wanted it to be part of Israel’s future. Greenberg, on the other hand, published his first books in both languages, but eventually abandoned Yiddish decisively, convinced that Hebrew embodied the only path forward for Jews. He felt the same about Israel, and viewed any Jewish desire to remain in Europe as dangerously misguided. Though Sutzkever believed in Zionism, he also continuously expressed longing for his European hometown, Vilna, and his elegy for Greenberg is followed in the Diary collection by poems in which that yearning is particularly acute.

Before the Holocaust, before his migration to Israel, and despite the heavily political atmosphere of his native Vilna, Sutzkever began his poetic career as a poet of nature and this preoccupation remained with him throughout his life. In his work, nature embodies a creative force in and of itself, as evidenced in “Those Green-Green Eyes” and “It Drew Us Both Here.” The first of these two poems recalls the forests of Eastern Europe, while the second takes place in what may have been Sutzkever’s favorite part of Tel Aviv: Yaffo, known more commonly in Arabic as Jaffa. He often wrote in a café there by the sea.

Lastly, a “Face in the Window,” features a character who has appeared, with some variation, in Sutzkever’s short fiction as well as his poetry. The ideal of neighborliness is one that Sutzkever often returned to, no doubt influenced by having survived a tragedy in which neighbors turned on one another—a fellow survivor of the Vilna Ghetto once described hearing the anthem of the Nazi party being sung by the Lithuanians who lived next door.

 

Special Guest Judge, Piotr Florczyk:

I was immediately struck by the visionary undertow of these poems, their author wearing a mask of “a blind seer” and running “from abyss to abyss rescuing the smiles of the sacrificed.” While translators are rarely afforded heavenly powers, technically speaking, their work is no less salutary. “A root pulses,” the poet writes, “still believing, / after all, the sun through the cobweb here has not gone away,” and so do we, the readers, thanks to the translator Maia Evrona’s deft hand, as we discover with each new line a home for own hopes and fears. These timeless poems—“the ribs of the soul”—remind us of the need to praise our world in chorus with those who came before and those who are about to take our place.

—Piotr Florczyk is a poet, essayist, and translator of Polish poetry. His most recent books
are East & West, a volume of poems from Lost Horse Press, and two volumes of
translations published by Tavern Books, My People & Other Poems by Wojciech
Bonowicz and Building the Barricade by Anna Świrszczyńska, which won the 2017
Found in Translation Award and the 2017 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award.
Florczyk, a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California, lives in Los
Angeles with his wife and daughter. For more info, please visit: www.piotrflorczyk.com

 

Maia Evrona’s poems, as well as excerpts from her memoir on growing up with a chronic illness, have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Her translations of Abraham Sutzkever were awarded a 2016 Translation Fellowship from the NEA and have appeared in Poetry Magazine, The Kenyon Review online and other venues. She also loves to sing. Her website is http://www.maiaevrona.com/.

Abraham Sutzkever, born in 1913 in modern-day Belarus, is a legendary figure of the Yiddish literary world, with a poetic oeuvre numbering well over 1,000 pages. A survivor of the Vilna Ghetto and a former partisan, he immigrated to Mandatory Palestine just before the founding of the State of Israel and passed away in Tel Aviv in 2010, at the age of 96.

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Author of The Fact of a Body

I was busy preparing for my June MFA residency when Kori, Lunch Ticket’s Editor-in-Chief, reached out and asked me if I wanted to interview Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich for the upcoming Lunch Ticket Issue 14. Groggy from a marathon reading session that lasted until 3 a.m. that morning, I rubbed my eyes with my fists and squinted at Kori’s email. The book I’d stayed up all night and early morning reading was, in fact, Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir. “Yes!” I scream-typed back. “I would love to interview Alexandria! The book is SOOOOO good!” It was truly kismet, since I planned on attending Marzano-Lesnevich’s Antioch seminar anyway at residency.

Marzano-Lesnevich’s writing grapples with questions of ethical ambiguity and moral judgment. Their cross-genre nonfiction book, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, intertwines childhood memories of sexual abuse at the hands of their grandfather and the death of a sibling they never met with their exploration of a Louisiana murder committed by a known pedophile. The Fact of a Body, winner of both the 2018 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir and the 2018 Chautauqua Prize, is a page-turner, and Marzano-Lesnevich’s elegant but simple diction makes for compelling reading. Each chapter ends with an impetus to read more, but never in a hokey way. This naturally phrased whodunit momentum is no small feat, considering they confirm the identities of both the murderer and their sexual abuser early in the book. What keeps us reading is their commitment to nosing out why they feel so conflicted about the murderer and how his case and background parallel events in their own life.

As they stated in a seminar at Antioch University Los Angeles in June 2018, the book teaches the reader how to read it. It allows the reader into the risk at the heart of the story. Citing Joanne Beard, Jesmyn Ward’s writing, and Vivian Gormick’s The Situation and The Story as influences on their writing and editing processes, Marzano-Lesnevich committed to an information-packed, whirlwind two-hour seminar on structure, risk, and meaning, emphasizing the need for writers to recognize twin obligations of structure. First, they noted, the writer must acknowledge the interior logic of a book—the chapter and scene organization. Second, the writer must consider the layer of meaning that must run throughout the story, an interior emotional logic that might make the entire story collapse if the author said it outright. Mostly, they emphasized, the structure a writer starts with is probably not the same structure the finished work will inhabit. I came away from this seminar feeling armed with lifelong advice on how to structure any writing work I complete, fiction included.

The recipient of fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo, as well as a Rona Jaffe Award, Marzano-Lesnevich lives in Portland, Maine, where they are an assistant professor at Bowdoin College. They most recently taught at Harvard.

After their astoundingly organized, insightful seminar, and learning about all their other accolades, I grew nervous that my interview questions would be lacking. Marzano-Lesnevich had a busy schedule during their time at Antioch, and I didn’t want to pressure them into an in-person interview without adequate time to unwind and prepare. Foreseeing a more relaxed interview at another time, I delayed calling them until July, when the chaos of the summer calmed. Their warm, generous, precise, and intensely intelligent responses to my questions, which I necessarily agonized over, are what follow below. I interviewed Marzano-Lesnevich on July 10, 2018, via telephone, after they gave the aforementioned seminar at Antioch University Los Angeles’s June 2018 MFA residency.

E.P. Floyd: First, a big thank you for speaking with me and for supporting Lunch Ticket. In The Fact of a Body, you cover intensely emotional issues and trauma, as well as social justice topics—sexual abuse of children, your own sexual orientation, poverty, substance abuse, and lots more. As a widely published creative nonfiction writer, how much distance did you feel you needed from your own life events before you wrote about them?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich: Moving a bit beyond just that book, I find that that notion of “distance needed” from certain topics is constantly fluctuating for me. I have written and published some essays I was writing very much in the thick of things, particularly in an essay I had published in Hotel Amerika—“The Taste of Sardines.” I wrote it right after my dog died. That was because that was all I could bear to write about. What I had to do in that case, was build what the essayist Brenda Miller calls a hermit crab shell around it—I used certain narrative structures to provide almost a hard shell for the material, to protect the emotional core within it. Structure in that way was something that could give me distance. So, in The Fact of A Body, even though there was a lot of temporal distance, I discovered when I was writing it that I didn’t have a lot of emotional distance. Some of the first draft pages were really raw, and they really needed to be. I had to figure out when the narrator would include some of those snippets of raw emotion, and when the narrator would need more distance. As writers, as we work, we become more aware that we are telling a story, that we’re not just recounting what happened to us.

 

I used certain narrative structures to provide almost a hard shell for the material, to protect the emotional core within it. Structure in that way was something that could give me distance.

 

EPF: It’s so interesting that you refer to the “narrator” as being distinctly separate from the “author”—you. How and why do you distinguish between the two as a writing
construct?

AML: I think, like a lot of people, I was influenced by Vivian Gormick’s The Situation and the Story. I like to think of the narrator as being a construct of raw material—it’s both me and not wholly representative. We can see that approach (a narrator as a distinct speaker separate from the author) by looking at multiple books by the same writer. They all have different narrators. As a person who lived through these events, there were so many things that I wanted to put on the page. We, as people, serve our lives and our loved ones, but the narrator of the book only serves the story, so they have to leave some things out and put things in. Of course, when it comes to publishing, we then have to think of how our friends and families and loved ones will feel about the things we’ve written. But I use that linguistic construct to enforce that the person and the narrator have different roles. I also say it a lot because I teach a lot, so I’m used to reinforcing the concepts.

EPF: You mentioned publishing and how we as writers need to consider how our friends and families will feel about the published autobiographical details. You went through a lot at a young age. How did you decide which details to include, both pertaining to yourself and your family members?

AML: I tried to include only what served the story. For example, you never see my sister being abused, even though the narrative acknowledges that she was. The fact of how widespread the abuse was in our family felt crucial, but actually depicting it would have felt like a violation. And my narrator thinks about that decision on the page. I decided that my narrator would tell a story and at the same time sort of wrestle with the story. It was important to me to not pretend that my story was not the only story, not the only way it could be seen or told—but also for human reasons. If I was capturing a multiplicity of perspectives in Ricky Langley’s story, I couldn’t pretend that there wasn’t a multiplicity in my own story.

EPF: Speaking of multiple perspectives, The Fact of a Body is a cross-genre hybrid that seamlessly weaves your own life with the homicide case of a six-year-old boy who was killed by an adult man—Ricky Langley, a known pedophile and sex offender. Why did you choose that parallel structure?

AML: I would start writing about one side of the story and the other side would creep in; my subconscious appeared to be linking the stories. I think a lot of writing is getting out of your own way. For me, there was no way to write this where the two stories weren’t linked. Once I accepted that, the parallel structure was obvious. I will say that the realization that the strands had to collide in the third (and final) section of the book took longer. Life influences us in ways that we don’t realize until much later. When I was in law school, I read a novel called The Archivist by Martha Cooley. She wrote, “With a little effort, anything can be shown to connect with anything else: existence is infinitely cross-referenced.” I felt a jolt of recognition when I read that in law school: this spark that resonated with how I saw the world. I hadn’t thought about that novel for years, and then when I was writing a talk [on why they chose the parallel structure for The Fact of a Body], I sort of meditated on where inspiration came from for me, and that line came back to me. Only then did I realize how much it influenced me, as a person and as a writer constantly seeking out connections between disparate things.

We, as people, serve our lives and our loved ones, but the narrator of the book only serves the story, so she has to leave some things out and put things in.

EPF: There is a lot of moral ambiguity in The Fact of a Body. You grapple on the page with your staunchly anti-death penalty stance in a number of ways. At the end, the ethical uncertainty is just that—decisively uncertain. Was this a conscious choice you made when you set out to write the book, or did you come to this ambiguous ending in the writing process?

AML: It was a conscious choice. It was really important to me to write something that was honest about complexity. The ending wasn’t uncertainty so much as the ending was duality—duality is not uncertainty, it is an acceptance of complexity. Ricky Langley will always be both a man and a murderer. My grandfather will always be both a man and a pedophile. The journey was in accepting that that was the ending, and that that was okay. There was a reason my subconscious wasn’t leading me to a neater, clearer place. What I had to think about as a writer, was, “How do you induce satisfaction in the reader when you decide to acknowledge both the murderer’s guilt and the abuse fairly early in the book—and when the end will be complicated?”

EPF: Ah, yes. Let’s talk about chapter endings and suspense. Even though I already knew who the murderer was and who your abuser was, I kept on reading. How did you keep the emotional stakes high at the end of each chapter?

AML: Yay! Thank you. I thought a lot about that, because I knew I was going to ask the reader to process some difficult weaving of the two stories, and I felt like I really needed to earn some buy-in and create their hunger. I thought about it with this idea of negative suspense versus positive suspense. Negative suspense is when you know what’s going to happen, and you’re reading with that dread. Positive suspense is when you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you’re reading to discover what will happen next. I didn’t have any positive suspense in the big things, because the reader knew about them from the start. For example, I didn’t want to use Jeremy’s death as a source of positive suspense. I didn’t want to pretend that we didn’t already know that was going to happen, so I used negative suspense instead. But I built in mini questions of positive suspense on other events in the book. The other very concrete thing I thought about was, “How does a chapter ending induce a question?” Michael Blanding’s book The Map Thief gave me this same experience of suspense, and the map trade is not something I have a preexisting interest in. What happened is that I read it pretty much in one sitting, and there was no reason for this except that I could not stop reading. I looked at the end of each chapter and realized that he was very good at completing a mini-arc at the end of each chapter, and at the same time, flinging us forward with a question. I also looked at other works, like the short story, “The Ceiling,” by Kevin Brockmeier. It was a braided narrative, like my story was, and in his short story, the avoidance of discussing the “big bad thing” creates emotional tension. As a writer, I’m constantly trying to figure out what it is I need to do, and how can I look at what other people have done, to address the story before me. For me, it’s all about reading widely.

 

I thought about it with this idea of negative suspense versus positive suspense. Negative suspense is when you know what’s going to happen, and you’re reading with that dread. Positive suspense is when you already know what’s happened, and you’re reading with the expectation of things working out well for the protagonist—for the emotional arc.

 

EPF: Speaking of reading widely, the research that went into The Fact of a Body was extensive, as you note both in the book and on your website—roughly 30,000 pages of records. Can you talk a little about the research process? How did you sit and process that amount of documentation?

AML: I didn’t organize it into some sort of neat, didactic thing. I did sort of belly flop myself into it like somebody into a pool. I got the first few thousand pages, spent a couple years avoiding them, and then spent about six months, where I wasn’t really writing, but went from coffee shop to coffee shop—and then to bars when the records got too intense—and I would just spend the day describing in these notebooks what was on every single page and my emotional response. I wasn’t at that point ready to index them, because I had such a strong emotional response to them. I thought I was putting down my strong emotional response to the records because of my own life, and that it was separate from the writing. I tried indexing for a little bit. What I realized pretty quickly is that it felt horrible—the indexing. It felt like it was collapsing the story in exactly the wrong way, creating what Sven Birkerts calls, ‘the coma-inducing effect of “and then.”’ At first, I was really ashamed that I didn’t have a very specific index—having each character on each page for each record used. I thought, “This must just be laziness.” Now, looking back, I wish that I had had the self-kindness to say, “Hey, Self, this isn’t laziness, you’ve just put in an untold number of hours reading these documents. Pay attention to this resistance.” As they say in software development, what I thought had been a bug turned out to be a feature. The resistance was telling me something. I couldn’t put it in an index, because that organized, methodical approach wasn’t the kind of story it was. What I needed instead was to be surprised by the emotional resonances that I never saw coming. It was vital to find the detail I was looking for, and then be punched in the stomach by the stuff around it that I hadn’t been thinking about.

That was not an efficient process. And it was only possible because I didn’t have an index and couldn’t just look up what I needed. It was very much not an efficient process, but it produced a kind of all-over-the-place draft that slowly, slowly, slowly let me get to know the material. Some things became big in my mind and some became small. During that note-taking time, the events of the case felt as vivid to me as my own memories. And that response, I feel, was crucial. It just took time—hours and hours and hours and days and months and years. Just kind of living with those records inside me. What’s funny is, I now cannot remember anything in the records. My subconscious is like, “Cool, we’re done, let’s make space for something else now.” I think that’s the difference between how research usually is conducted for academic nonfiction, and how it needs to be conducted for creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction research requires a lot of trust, a lot of believing, “This is all going somewhere.”

EPF: Based on your experience writing and publishing The Fact of a Body, what do you think emerging writers working in multiple genres should know or try in their drafting process?

AML: Just revise, revise, revise, revise, revise. Also, it’s important to know that doubt is not fatal. This is advice for those of us who have a tendency to really doubt or critique the work before it’s even found its fledgling voice on the page. You can do the work even through doubt. Even while feeling the doubt. It’s important to acknowledge that the doubt might be a reflection of your own fear and not a reflection of the quality of the work. Some days are awesome, and you feel all the strength and power, and think, “I can totally write this story!” And other days are not like that at all. But that’s what I would recommend: Don’t allow the doubt to prevent you from writing.

 

E.P. Floyd is lead editor of flash prose, an interviewer, a blogger, and an assistant blog editor for Lunch Ticket and an MFA candidate in fiction at Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing is published or forthcoming in Lunch TicketLitbreak MagazineReservoir, and BusinessWeek. She is at work on a novel and short story collection, and lives in rural Wisconsin. Find her online at epfloyd.com.

Hear and Release

(All frags reported herein are genuine, heard in Oak Bluffs, a town on an island off the coast of Massachusetts, USA, captured here for this publication only)

Nothing like a good long walk, exercise and meditation in one. Two birds with one stone, though I hate that image. Who throws stones at birds? Cavemen and nasty ten year olds. When I have errands, I cluster them and walk into town the long way to the post office, the market, hardware store and packy. A long walk, on curvy one-way streets, past big old Victorians, little Gothic cottages. People on porches. Wind chimes. Gardens neat and not. Ocean here and there. Serene.

Then around a sudden sharp corner into raucous. Cars and bikes, outdoor bars, racks of tee shirts and pink rubber beach shoes. Families of six clogging the sidewalks, ice cream, fried clams, chowder. All of it perfect frag collecting territory.

Frag is short for fragment, of course. A small chunk of overheard conversation, an incomplete sentence or two caught as you intersect someone else’s orbit on a stroll. A few words broken off in passing, truncated by a boat whistle, interrupted by seagulls, wind or waves.

“…would that be normal for me……?”

“…my boyfriend’s favorite price point…”

“…price of a bacon doughnut…”

They fall out windows of passing cars, drop off bikes. Ellipses on one end or the other or both.

“…how about fishing college?…”

“…abandoned house or not….”

“… make it a national agenda…”

Elusive and intriguing. Like a dragonfly at the edge of your vision, a whiff of charred steak next street over. Sparking a chuckle, a wise nod, total bewilderment.

“…no extra seat in the bathroom…”

“…time to notify our people…”

“…found it in dystopian history…”

I don’t actually collect frags. Hear and release. Trying to hang on to them closes your ears, changes the experience so I rarely write them down. Once in a while a phrase pops up in a notebook margin when I’m looking for something else. The other day I came across

“…a legend so reductive…” from July 2012 on the fishing pier. No wonder I wrote that one down. I also admit I sometimes call my sister to report a great frag and we’ll imagine a story, speculate on a context, analyze the speaker. An old family game. “… all shaped by iniquity,” the most recent.

I used to be a collector. Cardigans, white rocks, Ferris Wheels. According to the dictionary, a collector is:

  1. a person who collects things, professionally or as a hobby, as in art collector, stamp collector, coin collector
  2. a person who collects something in their job, as in garbage collector.

I fell somewhere in the middle. The dictionary then told me to “see hoarder.”

I appreciate the urge to collect. The families who rent our house in the summer leave shells and dead crabs lined up on the porch railing, having forbidden the children, I imagine, to take them home in their little backpacks. Collecting is fun at first. To love something, search for it, make space for it. Arrange and re-arrange the objects of your obsession until there’s no place to put any of it. Friends and family, happy to give the perfect gift, give you more. Clutter ensues.

Frags take up no space and they’re everywhere. Hear and release. My route today was around the corner and through the park,

“…an insignificant branch of the family…”

“……ants dropping from the sky….”

across the park to the water side,

When you first begin to hear frags on a walk it’s tempting to categorize, mentally order and file them–domestic, metaphysical, illuminating. Let that go. It’s just serendipity to get two fishing frags in the same afternoon, we’re surrounded by water after all.

“…first time in my life I’m tired of taking pictures…”

north toward the harbor,

“ …you go over there girl and you drive that Mercedes….”

along endless ocean and endless horizon,

“…not an actual bed with an actual mattress…, “

past the ferry dock, a flood of arrivals,

“…where’s the sea serpent at?”

“I heard that on a Garfield episode…”

along the boardwalk and down to the tie-ups.

“…wouldn’t let me go fishing so I ran away from home…”

When you first begin to hear frags on a walk it’s tempting to categorize, mentally order and file them—domestic, metaphysical, illuminating. Let that go. It’s just serendipity to get two fishing frags in the same afternoon, we’re surrounded by water after all. No organizing is one of my rules. You can make your own. No lurking is another. The more you hear of a conversation, the more it makes sense, therefore not a frag. Too much attention and focus, too much grasping turns it ordinary. Ears open, never searching. No changing direction either, no following just to listen, that’s eavesdropping. That’s creepy.

Past the bars along the harbor,

“…amazing to get it done without standing…”

“…so stupid they don’t know how ignorant they are.”

where a tour group waits for the boat to Nantucket.

“….the kids just blew up…”

“…sombre et orageux…”

Up the side street, sounds but no words. A young woman on her porch strums a ukulele. A boy on a skateboard whizzes past, arms outstretched, followed by, I realize, not an origami bird but a small, humming drone, three feet above and right behind him.

Through the musical din of the carousel,

“…more than once is boring…”

up to the crowded post office.

“ …peculiar scouting mission…”

“I choose to be not alone ever since…”

I head home with the water bill in my pocket, past the brew pub and the house with the sail boat trim, across the park to the water again and turn right.

“My nose is not that big and my butt’s not that small…”

“…one Lexus dealer in a hundred miles has that color…”

Along the sandy beach,

“…vodka smells nothing like kombucha…”

“…they don’t want you to know where you’re going…”

then home through curvy one-way streets with people on porches where I hear my last frag of the day.

“ … pickled in his own mess..”

Frag season is winding down. Porches empty, tour groups gone. Dead leaves in the gardens. Frags forgotten. When orbits intersect off-season you usually know the other person and stop. Conversations are real and complete and meaningful, springing from a bedrock of shared time and space. Still counts as a walk but you can meditate at home in front of the fire.

 

Wendy Palmer is an ex-social worker who lives on an island. Her work has appeared in Rosebud, New Millennium Writings, Nimrod, Confluence, and Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. She is shopping a novel about Ferris Wheels and working on a novel about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 19th century radical feminist, described at the time as hysterical and overly absorbed by the woman question.

Photo Credit: Susan Helgeson

Tights & Buttons

[translated poetry]

“Tights”

She likes the taste of her knee. In the summer, she’ll eat it straight from the skin. In the winter, she’ll do so until all the cotton hair has shed on her tongue. In her head stuck on the knee, the child puts together the things she knows.

An ant rubbed between fingers smells of vinegar. A butterfly has powder. A mole has a tailcoat. You can roll gray dirt on your skin. Old people smell of beetroot soup. There’s butter under your fingernails where splinters get in. People can be hunchbacked and crazy but not dogs or birds. When sucking on the salty knee, the child knows: the only thing that separates human from the world is the skin. It prevents you from soaking into the immensity of things.

 


“Buttons”

Grandma keeps her mother in a room with half a door. (She chopped the other half off to see what the old one is up to. She kept the remaining half locked.)

Grandma turns the key, then slides it behind her bra. She won’t give it to anyone. They might let that plague out into the rest of the house.

Last week she lost sight of her for one moment: great-grandma slashed the curtains and put a bag of sugar in the fire. She thought it was coal—both hard. She gutted the closet: she was looking for her uniform because she was going to school. She’s ninety years old, she doesn’t remember her own name but she certainly remembers the school uniform with the cross back. If you don’t lock her up, she’ll turn everything upside down.

“You seem a little too quiet there, Mommy,” grandma calls to the doorframe.

“I shit myself,” a head springs above the thick line of the chopped-off door.

“You’ll have to wait, then.”

Grandma will not drop her work. She won’t burn the meat. When you live under the same roof as madness, everything else must be normal. A good meal is part of that everything else.

A sweater lands in the kitchen. It’s followed by a skirt, a slip, and a bra.

“Excuse me, ma’am, can you call my daughter for me? Because I’m standing here naked.”

“I’ll be right there. I’m your daughter.”

“That’s not true. My daughter has dark hair and is slim like a stalk. Like that,” two fingers appear above the door, grabbing a half-inch of air in pincers. “You’re gray and fat.”

Grandma is changing her mother’s diaper. Velcro closures crunch on her hips.

“I’ll die if you pay me well,” says the old infant.

Grandma brings a bag of sheet buttons. She empties it on the floor.

“Enough?”

“How should I know? I need to count them.”

I’m sitting with great-grandma on the floor. We’re counting the buttons with our hands.

“Have you ever seen so much money?” she asks.

When she’s not looking, I put them in my shoes, I pop them down my shirt, I swallow them. Let there be fewer of them. Too few to die.

 

 

„Rajtuzy”

Lubi smak kolana. Latem wyjada go prosto ze skóry, zimą przez rajtuzy, aż wylinieje na język bawełniana sierść. W głowie zatkniętej na kolano dziecko układa rzeczy, które zna.

Mrówka roztarta w palcach pachnie octem. Motyl ma puder. Kret frak. Po skórze da się toczyć szare wałki brudu. Starych ludzi czuć barszczem. Za paznokciami jest masło, w które wchodzą drzazgi. Są garbaci i szaleni ludzie, ale nie psy i ptaki. Ssąc słone kolano, dziecko wie: jedyną rzeczą, która oddziela człowieka od świata, jest skóra. Dzięki niej nie wsiąka się w bezmiar rzeczy.

 


„Guziki”

Babka hoduje swoją matkę w pokoju z połową drzwi. Połowę urżnęła, żeby widzieć, co stara wyczynia. Połowę z zamkiem zostawiła. Przekręca w nim klucz, wrzuca za stanik. Nie da nikomu. Jeszcze by wypuścił tę plagę na dom.

W zeszłym tygodniu na moment spuściła ją z oka: prababka pocięła zasłony, wsadziła torbę cukru w ogień. Myślała, że węgiel – jedno i drugie twarde. Rozbebeszyła szafę: szukała fartuszka, bo idzie do szkoły. Ma dziewięćdziesiąt lat, nie pamięta własnego nazwiska, ale fartuch, co się zapinał na krzyż na plecach, owszem. Jak się jej nie zamknie, wywróci wszystko do góry nogami.

– Coś mi tam za cicho jesteś, mamusiu – woła babka do dziury w futrynie.

– Zesrałam się – nad krechę uciętych drzwi wyskakuje głowa.

– To poczekasz.

Babka nie rzuci roboty. Nie przypali mięsa. Kiedy ma się pod dachem wariactwo, reszta ma być normalna. Porządny obiad należy do reszty.

Do kuchni wpada sweter. Za nim lecą: spódnica, halka, stanik.

– Przepraszam, czy może pani zawołać moją córkę? Bo ja tu stoję goła.

– Zaraz przyjdę, jestem twoją córką.

– Nieprawda. Moja córka ma czarne włosy i jest szczupła jak łodyga. O, taka – nad drzwiami pokazują się palce, które biorą w kleszcze centymetr powietrza. – Ty jesteś siwa i tłusta.

Babka przewija swoją matkę. Rzepy pieluchy trzeszczą na biodrach.

– Umrę, jak mi dobrze zapłacisz – mówi stare niemowlę.

Babka przynosi worek pościelowych guzików. Wysypuje na podłogę.

– Wystarczy?

– Bo ja wiem? Muszę policzyć.

Siedzę z prababką na ziemi. Liczymy na palcach guziki.

– Widziałaś kiedyś tyle pieniędzy? – pyta.

Kiedy nie patrzy, wsadzam je do butów, wrzucam za koszulę, połykam. Niech będzie ich mniej. Za mało na śmierć.

 

Translator’s Statement:

It is hard to say whether the main characters in Bronka Nowicka’s prose poems are objects or people. If we consider what she wrote in her poem titled “Tights:” “the only thing that separates human from the world is the skin,” which “prevents you from soaking into the immensity of things,” we can conclude that, indeed, the border between the human world and the world of objects is constantly questioned in Nowicka’s writing, just the like the limits of the material and the immaterial. The universe in Nakarmić kamień is that of things the child desires to learn and experience through her senses. In addition, objects are essential in our lives because they preserve the memory of our loved ones.

Nowicka’s use of language in Nakarmić kamień is striking: words are combined in unusual configurations, producing condensed sentences which are yet full of imagery and symbolism. As a reader, I often found the beautifully odd images familiar, such as tasting one’s knee through the sheer membrane of tights, feeling the hands of dead people as if they were made of wax, listening to old people talk about the War. As a translator, I realized how challenging it would be (and was) to reproduce this dense cocktail of senses and symbols into English. One of the reasons for my struggle was the form of the pieces, that is, prose poetry. In his Introduction to the first volume of The Prose Poem: An International Journal, Peter Johnson defined the prose poem as a piece of writing that “plants one foot in prose, the other in poetry, both heels resting precariously on banana peels” (6). In a similar way, I found myself jumping constantly from one side to another: on the one hand, I was often tempted to add words such as “because” or “since” to allow for the sentences to flow, as if in prose. On the other hand, I did not want to interfere with the staccato rhythm of the sentences which read like individual lines of a poem. I think that this tension between prose and poetry is visible in Nowicka’s work, and I wanted to recreate this complicated marriage between the two forms of writing in my translations.

Johnson, Peter, editor. “Introduction.” The Prose Poem: An International Journal, vol. 1,
Providence, Providence College Press, 1992.

Nowicka, Bronka. Nakarmić kamień [Feeding the Stone]. Biuro Literackie, Stronie Śląskie,
Wrocław, 2015.

 

Agnieszka Gabor da Silva graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she studied Lusophone literatures and cultures. Her Master’s thesis involved translating Clarice Lispector into Polish. She also holds a Master of Arts in English from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. Her research interests include modernist and contemporary Brazilian literature, translation, and Luso-African literature. She is also committed to promoting Polish literature in the US and Brazil through translation.

Bronka Nowicka was born in 1974. She is a film director, screenwriter, and poet. She graduated from the Polish National Film School in Łódź and the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. The fields of her inspiration, exploration, and creation include Intermedia, Language, Image in motion. In 2016, she received the Nike Literary Award, one of the most prestigious awards for Polish literature, for her prose poetry volume titled Nakarmić kamień [Feeding the Stone, published by Biuro Literackie, 2015].