Dear, Dear: The Intimacy of Letters


Nobody writes letters anymore. Sometimes the lament strikes me as cranky, romanticized (I once heard a radio interview with a woman who’d decided to homeschool her children in large part because their school had cut out cursive writing). But it’s true that I’ve saved many of the rare handwritten letters I’ve received in my life: notes from friends; the letters my dad sent me during my first months of college, which I read, then, with visceral rushes of homesickness; cards from my grandmother, in a large, looping script so beautiful it almost makes me understand that homeschooler’s impulse. The handwriting is what does it, I think—the shapes of the letters as familiar as the contours of a face. We only write letters from some distance, but they seem to close that distance.

In epistolary-form stories, this sense of intimacy is part of what writers are after. Actual handwriting is of course not in play in a typeset story or novel, but the sense of a written voice is. Fictional letters, when done well (and it is so very hard to do them well), give the reader a wonderful little jolt of recognition—a sense that we’re actually meeting the character who’s written the letter for ourselves, unmediated. In stories that present us with letters from multiple characters, we also get the pleasure of assembling the narrative from these parts, arbitrating amongst these voices. As Ross McMeekin shows in his great review of Ashley Davidson’s epistolary story “A Daring Undertaking,” a story told in letters lets us feel that we’re snooping and then making up our own minds.Continue Reading

My Literary Zombie Apocalypse Dream Team


It’s a discussion as old as time itself: in the event of a zombie apocalypse, with whom would you hope to be stranded? I know I’ve given this a lot of thought (I am, after all, a very serious and presently unemployed intellectual with way too much time on my hands), but lately I’ve been cogitating upon—in the event a cosmic interdimensional crisis somehow renders all my favorite literary characters real—which fictional favorites might afford me the best chance of riding out the guts, the gore, the chaos and savagery of a civilization fallen.

Here’s my winning line-up, tentatively team-named The Stealth Zombers (in no particular order)…



“For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal. What’s all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself – the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

Featured in: Moby Dick by Herman Melville.

Why He Makes the Team:
[X] Fiercely loyal.
[X] Sweet harpooning skills.
[X] Swell bedfellow.
[X] His practice of fasting and prolonged periods of silence ideal for post-apocalyptic zombie survival.
[X] Knows how to build a coffin.
[X] Wanderlust befitting of nomadic lifestyle.

Risks Posed: His lack of shame in practicing cannibalism may make fellow survivors nervous.

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Round-Down: The Role of Writers in a STEM Obsessed Society

The Doctor, Leon SallesThe recent appointment of Dr. Suzanne Koven to the first-ever writer-in-residence program at Massachusetts General Hospital has me asking: is the U.S. as a nation starting to re-value creativity after years of putting math and science first?

An associate professor of medicine at Harvard and renowned writer, Koven, in addition to her MD, holds an MFA in nonfiction; her essays appear regularly in prominent blogs and publications. She often writes about the importance of using literature in medicine to reconnect to a sense of shared humanity with patients.

The news of the appointment of a writer-in-residence—who is herself a doctor— in a hospital as prominent as MGH may strike some as surprising, especially given the ways the arts seem to be losing their foothold in many secondary- and university-level programs, with initiatives like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math based curriculums), Race to the Top, and the Common Core placing emphasis on testable skills, such as those fundamental in math and science.

And yet, it shouldn’t be that surprising. Consider Apollo: god of many things, he was most notably responsible for medicine and poetry—it historically hasn’t been at all strange to be skilled in both.Continue Reading

At Some Point The Writer Should Be Having Fun: An Interview With Arthur Bradford


An incomplete list of the animals that appear in Arthur Bradford’s latest collection Turtleface and Beyond include a dead cat, a porcupine that menaces a recluse’s outhouse, a dog liberated from the pound, and the eponymous turtle, of face fame. Besides Turtleface, which came out in February, Bradford is the author of the very funny short story collection, Dogwalker. We emailed recently about Denis Johnson, loser lit, and keeping it reigned in.

I’m sure you get this one a lot, but I see some Denis Johnson in this collection. The main character being named Georgie of course recalls Jesus’ Son, as does the story “Orderly” about, well, an orderly.

But I’m thinking more of the deadpan quality of this exchange from “Emergency”:

“Georgie’s in O.R.,” Nurse said.
“No,” Nurse said. “Still.”
“Still? Doing what?”
“Cleaning the floor.”
“No,” Nurse said again. “Still.”

That’s pretty perfect&mdashed;some of the best dialogue in fiction writing, I think. The dialogue in Turtleface and Beyond has a similar feel. In interviews you’ve described Johnson as a hero of yours. Could you talk a little bit about how his writing has contributed to shaping your own?

Yes, Denis Johnson has been a big influence on me. When I first read Jesus’ Son, back in the 90’s when it came out, I had that same feeling I sometimes experience upon hearing a new song or seeing new film that touches on the current culture in a fresh and exciting way. It was so original and cool. It made me want to to try to do something like that myself. I admire the simplicity, humor, and grace of those stories. Later on, while I was an MFA student at University of Texas, Denis Johnson showed up to teach a fiction workshop. It was a total coincidence. I would’ve traveled anywhere for the opportunity to take a class with him, and here he was becoming a writer in residence at the school I was already at. He is a very inspiring and generous person. He didn’t seem to put much stock in the notion that writing can be taught, which is a funny position for a writing teacher to take, but I understood what he meant. Denis drove around Austin in this giant red Cadillac convertible that he tried to sell to me when the term ended. He said he though I could pull off owning a car like that. I wasn’t so sure, but I liked that he thought I could. Or maybe that was just a line he used to try to unload it. I didn’t buy that car, though sometimes I wish I did. Denis helped me get a job working on the film adaptation of Jesus’ Son. If you watch the credit roll my name is the last one to go by.Continue Reading

“Fallingwater: The Rock Opera”: The Collaboration of Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Hall

Lynn Hall, Courtesy of Gary Devore

Lynn Hall, Courtesy of Gary Devore

“Architecture is a study in theft,” says Gary DeVore.

We’re standing in an echoing room in Port Allegheny, PA’s Lynn Hall, a building constructed in 1935 by Walter Hall, who later became the chief builder for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater. For the last couple of years, Devore and his wife Sue have undertaken the restoration of Hall’s once-abandoned building.

Hall, who had been strongly influenced by the Prairie School, was in turn responsible for many of the innovations of Wright’s masterpiece. “Frank Lloyd Wright just had better biographers,” Devore says. “Fallingwater has a great Frank Lloyd Wright design—but it’s a Walter Hall building.”

While Fallingwater’s original owner Edgar Kauffman nicknamed it “rising mildew,” Wright’s design is awe-inspiring if impractical. It’s like a poem in its careful attention to detail, its repeating motifs and recurring colors: cherokee red, gray stone, light ochre; steps leading from the living room down into the water reminiscent of gills; gray stone floors that, when waxed, look like water. Cantilevered terraces hang in the air like long flat drawers pulled out from the jutting rocks. Built-in furniture, also seeming to hang in the air without legs or bases, echoes the terraces. The house’s stone column and downstairs great room, damp and dark with a stone floor, remind me of a castle or a cave. Lines between the outdoors and indoors are perpetually blurred: it feels as if you could walk through the screenless windows right out into the air, moss grows on the back stone walls, and boulders come up through the floor.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Centrifugal Force” by Jodi Angel


People want to believe that Mark Twain once said, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt,” though there’s zero evidence to back up his authorship. While others have claimed to know the quote’s true origin, most likely it’s one of those anonymous aphorisms passed down through the years. But doesn’t it just sound better if it was from Mark Twain?

The nature of the quote and the questions surrounding its authorship play perfectly into the nature of denial. Reality, for various reasons, is sometimes something we’d rather not face. Jodi Angel’s “Centrifugal Force” (Tin House, Summer 2015) explores the nature and tragedy of denial from the perspective of a group of young folks looking to find a fix for their boredom.

That fix comes in the form of Harold, who we discover is off his meds and behind the garage of his house, smashing garden snails with a hammer.

“There was a shitload of wreckage in front of him—all kinds of shattered pieces and bodies thick and wet as snot …we watched him do this for a while, nobody saying anything, and somebody whispered that maybe we should go find something else to do…”

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Review: THIS IS THE HOMELAND by Mary Hickman

HickmanHomelandThis Is the Homeland
Mary Hickman
Ahsahta Press, May 2015
80 pages

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Mary Hickman’s first volume of poetry begins dazzlingly with “Joseph and Mary,” a poem carved out of Joyce’s Ulysses. Whether this was done by dramatic erasure or by mosaic-like re-arrangement of fragments is hard to say, but however it was accomplished, it enchants. Hickman’s distillation of Joyce’s novel carries a distinct flavor of Stephen Dedalus, a Stephen who has perhaps changed genders, but is still a shape-shifting intelligence in exile, looking for a body it can call home.

The body may be the homeland named and claimed in the title. Names of the body parts appear frequently—forearms, hips, glands, knees, feet, spine. The poems sometimes invoke yoga (“The Locust,” “Woodchopper”) or chiropractic (“Spinal Twist”) or even the operating table (“Twelve hours his chest / cracked & / died”), but somehow our best efforts to name and claim the body leave an elusive remainder. “This is the homeland,” the final sentence of the first section of “Territory” confidently asserts, but by the end of the second section the poem is asking, “What land is this?” In This Is the Homeland, the body is both the only place we will ever live and a mystifying, unknowable other.Continue Reading

“We licked the dictionary off each other’s faces” : Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal: A Project for Future Children

Sal_tree_Np copy 2What’s wrong with being raised by wolves? In Humanimal: A Project for Future Childen, Bhanu Kapil investigates “the true story of Kamala and Amala, two girls found living with wolves in Bengal, India, in 1920” (ix). But unlike a crowd drawn to witness a re-enactment, Kapil’s book instead involves “trying to see it” (17) and the creation of a work of radical empathy. Of becoming, not speculating: a desire to “write until they were real” (41).

In this complex “re-telling of planar space,” Kapil records her trip to the site where Kamala and Amala briefly lived “as girls,” her own father’s journey to England from India, where “his feet resembled those of a goat’s” and her childhood (35 and 64). Ridiculed by children in London after returning from India while still in school, Kapil remembers: “When I grew up, I wrote about the bloodstream of a child as intermingling with that of an animal” (40). And this is a book of so many interminglings that the differences can hardly be marked by its end, if only because “I was frightened and so I stopped” (1).Continue Reading

“Little, safe boxes that contain trauma and violence”: An Interview with Jehanne Dubrow


Jehanne Dubrow’s latest collection of poems, The Arranged Marriage, tells a difficult and moving story about the poet’s mother and her early life. The narrative gradually comes into focus for the reader through a sequence of beautiful, haunting prose poems—narrow blocks of words the poet likens to “newspaper columns” that convey her “poetic reportage.” Jehanne is also the author of four previous books, including Red Army Red, Stateside, From the Fever-World and The Hardship Post, and co-editor of The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems About Perfume. She is the Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and an associate professor of creative writing at Washington College.

Matthew Thorburn: How did this book come to be? Did you conceive of it as a larger project from the outset, or did it come into focus as you were writing the poems?

Jehanne Dubrow: My mother has told me the stories that form The Arranged Marriage since I was a little girl: her exiled Jewish childhood in Honduras, her experience of being held hostage by a violent man, and her forced marriage in El Salvador which followed that trauma. These narratives are so much a part of me that The Arranged Marriage happened very organically. I wrote fifteen of the collection’s central poems in the first week and then spent the next two years building the rest of the book around those key texts.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Why GO SET A WATCHMAN May Have Been Better Unpublished


Discussion surrounding the recent release of Harper Lee’s purported To Kill a Mockingbird prequel–or draft, or sequel–Go Set a Watchman has dominated the literary community for the past several weeks. Just about every article on Watchman touches on the question of either whether Lee consented to having the long stowed-away manuscript released. At The New York Times, Randall Kennedy asks exactly this.

The initial reactions to Watchman’s release are expectedly mixed, yet strong. An informal poll conducted by CNN, in which about twenty thousand people have now participated, reveals public response to the question “Are you planning to read Go Set a Watchman?” Just over sixty percent say they will, and there’s about a twenty percent split on either side between those who are flatly not interested and those who won’t because they “want [their] memories of the original unsullied.” Lee’s new novel is operating under the extremely unique condition of existing within the same realm as and including many of the same characters from Mockingbird, a text that has been so widely loved and taught. It is because of these conditions that we should consider some facts of the questionable circumstance.Continue Reading