We Have Something to Say

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Inside most classrooms lives a beast, many-eyed. If you’ve been a student in a classroom, especially in those early grades when a year lasts an eon, you’ve been part of this beast. You saw your elementary-school teachers with a collective, sharpened vision (their combovers, fluffy perms, paunches, thick, magnifying glasses) as you sat, caged and fidgeting, in your many chairs—sometimes drumming your many feet, weaving pencils through your many fingers.

And you’ve seen the beast’s power, too. The way it can turn on a poor substitute teacher, or on some piece of the whole, removed with a quick snap of teeth and left alone to face all those eyes, all those mouths.

When these incidents came up later on, with other people, they might have asked, Why did you do it?

I didn’t, you might have said. We did.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Anna George” by Melissa Goodrich

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The traditional short story’s primary building blocks depend heavily on logic. A character’s desire meets with a series of escalating obstacles until finally a climax is reached and that desire is fulfilled (or not) in a satisfying, plausible way. Melissa Goodrich’s “Anna George” (Passages North, Issue 36) flows far more associatively through its title character’s plight; rather than escalating to a climax, the story weaves together and then unravels.

Goodrich begins with a statement that immediately undoes the reader’s expectations of a traditional story. “Your parents go on a trip overseas and your mother comes back as an orange and your father doesn’t come back at all.” This is the stuff of the real world—parents, trip overseas, orange—but the latter isn’t fulfilling its typical function. The driving question isn’t “will the character get what she wants,” but instead, “Is her mother actually an orange? Where is her father? What is he? What is happening here?” The mystery resides, to a large extent, in the nature of the story itself.

Like in Marie Helene-Bertino’s Edna in Rain (where she normalizes the literal raining of human beings with conventional detailing), Goodrich humorously normalizes the orange-as-mother situation:

“At night, you and your orange watch TV together, and you rub the orange at its nub to comfort it, and you carry it in your hands to bed, and you spritz it with water, and lay it in a cooler, arranging an ice chip beneath its head, and your mother in this way sleeps.”

Months pass by in between Anna George and the mother/orange in summary—time passing being another form of normalization—and slowly the original questions of how this story works begins to feel settled. Her mother actually is and orange, we think, and when a ghost is introduced, one that “…tails you like forests follow rain…” it stands to reason that that ghost is her father, as we’ve known he’s been missing since that opening sentence.

But before the story—mystery on the verge of being revealed—can settle comfortably into the impending resolution, Goodrich dodges it by stating our suspicions bluntly. “The ghost has been there for a while now, since an orange came home from vacation instead of your mother: you can guess what it represents.” By stating the symbolism outright, she steals the power of the metaphor of her loss and also the impetus of Anna’s grief, and with it any satisfaction the reader might have had figuring it out.

Goodrich unmoors us, with the purpose of preparing for her next move: subverting the narrator. Now, halfway through the story, she introduces another character, one that has with no previous ties or connection to the story so far. The character is an “old man in a bar in New Orleans” who “writes down everything for the ghost to do and then the ghost does it in real life, following you around like hibiscus follows the sun,” and also dictates Anna George’s action. Instead of propelling forward, Goodrich’s story changes direction completely. It’s beginning to unravel.

As it does so, momentum builds. Anna George peels the orange and begins eating it. We’re told that one seed she finds inside is the mother and the other is just a seed. It’s an associative move that both mirrors the unraveling and also openly defies the logic set forth earlier in the story. The author is no longer the author. The orange is not longer the mother. Everything is shifting.

As Goodrich faces Anna’s grief more directly, the potential meaning behind the images become more elusive:

“They say grief takes seven forms, some foggy or antlered, some idle as stovetops on low heat, some like a letter you can’t read because your eyes have turned to stars, and everything you look at imprints with a tooth of light.”

This collage of disparate images serves to show that now even the logic of patterns has been left behind. Then she subverts the author once again: “The man writing this ghost story knows nothing about how it (the story) works.”

In the end, there is no more making sense of the grief. Goodrich builds each element of this story only to then tear it down, until we’re left with only the bare emotion of the devastating last line: “And here comes Anna George, hurtling towards that howl.”

Blood Memory

“There is only one of you in all time; this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”—Martha Graham

Dance was my first foray into art, and I studied it for sixteen years with the kind of blind passion you can only cultivate before puberty, before cynicism and self-doubt set in, gnawing at your dreams.

Though humble, those years of dance training gave me my first taste of expressing myself through art, of channeling meaning. Though I wobbled and my turnout failed when I danced en pointe to Vivaldi’s “Spring,” I understood the rapturous feeling of new growth, the sun on one’s skin after winter. Vivaldi translated his feelings about spring into music, and we small town Carolinians tried our best to bring those ideas to life with the body. Though our results were what you might expect from a studio that shared space with a gas station, our effort was noble.Continue Reading

Literary Blueprints: The Wise Fool

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

 

After meeting Gothic characters the Byronic Hero and the Mad Woman, the time has come to visit periods before Romanticism in discovering a popular character known as The Wise Fool.

Origin Story: The idea of the Wise Fool is somewhat hard to trace. Unlike some other character types, he does not have a clear beginning, but rather a few key moments in literary history where he pops up in some form. Greek and Roman literature both contain examples of the Wise Fool, who often appears as a servant who tricks his master.

Looking at Biblical origins, the idea of the Fool is not someone who is lacking in intelligence, but someone who is a non-believer. The pairing of wisdom and folly perhaps originates in the book of Proverbs, in this case as a set of women, one with worth beyond all things (Wisdom) and one sent to lead men astray (Folly). These foils appear throughout Medieval literature in works such as Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee.

The idea of the Fool was more fully developed during the Middle Ages, although he wisdom will come with the Renaissance. The paradox of the Wise Fool, however, does not fully emerge until the Tudor period, most famously in Shakespeare’s King Lear where his Fool is the true source of wisdom in the play.

Characteristics: The Wise Fool is often literally a fool or jester—a comic character who is present for entertainment rather than intellect. Of course, the character has developed beyond those restrictions. Whatever his occupation, the Wise Fool is an outsider who is not valued for his (or her) intellect. It is there that the Fool is able to source his power. By being free from the standards of society, an outsider in essence, the Fool can observe and comment with few limitations, including mocking the social elite. But, like the cursed Greek prophet Cassandra, the truth of the Fool’s words may be missed by characters who dismiss them as worthless. His wisdom stems not from acquired knowledge but from common sense and insight. In modern literature, the Fool may suffer from some mental handicap which causes him to be perceived as unintelligent; however, he will have an innate gift that fuels his wisdom. The term Idiot Savant may be applied in this case. The Wise Fool can sometimes merge with the Trickster.

Famous Faces: Beginning with the Greeks, Philippus in Xenophon’s Symposium and Thersites in Homer’s Iliad both fill the role of the Wise fool. Shakespeare loved a Wise Fool, as evidenced by Twelfth Night’s Feste and the infamous Falstaff (The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV). Lear’s Fool is so important to this Blueprint that Christopher Moore dedicated two books (Fool and The Serpent of Venice) to the character whom he names Pocket. John Steinbeck plays with the idea of the Idiot Savant with Of Mice and Men’s Lenny. Phillipa Gregory wrote a female Wise Fool in The Queen’s Fool. Harry Potter fans might recognize Luna Lovegood as a Wise Fool, though some argue Ron Weasley better defines the characteristics.

“An Essay Needs to be about Exploring”: An Interview with Angela Pelster

4645778215_ce3994b9b0_oAngela Pelster is the author of Limber (Sarabande Books, 2014), for which she won the Great Lakes College Association New Writer Award. This book was first described to me as a “collection of essays about trees,” which is like saying Moby Dick is a book about a whale. Trees may serve as a starting point, or ending point, but her essays roam widely through history, nature, science and the quirky details of our daily lives. Pelster writes from the crossroads of essay, poem, memoir, fable, short story, meditation and prayer—which sounds like a dangerous intersection, but makes Limber a fascinating, compelling book. Pelster is also the author of a children’s novel, The Curious Adventures of India Sophia (River Books, 2005), which received the Golden Eagle Children’s Choice Award. She lives with her family in Baltimore and teaches at Towson University.

The last few sentences in “Mango” describe how I imagine an essay might start for you: “I collect the signs like a doctor tapping on a patient’s body, looking into ears, pressing on a spine, drawing blood from the unseen places. It is difficult to know… when the world will bend and let slide a little secret from its corner.” How does an essay start for you?

Beginning an essay is always a bit of a mystery to me, and so also always a little terrifying since I never know if I will be able to do it again. But one thing that is consistent in each beginning is the uncertainty about what the essay is really trying to say. I can’t write about a subject if I already know what I think about it, or even where I want to get to emotionally in the writing; it needs to be discovered as I go. I always tell my students that if they know what they want their essay to be about, if they feel there is a point they need to make, then they’re writing the wrong essay. An essay needs to be about exploring, about figuring things out; it needs to be about asking a genuine question and sincerely seeking an answer. If any of the essays in Limber work, it’s because they were born out of a real uncertainty.

The rest of my writing practice is probably pretty standard. I despair for awhile that I’ll never write again. I write a few terrible sentences. Then I finally write a nice sentence inside some terrible paragraphs, and I’m off. I find I need to have something, anything, on the screen, before I sit down to actually start a new essay. I’ll type whatever nonsense comes to mind, press enter a few times, and then put my cursor above it in order to have the illusion of a safety net of words beneath me. And then, of course, once it’s all down I revise, revise, revise.Continue Reading

Round-Down: A Failure of Responsibility

goldsmithKenneth Goldsmith, writing professor at the University of Pennsylvania and self-proclaimed “uncreative” poet, came under fire two weeks ago for performing Michael Brown’s autopsy report as a found poem at a conference at Brown University—and, in the aftermath, the incident has caused artists in every genre to ask: is there such a thing as going too far in conceptual art, especially for a white artist?

The Internet blowback has been intense, and Goldsmith received at least one death threat. He has since publicly explained he meant no harm, that in fact reading public eyewitness accounts of tragedies was part of his practice as a poet seeking to perform texts that tell the truth, without editorializing. He has asked Brown University not to release the tape of his performance (they have not) and proclaimed he would be donating his speaker fee to Michael Brown’s family, in the effort to alleviate the pain he has caused.

Many artists and doctors of all races have weighed in on the racial implications of such a performance—and these analyses are worth reading, as they parse out exactly what was so repugnant about Goldsmith’s decision to perform such a text.

As a young, white, student poet, I find myself very hushed by this story. I have seen how eager I and my fellow (white) writers have been to push our poems into historical, political, and, yes, racialized territory, wanting somehow to make our words matter, to engage with the outrages of our age, to push poetry past its ivory tower isolation. And on one level—especially since I was not in attendance at the conference—I want to give Goldsmith the benefit of the doubt and believe that this is what he was thinking when he decided to perform the autopsy report. Though, of course, I cannot know.

This event reminds me of how decidedly important it is for a writer, especially a writer of privilege, to ask oneself, before one takes on a topic, “Am I the right vessel for this message? Does my social, economic, racial, and gendered identity somehow implicate me if I were to present this point of view? How are my identity politics in confluence or at odds with the identity and dignity of the subject I am attempting to revere in my poetry?”

It’s hard (living through institutionalized racism is harder, I imagine; though, as a white person, I can only imagine). Get too broiled in those questions and you may stop trying to take on anything but yourself in your poetry and avoid wider, social issues like an un-vaccinated child on the playground.Continue Reading

The Long Death Of Genre Distinction

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The latest lit dust-up over genre involved Kazuo Ishiguro and Ursula K. Le Guin. In a review of Ishiguro’s new book The Buried Giant, Le Guin took umbrage at some remarks he made to the New York Times. “Will readers follow me into this?” went Ishiguro’s offending comment. “Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”

Le Guin chaffed at the disavowal of the fantasy genre, responding deliciously that reading Ishiguro’s books was “like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, ‘Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?’”

In an industry that can be polite to the point of obsequiousness, it’s invigorating to see two legends spar. Still, I’m of the mind that genre divides in fiction are at best a little silly, and at worst a creation of marketing professionals that should be viewed with skepticism. As Ishiguro later clarified, “I think genre rules should be porous, if not nonexistent.”

After this last jaunt in the Internet lit scandal echo chamber, it may be time to put the genre debate to bed (see this recent Round-Down for further discussion). It doesn’t seem necessary to banish all labels wholesale (Electric Literature published a very smart essay to that end), but a gentler approach may be to think not of genres, but of literary traditions.

In recent years there has been a heartening boom in fantastical, or speculative, fiction. This is great news for all of us in the “keep fiction weird” camp, and even better news for those of us who love humor. The uptick in speculative fiction has meant a similar uptick in humor, or in authors attempting humor: maybe bleak near-futures corrupted by alienating technologies and mankind’s arrogance go down easier with a spoonful of irony.

Even within speculative fiction, humor follows distinct traditions. There is the science fiction tradition—Kurt Vonnegut’s human zoo on Tralfamadore, George Saunders’ inmates dosed with Darkenenfloxx. Kafka’s surrealism has its heirs, as does Marquez’s warm, magic-steeped wit. The unceremonious exit of Major Kovalyov’s nose in the famous Gogol story has found absurdist inheritors.

Unlike existing literary genre parameters, which consist of broad strokes (if it’s got a dragon in it it must be fantasy, but if the dragon proves to have tentacles it’s sci-fi), the boundaries between humor traditions are tougher to pin down. They are defined by largely intangible factors: texture, tone. They are dictated, naturally, by the author’s voice. There is some greater or lesser degree of irony. What is more clear is the purpose of humor in this kind of writing. Beyond entertainment value, it serves to underscore the great themes with which this work often grapples, the comic hopelessness of man against society, technology, or self.

Last year alone I was impressed with Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, Diane Cook’s Man V. Nature, Julia Elliott’s The Wilds, and many others. As long as imaginative writing perseveres, I think it’s okay to take the taxonomists a little less seriously. With apologies to Linnaeus, who cares?

The Zippo Museum in Bradford, PA and Zippo Sightings in Literature

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I admire a story the way I admire a Zippo lighter—perfectly, even simply engineered to do what is required to do, with nothing extra tacked on.  I’m thinking of an unadorned lighter here, simple brushed steel, not one with a Harley Davidson logo on the side.  Wick, flint, wind guard, lighter fluid, cover, period.  It makes fire, nothing more.” Andrew G. Forbes

Once at a conference, a new acquaintance looked at my nametag and said, “What’s in Bradford, PA?”

“Zippo,” I said.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he responded.

I realized he thought I meant that there was nothing in Bradford, PA, as in zippo, zilch, nada. And it is a relatively small, remote town, but what I’d really meant was that the Zippo lighter was invented in Bradford, where it’s still manufactured. Many buildings are named after Zippo inventor George G. Blaisdell, the local Y gymnastics team is called the Bradford Flames, and our local newspaper used to report on “Zippo sightings” in popular culture, making me alert to my own Zippo sightings in literature.

He teaches me how to flip my Zippo lighter from hand to hand. He’s an idiot but he knows one good trick and now I know it too.” –Mary Robison, Why Did I Ever

While I’ve never smoked and still use matches to light birthday and Hanukkah candles, I find Zippo’s museum, on a road with custom-made streetlights shaped like Zippos, to be surprisingly fun. I know moms who take their toddlers to just sit and watch the mesmerizing audio-kinetic ball machine there during snowy Bradford winters. There’s a seven-foot tall American flag made of 3,393 red, white, and blue lighters called “Old Glow’ry”; an oddly intriguing sculpture made from compressed Zippo lighters; a life-sized tableau of one soldier lighting another’s cigarette in a foxhole; and displays related to manufacturing, history, and popular culture.

Do you want to buy some Zippo lighters? he asked Yossarian. “They were stolen right from quartermaster.” Joseph Heller, Catch 22

The museum is a kind of combination celebration of kitschy pop culture and the indomitable human spirit, of Zippo folk art, of the versatility and indestructibility of an “American icon,” of durability and endurance and loyalty. Zippo lighters come with a lifetime guarantee and broken ones are fixed or replaced for free. One of my favorite displays shows crumbs and slivers of lighters that have been through garbage disposals or ice crushers and run over by trains, lawn mowers, and bulldozers, the message being that it takes a lot to destroy a Zippo lighter.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You” by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

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I’ve grown to feel that the direct address of second person point-of-view—you—feels like a forced intimacy. There’s an insistence that isn’t necessarily requited, a desperation that meshes perfectly with the plight of the main character of Maurice Carlos Ruffin’s compelling “The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You,” (The Iowa Review 44/3) which details a few days in the life of a teenage prostitute in New Orlean’s French Quarter.

We meet the narrator as he’s working the street corner and is approached by one of his regulars, Mr. Jellnik, “…the only one who buy you food after he do his business.” Jellnik is from Idaho, and offers the narrator to fly him back to Idaho, where he lives, where he’ll be more safe than working the streets of the Quarter. The narrator responds, “Why do you care about what happen to me?”

That question, why does Jellnik care, why does anyone care, is central to the narrator’s position. Is it for love, or at least something reaching towards it? The narrator’s world requires him to act intimately when he doesn’t feel it, force himself to pretend he’s attracted to Johns even if he feels they are disgusting. Intimacy is about money and sex is about survival. It’s a job. If someone cares, there has always been an ulterior motive. In his own words, “…if you don’t fake it, what else you got?”Continue Reading

The Summer of Salinger, A Review

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My Salinger Year
Joanna Rakoff
272 pages
Knopf
$25.95

buy: here

J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist
Thomas Beller
192 Pages
Icons Series, New Harvest
$20

buy: here

 

As a boy in Manhattan, Thomas Beller frequented the Museum of Natural History, struggled with his Jewish identity and didn’t apply himself in school. Now he’s our, “ideal guide to J.D. Salinger’s world.” As a young woman from Brooklyn, poet Johanna Rakoff stumbles into this world, testifying, “We all have to start somewhere.”  Last summer both authors released books with Salinger’s name in the title, but that’s about all they have in common.

With J.D. Salinger:The Escape Artist (New Harvest, June 2014), Beller embarks on a “quest biography…as much about the biographer as the subject.” It’s a questionable premise. Does Beller think he’s that interesting? There’s no denying Salinger—from Manhattan, to Normandy, and New Hampshire—lived an intensely singular life. How can Beller expect to measure up?

We never get answers to those questions (or any others), because The Escape Artist is more literary walkabout than author analysis. Our guide wanders off near Riverside Drive.

Beller acknowledges an, “aura of trespass,” yet he slogs on, describing Salinger as he’s been described to oblivion: “consummate outsider,” “genius recluse,” and—of particular significance to Beller—“half-Jewish.”Continue Reading