The Past, Living


For a person who loves writing and reading stories that take place in the past, I don’t seem to like the term historical fiction much. It tastes of dust to me. No doubt unfairly, I think of a certain kind of novel when I hear it. You know the kind:

Mehitable Benevolence Lynton paused in the course of her endless washing to heave a sigh. My, she mused, but life for a woman of this period, in these Colonies, is trying! She inspected her face, reflected in the water in the basin—glass mirrors being luxury items at the time—and adjusted her close-fitting white cap with fortitude. Just then, Ezekiel strode into the room. 

“Husband!” Mehitable exclaimed. “What have you heard of this trouble over in Salem Village?”

Then many many more pages devoted to quaint hardships and kinds of cloth.

I sympathize, I do. Nobody likes to do research without getting to use it, but actually I think that’s probably not the real explanation for some writers’ tendency to smother their stories under copious details, strained references to significant contemporaneous events. My bet is that this tendency is instead a side effect of enthusiasm: most people drawn to writing about the past really love the past. The quirks, idiosyncrasies, and small, exotic normalcies of everyday life in that unreachable world seem just too good not to shoehorn into their stories somehow.Continue Reading

“That Swerve that Takes Me Somewhere Else”: An Interview with Rick Barot

Barot_InterviewRick Barot’s poems are assured, finely composed structures in which memory and emotion often take startling, deeply moving turns. He is the author of three books of poems, including The Darker Fall and Want. Rick was born in the Philippines, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and now lives in Tacoma, Washington. He teaches at Pacific Lutheran University, where he directs The Rainier Writing Workshop. Recently I caught up with Rick via email to talk about his new book, Chord.

Matthew Thorburn: Chord seems very carefully arranged so that adjacent poems speak to each other, and so that different family stories and personal narratives are gradually woven together into a larger whole. How did you go about putting your poems together as a book? Is this a process that changes for you, from book to book?

imageRick Barot: The arrangement of Chord happened well after I’d finished writing the poems for the book. The poems were written over a span of about eight years, and during that time I didn’t have a sense of an overall theme that the poems were contributing to. I just wrote the poems. Some felt personal. Some felt polemical. I didn’t want to spend any time thinking about what the poems were and how they related to each other. I liked being surprised by what came up. My previous book, Want, had been a kind of project book. When I started it I had a clear sense of it in mind, and in the three years I wrote the poems of that book, I adhered to the theme. That experience taught me that I didn’t want to be that constrained in my next book. Until I had the poems in Chord spread out on my living room floor and I went through the process of moving things around and taking things out, I didn’t know that the book would be anything but a miscellaneous gathering of poems. In fact, to me it still feels like a miscellaneous gathering, even though I know it’s informed by recurring ideas and preoccupations.

MT: The opening poem, “Tarp,” is a wonderful example of something I especially admire in your work: the way you can start a poem with something from everyday life, something as seemingly unremarkable and harmless as a tarp, and then suddenly we find you’re writing about something much darker and closer to the heart. Would you talk about how a poem starts for you—and how you started writing this particular poem?Continue Reading

Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Rogers Ladder” by Holly Wendt


In the summer of 1895, Linnie Rogers became the first woman to ascend Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, by climbing up a precarious, 350-foot wooden ladder made of stakes driven into a crack running up the rock formation’s side. In Holly Wendt’s “The Rogers Ladder,” (Gulf Stream) the national monument and this minor historical event take on vast dimensions in the mind of a grieving narrator, Rachel.

Early on, Wendt begins weaving together Rogers climb, the recent death of the Rachel’s daughter Maddie, and her current visit to the national monument with her husband.

“One hundred years after Linnie Rogers’s climb, Rachel’s five-year-old daughter, wearing blue polka-dot shorts and yellow jelly shoes, was killed in a car accident. Rachel’s husband, David, had been driving…David stands now beside the maps, planning their hike, talking with one of the park rangers…The accident was not his fault.”

But this conclusion doesn’t help with her grief, which is overwhelming and complex. She loves David, but also hates him—at times even more than the actual driver at fault. Wendt reveals how this mess of contradictory emotions has made a stranger of Rachel’s own body.

“Her therapist says anger like this is normal. Rachel doesn’t think it’s normal at all. It doesn’t feel normal, on her skin, in her bones. It’s been more than a year. They haven’t had sex in that long. It’s not because she doesn’t want it. Her body wants it. Her body wants sex and another child, and some days, her skin feels so electric she can’t stand it. It’s that getting that close to him, putting her hands on his body, makes her fingers want to turn to claws, makes her want to gouge and bite.”

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Review: Marcel Proust’s IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME: SWANN’S WAY – A Graphic Novel by Stéphane Heuet

Adaptation & Drawings by Stéphane Heuet
Translated by Arthur Goldhammer
Liveright, English reprint ed. July 2015
240 pp, $26.95

Buy hardcover | eBook 

There are few challenges as alluringly counterintuitive as adapting Proust; attempts to do so have produced wildly varying results in a surprising array of forms (heck, there’s even a musical). Much like Proust, comics are a big deal in France (sometimes referred to there as ‘the 9th art’) and a graphic adaptation was, perhaps, inevitable. Whereas literary comic book adaptations tend to be treated with critical indifference in the English speaking world, Stéphane Heuet’s In Search of Lost Time was deemed serious enough to provoke outrage in France: Le Figaro, the popular daily that Proust himself once wrote for, reviewed the first part of the comic under the title ‘It Is Marcel Who Is Assassinated’ – this did not stop it becoming a surprise bestseller.

Heuet’s comic is now available collected and with a new English translation. That it was originally published episodically is significant, as Heuet’s ability improves considerably as the book progresses. The first section of the comic demonstrates its biggest shortcomings: attempts to render thought through visual metaphor feel mechanical (logical in intent; pedestrian in execution) and the sheer volume of text is near suffocating. The book’s blurb describes it as a ‘perfect introduction to’ In Search of Lost Time, but much of the pleasure culled from the book’s opening stems from academic comparison. Continue Reading

Becoming-Citizen: A Review of NATURALISM by Wendy Xu

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Wendy Xu
Brooklyn Arts Press, Nov 15 2015
42 pp, $5 – $15

Buy: pdf | paperback | signed bundle

Wendy Xu’s Naturalism opens with a dedication: “To immigrant parents.”

That’s one of the most direct statements in the chapbook, and the eleven poems that follow create such a surreal mixture that it’s hard to tell if Xu’s lines “fixed orbit satisfies / my aesthetic need” from “Civil Dusk” are supposed to read as a playful push.

But unlike “surrealism” as it’s typically generated—that is, from an upper-class white male-identifying source—Xu’s surrealism reads as almost documentary. Instead of a surrealism based on “what if” and fantasy, the approach of Naturalism relies on flipping perception of pre-conceived, accepted, or currently understood systems of language. For Naturalism makes you realize how bizarre the “natural” world really feels. It’s how much a hurt can become, how much an everyday phrase can insidiously work and worm through, how much we disbelieve our own beliefs when we begin investigation.

For what is immigration and “becoming naturalized” if not a surreal, nearly-nightmare-fantasy, and totally queering experience? To cross one imagined border into another nation, to “become” natural—as if, pre-citizenship, a human being was “unnatural” before. Think, too, about the axle on which anti-immigration rhetoric rotates: “some people” are “illegal aliens”—not human / instead subhuman, unnatural, Other.Continue Reading

Other People’s Paperbacks

gassani holdin holdings_ppb

I have outlined here before the likelihood of writers finding value in old objects, as to me, there is something storied in a weathered possession. I make no exceptions for other people’s paperbacks. Give me your tattered Jane Eyre or marked-up Cather. Your well loved or out of print. Or better yet—don’t. I may be operating at capacity.

Recently, I was stopped in standstill traffic near Truro Beach on the Cape, when I saw a hand-scrawled sign: Estate Sale. So I steered my car down the shoulder of the road and took one of those unlikely side streets, the ones that snake across the tall dunes and meander toward the fog-covered ocean.

There, I found a historic white house, paint chipped, and a shingled barn with its doors flung open. Mismatched china balanced precariously on card tables, surrounded by boxes of coffee-stained lace and linens.

Show me the books, I thought, and then I spied them: four crates of paperbacks and art books. In roughly five minutes, I had an armful so high that I could hardly see over the stack. That is usually how I know it’s time to pay, and I make my way to the person with the cash box, spilling my finds as I go, recollecting them.Continue Reading

Round-Down: New York Public Library Expands Under Bryant Park


The New York Public Library is undertaking a $23 million underground expansion at its Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan to house its vast research collection, much of which which was formerly slated to be relocated to New Jersey. The additional space will help to house approximately four million research items and, according to the NYPL, will “allow the library to accommodate approximately ninety-five percent of all search requests on-site.”

The press release for this underground expansion corroborates this venture’s significance with hard numbers–this effort “will transform 55,700 square feet of raw space underneath Bryant Park into state-of-the-art storage that can hold about 2.5 million research materials.”

Tom Mashberg at the New York Times detailed the undertaking, mentioning that “by the end of spring (2016) library officials expect to be using a new retrieval system to ferry the volumes and other materials from their eight-four miles of subterranean shelving, loaded into little motorized carts—a bit like miniaturized minecars carrying nuggets of research gold.”

The decision to renovate and expand storage in this way was not one the NYPL came to immediately. Initially, the idea was to have the research collection moved to Princeton–but the public outcry against this proposition was strong.

As a result, the NYPL instead decided to expand its storage space under Bryant Park. In order to fit all these books in the space, the library has opted to forego the long-held Dewey Decimal System and to instead sort by size. This is a somewhat surprising and substantial revision to its sorting practices that might also provide a model other libraries could emulate with their own collections. It is interesting to consider how a library of this size and prominence might, in making this necessary and difficult expansion, affect change in new ways–possibly in how we sort books altogether.

Ultimately, NYPL officials hope that the books will be able to make the journey from stacks to reader in under forty minutes after the request is made.

NYPL President Tony Marx notes that “with this expanded storage capacity, we can provide on-site access to the researchers and writers who rely on our research collections while preserving these treasured materials for future generations.”

A considerable undertaking with an eye toward maintaining the library’s scholarly archive on-site, the Milstein Research Stacks should be open by late spring of 2016.

Laughs Online

the onion

In 2003, when I first moved to New York at eighteen, I remember reading The Onion at various coffee shops, clutching it in a mittened hand in Washington Square Park. The Onion was also online then, of course. It’s been online since 1996, which is crazy considering what the Internet looked like back then. (When I try to remember it, all I can see is a blue screen and some primitive, boxy text.) Even by 2003, the Internet was still mostly for researching school projects or messaging your friends late into the night from your dorm room. It was not where you went for humor writing.

For that we had print edition of The Onion, available in those wire baskets at the front of bookstores and on downtown street corners. We had Shouts & Murmurs and David Sedaris in the pages of our parents’ New Yorker subscriptions. We had Woody Allen paperbacks, crispy with age, picked up at used bookstores. By the grace of God, we had Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline with its original, hideous cover.

And that was pretty much it.

Recently, Christopher Monks, the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency was interviewed for Medium (part one is here), and it’s made me consider how the Internet has ushered in a golden age of humor writing. Monks reads all submissions himself, a round-the-clock endeavor requiring both impressive stamina and clarity of vision.Continue Reading

Lost in Translation: A Journey on the Li River


My China-born daughter is thirteen the summer day we take a cruise down the Lijiang River from Guilin to Yangshao. This stretch is said to be the inspiration for much Chinese poetry and art:

“Guilin’s unique topography. and beautiful scenery of the Karst Mountains and the unsurpassed beauty of the Li River has attracted public figures including poets and artists since centuries.”

Our brochure compares the river to a “jade ribbon winding among thousands of grotesque peaks.” Or, as the Tang Dynasty poet Han Yu put it,

The river winds like a blue silk ribbon
While the hills erect like green jade hairpins.

Although I find many references in tourist brochures to this location as a popular setting and inspiration for Chinese literature, I have difficulty finding many such works that have been translated into English. Mostly what I find are fragments, many, like the ones about the “grotesque” peaks and “erect” hills, in which it feels like something has been lost in translation.

However, American writers have also been inspired by this river: according to blogger Wai Chee, writers Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Leslie Marmon Silko took a boat up the Li in 1985. The influence of that trip lingers in some of their work such as Kingston’s 2012 memoir I Love a Broad Margin in My Life which is “laid out like a Chinese scroll, with no beginning, middle, or end” and which, according to a customer review, “meanders like a river.” Silko was fascinated by the connections between Chinese pottery and examples from her own Laguna ancestral background; her 2011 memoir The Turquoise Ledge focuses on family history, Tucson, and desert landscapes.

Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Los Angeles” by Ling Ma


In Marie-Helene Bertino’s “Edna in Rain” (reviewed in February), the narrator’s ex-lovers are literally raining from the sky, leaving her to deal with the surprising consequences. In Ling Ma’s “Los Angeles” (Granta), the narrator has similar problems with past lovers, leading to a wild exploration of memory’s hold on the present.

In the first paragraph, Ma’s narrator describes what’s up.

“The house in which we live has three wings. The west wing is where the Husband and I live. The east wing is where the children and their attending au pairs live. And lastly, the largest but ugliest wing, extending behind the house like a gnarled, broken arm, is where my 100 ex-boyfriends live.”

Ma represents physically the reality of that oft-used Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Continue Reading