How to Do Things With Readings: After Cave Canem’s 20th Anniversary

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Photos by Davon Clark. Clockwise from left: Camille Rankine, Danez Smith, Tyehimba Jess, Duriel E. Harris.

 

Like any literary form or rule, the poetry reading raises questions regarding subjectivity and context: whose conventions are these, what do they enable, and how do they suit the projects at hand?

Get beyond the beret-sporting, bongo-peppered cliché of what constitutes a poetry reading, and most writers still anticipate adherence to a conventional form: a reader will be introduced by a (hopefully) truncated version of their C.V. Said reader will say the name of their piece and an optional bit of information (e.g. explication of a particular non-literary concept, the origin of their title, a dedication/acknowledgement/epigraph, a framing anecdote), then read the piece itself, likely in a distinguishable poem-reading voice, after which they’ll pause, or possibly say thank you. Maybe there’s a dribble of audience applause but even here, what’s most typical is the falter: do we clap now or at the end? Do we snap, talk back, or remain silent? What is respectful? What is celebratory?

Pittsburgh has been home to some of the dearest literary events I’ve experienced. I was lucky to land here before the Gist Street series shuttered, a recurrent reading/potluck in a converted attic, distinguished by homemade ice cream and a line down the block. I went to MFA readings in the second floor of a since-closed dive bar, where listeners sat at poker tables while undergrads bought $1 Long Islands downstairs. These readings felt as much like parties as performances, adapting spatial practice to close the distance between a reader and her audience.Continue Reading

In Bookstores Near You: THE BLACK MARIA by Arcelis Girmay

I found Aracelis Girmay’s the black maria in a month filled with keen grief and anger, the unshakable kind that only follows a tragedy like Orlando or the loss of a loved one so paramount to your life that afterward people driving in their cars, just going about their lives, seem like an impenetrable, perverse mystery. In the Acknowledgments, Girmay writes that she struggled with this collection, “so steeped in violence, mourning, and grief”: how could she work inside the histories of violence and not further brutalize the black body? While these poems mourned “the dead and the bleak circumstances of our present, violent day,” they would also create a “critical space for joy and tenderness.” Her art would not be held hostage by the values of white supremacy and its bloodshed.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Howler” by LaTanya McQueen

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In modern society, what often constitutes progress is the dulling elimination of those instinctual parts of our being that aren’t beholden to conscious thought—say, our hard-wired physical and emotional responses. In “The Howler” (Permafrost) LaTanya McQueen explores the potentially redemptive nature of those impulses that lay beyond our control.

McQueen begins the story from the perspective of the unnamed boy narrator, with a description of the phenomenon the title suggests.

It started with a tickle in his chest, almost like an itch, until the feeling grew. He found himself opening his mouth wide, his lungs filling with air, the muscles in his throat constricted, and then it came. A howl, deep and guttural. He felt the vibration against his vocal chords. He imagined it as a response to a dream, perhaps still part of the dream itself, and so he got up from the bed and stretched and then went into the kitchen to find his stepmother.

What McQueen establishes is not just the physicality of the howl, but its relationship to the boy’s waking mind, drawn here more as instinctual than premeditated. That he imagines what it is, instead of knowing, speaks to the fact that both the cause and experience of the howl are happening on a level different than his conscious mind.Continue Reading

The Best Essay I Read This Month: “Citizen Khan” by Kathryn Schulz

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It is a good thing that Kathryn Schulz’s “Citizen Khan” was published in The New Yorker, because it is so eerily textbook perfect a piece of longform feature writing that had it come through a lesser fact-checking department, I might have worried some of the details were made up.

“Citizen Khan” is the lost-and-found tale of an Afghan immigrant who gained fame (sort of) and fortune (definitely) selling tamales in frontier Wyoming in the first half of the 20th Century. More broadly, it is the tale of Wyoming as a young state, of how immigrants are inextricable from the fabric of our nation’s history, and of how Muslims have long been helping shape our culture despite the current wave of Islamophobics mistakenly thinking they’re something new.

It is also, first and foremost, a feat of reporting, which is a pleasure to realize because it really didn’t have to be—there are so many interesting nuggets lying around on the surface, easily scooped up, that a good, fun story could have been written on the topic without going nearly as deep or doing nearly as much work as Schulz did. But she did, and so instead of being just good and fun, the resulting story is one of the best things I’ve read all year.Continue Reading

Writ in Water: Yellow Not Mellow

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A sight now common across California: the yellow toilet bowl.

Conscientiously curated, it’s a light shade of daffodil, lemon, banana; this is early in the lifespan, the visitors before you healthy and drinking plenty of water. If less lucky, you lift the lid on honey or medallion, yellows migrating goldenrod and worse. (Browns, mercifully, are still banished.) In homes and apartments, in private in the most private of spaces, this has always been personal preference, maybe laziness—how many visits before a flush?—but in public, a new and different matter. In restaurants and stores and movie theaters and malls, we are witnessing a colorful conversation about conservation, a visual diary of how comfortable California has become with changes in personal habit.

True, a flush or two doesn’t solve the drought; even forty million yellowing bowls doesn’t compare to daily agricultural water use or decades of water table abuse and wasted runoff, but, as author Charles Fishman notes, “For a century, California has pioneered innovations that have changed the way we all live.” As California goes—literally—so too will the rest of the nation.Continue Reading

Feminism by Way of Tragic Misogyny in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Photo by Orbitburco12

 

In social justice activism, offensive rhetoric is considered a form of toxic pollution. Language shapes our culture, society, and schema for thinking about different groups, and so can never be considered harmless. The only venue in which politically incorrect language gets a free pass, so to speak, is humor. Political satire often uses otherwise damaging rhetoric as a means to expose the absurdity of certain arguments and attitudes, and it’s considered acceptable, so long as the caricatural villain spouting the vitriol is played for laughs.

But what happens when bigotry is coded not as comedy, but tragedy? And not just for the oppressed, but for the oppressor? This is a much thinner tightrope to walk, as Bernie Sanders discovered recently when Mother Jones unearthed his brazen and controversial essay about gender roles from the seventies, which graphically depicts a fictional couple indulging in rape fantasies—the woman imagining herself as the victim and the man projecting himself as the perpetrator—and then turns into an explicit lament of normative gender roles and their deleterious psychological impact on individuals of both genders.

And men. Men are in pain too. They are thinking, wondering. What is it they want from a woman? Are they at fault? Are they perpetrating this man-woman situation? Are they oppressors?

Although the narrative devices used in the essay could be construed as sensationalist, the overall message is, in fact, feminist. As a work of fiction, it leaves a lot to be desired (which one would only expect from a future presidential candidate), but interestingly, the essay is essentially a more ham-fisted—and considerably less literary—version of the most memorable vignette in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which begins: “And yet I did not fall in love with her until she had related the story of the unbelievably horrifying incident in which she was brutally accosted and held captive and raped and very nearly killed.”Continue Reading

Living Between Languages: Notes on Language and Loss

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I was seventeen years old when I started working at the front desk of a beach resort in my coastal city in Brazil and began to teach myself my first sentences in English. In the tourism industry, English was currency, and as such I wanted to earn it. It was only natural that I soon began to read books in English, worn volumes of Salinger and Nabokov tourists never picked up from the lost and found box at the reception desk.

Learning another language (I suppose it could have been any language) changed my life: it made me yearn to be a writer. I’ve become both half-conscious and super-conscious of what I’m saying, of the strangeness and newness of language. I pick over my own speech. This awareness of style, of diction, of how sentences are formed and information is conveyed isn’t entirely a bad thing for a writer. It’s an exercise in slowing down, in spending more time underneath the surface.

Eva Hoffman writes in her Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language:

I’ve become obsessed with words. I gather them, put them away like a squirrel saving nuts for winter, swallow them and hunger for more. If I take in enough, then maybe I can incorporate the language, make it part of my psyche and my body. I will not leave an image unworded, will not let anything cross my mind till I find the right phrase to pin the shadow down.

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The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Float,” by Reginald McKnight

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An encounter with the unexplainable can evoke awe, terror, confusion, denial—a whole spectrum of emotions. In “Float” (The Georgia Review), Reginald McKnight explores how a young narrator deals with encountering the unexplainable in his own home, and what ramifications that has for our society at large.

McKnight begins with the narrator, Dontrell, opening the door to find one of his Air Jordan shoes levitating in the middle of his bedroom. When he’s unable to move it, he becomes afraid—his neck warms and his “hands tremble a little”—and he then considers the ramifications of telling his family, but decides his mother, father, and brother wouldn’t believe him.

So I sit down right under that shoe, and I just stop thinking for a minute or two. What else I’m gonna do?

Take my homework outta my pack, and read four pages of social studies. It’s usually my favorite subject, but I cain’t focus on nothing ‘cause the shoe ‘bout as hot as the sun up there, staring down at me.

He tries to pretend it’s not there. But he can’t, and before he leaves the house he’s met in his room by his father—a mechanic—who asks him the whereabouts of a crescent wrench, threatening to take Dontrell’s iPod for misplacing it.Continue Reading

On Compromise and Character

cafe-768771_960_720In The Bay of Angels, author Anita Brookner examines female relationships with unflinching scrutiny. Sometimes I felt like a bug trapped under a hand lens on the pavement, squirming with discomfort, somewhat scorched by the proximity of her fictional approximations and truth.

Fathered by an absent man she knows little about, Zoë and her mother Anne live a quiet life together in London. Zoë assesses the periodic visits from two other heterosexual, married women, Millie and Nancy, as motivated from a sense of duty: “they were concerned for any woman living on her own, with only a child for company.” Sometimes Zoë’s voice is all of her sixteen years, her age when the novel begins: “it seemed to intrigue, even to excite them [Nancy and Millie], that a woman of my mother’s age could live without a man.” But often, a presumably older Zoë muses that Millie’s and Nancy’s attentions were actually “a form of solidarity before that condition had been politicized.”

The harmonious mother/daughter duo is somewhat distanced when Simon, an older man, is introduced to Anne at a party. Romance and marriage follow. Simon is wealthy and self-assured, with an estate in France, and Zoë sees her stepfather as “a kind of Santa Claus.” She has spending money for the first time, and when she’s old enough, her own flat in London. That home for Zoë is a “flat” reflects the trajectory of her young life: her single romance ends poorly when she’s jilted by a lover she knows is seeing other people on the side.Continue Reading

Review: THE CHILDREN by Ann Leary

leary_childrenThe Children
Ann Leary
St. Martin’s Press, May 2016
256 pp; $26.99

Buy: hardcover | eBook

When I recently entered Ann Leary’s, The Good House, I found myself enjoying some of the quirkiest, most human, and authentically rendered company in Leary’s characters, each of which inspired me to get to know more of her work. I was delighted to discover that her upcoming novel, The Children, was scheduled for release the following week. Ah, serendipity!

The Children, or more accurately, the interactions between the grown-up versions of Sally, Charlotte, Perry, and Spin, offers readers a clear view of the sibling dysfunction that takes root in childhood before coming to full bloom in adulthood.

Whit Whitman, patriarch, and Joan – matriarch to Sally and Charlotte, stepmother to Perry and Spin, are responsible for some of the crazy planted in this family, evidenced by their grown-up children who are quick to identify, and in some cases, magnify their parents’ neuroses to the scope of total lunacy. Continue Reading