Peter Rock on the collection and distillation of information, the interplay between fictional and real worlds, and the dogged process of revision, in his new novel The Shelter Cycle.
In the fall of 2011, Peter Rock sent me an early draft of a book he was working on, asking for thoughts and comments. Subsequently, I read two more versions of what has become The Shelter Cycle, which will be published in early 2013 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
The novel centers on the lives of children who grew up in the 1980s in Montana and whose parents, along with many others, were involved in an organization called the Church Universal and Triumphant, led by a woman named Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Prophet warned about an imminent nuclear holocaust and offered salvation to those devoted to the Church, inspiring monumental efforts to build underground shelters for when the disaster reigned. On March 15, 1990, thousands of people disappeared into the subterranean shelters, believing they were bidding the world as they knew it goodbye.
While the past is the foundation for the story, the novel takes place twenty years later, focusing on several characters, now adults. Francine is happily married and about to give birth to her first child. She has been reticent about her past with her husband, Wells, but is forced to reckon with it when her childhood friend, Colville, appears at their door one night after the strange disappearance of a young girl in the neighborhood. This encounter spurs each of the characters on separate journeys, during which they must attempt to reconcile the past—all its contradictions and unanswered questions—with the present.
It was a pleasure to witness the development of The Shelter Cycle through its various drafts, to see the process by which the story and characters came into themselves. Pete’s work is highly attuned to the strange, the eerie, and he treats his subject matter—which is often off-kilter to begin with, and involves characters that exist on the fringes of society—with language that is spare and quiet, yet forceful. In his storytelling, Pete upends expectations and opens up possibilities, suggesting unforeseen and unfamiliar ways of seeing, thinking, feeling. I always feel unhinged after reading Pete’s writing, but also refreshed and invigorated.
On the eve of the release of Stag’s Leap, Sarah V. Schweig speaks with Sharon Olds about ideas, idealization, and murder mysteries.
“If I pass a mirror, I turn away,” Sharon Olds writes in her latest book, “I do not want to look at her, / and she does not want to be seen.” Stag’s Leap, her tenth collection, looks at a common experience—divorce—with a keen eye. Seeking to zoom in on the smallest intricacies of this particular kind of loss, Olds recollects and records the act of recollecting, ultimately aiming to accept imperfection—of people, of the world, of what’s happened. “I guess that’s how people go on,” Olds writes, “without/ knowing how.”
I met Olds on an evening in mid-August on the Upper West Side. In her apartment, which she has called home for over thirty years, a sequence of hallways and little rooms lead back to a large semi-circular room lined with windows, some shuttered, some open. At the periphery of the room are stacks of cardboard file boxes, on top of which more papers and notebooks are piled, presumably on overflow, and in one corner sits a TV-shaped object with a floral scarf draped over it. We sat around a glass coffee table where there were tea roses in a vase beside a heavy book on the Lascaux caves.
Every so often, as the sun lowered and gradually grew weaker over the Hudson, Olds would rise and open more and more of the small interior shutters painted white. At one point, standing by the window, she described a small plane that had passed by earlier that afternoon spelling out a word in its wake across the sky: SPECTACULAR, it said. We joked about this image during breaks in my questions—“It didn’t say ‘Surrender Dorothy!’” Olds said at one point—and by the end of the night we decided that, for all our marveling, it was likely selling something.
Sarah V. Schweig In Stag’s Leap, the act of seeing, or recollecting image, seems very central. Throughout the book you write “I let myself”: “I let myself picture him/ a moment,” for example and “I let myself/ go back.” In what way do you see poetry as permission to remember, record, or even relive each intimacy and detail of what’s been lost? To what degree do you see this recording of what once existed as poetry’s very mission? Do you think poetry has a mission or series of intentions that is somehow inherent?
Sharon Olds When you’re missing someone, you can’t go around all day thinking about them. It’s about keeping sane. I like what you say about seeing. If I were a less visual person, and if I were more of an intellectual the poems would be more about ideas—but I love looking at things. I like your word ‘mission.’ I suppose the mission of every poem would be to be a better poem than I am capable of writing. I wrote a lot of poems—and this book is a small percentage of what I wrote. I suppose the mission would be: Let this poem not suck in the way my poems that suck suck. But also, you’re making something. So it preoccupies you for a while, and you can respect yourself for making something that’s okay—but it’s fine to make things that aren’t okay—see those boxes?
Jeff Grunthaner speaks with author Joshua Henkin about his latest novel, The World Without You, about an American family contending with elements beyond their control.
Joshua Henkin’s latest novel, The World Without You, details the emotionally complex homecoming of the estranged Frankel family, an event prompted by a memorial service in honor of the recently deceased Leo Frankel—a young journalist whose untimely and public death in the Iraq War has catapulted the Frankels to the status of reluctant national celebrities. What impressed me about the novel was that Henkin never uses the plot of the novel to make partisan statements on the political state of the US. Rather, he dedicates himself to the cause of realism, creating an impartial world which doesn’t reduce itself to a single meaning or message. I recently had the chance sit with the author and talk to him about the creative process underlying The World Without You, why he deliberately avoids political commentary, and how his use of language reflects his views on the art of the novel.
Jeffrey Grunthaner Your novel is about 300 pages long. How much did you originally have, and how much was ultimately edited out?
Joshua Henkin I had about 2,000 pages. In my last book, my first draft was about 3,000 pages. I just throw out a lot of pages. To me, it’s all part of the rewriting process. You need to write a lot of bad pages in order to get to the good ones.
Levi Rubeck speaks with poet Paisley Rekdal about the role of the pastoral and her approach to humanity’s uglier facets her book, Animal Eye.
While reading Paisley Rekdal’s Animal Eye, I was forced to wrestle with my own skewed notions of sentimentality. My personal distaste for warm fuzzies emerged as I began to admire poetry in high school. I wanted to separate verse from the sugar-sticky coating that all of my peers focused on, whether through love or liberal daydreaming of a more elegant world. To me, poetry was dirt under the fingernails, irreverent and befuddling hooliganism. As I’ve grown and written, I’ve been drawn to write about subjects easily drawn into the orbit of sentimentality, reflecting on traditional family relationships, but searching for non-traditional expressions and explorations of those often baffling and primordial interactions.
This book steps up to sentiment, but it’s hard to make a Kodak moment out of peeling back animal flesh, the embalmed father, trepanning, taxidermy, and other forms of physical and emotional violence. The tension that emerges from the familiar, but still queasy, juxtaposition between these types of emotions fuels Rekdal’s poetry. It’s easy to lose the leash on such subjects, but Animal Eye is taut, surprising, and frank, all without overdosing on the cynical or saccharine.
I had the pleasure of studying poetry under Paisley as an undergrad at the University of Wyoming, where my notions of tradition were challenged and my personal relationship with verse was reaffirmed. After reading Animal Eye I was excited for the chance to touch base with her again after quite a few years. After reading her travel blog Anapessimistic and some of her other poetry and non-fiction, I emailed Paisley with a few questions that she was gracious to answer.
Leah Umansky speaks with author Carole Maso about her new book, Mother and Child, a dreamlike sequence of interconnected images, characters, and moments.
Read an excerpt of Mother and Child as it appeared in BOMB’s Summer Issue 120 here.
On her website, Carole Maso describes her process as follows: “Often I have had to resort to a form of my own making, exploring various literary, musical, philosophical and visual modes in order to get close to what my subject and my world require.” It is exactly this “making” of Carole’s that brings me to her work over and over again. She explores and rearranges her mediums. I admire her attention to language and imagery, eroticism and voice. Although Carole does not designate herself as such, I often think of her as a secret poet. Over the years, we have become friends and e-pen pals.
In the spring of 2011, Carole was named the VIDA’s Keynote Speaker at the AWP Conference in Washington, DC. She read from her forthcoming book, Mother and Child, which explores the mysterious and delicate bond between a nameless mother and child whose lives are transformed when a tree is split in half and a bat flies into their house. Both are tested, their lives becoming interwoven with the realms of the animal kingdom, magic, and religion. Their world is never the same; it takes on new meanings and the bond they share grows stronger.
Kate Christensen and Lara Santoro come together to discuss their literary influences, the origins of greatness, and how to get things done in fiction.
Kate Christensen is the author of numerous novels, including The Great Man, (Doubleday, 2007) which won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2008. I met Kate several Christmases ago at a holiday party in Taos, New Mexico, and was told she was a famous author who had graduated from the same college as me. She was humble, almost shy. It wasn’t until this year that I read The Great Man and discovered the brilliance of her writing.
Lara Santoro is the author of Mercy, a novel about a woman journalist working in Africa during the AIDS crisis, which was published in 2007 by Other Press and was a finalist for the Foreward Independent Press Award. Her novel The Boy is forthcoming from Little Brown in early 2013. Lara and I worked together at a small restaurant in Taos where I frequently pestered her, trying to glean as much insight about writing as I could during the busy, frantic hours of service. I admire her courage and forcefulness as a person and a writer.
To complete the circle, Lara and Kate met in Chicago in 2007, when they were both on book tour. After hearing one another read, they went out for dinner, which was, as Lara says, “the only fun I had on that tour.” The two writers discovered kindred spirits in one another and have kept in touch ever since. It was my pleasure to bring them together for this conversation, which took place through an exchange of emails, about the merits and pitfalls of American versus British literature, how to find the muse, and loneliness as a source for great writing.
Kate Christensen Hello, Lara! Do you read me?
Lara Santoro Hello, yes! I read you.
So here is the first question: Who, in your opinion, is the best American novelist alive—and dead?
KC The notion of “the best” is a hard thing for me to reckon with when it comes to novelists. First of all, I haven’t even read so many of my contemporaries. And my mind goes blank when I’m confronted with choosing absolute favorites among the enormous population of writers I love and admire, the huge mass of novels, of books. “The best” is a shifting, slippery thing. Writers I love and admire, that’s easier. You, for one. I think the greatest living writer is [J. M.] Coetzee, who isn’t American. Like most writers, I have always read everything, anything, indiscriminately and voraciously, cramming it all into my brain and digesting it and learning from it. A lot of my favorite writers are English, not American: George Eliot, for one. Do you have an idea of the best living and dead American writers?
LS Well I would have to say Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell among the living and Faulkner among the dead. Oh, and Flannery O’Connor. I think there is a vein in American literature that is concerned with tragedy in a way that the Russians for instance, who are constantly feeling the pain of the world and crying into their vodka, can’t begin to replicate. I think it’s the relative newness and rawness of the American experience, the speed at which it all happened, and it’s all reflected in the language, which is my main obsession. It’s interesting you mentioned Coetzee because Disgrace, to me, is a masterpiece in the same savage vein (and he’s not American otherwise he’d be up there). The prose is subtle, refined, chiseled in the European tradition—the sentences are longer, more articulated—whereas you read someone like Woodrell and you’re lucky if you get a comma, never mind a semicolon. Chandler is an example of someone who chose to reduce his sensitivity—which was essentially British—to gain immediacy in prose.
Sarah Gerard sits down with Johnny Lorenz to discuss his translation of A Breath of Life, the final novel written by the enigmatic Brazilian author Clarice Lispector.
Never before translated into English, Clarice Lispector’s last novel, A Breath of Life, consists of a dialogue between an Author and his creation, Angela Pralini. The novel, essentially plotless, explores the relationships between God and man, author and character, language and time, writing and death. Written simultaneously with The Hour of the Star in the year before Lispector died, A Breath of Life was composed of scraps organized after her death by her friend and assistant, Olga Borelli. Lispector never saw the final draft of her book.
I met with the book’s translator, Johnny Lorenz, at a taverna in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a few blocks from his apartment. Lorenz is a professor of English and Creative Writing at Montclair State University and a young, expectant father. His enthusiasm for translation was immediately apparent as he told me about his current project, a collaborative translation of Spanish poetry, and spoke excitedly about the nuances of translating Spanish as opposed to Portuguese. Lorenz was eager to talk about the curious challenges Lispector presents to translators, and the intricacies of translating such a unique novel as A Breath of Life.
Sarah Gerard Were you at a disadvantage being the first person to translate A Breath of Life, or was there some freedom in that?
Johnny Lorenz When the book was being edited by Benjamin Moser, we had a kind of back-and-forth about every page of the novel. I suppose some people might find that to be tiresome—to go over, again, everything that you’ve done and make changes here and there—but as far as I was concerned, it was a relief to talk to someone about the nuances of translation. Suddenly, I felt like someone was just as invested as I was in getting it right. Or as right as your aesthetic sensibility thinks it should be.
Chris Cumming on Sergio Chejfec’s abstract and sometimes grotesque novel, The Planets.
The novels of the Argentinian writer Sergio Chejfec are just beginning to be translated into English. Last year there was My Two Worlds; last month, in Heather Cleary’s translation, The Planets; and coming next year, The Dark, all from Open Letter Books.
The Planets was first published in 1999, during a long period that the Buenos Aires-born Chefjec spent in Venezuela. It’s a mid-career work—his first novel appeared in 1990— but the style is mature, to say the least. It is an extreme example of abstraction and narrative discursion in fiction, nearly as far as a novel can go toward abstraction and still seem to be telling a story. Chefjec’s is a very peculiar type of abstraction. While the novel is set in a specific place, and some of the characters are even given names and personalities, it’s mostly composed of interpretations and analyses, rather than direct narratives, of people, things, and events. It is abstract more in the way Robert Musil is abstract, for instance, than Samuel Beckett. But everything about the novel, including its abstraction, is Chefjec’s own.
Shane Jones on the constant interchange between reality and the dreamworld in his latest novel, Daniel Fights a Hurricane.
Shane Jones’s new Daniel Fights a Hurricane (Penguin Books) is about Daniel, a pipeline worker who attempts to find solutions to both his failed marriage and the hurricane he fears is coming. In addition to Daniel’s estranged wife, an uncommon cast of characters sets out to help him confront this anxiety—one is the world’s most beautiful man who also has the world’s worst teeth; another is a young boy named Iamso who can write a poem that tells you exactly how you’re feeling. The resulting journey is an imaginative, heart-wrenching vision quest peppered with looming retail giants and rapidly approaching peril, all threaded together by the essential ache of loving and wanting to be loved.
Having been a great fan of Jones’ previous novel Light Boxes, and having recently published his fiction in the Grey Issue of Fairy Tale Review, I was excited to speak with him about his newest novel.
Royal Young and author Scott McClanahan sit down to discuss the pitfalls of being “nice,” political correctness vs. true compassion, and the allure of car wrecks.
When I first saw Scott McClanahan he was sweating and shouting into a mic at the Franklin Park Reading Series in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. His reading became a staggering performance as he delivered his story in beats steady as Confederate marching drums.
McClanahan’s stories raise the spectre of the South: highways curving through woods, trailers, deer, rifles, cheap beer, and small towns where life is slower but burning with human fever. His almost casually related tales deal with violence and love, apathy, and our need for connection with an immediacy that is captivating and reflective.
McClanahan is the author of three previous books of short fiction: Stories, Stories II, and Stories V!. His latest collection, The Collected Works Vol. 1, is made up of stories about homelessness, meth addiction, death, dressing in drag, NASCAR, and mutilation, all written with a delirious combination of cynicism and warmth.
Royal Young In the first story in your collection, “The Last Time I Saw Randy Doogan,” charity gets someone in trouble. In real life, can being nice to people cause trouble?
Scott McClanahan I don’t give a shit about being nice. I’m just who I am.
Jack Palmer and Jay Caspian Kang on Kang’s new novel, The Dead Do Not Improve.
If Leo Tolstoy moved to San Francisco, worked at a tech startup, and immersed himself in the work of Raymond Carver, then The Dead Do Not Improve might just be the novel he would write. Jay Caspian Kang’s debut takes a wide-eyed, wild ride through the Bay Area underworld, featuring militant surfers, harpy-like hippies, and a plot that careers down a surprisingly emotional path. I caught up with Jay via email in the midst of a cross-country move.
Jack Palmer If The Dead Do Not Improve has a central theme, it seems like it could be authenticity. This seems particularly apparent in the scene where Philip Kim, the book’s protagonist, is taken by his father to a Bob Dylan concert “instead of simply beating the hip-hop out of [him].” When later he is told by a professor that his father couldn’t possibly feel Dylan, Kim feels violently angry. The book is populated by other fakers—surfers, gang members, even the boyfriend who barely rides his scooter. Why is authenticity such an important theme? What is so upsetting about the idea that an understanding or experience is unavailable to his father that so upsets Kim?
Jay Caspian Kang Philip feels constantly excluded from his American generation’s dialogue. His anger at his music professor comes from his realization that his experiences with his father—even if they are steeped in Americana—will always be devalued by white people who would rather see Philip’s story along more traditional immigrant lines. The professor would rather have Philip talk about his Tiger mom and how she didn’t let him listen to Dylan because it wasn’t piano practice or whatever. He can only believe those sorts of expected things about Philip and his connection with his father. That’s a painful experience for someone who already feels insecure about his identity, and it becomes particularly infuriating when someone like the professor can hide behind an “appreciation for other cultures.”
Sarah Gerard continues her investigation of the work of Clarice Lispector, tracing the Brazilian writer’s thinking about concepts of eternity.
For Clarice Lispector, time is inextricably wrapped up in the act of writing—in the way the author, in the position of God, creates an experience of time between the covers of a book. That her seventh novel, Agua Viva (as well as her last, A Breath of Life), begins and ends somewhat arbitrarily—without narrative, in the classical sense—allows us to imagine that the writing exists independently of the book; that, when we finish the last page, it will go on eternally somewhere outside it. This is reinforced by the way Agua Viva is structured in fragments that were organized only after Lispector died, as if each bit were not necessarily connected to those that came before or after, but plucked from a flow, or a field, and set down on the page—each dispatch constituting an elementary state of the book—or multiple presents, counterparts of what the book presents to us as “all time.”
Nicolle Elizabeth talks with author John Reed about the tenth anniversary edition of his novel Snowball’s Chance.
This summer, Melville House will release a tenth-anniversary edition of John Reed’s Snowball’s Chance as part of their Neversink Library, with a new afterword by James Sherry. When the book was originally released, it caused a firestorm both in the publishing world as well as legally. Snowball’s Chance is a parody of Orwell’s Animal Farm. It was released a decade before Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the rest of the now wildly commercially successful novels birthed out of other classics that were placed in every chain bookstore windowsill in the country. At the time of his book’s publication, Reed, National Book Critics Circle board member, Brooklyn Rail books section editor, writing professor, and respected original literary renegade was quoted as saying, “My intention is to blast Orwell. I’m really doing my best to annihilate him.”
Nicolle Elizabeth What made you want to write Snowball’s Chance?
John Reed You know, when authors give their reasons, they’re always a little full of crap. Given my current thinking on where we are in this nation, our total failure to care about anything but ourselves, or even ourselves, it’s hard not to speak to the political motivations of the book. As a product of the U.S. school system, I was brainwashed with Animal Farm, taught to believe not only in the “Cold War” (Orwell coined the term), but to believe revolution is impossible. The pigs, after all, were born smarter than the rest of us. Oppression, greed at the top, lives of toil—all inevitable. To that, Snowball’s Chance gives an answer. It holds up a mirror to resignation—our murderous resignation.
Melissa Broder puts it on the line—practical fantasy, art as oppression, pasties and pole dancing, cross-genre collab, faith, fashion, booze and acid, brooding teens. Yeah, and poetry.
Poetry can get tiring. Writing it. Reading it. Writing about reading it. Reading about reading it. Writing about writing it. Reading about writing it. There’s a whole mess of big poems, little poems, middling poems—a crushing, extant lot of beauty and ego to reckon with or not, to revisit or forget about. The stacks—if not the stakes—of poetry keep rising, and the restless complex of it all goes on shape-shifting, calling out codes for radical consciousness from the void that serves as base and vertex. It consumes lives, and its feed can make a grotesque lattice to relax in. Mortals like us, though, we prefer some meat on the bones. Because we don’t only get weary—we stay hungry. And with all this word around to always catch up on, it feels damn fine finding a rare slab of poems fit enough to eat.
Melissa Broder’s Meat Heart embodies that strain of sustenance, that sort of psychosomatic excitement most valiant art more or less tries to pull off. It’s her second full-length book, and as with the first, When You Say One Thing But Mean Your Mother, it’s a sleek machine hauling gnarly cargo—persons, places, things, things, things. “Championship,” which falls toward the opening of Meat Heart, likely puts it better, just about rallying, “Let’s / write a love song for heavyweights / and by heavyweights / I mean everyone.” Because Melissa’s projections—more pop personist than personal—lay forth, and are laid upon, a sense of spirit contingent on body, we get more than love songs. We get skewed prayers. We get banquets. Transfigurations and showdowns, tough ghosts and fake heavens, escapades through culture-struck waking dreams and flaming cities of memory. Her poems don’t bore or bear down. They beam oracle energy. They pump a music of visions for the life-lusty death dance.
Julia Guez explores the nuances of ambient translation at work in Aase Berg’s Transfer Fat.
In the current issue of Pleiades, Rachel Zucker writes,
Now that I have given birth three times and been present at friends’ and clients’ births, I know what none of the poems or stories made clear (were they lying? not listening?). Birth is beautiful and spiritual and mundane and shitty (literally). It is hard work—the lowest and highest—and that’s what I’m interested in writing. Not birth per se but the realness of experience. I want to write with shame and honesty and humor and ambivalence about and out of experience.
As a mother, doula, and activist, Zucker knows “what none of the poems or stories made clear” about motherhood. As a writer and editor, she is in a position to directly and indirectly address the lack or void in the literature. This impulse is central to Swedish poet Aase Berg’s work as well. In an essay on “Language and Madness” translated by Johannes Göransson, Berg observes,
Motherhood is one of the most overlooked subjects of 20th-century literature: the cute, paradisical madness. The mother’s relationship to the baby is the root of language, madness and complexity. None of the great serious works would have seen the light of day without the tracks that were inscribed in the early mother-and-child relationships. Life is based on the irrational and noisy language of this little crazy symbiosis.
By creating an entirely new language to more accurately enact the “madness” and “complexity” stemming from the “symbiosis” between mother and child, Berg finds daring, odd, beautiful, and altogether innovative ways to represent the reality of motherhood for a twenty-first century literature.
Alison Entrekin, translator of a new edition of Lispector’s Near the Wild Heart, on the difficulties and pleasures of translating this particularly difficult and pleasing writer.
At the tender age of 23, Clarice Lispector shocked the world of Brazilian publishing with her first book, Near to the Wild Heart, and won the 1944 Graça Aranha Prize for best debut novel. This year, Alison Entrekin retranslated it for a New Directions series of Lispector’s work that included three other novels—The Passion According to G.H., A Breath of Life, and Agua Viva—each with a different translator, and edited by Lispector’s biographer and translator of The Hour of the Star, Benjamin Moser. Entrekin answered my questions by email from her home in Brazil.
Sarah Gerard It has often been said that Clarice Lispector’s Portuguese isn’t like the Portuguese anyone was writing in when she published Near to the Wild Heart, and remains unique. What does this mean? How is it different?
Alison Entrekin Clarice was a native speaker of Portuguese, but her writing style definitely isn’t run-of-the-mill. Her turns of phrase are often peculiar, her word choices unconventional, and her syntax can be rather odd at times. Not always, but a lot of the time. There are places in her books where she is entirely idiomatic and makes perfect sense and places where every reader understands something different, because her sentences are open-ended, with words that contain a range of nuances, allowing for several different readings.
SG Different challenges arise translating a work from any one language into another. What are some of the challenges you face translating a work from Portuguese into English?
Courtney Maum on author Jon Raymond’s new novel, Rain Dragon.
As a Brooklyn transplant to a town of eight hundred people in the rural hills of Berkshire County, I can relate to the call of homemade yogurt. I, too, have seen the best minds of my generation seduced by bacterial fermentation. The temptation to leave the superficial concerns and relentless rhythm of city life behind for bucolic pastures where the early morning call of a rooster is the only ringtone you’ll ever need is a temptation I succumbed to. The desire to live away from Whole Foods, to live off the land. Create yeast in your refrigerator. Make yogurt. Brew beer.
Leave it to the Portland-based author Jon Raymond to tackle the call of the aisle. With his latest book, Rain Dragon, Raymond has done the unthinkable: he’s penned a novel about locavorism that does not come off as snark. Readers familiar with his flawless short story collection Livability know that Jon Raymond is one of the most versatile American writers alive today. He can inhabit the mind and body of a young, white male engulfed in a failing bromance as easily as he can write from the point of view of a grieving widow, a sex-starved teenage mall-rat, a homeless girl. In “The Suckling Pig,” for example, Raymond pulls off a middle-aged Chinese narrator—from Portland—who hires two Mexican day laborers to get rid of a tree in his property before an elaborate dinner party he has planned. Like all his stories, it is seamless and engrossing. It entertains, it informs, but it never skews as overbearing, even when he’s writing about polemic subjects like race.
Ryan Sheldon on Marco Roth’s memoir The Scientists: A Family Romance.
Ever since its inception in 2004, the journal n+1 has demonstrated a strong interest in the state of contemporary secondary education. Its relationship to the academy has been—and continues to be—something of a fraught romance: the majority of its staff and writers cut their undergraduate teeth at Ivy League schools and have devoted a great deal of critical energy to scrutinizing, unpacking, and perhaps undoing the influence of the educations they received at these vaunted sites of American intellectual production. Described by Marco Roth in his beautifully sharp memoir, The Scientists: A Family Romance, as “a way to channel [his] demons of negativity into a critique,” this reflexive approach has given n+1 a unique position in contemporary letters. The journal is insistently aware of its academic pedigree and heritage, and has managed to make a brand from its preoccupation with academic institutional systems of power.
As part of a continued partnership through the Queer Art Mentorship program, performer and writer Jess Barbagallo sits down with her mentor, poet Stacy Szymaszek, to talk about performance, poetry, and a canine muse named Bluet.
I first made contact with Stacy Szymaszek, poet and current artistic director of The Poetry Project, in August of 2011. I had just been accepted into a program called Queer Art Mentorship to work on a poetic essay involving grief, imagined absence, and sometimes my dog, Bluet. Stacy was to be my mentor and I found the prospect daunting, never having identified as a poet, and at times even ambivalent about my status as a writer. She emailed me about setting up a good time to meet and chat. When I replied in typical self-deprecating fashion, she assured me not to worry: “We can talk about solipsism and formlessness.”
This interview is a continuation of that conversation, a slice of the friendship we have formed over the last year. What continues to impress me about Stacy is her unwavering generosity to fellow artists (and canines) and her extreme commitment to be with the present. But mostly it’s the deep sense of romance she brings to work and life, a cool hunger I experience in lines like these, culled from Three Poems—For Hart Crane (2000):
I am peninsular
suitcase of biographies
watery love life
Evocative and true, Stacy continues to teach me the power of being spare, or yearning countered by restraint.
John Domini speaks with Argentine author Manuela Fingueret about her novel Daughter of Silence, a double narrative of war, oppression, and, ultimately, escape, told from the perspectives of a mother and daughter.
Daughter of Silence, the first book by Manuela Fingueret to appear in English, suspends twin Holocausts in a miraculous balancing act. Decades apart, an ocean apart, two young women are rounded up by malignant authorities in similar nightmares. Strangely, tragically, the two are mother and daughter. Each generation’s horror is sketched in turns; a brief chapter from the daughter Rita’s perspective is followed by one from the perspective of the mother, known by the Yiddish name, Tinkeleh. Both experience prison and torture: Tinkeleh in the concentration camps, Rita in a detention center for “the disappeared” of Argentina’s Dirty War, circa 1980. Though both women are brought to the brink of execution, neither the Nazis nor the juntas can keep them from erupting, finally, in a “cry of triumph.” Daughter of Silence —novella-length and yet big, two-hearted—is a testament to the defeat of silence, despite the best efforts of state-sanctioned terror.
Andrea Quaid on Alex Forman’s Tall, Slim & Erect: Portraits of the Presidents.
Alex Forman’s Tall, Slim & Erect: Portraits of the Presidents (Les Figues Press 2012) begins with an epigraph from Louis Marx, known as The Toy King: “There are only old toys with new twists.” As a statement about the certainty of return and the generative play of commentary and revision, the quote cues an aesthetically smart and intellectually witty book that uses objects and documents of the past to render its portrayals.
Among Marx’s toy triumphs was his creation of the Marx Miniature Figures, a series of collectible plastic and resin U.S. Presidents, all less than three inches tall. Forman’s presidential portraits pair black and white photographs of the appropriate Marx model with a written narrative about that president. In the photographs, and in contrast to the toy’s tiny size, the figure fills the frame. From George Washington to Richard Nixon (the last president of the toy set), the replicas are shot close up. Subtle variations between images of shifting grey-scale backgrounds and camera angles emphasize difference alongside the sameness of the men. Washington stands in the lower two-thirds of the frame, forward-facing, arms at his sides and at attention. Grover Cleveland leans forward slightly, in a full body, left side study that captures his heft and girth. J.F. Kennedy is poised mid-step, his plastic shape shadowed by a visible afterimage outlining its body. Presented in chronological order, the photos poke at the tautological structure of representation when image and idea serve only each other. He is presidential because he is a president. He is a president because he is presidential. Such circular logic makes it possible to transform the statement that Chester Arthur “looked like a president” into a performative enunciation that effectively overrides (while remaining haunted by) metaphor’s insertion of doubt. Chester Arthur is a president.
Paul Devlin on Alix Ohlin’s new collection of short stories, Signs and Wonders.
Alix Ohlin’s new short story collection, Signs and Wonders, contains only two stories of note, “Forks” and “The Assistants,” both of which feel as if they urgently needed to be told and are so contemporaneous that few stories quite like them probably have been written. “Forks” is about a young man who was injured in Afghanistan and his attempt to readjust to the home front and manage his pain, while his sister, a nurse, dates a young doctor (who may or may not assist the young veteran in his suicide). “Forks” is perhaps a minor masterpiece—but that may be too qualified an assessment. From the concerns of the young doctor, who doesn’t want to get stuck in the suburban Pennsylvania town, to the honestly and sympathetically rendered nurse (the veteran’s sister), to the good-funny-tormented veteran himself, and his haunting descriptions of phantom battle noise in an empty desert, “Forks” is brutally sad, nuanced, visceral, and full of much to appreciate.
“The Assistants,” which concerns young women working entry-level jobs at a literary journal in 1990s Manhattan and their social circle, is remarkable as well. It opens up paying all its debts to “Goodbye to All That,” and all that, but then moves somewhere new. Life moves ahead and the “pack” drifts apart, but when the old gang reunites on Facebook, one member somehow gets left out of the reunion—and later realizes how much she’s missed and how memories fade or change. The slight shock at having missed (or having been excluded from) the Facebook reunion feels real. These two tales—the veteran’s world of addiction to mind-bogglingly powerful pain killers and the now-successful ex-assistant’s missed out-upon Facebook reunion—read as if Ohlin was inspired to write them. Both stories have a snappy vitality, a pacing that feels organic, and a quiet intensity.
Kristin Dykstra on Watchword, Forrest Gander’s translation of Pura López Colomé’s Santo y seña.
For some readers, the pleasures of the 2012 release Watchword will derive from translator Forrest Gander’s English renditions of the poems, which showcase the striking work of Mexico’s Pura López Colomé. For others the pleasure will lie in the gaps between languages in Wesleyan University Press’s attractive bilingual edition, in those places where you find provocation: poetry in its still-potential state between voicings.
López Colomé describes her collection—called Santo y seña in the original Spanish—as a strange journey. The winner of Mexico’s prestigious Villarrutia Prize, the book moves through three sections. Opening with a walk “on the roof of hell,” Watchword ends with “a leap / of the five senses / towards memory’s /threshold.” The collection embodies a quest for identity: its first poem is entitled “Who Are You; What” (“Quién eres, qué”), while its final poem opens with partial conclusions.
Chris Cumming on Jerzy Pilch’s collection of short stories, My First Suicide.
My First Suicide, translated by David Frick, is the third of Polish writer Jerzy Pilch’s books to be published by Open Letter Books. The first two were A Thousand Peaceful Cities, which is set in rural Poland during the narrator’s childhood and recounts the day his father drunkenly concocts a plot to assassinate the Polish head of state; and The Mighty Angelprobably Pilch’s best book—which details a writer’s repeated institutionalizations in an alcohol-rehab clinic. The thematic scope of the ten linked stories in My First Suicide is consistent with those of his earlier novels—childhood, alcohol, small-town Poland, and, strangely, the narrator’s recurrent difficulties with what Pilch chooses to call “super babes.”
Jerzy Pilch was born in the town of Wisla in Cieszyn Silesia, a region that in the last hundred years has been divided between Czechoslovakia and Poland. Before then, this had been a unified region occupied by a diverse population of Poles, Czechs, Jews, and Germans, along with a handful of indigenous Slavic mountain people called Gorals. Cieszyn Silesia had a long golden era under the Habsburg dynasty (the region serves as a good example of the empire’s successful suppression of movements for national and ethnic self-determination) but fared less well in the 20th century. After World War I the region was divided between Poland and Czechoslovakia by a series of treaties as well as invasions and violence, which left large minorities of each nationality on the wrong side of the border. The second World War saw the destruction of the large Jewish minority and the expulsion of the German population. There followed, as in much of central Europe, division and resettlement along ethno-national lines. Thanks to a century of ethnic homogenization, Cieszyn Silesia is now almost totally Polish but is still distinct for being the most heavily Protestant area of the country and for its diversity of Protestant groups; Pilch’s Wisla is the only Lutheran-majority town in the country. Seven of the ten stories in My First Suicide are about growing up in a Lutheran family in a rural Lutheran community.
Catherine Lacey on Jon McGregor’s newest collection, This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You.
Jon McGregor’s newest collection, This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You will sneak up on you. What at first seems like a realistic story of everyday people doing everyday things quietly forms a little surface crack, then a fissure, and suddenly the cistern under the ordinary floods out.
The first piece, “That Colour,” sets this pattern gorgeously. A woman observes that a certain shade of autumn leaves has returned, as it always does. She points this out to a man we assume is her partner. They have a circular conversation about the leaves, their color. “Those trees are turning that beautiful color again,” she says. “Is that right?” He asks. In less than two minutes, I had chills in a way that is rare and holy. It is clear they are not just talking about leaves, but the seasons in their own relationship and their eventual bodily demise.
It is a little unfortunate that the story that follows, “In Winter The Sky,” is one of the more disorienting, albeit ambitious pieces. On one page there is a third person account of a husband’s long-kept and gruesome secret, while on the opposite page is a long attempt at a poem written by his wife. It has its moments, but I found myself craving more of the bare beauty in the opener. It probably would have been a good idea to take a walk around the block before diving into the next one.
Sascha Behrendt uncovers the surrealist flash-fiction of Barry Yourgrau from the BOMB Archive.
I came upon Barry’s work in the BOMB Archive first with the piece “Executrix”— its savage charm swiping me sideways till I burst out laughing. No mean feat nowadays. His short short stories match perfectly paced momentum with finessed economy and a playful sense of the surreal.
The story “Executrix” has a girlfriend mistaking her man’s head in the oven as an attempted suicide; she decides to push matters further:
I twist around and am confronted by the sight of her in scuba gear and feather headdress. I garble a scream into my hands and throw myself to the floor as a harpoon crashes into the oven, missing me by a hair’s breadth. “You little faker!” she shrieks, flinging down the harpoon gun and stamping off to the doorway. “I can’t believe you did that, I can’t believe you’d pull a stunt like that! I thought you were serious!”
Sarah Gerard on the experience of language in Clarice Lispector’s recently translated fifth novel, The Passion According to G.H.
“Though the ether is filled with vibrations the world is dark. But one day man opens his seeing eye, and there is light.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations
Clarice Lispector’s first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, broke the world of Brazilian publishing wide open with a signature stream-of-consciousness style and won the Graça Aranha Prize for the best debut novel of 1943. By the end of her short life (she died at 56 of cancer), she had penned nine novels, nine collections of short stories, five books for children, and numerous articles, essays and interviews, including “Cronicas,” a weekly column written for Brazil’s leading newspaper. However, it was her fifth novel, The Passion According to G.H., recently republished by New Directions with a translation by Idra Novey, which Lispector claimed “best corresponded to her demands as a writer.” In it, she tells the story of G.H., a dilettante sculptor in Rio de Janiero, whose experience crushing a cockroach causes a crisis of boundary, meaning, and identity from which she fears she may never recover.
Though The Passion According to G.H. was first published in 1964, an English translation of the book didn’t appear until 1988. In his introduction, translator Ronald Sousa explains the difficulty of interpreting a work of such wrought complexity.
Where does literature end and philosophy begin? Intellectually speaking, that question is an easy one to answer: they both end in “language,” which for Lispector is the medium within which such designations as “literature” and “philosophy” are made, as well as the medium in and through which alone anything nonlinguistic can be reached. The problem is that for her language is also fallacious unless it is pushed to its limits and thereby made to reveal what, in its structuring as a container, it seeks to hide.
Adam Robinson and Sheila Heti on the profound sex and moral imperatives in Heti’s new novel How Should a Person Be?
Sheila Heti’s novel, How Should a Person Be?, released June 19th by Henry Holt, is a book that does many things, is many things, fills many spaces, behaves differently than other books. Heti balances the story with art theory and comedy and self help, sociological insight and philosophy, like a Canadian Mark Twain. Her prose is witty, light, and inviting, and the sections of the book—acts, as they’re laid out like a play—change quickly. The structure calls for acrobatic reading, for easy attention that is as nimble as the writing.
The story follows a character, named Sheila, as she struggles to find authenticity in her art and her relationships. She starts a complex friendship with a brilliant painter named Margaux and entwines herself in a hot and profanely profound sex life with a man named Israel. Her friends have a contest to see who can paint the worst painting. Sheila gets a job at a hair salon, goes to clown school, takes drugs. She travels a lot, and worries that her hopes will leave her forever dissatisfied. All throughout, she tries and fails at writing a play, and reflects on what it means to be great, or good, or whatever it is a person is supposed to be.
Adam Robinson Can I refer to you interchangeably with the novel’s “Sheila” character?
Sheila Heti Sure. I don’t care. They’re not the same thing, but I don’t care.
AR Can you point to some of the ways they are different?
SH That is like seeing a ventriloquist with a dummy on their hand with a hideous plastic face that’s modeled after their face and you ask the ventriloquist, “In what way are you different from the dummy on your hand?”
Eric Amling and Jon Leon on the bi-coastal, patio lifestyle of Leon’s new book of poetry The Malady of the Century.
My sister worked in a video store down the street from our house in south Brooklyn. It was during my formative years when I dreamed of straight-to-video actresses, the VCR tracking warping the starlets’ bodies into video gamma mutations, the soundtracks having a feigned sensitivity. There was simply money, bodies, and freedom. The moments that occur in that cinema bring to mind the work of Jon Leon. When you are reading his work, there is a soft lens over the page. The shock value is muted by the blasé delivery. But in his work are powerful strobes of truth, the sobering realities from a showman.
Leon’s debut full-length work The Malady of the Century was released in May by Futurepoem. A collection of poetics he would refer to as the “Waste Wave.” A work that showcases a world of pleasure principles. A work that exudes a hypnotic void. Inside this void there is a light that pulses, emanating from this book.
Eric Amling On a flight to Chicago the day after your book launch reading with Wayne Koestenbaum at Envoy Enterprises, I read The Malady of the Century while climbing altitude over Amish Pennsylvania. I was looking at the singular roads through the vast green. I started thinking how your work is majorly coastal, liquid. The urban coast life can be attractive, destructive and inspiring to many, and in The Malady you can see why. Is this something of value to talk about?
Jon Leon Absolutely, that bi-coastal, patio lifestyle, if you will, is a primary motif throughout the book; throughout my entire oeuvre. It’s only attractive to the limit that anything out of reach is potentially attractive. Within the context of The Malady of the Century, that lifestyle isn’t out of reach; it’s just a way of being in the world. It’s not solely about desire. The sequences within the book are about showcasing an experience that isn’t often read about in contemporary poetry outside of Frederick Seidel’s work. Poetry doesn’t reach the very particular luxury-conscious set that is navigating art and culture right now. I aimed to give a voice, through vignettes and prose poems, to that set. In The Malady of the Century, more than any of my other books, I wished to present poetry as a poetic way of life—a life of leisure, pleasure, and thought—refreshed by the very seas by which we lounge. It isn’t excess, it’s largesse and the boredom that follows it. No one actually self-destructs in the book, they just become conditioned by the malady.
Patrick Somerville and Lauren Groff chat about hallucinatory feelings and Groff’s new novel Arcadia.
Having missed each other by a few years in the University of Wisconsin’s English Department—Lauren Groff went to graduate school there, and I haunted the same hallways as an undergraduate half a decade before—she and I decided this spring that it was time to properly realign the chronologies of fate and double-interview one another about writing, monsters, babies, and bourbon. We both had books on the way and it seemed like a rather pleasurable way to use up several hours. The following is that conversation; it was conducted via Google Docs, its two participants often huddled in different hotel rooms across the country. It felt like it was conducted via Badger Bowl back in Madison.
And I would be remiss if I failed to point out that since we began this conversation, Lauren’s new novel Arcadia has been raved about in virtually every imaginable venue, and for very good reason. There’s a mysterious electromagnet built into exceptional novels, isn’t there? Built of whispered conversations below the conversations, constructed by the quiet confidence of an authorial intellect so sharp and strong that it has to make a world for itself. She will be embarrassed that I’ve said this, because that’s just how she is, but anyone who’s read Arcadia knows that it vibrates with that special, hard-to-pin-down power.
Patrick Somerville Lauren, to begin: since I last saw you at AWP in Chicago, I have been haunted by your choice to sing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” in the final round of Karaoke Idol, the conference’s most undignified literary event. Eight weeks out from the competition and looking back, do you feel angry about taking second place? Do you blame the judges, who had been drinking bourbon for several hours at that point?
Lauren Groff What are you saying? That I lack dignity? Please. I raise my pinkie finger to sip my tea when I’m alone. “Sweet Caroline” was clearly strategic, you know. By that ridiculous time of the night I’d lost whatever terrible voice I’d started with, and I wanted people to sing so loudly they couldn’t hear me. It almost worked! Jump-dancing was the only way to go. I mean, why take yourself too seriously? Besides, I also knew I couldn’t match Ben Percy’s insane rumble-of-God voice, so I went the transparently crowd-pleasing direction. Which makes for bad literary fiction but not terrible karaoke. Anyway, you were a judge: are you angry with yourself for choosing Percy over me? Truly, you should be.