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In the Winter Issue

In this issue:

Tales of the Uncanny

“Shelter” by Kate Folk: the concrete vault in the basement of a rented house exerts a strange pull on the woman living above it.

“Take the Water Prisoner” by Shawn Vestal: when the sins (and pains) of the father are visited upon the son.

“The Canyon” by Jim Ruland: the struggle for sobriety leads Lindsay to a confrontation she couldn’t have imagined.

“The Lake and the Onion” by David Drury: “There once was a lake who fell in love with an onion. This is merely what we 100 percent know.”

Interview

Michael Ondaatje on character, plot, West Marin, and diaspora.

Nonfiction

Fabián Martínez Siccardi on revisiting his family’s stoical estancia (“Patagonian Fox”) and Teresa H. Janssen on relief work and refugees (“Adrift at Sea”)

And More Fiction and Poetry:

Meron Hadero’s “The Street Sweep” (a young man’s future may be decided at a hotel gathering in Addis Ababa), Karl Taro Greenfeld’s “The Golden Age of Television” (the particular tyranny of the writers’ room), Jane Gillette’s “Ten Little Feet” (a less-than-innocent tradition at a tony school for boys), plus new work from Jessica Francis Kane and Olivia Clare.

Poems by Bruce Snider, Austen Leah Rosenfeld, Flower Conroy, Ryanaustin Dennis, Heather Altfeld, Allison Adair, Moriel Rothman-Zecher, and Heather Christle

Art: Featuring photographs from Kate Ballis’s “Infra Realism” series.

You can purchase a copy of No. 114 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA now and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Winter issue.

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A Tote & Subscription Bundle brings you our new Winter Issue just in time for the holidays

unnamed (9)Looking for a gift for the holidays? How about our Tote & 4-Issue Subscription bundle, or even our Tote & 8-Issue Subscription bundle (Or perhaps as a gift for yourself? You’ve earned it!)

Order a Bundle by Tuesday, December 18, and have it delivered in plenty of time for your lucky recipient. We’ll start off the subscription with our newest issue, No. 114, featuring Tales of the  Uncanny from Kate Folk, Jim Ruland, Shawn Vestal, and David Drury; a Q&A with Michael Ondaatje by Caille Millner, poetry by Bruce Snider, Austen Leah Rosenfeld, and Heather Christle, the art of Kate Ballis, and much more.

 

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Poets Not (Always) Disimproving: ‘We Begin in Gladness’ by Craig Morgan Teicher

We Begin in GladnessWe rarely have the opportunity to observe a poet’s writing process, even though we may occasionally see earlier drafts that serve as evidence of it. But Craig Morgan Teicher gives us the next best thing: his new book examines poets’ creative processes over the courses of their careers.

Part guidebook for emerging poets and part homage to a wide range of major poets, Teicher’s We Begin in Gladness: How Poets Progress (164 pages; Graywolf) is one of the most enjoyable books about poetry I have encountered. His obvious love of poetry infuses the book with the “grace, certainty, power, and humility” he so admires in one of his literary heroines, Lucille Clifton. Additionally, because he surveys a diverse group of writers, providing relevant biographical background and anecdotes from their lives and his own, We Begin in Gladness is a book with wide appeal.

Given its focus on showing how poets progress, it’s unsurprising that the majority of poets featured in Teicher’s book are well known. However, he makes a significant distinction between these poets. On one hand, there are those rare writers who are considered major poets because they produced “very different poems over the course of their lives”—a skill, he notes, which is now a requirement for most modern poets. On the other hand, most major poets refined both their subjects—essentially writing the same poem across many years before finally getting it as right as possible—and their styles to the point where each of them inhabited a singular voice. And while Teicher does not completely disavow the popular notion, espoused by Paul Muldoon, that “Poets disimprove as they go on. It’s just a fact of life,” he is intent on examining the leaps, breakthroughs, and “steady progress” in the quality of work produced by major poets. To do so, he presents and scrutinizes excerpts from poems by Sylvia Plath, Brenda Hillman, John Ashbery, Lucille Clifton, D.A. Powell, W.S. Merwin, William Butler Yeats, Robert Hayden, Robert Lowell, Louise Glück, and others.

Teicher also offers a few examples of deterioration in the quality of some major poets’ works. For example, he introduces us to the relatively unknown Delmore Schwartz, a writer he characterizes as “the twentieth century’s most thwarted poet.” As with Teicher’s assessments of the weaknesses of other poets—Plath, Lowell, Ashbery, and Merwin—his brief overview of Schwartz’s work is as much a celebration of that writer’s triumphs as it is a cautionary tale. However, as Teicher shows in his analysis of how Susan Wheeler picked up where Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” left off, the great works of poets who plateau or “disimprove” may live on in new work that seems almost collaborative, albeit across gulfs of time and death. Indeed, Teicher asserts, “Sometimes, it’s only in the work of the newer poet that we can identify the achievements of the older ones.” Reading this book, I found myself experiencing Teicher’s epiphany, as it was only in reading his analysis of Yeats’ work that I noticed the influence of that poet on one of my literary heroes, Derek Walcott.

It is interesting to review a book that is in conversation with many other books and that reviews works by other writers. In that sense, Teicher’s work offers lessons for art critics, too. While I think it’s safe to say he admires much of the work of every poet in We Begin in Gladness, Teicher’s praise for their best poetry is tempered by his honest appraisals of their weaker efforts. So while Teicher celebrates the “stripped-down simplicity” and “soft-landing (epiphanic) leap” that characterizes Merwin’s best work, he finds much of the esteemed writer’s other poetry to be full of “self-importance.” The story of how Stanley Kunitz once told Louise Glück that a group of poems she had written and shared with him was “terrible”—an assessment that became a springboard for Glück’s dramatic improvement—is both a subtle commentary on critique and an encouraging anecdote for any poet who questions the quality of their own work.

We Begin in Gladness‘ secondary theme seems to be how nearly every poet grapples with the inadequacy of language. Nonetheless, Teicher notes, writers turn to poetry precisely for this reason. Poetry is, according to him, the best tool we have to convey that which is “genuine.” “When we hear and understand what can’t be said and heard,” he writes, “that’s when a ‘pure change’ happens,” And yet, “the unsayable is never quite said.”

Teicher shows us how the work of major poets, including Hayden and Yeats, has essentially been a struggle to say what they mean, getting closer and closer to this goal but eventually making peace with the impossibility of such an endeavor. In Yeats’ case, this finally led him to an understanding of what he loved in poetry, which, it turns out, was not that which he sought to capture—not reality—but the imagined worlds his quest produced or the poetry itself. This sentiment is echoed by Lowell, who wrote, “I want to make/something imagined, not recalled?” Teicher’s book is full of insights like these, and it’s a pleasure to see how the poets he features in it are in conversation with one another across time (generations, even) and space.

Though not necessarily a craft book, We Begin in Gladness does what all good craft books aim, but so often fail, to do—it makes the reader want to go and investigate the many works of poetry the author references and to learn more about their makers, much as (as Teicher asserts) “a real poem points to everything beyond it.”

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Rock ‘n Roll Suicide: ‘Destroy All Monsters’ by Jeff Jackson

Destroy All MonstersTo the young, music can be a religion. Destroy All Monsters (357 pages; FSG), the latest novel from Charlotte-based author Jeff Jackson, trades in the kind of punk fervor that inspires teenagers to thrash in mosh pits, raid merch booths, and obsessively listen to the same album. The power of what a few kids and some amped instruments can do is clearly a subject near to Jackson’s heart; not only does he perform in the self-described “weirdo pop band” Julian Calendar, but he’s allowed the vinyl single format to influence the design of the novel itself: Destroy All Monsters features an A-Side­­––which constitutes the novel proper­­––and a reverse B-Side, an alternate follow-up to the main story that follows some of the same characters in radically different incarnations. The novel contends frankly with both the difficulties of maintaining youthful passion for loud, distorted noise as one grows older and how the resentments and obligations of adulthood begin to accrue.

Destroy All Monsters centers on the music scene in a “conservative industrial city” called Arcadia. The prologue opens with a memorable performance by hometown heroes the Carmelite Rifles at a show attended by a motley assortment of locals:

“The strip-mall goths, the mod metalheads, the blue-collar ravers, the bathtub-shitting punks, the jaded aesthetes who consider themselves beyond category. Everyone in line has imagined a night that could crack open and transform their dreary realities.”

Also present at the show are two of the characters who will drive the rest of the novel: budding musician Florian and the forlorn but enigmatic Xenie. Not long after the Carmelite Rifles show, which ripples through the audience’s lives with the impact of an early Velvet Underground gig, a mysterious plague grips the entire country. All around the United States, club patrons are being transfixed by some unknown spell that causes them to gun down or otherwise attempt to murder the bands onstage:

“The noise duo at the loft party in the Pacific Northwest. The garage rockers at the tavern in the New England suburbs. The jam band at the auditorium on the edge of the Midwestern prairie. The blue grass revivalists at the coffeehouse in the Deep South. There was never any fanfare. The killers simply walked into the clubs, took out their weapons, and started firing.”

Although the killers’ motives remain largely ambiguous (most of them appear to be in a trance-like stupor as they go about their attack) the parallels to recent events are chilling. After terrorist attacks on music venues in Manchester and Paris in the last few years, it is all too easy to imagine the same violence occurring on this side of the Atlantic. The threat of danger feels heightened for the young people at the heart of Destroy All Monsters, to the point that the question of whether or not to perform a scheduled show becomes a matter of life and death for Arcadia’s local acts.

When tragedy ultimately does strike (“The band is heading for the [song] bridge when the first shot is fired”), Florian and Xenie are left to figure out how to privately mourn the loss of a close friend when seemingly everyone in town is doing so in a very public, outsized way. The spat of murders across the country also force Xenie to reckon with the fact that so much of the music playing at local venues and taking up space on her hard drive is, in a word, mediocre. “I used to have a huge music collection,” Xenie relates. “I was obsessed and even saved my concert stubs in a red cardboard box. Sometimes I’d open the box, and just touching the tickets was enough to give me a rush…These days I crave silence.”

Her statement is a lament for an age that has come to be defined by noise, much of it meaningless. Xenie and others in Arcadia’s music scene must grapple with the difficulty of conveying authentic expression in a world drowned out by sound. As Florian contemplates after the last show he’ll ever play: “It’s too easy to transform a moment of truth into a cheap performance.”

Destroy All Monsters understands the impetus to pick up a guitar and strum a power chord, perhaps out of the misguided notion that the result could lead to some change in the world. And the novel understands the disheartening fact that the country is full of numerous small towns like Arcadia, with its dive bars, shuttered factories, and hobo camps, each of them with their would-be punk rockers like Florian. Amid the story’s nationwide epidemic, Jackson’s characters display crucial growth: what ultimately comes to matter––more than selling out concert halls or recording a promising demo––is remaining true to the memory and last wishes of their friends after they’re gone. “Not everything has to be a performance,” Xenie concludes. “Some things should stay pure.”

Jackson, whose prose registers as punchy and acerbic, leading the reader through multiple act breaks and perspective changes with ease, is sincere in his depiction of provincial youth yearning for an escape. In the 21st century, rock ’n roll might not mean as much as it once did, but Jackson has written a fitting tribute to its lingering spirit.

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Not a Home, But a Mere Frame: ‘An Untouched House’ by Willem Frederik Hermans

An Untouched HouseIn An Untouched House (115 pages; Archipelago), Willem Frederik Hermans presents a lucid, exhilarating account of a Dutch partisan in the waning months of World War II. Hermans, a premier and prolific author in the Netherlands, penned the novella in 1951, but only now has it received an English translation courtesy of David Colmer.

The story opens during the final moments of the World War II, with the theme of isolation permeating the narrative. Herman writes, “I didn’t look back. There was nobody in front of me…. I looked back at the others. No one was close enough to ask for water.” A sense of confusion abounds as our nameless narrator finds himself unable to communicate with his fellow soldiers: “Within our band of partisans, made up of Bulgarians, Czechs, Hungarians and Romanians, there wasn’t a single person I could understand.”

His battalion enters a spa town, where he comes across an abandoned luxurious house, replete with amenities, but bereft of human life. This is his escape from conflict, where he can “pretend like the war never existed.” He makes himself at home, takes a bath, and falls asleep, only to be awoken by Nazis ringing the doorbell in search of lodging. The interloper manages to convince them that he is the owner of the house with deft, casual dishonesty.

The next morning he wakes convinced of the lie he imparted on his German visitors: “I the son of the house woke up the next morning to general quiet thinking: I have always lived here. This is my home.”

There is an eerie vacuity to the descriptions of the narrator’s surroundings: “Then I would walk up and down, touching objects without investigating them. On medicine bottles and compacts, on handkerchiefs, and on the edge of the sheets were names I didn’t try to pronounce.”

Throughout the book, the protagonist refuses to allocate names to the other characters, and instead only gives them titles: the colonel, the Spaniard, the Germans. They are not individuals in his eyes; their identities are wrapped up entirely in their countries of origin or military ranking.

Although he is the protagonist, our narrator proves passive and the action of the plot is acted upon him. He makes few decisions. His choice to inhabit the house is the end result of aimless wandering rather than an active search. He soon discovers there is no escape. The architecture of the story reaches its apex as the whirlpool of action spins toward this previously unattended and innocuous building.

The narrator describes the increasingly disturbing events with a detached, passionless voice:

“I could clearly see the dead woman. I sat down next to her on the bed and felt her face with my fingertips. It was now cold. I stuck my hand under her coat, under her skirt, and laid it on her thigh. Cold, a thing, water and proteins, something chemists have studied, nothing more.”

The narrator possesses only the silhouette of morality, attached to nothing, a vagabond of land and virtue. In the end, his actions prove nearly as cruel as the Nazis themselves. The vastness of World War II becomes a microcosm within this singular building. The house thus feels like not a home, but a mere frame, lacking any moral edifice.

Although An Untouched House is brief, it is worth pacing oneself and absorbing its remarkable density. Hermans is the architect of a masterful story –– concise but expansive in vision.

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New, Unique, and Alive: ‘Like’ by A.E. Stallings

LikeReading A.E. Stallings’ new book of poetry, Like (137 pages; FSG), my first impression was a furious delight at the way she invigorates the old forms and makes them sing. No one else I know can breathe such life into rhyme, can elevate the mundane to the mythic, the prosaic to the transcendent. The diction is often deliciously at odds with the form—contemporary slang set off against the myth of Pandora, for example:

He’d said she was a punishment from Zeus,
And that virginity made for a sour dowry

Depreciating as soon as you drove it off the lot.

The unexpectedness of the phrasing is part of what makes these poems so lively. They overflow with Stallings’ wit, her love of words and wordplay, and her immersion in Greek literature. These inform and transform the everyday from how to clean a cast iron pan (“Cast Irony”), to scissors, to a lost Lego brick, to insects, gardening.

“Bedbugs in Marriage Bed” is a perfect example. On the surface, this clever sonnet is a deft and amusing explication of an infestation of pest, but underneath, the uncertainties of marriage itself come into question:

Maybe it’s best to burn the whole thing down,
The framework with its secret joineries.
Every morning, check the sheets for blood
As though for tiny lost virginities,
Or murder itself distilled into a drop.
It might take lighter fluid to make it stop:
Maybe it’s best to just give up and move.
Every morning, check the seem of seams.

Nothing for weeks, for months, but still you frown:
You still wake up at half-past dawn each day
When darkness blanches and the stars go grey.
Who knows what eggs are laid deep in your dreams
Hatching like doubts. They’re gone, but not for good:
They are the negatives you cannot prove.

This book is rich with form: villanelles, sonnets, syllabics, terza rima, and no one could accuse Stallings of writing without an ear for meter, assonance, and rhyme, even when the form isn’t standard. But what makes Like so thoroughly appealing is the mix of the contemporary into the form. A few examples:

The washing machine door broke.   We hand washed for a week.
Left in the tub to soak    the angers began to reek.
And sometimes when we spoke   you said we shouldn’t speak.

*     *     *

Dyeing the Easter eggs the children talk
Of dying, Resurrection’s in the air
Like a whiff of vinegar. These eggs won’t hatch,
My daughter says, since they are cooked and dead,
A hard-boiled batch.

*     *     *

The hours drained as women rearrange
The furniture in search of small lost change.

*     *     *

And all choice, multiple,
The quiz that gives no quarter,
And Time the other implement
That sharpens and grows shorter.

There are several themes that run through this book: myth, The Odyssey, the tedium of life with small children (where “minutes are not lost…but spent”), and the crisis of immigration across the Mediterranean, set against a comfortable family life on those same beaches. (Stallings lives most of the year in Greece with her husband and children). Of all the poems in the book, those dealing with the horror of dead immigrant children seem the least successful to me. Even with her impressive tools, it’s hard to get beyond mere reportage. Of those, my favorite is “Empathy,” a sort of hymn to gratitude that ends:

Empathy isn’t generous,
It’s selfish. It’s not being nice,
To say I would pay any price
Not to be those who’d die to be us.

One of the most beguiling sequences in the book is “Lost and Found,” a 36-part poem that circles around the hunt for a small lost toy, taking us from daily tedium through a Dante-like encounter with the muses, and features Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses. The quest moves between the everyday and the epic, ending in a sort of ars poetica:

I saw the aorist moment as it went—
The light on my children’s hair, my face in the glass
Neither old nor young; but bare, intelligent.
I was a sieve—I felt the moment pass
Right through me, currency as it was spent,
That bright, loose change, like falling leaves, that mass
Of decadent gold leaf, now turning brown—
I could not keep it; I could write it down.

There are several poems that take their inspiration directly from The Odyssey, and one long poem called Cyprian Variations that I am not scholarly enough to comment on. But even without knowing the source, it’s easy to enjoy many lovely moments, such as, “Even the coffin maker is induced/To dread the mass produced,” or St. George’s dragon “Brandishing its wings/Like an endangered bird,/Scarlet and irrelevant and feathered.”

There are many treasures in Like, “Sunset, Wings,” “Swallows,” “Parmenion,” and the previously mentioned “Ajar” and “Bedbugs…” among them. Though not every poem is successful, even those that don’t work as well are apt to have a ravishing phrase or two. It’s invigorating to read a poet who can make form new, unique, and alive.

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Your Support Makes a Difference – Please Donate Today

unnamed (8)Dear Friends,

As we close in on the end of the year, we have so much to be thankful for. It is a blessing to have the opportunity to produce good work and to be of service to our community. We hope that you feel ZYZZYVA is a meaningful part of your life, both as a reader and as someone who wants to see culture thrive, especially in these days of turmoil. So we ask:

Will you help us continue our work?

We do need your support.
No gift is too small.
Every dollar counts.

Thanks to the generosity of one of our champions, the first $10,000 we receive between today and the end of the year will be matched dollar-for-dollar. So please make a contribution today and see your support doubly rewarded!

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‘Where Things Stand’ by Cynthia White: ZYZZYVA No. 109, Spring Issue

Where Things StandCynthia White is a poet in Santa Cruz. Her work has appeared in Poet Lore, Nimrod, and Catamaran. You’ll find three of her poems in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 109. In celebration of the Thanksgiving season, we present her poem “Where Things Stand” in its entirety: 

 I, in the doorway, reporting on the dawn,
you with your coffee. A small bird
is disturbing the quince, its name
forgotten. You, lost
to a book. The children
stand on their own, distant,
brilliant stars. Wild iris
in a jar stand on the table,
the table steadfast
on cherry legs. Chairs stand
empty, generous. We could be
a couple in a Dutch painting, light
cherishing the blue drapery
of my bathrobe, your freckled hand
as it curls around a cup
that belonged to your mother,
her mother before. Husband,
the sun stands on the horizon––
and the darkness.

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How we can help those affected by the California fires

Camp FireRaging wildfires have devastated both Northern and Southern California over the last several weeks. The situation has been impossible to ignore here in the Bay Area, as smoke from the fires has led to tremendously poor air quality. We feel for those more immediately impacted by the fires –– the numerous missing and displaced –– and have assembled a list of places seeking donations.

7×7 has compiled a list of local causes we can contribute to, including Disaster Relief funds and donation collections. The San Francisco SPCA has set up a fundraiser, specifically to provide care and treatment for animals affected by the fires. Eater SF offers a list of bars, restaurants, and breweries offering specials to benefit fire recovery. The Yuba-Sutter Habitat for Humanity has created a fund to help Camp Fire evacuees with essential needs.

Please feel free to share links to similar relief efforts in the Comments below.

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Walking a Loose Rope: ‘Sidebend World’ by Charles Harper Webb

Sidebend WorldCharles Harper Webb’s Sidebend World (78 pages; University of Pittsburgh Press) contains some genuinely lovely and worthwhile poems. At his best, Webb is funny and self-effacingly honest, delivering poems that are intimate and warm. Unfortunately, other poems in the book often border on careless—that is, they rely on weak associations or seem half-halfheartedly crafted. Worse, however, some poems contain stereotypical portrayals of others and humor that some will likely find offensive.

First, let’s consider the positive aspects of Sidebend World. My favorite poem in the book, “Turtle Hunt,” is one that I could return to time and time again. The rhymes are both obvious and hidden. And the poem is interspersed with formal meter in lines like:

But at the bayou—where dragonflies, metallic red
and blue, snap up mosquitoes over tea-stained
water full of tadpoles, crayfish, punkinseeds—
Teddy flops into a snarl of thorny weeds,
and being 5, runs home crying. Carol, afraid

to mess her dress, whines, “I’ve got to go,”
and scampers back to Barbie. I’m left alone . . .

It’s a lovely, thoughtful poem with universal appeal and a satisfying conclusion. This is the kind of work that stays with a reader.

“Nice People Aren’t So Bad,” another of Webb’s poems that I admire, contains some of the same formal elements as “Turtle Hunt.” The stanzas are tight and follow a fairly strict syllabic count, which, along with the subtle rhymes, carries the rhythm of the poem. More importantly, the poem feels intimate, focused, and genuine. The reader believes these are people the speaker knows and things that actually happened to him. Here are some lines that I think convey the essence of the poem:

In a four-man lifeboat, they’ll let a fifth
climb in and share their food: extremely
stupid, unless the fifth is you.

Nice people don’t call the sky punch-
in-the-eye blue. They won’t so much as kiss
if either one is married to someone else,
though they may say, “I really like you,”
in a cherry-blossom shower, then rush
away . . .

Aside from the “cherry-blossom shower,” this poem is as grounded in reality as Marge Piercy’s “To be of use” and is told in as relatable a voice. Other standouts in Sidebend World include “Have I Got a Script for You” and “Nice Hat.”

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The Path Amid the Loblolly Pines: Q&A with Photographer Matthew Genitempo

The cover of "Jasper"

The cover of “Jasper”

Matthew Genitempo’s forthcoming book of photographs, Jasper (96 pages; Twin Palms Publishers; available for pre-orders now), explores a region of the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas where people live apart from the well-established norms of American life. Born and raised in the Houston area, now based in Marfa, Genitempo previously worked mostly in the Southwest; however, Jasper, his first book, represents a journey he made farther east while he was an MFA student at the Hartford Art School.

The black-and-white photographs in this book capture a series of solitary men and the remote homes they’ve made in a lush and hardbound pocket of the country. The images contain an ambiguity somewhere between loneliness and solitude, documentation and imagination, and in turn reflect the ways in which a book of poetry might weave gestural narratives based in elegy and evocative landscape. Inspired by the life and work of Arkansas poet and land surveyor Frank Stanford, Jasper transcends this reference to show how the past is lost and found—and lost again—in our contemporary moment.

I met Genitempo during a recent trip to Marfa, where we talked in the Lost Horse Saloon, the Hotel Saint George, and out in total darkness at a poet friend’s house in the Fort Davis Mountains. This interview was conducted over the phone six months later.

ZYZZYVA: I want to talk about the early days when you started pushing to escape the day-to-day and drove around a lot and took pictures by going places that might be unsafe.

Matthew Genitempo: I want to say that I understood that aspect of picture-making very early on. I remember seeing Stephen Shore’s work, William Eggleston’s work and Robert Frank’s work and a lot of pictures that were made while traveling. Not so much Eggleston, but Shore, Frank, and Robert Adams, too. I think I quickly understood that photography had opened up an unknown world for them, so maybe it could do that for me. I took a couple of photography classes in high school but I didn’t really take them seriously. I learned how to use the darkroom and everything, but I was playing in bands and playing sports, so I wasn’t very interested in photography at the time. I also wasn’t exposed to those artists I mentioned earlier.

Fast forward to college, I was studying graphic design and I took a photography course as an elective, and that’s when I was introduced to those artists. Immediately when I discovered that work, I started emulating them. They were my heroes. I started going to the seedier parts of town, downtown and the outskirts of town, bringing my camera along and making pictures. Then I started going to the smaller towns in that part of the state. I started seeing my peers making work where they were actually traveling, so I wanted to do that, too. I went out to west Texas and made pictures out here. It was a pretty natural progression. From there, my first big trip when I was out for more than a weekend came when I was working a graphic design job and I took some time off, and I went out to New Mexico for the week. It felt like I was on another planet. I felt so far away from everything I knew. I didn’t grow up traveling in the car too much. We didn’t travel very often, and when we did it was to visit my folks’ farm, or if we went on a family vacation we normally flew somewhere. So I felt like I missed out on a lot of that growing up. That was the first road experience that I had. The first one that had lived in my imagination.

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Reckoning with Ever-Changing Reality: ‘John Woman’ by Walter Mosley

9780802128416In his newest book, John Woman (377 pages; Grove Atlantic), Walter Mosley reflects on truth versus perception as embodied in the life of a man who reinvents himself into the novel’s title character. Raised by a white mother with a habit of running away and a bedridden black father nearing death, Cornelius Jones experiences a childhood that is nothing if not difficult. As a boy he’s forced to pay his family’s bills by posing as his father (the first of more alter identities to come), assuming his job as a projectionist at a silent movie theatre. The pressure of covering up his identity leads to a fateful encounter with his boss one evening in the projection room, resulting in a crime that will dog Cornelius.

From this opening, the novel leaps in time to when Cornelius has become John Woman, a professor of history at the New University of the Southwest. His class is titled “Introduction to Deconstructionist Historical Devices,” a subject seemingly prompted by his father’s interests in the validity of history. In his lectures, Woman focuses on the reliability of history and how it ties into each student’s individual life.

Though his insight is renowned and admired by students and teachers alike, Woman is nonetheless admonished by many in the same community, creating no end of trouble for him, trouble made even more pointed by the specter of what happened in that projection room years ago.

As the narrative often returns to Woman’s scholarly lectures and conversations, one particular observation could serve as the core concern of the entire novel:

History is only, is always little more than an innuendo, a suggestion that we decide to believe or not … We shall fail because history is that unsteady ground I spoke of. It is not a rigid truth but an ever-changing reality. If it were an ironclad actuality then we would be able to learn from it. But all we can do is learn about its edges, insinuations, and negative spaces.

 This understanding seems to be of comfort to Woman as he undergoes great tribulations near the end of the novel. That “ever-changing reality” of history is directly reflected in his identity, profession, relationships—his life in its entirety. Through the character of John Woman, Mosley demonstrates that truth is nothing more than the perception of itself, which can be terrifying or, oddly enough, consoling.

In the end, the dramatic irony of John Woman leads us to question what we really know to be true, perhaps even bringing us to sympathize with the so-called “criminals” we have been told to vilify by society.

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