ZYZZYVA EventsSeptember 26, 2017
In Conversation with Matthew Zapruder
Location: 7 p.m., City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: Zapruder, the award-winning author of three collections of poetry, "American Linden," "The Pajamaist," and "Come On All You Ghosts," discusses his new book, "Why Poetry?" (Ecco), with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free. For more info: http://bit.ly/2tKf88lOctober 6, 2017
In Conversation with Akhil Sharma
Location: 12:30 p.m., Mechanics' Institute, 57 Post St., San Francisco
Description: Sharma, the author "Family Life," a New York Times Best Book of the Year and winner of the International DUBLIN Literary Award and the Folio Prize, will discuss his new book, "A Life of Adventure and Delight," with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Free for ZYZZYVA readers. More info here: http://bit.ly/2f8IfwZ
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
In this issue:
City Lights Books bookseller Paul Yamazaki in conversation with Point Reyes Books owner Stephen Sparks about the responsibilities of bookselling (“For me, it boils down to conversation”) and the Bay Area’s literary community (“I forget sometimes how lucky we are”).
Jesse Nathan on the perhaps the most impressive tool behind Bob Dylan’s artistry: his singular voice.
Peter Orner on the final brief moments of a couple slain on an isolated beach.
Arrival and Immigration: stories from Michael Jaime-Becerra (“¡Dale, Dale, Dale!”), E.C. Osundu (“Alien Visitors”), Christine Ma Kellems (“The Children of Dissidents”) and Greg Sarris (“Citizen”).
Liza Ward’s “The Shrew Tree”: a young woman abandons the bookish world of her father to chase an uncertain future with the son of a local farmer.
Christian Kiefer’s “Ghosts”: the survivor of a car accident is haunted by the lingering visage of a woman who may not have survived the pile-up.
Plus stories from Adam Schorin, Annie DeWitt, Molly Giles, and more.
Kelly Cressio-Moeller, Melissa Hohl, Amanda Moore, Jennifer Moss, Andrew Murphy, and Adam Scheffler.
Featuring the acrylic on canvas paintings of Samantha Fields
After the recent death of a beloved family pet, I was looking forward to reading something sweet and poignant. A Loving, Faithful Animal (Catapult; 176 pages) by Josephine Rowe promptly disabused me of any such hope. The titular loving, faithful animal is ripped to shreds in the first few pages.
Rowe’s book, set in a small town in Australia, radiates with a sense of danger, but not in the expected ways; it’s not concerned with being wickedly subversive or delivering an emotional sucker-punch. It’s a family story, narrated in several parts by five family members. The premise is simple: an abusive father leaves his family, perhaps for good. The ecosystem of domestic abuse it reveals is not unfamiliar—Father is haunted by the Vietnam War (about 60,000 Australians served in that conflict), and beats his wife, who beats on her daughter Lani, who in turn manipulates and harasses her sister, Ru. The eccentric Uncle Tetch maintains a benovelent existence in the background, fixing bikes and radios and attempting to protect the women of the house from his brother. Ru, whose second-person narration bookends the novel, wonders about the universality of her family’s strife: Are all family scripts so interchangeable?
The sense of danger comes from the way Rowe, a former Stegner Fellow now living in Tasmania, weaves this family’s ecosystem into the wider southeast Australian wilderness, lending the story a feeling of urgency and rawness. Every time you settle into the familiar narrative of suburban linoleum depression, a spider the size of a hand crawls across the ceiling. In this book characters can’t go for a walk without crunching cicada husks beneath their shoes, pass a fence without seeing a strung-up fox (both a trophy and a warning), or hear gunshots without wondering if someone finally got the giant black cat that’s been stalking the area.
Rowe doesn’t use quotation marks, so dialogue blends into characters’ thoughts and descriptions of the environment. This stylistic choice, rather than muting the dialogue, turns the ambient volume up: the crunches, crackles, and gunshots. What people say and think in Rowe’s book is punctuated by the sharp sounds of the parched world around them, a world just waiting to burst into bushfire. Speech is similarly sharp: the family speaks in short phrases laden with Australian twang. Skinny as a whippet–you could put your hands like this around my waist–and just that fast. Tenderness emerges amid the harshness of their dialogue. The mother, cooing to a pair of angora rabbits as she tries to gently comb tangles and burrs out of their hair: I should just shave the two of you. I should knit jumpers out of you little dolts. That’d be something.
A Loving, Faithful Animal is the story of a family trying to rediscover their identity after the abusive presence they once molded themselves around has disappeared. Rowe depicts her characters searching in the wake of their former selves for the moments, objects, and places they can use to construct their new identities. Rowe’s way of emphasizing the landscape to express her characters’ inner worlds proves both contemplative and thrilling.
I was doing a piece for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, pegged to Terms of Endearment, on why his works were so compulsively suitable for adaptation to the big (and little) screen – this was after Hud and The Last Picture Show, but before Lonesome Dove or Brokeback Mountain.
I was getting nowhere trying to reach him, until a friend tipped me off that he was staying at the Beverly Wilshire with his son, on a stopover before a skiing trip.
When I got connected to McMurtry’s room, and explained what I was up to, he was a little surprised, and polite enough – but direct. “I don’t do interviews,” he said. “I just don’t see the point.”
It’s that kind of understated honesty that, after decamping from the desolate Archer City ranch he was brought up in, helped him survive the wilds of the Stanford writing program, where, as a Stegner Fellow, he hung out with Ken Kesey and other latter-day Merry Pranksters, but kept his hands on the wheel, like fellow classmate Robert Stone.
At 81, and approaching the end of a distinguished literary career, amid (apparently premature) rumors of retirement, his early work is being celebrated with A Texas Trilogy (722 pages; Liveright), the re-issue of his first three novels, Horseman, Pass By; Leaving Cheyenne; and The Last Picture Show.
In a fresh introduction to the new volume, McMurtry humble brags Horseman, Pass By – the title came from Yeats, but was discarded by the filmmakers for the simpler sobriquet Hud – but allows it some credit for “occasionally pleasing lyricism.’’
Well, more than that.
New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael famously dissed the movie (and the book) for its sanctimonious portrayal of Homer Bannon, the cattleman who unhappily agrees to let government regulators inspect his herd for mad cow disease – and allows them to be slaughtered once it is confirmed. As usual, Kael far preferred the antihero, Hud (as the movie billboard campaign memorably put it, Paul Newman is Hud), for his virility and lack of pretension, in comparison to Homer or Hud’s younger, more sensitive and idealistic half-brother, Lonnie.
But her real critique seemed to boil down to a less subtle form of social snobbery: at the end of the day, these people were…hicks.
It’s the kind of assault being leveled these days on “Trump country” – even as pictures flooded the news recently of burly boaters rescuing older hurricane refugees, many of them African-American, from roofs and car tops. This is not to discount the myriad ways in which our current President is awful – a gargoylish caricature of our worst collective prejudices – but an acknowledgement that there is a deeper reality than what we see on screens (let alone tweets). To be rooted in the country is advantageous, as well as alarming.
Towards the end of Horseman, Lonnie articulates some of this as he tries to escape his troubles at a dance after a rodeo in which a friend was crushed by a bull:
“The band was playing one of those songs of Hank Williams’, the one about the wild side of life, and the music floated over the car tops and touched me…Only the tune of the song reached me, but the tune was enough. It fit the night and the country and the way I was feeling, and fit them better than anything I knew. What few stories the dancing people had to tell were already told in the worn-out words of songs like that one, and their kind of living, the few things they knew and lived to a fare-thee-well in the sad high tune. City people probably wouldn’t believe there were folks simple enough to live their lives out in sentiments like those – but they didn’t know.”
It is a complex fate being an American, indeed.
“This was the small-town West I and so many of my friends came out of – escaping from the swaggering small-town hotshots like Hud,’’ writes Kael, who was born in Petaluma. “But I didn’t remember any boys like Brandon DeWilde’s Lon: he wasn’t born in the West or in anyone’s imagination; that seventeen-year-old blank sheet of paper has been handed down from generations of lazy hack writers.’’
Although McMurtry admitted, with typical modesty, that the polarities between Homer and no-good Hud were overdrawn, clearly there must have been some sensitive souls on the range – how else to account for McMurtry’s own prodigious output, and his famously good ear for women characters? Maybe Kael was just looking for love in all the wrong places, as the song would have it.
Trust the tale, not the teller.
Even as a first effort, Horseman, Pass By, published in 1961 when the author was all of 25, stands up to re-reading. There’s a touch of Twain in Lon’s lonesome laments, and of Dreiser (and Tom Buchanan) in the depiction of Hud’s rough romancing.
McMurtry, who clearly knows his way around a High Concept pitch, describes his second novel, Leaving Cheyenne, as “the bittersweet story of a longtime love triangle among a rancher, his cowboy, and an appealing countrywoman who loves them both.’’
It was adapted into a ludicrous film, Lovin’ Molly, starring the amazingly miscast Anthony Perkins as one of the ranch hands and Beau Bridges, doing as best possible under the circumstances, as Johnny McCloud, his sidekick and romantic rival. But the book’s real achievement is McMurtry’s portrait of Molly. Part of his unending curiosity into the mysteries and unreachability of women in general, and the woman his protagonist is obsessed with in particular, it prefigured the development of more mature characters like Patsy Carpenter in Moving On, Emma Greenway-Horton and her mom, Aurora, in Terms of Endearment, and Jill Peel in Somebody’s Darling.
Molly Taylor, the liberated lady of the prairies, has her overly serious suitor, Gideon Fry’s number about the difference between wanting to be in in love, and the actual experience. As she tells him, “You’re always thinking about Johnny or Eddie or your ranch or your dad or what people will think, or what’s right and wrong, something like that…. Or else you just like to think about having me for a girl. That ain’t loving nobody much. I can tell you that.” Busted.
Huck Finn’s ghost pops up as Gid comes to grips with the fact, that, unlike Johnny, he can’t just walk away from his roots.
“I didn’t mind the company; I didn’t mind the country, or even the cold weather,’’ McMurtry writes, of an interlude in which McCloud has talked Fry into taking off into the wilds. “I just minded feeling like I wasn’t where I belonged…I couldn’t get over thinking about Dad and Molly and the country and the ranch, the things I knew. The things that were mine. It wasn’t that I liked being in Archer Country so much – sometimes I hated it. But I was just tied up with it; whatever happened there was happening to me, even if I wasn’t there to see it. The country might not be very nice and the people might be ornery; but it was my country and my people, and no other country was; no other people, either. You do better staying with your own, even if it’s hard.”
Hard times are what define the fictional terrain of The Last Picture Show (1966), the coda of the “new” collection and the most formally accomplished of the trio. As in Peter Bogdanovich’s film adaptation, the sharp-eyed characterizations of small town football buddies Sonny Crawford and Duane Jackson, the town tease Lacy Farrow, her mutinously adulterous mom Lois, and Sam the Lion, the local pool hall proprietor, are precisely etched, as is the subplot involving Sonny’s callous affair with Ruth Popper, the wife of the (closeted) high school football coach.
As the saga draws to an end, the Thalia picture show closes, with a whimper, not a bang – showing an Audie Murphy vehicle called The Kid From Texas in lieu of a John Ford classic. It’s second-rate, but the novel is not.
“While writing these three novels, it was clear to me that I was witnessing the dying of a way of life, too – the rural, pastoral way of life,” McMurtry writes. “And in many of the books that I’ve produced, it has taken thousands of words to attend to the passing of the cowboy as well: the myth of my country, and of my people, too.”
This was country he would not return to until the publication, thousands of words later, of Lonesome Dove. Intended as an anti-Western, it of course had the opposite effect, bringing the author his first Pulitzer and a massive audience for the mini-series that was based on it.
The irony was not lost on McMurtry, a writer so keenly aware of regional marginalization that he used to wear a sweatshirt with the logo: “Minor regional novelist.’’ (His bemused account, in Literary Life, of his tenure as president of PEN America, and failed attempts to broaden its scope beyond Manhattan, is instructive.)
His portraits of contemporary life have been no less telling. The next re-release of his work, one hopes, will be the “Houston trilogy’’ – Moving On, All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, and Terms of Endearment – which deal with clearly autobiographical material, especially in Strangers, the tale of Danny Deck, a young Texas novelist whose success brings unexpected, and unwelcome, consequences. And Somebody’s Darling, a picaresque tale of the adventures of rising director Jill Peel, sardonic screenwriter Joe Percy, and Owen Oarson, a Texas stud along for the unlikely ride, is as good a Hollywood novel as I’ve read.
McMurtry is always accessible and humane as the latest trilogy reminds us. Although a former Stegner Fellow, his voice is never as portentous as that of the late Western writer, and less apocalyptic than his classmate Kesey.
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours, and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it,’’ J.D. Salinger famously wrote (and lived to regret).
But I don’t mind that my talk with Larry McMurtry was so brief. It left him more time to keep writing. The conversation continued.
Essays about the perils of the Internet are common, as are the many books hawking cynicism about the “Information Age,” the “iGeneration,” or start-up culture. But Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (303 pages; MCD/FSG), stands above the pseudo–science crowd; she draws us into the world of computer programming from the inside, showing us what she’s learned since the beginning of the Internet. The memoir, comprised of some of Ullman’s previous essays as well as several new ones, is arranged somewhat chronologically (from 1992 to January 2017) and thematically as Ullman describes what her title suggests: a lifetime spent in code.
Ullman’s book upends our expectations. Her writing seamlessly merges with her subject matter, shifting from scientific investigation and programming primer to philosophical inquiry and journalistic account—and circling back again. And because she cannot account for things she did not see, hear, or discuss with someone, the book is welcomingly personal like a diary. But it is a history as well. A longtime San Franciscan, she records the city’s meteoric rise with a sense of horror as Silicon Valley eats it alive. And she recounts the various concerns presented by evolving computer engineering as they happened at the time. (For anybody too young to remember, her account of the Y2K bug provides not only a newspaper-like synopsis of why it was such a concern, but presents us with the real people who were, and weren’t, worried about catastrophe at the time.) With all this comes the hope of presenting a grander truth that supersedes the merely anecdotal. In this, Ullman succeeds.
The stories she weaves throughout are not only interesting in themselves, but offer endless insights, as Ullman bends language to make her point. (I doubt there has ever been a better description of a co-working space in San Francisco than as a “warren” of start-ups.) Given her memoir is centered on the Internet and on programming, there’s a bit of unavoidable nomenclature and jargon to hurdle. But Ullman guides the average person through the vocabulary of this willfully closeted arena with grace and finesse. In doing so, she also forces us to acknowledge how little we know about the technologies we’ve allowed to shape our lives.
Above all, what is so marvelous about the book is its intimate tone. Whether Ullman seems worried, resolute, optimistic, or in doubt, the reader always has the impression of sitting down to coffee in her living room as she tells a story. She cares about her reader, and wants to offer us an important look into the techies’ ivory tower, to see what the world looks like from the Googleplex. To the final page, Life in Code depicts its world of sushiritos and nap corners as a perfectly wound dark comedy. There’s a transfixing, laughable absurdity to it all–but there’s always a disconcerting reality lurking not far behind, one that blinks and blinks like a green power light, always on.
We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming for the first ever ZYZZYVA Labor Day Playlist! Here you’ll find a series of songs our staff chose for their resonance in this fraught (and often emotionally exhausting) moment. Music is always an essential source of inspiration and solace, and these are some of the songs we’ll be listening to over this long weekend. We hope you may enjoy them, too, perhaps in the background of your holiday barbecue, or after the guests have departed when you’re left with some quiet moments of contemplation. And who knows, maybe we’ll have to make the ZYZZYVA Playlist something of a tradition. Feel free to comment with your own song selections as well.
1. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Full Band Version)” by Gil Scott-Heron
Gil Scott-Heron’s song both expresses and provokes an aggrievement that rests not in disaffected anger but instead in a sharp, controlled call to action. There are no excuses in Scott-Heron’s call and the precision with which he intonates every syllable perpetuates this feeling of disciplined anger. The ferocity of domination over one’s experience of dehumanizing injustice through the idiosyncratic and spontaneous nature of jazz demonstrates just how invincible and irresistible this force, once pierced open, can be. As the song continues, and seeps further and mounts higher, there is nothing left to do — but stand up and do something. Why? Because “You will not be able to plug in, turn on and drop out.” Why? Because “The revolution will not be right back after a message.” Why? Because “The revolution will be no re-run brothers/The revolution will be live.”—Samara Michaelson
2. “Somos Sur” by Ana Tijoux feat Shadia Mansour
In a time where opposing home-grown, American-as-apple-pie fascism is quickly becoming mainstream, artists like French-Chilean Ana Tijoux and Palestinian-British Shadia Mansour remind us of the importance of anti-imperialist analysis and resistance (I could have chosen a song like “Strictly Against Nazis” by Wizo or Dead Kennedy’s “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” but that would be too easy, right?). Tijoux is probably most well-known for her song “1977,” which was featured on Breaking Bad and Broad City, but her music has been part of anti-imperialist and decolonial movements for a while now, and she deserves more recognition. Mansour’s verses are always incredible – I never like to say that rappers “spit fire” because it feels corny, but in the case of Mansour, it’s true. Lyrically, the song reminds me why opposing US imperialism is central to any resistance efforts, eleven within the imperial core. Liberation for all comes in the form of liberation for the Global South and all its people – and this song is the perfect encapsulation of that (and, honestly, any song that tells Yanquis to get out of Latin America is gold).—Jasmine Lee Ehrhardt
3. “Hard Times” by Baby Huey & the Baby Sitters
Though Baby Huey is “filled with love,” no one around him seems to care about returning the love and being decent to their neighbor. This song, I think, speaks to the frustration a lot of people around me have been expressing. It’s not just a frustration with the current political state; it’s a grievance with everyone, those we work with, live with, and deal with every day.—Paola Vergara
4. “Divenire” by Ludovici Einaudi
Language is an opportunity for us to explain, in great detail, the wild, torrential, all-encompassing beauty that is the human experience. It is how we express, understand, accept, and share our internal and external worlds to ourselves and to one another, and while I am forever grateful to words for helping me do just that, I can’t help but feel like sometimes we need another primordial outlet for expression: sound. “Divenire” by Ludovico Einaudi is a composition that reflects that intensity in our world today, politically and otherwise, just through music. It has its soft moments, where we strive to better understand and accept one another as individuals and as a collective. It has violent moments, where we are at odds because of ignorance, shame, anger, disconnection, hatred. It has hope and it has sadness, but most importantly, it moves like the intricacies and complexities of being imperfect in an imperfect world.—Melissa Halabe
5. “Get By” by Talib Kweli
My fondness for “Get By” isn’t recent; it’s been a perennial favorite since I first came across Talib Kwelli in college. Part of what I love about this song is how it combines concerns with social justice and a very sharp perspective on the big picture, with an ethics of personal responsibility. Though the picture it paints is in some ways grim, the chorus returns to a kind of hope or determination– returns to the conviction that the choices we make every morning as we set out into the world for the day make a difference.—Laura Cogan
6. “I Shall Be Released” by Nina Simone (cover of Bob Dylan)
I’m sure “I Shall Be Released” needs no explanation– but why the Nina Simone cover, rather than the Bob Dylan original? I’m rarely a fan of a Dylan cover, but Simone’s incomparable voice and phrasing with Dylan’s unforgettable lyrics make this track another perennial favorite, and one that offers particular solace just now. And this is a good way of making sure two of my all time favorite singer-songwriters (Dylan and Simone) are in some way represented on our mix.—Laura Cogan
7. “I Am Waiting” by The Rolling Stones
“I Am Waiting” is an odd little song, but there’s something about its anxiety that feels so
apropos since the election– because with each new day bringing yet another revelation (thank you, Washington Post and New York Times) about the connections between Trump’s campaign/family/business and Russia/election interference/obstruction of
justice/corruption, it often feels as though we are holding our collective breath as we wait to see the whole picture, to get the full scope of the wrong-doing, and to find out how it will all fall apart.—Laura Cogan
8. “Down for Some Ignorance” by Saul Williams
Well, let’s be honest: at times, things feel grim. “Down for Some Ignorance” is a track for when you need to take a moment to sit with your sadness and frustration, to let
incredulousness and grieving for humanity’s endless mistakes wash over you.—Laura Cogan
9. “September Song” by Agnes Obel
“September Song” at first sounds like how pain feels; how it feels to experience an injustice, or witness cruelty (perhaps your authority over your own body has been threatened due to the defunding of Planned Parenthood, or maybe your president refuses to denounce the actions of white-supremacists). The song is sparse, shaky, and dark. It sounds shocked, with elements of repetition, like one is processing what has happened, taking stock of injuries and how one has been wronged. There is a silent pause, a breath, a rest…and then the mood starts to shift. The piano swells with brighter notes. It builds and builds until it is more powerful than before, and ready to retaliate against injustice with strength.—Devan Bretkelly
10. “Yes, I’m a Witch” by Yoko Ono
Yoko Ono’s “Yes, I’m a Witch” is at once an old-school, punk feminist anthem and a playful nod to her fascination with magic and witchcraft. With cool and perfectly measured lyrics against a screaming electric guitar, Ono proclaims, “Yes, I’m a witch/ I’m a bitch/ I don’t care what you say.” She takes up space, and she’s not sorry about it. Recorded in 1974, and released on LPs in 1997 and 2007, this song shrieks self-possession and power at maximum volume. Being yourself is a political act to Ono; it doesn’t require “vengeance/But we’re not gonna kill ourselves for your convenience.” Protest can happen day or night, in front of your mirror or in a crowd, and this track provides the perfect riot grrl noise to march to.—Kailee Stiles
11. “This Thing Was Bound to Happen” by The Radio Dept.
Last fall Swedish indie poppers The Radio Dept. returned with their first album in six years. The world has changed a great deal since 2010 and the band has been paying attention, particularly to the rise of Far Right elements in their native country. As such, Running Out of Love could be said to be the first overtly political statement from a band previously most well known for their lovelorn and poetic lyrics. Like the best cultural critics, The Radio Dept. doesn’t fail to implicate themselves: besides being a ridiculously catchy number in the tradition of early New Order, “This Thing Was Bound to Happen” sees its the narrator calling themselves out for their own political inaction (“I drink Cuba Cola/It’s my contribution/to the political debate/My silent cheer/for a change”). In turn, the oft-repeated mantra “This Thing Was Bound to Happen” expresses the overwhelming ennui of our current moment and the lingering sense that, given the divisiveness of our political system, the toxic culture of the last year and a half was perhaps inevitable.—Zack Ravas
12. “Tramp the Dirt Down” by Elvis Costello
Is this the most seething political pop song in the past thirty years? One of the cuts from Costello’s solo album Spike, an album juicy with vitriol for a Western world decidedly corrupted by unregulated greed (“…This Town…”) and technological brawn (“Satellite”), “Tramp the Dirt Down” names names, singling out Margaret Thatcher, the British embodiment of the toxic brew of fear and hate cynically embraced by politicians the likes of Reagan in the ‘80s. “When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam,” Costello sings. “And the future looked as bright and as clear as black tarmacadam.” The song is literally about the singer’s desperate wish to outlive the prime minister so he can witness “when they finally put you in the ground.” The pollution introduced into the body politic by Thatcherites is brutally summarized: “I never thought for a moment that human life could be so cheap.” Upon listening to the song today, Costello’s righteous indignation sits all too well. You need only replace “Margaret” with, say, “Paul” or “Mitch.” This is a j’accuse of those leaders who place their societies in danger for the sake of their mean agendas.—Oscar Villalon
13. “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday
Named ‘Best Song of the Century’ by TIME magazine in December 1999, “Strange Fruit” is as unforgettable as it is earth-shattering. Billie Holiday’s version– performed to little applause in New York at the height of Jim Crow–is the haunting original, but Nina Simone’s Civil Rights era cover is stratospheric. The track has all the hallmarks of a romantic jazz standard, but none of its sweetness; its meandering, potent lyrics come over a simple, pounding piano melody that lends the song both force and room to breathe as the poetry unravels. It hardly needs to be said, but know the “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” aren’t swollen peaches. Often overshadowed by their other protest standards, this single belongs in a whole other category of protest music: one that unveils the grotesqueness of the past to remind us why we protest at all. Quiet and fierce, “Strange Fruit” chills the spine even as it ignites the resistant soul.—Kailee Stiles
As you take time to enjoy the long weekend ahead, we’d like you to consider something that might make the barbecues and binge-watching that much more enjoyable. For only today through Tuesday, September 5, we’re shipping a free set of our brand new ZYZZYVA pins with every purchase of a subscription or a subscription renewal.
You’ll be able to get the pins (stylish, no?) on our shop page soon enough. But why not get them sooner by simply renewing or subscribing to ZYZZYVA this weekend? So subscribe to ZYZZYVA and be prepared to wear those pins proudly!
Congratulations to Dominica Phetteplace for her recent win of a 2017 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award. Her writing has been published in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, PANK, and the Los Angeles Review. Phetteplace is also a winner of a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from I-Park, the Deming Fund, and the MacDowell Colony. She lives in Berkeley, California.
The following is an excerpt from her short story “The Story of a True Artist,” which you can read in its entirety by purchasing a copy of ZYZZYVA No. 105.
Poet Troy Jollimore hurtled onto bedside tables everywhere when his widely celebrated debut, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2006. Since then, his tightly wound, exploratory poetry has touched on everything from the the nature of beauty to meeting Charlie Brown in a bar. We are pleased to say Jollimore will be leading ZYZZYVA’s first ever Poetry Workshop. The deadline to submit your work is September 15th. The poet, who has appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 92, 101, and soon in 111, recently took time out of his busy schedule to talk with us about Writing Workshops, living in the age of On Demand content, and what we mean when we discuss Poetic Craft.
ZYZZYVA: Poetry workshops sometimes don’t come to mind as readily as fiction workshops – what do you think the communal, learning atmosphere of a workshop can bring to poetry, specifically?
Writing poems is hard, and we need all the help we can get. That’s an obvious thing to say, but there’s a great deal of truth in it. Beyond that, I could say that every poem, and every act of writing a poem, implies a community, or perhaps several intersecting communities: the readers for whom the poem is intended, the writers of the poems that preceded it and form the background against which it is written, the community one physically lives in, which sustains the material conditions in which poems can be written.
The writing workshop is a quite special form of temporary, semi-spontaneous community; a place where we come together, as people do in church or at the movies, to give our shared attention to one another’s works and ideas and, in the process, to discover and come to know each other a little more deeply. Sometimes a poem will crack open before your eyes in a workshop; sometimes the blockage that was holding it back will simply disintegrate and fall away. Sometimes someone will say something—a casual, offhand remark, as often as not—that solves your poem’s problem, or makes you realize that your poem really doesn’t have a problem. Sometimes you can even find solutions for problems having nothing to do with poetry at all. And sometimes you just walk away feeling enriched and comforted by having spent time in the company of other people who, like you, share this odd particular interest for an art form that has, against all odds, persisted through the millennia.
Z: What kind of intentions–formal, personal, poetic–do you hope people come into the workshop with?
TJ: To share their passion and enthusiasm with each other. To talk openly about poems and other things they care deeply about. To get to know other people, and themselves, a little better. To open up their work, expose it to the air, and help it grow. To discuss their artistic struggles, to display their imperfect works in an atmosphere in which imperfection is forgiven and even loved for what it is and often turns out to be the first step toward something wonderful. And to make friends. That might sound a little cheesy, but I really mean it. Friendship is vastly important and our present society seems to be becoming more and more inimical to it. Art—whatever particular art form happens to turn you on the most—remains one of the best sites for finding friends, real friends, others of your kind.
Josh Weil’s first collection of stories, The Age of Perpetual Light (272 pages; Grove Press), spans the course of history to examine the miseries and ambitions of humanity, tracing the mysteries of light and darkness that have long confounded and mesmerized us. Beginning with the tale of a Jewish Russian soldier, who deserts to America where he peddles Edison Lamps and falls broodingly in love with an Amish woman, Weil’s themes reveal themselves. We see the invention of electricity and man’s emerging dominance over light as a magnificent, almost magical trick. But at the same time, as the collection’s stories about the excesses of ambition show, that desire to dominate the dark ultimately raises the question of at what point does our appetite for knowledge and control begin to control us? What happens when the metamorphic light becomes too bright to turn down – when we begin to miss the darkness but have no way of bringing it back?
The eight stories in Weil’s collection—narratives ranging from the struggles of parenting an autistic child to a woman’s tenacious passion for flight, as well as the strife that follows a pair of Serbian immigrants (a young boy and his abusive mother)—were written over the course of a decade. The intonations in each story, by consequence, vary drastically—from lyrical? to almost dystopian. But they all share revelations into the heartbreak and inspiring moments that shape the human spirit.
The collection closes by returning us to the story of the lonely Edison Light peddler. We revisit him at an earlier time in his life, when he is about to embark for America and flee the police who have discovered his desertion. Writing a letter home, Shimel—who has adopted a false identity to protect himself from anti-Semitism—describes his fear of losing himself and those he loves, and his conviction to carry on regardless:
“And here he comes again: the lamplighter, crossing from one side of the street to the other, unlatching the panes, reaching up, snuffing the flames. Watching him it seems as if he might have just kept walking. Followed the night around the globe, lighting lanterns until the dark crossed into day and, coming upon the flames already lit, he flipped his pole to its snuffing end, simply kept on. Maybe, some night in another city in another country I will see him coming down another street. I will call him over. I will ask him to bring a message back to you. ‘Tell them,’ I will say, ‘hello from here.’”
Weil beautifully illustrates the conviction that as we all bear witness to the continual rising and extinguishing of its power, the “light,” and our moth-like attraction to it, can keep us bound both to its elemental force and to each other.
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say Vanilla Ice
From what I’ve tasted of desire,
I’m thinking of a funeral pyre.
But if you had to ask me twice,
I’d throw the dice.
Bring Kid Rock over for a round or two,
Burn one or two or three or four,
Look out for lice. Watch the backyard
Barbecue glow. Orange in the night.
Let’s do it twice.
It’s not easy to write a love story devoid of the usual clichés such as the “meet cute” or unrealistically idealized physical descriptions, but author Sylvia Brownrigg does just that in her new novel, Pages for Her (373 pages; Counterpoint). The book is a sequel to 2001’s critically acclaimed Pages for You, in which the young and timid Flannery Jensen falls for her confident and much older professor, Anne Arden. Told in three parts, Pages for Her offers readers the chance to return to Flannery and Anne’s ardent, but lost, connection twenty years after their separation. While the time jump provides an eloquent exploration of memory, nostalgia, and individual growth for both Flannery and Anne, it is also filled with a lengthy recounting of mundane, everyday details which delays the reunion of these two characters. The languid pacing, which contains a myriad of tender and painful moments, deepens the bond between the reader and the characters, but somewhat diminishes interest in the central love story since the only trace of their romance resides in Anne and Flannery’s memory.
Instead, the strongest and most poignant parts of Pages for Her have less to do with plot and more the intimate relationships these women have apart from each other. It is a poetic and in-depth look at the self – as individual, writer, mother, wife, daughter, and lover. Flannery’s transition into motherhood becomes one of the most important aspects of Pages for Her; Brownrigg portrays her sometimes-limiting yet always unconditional love for her child, a love Flannery finds deep and life-altering.
The gentle exchanges between Flannery and her daughter Willa serve in stark contrast to Anne, who has proven unwavering in her decision to remain childless and lost Jasper, her partner of twenty-years, as a result. Anne and Jasper’s relationship is just unconventional enough to keep the reader’s attention, with their fresh take on monogamy being perhaps the most interesting part of Anne’s story. We feel Flannery’s marital and creative frustrations, we feel her primal instincts as a mother and the zealous love that accompanies it. We also feel Anne’s quiet but piercing grief over releasing the man she loves to a life she cannot agree to, and we feel her slow return to a lover she has long cherished but could never pursue due to her bond with Jasper.
These relationships comprise the backbone of Pages for Her, depicting the intricate, complicated, and beautiful moments that lead Flannery and Anne back to a relationship they both knew was unfinished. As in our own lives, no matter how many years (or pages) it takes, “[w]hen two people came together who were meant to, the night and the meeting were elemental, and the trappings ceased to exist. All that mattered were the bodies. And the selves.”
Kristen Iskandrian’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, PANK, Gulf Coast, Ploughshares, and other publications. Her debut novel, Motherest is out now from Twelve/Hachette. Look for Kristen Iskandrian’s book tour in a town near you.
The following is an excerpt from her short story “Good With Boys.” In the piece, middle schooler Jill is on a determined quest to win the affections of her oblivious crush Esau – while on a parent-chaperoned trip to the local museum. You can the story in its entirety by purchasing a copy of 109 here.