ZYZZYVA EventsDecember 11, 2015
ZYZZYVA Winter Issue Celebration/Holiday Party
Location: 6:30 p.m., Mechanics's Institute, 57 Post Street, Fourth Floor, San Francisco
Description: Celebrate the final issue of our 30th anniversary year, with readings from contributors Austin Smith, Heather Monley, Paul Madonna, Lauren Alwan, & Dominica Phetteplace. Free for ZYZZYVA readers and Mechanics's Institute members.
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The dedication page of Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl (88 pages; Graywolf Press) reads: “For my people: the living and the dead.” But in this hypnagogic third collection, the margin between the living and the dead is “glory holed,” penetrated, and ultimately renounced. Seuss’s singular eye sees bodies everywhere, and her psychedelic syntax animates them. Spirea is “the color of entrails;” poppies sport a “testicular fur;” a blouse on the clothesline makes the speaker feel “as if [she]’d been skinned alive.” In these elegies, insensate matter becomes living human flesh.
But the humans with whom Seuss is concerned are always already marginal: punks and addicts, convalescents and outsider artists. The first of the book’s five, vaguely chronological sections deals with the death of the speaker’s father, though his disembodied tumors haunt these pages long after his funeral in “As a child I ate and mourned.” Other recurrent characters include an ex-partner who dies of an overdose—referred to only as “my junkie”—and a two-headed, taxidermied lamb in a museum in the speaker’s hometown: “the precious freak who lives at the heart of me / still.” The book’s final poem is an ode to Myrtle Corbin, the eponymous four-legged girl, born in the late nineteenth century with two pairs of legs, two pelvises, and two sets of working reproductive organs. Seuss’s speaker, who frequently ponders her own body’s difference, with its “titanium leg and…wide caesarian scar,” makes idols of this motley cast of characters.
Our Earth has never been more divided. Tensions between the United States and other major powers like Russia and China, as well as conflict in the Middle East, cast a shadow over a planet threatened by climate change. Not to mention that the current run-up to the 2016 presidential election has begun to seem less like a political race and more like a professional wrestling match. But what if there was a way to heal our world’s divide–both figuratively and literally? Through a revolutionary geo-engineering process, the Political Tectonics Lab–pioneered by experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats–is proposing a plan to direct the movement of our continents into the most politically and economically ideal arrangement, in a project titled Pangaea Optima.
Some 250 million years ago, the continents were locked together in one massive supercontinent dubbed Pangaea. Although the original Pangaea eventually broke apart and became the individual land masses we know them as today, scientists predict that the continents will one day form back together…in another 200 million years, that is. Of course, the trouble of waiting for nature to take its course is that the trajectories of Mother Nature are often all too random. Who’s to say just where North America will end up when this Pangaea takes shape?
Issue No. 105 closes our 30th anniversary year with a special cover designed by Paul Madonna, as well as new fiction from Dagoberto Gilb, and more, including:
Austin Smith’s “The Cave”: Pining for mom making dinner back at the farmhouse, a boy ventures into an odd schoolmate’s home.
Dominica Phettaplace’s “The Story of a True Artist”: The fraught path to maintaining Internet fame is not making high school any easier.
Davide Orrechio’s “Diego Wilchen No More”: “In the cub, you could already see the invincible Wilchen. He will earn love, only to dash it, and a following, only to disappoint.”
Lauren Alwan’s “Eldorado”: An essay on building a house for two in the woods—a house you never plan to live in.
And fiction from Olivia Clare, Kristopher Jansma, Paul Madonna (an ex-pat in Thailand and a U.S. soldier’s story), and Heather Monley (what really happened that day on the lake when the lightning storm broke out?); plus First Time in Print stories from Andrew Foley and Henri Lipton; and poetry from Heather Altfeld, Dan Alter, Jill Osier, Floyd Skloot, Ed Skoog, and Molly Vogel.
A feature of Bruce Bond’s immense talent is his poetic economy. What he is able to articulate or suggest in a few lines requires paragraphs of exposition, a feature he shares with other truly great poets. At a recent reading, Bond briefly discussed his training as a musician, and thus a partial explanation for the elusiveness of his poetry was provided. They have a rhythm and musical sonority that propels many of them, investing their already laden words with a further force.
In his latest collection, For the Lost Cathedral (84 pages; LSU Press), the poems run a gamut of subject matters, from the Bone Church of Sedlic to Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, from the seemingly small and personal, to the broad and historical. The poems are exceptional, because they raise grand metaphysical, religious, and psychological questions and expound upon possible answers, yet leave them aptly unresolved, knowing that only partial elucidations will have to suffice. The book’s first poem, “The Gate,” begins this questioning as the speaker states: “When I first learned of heaven, / it was something we lost, or was / loss simply the word we gave it.” Here Bond makes the point that much of what may seem to be a religious conceptualization of existence has an analogue in our private psyche, and thus originates there and not from some external divinity. The story of a lost paradise pervades much of Western theology, and therefore must be rooted in a distinctly human, psycho-linguistic understanding of our place within the world. We construct and perpetuate grand myths such as Eden in order to make sense of our place. “Loss” is the word given but does not necessarily have to be the reality experienced.
Speaking about what he refused to characterize as his personal fame, Nabokov once told an interviewer, “Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.” However, in the face of what the author and his family called “Hurricane Lolita,” Nabokov remained personally obscure only because he was intent on doing so. Yet all the while the near mythical dimension of his persona grew around his unwillingness to appear in public, and because of his pithy, self-orchestrated, and tightly managed interviews, which tantalized but revealed little. Appearing in a candid television interview once (and refusing to do so thereafter), demanding that all interview questions be submitted to him beforehand, the intensely private Nabokov was able to keep a close hold on what an exceedingly curious public was able to know about him personally. He only commented elusively on his own work and made strong proclamations about the works of others. Thus it has been the job of biographers such as Brian Boyd—and now Robert Roper, with his Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita (354 pages; Bloomsbury)—to give Nabokov’s readership something closer to an honest, human portrait of the man behind works of genius such as Pale Fire and Lolita.
In his first novel, Gavin McCrea accesses the intricacies of Marx and Engel’s Communist revolution through the ordinary magic of fiction. Mrs. Engels (Catapult; 368 pages) explores the subtleties of a historic movement through the vantage of Lizzie Burns, Frederick Engels’ longtime companion and eventual wife. Lizzie, an illiterate Irish woman, is both an outsider and part of Frederick’s inner circle in London—at once the closest to the proletariat and the furthest from Marx and Engels’ ideals. Her position allows the story’s perspective to refreshingly shift from observing Engels and Marx’s work life and ideals to registering the domestic decorum and politics that have shaped Lizzie’s life. As Frederick imagines what could be, resenting the illusory social norms that dictate what is, Lizzie, to survive, must occupy herself with the very reality he and his peers frequently abhor or ignore.
John Freeman (whose poems were published in ZYZZYVA No. 95 and No. 101, and who is also a contributing editor) is a long-time book critic, author of How to Read a Novelist, and the former editor of Granta. Last month, he launched a new literary journal, Freeman’s, which will publish themed issues twice a year. The first issue features work from Louise Erdrich, Barry Lopez, Haruki Murakami, Dave Eggers, Alexander Hemon, Anne Carson, Helen Simpson, and many more.
Before a packed house at City Lights Bookstore last month, ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked to Freeman about the journal, about writing and growing up in Sacramento, and about the work of literature.
To hear City Lights Bookstore’s Peter Maravelis’s introduce the conversation, click on “Continue Reading” below.
“The things we know / cannot be applied,” begins a poem in Kay Ryan’s new poetry collection, Erratic Facts (Grove Press, 64 pages), the first release since her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. The former U.S. poet laureate returns with her signature narrow, rhyming poems to awaken and astonish us, to tilt us toward the underbelly of everyday observations.
In the epilogue of Erratic Facts, Ryan notes:
erratic: (n) Geol. A boulder or the like
carried by glacial ice and deposited
some distance form its place of origin
This idea of displacement—a separation of boulder from its place of origin, of object from meaning—crops up again and again in her book, repeatedly overthrowing our expectations of conclusion and poetic movement. A poem titled “Shoot the Moon” ends with the shattering “bagged now and / heavy as a head,” and in “Erasure” she leaves us with the startlingly blunt statement: “this / whole area / may have been / a defactory.” The unabashed awkwardness of Ryan’s syntax also mimics the unstable nature of the erratic, as it seizes us from turn to turn: “Walls of shelves of / jars of dots equal / one dot”; “Even how / the crow / walks is / criss crosses.”
Concluding the roster of work in ZYZZYVA that earned eleven Notables from the Best American series this year is Laura Esther Wolfson’s “Infelicities of Style”–one of five ZYZZYVA essays recognized as a Notable in the 2015 Best American Essays anthology. Wolfson tells the story of being a young stringer–a dance critic–for the local paper near her college. “Infelicities” is a mediation upon creating art, being excluded for one reason or the other from its creation, and a reckoning with the vagaries of fate.
Laura Esther Wolfson lives in New York City, where she works as a translator of Russian, French, and Spanish to English. Her writing has appeared in Bellingham Review, Gettysburg Review, The Rumpus, The Sun, and elsewhere; and has been repeatedly listed as Notable in Best American Essays. The following is an excerpt from “Infelicities of Style.”
I met Scott Hutchins and Octavio Solis at a writers conference in Pebble Beach, in the center of what must soon be on record as the longest summer in California’s long, hot history. Hutchins is the author of the novel A Working Theory of Love. He is a former Truman Capote fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University, where he currently teaches, and his work has appeared in Story Quarterly, Five Chapters, The Rumpus, the New York Times, Catamaran Literary Reader, and Esquire, among other places. And Solis is a playwright and director. His work has been mounted at many major theaters across the U.S., including the Mark Taper Forum, the Yale Repertory Theater, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He is recipient of the 2014 PEN Center USA Award for Drama and is a Thornton Wilder Fellow for the MacDowell Colony. His work has been published in ZYZZYVA, most recently his story “Retablos,” which appeared in Issue No. 102.
What began as a professional engagement with both writers has blossomed into a genuine friendship. I had intended to interview each separately for ZYZZYVA, but the more I considered it, the more I thought how much more rewarding a three-way conversation might be. Over the course of several hours, we discussed the social aspects of writing, the use of lyricism (and non-lyricism), and our early teachers.
ZYZZYVA: Scott, we’ve talked before about your tenure as a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, but not much about what that actually meant to you in your development as a writer. What did you pull from that experience, and how does it show up in the work you’ve done since? Is it about technique or relationships or experiences or all of the above?
Scott Hutchins: The Stegner Fellowship was a very intense time. In my bones I was sure they had made some sort of mistake in selecting me. I struggled with a great feeling of unworthiness. It was a very congenial workshop, but I usually felt like I’d been through the ringer. Ten ferociously intelligent reads would dig into a story that I didn’t really understand myself.
Z: Did you learn a bunch of technique from those readers?
SH: I wouldn’t say I learned much technique in the Stegner. It wasn’t a craft-based program, and I already had an MFA. Tobias Wolff, one of the professors, likened the Stegner to a junior artist-in-residency. That was the feel. A deep commitment to your work, but also nearly complete independence. But I did raise the bar for myself—or began raising the bar. I finally came to understand what finished work looked like. What the process of actually finishing something felt like. I entered the Stegner hating revision and left it…maybe not liking it but having made my peace with it. Now I can barely wait to get to revision. It’s absolutely my favorite part of writing.
Jim Krusoe’s short but powerful “Traffic” is the second essay from Issue No. 101 to receive a Notable—in this case, from the 2015 Best American Essays anthology. In only four or so pages, Krusoe lays out a childhood memory and takes it apart, seeing clearly a truth about his parents (and a car accident involving a child) that he sensed but hadn’t articulated before.
Krusoe, who lives in Southern California, is the author of the novels “Parsifal” (Tin House), “Girl Factory” (Tin House) and “Iceland” (Dalkey Archive), as well as books of poetry and story collections. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund. The following is “Traffic” in its entirety.
‘A Daughter’s Letter to Tamsen Donner’: 2015 Best American Nonrequired Reading Notable, Issue No. 101
Jill Logan’s essay, “A Daughter’s Letter to Tamsen Donner,” is one of two essays in Issue No. 101 recognized as a Notable by the Best American series this year—by the 2015 Best American Nonrequired Reading, to be exact. A conversation of sorts between Logan and one of the members of the ill-fated Donner Party, “A Daughter’s Letter” is a humorous but insightful meditation on family.
Logan, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, has had fiction published in Meridian, Bellingham Review, Crazyhorse, Quarterly West, Michigan Quarterly Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Santa Cruz, where she is working on a novel and a short story collection about her native Oklahoma. The following is an excerpt of “A Daughter’s Letter to Tamsen Donner.”