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Interviews

Interviews with Current and Past Contributors, as well as with Other Writers, Poets, and Artists

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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Flight Patterns: Q&A with ‘Amelia Earhart’ Author Larry Beckett

Amelia EarhartPolymath poet Larry Beckett is flying high in Amelia Earhart (72 pages; Finishing Line Press), his latest addition to a cycle of epic tributes to the likes of P.T. Barnum, Paul Bunyan, and now Earhart, and with an upcoming volume on Wyatt Earp to round off a rubric on the “American Cycle.’’

The Portland writer is still best known for his collaborations with the late Tim Buckley, including the oft-covered classic “Song to the Siren,’’ but the long-ago death of his boyhood friend has not stopped him from cultivating his muse with fresh imaginings of seemingly unlikely subjects.

Here, he explores the various scenarios surrounding Earhart’s disappearance:

Oh, listen, the blue flight had no landing,

the worlds are out of balance, and because

the airplane vanished, I, never arriving,

now haunt the raw newspaper, and in words

I hate. Do you read me?

We do. “Amelia Earhart is a novel in verse, in 58 pages,’’ Beckett explains, via email. “It’s a contemporary version of the complaint form, from Renaissance England, as in Samuel Daniel’s The Complaint of Rosamond, and William Shakespeare’s Lucrece, in which the ghost of a woman appears and tells the story of her fall. The convention was the rhyme royal stanza, ababbcc: in my poem, the ghost condemns false approaches to her life in 7-line blank verse stanzas, and the inconclusive music of slant rhyme starts when she counters with the real story.”

Earhart, “whose fall was literal, out of the skies,” he continues, “haunts the newspaper, as from year to year disappearance theories are laid out. In the poem, the ghost is in a rage because all the attention is on her death, and not her life. She thought that our culture’s making such a big deal out of the death of a flyer when it was a woman was a sign of its all-pervading unfairness to women.’’

“The poem is a broadcast on the frequency of her last transmission: the Radio Hong Kong news is interrupted by the ghost. In the extended prologue, she recounts and rejects versions of her last flight—the Hollywood movie, in which she dies as a spy; the crackpot theory, in which she survives and comes back to America in disguise; the definitive biography, in which she drowns. Her own rendition is an interior monologue through the twenty hours of the last flight, punctuated by the actual radio traffic. Whenever necessary, she concentrates on the work of flying, then drifts into images of her life, in a rough chronology. She conjures her childhood on the banks of the Missouri, love of horses and the aeroplane, first flight and solo, first altitude record, celebrity and reluctant marriage, Atlantic and Pacific solos, Mexican flight, various crackups, and her 1937 round-the-world flight, up to the last moment. Memories are embedded in memories, and take different shapes—voice, letter, photograph, lecture, list, logbook. The current hit song When My Dreamboat Comes Home runs through her head, the lyrics misremembered in a way that shows her freedom of spirit.’’

Beckett’s obsessive identification with, and admiration for, Amelia shines through, along with their mutual scorn for “the crackpots who cash in on my enigma and ride my name like a ghost automobile down easy to the bank.’’

In addition to the justifiable anger, he catches the exhilaration of pushing the envelope:

After Atlantic war, Pacific peace: the 1st

person to cross that ocean, and at Oakland:

-Your transmission: I’m tired? – You missed

my meaning in static: of the fog, I said.

1000 hurrah, crying, by the armed guard,

shove American Beauty roses at my breast.

That landing is in the diary of my heart.

Beckett’s lifelong song project – a literal description, as he also has a new CD, Love & Trial, with the British musician Stuart Anthony, of spoken and sung translations of ancient and Renaissance Greek poetry to be released digitally on November 1 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPyMU5AaE74) – is a break from the postmodern cynicism of the moment. That’s on purpose.

Asked why he continues to be drawn to such iconic figures when the culture has moved in the opposite direction, the poet responds:

“’The Muses are the daughters of memory,’ Ezra Pound recalls in the Pisan Cantos. In my elementary school library, I’d be found in the folklore section, on fire reading those tall tales, or in American history, biographies of its heroes. That charge has lived on in me, as inspiration. And as a natural Fifties rebel, following Presley and Ginsberg, I was ready to ignore cultural tides, and the literary fashion against long narrative poems, to stay true to it.’’

“For me, Paul Bunyan isn’t an example of the destruction of ecosystems for profit. He’s the American spirit, trying by bragging and laughter to be equal to the colossal landscape. Wyatt Earp isn’t a boy’s story hero with an unfortunate turn for gun violence. He’s a deacon, following Jesus, still in love with his dead wife, doing all he can to avoid violence, to keep his soul alive, in Tombstone. Amelia Earhart isn’t a pile of bones on a deserted Pacific island, or a lost airplane. She’s a woman who lived and lives, who, in a world which oppresses women, liberated herself. Why does she still come up in the headlines every few months? Her disappearance is the number one unsolved mystery, but that’s only the surface. She’s an emblem of the equality of women, and her spirit will haunt the news until that equality is made real in the way we live.”

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A Harmony Called Survival: Q&A with ‘The Carrying’ Author Ada Limón

The CarryingOne of my first memories of Ada Limón involves a party in Brooklyn nearly 15 years ago. Ada was across the room, in a beautiful blue coat. A mutual friend introduced us, whispering as she did that “her poems are even lovelier than her coat is.” Within months, I knew this to be true.

I am lucky to know Ada: We moved in similar circles in New York in our twenties, and left about the same time. I came home to California, and she moved to Kentucky, while still keeping her ties to Sonoma, her hometown, active with regular trips. (She has read at Flight of Poets, a series I host with Hollie Hardy in Sonoma.)

Over the decades, Limón’s work has honed a deft music against her gift for trapdoor syntax, where suddenly a verse drops us into a plush red heart or clambers out of itself to see the sky. Her poems have also gained tautness and emotional resonance, in particular in her haunting, fiery collection Bright Dead Things, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Limón’s fifth book, The Carrying (120 pages; Milkweed), offers a new chapter in an already beautiful and accomplished oeuvre.

As ever, Limón’s poems keep lighting up the rooms they enter. In response to her fifth book, Ada and I corresponded over the month of September about travel, tenderness, and new work.

ZYZZYVA: I’m catching you on a weekend when you are traveling: let me start with a question about travel and home. We in California are happy to claim you as a Californian, but you live in Kentucky now. As you travel a lot these days between homes or former homes— Kentucky, Sonoma, New York— does the travel affect your writing? Is there any place that feels “more” like home now?

Ada Limón: It’s fitting that I am answering this question on a plane. I spend a lot of time on a plane these days. I’m leaving California and heading back to Kentucky, trading one home for another, if you will. I don’t mind traveling. I get a lot of writing and reading done on planes and trains. Also, I’ll admit, I’m with my dog (who is under the seat and currently holding on to my feet) and my husband. This is my favorite way to travel—with my family. Sonoma still feels like home to me. I still have my small apartment on Moon Mountain (which miraculously survived the fire). My mom and stepdad still live in Sonoma. My father, stepmom, and big brother all live in California, too. It feels like I belong to that land, like I’m a native bird of the Valley of the Moon. But Kentucky feels like home to me, too. We have our house there and our two old cats, and I’ve written the majority of my last two books there. I’m a bit more isolated in Kentucky in some ways and I think that actually can help my writing. Sonoma brings out some nostalgic poems and Lexington brings out some more present “of the moment” poems. But they do both still feel like home to me.

Z: Yes, you have many homes, as it were. And: this is your fifth book! That’s a lot of poems, an oeuvre, even. To me you’ve been someone whose work I’ve admired since, say, Sharks in the Rivers— and before.  How do you feel your writing has changed— both as you’ve written more and as your national stature has grown?

AL: Thanks for your kind words, Tess. To be honest, the “national stature” is pretty bizarre. The only way that I can think about it is to remember that it’s not about me, it’s about the work. I think, “Look what my poems have done!” as opposed to thinking the attention is on me. Of course, I came home to Poets & Writers –– with a picture of me on the cover –– just late last night, and Lucas proudly put it on the table. I had to bury it under other magazines so I could walk around the house freely. It’s not that I don’t appreciate that generous attention, it’s just that it makes me nervous somehow. Mainly, it means I travel more, give more readings, and so forth.

I wrote The Carrying largely thinking of it as poems for me, for my intimate friends and family. After the kind attention Bright Dead Things received, I wanted to write something that excavated my own personal demons and didn’t hold back, while still focusing on sound and image. Then, suddenly I realized the book was larger than me and I started to think of it as something that might be read beyond my inner circle. So, on some level I hope that any manner of attention –– good or bad –– hasn’t changed my work. But time has changed it. Space has changed it. Life has changed it too.

Z: I love what you say about staying utterly focused on the poems, less on the big distractions of poetry business. I think that’s wise. I’m thinking about the early magic of your work — the lovely trapdoors you make language take, such as lines in this current book like: “ Some days there is a violent sister inside me, and a red ladder/ that wants to go elsewhere.” Talk to me about magic and also where lines like that come from.

AL: I don’t know if I find lines or if I hear them moving around in me and catch them. That line came from the phrase “violent sister”; I had been thinking of those words and how they sounded together. The hard sounds of “violent’ paired with the hissing sounds of “sister” made my mouth feel alive. So that line began with sound and then formed into a meditation. The idea that we have someone inside of us that wants to get out, break the barn doors and go free. I suppose we all have her. Sometimes my lines begin with sounds before I even can make sense of the phrasing or syntax. I love when that happens because it makes the poem-making almost feel more like song-making.

Z: Yes, we do get caught in words. Or: they catch us. A word I noticed in your book, a number of times, was “tender”, or “tenderness.”  As in “uncupping our ears to hear/ the song the tenderest animals made.” Or in the poem called “Against Belonging”: “I’ve named them / so no one is tempted to kill them (a way of offering/ reprieve, tenderness).” Talk to me about tenderness.

AL: It’s interesting you mention that, I keep thinking of that word and how it’s something I’ve been using a lot lately. I love that you notice those things. You and your good ear. I wrote The Carrying at a time when I was trying to be tender to myself and also to the world. At that time (which is also now), the world felt so brutal and so full of hate, I wanted to remember tenderness. To release a vulnerability or skinlessness that allowed me to be freer in my work. When I am suffering in any way (from illness, physical pain, or emotional baggage), I tend to move toward a hardness and a closed-offed-ness and a self preservation that often doesn’t even allow for breath. These poems were me trying to find that breath again, to be soft to the world again.

Z: Ada, I feel this conversation is helping me breathe better as well. I’ve been thinking a lot about carrying, too. Right now, in this terrible moment, I know that this sadness and anger is a weight I keep shouldering. Right after the election it felt so heavy. I don’t know how to carry this, I’d say. Didn’t know how to shift it actually through and in the body, so that I could get on with — well, anything. I am not less angry but I feel a bit more practiced in carrying some of its heft. I love that line in your poem about carrying grief.

How has it felt to you, in these past years, making space for the poems? I talked about fame or having a lot of books, but how has, say, the starkness of this moment shifted your writing? Or conversely, not shifted it?

AL: I think the election just sent us all reeling –– even those of us who knew the underlying hate was there all along. In some ways that admission, the overt hate, the fully exposed racism and bigotry and lack of care of our environment was a great reveal. It exposed what was always there. It was almost a relief not to have to convince people that America was divided anymore. I don’t know if my work shifted, but I think that I see things more clearly in general. I am also better at setting boundaries for myself (still working on this), so that I am making sure I am taking care of myself. I think self-care is a radical act for every one, but especially for women and for women of color. I think, during this tumultuous time, I am learning mostly how to allow for gratitude and rage to live inside of me at the same time. I acknowledge that they both have a purpose, but I also know that I can’t live in rage all the time. No one can. It’s self-destruction. It’s fire. So this book and these new poems I was writing were a way of seeing both the fire and the good green life all at once, and letting those two things find a harmony –– a harmony called survival.

Z: We need to strike that balance, certainly. I was thinking about it this weekend, when I was offline hiking here in California — just really away for the first time in a while. I was thinking about this odd balance of needing to stay vigilant and needing to renew; sometimes all in the same hour, the same day, the same body, the same poem.  But here’s my nerdy confession: sometimes I read a lot of really classic stuff as my form of escape. I just finished the Emily Wilson translation of The Odyssey with Bennett, and on a whim, on this long hike, Taylor and I reread Midsummer Night’s Dream — partly because we were hiking through these enchanted groves up here.

Anyway — The Odyssey was great. Midsummer Night’s Dream was so much sillier than I remembered, and parts of it felt oddly wooden, though it does have this lovely little part about how all these things—our loves, our little fantasies, our dreams themselves—are snatched from us so quickly, before we recognize them. The mortal frailty of all our stories. The old lyric theme. “So quick bright things come to confusion” was the line that caught me. And, of course, I thought of Bright Dead Things—hearing an echo, a similar verbal glitter. It made me wonder: who are you reading? Who that’s alive, who that’s dead? What are your sources of inspiration and solace these days?

AL: I love that you read the classics. You know, I was a theater major and one of my favorite classes was the Shakespeare class. I am that total nerd who legitimately loves Shakespeare. I have a good friend, Corey Stoll, the actor, and he and his wife and I can spend a long time gushing about how excellent the musicality of Shakespeare’s lines are. I love reading the classics because you have that opportunity to say things like, “You know Virginia Woolf was really good,” but I also admit that I’m gushing a lot these days about contemporary writers, too. Maybe because there’s the diversity there that makes me feel seen. One of my confessions is that while I’m deep in writing a poetry a book, I can’t seem to read poems. I am such a mimic, it can be dangerous. So I tend to read novels. I love Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, Hannah Pittard’s Visible Empire.

Poetry-wise, I just devoured José Oliveras’s Citizen Illegal, Katie Ford’s If You Have to Go, DaMaris Hill’s A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing, Victoria Chang’s Barbie Chang, Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, and Erika Meitner’s Holy Moly Carry Me.

Z: Ah! So I wasn’t wrong, perhaps –– quick bright things, bright dead things! And, yes, as I was reading the new translation of The Odyssey, I kept saying “This is so good!” –– still half-surprised that it was, and also feeling deeply in awe, though, of course, lasting nearly 3,000 years has to speak for something. Still, those 3,000 years have been so radically imperfect in terms of who has gotten to speak and why, as you say.

I’m grateful to be a critic and poet and reader in this moment — many of those books you mention are favorites of mine, too. I feel there’s this beautiful generation we’ve gotten to be part of and a generation coming up who is knocking my socks off. I mean, the political world feels pretty hard right now, but the wide open future of poetry gives me hope every day.

Z: Can I ask again about influences –– who was formative? Whose work do you find rattling around in your inner ear? Who do you love and maybe also argue with?

AL: To be honest, that’s my least favorite question in interviews. I don’t know why. I really push against it. I mean, it’s a great question and you are right to ask it, but part of me feels like it’s not for me to say. A reader might see some influences in my work and some that I might not even be aware of. I think my problem is that it feels limiting. I feel like I should just open up my arms and point to the sky and say “This!” But, of course, I’m sure my work was influenced. By my teachers, for one: Philip Levine, Marie Howe, Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, and Colleen McElroy. And then the first poems and poets I loved: Elizabeth Bishop, Pablo Neruda, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, Muriel Rukeyser. But I don’t have anything singular rattling around in my brain—it always changes. I think a lot about music, too. I think I’m as influenced by music and silence sometimes as I am by words. It’s funny, though: I love all these writers and artists, but I can’t compare to them or even be in the same context as them. They aren’t as much influences as benevolent guides I am so utterly grateful for.

Z: Ah, indeed: the big this. And you’re right — here I am hearing a kind of faint Shakespearean echo that may or may not be there, when maybe you never meant it. Poets are fish, swimming through the waters of language. Actually, did you know the human ear is evolved from the gill? That we are sifting air for sound the same way fish sift water for oxygen? I think the poet in anyone would love that. I love your gratitude too.

My final question, then, is about advice — for those people swimming this long, strange swim. Here you are at the fifth book. What’s your advice for those just starting out, and also for those who are doing the risky and hard work of continuing?

AL: Oh yes, the ear and the gill linked forever. I love that. I think I would tell people that in order to keep the work interesting, you have to keep writing poems that scare you. You have to keep pushing the limits and asking yourself the big questions. And it’s not just about the subject, but also about the making. I want to make things that matter. I want them to matter in terms of sound and matter in terms of emotional truth, but I want them to matter in a way that changes me. I write to be changed. I write to grow and become better at being in the world. Everyone is different, of course, but I start by making something that means something to me on a larger level. I steady my breath and jump all the way in. It’s the only way I know how to do this.

Tess Taylor is the author of The Forage House (Red Hen Press), a  finalist for The Believer Poetry Award, and Work & Days (Red Hen Press),  which was named one of the 10 best books of poetry of 2016 by the New York Times. Her third book, Rift Zone, is due out in 2020.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: R.O. Kwon


R.O. Kwon’s first novel, The Incendiaries, is published by Riverhead (U.S.) and Virago (U.K.). She is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vice, BuzzFeed, Noon, Time, Electric Literature, Playboy, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. She has received awards and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Born in South Korea, she’s mostly lived in the United States.

Kwon recently spoke to ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about The Incendaries at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.

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I Have No Formula: Q&A with ‘The Secret Habit of Sorrow’ Author Victoria Patterson

The Secret Habit of SorrowVictoria Patterson’s eye is trained on Southern California. But she’s not only writing about the Los Angeles we know from cinema and television screens. Her stories trace tales of disappointment and regret across the senior living centers, grocery stores, and backyards of cities like Long Beach, Newport Bay, Costa Mesa, and others. Much like the work of Alice Munro, each of the stories in her latest collection, The Secret Habit of Sorrow (224 pages; Counterpoint), read as though they could be the start of a novel, with a breadth of complexity to her characters and the trying situations they find themselves in.

We come to Patterson’s cast of flawed protagonists at particularly vulnerable moments in their lives. Whether they’re attempting to raise a child apart from the instability of a drug-addicted partner or reeling from the mistake of  sleeping with a parent’s new boyfriend, Patterson approaches their stories with a generosity that doesn’t belie the poor choices they’ve made or the unfair hand they’ve been dealt, and a keen level of detail that makes their victories –– however minor –– feel earned.

Victoria Patterson recently spoke to ZYZZYVA about her writing process, the delicate balance of drawing material from real life, and more.

ZYZZYVA: You are one of the few contemporary writers whose short stories suggest for me a life beyond their page count, to that point that I’m halfway surprised when I reached the end of many stories in The Secret Habit of Sorrow –– as it seems to me that the characters and their struggles could continue on. As someone who is also an accomplished novelist, do you know whether a project will be a short story or novel right from the start?

Victoria Patterson: The writing process is still mysterious to me. I like to let stories take me where they want to go, so in that regard I have no specific page count in mind.

But I do usually know early on whether the material will manifest itself as a novel or a short story. With both, there’s an enormous amount of note taking and daydreaming before I begin to attempt words on the page.

Z: The stories in The Secret Habit of Sorrow span from a period that includes 2006 to the present. I noticed in the Acknowledgements that many of the stories are listed as appearing in slightly different form in their original publications. Is that a valuable part of the creative process for you, being able to revise stories when they are ultimately put together for a collection?

VP: I like to think that I’m getting better as an artist as time passes, so it’s only natural for me to revise stories that have already been published. At some point, I have to leave them alone. At some point, a story is done. But why not go back and improve them, if I can? Especially from a distance of years, which gives me a better perspective and a detachment, so I can ideally be more ruthless.

Z: Tone is such a delicate thing to control on the page. But the details you select really speak to the mood of your stories; for instance, I love the kind of dismal description we get when serial philanderer Nick watches his new girlfriend sitting at the end of a dock in “Paris”: “Nick likes how she looks casual and sexy. She could be in an advertisement for Viagra or mutual funds. The sun is down but it’s still light, a long pink spray across the skyline, and overhead a mottled half moon the dirty white of cauliflower.” Those lines tell me everything I need to know about Nick’s midlife existence, without any dialogue or internal monologue. How much is tone on your mind as you’re writing?

VP: Wasn’t it Michelangelo Antonioni who said that life is made up of small moments, not major ones? Life is also in the details, the ones that a writer’s eye catches. No one can teach this. So much of tone comes from an accretion of details lurking in the background. I think for me this comes intuitively and with practice and revision. I have no formula. Sometimes I luck out; sometimes it just takes time and revisions.

Z: Just as much as Nick or any of the other individuals who populate your stories, Southern California itself feels like a character in this collection. What is it about Southern California that continues to be an influence on your work?

VP: Southern California is my terrain. It’s in my blood. It’s what I know best.

ZYZZYVA Volume 33, #1, Spring 2017Z: “Appetite” first appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 109. It’s a story that deals with writers and motherhood, yet neatly sidesteps any of the clichés associated with stories about both. One frequently hears about writers who get in trouble with their family members for writing about them, but “Appetite” is unique in that it explores the perhaps predatory nature of the writer who draws from their personal life: at one point the narrator, a writer, reflects on her intimate relationship with her friend Claire and remarks, “For a moment I imagined myself as a parasitic, ballooning animal sucking off Claire’s shrinking body.”

As a writer, do you find there’s a balancing act in taking inspiration from real life relationships without veering into that more predatory category?

VP: That’s always something I’m considering.

I was listening to a Maggie Nelson interview with Brad Listi on his Otherppl podcast, and they were discussing this very thing. Listi quoted Norman Mailer as saying–and I’m paraphrasing everything here – that a writer who is afraid to offend people is like a surgeon who is afraid to cut. Maggie made the point that expectations are gendered and especially with mothers, saying that no one likes to imagine mothers as surgeons cutting anything.

There’s pressure on female writers. We’re supposed to be nice, not brutal truth-tellers, especially if we’re mothers. It’s culturally frowned upon to do otherwise. I’m working against this.

Ugly is ugly, though. Bad behavior is bad behavior – it doesn’t matter who it comes from. There’s a fine line. I’m not saying go all out and be a vulture. But at the same time, it’s imperative that I be willing to challenge those archetypes.

In my work, I’ve tried not to censor myself, and I’ve lost a few relationships and burdened others. But so far, I don’t regret it. My current thinking goes: If I’m going to be uncompromising with others, I have to be willing to be even more uncompromising with myself.

Victoria Patterson is the author of the novels The Peerless Four and This Vacant Paradise, a 2011 New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Her story collection, Drift, was a finalist for the California Book Award, the 2009 Story Prize, and was selected as one of the best books of 2009 by The San Francisco Chronicle. She lives with her family in Southern California and teaches at Antioch University’s Master of Fine Arts program. You can read her story “Appetite” in ZYZZYVA No. 109.

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A Maddening System: Q&A with ‘The Golden State’ author Lydia Kiesling

The Golden StateEssayist and critic Lydia Kiesling’s first novel, The Golden State (304 pages; MCD), already long listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, is an enrapturing torrent of a narrative, exploring the daunting beginning of motherhood and the complications of marrying a foreign national. New mother Daphne must balance caring of her sixteen-month-old daughter, Honey, with handling the stress of getting her Turkish husband, Engin, back into the U.S., all while dealing with her job at the Al-Ihsan Foundation in San Francisco. These circumstances send her on a ten-day epic roadtrip, beginning with a drive to Daphne’s late mother’s hometown, Altavista: “The beauty here is the great slate sky The sound of the birds in the morning the color of the hills and the fields at dusk.”

Daphne’s acerbic and slightly self-loathing wit is lined with absurd humor and Kiesling’s clever syntax: her lack of punctuation allows us to further inhabit the heart of Daphne’s disquiet.

The Golden State is a trenchantly-written take on both the female and immigrant experience, making the somber read as captivating. Kiesling recently spoke to ZYZZYVA about the origins of the novel, her protagonist Daphne, immigration in America, and more.

ZYZZYVA: You started your career writing essays and criticism, and are now the editor of The Millions. Have you always wanted to write a novel?

Lydia Kiesling: I’ve been writing essays and criticism for a long time; all along I secretly wanted to write a novel. That’s not something I wanted to admit to myself until a

couple of years ago, but every time I tried a new form of writing, that was the direction I was moving toward. I also enjoy reading narrative non-fiction, and I think people really enjoy writers who can do that well. But fiction was always what I was working toward. 

Z: There were so many aspects of your protagonist Daphne that resonated with me: she’s Type-A, but also a bit of clueless and naive. The honesty of her character really drew me in. Where did Daphne come from?

LK: Well, it’s funny because I’ve seen two reactions to the book. People sort of go in two camps: ones who can relate to her as a character and as a person, and ones who don’t relate to her at all; so that influences their experiences, and those who can’t relate to her kind of treat the novel like a horror story. I think Daphne is a little bit over the top, but I would be lying if said she wasn’t somewhat of a relatable character.

Z: Stylistically, I noticed there weren’t a lot of commas in Daphne’s speaking lines, which makes it seem as though she is talking on and on (and on), adding to her neurotic quality.

LK: I took someone who is very similar to me and put her in more difficult circumstances to see how she would respond. One of the things I thought about all the time when I had a baby (my oldest one) was how much I longed to be alone with her; I was a bit traumatized because I went back to work in an office setting when she was about ten weeks old. I was surprised to find it demoralizing. On the one hand, I had this fantasy of going somewhere with her, and yet when I was alone with her I realized it was miserable. It really taxes your mind and body in a different way. I was trying to think of a person like me who got what I wished for, in a sense, but under the worst conditions and what that would be like.

Z: Another thing I resonated with me was Engin’s Green Card-related distress. As a foreigner myself, I’ve spent hours researching this. All the details of the situation’s complexities were so spot on! Have you experienced this firsthand?

LK: I have friends who were not in identical circumstances but in pretty similar ones, so I started looking into it. I think people look at the book now and see what it’s about and think it’s very timely because of Donald Trump. But in all reality, the immigration system has been messed up for a long time. What struck me about my friend’s situation was that it was extremely arbitrary. All you have to do is meet the wrong border guard and they can decide they’re interpreting something in a different way, or they don’t like how you’re fulfilling some byzantine and arcane requirement, and then they can detain you indefinitely and you have no recourse in that moment. As we’ve seen, it’s happening now and that gives way for a lot of abuses. It involves guards being wrong and choosing an interpretation of a policy that suits them, but also there’s some ineptitude: paperwork being lost, things not moving forward and having no visibility on why that is –– it’s such a maddening system.

And when you read through these websites, you understand why it costs so much to hire a professional to navigate it for you. There’s one line that makes me laugh in relation to overseas consular processing: “if you’re case is approved, you will receive a packet. Do not open this packet.” You’re supposed to bring it to the consulate and open it under a specific circumstance, which I think is absurd. I wanted to put a little of that frustration in the book. I’m sorry you can relate to that!

Z: Northern California’s landscapes really came alive in your prose. Can you tell me about your chosen setting of Pauite County?

LK: Pauite County is fictional, it’s a mishmash of several counties in the North State. Anyone from Modoc County will see the resemblance. My mom is from a town called Alturas, which is where Altavista was fictionalized from. The only reason why I decided to do this amalgam of counties was that I wanted to have the political happenings, and I felt like if I called it Modoc County I’d have to replicate the exact board of supervisors and their meetings. I wanted to give myself a little bit of room. It’s a very rural area; the counties that have now theoretically signed on to create a 51st state, the State of Jefferson, are about 1/3 of California’s land mass but 5% of the population. It’s a large landmass but sparse population, and the town my mom grew up in is decreasing in population.

Z: What made you decide on Turkey as the country where Engin is from?

LK: I went back and forth on the decision, but I lived in Turkey for a year and studied Turkish there and later in grad school, so that choice made the most sense. Paradoxically, since I had more knowledge and information about Turkey, I was scared to misrepresent it. Initially, I thought the husband could be from Denmark, which I then thought was very offensive to Denmark since I’ve only been there one day in my life and I would have to figure out the rest. Fortunately, I realized it was a bad idea and that I was just trying to evade my anxieties. I love Turkey and the Turkish language, so that’s definitely a theme. It definitely provides an interesting contrast, to have a spouse living in one of the world’s’ megacities with a population of 20 million versus the sparsely-populated Northern California.

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A Tacit Acceptance of Unknowability: Experimental Philosopher Jonathon Keats and His Alien Instruments

Alien Instruments 1Recent years have seen tribal lines drawn across the globe, with an increasingly divisive and xenophobic political climate both in the United States and abroad. It’s a change in tenor we perhaps should have seen coming, but many of the most strident political analysts have been taken aback by the “Us vs. Them” rhetoric that has become so prevalent since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, known for past endeavors such as the Pangaea Optima and Superego Suits, has proposed one idea for alleviating the current culture of hate: to turn our eyes – and ears – to the stars.

Of course, NASA and other space programs around the world have long since abandoned manned missions to deep space, but Keats has another notion entirely in mind, one that employs the universal language of music. The San Francisco artist has composed a Universal Anthem to be performed by several new constructions he has come to call alien instruments. “The Universal Anthem really is about inclusiveness at every level, which requires that beings other than humans have access to it,” Keats says, detailing the necessity for creating these instruments. “Therefore, all assumptions about sensory organs need to be called into question, and we need this much larger, more expansive view of what music can be made of, and what sorts of implements can be used to precisely modulate qualities of frequency and amplitude.”

The idea of utilizing music to achieve unity has been employed before, at least on a planetary scale. In 1971, the UN Secretary General U Thant commissioned a “Hymn to the United Nations” as an alternative to patriotic national anthems, but the hymn still relied on classical music structure and English lyrics—neither of which Keats finds ideal for achieving interstellar contact or fostering a sense of global unity. “What I care about in very tangible terms are the interactions happening on this planet right now, and those interactions are extraordinarily perilous at the level of geopolitics and the environment,” Keats explains. “I could go on and on as far as all the ways in which our tribalism and xenophobia are toxic, are ruinous. We need mechanisms for encouraging and facilitating inclusiveness in every possible way.”

As a result, Keats began his composition of the Universal Anthem by thinking about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that everything in the universe must follow the rules of entropy, becoming more disorderly over time. Keats describes entropy as “the quality you would most trust to be universal.” Keats’s Universal Anthem “requires no knowledge of Wagnerian leitmotif, for instance,” and instead follows these same rules of entropy, with each voice gradually decomposing.

Alien Instruments 2Keats has created a visual transcription for the Universal Anthem, using – of all things – Adobe Photoshop and its noise generator. The resulting images resemble nothing so much as the static on an analog television or even the popular style of Internet art known as pixelart. But Keats insists this visual depiction is only one way to transcribe the Universal Anthem, and as with many popular forms of music, such as jazz, “it’s all open to interpretation.”

Keats suggests there is great potential for entropy to be used as the basis for music; even songs by popular artists like Taylor Swift could be transcribed using his method. While Keats acknowledges that Swift could strike him with a potential lawsuit for disseminating her music into space, he argues that in helping her reach a potentially interstellar audience, she could be the first artist to go beyond Platinum sales to Universal—and, so, “Swift shouldn’t sue me, she should thank me.”

Composing music based on the law of entropy, Keats argues, could make music emotional on a galactic level, as all known creatures share a will to live and a fear of death. This style of music could “broaden the gamut of what we know” and allow those of us on Earth to “become a small part of something greater.” Keats hopes “this de-centering might help counteract some of the xenophobia that is rampant in the United States and Europe,” and bring about “the kind of massive generalized introspection that is going to be necessary to overcome this tribalism.”

Alien Instruments 3But, how then, best to perform these compositions? It’s difficult to imagine strumming a guitar onstage and expecting those same notes, no matter how amplified, to reach extraterrestrial ears. To that end, Keats has devised several quite beautiful and intricate “alien instruments,” which are currently viewable upon appointment at the Modernism Gallery in San Francisco. These instruments include Gravitational Rattles, which appear to be standard variety potatoes you could find at your local Trader Joe’s – and, indeed, they are. But these potatoes also allow the performers to alter their gravitational mass at will, depending on how many they hold in their hands (or juggle, as one man did to the delight of onlookers at the opening night of Keats’ exhibit). “If we’re going to make instruments that include not only what is audible to humans but also gravitational waves, it makes the distance between us and those south of the border seem all that much more minimal,” Keats says. He hopes a renewed musical understanding could ultimately help foster “the sort of cooperation we need in order to get on as a society, as a species, and as a planet.”

On the off chance these aliens boast superior hearing ability to humans, Keats has created the Ultrasonic Organ, which replaces conventional organ pipes with dog whistles. Most humans cannot hear past 20,000 hertz on the audible spectrum; dogs can hear as high as 45 kilohertz, making the Ultrasonic Organ ideal for reaching distant beings with hearing more in line with our canine companions. Much like a traditional organ, the Ultrasonic Organ’s airflow can be modulated by a foot bellow.

Keats has also constructed the Gamma Ray Bells, whose gamma ray exposure can be controlled by the performer simply by lifting the bell’s lead casing. It’s worth mentioning that gamma rays fall outside the normal human sensory range, but their type of electromagnetic radiation might just be the ideal vehicle to reach certain species currently unknown to us. One has to wonder, then, if the ideal instrumentation for the Universal Anthem might be one that human beings can’t even experience?

Alien Instruments 4Keats argues such an idea goes entirely against the Universal Anthem’s goal of inclusiveness and harmony: “We desperately need humans to be part of this interaction, part of this communication, part of this musical phenomenon, as well as any other organisms,” he states. “First of all because we only know of us, so it makes sense to include us, and secondly because, well, I happen to be human –– as far as I know.”

Despite creating this attractive array of intergalactic instruments, Keats freely admits he approaches this project with little to no musical training. “I studied recorder in fourth grade,” he says. “One semester I learned how to play and then over break I forgot, and so for the second semester I simply didn’t blow into the instrument. That was my first and last experience with any instrument at all.” Even so, Keats has put a great deal of time into informally studying musical theory, as well as astrophysics and the various other components of this endeavor.

Keats does not see his lack of formal proficiency as a hindrance or liability: “I think in everything that I do I rely on the fact that I am ultimately a generalist, a dilettante, a charlatan,” he relates. “I am not bound by any rules, though I certainly make myself aware of the rules in the process of exploring ideas.”

In many ways, Keats’ insistence that a lack of musical training should serve as no detriment to playing these instruments brings to mind the punk rock movement of the late ’70s, which encouraged passionate neophytes to pick up a second-hand guitar or bass and bash their way to a connection with a live audience. “I like the idea that this is a kind of punk tradition that we’re talking about here, when we talk about making music with aliens,” he says.

He also cites post-war avant-garde musician John Cage, whose work utilized a sense of chaos and order not dissimilar to entropy, as a major influence. “I once composed a ringtone that was a remix of John Cage’s 4’33.” My version was a 4-minute-and-33-second long silent ringtone, such that you never knew when your phone was ringing,” he explains. “As a result, you might imagine that it was ringing even when it wasn’t, and you would have this sort of phantom silence, which might even be more pure than the digital silence I generated for the ringtone. We need more silence in the ever noisier world in which we live.”

Keats’ appreciation of Cage reiterates that these instruments are meant to be as accessible as possible. “Certainly some musical training could be helpful,” he states, “but it also might get in the way.” Instead, performers could “enter into a tacit acceptance of unknowability” and experience “a state of not knowing together,” which could actually be “a great basis for a dialogue that doesn’t have any of the power dynamics or structure that typically informs the conversations we have.”

Alien Instruments 5While Keats has composed the Universal Anthem as a starting point, he insists these instruments lend themselves freely to improvisation. “Improvisation is probably more powerful, ultimately,” he states, “and maybe the practice of composing is really practice for improvisation.” Improvisation proves so integral to Keats’ view precisely because “that’s where you have true interaction.” Interaction being a potent remedy to the culture of hate we have become mired in: “The Trumpian strategy is maybe undermined when there are so many ways in which communication is happening, ways that are so complex and so intertwined and so rich that any attempt to pit ‘us’ against ‘them’ is made impossible, and, in fact, ‘us’ and ‘them’ become indefinable.”

Naturally, the notion of jamming out with interstellar beings conjures so many moments from science-fiction movies, whether it’s the iconic cantina band from Star Wars or the blue-skinned opera singer in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, but Keats insists that no aliens yet depicted on film come close to his perception of hypothetical extraterrestrials. “In some cases, like Plan 9 from Outer Space, [the alien is] more hostile or intimidating, and in others, like E.T., it’s more sympathetic, but it’s always Other. It’s always about the difference as opposed to the similarities.” Keats’ project doesn’t hone in on these perceived differences, but rather imagines all the ways we could be alike: embracing a depiction of aliens “where you can’t tell who is who, or where the differentiation is the least of it rather than the most if it.” Given the gorgeously crafted aesthetic of Keats’ instruments, it comes as little surprise that Keats is willing to loan out the instruments as props in film productions. “I would love to see how these instruments and this kind of music might bend the assumptions of science fiction,” he admits.

Beyond appearing at a theater near you, Keats hopes his instruments may one day come closer to achieving their intended purpose by being standard issue equipment onboard future space shuttle launches. “Any mission whatsoever to space, amongst the other equipment that should be onboard the spacecraft, certainly these musical instruments should be part of the gear,” he says. “You never know, you want to be prepared.” And Keats is nothing less than prepared for a potential day in the future where the human voice and mass will intermingle and perform with beings whose experience of music and the universe might, in truth, be closer to our own than we ever imagined.

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Bending Towards Instinct: Q&A with ‘Invitation to a Bonfire’ author Adrienne Celt

Invitation to a BonfireAdrienne Celt’s Invitation to a Bonfire (256 pages; Bloomsbury) is a novel delightfully unconcerned with passing literary trends. Celt has her eye trained on the past, on both the esteemed literary works that have influenced her and the massive social upheaval that was the Russian Revolution. Invitation to a Bonfire opens on the young Zoya Andropova, an orphan of the Revolution who makes her way to safety in the United States only to become the victim of petty cruelties at New Jersey’s prestigious Donne School. Zoya observes the strange customs and practices of American culture while finding solace in tending to the school’s greenhouse.

As the years pass, Zoya finds herself at the center of a bitter love triangle between a bestselling Russian writer and his wife, a couple who may or may not bear a passing resemblance to Vladimir Nabokov and his partner, Vera. This shift in the book’s storyline does not go unnoted, as Celt transitions from boarding school bildungsroman to the high suspense of a vintage Patricia Highsmith novel. Recently, Celt, whose story “Big Boss Bitch” appeared in Issue No. 107, talked to ZYZZYVA about her literary influences, including Nabokov, as well as her interest in Russian history and what it means to “be American.”

ZYZZYVA: So much of the style and milieu of this novel, from its period setting and incorporation of epistolary elements, put me in mind of classic works of fiction rather than any contemporary peers. Both the writing and life of Vladimir Nabokov register as a clear influence, and I was also reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. Perhaps you could talk about some of the novels that inspired Invitation to a Bonfire. Did you envision this novel in conversation with those works?

ADRIENNE CELT: Remains of the Day is one of my favorite books, and although I can’t say it was an intentional influence on Invitation, I’m gratified to be considered in conversation with it. And I can certainly see the resonance: both are steeped in yearning for a time gone by, and both offer narrators whose unreliability comes less from a desire to mislead, and more from a desire to cling to their fracturing past, the things they once knew to be true. So maybe it was there without me knowing. God knows a lot of books must have left that kind of subconscious impression.

In terms of novels I turned to specifically, you’re right that the spirit and tone of this book are first and foremost inspired by Nabokov, particularly Lolita, Pale Fire, and Pnin (and of course the title is a hat-tip to Invitation to a Beheading.) I also re-read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which is maybe more contemporary than your question suggests, but arguably just as haunted by romantic notions of the past. Mostly, with that book, I was interested in how much personal history a narrator could offer, especially early on, without causing the plot to drag—Tartt does an incredible job of folding Richard’s backstory into his motivations and his moral character, and I definitely had him on my mind.

Beyond that, maybe some Patricia Highsmith? Maybe some Jean Rhys? I read both those writers while working on my early drafts, and I borrow a sense of propulsion and atmosphere from both of them.

Z: The first part of the novel is largely concerned with Zoya’s journey to America following the violence of the Russian Revolution, which you capture in particular detail. What kind of research was involved in writing about that period of history?

AC: One of my college majors was Russian (the other was philosophy), which meant I had a basic understanding of the Russian Revolution already at my fingertips when I began—and I think it’s worth mentioning that some of that education took place in St. Petersburg, so I wasn’t drawing purely on American attitudes and culture. I hope that makes a difference. Of course I didn’t remember all the dates and specifics perfectly, so I went back and made an outline of the various smaller revolutions that finally led to the collapse of the aristocracy and the rise of the Soviet Union, which I cross-referenced with a calendar of my character’s birthdates and major life events. Honestly, a lot of my research for this book was purely checking dates, and making sure I wasn’t being too anachronistic—which is as true for events that took place in America as in Russia.

People who have never written historical novels, I think, might be surprised which pieces actually have to be deeply researched: it’s so often the little things. There were big patches I could sort of feel my way through by instinct, but when I wanted to figure out what kind of flooring would plausibly be in a Russian apartment, I checked with my college Russian professors, because a guess didn’t feel good enough. There are also, of course, historical novelists who get much more into period-specific detail than I do: I work from a place of character first, and fill in the details as necessary.

Z: As much as Zoya’s struggle is rooted in her experiences as an orphan of the Russian Revolution, a great deal of her story felt universal to me; she is the quintessential outsider, and I think anyone who has ever felt ostracized or different from others would relate to her experiences in boarding school. “Things can go ugly fast,” her confidante Hilda states. “People can be ugly,” and we see this at the Donne School. The first part of the book follows Zoya as she observes her fellow students in an attempt to her learn what it means to “be American.” What made you want to write about the concept of “being American” from the perspective of an outsider to the American experience?

AC: I wanted to write about “being American” from an outsider’s perspective because I think we often don’t understand that there is an “outside.” We think that the American point of view is all there is. (Not that provincialism is unique to our country, but we’ve always been a little extra about it.) When you have an outsider looking at something—a culture, a philosophy, a way of life—you’re forced to recognize that it’s not inevitable. America, as it exists, is not inevitable. That’s kind of a radical thought, but also totally natural and obvious.

Zoya is a wonderful avatar for exploring this, because she’s rarely been an insider in any system. So, while her alienation is sincere, her use of cultural norms becomes a kind of game, or experiment. After a while, she realizes that if an arbitrary system of rules is deciding what’s “morally good”—and different systems decide to attribute “good” to different things—then maybe “moral good” doesn’t have any inherent meaning. Maybe satisfaction can be a moral good. Maybe love can.

Z: Speaking of the parts of the novel, there is a distinct shift that occurs as we move into the second part, in which the novel takes on some suspense leanings, almost operating in the genre of Highsmith. Was there a conscious decision to change the tone and direction of the novel halfway through, or was that something that seemed to happen organically during the writing process?

AC: Ha! So my name-check of Patricia Highsmith has come back around.

The shift was organic. In the original drafts, the first section was shorter, because I wanted to get to the suspense more quickly. But I’m always fascinated by how people come to themselves—how identity is formed over time, through experience and decision-making—which means I’m always going to be invested in giving my characters fleshed-out lives.

I also think that the two parts need each other: the second half wouldn’t operate the same way without the slower burn of the novel’s first section. Learning who Zoya, Lev, and Vera are as people teaches you a lot about what they truly want, and what they might be willing to do to get it. Once you understand someone’s desires, you can see the stakes of their actions more clearly. Plus you attach to them with greater tenderness.

Z: You raise such a fascinating idea in this novel––both Zoya and Vera seem to argue that sometimes an artist needs to be saved from themselves; that perhaps custodians of an artist should prevent certain works from being let out into the world in order to preserve an artist’s legacy. As someone who often finds himself drawn to the messy, more personal films or novels that lead to artists receiving a critical drubbing, this is a thought I love pondering. Have you ever wished, even fleetingly, that an author’s readership could be the guardians of their body of work?

AC: Really, who is the guardian of an author’s legacy if not their readers? I’m not saying I agree with the lengths that Zoya and Vera go to, as an example for the average person—they definitely take “protecting someone from themselves” to new heights. But all books become, in a sense, the property of their readers once they’re published.

On the other hand, if you’re asking whether writers should allow their readers and critics to direct the course of their career, I would say no. I do believe in having sensitivity to the reader’s experience while you write, but not in trying to please everyone. It’s a losing battle, for one thing, and—as you point out—it can scare artists away from making their most personal, groundbreaking work. 

In the end, it’s more important to bend towards instinct than popularity.

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The Wilds of Embarrassment: Q&A with ‘For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors’ author Laura Esther Wolfson

For Single Mothers WorkingLaura Esther Wolfson’s debut memoir is eye-catchingly titled For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors (176 pages; University of Iowa Press). Wolfson is a translator, not a train conductor, yet both professions lend themselves to traveling across borders while maintaining a certain distance—throughout the collection of short stories, Wolfson moves between countries, from the USA to France to Georgia; between languages, from Russian to French to Yiddish; and between her own story and the stories of others. Wolfson’s crossings are propelled and connected by a variety of forces, including her love for her two ex-husbands, her research into her previously unexplored Jewish heritage, and her suffering from lung disease.

Part of what makes For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors—which won the 2017 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction—so unique is how Wolfson’s relationships with different languages affect her relatively commonplace experiences. In “The Husband Method,” for example, Wolfson remembers her and her Russian husband’s transition to America, and how Russian became their private language. On the other hand, Wolfson shares in “Proust at Rush Hour” how French provided her with a steady job. Yiddish, a language Wolfson is far less fluent in than Russian or French, mends her broken identity in “The Book of Disaster” in a way no other language is able to do. Wolfson recently spoke to us about the way she blurs fiction and non-fiction, the role of humiliation in writing, her literary influences, and more.

ZYZZYVA: In the beginning of “For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors,” the eponymous short story that gives insight into your first marriage, you write: “Reader, I married her son.” What’s the significance of your allusion to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre?

Laura Esther Wolfson: At first, the Jane Eyre allusion was nothing more than a joke. The reader thinks she knows what’s coming, because “Reader, I married him” is so familiar. But, approaching the end of that sentence, she cycles rapidly through a shifting series of expectations and dawning understandings: first, lulled by the initial familiar words into not following too closely; then, brought to attention by the initial twist: the female narrator’s “I married her,” so that, if she pauses on the penultimate word, ‘her,’ the reader may briefly imagine that the narrator married her, the mother-in-law–which, in a sense, she did. (Gay marriage was of course unimaginable at the time of the events recounted and remains so in today’s Russia.) Finally, she grasps that these words, followed by ‘son,’ in fact introduce the narrator’s husband.

After For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors came out this spring, a friend who has championed my work for decades pointed out that by addressing readers directly on the first page, I was flinging wide the door and welcoming them into the book in its entirety. Placed at the opening of the book, the Jane Eyre sentence takes on a larger significance than it possessed when that section was originally published on its own, in a magazine.

Z: Throughout many of the short stories, you discuss your efforts to connect with your Jewish heritage. For example, you devour the works of Jewish writers and study Yiddish. What made you hungry, as an adult, to explore your origins? As you note in “The Bagels in the Snowflake,” you did not grow up practicing Judaism, and the Snowflake Bakery was the “sole passageway” you had to your heritage. 

LEW: As a child, I was told that the descriptors “Jew” and “Jewish” applied to me, yet I knew nothing, but nothing, about the meaning of those words. They were a locked box. Imagine being told all your life that you are French, yet when you find yourself among French people, you cannot converse with them in what is supposed to be your common tongue. You don’t know what Paris is, or Bastille Day. Imagine a Jew who doesn’t know who Moses was, or the meaning of Yom Kippur—basic, basic things. That was me. Eventually, this unknowing struck me as peculiar.

The house where I grew up was home to a cornucopia of books on architecture, ballet, psychoanalysis, socialism, and innumerable other subjects, plus the classics of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European and American literature, the juvenilia and minor works of many great authors, the full 16-volume series of Oz books, all eight of the Little House series, other classics of children’s literature, a 22-volume encyclopedia, and, yes, the King James Bible.

The sole Jewish books were Isaac Bashevis Singer’s retellings of folk tales in editions for children (but none of the works for grownups that won him the Nobel), a tome about Abba Eban (a statesman, scholar and founder of the State of Israel) and a single copy of the Haggadah (the guide to the Passover ritual, or Seder, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt). The latter is generally found in multiple copies in Jewish homes; at Passover, everyone present is handed a copy for the evening, so that all can follow along and participate. Haggadot (the plural of Haggadah) cannot and do not exist alone, yet here was one, all by itself—an anomaly. Clearly the last vestige of something, but what?

Quite a bit later, it occurred to me that there must be more books about Judaism, many more, and that it might in fact be possible to learn about this mysterious thing that had shaped me in ways I barely grasped. Surrounded by books my whole life, I should have known that there are books on every topic under the sun. But the realization came late, when I was nearly 30.

When I studied Yiddish—and language study necessarily encompasses study of culture—I learned that various habits and phrases that I had thought unique to my quirky family were in fact shards of the Ashkenazy (Eastern European Jewish) tradition and worldview. Discovering that I belonged to a larger culture was immensely comforting, and also a revelation.

Continue reading

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The Texture of the Light: Q&A with ‘Edith’ author Meg Freitag

EdithMeg Freitag’s Edith (83 pages; BOAAT Books), winner of the inaugural Book Prize from BOAAT Press, comprises a series of vivid, voice-y lyrics addressed to a pet parakeet—the titular Edith—who dies halfway through the book. It turns out speaking to a pet bird makes a certain kind of affectionate disclosure possible; the experience of reading these poems is often one of overhearing an earnest speaker struggling to explain herself to a tiny, mute beloved. But the speaker’s love for her pet is also inextricable from her tenderness toward the world, and her mourning for Edith is bound up in other losses, too, including the end of a relationship, a transcontinental move, and the deaths of friends and idols.

This intimate address is only part of what makes Freitag’s speaker so endearing. She’s also winningly imaginative, once comparing heartache to an elaborate pinball game, and standing beneath a glowing sky to being “inside / A plum … some needful giant / Was holding a flashlight to.” In a scene typical of Freitag’s dizzying dream sequences, the speaker is “walking around Costco / Without any skin on while a throng of people / Followed [her], clicking those little devices / Which are meant for training dogs / Every time [she] touched something.” The book is also carefully, almost novelistically structured; while we know from the get-go Edith is doomed, the events of her death reveal themselves with suspenseful, dilatory slowness.

Long before the book’s publication, my friends and I read and circulated all the poems of Freitag’s we could find online, gushing about their luminous nouns, their surprising swerves, and their unspooling epic similes, which manage to precisely characterize our mushiest, most interior experiences. Who hasn’t watched their lover from across the room “like a snake / With its eye on a prairie dog’s / Hole?” Who hasn’t, in the throes of dread, felt “all the blood / Moving through [them] with great / Effort, like it was full of seeds?” In the following interview, conducted over email, Freitag discusses how exactly images like these occurred to her, as well as mirrors, dreams, and writing by ear. 

ZYZZYVA: The majority of these poems are addressed to Edith, who we learn is the speaker’s pet parakeet. Over the course of the book, I feel like Edith evolves from a mourned pet to a sort of emissary from the afterlife; speaking to Edith becomes a way of speaking to the dead, or to the void, or to an indifferent god. What drew you to this kind of highly lyrical, odic apostrophe?

Meg Freitag: I’ve always been really interested in recurring characters in poetry collections. John Berryman’s Henry, Bill Knott’s Naomi, Herbert Zbigneiw’s Mr. Cogito, for instance. At the time when I started the Edith poems, I was reading Josh Bell’s No Planets Strike, which is a wonderful and bewildering book. He uses the name “Ramona” like a touchstone in his poems. No matter how wild they get, he’s able to pull the poem back to its center with just three syllables.

When I first started writing to Edith she was still very much alive. I had no idea the turn things would take. The Edith poems started as a kind of exercise, a way to lighten up my writing a bit and hopefully generate more material for workshops. Edith and I had been through a lot together over the years, and I was taken with this idea that she’d been passively complicit in it all through witness. I was still searching for my “voice” at that time. When she died about six months into the project, the whole project immediately took on a new significance. I don’t know that at any point during the writing process I thought about the Edith poems as eventually comprising a book with a cohesive emotional arc, with a sort of composite narrative. This is something that only really revealed itself to me when I was putting the book together. During the writing of the poems, I just had this feeling that I followed through its evolution and eventual natural conclusion. It was all very organic for me.

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Craft Talk: Dean Rader on Poetry Workshops, Writing Hurdles, & Looking Outward

Works & DaysDiligent readers of ZYZZYVA will have noticed Dean Rader’s dazzling poems in numerous issues of the journal, most recently in our Art & Resistance-themed Issue 111. We’re pleased to announce that Rader will also be leading a ZYZZYVA Writer’s Workshop in Poetry on August 18th, which is currently accepting submissions. The deadline to enter is June 18th –– so do not delay! The poet recently took time out of his busy schedule, which includes teaching writing at the University of San Francisco, to discuss the merits of the Workshop format, writing hurdles he’s overcome, recent poetry collections he’s read, and much more.

ZYZZYVA: Do you feel the communal aspect of a writing workshop, in which participants receive critical feedback from both the instructor and other attendees, can help improve the quality of a poem – or is it more about the discussion a poem can generate among the group? 

Dean Rader: This is my professor (and my poet) answer but both things are valuable—especially in a one-day workshop. As a full-time professor and as someone who reads a lot of poems for contests and publication, I feel like I know what elements make a poem really sing. I also think it is important for writers to get feedback from other writers who are engaged in a common pursuit. One of the most critical things for any writer is learning what advice to take and what advice to ignore—these kinds of workshops are great for this.

One last thing—immersive workshops do both short term and long term work. There are immediate benefits that might make the poem under discussion stronger, but conversations and techniques and strategies learned in the workshop have long lasting benefits that can make future poems stronger than they might have otherwise been.

Z: In your collaboration with fellow poet Simone Muench in ZYZZYVA No. 101, known as the Frankenstein Sonnets, the two of you devised a new form for constructing poetry, one that saw you both piecing together a poem stanza by stanza. Do you ever instruct your students to experiment or devise new forms like this to break them out of their usual patterns?

DR: Oh yes. It’s a regular assignment in all of my writing classes. In fact, I have even begun assigning the very same system Simone and I used for our own poems. Often, they result in some of the best work of the semester because most people are capable of writing two interesting stanzas. One of the hardest things is writing a flawless poem from beginning to end. But, without the pressure of having to write a perfect poem, you would be amazed at how creative people get. Plus, you never want to let your collaborator down. Greatness rises to the surface…

Z: If a student comes to you and says, “This poem I wrote is bad,” what’s typically your first response?

DR: I usually quote this great passage from Thomas Mann: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Most of our poems begin badly. There is nothing wrong with writing a bad poem. I have written many. I have written bad poems this month. Typically, I ask my student if there is a way to save the poem, and we sometimes look for one line or one image or one moment that contains the energy or the edge of the poem. I ask the student to cut everything but that one part and start from there.

But, beyond that, I also believe that we sometimes have to write a series of failed poems in order to write the one that succeeds. What if the successful poem can only have been written because of multiple failures?

As I suggest above, poetry is about playing the long game.

Z: Early in your writing career, was there a specific hurdle you were able to jump over, whether it was a way to unlock your creativity or simply begin viewing yourself as a poet? How did you overcome it? 

DR: That is a great question. The answer is yes, absolutely. Probably two main hurdles.

The first was simply wondering if I have what it takes, if I have the talent and the commitment to devote my life (or at least the professional part of my life) to poetry. There are two components of that fear—talent and dedication. I remember Edward Hirsch telling me one time that he came to a realization at one point in his career that he would rather fail at poetry than succeed at anything else. I too came to that realization, perhaps a little later than some, but it made all the difference in my work. There are other poets out there with more natural gifts than I have—Terrance Hayes is a better poet than I am. Jorie Graham – way better. W. S. Merwin – so much better it’s like Kevin Durant and my 6-year old son playing horse. But, I’m playing the long game – I believe my best poems are to come. I’m committed to being courageous about my work.

The second hurdle was believing in that choice—believing that if I gave myself to poetry that poetry would return that gift. Like most poets, early on I was confused about my voice and/or what I wanted my voice to be. I both wanted to sound like poets I admire and did not want to sound like poets I admire. Somehow, that involved letting go of past voices of restrictive ideas about what a poem should look like or sound like or do and let my poems embody poetry’s flexibility, its nimbleness, its openness.

Z: What are some poetry collections you’ve recently read and would whole-heartedly recommend to prospective Workshop attendees? 

For me, the most impressive collection of the last decade or so is Lighthead by Terrance Hayes. A very different book but one which I like and I think students will like is Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón. King Me by Roger Reeves is great, as is Barbie Chang by Victoria Chang. If folks have not read W. S. Merwin’s The Lice, now is a great time to do so. Copper Canyon just issued a 50th anniversary edition of it – that book changed contemporary poetry. Brenda Hillman’s Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire is a must. I also recommend a book many people may not know – Simone Muench’s Lampblack with Ash. Lastly, if folks are interested in the ways in which poems can take on controversial political issues, I urge readers to check out Bullets into Bells: Poets & Citizens Respond to Gun Violence—with poems by Juan Felipe Herrera, Rita Dove, Billy Collins, Danez Smith, Robert Hass, Natalie Diaz, Dana Levin, Yusef Komunyaaka, Jane Hirshfield, Martin Espada and 40 others. Each poem is paired with responses by survivors of mass shootings, parents of children killed in shootings, and other activists. Often, contemporary poetry can feel like it is facing inward, but these are all poems looking outward.

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The Truest I Could Be: Q&A with ‘The Ensemble’ author Aja Gabel

Aja GabelAja Gabel’s first novel, The Ensemble (352 pages; Riverhead), reminds me of why I first, long ago, might have fallen in love with reading. It’s immersive and sweeping, featuring ambitious professional musicians—Jana, Brit, Daniel, and Henry—who form a string quartet. Walter Pater posited that all art aspires to the condition of music; I don’t know if I agree (that “all” makes me nervous), but I’ve thought for years that there isn’t nearly enough writing about music, and musicians. (A few exceptions I love include Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser, and now The Ensemble.)

Gabel and I spoke over email about Baldwin, point of view, YouTube performances, and, of course, music.

ZYZZYVA: We’ve talked about our shared past lives as would-be professional musicians. Can you tell me about yours, and about what led to your leaving it behind?

AJA GABEL: “Leaving it behind” is the right phrase to use, but it’s something I had real trouble doing. I started playing violin when I was 5 and switched to the cello when I was 10. I played very intensely until I was about 22, until I finished college. I mostly played chamber music, but studied privately and performed solo as well. It became clearer earlier than that, though, that I wasn’t going to be the sort of conservatory-going, professional career-chasing musician I’d dreamed of being when I was younger. I don’t think I accepted that clarity for a while, though. I continued studying and playing anywhere and everywhere throughout my twenties. I didn’t really let it go—I mean really let it go—until I went to Provincetown to start writing this novel. That was the first time I didn’t take my cello with me when I moved. Not playing every day opened up this space in my brain, enough landscape for an entire novel about the pursuit of music to take hold. Unfortunately, that meant my skill level quickly dissipated. I can still play, but I wouldn’t do it publicly.

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