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Donald Trump Reviews Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’

Death doesn't know what to do, he's like, "I've never seen anything like this before."

OK, Death, let’s play chess. You hop my queen and I hop yours. 

Stars: 10/10

Bergman. You know, people said he wasn’t as good as Dreyer. They said it. They said he couldn’t do it. He did it, though. He really went and did it. I mean, people are worried about death. Capital-D Death. They want answers, they’re dying, they’re not happy. So this guy, big handsome-looking Norwegian guy, European guy, you know, he plays chess with Death. Death doesn’t know what to do, he’s like, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” It’s true, folks. Never before—no one’s ever seen this before. They keep playing, they’re on a beach, it’s great. There’s the black plague, and a smith whose wife runs away with a jester, and everybody’s upset. Then this woman talks to the devil, and she gets everybody all upset. Lots of wailing and whining. They don’t have a clue, they don’t know how to win. OK. They get together and escape in a carriage, and, but, before this the guy with the blonde hair, the real Viking guy, gives away his strategy. He’s trying to cheat Death and Death’s trying to cheat him. There’s lots of philosophy, they eat some strawberries. Near the end some of them get away but this guy, he chokes. He chokes, what can I say? Tries to swipe the pieces off the chessboard, but it’s done, it’s over, kaput. And Death gets them in a castle, he gets them good. And they’re brave. They lost, but they’re brave, and they said some nice things. Anyway, it’s a great movie. They lose but it’s a great movie, just tremendous. I’ve always said it and I’ll say it again: don’t skip Bergman if you can help it. He’s at the top of the heap, better than Fellini, better than Godard, all of those stuffy ballerinas—they’re overrated and everybody knows it. This movie doesn’t have time for any of that. It says, OK, Death, let’s play chess. You hop my queen and I hop yours. No settling, no recounts. You know, you know you’ve made it when the Muppets are saying how good you are. Lovely people, the Muppets. The Swedes, too. You’ve made it.

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Where to Donate Your Abilities: A Sampling of Bay Area Community Organizations

These are difficult days for writers, editors, teachers, and intellectuals of all kinds. Faced with fresh evidence of Auden’s claim that “poetry does nothing,” in the persona of President-elect Donald Trump, the temptation we face is to turn toward despair and disengagement. Yet this is the time we were made for. Now we must help each other to find our voices in the public sphere.

What we’ve found to be helpful is combining our abilities—as storytellers, witnesses, and listeners—with a community commitment. The Bay Area has a surfeit of both literary talent and social justice work. The local organizations we’ve highlighted below serve the very groups who have been demonized by the President-elect and his inner circle. We know and have been inspired by their work. If you’re searching for an immediate, substantive contribution, these places need us to donate our time, our effort, and our talent.

SAN FRANCISCO

Mission Graduates
Mission Graduates’s purpose is to increase “the number of K-12 students in San Francisco’s Mission District who are prepared for and complete a college education.” Many of these students are recent immigrants to San Francisco, starting their education all over again in a new language. They need donations and volunteers, including tutors.

La Raza Centro Legal
La Raza Centro Legal “is a community-based legal organization dedicated to empowering Latino, immigrant and low-income communities of San Francisco to advocate for their civil and human rights. [They] combine legal services and advocacy to build grassroots power and alliances towards creating a movement for a just society.” They need volunteers for translation, paperwork organizers, and communications.

The Beat Within
The Beat Within holds weekly writing and discussion workshops in Bay Area juvenile detention centers. With help from mentors, incarcerated youth write and publish a bi-weekly 60-page magazine. They seek volunteers year-round and can be contacted at (415) 890-5641.

The Wellness Academies at Huckleberry Youth Programs
Huckleberry Youth Programs in San Francisco provide shelter, health care, and counseling services to runaways and youth in crisis. They are seeking after-school tutors for their Wellness Academy, which offers college and career prep.

Voice of Witness
Voice of Witness “promotes human rights and dignity by amplifying the voices of people impacted by injustice.” They publish oral history books and have an education program for high school students. They are in need of volunteers for translation, transcription, and web design.

Mujeres Unidas y Activas
Mujeres Unidas y Activas is a leadership development program for Latina immigrants, with an eye to both personal empowerment and social and economic justice for the larger communities they serve. Their successes have included the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance and statewide access to prenatal care for immigrant women. They are in need of English tutors.

Anti-Defamation League
The ADL is committed to stopping “the defamation of Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” Their San Francisco offices serve as the organization’s Central Pacific Region headquarters, covering Northern California, Utah, and Hawaii. You can go to their website to find ways of getting involved.

 

EAST BAY

East Bay Refugee Forum
The East Bay Refugee Forum is a coalition of more than 30 agencies which serve refugees, asylum seekers, and other displaced people who are trying to make a new home for themselves in the Bay Area. Their agencies are currently seeking translators, tutors, mentors, and writers who can assist job-seekers with paperwork.

Super Stars Literacy
Super Stars Literacy provides literacy and social skills training for underperforming K-2nd grade students in Oakland, Hayward, and Newark. They are looking for classroom reading tutors, program event volunteers, and service group teams.

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
The Ella Baker Center works to end mass incarceration and curb abusive criminalization actions against low-income people of color. They’re based in Oakland. They’re looking for volunteer help with communications, writing blog posts, and handling surveys.

 

SOUTH BAY

SIREN (Services, Immigration Rights and Education Network)
SIREN does community education, organizing, policy advocacy, and service provision for low-income immigrants and refugees in Silicon Valley. Based in San Jose, the organization is seeking volunteers for communications, citizenship application assistance, and bilingual services.

CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) Bay Area
CAIR is one of the nation’s leading civil liberties advocacy groups for Americans who practice Islam, and the Bay Area branch is the oldest chapter in the country. This chapter, in Santa Clara, serves the nearly 250,000 practicing Muslims in the nine-county Bay Area. They are seeking translation assistance and administrative support.

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Solidarity: A Letter from the Editors

83741e15-dcdd-48ad-aa02-f443283e1a49Friends,

In general, we keep partisanship and day-to-day politics out of the journal. We hope we can provide a space for thoughtful contemplation of all aspects of contemporary life through art—a way of thinking which, while engaged with the political, is not political in its mode and does its work well outside the 24-hour news-cycle.

But we are now compelled to speak to you directly about this election. On November 8, this nation succumbed to the greatest threat that faces any democracy: that a sizable number of its people may find democracy itself—with all its imperfections—too unpalatable, and choose instead to surrender their agency to a strongman. This nation has elected a boastfully ignorant, vulgar, deceitful, professionally unqualified bigot.

There will be much to write and discuss and agonize over in the days, months, and years to come. There is an abundance of blame to go around. There is much work to do. But before we move forward, we’d like to address that which feels most urgent at this moment, and most relevant to what we endeavor to do here at ZYZZYVA.

We believe Donald Trump’s candidacy has cultivated a new strain of fascism and that he has displayed autocratic tendencies. We believe this because we have listened to his words, and paid attention to his actions. He has told the American people repeatedly how little respect he has for basic tenets of our democracy such as a free press and an independent judiciary—and we believe him. He has told us repeatedly how little respect he has for civil liberties, and we believe him. He has told us that he holds women and immigrants in contempt, and we believe him. And now we have seen him select Stephen Bannon, a leading figure in the white-nationalist movement, documented anti-Semite, and enormously effective conspiracy theorist and propaganda creator as his chief-strategist. In order for those Americans dismayed by this election to organize an effective resistance to the incoming administration, we must clearly acknowledge the magnitude and character of the problem we face.

This extraordinarily distressing moment is, of course, personal for so many of us. For our small staff, as in so many communities around this country, the election of Donald Trump reverberates as a stunning rebuke. We are both the proud children of immigrants, and we are feminists; one of us is Jewish, the other is Mexican. For us as for so many other immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities, the disabled, for survivors of sexual assault, the LGBTQ community, for feminists, the message seems clear: the new president and an untold number of his supporters do not see us as Americans.

Our disappointment in this outcome has nothing to do with traditional politics—liberal versus conservative—and everything to do with the still radical ideals of individual freedom and equality on which this country was founded. They are ideals we’ve never perfectly achieved, but for which each generation has fought and for which we will now continue fighting with renewed focus.

Those of us committed to defending civil liberties and a free press—and to resisting any action by the new administration that threatens those ideals—may feel like outsiders, out of step with much of the population, not to mention the party now dominating the federal government. But we are in fact picking up the torch for American ideals. Our shared hopes are profoundly democratic, and profoundly American. We must not let this latest chapter in a long struggle make us feel like outsiders in our own home. We must remember that our participation in this difficult battle makes us American in the best sense of the word.

For all of you who are justifiably afraid of what the future holds, for all of you who feel rejected by your country, where you and your parents or grandparents have worked so hard to build good lives: we share your distress, and we are with you. We share your grief, your anger, and your worry.

ZYZZYVA has never been just a journal: it has always been about community. If you are looking for solace and solidarity as we all take a collective breath and begin to figure out what to do next, please know we are with you. If you’re looking for a safe haven, we hope you may find it in the community we’ve built here in the pages of the journal, where we will vigorously defend the First Amendment as we expand our nonfiction offerings; you’ll find it at any of our events where we can gather to share ideas and concerns; and you’ll find it on our online community of readers, writers, and artists. We’ll work to create even more opportunities, both in the journal, online, and in events, to foster dialogue and analysis of our changing political and cultural climate as we try to answer, What do we do next?

Despair may be rational, but we cannot succumb to it. Albert Camus, who’s been much on our minds of late, wrote:

“The words that reverberate for us at the confines of this long adventure of rebellion are not formulas for optimism, for which we have no possible use in the extremities of our unhappiness, but words of courage and intelligence which, on the shores of the eternal seas, even have the qualities of virtue.”

Camus wrote of “the generosity of rebellion,” a kind of rebellion “which unhesitatingly gives the strength of its love and without a moment’s delay refuses injustice. … Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.” Just so, let us give our all to the present.

Keep making your art. Literature can do so much to shed light on the dark corners where the complex convergence of factors that led us to this strange and troubled time festered, and continue to fester. We need that light more than ever. We’ll do everything we can in our own tiny corner of the universe to make sure your voices are heard, your rights are protected, and our community is inclusive.

Yours in solidarity and resistance,

Laura and Oscar

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“The Long Views Are Terrific”: Some Words for Bill Berkson

bill-berkson-and-frank

Bill Berkson (left) and Frank O’Hara (photo by John Button, 1961)

I was sad when I heard Bill Berkson died in June. I knew he’d been ill but didn’t know the details. But he always seemed to be the picture of a gentleman poet—by that, I don’t mean the stuffy, overly courtly, bow-tie beclad figure of an academic measuring his words in coffee spoons, of course. Or even exuding the quieter scent of class, though Bill clearly knew his way around the world of high society: His mother, Eleanor Lambert, was regarded as the doyenne of fashion publicity, and his father, Seymour Berkson, had been a high-ranking Hearst executive and for a time, publisher of the New York Journal-American.

From his early days, Bill was closely tied in with the New York School of Poetry, and his close friends and deep poetic influences included John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara (he edited a posthumous collection of O’Hara’s work, In Memory of My Feelings, reprinted in 2005.)

But somehow he found himself moving out to the West Coast in 1970, living in Bolinas for a good while before returning to San Francisco and settling in Noe Valley. He taught in the California Poets in the Schools program and was also lecturer for many years at the San Francisco Institute of Art—he was ridiculously well versed in modern art, and knew most of the players personally. His gentle presence struck a notable contrast to the Beat and post-Beat decorum of the time. Bill was always an avant-gardist, who appreciated excessive expression, and behavior, but he walked his own road.

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A Reading List for These Dark Times

When Donald Trump announced his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination last June, the whole production had a farcical air. The surreal sight of his too-long descent down an escalator, magnified by the hired actors awkwardly cheering him on the entire way, elicited ridicule. His baldly racist nativism was beyond the pale even for dog-whistle Republican politics, and immediately earned him the ire of the GOP establishment. His speech, generally incoherent even as it gave voice to legitimate grievances, didn’t do him any favors; if he couldn’t even articulate a platform, how was he going to run a serious campaign? Pundits laughed at the suggestion that Trump might win the nomination, and media organizations such as CNN were content to exploit his campaign for ratings. In short, Trump’s candidacy seemed dead on arrival.

But his triumph over Republican rivals tells us that if Trump’s campaign is absurd, then there’s something equally absurd about our current moment. It’s difficult to know what to make of an election season where political institutions are failing and all of presidential politics’ truisms are inadequate to understanding our nation. 

So what to make of all this? ZYZZYVA’s Dark Days Syllabus looks to fiction, history, economic theory, and other sources to make sense of Trump’s prominence (despite his declining poll numbers). While these readings range from the allegorical to the historical, they all examine the cultural and political forces latent in American society that combined to make Trump’s nomination possible. Also, feel free to suggest a title you’d like to see included in our syllabus in the comments section.

Anti-Intellectualism in American Life If we hope to understand what is happening in the world around us, we require more than knowledge of current events; we require, too, historical context, and then a leap of imagination. For the former, I’ve recently returned to Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life; for the latter, Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America. If Hofstadter could write a present-day sequel, what might he say? Certainly there is much to be said about how anti-intellectualism has been wielded as a political tool in our current era. I suspect, wearily, that there may also be something to be said about the compounding effects of the Internet age, how it is now easier than ever to sequester oneself among only like-minded opinions, well insulated from facts that do not suit us. And with Roth’s Plot in mind, I suggest that imagination is vital, too, because when we say, in a casual way, “history repeats itself” we do not mean that it does so precisely, identically. What we might mean is that certain themes endure, though periodically rearranged in unfamiliar forms. To perceive fascism, nativism, and anti-Semitism as they manifest in the present day we must be well enough versed in history to remember that these ages-old tendencies take different form each time they erupt; and to perceive them as they flourish in previously unseen forms requires, too, an imagination alert to possibilities (the possibility, for example, that our institutions may break down and fail us to an unprecedented extent, and that, if we are not vigilant, we may succumb again to our worst impulses). Lastly: if the presidential debates do, in fact, happen, I’ll brace myself for a deluge of misogyny with Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, which I am often tempted to carry with me like an amulet, or to distribute as a helpful parting gift after particularly trying meetings. —Laura Cogan

Parable of the SowerIt’s impossible to understand the eruption of nativist racism in this election cycle without thinking about its relationship to our increasingly stratified economy. As Barbara and Karen Fields argue in their study of American race relations, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, American racial and class inequalities have defined one another since our democracy’s earliest days. This isn’t to suggest that racism is a function of economic inequality, but that racism is often one of the insufficient vocabularies in which American express economic suffering. Racecraft suggests that part of what makes the white working class so vulnerable to Trump’s demagoguery is the lack of a language to talk about poverty, inequality, and the erosion of the middle class. Resisting the intolerance that Trump represents means crafting a better language in which to diagnose and address these processes. David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism is an accessible—but still rigorous—text that puts a name to the ideology that powers globalization. In the process, Harvey helps us imagine what a better political vocabulary might look like. While political vocabularies are necessary, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents show us we also need personal vocabularies so we can better understand each other’s subject positions. Butler’s novels are prophetic allegories of life in a resource-scarce American future. Set in Los Angeles, the Parable novels center on Lauren Olamina, a woman burdened with an ability called “hyperempathy”—the ability to feel others’ pain as if it were her own. While Butler tackles the issues of white supremacy, misogyny, and exploitative capitalism that climax in a post-apocalyptic America, her real concern is the novel’s empathic protagonist. Lauren turns her burden into the foundation for a religious community based in empathy; in doing so, she lets us imagine what a society organized according to human need might look like. —Ismail Muhammad

Tuchman Several works immediately come to mind: Robert Caro’s four-volume (and counting) LBJ biography, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, and Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and The Proud Tower (both of her books are conveniently packaged in a single Library of America volume, should you be interested). Why the Caro? Because I can’t think of a better written, extensively reported work of nonfiction that shows you exactly how the sausage got made when it came to 20th century American politics. How do ruthless ambition and public service co-exist? How did a reactionary minority manage to control the U.S. Senate? How can altruism and decency checkmate corruption and duplicity? These all-too-relevant questions are addressed at length. And Tuchman? Her rightly lauded books—a history on World War I, and an essay collection on the U.S. and Europe in the decades leading up to that war—show us just how compromised civil society can be. We witness the discontent raging through various nations during the supposed Belle Epoque, knowing the abyss awaits them. You read her books these fifty-odd years later and are frozen by descriptions and insights bearing an uncomfortable relevance to our current predicaments. Lastly, Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 novel All the King’s Men. Ostensibly about the populist Huey Long, it lays bare (among many other things) how just about no one—and certainly not a governor nor a senator nor even a beloved judge—gets through this life without some mud on his or her hands. The novel ties in beautifully with the dualities and contradictions Caro explores, I think, and its story captures a fact of life we are seemingly incapable of understanding outside of a simplistic binary (immaculate-equals-good, blemish-equals-evil), which may be partly the reason we cannot effectively mitigate this difficult truth: Power corrupts. —Oscar Villalon

9780996421805_p0_v1_s192x300In 1968, English author J.G. Ballard managed to predict the cult of celebrity that would develop and perhaps dominate in American politics over the ensuing decades with his ‘cut-up’ novel The Atrocity Exhibition. One of the most fascinating portions of the book remains a late section titled “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” a short piece presented as a log of scientific experiments intended to test the psychosexual appeal of then-Governor Ronald Reagan as a Presidential candidate. Examples: “Powerful erotic fantasies of an anal-sadistic character surrounded the image of the Presidential contender.” In a bizarre turn of events, a group of avant-garde artists and social revolutionaries distributed the pamphlet at the 1980 Republican National Convention in Detroit; despite its provocative nature, many of the RNC delegates took the piece at face value—particularly since it was stamped with a stolen Republican Party seal—and felt the data offered scientific proof of Ronald Reagan’s immense subliminal appeal. Dennis Cooper’s Period, the closing volume of his five-novel George Miles Cycle, explores the apocalypse on a personal scale. A slender tome at a mere 109 pages, Period depicts a backwoods nation of Satanic rock bands, underground Internet message boards, and death-obsessed teenagers. Considering the bile that pours forth from many Trump rally attendees, Cooper’s bleak vision of Red State America rings even more frighteningly true in 2016 than it did upon publication almost twenty years ago. Jarett Kobeck’s 2016 book I Hate the Internet is the rare novel that attempts to capture the zeitgeist and pulls it off with aplomb. Kobeck slings some well-deserved arrows in the direction of social media giants like Twitter, overvalued tech startups, and astronomical rent prices, but at the heart of the novel is the eye-opening notion that—much in the same way the postwar comic book industry built its empire by ensuring writers and artists had no legal ownership of their own creations—we are a culture of users happily providing free content and generating revenue for the companies who own the digital landscape. We may not be students of history but our media masters certainly are. —Zack Ravas

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Obsessions: Angel Olsen

“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We continue with a piece on musician Angel Olsen by Danielle Truppi. Truppi is pursuing an MFA in Fiction at San Francisco State University and has written for Write Club SF and Oatmeal Magazine. She is currently working on a series of stories about insects.

Angel Olsen tried to put the radio show host at ease. She told NPR’s Bob Boilen that her new song “Intern” is “such a lie,” that her next album would not be a synth album, that the song’s trailer video was meant to test her fans. Yes: it’s about performance, expectations: “people are anticipating something, and so you give them a song all about them anticipating something.”

I am a fan feverishly anticipating Olsen’s new album, and have listened to “Intern” upwards of fifty times. I was disappointed Bob Boilen didn’t trust her.

I became acquainted with Angel Olsen two years ago when a man I loved moved away from me the first time. He made me a mix CD with the song “Iota” on it, a devastating song that left me supine and puffy-eyed. On its surface, the song is a list of regrets, of hypothetical conditions that would bring about an elusive happy ending. But the conditions described are not entirely reasonable and the ending not entirely happy. The song hurts you so much because it has unanticipated barbs buried in its tangle of melancholy. It is mournful, but sarcastic, too—“if only all our memories were one,” “if only all our hopes were to be here.” If only things weren’t so complicated, things wouldn’t be complicated. If only this one little thing—this bleak, nebulous thing—then we could settle down. If only we stayed still, we could rot away together.

It was this tonal complexity that had me hooked. I bought Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014) and found myself playing it again and again, a heavy, vintage coat of sadness I never wanted to take off. The album both cradled and scorned me for my broken heart. It told me it’s all important and real and deep, this pain you are feeling, but you are all you actually have and you need to understand that. The song “White Fire” begins with “Everything is tragic, it all just falls apart,” a statement so huge and simply stated it risks seeming ridiculous. Olsen’s beautiful, quavering vocals invite you to sing along, but unlike, say, Adele or Sarah McLaughlin, it is an experience that is broader than catharsis. Olsen’s songs aren’t songs you belt into your hairbrush because love hurts; they are songs you warble along to because other things hurt, too, like condescension and the labor of communication.

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Obsessions: ‘Liked to Date: 2,836 Posts’

“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We begin with “Liked to Date: 2,836 Posts,” a piece from Shokoofeh Rajabzadeh, a Ph.D. candidate in English Language & Literature at the University of California at Berkeley. Rajabzadeh’s poetry has appeared in Poetry Northwest and Modern Poetry in Translation, and she is currently working on a series of essays about immigrating to the United States and growing up Muslim, post-9/11.

She’s closed her Instagram account again. I’ve checked three times in the past hour. I always forget how obsessed I am with her until she closes her account. Last time she shut us out, she had broken up with her fiance. For just a few days before she left, after she had posted the photo of her slender finger with the simple, diamond ring, I thought to myself, “Finally, someone has brought this woman well-deserved happiness.” But then, when she reopened her account, I was met with a slew of photos, self-portraits—sometimes close-ups, sometimes of her solemn face in the mirror—with captions about the darkness that had consumed her. And at nights, I wondered, “Did she end things? Is she just that broken? Or did he end them? Why would he do that to her? Hasn’t she already been through enough?”

I am spellbound by her account—the story of a poet, humanities PhD in exile. I generally do not like following lives. The practice overwhelms me, frustrates me, injects me with envy when photos portray extreme happiness; and when they are melancholy, they surround me in despair. For this reason, I do not have a Facebook account. I am, however, arrested, engrossed, mesmerized by her life.

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How Reading to My Kids Helped Me Give Better Author Readings

Publishing a book can mean a lot of things. You might, for example, find yourself at a book club meeting where an elderly gentleman confesses that he didn’t think he’d be able to finish your novel but he nonetheless managed to “struggle through it” (true story). You might, on the other hand, achieve a staggering level of success that allows you to quit your day job (unfortunately not a true story). Or, more likely, you’ll probably have to give a reading.

This was the part of being a published author that I was dreading the most. Like many writers, I’m an introvert, not at all comfortable with public speaking or standing in the spotlight; at forty-nine years of age (yes, I’m a “debut” author who’s on the cusp of fifty), I still blush when I’m the focus of attention, cursing the redness in my cheeks that I can’t control.

But, much to my surprise, I didn’t completely suck at reading from my novel in front of a crowd of people. And at some point during my first book tour—on a plane, in an airport, staring at a hotel ceiling, writing notes and scenes for my next novel—it dawned on me why: I’d been reading out loud to my kids for the past ten years.

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Poet Laureate of Spaceship Earth: An Excerpt from ‘You Belong to the Universe’

You Belong to the UniverseThis Thursday at 7 p.m., author (and ZYZZYVA contributor) Jonathon Keats will be at City Lights to discuss his newest book, You Belong to the Universe: Buckminster Fuller and the Future (Oxford University Press). Called by Douglas Coupland a “wonderfully written and highly necessary book about one of the 20th century’s most enigmatic outliers,” the book takes Fuller’s life and personal myth as a basis for applying his world-changing ideas in the present.

The following is an excerpt from Keats’s book.

Late one evening in the winter of 1927, Buckminster Fuller set out to kill himself in frigid Lake Michigan. At thirty-two years old, he was a failure. He had neither job prospects nor savings, and his wife had just given birth to a daughter. A life insurance policy, bought while he was in the Navy, was all that he had to support his family.

So Fuller walked down to a deserted stretch of shoreline on the North Side of Chicago. He looked out over the churning water and calculated how long he’d need to swim before succumbing to hypothermia. But as he prepared to jump, he felt a strange resistance, as if he were being lifted, and he heard a stern voice inside his head: “You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe.” Then the voice confided that his life had a purpose, which could be fulfilled only by sharing his mind with the world, and that his family would always be provided for, as long as he submitted to his calling.

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Lucia Berlin: The Art of Phantom Pain

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

Lucia Berlin (photo by Buddy Berlin)

I met Lucia Berlin in 1977, the year her first small book appeared, but it wasn’t till I published her collection Phantom Pain that we became great friends (Tombouctou Books, Bolinas, 1984).

Lucia was working at Alta Bates Hospital then, in Berkeley, at the switchboard and in the waiting rooms. Hospital work suited her. She was interested in extremities, in gossip, in contrary people with serious complaints, who also felt relieved to be alive. It was hard, low-paying work. She would have preferred to be writing, but she almost never said so. She did produce several new hospital stories (“Emergency Room Notebook”, “My Jockey,” “Private Branch Exchange,” “Temps Perdu,”) during this time. I imagine her composing them at night and on the weekends, and then stealing time at work to edit. We often spoke of stealing time, as though it were a necessary concomitant of creation. All but one of these pieces went into the new book of 15 stories and a play.

The title, Phantom Pain, refers to the haunting ache an amputee feels for a missing limb. The phrase neatly sums up Lucia’s work for me. Many of her best stories transform life’s fleetingness and loss into deeply felt—yet comedic—memories, more real than life, without coloration or emotional distortion. The haunting ache they deliver to the reader is tempered by tenderness and bemusement. Her style may appear to be offhand, an accretion of detail. It is anything but.

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A Possible Way for Tech and Artists to Work Together?: Digital Art from Depict

Yue Li's "Untitled" (2014), digital painting

Yue Li’s “Untitled” (2014), digital painting

A lot of the conversation in the Bay Area about art and tech describes an alienated, if not antagonistic relationship between the two spheres. Tech workers “displace” artists in much of the dialogue about rising rents and gentrification. Tech also threatens art by making its replicability ever easier and cheaper, and by fostering a culture of consumption that habituates people to enjoying the works of writers, artists, actors, and musicians for free.

And yet, a fruitful relationship between the two camps isn’t impossible. San Francisco startup Depict is hoping it has found a way to (in startup language) “optimize” the performance of both with its new venture: an online gallery that lets people collect digital art and display it on any desktop or mobile screen.

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E-remorse and Writers

“E-mail,” snorted Molly Young, in the New York Times last December. “A medium I associate with cowardly ex-boyfriends and offshore Viagra vendors.”

On the face of it, yes. Social media scorn the e-mail habit: a sad old grandfather, smelling of camphor and oatmeal.

But I’m still waltzing—more like, locked in a tango—with Grandpa. I depend upon e-mail, check it obsessively, prefer it over real-time, physical confrontations for the same reasons I turned to writing in the first place: leisure to think deeply (or stall for time), speak from the heart in shiniest prose, curry favor and influence—all this accomplished either as subterfuge during day jobs, or in pajamas.

I sense, too, that I’m in a big club.

A writer’s love for the form dies hard. It’s our last remnant of old-fashioned letter-writing, a ritual most of us adore. E-mail’s as malleable, swift, and cheap as air. Sometimes it lets us discover what we think. But because e-mail is also how most writing business is now conducted, we’ve no choice but to learn (and re-learn) the etiquette, the rhythms.

Whom to bury, whom to praise.

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