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Will Howard

Obsessions: Our Solitary Fancy

The poem "A Supermarket in California" appeared in Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"

The poem “A Supermarket in California” appeared in Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”

Who wasn’t obsessed by the Beat Generation in high school? Okay, it was just unbearable punks like me. In Jack Kerouac, I saw a reflection of my ineloquent angst. I used to be able to recite entire paragraphs of On the Road, but I’ve since blocked all of it from my memory. I was particularly interested in Allen Ginsberg because, like me, he was unpretentiously pretentious—or at least we both tried to be. He might allude to a Greek myth in a poem written on acid. A surfer boy reeking of weed, I used polysyllables that made my classmates’ eyes roll. And, like Ginsberg, I’m queer. One night, I rewrote his poem “A Supermarket in California” as if my life depended on it. I called it a “A Health Food Store in California” and scrawled it with a speed that brings to mind Truman Capote’s vicious comment on Kerouac: “That’s not writing at all—it’s typing.”

I rewrote by substitution. Because I made them so fast, I wasn’t sure how seriously to consider the individual changes. I used to think the fact I rewrote the poem was more significant than the specific alterations. In “A Supermarket,” the speaker, who I’ll call Ginsberg, imagines following Walt Whitman around “the neon fruit supermarket.” I imagine following Ginsberg around “the quiet health food store.” Many of the later substitutions riff off this first deviation. Whitman eyes grocery boys in the supermarket. Ginsberg eyes dreadlocked grocery boys in the health food store. Ginsberg wanders “in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans.” I wander “in and out of the brilliant stacks of Kombucha.” These easy jokes reveal little. Things start to get interesting when I exchange the hetero families of the supermarket: “Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!” But what’s this? A gay surprise among produce: “—and you García Lorca, what were you doing down by / the watermelons?”[i] In the health food store I find “Hoards of / hipsters shopping at night! Aisles full of Doc Martens! Anarcha- / feminists in the avocados, young idealists in the tomatoes!—and you, / O’Hara, what were you doing down by the sprouts?” (At long red lights, I reached for my copy of O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency I had stashed underneath the driver’s seat of my car.)

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‘Pain and Loneliness in Equal Measure’: Q&A with Peter Orner

ornerPeter Orner’s Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live (316 pages, Catapult)—which concerns Orner’s favorite stories, the lives of their authors as well as Orner’s own—has a modest subtitle. It suggests the essays in the collection, which was recently named a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award, are rough, unfinished. (One of the essays in the collection, “Since the Beginning of Time,” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 107.) Because Orner maintains this Midwestern-like self-deprecating tone throughout the book, his intellectual rigor might catch you off guard. He takes stories—telling them, reading them—very seriously. With the same combination of self-effacement and scrupulousness, Orner discussed with us via email how to inhabit a story and what kinds of stories he like to inhabit.

ZYZZYVA: You have a penchant for stories about people telling stories, like Juan Rulfo’s “Luvina,” which you write about in “On the Beauty of Not Writing, or, An Unnecessary Homage to Juan Rulfo,” and Álvaro Mutis’ “The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call,” which you write about in “Since the Beginning of Time.” In the former, you write that you return “again and again to Rulfo’s first book [The Plain in Flames] to re-experience something… fundamental: how to inhabit a story simply by listening.” You like these kinds of stories because they put this inhabitance on display. Of course, this is what you do in these essays. For you, is there much of a difference between performing listening in fiction and in nonfiction?

Peter Orner: Thanks for the question, which kind of lays out it better than I ever could. You inhabit a story by becoming an active listener, especially in stories like the incomparable Juan Rulfo’s, where it often feels like the speaker is talking directly into your—and only your—ear. As for listening in non-fiction versus listening in fiction, I’m not sure I’d say there is a difference. I think it’s all about concentration, whatever form of work you’re reading. And I find that I don’t do nearly enough of it, listening to the page, slowly, as I read. Reading online is making me read faster, which is the deadliest thing, I think. I’m not anti-technology or anything, but I think that increasing the speed by which we read is crappy for literature. I notice this with myself. When I read on-line, my eyes move a hell of a lot faster. My eyes aren’t taking it in as they would on a page, I’m skimming down the screen, I’m looking for something else to click—and so when I say we got to listen to the page, I mean we got to read with all our senses. Somehow this answer became a screed, but my point is I read to slow down, and that’s what I mean by inhabiting a story.

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A Sunset You Don’t Want to Miss: ‘Slow Days, Fast Company’ by Eve Babitz

babitz.Slow_Days_hi-res_1024x1024“I am quick to categorize and find it saves mountains of time,” writes Eve Babitz in her superb autobiographical novel Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, And L.A. (184 pages; NYRB). Matthew Spector is right when he writes in the introduction to the New York Review Books Classics’ reprint that what sets Babitz’s 1977 novel apart is “the strength and radical compression of its thought.” Although Babitz paints with a broad brush, the resulting images ring approximately true. (And what is there but approximate truth?) Many of her generalizations concern women and men. From the tragedy of Janis Joplin’s death, Babitz reasons that “women are prepared to suffer for love; it’s written into their birth certificates. Women are not prepared to have ‘everything,’ not success-type ‘everything.’ I mean, not when the ‘everything’ isn’t about living happily ever after with the prince (where even if it falls through and the prince runs away with the baby-sitter, there’s at least a precedent.)” At least once, Babitz claims to be giving up on her own “happily ever after,” but she’s the kind of person who can’t help falling in breathless, cinematic love.

The preface opens with this strange warning: “This is a love story and I apologize; it was inadvertent.” She’s referring to the story of her love of Los Angeles, which, like the city itself, is sprawling and seemingly chaotic: “You can’t write a story about L.A. that doesn’t turn around in the middle and gets lost.” Of course, to love a place means to love the places it comprises. The first time she goes to a restaurant called Ports, she thinks, “I have got to get into this movie.” So she starts waitressing there for free. Of Forest Lawn Memorial Park, she writes: “Forest Lawn is an example of eternity carried to its logical conclusion. I love L.A. because it does things like that.” Even when she leaves L.A., she can’t go long without thinking about it. In Bakersfield, she notices the rows of grapes are “manicured like Beverly Hills.”

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A Terrible Twist of Fate, the Birth of a Writer: ‘Will & I’ by Clay Byars

Will & I Clay Byars’ memoir, Will & I (192 pages; FSG Originals), could have opened on the car crash that changes Byars’ life at 20. It could have opened nine months after the crash when surgery that is supposed to fix the nerve damage in his shoulder results in a stroke that leaves him paralyzed and near death once more. It could have even opened on the stroke itself, the dizziness and life receding “to a dreamlike distance.” It could have opened on any one of the many dramatic circumstances punctuating Byars’ life, but instead it opens on a singing lesson.

After his stroke, Byars not only loses the ability to move but also the ability to speak. Gradually, he regains a limited mobility and a shaky, barely intelligible version of his old voice. With the help of his singing coach, Dewin, he learns to control it, or rather he learns how to trust sound waves to do their work. At the end of one of his first lessons, Byars feels his voice come in tune with the piano. “The sound,” he writes, “no longer had a ceiling.” The rest of the memoir follows the author slowly and painstakingly removing the ceilings fate keeps thrusting over him. And he does believe in fate, in a writerly way: “The notion of fate only appears when we consider ourselves as unified consciousnesses moving through time, but such an identity is merely a role—or at least that’s how I’ve come to see it.”

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The Pain Hard to Name: Q&A with ‘Swallowed by the Cold’ Author Jensen Beach

Jensen Beach

Jensen Beach

The stories in Jensen Beach’s second story collection, Swallowed by the Cold (208 pages; Graywolf Press), demonstrate again and again that self-destruction doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In “Kino,” we meet a young man named Oskar who swears he intended to torch just his own boat, but who ended up setting fire to an entire marina. Oskar happens to work at what seems to be a gay brothel called Kino Club, which an uptight man named Martin frequents. The two encounter each other at a party where Martin’s wife, Louise, gets too drunk. Suffering under the weight of Martin’s self-denial, she’s an alcoholic. It’s a quieter kind of tragedy, but at least as soul-rattling as, say, a car crash that leads to a coma (as in the story “Henrik Needed Help”). By the end of “Kino,” Martin abandons Louise on the side of the road to spend the night with Oskar.

These linked stories, set in Sweden, swivel among troubled lives. If it’s not alcoholism and infidelity, it’s a death in the family, the loss of a limb, a sinking ship, even war. All of this sorrow is thrown against rather prim backdrops: summer homes on the Baltic, apartments in “safe” neighborhoods, a fancy party at a Stockholm museum. Mix in the drama of Scandinavian weather and these settings make for fertile ground for Beach’s tales.

In an interview with him about his book, Beach told me he sought to accomplish what John Cheever did in “The Swimmer”: “It’s just all pain. The entire story is one of pain. And we’re never told the nature of it, or its reasons. Instead, we’re simply emerged in it, experientially.” Beach has accomplished what he set out to do. Swallowed by the Cold covers you in its web of anguish, but you won’t want to thrash yourself free, and you wouldn’t be able to anyway.

ZYZZYVA: I want to start with the question on which interviews often end: What’s next for Jensen Beach? Your first book was a collection of shorter stories. This last one is a collection of longer stories with recurring characters. Are you inching toward a novel?

Jensen Beach: I am indeed inching toward a novel. Inching might even imply a speed which is not yet there. The novel interests me as a form lately for similar reasons that I wrote Swallowed by the Cold, actually. I’m interested in the ways in which a book with a considerable dramatic scope can allow that drama to be explored in its intersections and connections, through coincidence and overlap. Swallowed by the Cold is a book of linked stories; and I find myself very interested in the challenge of that puzzle for this next project, too. So much so that I’m finding a similar motivating energy in writing this novel. At this stage of that manuscript, I’m just producing text. I couldn’t tell you yet what it’s about really. But I am excited by the challenge of holding an even larger number of parts up and seeing how they puzzle together.

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Thwarted Pilgrimage: ‘White Sands’ by Geoff Dyer

White Sands There are a few different types of ignorance at work in Geoff Dyer’s new book, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World, a collection of essays that combine travel writing and art criticism. One kind is artificial ignorance as an interpretative tool. Often, when he is ignoring information, sloughing off context on which another critic might lean all his weight, Dyer (or the genre-bending author’s narrator whom I will call Dyer) is at his sharpest. In “Space in Time,” the author travels to Quemado, New Mexico, to see Walter De Maria’s The Lightning Field, but he holds off telling us this information until the second half of the essay. In the meantime, he makes surprising observations about the experience of viewing the work, the most intriguing of which concern absence. The “abundance of poles and wind” creates “an implied absence of flags.” Another art pilgrim is walking around at twilight holding a champagne glass, which, “for most of that hour, had been empty.” As night falls, the viewers are “in the midst of what may once have been considered a variety of religious experience. Absence had given way to presence.” Even after he tells us what we are looking at, he continues constructing his analysis around a hypothetical lack of data, ignoring De Maria’s “obsessively minute inventory and visionary manifesto, ‘The Lighting Field: Some Facts, Notes, Data, Information, Statistics and Statements,’” in favor of a “subterfuge of inconceivable ignorance”: “So what if we visited the site years hence and had to try to figure out for ourselves what was happening here, what forces were at work with no art-historical context (minimalism, conceptualism, taking work out of the gallery into the expanded field, etc.)?” Not knowing exactly where we are can give us a much clearer idea of where we are.

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