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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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Looking for Life After Death: ‘Zero K’ by Don DeLillo

Zero KDon DeLillo’s seventeenth novel, Zero K (288 pages; Scribner), has all the trappings of a typical DeLillo novel. It opens with the protagonist Jeffrey Lockhart arriving at the Convergence, a techo-utopian compound erected in the midst of a central Asian desert. The compound is a staging ground for a series of experiments, led by the mysterious Stenmark Twins (or, at least that’s what Jeffrey calls them), into the possibilities of cryogenics. These experiments are meant to prepare their participants—including Jeffrey’s terminally ill stepmother, Artis, and estranged father, Ross Lockhart—for a future where death has ceased to exist and life may be everlasting. There’s little plot beyond this initial setup. Rather, DeLillo performs an elliptical investigation of the tensions between skepticism and belief, alienation and community, subjectivity and relationality.

In this sense, Zero K sometimes seems like less of a novel and more of a philosophical treatise. Jeffrey aimlessly wanders the Convergence. Occasionally he encounters screens that descend at random to depict epic scenes of human suffering, as if to remind him of the mortality he might leave behind in the compound. A skeptic amid the Convergence’s utopian promise, he refuses to take the Stenmark Twins’ vision seriously. He’s convinced the entire project is a prank, a cosmic joke on gullible believers. To register his incredulity, he knocks on doors at random, certain no one is behind them, that the Convergence is a stage created for the purpose of an elaborate fiction. For the most part he’s confirmed in his suspicion—until someone answers and topples Jeffrey’s assumptions.

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Realism’s Inability to Portray Reality: A Q&A with ‘Man & Wife’ Author Katie Chase

Katie Chase (photo by Calvin Eib)

Katie Chase (photo by Calvin Eib)

An internal refugee crisis in the United States; a modern America that tolerates decades-old, interfamilial vendettas; a city that keeps burning down year after year—these are the kinds of warped worlds captured in Katie Chase’s story collection, Man & Wife (220 pages; A Strange Object). Within these surrealities, Chase exaggerates societal traditions into distended proportions, focusing on the experiences of women at pivotal moments in their youth, examining their family dynamics, and, concurrently, their strange societies’ shifting norms. What’s even more unsettling is how eerily similar these worlds (and all the dramas that exist within them) are to our own.

Chase—a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who’s published in ZYZZYVA, the Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies—grounds her tragic tales of the intricate burden of tradition through the first-person perspectives of her unforgettable characters. Her sentences roil with every moment’s uncertainty, continually rending open the perceived gap between tradition and freedom, the collective and the individual, to peer closer at just how enmeshed those binaries are.
We talked to Katie Chase via email about Man & Wife, and about how language is inextricable from story, how the political is the human, and how to maintain “the play of writing.”

ZYZZYVA: Tradition, in its many forms, seems to stand at the center of Man & Wife; its push and pull, its polarity with complete autonomy, and individuals’ battles to find where they reside between those two extremes. It’s a nondualist view that you exemplify spectacularly in your story “The Hut,” which made me wonder, where do you think your fascination with tradition stems from, and how has writing this collection developed it for you?

Katie Chase: While my upbringing was not particularly conservative, I would say that it was largely “traditional,” in that I was raised by parents who were married—a father who worked and a mother who stayed home—in a small suburb where the norm was to stick around and repeat: find yourself a practical profession and a spouse, buy a house, have kids. My parents made the conscious choice to raise me and my siblings outside of a religion, but we observed Christian holidays in gatherings with extended family members whose rituals and beliefs bound them in actual and symbolic ways from which we were excluded, albeit proudly.

In pursuing writing, I’ve followed a path I had no models for until college, and I’ve never really stopped holding my life’s trajectory against what might have been expected. I cherish outsider status to the extent that I have it, yet at the same time I see in freedom loss as well as gain. Writing this collection made these preoccupations more conscious and allowed an exploration of them that was vicarious. We’re living in a time that is probably not so different from any other for its concurrent progress and clinging. I feel more softness now toward the latter. The clinging and the contradictions strike me as deeply human. I think a lot of people of my generation feel a sort of horror—and absolutely a restlessness—at the range of possibilities; anything is supposed to be possible, yet it still isn’t, and no one can have, or see, or do, or taste everything. I take great, tongue-in-cheek pleasure in nondenominational annual activities such as eating Thanksgiving dinner and watching the Academy Awards simply for the sense that so many other people, with a wide range of feelings, are at the same time participating.

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Healing the Phantom Pains Through Poetry: Q&A with Noelle Kocot

Noelle Kocot

Noelle Kocot

I turn to the poems of Noelle Kocot for the same reason I entered corn mazes as a kid: both are pleasurably unpredictable, and both transform everyday places into thrilling twilight zones. Though Kocot’s writing has covered a great deal of formal and conceptual terrain over the course of her seven books, her work has remained whip-smart and darkly playful, consistently carrying off great feats of imagination while orbiting an urgent emotional truth. These hallmarks are present in the restless quatrains of her Levis Poetry Prize-winning first collection, in the unflinching elegies for her late husband in Sunny Wednesday, and, now, in the tersely elliptical poems of Phantom Pains of Madness, released last month from Wave Books. Like its predecessors, Kocot’s latest book fills me with a combination of triumph and incongruous grief, like a kid at the end of a corn maze.

Phantom Pains of Madness is memorable for a few reasons. First, every one of its lines comprises only a single word, so the resulting columns of text appear lean and sinewy, as if pared down from a much larger whole:

What
Is
Left
Only
The
Life
The
Singing
Language
Around
The
Life

Kocot also has a way of writing about cognitive distortions that is more on the mark and profound than that of any other living poet I can think of. The poems in Phantom Pains of Madness mimic the language of the mind in its least rational, most disjunctive states, recounting hallucinatory pangs and visions in all their stinging color. We spoke with Kocot via email about her new book, the role of poetry in destigmatizing mental illness, and cool and hot jazz.

ZYZZYVA: According to the blurb, this collection explores “a break with reality that occurred a decade and a half ago.” You’ve been busy during that decade and a half, publishing six full-length books of poetry and a collection of translations, among other projects. I’m curious about whether Phantom Pains of Madness was incubating during all that time.

Noelle Kocot: Well, I didn’t plan a book; instead, I wrote about 200 of these poems. (Joshua Beckman, poet and editor at Wave Books, made the selections and the order.) It was when I quit smoking cigarettes (ultimately unsuccessfully), hence the title. I felt so crazed and out of my mind when I wrote these poems from the lack of nicotine, which lasted around four months. So yes, definitely it had been incubating for all that time, but quitting smoking was definitely the impetus, because it really was the experience of “phantom pains of madness.” Continue reading

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The Bravery to Stand in Opposition: Adam Hochschild’s “Spain in Our Hearts”

Spain in Our HeartsAdam Hochschild’s Spain in Our Hearts (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 372 pages) carries the unique distinction of possessing value equally for the specialist and the lay reader. Hochschild is not only a historian but also a humane storyteller, and in Spain in Our Hearts the literary quality of his prose alternatively sweeps the reader into the historical narrative, while also situating us in the subjective experience of his key historical personages. His and their conception of what the Spanish Civil War actually meant is attested to time and again by an array of ideologically discrepant individuals ranging from foreign correspondents and foreign fighters, including George Orwell, as well the diaries and letters of the Spanish troops on the ground. Their shared portentous sentiment—that this was the rehearsal for World War II, for the near global and yet by no means black-and-white opposition to Fascism—is eerily and independently echoed by witnesses throughout the book.

The book begins with urgency, pulling the reader into the chaos and tumult that will characterize much of the narrative: “The country is in flames. For nearly two years, the fractious but democratically elected government of the Spanish Republic has been defending itself against a military uprising led by Francisco Franco and backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.” By November 1936, the country was roughly divided between its West, where Franco had more or less triumphed in a military and government take over, and the East, where Republican, Anarchist, and Communist communities held control. What strikes one immediately is the inventive and therefore especially disturbing barbarity and ruthlessness of Franco’s regime in dealing with dissidents and oppositional forces. These atrocities were often geographically removed from Barcelona, which seemed to many to be a kind of budding egalitarian Utopia, especially to a few of the Americans Hochschild follows who arrived in the city early in the conflict.

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The Inheritance of Trauma: Q&A with Adrienne Celt & Esmé Weijun Wang

Adrienne Celt

Adrienne Celt

I’m not entirely sure where I happened upon Adrienne Celt’s beautiful first novel, The Daughters (272 pages; Norton/Liveright), which is out in paperback in early June, but entering its world was like entering a beautiful fever dream: ornate, occasionally frightening and sad. Celt’s world, peopled by four generations of Polish and Polish American women, tells the story of Lulu, a famed opera singer who loses her voice and sifts through her family’s stories to locate a way forward for herself and her newborn daughter. Celt’s work has appeared in Esquire, the Kenyon Review, and her story “Big Boss Bitch,” a tale of a future political situation that seems almost too real to be fantasy, is slated for the Fall issue of Zyzzyva. Celt holds an MFA from Arizona State University and lives in Tucson.

Esmé Weijun Wang

Esmé Weijun Wang

Esmé Weijun Wang’s first novel, the recently published The Border of Paradise, (292 pages; Unnamed Press), came to my attention via an essay she wrote for LitHub titled, “Why My Novel Uses Untranslated Chinese.” This alone—the idea that an American novelist might pepper her book with traditional Chinese characters rather than pinyin (although Wang uses both)—is fascinating. But The Border of Paradise is also a stunning novel, terrifying and wonderful in turns, with a sense of dread creeping across every page. Wang has openly discussed her ongoing struggle with late stage Lyme disease and with schizoaffective disorder. Her work has appeared in Salon, Buzzfeed, Catapult, and The Believer. She holds an MFA from the University of Michigan and lives in San Francisco. I had an online conversation with Wang and Celt about their work.

ZYZZYVA: I was immediately struck by the strange similarities between your books, not the least of which being they both deal, in part, with Polish culture. I wondered where that interest stemmed from and how it might have informed your writing in general.

Adrienne Celt: I have a great deal of Polish ancestry, and initially I wanted to explore Polish mythology and history for that reason—my paternal grandfather played a part in organizing the Warsaw Uprising as a paratrooper and courier for the Polish government in exile during World War II, and so I grew up hearing incredible stories about my family and their place in Polish national history. But because my paternal grandparents lived in Munich (after WWII, Poland was occupied by the USSR, so many loyal nationalists chose to leave, and my grandparents went to Munich to work for Radio Free Europe), I didn’t know them well, and the stories about them always felt distant to me—I wanted to know more.

EWW: I’ve been sitting over here gnawing on my fingers because I don’t have a good answer as to why Polish Americans—I can’t remember how I decided that would be the case, which doesn’t make for very good storytelling on my part as an author. But yes, [the protagonist] David Nowak’s parents were both born in the States. It’s his grandfather who carries the mythology of the penniless immigrant making good. David’s family still exists in a very Polish American circle, though, which I was interested in. I’m interested in communities that remain insular. I suppose most of my book is about insularity and isolation in some way. I was also interested in who was making pianos at the time, because I knew I wanted to write about a family that owned a piano manufactory.

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The Powerful Illusions of Literature: ‘The Sky Over Lima’ by Juan Gómez Bárcena

The Sky Over LimaIn Lima, Peru, in 1904, two wealthy young men wrote a letter to the Spanish Nobel Laureate poet Juan Ramon Jimenez, entreating him to send them a copy of his new book of poems. The young men believed the poet would be more likely to write back if they pretended to be a beautiful young woman. To their surprise, their joke backfires in an explosion of emotional shrapnel.

Based on this true story, Spanish author Juan Gómez Bárcena makes his literary debut with The Sky Over Lima (translated by Andrea Rosenberg; 288 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the charming retelling of a hoax that occurred a little over a hundred years ago. The novel’s satirical charm and witty re-creation of historical events take us into its embrace, but more than that, Barcena never allows us to forget that this story is, like our own lives, an artistic creation.

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Forms of Self-Interrogation: Q&A with ‘Emergency Brake’ Author Ruth Madievsky

5131260In Ruth Madievsky’s Emergency Brake, a body is never just a body. Rather, it is a looted ship, a lit match, a bedtime story, a lamp. In other moments, the body is known only by what it contains: a rope, a salted pretzel, “the sound of a penny thrown in a blender.” Madievsky’s poems put domestic objects to work, personifying and reframing embodied experience like puppets with the poet’s hands inside. And in her fiery first collection, published by Tavern Books as a Wrolstad Contemporary Poetry Series selection, her talent for analogy is on full display.

In addition to a metaphor-maker par excellence, Madievsky is a doctoral student in pharmacy and a research assistant in an HIV clinic in Los Angeles. Drug names and medical terms punctuate her lyrics, forcing a dialogue between her romantic and clinical inclinations and suggesting the body’s dangerous propensity for betrayal. And there is danger here: while many pages show the speaker delighting in “the naming of things,” other poems allude to moments of trauma and rage. Still, Madievsky’s speaker is too resilient, too mobile and defiant, to dwell on victimhood; as she writes in “Poem for Spring,” which first appeared in ZYZZYVA (No. 103), “the only violence / we have time for / is the violence of stars.” We spoke with Madievsky on the phone and over email about how she pulls off her aesthetic, thematic, and professional balancing acts.

ZYZZYVA: Let’s start with the title. It seems the phrase is lifted from a line in “Halloween” where the speaker describes an escapist tendency:
…how all my life
I’ve been about as carefree as a soft peach
in a pile of broken glass, my hand
always twitching toward the Ativan bottle, always ready
to pull the emergency brake…

This moment comes in the middle of an uncomfortable situation with the speaker’s boss, and I read the “emergency brake” as a kind of deus ex machina: a way to magic oneself out of a threatening setting into somewhere safer. What made you choose this metaphor for the book?

Ruth Madievsky: Originally, the book was called Shadowboxing as a nod to the four poems with that title. But “shadowboxing” sounds like exactly what you’d call a first book of poems—it has that simultaneously vague-and-specific vibe. When a friend, the poet Douglas Manuel, suggested I call the book Emergency Brake, a champagne bottle burst open in my head. Though the phrase “emergency brake” appears only once in the book, the motif of emergency brakes—in the form of intimacy, medication, associative thinking, etc.—recurs throughout. I’m taken by how those things can function at times as the emergency brake, at other times the emergency.

Z: There seem to be two prevalent forces acting on the speaker in these poems: one seems distinctly internal, in the form of obsessive, morbid thoughts (especially thoughts having to do with medicine), while the other seems more external, in the form of sexual harassment and gendered violence. There’s a sense of the body being breached but also of it being already contaminated. Can you speak about that tension?

RM: You articulated that much more clearly than I could have. I would add love and eroticism as other primary forces acting both on and within the speaker—it’s not all chemo and sex offender registries, I hope! But yes, you’ve hit on a tension that intrigues me: the ways in which the body enters the world and the world enters the body. Lungs are a core image for me because they’re maybe the best example of the constant exchange between world and body.

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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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‘On the Road’ by Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch: ZYZZYVA No. 106, Spring

Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch is the author of the poetry collections “Rockclimbing in Silk” (Seren), “Not in These Shoes” (Picador), and “Banjo” (Picador). In 2014 she held a residency at the Dylan Thomas Boathouse to mark the centenary of the poet’s birth, and she is the recipient of a Hawthornden Fellowship. She lives in Wales.

Two of her poems appear in ZYZZYVA’s Spring/Summer Issue (No. 106), including “On the Road.” An examination of Madame Tusaud and her long-lasting craft of wax figures, “On the Road” isn’t so much intrigued by the Tusaud’s waxworks as it is by how they ever came about. “To make the dead appear living, the living dead//without quite meaning to, is a skill I cannot/ yet take in …,” says the poem’s speaker. What follows is the poem in its entirety.

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The Extremities of Human Experience: Q&A with ‘I Met Someone’ Author Bruce Wagner

BRuce Wagner The fact that the dust jacket for Bruce Wagner’s latest novel, I Met Someone (Blue Rider Press; 384 pages), carries blurbs from award-winning author Sherman Alexie as well as acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh reveals how adroitly Wagner has been able to navigate both the literary scene and the world of Hollywood. Over the last several years, Wagner has been at work on what he calls the Inferno series, starting with 2012’s Dead Stars, a sprawling and densely packed novel about life on the fringes of stardom, which Tom Bissell dubbed “the Ulysses of TMZ culture.” In 2015, David Cronenberg directed Wagner’s screenplay for Maps to the Stars, a pitch-black tour through the darker side of the film industry that earned Julianne Moore a Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Inferno series culminates with this year’s I Met Someone, which tells the story of 53-year-old Dusty Wilding, a screen actress with a loving wife and the kind accolades typically reserved for Meryl Streep. Upon the death of her mother, Wilding begins a journey to locate the daughter she gave up as a teenager, a journey that leads her to shattering discoveries. The novel is at turns haunting and heartbreaking, not to mention wickedly funny, as Wagner touches on everything from the Hollywood movie-making machine to Children of God-style cults and Internet message board trolls. The book is propelled by Wagner’s virtuosic style; only Wagner could write a tender sex scene thusly: “They lay in a field of golden land mines that went off one after the other, leaving them eyeless, limbless, heartless – dead and alive all at once.”

Recently, Bruce Wagner talked to us via email about I Met Someone and its potent themes of motherhood, grief, and rebirth.

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In the Spring/Summer Issue

Issue No. 106 offers for your enjoyment more of the country’s finest stories, poetry, essays, and visual art:

Ariel Dorfman’s “Amboise”: A long-time couple’s trip to France, in which perhaps only one of them will return from.

Soma Mei Sheng Frazier’s “Clutter”: A riot of memories and thoughts pulls a stroke victim through the past and the present.

Lou Mathew’s “Last Dance”: Can a widower find it in himself to grant his annoying neighbor (who makes a mean tamale) a beseeched courtesy?

Ashley Nelson Levy’s “Auntie”: A teen daughter makes room in more ways than one for her mother’s dying friend.

And introducing our newest feature: author interviews and profiles. We begin with John Freeman on poet Kay Ryan.

Plus, nonfiction from Rivka Galchen (on ronin, Keanu Reeves, and having a newborn) and Andrew D. Cohen (Hemingway on the way to dropping off the kids at school), and fiction from Dallas Woodburn, Gregory Spatz, Ron Carlson, and the late Alan Cheuse (“The Burden”: on a boy’s first acquaintance with hard liquor).

Also, work from artists Stephen Albair and Jonathon Keats, and poetry from Ruth Madievsky, Paul Wilner, David Hernandez, Jeff Ewing, Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, and First Time in Print writer Etan Nechin.

You can get a copy of No. 106 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Spring/Summer issue.

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