Latest Posts from the Blog

Mystery Mapped Across Backs: Geoff Nicholson’s ‘The City Under the Skin’

the city under the skinGeoff Nicholson’s newest novel, The City Under the Skin (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; 272 pages), takes place in an unnamed city where women are kidnapped, then released back into the streets, now bearing poorly tattooed maps across their backs. Told from various points of view, the winding story follows a handful of characters—Wrobleski, a professional killer who begins to collect these tattooed women; Billy Moore, a criminal trying to turn his life around but who agrees to one more job; Zak, who happens to work at a map shop and is unwillingly dragged into the mystery, and Marilyn, who’s obsessed with finding out who’s collecting these women and why—until all the parties, and loose ends, arrive at an almost too tidy end.

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Music, Marine Life, and Childhood: Lisa Williams’s ‘Gazelle in the House’

gazelle in the houseAs the title of Lisa Williams’s new book suggests, this collection of wild and graceful poems are untamed yet bound to the confines of the page. Gazelle in the House (New Issues, 87 pages), Williams’s third poetry collection, showcases the elegant range of a poet who listens deeply to the world around her. In the poem “Thelonious,” she reaches out to the jazz legend, displaying a particular knack for evoking the rhythms found in jazz:, “the crooked / passage that a flood can settle: / nuanced tread, asymmetrical / ramble only he could muster / from the backward drift of fingers: chords.” Again and again, Williams relates so poignantly to other art forms, especially music, that we hear the euphonic sounds within the poems.

In “Spilled Milk on Banjo,” she retells a childhood memory of her mother playing the stringed instrument. We can hear the rhythmic strums in the lines as her mother plays “with her clicking silver finger picks / like claws like a machine gears flashing / faster and faster her curved hands / raking across the strings such ringing.” The lack of punctuation and expert line breaks make this poem seem childlike in the disjointed and sporadic nature of the language, especially in “I am sad girls are indelicate banjo / strings taut in their silver girdle / sharp in memory as my mother.” The broken syntax throughout the poem evokes the tragedy of the memory and enacts the way we often remember childhood experiences.

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‘I can’t forget that I belong alone.’: Keetje Kuipers’s ‘The Keys to the Jail’

The Keys to the JailIn the title poem of The Keys to The Jail (BOA Editions, 92 pages), the latest stunning collection from poet Keetje Kuipers, the poet writes, “We tell our sad stories / until the dog hangs his head.” Those two lines shadow the collection’s heavy sadness, but it’s a sadness from which Kuipers crawls out of, escaping the morbid nature of life and displaying a gift for relating her experiences of the world. We feel we are discovering the world as she is: “the breath / is our own, the voices belong/ to you and me.”

The poem that follows, “Birthday Poem,” elaborates on selfhood and discovery as she opens with the gorgeous line: “My earliest memory is someone else’s.” With this poignant opening, the title suddenly becomes so fitting for the poem. With each birthday we rediscover ourselves, older and stranger, leading to the poem’s final arresting lines: “ One minute I’m becoming myself, the next I’m forgetting how.”

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Each Element Building to an Exuberant Whole: tUnE-yArDs at The Chapel

tUnE-yArDs at The Chapel in San Francisco.

tUnE-yArDs at The Chapel in San Francisco.

On a recent Monday evening at the Chapel, a gabled music venue built last year in San Francisco’s Mission District, a crowd gathered beneath the venue’s bejeweled chandeliers and curved stacks of speakers to hear the Oakland folk-indie act tUnE-yArDs. It was the band’s first stage appearance in over a year and a half, as well as the debut performance of their highly anticipated third album, Nikki Nack, and the excitement was evident. Cheers rose and fell and hands stretched out and waved as the house music blared above. Ten minutes passed, then twenty, and the audience began shuffling under lights switching vigorously between green and blue and red, but nobody left. If the band was intentionally prolonging their entrance, then the crowd felt confident they were worth the wait.

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Of Hope and Devastation: Michael Cunningham’s ‘The Snow Queen’

snow_queen“A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love.” So begins The Snow Queen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages), the latest novel from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Cunningham. Like his previous novels, The Hours and By Nightfall, Cunningham combines delicate prose with poignant subject matter, exploring the themes of love and mortality through the relationships of his characters.

Beginning in 2004 on the eve of the U.S. presidential election, The Snow Queen tells the story of a group of friends across a span of four years, the narrative winding its way through the shifting dynamics of their lives and friendships. At the center of the story are Tyler and Barrett, two brothers who share a long history and an apartment in Brooklyn. Though seemingly opposite in nature, Tyler and Barrett’s close friendship speaks to the bond of a shared past and also highlights the illusory stability of the other relationships in the novel.

Complementing the brothers’ friendship is Tyler’s relationship with his girlfriend Beth, whose long-term illness is one of the focal points of the story and the glue that holds the group together. The fourth member of the Brooklyn quartet is Liz, a brassy middle-aged retail maven with a penchant for young lovers and a keen understanding of love’s capricious nature.

Shifting perspective between the four protagonists, The Snow Queen traces the path of their lives between 2004 and 2008, using political events to establish chronology and to evoke the frustrations they all share. As the friends suffer through illness, money problems and drug addiction, their parallel struggles interweave, making it impossible to read one against the other. Instead, the novel insists on the characters being considered as part and parcel of each other, the messiness of their lives a testament to a shared human experience.

By turns mournful and anticipatory, The Snow Queen balances on the knife point of faith and despair, repeatedly invoking the celestial light at the novel’s beginning as a way of asking whether magic is indeed possible. Though Barrett vacillates more often between these two states, it is Tyler who truly embodies their delicate balance when he hears a distant song, described as being evocative “of hope and devastation, as if they were the same thing: as if, in the vocabulary of this language, there were only one word to convey the two conditions.”

Created through song and thematically developed, the link between hope and devastation permeates the novel, making itself visible in every interaction. Living up to his literary legacy, Cunningham delivers a beautifully complex story through The Snow Queen, taking the reader on a difficult journey that is tinged with just a little bit of magic.

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The Beauty and Violence of a Family and of a Nation: Q&A with Sasha Steensen

Sasha Steensen

Sasha Steensen

“We took shelter from where / why,” writes Sasha Steensen in the opening lines House of Deer (Fence Books; 88 pages). Like most of the others, this poem, “Domestication and the Chase,” visits the rural Ohio where Steensen’s back-to-the-land parents raised her, proposing along the way new definitions of family, wildness, and the lyric form.

Threading through personal and national memories, Steensen navigates the charged spaces between mother- and daughterhood, fairytale and anecdote, human and animal, and nostalgia and radical disenchantment. If coming of age in 1970s America disabused the poet of her childhood idealism, this book charts its revival; culling her memories and family history for moments of striking tenderness and awe, Steensen weaves her personal narratives with our national history, offering tales grounded in a particular place and time but also expansive, mythic, and familiar. We spoke to her via email about her book.

ZYZZYVA: Let’s start by discussing your writing process as you worked on House of Deer. Did you consult family members or conduct any research on 1970s America?

Sasha Steensen: Much of it, as you can imagine, was taken from memory. In the writing process, I became interested in the fissures inevitable in memory work, as well as the attempt to both re-present and, occasionally, bridge these fissures via storytelling. Storytelling is central to family cohesion, especially for the child who is completely reliant on stories to make sense of her earliest years. It is just as central, perhaps even more so, when the family is struggling with its identity and its viability, and so I was interested both in the ways I (re)told the stories I had heard from my parents, as well as how, when prompted, they would retell these same stories. With this in mind, I did interview them, and I shuffled through family photos and newspaper articles. I had a few Garrettsville Gazettes on hand, but mostly I did non-textual, anecdotal research for this book.

I did read a few books on the Back-to-the-Land movement, but they seemed so staid when compared to my actual childhood, so that research really did not make it into the book. Arielle Greenberg recommended Melissa Coleman’s This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak, which is quite beautiful, but I didn’t read that book until I was done with House of Deer. I did re-familiarize myself with some of the history of the early 1970s, but mostly because I wanted to think about the way these national stories, like our familial stories, change shape and significance over time.

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Not an Immortal Art: Will Rogan/Matrix 253 at the UC Berkeley Art Museum

Still from Will Rogan's "Erase" (2014); video, silent; 8:10 min.; courtesy the artist; Altman Siegel, San Francisco; and Laurel Gitlen, New York.

Still from Will Rogan’s “Erase” (2014); video, silent; 8:10 min.; courtesy the artist; Altman Siegel, San Francisco; and Laurel Gitlen, New York.

Will Rogan’s solo show at the Berkeley Art Museum (BAM)—his first ever at a museum—includes two identical photographs titled Scout’s Ruler (2013). Deadpan, black-and-white, literal, the pieces are characteristic of Conceptual Art photography from the mid to late-1960s, when artists used cameras for strictly “objective” documentation, to convey only “factual” information. (Think Joseph Kosuth’s very literal photographs of shovels, chairs, lamps, and hammers.) But the one-foot ruler in Rogan’s photographs is not an impersonal object: It was created by the artist’s daughter, Scout, who has written the numerals 1-12 in reverse order. That subjective aura raises many questions about time, the show’s central theme. How can we “objectively” measure, or document, or even understand time? What “facts” or “information” can be shared about time, mortality, or dying? Or, to borrow from a poem by Franz Wright:

How does one go
about dying?
Who on earth
is going to teach me—
The world
is filled with people
who have never died.

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Books, Not Just the Characters, Are the Point: Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s ‘Severina’

SeverinaIn his introduction to Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Severina (Yale University Press, 112 pages), poet and translator Chris Andrews writes that for readers expecting the “baroque exuberance” of fellow Guatemalan writer Miguel Angel Asturias, Rey Rosa’s fiction will come as a surprise. Not only does Rey Rosa eschew the colorful language of his predecessor for more restrained and economical prose, he allows dreams, fantasies, and hallucinations to regularly puncture his character’s worlds. In this respect, Andrews observes, the writer who Rey Rosa remains the most in debt to is Jorge Luis Borges.

Reading Severina—only the fifth of Rey Rosa’s many works to be translated into English thus far (a task begun by Paul Bowles)—one cannot help but also draw comparisons to more contemporary Latin American authors, such as Roberto Bolaño, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and César Aira. Like them, Rey Rosa enjoys using the forms of genre fiction (particularly mysteries) to mask stories whose real subjects aren’t their tantalizing series of events, but the subtler, more inscrutable themes hidden within.

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An Elegy and a Testament to a Culture: Joan Naviyuk Kane’s ‘Hyperboreal’

Hyperboreal“I could make passage / A thousand obscure, / Contradictory ways,” claims Joan Naviyuk Kane in “Mother Tongues,” a poem from the collection, Hyperboreal (University of Pittsburgh Press, 65 pages), winner of AWP’s Donald Hall Prize in Poetry. In five precise, prosodic quatrains, the poem navigates vast and difficult territory, memorializing both the poet’s mother and her mother’s native tongue, the King Island dialect of Inupiaq. An Inupiaq/Inuit, and among the last living speakers of the King Island dialect, Kane contends with biological, cultural, and political threats to her ancestral community, including climate change, language death, and the diaspora prompted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ forcible relocation of King Island residents in the mid-twentieth century. Yet as a mother and a daughter, an educator and an artist, Kane brings to these subjects a singular, sonorous voice and a lyric sensibility as alternatingly austere and lush as the land of her ancestral home.

“Mother Tongues,” like many of these poems, is studded with Inuit words: “Mother, / Aakaa; Woman, / Aġnaq.” Occasionally, these terms remain un-translated, as in “Time and Time Again” and “Nunaqtigiit.” While these entries may not offer most readers much in the way of semantics, Kane’s periodic refusal to translate testifies to the irreducibility of these messages, and to the impossibility of paraphrase from a language suffused with the knowledge of its own endangerment. As Spivak would have it, one cannot make widely legible an experience whose illegibility to dominant culture is among its fundamental experiential features. Or, in Kane’s own words, “The sky of my mind against which self- / betrayal in its sudden burn / fails to describe the world.”

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All the Lost, Autobiographical Novels

The Haunted Life and Other WritingsYears ago, when novelist Alexander Chee couldn’t sell his first book, a literary agent told him, “The first novel you finish isn’t always the first novel you publish.” The agent was right.

Hunter S. Thompson, for example, wrote his first novel, the autobiographical story of a boozy Kentucky boy in the city titled Prince Jellyfish, in his early twenties. After numerous literary agents declined it, Thompson shelved the manuscript and finished a second novel called The Rum Diary, which Simon & Schuster released in 1998, nearly four decades after he had completed it. And just last month, De Capo Press published Jack Kerouac’s lost, semi-autobiographical novella The Haunted Life, seventy years after Kerouac wrote it. It isn’t the Beat author’s first novel. That title goes to The Sea Is My Brother: The Lost Novel, penned in 1942. Nor is The Haunted Life Kerouac’s only “lost” novel; both it and The Sea Is My Brother took seven decades to reach print. The troubled twenty-two-year-old supposedly left the manuscript of The Haunted Life in a New York cab. But the novella surfaced in his friend Allen Ginsberg’s Columbia University dorm room closet, and much later in 2002, it sold at Sotheby’s for $95,600.

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It might be true that the first novel you write isn’t the first novel you publish, but like many writers sitting on a finished manuscript, I used to want to publish mine anyway. It isn’t simply the first novel I’ve written. It’s the only novel I’ve written, possibly the only one I ever will write.

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The 100th Issue: Letter from the Editors

We don’t normally reprint letters from the editor here, but on the eve of Issue No. 100′s publication date, we’d like to share with you our thoughts about the journal—why we think the work is important (and why its print format is essential), and where we hope to take it. 

Dear Readers,

Ours is an era of profligate noise. Content and images clamor for our attention at every turn, in every medium. Opinion masquerades as information; information floods our senses. Distractions abound. The cacophony is merciless, and rapid fire.

At times it seems a literary journal may be hopelessly out of step with contemporary culture. It is a radically unhip project; a gentle kind of counter-cultural movement. Yet our endeavor here at ZYZZYVA answers an urgent need in this time and place—and here in San Francisco, at the relentlessly energetic heart of technological innovation, we have a distinct perspective on that need. We risk becoming strangers to ourselves amid this noise. It is all too easy, too seductive, to succumb to a perpetually distracted state. We need a space for quiet, for reflection. We need room to recognize what is meaningful, to linger for a moment in quietude, in sadness, in uncertainty, in joy.

From our offices in downtown San Francisco, we believe we are producing a literary journal that provides such a space. Since we started in 1985, our offices have moved from one city locale to another, but our view on the world has always been, and will remain, a distinctly San Franciscan perspective. Fueled by all that our greatly diverse, culturally driven city has to offer—an international yet American community; a place of wealth and prospects as well as poverty and despondency; a marvel of natural beauty and a landscape of urban grit; comical and heart-rending, imperiled and brave—we embrace our mission: to publish art and literature that speaks to the deepest wells of life’s struggle and joy, that acknowledges the mysteries of existence and sifts for glorious moments of revelation.

So now, at 100 issues in, having persevered through many a difficult time and many a close call, our hope is to keep this journal thriving and vibrant for as long as we can. With your help, we will continue the project that our founding editor’s vision and labor began, and honor this unique institution, the inimitable publication that introduced readers to Haruki Murakami and Jim Gavin; the journal of Richard Diebenkorn and Sandow Birk; of Kay Ryan and Sherman Alexie, Raymond Carver and Adam Johnson, Wanda Coleman and Elizabeth Spencer.

In an environment crowded with dazzling and questionable new technologies, ZYZZYVA asserts the cerebral and tactile pleasures of reading, of holding a well-bound book in your hands, of losing—and finding—yourself in the pages of a story. We value the technology of print and the way words on a page remove us, if just for a moment, from more immediate interaction with the rest of the world, allowing an incomparable depth of concentration.

We assert the value of the solitary reader, communing with humanity through text, through literature; and we will continue to do our part in fostering a culture that brings writers and readers together, to convene in the same room and share ideas.

We hope you will join us in celebrating 100 issues of preeminent and daring literary publishing, of Pulitzer winners and poet laureates, of the finest contemporary minds and astonishing raw talent, and twenty-nine years of cultivating a cultural community around the arts and letters.

Yours,

Laura Cogan and Oscar Villalon

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In the Spring & Summer Issue

In our newest issue, we gather contributors past and recent:

Rebecca Solnit’s “Grandmother Spider”: A meditation on the paintings of Ana Teresa Fernandez and the ways women are made to disappear from history.

Daniel Handler’s “I Hate You”: The story of a souring young man at a birthday dinner with old friends in Oakland. (The party is over.)

Elizabeth Tallent’s “Mendocino Fire”: The peripatetic life of a young female tree-sitter, raised, and perhaps forsaken, in the wilds of the forest.

Katie Crouch’s “To Bloom, to Burst, to Blaze”: An essay on Sylvia Plath, and a haunting failure of friendship set in the days of the first dot-com boom in San Francisco.

Erika Recordon’s “Normal Problems”: The tale of an otherwise perfect mate turning over a new leaf for his love … no more murdering women.

Glen David Gold’s “The Plush Cocoon”: In which the best-selling novelist recounts a short-lived childhood in a beautiful house full of amazing objects, and a dark past his young mother tries to keep at bay.

Also, fiction from Héctor Tobar (falling asleep is the hardest thing for a successful Mexican contractor in Los Angeles), Ron Carlson, Michelle Latiolais, Scott O’Connor, and artist Paul Madonna. Nonfiction from Jim Gavin (on the education of a high school sports stringer), David L. Ulin (why magical thinking gets us through plane flights, if not life), Edie Meidav (“What is the story of death? The first is that death creates stories.”).

And new poetry from two former U.S. poet laureates and early ZYZZYVA contributors—Kay Ryan and Robert Hass—as well as from Dan Alter, Valerie Bandura, Noah Blaustein, Christopher Buckley, Michelle Patton, and Austin Smith. Blueprints from artist and author Jonathon Keats on how to mechanically slow down time for entire cities, and incredible photographs of California on fire and in drought by Jane Fulton Alt and Bill Mattick.

You can get a copy of No. 100 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA and we’ll start you off by shipping you the 100th issue.

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