Latest Posts from the Blog

An Honest Portrayal of Reckoning with Memory: Lizzie Harris’s ‘Stop Wanting’

Stop Wanting “I want to say what happened / but am suspicious of stories,” begins a poem in Stop Wanting (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 72 pages), Lizzie Harris’s debut collection, winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2013 First Book Prize. The simple statement of these opening lines illuminates the entire collection, because at the root of these poems, Harris questions how to retell memory without overwhelmingly fictionalizing. This is especially difficult when what happened frightens both writer and reader. Yet Harris investigates her memory with grace and courage in such beautiful poetry that she leaves the reader shivering, line after line. Her poems curl in and out of the experience of living with an abusive father and how that leaves a daughter to fight for her own in the adult world.

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From ‘Strange Attraction’: ‘Tracking the Family Beast’ by Po Bronson

With our 30th anniversary approaching in 2015, we would like to occasionally look back on here at some of the incredible work ZYZZYVA has published over the decades—work that announced itself as special even from the journal’s start.

Many of those select stories, poems, essays, and dramas appear in the anthology Strange Attraction: The Best Ten Years of ZYZZYVA (338 pages; $20), which you can order here. Edited by founding editor Howard Junker, the book contains a rich collection of pieces published between in ZYZZYVA between 1985 and 1994, and features writers such as Sherman Alexie, Tess Gallagher, Dennis Cooper, Karen Karbo, Octavio Solis, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, Brenda Hillman, Robert Hass, Kate Braverman, Jane Hirshfield, and many, many more.

Among those stories is “Tracking the Family Beast,” written by a then little known writer named Po Bronson. Published in Issue No. 31 (Fall 1992), the story marked Bronson’s first fiction appearance in print. At the time Bronson was an MFA candidate at San Francisco State University, but he has since become known as a best-selling author and journalist and one of the founders of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto. The following is an excerpt from “The Tracking the Family Beast,” which is set in San Francisco and details a young man’s crack-up. “I’m not who I thought I was,” says the narrator, at one point. “I didn’t think I could do this sort of thing.”

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A Drink from the Pitcher Like a Drink from the Spring: Q&A with Riccardo Duranti

Riccardo Duranti at his family farm in the hills of Sabina, Italy.

Riccardo Duranti and his granddaughter at his family farm in the hills of Sabina, Italy.

Riccardo Duranti is perhaps best known for being one of the select people in the world to have translated all of Raymond Carver’s work. (According to Duranti, there have only been two: he and Haruki Murakami). But his work includes translating more than one hundred titles by authors such as Richard Brautigan, Peter Orner, Elizabeth Bishop, Cormac McCarthy, Philip K. Dick, Tess Gallagher, Lou Reed, Sandra Cisneros, Ted Hughes, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Tibor Fischer, Michael Ondaatje, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and many more. Duranti is one of the most notable literary translators of English into Italian, and his career has its roots in the United States, where he met Tess Gallagher, who introduced him to Carver.

Translator, essayist, and poet, Duranti taught English Literature and Literary Translation at “La Sapienza” University in Rome. In 1996, he was awarded the National Prize for Translation, Italy’s most important translation prize. Recently, he decided to fulfill his dream of refurbishing his family’s old country farm located in the wild hills of Sabina just outside of Rome. Now living with his two dogs, Baldo and Nero, and eight cats, he spends his time sowing seeds into colorful flowers and fruit trees, turning organic olives into delicious oil, and translating powerful visions into graceful haikus. We spoke to him at his farm about his work.

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Displaced, Disconnected: ‘Somewhere, Elsewhere, Anywhere, Nowhere’ at Kadist

(photo by Jeff Warrin, courtesy of Kadist Art Foundation)

(photo by Jeff Warrin, courtesy of Kadist Art Foundation)

San Francisco has long been thought of as the great exception, to use historian Carey McWilliams’ phrase. Located at the far western edge of America, it was also a cultural and political frontier, a very last urban refuge from the rest of the country. In “The Poetic City That Was,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti recalled San Francisco, circa 1951, as “an island, which wasn’t necessarily part of the United States…like Athens at the height of Greek culture.” He woke up 50 years later to find his friends being evicted from their homes, himself priced out of his apartment and art studio. The poet lamented how “Corporate monoculture had wiped out any unique sense of place … And I was on the street.” (This, it should be noted, written well over a decade ago.) To be on the street meant nothing less than to be a man without a country, to have no frontier to escape to, no New World. Thus Louis Simpson’s poem “Lines Written Near San Francisco” likewise concludes, “the banks thrive and the realtors/Rejoice—they have their America.” Many feel they have lost, or are fast losing, this little vestige of theirs, with evictions on the rise in San Francisco and the culture fundamentally changed.

That sense of loss, that erosion of what Ferlinghetti called a unique sense of place, is reflected in the title of Brazilian artist Marcelo Cidade’s incisive new work Somewhere, Elsewhere, Anywhere, Nowhere at the Kadist Foundation in San Francisco’s Mission District, which he completed while in residency there. Cidade specializes in conducting critical interventions in the urban environment; he feeds upon the structural logic of cities and cultivates the art of the accidental, particularly in his hometown of São Paulo, a megalopolis well-acquainted with grim social inequality and insufficient affordable housing (hence the disappointment with, and direct opposition to the World Cup and its huge price tag). Not surprisingly, Cidade’s street-level tactics have their origins in skateboarding and graffiti. From such vantage points, he was able to diagnose the social and structural problems confronting São Paulo; and now he has brought those same tactics to San Francisco.

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Labor Poem No. 10, Emilio Fonseca Construction I

Dan Alter is a poet whose work has been published in Camelia, Southern Lights, Zeek, and, now, ZYZZYVA. His poems “Labor Poem No. 10″ and “Labor Poem No. 11″ appear in Issue No. 100. “I took the form for this series of Labor Poems from Joshua Beckman,” Alter says, “who developed it in his book Shade.”

Alter, who lives in Berkeley and is a union electrician, will be one of several readers at ZYZZYVA‘s All-Stars Summer Celebration on Thursday, July 17, at the McRoskey Mattress Company Showroom in San Francisco. The event is free, and you can RSVP your ticket here. In the meantime, we offer one of Alter’s poems from our milestone issue.

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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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