ZYZZYVA EventsAugust 11, 2018
ZYZZYVA Fiction Workshop with Anthony Marra
Location: Mechanics's Institute Building and ZYZZYVA offices, 57 Post Street, San Francisco
Description: A one-day intensive workshop with Marra, award-winning author of "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" and "The Tsar of Love and Techno." Class size is very limited. Applications are due June 15. For more information, visit https://zyzzyva.submittable.com/submit/111999/fictionAugust 18, 2018
ZYZZYVA Poetry Workshop with Dean Rader
Location: Mechanics's Institute Building and ZYZZYVA Offices, 57 Post St., San Francisco
Description: A one-day intensive workshop with Rader, author of the poetry collections "Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry," "Landscape Portrait Figure Form" and "Works & Days." Class size is very limited. Application are due by June 18. For more information, visit https://zyzzyva.submittable.com/submit/106864/poetrySeptember 22, 2018
ZYZZYVA Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Caille Millner
Location: Mechanics's Institute Building and ZYZZYVA Offices, 57 Post St., San Francisco
Description: A one-day intensive workshop with Millner, author of the memoir "The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification" and a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle. Class size is very limited. Applications are due by July 23. For more information, visit https://zyzzyva.submittable.com/submit/106865/creative-non-fiction
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Catching Up with Good Things: ‘The Luck of Friendship—The Letters of Tennessee Willams and James Laughlin’
But the mutability of literary fashion continues to be regrettable. A new collection, The Luck of Friendship—The Letters of Tennessee Willams and James Laughlin (392 pages; Norton), reminds us of the importance of respecting the Muse (regardless of reviews), the seeming bygone virtues of literary mentorship, and the need to cast aside judgement to make way for love. Tactfully edited by Peggy Fox and Thomas Keith, Laughlin’s longtime associates at New Directions, the avant-garde publishing house he founded, it presents a little-seen side of the playwright.
Too often portrayed retrospectively as a pill-popping, promiscuous caricature, a kind of Capote with theatrical wings, this record shows him as a devoted, if sometimes anxious friend, seeking and getting the approval of Laughlin—an accomplished poet in his own right, who was an advocate for Williams’s early works, from The Glass Menagerie to A Streetcar Named Desire. (They were also avid collaborators on everything from typeface to cover design; a subject Williams was intensely interested in.)
“I have done a lot of work, finished two long plays,’’ he writes in 1947, from New Orleans. “One of them, ‘A Streetcar Called Desire’ turned out quite well. It is a strong play…but is not what critics call ‘pleasant.’ In fact, it is pretty unpleasant. But we already have a producer ‘in the bag.’ A lady named Irene Selznick [estranged wife of David Selznick and a daughter of Louis B. Mayer]. Her chief apparent advantage is that she seems to have millions.’’
Laughlin, as always, was supportive. Even when he had reservations, or suggestions about Williams’s work, he phrased them encouragingly, and was an advocate for controversial material like his 1948 story collection, One Arm and Other Stories, which depicted gay life explicitly, and tirelessly urged Tennessee to continue work on his underrated poetry.
Perhaps the secret to the longevity of this alliance was in the physical distance between the two men.
“Their joint story, while admittedly only a small part of the life of either man, provides a window into the literary history of the mid-twentieth century and reveals not only the self-destructive tendencies of a great artist, but also his lifelong perseverance to remain both a poet and an experimental playwright, supported in his endeavors by the publisher he considered his his one true friend,’’ Fox writes in the introduction.
True to form, Laughlin backed Williams in his later efforts, even when they were viciously attacked. It’s a commonplace (seen also in Rebecca Miller’s recent documentary about her father, Arthur) that after enjoying early success of incredible magnitude, the artist must be knocked down a peg or ten by critics for his subsequent work, even though they obviously stem from the same sensibility. The light may burn brightest in youth, but the Victorian maidens of the press can’t resist the temptation to engage in schadenfreude at the inevitable fall.
“Dear Tenn,’’ Laughlin writes in 1953. “I’m glad that you have been encouraged by lots of letters from people who liked Camino [Real]. They are right and the dopes are wrong. But it all takes time. You must be patient. The world catches up with good things slowly. You’ve just got to develop a thick hide. I went through all of this with New Directions. For years almost all of the reviews of all the books were ridicule and scorn. You just have to sit tight and pay no attention and believe in yourself.’’
The publisher’s modesty, too, belied his talent. I was lucky enough to interview Laughlin some years back, and he recounted how he founded New Directions at Ezra Pound’s behest. He’d interrupted his studies at Harvard to sit at the cantankerous poet’s feet in Rapallo.
“When I first went there, I was trying to write, and I would show him things,’’ he recounted wryly. “He’d always tear them to pieces: too many words, too ‘poetic.’
“He finally said, ‘You’d better go home and do something useful.’ I said, ‘What is useful?’ and he said, ‘If you have the guts, you might murder Henry Seidel Canby.’ Henry Canby was the editor of the Saturday Review, who was very old-fashion, and always getting after Ezra.’’
“We decided that wouldn’t be very practical, so he said, ‘Well, you can become a publisher’ – and gave me letters to William Carlos Williams and his other literary friends.’’
Despite Pound’s protestations, Laughlin, who died in 1997, was a serious, if underappreciated, poet in his own right. I’d be remiss not to recommend, along with the Williams correspondence, his Collected Poems (New Directions, 1,214 pages), a massive volume full of unexpected pleasures, like this:
The Poet To His Reader
These poems are not I
hope what anyone ex-
pects and yet reader
I hope that when you
read them you will say
I’ve felt that too but
it was such a natural
thing it was too plain
to see until you saw
it for me in your poem.
Williams’ heroine Blanche DuBois famously declared she’d always depended on the kindness of strangers. But in Laughlin, he found an initial stranger who became a stalwart friend. Every writer should be so lucky.
April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each Wednesday we will be taking a deep dive into both ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. For the final week of April, we present Jennifer Elise Foerster’s poem “Richer than Anyone in Heaven” from ZYZZYVA No. 95, Fall 2012:
I abandoned my shoes at the corner
of Market & Pine. It was hailing.
We were holding tin pots above our heads.
Collecting the granulated wind
and singing. I don’t care
about my shoes, I said. The city was in ruins.
Pieces of fiberglass glittered in gutters
like particles of space shuttles,
of a shattered moon. We will be richer
than anyone in heaven, I said.
We stole from parlors the dying embers,
gathered the porcelain figurines.
On the fizzled trees, leaves
clanged like spoons.
Our shopping cart squeaked
down the cobblestone street.
Saw-toothed lightning slashed the sky.
Will there be music, you asked,
on the other side?
We listened through wind-vents
for echoes of earthquakes, listened for God
until the radio died. A hawk floated down
like a frayed paper crane,
snagged its claws on the electrical wire.
We crumbled the hands
from statues of saints.
Beneath the cathedrals
were underground trains
and we rode every one of them to its end.
Each station was a burned-out lantern.
I want to go home, you cried
but even the ferries bobbing on the docks
had canceled their passages.
We sat in the dark eating crusts of stale bread.
Come with me, I said.
We stumbled beneath the starless night.
We climbed the vacant streets.
From the crown of the bald,
illuminated hill, the city’s windows
dazzled. A flock of geese
scissored over smoke.
Back home, my television
blinked and snowed.
Jennifer Elise Foerster is the author of Leaving Tulsa (2013) and Bright Raft in the Afterweather (2018), both published by the University of Arizona Press. She is the recipient of a NEA Creative Writing Fellowship (2017), a Lannan Foundation Writing Residency Fellowship (2014), and was a Robert Frost Fellow in Poetry at Breadloaf (2017) and a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford (2008-2010). You can find the poem above in ZYZZYVA No. 95, available for purchase in our store.
In Happiness (368 pages; Atlantic Monthly Press), novelist and memoirist Aminatta Forna takes the reader into a caravan of events that starts in contemporary London, where Attila, a Ghanian psychologist whose field study specializes in war refugees, in between “going to see plays and eating in fine restaurants,” feels as if he’s living on “a stage set, whose denizens enacted their lives against its magnificent backdrop. A theatre of delights, where nothing surely could go wrong, and if it did, all would be put right by the end of the third act.” On Waterloo Bridge one day, he bumps into Jean, an urban wildlife biologist from the United States. He has come to London to find Tano, the son of his beloved “niece,” Ama, who has been swept up recently in an immigration raid. Tano has been missing ever since.
Intertwining psychological, historical, and scientific insights, and seamlessly incorporating vignettes set in Iraq, Bosnia, and New England, Happiness explores the unexpected parallels between urban wildlife and the humans living next them:
“But he’s going to stay close by and not just because of his mother,” Jean tells Attila. “These”—”and she indicated markings on the map—“are all fox territories. Foxes stake out an area and then they stay in it. Why? Because that’s how they sustain themselves. They know where to hunt, where to find food, water, shelter, where they feel safe from predators. The boy is no different, he’s going to stay where he feels most secure.”
Amid the search for Tano, Jean finds herself being tested in other ways. During a spirited radio-show debate on the culling of foxes, Jean calls the mayor of London a fool and finds herself on the wrong end of a hashtag attack on Twitter, where she’s criticized for supporting foxes over people. Her family life isn’t going so well, either. Her son treats her like “the kind of old school friend you’ve outgrown, but to whom you remain bound by a shared history and a sense of loyalty.”
While the story largely centers on the search for Tano and the relationship between Attila and Jean that ensues from that, Happiness also considers how indispensible people such as security guards and doormen typically remain in the background of city life. The doorman at Attila’s building, for example, along with his network of surrounding doormen, security guards, and street-sweepers, stay on the alert for Tano. As such, it is the overlooked who catalyze the seemingly Sisyphean search for the lost boy. Over the search’s span of two weeks, the narrative mines the tender feelings, as well as the tensions, between Attila and Jean.. Their emotions are portrayed in such a way that it rouses sentiment rather than sentimentality:
“Love is a gamble, the stake is the human heart. The lover holds his or her cards close, lays them out one at a time and watches each move of the other player. To whom do you go first? This is the ‘tell’ of love…More than anybody else Jean wanted Attila.”
Happiness takes quotidian societal problems like racism, illegal hunting, and faulty government and wreathes them with personal issues such as mourning the deaths of wives and past lovers, Aminatta Forna has given us a pertinent novel, one whose prose is fluid and dynamic.
To: All Quest Industries Employees
From: President Bryan Stokerly, Esq.
Subj: Important Discoveries
I am very pleased to share with you a few recent discoveries I’ve made that I think you
too will benefit from:
1. Some of us think we are allergic to nuts, but we are not.
2. Parking in a tow zone for 1-3 minutes is usually okay.
3. It is very difficult to know, objectively speaking, if you are good-looking.
4. Late-night eating is never a good idea, unless you have had nothing to eat in at least
5. It’s okay to swim on a full stomach, as long as it’s not too full.
6. Women named Stephanie are, as a rule, extremely unfriendly, in my experience.
7. Public restrooms, if at all possible, should be avoided.
8. I am fairly certain that in a past life I was a squirrel and resided in Norway.
9. Dogs are excellent judges of character. In fact, they’re never wrong.
10. It’s true that you can get sunburn when it’s cloudy outside.
11. Dill pickles have no calories! I know this seems unbelievable, but I’m not lying.
12. Cat brains are more like human brains than dog brains are, which explains why cats
are often such assholes.
We strive to fill each issue of ZYZZYVA with a dynamic and challenging blend of contemporary fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Here’s a sampling of some of the writing in Issue No. 112, which you can get today with a subscription to ZYZZYVA:
An interview with Man Booker Prize-winning author PAUL BEATTY: I think the real reason I set The Sellout there [in Dickens] is that there’s this weird neighborhood in L.A…There are a lot of weird neighborhoods in L.A. [Laughs] This one is called Richland Farms. It’s a small little section of Compton. My sister teaches there, and when we were little my mom used to drive us to––I don’t even know if they still have it––to the Watts Parades, which were like a celebration of the Watts Riots. Not a celebration of the riots, but…I guess a celebration of surviving the riots? You’d go through there and occasionally you’d go down these streets and you would see black people on horseback, just riding down the street. It’s something that stayed in my head…So one day my sister was telling me that her students come to class with milk that they’ve bought from their next-door neighbor’s cows––like the neighbors milk the cows and sell the kids the milk for fifty cents. So it’s this weird section of Compton that’s zoned for livestock and stuff like that. It’s just something I’ve always been thinking about and no one knows about it.
Ugly and Bitter and Strong, an essay by SUZANNE RIVECCA: What struck me about the people at the center of these stories––Wooolson, the relic-destroying classical scholar, the Academy suicides––was how uncomfortable they made everyone else, and how swiftly and neatly their breakdowns were classified, and thereby negated. They were crazy. They had diseased brains. They were destined for this end. And I knew that Italy did not break them; it merely threw their brokenness into profound and excruciating relief. But I didn’t want to believe that they had all merely succumbed, as fated, to some inborn flaw in their synaptic composition. I wanted to believe that there was something Woolson had left undone, something the Academy ghosts had left undone: something they averted their eyes from, and ran from. Something they could have confronted and survived.
Barbara From Florida, a short story by MADDY RASKULINECZ: Eric and Casey had a lot of advice for Alison about being a pizza boy. Mostly the advice was about getting robbed, which was an inevitability. They told her not to put the topper on top of the car and to always park directly in front of the customer’s house. They disagreed over keeping a gun in the car. Case and Malcom had guns and Eric did not. It was against the rules of the pizza store, Miles the manager had told her. The pizza boys agreed he had mentioned it specifically because it was specifically a very logical idea. They agreed it was best to have a fake wallet with a fake driver’s license and fake credit cards in it. Eric and Casey and Malcom were younger than Alison, younger than twenty-one, and all had fake IDs for many of the things they liked to do. Casey offered to get Alison a fake ID and Alison accepted…The fake ID that Casey brought her said she was Georgina, from Georgia.
April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each Wednesday we will be taking a deep dive into both ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. For the third week of April, we present Austen Leah Rosenfeld’s poem “Creation Myth” from ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall 2016:
Not the dark of the prairie at night,
fireflies nestled like hot pearls in the grass.
More like the sense of something
approaching, weaving a black basket in the sky.
Days came and went without epiphany.
Then the world began to materialize.
It was like coming down out
of the clouds in an airplane:
miles of snow-scented wheat,
white-tailed deer and wild turkey.
The people had a feeling
somewhere their lives were already lived.
They heard a narrator
in the cornfield, a voice like a flashlight
in the barn of the future.
Austen Leah Rosenfeld’s poems have appeared in AGNI, Salmagundi, Indiana Review, and other publications. She lives in San Francisco. Two of her poems appear in ZYZZYVA No. 107, available for purchase in our store.
George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (350 pages; Penguin Random House), recently released in paperback, continues to offer the salve we need. This exceptional novel, which went on to win the Man Booker Prize ––making Saunders the second American (in a row at that) to win the prize –– has the kind of sensibility necessary for national healing; as The Atlantic noted, “In a year in which writers and artists have wrestled with the question of how to tackle the increasing prominence of hate in the political sphere, the Man Booker judges seemed to respond to Saunders’s humanizing portrait of a leader felled by grief.”
As always, Saunders’ work celebrates humanity where you least expect to find it. In his story collection Tenth of December he cheerfully examined the dark emotions driving middle-class Americans. And in Lincoln in the Bardo, which takes place during the first year of the Civil War and centers on the death of Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son, Willie, Saunders works tirelessly to understand the book’s multiple characters. Most of them are ghosts stuck in a graveyard, who are present on the night of Willie’s arrival in the cemetery. Throughout the novel, Saunders inserts excerpts from letters, newspapers, and some fictional archives that discuss the Lincoln family’s tragedy from afar. Each archival extract and fictional voice is broken up into small paragraphs, marked underneath by the speaker’s name, making the text read as a play.
“I didn’t just do it to be fancy,” Saunders told the New York Times after winning the Man Booker, “but because there was this emotional core I could feel, and that form was the only way I could get to it.” The archival excerpts also serve to break up the main narration, which is comprised of voices from the Bardo—a Tibetan space that exists between death and rebirth, where one’s fate is still undecided, similar to purgatory (although Saunders has argued that purgatory wasn’t quite right for the story; he imagined purgatory as too similar to waiting in line at DMV). The Bardo is populated by people whose bodies have died, but whose spirits are still tied to the living world. These lost souls find themselves unwilling to move on to the next world.
The souls residing in Willie’s cemetery occupy a place of denial; each one has a final memory that prevents them from accepting the truth of their own demise. They refer to their corpses as “sick-forms” and their coffins as “sick-boxes,” indicating they still think they’ll one day return to the world of the living and their loved ones. Each night, they wander the grounds of the graveyard, repeating the very same stories that keep them stuck in this liminal space. The ghosts in the Bardo can enter one another’s body, helping them access someone else’s memories, desires, and anxieties. In a discussion at San Francisco City Art and Lectures on the occasion of Lincoln in the Bardo’s paperback release, Saunders said that fiction has a similar kind of power: it has the ability to help us better understand the experiences and emotions of others, because it allows us to step into the position of someone whose experiences are far from our own. Saunders work provides a manual of sorts for national healing; it is through the practice of imagining oneself in the place of another that one can view others with compassion and ultimately move beyond differences.
T.S. Eliot once stated, “The last thing I would wish for would be the existence of two literatures, one for Christian consumption and the other for the pagan world,” a status quo which has more or less come to pass. (It seems as though one could count on both hands the number of mainstream contemporary novels that grapple with the Christian faith.) As such, Jamie Quatro’s first novel, Fire Sermon (208 pages; Grove Press), which references the above T.S. Eliot quote, often registers as something different and exciting. Here is a smart novel for adults that deals honestly with the difficulty of nurturing faith in the midst of a world that frequently resists our attempts to prescribe it meaning –– a world full of complications such as infidelity, despair, and disease that undermine the tidy proverbs of a Sunday morning sermon.
On the surface, Fire Sermon’s narrator, Maggie, possesses the ideal life: a long-running marriage to her college sweetheart, Thomas, who provides her the room to cultivate her faith in God, even if he doesn’t share it; two beautiful children; and a cozy home with a dog and a yard in Nashville. Yet as the book opens, Maggie finds herself at something of an impasse. The stresses and strains of child rearing have left her feeling displaced in her own body and therefore disinterested in sex with her husband, while his lack of understanding in her beliefs continues to increase the emotional distance between them. This martial strife creates an opening for Maggie to begin a written correspondence with an acclaimed poet named James.
Through a series of intimate e-mails and handwritten letters, many of which appear throughout Fire Sermon, the two of them form an intellectual connection that soon grows into an undeniable attraction. After meeting at several lectures and conferences, Maggie and the poet (himself married with two children) finally consummate their relationship during a stay in downtown Chicago. This night sends Maggie spiraling into an existential crisis, as she wonders how God could condemn an act she views as an expression of true feeling between two people, married to other people though they may be; and she struggles to rectify the momentousness of her beliefs with the constant torment she experiences from attempting to live up to them:
“What if you woke up one day to discover the corpse of Christ had been identified definitively? Or that an irrefutable, airtight scientific study had been devised to disprove the existence of God, and the study had –– beyond any conceivable doubt –– proved he did not exist? What would you feel?
Maggie’s interior life serves as the focus of much of the novel as she probes her convictions, revealing they may not be as ironclad as she would prefer to think. Her thoughts are laid bare through sessions with an unnamed Counselor (who may or may not be an imagined stand-in for God), as well as in letters –– largely unsent –– to James. Refreshingly, these interrogations of the self don’t shy away from tackling the contradictions of religion head-on; rather than reflect the shiny, copacetic surface of so-called megachurches (“Her parents’ church is an embarrassment to both of them: drums and electric guitars, flashing laser lights and images projected onto screens during the sermon…”), Maggie’s musings reaffirm the Kierkegaardian notion that maintaining one’s faith should be excruciating work. (“Job is bullshit,” Maggie declares, “Job lost everything”). In a journal entry, Maggie sums up these struggles to hold onto meaning by writing, “God of God, Light of Light, Very Void of Very Void,” a line that recalls Hemingway’s famous passage, “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name.”
This mention of the Void also precipitates Maggie’s philosophical ruminations on the similarities and differences between Christianity and Buddhism. In contrast to an eternity spent worshipping God with loved ones, the Buddhist afterlife proposes the annihilation of both suffering and the self –– an attractive proposition to a woman torn by her heart’s conflicting desires: “One ends in Nirvana, nonbeing…Extraction from the talons. What relief there would be in no longer to feel, again, your whiskers on my inner thigh.”
One could perhaps criticize Maggie for her somewhat solipsistic view of the world, but her character is discerning enough to call herself out and at least entertain the possibility that what she feels for her distant poet is not love, but merely the inevitable result of martial doldrums; that after years of monogamy, what she finds herself yearning for is not this man James but the idea of someone new. She pointedly asks herself if James is simply the next in “a litany of men I draw toward myself not out of loneliness or unhappiness, but out of one desire, to be fucked by someone besides my husband,” and comes to the conclusion that “…unless something is forbidden, I cannot want it with any intensity.”
These are provocative questions, and questions without easy answers, certainly not answers that could be doled out by a laser lightshow and projector screen on a Sunday morning. Their complexity rings true to the difficulties of maintaining any relationship over the span of a lifetime. To that end, Fire Sermon deserves to find an audience beyond only those who will see Maggie’s faith as a reflection of their own.
National Poetry Month: ‘Art Wong is Alive and Ill and Struggling in Oakland California’ by Marilyn Chin
April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each Wednesday we will be taking a deep dive into both ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. For this second weak of National Poetry Month, we present Marilyn Chin’s poem “Art Wong is Alive and Ill and Struggling in Oakland California” from ZYZZYVA No. 9, Spring 1987. You can order selected back issues of ZYZZYVA here:
Thirty, I painted landscapes;
forty, insects and flowers;
fifty, I turned lazy as mud,
never ventured beyond
West Borrowed Hill.
Oh, nonsense! Art
is a balding painter, humpbacked
as the dwarfed acacia
dying in his father’s chopsuey joint.
His palette is muddy; his thoughts are mud.
He sits crosslegged,
one eye open, the other shut,
a drunken Buddha.
I laugh at the sun; I take in air;
I whistle in sleep, let cicadas within
murmur their filial rapture.
My father’s dream is my dream:
fast cars and California gold.
The singles bar is my watering hole.
And I…I am in love with him.
Never ask why, for youth
always begs the question.
As long as boughs are green,
so is my love green and pure
in this asphalt loneliness.
I let down my long hair;
my hair falls over his shoulders:
thus, we become one. Oh, Willow,
Cousin Willow, don’t weep for me now.
Sanctify this marriage between
the diaspora and the yearning sea.
Marilyn Chin is a prominent Chinese American poet and writer, an activist and feminist, an editor and Professor of English. Her most recent work, Hard Love Province, was a Poetry finalist for the California Book Award. In January 2018, she was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. You can find her poems in several ZYZZYVA back issues, including No. 9, 15, and 22.
It’s rare that any book of poems, not to mention a first book, is as powerful as I Know Your Kind (96 pages; Milkweed) by William Brewer. This book, rooted in the physical and spiritual landscape of West Virginia, tackles the opioid epidemic in verse. Focusing on the small town of Oceana (nicknamed Oxyana for the record number of overdoses there), Oceana acts as a stand-in for West Virginia as a whole, which has the highest OD rate in the country.
The book is at once dreamlike and visceral, and the images in it draw on the beauty and pain of a West Virginia that is, in Brewer’s words “last on every list,” a state that people in the nation’s capital, only a few hours away, barely acknowledge and clearly don’t care much about.
Brewer, who has two poems in the Spring/Summer issue of ZYZZYVA (which you can purchase here), is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. He will be reading with other ZYZZYVA contributors as part of the Spring Issue Celebration at East Bay Booksellers at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 13, and then in a solo reading for the Marin Poetry Center at Mill Valley Library at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 31. This interview took place at a cafe in Oakland.
ZYZZYVA: Your book seems deeply rooted in a sense of place, but in order to write about it, you seemed to need to get some distance, to be able to see it clearly. Can you speak to that a bit?
William Brewer: I didn’t leave it to write about it, but I realized by leaving just how much it impacted my aesthetic brain. The way I visualize and imagine the world is completely determined by where I grew up.
There’s a kind of sheer beauty to West Virginia that makes it a very distinct place, visually speaking, and it also possesses a sense of ancientness. Out here [in California], the Sierras are still growing, but the Appalachian Mountains are incredibly old. That’s where all the coal and minerals and gas come from, those ancient deposits. They exude an intense energy.
In West Virginia, the landscape has long been the driving force of its economy. The mountains were a source for prosperity for some, but often those who live there watch its great natural beauty destroyed for the benefit of others. At the same time the mountains themselves can make you feel like you live in a prison. The mountains make it difficult to get anywhere. There are places that are just really inaccessible, and communities have been existing there for a hundred plus years without much input from the outside world.
On a larger scale, West Virginia is surrounded by states that are more prosperous and have a lot of political sway and cultural input. Because of that, West Virginia is often seen as a sort of black hole, a place that doesn’t exist, or that at most is a place people have driven through, but not a place to which anyone really goes. Which is a shame, because it’s really a remarkable place.
Lots of really intelligent people think it’s a part of Virginia. It’s a place where you are constantly told you don’t matter. Add to that a failed economy, and in some places a deep sense of physical isolation, and you can pretty quickly feel a deep disconnect from the rest of the country.
Z: Do you think that fueled the opioid epidemic?
WB: I think a couple of things fueled the epidemic. One is that pharmaceutical companies saw an opportunity to abuse people for profit. I’m always going to point to that before I point to people. People are down and out everywhere and they are really down and out in West Virginia. You’re constantly being told that you don’t matter, that no one cares. And that gets illustrated pretty clearly when you see just how okay pharmaceutical companies have been with watching West Virginians die. They made a clear value judgment about West Virginian life. They used bodies for profit. In the past decade, out-of-state drug companies shipped 20.8 million prescription painkillers to two pharmacies four blocks apart in a southern West Virginia town with 2,900 people. They knew what they were doing.
Z: I read in an article about small town America that bright children are often encouraged to leave from an early age, to seek opportunity elsewhere. Did you have that experience?
WB: No, not really, though brain drain is a real problem in WV. For me personally, I was basically a visual artist up until my senior year in high school, and so the plan had always been for me to go away to art school. At the last minute I decided I wanted to attend a liberal arts college, basically because I fell in love with reading and wanted to do that and only that for four years. But another part of it is that I grew up in Morgantown, which is a college town, home to West Virginia University, so it was far more common for someone from there to stay for college than it was for them to leave. Most of my friends wound up staying.
Z: So how did you make that shift from visual art to poetry?
WB: The summer after my junior year I went to Brown University for a pre-college summer school. That’s really where I was first introduced to poetry. I was exposed to so much, especially other students who were so much more sophisticated than me—they knew so much about art and literature; it really opened my eyes to a larger world. There was just so much data that I had no awareness of at all. So then I didn’t want to go to art school, because I felt illiterate. I took a creative writing class, and it opened up a new horizon for me. Fast-forward to college where I take a poetry workshop and it immediately clicked because poetry is very visual. I essentially translated my art brain into a poetry brain. And that still holds true today—if I’m writing well, I’m not really thinking so much as feeling like a five-year-old with a crayon. It’s all about trust in my imagination. But my imagination needs to be fed a lot of material and energy. I feel like I need to read about two books of poetry for every one poem I write.
Z: Who were your early influences?
WB: Mark Strand was the first poet I loved, which made a lot of sense when I later learned he’d studied as a painter before he took up poetry; the visual quality of his work really made sense to me. I was introduced to Jack Gilbert by my first great poetry teacher and mentor, Christopher Bakken, and Gilbert’s work really lit up my brain because here was this poet from Pittsburgh—which was just south of where I went to college and just north of where I grew up, not to mention a place I love—describing landscapes that are very much a part of my DNA, and doing so in a way that imbued them with a great deal of value, without turning them into set pieces. He made them dynamic places that influence how you live your life. I’d never seen that before.
Z: That’s one of the things that struck me about your first book, the way landscape is interwoven with action. At the same time there’s a dreamlike quality that compliments the subject.
WB: Yes, I want the poems to have that dreamlike quality. I think for me that’s also an expression of reality. The strangeness of what the epidemic has done to places sounds dreamy—or, more specifically, nightmarish—when you put it in words, but it’s reality. The idea of EMTs running between houses or people collapsing on the streets sounds like a terrible dream, but it’s real.
Z: How did you come to write about the opioid addiction?
WB: I never planned to write about it or about West Virginia. I certainly didn’t want to write about coal miners or timber people or people living down in the holler, or however else people see West Virginia. I mean you can write about Texas without writing about cowboys. As a literary idea of a place we allow people to write about Texas cowboys and about people who have never been on a horse in their life.
Basically it just worked its way into my private life. Someone close to me told me they were a heroin addict, and my first reaction was repulsion. I said something like “You’ve just pissed it all away, you should be ashamed of yourself.” Then I realized how wrong I’d been, how this person had come to me at their most vulnerable and I wrote them off in the most completely unsophisticated way. It kind of snapped me awake. I thought, if that’s my reaction, someone who’s educated and thinks of himself as thoughtful and caring, then the average reaction is probably no better. There’s something really wrong about this. I thought about that individual and my friends, my community, and the state as a whole, and I wanted to understand why.
I wanted to make something that would be there for people who were suffering. In this little state that no one seems to care about, people are dying, and no one has anything to say about it.
It was clear to me that there was a great spiritual hurt that was there before the epidemic began, that was part of being from West Virginia. You are at the bottom of every list—worst schools, most depressed, highest poverty level, everybody’s sick. This notion of being beaten down, of being told you’re nothing and that you have no agency, that was already there. The idea that the epidemic was hillbillies partying just isn’t true.
Then I realized that what was going on with the epidemic was a continuation of the West Virginia narrative: Massive entities like timber, coal, and chemical corporations exploited people’s bodies to turn massive profit, with little concern for their health and safety. This is just another round of that narrative, updated for the post-industrial era. Drug companies using bodies to make money. They look at West Virginians as little cash machines with legs. When I realized this new, but ultimately repeated, narrative was happening, something clicked.
Z: I remember that Robert Bly said that after World War II, everything was in tatters, and that it was part of his job to try to put it back together again. Is that how you feel?
WB: No, not really. I don’t think I could ever make a claim like that. This is a record of one person’s perception of a culture. At its deepest core it’s not a book about West Virginia or even a book about the opioid epidemic. It’s a book for people; people that I know, and that I don’t know. The attention that it’s brought to the epidemic is a gift, something I’m happy to be part of. But I see it as a book for people who experience the pain of addiction, whether that’s personally, or in their family, or in their community. Now, that being said, it is still very much a book about West Virginia and the epidemic.
But from the time I started it to now, the epidemic’s reach has grown so far. At this point, I think it’d be fair to say that, were you to walk into a poetry reading, in almost any room in America, and ask everyone who knows someone who has struggled with opioids to please raise their hands, every hand in the room would go up. The book is my way of looking at a deep spiritual cry that seems to be happening.
Most of it was just fumbling in the dark, reacting to what was going on around me. These things became clear as I did the work.
Z: How have people in your community reacted to the book? When you go back, what do they say about it?
WB: I haven’t gone back and read yet, though I will soon—mostly when I’m home I’m just off the radar, seeing family. But I have read in places where the epidemic’s claws are deep and the response has been humbling and incredible and really shows me what poetry can do.
Z: In the book you speak in many different voices—as people close to you, in the voice of the addict, in the voice of those watching. How autobiographical is it?
WB: Some people have asked how I came to describe the effects of the drugs, and the answer to that is when I was in college, I had a bad accident that tore up my leg, and I was administered opioids, beginning with morphine right when I hurt myself and was in the worst pain I could imagine, and the relief they provided was divine. Then I was on prescription pain-killers for a number of months, through surgery and into months of recovery. Luckily, we really heavily monitored my medication, but it gave me an understanding of the kind of deep, almost celestial relief these drugs provide, and how easy it would be to turn to them out of great spiritual pain. If it were offered, I’d be sold. Anyone would be sold. At the same time, I saw how it changed my community. I couldn’t escape it. So all these voices came to me.
Z: So where do you see your writing going from here?
WB: Whether my work is always going to engage with a kind of political or social element, I don’t know. My second book does, but in a different way. It explores this kind of spiritual freefall of post-industrial America and how larger systems of connected to post-industrial fallout and war find their way into your life, even when you try to avoid it. I’m working on long sentences, long lines, and one of the pillar poems from that book is in this issue of ZYZZYVA.
In general, I think I’m always working toward that line from White Noise, “I want to immerse myself in American magic and dread.” The magic/mystery element is very real to me.
William Brewer is the author of I Know Your Kind (Milkweed Editions, 2017), winner of the National Poetry Series, and Oxyana, selected for the Poetry Society of America’s 30 and Under Chapbook Fellowship. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Boston Review, The Iowa Review, Narrative (where it was awarded the 30 Below Prize), The Nation, New England Review, The New Yorker, and other journals. Currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, he was born and raised in West Virginia. You can also find his poetry in ZYZZYVA No. 112.
“The writers of the present century have lost respect for the invisible,” says one of the narrators of Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane (560 pages; FSG). “They have tried to describe what they had better have left unreported.” Perhaps we are fortunate, then, that Gerald Murnane has not lost this connection, for his writing is unlike anything being published today. It could be the way Murnane works his prose, filling it with repetitions and pulling out commas so the syntax shines like glass; or it could be something about all these nameless men and boys walking their small parts of Australia, dreaming about women and grass and clouds. In any respect, Murnane is one of the rare few actually working to alter the experience of reading fiction, and it is time his works are recognized more fully in this regard.
Despite an impressive body of work consisting of nine novels, three books of short fiction, one essay collection, and a memoir—as well as the highest praise from writers J. M. Coetzee, Teju Cole, Helen Garner, and Shirley Hazzard—Murnane’s books have mostly been confined to Australia and the United Kingdom. The release this spring in the United States of Stream System and Border Districts: A Fiction (144 pages; FSG) is therefore a major event in the publishing history of this writer and in contemporary literature. In Stream System we have the fullest collection of Murnane’s short fiction to date, giving us access to stories that were difficult or impossible to find before, and in the elegant Border Districts, which Murnane has called the last piece of fiction he will ever write, we have the vantage point to look over his ambitious life work.
Murnane’s fictions are composed like vast diagrams of far-away boxes connected by thin blue lines. For those unfamiliar with his writing, his subjects can be summed up fairly easily. In order of increasing abstraction they are: Catholicism, horse racing, women, fiction, landscape, light. The tone ranges from the reflective to the documentarian, with the extreme on one side resembling the best writing from Beckett and Conrad, and the other sounding a lot like that infamous 2012 report from the US Government Accountability Office about reports about reports that suggests the preparation of a further report about said report. In the harsh but necessary world of jacket copy blurbs it has become commonplace to call someone’s style “unique,” but Murnane really does seem to write differently from anyone else. The best comparison might be an artist like Glenn Gould: substitute features of the basin or plains for the arctic, and the opening line of Gould’s The Idea of North, “I’ve long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country,” could easily be the start of a Murnane story.
Murnane does not write for an audience, that much is clear. His repetitive and sometimes off-putting style has borne its fair share of detractors. But unlike most writers in this line, Murnane also does not seem to be writing deliberately away from an audience, or in other words, being difficult for the sake of being difficult. It takes time to see this, but his writing truly does seem to reflect who he is as a person. (Character will out, as they say.) It exhibits humility, curiosity, and a careful, inward intelligence.
April represents National Poetry Month, intended as a way to spread awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. To celebrate, each Wednesday we will be taking a deep dive into both ZYZZYVA’s recent and distant past to share some choice selections. To begin the month, we present Suzanne Roszak’s poem “Surge Channel” from ZYZZYVA No. 102, Winter 2014:
I imagined sea-bathers, wanting to stand
above them unbuckled in the wind,
my pores soaking up the smooth violence,
and dive. But the water was more stabbing
than they led me to expect. So instead,
smaller swimmers in brighter colors
lapped me at the edge of the surf, dashing
in and out as I stood toe-deep, dying
as inefficiently and persistently
as possible. Somewhere not far away,
someone teenage-sounding was rapping
triumphantly about butts. Implied expletives
echoed against the cliffs. There was
something impossible in it: less the vivid
disregard for romance or the female brain
than the confidence in how we all
respond to extremes. Barring some
phenomenal shift in temperament, I knew
I’d tuck my feet away from the wet rock.
I knew about surge channels, how
the sea plants double over to save themselves
while the oysters slam their faces together
against the air. I had no idea of
drowning that day or ever, a necklace
of jellies tight around my throat – had
no love or urchins or salted weeds,
a braid of slime flapping and twisting
to drag this body under.
Suzanne Roszak received her MFA in poetry from The University of California, Irvine and her PhD in comparative literature from Yale University. Suzanne has taught creative writing at UC Irvine and literature and composition at Cal State San Bernardino, UC Riverside, and other universities. Her poems have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, Ecotone, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poetry Northwest, Redivider, Third Coast, Verse Daily, and others.