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Teaching Poetry Means ‘Make It Human’: Q&A with Juan Felipe Herrera

Photo by Randy Vaughn-Dotta

Photo by Randy Vaughn-Dotta

This month, West Coast writers are celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of California Poets in the Schools, a collective of professional poets who facilitate poetry and performance workshops in schools around the state. Each year, CPITS introduces more than 26,000 students to poetry and performance; each year, these students generate more than 100,000 poems through the program. By exposing children to poetry at a young age, CPITS teachers encourage a conception of poetry as a humane, practical, and social practice. They coach students in a skill they will likely use all their lives: that of studying and expressing their experiences and of making something tangible and novel in the process.

Since its inception, the organization, which began as the Pegasus Project at San Francisco State, has served half a million students, brought programs to schools in twenty-nine counties, and garnered an impressive list of volunteers. One such teacher is Juan Felipe Herrera, Poet Laureate of California since 2012, who led his first writing workshop as a CPITS volunteer in the early 1970s. Since then, in addition to writing more than twenty books for children and adults, Herrera has led numerous poetry and arts programs, from El Centro Cultural de la Raza in San Diego to the Soledad Correctional Facility to the University of Iowa. (He currently holds a professorship at the University of California, Riverside, where he was appointed the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in 2005.) In honor of CPITS’ semi-centennial, we spoke with Herrera, a past ZYZZYVA contributor (issues No. 13 and No. 89), via email about his experiences teaching poetry.

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Fleeing from Ruin to Fringes of Barcelona: ‘Street of Thieves’ by Mathias Énard

Street_of_Thieves-front_largeSet during the revolts of the Arab Spring and the collapse of Europe’s economy, award-winning French author Mathias Énard’s new novel, Street of Thieves (265 pages; Open Letter, translated by Charlotte Mandell), follows the life of a young Moroccan man living in the lower fringes of society, always working toward a future that remains a bit out of reach. “Men are dogs,” Énard writes at the beginning, “they rub against each other in misery, they roll around in filth and can’t get out of it…”  Amid that grime and grit, we witness the transformation of his narrator, from boy into man, from cowardice to courage, a change shaped by both the animality and the pressure of a society where people, like beasts, do whatever it takes to live.

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Appreciating the Engaging Decade-Long Conversation Started by n+1

Happiness The collected pieces in Happiness: Ten Years of n+1 (369 pages; Faber and Faber) range from scintillating reflection, sharp economic or social analysis, realistic and depressing conclusions regarding the fate of the world economy, climate change, and the nature of humankind to the transformation of communication in the technological age, an extended satire on hypochondria and disease in America, and the perverted image of sexuality and portrayal of the self in media. Happiness is a conversation starter—easily accessible to any and all readers, yet nuanced enough to appeal to those who see what the current state of things really is.

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With Beer Came the Modern, Civilized Human: Q&A with William Bostwick

The Brewer's TaleWilliam Bostwick begins his narrative with a question: “What we drink reveals who we are but can it also tell me who we were?” Tracking down the answer means Bostwick must balance a bit of time travel with solid historical research, and interview a cast of contemporary brew masters. And taste a lot of beer.

When not tending bar in San Francisco or caring for his bees, Bostwick is a beer critic writing reviews for several national publications. He is also a passionate home brewer.

Blessed with a sensitive palate and a talent for great storytelling, Bostwick deftly combines his gifts in his newest book, The Brewer’s Tale: A History of the World According to Beer (288 pages; Norton).

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Bonded by the Feeling of Failure: “The Emerald Light in the Air” by Donald Antrim

9780374280932_p0_v6_s260x420The Emerald Light in the Air (176 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux) features seven stories of men late in their lives—men filled with regret who continue to pursue unrequited love, who force themselves to move on by loving newer, different women, men who come to realize they have no desire. Published in The New Yorker over the past fifteen years, each story in Donald Antrim’s new collection introduces the subtle conflicts of relationship and concludes with the patriarchal imperative of suppressed emotion: in “He Knew,” a man settles on his self-destructive young wife, “absently touching and spinning the gold ring on his finger” after she has gone to sleep; another man, in “Ever Since,” tries to convince his jealous girlfriend through extravagant gestures of affection that he loves her, though he begins to doubt it himself. (It seems he is forever in love with his ex-wife.) And in “An Actor Prepares,” a protagonist still seeks emotional and sexual refuge among college students in a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Each of these stories is painful in its tragedy. Characters question whether or not they have made the right decisions in life, and when they feel they have, wonder why happiness still eludes them.

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Examining Daily Life with the Care of Ozu: ‘Talkativeness’ by Michael Earl Craig

TalkativenessLike films, the poems in Michael Earl Craig’s Talkativeness (104 pages; Wave Books) juxtapose pedestrian settings with dreamlike events. And like films, these poems appeal mostly to the visual sensibility, with spare, declarative language that gets out of the way of their delicately rendered imagery. There are abrupt “cutaways” between unrelated scenes—particularly in such associative pieces as “I Am Examining A Small Crumb” and “Quarter to Five”—and narrative pauses during which the poet fixates on some peripheral animal or prop, like a cinematographer racking the focus of a shot. Film figures explicitly into many of these poems; while Craig’s domestic dystopias resemble those of Lynch and Hitchcock, the poet also invokes Bergman, Herzog, and Chaplin by name.

The book’s most prominent cinematic figure is Akira Kurosawa; the filmmaker is the subject of two poems, and Craig takes his epigraph (“No matter how good what you are saying might be, it will dampen the conversation if it is irrelevant”) from Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a seventeenth-century samurai whose writings on bushido were among Kurosawa’s major artistic influences. Yet it is an earlier Japanese director—and another significant influence on Kurosawa—whose films these poems most resemble: Yasujirō Ozu, known for his use of the “tatami shot,” in which the camera is positioned only two or three feet off the ground, and narrative ellipsis, or the omission of key events within a sequence. The effect of these devices is to implicate the audience in the telling of the story; the viewer feels both that she is kneeling beside the characters and that she is privy to an extraordinary, unarticulated subtext that colors the ordinary lives and events of the present scene. Stillness, in these films, seems to allude to meteoric motion; quietude seems like the conspicuous absence of clamor. Talkativeness, too, is a close-up glimpse of a world in which every commonplace object gestures toward the bizarre, and every domestic setting feels full of outlandish potential.

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On the Novel and the Novella, and Writing About Russia: Q&A with Josh Weil

The Great Glass SeaJosh Weil, author of the 2009 novella collection The New Valley (Grove Atlantic) and a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” Award recipient, saw his first novel, The Great Glass Sea (Grove Atlantic), published this summer. Moving away from the stark landscape of the Appalachian Mountains valley of his novellas, Weil’s The Great Glass Sea takes place in a near-future Russia, one where giant stretches of farmlands are covered by an ever-expanding greenhouse lit by space mirrors, keeping the crops beneath in perpetual daylight for the sake of productivity in Russia’s new capitalist scheme.

In this alienating and unforgiving setting, twin brothers Yarik and Dima, who were once inseparable in childhood, find themselves taking vastly differing paths in adulthood, growing increasingly distant as they navigate antithetical ideologies and lifestyles. Steeped in Russian folklore, the novel reminds the reader of the pressure of nostalgia on the present and the future, and draws a breathtaking picture of familial conflict, moving with ease between the haunting richness of the mythic and the piercing clearness of realism. We spoke to Weil via email about his work.

ZYZZYVA: To start, let’s talk about your writing process with The Great Glass Sea. What do you find yourself working toward in a novel that you don’t find yourself doing in a novella? Is it merely a question of length—a looking further and wider in your scope of the narrative, character development, etc.?  Or is there some particular element in its craft that you believe can be achieved in one form and not the other?

Josh Weil: I feel very strongly that the experience of writing a novel is different from writing a novella and vastly different from writing a short story. All the forms offer their specific challenges, of course, and, with the novel, there were a couple difficult ones for me: First, how hard it is to hold the story—the whole dang thing—in your head at once; it’s nigh impossible. It’s very hard to know the story well enough (because of all the shifting and complicated threads) to get from the beginning to the end without going far astray.

Because I’m a writer who values the first draft tremendously (I feel that’s where the heart of the thing lays) rewriting is especially tough for me. Not revising or editing; I have no problem shaping what’s already there. (I love to tighten up a scene, pare out what’s not working, finesse a moment, hone a sentence.) But I feel like I’m losing something essential when I have to wholly rewrite a scene or even entire story arc. Still, the complexity of narrative (and its long arc) in a novel makes getting it generally right on a first draft nearly impossible.

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What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?: ‘McGlue’ by Ottessa Moshfegh

McGlue At the heart of Ottessa Moshfegh’s first novel, McGlue (122 pages; Fence Books), is a man who dampens life and feeling with drink—a man who is accused of murdering his best friend. Set in the mid-19th century, atop the high seas and throughout New England, the eponymous protagonist awakens aboard a ship, banished to the hold where he languishes drunkenly. As McGlue’s trial for murder approaches, the narrative moves backward in time, through the haze of memory obfuscated by a massive crack to McGlue’s head, which he received falling off a train. Moshfegh, whose stories have been published in The Paris Review, Fence, and Noon, is highly attuned to the tradition of the novel— she rarely reveals the protagonist’s internalized thoughts (a convention of 18th century authors like Defoe and Sterne), allowing the novel to dance smartly around the edges of perception and morality, and sustain the mystery of the murder while inviting an existential reflection in the reader.

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The Chemistry of Society Gone Awry: ‘Sweetness #9′ by Stephan Eirik Clark

eb4da83350f8e1c425ffadc1dda9769eStephan Eirik Clark paints a satirical picture of an American past that remains with us in Sweetness #9 (353 pages; Little, Brown), a vision into the passive life of flavorist-in-training, David Leveraux, whose family eats “stillborn” microwaveable meals and watches personal televisions, which echo to each other down the halls in a sort of Bradburian way. David also carries a secret that has expanded the nation’s waistband even as it has begun to unravel our society’s psychosomatic seams.

Full of life after marrying and getting a job at Goldstein, Olivetti, and Dark (Clark is not shy with the acronym), David soon conducts toxicology tests on Sweetness #9, an artificial sweetener. He feeds rats varying amounts of the eponymous and sugarless sweetener only to discover that it produces “the primitive desire to eat,” alongside depression, anxiety, and mutism. He is outraged to discover the corporation is hiding the results—they replace all of their obese test subjects with skinny ones—and is subsequently fired. After failing to get another job, Leveraux begins to work at a gas station, and eventually commits himself to a mental institution.

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A Hard Swim Toward Redemeption: ‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsiolkas

BarracudaIn Christos Tsiolkas’ new novel, Barracuda (429 pages; Hogarth Press), we get an enormous book with enormous themes, and a surprising narrative form featuring a protagonist who can be shockingly unlikeable. A contemporary Bildungsroman set amid a vast landscape of social and political issues, Barracuda nonetheless centers around one man—a sports hero—whose personal respect and dignity are what truly are at stake.

Danny Kelly is a talented teenage swimmer from a working-class neighborhood outside of Melbourne. His life is uprooted once he enrolls in an elite private school (which he refers to as “Cunts College”) on a swimming scholarship. There he instantly becomes the victim of bullying from his peers, and a target of jealousy from his swim squad. To spite his classmates’ elitism, Danny protects his ego by outperforming them all in the pool, reminding himself constantly that he is “better, faster, stronger” than everyone. This mantra becomes deeply embedded within him, and we watch as he becomes much like a barracuda—a “psycho,” monstrous, unsympathetic, competitive, and violent.

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Strange Folk Tales, Recognizable Troubles: ‘Walker on Water’ by Kristiina Ehin

Walker on WaterKristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water (88 pages; Unnamed Press), translated by Ilmar Lehtpere, marries magical realism with oral tradition to create modern folklore about the complexity of romantic relationships. Ehin is an award-winning Estonian poet, having authored six volumes of poetry as well as three story collections and a book retelling Estonian folk tales—all of which noticeably influence Walker on Water.

Primarily, these stories remain in the realm of the magical: In the title story, the protagonist practices walking atop the sea while her husband is at work. He is the director of the Climate Change Monitoring Department at the Academy of Sciences. He also, she discovers, has a hatch on the back of his head from which he removes his brain each night. The protagonist is jealous of her husband’s admirers at work, and decides only she is deserving of his brain. So, in a fit of jealousy, she decides to drown his brains. “I wanted an intelligent and educated man, but what I got was a brainless oaf.” This line stands in stark contrast with the fantastical image of the man casually removing his brains at night, as so many husbands metaphorically do, nestling into a couch with a beer, while their intelligent minds, their desirable qualities, are left back at work.

Ehin explores contemporary problems through surrealistic means. A woman bites off the arms of her many husbands—subsequently they sullenly forgive her; another collects her former husbands’ “apricots” which she keeps in the attic (that tale uses language that is constantly a “razor’s breadth” away from using “castration”). “Lena of the Drifting Isle” is an immortal skeleton that is paid not in currency, but in time, and who tells the protagonist a story of lost love. The story is then carried on by the protagonist’s talking bird, which is teaching her its complex and invented grammar. Sometimes Walker on Water suffers from oversimplification, such as in “Evening Rendezvous,” where the characters Happiness Formula and Life Story debate in order to come to a conclusion about each other. This same method is handled much more deftly in “Stone Chunk and Beautiful Question,” which explores the issue of projection, false judgment, and expectation in relationships.

Kristiina Ehin wrote her fourth work, Kaitseala (Huma, 2005), which won Estonia’s most prestigious poetry award, on an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Finland during her time as a warden at a nature reserve. The natural world shines through again, years later, in Walker on Water, as Ehin conjures frozen rivers upon which grand-aunts and father-in-laws skate—barely and indiscernibly—through what the reader perceives as a snowy atmosphere. In the title story, a freezing sea threatens to swallow the protagonist, who walks out upon it from a coastal farm. While strikingly boreal, Walker on Water is also punctuated by immortal beings who live in a seemingly tropical “coral country” featuring an ancient, dilapidated castle at its center; it is a strange and effective work to behold.

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ZYZZYVA in the 2014 Best American Series, Pushcart, and Best New Poets

The annual anthologies recognizing the best work among the hundreds of U.S. literary journals and magazines have once again been very kind toward ZYZZYVA.

As we joyously reported on our Facebook page back in June, two marvelous works of fiction we published in 2013—marking the print debuts of young writers Daniel Tovrov and Rebecca Rukeyser—received major nods. Tovrov’s story “The News Cycle” (issue No. 99) will be appearing in the Pushcart Prize 2015 anthology, and Rukeyser’s story “The Chinese Barracks” (No. 97) will be included in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014. Now we can add to that list Jacques J. Rancourt, whose poem “Open Shed” was published in issue No. 98; the poem will be appearing in Best New Poets 2014. We are deeply proud to have published their work.

And we are no less proud of the work from the slew of our contributors which made the none-too-shabby Notables lists from the various Best American series. Just as it is extremely difficult for a work to be featured in any of these anthologies, it is also no small feat for a work to be acknowledged as a “notable.” To share company with “notable” work from The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and the like is cause for delight. So we list those ZYZZYVA contributors here.

From The Best American Short Stories 2014 Notables:
“The Wedding Visitor” by Elizabeth Spencer (No. 98)
“Day of the Dead” by Don Waters (No. 99)

From The Best American Essays 2014 Notables:
“Lorca in the Afternoon” by Anne Raeff (No. 98)
“The Bombardier’s Handbook” by Moritz Thomsen (No. 99)

From The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014 Notables:
“I Want to Continue” by Kimberly Lambright (No. 98)
“Photisms” by Juan Pablo Villalobos (No. 99)

A hearty congratulations to all, but one last thing—a big thank you to all of our readers. Your subscriptions, donations, and other forms of support make what we do possible. So, our sincerest thanks.

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