ZYZZYVA EventsMarch 16, 2016
Tom Bissell: In Conversation
Location: 7:30 p.m, Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 9th Ave., San Francisco
Description: Bissell, the award-winning author of eight previous books of fiction and nonfiction, will be in conversation with ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about his newest work, "Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve." Free. More info at http://bit.ly/1UmYOkX
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Early on in the Charles Bukowski compilation The Bell Tolls For No One, a narrator named Bukowski pulls his car over to the side of the road to stop and marvel at a hideous-looking farm animal. “When one ugly admires another,” he muses, “there is a transgression of sorts, a touching and exchanging of souls, if you will.” It could be said that much of Charles Bukowski’s writing is devoted to this moment when two imperfect forces collide – whether it’s drunken lovers helping each other endure a cold night or a downtrodden man recognizing a kindred spirit in the gnarled face of a hog. Bukowski’s work recognizes humanity’s myriad imperfections. (“Human relationships don’t work,” one of his protagonists flat-out states in a story titled “An Affair of Little Importance.”) And yet in his broken-down characters’ heartbreaking attempts to find solace in a world “half…run on hatred, the other half on fear,” there is a sly triumph, if only in their refusal to give up and drop dead.
Since 2008, City Lights Books has been compiling the uncollected and unpublished works of Charles Bukowski in a series of volumes. The latest is The Bell Tolls For No One and draws the vast majority of its material from a series of short pieces Bukowski wrote, called “Notes of a Dirty Old Man,” which were serialized in publications such as NOLA Express and the L.A. Free Press from 1967 to 1976. Unsurprisingly, the collection is something of a grab bag; the stories are eclectic, with several pieces that read almost like speculative fiction. As always, Bukowski remains incendiary: one of the stand-out stories is a post-apocalyptic fever dream that details what might have happened if the notoriously pro-segregationist candidate George Wallace had become president (policies include a curfew for African-Americans and slating 85 percent of library books for destruction).
In more than one piece, Bukowski’s hardboiled detective-style narration reveals his love of vintage noir writers such as Mickey Spillane: “Jane was a natural, and she had delicious legs…and a face of powdered pain. And she knew me. She taught me more than the philosophy books of the ages.” Elsewhere, Bukowski spins a violent Western yarn in which he subverts the classic trope of the stranger who drifts into town, complete with poker-faced one-liners that wouldn’t be out of place in a Clint Eastwood movie: “If God created you, He was sure as hell in need of better instruction.”
Dean Rader (whose poetry has been published in ZYZZYVA Issues No. 93 , 98 & 101) is the author of several books, including the poetry collections Works & Days (winner of the 2010 T.S. Eliot Poetry Prize), Landscape Portrait Figure Form, which was named by the Barnes & Noble Review as one of the Best Poetry Books of 2013, and the forthcoming Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry, to be published in 2016 by Copper Canyon Press.
ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked to Rader about what makes for a “successful” poem, how his work has come to be shaped, the attraction of sports (particularly basketball and the Golden State Warriors), and his path toward becoming a professor.
To hear Dean Rader read two of his poems, one of which written for the occasion of ZYZZYVA’s 30th Anniversary fundraising party earlier this year, click on “Continued Reading” below.
In 1946, Lionel Trilling penned a barbed sort of defense of “little magazines”:
“They are snickered at and snubbed, sometimes deservedly, and no one would venture to say in a precise way just what effect they have—except that they keep the new talents warm until the commercial publisher with his customary air of noble resolution is ready to take his chance, except that they make the official representatives of literature a little uneasy, except that they keep a countercurrent moving which perhaps no one will be fully aware of until it ceases to move.”
In her introduction to The Pushcart Prize XI: Best of the Small Presses (1986–87), Cynthia Ozick mused in reply to Trilling, “What the small presses keep warm, and alive, are those very forms ‘the cultural situation’ tends to submerge: essay, story, poem.”
So here we are at the close of 2015, charged with keeping new talents and vital forms warm; charged, too, with keeping a quiet countercurrent moving. In practical terms, I take this to mean we are tasked with encouraging authors doing laudable work in contemporary literature, bringing their works to print in the finest form possible, and advocating tirelessly for their value. We endeavor to sustain our authors with all we have to offer (printed page, honorarium, online presence, events, moral support), and hope that, in time, our efforts help them find publishers, agents, and yet more readers, and garner career-sustaining awards and grants, as well. Beyond this service to writers, the journal must offer its readers—dedicated adventurers in contemporary writing, invigorated by work not yet codified by any canon—all the pleasures and insights of literature.
For ZYZZYVA, 2015 marked three decades of all this: discovering new talent, supporting writers and artists at all stages of their careers, and presenting innovative work.
But we also celebrated something less grand yet essential: thirty years of work we might file under “keeping the lights on”: paying rent and bills, fulfilling orders, fixing the printer, maintaining a website, hustling for ads and donations, rebooting the wireless connection, fixing the printer—once again.
This is no small thing. Not many journals, let alone independent ones, make it this far.
And while we may not see the world as so openly adversarial as Trilling saw it in 1946, by its sheer indifference ours may be an even more hostile environment than the one he was observing; it is almost certainly, in public forums, a less civil one. Yet we persevere, and do so with a sense of purpose no less keen than ever.
Working out of San Francisco plays a part in keeping us focused. We all know the city is changing, and that artists and writers and the organizations that support them are under increasing pressure. In a fraught economy of apps and “sharing,” San Francisco may offer the country a representative future, one destined to reach across the continent and wreak disruption along the way. I hope we may yet also offer the country a representative model in how to push back against some of these tides, reversing the crowding out of culture and the diminishment of bohemian life, working vigorously to preserve the diversity of voices and vocations that make a city thrive.
I’m not inclined to see a binary opposition between tech and the arts as inevitable or organic, and I’m troubled by the prevalence of that attitude— and how easily it lends itself to a corresponding condescension to the arts (and publishing, too), as though the only way to look forward or to be visionary is through the lens of an app; as though we must take for granted that paper and ink are hopelessly outdated. Too often the implicit question seems to be, How can tech improve literature and help publishing? Too seldom do we ask what literature might teach tech.
The literary and visual arts are an essential part of what has made San Francisco innovative, beautiful, and visionary. It is a concentration of culture, after all, that makes a city a city. Without it, San Francisco would be all surface, a glorified bedroom community with pockets of its urban past preserved for tourists.
It’s a tough time, but ZYZZYVA has endured booms and busts before thanks to you, dear reader, and to the indispensable financial support of every donor, subscriber, and board member; and to the hard work and dedication of every volunteer and intern.
And daily there are reminders of how vital and fun this work is; how lucky we are to be doing it. We’re encouraged by the astonishing wealth and originality of talent in contemporary literature—among those we publish and those we’re reading outside the journal. We’re thrilled by the wide recognition and acclaim that has arrived for authors such as Marlon James and Elena Ferrante, and are inspired by their daring and important work. We’re heartened by the recent awards and recognition our own contributors have received, and by the robust support of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Zellerbach Family Foundation. We’re inspired, too, by the dedication of our colleagues and their fine work in publishing, in bookstores, and in the arts. We’re honored that each of you holding this volume has carved out time in your day and space in your mind for the pages we’ve labored over.
A hearty and heartfelt toast of gratitude to all. Here’s to the adventure and joy of the endeavor.
What About This, the title of the massive new edition of the Collected Poems of Frank Stanford (747 pages, Copperhead Press) announces, a cover picture of the late poet (dubbed the “swamp-rat Rimbaud’’ by Lorenzo Thomas) glaring at you.
Well, what about it?
First things first: If the romantic ideal of the poet is to live fast, love hard, and leave a good-looking corpse, Stanford did all of the above, and then some.
It’s impossible to ignore the biography. Born August 1, 1948, in Richton, Mississippi, Stanford shot himself, after reportedly being confronted about multiple infidelities by his wife, Ginny, and his girlfriend, C.D. Wright, who were both in his Fayetteville, Arkansas, house at the time—June 3, 1978, a couple of months shy of his 30th birthday.
That’s about the only thing you could say was shy about Stanford.
The dedication page of Diane Seuss’s Four-Legged Girl (88 pages; Graywolf Press) reads: “For my people: the living and the dead.” But in this hypnagogic third collection, the margin between the living and the dead is “glory holed,” penetrated, and ultimately renounced. Seuss’s singular eye sees bodies everywhere, and her psychedelic syntax animates them. Spirea is “the color of entrails;” poppies sport a “testicular fur;” a blouse on the clothesline makes the speaker feel “as if [she]’d been skinned alive.” In these elegies, insensate matter becomes living human flesh.
But the humans with whom Seuss is concerned are always already marginal: punks and addicts, convalescents and outsider artists. The first of the book’s five, vaguely chronological sections deals with the death of the speaker’s father, though his disembodied tumors haunt these pages long after his funeral in “As a child I ate and mourned.” Other recurrent characters include an ex-partner who dies of an overdose—referred to only as “my junkie”—and a two-headed, taxidermied lamb in a museum in the speaker’s hometown: “the precious freak who lives at the heart of me / still.” The book’s final poem is an ode to Myrtle Corbin, the eponymous four-legged girl, born in the late nineteenth century with two pairs of legs, two pelvises, and two sets of working reproductive organs. Seuss’s speaker, who frequently ponders her own body’s difference, with its “titanium leg and…wide caesarian scar,” makes idols of this motley cast of characters.
Our Earth has never been more divided. Tensions between the United States and other major powers like Russia and China, as well as conflict in the Middle East, cast a shadow over a planet threatened by climate change. Not to mention that the current run-up to the 2016 presidential election has begun to seem less like a political race and more like a professional wrestling match. But what if there was a way to heal our world’s divide–both figuratively and literally? Through a revolutionary geo-engineering process, the Political Tectonics Lab–pioneered by experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats–is proposing a plan to direct the movement of our continents into the most politically and economically ideal arrangement, in a project titled Pangaea Optima.
Some 250 million years ago, the continents were locked together in one massive supercontinent dubbed Pangaea. Although the original Pangaea eventually broke apart and became the individual land masses we know them as today, scientists predict that the continents will one day form back together…in another 200 million years, that is. Of course, the trouble of waiting for nature to take its course is that the trajectories of Mother Nature are often all too random. Who’s to say just where North America will end up when this Pangaea takes shape?
Issue No. 105 closes our 30th anniversary year with a special cover designed by Paul Madonna, as well as new fiction from Dagoberto Gilb, and more, including:
Austin Smith’s “The Cave”: Pining for mom making dinner back at the farmhouse, a boy ventures into an odd schoolmate’s home.
Dominica Phettaplace’s “The Story of a True Artist”: The fraught path to maintaining Internet fame is not making high school any easier.
Davide Orecchio’s “Diego Wilchen No More”: “In the cub, you could already see the invincible Wilchen. He will earn love, only to dash it, and a following, only to disappoint.”
Lauren Alwan’s “Eldorado”: An essay on building a house for two in the woods—a house you never plan to live in.
And fiction from Olivia Clare, Kristopher Jansma, Paul Madonna (an ex-pat in Thailand and a U.S. soldier’s story), and Heather Monley (what really happened that day on the lake when the lightning storm broke out?); plus First Time in Print stories from Andrew Foley and Henri Lipton; and poetry from Heather Altfeld, Dan Alter, Jill Osier, Floyd Skloot, Ed Skoog, and Molly Vogel.
A feature of Bruce Bond’s immense talent is his poetic economy. What he is able to articulate or suggest in a few lines requires paragraphs of exposition, a feature he shares with other truly great poets. At a recent reading, Bond briefly discussed his training as a musician, and thus a partial explanation for the elusiveness of his poetry was provided. They have a rhythm and musical sonority that propels many of them, investing their already laden words with a further force.
In his latest collection, For the Lost Cathedral (84 pages; LSU Press), the poems run a gamut of subject matters, from the Bone Church of Sedlic to Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, from the seemingly small and personal, to the broad and historical. The poems are exceptional, because they raise grand metaphysical, religious, and psychological questions and expound upon possible answers, yet leave them aptly unresolved, knowing that only partial elucidations will have to suffice. The book’s first poem, “The Gate,” begins this questioning as the speaker states: “When I first learned of heaven, / it was something we lost, or was / loss simply the word we gave it.” Here Bond makes the point that much of what may seem to be a religious conceptualization of existence has an analogue in our private psyche, and thus originates there and not from some external divinity. The story of a lost paradise pervades much of Western theology, and therefore must be rooted in a distinctly human, psycho-linguistic understanding of our place within the world. We construct and perpetuate grand myths such as Eden in order to make sense of our place. “Loss” is the word given but does not necessarily have to be the reality experienced.
Speaking about what he refused to characterize as his personal fame, Nabokov once told an interviewer, “Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.” However, in the face of what the author and his family called “Hurricane Lolita,” Nabokov remained personally obscure only because he was intent on doing so. Yet all the while the near mythical dimension of his persona grew around his unwillingness to appear in public, and because of his pithy, self-orchestrated, and tightly managed interviews, which tantalized but revealed little. Appearing in a candid television interview once (and refusing to do so thereafter), demanding that all interview questions be submitted to him beforehand, the intensely private Nabokov was able to keep a close hold on what an exceedingly curious public was able to know about him personally. He only commented elusively on his own work and made strong proclamations about the works of others. Thus it has been the job of biographers such as Brian Boyd—and now Robert Roper, with his Nabokov in America: On the Road to Lolita (354 pages; Bloomsbury)—to give Nabokov’s readership something closer to an honest, human portrait of the man behind works of genius such as Pale Fire and Lolita.
In his first novel, Gavin McCrea accesses the intricacies of Marx and Engel’s Communist revolution through the ordinary magic of fiction. Mrs. Engels (Catapult; 368 pages) explores the subtleties of a historic movement through the vantage of Lizzie Burns, Frederick Engels’ longtime companion and eventual wife. Lizzie, an illiterate Irish woman, is both an outsider and part of Frederick’s inner circle in London—at once the closest to the proletariat and the furthest from Marx and Engels’ ideals. Her position allows the story’s perspective to refreshingly shift from observing Engels and Marx’s work life and ideals to registering the domestic decorum and politics that have shaped Lizzie’s life. As Frederick imagines what could be, resenting the illusory social norms that dictate what is, Lizzie, to survive, must occupy herself with the very reality he and his peers frequently abhor or ignore.
John Freeman (whose poems were published in ZYZZYVA No. 95 and No. 101, and who is also a contributing editor) is a long-time book critic, author of How to Read a Novelist, and the former editor of Granta. Last month, he launched a new literary journal, Freeman’s, which will publish themed issues twice a year. The first issue features work from Louise Erdrich, Barry Lopez, Haruki Murakami, Dave Eggers, Alexander Hemon, Anne Carson, Helen Simpson, and many more.
Before a packed house at City Lights Bookstore last month, ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon talked to Freeman about the journal, about writing and growing up in Sacramento, and about the work of literature.
To hear City Lights Bookstore’s Peter Maravelis’s introduce the conversation, click on “Continue Reading” below.
“The things we know / cannot be applied,” begins a poem in Kay Ryan’s new poetry collection, Erratic Facts (Grove Press, 64 pages), the first release since her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Best of It: New and Selected Poems. The former U.S. poet laureate returns with her signature narrow, rhyming poems to awaken and astonish us, to tilt us toward the underbelly of everyday observations.
In the epilogue of Erratic Facts, Ryan notes:
erratic: (n) Geol. A boulder or the like
carried by glacial ice and deposited
some distance form its place of origin
This idea of displacement—a separation of boulder from its place of origin, of object from meaning—crops up again and again in her book, repeatedly overthrowing our expectations of conclusion and poetic movement. A poem titled “Shoot the Moon” ends with the shattering “bagged now and / heavy as a head,” and in “Erasure” she leaves us with the startlingly blunt statement: “this / whole area / may have been / a defactory.” The unabashed awkwardness of Ryan’s syntax also mimics the unstable nature of the erratic, as it seizes us from turn to turn: “Walls of shelves of / jars of dots equal / one dot”; “Even how / the crow / walks is / criss crosses.”