Latest Posts from the Blog

‘Artificial Islands’ by Earle McCartney, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall Issue

earle-mccartneyOriginally from south New Jersey, Earle McCartney is a San Francisco writer. The recipient of the Joseph Henry Jackson Award in 2013, his stories “Sawmill” and “Rhizomes” appeared in ZYZZYVA Issues No. 96 and No. 101, respectively. His newest story, “Artificial Islands,” can be found in the Fall issue.

As with McCartney’s last two stories in ZYZZYVA, “Artificial Islands” beautifully captures people in close relationship to the natural world—in this case, it’s the ocean, as an adolescent girl goes fishing for sharks with her older brother, her father, and a family friend. The following is an excerpt from the story. You can read in its entirety by getting a copy here.  (Note: Earle McCartney will be part of the lineup for our ZYZZYVA Fall All-Stars event at Litcrawl.)

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Resisting Easy Definition: ‘My Private Property’ by Mary Ruefle

.…there is the poem as a unit-like thing, and then there is the poem that pervades existence, which is much more like the wind, and that is the poem everyone senses from time to time, whether they can read or not, whether they ‘care’ about the unit-like thing or not.—Mary Ruefle, from a 2013 interview with Andrew David King in Kenyon Review

It’s hard to define a poem these days. But whether you call the short pieces in Mary Ruefle’s new book, My Private Property (128 pages; Wave Books), poetry or prose poems or essays or flash fiction or mediations or whatever, I’m hooked on them. They “go down a treat” I might say if I were British and lived in the last century. And they are deceptively simple.

Simple, that is, until you try to figure out how she does it. How does she create a tone at once distanced and intimate? Straightforward and offbeat? Mary Ruefle’s mind is on display here in all its quirky richness. If you don’t know her erasure books, her essays, or her earlier books of more conventionally lineated poetry, starting with My Private Property will give you the essential flavor of her work.

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‘Kabul’ by Fatima Bhutto, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall Issue

photo by Paul Wetherell
Fatima Bhutto, photo by Paul Wetherell

Fatima Bhutto is the author of several books, including the memoir Songs of Blood and Sword (Nation Books) and the novel The Shadow of the Crescent Moon (Penguin Press). Her work has also appeared in the New Statesmen, the Daily Beast, the Guardian, and other publications. She lives in Karachi, Pakistan.

Her story “Kabul” appears in the Fall issue. The tale of Sheryar, a feckless young man, and Soraya, his pregnant—and even younger—lover, Bhutto’s story casts a cold (though not unsympathetic) eye on people trapped by circumstances seemingly beyond their power to change. The following is an excerpt from her story, but it can be read in full in our Fall issue, which you can order here.

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Under the Volcano: ‘Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was’ by Sjon

MoonstoneSjon’s latest novel, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux Books, 145 pages), set in Reykjavik in 1918, is the story of sixteen-year-old Máni Steinn (a.k.a. Moonstone). The boy’s guardian is “the old lady”—his grandmother’s sister who took him in after his mother died when he was just six. They live with “the landlord,” a man she raised as a nanny and who lets them stay in his garret space rent-free. To the concern of the old lady, Máni is “such a loner that rather than go out and play with his classmates he preferred to hang out at home, smoking cigarettes with her.” Besides smoking in the attic, he splits his time between trips to the cinema and prostituting himself.

Early on in the novel, we witness the eruption of Katla, a large Icelandic volcano. The ash coats Reykjavik’s skies, wrapping the city in a hazy cloud that’s reflective of the island country’s seclusion from the rest of the world, as well as Máni’s isolation. While Sjon does not dwell on the pain of being gay in a place where queerness may be unfathomable, the moments that we do get access to Máni’s inner torment cut deep. Much of the boy’s distress is shared through what he dreams; graphic and horrific nightmares that pull from his real-life troubles. He escapes his situation by going to the cinema. He watches every movie imported into Iceland, and each film as often as it is screened. “And now the boy lives in the movies. When not spooling them into himself through his eyes, he is replaying them in his mind.” The boy’s cinephile-like view of life is reflected in the way Sjon tells Máni’s story, often focusing on situations frame-by-frame, and cutting abruptly to other scenes.

Máni pays for all these movies by servicing “gentlemen,” some of whom are foreign (like the Danish sailors docking in the port or the wealthy tourists visiting from Copenhagen) and some of who are prominent townspeople, local men living in the closet. One of them is the scholar, Dr. Thordeal, who refers to himself as the Atlas of the Icelandic literary world. He exists as a hermit, hiding in his basement with his books. The boy sometimes performs sexual favors for this “genial hunchback” for two kronur. One of the many tragic elements of Máni’s situation is that discrete prostitution is the only outlet for him to express some semblance of queer love. A local poet, whom Máni does not charge for his services, whispers to him, “Had we but another world and time/ Our passionate embraces were no crime.”

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“The Long Views Are Terrific”: Some Words for Bill Berkson

bill-berkson-and-frank

Bill Berkson (left) and Frank O’Hara (photo by John Button, 1961)

I was sad when I heard Bill Berkson died in June. I knew he’d been ill but didn’t know the details. But he always seemed to be the picture of a gentleman poet—by that, I don’t mean the stuffy, overly courtly, bow-tie beclad figure of an academic measuring his words in coffee spoons, of course. Or even exuding the quieter scent of class, though Bill clearly knew his way around the world of high society: His mother, Eleanor Lambert, was regarded as the doyenne of fashion publicity, and his father, Seymour Berkson, had been a high-ranking Hearst executive and for a time, publisher of the New York Journal-American.

From his early days, Bill was closely tied in with the New York School of Poetry, and his close friends and deep poetic influences included John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara (he edited a posthumous collection of O’Hara’s work, In Memory of My Feelings, reprinted in 2005.)

But somehow he found himself moving out to the West Coast in 1970, living in Bolinas for a good while before returning to San Francisco and settling in Noe Valley. He taught in the California Poets in the Schools program and was also lecturer for many years at the San Francisco Institute of Art—he was ridiculously well versed in modern art, and knew most of the players personally. His gentle presence struck a notable contrast to the Beat and post-Beat decorum of the time. Bill was always an avant-gardist, who appreciated excessive expression, and behavior, but he walked his own road.

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Roaming the Metaphorical ‘Jungle Around Us’ : Q&A with Anne Raeff

Anne Raeff (photo by Dennis Hearne)

Anne Raeff (photo by Dennis Hearne)

In Anne Raeff’s story collection, The Jungle Around Us (140 pages, University of Georgia Press), nine stories span decades, covering numerous lives and multiple “jungles”; urban, Amazonian, and metaphorical, to name a few. In these “jungles,” Raeff’s characters face a Russian nesting-doll of isolation. Here, the land itself is alien to those displaced far from their homes. Language barriers and internal turmoil prevent communicating fully with those around you. But Raeff also shows how these same places can be a shelter, a refuge for embracing or experimenting with aspects of oneself that may have otherwise been ignored or hidden. Some experience magic moments of connection, and a few even find love.

Raeff, whose essay “Lorca in the Afternoon” was published in Issue No. 98, is not afraid to cause discomfort with her stories. Sometimes they end in an unsettling manner, with our last view of a character being one of he or she committing a confusing but all too human action. Occasionally, though, protagonists re-appear in later stories, adding to the intrigue of the collection. I am still pondering some of the book’s strangeness now, imagining how the lives of Raeff’s characters might pan out past the pages of her collection. We talked to Anne Raeff via email about The Jungle Around Us, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

ZYZZYVA: Throughout your book, there is an ongoing theme of translation, of characters teaching and learning other languages. In “The Buchovskys on Their Own,” Katja Ladijinskaya will only let Simone and Juliet speak French at the dinner table. In “Maximiliano,” Simone must read Maximiliano’s expressions to communicate with him. In “Carlito on Pink,” Kenard can only understand certain parts in the Spanish conversations between his host mother and her new boyfriend. What is it about languages and its barriers that interest you?

Anne Raeff: I grew up in a multilingual environment. My mother is from Vienna and my father was Russian, but he grew up in Germany (until Hitler came to power in 1933) and then in France. German was my first language, and I only learned English when I started school. My father taught my sister and me French through dreaded Wednesday lessons, for which I am now grateful. When my mother’s family escaped from Vienna in 1938, they moved to Bolivia where they spent the war years, so my mother spoke Spanish as well. When I was twenty-three I moved to Madrid to figure out who I was and how I was going to write, and to learn Spanish. When I arrived in Madrid, I was still socially awkward and introverted, but in Spain one must engage with the world. One must drink and talk all night long. One must run through the streets at dawn and claim one’s place in line at the market. Madrid forced me to look without. The process of learning a new language and navigating a new culture pushed me out into the world. As for Russian, my sister and I didn’t learn Russian since my parents didn’t have that language in common and my father thought that French would be a more useful language to learn. But we both do a really good Russian accent. Finally, I am a high school teacher, and I have spent most of my teaching career teaching English to recently arrived immigrant students and Spanish to both Spanish-learners and Spanish speakers. Thus, I continue to live in a multilingual world, and I am reminded every day of the beauty as well as the limitations of language.

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‘Big Boss Bitch’ by Adrienne Celt, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall Issue

 Adrienne Celt’s first novel, The Daughters (W.W. Norton/Liveright), won the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award and was named a Best Book of the Year by NPR. Her writing has been recognized by the PEN/O. Henry Prize, and her fiction has appeared in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, EpochPrairie Schooner, and Ecotone, among other places. She also publishes a webcomic at loveamongthelampreys.com.

Her work of fiction, “Big Boss Bitch,” which she describes as “my horror story about the first female president,” appears in the Winter issue. The “horror,” by the way, isn’t in the fact of having a female president, but what happens to said female president. The following is an excerpt, but if you’d like to read Celt’s story in its entirety, you can get a copy here.

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‘Portrait of the Alcoholic with Relapse Fantasy’ by Kaveh Akbar, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall Issue

Kaveh AkbarKaveh Akbar founded and edits Divedapper. His chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, will be published in January by Sibling Rivalry Press, and his first full-length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, is forthcoming from Alice James Books next fall. He is the recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America.

Three of Akbar’s poems appear in the Winter issue, including this one, “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Relapse Fantasy.” We provide the poem in full, but you can read Akbar’s other poems—”Against Idleness” and “You Came to Feel the Fur But Didn’t Expect the Snout” in Issue No. 107, which you can buy here.

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Obsessions: Wish List

“Obsessions” is our web-only essay series that asks emerging West Coast writers to examine the books, poems, songs, television shows, images, or whatever else that has been dominating their attentions lately. We continue with this piece by Vanessa Martini. Martini is a bookseller at City Lights Books. She lives in San Francisco.

My saved eBay, Etsy, and Craigslist searches, with commentary on what late capitalism’s insidious grasp makes me believe each item will do for my life or say about it:

Honda CB450 Four

If I get this it means at some point I actually got my driver’s license, which means I figured out how to schedule beyond what I already do, so there’s something totally implausible already. I’ll have my driver’s license and have gotten my M1 certification, and I’ll have a sweet little zippy bike, classic looking, red preferred, black or silver acceptable, even something like turquoise could be considered, but not yellow, not bright green. It will be mine. I won’t be sitting on the back anymore. It will be mine, and I will ride wherever I want, whenever I want. Because of this I will go to the beach more often than I do, and up to Marin more than I do, and maybe my dad will even get back on his BSA sitting in the garage, the one that’s silver with a purple stripe—dreamy—but, alas, too tall for me. We could ride together. Maybe at least he can teach me how to fix it because he’s best when he’s teaching me things, even though I get bratty and sassy, and we piss each other off, he has something to focus on, the teaching part, and he’ll have to show me how to change my brake fluid or whatever it is instead of not saying anything at all or saying something that upsets me and then he gets upset that I’m upset and the way he tries to tell me he’s upset upsets me more, and then he feels somehow infringed upon or uncomfortably pressed into feelings he doesn’t understand so he resorts to this clipped anger, this weird clipped anger, and I retreat and cry and am sullen. Things are better when he has something to teach me, like how to change brake fluid. I will also look extremely cool when I take off my helmet and shake out my hair.

 

Rick Owens leather jacket, size S

This will make me look like my job pays a lot more than it does. It will make me look like the sort of person who buys bottles of wine she will not drink for at least ten years so as to “let the tannins soften,” who has a white cat despite an all-black wardrobe, who regularly visits the dry cleaners, who has bookshelves that fit everything, no stacks required. The sort of person who has enough space. More than enough. An excess of space, with minimal stuff in it (a place for everything and everything in its place). A person who does not sweat, with immaculate hair the wind seems not to bother. A person people take seriously. A person who is left alone on the bus at night—who probably does not even take public transit, yes, this jacket will make me look like someone with the luxury of privacy, who can envelop herself in solitude and lambskin with equal ease. Sometimes the looking-like is enough to push past what really is.

 

Japanese tansu chest

There is a house where I live, alone, no roommates. There is enough room for the tansu chest. Aside from a bar cart, it is the only piece of storage furniture in the house not used for books or that does not have books somewhere on its surface. I keep many generously-sized towels in there, the kind that really cover up everything when wrapped around your body, chest to knees nearly. There are also sheets that are soft from years of washing but show no signs of wear beyond a faded tag. They seemed expensive at the time, but hey, you get what you pay for, right? There are smaller towels, too, for the hands and faces of visitors who stay on a squashy sofa or in my bed, depending. They come frequently and from all over, and I am glad to have them. I bring them to the best coffee in my neighborhood, the best Thai, the small store selling lovely things. They think it all charming and tell me they’re glad I’ve found a place for myself, they mean it, too, I can see them meaning it somewhere in their eyes, and they are the type of friend whose word I trust implicitly after many years of different kinds of friendship all layered together like many-colored glass to form one distinct hue for our friendship now. We go out for breakfast and then on a long walk. One of us brings an apple or a pear in a bag and we stop and share it somewhere with a nice view. I picked this walk just for the view, and I point out landmarks. There is the theater, there is the grocery store open twenty-four hours and never seeming quite real inside, there is a house where I used to live. We lapse into not talking very much but it feels soft together. Eventually we get back to my house. I give them a glass of water and then they want to take a shower, so I open the tansu chest for a towel. While they shower I nap accidentally on the couch (it’s just so soft). It is quiet and cool in the house, my house, my house alone. Soon it gets dusky. Candles are lit, the windows open. My friend makes dinner as a thank-you for hosting. Fresh pasta with shrimp. Some bread to get the sauce up. A green salad, sharp with lemon and cracked pepper. White wine, cold from the fridge. Somehow there is always more to discuss.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Mauro Javier Cardenas

Mauro Javier Cardenas (whose story “Dora and Her Dog” was published in Issue No. 104) is the author of the new novel The Revolutionaries Try Again (Coffee House Press). Harper’s Magazine has described his first novel as “a high-octane, high-modernist” work “from the gifted, fleet Mauro Javier Cardenas.” And in its starred review, Publishers Weekly said “Cardenas dizzyingly leaps from character to character, from street protests to swanky soirees, and from lengthy uninterrupted interior monologues to rapid-fire dialogues and freewheeling satirical radio programs, resulting in extended passages of brilliance.”

Cardenas spoke to ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about his book at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco earlier this month.

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‘Divination’ by Ann Cummins, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall Issue

Ann CumminsAnn Cummins is the author of the story collection Red Ant House (2003) and the novel Yellowcake (2007). A former Lannan fellow, her work has been published in The New Yorker and McSweeney’s and in Best American Short Stories 2002.

Her story “Divination” is set in the Southwest region in which Cummins was born, but takes place in a distant era, one that places the narrative in the category we would call a Western (and as anybody who has read Stegner, Cather, McCarthy, or Oakley Hall knows, what a wide and rich category it is). A story about the uncompromising realities of family and laboring from the land, “Divination” is another welcome example of Cummins artistry. The following is an excerpt from her story. It can be read in its entirety in Issue No. 107, which you can order here.

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In Conversation with Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff, ZYZZYVA No. 107, Fall Issue

fall-2016-1The following is the introduction from a conversation between our contributing editor Andrew Foster Altschul and Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff. You can read an excerpt of their conversation following the introduction, and, of course, can read the conversation in its entirety in Issue No. 107, which you can buy here.

It’s hard to think of a pair of writer-siblings as celebrated, or as prolific, as Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff. Between them, they’ve written nineteen books, including novels, short-story and essay collections, and a travel narrative. But it was their acclaimed memoirs Geoffrey’s The Duke of Deception (1979) and Tobias’s This Boy’s Life (1989)—that first earned them wide readerships. The brothers’ parents split up when Geoffrey was twelve and Tobias was five, and they grew up separately: Geoffrey with their father and Tobias with their mother. The memoirs deal with their unusual childhoods, from perspectives that overlap only occasionally—the brothers did not really get to know each other until they were young adults. Over their careers, both have won numerous accolades and have risen to positions of prominence in academia—Geoffrey as the director of the graduate writing program at the University of California at Irvine, Tobias as professor of English at Stanford University. I am one of only a few writers lucky enough to have studied with both Wolffs. In 2012, I invited them to the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University for a public conversation about memory, family, and the precarious art of writing one’s own life.

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