ZYZZYVA EventsFebruary 22, 2017
In Conversation with John Darnielle
Location: 7 p.m., The Booksmith, 1644 Haight St., San Francisco
Description: Darnielle, the author of "Wolf in White Van," discusses his new novel, "Universal Harvester" (FSG), with Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Ticket required. More info here: http://bit.ly/2jtVhIE
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
Matthew Zapruder is editor-at-large for Wave Books, the poetry editor for The New York Times Magazine, and an associate professor in the MFA program at Saint Mary’s College. Next August, his book Why Poetry? will be published by Ecco. Two of his poems—”Poem for Noguchi” and “Stari Trg”—appear in the new issue of ZYZZYVA, which you can get here.
The following is “Poem for Noguchi” in its entirety. You can hear Zapruder read from his work, along with ZYZZYVA contributors Kathleen Alcott, Scott O’Connor, and Ella Martinsen Gorham, at the Winter Issue Celebration at Diesel in Oakland on Thursday, January 26.
Mar Colón-Margolies is a former editor at Nation Books. Her reporting has appeared in The Nation, the Columbia Journalism Review online, and on Rhode Island Public Radio. Her story “Revision” appears in the new issue of ZYZZYVA.
Set in Texas, “Revision” is the tale of a journalist on assignment writing about that state’s draconian abortion laws. In the course of his work he faces questions of professional and even personal ethics as he re-connects with a past love. The following is an excerpt, but you can read the story in its entirety by getting a copy here. (Also, Mar Colón-Margolies will be reading from her work at ZYZZYVA’s Winter Issue Launch at Greenlight Bookstore on January 12.)
Meantime (288 pages; Black Cat/Grove) is an absorbing novel, the second from author Katharine Noel, whose first book, Halfway House, received widespread acclaim. Meantime seems to be on a similar track, as reviewers praise its humor and emotional depth—especially as found in its narrator, Claire Hood. Claire is dry and amusing, and her voice and reactions are engaging and convincing. The main plot points—Claire growing up with her bohemian “Naked Family,” her varied boyfriends and failed relationships, her marriage to Jeremy, and Jeremy’s illness and recovery, et cetera —are all fascinating; the characters and their dialogues drive the novel. There is not one character, however small, that doesn’t seem fully realized. (Claire’s judgments about them notwithstanding). And none is entirely despicable or lovable, but all are undeniably real.
But what sets Meantime apart is how Noel’s beautiful prose renders contemporary San Francisco. Her San Francisco is not some overblown mythical city promising rebirth or “finding yourself,” and it certainly isn’t overly romanticized, either. The San Francisco of the novel, from its descriptions of the views of the Bay or the litter and garbage lining the streets, are recognizable to anybody familiar with the city (thankfully, the novel has no references to the Golden Gate Bridge or fog). Noel’s San Francisco is the same San Francisco that I myself am familiar with, one that has been facing rapid gentrification and staggering income inequality—that in recent years seems like it’s been dialed up to 11.
The following Letter from the Editor appears in the Winter issue. It was originally written a few days before Election Day.
“What is essential is the intense presence of the viewer in the intense presence of the art.”—Edward Albee
For eight years I lived in New York, and during that time I took in a reasonable amount of theater, on, off, and off-off Broadway, whenever and wherever I could get tickets. There was, as you can imagine, a great deal of serious and experimental work to choose from, which was particularly fortuitous because my graduate work was in part on Samuel Beckett. One memorable evening, my father and I saw a brilliant production of Endgame at the Irish Repertory Theatre starring Tony Roberts as Hamm (you may best remember Roberts as Woody Allen’s patient and much taller friend Rob in Annie Hall). In Endgame he was confined to a dilapidated wheelchair for the entire play, his eyes shielded from the audience by sunglasses, his body shrouded in piles of rags—and from this disadvantaged position Roberts captivated in every moment. Another fine evening of theater was also had well off Broadway, in a production juxtaposing three short pieces by Beckett (including Not I) with, after an intermission, Counting the Ways, a one-act by Edward Albee. Albee became another playwright I sought out, and over the years I saw Sally Field in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and Kathleen Turner in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Both productions featured the always excellent Bill Irwin.) After each show I left the theater feeling drained, as though I myself had been through an extended bout of personal reckoning. Yet I returned to see both productions a second time. What is it about Albee’s work that seems so essential? What makes his work such a complementary pairing with the stylistically distinct Beckett?
I think it has something to do with Albee’s unsparing examination of who we are, and how we allow ourselves to become such mysteries to ourselves: this kind of investigation is demanding, but speaks directly to how art can craft meaning from the raw material of life. It has a personal dimension (his plays often examine intimate and long-term relationships), as well as a social and a political one. Albee’s work calls for us to wake up, to take stock, to challenge ourselves to confront who we’ve become. It asks us to see how we’ve wounded the ones we love, intentionally or otherwise, how we’ve drifted from our intentions and our better selves; to stop skating along complacently and consider the complexities of identity, relationships, and society, in all their tangled, gnarled glory. It’s an exhausting but profound journey we take. In other words, his work delivers on the promise of art.
Beckett is, still, literally incomparable. He plumbs essential questions about existence by relentlessly discarding all excess: the staging is spare, and speakers are often confined in one manner or another so that distraction is minimized and the dialogue can then do its work of relentlessly circling and closing in on the matter at hand. Through rhythm, repetition, a deliberate kind of digression, and a concentration on language itself, Beckett drills below the noisy, stubborn surface of daily life. “Absurd” is a word that often gets thrown around in discussing Beckett’s work, but the work is more stripped to a core (the voice that speaks, the mind that thinks) than it is simply absurd.
Albee’s work does something different but related. He, too, works to shatter the tough shell of the quotidian and to burrow into the difficult subject matter underneath. He presents material in what appears to be a more familiar setting (with the trappings of home and family), and then proceeds to make the familiar deeply strange. He uses crisis and excessive drink and elements, yes, of the absurd to crack the polite surface and to push his characters, and the audience, past delusion and into painful confrontations. Like Beckett, he uses language, humor, and extreme situations to dissolve our complacency.
There was an unpleasant dissonance in learning of Albee’s death in September within the same week I read about Tom Wolfe’s inexplicable new book in which he claims evolution cannot account for the human development of language: a thesis he supports with flawed logic and an exuberant obtuseness. We are in a time of real resistance to the facing of facts and hard truths that Albee championed. (How discouraging that evolution itself must still be counted among these.) This seems, indeed, to be a time of minimal respect for facts, for science, and for hard truths. Evolution (and its deniers) seemed to be of interest to Albee through the years; his 1975 play Seascape is in part a meditation on evolution. In one scene, a character attempts to explain evolution to a mated pair of man-sized lizards, with little success. In 1998, Albee clarified these needlessly muddied waters: “I hold that we are the only animal who has invented and uses art as a method to communicate ourselves to ourselves. And I am convinced that this has a great deal to do with evolution; again, my apologies to the creationists.”
Today, many of the trends and tics in American culture that most worried Albee seem amplified. In Stretching My Mind, a 2005 collection of essays, interviews, and reflections spanning his career, Albee laments critics who, instead of seeking to shape public opinion and guide public reception for art that may be difficult, try only to reflect existing opinion back to the public in a kind of self-congratulating hall of mirrors. “It is not enough to hold the line against the dark,” he wrote in 1989. “It is your responsibility to lead into the light. People don’t like the light—it reveals too much. But hand in hand with the creative artist, you can lead people into the wisdom…simply, that it is the dark we have to fear.” This concern endures, and a parallel abdication of duty in politics and political coverage—with too many members of the media shaping their work around public feelings about issues rather than the issues themselves—confronted us in this election season. Too many demurred when presented with an opportunity to call out a lie, retreating instead to the now familiar defense that the public can decide for themselves—evidently without the benefit and expertise of those whose job it is to analyze, contextualize, and fact-check.
Explaining in The Paris Review the meaning of the title of his most famous work, Albee said, “who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf means who’s afraid of the big bad wolf, who’s…afraid of living life without false illusions.” The answer, if we are honest, is all of us. There is a perennial quality to this challenge at the heart of Albee’s work, but rarely have we been in more urgent need of the courage to dispel our personal and collective false illusions than now. Albee’s voice was singular. His loss is a great one for the arts, for the theater, for those who appreciate a thoughtful and meticulous kind of provocateur.
As we go to press with this issue in early November, we are in an odd position, knowing that it will publish about a month after the presidential election. Whatever the outcome, there will be much to concern us. For this is one of those loaded moments in our history when the tectonic shifts rumbling far below the surface can be easily felt.
No matter where we find ourselves, the motto that appears above the figure in our cover art is apt: be strong. We all have a great deal of work to do—as citizens, as artists, as members of myriad overlapping communities.
A world in crisis demands our full attention—a willingness to dispel our self-protective illusions—and requires the full-voiced efforts of our better selves.
Wishing you and yours a peaceful holiday season, and a bright NewYear.
Artist Ricardo Cavolo and writer Scott McClanahan have created an intimate portrait of one of their heroes—cult-famous indie musician Daniel Johnston—in their recent graphic novel, which serves as “an affectionate thanks and a hug for Daniel.” The Incantations of Daniel Johnston (101 pages; Two Dollar Radio) is more than a look at Johnston’s picaresque life; it is also a critique on fandom and an investigation of the ways an audience interacts with art and mental illness. While Cavolo and McClanahan refuse to skip over the tragic aspects of Johnston’s mental health, or skirt around the troubling things the self-proclaimed “curse upon the land” has done, they also lovingly dream up different paths Johnston’s life could have taken. There is a wonderful yet occasionally unsettling strangeness that permeates this book. It stems from acknowledging “the devils inside” all of us, as depicted in Cavolo’s colorful illustrations and in the dark humor in McClanahan’s language.
To combat the mythologizing of Daniel Johnston as an artist, Cavolo and McClanahan continuously remind us he is human. At the beginning, Cavolo draws Daniel on an embryonic level, still inside his mother’s womb. McClanahan writes, “Everyone was someone’s child once. Remember.” This sets the tone for the rest of the book. As Cavolo and McClanahan bask in the bizarreness of Johnston’s story, they also instruct us to acknowledge he is real. We are transported to Johnston’s childhood bedroom, where he grew up in a religious household in West Virginia. Within the room, Cavolo illustrates the drawings Johnston is known for: frogs, eyeballs, skulls, and superheroes. McClanahan writes, “There is nothing more amazing than the bedrooms of our childhood or the room we are sitting in right now.” These details of Daniel’s youth are given as much weight as the darker incidences that occurred later on in his life once drugs, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder afflicted his life.
Bergman. You know, people said he wasn’t as good as Dreyer. They said it. They said he couldn’t do it. He did it, though. He really went and did it. I mean, people are worried about death. Capital-D Death. They want answers, they’re dying, they’re not happy. So this guy, big handsome-looking Norwegian guy, European guy, you know, he plays chess with Death. Death doesn’t know what to do, he’s like, “I’ve never seen anything like this before.” It’s true, folks. Never before—no one’s ever seen this before. They keep playing, they’re on a beach, it’s great. There’s the black plague, and a smith whose wife runs away with a jester, and everybody’s upset. Then this woman talks to the devil, and she gets everybody all upset. Lots of wailing and whining. They don’t have a clue, they don’t know how to win. OK. They get together and escape in a carriage, and, but, before this the guy with the blonde hair, the real Viking guy, gives away his strategy. He’s trying to cheat Death and Death’s trying to cheat him. There’s lots of philosophy, they eat some strawberries. Near the end some of them get away but this guy, he chokes. He chokes, what can I say? Tries to swipe the pieces off the chessboard, but it’s done, it’s over, kaput. And Death gets them in a castle, he gets them good. And they’re brave. They lost, but they’re brave, and they said some nice things. Anyway, it’s a great movie. They lose but it’s a great movie, just tremendous. I’ve always said it and I’ll say it again: don’t skip Bergman if you can help it. He’s at the top of the heap, better than Fellini, better than Godard, all of those stuffy ballerinas—they’re overrated and everybody knows it. This movie doesn’t have time for any of that. It says, OK, Death, let’s play chess. You hop my queen and I hop yours. No settling, no recounts. You know, you know you’ve made it when the Muppets are saying how good you are. Lovely people, the Muppets. The Swedes, too. You’ve made it.
Our Winter issue features fiction, nonfiction, and poetry:
“Throwback Thursday” by Joshua Mohr: online, it’s the appearance of happiness that matters most.
“Revision” by Mar Colón-Margolies: on assignment covering Texas’s abortion laws, a journalist considers the line between his humanity and his profession.
“Wild Kingdom” and “World Away” by Octavio Solis: the tenacity of adolescent memories reveal themselves in a father’s explosive anger and in a school production of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
“Operator, Information” by Glen David Gold: picking up from Issue No. 100’s “The Plush Cocoon,” we offer another installment from Gold’s forthcoming three-volume memoir.
“Flood Control,” an essay by Rebecca Thomas: in Southern California, amid the drought, the concrete channels tell us people have reckoned with deluges there, too.
Short short fiction from Amy Tan, Elizabeth Rosner, and Deb Olin Unferth.
A wide-ranging conversation with acclaimed author and feminist Susan Griffin.
Plus more fiction from Mick LaSalle, Catherine Sustana, Scott O’Connor, Rolf Yngve, and Eric Severn; a translation of Italian author Giuseppe Zucco’s disquieting tale “The Wallpaper,” and introducing First Time in Print fiction writer Ella Martinsen Gorham.
Poetry from Matthew Zapruder, Jenny Qi, Matthew Dickman, Gary Lark, Abigail Carl-Klassen, Jesse Wallis, and Emily Benton. And featuring art by Annie Galvin.
If it weren’t for the prologue in Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time (464 pages; Penguin Press), a reader might be confounded by the many undulations the narrative takes as it kicks off in the present then looks back upon a past traumatic incident, excavating it. What could have been off-putting proves to be an adventure zig-zagging from public housing to brownstones, from England to Senegal, from 1982 to 2008, filling in the gaps in time and place and creating a definitive arc, albeit one completely warped.
Relationships, and the action that subsequently alters them, form the novel’s backbone, cementing the nonlinear action nicely. When we meet Tracey in the book’s opening, she’s another mixed-race girl whom the unnamed narrator has dance class with. Their friendship and fated falling out is the stuff of tragedy in the classical sense; our narrator muses, “there was always this mutual awareness, an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others.” Tracey is, indeed, the narrator’s sole object of obsession, one she returns to at varying points, often by way of other characters, illustrating their karmic inseparability—a lodestar by which she tracks her own success or failure. Tracey is the more talented of the pair, but her talent quickly dissipates when she falls prey to the socioeconomic odds stacked against her, eventually railing to bring the narrator down with her.
These are difficult days for writers, editors, teachers, and intellectuals of all kinds. Faced with fresh evidence of Auden’s claim that “poetry does nothing,” in the persona of President-elect Donald Trump, the temptation we face is to turn toward despair and disengagement. Yet this is the time we were made for. Now we must help each other to find our voices in the public sphere.
What we’ve found to be helpful is combining our abilities—as storytellers, witnesses, and listeners—with a community commitment. The Bay Area has a surfeit of both literary talent and social justice work. The local organizations we’ve highlighted below serve the very groups who have been demonized by the President-elect and his inner circle. We know and have been inspired by their work. If you’re searching for an immediate, substantive contribution, these places need us to donate our time, our effort, and our talent.
Mission Graduates’s purpose is to increase “the number of K-12 students in San Francisco’s Mission District who are prepared for and complete a college education.” Many of these students are recent immigrants to San Francisco, starting their education all over again in a new language. They need donations and volunteers, including tutors.
La Raza Centro Legal
La Raza Centro Legal “is a community-based legal organization dedicated to empowering Latino, immigrant and low-income communities of San Francisco to advocate for their civil and human rights. [They] combine legal services and advocacy to build grassroots power and alliances towards creating a movement for a just society.” They need volunteers for translation, paperwork organizers, and communications.
The Beat Within
The Beat Within holds weekly writing and discussion workshops in Bay Area juvenile detention centers. With help from mentors, incarcerated youth write and publish a bi-weekly 60-page magazine. They seek volunteers year-round and can be contacted at (415) 890-5641.
The Wellness Academies at Huckleberry Youth Programs
Huckleberry Youth Programs in San Francisco provide shelter, health care, and counseling services to runaways and youth in crisis. They are seeking after-school tutors for their Wellness Academy, which offers college and career prep.
Voice of Witness
Voice of Witness “promotes human rights and dignity by amplifying the voices of people impacted by injustice.” They publish oral history books and have an education program for high school students. They are in need of volunteers for translation, transcription, and web design.
Mujeres Unidas y Activas
Mujeres Unidas y Activas is a leadership development program for Latina immigrants, with an eye to both personal empowerment and social and economic justice for the larger communities they serve. Their successes have included the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance and statewide access to prenatal care for immigrant women. They are in need of English tutors.
The ADL is committed to stopping “the defamation of Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.” Their San Francisco offices serve as the organization’s Central Pacific Region headquarters, covering Northern California, Utah, and Hawaii. You can go to their website to find ways of getting involved.
East Bay Refugee Forum
The East Bay Refugee Forum is a coalition of more than 30 agencies which serve refugees, asylum seekers, and other displaced people who are trying to make a new home for themselves in the Bay Area. Their agencies are currently seeking translators, tutors, mentors, and writers who can assist job-seekers with paperwork.
Super Stars Literacy
Super Stars Literacy provides literacy and social skills training for underperforming K-2nd grade students in Oakland, Hayward, and Newark. They are looking for classroom reading tutors, program event volunteers, and service group teams.
The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
The Ella Baker Center works to end mass incarceration and curb abusive criminalization actions against low-income people of color. They’re based in Oakland. They’re looking for volunteer help with communications, writing blog posts, and handling surveys.
SIREN (Services, Immigration Rights and Education Network)
SIREN does community education, organizing, policy advocacy, and service provision for low-income immigrants and refugees in Silicon Valley. Based in San Jose, the organization is seeking volunteers for communications, citizenship application assistance, and bilingual services.
CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) Bay Area
CAIR is one of the nation’s leading civil liberties advocacy groups for Americans who practice Islam, and the Bay Area branch is the oldest chapter in the country. This chapter, in Santa Clara, serves the nearly 250,000 practicing Muslims in the nine-county Bay Area. They are seeking translation assistance and administrative support.
In general, we keep partisanship and day-to-day politics out of the journal. We hope we can provide a space for thoughtful contemplation of all aspects of contemporary life through art—a way of thinking which, while engaged with the political, is not political in its mode and does its work well outside the 24-hour news-cycle.
But we are now compelled to speak to you directly about this election. On November 8, this nation succumbed to the greatest threat that faces any democracy: that a sizable number of its people may find democracy itself—with all its imperfections—too unpalatable, and choose instead to surrender their agency to a strongman. This nation has elected a boastfully ignorant, vulgar, deceitful, professionally unqualified bigot.
There will be much to write and discuss and agonize over in the days, months, and years to come. There is an abundance of blame to go around. There is much work to do. But before we move forward, we’d like to address that which feels most urgent at this moment, and most relevant to what we endeavor to do here at ZYZZYVA.
We believe Donald Trump’s candidacy has cultivated a new strain of fascism and that he has displayed autocratic tendencies. We believe this because we have listened to his words, and paid attention to his actions. He has told the American people repeatedly how little respect he has for basic tenets of our democracy such as a free press and an independent judiciary—and we believe him. He has told us repeatedly how little respect he has for civil liberties, and we believe him. He has told us that he holds women and immigrants in contempt, and we believe him. And now we have seen him select Stephen Bannon, a leading figure in the white-nationalist movement, documented anti-Semite, and enormously effective conspiracy theorist and propaganda creator as his chief-strategist. In order for those Americans dismayed by this election to organize an effective resistance to the incoming administration, we must clearly acknowledge the magnitude and character of the problem we face.
This extraordinarily distressing moment is, of course, personal for so many of us. For our small staff, as in so many communities around this country, the election of Donald Trump reverberates as a stunning rebuke. We are both the proud children of immigrants, and we are feminists; one of us is Jewish, the other is Mexican. For us as for so many other immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities, the disabled, for survivors of sexual assault, the LGBTQ community, for feminists, the message seems clear: the new president and an untold number of his supporters do not see us as Americans.
Our disappointment in this outcome has nothing to do with traditional politics—liberal versus conservative—and everything to do with the still radical ideals of individual freedom and equality on which this country was founded. They are ideals we’ve never perfectly achieved, but for which each generation has fought and for which we will now continue fighting with renewed focus.
Those of us committed to defending civil liberties and a free press—and to resisting any action by the new administration that threatens those ideals—may feel like outsiders, out of step with much of the population, not to mention the party now dominating the federal government. But we are in fact picking up the torch for American ideals. Our shared hopes are profoundly democratic, and profoundly American. We must not let this latest chapter in a long struggle make us feel like outsiders in our own home. We must remember that our participation in this difficult battle makes us American in the best sense of the word.
For all of you who are justifiably afraid of what the future holds, for all of you who feel rejected by your country, where you and your parents or grandparents have worked so hard to build good lives: we share your distress, and we are with you. We share your grief, your anger, and your worry.
ZYZZYVA has never been just a journal: it has always been about community. If you are looking for solace and solidarity as we all take a collective breath and begin to figure out what to do next, please know we are with you. If you’re looking for a safe haven, we hope you may find it in the community we’ve built here in the pages of the journal, where we will vigorously defend the First Amendment as we expand our nonfiction offerings; you’ll find it at any of our events where we can gather to share ideas and concerns; and you’ll find it on our online community of readers, writers, and artists. We’ll work to create even more opportunities, both in the journal, online, and in events, to foster dialogue and analysis of our changing political and cultural climate as we try to answer, What do we do next?
Despair may be rational, but we cannot succumb to it. Albert Camus, who’s been much on our minds of late, wrote:
“The words that reverberate for us at the confines of this long adventure of rebellion are not formulas for optimism, for which we have no possible use in the extremities of our unhappiness, but words of courage and intelligence which, on the shores of the eternal seas, even have the qualities of virtue.”
Camus wrote of “the generosity of rebellion,” a kind of rebellion “which unhesitatingly gives the strength of its love and without a moment’s delay refuses injustice. … Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.” Just so, let us give our all to the present.
Keep making your art. Literature can do so much to shed light on the dark corners where the complex convergence of factors that led us to this strange and troubled time festered, and continue to fester. We need that light more than ever. We’ll do everything we can in our own tiny corner of the universe to make sure your voices are heard, your rights are protected, and our community is inclusive.
Yours in solidarity and resistance,
Laura and Oscar
Communication, or a lack thereof, is front and center in A Greater Music, (128 pages; Open Letter Books; translated by Deborah Smith) Bae Suah’s latest novel to come out in English. Our music-loving narrator is an unnamed Korean woman living on and off in Berlin and Korea, struggling to learn German. Her difficulties in the structure and rigor of academia are documented throughout, up until she meets M, an unconventional tutor who teaches with wild disregard of basic grammar and syntax in favor of a higher learning and exchange of ideas. Presented near the novel’s conclusion is their initial meeting. M invites our narrator to read from a passage she does not comprehend. “Even if you can’t understand, you can still make me understand. Look at it that way,” M offers as a defense of her methodology, “and as time passes you’ll come to understand it too.”
Such is the philosophy explored at the core of this novel, and in doing so equates language-learning with music, the nuances of which are not directly translatable and more closely align with emotion. So it’s no shock when our narrator and M develop a romantic relationship whose vocabulary has yet to be determined to the reader. M has an alluded-to allergic condition that further complicates and strains their relationship, though other pertinent details are left out. While standing unarguably as the novel’s primary concern, M comes and goes as a memory whose legacy is a piece of a larger puzzle.