ZYZZYVA EventsDecember 12, 2018
Winter Issue Celebration
Location: 7 p.m., Dog Eared Books, 900 Valencia St., San Francisco
Description: Featuring readings by Issue No. 114 contributors Meron Hadero, Bruce Snider, Kate Folk, and David Drury. Free. For more information: bit.ly/2pzthnp
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In 1986, a fire at the Los Angeles Central Library raged so fiercely, firefighters noted the strong potential for a flashover –– when a fire spreads rapidly across a gap due to extreme heat. “Flashover” is similar to the effect one experiences reading Susan Orlean’s The Library Book (336 pages; Simon & Schuster). It’s difficult to pull away from the story when her incisive research skills and masterful writing work in symbiosis: The Library Book is not just a sweeping narrative recounting the 1986 Los Angeles Central Library fire, but also an in-depth look at the personal, civic, and global impact a library can have.
Although Harry Peak has long been suspected as the arsonist behind the fire, the precise cause of the blaze remains a mystery to this day. Peak was originally from Santa Fe Springs, but moved to Los Angeles –– as most aspiring actors do –– after a stint in the Army at age eighteen. He never made it to the silver screen, but he did appear on the local news in 1987 when he was arrested on suspicion of arson. He was described by many as a compulsive liar, which is partially why Peak was never indicted. No one could ascertain if Peak was even at the library when the fire started because he continually fabricated and then contradicted one alibi after the other.
In addition to her investigation into Harry Peak, Orlean examines history to add context to why someone would want to burn down a library in the first place: “libraries are usually burned because they contain ideas one finds problematic,” she notes. She harkens back to the Spanish Inquisition, wherein Spaniards created a community gathering around the act of burning books they deemed heretic, such as the Torah. With some trepidation, Orlean even burned a book herself in order to truly immerse herself in her research.
Orlean describes the personal significance of the library institution: for her, the library is a reminder of the trips she took with her mother, to whom she credits for instilling her love of literature. She saw that same parent-child bond mirrored in the present when she brought her son to the library because he –– to Orlean’s surprise –– wanted to interview a librarian for a school assignment. She calls books our cultural DNA, “a code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know.” A library is one of the safest and most open places in a community, and to burn it down would be tantamount to terrorism. For the Senegalese people, Orlean notes, saying “his or her library has burned” is a polite way to address someone’s passing; she shares a cerebral yet heartwarming contemplation of the term:
Our minds and souls contain volumes made of our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived. It is something that no one else can entirely share, one that burns down and disappears when we die. But if you can take something from that internal collection and share it —with one person or with the larger world, on the page or in a story recited— it takes a life of its own.
Reading The Library Book is not unlike combing through the stacks of your local branch: it exposes many truths, and offers answers as well as questions. While the fire at the Los Angeles Central Library may be long forgotten –– even when it occurred, it was soon eclipsed in the headlines by the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl the same week –– Orlean’s genuine ardor for this peculiar and overlooked story is adroitly conveyed by her prose—the fuel igniting this literary page-turner.
San Francisco’s most cherished holiday –– that’s right, Halloween –– is nearly upon us. That means it’s colder and darker outside before you know it, so what better excuse to curl up in bed with a (frightfully) good book? In keeping with the spirit of the season, we’ve assembled a list of recommended reads that might just help you keep warm, that is, if they don’t chill you to the bone.
Laura Cogan, Editor: The dehumanizing violence of American racism and white power is the horror at the heart of Hari Kunzru’s novel, White Tears. I read it earlier this year, as a part of the Tournament of Books (where I offered commentary in the opening round), and though there were aspects that I wish had been developed more, the novel has stayed with me. It can be fascinating when the genre of horror is used incisively (either in film or narrative) to address social concerns. In this regard, Kunzru’s book is timely and memorable—both for its visceral evocation of the way we are haunted, whether we can perceive it and admit it or not, by slavery, and for its treatment of contemporary racism.
As I noted earlier this year, White Tears drives home a serious point about the present-day legacies of our shameful past by making use of the propulsive conventions of the horror genre. But the novel is especially impressive for its layered critique of white exploitation of black Americans in many guises over generations. Issues of ownership, possession, and obsession come up in several forms throughout the book—and interwoven with this motif is a suggested critique of capitalism itself.
Part of the horror evoked here has to do with being disenfranchised. Which is a condition, if we pause to really dwell on it, as essentially horrifying as any. As one of Kunzru’s characters observes: “When you are powerless, your belief or disbelief is irrelevant. No one gives a damn about what you believe. But if some reality believes in you, then you must live it. You can’t say no thank you. You can’t say I don’t want this. If horror believes in you, there’s nothing to be done.”
Peyton Harvey, Intern: After seeing the live production of X in London, I immediately purchased a ticket to see it again the following week. From the mind of Alistair McDowall comes a play that is exhilarating, mind-bending, and heartfelt. It’s the kind of story that you’ll want to revisit and absorb every detail that you may have missed. The stage production is magical, but the deftly crafted script is able to stand alone and conjures extremely visceral images in the mind of the reader.
X, its the title befitting its enigmatic plot, serves as a measure of humanity and relationships through the lens of time. The play fuses elements of sci-fi, horror, and thriller; however, at its core it is a exploration of the human condition. We begin on a research station on Pluto with four astronauts: Gilda, Clark, Ray, and Cole. But soon the play’s timeline, like the minds of its characters, grows warped. The start of the play actually falls somewhere near the middle of the chronological narrative. The author presents clues to indicate where we are in the story: a watch only worn in certain scenes, the letter x written, apparently in blood, on the window.
The characters struggle to maintain their sanity as their memories begin to fade and merge together. In Act II, the in-house meteorologist Cole realizes that the station’s main clock and other means of keeping time have stopped working. As a result, none of the characters can tell how long they’ve been away from Earth, or even how many hours they’ve been awake.
Over time –– whatever that word means to them now –– they becomes increasingly less sure of who they are. McDowall adds an eerie levity to the plot as two characters play the game Guess Who, a game with definite questions and answers. Do I have blonde hair? Yes. Am I wearing a hat? No. Before long, the players lose their grip on their identities. Without any reference point to time back on Earth, they become more unstable.
While there are horrifying images of bloody letters sprawled on walls and the ghostly sound of a young girl’s voice, what proves most frightening is the slow realization that there is no escape from the characters’ increasing disconnect from reality.
X delves into the fragility of the human psyche. In one instance, Ray explains that he maintains his sanity by playing recordings of bird sounds: “I try to hold onto birds in particular.” Gilda, near breaking point, replies, “Hold onto X, X in particular.” The theme of holding on appears throughout the play. We are asked: who are we if we do not possess our own thoughts and memories? What do you hold onto when you are losing your very self?
M.M. Silva, Intern: The Alchemaster’s Apprentice by Walter Moers is one of my all-time favorites for many reasons. It takes its readers on a spooky adventure through a disease-ridden village called Zamonia ruled by an “alchemaster” named Goolion. It has the ability to either place you on the rough carpet of your fifth grade classroom, reading the coolest story of your youth or actually bring you into the story itself as the conflicted main character Echo. Echo is an ownerless “crat,” essentially a cat that can speak any language with a slightly different internal anatomy than other cats. This ends up putting Echo in a scary situation, as Goolion needs the fat of a crat for his own evil purposes.
It may sound like the the kind of imaginative fiction you’d read during childhood, but Moers’ novel is a perfect pick for Halloween and might add a little spice to your book list.
Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: “I think that what we all want is facts,” says Luke early on in Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House. “Something we can understand and put together.” Yet in Hill House, as in all great horror tales, “the facts” are exceedingly difficult to come by and increasingly irrelevant in the face of the world’s terror. As the story opens, Shirley Jackson introduces four characters to the imposing and architecturally irregular world of Hill House as a means to investigate just how precarious our notions of logic, self, and sanity can be. Following in the tradition of writers as venerable as Poe and Lovecraft, Jackson understood that the most terrible terrain fiction can navigate is not a fog-ridden graveyard or castle crypt, but the human mind. Her prose is so effective at capturing the anxiety-ridden interiority of her main character, Eleanor Vance, that it’s easy to imagine the strange noises and disturbances of Hill House as merely the product of mental illness. Many readers have noted Eleanor’s similarities to Jackson herself: both suffered under the thrall of a domineering mother and felt increasingly stifled by domestic life.
Of course, Jackson herself professed to critics that she did, indeed, believe in ghosts –– and she writes The Haunting of Hill House with the conviction of a believer. “Fear is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns,” claims the measured and quite rational Doctor Montague, who has summoned these three strangers to Hill House. “We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.” But how to hold onto logic, how to fight fear at a scene like the one Jackson describes during Eleanor and Theodora’s nocturnal stroll of the Hill House grounds: “On either side of them the trees, silent, relinquished the dark color they had held, paled, grew transparent and stood white and ghastly against the black sky. The grass was colorless, the path wide and black; there was nothing else.” It’s difficult to imagine a better treat during the October season than to savor such a passage as Halloween draws near. But the pleasures of Jackson’s novel run deep –– indeed, it’s actually quite hilarious at parts, particularly once Dr. Montague’s brash wife enters the scene –– and there’s no need to shelve the book after the 31st. The Haunting’s closing chapters make it quite clear that, for Eleanor, the greatest horror might not be found in the slanted halls of Hill House, but in being forced to confront the overwhelming loneliness of her life as she prepares to depart. It’s this observation from Jackson that ensures the novel registers as insightful and even profound.
Bjorn Svendsen, Intern: Dan Simmons’ Carrion Comfort, released in 1989, is an epic 800-page horror novel which twists the traditional vampire mythos by featuring human monsters. Its title comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem about spiritual despair, but the novel is about “mind vampires”— human beings with the psychic talent to control others with only a glance. These mind vampires sustain themselves with the emotional energy of others while forcing them to do their bidding like human puppets. Simmons writes in the introduction: “Absolute power does more than corrupt us absolutely, it gives us the blood-power taste of total control. Such control is more addicting than heroin. It is the addiction of mind vampirism.”
Carrion Comfort opens with a prologue. The protagonist, Saul Laski, is a Jewish man imprisoned in Chelmno extermination camp. There he encounters one of the novel’s perversely evil antagonists, an SS Colonel named Wilhelm von Borchert. Laski is forced into a game of human chess, where the people standing in for pieces are slaughtered when taken off the board. Laski survives the encounter and the war, and by the early eighties, has become a studied psychiatrist with a deep understanding of human violence. He has never forgotten his torture at the hands of a mind vampire, and devotes himself to understanding their rare and terrible talent, and ultimately, to destroying them. While Carrion Comfort is primarily a horror novel about facing adversity, it also balances elements of science fiction and the spy thriller. The novel features multiple characters, and the majority of the narrative is presented in third person. The first person is sparingly used for chapters featuring one of the novel’s main antagonists, exposing the workings of a psychopathic mind to chilling effect.
Carrion Comfort is a powerful meditation on corruption, violence, and the human will, and it is no surprise that it won the Bram Stoker Award the year of its publication. Stephen King has called Carrion Comfort, “One of the three greatest horror novels of the twentieth century.” Need I say more?
My goal was to wake with nothing
in my head –– it’s nice to begin a day
having already achieved. Sunlight
on the dead grass of the ski slope.
A lone runner works his way up
the fire road, a dull throb in my ankle
where it twisted on the edge of getting
younger, of celebrating my luck
in still being able to run. Ralph, my friend,
has been trying to convince me for years
that the life of an adult is boring
but I’ve never aspired to the life
of an adult. My wife holds up a diaper,
“A pound of pee.” There’s joy in that.
In another city, strangers excavate
our old lives to make room for our
new ones. Why we don’t say we’re lucky
and leave it at that, I don’t know. “You know,”
I say, “there’s enough water in Lake Tahoe
to fill a canal fifty feet wide and two hundred
feet deep from San Francisco to Los Angeles.”
A full sentence that startles me but I’m
still not ready to say something big,
something about grace and the rhythms
of a body moving from half state to awake
and someone on the stereo is already
asking if this life would be easier
if I had someone else to blame. Outside,
a shriek and giggle –– the girls
we listened to last night
smoke their first cigarette, cough
in the high of transgression, run
through the grass to cheer
camp. My ankle throb synchs
with the sprinklers. I do a Jesus
stretch and my daughter clears
her sore throat like a prop plane.
Noah Blaustein has had published poems in ZYZZYVA, the Massachusetts Review, the Harvard Review, Barrow Street, Poetry Daily, The Fish Anthology (selected by Billy Collins), Orion, Pleiades, and many other journals. Noah’s first book, Flirt, was selected by Kevin Prufer for University of New Mexico’s Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series edited by Hilda Ras. The anthology he edited, Motion: American Sports Poems, was an editor’s pick of National Public Radio and The Boston Globe as well as a Librarian’s Pick of the New York Public Library.
Ghost Guessed (156 pages; Mesæstándar) is an exquisite meditation on grief, loss, and family ties in a world increasingly given over to technology. A combination of prose and photography, the work takes a unique approach to creative nonfiction by telling a highly personal story through the blended voice of co-authors Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs. The book opens in the spring of 2014 as our unnamed narrator finds himself traveling to Malaysia with his wife just three weeks after Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 vanished over the South China Sea. The plane’s mysterious disappearance triggers the narrator’s memories of his cousin, Andrew Lindberg, who similarly vanished in 2009 while flying a single-engine plane near the town of Staples, Minnesota. It’s worth noting that Lindberg is Tom Griggs’ real life cousin, and Ghost Guest features a host of what appears to be authentic family photographs. The ambiguity as to which author can be attributed for the story lends to the spectral quality of the work and blurs the line between truth and non-truth. “The boundaries of reality became fluid,” the narrator states, “and while we knew they would reset, we didn’t know what form they would take.”
These twin disappearances create dual timelines in the book––one in which the narrator recalls his malaise following the financial crash of 2008-09 and the discovery of his cousin’s downed plane in the White Earth Indian Reservation, and the other chronicling his trip to Malaysia as he becomes increasingly unmoored by memories of the past. Threading these moments together is the omnipresence of technology in our lives, as well as the far-reaching absence the death of a loved one can create. “Today it is no longer a question of whether there are images of an event,” the narrator muses, “but a question of what to show from all we have and how to show it to the largest possible audience.”
When we can spend all day scrolling through “an aggregation of social media posts and crime-scene pics, ISIS propaganda and high-end real estate listings, surveillance stills and police bodycam footage,” one might expect we’d find it easier to parse truth from the world around us. Instead, we find “mountain digital archives that hem us in,” and we are left to ponder the same questions the writer does when he reluctantly takes a job photographing foreclosed houses in the Midwest during the financial crisis: “How do you make meaningful work amidst endless images? How do you make shapes from the sea?”
In Ghost Guessed, the ominousness of the Information Age––with its “Predator drones making civilians fear clear blue skies, and the shifting satellite and radar grids recording our lives as they unfolded,” as well as what seems to be the increased occurrence of aviation accidents during the last decade––is set in contrast with the bonds of family. Home photographs from before and after Andrew Lindberg’s death capture stray moments of intimacy among kin, as well as the visible sense of loss seen upon the faces of bereaved relatives. The book’s sparse prose underscores this state with its quiet, humane details, as when the narrator reflects on a mundane occurrence during the search for Andrew’s downed plane: “I remember pulling a sandwich from a cooler and immediately feeling the banality of the moment, the lack of reverence of everyday events amid catastrophe.”
Most of the photographs in Ghost Guessed possess the texture of analog media, a clear reminder of how previous generations used to document their lives on film, compared to the increasing digitization of this era, our memories now reduced to Facebook feeds, Instagram photos, and the ambiguity of “The Cloud.” The narrator observes, “A triangle emerged: camera, society, and sky bound in a system of infinite visible relationships, increasing the probability of finding a pattern we could grasp.” But what happens when no such pattern emerges? Ghost Guessed is frank about the harsh truths of middle age, of finding yourself no more grounded or certain than when you were young. “…I wondered if I’d ever live up to my own expectations,” the narrator reflects, “I could start over and still never get past the beginning.”
It’s fitting then that Ghost Guessed ends exactly as it starts: in uncertainty as murky and grey as the roiling clouds that adorn its back cover. In tracing the lingering hold of technology on us, from disasters in the skies to social media feeds, and the devastating losses that can impact a family for years, Paul Kwiatkowski and Tom Griggs have crafted the rare multimedia work that one can declare profound.
With Severance (304 pages; FSG), author Ling Ma delivers a fascinating coming-of-age novel, one full of millennial culture, post-apocalyptic adventures, and, perhaps most exciting of all, a zombie-like populace.
Severance opens in New York City, where protagonist Candace Chen works for a Bible manufacturer called Spectra. Throughout the novel, Candace finds plenty of reasons to leave her job, even as she clings to the city that feels so close to her. But after experiencing the strife of the Shen fever, a pandemic which reduces people to automatons who slowly waste away, she ends up traveling far away from an emptied New York with a group of survivors looking for safety.
Interestingly, consumerist culture is a big theme in the novel. The story makes constant references to specific skincare brands, products, stores, and other consumer-related items, giving in-the-know readers something to connect to. However, Ma seems to raise the question of whether even having this connection is a good thing. She presents us with characters of contrasting lifestyles, allowing us to reflect on our society’s sense of materialism and attachment. As the characters’ varying levels of consumption and wealth create barriers between them, it’s easy to ask ourselves to reevaluate how healthy our level of consumerism is, and to what extent dependency on the things we buy is permissible.
Throughout her first novel, Ma alternates between multiple perspectives. Candace narrates every other chapter (with one exception), with the timeline jumping between pre- and post-apocalypse, illustrating Candace’s development as a character. In juxtaposing her attitudes before and after the end of civilization as we know it, Ma emphasizes Candace’s diminishing attachment to the city and all it has to offer, and at the same time demonstrate her renewed growth as she takes on challenges with her fellow survivors.
Yet even as Candace becomes more independent, her past continues to haunt her at every turn. There seems to be the implication that nostalgia for what used to be might be putting Candace at risk, as she reminisces on times spent with her her mom, who immigrated to the U.S. from China, and others before the Shen fever destroyed their world. Toward the end of the novel, we wonder how this state of mind will affect Candace as she reaches her final, fateful decisions.
Severance wonderfully demonstrates how the lifestyles we lead now can have a great impact on our future, and not just in terms of what we buy. Ma also takes a unique and sometimes comedic look at the commonly superficial relationships we have with our acquaintances, especially in the workplace. She shows how this lack of depth in communication with others is reflected in our relation to consumerism and the capitalist system as a whole. But its all done with a pleasingly light touch, despite the story being heavy with death and addressing the pressing issues of our times.
In CoDex 1962: A Trilogy (515 pages; MCD/FSG), premier Icelandic novelist Sjón manages to transcend conventional genre expectations while still engraining himself within the rich tradition of fables and fairy tales. The trilogy of books, first released to great acclaim in Iceland in 2016, was written over the course of 25 years, with the story itself spanning from the early 20th century to modern day.
For the American release, the author has combined all three novels into one book, designating a genre to each section: Thine Eyes Did See My Substance (A Love Story), Iceland’s Thousand Years (A Crime Story), and I’m a Sleeping Door (A Science Fiction Story). Despite these labels, Sjón does not confine the writing within these respective genres. The prose, translated by Victoria Cribb, exhibits the timeless cadence of a Grimm Brothers’ tale, yet is suffused with a profound nuance and ambiguity that evokes the surreal quirkiness of Italo Calvino (especially his Cosmicomics) or George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.
The trilogy begins in a German inn, just after World War II. Marie Sophie, a maid, looks after an invalid, a Jewish refugee who had been interned at a concentration camp. After a gentle but troubling prelude, they produce a child formed from clay. He is Jósef Loewe, the narrator of their stories, from its nascence all the way to its conclusion in the present day, when we find Jósef the aging and mildly delusional CEO of a biotech company.
Over the course of the three sections, Sjón introduces a vast array of characters, including a curious little chickadee, a jealous lover, a stamp-collector, the Archangel Gabriel at his most vulnerable, and a genderless android. He deftly employs a close third-person perspective, allowing him to delve deep into the minds and lives of his characters. From time to time, the narrative will halt its ongoing plot to elucidate an incident from a character’s past, or a folk tale that is analogous to the one being composed.
One example arrives in Thine Eyes Did See my Substance, when the story is suspended so as to tell the tale of “The Old Woman and the Kaiser,” in which a young woman in a woodland cottage takes in a hunter later revealed to be the King. Of course, they fall in love, and legend has it she bore his only true heir but raised him in the woods, keeping him from assuming the throne. The book weaves similar stories throughout, adding even more complexity to an already complex plot.
It is difficult not to equate the narrator with the author. Both Jósef Loewe and Sjón were born on the same day in Reykjavik in 1962, and Loewe often discusses the act of storytelling. In this way, the trilogy proves of and about storytelling. Sjón hails from a rich background of traditional Icelandic stories, but he is not derivative –– he is wildly original in his reshaping and expansion of these stories.
Near the end of the novel he writes:
Storytellers are not content merely to have power over their audience’s minds but must also take control over their bodies at the very beginning of their tale by lowering their voices and leaning back, thus compelling their listeners to lean forwards—after all, they’ve come to hear what the story teller has to say. By means of this synchronized shift they establish who is the guide and who the travellers are on the coming journey.
CoDex 1962 makes the reader feel as though they are engaging with a master storyteller. By the end of the trilogy, one enters into a symbiotic relationship with its narrator (and its author)—we trust Sjón will provide fulfillment in synthesizing the countless elements of the story, and we will be rewarded for following along with his vertiginous adventure. Sjón compels us to lean in close to hear his tale—and the journey is more than worthwhile.
They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing (535 pages; Black Lawrence Press), edited by Simone Muench and Dean Rader, is an ambitious, immersive collection that challenges readers and writers alike. Breaking out of traditional ideas of authorship, the book gathers hundreds of pieces of multi-author writing that span multiple genres and formats. At the end of each work is a blurb written by the authors that describes their unique writing process. In the spirit of the collection, we decided to collaboratively read and review the work in the form of a conversation.
Claire Ogilvie: What stood out most to me about this anthology was the conscious noting of the authors’ writing processes and unintentional similarities of those processes across genres. It was interesting to see that many of the works started off as passion projects, or as a joke between friends, and then morphed into something more meaningful that was later published or performed. Some of the contributors, following the styles of their work, described their writing process similarly, like Maureen Alsop and Hillary Gravendyk who poetically note of their piece “Ballast”: “A mirror shone a refused language, the last moon slipped. As to the dreaming craft lightened one moment then another left.” While I didn’t exactly grasp what this described of their process, it did help me better understand the authors’ thoughts and intentions.
Caleigh Stephens: All of the writing about process definitely adds this extra dimension. I found the writing, and the writing about the writing, to be conversational, which helped illuminate the relationship between the authors outside of the piece. Creative writing is often presented as this isolated and individual art, and They Said functions as a challenge to that. The nature of collaborative writing is that it allows the author, as John F. Buckley and Martin Ott note, to “get out of that ‘I’ voice, that sometimes dark, sometimes limiting well of ego.” There’s a focus on process that underlies the entire collection, and while there are many excellent pieces of writing here, the anthology fundamentally is a work for writers and people fascinated by the craft of writing.
CO: I agree that the informal, candid description of processes enhances the work since it gives more background about the authors themselves and their relationship, or the concept of what they set out to write originally, as well as the often unexpected results. The series of poems that features the “The Sea Witch” by Sarah Blake and Kimberly Quiogue Andrews has one of my favorite process notes because, while some of their poems about the Sea Witch are a little cheeky or even slightly humorous (“The Sea Witch Needs a Mortgage for The Land, If Not for The House of Bones”), the poems had an overall experimental nature that the authors explained as “…a bit like a very friendly tennis match wherein one of us starts by making the ball. One of us will write a draft of a poem, as complete as we can get it, and then we send it to the other, who has free reign to add, cut, rearrange, etc.” Blake and Andrews process was clearly one of friendship and trust, which is reflected in their work.
CS: I also found “The Sea Witch” poems to be interesting due to the range of style and tone. With such an intricate and individual art such as poetry, the meshing of two (or more) voices cultivates an atmosphere of exploration. Some authors choose to write back and forth while others merge into a singular voice, becoming indistinguishable. Some, like the cross-genre piece “The Wide Road” by past ZYZZYVA contributors Carla Harryman and Lyn Hejinian, include both –– writing that hovers between poetry and prose, followed by letters written by the authors that are “about our work-in-progress as a part of the work itself.” The collaboration is embedded into the text rather than being something the authors must work around. “The Wide Road” also stands as an example of the experimentation that pervades the collection. Even beyond those pieces labeled “cross-genre,” there’s an interplay of poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction throughout that results in writing that flouts convention.
CO: It all sort of feels cross-genre to me, like some of the fiction could have just as easily fallen into another category. Like Tina Jenkins Bell, Janice Tuck Lively, and Felicia Madlock’s piece, “Looking for the Good Boy Yummy,” which takes the real events of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer’s life and final moments and then fictionalizes them through multiple perspectives and narratives. In their description of their process, they write, “We chose to tell Yummy’s story in the form of a hybrid comprised of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry because so much has been said about him and each form would reflect a different view. We believed the true Yummy was somewhere in the center of all the accounts.” The authors are intentional about mixing genres to better represent the realities of gang violence and poverty. The fictionalization of the story takes it to an interesting, murky, and political place. Which raises the question: when does a fictionalized account become cross-genre?
CS: The beauty of the collection is that although each section is labeled by genre, the works are able to move beyond those confines and tell their stories in the most authentic way possible. Thanks to the collaborative aspect, not in spite of it, the writers feel free to challenge themselves stylistically. Some pieces came out of literary games –– authors adding two sentences at a time or working in “antonymic translation.” On the whole, the stakes don’t feel very high in those examples, and often the works aren’t perfect, but this doesn’t lessen the anthology’s ultimate impact. As Cynthia Arrieu-King and Ariana-Sophia Kartsonis write, “We play and I still feel astonished by what happens when we do.” This is an inspiring collection precisely because it brings up more questions about the nature of writing than it answers.
CO: Yes, the most impressive aspect of this anthology is its commitment to collaboration –– from the editing, to the writing of the introduction, the collaborative reviews of the material inside, and the pieces themselves. It’s collaboration within collaboration, and even if a piece didn’t necessarily resonate with me I always respected the craft of the poem, or story, or genre-breaking-rule-defying piece in front of me. It’s all so thoughtful and intricate. You can tell from the effort shown by the contributors and the editors that it’s a labor of love, and as a writer and reader that’s what interests me.
Caleigh Stephens and Claire Ogilvie on their process: Claire and Caleigh originally (and quite candidly) had no idea how to go about writing a collaborative review of a collaborative anthology. The entire review-writing process was an extended conversation, as they picked out individual sentences and pieces to share with the other while reading.They came to appreciate the art of “collaborative writing” all the more after giving it an honest attempt one Sunday afternoon. Distracted by IKEA locations, yerba mate, and the current state of U.S. politics, they holed up in Claire’s living room and decided that they wanted their review to reflect the ongoing dialogue they had about the work. In short they would describe their own artistic collaborative process as “in cahoots.”
R.O. Kwon’s first novel, The Incendiaries, is published by Riverhead (U.S.) and Virago (U.K.). She is a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, Vice, BuzzFeed, Noon, Time, Electric Literature, Playboy, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. She has received awards and fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Born in South Korea, she’s mostly lived in the United States.
Kwon recently spoke to ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about The Incendaries at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco.
The Rape Guy approaches the podium,
with practiced confidence, Jimmy Stewart smiles.
He knows the ropes,
been through this drill before.
He lives around the corner from my brother-in-law,
who says he doesn’t know him but his wife is
“delightful.’’ I’m delighted. Aren’t you?
Who wouldn’t be? Just a drunken
grope and grab, lurch and lock,
his Irish Catholic pal
always ready to turn up the noise,
set the stage. Dominis vobiscum,
the Latin Mass is still the best.
Closeted libido, directed who knows where,
Three in the room.
Three’s a crowd, three’s company.
Company man. It’s all good.
Ask around, ask anybody.
Justice for all, stop the
witches. Burn the bridges,
burn the bras. Burn the
evidence, wipe the screens.
No one saw what they didn’t
see. The sea is calm tonight.
We all see what we want
to see, we all want what’s
best for the child. Baby,
let me be your loving Teddy Bear.
I don’t want to be a tiger,
tigers play too rough.
I don’t want to be a lion
‘Cause lions ain’t the kind
You love enough.
Look at that face.
Would I lie to you?
Were you lying
that night? Or upright
when we came
to save your very soul
and lose our own. Gladly.
American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (120 pages; Graywolf) delivers on its promise of introducing readers to some of our most important contemporary American poets, both well-known and emerging. Moreover, the writers featured in it are a reflection of the diversity of the United States, which is what one would hope for in a collection curated by the current U. S. poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith. In addition to featuring a racially diverse group of writers, there are poems by old and young, female and male, and straight and gay poets (although queerness is not a theme that is really explored in it, except in Terrance Hayes’ “At Pegasus”). Clearly, there is a wealth of perspective in this book, making one wonder whether a collection that attempts to appeal to such a broad audience might read as too general or watered down. This isn’t the case.
The poems in American Journal both celebrate and critique the American “way of life.” There are poignant portrayals of small-town and rural America (not to be confused with white America) in poems like Oliver de la Paz’s “In Defense of Small Towns” and Vievee Francis’ “Sugar and Brine: Ella’s Understanding,” as well as nods to urban America, such as in Major Jackson’s “Mighty Pawns,” a witty poem about a tough and brilliant kid from Philadelphia who “could beat/any man or woman in ten moves playing white.” There are also honest appraisals of our frequent complacency in the face of injustices meted out by our government in Ilya Kaminsky’s “We Lived Happily During the War” and in Layli Long Soldier’s “38,” which is something of an anti-poem that recounts in a nonlinear fashion the Abraham Lincoln-sanctioned execution of thirty-eight men from the Dakota tribe. Near the beginning of the poem, Long Soldier alerts readers:
You may like to know, I do not consider this to be a ‘creative piece.’
I do not regard this as a poem of great imagination or a work of fiction.
Also, historical events will not be dramatized for an ‘interesting’ read.
Therefore, I feel most responsible to the orderly sentence; conveyor of thought.
That said, I will begin.
You may or may not have heard about the Dakota 38.
Other poems touch on other relevant social concerns: Tina Chang’s “Story of Girls” and Donika Kelly’s “Fourth Grade Autobiography” speak to our increasing societal awareness of the prevalence of sexual abuse—an awakening facilitated by the #Me Too movement. One of my favorite poems in the book, Eve L. Ewing’s “Requiem for Fifth Period and the Things That Went on Then,” is an intimate and recognizable portrayal of contemporary school life, but I can’t read it (especially its final lines) without thinking about recent school shootings. The poem characterizes several members of this school community, painting an especially vivid portrait of a student named Javonte Stevens:
Sing of Javonte’s new glasses,
their black frames and golden hinges that glint in the sun,
and his new haircut, with two notched arrows shorn above his temples.
Another of the strongest poems in the book, Danez Smith’s “From summer, somewhere,” is a must-read about the police killings of black boys that is written from the perspective(s) of the dead boys. It’s a compact poem packed with power. Here is a couplet from the poem: “history is what it is. it knows what it did./ bad dog. bad blood. bad day to be a boy.”
Elsewhere, universal themes such as familial strife, forgiveness, and death are addressed in poems, such as the highly memorable “Reverse Suicide” by Matt Rasmussen and “becoming a horse” by Ross Gay. In Gay’s poem, which manages to be both down to earth and spiritual—humbling, really—the speaker reflects:
But it was putting my heart to the horse’s that made me know
the sorrow of horses . . .
Feel the small song in my chest
swell and my coat glisten and twitch.
Diverse as they are, the poems in American Journal flow into one another, mirroring the melding of experiences that makes us who we are as a nation. This fusion is partly a result of the poems being grouped into thematic sections. Often, poems on opposite pages, such as Rasmussen’s “Reverse Suicide” and Charles Wright’s “Charlottesville Nocturne,” or Ada Limón’s “Downhearted” and Gay’s “becoming a horse,” address strikingly similar subject matter. It might also have been interesting to juxtapose poems that speak to each other in a different way—that also enact the tensions that are particular to a culture defined as much by similarity as by difference. For example, it might have created a pronounced tension to run Lia Purpura’s “Proximities,” which addresses police shootings, but from a perspective of privilege, next to Smith’s “From summer, somewhere.” As it is, they’re placed far from each other. While this may show the difference in the closeness to danger for each poem’s subject(s), this is a point that may be lost on readers.
Overall, American Journal serves as a strong overview of the poetry of our current moment. And in a time in which the only thing most of us seem to agree on is that we disagree—at a time when our nation is in what esteemed journalist Carl Bernstein has dubbed a “cold civil war”—it is refreshing to read a books that unifies our diverse perspectives.