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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Lydia Kiesling

Lydia Kiesling is the editor of The Millions, where she has been writing reviews, essays, and the semi-regular Modern Library Revue since 2009. Her writing has appeared at a variety of outlets including The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and Slate, and was recognized in Best American Essays 2016. Her debut novel, The Golden State, was published in fall 2018 by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux’s MCD imprint.

Kiesling recently spoke to ZYZZYVA Contributing Editor Ismail Muhammad about The Golden State at Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco.

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Secretly Wishing for Impossible Futures: ‘Her Mouth as Souvenir’ by Heather June Gibbons

Her Mouth as SouvenirHer Mouth as Souvenir (88 pages; University of Utah Press), winner of the 2017 Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry, is a breathtaking and lyrical debut collection from Heather June Gibbons. Gibbons’ voice is a strong one, as she leads the reader through well-crafted and captivatingly honest free verse.

Pressingly urgent and timely, Her Mouth as Souvenir is a study of action in the face of anxiety. The poems’ context includes larger societal trends, such as the technologizing world that presents “a strange kind of convenience, / to access at the tap of a fingertip / so much information without / the ability to understand it,” and more personal attempts to uncover the how and why of past events.

There are three sections in the book that serve to mark the passage of time. The first section is a recognition of the past, of the prophets and ancestors that walked before Gibbons and “whisper, you owe us.” It also serves as an explication of the frustration that runs through the work, frustration without a culprit.

The second section is an attempt at self-understanding, through memory and causality. (The speaker can “pinpoint the exact moment / I become boring, but only in retrospect.”) A number of the poems here are titled “Sore Song” (drawn from Gibbons’s chapbook of the same name), and a musical thread runs through many of them. References are made to musical terminology and the free verse—sonically descriptive and rhythmically careful—often has a musical quality of its own. In the onomatopoetic “Longest Song,” repetitions of shh and mutter-mutter lay beside lyrical descriptions of sound:

            …how come broke


stereo breaks into mono

            with the low amp hiss of

            a house built of matchsticks


            and lit…

All sounds, even the boom of San Francisco’s Golden Gate foghorn, are treated as music.

The third and final section turns to elegy as Gibbons considers loss. There are requiems for the sudden deaths of acquaintances (“Knife Girl”), the state of society under capitalism, and even for a past self. The poems here are often longer and denser, with more narrative complexity. As the past is mourned, the poems also look toward a bleak and perhaps dystopian future. In “The Green Rose Up,” the issue of climate change is tackled, as the poem sets the scene of cities overtaken by algae and natural devastation, its inhabitants ignored by the institutions meant to protect them.

            It didn’t matter that we wore our silver suits.

Cities welled up and were overwhelmed.

            The green kept rising until we waded in algae

            and at night a phosphorescent bloom

lit the pathways our limbs had traveled

and pocked the surface of the water with sparks.

There is a helplessness to the poem, of secretly wishing for “impossible futures,” but also longing to forget such desires in the face of their impossibility. Living in the moment is nothing more than wanting to live without the fear of what’s to come. The poem serves as a warning, showing us a glimpse of a possible future we are all but resigned to.

Throughout Her Mouth as Souvenir, perception and the failure thereof are explored. The idea that perception equals perfect reality is scoffed at. There is a constant awareness of parallax; one of the “Sore Song” poems leans into the warping of perception:

            ….How I’ve missed

scanning the horizon for you, wary of parallax–


decadent, the way it screws with the curves.

The collection emphasizes the inherent deception in how we see the world: “In a quick smear before full focus, the eye / misreads what it wants to see.”

The vivid imagery Gibbons employs is central to her book as a whole, as are her poems’ intricate yet simple moments— acupuncture visits and getting carded while buying cigarettes after a yoga session. These form a larger collage, a larger commentary on the nature of regret and the passage of time, capturing the anxiety, but also the beauty, of the world we inhabit.

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Queering Language: ‘Feeld’ by Jos Charles

FeeldA few days ago, I woke up half-dreaming in the made-up language of Jos Charles’s feeld (64 pages; Milkweed Editions), which is to say I landed softly. feeld –– which is currently longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award in poetry –– challenges the reader to engage with a singular, complex voice (“Chaucerian English [translated] into the digital twenty-first century,” as Fady Joudah notes on the book’s jacket), but one that is also accessible and refined. Throughout the book, which contains sixty short poems, it is evident Charles is a poet who values breath and space. Both aurally and visually, the white space enhances the content, giving the reader time to grasp the meaning of each poem, as well as nearly every line and word. It is a meticulous work; there is nothing rushed or careless in it.

This is not to say one can fully comprehend every layer of feeld: appropriately, Charles leaves plenty of room for interpretation as her wordplay produces a great deal of double entendre. What happens between the words, how words are fused or disjoined, and the sounds they produce—in short phrases, such as “where it tends” in the poem titled “V” and “re member” in “XXXIX”—are as important as the words themselves. In addition, as Stephanie Burt notes in a blurb, Charles’s latest work displays a predilection toward puns. Much of this is accomplished through words—such as “sirfase,” “queery,” and “dicke,” as well as “copse,” “cropse,” and “corpse”—that contain echoes of other words.

Yet the puns in feeld are more tragic than comic. feeld is earnest in the best sense. Since, as the speaker explains in “VII,” there are so many layers to being transgender (and to feeld), when the poems employ directness –– such as in “LIV,” when the speaker laments, “u who unforl me/ how many/ holes would blede/ befor/ u believ/ imma grl” –– it is to devastating effect and causes the reader to pay close attention.

In fact, one of the great pleasures of reading feeld is when we happen across these instances of candor. This occurs again in the final line of the poem “XI,” in which the speaker states, “thomas sayes trama lit is so hotte rite nowe.” At that moment, it is as though Charles had been stretching a rubber band until it was capable of singing a little, but then allows it to snap, producing a powerful resonance.

It’s clear feeld is a book about identity and trauma, but is Charles’s work political? And if she intends to achieve any political aims through feeld, does the prettiness of her writing style soften the impact too much?

The truth, perhaps, is that Charles is an astute poet who has mastered the restraint apparent in well-crafted books of poetry that might otherwise be dubbed (and therefore dismissed) as overly personal or “political”—or, as the speaker puts it in the final line of the poem “XI,” “trendy.”

There are references to political concerns like “masckulin econoymes,” “votes,” and “balots” sprinkled throughout the text, but feeld seems more of an appeal to change at the individual rather than policy level.

While all writers are concerned with language, feeld queers language in such a way that it raises questions about whether what we perceive someone to be is as important as what we call them—and, therefore, how we define their existence. feeld asks us to consider whether existence is in fact defined by naming—that is, by language.

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Burn It All Down: ‘Days of Awe’ by A.M. Homes

Days of AweA.M. Homes first made her mark on the literary scene with 1990’s The Safety of Objects, a dark and dynamic collection that established her as one of our foremost chroniclers of suburban dysfunction. Even more astonishing was the fact that Homes wrote most of the stories while still in graduate school. A movie adaptation followed in 2001, but its tacked-on ending––featuring the book’s assortment of characters all grinning warmly for the camera at a backyard barbecue–-felt disingenuous. Homes’s stories are rarely the kind where troubles can be resolved with group therapy sessions or summer cookouts; her method is much closer to the couple who set their house ablaze at the start of her novel Music For Torching: sometimes in order to free yourself from the trappings of modern life, you have to burn it all down.

Despite recent accolades, including the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2013, Homes’s output has become less frequent as of late, and perhaps hasn’t achieved quite the same impact as her earlier work. Thus, the time seems right for her latest story collection, Days of Awe (304 pages; Viking), as it presents a chance for readers new and old to check in with this prominent voice in transgressive literature. The book gathers from a wide range of material, opening with “Brother on a Sunday,” which first appeared in the New Yorker in 2009, and includes “The National Cage Bird Show,” the only story original to this book. Coincidentally, those are two of the strongest pieces in the collection.

“Brother on a Sunday” is a case study in the elements Homes does so well, from the crisp minimalism of her prose to her off-kilter depiction of suburban ennui. The story concerns a successful plastic surgeon named Tom and his wife’s vacation to the Hamptons with their wealthy friends, the impending arrival of the protagonist’s uncouth older brother serving as an ominous storm gathering over the weekend. Homes mines this material for both dark comedy––Tom’s friends are constantly backing him into corners at parties, asking for his medical opinion of their unsightly rashes or moles––and an unexpectedly poignant commentary on aging. Tom’s musings on the recent death of a friend prove doubly effective due to Homes’ measured tone:

“The men seem oblivious to the inevitability of aging, oblivious to the fact that they are no longer thirty, to the fact that they are not superheroes with special powers. He thinks of the night, a year ago, when they were all at a local restaurant and one of them went to grab something from the car. He ran across the road as though he glowed in the dark. But he didn’t. The driver of an oncoming car didn’t see him. He flew up and over it. And when someone came into the restaurant to call the police, Tom went out, not because he was thinking of his friend but because he was curious, always curious. Once outside, realizing what had happened, he ran to his friend and tried to help, but there was nothing to be done. The next day, driving by the spot, he saw one of his friend’s shoes––they had each bought a pair of the same kind the summer before––suspended from a tree.”

“The National Cage Bird Show” hones in on the unexpected friendship that develops between a troubled 13-year-old girl in New York and a U.S. soldier deployed in the Middle East. The two of them converse exclusively through a chat room for parakeet lovers, the transcript of which comprises the entirety of the story. This form allows Homes to examine both the harrowing, Hurt Locker-esque experience of soldiers in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan (“I am the local EOD, explosive ordinance disposal specialist, basically the Maytag Man for bombs. I’m good with my fingers. I can thread a needle in the dark. Anything with a detonator, I’m your man”) as well as the particular sadness of being a teenage girl: “Is it weird to say I just wish things could be the way they were? I wish I didn’t know that a dad could fall out of love with his family. Part of me refuses to believe it––does that make me a romantic?”

The combination of the two proves oddly touching, and maintains a sense of innocence for the duration of the story, despite Homes’s longstanding penchant for the taboo. The backdrop of a bird lovers’ chat room provides the story with a humorous grounding, but also underscores how the Internet has increasingly become the main outlet of personal connection for those, likes Homes’ characters, who identify as outsiders.

“A Prize For Every Player,” another standout from Days of Awe, originally appeared in a book of photographs by acclaimed Bay Area artist Bill Owens. Homes may feel a kinship with Owens, as his work similarly traces the lives of everyday Americans, capturing the candid moments in their kitchens or yards. The surreal “Player” follows a nuclear family on their weekly shopping trip, only this family has turned such consumerist ventures into their own little game show, with the husband and wife scanning the aisles with dual shopping carts in search of the best deals.

The absurdity reaches almost Kafka-esque levels once the family stumbles upon an infant left abandoned in the store (“Can I get it?” the daughter asks. “Can I, can I? It can be for my birthday and Christmas and everything else, too”) and later when the husband is nominated as a presidential candidate by the crowd in the electronics department. Though the story is a decade old, his impassioned speech brings to mind the populist rhetoric that has become increasingly prevalent in Western politics:

“The point is, I remember America. I remember when politicians had a vision, a dream for the people of this country, and didn’t run their campaign based on a tax rebate if elected––essentially attempting to buy the vote. Are we that gullible that we thought George Bush’s three-hundred-dollar rebate would cover it? Think of what that vote cost, think of your retirement account, your health insurance, your mortgage, and your cost of living versus your salary. How much did you lose, and how much did you make?”

Not all of the stories in Days of Awe tap such a rich vein of social commentary­. “Hello Everybody” and “She Got Away” trace the trials and tribulations of the same well-to-do Southern California family, territory well-trod by Bret Easton Ellis in the Eighties. (“What kind of doctor wants a pregnant woman to lose weight?” “A Beverly Hills doctor” is a representative exchange.) But the book still frequently finds Homes at her best. Her fiction ushers our American landscape into a literary funhouse, commenting with acerbic wit and deft characterization on the distorted reflection that appears. Days of Awe is a reminder that we are lucky to have her singular talent.

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Noir of the Damned: ‘Hollywood Dead’ by Richard Kadrey

Hollywood DeadHollywood Dead (354 pages; Harper Voyager) is the tenth novel in Richard Kadrey’s bestselling urban fantasy/noir series featuring the half-human, half-angel James Stark, AKA Sandman Slim. Stark has made a career of fighting supernatural threats; first as a monster slayer in the gladiatorial arenas of Hell, and later against rebel angels, demons, and magicians willing to sell their souls in exchange for power. For a time, he even occupied the position of Lucifer himself. Stark is blunt, crude, and can heal from any injury, but this time around he might just stay dead.

In Hollywood Dead, Stark has been resurrected by a necromancer who works for a secret society of magicians called Wormwood, a group hellbent on—you guessed it—world domination. But before their plan can work, they need Stark to dispatch a splinter cell of their organization. There’s only one catch: Stark’s dead body is, well, lifeless. His healing powers are stunted, but if he can fight decomposition long enough to stop Wormwood’s rogue element, the magicians promise to restore him to life––real life. As Stark explains, “When you’re Hollywood dead, you can die a hundred times and still come back for the sequel.”

With a new, but extremely short, lease on life, Stark travels throughout Los Angeles, tracking the Wormwood defectors. He navigates the city’s dangerous supernatural underworld with his trademark cynical wit and magic spells referred to as “Hellion hoodoo.”

Kadrey’s world building is just as impressive here as in previous installments. Readers will enjoy returning to Stark’s favorite haunts: the punk tiki bar Bamboo House of Dolls, as well as Max Overdrive Video, which stocks movies captured from other realities. And let’s not forget Donut Universe. “If I have to die again,” as Stark says, “let it be in Donut Universe. Bury me in old-fashioneds and éclairs. Burn me in the parking lot and let me drift up to Valhalla on a wave of holy sugar and grease fumes.” Stark still maintains a penchant for “sin tax” items from Hell—cigarettes called Maledictions, and the underworld’s finest vintage, Aqua Reqia. These touches of detail gently enhance the novel’s mood, which balances seriousness with Kadrey’s brand of absurdity.

Hollywood Dead also presents a more reflective James Stark. His friends have moved on, and his former lover, Candy, is happy with a steady girlfriend, while Stark is painfully aware his presence could be a greater source of harm than celebration for those he once knew. He’s emotionally vulnerable, and as he fights rigor mortis, Stark is forced to rely on others—and duct tape—to stay alive long enough to save Los Angeles. He lives in a morally gray area, yet senses a cosmic responsibility. Is he human or an angel, hero or villain? Or can he be all of them at the same time?

Kadrey engages these questions with his trademark funny dialogue and ultra violence. Hollywood Dead reads like a grindhouse film on the page, and delivers exactly what the movie-poster themed book cover promises. (As Stark himself states, “In my bloody suit, I look like the maître d’ at a Texas Chainsaw cookout.”) Kadrey’s prose is fast, fun, and makes the novel’s pulpy concept shine.

New readers are missing out on nine great books if they start here, but relevant backstory is woven into the narrative without information dumps. Hollywood Dead is an entertaining read, and fans of the series will not be disappointed.

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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Vanessa Hua

Vanessa Hua (whose stories “The Third Daughter” and “River of Stars” appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 91 and No. 98, respectively) is an award-winning, best-selling author and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Her novel, A River of Stars, which has just been released, has been called a “marvel” by O, The Oprah Magazine, and “delightful” by The Economist. Her short story collection, Deceit and Other Possibilitiesreceived an Asian/Pacific American Award in Literature and was a finalist for a California Book Award.

Hua spoke to ZYZZYVA Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about her debut novel at the Booksmith in San Francisco last month.

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No Escaping the Entanglements: ‘Certain American States’ by Catherine Lacey

Certain American StatesA self-described “not-widow” brings a newlywed couple to the grave of her ex-husband; a cartoonist with a massive trust fund tries to teach law students to watercolor as his marriage falls apart; a recent divorcee obsesses over whether his ex-wife’s latest fiction is about him. The characters in acclaimed novelist Catherine Lacey’s debut story collection, Certain American States (208 pages; FSG), grapple with grief and their own loneliness.

The collection is a deep dive into the human psyche, focusing on a memorable and flawed cast of narrators and their connections to others.  There’s an emotional richness to these stories as they deal with the recent end of long and meaningful relationships, whether due to death or divorce or simply the inevitable “airplanes of soon.”

After her husband’s abrupt passing, the narrator in “Please Take” leaves piles of his clothing on the steps to her apartment for passersby to carry away. A few days later, she makes her habitual trip to the park, a small routine that has taken on the importance of a “single nail somehow holding up the whole home,” and comes across a stranger wearing her husband’s blue shirt. During her ensuing conversation with the man, who is troubled by the fact that no one he’s ever known has died, the narrator tries to process her husband’s untimely death. Lacey weaves memory with introspection, and gives us a character trying to move forward from a traumatic event while wondering if she “worried it into being.”

The relationships dissected here are not all romantic in nature –– also present are long-reaching friendships, family ties, and brief interactions with strangers. What these connections have in common is their level of complexity.

The characters in Certain American States all have a strong sense of self and they often consciously perpetuate their own isolation. For Bridget in “Family Physics,” this includes holding her family at arm’s length and hoping for solitude: “…though I thought of cutting them out entirely, I had already learned the hard way, years ago, that such an extreme approach was more trouble than it was worth, like shaving your head––like any short hair cut—some kinds of obliteration required constant upkeep––so I let my relationship with them get overgrown and ragged.”

Lacey explores the dynamic nature of relationships over time, as characters face those who have played an important role in their lives. In “ur heck box,” the narrator grieves for her brother as she attempts to dissuade her mother from joining her in New York City; she’s struggling to reconcile her upbringing with her present self. All the while, she repeatedly encounters a deaf man named Maurice, who is desperately trying to tell her something but can only do so through messages misspelled to the point of incoherence.

Lacey’s prose is fluid, frequently employs long streaming sentences that extend for a paragraph or even a page. These sentences work as lush demonstrations of her characters’ mental states. One shorter example comes in “The Healing Center”:

“Everyone knows a heart is just responsible for filling a thing with blood, except it never fills love with blood because no one can do that because love comes when it wants and it leaves when it wants and it gets on an airplane and goes wherever it wants and no one can ever ask love not to do that, because that is part of the risk of love, the worthwhile risk of it, that it will leave if it feels like leaving and that is the cost of it and it is worth it, worth it, worth it.”

Certain American States is steeped in a devastating realism until its final story, “The Grand Claremont Hotel.” The initial premise is straightforward enough––while staying in a hotel on a business trip, the narrator finds out he has been fired from his job at the Company, and decides to inhabit Room 807 until he’s kicked out. When no employees eject him from the room, but rather offer him different rooms, the character moves progressively upward in the hotel, feeling as though he is “just passing through a series of spaces that had never been meant for [him].” The ensuing claustrophobia and disconnect from the world outside the hotel mirror the rest of the collection in tone, if not in plot.

Whether in the bustle of the cities or the empty quiet of Montana, Lacey shows there is no escaping the entanglements of one’s personal life or the complex relationship with the self. But there’s something more at work here. In the titular piece, Lacey writes that “the loneliness of certain American states is enough to kill a person if you look too closely.” While this may seem like a commentary on the vast expanse of flyover country, it reminds us that loneliness inhabits all of these stories’ settings. These stories seem to say that the state of being an American is itself one of loneliness, of isolation.

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A Maddening System: Q&A with ‘The Golden State’ author Lydia Kiesling

The Golden StateEssayist and critic Lydia Kiesling’s first novel, The Golden State (304 pages; MCD), already long listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, is an enrapturing torrent of a narrative, exploring the daunting beginning of motherhood and the complications of marrying a foreign national. New mother Daphne must balance caring of her sixteen-month-old daughter, Honey, with handling the stress of getting her Turkish husband, Engin, back into the U.S., all while dealing with her job at the Al-Ihsan Foundation in San Francisco. These circumstances send her on a ten-day epic roadtrip, beginning with a drive to Daphne’s late mother’s hometown, Altavista: “The beauty here is the great slate sky The sound of the birds in the morning the color of the hills and the fields at dusk.”

Daphne’s acerbic and slightly self-loathing wit is lined with absurd humor and Kiesling’s clever syntax: her lack of punctuation allows us to further inhabit the heart of Daphne’s disquiet.

The Golden State is a trenchantly-written take on both the female and immigrant experience, making the somber read as captivating. Kiesling recently spoke to ZYZZYVA about the origins of the novel, her protagonist Daphne, immigration in America, and more.

ZYZZYVA: You started your career writing essays and criticism, and are now the editor of The Millions. Have you always wanted to write a novel?

Lydia Kiesling: I’ve been writing essays and criticism for a long time; all along I secretly wanted to write a novel. That’s not something I wanted to admit to myself until a

couple of years ago, but every time I tried a new form of writing, that was the direction I was moving toward. I also enjoy reading narrative non-fiction, and I think people really enjoy writers who can do that well. But fiction was always what I was working toward. 

Z: There were so many aspects of your protagonist Daphne that resonated with me: she’s Type-A, but also a bit of clueless and naive. The honesty of her character really drew me in. Where did Daphne come from?

LK: Well, it’s funny because I’ve seen two reactions to the book. People sort of go in two camps: ones who can relate to her as a character and as a person, and ones who don’t relate to her at all; so that influences their experiences, and those who can’t relate to her kind of treat the novel like a horror story. I think Daphne is a little bit over the top, but I would be lying if said she wasn’t somewhat of a relatable character.

Z: Stylistically, I noticed there weren’t a lot of commas in Daphne’s speaking lines, which makes it seem as though she is talking on and on (and on), adding to her neurotic quality.

LK: I took someone who is very similar to me and put her in more difficult circumstances to see how she would respond. One of the things I thought about all the time when I had a baby (my oldest one) was how much I longed to be alone with her; I was a bit traumatized because I went back to work in an office setting when she was about ten weeks old. I was surprised to find it demoralizing. On the one hand, I had this fantasy of going somewhere with her, and yet when I was alone with her I realized it was miserable. It really taxes your mind and body in a different way. I was trying to think of a person like me who got what I wished for, in a sense, but under the worst conditions and what that would be like.

Z: Another thing I resonated with me was Engin’s Green Card-related distress. As a foreigner myself, I’ve spent hours researching this. All the details of the situation’s complexities were so spot on! Have you experienced this firsthand?

LK: I have friends who were not in identical circumstances but in pretty similar ones, so I started looking into it. I think people look at the book now and see what it’s about and think it’s very timely because of Donald Trump. But in all reality, the immigration system has been messed up for a long time. What struck me about my friend’s situation was that it was extremely arbitrary. All you have to do is meet the wrong border guard and they can decide they’re interpreting something in a different way, or they don’t like how you’re fulfilling some byzantine and arcane requirement, and then they can detain you indefinitely and you have no recourse in that moment. As we’ve seen, it’s happening now and that gives way for a lot of abuses. It involves guards being wrong and choosing an interpretation of a policy that suits them, but also there’s some ineptitude: paperwork being lost, things not moving forward and having no visibility on why that is –– it’s such a maddening system.

And when you read through these websites, you understand why it costs so much to hire a professional to navigate it for you. There’s one line that makes me laugh in relation to overseas consular processing: “if you’re case is approved, you will receive a packet. Do not open this packet.” You’re supposed to bring it to the consulate and open it under a specific circumstance, which I think is absurd. I wanted to put a little of that frustration in the book. I’m sorry you can relate to that!

Z: Northern California’s landscapes really came alive in your prose. Can you tell me about your chosen setting of Pauite County?

LK: Pauite County is fictional, it’s a mishmash of several counties in the North State. Anyone from Modoc County will see the resemblance. My mom is from a town called Alturas, which is where Altavista was fictionalized from. The only reason why I decided to do this amalgam of counties was that I wanted to have the political happenings, and I felt like if I called it Modoc County I’d have to replicate the exact board of supervisors and their meetings. I wanted to give myself a little bit of room. It’s a very rural area; the counties that have now theoretically signed on to create a 51st state, the State of Jefferson, are about 1/3 of California’s land mass but 5% of the population. It’s a large landmass but sparse population, and the town my mom grew up in is decreasing in population.

Z: What made you decide on Turkey as the country where Engin is from?

LK: I went back and forth on the decision, but I lived in Turkey for a year and studied Turkish there and later in grad school, so that choice made the most sense. Paradoxically, since I had more knowledge and information about Turkey, I was scared to misrepresent it. Initially, I thought the husband could be from Denmark, which I then thought was very offensive to Denmark since I’ve only been there one day in my life and I would have to figure out the rest. Fortunately, I realized it was a bad idea and that I was just trying to evade my anxieties. I love Turkey and the Turkish language, so that’s definitely a theme. It definitely provides an interesting contrast, to have a spouse living in one of the world’s’ megacities with a population of 20 million versus the sparsely-populated Northern California.

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A Tacit Acceptance of Unknowability: Experimental Philosopher Jonathon Keats and His Alien Instruments

Alien Instruments 1Recent years have seen tribal lines drawn across the globe, with an increasingly divisive and xenophobic political climate both in the United States and abroad. It’s a change in tenor we perhaps should have seen coming, but many of the most strident political analysts have been taken aback by the “Us vs. Them” rhetoric that has become so prevalent since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats, known for past endeavors such as the Pangaea Optima and Superego Suits, has proposed one idea for alleviating the current culture of hate: to turn our eyes – and ears – to the stars.

Of course, NASA and other space programs around the world have long since abandoned manned missions to deep space, but Keats has another notion entirely in mind, one that employs the universal language of music. The San Francisco artist has composed a Universal Anthem to be performed by several new constructions he has come to call alien instruments. “The Universal Anthem really is about inclusiveness at every level, which requires that beings other than humans have access to it,” Keats says, detailing the necessity for creating these instruments. “Therefore, all assumptions about sensory organs need to be called into question, and we need this much larger, more expansive view of what music can be made of, and what sorts of implements can be used to precisely modulate qualities of frequency and amplitude.”

The idea of utilizing music to achieve unity has been employed before, at least on a planetary scale. In 1971, the UN Secretary General U Thant commissioned a “Hymn to the United Nations” as an alternative to patriotic national anthems, but the hymn still relied on classical music structure and English lyrics—neither of which Keats finds ideal for achieving interstellar contact or fostering a sense of global unity. “What I care about in very tangible terms are the interactions happening on this planet right now, and those interactions are extraordinarily perilous at the level of geopolitics and the environment,” Keats explains. “I could go on and on as far as all the ways in which our tribalism and xenophobia are toxic, are ruinous. We need mechanisms for encouraging and facilitating inclusiveness in every possible way.”

As a result, Keats began his composition of the Universal Anthem by thinking about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that everything in the universe must follow the rules of entropy, becoming more disorderly over time. Keats describes entropy as “the quality you would most trust to be universal.” Keats’s Universal Anthem “requires no knowledge of Wagnerian leitmotif, for instance,” and instead follows these same rules of entropy, with each voice gradually decomposing.

Alien Instruments 2Keats has created a visual transcription for the Universal Anthem, using – of all things – Adobe Photoshop and its noise generator. The resulting images resemble nothing so much as the static on an analog television or even the popular style of Internet art known as pixelart. But Keats insists this visual depiction is only one way to transcribe the Universal Anthem, and as with many popular forms of music, such as jazz, “it’s all open to interpretation.”

Keats suggests there is great potential for entropy to be used as the basis for music; even songs by popular artists like Taylor Swift could be transcribed using his method. While Keats acknowledges that Swift could strike him with a potential lawsuit for disseminating her music into space, he argues that in helping her reach a potentially interstellar audience, she could be the first artist to go beyond Platinum sales to Universal—and, so, “Swift shouldn’t sue me, she should thank me.”

Composing music based on the law of entropy, Keats argues, could make music emotional on a galactic level, as all known creatures share a will to live and a fear of death. This style of music could “broaden the gamut of what we know” and allow those of us on Earth to “become a small part of something greater.” Keats hopes “this de-centering might help counteract some of the xenophobia that is rampant in the United States and Europe,” and bring about “the kind of massive generalized introspection that is going to be necessary to overcome this tribalism.”

Alien Instruments 3But, how then, best to perform these compositions? It’s difficult to imagine strumming a guitar onstage and expecting those same notes, no matter how amplified, to reach extraterrestrial ears. To that end, Keats has devised several quite beautiful and intricate “alien instruments,” which are currently viewable upon appointment at the Modernism Gallery in San Francisco. These instruments include Gravitational Rattles, which appear to be standard variety potatoes you could find at your local Trader Joe’s – and, indeed, they are. But these potatoes also allow the performers to alter their gravitational mass at will, depending on how many they hold in their hands (or juggle, as one man did to the delight of onlookers at the opening night of Keats’ exhibit). “If we’re going to make instruments that include not only what is audible to humans but also gravitational waves, it makes the distance between us and those south of the border seem all that much more minimal,” Keats says. He hopes a renewed musical understanding could ultimately help foster “the sort of cooperation we need in order to get on as a society, as a species, and as a planet.”

On the off chance these aliens boast superior hearing ability to humans, Keats has created the Ultrasonic Organ, which replaces conventional organ pipes with dog whistles. Most humans cannot hear past 20,000 hertz on the audible spectrum; dogs can hear as high as 45 kilohertz, making the Ultrasonic Organ ideal for reaching distant beings with hearing more in line with our canine companions. Much like a traditional organ, the Ultrasonic Organ’s airflow can be modulated by a foot bellow.

Keats has also constructed the Gamma Ray Bells, whose gamma ray exposure can be controlled by the performer simply by lifting the bell’s lead casing. It’s worth mentioning that gamma rays fall outside the normal human sensory range, but their type of electromagnetic radiation might just be the ideal vehicle to reach certain species currently unknown to us. One has to wonder, then, if the ideal instrumentation for the Universal Anthem might be one that human beings can’t even experience?

Alien Instruments 4Keats argues such an idea goes entirely against the Universal Anthem’s goal of inclusiveness and harmony: “We desperately need humans to be part of this interaction, part of this communication, part of this musical phenomenon, as well as any other organisms,” he states. “First of all because we only know of us, so it makes sense to include us, and secondly because, well, I happen to be human –– as far as I know.”

Despite creating this attractive array of intergalactic instruments, Keats freely admits he approaches this project with little to no musical training. “I studied recorder in fourth grade,” he says. “One semester I learned how to play and then over break I forgot, and so for the second semester I simply didn’t blow into the instrument. That was my first and last experience with any instrument at all.” Even so, Keats has put a great deal of time into informally studying musical theory, as well as astrophysics and the various other components of this endeavor.

Keats does not see his lack of formal proficiency as a hindrance or liability: “I think in everything that I do I rely on the fact that I am ultimately a generalist, a dilettante, a charlatan,” he relates. “I am not bound by any rules, though I certainly make myself aware of the rules in the process of exploring ideas.”

In many ways, Keats’ insistence that a lack of musical training should serve as no detriment to playing these instruments brings to mind the punk rock movement of the late ’70s, which encouraged passionate neophytes to pick up a second-hand guitar or bass and bash their way to a connection with a live audience. “I like the idea that this is a kind of punk tradition that we’re talking about here, when we talk about making music with aliens,” he says.

He also cites post-war avant-garde musician John Cage, whose work utilized a sense of chaos and order not dissimilar to entropy, as a major influence. “I once composed a ringtone that was a remix of John Cage’s 4’33.” My version was a 4-minute-and-33-second long silent ringtone, such that you never knew when your phone was ringing,” he explains. “As a result, you might imagine that it was ringing even when it wasn’t, and you would have this sort of phantom silence, which might even be more pure than the digital silence I generated for the ringtone. We need more silence in the ever noisier world in which we live.”

Keats’ appreciation of Cage reiterates that these instruments are meant to be as accessible as possible. “Certainly some musical training could be helpful,” he states, “but it also might get in the way.” Instead, performers could “enter into a tacit acceptance of unknowability” and experience “a state of not knowing together,” which could actually be “a great basis for a dialogue that doesn’t have any of the power dynamics or structure that typically informs the conversations we have.”

Alien Instruments 5While Keats has composed the Universal Anthem as a starting point, he insists these instruments lend themselves freely to improvisation. “Improvisation is probably more powerful, ultimately,” he states, “and maybe the practice of composing is really practice for improvisation.” Improvisation proves so integral to Keats’ view precisely because “that’s where you have true interaction.” Interaction being a potent remedy to the culture of hate we have become mired in: “The Trumpian strategy is maybe undermined when there are so many ways in which communication is happening, ways that are so complex and so intertwined and so rich that any attempt to pit ‘us’ against ‘them’ is made impossible, and, in fact, ‘us’ and ‘them’ become indefinable.”

Naturally, the notion of jamming out with interstellar beings conjures so many moments from science-fiction movies, whether it’s the iconic cantina band from Star Wars or the blue-skinned opera singer in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, but Keats insists that no aliens yet depicted on film come close to his perception of hypothetical extraterrestrials. “In some cases, like Plan 9 from Outer Space, [the alien is] more hostile or intimidating, and in others, like E.T., it’s more sympathetic, but it’s always Other. It’s always about the difference as opposed to the similarities.” Keats’ project doesn’t hone in on these perceived differences, but rather imagines all the ways we could be alike: embracing a depiction of aliens “where you can’t tell who is who, or where the differentiation is the least of it rather than the most if it.” Given the gorgeously crafted aesthetic of Keats’ instruments, it comes as little surprise that Keats is willing to loan out the instruments as props in film productions. “I would love to see how these instruments and this kind of music might bend the assumptions of science fiction,” he admits.

Beyond appearing at a theater near you, Keats hopes his instruments may one day come closer to achieving their intended purpose by being standard issue equipment onboard future space shuttle launches. “Any mission whatsoever to space, amongst the other equipment that should be onboard the spacecraft, certainly these musical instruments should be part of the gear,” he says. “You never know, you want to be prepared.” And Keats is nothing less than prepared for a potential day in the future where the human voice and mass will intermingle and perform with beings whose experience of music and the universe might, in truth, be closer to our own than we ever imagined.

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Welcome Fall in Style with ZYZZYVA’s Tote & Sub Bundle

Labor Day PromoWhether you’re heading back to school or merely bracing for the BART commute, ZYZZYVA has you covered with our special Tote & 4-Issue Subscription Bundle. For little more than the price of a regular subscription, you’ll also receive one of our new and beautifully designed tote bags, handy for both taking several books (or issues of the journal) with you on the go, and letting those on the street know you Always Get the Last Word.

Your Subscription will begin with Issue No. 113, our special issue centered around themes of Environmental concerns & conservation. Our first issue featuring full-color artwork throughout is adorned with the beautiful watercolor paintings of Oakland artist Obi Kaufmann, and makes for ideal reading at home, on the bus, or at your favorite coffeehouse on a crisp autumn day. Grab your Tote & 4-Issue Subscription Bundle today!

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The Grief of the Particular: ‘Be With’ by Forrest Gander

Be WithReading Forrest Gander’s work makes the reader feel as if she’s entering a world larger than her own, one with a broader vocabulary, richer imagery, and a deeper understanding of the relationships between the ordinary and the unknowable. Sometimes one is baffled, but more often feels stretched, welcomed into a cherished complexity.

On the cover of his newest book, Be With (92 pages; New Directions), the names of the title and author in severe san serif type are pinned between black lines and the absence of lines. It’s a perfect cover for a book that explores absence and presence, loss and the lingering echoes and shadows of an entwined life. Loss may be of a loved one, of opportunity squandered, of regret for a murderous political history, of an aging and failing parent. It has as many forms as language can express, and in some poems here, one language doesn’t seem enough, and the poems slip into Spanish. Of course, the book revolves around the loss of Gander’s wife, the poet C.D. Wright, but it does so in ways that delineate the nuances of grief, both particular and universal.

The first and longest section of the book focuses on this theme, followed by a short section of poems and prose poems about the loss of the poet’s mother to dementia. The final section, “Littoral Zone,” is harder to define. There are no pat answers here, but many probing, sensitive explorations. The poet is feeling his way through difficult territory.

Despite the book’s origin in a dark period, the poems are luminous and moving, largely because of lines like these, from “Beckoned”:

At which point my grief sounds ricocheted outside of language.

Something like a drifting swarm of bees…

At which point, coming to, I knew I’d pay the whole flag-pull fare.

At which point the driver turned and said it doesn’t need to be

your fault to break you.

The mixed diction here, between the first two lines with their dramatic, pitch-perfect exposition of inchoate grief and the image of the taxi flag coming down, the cabby’s plainspoken acknowledgement, do something mysterious and uplifting, which leads to:

At which point there was at least some possibility

some possibility, in which I didn’t believe, some possibility of being with her once more.

This journey from unspeakable pain to the shadow of a possibility of solace follows the strange logic of grief over time, and it does so with beauty, strangeness, and absolute control of the language that describes emotion that is out of control.

To read Gander’s work is to expand your knowledge of the natural world (helminth parasites, a vulture-bone flute, cockchafer, crocodile scute, lechuguilla). And because of his background in geology, the formations of the natural world appear and are named—trachyte hoodoos, Panther Laccolith, for example. These send us to search out their meaning, pushing the bounds of what we know and see and adding, as in the poem “Evaporación: A Border History,” a solidity to the surreal carnage: “Mexican corpses marooned/under desert sun…Both vaqueros/staked out naked, screaming on an ant hill.” The poem mixes Spanish and English, ending with the keening of the Spanish gerund, aullando, “howling.” It seems fitting, a gesture of solidarity with the “Depositions/of carnage.” Loss is both personal and political, our legacy of a troubled border.

In contrast, the book also has stretches of bald, no-fooling-around insights:

Addled by busyness, I crumpled my life and let it drop

* * *

…You can’t

set aside the jigger

of the present from

the steady pour of hours

* * *

“If you want

to throw in

some dirt,” the priest

addressed the widower

and his child generally

but did not


the sentence.

* * *


the rat of

affliction between

my teeth for

all to see. Just.

Try. To. Take. It.

From. Me.

The last two stanzas are from the long poem in the book, a varied series of short stanzas, two to a page for almost thirty pages, called “Tell Them No,” with an epigram from Clarice Lispector, “The essence of the thing is often in the flash.” Fittingly, these snippets are each like a moment illumined by flash. Some impressionistic, some straightforward, some more opaque, they act as a kind of litany, a mourner’s Kaddish of grief entwined with the daily work of going on living. Part of their power is the compression of language, the skillful selection and juxtaposition, the imagery. The combination creates a mesmerizing sense of moving forward through pain. It takes hold and won’t let go: “Intuition of the infinite.”

The poems that follow, in the “Ruth” section of the book, chronicle the implacable progression of aging. The mostly flat, almost reportorial passages are peppered with startling reflection: “And it won’t/get any better. Absolutely/nothing to look/forward to, she says/to whom/if not you?” Or the recognition of the blood tie, so familiar, so that looking at oneself “in the mirror I see/her face, her small/dark eyes.” The longer prose poem passages are filled with memory—the small, daily humiliations of dependency, love, and disgust— as the poet, awash in his own grief, reaches for acceptance, “akin to what a mother might feel for her child.” These moments are tender, but stripped of sentimentality, not flinching from the awkward, the unpleasant.

The final, short section of the book, “Littoral Zone,” consists of sets of three stanzas paired with black-and-white photographs by Michael Flomen, whose prints are made by placing photographic film in natural spaces over time. (You can get a better sense of them here:

The first stanza is a reaction to the image, the second a series of questions about the image, and the third a remembered intimacy, now unmoored. Unfortunately, the reproductions in the book lack the drama of the originals and make it hard to immediately connect the poems to the images. Once you make that connection, the form seems obvious. Even without that connection, the reader can be buoyed by the lush imagery, relishing phrases like “My salamandrine/longing stutter-caught/on your nocturnal gorges” and “breathbeats blazed into an invisible integument.”

This is a book, like Core Samples from the World, that opens a deeper way of seeing and being in the world, inviting us to go back to it again and again. The poet is alive, although “days to come will crack open without you,/dropping their yolk over places you’ve walked.” Judging from this book, Forrest Gander is making what he can of those days and the reader is the grateful observer of this process.

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Letter From the Editor – Fall Issue 113

ZYZZYVA Volume 34, #2, Fall 2018The following is the Letter From the Editor as it appears in ZYZZYVA’s Fall Issue No. 113, our special issue focusing on the Environment & Conservation: 

Only in nature have I had experiences that could be described as spiritual. This may surprise anyone who knows of my longstanding lack of interest in camping, or, on the other hand, confidants who have witnessed the inverse of inspiration: times when I’ve been undone with distress over the plight of animals, plants, and ecosystems. Beyond all that, though, have been the private moments when, hiking or traveling, observing animals at peace in their natural habitat or taking in a vista, I’ve felt something like grace, something like awe, wash over me in a way that is both overwhelming and, somehow, steadying. In such moments, there is both a sense of stillness and unrelenting change; a sense of the breadth of life stretching in every direction (and through time), far beyond my own perception—a visceral sense of what is greater than me. And at the same time I have a more than usually concrete sense of my own being, of my feet on the actual ground, of my self as a physical creature (not just a mind endlessly busying itself). It’s as pragmatic as a sense of perspective sharply reasserting itself, and as ethereal as a daydream. There’s no accounting for such moments, and at times I’ve felt there’s no expressing them, either. And like so many phenomena on this little planet in this enormous universe, those moments have been real—whether or not anyone else can corroborate or appreciate them.

The ethos of this special issue assumes only that we can all agree on two things: first, that the environment is changing at an alarming rate (with Antarctic ice now melting at triple the rate observed ten years ago, and greenhouse gas emissions surging globally); and, second, that this is a matter of increasingly urgent concern, demanding action. Myriad questions and divergent opinions may follow from that shared ground. Some may never feel that care for the natural world is an ethical imperative, but will be mobilized by the likely devastating consequences for human beings—particularly the most vulnerable. We must make plenty of room in this movement for different views if we’re going to make progress. The hope must be to elevate the issue above partisanship just enough so we can have the necessary, generative disagreements and make the necessary compromises that may result in change, both local and global. Right now, in this country, we are stymied.

Concerns over the implications and applications of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are linked to questions about our relationship with the natural world, too, and should remind us, in case there has been some confusion, that our own minds are not computers; we, too, are animals, and irrevocably part of the natural world (not simply a force that acts upon it yet remains outside of it). Perhaps the underlying lesson is simply a cautionary tale about how difficult it is for humans to appreciate other kinds of intelligence and consciousness. Historically, we tend to perceive nonhuman intelligence as radically inferior—which says more about our powerful bias than it does about the creatures with which we share the planet. To hold ourselves separate from and somehow above our environment is a posture that frees us from the burden of worrying about catastrophe, but it is a failure of ethics and of the imagination that is destined to have dire consequences.

For this issue we sought out work that approaches the environment (and human interactions with it) from a wide variety of perspectives, but always as something more than a setting for human drama. Environment is treated here as a dynamic part of the drama, part of ethics, part of spirituality. Similarly, on the shadow side, when we think about social injustice, systemic violence, the exercise of power—the environment is ever-present, part of the drama. The environment, from parks to wilderness—and our (mis)apprehension of it all—is tangled up in every thorny moral issue, if we could only see it.

Perhaps most poignantly, in this month of very public suicides, for those who see us at or near a tipping point from which there can be no return, the environment poses this question: how do we continue, and continue to try, in the face of despair? One answer, perhaps the only answer, is that we simply must.

And there is room for hope, too. The works collected here remind us that our understanding of the environment has transformed before, and can change again. That local legislation can result in important changes with global implications, and with tangible results. That storytelling and the creative imagination have a role to play in advocacy; that such art can perhaps move the needle more effectively than argument. That we are guilty of terrible violence to ourselves and one another, but also capable, with tremendous effort, of improvement. That the end of this story is not yet written, that it is ours to decide and to tell.

In this way, this issue hopes to frame a less partisan but no less urgent approach to concerns of the environment—an approach disinterested in wearing the label “environmentalist,” and focused instead, as Obi Kaufmann proposes, on conservation and restoration. We’re hoping to do our part to lean into the creaking motion (already in gear, but working against so much lethargy when there is not a moment to spare), to make complete this paradigm shift in how we see our relationship to the environment, and to divorce ourselves from clichés of tree-huggers vs. capitalists—clichés that sneeringly diminish all of us.

Once the perspective has shifted and the picture has sharpened, the question won’t be whether to act, but how.



You can read the issue in its entirety by subscribing to ZYZZYVA or ordering a copy of Issue 113 today. 

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