ZYZZYVA EventsAugust 11, 2018
ZYZZYVA Fiction Workshop with Anthony Marra
Location: Mechanics's Institute Building and ZYZZYVA offices, 57 Post Street, San Francisco
Description: A one-day intensive workshop with Marra, award-winning author of "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" and "The Tsar of Love and Techno." Class size is very limited. Applications are due June 15. For more information, visit https://zyzzyva.submittable.com/submit/111999/fictionAugust 18, 2018
ZYZZYVA Poetry Workshop with Dean Rader
Location: Mechanics's Institute Building and ZYZZYVA Offices, 57 Post St., San Francisco
Description: A one-day intensive workshop with Rader, author of the poetry collections "Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry," "Landscape Portrait Figure Form" and "Works & Days." Class size is very limited. Application are due by June 18. For more information, visit https://zyzzyva.submittable.com/submit/106864/poetrySeptember 22, 2018
ZYZZYVA Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Caille Millner
Location: Mechanics's Institute Building and ZYZZYVA Offices, 57 Post St., San Francisco
Description: A one-day intensive workshop with Millner, author of the memoir "The Golden Road: Notes on My Gentrification" and a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle. Class size is very limited. Applications are due by July 23. For more information, visit https://zyzzyva.submittable.com/submit/106865/creative-non-fiction
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
San Francisco writer Anne Raeff’s new novel, Winter Kept Us Warm’’ (304 pages; Counterpoint Press), officially out next Tuesday, is an ambitious, multi-generational tale that deals with the interlocking lives of three characters—Ulli, Leo, and Isaac—who meet in Berlin shortly after World War II has ended. A departure of sorts from Raeff’s 2015 story collection, The Jungle Around Us, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, it shares a similar interest in the complexities of character, motive, and human nature, albeit on a different palette. (In a coincidence of fate, Raeff’s wife, Lori Ostlund, previously won the O’Connor Award in 2008 for her collection The Bigness of the World.)
Raeff spoke to us by e-mail about the new book, her biography, and her future projects. This is a writer who deals with serious, sometimes unfashionable subjects, with depth and compassion, qualities the new novel displays in abundance.
ZYZZYVA: Winter Kept Us Warm covers a lot of ground and geographical locations, from Germany to New York, Los Angeles and Morocco. It also seems like a “European’’ novel, in the sense that politics is seen as part and parcel of the tapestry of life, rather than something to be addressed separately. Was that partly your intent, to bring that tradition back? Are there novelists you were particularly influenced by who deal with the same concerns?
Anne Raeff: I don’t see how it is possible to separate story from history. In fact, the word story didn’t come into the English language until the early 16th century. Before that, history was the only word, and it meant a narrative of important events. Perhaps because the stories I grew up with were so closely tied to cataclysmic events in history like the Russian Revolution, the Holocaust, and World War II, from a very early age I thought of history as story and story as history.
My father was an historian by profession, but the interesting thing is that he didn’t teach me the facts of history, though he encouraged me to study and read about history on my own. Instead, he told me stories. He told me the story of the girl who died because of a gas leak while taking a bath in a pension in Lisbon. She and her family were among the many Russian refugees like my father who had escaped Occupied France and were waiting in Lisbon for visas to come to the United States. He told me about the prisoner at the POW camp in Arizona who believed that Stalin was living in his head.
Part of American exceptionalism is a lack of interest in history and an almost ideological denial of the effects of history on individual lives. Perhaps now that American literature is including a greater variety of voices, the importance of the forces of history will become more integrated into literature and into the American consciousness. The book that comes to mind that weaves together a very particular moment in history with a very particular human tragedy is Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. It is a book with an extraordinary sense of place, which is also something that is extremely important to me.
I refuse, as a rule, to consult all fortunetellers, palm-readers, and tarot-card diviners. I won’t so much as glance at a horoscope; routinely, I forget what my own astrological sign might be. It’s not so much that I believe or disbelieve in what a fortuneteller might have to tell me, but that I distrust myself, not knowing how my future behavior might change in response to what any would-be oracle has to say.
Chloe Benjamin’s second, much-lauded novel, The Immortalists (352 pages; Putnam), follows four siblings who, as children, go to a fortuneteller to learn when they’ll die. Afterward, tensions between the future and the present, between predictions and reality, threaten to break this family apart. I talked via email to Benjamin (whose first novel, The Anatomy of Dreams, won the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award) about her powerful, compelling new book, and about death, the present tense, and dance.
ZYZZYVA: I’m not at all alone in finding the central premise of The Immortalists—the possibility of finding out, and maybe even believing in, the date we’ll die—to be both terribly moving and terrifying. What brought you to this idea?
Chloe Benjamin: I know it sounds strange, but I have such a hard time answering this question! I think it’s because concepts, for me, always feel very subconscious—I don’t have a clear memory of the first time the idea hit me, but I do know that the basic kernel was always there: four siblings go to visit a fortuneteller, and then the book follows each of them over the course of their lives. I wish I had better origin stories. Stephen King has a great line that references the muses as “the boys in the basement”—this idea of people working away at some deeper level of a writer’s consciousness. Of course, as a feminist, I amend that to “the gals in the basement.”
Even if I can’t remember the precise spark, I do know that The Immortalists comes very much out of my own neuroses. I’ve always struggled with uncertainty and loss, which are intertwined, for me: the uncertainty of whether and when we will lose our loved ones, our happiness, our stability. And there’s no greater, or at least no more final, loss than death. It’s occurred to me that I would be able to slough off so much worry if I knew that I and those closest to me would live long lives. Of course, we can’t know that, but it got me thinking about what it would be like if we could know—with no guarantee that it would be good news. Is knowledge a blessing or a curse? A liberator or a hindrance? And to what extent are denial and ignorance actually positive forces in human life, in that they enable us to keep going?
In 2011, I was living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where I spent two years as the Kenan Visiting Writer shortly after the release of my first book, a story collection. One of these stories, “Bed Death,” appeared in the PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories, and it was this publication that led to my meeting Matthew Lansburgh. He sent me an email after reading it, and we struck up a friendship. In 2012, I moved back to San Francisco, and during a quick trip to New York in 2015, I finally met Matthew; we spent two days together, during which time he served as my “date” for a literary event.
Later that month, he visited San Francisco, where he met Anne, my wife, who said that talking to him felt like talking to a brother. This sort of easy familiarity often exists between gays and lesbians, but we had numerous other things in common as well: all three of us are writers, of both stories and novels; we all write work that incorporates LGBTQ characters and themes without targeting a primarily gay audience; Matthew grew up in California, where we now live, and he lives in New York, where Anne grew up; his mother is from Germany, Anne’s from Vienna, and this informs their work, albeit in quite different ways. One of Matthew’s ongoing preoccupations in his work is the relationship between his main character, Stewart, a gay man who has moved from California to New York, and Heike, his German-born, overbearing mother. Outside Is the Ocean (192 pages; University of Iowa Press), which received the Iowa Short Fiction Award, is a collection of linked stories with Stewart and Heike at its heart. It is funny and heartbreaking and, as Publishers Weekly noted, it “succeed[s] as a nuanced character study and a resonant commentary on the challenges of romantic and familial love.” I read it in its entirety in a matter of days in manuscript form, and when the book landed in our mailbox, Anne devoured it just as quickly. Though Anne and I have similar aesthetics, we do not always respond with equal passion to books, but in Matthew’s case, we did, even when we discussed the book in private, which is, after all, what really counts.
Anne Raeff: When I was reading Outside Is the Ocean I was often overwhelmed by the sadness and desperation of the characters, but I never wanted to run away. I wanted to be overwhelmed by their desperation. I wanted to experience their weaknesses, their inability to connect, their pettiness, their humanity. Heike is, perhaps, one of the most human characters of modern literature. She wants so desperately to be loved, yet she does not know how to love. She is kind to animals and to people who are even more lost and isolated than she is, but she is cruel to those who are closest to her, who know her most intimately, who know her weaknesses. Perhaps, although she is an immigrant, a woman who came of age in Germany during World War II, she is the archetypal American—full of hope and ideals, yet, ultimately, so alone.
Lori and I interviewed Matthew about his book via email and Google Docs.
ZYZZYVA (Lori Ostlund): Let’s start the discussion with short stories. All three of us love short stories. We read them. We write them. You won the Iowa Short Fiction Award for this book. Anne and I have both received the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (FOC). I once served as a screening judge for the FOC, so I know that it receives around 450 story collections a year for its annual contest. Contests (Drue Heinz, AWP Grace Paley Award, Sarabande’s Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction, Prairie Schooner Book Prize, BOA Short Fiction Prize) remain an important route to publication for story writers. Can you begin by describing the moment when you learned that you had won the award?
Matthew Lansburgh: I remember the moment vividly! I was walking toward my apartment on 28th Street in Manhattan. I was on the north side of the sidewalk, heading toward Sixth Avenue when I received an email from James McCoy, the editor of the University of Iowa Press, asking me to call him. At first, I had no idea who he was or what the email might be about. At the time, I was sending out stories constantly, and I wondered whether it was someone from The Iowa Review with a question about a story I’d submitted. I’d sent Outside Is the Ocean to the Iowa Short Fiction Award about five months earlier and hadn’t spent much time thinking about it in the interim. (I’ve always believed that the best way to maintain one’s sanity after sending something out to a journal or a contest is to forget about it and keep busy with other projects.)
The cover of The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea (248 pages; Grove Press) boasts a brightly colored piece of North Korean propaganda featuring six luminous, smiling faces. The seven stories in the collection, however, offer something very different: heart-wrenching accounts of a brutal life inside the country’s borders.
The Accusation’s journey to publication is miraculous in itself. Its author, Bandi (a pseudonym meaning “firefly”), smuggled his manuscript out of the country with the help of a defecting family member. For more than four years, he secretly wrote the manuscript, entirely in pencil, and remains in North Korea where he serves as a member of the Chosun Writers League Central Committee, a state-funded writing organization. Bandi’s book represents the first published work to criticize the North Korean government written by someone still living in that country.
The stories in The Accusation center on the importance of one’s reputation in North Korea, and how quickly it can be ruined by rumors and accusations of one’s opposition to the government. In each story, the characters experience a longing to break free of the societal pressure that restricts their intimate relationships. “City of Specters” reveals the absurdity of how even the most minor acts of can earn someone the label of anti-revolutionary. In it, a mother who uses extra curtains to protect her sensitive child from seeing a poster of Karl Marx that frightens him is quickly marked as a threat; a civil servant explains to her how unique curtains could be seen as a signal to spies. And while the rigidity of the government’s demands is so bizarre as to be almost humorous, Bandi depicts how these demands place a barrier between people. One must choose between being a good citizen and being a good family member, and choosing the latter most often results in punishment.
In these stories we see the ways this fear makes North Korea into a country of trained actors; to simply survive, its citizens must repress their grief and anger, even in the face of lost loved ones, and produce exaggerated performances of mourning for the death of Kim Jong-il. The characters in this book smile through their physical and emotional pain, only calling on these hidden agonies when tears are necessary.
The final piece in the collection, titled “The Red Mushroom,” suggests the author’s self-contempt and dissatisfaction with his career. Bandi writes about a reporter who is commonly referred to as the “bullshit reporter” since his work only praises the government or spins stories to the point of fabrication. This is, of course, due to the severe limitations put on North Korean journalists. Like his protagonist, Bandi is a state-sanctioned writer who must acquiesce to political restraints on his writing. The story raises the question of what it means to be an artist of any kind in Bandi’s country or in any other totalitarian state. While the cast of The Accusation would likely argue that it means one must be a liar, Bandi’s work speaks to our irrepressible need for self-expression and drive to create art. His writing and characters prove magnetic; they are anything but the one-dimensional characters of North Korean propaganda.
A short note on office policy regarding potted plants and floral bouquets:
a) If you enjoy the company of a potted plant on your desk, please water it as needed in order to keep it from becoming an unsightly and dispiriting brown heap of tendrils, leaves, stalks, stems, pistils, stamens, husks, pods, and/or roots.
b) If you have received a bouquet and are keeping it at your desk, please do not, under any circumstances, balance it on the edge of your cubicle wall where it will inevitably be bumped and dislodged by a passing coworker and crash down upon his/her person, thus potentially resulting in grievous injury, permanent disability, and in some cases, death or dismemberment.
c) Cacti are not permitted inside or within 500 feet of our offices; we regret this exclusion, but due to an incident that occurred last spring on these premises with a visiting Nepalese diplomat, we must outlaw all cacti at Quest Industries; in fairness to the cactus involved in the incident, it is possibly true that the Nepalese diplomat is an extremely clumsy individual—nonetheless, in order to avoid future cacti-diplomat-related incidents, no members of this plant species are permitted anywhere on our property.
d) Some plants are known to attract various airborne insects; for example, gnats and an unidentified species with flea-like characteristics have been sighted in recent weeks swarming the three potted plants on Bill Dubonski’s desk; Bill has kindly and ungrudgingly addressed this situation with great success by spraying his miniature ficus, potted ivy, and a mongrel species of flowering plant with water containing a mild detergent. No gnats or flea-like creatures have been spotted for the past 4 days swarming his cubicle or any neighboring cubicles. Thank you, Bill. With 72 hours’ advance notice, Bill has informed us that he is willing to offer his special spray bottle to anyone in the office who might require it.
With frequent moments of insightful social commentary, Luke Kennard’s first novel, The Transition (328 pages; FSG), takes us to an exaggerated version of our current society—a dystopian world of recognizable stress.
Karl and Genevieve are both university-educated and hold decent jobs. Genevieve works as a teacher, and Karl has a dubious career as a fake product reviewer and ghostwriter for lazy college students who can afford his services. In the first few pages of the novel, we learn things have gotten to the point where the “average age of leaving the parental home drifted into the early forties.” At the same time, things such as male contraceptive implants, self-driving taxi cabs, and self-refilling refrigerators are common. Without the help of their parents to fall back on, Karl and Genevieve struggle and flail. In their early thirties, they still can’t afford to live alone — instead they rent a room in a shared house; having children remains out of the question. As rents keeps rising, Karl (secretly) opens up more credit accounts to pay for groceries, car repairs, and vacations they can’t afford. Whenever Karl complains about their lot in life, Genevieve reminds him that they are still wealthier and better off than ninety-seven percent of the world’s population.
To pay off some of his debt, Karl becomes involved in credit fraud and is ultimately caught. He is given an offer: go to jail for fifteen months, or participate in a pilot scheme called the Transition. After choosing the latter, he and Genevieve spend six months living with older mentors who guide them through concepts like employment, finances, relationships, and more. In other words: Adulting 101. The goal of the program is that by the end of their sentence, the couple will have paid off their debts and have enough money saved for a down payment on a house.
This too-good-to-be-true “Get Out of Jail Free Card” soon becomes a burden to Karl. He continues to land himself in trouble, and his relationship with Genevieve grows increasingly strained. Karl’s developing suspicion of the ill intentions of The Transition becomes the novel’s central conflict. Though Kennard expertly introduces new conflicts and builds suspense, there’s no dramatic conclusion to his story. In fact, the novel is consistently anticlimactic; just when you think there will be an aha! moment, Kennard adds another layer of complication and ambiguity. (Are the villains really villains or simply people looking out for themselves?) And each character is flawed in their unique ways.
The Transition is not as easily definable as a typical dystopian novel. Kennard writes cleverly about an unlivable economic climate, sprinkling instances of lovely nuance and truthful observation throughout. The novel never preaches or patronizes the reader. Instead, The Transition serves as a funny, fresh, and all too likely depiction of the future.
Tony Hoagland, like Jack Spicer, is a master of wielding the needle of irony to inject you with the pain of being an aware human being. (Re-reading Spicer’s letters to Graham Macintosh in the July 1970 issue of Caterpillar reminded me of their shared sensibility.) Hoagland has a particular ability to pinpoint the ills and contradictions of the American psychic landscape using deadly serious humor. This was already evident in poems such as “Hard Rain,” “Dickhead,” “Foodcourt,” “At the Galleria Shopping Mall,” and “America.” Perhaps no one else in the contemporary poetry landscape creates such pitch-perfect expositions of our national yearnings, naiveté, and delusions. He also has poems of infinite tenderness, such as “Beauty” or “The Color of the Sky.”
The best of Hoagland’s work shows his fearlessness, his willingness to probe his own demons, to expose himself in print. In the poems “Lucky,” “Sweet Ruin,” or “Phone Call,” for example, he dramatizes his own darkness, admits he is implicated, doesn’t shrink from self-exposure. He opens himself up in a profound way—the way letting light into a dark room allows you to see, and re-evaluate the tattered, rather humiliating furniture. (This has not been without controversy. His reaction several years ago to Claudia Rankine asking him about his poem “The Change” provoked a scathing response from Rankine, which you can read about here.)
His latest book, Recent Changes in the Vernacular (96 pages; Tres Chicas Press), displays these same qualities—humor, perceptive exploration of the American psyche, and a willingness to go deep into the unexplored personal. It’s tempting to quote whole poems; to let them speak for themselves, because it’s hard to get a sense of their range and depth in short bursts. Part of Hoagland’s technique is the layering of imagery, one sequence playing off the next. But other skills include the ability to create a simple exposition that exactly captures something you instantly recognize. In “Opening Night,” a poem about the opera house built by the generosity of the widow of an arms manufacturer, he comments:
… no one smells the gunpowder
hidden deep inside the curtains;
No one sees the blood congealed
around the legs of the piano
These lines seem simple, straightforward, inevitable. But the effect they produce is almost impossible to achieve. Like a skilled tightrope walker, Hoagland makes his acrobatics look easy. Hoagland notes in his poem, “Empire”:
It’s hard to write inside an empire.
The ink is made from the eyelids of mice…
You don’t say anything because you like your job;
you like your car and wife and life.
Yet somehow Hoagland can write about the empire from inside it, write of his own role within it, of his complicity, which makes us aware of our complicity. His vision is accurate, wry, unflinching. This excerpt from “Moisture” is typical:
The ice skater spins on her prosthetic leg, on national TV,
in her first performance since the accident
and wobbles once but does not fall,
as the audience rises to its feet to give her an ovation
and my tears drip down into my potpie chicken dinner
saving me the trouble of adding salt.
His ability to pick just the right detail—the potpie or the eyelids of mice—elevates the poems and gives them power.
Of course, not every poem hits its mark; some feel light, jokey, too easy. But as a whole, this book is a complex mix of pleasure and revelation. Who else could write a scene of a man dying of a heart attack in a bus on the way to Atlantic City and end it like this?
The tired state trooper can feel a headache coming on,
and the faintest sprinkle on his hairy arms, just a mist
descending from the shrouded Jersey sky,
just the faintest dreamlike of particulates…
—Now traffic will be stop and go
all the way to Party City—
that’s what he thinks, phlegmatically,
as a woman with cotton-candy hair
and what looks like a Corgi in her purse
stands up inside the bus
and slides down the aisle,
because there is a vacancy in Row Sixteen
and she feels lucky.
We are there with the tired trooper, the hopeful gambler, and that perfect detail—the Corgi in her purse. We are with them and of them, rueful observers as death exits down the interstate.
As for the personal, “The Age of Iron,” which opens Section II of this book, stands as one of Hoagland’s most masterful poems—one that I wish there were space to quote in its entirely. As it is, you’ll need to read the book.
Using an anachronistic 4×5 view camera—the kind where the photographer stands draped under a dark cloth—Jenny Sampson has been steadily creating tin-type portraits of skateboarders she encounters at local skate parks, mainly in California, Oregon, and Washington. The resulting portraits are beguilingly fraught with melancholy atmospherics, their distressed tactility an implicit rebuke to the sterile, antiseptic images saturating daily life in a digital age. (Several such tin-types were recently featured in ZYZZYVA No. 111.) Sampson’s practice has allowed her to meaningfully engage with the skaters themselves, and obliquely teach them a bit about her antique photographic technique. (Paradoxically, the process requires the skaters to remain absolutely still for at least 30 seconds.) In the following conversation, conducted by phone, and over Gmail, Sampson shares her experience venturing into the skater’s semi-private preserves.
ZYZZYVA: So how do the skaters respond to you when you bring this unwieldy antique camera into their midst?
Jenny Sampson: The camera is a 4X5 view camera. It’s the kind of camera that sits on a tripod, has the bellows—the part that looks a little like an accordion, and the photographer has to duck under the dark cloth while focusing on the subject.
There usually aren’t many of those types of cameras at skate parks! I also set up my portable darkroom, which includes processing trays and tanks that are visible to everyone. All of this can attract attention, actually helping me engage with people.
Sometimes when I’m developing the tintype, kneeling underneath the darkroom cloth, people don’t know I’m under there—because I’m small, covered, looking like a little mound. After the tintype is developed, I flip the cloth off and people are surprised because they didn’t see me, “Wow! Oh, wow! There she is!”
In The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir (272 pages; FSG), Anne Fadiman, the author of Ex Libris, At Large and Small: Familiar Essays, and, most notably, her prize winning work of nonfiction, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, writes about her famous father, Clifton, or Kip, Fadiman. She centers her memoir, her first book in ten years, around her father’s love of wine, a love affair that begins on his first trip to Paris with an inexpensive bottle of white Graves.
Although Kip Fadiman’s love of wine was sincere—he found pleasure in the taste and complexities of wine, as well as an appreciation for its ability to enhance conversation—his daughter reveals that his interest was also tied to a desire to be as far removed as possible from his Jewish immigrant background. A self-described “meatball,” Kip Fadiman was born in 1904 to lower-middle class Eastern European immigrants in Brooklyn. Embarrassed by his parents and pedigree, he took great strides to “de-meatball” himself by reading through the Western canon, learning to speak impeccable English from his older brother (which later helped with his career as a radio host), putting himself through Columbia University, and, eventually, by becoming a leading wine connoisseur. Although he saw enormous success as a radio host for NBC’s Information Please, was editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster before the age of 30, worked as a book critic for The New Yorker for ten years, and co-wrote the unofficial Bible of wine, The Joy of Wine, he always feared he would someday be exposed as a fraud or counterfeit.
Since he never got over feeling like an intruder to WASP culture, he worked to scrub himself of any Jewish identity, Fadiman writes, and was confounded to find later generations attempting to reclaim their Jewish roots. As she points out, wine fit in perfectly with his lifelong career of divorcing himself of his lineage – wine was civilized, civilizing, and decisively not Jewish. While her father’s embarrassment over his Jewish identity is at times troubling for a contemporary reader and for Fadiman herself, she reminds us, “I don’t have a clue what they were up against and never will.” Instead of attributing his attitude to denial and snobbery, she ascribes it to the culture that her father grew up in. This is the same culture that shaped his alma mater’s decision to pass on hiring him as a professor, claiming they had already reached their quota for Jewish professors in the department (which was at one)—a moment that made him perceive his incredibly successful professional life as a failure.
Fadiman’s writing remains polished, humorous, and approachable in The Wine Lover’s Daughter. Her love of language always shines through—in Ex Libris she discusses the Fadiman family’s joy for polysyllabic words and her father’s children’s book about a worm with an appetite for words like “zymurgy”—but her work never indulges itself to the point of requiring its readers to keep a dictionary at hand. The magnificence of her work is in her empathy for her subjects and her unwavering rationality. She never acquiesces to a reader’s impulse for her to judge her subjects or make a definitive statement that would ultimately prove reductive.
After years of trying to enjoy wine, the author finally confronts the fact that she will never love wine the way her father did. When she reaches this conclusion, she goes on a trek to find some biological reason for her distaste. At first, this chapter seems like a distraction, one that detracts from the otherwise magnificent account of the father and his relationship with his daughter. Yet, by the end, one is reminded of Fadiman’s skill as a writer. What made her book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down such a great success was her refusal to succumb to easy answers. She wrote with empathy for both the Western doctors and the Hmong families as they struggled over the (eventually) failed medical treatment of a young Lao girl in Merced, California. Here, she again refuses to see the world in simple terms. The answer is not found in her and her father’s different biological reactions to wine, but in their rich, yet dissimilar histories. She recognizes that her father’s love of wine could not be separated from the romance of his first experience with the white Graves and his longing to reinvent himself.
Dean Rader is a professor of English at the University of San Francisco. His most recent poetry collections are “Self-Portrait as Wikipedia Entry” (Copper Canyon Press) and “Suture” (Black Lawrence), written with Simone Muench. You can see him in conversation with other ZYZZYVA contributors tomorrow at East Bay Booksellers. Two of Rader’s poems are featured in ZYZZYVA No. 111. Presented here in its entirety is the poem “Still Life with Cacography”:
“If some of those wonderful people had guns strapped right here— right to their waist or right to their ankle—and one of the people in that room happened to have it and goes ‘boom, boom,’ you know, that would have been a beautiful sight folks.”
—Donald Trump, four days after the Orlando Pulse shooting
We are in the car. My son Henry, who is four, asks, Dad how do you spell fart? I answer: H-E-N-R-Y.
To which he screams No! And before I can say anything else it’s Dad Dad Dad what does hkjurotha spell, and I, having played this game before,
know better than to say that isn’t a word, so I say hook joo rotha, and he laughs, and then, Dad Dad what does ggtdxererererererhenruururur spell?
And he pauses for a second when I say ice cream, and he laughs even harder, and I want to believe he knows I’m teasing, and so when he says
Dad Dad Dad what does 4thy9998rgbvvvvvvvvv17 ortyhggggavin spell? Without pausing I say the name of his most loved stuffed animal,
and this goes on for many minutes, many miles, and later, I am listening to something else and have forgotten the game, the trees, the houses.
The bikers blur by like sentences we have jettisoned, which is why he is confused when I answer nothing to his question of what the string
of letters and numbers he has placed together might signify, for he believes that every possible combination of letters makes a word, and I begin to think how
lovely that would be if the nearly in nite number of alphabetical arrangements had a corresponding word, like ifvzmoohj for “seeing the moon in the afternoon”
and wtiuklp for “Judy’s face after lemonade” or bnvaremc for “the distance between Cork and Limerick by wagon,” a different word for a different
day of his life, a word for every time I lose him at a park or in the store, a word for the uneaten grape on his plate, for the green monster
in his dream, the word for what it feels like when you are four and do not know the word for what you have lost. And I ask him
how you spell the word for when you talk to your dad and he does not answer, and he says I don’t know, and I say how do you spell
the word when you call to your dad and he does not come, and there is something again on the radio, and he says Dad how do you spell bam?
And then, Dad how do you spell pechew pechew pechew pechew?
‘Understanding, Misunderstanding, and then Sitting Down to Write’ by Andrew Tonkovich: ZYZZYVA, No. 111
Andrew Tonkovich is the co-editor of the anthology “Orange County: A Literary Field Guide,” published by Heyday, and editor of the Santa Monica Review. To ring in the new year, we’re presenting in its entirety his essay “Understanding, Misunderstanding, and then Sitting Down to Write” from ZYZZYVA No. 111:
The following is an edited version of the closing talk given at the Community of Writers Workshop at Squaw Valley in July, 2017.
“I live in terror of not being misunderstood.” —Oscar Wilde
I’m proud of at least the title of this talk, and the epigraph. If the rest of it falls at, I may revisit each, encouraging you to imagine that there was, early on, some weak hope or unlikely promise of revelation, insight, affirmation, encouragement. The title—which represents, alas, perhaps .002 percent of the actual lecture—offers elements that a title should, including action verbs, gerunds, some gentle wordplay, and direction, instruction, or expectation.
As further caveat or invitation, those who know me or can easily identify a living, breathing near-cartoon stereotype when they see one (the socialist-anarchist, peace-and-justice, pro-labor, anti-racist, anti-fascist, eco-feminist, vegetarian, hippie-punk, readerly-writerly, literary type) will be unsurprised that I take this opportunity to speak not only to writing but adopt a position, perhaps present a manifesto, rant or polemic (what we on the Left used to call an analysis) of how these might be understood just now. Although I expect buy-in on the title, I’ll understand if you argue with, reject, or ignore the balance of my spiel. All good, as the young folks say, notwithstanding the obviously difficult circumstances of life-art-politics, which are not all good, and why would we expect otherwise, in reality or in its fictional or nonfictional responses from or engagement by writers?
I have something urgent to share, however calmly delivered as a pep talk, congratulation, bon voyage into the everyday oblivion of writing, back home, alone, and away from the airy and elevated psycho-topography of generous workshop encouragement and stunning natural beauty. This tradition of mild provocation as send-off has been practiced by favorite writers with big ideas, Peter Mathiesssen to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and each has undermined—as I will—formal expectations or, yes, tried to go those expectations one better. Indeed, that’s one of two options for the writer, and it’s pretty much my big and perhaps only observation and advice this morning. So, if you’d rather get up now for more coffee, care instead to stroll this indeed gorgeous, rugged alpine site for about seventeen more minutes, if you generally prefer trailers to the movie or, better yet, if you are off to organize a powerful grassroots direct-action campaign to take down a criminal political regime, here’s the takeaway:
As writers we can either produce a startling reiteration of a terrific story we’ve read before and somehow improve on it, or we can respond to, answer, undermine, and challenge other writers’ true and recognizable methods and strategies, and as a result produce strange, difficult, new ones. Both options are difficult, brave, require reading and hard work, sitting at the keyboard, but are worthwhile in their own ways, and might be considered in a helpful title, which I offer here, as promised.
With In the Cage (309 pages; Biblioasis), Kevin Hardcastle drops the rural noir genre into the ring of literary fiction. Hardcastle, winner of the Trillium Book Award and ReLit Award for Short Fiction, has created a novel where crime fiction and the literary tradition occupy the same space. In the Cage tells the story of conflicted characters with complex relationships navigating violence and its consequences against the morally gray backdrop of remote Saskatchewan.
Daniel is a caring but stoic husband and father whose mixed martial arts career ended twelve years earlier with a detached retina. He and his wife now live in near-poverty with their daughter. Unable to find steady work, Daniel moonlights as hired muscle for a local gangster. When a money collection gig turns more brutal than delivering one-two punches, Daniel grapples with the true cost of the path he’s chosen to provide for his family. Returning to the gym gives him distance and sanctuary from his problems, but his time spent training is overshadowed by the presence of a chilling, pale-eyed villain whose sadism intimidates even the most hardened criminals.
What’s perhaps most notable about In the Cage is its unflinching look at the destructiveness of violence. Hardcastle’s descriptions are clinical yet shocking. A shotgun blast erupts and “One part of the man flew skewered with rib-bone.” Punches flatten noses. A throat is slashed and “it seemed like all he had in him had exited the body through that cut.” Hardcastle’s descriptions are free of gusto and provide just enough detail for them to act like a chokehold on the reader.
The author is clearly knowledgeable in the area of mixed martial arts. During Daniel’s training and fight scenes, the various punches, kicks, and submission holds are elaborated on with enough sensory detail that even readers unfamiliar with blood sport will be able to feel them. These sequences serve double duty, providing just as much insight into the characters as into their fighting ability. Daniel’s interior and the expression of his will are narrated with deceivingly simple, Hemingway-esque prose. “Blood and sweat sprayed the canvas and their feet atop it,” for example, or when Daniel kicks a heavy bag in his basement, Hardcastle describes the sound like “a nail being hammered into the hollows of the place.”
The remote Canadian setting evokes the hardships of rural, working-class life. Daniel and his family live in a perpetually cold, blue-collar necropolis of rust and poverty. His worksite is, “Acre upon acre of frozen ground with muddied swaths in the white.” And in my favorite line of the novel, we read, “There he thumped the gas pedal and the tires threw broken chips of brittle tarmac as he went townward through cold and lightless country.” With passages such as these, one not only feels the mood of desolation but also a hushed metaphysical horror akin to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.
Apart from the carnage, In the Cage is also a touching, multi-generational reflection on family values. Some of the best scenes feature Daniel’s elderly neighbors, Murray and Ella. Their kindness and moral expectations serve as prescient warnings to Daniel in a place where poor choices are paid for dearly. Even so, readers are likely to sense Daniel won’t heed his neighbors’ warnings, and that the novel’s bloody denouement will not end with a knockout.
Genre fiction is often criticized for its recurring tropes and boilerplate plots, but Kevin Hardcastle’s novel proves otherwise. In the Cage is both fresh and haunting. It is a novel of grace and brutality, and the balance between them.