ZYZZYVA EventsOctober 19, 2019
ZYZZYVA Fall All-Stars at Lit Crawl
Location: 8 p.m., Dog Eared Books, 900 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Description: Featuring readings by Michael Jaime-Becerra, Michelle Latiolais, Min Han, Micah Stack, and William Hawkins. Free. More info here: https://litcrawlsanfrancisco2019.sched.com/event/TCkG/zyzzyva
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In this issue:
“Mrs. Sorry” by Gabriela Garcia: The young woman tending a luxury cosmetics counter knows of ravages beyond the aesthetic.
“Wilshire and Grand” by Dagoberto Gilb: A construction worker’s coffee date with an old flame picks at knotty threads of memory.
“Session Drummer” by Tommy Orange: More than the studio gigs, it’s managing an unstable father that’s truly challenging.
“Todo Se Acaba” by Michael Jaime-Becerra: Working at the same supermarket chain that employs his father fuels Jaime-Becerra’s longing for other ways of being in the world.
“Hospitality” by Michelle Latiolais: Every aspect of providing service at a restaurant, Latiolais recalls, can turn into a beatitude.
Jim Gavin on lower middle-class Southern California, television writing, the taboo of money, and his TV show Lodge 49.
Andrew Altschul’s “They Hate Us for Our Freedom” (an ex-pat in South America refuses to reckon with being American), William Hawkins’s “Swing-Truss” (a father-and-son trip to Alaska gets upended by an interloper), E.K. Ota’s “Lockstep” (a former pastor’s deep pain and its lasting consequences), and Micah Stack’s “Locket” (“I don’t remember yesterday like it was yesterday.”).
Cedar Brant, Rage Hezekiah, Major Jackson, Hanae Jonas, and Carl Phillips.
Featuring the work of Jake Scharbach.
The literary and political legacy of James Baldwin is going through a revival through works like Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, and director Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk.
Add to this, the newest issue of The Common Reader: A Journal of the Essay, published by Washington University in St. Louis, and its eleven essays that further explore the lasting work and meaning of the author.
High points of the issue, titled James Baldwin & American Democracy, include Cecil Brown’s piece, “With James Baldwin at the Welcome Table,’’ in which Brown recalls his days as a young novelist hanging out with “Jimmy’’ in Paris and at his St. Paul de Vence home in the south of France.
According to his biographer, David Leeming, Baldwin, then under attack from more militant—and heterosexual—activists and writers like Eldridge Cleaver and Ishmael Reed, was “so used to the crisis of the younger black writers that during his first meeting with Brown he said, ‘I thought you would hate me.’”
But the younger writer paints a portrait of a generous host, welcoming everyone from Miles Davis, Nina Simone, James Jones, and William Styron to the local mailman and village doctor, who became a drinking buddy, as he forged a writing life away from the parallel pressures of American racism and the pressures of being a representative of “black identity.’’
Gerald Early’s essay, “Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation: James Baldwin, Bessie Smith and the Power of the Essay,’’ recalls the shock of recognition he felt growing up in Philadelphia when he first read Nobody Knows My Name and found a kindred spirit separate from other works of art being held up as iconic. (He later wrote an essay called “The Color Purple as Everybody’s Protest Art’’ that paid homage to Baldwin’s critique of Richard Wright.)
He compares Baldwin’s belated appreciation of Bessie Smith to LeRoi Jones’ play Dutchman, in which a black middle-class character trying to seduce a white woman on the subway offers a final speech: “[Whites] say, ‘I love Bessie Smith.’ And don’t even understand that Bessie Smith is saying, ‘Kiss my ass, kiss my black unruly ass.’”
And he locates Baldwin’s vision, and importance, outside contemporary standards of wokeness, category, or sexual preference: “There was always this sense of doubt about one’s racial identity in Baldwin, a sense that, after all, one can be, in spite of it all, a stranger to one’s own people, hopelessly so, or that maybe one might want to be a stranger to one’s own people.’’
Some of the other essays here are less successful, lapsing into an academic speak to which Baldwin would probably lift an amused eyebrow, but circling back to the complex love-hate relationship the author had to the American experiment.
William J. Maxwell’s “Teaching Baldwin Teaching: Three Class Notes’’ recounts his experience dealing with his “most influential student’’—a young woman who had spent the previous months on the front lines of the Ferguson protests—who vocally applied today’s standards of acceptable writing about gay identity to works like Giovanni’s Room, which she saw as internalized homophobia—“and I thought, under my breath, that she was not entirely wrong about that.”
Maxwell, a professor of English and African-American History at Washington University, takes in the critique, and recognizes that “there may be nothing more poignantly and gallingly estranging than a dearly departed exemplar who on second glance almost—but not quite—flatters the mood of the present.” Life is complex. Or in Baldwin’s words: “just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world.’’
Reading the various essays (and it is good to have them, even if many lack the first-hand verisimilitude of Brown and Early’s work) I’m reminded of an exchange between Dexter Gordon and Baldwin that Maxine Gordon, the widow of the great tenor saxophonist (and author of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legend of Dexter Gordon) related at a recent Monterey Jazz Festival panel moderated by Angela Davis.
“They ran into each other at a party,’’ she said, “and Jimmy called out, ‘Hey Dexter, I keep reading that we’re expatriates. I thought we were just living in Europe.’’’
You can’t go home again, but you can’t leave it, either.
Krista Eastman had been living away from her native Wisconsin for many years when she began writing her essay collection, The Painted Forest (144 pages; West Virginia University Press), and it was during this time that she began to consider the meaning of home. Once she left the small, working-class town in which she was raised, she told Poets & Writers, she found she often “had to explain myself and my home to others, putting a complicated place onto maps where previously there’d been nothing at all.” That’s when she “became interested in the role of telling about a place, in talking back from the periphery.”
Eastman began asking herself what it means to be from Wisconsin, from the Midwest, or from any place at all. And what does it mean to leave one’s home, or to return? Though the nine essays of her book, she attempts to find answers, tapping into geography, history, and myth-making to do so, all while seeking out the least known corners of the country.
In the first essay, “Insider’s Almanac,” Eastman considers how we define being from a place and what distinctions exist within that sense of belonging. “Who is the more thoroughly acquainted with the world in which he lives?” she asks. “Whosoever can produce the most detail.” The Painted Forest proves Eastman to be thoroughly acquainted with the world in which she lives; insatiably curious, she renders people and places in exquisite, elaborate detail.
Reading her extraordinary descriptions, it’s clear Eastman writes not just to inform her reader, but also to make sense of her surroundings, to create meaning and narrative where there previously may have been none. The opening lines of the prologue, “Scrap Metal,” in which she recalls driving through her hometown as a child, display Eastman’s gift for immersive narration:
This tubby steel machine, this 1978 Chevy Malibu station wagon, careens a large family forward, makes tinny the sound of our quarrels and questions while highway approaches and then unfurls behind, approaches and then unfurls. It is from this wagon that we view the sculptures, the scrap metal forms welded at weird angles onto themselves, forms that groan at ground in the way of all heavy equipment, but forms whose slanted reaches skyward warp and mock the object of industry.
Most of the collection’s essays deal in hyper-specificity, focusing on little known locations and hidden stories. Eastman is drawn to eccentricity and complexity, and she revels in the act of uncovering. “My writing,” she told Booktimist, “[has] a tendency toward putting off-the-map oddities at the center of the universe.” She actively constructs her own universe by uncovering obscure histories and geographies, and letting in light.
Mostly, she attempts to play with our ideas of regionality and universality, challenging notions about which corners of America—and the world—are worthy of exploration. “The Midwest,” writes Eastman, “like many of the earth’s places, tilts toward under-imagined and overly caricatured, that it might not be a definite place at all.” This is one of the collection’s most important considerations. While Eastman spends much of the collection considering physical space—natural wonders, art objects, landmarks—she also delves into the psychological space each region occupies. The Midwest and many other places, she argues, are less defined by their geographic boundaries as much as their cultural and mythical ones.
The best essays in The Painted Forest are the most personal ones. Ultimately, it’s when Eastman taps into her own experiences that we are treated to the most moving moments of the collection. Take this reflective aside from the titular essay, in which Eastman returns to her hometown:
Born here, from this place, I knew how to move across the land, how to be raised up for the purpose of letting go, to be lifted and lowered, gathered and then released: to roll down and then to work my way up again, to the top of the ridge, to the modest view of more hills, to the shortest glimpse of eternity.
Sometimes The Painted Forest gets bogged down by its most distinctive features—Eastman’s descriptions and specificity. The florid language and narrow focus in excess can grow tiresome. Regardless, The Painted Forest remains an intricate portrait of place and belonging. Eastman is making an offering to us; she is sharing something special, a part of herself. “One way to share your home,” she writes, “is to place it carefully, in a controlled way, onto someone else’s map.” That is just what she’s done—and for that, we should be grateful.
Just over halfway through Caren Beilin’s newest book, Blackfishing the IUD (165 pages; Wolfman Books), she states the simple truth that we have already learned, have already felt and suffered with, over the course of our engagement with this work: “Reading is ruining my life.”
Recounting her own experience with medical gaslighting, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the copper intrauterine device (IUD), and what it means to have metal—a toxic thing, an inflaming thing—placed in the uterus, Beilin’s text is part critique, part personal essay, and part platform for the stories, worries, angers, and generous advice of other affected women. Her voice is unique, but her story necessarily isn’t; it’s a facet of this memoir which makes it both highly particular and eerily resonant. At times, Beilin’s work reads as a manifesto, at others, a poem. But always, as a plea: “…what is copper combined with woman?” she asks. “What does the IUD do when it is not doing that sentence? The womb is wet. It rusts.”
Reading this book will ruin your life. Not because the information will be new to many of us, but because it takes things women have known for some time, that they have felt burning in their abdomens and fuming in their blood, and grants them transfiguration. The relegated-fiction of online forums, systemically dismissed internal nervousness, visible and invisible pains—all of these things and the copper trail which follows them are reinstituted as meaningful. Here, meaningful means allowed to hold something. To contain truth, and to mandate that these truths, in these forms, be accepted as legible. Copper becomes a readable subject, as does the woman’s body, and the woman’s voice, emanating from that same entity which we must learn to trust. These things have always been trying to talk with us. Blackfishing demands that we listen, and that we say something back, even (or perhaps, especially) if it is just, I believe you.
This project is life-ruining in the sense that things must sometimes be shredded to be understood. Beilin takes her subject to its extent: her descriptions of pain—the pain brought on by her copper IUD and subsequent RA, the emotional pain of navigating the medical world—and the routine dismissal of that pain, are almost impossible to sit through without, at the very least, a break, or, more severely, intermittent panic attacks. Breakdowns at the thought of the birth control in one’s own body, and what it might be doing when it doesn’t perform “that sentence,” the sentence of Planned Parenthood and other providers, the phrases and gestures which market the IUD not just as healthcare but as a political proclamation. “Now we are awesome cyborgian women, feminists with metal we enjoy in our womb.” Blackfishing isn’t a testimony against birth control, nor against the right of all people to access it. But it does throw necessary skepticism at the way reproductive healthcare institutions wield the concept of choice. Choice is important, necessary. But perhaps the choices we have are very, very bad. Are inflamed.
Beilin, whose past works include Spain and The University of Pennsylvania, employs tactfully constructed prose, as beautiful to read as it is horrible—and overwhelmingly—to sit with. It incites anxiety, but also, invites community. To read this book is to never be alone, to find things funny as well as terrifying and to, at last, situate invalidated fears in a legitimizing network of corroboration.
Blackfishing the IUD is a little book from a little press (the wonderful Oakland-based Wolfman Books). A podcast series will accompany its release, as if its own smallness can acknowledge itself. The effect of reading Blackfishing is unfathomably vast, but like any well-executed critical project, it does not pretend to be an end, an answer, or enough.
On a Friday afternoon, I visited the Stephen “ESPO” Powers “Daymaker” installation at SFMOMA. “Daymaker” includes two site-specific wall-size murals covered in Powers’ signature ideograms: a simple illustration of an everyday object accompanied by witty, semi-aphoristic text. (Powers began his career as a graffiti artist under the moniker ESPO.)
Of the two murals, the one on the east wall is the more popular one for picture taking. It has more blank spaces between ideograms and better light. The picture-taking comes in two genres: selfies or portraits. You can pose next to the brick wall covered with the words “BACK GOES HERE.” Or you can stand next to the matte yellow Post-it that reads “WHO ASKED YOU?” These shots are perfect for social media; they provide a novel background with a caption already included.
Some of Powers’ texts edge into the territory of Instagram Poetry, a genre defined by pithy sentimentality. I can imagine the phrase “I GET LOST TO GET FOUND” adorning a timeline accompanied by a picture of a beach at sunset. In “Daymaker” Powers pairs the phrase with a cartoonish briefcase that looks like it belongs in a noir comic. It’s the visual equivalent of sarcasm, and it evokes the famous Barbara Krueger work that exhorts “I shop, therefore I am.” It’s not art specifically made for a vapid viewer, but art that is happily misread.
Some of the more ambitious photo-seekers will pose for whole minutes in front of Powers’ east wall. The most determined of the bunch that day were a trio of women with slick hair and thick eyebrows, who took turns posing and taking pictures. Observing them, I learned two important rules of modeling: 1) suck in your stomach and 2) the logo of your handbag should be facing out. It takes a lot of forethought to look this carefree.
The photoshoots blocked the art, and I felt the urge to look away. I didn’t want to interrupt, or worse, ruin the game of pretend in-progress. The relationship a person has with how other people see them is an intimate one; it didn’t feel right to intrude.
If I were to have my picture taken with one of Powers’ works, I would pick one of six canvasses on the under-observed south wall. My favorite of these has two, dark blue painterly fists bumping. I felt I was seeing the artist’s hand both literally and figuratively, with yellow action lines radiating from the point of impact. The fists are framed with the words “NOTHING TO SAY, SOMEONE TO SAY IT TO,” which describes most people on Twitter.
Every trip to the museum ends at the gift shop. Here you can buy toilet paper designed by Powers, packaged with the words “If only opinions were as useful.” It’s the perfect item for those who want a physical souvenir of the exhibit, and not just a digital one.
Dominica Phetteplace is a math tutor who writes fiction and poetry. Her honors include a MacDowell Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize and a Rona Jaffe Award. You can read her short story “The Story of a True Artist” in Issue 115.
Jonathon Keats and the Pioneers for the Greater Holocene: Pessimism is Not a Scientific Way of Thinking
Unbeknown to many in San Francisco, we are in the presence of several brave species helping to terra-form the city and stave off a future defined by man’s carbon footprint. These “volunteers,” as experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats calls them, represent the first members of his new organization, The Pioneers for the Greater Holocene, and they’re closer than you might think—they might even be under your feet.
These ambassadors are the plants that sprout from the sidewalk in even the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. Though acknowledging that they are commonly dismissed as unsightly, Keats—previously known for creating Alien Instruments and Superego Suits—has taken to documenting these life-forms in a series of intimate black and white portraits. He hopes this approach lends the plants some dignity, and might cause people to view them in terms of the beauty, and not the blight, they bring to an urban environment. While taking the photos, Keats gets down on the ground to be at eye level with his subjects. Speaking of these plants, Keats admits, “I go back and visit them and water them sometimes. Even though they don’t need me to grow, it doesn’t mean there’s no benefit there.”
Keats’ portraits of the plants are currently on display and viewable by appointment at San Francisco’s Modernism Gallery. He suggests that, in many ways, this photography is representative of what he is attempting to do with the Pioneers, which includes “creating a model for a world to come, a world we would want to inhabit.” It’s a model in which no species is taken for granted, even if they sprout from cracks in the pavement.
Also at Modernism Gallery is a massive map of Northern California, which Keats invites gallery patrons to decorate with pins specifying locations they feel represent the world they’d like to see in the future. During the busy opening night event this month, the crowds took great delight in (quite literally) hammering their pins into the map. Anyone is also welcome to become a member of the Pioneers for as little as a one-dollar donation. Keats stresses that interested parties can also join for less, though a $40 donation will secure you a stylish Pioneers for the Greater Holocene T-shirt, a convenient way to show your fellow citizens your interest in preserving the current geological epoch.
The Pioneers formation was in part inspired by the upcoming determination by the International Union of Geological Sciences as to whether the current geological epoch, known as the Holocene, has come to a premature end due to man’s harmful impact on the planet, thus placing us firmly in the Anthropocene. While most scientists seem to take the Anthropocene’s arrival as a foregone conclusion, implying that the planet will be blighted by humans for millions of years to come, Keats argues, “Pessimism is not a scientific way of thinking…We cannot accept the catastrophic results of declaring the Anthropocene an epoch.”
He stresses that work can be done and changes made, even on an individual level, that could perhaps alter the Anthropocene from a multi-million-year epoch to something more like an unfortunate but brief episode during humanity’s time on Earth.
One might expect the Pioneers would find an ideal base in the Bay Area, where so many people believe in the reality of climate change. Keats explains this isn’t necessarily so. San Francisco, for example, is simultaneously “the best place” and “the worst place” to launch such an endeavor. Keats sees the Bay Area as having a culture of compartmentalization—people genuinely care, but often feel as though simply caring, even if divorced from action, is enough. He cites “a paralysis among those who recognize the problems of climate change” because “when there’s no clear path forward, people end up doing nothing, which is not tenable to me.” Yet the situation is not without hope: “We are unable to act on our beliefs when the situation seems futile, but I also believe that any small action can potentially pull us out of that stupor.”
Emphasizing the concrete, active nature of the Pioneers for the Greater Holocene, Keats believes small gestures, from planting seeds across the urban environment to documenting and protecting what current plant life exists, can have massive ramifications. “Since the Industrial Revolution, we have had an attitude of antagonism towards other species,” Keats explains. “We take for granted that they will be compliant. But in reality, if we disappear, they will take over—so how compliant can they be? The Pioneers are about taking the opposite tack and advocating a sharing of power between species at every level.”
To this end, the Pioneers have distributed starter packets throughout the city, containing seeds for native grasses that will take root wherever people spread them, as well as a special nutrient mix for lichens capable of turning concrete into fertile ground. With enough time and effort, it’s possible the Pioneers could see San Francisco radically transformed into an urban forest. No doubt such a transition would create some measure of chaos, at least in the beginning, but Keats sees this as entirely in keeping with the Bay Area’s reputation for disruption. “Nature isn’t Disney or Bob Ross,” he reminds us. “It’s not altogether peaceful.”
Although the Pioneers’ vision for the planet includes a much more level field between man and nature, Keats argues, “This is in no way meant to be a Luddite move or a call back to the past.” This will likely register as good news to San Francisco’s pervasive tech industry, though Keats is leery of their involvement. “Technological industries have a tendency to see themselves as saviors of what technology has wrought in the past,” he states.
The truth, as the Pioneers see it, is that for the last 11,700 years the Holocene has been good to us—as stewards of the planet, we ought to try our best to see the epoch doesn’t come to an abrupt end many millennia before its time. For while epochs are generally defined as lasting millions of years, it’s all but certain the Anthropocene will not last as long; mankind’s accelerated destruction of the planet will see humanity’s extinction long before then, ushering in an entirely new epoch. “This is a reason for pessimism and soul-searching,” Keats admits, “but also optimism and soul-searching.”
Keats is not fazed by those who view the Pioneers for the Greater Holocene as something of a poetic but futile gesture. “When you start with the literal, you end up in a fist fight,” he says. “But the arts have a history of changing the way people think.” The Pioneers, then, do what Keats has perhaps always done: utilize “play and absurdity” as a means to “encourage re-thinking, re-framing, and re-alignment” on both an individual and collective level, and to “challenge ideas that seem entrenched.”
Admiring Keats’ stark black and white portraits in the Modernism Gallery, it’s difficult to dismiss the efficacy of his methods. The sight of these oft-ignored but persistent plants inspires one to both watch their step and consider the life that is all around us—if only we look for it.
To some extent, every poet creates a persona. Think of Berryman’s Henry, for example. But Jericho Brown has done so more fully and convincingly than most. Born Nelson Dimery III, he answered to the name Jericho in a dream. In that dream the name allowed him go through a door. He later learned that the loose translation of the name is “defense,” and he discarded his birth name and became the unmistakably singular poet Jericho Brown. In the same way, he has transformed his evangelical fundamentalist upbringing into spirituality, physicality, and song.
This transformation is showcased in his latest book, The Tradition (110 pages; Copper Canyon Press), recently selected for the National Book Award Long List. Brown’s voice is nuanced, proud, and profound. His work has an offbeat formality, a love of rhyme and blues. It proclaims its own construction, as in the poem “After Avery R. Young”:
The more you look like me the more we
Agree. Sometimes you is everybody.
The blk mind is a continuous
Mind. There is a we. I am among them…The blk mind
Is a continuous mind. I am not a narrative
Form, but dammit if I don’t tell a story.
The poem ends:
Blk rage. Blk city of the soul
In a very cold town. Blk ice is ice you can’t see.
This little punch at the end occurs in many of Brown’s poems. They praise, they explicate, they beseech and beguile, but they won’t let you be. The book is a varied texture of canny observation, the political, and fierce, incantatory praise. The love poems are especially strong:
All that touching, or
Barely touching, not
Saying much, not adding
Anything. The cushion
Of it, the skin and
Occasional sigh, all
Seemed like something worth
So skillful, and the word choice of “mastering” leads to the next, surprising passage:
Somebody died while
We made love. Some-
Body killed somebody
Brown himself has said, “Every love poem is political. Every political poem must fall in love.” And this poem turns next into something more complex, more unknowable, while the reader follows, led by rhyme, by line break, by image, to a tender, unexpected conclusion—a virtuoso performance in a short love poem that encompasses so much.
Sometimes, reading this book, the bursts of ecstasy and longing remind me of Christopher Smart; sometimes they remind me of no one but the poet himself, loving, longing and twisting in his being. The presence of the poet is inescapable, even for himself, as in the wonderful poem “Dark”:
I am sick of your sadness,
Jericho Brown, your blackness,
Your books. Sick of you
Laying me down
So I forget how sick
I am. I’m sick of your good looks,
Your debates, your concern, your
Determination to keep your butt
Plump, the little money you earn…
Of your hurting. I see that
You’re blue. You may be ugly,
But that ain’t new.
Everyone you know is
Just as cracked. Everyone you love is
As dark, or at least as black.
As every love poem is a political poem, the poems in The Tradition hammer home a message: We are imprisoned in our history, and there is a lot of wreckage—the compound debris of old wrongs, of perception, of the body—to clean up:
… I can’t
Blur your view
Of the pansies you’ve planted
Outside the window, meaning
I can’t kill the pansies, but I want
To do the killing. I want you
To heed that I’m still here
Just beneath your skin and in
The way anger dwells in a man
Who studies the history of his nation.
This vision of an inescapably fraught context (as with “mastering,” the choice of pansies as the flower here is anything but accidental) permeates the book:
Like the viral geography of an occupied territory,
A region I imagine you imagine when you see
A white woman walking with a speck like me.
* * *
…Gratitude is black—
Black as a hero returning from war to a country that banked on his death.
Thank God it can’t get much darker than that.
The strength of his work is enhanced by Brown’s deftness with rhyme, by how well he uses it to underscore those punches. This is nowhere more evident in his dramatic reinvention of the sonnet that he calls the Duplex. These fourteen-line poems are couplets made from cut lines of old poems of nine or eleven syllables. (You can read Brown’s essay on the form https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2019/04/invention.) But briefly, the lines form an intricate rhyming, echoing pattern, each one building on or twisting the line before, with the first and last lines the same or nearly the same. My favorite of these appears on the back of the book, and like all of them it’s titled simply “Duplex.” The first and last couplets give you a sense of the form:
I begin with love, hoping to end there.
I don’t want to leave a messy corpse.
…In the dream where I am an island,
I grow green with hope, I’d like to end there.
And I’d like to end here, too, by saying The Tradition has a lot to say, and says it in a unique and powerful voice.
Jericho Brown will be reading at 12:10 p.m. on Thursday, October 3, as part of the Lunch Poem series at the Morrison Library in Doe Library at UC Berkeley. Admission is free. Brown will be reading later that day at 7 p.m. at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco, sponsored by the Marin Poetry Center.
Jim Gavin’s fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Zoetrope, Esquire, Slice, The Mississippi Review, and ZYZZYVA. Based in Los Angeles, he is also the creator of the critically-acclaimed television series Lodge 49, now in its second season. You can watch Lodge 49 on AMC every Monday night at 10pm. Issue 116 features a Q&A with Gavin, an excerpt from which appears below:
OSCAR VILLALON: As a prose writer, as somebody who conceives of narrative through the written word, how did you go about recalibrating your sense of telling a story for a visual medium?
JIM GAVIN: I have a dumb theory that “style”—as in the thing that defines a writer’s voice and relationship to language—comes about through an entirely negative process. You figure out what you’re bad at, and you avoid it whenever possible. The things I suck at include getting inside a character’s head, describing thoughts and moods through metaphor, constructing anything that might resemble a plot…the list goes on. What’s left for me is dialogue. That’s where I feel comfortable, and until a character speaks I have no idea what I’m doing.
Any sustained piece of writing I’ve done has started with a line of dialogue; I’ll hear a line that somehow defines the character entirely and I’ll write toward that. Only that character would say that line in that moment in that way. Everything starts there and it must hold true for every character on the page.
Another big thing for me: I want to entertain. I have nothing profound or original to say about anything, but I think I can keep some tension on the page, make you invest in a character, make you laugh, and make you at least want to know what happens next. So my “style”—all the things I avoid doing—happens to translate well to TV. As a television writer, my ears are more important than my eyes. I have to hear the voice of the characters and the dialogue has to have a rhythm that’s true to the character. Once that’s in place, the script goes to the director and cinematographer, who use their eyes and brains to translate the story visually and geometrically: frames, camera moves, etc. I will sometimes write those things in, but on set my main job is to make sure the tone, in terms of sound and delivery, is clicking along.
Most important, of course, are the actors who have to capture all of it—sight and sound—in one fluid package. Our amazing cast makes it look easy, but it’s an insanely difficult thing to do, and it has to be done under the pressure of the moment. Watching all of these elements come together is a special joy.
OV: To your point about dialogue, more than one writer has said how important it is that prose sounds “right” to the ear, in the same way, I think, that the words out of a character’s mouth sound “right,” too. I’m thinking here of Philip Roth’s writing, especially the Zuckerman books, and how one critic called Roth one of the great “talkers” of fiction.
Do you find yourself calibrating dialogue differently now that you’re familiar with how the show’s actors have conceived of your characters?
JG: The whole first season was written before we cast, so our actors could absorb much of the world and their characters right from the beginning. The joy of working with great actors is that they always elevate lines and moments. There are gestures, pauses, little spins of emphasis that I could never conceive of when writing it. Writing the second season was much different because I did have our actor’s voices in my head, and I could write toward that a little. Lodge 49 has a distinct tone and from the beginning all of our actors have been tuned into it and they amplify it beautifully.
OV: How would you describe that tone? To me it’s something like what Geoff Dyer wrote in his book Broadsword to Danny Boy to describe Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare: electric lethargy.
JG: That’s not a bad description. I think much of the tone comes out of the fact that our characters are not aspirational. Dud’s been described as a “slacker” when in fact he’s someone who had a job and vocation that he liked for most of his adult life and it’s been taken away from him. Our characters don’t ask much from life and find pleasure in small mercies like a good donut.
You can read the interview with Jim Gavin in its entirety in Issue 116, now on sale.
When Denny, the twenty-something narrator of Amanda Goldblatt’s first novel, Hard Mouth (242 pages; Counterpoint Press), flees Washington, D.C., for a mountain cabin to avoid witnessing her father’s final cancer-ridden days, the reader hesitates to judge; after all, who’s to say we wouldn’t do the same in Denny’s place? We all grieve in our distinct ways, and in that regard Denny’s choice seems as sound as her father’s to reject treatment for his third round of cancer. After ten years of watching her father slowly decline, she realizes, “I needed an out…I did not yet understand that courage was unrequired in making such a decision. Only a dynamic cycle of folly, and an inability to break same.”
Although Denny tells no one about the cabin, she does not leave the city alone: sporadically making himself known is her invisible friend, Gene, a sort of vaudeville comedian with a long string of ex-wives and a habit of making his opinions known. Denny realizes her imaginary companion is just that, but, unable to connect with her co-workers and on edge from the stress at parents’ house, she finds Gene’s boisterous presence a welcome counter to her isolated existence. “I know: Gene was there and not,” she shares. “Like faith, or air. I only believe in one of these things, but—he was a modern convenience, a thing that you could use unthinking, on most days.”
Despite her impulse to flee from the dreariness of urban life—the rude passengers on the subway, the stifling crowds and empty chatter during happy hour—Denny would scarcely classify herself an outdoorswoman. “I am not a naturalist. I only wanted to leave,” she states. “…this wilderness walking was just an unremarkable commute. There was a greenish vestibule, a gray and gray and brown vestibule. I moved through this landscape like a mall-walker in poor condition.”
Still, a desire to leave the world behind does not alone mean one is equipped to survive in the wild, and much of the tension and excitement in Hard Mouth comes from watching Denny—in many ways, an average millennial—fend for herself against the unexpected developments that arise: sudden rainstorms, hostile animals, and the arrival of a suspicious guest named Haw. Even as Denny forms an attachment to an injured cat she calls Thingy, and less so to the potentially dangerous Haw, there remains at the back of her mind the notion that, in many ways, her sojourn to the middle of nowhere has been a death wish. “I wanted to be dined upon by some animals,” she admits. “What better penance could I offer to the world?”
Hard Mouth recasts the traditional adventure novel as an intense psychological portrait of contemporary malaise. Unlike so much writing about nature, the book remains decidedly unromantic. For whether she’s stranded in the depths of a mountain cave or yelling at a man-spreader back on the subway, Denny’s first task is to contend with herself. The narrator’s troubled mind is laid bare on every page through Goldblatt’s unflinching gaze—there’s little glamorous about Denny by the time her journey leaves her half-naked and caked in mud, but she is vividly real. And the pain of witnessing a loved one’s slow degradation is rendered excruciating enough for us to believe Denny would prefer the physical hardships of repairing a torn roof or scaling a watchtower in a rainstorm over having to say good-bye to her father. Grief can do that.
But Denny finds “the secret was that no matter what I did, I was alive,” and life is waiting for her on the other side of her mountain excursion. Along the way, she might be shaped for the better through tending to the wounded Thingy, letting go of the phantom Gene, and confronting Haw. For Denny, her journey is brutal but rewarding. For readers, though, Hard Mouth is all reward.
Fanny Howe prefers to be alone—perhaps that’s what makes her such a perceptive poet. In her latest collection, Love and I (80 pages; Graywolf Press), the fruits of Howe’s solitude are on full display. Howe is introspective, curious, and content when she is by herself. Many of the poems in Love and I celebrate the comforts of being alone:
I’ll sit at the window
Where it’s safe to say no.
Won’t go out, won’t work
For a living, will study the clouds
That’s not to say Howe doesn’t grapple with the aches of loneliness as well: “Someone help find me an animal,” she implores, “Who will rescue me from / Being solitary.” When there’s no one with whom she can share her life, she asks, “Who will believe what I do?” The answer: no one—the only “proof that you lived is that you kept notebooks.” These sorts of autobiographical asides—brief flashes when Howe transforms herself from spectator to subject, and reveals herself to us—make for some of the collection’s most compelling moments.
In her poems, Howe paints vivid scenes and hones in on unexpected details, the kind that only catch the eye of the lonely. A keen observer and frequent traveler (she does most of her writing in transit), Howe’s gaze is wandering but sharp. She notices the child who “licked up the mist on the windowpane,” and the plane passenger who “clutched his head like an infant.” She conjures images of small, everyday beauty: “bridal curls,” “poppy seed cake,” “a grove of elms.” And for Howe, “the tinier the beauty the better.”
With a title like Love and I, one might expect the collection to be an excavation of romantic histories or an interrogation of the act of loving itself. But Howe throws her poetic net far beyond love, prodding at questions of memory and movement, of the body and nature and grief. We spend time both inside the poet’s head and within her well-crafted scenes, leisurely bouncing between introspection and dialogue, opinion and observation.
Fascinatingly, the collection’s most persistent motif is not love but children. They appear in poem after poem, playing, growing, and taking in the world. Children are everywhere: there’s one sleeping, another standing on her head. Howe finds their innocence remarkable, and she writes about them protectively, determined to safeguard their senses of wonder. “Children need a rest,” Howe writes, “their minds are swimming in junk / and fists.” And again: “Children need sugar. / Especially in danger.”
It’s hardly surprising that children are one of the governing structural elements of Love and I. In an interview with Jacket Magazine, Howe shared, “It’s very essential to me, the relationship I feel towards the future of young people, children in particular.” Unpacking this motif, on the other hand, is a more challenging endeavor. The recurrence of children inevitably incites nostalgic yearning, a desire for the ease and infallibility of early youth. But Howe’s connection to children runs deeper than that: in her poetry, Howe casts a maternal gaze, shaped by her own experience as a mother. That said, I can’t help but wonder if Howe, who retains a child-like sense of wonder and creativity, also sees children as peers, better suited to understanding her than adults. After all, she once told the Paris Review that if she “had to do it all over again,” she’d “like to be a wandering monk with some children traveling in my company.”
When Howe does turn her focus to the notion of love and its many permutations, the results are enthralling. She speaks bluntly about the pains of attachment, abandoning lush imagery to get right to the heart of things. “Is love one-way?” she asks. “Almost always.” As Howe has grown older, she finds “Love stood at a distance.” In the standout poem of the collection, “Destinations,” Howe mourns a lost relationship, writing simply, “On a side street (on my sheets) / one I love passed / as a shadow.”
One of Love and I’s most ambitious poems is “Turbulence,” a vast multi-pager that takes place on a plane ride and explores loneliness, faith, and death. A passenger, Howe notes the rain on the windows, the trembling wings, and the clouds below; wonders about the other travelers around her; and allows her mind to wander, as it inevitably does. Ultimately, she extends a comforting invitation to surrender, directed at both her fellow passengers and us, her readers—to unburden ourselves as best we can as we trudge through life:
Give up your wires, plugs, laptop, pills, water, cellphone,
Passport, ticket and shoes.
Give up your water, your wine, your songs and stories.
Put your arms up, your feet down flat and face ahead.
You have not reached the end yet.
Love and I is a meander through a singular mind, a mind that observes more sharply than many of us could ever hope to—or might want to. Howe, who at 78 years old has penned more than thirty works of poetry and prose, has little to prove to us now. Her approach may not always be accessible, but Howe’s inquisitiveness, generosity, and care are easy to appreciate and impossible to resist.
Fidel died three years ago. Obama is no longer President. Their absence from the American political landscape and Trump’s divisive posturing has given rise to the old Cold War rhetoric between Washington and Havana, bringing into question where U.S.-Cuba relations might be headed. These tensions challenge us to inquire where the literary response may be for those writers who live in the hyphen between “Cuban” and “American.”
A telling answer can be found in Cristina Garcia’s arresting fiction. Over the last twenty years her work has steadily moved away from Cuba-centric fiction to explorations going beyond the political and sentimental boundaries sometimes limiting the work of other Cuban-American writers. García has done this without entirely abandoning the roots stubbornly linking her to the island of her past.
García’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban, a finalist for the 1992 National Book award, was conceived by her experience and need to understand her own Cuban past, ushered her into the American literary consciousness. Since then, García’s inventive prose and boundless imagination has produced a number of subsequent novels including Monkey Hunting, Handbook of Luck, The Lady Matador Hotel (soon to be a play), and her most recent, 2017’s Here in Berlin (Counterpoint), which was long-listed for both the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
These novels confront the contemporary reality of the Cuban-American diaspora by writing stories that go beyond wistful memories of what Cuba was, and instead bend toward the wider world. Still, Spanish remains in the writing rhythmically, if not linguistically, proving what noted scholar Gustavo Perez-Firmat argued in his essay Growing Old Bilingual, “Even if we forget all the words of our first language, our tongue remains tuned to its music.”
I met García, whose amiable disposition she proudly attributes to being Cuban, at a café in San Francisco’s Mission District to discuss her notable career as a journalist and novelist, and to hear her thoughts on the evolution of Cuban-American literature.
ZYZZYVA: Do you define yourself as a Cuban-American writer?
Cristina García: I think of myself as a Cuban-American writer, but not just writing about Cuban-American issues. I don’t eschew it, either. It’s part of me. It’s a big part of me.
Z: So what does being Cuban mean to you?
CG: I think to me it really comes down to being raised by an intensely Cuban mother, and it comes down to being in the wake of the dislocation the revolution perpetrated on my family and extended family, both sides of the family. It means always being attuned to the politics of every situation, to agendas and subtexts. It means navigating in two languages, two cultures, and the sub-textual archeology that comes with it. And it means being the object of curiosity and at the same time also being a whiteboard for people’s projections about the island.
Z: I wonder whether that label hinders or expands our visibility and the way we’re viewed as writers. Is there a need to define us as such?
CG: No, but everyone else seems to require it. With Here In Berlin, my agent circulated it to my usual publishers. They were like, “We don’t know what to do with this. It’s not a short story collection. It’s not really a novel. Where are the Cubans?” I had written other things that weren’t strictly Cuban, there was a Chinese nineteenth century novel for instance (Monkey Hunting), but it still revolved, essentially, around Cuba. But with this one, nobody knew what to do with it. Finally, Counterpoint loved it. The editor totally got it and understood it and even understood why I would be interested. Almost like the root system of that dislocation, the division of Berlin, all of that. Why that was interesting, to chase the analogous, not that it has to be analogous (to the Cuban experience), but it was to me.
Z: So does that mean you’re consciously moving your work outward to broader subjects and away from more traditional Cuba-centric writing?
CG: My interests have just been broadening, and there are also many other really good writers investigating that. I’m just kind of following my own thing, my own obsession. It’s hard to imagine anything I write that would be devoid of Cubans, but yeah, it could happen.
Z: Do you see the same thing happening with Cuban-American writing overall? Will it expand beyond the ostensibly Cuban?
CG: Yes, I think it will. It just keeps expanding…but I often find that it’s the artists who are doing the expanding and the institutions that publish us, kind of run to catch up. There’s a time lag. What’s being written now by emerging writers will take time to catch up. There’s a lot of interesting stuff coming down the pike that is going to defy categorizations. The language, the lexicon for describing Latinx literature, they’re going to have to think of other kinds of rubrics. It’s going to be an interesting interrogation, not just by the publishers, but also by academia.
Z: Is there a difference between Cuban-American writing and other “ethnic” writing?
CG: I think “ethnic” is a sort of catchall term for the hyphenated Americans. It seemed for a while that there was this race by publishers to get the new hyphenation. It became a quest for the exotic within which they were corralling a lot of work that was really of the same template. Nothing against our ethos, but there are so many other kinds of stories. I think they’re just growing pains. Publishers and the artists are not always in sync. We’re sometimes at cross-purposes. They’re fundamentally mercantile organizations. They want to profit. They want a return. They want big audiences.
Z: What do you think is the writer’s place in this historically political moment? Writing fiction necessitates that we position it in the truth of the times, right? I mean, given today’s rhetoric of hate and divisiveness, I find it almost imperative that we do so. Contemporary fiction ought to be part of the fabric of the times, doesn’t it? It should inform.
CG: Journalists are basically writing the first drafts of history. They are in the most difficult and unenviable position in a way, because they don’t have a lot of the information. They are constantly negotiating, especially now with all the Internet misinformation and disinformation. How do you make sense of that? I think as writers, whether we write about our times directly in our fiction or not, we have a responsibility to be alert, watching, commenting, and saying in one way or another, A mi con este cuento? [You’re going to try to fool me with that story?] Then saying No, este es el cuento. [No, this is the real story.] So contesting, skewering, pushing back, and resisting official history.
Z: Should writing aim to be political? Do you consider your writing political?
CG: Absolutely. It’s part of the oxygen. It’s in the water table. It’s in the air. It’s everywhere. Not just when I’m writing about Cuba. I don’t think I could write without having the bigger political, historical context of a place. I’m not interested in stories that are hermetically sealed off in a classroom or a kitchen. For me, what makes it interesting, to read as well as to write, is that the story has roots and tentacles in the larger world. The decisions are a sense of self and belonging or un-belonging of the characters.
Z: An awareness of the moment.
CG: I don’t know who better captures our age than artists.
Z: I’ve been in this country over forty-five years, and my view of both Cuba and the U.S. has changed over time, influenced by my perspective of the politics within and between the two. Do you foresee Cuban-American writing changing as a result of the evolving politics here and on the island?
CG: The early generations are radically different from the later ones. All those preoccupations and how they inform literary production is a fascinating question. It would be interesting to look at it just in terms of all the writing happening in English. Would it all have to be in English? Would the new generations write in Spanish? You’d have to figure out what the parameters were. Are there commonalities generationally? It’s a point of view question. How far away are you from the island? What’s your perspective? At what level of heat in relation to the revolution are you? It’s always there, hovering. The revolution is the backdrop, whether it’s explicitly alluded to or not; it’s always there.
Z: There’s a passage in Dreaming in Cuban that says “Everyday Cuba fades a little more inside me and it’s only my imagination where our history should be.” I returned to the island twenty-eight years after I left. I recall struggling with the contradiction between my personal history, the country’s history, and the country of my imagination. How does history inform your writing?
CG: Maybe it’s my journalism background and my love of history, but I don’t hold back from supernatural things, yet everything is ultimately grounded in historical moments and facts. Even though someone might be talking to a ghost, the description of that Brooklyn street needs to be accurate. I take liberties with the descriptions. In Here in Berlin, there isn’t any story in there that wasn’t jolted into being from something I’d read or heard. Then I go crazy with the embellishments, the embroidery, and the imagining—inserting fictional characters into a setting and sometimes pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. I like getting close to the really impossible. But history is a trampoline for the rest.