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In the Fall Issue

In this issue:

Work Stories

“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.

Other Prose
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.

You can purchase a copy of No. 116 here, or order a subscription to ZYZZYVA now and we’ll start you off by shipping you the Spring issue.

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‘The Promise’ by Silvina Ocampo: Remembering How to Die

In The Promise (120 pages; City Lights Publishers; translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell) the nameless narrator, after falling over the handrail of a transport ship, recollects her life in a disparate series of largely character-based vignettes as she waits to drown or be rescued at sea. As she comes to in the ocean, she promises Saint Rita that in exchange for her life she will commit to publishing a book documenting a “dictionary of memories that are at times shameful, even humiliating.” And so the lone novel by the prolific Argentine author Silvina Ocampo (1903-1993) becomes a brief study of memory, examining how those facing imminent death attempt to plug the holes of their past with the many meaningful scenes—minutiae reimagined, acquaintances revisited, and action relived—that constitute a life lived.

Perhaps what’s most interesting and impressive about Ocampo’s investigation of the mind is just how collective the retelling becomes. Our protagonist does not so much retell the scenes of her life as recount scenes of the lives of others in relation to her, acting more as a voyeur than a direct participant. Even when a potent sensual memory is conjured it is not the narrator’s memory that’s evoked but the imagined memory of another character,:

He caught a whiff of her hair that emanated a dirty brush smell in the heat, like the heads of those people in his childhood kneeling in confessionals, smelling of cheap perfume and powders, of barbershop pomade.

This tactic raises intriguing questions about what is real and what is imagined in one’s mind. Ocampo, whose sister Victoria founded the legendary literary journal Sur and whose husband was Adolfo Bioy Casares, suggests it is not merely the fact of what happened, but rather the reality of a feeling that may or may not have occurred that stamps itself indelibly upon us.

Entire passages, pages even, repeat themselves throughout the book. As Ernesto Montequín states in the introduction, this repetition is by design, and serves to offer additional perspectives or small variants to the narrative, reshaping the narrator’s identity. In short, this tactic demystifies the idea that memory is stable, suggesting its very nature is nebulous.

The protagonist also seems acutely aware of the revisions taking place. A distant unpleasant memory in Palermo is now fondly remembered:

Those times when I felt unhappy now seem so joyful, when my nephews would get their hands so filthy playing with dirt that when we’d return to my sister’s house, instead of taking a bath or going to the movies, I’d have to clean their nails with Carpincho saddle soap…

But while most of the “action” of the novel lies in a fictionalized past, the most intense moments arise when the narrator takes the reader back into the present, into her drowning. Often whole sections and trains of thought are sharply cut off, jolting us out of a reverie such as in this passage that follows a particularly emotional encounter between two characters: 

Poor Irene. She didn’t like the water. Sometimes we would go swimming in the river, but she almost always stayed on the bank. What would she think of the ocean, this ocean that surrounds me! She would have died a thousand times over already. There’s too much water to cry. Wouldn’t my eyes drown?

As The Promise unfolds, we learn this is not a story about an individual’s persistence, but rather the persistence—sometimes to the point of being oppressive—of the memory of an individual. Her “mental journey or itinerary” through her past begins as a way of staying awake to stave off death, but soon morphs into something altogether different. Later, when she appears to finally be ready to accept her fate, her mind rejects the idea entirely. “Dying is the only sure thing. Now I can finally die. But how to do it? It’s as impossible as ever.”

These are the moments that elevate The Promise into a higher echelon of letters; simultaneously, death proves evasive and nostalgia serves as a survival tactic. All the while readers get to witness the wondrous tightrope act Ocampo performs, traipsing back and forth between past and present. It’s soon evident that failures and inconsistencies along the way are not cause for concern, but reason to celebrate the potential of our own memories.

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Q&A with Heather Christle: ‘The Crying Book’ and a Nourishment from Sharing

Over the course of The Crying Book (208 pages; Catapult Press), Heather Christle examines the phenomenon of crying from every possible angle: social, cultural, biological, and historical. She asks the tough questions, ones that science still can’t answer: Why do we cry? And what does it mean to cry? Christle’s inquiry is rigorously researched, but it is also deeply personal. While she was writing The Crying Book, she was doing a lot of crying herself, grappling with depression, mourning the passing of a dear friend, and preparing to become a mother.

The scope of The Crying Book is surprisingly vast—we learn as much about crying as we do about grief, art, motherhood, and Christle’s life. As she conducts and shares her painstaking research, she is also intimately attuned to her pain; she weaves together her examination of crying with her personal experiences, studying tears while shedding them herself. The result is a book that is as informative as it is profoundly moving. ZYZZYVA spoke to Christle, whose poetry was published in Issue No. 114, about The Crying Book via email.

ZYZZYVA: Throughout The Crying Book, you play with the relationship between researcher and subject, and you’re constantly straddling the line between the two. On the one hand you’re conducting a meticulous, thoughtful study of crying; on the other, you are the often the one who is doing the crying. Can share a bit about your experience as both a researcher and subject while writing the book, and if there was any tension between those two roles? 

HEATHER CHRISTLE: I think I felt that tension not as discomfort (which the metaphor of tension often expresses), but more literally as a physical sensation of being stretched in different directions. There would be moments when I was crying, or when I was with someone who was crying, and I would both be in that space and simultaneously recall some fact about crying that would make my awareness shift. It made me feel I was in several places at once, with a string of consciousness held taut between them. On the whole, I think it helped me maintain my humility, knowing that my reading would not release me from being a crier, from being described.

Z: In many ways, The Crying Book is as much about mental illness as it is about crying, and the book contains some of the most lucid (and accurate) descriptions of depression that I’ve read. You personify despair so that it becomes this parasitic but still authoritative presence, one with a clear agenda. “Despair,” you write, “wants me not to know the difference between itself and me.” Was it challenging to describe despair so precisely, or was it liberating to put it into words? 

HC: I didn’t experience it as a challenge, but nor was it exactly liberating. I feel the same satisfaction about shaping an accurate description of despair that I do about shaping an accurate description of other events, I think. It would be nice to be liberated from despair, but for me it does not work that way. This is true of writing about anything personal. I mean, describing—for instance—the way an elderly man on an overnight flight last week kept waking me because he was overcome by the need to whistle the kind of tune that says “I am nonchalantly waiting for time to pass and generally happy to do so, though this very whistle suggests I require your recognition of this circumstance and therefore my good-natured patience has certain limits around it” feels pleasant, but it can’t make me any less tired. The describing makes something else happen. It generates a new sensation, but does not, for me, replace the one being described.

Z: You touch on the experience of crying in public, and the shame that can be attached to that. You talk about how some people might “hide behind a lie about allergies or a cold,” and about how people on airplanes devise special methods to conceal their crying (men hiding under blankets, women pretending to have something in their eye). In your research, what did you learn about the relationship between crying and shame, especially in regards to crying being seen as a (gendered) sign of weakness? 

HC: First off, I feel like it’s important to note that virtually all the research I encountered around gender and crying treated sex and gender as binary and synonymous. I would love to read a study that took a more accurate view. (This seems totally doable! If there can be a “feminist, anti-colonial lab specializing in monitoring plastic pollution,” why not one specializing in tears?) So, with a recognition of the limits of the currently available information, I’d say that shame and crying can be very intertwined, that crying need not feel shameful, but if an audience—real or imagined—responds to a person’s tears with disgust or annoyance, shame can result. The quality of the response of that audience is often rooted in the identity of the crier, and whether they see the crier’s tears as appropriate, given all the expectations they might have for a person inhabiting their particular identities. Lastly, I’ll just say that there can be enormous gaps between the stories people tell about their beliefs about crying and gender (as a sign of strength, weakness, power, vulnerability, etc.) and how they actually respond when in physical proximity to tears (whether their own or others’).

Z: I’m fascinated by this image you posted on Twitter of a tool you used to edit The Crying Book, which envisions the book’s various strands as colored squares on a grid. I think this grid does a great job of demonstrating visually how complex but thematically unified the work is. Can you talk a little bit about this visualization, how it came to be, and perhaps clue us in to what a few of the strands are? 

HC: It was so helpful to make this chart. I was struggling to maintain (or even create) a sense of the book as a whole, to apprehend its entirety. Any moment I examined felt like it had its own centrality, like it insisted on all the rest of the book being seen in relation to it in particular. I had to take action to make the book into something other than words, and to contain it within a single page. I knew if I did that, I could hold each moment in place and understand the entirety of their relations at once. And adjust them! Yellow represented science; green represented language and literature. I assigned shades of blue to different phases of my own life. Some passages contained only one color; others had several, and so the line of the book thickens and thins across the page. It would be hard for me to overstate how soothing this process was. I kept my colored pencils very sharp.

Z: In your Author’s Note, you talk about how conversations with friends helped shape the book, saying it would have been “impossible to write this book without their company.” What are the roles of collaboration and conversation in your creative process, both as a poet and an author?

HC: So much of The Crying Book is about the relationships between things, between ideas, places, people. Formally, that’s at the core of the book. I am endlessly curious about what happens when entities are in conversation, what unexpected angles they illuminate in each other. Early in my poet life, I witnessed Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer composing collaborative poems one word at a time, in front of an audience. I was enthralled; I was inside the poem, watching it build. For a long time after, I made poems that way on my own, one word at a time, feeling where the language could go. I love to be inside friendship as well, to watch it grow and change, to watch how we shape and hold each other. Conversation, when it is real, when it moves beyond recitation, is one of the great joys of my life. At the most basic level I learn so much of what I should read from my friends, and The Crying Book is hugely influenced by that, but the gift of their company is so much more. Company! The ones with whom one eats bread! I love this etymology. I love the sense that nourishment comes not just from food, but from its sharing.

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‘Black Card’ by Chris L. Terry: A Satirical Look at Racial Identity in America

Chris L. Terry’s new satirical and funny novel, Black Card (272 pages; Counterpoint), challenges ideas about race and identity as it follows its unnamed mixed-race narrator as he navigates the complex world of the punk rock scene in the American South, trying to understand where and how he can fit in—or if he can ever fit in. Structured episodically, Terry’s novel manages to address specific and thematically relevant incidents of the narrator’s life minus an overwhelming page count.

“I was finally black again,” the novel begins, in 1997. “I sat on my bed, waiting for proof. Gray smoke oozed under my bedroom door and through the crack where the windowpane met frame.” The novel itself—like its opening line—walks a tightrope of humor and introspection. In Black Card, race is something one can lose or keep, and to obtain it you need an ally not unlike one found in a video game: somebody who tests your knowledge and then hands you a necessary item for the next task. The ally here is Lucius, who, after reviewing the events of the last few months, finds that the protagonist is finally entitled to his Black Card.

“I hereby bestow you with this Black Card. Carry it with you, as proof that you’re one of us, because …” He squinted and started to read from the back of the card, “This card entitles the brotha or sista who bears it to all black privileges, including but not limited to: Use of the n-word, permission to wear flip-flops and socks, extra large bottles of lotion, use of this card as a stand-in for the Big Joker in a spades game, and most important, a healthy and vocal skepticism of white folks aka crackers aka honkies. To be renewed in five years, upon evaluation.”

Five years later, the twenty-something protagonist finds himself crashing with his band at the home of a family that throws around the n-word like confetti at a wedding. This scene serves as the apex of a section of the novel where the narrator has already had his white bandmates ask him asinine questions about black culture, been mistaken for light-skinned famous and non-famous black men, and asked to perform all of the rap songs at karaoke night for the all-white audience. Because the narrator does not say or do anything about any of these indignities, he loses his Black Card.

“This ain’t your first time playing dumb tonight,” said Lucius…“It’s not yours no more. You let those crackers act a fool and didn’t say a damn thing. Your pale, mixed ass just sat there like some sorta white boy. So, that’s what you are. You ain’t black no more.’”

With his Black Card revoked, the narrator sets out to reclaim it. This literal quest allows Terry’s novel to explore the concept of identity, those we choose (like writer or Cross-Fit enthusiast) and those thrust upon us (like those associated with the color of one’s skin).

Eventually, the narrator is liberated from his vexing quest when he realizes there is nothing he needs to do to be black. He is black, and therefore everything he does is black and part of black culture, whether he plays hip-hop or punk rock, or works in a coffee shop or goes to college. “It was black people listening to black music. I was a black person playing black music. My experiences were black, even though they weren’t the ones I’d seen on TV and pieced together from Lucius.”

Black Card’s critical look at racial identity in America sees the cracks in everything and calls out everyone, the narrator included. It’s a brilliant comedy that speaks to what America is right now.

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How to help those affected by the California fires

Northern California is once again faced with wildfires. We encourage you
to explore this link from the Northern California Grantmakers on ways
you can help the many people displaced by the fires. NCG provides a
number of options, including vetted wildfire relief and
recovery funds such as the Center for Disaster Philanthropy and the
Solano Disaster Relief Fund.

Please feel free to share links to similar relief efforts in the
Comments below.

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ZYZZYVA Recommends October 2019: What to Read, Watch, & Listen to

As October comes to a close, the Bay Area gears up for perhaps its favorite holiday: here’s hoping your Halloween involves more treat than trick! In the office, we’re also offering a seasonal Staff Recommends—here’s a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

Scout Turkel, Intern: My music taste is defined by habit rather than preference. What makes a song good isn’t necessarily genre or content, but its capacity to fit into my rigorous and specific listening routine: for about a month at a time, I play one song, and one song only, on repeat, over and over again. Few songs hold up––most become unlistenable or annoying after a few goes. And of those select tracks that do withstand more than a handful of consecutive plays, hardly any are able to sustain me for the duration I demand. The song has to be versatile––joy-sparking but also a bit sad, appropriate for a long, crowded BART ride home or an early morning cross-campus trudge to class. It has to be sexy and danceable, galvanizing enough for chores and cleaning, calming enough to study with, and, more basically, just generally likable. I’ll be playing it all the time, so wide-spread appeal is important; I have two roommates and over one-hundred housemates, the hope is that they enjoy (or at least can tolerate) it along with me.

I’ve had many of these songs come and go over the years, but one stands up against the nonstop-listening test like no other. “Coconut Kiss” by Niki & The Dove is the soundtrack to all my seasons, and all my tasks. My breakups and my triumphs. My bad days and my dance parties, alone or, more usually, in the kitchen of my giant communal home, friends and peripheral acquaintances alike all writhing on the half-mopped floor to the synthpop anthem of our dreams. Maybe the dream is just mine, but Swedish duo Malin Dahlström and Gustaf Karlöf make me feel otherwise. Dahlström’s voice is powerful but a little eerie, high-pitched and slightly crooning with a disco-y pace and flirtation. I won’t pretend to know anything about this band––I don’t. I haven’t even really engaged with the rest of their 2016 album beyond its genius title, Everybody’s Heart is Broken Now. Which is true. “Coconut Kiss” isn’t quite a climate disaster ballad, but it’s hard to turn away from the possibility it offers for collective mourning; the planet is hurtling towards an uninhabitable state, and we all, in a truly worldly sense, are being forced to feel the crushing heartbreak of our doom together, perhaps for the very first time. And yet, in the true fashion of our times, it’s also campy. And sweet. And sensual. Karlöf’s lyricism is objectively sad, but the pop, electro-rhythm of the track begs you to dance. “I am a loner / And I paid my dues / And I don’t depend on nothing / Or no one / I am a loner / All confused / Waiting for that rainy day / While I spend my time / Walking in the sunshine”––believe it’s about climate change yet? If you don’t, well, that’s okay. It took me a few hundred listens to land on that take.

More fundamentally, “Coconut Kiss” is about heartache and the defensiveness that comes with that violation, be it carried out by the corporations warming our planet to its premature end or a first love who stopped feeling the same way. The answer it offers to this loneliness isn’t redemption, but something more removed, even cynical: “Swinging in my palm tree / Cause I love coconuts / I’m drinking Coconut Kiss / And you don’t get to know me / You don ‘t get to know me…” I love that impulse; it’s not that the mystical and heartbreaking “you” doesn’t know me, or shouldn’t know me, but rather that they aren’t allowed to. The isolation isn’t necessarily empowering, but it is a choice. As everything goes up in flames, we retain a little say in how the end plays out, sipping our syrupy, boozy punch in what may be the last palm tree on earth.

Even at the end of all things, planetary or not, Niki & The Dove puts a sleepy, warm haze over all of our sadness and confusion. “I like to / watch the world / The world is looking good today / It’s almost like I ‘m sleeping / I pull my head back to the sun” whispers Dahlström in her intimate drawl. There’s still some pleasure in watching, which might be a terrible thing to say. But it feels true when she sings it, and truer still when I hear it for the hundredth time, on the kitchen floor clutching my mop, now a mic, or too close to another body on the five o’clock commuter train, somewhere under the bay.

Sophia Stewart, Intern: Succession is a difficult series to distill into so few words. The show is so many things at once. It’s an amalgam of many genres: corporate thriller, family drama, workplace comedy. It pairs the course repartee of Veep with the aesthetic of Billions (that is, badly behaved rich people in New York). And as for premise, Succession borrows a bit from Arrested Development: a flawed family with a company to their name, law-evading patriarch, adult children vying for power.

I know what you’re thinking: who wants to watch rich, white, entitled people scheme for hours on end, especially at a time like this? Believe me, the thought crossed my mind, too. But Succession goes beyond the constraints of its premise to deliver something that is devilishly clever, emotionally resonant, and thoroughly addictive. Each episode is hearty, filling—stuffed with gripping drama and caustic wit. Dysfunction is the series’ organizing principle, and boy, does Succession do dysfunction well.

So here’s the story: the Roy family, who reign over a media empire, are a family in name alone. In reality, they’re a business operation. Unburdened by familial love or loyalty, the Roys are ruthless and conniving, conspiring against each other as they paw at power. The drama that plays out among the family members is downright Shakespearean—betrayals, back-door deals, attempted patricide. There is Kendall, the scorned heir; Roman, the twisted manchild; Siobhan, the focused striver; and Connor, the idiosyncratic recluse. And of course, pulling the strings is Logan Roy, CEO and father, in that order.

What makes Succession work is the thrill of seeing these personalities collide. These are terrible, terrible people, and watching them mistreat each other is truly delicious. (At one point, an observer of the family tells Kendall, “Watching you people melt down is the most deeply satisfying activity on planet Earth,” and I have to agree.) We’re like anthropologists, studying these hapless, hopeless miscreants. The Roys are monsters, products of late capitalism, and what a joy it is to watch them run loose in Manhattan. But just because the Roys are despicable doesn’t mean they’re soulless. They still succumb to the pains and pressures that come with their high-stakes lives. And we are there to witness it all, as bystanders, voyeurs, or something in between.

Succession alternates between satisfying schadenfreude and heartrending tragedy, often within the same episode. Yes, we feast on the Roys’ suffering, maybe even delight in it. But we also suffer alongside them: no matter how removed from reality they may be, their humiliations, addictions, and rejections, in some sense or another, mirror our own. And that, dear reader, is the success of Succession: the Roys can disgust us all they want—we’ll love them just the same.

Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Ever since Robert Eggers’ name floated around a possible remake of the 1922 silent film classic Nosferatu, I’d imagined what The Witch director might do with a visual aesthetic inspired by German Expressionism. With Egger’s latest film The Lighthouse now in limited release in the Bay Area, I no longer have to wonder: the spirit of Weimar Era filmmaking is present in every shot of Robert Pattinson’s wide, startled eyes. While the Nosferatu remake appears to be on the back-burner for Eggers (maybe someday?), his latest is a black-and-white, shot-on-35mm chamber piece about a grizzled lighthouse keeper, played by Willem Dafoe, and his new assistant (Pattison) in New England circa the late 1800’s.

Beset by ill weather, their post begins to stretch beyond its scheduled four week tenure and the two men—dynamically portrayed by Dafoe at his spittle-on-beard best and an equally game Pattinson—find their relationship (and their sanity) tested by isolation, the elements, and the almost sensual lure of the lighthouse’s beacon itself.

I feel somewhat guilty trying to articulate my thoughts on this film after only one viewing—very early into The Lighthouse I knew I absolutely needed to see it again, if only to inhabit once more the wave-battered world Eggers has conjured here, one where seabirds carry the souls of long dead sailors and mermaids appear like sirens on the rocky shore. Much as in The Witch, Eggers’ influences here feel as literary as they do cinematic: one pictures an antique bookshelf where Herman Melville sits comfortably alongside H.P. Lovecraft. The dialogue registers as period accurate and studiously researched; much of the viewing experience involves listening intently to the performers, a reminder that part of the pleasure of cinema can be simply experiencing sonorous dialogue in the hands of actors who can truly rise to the level of the material. This is never more apparent than during the many scenes in which Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson have cause to curse each other out: their exasperated tirades are bawdy, vulgar, and represent some of the best “setpieces” I’ve seen in theaters all year.

To say much more about The Lighthouse might give away some of the film’s many surprises and delights—I’m also underselling just how damn funny this material is—but rest assured the movie is worthy of the serious viewer’s time before it departs from theaters like a steamboat headed back to the mainland. Reports indicate Eggers’ next film will follow a 10th century Nordic prince on a quest for revenge; after impressing with both Puritan folk horror in The Witch and the nautical hypno-drone of The Lighthouse, Eggers seems poised to do much the same in the land of the Vikings. I’ll be purchasing a ticket.

Laura Cogan, Editor: Selecting which book to read next from the mile high stack and even longer list is an inscrutable process for me, one that is more emotional and intuitive than reasoned. I want to read them all, so why this book, today, but not last month or last year? I can’t say. I think there may be material to analyze here, perhaps not totally dissimilar to the way dreams reveal simmering, subterranean concerns. I find myself reluctant to interpret, but it is interesting to note areas of synchronicity or divergence. The two books I read this month, for example, are different in most ways except this: they both revolve around family life, the most profound fears of parenthood, and the outer edges of what we can fully understand about what transpires at home–especially our own.

First I read Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, an expansive and engaging fairytale blending contemporary and classical ideas of trolls and witches. LaValle’s smooth prose and compact chapters gave me the thoroughly enjoyable sense of being told a story of adventure and enchantment by a practiced and authoritative craftsman. Yes, there were moments when the plot felt strained or central ideas over-explained, but it never felt worth breaking the spell of story to stop and dwell on them.

Next I picked up The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani, a book I’d been both drawn to and dreading. Over two tense days of reading I inhabited every taut sentence, every deft character portrait, every nuanced and loaded interaction between Louise (the nanny) and her employers and their children. Slimani is careful not to vilify the parents (painting a sensitive portrait of the working mother), while seeking to create context (personal and societal, structural) for Louise’s break down. The book raises thorny, un-resolvable issues of class, reminding us that such issues persist even when, with the best of intentions, we turn a blind eye. Ultimately, there can be no explanation or understanding for the devastating act of violence Louise commits: it is unthinkable. But Slimani turns the impulse to ask “why” and “how” into an exercise in humanity.

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Q&A with Seth Borgen: ‘If I Die in Ohio’ and Some Extraordinarily Unremarkable True Thing

The stories in Seth Borgen’s collection If I Die in Ohio (160 pages; New American Press), winner of the New American Fiction Prize, are like bars where I have learned more about people and about writing than anywhere else, except perhaps from books. And like those bars, they are places where people who would never have crossed paths come together—a retired, well-known architect and a young high school dropout, for example; a slacker, stoner, atheist and a Mormon. The characters do not seek each other out, but once they do, something happens. Nothing huge or life-changing but something that helps combat the loneliness and the despair, the inability to make decisions, to leave or to stay, or to love.

Borgen’s characters, while not transformed, are still are able to get up the next morning. They are sometimes even a little bit stronger or more hopeful, like you might be after a night talking to a stranger in a bar. You don’t walk out of there less lonely or knowing what to do with your life, but later you wonder how the other is doing, whether they got home okay, and hope today will be a better day for both of you, and then, maybe it is.

The following interview with Borgen, who lives in Akron, Ohio, where he teaches creative writing and writes full-time, about his first book of stories was conducted via email.

ZYZZYVA: A lot of your characters are men who can’t act or make a change even if it means they’re miserable. Is this the American archetype now, the new hero in a botched society?

Seth Borgen: I don’t know if it’s a new hero, but it sure is a lot of men. More and more, it seems men are raised to be vessels of inaction. They’re given very strict guidelines regarding what it means to be a man, which happens to include being ashamed of the existence of their own emotions. The moment life gives them something they don’t expect, they’re not prepared to handle it. They shut down. The light goes out and it can’t light again.

Some of the stories are perhaps born out of my own anxiety over becoming one of those men who do and value all of the things culture tells them to minus the emotional infrastructure to adapt or change. But more than that, as a writer, I’m fascinated by the processes that lead to inaction rather than action and that being able to capture that formless thing is a more meaningful depiction of the world.

The line on me back in workshops was that nothing ever happens in my stories. And I was always like, yeah, because nothing ever does. Where I come from, my people don’t act. They die inside their own lives but still breathe and walk around and buy stuff for two, three more decades. And I think that’s people from a lot of places. And I don’t think that makes their stories any less worthy.

Z: Can you talk about how you came up with the seeds for some of your stories? Mormons, ice-sculpting, any others you are interested in.

SB: Short stories tend to come from some combination of two places—from someplace within the writer or from someplace beyond the writer. Sometimes what we’re doing is litigating or relitigating personal experiences. The other times, we’re like professional stenographers following around people who don’t exist and we have absolutely no idea what they’re going to do or say next. For the former, the writing is an act of will. For the latter, it is an act of discovery. Personally, I’m more interested in the discovery. I’m more the stenographer than the litigator. Actually, what I am is one of those bugs that carries around on its back every bit of junk and debris it finds. My stories tend to begin with some extraordinarily unremarkable true thing. An image or a feeling or part of a feeling. I carry it with me and, over time, people, places, entire worlds that have absolutely nothing to do with me build up around that zygote of an idea.

For example, there was a time I went to the same bar several nights in a row. To get to the bar, I had to cut through an alley. That first night, there was a discarded ice sculpture in the alley tipped on its side like it was drunk or dead. Because it was winter, it was there the next night and the next night. That image, and what it felt like to step over that piece of ice four, five days in a row eventually became “I Really Can’t Stay,” a story that bears virtually no resemblance to anything that actually happened to me. The origins of most of my short stories follow a similar pattern.

Z: Were you really studying to be a dentist? Are you glad you decided to be a writer?

SB: I never actually studied dentistry. I just wish that I had every day. And talk about it, like, all the time. What I like about dentistry is the idea of clear objectives and quantifiable goals. On any given day, you might have to fill five cavities and perform a root canal. You know exactly when you’re done for the day. With nothing left on your list, you leave and who you are away from work resumes.

When you write for a living, you’re never not working. It’s all working. There’s no leaving the office and winding down because the office is inside your stupid brain. Every day you wonder, Did I do enough? Did I write enough? Was it good enough? What part of myself did I leave on the page today? Am I still a person? And, you know what, there really aren’t satisfying answers to these questions we ask ourselves every day. I might be wrong, but I just feel that if I were a dentist, I’m not sure how often I’d leave work asking myself if I’m still a person.

Z: How did growing up in Ohio influence your writing? People who have never lived there like to think of it only in political terms, as a battleground state. How was it different from the South and your experiences there at the University of Mississippi, where you received your MFA?

SB: I was raised in the suburbs of Akron, little homogenized hamlets that largely grew out of populations fleeing dying cities. I did my undergraduate work in Columbus at Ohio State, a college laid out more like a sprawling, steam-belching factory than a college. And no matter where you stand in Columbus, if the wind is blowing in a particular way, you can smell the farms. So, as a state, are we industrial or rural? Both and neither. Are our best days ahead or behind? Both and neither. Every election cycle, is Ohio blue or is it red? It’s both and neither. Being from Ohio means being defined by the absence of a clear definition. We have a little of everything and an abundance of nothing. Born out of that absence of a clearly defined identity is a sort of perpetual frozen pragmatism. It’s a self-defense mechanism—a survival mode that never shuts off.

I feel like that frozen pragmatism is everywhere in my writing. And then I did my graduate work in Mississippi. Before moving to Mississippi, I didn’t fully understand that Northern fiction was a thing and Southern fiction was a thing. I didn’t fully grasp the ways in which individual writers could be coming out of traditions that were larger than they were. I mean, I was pretty dumb. Everyone else in the program probably knew that already, but, boy, I sure didn’t. So, anyway, there I was, a very northern writer suddenly immersed in the South and its literature. The result, I’ve come to understand, is an accidental and haphazard layer of otherworldly dreaminess woven into my precious frozen pragmatism. The result of that, I’m not claimed as a Northern writer or a Southern writer, which is very, very Ohio.

Z: You have three stories in your collection that take place in another time in history that are quite different from each other. How did this come about? How is writing about another time period different from writing about the present?

SB: Most of my stories are set in some version of the past, whether that’s clearly established in the text or not. That’s largely because I’m not particularly drawn to characters who carry smart phones. But, yes, sometimes a story decides it’s necessary that we go way far back. And, for selfish reasons, I’m glad when that happens. A segregated lake in 1952. An Akron slum in 1919. A swanky hotel in 1920 Paris. The more removed a character is from who I am, the easier the writing becomes. When the characters are nothing like me and they are inhabiting worlds that are nothing like my world, I’m less inclined to ruin my stories by asking myself what I would do.

On top of that, I appreciate the ways in which the past offers an illusion of knowability. The past feels to me like a ship that’s already sunk. The wreckage can be explored and studied and parts of it might be salvaged. But the present feels more like a ship in the process of sinking. It’s hard to reflect meaningfully on anything while holding on for dear life. Fuck today, really. Today is dumb. There are other writers more adept at sorting that out.

Z: People love to know about process, so this is my process question: How do you do your best thinking about your characters and stories?

SB: I don’t know if this will be of much use to anyone else, but, for me, the most crucial information when unlocking a character is their name and what they do for a living. And as annoying as it is to say this, their names and professions are not up to me. They choose to reveal that information or they don’t. If they do, everything else begins to fall into place. If they don’t, they stay strangers. The story or book doesn’t get written. Before I start a story, it’s like I’m barely awake in a dark room looking for a coffee cup. I absolutely know the coffee is there, but it doesn’t matter what I know or what I think I know if I can’t find the handle. The name and profession is my handle. There are writers, probably a lot of them, who name their characters whatever they want and move on. And who’s to say that’s not a better way. It sounds a lot faster, if nothing else.

Z: What authors or books have you learned the most from?

SB: I was in my late teens when it hit me that I was going to write books and stories for the rest of my life. I was desperate to become a better writer and I was the wettest clay I would ever be. And when that’s where you are, something finds you. What found me was a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald stories on tape. Tapes, if you can believe that. Each story was read by a different celebrity. Parker Posey. Blythe Danner. Campbell Scott absolutely crushing “May Day.” And for years, those tapes were the only things I listened to in my car. A thousand trips between Columbus and Akron. To Birmingham and back multiple times. That strange combination of passive and active absorption, it altered my DNA. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was developing a more three-dimensional relationship with language and character than I would have otherwise. That has never left me.

I had many life-altering relationships with books and stories since then and before then and during that time. I was reading Richard Ford’s Rock Springs when I finally figured out why being a writer has any value whatsoever. Good writing puts into words things that have always been true about ourselves but we never had words for them before. And then that new understanding helps us live. I was reading Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America when I realized there were levels of good I’d never achieve and that’s totally OK because there can’t be two Lorrie Moores. But nothing is more responsible for what kind of writer I became—for good or bad—than those tapes.

Z: Why do you write, and don’t say because you have to. Well, you can say that, but you have to explain why.

SB: I think most lives come down to some personalized version of keeping the chaos at bay. Everything wants to kill us. Everything wants to run right over us and make us nothing. And it will, eventually. For me, writing is my version of keeping the chaos at bay. We get through so much of what we get through by telling ourselves that there’s got to be some meaning to all of this. So I comb through the vast garbage can of human existence and the much smaller garbage can of my own personal experiences looking for scraps of meaning. That’s where it started, but I had options back then. I could have done other things. But that’s not really true anymore. Existentially, I wouldn’t do anything else if I could. Pragmatically, I’m not really qualified to do much else at this point. The fallback options used to be things like newspapers, magazines, video stores, teaching. All that’s basically gone now. In a way, that’s a good thing. The cake is baked. People who pay people to do things don’t want to hire me and I don’t want to work for them. We’ve all decided that writing really is what I should be doing with myself. I fantasize about becoming a dentist. But I’d be a fucking terrible, miserable dentist.

Anne Raeff’s second novel, Winter Kept Us Warm (2018), won the silver medal for the California Book Award for Fiction. Her short story collection, The Jungle Around Us, won the 2015 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Raeff’s next novel, Only the River, will be published in May 2020. Her wife, novelist Lori Ostlund, was the judge for the New American Fiction Prize awarded to Seth Borgen.

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‘Mickey Rourke and the Bluebird of Happiness: A Poet’s Notebooks’ by W.S. Di Piero: A Literary Time Capsule

The relationship between a writer and their notebook is a strange and sacred one. W.S. Di Piero has been keeping a notebook since he first started writing, and, in the poet’s own words, his notebooks have taken on many roles, including “workshop, interrogation room, [and] monk’s cell.”

In Mickey Rourke and the Bluebird of Happiness: A Poet’s Notebooks (Carnegie Mellon University Press; 88 pages), we are treated to selections from three decades’ worth of De Piero’s notebooks. Through this collection, Di Piero hopes to “craft a shadow self-portrait composed of hopped-up episodes from my mental and emotional life.” The resultant book is a literary time capsule that brims with stray observations and confessions, citations and criticism—an intimate space for Di Piero to “say small things intensely.”

While Di Piero occasionally recounts his daily life (interactions on public transit, meetings with friends, overheard conversations on the street), he more frequently journals about poetry as a practice and form. As a critic and poet, he places poetry in conversation with other art forms, like painting and music, and puts himself in conversation with countless other poets, such as Wordsworth, Yeats, Baudelaire, and Keats. He is also amusingly opinionated about the role of the poet: “I think the poet’s work,” Di Piero writes, “is to tell the struggle, to attempt to reveal the order or our dream of it.” Examining the life of the poet, then, is an act of introspection; when Di Piero writes about “poets,” he is really writing about himself.

Each decade brings new interests. The 2000s, for example, see Di Piero writing often about cityscapes and transit; the 1990s, melancholy and Italy; the 1980s, childhood and Van Gogh.

Fascinations wax and wane throughout the years, but Di Piero’s curiosity remains constant. A sense of place is also continuous throughout Mickey Rourke: each entry is “saturated with wherever I was writing” at the time—indeed, the author brings places like San Francisco, Bologna, and Chicago to life in lovely detail.

Di Piero’s more diaristic writings prove to be some of his most engaging. In the 1990s, he is clearly struggling with depression, or as he calls it, “clinical melancholia.” His meditation on his own bed is one of his notebooks’ most moving entries:

The bed is the best and worst place. It’s the island where you’re safe, if not from the serrated confabulations of your own consciousness, at least from the afflictions the world beyond the bed will, you’re certain, bring you. It’s the worst place because the longer you’re there, the more it loves you, the more it renews its sticky torpor. It’s a safe place to consider killing yourself.

Di Piero often revisits certain ideas, sometimes in nearly identical words. In the 2000s, for example, he quotes Kierkegaard: “The whole of existence frightens me;” and in the 1980s, he recalls William James’ “horrible fear of my own existence.” He also repeats several maxims again and again, like this one about loss: “Writing about loss thrills and energizes because loss is another form of transformation.” It makes one wonder what it is about these repeated phrases that affect Di Piero so intensely. “For this here book,” Di Piero writes in the postscript, “I picked notes having to do with matters I still go round and round and that still lose my sleep.” This raises the question of how much of Di Piero’s journals have been expurgated, and why he’s “picked” certain entries over others.

Unlike other vignette-driven books, like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, the fragments of Mickey Rourke rarely connect with each other, and their order feels insignificant. But in this way, the book channels the true nature of the human mind: disordered and random, riddled with obsessions. “The entries,” Di Piero writes, “are undated floaters—that’s how they come into and live in my consciousness.”

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The Common Reader’s ‘James Baldwin & American Democracy’: Another Country, Another Time

The Common Reader James Baldwin issueNobody knows his name.

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.

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‘The Painted Forest’ by Krista Eastman: Thoroughly Acquainted with the World

Krista Eastman nonfiction The Painted ForestKrista 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.

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‘Blackfishing the IUD’ by Caren Beilin: Inflaming Technologies

Caren Beilin nonfiction Blackfishing the IUDJust 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 overwhelming—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.

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Obsessions: A Visit to the Stephen ‘ESPO’ Powers ‘Daymaker’ Installation at SFMOMA

Stephen Powers Daymaker installationOn 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.

“Daymaker” will be on exhibit on the Third Floor of SFMOMA through January 1, 2020.

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.

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Jonathon Keats and the Pioneers for the Greater Holocene: Pessimism is Not a Scientific Way of Thinking

Jonathon Keats Pioneers of the Greater HoloceneUnbeknown 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.

Jonathon Keats Pioneers of the Greater Holocene 2Also 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.

Jonathon Keats Pioneers of the Greater Holocene 3One 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.

Jonathon Keats Pioneers of the Greater Holocene 4The 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.

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