ZYZZYVA EventsMarch 24, 2019
Ferlinghetti at 100/Open House Birthday Party
Location: 1:45 p.m., City Lights Booksellers, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: ZYZZYVA joins in celebrating Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 100th Birthday at City Lights, and Vesuvio's. Managing Editor Oscar Villalon emcees a reading in City Light's basement featuring Barbara Jane Reyes, Wendy Trevino, D.A. Powell, sam sax, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Garret Caples, and Joseph Lease. Free. For more info: https://bit.ly/2TIWqPw
Ferlinghetti at 100/Open House Birthday Party
Location: 3 p.m., Vesuvio, 255 Columbus Ave., San Francisco
Description: ZYZZYVA joins in celebrating Lawrence Ferlinghetti's 100th Birthday at City Lights and Vesuvio. Managing Editor Oscar Villalon emcees a reading featuring D.A. Powell, sam sax, Barbara Jane Reyes, Wendy Trevino, Clark Coolidge, Jack Hirschman, and Aggie Falk. Free. For more info: https://bit.ly/2TIWqPwMarch 28, 2019
ZYZZYVA at AWP
Location: 10:30 a.m., Portland Ballroom 253-254, Oregon Convention Center, Level 2
Description: "Behind the Curtain: The Editors Speak!" with Alison Wright, executive editor of VQR; Emily Nemens, editor of The Paris Review; Karissa Chen, editor-in-chief at Hyphen, and Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. Moderated by Christian Kiefer. More info here: https://bit.ly/2HWVUIkMarch 30, 2019
ZYZZYVA at AWP
Location: 1:30 p.m., E143-144, Oregon Convention Center, Level 1
Description: "The Future of Criticism: A Conversation with Established and Emerging Critics" with Kate Tuttle, Ismail Muhammad, Jane Ciabattari, Hope Wabuke, and Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. More info here: https://bit.ly/2DYEyXzApril 14, 2019
ZYZZYVA at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books
Location: 4 p.m., Hoffman Hall, University of Southern California, Los Angeles
Description: "Writing & Publishing: Inside Stories of the Book Business," featuring panelists Nicole Dewey, Colleen Dunn Bates, and Betsy Amster. Moderated by Managing Editor Oscar Villalon. For more information: https://bit.ly/2HoPxMA
ZYZZYVA e-mail updates
In this issue:
Tales of the Uncanny
“Shelter” by Kate Folk: the concrete vault in the basement of a rented house exerts a strange pull on the woman living above it.
“Take the Water Prisoner” by Shawn Vestal: when the sins (and pains) of the father are visited upon the son.
“The Canyon” by Jim Ruland: the struggle for sobriety leads Lindsay to a confrontation she couldn’t have imagined.
“The Lake and the Onion” by David Drury: “There once was a lake who fell in love with an onion. This is merely what we 100 percent know.”
Michael Ondaatje on character, plot, West Marin, and diaspora.
Fabián Martínez Siccardi on revisiting his family’s stoical estancia (“Patagonian Fox”) and Teresa H. Janssen on relief work and refugees (“Adrift at Sea”)
And More Fiction and Poetry:
Meron Hadero’s “The Street Sweep” (a young man’s future may be decided at a hotel gathering in Addis Ababa), Karl Taro Greenfeld’s “The Golden Age of Television” (the particular tyranny of the writers’ room), Jane Gillette’s “Ten Little Feet” (a less-than-innocent tradition at a tony school for boys), plus new work from Jessica Francis Kane and Olivia Clare.
Poems by Bruce Snider, Austen Leah Rosenfeld, Flower Conroy, Ryanaustin Dennis, Heather Altfeld, Allison Adair, Moriel Rothman-Zecher, and Heather Christle
Art: Featuring photographs from Kate Ballis’s “Infra Realism” series.
Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias (202 pages; Graywolf Press) consists of twelve essays addressing the technical definitions, medical prognosis, and personal challenges of schizophrenia. In the first essay, Wang discloses her own diagnosis to the reader: during her time as an undergraduate at Yale, she was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder (bipolar type), which she describes as an illness that combines certain behavioral markers of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. She makes it clear the schizophrenias (of which there are a few types) are both complex and vast in how they are perceived and experienced. Wang manages to discuss such a broad topic by anchoring each essay with a specific cultural or personal touchpoint: for example, her concerns about whether or not she would be a good mother, and the case of Malcolm Tate, a mentally ill man who was murdered by his family members. In another essay, she discusses the movie Lucy and her experience with delusions induced specifically by films that take place in other realities. One delusion she often experiences is that of the people in her life having been replaced by doubles or robots. Another is Cotard’s delusion:
I write this while experiencing a strain of psychosis known as Cotard’s delusion, in which the patient believes that they are dead. What the writer’s confused state means is not beside the point, because it is the point. I am in here, somewhere: cogito ergo sum.
Wang’s vulnerability as she puts her diagnosis and lived experiences in conversation with each other welcomes us into her life while also provoking our own self-reflection. Her Ivy League education and status as a published author are frequently identified as ways she finds validation among neurotypical people. In the essay “Yale Will Not Save You,” she writes, “‘I went to Yale’ is shorthand for I have schizoaffective disorder, but I’m not worthless.”
Neurotypical readers may ask themselves, would we see Wang as credible if not for her ability to articulate her delusions and episodes? Would we trust a schizophrenic person’s recollections if that person was not college-educated or successful in their career? Her in-depth discussion of medical, educational, and judicial institutions ask us to question the humanity and compassion we extend to those who struggle with their mental health. Without speaking on anyone else’s behalf, Wang touches on involuntary hospitalization policies, the potential overlap of schizophrenia with other disorders like PTSD or manic depression, and more:
I’d been living with medication-resistant schizoaffective disorder prior to the new diagnosis, and PTSD, while uniquely excruciating, was not—unlike schizoaffective disorder—considered to be incurable…I was grateful for the hope of a condition I could eliminate.
Wang gives readers a map of sorts into rarely-charted waters. She handles the discussion of schizophrenia with a gentleness for both the subject matter and the reader. The collection strikes a balance between the technical and the emotional, and works, like good books do, to change how we think.
Berkeley novelist Erik Tarloff is a polymath. Growing up in Los Angeles, he was steeped in the motion picture industry (his father, Frank Tarloff, was a screenwriter), but he has also been deeply involved in politics, including stints as a speechwriter for Bill and Hillary Clinton and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, among others. He has satirized the Washington political scene in his acclaimed 1998 novel, Face-Time, about a speech-writer whose girlfriend is sleeping with the President, and taken a fictional look at the complicated political and personal dynamics of ‘60s Berkeley in All Our Yesterdays. He is also the author of three well-received plays.
His new novel, The Woman in Black (Rare Bird Books; 275 pages), chronicles the rise and fall of Chance Hardwick, a young actor who blazes across the Hollywood scene only to mysteriously disappear, as told through the eyes of those who knew him–or who thought they did. Tarloff spoke with us about his book and his background.
ZYZZYVA: Woman in Black was forty years in the making. How did you come to the subject, and how much of it was influenced by your Hollywood upbringing? Did you meet any Brando/James Dean-types growing up as the son of a blacklisted screenwriter?
ERIK TARLOFF: I don’t know about Brando/Dean types (never met either of those), but Sidney Poitier was a good friend of my parents, as was Farley Granger. Larry Parks and his wife, Betty Garret, had been very close until he cooperated with HUAC—that ended the friendship abruptly—but I wasn’t sentient yet, so it’s lost in the mists of pre-history. Ditto Lloyd Bridges.
It’s always hard to say by what route an idea first arrives, although I do recall being intrigued by a series of short documentaries produced in the ’80s about screen actors who came to prominence in the ’50s. More, I think, from those little films’ evocation of the period and the place—I first came to consciousness in ’50s Hollywood—than from any notion of show biz glamour. Having grown up in a show biz family, my sense of the industry’s glamour was rather attenuated all along, but those documentaries did start me thinking about the novel’s central character and the world he inhabited.
Z: The novel seemed to be in some ways about the nature of celebrity – how we deal with fame, and use it to fill in vacuums in our own life. Even your subject, Chance Hardwick, seems to be, through the odd circumstances of his life—perhaps chance—to be an empty vessel, whose motives, nature are not known, even to himself. Is this a peculiarly American phenomenon?
ET: It could be that Americans, lacking a feudal history (with the obvious and appalling exception of slavery), may have a less rooted sense of identity than their European counterparts. But my starting point had more to do with the protean nature of the art of acting, the fact that by its very nature it requires its practitioners to assume and shuck off a vast range of identities. The way this might hollow out an actor’s sense of an authentic self struck me as a phenomenon worthy of a serious novel. It seemed—no presumption intended, word of honor—almost Dostoyevskian in its implications.
Let me add, parenthetically, that the popularity of writers like Rona Barrett, Jackie Collins, Jacqueline Susann, and Gwen Davis have given the concept of “the Hollywood novel” a certain specific coloration that I think can be misleading. Norman Mailer, Budd Schulberg, Joan Didion, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, of course, Nathaniel West, have shown that novels set in the movie business can have serious literary ambitions. I’d hate to have The Woman in Black relegated to the wrong heap.
Helen Oyeyemi’s latest novel Gingerbread (258 pages; Riverhead), revolves around the fictional country of Druhástrana, an “alleged nation state of indeterminable geographic location” that may or may not exist, depending on who you ask. Druhá Strana roughly translates from Slovak to “the other side” or “the flipside,” a fitting name for a nation that bears more resemblance to a half-remembered fever dream than any currently existing country.
Gingerbread mirrors the ever-shifting nature of Druhástrana in many ways, with its circular and occasionally conflicting narratives leaving the reader frantically performing mental gymnastics in order to keep up.
The novel focuses on a family of Druhástranian expatriates who bake obscene quantities of gingerbread daily: Margot Lee, a doting grandmother and preternaturally talented interior designer; her daughter Harriet, who is consumed by her quest to find her childhood best friend, distant cousin, and alleged fairy-changeling Gretel Kercheval; and Harriet’s teenage daughter Perdita, who cannot indulge in her family’s signature pastry because she was born with celiac disease.
Created by a distant ancestor on Harriet’s father’s side as a way to eke any remaining nutritional value out of spoiled rye, the gingerbread is revered by some and intolerable to others. It plays many roles throughout the book: as the only known method of transportation to or from Druhástrana, as the building material for an impossible-to-locate house where an improbable reunion is destined to occur, and as a way for Harriet to win over the cliquish Parental Power Association (PPA) at Perdita’s school.
The Lee women refuse to sell their gingerbread, instead using it as a way to extort “information, goodwill, and … compliance.” In doing so, Oyeyemi has transformed a traditional symbol of domestic femininity into a potent tool and weapon that all three Lee women yield indiscriminately. The majority of the book is comprised of Harriet relating her childhood and adolescence in Druhástrana to Perdita after Perdita attempts suicide by way of gingerbread in an extremely desperate effort to travel to her family’s homeland.
As Harriet describes her life in Druhástrana, it becomes clear she possesses “the kind of past that makes the present dubious.” She reveals to Perdita that she grew up on an impoverished, isolated farm in the Druhástranian countryside, reading the collected works of Émile Zola and baking gingerbread. After a series of improbable events, the Lee family gingerbread attracts the attention of Gretel’s mother, who then recruits Harriet to work at a gingerbread theme park run exclusively by other farm girls.
Harriet’s history starts to spiral from there, and is frequently interrupted by asides from Perdita’s life-size (and apparently self-aware) dolls. These sorts of fantastical moments are common, with the narrator explaining that “talking or thinking about ‘there’ lends ‘here’ a hallucinatory quality that [Harriet] could frankly do without.” This tendency toward the surreal is heightened whenever the characters squint too hard at what it means to be Druhástranian in the outside world.
Harriet obsessively searches the Internet for traces of Druhástrana, perhaps in an effort to confirm that her own lived experience did in fact occur. The majority of the articles she finds are translated by Drahomira Maszkeradi, a woman who later becomes the Lee’s realtor as Harriet searches for one of the three houses where she promised to meet her cousin Gretel once she had left Druhástrana and grown up. It’s unclear whether Harriet ever makes the connection that the woman who is trying to help her fulfill her doomed quest is the same woman who has provided all of her knowledge of Druhástrana since leaving. As Maszkeradi skirts the Lee women’s attempts to pin down her origins, Oyeyemi hints at the answer to a larger question: what does it mean to live in a world that denies your very existence?
“Margot had only one question left. In Druhástranian, she asked: ‘Drahomíra, my dear…are you by any chance Druhástranian?”
She was answered in English, and Harriet held her phone away from her ear to protect it from the Maszkeradi trill: ‘Of course I am…I mean, aren’t we all?”
Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light (183 pages, FSG; translated by Geraldine Harcourt) begins when the husband of the narrator, Mrs. Fujino, leaves her. After months of apartment hunting, she moves with her two year-old daughter into a new building. The apartment is abundant with light most hours of the day, but it fails to illuminate their lives the way she hoped it would.
The novel consists of twelve brief chapters, each one a vignette of life in Tokyo with an inquisitive and sometimes unruly daughter. (The narrative was originally published in Japan in twelve installments, between 1978 and 1979.) At first, Mrs. Fujino finds empowerment as a newly-single woman living in the city, but the thrill of independence quickly fades, and her obligations wear her thin. Her daughter is causing trouble at daycare, and in the middle of the night has crying fits that often end with soiled sheets and start up again just hours later. Over the course of the story, Mrs. Fujino becomes disorganized, sleeping in well past 10 a.m. and sometimes staying out too late at the bar or in finding companionship with old acquaintances. The mother-daughter duo’s schedule becomes erratic, and their relationship seems to shift with the added stress. Fittingly, as a reader, it is sometimes hard to maintain a sense of direction; it’s this simultaneously muted and overwhelming feeling of instability that comes through in Tsushima’s book.
Through it all, Mrs. Fujino remains an insightful and placid narrator. Though her daughter and soon-to-be ex-husband unhinge her, her thoughts are clear and her internal monologue displays an acute self-awareness:
Impatient at her slow pace as we headed for daycare, I picked her up and ran. As I did so, the thought that, in spite of everything, maybe some part of me wished my daughter dead crossed my mind. Why would I have dreamed of her dead body otherwise?…When we reached the centre, she tripped away to join the other children without a backward glance. The moment when she separated herself from me was a palpable relief.
While she realizes much of the instability around her is of her own making, she never loses sight of her humanity—and the humanity of her young daughter, whose father left the picture rather suddenly:
A couple of nights after I’d dreamed of her death, as she cried and cried, the same as ever, I laid her on my lap like a baby and began to recite ‘magic words’ while rubbing her chest and stomach, tracing circles … My daughter had stopped crying and was listening to my voice, a smile on her lips. Encouraged by that smile, I continued, still more fervently, to recite the magic words.
Tsushima’s Territory of Light, for which she won the inaugural Noma Literary Prize, is a tender and relatable story, highlighting both the obstacles and highlights of a transitional stage in life. By the novel’s end, readers are left with the sense this mother and daughter will continue to learn and change together as they remake their life.
The characters in Mothers (287 pages; FSG), the debut story collection by London writer Chris Power, occupy tenuous positions in their personal lives. Many of the ten stories here hone in on the bitter resentments and petty debates that arise when a romantic relationship has barely formed or, alternately, reached its breaking point. In “The Crossing,” protagonist Ann comes to regret her backpacking weekend with recent lover Jim:
“Several times, in the weeks since she had met him, Ana had thought Jim was telling her what she had wanted to hear. Even before she agreed to this weekend away the trait had been irritating her…She had wanted to sleep with him as soon as she saw him, leaning against the kitchen counter at a party in a big, dilapidated house in Chalk Farm. And she had slept with him, but now she wished she had left it at that.”
As one might expect, the backpacking excursion doesn’t end well for Jim; his attempt to restore some of his masculine pride and put himself back in Ann’s good graces leads to disaster at a swift-moving river crossing.
Stephen, the narrator of “Portals,” visits Paris to stay with an old acquaintance, a charismatic Spanish dancer who invariably wins the affection of the men who cross her path (including Stephen). As various would-be gentlemen callers vie for Monica’s attention, the brewing rivalry among them sets the stage for a violent altercation at a French drum ‘n bass club:
“Michael went down so fast it was like I made him disappear. A space cleared around us. Monica–– who I never saw or spoke to again –– looked at me like she didn’t even know me. Which she didn’t, I realized. I laughed. It was so ridiculous and sad.”
And in perhaps the collection’s strongest piece, “Above the Wedding,” a young Englishman named Liam travels to a destination wedding in Mexico City for the purposes of confronting the husband-to-be, with whom he shared a brief physical tryst and still nurtures feelings for:
“As the security light above the garage flicked on, frosting the driveway white, Liam called his name.
Miguel stopped, turned.
‘You’re going to have to talk to me some time,’ Liam said.
Miguel smiled, not unkindly. ‘No I am not, Liam,’ he said, and turned and walked into the darkness.”
It is the “unkindly” in that last sentence that hurts the most, and throughout Mothers Power exhibits a similar knack for detail in his depictions of the way people navigate disintegrating relationships, whether due to fading sexual chemistry or the barriers put up by mental illness. An eponymous sequence of stories appears at the beginning, midpoint, and end of the book, each installment focusing on the life of the troubled Swedish native Eva. The opening story relays her childhood outside of Stockholm, while later pieces touch on her struggles with depression and failed attempts at maintaining a family. Power lets some of the connections among the stories reveal themselves slowly, and each one can comfortably stand on its own, though the final two chapters are united by the imprint of Eva’s physic pain: “When it comes it’s like all the rules change,” she explains. “You feel everything falling apart and coming back together in new shapes, shapes you can’t understand. You lose the ability to make sense of anything.”
A couple of the stories in Mothers register as outliers: “The Colossus of Rhodes” ruminates on the nature of storytelling itself, as the narrator admits to exaggerating the details of an uncomfortable incident from his childhood in order to express the anxiety of being a parent in a world where it is often impossible protect one’s children (“…I can’t help but wonder if the same thing happened to them, would I want to know? And if I knew, what then?”). Elsewhere, “Johnny Kingdom” follows the hard luck of an English stand-up comic and family man attempting to make a living by impersonating the fictional comedian Johnny Kingdom (a clear stand-in for the late Rodney Dangerfield). Power cleverly utilizes the concept of a comic recycling a deceased comedian’s material to examine writer’s block and the struggle to find a creative voice that is uniquely one’s own:
“Sometimes he was asked, with genuine puzzlement, why he was doing someone else’s bits –– a crime in comedy, but complicated in this case by the fact that he wasn’t trying to pass someone else’s line off as his own, he was only performing someone’s entire act…He was as uncomfortable with what he was doing as anyone else was.”
Mothers proves an elegant collection, touching on a host of issues deeply ingrained in our modern experience: the fragility of human connection, the impulse to travel, and the painful ramifications of mental illness, among others. Power’s prose is spare and exacting, excising the needless word in pursuit of emotional truth. Mothers proves a rewarding experience for the lover of quiet short stories that speak volumes.
In Glass Is Glass Water Is Water, one of the first full-length books to be published by Spork Press, Rae Gouirand (whose poetry book Open Winter won the Bellday Prize) explores relationships, intimacy, the body, and the tension inherent in wanting to be understood without having to be explicit. Gouirands’ poems push against linear, heteronormative ways of reading and often challenge prescribed forms. Gouirand, whose poems were published in ZYZZYVA No. 102, recently spoke to us about how her work speaks to present-day concerns, such as the MeToo movement, and delved more deeply into her craft.
ZYZZYVA: One of the reasons I was drawn to Glass Is Glass Water Is Water was that I’d read your poem “Not Marrying” on the Academy of American Poets website, and I thought it contained one of the best illustrations of what consent should look like. The following lines in particular stood out to me:
. . .
push back hard when you object to my position.
Divorce me every moment you decide
who you are and where you should
next be. . . .
This and the insistence on will—“There is no moment/we could exchange our words. We will . . .” (as opposed to “I do”) and “wherever you find that bending becoming/your will and your innate way. I pray . . .”—were captivating. I’m curious about whether you think poetry can effect social change and has a place in conversations that are political, such as the dialogue surrounding the #MeToo movement?
Rae Gouirand: It’s interesting to me to hear about that poem being read through the lens of consent—it definitely teaches me something. In my mind that poem grapples with the limits and the terms of the compact that any two people can have, and kind of realizes those concerns out loud in the form of this address to the beloved. I wrote it slowly over the course of a year after the Obergefell v. Hodges [Supreme Court] decision was announced in 2015—that summer I was driving back and forth across the country on a 10,000-mile road trip with my partner, having lots of conversations with those I’m close to about the tremendous discomfort I feel around the way the queer movement has prioritized marriage equality.
The book overall chews pretty hard on what meanings, and specifically on what figurative assignments, do and don’t do. I’m coming at that as a queer person, and dealing with the ways meaning gets dislocated or transposed or lost in transit, and that poem was the last one I wrote for the book, and the poem that signaled to me that the book was done. In it I wanted to figure out what the question is that lives past marriage proposal, and how that question can be asked. In writing it I realized I was kind of praying something for the two of us, and also for all queer folks—that we always be willing to ask our questions, and that we always have questions worth asking.
The ways in which I think poetry can absolutely shift the paradigm are mostly invisible, slow, low to the ground, close to the bone, and having to do with keeping individuals here, with helping them stay. Yes, it helps us shift thinking, and it facilitates empathy and curiosity. Yes. Art helps me, and many others, stay here and keep pushing onward or pushing back—any creative impulse that is well-realized helps me remember how much power lies in my ability to make, and invent, and revise the way I interface with the world. Since 2016, many of my students have pointed to that power as mattering an almost unfathomable amount. Ultimately I think the job of the poet is to multiply the number of ways that sense is made, and can be made, and is recognized as sense in this world. I believe that matters; I believe in that labor as a necessary labor. That might be the only belief I have that I would call religious.
In Maryse Meijer’s new collection, Rag (144 pages; FSG), the final and eponymous story is written from the point of view of a rag stuffed down a woman’s throat, slowly killing her. Reading Rag feels a bit like this, as the fourteen unsettling stories leave you gasping for air. With terse, dark prose, Meijer has created a cohesive set of stories which seem to delight in exploring taboos and destroying expectations.
These stories are unsettlingly honest, with the most twisted inner thoughts of each principal character laid bare for the reader. Rag is at its strongest when delving into the minds of its uniformly flawed narrators, which include a college student living in self-imposed isolation, a high school teacher consumed by an unhealthy obsession with his student, and a pizza shop worker who develops feelings for a woman who has a miscarriage in his store’s public bathroom.
Many of the stories focus on themes of self-injury, dubiously consensual sex, and disordered eating, Meijer refusing to flinch from their alarming details. One of the collection’s most compelling stories follows a father serving on the jury for a murder trial while attempting to reconcile with his estranged daughter. Another focuses on a homicide detective who, over the course of an investigation, becomes convinced being decapitated by his principal suspect would be the only fitting end to his life. In a particularly powerful passage, Meijer reflects on the detective’s perceptions of the case and his work:
“The detective keeps a photo of the dead man’s head; there it is, intact, stuck to a bulletin board. You’re going to die, the detective thinks every times he looks at the ugly happy face…He strokes the glossy photo and thinks of all the women he has known, all the meat inside a man. How often it is the other way around: the woman in pieces, and every man a murderer.”
Twelve of the fourteen narrators are male, allowing Meijer to explore their varyingly warped perceptions of women. In deconstructing the many forms of the male gaze, she grants insight into the roots of each character’s neuroses and fixations, skewering the most extreme manifestations of toxic masculinity. The haunting, beautifully horrific stories in Rag linger long after finishing the collection, and subtly answer almost as many questions as they raise about what it means to interact with and be a man in the modern world.
Kelly Cressio-Moeller is an associate editor at Glass Lyre Press. Her work has previously appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 101. Her poem “Summer at the Baltic Sea, 1958” from ZYZZYVA No. 110 is presented in its entirety below:
The sepia-toned man & woman
sit together in a Strandkorb
an arched canopy pushed back
their heads turned toward
each other eyes smiling
she wears a strapless swimsuit
her body leaning forward
as if brushing away sand
he wears a striped beach robe
one hand wrapped around
his raised knee on the footrest
the other holding the side of his neck
considering her measuring his words
in two years they will marry
forgetting seastorm days
no one remembers
who took the photograph
it does not matter
that it was captured at all
a wind-borne miracle
ephemeral as summer
her bare shoulders
glowing bright as amber
found along the strand
One of two epigraphs for Kristen Tracy’s debut collection of poetry, Half-Hazard (94 pages; Graywolf Press), advises that, “when a bear attacks, the victim who fights back is likely to fare better than the one who plays dead.” Although this is useful information to have in case of a rogue bear attack, it’s not as helpful when considering how to read the stunning assortment of poems included in the book. Readers might be better served if, rather than attempting to fight the sweeping flow of Tracy’s fantastic lines and vivid imagery, they “play dead” and allow it to wash over them. Tracy, who is also a prolific author of many young adult novels, brings her understanding of the youthful psyche to the page as she describes her experiences growing up in a Mormon farming community and explores themes of loss, sexuality, and leaving home in sharp, playful verse. The winner of 2018 Emily Dickinson First Book Award, Half-Hazard practically overflows with a diverse array of animals, including bears. Recently, Tracy, whose poems were published in ZYZZYVA No. 112, spoke to us about the writing process, family history, and interspecies seabird warfare.
ZYZZYVA: A zoo’s worth of animals appear throughout your poems in Half-Hazard— tigers, lions, and bears (oh my!) pop up within the first few pages. What draws you to animals, and do you have a favorite?
KRISTEN TRACY: I grew up in a small Mormon farming community near Yellowstone Park. Animals were everywhere, even in the nightly news where reports of bear attacks and buffalo gorings dominated the summer news cycle. So I’ve been captivated by animals since my childhood. Bears are probably my favorite animal. A few years ago I went to Transylvania and toured a bear preserve with my three-year-old, and I kept enthusiastically pointing to all the bears and he finally said, “Let’s go home. This place is boring.” So I pointed out more bears and he said, “Mom, those bears are boring.” And so I fear bear adoration is not a hereditary trait.
Z: Two of your poems, “Goodbye, Idaho” and “Taming the Dog,” appeared in ZYZZYVA Issue 112. “Goodbye, Idaho” and many other poems in the collection are very grounded in place, ranging from San Francisco to Alaska to the moon. Where do you consider home?
KT: I live in Los Angeles County right now and I’m really happy here, so it feels like home. For me, the place where everything started is Idaho. It held my whole childhood, so I’m still pinned to it. A few years ago my dad was doing his estate planning and asked me to sign off on things. He owns a propane company in Idaho, and I realized in signing the paperwork that he’d made me vice president of the propane company, and so I called him and said, “I can’t be vice-president of a propane company.” And he said, “Sure you can. And you can come back every year for the company Christmas party.” So I do make it back at least once a year for that. I feel like it was a pretty sneaky move on his part, to keep me coming “home.”
Z: There were so many lines in the collection that made me laugh out loud. How do you balance humor and disaster in your work?
KT: So I have a sad backstory. I’ve lost both a brother and a sister in separate car accidents. My family was overwhelmed by grief, and I realized that somebody had to be funny. So at seven I became the funny one. I basically view it as my job. And as I got older and became a writer, I started writing funny things. My children’s books are funny. I like making people laugh, so now I have my poetry do some mood-lifting work. I think that suffering those twin losses altered my lens on how I see the world. I notice tragedy, accidents, disaster. But I don’t want my readers to sit in sadness. I want everybody to be okay.
Z: You mention volunteering as a gardener on Alcatraz. What was that experience like, and what was the most surprising thing you learned?
KT: I spent several years volunteering as a gardener on Alcatraz, where I learned a tremendous amount about seabirds, particularly sea gulls, because they are brutal beasts who will destroy anything. I once watched a group of seagulls tear a line of goslings apart in front of stunned tourists who pleaded with me to stop the carnage. I wasn’t allowed to intervene, because one of the first rules I learned on Alcatraz was that when it came to the birds I wasn’t allowed to get involved in interspecies conflict. The savagery overwhelmed me. I didn’t realize I’d witness so much bird-on-bird violence. But I loved working to restore the gardens, and if I ever live close enough to the island I’d go back and garden there again.
Z: When did you start writing, and what led you to poetry?
KT: I didn’t start writing poetry until I was in college. I decided my best chance of escaping my tiny Mormon upbringing was to apply to a school far away from it. So I only applied to one college, Loyola Marymount University, and that’s where I went. My freshman year I became good friends with a rebellious Jehovah’s Witness who suggested I take a poetry class with her. I did, and my teacher, Gail Wronsky, really encouraged me and told me I had real talent. I didn’t get a lot of exposure to art growing up, or encouragement. So I really clung to this. Following a path in the arts became a way to rebel against my faith system. I spent years reprogramming myself to value something other than the Mormon belief system I’d been fed as a child. Studying and writing poetry really helped me form my identity.
Z: You also write books for young readers. What books influenced you the most growing up?
KT: I wish I’d read better books growing up. My library had a bunch of Disney books in it. Stone Soup retold as Button Soup with Daisy Duck. So I read a lot of folk tales, but they had Chip and Dale in them. Lots of Bible stories. Lots of Book of Mormon stories. I didn’t become a big reader until college.
Z: In your acknowledgments, you mention that Half Hazard has been in the works for almost two decades. What kept you going, and what was your revision process like?
KT: I can’t believe it took twenty years for this book to exist. It was all the small encouraging accomplishments along the way that motivated me to keep at it. I’d place poems in journals I truly loved. I’d win fellowships to conferences. I’d been a finalist for the Yale Younger Poet Prize and a semifinalist for the Walt Whitman Award and Sarabande Books Kathryn Morton Prize. So I figured if I kept writing poems, eventually luck would find me. And it did!
Z: Half-Hazard is your first book of poetry. What has the experience of publication been like for you, and are you working on a second?
KT: I’ve never felt so thrilled or vulnerable. Working with Graywolf has been amazing. And everybody at the Poetry Foundation has been so supportive and kind. I’m definitely working on a second book. I’m revising a poem about the propane company right now.
Read Kristen Tracy’s poetry in ZYZZYVA Issue 112, which you can order from our Shop page.
In Sarah Moss’s novel, Ghost Wall (130 pages; FSG), seventeen-year-old Silvie embarks on a trip to rural northeastern England with her family and a university archaeology class. Silvie’s father, Bill, earns a living as a bus driver, but his true passion is for the history of the Iron Age and its “bog people,” the ancient Britons who were sacrificed in this region centuries ago. Over the course of the two-week trip, the small group attempts to reenact the lifestyle of 1000 B.C., wearing scratchy tunics and hunting and foraging for their meals. For Bill, the trip is a chance to live exactly like the ancient Britons –– down to the dated and ritualistic behaviors that let him indulge in his own violent and misogynistic tendencies.
Silvie narrates the story, moving fluidly between related observations and internal monologue. The narration transitions so smoothly, in fact, that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish what is being said aloud and what are simply Silvie’s thoughts weaving themselves into the moment. Interestingly, perhaps because of the stream-of-consciousness style, the distinction doesn’t feel very important.
As the story goes on, it becomes obvious to the characters and reader alike that Silvie, desperate for independence and an end to her childhood, harbors real fear of agitating her father. Silvie’s narration suggests her mother, Alison, spends the trip (and her life beyond the trip) cooking and cleaning, obedient to Bill’s demands. Bill physically abuses his family more than once during the reenactment, but always out of sight of the others. It’s a well-kept secret until, as the trip brings their dynamic to light, a student named Molly concludes something simply isn’t right:
He hits you, she said, your dad. He’s been hitting you here. You’re scared of him. No, I said, no, I’m not, of course I’m not, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I stopped. Maybe you’re jealous because your dad left you, I thought, because he doesn’t love you, because he doesn’t care enough to teach you a lesson. Haven’t you been listening, people don’t bother to hurt what they don’t love. To sacrifice it.
While Molly and Silvie forage each day, the archaeology professor and Bill feed off of each other’s enthusiasm for the historical period. Their excitement turns dark following the reconstruction of a “ghost wall,” which was used during the Iron Age to ward off the Romans during times of war. After rebuilding it, the pair considers it an almost spiritual gateway into the past. They become carried away and eventually insist that Silvie play the part of the human sacrifice in a ritual the following night:
Silvie, said Dan, Silvie, you sure you don’t mind this? The ropes and everything? Of course she doesn’t, said Dad, she knows we won’t hurt her, she’s not stupid.
Silvie, said Dan.
I nodded. Yeah, it’s OK.
You lead her, Bill, said the Professor, after all, she’s your sacrifice.
Ghost Wall is a short and cogent book highlighting the dynamics of one family through the lens of a rather bizarre and unsettling family trip. Bringing the distant past together with issues faced by women today—most of them rooted in history themselves—Moss’ novel asks readers to consider what we might stand to gain from history, and what we must leave behind.
We are firmly entrenched in 2019 now and, as such, we thought we would tell you what ZYZZYVA recommends this month—a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:
Katie O’Neill, Intern: This holiday season, one of the best gifts I received was Hannah Sullivan’s debut collection Three Poems. The winner of the 2018 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, the collection is comprised of three long poems – “You, Very Young in New York,” “Repeat Until Time,” and “The Sandpit After Rain.” Quoting from and referencing Phillip Larkin, Claude Monet, and Joan Didion, among many others, the collection is grounded in the modern experience while deftly honoring those who came before. Each poem is distinct and could easily stand alone, but together they allow the book to feel like a revelation.
As someone who is “very young,” I am especially drawn to the first poem, “You, Very Young in New York,” which traces the experiences of a young woman in New York City and meditates on the nature of love and intimacy in the modern world. Containing gems of lines like, “Your friends wear flannel and McDonald’s name badges…You think the great American novelist is David Foster Wallace,” the poem skewers the pretensions of young, self-described “literary” types without being unkind. It is addressed to an unclear “you,” who might be her younger self, or perhaps to all young people, and ranges between the conversational, the descriptive, and the profound.
“Repeat Until Time” is significantly more opaque in its meaning. Sullivan is an Associate Professor at Oxford and her varied research interests include, “how writers write and revise, particularly the process of innovation, in ways of classifying and interpreting style, and…the relationship between local and major form.”
“Repeat Until Time” explores this interest in the relationship between form and content by examining philosopher Heraclitus’ famous observation that, “On those who step into the same rivers, different and different waters keep on flowing.” She rephrases this as, “There is no stepping twice in same or different rivers” and continues down this path to consider the difficulty of originality. References to San Francisco are scattered throughout the poem, alternately celebrating and criticizing its offbeat nature and rampant inequality.
The final poem, “The Sandpit After Rain,” is the most clearly personal, comparing the birth of her son to the death of her father. She compares herself to a stuffed chicken and a caged eel, references Tolkien and yoga, and explores the beauty of a children’s sandpit made dirty with litter after a storm. In a particularly striking moment, she observes that, “there is no necessary season for things/and birth and death happen on adjacent wards,/that both are labour, halting and starting:/that women are always the middlemen/finding the coins.” Moments and phrases like these are frequent occurrences throughout the collection, which is well deserving of the praise it has won for balancing precise details with larger reflections on the challenges and joys of modern life.
Casey Jong, Intern: I always like to start a new year with books that will help me look to the future with positivity. That’s why, as January came and started to go, I picked up an older favorite of mine, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. This little collection of poetry is aptly named, both for its title poem, which is literally a catalog of things for which he is grateful, and for the overall tone of the book, which pours out color and thanks from every page. In this book, Gay often uses his love for gardening to discuss life and to speak openly, not dejectedly, about death and some of life’s hard questions, highlighting the cyclical nature of the world we are in, and the care we can give to the lives around us.
Despite this, the collection’s message is not simply one of positivity, but of reflection. Gay’s poems find existential weight in even the simplest of things. “Ode to Buttoning and Unbuttoning My Shirt” begins with the simple joy of the act of buttoning a shirt and eventually ends with
for I must only use
of my fingers
with which I will
one day close
my mother’s eyes.
Gay’s poetry often addresses the reader directly and seriously, but also with humor and real personality, as he interrupts himself or poses questions that it seems he truly has no answers for. Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude is accessible and honest, and asks us to act with care, to count our blessings, and to challenge our linear understandings of the world around us.
Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: South London’s The Field Mice released three albums between 1987 and 1991. Though championed by UK tastemaker John Peel, they never broke into the mainstream; even so, their dreamy and introspective brand of indie pop –– what The Smiths would sound like if Morrissey really was the agoraphobic shut-in his lyrics described –– earned them a devoted cult following. Thirty years later, their influence continues to be felt: it’s there in the hushed vocals and melancholy tinge of Australian two-piece Earache, who recently put out their debut album Last on Sydney-based label Black Wire Records.
It is exceedingly difficult to find information on Earache (their Facebook page informs me I am one of 175 fans), but Last is an album that speaks for itself. Here is the first indie pop gem of 2019. Last’s eight tracks are comprised of simple but effective drum loops, sinuous basslines, and jagged guitars. Forlorn-sounding vocals from band members Gemma Nourse and David Fenderson often lie buried in the mix; one strains to catch pieces of lyrics like “I sit, drifting/Looking for reasons,” but the gorgeous melodies ring clear.
As the weather grows cold in the early months of the year, one naturally reaches for warm sweaters, steaming coffee mugs, and, if you’re like me, the kind of album that rewards multiple listens on a long night. Earache’s dreamy bedroom pop conjures fond memories of early New Order, The Cure, and other new wave acts. Most of the songs on Last run brief and lend themselves to repeat plays, including standout track “Upside Down,” in which Nourse takes the lead to sing, “When I’m with him/Everything turns upside down.” It’s precisely this kind of liminal state, caught between the rapture of love and the uncertainty of the future, that so often seems best expressed by a three-minute pop song. Earache may be an up-and-coming act, but they already have the essentials down.
Oscar Villalon, Managing Editor: There are many things about Can You Ever Forgive Me? that recommend a viewing, but it’s an especially important movie for anybody considering the literary life or already entrenched in it. I can imagine it being screened at every MFA on orientation day, an unvarnished depiction that directly addresses what we already know but may need reminding of: the writing life can be a deeply unfair pursuit. As with so many other fields, the best rarely rises to the top; there is much toiling amid lack of recognition (which is to say compensation)—and a glaring absence of social skills will only make things worse, unless, of course, you sell a million copies of your book, in which case, as the agent in the movie (played by Jane Curtin, and how nice is it to see Jane Curtin again?) puts it, you can be as awful as you want. The flip side to this bitter wisdom is, as the movie suggests, that quality should still nonetheless matter, and that the writing life can be noble, no matter the cruel circumstances pushing a few toward things they’d never imagined themselves doing. For as bad, morally and legally, the crimes of Lee Israel, it’s the bloviating of a self-satisfied Tom Clancy at a lux cocktail
party that’s as much a cautionary tale as Lee’s. That’s perhaps what’s so appealing about Can You Ever Forgive Me?, it evokes empathy for the afflicted, but presents shameless self-regard as unredeemable.
Laura Cogan, Editor: There is an expansive tree outside my window, whose branches often tap or trace the glass, according to the direction and force of the wind. I’ve long appreciated the dense shade and privacy it provides. But one day last spring as I stood at the open window daydreaming, observing the slice of visible sidewalk below, a breeze shook the branches just inches from my arm and I saw, with a start, that the branch and indeed the entire tree was blossoming with countless curled green pods. For years I’d seen this tree without actually seeing it. I had no idea it blossomed, or what kind of tree it was. I’ve been thinking about this kind of environmental blindness lately, and trying to shake it off.
Even for those of us living in a city there is so much of the natural world living all around us and being ingenious and remarkable every day. My own neighbors include bats (of which I have other, more unnerving stories), crows, geese, herons, egrets, hummingbirds, coyotes, turtles, bees, and raccoons, among many others. And nearly anywhere we look there are local environmental issues calling out for attention.
There’s an inescapably obvious irony in the fact that I care about the environment and the creatures with whom we share this planet, and yet am often so immersed in such concerns in a macroscopic way that I am blind to their most local manifestations.
Two books I’ve been reading address this idea directly and persuasively, in quite different ways. The End of the End of the Earth collects Jonathan Franzen’s recent essays, nearly all of which (and certainly the best of which) are preoccupied with birds in one way or another. Franzen tries to clarify his concern (which has previously landed him in controversy, perhaps because he was partially misunderstood—or perhaps not) that by focusing exclusively on the emergency of climate change, we risk overlooking other, smaller scale environmental issues. Such issues can be efficient to address and can affect substantial, lasting change with striking results for individual species, a specific ecosystem, and a local economy (as he describes in a few inspiring examples). Franzen’s perspective on climate change, understood in full, is devastating—which may be the underlying reason for the backlash. Many of these essays are exquisitely well-crafted, poignant, and painfully sad. I find I don’t always agree with Franzen, but both his perspective and my own occasional internal arguments with him sharpen my perception of the landscape.
The Overstory by Richard Powers is a doorstop of a novel peopled by characters both human and plant, where the trees are just as important, and just as interesting, as the humans. If this sounds odd or tedious, it isn’t. With masterful storytelling and a confident use of poetic license, Powers tells a story that shifts perspective and directs our gaze toward the slow moving and ingenious creatures busy living their own lives right alongside and amid all our family dramas, our spiritual awakenings and failures, our loves and losses.
The tree outside my window, I’ve learned, is a Blackwood Acacia, a species from Australia considered invasive.