Connecting With the Unknown, Unexpected in Nature: Q&A with David Rains Wallace

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David Rains Wallace was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1945 and grew up in New England. He attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. (B.A. 1967) and Mills College in Oakland (M.A. 1974). His first published writing on natural history and conservation appeared in Clear Creek Magazine in 1970. Since then he has published seventeen books, and his work has appeared in many anthologies and periodicals, including The Norton Anthology of Nature Writing, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Harpers, Mother Jones, Greenpeace, Sierra, Wilderness, Country Journal, and Backpacker. Wallace received the 1984 John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing […]

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Who’s Afraid of the Light?: The Cutting Ball Theater’s ‘Pelleas and Melisande’

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The Cutting Ball Theater’s production of Maurice Maeterlinck’s Pelleas and Melisande (translated by director Rob Melrose) exploits a long, narrow, catwalk-style stage (designed by Michael Locher) to set up intense relationships among the characters. In an early scene, Golaud (Derek Fisher), the prince of Allemonde, comes upon Melisande (Caitlyn Louchard) weeping by a spring. Melisande kneels over a small rectangular pool set into the stage floor while Golaud stands far away from her at the opposite end—this relationship, in different permutations, is revisited again and again. Charmed by her beauty and strangeness, Golaud marries Melisande and takes her to live […]

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poem beginning in no and ending in yes

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Octavio Paz wrote that a poem’s meaning is derived from its form, that every form “produces its own idea, its own vision of the world.” This is interesting, especially, when we consider poems that experiment with layout on the page. Take, for example, the late Lucille Clifton’s piece titled, “poem beginning in no and ending in yes,” originally published in ZYZZYVA’s 1989 summer issue. (Clifton was teaching at the University of California at Santa Cruz at the time.) In the poem, Clifton memorializes 13-year-old Hector Peterson (the first child killed in the Soweto riot of 1976). She doesn’t use punctuation or capitalization, but the reader does not feel disoriented or lost. The poem is framed too effectively (as the title suggests, beginning the poem with “no” and concluding with “yes”). The images and message are able to burn “into the most amazing science,” as Clifton puts it.

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The Slippery Nature of Experience: Ben Lerner’s ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’

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Acclaimed poet Ben Lerner’s first novel is a fascinating and often brilliant investigation of the distance (or the communication) between experience and art. In Leaving the Atocha Station, an aspiring American poet on fellowship in Madrid finds himself in the places between languages, between feeling and thought, between places, and, most often, between lived experience and “the moment of art.” The narrator, Adam Gordon, is highly conscious of these various thresholds. The idea of translating language saturates his every encounter, as Adam pretends to understand an event or a person. Perceived misunderstandings about his grasp of Spanish lead him to […]

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Blue-Collar Living: Katherine Karlin’s Story Collection, ‘Send Me Work’

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The heroines of Katherine Karlin’s first collection of short stories, Send Me Work (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern; 159 pages), are on the verge of realizations about their unforgiving communities; that is, they are discovering the forces driving the blue-collar world around them, and, more interestingly, uncovering complex emotional truths about themselves. This is often quite funny. In “Bye-Bye, Larry,” (a Pushcart Prize winner originally published in Zyzzyva’s Spring 2005 issue), the female protagonist, a queer, soon-to-be-laid-off oil worker, muses on the differences between herself and the plant’s female manager: “it occurs to me that if I were taller, smarter, had paid more […]

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Convex Circular Plates as Medium: circlesaints at Johannson Projects

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When an artist adopts a particular device as ardently as Yvette Molina has convex circular plates (25 of her 27 works at Johansson Projects’ “circlesaints” exhibition are painted on these), one has to ask, “What is it doing for her art?” Molina’s works depict scenes of nature in varying states of abstraction. In the best works, the convexity of the surface serves to privilege the abstract over the representational. In the 3-foot in diameter “Akashic Recorders,” for instance, a refracted sun of magnificently unnatural yellow, emitting stylized, geometric lavender rays into the cloud-streaked atmosphere, occupies the bulging center fore; a […]

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Beyond Moses and Cosell: Julie Otsuka’s ‘The Buddha in the Attic’

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A few weeks back The New York Times book critic Dwight Garner wrote an essay for the Riff section of the magazine titled “Dear Important Novelists: Be Less Like Moses and More Like Howard Cosell.” Essentially, Garner wants important novelists to write faster, to be less like Moses “handing down the granite tablets every decade or so to a bemused and stooped populace” and more like “color commentators, sifting through the emotional, sexual and intellectual detritus of how we live today.” The essay ends with a warning to these important novelists: “If you and your peers wish to regain a […]

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Some Sort of Triumph: Lucas Soi’s ‘We Bought the Seagram Building’

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“In 1958 the Canadian company Joseph E. Seagram & Sons commissioned German architect Mies van der Rohe to design their American headquarters in New York City. The skyscraper became one of the most influential architectural designs of the 20th century. In 2000 the Seagram Company Ltd. was acquired by Vivendi, a French conglomerate. In 2009, at the bottom of the worldwide economic recession, Lucas Soi bought back the Seagram Building from its French owners, returning it to Canadian ownership.” With this condensed, matter-of-fact introduction, Lucas Soi’s solo show, “We Bought the Seagram Building,” invites its audience to partake in an incredible underdog fantasy: […]

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God Is in the Gutter: Ben Ehrenreich’s ‘Ether’

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Ben Ehrenreich’s new novel, Ether (City Lights; 164 pages), follows an insomniac author living in a crumbling dystopia. He’s writing a novel about The Stranger, a man in a crusty white suit, an earthly manifestation of God. The premise of the novel-in-progress within Ether is that The Stranger has fallen to Earth and endeavors to return to heaven, intending to rectify some mistake for which his similarly fallen angels will not forgive him. Ehrenreich’s “broken hero” is consummately obstructed from his return by both misfortune and—here is the meat of it—kindnesses. By the end of the book, The Stranger has […]

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Embedding the Reader in Places He May Not Want to Be: Q&A with Joshua Mohr

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Critics have compared the writing of Joshua Mohr to that of Dostoevsky and Bukowski’s for the imagination with which he depicts grimy people clawing through a downward spiral. Following suit, Joshua Mohr’s third and most recent book, Damascus (Two Dollar Radio, 208 pages), rolls out a sooty cast of compelling characters including a Santa suit-wearing bartender, a memory haunted ex-Marine, a controversial performance artist looking to hit it big, and Shambles, “the patron saint of hand jobs.” They all struggle with emotional scars, addictions, and a litany of pathological neurosis. As in all three of Mohr’s books, what elevates Damascus […]

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Deconstructing the Genius: ‘Picasso: Masterpieces …’ at the de Young Museum

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The Picasso of the contemporary American imagination and the Picasso of flesh and blood deserve adequate distinction. Because of his universally accepted greatness, it’s easily taken for granted that the same painter could produce both the glowing anthem-portraits of his Rose Period and jagged political commentary such as “Guernica.” It doesn’t help that Picasso’s reputation is so gargantuan as to be nearly self-propagating—nor that his name has not only earned a requisite mention in every elementary- and high school visual arts class, but become a descriptor, synonymous with excessive artistic ability. All of this results in a numbed appreciation for […]

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Shig Murao: The Enigmatic Soul of City Lights and the San Francisco Beat Scene

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On October 3, 1957, a judge ruled that Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was not obscene. It was a decision that would pave the way for publication of works from Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, William Burroughs, and others. A key  figure from the Howl trial was Shig Murao. His life and legacy has been documented in a website that launches today, www.shigmurao.org. This essay is adapted from a much longer biography with multiple supporting documents published on the website created by Richard Reynolds, a longtime friend of Murao’s. Shig Murao was the clerk who on June 3, 1957, was […]

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