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Interviews

Interviews with Current and Past Contributors, as well as with Other Writers, Poets, and Artists

Q&A with Homeless: ‘This Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far’ and a Vague Reality

Homeless novel This Hasn't Been a Very Magical Journey So farThis Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far (257 pages; Expat Press) is a difficult novel to categorize. It isn’t often that a crushing romantic tragedy unfurls in a universe so absurd. The book’s biting dialogue, irrational laws of physics, and buddy-comedy dynamic recall Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Beneath the story’s self-deprecating charm, however, lies a relationship that, in both its gentle initiation and passionate conclusion, raises questions about caring for one another and caring for oneself at the crossroads of love and mental illness.

This Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far is the first novel from poet and artist Homeless, who displays his work publicly on the streets and subways of New York City. At its center is Hank Williams, who has fallen in love with Patsy Cline, both characters endowed with the names of famed country musicians who died tragically young. Hank Williams leaves a mental hospital with the help of a man-sized cat clad in a leather jacket. The two embark on a destination-less journey as they grapple in tandem with the irreversible reality of romantic partnerships lost.

At times obscene and at others deeply emotional, This Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far is a thoroughly surprising read. Homeless talked to ZYZZYVA about the novel.

ZYZZYVA: The characters in This Hasn’t Been a Very Magical Journey So Far range from people to cats to owls to gophers. What inspired you to blend the animal and the human?

Homeless: My initial idea when beginning This Hasn’t Been… was to write a children’s fiction book –– but for adults. To this day, I’m still a huge fan of Roald Dahl, especially James & the Giant Peach (which I give a nod to in my novel), so I wanted to do something like that. I wanted to have a story where a character goes on what’s supposed to be a magical journey with characters that are supposed to be magical. So combining human characters in a world with animal characters was just to give it that children’s fiction feel.

Z: The novel frequently jumps around in time, which I found very engaging. In writing the novel, did you work chronologically? What was your understanding of time within the world you created?

H: Honestly, I was all over the place when writing it. I had no idea where it was going, kind of like the way the characters have a destination in mind but they really have no idea where they’re going. I didn’t do that on purpose, but once I made that correlation I kind of let myself off the hook and just began writing these two separate storylines with no real end in sight. And so then I kept my eye open along the way for chances to connect them. It was an exciting way to write at times when it worked, but also insanely frustrating when it didn’t. I’d probably never it do it that way again.

Z: Reading the novel gave me the feeling of attempting to recall a dream—full of strange detail but often with vague chronology, boundaries, and stakes. Did you attempt in your prose to represent such a dream state –– or perhaps even psychosis?

H: While I don’t try to represent a dream state in all my prose, in this novel specifically I was aiming for a hysterical, fever-like dream, but one that was layered over a vague reality. In my head, Hank Williams actually goes on some kind of journey in the real world, but he’s so consumed with grief that he’s practically lost his mind, and so the way the book reads is how he perceives the world around him during this insanely troubling time in his life.

Z: I adored the romance at the novel’s core, and was both fascinated and frustrated with your depiction of the character Patsy Cline, who Hank Williams is mourning. At times she seems to exist only within Hank Williams’s sense of love and loss, but she can also be read as an autonomous character who makes decisions according to her own needs. Can you help me make sense of her?

H: I’m fascinated with people and characters who are in immense pain from simply being alive. People and characters who seemingly hurt for no reason. It’s like they don’t know how to exist on this planet, like every single moment of their life is a struggle. An example of a couple like that would be Sid and Nancy. And that’s where Patsy Cline came from — a Nancy Spungen type. The idea of this person who is out on control, and who knows they’re out of control, but can’t seem to navigate the pain of living. And people like that can be hard to make sense of. They do what they want to do. They live irrationally. They make drastic decisions. They seem to feel things stronger than most people –– but the appeal to that is, when you’re with them, you also feel things stronger, both good and bad, which is what Hank Williams experiences when he’s with Patsy Cline, and why he’s so desperate to find her after she leaves. I have no idea if I’ve answered your question, but…

Z: What drove your shift from the frank vignettes of your poetry to your first novel?

H: I wrote a novel because I needed to purge myself of a girl who had a hold on me. This book was really just a way of working through that. Poems can help, too, I guess, but only in smaller ways, in little bits and pieces. Whereas dedicating 200+ pages to this loss you’re going through really seems to allow you to work a lot more out. Even find some sense of closure.

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Q&A with Peter Orner: ‘Maggie Brown & Others’ and Real Life as Fiction

Peter Orner collection Maggie Brown & OthersIn an age of instant reactions and hair-trigger controversy, Peter Orner is a writer who slows things down, living up to Susan Sontag’s admonition that “the writer’s first job is not to have opinions but to tell the truth…and refuse to be an accomplice of lies and misinformation.’’

Born in Chicago, he graduated from the University of Michigan and the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop. A former professor and department chair at San Francisco State University, he is now a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth.

Orner’s eclectic body of work includes the novels The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo and Love and Shame and Love; an essay collection/memoir, Am I Alone Here? Notes on Reading to Live and Living To Read, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; and three short story collections: The Esther Stories, Last Car Over The Sagamore Bridge, and the just published Maggie Brown & Others: Stories (Little, Brown and Company).

He’s also somehow found the time to edit three non-fiction books for the Voice of Witness Series: Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives, Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (co-edited with Annie Holmes), and Lavil: Life, Love and Death in Port-Au-Prince (co-edited with Evan Lyon). If you need something done, ask a busy man.

The new book’s title story, “Maggie Brown,’’ about the narrator’s lost romance with a college girlfriend, is vintage Orner. “A few years ago I saw her at a Minneapolis airport,’’ he writes. “She looked right at me, didn’t know me from Adam, and marched onward. Maggie Brown in a business suit…You end up forgetting the people you shouldn’t and remembering the people who’ve forgotten all about you.’’

Peter Orner answered questions about Maggie Brown & Others (and other matters) via email:

ZYZZYVA: I was struck by the ambition of Maggie Brown & Other Stories. It seems like a quantum leap forward, given the five separate sections, linked by mood but not subject, and the ambitious closing novella, “Walt Kaplan Is Broke.’’ Did you feel a special urgency as you were writing the pieces, and putting them together, given the times we live in and your own sense of where you are as a writer?

PETER ORNER: Did someone once say, ‘Write each book like it’s your last?’ I’ll say it: Write each book like it’s your last. I’m not sure I was responding to our strange life and times, but maybe I was without quite knowing it. I’ve always tried to see stories as somehow floating above my present day concerns. Or maybe floating above isn’t the right phrase. Existing separate? A kind of alternate reality, one that has more to do memory than it does the present?

Though many of these stories I’ve been working on for many years, I wrote and re-wrote much of this book while living in Namibia for two years between 2016-2018. It helped to be away from the circus, and maybe this helped me concentrate a little better. If there was urgency, it was informed by a particular Namibian kind of urgency. In Namibia, when someone says they are coming now, they might come in a few hours, maybe a few days. But when they say they are coming now now, then they’ll be right there. I guess I wrote this book under the spell of now now.

Z: You dedicate the book to your family, and to the late African-American novelist and essayist James Alan McPherson (author of the short story collections Hue and Cry and Elbow Room), a writer who is too often overlooked these days. Can you talk about your relationship and his influence on you?

PO: Jim McPherson was a professor of mine at the University of Iowa. An essential American writer, and we overlook him at our peril. He was also among the kindest and most generous people I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. He didn’t so much teach as guide. And he was less interested in writing than in what connects us and make us human – together.

I’ve told this before in greater detail, most recently in an essay about McPherson in The Believer, but he once taught a class that revolved around Richard Jewell, the security guard who was wrongly accused (by the FBI, I believe) of bombing the Atlanta Olympics. The theory was that he planted the bomb in order to rush in and save people because he had a hero complex. Turned out: he was just rushing in to save people. He was a goddamn actual hero. Jim was fascinated by this story, and what it said about us as a society. He couldn’t get enough of examining what makes us do humane, and inhumane, things.

Z: You’re from the Midwest, but like many self-driven exiles, you were pulled West. The epigraph to the first section of the book is from Jack Spicer, another too-neglected poet:
Come back to California, come back to California / every mapmaker, every mapmaker is pleading.’’ Now you’re back East as a professor at Dartmouth, after teaching for years at San Francisco State. But I’m wondering if you think it’s even possible to connect to this complicated state. Or is it just a state of mind?

PO: I lived nearly twenty years in California, in both San Francisco and Bolinas. Funny, I always felt like a Midwesterner misplaced in California. Now I feel like a Midwestern Californian misplaced in New England. (If I went home to Chicago again, I’d feel like a Chicagoan displaced in Chicago.) What I love about this beautiful line of Spicer’s is the idea of the mapmakers pleading for one’s return to California…

I’m not entirely sure what he means, but I love it anyway. We know that mapmakers aren’t exactly unbiased, right? Is there something about the way California looks to us on the map that pulls us there? This idea spoke to me as I was working and pining away for the Pacific.

Continue reading

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Q&A with Chia-Chia Lin: ‘The Unpassing’ and Making Sense of Absence

Chia-Chia Lin author photoChia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing (278 pages; FSG) is the haunting story of a year in the life of a Taiwanese immigrant family living in rural Alaska. The novel, told through the eyes of ten-year-old Gavin, observes the disintegration of the family after tragedy leaves them raw. With prose as stark and spare as the Alaskan shores and forests she precisely details, Lin conveys an intimate and understated account of trauma, beautifully rendering the internal world of each person affected by a shared loss.

Gavin has a sister who squirms away from her background by changing her name from Pei Pei to Paige; his father, who was an engineer in Taiwan, works as a plumber and stashes liquor in the corners of the house; his dissatisfied mother fishes like a bear in the river by moonlight; and younger brother Natty openly struggles to comprehend what’s happened to them. Lin’s depiction of poverty and dysfunction is as unflinching and sincere as only a child’s perspective could render it.

The Unpassing is a penetrating narrative on the difficulty of finding footing in a new country and how a family scatters in the wake of this change. Lin, whose short story “Hinterland” appeared in Issue No. 95, spoke with ZYZZYVA about the novel and her process as a writer.

ZYZZYVA: The novel revolves around the experience of loss and the attempt to make sense of absence. Does the title, The Unpassing, refer to this theme? Since this word doesn’t appear in the dictionary, what does “the unpassing” mean to you? 

Chia-Chia Lin: Absences have always called out to me. Something was once here, and now it is not. What is left behind? It’s not merely an empty space or a void. There is something real and tangible enough that it’s able to muscle into your daily life and crowd out other concerns, or consume air and attention and change the dynamics of the room. I wanted a title that reflected this contradiction—that something or someone who has left your life (passing away, passing out of it) could also, at the same time, re-enter your life with a brute, overwhelming force.

Linguistically, “un” words are also just fascinating to me. Unknowing something or unspeaking something is essentially impossible. These words are often accompanied by the word “can’t”; you can’t unknow something, you can’t unspeak something. You can’t go back to the place where you started from. The word itself takes up more room than it used to, now that it’s got this appendage. But it’s not a mere negation or an undoing. It’s a different creature altogether.

Z: The novel is framed around the Challenger disaster, as well as other events like the Exxon Valdez oil spill. What inspires you to incorporate such landmark events into your fiction? Do they help to ground your narrative in a time period, or do they serve more as symbolic elements?

CL: When I was writing The Unpassing, I was interested in interiors. So the book’s attention is directed inward, at the insides of things: at the connective tissue of this family, at the contents of this rickety house on the edge of a spruce forest, at the private thoughts and bodily experiences of a child. Altogether, this can make for a rather claustrophobic reading experience, and I recognized during the writing of this book that I needed to provide a little breathing room. Although it’s not my natural mode, I decided to go big not only in the setting (Alaska) but also in the markers of where we are in time. So we have these events that rock not just the family but the whole country. It was a way for me to provide just a touch of balance—to give a little context but also to break up the intense introspection here and there and to give glimpses of a larger world.

I never intended to make these events symbolic; that’s the sort of thing that happens almost against my will when I write. Side by side—the Challenger explosion, the family’s implosion—resonances just start to appear. My efforts are usually in the other direction, actually: to make things less overtly symbolic. I have a fear these days of being heavy-handed.

Chia-Chia Lin novel The UnpassingZ: You capture the voice and perspective of your main character Gavin as a young child so effectively that it is often difficult to remember he is recounting the events of the novel from adulthood. Who can we imagine he is speaking to?

CL: That’s a really interesting question. The events Gavin recounts take place mostly over the course of a year, and he is much older when he tells this story—several decades older. What I imagined was that he was rather lonely in his adulthood—at one point I had very precise details worked out about his age and profession and living situation, which I later cut from the novel—and that he viewed this particular year (1986) as a kind of turning point for his family. So he’s telling the story with a heightened intensity and awareness that every decision, every event, has long-term repercussions for his life and for his family. But whom is he telling? I’m not sure. Sometimes I think it might be the single person in his life he feels close to (someone we have not met). Other times I think it’s really anyone who will listen.

Z: ZYZZYVA previously published your short story “Hinterland,” which is also set in rural Alaska. Your description of this liminal geography in both pieces is sparing yet vivid, and always detail-oriented. What draws you to this setting in your work?

CL: I wrote that story nearly 15 years ago. I had just finished an internship in Anchorage, Alaska. The story is set in the interior—specifically Denali National Park, where I went backpacking several times. I tend to think of that story as being set in a different world from my novel, which takes place in South-Central Alaska—a more populated, more temperate, and less wild landscape, where the house is as much a setting as the outdoors. On the other hand, I do think I was using both landscapes to explore ideas that felt especially urgent during the time I spent in Alaska, such as the challenges of navigating the outdoors and self-reliance. There’s also an elusive quality I was trying to put my finger on—the feeling of your everyday concerns falling away, or being pared back to just a few vital ones, and the way aliveness resounds in that setting. I hope I gestured at these notions in my novel—it’s hard to know what you’ve created. I suspect I was much clumsier in my attempts in the short story (which I have not reread in the years since—I find it impossible to return to old work), but I am glad to hear you felt that some of the landscape’s singularity was evoked.

I suppose I was also fascinated, in both works, by the fact that Alaska has so much mythology associated with it, and the strangeness of writing one’s own story against that huge backdrop, and how small and large one can feel at once.

Chia-Chia Lin graduated with an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she received the Henfield Prize. Her short stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, and other journals. Her first book, The Unpassing, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in May 2019. She currently lives in Northern California. You can read her short story “Hinterland” in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 95

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Q&A with Yu-Han Chao: ‘Sex & Taipei City’ reveals a strange, secretive world

Yu-Han Chao author photoYu-Han Chao’s Sex & Taipei City (195 pages; Red Hen Press) offers twenty short stories that explore the repressed world of sexuality in Taiwan and how it is often secretive, awkward, and stranger than one might expect. Chao’s collection reads like a witty recount of gossip slipped between friends. There is an intimacy to each character and their lives that pulls the reader into modern Taipei with its night markets, karaoke rooms, and bustling streets. Chao doesn’t shy away from the provocative world she is exploring: the stories range from a young girl selling her body as a form of revenge, a grandpa who watches Japanese porn at high volumes, and a bride bought by a controlling man. Chao’s writing is shocking yet provides a rare glimpse into a world usually concealed. She brings to light the gendered, familial, and cultural aspects of sex in Taiwan in an entertaining way. Chao, who was featured in Issue 78 of the journal, spoke to ZYZZYVA about the book’s themes surrounding sex and Taiwanese culture, as well as her affection for the country and its people:

ZYZZYVA: The environment and culture of Taipei play a prominent role in your collection. The urban, modern setting is a vibrant part of the stories, yet we find peoples relationship to sex is quite the opposite: it is secretive and hidden. Why did you settle on Taipei as your setting?

Yu-Han Chao: The short answer is it’s my hometown, it’s what I know and, in a sense, who I am. I was born and grew up in Taipei, Taiwan. I miss the city, many of the people, the 7-11s, cute little stores, night markets, some of the neighborhood gossip, and all of the food. Taipei is one of my favorite characters.

Z: How did you come to write about sex and relationships specifically, and especially how it operates in modern Taiwanese culture?

YHC: I think what’s interesting about modern Asia is there are all these liberal and Western influences, but people’s families and parents and neighbors and aunties are just as judgmental as they were thirty to sixty years ago. It’s a huge problem for young people, and sometimes lies and secrets are necessary to save them from being cast out or severely penalized by family.

There’s always conflict between genders, generations, and cultures, especially as the demographic of Taipei becomes increasingly diverse. Young people must be home by 6 p.m. for dinner every night, and aren’t supposed to be dating at all, yet they watch Sex and the City on HBO every night after family dinner, sometimes with Mom and Grandma. Asia is a huge oxymoron. Not that America isn’t, but the polarization in repressed cultures often happens more internally, in individuals, rather than across political groups.

When it comes to sexual practices, the more repressed and proper the society in the daytime, the more weird fetishes may crop up at night. Taiwan has nothing on Japan when it comes to fetish culture!

Z: I found myself interestedsometimes even repulsed, but in the best way possiblein the chaotic world you portray, such as, for example, with the story about the Grandpa who watches Japanese porn obsessively. Could you talk about what it was like to write something about a topic that can, at times, be awkward or strange?

YHC: Carl Jung talks about the shadow: the more “good” you behave from day to day, the more darkness may grow in your shadow (hidden, inner self) to counterbalance all that goodness, ying to yang, darkness to light.

So, having grown up as a good Asian girl trying to navigate the extremes of socialization and social expectations, I find myself interested in spotting the opposite of everything I’m supposed to be and do. It comes out in the stories.

For example, growing up as young girls in Taiwan, the elders in the family tell us that “men are animals,” and we should never, ever be alone in a room with a man because they cannot be trusted. Then, suddenly, we graduate from college, and it’s all, “So when are you getting married?” Looking at the contradictions in sexual mores and societal norms, many things seem absurd, illogical, practically entertaining, rather than dirty or unspeakable.

There is nothing entertaining about violence or violation, which are also portrayed in Sex and Taipei City because, unfortunately, it happens every day, everywhere. Maintaining (a safe) distance at times can be an effective coping or survival skill for anyone living in today’s world.

Z: What are some of the Taiwanese traditions and beliefs about relationships and intimacy that made their way into your work?

YHC: In my family, when we were growing up, nobody ever touched anybody. No hugs, kissing, displays of affection. So any of that stuff has to happen behind closed doors, under the covers, if at all, and for the most part we feign innocence when it comes to sex.

Taiwanese society does a pretty good job of keeping sex a secret up until Health Education in middle school. I remember finally learning where babies came from and feeling devastated because my favorite, beautiful math teacher––who seemed so perfect in every way––was hugely pregnant with twins, and the only explanation for her pregnancy was that dirty thing she must have done with her husband. I was pretty disillusioned at the time; I felt like I couldn’t even look at her anymore!

Now I’m in America, a practically-middle-aged Asian woman with a young child, and most people in real life see me as such a polite and proper person that their jaws drop when they read my writing and realize the filters just aren’t there.

Z: I noticed many of the characters operate under, or are some way informed by, gender expectations. They may be pushing back against patriarchy, like in Yuan Zu Socializing, where she sells her body for money to get revenge on her father. Or, they may be desperately trying to fit into these gendered expectations, like the character of Jolie in Simple as That. How did gender play a role in crafting these stories?

YHC: Gender-based socialization is a huge divider in many societies, and in Taiwan gender roles can be very exaggerated, from appearance to career expectations to sexual dynamics…basically, shaping people’s entire lives. Fiction is one way to draw attention to the issue so that people can recognize the consequences to such inherent inequalities and power struggles. 

Z: Does family structure play an important part in Taiwan as well?

YHC: Family is a huge part of the tensions in the book, because in Taiwan the elders have great authority and power, and like the male lead’s mother and grandmother in Crazy Rich Asians, they can be very domineering. This means a grown man or woman could be forty years old and have children but is still expected to obey his or her parents or grandparents’ wishes. The fact that traditional Taiwanese families have multiple generations under one roof doesn’t help, because, once again everybody knows everybody’s business and tries to exert influence over one another’s lives.

The tightly knit family structure is great for Chinese New Year–– we love our family and back home we always have our village—but sometimes the seeming lack of free will can be difficult.

That said, having lived away from Taiwan and my family for decades, I miss everything about having a village. From seeing my family, having support with childcare, exposing my child to Chinese and Taiwanese culture, to the gatherings and food—always the food—I miss my people, I miss Taipei, and I miss everything about Taiwan.

Yu-Han Chao, author of Sex & Taipei City, was born and grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, and received her MFA from Penn State. The Backwaters Press (an imprint of University of Nebraska Press) published her poetry book, We Grow Old, in 2008. Another New Calligraphy, BOAAT Press, and Dancing Girl Press published her chapbooks. She maintains a blog about writing and nursing.

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Q&A with Ross Gay: ‘The Book of Delights’ and an Essay a Day for a Year

Ross Gay essay collection The Book of DelightsRoss Gay’s The Book of Delights (288 pages; Algonquin Books) is a collection of over 100 short essays. The project began as a type of writing exercise: Gay would write one essay about something delightful every day for a year. While the collection doesn’t contain an essay for every single day of that year, and some of the essays might be called more thought-provoking than purely delightful, the book couldn’t be more aptly named. The pieces read at times like prose poetry or journal entries, and they cover a variety of topics, such as a single flower growing out of the sidewalk or two people carrying a bag together. The Book of Delights brings together aspects of poetry, nonfiction, cultural criticism, and memoir, while keeping with the interests of Gay’s previous works. Gay spoke to ZYZZYVA about some of the overlapping themes that emerged in The Book of Delights, as well as his writing process:

ZYZZYVA: Some essays in The Book of Delights feel incredibly personal, almost more like journal entries than essays. When you wrote these, what audience did you imagine you were writing to?

Ross Gay: That’s such a good question. I mean, there’s a handful of things in terms of audience that I’ve realized over the years. One is that I’m writing to myself. I’m my first audience, and I’m writing to figure these things out and deepen my relationship to these things, and I’m writing to delight and surprise and confuse myself, too, so that’s the first thing. And then, I’m writing very much to the people whose work and lives I feel intertwined with or inseparable from. My dear friends, like Patrick Rosal, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Curtis Bauer, and all these people who I’m in a kind of writing community with…and my neighbors, too! The Book of Delights especially is so rooted in where I live. I’m writing for my neighbors and for other people who are reading the books I’m reading, and for people who are interested in art criticism, because in some ways I think this book is criticism. And I’ve realized I’m also really writing to my brother.

Z: Could you talk a bit about what it’s like for you to move from poetry to prose—or perhaps between poetry and prose? How is your process different for each?

RG: Well, with these essays—because I did give myself the task of writing them every day for a year—I knew I’d write them quickly and daily, so I probably knew pretty early on they would not do the work the way a fifteen- or twenty- or fifty-page essay would.

Someone asked me, “Why’d you write essays instead of poems?” and I said, because I just couldn’t write a poem every day! There’s some relationship to unknowing that poems have to me. For this task of writing each day for a year about something, the poem as a form wouldn’t even occur to me, and I just can’t explain it more than that. It’s just something about it.

Z: I left a few of the essays in The Book of Delights feeling kind of un-delighted. For example, “Hole in the Head” is one that was almost completely absent of the delight and lightness many of the essays bring. I’m curious about how concepts like death and violence collide and overlap with delight in this collection.

RG: I think what’s interesting about The Book of Delights is there’s a pretty regular tension where the practice of attending to delight feels like a kind of labor. And the essay you mention tries to begin this one way [with delight], but the gravity of this ongoing brutality we live with takes the essay. So, I think that tension is what’s interesting to me about the book because it’s true to the way I experience life. Which is to say, I am witness to and beneficiary of profound kindness and tenderness and sweetness, and I am also living amid great sorrows, and that sorrow includes and means violence and brutality and the whole thing.

There’s that longish essay, “Joy is Such Human Madness,” where I do that little false etymology of “delight” meaning “of light” and “without light,” and that maybe joy is both at the same time. That’s a long and wandery way of saying that that’s how I think and understand the world and my own life.

Z: Is that the same tension that’s carried through your poetry as well, when you discuss joy and beauty alongside death and violence?

RG: I think so. I recently was looking at that first book [Against Which] and had occasion to look at some of the poems I really had forgotten about, and it was like, oh, this is something I’ve been thinking about hard for a long time, that things reside right next to each other or on top of each other. And in a certain kind of way, I’m interested in it, because I feel like that’s life. But I also feel like there’s a way that understanding brings us closer together, the understanding that the beautiful and the brutal exist. And one of the brutalities of [our way of life now] is that it makes us forget our dying. That’s one of our first commonnesses.

You and I, we’re both going to die. And there are all sorts of apparatuses we could use to avoid or deny that, but I suspect that if we were to just sit with that fact, I think there’s some kind of understanding or knowledge between us that would be allowed to happen.

Z: The Book of Delights seems like a midpoint between your poetry and your other nonfiction. Was writing this latest book of essays then an entirely different process from other essays you’ve written, like “Loitering Is Delightful” in The Paris Review?

RG: I think the essays in The Book of Delights have some of the spirit and the sound of some of my poems, for sure. It’s also the case that I drafted them all in 30 minutes. That loitering piece, though, it took a long time. And it took conversations with people and asking people to read a paragraph or certain parts that were really sticky for me and saying, “I have this wrong, don’t I? How do I get this right?”

There’s a moment in that loitering essay where I say something like, “laughter is kissing cousin to loitering,” and it was my friend Pat who said that laughter is like loitering. He was like, you can’t consume while you laugh because you’ll choke, and that’s where that line came from. Which is to say, I do not write these things on my own. And the ones [in The Book of Delights] that I just really love in a different kind of way are the ones I just couldn’t figure out on my own. And they probably took longer to write, and in that way they were probably more like my relationship to poems.

Z: I love that you’re expressing that you are helped by friends and fellow writers to craft these pieces, because so often writers—young writers, especially—are afraid to harness and wield other people’s language or ideas.

RG: There is this fabrication—it’s a lie—that we need to write these things entirely on our own, and it’s a violence against the truth of our lives, which is that we live in communities.

And that’s what I want to study: radical collaboration—which is constantly happening! It’s all the ways we have the capacity to [share with each other and] love each other, but there is such a profound interference to that capacity. That’s why we need to study the ways we do have those capacities, and that we do it despite these intense institutional and structural pressures that try to impede us from simply being together.

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Q&A with Namwali Serpell: Recipe for Revolution—Brief and Contingent Solidarity in ‘The Old Drift’

Namwali Serpell novel The Old DriftNamwali Serpell’s The Old Drift (566 pages; Hogarth/Penguin Random House) is nothing short of a feat. The novel, which unfolds over several generations, is an alchemy of Zambian history, Afrofuturism, science, and fantasy. It is a triumphant and tragic retelling of the country’s birth and a sage forecast of what the future might hold for Zambia. Featuring a cast of memorable characters, Serpell’s narrative follows the lives of several generations of indigenous Africans, as well as Brits, Italians, and Indians—some colonists, some immigrants—who eventually become citizens of Zambia. Wittingly and unwittingly, many of Serpell’s characters contribute to Zambia’s technological and political “progress” (including by collaborating, albeit ambivalently, with Chinese and American investors). In the novel, Serpell, who won the Caine Prize for African Writing and the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, lovingly and vividly portrays the pluralistic Zambia she knows; undermines the reader’s ability to pinpoint blame for conflicts small and large; and compels us to consider how moments of contingent and brief solidarity might bring about socioeconomic equality.

I sat down with Serpell last April in Berkeley to talk about her latest work. Below are some of the highlights from our conversation.

ZYZZYVA: The book is incredibly sad. Would you agree with that?

Namwali Serpell: A through-line across the entire novel is the rage that underlies mourning. So there is a sadness—not a depressive sadness, but a sublime grief.

Z: I noticed that the children in the book seem to be destined to follow their parents or grandparents in some way (for better or worse). For example, Jacob takes after his grandmother. When he finds out his grandmother’s history, it seems to him his obsession with fixing or engineering things makes sense. Joseph pursues the profession of his father in an even more literal way, and Naila seems to seek to right the wrong that her grandfather committed against native Zambians. This coupled with the instances in which the wrong people are blamed for bad things make me ask if this is perhaps a metaphor for some form of reparations on the African continent—that the children of those who have done wrong should, to some extent, right those wrongs?

NS: Reparations isn’t a language I use to think about how to address the injustices of colonialism. There has been on the continent a really interesting movement to do something analogous to reparations. So getting Germany to formally apologize to Namibia for the genocide of the Herero. Or the descendants of the Mau Mau rebels whose family members and who themselves were tortured by the British—they had a court case in England where they were given compensation.

There is the question of how we reclaim justice. How do we, for example, get full ownership of the copper mines in Zambia, which even at the moment of independence, the British managed to hold onto? There are attempts like that, which seek restitutive justice, but I wouldn’t use the language of reparations, which more often applies to slavery in the U.S. and the Caribbean. I’d say these are analogous struggles.

What I was thinking about more broadly is the larger question that the swarm of mosquitoes that narrate the novel raise continuously, which is about error and contingency and agency. So there’s a kind of cycle of unwitting retribution happening between these three families, whereby one family is harming the other, which is harming the third, which is harming the first, and this keeps going throughout the generations. I triangulated that relationship, instead of having two families at war like the Montagues and the Capulets, in order to render this kind of oblique quality of relation that undermines our ability to pinpoint blame.

So, for example, the first collision between three family members that are ancestors of the three major families, which happens at Victoria Falls Hotel—it would be hard to pinpoint the blame for the acts of violence that take place in that context. Because you could say Lina reaches out and hits N’gulube because she’s upset that her mother, Ada, has left her side. Ada has left her side to attend to her husband, Pietro, who has just had hair snatched off his head. And Pietro’s hair has been snatched off his head because Percy was trying to grab his hat as a joke. And Percy accidentally hurt him because he was feverish with malaria and so not fully conscious of what he was doing. So really the creature to blame for all this is a mosquito!

This sort of thing happens throughout the novel. Everyone’s responsibility for any particular complication is always mitigated. Agency emerges in relation rather than as something we each possess deep inside of us (like “I did something wrong”). It’s very rare in the novel where someone actively does something wrong to someone else. Most of the time, there’s some set of contingencies that draw people into some kind of collision.

And that is, I think, one way of reconceiving colonialism—as a set of forces that interact and create these really arbitrary and strange acts of violence that will change the entire fate of the rest of the nation. Don’t get me wrong. There is power behind this. There is structural violence. Imperialism does have that kind of force. But to pinpoint it as one person or another’s fault is very difficult. And I think it’s a seduction to think that we can blame single agents for structural violence in that way. So if we think about the borders that got drawn in Zambia, the upper left-hand corner is orthagonal, literally because the king of Italy took a pen and drew this border at a right angle. To me, that kind of arbitrariness is just as important to understand about colonialism as all of the force and power behind it.

Z: What does your novel say about what it means to be African?

NS: I wanted to subvert expectations of what it means to be African. So the idea of “being Zambian” gets contested at various points in the novel. One important figure for this is Agnes, who comes into Northern Rhodesia just as it’s turning into Zambia. Her marriage to her black, Zambian husband is illegal until after independence. So anyone who was in the country at the moment of independence became Zambian. That was the rule. So she stays and becomes Zambian. By the end of the novel, she’s spent most of her life in Zambia.

So this is very similar to my father, who came to Zambia in the late 1960s and, when the country became independent, became a Zambian citizen; married a Zambian (my mum); and stayed. So, to me, he’s Zambian even if he’s white. He speaks a Zambian language. So I was interested in the question: what do you do with that kind of assumption of identity? Sir Stewart Gore-Browne is another example—he came as a British settler and he was violent to his Zambian workers, but he also then became involved in the fight for independence from the British. He helped Kenneth Kaunda become our first president. Browne was one of the first people to represent black Africans in parliament at all.

So it’s very hard to separate out the racial question and the cultural question and the national question. And it’s also very clear to me that characters like Agnes and historical figures like Gore-Browne and people like my father in my own life still retain a vestige of Britishness that means they will never fully be accepted into Zambian society in certain ways. And they still have white privilege. But they’re Zambian, too. So to be Zambian is a very complicated term, one I wanted to throw into contestation. Even someone like Naila in the contemporary generation, she’s born in Zambia to an Italian mother and an Indian father—she considers herself Zambian, she considers herself black . . .

Z: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that.

NS: Yes, this is why her friends are like, “Uh, black how?” They laugh at her. But that claim to solidarity with other Zambians is itself the basis of her sense of her identity. I wanted to point to the multiracial and multiethnic, multi-linguistic roots of my country and see it as a place for syncretism. President Kaunda, when he said, “One Zambia, one nation,” this was our mantra when we became independent from the British. He was trying to lasso all of these different people together. Because it’s not just people from outside. There’re also seven different main tribes within Zambia. So a sense of unity that still acknowledges differences is very important to Zambian identity.

On a related note, you know, the question of the naming of Victoria Falls is very interesting to me.

Z: Yes, I love that the book begins with that. I think Mosi Oa Tunya, which translates into “The Smoke that Thunders,” is a much more meaningful and much more beautiful name.

NS: David Livingstone was the person responsible for naming it Victoria Falls, but it was very unlike him. He did not name any other pieces of landscape. People who know about Livingstone know what sorts of preconceptions he brought with him. They know about how he treated his bearers (black workers). He beat them. He shot at one of them once. He was very condescending to them.

He also freed them from slavery. He also advocated to eradicate the Arab slave trade. He literally freed people with his own hands. He brought religion to Zambia, and Zambia is still a very religious country despite our first president having been a “humanist,” not a Christian. There’s still a lot of Christianity in Zambia. So Livingstone is revered as a missionary there.

And we still call it Mosi Oa Tunya, but we also still call it Victoria Falls. So there’s this kind of ambivalence and this kind of double acceptance. It’s a good example of the kind of ambivalence that I want to represent in the book, because I think to pretend otherwise would be to deny the reality of how things are at home, whether or not I agree with it.

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Q&A with Andrew Ridker: The Absurdity of the Facts of Things

Andrew Ridker It’s hard not to see Andrew Ridker’s acerbic, cerebral first novel, The Altruists (319 pages; Viking)—which has attracted attention from NPR and The Times, among others—as an answer to the question of how to think about, let alone write about, a major strain of American life in 2019. The plot centers around a family at once archetypal and painfully real: Arthur, a pedantic, regret-filled professor who finds tenure elusive; his psychotherapist wife, Francine, whose premature death from breast cancer was worsened by Arthur’s cheating on her in the terminal stages of her illness; their daughter, Maggie, a sanctimonious, kleptomaniac tutor; and their son, Ethan, an isolated gay man who squanders his inheritance on luxurious distractions. Years after Francine’s death, Arthur invites his estranged children back to the family home in St. Louis, a gambit driven less by his desire for reconciliation than by the threat of foreclosure on the house that he hopes will function as a haven for him and his lover—an outcome he might avoid if only Maggie and Ethan would put their inheritances toward his cause.

More than a family saga, The Altruists is a story of grief contaminated by manipulation, of spiritual fulfillment and moral aspiration constrained by the material world, of the fire of idealism smothered by the wet blanket of pragmatism. It’s a novel, in other words, rooted in the philosophical issues that have come to define the American left in the second decade of the second millennium. Arthur’s tortured, high-strung demeanor has its origins in a failed humanitarian project that, rather than improving a nation’s quality of life, caused some its citizens to die. Maggie, at once his foil and carbon copy, is similarly, if less consciously, frustrated: her acute moral intuitions roam in search of the sophistication needed to contextualize them and the fortitude needed to put them into practice. The Altruists looks long and hard at the aftermath of loss, just as it looks long and hard at class relations, financial anxiety, and the tensions of globalism, cosmopolitanism, and loneliness. Despite the leadenness of these topics—or maybe because of it—it’s very, very funny. It marks the beginning of what promises to be a rich career.

We met in Ridker’s living room in Iowa City, where he attends the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, about a week after The Altruists was released. Outside, months of snow had just begun to melt.

ZYZZYVA: Firstly, I should just say that I loved this novel. I thought, the whole time, that it reminded me of everything I like about Gary Shteyngart and writers in that vein. The touches of realistic absurdity here and there—a world where there’s a dating app designed to match people based on their trauma, stuff like that. It’s too real.

Andrew Ridker: It’s almost real. It’ll be real in six months.

Z: And other things like the name of the Dedbroke Performing Arts Center—these on-the-nose but funny intrusions of the absurdity of the facts of things, made explicit parts of the contours of the characters and their world.

AR: “The absurdity of the facts of things” is a good way to put that, I think, because it speaks to this idea of realism versus satire. I think the novel is satirical, but it’s not a satire. If you carefully select enough true details, you get an absurd picture, but it’s not one that’s been falsified or even exaggerated.

worry chartZ: I wanted to ask you about the flow charts, equations, and logical diagrams that illustrate snapshots of the characters’ thinking. They’re funny—and I think effective, insofar as they reveal new things about the psychological states of the characters. How did you figure out how to make that work?

AR: It’s like this Rashomon thing. If six people watch someone slip on the ice, everyone’s going to remember a different aspect of that event. One very empathetic, caring person might say, “Oh, I immediately felt so bad for that person and hoped they were OK.” A more bitter, cynical person might snicker under their breath and say, “He was wearing AirPods, he got what was coming to him.” Everyone’s going to notice something different. I think the things I notice are the funny details that live at the intersection between intention and reality. One of the flow charts in the novel, for instance—that’s a flow chart on the refrigerator in my childhood home. It’s basically a roadmap to calming down during an anxiety attack. It’s well-intentioned but absurd. Of all the ridiculous things pasted up on my childhood fridge, that’s the one that stuck out, you know?

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Interview with Erik Tarloff: Hollywood Endings

Erik Tarloff novel The Woman in Black 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.

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Interview with Rae Gouirand: Words Loosen and Diffuse

rae gouirand glass is glass water is waterIn 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.

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Interview with Kristen Tracy: Interspecies Conflict

half hazard kristen tracyOne 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.

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The Path Amid the Loblolly Pines: Q&A with Photographer Matthew Genitempo

The cover of "Jasper"

The cover of “Jasper”

Matthew Genitempo’s forthcoming book of photographs, Jasper (96 pages; Twin Palms Publishers; available for pre-orders now), explores a region of the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas where people live apart from the well-established norms of American life. Born and raised in the Houston area, now based in Marfa, Genitempo previously worked mostly in the Southwest; however, Jasper, his first book, represents a journey he made farther east while he was an MFA student at the Hartford Art School.

The black-and-white photographs in this book capture a series of solitary men and the remote homes they’ve made in a lush and hardbound pocket of the country. The images contain an ambiguity somewhere between loneliness and solitude, documentation and imagination, and in turn reflect the ways in which a book of poetry might weave gestural narratives based in elegy and evocative landscape. Inspired by the life and work of Arkansas poet and land surveyor Frank Stanford, Jasper transcends this reference to show how the past is lost and found—and lost again—in our contemporary moment.

I met Genitempo during a recent trip to Marfa, where we talked in the Lost Horse Saloon, the Hotel Saint George, and out in total darkness at a poet friend’s house in the Fort Davis Mountains. This interview was conducted over the phone six months later.

ZYZZYVA: I want to talk about the early days when you started pushing to escape the day-to-day and drove around a lot and took pictures by going places that might be unsafe.

Matthew Genitempo: I want to say that I understood that aspect of picture-making very early on. I remember seeing Stephen Shore’s work, William Eggleston’s work and Robert Frank’s work and a lot of pictures that were made while traveling. Not so much Eggleston, but Shore, Frank, and Robert Adams, too. I think I quickly understood that photography had opened up an unknown world for them, so maybe it could do that for me. I took a couple of photography classes in high school but I didn’t really take them seriously. I learned how to use the darkroom and everything, but I was playing in bands and playing sports, so I wasn’t very interested in photography at the time. I also wasn’t exposed to those artists I mentioned earlier.

Fast forward to college, I was studying graphic design and I took a photography course as an elective, and that’s when I was introduced to those artists. Immediately when I discovered that work, I started emulating them. They were my heroes. I started going to the seedier parts of town, downtown and the outskirts of town, bringing my camera along and making pictures. Then I started going to the smaller towns in that part of the state. I started seeing my peers making work where they were actually traveling, so I wanted to do that, too. I went out to west Texas and made pictures out here. It was a pretty natural progression. From there, my first big trip when I was out for more than a weekend came when I was working a graphic design job and I took some time off, and I went out to New Mexico for the week. It felt like I was on another planet. I felt so far away from everything I knew. I didn’t grow up traveling in the car too much. We didn’t travel very often, and when we did it was to visit my folks’ farm, or if we went on a family vacation we normally flew somewhere. So I felt like I missed out on a lot of that growing up. That was the first road experience that I had. The first one that had lived in my imagination.

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Flight Patterns: Q&A with ‘Amelia Earhart’ Author Larry Beckett

Amelia EarhartPolymath poet Larry Beckett is flying high in Amelia Earhart (72 pages; Finishing Line Press), his latest addition to a cycle of epic tributes to the likes of P.T. Barnum, Paul Bunyan, and now Earhart, and with an upcoming volume on Wyatt Earp to round off a rubric on the “American Cycle.’’

The Portland writer is still best known for his collaborations with the late Tim Buckley, including the oft-covered classic “Song to the Siren,’’ but the long-ago death of his boyhood friend has not stopped him from cultivating his muse with fresh imaginings of seemingly unlikely subjects.

Here, he explores the various scenarios surrounding Earhart’s disappearance:

Oh, listen, the blue flight had no landing,

the worlds are out of balance, and because

the airplane vanished, I, never arriving,

now haunt the raw newspaper, and in words

I hate. Do you read me?

We do. “Amelia Earhart is a novel in verse, in 58 pages,’’ Beckett explains, via email. “It’s a contemporary version of the complaint form, from Renaissance England, as in Samuel Daniel’s The Complaint of Rosamond, and William Shakespeare’s Lucrece, in which the ghost of a woman appears and tells the story of her fall. The convention was the rhyme royal stanza, ababbcc: in my poem, the ghost condemns false approaches to her life in 7-line blank verse stanzas, and the inconclusive music of slant rhyme starts when she counters with the real story.”

Earhart, “whose fall was literal, out of the skies,” he continues, “haunts the newspaper, as from year to year disappearance theories are laid out. In the poem, the ghost is in a rage because all the attention is on her death, and not her life. She thought that our culture’s making such a big deal out of the death of a flyer when it was a woman was a sign of its all-pervading unfairness to women.’’

“The poem is a broadcast on the frequency of her last transmission: the Radio Hong Kong news is interrupted by the ghost. In the extended prologue, she recounts and rejects versions of her last flight—the Hollywood movie, in which she dies as a spy; the crackpot theory, in which she survives and comes back to America in disguise; the definitive biography, in which she drowns. Her own rendition is an interior monologue through the twenty hours of the last flight, punctuated by the actual radio traffic. Whenever necessary, she concentrates on the work of flying, then drifts into images of her life, in a rough chronology. She conjures her childhood on the banks of the Missouri, love of horses and the aeroplane, first flight and solo, first altitude record, celebrity and reluctant marriage, Atlantic and Pacific solos, Mexican flight, various crackups, and her 1937 round-the-world flight, up to the last moment. Memories are embedded in memories, and take different shapes—voice, letter, photograph, lecture, list, logbook. The current hit song When My Dreamboat Comes Home runs through her head, the lyrics misremembered in a way that shows her freedom of spirit.’’

Beckett’s obsessive identification with, and admiration for, Amelia shines through, along with their mutual scorn for “the crackpots who cash in on my enigma and ride my name like a ghost automobile down easy to the bank.’’

In addition to the justifiable anger, he catches the exhilaration of pushing the envelope:

After Atlantic war, Pacific peace: the 1st

person to cross that ocean, and at Oakland:

-Your transmission: I’m tired? – You missed

my meaning in static: of the fog, I said.

1000 hurrah, crying, by the armed guard,

shove American Beauty roses at my breast.

That landing is in the diary of my heart.

Beckett’s lifelong song project – a literal description, as he also has a new CD, Love & Trial, with the British musician Stuart Anthony, of spoken and sung translations of ancient and Renaissance Greek poetry to be released digitally on November 1 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPyMU5AaE74) – is a break from the postmodern cynicism of the moment. That’s on purpose.

Asked why he continues to be drawn to such iconic figures when the culture has moved in the opposite direction, the poet responds:

“’The Muses are the daughters of memory,’ Ezra Pound recalls in the Pisan Cantos. In my elementary school library, I’d be found in the folklore section, on fire reading those tall tales, or in American history, biographies of its heroes. That charge has lived on in me, as inspiration. And as a natural Fifties rebel, following Presley and Ginsberg, I was ready to ignore cultural tides, and the literary fashion against long narrative poems, to stay true to it.’’

“For me, Paul Bunyan isn’t an example of the destruction of ecosystems for profit. He’s the American spirit, trying by bragging and laughter to be equal to the colossal landscape. Wyatt Earp isn’t a boy’s story hero with an unfortunate turn for gun violence. He’s a deacon, following Jesus, still in love with his dead wife, doing all he can to avoid violence, to keep his soul alive, in Tombstone. Amelia Earhart isn’t a pile of bones on a deserted Pacific island, or a lost airplane. She’s a woman who lived and lives, who, in a world which oppresses women, liberated herself. Why does she still come up in the headlines every few months? Her disappearance is the number one unsolved mystery, but that’s only the surface. She’s an emblem of the equality of women, and her spirit will haunt the news until that equality is made real in the way we live.”

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