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ZYZZYVA Interview Series: Peter Orner

Chicago-born Peter Orner is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College. Peter is the author of two novels published by Little, Brown: The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (2006) and Love and Shame and Love (2010), and two story collections also published by Little, Brown: Esther Stories (2001, 2013 with new foreword by Marilynne Robinson) and Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge (2013). His essay collection/memoir, Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Reading to Live and Living to Read (Catapult, 2016) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His work has been translated into French, Italian, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Japanese.

When Orner visited San Francisco’s The Bindery last month, he spoke to Managing Editor Oscar Villalon about his latest collection of stories, Maggie Brown & Others, published by Little, Brown. He also read from the book, which you can hear at the 30 minute mark.

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Q&A with Susan Steinberg: ‘Machine’ and an Automatic Tension

Susan Steinberg novel MachineYou can accuse the narrator of Susan Steinberg’s Machine (149 pages; Graywolf) of many things, but failing to hold the reader’s attention isn’t one of them. Steinberg’s first novel after a series of story collections, Machine chronicles a dread-filled summer on a nameless shore following the suspicious drowning of a teenage girl. Our narrator, a former friend of the deceased, grapples with guilt, teenage boredom, and her own privileged family’s struggles. “This is a story about desperation,” she states, “you could also say acceleration; but in this story, they’re the same.” The novel unfolds in haunting and poetic style, with Steinberg making liberal use of the semicolon to propel the reader along the page. Despite its brief length, the narrative feels weighty in its ruminations on youth in despair. Steinberg discussed Machine with ZYZZYVA via email:

ZYZZYVA: Machine  is told in these somewhat independent sections, many with their own unique formatting, and several of which have been published as standalone pieces in places such as ZYZZYVA Issue 115. The structure is not quite what I’d call a “novel-in-stories,” but it is something unique. How did you develop the structure of Machine?

Susan Steinberg: I thought I was writing a linked story collection narrated by the same character throughout, but as I started putting the pieces together, it made more sense to try to envision it as a novel. This meant I had to stop thinking about whether or not it would satisfy whatever expectations or perceptions I had of novels in general, and start focusing on why I had to tell this story in an often fragmented, differently formatted way. I had to figure out how to push aside conventions—formally, structurally, and stylistically—and still have it make sense. I spent a lot time playing with chronology and condensing time and combining characters.  It’s a book, too, that omits a lot, including names and scenes, but I find omission to be a big part of how I understand story.

Z:  The novel made me think about how something interesting often happens while we’re on vacation, particularly when we’re young: we experience the desire to toss aside inhibitions and give ourselves permission to act like a different version of ourselves. The narrator of Machine is frequently concerned with how she will be perceived by both her own social clique and the locals who live by the shore. Was the sometimes performative nature of “being on vacation” on your mind while writing the novel? 

SS: I did want to convey that there’s a lot of performing going on, but I see the setting less as a vacation and more as a repeated ritual, as if the narrator is always expected to live two lives: the girl she is in the city and the girl she is at the shore. I see vacations, in general, as luxury, whereas I see these summers, drunken as they are, as pressure for the narrator, particularly in how they relate to her identity. Sustaining that performance, the constant shifting definition of self—and to be conscious of it—is fraught and often painful, so I don’t see it so much as a freedom as I do as an obligation, just like the performance she does when she’s back home.

Z: There is an undercurrent of menace and latent violence throughout Machine. The book is a reminder that teenagers can be, well, dangerous. What were some of your literary influences in writing what one might call a more realistic depiction of young people?

SS: This is a great question, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I’m not convinced my depiction of young people comes from literary influences. I think it comes more from having been the teenager I was.

Z: I noticed a reoccurring theme of doubling throughout the novel –– there’s the narrator’s father’s study in their family house versus his study in their house by the shore; there’s the pristine side of the lake the family vacations on versus the “poor side” of the shore, and more. The narrator even states at one point, “…say there’s no such thing as fiction; say there’s only substitution.” Was this doubling a thread you wove through the book, or something you noticed appearing during the writing process?

SS: The doubling wasn’t something I planned, but at some point I realized I was returning to issues of substitution and replacement and, again, performance. I became interested in how characters were playing the roles of other characters—the narrator inhabiting the life of the drowned girl, the other woman inhabiting the life of the narrator’s mother, the brother’s plan to follow in the father’s footsteps—and it led me to thinking about how fiction, too, is just a replacement for something else, a situation or emotion, and how simultaneously liberating and restricting that can be. I think this relates to your earlier question about performance and vacation, that fine line between when it’s fun/freeing and when it’s work. Perhaps that fine line is the where much of the conflict lives in this story.

Z: In this novel, you seem to bend the semicolon to your will. You deploy this perhaps under-utilized bit of punctuation to great stylistic effect throughout the novel. When did you realize that you could use the semicolon as an effective means to tell story you wanted to tell in Machine?

SS: I love “bend the semi-colon to your will.” I want that on a shirt.

I used a lot of semi-colons in my previous book, Spectacle, and then I was being more ambitious, trying to make the semi-colon connect more than just clauses. I wanted to connect entire stories to one another with a single semi-colon, and I wanted to makes a point about intimacy, to show the difference between clauses that need to be separated by a semi-colon versus a period. In writing Machine, it was more a way to work with time and pacing. I was thinking about the speed of the semi-colon, how it’s faster than a period, slower than a comma. And it’s more elegant, for lack of a better word, in my opinion, than both. I like forcing that elegance onto an ugly scene. I think it creates an automatic tension.

Susan Steinberg is the author of the story collections Spectacle (Graywolf), Hydroplane (FC2), and The End of Free Love (FC2). She is the recipient of a United States Artists Fellowship, the Pushcart Prize and a National Magazine Award. Her stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Conjunctions, The Gettysburg Review, American Short Fiction, and ZYZZYVA Issue 115, among others.

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Letter from the Editor – Issue 116

ZYZZYVA Volume 35, #2, Fall 2019Dear Readers,

At the risk of stating the obvious, most of us will spend a large portion of our waking hours working. For many people, the work they must do is in tension with the life they want to lead. For others, work is the site of the most profound expression of their life force. Many of us labor somewhere in the middle, as both our work and our sense of self are subject to major change over the course of time. And while work and life are not the same, the sheer number of hours devoted to work (or consumed by it) makes it an inescapably important part of our existence. What we do at work— and how we think about it—can inform much of how we experience life itself as we go through our days.

It would be, probably, too strong to call this a themed issue. But threaded throughout many of the selections here—sometimes in the foreground, sometimes as an integral part of the underpinning architecture—is the theme of work. It’s the generative engine of conflict or a burgeoning worldview, the site of alienation or community, a place of escalation, ambition, escape, or beauty. At cosmetics counters and grocery stores, restaurants and cafes, newspaper offices and production sets, the stories, essays, and the interview here are laced with concerns about labor, class, money, and identity.

In Dagoberto Gilb’s story, a former construction worker and a writer sit across a table as wide as a canyon, trying to truly see each other and understand what happened between them years ago. Jim Gavin speaks with uncommon candor about money and its attendant anxieties. Michelle Latiolais’ poignant essay describes the grace and dignity she found in restaurant service. Michael Jaime-Becerra recalls how the experience of his first summer job—following in his father’s footsteps working at a Viva Mart—ultimately crystallized his understanding of the radically different life, and work, he’d need to seek out.

Reviewing the issue, I’m struck by how many of these pieces subtly, organically, challenge lazy clichés about what kinds of work are valuable, who should do which jobs, and how we’re expected to then feel about it.

Whatever you’ve worked on today, however you’ve spent your precious time and energy, I hope you’ll read something here that resonates. In some ways, I think the conversation opened here about labor is just a beginning—and something we may want to explore again in a future issue.

Yours, L.

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‘Be Recorder’ by Carmen Giménez Smith: A Call to Action

Carmen Giménez Smith poetry book 'Be Recorder'Anyone who has ever questioned the capacity of poetry to do something needs to read Carmen Giménez Smith’s newest collection, Be Recorder (88 pages; Graywolf Press). Be Recorder refuses to pretend it lives elsewhere, in some untouchable world of the lyric. Rather, each poem is undeniably here, in the now of state-generated violence and imperialism, of oppressive immigration policies, of love, of motherhood, of writerly politics. This list, while certainly marking many of Giménez Smith’s major attentions, is painfully incomplete: Be Recorder sees everything, even what it has yet to witness.

It is this impulse –– to witness and uncover, while also pointing toward the unknown –– that makes this collection and its politics so compelling. You don’t even have to open the book to hear its first demand, conveyed through the well-chosen title: “Be Recorder.” To illuminate historical harms, personal traumas and joys, we must first record them; to spectate actively is to remember and to write down, to capture each occurrence and refuse to let it go unnoticed. A “recorder” is, however, not just the person who keeps records, but the apparatus of recording itself. This complicates things: the power of witnessing can be revolutionary for the unseen, but such an apparatus can also be wielded by those forces the revolutionary witness pushes against. The state, too, is a recorder, one which dictates and archives a dominate understanding of history, marks borders on the land, shuffles, expels, and kills those defined as deviant. Be Recorder understands the messy role of documentation and declaration:

can I trust your simpatico or will my dark repel / will you be frontier and border kiss me for the camera / can I have authentic depth and will you align with me / will you hold my curls when I’m expelling phantoms / who open tunnels into the past will you consider the sky / contra the west with its grinding machines will you Spartacus / with me will you jump in fight can it be your caravan too / record my face lover record my limbs record them for / us all I’m lucky I’m lucky I’m so lucky that I’m lucky

In a single stanza, both the “west with its grinding machines” and a lover recording limbs appear. The personal grace and closeness of being seen in a moment of intimacy, and the violence of being watched and restricted by the nation’s “frontier and border,” exist on the same plane. This is not the only instance of Be Recorder‘s play with oppositional truths and the paradox of radical gesture:

I hardly care that I’m doing / harpy that I’m a city’s pestilence / should I mother or write / serve art or the state

Can art serve the state? The state has certainly exercised art as a means of propaganda, and artists have often, quite willingly, chosen to allow it. In recognizing this dichotomy and historical tension, the poem highlights an important truth, a manifesto posed as a question. To truly serve art is never to serve the state in any capacity, which is to say, that which seeks to meet the demands of empire should hardly be considered art at all.

This is just one reading of this poem, this line, this book, yet it’s hard not to feel galvanized by the possibilities it offers. Be Recorder operates as both a mirror and an imagination. We are rallied by it, called to attention, to action, to sight:

can I expect / a chronicle of the moment or is it fraught with the lyric therefore fraught / with the vulgar density of people is that the hitch aesthetically / thus ethically does it seem impossible the desire for such validation / or could you break free and record / be recorder

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“Ms. Lonelyhearts”

The phone calls me to attention.
An old friend, dead. 89. She had
a “good run,’’ as they say, it was
for the best, whatever that means.
Trumped, quickly, replaced with
wincing news that another’s son
killed himself, jumped off a bridge
too far. Words fail,
repeatedly. Searching for emoticons
in lieu of emotions.
Stir and mix the customary
repetitive political jabber,
echoing indignation.
Where is love? Is it in the stars
above? I sink below, mired in
timeless sorrow, time beyond time.
Multiple failures, fumbles, fright.
Who to “speak’’ to?
God is dead, or so it’s reliably
said. We pull our weight in key strokes.
Hot type. Cold comfort. Worst,
there is none. No one here but
thee, me and meaningless
conversations with ourselves.
Call me. I’ll be there. Forever.
Waiting, but not at home.
Don’t really want to stop
the show, thought you
might like to know. Waiting
for that call. Who’s there?

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‘Home Remedies’ by Xuan Juliana Wang: Perfect Worlds

Xuan Juliana Wang collection Home Remedies“Family,” “Love,” and “Time and Space” comprise the three sections of Xuan Juliana Wang’s first story collection, Home Remedies (204 pages; Hogarth). These categories describe this book better than much else could: Wang conjures an incredibly wide range of characters and plotlines, all tied together through notions of familial bonds, love, and temporality. There are no broad strokes or homogenizing glances in Wang’s work. These stories, concerned with Chinese young people and their engagements with culture, curiosity, and identity are complicated and specific, personal and detailed, messy and absurd. Each story Wang creates is so perfectly and wholly its own world; the only moment of disappointment they offer is in their brevity. It’s hard not to feel a sense of loss at the close of each universe, so vivid, full, and necessarily affecting.

The book’s opening story, “Mott Street in July,” centers on a Chinese family living in the U.S. over the course of a very hot summer, one marked by the national “Asian carp crisis.” The three children of the family, Walnut, Pinetree, and Lucy, watch as their parents leave their small apartment to join the “Fish Generation,” those who presumably have gone to kill the carp, which “could be lured with moon cakes and rice noodles to swim alongside chartered boats across the ocean, back to the waters where the carp belonged… to guide them back to their rightful home.” Political and surreal, this story is as heartbreaking as it is subversive, able to touch upon intergenerational trauma, abandonment, and love under systematic exclusion through almost mythic prose:

The fish followed the river, the father followed the fish, the mother followed the father, and the children, holding their arms out, did not have a past to chase. Love could be a burden, too… The fish themselves must be confused, too. The carp hadn’t done anything wrong… They lived for more than a hundred years in these American waters and felt a lot of anguish and confusion, which they passed down to their own fish children… They had come so far and done what was asked of them; now they were unwanted.

“Days of Being Mild” (likely a reference to Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai’s 1990 film Days of Being Wild), by contrast, features a group of young people who have recently moved to Bejing, or Bei Piao, young adults out “to prove that the Chinese, too, can be decadent and reckless.” The group of roommates that the story recounts more than live up to this promise, filling their days with erotic fashion photography shoots and experimental filmmaking, punk shows, and new lovers. Visually, the story is a far cry from the crowded apartment on Mott Street where three children learn the limits of love. But both stories find their characters in orbit, albeit a precarious one, around family making; the difficulty of defining oneself in opposition to one’s parents, or the special kind of dependence that forms among young people when they no longer feel held by those who were meant to protect them.

It feels rare for a single book to do so many things, and to do each of them so well: an unrequited queer Olympic love story, a woman transformed by the designer clothes of a dead model, an aging machine, teenage violence, sexual yearning, unwanted marriages. Each vignette is magical, and critically real. It’s a gift to read something so attentive, able to traipse across time and space with the utmost care for each life brought into focus.

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‘The Churchgoer’ by Patrick Coleman: The Limits of Doubt

Patrick Coleman novel The ChurchgoerEven if Patrick Coleman’s first novel, The Churchgoer (354 pages; Harper Perennial), was not prefaced by a quote from Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, the story’s noir flavors would be unmistakable. Mark Haines, a former youth pastor turned burned-out security guard and amateur surfer, lost his faith and more than a step when his beloved sister committed suicide years ago. In his rearview are a wife and a teen daughter who can barely swallow their bile to speak to him on the phone every so often. Meanwhile, always close at hand is the alcohol addiction he fights to keep a lid on. (“Alcoholics, like pastors maybe, are never recovered but always recovering,” he notes.) Mark spies a chance to do some minor good in the world –– a shot at redemption would be too much to hope for –– when he happens across Emily, a young woman by the side of the road, trying to thumb her way from Oceanside to Seattle.

Mark offers to buy her a meal at the local greasy spoon, an act of generosity he must shamefully admit is at least somewhat motivated by his attraction to Emily, but little does he know his good deed will go far from unpunished. Emily isn’t a femme fatale, but she might be that other noir staple, the Woman in Trouble:

She wrapped the leash around the tail of the board and walked up the beach, a classic California profile in nearly full shadow, her features existing only in a burned, golden shade, like the saints on Renaissance altarpieces that seemed to be inwardly self-illuminated. But Emily couldn’t be the surfer girl the Beach Boys sang out, the girl half the young (and not so young) men around her lusted for, laughing through evenings at bonfires and ukulele sing-alongs. That was just her darkened profile, a corresponding outline. And if she was in shadow, my face was catching the light, and she was coming my way.

The further Mark becomes enmeshed in Emily’s life, the further he enters a world of violent drug dealers, underhanded evangelicals, and powerful real estate magnates. “San Diego’s a small town,” Mark notes, “and the evangelical scene is even smaller.” Mark is far from a seasoned private detective like Phillip Marlowe, but his own self-loathing and guilty conscience will prove all the motivator he needs to dig deeper into the conspiracy once Emily vanishes without a trace.

The Churchgoer is populated with the kind of hard-boiled monologues one associates with the noir genre (“Time and perspective,” Mark muses, “two unrelenting, changeable assholes –– but not without a sense of humor”), and its cast of pistol-wielding drug peddlers wouldn’t be out of place in your average detective novel. But Patrick Coleman’s background is in poetry (his poems previously appeared in ZYZZYVA Issue No. 94), a background that’s revealed not only in The Churchgoer’s lush language –– even the seediest and most squalid neighborhoods of San Diego County are rendered with great care –– but in the way Coleman is far more interested in Mark’s crisis of faith than a conventional plot.

As Mark’s amateur investigation (which includes impersonating a police officer when necessary) sends him undercover to one of Southern California’s most successful “mega-churches,” he comes face to face with what he views as a mirror of his former hypocrisy. He ultimately can’t resist the opportunity to ruffle the church’s Santa Claus-esque pastor:

He was a good actor, a professional preacher, face muscles that could bench three-hundred and open a beer bottle with nothing but a dimple. Speaking was his way of control, his lifeblood. I didn’t want to let him have it, kept taking it away.

Even so, Mark must eventually acknowledge that his quest to “save” Emily might merely be an attempt to make up for all the ways he’s let down his daughter –– assuming Emily needs any saving at all. In the end, Mark’s lot in life stems from one decision: the moment he turned his back on his religion and family when the foundation for his faith crumbled. But the numerous close calls he encounters while searching for a trace of Emily will cause him to question the dogma of hatred –– hatred for himself, hatred for the world –– that has served as his bitter fuel in the intervening years.

The Churchgoer is at once a cracking noir yarn and an introspective examination of the limits of belief and doubt. Late in the novel, Mark experiences his own “dark night of the soul”; with Mark trapped and in the dark, quite literally, this section allows Coleman to dive deep into Mark’s sensory experience and mental battle as he struggles for air. It’s a test of will as great as any faced by a Biblical hero (like Daniel tossed in the lion’s den), and Coleman renders the scene with language that recalls the opening of Genesis:

The silenced filled the darkness and the darkness filled the silence. Then the terror rose up.

Nothing. I was adrift in nothing. Nothing to see. Nothing to do. Nothing to hear, except my own breathing and whispered profanity.

Back against the wall, Mark finally encounters a situation that his quick wits and smooth tongue can’t get him out of. Like so much of The Churchgoer, this moment serves as a reminder: no matter how far we think the past is behind us, no matter how self-reliant we claim to be, there always comes a reckoning. In this case, the reckoning packs a punch, but so does Coleman’s unsentimental prose in this stellar debut.

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‘Stubborn Archivist’ by Yara Rodrigues Fowler: The Preciousness of a Moment

Yara Rodrigues Fowler novel Stubborn Archivist

The task of organizing one’s life experiences into a comprehensible narrative is a universal one—why else do so many of us go to therapy? Through our internal dialogue we create stories, or perhaps allow ourselves to live according to the stories that best help us cope. This is a work of inclusion and omission, of unearthing and rearranging:

But there were good times
There were good times. Come on. Be honest with yourself.
Yeah the sex had been good sometimes…
And she had loved him…
And there were other things. But she’s a stubborn archivist.

Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s first novel, Stubborn Archivist (378 pages; Mariner Books), is constructed through this sorting of memories. The book that emerges is funny, painful, and healing. It reads like opening up someone’s journal, as if the never-named narrator stopped to jot down pieces of her story as they burst into view. The novel has the intimate quality of a narrative not yet organized, straddling prose and poetry through its ambiguous dialogue and internal monologue. Rodrigues Fowler refuses to undermine the preciousness of a moment, allowing singular thoughts and actions to take up room, while never shying away from blank space on the page.

Stubborn Archivist follows three generations of women in Brazil and London. There is the unnamed narrator, a young Brazilian-British woman struggling with her digestive health and reckoning with residual trauma from her first relationship. Then there is her mother, Isadora, a doctor from Brazil who moved to London with her British husband as well as with her younger sister, who lives with the married couple and grapples with depression. And finally, there is Cecília, grandmother and matriarch, who resides in Brazil with the narrator’s grandfather. In their own ways, each of these women experience the impact of life under Brazil’s military dictatorship.

Stubborn Archivist roots the personal in the political, as the legacy of the dictatorship trickles through the characters’ experiences of romance and family. The narrator recounts her early relationships and her brave confrontation of an ex-boyfriend regarding his acts of assault. Her sexual experiences frequently cross boundaries, both cultural and consensual:

Something I don’t talk about and I regret
I can talk in Portuguese in bed
Okay yes do it
Okay

Quiet moments like these give Stubborn Archivist a singular intimacy. Rodrigues Fowler uncannily captures that home-alone feeling when one has complete privacy: as the saying goes, the true measure of our character is what we do when no one is watching. Rather than evaluating her narrator, however, Rodrigues Fowler seems to question how she grows through these private moments, and how they reflect her interior life. The reader watches the narrator rewriting and revising an email to her boss while bedridden with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, waxing fastidiously before flying to Brazil, and biking through the streets of London at night. Stubborn Archivist, even as it spans decades, is built from these solitary moments. Layers and layers of experience accumulated through generations are ultimately embodied in the characters’ daily routines. Rodrigues Fowler writes a story of multicultural identity as it is impressed upon the physical bodies that live it. The subtle power of the novel’s ending lies in the narrator taking ownership of her body, despite the ways it has been fetishized, other-ed, and assaulted:

Caetano sings tinny music into the night. He says, you don’t know me at all. You move your body.

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ZYZZYVA Issue 116 – Now Available for Pre-Order!

ZYZZYVA Issue 116 cover artDear friends, the newest issue of ZYZZYVA is here! Issue 116 is now available for pre-order, and you won’t want to miss what we have in store for you. You can look forward to a collection of writing on the subject of labor, including fiction by Tommy Orange and Dagoberto Gilb; an interview with Jim Gavin, the creator of AMC’s Lodge 49 (catch the the premiere of Season 2 tonight at 10pm!); and essays by Michael Jaime-Becerra and Michelle Latiolais.

You’ll also find poetry by Cedar Brant, Rage Hezekiah, Major Jackson, and Carl Phillips; and more prose by Andrew Altschul, E.K. Ota, Micah Stack, and others.

Pre-orders are live now, so don’t delay!

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In the Fall Issue

In this issue:

Work Stories

“Mrs. Sorry” by Gabriela Garcia: The young woman tending a luxury cosmetics counter knows of ravages beyond the aesthetic.

“Wilshire and Grand” by Dagoberto Gilb: A construction worker’s coffee date with an old flame picks at knotty threads of memory.

“Session Drummer” by Tommy Orange: More than the studio gigs, it’s managing an unstable father that’s truly challenging.

“Todo Se Acaba” by Michael Jaime-Becerra: Working at the same supermarket chain that employs his father fuels Jaime-Becerra’s longing for other ways of being in the world.

“Hospitality” by Michelle Latiolais: Every aspect of providing service at a restaurant, Latiolais recalls, can turn into a beatitude.

Interview
Jim Gavin on lower middle-class Southern California, television writing, the taboo of money, and his TV show Lodge 49.

Other Prose
Andrew Altschul’s “They Hate Us for Our Freedom” (an ex-pat in South America refuses to reckon with being American), William Hawkins’s “Swing-Truss” (a father-and-son trip to Alaska gets upended by an interloper), E.K. Ota’s “Lockstep” (a former pastor’s deep pain and its lasting consequences), and Micah Stack’s “Locket” (“I don’t remember yesterday like it was yesterday.”).

Poetry
Cedar Brant, Rage Hezekiah, Major Jackson, Hanae Jonas, and Carl Phillips.

Art
Featuring the work of Jake Scharbach.

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

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

We’re officially in the Dog Days of Summer now (speaking of which, have you seen the literal Dogs Days on our Instagram?). We’ll be sad to see the summer go, but before the season departs—here’s a roundup of the works we’ve been reading, watching, and listening to:

Sabrina Orah Mark story collection Wild Milk

Scout Turkel, Intern: Wild Milk (166 pages; Dorothy, A Publishing Project), the first work of fiction from poet Sabrina Orah Mark came out in October of last year. Fall seems almost too appropriate a season to mark the birthday of this haunting collection of short stories. Surrealist, creeping, and piercingly sweet, Mark’s stories unfold like incantations: each so arresting and vivid, it must conjure something. But what? Concerned with painful histories, trauma, political malfunction, and intergenerational connectivity, Wild Milk represents through distortion. In “For the Safety of Our County,” the book’s seventh story, “a new batch” of Presidents are brought into the White House in a sequence both quite funny and nightmarish:

The Presidents come from all over. Perishable Presidents in thinning sweaters. Presidents bent like moons. Thirsty Presidents. Humming Presidents. Thick, winterish Presidents. Sick Presidents. Beautiful Presidents. See-through Presidents…
None of the Presidents smile.
They go through the turnstiles. Entrance is free.

The dreamlike motion of Mark’s prose here is indicative of how Wild Milk approaches both story and critique: not from the position of revelation through explanation or uncovering, but rather by seeing what wells-up when image, language, and cadence are privileged over drawing conclusive conceits. The method seems, to me, undeniably poetic, which makes sense; I first discovered Mark through her verse, specifically her 2004 debut collection The Babies, which is as profoundly beautiful and deeply ominous as Wild Milk. I think this flirtation with verse and distinctly poetic methodology is why I love Wild Milk so much—the book is categorized as fiction, but so much of it feels like a love letter to poetry, be it highly aware of the latent and explicit histories and violences which lurk around the form. In “Clay,” Mark writes:

I was wrong. The man / in the flowers is looking around. He is rising up. / Maybe he would like to share / your colored clay? I’m sorry, Son / I’m just a poet. I hope this is enough.

I didn’t add slashes to denote line breaks, that’s exactly how Mark wrote it. Even in its structure, Wild Milk plays with, and challenges, the distance between poetry and prose. I love the moment of apology too, as if the work itself knows that its stories can be, frankly, confusing, at least when measured against the expectations for commercial fiction. If you want to try something genre defying, radically awake toward the world around us, and earnestly tender, pick up Wild Milk. If it is fiction, it’s fiction that listens very, very well, which is an endlessly special thing to witness.

Bill Murray and Jan Vogler album New World

Julia Matthews, Intern: I almost wish I wasn’t making this recommendation, because the experience of stumbling unexpectedly onto Bill Murray and Jan Vogler’s theatrical album New Worlds is just shy of magical. In what began as a live show, Murray—alongside a trio consisting of cello, violin, and piano—performs recitations and songs. The album, which came out in 2017, feels too impossibly timeless to have been produced only 2 years ago. New Worlds is a carefully curated experience—musical and literary discoveries and pairings are transferred into a visceral impression of Americana in its contemporary relevance. The palpable energy of the classical trio lifts Murray’s beautiful, paternal, chameleon voice, and occasionally drowns him out in favor of the swell of music.

The album’s first track, “The Carnival of The Animals, R.125: The Swan / blessing the boats,” was my first encounter with New Worlds. As I listened, I felt its blessing was intended for me, in all the particular ways I needed one, even as Lucille Clifton’s words address anyone, or everyone. With this piece enters the motif of water that glides throughout the album. In “Song of the Open Road / Song of Myself,” Murray reads Whitman’s poetry unaccompanied, slowly and with great thoughtfulness. The words urge transience, bridging the tranquil opening blessing with the coming adventurous journey. In “Piano Trio No.1 In B Flat, Op.99 D.898: 2. Andante un poco mosso / The Deerslayer,” Murray reads James Fennimore Cooper’s text as an inquiry into the place of humans with respect to nature. The narration looks upon undisturbed wilderness as a relic in the age of the frontier. Murray’s renditions of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” from George and Ira Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess and Van Morrison’s “When Will I Ever Learn to Live in God” introduce the complicated nature of doubt and instability in faith alongside the simple joy of making noise. Murray’s brilliant voice acting features prominently throughout the album, particularly on one of its most powerful tracks, “Moon River / Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which asks: Where does individual consciousness live in an unjust system, and what do we expect of those who dwell within this system?

In New Worlds, find replenishing comfort in art that is plainly earnest. However, consider not only the content of the texts and music that Murray and Vogler bring to life, but the historical American realities that informed the original artists’ intentions as well.

Netflix series The OA

Laura Cogan, Editor: Back in March I mentioned to Josh Korwin (our production designer) that I was searching for a new show to watch. I had a vague and impossibly specific idea of what I wanted: something immersive that would require a degree of focus. Something serious, but not gritty or violent. Something invested in ideas about contemporary life, but not play-acting with the same frayed topics of the daily news, chasing headlines. He helpfully suggested The OA, and I promptly forgot all about it. Until a couple months later when the dreariness of the TV landscape combined with the anxiety of a particularly dreadful news cycle somehow brought it back to mind. Through the first episode, I was skeptical: although hard to tell where the show was going, or what story would unfold, it seemed ominously tethered to familiar and (to me) exhausting themes: conjuring the alarming specters of kidnapping, abuse, trauma. But the show was, also, immediately, sort of strange, and I was intrigued enough to stay with it. As the first season unfolded, it became increasingly unusual and interesting. I’ll admit, however, that it’s Season Two that I truly enjoyed, and now when I recommend the show to others, that’s what I’m truly recommending.

In part it’s because the distressing captivity aspect largely fades away; in larger part it may be because the show shifts location to the Bay Area, which seems significant to how dramatically and imaginatively the story opens up. It is relatively uncommon to see the Bay Area explored and showcased onscreen—and The OA takes us not only around San Francisco in pleasing noir style, but also revels in the mystical beauty of West Marin, and dramatically amplifies the eerie quality of Treasure Island. I am always interested in looking at the role that place plays in shaping drama in literature, and Season Two offers (among other things) an interesting examination of that idea, with the intersecting themes of tech and mysticism and ethical questions.

But those are details, really. What made The OA special was its extraordinary imagination and ambition, and its infatuation with the power of story-telling itself. The questions it asks are sometimes intellectual, sometimes emotional—but always stripped of cynicism. Watching it offered relief from the fatigue not only of the news, but also from the numbing sense of the same stories being told in the same ways, following the same patterns. So of course this week I was disappointed to hear that Netflix will not make the additional seasons that the show’s creators planned. But I’m honestly more surprised it was ever made in the first place (that’s my own cynicism showing up). I do think that what they were able to produce stands on its own, and the open-ended quality of the de facto ending actually works in the context of the show’s kaleidoscopic infinity-gazing. I can’t wait to see what they create next. Though I know it will likely surprise me in new ways, I can’t help but hope it will also include parallel universes, giant squids, and layered references to “The Garden of Forking Paths.” In the meantime, I’m glad I have Season Two of Lodge 49 to look forward to on Monday.

Orion Lake music

Zack Ravas, Editorial Assistant: Orion Lake’s Twitter bio reads, “in a bedroom with a soft voice…” and there’s perhaps no better description for the music that 22 year-old Christina Hernandez makes under the moniker. The New Jersey-based musician has already accumulated an EP and a series of singles on Bandcamp and music streaming services that feel entirely cohesive and of a piece: dreamy and forlorn, carried aloft by her ethereal vocals and innate gift for melody.

Orion Lake first appeared on my radar after she collaborated with L.A.’s MIRSY on the haunting “Big Eyes” (“Never made sense to me/Love is only memory/All I want is to fall asleep”). But I quickly took to Orion Lake’s back catalog, a series of tracks she’s been steadily releasing since Fall 2017, each one like a quiet capsule of the artist’s melancholy reflection in front of a rain-streaked window.

In an interview with UK music blog A Lonely Ghost Burning, Hernandez stated, “I’d say I’m more of a writer than anything,” and it’s a notion that bears out in her gently bruised lyrics and concise song structure (most tracks don’t run much longer than two minutes). This style is exemplified by the closing track on her first EP, the acoustic duet “The Future is Not That Scary”: “Who were you/when you walked right in/to my head, to my heart/You left it open/It’s kerosene/left in a time machine/Kissed you once/Now I want it forever.”

Hernandez cites The Cure and Bjork among her musical influences, and describes her songwriting process thus: “Most of the time it’s me in my room, and I’m usually alone. I like to make it atmospheric with the lighting, and I just make sounds and start writing.” That DIY quality—the sound of just an artist and her laptop or guitar—is there in the closely mic’d intimacy of Orion Lake’s voice, and the quiet backing of synthesizers and acoustic guitars. It’s the kind of dark bedroom pop that should resonate with anyone who can relate to the feelings of depression and anxiety Orion Lake poetically conveys (“I cry hard on the drive home/I only laugh when I’m alone”), and marks Hernandez as an artist to watch closely in the coming years.

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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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