Interview with David Jauss

David_Jauss

Mary Akers: Thank you for agreeing to talk with me today, David. I loved your story The Stars at Noon in this issue. It’s such an interesting point-of-view to write from–that of a dying nun. What was the inspiration behind this story?

David Jauss: I grew up surrounded by nuns. From first through eighth grade, I went to a Catholic school where all the classes were taught by the School Sisters of Notre Dame. My mother was good friends with several of the nuns, so I saw them frequently outside of school too. I always found them mysterious; I wondered what made them decide to become nuns and wear their black habits and white wimples. I tried to imagine what they were like when they were young girls, and I remember looking around the room at my female classmates and wondering if any of them would grow up to become a nun and, if so, why. For some reason, I didn’t find priests mysterious, and I didn’t wonder if any of my classmates would become one. Priests seemed pretty much like other men, but the nuns didn’t seem like any women I knew. So I was curious, and of course curiosity is what precedes every act of the imagination. I should also point out that two of the nuns who were my teachers died, so I was curious not only about what they thought and felt as young girls but what they thought and felt when they died.

 

MA: Fascinating. I find nuns mysterious, too. They’re generally more progressive than priests and more hands-on within the community of needy people, aren’t they? The front lines of the Catholic Church, so to speak.

Your collection Glossolalia blew me away. I read an ARC (advance reader copy) and loved it so much I had to buy my own copy. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever done that. The stories are New and Selected. I know you had many stories to choose from. Can you talk a little bit about what the selection process was like?

DJ: First things first: thank you to the nth power for your very kind words. They mean a lot coming from the author of Women Up on Blocks and Bones of an Inland Sea, two books I love and regularly recommend to my friends and students.

Selecting the stories for Glossolalia was both easy and impossible. The easy part was eliminating the dozen or so stories I’d published that just plain weren’t up to snuff. The impossible part was trying to choose which of the remaining thirty stories to include. I felt a bit like Styron’s Sophie, having to choose which of my children would die. Eventually I took the coward’s way out and sent all thirty stories—nearly 500 pages’ worth—to Press 53. Ultimately, I have to give credit to Christine Norris, my editor, for the selections. She sent me a list of seventeen stories—250 pages’ worth—that she thought would work well together, and if I remember right, I made only one substitution. But she and Kevin Morgan Watson, the publisher, said they wanted to publish the rest of the stories too. So there’ll be a second New & Selected Stories coming out, probably sometime next year, and it’ll contain a few things there wasn’t room for in Glossolalia, including a novella, plus several new stories.

 

MA: Ooh, I can’t wait! I hope you do another advance book tour. That was a lot of fun.

I’m always interested in who other writers read, but I know it puts them in an awkward spot to name names since many of their friends are also writers. So instead, I’ll ask (and find your answer equally as interesting) who did you read when you were 11 or 12?

DJ: I read virtually every novel Jules Verne wrote; dozens of books from the Landmark series about American history; Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island; Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters; numerous Hardy Boys mysteries; Clair Bee’s Chip Hilton series of sports novels, especially those, like Fence Busters, that were about baseball; a slew of biographies of famous baseball players; and a Catholic propaganda novel called Knockout, in which a group of humble Catholic boys take on a group of over-confident Protestants and whoop them one by one in every major team sport and then, in the final chapter, the captain of the Catholic team takes on the captain of the Protestant team in a boxing match and—well, I think you can guess how that turns out.

 

MA: How fun! And that’s a great list. One of the reasons I ask the question is because Ray Bradbury has said that he believes those preteen years are the ones during which writers form their lasting obsessions, either in terms of pivotal events in their lives or books they read at that age. Would you agree? And if so, do you see influences from those years emerging in your own work?

DJ: He may be right about pivotal life events but I think he’s wrong about the influence of books read at that age. I would hate to think that our literary interests and aspirations are determined when we’re preteens. Mine definitely weren’t. I see little to no connection between what I read then and what I read and write now. I still love baseball and I’ve written one story about a baseball player, though it’s far from being anything like a Chip Hilton story. I have no interest in writing or reading science fiction or mysteries or sports novels and only minimal interest in historical fiction. And if I read Knockout today, I’d be pulling for those poor doomed Protestants who not only have inferior athletic abilities but are headed to hell for eating hot dogs on Friday.

Although I read a lot as a kid, it wasn’t until I was sixteen that I read any author who influenced me in any crucial way. I had a Current Events teacher then (this was 1967) who was rabidly anti-Communist and who argued that the only way to avoid WWIII was to rain atomic bombs on Russia immediately. I couldn’t stand the guy, so I went to the school library, asked the librarian if they had any books by Russians, and she led me to The Brothers Karamazov. I had no intention of reading it—I merely wanted to prop it up on my desk to irritate my teacher—but one day in study hall I started reading it and before I knew it I was living in a whole new world, one full of very different dangers than the kind I’d encountered in the Hardy Boys or Chip Hilton stories or Treasure Island. I finished that novel with my brain on fire and my DNA changed, and I began seeking out other writers of by-god Literature. Of them, two that I read incessantly in high school—Hemingway and Salinger—have been among my most enduring influences.

The Stars at Noon (Frozen Feathers)

MA: You know, now that you say that, I think you’re right. Bradbury said it about events, not books read. I must have made that up to validate my early reading choices. :)

By the way, I really love that your introduction to by-god Literature came about as a way to spite a professor you despised. That’s brilliant.

You write and publish across all genres. I’m so impressed and awed by your list of publications. What haven’t you done? Or maybe I should ask: Is there something you’ve always wanted to do that you haven’t done YET?

DJ: Oh, there’s a lot I haven’t done—I’ve never written a novel or a memoir or a play—but there’s not really anything I wanted to do that I haven’t done. All I really want to do is write better stories, poems, and essays. I’ve never felt any desire to write a novel and, to be honest, I don’t even enjoy reading novels all that much. Even the novels I most love strike me as full of inessential details, characters, and events, not to mention long dreary bouts of exposition. I like the idea of trying to convey the world in a grain of sand, not an entire beach. And I think it’s much more possible to achieve something akin to perfection in a poem or story than it is in a novel. Novels seemed doomed by their very length to fail. As Randall Jarrell said, “A novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it.” And I couldn’t possibly write a memoir—I have a very poor memory, and nothing too exciting or interesting has happened to me. And although I tried my hand at playwriting once when I was an undergrad, I’m too much of a control freak to want to write a play or screenplay and turn it over to a director and actors who’d bring it to a very different life than the one I imagined. So, for better or worse, I’ve found the genres that fit my temperament and aesthetic goals.

 

MA: A control freak, eh? I wonder if all short story writers have a bit of the control freak in them. It is such a deliciously containable form. I liken a novel to a great sprawling mural and a short story to a closely observed, meticulous sketch.

Margaret Atwood has said that a book is a form of brain transfer, that art takes two brains to be fully realized–the creator’s brain and the experiencer’s brain. Do you agree?

DJ: I do believe that art takes two brains to be fully realized, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that the experiencer’s brain often prevents the work of art from being fully realized—and, alas, the creator’s brain often does too. But let’s assume a writer creates a successful story, one that supplies all the essential information a reader would need to understand it and feel the emotions the author wants him to feel. If the reader fails to notice key facts of a story, invents her own details, imposes his own experience and opinions on it, or extrapolates wildly from some detail to a conclusion that’s not supported by the text, I think the brain transfer is partial at best. An example: I once had a student complain that a character named Brian in a classmate’s story couldn’t possibly lift an oak table by himself because he was “scrawny and weak.” In fact, the character was described as a longtime weightlifter; the reader had failed to notice that fact and imagined the character to be like a particular Brian he knew, someone who was scrawny and weak. He was reading a story, yes, but not the one the author wrote.

One more example: after reading a poem about a woman walking down a hallway of closed doors in search of a quiet, peaceful room where she can be alone, one student said he thought the poem was about driving through Texas and trying to get a good station on the radio. The poet’s reference to turning a doorknob had led him to think of turning radio knobs. And, not surprisingly, he had not too recently driven through Texas and had trouble finding a good station to listen to. So yes, art needs two brains to be fully realized, but it needs two well-trained and attentive brains. The reader has to be as well trained in the discipline of reading as the writer is in the discipline of writing. And he has to resist the temptation to treat the work as a Rorschach blot about which any opinion or response is as legitimate as any other.

 

MA: This is so fascinating! (And a little discouraging, I must admit.) So…we bring our own experiences to the table when reading–or experiencing any art form–but apparently sometimes we bring TOO MUCH of our own experience and it leads to a gross misinterpretation of the work. How very interesting. (Why had this angle never occurred to me?) I feel like this concept also begs a couple of (rhetorical?) questions. How much of that misinterpretation is okay? Is valid, even? Where is the line? As artists, we have to accept that no one is ever going to get all of our references, but how much can we expect them to get without feeling cranky that they didn’t get it? Your answer makes a good case for the argument that we should write the books we want to read.

And finally, because we are a themed journal and I never get tired of hearing people answer this question, “What does ‘recovery’ mean to you?”

DJ: I think “recovery” is just a synonym for “life.” Some people may be recovering alcoholics, but all of us are recovering human beings. I think life is largely a matter of recovering from what we’ve witnessed or experienced, of finding a way to go on after life gives us a kick in the teeth. And for writers, “recovery” could just as well be a synonym for “writing” too. Writing is a way to recover (or at least try to recover) from the wounds life has given us. And, I’d argue, recovery from the past is possible only through recovery of the past: we have to go back and relive in a way the traumas we’ve endured, finding this time a way to reimagine and revise the past in such a way that we can deal with it. Whether we write in an overtly autobiographical way or not (and I don’t), we’re dealing with our personal wounds and trying to put them into a context that heals them. To return to “The Stars at Noon” for a moment: when I was in first grade, my teacher, Sister Aloysius, got sick and had to go to the hospital. The other nuns told us all to pray that she get well, and we did so, daily and fervently, because we all loved her. But she died. It was the first time in my life that someone I knew died, and just as important, it was also the first time I realized that praying didn’t necessarily get you what you want. I didn’t understand why I wrote “The Stars at Noon” until well after I’d finished it, but now it’s clear to me that I wrote it to do two things at once: grant my childhood prayer that Sister Aloysius live and make the fact that she died more tolerable by imagining that she wanted to die.

 

MA: Oh, my. Beautiful Thank you, David. It’s been a real pleasure.

The Beginnings of Sorrow

The Beginnings of Sorrow

Vandal Boucher told his dog Hark to go snatch the duck out of the rushes where it had fallen, and Hark told him No. In days to come, Vandal probably wished he’d just pointed his Ithaca 12-gauge side-by-side at Hark’s fine-boned skull right that moment and pulled the trigger on the second barrel (he had emptied the first to bring down the duck) and blown the dog’s brains out, there at the edge of the freezing, sludgy pond. But that unanticipated answer—any answer would have been a surprise, of course, but this was no, unmistakably no, in a pleasant tenor, without any obvious edge of anger or resentment—that single syllable took him aback and prevented him from taking action.

Vandal’s old man, now: back in the day, Vandal’s old man Xerxes Boucher would have slain the dog that showed him any sign of strangeness or resistance to his will, let alone one that told him no. Dog’s sucking the golden yolks out of the eggs? Blam. Dog’s taking chickens out of the coop? Blam. Dog’s not sticking tight enough to the sheep, so the coyotes are chivvying them across the high pastures? This dog’s your favorite, your special pet? You wish I would refrain from shooting the dog? Well, sonny, you wish in one hand and shit in the other, see which gets full first. Blam. Nothing could stop him, no pleading or promises, and threats were out of the question. But that was Xerxes in his prime, and Vandal wasn’t a patch on him, everybody said so, Vandal himself had ruefully to agree with the general assessment of his character. So when Hark said no, Vandal just blinked. “Come again?” he said.

No.

Well, Vandal thought. He looked out into the reeds, where the body of the mallard he had just shot bobbed in the dark water. That water looked cold. Hark sat on the shore, blinking up at Vandal with mild eyes. It would have struck Xerxes Boucher as outrageous that the dog should balk at wading out there into that cold, muddy mess, the soupy muck at the pond’s margin at least shoulder-deep for the dog where the dead mallard floated, maybe deep enough that a dog—even a sizable dog like Hark—would have to swim.

But damn it if, on that gray November morning, with a hot thermos of his wife’s bitter black coffee nearby just waiting on him to drink it, and a solid breakfast when he got home after the hunt, and dry socks—Damned if Vandal couldn’t see the dog’s point.

“Okay,” he said. “This once.”

He was wearing his thick rubber waders, the ones that went all the way up to the middle of his chest, so he took off his coat—the frigid air bit into him, made his breath go short—laid the coat down on the bank, set the shotgun on top of the coat, and set off after the mallard himself. The waders clutched his calves as the greasy pond water surged around his legs, and his feet sank unpleasantly into the soft bottom. He considered what might be sleeping down there: frogs settled in for the winter, dreaming their slick wet dreams; flabby catfish whiskered like old men; great knobby snapping turtles, their thick round shells overlapping one another like the shields of some ancient army.

They were down there in the dark, the turtles that had survived unchanged from the age of the dinosaurs, with their spines buckled so that they fit, neatly folded, within their shells; and their eyes closed fast, their turtle hearts beating slow, slow, slow, waiting on the passing of another winter. And what if the winter never passed and spring never came, as looked more and more likely? How long would they sleep, how long could such creatures wait in the dark? A long time, Vandal suspected. Time beyond counting. It might suit them well, the endless empty twilight that the world seemed dead-set on becoming.

Vandal didn’t care to put his feet on such creatures, and when his toes touched something hard, he tried to tread elsewhere. The pond bottom was full of hard things, and most of them were probably rocks, but better safe than sorry. He had seen the jaws on snapping turtles up close, the beak on the skeletal face like a hawk’s or an eagle’s, hooked and hard-edged and sharp as a razor. Easy to lose a toe to such a creature.

When he reached the mallard—it was truly a perfect bird, its head and neck a deep oily green, unmarked by the flying shot—he plucked its limp body up out of the water and waved it over his head for the dog to see. “Got it!” he called.

Hark wasn’t paying any attention to him at all. He was sitting next to the tall silver thermos and gazing quizzically at the coat and, cradled on the coat, Vandal’s shotgun.

~ ~ ~

“I told him to go get the duck,” Vandal said to his wife, who was called Bridie. Then, to Hark, he said, “Tell her what you told me.”

No, said Hark.

Bridie looked from her husband to the dog. “Does he mean to tell you no,” she asked, working to keep her voice even and calm, her tone reasonable. “Or does he mean he won’t tell me?”

No, the dog said again. It wasn’t like a bark, which Bridie would have much preferred, one of those clever dogs that has been taught by its owner to “talk” by mimicking human speech without understanding what it was saying. “What’s on top of a house?” Roof! “How does sandpaper feel?” Rough! “Who’s the greatest ballplayer of all time?” Ruth!

DiMaggio, she thought to herself. That’s the punchline. The dog says Ruth! but really it’s DiMaggio.

Vandal laughed. He was a big broad-shouldered good-natured man with an infectious laugh, which was one of the reasons Bridie loved him, and she smiled despite her misgivings. The dog seemed delighted with the turn of events too.

“That’s the sixty-four dollar question, ain’t it?” Vandal said. He clapped Hark on the head in the old familiar way, and the dog shifted out from under the cupped hand, eyes suddenly slitted and opaque.

No, it said.

Much as she loved Vandal, and much as she had hated his bear of a father, with his great sweaty hands always ready to squeeze her behind or pinch her under her skirt as she was climbing the stairs, always ready to brush against her breasts—glad as she was that the mean old man was in the cold cold ground, she couldn’t help but think at that moment that a little of Xerxes’ unflinching resolve wouldn’t have gone amiss in Vandal’s character, in this circumstance. She wished that the dog had said pretty much anything else: Yes, or better yet, yes sir. Even a word of complaint, cold, wet, dark. Afraid. But this flat refusal unnerved her.

“He takes a lot on himself, doesn’t he? For a dog,” she said.

“Talking dog,” said Vandal, his pride written on his knobby face, as though he had taught the dog to speak all by himself, as though it had been his idea.

Hark had begun wandering through the house, inspecting the dark heavy furniture like he had never seen it or the place before. Not exploring timidly, like a guest unsure of his welcome, but more like a new owner. Bridie thought she saw him twitch a lip disdainfully as he sniffed at the fraying upholstery of the davenport. He looked to her for a moment as though maybe he were going to lift his leg. “No!” she snapped. “Bad boy!”

He glanced from her to Vandal and back again, trotted over to Vandal’s easy chair with his tail curled high over his back. He gave off the distinct air of having won some sort of victory. “Come here,” Bridie called to him. She snapped her fingers, and he swung his narrow, intelligent head, looking past his shoulder at her.

No, he said, and he hopped up into Vandal’s chair. Bridie was relieved to see how small he was in the chair, into which Vandal had to work to wedge his bulky frame.

There was room for two of Hark in the seat, three even, so lean was he, slender long-legged retriever mix. Vandal nodded at him with approval. The dog turned around and around and around as though he were treading down brush to make himself a nest, in the ancient way of dogs. In the end, though, he settled himself upright rather than lying down, his spine against the back of the chair, his head high.

“Xerxes wouldn’t never allow a dog up in his chair like that,” Bridie said. And was immediately sorry she had said it. Vandal had adored and dreaded his brutal, unstoppable old man, and any comparison between them left him feeling failed and wanting. Xerxes, Xerxes. Will he never leave our house?

“Xerxes never had him a talking dog,” Vandal said. He handed the dead mallard to her. Its glossy head and neck stretched down toward the floor in a comical way, its pearlescent eyes long gone into death. It was a large, muscular bird.

“Not much of a talking dog,” Bridie said. She turned, taking the mallard away into the kitchen when she saw the flash of irritation in Vandal’s eyes. She didn’t look toward Hark, because she didn’t want to see the expression of satisfaction that she felt sure animated his doggy features. She wanted to let Vandal have this moment, this chance to own something that his father couldn’t have imagined, let alone possessed, but it was—it was wrong. Twisted, bent. It was a thing that couldn’t be but was, it was unspeakable, and it was there in her living room, sitting in her husband’s chair. “Not much of one, if all it can manage to say is no.”

~ ~ ~

Hark reclined in the easy chair in the parlor. The television was tuned to the evening news, and the dog watched and listened with bright gleaming eyes, giving every appearance of understanding what was said: Wars and rumors of wars. Earthquakes and famines and troubles. None of it was good at all, it hadn’t been good in some little time, but none of it seemed to bother him in the least. He chewed briefly at his own hip, after some itch that was deeply hidden there, and then went back to his television viewing.

Vandal sat on the near end of the davenport, not appearing to hear the news. From time to time he reached out a hand to pet Hark, but Hark shifted his weight and leaned away, just out of reach. It was what Bridie had always striven to do when Xerxes went to put his hands on her but that she had somehow never managed, to create that small distance between them that would prove unbridgeable. Always the hand reached her, to pet and stroke and pinch, always when Vandal’s attention was turned elsewhere. And them living in Xerxes’ house, and her helpless to turn him away.

About the third time Vandal put his hand out, Hark tore his gaze from the TV screen, snarled, snapped, his jaws closing with a wicked click just shy of Vandal’s reaching fingertips. Vandal withdrew his hand, looking sheepish.

“No?” he asked the dog.

No, Hark said, and he settled back into the soft cushions of the chair, his eyes fixed once more on the flickering screen.

~ ~ ~

Over Bridie’s objections, Hark ate dinner at the table with them that night. Vandal insisted. The dog tried to climb into the chair with arms, Vandal’s seat at the head of the table. Vandal wasn’t going to protest, but Bridie wouldn’t allow it. She flapped the kitchen towel—it was covered in delicate blue cornflowers—at him, waved her hands and shouted “Shoo! Shoo!” until he slipped down out of the chair and, throwing resentful glances her way, slunk over to one of the chairs at the side of the table and took his place.

He ate like an animal, she noted with satisfaction, chasing the duck leg she had given him around and around the rim of the broad plate with his sharp snout, working to grasp the bone with his teeth, his tongue hanging drolly from the side of his mouth. Always, the leg escaped him. Each time it did, she put it carefully back in the middle of the plate, and he went after it again. From time to time he would stop his pursuit of the drumstick and watch Bridie and Vandal manipulate their utensils, raise their forks to their mouths, dab at their lips with napkins. His own napkin was tucked bib-like under the broad leather strap of his collar, and it billowed ridiculously out over his narrow, hairy chest. Vandal watched this process through a number of repetitions, his brow furrowed, before he put down his knife and fork.

“You can’t let a dog have duck bones like that,” he said. “He’ll crack the bone and swallow it and the sharp edges will lodge in his throat.”

Good, Bridie thought. Let him. The dog stared across the table at her, his face twisted into what she took to be an accusatory grimace. Hark had always been Vandal’s dog, never hers, and she had never felt much affection for him, but he had always seemed to her to be a perfectly normal dog, not overfriendly but that was normal in an animal that was brought up to work rather than as a pet. Restrained in his affections, but never hostile. Lean and quick and hard-muscled, with the bland face and expressions of his kind. And now he looked at her as though he knew what she was thinking—an image of Hark coughing, wheezing, hacking up blood on the kitchen floor swam back into her consciousness—and hated her for it.

Was there an element of surprise there too? she wondered. He hadn’t known about the bones. An unanticipated danger, and now he knew, and she could sense him filing the information away, so that such a thing would never be a threat to him again. What else was he ignorant about?

Bridie had never disliked Hark before, had never disliked any of Vandal’s boisterous happy-go-lucky hunting dogs, the bird dogs, the bear dogs, the coon dogs, all of them camped out in the tilting kennel attached to the pole barn. They shared the long fenced run that stretched across the barnyard, and they would woof and whirl and slobber when she went out to feed them. Dogs with names like Sam and Kettle and Bengal and Ranger. And Hark. Hark the waterdog, a little quieter than the others, more subdued, maybe, but nothing obvious about him to separate him from the rest of them. They were Vandal’s friends and companions, they admired him even when Xerxes fed him scorn, and they were kind to him when even she herself wasn’t. She didn’t fool with them much.

Something had come alive in Hark, something that allowed him, compelled him, to say no, and now he was at her table when the rest were outside in the cold and the dark, now he was looking her in the eye. That was another new thing, this direct confrontation; he had always cast his gaze down, properly canine, when his eyes had locked with hers in the past. He’d regained his earlier cocksureness, and the impression of self-satisfaction that she had from him made him unbearable to her.

Vandal was leaning over, working his knife, paring the crispy skin and the leg meat away from the bone. “Here you go,” he told the dog, his tone fond. Hark sniffed.

“If he plans to eat his food at the table like people,” Bridie said, “then he better learn to pick it up like people.”

Vandal stopped cutting. Bridie half-expected Hark to say No in the light voice that sounded so strange coming out of that long maw, with its mottled tongue and (as they seemed to her) cruel-looking teeth. Instead, he nudged Vandal out of his way and planted one forepaw squarely on the duck leg. He understands, Bridie thought to herself.

The plate tipped and skittered away from him, the duck leg tumbling off it, the china ringing against the hard oak of the tabletop. The dog looked perplexed, but Vandal slid the plate back into place, picked up the drumstick and laid it gently down.

Just as gently, Hark put his paw on the leg bone, pinning it. He lowered his head, closed his teeth securely on the leg—the chafing squeak of tooth against bone made Bridie squint her eyes in disgust—and pulled away a triumphant mouthful of duck. He tossed it back, swallowed without chewing, and went after the leg again.

“Good dog,” Vandal said. The dog’s ears flickered at the familiar phrase, but he didn’t raise his head from the plate. Bridie bit into her own portion. Duck was normally one of her favorites, but this meal filled her mouth like ashes. Vandal stopped chewing, leaned down close to his plate, his lips pursed as though he were about to kiss his food, his eyes screwed nearly shut. He made a little spitting noise, and a pellet of lead shot, no bigger than a flea, pinged onto his plate, bounced, and lay still.

~ ~ ~

After supper, as Bridie retted up the kitchen, Vandal sat cross-legged on the floor in the parlor, the shotgun broken down and spread out on several thicknesses of newspaper on the floor before him. A small smoky fire—the wood was too green to burn well, hadn’t aged sufficiently—flared and popped in the hearth.

Hark sat in the comfortable chair, and his posture had become—she felt sure of this—more human than it had been previously. He was sitting like a man now, a misshapen man, yes, with a curved spine and his head low between his shoulders, but he was working to sit upright. He looked ridiculous, as she glanced in at him from where she was working, but she felt no impulse to laugh. Was he larger than he had been? Did he fill the chair more fully? While she watched, he lost his precarious balance, slipped to the side, thrashed for a moment before righting himself again.

The television was on, the usual chatter from the local news, a terrible wreck out on the state highway, a plant shutting down in the county seat, a marvel on a nearby farm, a Holstein calf born with two heads, both of them alive and bawling, both of them sucking milk. Who could even take note of something like that in these times, Bridie wondered to herself as she worked to scrub the grease from the plates. The next day it would be something else, and something else after that, until the wonders and the sports and the abominations (how to tell the difference among them?) piled up so high that there wouldn’t be any room left for them, for her and for Vandal, the regular ones, the ones that remained.

A talking dog? Was that stranger than a two-headed calf? Stranger than poor old Woodrow Scurry’s horses eating each other in his stables a fortnight earlier? Every day the world around her seemed more peculiar than it had the day before, and every day she felt herself getting a little more used to the new strangenesses, numb to them, and wondering idly what ones the next day would bring.

How you use? They were Hark’s words, clumsy and laughable, coming to her over the din of the voices on the television. There was another sort of show on, this one a game of some type, where people shouted at one another, encouragement and curses. That thing, Hark said.

“So,” Vandal said, “you can say more than No.”

How you use that thing, Hark said again. A demand this time, not a question.

The shotgun, Bridie thought, and she dropped the plate she was washing back into the sink full of lukewarm water and dying suds and hurried into the den, drying her hands on a dishtowel as she went.

“Don’t tell him that,” she said.

Vandal looked up at her, startled. Just above him on the wall hung a picture that his mother had hung there as a young woman. She had died young. In the decades since it had been hung, the picture, it occurred to Bridie, had taken in every event that had occurred in that low-ceilinged, claustrophobic room. It depicted Jesus, a thick-muscled Jesus, naked but for a drape of white cloth, getting his baptism in the river Jordan. The Baptist raised a crooked hand over his head, water spilling from the upraised palm.

Vandal was fitting the barrels of the shotgun—which had been his old man’s but which was now his, like the house, like the farm—back into the stock. The metal mated to the wood with a definitive click. “Why in the world wouldn’t I tell him?

Bridie was at a loss for a cogent answer. It seemed obvious to her that Vandal ought not to impart such information to the dog just for the asking, but he didn’t share her worry at all, it was clear. How to explain? The dog looked at her with, she thought, an expression of feigned innocence. “A dog ought not to know how to use a gun,” she said.

Vandal chuckled. “He doesn’t even have hands. He has no fingers.

“So why tell him how a gun works?”

“Because he wants to know.”

“And should he know everything he wants to, just because he wants to know it?”

Vandal shrugged. Bridie felt heat flooding her face. How could he not understand? He thought it was terrific, the way the dog had decided to talk, the way he could sit there with it and watch television, the way it asked him questions, the way it wanted to know the things that he knew. He was happy to share with it: his table, his food, his house, his knowledge. He was treating the dog like a friend, like a member of the family. Like a child, his child.

“What he wants is to have hands. What he wants is to be a man. To do what you do. To have what you have.”

She caught Hark gazing at her intently, his eyes gleaming, hungry, his nose wet, his broad flat tongue caught between the rows of his teeth.

“What’s wrong with that?” Vandal wanted to know.

He is not your boy, she wanted to tell him. He is not your son. He is a dog, and it’s wrong that he can talk. You want to share what you have with him, but he doesn’t want to share it with you. He wants to have it instead of you.

The dog wrinkled his nose, sniffing, and she knew suddenly that he was taking her in, the scent of her. A dog’s nose was, she knew, a million times more sensitive than a man’s. He could know her by her scent. He could tell that she was afraid of him. He could follow her anywhere, because of that phenomenal sense of smell. In prehistoric times, before men became human and made servants out of them, Hark and his kind would have hunted her down in a pack and eaten her alive. Her scent would have led them to her. Hark’s eyes narrowed, and her words clung to her jaws. She couldn’t bear to speak them in front of the dog. She blinked, dropped her gaze and, under the animal’s intense scrutiny, fled the room.

Behind her, Vandal spoke. “This here’s the breech,” he said. The gun snicked open. “This here is where the shells go.” The gun thumped closed.

**Excerpted from Miracle Boy and Other Stories (Press 53).

 

 

Pinckney Benedict grew up on his family’s dairy farm in the mountains of southern West Virginia. He has published three collections of short fiction (Town Smokes, The Wrecking Yard, and Miracle Boy) and a novel (Dogs of God). His stories have appeared in Esquire, Zoetrope: All-Story, StoryQuarterly, Ontario Review, the O. Henry Award series, New Stories from the South, the Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, and The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. He is the recipient of a Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Literary Fellowship from the West Virginia Commission on the Arts, a Michener Fellowship, the Nelson Algren Award, an Individual Artist’s grant from the Illinois Arts Council, and Britain’s Steinbeck Award. He is a professor in the English Department at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.

Interview with Mark McKain

Mark McKain

Mary Akers: I loved your poem To His Wife in our July “Endangered” issue. I had the pleasure of hearing you read it–and a few other poems–then I also found Chameleon online. These are really fascinating subjects for poems. Are they part of a series? Or are you simply drawn to writing about animals?

Mark McKain: I am drawn to writing about animals, plants, rocks and places. This has led to writing a series on endangered species: endangered humans (friends, relatives, indigenous groups) as well as nonhumans whose existence is in question. My rule is that I have to have encountered these endangered species by being in their physical presence, usually in places I have lived. For example, I went to high school in West Texas and the horned lizard (horny toad) was very common in our backyard. One day my youngest sister borrowed a white sweater from my older sister then went outside and picked up one of those lizards. Little did she know that they can actually squirt toxic blood out of ducts beneath their eyes. She got blood all over the white sweater. I was very surprised to learn those lizards are now threatened, and I wanted to write about that. I wanted to write about it so that it included my own teenage experience of this animal and of my family situated in the semi-desert of West Texas. And I then wanted to write about endangered animals in Kentucky, Puerto Rico, Louisiana, Texas, California and Florida—all places where I have lived.

 

MA: Do you consider yourself an environmental writer? I’m asking because I think of myself as one, but I’m not sure there’s a clear definition of what an ”environmental writer” is. Do you have a definition you’d care to share?

MM: I do consider myself an environmental writer, but I try to resist definitions. I have been reading a lot about this very question: what does and does not make good environmental writing. One author that has really nailed some the problems of environmental writing for me is Lawrence Buell. In Writing for an Endangered World, he makes the point that environmental writing becomes distorted when animals are Disneyfied or portrayed in anthropomorphic terms. This is a type of Romantic personification. Animals and plants have worth in themselves and are not just foils or reflections of our own emotions and values. So good environmental writing keeps other species strange and other, different than humans, valuable as a living being. I do want to show animals as valuable in and of themselves, but I also want to show humans (usually my family) as part of the environment, and that the environment has an impact on us, especially, for me in the places where I have lived. Sandhill cranes flying over the busy I-4 corridor remind me of a close friend who as died and who I want to say something to as the sun comes up. A lizard flashing it red throat scared me when I was kid and now seeing this reminds me of the strange tropical world I entered upon moving to Puerto Rico when I was seven. I think about the near extinct Puerto Rican parrot which I never saw, the (near) extinct Carib peoples—did I actually see a few survivors with my father on weekend trips into the rain-forested mountains? My father, who just recently died, was so important to introducing me to these experiences, so I can’t and don’t want to separate my experiences from animals and the environment.

 

MA: Who do you read for inspiration?

MM: I am drawn to poetry in translation as well as science and natural history: Karen Solie’s Pigeon, Raul Zurita’s Song for His Disappeared Love, Alfonso D’Aquino’s fungus skull eye wing, Kim Hyesoon’s All the Garbage of the World Unite, Lorine Niedecker’s Lake Superior, Ida Stewart’s Gloss, Alfred Russel Wallace’s Footsteps in the Forest, Forest Gander and John Kinsella’s Redstart, Matthew Calarco’s Zoographies.

 

MA: You traveled to Antarctica and that trip inspired “To His Wife” among other poems. Do you often travel for inspiration? What is it about travel that makes you want to write?

MM: I try to travel at least once a year. Last year to England as I followed up on my Antarctica/South American expedition, visiting the Polar Museum in Cambridge, which has great exhibits on the English Antarctic explorers Scott and Shackleton, and also to the Sedgwick Museum, where Darwin got interested in geology and fossils. London is so rich culturally and there something about being in a strange and wonderful place that opens my eyes, slows me down and lets me see things in a fresh manner. I scribble while eating lunch in the crypt beneath St. Martins. More sentences waiting for the waterbus to take me to the Tate. The notebook comes out at the café at Foyles bookshop, thinking about my visit to the Physic Garden. My rule is to just take notes of my observations and see what comes of them later.

 

MA: Where would you like to visit that you haven’t yet? Do you have a bucket list for poetry inspiration?

MM: Since I’ve been to Tierra del Fuego and through the Beagle Channel, I’m thinking of continuing to follow Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos. But this may be vanity. I would like to go to Alaska and to see a volcano in Iceland. I need to go back to Puerto Rico, but may go birding in Cuba instead. I’m going to the Grand Canyon after Christmas. My father died in June and now I am going to West Virginia where his ashes will be interred. I want to celebrate him and remember all that he gave me, including the desire to travel and learn about the environment and cultural history.

 

MA: And finally, because we are a themed journal, what does “recovery” mean to you?

MM: I do believe in healing and the power of writing to help us heal. Life, the earth, the body renews itself continually. The environment will not be what it once was—but it will heal. Nothing will be what it once was. I do think we can come to terms with our own powers, and we must treat animals, plants, things, and each other with dignity, respect and equality. The earth isn’t ours to exploit. It is a place for all living things to flourish. If we can recover the rights of all living things to exist, all peoples to exist, then we may be on the path to healing.

SAGO: Buckhannon, WV–January 2, 2006: 6:30 a.m. ET

Sago

Only I alone escaped to tell you—Ishmael—Moby Dick

They’d see they were moving along at sixty minutes an hour
on a mountain road, into a future that was a mirror with no glass,
there was nowhere to pull over, and cars lined up behind them honking
“The Briar Plans a Mountain Vision Center”—Jim Wayne Miller

Outside my window rise stalks of bamboo,
planted by my home’s former owner, clums
brought from the Pacific as a prize of war.

I think of Sago. The mine is long closed.
The story is cliché and typical,
but the memory still soaked in sorrow.
The miners not crushed in the usual roof fall,
but trapped by the ubiquitous blast caused by
unknown factors, starved of air by
ubiquitous methane and carbon monoxide.

We like miners living on the edge
of the good old days, but not too high-tech,
singing of fate. We want times to get better,
but not too fast. We need them to gnaw
the shank of the hog. Corporate HQ
likes trickle down safety, after the coal dust bomb
(see Upper Big Branch South) after the last black lung
victim wheezes his last(see WV hospital records 1913—2013)

We have trudged down this road before. We vote
for good ol’ boys(and gals)–a hearty slap
on the back and request that they tar-and-feather
the EPA and OSHA and chase
that Socialist Nigger out of Our White House.

They stood in the mud and waited for word–
kin and hangers-on and media types.
The country preachers worked their moment,
got folks drunk on desperate GLORY GLORY
HALLELUIAHS. The Nazarene would hear their pleas,
and the saved would float from that dread portal
on the waters of Galilee. But it all came

to a bad phone line, a sad misunderstanding.
It all came to emptiness times twelve dead men,
the stunned hours times the clueless questions
of the talking heads, times the ceaseless
strobe of spectral light, garish orange and blue.
Today, up in the sun, on the granite slab,
the faces of the lost regard the present.
Their images etched by Laser, precise,
though before if I had met them on the street
I would not have known them. Nor the kid
who did not succumb, Randal McCloy Jr.,
whose own slow, maimed voice could tell us little.

Why did the miners go where the sun never shines?
For father and grandfather before them?
For lack of choice? For fear of failure in
the world of light? For food on the table?
Check all the above and pass in your survey.

Some wives they left behind stare at the wall,
waiting the company check. Some, tough as any
miner’s wife, weep their allotted sorrow and find
another man. Daughters go off to nursing school,
sons work the Shale, get hooked on Meth or star
on a college team, lose a leg in Kabul.
Some spell in the county spelling bee
or become the lovely Strawberry Queen.

I think of how the men flickered, praying in
the toxic dark, scrawling their notes, their lamps fading,
self-rescue devices not fit to save a dog.
Waiting for the scattered rescue teams to drive
the winding roads, made late by the hills they
all loved, and besides it was the weekend.

What do I know, bystander, trying to
patch the quilt of our history with words?
I listen to the click of the wind, a green song
through my bamboo, rustling like the skirt of
a swaying, sashaying, laughing woman.

How lonely to be a up here, sucking
my lungs full of the good spring air.

 

 

 

Mark DeFoe teaches in the MFA Writing Program at West Virginia Wesleyan. His latest book is In the Tourist Cave (Finishing Line Press, 2012).

I Tried to Drag Back

I Tried to Drag Back

That earlier me
That kid with the kite

That child
Carrying a lunch bucket
To his grandfather at work

That I
Wearing his cub scout uniform
Looking for old people
To help across the busy street

When I approached him
He adopted a karate pose
Pulled a Boy Scout knife from his pocket
And screamed   Get away from me
Right this instant     You bloody creep

 

 

 

John McKernan grew up in Omaha Nebraska and recently retired from herding commas after teaching for many years at Marshall University. He lives – mostly – in West Virginia where he edits ABZ Press. His most recent book is a selected poems Resurrection of the Dust. His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Paris Review, Field, and elsewhere

Announcing Our Fall Illustrator Mike Quesinberry

I’m really excited to showcase the work of Mike Quesinberry, a photographer who was born and raised in my home town of Floyd, Virginia. He produces stunning images within and of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia, a part of this great country that always makes my eyes fill when I return and see those beautiful ridges in the distance.

Rising Above

Mike graduated from Floyd County High School (my alma mater, too!) in 1984 and Radford University in 1988. He is currently a manager at Slaughters’ Garden Center in Floyd and avidly pursues his passion of creating meaningful and beautiful photo-art.

Fire Weeds

I offer a few images here in order to whet your appetite for our Fall “APPALACHIA” issue. Stay tuned!

Having a Seat, Chicken Style

Interview with Karen Bell

Karen Bell

Mary Akers: I first saw your beautiful photographic artwork when you opened your studio at VCCA and I was blown away by the subject matter, quality, and the innovation, too. How did you get into photography?

Karen Bell: It’s been a long time. I always had some type of camera – I still own my very first Kodak Hawkeye Brownie. In college, a boy friend – 2 words – was a photo major.  He  taught me how to process film in a closet in the dorm. My folks were going on a business trip to China – I asked for a camera. That was 1971. And that was the real beginning. I was a Government major back then, with thoughts of going into politics. The 1972 presidential campaign did me in. I was floundering. Tried being an English major for one semester, then took Photo 101. Really liked it. To go further I had to submit a portfolio of images. I did, went home for the summer, came back to visit friends, saw that my name was on the top of the list. Bingo. I’d found a direction.

The Stars at Noon (Frozen Feathers)

MA: I’ll say! And a great direction, if your art is any indication.

All art forms evolve, but it strikes me that photography–with the advent of digital images and the ease of their manipulation–may have undergone the most radical changes of any traditional art form in the past fifteen years. Would you care to talk about that?

KB: The more things change… Digital has upended more than the way photographers photograph. It has changed the way many people see the world. Polaroid offered some instant gratification. Digital has made that possible for all. Big exception – Polaroid was always expensive, so some thought went into what you were shooting. Shooting digitally, you can shoot endlessly – and share endlessly. The word “edit” has gone out the window for a lot of people. Sure – if you shoot 100 versions of the same subject you’re bound to get a “good” one. Personally, I miss the lag time: the time when you shot the image to the time when you got to see what you shot. I try never to edit while I’m shooting. I continue to like the pleasure, or dread, when I review my images at the end of a day.

I have too much to say on this, so I”ll stop here.

I am Always (Flower Petals and bugs)

MA: Your stunning photo-collages from the natural world really inspire me. I adore them. Could you talk a little bit about those pieces? And a related question: How has your art challenged and sustained you over the years?

KB: For years I traveled to photograph. I’m a big city kid, but I love being in environments completely other than what I knew. Then my hip/back started to hurt. It put the kibosh on traveling with my equipment, driving endless miles, hiking, etc. I had to rethink how I worked. I can’t say exactly when I started looking down – but that’s sort of what happened.  I”ve always been fascinated with insects, birds, flowers, etc., and back in the old black and white days, I would do an occasional still life, but mostly I was out THERE. With my changed physical abilities, I started to bring THERE home. VCCA has  been an enormous part of my creative life for more than 20 years. The surroundings are so stimulating. The concentration of a group of people working tirelessly on their own creative endeavors has always made me reach down deep and find a way – whatever it was. It was at VCCA where I found my first bird. There is so much to see/observe without too much physical ability at Mt. St. Angelo – so I started to walk, wander, collect. I would bring my findings back to my studio and see what happened. Now that i’m feeling healthy again – I am back out THERE  - but still collecting, wandering, bringing stuff home to see what happens. I liken myself to a nerdy kid picking things up, turning them over in my hand, just because.

Recovery ( At Rest)

MA: Margaret Atwood, one of my favorite writers, has said that in the discussion of whether or not to fund The Arts in public schools, we only need to consider the things that children explore and do naturally, on their own, as they grow. What do they do? They sing, draw pictures, make up stories, dance. Creativity is at the core of what makes us human. What are some of your earliest memories of being creative as a child? Have they stayed with you in later life?

KB: Ah, Margaret Atwood. The 100 year writer. I went to sleep away camp for more years than I can remember. The usual stuff- lanyards, ashtrays – shows my age…I loved shop in high school. My memory is I had to “beg” to take it instead of another round of Home EC.  where we never got to finish whatever it was that we cooked, and Mr. Berman, my Earth Science teacher would come in and eat it regardless. My school art experience was nothing memorable. I went to public school in Brooklyn. Class sizes were enormous. Carving with ivory soap stands out.  And, I played piano. My parents weren’t artistic, though if life had been different for my father, I think he would have enjoyed being creative. I was a shy kid. A very shy kid. My mother tried to encourage (push) me to take art classes at the Brooklyn Museum, but I would never go. In hindsight, I wish she had pushed harder.

I loved art, but didn’t understand why. I loved music – all kinds. It was embarrassing to love classical music in the 60′s. It wasn’t cool. I still love music – all kinds. I have a much better understanding of art now that it has become my life, but I still don’t understand a lot of what I see. The difference is now I enjoy the challenge instead of being afraid of making a fool of myself.

And – I always had a camera.

Cover Image (Recent death)

MA: And finally, because we are a themed journal, what does “recovery” mean to you?

KB: Recovery. Healing. Getting on with it. Picking up the pieces when you don’t know what to do with the pieces and figuring out pieces are good, too.

Recovery – not letting the bad, the sad, the miserable get you down so low you can’t find a way up and out again. My art is my constant recovery. It’s not always easy to remember that, but when I do, all is well in my world.

 

Interview with Vyshali Manivannan

Vy Manivannan

Mary Krienke: In your essay “I Am Always in Transition When Disaster Strikes,” you write about the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed over 230,000 people in fourteen countries, with Indonesia being the hardest-hit country, followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. You also write about 9/11. I don’t need to give the stats on that one, which, of course, reveals so much. What I think you are writing about here, as you have touched on in some of your other writing, is that it can seem difficult for some to experience other people’s pain if that person does not look like them, does not have the same background, a similar-looking life. Do you think it is a conscious decision for people not to look or do you think it is a self-protective mechanism to create distance between them and those that are suffering? While it is a writer’s job to look at those difficult aspects of humanity and to bridge that distance, how does a writer successfully confront this resistance?

Vyshali Manivannan: It should go without saying that looking is hard. It leaves us vulnerable, speechless, guiltily ashamed of our comfortable lives, our failures to donate; it renders visible what we never want to see, the intimacy of a body destroyed mid-motion, ended without even a whimper. If we confront these images of death, we have to recognize that all bodies, laid open, are the same. We have to empathize or be labeled sociopath. We have to open ourselves to all the feelings described above. We can’t deny our culpability because when our troops kill, the corpses look like this too.

I’ve always, possibly to my detriment, chosen to look, because I felt guilty over my survivor’s guilt, feeling like I’d survived nothing; I wanted to simulate survival in the act of looking, and so I avidly consumed tragedy online. I can’t fault anyone for self-protection, whatever my own decisions are. But I think it’s crucial to be aware of why you’re choosing not to look. Two very opposed events come to mind: one, an article in The Onion about an everyman whose goal was to get through the Syrian conflict without reading so much as a single headline about it; and two, recent exhortations to refuse to view the beheading of journalist James Foley by ISIS. There’s an interesting contrast here, between the idea that not-looking equals willful ignorance, and the idea that we look to develop a tolerance for the grotesque. I think there’s room on this spectrum for a kind of looking that doesn’t glorify violence, doesn’t dwell on horror, but refigures the meaning of the image to an outcry against the ideologies that make such violence possible.

With regards to confronting the resistance to look, I think the first step is recognizing—before I even begin writing—that it’s not solely about the economy of taste and decency. There’s a whole network of practices that promote this resistance to looking: for instance, images of bodies are almost always bodies of foreigners in international situations presented as intractable or unsolvable, like the perpetual crisis in the Middle East, facilitating cultural indifference via cost-benefit analysis, practically telling us, “You can look, but looking won’t change anything, so why damage your psyche by looking?” So my first task is to change that evaluation and say, “Your looking at this will change something.” That something may be as invisible as ideology, but ideological change is paramount. It’s the first step in several regards: conflict resolution, post-conflict reconciliation, transitional justice measures, erasing the binary of Us and Them.

What’s left after that is to forge an emotional bond between readers and the narrator. Representing violence-in-process is, I think, an implosion of the moment itself, the individual experience of sense-making, and the tools used to do so, be they the Indian Ocean tsunami, HBO’s Tsunami, or the experience of watching both unfold.

 

MK: You are Sri Lankan American and you have family still living in Sri Lanka. You write about feeling both connected to and disconnected from a country you have visited twice in your life. You were born in New York and grew up in Louisiana and Missouri. You have written about feeling always outside of your own experience, that it is difficult to make something “your own.” In my experience of your writing, you respond to this sense of being an outsider by creating an identity that is always shifting, always evolving. How does this constant positioning and repositioning affect your writing?

VM: It’s my hope that this continual shifting of identity enables me to more accurately articulate, in writing, experiences that are mine, that are part of a larger collective experience marked by ethical and political variance, that I can’t claim as mine because I find it impossible to reconcile what I’ve survived with what victims of war have survived. Constantly repositioning myself mandates an acceptance of my struggles with hybridity and its associated grievances, and more importantly invites empathy with all parties involved. This repositioning ultimately strives to recognize Otherness and erase it in its tracks, to create humans where an “us” or “them” once stood, to deconstruct the binary and replace it with empathy and the possibility of reconciliation.

It’s strange to contrast it with my fiction process, because I think the goal is similar but the process itself is exacerbated, as it can only be achieved through inhabiting multiple characters and voices and playing out their interactions, whereas my nonfiction—with all its evolutions— ultimately feels more like the body I occupy in real life.

 

MK: You write a lot about the Sri Lankan Civil War, a conflict that was rarely covered in the U.S. media, until the endgame (and still then there was a media blackout and it was, as I recall, very rarely front-page news). Other international conflicts get consistent front-page coverage in the U.S., presumably because they are of “greater interest” or “relevance” to Americans. There always seems to be a privileging of one suffering over the other, a willingness to engage in one multi-faceted situation and not another. To me, it seems as though entire peoples, entire conflicts are invisible and that there is an effort to keep them that way. How do you address this in your work?

VM: Because the Sri Lankan conflict hits so close to home, I privately resent its invisibility in mainstream news. I’m sure I’m in the company of individuals who survived or grew up in the shadow of this or other conflicts. It was striking to me that Sri Lanka appeared in the news again at the precise moment its invisibility peaked, during the media blackout toward the war’s end, as though to suggest that absence is necessary to restore presence in the public eye. Like when it’s inaccessible, we want it.

I feel like in my work I’m constantly negotiating a balance between making conflict visible and asserting that it is worthy of visibility, that war doesn’t begin and end when the news media say so but simmers to a boiling point long before it explodes into Black July, or continues with refugees in camps, sexual abuses, privation, arbitrary detainment. We—be it countries or individuals—invest in conflicts that are the most worthwhile to us in terms of emotional costs, economic resources, cultural or political or physical similarity. There’s a concept known as “compassion fatigue,” where being inundated with stories and images of war in Gaza, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Ukraine, etc., etc., anesthetizes us to atrocity. But I think there’s more to it. While there’s some truth to inuring oneself through repeated viewing, as I’m prone to doing, it’s sort of a generalization that removes agency from the public, positioning the government and media as the purveyors of compassion. I want my writing to ask: Can we displace the register of compassion from governmental policy to public empathy, catalyzed not by war photographs (which never exist in isolation) but by intertextual narratives within a social, economic, political context at home and abroad.

And maybe that’s the best description of BLACK TIGER, WHITE VAN, which seeks to refigure the terms of looking—not at consequences but at violence in process, when intervention still seems possible, when we are more willing to engage.

I am Always (Flower Petals and bugs)

MK: You’ve had quite a few pieces from your larger work BLACK TIGER, WHITE VAN published in various journals. When I met you, I knew you only as a fiction writer. BLACK TIGER, WHITE VAN, much like this piece, touches on the unreliability of memory and how memory is as much fiction as nonfiction. It is clearly a painstaking process, trying to sort out conflicting reports, memories, feelings. In your fiction, do you feel an opportunity to step outside of this constant dissection? How do the process and its effects differ for you?

VM: To run with your surgical analogy, writing nonfiction like BLACK TIGER, WHITE VAN feels like an unrelenting debridement at my own hands, a crude attempt to scrape off the dead tissue of the past to preserve what’s left, to encourage the healing of wounds I’m still unwilling to fully own. It’s a process of recovery in and of itself. Not only does it insist that I confront past experiences that are emotionally difficult or potentially re-traumatizing—and I’m thinking specifically of a recent publication, “ThisIsMyManifesto.htm,” where the narrator simultaneously confesses to self-injury, attempted suicide, disability, queerness, and vicarious trauma—but it also demands that I make this experience accessible to strangers. So I’d say half of my nonfiction process is bracing myself for reopening old wounds, while the other half is craft: putting enough objective distance between myself and, say, the hallucinations I used to have, to find a way to make them as terrifyingly present to others as they were to me.

Fiction, on the other hand, feels like human vivisection with a defter touch, maybe because the lives I’m crafting ultimately aren’t mine even if they reflect aspects of my reality. It’s less a question of “How do I articulate this?” than “What makes this person tick?”In some ways there’s more research involved to create people who come to life for me, who move naturally through their environments. Problematic as it may be, I try to occupy their minds and spaces as much as possible, and I let them inhabit me. If I had to give you a breakdown, I’d say 80% of my fiction process is understanding these people in their ordinary circumstances; 10% is sadistic mental experimentation to gauge their behavioral changes and see what makes them move their worlds; and the rest is the writing itself. Once I’ve sorted out the characters and their motivations, the writing unfolds naturally, like a Borgesian map, mile-for-mile matched to my imagining.

So, to address your first question, neither process is outside dissection. Where my nonfiction process is an inward-looking deconstruction, my fiction is eternally stargazing, world-building, but keen to possibilities to take apart and exploit. I actually think both processes boil down to the same thing: the need to figure out why we do what we do in the face of adversity, when pushed to extremes. It’s still a contradiction. It’s like reaching with one hand for an Answer, capital-A, while with the other rejecting the notion of absolute Truth.

 

MK: I know from your mention of Harvey Dent in this piece and various Batman references in other pieces (and from our mutual obsession with all things Batman), that the Dark Knight holds a special place in your heart. For me, my fascination with Batman cannot be summed up in words. It’s a feeling of being drawn to something self-destructive yet noble. There is something to be said about the self-destructive and constructive process of writing. We pick ourselves (and oftentimes our loved ones) apart, put ourselves (and them) on the line, and hope it is a noble effort, one that outweighs the damage we do to ourselves and those we love. When I read your writing, I am stunned at how brave and singular your voice is. For you, whether in process or after the work is already finished, published, out of your hands, is there a moment of separation, when you can look at what you’ve done and see you have given up a part of yourself to save yourself, to maybe save someone else? Do you feel the sacrifice is worth it?

VM: I couldn’t describe it better than “self-destructive yet noble.” Maybe because of that awareness that I’m breaking the code of silence, exposing myself, my family, my friends to an unfamiliar readership, I have difficulty revisiting my work after publication. I’m forever asking my agent or a close friend to read it and remind me that it’s emotionally compelling; or I hesitate until people, without asking, tell me they were moved, or that reading the piece in question was like hearing their lives told back to them. I like to cite an experience in high school in the Bible belt, where a short story I wrote—interrogating sexuality and religion, mind you—made the rounds in the band room, and at least one person was so changed by it she has the hard copy to this day. More recently, a reader told me, “I love you for having survivor’s guilt. I love that it is an homage to those who didn’t get out.” Moments like those, I can close my critical eye and feel fulfilled.

So the short answer is yes, the sacrifice is worth it.
MK: I have known you for I think nine years at this point, and what strikes me about you, as well as your writing, is how you are always trying to find meaning in every detail, which is, I think, the mark of a great writer. The details are not superfluous, they are not accidents, they are not artistic flourishes. They are at the heart of it all. At what point did you realize that you were a bit obsessed with the details, and what do you think pushed you and continues to push you to obsessively turn these details over and try to fit them into a larger narrative?

VM: Given my background in science, role-playing games, and having to piece together an early understanding of the Sri Lankan war from details lifted out of context, I think I was always aware of the primacy of details. I understood scientific inquiry as revealing and explaining details; RPGs demonstrated that a single choice could permanently alter the narrative; and the Sri Lankan conflict was nothing but details because there was no larger narrative to guide me, I had to fashion my own. So I honestly can’t remember a time when I wasn’t obsessed with details. When I’m writing, I begin with a detail and extrapolate a reality: BLACK TIGER, WHITE VAN coalesced as a project when I caught myself repeatedly looking at the face of a Tiger cadre corpse, one of many in an unfilled trench; the novel I’m currently working on started with the shape of an astrocytoma and the proceedings from the First International Conference on psychotronics in Prague in 1974. Existence is an experience of contingency and intuition, I think, and I think this is emulated in my writing process, like making decisions of plot or symbolism on the fly only to discover, twenty pages later, that that tiny choice dictated something much larger. I have great faith that, by writing the details, I’ll intuit the larger narrative. It’s resulted in rewrites in the past, but it hasn’t really failed me yet.

 

MK: You write a lot about creating order amidst the disorder. Does the process of writing help create order or are there moments when it feels like the opposite, that the process of writing is just a reflection of the disorder of your own mind, the world around you? Or is it a constant fluctuation between the two?

VM: I never personally escape chaos. I experience moments, while writing, when the stars align and the disorder unfolds exactly as it should on the page, and all the seemingly arbitrary choices I’ve made so far—a character’s birth year, a physical attribute, a name—make sudden, blinding sense. But between sessions, or when I’m interrupted, I think my process of mental (re)composition does reflect a chaotic landscape. In that sense, it fluctuates. Additionally, when I write, I bounce all over the page, leaving unfinished lines or words as signposts to be revisited, knowing they won’t make the same kind of sense in a future writing session, but trusting that they will make a kind of sense, a semblance of order.

It’s almost as though the work and my mind can only operate in inverse: while I prefer to write in marathon sessions to retain the feeling that I am sense-making and creating order, approaching a work-in-progress after I’ve lost the thread forces me to be more mentally organized, if messier on the page; but taken all together I think it culminates in the expression of an order that is fractured, and does not eschew disorder, which I think is an essential part of being in the world.

 

 

Mary Krienke is an agent at Sterling Lord Literistic. She received her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University and represents literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and realistic YA that pays close attention to craft and voice. She is especially drawn to new and emerging writers who seek to push boundaries of form and content, and she responds most strongly to writing that reaches great emotional and psychological depths. She is equally interested in work that illuminates through humor or by playing with genre. Her other interests include psychology, art, and design.

Interview with Lauren Jo Sypniewski

Lauren Sypniewski.jpeg

Susannah Clark: Lauren, your essay “Minnows” appeared in r.kv.r.y.’s July ENDANGERED issue. What is the advantage of publishing in a journal with a specific theme or focus?

Lauren Jo Sypniewski: I think that it has the potential to affect the writing process in really positive ways by forcing the writer to hone in on a specific theme. I know for me personally, I sometimes struggle with “what is this essay truly about” when I’m trying to force it to accomplish too much. Here, the theme of recovery opened me up to guiding the essay along the appropriate path.

 

SC: Elaborate on the “recovery” aspect of this piece. Is there more than one kind of recovering occurring within this text?

LJS: In some ways, yes. In my definition, recovery is a personal process unique to every individual, and something that doesn’t have to be restricted to mental or physical recovery from a negative source. This essay does speak to those forms of recovery, but it also speaks to a recovery from past perceptions: learning to deal with situations that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable, almost as though recovery and acceptance walk hand-in-hand through the pages of the essay.

 

SC: The first few lines of the essay are written in the imperative, as if addressing someone specific. Are you giving instructions to a specific person or group? Did you have a particular audience in mind while writing this?

LJS: While I’d like to say I know what is going on one hundred percent of the time in my writing and that I am the master of the process, there are times where the writing does its own thing. And I feel somewhere in the “unknown” within me that it fits and its right, even if I can’t quite explain it. Looking back, though, I can see those first few lines functioning as a past or future Lauren speaking to the “present” Lauren who is a character within the piece.

 

SC: Your writing consistently indicates a strong sense of place–be it urban or rural or completely foreign. Is there a certain setting in which you find writing easier? Do you prefer to write in a landscape similar to the one you’re painting in your prose, or is it easier to conjure said place from a completely different atmosphere?

LJS: Thank you! In the end, I prefer to physically write from a different atmosphere than the one I am writing about. Though it may seem illogical, I almost find it easier to work from memory than from what’s in front of me, particularly because memory is filled with perspective and emotion and nostalgia. The mood of a landscape, for me, is just as important as the physical characteristics of the scene. So working from memory, based in emotion, helps me conjure the mood alongside just the descriptors.

 

SC: I was struck by the line:  “I don’t want to be the one to talk, because I can never make words sound better than silence.”  How is your relationship with writing distinct from your relationship with speech?

LJS: That’s a really insightful question I’ve never considered much before. My initial reaction is the fact that writing is still silent. And so I have the ability to add to that silence without taking away from it, without just filling it with noise. It reminds me of my favorite quote by Gretel Ehrlich: “We fill space as if it were a pie shell, with things whose opacity further obstructs our ability to see what is already there.” The world is already such a chaotic, noisy, frustrating place, and silence gives us a brief moment to actually think and absorb and process. And writing within that silence gives me the ability to drop tiny words into the well of thought, and watch the ripples.

 

SC: The ending of this piece is anticlimactic in a most wonderful way. Obviously, your grandmother’s outcome is implied, but did you consider writing about what happened next more explicitly? Why did you end where you did?

LJS: This was one of the very, very few times I knew where I had to end the piece. I usually struggle with endings. I’m told often that I write four endings on top of each other, just because I need to get that last word or dramatic line in there. It was almost as though I couldn’t physically continue, as though that one line I said to my grandmother was a kind of punishment: “you couldn’t say more to her then, so you don’t have the right to say anything more now.” It was overwhelming to end the essay that way, and I wanted the reader to feel that as well, the duality of my emotions as a writer choosing to end the piece that way as well as a “character” who–though so desperate–could only say those few words.

 

 

Susannah Clark is an American essayist and journalist currently living in Northern India. Her work has appeared inPopmatters, Extract(s), BDCWire, andInside Higher Ed.

Lauren Jo Sypniewski grew up in woodsy and earthy Northern Michigan before moving to Boston to obtain her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. Since then, she’s wound around the world searching Australia for new words, new moments, and new concepts of place and space: ideas often grappled with throughout her writing. She now lives in Southern Utah, where she teaches writing. Her essays and poetry have appeared in The American Council for Polish Cultural HeritageDiscovering Arguments, and the Pine River Anthology.

Interview with Jillian Ross

Jillian Ross

Barbara Wanamaker: What drew you to Van Gogh and what inspired you to write a poem about his painting Starry Night?

Jillian Ross: I was fascinated with the concept of “nightscape” and captivated by his bold use of color to convey emotion.

 

BW: Your poem seems to emerge as more of an inspirational response than an ekphrastic response. Rather than reacting to the work solely, you delve beneath the canvas to address the artist’s demons. Was this intentional or did the poem take this turn as it came forth?

JR: The painting seems alive. The sky moves, there’s an element of turbulence—a chaos—that pulls me in. Simultaneously, there’s the undercurrent of deliberate design in the rhythms, and a pure sense of hope in the exaggerated brightness of the stars and moon.

If I didn’t know the backstory of his struggle, I’d have interpreted the painting differently—as an expression of fantasy, maybe the visual equivalent of the genre we call “magical realism.” There’s a child-like exuberance to the night sky, as if it’s a playground that comes alive for him while the rest of the world sleeps. In this night sky, Van Gogh created an entirely new world, and perhaps the stars in that world were actually portals to the afterlife.

Knowing Van Gogh’s history—and the fact that Starry Night was painted during his stay in an asylum—drew me toward interpretation in terms of that reality. The urgency seems to depict the beauty of a manic episode—soaring bold, bright, confident, larger-than-life. Unfortunately, the corresponding depression that follows mania can plunge one lower than is even humanly imaginable. I marveled at the brilliance of a mind that could capture, combine and portray these elements so exuberantly, and then I mourned the tragedy of his suicide. So yes, the poem’s journey was deliberate.

 

BW: Do you believe it is possible to write about a Van Gogh painting without addressing the artist’s troubled life?

JR:   Art is self-expression, so the artist’s life is embedded in his work. If genius borders on insanity, then that borderline is a trembling high-wire without a net. If Van Gogh’s genius was in his sense of sight—in his perception of light and his ability to convey the images he saw—then try to imagine how the darkness of depressive episodes affected him. How must he have felt when the light disappeared?

 

BW: You refer to Van Gogh as “the pastor’s son” in the second line of your poem. Was this fact important to you in revealing the man who lived behind the guise of an artist?

JR:   As a writer, I reacted to the painting in terms of “story.” Knowing the backstory of his childhood in the Netherlands as the son of a minister, the church steeple and the cypress seem to represent things he might trust and hold onto as “terra firma” in his swirling world of mental anguish. So the solid, structural elements of the work seem to be taken from his life experience.

I believe that the faith we are raised in has an everlasting influence on our lives—it’s impossible to “unlearn” these truths, although it is possible to ignore or abandon them. I chose to believe that Van Gogh’s early religious training permeated his being with an enduring sense of faith and hope, despite the torment of his illness.

 

BE: “Elixir—a green glide through/aqua sky to amber field./Stained hands clench/the revolver aimed inward.” In these four lines, you describe beautifully Van Gogh’s addiction and subsequent suicide. Can you share with us any allusions of addiction and suicide apparent to you within Starry Night?

JR: His medical diagnosis is unclear—psychosis, epilepsy, alcoholism are all mentioned—but Van Gogh was hospitalized more than once, and episodes of “maniacal” behavior (including cutting off his ear) were well documented. Today, he might be categorized with co-occurring disorders. He painted Starry Night while voluntarily institutionalized—he had both a room and a studio in the asylum. But the “view” from his window as depicted in Starry Night did not exist. Unlike his other work, Starry Night was apparently created from “memory” and “imagination” rather than from on-site observation. Three months after his release from the asylum, at age 37, he apparently shot himself in a wheat field. His death was not instantaneous—the bullet didn’t kill him, death resulted from infection because the bullet could not be removed. That’s the storyline, and I couldn’t tell the story without including the agonizing reality. I chose to relay the events in terms of color as homage to the artist. Absinthe (known as “The Green Fairy”) derives its glorious color from chlorophyll, wheat fields glow amber, aqua is blue tinged with chartreuse-green.

 

BE: Do you feel Starry Night is the one work Van Gogh created that best illustrates his personal struggles?

JR: I do. I appreciate the sunflowers, the black crows in the wheat field. I love the cypress series. But as a writer, I’m drawn to story. In Starry Night, I found the story. My response included extending the story as we know it with his soul’s final journey through that Starry Night with his eyes wide open, letting him see the glory of light and color as he moved toward his final destination.

 

 

Barbara Wanamaker holds a B.A. in English and Art History from Fairfield University. She subsequently earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield in 2013. She has worked as assistant editor for Dogwood, poetry co-editor for Mason’s Road and as a reader for Spry. Her work appears in Mason’s Road, Spry, Ebullience, What Next? A Guide to Life After the MFA, Time for Singing and is upcoming in Penwood Review. She is the author of ekphrasis iii – a poetry response in Haibun form to selected cast pieces in Fairfield University’s collection displayed in the Bellarmine Museum.