“Crowdsource” Interview with Jeanetta Calhoun Mish

*Interview curated by Joshua Wann

Jeanetta C Mish.jpeg

Lee Taylor: Which is more essential to your muse – place or work and working-class issues?

I’ll begin my answer with a quote from an excellent article “Making Sense of Sense of Place” written by Cynthia Neely and published in the March/April 2014 issue of The Writers’ Chronicle : “‘Place’ is difficult to fence into just one definition. It could be defined as a landscape that is historically, culturally, or personally important—and, to a writer, it could be literal, imaginary, or metaphorical. [ . . . ] But it seems ‘place’ can be any space a poet calls on, or to which he returns, in his writing.”

So, because “work” is a place—both in the sense of the embodied workplace and the idea of work as topic (topos), I’d say sense of place is most important to my work, whether that place is psychological (the topography of the human innerscape as in the poem published in the Summer 2014 issue of r.k.v.r.y.) or environmental (topography in its usual sense, landscape combined with the psychological and emotional components of physical places).

 

Sandi Soli: Dr. Mish, the importance of place is clearly evident in your writing. How did you come to recognize it as the vital core component of your work?

Thanks for a follow-up question to Lee’s opening one, Sandi. My first book, Tongue Tied Woman is primarily about psychological place and spaces, where my my second book, Work Is Love Made Visible, operates within what I believe to be the richest vein of “sense of place,” one that combines an environmental sense of place with a historical, familial, cultural, and psychological resonances. A few years after I published my first book, I felt that the poems in it kept emotion “at arms length” away, so I returned to iconic collections by poets whose work moves me: Joy Harjo, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Muriel Rukeyser, James Wright, William Stafford, Richard Hugo. And the poems I loved best in their collections were the ones in which sense of place was inextricable from the poem’s emotional, intellectual, and political arcs. So, when I noticed that the poems I was writing (the ones that became Work Is Love Made Visible) kept circling around family and our family place, Oklahoma, I decided to give free rein to the impulse to compose narrative forms with a strong sense of place. Although most of my new poems still have an identifiable narrative, at least half of the new work is closer to lyric, but even in the more lyrical poems, I find myself “calling on” (as Neely puts it) a series of spaces, some I’m returning to, some that are new territory.

 

Norbert Krapf: How is your writing “mongrel” and how does your work as editor of Mongrel Empire Press affect your own writing?

I think the foremost way my writing is “mongrel” is that I just can’t seem to stick to one style. I have at least three clearly identifiable styles: the storytelling, often vernacular poem; the long-lined poems (sometimes prose poems) that hover somewhere between prose and poetry, and what I call the “Latinate”poems, poems in which the multi-syllabic words we’ve inherited from the Latin language serve as structural underpinning, as sound-play instruments, and as thought-device with which to explore my scholarly, critical-theory-reading self. Of course, if you take all these styles together, you get a map to my ethnic, artistic, intellectual, and cultural hybridity, which is something I celebrate. My editorial work influences my writing by making me want to work harder at it, to push it to new places, because I see so much great work coming in “over the transom” to the press. It also makes me ask my poems more than once if they’re truly ready to be submitted—sometimes, poems just aren’t ready, and it’s more obvious to an editor—and to readers—than most of us think it is!

 

Miranda Bradley:What are some obsessions, compulsions, or distractions you deal with during the writing process, and how do you move past them?

Compulsion: I have to clean and organize my desk first! I used to think the compulsion to clean and organize my writing space was an avoidance behavior, but I decided to honor it as mental preparation, as creating a meditative state or a liminal space, a ritual which marks the time in which I am consciously moving into active writing. It works for me, to think of organizing my writing area as ritual. Sometimes, now, I can even jump-start my writing by initiating the cleaning ritual. Obsession? I have a hard time deciding when to put down the pre-writing reading I’ve been doing and get on with the writing. There’s always one more book! How do I move past it? Sheer determination. Distractions? Life in general; specifically, the tasks that come with all the different hats I wear, as MFA director, as small press editor and publisher, as teacher, as poet and essayist. I wish I could tell you that I’ve found a successful way to move past those, but I haven’t, not entirely. I do use a free app called “Self-Control” that lets me block Facebook, mail servers, all or part of the internet—I set what I want blocked and the amount of time I want it blocked for, and the only way I can override it is to restart the computer. It works for me—for instance, if I can’t see that email come in, I don’t feel like I have to answer it right away.

 

Chelle Gluch: All authors have a favorite writing space. Tell me about your favorite place to write and how that space inspires or affects you.

It’s only been in the last four years that I’ve had a favorite writing space, my beautiful office on the arroyo—the windows look out on Sandia Mountain (Albuquerque). The best thing about my space, in addition to the natural beauty of the area, is that all my poetry books are within easy reach (alphabetized by author’s last name, or, if anthology, by title). For most of my life, because I was a single mother and, until 2001, worked jobs that didn’t allow for intellectual or creative space (working in copy shops, waitressing, bartending, working as a nurse’s aid in nursing homes, etc), most of the writing went on in my head. Then, when I had time and space (which might be when I was waiting to pick my son up from school or after I got off work at 2 am and went to an all-night diner to wind down), I’d write, usually several poems at a time.

 

Alice M. Azure: I always like to know how a poet/writer works at her craft—the discipline of writing. For example, do you write every day? How do you hang on to words and phrases that get into your head? How much and how deeply do you edit your work? Do you work with a poetry circle?

Because of the habit of writing in my head that I cultivated for years, I am still primarily a “binger” rather than a “plodder” (thanks to my friend and colleague Allison Amend for these two useful terms). What I mean is, as a binger, I may not write a poem for 6 months, but then I’ll write 6 or 8 or 10 in the space of a week or two. Many of those poems have already been revised in my head when they hit the page, and sometimes they need only one more revision before they’re ready. I very rarely sit down and say to myself, “I’m going to write a poem.”I’m not a “plodder,”so I don’t make a time to sit down and write every day. I used to feel guilty about that, since almost all the writers’ advice I’ve read insists you must sit down every day at a regular time and write, but now, I roll with what I have, and I hope other bingers will be easier on themselves because I’ve confessed my irregular writing process.

When I’m writing essays, especially when I’m writing commissioned essays, I do sit down and say to myself, “it’s time to write that essay.” But even with essays, I’ve done a lot of pre-writing in my head and have a pretty good idea of the “shape” (literally, both prose and poetry feels like a shape of some kind, a shape I could gesture with my hands) of the essay before I hit the first letter on the keyboard. How much do I edit? I edit as much as the poem or essay needs—as well as I can judge it. One of my essay editors has a question in this interview—I wonder if I judge the amount of editing needed as well as I think I do! Fortunately, she did not ask about my editing process.

No, I don’t write with a poetry circle. I’ve always been a stereotypically lone writer. However, over the years I’ve been lucky to cultivate a trusted and beloved group of writers, friends, who are my second readers, my manuscript-sequencing experts, my advocates, and my critics. I rarely ever send them anything in progress; when I think the writing is close to final form, I send it and ask for feedback. I’m lousy at sequencing manuscripts so I always ask for help on that. Norbert Krapf, who has asked a question in this interview, sequenced Work Is Love Made Visible for me—I was stuck and couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Another friend recently sequenced one of the two chapbooks I have out as submissions, and Sandi Soli, who also has a question in this interview, is waiting on what might be my next full-length book, to sequence for me.

 

Kim Shuck: Some poetry is in dialogue with objects, some with the author, to what do you attribute the dialogue your work seems to have with other people not now present? 

What a fascinating, thought-provoking, unusual question! I think there are two primary cultural reasons why my work is in dialogue with “other people not now present. ”One is that I was raised in a Southern family—not a “Deep South” family (as a Mississippi-born-and-raised friend recently reminded me), at least not a true Deep South family whose roots and branches are still in the Deep South. A third-generation, working-class (previously sharecropping), Deep South, post-reconstruction, gone to the Territories family (both Native and nonnative family members). My families found their way from the South to Oklahoma by two different routes, one through Missouri and Texas, the other through Arkansas and Texas. Southern literature, as we all know, has long and complex conversations with ghosts, haints, shades, and others not now present. I’m sure that I don’t need to go into the reasons why Southern literature is haunted, since most people who will read this interview will already know. The other cultural reason is that I am, like most people descended from early-settlement Oklahomans, mixed-blood Native American (I also have some African-American ancestry); Native people, too, acknowledge the presence of those not now physically present.

It doesn’t seem odd to me to think of “my family” as including, for instance, women who died in the late 1800s—passed/past family members were repeatedly storied into our lives. The primary aesthetic reason I try to communicate with those not now present is that I have a lot of questions to ask them, questions that revolve around a central theme: How did my family become who they are? How did I become who I am? To me, these are questions that engender empathy for others and form a foundation for a nuanced view of humankind. The conceptual title (which may not be the final title) of the collection I’m working on now is “How We Became White.” For example, I want to comprehend why, despite their non-whiteness / marginal whiteness, members of my families became casual racists (and some active racists) and why I resisted that acculturation. I hope that, through these questions, I can confront that particular human proclivity, hatred, and its obverse, love. And in doing so, more accurately estimate how to put my humanist values to work in the world in both my writing and publishing and through the kinds of activism I am able to participate in at this time.

 

Steffie Corcoran: I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on inspiration. What inspires you? How do you put yourself in a position to be inspired? What do you do when inspiration feels out of reach? How would you turn inspiration into a metaphor? 

I like how you said “how do you put yourself in a position to be inspired?” I think that’s absolutely necessary, in part because my first two scholarly degrees are in 18th century British literature, and those women and men, while they believed in inspiration, also believed in cultivating it—by reading, by great conversation, by travel, by studying their artistic craft (poetry or drama or architecture or painting). One of the most fruitful arenas for inspiration for me, lately, is to try to write in form. Although I have studied and critiqued poetic form, both as a poet and as a scholar, I have always been terrified of writing in form. However, I have discovered that it leads me to think about poems in an entirely new way and it has led to some brand new poems that I might not have found if I hadn’t been thinking about and practicing with form.

Another way I’m inspired is by teaching—one of the first prose pieces I ever published was an assignment I wrote along with my freshman composition class. Today, teaching poetry and literary journal editing, I often find myself suggesting a reading to a student that opens up new avenues for my own work. If I’m stuck for inspiration, I take a hike or I read a book of poetry (or I take the book along on my hike!); I also find inspiration in current events and in certain critical theory and philosophy texts. However, I’m having a hard time turning “inspiration” into a metaphor right now, because my obsession with etymology reminds me that the word “inspiration” is already a metaphor meaning “to breathe in.” I don’t think I can do much better than that!

 

Joshua Wann: I heard you read your poetry out loud before I had read any of your work. How important is it for your work to be read/performed by you versus read by a reader? Do you think there are poems that are better spoken out loud or performed as opposed to read on the page?

I think there are poems that work on the stage and not on the page, and vice versa; poems that work when set to music as lyrics but don’t work so well without the music, and poems that work no matter what. I want my poems to work both on the page and on the stage. That said, poems are meant to be heard because poetry began as an oral form and because many craft elements of contemporary “page” poems—the “sonic level” of poetry—are still deeply engaged with sound. The sound of a poem is not just icing on the cake, it is the essence of cake-ness, inextricably intertwined with meaning. There are so many things going on in poems that we miss when we muzzle them.

I am also very conscious of my reading style—I hope you liked my reading style!—because I have an undergraduate double-major in English and Theater Studies and because, as a young writer, I heard so many people read in a style that bored me to death and came close to ruining my love for their poems as I encountered them on the page. Reading after reading sounded like this: “da DA/ da daa/ da daa/ da duh // da Da da daa/ da daa/ da duh” (with some occasional variations), regardless of the poem’s internal rhythm. I am not a performance poet/slam poet, but I try to read my poems in a way that keeps the audience engaged and that adds to the meaning, not detracts from it.

Interview with Leslie Nielsen

Leslie Nielsen

Laura Grace Weldon: I found myself forgetting to inhale as I read your powerfully layered poem, “Breathing Without Air” in the July issue of r.kv.r.y.. Can you tell us a little about what inspired this work?

Leslie Nielsen: Thank you! I’m delighted that you were affected in any way at all. I’m also delighted to finally have a story like this to tell. This poem was originally an exercise for an MFA class, but the lovely Ruth Schwartz persuaded me that it worked as a poem—better, in fact, than many of the efforts I’d been declaring to be finished poems. [wry LOL] “Finishing” for me always seems to run the risk of overworked, over-tidy language sanded down to a continuous, inoffensive surface. What Ruth saw, I think, was what she and I began to call “leapiness” which is way more interesting.

Breathing has always been a big deal for me. For who is it not, I know, but as a kid I had such bad allergies. Swimming lessons were a trauma because it was miserably uncomfortable to put my sinus-clogged face into the water’s pressure. Blowing bubbles out of my stuffy nose just wasn’t an option. Despite that, I was in the barn and field all day every day, covered with animal dander and pollens. When my kids have had the sniffles or infrequent bone-rattling asthmatic coughs, I can only imagine what my mom and dad listened to my entire childhood. And then, I don’t know how often this happens to others, but I’ve managed to swallow wrong really badly something like once every other year, and have given myself some serious scares.

I was doing a writing exercise I’ve assigned many times, to take whatever is at hand and begin writing. What I grabbed was a plastic bag with all its consumer protection warnings. This merged with suffocation anxiety—first the respiratory kind, then the emotional kind—when the securities believed to be essential to life are removed, but somehow life has not ended, and this poem formed.

 

LGW: You are a parent, scholar, teacher, editor, writer, gardener, seamstress, photographer, musician, and much more. How do these roles impact your writerly life?

LN: Your list makes my scattered attention span sound very impressive. Part of me growing me up as a writer has been to accept the actual circumstances of my life as being worth writing about. It took a while to get over a sense I had that all good stories happened in New York and all interesting insights happened in celebrated places. When I started teaching creative writing, I discovered that most young writers have to go through this departure from and reunion with the self. The general is never interesting, the precise is. Particular, not stereotype. But it’s hard to do, hard to attune the ears and eyes to nuance and understatement and precision when there are so many cool ideas to share. I have some favorite quotes, but now I can’t remember if they’re from B.B. King or Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen: “You don’t shout every time you say something,” and “It’s music, not gymnastics.” I think those apply to any art form. So, to come back to your question, the hands-on work (sewing and gardening and drawing and piano practice as examples) not the utterly cerebral work (like writing and teaching) schools the body and brain in detail, in process, in the passage of real time. It’s lived physics. Without the body, the physical, in the writing, it (the writing) just floats off and can’t hold anyone’s attention.

 

LGW: Moving from Ohio to Denmark, do you notice changing reference points of self and culture in your writing?

LN: If I’d moved earlier in life, they might have changed more—like the way I got new hair, new friends, and a new sense of identity with my new classes and books each semester at university. What I’m finding here and now, though, is that I’m getting additional vantage points for seeing the same reference points that have mattered to me over and over: language, gender, spirituality, creative ability and output. Instead of noticing change, which of course must be ongoing during this linguistic and cultural shift, I’m really noticing the things that persist.

Breathing without Air (Glacialwaters)

LGW: There may be no other poem written that uses plastic bag so uniquely, from “all you’ve got” to “safari net” to “noose” to “way to survive.” From suffocation to awareness. You have a remarkable ability to connect incongruities. Can you talk with us about how to make this work in a poem?

LN: Yeah—that’s exactly the leapiness principle! I think I tried to keep circling back to just those moments when panic is ready to set in, but instead something like Emily Dickinson’s “formal feeling” comes. Wow. In fact, this poem, now that I look at it next to Dickinson follows the same contour, so my survival is a lot like her “letting go.” Not deliberate mimicry, but I have always loved that poem, so how cool to have its flow seeping into a piece of my own work.

 

LGW: You touch again on the theme of breath and memory, although in an entirely different way, in your evocative poem “Walking,” recently published in The Missing Slate.  One poem is first person, the other second person. Can you talk with us about writing from these different narrative angles and how you choose?

LN: Somewhere back in the genesis of each poem, there’s a real experience and a real intended hearer. In “Walking,” it’s my husband and our experience together of birthing our daughters. In “Breathing Without Air” it’s a person in a hospital waiting room while someone dear is in crisis and in the hands of others and words are inadequate comfort. The birthing transmogrified entirely to metaphor keeping, I hope, the intimacy, but the waiting room scene hung around literally.

I’ve deliberately switched POV back and forth in my fiction writing to try for different effects, but seem to settle and stick early on with poems.

 

LGW: I read a quote recently that said, “What you do when you procrastinate should be your life’s work.” Care to share with us what your preferred procrastination work tends to be?

LN: Um—maybe I should be a hotel maid again. I loved that work. Whenever I’m facing a deadline, the homeplace is utterly clean and neat—sparkling dishes, smooth beds, speck-free floors. I don’t know why I do it, because when it’s done, I’m out of excuses to avoid the work, and sometimes out of time for making the deadline. It’s like eating all the chocolate so I’m not tempted to eat the chocolate.

 

LGW: Take us into your world for a moment. What have you been reading lately? What do you see around you right now? What lightens your spirit?

LN: Oh. Dealing with this might have a bit of a shadow to it—an absence that is a presence. I’m now one year into having stepped away from academia and teaching, but the weight of mounds of student work to comment on or grade still feels newly removed, so I still experience it as a lightness. On the more obviously affirming side, I’m crazy free to pursue creative work. My paintbrushes and colored pencils are out on the desk, there’s a novel draft and stack of proto-poems next to them, and the wind is always blowing here. Blowing fresh.

 

 

Laura Grace Weldon lives on Bit of Earth Farm where she’s an editorand marginally useful farm wench. She’s the author of a poetry collection titled Tending and a handbook of alternative education, Free Range Learning. Her work appears in such places as Christian Science Monitor, J Journal, Literary Mama, The Shine Journal, Red River Review, Dressing Room Poetry Journal, Shot Glass Journal, Rose & Thorn Journal, Iodine Poetry Journal, and Pudding House. Connect with her at lauragraceweldon.com

Mickey J. Corrigan and Michael Cantwell discuss the New Face of Publishing

Mickey J. Corrigan

Mickey J. Corrigan, whose poem “Sleight of Hand” appears in the July issue of r.kv.r.y Quarterly, is a member of Ink Well Writers, a writing critique group. Under her real name, she has published numerous nonfiction books with Random House, Doubleday, Penguin, Prentice Hall and other major houses. Currently, she publishes fiction with various small presses under her pen name.

Michael Cantwell is a novelist, real estate agent, and photographer. He runs the indie press KSM Publications and has self-published five novels. He is currently working on a series for young readers. He lives in South Florida, where he serves as co-organizer of Ink Well Writers.

Here, Michael and Mickey discuss the difference between traditional presses and the self-publishing options available to today’s authors.

 

Michael: We have talked often about the pros and cons of traditional versus indie or self-publishing. Why do you still choose to work with publishing companies rather than publishing your books yourself?

Mickey: I’ve worked with publishing houses for many years. I have things I like about them and things I do not like so much. I love earning an advance. I actually used to make a living off book advances and royalties. It’s also great to be able to trust publishing professionals to shape my manuscript into a beautiful book. I like working with professional editors and art departments, the experienced book designers. And it’s always good to have a marketing and sales team to help with getting the book out there.

 

Michael: I’m under the impression the advances of any substance are tougher to obtain, especially for new authors, and large publishing houses are offering less marketing. Am I wrong?

Mickey: Advances have never been easy to get, especially for fiction authors without a track record. But the size of publishing advances keeps growing. As for marketing, I’ve always done a lot of the marketing for my books. With the bigger presses, you can get some assistance. And you can get the books into the chain bookstores. The ones that are still around, that is.

 

Michael: So what are the cons of working with traditional publishers?

Mickey: The author has too little say in the final product. Sometimes an editor will herd you in a direction you do not want to go in. Maybe you don’t like a title change or the cover design. Also, the production schedule can drag. It takes a lot longer to publish a manuscript when you’re in a long line of authors at a big house.

 

Michael: I’m of the opinion that if you are a control freak like I am, and have marketing and computer savvy, you might want to try the indie approach. However, if you are intimidated with the business side of publishing and only want to write, an established publishing house is better for you. Would you agree?

Mickey: No published writer can just write. All authors these days must do promotion, social networking, and marketing for their books. I think traditional versus indie is a personal choice. And it also depends on whether you can interest a traditional publisher in your work. If you can’t, then self-publishing might be your only option.

Sleight of Hand (Moth on Polaroid Sky)

Michael: At a time when many agencies have limited their client lists or even closed up shop, why would a writer try to find a literary agent willing to take them on?

Mickey: I advise serious writers to at least try to interest a literary agent. If you plan to write more than one book, this is especially important. Having an agent can get you into play with the big presses and that can mean money and a wide audience. It can mean foreign rights and film options. All the stuff a writer’s dreams are made of.

 

Michael: I would agree. However, writers shouldn’t assume they will find an agent in short order. It can be a difficult and time consuming process. I have sent out queries to agents because I do agree it’s a step worth exploring, even if in the end you decide to self-publish. So, when you work as an editor or ghostwriter, Mickey, do you ever advise your clients to self-publish?

Mickey: If the book is something they are writing for family and friends, yes, I advise them to look into self-publishing. Which is relatively easy and inexpensive these days. But if a writer hopes to reach a wide audience, I suggest they test out the traditional route first.

 

Michael: We disagree on that. With indie releases ending up on the New York Times best-seller lists these days, self-publishing is a viable option. And it is only going to get more popular. The numbers may be small compared to the overall number of book releases per year, but there are examples of indie books reaching a very wide audience. And let’s face it, not every traditionally published book becomes a big seller either.

Mickey: True, but your chances of reaching readers are still better with the traditional model. If you self-publish, you may be limited to ebook sales, online retailers, and the rare bookstore that carries self-published titles.  

 

Michael: Do you ever see a time when you might consider becoming an indie publisher yourself?

Mickey: You never know. Maybe if I teamed up with the right person…

 

Michael: As always, Mickey, it’s been fun debating publishing with you. I wish you much success.

Mickey: You too.
Links to websites for Michael and Mickey’s work:

www.ksmmike.com

www.mickeyjcorrigan.com

www.virginiaaronsonwriter.com

 

Featuring Toby Van Bryce

Toby Van Bryce

We are honored to have Toby Van Bryce’s Shorts On Survival piece Just Enough Hope as part of our July ENDANGERED issue. His moving story reminds us that none of us are immune when it comes to the brutal lure of drugs and alcohol and yet sharing our stories can bring peace and lead the way to freedom.

Toby has another excellent short essay appearing in KNOCK Magazine. I highly recommend it. The writing is tough and beautiful and it will KNOCK your socks off. It’s from his memoir-in-progress titled When You Learn to Love Hell, You’re in Heaven.

 

 

Interview with Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is interviewed here by me, Briana Morgan. First, I should paint a picture for you: Matt is tall, funny, and fairly quiet until you get to know him—to look at him, you wouldn’t know that he had just written a novel and has been going through the publication process. In spite of having graduated from GCSU last year, Matt remains a prominent fixture in Milledgeville, where he spends his time reading, writing, and basically just becoming more awesome. I recently sat down to interview Matt just ahead of the release of his ebook (at the date of this publication, the book will have already come out). He had a lot to say.

Briana Morgan: How did you get into writing?

Matt Thompson: I have a very typical and less than exciting story about how I got into writing. I started college as a history major, but my 1101/1102 class convinced me that English is what I was supposed to study. My intro to creative writing class did the rest.

 

How would you describe your writing style?

I wouldn’t, but given no other choice I’d say my writing is to the point.

 

Which authors or works do you think have influenced your writing the most?

This is a fun question. Anyone who knows me could tell you that I read a lot, even for a person who studies writing/literature, so this is difficult. It’s impossible not to mention Hemingway, because I read him a great deal when I was younger and I think some of my techniques are definitely influenced by him, but his influence stops there, at the technical level. I wish I could write like Philip Roth—the way he weaves past and present is something I try (and hopefully at least partially succeed) to emulate. As far as subject matter goes I think Jonathan Franzen has had the biggest effect, especially on my newer work. While writing Oleanders In Alaska I actually read Freedom twice. It’s amazing to me how he’s picked up the family drama torch from his Russian predecessors and he’s even made me pick up old Russian classics that I’ve avoided in the past. So I like to write about families and relationships. Wow that was wordy, sorry.

 

What are you reading at the moment?

At the moment I’m reading Travels In Alaska by John Muir.

 

What do you think about e-books?

This is a question that I was hoping you’d ask. I’ve learned that there’s a stigma. There is a perception that there is no one out there writing serious fiction for e-books, that e-publishing is only an outlet for those who want to write their own vampire or s&m story. I’d like to change that perception. Just because a book is published as an e-book doesn’t mean that it’s glorified fan fiction. There’s good stuff out there, lots of it, and we’d like you to read us too. That isn’t to say I’m one of those people who thinks traditional publishing is dead and we should all ignore it. On the contrary, I have a few short stories that have been published…on actual paper! So I’m not necessarily against traditional avenues. Nothing as complex as this can ever be absolutely black and white. There are positives to both. Was that self promotion subtle enough?

 

What have you learned about the publishing industry?

Ew.

 

What’s the best advice you can give aspiring writers?

Just write. I write every day and a lot of it sucks. Some of it ends up being pretty good. The thing is, I rarely know when I’m in the process of writing. It takes some time to know if something is any good. So write every day.

The Stars at Noon

The Stars at Noon (Frozen Feathers)
Frozen Feathers, image by Karen Bell

She had been sleeping, it seemed, then she heard someone cough. Who is coughing? she thought. Then she realized: it was herself.

Silly old woman. Silly half-dead old woman.

Then she noticed that she was sitting up. Why? She looked around the hospital room. The vaporizer breathing the menthol odor of death. The late afternoon light on the linoleum like the outline of someone killed in a highway accident.

Anastasia shivered. Why did she have to think such thoughts? This was no time to think like that. This was a time for joy.

She lay back into herself, hugged the chill inside her. It wouldn’t be long now.

Now what was that? Nurses talking in the hallway? She raised her head from the pillow and strained to hear what they were saying. But she couldn’t make out the words over the hiss of the vaporizer, so she lay back.

Then it wasn’t nurses talking. It was cicadas buzzing in the trees around her father’s farm.

She’d heard that ratcheting hum every August when she was growing up. Once, she and Tom collected the brittle, umber-colored husks left in the elms after the humming stopped. She stood under each tree holding one of their father’s empty cigar boxes while Tom shinnied up and found the desiccated husks. At first he crushed a lot of them, they were so fragile; later, he learned how to cradle them in his palm.

She had that cigar box full of them somewhere. Where?

And who was this?

The nurse’s face hung before her like a question waiting to be answered. “Sister Anastasia? Are you awake?”

Why did nurses wear white, nuns black?

“You have a visitor, Sister.”

Hovering beside her in the half-light: Sister Beatrice. The children are right. We do look like blackbirds. She watched Beatrice pull a white handkerchief out of her black sleeve and blow her nose. The old nun laughed, then coughed. She hugged her ribs until she stopped coughing.

Was this how Tom had felt? Dry and ready to crumble?

“Sister Anastasia?”

It was that big-nosed nurse again. What do you want now?

“It’s time for your afternoon chest rub, but I’ll wait till you’re through visiting. Whenever you’re done, just buzz for me, okay?”

He would drop down from the tree with his hands full of husks.

“I’m dying,” she said, but Tom was gone.

“Pardon me?” a voice said. “Did you say something, Sister?”

Anastasia turned to the voice’s face: it was Sister Beatrice. Then she laughed. A blackbird with wire-rimmed glasses. She had to tell the children.

The children—she had almost forgotten the children. How they would suffer when they heard she was dead! She remembered how hard they had cried last spring, when the touring company of the Black Hills Passion Play performed the crucifixion at their school, and she imagined them at her funeral: the boys, bravely blinking, and the girls, their faces in their hands.

What was she thinking of? How could she think such a thing?

“I am an old sinner,” she whispered. “Forgive me.”

“For what?” Beatrice asked. “You’ve never done anything to hurt me. You know that.”

Anastasia looked at the young nun. She was about to explain, but the coughing started again. When it was over, Anastasia was sitting up. Beatrice helped her lie back.

“Are you all right?” Beatrice worried.

“I need a priest,” Anastasia said. She’d been asking for Last Rites for two days, but all she’d received were more pain pills. “Call Father Switzer. Please.”

“Don’t you talk like that,” Beatrice scolded. “Dr. Gaertner says you’ll be fine in a week or so. You’re going to be under the weather awhile, but what do you expect when you don’t wear your shawl when you should? You can’t say we didn’t warn you—and time and again.”

Anastasia smiled at her stern look. No wonder her children ignored her when she disciplined them: no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t look angry, not with that baby face.

Then Beatrice’s chin began to quiver and the stern look dissolved. Taking out her handkerchief, she turned away. “I’m sorry, Sister,” she said. “I shouldn’t cry; there’s nothing to cry about.” Then she began to cry even harder. She turned back to Anastasia. “Oh, Sister, I hate to see you so sick!” she sobbed, and threw her arms around her.

Beatrice’s wide wimple blocked the last bit of light from the hospital window, and Anastasia felt the darkness settling around her. She had been waiting for it, and it had finally come. She breathed it in, felt it fill her hollow cheeks and lungs.

But Beatrice rose, wiping her tears, and the light came back.

“I’m not supposed to tell you this,” she said, “but I will. We’re planning a big birthday party for you when you get back. We’re going to decorate the lunchroom with balloons and crepe paper and signs, and the kids are going to sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ and then we’re going to have cake and ice cream and play some games. Sister Rose is going to bake a huge cake, and I’m going to decorate it. I had the best idea ever: I’m going to spell out your name with candles! Can’t you just imagine how beautiful it’ll look when all the candles are lit?”

If a candle was still burning after you tried to blow it out, that meant you had a secret boyfriend. And if the stem of your apple snapped on the third twist, that meant his name began with C.

A young man was once in love with me, Anastasia said. Or did she? Sister Beatrice did not seem to hear. “I know I shouldn’t have told you,” Beatrice was saying. “It was supposed to be a surprise and everything, but I just wanted you to know how much we care about you.”

She shouldn’t be thinking about Carl now: she didn’t want to spoil her death with thoughts of old boyfriends. She was a nun, not a housewife. But everyone else who knew her when she was young was dead: Tom was dead, Mother and Father, her friends. Everyone. Carl was the only one left who would remember what she was like when she was a little girl.

Why did that matter?

The fall from innocence was fortunate; it was sinful to regret it. Adam and Eve banished to Heaven. The discarded apple making cider in its bruises.

What now?

Beatrice was patting her hand. Nice puppy.

“All the kids miss you terribly, and so do we,” she said. “I know Antoinette Marie is short-tempered with you sometimes, but she doesn’t mean anything by it, and she misses you as much as Camilla and Rose and I do. And Father Switzer—you know you’ve always been his favorite. Just this morning he said he can’t wait to see your smiling face again.”

Anastasia thought she heard Father Switzer’s lisping Latin. She rose to her elbows. He’s finally here. It’s finally time. She looked around the room for his shock of blond hair and boyish face.

But it was only the vaporizer, hissing its dark litany. What a foolish woman! Anastasia lay back into a laugh. She knew she’d start coughing again, but she didn’t care. It was too funny. She was too funny.

“What is it?” Beatrice asked.

Anastasia crossed her hands at her neck, trying to strangle the cough before it began. But it began anyway, and she coughed until she was dizzy, until green and gold burned neon under her eyelids.

She thought: so much pain. But what was this compared to the agony in the garden, the sweating of blood, the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the crucifixion and death? No, it was wrong to complain about a little cough. Her suffering was meaningless. She wished she could cough blood, to make herself more worthy of death.

“Are you feeling all right now?” Beatrice said. She was wiping the old nun’s face with a hand towel.

Anastasia couldn’t speak for a moment, and when she did, the words seemed heavy, as if she had to draw them up from deep in her lungs. “I don’t know how to die,” she said.

“You’re not going to die, Sister. You’re just sick and overtired, that’s all. You’ll be back to normal in no time.”

The laity at least had the luxury of making wills, disposing of property. But she had nothing to will, she had given everything, even her will, away. Be it done unto me according to Thy word. All these years she had been exhilarated by that surrender, and her subsequent nothingness, but now she was frightened. She remembered the afternoon Tom lowered her into Grandpa Emery’s dry well so she could see the stars: only from the vantage point of darkness could you see the light buried within the light. And she had married the darkness, worn its black habit, so she could be reborn into that light. But what if she had not really surrendered but only given up?

After Tom died, she was the dead one. His absence was so complete it was presence, but no one noticed her, the true ghost. Father sat on the porch rocker, smoking and staring into the night, never saying anything about him or even mentioning his name. But Mother couldn’t talk about anything else. She’d sit in the kitchen and talk for hours with Mrs. Willoughby about him. He was born to be a priest, she’d say. When he was little, he’d pin a dishtowel around his neck like a chasuble and pretend to celebrate Mass, distributing cookies to the neighbor children as if they were Hosts. And he was always praying. Sometimes he’d even talk to his guardian angel as if he could really see him.

How could she tell her parents she too was no longer of this world? Something had died in her when Tom had died, but something had been born, too. A vocation. She stood in front of her bedroom mirror and practiced her announcement for days before she finally told them.

“You must be cold, Sister. Your lips look a little blue. Do you want me to get you another blanket?”

Tom had not been afraid of death and neither was she. But she was almost ashamed to die. Tom was so young, he might not even recognize her. He had been only seventeen when he died. A year later, her first in the convent, she was seventeen too, and all that year she had cherished the thought that they were twins, in a way. But now she was old enough to be his grandmother.

“Why, you are cold. And it’s so warm in here!”

Just then a cough caught in her larynx, choking her. She opened her mouth and gulped, but there was no air. She gulped until her ears rang, until air no longer mattered, and then she lay quietly, watching Beatrice’s white hands flutter about her wimple.

What was that silly girl so excited about?

Then Beatrice lifted her up and her breath came back in sobs. Each swallow of saliva scalded her throat.

“Oh, Sister, are you all right?”

She had almost touched bottom that time. She had come so close, so very close, and Beatrice had ruined it.

Beatrice’s lip was quivering now. “I hate to see you like this,” she said. “You mean so much to me . . .”

Anastasia lay back. I want to die now. Why won’t you leave me alone?

“You’ve been like a mother to me. I don’t know what—”

“I’m just an old nun,” Anastasia snapped. “I’m not your mother.”

“What’s wrong?” Beatrice asked. “Did I say something wrong? I didn’t mean—”

“Why don’t you just go away? Can’t you see I’m tired?”

Beatrice took out her handkerchief again. Tears, tears. Won’t she ever stop?

“I’m sorry, Sister, it’s just that I love you.”

“What do you know about love?” Anastasia said. And she remembered how once, when they were playing Statues, Carl kissed her to make her come alive, and she fell giggling into grass so green it shone. But that was before, that was when they were still children. Years later, he took her for a buggy ride behind her father’s big chestnut mare and, stopping in the woods, kissed her twice before she could say a word. All the way home, the wind lifted the pale underbellies of poplar leaves, and the woods purred.

But the last time she let him kiss her was the Sunday before Tom died. It had rained while they were in church that morning, and the hay in the loft smelled pungent and musty. It was the smell of loam, of a freshly dug grave, and each time Carl kissed her, he drove her deeper into the hay, deeper into the smell, until she couldn’t breathe. She thought of Tom lying in his hospital bed, and asked God to take her instead of him. He was the good one, the holy one: he should live, not her. All the while Carl kissed her, she prayed for her death. She let him kiss her a long time, until he began to moan with the desire to do more. His moans confused her: they sounded like Tom’s, though they came from pleasure instead of pain. That didn’t make sense to her. But nothing made sense to her anymore, except her desire to die in Tom’s place.

After Carl left, she went to her room and waited for her parents to come home from the hospital. By the time they returned, she had a fever, but she did not tell them: it was her secret, her private miracle. She wept herself to sleep, imagining her funeral. But the next day her fever was gone, and four days after that, Tom was dead.

Beatrice was drying her eyes again. “I don’t understand,” she said. “You’ve always said you loved me like a daughter. So why can’t I say you’ve been like a mother to me?”

Later she went to the loft alone and lay in the one window’s shaft of sun, sweating in the prickly hay. Dervishes of dust spun in the stained light, descending on her with an almost suffocating weight. She had never realized how omnipresent, nor how active, the dust was.

“Maybe you wish I didn’t love you,” Beatrice sniffled. “But I do, and I always will.”

Anastasia looked at her. She was young and pretty, her whole life ahead of her. She’d never pray to die in her place. She’d never beg God to let her lie on this bed, her skin wrinkled and liver-spotted, her lungs congested with pneumonia, her heart running down like a clock.

“No, you don’t,” she said.

“Why are you saying these things to me? You know I love you.”

Anastasia tried to answer, but she couldn’t. Where was her breath? She tried to cough, to open her lungs, but the noiseless spasms only made her throat hurt. It ached the way it did when her children knelt at the communion rail for the first time and stuck out their tongues for the Host. There was a throb at the root of her tongue, a desire. But for what?

Then she coughed so hard that something seemed to snap in her chest. A knot of phlegm humped onto her tongue. It tasted like rust.

Beatrice’s face wavered in front of her, stippled with sweat. “Please be all right, Sister. Please.”

Anastasia spat onto the bedspread and turned to the wall.

At the wake, old ladies dressed in black hovered in the vestibule like crows. They hugged her and said they were so very sorry, Tom was such a fine young man, he would have made a wonderful priest. Their mouths were crumbling, their yellow skin smelled like sour milk.

“I’m sick of your sympathy,” Anastasia said. She closed her eyes. “I’m sick of you.”

“How can you say such a thing?” Beatrice said. She was wadding Kleenex to wipe up the mucous. “Try to think how I feel.” And then her thin-glass voice broke: “What have I done?”

If he had lived until his ordination, he would have been buried in complete vestments—cassock, surplice, amice, alb, maniple, chasuble, and stole. Not a black blazer and bowtie.

“Why are you so angry at me?”

It had to be a mannequin in the casket; it couldn’t be Tom. It had to be a mannequin wearing Tom’s clothes.

“His skin looked like plastic, but I kissed him anyway,” Anastasia said.

Beatrice stopped. “What did you say?”

Anastasia refused to believe the diagnosis. The doctors can’t be right. He doesn’t look sick at all. See how big and strong he is?

But in his marrow, a blizzard of white blood cells.

“Please tell me what’s wrong.”

A hand on her shoulder. Anastasia looked up. Beatrice again: her face fish-belly white.

The old nun turned over onto her back. “Leukemia,” she explained.

Beatrice put her hand to her forehead. It shook as she rubbed her eyebrows with her thumb and forefinger. “No, Sister, you don’t have leukemia,” she said. Then: “I think we’d better call the doctor.”

“Just let me die,” Anastasia said. And then her phlegm-clotted lungs closed up. But this time she did not struggle for air. This time she closed her lips into a thin smile.

Her lungs were gray cocoons about to burst. Inside, the soul’s wings beating.

My Lord, my Lord, take me for Thy most humble bride!

Beatrice clutched her handkerchief as if it were holding her up. “Oh, Sister!” she cried, and hurried out of the room, her habit scything the last light.

This was it. This was what she had been waiting for all these years, the end of all that passion and memory. She had no fear of dying. She was a bride of Christ: death was her dowry, nothing more.

All day she had been travelling backward, a flower folding back into its bud. For years she had thought only occasionally about Tom and Carl, but today she had returned to that age when she thought about them daily. And now she was almost back to her birth.

Tom: the husks of cicadas’ songs in his hands. A touch could shatter them to shards. Oh, what music the soul must make as it shucks the body!

All she had to do was shut her eyes and the earth would close over her, and she would be lost, perfectly lost. She did not need Father Switzer or Carl or anybody. She laid her hands palms-up at her sides and waited for the last ecstatic moment. Then the dark began to murmur as if it had silt in its throat. She closed her eyes. What joy! she thought. And she sank into the darkness until the whining of the winch stopped and Tom’s head appeared over the ledge. “Didn’t I tell you?” he shouted down the well. “You can see them, can’t you?” But she didn’t answer, couldn’t answer. She just clung to the rope and swung there in the darkness, staring up at Tom, his hair blond as an angel’s, and beyond him, the stars in the noonday sky.

 

Father Switzer drove down the exit ramp of the hospital parking lot, paid the middle-aged woman in the booth, and turned out onto the boulevard.

“The painters just finished today,” he continued. “I think they did a bang-up job. They’ve changed the whole atmosphere of the lunchroom. You wouldn’t believe the difference.” Then, as if he’d just thought of it, he added, “Say, why don’t we swing by the lunchroom before I take you back to the convent? That way you can see for yourself how nice it looks.”

Anastasia noticed a smile starting around the corner of his mouth. The smirk of a boy who tells a lie that is technically true. The pleasure of sin without the guilt.

“It’ll only take a minute,” he persisted.

She looked out the window of the station wagon. The houses they were passing were among the oldest in the city, but none of them had been built before she was born. Some of them had For Sale signs stuck in their brown lawns. She thought of the children in their art smocks, painting signs for her birthday party. She couldn’t say no, but neither could she say yes.

“How could we afford to paint the lunchroom?” she asked wearily.

But he was ready for that question. “Some of the parishioners volunteered to do the painting, so it cost us almost nothing,” he answered.

She knew he was grinning now. She continued to look out the window. I will do it for the children, she thought. For the children and Beatrice.

But when Father Switzer wheeled her into the lunchroom and she saw the balloons dangling from the undulating rows of crepe paper streamers, the banners that read HAPPY BIRTHDAY!, WELCOME BACK, SISTER ANASTASIA!, and WE MISSED YOU!, the tables set with pink and yellow paper cups and plates, and the children in their party hats leaping up from their chairs shouting, “Surprise!” and twirling noisemakers, she could not act surprised or happy. She tried to clap her hands to her face in a dumb show of shock, but they stopped halfway and fell back into her lap like broken-winged birds.

Rose and Antoinette Marie welcomed her back. Camilla took her hand and pressed it softly between hers.

But where was Beatrice? Anastasia looked around the room and found her standing by the far table, pretending to be supervising her third- and fourth-graders. She put her finger to her lips unnecessarily.

Just then, Father Switzer raised his hands in a pontifical gesture. “Quiet down, children, quiet down.” The students sat back in their seats heavily. Father Switzer waited until the chairs quit squeaking, then looked at Anastasia and winked. “Didn’t I tell you the painters did a great job? Just look at these signs. The boys and girls spent half the day painting them. Not to mention blowing up balloons and hanging crepe paper and whatnot. And Sister Rose has baked a gigantic cake.”

At this, one of the boys let out a whoop. Antoinette Marie rolled her sleeves up her plump red forearms and frowned in a parody of discipline.

Father Switzer was getting serious now. He had his hand on Anastasia’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t be telling the truth, Sister, if I didn’t say we were all pretty worried about you. We spent a lot of time on our knees, especially after you had your close call.”

Anastasia closed her eyes. The reflector on the intern’s forehead had shone like the eye of a monstrance. She’d heard Beatrice say, “Is she breathing?” and then the oxygen mask descended over her nose and mouth like a new, unwanted face. A horrible face. She tried to push it away, but it fit too tightly. And now the face was hers, though no one else could see it. She opened her eyes and saw that Beatrice was watching her. She tried to smile, but Beatrice looked away.

Could Beatrice see it too?

“But God heard our prayers,” Father Switzer was saying, “and now you’re back with us and we can finally celebrate your birthday. I know we’re a few days late, but we hadn’t counted on your illness. In any case, we intend to make up for lateness with style.” Father Switzer grinned and nodded at Antoinette Marie. “Ready, Sister?”

Antoinette Marie produced a pitch pipe from her pocket and hummed the key of C. Then, flourishing her arms and vigorously mouthing the words, she led everyone through two choruses of “Happy Birthday.” When they were through, some of the children jumped up and swarmed around Anastasia’s wheelchair. “I’m so glad you’re not sick anymore,” a skinny blue-eyed girl said. “Me too,” said the boy standing next to her.

Anastasia looked from one face to another. She couldn’t remember who they were. She had been away for only three weeks and already she had forgotten their names.

“I’m happy to be back,” she managed.

Beatrice stepped into the circle of children. “Let’s not tire Sister Anastasia, children. She shouldn’t have too much excitement right away.” She turned her wrinkled brow to Camilla. “Perhaps we should have the cake sooner than we’d planned.”

Camilla looked at Anastasia. “All right,” she said. Then she turned to the children. “Let’s bring out the cake and ice cream!”

“Yay!” cried the children.

“Take your seats,” Father Switzer ordered, and the children scrambled into their places. Antoinette Marie and Rose disappeared into the kitchen.

“Are you all right?” Camilla asked Anastasia. “You don’t seem yourself.”

“I think she’s overcome with surprise,” Beatrice answered for her.

The children cheered then, for Sister Rose had just emerged from the kitchen, carrying an enormous sheet cake. Antoinette Marie followed her out the double doors, pushing a cartload of vanilla Dixie cups and tiny wooden spoons.

“Stay in your seats, children,” Father Switzer commanded. “Sister Rose, the first slice is for our guest of honor.”

They set the cake on the table in front of Anastasia. There was only one candle on the cake, stuck in the middle of waves of chocolate frosting. Rose struck a match and lit it.

Anastasia looked at Beatrice. “Where are all the candles?” she said.

“We wanted to save your breath,” Beatrice answered, and looked away.

“Come on, Sister!” some boys shouted. “Make a wish and blow it out.”

The old nun stared at the candle. The cake was so big, the candle so small. In the dark frosting, the flame’s reflection flickered, a dying star.

“Come on, Sister!”

Anastasia clasped her shawl tighter around her neck and leaned forward in the wheelchair. For a moment, everyone was silent. She felt them all watching her, waiting for her to blow out the candle, and she closed her eyes. Behind her eyelids, the darkness was private and peaceful, a refuge, and she wished everything were so dark that no one could see her, not Father Switzer or the children or even Beatrice. She wished she were invisible, there but not there, a darkness inside the darkness, like Tom, like God.

“Sister?” Father Switzer said.

With an effort, she opened her eyes and looked at the candle’s puny light.

“Have you made your wish?” he asked.

She nodded. Then she took a deep breath and blew the flame out.

 

 

David Jauss is the author of the short story collections Glossolalia: New & Selected StoriesBlack Maps and Crimes of Passion, and two collections of poems, You Are Not Here and Improvising Rivers, as well as a collection of essays, On Writing Fiction. His short stories have been published in numerous magazines and reprinted in such anthologies as Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards: Prize Stories, and, twice in The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a James A. Michener Fellowship, three fellowships from the Arkansas Arts Council, and one from the Minnesota State Arts Board. His collection Black Maps received the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction. He teaches creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and in the low-residency MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

I Am Always in Transition When Disaster Strikes

I am Always (Flower Petals and bugs)
Bugs, Leaves, and Petals by Karen Bell

This is what I’m thinking, melodramatic as always, while Rajani and I watch Tsunami: The Aftermath. It’s mid-October 2009, the weather is strange and warm with warning signs, and I am laying into this miniseries as I have never laid into anything before. How the camera preens the hotel guests like royalty, exoticizes the Thai people in the midst of routine: the way they slice open the bellies of fish, wait on rich guests at the luxury hotel, fold trawling nets over and over onto themselves like elaborate curtains. Everything is a portent, or a mistake. Rain dripping from a palm leaf. Birds a black spiral in the sky like snow crash. How a little girl crayons a picture of her family splashing happily in the bright blue water, when the series is told in reverse, starting with Sophie Okonedo’s character running through debris, screaming for her husband and daughter, gashing her leg open on splintered metal.

“Oh, fuck this,” I say, “Really? A fucking flashback? They started with a fucking flashback?”

We see the hotel guests dining, complaining about minor issues, and it all seems like an obvious rhetorical device. Look how happy these people are, how unsuspecting. How the story, in spite of the one Thai character native to Khao Lak, gives us a Western perspective of trauma.

Later we are shown a Buddhist temple, the grounds strewn with bodies, the monks, of course, serene in the face of death. “Helloooo, stereotype,” we say. They are seated in a prayer circle, the Thai journalist prays too, and then the white Western journalist sees they are cremating Western and Thai bodies alike and insists on taking a photo because Western people like to bury their dead. Maybe have an odd prayer or two. The Thai journalist is incensed at around the same time Rajani and I are, he snarls, You syndicate that photo, you slam us back to being a Third World Country. It doesn’t matter to you. You’re not Thai.

Later the British ambassador says, My priority is the British nationals.

Maybe this is the point.

When the tsunami struck in December 2004, I was on layover at an airport, Minneapolis, I think, on my way back to college after Christmas break, wearing jeans and winter boots and headphones blaring Dir en Grey’s “Kasumi,” and I glanced at the TV and saw CNN’s footage of the Sri Lankan coast, ravaged by water. I was standing then, my Discman popping open on the floor and ripping the headphones from my ears. People around me staring. I must have looked possessed, walking up and down the length of my departure gate, on the phone with my parents, voice shrill and rising, waiting for a word or inflection to make me believe everyone was all right.

Of course it never came. Was it then or later that I learned about a temple drifting in the current to the shoreline, a family of seven plucked from the beach? We took a picture with them when we visited. The children were small and dirty and curious. They had that look about them already, like nothing would surprise them.

When I got off the phone I went to the bathroom. Sat on the toilet with my jeans around my ankles, stared into my underwear, dug my nails into my thighs searching for pain. I thought about all the things I called mine: dorm room, laptop, bed, clothes, pencils and pens, dinner plates, prescription pills, furniture, a sorority house full of sisters, a real sister, stuffed animals and action figures, parents who loved me. When I returned to my dorm room I unfolded the Internet like an origami crane, stripping image away from image until I found the one I wanted: titled Merry Christmas, a wet slab of dirt-strewn concrete, palm frond tatters, the top half of a Sri Lankan man’s head, resting on the pavement on its shredded half-jaw. One white eye rolled open. The other shut and bulging. Had he seen the twelve-foot wave coming for him? Was he looking at it when it swept him up? Was he looking at the ground beneath him, praying each time his feet struck the pavement that they would bear him up to safety?

It wasn’t so arbitrary, surviving the wave. If you ran, you died. If you climbed, you lived. If you held on, you left it up to luck.

 

I am reading all I can about Harvey Dent, who made his own luck every time fate dealt him a bad hand. I’m mixing my metaphors now, cards and coins, but it all amounts to the same thing. Plausible deniability. Everyone gets to claim they never saw it coming.

 

On 9/11 I was in transition too. I was starting college, I was on a bus full of rising freshmen, I was making friends. We sat in the back and parodied boy bands as we rode back to the campus lodge after a class trip mountain hiking. Our bus was stopped by through-hikers and we groaned because we were starving, we thought the bus had broken down. We couldn’t see or hear anything, but suddenly a hush cloaked the entire bus, and our chaperone got back on and stood at the front. The World Trade Center has been hit by two planes, she said. If you live in New York, we’ll arrange transportation for you once we get to the lodge.

It was on her face, that look.

I was born in New York. I didn’t buy it. But a girl who lived in Soho started to cry.

For the rest of the ride I looked out the window and tried to remember all the movies I’d seen where the towers defined the New-York-at-night skyline. I couldn’t remember any. There was no television at the lodge, so it wasn’t until we got back to our dorm rooms the next day that I could pull up the footage online, and read the accounts of people who survived, or who were so close when the planes hit they claimed they could see, amidst the black smoke and flames, the shapes of human figures leaping to their deaths.

This disaster turned everyone into me: people searching for reasons and patterns in anything, trying to make the tragedy theirs. Satisfying their urges with the numbers 9 and 11, which made for an answer better than We have always been vulnerable. 911 is the emergency hotline, they say; or 9+1+1=11, which is the number of martyrdom in the Koran, or 19 al-Qaeda terrorists plus 4 planes minus 3 buildings hit is 11 again, and the number 911 is a Sophie Germain prime and an Eisenstein prime and a Chen prime, and whatever that is it has to mean something, right?

Read backwards, as 119, it can be plucked from Biblical Hebrew with number theory to mean the perfect sacrifice.

 

They say most people remember where they were when they first hear of national tragedy. One of my grade school teachers told us he was in sixth grade, in class, when his teacher made the announcement that Kennedy had been assassinated. His teacher, a man, was crying, and that impressed him more than the fact that the president was dead. Class was dismissed early, and he treated it like a holiday except when he got home his parents were crying too.

Kennedy died on November 22, 11/22, which added together yield 33, the age of Christ at his death.

When ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka exploded into war I was four months in the womb. The year was 1983. As many as 3,000 Tamils were killed in organized massacres. My parents, Tamil, stayed in America. The street number of their address was 33. I was born on November 13, 11/13, which added yields 24, a semi-perfect number, the number of hours in a day, and the age I was when the bus bombings in my parents’ hometown became newsworthy. When the tsunami struck I was 21, coming of age, able to drink and vote and go solo to R-rated movies. Four months prior I had almost drowned.

4. 9. 11. 13. 21. 24. 33.

When we know what we want them to mean, we always force the numbers to work.

 

I didn’t cry for 9/11. Not for the tsunami. Not even for the bloody end of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The only time I did was in January 2009, when I read the full text of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunga’s posthumous essay about journalism, politics, risking your life for the truth, accepting that for this you will be killed.

The line where he says: No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism… Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened, and killed. It has been my honor to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

And I had tried to kill myself for so much less.

 

For months after the tsunami, I found myself singled out by white people, standing in line at the grocery store, for the bus, for a seat at my favorite diner, asking, “So what do you think about the tsunami?” as though there is anything to think. I’ve been asked this about the end of the war, too, by a woman who on the same breath added, “It was so hot when we traveled there for the first time; we were so uncomfortable!”

No one asks this about 9/11. It’s an American tragedy. This makes it global. We all know how horrific it is without having to ask.

 

Toward the end of the second half of Tsunami, the British ambassador says: While no one will forget what they have seen over the last six days, out of tragedy has come the most astonishing resilience and strength. The overwhelming love and care of the many volunteers who have been brought together by this sequence of events, and the extraordinary selflessness and compassion shown by the people of Thailand to perfect strangers has been very humbling. I’m proud to have been a part of this. None of us will go home the same.

The mini-series was filmed on location in Khao Lak, Thailand, one of the hardest-hit areas, to the protests of victims and grief counselors who thought it was too soon. It was filmed and released in 2006, barely a year after it actually occurred. Others thought it provided employment, could help speed up the healing process, raise awareness. They recreated part of a hotel to destroy it, and then used a hotel that had been rebuilt since the wave struck. They may have used amateur footage of the wave.

My problem is that it seems to say that not all victims are equal. The only Asian character, the only one who loses everything, family, house, job, land, is sidelined by the foreigners’ grief.

It’s equally true that when I first heard about the tsunami I was waking up at home, groggy and uncaffeinated, to the sound of a CNN anchor talking about tragedy. No mention of airports or razor blades. And I remember, just as distinctly, huddling on the couch next to my mother on the morning of December 26, she in her housedress and me in my ratty plaid pajamas clutching my coffee mug as it slowly cooled.

Maybe, my shrink says, You saw a clip on the news the following week, when you were on your way back to school. It made the top headlines for a long time.

If I think too hard about it I’m no longer sure if I saw the amateur footage of the wave or the aftermath flashing across the airport TV screens or the decapitated head of a man who looked like an uncle who’d already died. Or when I heard about my kid cousins pointing out the corpses washed up and floating on the veranda. Or if I even did.

You have a right to your feelings, my shrink says.

Do I? I was never there.

In the end Tsunami is what I have been constructing all my life: a composite of fiction and fact, real location, special-effects waves, real photos, characters inspired by real journalists, survivor stories, footage that could have been lifted from the camcorders of hotel guests and workers, who filmed the wave unsuspectingly, though even if they’d recognized it for what it was, it probably wouldn’t have saved them. But it is, apparently, the only way the story can be told.

 

 

Vyshali Manivannan is a Ph.D. candidate in Media Studies at Rutgers University. She has published and presented scholarship on comics and animation, Internet subcultures, and the value of transgression, most recently in Fibreculture. Her first novel Invictus was published in 2004, and she has also published work in Black Clock, theNewerYork, Consequence, and DIAGRAM.

Homepage Summer 2014

Cover Image (Recent death)
All images appear in this issue courtesy of the artist, Karen Bell.

Dear Readers,

Welcome to our Summer 2014 “ENDANGERED” issue. We’re incredibly proud to present to you the wonderful and diverse array of voices in this issue, all complimented by the beautiful photographic art of Karen Bell which she has graciously donated for this issue.

We’ve got a poem about penguins, stories about stars, and a farcical essay that is really a short story. We’re pushing a lot of boundaries here and having loads of fun in the process. You should find a lot to enjoy in this issue. I hope that you will take the time to explore it.

Our final theme for 2014 will be APPALACHIA, published in October. Our January 2015 issue will be themed CAREGIVERS. And (a quick reminder) we are closed to submissions during June, July, and August.

Yours in Recovery,

Mary Akers
Editor-in-chief

Archive – spring 2014

Cover Image1

spring 2014
vol. xi. no. 2

Gravity

Fiction


I Am the Widow

By Leslie Pietrzyk

Seeds

By Matt Thompson

Thanksgiving

By Cezarija Abartis

Poetry


Scar Tissue

By Carrie L. Krucinski

Labradorite, or Black Irish

By Kyle Laws

Tilt

By David Faldet

The Body of an American Paratrooper

By Ashaki Jackson

Essay


What I Know of Madness

By Sarah Einstein

Old Colony

By Tim Hillegonds

All the World Before Me

By Jennifer Cherry

Shorts on Survival


If You Kill Him

By Amy Gustine

Breezeway

By Kim Church

People Eat Chickpeas Bathed in Vinegar

By Zarin Hamid

Pulled Under

By Amanda Meader

Squandering the Fellowship

Squandering (Row of petals)
Row of Petals, image by Karen Bell

As usual, you’re late. You take the wooden stairs two at a time, round the landing, and stop in front of the director’s office, where you gulp air and try to look confident. (It doesn’t work.) Then you knock. Nobody answers. You dither in the hallway for a second, then decide to wait for her.

Once your eyes have adjusted, the office is frighteningly venerable. Shelves and shelves of voluptuous bottles glow in the afternoon sunlight, all shining with their own importance. The empty Jim Beam black label might have come from the grocery store down the street, and there’s even a whole row of PBR cans, which is surprising, it’s so mass-appeal and pulpy. But then there are the true exotics that let you know you’re in the Workshop director’s office: emerald-green absinthe bottles with necks like lamps. A diamond-shaped blue flask, almost knee high. A series of tiny bottles that look like they should hold perfume. All of them beautiful rarities, and all of them expect something of you.

You sit down at the long wooden table, run your index finger around one of the many beverage rings. It occurs to you that hundreds of people have sat here before and many of them have never been successful. You’re very late. It seems impossible that she could be this late too. You are just starting to really panic when something thunks against the door. When you open it for her, she blinks in surprise, then says, “Hello! I almost forgot we were meeting!”

It’s still really strange to see her in person, but today, she looks nothing like her black and white photos. Her arms are packed with what’s got to be student work: cans clank in an empty 30-rack of Rolling Rock, and a 40 of malt liquor is tucked under her elbow. She lets all of it tumble in a pile next to her desk, then opens a drawer and pulls out a fifth of Absolut. The Director pours four fingers into a glass, adds ice, then tops it off with a splash of kiwi juice and some strawberry-flavored Sobe water from the little refrigerator. It’s an innovative, gorgeous combination, and frankly you are filled with jealousy.

“Just got to finish this up for this afternoon,” she says. “Deadlines, you know?” and she rolls her eyes conspiratorially.

You thank her for seeing you. “I’m having trouble.”

“Mm-hmm,” she says, sitting down behind the desk, neither confirming nor denying what she knows. And so, for the first time, you start to talk about your problem.

“Sometimes I set out to, you know, start early. The way the really successful people do it.”

The director raises her eyebrows. She has pulled a square of knitting out of her bag, but somehow it’s not stopping her from sipping at her cocktail.

You forge on. “You know – you know how it goes, right? You just get in the store right when it opens, pick up bourbon or rye or whatever. At first it’s great, it’s going like gangbusters. You just sip away at it, little by little, just like the manuals tell you to.” You point at the empty Bulleit Bourbon on her shelf. “Last workshop, right, I thought I’d finish one of those. Just something real classic, mixed with a little coke, over ice, in a nice glass, savored on my porch. I’ve got a great porch.”

“Aren’t porches nice?” she murmurs, rounding a row.

“But you can’t drink all the time. You’ve got to take a break. There’s sort of a digestive process in which you set it aside, give the old stomach a rest, mull it over….” You sound like you do when you’re teaching. She nods.

“Me, though?” You gulp, and your stomach starts to churn like it did around 4 am last night, when you knew you had to see her. ”This keeps happening. Every time I’m up. Like, I buy the thing, but I get a few sips in, barely a dent, and I – I just become convinced it’s all wrong.”

“Huh,” she says.

“I think, like, this isn’t what I’m meant to be drinking. It’s not me. And I just get disgusted with myself, and so I start out on some other project. Beer mixed with lemonade in Hickory Hill Park, say. Or… six Long Island Iced Teas at the gay bar, washed down by Jack and Coke. Or something exotic, really exotic…”

She finishes the sentence. “Absinthe, or something.”

“Yeah, like absinthe.” Or something. “So – so I start off on all of these projects, and then sooner than I realize workshop is coming up, and I panic, because though I’ve, you know, started a lot,” you’re exaggerating, “I’ve finished nothing. Sure, I’ve gone to Prairie Lights a few times, just to be seen drinking, but what do I really get done there? Just a Houndstooth or two…” The truth is, it’s getting oppressive on your porch. The open bourbon bottles are gathering dust, and the red wine is filled with odd chunky flakes. “The morning I’m due, I panic. I open the same bottle of bourbon I started with, and just resolve to really do it right this time.”

She sighs, understanding. “And then you have to finish the whole thing, and you’re too wobbly to get down to Rye House, and your friend has to pick you up.”

“Literally.” Has she been watching you? “This isn’t how it’s supposed to work, I think. And once I get there, here’s the worst part, I think it’s all gone, I’ve done what I needed to do, but once we’re sitting around the table, I look at the bottle in my hand and it’s, like, two-thirds of the way there. It’s not even finished, and I can’t even sit up straight. All the while there’s Ethanol Grainin sitting across from me, two bottles in and he’s fine, he drank them on the treadmill this morning for God’s sake…” You breathe.

Sam Changover nods. She bites her lip, then lifts the knitting from her lap. Somehow, while you’ve been talking, she’s knitted an entire baby sweater. Then she looks at you, and she says, “Have you heard of Arthur Pullock?”

Politely, you say, “What?”

“Arthur Pullock,” she says again.

It’s like that time her agent asked you which drinkers you most modeled yourself after, and it was like your mind had nothing in it. You just opened and closed your mouth for a minute and then what came out was “Amy Winehouse” and the agent laughed and said “Sure, if the singing hadn’t gotten to her…”

Finally you say, “Nope.”

“Well.” She finishes the cocktail, then pours another. “Not many have. But I think you should really look into his work. You’re from Minnesota, right?”

“Er, Wisconsin, yeah…”

“Well, Pullock was Minnesotan, and your stuff kind of reminds me of him. He did a really interesting body of work with bourbon in the fifties. Look him up – he just, he drank in a lot of fascinating places,” and she spins for you a narrative of Pullock’s ability to swig bourbon in the bath, while plowing, while copulating, to stay out in bars til half past three even though the town was a dry town and the speakeasy closed at ten. “He was just– so forceful with his habits. Of course, you’re young, I’m not expecting you to…”

“To be a Winehouse,” you say. “Or a Churchill.”

“Of course not – you’re young. But really: look into Pullock. And we’ve got a lot of cool drinkers coming into town for the festival, maybe you’ll find a role model there.”

You breathe, because she’s not quite getting your problem. It’s not like you need more inspiration. You’ve been to John’s, you’ve seen the wall of possible drinks – the problem isn’t drinking them, it’s finishing them. And the worst are the times when it just all becomes too much and you pull out a notebook – then, when you look at the clock, it’s five a.m. and you have a drunk due at noon the next day and you don’t even care.

“Can I borrow a beer?” you say. “Sorry, I just want to get something down.”

“Of course,” she says, and she rummages around and hands you a cold PBR.

You click it open and take a swig. And sure, it feels right, the way it did when you were just a kid, sitting in your mom’s garage, but it doesn’t come as easy as – as other things. “Professor Changover, can I be honest with you? I’ve got – I mean, I think I’ve got – a writing problem.”

She furrows her brow.

“I mean, I don’t think this is insurmountable, not at all,” you assure her. “I was born to drink. It runs in my family, my mom could’ve gone pro if she hadn’t had to support us.”

“Of course. You’re in at the Iowa Drinking Workshop,” she murmurs. “Best program in the country.”

“Yeah! And I know a lot of famous drinkers have writing problems. I mean, I saw the series downtown last year, and half of them were just reading through all of it. One guy got so excited I didn’t see him pick up his gin-and-tonic once in the second half, he was that into reciting some epic poem.”

“Hm,” and she sips carefully around the little umbrella. “Well, they do seem to go together, writing and drinking.” But you know she’s never had a problem with it. Maybe she’s thinking of the really successful drunks in your program – the ones who maybe, like, write a page or two in the company of others, but then they go on home, finish their twelve-pack for workshop, then start a bottle of wine, two. Just as a side project.

“I’ve got to confess,” you say, your throat gulping, “that it’s bigger than that.”

She looks up.

“See… I spent… just a lot, a lot of my stipend this year on it.”

“Mmm.”

“I know. I got the Mel Gibson fellowship and that meant you expected so much of me, and really it’s just weighing on me, how badly I’ve disappointed you. But what am I supposed to do, left alone with two thousand extra dollars?” You croak, “I spent it on a… a really nice desktop.”

It’s waiting at home. It’s got an extra monitor, even. You are such a hedonist. You wait for her to fire you.

“Look.” Sam Changover places a hand on yours. It’s cold from the drink. She says, “If you’re serious about drinking, well, it will find a way. But there’s only so much we can do for you, you know? When it comes down to it, the only person swallowing those quirky little cocktails is you.”

“Silly derivative fluff,” you choke.

She smiles. “Look up Pullock. Sometimes you’ve just got to drink through the derivative stuff in order to get to what you’re really meant to do.”

Though you’re swallowing beer over the lump in your throat, you cannot help but feel inspired. You suppose she’s the Drinking Workshop director for a reason.

“Well,” you say, your voice quavering, “at least I’m not turning in the crap my students do. The other day, I had a girl show up for workshop with, like, four half-drunk cans of Miller Lite. Can you beat that?”

“Sometimes you teach them, and sometimes they teach you,” she says, unraveling the sweater and starting over again even though it looked great the first time.

 

 

Jessie Hennen recently received her MFA in fiction (and other subjects) from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Before her time at Iowa, she worked in Munich, Germany, first as a nanny and then as a marketing project manager. Her work has or will appear on The Millions.com, in Untoward Magazine, Fiction365 and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She is currently at work on “Flight,” her first novel.