Stephen Pierson, PUBLISHER Sean Finney, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF Mia Lipman, MANAGING EDITOR Sai Sriskandarajah, ART DIRECTOR Betsy Bell, ART CONSULTANT Aurora Slothus, EDITORIAL ASSISTANT Kathryn McGarr, ACQUISITIONS ASSISTANT
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Cover: Tiffany Follett, “Axes” (2007)
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following publication: Martijn van de Griendt’s photographs first appeared in his book SMOKIN’ BOYS SMOKIN’ GIRLS (r.a.m. publications + distributions, 2008)
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Printed in the USA by Finlay Printing, LLC Distributed in the USA by Disticor
canteen ISSUE THREE
TABLE OF CONTENTS
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A DEBUT WRITER: ELEVEN SNAPSHOTS OF LITERARY LIFE ESSAY
MARTIJN VAN DE GRIENDT
STILL ILL ESSAY
THIRTY-FIVE FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL STORY
SHOPPING CARTS DRAWINGS
FISTS OF SESTINA ESSAY
SOUL TYPECAST: AN INTERVIEW WITH JON SPENCER INTERVIEW & PHOTOS
NOW PLAYING STORY
Sometimes I worry about being a success in a mediocre world. —Lily Tomlin
Stephen Pierson Publisher Sean Finney Editor-in-Chief
EAN GENET BEGAN his masterpiece, Our Lady of the Flowers, on the backs of paper bags and other scraps while in a French prison. One day, guards destroyed every leaf—but Genet began anew, his spirit undaunted (and even kept at attention) by the jail he made an arts colony. Literary challenges are now characterized more by benign neglect than confiscation. The media prism is the prison that demands a spirit as bold as Genet’s to shine through. This issue, our third, features four examinations of artistic success. Porochista Khakpour writes about her years spent dreaming of literary fame, and how woefully that attention met her expectations when it did arrive. Canteen editor Sean Finney reflects on his stalled poetry career, and why some San Francisco poets find their fists to be mightier than their pens. Benjamin Kunkel, in examining his enduring love for the Smiths, reveals much of what has made him a novelist. In a conversation with Matthew Porter, Jon Spencer discusses his career as a sundry rock icon, reflecting on the pangs of collaboration and what a cult can do for creativity. Issue three also features a trio of short fiction culled from our ever growing pile of submissions (keep them coming!). Sam Wilson navigates heart-stopping retail decisions, chess, and Holden Caulfield in his powerful story. Shellie Zacharia entertains us with a painfully avant-garde playwright ex-boyfriend; and Lee Klein masters both drama and humor in his wonderfully dark fable of unconventional fathering. This volume is completed with poems by New Yorker staff writer Dana Goodyear and Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman, along with drawings of shopping carts by Taizo Yamamoto and a series of striking, disturbing photos of Dutch youth by Martijn van de Griendt. We hope you enjoy these tales of success and failure, inspiration and regret, and that they may even inspire your muse to visit often and spend freely.
POROCHISTA KHAKPOUR AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A DEBUT WRITER: ELEVEN SNAPSHOTS OF LITERARY LIFE
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A DEBUT WRITER KHAKPOUR
1. JUVENILIA When I was about 11, I wrote my first novel, an epic about “a Victorian girl.” Translation: a girl from a faraway time and place, where human women wore big fancy dresses and sat around sulking. That lifestyle was so appealing to me. I was a sad kid, and the only excuse I could come up with was that I had been born in the wrong place at the wrong time. My heroine happened to be 11, with hair “the color of stallions” (translation: black) and skin of “pale wheat” (white or brown, depending on which Iranian you asked), and her name was knotty and yet “magnificent”: Contessa Van Prgkhjiollzshdiyyiani. Contessa was indoorsy and prone to fainting, her pockets weighed down with smelling salts. She was always perched gingerly on her window sill, gazing at the outside world with mixed feelings. She eschewed friends—bores who mocked her “grand name” and her“odd secret beauty.” But she had two distinguishing characteristics: 1) melancholy; 2) genius. The manuscript exists. It is written in pencil, in cursive, on unlined white paper. I supplied the cover art, also in pencil: Contessa VP, all huge eyes, corkscrew hair, and a frown, in an elaborate hoop dress, feather pen in one gloved hand, vanity mirror in the other. I worked on it, my diaries reflect, in lieu of hanging out with friends and spending unquality time with my relentlessly feuding parents. I composed on the same white desk until I was 18, always with the door closed. After all, Contessa did not have Porochista, but Porochista had Contessa. By high school, I stopped writing novels altogether. It would be another decade and a half before the still youngish scribe would pick up the
pen and mirror and turn to the literary novel that would come from the gut, a story that would survive, the story that would save my life. 2. GIRL AWTHOR I can be fansy. I can be tall. I can ware hi heel shoos when I grow up. Who am I? Answer: A GIRL AWTHOR! —My first documented riddle, 1983 On Thursday, May 2, 2006, it’s official. I am a girl author. I get a book deal. It didn’t feel real—not for the obvious reasons—but because I was sleep-deprived, destroyed by crying and crying and crying about a non-literary tragedy. The night before, I had seen J, a bouncy college friend, at an East Village café that neither of us could really afford. We bonded over the sheer awkwardness of being nannies with master’s degrees, liberal arts graduates with some of the most expensive educations in the world. It was a nice dinner, until the bill came. I remember leaving a bad tip and saying goodbye and feeling all right, or at least a little less alone. At some point during dinner, a text came in from an old friend in Chicago. Just three words: a good friend’s name—misspelled—“died” and “sorry.” I called to clarify, but our chaotic voices cancelled each other out. We had no vocabulary for this. Even by now, I have never found the right sentence to go here. “I was gutted.” “I was
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A DEBUT WRITER
A year and half after my dogson and I had our last walk with A, that call came and told me this story: His heart had given out at 27, maybe from speedballs or a bad batch of heroin floating around Chicago Avenue. The night I learned of his death was the first night of pure, dead-black insomnia I have ever experienced, every hour punctuated by a overwhelmingly vibrant memory. I spent the next day in a defeated fetal-squat on an oak chair in my boyfriend’s Brooklyn apartment—he would last only a few more months, then eventually reappear, via the miracle of online dating, in the arms of that very J. I had been hovering over my laptop for hours, bawling and trying to write a eulogy for A’s tribute website, when my agent called and left a message. “I have good news,” she said. The sentence I had been hearing for weeks, divided by a new word. By then, I had learned never to answer when my agent called. I would let her leave messages and throw my depressed fits in private. In my head, versions of myself in jobs I’d held since beginning work on my novel catwalked with forced smiles and exhausted stomps: now, hostess; now, adjunct; now, tutor; now, hair model; now, bar reviewer; now, babysitter; now nanny; now, shopgirl! Yet here it was: good news, a book deal. I freeze framed the moments before—unusually hot spring day, another highly fraught adios with the boyfriend, en route to the R train in the Park Slope neighborhood of the borough of Brooklyn in New York City, my battered Razr telling me I’ve ignored a message, finally listening, and there it was: everything, ever, answered.
devastated.” “It killed me.” But I could not give you a photo of a man in a casket, or a man prostrate over his bed sheets, all around him evidence of his final trouble. Instead I’d insert a photo of a burning building, bombs over a sleeping city. Crass, maybe, but sometimes up close it feels like this. Even though he was a writer and a Middle Easterner, he was still a buddy of the most unlikely kind: A, the charming young ex-con, with tattoos from the edges of his face to his knuckles, who had a passion for bespoke menswear, obscure wines, and even more obscure books. His wife, Z, was a barely legal sex-worker/model, with the sharp peasant features that give certain Midwestern girls an almost exotic allure, sabotaged only slightly by a mouthful of braces and street-hooker manners. A and Z had been my only friends in a rough part of Chicago. A adopted me because I was an Iranian to his Iraqi—old enemies, he’d laugh—with a head half-shaved, less for punk rock effect than for the supplementary income I earned as a hair model. I was neck-deep in poverty—been there, done that, he’d say, annoyed at my complacency—and a single mother to an ailing greyhound the whole neighborhood adored. A also said he had a feeling I had talent and asked to see my novel, which I never sent him, just as he never showed me the epic he wrote during his seven years in prison. Instead he took Z and me out on the town to trendy Wicker Park bistros, calling us both his wives, paying with huge wads of cash. But he was also an unrehabilitated junkie back on a downward path that I—too wrapped up in my own dramas, already hardwired with an overly open mind—could not, would not, detect.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A DEBUT WRITER KHAKPOUR
Unicorns exist! Santa is not my parents! The world is just, Contessa! I had never broken $25,000 a year, and now some validation, hell, salvation had come. On the worst day, here it was, the happiest story of all time, a story so joyous I would have never written it. There may be a wise man somewhere who said extreme sadness and extreme happiness cannot be successfully bedfellowed in a single day. But this joy—like a delicate magic shell—coated the saddest, coldest, most vulnerable core. For a moment, A flickered out of the picture. But what a moment: I would have jumped for joy if I remembered how one jumped for joy. I hadn’t watched a movie in ages. 3. AN ACTUAL PORTRAIT OF THE YOUNG ARTIST Spring 2007: A year later, I am back in New York, taking my author photo. I have known G, the photographer, for more than half my life. He was my high-school journalism teacher in Los Angeles, and he suddenly, shortly after moving to New York, had become my best gay. He asks to see what I’ve got. I open my bag and out comes dress after dress, silk organza, crêpe de chine, satin, Italian wool, all impeccably tailored black dresses, fit for a modern Contessa VP. Dollar signs flap their wings through G’s studio. I wave them away. Not what it looks like, I tell him. Just dating a fashion designer. Just! G groans, rolling his eyes. I go to the bathroom to put on makeup, a lot. The second I meet my own eyes in the mirror, the world starts to go black, and my vision is full
of those psychedelic pulses that the world calls “stars.” I tiptoe out—on eggshells with myself—and G brings me water, snacks, his hand, a hug, the perfect questions. I have been through so much, I want to say. I spent much of the summer and fall in the midst of serious anxiety, panic, depression, chronic fatigue, gastritis, carpal tunnel, god knows what else, all the shattered states in the nightmare nation of chronic insomnia. I did what all people at a perceived end do before the end, I reached out and out and out, calling everyone I know, asking for help, collecting their anecdotes as cautionary tales, stories of hell, stories of hope, just stories to breathe with, to breathe through. With no use for the night, I’d call people at the oddest hours and want words from them. Please just stay on the phone; please tell me a story, any story. In the worst times of my life, I could not imagine anything more powerful than my only business, my first love: stories. 4. STARS, PART II August 2007: Panicking a bit about my finances— the final trickle of my advance doomed to coincide with my impending book tour—I apply for a job at a university in Long Island and am called back for an interview. Just weeks before the launch of my book, on the day of the interview, I am what they call “all nerves.” But in a good way, unlike the summer before. This time, I have hopes. I assume all the gods are on my team, since I haven’t been notified otherwise. So far, a few blogs have said some nice things. I joined a gym I can’t afford, but I have joined a gym.
5. THE VERY BAD SUMMER There is a season where it seems like maybe I won’t make it. September 2006: I turn the novel in. I go out to a celebration dinner with a very normal guy I have somehow fallen into dating. I have theories about him: He is the type of guy who sees what he wants to see; he considers me an investment. How else could he exist? He is the type of guy whose face I could never memorize, who looks familiar to everyone. I call him Snowboarding Attorney. He puts up with my constant whining and tells me I look great, when I am down about seven pounds each month, with graying skin, hair falling out, a tipping and trembling mess. Any normal person would assume I am on drugs, and I am. At any given time, it’s a combination of two to five types of pills, prescribed by people who don’t know about each other, given to me by my second general practitioner, all three of my psychiatrists, the ER internist from my third summer visit to the ER, and a gastroenterologist. I am sedated at all times, yet so introspective I am paralyzed. I pick at a whole fish and order dessert. I make bathroom visits devoted solely to dropping
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A DEBUT WRITER
my blood pressure before I run out the door. I call the university and tell them I will be late. I fall four more times that day, but I get the job, the only job that will put up with my book-tour schedule. Back at home, I watch my unsteady hands at the keyboard hit and miss over and over. During the spring before that very bad summer, a psychic told me too much anxiety surrounding the novel would breed disaster.
Iran is in the news daily. I am eating and sleeping. I have an uncanny knack for looking at clocks at exactly 9:11. I take everything as an omen, omens that could go either way. I am at a Starbucks in Park Slope, having taken on a pitifully ritualistic Frappuccino habit. I am reviewing my Teaching Philosophy, which sounds miserably fake, even though I love to teach. When I stand up, there they are again, the stars—not Park Slope literary luminaries, but again the hypoglycemia-diabetes-cancer-AIDSgodknowswhatIhave kind. I panic. I don’t have much time before I miss the train to Long Island. I am worrying about this as my vision wipes out into the aggressive sunshine beaming over the brownstone rooftops. Fade in, and I’m slumped on the street quite indelicately, with some young hippie chick asking me you okay you okay you okay. Her eyes go back and forth from my squinting eyes to my hair that is partially bleached white. You passed out, she says, and points to the left. Let’s go to the hospital. Evidence that nonfiction settings are sometimes less believable than fiction, the hospital happens to be across the street. Not a chance, I tell her. She protests, this girl I don’t even know. Eventually, I tell her the truth. She nods sympathetically. I don’t have health insurance either. But still. Somehow, she wins and half-carries me to the ER and then, as if to reward me, immediately disappears. I let the nurse take my temperature and
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A DEBUT WRITER KHAKPOUR
benzodiazepine crumbs under my tongue, licking any residue off my finger. The novel made it, but I didn’t. When I leave the Snowboarding Attorney that night, my only solace is out-of-body, myself in the second person, applauding having gotten through another date, relieved to be back at home. Your parents’ home, which was to be your summer editing and writing retreat. You want to die again. You look at the box of pills—this isn’t me— Ambien, Ativan, Klonopin, Celexa, Trazadone. They are like names for weapons, an army of futuristic knives, jagged and unforgiving. They will get you a few hours of sleep that will keep you alive. You are terrified. Your whole life is doctors and ER rooms and shrinks, and they all shake their heads when they hear the answer to their question, “Has anything traumatic happened in the last few months?” Yes. You tell them. “Traumatic means bad,” one doctor informs me. They seem skeptical when you say you have a novel on the way, like a washboard-stomached woman complaining about third trimester pains— just another part of the crazytalk, they must think. Doctors have started to turn you away—I don’t know what to tell you, they say. All they can recommend is shrinks, and you have four. You pay for the visits without insurance, in cash or with plastic gold. You collect cards, any card. You use the second person even now, because you have a sense of derealization—cognitivebehavioral therapy lingo. Your parents say you were possessed, your boyfriend that you were haunted by ghosts. A few friends are adamant about chronic
fatigue, and you have called it everything from a blip to the dead end. “So there is nowhere to go but up, because you must know there is nothing wrong with you,” Snowboarding Attorney says at the celebration dinner, then later over the phone, and in an email and over and over until finally he says he can’t take it and besides, he still has feelings for his ex. This is like the Brooklyn boyfriend, two in a row, but you don’t have hurt feelings. You have no feelings to hurt. You have a throbbing head, a rapidly beating heart, shaking hands, weak legs, a bad back, an acidic stomach, pinpricks and tingles and chills. Feelings are not your problem. It is your mind you want back, that thing you write with, the only thing you were born to do. You have gone to post–book deal hell and all you got was this serious debt. But it’s an okay place to be. There are no surprises in debt. Everything is as solid as death. You are officially down to earth. I move back to New York in May 2007. After months of a strange sort of rehab culled straight from my California playbook—acupuncture, Chinese herbs, beads and talismans, a revived vegetarianism—I am happy. Happy to call back all the people I have called and held hostage for advice, the doctors I harassed on weekends, my parents who have been shocked and awed to depression since I arrived. Happy to call back my agent and editor and try to come up with new euphemisms for the old euphemisms of my condition. Happy to throw away pills. I move back to my old neighborhood in Park Slope and pray this new summer is kind. It is, mostly.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A DEBUT WRITER
6. WAITING August 2007: My publishers tell me the New York Times is going to review my book, and it’s tentatively slated for a date in September. I will lazily say that it is impossible to describe just how exciting that is, but it is also stressful, when there is a whole month to kill until the judgment. Suddenly, there is time. Time has a way of injecting herself into the picture when there is waiting to be done. I remember this from childhood Christmases, a holiday we should have never celebrated in the first place. But there we were, my brother and I, with lists in hand and our eyes glued to the small department-store plastic tree and its ribboned droppings. Time kept on and on, like the cheapest toilet paper. This time, though, because I am in it alone, the waiting is unbearable. It must be filled. I try yoga, massage, acupuncture, more therapy, but there is only one thing that does the trick. Crank calls. This is a truth, sadly. Even worse is this truth: I have a long history with this sort of thing. The first time was with K, my best friend growing up, in an elementary-school summer somewhere, when we got a wrong number trying to call our friend L. “But I am L. The boy L,” the older gentleman on the phone insisted, chuckling. “What is your name?”
We played along, memorized the misdialed numbers and called more and more, spinning more intricate and riskier little yarns. He claimed he was a retired firefighter who liked “perky ladies,” particularly our type, per our description: tall, leggy, blonde Playboy models. And we were certain the joke was on him. Somewhere around that time, I also crankcalled Kenya. I picked it for my country report and thought it would be special to interview a Kenyan. It blew my mind that there were people very different than American in the world. After all, my family, Iranian immigrants, were the different ones, from a different faraway place. How could there be a place where people would consider Iranians and Americans different? The globe with its many cultures seemed surreal to me, a kid who was lonely in school and at home, never quite an American, never quite an Iranian. I started reading National Geographic and once, after I was crushed by a photo of a tribal chief in a Stüssy cap holding a radio, I remember praying, Please, God, let these people still exist primitively when I get older and go visit them! With the help of a librarian, I figured out the country code and began furiously dialing random numbers. Eventually, I got someone. I was very disappointed when the voice said “hello.” In college, I went through a phase of calling my parents at odd hours and saying I was with the IRS or the FBI or CIA or the local police, whatever could get struggling immigrants on political asylum really going. The time difference was fascinating to me— for once, I could beat them to the day. I was good at doing voices and they weren’t used to hearing mine from far away, so it went quite well. When their
The novel is out of my hands and in purgatory before entering the world. I love that phase: the middle of the road trip, someone else driving, seeing a world outside pass by, deftly escaping resignation to thoughts, assignment to words.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A DEBUT WRITER KHAKPOUR
troubles and mine both grew to the point where there was no space for fake emergencies, I stopped. But this time, when I began crank-calling my friends with the assistance of my boyfriend, was something else. We had characters. We called famous people, professional contacts. Some never found out who it was. For one friend, it went so far that he paid to track the phone, a new pay-as-yougo that my boyfriend had recently bought. He was, to put it mildly, pissed. When my best friend heard from him, she was pissed. They both left messages that eerily employed the same sentence: “We’re fucking 30.” To this day, I have not patched up things with about half a dozen victims of the Great NYTBR Waiting Period. The review was good in the end, but I lost friends I’d had for more than 20 years. What do you say? How do you explain it? There are very few people going through what I’m going through, you imagine telling them. Very few people ever have, you know? CLICK. 7. PORTRAIT OF THE STARVING ARTIST October 2007: It is a fact that even a NYTBRapproved novelist can still find herself in highly undignified positions at certain times. Two months later, I am sitting Indian-style on the dirty linoleum floor at the JFK Delta baggage claim, hugging my carry-on bag like it’s a pillow and trying to sob subtly into my cell phone. I’m crying about money, something I have a negative amount of, according to a robot at my bank. I have some change in my jacket, but it is not even
enough to get a cookie from the concession stand in front of me and I am starving. I haven’t had money for weeks. My paperwork from the new university job has not gone through. My publisher has paid for some plane flights and hotels, but I have not had more than what a struggling boyfriend could spare. I have a million fancy dresses to wear and a lot of good face to put on, but all I’ve been doing is eying the prices on every menu and pretending cookies and chips are my foods of choice, that Subway is my adorably ironic passion, that the McDonald’s breakfast menu is my kitschy little crush. But the most disturbing part of overdrafting is that it results from a certain check, made out in the summer, that I have no memory of. It is a threefigure check, written out to...my psychic. I call people, but I don’t want to ask for help. I want them to think of it as a humorous anecdote but not that it’s real, that my life is that difficult. After all, certain friends who are not involved in publishing think I am rich and famous. Why burst that bubble? In the end, I borrow money from a friend of the boyfriend and take that walk of shame to a yellow cab, when I know there are buses and shuttles and subways and all sorts of only semi-impossible ways to get back to Brooklyn. Later, when my publicist finds out, she is shocked. “Why didn’t you call us?!” I give her some gloss-over answer, but I want to say, I don’t know who to call, when to call, why to call. I am learning everything over again. I have become what the publishing world and media suspect of a debut novelist—suddenly, I am new to
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A DEBUT WRITER
8. PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST WITH A CRAZY NAME, AND ALSO CRAZY HAIR There is the issue of my name, of course. To everyone who is not Dr. or Mrs. Khakpour, it is insurmountable—the ultimate hyperethnic polysyllabic foreign name, even foreign to “my people,” who rarely recognize its Zoroastrian origin, the name of Zaratushtra’s daughter: Pourucista. My last name is the same as a famous Iranian soccer player—Mohammed, no relation—so people can handle it. It means of the earth, literally dirt-full. No one can say it, and I even say it differently, depending on the person. In Farsi, it is best uttered in a low purr: Poe-roh-chis-TAWH KHAK-pur. (Americans—unless they speak Hebrew—are often disappointed to find out this is indeed the guttural kh, requiring more gut than a German ich.) My name is such a mess of issues that it has been swept under the Iranian-American carpet, over and over and over, until I have forgotten it’s there. Until publication season, that is. Then I start really hearing and seeing my own name again. It
bends into its old bizarre forms: Porchista, Prochista, Parochista, Kahkpour, Kkakpour, Khapour, plus some I have never heard. People make fun of it like they did in elementary school; my book party gets linked on Gawker, and one of the first comments is the easiest: “Khakpour. I made that sound this morning before my first cigarette and coughed up last night’s tequila binge.” Two months later, I go to a literary party in New York, and Gawker takes a shot of me drunkenly smiling. A commentator refers to me as “that Barista Kockpour.” Nancy’s Baby Names, a website created by a Harvard grad “to provide helpful, entertaining information to expectant parents,” includes me in her list of “some unusual real names for the weekend.” I appear alongside literary critic Cleanth Brooks, British archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, diplomat Spruille Braden, and 16th-century Dutch Haarlem governor Wigbolt Ripperda, as“Porochista Khakpour, Iranian-American writer”—the only living unusual namer. Before my NPR interview, Kurt Andersen asks me how to pronounce my name, and I tell him. When we’re on the air, he does the opposite of those who fumble it, who say it quietly and quickly, almost under their breath, like a bad thought they want to go away soon. He belts it! My first name is on target—go, Kurt, go!—but my last name is KHHHHAWK-por, which exactly rhymes with, say, “rock whore.” Katherine Lanpher, the fill-in host of the Leonard Lopate Show, turns it into the MexiMinneapolitan “Poew-rrrow-chista Khakpowr.” An Iranian Voice of America anchor, meanwhile, nails the last name but turns the first into Prochesta, a pronunciation that Iranians sadly seem to favor.
the universe, not just to being a novelist. I suddenly don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Weeks later, I discover during another bad moment—as the value of the dollar plummets and oil is sky-high—that gold is at its peak value. I sell what is left of family heirlooms to an old Iranian man in the Diamond District, who listens to a fraction of my story, gives me a decent deal, and tells me, “My boy in medical university; my girl, married and with baby. Your fault for being a starver of an artist, daughter.”
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A DEBUT WRITER KHAKPOUR
Reading series hosts all fumble, and one even christens me Chalkpore. And, of course, many opt for what is still the general consensus among my closest hometown friends: Hawkpurr. When people to whom I have to be nice fudge the damn thing, I have to smile, laugh, nod to make them feel comfortable, shake my head, roll my eyes jokingly, quickly add a smile, and, with a wave of my hand, give them the magic panacea: “Call me whatever you want, I’ve heard it all.” They feel better. I do not change my name and never will. But one way I have battled the drama of a bad name is with other distractions. I’ve had piercings, tattoos, hair of every shade, cuts from nearly shaved to asslength braided extensions. Just before my literary shit hits the fan, I go to my salon in SoHo, the one I have patronized on and off for nearly 10 years, and I tell skinny, scowling B to “ugly me up” and show him a sketch. “Tough,” he responds, racing both tattooed hands through my thick, black, disgustingly pretty hair. “Totally fucked up,” I elaborate. “A little badass, kinda burly. Y’know?” “Sick,” he shoots back. His face never changes, but he makes an approving squirm in his skin-tight black jeans. We have communicated. He sends me to get a wash, and five hours later I walk out with randomly arranged chunks of white in my hair—paper-white that has taken triple-processing and several arguments with B to achieve—like some Persian-Californian Cruella De Vil–in-training in flip-flops and a sundress, instead of the razor-sharp stilettos and excessive furs of the Disney villainess.
People notice. Style.com applauds my “skunkstyle highlights” and my “deliberately down-market look.” A writer for ParsArts, a young Iranian arts site, declares “my fascination with her as an author is slowly being overcome by a fascination with her hair.” The name disappears a bit. It all reminds me of the classic comment I hear more than anything else: “You know, you don’t seem like a Porochista.” Those people are always the ones who kill its syllables so much that I, always a little in awe of what they’ve made of it, can’t help but honestly agree. 9. SUPERPOWERS After my readings, I generally get some people who just want to talk. This is fine with me. I like most comp lit students, and I can stomach the occasional misled housewife who wonders if I’ve ever read this book called The Kite Runner, by a guy whose name she “forgets” (i.e., can’t say), which she read to know more about “us.” The other group is not as easy—they appear to be average middle-aged white males, but that’s just their Clark Kent cover. They are really conspiracytheory superheroes! They have seen the shadow of the World Trade Center in front of my novel and know I am Middle Eastern, and they have their own ideas about my religion, and so they want to share with me “the truth about 9/11.” I politely decline going down that road every time, and still they carry on. Eventually, I excuse myself to visit the bathroom and put on my own superhero getup, my Invisible Snakegirl tubesuit, which allows me to slither away undetected from even the most tenacious leeches.
11. PORTRAIT, NOW After all I’ve been through, I give up and dye my hair black, my natural color. After a few months of this old black, as fake now as it was real then, they come in bunches not unlike streaks. Not one, not two, but many and counting, the early and yet expected outcome, perfectly white hairs.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A DEBUT WRITER
10. FOR A LIMITED TIME ONLY: MAHMOUD AHMADINEJAD INCLUDED IN THE PORTRAIT On the afternoon of September 24, 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, en route to addressing the United Nations General Assembly, gave a speech at Columbia University. It was a big deal. Less of a big deal to the world, but a kinda big deal to me, was the next day: my technical publication date. One day after that, my first book club appearance; three days later, the first day of my book tour. In all my interactions, the theme was Ahmadinejad. One woman at a reading whispered in my ear, “Iran is hot—lucky you!” I fake laughed. What a gas. The senate has passed a resolution designating a whole branch of the Iranian military a terrorist organization, giving our American president the authority to really let the games begin with Iran, and I am lucky, did you hear? Other people just want to hear something from some vaguely related horse’s mouth. At almost every reading, someone inevitably raises her hand and utters, “So, Ahmadinejad...?” For a few weeks, I smile and nod. “Yes, Mah-moooood Ahmadeeeee-nezhaad”—deep Farsi phonetics—“my homeland’s president. Well....” Every reading provides a challenge to say something
comforting yet not bland, aware yet not activist, polished but not sharp. It gets old quick. I start wanting to ask people, Can’t we talk about anything else? 9/11, anyone?! It’s a bad sign when you have to wish for 9/11 as an ice breaker. At readings later that autumn, I become what Iranians call a bacheyeh powrooh, which translates as “kid full of spirit,” or a rather rude child. So I quip, “What about him?” “Well,” says the nervously smiling American, looking down at her sneakers. “What do you think of all this?” In my imagination, I am Picasso declaring “I don’t” when asked what he thought of the man on the moon. But in real life, humor—this time with a flushed face—is the only route I can take. “I never dated Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and therefore have no insight into what he’s like, what he’s thinking.” But this American does not like that answer. “But certainly...?” I smile, not unlike old M.A. himself, and say, “Imagine I see what you see.” The American smiles back and sits down, done.
But sometimes, it doesn’t work out. At one of the final readings on my tour, an older man maybe senses my impatience and murmurs, “Anyway, in a coupla months it’s suicide for me.”
LEE KLEIN BABY COLOSSUS
T WAS SO hot the summer before you were born, all I could do was play marathon sessions of video baseball. Day after day I played, amazed how the players looked like real players on real teams. But unlike with real players, I could modify the career potentials of these players so unimpressive rookies posted numbers worthy of Willie Mays. I made some trades, modified some career potentials, then led the perennially hapless Royals to 12 consecutive World Series victories. How much fun to simulate a season, win the big game, then take digital photos as the team pumped fists and a stadium exploded in fireworks and cheers. I was not solely responsible for the Royals’ success, however. A shortstop I created knocked 377 homers in 2009 alone. He looked like a cartoon superhero. Waist no wider than his skull. Chest like the chrome grill of an SUV. I named him after the imaginary son Girlfriend and I have, a virtual son so much more virile than me, especially after someone stepped on my big toe in a pickup basketball game. The nail cracked, so I couldn’t run. Instead, I became obsessed with this extraordinary game, which Girlfriend welcomed because it meant I’d leave her alone. Your mother would have made me film the game, then doctor the playback so batters stepped to the plate swinging enormous erections. But instead all I did was hit homers with the übersuperstar I created, shortstop extraordinaire Thorstein Mohr—whose life ended when I destroyed the game disc after Girlfriend failed to sympathize when I lost to Boston in the 2017 American League Championship Series. Our imaginary son lived on, however, trapped in the big
rock in the backyard. It was around this time that your mother emailed her response to my manuscript. Easy reading, she wrote, nothing too difficult, but dark, and oddly—definitely oddly—autoerotic. Not heavy. Worthwhile. Fun. She added that she didn’t think it was shit. Which I took to mean that in all the time she spent reading, she’d learned one lesson very well: Never ask to see anyone’s unpublishable novel. It’s not like a video. You can’t just hit “play” on its pages and see into another world. Three weeks later, your mother, my ExGirlfriend, emailed again from Madrid, this time to say she’d won a grant to film her pregnancy in slowmotion video. Wonderful news, she added. Very excited. But not quite the reason I emailed. She then mentioned that her husband was infertile, and since it’d be hard to film her pregnancy if she weren’t pregnant, she was wondering if I’d agree to provide “the biological matter” for a child. If you’re interested, I’ll send a contract and some vials. Think before you respond. Serious business. I ASKED GIRLFRIEND to stand with me by the big rock in the backyard. Its presence would help us through this. We leaned against the rock. I related to Girlfriend the gist of the email. “I’d like to have a real child,” I said, “even if it isn’t mine.” She rested her head against the rock as though listening for a heartbeat. I expected her to say, Sounds great! “Seems wack,” she said, “especially in my house.” “I could try elsewhere.”
conceives Thorstein. Compare it to the dribble into a vial that creates a child I can’t consider my own. She’s getting older. Window open wide since 13 is now a narrow slit. Why bring a new life into this world? That’s her main complaint. To which I respond: It’s life, darkness and light, equal parts good and not-so-good, equal difficulty and ease, concentrate on the good and it’s easier to deal with decisions to bring a life into the world. My skin tightens when I talk like this, my eyes widen as all the life in me argues in favor of more life. I deleted what I’d typed, started a new message: I was about to refuse your offer, but if it still stands, I’d like to make this happen and use the money to pay for a child I can claim a legitimate right to. Lingering resentment then resurfaced. In the summer of 2001, your mother decided to spend her life with the man she said she’d always loved, the one she knew long before she knew me, the one from her country who spoke her native language. I deleted this message, too, before I sent it. Amazing that a man who thinks a little too often about a child who doesn’t exist named after Thorstein Veblen—the economist who coined the term conspicuous consumption—might be able to afford his own child (a real one), thanks to your mother’s purchase of his seed, which she’ll administer to herself while filming. After all the work she’s done about death and decay, what a conspicuous hit she’ll have with this pregnancy video! How many videos, DVDs, books, postcards, and wall-size posters will she sell? How many more awards will she win? Her most famous work had been a slow-motion triptych of a bull goring a matador, an extreme close-up of Hitler delivering
“Like where?” This now reminded me of petitioning my parents for a pet, except I wouldn’t have to feed or walk the child. “You could help with it,” I said. “That’s fresh.” We leaned against the big rock as I imagined making my first deposit in a vial. “It does sound good, right?” I said. Yet as I sensed her interest rise, my spirit dropped. (Intense times with your mother would help me fill the vials! Oh, that lovely freckledness!) “As long as you let me help,” she said. And there was something so charged about her wanting to help that I asked if she’d like to practice right then. She wasn’t much interested, so I walked in circles around the rock, black toenail not yet fallen off, but no longer sore, then I slipped inside just after eight o’clock to email Madrid to say, We’re on. Moments later, I received a reply from your mother saying she hadn’t wanted to worry me when she sent the initial request, but she’d like to reward my generosity with a generous sum of money. An honor to provide the biological matter, I began to reply. Consideration is reward enough. Keep your money! But then I thought: Wait a sec! Hold up! What about travel? What about buying time to write something more plausible than a sensationalist spiel about an autofellator and a woman with Immaculate Conception Syndrome? Maybe something about a Michael Jackson impersonator this time? But if I traveled and wrote about a Michael Jackson impersonator, would Girlfriend and I stay together and bring Thorstein to life? Consider the plunge into Girlfriend that
a speech, and thousands of freaks achieving an evil sort of air-guitar ecstasy at an Austrian heavy metal concert. Yes, we’ll do it, thank you, thanks, I typed. Let me know if you have second thoughts. If you have second thoughts, I thought, about who’s really the love of your life, forget the money, I’ll forget the big rock in the backyard, Girlfriend, even Thorstein. If you want my biological matter, maybe you really want the man himself.
GIRLFRIEND SLEPT ON the couch out back. Citronella candles singed every winged beast that made it through the porch screens. Xmas lights. A beautiful world. Thirty feet out in the yard a big rock, one that now had a chance to hatch a Thorstein. I nudged her. “Got some news about Thorstein.” “Yeah?” She sounded like a napping sevenyear-old. “Yeah,” I said. “About Thorstein. Good news.” “Yeah?” High-pitched, ethereal, still asleep. I said we could afford a baby if she’d like to have one, but she wasn’t hearing any of it, so I put on my sneakers and went running and sweated out of my system the worry that Girlfriend would reject Thorstein and me. My god, poor unborn Thorstein. After the run, Girlfriend was in bed and my big black toenail had fallen off in my sock. THE EMAIL I received in the morning said, Expect a package any day now and a check when the baby is born. No package came on Friday. Saturday. Sunday. On Monday afternoon, a delivery man handed over a fancy hat box covered in Don Quixote stamps. I
took the box to the back porch. Within the box was a black box that seemed sleek and sturdy, and within it were three glass vials sealed by rubber stoppers. There was a sheet of paper in the box, too, on which your mother’s precise cursive read, Please fill and return, and try to think good thoughts. I have included 60 American dollars for the best possible air service. (Don’t miss the camera!) Three American twenties were taped to the back of the note. But a camera? I dug through the packing popcorn in the larger box and discovered a narrow box from which I extracted a telescope-like thing with a display screen that flipped off its side, as well as a booklet of instructions. Think good thoughts appeared again on the instructions. So simple. Think good thoughts when you fill the vials. I found no explicit request to film it, though I did think good thoughts about seeing in some stuffy museum slow-motion loads of my love being shot into a vial. The contract stated that I entered into this agreement in good faith, that in exchange for my help I would receive a certain amount of money, and that I was not to claim the child as my own or tell anyone. A simple contract your mother drew up, signed, and sent to me, a simple man who sensed things complicate after he agreed to help. Your mother always said the man she married was the only man she’d ever love completely. Which meant she loved me partially. (I’d loved her all the way.) And that incomplete space in her let us create a human being, even if my parents couldn’t claim the kid as their grandchild. My parents couldn’t even know about you, since they’d tell their friends who all the time show off photos of grandchildren
OPENING MY PANTS and aiming the camera at my anatomy did not exactly excite my anatomy. The contract did not require I return the camera loaded, like the vials, with creative material, but the suggestion was clear: Make a movie as you make a life. It wasn’t just a child she wanted. She also wanted art. Art that would outlive the child. Art that would outlive us all. Your mother knew that I would find similarities between the story I’d written about the autofellator and the one she and I would film about your conception. The autofellator I wrote about, for example, autofellated at first as a means of mourning his wife’s death, then he exposed the world to his palliative technique, minimizing masturbatory aspects in favor of the creative and connective when he webcasted it. Autofellatio is a physical exaggeration of solipsism, of course, but the talented fellow I wrote about sucked himself to connect with others, living and dead.
Your mother knew I’d understand that (1) masturbating to create another life, (2) filming this masturbation, and (3) one day writing about this masturbation transcended simple masturbation to become something creative in text, video, and human life. Compare these three (text, video, human life) to your everyday ejaculate. And don’t forget the Egyptian mythological precedent of Atum-Ra, who created the world by eating his semen. Too much straight talk about such things is troublesome, I realize, especially in a letter from one’s biological father, and so I will describe how performing for the camera reopened moments of history with your mother, who required so much of my life back in early 2001, when I quit a good job to work on the autofellator novel. But instead of working on the autofellator novel I was shot through the head by your mother, who called to say she and the Austrian she’d always loved had consummated their friendship in Vienna. That spring, we’d talked about renting a shack for the summer along the Catalonian coast. But instead I was alone in Brooklyn, sweating, trying to write about autofellatio. Impossible. Then one morning, once head and heart began to heal, I saw a crowd at the corner looking toward distant black smoke, and after turmoil and terrible television and too many drinks, I dreamed of candy cane–colored lipsticks spiraling through the air, out-of-control ballistic missiles, and woke to the sound of F-14s and Black Hawk helicopters and the sight of flags everywhere. Always bad to see so many flags. A tyranny of blue skies and flags. The wind shifted and from the rooftop I saw the amputated skyline for the
when celebrating the birth of another damn grandchild, while I fail to reproduce, fail to even send to my mother a photograph of Thorstein, my nonexistent child. How wonderful to send my parents a picture of the big rock in the backyard and say something like, Show that around, there’s your grandchild, an ornamental boulder I bought for the woman I live with who is neither my wife nor the mother of my only child who does not exist, the woman who will not have a child with me because she’s not sure she wants either of us in her life forever. Not sure she’s mature enough to have a child. Not sure about anything at all.
first time, then ran downstairs and closed the windows as the smoke seeped like the Angel of Death and stunk of burned plastic and (everyone presumed) bodies.
GIRLFRIEND CAME HOME and asked about my day. “How was yours?” I said, and she said “Same old,” and I said “Same here,” then I added “except I filled one of those vials.” “I see,” she said. “Two left then?” “That’s right,” I said, remembering she said she’d help fill one. I asked if she had any plans. She said, Later we’ll see. I ran for an hour as she decompressed from work, then we grilled yellow squash and purple onions and ate them with iced white wine. Kisses, caresses. Camera on, clothes off. On top of the bed, on top of each other. Bodies mustering experience best they could. Giving it up for your mother’s art. Damn how this turned Girlfriend on. If only I’d known it’d take a video camera to remove her from herself, made her think about what we might look like on a widescreen monitor. Something good was going on as the camera removed us from our bodies, helped us make a child other than Thorstein. Oh, how things had once been good. In and out of bed. Living together was a terrible idea, if only because Girlfriend took her selfishness out on me. Cursed me with words best reserved for self-critique: weak, disappointing, unimpressive. Her terribleness sucked my spirit, the same spirit she restored in the winter of 2002. Two years later, I moved in with her in Austin, and soon after, good turned bad. There’d been joy, comfort, warmth,
the interminable cuteness of intimacy! We balanced each other out. Her upbringing and temperament had been unpredictable, so she focused on control. My upbringing and temperament had been steady, so I focused on disruption. In lieu of a wedding ring, I bought a big rock for the backyard. So much better! Not that it mattered. Not that it matters. She controlled my disruption. I disrupted her control. But my god. Veins in her neck. The heat of it, so much heat, and how much hotter it’d have been if we hadn’t been so weak, disappointing, and unimpressive. But still! What if I let one loose and—surprise!—Thorstein! We did it! Hurray! She must have had the same idea: “Don’t spill any,” she said. I capped the vial, and we settled almost asleep under the eye of the camera until we remembered we must refrigerate. THE NEXT DAY, she came home for lunch, intending to help with the last vial, but by then I’d had some time with the camera, some time alone thinking about sitting with the woman who would soon become your mother, sitting with her for an hour in the Prado as we gawked at Goya’s Black Paintings. On the walls of his country home, he painted a monstrous naked man devouring one of his children who, with its brothers and sisters, broke their way out of their father to become the gods of Mount Olympus, a painting now displayed in a separate room of the museum where your mother and I sat for more than an hour. The guard surely wondered if we’d spend the night there. That’s the image that does it. Sitting there then stumbling away as though tiny airborne
Nine months later, upon hearing of your birth, I wrote this letter, something I’ll send to you when you’re my age so you’ll have an idea about your real father, who, if he had raised you, would have devoured you in the best possible way, then let you break free to hurl lightning at the world.
needles had etched into our skin whatever it was that controlled Goya so completely, he painted such terrors on his walls. And out of that same skin, which years later seems clear on its surface, I coaxed something for your mother to make a life her art would devour.
DANA GOODYEAR POEMS
FAR FROM THE FIELD
The potted tree, thirsting. A bird of prey, wide as a falling man, crying, smacks the second-story glass and drops its caught mouse, then lies back on the balcony, the top half of a body in bed, staring in disbelief. On the other side of the window, you are on the telephone shouting at a man, but call exuberantly, Whoa! The bird, now on a branch, returns to his circling friend and the mouse is left on the balcony, dead, but seemingly wondering how. What we wonder is whose blood is that on the glass, and whose job is that mouse.
Miniature woman, all womb. I don’t see you, brown, uncamouflaged as the bottom or nipple in a dream, till the beetle’s buried himself to the neck in your soft flesh.
MOVING DAY The dummy with its cloth-sack chest and hard head, propped on a footlocker outside the bungalow.
On the hill, a red-and-blue-striped tentâ€” a termite wedding, with a fat lady and tattoos.
This morning there were orange flowers at the Mayan Frank Lloyd Wright.
MARTIJN VAN DE GRIENDT RETURNING THING
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BENJAMIN KUNKEL STILL ILL
Rosalind: They say you are a melancholy fellow. Jaques: I am so. I do love it better than laughing. —As You Like It
N 1986 I was living with my family in the humdrum town of Eagle, Colorado. I had just become a teenager and was applying to prep schools in New England. I considered myself a rather tragic, intelligent, and solitary figure, and was accordingly full of fantasies of escape from the baffled cows and squinting hicks who swelled my middle-school class. At the same time there was obviously something wrong with me, a basic temperamental deficiency that prevented me from taking life with that casualness, amounting almost to grace, displayed by normal people. Suicide or fame seemed likely destinies. Meanwhile I had picked up a bad case of Anglophilia; in one egregious instance, when I and a friend DJ’d a middle-school dance I delivered my patter in what I took to be a British accent. Prep school, in my imagination, was a waiting congregation of superior youth, rather than the hothouse of class distinctions it would prove. Does it go without saying that I had as little sense of humor as a dog? If someone slipped and fell I thought this was funny, but otherwise couldn’t find a reason to laugh. The songs on the radio said nothing to me about my life. And as the elder brother of two sisters I had no one to induct me into the mysteries of sophisticated music for teenagers. My method was to choose a band, almost at random, from the “college” chart at the back of Rolling Stone, and to buy the band’s latest tape whenever I could get to a record store; the nearest was 30 miles away. One
challenge with parents who themselves grew up on rock and roll is the difficulty in scandalizing them with your own tastes, and it’s clear to me now that the bands I selected from the college charts were those whose names suggested my parents might find their music offensive or at least bewildering. The appeal of the Smiths’ name came from the strangely arrogant declaration of commonness, and I liked the punkish implication of regicide in the title The Queen Is Dead. That went God Save the Queen one better, without implying, as listening to the Sex Pistols would have, that I harbored any intention of ever having sex. My method was a risky one. Screaming Blue Messiahs, for instance, had a name satisfactorily suggestive of madness and violence, but I found I didn’t really like their music. With the Smiths I got lucky. The folky tastes I’d picked up from my parents allowed me to take right away to the bright acoustic texture of Johnny Marr’s arrangements, which then conveyed me into an atmosphere far removed from any ’60s-ish mood of barefoot good health and slack openheartedness. Both side-opening tracks, “The Queen Is Dead” and “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” were surging anthems of destruction, spiteful in their very rhythms— and even where the music itself was not in the least rebarbative, inflected instead by jazz or rockabilly or Jamaican high-life playing (strains my ear identified years before I could name them), Morrissey remained at all times an obnoxious vocalist. Most exciting, maybe, was his way of boasting of his inadequacies. When he broke into the palace on the title track and the Queen said, Yes, I know you and you cannot sing, he replied in
isolation from the human race owes as much to your rejecting it as to its rejecting you. In practical terms, however, I had no idea what to do with my looks besides trade them for the opportunity to get my hands on some mammary glands. And yet when I succeeded for the first time in effecting this momentous transaction I learned that tits, to the touch, were no different from regular skin, like you’d find on someone’s ankle or belly. With male classmates, things weren’t much better. As a boy without a sense of humor I felt ill at ease and almost foreign among them. When the friends I would soon abandon for prep school came over, I never played the Smiths; this was music for listening to alone while you lay in awe on your bedroom floor. And there would have been equally little sense in admitting that in emulation of Morrissey I’d adopted a program of celibacy—a commitment I couldn’t explain or, probably, should an opportunity present itself, uphold. In general, the phenomenon of other people was a matter of polite endurance while I waited to resume my self-contemplation. I was especially uncertain whether to class my traits as virtues or defects, and for this state of narcissistic suspension the Smiths were the perfect soundtrack. Already I must have apprehended that Morrissey’s eloquent words possessed the supplemental eloquence of meaning the exact opposite of what they said. Because in truth he liked to be alone. He wanted to be unlovable. Which didn’t really mean he was—it just meant he didn’t want to know if he was or not. The problem with other people is that ultimately they have to decide what they think of you and how much time they’d like to spend in your company—whereas
his unpleasantest voice: That’s nothing, you should hear me play piano. The Smiths were the first contemporary band I encountered that enabled the all-important act of identification with the singer. No one could touch Morrissey for literateness and melancholy, and if I knew anything at the time it was that I too wanted to write and was unhappy—woebegone, that is, in the trackless way of early adolescence, where I couldn’t see how I had ever come into this condition or might ever get out. Then there was the more curious fact, according to Rolling Stone, that in a literal sense no one could touch Morrissey. This witty, famous, and in my opinion handsome man was a self-proclaimed celibate with no interest in sex. His superiority was his sadness, his sadness his solitude, and his solitude his martyrdom. He was too good for this world, or at least for famously miserable Manchester, never mind the bypassed cow town of Eagle, Colorado. May I admit that my headlong identification with handsome Morrissey was enabled by another circumstance? Now at 35 I begin to have the face I deserve, and already in high school it was clear I was not to be a tall man, but in middle school things were different. After having been a boy ignored by girls, suddenly I was fending off requests to “go” with them; and when away games and tournaments took us to other schools (I was a starting linebacker on the football team, a benchwarmer at basketball, and an erratic wrestler), more girls petitioned me with folded notes containing phone numbers. This change was a boon, since being found attractive, if you’re feckless and morose, can substitute for actual activity and permit you, above all, to feel that your
STILL ILL KUNKEL
you, being stuck with yourself, are spared the necessity of such conclusions. Before long, I had added to my Smiths collection the eponymous first album, as well as its follow-up, Meat Is Murder, on which my favorite track was “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” Best of all, though, was Louder than Bombs. Bought at a mall in Denver on a trip with my family, this stupendous compilation of singles and B-sides remains one of happiest purchases of my life: 24 songs that I’d never even known existed! It was all but unbearable to sit in the back seat of the car reading the lyric sheet during the long drive back to Eagle—but there could be no question of asking my parents to play the tape. Up to then they’d listened to even the worst of my music with curiosity or at least without complaint. They’d never protested the heavy metal affectations of Def Leppard or Ronnie James Dio’s forays into Satanic imagery, never mind the soggy lugubriousness of Denis DeYoung, former lead vocalist of Styx and the living low point of my prepubescent tastes. And once I graduated from the Top 40 to the college charts, my parents were similarly unperturbed by the fuzz and churn of Hüsker Dü and the nasal nonsense of REM’s Michael Stipe. Ruinous tolerance of the baby boomers! In fact my father helpfully explained that REM meant rapid eye movement—I know, Dad— and that Hüsker Dü was a memory game played by Norwegians. But the Smiths my parents could not abide. Morrissey’s voice on the living-room stereo seemed to cause my mother genuine physical distress— The moaning, she said, in pain, the droning, the
monotone—and more than once she’d insisted that I put on something, anything else. It was great: I felt credentialed as a teenager. I had duplicated the Smiths’ own discovery: Namely, that if there is one adolescent attitude more insufferable than the punk rock sneer, it’s that combination of superiority and self-pity best expressed by Morrissey. While beneath the abject vocals runs—most perverse of all—a current of delight! I LIKED TO think of myself as miserable at the time, and can’t have been completely wrong about this. But I believe that as I plotted my escape from home and from rural idiocy, and contemplated the vocation of poetry, I was happier than I knew or could say. I was becoming someone I might enjoy knowing, for all that the ineluctable sorrow of the poetic personality would forever remain my cross to bear. And in listening to the Smiths now, as I’ve never stopped doing for long, I detect an analogy to my smuggled cargo of enjoyment—because it isn’t really, though it can seem so, that Morrissey’s miserabilist lyrics and free-style moaning have nothing in common with Johnny Marr’s jangling, joyous music. It’s more nearly the case that the music supplies the secret truth of the words, an occult gladness at their heart. All skill is joyful, said Yeats—and it’s worth remembering that the Smiths were not only a great band but also a very skilled one. Johnny Marr in particular was a guitar savant, and the band became expert around him. Born John Maher, he met Steven Morrissey for the first time at a Patti Smith show in 1979, but once the two formed a band, three years later, it was too late for punk, and anyway Marr’s
chord and back again a mood of continuous pleasure gained from the realization of one’s gifts. The instrument-playing Smiths were all thrillingly young (Morrissey being four years older) when the band formed: Johnny Marr was just 18, and would only be 23 when they broke up. And note something else: Each of the four band members was a first-generation Englishman and the son of economic migrants from Ireland. Surely among the things you can hear the band forging in the smithy of its sound are the tools of release from the constrictions of immigrant life. “A rush and a push and the land that we stand on is ours,” sang Morrissey, adapting an old Republican slogan to the purposes of a conquest in reverse. The Smiths were in their own eyes a tremendous, historic band much deserving of popularity—Morrissey was notably obsessed with their position on the U.K. singles chart—and they knew they might get what they wanted. Still, the question remains what the bright glad music of Johnny Marr and the rhythm section has to do with Morrissey’s ill-humored words and off-key moaning. After all, Morrissey couldn’t read music or play an instrument and often recorded his vocal only after the rest of the track was completed. And when you first listen to a song like “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now,” it can seem that the Smiths are afflicted with as extreme a case of words/music dualism as anything the most riven Cartesian could suffer by way of a mind/body split, or else why should such a maundering recitation of self-pitying complaint be laid down atop a piece of music virtually simpering with felicity? I couldn’t have answered the question at age 14, but then
finger-picking virtuosity and magpie tastes in music caused him to scorn any three-chord cloddishness. All that remained of punk for the Smiths was a chary attitude toward guitar solos (never indulged till the final album), a DIY approach to business matters that ultimately proved their undoing, and one more musical idiom to exploit at will. It was a typical of Marr to conceive of a chord progression (for “The Headmaster Ritual”) as, in his words, what Joni Mitchell “would have done had she been an MC5 fan or a punk rocker.” A similar cool lucidity, uncanny in a teenager, marked the way he recruited Morrissey: “I wanted someone who was just a singer and wasn’t playing an instrument. I didn’t want a musical cowriter. I wanted someone who looked good and was serious about words. But most of all, I wanted someone who was as serious about it as a life option as I was.” Marr and Andy Rourke, the band’s bassist, had been in a funk outfit before the Smiths, and Rourke’s twirling “song-within-a-song” bass lines (as Marr called them), played at the high end of his instrument’s range, made for a lot of the Smiths’ distinctive sound, while the melodic work they did freed up Marr’s guitars for blooming chromatic excursions. The only real primitive in the Smiths, from a musical standpoint, was the drummer, Mike Joyce, late of the Manchester punk band Victim, and after the Smiths’ initial recording sessions exposed his limitations, he set about diversifying his attack. Before long Joyce was capable of highhat dazzlement as well as a tom-tom fusillade or glam-rock stomp. And it seems to me that the Smiths’ music, considered apart from Morrissey’s words, often carries through from major to minor
I doubt I would have loved Morrissey so much at the time if I hadn’t detected at a level beyond words—the level, precisely, of music—that he too was having a good time. The apparent paradox is that while Morrissey complains of his clumsiness and sorrow and selfdoubt, the music that backs him up is deft, assured, and often simply happy. There’s irony there of course, but the deeper and more interesting thing is identity: despondency and exultation made one. The closeness of Morrissey’s vocal lines to Marr’s and Rourke’s melodies tends to produce the impression that the words have summoned the music, rather than the other way around. Listen again to the songs, and notice how when Morrissey wonders how you can stay with a fat girl who’ll say would you like to marry me and if you like you can buy the ring? and when he says that the story of his life is that he was once 16, clumsy, and shy, you can hear melancholy making a deal with happiness. The deal is off the books, but unconcealed.
52 I ARRIVED AT St. Paul’s School in the fall of 1987. One of the few decorations I brought for my room was a Smiths poster, and the first time I left campus I went straight to the record store and purchased a copy of the just released Strangeways, Here We Come. It would have been a happier occasion if Rolling Stone wasn’t reporting that the Smiths had split up. My mourning of the Smiths was complicated by actually listening to Strangeways. The use of synthesizers offended my teenage puritanism and, more than that, Morrissey’s lyrics had now vaulted so far over the top that even I could detect a hint
of camp. I understood that “Unhappy Birthday” and “Girlfriend in a Coma” were humorous compositions, but didn’t see what was so funny— everything I felt was still too near the bone and too close to home. Nevertheless my fandom, my fidelity, were still enough that the first short story I wrote in high school was called, after the majestic cut off The Queen Is Dead, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”: a piece of teenage Gothic, all pallor and doom and trickling blood, with—I think so anyway—a shovelful of soil falling over the main character’s head. The next year, I roomed with a preppy kid from Darien, Connecticut. He had a bowl haircut, played soccer, and favored the Allman Brothers. One day in early September, I returned to our double to find that my poster of Morrissey, Marr, Rourke, and Joyce standing outside the Salford Lads Club, the poster I’d tacked proudly to the wall, now hung inside my school-issued armoire, behind my shirts and jackets. When I asked why this was, my roommate replied that he wasn’t into Euro-fag music. I took the poster down and rolled it up, lest we be suspected of sucking each other’s dicks and putting product in our hair. Soon CD players arrived to overwhelm the age of cassettes, and since all I had of the Smiths were tapes, the band became a private indulgence, Walkman listening. By this time—I was 15—I’d realized that I might not be cut out for celibacy. But in my laziness and unhappiness and general unsuitability for life, I still thrilled to the words “I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving, England is mine, it owes me a living.” All the antiwork songs in the Smiths’ canon nourished my ambition of never
I’VE NEVER GOTTEN over the Smiths. In fact, just when it seemed I would have to give them up because life had begun to wring occasional concessions of joy from me, I got the Smiths back again. Throughout high school the human capacity for laughter had remained a solemn mystery to me, and I can remember each of the three times, over four years, when I deliberately said something funny. But once I went to college and began to unlock the secrets of comedy and irony, once I perceived at last that you could exaggerate things and understate them and didn’t always have to speak in deadly earnest, I realized what anyone else could have told you right away: The Smiths are hilarious! Morrissey—he’s joking. He means it, but he’s also joking. And that feeling of pleasure running underneath the lyrics of the songs? It’s in part the pleasure of being witty. Aha: It’s arch. The final twist was that the excuse of comedy gave all the old feelings a new justification. For going on 22 years now—longer than it takes to
raise a kid and send him to college and buy him a drink—I have been playing the Smiths on heavy rotation. For more than two decades I’ve been able to think, about any number of abortive romances, I know it’s over, and it never really began, but in my heart it was so real. . . . I can never get over the bass line of “Cemetry Gates” or the opening guitar riff and first cracking drum beat of “Girl Afraid.” Even such throwaway production details as the children’s choir singing “Hang the DJ” on “Panic” and the sample from an old hypnotism record in “Rubber Ring” are things that I love. In my experience, almost none of the Smiths’ songs has proven easily outgrown, and it occurs to me that I’m still sorry the band broke up, while I’ve always recovered from my own breakups quickly enough. Not that I haven’t followed Morrissey’s solo career, but when a great singer and a great band part ways, the future songs of the singer are always diminished, even if his solo work is musically every bit as good as his work with the group. This is because it gives words a special power to receive the loud, implicit endorsement of the entire band in whose name the singer is singing. The solo artist, like everyone else, only speaks for himself.
having a real job and becoming a writer instead. Sex, after all, only takes a few minutes—but with a job they make you work all day.
ARNOLD LEHMAN POEMS
Think of a Rhine journey in the manner of a good bourgeois epic of tin radios playing Mozart of saying thank you to a girl who will give you free lessons
HER TASTES Her tastes run to artificial flowers and little boysâ€™ faces on silver dollars Loan her one to see how she repays
That occasional actress of shapeless characters whose greeting to stage-sent bouquets is to let them lie... Why waste the water
EYES OF SEAGULLS
Eyes of seagulls, violet, lulling serene wet dead tongues with drops creeping, running, carrying black ash steeply over riverbanks
Her neck is stiff, immobile, a fixity unlike most others for she was ripe, birthed five and more that did not live, and smoothly curved down toward the buttocks she stood sideways, leering but inside a loiterer, a conjurer, a secret buried sorely in her mouth inside her mind set fast in laughter
Her mother hid her, the man who touched her was drunk, and silent
On holidays, Christmas eve on Easter and holy days her little boys tug at her sleeve they try to kiss her, to talk to her they try to kiss her violet eyes
She loves her chair very much, and her hands, she loves her hands touching her, in silence
SAM WILSON THIRTY-FIVE FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL
THIRTY-FIVE FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL
LL WEEK, YOU’VE been thinking about going back to REI to buy them, the ridiculously nice sweatpants. Eighty dollars is a lot of money for sweatpants. If your old friends knew how much you paid, they’d mock you both behind your back and to your face, especially since you used to pride yourself on being so frugal. Still, you keep daydreaming about them. The inside of brand-new sweatpants feels better than any other material on the planet, but after a few washes, the fuzz always disappears. You wonder how long the fuzz will last on $80 sweatpants. Thursday after work, you decide to buy them. You are an adult now, after all. You’ve had a salary for almost a year, a good salary, with benefits and a 401(k). You should treat yourself to something nice from time to time. Something unnecessary. Besides, you might see the girl again at the watch counter, Karen, the one with the straight teeth that looked so sharp and clean. There was something about her. When you get to REI, you find that the store is having its annual used gear sale. You’ve been to these before. The Pyramid Brewery down the street always throws a party on the same night, fencing off the whole parking lot and putting two dozen kegs on tap. There are hotdogs and bratwurst and half the world shows up. You should go. You deserve it. But first, you look at the sweatpants. The color you want is there, but not in your size. Your size is there, but not in your color. You ask a salesman if there are any in the back, and suddenly he has you at a computer, ordering the pants online, shipped right to your door. Would you like the matching top? You hadn’t even seen the
matching top. It has those cool flat-lock seams and a zipper with a spring to keep it from rattling while you walk. If you don’t like the top, you can bring it back to the store for a full refund, no questions asked. The name of the store, the salesman jokes, really stands for “Return Every Item.” You’ve heard that one before, but you laugh anyway. You try not to give salespeople a hard time. You worked a sales job for years to put yourself through college, a shit-eating job, especially retail. Plus, you like to be liked. You want the salespeople to cater to your needs—to like you, or at least act like they like you, and because of this you are sensitive to their efforts. If they are helpful and ask good questions, you generally buy their products. And you’ve been known to refuse a fine product if the salesperson is inattentive. You see this as strong ethics, as further proof of your maturity. After ordering the sweatpants and sweatshirt online, you go to the watch counter. You wonder if Karen will remember you. When you get to the counter, a stroke of luck: She has put highlights in her hair within the last week. They look horrible. But they give you an excuse to talk to her about something personal, something other than watches. You tell her the new highlights look great. She remembers you, of course she remembers you. You were one of the nice customers. You pride yourself on this. She unlocks the case of Tissot watches and asks if you’d like to see the same one as last week. You would. She takes it out of the glass case, and you are impressed that she remembers the model you liked, despite all the people she must have helped in the intervening days. You hold
THIRTY-FIVE FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL
last vestige of your college days. It shames you, this van with its peeling paint and stained seats, this vehicle you’ve had for years. The brewery is not far from REI. You drive with one hand at the top of the steering wheel, playing with the watch on your wrist, appreciating its smooth interlocking metal links, but also feeling like an imposter for having such an expensive thing against your skin. You, who’ve had the same digital Timex since you were 18, now wearing a watch like this. This is the beginning, you think, of who you might become. When you get to the brewery, you buy the commemorative pint glass that gets you access to all the keg lines. You drink a pint of the seasonal brew and then get back in line for an IPA that has an assertive hop bitterness, a malt flavor, and a medium-dry finish. You know about beers now. You don’t drink Budweiser from a beer bong anymore. You walk by yourself to the chess tables, proud that you have become a responsible drinker, that you can walk and talk to people and not go apeshit over the endless supply of free beer. This and the new watch make you feel like an adult. You’re an adult now, you think, practically the upper age limit for this kind of party, except for the aging hippie types with their Jerry Garcia bellies and tie-dyed T-shirts. When you are their age, you think, you won’t be hanging out in the local college scene. The chess boards are all painted onto the picnic tables and are neatly flanked by calm, serious drinkers under the parking-lot lights. You stand at the end of one table and call next game. The winner is a black man, homeless, who looks like he
it in your hand as she fidgets with the buttons, occasionally resting her fingertips on your skin as she explains each feature again. You notice this, her fingertips. They are cooler than your skin and have a clean, dry feel. Her skin is pale, almost translucent. You ask her if she’s going to the Pyramid Brewery party. The watch is $750, which you tell yourself is an investment in punctuality. You are a professional now, you should be on time. You pay cash. Each time you touch the face of the watch, the arms read a different function: time, altitude, direction, humidity, temperature. It is a watch that tells you where you are in the world. Karen adjusts it to your wrist and says she might see you at the brewery when she gets off work in two hours. To kill time, you go to the used gear sale. They have everything: It is a garage sale for the great outdoors enthusiast. It doesn’t matter that you work in an office 50 weeks a year. It doesn’t matter that when you camp, you bring a portable generator to power your small TV. You’ve always wanted an external-frame backpack. The one you buy comes with a tent and a sleeping roll that contains a rubber core to keep you warm, even when you’re sleeping on snow. You will never, ever try sleeping on snow. But it’s 70 percent off the original retail price, and it looks almost new. You make your purchases and tell Karen you are heading to the brewery. She says she see will see you there, and right before you exit through the swinging front doors, you look back over your shoulder and she smiles at you from the watch display, showing all those sharp teeth. In the parking lot, you quickly get into your old van, the
THIRTY-FIVE FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL WILSON
is starving. His eyes are caverns and his dreadlocks contain bits of dried grass. You sit at the homeless man’s table, keeping an eye on the entrance for Karen. The beer lines are long now, and the voices of many people weave together into a blanket of noise. The closeness of so many people makes the night feel strangely warm. Your move, the man says after setting up the pieces. You look down. You think the winner is supposed to have the slight advantage of the white pieces, which he has given to you. You consider taking it without saying anything, but you are an adult now. You are a responsible drinker. Frugal and fair. You ask the man if he would rather be white. Meaning the pieces. But of course, as the words leave your mouth, you realize they are horrible words to say. I’m fine, he says, without emotion, and you advance your pieces quickly. The first half dozen moves on both sides are automatic, positions you’ve both seen many times. It’s after these moves that the intellectual battle begins. Chess, you think, distills each man to the strength of his decisions. The homeless man surprises you with a knight fork that costs you a pawn. You trade bishops. You get distracted by the man’s fingernails, dried things, thick and cracked like planks of wood, and you lose a knight. The game moves fast. The starving man is reckless with his queen, running her all across the board, unprotected, undisciplined, sniping at your pieces. You play a conservative game, but he beats you. You see his checkmate three moves out and act like it’s no big deal. Good game, you say, smiling. You like to be liked.
Inside, you have become a lesser man. You get in line for another beer for yourself and your opponent, as is the custom. You are not a great chess player, you remind yourself. You have not played in months. There was no reason to assume you would win on a public table. Still, you curse yourself and relive the two mistakes that cost you the game. You return to the table with both beers just as your opponent is finishing off another player. You give him his beer. May I? you ask. It’s a money table now, the homeless man says. He picks up the timer and takes his opponent’s $20 bill. He leaves his own on the table. You in? he asks. You take a drink of your beer, a Hefeweizen, thick and unfiltered with a moderate wheat aroma. Sure, you say to the man. You put a twenty on the table and tell yourself that you enjoy the game of chess as a diversion, a pleasurable way to pass the time. You try not to attach ego to the outcome. Your move, the man says. He lets you play white again. You make a mistake early in the game—not a fatal mistake, but one that loses a pawn for no reason and sacrifices a good defensive structure. You scramble for the rest of the game and are deeply irritated when you run out of beer. When you get back in line you tell yourself that it was only $20, half an hour of work at the firm. These days, you’ve begun to think of value in terms of money, and money in terms of time. You laugh it off and get the beers. Back at the table, the homeless man is at work on a college kid with glasses. You stand behind the homeless man, upwind, and realize his attacks are
THIRTY-FIVE FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL
First you go for the beers, and complain to the man working the keg when a third of your pint is head. You blow it off, take a swallow, and insist that he refill it. A pint is small enough as it is. When you get back to the table, the homeless man is still waiting. Somebody has given him another beer, which he has halfway finished. He is looking through the fence at the alley, rocking gently from side to side. His eyes are red. You smile at his drunkenness. Then you open your wallet and find only a handful of dollar bills remaining. You’re not going to believe this, you say. The man looks disappointed in you. Fine, he says. He takes his money from under the timer and puts it back in his book. Chicken, he says, looking into the alley. Then he turns and looks at you. The homeless man doesn’t smile, he’s serious. You laugh. I’m not chicken, you explain. I’m just out of cash. I went shopping at REI. They’re having a sale, did you know? Phony, he says, and he shows you his teeth. It is a strange gesture, not a smile. More like he is baring his teeth for your inspection. You wonder if this means something where he comes from. I’m not, you say. I had a thousand bucks this morning. Cash. See this watch? You show him your new watch. You show him how it works, how each time you touch the face of the watch, its arms indicate a different function. Altitude, temperature, direction, humidity, time—they’re all there, showing you where you are. I bought this today, you say, and some sweatpants, and some other stuff, too. You take three big swallows of your beer. I just don’t have it on me, you say.
all unconventional. That’s how he beat you—your overconfidence blinded you to the variety of risks on the board. The college kid is an amateur, and his haphazard moves surprise you from time to time. You drink your beer and watch the homeless man adapt instinctively to the unpredictable game. You learn his style. When he finishes with the kid, you sit back down at the table. Forty, you say, putting two bills under the timer. The man studies you blankly, then reaches into his overcoat. You notice the faded stains on his shirt. He pulls a trade paperback from his coat, The Catcher in the Rye, and takes an extra $20 bill from its pages to put under the timer. Forty then, he says, and you begin the game. This time, you play defense from the start, thwarting several of his early attacks. The homeless man smiles, and you wonder if you’ve earned his respect. You near the endgame and catch him in a mistake that earns you his rook. Three moves later, you take his queen. You are elated but try not to show it. Gloating is immature. You are modest and fair, an adult. The position turns out to be a trap, and he beats you in two moves. Double or nothing, you say, as he reaches for the money. The homeless man raises an eyebrow but only puts half his winnings back into his novel. They say madmen carry that book, you tell him. Have you heard that? You laugh. The homeless man looks at the book, then smiles and pets its cover. It’s a wonderful book, he says. He puts it back in his coat and points at the timer. Another $40 from you, he says.
THIRTY-FIVE FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL WILSON
Play for your watch, the man says. Yeah? And what are you putting on the table? The man takes out his copy of The Catcher in the Rye, the tips of dozens of bills sticking out like bookmarks. He belches softly and puts it under the timer. You’re serious? you say. His eyes are bloodshot now and shining. He sways from side to side like a metronome. What the hell, you think. What’s a watch? A couple days of work? You take it off your wrist and lay it on the table next to the timer. You start to set up the white pieces. No, the man says, we draw for pieces. He shuffles one white piece and one black piece under the table and then sets his two fists on the tabletop. You pick the left, which turns out to have the black piece. He arranges the white pieces on his side of the board. The homeless man sits up straight and cracks his knuckles before making the first move. He pulls his dirty hair back and reties it with a rubber band. This time, he works to control the center of the board, creating an elaborate defense, playing a textbook strategy. You soon begin to feel that you are step behind. In the middle of the game a woman sits down beside you, a pleasant bump. Hey, stranger, she says. It’s Karen with the sharp teeth. She smiles and takes a bite of her bratwurst, leaving a streak of mustard on her upper lip. Time is running out on your clock. Hi, you say, glad you could make it. Automatically, you try to introduce your opponent. This is—and you realize you don’t know his name.
I’m Dejen, he says, but he doesn’t offer his hand. It’s your move. Dejen drops his eyes to the board. You have been deciding between two moves, both defensive, both trying to prevent what feels like a well-planned diagonal coup. You make your move and try to talk to Karen. How was work? you ask. Any bad customers? You study the board. You could castle on your next move and threaten his bishop with your rook. Without looking at Karen, you go through the motions of a conversation. You try to ask her questions about herself, to show your interest, but really your attention is on the game. After a long pause in conversation, you realize she is waiting for an answer to a question you didn’t hear her ask. What? you say. It doesn’t matter anymore, she says, and she pops the last of her bratwurst in her mouth. Dejen makes his move. Karen stands up and leans toward him. I hope you win, she tells him, and she walks away. The clock is ticking on the table. You can’t get up. There’s no way to stop the clock once it’s started—you want to tell her that. The homeless man, Dejen, is studying the board with his hands held in a steeple position in front of his face. A few onlookers have noticed the stakes of the game and have gathered in a loose circle around you. You can feel their eyes on the back of your head. Karen doesn’t look back. Dejen corners you. He has a veritable army pinning your king and, although you delay it as long as possible, you eventually lose the game. Quickly, but without seeming rushed, Dejen picks
THIRTY-FIVE FEET BELOW SEA LEVEL
time, and of course you find a bare arm with a tan line where your Timex used to be. What time is it? you ask Dejen. He looks at his new watch, but it is not showing the right function. We’re 35 feet above sea level, he says. He touches the face of the watch. It’s 52 degrees outside, Fahrenheit, he says, and he touches the face again. North is that way, he says, pointing. Dejen looks at you with his bloodshot eyes and gives you a thin smile as he pulls the cuff of his overcoat back down over his wrist. It’s 9 p.m., he says, and he walks away without another word.
up the watch and puts it on his wrist. The watch is a perfect fit. You sit on your side of the table, stunned, staring at the place where the watch had been, as though it meant more to you than a few days of work. Dejen puts his book back in the inside pocket of his overcoat. He stands up and offers you his hand to shake. You stand. This is right thing to do. It is honorable, mature. You shake hands and realize it must be getting late. You have to go to work in the morning. You push up your sleeve to check the
TAIZO YAMAMOTO SHOPPING CARTS
70 SHOPPING CARTS
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74 SHOPPING CARTS
76 SHOPPING CARTS
SEAN FINNEY FISTS OF SESTINA
FISTS OF SESTINA
HE HIT MY mouth twice and hesitated. This was ritual combat with fair rules, like waiting for the bigger, slower poet to finally take his turn. I went for the mouth, too, and found it easily because he was backed into the corner, frozen like the fractured little party in my apartment. The exchange felt complete, so we brought our split lips back to face the silent circle, including the girl whom he had publicly abandoned. She then turned to me and, six months later, when he decided to pay attention to her again, told him how that date ended. “You fucking asshole!” was how he supertitled the sucker punch. I thought an after-fight photo would be nice, and I moved my arm for a shoulder-drape when he decided that no, he would rather punch me again, and I couldn’t help but take it as a painful spur. I strangled my poet-attacker; he hung from my red silk tie. A lazy voyeur took the photo. The next incident took place at a reading series in a home yoga studio. Poets went to the
ground on the cushions where trying instances of disembodied poetics, homophonic translations, and flarf sandwiched the occasional happy line. Blood, incense, and former friends. Again, it was men fighting over a woman’s honor. Dennis was a stolid, eerily quiet poet who would buy any large Argentine soccer jersey he found. He really didn’t like when Sarah attacked his blog, calling his poetry blind to the revolutionary potential of late-stage capitalism and the affective experience of the Internet as a medium. He threw a drink on her and got one from her boyfriend, a capable Texan poet with a booklength verse treatment of how Cabeza de Vaca survived eight years in 16th-century Florida. Allies in the fight mobilized faster than the English poet Miles Champion reads, and the yoga studio went fully octagon. Witnesses said the night of black eyes, bent noses, and bruised ribs felt like training for years of obscurity.
FISTS OF SESTINA FINNEY
This incident ruined my night and made sharing sidewalks with other men an awkward dance.
FISTS OF SESTINA
NO POEM HAS escaped my notebook in two years. Not because I’m scared by the many physical beatings San Francisco poets endure, but because I’m traumatized by not living up to my own inflated sense of potential. That’s where the real psychic violence lies—in excuses that didn’t stop anyone brave enough to throw himself on the slush pile. The poor craftsman blames his tools, and the cowardly poet who refuses to write blames his exscene. Most of the poetry I fled from had no guts, no feeling, and no passion that I could discern. It was more concerned with avoiding the bourgeoisie trap of narrative or the literary trap of being confessional, than with expressing genuine concern for anything. Much of this self-consciously experimental writing reads like spam, nonsense that abjures meaning in hopes of fooling the filters. I liked the poets, with their intelligent wild eyes and their refusal to shop, but I hated the poetry readings that were their social staple. I have seen the same poets who beat each other endure the unendurable without a flicker of offense taken. They sit in postures fixed by verse so experimental that it strangles the flow of time. Nothing moves but a cud of words on the pulpit: “I will read sections three and four of my 20part poem on the limits of language in inducing human emotion. You know this is my homage to the overheated instruction-manual school.” My people listen.“I’ve always been interested in popular culture,” knowing nods, “and because I read manga
and Kristeva, I have reached a crossroads where my genius hangs like a warning: All ye who listen further must partake.” My people listen. “I will now mumble with a voice of broken pencil leads.” My people listen to four, even six readers destroy the yearning of anyone not just yearning for his turn to try the room’s patience. They were truly (kinda sorta) my people until I began to see them like military reenactors practicing a battle long lost to obscurity. EXPERIMENTAL POETS ARE read only by experimental poets and their courageous relatives. This precludes disinterested judgment, popular taste, or the force of a discernible market from aiding aesthetically, as I think they can. Listeners perform their role in the hope that the favor will be returned when it’s finally their turn to deliver the poetry. The tree falls in the forest; can it fall beautifully before a dutiful audience? The fistfights may happen because poets have different feelings than normal book lovers, or at least express them in ways that typical library card carriers don’t—sensible people don’t choose to stay in the literary desert. Or the id-whipped eruptions may simply come from the poetry scene’s big family atmosphere and small servings. Masters of conflict studies often cite scarcity as a root cause. The experimental poets of San Francisco suffer no lack of schooling. Many are still in or just out of academe, with Arabic or Ancient Greek peppering
FISTS OF SESTINA
I thought that poet would be a great title. I imagined myself on a plane: What do you do? asks the stranger. I’m a poet! comes the answer I’ve never given, though I did get an MFA from a university that sent me memos directed to “all second-year poets.” Even if I could use the title, I think my seatmate would be justifiably confused by my choice of profession. The real rewards for creative work concentrate in television, film, video games, lyrics, even novels—and anyone with a good combination of talent and sense ought to know this. Being a professor of creative writing is not like winning the lottery, it’s just really improbable. Without that shingle, the poetry stays in my cowardly notebook.
their CVs, along with finer shades of hermeneutics. Every obscure and famous college in the realm has grown a master of fine arts program for creative writing, and there are English, rhetoric, comparative literature, and allied doctoral programs that provide plenty of time to write while contemplating how distant the tight aperture to the job market is. In the whole country, I think only Shel Silverstein, Maya Angelou, and Billy Collins make real money from their books. The remaining poets must compete to teach hopeful young writers their art—and in the Bay Area, that fight has won maybe 10 poets tenure in many more years. Nonremunerative attention for poets is as scarce as the snow leopard, too.
MATTHEW PORTER SOUL TYPECAST: AN INTERVIEW WITH JON SPENCER
JON SPENCER’S CONTRADICTIONS start with his polite but defiant countenance. When he speaks, his voice is unexpectedly high and seems to come through his nose, unlike his throaty, Elvis-style singing. During high school in New Hampshire, Spencer learned about punk and New Wave with the help of a music column in Heavy Metal Magazine. New Hampshire is not exactly synonymous with punk rock, but an exception may be made for this son of a Dartmouth professor who later flirted with semiotics at Brown (although Spencer will tell you his short-lived Ivy League education was just a way to gain access to the school’s film equipment). His style and discography are loaded with influences—from New York City downtown New Wavers like Nick Zedd and Richard Kern to the expired generation of Mississippi Delta blues musicians like R.L. Burnside—but Spencer has paid his debts and owes nothing. He always gives a hell of a show, and it’s different every time. Matthew Porter: In the beginning, your primary interest was film, wasn’t it? Because you thought that making movies was the best way to reach an audience.
Band History Pussy Galore (1985–1990) Boss Hog (1989–2001) The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (1990–present) Heavy Trash (2005–present)
Jon Spencer: I studied film while I was a student at Brown. I was interested in making films, and I did do that for a couple of years. But at the same time, I was also listening to music and buying records and playing in bands. I found that I just liked playing music a lot more, and it was a lot more satisfying and immediate. With music, you can do something creative and connect with an audience like that [snaps]…. The kinds of films I was making were sort of performance-based,
and I was in love with music, and felt it was a quicker fix. Was the music ever secondary to the performance? Now you seem to take so much pleasure in being onstage, in driving an audience toward a frenzied state. No. I think the showmanship, if you want to use that word, grew over the years. Early on, there was none of that. What initially inspired me, and maybe not as a musical form, was hardcore. Hardcore music wasn’t really my favorite, but it definitely opened my mind to think, “OK, I could do this.” That was really the beauty and power of it, the doit-yourself aesthetic…that was the lesson for me, that everything could be presented really raw…. The showmanship didn’t really enter into it until years later. If anything, I was making music back then that was antiperformance, antagonistic. That need to antagonize softened later with the creation of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and especially with Heavy Trash? Well, that happens with age, and with developing or changing musical interests and tastes. As I became interested in older music, like early rock ’n’ roll, country, blues, and soul music, I spent a lot of time reading about the history of those forms and trying to see if I could get those influences to come out. Did you have access to live footage of bands like the Rolling Stones? Were you able to see the way that kind of music was performed?
88 SOUL TYPECAST
Pussy Galore was much less a collaboration than the Blues Explosion. I was very much the leader of that band. I didn’t realize that the Blues Explosion was so collaborative. I thought that you were the creative force behind that band as well. I was the leader of the group, I was pushing that thing along. I was also the manager of the band, and the one responsible for the presentation and image of the product. It was my baby, but Russell did his thing with the drums, and Judah did his thing with the guitar. With very few exceptions, I didn’t write on my own with that band. The three of us would get together and it would happen, but I was the guy who was saying OK, we have to go here and change here. Usually, I wouldn’t say it out
After Pussy Galore and before Boss Hog and the Blues Explosion, you lent your talents to a lot of other bands. One particular standout is the Gibson Bros., because they’re so blues-oriented, and it seems to be the first time that you really experimented with another genre besides punk or hardcore. They were very significant, and Christina, my wife, played with them as well. I learned a lot from the two guys who led that band—Jeff Evans and Don Howland—and in particular, I learned a lot about the blues and rockabilly. Boss Hog predates the Blues Explosion, and in the beginning really outmatches it in terms of production value. I’m wondering if you originally intended to concentrate more on that band, even though it’s the latter that you really became known for. The credit for that production value should really go to Steve Albini. He was the guy who engineered Drinkin’, Lechin’ & Lyin’. Boss Hog did start first, and for a while, I just hopped back and forth between the two bands. But whichever band I was working on, that’s the band I would write for. I wouldn’t write by myself and think, “Well, which band should this be for?”…. The time I did write by myself was Pussy Galore. For the most part, the first few years of Pussy Galore was just me writing the songs.
On some of the early Pussy Galore recordings, you can be heard barking orders. It seems clear even then that you were a band leader.
loud, I would just play and change when I felt it was right. I would hit it, and they would follow.
We spent a lot of time in the first few years of Pussy Galore watching videotapes. You could trade tapes with people. You might find someone with a cool collection while on tour, stay at someone’s house who had a great compilation tape of Stones’ TV appearances from the mid-’60s. We also watched it for the fashions and the visual iconography. But it wasn’t just stuff like that—we also watched exploitation films, horror films, general trash films. We spent a lot of time watching movies, and it was all an influence. For lack of a better term, it was psychotronic.
From that point on, the songwriting became mostly collaborative?
The way I like to do it now, for instance with Heavy Trash, is Matt Verta-Ray and I just get together and play. There might be an idea already in one of our heads, or maybe when we start, something will just come out. And usually I can almost immediately hear in my head the structure of the song. Then it’s just a matter of hashing it out, and there’s always some kind of polishing, editing, or refinement that comes later.
Do you feel like you have an unlimited reservoir of songs? You’re an incredibly prolific songwriter: For about six years in the 1990s, you released an album every year. No, it’s hard. It’s a little scary to think about that. It’s not like there’s a mine. It doesn’t come from somewhere else. But you don’t seem to have suffered from a Dylanesque low period, where someone comes knocking on your door and asks where you’ve been for the past few years, and you pull out some unfinished songs from the bottom of a sock drawer. In some ways, I’m very lazy, and only very rarely do I practice by myself and try to improve my skills on any instrument. I used to have this really compelling need to do it—I would have stuff just spinning in my head, and I would have to write it all down. For the first 10 years or so, this stuff was just there, and it’s just not the same anymore.
Boss Hog is often referred to as Christina’s band. She’s frequently listed as the producer, and the songwriting is often credited to the band as a whole. Was that band less of a collaboration, and was it difficult working so closely with your wife? Christina and I were definitely nipping at each other’s heels at times. It wasn’t all easygoing, no. In some ways, it was my job to be the bandleader of Boss Hog. We did write songs by all just getting together with whoever was in the band at the time. Christina would write whatever she sang, and I would write whatever I sang. I don’t know if democracy is always the best thing for something like a musical group. Ultimately, the default for that band was to go to Christina, and she’d have the final say, but everybody chipped in. When we were on Geffen, a major label, it was more about friends hanging out and having a good time. But at a certain point, more of the final decisions were made by Christina, and I think I was OK with that. Christina is often credited with introducing you to Elvis, and that seemed to play a large part in shaping your vocal style. On top of that, you seem blessed with a thunderous bellow. Were you born with it, or are there technical exercises that you do? Like I said, I’m really sort of lazy. But after years and years, you learn some things and develop some capability or some muscle. You’ve also adapted a lot from James Brown and Otis Redding, and particularly Rufus Thomas’s
Well, no one really gives hip-hop artists a hard time for saying their stage names over and over. There was an interesting article recently in the New Yorker by Sasha Frere-Jones about the lack of black influence in current indie rock. He says that at some point, the indie rock scene became too scared to accept that as an influence, or reference it, or even to incorporate those styles into what they’re doing. With the death of James Brown, it’s almost as if black rock ’n’ roll died, too. There’s not really anyone left to carry the torch, and the indie scene isn’t interested in what Prince is doing now, or the kind of music that Lenny Kravitz is making. I think the author was making the point that why isn’t a band like Arcade Fire using some elements of current and popular hip-hop and R&B? R&B
What kind of preparation goes into the Heavy Trash live tours? Every few shows, you seem to come up with a whole new set. Everything you do onstage retains an air of spontaneity. I like to try a lot of different things. I might play the first three songs one way, and it’ll feel pretty good, so I’ll do it again the next night. But it’s good to keep changing things, because if you keep doing the same thing over and over, it gets stale. I don’t think we get the same people coming every night, but I’m also talking about for me. Even though we’re playing songs [that] are written, some of them have little bits that are open-ended, and that leaves room for improvisation. You seem like you’re having so much fun onstage now, and the audience seems to really respond, like they’re in on the joke. Blues Explosion shows of the 1990s were famous for their frenetic energy, but there’s less of a separation between you and the audience now. I’d be careful about using the word “joke”— we could just say that now everybody’s in on something. Now I think there’s a lot more direct communication and talking to people, so I guess I’m trying to include everyone.
Yes, that’s from hip-hop, but it has its roots in blues and soul music. People forget that music is an oral tradition. Rock ’n’ roll is from folk; it’s different forms and facets of folk music. I think people get their panties all twisted up when they think of these notions of proprietorship or authorship. People forget that it all oozes into one, and that’s just the nature of it. There’s too much emphasis placed on the author or the auteur.
and hip-hop are huge—probably the most popular kind of music there is—and [they’re] listened to by tons of white kids…. Back 10 or 15 years ago, I was listening to Public Enemy and NWA and Ice Cube, drawing influence from that stuff and using it in what I was doing.
call-and-response style. People remember the “Blues is number one!” lyric from the Blues Explosion, and the self-promotion and selfaggrandizing—saying your name over and over— which I always thought came from hip-hop.
Can you pinpoint a stage in your career when you could feel that change beginning to happen?
Different bands are different things…. Heavy Trash is interesting, because Matt and I play with different people as the backing band. One tour will be with this group of musicians, and then the next tour will be with a different group, so we have to spend the first few days getting our sea legs, figuring out what works best with what group. Heavy Trash recorded an album before we ever played live, and our first shows were with the Sadies. I remember being so excited, because they are such fantastic musicians. It was like you thought about flying, and instead of taking off in the Wright Brothers’ plane, all of a sudden you’re in this huge modern jet. It was great to have that power at our disposal. I’ve seen some video footage from the making of the Damage, the last Blues Explosion album, and it looks heartbreaking to me. The three of you are almost never in the same room together, and the album isn’t nearly as unified. It was not really a very happy time. The last few years were not a happy time with that band. We were in the same room sometimes, but it was a big room and we were far away from each other. I don’t know what video footage you’re talking about, but some people think of bands as being like the Monkees, where everybody’s arm in arm and buddy-buddy and joking all the time. It’s just not like that. When we started the Blues Explosion, we were very tight, and it was quite happy-go-lucky, but after 10, 15 years…. With Damage, though, we did
write all those songs together. Before we officially started recording, we spent weeks in Russell’s studio, just pounding stuff out. We probably wrote three albums worth of material, and out of that we pulled Damage. Did the various producers on that album have some say in which songs they wanted to record? There were some things that we definitely wanted on there, and we pushed those on our own. For some people, we wanted them to have a connection with the material, to say, “I want to work on this song.” Otherwise, why collaborate if you’re not going to give the person the room to do their thing? It sounds a little like the making of the Velvet Underground’s Loaded, where musicians and band members were just on call to come in and lay down tracks, and the band was falling apart. I don’t know if the Blues Explosion had a low period, but maybe it’s fitting if it came at the end. For me, the last few years were a low period. I think it was because of tensions within the band, things like declining sales, indifference from the press, and fewer people coming to see the shows. I think Plastic Fang, which really should have been a kind of celebration, a confirmation of what we’d been doing for years, was instead just sort of dismissed and ignored—and at the same time, bands like the White Stripes were being triumphed. When did your popularity peak?
I think when the album Orange came out [in 1994]. You could feel something happening, and after that, things continued to grow. Was there a place where it peaked? Yeah, I think somewhere between 1995 and 1998, perhaps. I know that’s pretty broad, but somewhere in there. I don’t know if you’re a Bob Dylan fan, but did you read Chronicles?
Yeah, I enjoyed it very much. Do you remember the moment in the book where Robbie Robertson asks Dylan, “Where do you think you’re gonna take it?” The weight of that question feels crushing to Dylan, and he begins to panic. I want to ask you that same question, or at least hear how you got from the Blues Explosion to Heavy Trash, because like Dylan, you’ve also inhabited different musical genres and made them your own.
94 The way I’ve come to understand it…is that I’ve decided to embrace rockabilly, which has almost always been a music that I liked, and I’ve always been fascinated by it. It’s been an influence for a long time, especially as a singer. Rockabilly was there at the start, the birth of rock ’n’ roll, and then was left spinning like an eddy in a river. It offers for me a very pure fantasy, a pure escape. There’s a long list of people you’ve collaborated with. Does this often happen by accident, or are you always looking for projects? It seems unusual for such a dedicated front man, and it
must mean that you often have to check your ego at the door. Some of it might have happened by accident, but it’s all stuff that I wanted to do. It’s not like I tripped over any of this in the street. I always seem to form bands with friends and people I know; it’s not like I ever had to put an ad in the paper. Some of these other people that I worked with on short-term stuff were people that I could connect to, that I felt some kinship with during whatever work I was doing at the time, and that’s what prompted me to seek them out. If you look at the history of blues and rock ’n’ roll, and get out of the teenager mentality of what a rock band is, and—I’m not trying to put you down, but [in] the stereotypical or media version of a rock band, people play with different people. If you go back to where it all started—Sun Studio or in New Orleans—producers were running small independent studios and labels, and you had musicians who would play in different sessions and help each other out. What I’m trying to say is that I do think there’s a precedent for people to go record with different bands. I’m surprised to hear that from someone so far into his career. A lot of the so-called New Hollywood directors who were making films in the 1970s talk about how they were very willing to collaborate early on. Eventually, they began to argue too much about profit points and film credits until they just preferred to be left alone. Well, I guess I’ve just never been that successful.
SHELLIE ZACHARIA NOW PLAYING
IRST, LET ME say this: I do not hate Jonathan Green anymore. Not in the least bit. Really. I’m over him and I’m over hating. I mean, he can’t help it that he was, and maybe still is, a weirdo collector of wine bottles and women. Or that he’s crazy. These things probably help his performances, which he says are biographically fictitious. So I’m not holding the past against him when I write the review of Green Chronicles: Disco Time at the Electric Quilt Factory, his new play. Avant-garde theater experience, performance art, whatever he bills it as. That would be petty. Even though the last time I saw him was when we went to Thanksgiving dinner at his parents’ house, then he dumped me in an unceremonious phone call a few days later. I should have noticed something was up, but I was overwhelmed by the Green family. Odd people. Oh, his parents tried to be nice— “Hello, so you’re Jonathan’s new sweetheart?”— but I noticed that word new and I saw the looks they gave me, eyebrows raised, the way his mother said “vay-gan” like it was some disease. And there was the tossing-of-the-cranberry-sauce-at-the-wall incident when his mother just heaved the dish. Splat. Crack. It was cool, but a bit dramatic. I see where Jonathan gets his artistic temperament. Seriously. There was no need for that at all. A little friendly banter about tough turkey and the task of carving, and the father went and got the drill from the garage. That was pretty funny. But then there was the cranberry sauce, like a Rorschach test on the wall, and Jonathan’s sister Roxanne calling out, “Spaceship, monkeyhead, space monkey, iris in bloom,” and Jonathan just sat
there and drank another glass of wine and fiddled with the pilgrim maiden salt shaker. It was all nuts, if you ask me. I’m vee-gan, so I don’t know what the turkey was like. Maybe it was tough. Not that I can mention any of this in my review of Disco Time at the Electric Quilt Factory, because my journalistic integrity would be questioned. Usually I review movies for the Chicago High Note, a free local entertainment weekly distributed to all the hipster bars and coffee shops. I don’t review new films. I do a column about good movies to rent, and I try to look back at the old fun stuff, because I feel like people are just so damn creepy and sad and weird lately. Like recently, I reviewed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a classic feel-good movie with Ben Stein as the teacher calling attendance and repeating “Bueller, Bueller” in a monotone, and Matthew Broderick so young and cute. I smile every time. But the guy who usually reviews plays—or, in this case, “the theater of the absurdly real”—he sort of went nuts and moved to Alaska, because he wanted to learn about sled dogs and do the Iditarod. When he announced it, I said, “Holy shit!” and someone else said, “Hot dog!” and someone else said, “Cold dogs, if you ask me!” and everyone laughed, because we were drinking beers. At the next staff meeting, when they asked who’d take over theater reviews, I said I would, because I’m looking to diversify. I don’t plan to write for the High Note forever, although it’s a decent job and not much hassle. Not much money either, but that’s fine because I live simply. Which may also be why Jonathan dumped me. He couldn’t get over the fact that I just didn’t care
small crush on him, even though he’s married to a girl I’d like to hate, but I can’t. I still have high hopes anyway. Maybe one day, she’ll look at David and say, “Honey, I love you, but I’ve got to go do the Iditarod and won’t be back for like 10 years, so I think it best we split up.” Seems ridiculous, but not really, given that nobody ever thought Walt, the guy who did theater reviews, would move to Alaska, and he’s there now, crying out mush and gee and hah and yukking it up with the Inuits. Things like that happen. And really, I’ll admit this, I was curious to see Jonathan. While I’m admitting things, I should say I wasn’t there for the beginning of the Jonathan Green performance, and maybe this hindered my understanding of just what the hell was going on. I have a reason: I was ready to leave my house with plenty of time to spare. I wanted a good seat close to the front, so I could let Jonathan see me seeing him, and I planned to be really pleasant and extra-smiley, so he’d know I’ve gotten over him, because I hate the idea that he thinks I’m lonely or miserable. Which I’m not. Most of the time. But right before I was about to walk out the door, my neighbor Trudee came over. She wanted to complain about her husband, and right in the middle of a sentence about Asshole Javier (her name for him), she stopped and said, “We need to trim your bangs. They’re way too long. It makes you look old.” Old? Well, of course I had to let her trim my bangs. Trudee’s in cosmetology school. She snipped and snipped and finally she said, “Looks good. Go get ’em, Tiger,” because Trudee talks like that. Then she was gone. Leaving me
about owning things like a car and a cell phone. I said to him once, after he got upset when I showed up for a lunch date with my skirt slightly ripped by my bicycle chain, “You used to find me charming.” And get this, he said, “True,” and that was that. Another time, he said he liked me because I didn’t have an artistic temperament. It sounded like an insult, especially when I remembered how we had bumped into his old girlfriend, who was wearing thigh-high black boots and a black beret, and after we made small talk and kept walking, he said, “She was very moody. Artistic temperament,” but the way he said it, I know he meant, “I’d like to fuck her again.” After I volunteered to do theater reviews, David, the editor-in-chief, said to me, “Hey, let’s do Jonathan Green’s new performance. Folks like his stuff.” I could have then said, “Well, he dumped me after an intense relationship, and I’m still slightly scarred.” But I didn’t. Partly because I like to think I’m past it. I’ve been taking this tai-chi class through community education, and it makes me feel peaceful and fluid and I think it’s generally improving the quality of my life. Chloe, who writes a do-it-yourself crafts column that teaches you things like how to make napkin holders out of old cereal boxes, says if I really want to improve the quality of my life, I should take the kundalini yoga class, because it gets you in touch with your sexual energy. I’m thinking I may try it, though from Chloe’s description of the people in the class, I’m not totally sure I want my sexual energy pouring out. Or theirs pouring in. I guess I also didn’t say “conflict of interest” to David because he’s this great guy and I have a
NOW PLAYING ZACHARIA
with crooked little bangs, like a tiger had chewed my hair. There was no way I was going to the performance looking like a mauled freak. I had to use my kitchen scissors, and I cut and I cut again, and by the time I got them pretty straight, I hardly had any bangs left. I was younger-looking, for sure. Like about five years old. I have to say, I cursed a bit. OK, a lot. I know I could have gone across the hall and asked Trudee to help before I hacked away. But I have this issue where I want people to like me, which may be why it bugs me so much that Jonathan’s mother seemed to not like me and probably said so to Jonathan and maybe influenced his decision to break up with me. I mean, I wasn’t the one who said the turkey was tough, and I wasn’t the one who was drunk enough to laugh when the cranberry sauce hit the wall, and I wasn’t the one who did this litany of weirdness about just what the sauce looked like. I was just a guest, and when all that happened, I sat there quietly and sort of smiled and poked around at the mashed potatoes, because there was no way I was going to explain to his mother that the butter and milk weren’t good for me. So by the time I got to the Blue Shoe Theater, I was 15 minutes late. I have a feeling I missed the whole setup for why a woman was cutting up fabric and tossing the pieces all over the stage, and why a girl in mismatched clothing and knee-high socks was doing some line dance while a strobe light flashed and a ghostlike voice said, “This ain’t your momma’s disco,” over and over again. I kept wondering if it would all be explained in the playbill. But I hadn’t picked one up at the door
because I was late, and because the ticket taker kept doing this weird chicken clucking thing with his tongue, and I took it as a reprimand and hightailed it past him without grabbing a playbill. I had to stop in the bathroom first, and no, my bangs had not grown on the way there. A woman was crying into the mirror, like she was watching herself cry, and I thought maybe she was an actress, because she was just standing there staring at the tears on her face. So I got out of the bathroom pretty fast, and by the time I snuck into my seat in the last row, I felt pretty whirlwind. I mean, “This ain’t your momma’s disco?” Hell no, it wasn’t, and I knew Jonathan’s performances were out there, but I couldn’t help thinking that this might be beyond that. Close to bad. Maybe Jonathan had been struggling since our breakup, and maybe, just maybe, this play was proof of that. But I wanted to be impartial, not stoop to pettiness and write a bad review, and I wanted David to think I was quite fabulous, just in case his wife really did decide to do the Iditarod, or even just take off for her parents’ home in Sweden, so I tried to have an open mind about what was going on at the front of the theater. About 30 minutes into the performance, some disembodied voice announced that everyone should put on their 3-D glasses. Jonathan was on the stage, snipping scissors into the air and reciting from the “Lotus Eaters” section of The Odyssey and looking very handsome. I was really upset because I didn’t get a pair of 3-D glasses or a playbill and I wanted to go out and yell at the chicken clucking guy, because I felt like I was missing the point of everything. Everyone was giggling and
had the most beautiful hair, long blonde curls that corkscrewed perfectly and fell far down the back of the seat. She had this nervous habit of pushing her fingers into it, scrunching it, fluffing, and the handsome guy next to her seemed to really like her because he kept leaning over and whispering into her hair. Anyway, her hair was fascinating to me, more fascinating then anything going on in the performance. Two girls came out on stage and did a Greek choral thing—something about artistic vision, which also involved more 3-D viewing of pictures of people painting and reading. And again I thought maybe I’d be in there, one of those Saturday-afternoon moments when I was flipping through a magazine while Jonathan stared at me and called me fabulous, but no, I wasn’t part of the montage. I don’t know what got into me. I could say it was the wine, but I hadn’t had any, and I don’t know, but at one point I reached out to just touch the woman’s hair, one of the curls that hung longer than the others, and who would have thought she would have felt it, but she did. She turned around and glared at me through her 3-D glasses. Then she lowered them on her nose and damn it to hell, it was Jonathan’s ex-girlfriend, the one he still wanted to fuck, the one who writes and directs movies and has an artistic temperament. I said, “Sorry, I dropped my 3-D glasses,” then made this big pretense of looking for them. I hoped the guy sitting next to me hadn’t noticed any of this. But of course he did. After Artistic Temperament turned back around, he leaned in and handed me his glasses and whispered into my hair, “She is beautiful, isn’t she?” and after that I just got up
adjusting their glasses and staring at the blobs of color on the screen that were interspersed with real photographs—which I realized, after a few minutes, were pictures of Jonathan and his family. I kept thinking that there might be a picture of me, but there wasn’t. While everyone was making noises like they were amused and awed, an older man in a business suit stood up in the third row and shouted, “This is the worst thing I have ever seen in my entire life!” Then he pushed his way past the people in his row and walked out. Everyone got quiet, and even Jonathan paused in his recitation, just a beat before he continued. I swear he said my name—Sarah—but then someone behind me laughed and said, “Que sera, sera.” The man next to me, who had his 3-D glasses pushed up on top of his head, leaned in and said, “Was that part of the performance?” and that got me thinking that maybe it was. And maybe it wasn’t. It made about as much sense as everything else that was happening, so I smiled and pulled at my bangs and asked if I could look at his playbill. On page two, I found information that might have cleared some things up: My mother was knocked down by lightning when she was 25. It didn’t hit her, just near her. She was putting laundry on a clothesline. The shock made her hair stand on end. After that, she had an urge to quilt. She hasn’t stopped since. Except that didn’t clear much up at all. Nor did the folks wrapped in quilts who stood like mummies at the side of the stage. Or Jonathan reading. So much of it didn’t make sense that I started focusing on the woman sitting in front of me. She
and walked out and headed to Murphy’s for a few drafts. So I have no idea how Jonathan Green’s Disco Inferno at the Quilting Bee started, and I have no idea how it ended. Really, I have no idea what happened in between. I suppose I should say I can’t write the review, but most likely I will. I’ve got
a job to keep. I’ll use witty metaphors about the fabric of our days and piecing together memories. I’ll use words like electrifying and outrageous, and I may even mention that it made people crazed with emotion. That they leapt from their seats. I wouldn’t be lying, and right now that’s good enough for me.
Sean Tumoana Finney edits this magazine and is the author of The Obedient Door, a poetry collection named after an automatic garage door. He works as a copywriter in San Francisco. Dana Goodyear is the author of Honey and Junk, a collection of poems. She lives in Los Angeles and is a staff writer for the New Yorker. Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran and raised in Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, the Chicago Reader, Paper, Flaunt, Nylon, Nerve.com, and FiveChapters.com, among many others. She splits her time between New York City and Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, where she teaches fiction at Bucknell University. Her debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects—a New York Times “Editor’s Choice” and the 2007 California Book Award winner for “First Fiction”—will be out in paperback in September. Lee Klein’s writing has recently appeared in AGNI Online, the Black Warrior Review, and The Best American Non-Required Reading 2007. Since 1999, he has edited the semi-literary
website Eyeshot.net, and in 2006, he received an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in Philadelphia. Benjamin Kunkel is the author of the novel Indecision and one of the founding editors of n+1 magazine. A New Yorker by birth, Arnold Lehman has been the iconoclastic director of the Brooklyn Museum for more than a decade. He is also a community activist, an art historian, a teacher, a squash player, and a former poet (but thinking about starting up again). Matthew Porter is a Brooklyn-based artist who splits his time between New York and Maine. He has exhibited internationally, and his work recently appeared in Topic magazine and Capricious. His current undertaking is a project that involves the fictional intersection of cowboys and zeppelins. Martijn van de Griendt is a documentary photographer who has a particular fascination with western youth culture. His 2005 book of
photographs, Hassan & Hoessein (Mets & Schilt), shows the lives of a set of Moroccan-Dutch twins. Martijn’s portfolio in these pages features selections from his latest book, Smokin’ Boys Smokin’ Girls, distributed by r.a.m. publications + distributions. You can see more of his work at martijnvandegriendt.nl. Sam Wilson lives near Oakland, California, where he sells bicycle parts for a living. His fiction has appeared in Red Cedar Review and
won second place in the 2007 New Letters fiction contest. He is currently an MFA student at Queens University of Charlotte. Taizo Yamamoto is an architect living, working, and drawing in Vancouver, Canada. Shellie Zacharia teaches in Gainesville, Florida. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, Opium Magazine, Inkwell, Georgetown Review, the Pinch, and elsewhere.
“GULL IN GREY SKY” (2006)
“’80s [B&W] #2” (1984)
GREGG CONDE 96-97
“BAD BOY JOHNNY - CROWN HEIGHTS, BROOKLYN” (2006)
ADAM S. DOYLE
31 103 108
ANN MARIE KORTE
“ALIYA MULTIPLIED” (2005)
“DUSTIN WITH TRAMPOLINE” (2006)
87 88 93 95
“THE ISLE OF HUMAN #12” (2008)
“FORT LAWTON” (2007)
Published on Mar 23, 2011
Low-resolution version of our print publication. Featuring Benjamin Kunkel, Porochista Khakpour, Dana Goodyear, Jon Spencer, and much more a...