Page 1

7 Winter 2011 Issue 7

7


dislocate University of Minnesota Department of English 1 Lind Hall 207 Church Street SE Minneapolis, MN 55455 dislocate.umn.edu dislocate is a literary journal operated by the graduate students in the English Department at the University of Minnesota. Copyright © 2011 Regents of the University of Minnesota All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the prior written permission of the Regents of the University of Minnesota. Publication of dislocate is made possible by the generous support of the Lerner Foundation; we thank the Foundation for their continued involvement. We are also grateful to the following organizations and individuals for their assistance: the Edelstein-Keller Endowment, the Regents of the University of Minnesota, the Department of English at the University of Minnesota, the Creative Writing Program at the University of Minnesota, Ellen Messer-Davidow, Kathleen Glasgow, Julie Schumacher, SUA, and all of the ghosts of dislocate’s past.


dislocate Reconstruction Crew Foreman: Kerry Samarasighe Civil Engineer: Kristin Fitzsimmons Poetic Crane Operator: Aaron Apps Ditch Witch Operator: Kate Johnston Bulldozer Operator: Feng Sun Chen Safety Inspector: Christine Friedlander Architect: A.J. Zandt Cover Art: Tonja Torgerson Interior Decorations: Feng Sun Chen Maddie Queripel


the edelstein-keller endowment The Creative Writing Program owes the inception of its MFA degree and its stellar roster of visiting writers to the Edelstein-Keller Endowment and the generosity of Ruth Easton (nee Ruth Edelstein). Ms. Easton was born in North Branch, Minnesota, attended the University of Minnesota for one year, and finished her education at Macalester College and the Cumnock School. She then began a successful career as an actress. She appeared on radio and on Broadway with Walter Huston, Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable, Eddie Cantor, and Al Jolson. In 1985, Kenneth H. Keller, then president of the University of Minnesota, discussed with Ms. Easton his plan to launch the University’s first capital gifts campaign — in particular, his hope that the first major endowment specifically benefit the Department of English. As a result of this discussion, Ms. Easton made a significant gift which President Keller arranged to match with an equal sum from University resources, and the Edelstein-Keller Endowment was born. Ms. Easton named the endowment in honor of her brother, David E. Edelstein, and his closest friend, Thomas A. Keller, Jr. (no relation to President Keller). The first Edelstein-Keller Endowment visiting writer was Isaac Bashevis Singer, who visited the Twin Cities campus in May 1985. Subsequent visitors have included Grace Paley, Adrienne Rich, Edward P. Jones, Yusef Komunyakaa, J.M. Coetzee, Sam Shepard, Colson Whitehead, Vivian Gornick, Tobias Wolff, and the current writer-inresidence, Charles Baxter. The Edelstein-Keller Endowment made possible the conversion of of the MA in English and Professional Writing to the MFA in Creative Writing in 1996. The result of Ruth Easton’s generosity and President Keller’s vision is a graduate writing program with a national reputation that continues to attract the finest established and emerging writers in the country. Please visit the Creative Writing Program’s website at http://creativewriting.umn.edu.


death announcement (re)birth notice [dislocate is dead. Long live dislocate.] DISLOCATE MOURNAL (2001-2011) -- Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, dislocate will be fondly remembered by its one year-old surviving editors and a large extended family of readers and friends, including disorder, disunity, Prairie Home Companions, cheese curds, and the Mary Tyler Moore statue. dislocate left her planetary confines during the harsh winter of 2010. After consuming snowflakes and 1000 episodes of reality TV, she boarded the ship to the Sun. When the mournal read her own obituary inside of herself, holding its pages like guts in her hands, she felt amused like a dead famous author. She then wrote a parable about herself being a legendary phoenix rainbowed brilliantly with fire colors. In honor of all the disclosures in our submishmashible machine, dislocate would be happy for any submissions, submersibles, submarines, subterfuges, subtleties, etc., to be made to the future dislocate Home for Literate Midwesterners. Her second incarnation will use these proceeds to bring local Minnesotan writing to a global audience.


contents

P poetry

B.J. Best Mega Man 08 The Oregon Trail 10 James Cihlar

Second Banana 12 The Reality Show 14

Hannah Craig The Producer of the Reality Survival Show Watches One of the Participants Take Off Her Red T-Shirt 16 Ed Curtis

Selected Poems 18

Christopher Davis What Insu Said 28 To Your Torso in the Mirror 32 Hannah Ensor Sean Howard

I guess this is just to say... 34 Shadowgraph 54 38

Scott Alexander Jones Elsewhere 40 Steve Lester All Rise 46 Andrew Payton

Elle le Regarde Elle le Regarde Elle le Regarde 52

Lauren Consuelo Tussing Visual Poetry 54, 91, 105 Marina Read Weiss Eau de Vie 56 Jonathan William Wilkins A Suck of Unwanted Ads 58


FNA I fiction

Neil de la Flor

Aimee Parkison

Don Peteroy

What Would Wonder Woman Do in a Crisis? 64

Lessons from a Sinaloan Beauty Queen Penny in a Pill Bottle

82

non-fiction & interviews

Alison Barker West Coast Summer Fling 86

Kate Johnston An Interview with Eula Biss 92

Sarah Fox & An Interview with D.A. Powell 106 Lucas de Lima art

Aniela Sobieski Rubies 49 Iris 109

Tonja Torgerson Deterioration Cover COBRA 15 Cut Short 108 interactive

Maddie Queripel 11, 31, 63, 121 Feng Sun Chen 37, 123, 124

70


08

Mega Man B.J. Best

B.J. Best is the author of Birds of Wisconsin (New Rivers Press) and State Sonnets (sunnyoutside), as well as three chapbooks from Centennial Press, most recently Drag: Twenty Short Poems about Smoking.  His work has recently appeared in Denver Quarterly, Mid-American Review, and North American Review.  He lives in Wisconsin with one wife, one son, three cats, and nine videogame systems.


P 0

9

The claptrap Washington County Fair: rabbits with lazy eyes, chickens stuck on cluck, ribbons tacked above cattle stalls offering their silken wind. My friend and I were talking the future. “All robots eventually go haywire,” he said to me as we walked by the Scorpion, sparks shooting from one of its arms. A man stood by it, tending his welding torch like a blue knife, his mask a mirror of stars. But I didn’t care about that. There was Rebecca, dark hair and cottony eyes, who went to another school, who called me Buster and meant it. The evening was cool, so I offered her the sweatshirt from my Mexican vacation and my arms thick as viola strings. We rode the Tilt-a-Whirl. The bumper cars. The Gravitron to see if centrifugal force could make our heads stop spinning. It was like sleeping on a platform suspended by nothing. Of course there was the Ferris wheel, operated by a carny with Ice Man tattooed on his bicep like a cattle brand. “Let’s see if you have the guts,” he said as his cigarette winked, so I kissed her at the top the way I threw a ping-pong ball to win her a goldfish—lots of richocheting followed by a soft splash. Her mother drove up and she slid into the car, the sweatshirt saying something about fun. My friend wanted to throw darts at balloons. I wanted to ask the fortune-telling machine, the gypsy mannequin staring into her dimly-lit bowling ball, but her hands were locked in mid-omen, a seamstress whose scissors were exhausted from snipping up strips of people’s wishes. A man twirled the cord in his hand like a cane while waiting for someone to cart it away. He could tell my hands were on fire. “Here, kid,” he said, and handed me a card that I tacked above my bed for what I swore would be forever: Being an electrician is different than being a doctor of light.

P poetry


10

The Oregon Trail B.J. Best

We knew we’d have to buy provisions, so I tallied them on the back of a map: two columns of numbers like wagon ruts, us driving down a narrow road of coins. Who knows what we were hunting with our squirrelly eyes. You saw me take a permanent marker and draw a buffalo-skull tattoo over my heart. We saw a herd of goats pontificating down a mountain like a derailed train. A bear’s paw print the size of a dinner plate. The wind churning water to foam. You saw me wander down to Crazy Woman Creek and just cry like dysentery until the world blurred blue. Whatever we had, we mended. Or else we threw it away: the green camp stove that would take no more gas, careening like a shot parrot down a cliff. A year later, you said you were moving to Portland. Said you were in love with Mt. Hood, the way its snowcap made it look like the ultimate covered wagon, a rugged place you might call home. By then, I had found someone willing to swim my tricky rivers. The ink on my chest evaporated, and now only you or I could ever trace the map of its scar.


I 11

color me!

I

interactive


12

Second Banana James Cihlar

James Cihlar is the author of the poetry book Undoing (Little Pear Press, 2008) and chapbook Metaphysical Bailout (Pudding House Press, 2010), and he has placed his writing with American Poetry Review, The Awl, Cold Mountain Review, Court Green, Prairie Schooner, Mary, Rhino, Painted Bride Quarterly, Emprise Review, Verse Daily, Washington Square Review, and Forklift, Ohio. His reviews appear in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Western American Literature, Coldfront, and Gently Read Literature. He is the Book Reviews Editor for American Poetry Journal and the Fiction/Nonfiction Editor for Etruscan Press. The recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board Fellowship for Poetry and a Glenna Luschei Award from Prairie Schooner, Cihlar is a Lecturer at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and a Visiting Professor at Macalester College in St. Paul.


P 1

3

Never get in the way of a golden boy, or those self-inflated grand dames, the blowhards I used to look up to. Kurtz’s shrunken heads on sticks, a set of garden follies. I’ve been an asshole too. Those who had to learn and learn hard from me, the blowback. Unity is the moment when living becomes history. Orlando’s head is hit twelve times. Tragedies in my purview. Between trouble and nothing, I’d choose trouble. Freytag’s Pyramid turns on the climax, the Lord Jim moment. But we know the epiphany will not stick. We’ll forget, and learn the same thing over again. The dream of a train wreck outside my windows. The house sideswiped, a scene of Dickensian types in postures of disarray. The Empire exists between us. In the middle lives an organ grinder and his monkey. Every moment is now.

P poetry


14

The Reality Show James Cihlar

Nervous and too public, Tillie smothers Emily with anxious love, shuffling her off to the convalescent home for teens at the bidding of the zeitgeist. I cannot become cold in front of the blackboard, my shins covered in sequins. When Maxine’s nameless aunt brought shame to the family through illegitimate pregnancy, the villagers pillaged the farm, murdering pigs, chickens, and cows. More of the economic pie for me, the rapist said afterward. It’s not the doctors, and the lawyers, and the factory bosses themselves. It’s what floats in the air that rules us, our mad attempts to figure out the puzzle, to guess our positions on the board and jump ahead. In spite of the Cold War, Emily becomes a gifted actress. Maxine counsels veterans in sunny California. Pointing my finger at individuals while I address the group, I speak the language of people living on subtlety. It is a long road to moxie. Clad in a coat of eyes, we bear the headache of injustice, our every movement part of the record, writing stories backward to make sense.


COBRA Tonja Torgerson


16

The Producer of the Reality Survival Show Watches One of the Participants Take Off Her Red T-Shirt Hannah Craig

Hannah Craig lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her work has recently appeared in 32 Poems, the American Literary Review, and Columbia Review.


P 1

7

Because she is green now. Because she is entirely of another tribe. Because there are spiders marching in a kinky parade, up and down the low branches of the exotic tree. Because it is not a maple tree nor a beautiful tree. Because it is not a named tree or one known. Because it may have been uprooted and moved here by the crew. Because the skin on her arms is loose after two weeks of rice and red beans. Because the stewardess who served the wine looked exhausted. Because at home in San Francisco, his girlfriend let the door slam, her hand loose and uncomprehending on the jamb. Because even our shadows carry burdens. Because he smells, suddenly, snow-tipped pines. Because it is almost time for a contest for their souls, those souls, those poor souls. Because it is time for a merge. Because brothers have turned one another away. Because her health insurance does not cover acupuncture. Because she deserves money to feed her toddler. Because above them there are stars and behind that grass, streetlights, roads, foxes. Because a four-star hotel is only 1 mile away. Because earlier in the day, there were turtles copulating on the beach. Because there are ten dark freckles on the back of her neck. Because loneliness leads to totalitarianism. Because the absolute zoom is the camera of reason. Because we need bread, oranges, and sensus communis. Because an emergence out of plurality always takes a decision and the right moment for a decision is now, now, now.

P poetry


18

Selected Poems Ed Curtis

Ed Curtis received his M.F.A. from The New School. His Masters manuscript, Tremulous, was a semifinalist for the Firewheel Editions 2011 Sentence Book Award, and poems from it can be seen in various literary journals. Poems from his most recent manuscript, Shoebox Phantoms, can be found in this issue of dislocate, among other journals. Currently, he lives in New Jersey where he teaches and occasionally speaks to people in Dada, despite the fact that they never respond.


P 1

9

I am quietly carrying your baby, you said. Searching for truth often results in stepping too hard on the universe. I bronzed the teethmarks you sunk into my shoulder. There was a bright pink flamingo you named after me and every time you looked at him, he put his head underwater. I guess it’s hard to hear the truth about things. That would be one attractive offspring! I said. And we laughed. We were joking. We’re always joking. check out a scape where two goats of circumstance banter knock knock who’s there a kid

P poetry


20

Selected Poems

You told me to wait for another day because your nose was a faucet. I said, That’s okay; come to me now; I have a full pack of issues. An ongoing shouting match occurs between microscopes and our inner claws. I can’t discern which one is louder. I will list three names. You must choose which one you want to kill, which one you want to fuck, and which one you want to marry. For example: Joey McIntyre, Salvador Dalí, and Deepak Chopra. For example: Ashton Kutcher, Jim Morrison, and Dexter. For example: Nietzsche, Dracula, and Superman. For example: me and your husband. scratching lottery tickets quickly or slowly correlates to how we will spend the rest of our lives


P 2

Ed Curtis

1

There was writing on an elementary school’s walls that said “she just wants to do the right thing but she’s all mixed up, a mess, she just wants to be happy, do you know how to make her happy?” I don’t know. I’m trying. But I don’t know how. What do you want from me? you asked. I want you to tell me we were great and it was the best sex you’ve ever had and you think about me all of the time. I want you to tell me we played those video puzzle games to transmute the chair we shared into an altar. I want you to tell me that when I draw a number sign on the wall, there are infinite combinations of Xs and Os and not that you’ll win if I let you go first, or if you let me go first I’ll love you and always lose. Tell me. Tell me there aren’t infinite combinations of exes and ohs. we touch the touch-screen for ephemeral ecstasy while sidestepping the fact that ephemera is inevitable futility crouched in the weeds

P poetry


22

Selected Poems

The self-help section needs help. You said, We weren’t meant to be irreplaceable but we kind of turned out that way. Our foreheads are much higher than the foreheads of apes. A dog walks up to another dog, sniffs the other dog’s ass, and neither of them exchanges a word. I’m still trying to figure out how to say Hello to the person sitting next to me without thinking about you. Scientists are gradually discovering how to bend light in such a way that objects disappear from vision. In the meantime, a witch has cast a spell upon me. As she cast it, she said, I’m going to make you grow so big that the room will break. so i asked can’t you please just wave your wand to bend the light that’s reflecting off of my cerebral cortex instead


P

poetry

The Lake Is Just A Word Away The Word Is ______ Don’t Drag It Say It Say It In A Way Outside Of Your Body So We Can Meet In Space

and

Under Dim Light Shooting Sparks Spatter From Dancing Tongues Dance Tongues Dance Dance In Slippery Summer Friction Where Friction Is Multiple Happenings At Once

and

I’m Counting Your Name Over And Over Again On A Parabola Above My Head But It’s Not Working I’m Not Falling Asleep

and

A Circle In A Square Breathes Like Coincidental Wine Under A Mid-June Tent

and

Nonplus Is Nothing But A Fancy Word For This Imminent Apocalypse

and

Tell Me There’s Something Else For Us When The Clouds Are Flames In A Rocky Present

Ed Curtis

P 2

3


Fire Fades Like Eyes That Burn Like Tungsten Pendulums and

and

I Have A Sleep Disorder Of Confused Eyelids With A Recurring Thought Inside A Pocket Of The Brain

and

Scratching Lottery Tickets Quickly Or Slowly Correlates To How We Will Spend The Rest Of Our Lives

and

The Glass Is Half-Empty Or Half-Full Or There’s No Glass At All Or Oh-No My Head Is Fucked

and

Check Out A Scape Where Two Goats Of Circumstance Banter Knock Knock Who’s There A Kid

and

and Here Is Your Blank Canvas To Paint Me Something Ironic

24 Selected Poems


P

poetry

and

Is It Practice Or The Real Live Thing That You Are Somewhere With

and

For A Few Dollars And A Few Minutes I’m A Little Bit Less Lonely

and

We Touch The Touch-Screen For Ephemeral Ecstasy While Sidestepping The Fact That Ephemera Is Inevitable Futility Crouched In The Weeds

and

You’ll Call Me To Mind One Day When You Hear The Words “I’ve Always Wanted To Eat Glass With You Again But I Never Knew How To Talk Without Walls Dropping On The Eve”

and

A Nutshelled Scene That Never Happened Is Lodged In My Throat

and

This Confessional Booth Is Burning And So Are All Of The Fire Stations

Ed Curtis

P 2

5


I Folded These Mute Hands Into This Little Black Felt Case And Here Happy Birthday But Don’t Be Startled It’s Not What You Think Although I Wish It Was

and

Good News For Anybody Who May Encounter Me And Isn’t Looking For A Burden My Mask Is Conforming To My Face Better

and

Free Will Lullabies Beget Drunk Parachutes Whose Aroma Are A Burning Interstellar Candy Shop The Smell Of Sweet Histamine And We’ve Got Nothing Left to Anti Up

and

An Episode Of You In Two Pieces Is Worth A Thousand Blazing Orgasms On A Wrinkled One-Way Street

and

I Can’t Stop Flirting With Things That Are Flammable So Go Ahead And Cremate Me I Know You Want To I Know You Can’t Help Yourself I Know You Will

At This Current Location The Earth Has Tilted Away From The Sun And Goosebumps Have Become Endangered and

26 Selected Poems


Be Seeing You But Just One More Hallucination Before We Go

and

Despite Me Having Encapsulated The Nooks How You Point Pleasant Only Eat Sunsoaked Skittles Your PassengerSeat Pulse Shudders A Nightmare Of Pancakes Some Hidden Farm Is Your Long Home The Cure Discovered For An Aquaphobic Dog A Seduction Of False Alarmed Bingo Found Your Problems Buried In The Couch Cushions And Four-Stringed Instruments Tenderly Moaning The Last Man On Earth Erupt Your Eyes You Said You Mean Nothing To Me That’s What You Said None Of This Ever Occurred It All Was A Mirage

and

Ho-Hum If An Ideal Partner Exists But Two People Never Reach Their Full Potential Because The Clocks Are Broken And Therefore An Ideal Partner Doesn’t Actually Exist

and

So I Asked Can’t You Please Just Wave Your Wand To Bend The Light That’s Reflecting Off Of My Cerebral Cortex Instead

and

P 2

7

P

poetry


28

To Your Torso in the Mirror, That Sad Face Christopher Davis

Christopher Davis is the author of three collectons of poetry: The Tyrant of the Past and the Slave of the Future, The Patriot, and A History of the Only War. He teaches creative writing at UNC Charlotte.


P 2

9

“I am a very private person,” hollers my neighbor, a redneck bugger wrapped in purple suspenders, through his black wrought-iron fence, its twisted decorations, a dragon, a phoenix. “Come on in!” My host’s den stinks of mothballs, mildew, wet pet mutt. One nightstand polished, to a deep, shit-brown, Lemon Pledge shimmer, he wants something of me, fucking puppy, but what, what? Shockingly, he smears a dildo with creosote smelling not unlike the overheated asphalt of the highway straight to hell. He shoves it up my butt. Feeling like a van packed with explosives, popping off, I arch my legs, remember the bright lights, big city of being born, picture flying home to mother, imagine concrete buttresses, squat down lower, visualize that spider-shaped diner at the center of the short term parking lot of Los Angeles International Airport, if Security had been lax, New Year’s Eve, like it’s

P poetry


30

To Your Torso in the Mirror, That Sad Face

nineteen ninety nine, and Ahmed, a stranger, other culture, a loner, not a stoner with a boner, not a poet, not a lover, not self-conscious, or, reader, do I really mean, self-aware, had awakened us, his fist, miss liberty’s torch, bursting, burning glass, tears, cascading across Inglewood, destroying dry arroyos I believe would be deaf to coyotes, crying, or should be, anyway. Sincerely, the enemy within. Run.


I color me!

31

I

interactive


32

What Insu Said Christopher Davis

I guess your penis does not erect easily. Your arms look so weak. I recommend you to practice the butterfly stroke. These days, my nerves are keen, but I don’t have a penis, I think so. How much do you earn for your lecture? A company offered me that much, plus a car. Yesterday, I went to the garbage dump. I stood beside it and bowed. I tried casting away my laziness. I couldn’t. It’s still here. Is a poet different from the other people? Why don’t you learn to speak our language? That dog bit you because you were unfamiliar. The students think you are a fool. Guess what we will eat tonight? Dog meat. Your penis will be erected from eating that flesh. What is the reason you look at me and grab your pants? I get a strong impression from your sentence, “I felt his soft beard around my cock.” Can you tell me, what is the purpose of that relation? Do you feel remorse in your body? If you must do it, do it once a month, then once a year...then never. Are there pleasures...? Do what you must.


P 3

3

If you don’t, you go mad. (If you touch me again, it will be your last time. Do you have that picture of me? Give it to me. It is strange that a man would want my picture. Use your own toilet! Yankee go home! Without wiping your asshole! That will be your punishment for your invasion. You violate others’ identities. I used to be proud of you, but now I am not. I am not afraid of life.

P poetry


34

I guess this is just to say I still think about You and You too. Hannah Ensor

Hannah Ensor writes poems in Tucson, Arizona.


P 3

5

In the dream, I was mouthing a rotten hard-boiled egg. It was so soft it fell apart without even needing my tongue. There was crumbly yolk everywhere, my hands, my chin, the bedspread where I sat. You & You were there. You were looking out your bay window at the new art museum, wondered aloud how many people could fit in it, I knew this was a measure of success. We’d just finished a race of sorts, we had all walked alongside a train for a very long time, making several Michigan lefts along the way. The word “rickshaw” was present, so was my entire family. My grandmother leaned against the body of the train like a gentle dog, she struggled but she knew she had to finish. I’d left my bag at the end, knowing my sister or mother would see it, claim it, I ran off to your bedroom, where I thought You would sleep with me

P poetry


36

I guess this is just to say I still think about You and You too.

after fifteen years of preferring not to. You gave me the egg. You’d carried it with you alongside the train all day, in your back pocket, I imagine, and I knew I’d made a mistake in leaving my bag, I knew I’d never see my belongings again.


I 37

I

interactive


38

Shadowgraph 54: Photographing the Ghosts Sean Howard

Sean Howard is the author of two collections of poetry, Local Calls (Cape Breton University Press, 2009) and Incitements (Gaspereau Press, 2011). His Shadowgraphs project is supported by a Creative Writing Grant from the Canada Council for the Arts.


P 3

9

(poetry detected in Frits Zernike’s nobel physics lecture, 1953) i

vi

aperture – the war’s opening

form – required fields

ii

vii

cézanne – wind ripples the light

concepts – general motors

iii

viii

classical – ‘the instrument behaves’

photograph – ghosts staring at the bees

iv

ix

catalog – male order

‘the minute ripples’ – cordelia’s breath on the glass

v

x

antediluvian – ‘the waves in the mirror’

‘at last’ – 1941, the germans knocking on my door

P poetry


40

Elsewhere Scott Alexander Jones

Scott Alexander Jones is the author of a chapbook of poetry: One Day There Will Be Nothing to Show That We Were Ever Here (Bedouin Books, 2009). He holds an MFA from The University of Montana, and in the fall of 2009 he was Writerin-Residence at The Montana Artists Refuge. His poems have appeared most recently in: The Roanoke Review, Third Coast, Tribeca Poetry Review, Phoebe, and Redivider. He is co-founder of Zerø Ducats, a literary journal assembled from stolen materials and he releases music as Surgery in the Attic.


P 4

1

from “elsewhere” That finger on your temple is the barrel / of my raygun— // That wretched dull resonance / / breaching walls where windows once were, here / at the end of all things / / tells us nothing // we haven/t already been told / / regarding nightjars— / / That eyelid slit of light / beneath the bathroom door at the end of the hallway / / yellow & yellowish & yellowing / as deciduous leaves / / come winter / / says one of us remains / awake at this androgynous hour / / lighting candles meant to conjure azaleas. / Call it evening despite / / our blue proximity to morning— / / Blue as your tattered peacoat I always mistook for black—/ Choose any definition / / of blackout: / / A scarlet pulsing of stoplights / or the scar in my abdomen from the failed / / appendectomy of a cyclone / / fence— / / And if I am sleeping thru the lullabies of a summer / storm, you are screaming / / an arsenal of auburn / / cellos into hiding— / / Your lipstick desperately flamingo. / Soundlessly agape as Civil War daguerreotypes. / / We have arrived / / at the scene of the film where the first bullets hail down— / All sound cuts out— // Your larynx / / banished brailleward / / by explosions in the sky. / Toward the more taciturn outskirts of: / / anywhere but here— / / The nowheres / / we/ ll no longer witness together— / Scouring burnt lexicons in search of the perfect word for: / / murmurs of wind / / caught in a vacant stairwell—

P poetry


42

Elsewhere

from “elsewhere” There are words / / like: heartwood, petrichor / / for lumber resistant to decay— / For the fragrance of rainfall on dry earth— / / Their patents pending / / as medicine for hummingbirds / to resemble a pageantry of elaborately feathered insects / / rather than spies / / transmitting the twitches of fractured lips / to the flapper girls dancing / / the Charleston / / just outside the veiled electricity of my peripheral vision. / There isn/t a word for / / the distant moan / / of Bozeman locomotives— / / Soft caterpillars of the vacant night— / And I refuse to evoke sousaphones trapped in Nerja Caverns— / / The way my army of / / mascara skeletons / / will be more dead tomorrow than they are today— / How apoptosis / / means: programmed cell death / / means: the moment our eyes first adjust to florescence / something inside us / / conspires against us. / Yet we don/t exactly wilt like lettuce left / / outside summer mausoleums— // Where sprinklers have been planted between caskets we call buried / so rapture, rush // hour traffic or massive plague / won/t prevent the daily watering of the dead— / / Revived // courtesy of percolation / as interpreted by the cerebral cortex: / / Still squinting on bended knee in the cannabis garden— // Or nakedly losing at poker in a Russian submarine—/ Oceanward as the undertow / / that took her away / / & by her I mean, ultimately: / All freckled girls who one day won/t breathe / / pollen nor premonitions / / of midsummer rain / / on freshly paved blacktop—


P 4

Scott Alexander Jones

3

from “elsewhere” Here, lawnmower blades latticework as DNA / / rust dull in brushwood— / / Crabgrass uproots one wayward gravestone three infants share / namelessly— / / Lukewarmly / / assuming room temperature / just shy of translating screams into speech— / / Fruitless centenarians of this day in late July / equally unalive / / as the Siamese twins / / named: Aven & Trillion / / we parted ways before making— / Who came gently in a dream where nobody chases you / / darkward thru sewerways / / & all your teeth remain intact— / Where the ghosts of lower forms of life like viruses / / harness wind on sycamore leaves / like mothers shushing / / still firstborns, / / first stillborns to sleep. / There is a word for the prodigal circles we turn // alien on the outskirts / / of the hospitals of our births / and it is: peregrine. / / And we never did update our passports with this last / name we half-promised to share. / / And I prefer definitions / / of: bedlamite // that explain away serrated / blades crosshatched into innocent shoulderblades. / / The way: degenerate / / implies a time when blackened eyes refused to covet / my Chelsea boots / / from the darkest culverts / of avenues nearly divisible by three—

P poetry


44

Elsewhere from “elsewhere” There is a word for the nine thousand bullet trains / / parallel universe versions of us / / fall nightly beneath— / And in certain multiverse versions of tomorrow / / our eyes grow milky with cataracts / / together / / until retinas surrender. / We braille what few remembrances remain / / within the timeworn folds of faces / / grown hideous / / as the masks of creatures / yet to take form outside every arboreal nightmare / / I never bothered to wake you about— / / Like baritone shivers / / of palsy tectonics / rumbling our duplex walls while you slept, nasally mimicking / / whirlpools of draining bathwater— / Our clock set to 6:17— / / Reticent / as to whether to the blueness outside our dusty window / low like the surface of the sea / / as seen from bathyspheres / / be nightfall / / or daybreak— / The emberglow of gas stoves / / awake with wolves’ teeth / / those nights you fall asleep to the rainstorm / lullaby of olive / / oil in cast iron skillets / forged to outlive the books we never found time to read—


P 4

Scott Alexander Jones

5

from “elsewhere” Painters call such pensive illumination: / / the golden hour. // While surgeons call the fleeting timeframe of severed veins: / / the golden hour. / And what illuminates the coral reef & Midnight / / Parrotfish as you breathe underwater / & I hold my breath // won/t grow gingerly faint / / allowing the earth to go arctic & skyless with darkish dignity— / When this our only sun / / our middle-aged star consumes / / in flame / / what/s left of the Svalbard Arctic Seed Vault / & the Georgia Guidestones / / there will be no brimstone— / / No mouths to infer the preternatural— / / Nothing to show that we were ever here, nor such a place / left to call: here. / / Nor: home. / / And when we find ourselves / / in the light & bloodloss / / of pyrite spans of time— / View of floorboard bubblegum stains in a capsized Volvo— / / If bygone icecaps / / have brought us to Arizona Bay / / a day before the Mayan / / apocalypse, a kaleidoscope of sandstone desertscapes / / will guide // the privacy of this my only death / indiscernible from all forthcoming ends of the world—

P poetry


46

All Rise Steve Lester

Stephen Charles Lester is a product manager at a software company in Denver , Colorado, whose work has recently appeared in or is forthcoming from Artifice, New York Quarterly, failbetter, DIAGRAM, Juked, and Unsplendid.


And repeat after me: I solemnly swear on this mote of dust suspended on a sunbeam16 to preserve our covalent bond in Aleppo soap and psoriasis in latch-key and in vitro in fiscal solvency and on margin call with bottle service and from a brown paper bag in gestures of lead acetate18 and while sleeping on the couch; in lieu of an analyst and in mining browser histories; in dipping Victoria sponge Pennyroyal and in picking hair from the drain; You are my thallium and my Prussian blue19 I will taste your brunch and gargle your bathwater and should distance dissolve us I will utter your name right before the forgetting so you won’t become an unlit mirror20

(I make a successful design on you) (slipping the ring on your finger) (stripping away your surname) (ripping out your tongue) (and you become non-existent);17 (may your transport layers never exist); (may your corpus luteum never exist); (may your instruments of leverage never exist); (may your arms never exist) (may you never exist); (may your personal space never exist) (may your posture never exist); (may you never exist) (may your words of passage never exist); (may your melody never exist) (may your follicles never exist). (may you never exist) (may your lymph nodes never exist); (may your fungiform papillae never exist) (may your profile(s) never exist); (may your direction never exist) (may you never exist) (may you never exist) (may you never exist) (may your shade never exist).

P 4

7

P

poetry


48 *** And here we would preach that it is drinking, not laughter, and especially not love, that makes us human.21 The macaque is, by accounts, an inveterate prankster, and elephants, having invented the art of ceremonial burial,22 drag the bones of their dead even further than a drunk will drive after running out. Each instance of life is a reading, an interpretation of our shared genetic text. Gold and a port23 wine stain on the coat of arms. The rule of tincture is absolute: what gin has joined, let no man separate.24 By the power vested in me by the state of Delaware,25 I now pronounce you Gog and Magog. You may kiss the toilet.

All Rise


Rubies Aniela Sobieski


50

All Rise Endnotes

In Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, Carl Sagan refers to Earth as a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. Sagan was inspired by the eponymous photograph taken by Voyager I 3.7 billion miles away from Earth in 1990. 16

“Mayest thou never exist” and related curses appear in “On The Hieratic Papyrus Of Nesi-Amsu, A Scribe In The Temple Of Amen-Ra At Thebes, About B.C. 305,” chapter XVI of E.A. Wallis Budge’s Archaelogia. The entire litany constitutes the “Book of Overthrowing the Enemy of Ra in the Course of Every Day” directed at the demon Apep. It extends themes in the “Papyrus of Ani” from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, also translated by Budge in 1895. 17

Specifically, Lead(II) Acetate, which has been used as an (albeit deadly) sugar substitute throughout history. 18

Prussian blue is a venerable pigment also useful as an antidote for thallium and cesium poisoning. 19

“The Baltic sea is dark as an unlit mirror” appears in an article Gary Wolf wrote for Wired titled “Want to Remember Everything you Learn? Surrender to this Algorithm.” It features Piotr Wozniak’s, a Polish researcher who founded SuperMemo in 1985, commercial memory-aiding software based upon the theory of spaced repetition. 20

“And here we would argue that it is drinking, not laughter, that makes men human” is a quote from Burton Raffel’s translation of François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. It is a reply to Panurge in “Baqbuc Explains the Bottle’s Prophecy,” the forty-sixth, or third-tolast, chapter of the fifth and final book of the work. 21

Ceremonial burial was an early-game technology in the Civilization line of computer games until the most recent Civilization V. 22


P 5

Steve Lester

1

Inspired by “The Organism itself as the Emergent Meaning,” Canadian biologist Brian Goodwin’s response to the Edge World Question Center offering for 2009. Goodwin is the author of How the Leopard Changed its Spots. 23

Traditional English marriage vows stem from the first Book of Common Prayer published in 1549 at the height of Reformation. Many within and without the book stem from Biblical verse, such as Matthew 19:6: Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (King James Version). “In sickness and in health” is a typical vow found in the Book of Common Prayer, reminiscent of the contraries featured in Ecclesiastes 3. 24

Delaware, which contains less than one-half of one percent of the total U.S. population, has over 50% of publicly traded companies incorporated there due to its, ahem, friendly tax law. 25

P poetry


52

Elle Le Regarde. Elle Le Regarde. Elle Le Regarde. Andrew Payton

Andrew Payton is a former filmmaker and future farmer. His poetry has been published in The GW Review, The Eudaimonia Review, Grub Street, and is forthcoming in Revolution House and Caveat Lector. Originally from Maryland, he has been vagabonding about for a few years, but will soon attend the MFA program at Iowa State University.


P 5

3

Severed along the grain. Cleaved. He tears her twos in two. Fractal. As in the contours of shore appear the macroscopic: terra continens consumed. Land migrates beneath the birds. Limbs escort the breeze. Crustaceans storm the Earth. Birds harvest the Sea. She sets to rest a soul each moon. He slaughters millions in his sleep.

P poetry


54

Visual Poetry Lauren Consuelo Tussing

Lauren Consuelo Tussing received an MFA from Louisiana State University, where she served as editor of NDR (New Delta Review). Recently her poetry has appeared online at The Portland Review, and she is currently working on a collection of short stories and several multimedia poetry projects. She is thrilled to have this selection featured in dislocate. see also: pages 83 and 93

opposite: Don’t Be Afraid to Slice a Beefsteak


56

Eau de Vie Marina Read Weiss

Marina Read Weiss is Poetry Editor at Explosion-Proof Magazine. She is a Fulbright grantee, an MFA candidate at NYU, and a recipient of the Academy of American Poets’ University Prize. Her poetry and criticism has been published in 34th Parallel, Boston Review, Brink, Clapboard House, Caper, Folly, and elsewhere.


P 5

7

Evening saturates the sky unevenly salts itself with stars, dissolving in the clear dark over the shoulder of an old barn and over his shoulders, heaving, and breath rustles the cornfield like a sea, or waves interleaving from underneath.

The night yields, muting the plum tree into itself a lull invisible as everything but the far-off farmhouse windows, the damp smell of the fresh dirt and flesh wet hurt & above contorted in his intent, grotesque, devout, a praying mantis dark in the darkness and no one is here to stop this. He pauses, pulls her tanktop to her clavicles, pumps on. From beneath a fisheye lens or skull full of bootleg liquor blackberry spaces bulge between the stars, his eyes closed & opening, she tries to thread them into constellations from 6th grade Earth Science, but they blur float & will not stay.

P poetry


58

A Suck of Unwanted Ads Jonathan William Wilkins

Jonathan William Wilkins sleeps in tea leaves and writes in dream language. There is more music there than words. Please visit www.nudevargas.blogspot.com.


P 5

9

suck one. i’m in chopin. the ground is burning. i spend days checklists, steering wheel jut to the chest, perforated pattern transferred to my fingers, palms. collect dragonflies on the windshield, it rains one drop at a time. in troughs filled with rainwater. tearstains,

nights sleep

a series of vague romantic impasses cut with first days of school, viewmaster wheels rotate the faces of women i’ve never seen – i meet them in skylit atria. kisses and passing glances: a weighted significance. i’m going to leave now without saying good morning. i’m in chopin, the seagulls are drowning inside their own bodies.

P poetry


60

A Suck of Unwanted Ads

suck two. this year for halloween i’m going to dress up as a cuckoo clock. i’m going to hollow out my ribcage and bake my entrails. i’m going to install a gloved fist on a spring inside my empty gut so that every hour i can punch myself in the face.


P 6

Jonathan William Wilkins

1

suck three. i wake up pushing the panic button. i wake up dislocated, confused, whimpering like a dog gone under

tires.

less than four hours of slow-wave nightmares and sweat – sweat that’s dried and left me an extra layer of sick, amphibious skin. but it’s a trick because i’ve been awake this whole time, and it’s to the shower with steam and then coffee put to my veins. i work and more caffeine, and i hate it, hate what it does to my mouth. caffeine-grinding teeth tearing through the inside of my mouth, i’m back on the road bleary-eyed, and this time it’s raining. my senses disorient and then reorient to the road oncoming headlights flash.flash.flash.flash. cars pass on the slick winding surface, and i pray that the braking school bus in front of me drives off the road and i follow it.

P poetry


62

A Suck of Unwanted Ads

suck four. the frat boys have rid state street of all the bums, for good – tied up at the ankles, dragging them behind their monster pick-ups, threshing the pavement absolutely raw, their bodies bumping and tumbling like just-married clinking cans. leap of love, bungee jump.


I 63

color me!

I

interactive


64

What Would Wonder Woman Do in a Crisis? Neil de la Flor

Neil de la Flor’s publications include Sinead O’Connor and her Coat of a Thousand Bluebirds (Firewheel Editions, forthcoming 2011), co-authored with Maureen Seaton and winner of the Sentence Book Award, Almost Dorothy (Marsh Hawk Press, 2010), winner of the Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize, and Facial Geometry (NeoPepper Press, 2006), co-authored with Maureen Seaton and Kristine Snodgrass. de la Flor lives in Miami, FL and teaches writing and literature as an adjunct professor at Miami Dade College, Nova Southeastern University, Barry University and Saint Thomas University. Reach him at www.neildelaflor.com


F 6

5

“The only thing in the world worth beginning: The end of the world of course.” –Aimé Césaire

[Underoos] The end of the world began when Steve tied me up with his invisible lasso. He wore my Batman cape, his black soccer socks, and used my mother’s mascara under his eyes like football players do, and I wore my sister’s Wonder Woman Underoos. No top or shoes. Just tube socks and a red bandana. We looked like sons of bitches.

[ ] When I was a boy, (I’m still a boy), I never questioned my sexual identity. That coat never bothered me like it might bother a bluebird in a coat of chicken feathers.

[Pen][man][ship ] In third grade I learned how to write in cursive. I don’t remember if I was in third grade. The classroom was on the right and my teacher was Mrs. White. Her husband, Mr. White, who was a substitute math teacher at the same school, touched boys and girls, but he never ever touched me. He touched Steve sometime between our infatuation with Atari Space Invaders and Fort Fights, which is a sport that involves building a fort out of PVC patio furniture around which fights randomly breakout. I don’t remember if Mr. White touched me in that way. The penmanship classroom faced the big kid building where the 6th, 7th, and 8th graders went to class to learn something big about God and Science—the beginning of the world of course. Some of kids in the big kid building had been touched by Mr. White, but no one learned about his clandestine activities until I was a man in college, or about to leave for college, before I was a man.

F fiction


66

What Would Wonder Woman Do in a Crisis?

Our school was a Christian school. We prayed every morning like nuts—the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary and the Pledge of Allegiance. All of this took place just before the start of every class. I mimed a lot, or often, in God We Trust and stuff like that. Every first Friday of the month was the best because that was Church’s Fried Chicken day. For some reason we didn’t have to pray before Church’s Fried Chicken.

[Future Shock] I lost contact with Steve, but I’m still tied up with his invisible mess inside our invisible fortress.

[Fallout] I had the most elegant handwriting for a boy, so elegant that some of the pre-frat boys called me a girl, especially with my pretty blue bug eyes which weren’t so pretty or blue. I wasn’t pretty and I didn’t mind being called a girl with bug eyes because at least I won an award certificate for “Best Penmanship”. No one else did. Not even the good looking boys and girls. Even though I never dotted my “i”s with hearts, I did in third grade, because I was in love.

[iHeart] I dotted my “i”s with a heart once, but in secret, when I wrote Stevie in my spiral notebook on the last day of our acquaintance. I added the i to Steve because I’m an artificer. I used that kind of big fat red pencil I haven’t seen since elementary school. It was thicker than my thumb.

[A New Character Named Cindy] My best friend Cindy dotted her “i”s with hearts and she hearted me and I hearted her even though my heart was meant for Steve, but I didn’t know that then like I do now. Or, I did know, but I didn’t get it. If I did, I would have kissed Steve, or given him a hug, when I had


F 6

Neil de la Flor

7

the chance. I don’t dot my “i”s with hearts anymore—not even when I think I’m in love.

[V. Mary] I want to be Miss Mary. Why do you want to be Miss Mary? Because, I don’t know. Just do. Miss Mary’s so pretty, Steve. I know. When I grow up, I’ll be just like her. How? I don’t know. Not sure. [Pause 5 seconds. Wait.] I’ll figure it out.

[Plot] There’s no subtext here, just the text, and a pair of superheroes wearing their moms’ Jackie O sunglasses who befriended one another through the course of events before the invention of BFFs. There’s no superhero per se except for the super that discovered Mr. White in the john with a boy. Hijo de puta, the super repeated over and over again as he knucklepunched Mr. White in the head. That day, I learned Mr. White was a son of a bitch.

[Future Shock II] Steve and I reunited after his sex-change operation. He didn’t look like Miss Mary at all, but I said that’s cool, and that he looked great.

F fiction


68

What Would Wonder Woman Do in a Crisis?

[Unreliable Authorial Intrusion] This story begins with a plot framed by two boys who play multiple roles in this story and in real life. Hi, my name is Steve, Steve said the first day we met. Hi, I said back. I’m Steve Too. Like politicians, they, the two Steves, or we, eventually chose sides, which are always both sides, simultaneously speaking. Just in case you wonder, the p.o.v. of this story is told from the point of view of the person or persons telling the story. Steve, like this story, is from a memory that shifts back and forth between geography (the body) and time (the anti-body), which is really just a function of distance, like a parsec, which equals 3.26 light years, which equals the distance light travels in a Hoover vacuum. The shifting is meant to show the shift—the non-linearity and inaccuracy of memory—that is unquantifiable by physicists or the gods who invented love.

[Ronald Reagan vs. Jimmy Carter] I remember when Ronald Reagan won the White House because I told mom to vote for Jimmy Carter because Steve’s mom was going to vote for J.C. Reagan is a goddamn dick, Steve’s mom said. That woman was a lion. Still is, I guess. I tugged on my mom’s J.C. Penny pocket book inside the voting booth and told her that Ronald Reagan was a dick. Then I threw up. I had cramps. She didn’t make a scene and couldn’t even if she wanted to because I was sick. Vote for Steve, I pleaded. I mean, Jimmy. Vote for Jimmy, please. Where ‘write-in candidate’ was, Mom and I wrote STEVE in all caps, for emphasis, so that the ballot counters would know our choice was serious. Steve didn’t win the election, and neither did Jimmy Carter, but I didn’t care, because I knew my vote counted for something.

[The Facts] Steve was once a boy.


F 6

Neil de la Flor

9

[Homosexuality] “is an aberrant, unnatural, and sinful lifestyle” and same-sex marriage “would be like saying, well, there are a lot of people who like to use drugs so let’s go ahead and accommodate those who want to use drugs. There are some people who believe in incest, so we should accommodate them. There are people who believe in polygamy, should we accommodate them?” (Mike Huckabee)

[All Babies are Flown from the Universe] The pope, who is not the pope anymore, visits the site of sex abuse. The boys and girls are called inside the glass mobile, blessed, promised justice, and given a loaf of bread. The sexual predators are defrocked and jailed. Contrition is administered by an army of Sinéad O’Connors.

[Complot] In other words, everything is covered up—even the memories lodged in the heart of the boy who remained silent. Just like Batman did.

[What would Wonder Woman do in a crisis?] A. B. C. D.

Avoid the crisis. Change her name to Lynda C. Arter. Remain visible in her invisible ship. Paint her invisible ship red thereby turning it into a real ship and load it up with real cannons and Hellfire missiles. E. All of the above.

[In the End] I remembered the good things of course.

F fiction


70

Lessons from a Sinaloan Beauty Queen Aimee Parkison

Aimee Parkison’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming from the following magazines: Mississippi Review, North American Review, The Literary Review, Nimrod, Quarterly West, Santa Monica Review, Other Voices, Crab Orchard Review, Fiction International, Fugue, Yalobusha Review, Seattle Review, Feminist Studies, So To Speak, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Denver Quarterly. One of her stories has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and she has recently received grants for fiction writing from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation and the Puffin Foundation. After receiving an MFA from Cornell University, she now teaches creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. In past years, she has won a Writers at Work fellowship as well as the first annual Kurt Vonnegut Fiction Prize from North American Review. As winner of the first annual Starcherone Fiction Prize, her short story collection, Woman with Dark Horses, was published in 2004. Her new story collection is forthcoming from BOA Editions’ American Reader Series in 2012. She is currently working on her first novel.


F 7

1

Lesson One: Some Women Are Cargo Outside of a military checkpoint near Guadalajara, Elena kept her head down so that her long hair shadowed her expressionless face. A young female in a group of males, she crossed her hands in front of her legs and looked no one in the eye. Later, the US investigators discovered her English was good and realized she could understand what they were saying, even though she preferred not to speak. “Where’s Hector?” she finally asked. The investigators showed her numerous photos of his body. “What were you doing,” they asked, “in the caravan?” It was hard to explain some women became cargo, like guns and money. The men who followed Hector’s orders were still alive. Lesson Two: Captured Women Escape Just as rivers slowly carved valleys into hills, family hunger changed Elena’s reality. Child of rivers, oceans, and plains, she became a hidden woman caught between mountains. A girl whose ancestors grew tomatoes, beans, marijuana, and poppies, she was raven-haired and sleek with large dark eyes. Her ancestors’ dreams were nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental Range. At beauty contests, her gaze burrowed into the eyes of strangers who offered wealth beyond her mother’s wildest hopes. A pageant winner, Elena attracted old men who had somehow managed to survive as drug traffickers when so many young men in the cartel had died. Guns filled the night with explosions. Hector, the elderly man who courted her, had more weapons than the police and the military. Under gowns, her long slender body was covered with Hector’s hard kisses like bruises. Depending on his mood, his kisses were like rain in the mountains, like sun on the plains, or like wind across the ocean. Elena was accustomed to summer rains and subtropical temperatures of the plains, the moderate warmth of the coast and valleys. Yet, the weather was cold on Hector’s mountain. She wasn’t used to the cold. It was a strange sensation. The chill of the air was what she first noticed, the way her flesh shivered in the breeze. In the mansion full of guns, when Hector first reached out to Elena, gently encircling her breasts, she discovered what many pageant

F fiction


72

Lessons from a Sinaloan Beauty Queen

winners learned but few lived to tell – the only romance for captured women is escape. To those who once knew her before she held the title of Miss Sinaloa, she became untouchable. At night, she dreamed of the mausoleums where traffickers were buried: Culiacan at sunset, domed buildings silhouetted against blazing sky, banda in the distance. Many times, she visited the infamous cemetery of Jardines de Humaya. She didn’t want to be buried there. If she died, she wanted her body cremated. Her ashes could float over the desert and find a way back to her family. Hector seemed to love her so much he frightened her into silence. She cried for him because of what he did not see. The skeletal shadow of Santa Muerte flitted across the concrete rooms of his mansion. Hector was his own god, transporting drugs and women, bribing officials, and laundering money. He kept the mausoleums full of mourners and fresh bodies. *** In the mansion’s wine cellar, Elena discovered a female corpse, partially preserved and dressed in marijuana leaves and white satin. The flesh was gone, yet the skin remained like dried leather over the bones surrounded by candles and tequila bottles. Elena assumed the figure was part of a shrine to Santa Muerte like so many other shrines with painted skeletons she had seen along the highways. Because images of Santa Muerte showed a skeleton dressed in white satin and a golden crown, she could be mistaken for the Virgin Mary, except for the fact that she was a corpse receiving more petitions for revenge than for protection. Yet Elena’s most common prayer was to receive a blessed death in a state of grace. Because of Santa Muerte, Elena believed that those who were kind to others would find peace, no matter how much violence they suffered in their final moments. However, Santa Muerte would torture the torturers in death. Elena fell in love with the skeleton woman in the wine cellar. Until Santa Muerte, Elena was alone. The skeleton woman was the only one in the mansion Elena did not fear. Prayers gave Elena peace as she caressed bones beneath white satin. She stroked the skull. She left offerings of roses, marijuana, cigarettes, fruit, cigars, and tequila. She lit the


F 7

Aimee Parkison

3

candles, and embraced Santa Muerte. In flickering light, Hector caught her. Elena had been praying, kissing the bones of the corpse’s hands and feet. She knelt. “That’s not Santa Muerte,” Hector said, laughing. “That’s my first wife.” Slowly, Elena began to realize there had been other women in the mansion before her. What had happened to the second wife was worse than what had happened to the first. *** Elena romanced the Holy Death. She longed to caress Santa Muerte – the true Santa Muerte – to kiss the bones of her hands, to stroke her skull, and to nuzzle her ribs and clutch her femurs. She would adorn the skeleton with pearls and white satin and become her sister, her lover, her child, her servant, and her maid. It was all Elena wanted. There were men who called Santa Muerte La Niña Blanca, Doña Sebastianne, or La Satísima Muerte. But to Elena, she became only love, my love – the only reason to lead a virtuous life, the lover that waited. Lesson Three: Charity Buys Respect The cartels rearranged entire cemeteries by building tombs. The white domed windowed buildings contained small but elegant stairs leading to air-conditioned rooms where mourners spoke to giant portraits of murdered men. Inside mausoleums were gifts for the dead – toy machine guns, knives, model cars, and bright balloons swaying above cut flowers in tall marble vases. Gifts not reserved for the dead were given to the poor. In rural communities, the cartel gained respect through charity, and children longed to become drug lords in order to please their fathers. Lesson Four: The Shadow Family Hides Elena shaved her dark hair and hid it beneath a white-blonde wig in the style of Marilyn Monroe. The name she had been born with was shed the way monarch butterflies shed their chrysalis. The shedding of her identity was part of the government’s attempt to save her life. After testifying against the cartel, Elena moved to Georgia and found

F fiction


74

Lessons from a Sinaloan Beauty Queen

work as a babysitter for a Christian family called the Lyons. Even though US agents assured Elena that she was safe, she dreamed of being kidnapped by masked men who would hold her, mark her, smother her, and display her corpse. The display was both a calling card and an art form, an exact science. The men who posed corpses were sculptors creating work for public and private exhibitions. A single dead woman meant many different things to many different people, depending on the manner in which her corpse was displayed. Everywhere Elena went, she feared gleaming SUVs with dark tinted windows and no plates. She wondered if parts of the United States would become like Mexico, where the good police were terrified and the corrupt police didn’t seem to care that the army was outgunned. The government was as powerless as the people, and everyone knew it. Yet, the parties continued along with the pageants and more shrines were constructed for Santa Muerte. Elena envisioned her body sliced apart. She imagined being suffocated and shot by Zeta hitmen who would dump her body in a car in Mexico City. Then, she imagined Santa Muerte embracing her at the moment she took her last breath. *** The Lyon family embraced Elena as one of their own. Perhaps they felt sorry for her. She was so lovely, yet so lonely and so uncertain of everything. She was grateful for simple meals and the pleasure of swimming with the children in the little backyard pool. She lived in the Lyons’ guest room and went to the movies with the children on Fridays and to church with the family on Sundays. Because the children demanded stories, Elena tried to tell the Lyon children peaceful bedtime tales, but she couldn’t think of any tales with happy endings. She told the children stories about Hector and Santa Muerte. The children loved Elena because of the stories. It was only when she told them about the shadow family that they began having nightmares. “Tell us about the shadow family, again,” the children demanded, even though some of them were so frightened they had tears in their eyes. “But why?” asked Elena. “Why do you always want to hear about them?”


F 7

Aimee Parkison

5

“Because we’re afraid of them.” “Why? They didn’t do anything wrong. They were the victims. They were only innocents.” *** Elena recalled studying the morbid portrait of a young mother and two children in the upstairs rooms of the fancy mausoleum. They were the shadow family she never met. Elena knew what had happened, but didn’t understand how. Masked men had taken the young mother and her children, who were thrown off a bridge before their mother was decapitated. After her head was delivered to Hector in an icebox, the rest of the mother’s body was never found. Finally, the mother’s head rested with her children’s bodies in the tomb. After those deaths, revenge killings spread like sickness, a contagion moving across the desert like shadow. One killing inspired another. Men harmed their rivals by killing the women they loved most. Lesson Five: Roses are Dangerous In a secret ceremony, twelve years before he met and married Elena, Hector was already an old man, three times his bride’s age. After he escaped from prison, she became his lover, not by choice. The longstem roses she accepted meant that she would be politely raped after the wedding. The ceremony before the rape was so lavish that other women were jealous. Salons specialized in nails and eyelashes for narco wives like her. The way she looked and everything she wore reflected on her husband’s status within the cartel. After eyelash implants, her long false nails were detailed in crystals, tiny jewels, and small oval portraits of saints. She was never allowed to leave her husband’s clan. Although he had many lovers before her and after her, she was not allowed to speak to other men. Men could be shot just for looking at her. Even though she adored her children, she wanted a lover – a real lover, a man her own age who would whisper to her and caress her. She wanted a man to touch her in a loving way, but she became untouchable. Flowers, especially roses, terrified her. Hector began to send expensive bouquets to schoolgirls. The roses arrived in classrooms. There was

F fiction


76

Lessons from a Sinaloan Beauty Queen

so little time left. After Hector’s second wife was slain, there were 5300 reported murders, 1600 in Juarez alone, but there were many more unreported as Hector ordered policeman’s corpses and the corpses of his former friends dissolved in acid. Meanwhile, his women closed their eyes to murder and torture, even though Elena heard men crying like children in far rooms of the mansion. The women she met desired wealth more than they valued their own lives. Death as a rich woman was preferable to life as a poor one. In the hidden mansion, nestled in the mountains, her sapphire earrings were heavy. Her long hair was pulled back with diamond clasps. After several nights with Hector, she resigned herself to long salon sessions, manicures, pedicures, hair treatments. The old man gave her a closet full of designer clothes and satchels full of jewels. He sent money to her family. He bought her parents a house that she would never see, never be allowed to enter. Lesson Six: People Become Messages To those who had known Elena in Georgia, she was not Miss Sinaloa. She was only a lovely immigrant. Most people in the United States blamed Elena’s status on her culture and thought it had nothing to do with their homeland. However, the Lyon family felt that Elena was connected to them. Unlike decades of church sermons on the saving grace of the Christian god, she opened the eyes of the Lyon family. For the first time, the men, women, and children finally saw each other as they really were. Elena gave the Lyons the gift of perspective. Through fear and wisdom, all of the Lyons sensed that gift was bought with blood. *** At night when the Lyon children were sleeping, Elena retraced her footsteps, wondering how often she had profited from violence. She felt guilty about the life she had once led, the luxury bought by blood. In Mexico, as a young girl, long-stem roses terrified her. She never understood why more young women weren’t afraid of what their mothers and sisters said they should have wanted. Growing up, she


F 7

Aimee Parkison

7

was shaped by competition. Pageants were everything. Crowns were the key and the door, the only way out. Bouquets were more distressing than machine guns. She was only a teenager when the roses began to arrive for her at school, and she began to pray to Santa Muerte. Soon, she was a narco wife in exclusive salons. She wore designer clothing while poor women glued tiny oval photos of dead men and Swaroski crystals to her long fingernails. Her nails were painted with bright green leaves. Even though it seemed like a fairy tale, the old codes that once protected women and children were falling away. Santa Muerte could not protect wives, girlfriends, and children, but she could bring painful death to torturers and hitmen. The corpses of beloved women were messages to and from powerful men, signals in bone and blood. The men’s death would also be a message, but it was a message that was hidden from the living. She knew that suffering could go on beyond death. Many men wanted to send messages. Santa Muerte would come, a last companion – the only one who dared to touch the untouchable women and to comfort them at the time of their dying. Sometimes Elena wondered if the women had made the right choice. Then, she realized there was no other choice. There were no career options. There was only marriage or hunger, the pageant or poverty, the cardboard house on the plains or the mansion on the mountain – nothing in between. Miss Sinaloa’s crown was the key to the mansion on the mountain, and the mansion was a prison. Slowly, she discovered the link between the promise of seduction and the threat of decapitation. Once she accepted the roses, there was no escape. Santa Muerte took over and revealed the last image. It was always the same. Elena didn’t know what to think when the national news confirmed the image’s validity. As drug wars raged out of control on the Mexico border, just outside of Juarez was a desert of open graves. The mass graves were empty and dark with shadow – rectangular holes dug for the bodies of people who were still alive. Lesson Seven: The Virgin Has a Twisted Sister “Help us, help us!” The Lyon children woke, crying for Elena. They assumed the fantastical stories Elena told them about the shad-

F fiction


78

Lessons from a Sinaloan Beauty Queen

ow family and Santa Muerte were real. Before bedtime, Elena spoke of police stations covered with bullets, thousands of pits and holes haloing the doorways and windows. She had seen women die with severed noses hidden in bloody hair. Always it was the same: in dreams after violence, the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared, but she could never get rid of the dusty scent of cash packets that had touched her clothing and hair. Only Santa Muerte could avenge the shadow family. Elena told the children tales of a queen living in luxury and fear. The king was a monster named Hector. His only enemy was Santa Muerte, who disguised herself as a dead woman. Every Tuesday, palace servants decorated the queen’s long fake fingernails with painted marijuana leaves. But no, Elena never said that word. She never said marijuana. She only said bright green leaves, everywhere painted on her fingernails and toenails, golden jewelry in the shape of leaves. The leaves were like flames behind the tiny black-and-white portraits of Jesus Malverde. Elena was the queen from the stories where the Holy Death took on the form of a saintly and heroic woman, Virgin Mary’s twisted sister. The Lyon children had no idea how she came to them, but they loved her as they loved Santa Muerte. Elena would never let the children kiss or hug her. She would always be untouchable because of Hector’s bloodstained hands. Lesson Eight: Separate Interview Rooms Are Necessary Detectives escorted the Lyons to the police station just four blocks away from the enormous redbrick Baptist church. The adults and children were held in separate interview rooms. However, Barbara Lyon refused to go to the police station. Even though the station was just a short walk from her managerial offices in the Furniture Emporium, Barbara insisted on meeting with detectives in what she considered “convenient, neutral territory” – the conference room of her own third-story office suite. The windowed rooms provided a startling view of the murder site – the tree-lined sidewalk bisected by the alley beside the playground near The Pastry Shop. According to habit, Barbara visited The Pastry Shop nearly every morning for coffee and croissants before work and every afternoon to pick up chicken-salad sandwiches for her late lunches. Always, she took


F 7

Aimee Parkison

9

her food to go, bringing the red-and-white checkered bags of carryout containers into her offices by way of the back entrance and the private elevator. She usually had three lunches, or six sandwiches, per day and a midnight dinner of lime-misted, batter-fried shrimp followed by frozen chocolate-chip cheesecake. Her eating habits, which had given her an energetic edge in the business world, had also caused her to double in size since divorcing Kenneth. On the day of the murder, Barbara was unable to enjoy her first lunch due to a crisis in Customer Service. She was sitting in front of the windows, conferencing by phone, waiting for the sales rep to confirm the availability of a replacement custom bridal suite package, the original having somehow gone missing in transit to Atlanta. She suspected that the bridal suite, which Kenneth had judiciously purchased with cash, was a gift for Elena. Later, politely bickering with an insurance agent while explaining the procedure for tracking missing items of an estimated value over ten-thousand dollars, Barbara sniffed the fresh rye bread of her favorite sandwich, gazed out the window, and saw the knife glinting brightly in the August sun. Before the screams, the knife seemed unreal. Having taken one bite of chicken sandwich, Barbara savored the basil in the mayonnaise, thinking she was perhaps witnessing two actors rehearsing a summer play or street festival event. Then, she realized what she was seeing. *** Elena’s screams set Barbara’s nightmares into motion, fracturing Barbara’s hopes with the same violence that had caused her to break all the mirrors in her secluded country home. Barbara never again hated another woman for as long as she lived. She never again saw another woman as her enemy. She imagined herself as Elena, who could no longer threaten to take Barbara’s place as Kenneth’s new wife. Barbara dreamed of taking Elena’s place, of going back in time and becoming a victim. She prayed to Santa Muerte for forgiveness, and Santa Muerte began to invade her dreams. Elena, Barbara said, Elena. I’m just like you. She kept repeating. Elena. Why? A sudden and horrible silence descended like rain upon the downtown streets. That silence was eventually broken by another scream,

F fiction


80

Lessons from a Sinaloan Beauty Queen

Barbara’s internal scream, a howl inside her that seemed to continue long after the sirens blared. Opening the bottom drawer of her mahogany desk, Barbara closed her eyes and imagined she was Miss Sinaloa, the new Santa Muerte. *** In the interview room, Barbara held photographs of Kenneth’s family and gently caressed the children’s faces with her fingertips – or rather, she caressed the cold glass over the framed faces. Beneath all the photographs, beneath the years of images, were unframed photographs of her former self with a younger Kenneth. It had been years since Barbara had allowed a picture of herself to be taken. In the photographs, she saw herself as a beautiful dead woman, not the aging imperfect woman she had become. Lesson Nine: Children Remember Secrets In a process that would take almost a week, the interviews began with the Lyon children at the Child Advocacy Center. In these delicate matters, the police tried to extract all necessary information from the children while protecting the children from the implications that the information might provide. Standing behind a one-way glass window, the detectives observed the child psychiatrist speaking to the children, one by one. The psychiatrist, Dr. Julia Weiner, started with the youngest first, apparently believing that the four-year-old Moses would have the least patience for the process, which was more like a play date than an official interview. Traumatized by the recent events, each child reacted quite differently to the questions posed. While playing games, Dr. Julia delicately talked about secrets, what secrets meant, and whether the Lyon children knew any secrets about their parents or Elena. “Yes, she has a secret,” Moses whispered. The detectives sat up in their chairs. “Can you tell me her secret?” Julia asked. “She’s with Santa Muerte.”


F 8

Aimee Parkison

1

*** The final interview session with the Lyon children involved a new doll of Detective Adam’s design. In fact, the detective had stayed up late the night before the interview, confounding his wife by sewing in his study, scraps of socks and old shirts strewn across the hardwood floor. The doll he stitched was neither male nor female and had no face or distinguishing features. It didn’t have to, according to Barbara’s description of the murderer. The detective sewed the doll into a black dress and black mask and cut a miniature machete shape out of cardboard from a cereal box, then wrapped the cardboard in shiny foil. Working from the sketches that matched the descriptions Barbara had provided, Adams was satisfied that he had created a close replica of the murderer. Now, all that was left to do was to put the new doll into the children’s hands and to see what games they might play. Dr. Julia went along with the idea, after formally stating her objections to the detectives. Saying that she would not be held responsible if the Lyon children began to have nightmares, Julia slowly reached for the doll and stroked the foil of the paper knife. “Why are you doing this to them?” she asked Detective Adams. He clutched at the doll he had spent hours creating and panicked, thinking of all the time he had lost if the doll were never used. “You know why, Julia,” he said. Julia cradled the masked doll like an infant as she walked into the interview room where all four of the Lyon children waited in silence. Moses reached for the masked doll and began playing, recreating the crime scene with blocks and Barbies. The other children helped. While watching the children play, Dr. Julia read into the makeshift scene while referring to Detective Adams’ notes on Barbara Lyon’s eyewitness account. Lesson Ten: Memory is Eternity Near the church in daylight, mature oak trees sheltered the swept alley beside the renovated playground. The Lyon children played on the large red slide that dwarfed the bucket swings. Elena, having just left the children to grab a cup of coffee and four ice waters in paper cups, exited the coffee shop around 12:35 PM. Her screams were heard shortly after. In all, the police located five witnesses who had first-hand knowledge of the bizarre yet grisly scene. Kenneth Lyon’s children each

F fiction


82 saw fragments of the attack through the oak trees and the cyclone fence. Barbara, Kenneth’s ex-wife, absorbed a chilling view of Elena’s final moments through the high windows of her office overlooking the playground and the alley. Later, detectives would realize that Barbara practically had a private theater of exclusive picture windows – the way the huge panes of glass overlooked the murder site and the streets of downtown. *** Barbara saw what she thought was a hallucination born of trauma. She watched as the shadow family led Elena. Barbara assumed that Elena had already forgotten what it was like to be alive. Elena and the shadow family walked nearer to Santa Muerte, as if walking down a stage in a beauty pageant where the skeletal Santa Muerte was the contest judge. The Lyon children kept asking Barbara to tell them what she had seen, but she didn’t know how to explain why Elena was a beauty queen in a deathly pageant. Barbara was afraid to tell the children, who wove the stories Elena had told them into the fabric of eternity. The children remembered the stories for the rest of their lives and told their children’s children.

opposite: He Surprised Me With a Gift of the Cork-Panic Lauren Consuelo Tussing


84

A Penny in a Pill Bottle Don Peteroy

Don Peteroy is in the Creative Writing program at the University of Cincinnati. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Cream City Review, Permafrost, Ellipsis, Eleven Eleven, The Licking River Review and others. He is a current Pushcart nominee, and a member of the editorial staff at the Cincinnati Review.


F 8

5

The next time your tea bag bursts, make a wish: it’ll bring good luck. If you find an abandoned metal detector in a library’s dumpster, be sure to coat it in toothpaste: your fortunes will increase. Likewise, spoiled cabbage placed under a doormat will keep away ants and salesmen. If your lawnmower won’t start by the seventh pull, a retired doctor is banging forceps together, thinking about the tragedy of your birth. I know that you’re often scared. Every time you’ve looked over your shoulder to see if the man with the green umbrella is following you, to see if the owl in the poplar tree has swiveled his head, to see if the priests in the graveyard were laughing at the latest dead man’s idiocy—so similar to yours, in fact—you’ve thought, “Two shoulders aren’t enough.” You wish that evolution had bestowed the human race with omnidirectional necks and a collar of shoulders: north, south, east, west, and all the micro directions in between. You cringe when someone says, “periphery vision.” When neighbors and guests utter, “Out of the corner of my eye I saw so and so,” you think of our maladapted bodies, our inescapable vulnerability. Keep this in mind, friend, as you go about your day at the office: If your binder rings get stuck in the open position, do not make love for a month. Gonorrhea is not something that you can see over your shoulder. If you find a briefcase in a movie theater, don’t open it, or else someone’s throat will close forever. Maybe your mother, your daughter, or your favorite bank teller. On the chance that you see several teens beating an Episcopalian pastor with their pogo sticks, it would be in your best interest to avoid interceding, otherwise, you’ll have ten years of halitosis. That’s why I always say, “If you hear a baby scream while you’re putting on a scarf, check your gallbladder for infections.” That’s why I say, and believe, that if your collection of Buddhist meditation CDs topples over because of your neighbor’s rowdy child—that uncontrollable brat who keeps coming over to play with the lizard—make a wish, quickly, but be sure to omit any useless words because, as you know, one cannot rub fate’s shoulders with modifiers. A cereal box left out in the rain, say, on the hood of your car, while the other groceries are stored in a dry area, could only mean one thing: ringworm for everyone. It happens time and time again. Likewise, find-

F fiction


86

A Penny in a Pill Bottle

ing a dead owl on your windshield means that someone you love—a friend, a family member, a bank teller—has misplaced a roll of quarters. This trivial incident, on top of a leaking tire and a missing dental insurance card, has brought to his or her mind the Suicide Hotline’s number. He hates himself for dialing it. She hates herself for dialing it. If you don’t believe me, well, I sure hope you don’t find a dead owl in your mailbox. It does happen time to time. Don’t think of calling the police. Their presence attracts misfortune, the kind that you’d never see over your shoulder or theirs. Listen, friend, if you smell cherries while walking past a library, you’ll suddenly know everything about thermodynamics. You’ve always known it, to some extent. It has been embedded in your soul, inscribed and encoded in the vague modifiers for which you have used to assess every accident and stroke of luck, from the moment the forceps gripped your toes, to the startling discovery of a maggot-covered owl in your mailbox. Naturally, since you’ll become acquainted with entropy, and you could, in theory, one-up it every time (is that not like having more shoulders?), you’ll want to retain your knowledge. Therefore, you must take the wedding ring off of a gonorrhea victim’s finger and hang it over the nearest bank’s door. When you step over a discarded popcorn container and don’t immediately wash your knees, you’ll experience bad luck with lawn mowers, but I can’t be certain. One thing: it is better to find an eggshell in a napkin than a full dollar on a sidewalk. Keeping the eggshell will ward off hookers. A dollar will inspire them; make them want to rub your shoulders. If you accidentally drop change on a hooker’s mattress, a construction worker will fall off a scaffold. Here’s something for you: You open your front door notice a dead owl on your lawn. What do you do? Do you look over your shoulders? Do you kick it aside? Do you call the Audubon Society, and hold the phone between your shoulder and ear while your hands search under the sink for rubber gloves? Do you spray it with something? Do you lift the owl with a shovel and put it in the trunk, then say to yourself, “I’ll worry about that later”? Do you notice that the man with the green umbrella is standing across the street watching you? If you look him


F 8

Don Peteroy

7

in the eyes, will one of you get gonorrhea? Is he covering his ring and running away? You want to know if there’s a day when owls are more likely to descend, if it’s a second Tuesday or every odd numbered last Sunday of the month. I know this: there’s not a single rare plant or found oddity or freak accident that could ever provide such knowledge, but, from time to time, perhaps at measurable intervals, luck or misfortune pending, a scaffold breaks, and ten construction workers plummet. They hear their shoelaces flapping. They taste things in the air that they’ve never tasted before, like the flavor of falling. They look up and over their shoulders and see the sky for their last time, and maybe one of them, confusing an airplane for an owl, or an owl for an airplane, will have a vague sense that someone forgotten his own rules.

F fiction


88

West Coast Summer Fling Alison Barker

Alison Barker’s work has appeared in Front Porch, Switchback, Anemone Sidecar, Monkeybicycle, Rain Taxi, Fwriction: Review, and the Chicago Reader. She lives in Louisiana.


N 8

9

­­­Hydrate with personal memories, as needed, to form a moist paste. Act I When we meet, I am an oversized metal box on stilts, accustomed to bipolar extremes of swamp idylls and refrigerated air. Though my normal world will delight you, my accidental lover, the exposition isn’t important. A friend’s invite or a house-sitting gig or the benzene oil dispersants have begun to trouble my sinuses, so I trundle my calfskins to the left coast. Start: Northernmost Santa Clara Valley, because it is less of a statement than the Oakland Coliseum or Jack London Square. Outside of the frame, to the north, lies Sacramento and, God knows, Mt. Shasta. Oaks and rust-colored patterns of historical importance welter under hillsides. Inciting Incident: Garlic odor alerts me to your heavy loins. I pinch myself. My girth is debatable. Down to Gilroy. We meet. How do I know? Cinnamon, algae, and butter-mint. Rust tinges hay colored stalks, and, many horses aren’t ridden for money. Salinas. A salad bowl of grimy worker hands. I put them on my thighs to knead the aches out. Crop dusters, King City, Paso Robles—pick any of them to be a harbinger. Plot Point I: Sea lions fart loudly in groups and their skins smack against each other. Act II

N nonfiction


90

West Coast Summer Fling

Point Concepcion, and we consummate. Meringues in the sand dunes soften the coast and I feel important to the point of liquefaction. An old train track curves around a lagoon with the sign “OCEAN PARK.” Cinnamon, algae, and butter-mint. Santa Ynez Mountains, and our terrains organically conform upon embrace. Roots, shoots, trunks, and soil: I want all of you forever, you make me feel so wriggly. Anonymous partial wooden gates mark the entrance or exit to a road. I’m questioning former divisions—so they all look like continuations to me. The ocean side can make you pretty warm on the face. My tongue leaps out of my mouth at every new thing you show me. Succulents—silver algae—carpet the ground. I tingle in-between and fuzzy splotches make me feel at home. We merge—the fence has all but broken apart on my side. Cinnamon, algae, butter-mint. Gaviota, I understand your witchy blue white-gray twigs. Like arms flailing in a burning-down house or mid-sized apartment building. They hurt when I roll over, but I still try to rub your succulents on my face again. Their limbs jab my soft places. I have soft places! Ellwood Oil Field, I admire your irony. My garbled, dreamy shore: we don’t own this. The producers will pick through various scenes for the previews, and our love will be taken to market. Channel Islands: Maybe I should go to the lounge car and order a Bloody Mary and a bag of Skittles. Santa Barbara: You are near the river and vodka is clear and mighty in its little glass capsule. Night is falling, and a couple kisses with their


N 9

Alison Barker

1

foreheads too close. How do you separate the smog from the fog? Where do you draw the line? You are okay with contradictions; I should have known from the start. This makes our time together interesting! Paula Abdul’s “Opposites Attract” plays behind our montage. Ventura River. Skittles were a mistake. So were the Cheetos. The lounge car attendant used his own small tote of spices to make my drink. Ventura. Sharp rocks jib and jab, and the rakish blotches in the water aren’t sea kelp forests anymore. They’re olives, Tabasco, lime, and cocktail onions. Cement is shaped into something that looks organic by the freeway, but cypress decks prick the ocean. Wobbly! Jinglejangly, like a pregnant lady. I could still have a baby. Once I prenatal myself with folic acid, fetal alcohol syndrome will be more distant, and it’s best we find boxes to colonize our discomfort and establish our fantastic union: Oxnard. Deep dark soil with rows of raised sprouts. Settle. Control the land. Propagate. Acclimate. Irrigation. Determine invasive species. Primogeniture. Trucks. Luxury RV’s. I never thought I’d say it, but your beauty is becoming predictable. Plot Point II: I feel sick. Baby baby baby baby. Act III Simi Valley. Don’t look away from me. It was a false alarm. We both bought tickets to this ride. Van Nuys. Everyone near the train tracks has a pool and they use vacuum cleaners to clean it.

N nonfiction


92

West Coast Summer Fling

Burbank. We will attend the rodeo instead of digging in the backyard because it’s the closest piece of country to the city. Glendale. It’s hot. We bicker about lifestyle. Los Angeles. Ultimately, to keep things fresh, we must make new friends. I scrapbook the pieces of our adventures in order to make conversation, but no one wants to listen to me sift through trash here. The rustling sound of dried paper clippings and the odor of hot beach tar overtake my sense of sight. It takes two days for me to realize I left you behind the hills. I sense your shrubby moss calling to me in flashes of slithering cinnamon and thick, juicy algae blooms. Here in the city, your remnants fall like dinosaur footsteps in my head, mythical things asking me to return on a northward momentum. I marvel at my limbs, which pulse now even without your fertile encasement. Our movie ends here—before longing, which God knows lies south, and out of frame.

opposite: He Began Sneaking Me Into Lauren Consuelo Tussing


94

An Interview with Eula Biss

Photo & Bio: www.eulabliss.net/about.html

Kate Johnston

Eula Biss is the author of The Balloonists and Notes from No Man’s Land. Her work has recently been recognized by a National Book Critics Circle Award, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa and teaches nonfiction writing at Northwestern University. Her essays have recently appeared in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Best Creative Nonfiction, The Believer, Gulf Coast, and Harper’s.


N 9

5

A harsh drizzle fell the November afternoon when I sat down with Eula Biss in UMN’s Creative Writing Program office. Despite the cold weather and formal environment, Eula’s thorough, forthright responses and her sense of humor allowed for a warm exchange about any number of things-- her most recent collection Notes from No Man’s Land, gentrification, journalism’s limitations, how an essay comes together, and then some. Kate Johnston: I’m interested in finding out how lyric essayists begin essays. There are so many components, between personal experiences and more journalistic aspects—quotes from various sources, etc. What is your process like when you bring these components together? Eula Biss: It’s slightly different from essay to essay, but most of my essays begin with some seed that is pretty shapeless, formless—it’s usually just got some emotional charge to it. Sometimes I have a little bit more than that, but I’m thinking of the essay “All Apologies.” It’s the last essay in this book. It began with a phrase from childhood: “sorry doesn’t cut it,” which is a silly little phrase, but for some reason it kept reappearing in my consciousness. I realized that I wanted to do something around that idea, that “sorry” doesn’t cut it, or maybe that sometimes “sorry” does cut it—that’s the question that started to emerge out of that phrase: is that a truth that was spoken, or not? So, that little memory led me to a question, and that’s often what happens. Something, an image, or memory, or phrase, or sometimes just a single word will lead me to a question, and the question starts to open up the research. I knew that I wanted to look into the power of apologies, and I think I actually started with some reading. I read the linguist Janet Holmes— she wrote a book called Men, Women, and Politeness, and I looked at that first. I was looking at some gender patterns around apologies, but then what became the real body of research for that piece was a search that I did. Because this essay started with a memory from childhood, I limited my search to a period of years in my childhood, which were probably limited to the Reagan, Bush and Clinton years, because I thought, ok, I’ll search within this period of my lifetime. I searched for

N nonfiction


96

An Interview with Eula Biss

the word “apology” in Lexus Nexus, which I often do in my research—I often start with a single word, and see what comes up. And of course I got 3000 hits or more, but I started reading through them, and then I limited my search in different ways once I started getting really interested in political apologies, and particularly in grandiose political apologies, like apologizing for slavery, apologizing for the atomic bomb, apologizing for Japanese internment camps, or apologizing to Native Americans. Those apologies were what started being fascinating to me. So, my research got further and further limited but it started out being really far-flung and very undirected, and that’s usually how my research begins. Usually, I don’t know where I’m going; I’m pursuing a pretty loose question, and then the essay gradually limits itself until it gets something of a focus. That’s what I intuited while reading—that you might have started with a personal memory, generally, and then enlarged that to consider social issues. Yeah, and my essay “No Man’s Land,” started in a very similar way. I was living in Rogers Park and I kept noticing instances of this term “pioneer” turning up. Every time it came up, it nettled my brain a little bit and I realized ok, this is something I want to write around. That led me to start thinking about American pioneers and then I went and reread all of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books and did a lot of research around her as an author, and that was another case where one thing led to another. I did a ton of research into crime statistics for that essay, because one of the questions I had to answer before I could go on with the essay was, are these fears that I see people having in this neighborhood founded fears or unfounded fears? So, the first thing I had to figure out was—do I live in a dangerous place? This was a question I needed to answer, and it led to some of the most interesting research I did. It doesn’t make it into the essay, because I just needed to answer that for myself before I moved forward. What I discovered was that yes, there was high crime in my neighborhood. The Chicago police department codes all of the crimes that happen in a neighborhood, and you can actually go onto a map on their website and see everything that’s happened in


N 9

dislocate

7

your neighborhood within a certain timeframe. It’s color-coded so that you can then look at what kind of crime it was. I can’t remember the percentage now, but around 80% or 90% of the crimes committed in my neighborhood were domestic violence, which is terrible, but it’s not the kind of crime that threatens a person who’s not in a situation of domestic violence. It threatens the health of a neighborhood if everyone’s living in unstable circumstances, but it’s not the kind of crime that threatens me walking down the street, and that’s the question I needed to know— is my sense of safety unfounded? When I first read that essay, “No Man’s Land,” I was living in Harlem, in New York—I know that you spent a lot of time there, too—and I was working for a group that was trying to combat gentrification, so reading your essay was sort of like an epiphany—someone was articulating the odd sense of feeling safe in an area that really isn’t always safe for everyone— Yeah. And, I think that’s a reality—if you have all of the things that aren’t afforded to people who are disenfranchised in whatever way, if you come into a neighborhood and you have an education and a job and social capital, and a stable family life, and a stable income, you’re probably not going to face the same kinds of crime and violence and hardship that everyone else is. “No Man’s Land” highlights one of the most exciting possibilities of a braided essay, where you have two or three topics that you’re weaving (for example, gentrification, literature, and Manifest Destiny). It creates space for a collision, or an association in your mind—when you can pick an association apart in an essay, it’s so exciting. Yes, and that’s what it almost always is for me, an association where my mind sees a relationship, but I don’t yet understand the relationship. That’s where the structure of the essay comes from. I knew that Laura Ingalls Wilder needed to be talked about in relationship to my neighborhood, Rogers Park, but I didn’t know how or with what relevance until I got into the essay.

N nonfiction


98

An Interview with Eula Biss

Could I ask you about the beginning of one other essay, just because I’m curious—In “It Is What It Is,” you compare crafting a quality lyrical essay, or any piece of writing, to the questionable labeling of organic food. How did you get started on that essay? That one was a little bit different, because in that case I knew more or less my argument when I started out, and I rarely do. That’s a different sort of essay in that “It Is What It Is” is an essay on writing and it’s more—I think of it as more didactic than a lot of my essays. I knew that this essay was going towards this issue of Seneca Review, where lots of people were writing lyric essays about lyric essays, so it’s a slightly different context than I usually write in, and as a result my process was slightly different. I knew that what I wanted to address was my own discomfort around that terminology: “lyric essay.” When I started writing essays that would now be called “lyric essays,” that term wasn’t part of my world. I think the term had already started to emerge—I can’t remember the date that Seneca Review started using that—it was maybe ’99? I think in the essay you say maybe ’97? Yeah, yeah. Pretty much at that same time, I was writing what I was still calling prose poems, which is an imperfect term for that kind of writing too, because I do think prose poetry has its own distinct literary lineage, and the kind of writing that I’m doing doesn’t really fit in that lineage, or it’s not an outgrowth of that lineage, but that term was as close as I could come. My prose poems were getting longer and longer, to the extent where you know, if you have a poem that’s 4000 words, at that point people start calling it something else—an essay. So, I was actually really thrilled when I stumbled across John D’Agata’s work, and Seneca Review, and found a term that I could use for my own writing, and a lineage that I felt like was a more appropriate lineage. It was exciting and I wanted to honor that in the essay, but in the same way I felt that there was some …commoditization [laughs] happening around “lyric” writing, and that’s when I got the idea to try to think about the term “organic,” because I thought there’s a similar


N 9

dislocate

9

process there, and in my heart I believe in the principles of organic methodology, right? But I also know that what’s happened around the word “organic” has rendered the word more or less meaningless, so that now at this point, if you buy “organic” something or other at Whole Foods, you don’t know as a consumer how it was grown—you don’t know whether it was a mass-produced organic product, or grown organically more in keeping with that original philosophy of organic gardening. Now I’m spinning off, but that idea, that juxtaposition of “organic” and “lyric” came from the argument that I knew I wanted to make. What was interesting in that essay was that I wrote myself into a corner, which often happens with an extended metaphor -- every metaphor breaks eventually, and in the end the term “organic” is not a perfect metaphor for the term “lyric essay,” and that’s where I think the essay got interesting for me as a writer, and where I learned things about what I thought was—having to deal with the point where my metaphor broke and wasn’t useful and where it didn’t function as a metaphor at all. But it did guide me into thinking a lot more about process than I thought I was going to in that essay, because process is so important in determining what’s organic and what isn’t— … and as applied to writing, what comes across is that it’s about writing something that is good; it’s not about whatever catchphrase you can attach to what you’re doing. Right, yes, and I’m glad that comes across, because that’s where I eventually wanted to get—the problem with the term “organic,” just as the term “lyric essay,” is that a genre, or category, or term doesn’t determine what’s good and what’s not good, and neither does the label “organic”—we don’t know that we’re getting good food because it’s organic—that it’s grown in good ways—we know only in certain circumstances that it’s been certified by a board that has certain things that are important to them. And so, if we read a collection of lyric essays we know that they’re not all going to be good, right? Right.

N nonfiction


100

An Interview with Eula Biss

They might not even all be lyric essays. [Laughs] I think I want to transition, well, maybe it’s not such a transition—in “Notes from No Man’s Land,” and this sort of relates to what you’re saying about “It Is What It Is”—most of the time it’s an exploration and you’re starting with something that’s very personal to you and sort of working outwards, but I feel like—and it may be that you’re talking about a social issue—race in America—but there are moments where you do seem to have an argument, and that’s sort of rare in a lyric essay (or maybe I’m wrong) but, how did you feel in those moments when you were writing, and what were the tensions that that brought up? Well, there were a lot of tensions there, and I found that these essays demanded that I learn a lot as a writer and develop muscles that I didn’t really have earlier as a writer, in part because there was so much at stake for me as a thinker. Because these issues did feel to me personally relevant—socially relevant—there were places where in another essay I might have avoided an argument, or seen the argument and written around it. Most of the places where there’s argument in these essays, the arguments emerged organically. I kind of came into them as a writer, but I then made the conscious decision to support and bolster and nurture and go forward with that argument. Even in places where I know the argument is flawed, I did that sometimes, which was a new sort of experiment for me. Take the essay, “Is This Kansas.” I know that my approach in that essay has a major problem with it, and I knew that when I was writing it too, but I was thinking of it like a thought experiment. I really was curious to see what would happen if I took that argument to its natural conclusion—so the argument is something around—what if we think about college students the way we think about other minority groups, and what if I approach this group with the same bias and the same attitude that minority groups are usually subjected to? A close friend of mine and really a great reader pointed out that it doesn’t correct an injustice, right, to reverse the injustice. [Laughs] Or to, you know, redirect the injustice in a different direction, right? But, I think it does help illuminate certain elements of the injustice.


N 1

dislocate

01

That essay is interesting to me in the kind of reaction that it has provoked in people—it was the hardest essay for me to get published out of all of these initially, before it was collected in the book. It might have been the last one that I published, and when the editors of journals turned it down, they didn’t just say, “no thanks it’s not for us;” they turned it down with really strong feelings about why it was not a good essay and why what I was doing was wrong. It actually ended up surprising me. I expected push-back from a lot of the essays in this book, and for the most part that essay got almost all of the pushback. It’s the one essay where I verge on being unfair to a group of people who are primarily white, and that’s the essay that upset people, not the essay where I write about a legacy of lynching, or something like that. So that’s interesting to me in itself. And I wonder if you would have had a different reaction if you had started more conventionally, and presented it—saying “this is what I’m going to do—I am now going to conduct a thought experiment in which I will depict white Midwestern college students in a negative light”—I wonder how that might have affected the reaction. I think that would have made it safer for people—that’s just my guess, and I think it probably wouldn’t have gotten the kind of pushback that it got, if I had packaged it a little bit differently. Right, and the effect might have been less; that would be the cost. Right, right, in both ways—it probably would have been less provocative to people, and they probably would have liked it more. [Laughs] Speaking of “Is This Kansas,” I noticed that your frustration with mainstream journalism—its depiction of race, but also just in general—is a theme, at least in this collection. Do you see your essays often in conflict with contemporary journalism? That’s a really interesting question. Joan Didion is a really important model for me as a writer, and I think of my writing at its best as being in

N nonfiction


102

An Interview with Eula Biss

that tradition. Didion was often engaging in a critique of contemporary journalism, or she was engaged in some sort of meta-journalism where she was as a journalist talking about journalism. I think that, because of how journalism happens, and especially now, the amount of time that journalists have to write their stories is getting ever more constricted. And so it happens very quickly—there’s not a lot of room for reflection there; there’s not a lot of room for self-assessment. So, one of the things an essayist can do, and I think should do, is serve as the reflector, as the person who engages in critiques of this writing that happened in the heat of the moment and ask: what does it expose about our thinking? And, what are some of the problems with it? And, how is it not serving us? I’m not convinced that we need a 24-hour news cycle. I’m not convinced that that is serving us as citizens. And, I’m not convinced that the way that news happens and is generated is serving journalists either, as writers. I’m not convinced that journalists are being allowed to express their full capacity as thinkers. So, there are all these problems, that don’t exist because journalism is bad or journalists are bad, but I do think that it’s a system that should be looked at and critiqued, and I do think there is a tradition of that in literary nonfiction, a tradition of engaging with journalism. You worked for a while in San Diego as a journalist— Very briefly—very, very briefly. [Laughs] How did the process—there’s obviously a big difference between the process of doing community journalism and writing an essay—but maybe specifically with research—how did you approach research differently then as opposed to now? Well, because I was working for a small community newspaper, I actually had a lot of room that I don’t think a lot of journalists have, so for the most part I often had quite a bit of time to do my research. For instance, I wrote a whole series of stories about people whose children had been taken away by Child Protection Services. That series was very important to the editor of the newspaper, and he gave me a ton of room, so I got to do a lot of research, I got to spend a lot of time—he gave me


N 1

dislocate

03

no word limit for those articles, so I had a lot of room to work with. But, the bread and butter of my job was covering events—you know—the ground breaking ceremony of a building, or the swearing in of a postmaster general, and stuff like that. What frustrated me with that kind of reporting was that the story seemed already written before I wrote it. A press release would arrive, and it was as if my research had been done for me, and other ways of doing research didn’t seem available. That’s what was disheartening and frustrating for me as a writer and a researcher: that kind of story where the story is written before it’s written, and I’m really just making sentences—making my own sentences out of someone else’s prefabricated sentences—I’m more of a translator than a writer at that point. And that just didn’t feel very interesting or productive to me. Joan Didion writes about that too. She has this essay called “Insider Baseball” where she’s covering—I think it’s an election—she’s covering Dukakis’s campaign—I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. She witnesses something that gets written about the next day in a way that isn’t remotely similar to how it happened. Every single journalist who was there writes about it in the same way, and she realizes that they’re writing from a press release, they’re not writing from their actual eyewitness of the event that happened. I thought of that essay a lot when I was working for The Voice and Viewpoint in San Diego. And that’s not to single out that newspaper, I think that that’s how a lot of newspapers work, and how a lot of reporting happens. Who else influenced your writing, early in your career, and as it progressed? Well, a lot of poets, especially early in my career, and a lot of prose poets, or, writers who weren’t known as prose poets, but wrote prose poetry. I was very influenced by prose poetry written by Margaret Atwood, even though she’s known for other kinds of writing. Anne Carson was huge for me very early on and has continued to be a dominant presence in my reading life and writing life. Then there was prose poetry by people like James Joyce and William Carlos Williams, who again is known for a different kind of poetry, but he wrote some prose poetry too. I was really seeking this out in college, so I found a

N nonfiction


104

An Interview with Eula Biss

lot of obscure works that became really meaningful to me. A book by D.J. Waldie called Holy Land was important to me—it’s written in short blocks of prose. And then later on, after I had been writing essays for a while actually, I started to be more influenced by some of the essayists that I think are important to a lot of contemporary writers, like James Baldwin. I had been reading Didion all along—she’s been there for me for my whole life as a writer—but Baldwin and—well I guess this odd triad of Ann Carson, James Baldwin, and Joan Didion—those are probably the core influences on my writing. But I’m always finding writers who help me out of problems in my own writing, so in any given essay there’s probably someone whose work helped me get out of some tight spot. On the flip side, you co-edit Essay Press, so you’re seeing a lot of new writers. What’s really exciting that you’re seeing in nonfiction writing right now? Oh, well, just its tremendous variety. I think that that’s what’s exciting about being in this field. I was thinking just today, after meeting with some grad students here, about how incredibly various the work is. The first piece I sat down and looked at was a piece of extended meditation. It was a very heady, intellectual piece, where all of the action was in the writer’s mind, so there was no plot, no characters, no characters other than thinking, really. So that’s the first piece that I discussed today, and then I went straight to talking about a piece of really narrative nonfiction that had all of those things—had a plot, had characters, was humorous, had a kind of pacing that’s typical to fiction and stuff like this. There’s such a wide range in what people are doing, and I think we see that a lot in the submissions to Essay Press—they’re all over the place, pretty wildly, and part of our goal as editors is to publish across that spectrum of nonfiction, so even though we define ourselves as a press that publishes innovative nonfiction, what it means to be writing innovative nonfiction has manifested really differently in each one of our works. For instance, we have Kristin Prevallet, who’s writing a kind of fractured text that’s sometimes prose, sometimes verse, and that is a very suggestive, evocative poetic text. Then we drew in a


N 1

dislocate

05

really different manuscript from Joshua Casteel that’s letters—emails sent home from a soldier in Iraq, and his piece is actually much more reflection-based, and it’s much more narrative than Prevallet’s piece. There’s worlds of difference—she’s a more established writer, he’s a newer, younger writer, and he’s more of an outsider, and she’s more of an insider—so, that’s what’s interesting to me is seeing all the different places we can draw from as editors, and the many ways writers are finding to innovate within this really wide genre. Going back to “No Man’s Land,” just briefly, I was curious—you describe at length the beginnings of gentrification in Roger’s Park, your neighborhood. And I was wondering, what kind of reaction have you gotten from neighbors there? Have they read it? What are their thoughts? That was interesting because that was the one essay that I wrote about a place while I was still living in it. I think part of what allowed me to write this book is the fact that I’ve moved so often that I rarely had to write about a place while I was in it. And I wonder if I had only lived in one place for the past fifteen years, if I could have written anything like this. I think probably not. And, I think that now because of what happened with that essay, which is that after it appeared in The Believer, I got a lot of negative feedback from neighbors. I got letters, and The Believer got letters, and I got emails and a lot of them were from people who were really angry and really upset and really—and what I didn’t anticipate was neighbors who felt really hurt—so, white people in my neighborhood who really felt like they were doing their best to do good for their neighborhood. What they saw in my essay was a critique of the ways in which they were doing good, and that was hurtful to them. I think they felt like there was some implication that their efforts to do good were actually resulting in damage of some kind. In some cases, they read a critique that wasn’t there in the essay, in other cases they were right on—I was actually critiquing the kinds of things they were doing. There’s people in my neighborhood that run a kind of neighborhood watch group that I think is fairly paranoid and engages in unproductive activities, and there were members of that group that were angry with me, and that wrote some really vicious letters.

N nonfiction


106

An Interview with Eula Biss

It had real ramifications in my life. Actually, the owner of the café that’s in our neighborhood was very upset with me. He and I exchanged a lot of emails, and that exchange didn’t end up being very productive. And [laughs] now, when I go to that café—you know when you have to give the barista your name when you order something—I rarely use my real name because [laughs] I’m undercover in my own neighborhood. you know, there’s some mornings when I’ve got my baby, and I just want a bagel, and I don’t want to have to engage in a discussion of gentrification with some really pissed off neighbor, so I don’t use my name in the café. Some slightly more menacing stuff happened too, but only slightly, most of it was angry letters. But the angry letters were enough—that was pretty upsetting. On balance, when that piece ran in The Believer, I also got, from all over the country, a lot of positive letters—people saying, “thanks for writing this—this is how I feel about my neighborhood,” but those came from other places in the country, and the letters that were angry came from my neighborhood, from people who live right next to me. I actually am really invested in community, and invested in being a part of my neighborhood, so that was really upsetting, and caught me a little bit off guard. Looking back, it shouldn’t have; it was the natural outgrowth of what I wrote, and how I said what I said. I have a reading every once in a while in Rogers Park, and I did a reading not too long ago. I think the first question from the audience was something along the lines of, “why do you hate us?” and that is extremely difficult for me, in part because I hate that my neighbors think that I hate them, but it’s also a misreading of the essay, so it’s upsetting in that way, too. “No Man’s Land” was first published in 2008—have you noticed that your neighborhood has continued to change in terms of demographics? That’s interesting—I think that when I wrote that essay the neighborhood was pretty aggressively gentrifying and with the recession that has stopped. There are a lot of condos standing empty, and there are people trying to sell condos who can’t, and, you know, the same kind of things that are happening everywhere. I think that


N 1

07

gentrification has stalled in this neighborhood, so it makes it a slightly different place. That hasn’t changed the kind of charged dynamic that I found there when I moved though, that’s still there. Where I witness it the most is actually around the park that’s right in front of my apartment building. There are really hot feelings about how the park should be used, and who it should be used by, and the opinions that I’m exposed to the most are the people in my apartment building. For example, the Fourth of July is a huge thing in this park, and people of all different backgrounds, but mostly Spanish-speaking people gather in this park and set off their own fireworks. It’s really, really fun. And, it’s probably really dangerous too—you know, there’s a lot of handmade stuff going off, and there’s candles in balloons floating into the air—firebombs waiting to happen—but it’s beautiful, and to my eyes so undeniably beautiful that it’s surprising to me that my neighbors feel the kind of ownership over the park that they feel in that moment. They feel invaded. They feel like “oh, all these people came into our park and left garbage.” These are the same people who walk in the park and their dogs poop and they don’t pick it up. Lots of different kinds of people are leaving various types of garbage in the park, so it’s not a question of people littering in the park; it’s a question of people wanting their garbage to be the garbage in the park. So, there was a big display after the fourth of July where everyone in my building went out and self-righteously picked up garbage in the park, and huffed around a lot, and said things like “It’s just disgusting!” and that to me felt really disingenuous, and like it was about something else. It’s not about garbage in the park—it’s about people wanting to claim this land as theirs and have it used the way they want to use it. If it were their friends and family setting off fireworks in the park, there would be no complaints. That stuff is still there, still going on, and every year around things like the Fourth of July, it’s right up in my face and stewing over.

N nonfiction


Cut Short Tonja Torgerson


Iris Aniela Sobieski


110

An Interview with D.A. Powell

Photo: Trane DeVore

Sarah Fox and Lucas de Lima

D.A. Powell is the author of four books of poetry: Tea (Wesleyan, 1998), Lunch (Wesleyan, 2000), Cocktails (Graywolf, 2004) and Chronic (Graywolf, 2009). In fall 2010, he gave a reading at the University of Minnesota with Josie Rawson and was kind enough to sit down for an interview with MFA candidates Sarah Fox and Lucas de Lima.


N 1

11

Lucas de Lima & Sarah Fox LdL: One thing that strikes me about your work is its relationship to the dead. In Tea, the poem “[dead boys make the sweetest lovers],” suggests that the dead continue to exist for you. I was wondering if you could talk about that line in light of what you said at lunch yesterday about having a speaker who’s a lot like you and then you get to have that speaker do all the heavy lifting. D.A. Powell I think all writers are haunted. And we all have our ghosts that follow us around. They don’t have to be people-who-are-ghosts. They could be ghosts-who-are-people whom we remember from the past, and we don’t even know what happened to them necessarily. It doesn’t have to be death, per se. I find that most of what I’m writing is a kind of conversation that was cut off. So, poems often start out from that moment after you’ve walked away from an argument you’ve had with someone and you think, “Well, I should have said…” The poem is the opportunity to re-enter that conversation and see what happens. The point of the writing is not necessarily to decide the conversation or figure anything out, but just to explore what else might have been said that was left unsaid. SF: A personal conversation that might be applied to a larger topic or conversation. Well, we have conversations which are personal conversations that are happening all the time with people, and we also have cultural conversations. So much of my mental life is spent processing information as it comes and thinking about how I would put that into language. I think it’s really more that I became a poet because I had language constantly running in my head. Rather than the opposite— that I had language constantly running in my head because I’m a poet. Poetry just seemed to me the natural extension of work that was already being done in my mind—lyric work, celebration in particular, words or phrases that, even as a child, I would repeat and fall in love with. Poetry just gives you a place to do that so it’s a little bit more permanent. It’s where you can record the conversation that you’re having and go back

N nonfiction


112

An Interview with D.A. Powell

to it.

SF: That reminds me of something you wrote in your poetics statement for American Poetry in the 21st Century. Gosh, you guys have done your research. I don’t even remember half of these things. SF: Well, it’s quite beautiful. You talked about the body and language: “the poet suckles on the nipple of the world.” Oh. That’s hot. [Laughs] SF: That word—if I say “milk,” I’m going to get fed. The poet comes up with different words for nipple. “Different words for different nipples,” I think I said. SF: I’m curious about that maternal metaphor you apply to language. I’m glad you see it as a maternal metaphor; I see it as sort of an eating metaphor. SF: Well, I think both, but suckling from the nipples—at least for me, since I’ve had someone suckle from my nipple... [Laughs] I do think that language is something that goes into our mouths and fills a void. And once we begin to let that word linger there on the tongue then we get to reinsert it into all sorts of situations and see where is the word appropriate; what’s not appropriate. So much of our lives is spent figuring out what’s appropriate language and what’s inappropriate language. And poetry offers you a proving ground. I always think of the story from Winnie the Pooh when Pooh and Piglet are giving Eeyore birthday presents. You know what happens: Pooh goes to get a jar of honey and halfway back he eats the honey. Piglet


N 1

Sarah Fox & Lucas de Lima

13

goes and gets a balloon and halfway back he pops the balloon. And then they get there with their empty vessels and Pooh says, “I brought you a very useful jar.” And Piglet says, “I brought you something to put in it.” A popped balloon. Eeyore’s very happy; he keeps putting the popped balloon in the jar and getting it back out. And that’s what I do with poetry—I spend a lot of time putting popped balloons in the jar to see if that’s where they belong. I put something in, then I take it back out. It’s a pretty repetitive mode of writing—poetry—but there are endless variations. There are so many different kinds of popped balloons, so many different jars. The metaphor sort of falls apart after a while, doesn’t it? SF: [Laughs] I was going to say, so where is the vessel? I think the poem is all vessel. To come back to the idea of food: the poem is a “Test Kitchen.” Poetry’s very nourishing. SF: It’s sustenance. Sometimes it’s the kind of sustenance that you can have when you can’t have other kinds. Poetry doesn’t disagree with me—too much. [laughs] LdL: That reminds me of a line in Chronic: “the mystery of the lyric hasn’t faded.” Do you think of that mystery having faded, and if so, is there any way to write into that and assume a kind of failure of the lyric? That was specifically in reference to a rather mysterious line in a song by Chic: “Clams on the half-shell/and roller skates.” I think our tendency as teachers, as workshop members, as students, is to explain everything, to try to find the purpose. [Imitates a professorial voice] “How does this line work in the context of the whole?” I think if we are constantly trying to figure out what a line’s function is, what its utilitarian purpose is in relation to art, then the mystery of it, which is what’s so alluring, is what ultimately gets sacrificed. So I think that line was a gesture toward the reader to say, “Some things you won’t understand.” And that’s a good thing. It’s important for us to have moments in lyric poetry where the poem is not paraphrasable. It’s

N nonfiction


114

An Interview with D.A. Powell

not something that can be reduced to other words. “Let be be finale of seem” is not a phrase that you’d want to have the dumbed-down version of. And if we sit there in a literature class and analyze it, we might find some value, but we’ll have stripped away the flavor. SF: It’s funny because that poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” is one that children actually love. And most of them don’t realize it’s actually a poem about death. There’s a dead person right in the middle of it. “If her horny feet protrude, they come / to show how cold she is, and dumb…” SF: The language is just delightful. But it brings me back to what you said yesterday about how, often when you’re reading poetry in a magazine, it’s more like a surface reading. It’s not like every time is a somatic experience with the poem. I’m wondering if these moments of lyric mystery have some somatic resonance or is understood in a somatic consciousness that doesn’t have that kind of language. Perhaps. It is not always the case. I have to sort of work backwards on this question and think about poems that I was first drawn to when I was drawn to poetry. Many of those first poems I did not understand, at least not on an intellectual level. But I did understand on an emotional one. And how is that possible? I think it’s because poetry is akin to music. We can often listen to a piece of music and understand the mood without knowing anything about whether that’s G major or G minor or [Pause] I don’t know anything about music theory, but I can still get an emotion. And I think the same is true with poetry. This tendency that we have culturally to try and find uses for everything—[imitates Dana Gioia]“what is the use of poetry, can poetry matter”—I mean, should it matter? Does it have to? Can’t it just be a bauble? I mean people have things sitting on their coffee table that have no useful purpose whatsoever and nobody ever questions, nobody ever says’ “why do you have that abalone shell there?” It’s understood that it’s there because somebody enjoys the look of it.


N 1

Sarah Fox & Lucas de Lima

15

SF: Like there’s no value in a pleasure. LdL: That makes me think of this book by Elizabeth Grosz called Chaos, Territory Art that suggests art—and music especially—is less about representation and more intensity, vibration, sensation. She discusses the extravagance of those effects. “Purposeful purposelessness” is what John Cage calls it. SF: Can you remember some of those early poems that really delighted you even if you didn’t understand them? There was plenty of poetry I read in grade school that was, “oh, this poem is here so I remember some facts.” You know, that kind of “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” People remember that poem for all the wrong reasons. But the first book of poetry I read was an anthology entitled The Black Poets by Dudley Randall, and there were several poems in there that I didn’t understand at an intellectual level, but I understood at an emotional level. In particular I remember a poem by Margaret Walker called “Three Lives,” and it was a tribute to three civil rights workers who had been killed in Mississippi: Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner. It was a beautiful lyric poem that used images of the mimosa tree and the lark and the mourning dove. I didn’t quite understand how those things fit into thinking about these three peoples’ lives, but I knew I was moved by the imagery. And I was moved by the sound. In fact, I would recite that poem over and over even though I didn’t really understand what it was doing. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was another poem that compelled me first by its lyric intensity long before I could ever figure out what the hell was going on in that poem. LdL: Teenagers love that poem, especially. I don’t know why, because the speaker is an old man who’s worried about his hair growing thin, how people will judge him, whether he’ll be able to get through this awkward social situation, if his question for

N nonfiction


116

An Interview with D.A. Powell

this woman is going to be interpreted correctly or misunderstood. It doesn’t seem to apply too much to anything that was going on in my life at age 15. I think the parts of the poem that I loved the most were the parts that I had the least relationship to. “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes.” I thought that was such a gorgeous passage and I had no idea what it was doing. SF: That brings me back to this sense of mystery, how it’s important to be able to accept mystery. I wonder if mystery is something that inspires children because they can accept it. Maybe part of the poet’s job is to sustain that. I think children understand and accept mystery in poetry better than we do. Because they get nursery rhymes, which often contain references to which they have no access. “Pease porridge hot?” They don’t know what that is. Or “Little Lucy Locket lost her pocket.” They don’t realize that “pocket” means “purse” in that context. It sounds good: little Lucy Locket lost her pocket. You know: “Jack fell down and broke his crown.” Children think, “Oh, this little kid got to wear a crown.” They don’t realize “crown” is another word for “head.” And it doesn’t really matter. The image that it conjures in the childlike imagination is probably just as valid as the image that it conjures for the people who first wrote that rhyme in the 1700’s or 1600’s or whenever it was. We don’t need to know that “ring around the rosy” has anything to do with the Black Death and the practice of burning dead bodies. Maybe it helps, but it’s not why we’re drawn to the flames. LdL: I’m thinking about children and their experience of time and space, along with the temporality in your own poems, especially in Chronic. When you’re writing or revising a poem, does your experience of time open up? Absolutely. It’s funny how, in the drafting process, you’ll have this sense of what time signature is best for the poem, whether it’s short or fast or quick or slow, or whether the poem is speaking about an event that’s in the present or in the future. After I set the poem aside and walk back and look at it with a fresh set of eyes, I realize that working with an imperfect language—English—makes us indicate time in every


N 1

Sarah Fox & Lucas de Lima

17

sentence. If you don’t want it to all load up on the side of one time— present vs. past vs. future—you have to go back and intentionally manipulate some of the verb forms so you can have the past and present meet in some mid-space, just the way they do in one’s imagination. LdL: Or maybe even in your body, to go back to our trope. SF: Or in the body of the poem. The body’s ill health is represented in part by fragments and disruption of sentence structure, of time. LdL: How did that come about for you? Did you begin writing a more linear poetry that then evolved? No one gets to see the first ten years of grotesquerie. I wrote in lots of forms before I started writing the poems in Tea. I went through a minimalist period, a very formalist period, and a very experimental sound-based poetics period. Each one taught me a little something. I think it’s important to throw yourself wholeheartedly into a project and then walk away from it after you’ve exhausted yourself. And it’s good to know when you have exhausted yourself, to say, “This was a valuable lesson but most valuable in that it taught me what I don’t want to write.” I think by the time I got to composing Tea I was very much interested in drawing from lots of different styles and I was thinking quite consciously of mosaics—not collage, but more folk art. I had an aunt who would catch insects, take their wings off, and press them against glass to make floral landscapes. So one particular kind of butterfly might form a zinnia, and another kind of insect wing would form a daisy. When you looked at her pictures, you were seeing a field, you weren’t seeing the things that went into the pollination of that field, and the fact that this subtext was there was quite remarkable to me. I wanted people to have that experience where they would see the poem as one kind of field. But upon closer examination—it’s like looking at old Dutch paintings: there are all these flowers in a vase and if you look very closely there’s a ladybug. I like the idea of things being hidden in plain sight. My poems are sometimes word search puzzles. If you go through any of the books, you’ll find all sorts of hidden messages and

N nonfiction


118

An Interview with D.A. Powell

puns. Strange connections and patterns that I don’t expect anyone to ever find, but I know they’re there. LdL: It seems like a queer sensibility to use hiddenness as a way to bring your everyday experience into the poem. So many of the queer writers I admire are also collectors. They’re also people who celebrate the doubleness of language. I mean Gertrude Stein manages to say so much because she finds the right balance between what is revealed and what’s hidden. Shakespeare. Hart Crane. SF: What about Ashbery? I know he’s a big collector. Ashbery, too, and O’Hara. David Trinidad. There are all sorts of patterns in his poems that astound me. O’Hara will sometimes have poems and you’ll realize that the first letter of each line spells out the names of people he had a crush on. SF: His poems so often seem like they were love letters. They are love letters, but love letters in a world that doesn’t allow us to write love letters in a very obvious way. Now, of course, things have changed. We can write love letters. I wonder if we’re going to lose that sense of code, that sense of hidden language versus obvious language. It’ll be interesting to see. LdL: Maybe we’ll reject love letters altogether. You know, I think in the past ten to fifteen years, as queer culture has been more quickly co-opted by mainstream culture, queer writers have had an uneasy relationship with that kind of assimilation because the whole point of talking in code is to speak private thoughts in a public forum. It may be that we don’t need private thoughts anymore. Maybe they are only opportunities to deceive? We’ve entered a new era in terms of how people think of privacy. I’m on Twitter now and I love


N 1

Sarah Fox & Lucas de Lima

19

sending messages to people where just anyone can read them. Because I feel like there’s not too much that I need to say that I don’t care if someone else overhears. The assumption for me, for the last 15-20 years, has been that sooner or later, all of this gets found or read or infiltrated. Certainly we must have been disabused of the notion now that e-mail is someplace where we can send a private message to somebody. So I always write everything as if anyone can read it, which can be sort of titillating sometimes. Then you feel like, “I’m going to say this as if I can imagine it’s private, but I know it’s not.” It’s like speaking sotto voce. SF: When you talk about being inspired by folk art, do you mean something distinct from collage, which is maybe more avant-garde? Collage is different in that it takes images that have already been made, manufactured, or mass-produced, and recontextualizes them. I pretty much make my own images and recontextualize them. SF: I’m thinking about something you said or maybe someone said to you— about how in Chronic you’re making a gesture toward being a more public poet. How might that be related to folk art or this idea of privacy and non-privacy? I think when I was writing Tea I could easily pretend it was a book that could very well not be read by anybody. And even if it was read by them not necessarily understood. Now I work in a different mode because I assume that everything can be read by someone at some point. In poetry, for a long time that notion of the public poet has been somehow less fashionable. I mean, that’s really what it is—a fashion. With as many issues as we are having to face as a planet, as a species, as a culture, as people, to not talk about it is an unhealthy form of denial. I don’t want my poetry to be in denial. I think there are ways to address subjects and issues without hitting them head-on, but to still acknowledge that I’m writing this for a larger audience than I once was. SF: Do you think that’s a trend that’s starting to filter into poetry in various ways—to take up the role of a public poet and become less of an elitist?

N nonfiction


120

An Interview with D.A. Powell

I thought that, two years ago when Wave Books published their State of the Union anthology, it signaled a sea change. SF: They got a lot of flack too for that, of course. Yeah, but to write is already a political act. You know, to exercise this right that we have built in our culture and constantly had issue with—the right of expression, of freedom of speech—is necessary for us, to constantly have to reconsider, reexamine, and redefine what the limits of that expression are. I don’t think poetry has to be simply the concerns of one individual in the context of the life of one individual. I think there are marvelous examples of poets who have managed to be both public and private. Muriel Rukeyser, in her earlier period, in particular. Gwendolyn Brooks. Robert Duncan, who criticized Denise Levertov for writing political poems, wrote some of the most political poems. So he didn’t object to the political poem per se—he just objected to her political poems. His poem “Passages 25: Up Rising” is probably one of the most overt criticisms of the Johnson administration during the Vietnam War. And he does it in a way that’s also smart and lyrical and beautiful. Once in a while we have to consider what it is we have to wade through. There was a feeling that came to the forefront following Watergate and the Vietnam War—this sense that language had been used in such perverted ways that we were going to retreat from very direct modes of discourse. We distrusted the cognitive domain of language. But after a while, if you are constantly just giving up and saying, “that mode isn’t available to us,” then you’ve sacrificed a great opportunity. Yes, language is imperfect, it doesn’t mean anything, blah blah blah, but we still manage to communicate quite well. Poetry has that as an option. Why not every once in a while sit down and say something we really mean? Sincerity is not the demon. There are other demons.


I 121

I

interactive


contributing artists

Tonja Torgerson (Cover Artist) was born in 1984 and grew up on the edge of the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota. She moved to the Minneapolis metro area in 2001 to attend school at the Perpich Center for Arts Education. In 2007 she received a BFA from the University of Minnesota. Her artwork is included the collections of the Weisman Art Museum and the Minnesota Museum of American Art. She is currently pursuing an MFA in printmaking at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York. tonjatorgerson.com Aniela Sobieski grew up in the Twin Cities and received her BFA from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She creates small scale oil paintings of surreal, doll-like children. These characters exist in environments which are both dreamlike landscapes and reflections of their inner selves. She currently lives in Syracuse, NY, where she is pursuing an MFA in painting. anielasobieski.com/ Maddie Queripel madelinequeripel.com/ Feng Sun Chen


I 123

color me!

I

interactive


I 125

I

interactive


http://ourflowishard.tumblr.com


dislocate  

dislocate literary journal issue 7 -- poetry, prose, art, interviews