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Propeller APRIL 2011

books music art film life



Munich’s House der Kunst: A building’s past warps the art within by Elizabeth Lopeman

Is Space Still the Place? Devan Cook Tracks Sun Ra Also: • Owen Ashworth Post-Casiotone • Faulkner House • Bright Lights, Big Ratatat? • DeSalvo’s Vertigo • (More)


Propellercontents 34 | Patrick Somerville Expands the Universe

56 | Within the Walls of House der Kunst

“Sometimes new truths, new emotional states, new weird beauties and new ideas that may actually bring solace or new life to people can only be found far, far down the path of false premises.” A Q&A with Patrick Somerville.

“In spite of movements to shift the purposes of the museum’s chilly corridors and austere marble halls, the intensity of the Nazi agenda to support nothing but classical art has been too well reflected and realized in the architecture of the building.” By Elizabeth Lopeman

88 | Is Space Still the Place? Tracking Sun Ra “Music would serve as the portal between earth and space, a bridge to galaxies where humankind—specifically the black population—could seek opportunities they were not given on this planet.” By Devan Cook

14 | Faulkner House Books “One will be checked out not by a cash register, but by a pad of paper and pen.” By Lee Ware

Propellercontents 8 | Pairs Bright Lights, Big City and Ratatat’s Classics By Evan P. Schneider

10 | Music Owen Ashworth

The former Casiotone for the Painfully Alone frontman completes stories for us.

28 | Library Vertigo

By Louise DeSalvo Reviewed by Mary Rechner

32 | Pairs Jean Follain and Coq Au Vin By Rose Gebken

82 | Prose and Poems Mark Yakich

“Fear of Poetry” and “Silk Under Wear.”

108 | Poems Wendy Bourgeois “Dear Beloved Other”

80 and 104 | Fiction Tony Wolk From House of Day, House of Night: “Due Cigni Negri, Two Black Swans” and “The Nameless Ones”

“Great faith, great doubt, great effort.” —The Three Qualities Necessary for Training “Nice try.” —Various

Propeller Volume 3, Issue 2 April 2011 Editor Dan DeWeese Managing Editors Lucas Bernhardt Benjamin Craig Contributing Editors Alex Behr Shea’la Finch Matthew Hein Evan P. Schneider Lisa Sibbett Design Context Information News Archives Store Letters Submissions Publication January April July October



ear the end of the opening paragraph of his 1984 debut novel Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney writes, “Somewhere back there you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet of white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush.” The novel, which starts fast and reads even faster, begins at an indefinably late hour in the middle of the Manhattan nightclub Heartbreak, where our second-person narrator talks to and is trying to get away from “a girl with a shaved head.” Sometime near 6:00A.M., our narrator stumbles out of the Heartbreak and into the morning, but things don’t much calm down for the rest of the 182-page romp in which he loses his wife, his


job, and a lot of respect while trying to “gather up loose odds and ends.” Few albums pair better with the experience of being dropped into the speeding heart of someone’s weeklong coke binge and yearlong downward spiral than Ratatat’s Classics. Entirely instrumental, Classics also takes off quickly with “Montanita” and the heart pumping “Lex,” and really crests by just the fourth track, “Wildcat.” Classics is its own sort of unpredictable comet, which is why it lends itself perfectly as a soundtrack to Bright Lights; once you’re enjoying them, you don’t want to get off until they’ve run their course. You would be forgiven to think that with a


flimsy plot into which McInerney has stuffed a lot of (by which I mean almost constant) drug use, tomfoolery, workplace drama, and bad luck, Bright Lights doesn’t offer much in the way of redeeming social commentary and/or sensitive introspection. The same could be said of Ratatat’s music, which is probably what makes it a great pairing for the book. Not unlike slim books involving prostitutes, ferrets, separation, death, fact checking, bread, and briefcases, energetic records usually derive their vigor from screaming, overdone guitar riffs, or simply overwhelm their audience with noise. Ratatat and McInerney enjoyed together, though, present a delicate blend of having a (really, really)

good time, while also celebrating the fleeting, softer moments between all the grand, fast-lane bullshit instances of flailing and failing. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that if you played all four Ratatat albums back to back to back to back and tried that old Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon trick with them and Bright Lights, Big City, you would be in for a wild, but ultimately touching, one-night read. —Evan P. Schneider





For thirteen years, Owen Ashworth played music under the name Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. Having performed as CFTPA for the last time in December, however, Ashworth is now free to pursue other musical possibilities. We suggested it would also be the perfect time to complete some story openings we sent him, and he obliged. 1.


posed to her roommates that they trade jobs for a day... The roommates flatly refused. The bird was furious. Borrowing a student I.D. from her friend the sea urchin, the bird spent the better part of her Tuesday evening in the campus library’s computer lab, looking at apartment listings on Craigslist. She found a reasonably priced efficiency studio in Ocean Beach, and got a job as a birdbath attendant in a nearby public park. She found living by herself to be lonely at first, but soon came to appreciate the peace and quiet. She enrolled in an Introduction to French class at a nearby community college, and before she knew it, she was French.

sausage, a mouse, and a bird rented an apartment together in La Jolla, and divided the day’s activities among themselves. The bird spent long hours picking up change off the sidewalk and flying it home; the mouse would don his sailor outfit, bring the money to the store, and buy macaroni and other sundries; and the sausage took care of the cooking. Sometimes the mouse’s girlfriend did the dishes. One day the bird encountered a nickel mali- 2. ciously stuck to the sidewalk with chewing gum. ne afternoon, following a long walk on the “I’m working too hard,” she said to herself, and beach, Jesus and St. Peter stopped in for a promptly returned to the apartment. She pro- milkshake...



After perusing the malt shop’s lengthy menu, St. The essay was titled “Bro-uffeurs For (After)Life” Peter quietly decided on a caramel fudge milk- and everybody liked it a lot. shake with whipped cream and extra fudge. Jesus ordered his plain. “Just a small, plain milkshake,” 4. he said in a clear, kind voice. here once was a woman who couldn’t seem “Make that two,” St. Peter said. to find a nice guy to date. One day, on her way to the bus stop, she lifted a California Pop3. py to her nose and was surprised to find a very wo friends made a pact: whoever got rich small and very handsome young man reclining first would hire the other as his chauffeur. therein... Shortly thereafter, one of them went to Harvard, and the other, while walking along the railroad She admired his tiny vest & pocket watch, & tracks listening to his headphones, was struck thought to herself, “what a perfect little gentleby a train and killed... man!” The young man smiled at the enormous woman as he retrieved a microscopic tin from his Simultaneously, the Harvard friend was walking vest pocket. “Would you care for an Altoid, miss?” along a different railroad track and was hit by a he asked in a shrill, measured tone. different train. He died, too. They both went to “It’s funny you should ask,” the young woman Heaven and were overjoyed at their unexpected replied, pulling a high-powered microscope from reunion. her purse, “As a freelance financial consultant, They both took free classes at the Harvard Ex- I’ve been known to do a little in-vest-mint analytension School’s Heaven campus and wrote a hu- sis.” As the smile dropped from the teensy man’s morous essay about their terrestrial chauffer pact face, the woman suddenly understood why she for the Heaven edition of The Harvard Lampoon. couldn’t find a nice guy to date. Ω














escribed by both collectors and writers as America’s most charming bookstore, for some, Faulkner House Books can be difficult to find: the store stands in the heart of the French Quarter of New Orleans, but tucked away on a pedestrian alley flanking St. Louis Cathedral. Once arrived, however—and some come all the way from Europe to see the legendary shop— the experience is memorable, as the interior feels more like someone’s private library rather than a contemporary book store. One room and a hallway make up the entire shop, and yet hours can be had perusing the floor-to-ceiling shelves made from original Louisiana Swamp Cypress recycled from demolished buildings and fences. There are no bestseller stands, no labels or signage at all save for the gentle reminder that “Books are precious” and “Please try not to hook the spines.” The shop, like the French Quarter that houses it, has a rather old world charm, as though time

stopped long ago inside Faulkner House, preserving a simpler and more romantic place, where one could fill their days reading books, not screens, or embarking on that daring feat of actual conversation rather than tweets. Indeed, throughout the day, many visitors pop in just to say hello to the proprietor, Joseph DeSalvo. A retired attorney, DeSalvo spends a good portion of his day in the back office of the book shop doing various book shop business, as well as notarizing the occasional document. Many literary friends and neighbors visit for his erudite company, or to receive counsel on some personal or professional detail. His quiet wisdom is sought out in more places than the bookstore, too. While accompanying DeSalvo on one of his walks to the river with his miniature chocolate poodle, Criolla, I was surprised to see a street artist flag Joe over to consult him on a business matter: what price he ought to place on his art. Now, DeSalvo is not an art dealer, nor much of


a collector. Still, he politely inquired about cost restored the shop and their home above in the of supplies, how much previous pieces sold for, Greek Revival style appropriate to a New Orthe time it took for them to sell, and how much leans townhouse of that era. The basketweave time the artist devoted to the piece. Based on brick flooring in the bookstore is original to the the answers, Joe gave his opinion that the artist building, as are the natural cypress floors in the could raise the askresidence above ing price by fifty to “Though no photos or drawings of the inte- the shop and the one hundred dol- rior of the building were available, Rose- winding cypress lars. Pleased with staircase. Some mary restored the shop and their home the suggestion, the of the millwork above in the Greek Revival style approartist thanked Joe for the bookstore profusely and went priate to a New Orleans townhouse.” is composed of back to selling his recycled cypress art—possibly getting a bit more cash for his ef- doors and transoms discarded in a renovation forts. of the Louisiana State Museum’s Presbytere, DeSalvo, with his wife, former journalist and around the corner. author, Rosemary James, bought the building Logistically—that is, spatially—it is necessary for the bookstore in 1988, and spent two years to specialize, and so Faulkner House does. In adrenovating it before opening in 1990, on the an- dition to the missing signage, there is no maze niversary of Nobel Laureate William Faulkner’s of sections to get lost in, no dnager of winding Birthday, September 25th. Rosemary, who has up in “Self-Help” when looking for that short pursued a second career in interior design, is re- story collection by Lorrie Moore. Primarily, the sponsible for the neo-classical aesthetics of the shop houses good quality fiction, literature, and interior of Faulkner House Books, which has poetry, and has a considerable collection of local been featured in Southern Accents, Traditional and regional history. There are a few stragglers Home, Metropolitan Home, Home Beautiful, and here and there, some children’s books, a handful numerous design anthologies. When purchased, of art and design tomes, and non-fiction primarthe interior had been stripped of millwork and ily related to well known authors—including plaster. Though no photos or drawings of the in- Faulkner, of course. The fiction offered, whethterior of the building were available, Rosemary er that of earlier eras or contemporary, is first


class: classics, well-established modern authors, and notable up-and-coming writers. Southern writers, especially New Orleans or other Deep South authors, are prominently displayed. A special perk for customers is that there are no sacrificial plastic offerings bombarding them at the register. There is no gift-wrap, note cards, calendars, or lip balm. If a last minute impulse buy is to be satisfied, it likely will be with one of three items: Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary illustrated by Ralph Steadman, Days of Reading by Proust, or This is Water, the commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace. One or more of these is inevitably resting on the 19th-century leather-topped four-partner desk, where one will be checked out not by a cash register, but by a pad of paper and pen. Faulkner House still uses handwritten receipts. In addition to the new books at Faulkner House, visitors are chuffed by the impressive rare book collection sharing the hall with Joe’s significant poetry section. Behind the glass cases one will again find mostly fiction: first editions, signed copies, or limited printings. In the center of the hall, a beautiful French walnut secretary is devoted entirely to the first editions of the writer who once lived where the bookstore stands, Mr. Faulkner. (This desk also conceals the credit card machine, limiting the number of modern eyesores that would otherwise distract from the ambiance.)

“Under the guidance of Sherwood Anderson, Faulkner wrote his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, while living on the ground floor. His principal room is now the main room of the bookstore.”

Faulkner moved to New Orleans as a young man of twenty-seven, calling himself a poet. Under the guidance of Sherwood Anderson, who lived around the corner in the Pontalba Apartments facing Jackson Square, he wrote his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay, while living on the ground floor of what is now Faulkner House. He fell in love with Helen Baird on the balcony of the house, and dedicated his second novel, Mosquitoes, to her. Unfortunately, she wanted little to do with the future Nobel Prize Winner. Spurned by love, Faulkner caroused around the Quarter with fellow artist William Spratling. Together, they would shoot BB’s into St. Anthony’s garden, behind the Cathedral. It is rumored that rather than avoid them, the nuns were their favorite target, along with friends like Anita Loos, author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Another reason the shop may feel more like a private collection rather than a retail store is



that, in a way, it is. The owners reside on the second and third floors of the building, while the fourth has been converted into a studio and work space that is often lent to visiting writers. The books are selected by the owner and the manager, whose knowledge and friendly demeanor add to the personal touch of the shop. It is also why there is no computer necessary, or available, to look up titles for customers. Mr. DeSalvo began book collecting twenty years before the bookstore opened. His interest was in contemporary fiction, but as he confesses, he was also lost for many years in the French Revolution and, on the other side of the channel, in the Johnson-Boswell circle. With more than ten thousand volumes, his collecting had become pleasantly all-consuming. Indeed, DeSalvo has often likened his

book collecting to a disease—the final stage of which is opening a bookstore. Most of his collection became the core of the bookstore, which he slowly filled in with new books by authors

he loved, including local and regional authors. Both mentoring and encouraging, one would be hard pressed to find a more caring or generous supporter of writers and the art they create

than the owner of Faulkner House Books. His only rival would be one of his co-founders of The Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society, who also happens to be his wife. In addition to interior design, Ms. James devotes most of her year to piecing together the myriad programs encompassed in Words & Music, a Literary Feast in New Orleans considered by many to be the premier literary festival in the United States. Words & Music was created in 1997, on the centennial of Faulkner’s birthday, bringing one hundred agents, publishers, editors, and writers together on one stage. The festival encourages contact between new writers and the publishing world, while simultaneously providing the public with fine literary programming, food, and music. James also organizes the Society’s annual William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition, which


is open to all anywhere working in English, and has helped to launch many careers, including those of Julia Glass and Stewart O’Nan, both of whom are previous gold medal winners and whose books received national critical acclaim and commercial success. Glass’s novella Collies won the gold medal and became one of three linked novellas in her book Three Junes, which won the National Book Award. O’Nan was the First Novel Prize winner, and has since published fifteen books of first class fiction. The owners’ love for the literary arts spills over into bookstore conversations, leading many visitors to the conclusion that they don’t ever want to go home. This sentiment was best articulated by the first writer to stay overnight at Faulkner House, the late Willie Morris. After his first

night in the guest studio on the fourth floor, Morris got on the intercom and told his hosts, “Well, you’re stuck with me now, ’cause I ain’t ever leavin’.” (An intercom at Faulkner House? Yes, this is one of the few overtures to modern gadgetry in the 19th century building—it is four stories high.) While Willie actually did leave, he came back many times. Other star boarders have included Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart) and Roy Blount, Jr. (Alphabet Juice, and over twenty other books of non-fiction). Like New Orleans, Faulkner House Books is beloved by writers because of the welcoming warmth of its people and their dedication to supporting all great writers—past, present, and yet to come. Ω


Vertigo Louise DeSalvo Review by Mary Rechner


y mother gave me Louise DeSalvo’s Italian-American memoir Vertigo; one of her younger sisters had given it to her. This particular aunt (I have eight) has always been a voracious and sensitive reader; she read Vertigo (republished by The Feminist Press in 2000) in a class, and along with the book, sent my mother a typed letter, which my mother included when she gave me the book. I think DeSalvo, a literary critic and Virginia Woolf scholar, would appreciate how much this letter from my aunt informed my reading of Vertigo. In her letter, my aunt mentions the “great risk” she takes in sending Vertigo to my mother, who grew up among Irish and Russian immigrants on Long Island, and is the same age as DeSalvo. According to my aunt, my mother has never said “one good thing about our father. Never.” This has always saddened my aunt; she sends the book because DeSalvo describes something

my aunt knows my mother has also experienced: their first years of life were spent with their fathers at war. A second-generation Italian-American girl growing up in Hoboken, New Jersey, in Vertigo, DeSalvo describes the joy of being raised by mothers only. “Gangs of women—five, six or more—gangs of children— nine, ten, or more—would gather in the tiny parlors of the apartments during birthday parties (which seemed to occur weekly) or holiday celebrations or for no good reason at all, except for the pleasure of being together...The children, when they think of these

years, will remember the happy press of hordes of bodies in one tiny place or another...Although the women say they miss their men (and try to teach their children to miss them, as well), and although they spend hours of every day penning long accounts of their brave and unhappy lives alone to their husbands in combat, their lives, and those of their children, are far happier than either before their husbands go to war or after their husbands return home.� Needless to say, DeSalvo does not bond with her mercurial, risk-taking father (he is a volunteer firefighter after he comes home from the war). She feels abandoned by her mother, who struggles with depression. DeSalvo’s sister Jill is also depressed, committing suicide as an


adult. Family life is more confusing than sustaining. DeSalvo finds refuge in books and relationships outside her family, and chronicles the moments of discovery that lead her to the life of a scholar, many of which occur in her high school English classes. One such English teacher, Mrs. Purdy, wants students to tell her what’s going on in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 87, particularly the lines, “Thyself thou gavest,” and “Thus have I had thee.” DeSalvo, who spends several chapters detailing her sex life from grade nine forward, spells it out for Mrs. Purdy: “It’s about having sex.” Talking about sex in her English class leads DeSalvo to her young life’s most important epiphany: “In this moment, my hidden life of love and sex counts for something academically. It is transformed into something valuable beyond itself. Something I can draw on to understand literature. I can understand my life and transform its meaning because of what Shakespeare says; but I can understand Shakespeare better because of my life.”

In Vertigo, DeSalvo weaves her professional quest to explore Virgina Woolf ’s life and work (including her sexual abuse), with personal memories of her own abuse (at the hands of an aunt), her mother’s depression, her father’s temper, and her sister’s suicide. DeSalvo’s exploration of Jill’s suicide lacks the resolution the rest of the memoir communicates; perhaps this is due to DeSalvo’s own lack of clarity about Jill’s struggle with mental illness. Like DeSalvo, my mother spent her first years with her mother. With her father at war, she was “the queen” of the house, but after he returned—and after eleven other siblings were born—my mother’s claim on her own mother’s time and energy must have grown ever smaller. Unlike DeSalvo, my mother always got along well with her mother, but perhaps she, like DeSalvo, “never forgave [her] father for coming back from the war.”

Or perhaps it was only my mother-as-a-child who did not forgive her father. My aunt worried that her letter and Vertigo would upset my mother, but my mother took the book and letter as an opportunity to examine and share her life­—much like the adult Louise, whose complex portrait of her father in Vertigo demonstrates something like forgiveness. Ω

Facsimile of a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Margaret Harrison Smith, included with “two little volumes of poems” Jefferson was returning. (1807)



ean Follain, in his poem from A World Rich in Anniversaries, describes a “sauce that looks like black lacquer.” Though Follain doesn’t name the sauce on the platter in his poem, I know it is coq au vin, both because of its appearance and because of the transformative power it exerts over its surroundings. At the beginning of the poem, a country woman pauses in the act of putting the platter down on the table. She is recalled to something else by the purity of the air. As she stops to listen, her children distract her, and she tells them, “Listen, I can’t hear a thing.” The variety of poses assumed by the


children—soldiers, generals, priests, schoolteachers—are mirrored by the dishes: “one’s all white, another has the branch of an indeterminate tree on it and on top of that a bird, pink as the branch. A third plate is hexagonal, one of its points chipped off. A fourth is rimmed in gold.” The platter on the table does not contain everything; its function is more subtle. “[T]he food in its sauce” heightens the experience of the family in the poem until they see everything in the visceral, immediate details in front of them. The little girl responds to the mother’s chiding. Coming from a room she “wasn’t supposed to


go into,” she reads to her mother: “The earth is round like a ball.” Knowledge has moved from the plate to the world. Her statement is followed by an image of salt crystals on the table, leading to the final description: the element that brings out the flavor of the room is contained on the large platter, in the sauce black as lacquer. And this is how coq au vin is—a bit of bird sitting on a plate with the dark sauce. Take a bite, and see why this dish is the mainstay of their menu. Dark and rich, the flavor is complicated far below the surface. It draws into itself the details of the café around you. There is the smooth

polished wood of the table, the toasted smell of tobacco being smoked by the man in front of you, and the dark hair of the woman to your left. And if by chance the waiter comes back and suggests chocolate mousse for dessert, accept. You will not be disappointed. Not remotely. Because as the first mouthful of that mousse smoothes over your tongue and heads to the back of your throat, you will understand that the pairing of Jean Follain with coq au vin has become, with chocolate mousse, a ménage à trois. —Rose Gebken











Over the holidays, I purchased The Universe in Miniature in Miniature by Patrick Somerville, a collection of stories published by featherproof books. I was immediately taken with the confidence and sensitivity Somerville brought to the stories, as well as the ingenious angles from which he approached his characters and their struggles. I emailed him demanding he reveal not only how he had created such an enjoyable collection, but also who was behind the book’s ingenious design. The author of the previous story collection Trouble, as well as The Cradle (which The New York Times called “a magical novel”), Somerville generously agreed to chat with me via a series of emails. —Dan DeWeese PROPELLER: I’d like to start by complimenting The Universe in Miniature in Miniature as a physical book-object. It’s beautiful. There are wide french folds that, unfolded, offer the reader the possibility of turning the cover into a fifteen-planet mobile, and the design and quality of every aspect of the book is top notch. How did you first get involved in working with the publisher, featherproof books? PATRICK SOMERVILLE: Zach Dodson from

featherproof is an amazingly talented designer, and one of the attractions of doing a book with them was that I’d get to work with Zach. And it’s funny that we did a project like this together, because if you’d asked me about that term “bookobject” a few years ago, I think I would have reacted with great skepticism about whether such things matter at all and said something about the primacy of the text and about how everything else is just an ephemeral adornment. But I don’t think that anymore, and I think the first cracks in my point of view began to appear when I started taking a close look at the work featherproof was doing, and some of the books McSweeney’s has put out in the last few years. Hobart also has tremendous design concepts. So many small presses put an emphasis on it, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the trend has really begun to grow around the same moment e-readers, which are books wearing uniforms, have become so popular. But what I like about what small presses in particular are doing with design comes down to the complementary aspect, the functionality of design as an extension of the book’s overall formal goals. Design carries meaning. It’s not arbitrary that the book is convertible into a mobile, but it’s


also not necessary. It’s not arbitrary that it contains the images it contains, but the stories work fine without them. The wide pages, the french flaps—all of that matters. This book was always going to be linked in unusual ways, whether or not I ended up doing it with featherproof, but being here in Chicago and being able to talk with Zach and Jonathan on a regular basis and participate in the design stuff­—finding ways to use design as an extension of the book itself—made it really attractive to me. PROPELLER: I love that the collection is dedicated to Slartibartfast, a character from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide books. And some of the stories here operate firmly in Adams territory, by which I mean that they’re smart, funny, and “science-fictional,” in that although they include technologies or entities that don’t exist in our everyday world, they nevertheless (usually) take place in a recognizable version of our world. When working on those stories, did you think about how science fiction-ish you wanted them to be, or was that more intuitive? Was there ever a time when you (or an editor) had a conversation about how to balance the realism with the fantastic? And are there writers other than Douglas Adams that you feel did this kind of material particularly well? PATRICK SOMERVILLE: I think “science-fictional” is the perfect term, because I wouldn’t claim that the book is scifi—certainly not hard sci-fi, anyway—but at the same time, I grew up reading and loving a lot of science-fiction and fantasy, which played a big role in the development of my imagination and my growth as a writer, but I drifted away from genre fiction in college and in graduate school as I became more

interested in realist literary fiction. Who I want to be and who I try to be as a writer, now, is some kind of hybrid of those phases, and this book, for me, is just an acknowledgment that fiction is many things and that writers don’t necessarily have to burrow into a niche and stay there forever. (Although maybe it makes better business sense to find one place and stay there...I’m not sure.) I think I would be unhappy if I didn’t drift around and try different things, make each book clearly different than the last. But per your question, I don’t think I ever decided, “Okay, let’s make this story about 35% sci-fi,” nothing like that, but I definitely wanted the experience of the book to be a confusing experience for the reader, one that—if it all worked right—could leave somebody asking questions about the word “real” and its value, both in terms of storytelling and in terms of everyday life. The novella at the end, I think, does a good job capturing the mixture I was looking for. And as for other writers, Grant Naylor (actually two writers, named Rob Grant and Doug Naylor), Kelly Link, Susanna Clarke, and Kurt Vonnegut are just a few examples of writers who are similarly messing around in these in-between places. PROPELLER: That novella that ends the collection—“The Machine of Understanding Other People”—not only includes the machine (a helmet) referenced in the title, but also mysterious invitations, family secrets, and a woman who invents “Pangea University,” whose departments or programs include things like “Finally Ending Bullfighting, Which is Awful,” “Cetacean Role-Play,” and “Getting Back Mastodons—Now.” But despite the fact that there’s a kind of antic imagination energizing the situation of the story, it’s still firmly grounded in the emotional lives and struggles of its two main characters.


Did it take you a long time (i.e. drafts) to reach the skillful balance you display in that piece? And do you feel that fantastic elements in fiction allow a story to find its way to emotional (or existential) places that standard “realist” fiction can’t reach?

edged our own sciences and our own history but sort of insanely crammed a romanticism and, in your apt phrase, antic imagination into the telling. The first story of the book presents a totally false premise: everything is reversible. I hope that the story itself kind of acknowledges that this is not true, not for our daily lives, cerPATRICK SOMERVILLE: To answer that last tainly not for the mother of the kid with brain question first: yes, absolutely. And in fact to me damage, and still proceeds with it, anyway. And that’s the backthis is why I find bone of all choicefiction to be so “Sometimes new truths, new emotionmaking in the wonderful, and arts, the answer al states, new weird beauties and new this is why I love to why any artist ideas that may actually bring solace or people who read should choose to new life to people can only be found far, and who are willdo things in one ing to accept a far down the path of false premises.” way as opposed false premise for to any other way: the hours it takes if things are going well, it’s because you have them to read and still be okay, still be comfortto do it like that to get to the emotion and the able as they’re reading, knowing that it’s not a story that you want to tell. When I was writing valid statement: sometimes new truths, new “The Machine of Understanding Other People,” emotional states, new weird beauties and new I felt that things could very easily tip—tonally, ideas that may actually bring solace or new life I guess—in a variety of very bad directions if I to people can only be found far, far down the didn’t stick to the core assumptions that a) the path of false premises. I think it’s foolish when stakes of the story needed to be serious, real, and people make aggressive claims about a particuemotionally large, which I think would also be a lar representation of reality being more or less fair approach for straight realism, too, but b) the valuable; I can’t stand it when men—because it’s story needed to be told in the spirit of the rest usually men—say to me, “Oh, no. I only read of the book, which meant a more flexible and nonfiction,” but they say it in that way that imwhimsical reality that somehow still acknowl- plies that reading about “the real world” has a


special, superior value and that fiction is fundamentally frivolous. There is no real world. Especially when it comes to the human mind. Evangelical realists are the kind of people who end up weeping alone in the bathtub when nobody else is around. PROPELLER: I want to ask about my favorite story in the book, “The Wildlife Biologist.” One of the things I admire about the collection as a whole is your ability to stay with characters as they wander toward, and often through, dangerous situations. “The Wildlife Biologist” is about the relationship between a girl in high school and her AP Biology teacher. How did this story develop? Did you know you wanted to write a relationship like this, or was it a situation where the characters were “telling you” where they wanted the story to go? I feel like there’s a particularly stunning benevolence, if that makes sense, to the way you handle the characters in this story, and I guess I’m wondering if you have thoughts about the relationship between a writer and his or her characters, or certain practices or approaches you think about when working with characters like these. PATRICK SOMERVILLE: About ten years ago, a teacher gave me “Sorrows of the Flesh” by Isabel Huggan and it absolutely crushed me; after that, all throughout my twenties, I wanted to write a story about a teacher and a student, but it’s such a known and potentially clichéd story and it’s so often done that I wanted to wait around to make


sure I could tell it in my own way. So I thought about it for a long time, and I was somewhat afraid of it, too. When I started to write it, I liked the idea of it digging into the actual science and digging into the politics of the town the characters were in, and on top of that, I liked the idea of a story about how attraction and eroticism between a teacher and a student is never as cut and dry as a story of predator and prey, no matter how it looks. Those were sort of my initial hopes. When I started to write, I found that the storyline about the parents in the background did something strange to the foreground, and I also found that I just liked Courtney, the main character. When you find yourself in that position as a writer, I think you tend to be a little more careful with what happens to characters, with how you represent them. It’s bizarre. It’s actually really bizarre, thinking about her. It’s possible I have a crush on that character, is what I’m saying. But here’s something else: In the very first draft, Mr. Carpenter, the teacher, ended up burning down that private hunting park, which made the story much more about his activism and his politics and made him into a little too much of a badass. When I wrote that draft and read it, I think I realized the story needed to be more about his failure and his mediocrity, but how Courtney was somehow going to be able to use the experience to learn something. Even if she

never quite knew what it was. So that’s a good example of revision being really important. It’s not always my experience that I make such a big change to the plot, but as I wrote it became obvious that my original plan was wrong. So I changed it. PROPELLER: That struggle to find the right ending sounds so familiar. I definitely feel like the storytelling part of my own mind is always offering up quick ending possibilities in a kind of seductive whisper: “You could end it by burning everything down. You could end it by blowing everything up. You could end it by...” I think the ending you found in that story works wonderfully. I want to ask about something else you said, though, which is that the storyline about the parents in the background did something strange to the foreground. People talk about primary plots quite a bit, but I rarely hear discussions of the energy—and I think in some stories it’s crucial—that goes on between a plot and subplot. Could you say a little more about what that strange thing was that the material about Courtney’s parents did to the story? PATRICK SOMERVILLE: Thank you. I think one of the downsides of overhauls like that is a kind of reduced confidence, and so hearing people say they think it worked takes on a different kind of importance. When you’re writing you


have to be flexible and know that you’re going to make mistakes, but on the other hand I think sometimes the whole thing arrives organically and you just never question either the parts or the whole. Once you do detect a problem with the parts, it’s tougher to be blindly (blissfully) confident with the whole. Things can work out

either way, which is one of the reasons this is so hard. I know what you mean about the A-plot/Bplot thing, which is actually something I started thinking about more explicitly after an undergraduate student in my workshop—a film student who wanted to see what a fiction class was

like—brought the language of sit-coms into the whatever is going on with the parents and their room and used it when he talked about other waffling, it links up to Courtney’s intellectual work. He was very much focused on the way the quest, not what’s happening sexually or intervarious plots bounced off one another. I found personally between her and her teacher. Someit fascinating. Film and television writing, I thing about certainty and knowledge, and how think, have a much more direct and straight- disturbing it is to find that certainty, without forward way of addressing plot issues than fic- fundamentalism, is so fleeting, whatever the tion workshops discipline and tend to have, and “Film and television writing, I think, have whatever the to a large degree I a much more direct and straightforward epistemological think this is a deapproach. That’s way of addressing plot issues than ficficiency in most difficult to deal creative writing tion workshops tend to have.” with. That’s the classes and most problem of most MFA programs, this somewhat hidden as- of the characters in the book. Here, the parents sumption that voice and subtext, if done well are a flaky and destabilizing force, and I think enough, can make the very complicated ques- by the time I came to the end of the story, it tions of plot, diegesis, and narrative form disap- felt better to have that background story sort pear. I think it’s a hidden assumption because, of leapfrog over the foreground story and serve unlike many of the weirdly angry rants against as the outro as the foreground story fizzled and MFA programs you often find out on the in- puttered out instead of ending with a big senternet, I seriously doubt any writing teacher, in sational fire. any program, is sitting there telling students, “Okay, let’s abandon these major aspects of PROPELLER: Another thing I like about this stoytelling and embrace these ones instead, be- book is the strong sense of place—of Chicacause we’re conservative blue-blooded dicks go—that is present in a number of the pieces. and can’t slum it with either plots or get weird I live in Portland, and there was a time when and new with the avant garde.” Most of those I felt “Portland” might be a kind of usefully conversations drive me crazy. MFA programs empty signifier, but I’ve been told many times are just places where people support you as you now that no, if I write “Portland” in a story, it try to learn about your own writing. means something. If cities bring a certain kind In this story, I think what I found was that of energy to a story—if a piece of fiction that


takes place in “New York” will feel and operate differently than the same story taking place in “San Francisco”—what do you feel “Chicago” brings to the universe of fiction these days? Or is there more than one kind of energy you can draw from when you set a story there? PATRICK SOMERVILLE: Hm, I’m not sure. That’s a good question. In a way it’s inadvertently asking, “What are the clichés, at the national level, that pop into people’s heads when they see these place-names?”, right? For Chicago I guess that would be some cluster of ideas ranging from electric blues to 19th century meatpacking conditions to giant complicated hot dogs to left-leaning urban politics. But I think as writers—and you can tell me if you think this is true, too—we’re usually seeking to both ride the wave of pre-existing impressions of a place and simultaneously remake it with a little more accuracy, or at least remake it in the ways that we see it, too. Some more honest representation, something with the balance of subjective experience. I tried to include glimpses of a different Chicago I’ve gotten to know in my five years here—the CVS near where I live, the Viagra Triangle, the liquor store in Ravenswood where I used to buy my cigarettes. I can’t say I really understand what it does for the stories, but I do think it does something. PROPELLER: It was the “complicated hot dogs”

stuff that I mostly wanted to make sure you were aware of. As soon as someone writes “Chicago,” I always think: Hot dog story! But I can’t help but notice that twice now in my questions I have resorted to the cowardly distancing device of using quotation marks: first with “science fictional” and now with “Chicago.” I’ve tried to come up with a theory for why I’ve done this that somehow blames your own good writing, rather than my ineptitude as an interviewer, and this is what I’ve come up with: I think when writing about anything that I feel readers have preconceived notions about—whether it’s clichés about a city, genre expectations, whatever—I’m usually trying to write my own local understanding of that material—as you said, the liquor store in Ravenswood—but I’m highly aware of the degree to which the clichés are going to get in my fucking way. I feel like what strikes me about TUIMIM—what made the stories so compelling to me—is that it treats “literary fiction” as a genre whose conventions are there to be flouted. Almost every piece in the collection includes an element that makes it, formally, something other than “standard literary fiction.” (And now my use of quotation marks is out of control.) But the story “Confused Aliens” is about exactly what the title states. “The Abacus” is an interplay between your text and a series of drawings of a man’s face. “No Sun” is about characters responding to an apocalyptic event. This makes me wonder: How do you feel about this term


“literary fiction”? Do you feel it’s a genre with conventions, or is it something different? You said earlier that new ideas or truths can only be found down the path of false premises—do you feel some false premises are better (or more productive, in fiction) than others? Can false premises still be “literary fiction”? PATRICK SOMERVILLE: Literary fiction is absolutely a genre and a set of conventions, it’s completely historical and didn’t really even exist as we know it before modernism, and I don’t think it’s too shocking for me to say that art is at its weakest and most boring when the artist misconstrues mutable conventions as some kind of a priori law or maxim. I think the only ahistorical maxim I’d adhere to regarding art is that it should provoke interesting communication between object and audience. Whenever I have students read “Araby” for class, we talk about all the amazing things Joyce does to prime the ending, we talk about the sentences, we talk about the character’s delusions, we talk about why he’s crying at the end, we talk about whether the specter of English colonialism is indeed haunting that bazaar—all the things, all the “literary fiction” things. But I also always ask my students to then imagine hearing someone read “Araby” aloud while sitting around a campfire. Say your old friend James Joyce is there, drunk, he says he has a spooky story memorized, and then narrates “Araby” word for word. Now in my mind, “Araby” immediately becomes ridiculous when you put it in that context—around a campfire, it’s a complete failure of a story in that it’s not particularly entertaining, the drama is

deeply personal, you could argue that the stakes are exceptionally low, and the whole thing relies on so much subtlety and so much implication that a reader who’s not particularly sensitive can read the whole thing and literally have no idea what it’s about. No idea. Is it a good story if your reader ends

“Literary fiction is absolutely a genre and a set of conventions, it’s completely historical and didn’t really even exist as we know it before modernism, and I don’t think it’s too shocking for me to say that art is at its weakest and most boring when the artist misconstrues mutable conventions as some kind of a priori law or maxim.” up tuning out, eyes wide, and chooses instead to work on creating the perfect S’mores? Can you just imagine hearing, “...and my eyes burned with anguish and anger” and then just hearing crickets in the background and someone going, “Welp, I’m gonna hit the sack” because no one has any idea what to think? I guess I use this little thought experiment in class to remind students (and myself) that there’s a difference between storytelling and “literary fiction” storytelling...and maybe also as a reminder that you will get trapped and unable to innovate if you get dogmatic about the conventions of lit-


erary fiction. Even if you have no intention of what? 320 million people in it? I think it’s fair to ever writing a story about a bunch of aliens say that less that one percent of the population who can’t fly their spaceship, and even if you’re is interested in literary fiction. Or will ever be. I never going to leave a suburban neighborhood think it was more like thirty percent right after with your fiction. the war but before I think there “I think there should always be that little television was should always be popular. That’s voice in the back of your head telling you that little voice in my romanticized that even the concept of dramatizing a the back of your statistic, anyway. head telling you character’s internal conflict is a particuSo maybe, as a that even the conlar convention, and you best be able to writer, this concept of dramatizverts you into a do other things, too.” ing a character’s kind of torchinternal conflict is bearer, you know? a particular convention, and you best be able to And you say, “Okay, then I’m going to keep it do other things, too. I’ve just met so many writ- alive and cherish and protect these forms—the ers who take it as an assumption that literary short story, the literary novel—because they’re fiction—for me, that means character-driven inherently valuable, even though they’re marstorytelling with exceptional prose and a rich ginalized and even though writers can’t actually subtext—is superior to television, superior to make a living anymore writing short fiction and movies, superior to genre fiction, and superior selling stories to magazines, and literary novels, to video games. As though that’s not taste. There even when they’re very successful, can barely are some times when I think that, too, but it’s an support a career.” I feel like that’s a rider on your opinion, you know? degree, inserted by the faculty, stapled behind Take a look around at the majority of people the diploma when you finish your MFA in ficin our country, how they choose to experience tion: Oh, by the way, can you also continue to narrative, and you’ll see that almost no one believe in, promote, teach, and say nice things else thinks that literary fiction is worth a shit. on the internet about literary fiction? Because At least based on consumption habits. I mean otherwise we don’t make sense. Start a literary yes, okay: there’s like a core group of 100,000 or magazine. Or something. Please. 200,000 hardcore readers. But our country has But I think it’s unwise, as a writer, to close the


door on all the other ways stories can be told and all the other ways people can be entertained with narrative just because protecting and guarding a marginalized art-form makes you special and exclusive, makes you an insider. So yes (finally answering your question), I think with this book I tried to ask questions like this within the book, using the particular forms of the stories. Some of its weirdness is my way of staying loose about the conventions of fiction. My first novel, The Cradle, is a pretty straightforward realist quest about history and family. Saying it like that, it’s a straight-up cliché of literary fiction. I don’t think that’s true if you actually read it, but I think part of my goal with The Universe was to shake out of that box and not get content or too satisfied with one place, one approach. PROPELLER: But this whole discussion is irrelevant, because you already have a new book done and getting dressed to enter the world, so you’ll soon have to start answering annoying questions about that book rather than The Universe in Miniature in Miniature. Could you tell us a little about the new book? When does it come out? Patrick Somerville: It’s called This Bright River and comes out in summer 2012 from Little, Brown. It’s realism, and it’s another family drama, but unlike The Cradle, it’s very long. It’s about a man in his early 30s who returns to his home town after blowing his trust fund. It has a love story, a dead person, and a late-arriving villain. I like to think of it as a cross between When Harry Met Sally, Blow, The Moviegoer, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Ω





In the fall and winter of 2010, an exhibition of Islamic art at the Haus der Kunst in Munich commemorated the one hundred year anniversary of an exhibition held in Munich during the 1910 World’s Fair. But an awareness of history—German, Islamic, and that of the House der Kunst itself—twists the meaning of art shown there in a manner impossible to ignore.

by Elizabeth Lopeman {photos courtesy of House der Kunst and Elizabeth Lopeman}



n 2007, Chris Dercon, director of Munich’s Haus der Kunst museum, (as of April 1 he is at the Tate Modern in London) invited Rem Koolhaas—the Dutch architect responsible for the impressive CCTV headquarters building in Beijing—and Jacques Herzog—who collaborated with Ai Weiwei on the “Birdsnest” stadium in Beijing—to consult on a planned update for the Haus der Kunst. The museum, commissioned in 1933 and completed in 1937, was the first construction project of the Third Reich, and exhibitions there were reserved for the Classical or classically-inspired art of the Greeks and Romans, which Hitler considered to be free of “Jewish influences.” Resting in the regal posture of a lion on the southern end of Munich’s sprawling 1.4 square mile English Garden, the building was designed for Nazi propaganda and the perpetuation of Hitler’s political and artistic ideologies. Art produced by the avant-garde was deemed illegal during the reign of the Third Reich, but a didactic exhibition was held at the Haus der Kunst in July of 1937 to show “degenerate art” or “un-German” art produced by “elitist” and “intellectual” artists such as Kandinsky, Matisse, Chagall, Van Gogh, Oscar Schlemmer, certainly Otto Dix, almost every artist associated


with the Bauhaus, and many others. Thousands of people attended the exhibition meant to incite hatred for any art outside of the traditional or favored classical forms. The exhibition was displayed to show the pieces to their disadvantage, as objects of mockery, and many of the pieces were later burned or taken into the private collections of Nazi officers.

Contemporary use the Haus der Kunst for avant-garde shows, and the preservation of the night club where first Nazi, then American, soldiers congregated to party seems like the best way to transmogrify the meaning of a sinister narrative through a justified disregard or irreverence for the building’s original purposes. In recent years, the museum has hosted exhibitions

from International art stars including Anish Kapoor, Paul McCarthy, Marlene Dumas, and Patti Smith. Ai Weiwei, the Chinese political activist who was taken into custody by Chinese authorities in Beijing on April 3 in a crackdown on intellectuals, and whom is yet to be released, did an exceptional job of transforming the halls of the Haus der Kunst to suit his purposes, with

pieces that used every square inch of space, if not physically, then playfully and psychically. But the building’s history is rooted in Hitler’s tastes for classical art, and while the reign of the Third Reich is preferred, in Germany, to be sooner forgotten, it’s difficult to separate the ominous architecture of the building from its inception when you enter. Enormous, boxy


marble corridors make for a rather cold experience not easily shaken as viewers move from exhibition hall to exhibition hall. In an interview with Mark Wigley for the arts blog 032c., Koolhaas said, “It seems that the unspoken attraction of the Haus der Kunst is actually the frisson of Nazism that gives a kind of thrill to the display of art.” In response, Herzog said: The “frisson” and the “aura” that you mention is an important part of the building and we can all admit that when you enter it, the idea that it was a Nazi building is always with us. It makes the building somehow different and I’m sure that many artists who have done exhibitions here have somehow had this in the back of their minds. So Dercon took it on the consultation of Koolhaas and Herzog to have the building restored, to reveal its original design by dismantling temporary walls that hid the original, classical grandeur. Perhaps because Koolhaas and Herzog are Dutch and Swiss, it was easier for them to discuss the Nazi history, but most Germans bristle when talk of the Nazi era is introduced. That part of the past is politely discussed in privacy or in academic environs, and the architects’

At right, and on the following three spreads: installations by Ai Weiwei.





celebratory mood around the history of the ry goods supplied to kings and queens, primarHaus der Kunst is a bit surprising, but not en- ily with an aesthetic of calligraphic, scrolling tirely refreshing. inscriptions, or similarly interlaced depictions of foliage and tendrils etched or hammered into n the fall and early winter of 2010, an ex- brass urns and weapons, enameled onto glass hibition of Islamic art (or “Muhammadan lamps, or woven into rugs. The exhibition catart”) at the Haus der Kunst commemorated alog concedes that “The all-embracing global the 100 year anniversary of an exhibition of term ‘Islamic art’ falls into fragments in the face Islamic art held in Munich during the World’s of contemporary art.” In spite of this difficulty, Fair, called “Meisterwerke Muhammedan- the recent exhibition’s thrust was to look at the ischer Kunst,” which translates as “Master- ever shifting exchanges of styles and influences pieces of Muhammadan Art.” Thirty-six of between East and West, and how they have inthe original 3,600-plus objects were exhibited fluenced viewers’ perceptions today. in 2010, in addition to a large collection of The 1910 and 2010 exhibitions both made a contemporary artifacts from Muslim cultural point of showing artifacts in the context of the regions, including films, books, installations, exhibition rather than in the context of their drawings, and paintings. Many of the original cultural origin—in other words, in a manner pieces from the 1910 exhibition have gained that “stages the Orient.” Muslim regions were substantial monetary value, and have been ab- considered exotic, sometimes erotic, and very sorbed into private collections or are included much the origins of the “stranger,” “alien,” or in museum collections throughout the world, “other,” and the agenda of the 1910 exhibition which made them unattainable now. The in particular was to show the artifacts as maspieces exhibited at Haus der Kunst in 2010, terpieces in their own right. In an essay in the however, were chosen because following the 2010 exhibition catalog, Avinoam Shalem (the exhibit in 1910, they became icons of Islamic curator) and Eva-Maria Troelenberg make refart that were widely recognized. They are also erence to the 1910 exhibition, saying, “The exbroadly cohesive in their style, reflecting a hibits were dispersed generously in the amply vast cultural region that lacked a propinquity arranged exhibition halls, either free standto Europe in 1910, with the exception of luxu- ing or set against the neutral background


Amy Cutler Tiger Mending, 2003 Gouache on paper 17-3/4 x 14-3/4 inches Courtesy of Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York

of unadorned showcases or large wall areas.” While a similar approach to displaying artifacts was taken in 2010, with attention to their connectivity, the Shalem/Troelenberg essay explains: The recent exhibition, ‘The Future of Tradition – The Tradition of Future,’ in the Haus der Kunst, also sets new parameters for staging the art of the ‘Other.’ It aims at suggesting that a new tendency of what Said calls “extrapolation” appears in the periphery, in the sphere defined as ‘out of the centre’ but which demands its full recognition (Said1994, p. 293). And in another catalog essay, Kaelen WilsonGoldie discusses how Susan Sontag, in her essay “Against Interpretation,” asks viewers to experience artworks as complete works without a relationship to their context. Shalem and Troelenber go on to say: It must be emphasized, however, that it is not a neutral or universal view this exhibition seeks to establish—it is a laboratory for 21st-century questions, hopefully breaking ground for the future exhibition concepts and museum displays that will show and think of Islamic art alongside the art of the

West—without denying ‘Otherness,’ but with a new agenda of generating mutual visual understanding; beyond sectarian or nationalistic tendencies and beyond worn out paradigms such as ‘parallels’ or ‘influences’ which automatically imply hierarchies or one-way trajectories. The 1910 and the 2010 exhibitions were both conceived as representations of art in the context of Muslim regions, and so while we can enjoy the pieces individually as masterful artistic expressions, in this milieu it is impossible to extract them from context. Shalem and Troelenberg state that the exhibition doesn’t seek a “neutral” approach to viewing the show, and how could it? How can viewers be asked to look “beyond sectarian or nationalistic tendencies” while viewing pieces that are titular reflections of their provenance? Sontag makes an excellent point that each piece of art should be evaluated as a universe unto itself, but if the works are chosen because of where they’ve come from, new criteria for considering them has been presented, which becomes more complicated as the world focuses on the massive revolutions taking place in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Morocco, Syria, and, lest we forget, Gaddafi’s heinous clowning in Libya. An exhibition with such earnest intentions as “The Future of



Tradition the Tradition of Future” with works asked of viewers to eliminate context from their from countries that were allied with the Nazis minds when viewing “The Future of Tradition in the Haus der Kunst, is slippery and muddied The Tradition of Future,” and the task becomes with questions that pull the exhibition’s artifacts monumental when you consider the exhibition into a maelstrom within the Haus of questions of “In spite of movements to shift the pur- der Kunst. As reccontext, and away poses of the museum’s chilly corridors ognized by Koolfrom the artifacts’ haas and Herzog, and austere marble halls, the intensity ability to stand the halls of the indep endent ly. of the Nazi agenda to support nothing Haus der Kunst After all, Ger- but classical art has been too well re- still practically many is not out echo with the flected and realized in the architecture of the woods on clapping of Nazi issues surround- of the building.” boots. And an exing World War hibition there feaII. Victims of the war are still living, and much turing art of Middle Eastern regions, many of of the property, including confiscated art from which were allied with Nazi Germany, conjures Jewish families, has not been returned. It makes a great many more questions beyond whether sense that all of Europe would prefer to put this the artifacts are viewed in or out of context, behistory behind it, of course, but an exhibition cause the history of the building is so domineerof Islamic art which has been designed to en- ing. In spite of movements to shift the purposes courage questions does not serve the purposes of the museum’s chilly corridors and austere of presenting its artifacts free of context in this marble halls, the intensity of the Nazi agenda to venue. support nothing but classical art has been too The Islamic world is often largely misunder- well reflected and realized in the architecture of stood in the Western world, and even as we try the building, which helps to call up Hitler’s allito understand from the perspective of contem- ances with Turkey and Egypt during the second porary society, the conflicts that are contagious- World War—both countries are broadly reprely spreading through the North African-Middle sented in the exhibition. Eastern region are only fueling Western curios- Germany’s, and specifically the Nazi’s, history ity. In regards to the exhibitions, an awful lot is with Jews is world historical knowledge. And it


is widely believed that pockets within the Arab world have close relationships to contemporary terrorism around the world. In addition, Munich has a long history of being a location in which these tensions have played out: the Dachau concentration camp is half an hour from Munich; at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, twelve Israeli athletes were killed by Arab terrorists, referred to as Black September; and on November 18, 2010, a date that coincided with the exhibition at The Haus der Kunst, German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere held a hastily called press conference in Berlin warning of known Jihadist terrorist attacks planned to take place in Germany. The exhibition at the Haus der Kunst should by no means have been viewed through the lens of terrorism, but perhaps it’s better to address uncomfortable relationships between Muslim regions and European society than to ask people to push them to the periphery. Nada Shabout, in another essay in the show catalog, says, “Politics has always played a central role in defining and redefining form and informing meaning in the visual production of Arab artists.” So, in regards to “The Future of Tradition, The Tradition of Future,”

how can a thoughtful patron be expected not to extrapolate from the meaning of context and walk away free of thoughts of nationalisms? In an e-mail interview, Shalem acknowledged that every curator who puts an exhibition into the Haus der Kunst must field questions about the history of the venue, and said, “This is true of any exhibition that is done there.” But an exhibition featuring the work of a New York punk scene pioneer like Patti Smith or of a Chinese political activist like Ai Weiwei has a unique relationship to the Haus der Kunst, one that transforms the museum’s original and now tired Draconian origins. The trauma inflicted against humanity during the Nazi era doesn’t seem entirely behind us. Many Germans would like to disregard the fallout, to move on and forget. Can we blame them? But when within the walls of the Haus der Kunst, can we forget? An exhibition of art from regions that were in alliance with the Nazi party evokes something quite different in the House der Kunst. Reminiscent of a dark past, this something is not easily pushed to the periphery. Ω



House of Day, House of Night Tony Wolk


XII. Due Cigni Negri, Two Black Swans

Brian Friesen

here were once two brothers, twins, each darker than the other, eyebrows, eyes, lips and even their teeth. Looking at them, you would guess at the color of their bones, at the shadows deep in their hearts. Were they altogether alike? No two things are altogether alike. One woman they came to love, her hair white as snow, her eyes as soft a gray as rain. She loved them both, each for his own person. She loved the one who led the way and the one who followed. Time she spent with one and then the other. One, when she was with the

other, would watch, like a dog with his eyes on a pair of swans by the river’s edge. So came the day when one brother, the one who led or the one who followed, tasted blood, and his imagination took flight. He saw his brother with the woman. “It’s time,” he said softly as he drew his knife from its sheath. And so he slew his brother who lay panting by the side of the woman. This story has its twin, where it is the other brother who does the slaying. And so in story there are two brothers living and two brothers dead. Ω

MARK YAKICH Prose and Poem

Fear of Poetry


oday, I am a poet. But as a child I found Dr. Seuss’s books irritating, and I only checked books out of the library because I liked how they decorated my nightstand. In grade and middle school, the only thing I remember reading or writing were love letters, carefully folded in triangles like the flags of third-world countries I couldn’t name. And looking back, I believe I only wrote and read those letters because they seemed to be required of my middle class upbringing. The first poem I remember hating was Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” on which I had to write a report in 10th grade. My English teacher’s name was Mrs. Vrba. She had a broken foot for most of the year, and I had once arm-wrestled (ever so adroitly) her daughter Tricia in 7th grade. Tricia and I were at the State Science Fair at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. I took first place with a zoology project

about how horseshoe magnets affected earthworms (my mother’s idea; Mother also typed and wrote most of the report; I was proficient at the design and stenciling of the peg board; Father did the sawing and the screwing); but more importantly, I took Tricia’s hands in mine in the indoor/outdoor pool at the Howard Johnson’s one dimly-lit afternoon. I hope Tricia, too, can still recall how we detained each other in that lukewarm bath. Telling myself this story of Tricia during her mother’s poetry lessons was the only way I saw poetry as relevant: that is, poetry served only as a distraction from real life. When I went to college, I didn’t fly. My father shuttled me the three-hour drive. And I still disliked poems. In fact, I took only one English class, and I majored in political science. Instead of love letters, there was now cunnilingus. I enjoyed it much more than writing and my love interests probably did as well. Before I was

25, I had read three novels, of which two were Catcher in the Rye. That’s not a boast; rather, it’s something I’m ashamed of—like my fear of flying. But when I was 25 I moved to Belgium on a research grant and began living in a oneroom lean-to attached to a 14th-century building in the small college town of Leuven, where everyone around me spoke Flemish. In other words, I was isolated and had no friends. I soon realized, however, that books and the voices in them made for decent companionship. And because most poems are brief, I could make a lot of friends fast. For years, I wouldn’t admit to being a poet, and for even more years I wouldn’t admit to being an aerophobe. Both seem unfit for modern life. Now, I am also a professor of English and creative writing. I teach poetry for a living, which, to me, is at once a silly and vital occupation. The poet Marianne Moore once called

poetry contemptible and genuine in the same breath, which is not the same thing as calling it genuinely contemptible. For the same reason poetry is irrelevant as compared to, say, heart surgery or fire fighting or trash collecting, it is also important. Because poetry can’t make money, it escapes co-modification (most of the time). Its irrelevance becomes its importance. I don’t know how exactly poetry is pertinent to a fear of flying; I just know that the two often link up in my head, as in this poem by A.R. Ammons:

Small Song The reeds give way to the wind and give the wind away

These four lines were the first lines of poetry I ever enjoyed. I could and could not make out what they were telling me. These seven words (a few repeated) couldn’t have been any simpler and yet they made (and still make) my mind do little flips. As in W.B. Yeats’s famous line—“How can we know the dancer from the dance?”—I still keep trying to discern which is which: Are the reeds only reedy because they’re moved by the wind, or is the wind only windy because we detect its effects? It is, of course, not necessary to decide between the two. But no matter how many times I read these lines, I feel ridiculously compelled to pick one over the other—as if I’ve just survived a water landing and must choose between my wife or our son, only one of whom I can save. Ω

Silk Under Wear

When nobody else is around drinking makes its own sound —Mark Yakich









group of about twenty African American musicians stand on a rooftop, creating a dizzying array of sound with their various instruments. The horn section plays wildly, saxophones hitting notes that sound abnormally high. Behind the horns, bongo drums are beaten in erratic counts, while someone to the side clinks and clanks on a xylophone. Acoustic and electric guitars emit no recognizable rhythm, their players humming along without any synchronicity. Some might call this “free jazz,” but the music is truly impossible to categorize. Each performer is adorned in brightly colored costumes that incorporate elements of ancient Egyptian garb into a 1970’s interpretation of futuristic attire. The music comes to a pause as a female vocalist with a sparkly red cape and blue mask half sings, half chants, “When the world was darkness/and darkness was ignorance/ along came Ra.”

The rooftop performance is documented in Robert Mugge’s film A Joyful Noise. The 1980 documentary provides an in-depth look at Sun Ra and his Arkestra (a purposeful misspelling of the word Orchestra). Ra was known for holding a tight rein over his collective of musicians, making the Arkestra practice anywhere from eight to twelve hours a day in a house in New York City’s East Village. In an effort to combat high rent, as well as to establish their unity as an artist collective, the musicians lived together. The house would eventually become Sun Studios, where Ra and the Arkestra self-recorded and produced their own albums through Ra’s label, Saturn Records. When they weren’t practicing or recording, Ra spent part of each day teaching the Arkestra his philosophy on the limitations of life on earth, as well as extolling the opportunities that lie in outer space. “Planet Earth can’t even be sufficient without


the rain, it doesn’t produce rain, you know,” Ra “I have many names; some call me Mr. Ra, coolly states in A Joyful Noise’s opening mono- others call me Mr. Re, you can call me Mr. logue. “Sunshine…it doesn’t produce the sun. Mystery.” —Sun Ra, from A Joyful Noise The wind, it doesn’t produce the wind. All planet Earth produces is the dead bodies of huhere is much uncertainty surrounding the manity. That’s its only creation. Everything else early years of Herman Poole Blount; many comes from outer of the facts of his space…Humanity’s “ doesn’t produce the birth and childhood life depends on the sun. The wind, it doesn’t produce the were skewed by Sun unknown. KnowlRa himself. Most wind. All planet Earth produces is the edge is…laughable blatantly, Ra insisted when attributed to a dead bodies of humanity. That’s its he was not of this human being.” earth. In Space Is only creation.” With no narration, the Place: The Lives Mugge’s documentary lets Sun Ra, members and Times of Sun Ra, John F. Szwed recounted of his Arkestra, and his music do the talking. his older sister Mary’s assertion that her brothScenes of Ra walking around an Egyptian ex- er was born in Alabama. “He was born at my hibit while philosophizing in a stream-of-con- [great] aunt’s house…I know, ’cause I got on my scious manner are alternately fascinating and knees and peeped through the keyhole. He’s not exhausting. When Ra looks into the camera and from no Mars.” Szwed’s biography quotes Ra as says, “I’m not part of history, I’m more a part of saying, “It is important for the planet that its inthe mystery,” there’s an eye-rolling moment for habitants do not believe in being born, because any audience that can’t help but wonder if it’s whoever is born is to die.” wasting sixty minutes watching the ramblings Family members recall Blount as being an exof a madman. But a few minutes later, an ex- cellent student, but having little to no friends. In tended live performance at a nightclub shows 1936, Ra was attending the Alabama State AgriRa in his element: leading the Arkestra while cultural & Mechanical Institute for Negroes (“I playing keyboard, his music communicates his think I studied everything at the school except message with a clarity his vernacular distorted. farming,” Ra said) and becoming increasingly How does a man who embraces such extremes withdrawn from his peers. He was spending come into being? countless hours at the library researching



religions when he had his great epiphany. As he described it, two men from space brought him with them to Saturn, to inform him that “there was going to be great trouble in schools,” and that he should not continue with his education. They told Ra that when the world was going into complete chaos, then and only then would he speak, and the world would listen. Upon his return to earth, Ra discontinued his education, and realized the voice in which to deliver his message was his music. Music would serve as the portal between earth and space, a bridge to galaxies where humankind—specifically the black population—could seek opportunities they were not given on this planet. His years playing music in Chicago from 1945-60 were marked by a more accessible big-band sound that started evolving into bop. His interest in space, and pushing the limits of earthly sounds, had already begun to develop. Ra claimed to have bought one of the first Wurlitzer electric pianos in the late fifties, using the keyboard to deconstruct his formal musical education, and to reassemble various sounds and chord progressions in unconventional ways. In that early Chicago period, however, his spacey textures were met with sharp cynicism, and while early records such as “Sun Song” hint at innovation, the big-band sound is most apparent.

“Music would serve as the portal between earth and space, a bridge to galaxies where humankind—specifically the black population— could seek opportunities they were not given on this planet.”

By the time Ra and some key members of the Arkestra found themselves in New York in 1960, Ra was fully immersed in an uncategorized sound. By recording and cutting his own albums, he was generally free to do as he pleased, and his experimentation in the early sixties with free jazz, psychedelic sounds, and a musical operation that had Ra strictly supervising a group of hand-picked musicians in his home resembled a mixture of—and made him a predecessor to—Miles Davis, Andy Warhol, and Frank Zappa. Throughout the sixties, Ra cut more records each year than most artists complete in a lifetime, the only thing limiting his production being financial restraints. From writing, composing, and playing on the records, to producing them and even hand-painting many of the album covers, Ra controlled every element of the recording process. Finding musi-

Tracki Sun Song: One of his most accessible albums, this early record from 1956 has Ra embracing delicate melodies and a big-band sound.

The Night of the P small group sessio become a collect highly accessible s helped Ra’s popu people actually hea

Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy: Recorded in ’63 but not released until ’67, this album served as the blueprint for Ra’s experimentation with avantgarde jazz, and is credited as being a precursor to funk and psychedelic rock.

ing Ra

Purple Moon: This on from 1972 has tor’s favorite. Its sound would have ularity—had more ard it.

Space is the Place (1972): The definitive example of Ra’s spacey, avant-garde sound, this is the inspired album Ra recorded during the period the film was made.

Nuclear War: The call-and-response title track, with Ra declaring, “Nuclear war/Is a mutha fucka,” and “If they push that button/Yo ass got to go/What you gonna do/Without your ass?” makes this album from 1982 one of his most popular.


cians that not only understood his vision, but were willing to sacrifice their social life in order to be ready for Ra’s spontaneous and frequent calls to the studio wasn’t easy. But for key members of his Arkestra like Danny Thompson, Elo

Omoe, and James Jacson, there was no other option. “Sometimes it’s tough,” Omoe acknowledges in A Joyful Noise. “[You miss out on] the pleasures of going out to enjoy yourself because you

“The one that made the best leader was the one who did the most outlandish thing; the thing that was not normal. Something no one else had thought to do.” —James Jacson


ilm Producer Jim Newman approached Sun Ra in the early seventies about making a half-hour documentary of the Arkestra for PBS, and, in true Sun Ra fashion, a simple documentary soon turned into a science-fiction/blaxploitation/narrative-with-documentary-elements/ feature-length film. Space Is the Place saw a limited release in New York and San Francisco in 1974, as did the accompanying soundtrack of the same name. The film’s storyline begins with Ra returning to earth (Oakland, to be specific) after visiting a distant planet. Ra expresses his desire to relocate the black population of America to this other world, using music as the portal. His main obstacle in achieving this goal is “The Overseer,” a pimp with supernatural powers who currently controls the black population with drugs, sexual temptation, and indifference. Ra faces off against the Overseer in a series of duels, and eventually beats him when, at the end of the film, Ra conducts a concert to spread his message. But the surreal film and its convoluted plot failed to impress a mainstream audience, and it was pulled just a couple showings gotta stay to rehearse, but once you get into the after its release. music you forget all about the other thing that Dissatisfied with the treatment of African was happening because the music got you so Americans in the United States, Ra sought to into it that the rest of it don’t even matter.” create a new future for the black population, and felt this future awaited in space. Ra often


spelled as “berth” meaning “to be earthed.”) He compared slaves’ experiences of being brought from Africa to America to an alien abduction. To be transported by a ship against one’s will, to a foreign territory where no one speaks your language and treats you as if you don’t belong once you get there, in Ra’s mind was not much different from being taken into space. America had failed to accept this foreign population, but space provided another opportunity. “Yesterday belongs to the dead. Tomorrow belongs to the living.” —Madlib, from the song “Shadows of Tomorrow”

W referred to blacks as being “myths,” saying that they were not treated as humans, and therefore the white population was denying their existence. If they were already thought of as myths, why shouldn’t they then actually become myths—people not of this planet? (This is what led to Ra’s denial of his own birth, which he re-

hile countless artists have listed Sun Ra as an influence, perhaps the closest embodiment of his musical ambition is rapper/ producer/multi-instrumentalist Madlib. The musician—who gives a nod to Sun Ra in several of his songs—walks that fine line between abundant and excessive as he, like Ra, has produced, written, and/or performed on over a hundred albums. Whereas Ra worked with his Arkestra, Madlib generally works alone, creating multiple monikers to record under. For his jazz albums recorded as Yesterday’s New Quintet, Madlib went so as far as to create fake biographies for each “member,” when in actuality his “Arkestra” is made up of five Madlibs. Madvillainy, the de-

Perhaps the closest embodiment of Ra’s ambition is rapper/producer/multi-instrumentalist Madlib.


but album from Madvillain, another of his projects, features a tribute to Sun Ra titled “Shadows of Tomorrow.” The hip hop track features excerpts from Space Is The Place, with rappers Madlib and MF Doom lyricizing Ra philosophy, and even has Madlib repeating “Sun Ra” over and over. The title of the song is taken from a song Ra wrote titled “The Shadows Cast By Tomorrow” that was released on a limited 7-inch, hand-painted by Ra. “Earth is cool,” Madlib has said, “but I’m interested in what’s beyond Earth.” In the spirit of his predecessor, Madlib claims to be part-alien, and speaks coolly about music in a way that stretches beyond earthly restraint. In a generation where many sounds and musical genres are being recycled from days long past, be it the current wave of 60s garage-rock revival or the slew of Joy Division sound-alikes, one can’t help but wonder why more artists aren’t looking forward instead of backward. Ra pioneered a sound that extended beyond

what was known on Earth during his time, but space is a vast place, and he left the door open to many uncharted territories. Ra understood that earth isn’t diverse enough for everyone. With his nearly two hundred albums, he did his part to provide a portal for the outcasts of this planet, the myths: those who think differently, and perhaps don’t quite belong here. Although he departed this earth on May 30, 1993, let us not speak of Sun Ra in the past tense, but rather look to him in the future. For, as he puts it in A Joyful Noise, “They say that history repeats itself, but history is only his story. You haven’t heard my story yet.” Ω



House of Day, House of Night Tony Wolk here was once a beautiful young girl who lived in a land without lakes far from the ocean. A zigzagging river ran right below the family cottage, its waters like ice from the glacier far upstream. Water there was aplenty, for the river ran in all seasons of the year, even when it had not rained for forty days and forty nights. Early in the mornings, whether it was dark or light, she would go down the path to the river with her two buckets and bring back the first of the day’s water. With it she would scrub the wood of the floors as though she was a sailor aboard ship. After the floors came the table and chairs. Her mother who was not her mother would stand with folded arms and would point,

and whether it was the spinning wheel or the shelf with its wooden owls, she would set it to rights, even when there was nothing amiss. For the spinning wheel was always in the same corner and the owls on the shelf did not have the gift of flight. Rare was the word that was spoken to the girl. Of course the girl had a name, which had been given to her by her mother and her father. But the woman who was not her mother, when she came to live with the girl’s father as his wife, did not call the girl by her true name. Had her name been Susanna she would have called her Annie. If Mary then Molly, if Juliet, then Rose. When the father who was not her father came to live with the mother who was not her mother, her

Brian Friesen


XV. I Senzanome, The Nameless Ones


true name was altogether forgotten. Where you might expect to hear a name, as with Anna, do this or Anna, do that; instead you would hear Wash this or Clean that. Before long, without the benefit of words, the girl did what she was bidden to do. Since I am neither the father who was not the father nor the mother who was not the mother, I will give the girl who was growing into womanhood a name, Patience. If I could, I would call her by her true name, her lost name. Why, you wonder, would Patience be treated so harshly? I would give you an answer if I could, just as I would teach you the secret of the speech of birds, if I could. If there lives a person who knows either the history of the woman who was not the mother or that of the father who was not the father, let that person come forward and speak the truth. Till then, I will say nothing more of those two nameless persons. As I said at the beginning, the girl was beautiful. I will say that once more: Patience was beautiful, like a star that shines in the night with Purity and Constancy, which could be two

more names for Patience. You ask, Did Patience know of her beauty? I can answer that question: No, she did not. The word Beauty, as with many other words, had fallen by the wayside. Think of the word Beauty as turned to dust. And without a word to anchor you, unless you are a beast of the earth or a bird of the air, you will see, but you will not see Beauty. One morning late in spring, Patience did not wake, not with the dawn, not as the sun rose above the snow-capped mountains to the east, not as the sun was disappearing into the valley below. The two nameless persons shook her by the shoulders as you would a rag rug. They brought icy water from the river which they threw upon her face. They cried, “Wake up!” But Patience gave no sign of understanding. Yet they saw her steady breathing. And so they sent for me. I will not tell you my name, for this is a story without names, and moreover, mine is of no consequence. What is of consequence is that I found a way to free Patience from the nameless ones. Ω


Dear Beloved Other, Demoralized on Friday and still in bed, fruit flies in the oatmeal, and my head aches. Dehydrated, quiet, each mood presents itself formally. Welcome: Lord Inappropriate Circumstances. Lady Flea Circus. These hours of visitation frighten me, as if I were a traveling nursing home and at every stop the children cry. In the archives, the one weeps over old footage of Freddie Mercury, the other, a bit of lace wrapped around a tea spoon and I swear to you those pink lights winking in another room are just that, ephemeral doodads from a novelty store. They are not signaling my departure. When we wake up and the kitchen smells like a grease fire, I know my place in it. There is no evolved from a seafarer’s temperament. The sand itching in my shoes is a permanent condition, as are you.

Dear Beloved Other, I had a good cry yesterday after our little chat. Good in the sense that it felt like a bribe. You locked up Your smart look and I let the cat out and then we sat sideways Like two dolls in the dream house, twist tied, not a fear Out of place. Later, I ate a big slice of yellow box cake standing up And pretended in my head to be both Hansel and Gretel. Guess That makes you the mouse in livery. The one in the corner Of the illustration. The one pointing his humane paw at the ugliness Of women. Suppose I was relieved to find you in the margins of the image? Would that make me fair by comparison? You are so Lovely and Just. Like a narrow bench. Like a crime Scene photograph. We both know I am rococo, ridiculous, But that I have a tensile strength I barely know how to use. Canned peaches in a spinster’s kitchen and all that floral Wall paper; these things are inflammable. These things resemble me.

Dear Beloved Other, I can’t escape the food chain but maybe I can numb desire. Watch you with clinician’s eyes. Learn how to drink in the evenings. Keep the dog in the kennel, if you know what I mean. I don’t like describing what goes on between my legs as anything Having to do with fire. Burning is for houses. Love is tired. And I just might be capable of anything after the nightlight goes out. The picture of dark eyed sweethearts is lost behind the couch. Appalling. I turn to face the stand up mirror and spread my knees— Please tell me, am I vulgar enough yet? The dim Manner in which I undress, on autopilot, on Percocet, The blank look of a worshipped cow, those mild Brown eyes foreshorten all shame, bear everything, Give nothing a name because everything begins And ends with this want that is nothing, personal.

Contributo ELIZABETH LOPEMAN has written for American Craft Magazine, FiberArts, Bitch, Eugene Magazine, Drain, and various other magazines and websites. She curWENDY BOURGEOIS lives, writes, and rently lives and travels in Europe. teaches in Portland, Oregon, with her small dogs and big kids. DEVAN COOK is a freelance writer for Willamette Week, and former sports journalist for the Portland Trail Blazers.

ROSE GEBKEN is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon.

MARK YAKICH’S latest poetry collection is The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine (Penguin Poets, 2008). “Fear of Poetry” is an excerpt from a reversible book, Checking In/ Checking Out, that Mark has co-authored with Christopher Schaberg; visit airportreading. com.

ors LEE WARE lives and writes in New Orleans, where she works at Faulkner House Books.

EVAN P. SCHNEIDER is the editor of Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac. His first novel, A Simple Machine, Like the Lever, will be published this October.

MARY RECHNER is the author of the story collection Nine Simple Patterns for Complicated Women (Propeller Books). She directs the Writers in the Schools program in Portland, Oregon.

FREDDIE MERCURY was a British musician best known as the lead vocalist and songwriter of the rock band Queen. He died in 1991. TONY WOLK is the author of three novels: Abraham Lincoln: A Novel Life, Good Friday, and Lincoln’s Daughter.

Propellerbooks “With no frills, no gimmicks, just a gimlet eye and quicksilver prose, Rechner defamiliarizes the mundane and makes it marvelous.” —Malena Watrous, The Believer “Cockeyed smart, sharply written, and very funny. A much-needed new voice for women and men has arrived.” —Nancy Zafris, Kenyon Review

Nine Simple Patterns For Complicated Women

Stories by Mary Rechner Available now at Amazon, Powells, and in many fine independent bookstores information:

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