empty train

Associate editor Joshua Brewer on today’s new fiction: Kevin O’Cuinn’s “The Boat Train” pulls a lively cadence from the most sure form of travel: a boat train, a vessel with the sole purpose of delivering a body to another vessel of passage, a notion formally mirrored by the work’s single-paragraph structure. At stake here is the movement of bodies and transport of minds to ends which are so sure that they are pointless.

The Boat Train

He wakes on The Boat Train, unsure&uncaring if it’s going east or west, where east is random and west is home. His allotment is a crusty seat in an aquarium of cheese; room for eight. He wonders who made this reservation and if there’s a timetable. Who and If—and WTF: there is no way he queued for a ticket, for this or anything, and no other way he would or could have planned arrangements of this magnitude—something, he just knows it, that will involve borders, travel documents and off-the-rack uniforms in bad haircuts. There was no shrill whistle, no All aboard, but there was steam, lots of, and slamming—the way a train door slammed, the way only a train door slammed, before that too was lost to electrode clusters during the last techno update, before his number flipped. Before it was his turn, and he ran. Beside him, window seat, a frocked-out nun, wimple and all, probably a dissident fleeing, it’s a popular disguise. Can’t trust the clergy. Passengers smile and say Sister this/Sister that. They offer Custard Creams and Milky Moo Mints, the big white goo of them. He wishes himself back—under—and fakes falling eyes, a snore that’s hardly audible. The Boat Train splits the night and a rock shatters the window and most of Sister’s face. Red the only colour now, red only ever. The seats launch a chorus of curses that’s light on blasphemy (against the odds, he’ll think much later). Someone procures toilet paper and a yellowed shirt that stinks of smoke, and they go to work on nullifying the mess. It’s official: he’s awake. Sister shakes them off, lights up and sucks hard; blocks the pain. Curses give way to tuts and head-shaking. There’s talk of shame, then quiet, and he can taste the sea coming through where the window used to be. West, definitely west. At least there’s that.

Kevin O’Cuinn lives and loves in Frankfurt, Germany. He is Prose Editor at Word Riot.

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Photo by Kevin Dooley

Passages North is pleased to announce the results of our first Neutrino Short-Short Prize. Final judge Connie Voisine has selected Sean Webb’s “Pigworks” as the winner and Jennifer Tseng’s “Seaside Resort in Wartime” for honorable mention. Both stories will be published in Issue 36 Passages North, due out in January 2015.

Connie Voisine, on why she selected “Pigworks”: Sean Webb dissolves the boundaries between the pigs who will be consumed and those consumed by their work. Set in the cold and wet afterworld of a pork processing plant, the disposable body is the subject of “Pigworks.” “Can I fall into their mass, obliterate myself in the collective million of swine?” asks the speaker, whose own scars and pain remind him daily of his complicity. What forgiveness is there for him? When does his body, marked by this brutal labor, get to forget? Reading this, I am reminded what the short form can do—stun us with a vivid image, enter into a conflict, and leave us with wonderings that we might not have entertained before. At times blunt, operatic, and dirty, “Pigworks” risks much, makes me uncomfortable. Good work.

Congratulations to Sean and to Jennifer, and many thanks to everybody who submitted! Keep an eye out for an announcement to come about the winner of the Waasnode Fiction Prize.

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Abandoned Gas Station

Photo by Steve Rhode

Associate fiction editors Michael Giddings and Matt Weinkam on the power of today’s story: Between Night of the, Dawn of the, Shaun of the, and now The Walking, we have had more than our share of the Dead come back to life. But within the first three sentences of “Emergence of the Living Dead,” Richard Weems changed our minds by not only reminding us why we like zombie stories, but also by reimagining the mechanics of that mystery. The collective voice of the pack is as nonhuman as one would expect a group of decaying bodies to be, but it is also careful to remind us what it once was.  Weems’ motley grouping of monster—singular in both its voice and its quest for adolescent flesh—refuses to let us forget that it was once, not so long ago, exactly like us. And that might be what we’re really gnawing on when we read this story. While we love Weems’ sense of rhythm (Chew? and Yes, Yes, Yes!), sharp imagery (we were snagged on that case of Glenmorangie single malt), and biting humor (teenage boys as deli meats), it is the uncomfortably familiar humanness in the voice that keeps us shuffling with the mob until the end.  You may attempt to resist, but, as Weems has made very clear, it will only be a matter of time until we are all overtaken.

Emergence of the Living Dead

We have the memory and cognitive abilities of worker ants. When there is no immediate prospect of flesh to chew, our only intent is to find some. We don’t even swallow this flesh we obsess over, nor do we have the mechanics to digest it. We chew and chew until the warmth and juiciness and quivering of this flesh are spent, and then we let its remnants fall from the corners of our mouths as we search for a new fix. We put the question (Chew?) to everything we encounter. Our brains have deflated into on/off switches, propelled by the instinct etched into every inch of our rotten, incapable digestive tract: to find something to chew. Warm and salty, still vibrating with the pulse of its struggling host—we do not cease our forward progression until the toggle within the remnants of our skull says Yes. If the flagpole one of us bumps into is not something to chew (and it isn’t), that one moves on. This picnic table? No. Move on. This dead skunk? This memorial headstone? Some of us mill about in an orbit, while others meander for miles across state lines.

Say one of us stumbles upon a wooden box while trudging through a field. Maybe it is a bureau drawer, maybe a case of Glenmorangie single malt. All we identify is what it is not. Chew? As this item registers No, we don’t care what else it may be and move on.

But let’s say that the splinted corner of this item has snagged our pant leg so that after our query, we are swept around when we shamble forward and meet back up with the exact same object just seconds after the previous encounter. Will we recognize this item as the No determined just an instance ago and thus realize that we have doubled-back?

Inconceivable, such a thought! Instead, we look down at the exact same box and ask of it, Chew? No, we acknowledge, and if the snag holds fast, we will sweep around to the same spot and continue the same inquiry. One of us has been caught in such a loop for two weeks in a grass plain in Wyoming. Others pass regularly, but none assist.

Yet there is always a respectable gathering of us in the courtyard at the ready when an abundance of testosterone psyches these boys up like locusts to swarm into the breezeway and fire up the lights.

They appear only after night has turned official, so the breezeway of the school they’ve barricaded themselves into makes them look like salmon in the front window of a seafood restaurant. They rip open the snaps of their varsity jackets to bare their chests and bellies. Maybe one will unzip and whip out a tasty-looking morsel. Sometimes all six of them coordinate a simultaneous dropping of trou and press a dozen pasty hams to the glass. Their teenage bodies hum from a diet of tater tots, pink processed beef slime and fruit punch.

Their taunts work like a charm. Those of us malingering in the courtyard just past the windows take the bait and shamble toward them. And when our hands and mouths are fragments of an inch from their succulent offerings, bang! (or whop! or kreech!), we meet up against glass, which has none of the texture, warmth nor salty aftertaste of what we desire. Instead, we break and chip our already loose and rotting teeth. We turn up our yellowed cuticles. We mash our noses, and in time those of us at the glass are pressed further against it by the weight of those of us at the back who still clamber forward, unaware of the tasteless barrier that awaits.

All the while, these boys hoot, chortle and guffaw at our persistence and stick-to-it-tiveness. They rub their body parts along the glass to induce rubbery squeals. If the one of us who wears a cheerleading skirt the same color palette as their varsity jackets happens to join us tonight, these boys proliferate the unzipping of their flies and high-five each other as she grasps fruitlessly at their junk with her pom-pom-encumbered hand.

But in their revelry, these boys fail to note that we are always gathered in the courtyard before the breezeway when they decide to make an appearance, even though their appearances follow no regular schedule. How many of us there are and our exact makeup varies from event to event. Some of us appear regularly, while others are drawn once to the light and afterward wander too far to ever be drawn to it again. Yet we never fail to number at least a dozen, sometimes as many as threescore, when those lights fire up.

Our readiness does not result from the effort of scouts who loiter in the courtyard day and night and signal when the lights fire up. When the lights are out and no boys present themselves, no notion of their existence lingers in any one of us. Nor should you think we have a queen to our hive or a zombie sovereign pulling telepathic strings to orchestrate our efforts. No chalkboard riddled with X’s and O’s drawn up by an undead coach with a whistle he is unable to fill with air. We would make the worst team in the world, as we are incapable of running scripted plays or memorizing signals. Our individual movements are short-minded and quite stupid, to be frank, but as a colony we are quite organized and complex.

Take the way we would speak, had we any desire to explain ourselves. Not as any kind of unified monologue, but as a chaotic sequence of monosyllabic grunts and moans induced by precipitating stimuli (a wisp of breeze through the grass, the crunch of a footstep in the dry underbrush, anything that intones the presence of flesh). Though our utterances are immediate and reactionary, conveyed without strategy nor orchestration, the combined field of our grunts and moans over the length of our existence composes a complex vocabulary and syntax that are surprisingly pedantic and belie our dull exteriors. So even though no single one of us is aware of the existence of these boys inside the school when we can neither see nor hear them and our decomposed brains have no capacity for anticipation, we are ready for them when they decide to appear as though we predicted their appearance.


Though our persistence never dims, theirs does in time. After a few minutes (thirty at most), they quit their hollering and hooting and glare at us as though there were some second act or further cache of tricks we should have dipped into by now. Maybe they’re reminded of how there used to be more of them before they tried to escape to one of the buses across the parking lot. They armed themselves with wrenches, landscaping tools, baseball bats—one with a ragmop—and took up a classic Roman testudo formation as they advanced.

They weren’t even across the outdoor basketball court when we reached impassable density. Without knowing it, we configured ourselves into a wedge offense that broke their formation, the rest of us ready with zone defense to make their retreat a difficult one. They lashed out and put some of us down, the one with the ragmop just trying to keep us at bay, but they were too focused on individual survival to work collectively. By the time the rest skedaddled back to school, we brought down eight of them, two of whom later joining our numbers. When these boys stare at us with disappointment, perhaps the disappointment is theirs.

Such is the case everywhere nowadays: any encounter with us usually leaves you overwhelmed. Whether you putter along in a delivery van, perch in a remote fire tower, strand yourself on an island or hole up inside of a school, you hide because you find yourself the vast minority. Even in landscapes reduced to cars and buildings and bats and sticks and bullet casings and the bony remnants of those we chewed on too completely to leave anything to rise up with us, we trudge onward in search of more to chew, though you have grown scarce. Endangered, even. We are the new masters of this globe, though we are individually unaware of having attained such status.

Thus, when the diesel tank of the delivery van goes dry and the inhabitants roll up the rear door and make a break for the pump they pulled up to, they will soon find a phalanx of us marching at them from behind the tree line. Those stranded by design on an island will wake too late when a gaggle of us trudge right up onto shore, having slogged along the bottom of the sea for miles in breathless determination. Even those barricaded inside of a fire tower will run out of supplies and venture onto nearby boughs like squirrels to forage for ravioli. But even squirrels stumble on occasion as they transfer from tree to tree, and when those tasty slabs slip from their roosts, they will fall among a pack of us as though we anticipated their moment of imbalance. We will be as surprised as they, only more pleasantly so.

And so it will be with these boys. They may consider their current circumstance impregnable, but their days of endless basketball, volleyball and ragmop jousts in the empty hallways are numbered. They may think they have enough tater tots to last until Doomsday, but their true doom lies in the temperamental lock on the bay door, or that crack in the frosted glass of the locker room window at ground level that needs only an inadvertent kick to bust out. Or one of them will leave a door ajar after a breath of fresh air. Or a handful of us will happen upon the service tunnel that connects the concrete shed by the football field to the school basement.

But maybe these boys know down in their genes that their end is only a matter of time, that they’ve sunk in the hierarchy of the food chain. They freeze into invisibility like rabbits when something clicks or maybe groans at the dark end of a hallway. And someone may fall into horror movie stupidity and venture into the boiler room to investigate a strange sound or the sudden loss of heat when one of us brushes against the breaker box.

Our entry into their safe haven is a mere inevitability.

While we chew, we will regain a shade of what we had before we joined this binary existence. Our joy will translate only into a single word: Yes, Yes, Yes Yes Yes Yes–Yes. When we exhaust the Yes out of what is in our mouths, we will want nothing less than to have more Yes in our mouths, to chew the Yes out of another piece of what we once were. In our Yes is the desire to forever maintain the Yes, and we will chew every molecule of Yes from the world before we rot to the point of incapacity, when we will fall to the ground face up or face down and ask of the sky or grass were are incapable of looking away from, Chew? Chew? Chew? We will do so until we are dust that blows into dunes and drifts—pretty formations organized without a maker.

Richard K. Weems just released The Way of It – New and Selected Cheap Stories exclusively as a Kindle book for now, forthcoming on iBooks. Publications include New World Writing, The Mississippi Review, Pif Magazine, North American Review, and Local Knowledge. His zombie obsession is nothing new.

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Close shave

Photo by Kit

Associate fiction editor Robin McCarthy on why we selected today’s bonus fiction: This story is a love letter in the truest sense. We talk about there being a limited number of stories, delight in finding an old tale retold in an astonishing way. That is exactly what Missy-Marie Montgomery has done in “Dear Mr. Gerald Stern, I liked your poem.” This epistolary short work moves toward two tasks at once. First, it address the measured anxieties of infidelity, assessing the earworm it becomes in the narrator’s marriage in a simple, illustrative way. Then, as though a fresh take on unfaithful husbands were not enough to ask of less than six hundred words, Montgomery reminds us that so often it is art that shines the right level of light on the tumult of our lives. She sends us off the page, to the work of Gerald Stern and Jane Kenyon, and she asks us to consider all the ways the words can be wrought to revisit old beasts. There’s nothing overdone here. Instead, Missy Marie Montgomery quietly provides the sense that we’re all in this together, nudging us toward a story that has already been told and igniting the embers at its edges.

Dear Mr. Gerald Stern, I liked your poem

That is, I liked most of it. I hope you don’t mind if I lop off that last mule and the bit about the rubies.

I decided something today—today when I came across my husband by chance, just after work, smiling a fresh smile. It was delightful, but then somewhat disturbing, to see him unexpectedly. Because when he saw me, he looked…caught. Perhaps it was nothing, but I watched for five minutes, and that look stayed perched there on his face as we chatted affectionately, me on the way out of the gym, he on his way in. I considered asking him about it. He could certainly see me noticing him wearing his guilt like a bruise on his chin, or like a bit of food—from a restaurant we never go to—stuck in his beard. Perhaps it really was nothing. Or perhaps it was even about something good—like, he’d hoped to clean the kitchen before I got home, but now he could see that I’d get there before him and discover the spilled breakfast remains still on the floor.

(Mr. Stern, do you happen to know that Jane Kenyon poem about the surprise party? My students all think she’s a bitch, the woman in that poem, since the man had clearly gone to a lot of trouble to surprise her, they say. They insist it’s a nice thing he’s trying to do, for God’s sake, and they don’t see what her problem is at the end. Sometimes the young men in my class say, “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” “Women,” they say, with that tone. But I understood right away how a surprise is sometimes a trick. How it might feel to have naively bought the whole idea about the quiet, romantic walk in the park, because he was so convincing. So without guile. I got how the sudden appearance of all those friends in party hats could feel like a corroboration; like a butter knife in the heart.)

My own beloved husband is usually terrible at surprises. He says things to me like, “If I were planning to buy you a new coat for your birthday, what color should I get?” (I don’t think a coat is a good present, by the way.) My point is that my husband generally wears his thoughts right on his face. He’s a clear window; always has been. He can’t even lie about polite things, like, “Does this haircut make my neck look funny?”

And so I decided today that it would be OK if I mined the world for its pearls. Therefore, I chose not to pursue the origin of the bruise on my husband’s chin. Instead, I went to a bookstore and got a pastry and a coffee and a copy of this book with your poem in it, in which there is a weight that you carry. A weight that has become a normal part of your body by now. We’re alone in this café together, Mr. Gerald Stern. We’ve sat our weights down in the empty chairs. Mine is kicking me under the table, but I’m ignoring it. Instead, I’m asking you about your poem. I’m touching the poem lightly with my finger, saying that I wish it could end here, instead, at that part with the wings.

Missy-Marie Montgomery is a Humanities professor at Springfield College, where she teaches environmental writing, creative writing, and composition. Her work has appeared in over 25 literary magazines, including Bellevue Literary Review, Connecticut Review, Poetry International, Rattle, Pearl, Cimarron Review, and Crab Orchard Review.  Her manuscript Half-life of Passion was a finalist for the Zone 3 Press first book award, and a semi-finalist for the Kore first book award, the Crab Orchard Review first book award, and the Black Lawrence Press award.  Her manuscript The Fish Beneath the Words was a semi-finalist for the 2013 Crab Orchard Review first book award. Her website is www.missymariemontgomery.com.

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Photo by Timo Newton-Syms

What We Build

I recently realized that a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas seeps through the basement walls of one out of every fifteen homes. It’s called radon. Prevalent in the Midwest, it’s produced by the decay of uranium in soil. When it enters our lungs, it damages soft tissue with small radioactive explosions, opening airways and bloodstreams to the possibility of disease. What’s worse, the gas is concentrated during winter months, when warm, loose soil isn’t an option for ventilation, when idleness or busyness keep us trapped indoors.

It’s almost fascinating and inspiring, though: radon’s perseverance, its secretive nature, how it grows stronger over the colder months, when corn and soybean fields in mid-Minnesota harden beneath Arctic winds. Radon wants out of the ground and into open space. When it can’t rise, it finds a way down. It finds a crack. Meanwhile, the rest of us are locked where we don’t want to be, at part-time copywriting jobs, cluttered office desks, old buildings, or the library corner where we study most often. All of it becomes suddenly meaningless as we blink from behind a film of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a sludge of emotions stirred by vitamin D deficiency.

Seven years ago, I combated SAD by spending the day outdoors, weaving on cross country skis through New York woods. I rolled down hills, got stuck in drifts, and burned my lungs. I loved it, as much as I loved the passionate bursts of creative writing such outdoor activity often evoked, and I vowed to ski at least once a week every winter for the rest of my life. I always wanted to slide beneath pine branches heavy with snow, bowed to form rooms in the cold sunshine. Since then, I haven’t skied again, but I still claim, to this day, the title “Cross Country Skier,” just as I still claim “Creative Writer.” Inclined to believe in my titles, my grandparents recently dug up from their basement an ancient set of skis, boots, and poles. The equipment has since sat in a room’s corner, unused, leaning against a wall.

This past winter, instead of braving sub-zero temperatures for a ski or walk, my fiance and I popped vitamin D tablets, 800 milligrams of condensed dust a day, to stifle the effects of SAD and strengthen our immune systems and bones. We usually take them before we sit down in front of our computers to work on technical writing projects. Whenever I swallow the pills, I think of how I used to hike into the snowy woods when I was gloomy. I’d imagine suns entering my body. Standing in a patch of light and closing my eyes, I’d recite the story of a hundred stars exploding and glowing as one behind my ribs, melting the accumulated drifts and ice, making me clean and unbearably alive.

“Alive” isn’t a word I hear often from the people I know. It’s mostly “survive” or “tired.” When I take rare walks down the street, my feet no longer accustomed to wooded trails, I notice it’s mostly children running through yards, across boundary lines, between fences, through winter, around time. Snow forts they built climb from curbs, long blue tunnels carved carefully by hands curling somewhere deep and secret and thriving, leading to a place older passersby can’t see anymore. Most of us gave up our imaginative stories years ago. We replaced passion with responsibilities, deadlines, worries, SAD, and supplements, things we never needed as younger people.

In houses filled with radon, we grow old. We stay busy and won’t see what will finally end us: hard falls, worn heart muscle, gas in basements and in our lungs, or the barrier of negative reactions we’ve collected from trudges through winters we can’t change, but always seem to fight. We lay idleness or busyness like shields over the emptiness in our lives, afraid to acknowledge that what is most toxic to us are the stories we no longer build. We won’t admit that our deficiencies are caused not by what the world refuses to give, but by what of the world we refuse to embrace.

Maybe, sometime near the end of March, when the air is still cold, we will leave our hurried tasks for a moment and move outside more often. There will be a small chair just outside our front doors, one we’ve always noticed but had never previously sat in because it always looked so out of place. We’ll lean back. Our shoulders won’t ache like we thought they would against the metal. Our minds won’t feel strange sitting still. There will be a huge oak tree, leafless, domed in oxygen, growing in front of us, and its clean air will feel healthier than the radiation we’ve been breathing in for years. We’ll know that this place is where we’ve always belonged.

Looking at the road, we’ll imagine a story we can write. It will be about a sad old man, sitting on his front porch, believing he’s too far from the road and concealed by railing for people to see him. He’s sat there every morning for twenty-three years to drink coffee alone, staring at people as they walk by. He can feel the distance between him and everything else, as if he’s a single point in a huge field of disconnected points. One day, however, a passerby waves at the man. It takes him a minute, but the man waves back. He feels very happy, very alive. He feels as if, together, he and this stranger are filling the same coffee cup with sunlight, holding it easily when it’s full, tipping it back and forth between each other’s lips with every turn of the wrist.

There’s nothing special about Emily Engelhard. Like the rest of us, she’s just here for a short time, wandering around on the roads, trying to learn how to see the world as something new, recycled. In the meantime, she’s testing the beginnings of how to live on art alone through the start of her new venture, E & J’s Creative Services – Art and Writing, on Facebook. She thanks Kindred, Valley Voices, Gloom Cupboard, and The Clever Title for publishing her essays and poems.

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Braiding Spaces

by JHow on March 27, 2014

in Announcements, Blog, Book Reviews

A sunset view of the turn ponds on the former GM engine block manufacturing plant property

Photo by University of Michigan SNRE

A review of Jim Daniels’ Birth Marks by Zarah Moeggenberg

Before sitting down to reflect on Jim Daniels’ Birth Marks, I must mention that I had read it on four separate occasions and in four entirely different locales. The first time, I was home in Marquette, Michigan, sitting in my living room, the book seemingly warm and crisp, having just received it earlier that day from our managing editor. The wind off Lake Superior whistled through my front window as I made my way through the poems. The second time, I was in Ontario at a family-friend’s wedding. Certain images began to resonate in Daniels’ work, but not quite. The third time I read the book, I was in Bay City, Michigan, visiting family. Those moments where Daniels writes of his familial connections with the automotive industry spoke to me as I drove across the Saginaw River to the run-down bars that began my early adulthood, the once vibrant GM plant I passed desolate, having shrunk over the last 15 years from several thousand workers to a measly couple hundred. In “Company Men” Daniels writes

We do not look for new jobs.
We take what they give us. We drink our coffee
Black. We tip the mailman at Christmas. We mow
our lawns and prop up our homes… (50)

In Bay City, the men who would stand at the bar I served $2.25 Budlight bottles and $1.50 Busch Lites to would lean into each other, whisper about what the boss had said that day. Pension this, pension that, pension lost. I’d watch their eyes gloss over. Their wives would pick them up after the fish fry, they’d go to mass the next morning, mow the lawn in straight lines, and roll in on Monday for another buzz. I had left all of this in Bay City until Daniels’ book.

I find it interesting that I was the editor paired with Birth Marks. Perhaps it is because I am the one from Michigan. Perhaps it is because I’m leaving soon. This final time I read Daniels’ work I was in flight from Dallas to San Antonio to look at a PhD program.

…The river has flowed,
continues to flow. Its job is to have nothing to say.
It says it well and without complaint. (59)

Daniels made me want to turn the plane around. This book is about home.

There is an interconnectedness to home, and Daniels captures this in every poem he writes. When I got to San Marcos, just north of San Antonio, I couldn’t help but read one of his poems out loud to the two women I was staying with. All of us Yoopers in some way or another, I had met one of them because she had gone to Northern Michigan University for her master’s and ended up in Texas to complete her PhD. We had really met over Facebook, myself a transplant to the U.P., herself a true Yooper. The poem I read out loud captured the way, perhaps, that we had come to know each other, its structure entirely dependent upon association of action or noun identification. While Marquette was being hammered by a blizzard, we sat in our tanks and tees in a hot living room while I read Daniels’ poem aloud. The poem “Making a Case for the Letter” begins with Daniels describing opening a letter from a friend whose wedding he had attended several years ago, the bride’s friend a woman that he attempts to have sex with.

in a car parked in her parents’ driveway trying to have sex in December—
unsuccessful, despite good intentions and slippery clothing,
yet I promised to call her before going back to college but then
my friend Jack called from Alma to tell me my autumn girlfriend
Anne Devine had died in a car accident in Colorado, asleep in the back seat
…and though we weren’t sleeping together
at the time I may have been her last lover—
she was kind to my dog and all living creatures…
when I open Doug’s letter, a tiny yellow leaf falls onto my red kitchen table… (34)

Part of why I read this poem aloud was because we were discussing where thought goes and how we can map it. Almost every poem in Birth Marks possesses a fossil-like quality, or perhaps some sort of tracing within its structure. We can see this again in “Lip Gloss, Belgium.”

My daughter pulls on my hair to make sure
I’m not a witch. She cried when I beat her

at ping-pong—the computer’s red thing
just underlined that: I’m supposed to capitalize

Ping-Pong. Red Thing wants to be capitalized, too.
A train runs under my chair and crashes into my foot.

I wish I’d grown up in Ping Pong, Wisconsin… (28)

Here, we can see the progression of association that Daniels uses to move the poem forward. Most of the poems in this collection I have found to be this way. It really pulls me in, the narrative braided, complex, and rich. I’ve seen this a lot in the work of Susan Terris and even Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Another place that I found this to be particularly effective was in “Taking the Leap” where we have narratives focusing on the son, the speaker, and the speaker’s mother braided into an exploration of familial intimacy and loss. It really keeps the energy up. Typically, I honestly have a hard time making my way through lengthy poems. Some of Daniels’ poems are three pages long. But, this braiding method he uses is really effective and I didn’t once feel like I was reading numbly.

As a spoken-word poet, it is also difficult for me to find, at times, poets who are heavily focused on the narrative. In Texas, as we drove out to scenic areas, and even some remote neighborhoods I may find myself living in, my friend who’d I’d met through NMU and Facebook would exclaim something that seemed entirely random, myself and her roommate chuckling. We would ask, “Okay, how did you come to thinking about that?”

She would then link all of the associations and we would nod. Where we are, where we are led, entirely hinges on clusters of connections, sometimes not linear at all, but still mininarratives (fine) all the same. In “One Arm Raised” we experience this as readers:

[…]I taught my daughter
to make dandelion chains. Our jeans smudged
yellow with the jazz of spring[…]

A young man staggered towards us, one arm raised,
blood dripping. He knelt in the dirt and ran the cut
under water. He asked for a tissue… (52)

This is a very simple example I have chosen that demonstrates how Daniels constructs narrative. Toward the end, we find that all of this poem, which began with the words “In the park yesterday” was generated by Daniels (or the speaker) seeing batches of dandelions. He remarks, “[t]oday [the dandelions] sit loosely piled on our porch, color draining” to close the poem. Many more of Daniels’ poems are more complex and possess that braided quality I was speaking about earlier.

Michigan is all over this book and in this 80-degree weather I want to go back to that blizzard I missed. I want to be next to the man flying home who will tell me about the mine that’s opening, the two up the road shutting down. I want to hear about those moments like in “One Word” where we are waiting for that light to change, or the ones in “Cosmetic” when we are waiting for the right moment to force a white lie to make someone’s day, or the ones that fill us with whiskey breath and dollar menu (no mistake) hamburgers like in “My Two Aunts.” Daniels’ book brings me back to small town Michigan and especially, the rusty clink and clang, the steady whiz and honk of Detroit at rush hour. This book has its hands dirtied Michigan brown.

Birth marks are anything but physical. This book is the blue collar guys sitting at my bar, my Saginaw River, my shrinking GM plant parking lot, my McDonald’s coffee, my students texting on their phones and plagiarizing their papers, the six packs we stole as kids out of the fridge when no one was looking, those girls I couldn’t quite fuck in my backseat either, those empty lots of dandelions, those foreclosed homes, and my Yooper friends showing me everything Texas. Place grounds us so much in how we generate writing, how we explore our words, how we articulate the home in us. Daniels reminds us not to forget how home builds us forward.

Zarah Moeggenberg is a poet living in the upper peninsula of Michigan. She is a Master of Fine Arts Poetry Candidate at Northern Michigan University and has been Associate Poetry Editor of Passages North for the last three years. Zarah’s poetry has been most recently published in The Fourth River, ellipsis.literature and art, Diverse Voices Quarterly, SunDog Lit, and Ellipsis Lit Mag. Zarah loves her Pomeranian named Teddy, hiking in snow, snobby coffee of select varieties, and running next to Lake Superior. She will pursue a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition next fall at Washington State University.

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Photo by Kamil Porembiński

Associate fiction editor Sofie Harsha, on today’s story: The world Anthony Varallo imagines in this piece managed to simultaneously evoke in me both a sense of dread and a sense of comfort. The quiet threading of the hunted Rainsford throughout is what does it for me. And, of course, the simple and lovely poeticism of each line. Was that the Time is perfect for those moments we half-remember. Those moments when the world when relationships, seemingly benign, suddenly become littered with both real and imagined fears. Those moments we inherently understand we are bound for transformation the minute we start looking back.

Was that the Time We Walked Through a Field or “The Most Dangerous Game”?

It was hot out, that’s for certain. We hadn’t dressed properly for a long afternoon walk, especially on an unmarked path, as this one was, with tire tracks disappearing into the mud and cows lingering beneath low trees. They can’t hurt you, you said, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to go for a walk. You knew that. I was happy sitting by the lake where kids shouted from Jet-Skis. It was that kind of lake. Or it wasn’t. Was it the ocean instead? Hadn’t I just washed ashore, my boat lost at sea? My clothes seemed torn. I wandered through the forest, following the path that led to your mansion. Just the kind of place I’d expect from you: extravagant, excessive, lit by torches.

“You have some wonderful heads here,” said Rainsford as he ate a particularly well-cooked filet mignon.

I wasn’t afraid of the cows, really. But there were so many of them, so few of us. Do the math, I said. Orange tags hung from their ears. Remember that? My idea: run the length of the fence before they noticed us. Your idea: walk right through them, following the path. But weren’t you hunting me then? Didn’t the path disguise a trap whereby I’d impale myself on several lengths of sharpened sticks? A tiger trap. Wasn’t that your plan? I followed you anyway.

The pent-up air burst hotly from Rainsford’s lungs.

Up close, I could hear the cows breathing. Their fur matted with briars. They regarded us like we were the idea of something they already knew. Wind, perhaps. You cupped your hands to you mouth. Moo, you said. Cows, formerly sitting, stood. Tails swished. I began to run. For my life, I would have said, had you thought to ask.

“Nerve, nerve, nerve!” he panted as he went along.

The fence was high, but I managed to jump it. Or was it an ocean cliff? Didn’t I feel myself falling from an impossible height? Didn’t I pierce the water like a flung coin, rising, then gasping for air? Didn’t you think me gone?

“Rainsford!” screamed the general. “How in God’s name did you get in here?”

That night, we stayed up late playing cards, drinking beer. You lost several hands to me, on purpose, I thought, by way of apology. It didn’t matter. We cooked fish over an open fire, something that had always been on my list. Then S’mores, because those were also on the list. It was cool out, starry. The stars seemed to say, You’ve wonYou’ve won again.

Or was that you, dealing another round?

He had never slept in a better bed, Rainsford decided.

Anthony Varallo is the author of This Day in History, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award; Out Loud, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize; and Think of Me and I’ll Know (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press). Currently he is an associate professor of English at the College of Charleston, where he is the fiction editor of Crazyhorse.

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Photo by Jon Madison

Josh Weston wants to tell a more complicated story about the founding of the GLCL and its inaugural fiction contest, but it turns out it may not be that hard to get good people to work together to publish excellent lit. Maybe all you have to do is ask.

Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters (GLCL) is a nonprofit organization based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, started in early 2013. The GLCL hopes to satisfy a simple, but vital, mission: to encourage, promote, and celebrate the literary endeavors of writers within the Great Lakes region. To that end, last spring, we held our first fiction contest. Realizing that the promise of publication and the prospect of having one’s work read by a well-known and respected author are big incentives to contest submitters, we set out to a) partner with a regional literary magazine interested in publishing our winning story and to b) find a celebrity judge.

As it turned out, our luck was as good as our expectations were high. It isn’t even a good story. We asked, and Passages North and Caitlin Horrocks simply said yes. The action montage of the facilitating of the contest is just as bland. We put out a call for submissions and submissions came in, a big gaggle of which blew everyone’s hair back. From these, Ms. Horrocks chose Joe Sacksteder’s “Earshot—Grope—Cessation.” Happily, once you get to “Earshot” things pick up dramatically.

Furthering our streak of working with great writers and forces of Good, currently GLCL has partnered with The Michigan Poet for our 2014 Poetry Contest. The winner will be chosen by final judge Thomas Lynch. The winning poem, in addition to being celebrated at a special reading with Thomas Lynch in Grand Rapids on Saturday, April 12th during National Poetry Month, will be published on GLCL’s website and distributed as a special broadside by The Michigan Poet; the winning poet will also receive a cash award of $100.00.

I conducted the following interview with Caitlin Horrocks over email in the fall of 2013.

Josh Weston: What’s it like to edit for The Kenyon Review? To what extent does your experience as an editor inform your writing?

Caitlin Horrocks: My connection to The Kenyon Review began way back when I was an undergraduate at Kenyon College and applied to be a “student associate.” I spent one year stuffing SASEs with explanations of how the magazine was filled so far into future issues that we weren’t even reading new submissions. (The magazine had publicized this, but kept receiving submissions anyway). I spent the second year saying “no” to literally every single thing I read, largely because I was unreasonably terrified of wasting a more senior editor’s time if I said “yes” and s/he didn’t agree. I didn’t trust my own taste at all. It took more than a single vote from me for any piece to actually be rejected, but I certainly wasn’t a help to the authors whose work I was reading.

When I started sending out submissions myself, I could draw a couple of lessons from that: I knew the volume of submissions a magazine gets, and I had a very clear sense that competent writing was not going to be enough to catch anyone’s attention. Secondly, at all those magazines where your story fails to catch someone’s attention, the rejection is as likely to be related to the quality of your story as it is to the particular state of mind of the particular editor who picks up your work at a particular time on a particular day at a particular point in the coming-together of that particular issue. I truly believe that great work rises to the top: great stories find homes sooner or later, hopefully sooner. But editors are subjective, fallible people. I certainly was, and am, although in different ways now. That can be maddening or comforting to the submitter, or both at once.

I returned to KR as fiction editor last year, when former fiction editor Geeta Kothari moved over to nonfiction. It’s been an honor, a pleasure, and an education. There’s a main office in Gambier, Ohio, but members of the editorial staff live in several different states and cities. We do most of our work online via the Submittable system and email.

Josh: The big hand-wringing question people ask every year is, What is the state of American short fiction? I don’t even know what I mean by “state” here, but I guess what I’m really wondering is, from your position behind the desk at the Kenyon Review and judging for various contests, what do you see as some of the bigger challenges for the writer of short stories today? 

Caitlin: The state of American short fiction? There is a lot of it. Our reading period at KR opened five days ago, and we’ve got literally 600 short stories in the submissions queue already. For a form that doesn’t usually earn much money, that some people write grudgingly for workshops when they’d rather be writing novels, there are a lot of stories out there.

A challenge is that some of those stories feel like they were written grudgingly for a workshop. I’ve got no time for claims about how MFA programs are sucking the life out of American letters; I think MFA programs are great places to surround yourself with people who care about writing and reading and doing stylistically diverse, interesting work. I loved my time in an MFA program. But I also recognize some truth in the Flannery O’Connor quote, “So many people can now write competent stories that the short story is in danger of dying of competence.”

Short stories have continued to lose traction in the larger “marketplace” at the same time that there’s been a profusion of print and online literary magazines. There are plenty of homes for short stories that are read almost exclusively by people looking for homes for their own short stories. I’m just reiterating the dilemma poets have had for ages. But I think this shows up sometimes in the stories themselves: these lovely 16 page objects saddled with all kinds of inherited wisdom about what short stories do well or poorly, or about how you don’t need plot when you have beautiful prose and an epiphany placed exactly two paragraphs from the end. (As Charles Baxter has written, “That old insight train just keeps chugging into the station, time after time.”) I love reading short stories in which the author seems to have thought deliberately about what kind of ride she’s sending the reader on, about how to push the form to a capacious, surprising place. If the story didn’t surprise the writer, it’s probably not going to surprise the reader.

And those stories, the surprising, pleasure-giving ones, are not rare. I read more of them for KR than we could ever hope to publish. I don’t want to scold short story writers nearly as much as I want us all to raise a glass together and keep doing what we’re doing.

Josh: What’s your favorite/least favorite thing about editing for publication?

Caitlin: My least favorite is saying “no” all the time. My favorite is when I get to say “yes.” Especially to a writer who hasn’t heard very many “yes”es yet.

Josh: One of the things I like most about This Is Not Your City is this palpable joie de vivre I get reading it. One example is Wil and Lucinda in “In the Gulf of Aden, Past the Cape of Guardafui.” They’re a couple with a complex grudge. They’re on a cruise, their first vacation since their son Aaron was born with very severe special needs. “He had learned to swallow, eventually, and to roll over unassisted. He was ten years old, and no one had any idea how long he might live.” The story begins on the cruise with Wil and Lucinda telling their fellow cruise-goers about fictional children with outrageous, wunderkind talents that they make up on the spot. Then the cruise ship is taken over by pirates, and they have to subsist alone in their cabin on little more than candy and crackers for four days. You see Will and Lucinda go from manically desperate and world-weary to quietly desperate and resigned, and yet this is a love story that kind of irradiates an earned, disillusioned hope. Short of asking, “How did you do this?” could you talk about the presence of joy in your work?

Caitlin: Thank you for saying my work has joie de vivre! That’s incredibly flattering. In that particular story, the joy started with the choice to write a pirates-hijack-a-cruise-ship story in the first place. I mean, what was I thinking? I’d seen a goofy news item about a real-life attempted cruise hijacking, and just decided to try and do it. It seemed like a story that shouldn’t work, or at least that I wouldn’t be the right person to write it, but I wanted to try. And then when I started thinking about the couple’s life before the cruise, I ended up with the disabled son. I don’t have a severely disabled child anymore than I’ve ever been on an actual cruise, but it felt right for the story, so I started researching. Doggedness is another quality that’s been important to me, which is funny, because that sounds like the opposite of joy. But I love taking a story that’s an adventurous mess and just trying and trying to make it work. If the author isn’t challenging herself, playing with something new, I think the reader is less likely to perceive that joie de vivre.

Josh: What have you read recently that’s blown your hair back?

Caitlin: Two really different recommendations:

Spectacle by Susan Steinberg might not be for every reader, but it’s so smart and ferocious and inventive. There’s an intelligence on the page thinking through serious ideas about gender roles and female identity (and plenty of other things), but doing it in a way that is formally adventurous and artistically alive. Also sharp and often funny. These stories are about something without the collection collapsing under its own aboutness.

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt I can imagine being for just about every reader. It’s all there: a suspenseful plot; vivid atmosphere; rich, poignant sense of character; wonderful prose. It’s a rare book that does all of that so well.

Josh: I found this thing on the internet where Nadine Gordimer asked herself questions that she’d never been asked in an interview. I don’t think she meant that these were general questions every interviewer ought to be asking authors, but I can’t resist a couple of them. No one could ever ask these questions with a straight face, but I figure having a Nobel Laureate as an intermediary absolves me of tactlessness.

Gordimer Q1. What is the most important lack in your life?

Caitlin: Lack of time. I suppose this is true in terms of both the day-to-day, and eventual mortality.

Gordimer Q2. As a liberated woman, would you nevertheless prefer to have been born a man?  

Caitlin: No.

Josh: Do you have any thoughts on the popularity of Duck Dynasty?

Caitlin: Absolutely none. Now if only you’d asked me about Dance Moms or Supermarket Superstar.

Josh: Okay, what TV shows do you watch and what do you like about them?

Caitlin: Two longtime favorites are Project Runway and Top Chef. (I thought I was done after the last season of Project Runway, but this one lured me back.) I love them both as portrayals of the creative process. As a writer, I’m very aware that what I do is incredibly boring to actually watch. I sit around and type, and then at the end I’ve produced a pile of paper. On Top Chef and Project Runway, you get to watch people make notes or sketch, select fabric or food, run around like mad trying to execute their vision, receive criticism, and then edit their work accordingly (or ignore the criticism at their peril). The best laid plans go awry, the skirt made of sombreros is a hit, the sweet potato ice cream doesn’t freeze but goes over really well as sweet potato custard… Most of the people on both shows are genuinely good at what they do, and it’s fun to watch them handle bizarre challenges.

Josh: You mentioned in an email that you played classical piano for a bunch of years. What does your musical CV look like? How does music inform your writing?

Caitlin: My musical CV is not impressive: four years of really bad violin, eight years of choirs, ten years of piano lessons, and one solitary year of actually getting paid to play piano, as an accompanist for voice lessons. I’m extremely rusty now, but I try not to go too long without playing at all. Currently, music’s been informing my work in a really straightforward way, in that I’m working on a novel inspired by a turn-of-the-last-century composer. His real-life compositions unlock or suggest different aspects of the character I’m creating. For example, I’m short, with short fingers, which is a problem for a pianist. I was struggling to play these huge intervals in one of his pieces (which historically, he know he performed himself), and realizing I could feel the shape of his hands from the notes on the page; I was inhabiting his physicality (and failing, with my stubby hands), almost a century after he died.

Josh: In August you married the writer W. Todd Kaneko. When I imagine a two-writer household, I imagine a high energy newspaper-type atmosphere from circa 1976, where everyone smokes and yells and has ink stains on their clothes. Are the two of you always aware of what the other is working on? Is there a distinction between your workspaces? What’s the writing part of your relationship like? 

Caitlin: Todd’s a productivity monster. Every April, he and a group of similarly masochistic poets celebrate National Poetry Month by writing a poem every day. These are not tossed-off haiku at 11:55pm: these are serious poems, and he somehow carves out time during days that in February or March already seemed impossibly full. That’s one of the things I love and resent about living with this particular writer: he shames me by example into getting my own work done.

Mostly, that work happens pretty quietly: no yelling, and few ink stains. We have separate dedicated work spaces, but we’re only occasionally actually in them. Some days we’ll both start off at the dining room table, then maybe Todd migrates to the living room, and I eventually migrate to a second-floor office. Then I’ll hear professional wrestling come on downstairs, and realize he was politely waiting for me to leave. He’s a good reader of my work, and I try to be a helpful reader of his, but it’s also a gift just to be with someone who doesn’t need convincing that a really great way to spend a Sunday afternoon is holed up with an open Word document.

Josh: To clarify, if wrestling comes on, that means you have to leave the whole house? Or just go upstairs?

Caitlin: He has the DVR programmed to pick up all his wrestling shows, and he usually only plays them when I’ve already left the room, or am out of the house. I don’t know if he’s being considerate or just self-conscious, but I don’t usually get chased out, even for pay-per-views. He’s been writing wrestling essays, and a book of dead wrestler elegies, so now it’s all “research.”


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Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters founder Josh Weston talks with Joe Sacksteder, winner of this year’s GLCL Fiction Contest about writing, music, cartoons, and more. Read Joe’s prize-winning story here and for double the experience, watch and listen below.

Josh Weston: How long have you been writing?

Joe Sacksteder: There were some early masterpieces, third or fourth grade, through a program my school ran called Project Author. I remember a sequel to Ghostbusters (the one we’ve been waiting for for the last twenty years), plus a story about a magical baseball card shop that appeared in my backyard and gave me all the baseball cards I wanted. I did the illustrations too, and they are terrifying. In eighth grade, I started writing a bloated fantasy trilogy that owed a lot to Tolkien and the flavor texts on Magic Cards. In high school, I found that there was no way for the teachers to tell if I was taking notes or if I was writing a bad story.

Josh: “Earshot–Grope–Cessation” is about a mother, Beth, who takes up piano after her son, Josh (who was also a pianist), dies in a car crash. Writing about music is notoriously tough, but you fairly kill it. This is from a passage about Beth’s progression as a pianist.

Most of the piece alternates between two ungainly figurations. In the first, the thumbs cross over each other, wounded shadow puppet birds beating their wings at what pinions them. It’s even tougher when you realize you can’t use your pinkies, that you need them in reserve for subsequent legato leaps to outlying notes. Then their inverse figuration, distal chords you grope to find without the use of your thumbs. It was like Brahms had only a cursory knowledge of human hands.

You mentioned that you do play. I guess my question is, What does your relationship to both music and to writing look like? 

Joe: I wrote a very different first draft of “Earshot” about ten years ago, as a sophomore in college. It was based on a different piece of music as well, Invention #13 by Bach, and was basically just a Hemingway iceberg type of story where a mom is playing a sad piece of music because she is sad. I forgot the story for ten years until one day I was practicing the Brahms Intermezzo that became the basis of the rewrite, and the idea entered my head of somebody holding a recital hostage by refusing to bring the piece to a close.

I majored in music and English in undergrad, practicing piano for six hours a day in a little soundproof, padded room – usually from ten P.M. to four A.M. I did not become a concert pianist, as I pretty much knew I wouldn’t, but I feel like all that work is years later translating into both a subject matter and a rhythmic sensitivity that’s helping me as a writer.

Non-musician writers usually focus 99% on the transportive, emotional element of performing music with 1% left for the mechanics. What they sometimes fail to acknowledge is that musicians subdue difficult pieces of music by hours and years of dissecting them to their bones. The emotional content goes without saying. We as writers run this risk any time we venture into somebody else’s expertise; I’ve been laboring over this one story for years in which I have to sound like an authority in architecture, fashion, cars, and chess. Inevitably it will come across as researched rather than lived. It’s toughest to know what not to write.

Josh: My favorite detail in “Earshot” is that Josh died in his car way outside of town, flipping it into a field in the middle of nowhere. His family never learns what he was doing or where he was going when he died. To me, that’s a perfect representation of what it’s like to lose someone you love. You realize you didn’t know what they were doing, and now you can’t ask. I’m just wondering if you could talk about this moment as it relates to Beth’s decision to not end the piece she learns for the recital.

Joe: This detail is actually something that I preserved from the first draft, which is probably why it has that Hemingway-esque hint of unseen trauma. Since it’s supposed to hit on a gut level, it’s a hard one to explain, but I think it’s a nagging mystery that would attach itself in some way to any subject matter it was presented alongside. I don’t really suggest that Josh had a Laura Palmer type of shadowy second life he might have been jetting to or from. Even that would provide some type of answer, and any answer is more comforting than just not knowing. Then you live with it forever.

The tricky part was how to accomplish narratively what Beth is doing on the stage musically. How do I tell the same story over and over without it just infuriating the reader? A friend referred me to Burroughs’s “Frisco Kid,” which showed how I might go about achieving this effect through cutup. I wrote three or four different versions of the story from scratch until I was satisfied. The structure is pretty darn elaborate, involving four symmetrical sections, repetition and variation of sentences and phrases from both past and future sections, and a rhythmic pattern that signals the upcoming repeat of the music in the story: two syllables–one syllable–three syllables (the title, for example). Suffice it to say that Beth can’t stop playing the piece because she can’t come to terms with her son’s death.

Josh: Do you have any thoughts on the popularity of Duck Dynasty? Tales?

Joe: This show is from a golden age of TV cartoons that Disney mostly failed to usher in, which is a shame since this show was so wonderful. First off, it has one of the great theme songs in all of TV history. Life truly is like a hurricane. Some would say that it reinforces a corporate/capitalist agenda by showing that the avaricious money-swimming fat cat is a good character in the end. It taught us as kids that the biggest tragedy that can happen is a rich person’s money disappearing. I popped in a mystery VHS a few years ago and was delighted to find it contained the DuckTales episode “Home Sweet Homer,” in which the ducks travel back in time and go on an Odyssey-like adventure. I hadn’t seen the episode since I was a kid, but I remembered parts of it so vividly, like when the Siren island almost eats Scrooge. It was even more formative for me than I’d previously supposed.

Josh: What have you read recently that’s blown your hair back?

Joe: This year: Deb Olin Unferth’s Vacation, Gabe Durham’s FUN CAMP, Bennett Sims’s A Questionable Shape, Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet. And a big shout out, of course, to Caitlin. When I first heard of this contest, I had just read an amazing story by Caitlin in Unstuck called “The Untranslatables.” Since reading This is Not Your City this summer, I have been applying copious amounts of L.A. Looks hair gel to try to gain back my semblance of suaveness. Roxane Gay got it right in her review; in this book we have stories that don’t look experimental at all at first but are achieving remarkable things very subtly and through seemingly infinite variety.

Josh: Process question. Where do you write? When? How? and with what sort of equipment?

Joe: If “Earshot” is any indication, I write a really crappy story in college and then pull my hair out ten years later wrestling it into something else entirely. I actually think this is kind of how I do things. I’m big on editing and rewriting. I have a lot of ideas, and I spend most of my time trying to forget them. The ones I see through to completion are the ones that won’t leave me alone. I used to like, and still kind of like, writing longhand. My pen moves at the same pace as my brain. But I’ve found more and more that I’m writing work that isn’t linear, that needs to be pieced together like a puzzle. And Word lends itself to this much better, I think. Tired of plopping myself down at a desk, I cleared off one shelf of my bookshelf and converted it into a standing desk a few years ago with the idea that I would think better if I was standing. So now I have to plop myself down on the couch to write. Ideally I get up late, eat a really big breakfast, and write from noon to four or five o’clock. But sometimes pesky teaching and life necessities insist on altering this routine.

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San Pellegrino Limonata

Managing Editor Tim Johnston and Nonfiction/Hybrids Editor Matthew Gavin Frank wildly over-introduce today’s bonus essay.

Tim Johnston: If I had to guess what Matthew Gavin Frank would say about “Expostulation,” I’d say he’d use the word *delicious*—not because it has anything to do with a beverage that might be delicious (I don’t know. I’ve never had it, never heard of it until Cook), but because I spun the MGF Wheel of Yes and landed on D. If I pulled the lever and got A, then *Adooooreee* (said, sultrily, for no given reason other than to project an uneasiness to the room). S: Seduced, (said, oddly enough, as though he’s ashamed to admit it, as though he was hypothetically turned on, for the lack of a better image, by a cactus). I could go on, but why waste ammo? But overall I think Cook’s piece resonates (yep, MGF’s go-to letter R) with him because it’s a piece about the writer at a desk who doesn’t want to be, and finds a way to escape. I’d say *relatable*, but I already used up my R word.

Matthew Gavin Frank: As if engaging an odd Oulipo experiment (“In three pages or less, shoehorn your favorite carbonated beverage into the form of remonstrance both breezily interrogative and scholarly…OK: Go!”); as if stringing a tenuous rope bridge from Harry Mathews through Donald Barthelme to Patrick Madden; as if rifling through Fabio Morabito’s beach bag (if not his Toolbox), Cook manages, in “Expostulation” to do one of my favorite things the essay can do: maintain a singular focus on a seemingly mundane object and scratch at it until its weird inner holiness begins to leak out. As a result, “Expostulation” is a little bemusing, a little goofy, a little profound (in spite of itself), and a whole lot of fun. Indeed, I am deliciously seduced by this piece, which resonated like a cold burst of cracked carbonation in the face. And I adore (one E) being deliciously seduced in precisely this way.


At around 4:00 PM, I crack open an ice-cold can of limonata, which, if you don’t know, is a beverage flavored with lemon juice and sugar made by the San Pellegrino company of the famous city of Milan, Italy. Milan, if you don’t know, is known as Milano in the native tongue and it is found in the northern, Lombardy region of Italy. A couple of other things about Milano occur to me. One is that Milano was briefly (third century C.E.) the capital of the (Western) Roman Empire under Diocletian, who enacted large-scale military reform. Another is that Milano is not very close to a beach. In fact, I’m closer to a beach right now in Hadley, Massachusetts than Constantine was when he declared Milano the capital of the empire. I do like to sip my limonata as I read from the poet, however, the poet who writes, “No joyless forms shall regulate our living calendar.” Specifically, the poet is talking about spending an idle day with his sister in Nature, not squeaking out thoughts at his desk, but I think I understand the idea of not letting un-joyful forms into the old living calendar. For me, limonata is a form of joy. It gives me some heartburn, especially when I drink it on top of garlic pickles, but have you seen the can? The can is composed of a calming powder blue and brilliant bright yellow combination that takes me directly to the beach on a cloudless day, miles from the thoughtless khaki of my walls, my chair, my pants. I imagine the folks in Milano, far from a beach, feel the same way as they walk around Milano sipping their ice-cold limonatas. The leaves of the lemon depicted under the San Pellegrino name are a vibrant green (the green of the green leaves of citrus trees) and the familiar red star of the San Pellegrino label rounds out a color scheme that regulates my calendar with pure joy, as I mentioned.

I count seven fonts on the can, four within the design that I am sure the smart marketing people at San Pellegrino are responsible for, and three more contributed by whoever stamps the can’s weight and indicates that the can is recyclable alongside its redemption value. (I feel that I know something, very vague, about Milano and fonts, but it does not occur to me.)

Before I collect my can from the office kitchenette in the afternoon, I’ve moved it from the refrigerator to the freezer, where I’ve let it rest for around thirty minutes, ensuring that it’s extra cold for my trip to the beach. I try to drink the limonata while it is at its absolute coldest, both because it tastes great when it is very cold and also because the colder the can remains the smaller the amount of condensation that collects on the outside of the can while my stinky-warm office brings my delicious-freezing beverage up to room temperature, a temperature far from Nature. A not-so-joyful thought is that someday I may run out of limonata. Right now, however, I am working my way through a number of six-packs my wife bought me when she saw that my limonata was on sale.

The sands of time, the beaches of Milano or Hadley—I am always careful to return the limonata to the napkin that I place on my desk during my limonata hour. The napkin collects the small amount of condensation that inevitably occurs. I take the condensation-dampened napkin and wipe up a dusty corner of my desk when I’m done drinking, a corner I’ve typically missed during my normal dusting routine.

What will replace the limonata when it’s gone? Coffee? Tea? I imagine the poet drinking stream water with a twig and a piece of cinnamon jutting out of an earthenware mug, some maple leaves or berries muddled in the bottom. The man of Nature I could be. The poet never would have had a limonata unless he traveled to Italy (which I think he did when he was ill?) toward the end of his life. My guess, though, is that he sipped his healing tonic on the beach, head tilted back, eyes to powder blue sky.

Thomas Cook lives in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and is co-editor and publisher of Tammy.

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