Moment alone

Photo by Ponyinthedark

In this week’s column, we get a taste of our staff’s contingency plans in the case of a zombie apocalypse. We also get to note how little mention is made of attempting to rescue friends and family in the face of the living dead…

Tyler Dettloff
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Kinross, Michigan

In the case of zombie apocalypse: Return to where I grew up in Michigan. There is a big swamp called the Delirium Wilderness there that can supply enough cattail root, cranberries, fiddle-head ferns, and wild game to supply food all year. The swamp is thick and has rivers that run through it, zombies would sink in the muck because they move so damn slow–gotta be quick to get through Delirium. That’s one reason why they turned the defunct Kinross airbase into a prison. The surrounding swamp acts like a moat to keep the prisoners from runnin off. I think I can survive in that swamp moat better than prisoners. And zombies.

Kaitlin Kolhoff
Intern, Fiction
Mt. Pleasant

My plan in a zombie apocalypse is to throw myself into the line of fire. Immediately become one of the horde. Unless AMC is there to document it, I’m probably better off being a zombie.

Josh Brewer
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Hot Springs, Arkansas

Assuming zombies function like capitalism, I would flee to the Porcupine Mountains to live with the bears. I would, of course, plan to live in my Volkswagen bus where I might complete my novel before freezing to death.

Ania Payne
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Monticello, Arkansas

If there was a zombie apocalypse, I would use all my money to hire a boat/plane to take me to a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. I don’t think zombies have the motor skills to swim through strong currents, so I’d probably be safe…but if they did get me, at least I’d die happy on a tropical island.

Cam Contois
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Marquette, Michigan

In an occurrence of a zombie apocalypse, I would go to my uncle’s hunting camp in the Upper Peninsula woods. The UP is a sparsely populated area and there would not be too many zombies around. Also, there would be hunting rifles at the camp to ward off the Yooper zombies wandering the woods.

Paige Frazier
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Louisa, Kentucky

I have thought about this question in-depth many times. Assuming I had survived the initial onslaught of zombies, and 98% of the population is either dead or a zombie… I would first try to find a U-haul truck. I would ditch my car and steal it and bring it back to a garage near my apartment where I could fortify it and fill it with supplies. I, of course, would nail my cats’ litterboxes to the floor in the back and create a bed for them so they could come with me wherever I go. Then I would stuff it with canned foods, flashlights, tools, tents, guns and ammo, knives, extra clothes, etcetera. I would head south. Maybe Louisiana. And I would look for a farm with lots of land where I could grow food. I would also want this farm to have barns so that I could keep animals that I rescued post-apocalypse (assuming that this strain only infects humans and is not a Resident Evil-style strain that also mutates animals). I would fortify this farm as best I could. And the animals and I would live happily ever after. I am from Louisa, Kentucky, a place where there is not much else to do except fantasize about the zombie apocalypse.

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Photo by Aldan

Annie Bilancini on today’s bonus short”: Dana Diehl’s writing is symphonic. It’s a movement. On the page, the low hum of strings is matched with the lilt of a lone woodwind, that gorgeous narrative voice, that music. What drew me to “Animal Skin” first was this musicality, the orchestral swelling that, line by line, builds toward a final paragraph that nearly took my breath away the first time I read it. Like a carefully wrought symphony, this small story is more than the sum of its parts; it will take you somewhere new. In the plainest terms: I love Dana Diehl’s writing, and I think you will love it, too.

Animal Skin

My daughter comes out of the bathtub crying.

She says she’s found a spot, a dark shiny spot on the skin below her bellybutton. She lifts her shirt to show me, and I recognize the curved back of a tick, soft as an eggshell, shaped like a teardrop. I run my thumb over its hard-shell back, and my daughter squirms.

It’s the first time I’ve seen my daughter’s bare stomach in six months. She’s seven, and since around Christmas she hasn’t let me see her naked. A year ago, I was still bathing her every night. A year ago, she’d tie a towel around her waist like a loin cloth in the morning and leap from couch to couch in her bare, pink, new-animal skin. Now, she changes with her bedroom door clicked shut. Now, she pulls the shower curtain around her body like a cape when I enter the bathroom to retrieve toilet paper rolls. The other moms at her school tell me this is normal, that girls become self-conscious about their bodies earlier than boys, but still its unsettling to have a body that was once part of my body hidden from me.

My daughter crawls up onto the counter, lies on her back, and lets me roll her shirt up below her ribcage. I find a flashlight in the junk drawer and tell her to hold it steady so that the light is on the spot. I don’t say the word tick yet.

I retrieve tweezers from my bathroom. I place a hand on her belly to steady my wrist, and she sucks in. She says, Cold hands. I pull back, warm my fingers in my armpits, try again. The tick barely looks like a tick. It’s the size of a pencil tip, buried deep enough into her skin to look like it’s part of her. A mole, or a birthmark. I pinch it close to its head, avoiding the tick’s engorged belly. I pull. My daughter’s skin is soft under my palm. She smells like rising bread.

The moment I lift the tweezers, she eels out from under me onto the kitchen floor, sprints into the living room to turn on the TV. I drop the tick onto the white back of a receipt, and tape it in place with Scotch. It doesn’t move. I hold it to the light. I can see all eight of its legs. I can see its belly swollen with my daughter’s blood. In this moment, it is more her than I am.


My daughter goes to bed at nine, and I take my laptop to the front porch. I can see the shapes of deer moving through the neighbor’s front lawn. Probably the same deer that brought the tick to my yard, to my daughter’s stomach. I light a cigarette, and the deer raise their heads in unison. Half-chewed grass hangs from their fleshy lower lips.

I log in to my OkCupid account. I have three new messages, from men who write that I have a nice face, that they love a woman with kids, that I look like someone they’d like to take out for coffee. All three men are at least ten years older than me. They have haircuts that remind me of my daughter’s father. I erase their messages.

A year ago, I couldn’t date. A year ago, I’d go to work with jam-stains on my blouses, come home to my daughter screaming, laughing, reaching always wanting. Now, my days contain unexpected pockets of free time. The photos on my OkCupid account are ones that I took myself. Alone in the afternoon, I carry my camera in my purse. I set the self-timer and balance the camera on a ledge, on a root, on the roof of my car. I have ten seconds to arrange myself. I know exactly how long it takes to walk from one end of the frame to the other. I know how to cock my hips so that my shirt rises just an inch above my pants, so it looks like an accident. I know how to move so that my cesarean scar is hidden under the flap of my T-shirt.

A tick will reach you where you are most vulnerable. Armpits, soft paunches of belly, the crook of your neck. It’s attracted to your warmth, to the small vibrations your body makes without knowing it. A tick will stick itself to your skin with its own saliva, bury itself in its blood feast. If left alone, a tick will swell to a light-gray blue.

My daughter snores in her bedroom. The sound travels through the open windows, and I wonder what she was dreaming about. Once, my daughter was a fist of cells, connected to me by a thread. Once, my blood was her blood. I felt her knuckle against my skin and knew where to find her. I think of the tick, only half full, still alive under clear tape, and in that moment I want to let it go. I want to follow it through my house. I want to let it be my guide. My guide back to the soft, hidden places that I’ve forgotten how to reach.

Dana Diehl currently serves as editor-in-chief of Hayden’s Ferry Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, Hobart, Swarm, Sundog Lit, and elsewhere.

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Photo by hobvias sudoneighm

What Was True Then

I try to imagine a specific reader in time and space. Sometimes I imagine myself. Not the current one, but a recent one: Steven back in 2011. And I write for him. He is twenty-three. His head is shaved, skin is darkly tanned, his temperament is easily aggravated. He lives in a remote valley in the Hindu Kush mountains of northeastern Afghanistan. Steven—let’s call him Steve, actually, he’d be fine with it: Steve carries a standard black M-4 carbine, firing the standard 5.56 millimeter, packing the standard 210 rounds. He likes the idea of standards. It reminds him there are people outside this valley, carrying the same precise amount of weight as him. In other valleys just like this one, all through these mountains. The people in his unit are not the only ones who are alone.

Steve hasn’t shaved in a couple of days because the outpost has a limited supply of bottled water and they have been told not to waste it shaving. The outpost, too, has limited official oversight, so this minor transgression can happen. His every meal is an MRE chased with instant coffee. His every solid waste must be splashed with diesel fuel and set on fire, then stirred with an iron poker till it’s gone. He sleeps in a sandbag bunker dug into the ground, because the outpost doesn’t have enough walls yet to offer any protection. Instead, there are loops of concertina wire that separate the known from the unknown. The unknown: according to recent intel, the unknown includes between 100 and 500 Taliban fighters in this immediate vicinity. Which means Steve and his unit are outnumbered either 2-to-1 or 10-to-1, depending on what you choose to believe. Steve chooses not to believe these reports at all; he simply respects them.

The previous platoon here did most of the digging on the bunker where he sleeps, but Steve dug a little further so it was large enough to bring a cot inside, and when he’s off duty he lies on the cot and puts on a headlamp and he reads. He dug a shelf into the side of the bunker where he keeps the book. It’s a hardcover with a dust jacket. The dust jacket is smeared with actual dust. He likes that, too.

The inside of the bunker is dark and cool, about as big as the interior of a car. Metal beams cross overhead to hold up the double-layered sandbag roof.  He has not been attacked here yet, but he expects it will happen soon, and he is right. The previous platoon that lived here was hit more days than not, but right now the fighters in the hills are feeling out these new people, waiting to see what they’ll do. But it’ll come. Until then, he takes his shifts on the guns, watching over poppy fields, villages the same color as the rocks, roads that are merely parallel tracks of dirt. Then he goes back to his bunker and reads, then sleeps, then starts over.

So there is a lot of unfair pressure on this book to be a really good book. It’s the only book he has. He used to have more room to keep books, but he’s living out of a ruck sack now, and the ruck is full, there’s only room for one at a time. He mailed the rest home, back when there was still access to mail, and now he reads this one on his cot, in his hole. The headlamp takes AAA batteries, which are rare. So the amount of time spent reading is also known as the amount of time spent using up AAA batteries. So it is extremely important what is actually inside the book. Shipped all this way to read in a dark hole in a dangerous valley where often it is better to just sleep because it may be a while before you will have another chance. What is actually inside the book: It feels silly to say, but it seems like the first time this question has ever occurred to him. What are the words in there, and what do they do, and could we get by just as well without them? Never while studying literature did it seem like stories were responsible for anything. People simply like to tell them, it’s a cultural thing and it’s fun and it goes on forever. But here the book has its own shelf dug into the rock. Dirt is smeared onto the dust jacket. The book is full of words, as if for the first time. Really, he needs this book. Not simply as a distraction, but he needs the book to tell him something he can keep. He doesn’t know what he needs exactly, only that he needs.

Turns out, the book is crafty and smart, but if there is anything to keep, the meaning is so far down he can’t get to it. So he gives up and shoves it in his ruck. He sleeps more instead.

I try to imagine him as a reader because it is discouraging to think that a book had made it so far but wasn’t enough. And I understand that plenty of books would’ve been, but still: I want to hand him something of mine now. A stack of paper. An essay. And say, try this one. To see if he’ll like it. And I know this is a dramatic example, but honestly, what was true then is still true. The words ought to matter in just that big a way, and I think dramatic examples can clarify issues that we might obscure or take for granted when we have the generous privilege of time and resources. My less-than-rigorous criteria being, if I handed some writing to Steve way back then, would he give a damn, or would he use that paper as a fire starter for the trash pit?  Which is to say, I believe in nuance, but I also believe it is possible to hide in nuance, use your literary knack to ensure only the most elite, patient, indulgent readers will have any idea what you’re talking about, because it is scary to think of a truly desperate reader looking you in the eye, across time and space, asking, what can you do for me?  I try to act like it’s my job to have an adequate response, which might be arrogant as all hell, but I remember being in that bunker and thinking fuck this book. And coming back from that is not a very graceful thing; it is not very easy.

So I try to think about how the language would happen in the space of that bunker, beneath a flashlight. What length each passage might need to be to hold the attention of a reader under some psychological distress. What do you give someone who doesn’t know what they need, but yet needs. What made him shove the book so deep in his ruck, and what could make him dig it back out?

Steven Moore is originally from southeast Iowa and currently lives with his wife in Corvallis, Oregon. He is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Oregon State University.

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Henry Leo's 1st Birthday Cupcakes

Photo by Kelly Sue DeConnick

We asked our editors, As a teen what was your weird after-school snack?

Jess Duncan
Associate Editor, Poetry
St. Louis, Missouri

I used to eat a big bowl of ice cream with hershey’s chocolate syrup (from the can, remember those?) while I watched Full House. Sometimes my grandpa would join me, making it extra special.

Ben Kinny
Associate Editor,
Fife Lake, Michigan

I would eat a bowl of Neapolitan ice cream on a bed of cookies–whatever we had, hopefully homemade. To the top I would add crushed pretzels and, if I was feeling especially ambitious, peanut butter smeared awkwardly around the edge of the bowl. It was probably 2000 calories’ worth of snacks, all consumed within one episode of Judge Judy.

Marie Curran
Associate Editor, Fiction
Modesto, California

Cheese-Its while watching Daria on MTV (not allowed!). I don’t eat Cheese-Its anymore, but sometimes write about them.

Becky P
Associate Editor, Poetry
Escanaba, Michigan

I used to eat saltine crackers smeared with vanilla frosting.  Mostly people think that’s gross, but I loved the salty/sweet combo!

Ryan Kauffman
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Alexandria, Kentucky

I used to get home and immediately make two Kroger-brand pre-made hamburgers. At the time, I was big into lifting for football and read (or possibly just overheard somewhere) that 40 grams of protein was the most an active body could efficiently process into muscle in one sitting, so I ate two 20 gramers, as they were, to make sure I could bench press more during my following workout. Of course, who knows if it worked or not. But I now have a healthy case of angina.

Robin McCarthy
Managing Editor
Belfast, Maine

For a while in high school, I ate oyster crackers and Diet Mountain Dew every day after school. Today, it’s malbec and saltines. I like to think I’m maturing.

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Photo by Charlotte

Amy Elisabeth Hansen says: My favorite moments in Laura Donnelly’s poem are the rustles. I love the “rustle of” in the first and third couplets and the implied rustle in “the brush against lavender.” But the best part is in the last line and what came after. For me, it was how long I spent imagining and re-imagining what an unrustling could look and sound like.

Jardins sous la pluie

–after Debussy

The storm gathers all
to the phrase rustle of–
silks and skirts, animals tunneling
through dense underbrush,
rustle of curtain or sheet of paper,
the concert program’s insert
that slips to the floor. Bend down.
Come up. She does not
crack her knuckles, waiting
in the stairwell, warming
her hands at the old radiator,
but on stage the garden
is a pastel painting, left hand
hopping right like an insect
in rain, the brush against lavender
and mint at dusk–
or a phrase overheard. Somewhere
a pool where it mirrors
and stills, a remnant of folksong,
Dodo, l’enfant do,
Sleep, child, sleep
A wandering dream, it invites
the whole hand, the arms
like lithe branches, then grow
and sway, tumble of cloud–
light released from being–
or a bell, glass on glass. The piano
again a percussive instrument,
each bright wet dot
unrustling us from sky.


Laura Donnelly’s first book, Watershed, won the 2013 Cider Press Review Editors’ Prize. Her poems have appeared recently in Midwestern GothicRhinoPANK, and Typo. Originally from Michigan, she lives in Central New York and is on the creative writing faculty at SUNY Oswego.

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Could Passages be more ecstatic about this year’s AWP? The obvious answer is no, because our editors got to combine their two most consuming passions: phenomenal writers and phenomenal food. So let’s find out who our editors would most wish to talk to, and what they’d like to eat as they chat.

Rachael Belmore
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Marquette, Michigan

After seeing Karen Russell’s stellar keynote address, I am even surer of my choice of which author at AWP 2015 I would like to sit down with. Russell is as charming as her imagination is vivid. I’d love to ask her all of the questions I have about the magic she’s created in Vampires in the Lemon Grove over a glass of Madeira, dark chocolate, and almonds.

Eli Hemmila
Intern, Fiction
Barnum, Minnesota

There exists, somewhere on the internet, a picture of me next to Dessa with the most scared and surprised expression on my face. I’d like to find a Peruvian restaurant where she and I could sit in a booth and take a totally-not-horrendous selfie. Then I’d post it on social media, thereby overcoming my long-held, if admittedly trivial, embarrassment. If all else fails, I can drown my shame in ceviche.

Jacque Boucher
Associate Editor, Spoken Word Poetry
Juneau, Alaska

I’d want to take Danez Smith out for Indian food. The whole time, I’d want to ask him about intersectional social justice and how exactly to write trauma into silence. But instead, I’d mostly want to listen, so the only question I’d remember to ask was how spicy he liked his palak paneer. The answer would be just as satisfying.

Annie Bilancini
Associate Editor, Fiction
Cleveland, Ohio

There were too many writers I was excited about. Too many amazing books and awesome journals and friends and meals and tote bags! All those tote bags. I feel like a toddler on crack at AWP, but what a happy, drug-addled toddler I am! So drug-addled. So happy.

Mike Berry
Associate Editor, Fiction
Troy, Michigan

I’ve kind of already met her, but I’m excited to see Melinda Moustakis. Her work is phenomenal. If I got to do dinner with Melinda, I think it’d be interesting to see how both of us functioned at a fancy, white tablecloth place (French, Italian, whatever) because it seems like we’d both be more comfortable at a 24-hour greasy spoon. You know, the type of place where you don’t question what you’re eating. Just chew and swallow.

Amy Hansen
Associate Editor, Poetry
Sycamore, Illinois

I would like to have a long dinner with sushi and my old friend, Chipotle. And Indian food. Also, ripe avocados. Any writer can join me as long as they’re cool with not talking because I intend to eat continuously.

Matt Weinkam
Managing Editor
Cincinnati, Ohio

After watching her panel on TV and fiction writing, I’d love to get Thai food with Alissa Nutting. She’s whip smart, too funny, and I can’t think of a better person to talk with over curry.

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dragon flight

Photo by lecates

This is the time of year when we at Passages are itching to return to a time when we control our reading lists. So this week we asked our staff to share their most indulgent, secret, shameful reading.

Sofie Harsha
Associate Editor, Fiction
New Ulm, Minnesota

My shame reading is this book I carry around with me everywhere I go called The Language of Letting Go. In it is an entry for every day of the year. It’s a book designed for recovering addicts. (I’m not one.) But for some reason it fits with my life every time I read it (every day). I hide it beneath other books and in my purse so no one can see it, but now it’s out in the open. :) I also have been reading tarot card descriptions of a tarot set my friend Cam (shout out) got me.

Tiffany Walters
Associate Editor, Writing

When I can no longer stand to look at the books that I’m supposed to read, books that are “significant” or “well written” or “classical,” and regarded by Those Who Know to be the books to read, I quietly sneak off to my bed to re-read the stories that helped me fall in love with reading; simplistic and yet fantastic stories for children. Those stories are not well written (I sometimes laugh outright at what I once thought was so moving, but which now seems cliché or trashy, sometimes both). The merit of those stories will never be established, and yet they are significant in that I continue to return to them. For myself, at least, revisiting material that was once important to me, even if I would be ashamed to name those titles here, is a necessary step in remembering the purpose and importance of reading.

Tyler Dettloff
MA studying Lit and Pedagogy
Kinross, Michigan

I read a dictionary when I tire of stories. As a “literature” person, it feels shameful to shed the elements of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that create “meaning” and humanness. But sometimes it feels good to cleave the Webster open to a random page and scan until you find a word that reads so strangely that you just want to speak it. Gloss; glossal; glossary; glossy; glot; glotal. Glotal is a word that I want to speak aloud, I want to breathe it and feel it on my throat, tongue, and teeth.

Jacqueline Boucher
Spoken Word Poetry
Juneau, Alaska

For the past decade or so, my shame reading has been literary-grade internet fanfiction, usually for films like The Godfather or books like The Secret History that, by all accounts, have no business having fanfiction written about them. Fanfiction can be kind of a dirty word in writerly circles, which is part of what makes it shame reading, but there are a lot of talented artists making their art in their own dark corners of the internet. I think it’s fascinating. I don’t share it with people, or even cop to doing it, except for on blogs for well-respected literary journals, apparently.

Caleb Nelson
Associate Editor, Poetry

There’s this book called “Dealing with Dragons” from the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. It’s about this headstrong, I guess you could say, tomboyish young women. I like the series because the lead in the book is this woman and she kind of kicks ass. Plus, I’ve always been pulled towards the imaginary. And dragons are just awesome.

Rachael Belmore
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Marquette, Michigan

I met Anita in 2004 when a coworker handed me a copy of Blue Moon, the eighth book in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series. Within pages, I was hooked. Anita Blake, narrator, heroine, and necromancer, was everything I’d always wanted to be. She’s intelligent, down-to-earth, and powerful. Her world, populated by irresistible vampires and wereanimals is a heady mix of action and romance. It is my all-time favorite guilty pleasure series; whenever I’m feeling sad or stressed, I know I can count on Anita to cheer me up.

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The Staring Contest

Photo by Christopher Michel

Associate poetry editor Jacqueline Boucher on today’s bonus poem: Alisa Erin Hillam’s “If I Had Had Twitter in 1998” moves expertly from the nostalgia its title suggests to a deep meditation on desire: the desire to save and the desire to be seen. It desires boldly and lands in a place you’ll want to stay awhile.

If I Had Had Twitter in 1998

I would have been Leonardo DiCaprio’s most dedicated
follower. I would have saved the Antarctic Ocean at age fourteen

at his behest: writing letters to my Congressmen,
campaigning at the lunch table for the penguins,

handing out photos of their downcast beaks, their black and white wings flung wide
in pleas to my classmates. Instead of playing mini-golf

or hanging out at the mall and styling my hair like Kate,
I would have doubled tiger numbers in Nepal. My entire

life’s goals would have been rerouted. I wouldn’t have gone
to Purdue, wouldn’t have married someone else, wouldn’t have

spent hours at my desk writing poetry about the way things might
have been instead. I would have lain in bed at night, surrounded

by his posters plastered to my walls, lulled by the hushed whir
of my computer, and I would have known that just keystrokes

away from me, in the commas, the spaces, the forever-possibility
that he might retweet me, a binary code linked us together,

that if the electrons would admit it, he wanted me more
than he wanted an Oscar. 10,000+ #Elephants killed each yr, tusks sold

for ivory trinkets. Join me & help save them,Leo would have asked,
and I would have been there, you.jump.I.jump, right?

Alisha Erin Hillam grew up outside of a small Indiana town. Now she is a freelance writer residing in Massachusetts with her family. She is the recipient of several literary awards from Purdue University and her work as appeared in decomP, Corium Magazine, Prick of the Spindle, The Monongahela Review, Full of Crow, The Tishman Review,Architrave Press, and Midwestern Gothic, among others.

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Morning Coffee

Photo by Patrick Makhoul

This week, we asked some of our staff about their online morning or evening traditions, specifically, what is the first website they check after they wake up or the last before they hit the hay.

Kelsey Lupetow
Associate Editor, Poetry and Nonfiction
Manitowowc, Wisconsin

I check my emails right away in case there is anything exciting. I ignore everything that isn’t, which is usually 90-100%.Then I pretend to check twitter for the news, but it’s really so I can see all the celebrity, literary, and feminist gossip. Finally, I pump myself up with a false sense of responsibility because I at least checked.

Mike Berry
Associate Editor, Fiction
Troy, Michigan

Lately I’ve been checking the Weather Channel because, you know, snow days. Otherwise most days are the social medias, but the best days are when I open Rolling Stone first and see a link to an artist I love and their new song i.e. I woke up to Alabama Shakes’ new song and loved it.

Chloe Miller
Intern, Fiction
St. Louis, Michigan

When I first wake up I always check either the weather channel, or Pinterest on my phone. The weather channel first and if it’s raining, sleeting, or snowing, I opt not to run and find an indoor workout on Pinterest instead. Sometimes just reading through the workouts seems like adequate fitness for the morning, and I find myself falling asleep again.

Matt Weinkam
Managing Editor
Cincinnati, Ohio

The website I visit every morning is Most days the answer is disappointing.

Tracy Haack
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Green Bay, Wisconsin

I don’t really check anything interesting, but sometimes I eBay late at night. I eBay and watch the Atlanta Zoo panda cam.

Eli Hemmila
Intern, Fiction
Barnum, Minnesota

I find myself spending a lot of time reading the comment sections of various websites. I don’t recommend it. I also read a lot of web blog accounts of people who’ve done things like paddle the length of the Mississippi or circumnavigate Lake Superior. Springtime tends to spark that sort of internet wanderlust for me. It’s a little disturbing how much time I’ve spent reading about such intensely boring experiences.

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Photo by bswise

Note from the interviewer, associate nonfiction editor Cory Ferrer: For thirty years, Guy Maddin has been thrilling art-house cinephiles at festivals around the world with daring and original work. His films have been called “feverish,” “hilarious,” “bizarrely touching,” and “crazily, passionately alive.” His signature styles include black and white silent films fragmented into rapid-fire montage, campy melodramas which risk genuine catharsis, and lacerating autobiographical confessions rendered through daft, self-deprecating humor. His award winning documentary, My Winnipeg, manages to remix fact, urban legend, and personal history into a mischievous and ambivalent love song to the city he’s always called home. In a career that spans 11 feature films, 30 shorts, and 5 video installations for museums and galleries, Maddin has won an Emmy with a ballet remake of Dracula, received the Telluride Medal for lifetime achievement in film, and landed a feature in the prestigious Criterion Collection, one whose plot involves a workaholic father’s return from the dead, a cross dressing teen detective, and the process of harvesting “nectar” from orphan brains.

When he’s not working in cinema, Maddin lends his creative alchemy to the medium of photo-collage. Passages North is proud to feature a series of 16 of these singular visual works in our new, blue issue. Like much of Maddin’s films, these images re-discover history through uncanny juxtaposition. They read like illustrations of a half-remembered dream, speaking to us from a sepia-toned past made intimate, mysterious, and droll. To shed some light on his arresting work in both collage and cinema, I had the privilege of picking Guy Maddin’s brain with a phone call to Winnipeg, and he was generous enough to reveal a few of the forces that power his weird, irreplaceable art.

It Started as a Noble Exercise in Masochism: Methods and Motives in Guy Maddin’s Art

Since you’re best known for your work as a film director, I’m curious, what initially drew you to photo-collage?

When I find myself thinking too literal mindedly, I love switching over to collage. I’d do it at collage parties where I’d be working with painters and sculptors. I saw people just picking up discarded scraps of paper that had fallen on top of each other in collisions of images and ideas, and gluing them together the way they had found them. I had a very nice stack of old World War One photo albums, and some great 80’s porn; the two seemed to go really well together. I learned a certain degree of carelessness that’s required, or playfulness. I had to, you know, drink some bourbon, and there’s a Guy Lafleur Disco album I listen to that makes me giddy. So it’s more like the way people take a hot yoga class. We’re all in the same state of mind, we’re all pulling together. I find that if I’m in the company of people who think even more literal mindedly than I do, I can’t make a damn thing. I’ve had a collage block lately because I haven’t been able to just loosen up and embrace the accidents, and the collages [I make now] are just terrible. So I’ve retired from making collages. I think the stuff you have are the last ones I made.

Do you feel the same way when directing a film? Are you able to be careless and playful when you’re responsible for a budget and a crew, or is collage an escape from these constraints?

I’ve never had the attention span to take a very formal approach, and it takes a while to make films, so some days you just feel like being mischievous and subverting your own motives. You just need to fuck yourself over, pull the rug out from under your feet and then spend the next few days trying to recover. I always shoot quickly and keep the actors guessing. When your number one promise to yourself is just to keep plunging ahead and see what happens, a lot of times you just get accidents. I probably screwed up my career doing that, but it feels necessary. When a set turns out to be way too small, like Stonehenge style from Spinal Tap, you just go with it. When actors show up with amnesia, with degenerated minds, you just go with it. When a ballet dancer can’t dance, you go with it. Robert Altman gambled on accidents supplying most of the greatness in his movies. I had a nice long conversation with George Segal, the star of California Split, and the screenwriter and producer, and they were just talking about how much of a gambler Altman was. He just set things up to get more accidents to choose from. His eight microphones, his famous eight track sound system, was another way of guaranteeing that he’d capture more accidents than the average director. That’s what makes his films rich. It was exhilarating to hear, because these are conclusions I’d reached on my own. I’ve kept it simple by insisting that almost all the accidents, all the footage that didn’t turn out, are happy accidents. Sometimes you really do feel that you’re handicapping yourself, but the solutions are often really liberating, no matter how much of a horrible, scary corner you get yourself into. I guess I’m not really subverting myself when I know I’m actually enriching my chances of shooting something. That’s a call-out on my own bullshit.

What about when you’re piecing together an essay film, like My Winnipeg? Without a set narrative sequence in mind, do you find yourself gambling in post-production?

I guess My Winnipeg is kind of an essay film. After I shot all the footage, when I sat down to write the narration, I found myself too daunted. I never did end up writing it. Instead I went into a recording studio with very short episodes, maybe five minutes. I went in with a blank mind and just promised myself I would never stop talking. I went to a microphone every day, for like two consecutive weeks, and just riffed for five or ten minutes about whatever came to mind. Just: “Winnipeg… Winnipeg… Winnipeg.” I just kept repeating myself until I thought of the next sentence. “Snowy, sleepwalking Winnipeg… My home for my entire life.” I couldn’t think of anything else. Then it was cut and pieced together in a radio play version of the movie, and pictures were cut to that radio play. So I never did sit down and write an essay film, but I guess I made an essay. Tomorrow I’m starting a “making of” movie on an Iranian military drama, shot up here in Manitoba, called Hyena Road. But it’s not going to be just a “making of,” it’s going to be an essay film. Even though I’ve done virtually no prep, I’m ready to go shoot tomorrow, because I feel free now to just discover what the subject of the film will be by just showing up with my camera. The material treats the Canadian armed forces involvement in Afghanistan. I have mixed feelings about it. The essay film is the perfect platform for mixed feelings because the really interesting ones make paranoiac connections on disparate subjects; they make odd little leaps of faith that are poetic and provoke little thought collisions, and by the end you’re not necessarily closer to an answer, but you feel like you’ve taken by the hand through corridors of understanding and then maybe even abandoned, just as puzzled as you were before the film started, but at least you feel like you’ve been somewhere. So, I’m prepared to start a project like that tomorrow. It’s liberating because I’d be shitting my pants, showing up without a script. I can basically postpone all the hard work until later.

So do you think ambivalence is important to your creative process? Are you drawn to projects where you have mixed feelings on the subject?

It’s just more honest. Authentic. Sometimes I find a lump forming in my throat, and tears welling up in my eyes when I’m touched by something, and then I start questioning the source of those tears, and I realize that at least some of my motivation for having a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes is pride. I’m actually proud of being sensitive. So I feel like I’m getting closer to understanding my motivations for weeping. It’s not just that I’m touched or sad or empathetic, it’s that I’m fucking proud. That may sound monstrous to other people. Maybe other people just weep out of pure motives, pure empathy, pure sympathy or grief, but I’ve identified something less noble in my own emotions. Once you start peeling back the layers of seemingly simple emotions, every effect in the world can be vivisected, and good art makes that vivisection interesting, and reductive art, simple. Now, there’s also a place for that. Fairy tales have simple emotional responses, but they’re complex and wise somehow that makes them timelessly retellable.

I find a lot of sadness and pathos, in your films, but they’re also really funny. Is there a link then between tragedy and comedy that you’re trying to vivisect?

There’s something in having one’s feeling and flipping it over. I know of a number of affairs that have started at funerals. I’ve also laughed at funerals. We’ve all, you know? What makes you laugh? Often there’s an element of surprise. I’ll laugh at something that’s horribly bleak, because it takes me by surprise. It’s a dark laugh, and I quickly apologize to whomever I’m with, but it’s some kind of a fresh astonishment. The more opposite two things happening simultaneously, the fresher the snap of the towel, the more it smarts. Whether it’s a release of nervous energy or a ghastly self-recognition, it’s hilarious. The ideal audience is one that’s laughing and crying at the same time. I can’t even get more than two or three people to laugh at the same time. So I’m a far way from creating the ultimate audience myself, but that’s what I keep in mind.

That reminds me of your film, The Saddest Music in the World, where we have this strange, comical tournament in which every country is competing to see whose music is the saddest. Was there a particular snap of the towel you were going for in that combination?

At the time I just was dealing in very broad cultural generalization.Americans tend to vary their sadness with either hostility or exuberant celebration, and other cultures seem more of the lugubrious, more in touch with their sadness. And then Canadians are kind of neither. The national musics of various countries were standing in for broad cultural forms of sadness and how it’s repressed or put on show. It was a contest that’s very similar to the kind of highly competitive world in which genuinely down and out panhandlers operate. Where they take their sad state of affairs—they’re broke—and exaggerate their plight even more by having to put on some razzle dazzle to get the pocket change from pedestrians rather than have it go to someone else with better shtick. And so it adds an indignity on top of an already horrible state of affairs. You not only have to be badly off, but have to treat yourself as even worse off, creatively somehow. Instead of spending all your energy helping yourself, you find yourself involved in a full time job just being more pathetic. It’s not true of everybody, but those forces can push people and whole countries and cultures into that kind of thing. It’s really bizarre, and it’s kind of bracingly refreshing to find out that these odd and unlikely dynamics are in place and have been for millennia. Like I said earlier, sometimes you’re weeping out of pride, and then sometimes you realize that you’re genuinely unhappy, and you find yourself faking tears on top of it.

A lot of artists, when dealing with really emotional, autobiographical material, will try to disguise it somehow through fiction or allegory. Your work takes the opposite approach, by getting so explicit that three of your protagonists have actually been named “Guy Maddin.” Could you talk about the role of self-disclosure in your films?

I guess it could be kind sickening, sort of a “me trilogy.” The first one I did that was wall to wall autobiographical was Cowards Bend the Knee. For the longest time I had made up names for all the characters. But while I was shooting, it really made me feel more mischievous, and way more honest, if I used my own name. Especially for sexually humiliating episodes. It just felt more lacerating and eviscerating. I could harder on everybody, if I was hardest of all on myself. So it was a way of just getting one or two more layers closer to honesty, peeling away layers of skin and just getting down to the raw nerves. It just felt like I was getting closer by using my own name. And then I’d just watch what came up, and hope that it didn’t come off as too self-pitying, because that’s not interesting or attractive. I’ve had some people, you know, blow the big referee’s whistle on me. I’ve had to sit in the penalty box for self-pity. And then I did Brand Upon the Brain! and My Winnipeg. There I was less self-lacerating, and I actually dragged a few family members down with me, and thoughtlessly so. It started off as a very noble exercise in masochism, and then it became kind of cruel or thoughtless and self-centered. And uh, I’m kind of embarrassed to think about it. I’m still working on making it up to my family. They’ve sort of forgiven me, at least outwardly. But, you know, they probably wouldn’t be surprised if I did it again. Also, since making Cowards Bend the Knee way back in 2002, there’s been a social media psychosis, and the first person singular and the possessive have just like run amok in social rhetoric. Everyone’s become a “like” slut, you know? It’s not an uninhibited version of real life, it’s like prying the lids off of everyone’s heads, and it’s made people boring. Now I sound old and crusty. If my films get lumped in with all that “me” shit of the past decade, that’s just the way it goes. I can’t change that. I’m not going to go back and change the narration to “you.” Frankly, you know what, I’d happily sacrifice those movies. I’d throw them in the ocean if that’d make people quit talking about themselves. But um, I’m not that deluded. I know if I threw them in the ocean no one would care.

Do you see your own work as being lumped in with all the “me” shit? I think some of those films really got down to a raw nerve, like you said, especially Brand Upon the Brain.

Actually, I’m proud of those movies. They got me going again. I had no—I couldn’t think of a reason to make movies. And then all of a sudden, I was able to find myself in the movies just by naming each character after myself. So now I can leave the trick behind, because I’ve learned a lot. I would never make another autobiographical picture like that. I hope the movies still get watched someday, but if you make something, it’s going to be a different movie every year. I like the ghost metaphor. No sooner has someone filmed with the camera, than the object filmed, and the film itself start separating themselves in time. The body keeps aging. You might, within minutes of just being photographed, receive terrible news, things that make you very unhappy, meanwhile the filmed version of yourself stays in the same state of mind. So you’re looking at the film’s object through a medium, like a paranormal medium, and the filmed object is like a ghost. It no longer exists. I see movies as hauntings.

Would you apply that metaphor to your collages? Is there something haunting about taking these images that have had a life and cutting them up and combining them?

Yeah, maybe it’s a Frankensteining. Those images, long after they’re photographed, long after they’re ripped out of books and put on a table at a collage party, they’re something else altogether. The context is altered so much, they’re kind of homeless. They inhabit some sort of spiritual limbo. They’re just bodies in unmarked graves. Once you start repurposing them to create something new, there is something haunting about the various body parts that make up the image. Sometimes you’re delighted and surprised, but it creates a kind of feeling that maybe the kind of taxidermy that makes Jackalopes creates. They all seem a little bit tasteless, no matter how clever, and a little bit morbid, but that’s what gives them a poignancy. There’s no permission being granted in collage. You know that that rabbit had antelope horns grafted onto its head; neither animal gave permission for repurposing, and you know, they’d probably rather not suffer that indignity.

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