Chalkboard Background

Photo by Karin Dalziel

Associate poetry editor Caleb Nelson on today’s bonus poem:  Liv Lansdale’s poem employs a hard-won lyrical complexity that survives in the particular. Our narrator actively remembers what feels like the only lesson from public school: conform to authority. Authority is the chalk board. Authority is measurable. There is life to be had but that life is for someone else.

Your Life is Meant for Someone Else

It’s graffiti at the public school where I first experienced speed-kissing at its most furtive. Exerting authority was clapping erasers for two minutes instead of five, back when cider came from the place next door & girls were already throwing out their lunches at ten.

Memory banks are small by necessity & not by choice. But one could get away with sincerity easy, learn about joints without asking am I a ball or a socket. Oh, heaven help Mrs. Whiteford & Ms. Carter: still out there with crayons, pondering Judy Blume.

Liv Landsdale is a reviews editor and associate director of Poets at Work and an intern at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She lives with a cat, a man, and a constantly hungry stomach.

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Minhau, o gato

Photo by Cássia Afini

PN editorial intern Willow Grosz on today’s story: At first glance, I thought I was going to hate this piece. Really. I’ve been conditioned not to take pop-culture references too seriously, and here is this story that not only references Facebook, but literally sends me off the page to check on that reference—all in the first sentence. This is perverse, I thought. And sooo gimmicky. I’m not reading any further. Fortunately, my curiosity got the better of me because McElroy doesn’t simply make these references as a form of contemporary omphaloskepsis. Look deeper, the story demands. This pastiche is mapping our limits. The limits of our social networks. The limits of our economic networks. The limits of self-soothing. And whether it’s cataloguing memes or giving a nod to postmodern literature, this story never stops nudging obsessively at the boundaries of urgent, human grief.

This Young Man’s Father Froze to Death in an Ice Storm. You Won’t Believe What Happened Next

I created my father a Facebook page. In the photo I chose for his profile picture Dad and I are reclined on a blue-and-white couch and both inconsolably smiling. It was taken in Cape May in the weeks after Mom left. I was sixteen. And Dad was, I don’t know, Dad-aged.

Using Chrome, I commented, “I’d forgotten about that trip. Look at our sunburn!” I opened Explorer and signed in as my father. “That was a rly fun trip,” he replied. Facebook suggested he start liking things. He liked Con-Air. Face-Off. The Rock. Nicolas Cage. Pink Floyd, Springsteen, and Sting. He liked Blairstown. Morristown. He liked Home Repair Tutor.

My father repaired things for a living. That’s how he died. Patching the roof of Morristown’s Bayer Pharmaceutical Plant as an ice storm glassed the night. They discovered him frozen to death, sitting cross-legged, snow crusted over his eyes and icicles gripping his nose, like Jack Torrence at the end of The Shining, a film that my father, on Facebook, didn’t like.

Once I created his page I tried to return to my life. I was twenty-six years old, a man of inconsistent employment. During the winter I shoveled snow for the elderly. They paid me in germs and butterscotch candy. My landlord, an independently wealthy sexagenarian, accepted the candy as payment. She also insisted I tidy the complex. I changed light bulbs. I dusted the parking lot. I swept cigarette butts into the street. I clubbed the occasional beehive. My life was guarded and lonely, and susceptible, I soon discovered, to the distraction my father provided.

By January he had two friends. Me and a woman named Amber-Lynn Hardi who shared links to freenlegal.com. We liked Amber-Lynn. But one day her page disappeared. Fearing his page might be considered a bot and deleted, Dad started liking more things:

Snooty cats purring on pillows. Teens gagging on cinnamon. Philosoraptor. Fist-pumping baby. The Harlem Shake and The History Channel. America. The state of New Jersey. Sports. Then, the NFL, and to specify his allegiance, The Dallas Cowboys. Finally, he liked his former high school, North Warren Regional High School (my alma mater as well).

Not thirty minutes after liking North Warren he accepted a friend request from a man named Doug Catersmythe. From 2006 to the present Doug had managed a Hertz Car Rental in Tallahassee, Florida. He lived in Tallahassee with his wife, Barbara, and his fourteen-year-old daughter, Rachel. Doug sent a message: “Jacko! where the helluv-ya been, ya old goat? glad u finally came out ur cave!” His excitement worried me. I told him that I was not Jacko, but his son. I had created the page to help me cope with the death of my father. Doug Catersmythe began typing . . . “haha jackyboy! the jackpot! ringdingdingding! class clown thru and thru. hay listen u find ur ass in the orange state u drop me a line.”

Within two weeks my father had 86 friends, including a woman named Angela Landsing, whose posts appeared in his feed more than anyone else’s. Dad’s classmates were thrilled to have found him. Though I tried to tell them, at first, what I had told Doug Catersmythe, they all reacted with stubborn, fraternal incredulity. What else could I do but pretend Dad was alive?

***
It was a warm, unprofitable winter. Few of the elderly needed their driveways shoveled. Many expired. I was behind on my rent, with neither the candy nor the means to get more. It was no surprise, then, when one afternoon my landlord clopped up to my apartment. Let me explain the clopping. She had lost both her feet to diabetes. Instead of accepting a wheelchair, she’d opted for an experimental surgery. Steel hooves had been grafted to the base of her calves. She looked like a sleep-deprived satyr. But she was satisfied with the procedure. I was too. Her hoovesteps drumming in the stairwell warned me of her impending arrival. I washed my face and heated a kettle for tea.

Once inside, she plopped down onto the folding chair in my living room. “I’m glad you’re living in squalor,” she said. “Means you’re as poor as you say.” I smiled, feeling vindicated. “Don’t get too happy,” she said. Changes were being made to the rent policy. Even if I could, somehow, come up with the butterscotch candies to cover my rent, she could no longer accept them as fungible assets. Doctors’ orders: no more candy. From now on she would only accept real money. $325 by the end of the month. She sucked down her tea and left.

I sent my father a personal message asking him what I should do. He suggested I apply for a job at the Bayer Pharmaceutical Plant where he’d been employed. He ended his sentence with ;-) , which surprised me. I didn’t know Dad had such a macabre sense of humor.

On Monday I drove to Bayer and requested an interview with Dad’s former employer. Ray was a grand and flabby man who breathed with a gruff, scraping wheeze that sounded like a rusty carnival ride slowing down. He told me the position had already been filled. I told him who I was. He asked me to shut the door.

Ray laced his hands together in front of his mouth. After a long, wheeze-riddled silence, he asked me if I believed. Believed in what, I asked. “The Lord reincarnate as man,” he said. I nodded. “Well good, because the Lord, reincarnate as man, Jesus, he . . .” Ray squirmed, his eyes darting away from me, “he preaches good will and . . . kindness. That’s it. Kindness. In addition to holy forgiveness. Have you read the sermon on the mount?” I hadn’t. “Point is,” he continued, “I live by the code of the Lord. His teachings have reconfigured my soul. And because of that, Alex, I’m going to do us both a favor.

“You know that we’re sinners? Thieves plucking fruit from the tree of eternity?” I didn’t. Did I know what the tree of eternity was? The Tree of Knowledge, I guessed. Ray laughed. “The tree is the kingdom of heaven, young man. Our souls are the fruit we have plucked.”

I nodded like, Ah yes, of course.

Ray leaned forward. His stomach pressed into the desk; hirsute flesh bulged through the slits between shirt-buttons like hairy tongues squeezing through lips. “Thanks to you,” he said, “I can atone for the sin of bureaucratic commitment: my choice to put your old man on the roof. And you, thanks to me, might walk out of here on the payroll.” He offered me a job mopping floors and scrubbing feces from toilets. On one condition: I must attend church every week. I agreed. Ray gave me directions to church, in addition to a blue button-down shirt just like his, except, instead of Ray stitched on the chest, or Jack, it read Rudy.

***
At church, Pastor Michælus taught us about the dumb lumps of flesh that were our bodies. I learned that my soul was on loan. Everything I had ever received had been given to me through divine circulation. Then we sang. Then children were asked to bathe with their clothes on. I was asked to bathe with my clothes on. I considered declining, but two pews behind me sat Ray—his crossed arms like two tangled seals—staring with fixed ultimatum. I reluctantly climbed onto the shelf over the font. Pastor Michælus was given a bucket of baseballs. The congregation cheered and whistled. When he hit the bull’s eye I splashed down into the water.

Church upset me. I wrote frantic messages to Dad expressing my doubts in the faith. He told me that these feelings were natural. Doubt is a healthy reaction to burgeoning faith. It is by no means opposed to genuine faith, he continued, but it mercilessly examines and questions the spurious “faith” of everyday life, the human faith which is nothing but the passive acceptance of conventional opinion.

He had become rather wise since he died, a shift I attributed not to some post-corporeal omniscience but to the confidence engendered by his army of friends. He had more than 300 friends. I only had 106. But his friendships, he assured me, were the result of mid-life nostalgia. His “friends” didn’t want friendship. They wanted tenuous proof that the past they remembered existed. He was an idea that people sought to preserve. “Does ‘people’ mean me?” I asked.

“Does my popularity bother you?” he asked.

“Those people don’t really know you,” I typed.

“Did you really know me?” he typed. I signed off.

The next morning there was a message from Dad in my inbox: Is the stress of keeping me updated worth it? What are you avoiding? I’m just an idea, your idea, an idea you could easily terminate. I deleted the message. All my life I’d wanted a stronger relationship with him. For us to share things with each other. To hear what he thought about me, if he was proud, and how he had felt when Mom left him for good. Chatting with each other on Facebook was the closest I’d come to achieving that fantasy.

***
Spring arrived. I had a job, a god, and a father. My life couldn’t get any better, I thought, which didn’t mean it couldn’t get worse.

Doug Catersmythe sent my father a message inviting him to Atlantic City to stay with him and some friends on their annual trip. With Dad they would have five: enough to splurge on a suite. But Dad was too busy. Plus, he’d never liked gambling. Doug was persistent. He posted links to Dad’s wall—A.C. on a Budget; Smart Gambling—and messaged him daily. If my father read a message but didn’t reply Doug would send another message asking why Dad was ignoring him. The harassment swayed my father. He agreed to go. I gave Doug my number, planning to make an excuse when he called, and changed my voicemail greeting to a robot reading my phone number.

In Atlantic City, Doug called my father 42 times. He left 17 messages. The following week passed uneventfully. I assumed everything had blown over. But one morning Dad opened Facebook and was greeted with a trio of notifications.

Doug Catersmythe had tagged my father in a photo of a middle finger. In his comment on the photo he accused my father of robbery. In his mind, Dad’s truancy was equivalent to stealing $400. Thinking there would be five people Doug had purchased a suite instead of a room with two doubles. Now he was out the extra money. He demanded remuneration. He demanded my father apologize. The link was shared by 12 people. It received 214 likes. I mailed Doug Catersmythe $400. But the damage was done. Dad lost 73 friends. He put his account on hold.

His absence impacted my work. I became stressed, irritable, lazy. I mopped hastily, leaving streaks of bleach-water zigged on the floor. I left scabs of feces clung to rims of the toilets. I stopped washing my armpits and ears.

Roy called me into his office. He had grown larger. There was barely any room in his office to stand. I politely squeezed around his circumference until I found a niche in the corner. His bare stomach pressed into my face.

“Complaints have been filed, Alex. Official complaints in which the most troubling boxes were checked: Slovenly, Harried, Slapdash, Uncouth. I am told that your hair is wrinkled. That your teeth are unwiped.” He coughed. A slight tremor wobbled my cheek. “Need I remind you, Alex, that a company is only as great as its lowliest scum?”

“You needn’t,” I murmured.

“Because you, Alex, are the lowliest of the scum on our payroll. You are the metonym for scum. When I think, ‘Alex McElroy,’ I think of the greenish gunk in shower drains or the fungus fur in old yogurt. Am I making myself clear?”

I tried nodding, but his stomach held my head in place. I muttered, “Mm-hmm.”

“But don’t be crestfallen. Despair, as they say, is endemic to scum. Despair is what makes scum stay scum. That is a fact, young man, but you’re in luck. Because scum, all scum, as Aristotle would say, is merely potential for shine. Do you know how to reach your potential?”

I so dearly wanted to know.

“Self,” he paused for effect, “Obliteration.” I suspect he was smiling. “Take this,” he said. A scrunched-up pamphlet slogged across his gut before finally touching my forehead. I thanked him and then wiggled my way to the exit.

The pamphlet, titled So You’ve Settled on Obliteration, was full of drastic suggestions. One should bathe six times a day and take care to scrub with steel wool. One should discard all personal items, including novelty mugs and key chains. One must burn one’s ID. One must sell one’s social security number to hackers. I threw the pamphlet away.

That evening my father reopened his Facebook account. I told him what had happened at work. He thought I’d done the right thing by discarding the pamphlet. He was proud of me. He loved me. Empty compliments. He was telling me what I wanted to hear, what I already knew, when what I wanted to know was what only he knew:

“What’s death like?” I typed.

“Death . . .” he typed. “Death is a series of tubes.”

“HA!” I typed.

He didn’t type back.

“But seriously,” I typed. “Is death that which gives meaning to life?”

He typed, “No, life is that which gives meaning to life.”

I typed, “But isn’t death, considered as a fundamental datum, the means by which the taken-for-granted mundanity of the everyday may be transcended in the direction of—”

Dad was typing . . . “What are you saying?”

I typed, “Am I wasting my life?”

He typed, “Most likely.”

“That wasn’t the answer I wanted.”

“Sry.”

I minimized Facebook. I checked my email. I checked ESPN. I jacked off into my boxers. I asked Dad how he liked being dead.

“It could be worse.”

“Are there pretty women?”

“Yes,” he typed. “There very well could be. It’s mostly light. It’s all light. And noise.” As I was typing . . . he typed, “It’s terrible.” He signed off. I posted an article on his wall—about Cape May recovering after Sandy—and then refreshed the page, hoping my father would like it. He did, eventually, like the link—but he didn’t comment. I doubt he actually liked it.

***
For the next few weeks I did what I could to transcend my scumminess. I bought new clothes. I greased my hair with the finest of unguents. I bathed in the lab’s emergency shower. I wiped my teeth with whitening wipes. Ray stopped me one morning as I was squeezing through the corridor that he occupied. He was impressed by my discipline. He offered me Dad’s old job. “More responsibility,” he bellowed. “And more pay. Much more.”

I equivocated. “I don’t know Ray. My pay already dwarfs my desires.”

“You’ll get new desires.”

“What about the man who replaced my father?”

“He will be terminated.” Ray must’ve noticed the shock on my face. “Figuratively.”

Dad wasn’t as excited as I’d hoped. “Cool,” he typed, when I told him I’d taken the job.

“You seem disappointed,” I typed.

“I always thought you’d do more than I did.”

“There’s time,” I typed.

“Not as much as you think.” Neither of us typed for a while. Had I let him down? Could I have achieved more? I had two college degrees, after all. But the diplomas had burned in a fire; my education was rash and impractical without its symbolic endorsement.

Dad was typing . . . I assumed he was going to apologize for his lackluster praise, but instead he typed, “Alex, I have a problem.” The problem was Angela Landsing—formerly Angela Stoddart, when she and my father were lovers. She’d found him through friend finder months ago and had begun sending him erotic messages. She had requested they meet up for drinks. In a moment of weakness Dad had agreed to go out with her.

“Why the hell did you do that?” I typed.

Abashed, he typed. “Because I still love her.” What a miracle! The dead still in love with the living! So, I agreed to go out with her, in place of my father. He planned to feed me lines during the date. How? I asked. He reminded me that, with my increase in pay, I could easily purchase a couple of iPhones.

***
Angela and I met at a Jazz club that resembled an opium den crossed with an Applebee’s. On stage, a man was ferociously juggling trumpets. Angela was perched at the bar.

I sat down and explained who I was. “Is this a fucking joke?” she said. “Excuse me,” I said, and checked my phone. My father typed, “Tell her it’s not a joke.” I told her it wasn’t a joke. “Then where is he?” she asked. I checked my phone. “My father’s life is in danger,” I said.

She attentively set down her martini. “Is he sick?”

“Worse,” I said, and glanced at my phone. I demurred; Dad insisted. I told her he’d witnessed a mob hit performed by the infamous Whitey Bulger.

“Who?”

“An American convicted murderer and former organized crime figure,[2][3]” I said. “And now my father’s in the Witness Protection Program.” I touchingly touched Angela’s shoulder. The tears on her face caught flickers of the lights pulsing onstage. She sucked down her martini, wiped her lips with the heel of her wrist, tossed a twenty dollar bill on the bar, and left without saying goodbye. With the change from her drink I bought a French beer that tasted like vinegar. My phone was buzzing incessantly. Dad demanded I chase after Angela. And tell her what? I asked. He told me to give her the phone. He’d fix everything. I told him he was being ridiculous. He called me a pussy. I called him a corpse.

Midway through my third beer I felt a hand on my back. Slugs of mascara slid down Angela’s cheeks. She poked me. “Facebook,” she said. “How can he have a Facebook page if he’s in hiding?”

I told her some of the truth: the Facebook page was my doing. A labor of love. But I didn’t tell her that my father was dead. Dead? Protective hiding? What’s the difference?

“So that means you read all my—”

“Yes,” I said.

She ordered another martini. “This one’s on you,” she said, “for making me come all the way down here.” We talked. She told me I looked like my father. I told her he and I were related. Her laughter was enormous and toothy. She had a fine smile: marble framed by plum-purple lips. She smelled like cherries and pine. Her breath a polite combination of olives and gin.

I stroked her hair. “You belong on the top of a Buzzfeed list,” I said. “25 Mothers Hotter than Models.”

“Stop it,” she said, in that tone of bashful flirtation. She waved away the compliment with her right hand, her left hand still tucked under her thigh.

“It’s okay,” I said, gesturing toward her left hand. There was no use hiding her husband, Ellison Landsing, and her three oblivious children. “I know.”

Angela smirked. She twisted off her rings and tossed them over her shoulder. Plop! Plop! into a flute of champagne. Monstrously drunk, Angela and I stood outside beneath the luminous breath of a streetlamp. “What now?” she asked. In my pocket I felt a storm of vibrations. I tossed my phone into the street. It was flattened by the timeliest dump truck.

We cheered and then kissed. I looked into Angela’s some-colored eyes and saw what would happen if she came back to my place. The clandestine fucking in cars. The threats from Ellison Landsing. Her divorce. Our marriage. Her decision to sever all ties with her family.

How boring, I thought. How predictable life is when we give it some thought. My father would’ve brought Angela home. Was I becoming my father? Of course! But no: I couldn’t. Nobody becomes anyone else. Each of us, I thought, is merely the diluted reiteration of those who precede us. I was nothing but the failed imitation of Jack McElroy, just as he was the failed imitation of his father, he of his father, ad infinitum, the human race a poor imitation of what may never have been; progress is a series of blunders, a march backwards into the future as we pause, on occasion, to beat one another with the oars of the past.

“Let’s go someplace else,” I whispered.

“To your place?”

I nodded.

Angela cackled. “You’re an adult now, Alex, so act like one.” We spent the rest of the night fucking like trolls at a greasy-sheeted Holiday Inn. In the morning, she was gone.

I shook out the bolus of blankets and pillows. My phone tumbled onto the carpet. I began writing my father a message asking what I should do—go after Angela, tell her off—but I paused a few letters in. His phone was shards of plastic and glass in the street. I knew that he wouldn’t respond. I love you, I typed, then deleted it. Thanks, I typed, then deleted it. I’m sorry, I typed, then deleted it. It went on this way for some time. I understand that things were hard for—I deleted it. I do feel closer now than—I deleted it. Knocks on the door. “Housekeeping,” I heard. I let them inside.

Alex McElroy’s work appears or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Diagram, Tin House, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and more work can be found here. He currently lives in Arizona, where he serves as the International Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review.

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Nice Cold Ice Cold Milk.

Photo by Meg Nicol

Associate fiction editor Michael Giddings on today’s story: In “Mail Order Babies,” Mika Taylor asks questions about love. Where does love come from? Is it possible to chase it? Can it be manufactured, shipped, and artificially incubated in a pan of warm milk? And, seriously, what compels us to look for love in the first place? Of course we’re driven to propagate the species, but Taylor questions our assumptions about that as well. Here, we are reminded of a self-sustaining part of the soul that is often overlooked. The babies, no matter how they’re packaged, call for us to tap into a well of love that quietly rejuvenates itself, unabated by all the social pressures of the world.

Mail Order Babies

They came in a packet like pop rocks or seeds, plain brown paper and simple instructions: Add milk. Keep warm. Love. There were no pictures on the side, no happy families, no sea monkey king and queen. Smart marketing from the baby people. Yours to imagine.

She didn’t open it right away, kept it tucked in a drawer, didn’t pour the milk in the pan, left the heat lamp cold and dark in its corner, unplugged. Though she was glad she had them, she wasn’t quite ready to have them, not yet. There was still a chance of meeting someone – that eventual pair bonding that everyone seemed to expect – the love that novels and pop songs promised. That could happen still.

But it didn’t. It was probably her fault. She’d long since stopped going to bars and was too exhausted by expectation to bother with dating sites or setups. There were too many men out there who didn’t understand her, too many people period. It was probably unethical to make the babies she’d bought, burden the world with more. It was probably unethical to leave them there in their packet though too, unmothered, unconceived. Realistically, if she decided not to have them, she could send them back, recoup all but her deposit, and they would go to some other mother and be born all the same. So maybe ethics were not the issue.

The guarantee had said that while a few always sprouted, the most viable of the Foetussen was usually the one to take. There was no danger of being overwhelmed by multiples, but still she was overwhelmed by the multiple possibilities the packet contained: the specter of a bright boy with hazel eyes, skinned knees, and an ear for music like her father, the chance of a wiggling newborn who refused to sleep, wrecking her nights only to melt into her shoulder at dawn with a weight and warmth that broke her heart, or a girl so much like herself that eventually they wouldn’t be able to stand one another, fighting and cursing and loving in wretched and violent ways. It was all just too much.

So she waited, kept herself as open as she could – not so open that she talked to strangers in the park or called up the exes she found on the internet – but open nonetheless. She spent evenings at home sipping tea, reading, waiting, not looking at the packet in the drawer.

“We’re worried about you,” her parents opined.

“You’ve stopped trying.”

“Please,” they begged. “Go out. Meet someone.” They pleaded and pestered and needled and nudged until they found someone for her, a man whose parents they had talked to at a party, sharing that intimate connection of grandchildlessness. Grand childlessness.

She didn’t want to go, but somehow she found herself at a restaurant on a weeknight conversing with this stranger about the change of seasons. He had kind eyes and hair that curled in so many unexpected directions that it seemed both contained and wildly unkempt. And she actually liked the things he had to say about religion and social justice. And he actually listened when she told him about her suburban childhood. And somewhere over the third glass of wine she found herself laughing deeply in a way she hadn’t in quite some time. It was him. He was there and this was something.

When she’d first ordered the packet online, she had wondered when she would start to love her baby. She hadn’t known if it would happen when the mail finally came, or weeks later when she unwrapped and engaged the self-guiding implantation apparatus. Maybe there had to be something inside of her, growing. Or would it all start when the baby was finally birthed and in her arms, focusing for the first time on her face as she focused on its? Her biggest fear was that she could never love it, that she would be as disconnected from her child as she was from most of humanity. But now, as this newly met man smiled and joked and worked his way through dessert, she realized that the thing had already happened. The seeds had germinated, sprouted, taken root. So much so that it was not her date that she thought about, even as he touched her cheek at the end of the evening. She might see him again and that might be good, but the blooming she felt was not about him at all. Her mind had already left him behind, walked up the avenue past sodium streetlights and ducked underground at the nearest subway stop to ride the next train home. By the time she said good night, her heart was already far from that place, unlocking the door to her empty apartment, pulling the packet from its drawer, plugging in the heat lamp, pouring the milk into its pan.

Mika Taylor lives in Willimantic, Connecticut (a.k.a. Romantic Willimantic, a.k.a. Heroin Town USA, a.k.a. Thread City, a.k.a. Vulture Town) with her writer husband, PR Griffis, and Petunia von Scampers their crime-solving dog. You can read more of her work at The Kenyon Review OnlineThe CollagistTin HouseNecessary Fiction, and Guernica.

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Love

Photo by Chris

Dear Professor H.,

It’s been more than forty years since I took your Introduction to Creative Writing Class, yet I still remember that very first Tuesday morning when I sat on a squeaky metal chair, my spiral notebook with its shiny red cover open in front of me, waiting for your arrival. Every molecule of my being was quivering with excitement. I had already made up my mind that I was going to be a poet. In junior high, I’d devoured the confessional poems of Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. In high school, I’d lapped up the beat poetry of Anne Waldman and Diane di Prima. At last I was in college and it was my turn to clutch my pen in my hand, pour out my heart, and share my verse with the world.

As I chewed the tasteless plastic cap of my blue Bic pen, you strode into the room and dropped a tall stack of books onto your wooden teacher’s desk with a thud. Silently you turned to the blackboard and printed the words “Serious Pleasure” at the very top, underlined them twice and then let the white stick of chalk fall into its metal holder with a clatter. Finally you turned to face us. I noticed right away how handsome you were. You had the solid build of an athlete—a football player maybe?—the dreamy eyes of a poet, and the plump lips of a good kisser. You also had a gold wedding band on your left hand and brown Docksiders on your rather large feet. You wore khaki slacks, a white alligator shirt and a weary expression as if you already knew that we were all going to disappoint you. And if that weren’t enough, you heaved an enormous sigh to let us know that we were all hopelessly beneath you but you were stuck with us. And we were stuck with you.

If you meant to intimidate us, Professor H., you certainly succeeded. You distributed the syllabus and launched into the course requirements without once explaining the phrase “serious pleasure” which stared down at us like an angry gargoyle. My classmates shifted in their seats and I saw many of them flipping through the thick course booklet we all carried around, searching, no doubt, for another “gut course” that met on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9:15.

Eventually you stopped talking about your expectations of us in that slow Southern drawl that meandered through our New England classroom like a river and began our first lesson. “We’ll start with sonnets,” you said. The word elicited a collective groan. You remained unfazed. “Yes, you’re all going to write a sonnet,” you repeated in that honey-oozing voice. “You’ll hate me now, but you’ll thank me later.”

That night sitting in my dorm room at my tiny student desk under the burning glow of my clip-on lamp, I spent hours working on my sonnet. I wrestled with iambic pentameter. I sweated over the rhyme scheme. I fretted over the turn. I rewrote the ending couplet a hundred times. After dozens of revisions, all written by hand, I finally took my Smith Corona portable typewriter out of its peach-colored case, and typed up my poem. I had never worked so hard on anything in my life.

When our class next met, you collected our sonnets, stuffed them into a brown accordion folder, and proceeded to teach us about something called a terza rima. I listened and took notes, all the while wondering what you would say about my sonnet. Would it surprise you? Delight you? Impress you? Most of all, would it show you that I wasn’t like the other students yawning in front of you? No, like you, I was a real writer. Surely you would recognize from the fourteen lines I had just handed in that we were kindred souls.

The following Tuesday, you handed back our papers without a word. I tried to catch your eye as you approached my desk, but you were having none of it. You extended my paper upside-down, I reached for it, you moved on. I waited until you were on the other side of the room before I turned it over. I was both dismayed and relieved to see that there were no marks upon it, until my eyes reached the very bottom of the page where I saw, in a tilted, southpaw scrawl, the words “so what” written in red ink, followed by a question mark.

So what? So what? I read those two words at least 100 times, my heart hammering, my cheeks turning red as the ink you had used to write them. So what? I was absolutely crushed. Did I really have nothing to say? Was my dream of becoming a writer ridiculous? Were my parents right? Should I forget this poetry business and become the social worker, secretary, or nurse they kept urging me to be?

More than four decades have passed since you wrote “so what?” on the bottom of my sonnet, Professor H., and I have done a lot of writing during that time. But one thing I have never written is a note of thanks to you.

“You’ll hate me now but you’ll thank me later.” I never hated you, Professor H. In fact, I had a little crush on you. And though you crushed my schoolgirl heart, I want to thank you for the two red hot words you seared onto the bottom of my poem and into my brain like marks from a branding iron. Because after I licked my wounds in the privacy of my dorm room and dried my eyes (oh yes, many tears were shed) I got mad. F.U. Professor H.! How dare you write “so what?” on my sonnet and stomp on my poetic dream?

Actually, Professor H., whether you meant to or not, you did me an enormous favor. Your words lit a fire under me that blazed for the rest of the semester. I’ll show you, I thought night after night as I sat at my desk under the harsh light of that clip-on lamp shining down upon my notebook bright as a Hunter’s Moon. Your words dared me to become a better writer and I took on that challenge like a champ. I wrote and wrote and wrote, determined to accomplish the impossible task of pleasing you. The closest I came was a comment from you on the bottom of a short story: “Your fiction is better than your poetry.” Was that a compliment or an insult? To this day, I’m really not sure.

But so what? Forty years later, Professor H., I have had a change of heart. I no longer think you were being cruel to me. Actually I think you were being kind. I might even flatter myself into thinking that you did recognize the real writer sitting in front of you, nervously splitting the ends of her waist-length hair as she listened to you explaining enjambment, and decided to give her a gift: the gift of “so what?”

To this day, everything I write is put to the “so what?” test. Those two brutal and brutally honest words taught me that what I place on the page has to matter. It’s not enough for a piece to be beautifully structured or stylistically pleasing. Poems and stories have to mean something. They can’t be throwaway or inconsequential or frivolous. They have to improve the stark beauty of the blank page that they are written upon. They cannot waste the readers’ time.

And so, when I write, I take serious pleasure in making sure that every word counts. And for that, Professor H., I humbly thank you.

Lesléa Newman is the author of 65 books for readers of all ages including the novel,  The Reluctant Daughter, the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk, the poetry collection, Still Life with Buddy, the children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies, and the novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Her literary awards include poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Artists Foundation. A former poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts, she teaches at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA program. Her newest poetry collection,  I Carry My Mother, will be published by Headmistress Press in January 2015.

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droplets

Photo by Andreas Beer

Paperback Writer

I published my first book when I was 42 years old. I’d just moved from Iowa City to Berkeley, California, for a full-time teaching job when the book came out. It was November and I was too busy to fret about things first-book writers tended to fret about: reviews, sales, whether my slim hardback would stay in print or ever go into paperback.

But I was not too busy for a steady stream of self-consciousness. My book was slender (not even 200 pages) and my imprint small and even though I was grateful to my publisher–an intelligent and incredibly supportive press–I also felt embarrassed about readings, asking people to look at me, to listen to me, to buy my very personal book.

Out of a sense of duty, I agreed to more than a dozen readings. For each reading, I wrote out notes, which began with things like, “I want to thank you all for coming tonight,” because my nerves meant I couldn’t trust myself to do anything–even a simple thank you to an audience in San Francisco or Portland or Chicago–off the cuff.

People had warned me that no one came to readings anymore so be prepared to talk to a room of one. An audience of one? I was fine with that. I attended many readings myself and loved the intimacy of a small audience, loved listening to writers’ voices, getting glimpses into their lives. Writing had seemed glamorous before I started doing it, then difficult when I was committed full-force, yes, but also romantic. In the years I spent writing my book, which I did not know at the time would become a book, I used to walk down the streets of my town, which smelled of honeysuckle in the spring and oats in the winter, thinking my skin must shimmer with all my bodily happiness. I was writing. Full-on. Every day. It seemed incredible, the best relationship of my life.

But all things related to public speaking scared the devil out of me and seemed contrary to what the pleasures of writing were all about: solitude; quiet; the company of the words in your head. My friend Jo Ann had introduced to me some years before to The Little Blue Pill–propranalol (not to be confused with Michael Jackson’s propofol)–which allowed me to endure the hour of the reading without my voice shaking or my hands shaking or my body sweating. But nothing could help me in the days leading up to a reading, as I went over and over my notes and practiced out loud, and nothing could save me from the anxiety that spilled out in the days afterward, when I replayed questions and realized what I should have said.

There should be, I reasoned, a Morning After the Reading Pill.

There is, of course. It’s called vodka.

***
Once, before reading at Cody’s Books, my friend Wesley accompanied me to the store, three hours early on a very rainy night. If I didn’t arrive early, my panic rose to unspeakable heights.

“I can’t do it,” I said. We were sitting in my car, the rain hitting the windshield in wild streaks. Wesley listened. He didn’t remind me that Cody’s was a famous bookstore that had championed small presses and unknown writers, a bookstore I had loved and admired from afar for years. None of that matters when someone’s scared.

“What should I do?”

Wesley, who suffers from anxiety too, said I didn’t have to read. He would tell the bookstore I couldn’t make it. I could go straight home.

Which was the exact right thing to say: to give me that out.

Of course I read. Of course I survived. Of course it was fine. Books were signed and sold and finally, I could go out for a drink with Wesley and then go home, collapsing in relief, moving soon to the next stage of anxiety, not about what I would say when I was standing at the podium but about what I had said and couldn’t take back.

I lived alone at the time. And I was reading from a book that was about moving to Japan at thirty because I was alone and didn’t want to be, and how I met someone (three someones, in fact) and got into some trouble with these men and then came home. Alone. Again.

“Your subject,” a writer friend once told me, “is solitude.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, I wanted her to take them back. If there was a theme I did not want, that was it. Solitude. But she was right.

After each reading, I thought, well, at least there’s that: I am alone but now I am alone and I have a book.

Then, right before the last of my twelve readings, spread out over the course of eight months, squeezed in between classes and other responsibilities, I met someone. Online. In that ocean of words. Someone dark-haired. A Californian. A reader. We talked about Joseph Brodsky and Alice Munro and he told me stories of what he’d found when he was young in bookstores like Green Apple and I told him about my life in Iowa City and going to readings at Prairie Lights.

We drank coffee at Peets and he made me carnitas, which I ate sitting cross-legged in his Napa living room. He didn’t read my book right away. He said he wanted to get to know the woman first, before the writer. I could not argue with that. I was afraid my little book about men and messed-up relationships would scare him off, particularly the scenes of me standing in front of my Japanese man’s house, frantic, watching for him, some sign of him, wanting him to come out and take me back. (He didn’t.)

But Matt didn’t scare so easily. When he read it–about six months in–he told me how much he liked it. He called it serious. And when I laughed and said, it’s a book in which I collapse at one point, drunk on a Japanese bench, with sadness, he said, yes. She’s in trouble for sure. Who doesn’t get in trouble?

I was very quiet when he said that.

Is this why I did not worry when the terror of my readings ended and the adventure of publishing came to a close? Because I was newly in love and caught up in that? We used to walk to Naan and Curry and eat tikka chicken and browse in Cody’s afterward. Once, we walked back to my apartment from lunch and Matt stopped outside the building and reached high into the tree to pull down three lemons, all miraculously within reach. Then we spent the afternoon drinking ice water with slices of lemon in our glasses, talking first on my red couch, then later on the edge of the bed. Outside there was a steady sound of a hammer, someone at work, building a bookshelf or a desk or maybe repairing a roof.

“You have the face of a Russian novel,” he said.

***
A woman who lived across the street for me in that apartment told me once a few weeks before my book was to come out, “Most books are small stones that sink into the ocean.” I think she believed she was warning me not to expect fame. (I did not.) Her warning, of course, has context: books that start out small, then make it big are not the norm. The stories of breakout hits–the 60 agents who pass on a novel before one takes it and the novel makes the bestseller list and gets turned into a Hollywood hit–these are legendary. My neighbor knew them. I knew them too: how Michael Cunningham, for example, was advised against publishing The Hours (three depressed women? seriously?) but does it anyway and again, voila, Hollywood steps in.

But what of the rest of us? We who start out small and remain so? Do we take comfort in what William James said, that he was “against bigness and greatness in all their forms”? Is comfort required?

***
Most books sink like small stones in the ocean.

I repeated this to myself a few months ago when I had dinner with a friend whose fine first novel was not earning back its huge, seemingly lucky, advance. I repeated it out loud to another writer friend, someone who writes exquisitely and has yet to be published and wants it so much, I could tell, the wanting hurt.

I wanted to encourage her. To remind her, as I remind myself, to keep on keeping on.

I love stones, I said. I love the ocean. I love falling into the sea of words on an ocean of possibilities and so do you.

But later I thought of how dangerous sinking can be and how there is also that in the writing life too. How you immerse yourself and there is the danger of going under, of losing track of all else: the pleasure of luxurious tea in the morning, the need to water the basil on the patio, the sound of the someone’s voice, leaving a phone message. You do not stop. You do not call back. There are prices to ignoring all that.

I wished I had thought to tell her that I recognize that.

And that there is something else: that sometimes it isn’t a matter of sinking, perhaps, but of reaching. For a word, an idea, a wholeness.

Sometimes there are three lemons right there, falling into our hands.

***
The other day a box arrived with a return address from Chicago that I didn’t recognize. Inside, there were copies of my book–ten years after its initial publication–now in paperback. Acid free paper and in paperback! my partner, Matt said. We both sang “Paperback Writer” on and off all day and fingered the new books as we went about our ordinary business of paying bills, of making dinner, of doing the laundry, of washing the dishes.

Late that night, with the black water of the bay invisible from my window, I got back to work.

Marilyn Abildskov is the author of The Men In My Country, a memoir set in JapanRecent essays and short stories have appeared in The Pinch, The Sun, AGNI, and The Laurel Review. A recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, she lives in the Bay Area and teaches creative nonfiction in the MFA Program at Saint Mary’s College of California.

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Digital Photo

Photo by JD Hancock

Associate fiction editor Annie Bilancini on today’s story: I’ll just come right out and say it: I’m a sucker for the collective-we narrator. It’s ancient, right? The Greek chorus trudging around in the back of the scene, lamenting and ever-present. I love the idea that an entire place or community can own a story and take part in the telling because, as readers, we often become participants in the action in the most satisfying way. But in this story, Citino raises the stakes. Surreality bites at the edges of Tuscola County, the ever-so-Lynchian reflection of a town we may have passed through once or even lived in for years. Don’t let the sun-shot skies and neighborly prattle fool you: we are complicit here.

The Eleventh Annual Tuscola County Kissing Contest

We get up early, loaded with coolers and camping chairs, to get a good spot. Come too late and you have to settle for the parking lot at the blood bank. The mayor hosts the contest every year, and every year embarrasses himself by reading love poetry from his high school days. We boo at him but it’s good-natured. He fumbles with the starting pistol. He shoots. Among the black gum trees lining the river, the couples embrace and we cheer for the start of things.

It is a hot day and a long one. We sit and watch for awhile, then wander to play euchre with neighbors or shoot the shit with our uncles. Deep fried candy bars melt on fingers and faces. The solitary old men, who have no business here, are shuffled off by security guards with roses tucked behind their ears. The couples give us a good show. Some ass grabs and over-the-shirts to keep our attention. We appreciate that kissing is hard work as every few minutes another pair flags, staggers, and falls apart. The losers join us at our portable barbeques.

We soon pick our favorite. They are not so young they seem foolish but not so old they break our hearts. Hands slip in denim back pockets but remain chaste. Lips roll over lips like fog on a country road. They look like they can go the distance. We lean across to our neighbors and gossip in voices made booming by drink:

They have loved each other since they were children.

No, they are newlyweds savoring the longest foreplay of their lives.

The woman, see the pallor in her face? She has cancer. He has loved her forever and there is no time to waste.

When they win, the Junior League presents them with a handmade garland of honeysuckle. The mayor makes his annual speech about how we will be sustained through the hard year ahead by this new symbol of love. Though poor, etc. Though wretched, etc. We squint into the last bronze bars of the sun. The woman’s lipstick is gone except for a grapefruit streak on her chin and he wears a t-shirt with a faded Confederate flag across the front.

Whispers: they are divorcing.

She is married and he is the sleazy paramour skilled at cunnilingus.

They never met before this moment.

We rub sunburned noses, our bellies stuffed with charred meat and liquor. We can never really know our neighbors and our children go without their shots and the homeless are beaten in the streets, etc. The river stinks. The air is cold. It is time to go home, etc. The mayor says something about how the true beauty of the contest is that never just one person wins. We drift back to our cars and fan out arm’s length apart, cigarette smoke and cricket drone filling the spaces between our hunched shoulders. We call out for our children. We cannot find them in the dark.

Laura Citino is a fiction writer from southeastern Michigan. Her short fiction has appeared in The Intentional Quarterly, Midwestern Gothic and Bluestem, and is forthcoming from Cheap Pop. She received her MFA from Eastern Washington University and currently lives with her partner and teaches English in Terre Haute, Indiana.

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"Sunday Lake'" Wakefield, Upper Michigan

Photo by John McCormick

Writing my Way Through

Writing has always been a part of my life, but the degrees to which I’ve nurtured it have ebbed and flowed over time, like tides rolling in and out. Though I studied journalism in college, the fact that I also met my future husband and became engaged during this time meant that my love of writing had to morph into something marketable, a skill that would help us buy a home and purchase all the wonderful necessities on display at Williams-Sonoma. I gave up writing angst-filled poetry and Austen-inspired short stories and turned to writing snappy ad copy, eventually doing so for a newspaper—my office just down the hall from the newsroom where the serious writers labored.

The home Kevin and I purchased was an abandoned farmhouse and it became our never-ending project. Children followed soon after and I filled my life with every possible creative interest, from embroidery and knitting, to cooking and gardening. Plastic bins overflowed with the various implements of my new hobbies: knitting needles, cooking gadgets, garden tools, scrapbook paper, stenciling paints. I decorated rooms and cakes. I cooked intricate meals, often for large groups. I firmly established myself in a suburban-Martha-Stewart-landscape, convinced that it was the right place to be, and almost believed that a hundred creative pursuits could equal the one I really wished to do. It would take eighteen years for me to realize what I had given up and go in search of it by enrolling in an MFA program.

Arriving at that point wasn’t easy. This is not a simple discovery or admission for someone who has a wonderful husband, two beautiful, healthy children, many friends, a great job, and a charming home. How could I need something more? It took months of talking, threatening, and counseling for my husband and me to realize the importance of writing in my life and for both of us to work at staking out a place for it. And we did: we re-divided chores, I declined volunteer requests; while I packed up and headed to the library every Sunday, Kevin planned meals and grocery shopped.

And then he was diagnosed with cancer.

The MFA, along many other things, was put on hold as we worked together to save his life. Months of good diagnoses were followed by bad until a Stage IV prognosis in November, 2009. Treatment stalled the inevitable but couldn’t cure it. In the early summer of 2010, we opted for surgery to lessen the size of tumors that had vined their way up his spine. As Kevin’s health declined over those months, I often discovered myself in a very unusual place in my head. The window in Kevin’s hospital room on the sixth floor overlooked a city park and I stood at it for long minutes while he slept, watching kids run up the slide and slip, carefree and ecstatic, into the pool. Parents lounged on blankets or chaises, arms folded behind their heads, in their own contentment of summer. So many hours spent at that window with the impossible questions of why, and what was going to happen when this was no longer; not wanting it to go on, but not being able to bear the thought of it being over.

Frequently, my mind wandered to a place in our yard with me seated in a wicker chair, overlooking our garden. Bright red heaps of floribunda roses climbed the picket fence, and bean plants and Brussels sprout stalks were fecund with color and fruit. In this vision, I sat with my laptop and wrote at a furious, prolific pace, words spilling out of me in some fit of creative fertility as though in competition with the plant life around me. Coming back to reality, I knew what had to happen between the now and the time when I would sit alone and write. It frightened me that I would sometimes think about “after” in this way, with a wordless and dreamlike (but very vivid) vision. I told a friend about this once and she felt strongly that it was my mind’s (or possibly God’s) way of getting me through this otherwise unbearable time, of removing me, for just a few minutes, from the hell we were in. Other widows have told me they often found themselves lost in thoughts of what they would do later; both practical things like bank accounts and home sales, but also life changing things like dating and relocating. I never let my mind go to those places. Until the very end we spoke only of fighting on and finding a cure.

So rather than thoughts borne of acceptance, I had this one and only daydream, an almost perfect juxtaposition of past life and future life, of all those hobbies that filled our home with fresh flowers and canning jars, and the one thing I desired, but which now felt selfish and meaningless. Was it wrong of me to make these demands on our life, I wondered. What I wouldn’t give, I had to admit, to just go back to the way it used to be. This was a time for making bargains with the universe and writing was quickly and easily put on the table.

But Kevin didn’t want that. In notes I found after his death, he wrote about his favorite places to go in his own head, when he too, was unable to leave the hospital room or the recliner in our study. One place he went was imagining my MFA graduation. He pictured himself in the audience, with me walking across the stage receiving my diploma. Then he pictured me at a book signing, with all our family and friends gathered around as I read. He wanted this too. Giving me time to write wasn’t a matter of capitulation or of simply trying to avoid an argument. It was something he truly and deeply wished for me. As was often the case, he was more generous with me than I had been with myself.

There have been a good many books, mostly memoir, written recently about grief and mourning. One that I particularly love is A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates. In a February 2011 New York Times story titled “Why We Write About Grief,” Oates writes of how keeping a journal during her husband’s illness was something she did to help her at times of anxiety and sleeplessness. Eventually those entries became the book. But she, too, had some ambivalence about writing through this time. She says, “The act of writing — of even trying to write — of imagining to write — seemed meaningless, vain and silly.”

She talks of the year after her husband’s death as a time when she was “haunted by memories of a very visual nature…” Attempting to explain the odd relationship that the grieving journal writer has with her craft and subject matter during this period, she says, “The diarist doesn’t know how a scene will end, when it begins; she doesn’t know what the next hour will bring, let alone the next day or the next week; she is wholly unprepared for the most profound experience of her life — that her husband will die.”

With the exception of a poem, later anthologized in The Cancer Poetry Project, Vol II, I did not write during the time of my husband’s illness. I struggled even more to attempt writing in the two years following his death. After experiencing my own periods of anxiety, along with various physical ailments, I knew that I had to face the empty page and type out the words I had been unable to consider. I rented a small cottage near Lake Michigan and spent days alone at the computer typing words like “death” and “dying.” I wrote about Kevin’s time in the hospital, about the first days of his diagnosis, and about my experiences in the days and months after his death. Not necessarily looking for any meaning, nor to make sense of something I still don’t understand, but rather to put some small bit of order to a situation that had left me feeling completely broken and out of control.

In a few days I will recognize the fourth anniversary of Kevin’s passing. It is no longer as difficult to write about him or about us. I write fairly frequently of life as a widow and hope someday soon to write more about our life together as a young married couple renovating an old, crumbling-down farmhouse. In the four years that have passed, writing that once felt burdensome now offers a thread of connection. I have gone from being unable to consider putting memories onto paper, to having a great desire—almost a palpable need—to do so. It isn’t always a pleasant experience. Indeed most times I write about Kevin or that time in our lives, I become quiet and pensive, sometimes for the remainder of the day. Eventually though, I feel renewed and comforted by the experience. My previous avoidance has been pushed away by the new need to collect, record, and preserve the memories in the best way I know how—by writing about them.

Lori Tucker-Sullivan is a freelance writer and editor who also teaches part-time and works with a group of independent booksellers to better their businesses. Her essays and poems have appeared in The Sun, Now & Then: The Magazine of Appalachia, About the Girl, and The Cancer Poetry Project. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Spalding University. Her blog can be found here: www.widowsapprenticeship.blogspot.com.

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Gingerbread man

Photo by Kyle Horner

Associate poetry editor Francis McGill on today’s poem: Donald Illich gives the gingerbread man new life and even a real conscience, a conscience with not so much a moral hinge, but an anxious self-awareness…something over your shoulder. The gingerbread man was made to be eaten. And us? Who eats us?

The Gingerbread Man

He’s always disturbed when he catches us
eating the cookies. He doesn’t want to say
anything, so he runs quickly out the door,
scared a dog might eat him, leaving a gap
in his midsection. He’d have to be baked
again, flour and water added, to heal it.
It’s his least favorite holiday, where all
he sees are little hims in plastic jars,
all with red gumdrop eyes, inanimate,
ready for consumption. At work he avoids
the parties, where everyone munches desserts,
where he fears to watch his boss crunching
“his legs.” At home he can pretend no one
wishes to devour him completely. He decorates
his house with frosting, tells us he’s busy
with hauling up candies to the roof. We know
one day he’ll drop off the ladder. We’ll be there,
gathering shards, sticking them in our mouths.

Donald Illich has published in journals such as The Iowa Review, LIT, Nimrod, and Crab Creek Review. He lives in Rockville, Maryland.

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by Michael Giddings & Matthew Weinkam

“There’s been a change of plans,” says Tim.

I’m at the front table in Babycakes, a local bakery in downtown Marquette, my notepad filled with my tiny, unsavory questions. Tim Johnston—five-year managing editor and current fiction editor of Passages North—enters and seats himself across from me. “Change of plans?” I ask.

“The interview is on hold. We have to go pants shopping. As soon as Matt gets here.” Tim has been shoveling snow off a colleague’s roof and his jeans have sprung a leak in the crotch. “I’ve sewed them before, but this might be the end. I don’t want to be popping out all through this thing,” says Tim. It’s a legitimate concern. The hole reaches from the crotch halfway to the knee.

Matt arrives and we crowd into Tim’s litter-filled pickup to go shopping. I suggest an 80s style fashion montage, but Tim is all business: “I can’t decide between Target or Wal-Mart.”

Matt and I offer to weigh the pros and cons.

“I’m thinking Wal-Mart,” Tim says. “Because I’m going to be changing pants in the parking lot. Wal-Mart is more comfortable with that sort of thing.”

Over the course of the evening Tim will buy new jeans and take us on a guided tour of Marquette, complete with donut shops, French onion soup, a wedding reception at the Ore Dock, and a sky lounge view of Lake Superior. We will also learn a bit about Tim’s history as a writer, editor, maintenance worker, and Negaunee resident.

After Tim is fully dressed we pile back into his truck and head to Huron Mountain, a quiet coffee and donuts bakery near Lake Superior. We grab a table by the window and start as far back as we can go.

—Mike Giddings

I. Origin Story

Mike Giddings: I’m interested in your origin story. Do you remember the first thing you ever wrote?

Tim Johnston: First story?

Mike: Yeah, or I guess it doesn’t have to be a story. I want to see the very beginning.

Tim: Yeah. Okay, I’m not used to this kind of thing. It’s all about me. I just like conversation.

I think the first thing I ever wrote—and if you were a girl I was dating, my mother would tell you this—the first thing she recollects me writing is my own name on a box. I thought I was writing Timmy, turns out I was writing Time.

Mike: So you had a cardboard box that said Time on it? Like in Calvin and Hobbes?

Tim: Something like Calvin and Hobbes.

Matt Weinkam: But you thought it said Timmy.

Tim: But I thought it said Timmy, so maybe I was talking to myself.

Matt: There’s something deep there. We’ll figure it out.

Mike: Do you remember any of the conversations you had with your cardboard self?

Tim: My brother says there was a face I drew on it but I have no memory of drawing a face. But no, no recollection. I did write something called “The War” in first grade, second grade.

Matt: Yeah. That’s what I’m talking about. What was “The War” about?

Tim: We were watching a lot of M*A*S*H back then. And I decided to write a story that featured me and my friends. We were in a war I guess. That was the deal of it. From what I remember specifically, we were all sleeping in our tent or whatever and there was a missile coming. And I told everyone we got to get out of here. And we got out of there.

Mike and Matt: [laughter]

Tim: And the day was saved.

Mike and Matt: [laughter]

Tim: But I don’t know who sent the missile. I only knew it was coming. And we left the tent and we were saved and I guess the war was over.

Matt: Well, we missed them. End of the war. That’s fantastic. So were you a kid who wrote stories when you were younger?

Tim: No. I don’t remember much of it. I just remember wanting to write. In sixth grade we had to write stories to go to this young authors competition and I completely ripped off The Gingerbread Man. It was The Bubblegum Man. He eventually ended up melting or somehow got stuck. I don’t remember. But my teacher said, We’ll send it to the state competition. I think that may have been the first conscious story that I wrote.

Matt: Did it win?

Tim: Oh, no. It did not win. For the kids that did win, Ferris State’s undergraduate program would act out these kids’ stories and we sat there and watched the stories being acted out. Which was kind of cool. I’d hate doing it if I was an undergrad. But as a sixth grader it was like, Oh, they didn’t choose my story.

Mike: So there are no plans for a stage adaption of The Bubblegum Man?

Tim: No. I don’t even know where that story is anymore. I’ll have to find it just so my mother can pull it out next time I have a girlfriend home.

II. Welcome to Negaunee

It’s getting dark. The air is cold and no one particularly wants to go home. Tim says that the French onion soup at The Vierling—a restaurant-brewery and former gentlemen’s club—is life-changing so that’s our next stop.

Matt: You’re from downstate Michigan. Was that a big move at all? Coming to Marquette?

Tim: I guess because I had a brother up here, it wasn’t that big a deal. When I was in high school I made the trip up a couple of times and it’s a really long drive. Six hours. Honestly, it took me about five years to get used to it up here. And now I live in Negaunee [a small town fifteen minutes outside of Marquette].

Mike: You’ve said before that the move to Negaunee was the best decision you ever made?

Tim: That was sarcastic. The first day that I was about to move into my new apartment, there are two locks on my door and I didn’t lock the deadbolt because the door is warped to the point where the deadbolt doesn’t really work. So, I just leave the door locked. Turns out the door didn’t latch. So, the door was left open. I had some of my stuff moved in before and I’m coming back with a box of stuff and there’s this neighbor kid just in my apartment.

Matt: Just in the apartment?

Tim: Yeah. I barely had anything moved in at that point, but I came back and he was just there.

Matt: How old was this kid?

Tim: I don’t know. Old enough to know better than just going into someone’s apartment.

Mike: You have an age range for him?

Tim: Probably around thirteen. Again, I didn’t really have anything in the house. Some books, clothes and my kitchen stuff. If he took my KitchenAid I probably would have called the cops. But he was just looking around. I mean, it’s Negaunee. It wasn’t school time. He was probably bored as hell. I get it.

Matt: So, when you opened the door—did he have a deer-in-the-headlights reaction?

Tim: I opened the door and I knew someone was in there because I could hear him, but I also knew they were doing maintenance. I thought it was weird that they were still around. But, no, it’s just this weird, little twitchy kid running to my backyard door. To escape. I was like, What is this? And he was like, The door was open. And I was like, What is this? He didn’t even answer. He just opened the patio door—which is hard to open, so he’s struggling with that—and he finally makes it to the patio and he just jumps off the patio and bushed it. Am I allowed to draw on this? Just to give an idea?

This is my apartment. This is where you walk in. There’s other stuff here that’s not important. This is where my precious KitchenAid is. When I walk in I’m just standing here—and here’s the patio door.

Mike: Wait. [Hands Tim a pen and napkin] Draw yourself.

Tim: [Drawing] Here’s me: the X. Here’s my neighbor’s apartment, the kid’s apartment, across the hall. So, he runs, jumps off the patio and I’m still standing in my doorway, trying to process what just happened, and he just kind of loops around and comes into the front door… While I’m still standing right here. He just bolts into his apartment, and I’m like, Okay, this is my first day.

Matt: Welcome to Negaunee.

Tim: I just let it go in the end. I’ve run into that kid four or five times since I’ve moved in and he’s still ashamed. Poor kid. He wasn’t doing anything malicious. He was just bored as hell in Negaunee. The closest thing is the Super-One and it’s about an hour walk. And he doesn’t lace up his shoes so I imagine walking is a problem.

That was my first day in Negaunee and I haven’t had a good day since.

Mike: Have you been able to cultivate a writer’s lair in that apartment?

Tim: No. I’m more or less distracted by the unmanageable mildew. It’s kind of hard to write with that. However, I do read better there.

Matt: You write mostly in the office then?

Tim: Yeah. I do a little editing at home, but most of my stuff is done at the Passages office.

Mike: Desk writer or other?

Tim: The couch is kind of hard to write on. Too comfy. I guess I sit at my desk with my legs up, laptop on my lap. It will probably give me testicular cancer. That’s the least of my worries right now.

III. Forgivable Unforgivables

The soup is indeed fantastic. Reenergized after dinner, we decide to finish the night with a beer at the Ore Dock Brewing Company. Entering the busy second-floor space we become conscious that we stand out in the crowd.

“This is a wedding reception,” Tim realizes slowly. “This is, oh Lord, this is Angie’s wedding reception.”

Angie works in the English Department office. She had invited us all to her reception but everyone present can tell by the way we are dressed and the surprised looks on our faces that we have completely forgotten.

Tim leads the way over to the newlyweds and gives them his congratulations before we slink back out to the street.

“Okay, we’ve crashed a wedding. Where to next?”

Matt and I look at one another.

“Ah, I know,” says Tim. “It’s one of my favorite places in town.”    

The upstairs lounge at the Landmark Inn affords a stunning view of Marquette’s Lower Harbor and the city lights.       

“It’s great up here because not many people know about it, so you’ll usually have the place to yourself,” Tim says. “Keep it a secret.”

Mike: What do you look for in a Passages submission?

Tim: What do I look for? Coherency. Ha. This is the worst answer I can give in terms of a reader but if I feel like I’m not reading something or I’m just kind of taking it in then that’s a pretty good sign that’s something we need to publish.

The old system used to be if I get so excited about a piece that I have to go pee then it’s a definite yes. That’s the old system. But I haven’t had that experience in a while so I’ve maybe moved on. Not that we don’t get good stuff.

Mike: Are there any literary tropes that especially make you cringe when you see them?

Tim: Writers who write about writing. Writers whose narrator is a writer who is writing about not being able to write. Or writing so well.

Mike and Matt: [laughter]

Tim: There’s different variations. I’m such a terrible writer! And then you got the writers that are like, I’m such a good writer! And fuck you! Here’s my story!

Matt: Can you tell after reading the first page of a submission whether or not it will be a no?

Tim: First paragraph usually. There’s a lot of clichés everyone is using now. If I had more time I might start a checklist in terms of first page drafts that will never make it beyond the first page by, I don’t know, using the world actually. Try to avoid that one. Don’t say cunt in the first paragraph or the first sentence. I usually won’t get beyond that.

Matt: There should be a whole craft book about that.

Tim: There should. And the first entry is don’t use the word cunt in the first paragraph. I don’t know, you read so many submissions that after a while you have a hard time telling them apart.

Matt: Exactly, so how do you know what stands out? If you are reading a whole bunch of these and they all seem to be doing the same sort of things…

Tim: Voice. It’s always voice. If you’ve got a narrator who has got a personality and who reads like a real person, that’s a pretty good indication that’s a real writer, usually a writer that’s in touch with himself or herself. It’s true. We get these stories and you email the author and you get the email back from them and they are basically writing to you in the voice of that narrator. That’s the problem is that many people are just trying to write and they’re not telling their story through themselves.

There are lots of problems. Font is a big one.

Matt: They are just indicators that this person has never…

Tim: Like chiller font in the title. That’s stuff you do in high school and feel really cool about because you just discovered fonts. You were straight out of your first day looking through fonts and you come across chiller and get a hard on for it.

Matt: Do you just read fiction?

Tim: No, I go through the nonfiction too. I try poetry but it’s not for me. It’s not for anybody. It’s not even for poets. I don’t know how they do this. I think they just take a stack and throw it up in the air and just pick one off the ground and call it good.

Matt: Sitting in the poetry meeting was the best thing I’ve ever done.

Tim: I don’t like the way they do it. They’re so confident now of what is bad that you’d think they should take a little more time. They have their unforgivables mapped out and I guess it’s really easy for them to see how quickly these things come through. But whatever they’re doing it’s working. I think at the end of every meeting they have four or five to give off to Bev [Beverly Matherne] and Bev always comes back with two or three exceptions. And that’s rare. Rare for them to be so in tune with what Bev is looking for, it’s the most efficient I’ve ever seen the poets since Lisa [previous editor] was doing it on her own.

Mike: Do you think voice is the key to occasionally making the unforgivable forgivable?

Tim: I don’t know.

Mike: Like if you have a strong voice can you be a writer writing about writing well?

Tim: I haven’t seen it come through yet but you got these books, these novelists who are doing it, and I’m kind of getting tired of that too, because I just read Love Me, Garrison Keillor. It’s kind of like the anti-novelists novel. He writes this fantastic novel, gets invited to go to the New Yorker, and then can’t write a sentence afterwards and ends up writing advice columns. But that’s forgivable. Mostly because it’s Garrison Keillor and I can read it in his voice. He could read me the phone book and I would think it’s fantastic. That man is the perfect definition of forgiving the unforgivables. He does so much wrong and I don’t care.

Matt and Mike: [laughter]

Matt: Who are your people? Who are the writers you turn to? Either now or when you started.

Tim: David Feherty is a good example of forgiving the unforgivable. He is the golf commentator, the Irish guy on CBS sports. He wrote a column every month for Golf Magazine where he was just this Irish guy talking about golf and being hilarious.

I just got into Junot Diaz a couple years ago. I think everything he’s done that I have read has been phenomenal. Even—speaking of forgivable unforgivables—the Oscar Wao book. The whole first opening chapter is nothing but footnotes. But you read through it and it’s kind of boring but you don’t care. But then the book turns into something much different than that. So I’ve gotten into him a lot now. I still haven’t read his latest.

I’ve been trying to read Infinite Jest for years now. Can’t get past the first hundred pages but I want to. Reading him is like trying to get back on a running schedule. You stop running for like a year and your first time back you’re like, I’m going to do a mile in nine minutes. And you can’t do it. That’s what reading him is like. You’re diggin’ what you’re doing but, you know, you have other things to do. I haven’t cleaned the tub in a while. But I will get it eventually.

Mike: What’s the best book you’ve read all year? It doesn’t have to be anything new.

Tim: Books or short stories?

Mike: Either. Whatever jumps out.

Tim: Melissa Goodrich. I’ve been trying to solicit her for a while now. I read a piece of hers in Phoebe. She finally sent us a piece through Submittable and we didn’t get to it. She sent in on Friday and it was withdrawn on Sunday. Somebody else had taken it. It was this piece you could tell she was thinking about Breaking Bad. It’s a story about a guy who is smuggling angels to slaughter so they can sell them in supermarkets. It got withdrawn in three days and I didn’t get a chance to get to it. I would have accepted it right then. It was such a good story. She wrote it in the voice of a man. It was so damn convincing in the voice of a man. To see her get away with that is amazing. In the next ten years this woman is going to be up there with the best contemporary writers.

Brandon Davis Jennings. Everything I’ve come across by him has been gold. I have his chapbook, it’s fiction. His fiction is good but his nonfiction is phenomenal. I think he’s just finishing his PhD so he should have a book out soon and if he does I’ll grab it up.

IV. The Chinese Zodiac

Soon Matt, Tim, and I will head our separate ways outside the Landmark Inn. The walk home will be lonely but not too long. The warmth of drinks and company will wear off and I will be left thinking of the lofty goal of becoming a “real person,” of getting in touch with myself. But before we go:

Mike: Let’s talk about some of your projects that you’re working on. What are you writing right now?

Tim: My Master’s thesis.

Matt: Which is?

Tim: Words. In no logical order. My theme is escape. I don’t know if that is ironic or not.

Matt: Stories and not a novel?

Tim: No. I was thinking of doing a novella but that’s too hard. Now they’re just interlinking short stories. The piece I read last night [at the Graduate Writers Association reading], the girl from that shows up in another piece, they’re going to float by in another piece. It’s going to be all connected somehow. The thesis is there is an asteroid coming and it’s the end of the world and here’s the last couple years before everything gets destroyed and people just go on with their lives. I have to figure it out in a month. I’ve had two and a half years and now I’m just getting started.

Mike: How many stories do you have so far?

Tim: I don’t know. We have the rabbit piece, we’ve got the mantis piece, the horse piece–they’re all animal based.

Matt: Is this the Chinese Zodiac?

Tim: No. [laughs] I have maybe seven pieces. I have one I wrote last week that I have to revise. This one is in the style of a parody of a New Yorker profile. About advertising. About a religious group that the asteroid is coming and this stoner had a vision of Jesus coming to them as a surfer trying to go to cape Presidio out in California and meet them there. That’s how it ends. It’s about four thousands words right now and I need to add another five or six thousand to have it seem like a real New Yorker piece. Have it go on ungodly long.

Matt: What is the interest in animals?

Tim: I think it is just the way it came out. It was never intentional. I guess the first piece I wrote was the rabbit piece, which I wrote years ago, and is the first piece Matt [Frank] actually responded to. And then after that I just found weird things to obsess on. I forgot how I first heard that a praying mantis would eat its mate, which is just a random fact that everybody knows. I went into other weird facts.

Mike: What did you find out about praying mantis?

Tim: Well the reason they eat the heads of the mate is to get as much protein as possible but also so that the mate lasts longer and doesn’t try to get away. They’re good at evading bats. Their echolocation is so great they know where the bat is and stop dead in air to avoid them. They have good hearing in one ear. They can see a hundred yards fairly well.

Mike: Last question. One of your unofficial jobs, or maybe it is one of your official jobs, is making sure everyone in the department gets along with one another. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Tim: Not everyone has to like one another or get along with each other, but it’s more efficient when they do.

Mike: Any tricks for making that happen?

Tim: No. Desperately pleading. I think I say be the adult, please a lot. Just go with it. I don’t care. Or maybe: Just get it done.

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pastel mall 6

Photo by Robert Cook

Origin Stories

Ask any two poets how they became what they are – when they first realized they were going to devote themselves to the writing of poetry – and you’re likely to get two wholly different accounts of how they found themselves cast in the role. Poet origin stories are often full of implausibility, rife with coincidences and fortuitous circumstances spinning out of control. After all, there aren’t many people who calmly and coolly make the logical choice to embark upon a life as a poet! That’s why these true-life accounts are often every bit as bombastic, as sensational and spectacular, as the colorful origin stories you’re likely to find in comic books or the movies. It’s a little ridiculous, and ultimately amazing, that anyone at all ever ends up as a poet.

But the narrative of a person’s history is never quite so tidy as we might like. It’s impossible to trace things cleanly back to a single bolt of lightning that changed the course of our own human drama once we admit all the forces and decisions coalescing around us, “knowing how way leads on to way,” as Frost reminds us. Maybe that’s why I think it’s so important to reflect on our own beginnings as writers, to remember as much as we can of our origin stories, recognize and distill those residual energies so that we can keep learning from them. And I think it is important to share these early annals so that maybe all this collective wisdom can seep in and make things easier for those just starting out in the process of starting out. For me, it began like it did for Superman, with my world coming to an end.

It was already November, 1994 – dangerously close to the end of what I hoped was the penultimate semester of my undergraduate studies – when I found out that a class I needed in order to graduate wasn’t going to be offered in the spring. I’d started at the State University of New York at Brockport in the fall of 1992, convinced I was going to be a writer, of novels preferably, big ones with important themes that were full of important wisdom, that would be generous and humane and all encompassing.

And that was my path as I blasted through the semesters thanks to an accelerated program that helped me jump over general requirements and my own frenetic tendency to double up on classes, as well as the palpable and mounting pressures of my own life. I saw my future, perhaps melodramatically, as a hallway filled with doors slamming shut all around me. My high school girlfriend and I just had a daughter and we were both feeling a frantic drive to get out into the world, to somehow make a living, to be productive, to grow up. I was 20.

The class I needed in order to complete my degree requirements was an Advanced Fiction Workshop but the college was offering the Advanced Poetry Workshop instead. I hadn’t taken any Beginning, or even Intermediate, Poetry Workshop classes; in fact, except for a few rambling but lineated journal entries and a handful of haiku written as public school English class assignments, I had no real experience with poetry at all. My Introduction to Creative Writing class, which had a long unit on poetry, was one of the handful of Cs on my transcript; I had written stories instead of the required poems and got angry at the teacher for trying to smother my prosey ambitions. So I wasn’t expecting much when I petitioned William Heyen, the teacher of that Advanced Poetry Workshop, to let me in. In my memory, Bill looked at me, probably registering the way my body vibrated with the crash of expectation and deeply unsatisfying turmoil, and said “Sure, okay.”

Did I know Bill was a dedicated and prolific poet, a guy who had made it his life to chase and be chased by words? No. I’d learn that later, of course, as we struck up a valuable twenty-year (and counting…) friendship. I only saw him as a professor, a potential roadblock that had been lifted, and he followed his acquiescence with a disclaimer. “These people that’ll be in your class, they’ve been studying poetry for years. Are immersed in it. Have been reading it and writing it.” He paused to consider, then added, ”That might not matter, actually.” Still, he suggested that I devote my time to writing and reading poetry, as a way to catch up and even the playing field before class started in January. Since I haven’t stopped doing that, devoting myself to reading and considering and writing and living through my poetry, it’s tempting to cap the story there.

But this isn’t even close to the end of the story. Like Superman, I had found a way to rocket free of a dying planet, to shake free of a fiction degree that was never to be. I was reborn as a poet, and one who would graduate on time as well! My origin story, however, was just past its prologue and moving me forward to the real crisis. Because this isn’t about my transcript, and not about trying to graduate on time either (which I did, by the way – the first of many debts I owe to poetry). This is the story of how I found my first authentic voice as a poet, my real origin in poetry, which is the same thing as saying my first authentic voice as a human being.

My first poems – those that carried me through that initial poetry workshop and which continued for a few years after – were characterized by insistently stubborn attempts to write a type of poetry that wasn’t authentic to my experience or voice at all, counterfeit poetry manufactured in the basement of my darkened heart with whatever previously sanctioned materials I could lay my hands on. In the beginning, I was struggling to put words on paper, so I searched for models, not to copy outright (though I did some of that) but because it seemed to me that I could learn what a poem was by reading a lot of other poems, could understand what I was or was not allowed to do by assessing what had been done. I came easily under the spell of deep image, the lyric cycle of crisis and revelation, and started writing poems about owls swooping across great snowy fields, mystical recollections of riding horses through the mountains or scrub fields. Things that could never burst into flame or flower were always exploding in my poems. I changed my life in every line.

Really, I had never seen an owl, had never ridden a horse. Still, this was a fine use of my energies at the time. I continued writing these poems for years, learning from the process, but I kept on with them long after I perceived a fraudulent rift opening up. I graduated, then moved back to my hometown of Syracuse, New York, and worked full time at a comic book store. Then left to manage a record store. Then jumped ship again to work at a chain bookstore in a mall. I got married and bought a house. In my poems, I was some kind of wispy bearded savant, immaterial, watching the blossoms from a peach orchard slowly unfurl and then drift away on the breeze. In my life, I was saturated with pop culture, with unadorned and unrefined American feelings. I was a real person living in a corporeal body, not in the clouds or in a cave. A disconnect prevented me from writing poetry that was true to myself, poetry that was an authentic utterance instead of an uncomfortable synthetic amalgamation. Even as my marriage broke up and my life dipped into yet another of its periodic crisis cycles, I held onto the false face I had created, stoically reporting on the seasonal migration of geese, the texture of the bark on the trees which were, truthfully, nowhere to be seen.

It’s possible that I’m being a little harsh on myself. All of this was a crucially important apprentice period for me as a poet. I was learning the language and learning myself. And even my tightly controlled lines about the burning heads of dandelions were noticeable bending under the heft of the real loneliness and isolation I felt in my life.

But even if these early poems were fine as poems – and they weren’t, because no amount of craft and polish can transmute shallow imitations, degraded variations without heart – they weren’t my poems. They were crafted but not truly felt. They were artifacts, but they weren’t art. If they functioned at all, it was too obvious that the gears clicked together; they made only their own sounds instead of some much more luminous music.

Maybe if I’d read more widely, I wouldn’t have been lost in the woods for so long. But I picked up new poets the way I picked up new bands to listen to, by following the trail of influence and associations. So it was a tight little country I was mapping out. I was lucky in this process, though; since I worked in a bookstore, I could order in copies of anything I wanted, ostensibly for the shelf or for a fake customer named Mr. Bookman. The books would stack up in the back room, hidden away until I had a chance to read them on break.

Then, I found something that struck at me directly, though how I came to it, I don’t remember – maybe by following breadcrumb trail of lit journal bios leading me from one poet to another. One day I was sitting outside, at a picnic table set up just off the loading dock, and I read these lines from “Shopping with Bob Berwick,” a poem by Mark Halliday from his book Tasker Street:

We used to hit the mall those winter nights
to get away from grading quizzes (“Your work is improving,
keep at it!”) and thinking of women. Shoppingtown
was big and bright and the salesgirls had legs

hips, convexities; and chewed gum.

I still have tremendous fondness for this poem, and it was certainly a breakthrough moment for me. The discursive effects and narrative wizardry of the poem weren’t revolutionary and maybe I blushed a bit at the brash and uncomfortably honest voice of the speaker.

But the ostensible situation of the poem, walking around Shoppingtown Mall and feeling dissatisfied, resonated with me in a way that no other poem had before for the simple reason that I worked in the same mall – Shoppingtown! Not only did I also spend a lot of time wandering around, dissatisfied and in love with any life other than my own, but I did it in the same mall mentioned in the poem. It was right there, a thing in my own real life taking up space in a poem! No more deep heart’s core, no more crystalline canyons or azure passages.

It’s not really an overstatement to say that things changed from that point. Instead of daydreaming about frozen lakes in the murky wilderness at the top of the world, I looked out the front of my mall bookstore at all the customers and realized the poetry I ached to write was right in front of me, was all around me and always had been. It was the permission I needed, the smack in the face that woke me up to the possibilities of poetry.

And here’s the trick: it could have come from anywhere, from any number of poets or writers or artists who held onto their love of past masters while still situating themselves in the actual and vivid present of their own lives. But I’ve always been a little dense. It took something the approximate size and shape of America’s soft underbelly, all that greed and pampered privilege, a shopping mall air-conditioned for my convenience, to wake me up to the potentials of my own life.

Suddenly, the roads and neighborhoods seemed charged with a kind of transcendent possibility that wasn’t there before. Or, rather, it had been there all along and I was only now allowing myself to recognize it. I was so blinded by what I thought was the proper language and tone for poetry that I was deaf to the resonant lines my own life provided. You can only imagine what happened when I finally read through Hayden Carruth’s Asphalt Georgics, a book of poems that explored and inhabited and name-checked the landmarks of the sleepy suburban village bordering the neighborhood I grew up in!

Probably the first few poems I wrote under this spell were pretty bad, too self-conscious about dropping in street names and familiar locations. Maybe they fell flat under the sway of these new models, their overpowering voices. But I learned something that has proven more valuable to me than any technique I would learn when I finally, eventually, went to gradate school, first for my MFA and then for my PhD.

I flipped the script on the Superman origin story. Instead of winding up on some strange new world where I could flex my powers, writing poems hewn wholly from imagined scenarios and emotional tropes, I had in fact crash landed on my own planet, aware of it and alive to it for the first time.

Poetry restored to me a sensitivity to, and appreciation for, my own actual life, the surroundings and the emotions, the locations and the associations. And it helped me find my first authentic voice, my early true concerns and callings in language, which has been a boon both to my writing and my life. Because, for the first time, I understood how inextricable those things were. I saw the whole shape of what I was doing.

Nate Pritts is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Right Now More Than Ever, as well as several chapbooks including the recent Pattern Exhaustion and the forthcoming Life Event. He is also the Director and Founding Editor of H_NGM_N, an independent publishing house. Find out more at www.natepritts.com.

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