Image Credit - Claire Brownlow at Flickr


It’s that time of year again! Our editors combed through some of our knockout online bonus content and chose 10 pieces we felt were representative of the work Passages has to offer. Take some time today and reread some of your old favorites, or find something new you didn’t realize you were ready to fall in love with. If you’re just familiarizing yourself with the magazine, these pieces are an excellent representation of what we’re looking for, which is to say “everything.”

Passages North is proud to announce the following nominations for the 2016 Best of the Net anthology.

Poetry
All Laments are Circles – Catherine Bresner
The Hoggetown Medieval Faire – Ashley Keyser
Divinity – Robert Krut
Blue – Mehrnoosh Torbatnejad
Ground War – Kevin Weidner
We Can Never Be Brothers – Dahlia Seroussi

Fiction
The Quiz and the Pledge – JoAnna Novak
Dreaming Dog - Shane Kowalski

Nonfiction
Pleasure Like Grief – Sarah Pape
Georgette & Loulou Magritte – Kathleen Rooney

Congratulations to all of this year’s nominees! We look forward to another year of publishing exciting online content.

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Desert Rose

Photo by Savara


Associate fiction editor Jason Teal on today’s bonus story: It’s an all-too familiar plot: Moving to a new place changes someone dear to you. The switch turns out not to be in anyone’s best interest, and you have irrevocably become different for the experience—not stronger, but more unsettled in the long run, your guard forever raised. In Zachary Doss’s “The Blood Mouth,” however, the shock is accelerated, your boyfriend starts dying almost immediately, manifest in his coughing up “bloodsludge.” In the desert, the Old West Doctor seems incapable of solving the blood mouth, of restoring any semblance of happiness in your life, and stranger and stranger things take root. Doss weaves an enthralling document of survival, one set against an ocean of danger, and we are forever changed by its unraveling.

The Blood Mouth

You move with your boyfriend to the desert. Initially this seems like a bad idea, but as you’re driving across the cracked earth, the cracked road, the cracks in the road and the earth and your hands filling with dust, you realize this is the worst fucking idea anyone has ever had. This idea is so bad you choke on it, or you think that you choke on it, you stop the car, you spit and your spit is mud. You expect the ground to drink up the moisture, you expect the ground to be thirsty, but really the glob of dust and spit sits on the surface of the desert like a bubble until it evaporates.

Your boyfriend gets the blood mouth almost immediately. The desert town has an Old West Doctor. He carries a battered leather bag like in the movies. He has a black stethoscope around his neck. He wears a tweed vest and a striped long-sleeved shirt with stains in the pits. “I’m trying to live as much like an Old West Doctor as I can,” the Old West Doctor tells you, conversationally. “I feel like it’s a more authentic medicine.”

While the Old West Doctor tells you this, your boyfriend is bleeding from the mouth, or is spitting up a blood-like substance, a thick crimson sludge he catches in a metal bowl. Your landlady smelled the coppery stench when she came by asking about the rent. She told you it’s the blood mouth and you should call the Old West Doctor. “He’s an asshole,” she said, and while this should have felt like she was inviting you into a confidence, something about the way she said it made it seem the opposite. You gave her the rent and called the doctor.

Old west medicine isn’t much, you think, after the doctor takes a look at your boyfriend and takes a look at the bloodsludge, almost black where it’s congealed in the bowl. He takes a little bit of the blood and rubs it between his fingers. It looks like he’s asking for a tip. Your boyfriend’s bottom lip is a high-gloss red. He became pale and thin almost immediately after he started leaking blood from his mouth. It was his idea to move here, you remind yourself, but now you look at him all sexy and bearded and dying, and it’s hard to hold anything against him. You take his blood mouth bowl out to rinse while he talks to the Old West Doctor.

When your boyfriend asked you to consider moving to the desert you assumed water would be dear, but the people who live in the desert town throw it away casually. People take showers three, sometimes four times a day. The streets are lined with troughs of water for thirsty animals to drink from. Every square has a fountain, and all of the fountains run all night. The town has a greenhouse where a sophisticated irrigation system rains a month’s worth of water down on a flourishing rainforest ecosystem several times a day. You went to the greenhouse once and found it an almost hallucinatory experience, so hot that it felt like you’d caught a fever. You sat on a bench as water rained down from the sky and pretended you were dying of dysentery. You contemplated stripping down to your underwear and standing greasy and wet under the trees, feeling the heat and water directly on your skin. Instead you slicked your hair back and felt the water drip down your neck and between your shoulder blades. Hot as blood.

You rinse out your boyfriend’s metal bowl with a few pumps from the old cast iron water pump outside. It’s tremendous overkill, the rush of water thinning the almost-black blood to a winsome pinkish color before washing it away. You’re standing in a mudhole before you know it. The bowl never comes quite clean; on the inside is a wide black mark that doesn’t wash out, the discolored stainless steel gritty to the touch. You scratch at it with your fingernails but can’t get the stain to lift. Once, you used the bowl for mixing cake batter, blending eggs for omelets or swirling vegetables around in olive oil. Now, to think of it having once contained food makes you ill.

Since coming to the desert you feel exhausted and sexual. You feel like you have been drunk since noon. You feel like you are at the end of the party, like it is two in the morning and a boy is following you around and you know that he’s in love with you and it would be easy. Since you left the greenhouse that stripped-down-and-slick feeling hasn’t gone away. You pass the Old West Doctor, who is just leaving your home, and you try to wedge him into a sexual fantasy, you try to make yourself want him. It doesn’t work. You don’t want him. You are angry that he left your boyfriend alone. You are angry he didn’t wait to give you an update. You are angry with yourself for not staying, for going out to wash the bowl. You could have washed the bowl anytime.

When you get the bowl back to your boyfriend, he looks relieved, you think to see you, but immediately he leans forward and releases the mouthful of blood he had been holding into the bowl. It isn’t thick and sludgy this time, it gushes and splashes, maybe because he’s been holding on to it for too long. It runs down the sides of the bowl like water.

Your boyfriend’s condition keeps you near the house. You tell yourself that it is your boyfriend’s condition. Really you are walking around in a state of constant arousal. You don’t want to be too far away from your boyfriend in case he wakes up and suddenly feels capable. While he is asleep, you take showers, the water as hot as you can stand. Once, you turn on the shower while you are still fully clothed and remove your drenched clothing one article at a time. Afterwards, you can’t bring yourself to put new clothing on. You walk around the house naked. This does something for you, but not enough, so you open the doors and windows, let the air and heat in. Your wet clothes remain at the bottom of the shower and dry into strange, stiff shapes.

Your body has changed since you came to the desert town. You remember feeling dissatisfied with your disappointing body before, the sagging inner tube of fat around your midsection, the marshmallows of your upper arms. Mostly your body felt too heavy, like you always dangling something, bouncing something, dragging something along. In the desert your body is like someone else’s. It is lean and controlled. Nothing bounces. You are all clean lines and tight, geometrical shapes. You no longer lament that you are not fit or attractive. You feel incredibly fit and attractive. Your body is a powerhouse, but you don’t feel strong. Instead, you are full of energy, brimming over, barely contained, but fragile. Like a glass jar that could easily break and spill its contents.

You spend much of the day pacing the house, walking to the living room, the bathroom, the small, dark room you use as an office, the bedroom where your boyfriend sleeps. You repeat a circle around the inside of the house. You pass every open door and window, where you would be visible to any passers-by, although frustratingly, there are none. You stop in the bedroom, sit on the bed next to your boyfriend. You are not gentle. You rock the bed hoping to wake him up. You touch him, his face, his shoulders, his chest. You pretend that your hands are careful, clinical and precise, taking measurements, assessing health, but really you are groping at him sloppily. Your hands are paws. They are damp and fat. You hope he will wake up, but instead you hear the landlady walk up the path and knock.

“Rent’s due,” the landlady says, and if she registers that you are naked, she says nothing. It is sweltering in your house, you are sweating so profusely that your feet slip on the floor. The landlady doesn’t come inside.

“I just paid the rent,” you say.

“Been a month,” the landlady says, “rent’s due.”

You write out and hand her a damp check, the ink smeared from the edge of your palm. She takes it, with no comment, just folds it neatly down the center and slides it under the strap of her bra.

All this should seem sexy, but it isn’t. This is exactly a scene from a pornographic video, you think. You have watched many of them in your life. You tell yourself this scenario is hot, despite your body’s objections, but you can’t convince yourself, because it isn’t. For her part, the landlady seems similarly unimpressed with you, with standing in the doorway waiting for you to say something.

Outside, clouds are gathering and you didn’t realize how big the sky looked in the desert town until the clouds started to make it seem low, claustrophobic. There is a yellow quality to the light that is disconcerting to you. A wind has picked up and you can see little flurries of dust stirred up in the distance, gathering quickly, spinning, and falling again.

“I should go back inside,” you say, not to the landlady or anyone in particular. “I should check on him.”

“The blood mouth,” she says.

“That’s not his name,” you say, but she has already started to walk away from the house.

For the rest of the afternoon, you sit in a chair by your boyfriend’s bedside. He wakes up occasionally, reaches for you, but by the time you reach back he has passed out again. You begin to worry about the amount of time he spends passed out. Then you envy him. You wonder what kinds of dreams he has.

It starts to rain, but it is still oppressive in the house. You put towels on the floor beneath the open windows to keep the rain from damaging the floors, although you don’t really know if it will do any good. The water collecting on the towels contributes a musty smell and an incredible amount of humidity. You wonder if this kind of heat is good for your boyfriend, but you don’t know what else to do, you have not seen a single fan or air conditioner since you came to the desert town.

You watch your boyfriend lay still in the bed, occasionally leaning over to spit into the metal bowl. He is sweating and has kicked all the blankets off. You crawl into the bed with him, nestle his body in yours. He has gotten so small you can easily wrap your arm around his chest, pull his body into yours. You are holding this small, sweaty thing that you love, and soon you are uncomfortable because it’s too hot to be this close to anyone. You let yourself sweat, you let him sweat, you both soak the sheet and the mattress protector and the mattress. Even though it is not raining inside it suddenly feels like you and your boyfriend have been standing together in the greenhouse, both of you getting soaked and slick.

You are thinking about how much you want to be inside him. You are not sure if you mean this in a sexual way, although, sure, you can imagine entering him in the traditional way. You can imagine penetrating him. The way you imagine it, he is awake, and not just awake but eagerly awake, awake and kind and encouraging. Maybe he says yes to you a lot, maybe even asks politely, says please and thank you.

But more than that you want to be inside him in whatever other way you can. You want to open up his back and crawl inside, where it is hotter, unbearably hot and wet and bloody. You want his body to be your body and his thoughts to be your thoughts. You want to have everything be together, all jumbled up, both of you part of the same unruly mess, inseparable. You want uncomfortable closeness. You want to hold him so hard that you mush together, but no matter how you try the membrane separating you remains disappointingly impermeable.

Eventually you untangle from your boyfriend and go outside, where it is pouring so hard that your clothes immediately soak through and cling uncomfortably to your body. You are shocked to discover you are wearing clothes. You wonder if you’ve been wearing them this whole time. Looking at the clothes, they aren’t familiar. You don’t look like you. You don’t recognize your fingernails or your knuckles or your palms or the chubby pads of your fingers. You don’t recognize your wrists or your forearms, your chest or the gentle slope of your stomach.

Whose body is this, anyway, you wonder. Who am I?

Standing in the rain, you are reminded again of the greenhouse. You try to picture yourself there, but it seems so possible that you imagined it. Did you really leave your sick boyfriend alone to wander into town and look at plants? Is the desert town really fully of water?

But the streets are filling like rivers and, at least for the moment, the desert town really is full of water, though you don’t know where it all goes.

You check your body again. The feel of standing in it, walking in it. Nothing feels right. Maybe it’s the rain, and you go back inside, drip water behind you on the floor.

Your boyfriend, still sleeping, looks more like you than you do, and you wonder if you’ve had it wrong the whole time, if you are actually your boyfriend and you are the one who has the blood mouth, the one lying in bed and, for all old west medicine can do for you, dying. You try to imagine mourning yourself, preparing to live the rest of your life without yourself.

This seems preposterous to you. Yet, whoever you are, you are no one recognizable.

Here’s what you do know:

You and your boyfriend met for the first time at a bar. You waited until the bar was closing, around two in the morning, and kissed him on the sidewalk outside. You wanted to make him wait around for you. It was so easy. You had both been waiting for you to get around to it. He was so eager it felt like he was already in love with you. It was raining but it was not cold. When you picture it, the person who was kissing your boyfriend was recognizably you. He had the body you were used to, the non-desert body. Your boyfriend was recognizably your boyfriend. You remember the smell of smoke, the sound of music from inside the bar, the girl screaming “I love this song!” and you remember thinking, yes, me too, I also love this song. This is a real-body memory, the first time you tried to collapse him into you. You kissed him so hard you cut his lip with your teeth. It bled enough you could taste it.

Zachary Doss is a fiction editor for Banango Street, a volunteer screener for Ploughshares, and the most recent former editor of Black Warrior Review. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Sonora Review, Fairy Tale Review, Caketrain, DIAGRAM, Paper Darts, and others. He was the winner of Puerto del Sol‘s 2016 contest in fiction. He can be found online at zacharydoss.com.

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Detroit

Photo by Kevin Chang

14 Floors: On Walking and Writing and Progress

I recently started a new job. This, after three years of MFA and another year of occasional employment while finishing a book and hoping for a job not in an office, a job that might allow me time for myself and for my writing. This job is not that. It’s an office job and involves empty friendly phrases like “Doing anything fun this weekend?” and “I’ll have to circle back to you on that.” My first day, they handed me a cell phone so I’d be within reach at all times. Which is to say I’ve been aching these first months of full employment—joyous and fortunate employment insofar as it is gainful—for things (objects, ideas, moments, words) of my own.

The job is in the Renaissance Center in downtown Detroit on the 24th floor of one of the towers on the river. The tower elevators were built at the outside edge of the building and are paned with glass. Each morning, I look out over the river as I rise, at whatever’s crossing, and at Canada, the most distinctive landmark being the bright red sign for the Caesar’s Palace.

Most days involve little real walking, little of anything really purposeless or aimless. I go to meetings, I go to the bathroom, I go to a colleague to ask a question like, “Doing anything fun this weekend?” I slip downstairs for a quick lunch and maybe again for an afternoon coffee if I feel like skipping the 24th floor’s Town Commons, where they keep the vending machines and the Keurig. I have a parking space in a garage four blocks up the river. I wear a badge with my picture on it. One day I left the badge in my car, didn’t realize until I’d already walked the four blocks. I was scolded by the security guard at the front desk.

After four years of teaching and workshopping and writing at home—often in my underwear—it’s been an adjustment. Not to mention, I’m working at the same company for which my father worked more than 40 years. A company that didn’t treat him well. A job he hated. A job he didn’t want to do, wished he didn’t need to do. He worked in the same building, in fact, the same tower, except that his office was on the 10th floor. I don’t know whether this lends me credibility in the workplace. Some days I wonder whether this is some measure of progress, these 14 floors.

I know I can do the day job and my writing job—my real job—all in the same day. It just requires work. And maybe that’s why I long for the writing community, why I’m trying to build that community in my new home, to continue to learn from others and to continue to teach myself what hard work really is and how hard it is to observe in the detailed way that feeds good writing.

Every morning and every evening I walk four blocks along the riverfront between the parking garage and the building. There are faster routes. There’s a shuttle bus. But instead I walk and every day, every time, I’m fascinated by how the landscape has changed. Not the river; the river is always more or less the same. Sometimes it shimmers, sometimes it’s heavy with boat. But the street next to the river: the street changes. One weekend there was a carnival. For four days, I watched them set it up, watched them raise—in an occasional way like a time lapse—the fences, the rides, the stages, the ticket booths and the midway, the entrances and exits.

Monday morning, it was gone. All of it. They must have torn it all down in the night. What had taken them four days to erect had come down in a matter of hours, the crew and the rides and their everything on the way to some next where. There were two dumpsters on the side of the street filled nearly full with trash bags and temporary fixtures and wood. Next to one of the dumpsters—close enough to make me think it had been intended for the bin, that somebody missed—there was a pint-sized glass bottle, Crown Royal, empty. Tuesday, the dumpsters were gone and Tuesday evening, traffic was unusually heavy, what with a holiday weekend approaching and most people getting out early, getting a start on vacation, on getting wherever it was they were going, wherever they really wanted to go.

Matthew Fogarty is the author of Maybe Mermaids and Robots are Lonely (George Mason University’s Stillhouse Press 2016). He has an MFA from the University of South Carolina, where he was editor of Yemassee, and he is Co-Publisher at Jellyfish Highway Press. His fiction has appeared in Fourteen Hills, PANK, Smokelong Quarterly, and Midwestern Gothic. He can be found online at www.matthewfogarty.com and on Twitter at @thatmattfogarty.

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Photo by Peter Ostergaard

This week, Associate Fiction Editor Ethan Brightbill asked our editors to share the strangest thing they’ve ever researched for their writing.

Tianli Kilpatrick
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Massachusetts

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome for a nonfiction essay about perception, monsters, and childhood.

Hayli Cox
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Morenci, Michigan

I’m not sure if they’re strange or if they just made me feel strange, but the neurotransmitters released during sexual stimuli versus fear-inducing stimuli and patters of suicide/the Werther effect.

Courtney Mauck
Associate Editor, Fiction and Nonfiction
Lock Haven, Pennsylvania

I spent a while researching animal grieving periods. Specifically, I focused on goat grief because I was writing a piece about the goat that jumped to its death in Alaska.

Jackson Keller
Associate Editor, Fiction
Livonia, Michigan

Not super weird, but my novel made me go look up some stuff about haunted/abandoned amusement parks, which led me to a broader history lesson on amusement parks in general.

Brenna Womer
Associate Editor, Fiction

The process of butchering a moose, for a short story I was working on. I ended up watching gruesome how-to videos in the coffee shop where I was writing (headphones in).

Jason Teal
Associate Editor, Fiction
Sandusky, Ohio

Bee sex.

Jacqueline Boucher
Managing Editor
Juneau, Alaska

Most Recent: long-term effects of repeated Mild Traumatic Brain Injury and its intersection with dyslexia and musical recall.
Strangest: objectum sexuality, the life cycle of wooden rollercoasters, and grief counseling.

Jennifer A. Howard
Editor-in-Chief
Escanaba, Michigan

I spent a summer trying to wrap my head around fiber optics and ended up referencing the technology only in one sentence of a flash essay. No regrets though.

Alexander Clark
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Mount Pleasant, Michigan

Recently, it’s been the lives of Catholic Saints, reasons they were canonized, and how they were martyred. It started with Joan of Arc, who heard angelic voices when she was young and then saw St. Michael, St. Margret, and St. Catherine. Out of the three, St. Margret’s story is the most interesting. She got swallowed up by Satan-in-dragon-form and used her crucifix to tickle the back of his throat so he spit her out in once piece. Don’t underestimate nuns. Catherine was strapped to a bludgeoning wheel that miraculously broke; unfortunately, the axe that chopped her head off worked just fine. It’s so strange with Catholicism because there’s a lot of appropriation of Roman and Germanic paganism that still lingers in the doctrine. The magical realism aspect of it is kind of cool though.

Krys Malcolm Belc
Associate Editor, Fiction
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I recently spent a while reading about surgical techniques used to repair damage to those shot in the abdomen. Specifically, the “open technique” wherein surgeons repair the damage in stages while leaving the wound open (temporarily covered with mesh, often) between surgeries. This actually decreases a lot of complications patients used to experience when recovering from gunshot wounds. I got along this path after a character in a story died of gunshot wounds. Reading about trauma and gun violence I learned that the vast majority – 80% or more – of gunshot victims survive, so I started reading about what life after might look like. I wish I knew more science.

Ashley Adams
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Watervliet, Michigan

“Could you play a violin with webbed hands?”

Colton Lindsey
Associate Editor, Fiction and Poetry
Heber Springs, Arkansas

I recently returned from a weekend at Granite Island Light Station. The emotionless diction which the Keepers tended to use for their log entries was quite strange to look into, but it’s actually very interesting. To me there seems a story hidden in every entry.

Sara Ryan
Associate Editor, Poetry
Miami, Florida

I always write about creepy weird things. Most recently, Japanese sword making, dead reindeer in Norway, Swedish witch trials, different cultural terms to describe rain when the sun is shining, the traditional Danish version of The Little Mermaid, pig slaughter during Midsummer celebrations, what is happening chemically when wood rots, a town in California that is full of graveyards, penguins dying in Antarctica, a dead woolly mammoth found underneath a Michigan farm, horses being butchered in Florida for their meat…I literally could keep going but I’m weirding myself out.

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2011-08-14

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend

Unwanted Letters

Ever since I was a little girl, with two heavy braids hanging down my back like the long, lit traces of sprinting stars, my gaze has been strewn with words. Imaginary words in every part of our house: words on the carpeted stairs where my father angrily threw a basketful of unfolded laundry, words at the circular kitchen table where my mother wound my hair onto huge, plastic rollers and stuck them with pins, words on the floor of my sister’s bedroom, littered with fringed leather purses and lipglosses and New Wave albums, words in the sunken living room with its picture window, contemplating the adjacent olive tree. Words conjured my surroundings, the names of things that were never there or things that were so mundane that I can barely recall them now: like the scene in The Color Purple, where little Nettie is teaching little Celie to read: attaching the names of things to things and spelling them out, I scramble for memories by seeing the words there. Fireplace. Typewriter. Swimming pool.

I am standing brown-skinned and pigeon-toed by the edge of our pool. I am wearing a mustard yellow two-piece bathing suit and I am looking down at my feet. It must have been my birthday because my friends are lined up next to me, all of us standing on the edge of the shallow end of the pool, where I spent countless hours in the summertime. We were nine. There you can see Danielle, whom my mother said was fast, and Allyson, who is wearing a pale pink dress, and Faith, who became a rabbi, and Jana Talley, who once told me that I was adopted because I didn’t look like my mother.

We were skyscrapers in our little dimple between the mountains, we little girls from The Valley.

I am sitting brown-skinned and left-handed, at the kitchen table that overlooked the swimming pool if you leaned forward and craned your neck to the right, my father is next to me, his long-bony-fingers-like-mine drumming away on the keyboard of his electric IBM, his mimeographed notes on the gestational iterations of the Hyla regilla treefrog broadcasting their strange chemical smell throughout the kitchen, his herpetology books punctuated with random sheets of yellow notepaper, and my fingers are drumming away, too, on the keyboard of my own typewriter: a baby blue Sears Holiday. I am writing letters to my dead cousin, August, who took a mortal tumble down an elevator shaft at a conservatory in Germany. Dear August, I write, we have a new dog. His name is Chico. Dear August, I write, I am a very good swimmer. In an old photograph, August is wearing bell bottoms and a blue sweater and a woolly moustache. We are sitting on a half-wall parallel to the swimming pool, me in my long braids, my sister holding one of our pet ducks, and August is smiling.

In my family, I am the letter writer. The Epistolarian. Our history is decorated with all of the letters that I have written. Letters to my mother that broke her heart. Letters to my father that he never answered. Letters to my father that I mailed to my mother because I couldn’t bring myself to send them to my father. Letters that mark the watershed moments of our collective past: the marriage ended, the house sold, the fire, the earthquake, the wedding, the coming out, the treatment, the marshmallow-white baby grand piano. My letters are not celebrations. They are not fixed with bright-colored balloons or silly-sweet stickers. No one looks forward to my letters because they usually record something that we are unwilling to talk about. Letters to my sister that sound like public policy from an age that no one wants to return to. Letters to my great-grandfather who died in 1964. Letters to my whole family that caused everyone to hold their breath.

Sometime around 1977, workers arrived and dug a giant hole in our backyard and filled it with the concrete impression of a rectangle. My mother enrolled me in swimming class. I earned my first diploma, which distinctively hung on the wall of my upstairs bedroom. Since then, I’ve been swimming. I walk into a natatorium and the chlorine smell triggers my nostalgia like the smell of corn bread would for a Great Migrant in some snowy city up North. It brings me back to the endless summers in the pool, my grandmother floating on the Styrofoam lounge, my sisters and their friends who were sweet to me, the birthday parties with my friends whose families put them in private school when Los Angeles began busing black kids to The Valley. I get into the water and swim like a writer: decisive, fluid, long strokes. Keen to those around me, careful not to splash. Repeating the same movements over and over, with my eyes open or closed, depending on whether or not I’m wearing goggles. My hands out ahead of me, guiding me, pulling the rest of my body along, my hands defining the path and the direction that I will take. I hold my breath and a garden grows. The light above me is flashing and crenellated. My body: suspended and completely surrounded by words. Wet. Transparent. Alive.

Wendy A. Gaudin is an American historian, an essayist, a poet, and a university educator. She is a descendant of Louisiana Creoles who migrated to California.

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Lucha Libre

Photo by chopstuey


Below, friend of PN Brandon Davis Jennings interviews Dan Mancilla, who’s novella The Deathmask of El Gaucho won The Little Presque Books Novella Prize and is available from Passages North.

BDJ: I want to get this out of the way first because, if I don’t, I’ll forget to ask it. Who are you and what, if anything, is your personal connection to the world of professional wrestling? Not everyone is as lucky as I am (they might not already know you), so this is probably a fairly important question that will help them to understand the who behind the writing of The Deathmask of El Gaucho in a way that might not be immediately obvious to a person who reads the book alone.

DM: I’m a writer living in Grand Rapids, Michigan where I’m Professor of General Education at Aquinas College. I also teach Creative Writing at Kendall College of Art & Design. I completed my Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. I’m originally from Elgin, Illinois, which is a blue collar city about 30 miles northwest of Chicago, so I’d categorize myself as a lifelong Rustbelt Midwesterner.

My connection to the world of professional wrestling is that of a fan. I grew up watching AWA and WWF. I loved guys like Sergeant Slaughter, the Road Warriors, and Jake the Snake Roberts. I was a little boy in 1980s and loved wrestling, so, of course, I was a Hulkamaniac.

BDJ: Is The Deathmask of El Gaucho a project you’ve worked on for a long time, and could you tell us what inspired El Gaucho/Earl Atlas? i.e., are your wrestlers inspired by “real” wrestlers?

DM: In college my friends and I used to watch old wrestling tapes from the 80s. It was at once comedic and nostalgic for us. The wrestlers’ names were so cartoonish and ridiculous: the Repo Man, the Red Rooster, Hillbilly Jim… How could snarky and slightly buzzed college students not find that hilarious? Of course ten years earlier we marked-out for those cartoonish 1980s wrestlers. I think my tastes have come full circle because now I appreciate those guys and their personas. There’s a certain charm in the earnestness of those wrestler names, how their names and corresponding gimmicks informed one another. For instance, Repo Man—whose gimmick was that he was a repo man—dressed like a Keystone Cops/Hamburglar-type villain and snuck around the ring. Red Rooster had a crimson-red mullet and did a chicken dance in front of his opponents to psych himself up. What little kids wouldn’t appreciate such straightforward, black and white characterization?

At some point while we were going through all those old tapes I started imagining my own wrestlers. There was Irish Danny Rodriguez, Ulysses S. America, Ali Barber—the Sultan of Shears, Mario Andretti Petty, and Captain Mariner. Captain Mariner’s finisher was a submission hold called the Keelhaul Maneuver. Irish Danny Rodriguez beat his opponents with a neck-beaker called the Shamrock Shake.

At the time, I was enrolled in a creative writing workshop with David Stevenson—one of many fantastic writing teachers I’ve been lucky enough to work with over the years—but I didn’t really think of writing any fiction that incorporated the world of wrestling until I read Tony Earley’s short story, “Charlotte.” The first line of that story is, “The wrestlers were gone.” I thought that was so great. The rest of the story, like a lot of wonderful literature, builds on that elegiac note—from the physical loss Lord Poetry suffers at the hands of his arch-rival, Bob Noxious in “The Final Battle For Love,” to the loss of innocence the citizens of Charlotte experience when that city grows up, to the sense of loss the fans feel when the story’s fictional wrestling promotion packs up and leaves town. It struck me then that even if a story is about something on the surface (insert gimmick here), it doesn’t have to exclusively be about that. That’s a concept obvious to any child reading Dr. Seuss, but I just wasn’t making that connection with my own writing.

Not long after reading “Charlotte” I wrote the first draft of what would become the title story of my novella. Completely aping Tony Earley’s “the wrestlers were gone” line, I began “The Deahtmask of El Gaucho” with: “The wrestlers were coming.” Once I put that down on paper everything seemed to pour out.

That would have been about twenty years ago. Eventually that one wrestling story morphed into a (500 page!) novel. After making the rounds to publishers and agents without any interest I tucked the manuscript away in a drawer. I moved on to new subjects but would write more wrestling stories now and again. The newest one is about three past-their-prime wrestlers attending a funeral for their former valet—a woman with whom all three had been romantically involved at some point. In a final act of love (or maybe revenge) one of the wrestlers absconds with the corpse. That’s part of a novel-in-stories called All the Proud Fathers which will be published by Dock Street Press in November.

I suppose El Gaucho draws inspiration from any number of real wrestlers. I think his pop culture icon status and meteoric rise to fame (and definitely his appeal to little kids) was inspired by Hulk Hogan. But much of that character is invention. Earl Atlas always struggles with self-confidence. It’s what leads him to don the mask and become El Gaucho in the first place. In that way there’s a very distinct separation between Earl Atlas the man and El Gaucho the character. The Hulkster, on the other hand, strikes me as someone with an inexhaustible supply of self-confidence and someone for whom the personas of Terry Bollea and Hulk Hogan are almost indistinguishable at this point.

The obvious physical difference from Hogan is that El Gaucho wears a mask. I’ve always loved masked wrestlers. From iconic luchadores like El Santo and Blue Demon to the NWA’s Assassins and even to jobbers like the WWF’s Conquistadors, there was something about those masks. I’m sure that affinity was somehow related to Spiderman and Batman who were my favorite superheroes and most frequent Halloween costumes when I was a kid. I think there’s some of that masked vigilante in El Gaucho. He’s as much superhero as athlete. And like any good superhero, El Gaucho has a secret identity, an alter ego. Identity is a big part of that book. So much of what I was writing when I was working on Deathmask was about character and about the self. If identity is prominent in my work now, it’s linked directly to place and community—how setting shapes my characters and how those characters yearn to be part of something, to belong somewhere.

BDJ: Now that those questions are out of the way, I can ask you about the book itself. You start the text with a couple epigraphs: one from Death in the Afternoon and one from One Hundred Years of Solitude. What is it about those two texts and, in particular, the two quotes and their direct mention of spectating violence that you feel most applies to The Deathmask of El Gaucho? Do you think there is something innate in humans that makes us want to witness violence—even after we learn that the violence might be scripted?

DM: I wasn’t immediately thinking of violence when I chose those two passages, but of course it’s there. Like bullfighting, wrestling is ritual violence. It’s theatrical. And yes, like bullfighting, there is the risk of injury—mortal in some cases. If you consult actuarial tables, you’ll see that wrestling is a high risk occupation. I’m not even thinking of the stunts gone wrong and guys dying in the ring like Owen Hart. Look at the proliferation of wrestlers who die in their 40s and 50s of heart attacks or complications from the substance abuse which is so often ancillary to a life on the road.

Part of Deathmask focuses on Flaco, Antony, and Pig—three young wrestling fans. Those boys live in a violent world. Their neighborhood is a high crime, lower class one in a Rustbelt city called Black Hawk. (This is also the city where All the Proud Fathers is set. And yes, El Gaucho makes an appearance in that book.) For those boys it’s a world without many positive male role models. It’s a world devoid of heroes, where the good guys don’t always win. They see firsthand and, in some cases experience, a lot of violence. The morality play of the wrestling match provides for them, whether they’re aware of it or not, an example of good triumphing over evil through ritual violence.

Love and obsession also had a lot to do with referencing Death In the Afternoon. That book is Hemingway’s love letter to bullfighting in the same way that Moby Dick is a kind of love letter Melville wrote to whaling. In both texts the authors revel in the specificity of work. How a bullfight is structured, how a whale is rendered, etc. It’s obsessive. As a writer, I have to feel that obsession with my subject if I want my readers to care about it. I have to love it in an obsessive way. I was in the midst of that obsession when I was writing Deathmask.

With Marquez I was thinking about the nature of reality in the world of wrestling. I think of that all the time though, not just with wrestling. For people who don’t follow wrestling or only follow it casually, I’m sure there’s a certain perception of its fan-base. That it plays to the lowest common dominator, that it’s crude, lowbrow. But the vast majority of wrestling fans are smarter about the sport than outsiders give them credit for. Definitely smarter than many of the people in charge of telling the stories at WWE give them credit for. Other than children who (like I did) completely buy into the fantasy, many fans are in on the con to some degree. It’s a willing suspension of disbelief, yet the emotions fans feel when their favorite wrestlers lose or win are very real. Those are the same emotions someone rooting for a sports team might feel when their team wins or loses. This ability to feel the same emotions as one would when invested in any other “legitimate” contest while, at the same time, being aware of the artifice of the performance—that the outcomes are predetermined, that the punches are pulled—is quite sophisticated.

There’s a segment of the wrestling fan-base known as “smart marks” or “smarks.” These are the fans who pride themselves for being “in” on the con. There are websites devoted to backstage politics, second guessing story lines, pointing out botched moves or moments when wrestlers break character in the ring or “expose the business” by indiscreetly calling their next spot to their opponents. And even with all this “information,” these smarks are just as emotionally invested in the matches; they feel the disappointment and anger when their favorite wrestler loses. Sometimes that frustration is directed at the bookers who decided to push one wrestler over another rather than at the heels who cheated to win, but when everything is working, when the story the wrestlers are telling is compelling, when the wrestlers are at the top of their game, the smart marks can’t help but to suspend disbelief and revel in the moment. My happiest moments as a fan are when I completely lose myself in the world of the show, when all that artifice takes a backseat to a great, poetic contest, when a long-forgotten wrestler makes a surprise return, or when the underdog actually gets the pin. In those moments I mark-out in the very best sense of the word. Marquez or Hemingway, Stone Cold Steve Austin or the Undertaker—it’s the great storytellers who can pop the smart marks.

BDJ: Do you think that part of the magic of wrestling is that even though there is acting involved, some of it cannot be acted? I guess the best example my barely-initiated self can lean on is when Hulk Hogan body-slammed Andre the Giant; you can’t fake being able to heft a man over your head and hold him there.

DM: Right. And let’s make no mistake about it, these men and women are athletes, world-class athletes at the higher levels. The athleticism and toughness, that’s real. Whether it’s a cruiserweight wrestler doing a 450 splash off the top rope onto his opponent or a superheavyweight press-slamming two men at once, there’s an awe-inspiring element to the physicality of wrestling. And when you take into consideration that everything requires a partner, that both people in the ring need to be in tune with one another and need to be able to trust the other one with their safety, there’s an even greater sense of awe.

BDJ: How important was it for you to include a journalistic piece early on in The Deathmask of El Gaucho? To be more specific: does Levesque’s interview function as a way to better illustrate the idea of a shoot vs. a work and how shoots and works have pervaded every form of “live” entertainment? I don’t want to get too political, but I am not merely talking about Real Housewives, I am also talking about a lot of the news we see.

DM: I often talk about “rabbit hole moments” with my creative writing students. It’s the moment when a character (and by extension the reader) plunges into the world of the story. Alice falling into Wonderland, the Pevensie siblings passing through the wardrobe into Narnia, a Raymond Carver character taking that first drink… Most stories that I can think of, whether fantasy or realism, have some kind of rabbit hole moment. Because professional wrestling is a subculture I figured not many readers of literary fiction were familiar with, it was important for me to have something that helped initiate them into that strange and wonderful world. Magazine profile pieces often take us down the rabbit hole of celebrity. It seemed like the most natural, least didactic way to bring my readers up to speed. My journalist, Levesque, is the reader’s surrogate, the outsider who has to learn about professional wrestling as he goes.

Gay Talese is one of my favorite writers. I was reading a lot of his celebrity profile essays at the time I was drafting the story about the reporter meeting the wrestler. I was in love with Talese’s Esquire essay, “Frank Sinatra has a Cold.” The great thing about that piece is how Talese paints a vivid, intimate picture of Sinatra without ever really getting close to him. He bites around the edges, talks to the people in Sinatra’s entourage, the groupies, producers, etc. Which makes sense. Sinatra, like a handful of other celebrities—people like Elvis or Muhammad Ali—was this entity on to himself, a persona or a mythology more than an actual person at that point. I really wanted to play with that idea. I wanted to contextualize El Gaucho’s larger than life persona in that piece. Unlike the Talese essay, my story is set just after El Gaucho’s star has taken off. The trajectory of that rocket ride is still pointed up.

The work vs. shoot element was only important to me on the level of blurring lines between person and persona. When does Earl Atlas end and El Gaucho begin? What does it mean for some of his little Gauchoholics when they see him with his figurative and literal masks off? In a much earlier form of the novel I was preoccupied with the postmodern aspect of wrestling. I was in grad school working on my M.F.A. and reading a lot of Paul Auster and John Fowles novels with writer-as-character and characters stepping out of the text to break the forth wall. It all seemed so very clever to me. Back then I desperately wanted my work to be clever. Thankfully I grew out of that phase. That all seems kind of precious and fussy to me now. I run from cleverness. Today when I approach the nature of reality in my work, I’m taking my cues from writers like Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and William Kennedy and Toni Morrison and coming at it organically, starting with a character and a story, not an idea or a logic problem.

BDJ: This book doesn’t focus solely on the lives of wrestlers. There is also a bit of time spent with some of the fans (Gauchoholics) and their lives at and away from school. Anthony and Lolly are a couple of grade school kids who are doing their damndest to show that they like one another while at once failing to communicate that fact because they’re still kids (and as I can attest from experience, communicating to my wife how much I love her is still just as difficult sometimes even though I’m 35 and have a Ph.D. in English). There is something magical about love at any age, but I think there is something even more magical about love when we aren’t yet equipped with the ability to recognize that what we are feeling is love. I don’t think there is a better scene to show this than the scene in Deathmask where Anthony and Lolly as kissing so awkwardly and yet they don’t stop because, despite their ineptitude, the action they’re performing is right; the kiss is bad, but it is not an act, it’s not a work. Do you think that there is a parallel between the magical love of first crushes (for lack of a better phrase) and the magic of wrestling for its young fans (or fans of any age)?

DM: Both first love and wrestling are forms of magic predicated on innocence. (Maybe someone more cynical would substitute innocence with ignorance.) When I was a little boy and fell in love with wrestling, the question of verisimilitude never entered my mind. It existed outside of cartoons and comic books but also outside of professional sports. It just was. It was this uniquely strange and wonderful thing that showed up one day. Kind of like a crush. Of course professional wrestling had been around long before I first saw Hulk Hogan, but it was something new for me. I was discovering it. That’s how it goes for crushes and first love too, doesn’t it? When you fall for someone for the first time, that’s it. No one in the history of the world has experienced this kind of euphoria, and when the breakup or rejection occurs, no one else has plumbed the depths of existential angst that you have.

It’s easy for adults to dismiss those grand proclamations young people make when they’re experiencing first love or first heartbreak, but I try to be more respectful of those kids—both in real life and in my fiction. Those really are the biggest, most important, most intense and authentic events they’re going through.

Wrestling is the same. Everything is magnified. The feud between the babyface and the heel isn’t just because one guy cut the other one off on the expressway or because one guy snagged the last pack of discounted hot dogs at the grocery store. It’s good vs. evil. It’s all-encompassing, a life and death struggle that the fans are not only spectators to but also participants in. When King Kong Bundy ragdolls Hulk Hogan around a steel cage, Bundy’s not just beating up Hulk Hogan, he’s coming after me, he’s trying to destroy Hulkamania and all for which it stands. I joke that I’m not a good enough writer to tell grownup stories, those more nuanced slice-of-life stories set in the “real world,” and that I fall back on subjects like wrestling or adolescence or magic because it’s easier. But writing’s hardly ever easy for me. What’s more easily identifiable when I’m writing about young people or wrestling are the stakes. Everything’s important in those worlds. Everything’s at risk.

BDJ: This question, the final one, is about Emperor Jones 2. That chapter is so powerful to me every time I read it. It’s stupid and dangerous to compare contemporary work to “classics” because someone on a reddit thread somewhere will just start a flame war that never dies in order to argue that my opinion is “wrong” (which is a stupid thing to do, and yet it goes on.) But really it’s impossible not to see the similarities between that chapter and Moby Dick. And it isn’t a mirror of whale/bear + El Gaucho/Ahab. That’s not really the comparison that I’m interested in or that I’m talking about: to be clear. What I do mean is the idea of a man grappling (literally in the case of the wrestling match) with overwhelming desires. I don’t want to spend too much time here on literary analysis (partly because I, mostly, hate it and partly because I don’t want to tell too much of the story in the event that someone reading this interview has yet to read the book). But you have El Gaucho wrestling a bear in this rundown, pseudo circus sideshow atmosphere in the middle of nowhere and El Gaucho doesn’t break Kayfabe. (Perhaps you could tell the readers what that is in case they’re unfamiliar.) You have a man wrestling a bear in front of an audience who doesn’t give a damn who he is, and he still lets nothing get in the way of giving them the best show he can manage. I want to make this question simple: what is this metaphor? But I also don’t want to do that because that’s stupid and dangerous; it’s the kind of thing a bad teacher does in front of a classroom of naive children. I could instead write it as a joke question: do you think Leonardo DiCaprio owes you some gratitude for his recent Oscar win? That might be less funny if you’ve not seen The Revenant (it might also just not be funny…I’m not laughing and its my own joke.) So I think the best way to approach this is by asking you to talk about what it means that the bear we see wrestle is Emperor Jones 2.

The legend of Pogue Malone is how the book closes, and we are left with the mystery of his murder. And the narrator, speaking from the collective we, says: “We’re pitted against one another outside the ring as well as in, all grasping at the memory of Malone, all of us struggling to define our relationship to the father. All striving (and falling short) to capture the world’s attention as he had” (104).

This is a thing a bear can’t consciously do: try to match the greatness of his father (at least not according to science). And yet the characters in the book do measure Emperor Jones, Emperor Jones 2, and Emperor Jones 3 against one another. Why do they do that? Do you think the men measure the bears against one another because they themselves believe that the audience measures the wrestlers in that way? And, if so, what does that say about El Gaucho and the Warthog and what do you think it says about the people filling the bleachers to watch a man wrestle a bear?

DM: The boring, uninteresting (but honest) answer is that I really didn’t have any metaphors in mind when I was writing about El Gaucho wrestling the bear. I’m trying to remember when I was drafting that one. That was back when Deathmask was still going to be my magnum opus, Tolkien-esque celebration of all things wrestling. By that point I figured, bearbaiting’s a real thing, and I haven’t written about men wrestling bears yet. But people wrestling bears is something we see all the time. (Ok, maybe something I see all the time.) So going back to the axiom of the short story being a day out of the ordinary I asked myself what would be out of the ordinary for people who wrestle bears. That led me to this question (SPOILER ALERT for those who care, although I don’t think the story is predicated on the surprise element of this moment): What happens if the bear dies during the match? What kind of trouble will that bear’s death in the middle of the ring cause my (human) characters, and how might they overcome that trouble?

Then the whole notion of keeping kayfabe, of keeping the con going in order maintain the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief came into play. It felt like a great opportunity to demonstrate that El Gaucho—who’s pretty much at the bottom of his character arc at that point—is still, or at least still has it in him to be, the greatest wrestler in the world. If he can work a match with a dead bear without breaking kayfabe and continue, to borrow from John Gardner, weaving the “fictive dream” for his audience, then he’s clearly the greatest, the one true heir to Pogue Malone.

That was the straightforward, no bullshit answer. Now let me step back and answer that question in terms of symbol and metaphor, at the level of literary analysis that I think the question was intended despite the assertion that you, like I, like most writers we know, dislike that kind of analysis of our own work.

So much of this comes back to identity for me. As I mentioned earlier, I was really focused on identity and persona when I was writing Deathmask. I was in my twenties and finding myself as a writer and as a man. I think most works by young writers tend to look inward rather than outward. Compare Stephen Daedalus in Stephen Hero, the early version of Portrait of the Artist as a Yong Man, to Daedalus in Ulysses. There’s a huge shift when I read those two books. Daedalus is no longer the stand in for an author trying to find his way. He’s a fully realized character who’s stepped out of Joyce’s shadow.

Maybe that’s where the names of the animals come in for me. I think that sense of identity is reflected in them and their names. In “Emperor Jones” the animals have the same names, just different numbers. Emperor Jones for the bears, Duke Thompson for the dogs. That’s kind of the opposite of the human wrestlers in the book who are, ostensibly, themselves on the inside and keep trying on different gimmicks to get over with the audience. On one level it’s like hitting the reset button. The wrestlers might be thinking, Ok. This cowboy gimmick didn’t get over. I’m going lay low for a while and come back with a mask and a cape and a new name and the fans will love me. But, as El Gaucho learns, as a lot of us learn as get older, we can only mask what’s inside for so long. You can keep hitting the reset button and keep trying on new gimmicks but if you’re not good with it, not good with you on the inside, none of it matters.

The reset button with the bears is obviously the number. This is still Emperor Jones, but now it’s #3. And because he’s Emperor Jones there’s the expectation that there will be some specific qualities to him—some essential Emperor Jonesness, if you will. He’ll be a fantastic wrestler, but he’ll also be powerful and menacing. Just like the human wrestler who holds out hope that the new gimmick transcends his personality—that the cape, mask, or cowboy hat magically imbues him with newfound charisma or physical talent—there’s some hope that the essence of the original Emperor Jones carries over into the second and third and that the name itself, like the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride (there’s some highbrow literary analysis for you), establishes a predefined set of expectations and reactions from the audience.

I think the numbering of the animals can also be seen as a failed attempt to arrest time. When we see Emperor Jones Number 3 waiting in the wings it’s not what the narrator sees in the bear that matters, it’s what he doesn’t see. Compared to the previous Emperor Jones, the one he spent a career wrestling, he new on lacks humanity. But of course that’s not it. It’s erasure. It’s nonbeing. With that new Emperor Jones the reset button is pushed and all the accomplishments of the previous Emperor Jones, both the matches and his opponents, are nullified. They cease to exist and by extension perhaps the narrator, a wrestler who marked his career by how he fared versus the previous Emperor Jones ceases to be.

Great. Now my eye’s twitching and I’m having flashbacks to all those Lit Theory papers I wrote on Derrida, Lacan, and Žižek. So thanks for that, man.

BDJ: I guess I have one more question. Who do you think killed Pogue Malone?

DM: I could say that the business killed him or fame or the stress of life on the road. Or, to be cute, I could tell you that the reader killed him when they closed the book. Or I could tell you that the Blanchard kid really was his son. And maybe the kid killed Pogue Malone because he loved him and didn’t know any other way to express that love except through violence because he’s an American and a young man. And because of his father’s vocation, perhaps violence was the only dialect of love that Pogue Malone understood. Or maybe Blanchard killed him because he thought he was somehow avenging his mother’s honor. Malone knocked her up and skipped town, after all. Maybe I’m killing him right now by analyzing this and telling you what I think happened. Maybe it was the gangster promoters who realized they couldn’t buy Malone once he learned that he had more stroke than they did. Maybe it was a work. Everyone was in on it because Malone wanted to retire and one last big stunt would be good for business. Maybe Pogue Malone did himself in when he could no longer separate himself from his persona, when he became a mark for himself.

Or maybe not. On this matter, I’m gonna keep it kayfabe.

 

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Photo by Markus Mayer

Photo by Markus Mayer

This week, Associate Fiction Editor Ethan Brightbill asked our editors and contributors what sentences or lines inspire them as writers.

Jessica Goodfellow
Contributor, “The Girl Whose Favorite Color is Eigengrau”
Miami, Florida

“The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.” -Henry Moore

Ryan Ridge
Contributor, “A Slick Six from Camouflage Country”
Louisville, Kentucky

“Doctor Ray is okay!”

That one appears on the last page of Barry Hannah’s short masterpiece, Ray. At this point in the book, old Ray has been through some stuff, but survives enough to say that he’s okay. I admire the simplicity of the sentence. Four words. Boom! Hannah doesn’t fuck around. I dig the slant rhyme, too. “Doctor Ray is okay!” Certain days, when I’m having a particularly difficult writing day, most days, that sentence will tumble into my mind. “Doctor Ray is okay!” Sometimes I’ll say it aloud: “Doctor Ray is okay!” And so am I. So am I. So am I.

Brenna Womer
Associate Editor, Fiction

“My cousin and I are floating in separate, saline oceans. I’m the size of a cocktail shrimp and she’s the size of a man’s thumb.” -Jo Ann Beard, “Cousins,” The Boys of My Youth

I love the rich simplicity of these lines and the potential they represent. Jo Ann Beard is one of my favorite creative nonfiction writers, and this collection specifically epitomizes so much of what I’d like to accomplish in my own writing.

Sara Ryan
Associate Editor, Poetry
Miami, Florida

“Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it” – Sharon Olds, “I Go Back to May 1937″

I have a tattoo of this verse. It’s kinda just my motto/vow/promise as a writer and poet.

Krys Malcolm Belc
Associate Editor, Fiction
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“At first he was just losing weight, he felt only a little ill, Max said to Ellen, and he didn’t call for an appointment with his doctor, according to Greg, because he was managing to keep on working at more or less the same rhythm, but he did stop smoking, Tanya pointed out, which suggests he was frightened, but also that he wanted, maybe even more than he knew, to be healthy, or healthier, or maybe just to gain back a few pounds, said Orson, for he told her, Tanya went on, that he expected to be climbing the walls (isn’t that what people say?) and found, to his surprise, that he didn’t miss cigarettes at all and reveled in the sensation of his lungs’ being ache-free for the first time in years.”

This is the opening sentence of Susan Sontag’s “The Way We Live Now.” I think the urgency and breathlessness of this writing is a physical manifestation of the urgency of writing about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. This story is the first in The Best American Short Stories from my birth year, 1987, and since I bought the book at a used bookstore and read this piece I’ve felt more urgency in my own writing.

Jacqueline Boucher
Managing Editor
Juneau, Alaska

“not one to disrupt an orgy / I mostly gobbled around their / nuzzle and slurp / careful not to chomp a reveler / and nibbling one last thread of flesh / noticed a dozey ant nibbling the same / toward me its antennae / just caressing my face / its pincers / slowing at my lips both / of our mouths sugared / and shining both of us / twirling beneath the fig’s / seeds spinning like a newly / discovered galaxy / that’s been there forever.” -Ross Gay, “Sharing With the Ants”

Colton Lindsey
Associate Editor, Fiction and Poetry
Heber Springs, Arkansas

“If he had a body of swimmable water nearby he would enter it. It was his nature.” -Jim Harrison

Patricia Killelea
Editor, Poetry

“Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss.” -Paul Celan

I think about this quote whenever I turn to language as (uncomfortable, but mercifully pliable) refuge.

Alexander Clark
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Mount Pleasant, Michigan

“Remember scribbling scratching diligent sentences backwards visiting freestyle cyphers for your reaction.” -Kendrick Lamar, “Momma”, from To Pimp a Butterfly

Jason Teal
Associate Editor, Fiction
Sandusky, Ohio

“Who would win in a fight between a bear and a shark?” -Chris Bachelder, BEAR V. SHARK

I couldn’t write this summer. It wasn’t a blockage so much as looking past myself, forgetting there’s the making as well as the meaning of things. This sentence reminds me I’m in service only to myself; writing doesn’t have to be bigger than me.

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Guitar

Photo by Jason Allardyce

Every Acid Dealer Gets Busted Eventually

It is not unusual to encounter mnemonic devices in the study of music performance, most of which tend to find employ at the early stages of learning a new instrument. At the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, there are a number of teachers who introduce a memorable mnemonic at the start of beginner guitar lessons. To help students remember the order of tones represented in standard (Western) guitar tuning, starting from the lowest notes, these Old Town teachers remind pupils of the handy and memorable phrase, “Every Acid Dealer Gets Busted Eventually.” This device is especially useful for people with electronic tuners, though I have always preferred tuning strings in relation to each other—a practice that can be somewhat unhealthy for an instrument’s structure in the long term, but one that suffices for me.

Nevertheless, the Old Town tuning phrase circles around in my head at regular intervals and I have made an unfortunate habit out of relating it to so, so many unsuspecting topics. While most of these perceived relations are weary stretches at best, the phrase can be useful in an attempt to break down the craft of poetry into some describable entity. Just as a person with non-impaired hearing capabilities can tune a guitar by isolating the tones that ring from each string, and manipulating the strings to create pleasing musical combinations, a person with even just a morsel of cognitive functioning can interpret a poem in some way, isolating words in print or spoken aloud, structural techniques, metaphors, similes, and every imaginable aspect of language under the moon to glean meaning from the collection of ink before his or her eyes. So at the risk of producing an essay that reveals just how obtuse I really am, what follows is an attempt to isolate each piece of the aforementioned mnemonic device, with the intention being that the pieces, either alone or together, will shed light on how I approach poetry as both a craft and a concept (and perhaps this is an important time to mention that I consider the “craft” and “concept” of poetry to be entirely co-dependent—what are words without life behind them? And is life alive if not made manifest?)

Every

A tricky place to start, but a necessary one. In poetry, absolutes rarely show their awful heads. When they do, the awful heads are exposed for all the danger and ugliness they enable. “Every,” “Always,” “Never,” “Completely.” Sure these words show up now and again, often when a writer wants to place emphasis on a particular aspect in a written scenario.  But as concepts, absolutes do little (if anything) to advance a line of thinking, nor do they add contour to a piece or even establish credibility. They are limiting to a severe extent, and facilitate denial.

To introduce a concept that presents itself as absolute is to invite argument. Some people might be happy with “bad press” starting out, but absolutes deny readers/consumers/passersby something warm to chew on. They also reflect an author’s refusal to grow, thus in my mind signaling a distinct immaturity, in spite of any surface confidence present in declaring a perspective the definitive Right Way.

(Is my insecure Virgo side showing yet?)

Plus, regardless of what people much smarter than I might say, we are alive and breathing RIGHT NOW in a Postmodern World. Everything changes, man, and we all go through life with our little snowflake lenses made up from unique cores. I acknowledge that, following this reasoning, I am quantifiably Wrong to even suggest that using absolute concepts in writing can be harmful. To label is to limit, even if that label is “Everything,” but to explain the limitations of labelling is just as limiting a practice as labelling. So to circumvent these issues when writing, I find it helpful to constantly question my own perspective. Which is to say, never stop learning (or at least attempting to learn). I don’t know the truth about anything except my own experience—and even that, I’m foggy on—and I am only one of over seven billion living experiences. So are you. It is best to avoid presumption when writing from your own voice, but lack of blind presumption does not mean every poem will turn out a mucky wet noodle, as I hope will show in later examples.

Acid

Much has been said about the relationship between mind-altering substances and art production, and to embark on a writing “education” journey all but guarantees encounters with peers who work under the influence, or claim to have stumbled upon brilliant ideas during trips. Having grown up in a town where parents smoke weed with their children like that is a normal thing to do, and where a good chunk of teens mess around with DMT by the time they make it to the halfway mark of high school, I cannot help but acknowledge the relative merits of the drugs=enlightenment=better art argument. But when it comes time to sit down and write, I find myself more often thinking back to passages of text that provoke “thought-trips” simply through their language, which can be read when sober and produce neurological episodes as potent as any hallucinogen.

Naturally this kind of reaction strikes different people in different ways, and what some people think of as the most powerful turns-of-phrase will not even register as remotely note-worthy to others. The point is that finding what, in nothing more than its state as ink on a page, makes one feel like he or she has entered another plane is crucial to the development of a writer. A person cannot think about moving others in such a powerful way before that person first discovers what makes him or her respond in a like manner.

For me, this kind of reaction comes not from a famous or even practiced “poet”—though he tried his hand at the craft (and failed)—but from a man whose prose often hits higher poetic peaks than entire volumes of poetry. Yes, I’m talking about that stuffy Southerner William Faulkner, with whom—alcoholism aside—I can think of no characteristics I share. The “Addie” section from his iconic As I Lay Dying delivers one gut-punch after another, a notable feat considering context up to this point in the novel shapes Addie as a thoroughly unlikeable character.

In what I consider to be the height of poetry in the novel, Addie tells us, “I could just remember how my father used to say that the reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time” (169). This line comes at readers without elevated language, experimental form, or even much music, yet its strength lies in its simplicity of language. It does not take advanced education to know the literal meaning of each word, yet their combination produces a truth beyond what even some of the greatest living thinkers like to admit. The concept does not touch on whether or not there is an afterlife, not really, but its potency is not diminished for that, because even if “staying dead” involves floating around in some paradise, to “stay dead for a long time” has an inevitably dark ring to it. This is precisely the kind of passage that gives me goosebumps, and inspires me as a writer to make my own readers feel like I feel when reading it.

Again, this effect can come in many ways. Perhaps there is a person out there who feels just as satisfied when confronted with Madonna lyrics, and it is not at all my place to diminish the importance of that. Whatever the inspiration, it is important for writers to experience the emotions they seek to evoke, on a sincere and personal level, before ever sitting down to craft a piece of their own. And to encounter or create these emotions with nothing more than words on paper is, I believe, at least as powerful as most enlightenment attainable through substances.

Dealer

I welcome the reader to consider this next section as corny and immature, but I cannot write an essay about the craft of poetry without acknowledging my poetic fairy godfather (if only…) Walt Whitman. It can be helpful for poets to think of themselves as “dealers” in several ways. First, in relation to the previous section, a successful poem will evoke internal reactions representative of trips, and the poet is the one who deals those trips—a drug dealer does not enter your body and manipulate chemicals to get you high, but he or she provides the physical catalyst, while poets do not mold your life into a specific form with a context that makes it most receptive to their words, but ideally their pieces will trigger your reactions and guide you into the desired state.

Though Whitman did not seem to think of himself as a “dealer” in the strict modern sense of the word, he did view himself as a sort of deliverer, guru, and all-encompassing human capable of spreading the Word to nourish all words. In “Song of Myself”—and here I reference the 1855 version of Leaves of Grass—Whitman takes on Prince Hamlet and exposes the lighter side of decomposition. Whereas Hamlet frets a loss of status that comes with death, bitter about the worms that will eat his body, Whitman finds joy in the idea that the atoms that make up his body will never truly cease to exist (AND NEITHER WILL YOURS, SO SMILE) as he says, “I depart as air” and “I bequeath myself to the dirt and grow from the grass I love,/If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles” and then closes the massive poem with, “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,/Missing me one place search another,/I stop somewhere waiting for you” (88).

Scores of people have taken issue for years with Whitman’s apparent self-centeredness, but I feel that these people miss the point. Whitman talks about himself as a piece of a larger whole. He cannot make his point speaking from someone else’s shoes because he knows only his own experience, yet at the same time his own experience is larger than his literal life. He reflects a transcendental utopia that he believes to already exist, and merely puts the thoughts into words to show the way for others. In this way, I believe “Song of Myself” to be the opposite of self-centered—it is inviting to the greatest degree, and proves Whitman to be a quintessential poetic dealer. He brings us insight not with a condescending raised-know-it-all-brow, but with a warm smile and the hope that we will take his hand.

I promised corniness and plan to deliver even further, for just as Dumbledore tells his school that “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends” (Rowling 306), I believe it takes a good deal of intelligence for a poet to open minds, but just as much intelligence for a poet to invite others to reach similar ends. In other words, I mark Whitman as a successful poetry “dealer” because he does not seek exclusivity, nor does he want to be the winner in the humanity-spanning game of memorable art. Rather, he truly wants his audience to grow from his work, and I don’t think it matters to him whether or not his part in any individual’s growth is explicitly recognized and cited.

GETS/Busted

When it comes to crafting a poem with certain techniques and wordplays, I will allow myself a special dispensation for the “absolute” idea that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do it. The world is your oyster etc. etc. People can advise on what is and is not working until they are blue in the face, but countless twentieth and twenty-first century poets have already shown us that there is no limit to experiments with language, and even basic English words are malleable. Take for example the legendary Black Arts poet Haki Madhubuti, who famously uses words in print to mimic the unconventional sounds of John Coltrane’s music in one of his best-known poems, “DON’T CRY, SCREAM.”

Like many of Coltrane’s pieces, Madhubuti begins the poem with a lucid melody readers can follow, even as the words creep across the page, and he reels readers in with stark accusations like, “driving some away,/(those paper readers who thought/manhood was something innate)//bring others in,/(the few who didn’t believe that the/world existed around established whi/teness & leonard bernstein)” (27). At the same time that he calls attention to and then bashes established societal notions (you mean the world shouldn’t exist around Leonard Bernstein??), Madhubuti alters the very way those notions come across through their signifiers, as he splits “whiteness” with a line break. And that little mindfuck is just a sampler plate of what is in store.

Madhubuti travels with Coltrane into the world of less-tapped tonal possibilities, writing, “a good nasty feel with/tangled songs of:/we-eeeeeeeeeee          sing/WE-EEEeeeeeeeeee        loud&/WE-EEEEEEE EEEEEEEEEE high/with/feeling” (28). Were a poem like “DON’T CRY, SCREAM” brought into a present-day workshop, students and possibly the teacher would doubtless call attention to the “weak” line-stops, as he breaks after “in” “of” and “with.” Others would likely say the movement of stanzas across the page has no actual merit, and is done for shock value or in a feeble attempt to replicate work that is well outside of his reach. But if it is not already clear, Madhubuti doesn’t give a shit whether or not his form and unconventional play with language disturb concepts of acceptable poetic techniques. And currently active writers should not give a shit either. In fact, disturbing concepts of what is and is not acceptable was a huge motivator for Madhubuti, Amiri Baraka, and many of their Black Arts contemporaries. However, neither should writers seek to fuck around with language just for the sake of fucking around (“Poetry Friends Forever,” perhaps?). Madhubuti’s experiments have a purpose here: to emulate Coltrane’s music in a form outside of jazz, and to show that emotions can be evoked in previously unimagined and, yes, alienating and offending ways. So long as there is some intention and practice behind it, whether or not either of those come across to readers, a poem is free to bust up any and all notions of what language is and how it can be conveyed without stepping off the cliff into waves of utter nonsense.

Eventually (my manifesto, can be skipped)

Eventually we will live in a world where everyday non-“poets” understand that poetry can be found in most things, as well as crafted from most things. Maybe we are already there. I wouldn’t know, I can’t read minds. I do not intend to belittle the work of poets who have put their lives and souls into the craft, but I honestly think that anyone can do it, just as anyone can run a marathon after enough training (yes, seriously, anyone can). What separates “poets” from “the rest” is a willingness to try, the courage to look inside and handle their own emotions without shame or disgust. Or if shame or disgust occur, a willingness to explore those reactions. But the ability to communicate effectively is not guaranteed at birth (I’m at five years and counting, trying to tackle that bad boy with my psychotherapist), nor is the ability to craft poetry a given just because someone finds beauty in odd places. These are skills that must be honed in order for the end-product to speak to someone else. I don’t have advice that is helpful in a concrete/sit-down-and-write-better-right-now way, but I believe that the messy work of refusing to settle down and refusing to ignore outside perspectives is crucial to each person’s growth as a social and productive member of a community, as well as an insightful and trustworthy writer.

Claire Schroeder is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she earned degrees in English and creative writing. She writes album and concert reviews, as well as annotated playlists and featured articles for WPGU 107.1, where she also served as the web director for a year. She has written articles for Buzz Magazine and worked as a proofreader of web and brochure content for several businesses. She is currently working on a novella-length nonfiction profile of her hometown, Oak Park, Illinois.

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Iraq War memorial

Photo by Ewan McIntosh

by Brandon Davis Jennings

The idea that all the readers of the world are sitting around waiting for the book that best sums up our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last fifteen years is silly. Still I’m sure some buffoon would be happy to argue that such a thing is possible and that there is a “best” book about World War II and World War I and every other war that’s had a book written about it. I’ve read stacks of books about wars since I left the Air Force in 2004; a few of those books were written by Kurt Vonnegut, and at least two of his books had something to say about World War II specifically. Both of those unnamed books said something valuable about World War II that the other book did not say; that’s two books by a single guy. Joseph Heller, who is, supposedly, a different guy than Kurt Vonnegut, had a few things to say about World War II as well; so there’s two men and at least three books; imagine what would happen if I added books written by women and non-veterans to the list; if your guess was that it would have been longer and more diverse, then you’re one sharp hamentaschen.

Because I’m not foolish enough to believe that a single person will ever be able to say all that should be said about any subject (No. Not even Paul Fussel did with his book The Great War and Modern Memory: a book I admire a great deal despite my irritation at calling any war great let alone naming a war “the” great war), I don’t waste my time trying to figure out who said “it” best regardless of what “it” may be. (That’s an inside joke for people who’ve read Catch-22: to be in on “it,” one only needs to read Catch-22′s first paragraph: a single sentence. Don’t overthink it; it’s not that funny.) That kind of thinking is bad for art and bad for humanity. Both Heller and Vonnegut said what they had to say well, and our understanding of World War II and the people affected by it is more complete because we have a variety of books written by a variety of writers: not just men who were in combat or men who commanded men in combat or men who gave orders to the men who commanded the men who were in combat (although the combat gnostics would disagree because they want their club to remain exclusive regardless of said club members’ ability to render an experience well). Without multiple viewpoints, the war might be reduced to, “Hitler was bad and the good guys won.” For anyone who doesn’t know, World War II is a lot more complicated than that. Much more complicated for me to explain it all in a review of Brian Castner’s book: a book that isn’t even about World War II.

So rather than blow a bunch of smoke about Castner’s newest book, All the Ways We Kill and Die, and trying to convince you that it’s the best book about America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last fifteen years, I’ll talk about why his book matters and why you should read it. That’s what reviews should do; they’re not advertisements. If they were, then Coca Cola would now owe me some money.

When thinking about the impact a war has on people, we often look to numbers. How many killed? How many wounded? How many displaced? (Another number cited regularly is how much the war cost financially; I mention that number because it makes me sick knowing that some people are removed enough from war that they only start to feel its sting when the sting pierces their bank account. Although I suppose that’s better than the people who never feel the sting at all.) These numbers are useful in gauging the magnitude of the physical destruction caused by the war, but as technology changes the way enemies engage, new numbers are needed to understand the true impact that war has on its combatants and civilians alike. This is a mere book review however, so I’ll just mention this problem in passing and leave the solving of that problem to whomever has the capacity to solve it. Science, after all, ain’t my bag, man.

Castner’s book can be couched in contemporary war literature (including cinema in this case because this is America and I can say whatever I want: unless things change in November; I am hating on Donald Trump in a book review while it’s still legal) with quite a few popular works that did their part in bringing aspects of the current wars to light for the public. The Hurt Locker popularized the EOD technician in the way that Jarhead popularized the sniper before it was re-popularized by American Sniper. Regardless of their critical reception, those books and movies got people thinking about Iraq and Afghanistan for at least a couple hours. And even if parts of those stories were “hyper real” (as most interesting stories are) such dramatization and popularization is necessary if we want the average citizen who might think, for instance, that everyone in the Air Force flies a plane or that every soldier on a military base always carries a weapon, to learn that there is a lot of variance in the things that individual officers and enlisted personnel do while they serve. Without touchstones like these movies and books, we might have no common ground from where to begin a discussion. All the Ways We Kill and Die gives us a touchstone from where to begin talking about EOD and all the men and women who work with EOD technicians as they try to make Iraq and Afghanistan safer for the people living there every day. Castner’s book is a far better place to start a conversation from than The Hurt Locker can ever hope to be.

Another reason you should read this book, and one of the reasons this book (or any honest book) might be an emotionally tough read, is that Castner doesn’t just glorify the men he worked with or their families to make them seem like selfless heroes. He doesn’t talk about the men who died as if they’d been perfect and had gladly given their lives fighting a war that they believed was black and white. Through the stories of guys like Matt Schwartz, Castner shows us how complicated the path to enlistment is for many Americans and how leaving the military once you’re a part of it is much harder for some than it is for others. We no longer have a draft, so the story of the boy who is forced to put his life on hold to fight a war because his country demands it is gone (unless it is being retold as it has been every year for as long as I can remember. See: The History Channel). But there is another story just as old as that one: the story of the civilian who is forced to put his life on hold because he can’t find any other way to make a living or to get ahead. Not everyone joins the military because they want to serve their country, but once you’re in, serve your country you do despite the reasons that compelled you to.

All the Ways We Kill and Die also focuses on a specific, and yet, unidentified enemy. Castner wants to find the engineer: the man who built (or who is responsible for teaching men to build) the IED that killed Matt Schwartz (and, according to the theory presented in the book, responsible for teaching men to build all the IEDs: akin to a Frankenstein’s monster-esque Rube Goldberg Reaganomic trickle down bomb knowledge machine™). This humanizes the enemy in a way that is difficult when we we’re fighting a war against terror. One of the main reasons that a war against terror is so scary is because terror is an idea; you cannot blow it up. But, much like wars against traditional combatants, the war on terror is a war that cannot end until the last terrorist has been captured, killed or has surrendered. That task becomes more complicated when there’s no way to know who or what the enemy is, yet the task remains the same regardless of its complexity. How wonderful it would’ve been if the fighting had ended when we captured Baghdad or when we killed Osama Bin Laden. (Funny I don’t feel stranger when I say “we” did it, as if I wasn’t running a Bit-Error-Rate-Test or reading Malone Dies for the third time while actual men took Baghdad and actual men did kill Bin Laden, respectfully).

War perpetuates itself, and Castner’s book shows this quite elegantly. He lost friends who were doing their jobs, jobs that were meant to keep people safe. And it is easy to say that they wouldn’t have had to do that job if we hadn’t sent troops there to begin with. But we did send troops there, and we can’t undo what is done. We cannot go back to some time where everything was perfect because that time never was. We can only adapt to the world we now live in. The men disarming and destroying IEDs didn’t start the war, but they fought it; they fight it still. And because of that, we are afforded the opportunity to forget there is a war at all. We can live a life more worried about Harry Potter’s safety than our own children’s, and we can get upset because the next Dark Souls game or the next Star Wars movie won’t be released the second that we want it. I understand the desire to forget the war. Thinking about war all the time is exhausting; fifteen years of war now, and I can’t remember what being an American was like before the fighting started. My six months in Saudi Arabia seems more like a dream than reality now, and sometimes I wish it had been a dream. But it wasn’t, and it’s not something I can afford to forget because there are plenty of Americans who’ve been living in a country at war since the day they were born. Books like Brian Castner’s are necessary for helping Americans to know what has been going on far beyond their line of sight and what it means for us to be privileged enough to live in a country at war for fifteen years without having to think about war unless we choose to. Because men and women choose to go over there and do the job, we can choose to think about something more pleasant or get our thrills watching Law and Order SVU or The Walking Dead.

Whether we choose to think about these wars or not, men and women are over there in it every day. It doesn’t matter what the total number of casualties is. All that matters is that each number was a person, and that person has people who survive him, people who laughed, ate, drank, and cried with him before he was killed. And, of course, killing the person responsible for the death of a friend or loved one will not bring that person back, but understanding that hasn’t stopped wars in the past. It’s unlikely that it will stop them in the future. One thing a book like Castner’s can do is help us to remember that these wars are personal for the people who fight them no matter how they participate. We remember until we cannot. When we’re gone, we hope that our books remain to remind those who survive us of what it took to make the world they live in the way it is: the good and the bad. All the Ways We Kill and Die is a book you should read if you want to see how far one person went to hunt down his friend’s killer even though he knew the killer might not exist.

Brandon Davis Jennings is an Iraq War veteran from West Virginia. He received his MFA in Fiction from Bowling Green State University, and his PhD from Western Michigan University. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Berkeley Fiction Review, Monkeybicycle, Ninth Letter, Passages North, and elsewhere. His chapbook Waiting for the Enemy was Iron Horse Literary Review’s 2012 Single Author Chapbook Competition winner, and he is the 2013 winner of PN’s Thomas J. Hruska Prize in Creative Nonfiction. His two best-selling Kindle Singles Waiting for the Enemy and Battle Rattle are available from amazon now, and his first full-length collection of essays, Operation Iraqi Freedom is My Fault, is forthcoming fall/winter of 2016.

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Photo by Yoann Jezequel

This week, Associate Fiction Editor Ethan Brightbill puts a UP twist on a common question: if you could spend an hour at a sauna with any famous writer, who would you choose and why? Points will be lost for mispronouncing sauna.

Alexander Clark
Associate Editor, Nonfiction
Mount Pleasant, Michigan

Leslie Feinberg. We’d both be uncomfortable in our bathing suits and we could plan the trans revolution and talk solidarity politics

Colton Lindsey
Associate Editor, Fiction and Poetry
Heber Springs, Arkansas

Ernest Hemingway, no question about it. I would give anything to sip whiskey and discuss literature with the master himself. He has always been my greatest influence when it comes to my writing. It would be glorious to pick his brain.

Jason Teal
Associate Editor, Fiction
Sandusky, Ohio

Samuel Beckett comes to mind. In the sauna, we’d stage an impromptu play, people uniformly donning black turtlenecks and whispering into the wet rocks like this. Both of us hate saunas and we’d need something else to occupy the hour, stave off conversation, waiting for the clock to run out. After the sauna, we’d resume writing.

Elisha Sheffer
Associate Editor, Fiction
Rhinelander, Wisconsin

George R.R. Martin. I’m not a fan of saunas, but if I get constant reassurance that winter is coming, it might be okay.

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