A Vicious Culture

Lisa Zou uses the powerful metaphor of animals in the wild to make a powerful statement about violence in today’s culture.

In Nairobi, we let in the lions and take up fear—

and now the river welcomes the lunge

and cut and danger and spilling.

 

You need to learn how quickly the distance vanishes

between the men and the lions. I am the ticket buyer; “Lion,

give me two pounds of human carcass.” Hesitate—

 

death awaits. On the sidelines, a woman drinks bloody sangria,

suddenly her eyes stumble open, her limbs compressed to fractions

by the beasts in a pool of red meat, the stitches of her bones untangled.

 

Somewhere, the lion sees the tremble and chases.

Somewhere, the handsome man mourns the name

of his lover and the sky wears grey a shade darker

than the hair of the clapping audience. We watch the lions attack

the fighters, pouncing upon a hungry crowd, twisting their spines,

stroking the desert terrain awaiting their next targets.

 

You cannot go; you need to remain abstinent from violence,

sweep the remnants of lost martyrs, forgive the lion who swallowed

your sister’s fiancé, as he cried out “They have made lions’ meat of me.”

 

We stood silent as small children with smaller hands

offered water from the curve of their palms and

a new peace swept through the lions, their tongues parched.

 

You need to learn how quickly the lions

hunted those human beasts in Nairobi,

how the lions gulped the water, drop by drop.

By Lisa Zou

Lisa Zou is a Mesa Community College Student in Chandler, AZ. She is the winner of the Mount Mercy Creative Writing Contest and has been published in the National Poetry Quarterly, the Paha Review, and Canvas. She enjoys reading short stories in her free time.

Artwork by Yiting Ruan

A Tale of Two Countries

Soren Gran makes the distinct connection between the fight for freedom in 1776 to the fight for freedom in the modern world in his poem, “A Tale of Two Countries.”

One country, two Americas

One person, two dollars for few,

One dollar, two people for many.

America fought for rights two centuries ago

Now a new battle arises

Instead of dirt roads, urban avenues

Instead of muskets, picket signs

Instead of Lexington, Selma

Instead of backing down, try again,

Instead of six hundred, try twenty-five thousand.

Another battle for democracy, for equality, for freedom

New Founding Fathers stand up

King, Malcolm, Parks take the place of Washington, Revere, Hancock

The reiteration, reemphasis, of “All men are created equal.”

A letter from jail to remind people.

A boycott to prove people,

A song to unite people.

But the fight for freedom was no simple protest.

It was a war, sometimes fought like a war.

Sometimes graves were filled like it was a war,

Sometimes people lost control.

During this war the Watts Riot

Left a stain of red on dotted canvas.

A sea of nonviolent protest disturbed by waves of violence.

A war not just for rights but for acceptance.

To make sure there were no more Emmett Tills.

Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, took a different approach.

A different approach from the March on Washington, the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

The Black Panthers were condemned for the violence

And Martin Luther King Jr. won a Peace Prize

But maybe it was the Panthers determination, desperation

That were more effective than King’s composure.

Maybe it was a balance between peaceful protest and Black Power.

“Whatever it was, it worked.”

Did it?

There have been so many Emmett Tills.

Rodney, Trayvon, Eric. Not the faces of the past

But the faces of the present.

We still fight the same fight

For equality under the law, an end to discrimination.

Maybe it’s not possible, but that does not mean we should give up.

So the faces of the future don’t have to fear.

We shall overcome,

Someday.

By Soren Gran

Soren Gran is a junior at St. Edward High School in Lakewood, Ohio. For his school, he plays soccer, writes for the newspaper, and participates in extracurricular organizations including Latin club and Academic Challenge team. He enjoys traveling. Last summer, he participated in a State Department program through which he visited Singapore and Malaysia.

Art by Fangjun “Kay” Qu

An Interview with Samantha Dunn

During her visit, the Parallax editors got to sit down and interview Samantha Dunn, fiction and nonfiction writer, about female representation in writing, the writing process, and how to deal with criticism.

Question: What is your main goal or intention you hope to achieve through your writing?

Samantha Dunn: One, to make a living. I’ve survived by the pen. There’s a certain amount of professionalism I have to maintain to keep a roof over my head. But really, that’s a complicated answer for me. I think it can be broken down to wanting to connect with someone other than myself, to break the illusion that I exist solely on my own. There’s an intense loneliness everyone walks around with, but for writers it’s exacerbated. Truly, there’s a sense of putting that voice out into the universe and seeing if it hits anyone, to see if there’s something there. And also to witness others. We are unique entities and we exist in a certain place in time. How many worlds exist in a person? One type of mixture might have happened in 1972 and then again today, but they do not have the same experiences. Our lives are these incredible spinning orbits. What is real, for me, is to witness experience.

Q: How do you feel you have been successful in achieving this goal in your writing?

S: Most days, I do not feel that successful. Like every writer I battle the Who cares? Oh my God what am I doing with my life reaction. I know that, having done this for a while, people have read my works. I have been the recipient of many letters and communications that say to me, very directly, “I’ve read this, and it mattered to me. Thank you for writing this.” Or sometimes they will say, “You suck. You are so stupid. I can’t believe you still breathe air. Who publishes you?” Even that is engagement. If I can piss you off that much,  it means I’ve provoked something. Yay. We’re alive, we’re in discussion. We’re in communication. My big claim to fame, kind of jokingly, is there’s a store called “Title 9,” (which is all women’s sports and fitness wear up in Seattle), and at one point,  they had one of my quotes from my book on their bag. And I thought “Wow! Somebody’s reading.” It is funny. As writers, we are not glamorous. The paparazzi is not stalking us. I was at a faculty dinner one time for the New York State Summer Writers’ Institute, and we, the entire faculty, were walking down the street. In this group was Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Russell Banks, William Kennedy. Basically, what I am telling is that I was the slacker in this group; I was the one who had not won the Pulitzer Prize. We were walking down the street and no one was even looking sideways at us. And I thought, “Wow, in Hollywood, if the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were walking down the street everyone would be like ‘Woah!’” But, some of the most exalted writers in American literature were walking down the street unperturbed. That’s it. That’s the life of a writer. We are alone a lot. Yet, somehow, the message in the bottle does reach another shore. I don’t know how, but it does.

Q: How did it affect you (or your writing) when people would respond to your work, positively or negatively?

S: Great question. Luckily, a great many of my friends are truly famous. For good or bad, that has not occurred to me yet, even with the amount of attention I have received. I was in People Magazine once. The book was panned. It had my picture and then a lot of bad stuff was said about me and it really froze me for a while because I thought, “Wow, I’m stupid. People are just gonna make fun of this.” But, then, on the opposite end, I did get those letters that said, “This meant so much to me,” and I thought, “You know what. You just have to talk to your people.” Screw all the others. Fuck all of y’all. Just talk to the people for whom it matters. When I start to get into that mindset of “My writing is about me talking to you,” then I am able to maintain that intimacy with that reader. The more I am able to maintain that intimacy, the more relaxed and productive I am.

Q: Were there any events which prompted you to become a writer?

S: Yes, I can give you a little anecdote. When I was in elementary school I won a Campfire Girls’ National competition. I wrote a poem on what freedom is and I was the 2nd prize winner. I was like “Oh! Writer, this is what it is.” But it’s also a much bigger story than that. My mother was a single mom and always very busy and she loved to read. Culturally, her family was working class Irish. They were all storytellers. If I have to psychoanalyze myself, it was me thinking, ‘How can I get her attention?’ I wanted that validation. Her reading something was profound for me. That had a deep impression. It was the thing we did. We told jokes and stories. It was always very lively in my house.

Q: What inspired you to start teaching?

S: There was no reason for me except to seek human contact. I was living the dream. I didn’t have to get out of my pajamas for shit. Yet, there was no way for me to connect on a regular daily basis. My friend, Les Plesko, a very dear friend and a brilliant novelist, taught at the UCLA Writers’ program. He said “Sam, you should just teach a class. It’ll get you out on Tuesdays.” That was why I did it initially. I had no other reason to be around people. But, I loved it. It is like my religion, my church, giving my life resonance and meaning. God, what privilege is that? To be a part in other writers’ journeys to discover their own voice; that’s an incredible privilege. I love it–I don’t teach for the money, honey [laughs].

Q: What inspires you to write fiction? And what inspires you to write nonfiction?

S: I really do believe they’re different, fiction and nonfiction. The muscles we put in are different. I think for fiction, the stories arrive. Nonfiction, for me, has to be circumscribed by fact. It’s what happened. It’s me making meaning about what happened; insight done beautifully. It is the thing that kind of holds the world together. With fiction, the stories arrive on currents. Out of scenes, physical experience, taken off on their own. I wrote a short story called “The Tortilla Construction Handbook” that ran in a journal called Black Clock. That story arrived with a voice in my head, a young guy kind of talking. He was talking about tortillas. It was like a rant on tortillas! I sat around and waited for more of that to reveal itself. It’s like dreaming. You just wait for it to reveal itself to you. It arrives in a different way. I don’t have much time for fiction, because fiction comes out of silence, which is not the case for me right now.  Memoirs are the most powerful thing we can do for ourselves and others. No safety net. It’s you trying to make meaning out of what’s going on.

Q: Was there an event that prompted you to write your novel, Failing Paris?

S: The anger at a girl in my workshop class who wrote a story romanticizing Paris. It’s not all puppies and Luxembourg! It’s sexism and racism! The most beautiful and yet the most debase. It’s all of these things at once. It exploded from me, This is how it is.

Q: Do you think your writing is empowering for young women, especially your nonfiction article “My Not-So-Bikini-Body”?

S: I hope it is, but you can’t write hoping to inspire. You can just witness your own experience. David Walcott says, “A writer’s job is to state the condition.” Hopefully, you as the reader will find meaning in it for yourself. I can’t hope for a message. I’m just telling you what it is to be like in this body.

Q: Have you ever felt that there is a lack of female representation in famous, frequented literature?

S: Fuck yeah! If you look at most of the award winners, they are guys! Dudes! Hello! Even this year, Kirkus did a list of “The Most Important Books of 2014.” One of them was written by a woman. If I throw a rock, I hit 15 incredible female writers. There’s still a long conversation to be had about where the female writers are. That’s why people like Cheryl Strayed, whose success has been phenomenal with the book Wild, are really important. That’s a book about a woman going into the woods, not because she had a bad romance—I mean, sure, she went through a divorce. But, it was really about the death of her mother and about the incredible grief she suffered. It was her on a journey of transformation, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. It doesn’t terminate with her being swept off her feet by some handsome stranger.  It terminates with her on her own two feet. And the success of that book has been astronomical. I cannot underestimate the importance of that. It is huge. Cheryl’s story hit the vein, but there are amazing stories like this written by women all the time. That’s not to take away stories written by our brothers. It’s not. But, for so many centuries we were not even allowed to write and that still hangs over our heads, culturally and personally.

Q: Who are some female writers that have left their mark upon your work?

S: For better or for worse, Kate Braverman, because she was my first “bad mother.” But, also, when I read Virginia Woolf in college, she kind of blew the top of my head off. I did not know anyone could create a sentence like that. I did not know you could be so intensely personal. Same with Anaïs Nin. I read her, and her sexuality and writing so honestly about what was happening to her, my God! It was an access of freedom that I never knew. Also, Judith Krantz, who was a crass commercial best seller. I read her books when I was fifteen and it was the book, Scruples, a supermarket paperback. But, the heroine was defining her own life and doing her own thing and becoming a millionaire on her own! She was leaving men broken-hearted, she was not being left broken hearted, and I found real power in that. And also, I must say, from college on, Joan Didion has been my Alpha and Omega. I met her once at a reading and I was that geeky girl with fifteen of her books. I had nothing to say when I got up there, and she very politely signed my books while I stood there like a dummy. It was a huge moment for me. She really is the one writer I think I would most like to emulate.

Q: Could you describe your writing process? How do you pace yourself when writing longer pieces and how do you plan them out?

S: Before becoming a mother, I would write everyday.  The morning is the most fruitful for me. I would usually write from about seven o’clock in the morning to around nine o’clock, then throw myself back onto my bed to go to sleep. Then I would get up, write for a couple more hours, and be done for the day. I couldn’t do anything else. So, about four hours of solid writing was the most I could ever get. But then as the projects really start to take shape, really form where you’re almost at the end, it really becomes this all encompassing thing. I would sleep with my laptop, I kid you not. But now, I have a son and a husband. It’s hard. I cannot be precious about my writing at all anymore. I have to write whenever I get the time. Now, if I don’t write between 8:30 and 1:00, it’s just not gonna get done. Because then my son will get home and chaos ensues. There is no space in my brain. There is no space in my life. There is no physical way for me to get to the space I need to. I mean, I have an office that is in a separate building from my house, but it’s still on the property, so they know where to find me, and they do. When I really need to write, I will write in my car.

Q: You discuss intense personal stories in your memoirs and essays. A lot of writers find it difficult to write non-fiction because it is hard to open up about your experiences. Do you have any advice for that dilemma?

S: That’s huge. Because there is this thing of, “Don’t tell.” The rule breaking in the family: you cannot tell. It’s sometimes not explicitly said but you know it. So, I would say don’t force yourself into anything. Just keep writing. Just know, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, it’s stemming from someplace important. If you are crying when you’re writing, it’s important. You have to say to yourself, What the fuck. I don’t care. That’s the space you need to be in, that emotional space.

Q: Did you ever feel a sense of uncomfortability as you were writing?

S: Yeah. A lot. Really uncomfortable. Like, Wow. I’m afraid. I don’t know what people are gonna think about this. When my novel went into Kindle, it went into a whole other audience—before it was just in this literary community with people who had read Sylvia Plath. Then it went into this world where people are like, “I’m vegan and I’m anti-abortion. I can’t read this.” Like, what? Or people would say, “Wow. This is really depressing.” Yes, it is depressing. The hateful reactions were kind of my nightmare when I was writing that book, but now it doesn’t matter to me. People who don’t get it are not my people. Because I know the work matters. I have heard from the people for whom it matters. Not all the people but, I know that it matters to some. More importantly, I know that it mattered to me to express it. It’s not autobiography, but it does describe my experience, my emotional experience, and, more than that, it describes what I know is the emotional experience of other women. And that’s important to have out there. Good, bad, or indifferent. Happy, sad, or whatever you want to call it. I believe it is important.

Q: How do you balance talking about the subject and inputting your own opinions on the subject? Do you ever add in other people’s emotions or opinions?

S: Yes. You have to. A writer’s job is to have empathy. I have to, as much as I find it difficult, find empathy for those people in front of Planned Parenthood protesting. That’s our job as artists. For Failing Paris, I really wanted to get into that complexity of choice. Why couldn’t that woman be a mother? Why couldn’t she be there? I wanted to explore all of that in all the ways I could. That deep sense of mourning. The idea for me is how can I create empathy, no matter where it is in the story.

 

Post-Partum

Explore the postpartum world of Sofia Haines’s delicately crafted poem that uses gripping imagery to effectively convey a story.

Touch my home. Touch my
walls and tablecloth and the coat I bought my son; he
will be a small blue boy, blue like paint,
and his round hands
spell out something like milk or salt.
I want him to sleep in the crook of an avocado.

 

Night breaks but does not open.
you are a beautiful woman
said the blue boy. Now, once he is here,
I see that he is blue
like an egg in the dark.
He leans in from a window that wasn’t
there before, kicking his toes against the wall
as he looks at the pink boy in the cradle.

 

Open this jar for me, I ask.
Our yarn has been cut, but open this jar for me:
see, it is filled with childhood and melted
plastic.

 

By Sofia Haines

Sofia Haines is a senior Creative Writing major at Walnut Hill School for the Arts.

Experiments with Caryl Pagel

Ana and Emily discuss the editing process at Rescue Press and the inspiration behind the book Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death, with the author and editoress herself, Caryl Pagel

Emily Cameron: In your book, Experiments I Should Like Tried at My Own Death, there’s a lot of discussion about spirits and connecting to the spirit/spiritual world. A lot of people consider this a pseudoscience; do you believe it is science or pseudoscience?

Caryl Pagel: I’ll separate my answer into two different things that I think: One is that I don’t believe in cliché ideas of ghosts or apparitions. I don’t not believe in them either, it’s just that I would not testify to any of that. But, I do believe that anything can be approached using scientific method. People still call things like psychology pseudoscience. A lot of these ideas and the people I talk about and researched in the book, like William James, were kind of on the forefront of psychological practice. So, yes, I do believe that it’s science, and I believe you can use science to approach things that aren’t measurable or possible to even know about. In the same way that scientists can study dream activity, and we might not ever have any solutions, we can study the idea of what happens to the soul after death. Those might be impossible things to ever figure out, but I think that they can still be approached using the same techniques of questioning and measuring and gathering evidence. It’s proof one way, proof the other way.

EC:  How did you become interested in the subjects of clairvoyance and clairaudience, like the ones in your book?

CP: I was always interested in that kind of thing, but I became obsessed with it when I encountered a group of texts which were these scientific journals from the late 1800s. They were the proceedings for the Society for Psychical Research, which was this group of scientists who gathered all of these stories about clairvoyance and telepathic activity and apparitions, and all this sort of unknown phenomena. Their goal was not to say, “This exists” or “This doesn’t exist,” but to just gather all the stories from the people that they could and try to figure out if there were patterns, and which testimonies seemed to be familiar to other testimonies. They were trying to collect evidence. And so I read these journals, these scientific texts, and I became really interested in these ideas. I became interested in them as this subject matter that is unknown, and the stories and people’s accounts are what were interesting to me. It’s a great party trick to ask people if they’ve ever seen a ghost, or even asking people about things like coincidence, or if they’ve ever had a near death experience. People have great stories about that. It was the content that drew me in, but it was the form, the act of storytelling around it, that kept me there.

EC: In your book, you have the “Botched Bestiary” poems, which are similar to accrual poems; do you think this form of hybrid literature disrespects or defaces the original work(s) like some people do? Do you think it adds more to the original(s)?

CP: I don’t know if I have a general opinion on that. I know for me, with those particular pieces, they came from a place where I was doing a lot of research on writing about animals and animal artwork. There are a lot of artists who are interested in the animal body and the human body, and the human as a machine or hybrid bodies with medical technology, and people living longer. There’s so much nowadays, that our bodies are changing in response to our environment, and a lot of that comes across in the visual art that I was looking at, at the time. I was thinking of some of these ideas that the artists were using, like collage, and a goat’s head stuck on a collage like Rauschenberg does, or different shapes on imagined animal bodies. Even things such as taxidermy where it’s half one creature, half another creature. This has always been in our imaginations. That’s where I started to write like that. I started thinking of the text as a body, and something that could be manipulated and rearranged and sort of refocused. So I think that there is a certain manipulation, or botching, or re-stitching something together. I also think of it things like heart transplants; these things in which we are taking pieces, not just in the art world, but also in the physical world. There’s hybridity to our contemporary lives in some way. These are the ideas that were swirling in my mind when I started to take parts of texts. That’s why the quotes are still in there, because I wanted it to be obvious. I thought of those quotes as a surgeon leaving a scar of where the surgery was done. In terms of general erasure projects and collage projects, sometimes you can abuse the original text by doing projects like that. Just like you can originally write a really bad poem on your own, you can also ruin other people’s things. There’s a million ways for it to go wrong, but there’s also a million ways for it to go right. A lot of my book was thinking of writing as an experiment.

EC:  Could you break down what the editing process at Rescue Press is like, and describe how it might be different from other presses?

CP:  I don’t know exactly how other presses work, but for us we basically collaborate with each author on the terms of their own piece. So, with the novella, Penny, n., we got the manuscript, and I read through it and made notes, I would call the author and we would have these long conversations about certain scenes or certain sentences, which was fun. We’d talk about these characters as if they were really alive, and we’d wonder, “What would Penny really do in this scene?” or we would ask, “Is that the right word?” It was a lot of conversations and dialogues, and some of the suggestions I made ended up in the final piece and some of them didn’t, depending on what the author felt like was right for the work. To contrast that with our newer novella, which is called Last Word, this piece came to us very polished and the author had spent a long time with it over the course of time. So, I didn’t have as many edits on that and he didn’t have as many edits on his own work either because he had already done all of that work and had a lot of other readers. It just depends on the project and what the author is up for, which means for some of them we go back and forth on all these different drafts and some of them we don’t do that much with. We think of editing as a service we can offer to people, which a lot of middle level presses or even other small presses don’t do anymore. They just publish your book. They don’t read it a bunch of times or help you edit it at all. And a lot of the bigger publishing houses will edit it without consulting the author, and they’ll just say, “You have to make these changes.” We try to offer ourselves to the authors and say, “What can we help you with?” or “What do you want to do with this?” It is very much a collaboration.

Ana Garcia: You must receive many manuscripts from authors who want to be published. What is the voice you want to give to them? What are you particularly looking for when you consider work for publication?

CP: It depends on a bunch of different things. It depends on what genre I’m reading, so in poetry sometimes I –at least, lately- am prone to writings that are more adventurous, wild or strange. In fiction, lately I am in a mood for traditional things. What I’m looking for on a manuscript changes depending on what I am interested in at the time, but also really strong writing, regardless of genre or style, can tell me the intention behind it and keeps me interested while reading it. When Rescue Press started, I was interested in hybrid genres, which I still am, but that was one of the reasons why we started, like one of our books To Be Human Is to Be a Conversation, is a piece that is part memoir and part poetry, there are photographs and questions, so it is a documentary text that is very interesting. I’m interested when people are mixing mediums and playing around.

AG:  What is the most challenging part of editing an author’s piece? Are there any aspects in particular that you get tired of?

CP: That is one of the qualities I look for before I accept something. We publish about 5 books every year, which is kind of a lot for a small press, but also it’s not that many books. When I decide we are going to publish something, one of the things I think about is “Is this a book that I want to read one hundred times?” Because that is the editing process: you read it over and over again, and you collaborate with the author. In the process, sometimes your life changes or sometimes you’re reordering everything, or cutting huge parts or encouraging people to write more into it, so there are many things that can happen. Some manuscripts don’t need much work at all, but I pick things I know I won’t get tired of, which is hard because there’s a lot of good work out there and it’s quality writing, but I know I can’t read it a hundred times. However, this helps me to read out what I want to publish, too.

AG: Does the writing change a lot when it falls into the editors hands?

CP: It depends a lot on the book project, so some of them we’ve done massive amounts of work in collaboration with the author, and some of them we’ve changed one word. A lot of it depends on how much the author is willing to work with us and hear our opinion. So I would say that it is very different for different books.

AG: Rescue Press varies a lot on the aesthetics they choose for their books. What do you take into account in a book to choose how it should look like?

CP: One of the things that we do, but not all small presses do, is that we really try to make a physical object that fits the content, the style of the work and the author’s vision of it. That’s why all of our books look really different, a lot of small presses will use the same size, the same type of pattern for their covers, but we work very closely in collaboration with the author. Sometimes they’ll say: “I just envisioned sort of a big book for mine,” so we’ll try to make them interesting, trying to use the content to suggest other artistic representations for it, while keeping the author’s vision of it at all times.

AG:  After reading so many manuscripts, do you think they have influenced/inspired your own writing?

CP: Definitely yes! I don’t know if I could say how, though. I think just the more you read, the more influence you get. The work that I publish, that I read, influences me a lot. I just read Frankenstein for the first time, and I thought: “Wow, this book is awesome!” So all you read starts layering in your head, and there’s more like available sort of models that you can do.

AG: Now that you went to the publishing companies as a writer and not as an editor, how did this experience make you feel? Do you think that your experience as an editor prepared you for the editing process?

CP: It did. I knew what to expect and the editors for my book were great. Factory Hollow Press is the press that put out my book, and they are the amazing in every single aspect. It was such a gift to work with them, and I felt so honored that they wanted to publish my book. My editor, Emily Petit, spent so much time with my work, and gave me a million bizarre ideas for the cover. She was very patient for editing, and gave me great advice in reordering the poems. So yes, being an editor prepared me, but I was still very lucky with the people I worked with.

AG: What made you decide you wanted to become an editor? What do you enjoy the most about your work?

CP: I enjoy reading all of that work. Basically I just have been a huge reader since I was a little kid and I’ve always been a writer, too. I could not get enough reading while I was growing up. I read every single book in my house, and visited the library very often. That’s still what I do, I mean, part of my job is to read which is what I love to do. Even more than writing.