An Interview With J. Robert Lennon

Parallax staff members talk writing and strange, short fiction stories with J. Robert Lennon.

J. Robert Lennon is the author of Pieces for the Left Hand.  He lives in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches at Cornell university.

Although his book Pieces for the Left Hand is fiction, the journalistic tone makes it read as nonfiction. In one hundred anecdotes, the narrator walks us through life in a small town in upstate New York, revealing the unsettling and strange in everyday life: questioning memory through a boy’s false recollection of his father’s chopped-off fingers, measuring loneliness by a deceased mother’s collection of teabags, exploring the bizarre tragedy of students trapped in a water pipe. Through these anecdotes inspired by the fictional narrator’s daily walks through town, Lennon adds an eerie yet philosophical layer to the flatness of everyday life. Parallax staff members Linnea Zagaeski and Evan Lytle discussed the writing life over email with Lennon.

“What inspired you to write this collection of short stories?”
When I started writing this book, I had a toddler, and my childcare “shift” coincided with his naps. He didn’t sleep for long—maybe half an hour—so I started thinking about writing projects that I could accomplish in that small amount of time. I wrote a few of these and liked them enough to do a whole book.
Why did you choose the story “Lefties” to base your title off of? Are you yourself left handed?
Yes, I am! I’ve always found the rhetoric about lefties being special to be kind of silly, so I decided to write a story about that.
Why did you write the introduction in third person? What effect did you want it to have?
My editor suggested that—she thought it would be interesting to frame the stories somehow. The character who narrates the stories isn’t me; he’s older and has a different kind of life. It took me 20 stories or so to understand this, actually. In the end, I almost think of this book as a novel about a guy who writes 100 stories.
Are some of these entries directly from a personal journal or diary, or based on true stories encountered personally or through friends?  If so, what was the process of developing them into fictional anecdotes like?  Are any of the anecdotes nonfiction?
They are all fiction. About half of them are inspired by details from my actual life, but I pushed them into fiction from there. “The Mad Folder” is the closest thing to nonfiction, I guess, though it really isn’t. Some of the stories are inspired by local news articles. In general, the fiction came in when I thought, “Hmm, wouldn’t it have been funnier if it worked out this way instead?” I don’t keep a journal or diary, for some reason.
Walking is introduced as part of the narrator’s writing process in the introduction to Pieces for the Left Hand.  There is a long history of writers who found walking integral to their creative process (Thoreau, Wordsworth, Joyce, Woolf, Stein, etc.), and recent studies reveal the benefits of walking for one’s creativity. What kind of role did walking play in your creative process as you worked on Pieces for the Left Hand?  Did you always see walking as integral to this narrator’s storytelling, or did you develop that idea after you had already started writing the anecdotes?
I walk a LOT. Like, four or five miles a day, when I have time. My head is pretty cluttered and I am extremely emotional and the walking calms me down and lets me think. Once I realized that the stories were being written by a character who was not me, I imagined him walking around near his house, which was not my house. Although, oddly, some years after the book was published, I moved pretty much into the house where he lives.
What kind of relationship do you want your reader to have with the narrator?
Oh geez, I don’t care. I suppose I intend for you to mostly like him but be a little skeptical of his motives, his judgments.
Did you want to raise certain questions with this work? If so, what kind of questions?  What questions were raised for you either while writing or when you went back through the collection?
No, I was pretty much doing this automatically, without any themes in mind. I imposed the sections later.
How many drafts did you go through on average for each anecdote?
Two or three. A few popped out just about how they ended up in the book. Some I had to really work over. Once I had the voice going, though, I could crank them out pretty efficiently.
Did you have any more anecdotes that you cut out during the editing process?  Why did you decide to organize them into the seven sections that appear in the book?
There were maybe ten more? Most of them were at the beginning, when I didn’t have the voice down yet. Once I had the voice, I didn’t write any rejects. My editor, again, told me to break it into sections. My original idea was the same idea that the 1980s post-punk band The Minutemen had for their most famous album, Double Nickels on the Dime: they should be read at random. (Now, in the digital era, you can shuffle the Minutemen album as they intended!) But my editor favored a little more organization. I still have mixed feelings about that, but it did enable me to write those little extra-short stories that introduce each “chapter.” Those were really fun to think up.
By the way, I play music as a hobby, and recorded an accompanying album of 100 really short songs, which is out there on the Internet. Also, I once recorded a cover of a song your teacher wrote. Your teacher is an awesome songwriter.
Thank you for reading my book!

A Part Time Midwesterner’s Perspective of Robinson Alone

Erin Breen uses her geographic perspective to review Kathleen Rooney’s poetry collection, Robinson Alone.

Kathleen Rooney. Robinson Alone. Gold Wake Press. 2012. 132 pages. $12.95. ISBN: 9780983700142.

Kathleen Rooney’s Robinson Alone is a collection of short poems that tell the tale of Robinson, a man based off a character in Weldon Kees’ poem “Robinson,” a poem which describes a man’s dog observing his master’s house once “Robinson has gone.” Following the character Kees created to a tee, Rooney takes us through Robinson’s life from his “middlewest” beginning to his stints in New York, California, and various road trips throughout the United States. Rooney brings to life Kees’ character from “Robinson” and gives him a life that is so real it can be easy to forget that Robinson is not a real person.

Coming from the “middlewest” myself, I could understand Robinson’s intense desire to leave the place exhibited in the poem “Robinson’s Hometown.” In this poem Robinson retained his desire to return to his hometown once he left, a sentiment I found to be incredibly accurate. As my history teacher once said, “The Midwest is the kind of place you miss.” Of course, Robinson would have his moment of exultation once outside the limits of his small town, but regardless of who you are or what your personality, the Midwest will creep its way back into your thoughts, leaving a melancholy that I found in Rooney’s book. It is easy to show one’s desire to leave. It is much harder to ingrain in a piece an inexplicable longing for an escaped hometown.

After Robinson’s move to New York City, the best characterization of the Midwest’s pull is when in “Robinson’s Parents Have Come to the City for a Visit” Robinson’s parents visit and “Bells in the tower of the church next door bellow the hour./The Our Father pops into his head unbidden; he’s not a pray-er.” The repercussions of his parents’ visit can be seen immediately after the visit in the following poem, “Robinson Sends a Letter to Someone.” Robinson takes a break from the city. We can see Robinson grappling with his desire to both be away from and return home in lines like, “Robinson/desires-& tires of-the semi-/constant public performance/required,” “Late of NYC, he’s really/from the late Great Plains, the great/American desert, the sea of grass/that has no real sea,” and, even in one of the final poems, “Out West,/in the hinterlands, no one/ever walks. But after work,/Robinson’s a one-man parade.”

Rooney did such a good job of capturing this unattainable sentiment that her Robinson immediately resonated with me, and it was not until writing this review that I knew why. This collection is perfect for anyone born of the Midwest, though I doubt coasters could fully understand the sentiments, having not grown up in the distinct salt-of-the-earth, bread basket culture that is hard to pin down and entirely unique to the American Midwest. Robinson’s story is both ordinary and vastly intriguing, one that everyone should discover.

 

Early Judgments

Clint Margrave’s The Early Death of Men will die on you early – if you’re expecting something filled with skulls.

Clint Margrave. The Early Death of Men. New York, NY. 2012. 96 pages. $14.95. ISBN 978-1-935520-60-3

Cover art is in interesting thing: we see it and it calls to us, pulling our sweaty palms to the spines of dusty books – or, it makes us violently avert our eyes and wish we’d never caught a glimpse of it. When I first saw the dark drawings of scapulae and vertebrae on Clint Margrave’s latest collection of poems, my sweaty hands were magnetized to its flesh. I believed I was about to bite into a piece of epic, morbid, and perhaps even gothic humanism. In, they are poems of the existential, poems of wisdom gained, of innate humor in dark situations. They are poems of philosophy, nostalgia, of recklessness. Not quite what I was expecting – but of course, I shan’t blame the author for not succeeding at something he wasn’t trying to do. Instead, I shall examine the part that actually matters the most about the book (i.e. not the cover) – the text. A poem’s title:

“The Role of Art”

Quite a noble topic to attempt to tackle in a poem, indeed. One that, after the Enlightenment period and the coming of self-awareness in Western society and thought, that became a topic of debate in many a French salon and thoughtful letter among the edified aristocracy. Surely though, since the topic is so heavily trodden, we should expect Margrave to provide an interesting twist, a new angle. Some lines:

“Like all who tell the truth,/ Art has few patrons,/is always offending somebody./Art is solitary,/rebellious/abstract./It is not communal./And when embraced too fully,/has a tendency/to crash things down.”

Alright. Here are some ideas on this grand topic, and yet I am left asking – where is the power behind these statements? They are constructed like those in a philosophical essay, and lack the spark that is required of a poem: the ability to revitalize what has been said by saying it in a way that can’t be said. The ability to make me, the reader (or listener) have shivers rocket down their spine with the knowledge that they have heard something carrying an undeniable truth. These statements saying things like “Art is an outcast/whose only role/is to protect its value” leave me not with a feeling that I have received a truth, but instead feeling discontent. If the function of this poem was to change or enlighten my perspective as to the role of art, it was not successful.

It can be said that the difference between a novel and a poem is that a novel opens the door to your home (with your good graces) and moves in with all of its stuff – furniture, un-nameable musical instruments, and psychological disorders – and camps out in your living room for a few months. A poem, on the other hand, opens your door without knocking, screams something profound in its haggard and tired voice, and slams the door closed again, perhaps knocking a few priceless artifacts off of your wall while doing so.

And thus, I have more difficulties as I encounter another of Margrave’s poems, Exposed:

“His last night at the hospital,/my dying father was in no condition/to change himself./The nurse and I slipped his pants down,/and for the first time,/I saw he wasn’t circumcised.”

Sure enough, this seemingly autobiographical story holds within it plenty of leads – the one that Margrave chooses is one wherein he speaks that the differences between the Voice and the Father goes beyond the internal, but to the external as well. It’s a perfectly plausible avenue, but one that is executed with such blundering imprecision that I found myself scratching my head after reading it, thinking to myself, “is that really it? Why is this a poem and not a personal essay?” Sure, plainly written, everyman-style poetry has a solid place in literature – Andrea Gibson, with her raw content that screams through a megaphone, even in the dark corners of a university library, is proof of that. But, that’s because she’s effective in extracting all of the emotion out of a thought without delving into contrived similes and cliché literary devices, so the sound of spoken language streamlines the emotion as it would in a tear-jerking argument. In Exposed, Margrave fails to make use of the tools and freedom the poetic form provides to elaborate upon his desired effect, or to compact enough emotion into its lines for me to rationalize its minimal length. I want the real story. I want the background. I want emotional history. I want to feel empathy for the Voice. As a reader, I feel denied of it.

The Early Death of Men is a collection of poetry caught in its fetal stages somewhere between non-fiction essays and everyman poetry, with as much precision as a jackhammer trying to perform neurosurgery. Ignore it, and instead scour and search for some literature that will truly shake, dismantle, and empower you.

 

 

Miss Missouri

In this piece by Becky Hirsch, a woman returns to her hometown after her child goes missing. Inspired by Lorrie Moore’s How.

Visual art by Sarah Abrams.

Inspired by Lorrie Moore’s “How”

Begin by answering the phone, reaching into the mailbox, visiting your mother. Maybe you hear it over the radio. Watch a late-night special. Read the back of the non-fat milk carton. Outside your building, your mother will apologize repeatedly. She will cry. She will have had her long grey hair cut short. A gesture.

Four years, one month and three weeks. You left your daughter, husband, and high school sweatshirt in a dusty village – village, really – in east Missouri. Your mother tells you that you will have to go back. She’s full of bright ideas these days. Feel abandoned, frozen, terrified, frantic, and the hottest little brushes of rage. When desperate or alone, walk to the grocery store. Stare at the backs of milk cartons. Blink at her name, age, height and wide eyes or, alternatively, hurl the stupid Missing Person ad to the ground. The night manager drops your arm when he figures out you’re the kidnapped girl’s mother, or he fizzles out of the room when the police officer fills him in. Either way, they tell you that you get to go free and you spit on the parking lot floor. Four years, one month, and three goddamn weeks, but you’ll never be free.

Make attempts at finding your ex-husband. Remember: you left him not the other way around. The operator will ask you for the city and state, please. Tell him bitingly, bitterly. Add: it’s a hellhole, a fucking waste, I mean home and all, but a pit. Devotion, deep-rooted and hot, laps at your insides. Explain the lack of options, lack of exhilaration. Plan not to hang up until the call goes through, but have a text message of the number sent to your phone just in case.

And yet from time to time you will stare into the bathtub or a random tube of lipstick and bask in the life you have cultivated. You will feel nips of contentment, exultation, joy. Four years, one month, three weeks, and this is your family now. Let’s say your father is a troll. Your ex-husband is a magical turnip. Your high school classmates are spirits of the netherworld. They all still live in that primordial tar pit together.

Her name means rival. Once she leaned over you while you were flat on the floor between sit ups and kissed your forehead like she understood the gesture. She is velvet Teddy bear bow ties and creamed corn and knit hats and fly-away balloons. Once upon a time a tiny fist pounds into the carpet and you dance over to her spot on the floor, into her bright little soap bubble, “Up Mama I wan go up.”

Lie. Tell your ex-husband you work in a museum, one filled with taxidermy animals. He wants to know about health risks. He wants to be sure that you’re, you know, all right. He breathes heavily into the receiver. Lie, repeatedly. Say you never have to work night shifts, that your darling grandmamma of a boss never makes you. Darkness. Glass cases. Chrome door panels. They all still scare you. He wants to see you. He wants you, ravenously. Do you still only fly United?

Don’t put on music. Don’t wear lingerie. Take off your clothes, shyly. It’s a craft. You will lie on the bathroom floor naked, watching, your fingers beseeching bare skin of his insecurity. Hair: fool away from his face. Buttons: charm out of their hidey-holes. Chuck his shirt in the corner behind the toilet. Roll him over on your old bathroom floor barely three hours after your night flight lands, just past dawn in Hell.

Go to the front porch. His neighbors. Everyone will look at you and then go back to what they were doing. His best friend’s wife will be jostling a toddler over her shoulder as she walks past. She will introduce herself as Tammy. Try not to laugh. She will want to know if Harold is home. She will ask you, “Are you house-sitting for him?” Faintly, distantly, she’ll remember the junior prom when you stuck celery sticks and Ranch dip down her dress, and look quickly away. You’ll smile. The toddler will spittle over the back of her pink and yellow blouse: gurgly, gaping mouth and hazy eyes push up into her neck. Feel sated, to the point of excess. “Is Harry home?” she’ll ask you again. Smile. Shrug. Swat the door shut behind you.

It intoxicates you. Self-satisfaction. A slurp of tequila. When you pass women your age on the street, giggle and stare them straight in the belly button, straight in their bulbous, lactating breasts.

One day – in a movie theater or a hardware store – see your father. He is either balding or sun burnt. He still has his special belt buckle from the car show at the fair and this will seem almost spiritual . Have sex with him once and lay spread thin on the floor of your childhood bedroom, since converted into his trophy room. Or: don’t have sex with him. Hide behind the shelves of all the different sized hammers and then run for your life.

In the kitchen that weekend feel loud and relentless. Sit on the counter and tell him he’s ugly. That you bet he doesn’t know shit about cars. That you’ve come back to find him freckled and spineless. He will give you a momentary view of his hunched back, vertebrae poking through his shirt almost like fingers stretching through a balloon. He will start to shake. Rub your hand up and down his arm. Run your fingers through his hair.

When you get out of the shower, damp and smooth-skinned, conquer his chest with hard, heaping bites. Trace your big toe against his ankle. His inner-knee. His uniform is slopped over the bedpost. He will push you so hard you stumble and smack onto the floor.  Say something like: What the fuck is wrong with you? Or maybe that’ll be his line. Go back into the bathroom. Tighten every cap.

This will be the tough part: her name repeats on the radio, at least on the station your ex-husband always plays; her name, age, height. On restaurant windows you see the posters. In line at the pharmacy you get furtive looks. They form a support group for you. They touch their own children’s heads. Bang the toe of your boot on the corner of the pew on accident. A cuss shoots through your lips like a little fish. He ducks his head and rubs the back of his neck, standing in front of the pastor sputtering search plans and statistics. Stare him down the next Sunday. Dare him to invite you to church.

Your ex-husband will have a sister named Susan. Or maybe an ex-girlfriend who wears socks with white lace around the rims, even though she’s like thirty or something. At visits she will touch her ponytail and repeat herself. She will tell anecdotes about your daughter’s childhood when he goes to get you two girls something to drink. And she’ll call him honey pie. He will agree with her: yes, the police should be much more involved; yes, there should be television advertisements too; no, no, they should never give up hope. She will take out her hair tie and shake a hand through her thick strands, glancing at you. He will invite her to stay for dinner and walk her to her car when she declines. He is the best honey pie in town.

Think about leaving. About standing in a damp-smelling elevator and being all drippy. Think about them: the endlessly illuminated street signs.

But it’s cold, New York, and it’s wet. And he tells you his mother cooks this unbelievable roast turkey, somehow you never got the chance, back before you left, to try it.

No, you wouldn’t leave before Christmas.

Escape into movies. When he calls and asks you what you’re doing, say “Keeping busy.” Let your eyes roll back to the screen. At around 6:40 start listening for his car and when he pulls up, switch off the TV. Head back into the bedroom. Leave the DVD in, though. If he checks, he’ll catch you doing nothing wrong at all.

He will seem to be drinking Vodka, tentatively, glancing quickly at you for approval.

At work he will spend company time in the exercise room.

He will ask you if you want to go to the fair.

He will ask you what the symbolism means.

Well?

Four years, one month, three weeks – more now. Tell him it’s complicated, what with your daughter and your job and your forwarded mail. You no longer know what you want from your life. When he brings his arms to you, open, tell him you don’t even know what you want. Don’t fucking cry. Get a little carried away. Plan to regret this moment, someday. Pace around the kitchen and tell him you are anxious, all the time afraid.

But this is your home, he will say, in a voice that rights wrongs and slays dragons, that dies off after the Middle Ages or maybe exists eternally in the bottom drawer of the pantry where you keep plastic bags for unforeseen situations that might require plastic bags, a voice that shoves the door open with its head, knocks back its visor and wails, knocks you out of mental tangent, wailing: How long has it not been enough, why didn’t you tell me it wasn’t enough?

You will forget the last time you went barhopping in Hell, but pretend you do. Reminisce until your pupils shrivel up. Choke up. Say: I’m going out. And when your ex-husband catches you at the front door, add: Just out. His limp smile will palpitate like an upset stomach and you will hate him. Don’t bother to shut the door. It’s the Pig’s Squeal and it’s just how you pretend you remembered: smoky and wooden and dim like a copper penny. A bulky jukebox and a half-empty jar of straws. A man in a red tie will catch your attention and then drop it. Someone on your right will start mewling the lyrics. Swivel on your barstool until she’s finished. Spit heartily in her drink when she goes to the dance floor. Spit and liquor swirling in foamy white loops. Swirling, honey pie, like piss down the drain.

Next there are eyewitness reports. Sightings: Barton, Benton. He will pound his fist onto the kitchen countertop, phone pressed wet to his face. A gust of hot wind blows into your eyes and your nose spasms.

This is no time for miracles.

There will be police interviews, statements and co-signatures. There will be nothing for you to do. He has already posted signs everywhere conceivable: on desktops, over freeways, over other signs. Someone will call from the police station: relatives’ names, phone numbers, addresses needed. Ask where his parents live nowadays and he’ll just go grinning from ear to ear. Smile back. He will laugh at something, hours later, completely unrelated. But wheezing. Rioting. Roaring at the television screen in the next room. Bolt in and ask him what’s wrong. Roll together on the floor in front of the TV stand. Afterward, there is nothing else to be done. Afterward, he will dangle half off the rug, completely used.

Continue to pace. Despite fake New Jersey accent, feel unamused by his antics. Look at your wrinkly knuckles. If ever you would leave him. Glance at your cell phone. It wouldn’t be in spring.

There is never any news, just a telephone rocking endlessly in its cradle.

Once a week you will bring up her name in casual conversation, in public. Manage expectations. Tell the old ladies huddled around you that the police have made no promises. “We do what we can,” you tell them, never looking away from the tight, anxious circle, never quite meeting his eyes.

The thought will occur to you that you are waiting for her permission to flee.

You will pass your father on the street, or maybe back at the hardware store. Begin by calling him “Pa”. Begin by asking what he’s been up to lately and walking him back to his house. Meet his wife. She will talk in a thick, European accent. She will respect only the working man, eat very little, eat only on divinely immaculate plates. End it the second time he shouts at you to get the hell out.

There is never any news, just a telephone wailing endlessly for its mother.

Fantasize about a dead body. It is a study in exhaustion, an examination of the end of the rope. You would be comforted by his bony sister and his sobbing ex-girlfriend. The three of you in the depths of the morgue would hurl yourselves at the steel table, then surge backwards. You, especially, would kick your feet, stumble and howl, bare your wrists. Your mother would be proud

After dinners with your father: slink home. Your breasts will ache, your knees will lock. Neighbors will be rocking on their front porches, staring over you as you cringe past. You recall. Remember: nine years ago, a night like any other night in January, your mother already three hundred miles away in a scrubbed clean Chevy, your father stalking through the deserted streets, you following after like a famine. Damn it, he bellowed, god damn it, Lorraine! Lights snapped on in houses, then blinked out with swift apologizes. The two of you were the spooks haunting the streets that night. Lorraine. Mama. Lorraine. It ran cracks through the midnight stillness. Lorraine.

If you could only love one woman in your life you would choose your mother. If you were being introspective, you’d say it’s because she was gone after you were six years old, but you’re not like that. You are a runner and a bailer and a grudge-holder and a tongue-holder. You ignore him studiously, lying next to you in bed calling you baby. Calling to you. “Baby, we have to figure this out. I can’t lose you again. Baby?” You spend the nights under his heavy, stuffed quilt playing out fantasies, that your mother spent five years in Africa before settling in Queens. She called you one morning: Heard you got out too. How’d it go?

Recently she’s gone on these little pink pills that make her consider her shrink her best friend and watch movies only to pre-curse a tearful rehash of her childhood, but god dammit, if she’s not going to act like your mother than you will.

Roll over to face him, but don’t move an inch closer. Don’t tell him any of this, anything. Instead: promises. Promises out the wazoo.

Slink. It won’t matter. Your ex-husband will be pacing the living room looking fearsome. He will slap you, bite you, taste you. Kiss him, soothe him. Make love to him without batting an eyelash. Splash water on your face in the bathroom at four in the morning. Nothing will matter.

Make him breakfast. Your ex-husband will ask quietly about your work. Lie. Tell him you build model boats for tourists. Smoothed, streamlined little things. He will ask about selling, marketing rights, inflation. Lie, always. Tell him, no, oh no, you aren’t involved in any of that. You have a friend in Seattle who takes care of it. You just build them, beautiful little boats. He will not eat your French toast. He will stir it on his plate with the butt end of his fork, and then hurl it against the wall.

At night you will be anxious for the weather to warm. You will pace the front porch like you are waiting for a package, for justice, for sunrise. He will not wait up for you.

When you go out, leave him a list of groceries that need purchasing, dry cleaning that requires his attention. Wait outside. Lie beside the porch and watch the clear sky darken. You could lie there until the end of time. When he lumbers to his car, count to sixty before getting up. Go back inside. Go to stand in front of the wide kitchen windows. Stand stalk still. Watch cars and bicyclists zip past. Lie, when he comes home again. Tell him you wanted to go visit your father for once, just to see how he’d been. No one was home.

There is never any news, just the phone sucking absently on its toe.

This is how you go.

Flossing and primping in the early morning, with the bathroom door open, staring at his shape on the bed in the bedroom.

Peanuts and a 7-Up. Leaning your seat back almost into someone else’s lap.

You will never see him again. Or maybe you will, whatever. But her you’ll see daily. Her picture you put on your refrigerator, above your mantle, clamped in a locket. It becomes a conversation piece. When men come over, they ask questions. You tell them you named her Agatha, after your grandmother, after your best friend in college.

The phone will roll and roll in its cradle.

Four years, one month, three weeks, and so much more. They found her bones buried three miles outside of town. Call your mother back. The sun rises outside your window, out on the curb. The fog rolls in, but it dissipates. One of those mornings.