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.

 

Time for the Grind: Parallax Interviews Poet Katherine Factor

It’s National Poetry Month! Parallax editor Jordan Sternberg interviewed IAA’s Poet-in-Residence, Katherine Factor, on writing and editing.

Here Parallax editor Jordan Sternberg interviews IAA’s Poet-in-Residence, Katherine Factor, on writing and editing.

Was there a defining moment in your life when you knew that you wanted to be a poet? If so, what was it?

No, there was no moment because the desire is steadfast, it is an endeavor one is always alive in — just that and what happens when you relentlessly press upon surface. So, the moment didn’t end, you know? But the mentors came in. I had this eccentric, polyester turtleneck wearing, abrasive as if-she-smoked-cigars sixth grade teacher, Jo Ann O’Hern. She not only turned me on to poetry, she demonstrated what championing work at a young age meant! Jo is forever lodged in my memory as she-who-showed-me language is moldable; My later retinue of mentors proved one could turn language into matter, and by proper craft we could churn it into something that truly matters.

Other early influences involve my hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, a town of yesteryear whose trains taught me that thought phrases could be dominated by sound; The poetic line is loud, is rollicking, is breaking landscapes. By grinding friction did those trochaic spondees chug, instilling rhythm in me. Also, being the birthplace of the Carl Sandburg — I inherited the sense that poetry could voice a people.

Early on I was also exposed to a lot of jazz and classical music, pinning in my ear a penchant for compositions that simultaneously sweep and experiment. However, whatever imprints abounded only make it more frustrating that “poet” comes from constant application of that noisy and annoying grindstone.

As a poet, what made you want to start working on the editing side of writing?

A poet is always editing, for poetry happens in a compression chamber. Consistently we edit as we run crazy errands for the economy of language. But the trick is, to turn the self-editor off while turning the composer on — making every note count! To grind is to bear down on letters until they become defined, bringing a lens into focus. The gears must be constantly churning, for the muse flashes so infrequently — better hope she’s greased and that you are poised with precision.

When I founded Wild Idylls Press in 2010, it was clear that student work at Idyllwild Arts was stupendous and deserved to be collected and published, which is an act of dispersal and an act of preservation. With the generous help of Arts Enterprise Laboratory (AEL) grants, we’ve paired with professional poets for mentoring. Students receive feedback on drafts, polishing and doing pre-production with me. Our first project was quite an event! Austin “Boston” (’11) kept crafting his tutorial novella with me — a surreal hero’s journey called The Breakfast. We put it into print and Austin’s reading paired with paintings by visual arts major Delaney Clark. Scenes from the stories formed a backdrop, breakfast was served, balloons were blown up, and Austin brought us on a journey indeed!

Our other chapbooks show the great diversity of style and experiment that poetry offers a young writer, as evident even by the book titles: Taylor Johnson’s (’11) breaking sunsets and Whitney Aviles-Low The Child’s Shadow were mentored long distance with poet Cathy Wagner. Jazz major Kat Dieter, (’12) took photographs to pair with her poems to produce Tidal Acceleration mentored by guest Kazim Ali, hand-binding her books with the help of faculty Erin Latimer (’02). 2012 saw incredible diversity with the publications of Kalinah White’s Guarded Memories about Africa and Peruvian Maria Alvarado’s book WRECKED. And I’m excited to have just published Erin Breen’s chapbook, Misconceptions! Erin collaborated with senior visual arts majors Kendall Ozmun and Delaney Clark, who took turns illustrating the fantastic, fun, and formally risky poems in the collection.

interr|upture,  the online journal I edit with Curtis Perdue, I wanted to be involved with because I believe in what we are publishing — poets like Emily Kendal Frey, Wendy Xu, and Justin Marks, with artists like Dana Olfdeather and Fernando Chamarelli. And I edit because I so enjoy what our peers are doing – journals like diode, jellyfish, sixth finch, H_NGM_N, iO, the Volta, and Drunken Boat — those making best use of the internet canvas. Editing is a prime way of contributing to the vibrant and viral  community that poetry fosters.

Tell us more about inter|rupture.

I met inter|rupture editor Curtis Perdue at Squaw Valley Poetry the summer before the magazine launched. He published two poems of mine in the first issue, poems I thought obstinate to most, but in publishing them, Curtis bestowed permission. Permission through publication is a type of mentoring. That is a hope and motion I desire to give other writers.

Turns out, Curtis could brave a gem of of journal, and we are different readers reaching for the same swell. Also, Anna Pollack is an incredible designer. She even found us this issue’s artist, Denton Crawford. So ill! His work is exactly what I’d expect a poem of mine to look like, gateway reflexing and all.

Additionally, I love the name inter|rupture! It feels like a place I inhabit, with the liminal easily seen and demarcated.

What kind of things do you publish?

Things? What is that? Do you mean, What do you look for in submissions? Well, I decidedly want the poem to pulverize me, grind on my notions with surprise! So please pop off immediately so I can furrow in and hence follow an image that drools and spools. One way to do this? Watch what articles are compression points, joints, hinges, what ones are unnecessary…what verbs are stagnant. Don’t try but taunt syntactical manipulation…sense why are you saying this…know how to fencepost…and so on.

Has your writing evolved over time or do you think you’ve always been consistent?

Yes, consistent in practice and purpose, following a Romantic urge, which is being in the mystery, the uncertainty. But the writing and collecting of language has evolved immensely. Idyllwild has given me the time to exist in a continuous grind, always tempting the augur and wishing an augury. For that I am grateful!

Outside of inter|rupture and Idyllwild Arts, how do you spend your free time?

I spend in practice, deeply immersed in process, the joys of which are heavily influenced by audio. 6,792 days might go by but I am just grinding away: typing keys and chafing the pulleys of my imagination. Currently, I am keeping  calendars, which is a regulatory act, and culling content that deserves to be freed. This can entail any variety of activities: delicately cutting & scanning images; compiling notebooks out of articles that provide a backside for printing fragments; researching, ripping pages & dogearing books t0 better translate their data into a new text; but often I am just absorbing.

On your twitter page, you post a lot about music. Is there any reason or are you just fascinated with music industry facts?

Oh, you want to know? Well, follow me @katfactor to find out!

What Did One Beating Heart Say to the Other Beating Heart? Questions & Answers with Nate Pritts.

Nate Pritts sits down with Ana Garcia and Becky Hirsch to discuss H_NGM_N, his literary journal created to give the beating heart of poems a place to speak.

Ana Garcia: What inspired you to make your own journal?

Nate Pritts: Part of why I started my own journal was that I was submitting my own poetry to lots of other journals and getting rejected a lot when I was younger. And it started to bother me – not so much that I was getting rejected but that a lot of my friends were getting rejected from some of the same journals, and I knew my friends were writing really good poems. I would read the journals we were getting rejected from, and I didn’t always particularly like the poems that were in there. So, it occurred to me that, if these journals aren’t letting us in, I should just start my own and publish my friends in my journal to provide a location for our type of writing. It helped to get the word out and helped to create a community, but it also helped us to feel better about ourselves. I’ve never published my own writing in my journal, but, through publishing other people whose writing I knew or who were actually friends of mine, I was able to learn about other journals like mine and find a better place to fit in with my own writing. I started my own journal mostly because I was dissatisfied with the other options.

Becky Hirsch: When you were a teenager, you created your own magazines as a personal project. Did that directly develop into H_NGM_N?

NP: It directly developed into H_NGM_N only because it always made sense to me to do things myself. If I wanted to read a magazine that was all about the different street signs in my neighborhood, I’d just make it. It always made sense to create these things for myself, and I guess I learned a lot along the way. I learned things like how to staple properly, things that seem really easy when you look at them, but, then, when it’s actually time to do them there are so many different ways you can mess up. I had been thinking about and learning about those practical things from a very young age, and eventually it came time to do one that was a little bit more serious – I mean, H_NGM_N to me seems like my very first actual attempt to create something that lasted. Most of the time when I would do these things as a teenager it was meant to be just a one shot thing. I would make fifty copies and I would give it to my friends and that was it. I never expected to do a second issue, but H_NGM_N was more serious from the beginning. All of that experience with less serious magazines played into the development of H_NGM_N and made it what it is.

AG: What’s the most challenging part of creating your journal?

NP: There really aren’t any challenging parts. It’s so much fun. I love everything I do, and it’s such a gift to be able to do it. So the typical answers to this question have to do with “I don’t have enough time” or “I can’t find all the work I want to publish” or “I don’t have enough money,” but those are just fun hurdles to me. I don’t think of them as challenges. That sounds almost negative. To me, the whole thing is super fun. It’s exciting to spend an afternoon searching online for poems I’d like to publish or, on a Sunday afternoon, to work out the budget for our next book and realize that we don’t have enough money. I guess technically they’re challenges, but they don’t slow me down. They don’t bother me. I’m happy for them because if things were too easy maybe I wouldn’t enjoy it as much.

BH: It seems like you have a very natural entrepreneurial, but have you ever had to have one of those nine-to-five jobs and work for someone else?

NP: I worked in advertising for a while. I was a copywriter and an interactive developer for an ad agency, which meant mostly that I was in charge of writing and overseeing the design and implementation of websites. I also did video work shooting commercials and audio work doing radio spots for people. I think working in advertising gave me a different perspective on some of these issues. Part of it is also that I’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time. I was young when I started thinking about how to make magazines. I printed a magazine when I was fifteen, brought it to school and gave it all my friends. When I first published H_NGM_N it was the same way. I printed it, I went to a major conference where a lot of writers were, and I handed them out for free. I created a website and tried to find ways to draw people to it. Part of it maybe comes from having worked in more business-like fields but part of it might just come from the fact that I don’t approach this side of writing as a challenge: trying to figure out how to find more people who will read it, want it, get excited about it. That entrepreneurial spirit I guess is a natural part of who I am. I think it’s the same thing that any writer needs to do. You can’t just sit back and think that someone else is going to publish your poems. Maybe they will but what if they don’t? Do you just sit around and wait until somebody tells you that they’re good enough and publishes them or do you start a journal, start a press, meet people, go out there, and, in essence, sell yourself? You need to find a way to make it sustainable for your art. I don’t mean that you sacrifice your art in favor of selling yourself, but you do need to find a way to make those things balance.

BH: A positive aspect of the spread of online journals is that it has made it easier for people to do just that: start up their own literary journals.

NP: For sure. When I started H_NGM_N, it was done on a ditto machine. It wasn’t even black and white. It was purple and white because ditto ink is purple. The first few issues were short, maybe twenty or thirty pages, which I could totally hand-crank myself at night, but then I wanted to publish longer works of fiction; I wanted to publish more poems, and I wanted to publish visual art. The move online came about because I needed a cheap way to still be able to show full color paintings and sixteen page stories. One pro of online journals for me and one of the reasons I moved H_NGM_N, which was initially a print journal, online was not only because of ease of access but because of the prohibitive costs of print journals.

BH: In your own work, what is the meaning behind the parenthetical titles of some of your poems?

NP: The poems with parenthetical titles that appear in Sweet Nothing, my new book, are taken from a series of letters. Part of the reason why those titles are parenthetical is because those pieces aren’t poems; those are actually letters. In the actual story of my life, those are letters that I wrote to a very particular person. And so, when I decided that I wanted to take those experiences and try to write poems with them, I struggled with what to leave in, what to take out, how much to shape my actual experience and how much to leave raw and real, like with a capital R. I won’t go into that process because it was mind-numbing and heart-wrenching at the same time, but I eventually got to the point where I had created these poems but they still didn’t seem like poems to me in a way that I could put an unadorned title on. So the reason they’re parenthetical is because I’m more giving you a stage direction or a sense of what it is you’re about to read or a summary maybe. They’re not really titles because I feel like you can’t really put a title on an actual authentic experience because it’s life. Part of why I did it and what I hope someone gets out of it is that questions sense: is this really a letter or is this a poem? If you’re asking a question then I’ve done my job already. It doesn’t matter what questions you’re asking, just the fact that you look at it and say, “Oh, this isn’t just a normal poem. What’s going on here? Why did he do this?” That’s enough.

BH: So they’re excerpts from your original letters that have been edited?

NP: They’ve been edited only slightly to remove the names of the guilty parties. It’s just part of the process of taking something real and turning it into poetry. You write letters all the time or an email or whatever and I guarantee you’ve written an email or a text message at some point and thought to yourself, “Hey, that’s pretty good.” But you don’t always use it exactly the way it was or maybe sometimes you paste it into something else. That’s kind of what I did with these. The letters that I initially wrote were longer in most cases than what gets published in the book, so they’re edited partly for length, but they’re edited also where I realized I was repeating myself or that there wasn’t enough arc and growth and change and in the letters as poems, I think there is an arc which is the reason they’re spaced throughout the book. There’s definitely a beginning to them and there’s definitely an ending, which wasn’t there in real life because most of the time in real life things don’t have that kind of satisfying arc.

AG: With H_NGM_N you’ve said that you’ve been successful in providing a home for a particular style of poetry. How would you define that style?

NP: I feel like we’re a home for lost and wayward poets. People who can’t or would prefer not to find their way in the world anywhere else. The poems that we publish in H_NGM_N tend to embrace a sense of process, that the poem itself is a field for working out problems and issues. It’s not a place for presenting something nice and neat that’s already been captured. I’ve said before as a kind of mission statement that the poems in H_NGM_N are indicative of what one beating heart would say to another beating heart. I feel like that sums up pretty well what I try to accomplish in my own writing and what I respond to most in other people’s writing: stuff that is live and real and emotional and visceral and that talks about things in a way that is human and realistic as opposed to things that are exaggerated and things that are vague. I want it to be like an actual conversation.

AG: Sometimes I feel like a poet should try to write a poem with less of a purpose and more of a motivation.

NP: Yeah, sometimes you sit down with the paper or the screen in front of you with a bunch of stuff in your head that you want to work out. You have a reason why you’re doing it, like something happened or you had a thought that caused you to sit down and write. But you shouldn’t say, “Oh, I know exactly what the last line is going to be.” You just start writing, because the poem itself is the process of figuring that kind of thing out. It’s literally thinking on the page. And I think when you come to the page, the more you have with you the more trouble you’ll have. It’s like the scene in Empire Strikes Back when Luke goes into the cave and Yoda says essentially, “Don’t take your blaster in there. You don’t need it.” Luke brings it and it screws everything up. It causes problems. But if he went in there pure and simple and authentic he would have had a much different experience.

BH: What inspired the series of poems that start with the first line, “All my poems…”?

NP: Those poems are from my collection Big Bright Sun and those poems came to me partly because I had recognized certain strategies and techniques that I relied on over and over again. At a certain point, I would start to build up lots of emotional happenings and thoughts and then I would deflect, and suddenly I’d start talking about birds and trees. I wanted these poems to be this experience, this real process, and I was relying on things too much. So I started writing this poems kind of to make fun of myself, because all my poems do this, and all my poems talk about this.  It was a way to exercise some of the stuff I was dealing with in. There are always things we like in our writing and we go back to those things over and over again, so it was reacting against that.

AG: In your opinion, what makes H_NGM_N different from other journals?

NP: I think part of what makes us different is me. No other online journal has me as an editor. Probably many editors are always trying to make sure that people read the content on the website and I’m the same way. I work hard as a writer to get my name on the journal, and as a writer it’s the same thing. I don’t know if that makes me different from other editors and other journals, but it’s the way I’ve always worked with H_NGM_N.

H_NGM_N has been around for more than ten years and I feel very confident that will be around for another ten years, which is I think one thing that a lot of journal’s editors can’t say because either their life will change and they’ll have to cancel the journal, or they’ll get sick of it and maybe they just don’t want to go on that long. We don’t give up.

 

BH: How did you start to select the authors you were going to publish when H_NGM_N first came out? How has that changed over time to keep it open for people you don’t know?

NP: We always have and always will take submissions from anybody. In the beginning nobody did submit though, because nobody knew about it, so I’d solicit friends or other writers’ whose work I admired to see if they wanted to send me stuff.

After a while, I started to get more submissions in and I never gave a lot of thought to balance it: I would just get some poems from this person, and then we got some poems over the submission line that I accepted. I never thought about making sure it was equal, but it did become apparent to me that the journal was too closely mirroring my own personal tastes and it wasn’t challenging me, it wasn’t giving me stuff outside of my own normal purview.

I worked with a few other people; I brought in some assistant editors whose main goal really was to help me solicit more widely. So the assistant editors on H_NGM_N, people who help me read the submissions are people whose aesthetics, in terms of writing, mostly don’t match up with mine.  I like what they do, but they are very different from me. And I’ve done that on purpose because I want to make sure that the submissions we draw in, and the way we respond to submissions is admitting a broader aesthetic field.

We get thousands of submissions every year and I feel like it is important to read all of those submissions. All the assistant editors read them, and I read them myself too, and I make decisions based on that.  I still don’t have a ratio in mind, of how many online submissions versus how many solicited things, but I do know that I would probably rather take blind submissions than solicited material. There are poets whose work I love, I’ll always write them and say ‘Hey, I’d love to see new stuff for the new issue,’ but in general I like to fill it out with stuff I’ve never seen before, because that’s kind of exciting. 

BH: And you’ve never published your own work in your journal?

NP: No, not my own poetry. I’ve written reviews about books of poetry, and I’ve published those. I thought the books were good and I’d just write a review and put it in the journal, but I wouldn’t publish my own poems in the journal. I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem like a thing that I ever really wanted to do. I’ve read a lot of poems, and I guess that in part what I want for a poem when I write is for it to find an editor that cares about it, who then presents it to an audience that’s their own.  It’d almost be as if double-dipping, if I was like: ‘I’m an editor who cares about that guy’s poems,’ but that guy is also me. So I wouldn’t do it in my journal, I would however publish a book of my own. And I would do that only because that would give me a control over the entire process.

For the book, “Sweet Nothing”, the publishing company let me work with an artist to develop the cover; they even let me choose the size of the cover of the book. I wanted it to be a certain size.  Not every press would let you do that–I was really lucky. In fact every press I have worked with has been very open.

 

AG: In the editing part, is there anything in particular that you get tired of?

 

NP: That’s a good question. It used to be that we got a lot of poems that were very experimental.  I think initially H_NGM_N got tabbed by some people as a journal for experimental poems and that meant we would get a lot of poems that didn’t have that sort of emblematic quality that I was talking about, of being one beating heart talking to another beating heart. They were poems that were more interested in sound than in meaning, more interested in space rather than shape, and I feel that they were misunderstanding what my aesthetic was for the journal. That doesn’t happen lately– we’ve been around long enough, and we’ve established our presence deeply enough that most of the thousands submissions I get are good poems. I feel like people are doing a good job of understanding what kinds of poems I publish and submitting to me if they think they fit in.

 

BH: How much interplay and influence is there between H_NGM_N and other journals, like Inter|rupture?

 

NP: There is quite a bit of interplay between other journals that I could name. Inter|rupture is one of them, Curtis –the editor- and I have been friends for a while and he’s a sweet guy who runs a great journal.  We talk a lot about issues that we’re facing. Another journal, called Forklift Ohio, is run by two really good friends of mine: a guy named Matt Hart who is my favorite poet and my best friend for a long time, and then Eric Appleby who puts the journal together physically, and he is a great guy. We are all sort of a missing page creatively in terms of the project that we are doing.

Forklift, similar to H_NGM_N and probably similar to Inter|rupture, are not necessarily just publishing concerns, they are also trying to front more of an idea about how poetry can, or should or could work. We do not have secret meetings, but there definitely are journals that have similar aesthetics and the editors mostly know each other, and definitely hang out and talk. There are other journals that I feel very close to in lots of ways, but I think that’s important because otherwise I can feel really lonely. Even if I can look at H_NGM_N, I can tell like: “Oh, we got two-thousand hits this weekend, that’s awesome,” it is still me sitting in my office by myself, clicking on my MacBook. So there are a lot of editors out there that I can relate to and connect with.

On the H_NGM_N website, we uesd to have a links page with links to different journals that we liked, but then it got to be weird. So suddenly if I put a link up there to someone’s journal, it was as if I was implicitly saying that I agree with them, or that I side with them, or I’d put everybody up, but you are always going to forget somebody. So I got rid of the links page. We do have now a partner’s page, and if you click on that there are logos and links to presses that yes, we share aesthetic considerations with, but they’ve also done something for us or we’ve done something for them. So, it’s more than saying that these are journals I like, but also journals that I have actually done things with, so the partner’s page gives a good sense of how the word spreads out.

 

 

AG: So you do consider other journals as part of a community rather than competitors?

 

NP: I never think about it as competitors, I think we are all kind of doing the same thing. It’s true that there are times when I feel competitive, like I’ll see something that Curtis does in Inter|rupture and I’d wish I had published that person first. I can get really excited about those kinds of things, but I never wish that a certain journal would fold and go away and never publish again, because it’s great to have all these journals out there, doing good things and helping to spread the good word of creative writing in general, and poetry in particular, but there’s definitely a sense of trying to top yourself.

The new issue that Curtis just put up has great design and they occasionally publish art and it looks awesome–it’s great stuff in addition to poetry.  It pushes me to want to do better, to make H_NGM_N more, just more.  It’s a good thing, because it helps us to move forward instead of stagnating.

 

BH: Do you have a scariest moment in writing?

 

NP: Scariest moment in writing? No, actually having Sweet Nothing come out was a scary moment for me because, if you read parts of Big Bright Sun it is a little bit more performative. I was trying on purpose to be funny in some poems, I was trying to be more energetic than in other poems, but mostly I was acting, I was making stuff up. Some of the things in Big Bright Sun are real, but for the most part they were literary unaesthetic challenges I was setting myself and trying to beat. However, Sweet Nothing is mostly autobiography, it’s my life. These are failings and problems and difficulties that I experienced, so I wouldn’t say it was my scariest moment but that it was the moment when I felt vulnerable.

 

 

BH: Do you have any favorite books?

 

NP: Yes, I do, but there’s too many to name, I read so much. There are probably fifty to a hundred books of poetry that I return to over and over again that I really love. There are writers who I love a lot too, but I hate listing things because I’ll always forget somebody that I should have remembered. One thing I must mention, is that you have to read.  As a writer you should be reading all the time because it’s like research. Even though I have favorite books, I don’t always read those favorite books; I read everything I can get my hands on and that helps me to grow and learn as a writer, as a thinker and as a reader.

So rather than listing favorite books, I’ll just say to read every book.

 

 

AG: When you read other people’s work, do you feel inspired by them for your own writing?

 

NP: Sometimes I do. It is part of the difficulty of being an editor: sometimes I read poems and I can see some things that are wrong, or the things that I would have done differently and I’m not really able to throw myself into the world of that poem because I’m too busy being critical. However there are poems that when I read them I get so excited and so fired up that I have to write something too. Maybe it is because of what they wrote about, or it is because of the way they’ve written. Something will click though, and there’s just some quality to that work that I love the most where I get so inspired and excited that I have to run off and write something of my own.

Combining Text and Sound with Laura Wetherington

Laura discusses the experimental art of text and sound from her online journal, Textsound.

JS: When and how did you begin to write poetry?

LW: In the fifth grade for a project, the class made a little book with poems in it. That was probably the first poem that I wrote. As for feeling like a poet and a person in the world, that’s an ongoing process. I went to school as an undergraduate and studied English in a place that didn’t have creative writing as a major, and then decided that maybe I could call myself a poet. I applied to graduate school thinking “maybe I could do this,” and then I graduated from poetry school thinking “maybe I could do this,” and then I published a book and I’m still thinking… “maybe I could do this.”

SM: Tell us a little bit about your online journal and what kind of things you guys publish.

LW: Textsound started in 2007. There were four of us: Anna Vitale, Anya Cobler, Adam Fagin, and myself. We knew we wanted to make something with sound, and we knew we wanted to make something that built community. We wanted to make something that would reach out and connect people through the internet because we thought, “What better way to use the internet than to connect poets and artists, right?” We met for six months and thought about what would be the format of the magazine, what we would call it, what color would the website be, etc. Somebody built the actual website for us and we launched in 2008. We publish some poetry that is read aloud without any background, but mostly we publish things that are edited, or sound based. It’s not just me reading a poem or a guy with a guitar, but someone reading a poem and a weird guitar in the background. We like disjunctive sounds. We like to be surprised. We like conceptual kinds of works — things that you don’t really understand until you go to the contributor’s page in the website and read the artist’s notes where they describe what it’s about. There’s this guy that has a piece called Swarm of Sun Valley where he overlaid a song that sold a million copies over and over and over again like a million times, and the sound is like a very loud buzz. That’s all the thing is, but when you read the background on the contributors page — what he’s doing, what he’s thinking about — it makes the sound a completely different thing. So we like that kind of stuff- things that make you think.

SM: Where do you draw the line between poetry and noise or music, sound poetry, etc.

LW: I don’t draw the line. That’s what I like about the magazine. I feel like it crosses. It’s at an intersection– like a twelve way intersection. A lot of people send us work and they don’t necessarily send us a bio, so we’re listening to something and we’re not sure, “Is this an artist who has sent us this piece of art, is it a poet who sent us their poem, or a musician who sent us his music?” Because you tune your ear a little bit different depending on what the thing is, what its being called, and where its coming from — the field out of which it arises. We listen to a lot of things cold and have to take it at its auditory value. So I’m not thinking about categorizing things. I’m trying to break out of that mode.

JS: Do you have a selection process and what would that be?

LW: The selection process has evolved over time because we started out with four editors, and when there were four of us we would listen separately and then come together and have a discussion. It took a while for us to figure out how to say yes to a piece because we’re not always gonna agree, and we had to have a way that somebody could say “It’s life or death that this goes in,” or “life or death that this stays out.” We had to have some kind of extreme “yes” and “no,” and then there was a kind of “maybe” thing going on in the middle. And there were moments where we would all kind of say “Well, I’m fine with it,” and then we realized “Well that’s not good enough,” so we had to have at least some extreme in one direction or the other. Sometimes it would be that extreme where one person would be like “Life or death, yeah!” and the other person would be like “Life or death, no!” and we would have these amazing discussions. I feel like it really shaped my understanding of poetry — listening to these things that were maybe art or music and having someone say life and death things about the piece. It was a really challenging process. We moved from four people into three, and then from three into two, and when there were less people in a discussion it got a little bit easier because then its just one “life and death.” It became more a matter of me or my co-editor saying “I believe in this so much,” and then the other person would say, “Well then of course we’re gonna put it in, and now let’s have a conversation about why, what’s going on and what we think is happening.” It became less of a struggle and more of a fun conversation, and now for the last couple of months my-co editor has moved on, so I’m in a transitional phase where I’m moving into editing the thing completely by myself, which I’ve never done before. I took it over for a year and put out the issues, but I still had in mind that the other people were gonna come back, and the aesthetic needed to stay in that realm of that thing that we had made. Now I’m thinking about how I can make it mine, because now it can be mine, which also is scary because I liked the idea that there would be things in the journal that I didn’t love — that I thought were important, but I didn’t love — and now I think if everything in there is gonna be the what I love, is that gonna be boring?

JS: So you’ve had it by yourself now, and the site says that you’re expanding in visual art and moving pictures. So what kind of submissions in those disciplines are you looking for?

LW: About a year or two we started to think that what we were gonna edit the webpage so that it would have the archive of the old Textsound and maybe would turn into Text-Image-Sound in another portal. We would be expanding it, and I was very excited about visual poetry and for art working with sound. I spent a while putting together a proposal for that new portal and tried to get a little bit of funding and I think I just don’t have, as a single person, enough time to pursue that and publish the magazine at the same time. I just haven’t gone and updated the fact that we’re not doing that anymore.

SM: What do you think are the parallels between poetry that uses words and poetry that just uses sound?

LW: I think that poems happen on a continuum with absolute meaning being one end of the continuum, and absolute dissolution of meaning being the other end of the continuum. Those sound poems that are only sound, that are phonemes, that are phonetic like — A BIT DOE BADALOW BOWBA — that kind of thing is at the absolute dissolution of meaning. Very often, playing with words at the level of phonemes reflects what poetry is about and what poetry is for. When you’re talking about layers of a poem you’re thinking about playing at the level of language and making multiple meanings. You have a metaphor and it stands for this thing, but it also stands for this other thing, and theres a kind of cloud that happens around those two things it’s standing for — like a kind of ambiguity that’s happening at the level of metaphor. I think that the sound poem is one extreme of that one part of the poem that’s making a metaphor so I think thats how they… talk to each other.

JS: So going along with the idea of text sound do you think there is an element of poetry that’s lost when its simply printed and not read out loud?

LW: Its hard to say that about all poetry. I think that there are some poems that are better aloud. I think about June Jordan, and how I’m just weeping when I hear recordings of her poetry. She does this thing to my heart and my soul. It’s like an arrow; it goes right into you. When I read her stuff on the page it’s not always as provocative, or it doesn’t always elicit the same level of emotion from me. In that respect I would say there are some people who, when they present the poem, you can tell that there is something living inside of them. When they give it to you in person you’re like “WHAT?!” but when you see it on the page you think, “Oh yeah… Yeah, thats good”. I feel like its difficult to think about how to place things on the page in a way that will transfer what you’re hearing in your mind as the writer to the reader’s mind. If you write a poem and you have it in your mind and you know what it’s supposed to sound like, you wrote it so you know what its supposed to look like. You hand it over to me, you ask me to read it, and I might read it aloud and you think, “Well that’s not how it’s supposed to sound.” When you hear a thing in your mind, how do you make the line breaks in a way that transfers all of the sound over to the other person? I think in that way the page and the sound are at odds with each other. In a way I think you’re asking about translation. How does sound translate to the page or how does the page translate to sound, and of course any time you’re translating, things are gonna be lost. You can’t move the word for “cat” into another language without some part, either culturally or soundwise, being lost. Absolutely, there’s something lost.

SM: I was reading the masthead in the journal and I read a quote from you that said that you find comfort in discomfort. What is it in discomfort that comforts you and how do you think that communicates effectively?

LW: I’ll tell a story about a friend of mine who was disabled. She had a disability and physically lived in a wheelchair. She really liked watching slasher movies. When I asked her, “Why? They’re so traumatic?!” she said “Well there’s something comforting about it, because my life has been so hard.” She had a hard upbringing and lots of people making fun of her and being rude to her and staring at her when she’s going around in the world. She said, “I feel, in the face of all of that stuff… somehow normal.” I think that there’s something about that in Textsound. Like the parts in Textsound that seem really discordant or jagged parts of sound- there’s something about my initial response to that which is to feel like an elevation in my nervous system– to feel a little anxious or weirded out. There’s something about that feeling that reflects how fucked up the world is, and all the things that make me feel mad, or a little bit crazy, or that- I just don’t have answers to all the things that are messed up in the world, and that’s the feeling that I have. There’s something about art which makes me feel those most important elevations. That is somehow comforting and I don’t know how that gets communicated… Was that your second part? What do you mean?

SM: There’s a conception that art is, at its very core, communication, and I’m just wondering if you agree with that. Do you think that discomfort communicates as an art?

LW: You have to turn to something artistic in order to try and communicate feeling because you can’t say the word “sad” and feel the sad. But I can show you a painting or write a story and you can somehow suddenly feel like you’re a part of the sadness. I think discomfort is an emotion like any other, and transmits itself through art in that way by somehow putting the reader or the listener into the subject position so that you feel like you’re the one inside it.

SM: How do the things that you publish connect to your own writing and your own experience of poetry and art?

LW: I think those conversations that we had as an editorial board, those really heated discussions about what makes something the best. We were talking earlier about “what does the best mean?” Those kinds of discussions really helped me hone and articulate my ideas about what I value in experimental work. I think that because I don’t really work in sound and I only curate it, it makes me think about how I transmit sound in a page in a way that I wasn’t really thinking about before working with that magazine. In poetry a lot of times you’re thinking about meter, and you’re thinking about iambs and trochees, and now I’m thinking more about discordant musicality rather than really fluent music.

Slammin’ Down with Andrea Gibson

Sabrina talks poetry and activism with Andrea Gibson.

[box]Andrea Gibson is a slam poet whose work focuses on social and political issues such as gender norms, sexuality, and war. She additionally works with a group called “Vox Feminista,” a group dedicated to expressing these issues through performance art. Andrea has published six books, four of them self-published and two of them through Write Bloody Publishing in 2009 and 2011, and has won awards at the Denver Grand Slam, the 2004 National Poetry Slam, and the 2006 and 2007 Individual World Poetry Slam. [/box]

Sabrina Melendez: What is your definition of slam poetry?

Andrea Gibson: Slam is a competition that was invented in the mid 80’s by Marc Smith, a construction worker in Chicago who wanted poetry readings to be more engaging, more interesting to audiences, more passionate and exciting. Spoken word poetry is an art form that has become more popular because of slam competitions. Everyone defines spoken word differently. For me, spoken word is the art of reading a poem out loud in a way that emotionally and authentically represents the mood of the poem on the page. It requires a willingness from the poet to enter the poem with her whole self, and to essentially live that poem into sound.

SM: What do you think is lost when poetry is written down rather than said aloud? Vice versa?

AG: I don’t think anything is lost in either direction. I think they are simply different ways of expressing. On the page, for example, the emotion of an entire piece can be contained in a single line break. On the stage, the poet’s voice might crack. I believe both the page and stage are places where a poem can live fully.

SM: Do you consider yourself an activist through your poetry and if so, from what point in time did you begin to consider yourself so?

AG: I started competing in poetry slams in the same year I joined Vox Feminista, a radical performance group of women, trans, and genderqueer people bent on social change. Vox is a group that is as committed to direct action as it is committed to creating art the inspires people to live in a kinder more compassionate way. It’s not that I think art in itself is inactive, but I think to best serve any social movement, that art has to at some point inspire
direct action. Vox’s motto is to “Comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” and I have in many ways adopted that as the backbone for my writing.

SM: How did you launch your career as a poet? Any advice for people interested in pursuing slam poetry?

AG: I discovered poetry slam in Denver in 1999. I competed for several years with the Denver slam team. I owe more than I can name here to the poets in that community. We travelled to National Poetry Slam competitions around the country, and I was doing a lot of local events as well. In 2003 I started booking my own tours and for the next couple of years did a ton of very small shows featuring at poetry readings and slams in any city that would have me. I was on the road constantly, selling just enough chapbooks each night to buy gas to get to the next city. In 2005 I lucked out and met my current manager, Christen Greene. Christen’s roster, except for me, is made up entirely of musicians– so my career has been structured a little differently than some of the other touring poets I know. When asked to give advice to people wishing to pursue a career in spoken word I often say: 1) write your heart out, 2) write even when you don’t feel like writing 3)come to every single performance open and attentive and electric with the knowing that each stage is a blessing and a privilege, 4) perform your poems to as many people as will listen, in as many venues as you can, in as many cities you are able to travel to, and 5) have an online presence in which your work is readily available for people to find.

SM: In one of your previous interviews, you admitted that you have horrible stage fright. Do you have any coping methods or rituals for before you go on stage?

AG: Yeah, stage fright… you would think after 13 years it would go away, wouldn’t you?? It hasn’t, and honestly I’ve tried just about everything and have not figured out a good way to deal with the pre-performance stage fright, but once I get on the actual stage I’ve learned to channel that nervousness into the emotion of the piece. It’s sort of a meditation in removing my ego from the whole experience and just letting the poem exist and run through me. Typically by my 3rd poem of the set, I’ve stopped sweating through my shirt.

SM: Does your poetry just spew out when you write it or does it take a long time?

AG: I write out loud. I write running around my house, screaming at the walls, jumping on the couch. So yeah, I guess you’d call that part a spewing. What takes time is the piecing together at the end. Linking metaphors, linking rhythm, having all the spewing tie together in a way that works in a whole piece. I’m especially particular about the sound of a poem, until it flows in my ear like a song, it doesn’t feel finished.

SM: Sometimes you use music behind your poetry and sometimes you don’t. What is your take on that? Are there certain poems that stand better alone, and why?

AG: I started using music behind my poems because I have so many incredible musician friends I wanted to collaborate with. Also, when I’m writing I almost always have music playing in the background, so it just felt fitting to add that layer on stage. That said, there are some poems that live best alone. This year I’ve had the opportunity to perform alongside poets who never ever use music with their poems, and I’ve found that single voice on stage incredibly alive and refreshing, more raw and gutsy, in a way. So my use of music may shift a bit in the future.

SM: When you think, do you think in pictures, feelings, or words?

AG: Feelings.

SM: Any recurring dreams you’d be willing to share with us?

AG: I am 4 years old. My father is watering the lawn of the local bank where he’s the janitor. A very very tall cat in a suit and a top hat walks up and throws me over his shoulder. I scream for my father. He looks at me, smiles, and keeps watering the lawn. He, for some reason, can’t see the cat. I keep screaming. The cat carries me to a huge ice house in the middle of the forest. He locks me inside. And then I wake up. (This is what I call the “Bad Cat Dream”. I’ve had it since I was 4 years old. If you have any ideas on how to prematurely remove a dream from your dream life, please let me know. I’d love to never see that cat again. 🙂 )

No Place Like Home

Luis Bermudez Ham, of Mexico, examines what it’s like to lose a sense of home. He also likes turtles.

Visual art by Jing Li

People have a tendency to forget things. They forget things they learn, they forget things they say, and they forget the friends they’ve made. In a world where materialism is the norm, the more we have, the easier it is to forget.

Lately this thought had been rambling around my head a lot. It’s funny, how when you think about something for a long time you start seeing it everywhere you go. In reality, that something has always been there, but it’s not until you think about it that you actually start acknowledging its existence.

Lately I have been noticing people forget. Sometimes they forget who they are, or where they come from. They forget about their true friends and end up abandoning them. Other times they forget about a nonsensical love, or a broken heart. A myriad of people have told me about the feeling one gets when one finally forgets someone who has caused pain, of someone who has harmed. They said they had finally realized how idiotic they were, how, if given the choice somehow, they would never repeat their actions. I nod and agree; only really interested in the landscape passing by the window. Now, don’t get me wrong, I enjoy stories passionately, but after a while of hearing the same things over and over again, even the most interesting fables can turn into tedious sermons. People, for some reason, have a tendency to trust me, which I do not understand. Is it that they pity me? Is my face a trustworthy one? I don’t know. All I know is I’ve been a runaway for about 5 months now. I have hitchhiked about 1,200 miles, and every time I get into a car, or van, or truck, I have had to listen to someone’s story. I haven’t shaved, but thanks to my wondrous age of 15, my facial hair can easily be mistaken for the dirt on my face. I guess people aren’t used to seeing someone as young as me hitchhiking, so they feel sorry for me. I believe they use pity as an excuse to unburden themselves onto someone, anyone, even this dirty 15-year-old kid.

This last ride has left me in the middle of a highway right before a road division, somewhere in the state of Nevada. The sun’s heat has made me regret taking my fur-lined leather jacket. But it has served me well. After all, when I left Milwaukee it was still winter, and the snow and cold would have been a problem if it hadn’t been for this jacket. And to be honest, it wasn’t like I had any other type of clothing I could have packed. But now my long-sleeved shirt smells of sweat, and I finally decide to take it off, not giving much importance to sunburn.

A car drives by, the driver ignoring my signal for him to pick me up. As I walk, I think about the last person that let me hop in.

She was a middle aged woman, with skin as white as milk, like an angel. She drove a green pick-up and spoke with a beautiful southern accent. If I hadn’t been in a different place mentally, I could have had a crush on her. She told me the story of her life, of how her two boys grew tired of her and abandoned her. She told me, with light in her eyes, how she used to play with them when they were younger and all the fun they had. She told me how on stormy days, they would stay inside watching movies, putting quilts over the windows, making forts out of pillows, pretending they were in a theatre. But it all changed when her husband left them. He had grown tired of his daily routine. He thought that if he managed to escape his boring life, he would be happier. She told me how later she would walk with them to the town square in a futile effort to forget what had happened, and she began crying when she remembered how they could escape their reality on those afternoons as they ate ice cream on Main Street. But her boys had grown up to be very independent and had moved away. Although they had kept in touch with her for a while, they eventually stopped talking to her. According to her sons, she was the reason their father had left. She would never be forgiven. But something had come up, and her first son had called her. She was ecstatic to hear her son’s voice, but the happiness didn’t last long. Her smaller boy was in the hospital, and from what she told me, it was really bad. Pneumonia or something like that. Real sad. I had a cousin who once died of pneumonia. Her death shocked me; I had never had anyone close to me die.

     A sudden breeze of cool air snaps me back from my wandering thoughts. Drivers keep passing me by, but my arm aches so I stop making signs. As if they would actually stop to pick me up again. As if anyone really cares I am here. As if anyone really cares for me. Is that reason enough to run away? I don’t know. It was for me, but someone else might swallow it and learn to live with it. But I refuse. I want to live somewhere where people care. Where they care about what happens to me. I want to matter. I wanted to matter. To make a difference. I don’t care now. Things change, people forget, people forgive, and people die. People find a way, or they lose themselves. People have a way of making things different.

My friends all vanished, disappeared under a thin veil of nothingness. Some found a passion in underage drinking. The adrenaline of being above the law combined with alcohol filled them with euphoria. Others moved. They wanted to become rock stars and photographers, but I knew, as everyone did, that it was just a waste of time and that their trip to Hollywood was nothing but misused money. My dad vanished too. He got a promotion, and stopped coming home for weeks at a time. Since it was just me at home, I had to survive on Mac ‘n Cheese and Cocoa Puffs. I started skipping school, and the more I got away with it, the more I enjoyed my new freedom. My mom died when I was very young. I can’t quite remember her, but my dad used to say she was wonderful, so I just believed him. Suddenly, I wished I had known her. A feeling of loneliness began to soak me, but the paradoxical thought that this might get me attention from someone somehow, made me not want to dry it off. After a while I grew tired of this, and figured that if I could make it here, without a father, I could make it anywhere else. And I had made it all the way to this hot, wild, tomb-like desert.

The heat is overbearing. Sweat falls to the road and quickly disappears. Cars do not pass by anymore. Or at least that’s what I think. I have stopped paying attention to the road. The rock I was sitting by lent me her shadow, but it’s noon, and all the shade is gone. I put my sweaty shirt over my head, hoping it will ease my heat. My shoes are destroyed. The only reason I have kept them is because the ground would cook my feet. “Oh well, I’ll take them off when I’m hungry.” I say out loud, and surprise myself. Am I really going crazy? I must be. I must find a car. I have lost the strength to get up, and honestly I don’t think I would get picked up anyway. Maybe I should put my shirt back on. I traveled 1,200 miles with my shirt on. But the heat is suffocating, so I decide I’ll put it on later. For now, I’ll just stay here, next to this rock. A loud car passes by, it’s roaring engine driving my attention back to the road. But the more attention that I give the driver, the more he seems to ignore me. Drivers probably think I’m dead by now. Abandonment. The story of the milk-skinned woman hits me, and I suddenly realize my situation. The human body can only stand a number of days without water. My sweating like a pig will only make dehydration quicker. I only hope death will be brief.  All motionless, all beat up. I made it all the way to this desert but what has changed? Why has luck suddenly flown away from me? Or have these past six months been only a dream? Could this be just a nightmare? I wish it were. I wish I were still home, with the people I loved. What have I done?

People have a tendency to forget things. We forget things we learn, we forget things we say, and we forget friends we’ve make. We forget the love others feel for us, and we forget the love we feel for others. We forget the good times, but we keep the bad times, as if they were an excuse to justify our actions. People forget. I forgot. I forgot all the warmth of my home. I forgot about my dad, and how he always called me when he was away. I forgot my friends, how they phoned me worried when I skipped school and how they cried when they had to move.  I forgot how they wrote home every day. I forgot about all the parties I attended myself. All the fun I had had with my friends. I forgot about my place on earth, and now it’s too late. I forgot about home. I forgot that there’s no place like home.

Culinary Arts & the Cost of Creativity

Rebecca Qian, of the International School of Beijing, writes about her emotions behind a biological necessity – food.

Visual art by Chloe Kim.

There was a time, that when I could no longer draw pleasure from the repetition of daily life, I turned to food for a sense of satisfaction. For most, food was a necessity. I begged to differ. It had long since intrigued me as to why culinary arts courses were not included in schools and universities, when visual arts and music were. Perhaps what separated the culinary arts is the fundamentality of food. Food is the most basic prerequisite for survival, unlike music or art, both of which provoke thought yet do little for starving children. Ironically, the importance of food to our survival appears to have lowered our opinion of culinary culture. The word “food” too often brings proletarian connotations, conjuring up images of ravenous youth mindlessly devouring plates of their daily bread, whereas “music” or “art” seem to be reserved for the elite; those who have the luxury to explore spirituality, away from the monotony of everyday life.

There was a time when every meal brought a surprise, and I would walk away from the dinner table relishing aftertastes of pleasure. Amidst the humdrum of day to day family life, I changed things up by introducing new items of food to our dining repertoire. I could not understand why people would make claims such as “I don’t like tomatoes” or “I don’t eat cheese”. What do you mean by “I don’t like tomatoes”? Tomatoes and mozzarella topped with Pesto sauce in an Italian Caprese, or Chinese Ji Dan Chao Xi Hong Shi (Fried tomato and eggs)? May I also point out that there are infinite varieties of cheese. Do you not like blue cheese, cheddar cheese, cream cheese or goat cheese? Every type of raw produce meant infinite possibilities for creative expression. Every dish became a product of creativity, a testament to human will power to utilize, explore and create. To generalize these products of creativity was a crime, for sure. For me, a gourmet dish was a work of art, a masterpiece half complete. The other half, of course, was eating it.

I saw dishes as latent emotions, waiting to be released at the tongue. As spicy fish danced provocatively on my taste buds, and dark chocolate lulled my numbing tongue, I could not help but become affected by the empathetic nature of dining. Each tasting became a sensual experience of another world, an opening trapdoor to escape into that other realm of the imagination, defined by tastes and colors. Colors, splashes of colors. There’s nothing quite like the euphoria I gained from seeing a dish for the first time, and being shocked into awareness by its brilliantly imperfect array of bold colors.

Now I see it differently. I cannot enjoy Coq Au Vin without the deafening realization that my pleasure must be derived from the death of another being. The deep, colorful hues and rich aromas of the dish no longer entice me with their aesthetic appeal; rather, I find myself insensitive to its artistry.  I am preoccupied with images of chicken, struggling to escape the grasp of a man’s hand that brandishes the fatal butcher’s knife as if it is an insignificant toy. Or worse-they could be silently awaiting their preordained executions, acknowledging that their sole purpose in life was to become part of culinary “art”. The knife strikes timely-as it should, for the chicken’s life is subservient to the needs of humans. Then the next chicken is brought up for slaughter. The ensuing bloodbath may simply be erased by a blood-stained mop. Yet not even the knowledge that nutrition is the basis of my survival can erase the daunting images of blood and death. It only cements the irony that one’s life must be derived from the death of another’s.

Perhaps I opt for vegetarianism, and abstain from consuming mammals altogether. Vegetables don’t protest, they don’t flutter their wings like chickens, so I should eat them instead-I can hear the argument formulating already.

There are mushrooms on my plate, supposedly to “enhance the flavor of the chicken”. Suddenly I am flooded with visions of mushrooms, scores upon scores of them, rooted robustly into the firm earth. Their watchful existence brings a sense of peace, providing me with some of nature’s rare moments of tranquility. Then the peace is disturbed-as it always is-by humans plucking up the mushrooms, children tugging away at their roots. What they leave behind is a scarred field, with the pits serving as remnants of abducted lives. Some see vegetarianism as a compromise; I see murder as murder.

What frightens me is the notion that the necessity of food is irrelevant, the possibility that even if we as humans did not need to eat, we would still continue to do so. This is a thought that pesters me day and night, for I am forced to recognize the plausibility of said argument. The mere concept of high-end restaurants, luxury food marketing and the existence of so-called food critics demonstrate that food is no longer restricted to serving our most basic needs, but has also become a source of satisfaction and often a symbol of prestige. This is an observation that I once welcomed with joy, since it meant the elevation of the status of food from a commodity to a luxury good, comparable to that of art or music. I had championed cuisine as a stimulus of emotions and creativity, ardently defending my beliefs in the name of art and pleasure.

The origin of my transformation is an episode of the reality TV series Masterchef USA, in which a Hindu woman is forced to kill a crab in order to advance in the cooking competition. The contestant-who had never killed an animal in her life-was presented with a dilemma; she would either kill the crab, neglecting her religious beliefs, or save the crab, which would bring her emotional satisfaction but result in her elimination. It was with tears that she finally flung the wriggling crab into the boiling pot of water. Upon tasting the completed dish, Judge Gordon Ramsey praised the dish for its unique flavor and seasoning, and then proceeded to comment “I am sure this crab would have been happy to give its life for this dish.” The reasoning behind his justification of killing the crab is fallible, to say the least. The crab would have been happy to give its life for what, a transient taste of pleasure on our tongues? Does the honor of the crab’s death rest on the flavors of its corpse, now? The assumption that any living being would be willing to sacrifice its own life in exchange for another’s creativity is bizarre logic that I cannot comprehend, and it is this bizarre logic that led me to question the morality of cuisine.

I now see chefs as dead animal processors, pondering over how to best present a piece of corpse. My appreciation of culinary dishes is tainted by blood, and my once purely aesthetic satisfaction is marred by the awareness that I am chewing carcasses of the deceased. It does not matter that I do not physically partake in killings; by eating their products I have become complicit in the murderer’s crime. Every meal is now a vicarious experience of another murder. As if the world did not have enough murders already! I can sense the gradual deterioration of my sensitivity to death, numbed by the repeated acknowledgements of plant and animal slaughter.

I feel compelled to view the murdering of animals through the grander perspective of life and death. Nature dictates that certain living organisms feed off other living organisms in order to survive. On the life-death continuum, the killing of a couple of chickens and crabs appear as insignificant events bound to occur sooner or later. Yet it is when the production of food surpasses our most elemental requirements for survival, when I try to view dishes through a less animalistic perspective, that I am bombarded by these recurring portrayals of gore and violence.

The only conclusion I can draw from my experiences is that creativity comes with sacrifice. These animals-aren’t they victims of our ingenuity? This phenomenon of sacrificial innovation occurs imperceptibly everywhere in our daily lives. Chemical products may only be deemed “safe to use” for humans if they have undergone rigorous testing on lab rats. Even humans are sacrificed; the advancement of technology is often based upon the previous products’ adverse effects on humans. More tragically, the potency of military technology must be determined from weapon tests in war. The irony of us imposing deaths on others is that we ourselves are also victims of the omnipotent death. Perhaps we derive gratification from imposing death on others, but one day, it will be imposed upon us, as if mocking our attempts at recreating it. And aren’t our lives solely dedicated to serving the grand scheme of human society, just as the chicken’s life is dedicated to serving us? The question of whether it matters to the chicken if its corpse was cooked beautifully or thrown away is as pertinent as whether we are affected by societal developments after our deaths. My meals no longer stand as a testament to creativity, but as a testament to the cruelty of this world, a testament to death. And that is why, when I see the familiar hamburger I had once grown to love, I have no choice but to shudder in fear.

Boyd Fortin

Tabriz Mohsenin, a Senior from Woodside, CA, tells the story of a boy who kills rattlesnakes and vehemently unearths fate. She plans on pursuing her love of experimental films, integrating visual art and writing.

When I own a gun I can shoot the snakes right off the ground. Pick them off when they slither out of the grasses, collect their bodies and sling them over my shoulders like belts of ammo. I’ve been in Texas forever, collecting rattlesnakes like clues, but they’ve never told me anything. Creeping up on them where the grass grows high, jump on their backs and slice off their heads before they can twist around and bite you. Stick the knife in and rip through the scales, direct as silver, though you’re only using steel. I carry them home in the red dusk, when it’s too dark to see the snakes flicker in the grass. More likely they get you than you them if you’re killing in the dark.

When I was six, my dad bought me a plastic toy gun. Orange-tipped, with rounds of caps like plastic flowers. He bought it at the hardware store, and whenever he went back for replacement drill bits, he’d buy another pack of caps. I’d shoot almost all of them, until I had one round left, which I’d save until he bought another set or left for good.

I’ve killed a lot of rattlesnakes. I don’t know how many. I started when I was eight and haven’t stopped since. I’m thirteen now. You can’t see them when you look out at the grass from the porch. It looks like a wasteland, flat and lifeless. But I haven’t run out of snakes in five years. I don’t even have to walk far to find them, behind my mother’s house where their thick bodies coil in the dust. I thought they would be gone eventually. I thought if I just killed enough of them I could wipe out the species. Or at least scare the rest of them out of Texas. But I guess I should know by now that you can’t make anything go away. Things leave if they want and stay if they don’t. Doesn’t matter what you do.

My dad left when I was seven and three quarters. Nearly two years after he bought me that cap gun. Nearly two years of saving the last round, but it was only a precaution, really. I never thought I wouldn’t get any more. But then he packed his worn-out shirts and jeans in two plastic drugstore bags, the red Thank Yous gleaming absurdly down the bulging sides as he slammed out the front door, screaming “Fuck you!”

The first time I killed a snake was at the 1974 Rattlesnake Round-Up. Everyone in Sweetwater goes to it. A hundred some people in white aprons with dark purple blood smeared across their cheeks, hands clutching the limp carcasses of snakes like ice cream cones. I killed my first snake, sliced its head clean off and gutted it with the same knife. Tore its body straight down the middle the way the barber from Main Street instructed, as he stood over the cooler of beer and 7Up, cleaning the dried blood out from under his nails with a toothpick.

After my dad left, my mom lost about half her body weight. Looked like a stork with her skinny legs and a throat that always looked too tired to eat even if she tried. Flaps of skin hanging from her chin to the tendons in her neck, which always seemed over-stretched, like it might collapse, crushing her windpipe till she gasped like a fish out of water and died contorted on the floor with her face mottled blue. I dream that a lot. My mom dying like a fish.

I can’t imagine dying though I’ve tried till it made my chest ache. The closest I came was the summer of 1978, when a snake bit me on the inside of my arm. It was the only time I got bit. Jumped on its back, but my grip on the knife was loose, and the snake swung its head round at me before I could cut it off. I screamed till my voice cracked and cried though I was twleve years old. My mother came running ‘cause I was only a few yards out from the back porch and got me to the hospital in my dad’s old pick-up truck, so I never saw my life flash before my eyes like they say you do. Or maybe I did, and I just couldn’t tell the difference between the grass plains and red dust sliding past the car windows and that lightning synopsis of my life, since they’re really just the same thing.

My parents moved to Texas from Nevada, where my dad worked at a hotel in Las Vegas. He said it was no place to raise a kid, so they went to Lubbock while my mother was pregnant, then Sweetwater once I was born, though she didn’t want to. I think about how the Texas dust is ingrained in my skin in a way that soap and water can’t wash off and how the desert has curled up inside me with the other things that eat me from the inside out. But my parents aren’t even from here, and still the place is in my DNA as much as they are. No one ends up where they were born, but somehow I don’t think I’ll ever get out.

When I was bit, I had to stay in the hospital four days. Rolling Plains Medical Center, second floor. I mostly just remember it being dark and feeling like I was in a movie. People think of hospitals as white, but this one was a disappointing beige, with blankets the sick yellow of pus. It was the same hospital I was born in, and I thought it would be symbolic to die there too, but I didn’t. I wrote my name on the bed post, ‘Boyd Fortin’ in silver Sharpie, then wished I hadn’t. I didn’t want to trap myself in there. Maybe I had a premonition of my return without realizing, and that’s why I wrote it. But when I went back a year later it was gone.

I found my old cap gun the night before I left in my closet. I wrapped it in the apron from my first Round-Up, the one I wore every time I killed snakes, but didn’t need anymore. I wanted to do something symbolic, burn or bury it like a corpse, but those things are always meaningless. I look for symbols everywhere, but mostly I just believe in chaos. Everything’s a mess, spinning in space towards a black hole, a great empty cavity like the one in my liver that forced me back to this hospital. And the whole universe is moving so fast, the earth spinning and the cells disintegrating in my guts, but you wouldn’t know it, in this cinderblock room where everything seems still. They repainted the walls. Still beige.

They found the tapeworm three months ago, a few days before my thirteenth birthday, which I spent in an X-ray machine. I’d been nauseous for weeks, living on ginger ale and children’s Tylenol ‘cause my stomach hurt too bad for anything else. At the time, I thought it felt like needles stabbing my side, but now I imagine tiny teeth chewing at my liver. There’s a hole there, and lots of pus. The doctor showed me the slides. Gray smudges of organs around a skinny white slash that dictated my future. That’s the worm, he said, watching my face as I nodded.

If everything really is pointless, and I think it is, I wonder why the snakes are still here. If I look carefully, I can see them out the window from my hospital bed. It hurts, propping myself up on my elbows enough to look over the sill, but if I’m sick anyway, it hardly matters. They blend in with the dust, but I’ve learned what to look for. Flickers of sunlight on the scales, slight stirs of grass. And if they’re out there, alive, and I’m in here, dying, I could prove that the world is ruled by chaos, ‘cause I could kill them. I could slice their heads off and gut them. I could if I could only lift myself from this bed. But sometimes, I think that worms and snakes aren’t so different, and then I wonder if there is such a thing as fate.

You Are Everything

Dante writes a devotional ode to Everything.

Visual art by Vita Wang
You are everything,
the sky,
the trees,
the earth,
they’re all a part of you, and you are a part of them.
You are the pigeon,
soaring through the sky,
and landing on the telephone wire.
You are the door to the house across the street,
slightly open, not completely closed
as if it couldn’t decide.
You are the pinecone
that just fell off the branch.
It collides with the ground with a thump.
You are the glass bottle,
shattered on the pavement,
like a million broken secrets
that will never be told.
You are the child,
sitting on the roof, lost in thought,
pretending to be something you aren’t.
You shouldn’t be pretending. You should be studying.
You have a math test tomorrow.
You must be crazy, sitting on the roof,
wasting your time.
You don’t want to flunk the test again.
What are you doing on the roof, anyway?
It’s dangerous to sit on the roof. If you fell off,
you could really hurt yourself.
You return to your bedroom window.
Somewhere, across the street, you hear a door slam.

Hands

A boy struggles with the death of his mother in Becky Hirsch’s short play “Hands.”

Visual art by Ben Mcnutt

SETTING: a quiet, suburban home.

CHARACTERS: MICHAEL, a teenage boy, wants to protect his family. RAYNA, his mother. Recently a robot.

SCENE ONE:

RAYNA

 (to audience)

There was a house fire here two weeks ago, on a Thursday. It began at 6:40 PM at the latest. It was contained to the kitchen. I was in the master bedroom at the back of the house. I had left the stove on without realizing. I had fallen asleep. The kitchen appliances have been fixed since then, but there is still some structural damage. Michael has worked hard to make everything good as new. (beat) No, Michael was at the library when it started. He studies all the time. At the library or in his room or at a friend’s house. Michael is very bright.

(Offstage MICHAEL hears his mother talking to someone and runs onstage.)

MICHAEL

Mom!

RAYNA

Michael?

(RAYNA shuts the door.)

MICHAEL

Who were you talking to?

RAYNA

The policeman, Michael. He was asking me questions.

(MICHAEL gasps and stares at her. RAYNA watches him passively.)

MICHAEL

What did he want to know?

RAYNA

About you, Michael.

(MICHAEL gulps.)

MICHAEL

Me?

(beat)

RAYNA

I don’t understand.

MICHAEL

Oh, uh, I mean: what did he want to know about me?

RAYNA

He wanted to know about why you haven’t been going to school, Michael.

MICHAEL

But what did you tell him?

RAYNA

I told him that there was a fire and that since then I have not gone to work and you have not gone to school.

MICHAEL

That’s it?

RAYNA

Yes, Michael.

MICHAEL

I mean, why was that it?

RAYNA

Because you called me, and I have to stop what I’m doing when you call me.

MICHAEL

Um, yeah. (beat) Is he still outside?

RAYNA

I don’t know, Michael.

(MICHAEL looks through a window.)

MICHAEL

(to himself) I don’t see anyone. (beat – remembers RAYNA) Well, I’m going to go back to my room. To study. (beat) Make me some dinner?

RAYNA

What would you like?

MICHAEL

Pasta.

RAYNA

By when should it be ready, Michael?

MICHAEL

Oh, just whenever you can.

RAYNA

Yes.

(Beat)

MICHAEL

Spin around.

(RAYNA spins in one circle.)

Jump up and down.

(RAYNA jumps once oddly, since she wasn’t built for jumping. MICHAEL laughs, honestly finding it funny. RAYNA watches passively. MICHAEL stops laughing abruptly.)

Laugh with me, when I laugh.

RAYNA

Yes, Michael.

(MICHAEL forces a laugh. RAYNA copies him. He brushes it off.)

MICHAEL

Well, I’m going to go to my room. (beat) Look, don’t worry about dinner. Just… why don’t you go to sleep?

RAYNA

Whatever you say. Good night, Michael. Sleep well.

(RAYNA lies flat on the couch with her hands folded over her stomach, like a corpse in a coffin. MICHAEL sits down on a nearby chair, and watches her for a moment. Then he picks up a notebook from under the chair. He opens it up and writes in it, reading out loud as he goes as if he were reading from a script.)

MICHAEL

Her motor and cognitive functions are all fine. So is her vocabulary. Her response time is improving. I don’t think the policeman would have suspected anything. He probably just thought she was weird.

A lot of her responses are just the default programming. There’s a huge list of basic information, like who the president is and what order the alphabet goes in and stuff. And then there’s more specific things: my name, my allergies, my GPA. Sometimes it’s weird, because I remember entering all the information. I remember sitting and watching her download it all, but I try not to think about that. It makes it all too creepy, like I’m talking to my- (self)

(MICHAEL crosses that last sentence out.)

It was a truancy officer that came here today, asking why I’d been ditching school. Two weeks now, I think. I can barely leave the house, except to pick up food. I keep reliving that day. (MICHAEL gets caught up in the memory, gradually panicking.) There was this horrible smell coming out of the kitchen window and it got so much worse when I walked in the front door. Smoke was pouring out of the kitchen and I almost couldn’t see her lying curled up on the floor. Smack on the ground, hands all mangled and crunched underneath her, underneath her- (Getting angry) God, it was so- She died like that! Greasy and crumpled up and that smell-

(MICHAEL calms himself.) We stay up all night watching Jeopardy and eat home-made pancakes. I wake up late, sometimes after noon and find pictures of us up all over the walls, all down the hallway. We dig out my old yearbooks. We’re doing things the way we used to, with less class time, but it’s the way things are supposed to be.  This robot, she makes everything right.

(MICHAEL looks up from the notebook and stares over at RAYNA.)

(Worried)

Right?

(MICHAEL stares at her for a long time. Blackout.)

SCENE TWO:

(The lights come up. MICHAEL has fallen asleep curled in the same chair, the notebook open on his lap. He looks a little more disheveled. RAYNA is still asleep on the couch. She wakes up after the lights come on.)

RAYNA

Good morning, Michael!

(MICHAEL jolts awake, snatches the notebook and holds it closed against his chest. He stares at RAYNA. He has just woken up from a horrible nightmare.)

Would you like some toast? Some cereal?

MICHAEL

No thanks.

RAYNA

French toast, Michael? Pancakes?

MICHAEL

No, I don’t want anything.

RAYNA

(As RAYNA says this she begins getting up and walking toward offstage.)

You should eat something, Michael. Your brain needs nutrients and energy to keep working. Brain cells require twice as much energy as any other cells in the body, Michael. I have to take care of you. I’ll get you some fruit, Michael. Fruit is made up of long chains of sugar molecules that the body breaks down gradually to release glucose to fuel the brain over a long period of time. You should have some, Michael.

MICHAEL

I had a nightmare.

(RAYNA stops and turns back to face him.)

RAYNA

I’m sorry, Michael. Would you like to tell me about it?

MICHAEL

There was this lady, this really sweet old lady, and she told me that she was pretty, and I guess she was pretty but not like that because, you know, among other things she was old and related to me.

(MICHAEL looks at RAYNA to see if she makes the connection. She doesn’t.)

Anyway, I reached up to touch her face, and her whole face started sizzling and then melted away, and underneath it was this crazy, wrinkled old lady and she hated me—

RAYNA

(RAYNA kneels by MICHAEL’S chair.)

No one could ever hate you, Michael.

MICHAEL

But this lady did. I- in the dream, I’d- I shoved a knife through her stomach, so far that I stuck her to the living room wall. And in the dream, I reached out and touched her face, her wrinkly old face, and the whole thing just slid off and right underneath it was mine! My face, staring straight back. And then you woke me up.

RAYNA

I’m sorry.

MICHAEL

But it was just a dream. I used to be so terrified when I woke up from nightmares, but I woke up and you were here, and you asked me if I wanted toast, and God, Mom, it was just a dream, wasn’t it? It was just a crazy nightmare!

(Off-stage, a knocking starts and continues to the end of the scene, as if someone was knocking continually on the door. MICHAEL freezes up and grips RAYNA’S wrist. RAYNA looks offstage toward the source of the knocking.)

RAYNA

I think someone’s at the door, Michael.

MICHAEL

I know.

RAYNA

Would you like me to go get the door?

MICHAEL

No.

(beat)

RAYNA

Would you like me to go get the door, Michael?

MICHAEL

No.

RAYNA

Would you like to temporarily override this response?

MICHAEL

(MICHAEL closes his eyes.)

Yes.

(They stay where they are: RAYNA kneeling next to MICHAEL, staring offstage, MICHAEL, eyes closed, sitting and gripping RAYNA’s wrist. The knocking continues. Blackout.)

SCENE THREE:

(The lights come up. MICHAEL is sitting hunched in the same chair. He looks even more disheveled. RAYNA is on the telephone, standing near the center of the stage. She does not pace as she talks.)

RAYNA

Yes, I know that Michael has not gone to school these past few days. He has been home with me. (beat) I’ve been ill.

(MICHAEL stands up and starts pacing.)

I’m not sure. He’ll come back when he’s able. He loves school. He’s very bright.

(MICHAEL slumps to the floor. RAYNA immediately hangs up the phone and puts it on the little end table. She kneels by MICHAEL.)

Are you all right, Michael?

MICHAEL

No, Mom.

RAYNA

You should have some food. You haven’t eaten much lately, Michael.

MICHAEL

I don’t want anything to eat.

RAYNA

What else can I get for you?

(beat)

MICHAEL

Mom?

RAYNA

Yes, Michael?

MICHAEL

Are you happy?

RAYNA

I’m with you.

MICHAEL

I know that, but are you happy? Here, with me.

RAYNA

Yes, of course, Michael. I love you.

MICHAEL

Well, why do you love me?

(beat – RAYNA is computing.)

RAYNA

I don’t understand, Michael.

MICHAEL

What?

RAYNA

I don’t understand the question.

MICHAEL

What about it don’t you understand?

(beat)

RAYNA

I don’t understand the question, Michael.

(beat)

MICHAEL

Mom?

RAYNA

Yes, Michael?

MICHAEL

I would like some food, actually. Some soup. Would you us make some? We could eat together.

RAYNA

I don’t need to eat.

MICHAEL

I know, but I want you to.

RAYNA

You told me I wasn’t supposed to eat, Michael. That it would be very bad for me.

MICHAEL

No… I mean, yeah, that’s what I said but I think that maybe now… I think maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. For you. For both of us.

RAYNA

Of course, Michael. Whatever you want.

MICHAEL

Thank you.

(RAYNA exits. MICHAEL stares after her for a moment. Then he picks up the phone and dials 911.)

Hello? My name is Michael Dougherty, and I understand someone has been coming by my house? Yeah, I figured it’d be about that. Look, actually this is about my mom. She’s been sick, since the fire, she got hurt, and… she’s just died, actually. This morning. (beat) I know. I know, I should have. (beat) Yes, send someone over.

(RAYNA comes back carrying two bowls with spoons in them.)

Wanna sit on the couch?

RAYNA

Yes, Michael.

(RAYNA and MICHAEL sit down facing each other. They eat their soup. MICHAEL watches her.)

MICHAEL

Mom?

RAYNA

Yes?

MICHAEL

Are you angry with me?

RAYNA

For what, Michael?

MICHAEL

For what I did to you. I think I destroyed you.

RAYNA

You could never hurt anyone. You could never do anything wrong, Michael.

MICHAEL

You used to say that. All the time. It was ridiculous back then, too

RAYNA

I don’t understand. You could never do anything wrong, Michael.

MICHAEL

No, I did.

RAYNA

Would you like to temporarily override this response?

MICHAEL

Yes.

(RAYNA suddenly freezes and drops her spoon.)

RAYNA

Experiencing technical failure.

MICHAEL

Power down.

RAYNA

Yes, Michael.

(RAYNA slumps and then lays back on the floor. MICHAEL stares at her for a moment, and rearranges her on the couch, just like how she was when she was sleeping in scene one. He folds her hands across her chest.)

MICHAEL

I loved you, too.

(A knocking starts up off stage.)

I’m coming.

(He exits.)

END OF PLAY