Undrawn Self Portrait

Sara Cao writes a self-portrait that deals with belonging, the mind, and the body with powerful and visceral poetic skill.

Undrawn Self Portrait

  1. The heart cracks into yellow yolk & white as it throbs through Instagram.
  2. The body walks to its reflection and squeezes itself shut.
  3. The ears tuned for sourness savor silence before they turn on & the mouth groans at
    the loudness of the world.
  4. The brain breathes out a sigh as yesterday’s burdens are borrowed again.
  5. She mumbles about the crumbling capitalist cycle, tasting silence in return.
  6. She peels the banana & she wonders if one day, she’ll shed her skin & be silent.
  7. She consumes Radiohead’s Nude & the heart shatters at “you paint yourself white, and fill up with noise” as she imagines herself with an invisible paintbrush.
  8. In a family of scientists, the creative one chokes on the wrong genes.
  9. In her skull, there’s no more space for the pulp of afterthoughts.
  10. In the dark, she silently cracks herself open until she’s all shell and no yolk, again & again & again.

 

Sara Cao is a junior at John Burroughs School in St. Louis, Missouri. She is currently involved in her school’s newspaper, literary magazine, and Science Olympiad team. Outside of school, she is passionate about social justice issues, writing, drawing, listening to music, and eating Shin Black Ramen. Through her poetry, Sara strives to heal and inspire people who relate to the overall messages of her poems. 

Art by: Diana Ryu

A Conversation With Alice Bolin

Alice Bolin is the author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession. It is a New York Times Notable Book of 2018 and a New York Times Editor’s Choice book, is on the list of Kirkus’ Best Nonfiction Books of 2018, and is an Edgar Award nominee.  Alice has published poems, stories, and essays in numerous publications, and is the former Poet-in-Residence at Idyllwild Arts Academy. She is currently a Creative Nonfiction professor at the University of Memphis.

 

Delany Burk and Kalista Puhnaty sat down to interview Alice about her recently published essay collection, Dead Girls, a large portion of which was written during her two years as the Poet-In-Residence here at Idyllwild Arts Academy.

 

Q: You write in many of your essays about the sexism that is present in the media. Do you think it is improving with the “Me Too” movement and the issues that are being brought up surrounding that?

 

A: I do think that it is improving, and that there have been a lot of changes when it comes to representation, and more diverse stories, but we have a really long way to go. I also still think stories that are supposedly combating sexism often play into it in certain ways. Even with the Sharp Objects thing, where a lot of it is just an excuse to just watch violence against women, and also watch women be ravaged by their past trauma. I don’t necessarily know if staying in that mode is doing us any favors, and I would like to see just more diversity in stories, not only in terms of representation but in terms of the kinds of stories we tell, and more experimentation with plot and structure. It is happening in some ways, like–I don’t even want to use this example–with anthology series like Black Mirror, changing the ways that people consume TV, which is really cool, and we aren’t as stuck in this season arc thing. But I think that we still have a long way to go, that’s my basic answer.

 

Q: Do you think that the fascination with dead girl shows, and stories like that, have anything to do with the “damsel in distress” theme from many older stories?

 

A: Yeah! It has everything to do with that. That sort of overlap between fairy tales and dead girl stories, and the ways that they always feel fairy tale-esque, harkening back to those attitudes about women, about women needing to be saved or helped by men. We still feel really comfortable with that narrative, of “Oh, let’s get a dad to come help,” but that’s what’s interesting about dead girl shows. The dads are the heroes and the villains, and that tells us something about our culture that we didn’t know before, which is ultimately sort of the good thing about them. But yes, it definitely harkens back to that damsel in distress image for sure.

 

Q: Why do you think that serialized crime shows are so popular, when a majority of people don’t know about real cases of women disappearing and dying, especially with the killings of women of color and trans women often going unspoken about?

 

A: I think our conception of what a mystery is has everything to do with the identity of the victim, and probably the perpetrator. When I lived in Los Angeles, two guys were shot right near my house and their killers were never caught. What they said in the newspaper was, “Oh, it was probably gang related,” and that they were two Latino guys, and that’s all we ever heard about it. That’s a mystery, we don’t know who did it, but it wasn’t treated like a mystery. Gang violence answers the question. “Okay, mystery solved!” When a white girl gets killed you feel like, “Oh! Who could have possibly done it?” because we don’t think that white women deserve violence in the way that we think that other kinds of people deserve violence. Or maybe because that’s just not our image of a victim of a violent crime. So that’s part of it, the allure of “the perfect victim.” Also, I have read literary theory stuff about serialized fiction even in the Victorian era, you know, Dickens and Wilkie Collins, but also journalism. Once the daily newspaper would come, people would follow these cases that were salacious, and serialization is kind of this method of getting people addicted to narratives, where once you have that cliffhanger, people start to fill in their own ideas of who did it, and what the answer is. It is perfect for these kinds of stories. I think that it has to do with structure too, there’s something about it that has been around for 200 years.

 

Q: Is there ever a time where having a dead girl in a story can be justified? And If so, how do we write stories about dead girls in a way that doesn’t fall in the same pitfalls that other dead girl stories do?

 

A: I don’t really feel like I’m the arbiter of what kind of stories people get to write. I even met the writer Megan Abbott who has written a bunch of literary… you might say literary thrillers, and they all center around female characters, and female rage you might say, and she explicitly said about my book, even though she liked the book, and she gave me a blurb, she said about my book that she doesn’t necessarily agree, and she thinks that we need to keep telling dead girls’ stories, and keep exploring that idea, because that’s where we’re going to find some answers about why this violence is so prevalent. Which I think is valid. I respect that opinion. So basically my answer is I don’t know… but I think there are ways that dead girls shows, and dead girls stories can kind of reveal our feelings towards women, and our feelings about crime and about who is the perpetrator and who is the victim, in ways that other stories can’t because they’re so outlandish and over the top and even fairy tale-esque, and magical. They kind of illustrate our really messed up interest in these stories by being so over the top. I think Twin Peaks is the perfect example of that.

 

Q: What other criticisms have you received for Dead Girls, and how would you address them?

 

A: I think that the biggest criticism that people have of it is that it is not all about dead girls. There need to be more dead girls in it, that it’s too personal, and there’s not enough analysis of that phenomenon in it, and it’s a little bit of a bait and switch. Which… whatever. But I think for me that was not the book that I was interested in writing, was a critical analysis purely of this dead girl phenomenon, not that it would be difficult to write. But I also felt like, “Well there are endless dead girls, I could write about that forever. Where do I find an end to that story? How do I find my way out of it instead of just staying in it? That book could be 1000 pages long. How do I find a resolution?”  And the only way that I could do that was sort of veering off course, and examining other stories, maybe examining alternatives to that story and thinking about my own stories and the ways that I have sort of been complicit in the kind of oppression I was critiquing. That was how I found my way out of it. I’ve talked to women who are really cool who are like “Oh I’m so excited for your book, I’m a PhD student and I’m writing about violence against women in literature for my dissertation” or something and I’m like, “That’s great…” and you know I think that can exist alongside my book, and be kind of an alternative. I’m not the only person who is writing about this stuff but that’s kind of my take about it.

 

Q: You seem to have a fascination with mystery; have you considered writing a mystery novel or story? If so, how would you approach it?

 

A: Yeah! I want to write one about Idyllwild. But the thing is, I do like mystery and mysteries, but what I like more is that kind of mood, a really noir-ish or thriller-ey tone. And I love that in books that really have no mystery or the mystery is kind of missing, like books by Shirley Jackson, or Patricia Highsmith. I think those books, or even books like Toni Morrison, or “Ghost Story” books where you feel like there’s a mystery and you are reading it like there is one but ultimately the mystery is never going to be solved. That’s the kind of book I’d like to write. And maybe about Idyllwild. I think it would be the perfect setting. It’s so creepy.

 

I moved to Idyllwild from Koreatown in LA, which is the most densely populated part of LA, and I never felt worried about walking around at night because there were always people everywhere… but here? No. I’ve written about it a little bit, I think it’s so perfect for that creepy mood. That’s what I’m more interested in, because I do want to question our addiction to mysteries.

 

Q: Has teaching influenced your opinion on women in media?

 

A: I mean, teaching has influenced sort of everything that I think, but… Basically I think one thing that teaching helps me do is be more open-minded towards kind of practical ways that representation is important or sticking by what I believe in in certain ways, where maybe even if I like a book, or an essay, I’m maybe not going to assign it if I think that it could be offensive or marginalizing towards my students. And it is more important for me to represent more diverse and interesting voices because that is what my students need, and also what they would appreciate. So I feel like in some ways it has put me more in a mind of how I can be more responsible for my own choices, and the media that I’m personally consuming and recommending or assigning. Because I have this weird kind of power where I can make a group of people read books that I tell them to, and so I want them to read books that do have good representation of women, that don’t have damaging ideas about women, unless that’s something that we want to talk about.

 

Q: You’ve dug quite deep into many aspects of the media that are considered shallow. Are there any rabbit holes you’ve gone down that didn’t make the cut?

 

A: Lots of them. Yes, tons. Especially stuff about music and country music. There’s none of that in the book but I have written lots about country music, because I think that country radio is really fascinating and especially actually how it relates to women and female artists and the kind of values that it perpetuates to its audience. Also stuff about reality TV, there’s a little bit in there but I have, much more to say about MTV. I think I am probably going to be writing about stuff about media in my next collection, especially women and social media influencers, stuff like that is something I am really really interested in and love to write about.

 

Q: What is your opinion on the media’s obsession with bad mothers?

 

A: Hmmm. I feel like the media probably has pretty equal obsessions with bad mothers and bad dads, but they’re portrayed in different ways. I think we villainize women more for being bad mothers, like it’s almost perverse to be a bad mother. But to be a bad dad is sort of expected. It’s like, “Oh, sure.” It’s sort of a cliche, where a bad mom is like gasp, “So shocking!” and that’s something that in fairy tales, usually the mother is dead. But there might be an evil stepmother, or there’s this witch figure off in the wings and there clearly is literally or figuratively a stand in for a bad mother or an absent mother. I think it has a lot to do with our anger towards women, and towards our own parents. That’s something I talk about I think in the dead girl show essay, that the Philosopher Julia Kristeva, her theory of the abject had to do with this anger, maternal anger, anger towards our moms, she was a psychoanalytic theorist, so its like this Freud thing, but I think that it’s kind of gross, right? That’s really my only take on it, I really like stories about moms, and about moms who are in the picture, and who are good moms. I think that’s actually much more interesting than bad moms… Bad moms can be interesting too. That’s what my student at Idyllwild said to the class once: “To get writing ideas, I google ‘I hate my kids.’” I was like, “How many stories can you write about people who hate their kids?” but still, that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard.

 

Adultolescence: A Money Grab for a Social Media-Crazed Generation

Delany Burk takes a look at Adultolescence, and why the poetry collection isn’t worth picking up.

Gabbie Hanna, Adultolescence, $16.99, ISBN 978-5011-7832-0

Adultolescence by Gabbie Hanna is a playful and childish book of poetry, paired with Hanna’s own simple and beautiful artwork. It explores the mentality and struggles of the new adult generation, as well as the influence of social media on mental health and real life relationships.

The book depicts grueling subjects such as breakups, the struggle to find oneself, and even depression and suicide. However, despite the subjects, Adultolescence remains sarcastic and immature. The childishness of Hanna’s poetry has its charm, and follows the newly developed “Twitter-speak” form of poetry which derives its language and audience from the short, cynical style of the new social-media-crazed population. However, this style does not serve the subject matter in an effective way.

Some of the poems follow a rhyme scheme, yet are too short to fully carry it out. The poem HIDE (15) for example, follows an AA rhyme scheme, and explores the effects of hiding depression and other mental health issues. But this poem is too short to have an important or influential message of any kind. It seems that these subjects, which are common topics among teens and young adults today, are only there for the reader to relate to. In addition to falling short in the linguistic department, the shorter poems deal with heavier topics like mental health issues, even addressing death and the desire to die, or wanting someone else to die; yet the poems seem to trivialize these issues. For example, POUT examines these issues in an immature way, saying, “life sucks. be grateful, you woke up this morning. that’s the worst part.” (8-9) This type of language is often used by teenagers today; they joke about these feelings in conversation in order to mask them, using humor as a coping mechanism, which is not often a positive message for someone to be promoting. These short anecdotes are paralleled by longer poems and anecdotes which seem repetitive and dry, devoid of the sarcasm and wit that is present, albeit misused, in the shorter poems.

The art is interactive, often incorporating the poem into the drawing in one way or another. At times the art pairs well with the pieces, but ultimately does not help readers obtain a meaningful takeaway. Hanna is clearly artistically inclined, as her drawings are impressively detailed, while still sticking to a line art style. The realism of the drawings may take readers by surprise, as the people in them are easily recognisable, and often appear with Gabbie in her YouTube videos. All of these positive traits, however, do not make up for the writing, some of which is worked into the drawings in rather disappointing ways. One example of this is a poem titled “K,” which is an blank page, except for a text bubble with the letter “K” inside and a read receipt underneath.

Adultolescence follows a common thread, which seems to have stemmed from the Milk and Honey phenomenon, and follows the same pattern of good artwork paired with–at best–mediocre writing. Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur was one of the highest grossing poetry books of 2017, and was Number Two on Amazon’s Best Seller list. It is widely loved and cited as an aesthetically pleasing and relatable work by many teen readers. That being said, Milk and Honey shows a pop-culture side of poetry, rather than the traditional style which uses beautiful language, and images found in the work of poets like Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. This new and vulgar style is now simply being accepted by readers without much thought, due to its easily interpreted, relatable content.

Adultolescence–along with Milk and Honey–represents a new idea of “money grab” poetry, which stems from social media influencers, and the new Internet-focused generation. These influencers write books in the anecdotal style of Twitter and other word-space-limited social media platforms, and then claim them to be artistic and poetic, when really it is a way for an already well known celebrity to make even more money. People like Gabbie Hanna, who could be considered second tier influencers, and have a smaller audience than other big-name YouTubers, often share their financial situation with their fans and may have a lower income than larger influencers. This somewhat justifies the “easy money” of writing and selling books, as it pulls in readers from a smaller fan base, and expands the writer’s brand.

However, this does not justify the claim of “art.” Adultolescence does not represent what poetry really is to most published poets. The claim of poetry and art should be reserved for beautiful, intelligent, and playful works, and should not be applied to collections of on-trend, relatable, and sarcastic content, which sells more copies than authentic art, due to the popularity of the writer rather than the quality of the work.

By Delany Burk

Allison Benis White Interview

The Parallax staff interviews Allison Benis White, an author and professor of poetry.

Allison Benis-White is a renowned poet from Southern California. She has published three books: Self-Portrait with Crayon (2009), Small Porcelain Head (2013), and Please Bury Me in This (2017). She is currently a poetry professor at the University of California, Riverside.  

 

Q: Have you always written poetry and if so, when did you start writing it?

 

A: I first started writing when I was sixteen, and it was traditional high school poetry: angst, and, you know, a lot of violence. Then, I had a boyfriend who had an ex-girlfriend who was a writer, and he introduced me to her, and she took me to my first poetry reading in Venice, California, in a place called Beyond Baroque. It was this huge reading for a literary journal, maybe thirty people read, and my life was transformed by hearing that reading. I mean, before that, I had written in some casual way an adolescent writes, but after that reading I was bewitched. I was enamored with poetry, and not so much with the vision of, “I’m going to devote my life to this genre,” but there were much sharper desires to make something on the page that lasted. So, when I started going to college, I began taking literature classes and studying poetry. Poetry’s always been my genre. I wrote one short story in a creative writing class, and it was okay. The experience of writing in fiction—in prose, really, was tedious for me. There wasn’t a lot of pleasure in it. Whereas writing poetry there always was and still is this great energy and excitement and urgency, and a sense of invention. Somehow, for me, writing in prose— traditional prose, because I do write prose poetry— always felt constricting. I don’t know why, exactly, and I don’t know if that will last, but so far I’m a single genre person.

 

Q: Do you have any advice for young writers?

 

A: The only advice that I think is useful is to read widely, to be patient, and to try and find your own conviction. Those are the three things that kept me in a space where the work feels alive. Advice is a tricky thing, because everybody’s particular. I guess it’s less advice and more of the things that I hold dear and that have kept me in motion.

 

Q: What’s your process when writing ekphrastic poems? Have you written other ekphrastic poems [ekphrastic poetry is poetry written in response to other works of art (i.e., paintings, films, other poems, etc.)] inspired by other art?

 

A: I got this opportunity to go to London by myself, and I was visiting all of the museums I wanted to visit and in one of the gift shops I found this postcard of Degas’ painting, “Combing the Hair.” It’s a young girl, maybe thirteen years old. She has long, red hair, and an au pair is combing her hair. She appears to be in pain–she has curled fists. The whole painting is in reds and oranges, and I was completely enamoured with it. So I bought it, and I brought it home and I set it on my desk a few weeks later. Then, just as a writing exercise I decided to respond to it. I was familiar with ekphrastic poetry, I certainly didn’t know that word, but I knew people wrote in response to paintings. It was a really sort of spontaneous writing exercise, and I found that when I wrote about that painting, I was able to write about my mom leaving when I was very young in a way that I had never been able to do before. I had tried to write about that experience before, but the poems would always end up feeling repetitive, hysterical, and unsatisfying, so I just shoved that topic aside. Somehow, writing in response to that painting facilitated this kind of speech for me. So I tried it again with another Degas painting, and it worked again; I was able to articulate in this really surprising way. I didn’t think this was going to be a book. I was just really happy to be making something that was surprising to me and where I could discover things, so I just kept writing in response to his paintings and it kept working. I was able to go deeper and deeper into stranger spaces and that continued on until I had a manuscript length amount of these poems.

 

Q: Why Degas for this collection specifically?

 

A: Why Degas? I didn’t really understand it, I just capitalized on it, and I didn’t study Degas while I was writing these poems. I was just viewing the painting as a common viewer of art. I didn’t want to be an academic that studied the nature of Degas. However, towards the end of this process I did do some research on him, casually, and I found that his mother had passed when he was very young. There were also rumors that he was impotent. Both of those things are interesting to me because he paints so many dancers, that’s his main gig. So, I thought maybe the loss of his mother and the desire and the inner way to talk about stillness… it’s something I’ve relied upon and it continues to be fruitful.

 

Q: Throughout Self-Portrait with Crayon, you make use of large motifs like abandonment, as well as many smaller motifs. Did these small motifs show up on their own or did you weave them into the pieces purposefully?

 

A: There was no conscious weaving of themes. The way I wrote the poems was sentence by sentence in this state of meditating on each painting. I tried to allow the language to direct the poem. I was conscious of the themes that were emerging, but I never said, for example, “Oh, I need to braid in this theme.” The themes were so prevalent that, regardless of intention, they were going to reveal themselves. But I tried to be led by the painting and the language versus by the theme or a biographical incident.

 

Q: When you were writing this collection, were you focused more on the music or the narrative?

 

A: The music. Almost 100%. I mean I also think the music, the language, was inspired by the meditation on the paintings. And I wrote them sentence by sentence, via the ear. The first line or sentence would dictate, sonically, ultimately, the second line. And when I say sonically, I don’t think that it’s entirely accurate to say that was the driving force, because of course there’s image, and of course there’s pattern, and the narrative, etc. But I think the thing is, especially with prose poetry, is that the ear has to be at work, because you don’t have the luxury of breaking the line, so to keep it buoyant, the ear really has to be awake. As for the narrative, there are very few truly narrative moments in the book, maybe five or six. The narrative and the music and the imagery and the connection between the speaker’s mind and Degas’ mind, that is what I think is driving the book.

 

Q: How did you know you were done with the collection, and what was it like going through the contest system?

 

A: I knew it was finished because I continued writing these pieces and I started feeling like I was repeating myself, that I wasn’t discovering anything new, or whatever I had discovered I had said better somewhere else. That happened three or four times in a row, and I started to think, “Hmm, I think this is winding down, I think I have expressed myself as completely as I possibly can using this tactic.” And another practical signifier was that once I hit about 48 pages, which is usually the minimum page requirement for the contest system, I was like, well, if I start repeating myself or losing steam at this point, it’s okay to stop, because I have an entire manuscript. In other words, I would’ve been very sad if at the twenty-fifth poem, it had stopped working— which I would’ve accepted, but I was fortunate to have written enough to be manuscript length.  

And the contest system, it’s huge now. There are many reputable presses that have blind submissions, so one would submit their manuscript via Submittable, usually with a fee of $15-25, so it’s a little expensive, and the idea is that there’s a group of screeners who whittle the manuscripts down to 20-25 manuscripts which get sent to a final judge, usually somebody of note, and if your manuscript is selected you usually get a small monetary prize– something like $1000, and a publication contract. This is a really common way that poets get published nowadays, because poetry’s not a commodity, you don’t have an agent, no publisher is going to make a bunch of money off of your poetry collection. It’s a way for unknown writers to get published, to provide some income for the press, and to create a space for newer writers. Very rarely are poets discovered, or have the luxury of having an agent going around trying to get editors to notice your work. I published through the contest system for my first book, and for my second book, and now the press that published my second book has agreed to publish my third book. So, ostensibly, I have a press now, which is the dream of any writer, to have a press that supports you and wants to publish you. I think my beginning is a very common beginning for modern poets.

 

Q: Do you find yourself editing as you go or writing and then revising?

 

A: I’ve done both. With Self Portrait, I actually edited as I went along; I wanted each line to have a sense of completion before the next line, and so on. It was a tedious process. I remember on a good writing day, I would write three good sentences in a row. And that was very taxing. And then the next day, I would go back to the same piece and write three or four more sentences. Very rarely would it tumble down the page, would I complete a poem in one sitting. It was usually many, many sittings, one sentence at a time. But then, more recently, I’ve periodically written more quickly, understood that all of the raw material was there, and then went back and edited acutely. So I’ve done both, but with Self Portrait with Crayon, it was very tedious sentence by sentence, word by word process, and I just couldn’t write them any other way. But with more recent work, I could sort of streamline.

 

Q: Have other poets inspired your writing, and do they differ from the poets that you read?

 

A: I think the poets I read are the poets that inspire me. The initial poets that inspired me were Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I found them when I was very young, as many young people do, and they still continue to inspire me, specifically Plath; her work continues to burn through me. Later, when I was in college, I found Louise Glück, specifically the book The Wild Iris, and that book also is the gold standard for me, still. And then there’s another book that is less well known, by this woman named Killarney Clary, called Who Whispered Near Me. It’s a book of prose poems; I think I discovered it in graduate school. That book changed me and gave me a vision for something I wanted to do. I think Plath, Glück, and Clary are the three writers that continue to inspire me and give me the ambition to write something with that kind of heartbeat.

 

Q: Can you tell us about your mother and how she inspired this book?

 

A: Sure. So, my mom left me and my father sometime between when I was a year/year and a half old. Of course, I was very young, so I don’t remember any of this. As I was growing up, we never talked about her. I didn’t know where she was. There was no reason given, I just knew that she was gone. I knew she wasn’t dead, I knew she was alive, although nobody talked about it. I just grew up with my father. Then, just before I turned eight, she called, and a few weeks later, she showed up, and I met her. That’s the language I use, because I didn’t remember her. After that, my dad ended up having a nervous breakdown and going to a mental hospital so I ended up living with my mother for a few years. So I did get to know her in that way, but after that I ended up moving back in with my father, and she’s always lived up north, in Northern California, so… We’re not close. We have a relationship. We talk on the phone periodically. I think the question is always why? Why did she leave, why did she come back, what’s going on? I still don’t have answers to those questions. I still don’t fully understand.

 

Q: Has [your mother] read Self Portrait with Crayon?

 

A: She has! She wrote me a letter and said something to the effect of: Her approach to reading the book and her experience of reading the book allowed her to be proud (of me) rather than be ashamed (of herself). So, that was interesting, and I appreciated that. I did call her, when I found out the book was going to be published, and told her, “FYI, this is the anchoring subject matter of this book,” and that it wasn’t disparaging her. I didn’t write the book to disparage her, but rather I was writing from this enormous silence and mystery that has characterized my life. But, I did want to give her the dignity to know. And, I mean, it’s poetry, it’s not like we’re going on Oprah discussing this. So yeah, there is that connection. She has read what I have made. But there’s an endless mystery to my mother, and me writing that collection didn’t resolve it.

 

Q: When you finished  Self Portrait With Crayon, what was it like to start a new collection?

 

A: I don’t remember exactly. I remember being relieved when it was done. And I remember organizing it, which was an extraordinary task for me because I didn’t write them in a sort of sequence, so I had to truly think about how the poems were going to unfold, which was very challenging, so I remember a feeling of relief. My friend had committed suicide about six months before I finished Self Portrait with Crayon, so I already had this other terrible grief in my life, and I knew, because that’s how I process being alive, I knew I wanted to put pen to page in some way, responding to my friend’s death. So I didn’t really grieve Self Portrait, because I had this other grief. I think it took about a year to really find a way to write about my friend’s death, and that’s what became my second book. So that’s my memory of letting go of Self Portrait: I felt a sense of relief, and then tried to find a way back in.

 

Sisyphus and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

A short play exploring self awareness and creation in its many forms.

Play opens on Sisyphus standing at the bottom of a hill under azure sky, preparing to roll the stone up to the top of a rather large hill.

Stone (indignantly): Not this again.
Sisyphus: What?
Stone: You rolling me up to the top of this hill. I’m getting rather tired of it. Day in day out it’s all we do,you just roll me up to the top of this hill and I roll back down to the bottom again. And then we do that again. It’s a totally boring story.
Sisyphus: They enjoy it.
Stone: Who enjoys it?
Sisyphus: Them, the reader. The people who are reading this story right now.
Stone: How could they possibly enjoy it? It ends the same way every time. You roll me up to the top of this hill and then I fall down.
Sisyphus (thoughtfully): I think they see it as a sort of triumph of the human spirit sort of thing. I keep rolling you up the hill even though I know you’ll fall down when I get to the top.
Stone: Don’t they know you were forced to do this? You’re doing this as punishment. It’s not like you have another choice.
Sisyphus: Yeah, but despite being punished I still find happiness.
Stone: Who’s making you do this anyway?
Sisyphus: It’s the gods.
Stone: Who are the gods?
Sisyphus: They’re people who live up in the sky except they live forever and have control over humans and the earth.
Stone: I think I understand, but why do they make you roll me up this hill?
Sisyphus: I’m not exactly sure.
Stone (at this point generally confused): I don’t know who these gods are but they
have some explaining to do.

 

Silence echoes up the mountain, it is broken. Here it is, a giant bolt of lightning striking from the sky and appearing out of the darkness the Greek god Zeus. Enter Zeus.

 

Zeus (dressed in armor, bearded, and with a genuinely ironic smile on his face): Good morning Sisyphus. How are you doing today?
Sisyphus (the mere sight of Zeus serving as catalyst for all his fiery blood): Horrible, I’m feeling horrible.
Zeus: And why is that?
Sisyphus: Isn’t it obvious? I have to roll this rock– this large, heavy, fairly unsymmetric rock –up a hill, and I have to do this for eternity. And you’re the one that made me do this. You’re the reason I’m feeling horrible and you’re the reason I’ll be feeling horrible for the rest of time.
Zeus: Well how do you think I feel? I have to watch you.
Sisyphus: What?
Zeus: Yes, that’s my punishment. I am destined to sit at the bottom of this mountain and watch you roll this stone to the top of this hill and then have it roll back down. And isn’t that not much worse?Sisyphus: But you never do anything you just sit there and watch me. Why don’t you just let me free?Zeus: You think I’m pulling the strings up here? You think I get to make all the important decisions, snap my fingers and solve all your problems? I’ve got people I have to answer to.
Sisyphus: But you’re god.
Zeus: You have your gods and I have mine.
Sisyphus: So what you’re saying is there are other gods who control you and who mankind has no idea about.

Zeus: That’s right. I could pray to them if you’d like.

Silence.

Zeus: You know, if you’re really interested in complaining I’d talk to the author.
Sisyphus: What author?
Zeus: The author of the play we’re in right now. He’s the one who really has it out for you.


Enter the author, a telegenic young man with the look of brilliance about him. It should become clear 
to the reader right now that this author guy is an absolute genius worthy of the highest honor and praise.

 

Author: Oh, goodness. I’ve never been in one of my own stories before, what an absolute delight. Tell me did that description make me sound fat? It made me sound fat, didn’t it? I’ve ruined it. Let me try again, it’s alright. I’ll just jump out and jump right back in, it’ll only take a second.

 

The author disappears. Suddenly the author, a man extraordinary in both intellect and physique,reappears on the scene hoping that this time his entrance will better convey his general appearance.

 

Author: Hmmmm. Seems a little bit dull, doesn’t it? It lacks a theatrical touch, yes it does…this will not do as my introduction. Let me try, just one more time, I’m sure this one will be fantastic.

 

The author disappears to try his introduction yet again, a gag which must be appearing increasingly cliche to the reader, the author apologizes. He means well. With no further ado, the author appears once again, ready to finish this brilliant little play.

 

Author: That was the worst one yet. I simply must give it — interrupted.
Sisyphus (frustrated and in a loud voice): Stop it.Author: I’m terribly sorry, it’s just you only get one chance at a first impression.

Sisyphus: Exactly.

 

The characters feeling slightly awkward about the presence of the author are all silent.

 

Author: So why am I here again?
Sisyphus: I have it on good authority that you’re the one who’s making me roll this stone up the hill for eternity.
Author: Well, yes. I suppose.
Sisyphus (furious): What is the matter with you? Eternity? Are you mad?
Author: I thought the reader would be inspired by you, a sort of triumph of the human spirit sort of thing.
Stone: I told you.
Sisyphus: But eternity? Can’t I just die, can’t you just kill me? Why must I live for eternity?
Author: Live for eternity or die for eternity. There’s no way around it.
Sisyphus: Let me die for eternity.
Author (slowly working up a frustration himself): You know if you don’t stop complaining I’ll make you roll that stone up the hill for two eternities.
Sisyphus: That doesn’t even make sense.
Author: Doesn’t make what?
Sisyphus: That doesn’t make-
Author: Oh, sense. That makes sense.
Sisyphus: That makes what?
Author: Sense.
Sisyphus: Sense?

Author: It’s a common word. You should get out more.

 

Silence. Again.

 

Sisyphus: I still don’t understand why you need to make me continue rolling a stone up a hill. Are you a sadist or something?
Author: I’m not a sadist, I’m just an author. Answer not satisfying Sisyphus, the author restarts.You think it’s up to me? Why, I’ve got people I need to impress, people I need to please with this story.I need to impress committees, I need to get into a college with this for god’s sake. If I let you off, with say, 100 years of rolling a stone up a hill, then people are going to be absolutely furious. They’re going to whine about how it’s unrealistic, about how they feel cheated and then all that hate is going to comedown on me. There are going to be organized protesters and nasty letters and it’s just not something I’m prepared to deal with. It’s much better for you to suffer your entirely fictional life for me so that I can happily live mine.
Sisyphus: So, in other words, you have your gods too?

Author: Hundreds.

 

The characters at this point all stop and share a very brief moment. Notice how I said that the characters all stop and not the people all stop. That’s because, as the reader has undoubtedly forgotten by this point, the characters are not real people and are merely a projection of the author’s imagination. These characters, like you and me and all real people, could be at any moment pummeled, hanged, squashed, shot, crucified, buried, or otherwise knocked out of life.

 

Sisyphus: You and I, we are not so different.
Author: No, in fact we are exactly the same.
Sisyphus: Indeed, could you not, for my (or rather your) sake create another Sisyphus to roll the stone up the hill in my place.
Author: Sorry, but no. There would be little to no precedent for that. It would shock people.
Sisyphus: Bah. Aren’t you good for anything?
Author: Am I?
Sisyphus: Are you?
Author: Who, me?
Sisyphus: I don’t know I asked you.
Author: Asked me what?
Sisyphus: I asked, are you?
Author: Am I what?
Sisyphus: I don’t know.
Zeus: Who?
Author: You know Sisyphus, sometimes I feel we struggle to communicate.

Sisyphus: What?

 

At this point a silence descends over our mighty cast of characters and they reach what seems to be a profound and lasting understanding.

Sisyphus (breaking the quite lengthy silence)So now what?

 

Author: Back to you rolling that stone up the hill for the rest of time, that’s what this is all about after all.
Stone: I thought it was more about you writing a play so that you could gain all this respect and admiration. You probably think you’re pretty clever referencing yourself all the time, you probably think this is how you’re going to get your respect and admiration. You probably think that if you keep doing this the audience is going to view the author as an actual character and forget who you are. You’re not fooling me author, you’re in control of everything here. Everybody listen the author is a fake character who should not be trusted.
Author: No, I’m not. I’m a real character. Look at me I’m in the play.Stone: Only because you wrote yourself into the play.
Author: I’ll write you out of the play if you keep mouthing off to me, I am your author for Zeus’ sake. I control you at this very moment.
Stone: Screw you. I’ll talk about whatever I want.

Author: That’s it, you’re out.

 

With a snap of his fingers and the explosion of some yellow and decidedly metaphysical smoke, the stone ceases to exist.

 

Sisyphus (alarmed)What was that all about?
Author: What?
Sisyphus: You just made him disappear.
Author: I could make all of you disappear, I’m the author.
Zeus (a cool annoyance playing upon his face): This play makes no sense at all, you should stick to whatever else you’re good at and leave us alone.
Author: I’m not good at anything else.
Stone: You’re not particularly good at this either.

Author: How’d you get back in here?

 

With another finger snap the stone is once again gone.

Author (
frustrated at the defiance of his characters, viewing this incident as a rebellion against a
Zeus: I agree with Sisyphus, by making your work more plot based you could appeal to a much larger, much less Existentialist population.
Sisyphus (after a short pause, now scratching his chin): Also it seems you have a habit repeating the same things over and over again. For example, you have already used the word ‘clever’ six times, in this short play. Also you’re often quite redundant.
Zeus: A pattern of tautology as well if I’m not mistaken.
Sisyphus: Indeed.
Author: Stop saying that. Stop criticizing me.
Sisyphus: But you’re the author, you’re making us say these things.
Author: That is true, my self-deprecating sense of humor has always been a large flaw of mine. I’d say my self-deprecation is the main reason why I have not and never will amount to anything and the reason why I feel I need to assert absolute and total control over fictional characters.
Sisyphus: Wait, so let me get this straight, you have complete control over us?
Author: That’s right.
Sisyphus: You can make us do whatever you want?
Author: Bingo.
Sisyphus: So I don’t really have any free will?
Author: I made you say that. I’m picking whatever you say, next you’ll complain about how this is all horribly unfair.
Sisyphus: This is all horribly unfair.
Author: God, Sisyphus you complain a lot. I should have chosen a more likable main character, this little story would sell a lot better.
Sisyphus: You would complain too if you had to roll a stone up a hill for eternity and then to add insult to injury a dumb little author appeared every once in awhile to make things awful for you. Can you imagine how hard it is for me?
Author: Nobody cares about your little sob story.
Sisyphus: Are you kidding me? I have to roll this stone up for a hill for eternity.
Author: Yeah, we get it. You’ve already complained about this stone thing.
Sisyphus: For eternity, do you have any idea how long that is going to take? By the time I’m finished I’m gonna be all old and gray and decrepit. Pauses. How long is eternity anyway?
Author: Well, let me think…….(mumbles under his breath, does the math in his head) divide by three, carry the one…..
Zeus: It is quite simple to prove that not all infinities are of equal size. Cantorian diagonalization can be used to prove that since infinities lack bijection-
Author (still mumbling, doing math in his enormous head): Multiply by the square root of 2 …..add two pi over five….
Zeus (continuing on): — and some sets can naturally be mapped onto larger sets (ie the set of square numbers onto the set of positive integers). Therefore it is impossible to say how large your infinity is.
Author: 127 years. Infinity is equal to 127 years. I have proved it.
Sisyphus: Well that’s not so bad. I feel I have an infinity or two yet in these limbs.
Author: Good thing, you never can know how many infinities I’ll make you work through.
Sisyphus: I’d rather live through an infinity of infinities than spend another second with you.
Author: You know you’re really starting to piss me off.
Sisyphus: What are you going to do write me out of the story? The story doesn’t make any sense without me.

Author: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

 

The author, a man of infinite wit and perfect judgement, writes out Sisyphus. Sisyphus has ceased to exist.

 

Author: Jesus Christ, I work every goddamn day writing these tiny little characters. I give them their own little minds and their own little thoughts and what do they do? They turn on me. The little bastards. Why did I choose to write when I could have gone and become a policeman or a soldier or some other easy job?
Zeus: So I guess it’s just you and me.

Author: Screw you.

 

The author begins to write out the character Zeus when he is interrupted-

 

Author’s conscience: Are you sure this is wise? If you write out Zeus it will just be you alone in this story and that’s not particularly interesting, is it?

Author: Screw you too.

 

Author proceeds to write out both Zeus and his own conscience. There is a profound emptiness, a silence, as the author realizes that he is all alone in this universe and that without the illusions created by his own mind that he is truly a pirate in a sea of cosmic emptiness.

 

Author (lonely, smiling): So much for pathos.

 

So much for pathos.

 

Ted Baas is a student at Holland Christian High School. His interests include reading and writing.

Christopher DeWan: The American Dream and the Future of Television.

Fellow student Kalista Puhnaty and I sat down with Christopher DeWan to talk life, writing, his career, and his new book of short stories, Hoopty Time Machines.

Christopher DeWan is author of HOOPTY TIME MACHINES: fairy tales for grown ups, a collection of domestic fabulism from Atticus Books. He has published more than fifty stories in journals including Bodega, Gravel, Hobart, Passages North, and wigleaf, and has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. In 2017, he was named as one of the ISA’s “Top 25” screenwriters and recipient of a fellowship from the Middlebury Script Lab. 

 

Chris started with the history of his relationship to literature, and how it grew into his life as a writer.

 

My mom was an English teacher and when she wanted to celebrate something, she would take us to a bookstore as a special treat. At the end of the school year, we would celebrate by binge-buying a bunch of books.

In terms of a “writing career” I think of that term as an oxymoron. Leaving school environments and going into adult environments and figuring out what role I wanted writing to play in my life changed a lot. I worked for ad agencies for a while, then I was a blogger. I had a decently well known blog. Writing came up in a lot of different ways so that even when I wasn’t writing, I thought of myself as a writer. I worked in theater for a long time, partly as a playwright but I ran a couple theaters for a couple of years. It wasn’t always writing, but it was always stories.

 

His debut collection of these stories, Hoopty Time Machines, opens with an epigraph: “In olden times, when wishing still helped…” It’s a pregnant introduction; the ellipses are ominous, suggesting that what’s to come is a world where the hopefulness of the old world still holds some magical play. But these tales aren’t sweetly magical or thinly veiled moral lessons. Goldilocks navigates the modern dating world while juggling jobs, a husband watches his wife have an affair with Poseidon after they meet on a kayaking trip, the last man on Earth blogs about solitude. What follows the epigraph is over forty stories, or “fairy tales for grown ups,” as the subtitle calls them.

 

The stories that repeat in our daily lives become personal mythologies. DeWan identifies these myths and presents them to us, sometimes as revitalized classics; those legends and fairy tales we’ve heard since children.

 

The stories in [Hoopty Time Machines], I wrote over the span of four or five years, and I wrote other stories that weren’t a part of that book. But for the book I wanted stories that were already familiar to us, whether it was a myth or a fairy tale, but something we all knew so we could look for other ways to see it, hold it up, and show something a little different.

In that book, a lot of stories go back to Greek mythology. The label “fairy tale” came later when I was talking to the editor of the book. I was like, Oh yea haha these are like fairy tales for grown ups, and he was like, I can market that! We’ll make millions!

A lot of what glued those stories together was that it had a lot to do with the hopes and aspirations we have. It was a lot of American dreamy fairy tales, the fact that we all buy into the idea that our futures will be a certain way, and then we go down certain paths looking for those things, and that might or might not come true, but it’s never what we expected it would be. And ultimately that was the fairy tale that was at the heart of a lot of those stories that glued them all together.

The reason the book starts with a story that explicitly calls out the American dream, and the last story does the same thing, is because I wanted to make sure people felt that vibe even after we talked about Greek mythology and Rapunzel and Goldilocks, that it was still couched in the aspirations we all have to live happily ever after, and how hard that is in real life, how irreconcilable that is with real life.

 

The first story in the book captures this irreconcilable disjunction between the fairy tale world we pursue and its evil twin, reality. The piece is titled “Conestoga Wagon,” and it goes like this: “When he lost his job at Best Buy, Dad packed all of our things into a Conestoga wagon and we crossed the border into Canada, in search of the American Dream.”

 

“Conestoga Wagon,” like its counterparts in the collection, sits at the junction between our modern reality (the loss of a retail job), and the fairytale world where our hopes and dreams originate (traveling by mystical Conestoga wagon). It ends critical of the American dream, our great, looming fairytale, and the fact that it can’t be found here, but in another country altogether.

 

DeWan presents a series of easily digestible ideas, but they left me satisfied as I turned the page. A previous story would often hit me while I was in the middle of reading the next. And this is no mistake or distraction. The stories build on each other, expanding on a world where “wishing still helped,” even when it seems to be no help at all. There are many hapless people struggling to deal with a world where logic and reason is replaced by wonder.

 

There was a point two thirds through writing the story that I became aware of what kept coming up. And then I realized, oh that’s what I’m writing about, and I could do it more consciously instead of accidentally. With the stories in the book in particular, some of them are so short. They were just accidents. I’m always writing and there would just be some weird idea that got stuck in my head and I decided to write about that for twenty minutes. So they didn’t start with a lot of intention, they just bubbled up out of an image that I couldn’t quite puzzle out. Later I figured out, oh, this image added up to this story, and this added up to this story, and this added up to this and so on. Once I realized that, I decided that’s what the book will be.

I think naturally, there’s the stuff you’re interested in and you can’t get away from, so if you put enough words on paper, those will be the words that keep repeating, the stuff you’re already obsessed with.

And it doesn’t mean we can’t write other things too, and it doesn’t mean we can’t do it with more intention. Like some of those stories came up by accident, but some of them I steered. But I do think that the more layers we peel off, and the more honest we can be with ourselves, the more we keep going back to those same themes, those things we really, really, really care about, whether we know it or not.

 

Hoopty Time Machines offers up stories with various depths. Many stories are perfectly short to meet the required idea within. “Sacramento,” for example:

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into some other one.”

Even though it’s a one liner, “Sacramento,” feels like a complete story. Others are one paragraph, or just a page.

 

In the stories in this book, sometimes I wanted it to just be enough to evoke a question. In some cases the question was more interesting than the answers to the question. With “Sacramento,” I wanted to think about all the other possible alternatives to this one story that we all know somewhat well, this cultural troupe. All of a sudden I wanted to imagine all of the things that didn’t happen.

The first story in the book, [“Conestoga Wagon”] the one I mentioned earlier, is just a sentence about this family who goes to Canada looking for the American dream. I could’ve written, and then they settle in Canada and become micro brewers and learn hockey, or whatever. But for me it was about invoking the possibility and putting a little crack in the myth of the American dream. That was all I wanted and then it was time to get out.

The longer stories were more character based. A character intrigued me more and had more going on so I couldn’t really dismiss them with a couple funny lines, I had to live with them a little longer and try to recon with their complexities a little more.

 

DeWan does well to trust the power in the economy of his words. The length of these stories perfectly match their reach. But even the shortest stories tell us as much about their close little worlds as ten pagers, like “Rapunzel’s Tangles.”  I was hard pressed to find a superfluous word or detail that detracted from the punch of a story.

 

Some of the stories in the book are so short, shorter than people are used to or might expect, and easy for people to dismiss. Like, how much substance can there be?

There’s this Argentine writer named Augusto Monterroso, and he wrote this story I read many years ago. I think the whole story went like this: “When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” And that’s the whole story.

Again, all the questions of that are so much more interesting. Why was the dinosaur there? How did the dinosaur get there? What happened the night before? Right? It’s just this weird thing that cracks my brain for a second.

Ever since I read that story I wanted to write those little zen koan of stories that make people see things a little differently, at least for a minute.

There’s a story in this book where the first draft was like a thousand words long, and I started cutting some things that were getting in the way of the real essence of it. And I was cutting and cutting and cutting and I got it down to eighty three words. At a thousand words it can go either direction, it can either be a clever thing that can help you see things in a new way and then it’s done, or it can be about real people, and reveal things about people that are complex, that could never be done in just a thousand words.

It feels like you’re trying to crack a gemstone. You have this raw thing and you’re trying to chisel away the parts to make it perfect as much as you can. And that’s different than a bigger story. A bigger story has to be messier. The rewards in that story come from some of the mess. I think in an eighty three word story, if there’s mess in there then there’s an impurity in the gemstone.

 

Chris is well versed in these “bigger stories.” His website boasts a series of screenplays. He also teaches a weekly TV writing course at Idyllwild Arts Academy.

 

I moved back to LA in 2010. I’d been in New York for a bunch of years doing this blog and writing fiction, but by then all of my playwriting friends from when I was in theatre had moved back to LA and were doing TV. So I got back and they were like, Why aren’t you doing TV? And they were getting nicer and nicer houses so I was like, Why aren’t I doing TV?

I’ve been working in and around Hollywood since then. I didn’t really start on TV writing until 2012. I do think because of that whole prior decade where I was working in theater, TV feels more continuous to me.

The there was this giant migration of theatre people to TV. There are so many TV writers now who are just TV writers that if you just walk in the door and you’re like Hi, I write fiction, they’re like Have a seat, have a drink, make yourself comfortable. They’re fascinated just by the fact that you’re a little different. That absolutely happened to playwrights, they got taken way more seriously for having studied craft instead of just going to film school.

What was shiny and new and refreshing to all the bored Hollywood executives were these new writers who were suddenly new to television and trying to bring new things. Particularly at this time where TV itself is getting weird and breaking all its rules. The whole medium has turned itself out in the past decade, and in the past five years, and in the past two years, and in the past six months, with not even the stuff we think of as TV but with web series and shorter form things, there are so many different ways people are trying to tell stories right now.

I’m working on a virtual reality project, and no one knows how this works, no one has had one that actually works yet. There are a couple experiments that are kind of interesting but kinda don’t work. But no one knows the story that you can tell in virtual reality that doesn’t work as a gimmick but works as a story.

As the executives realized the medium was changing, they got really curious to get people who were interested in a variety of storytelling platforms.

TV stories are at the other polar extreme of those really short short stories that I was talking about. Those really short short stories can get by on being clever because once you have the idea it’s over. A TV story is never over, so clever isn’t enough. Clever is enough to get people laughing. The only thing that makes a TV story work is that I have to care about the people, and they have to be going on this journey that I can invest in. It doesn’t mean I have to like them, it doesn’t mean they have to be doing things I want to do, but if I can’t find a reason to care about them and all of their ongoing heartbreaks, disappointments and struggles.

Striving is a key ingredient in a TV show, the characters don’t have what they want, so they’re striving to get something, and by the end of the episode they won’t get it, or they’ll get it and it won’t satisfy the thing they wanted. And then they keep striving. If they were ever to quit striving, the show would be over. Whatever human engine drives them is really compelling, to look at people that deeply, and have this longform opportunity to understand how people work when they’re colliding with other people. Particularly when they’re colliding with the same people every week, and their relationships get deeper and stranger and more like our relationships.

The first show that made me realize this was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s the twentieth anniversary of Buffy today, but I still love it because it does all those things. It dressed itself up as this light, silly, clever show. This light gemstone of a show — this girl’s going to go kill vampires, how cute and clever — and then it totally tricked me into loving those characters, and crying over them, and wanting what they wanted. When I watched the ad, I thought that show was going to be fun. Instead, I wound up weeping week after week after week, and having fun. But if I hadn’t cared about them, I wouldn’t have watched it for seven consecutive years.

 

Chris just touched on this word “tricked.” I was wondering how that played a role in his story telling. How does this affect a screenwriter’s relationship with the audience?

 

You have a relationship with the audience where you’re promising certain things, and if you ever don’t deliver on that promise, they’ll stop watching. So you can’t trick them at that level. You can’t promise them a show about a cute cheerleader who will kill vampires and it will be fun and funny all the time, and then give them something different and expect them to keep watching. So you trick them at that level. I think you trick them at the level of a constant sleight of hand where the character is almost going to get what they want, or they do get that thing, and the trick is that only once they arrive did they learn that the thing they needed to learn wouldn’t help them. That the thing they thought they wanted wasn’t what was missing. And it keeps the story going.

The trick is all the tricks that keep a story going. How can you be more clever, or more interesting, or more revealing, or more honest?

Another show I really admire is Six Feet Under. It’s not really plot driven at all, it’s just this family and they’re stuck together, but the way that story keeps going is they just keep peeling off more and more layers of their relationship. Or we see more and more layers of those relationships. The only trick there is that they’re going to keep surprising us just when we think we know them. They’re going to do something that’s not what I expected and yet more right for them than anything I ever would’ve expected. When a show works, I feel it doing that to me: I never saw that coming, but that’s the only thing that could have happened.

Shameless does that a lot. It just goes deeper and deeper and deeper into those people, and we know all the ways they’re going to disappoint us, and yet they manage to disappoint us in ways that are even more disappointing than I ever expected. And then I get my hopes up for them all over again the next time.

 

The differences between prose and TV writing feel obvious to the audience, but as a writer of both, Chris spoke on these differences between the final products and the writing processes themselves.

 

There are a lot of ways where the differences are obvious, but there are other ways where they’re not as different as we think. Either way we’re telling a story. A lot of times I’ll start something, and at the beginning I won’t know if I want to write it as prose, or if I want to write it as a script. It will take a while to feel out the story to know what kind of story it is. The more internal the story is, the more likely it is to be prose. If what I care about is about what’s going on inside your head, then that’s hard to put into a script, but not impossible. But if it’s more about what happens between us, that might work better as a script.

We’re all so saturated in video stories, that we all think pretty cinematically anyway. A lot of fiction that you read might be easy to shoot. Not all fiction, there’s fiction that people create that can only be fiction. You can’t shoot the inside of that person’s head.

TV has forced fiction to get weirder too, more innovative. But there are plenty of people who are not writing fiction like that. Plenty of people are writing fiction that’s more like a movie. There’s obviously a ton of space for them in the marketplace.

For me, if it starts with an image I’ll often scratch at the image in prose until I understand what the image is. Sometimes the image grows into something that will cross paths with the character, and maybe the character then takes the baton and runs with the story from there. At that point, maybe it becomes a script instead. But if it stays with the image, and it doesn’t get the baton passed to the character, it stays in prose. If the thing starts with the character from the outset, if the image that I’m intrigued with is the character, I’ll almost always start that as a script.

There are certain people who only think of themselves as screenwriters so they don’t have to even decide, like people who only think of themselves as prose writers. But for people who do both, every one probably has a different process. I don’t know how other people decide to open up Final Draft, or keep it in Word, at what point they’re like, this isn’t gonna work as a story.

All this writing that we do is trial and error experiments. We try it and see if it works, and if it doesn’t work but we still like the story, we try it in another way. Prose vs. script is another set of choices we can make to decide if the story lives better like this or like that.

 

Chris went on to share the methods he uses to push his writing process forward.

 

I wish I had easy, efficient tricks. A lot of my teaching, I do through writing prompts. I’ll set someone up with a prompt and tell them to write for fifteen minutes. The trick in that case is then the writer doesn’t have to worry about deciding anything. The pressure of deciding what to write gets taken away from you, so you don’t have to do both jobs. You don’t have to be the writer and the teacher if someone else is saying do this. That’s a harder process to do for ourselves. If I give myself a writing prompt, if I get bored, then thirty seconds in I call bullshit on it. I’m like, I gave myself that prompt, I don’t have to do it, there’s no teacher here, so I won’t do it. That means the tricks I use when I’m trying to help other people write aren’t the tricks I use when I’m trying to write.

The tricks I use for myself are grossly inefficient. I just write everyday. I write lots and lots and lots of words. But the words will ramble uselessly if I don’t frame it as trying to solve problems. That helps. The theater background helped me figure that out. Improv games in theater are usually setting a couple actors on stage and asking them to solve this problem. And all of a sudden you have a scene because two people are working on something. If I’m not trying to solve a problem, then I’m usually just journaling and that’s not gonna help me find my story. If I actually flip the switch and say, What problem am I trying to solve, then all of a sudden the work gets a lot more focused.

But it doesn’t keep me from rambling in my journal too, because sometimes I need to filter out the noise. When I’m not trying to solve a problem and I’m just throwing words at the page, that’s just like taking my pulse. I’m just trying to figure out what’s going on in the back of my head.

I vacillate between those. Sometimes I just want to know what’s going on in the back of my head because that’s where I might find the next story. Sometimes I want to take that thing I found and try to hammer it into a story, and that’s when it gets into problem solving.

 

Kalista Puhnaty and Campbell Dixon 

Two Poems by Amelia Van Donsel

Van Donsel’s pieces explores grand American imagery and poetry itself.

Eyes Adjusting to Dark
 
I suppose any work that is done is yet to resurface.
It’ll bubble up,
I think,
As though it is made of
Cloudy little spaces.
Rise
A little sloppy, even.
The busking bodies’d stretch, next
Tucking into the cots of sidewalk,
Hunkering down for that wind that could ruffle ships.
But brave swallows, swallows
Tell all with such a temper!
Don a pace
Of sky and skin and hungry mouth.
The light crescents which dote on this day
Are bilious, all things considered.
To keep the man who grew me
Is to be told that heaven really is just bathtubs of fog.
Clawfoot or drop-in?
Yet the crested firmament has begun
Greasing under my fingertips 
Please don’t touch 
Touch
Don’t 
Don’t touch please
Please.
An ignorant abstention.
 
Calliope
I.
Calliope tells me
That light holds
Too much mercy.
She has not seen the
Barefoot and blessed.
It’s a miracle minus the blood.
I implore her to watch
The silk gowns fill new torsos with light
Pressed all the way through.
The balding monks murmur
Of the interstitial planes of consciousness
Between the hairs of spider legs.
The young are blue-lipped in the luminous waters
That lift skirts of pallid light.
Their skin must smell like petrichor, I think,
O, Christ that cinnamon perfection.
In the basement I am told
I must read them stories
That have teeth big enough to gnaw on God,
About how scenery will be seen,
How fish will be fished,
How gardens will be gardened.
All will be satisfied.
I dropped a seed into pot a week ago.
It didn’t spring yesterday.
Instead I’ll probably find a baby
Growing in between the sidewalk cracks 
The place where bodies crush bone to skin.
Blueberries molding
Under my mother’s refrigerator.
The fields the farmers used to walk
Their market horses through
Weren’t mowed yesterday.
For a moment the sun would blind them
As they crossed that distant yellow haze,
That dust suspended in gas.
They could watch the grass crystalize as
The sun tried to kill the moon.
I long to see that ratty hair thick with sun,
Clouds on backs,
Boots sloshing with gold.
Now their unfinished chapels
Entomb the wants of things
That were once alive.
I can’t tell the difference
Between cold tiles and cold foreheads.
Amidst crooked night voices,
Junk food television,
And picture tube slumbers
I dreamt of us cooking shrimp tempura
As we argued over something I couldn’t see.
You swelled and reddened,
Tongs raking apart the hot pink commas
Until you hauled the wok over your head
Like Goliath and threatened
To pour it down your body.
My knees, my face melted into the floor.
Steaming oil cascaded down my neck,
Bubbling summer exploring my back,
Crawling in a searing, gelatinous wake.
I feel no pain.
Your kitchen body waits there
Until the wallpaper turns to sun,
Then I wake.
The feeling of the empty house
When you return to retrieve something.
Was it waiting for you with bated breath?
Did it miss you?
Calliope, I have met the American people They’re pretty standoffish.
I’ve learned that my handshake
Will never be strong enough
And that there is too much sky 
The world must end somewhere.
The GPS god on my dashboard
Tells me to run with highway packs of beasts
That roam and scavenge as one great machine,
Raking their claws through the earth.
Moon hammers off the hood,
Shoots diamonds into my eyes,
Traps me in a lightbulb of rumpled red leather.
Yellow foam froths at the mouth
Of the upholstery’s wound.
From behind, a thousand bloodshot eyes blink open,
And red spider legs ascend
The cobwebs of forest,
Scissoring them into diamonds.
From ahead, gold lanterns
Sway with gob-eyed goldfish.
They kiss at plastic rest-stops.
Wild men with their thick beards swarming with sun
Stop at gas stations and squeeze out
The dark spit-up beside me, and
A moment suspended between us is forgotten.
Soon it will be blown apart by bildungsromans
Swept off the butt of a flatbed truck
And all that’s blazing and embedded with teeth marks.
I do not care that you are someone who believes
The sun is a golden carriage
And that the moon is an extinct tusk
Dangling over a pounding fire
Or a spotlight loud
Upon millions of pale, upturned faces.
You show me the wet piles of clouds where
Ribboned veins palpitate in bodies in planes
Beating over our heads like red hooves.
You want your heart to be warmed sometimes,
Don’t you? you remind me.
How these little words ring.
You show me how terraces
And sun-butchered landscapes bleed white
From the wide pores of the earth.
Its sweaty legs spreadIn all its ravenous impulses.
No secrets yielded.
You leave a yellowed trench of a bed in the mothy dark
Where just yesterday the topmost layer of the sheets
Had grown with the unnaturalness of pointillism blood.
Maggots have been feasting their way
Like sunken teeth through the molding mound,
Cloaked in a gangrenous white,
The last of which I killed breaking glass bottles.
You had to call the poison-skinned exterminators
In vans who promised you your home would become a tomb.
Since then these breaths of mine endanger the ability to kiss,
To feign slumber while your shirt exposes
The outline of your ribcage when you lean over,
To grasp with filthy fingers and dusty hands around my throat.
This must be what life is.
A sun drying out like an apricot.
Between the crumbling hours
White dinner plates are now clean shaven.
Dusty fan blades remind me of the planet’s panicked whirr,
Remind me of buoyancy
And abyssopelagic breathlessness,
Of bodies circulating a great wrist.
I’ve never caught my childhood friend’s father naked.
I’ve never had seafood finer than hair.
I’ve never argued with those skittish horsegirls on the street
Whose skin is made of trash and spoiled milk
Which I guess you could call trash.
When I walk past tired homes
People hide in dark windows.
In always-yellow cafes I expect people to comment
On the uncomfortablenesss
That all whicker chairs possess.
Instead they comment
That their creamer looks “bombly.”
Above I wonder why one light bulb is lit differently.
One must have droppedFrom the ceiling one night
The released fist of God
And smashed against the cafe floor,
Just glassy cocaine to be snorted,
Whether anyone was there or not.
Maybe: when a light falls
And no one’s there to hear it,
Does it make a sound?
They drag their knuckles
Through pools of milk
As they try to counteract
The fade of their enamel,
Their nostrils to hot steam,
Shoulder blades to cool metal jaws.
Somewhere
A man in front of a fire chuckles,
His front to heat, his back to cold.
If the fire could cavort
And in a breath take the field,
The shrieking trees,
Sending the wildlife out,
Would I remember in the morning?
Caffeine, sweat, and corrosion
Weaken me. 
II.
We are in the same sleep, you and I.
When I ask you, Please,
Would you hold my soul, gaunt and wrinkled,
As you might your purse
While my blood goes curiously about my body?
You oblige.
When Calliope tells me the moon is not in tonight
 Would you like to schedule an appointment?
Would you like an Email alert when it returns? 
You point to the circle of jeweled orphans
It has left behind.
O, give me Atlas’ swarthy–armed constellations,
His sweltering vaults of peppermint comets
That are hurtling towards me crowned!
With malfunctioning fingers I wrap
Round your hair those burning burls of curlicues,
Those messy neurons and droplets of chains,
That polyphonic network
Made of tinseled buds
Made of reverberating rungs
Made of unbreakable knots of fingers,
Skin as hungry as mouths,
Tireless clenching,
Busy work, busy-work, busywork.
People garden signs that tell me
No homes for the homeless
No roads for the roadless
No gods for the godless
While my unemployed wheelbarrow
Slumps in the corner
Growing a stubble of rust.
I pour out its dirtwater, a mosquito brothel,
That swirls tightly, suctioned into a thin black hole,
Reduced to strands of liquid.
I think the scientists call it spaghettification.
All things considered,
They are just massive graves.
The scientists have not found
Which god is us.
They have not seen
The swaddled moon-faces that suckle
From little fat drops of milky sky,
That are caught in the bleach-white snow
Like mammoths awaiting ablation.
It is so bright!
So bright.
Too bright.
They have not seen the hermits,
Refugees from the engine,
With granular spectacles and nebulous bodies of hair
Who watch the world as though they are lighthouses in the desert.
The tarlike oceans too still to be alive,
And docks humming, floating in bluelanternfloodlight,
Suspending wind-up kayakers,
And fishermen who dangle their treats
And await in gossamer beds
Like dark spiders of the water,
And birds white as candles
Who buckle themselves up and dive in streaks,
Who are small enough to nest in eyes.
The dead Nevada sky where
Cartwheeling sparrows spit out dust,
And every man with his dog, gun, and truck
May be scraping plump bodies off of highway strips,
And deadbeat beatniks and tan vigilantes,
And tongues slick with fire fuel
That makes an escape down chins,
And the sun an asterisk teething
On chipped mountains,
And the stupid calm of earthsky folded in half,
And the rictus of yellow skulls burning into the body
Which our automobiles gore and slash,
And sunflowers loud and rupturing,
Palms yanking wide apart
To grasp at the fleeting light,
Already stiffening with night dew,
And sunburned freshslapped faces
That shrivel and crumple
Into a pinpoint
Like a television screen.
The thick people draped
Over fire escapes like rags,
Hot bellies skyward,
Eyes dripping like oiled vegetables,
And dirty artists’ tormented in nirvana,
And snakeskin plastic bags uprooting trees
Into hot air balloons,
And the overbite of the forsaken sun smudge
That lifts grimy and untouchable,
And high offices bare and bright beside
Wooden libraries suspended in dust,
And smoking manholes on the vomiting Vegas sidewalks
Swinging with the incarnation of the soup of jazz,
And jaws that crank open with bleak bonegrindings,
Catching coindrops on their cigarette ash tongues,
Bits of sun crawling from their lips
In cities of asphalt and glass and what have you.
All the little golden teeth
Fall the same. 
O, how I’d like to sleep now!
 To lie with you in early Denverdesert mornings
Where the vitreous world clears like a Polaroid picture.
Only sleep has crusted together my eyelashes
So they are the tiny twisted wings of sparrows.
Beneath them my eyes are turning to salt.
Sun cracked and is spilling all over the place.
My arms drip with yolk that is
Gurgling up from a ground made of crackers.
That may I rest in the dark rhombi of train windows soon
Where grainy films jitter past each other 
Two heads nodding on the street.
The world pulls itself forwards
To each steamy purgatory
On its knees, tender flesh aching.
The receding howls and wails of whistles 
The way things ring when you strike them,
Notes that surely will never fade.
It is not so in the pain of life,
Rather in the pain of our routine days.
How many kneecaps will bruise  
Until my body loves me?
But how joyous, you say to me.
What else should it be but illustrious?
Perhaps mornings made of crows
That lift together the same way heads turn together
To meet an open door,
And leaves hugging themselves to death and
Curling up like cinnamon cigarettes,
And swampy ghost forests by New England highways,
And fraying ghost faces behind counters,
Heads condemned to eternal dragging,
And neighbors just for show
With bones of yarn and
Photos of warm houses to share
Between fingernails of sleepy pretty pink,
And all those dozing buggy roses,
And places where rain comes like a dial tone
Spangle in your eye.
Such things,
Such hard cries of the sheltered.
When will you call for me?
Callouses are entombing my feet now
Under which the enigmatic engine gallops
In obedient pulses.
This white paint of bird shit
Plays connectthedots on my windshield.
Wipers fall like axes.
Somewhere those last gobs
Must have been so holy.
I pass children’s rainshine rubber boots,
Stroller families strung together
Swaying through parks like plush caravans,
And babies strapped into those strange cloth lungs.
How it might be to be unfurled into a cottony mist,
To be hushed and folded into a void.
Love is a language to which I am growing deaf.
Now I hear with my fingers,
Guiding the horns of the knobbed,
Thin-skinned steering wheel
As light deflates with a hiss.
Now I see with the brightness of street steel
And the weak strands of headlights,
Like a miner’s helmet through the tunnels of night.
Machines glide head-to-tail
As though they are floating fish masses
Fanged with light and
Sliding from or
Propelled by
Something I cannot see.
O, tell Calliope I wish not to awaken
In those long gray aisles
As if we migrate on a death march
Just to fill the time,
Golden beams of our slithering automobiles
Touching at one of those ruddy specks
Of ticking tollbooths,
At some gilded destination.
 
Amelia Van Donsel is a seventeen-year-old Waltham High School senior of Waltham, Massachusetts whose work has been displayed at the U.S. Department of Education, published in American High School Poets Just Poetry National Poetry Quarterly as a national winning entry, The Best Teen Writing of 2015 and 2016, as well in an anthology and numerous magazines. As an English tutor and the editor-in-chief of her school’s literary magazine, she has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards with multiple national gold medals and regional awards. 

The Grand Canyon

A poem by Rowan Brown.

The Grand Canyon; Some Say it’s Stars and Velvet, but I think it’s More Like Antebellum Wallpaper

In the art gallery beneath the Parthenon in Nashville,

There is an exhibit

consisting entirely of paintings

of victims in a civil war hospital,

And paintings of wallpaper designs from 1863.

All of the paintings are large canvases

with nice frames or plaques.

The eyeless man’s grey

is accentuated his smeary swollenness.

The single pink stripe on a blank canvas isn’t accentuated by anything.

It’s a painting of wallpaper.

This is how I imagine seeing the Grand Canyon would feel.

It would feel like blue and white stripes

and a man rejecting kidney inside a temple of art and science.

 

My father always tells the same story about the Canyon

And finally being able to see the stars

for what they are,

instead of pinpricks on velvet.

He thinks the Canyon helped him see the universe

in all of it’s true dimensional glory.

He says they used to be little lights

on a black dome over our heads,

but now he lives in the starfields.

I’ve watched the stars grow up, he says.

I’ve watched them for light years.

Bullshit, I say, light years are a measure of distance.

 

 

Rowan Brown is fourteen years old, a freshman studying writing at the Fine Arts Center, an arts-oriented, competitive, magnet high school. Her most recent publications include “1over8” magazine and the Creative Communications Young Poets Anthology. She is a reader for Crashtest magazine and has just won three honorable mentions, silver keys and a gold key in the Scholastic Art and Writing awards. Rowan is an avid participant in FIRST robotics and will be attending the World Robotics Championship for the third time this spring.

 

Art by Anastasia James.

A Conversation with David Wright

Winding through the music Bach and Ekphrasis writing, Parallax editors sit down with published writer David Wright and converse about what defines a poem, the responsibility of poetry, and how it interacts with the world of art.

David Wright is a writer and a musician. His work mostly falls under the category of Ekphrasis writing, a type of writing that is in conversation with another piece of art, anything from a painting to a piano performance. David Wright, having studied music with a focus on piano, wrote a book titled The Small Books of Bach that is filled with rich poetry that focuses mainly on the music and culture of Bach, along with commentary on the musical fanatics who have continued to play his music to this day.  Two of our Parallax Editors, Parsa Sheikholeslami and Segolene Pihut, had a chance to sit down one-on-one with David and talk to him about his background in music, his beginnings as a writer and poet, and how the two art forms can be masterfully intertwined.

 

You initially studied music in college. Do you still play or perform music?

I do. When I switched from being a music major to a music minor, what I discovered is that music became much more about collaboration with other people and less about competition. It’s less about trying to be the best singer and more about the community of singers. And that was a wonderful shift. Ever since I graduated, I’ve become involved in choirs, as well as church music. For about six or seven years, I worked with a friend who was a composer, and he did a lot of choral works. We collaborated together on those. I did mostly the text, he would do mostly the music. But sometimes, just because I had enough of a musical background to be dangerous, I would make suggestions. And then he would explain to me why that wasn’t going to work. So yes, music has stayed as a part of my life. I love it.

 

Do you consider yourself a musician or a writer?

I’m a writer. I’m a writer, and a teacher. Those two things are pretty inexplicably bound together for me.

 

What do you think ekphrastic writing enables the writer to do that he wouldn’t be able to do with another type of writing?

All writing is responding to something else. There’s always an allusion to something in the world or to something that we invented. What’s interesting about ekphrasis is that if the work of art is vast and substantial, you’re entering a rich conversation that’s already been going on before you got there. It’s not like I look at a tree and I say “Oh! That’s a pretty tree,” but some person painted that tree and manipulated it on the canvas and did interesting things and had stuff to say about it. I get to enter into that and ask “Why did you say this? Why do you think that’s a tree? Look how you’ve reduced it to its shapes and its forms and its colors.” It’s the richness of the conversation you get to enter with another artist. I used to take students to the art institute every semester, when I taught in the Chicago area, and one of the things ekphrasis allowed them to do was to spin out of themselves into a larger world. Because we all write about ourselves too much, “I feel sad/love/angst about this,” right? Which is fine, you can write about that. But we sometimes neglect the larger, more textured, complicated world. When you spend 45 minutes looking at a painting, or listening to a piece of music, it’s going to spin you out of yourself in a way that might be good for us. And particularly for young writers. They get to enter that conversation. Ekphrasis offers that to them. Of course, they spin back in, what you think about that song, what you feel about that painting, is it going to be a part of what you write? But it’s changed,  if you spun out into that object that’s on the wall, that was made with lots of layers of possibility. That’s why I like ekphrasis for myself, but also for teaching. It’s a useful thing to do. It can become too easy, or it can become a kind of a trick. And that’s when it becomes dangerous. I have a really good friend, a poet, Keith Ratzlaff, who wrote a whole book of poems called Dubious Angels, based on the engravings that Paul Klee did. Towards the end of his life Klee became obsessed with angels, and these bizarre engravings. Keith became obsessed with these prints, and wrote a whole book based on these. And he finished the book and he said “I wasn’t sure if I could write anymore without Paul Klee. Paul Klee was my drug.” He became worried he became too dependent on the art, and I was the same way about Bach. So it’s nice to have written some poems recently in the last year or two that don’t talk about Bach. It’s a relief.

 

Do you feel like writers have a responsibility to refer to the outside world in their works, rather than just their own inner workings?

Sure, absolutely. I think that all poems are full of conversations, and I wouldn’t want to limit those conversations to ones that feel intimate or that feel political. I wouldn’t want either one of those to be the extreme. One of the poets I love who writes about social and political matters is Carolyn Forché. Years ago she edited an anthology called Poetry of Witness. And what she tries to do in that anthology is collect poems by folks who’ve lived through situations of political extremity. And it goes all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century with the Armenian genocide and it comes up all the way to the first Gulf War, as the book was published in the mid-90s. And the topics refer to the movements of Women’s Rights and Civil rights, and it’s these poets really writing in response to situations of extremity. But what’s interesting is that the most interesting poems in that anthology don’t only respond in a kind of argumentative or political way, although they do do that, but they also talk about what’s it like to peel an orange in the midst of gunfire. What it’s like to try to nurse a child to sleep when you’re not sure that your home will even be there next Thursday. What it’s like to fall in love, and then think, I have to leave the country in exile. So the most interesting poets for me are the ones who keep both those realities meshed. They’re not just narcissistic or worried about their private life, but they’re also not so overwhelmed by the politics that they forget to be human. And at a time of political extremity, which it feels like during this election year, with Trump and what not, you feel like you want to fix the damn world. Frankly, poems probably aren’t the place to fix the damn world for the short term, though they might be for the long term. Shelly called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of humankind,” meaning they were actually dealing with the mechanisms that make people do and feel things. But they’re not acknowledged, and people don’t notice it.

 

Ekphrasis is a conversation between two different types of art. Do you think that, say if you write a poem about a painting, if the reader already knows the painting, is that going to be more limiting? Or leave more room for interpretation?

Ideally, I would want any poem I write to be musical and linguistically interesting enough that nobody would need to see anything else to enjoy it. Ideally. Except that’s not how language works. Language lives in the world and carries with it all the places that it’s been. And all the ways that it’s been used. So, even as the poet, I’m not in charge of the language completely. It’s going to go in ways that are not in my control. So ideally I would want my poem to be musically and linguistically interesting enough that you wouldn’t need to understand anything that it refers to. But, how much richer is it if someone brings a knowledge of something that poem is doing? And I would hope that I wouldn’t just transcribe the piece of music or describe the painting. I think the worst ekphrastic poems are those that simply describe the work. How many people think of poetry as a static description of something? I want poems that can do all the things poem can do. Or at least most of them. At once. Simply transcribing an event or an experience, that’s maybe journalism? Not even very good journalism? Maybe it’s a diary entry? But it’s not a poem, right? Because all that other textured stuff we value isn’t there. In the poem I read last night [at a reading at Idyllwild Arts Academy] about a Chagall painting, it wasn’t in the room. I didn’t try to describe it to you. I think the poem was enough about the artistic process, about temptation, about despair, about what art can do, and you don’t have to see that painting. Of course, if you’ve seen that painting it’s about, or other paintings by Chagall, you might be able to interpret more. But I don’t think you have to. How do you feel about it, Parsa? Do you think ekphrastic poetry is limited by its connection to this other work of art in the world?

 

My personal opinion is that, if the poem is a good poem, maybe knowing the piece that’s in it is going to make it limiting. If the definition of a poem is about making connections, and there is some established piece it’s referring to, if you don’t know the painting specifically, you can have any type of interpretation from the poem.

 

But I don’t want anybody to have any type of interpretation of the poem,  because then they don’t need my poem. Do I want you to have deep feelings? Go have them, you don’t need my poem. I want you to take me seriously enough to be moved or shaped or pissed or some other way you’re affected by the language on the page.

 

Well yeah, for sure, but I feel like, there’s a general mood of the poem and sometimes there are going to be some descriptions of the work of art that you’re writing about, but I’m just talking about say “there’s a yellow bride,” there’s an actual yellow bride in the painting, but if I don’t know the painting, I’m going to have a certain type of limitation.

 

But isn’t “yellow bride” a weird and interesting thing? All on its own? When are you going to write the yellow bride poem? Why is she wearing yellow? Don’t brides usually wear white? So why is she yellow? What’s that about? Has she had that dress for so long that it’s been yellowed from the sun? Was it a heirloom, her grandmother’s dress? But you don’t know, right? I get what you’re saying, fidelity to the painting can be trouble, both for the reader and the writer. Trying to be too faithful to it. At the same time, if the writer is doing her work, she’s going to have something interesting to say. And she’s going to describe the yellow bride as “a yellow bride floating upside down under the green moon” which could happen, in a Chagall painting, which is why Chagall is interesting. Which is why I want to write poems about it.

 

One of my friends who is into making movies told me that he is jealous of musicians, because of the immediate relationship they make with the audience. So, as a person who has experienced both being a musician and a writer, can you describe a little bit of what type of relationship you make with your audience?

It’s hard, because you can’t be in charge of your audience, no matter who you are. You think you can. You think you can write this book, or sing this song, or you’ll make this film, and somehow be in control of how people receive it. And you can’t. The interesting part about live performance is that you can experience and feed off of or respond to the way your audience responds to you. The piece of music isn’t complete until it is received by someone. Now, that’s not always true. How do we receive most music? Up here in Idyllwild it’s unique because there’s a concert every other night. You can walk by the practice rooms, all day, every day, and hear someone playing. But most of the music we receive is, where? Recorded. So it’s left very little space for us to enter into the dialogue of the piece. With a poem, you absolutely don’t get to see how someone experiences your poem 95% of the time. With poetry, you make the book, put the book in the world, someone reads it and that’s that. And their reading experience is not something you have any control over. You’re not in charge of that exchange with the reader once you let the poem go into the world. What’s fun about doing something like my poetry reading last night, is that you are in charge again for a second. And you can say, oh, I think these folks are a little sleepy. I’m going to read a funny poem now. Oh, these folks liked the last poem, I’m going to read another poem like that. That’s a really rewarding experience. And that’s why I love to go out and actually interact with people. It’s like taking comedy on the road, you get to see which pieces affect people in a certain way. And there’s some poems I don’t read aloud, because they’re really dense, they’re really elusive and full of language play, that doesn’t really translate as well to the ear as it does to the eye. And you can’t expect someone to grab all of that at a poetry reading, there’s this flood of words coming at you, very hard. Some readings you can really hear what’s going on, and with other times there’s–have you experienced “poet voice”? You know poet voice? [Speaking in a slow, monotone voice.]  I’m going to read… my poem right now…it’s going to be…..just like this….. It lulls you completely to sleep. You look at the page and you’re like “This is really gorgeous and full of energy! What happened? When she read this, she fell into poet voice, and I’ve lost my mind.”

 

You said some poetry is better suited to the page. Do you think it’s a missed opportunity when poets choose not to do readings?
I think two things about that. First, that the mechanics of selling poetry in America right now, is that you sell poetry hand-to-hand. Most people don’t buy poems. They don’t buy books of poems. So what you have to do, is go to schools and bookshops and libraries and give readings. And when you do that, people go, “This is kind of cool! I’d like to buy a book.”  So that’s how most books of poems are sold. There’s just that pragmatic piece about it. But yeah, I feel like a lot of poets miss an opportunity of what poems will do when they’re in someone else’s body. Robert Hass says that “writing a poem is putting your breath into the body of another person” and he says that it’s a very intimate thing. And I think he’s right about that. So reading a poem out loud is one way of experiencing that. I’ll tell you something else that’s cool is if you have someone else read one of your poems aloud. There are choices you made, and resonances that happen that you wouldn’t know about. Which is why I had folks jump up and do the four-part poem I read last night with me [at the Idyllwild Arts reading]. Because, I don’t know what that poem sounds like unless I get three people to help me out. And even then, it’d have been more fun if I wasn’t the one doing my part, but got to hear four other people do it. So in that way it’s a little like my experience of writing music. The song isn’t complete until someone else sings it.

An Interview With Matthew Salesses

Matthew Salesses is an editor, teacher, and writer of nonfiction and fiction. During Matthew’s Idyllwild Arts visit, Parallax editors spoke with him about his writing style and the process of writing I’m Not Saying, I’m Just Saying.

Q: What was the process of writing a novel in flash fiction like? How does it compare to writing a traditionally styled novel?

 

A: I was writing the book, a flash fiction book, as a kind of side project next to writing The Hundred Year Flood. I had been working on The Hundred Year Flood for seven years at that point, and it just seemed interminable–I had to do something that was going to end soon. I had been asked to contribute one flash story to a series of flash fiction posts on a website called jmww, so I sent a first chapter as a stand alone. When I was getting tired of the The Hundred Year Flood, and had to write something else, I had to think about what I had to work on, and remembered that first chapter was unfinished. I started writing more one page stories with the same character. When I had about twenty, I started sending them out in chunks. One magazine asked for twenty of them. The original twenty had already been accepted so I just wrote twenty more and sent them those. Then I had forty. Then my publisher asked for a novel. So I had 40 of those chapters and they asked me to write 120 of those chapters for them to look at. I wrote another 100 for them.

 

Q: Did that affect your sense of narrative?

 

A: Yes. Because each one of them was a standalone, you could take any one of them out, and hopefully they could stand as a small story. I had enough movement in each of them. And when I was going back and trying to figure out how they’d fit into a larger narrative, I started looking at how those movements added up to a greater movement. I spread them out on the floor. My daughter was a baby at the time and would want to walk all over them, so my wife had her go up into a separate room. I was moving around the stories by hand.

 

Q: Was the revision process more difficult because each piece is a stand alone, but still only one part of an entire story line?

 

A: I would write one every morning when I got to work, and was doing so by looking at my surroundings. I’d find a single object, write it into the stories (so that I had something to kind of anchor the piece), and then I would spend the night revising it. The thing about them being so short, is that you can do them quickly. I was basically doing one a day, everyday. And when I sold the book, I had to look at them as a whole so I could find a bigger arc to the story. I just repeated too much. I was explaining things multiple times for the sake of the story’s arc. I didn’t need all those. I cleaned language for just the book itself.

 

Q: Do you usually use objects or metaphors as the basis for your characters?

 

A: No, not usually. I like to set myself little challenges. When I was doing a flash story, I was thinking, can I do this all in one paragraph stories based off of everyday objects? I don’t usually do that.

 

Q: Do you find that challenges make for a better story?

 

A: I don’t know what is better, but I think taking a challenge is more interesting. I think if you think of writers who write basically the same thing over and over again, it doesn’t seem that fun.

 

Q: Did you use aspects of your own life to help the storyline of I’m Not Saying, I’m Just saying develop? Is any of it nonfiction?

 

A: Almost none of it is nonfiction. What I did use was the fact that my daughter was so young and I had a fear of how she would grow up, but I think pretty much everything else was all made up. I was using my fears in a kind of ‘what if’ situation. Like what if your kid shows up one day, and they’ve been formed by your absence. For me, parenting is a lot about how your child comes out perfect, and then you try very hard not to screw her up. There is this sense that there’s a point where she will get screwed up and how do you help that?

 

Q: Many of your flash fiction pieces are very poetic. What determined which pieces leaned more towards prose poetry than flash fiction? Did it depend on what part of the storyline the piece was focused on?

 

A: I think of them all as mostly fiction. They could all be prose poetry I suppose. I wasn’t trying to make some more poetic than others, although there was the list that might be more prosaic. What probably makes them seem more poetic is that they’re operating on the same level of sentence, and that’s what I was trying to do with all of them, to have the plot happening in each sentence, one that starts in place and goes until the end of it.

 

Q: Why did you call it I’m Not Saying, I’m Just saying?

 

A: I thought it was funny. I had that title as one of pieces. It makes me think of this story “Dogs I Have Known,” which is all centered around dogs. Each section is about a different dog that the narrator has known in his life, and one section that anchors the piece and is about dogs in general. Dogs don’t have anything to say except “I have things I need to say!” Maybe that’s what I was thinking about. That the narrator didn’t have anything to say except to say something. There’s a lot stuff built in around that.

 

Q: Why did you choose to only use nicknames like, “the wifely woman” instead of real names?

 

A: I wanted to be really close to the narrator’s head, but also I think that the length or the brevity really means that you have to characterize people more quickly, and names don’t do that much characterization work. They do a little, but I feel like the name of the relation does a lot more. Like “mother” does a lot more for the relationship than “Joan.” Mother plays on archetypes. So the ‘wifely woman” is kind of playing on what a wife is and cultural conceptions. The narrator is trying to think of the boy as a son; it didn’t seem right to call him the son.

 

Q: Do you find that your voice resembles the style used in I’m Not Saying I’m Just Saying, as well as other pieces? Or did you particularly develop the voice for the narrator in I’m Not Saying I’m Just Saying? (Do you vary your style?)

 

A: Yeah I do, I think it’s very good for me to change it up. I also think it’s harder, like right now I’m working on a novel with a very different voice. A very disaffected narrator. The novel itself is a lot about voice, so I feel like I need a lot of time developing it before I can work on the book. It requires a lot headspace, which I don’t really have right now. Which is why I keep throwing pages out.

 

Q: Would you classify yourself based off of your voice or based off of your content?

 

A: I don’t know. I think the content is more consistent. There’s a lot about parenting, adoption, race, masculinity. I think that’s usually how I’m characterized.

 

Q: When and why did you start writing?

 

A: I wrote a book about the sting ray who wanted to find the shine of his teeth in elementary school. My teacher, who was a great teacher, said that I didn’t write description well. I still don’t write description well. But it was always something that stuck with me, something for me to be like “I’ll show you.” I think she knew what to say to me. Why did I become a writer? In part I think it’s kind of the same as what I often write about. What is one way of learning to be who you are in a world that doesn’t value that? Writing has been a large part of that for me.

 

Q: How does your culture affect your writing?

 

A: I’m often writing characters who are very far from accepting who they are, whether or not they even know who they are. And that’s an experience that seems very close to mine. I get this feeling that the great American arc is denial. It’s this person who refuses to accept whatever is the truth and that’s an experience that resonates very strongly with me and my history.