ZYZZYVA EventsJuly 15, 2017
Master Class Mixer: Literary Magazines with Laura Cogan
Location: 1 p.m., Mechanics Institute Board Room, 57 Post St., 4th Floor, San Francisco
Description: Three-hour class (sponsored by Litquake) with ZYZZYVA's editor covering the various aspects of getting work published in literary journals. Seating limited to 15 students, and concludes with reception. For ticket info: http://bit.ly/2pIsH9IJuly 26, 2017
A Celebration of Bay Area Literary Magazines
Location: 6:30 p.m., Mechanics' Institute, Fourth Floor, 57 Post St., San Francisco
Description: A conversation on the mission and vision of three long lived literary journals and the state of the arts in San Francisco, with the editors of ZYZZYVA, Zoetrope, and The Threepenny Review. Moderated by Kevin Smokler. Free for ZYZZYVA, Zoetrope, and Threepenny readers. For more info: http://bit.ly/2rKvCfO
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In this issue:
Acclaimed poet and critic W.S. Di Piero in conversation: on Shakespeare, the art of translation (the translator inhabits “The house of a language, an imagination, a culture.”), and on being a good citizen.
Sallie Tisdale’s essay “The Hinge”: “My worst regrets,” she writes, “are not big and dramatic; they are as tiny and sharp as glass ground into my palm.”
Nick Lane’s “So You’re Thinking of Becoming a Despot”: It’s easier than you think (and it’s a great way of getting that one village girl to finally notice you).
Louis B. Jones’ “Ever Since the Cloverleaf”: Two old friends having lunch—and a conversation that flirts with the criminal—at a near-shuttered Trader Vic’s.
Victoria Patterson’s “Appetite”: The wife of an author begins a fraught friendship with an aspiring writer.
Ben Greenman’s “Right Angles”: snippets from the inner life of Fearless Leader.
Plus more fiction from Christine Sneed, Kristen Iskandrian, and Andrew Martin, and introducing Andrew Mangan.
Laton Carter, W.S. Di Piero, Ru Freeman, D.A. Powell, sam sax, Melissa Stephenson, Cynthia White, and Paul Wilner.
A portfolio of stunning still life photography from Paulette Tavormina
In Australian author Carys Davies’ latest story collection, The Redemption of Galen Pike (176 pages; Biblioasis), Davies’s deadpan voice and morbid sense of humor lend a surreal twist to otherwise ordinary interactions and relationships. Each of these stories in the collection, which won the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, features unlikely encounters between people with seemingly little in common, encounters which ultimately lead to unexpected self-discovery or empathy.
The title story perhaps illustrates this best. As it opens, a woman who regularly visits inmates to offer solace is assigned a prisoner whose violent crime she finds particularly despicable. Her job is made even more challenging by his utter indifference to her role. Even though their relationship doesn’t appear to warm much, we later learn how much her visits mean to this prisoner, and the woman discovers compassion for a man she initially thought irredeemable. In “Jubilee,” a festival worker senses the boredom of the widowed queen, and tries to entertain her with a story about his wife’s Sapphic love affair. This confidence turns out to be exactly what the queen needed (“‘Nobody tells me anything,” she admits). As in many of Davies’ stories, “Jubilee” shows how ostensibly inconsequential gestures or incidents can make a monumental impact on a person’s life.
In “Bonnet,” a writer who always wears a grey bonnet whimsically decides to upgrade her drab headwear with a touch of pink trimming. This flourish, which would seem quite trivial, shocks her publisher to the core—“the worst imaginable thing, when he looks up, for him to see it; for him to see this small plain woman, his friend, with this unexpected bonnet on her head”—and in turn fills the writer with a deep shame. One infers that their relationship is more than simply professional, and the whole scene is tinged with a sense of embarrassment that borders on terror. A small act also takes on vast importance in the story “First Journeyman,” in which the town’s vegetable provider experiences an overwhelming sadness when his ailing Master recovers and no longer has need of his carefully selected peas.
Carys Davies displays a penchant for the ridiculous, detailed in an unwaveringly dry and matter-of-fact tone capable of rendering events as shocking. One of her strengths as a writer is her ability to recount situations that are wildly unlikely yet ring true to human nature—the ways in which we try to entertain people in their grief, our tendency to develop affection for those who are particularly helpful, or the extreme lengths we go to maintain relationships even when they appear doomed. These stories embrace humanity’s darkness and its compassion, making for a haunting and fascinating collection. Though readers may find many of the stories in The Redemption of Glane Pike to possess a morbid streak, they’re sure to recognize truth in Davies’ exploration of the potential for even the most basic human actions to lead to something grand.
Jess Arndt’s Large Animals (131 pages; Catapult) traps its characters in self-constructed cages and puts them on display, presenting a bevy of cultural concerns about identity, sex, and the human body. Ranging from the 19th century to contemporary San Francisco and New York, the twelve stories in Arndt’s first book prove startling in their variety and verisimilitude, and challenge our notions of gender and the binary divides that too often fail to define us.
In “Beside Myself,” we witness the austere life of a woman attempting to impregnate her wife by using her brother’s sperm. Here, as in many of the stories, the reader inhabits the aching body of the protagonist, and empathizes with her while questioning one’s own physical insecurities as the narrator morosely remarks, “among all life-forms, humans alone [are] defenseless-vulnerable blobs clothed solely in skin.” A blend of the bizarre and believable, every story in Large Animals is voiced by individuals battered by the daily toil of living as outsiders. No story captures this motif more than the title story, wherein the narrator’s mundane life is disrupted by recurring nightmares of animals in her bedroom. As the animals become a burgeoning obsession, they develop an order in her dreams, a kingdom with a bestial hierarchy in which the “massive, tube-shaped” walrus reigns. When the walrus speaks, its words are obscene but devoid of context. The narrator’s nocturnal encounters rapidly deteriorate her life, revealing her dormant sexuality and animalistic lust towards a fast-food worker even as she struggles through a vicious divorce.
And in its short shorts like “Containers,” where a decision to stay home and smoke weed rather than party with friends compartmentalizes an identity crisis in less than three pages, Large Animals proves wickedly entertaining. These are modern fables of the body exposing a naked perspective on femininity, masculinity, and the need — or lack thereof — for human relationships.
Carnal and experimental in tone, expressed in Arndt’s beguilingly casual and frequently colloquial prose, Large Animals is equally vivid in its depiction of human vulgarities as in its exploration of the body. It prowls through our preconceptions of the sexes, paring back its fallible, idiosyncratic character to render a raw and unnerving portrait of the self. “Animals are only animals because they are observed,” one character says, and here Arndt observes the largest animal, exhibiting our fears and our instincts.
The past is never past in Josh Emmons’ new story collection, A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales (184 pages; Dzanc Books). In each of these stories (of which the title one appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 102), the reader can feel the lingering effect of humanity’s fabricated history – the assemblage of folktales, parables, and lore that have helped shape our collective consciousness over time, from Noah and his Ark (“Haley”) to Aesop’s talking animals (“Arise”).
The narrator of one piece claims, “What came next hardly warrants retelling, so familiar is the story…” but nothing could be further from the truth, as Emmons possesses an uncanny gift to make the distant, half-remembered folktales of our childhoods feel both present and unexpected. In “Nu,” we observe a woman who is afraid of cats, in part because of what they represented to the ancient Egyptians, and characters throughout the collection frequently compare their lives to fables (“…real life is less frightening than fairy tales. And less exciting. And there’s no way to know which is better”). These drifting souls search for meaning and connection across a variety of settings, whether it’s modern day France (“A Moral Tale”) or medieval England (“Humphrey Dempsey”). The result of their foibles comprises one of the most dazzling and assured story collections of the year.
Emmons talked to ZYZZYVA about A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, as well as what draws him to fairy tales and his mix-tape-making process.
ZYZZYVA: In A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales, you have several stories that take place in current settings in which one can feel myth and fables pressing upon contemporary events. I sense that, as a writer, you believe the fables and fairy tales many of us grew up with continue to be relevant to our lives. What drew you to incorporating or referencing fables in your work?
Josh Emmons: I stopped thinking about fables and fairy tales and myths in my late teens—When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things—and came back to them in my twenties because they were inescapable. There was Kafka’s “The Burrow” casting animal stories in a new light, for example, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice books redeeming nursery rhyme tropes, and “Ulysses” and “East of Eden” and “Master and Margarita” showing that repurposed myths could be fascinating. I think fairy tales get a bad rap because they deal with radical innocence and radical evil—melodrama, basically—and so lack subtlety. Also they’re overfamiliar and crudely written and outrageously plotted, but for many of those same reasons they’re fun to rethink and reconfigure. And they address deep, elemental, archetypal phenomena, which is appealing for a Joseph Campbell fan like me. And despite all the fairy tale revisionists out there, humorless Angela Carter and careless Salman Rushdie and frantic mash-up writers at Disney and Dreamworks, they’re inexhaustible. Folk traditions might be barbaric, but they’re malleable and never dull.
Through several books of fiction, Lidia Yuknavitch has developed a reputation for playing with language and confronting what a novel can be, both in form and purpose. In her work, plot steps aside for meditations on brutality, passion, lust, agony, and hope, all of which she ruminates on until, as if by magic, they approximate something like an undeniable narrative. Using characters and singular events to flesh out her more abstract points, she has the ability to dig into the more painful and at times disturbing aspects of feelings, resulting in rewarding books.
In her new novel, The Book of Joan (288 pages; Harper), Yuknavitch tries her hand at crafting a Heinlein-esque epic with a feminist twist, a political fable in which the protagonist Joan of Dirt—an unabashed stand-in for Joan of Arc—does her best to take down the misogynistic dictator Jean de Men. de Men has all but depleted Earth’s resources and created CIEL, a space station (and what he believes to be a utopia) for the wealthy who supported and aided his horrific rise to power. While it might seem unclear what his ultimate goal is (or what drove him to it), what is clear is that his designs threaten art and nature.
Emil DeAndreis’s memoir, Hard to Grip (310 pages; Schaffner Press), is delivered in five stages, which is fitting, because in many ways this book of baseball and chronic illness is a grief memoir. DeAndreis begins jubilantly with his story of a promising high school career, becomes absurdist when he arrives at the University of Hawaii-Hilo, and then takes a sharp, dark turn as he is confronted with an unlikely diagnosis: rheumatoid arthritis. DeAndreis, 23 and preparing to pitch professionally in Belgium, must reckon with the end of his career because of a disease that most commonly affects middle-aged women. The writer, who is now a College of San Mateo professor as well as the author of a novel, must break down and rebuild his value system—he can no longer find his self-worth in toughness or physical strength; it hurts to even make a smoothie at Jamba Juice. The second half of Hard to Grip is about denial, anger, and eventual acceptance as DeAndreis mourns the loss of the game that defined his life.
I met DeAndreis when he was 17, and I was 14—a freshman at the same high school of which he was the star baseball player. San Francisco’s public school league is far from elite, and DeAndreis accurately portrays himself as a big fish in a small pond. But at 14, that pond was an ocean for me. DeAndreis, like many other ex-players, seemed destined for greatness—and then, like almost every other player, returned home. I understood, vaguely, that his arm had failed him. I never knew the failing was a chronic illness that altered his life far beyond sports.
Though DeAndreis’s career was unexpectedly taken from him so early, the fact is that every athlete faces the moment he or she can no longer play. DeAndreis writes at one point about a conversation he has with the players he coaches today. They ask him what it’s like to not play baseball anymore. He tells them “it’s like a disease you learn to live with.” They understand, as does the reader, that everyone eventually loses the game.
ZYZZYVA spoke with DeAndreis about the way chronic illness pushed him from the pitcher’s mound to the classroom and the world of writing.
ZYZZYVA: I know you started to work on Hard to Grip right when you were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. A lot of the book is about accepting this nasty twist of fate, but what was it like to write about the experience right as it was happening?
Emil DeAndreis: Writing after the diagnosis was all I could do—I just lied to everyone about the disease at the time. I was not honest about it, because I didn’t want the sympathy. As a 23-year-old, that was the last thing I wanted. You are now weaker. You are helpless. You are harmless. You are all these things. Now it’s been so long that I don’t even care. But finishing the book was that closure.
The narrative arc of this book is the narrative arc I experienced. I was writing this since 2011 when I was 24 and when I turned 30 I was still writing the book. In the course of a life, it’s a small window of time. But so much change happens for anyone in that time.
“My fear is the common one, that her poetry should be lost,’’ Rodney Jones writes in the introduction to Lost Addresses: New and Selected Poems (100 pages; Salmon Poetry), a posthumously released collection by his friend and fellow Southerner, Diann Blakely.
“There are ample reasons for a poet to be neglected, temporarily submerged in a trend, or permanently effaced, for poetry is a cold media and the music that the claim of poetry rests on may not always be acknowledged,’’ he adds. “This book is proof against forgetting.”
Indeed. Blakely, who died in 2014, had a light that burned brightly, but the questionable benefits of self-promotion, let alone branding, were alien to her spirit. (In addition to this volume, her longstanding project, Rain In Our Door: Duets With Robert Johnson, is to be published by White Pine Press and another collection, Each Fugitive Moment; Essays, Memoirs and Elegies on Lynda Hull, is forthcoming from MadHat Press.)
Her verse unites respect for form and for precursors like Eliot and Plath with down-home tributes to high and low culture, from Sid Vicious to Foucault. She gives us imagined renderings of the real life meetings between Helen Keller and Mark Twain. In “The Story of Their Lives,’’ she writes:
Dear Reader, spellbound
Or bored with cryptic addresses, bored
With other lives and voices, it’s time to loose
This story, to let Helen float away
From Westport, childhood, Los Angeles: you choose
Her resting place.
In 1994, the Taiwanese writer Qiu Miaojin published Notes of a Crocodile (NYRB Classics; 254 pages), a masterwork of fiction that plumbs same-sex desire while satirizing homophobic society; a year later, she killed herself. An English translation by Bonnie Huie captures the urgent, confessional voice of a lesbian struggling to live with honesty and courage in a society that holds her in its thrall.
The novel’s anonymous narrator, known only by the nonsense nickname “Lazi,” reconstructs from old notebooks and deteriorating memories an account of her time as a college student at an elite university in Taipei in the late ’80s. Her narrative largely revolves around her romantic relationships with women, as well as the same-sex relationships she witnesses among her dearest friends. Punctuating Lazi’s journal entries are chapters from a parable about a green-skinned creature called Crocodile who, despite wearing a “human suit” to blend in with the rest of society, reports on her existence to the media out of a desire for fellowship and acceptance. This announcement touches off a media frenzy that manufactures pseudo-knowledge of “crocodile culture,” as well as clashing political movements to either eradicate or confine all crocodiles. By turns droll and horrific, the parable illustrates how a voyeuristic media can turn lesbian culture into an object for fantasy, mimicry, and oppression.
At first glance, What to Do About the Solomons (256 pages; Grove/Atlantic) by Bethany Ball may seem like just another story about a dysfunctional family. But as you get deeper into Ball’s first novel, it becomes apparent it’s less about a dysfunctional family and more about dysfunctional individuals within a family that—despite the internal dramas inevitable in any large family—have a strangely stable and even loving relationship with one another.
Much of the novel centers on the (arguably) most loveable member of the infamous Solomon family, Yakov Solomon, the family patriarch. He is a force of nature within the kibbutz: he is a successful businessman, a husband to Vivienne, who came to the kibbutz from Algiers and was known as a great beauty during the time of their courtship, and the father of five children whose lives are fuelled by a mixture of travel and minor tragedies that make up the majority of the kibbutz gossip. Yakov is in a constant state of despair over his children, and his non-stop neurosis seems almost ridiculous until the reader realizes Yakov might be onto something.
As you are introduced to the five children and their respective children and spouses, you learn that missteps and bad luck run in the Solomon family tree. There is Marc, the L.A. businessman who gets wrongly accused of money laundering; Dror, the family gossip who goes through a series of questionable wives and girlfriends; Karen, who married the madman/artist, Guy Gever; Ziv, who lives in Singapore with another man; and Shira, a once-aspiring actress who is growing ever-disillusioned both in her personal life and in her career prospects. There is also a smattering of equally eccentric supporting characters, whose lives and issues seem to get caught orbiting around the Solomon family. People in the kibbutz and beyond seem to gravitate toward the Solomons, even as they carry the weight of scandal or failure of varying degrees. The reader, too, feels the gravitational pull of the family’s charm, even when how they handle their individual struggles becomes almost embarrassing to watch. The dramas each endures almost pokes fun at itself, but instead of making the story trite, it reassures us that in the end, everything can and will work out for the Solomons, however much we may share Yakov’s despair.
Throughout her story, Ball subtly integrates to good effect the political conflicts informing the daily lives of the people living at the kibbutz. Many of the men in the Solomon family have served in the Israeli army, and the traumas brought on by what they experienced during war are shown in sporadic flashbacks. Also, Yakov owns a powerful construction business, one that comes with political entanglement, however indirectly.
These political and cultural tensions add complexity to the characters’ pasts and their current identities. But what makes us care about the Solomons is their affection for one another, even during the times they disagree or drift apart and despite however much they may judge each other.
The crux of speculative fiction is not always found in inventing new worlds but in skewing our own. Zachary Mason’s Void Star (385 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) does just that, chronicling the struggle of its misfit characters as they fight to survive on an Earth in which the oceans have risen and threaten to submerge the majority of the planet’s remaining landmass. As affluent technocrats revel in their riches atop skyscrapers, the poorest of society are corralled into filthy favelas below them. Nowhere is this stark divide epitomized better than Mason’s meticulously rendered version of San Francisco, a lurid cityscape where wealthy citizens augment themselves with neural implants and autonomous government drones patrol the Bay’s smog-strangled skyline. Into this world, Mason introduces us to the fraught lives of a trio of characters, each facing separate adversities, but each eventually colliding to reveal a city of supreme science, surprising surrealism, and lurking menace.
As a “computational translator” Irina employs her cerebral implant to convert computer code into words. Her rare ability allows her to know the “temperature” moment to moment, to hear “all the chatter of all the surveillance drones” or “see through their cameras” anywhere within the city. Her implant enables her to store memories at will, selectively saving sensory details, even if they’re only flickers of images, sights, and sounds. An intermediary between artificial intelligences and her wealthy but frequently less than human clients, Irina floats between states of liminal thought and interrelating with people, leaving her hollow. We inhabit her haze until, like all the characters in Void Star, she is awakened to a sinister plot after witnessing something on a computer screen she shouldn’t have.
Kern, on the other hand, has little time to contemplate his Spartan existence as he grapples with the sludge of the slums. A thief who has honed his body and trained in martial arts, Kern stays connected to the world through his laptop, his only possession he hasn’t pawned or stolen. When he robs the wrong target, Kern’s story takes us through the unrelenting hell that is the lives of the poor as his independence, his strength—what little he had left—is taken from him. The novel’s third narrative follows the life of Thales, a refugee and the sole surviving member of a Brazilian political dynasty. Thales suffers an unexpected blow when he’s captured by an unknown force and thrust into an inextricable matrix of corporate conspiracy and familial dread.
Void Star asks the reader to contemplate several questions. As Irina parses through code and electric symbols, we digitally dive into her and all of the characters’ consciousness, forcing us to consider which experiences matter, how our memories and the details we observe make us whole. Are we curating a facade of a personality through the artifice of civilization? Do human relationships matter when artificial intelligences are slowly supplying the same basic interactions? And how do we rectify unparalleled technological prosperity with global disparity?
Speculative fiction has long wrestled with these ethical quandaries, but rarely has it done so with the power of language and prescience found in Void Star. Mason’s prose is prodigious in scope and exultant in its decadent imagery of a pseudo-dystopian San Francisco. A combination of Gibsonian grunge and the existential intrigue of Philip K. Dick, Void Star explores the artifice of memory and the limits of man’s comprehension, all with a dash of Bay Area bedlam.
B.J. Hollars’ short essay collection, In Defense of Monsters (Bull City Press; 40 pages), opens on a world with no mysteries left. Now that seemingly every corner of the globe has been charted, and Google Earth allows one to zoom in on any coordinate one desires, the encroachment of human civilization on the natural world leaves us with little to explore. It wasn’t always the case: in the 20th century, even as horror spread across Europe and a racially divided America, the World’s Fairs promised a tomorrow full of discovery, and pulp novels sold readers on the idea of lost cities and forbidden jungles. Unsurprisingly, it was during this time that mythic figures such as Sasquatch and the Loch Ness Monster, which began as local rumors, developed into tourist attractions and subjects of international study. The Earth seemed like a place of wonder.
That sense has arguably since been stamped out, due in no small part to the scourge of war, the advance of technology, and a more skeptical populace. But in his essays, Hollars reminds us that “while three-fourths of Americans live in suburban and urban areas, only 2% of America is defined as such. The remaining 97% is considered rural.” Perhaps in those overgrown forest trails, lonely woods, and far-off mountain ranges, some domain still exists for these folklore creatures to flourish unseen by man. For Hollars, it’s not so important that scientists eventually prove the existence of a creature like Sasquatch (in fact, it’s immaterial), merely that our collective unconscious leave room for the possibility of their existence.
Somewhere along the way, confessional poetry developed a bad rap. Perhaps it was the result of ubiquity: by 2003, every other turn of the radio dial delivered a soul-baring lyric to one’s ears (“On the way home this car hears my confessions,” went a lyric from a band literally called Dashboard Confessional), and college freshman creative writing classes were inundated with impressionable students expressing their angst through pen and paper. (You may have sat next to one, you may have been one yourself.) These days, mediums such as Facebook, Tumblr, and, well, Medium allow us to broadcast our inner lives to close friends and complete strangers alike—these digital walls can talk.
Considering the way modern technology has made the act of confession an almost thoughtless and arbitrary pastime, academic circles may have felt they had no choice but to turn their noses up at this ever-growing portion of the poetry world. But it’s a corner that clearly has long fascinated celebrated poet and author Julie Carr: “I wanted to think about what the Language Poets and the Conceptual Poets had against ‘confession,’ but I also wanted to see why confession was so important to our broader culture,” she writes in the Author Statement of her newest book, Objects From a Borrowed Confession (Ahsahta Press; 149 pages), a collection of pieces that tackle the notion of confession from a unique angle. “I wanted to explore that impulse and the attraction we have to one another’s secrets…I wanted to understand what the act of confession has to do with intimacy, empathy, and subjectivity.”
Too Much and Not the Mood is Durga Chew-Bose’s first essay collection, though Chew-Bose’s writing has been getting published for many years now. Known for her BuzzFeed Reader essay “How I Learned to Stop Erasing Myself,” Chew-Bose’s name has appeared in the same circles as other feminist hipster writers based in New York like Lena Dunham, Tavi Gevinson, and Jazmine Hughes. She is also one of the founders of Writers of Color, a collective of feel-good-yet-aestheticized-sadness progressive writers out on the East Coast.
Melancholy, nostalgia, wistfulness, wishful thinking, or the lethargy of a warm summer afternoon are constants in Too Much and Not the Mood, although essays in the latter half of the book explore boredom, self-possession, embarrassment, and other emotions that characterize adolescence. Indisputably, the collection’s biggest strength is the richness of its prose. Chew-Bose’s is especially talented in preserving moments of beauty. She’s incredibly attuned to detail, and catches a person’s verbal or physical tics in such a way that they seem authentic. Take, for example, these scenes from the 93-page-long “Heart Museum,” a sprawling, meandering kaleidoscope of an essay that opens the collection:
“Because writing is a grunt, and when it’s good, writing is body language. It’s a woman narrowing her eyes to express incredulity. It’s an elbow propped on the edge of a table when you’re wrapping up an argument, or to signify you’re just getting started. An elbow propped on the edge of a table is an adverb.”
“Writing will never be as satisfying as observing someone whom I knew was terrible get caught in a lie; as satisfying as the pop! I anticipate when twisting open a Martinelli’s apple juice or when I pour hot coffee over ice come summer or lace up skates in the winter—the firm tug of hooking the top part of the boot. Writing is a closed pistachio shell.”