La Puta: a review of Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover by Mila Jaroniec

IMG_3047
Split Lip Press, 142 pages, $16

BY SAM FARAHMAND

vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

 

I came to Mexico to try to forget all about someone, which I now know I might’ve done the same on the other side of the border with the other half of a bottle of tequila, seeing the half I have left here and knowing all I might’ve done different there is say some of the same words but worse for lack of a bitterer word in a language I can pronounce all of the words right, but here the language means much more to me signifying nothing other than to show how I still feel about la puta.

It is my first time outside of America and my third day in Mexico after departing two days be­fore the inauguration from Los Angeles International Airport three quarters after one in Pacific Standard Time, arriving, after several hours hungover in Mexico City, a quarter before eleven in Central Standard Time in Mérida, Mérida being the capital city of the Mexican state of Yucatán in the northwest of the Yucatán peninsula several hours west of the beaches in Quintana Roo I am sure someday soon and maybe even before this trip is over where I’ll end up in Cancún, though for the time being I can’t cunt, but space being the best visualization for time we have for now, I needed to have some distance between the past and me.

Maybe I might’ve felt better if I had bought a bigger bottle, but I don’t like to drink tequila be­cause tequila is the sort of drink for people who don’t drink to drink, though I was told the tequila in the country is supposed to be cleaner than the water here, so if I don’t drink I might die. I don’t remember if it was an American or an alcoholic who told me that, one of the ones on their way to a beach where I am sure the sea there is the cliché they say it is with the sand and the sun the sort of sand and sun that would make one want to take a shot then shoot one of the locals, but they’re all tourists there.

Not that I’m not. I am rereading this review I rewrote from a second floor room in a hostel just south of the square in the center of Mérida, looking down at the couple of pages I had folded into quarters for being in my back pocket and blue around the edges from being in my back pocket as I sweated the blue from my jeans into the pages while staying up until the sun with strangers rub­bing the backs of their jeans on the front of my jeans. From here I hear the world has ended again and this time in America, looking up from the pages to see there is a bed and there is a bottle and there is a balcony I can stand on and see the center of the city and the cathedral and it is all alive, around it all of the carriages and cars driving in circles around the square full of the birds and the bums and it looks like one of those square parks in an America when an artist could afford to live and when love was just as clichéd as the time. Love is always as clichéd as time, but hindsight is me remembering how good her ass looks in black jeans.

 

When the conquistadors came they burned all the books but one, someone says to me somewhere where I’m not at the time because I am remembering I have ten nonconsecutive days of sobriety, not counting today, this new year. I know it doesn’t mean as much when I can’t cash in my chips because I am not on a roll, but it’s sort of the same as saying this is the forty-fifth when knowing there have only been forty-four with one who held two nonconsecutive terms, though for all our obsessiveness with counting the days and recounting, consecutive or nonconsecutive, there is no such thing as death in America.

Maybe death is why I am here, not because love is a kind of hatred, but because love is death in some syllogistic sense that every x is y is therefore the same as x is y is y. God is dead is dead and maybe I’m here because it seems like all our associations of south with down and down with death would make them much closer to death here, but then I’m disappointed that so far the only skulls I have seen have been covered in skin while the most they have shown of themselves is in their smiles.

It has been some time since I’ve smiled with my teeth, but then I think if i always came before e then the name of this city would translate to shit, which to me seems to be meaner than it seems meaningful, being here in Mérida rereading this review. I’m supposed to be here recording sound for the film my friend Santa Ana, a friend I’ve had for half of my life, is filming, maybe even act­ing in the film as a revolutionary but without any lines so I won’t have to remember anything, but we haven’t started shooting. I’m happy to not have to remember anything and I go back inside the room and I don’t know if it is the bottle or what is inside the bottle that is colored gold to make it look like urine, but I’ll still try to get rid of the same dream I’ve had for some time where I see la puta on the beach.

Santa Ana says we might pay a prostitute to play a prostitute in the film because it’ll be easier than finding someone else, so now I’m somewhere between Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo and maybe I am a revolutionary in some revolution I don’t remember in some dream, though I wonder if my likeness will be pressed into cloth. I didn’t bring my blue sweatshirt that reads El Camino Real in blue on a white background and Conquistadors in gold over a print of a conquistador on the front because it might’ve made me look like another tourist as far south in North America as he can af­ford to be in a Mexico standing in for a South America because Santa Ana couldn’t afford to take us down to the Amazon.

 

The tequila is down now to half a half of a bottle, which still feels more optimistic to me than the odds on a quarter, but soon I will be taking a bus down to a small town an hour outside of Mérida and only several hours away from where the world ended, on the way there the signs for Chichén Itzá and its pyramids and the signs for the crater at Chicxulub as if there might be one coming up for Xibalba, but after enough time, all any civilization leaves behind is its afterlife.

I don’t need to see the ruins or the crater to know they’re there. I know the crater is our creator as much as I know when the agave stopped being subsidized everyone in the towns started living off of showing the tourists the sinkholes fractured off from the crater buried under Chicxulub, the sinkholes they all call the sweetwater. The tourists swim in them, but I’ve been spending my time in a different sort of hole to water in because it’s a dollar for a score of pesos and a little less than forty for a forty with the cost of living here not much more than the cost of dying. All the houses here made of concrete and a lot of them painted on with signs for their savior and some verses he said, but I’d rather die than have someone else die for my sins. It’s my sins that give me the surest sense of who I am.

If not death, it’s God they’re closer to here. Maybe only because the sun is that much closer to the surface here, seeing the dogs straying on and off the sides of the roads and all of them coated in their diseases and sometimes so asleep in the sun I can’t tell if they’re dead. I don’t know what they did to deserve what they don’t, but at least they still have all their genitalia. Forgetfulness is forgiveness enough for me, but I’m afraid I’m losing some of my life here because they burn and they breathe in all of their trash during the day, though I have nothing of hers to burn but what is left in my head when I see a dog that looks like la puta lying down under a pair of white swing­ing saloon doors that makes everyone look like they have angel’s wings when they leave into the sunlight after they step over the dog still staring at me while I drink in this cantina several hours to the right of the middle of nowhere.

Every end, even a good end, is still an end. I see a fetus of a dog on the side of the road on the way back from the cantina and I hear a cock crow three times before the sun is up and soon I will be heading back to still another America to cross this country with some poet and I will likely be reading this review at one of these readings, if not another one of the essays I wrote that have this same short story in the middle, but here it is for the fourth time:

 

President’s Day

 

Happy hour ends in half an hour.

I’ll see you in half a half an hour then, I say but hold the tall can of Mexican beer to my mouth while I wait for her to come back and set down a red American Indian figurine on the bar for the buyback. It’s a good bar during happy hour because they give you two beers for one beer and it’s a good bar because the beers are cheap even when it isn’t happy hour.

The bartender is pregnant in a white dress and she looks like someone’s daughter who’s going to have to be someone’s mother. It must have been over half a year ago the last time I was in here and I saw her first, though if it weren’t for her being pregnant and all she would just look like any other bartender with rosy tattoos and long dark hair, but it must have been her tattoos or her hair or her being a bartender that got her pregnant. She tells me it’s, Five dollars.

Four Mexicans for five dollars.

What.

‘Cause it’s a tall can, so it has two cans worth in each can, then there’s another two on the way. I don’t know. I’m sorry, I just like this happy hour here.

If you like it so much, we have a midnight happy hour too.

When does that start, I ask but she just stares at me. I wonder if I want to wait here for another happy hour, even if The Library bar is the only good bar on the Lower East Side, though it’s nei­ther Lower nor Easter of me, but no one really lives in Manhattan. I mean, when does it end.

Are you not waiting for someone.

I don’t know.

What’s her name.

What’s your name.

Do you not know her name.

Do you wanna know my name.

You ask a lot of questions for someone who doesn’t know anything.

I laugh and the bar is quiet and I think I’ll get drunk enough to try to get her to drink with me, so I ask her what she thinks of my name.

I don’t know what your name is. It’s not like it’s embroidered on your shirt.

I don’t work in the sort of place where my name is embroidered on my shirt.

No one works anymore. At least, not today.

No one drinks today.

She says it like she’s going to turn to point at some sign, But whether they drink or not no one works for free.

Five dollars for four Mexicans, right. I hand her a ten dollar bill and say, Hamilton.

Hamilton. Your parents named you Hamilton. That’s too bad.

I laugh and tell her, No. I just find that I’m much less likely to spend all my money on alcohol if I call all the presidents by their names.

She tugs at the ends of the bill and asks me, Why don’t you call him Alexander.

I don’t wanna get too attached. I’m still an alcoholic.

She walks away with the Hamilton and goes to and opens the register then counts the change and closes it slowly with her hip and walks back to me and hands me the change and says, Here you go Hamilton.

These aren’t Hamiltons.

I’m calling you Hamilton.

Oh. So you’re not gonna ask me my name. You’re just gonna call me Hamilton then.

Well, your parents never did.

I raise the can to her and say, I still resent them for that.

Plus I don’t want to get too attached. I still have to serve alcoholics.

She smiles at me and I can see why she’s pregnant. I smile back as she turns to go to the other end of the bar and I can see why she’s a bartender. I drink as fast as I Mexican and keep drinking and I finish my drink so she has to come back and get me another drink. I leave a Washington on the counter with the Indian figurine and I look for her to come back, but she’s with someone else, so I just have to pick up and finger the figurine. I don’t know why his headdress is so large on his head or why they made him red.

They laugh at the other end of the bar and I look up for her to see me, which she does, but she sees me like she sees through me and she still takes her time coming back to my end.

I smile when she’s close and set the figurine down on the counter again.

You know, Ham, it hasn’t been half a half an hour yet.

You know Hamilton wasn’t a president either.

Are you telling me you’re not the president of these United States of America.

Well the president doesn’t have his name embroidered on his shirt.

He doesn’t work today either.

When does he.

I don’t know. He never comes in for happy hour. I guess I don’t know him as well as you do.

I guess I don’t know you as well as you do.

Another Mexican. She takes the figurine and comes back with another beer. Hamilton.

I guess I don’t know me as well as you do.

No one ever does.

I like talking to you. I know I don’t have a horse in this race. I can just talk to you.

Are you saying I have a horse of a face.

No, I mean it’s not like I have to ask you when you get off.

Are you not going to get me off.

Are you having fun with me.

You’re just trying to get me to say you’re fun.

Am I.

You really don’t know anything do you.

I don’t know much, but I do know I don’t not know anything.

Sure you don’t.

Can I have a lime for this one.

Sure. She picks a lime out of the limes and drops it on the mouth of the can. Will that be all.

I don’t know, I say forcing the lime into the can. Alexandra’s a good name, you know.

And Alexander’s a great one. But it’s not mine, so what’s that got to do with anything.

Your current predictament.

My current predictament is that it’s not mine.

It isn’t.

Well, it is. But I’m not keeping it.

That’s too bad.

Why’s that.

You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.

Everyone has their whole lives ahead of them. Well, not everyone. Not even you, Alexander.

Why not, Alexandra.

She smiles and she says, Happy hour ends in half a half an hour.

 

Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover

 

I am reading a copy of Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover while on my half a half an hour break in a break room in back of a bookstore in a strip mall that could be anywhere in Los Angeles but any­where else and where there isn’t enough time for me to go anywhere else to do anything else, but then again, all the sections in this book are short enough for me to read some of them whenever I have a break to read the only copy of this book to ever be in this bookstore.

It is the day after New Year’s Eve and might as well still be the night before when I smoked a Romeo y dos Julietas worth of cigar that don’t seem to be getting along with everything else still in my stomach while I am slurring through returning all the returns the customers have to return. The bookstore is one of those brick-and-mortar ones customers always become all fire-and-brim­stone about before they’re angry with me at the price of the bestsellers they decide to order online after leaving all their books at the register for me to reshelve. Dust doesn’t collect in alphabetical order, so I’m still not sure where all of the books should be reshelved, but the bookstore is doing well enough during the holidays for one of the assistant managers to tell me we might be able to be paid this year after all, though I am afraid I’m not selling enough to stay on after my seasonal employment and I am afraid I’m not smiling enough at every customer’s attempt to confront their death anxiety through capitalism.

I’m no stranger to that since I sold my soul to be the writer I am, but I still don’t know how to sell out, which I would if I could, so for a time being I have leased the pain in my spine from my back to my neck for ten dollars an hour in a hell that isn’t waiting in a line but waiting on a line. The hell in a well, you’re doing well, you’re not doing good. I am not doing well, but I am doing good enough good to customers as plastic as the plastic with which they pay, which must be why they become so angry with me when I have to charge them a dime for a paper bag, but they think they can smile through anything if their teeth are whitened enough. I tell them a tote bag we have for two dollars has on it the original cover art of This Side of Paradise. Most of them don’t know how to read, but their fingers are good for turning pages.

One of them asked me if I could bring her dog back from the dead, which made me smile that she could have asked for me to bring back anyone from the dead but only asked me to bring back her dog. She bought a book and I told her about our fourteen day return policy with a receipt for a full refund before I go to piss because I drink a lot of water to have to piss a lot to have to walk across the bookstore to the restroom to piss to have to wash my hands hard and try harder to stare at myself, though there isn’t a sign here that says employees must wash sins of the customer, but I know why I’m here as much as I know ignorance isn’t innocence.

Another one buying a copy of the Bible asked me if I believe in the word as he patted down a Bible he still hadn’t bought. I told him I believe in words, but he had nothing to say other than to pay for his copy of the Bible because all we have in common is consumerism is our communion. We even have our own pyramids to it here, though we seem to forget the point of the pyramid is to be buried under the pyramid, but on my last day before I leave for Mexico I realize I’ll have to make some means of getting money into my hands and holding onto it longer than turning it into change and handing it right back. I look at the change and remember there might even be a black face where there were only white skulls with powdered wigs on them before, but still it all looks green to me. We bend the truth over until it’s lying down like this line.

There is a section too long for me to read in the few minutes I have left, so I set the book back in my locker in the break room and sit down while I hold something else in my hand to stare at it so it doesn’t look strange that I’m sitting here and staring at nothing. I try to remember what I had read because I always thought that if you underline all the lines you like, you should cross out all the ones you don’t, so I only dogeared the pages I will come back to for the review, but all I think of as I try not to think is la puta.

 

Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover Part Two

 

Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover is a book about one of those unnamed narrators trying to get over a lost love à la La Maga from the book Hopscotch by the Latin American author of whom I don’t remember the name. The title Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover feels like it should have a hyphen put in there somewhere and a handful of consonants taken out, but then I remember the author of Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover is from the other half of the world where most of their words are almost all consonants and where consonants aren’t considered to be an autoerotic asphyxiation of language as much as a means to get the most out of their vowels when they say something.

I have always thought much more of the hyphen that comes before American than where the ______-American comes from because punctuation is like a simile, though the truth is you’re not an American if you weren’t born in America, but you’re even less of one if your father and moth­er were. Like love, the only thing we ever share is the past, but history is a mass hysteria. Maybe my memory is worse than I remembered because I remember there was more Polish than there is here, but here is all of the Polish in Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover with the page numbers for the pages on which the Polish is:

 

           Musimy jakos zyc, czy istniejemy czy nie

  1. 16

            dinozaura, prosze

  1. 21

            Przygody Dobrego Wojaka Szwejka.

  1. 85

            Wszystko Twoje

  1. 100

           Trzeba sobie jakos radzic, powiedzial baca, zawiazujac buta dzdzownica

  1. 115

            barszcz

  1. 118

            uszka

  1. 118

            pierogi

  1. 118

            Trzymaj sie, siostra

  1. 124

            Nareszcie

  1. 124

 

Writing a review is like the difference between underlining a line and writing, seeing as a review is only written for the writer and the only reason I’m writing this review is because I will know at least one person will, whether or not they underline lines, read this, but then again, there are a lot of lines about an American Dream in Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover worth underlining and there are a lot of addresses to you as a reader and in some of the shorter italicized sections to you as an unnamed character, but as you reads through the book the same as I travels through time, Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover being as deictic as it is, whatever that is, you realize like in life how your you‘s start to get used and your I‘s get used to it as they do the meaninglessness of me.

But we make sense of things through things though things because we are all merely stand-ins for someone else, if not stand-ins for something that came before all this and if not for something to come after, friend being the worst f word there is as far as any mot just concerns me, but it’s all the same. Something, as in, anything, is a lot closer to everything than it is nothing.

I should rewrite this review after I realize all of the art of today is the art of the art of, though for the time being the most common quality of writing that makes me less likely to read it is if it is published. It makes me think this all might’ve ended up instead of down if I were some sort of successful author, as if selling a bestseller would make a bookstar of me, but like being loved for who we’re with, don’t we all want to be loved for who we’re not. I was always afraid the only Na­tional Endowment for the Arts I’d ever have my hands on is my cock.

I reread this review and I realize I’d forgot how much of ourselves we have to forget when we try to forget someone else, but in my head all I hear is the same old same All hail, Might’ve, thou shalt be king hereafter. I ask the author to read this review before I send it out to be rejected, but then the author tells me she thinks it reads like la puta is referring to her, which makes me smile that she might’ve thought this review is about her, though maybe even I don’t know who la puta is, as much as I now know I didn’t, but no one, maybe not even la puta, knows who la puta is but la puta.

Still I might be able to get something good together to review Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover, something, as in:

 

The title Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover turns in itself like love into a lover as it turns the nouns into adjectives from Plastic to Vodka to Bottle to Sleepover and we see all life is is this effort to try to turn nouns into adjectives. Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover is all about deixis and in more than one sense, but in the story and the sound of its title, it is the same as This Side of Paradise and, like the title This Side of Paradise itself, it is the same in a structural sense of sound reflecting story to show how it signifies This Side of Paradise.

 

I have never had much of a Mary to hail, but I’ll try because I’m afraid only one person will read this as much as I’m sure la puta will read this because you are la puta and I am la puta and all of this is puta y pues puta y puta y pues puta. Our puta who art in puta, puta be thy name thy king­dom puta thy will be puta in puta as it is in puta. Give us this puta our daily puta and puta us our puta as we puta our putas and puta us not into puta but deliver us from puta; pues puta. Hail pu­ta madre full of puta, puta is with thee.

The words are, whether we write them or not, all there because all we are is our word and our words for our word, though looking back now on all of my looking forward, all I know is I don’t even know myself, but that isn’t all I don’t know.

All I know is I don’t know.

 

Sam Farahmand is an Iranian-American writer from Los Angeles. He is an editor at drDOCTOR. He has an MFA from The New School and his writing has appeared in Hobart and drDOCTOR Vol. 1.

[GUEST FEATURE] Writing While Brown

BY JONATHAN MARCANTONI

It was in the 90s when I began writing, first on a cheap computer program my dad bought me that mixed cut out animation with text. At that time, living in the Deep South, I had no knowledge of academic studies on ethnic literature or Nuyorican politics. We were Puerto Ricans and very simply so. Racism was apparent, and came from both the Mexicans who looked down on Puerto Ricans for no other reason than tribalism, and whites who were just ignorant and didn’t know what to do with a kid who was not light enough to be white, not tan enough to be immediately labelled a Mexican, and not dark enough to be black. So, I fell in with the black kids, and black art, and I was emboldened by the bravery of black artists to not only let their voice be heard but to be proud of their skin, their culture, and their unity as a people. The self-hatred and victimization of the Latino community was not something I was aware of as a teenager. I didn’t know I shouldn’t be proud of being Puerto Rican the same way James Brown was proud to be black. Becoming a writer broke down that ignorance, most often in conversations with the gatekeepers and mentors I relied on.

At age 15, applying for a writing program at a state arts academy:

Jon, you have such a great voice as a writer, why do you focus on such negative subjects?

How is it negative? It is real life.

Well, it’s just that…you’re just a teenager, why do you want to write about social problems?

Would you say that to Steinbeck?

Jon, there is no reason to compare yourself to famous people, that really gets you nowhere.

But why can famous authors write about social problems and I can’t?

(pause)

I think…this might just be too dark for an application to a state school. Most young people write science fiction or fantasy, maybe romance, but a union strike? They might not be the best audience for a political piece.

The guidelines don’t say what I can write about, just the length and that we can’t use profanity.

Right…well, I can’t stop you from submitting this. But in the future, I think you really ought to consider your audience.

At age 20, giving a writer friend who had been published a story of mine for feedback:

Jon, this is a really great story, but have you thought about setting it in the US? Most people in publishing don’t know much about Puerto Ricans if they don’t live in New York. And do they have to be Puerto Rican?

I am Puerto Rican, why would I not have my characters be as well?

I get that, I get that, but do they have to be Latino? It’s such a universal story—

So, the only humans capable of representing everyone are Americans, or let’s be honest, white Americans?

That…Jon, don’t get defensive, I’m just talking about your audience. You wrote this in English, and the people who would be reading this are not likely to be Latino.

I’m not going to be someone I’m not.

And I’m not asking you to be, I’m just saying you gotta play the game sometimes. Get published by following the rules and then you can experiment and have your stories be about whatever you want them to be about.

At age 22, talking to my aunt about the book I had just written:

Jon, you are such a good writer, and you have so much passion for our culture, I love it, really, but do you have to write about such dark things? Isn’t the world sad enough as it is, why can’t you write stories that are more positive about our people?

Well, tia, I want to raise awareness of issues that affect us and that need to be talked about.

I can understand that, but we have so much negativity about our people, why add to it?

So, I should ignore what goes on in our communities so we can feel better about ourselves?

That’s not what I’m saying—look, we have it really good compared to other people, and I think your writing would go a lot farther if you weren’t so critical of the United States too. I mean, you should be more grateful for what this country has done for you and our family.

At age 27, talking to a black screenwriter about my second book, which I wanted to adapt:

Jon, this is a great story, but have you ever heard of race-neutral storytelling? When producers look at a script, they base its marketability on how wide of an audience they can attract, and the more racially specific a story is, the less people will be interested. So instead of having Puerto Rican characters in Puerto Rico, why not move this story to Los Angeles and make the characters’ racial identity ambiguous, and maybe have a couple smaller characters be Mexican, it is LA so you can get away with that, but overall make it more universal, which is to say, neutral. And cut out the political commentary, just focus on the crime stuff and maybe find a place to add a romantic subplot, since that really appeals to people in the suburbs.

At age 27, receiving a review from a white blogger for the same book:

Jon, I gave this book a chance but couldn’t make it past the third page. Have you ever taken a writing class? Have you ever read a book? Chapter headings are centered three lines down a page as “Chapter 1, 2, 3” etc. and not any other way. You don’t go back and forth between narrative and thought without putting thoughts in italics and dialogue uses quotes, not em-dashes. Finally, mixing Spanish and English and not translating the Spanish really alienates readers and limits your audience. You do want people to read this, right?

At age 30, receiving a rejection letter from a major publisher for my third book:

This is a fascinating and vivid book that is intelligently written, however, we have a hard time seeing how it would be marketable for a wide audience since it lacks a relatable character.

It is at this point that the culture began to talk about micro-aggressions outside of the university. Concepts of intersectionality and modes of oppression became commonplace on talk and news shows, but for most of my life I had seen these things play out and understood, even at age 15, that what people didn’t “get” was why I would waste my time writing about brown and black people struggling for dignity and respect in their careers, their personal lives, from their government, their friends, and their family. Had they been white characters, probably no one would have batted an eye. Had the stories set in Puerto Rico or in Puerto Rican communities instead have been Irish or Italian or had the protagonist been a white observer who could give the white reader an “in”, my work probably could have received interest from a larger press, maybe even a Big 5 one, had I played the game of appealing to white sensibilities and assuaging white guilt by portraying my homeland as worse than even the gravest crime the U.S. had ever committed to us and that any good that came to us came from the U.S. Had I remembered to praise the American Dream and have my Latino characters yearn for nothing more than to be another thread in the great nation’s fabric. Had I been a house spic, they would have let me in. Stay in your lane. That is the between the lines refrain I decipher from this small sampling of conversations about my work. Stay in your lane.

Instead, I chose universality. My first book looks at people from all walks of life, educated and not, rich and poor, addicted and straight-laced, selfish and selfless, human beings who happen to be Latinos. My second was set in my homeland and dealt with politic corruption and human trafficking, but more pointedly, it was about the exploitation of the poor for the sins of the wealthy, showing how both Americans and those Puerto Ricans who support them, most often light skinned as well, get away with murder while the poor and black Puerto Ricans suffer for far lesser crimes. My third book was about club kids and mental illness and the desire to return to Puerto Rico to fully achieve our dreams. A subversion of the American Dream that has oppressed our people for ages. If we are to move forward as artists we have to tell stories that are universal, even while being specific to a particular experience and point of view. We have to think of methods of expression that are not so easily explained by ethnicity or country of origin. But to do so we need an outlet for such ideas and stories to flourish. If I was going to be a gatekeeper, then I had to supply the infrastructure, and so one more conversation had to occur.

At age 31, conversation between my ego (represented here as Suge Knight), and my id (represented here as Dr. Dre):

Suge: The fuck do you want?

Dre: I’m here to tell you I’m cutting my losses and setting out to start my own company.

Suge: And what are you expecting from me?

Dre: That you let me go. That your bullshit insecurities and shady past don’t interfere with my plans.

Suge: Boricua, why should I do that?

Dre: Because what I’m about to do will make you look good as well. You can even take credit for all you taught me these last few years. You see, I’m gonna provide a space, a lounge, for people of all races and backgrounds to contribute their work and get feedback and encouragement. A space where mentorship can be fostered and developed. And this space will be accompanied by a book publisher for Latinos and Caribbeans to tell stories outside the white gaze, outside the stereotyped expectations placed on us, stories of humanity that transcend genre and expectation. We will be that space for writers of color to truly be themselves.

Suge: How you gonna make money off some dumb ass shit like that?

Dre: It’s not about money, it’s about expression, and because we are filling a need, serving an underdeveloped market, we will attract attention, instead of dipping into the same waters as other new presses.

Suge (scoffing, rolling his eyes): Alright, you want to jump off a deep end and say fuck you to the white man I’m not gonna stop you, but I still think it’s stupid. So, whatchu gonna call that bullshit?

(Dramatic pause)

Dre: La Casita Grande Press.

(Cut to black)

 

 

Jonathan Marcantoni is a Boricua author of four books, and the forthcoming Tristiana. He is co-founder, with his wife Suset, of La Casita Grande Press.

[REVIEW] Communion by TJ Beitelman

communion

Black Lawrence Press, 2016

 

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN DUCKWORTH

“Most things don’t take root, and that is as it was intended.”

The above quote, a cryptic line from the story “Sister Blanche” in TJ Beitelman’s Communion, captures much of the magic and tragedy suffusing the collection’s stories—stories of marriages halfway ended, affairs partway consummated, vows only partially kept, and conversations only begun but never finished.

The full title of Beitelman’s new book is Communion: Stories, but that doesn’t quite describe the animal that is this book. While in places a reader may well be lulled into thinking they’re leafing through an ordinary short story collection, such as in “Antony and Cleopatra,” or “Joy,” other sections will lead to questions of genre. The early short pieces of the collection (“Artic Circle,” “Masks”) could be read both as prose poetry as well as flash fiction, testament to Beitelman’s lyrical dexterity as well as his strength at setting a scene and selling a mood. In a further departure, the book’s longest piece, “Notes on an Intercessory Prayer,” is less a story and more a lyric essay with brief fictional incisions into what is by-and-large a tribute to the late Benazir Bhutto. The last flush of stories (“Hope, Faith, and Love,” “Communion”) toward the end of the book can stand as individual pieces as well as chapters to a larger surrealist work that tells the myth of a working-class Messiah and the family he leaves behind without saving.

While most of the stories in Communion are set in Southern locales, their characters traditional (after a fashion) Southerners of working-class extraction, there are some notable exceptions. One of my favorites, “Yoi, Hajime” centers on a Japanese chicken-sexer reflecting on his time working in Atlanta, Georgia alongside a young black woman who he longs for but never gets around to courting. The model guiding most of Beitelman’s stories is less the lopsided pyramid taught in creative writing workshops around the country and more the asymptote: the curving line that draws closer and closer to the line that would be its mate without ever touching. The endings are often open-ended: pots left simmering on the stove. A wonderful example of this is the excellent flash piece “Blackface,” which leaves the reader with a powerful and pervading sense of mystification mixed with enlightenment as we see a drunken teenager break into a neighbor’s house only to come face to face with his own mother—naked and in blackface. The motivations are irrelevant, as are the consequences to the characters in the aftermath—all that matters is the powerful moment of recognition between the mother and son before the son flees the house.

TJ Beitelman’s Communion is not a conventional short story collection, nor is it the sort of collection that one could use as an easy, marketable model for putting together a first book. It is, however, memorable and equal-parts troubling, affecting, and inspiring.

[INTERVIEW] HAUNTINGS, HUMOR, POETRY, AND DOGS – AN INTERVIEW WITH KIMMY WALTERS

INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

killerWhether she’s writing about the endless curiosity of the body, the challenges that accompany being a feminist who isn’t afraid to defend her autonomy, the humor of living in a semi-rural area, or the wisdom of dogs, Kimmy Walters will delight you.

Walters is young—26, to be precise—so Millennials especially will recognize themselves in Killer’s pages. Walters’ debut poetry volume, Uptalk, was published in 2015, also by Bottlecap Press. At this rate, poetry connoisseurs will have much to look forward to.

Walters’ is the kind of poetry you can’t help but want to read, even when you’re falling asleep with the bedside lamp on. It’s the kind of poetry you read aloud to your friends because you just can’t keep it to yourself. The kind of poetry you want to read at stoplights even though it would pain you to be caught in the midst of a poem when the light changes.

While some modern poets default to snark, Walters is confident enough in her poetry to let each piece speak for itself rather than forcing the reader toward a quick, easy, often moralistic conclusion. Killer asks the reader only to observe and acknowledge—what readers glean beyond that is entirely their own.

Though the entire volume is captivating, the standout poems are “Good Morning, I Am Not Going to Commit Suicide Today,” “Does Your Soulmate Speak English,” “Marrying a Husband,” “Poem About How Little Affection I Had for Him,” “Giving Blood,” “The Water Was Filled With Swans,” “People Person” and, of course, the namesake, “Killer.”

I talked to Walters about her writing process and how her life experiences have informed her work.

Shunnarah: One of the things I most enjoyed about Killer is that while your poems are flush with meaning, they’re also extremely enjoyable on the surface level. Was the accessibility of your work always important to you? Did you ever have a memorable moment of throwing your hands in the air in frustration while reading a poem and think, “What does it all mean?” and vow not to make anyone do that?

Walters: Thank you! I’m not sure I ever consciously decided I wanted my writing to be accessible–I just didn’t have any interest in writing anything super opaque. I don’t get frustrated with needlessly complex writing so much as I get disinterested. I start looking around like “What else is going on?” I’m not going to spend a lot of time with a page that’s not really trying to communicate with me, and neither are most people.

Shunnarah: In the poem “Killer,” for which the collection is named, you speculate there may have been a killer who previously lived in your residence. Have you learned more about the house’s history since writing that poem?

Walters: I just looked up the house that poem was based on in Google Street View and there is a single black folding chair on the porch. Seems ominous…

It’s possible a killer lived there. That whole town was haunted as hell. One time my roommate and I slept downstairs in sleeping bags so we could try to get an overnight audio recording of the upstairs ghost. It was inconclusive.

Shunnarah: A number of the poems in Killer have a dark, subtle humor that is rendered sublimely in the text. I also noticed the recurring theme of dogs, creatures who manage to be simultaneously sage and goofy. Tell me more about your sense of humor and how it has developed in your poetry.

Walters: I’ve been depressed for a large portion of my life, and I dealt with it by constantly telling myself jokes. For a long time I thought that’s what everyone’s interior monologue was like. My sense of humor comes from years and years of trying to distract myself from being sad.

Shunnarah: You studied linguistics in college—deviating from the more common path of studying English literature or creative writing. Tell me more about how the study of linguistics gave you insight into language and influenced your poetry.

Walters: I didn’t have a lot of direction when I entered college, but the adults around me warned me against pursuing an English degree because they thought I wouldn’t be able to get a job. (I later found that it’s not easier to get a job with a linguistics degree, and a lot of people don’t know what linguistics is.)

It’s kind of an accident that I ended up with this degree, but it was a good course of study for me. I’ve always been interested in what language is capable of, its history, and how it changes. Studying linguistics definitely encouraged me to be more playful with language. The first thing you get taught in an introductory linguistics class is that you need to stop being such an asshole about language, which was true for me and probably all of my classmates.

Shunnarah: You’ve talked extensively about your use of social media as a poetic medium—namely making poetry out of the tweets from the now defunct horse enthusiast bot account, @horse_ebooks—so here’s the obligatory social media question. Many fans of your poetry found you via Twitter and Tumblr. Do you think blogging and social media, particularly Twitter because it requires brevity, have helped guide people to modern poetry?

Walters: When I was a tween, the thing to do at my school was to keep a blog, so I’ve been writing online for about 13 years. Connecting with people online is easier and makes me less anxious than trying to meet people other ways, and the way I’ve connected with people is by sharing writing or art.

Over the years I’ve had a lot of practice creating things that I want people to see. I took to Twitter quickly because I’m usually brief anyway. Twitter’s character limit is a constraint on writing the same way that the rules of haiku are. I mean, like anyone, I’ve tweeted “who up?” but hella old poems essentially boil down to “who up?” too. It’s one of the Big Questions.

The internet is a buffet and I am going hog wild on it. It’s so easy to sample things—I read articles online about subjects I’d never think to actually buy a book about. That may be where some of the interest in poetry is coming from. Someone who’d never browse the poetry section of a bookstore might have a poem come across their feed on Twitter or Facebook and find that they like it. Then they’ll come across a tidbit about food science or body language and like that too. We take in so much information; some of it’s gonna be poetry.

Shunnarah: Killer is your second collection of poetry, the first being Uptalk, which was also published by Bottlecap Press. In what ways have you evolved as a poet from Uptalk to Killer?

Walters: I think I was more focused while writing Killer, and generally had a better idea of what I was doing. I felt more confident writing, because I knew that people had responded positively to my work, and made quicker, less self-conscious decisions. The style is similar, but tighter, I feel.

Shunnarah: What are you working on now?

Walters: I’m figuring that out! I’ve just been writing poems and waiting for some theme to hijack my life so I can write another book.

Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, Deep South Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine, where she won Honorable Mention in their 2016 contest. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.

[REVIEW] Human Acts by Han Kang

hang

Hogarth Books, 2017

REVIEWED BY MATT E. LEWIS

Can something be called a war crime, if there was no war? If a government truly wishes to obliterate the occurrence of a despicable act they committed, can they do so with only a well-placed bullet or torture or destruction of physical evidence? Or do they accidentally create something immortal – a memory of a person that is lodged in the minds of family and witnesses forever, like shrapnel that burrows into the body and aches in cold weather? These are the kinds of questions asked by the people in Han Kang’s newly translated book, Human Acts, which focuses on the connection between multiple people surrounding the death of a teenage boy during the South Korean “Gwangju Uprising” of 1980. It was during this time that a South Korean president, Park Chung-hee, was installed in power via a coup d’etat, declared martial law, and used lethal force against unarmed civilians and unspeakable torture on those deemed to be enemies of the state. Kang uses several perspectives in her writing to capture this snapshot in time, this all-too-recent authoritarian massacre, and the lasting effects on the people that survived it. Best known for her bestselling book, The Vegetarian, which examines the brutality in which gender roles can be enforced, Human Acts looks at another aspect in which humanity reveals its ugly, violent, primal nature – when those in power seek control, by any means necessary.

The books starts with a teenage boy, Dong-ho, searching for his friend in a gymnasium converted into a morgue. He is soon conscripted into service in the task of recording data about the corpses of those killed in the protests. In this way Kang begins a conversation repeated throughout the novel, the question of when exactly a soul leaves a body, what separates a human being from a rotting corpse, and how one can grapple with a person you once knew putrefying in front of you. During the course of his work, the banality of Dong-ho’s work – cataloging things like the height, gender, clothes, and shoe brand on the corpse – demonstrates the parallel with the banality of the evil that put them there, the indiscriminate and merciless killing of unarmed protesters, whose only crime was to intellectually oppose a government run by brutal thugs. Dong-ho hopes to find Jeong-dae and his disappeared sister, Jeong-mi, alive, despite the fact that he watched a bullet cut down Jeong-dae at the beginning of the protest. Without the confirmation of the physical body of his friend, he continues to engage in magical thinking, a way of coping with such a brutal loss at such a young age. As if in response to this, Kang begins the next section with the narrative of Jeong-dae’s spirit, still stuck to his rotting body as soldiers dump him and others in a field to be burned. Jeong-dae’s spirit mourns for the loss of his potential life, and seethes with the anger of his mindless execution. He meditates on the lives of the soldiers that killed him:

“I want to see their faces, to hover above their sleeping eyelids like a guttering flame, to slip inside their dreams, spend the nights flaring in through their forehead, their eyelids. Until their nightmares are filled with my eyes, my eyes as blood drains out. Until they hear my voice asking, demanding, why.”

It’s not just the dead who ask these questions, but the living as well. One of the women working at the gymnasium, Eun-sook, sees things in Gwangju that attempt to normalize the landscape of the town. Specifically, the water fountain at the center square is turned back on again, which is the government’s subtle way of disregarding the sacrifice of the protesters. Instead of going along with this underhanded legitimization of the corrupt ruler, she complains to her town provincial office: “What I mean is, how can it have started operating again already? It’s been dry ever since the uprising began and now it’s back on again, as though everything’s back to normal. How can that be possible?” Eun-sook soon learns that in times of martial law and authoritarian control, even such benign protests can have serious repercussions. When working as an editor, she witnesses mass censorship of texts that disagree with the government, and she herself is viciously questioned and beaten in her connection to it. Kang finds beautiful ways in which to respond to these fascist tactics, such as when Eun-sook attends a play with the censored language that she worked on, only to find that the actors soundlessly mouth the forbidden words instead of actually speaking them. It is in this dialogue that a quote is made that reverberates for nearly every character in the book, a kind of elegy for those who survived this horror: “After you died I couldn’t hold a funeral, so my life became a funeral.”

Human Acts has moments when it gorgeously exemplifies the spirit of dissent, and the characters who choose to stand, even when faced with death and torture. The mothers of children killed in the protest risk their own life to demonstrate at the president’s parade through Gwangju, thrown in jail again and again for the crime of their morning. The account of a prisoner who, though savaged by the guards and conditions of his political imprisonment, looks at his actions with pride rather than regret.

“I remember feeling that it was all right to die; I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean…the sublime enormity of a single heart, pulsing blood through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it.”

While such a triumph of hope is possible in the face of this dark time, the core focus of Human Acts is the remembrance of the pain of loss, which in itself is an act of dissonance against fascist revisionism. The last part of the book is Kang’s own account of her experience during the uprising, and of the later discovery of the story of Dong-ho, which moved her to write the book. After pouring over stacks of documents relating to the uprising and interviewing those that knew him, Kang finds herself haunted by what she has learned – she becomes plagued by nightmares of being bayoneted by soldiers, finding herself in dreamlike recreations of the situations these people had faced. Even at a friend’s wedding, surrounded by happy, well-dressed peers, she finds herself plagued by the survivor’s guilt that the research has inflicted on her. “How was such a scene possible, when so many people had died?” she asks herself, still shaken by the connection of the horrors her research has to reality. But she finds solace in the fact that “Human Acts” accomplishes the goal of any account of a crime against humanity seeks to achieve – the fact that these events, these people, these names are not forgotten or lost to history. To do so disrespects the memory of their sacrifice and the eternal ache of loss felt by their loved ones. Perhaps most timely is the lesson that the threat of fascism is not a distant nightmare, but a very real threat, waiting only for an ideal series of events to wedge its way into our lives and cause havoc once again. As such, we as readers must absorb the stories of these people and their lives, allowing their sacrifice to embolden our vigilance and our resolve.

 

[REVIEW] VHS and Why it’s Hard to Live by Tatiana Ryckman

11TR

 

Zoo Cake Press, 2016

 

REVIEWED BY MATHEW SERBACK

Tatiana Ryckman is the voice inside of my head.

Maybe I feel this way because we are both from Cleveland, Ohio. Or maybe it’s because we both migrated to big cities in Texas. Or maybe the answer is something more obvious – something simple; Tatiana Ryckman is just better at being honest.

In her new collection of flash nonfiction VHS and Why it’s Hard to Live, Ryckman expresses the sadness we all feel about never becoming the person we thought we wanted to be. She has an unmatched talent for finding the embarrassing truths we don’t want to tell ourselves and exposing them through tangential connections.

Each story in this collection is built with precision. The sentences bubble, and the self-reflections bubble, but they always burst by the end. It’s the small moments of self-revelation that absorb me into the prose. It is in these moments that Ryckman is the voice in my head.

In “Coming of Age,” a flash piece about love and hatred, she writes, “In high school, a boy who would sneak into my room at night but who would not date me said ignorance was the path to happiness, and that happiness was death to the self. It’s a little dramatic, but it explains a lot about the times.” I’m suddenly compelled to find my high school girlfriends on their social media of choice and tell them how sorry I am for the past – to tell them how wrong I was about the future.

That’s what Tatiana Ryckman’s writing does to the boy who was sneaking in and out of windows and telling half-truths they knew were lies. Just imagine what it’ll do to you.

In “My Death,” Tatiana considers the way she will die, “I can’t walk to the grocery store, which is not to say I don’t walk to the grocery store but every time I have walked to the grocery store, alone, at night, I know I am being followed. Or if not followed, then watched, to be followed on a future night.” That’s the same voice in my head that tells me I’m afraid of sharp objects – the pronounced corner of a table, the useful end of the screwdriver – and most importantly, knives. Ryckman reminds me that we all are sharing in a ubiquitous death. She has to walk to the grocery store, I have to use a knife, and you have to board that airplane. Her death is waiting in the bushes. My death is in my right hand.

Each story is a different thought that keeps you up at night.

And even now, as I try to tell you how beautiful and tangled Ryckman’s language is, she’s the voice in my head that is reminding me that VHS and Why it’s Hard to Live isn’t about her – it’s about me, and always will be, “Maybe you know what I mean; maybe all of our shit is just pet enough to keep us up at night, alive and in the world reaching our full potential, wondering what the world would be without us.”

[INTERVIEW] ON MOTHERS, DAUGHTERS, AND THE CORPOREALITY OF MUSIC – WITH MARCIA BUTLER

INTERVIEW BY ILEANA FLORIAN

 

MARCIA BUTLER 1

Marcia Butler’s memoir The Skin Above My Knee begins with a domestic, Sunday morning scene. The author, four years old, is listening to the soprano Kirsten Flagstad singing the aria Liebestod from Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, while her mother is vacuuming the house with a thunderous Hoover. The writer’s two loves, music and her mother, thus make their entrance into the book.

Butler’s memoir blends together stories about girlhood, sexual abuse, and an overwhelming passion for music. Against the gritty backdrop of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, the author struggles with abusive relationships, drug addiction, and unsuccessful attempts to reach out to her family. Butler’s account of her life as a musician is no less realistic, ranging from nearly starving as a student to maintaining a grueling performing schedule. These experiences, however, are redeemed by galvanizing moments when performing in orchestras felt like being a part of a larger, living and thinking, organism.

I spoke with Marcia Butler about creativity, competition between mothers and daughters, and the corporeality of music, in December 2016.

Florian: How did you start thinking about writing a memoir? MARCIA BUTLER 2

Butler: Well, that’s an interesting question because I didn’t set out to write a memoir at all. I was writing about creativity, actually. I’d been a musician for about 25 years, and then was an interior designer for 15 years. As a designer, I began blogging and quickly realized that the more fertile subjects for me were the overarching principles of the universality of design, aesthetics and creative thrust. How all this binds us together as a society and how we live and enjoy life. What are we drawn to, and why?
For example, I became fascinated with the power of three. It’s never two, it’s always three. This is born out in everything. In religion with the holy trinity, in myth with the third or evil eye. In the nursery rhyme – Three Blind Mice, in comedy and film – The Three Stooges. Through the masters in artwork, subjects are framed within a triangle formation to set up ideal proportions. Within physics, threes appear in sound waves and I’m sure on deeper levels as well, which I certainly don’t have the expertise to speak about. I could go on and on – there are so many examples in all cultures. But this always brought me back to music and a strange phenomenon in the fact that when two violins play together, they don’t sound very nice. But when you add a third violin, the beauty doesn’t increase by just one third; rather the resonance improves on an exponential level and with exceptional beauty.
This reminded me of my performing days and thinking about peak moments on stage with specific, memorable concerts. I wondered what made them so wonderful. So, I began writing about my own performance experiences. This naturally led me to write essays about my life. For instance, my very first essay which begins the narrative section of my memoir, is about being four years old and hearing the music of Richard Wagner – his Liebestod from the opera Tristan and Isolde – for the first time. This is my very first memory of hearing music. Kirsten Flagstad was the singer and it was a startling moment for me and actually began one trajectory of my life. Even at four years old!

 

Now to return to your question of how I came to write my memoir. I had amassed these pieces, woke up early one morning at about 5:00 a.m. and realized I was, in fact, writing a memoir. It wasn’t necessarily a happy sensation at all, but the epiphany kind of galvanized me and I managed to write it in about three years. I suppose, in retrospect, this moment was another one of those peak moments or a creative impulse that prompted me to continue and I’d eventually understand why.

Kirsten Flagstad – Wagner Liebestod

Florian: This early moment of understanding music is extremely powerful, both because of this passion for music that you’re discovering at an early age, but also because, in the book, your mother is present in the background at the moment you have this revelation. Your relationship with her, and with your family in general, forms a counterpoint to the story of your artistic career.
Butler: My mother was an exceptionally talented person. She could draw figuratively very well. And she was just super intelligent. I mean, there were so many things about her that I found intriguing. I think that’s why I put her on a pedestal for so long. At work, she was a beloved schoolteacher and taught French, Latin and Spanish. She read voraciously; always had a book in her hand. She was a lively person on the outside but did not display that persona to us at home. I remember feeling baffled when I was young, and later on angry, because she’d present herself so differently when we were in public. She had so much interest and energy for others, but not for me. And it wounded me terribly.
Part of the problem with my mother was that she was competitive with me. I see this only in retrospect many, many years later, of course. I believe that she felt, to a large degree, marginalized in her marriage and in her family life. Quite frankly, I don’t think she really wanted kids and could not reconcile where her life ended up. And she would not allow a closeness between herself and her daughter because I represented a barrier to her dreams. This competition was subtle and certainly not understood back then. At the end of the day the young girl, the young woman, the middle-aged woman wanted her mother, and I kept trying for years. I tried to be the best daughter I could be. And it was never the right way. Never. I was unimaginably sad.
Florian: Did your parents ever divorce?
Butler: They’re dead now, but they stayed married until the end. I believe that she was going to leave my father a couple of times through the years, but never did. I’m sure she felt she couldn’t make it on her own first emotionally, because underneath, of course, she felt incredibly deficient. That had to be the case. But financially too. She earned a schoolteacher’s salary, but you know how it was. Women of that generation didn’t feel empowered to take those steps. “He might be a creep, but he’s my creep.” That kind of thing.
Florian: Your expectations were very different from the very beginning. You were trying to follow something for which you had passion and that was real and affirming for you, and you just allowed yourself to grow, in spite of lack of encouragement. I’m thinking of the years you spent at Mannes College of Music, and how you were trying to survive without much help from your family.
Butler: One of the best days of my life was getting that call from the Mannes College of Music telling me I’d received a full scholarship, because otherwise I would have ended up at Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School. My internal trope was: “Just get to New York City. Just get into conservatory. I’ll make it work.” When times were tough and I had no money, I made it work in any way that I could. That meant I became a sneaky girl. For a period of time I ate only one head of lettuce a day. Gradually I lost my period because I wasn’t getting any protein at all; I was going into that state where young girls lose their estrogen. I felt a lot of shame as well, because I didn’t have the wherewithal that other students did; family support. As a result, I kept everything secret: eating only lettuce and all the rest of my considerable shenanigans. At the same time, I was around my fellow students who understood me on a musical level, and that was thrilling. When you’re 18 years old, that’s everything.
Florian: This brings me to my question about your experiences as a woman and a musician. It’s not difficult to notice that there are, and traditionally have been, fewer women musicians in classical orchestras than men. What are your thoughts about that?
Butler: In the first half of the 20th century, women had not been encouraged to seek careers in general, let alone one in the arts. That has changed a lot over the years. During 50s, to 60s, to 70s, and even into the 80’s, there were still very few women in orchestras. In any case, in the US it started to really change during the 1980’s with the advent of blind auditions, which are held behind screens. Vienna Philharmonic was the last holdout and accepted their first woman in 2003!
Florian: Unbelievable.
Butler: So true! But I’ve always been curious as to how the actual sound of an orchestra might be influenced by gender. I listen to a lot of really old recordings on YouTube of various orchestras from the 1940’s, 1950’s – and even older. These orchestras were made up entirely of men. There is no way to codify this notion, but I wonder how the sound of an orchestra has changed through the years with the inclusion of women. That’s not to say that women play in a ‘feminine’ way at all. In fact, if you close your eyes, it’s impossible to glean gender from someone’s playing. I just think there may be a subtle quality brought to play by a re-balance of testosterone and estrogen. Impossible to determine, I’m sure. But it’s along the lines of, what if women ruled the world. How would that change our planet.
Fast forward: I just recently heard Berliner Philharmoniker and Royal Concertgebouw from Amsterdam, both at Carnegie Hall. The string section in the Concertgebouw is at least half women. Berlin has a large percentage of women now, as well.

Berlin Philharmonic – 1950 – Richard Strauss, Don Quixote

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra – 2010 – Gustav Mahler, 6th Symphony

Florian: Your book talks a lot about music as an embodied, physical act. You mention a conductor who can communicate in a nonverbal way with the orchestra and a conductor who had to tell the orchestra what to do. I also remember reading about you standing up, taking the correct breath, and then playing the oboe… Tell us a little bit more about that.
Butler: Playing any instrument, whether it’s an oboe, or a flute, or a tuba, is tremendously physical. It may look like we’re just sitting there blowing, but there’s a great deal of focused physical energy that goes into playing an instrument. It’s hard to imagine: you must blow to produce the sound, but also create an extraordinarily beautiful sound, and further, interpret highly complex music. Then you must sustain it over a long period of time – usually more than an hour. Imagine being an Olympic hurdler who must jump for an hour non-stop. The stamina is colossal, exactly like an Olympic athlete, and that’s not an exaggeration. It’s such a rarefied channeling of human energy.
But that’s just the physical part. When you put a group of people together there is a synergy that needs to happen which occurs on the intuitive level. You’re listening and looking and getting cues from those obvious senses. But there’s also the attuned knowing amongst the group. Another way of putting it is this: the top mental process is when you’re fully aware of what’s going on, but then there’s the underbelly, where you unconsciously understand what the unspoken impulses are; the things outside of and below those obvious senses. When you make music, you fuse the combined energies of the group: physical, mental, emotional and intuitive – all creating something artistic, simultaneously.
This is something that musicians learn to do, but it’s also a gift. If you are talented and have the right training and the right ears, and if your intuition is exceptional then all these extraordinary abilities will float to the top. But music must be at the helm. The question is rhetorical but always present: Why are we sitting here playing? It’s because there’s an opportunity at every moment to communicate something to the listener and for that person to be moved. That’s the raw experience. It’s an act of love actually.
I’ve attempted to explain this complex phenomenon in my book through describing my performances. Music is truly a miracle. And it is why, in my opinion, music is an art form that all people relate to and want to be close to. You want to be on stage with the Grateful Dead; you want to be in the front row at a Billy Joel concert; you want to be enveloped by the sound of an orchestra. In all cases, the universal desire is to be in touch with that exact moment when the good stuff is happening on stage. That’s what musicians do. And the listener can experience it too. So, there are always two points in music: the person making the music and the person hearing it. Then the connection is fully embodied.

Florian: Speaking of sound, and person, and embodiment. There is another theme that reappears through your book… making reeds for your oboe, a practice that you engaged in every day. It made me wonder, because you talked about having your own sound. How was your sound related to the reeds? And what are those mysterious reeds, really?
Butler: Right, those evil, evil little devils (laughs). First, for oboe players or for any instrumentalists, sound is like DNA. It’s a thumbprint. Now, for me it began with Kirsten Flagstad’s voice when I was four years old. That was a template of sorts for how I heard an artistic utterance.
Florian: Were you hoping your oboe would sound like Flagstad’s voice?
Butler: Well, it wasn’t even that specified. I was a young oboist who, at four years old, heard her first music produced in a certain way.
Florian: Maybe in terms of emotion?
Butler: Yes, but I wasn’t conscious of it when I first heard her voice, or even when I started playing the oboe, but her sound was my tattoo. So, when you’re making the reed, you’re fashioning it in a way that will give you your sound.

Marcia Butler – oboist – Keith Jarrett, Adagio for oboe and orchestra


But reed making remains yeoman’s work for the oboist. Basically, you’re making reeds every day. Constantly. They wear out because you’re playing them all the time. I would have 20 reeds in a box at any time and I understood which ones I would play for which music. The acoustic of the hall made a difference too. Alice Tully Hall vs Carnegie Hall. So, it’s all about the reed. If you don’t have a good reed you’re up the creek. It’s a high wire act and very annoying! Occasionally I’d have a bad reed for a concert. Perhaps it wasn’t speaking in a certain way, or wasn’t producing my sound. It felt just awful. But you must be a good enough player and artist to actually manage that bad reed and play beautifully in spite of it.
Florian: Against the reed, basically.
Butler: Yes, exactly. I sometimes hear people playing at places like the MET Opera Orchestra and they say, “Oh my reed was terrible,” and they sounded great to me. So that’s the testament, they played beautifully in spite of a bad reed. It’s always this balance of trying to make a reed that’s going to do everything for you. Yet, at the end of the day, you have to do it for the reed. It’s weird, you just can’t imagine it.
Florian: I want a picture of the ideal reed.
Butler: The picture means nothing (laughs). But are you feeling my pain?
Florian: Yes, I am.
Butler: Imagine it this way: if a violinist had to make a bow every day in order to play, and the bow hair was crappy, and the wood is awful… that’s what we oboists are dealing with. Plus, as soon as you make the reed, it begins to die. The reed is made of bamboo, which was a living organic thing. Because you are blowing into it, your saliva, which has enzymes that helps destroy the food you eat, is also destroying the reed too! Eventually the reed will just die – the vibrancy is gone because your saliva has killed it. You can’t resurrect something that enzymes have literally eaten away. The little soldier is gone.
Florian: And, as you said earlier, you’re only as good as your last performance. I’m curious about your experience as a freelancer. How did it feel to be a freelance classical musician in New York City in the 1980s?
Butler: I came into freelancing after college, in the 80s, 90s and the 2000s. I retired in 2008. Back then, there were many orchestras in New York City and the surrounding areas that had concert series of four to eight performances a year. I held positions in many of these orchestras. We had a robust performing community. One of the unique things about freelancing is that I played with a wide variety of fantastic players. The personnel of these orchestras were always changing. Say you’d have three concerts in one week – four rehearsals for each concert. One job is a certain group of musicians, the other job is another group of musicians, and you know them and their playing very well. This requires flexibility and is extremely interesting on a musical level. And I did make a good living – always paid my bills.
Florian: How about your current projects? You mentioned that you’re writing a novel. What is it about?
Butler: Yes, this is a work in progress. It is set in New York City about a man named Pickle, and features the George Washington Bridge.
Florian: It seems that you’re fascinated with New York City.
Butler: This city has a heart and soul like no other. I’ve lived here since 1973 and I adore every nook and cranny of New York City. The culture is so diverse and somehow every single last person makes an impact. Goethe said music is liquid architecture and architecture is frozen music. All I need to do is look up and there’s the skyline – the buildings – making their own music. I turn the corner, and there’s another symphony for my eyes. It’s a great place to live.

 

 

 

 

 

Marcia Butler was a professional oboist in New York City for over 25 years. In 2002 she formed her interior design firm, Marcia Butler Interior Design. Now as a writer, her memoir, The Skin Above My Knee (Little, Brown) will be published February 21, 2017. She is currently at work on a novel.
Ileana Florian is a Romanian American author. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Mulberry Fork Review, and edited collections. She is the essays editor of ducts.org and is currently at work on a nonfiction book about growing up in socialist Romania.

 

 

BEST 21 BOOKS OF 2016

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BY GABINO IGLESIAS

 

Last year was such an outstanding year for literature that a top ten list just wouldn’t cut it. Horror, literary fiction, poetry, nonfiction, noir; every conceivable genre produced at least a couple of gems that deserve to be on this list. I started the year aiming to read 200 books, which is something I try to do every year. Work, looking for work, too many long books, and writing a dissertation were all elements that got in the way. That being said, I managed to read about 110 books, and here are the best 21 in no particular order:

 

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21. Floodgate by Johnny Shaw. This was fast, fun to read, packed with more action than a superhero movie, and showed a level of worldbuilding that makes it a novel that should be used to teach it. Shaw can do crime, violence, intrigue, and comedy, and all of those can be found in spades here.

 

 

 

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20. Death Confetti: Pickers, Punks, and Transit Ghosts in Portland, Oregon by Jennifer Robin. Robin is a performer, writer, and traveler whose life definitely belongs to the small group of those that should be written about. This collection of nonfiction takes place mostly in the streets, on public transportation, and in bars across Portland. The people and situations the author encounters are enough to make it a recommended read, but the outstanding and commanding way in which Robin writes about them make it an absolute must and earn the book a spot on this list.

 
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19. Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing by Lauren Beukes. One of the first authors to come to mind when thinking about writers who can move in and out of a plethora of genres while simultaneously sounding fresh and unique, Beukes has become a household name thanks to novels that are a bizarre, scary, wildly entertaining mix of science fiction, crime, and horror, and this collection offers more of that.

 
Image result for bruja wendy ortiz18. Bruja by Wendy C. Ortiz. What Ortiz does for the memoir here is comparable to what Flaubert’s Madam Bovary did for modern realist narration or what Capote’s In Cold Blood did for the nonfiction novel. Simply put, Ortiz’s “dreamoir” is a new thing and this book will be the starting point for a movement as well as the go-text for all upcoming memoirs that inhabit the interstitial space between reality, memory, very personal surrealism, and dreams.

 

Image result for magic city gospel17. Magic City Gospel by Ashley M. Jones. Going into a poetry collection without being familiar with the author’s work is always an adventure. With this book, the adventure yielded a treasure trove of southern imagery, a screaming celebration of roots and culture, and an unapologetically raw view of the female African American experience. This is brave, beautiful, necessary poetry that should be taught in schools and that undoubtedly becomes more important with each dumb step the country takes backwards.

 
Image result for a collapse of horses by brian evenson16. A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson. Evenson is one of the most talented living writers in the world, and this collection is full of stories in which he proves it time and time again. Sad, strange, creepy, touching, surreal, scary; if you can think it or feel it, Evenson does it here. The best short story collection of 2016 and yet another superb entry into the oeuvre of a man who seems to only get impossibly better with each new offering.

 
Image result for black wings has my angel15. Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Haze. The folks at the New York Review of Books know how to pick their classics, and this one is my favorite so far. A narrative that still resonates in modern noir’s DNA, this is a dark, twisted tale of love, violence, secret agendas, and the way plans have a tendency to crumble.

 
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14. Witch Hunt by Juliet Escoria. This book is full of the kind of poetry that reaches deep inside you, pulls out the ugliest things you have to offer, and then slaps you in the face with them, and Escoria does it all just by sharing her own life. Full of heartbreak, broken relationships, and crippling realizations, this book is what happens when a talented author decides nothing in her past is sacred and exorcises the demons by writing them out.

 

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13. The Incantations of Daniel Johnston by Scott McClanahan and Ricardo Cavolo. This is the only graphic book on the list, and it’s more of a surreal biography than a novel. Touching and magical, Cavolo’s art and MacClanahan’s words combine perfectly to offer readers a look inside the brain and soul of an outstanding artist tortured by mental illness and haunted by demons most of us can’t even begin to fathom.

 
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12. The Book of Endless Sleepovers by Henry Hoke. Sometimes a poet is capable of stuffing his entire life into a book, and that’s exactly what Hoke did here. The pain, awkwardness, drama, and discoveries of a child transform into the suffering, joy, and blossoming sexuality of a young man, and all of it is filtered through the author’s sharp mind and tender heart. By the time I was done with this, I wanted to ask a million questions, congratulate Hoke a million times on his accomplishment, and give him a million hugs.

 
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11. Chicano Blood Transfusion by Edward Vidaurre. El barrio has a heart that spans the globe, and Vidaurre taps into it to write poesía with a lot of truth and feeling. Readers will find the usual themes here, but also a range of new ones and different, unique experiences and memories. La poesía del barrio has a new voice in Vidaurre, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

 

 

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10. Albina and the Dog-Men by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Just like no film director can compare their work to the bizarre visions created by Jodorowsky, no author can claim to bring together poetry, love narratives, and surrealism to the page the way he does. This is a long, sexualized, mythological fever dream that fits in perfectly with everything Jodoroswky has given us in his long, illustrious career.

 
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9. Glue by Constance Ann Fitzgerald. I read this book on my phone while sitting in my car. I didn’t plan on that, but the first few pages hooked me and the rest is history. This is a powerful, autobiographical narrative that deals with loss and coping. Fitzgerald shines at showing us that being broken and not knowing how to handle things is a perfectly normal part of being human.
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8. Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones. Sure, this is a werewolf novel, but it’s also an outstanding noir, a fantastic YA narrative, an emotional family saga, and a great road trip tale. Jones has always managed to work in many genres at once, and this one stands amongst his best work to date, which is saying a lot.

 

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7. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay. Anguish and loss are at the core of this creepy narrative. The disappearance of a young son is the vehicle Tremblay uses to scare readers, but it’s also the event he uses to deconstruct the way humans (re)act under pressure and how an event can make people collapse. This is another author than only gets better with each new book, and I eagerly await whatever he puts out next.

 

 

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6. The Fisherman by John Langan. I’ll keep this one short: the mythos book that will be talked about and discussed twenty years from now? This one.

 
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5. I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas. A scathing academic deconstruction of the Lovecraftian scene and its problems would collect dust in university libraries across the country, so instead of doing that, Mamatas wrapped it all up in a wildly entertaining and surprisingly funny novel about a murder at a Lovecraftian convention. If you care about the destruction of racism and misogyny but don’t mind doing it with a smile on your face, this book is for you.

 
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4. Novi Sad by Jeff Jackson. Post-apocalyptic fiction done right. Tense, gloomy, strange, and poetic. This is the shortest novella on this list, and it packs as big a punch as anything else on this list.

 

 

 

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3. Patricide by D. Foy. The best literary novel of 2016. Smart, fast, violent, philosophical, and possessing a depth that most literary fiction can only dream of. Foy is an author whose work will be talked about a lot in the near future. I suggest to start reading him now.

 

 

 

 

Image result for Swarm Theory by Christine Rice.2. Swarm Theory by Christine Rice. I could write ten pages on the way Rice weaved together a narrative about a whole town and all its denizens, but that would probably bore you. Instead, I’ll say this: Swarm Theory is the most impressive book about a town/plethora of characters that I’ve read since devouring Camilo Jose Cela’s The Hive, and remember that Cela got a Nobel in Literature in 1989.

 
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1. The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock. Along with Jones and Evenson, Pollock is a national treasure whose work constantly mesmerizes readers. Hilarious, vicious, filthy, and smart, this story of brotherhood, death, and crime was one of the few true literary gems published by one of the Big Five in 2016.

INAUGURAL SPEECH ERASURE

BY JERROD SCHWARZ

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Jerrod Schwarz is an MFA graduate of the University of Tampa. He is also the managing poetry editor of Driftwood Press. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Cultured Vultures, HOOT, The Fem, and many others. His first small collection titled The Crop was published by Rinky Dink Press in 2016.