[REVIEW] Standard Loneliness Package by Michael J. Seidlinger

Broken River Books, 2018



Author Michael J. Seidlinger has entered the poetry arena with a book that, although he mentions in its pages might be his last foray into the genre, will leave a mark with readers. Standard Loneliness Package is a collection of epistolary poems, a recipe book for loneliness, a bestiary of errors and regrets, and a deep, personal exploration of our innate ability to fail at connecting with others or sabotage any meaningful connection we someone manage to achieve.

What makes Standard Loneliness Package especial is not the people that are at the center of every poem but the way Seidlinger processes his role in the time period he spent/spends with that individual. His faults are at the core of the collection, exposed and raw, aching to be deconstructed and understood, blatantly questioning themselves, and wallowing in a combination of regret, loneliness, grief, and even a touch of sarcasm.

The poems in this collection are about every conceivable element of human interaction. In some, Seidlinger appears as victim. In others, he is clearly responsible for everything that went wrong. The result is a narrator that is constantly asking why things went wrong and answering his own questions (sometimes); a narrators that is at once victim and executioner, that confesses and apologizes before asking a rhetorical question and smirking at his own mischief:

Do you know, I bet you don’t

But do you know that every single time

Every single time

You knocked on my door

Or tried to use a credit card

To get into my room

I was there

Did you

I bet you didn’t

Standard Loneliness Package makes it easy to see that time is the great healer, and that it also sometimes acts as a microscope that allows us to study every small mistake we made. Seidlinger navigates the space between the past and the birth of every poem with grace, showing that he understands his own shortcomings but also explaining why some of the results he got were inevitable, and we this might just continue to be so. Furthermore, there is a hunger for change that pops up now and then, a realization that, once an error has been deconstructed and understood, there are ways to change it. However, there is something deeper, some profound understanding that we are the way we are and sometimes significant change is something that’s forever lost in the a sea of agitated stagnation. In “To Unknown (3),” we see this line of thinking clearly (and depressingly):

Why do I worry if these poems will be published

Do I quantify every single thing I care about

It is true

Every poem is an apology

It is true

Every apology is a poem I have trouble reading aloud

It is true

Every time I apologize

What I’m doing is hiding behind

The fact that I don’t know how to change

How to heal

How to show you that I can do better

It is true

This is the best I can do

It is true

The best I can do is never enough

It is true

To keep those I want close

It is true

To distance myself from those I shouldn’t keep

The last part of the book, which is a creative nonfiction piece retelling the month-long trip the author took across the United States as a social media experiment, breaks away from poetry in form but retains some of the preoccupations that plague the poems that precede it. Alone in a car for a month, moving from state to state and meeting people, Seidlinger was immersed in social media (even more than usual), and the writing that emerged from that experience is rich, deep, and breathtakingly personal. What is our relationship to social media? How is mediated communication processed in the soul? What is the true meaning of a “like”? What happens to those messages we send and are never answered? Why do we sometimes refuse to reply to a message? More than offer answers to these questions, the author delves into his own experience living for them in the confines of a car, the context of the trip, and the frame of his shattered life at the time the trip began. It ends up being a strange, somewhat touching finale to a book that celebrates the beauty that can come from writing about horrible things.

Hybrid (kitchen/language/literature) spaces: a conversation with Matthew Baker


(LSU Press, 2018)

We are navigating a tight kitchen. Matthew Baker is peeling sprouts off potatoes that have been aging on the counter. He’s planning to make corn chowder. I’m pouring baking soda into a measuring cup. When he reaches for a knife, I am using it to chop garlic. The pot I’ve put out to boil water for my pretzel rolls, he places a square of butter in for his soup. We move in sync and completely out of tune. We’re wearing pajamas. We’re wearing pajamas because we’re both writers who work from home, and also, we live in that home together. Much before our co-habitation, we interrogated one another at an artist residency in Vermont. Ever since, we’ve bombarded each other with questions, sometimes in a hybrid of languages. We are not strangers to inquisition, and Baker is no stranger to formal experimentation, as his debut novel, If You Find This (Little Brown, 2015), a middle grade mystery about familial love and redemption, infuses mathematics and musical notation in the prose. Three years later, enter: Baker’s debut collection. Hybrid Creatures (LSU Press, 2018) is a four-story collection, each of which is told partially in a hybrid language: HTML, mathematics, musical notation and formal logic. I first read the book in an earlier draft in PDF form. Now there is a box of paperbacks from the publisher in my living room. The conceit of Hybrid Creatures is that there are some human experiences that can only be communicated through hybrid tongues. Here, as the author’s partner, now acting as formal interviewer, while cooking alongside him, I will try to do something similar.

JA: Most evenings, when we sit down to talk, we begin with the directive: Tell me a thing or en français: Dit moi un chose, so this shouldn’t be such a leap. Tonight, tell me a thing about the inception of Hybrid Creatures. From writing the first story, did you know you were going to sculpt a collection of hybrid pieces?

MB: (meticulously chopping potatoes in quarters)

My last semester of college, I did an independent study on comics and graphic novels, which got me thinking a lot about different storytelling mediums, and the types of storytelling maneuvers that you can only do in certain mediums. For instance, a really obvious example in film would be how you can switch back and forth between color and black and white, like in The Wizard of Oz, or even Schindler’s List. Or in comics and graphic novels, the types of maneuvers that Chris Ware does with stories told in diagram form. So, I was thinking a lot about that, and about prose, and trying to think of storytelling maneuvers that only prose writers can do.

JA: (watching pretzel rolls as they rise underneath oiled plastic wrap)

That shift into color in The Wizard of Oz is something so particular to the medium. It creates an emotional experience that works solely because we can experience an altered perception of the world visually. I’m wondering about the forms you chose for the stories in Hybrid Creatures. How did you decide which hybrid language was going to go with which narrative?

MB: (plops quartered potatoes into pot)

Well, I didn’t really. I started with the languages. Before I wrote the stories in the book, I wrote a collection of prototype stories, and in each of those, that was all there was, the artificial language, and then I would design the story around that—but I wasn’t satisfied with the prototypes. I wanted to find some way to write stories that not only would use artificial languages from these other fields, but that would incorporate artificial structures from those fields too. So, when I wrote the final stories—the stories in the book—I started with the language, then I chose a structure, and then I designed the entire story around that.

JA: So then the characters in the book, or at least the protagonists or narrators, became people who had a need for that language, or who had an ability to communicate in that language?

MB: (adding butter to sautéing potatoes)

Yeah, the narrator or the protagonist of each story was determined by whatever the lexicon of that particular story was going to be—someone who would speak that language, and who might interpret their experiences and understand their world through that language, and through the corresponding artificial structure.

I like that we’re doing this while we’re cooking, but I also wish that we could just look at each other while we’re talking.

JA: (walks over to stove, stares at Baker)

In contrast to those complex structures, I was struck by how traditional the stories themselves were. It felt almost like an equation—if you had equally complex narratives, in addition to the experimental forms, maybe the stories wouldn’t work.

MB: (stirring sautéing potatoes)

That wasn’t a realization I made until after I had written the prototypes. One of the prototypes was this story published in Conjunctions called “Proof Of The Monsters.” Not only was that story experimenting with the linguistics of formal logic, but it also was randomly written in diary form, and then it also had these speculative sci-fi elements—it was just too much. There was too much happening. So, that was a lesson I learned from writing that story: I needed to simplify things.

When I first started seriously writing, one of my writing mentors was the poet Jack Ridl. You’ve never met him. He’s this kind, wise old poet. After spending three semesters together, the final thing he said to me about my work, the one lesson he wanted me to take away was: If you are going to do a weird thing, only do one weird thing at a time. He probably phrased it much more articulately than that, but that was the gist of it and that was what I took away.

JA: My mentor, Elissa Schappell said something similar about how to balance language and action—the necessity to lower one when amping up the other.

MB: (adding water to pot)

Only do one weird thing at a time was very important advice for me as a writer—in some ways it was the key to figuring this project out.

JA: I have to ask about the mathematics story, “The Golden Mean.” I find that story to be the strongest in the collection, for several reasons, but one being that there is an emotional honesty and vulnerability that is enormously affecting. As you know, I write from experiences that very much look like life, situationally, although my characters are always fictively constructed. You have a very similar familial makeup to the protagonist in “The Golden Mean” in that you come from divorced parents and move between two families. What happens when we write from life?

MB: (laughs and turns the intensity of the stove burner up)

That’s a brilliant question. Can I respond with a question of my own: Is this all the corn we have?

JA: (grabs stool and heads to cabinet)

I believe so, but let me check—oui, mais we have two cans of black beans.

MB: Merci beaucoup, we don’t need them.

JA: Bien. I didn’t forget my question. And don’t forget to warn me when it’s time to start boiling pretzel rolls.

MB: Parfait, we aren’t quite there yet.

JA: The mathematics story—

MB: (adding corn to pot)

Right. When I wrote my children’s novel, If You Find This, I deliberately wrote a book about a dying grandfather as a way to try to process the experience of losing my grandfather. The process of writing that book was therapeutic for me. But for “The Golden Mean,” it wasn’t about trying to figure out anything for myself—it was about trying to express, the best that I could, what it’s like to be a person caught in the circumstance of existing in two families simultaneously.

JA: And you achieve that with the structural division. We feel the incompleteness. In your first book, even if you wrote it, in part, to process your grief, you were also able to intimately communicate the experience of loss to your readers. But here, I suppose what you’re saying is: the math story is less for you and more for us.

MB: Exactly. For me, this project was about taking these very familiar cliché storylines—having divorced parents, losing your spouse, having dementia—and attempting to find a way to make a reader truly feel those experiences. Trying to develop a storyline to use in conjunction with formal logic, for instance, I realized that writing about a character with dementia could potentially be very powerful, because for a character who thinks about the world in terms of formal logic, there would be nothing more devastating or world-altering than to lose the ability to think logically, in a clear sequential order.

JA: That devastation is palpable. It reminds me about what we were speaking about last night, the book and subsequent film Still Alice, and the play Wit. I think in all three examples, the third being Hybrid Creatures, there is a nuanced dimension of poignancy when the individual experiencing failing mental capacity identifies so deeply with their intellect.

MB: And of course, not everyone has a job that requires working with an artificial language or that necessarily shapes the way that you perceive the world. I think many people do experience this, though, across a wide range of fields. For instance, I have a brother-in-law who’s a chemist—maybe that’s a strange way to phrase it, because you know who my brother-in-law is, but for readers—

JA: He’s also very good at board games, but, yes, your brother-in-law, the chemist—

MB: I asked him recently how much his study of chemistry affects his everyday experience of the world. Like for instance, if he was cooking and he was caramelizing some onions and he had butter and sugar and salt and onions in a pan, was he thinking about the chemical reactions happening in the pan at that moment, as he was cooking, or was he just thinking about how good the caramelizing onions smelled?

JA: (hops onto counter)

I love that question.

MB: He said that the answer was both, that he’d be thinking about how good the caramelizing onions smelled, but that he’d be thinking about the chemical reactions happening in the pan too, and that to some extent he’s always thinking about it—that his knowledge of chemistry affects every experience he has. The first time I ever saw that phenomenon replicated in fiction was in the novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin—have you read that?

JA: I have not.

MB: Oh, you need to read it. It’s brilliant—also, time to start boiling the pretzel rolls.

JA: (hops off counter and turns on oven)

On it. Now, I want to talk about the influence of research on your writing. I know you’re insatiably curious and your hunger for knowledge leads you to incorporate so much from the world into your work. The result is that it feels like you have an intimate knowledge of so many diverse fields—which is another way of saying, like I’ve often suspected, maybe you’re a robot—or another alternative: the internet has given you a way to be a specialist in everything.

MB: (stirring soup)

A lot of it is research. For instance, even though I studied music and knew how to read sheet music and music dynamics, I wasn’t intimately acquainted with the structure of a classical symphony and the structure of the different movements within a classical symphony. Nonetheless, it was important to me for “Movements,” the music story in the collection, that each of the four sections have the same narrative development as the corresponding movement would have in a traditional symphony.

JA: You do a lot of that work in everything you create, where you bury or embed things that an average reader may not pick up on. It seems deeply important to you.

MB: I love video games, and a wonderful and maybe unique tradition within that storytelling medium is the tradition of the Easter egg—hidden content, bonus content, that can be unlocked or discovered if you invest enough time in exploring the story. As a writer, I’m interested in trying to hide as many Easter eggs as possible in each of my stories, to make it as rewarding as possible for a story to be read multiple times—so that potentially, every time it’s read, the reader can make another startling and wonderful discovery. They’re usually in-jokes. Does that make any sense?

JA: (turns on burner for saucepan)

It makes complete sense. The veracity of your worlds comes through in all of your work. I keep thinking about the philosophy story and the conversations that take place throughout it in the background. It’s an interesting experience for the reader because we’re following a protagonist who is confused about where he is and who he is, and you’ve added all this external chatter. In a lesser narrative, that chatter might just be funny or mildly interesting, but here, the conversations feel inherently connected to the larger story.

MB: Well, this was a terrible idea, as usual—

JA: Interviewing while cooking?

MB: Well yeah, that, but also, I got this idea into my head that because “Proof Of The Century” was going to try to tell the entire story of a nearly hundred-year-old man’s life, and because it was also going to try to tell the story of an entire country over that same hundred-year period, I might as well, at the same time, try to incorporate every major subfield of philosophy into the story too.

JA: That is a terrible idea.

MB: So yeah, you’re right, those background conversations at the family “symposium” are meant to contribute thematically, in that these different characters—in a very casual, everyday, holiday get-together setting—are debating a wide range of subjects that philosophers have been debating for centuries. Ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, etc. Maybe that wasn’t your question.

JA: (watches over saucepan as water begins boiling)

I’m not sure I asked one.

MB: Something else I can tell you about “Proof Of The Century” is that it was also important to me that the proofs in the story include all the basic maneuvers used in formal logic. In the same way that in skateboarding there’s this basic vocabulary of tricks or moves that you can do, in formal logic there’s this basic vocabulary of moves or tricks that philosophers use. Modus ponens, modus tollens, etc—they’re the ollies and nollies of formal logic. In thinking about the various proofs embedded within that story, I decided it was important to incorporate all of those maneuvers at least once—which, again, was a terrible idea, but I did it.

JA: (dumping baking soda into saucepan)

You’re you. Of course, you did.

MB: (staring into foaming saucepan)

That’s a fun reaction! If only the chemist could be here to see it.

JA: (begins dropping in pretzel rolls)

C’est le meilleur. I think we should talk about loneliness. Since language is the way we communicate, I’m curious how isolation features into the book. For me, the reading experience created a connection and sort of broke the individual isolation of your characters and I’m wondering if that was intentional—if you thought at all about the fact that language is the means through which we communicate and that your characters exist primarily in varying forms of seclusion.

MB: Well, for a character who thinks about the world in a hybrid language, who is fluent both in English and some artificial language like HTML, I think that can be isolating—in the same way that if you grow up speaking English and Mandarin, when you’re around people who only speak English, sometimes there will be things you want to express that are impossible to say.

JA: (places pretzel rolls on baking sheet)

And I felt like the hybrid languages were a way to express that which would previously be inexpressible.

MB: Yeah, I think for some of the things you could paraphrase it in English or try to find a synonym, but it wouldn’t quite be the same. You translate stories from French, and I know you’ve said that there are words and phrases in French that no matter how close you get to translating them into English words, sometimes you can’t quite capture the meaning. And that’s just as true for HTML, or music dynamics, or math notions, or formal logic, as it is for French and any other natural human language.

JA: In a way your hybrid languages feel like a form of abstract translation. Let me put these in the oven—

MB: I wonder if this is the first author interview ever to be conducted while both the author and the interviewer were in a kitchen cooking a meal together.

JA: Both in pajamas, bumping into each other in a tiny kitchen—actually, let’s talk about us. We sometimes communicate in a hybrid tongue.

MB: Yeah, in this apartment we primarily speak English, but we also speak in French and Spanish and Italian and now Japanese. But yeah, what’s your question?

JA: Well, talk to me about that. I know for me, there is an additional meaning in saying I love you in very rudimentary Japanese. The texture and emotional experience is different than expressing it in English.

MB: Tell me about the experience.

JA: (walks over to where Baker is searching the spice rack)

I think there is this idea that when I say I love you in Japanese, you’re the only person I’ve ever said I love you in that language to before, and it’s this created thing, learning Japanese together—there is an added level of intimacy, not just in its singularity, but in that it’s connected to a culture that means so much to you. Maybe it’s the same thing in reverse with French. Does that make sense?

MB: (holding cayenne)

Désolé, I need to get to the pot.

JA: Tu est le plus romantique. I guess what I’m trying to say is, until I thought deeply about your book and even about having this conversation, I always just took us speaking in those different languages as an aspect of our relationship. I didn’t necessarily sit with what it meant—with why we do it. Or with why it’s so meaningful.

MB: Well, when you speak two languages, say English and HTML, it’s limiting in a way, because most people speak only one of those languages, but it’s also liberating in that with certain people it allows you to communicate in a richer way, or to communicate more than you could communicate before. And when you speak multiple languages—if you speak, like we do, in English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese—then it’s even more liberating because it allows us to say things that we weren’t able to say with English alone. Like I love you, or J’adore tu or Aishiteimasu. Even if they don’t come with subtly different meanings, eventually they take on subtly different meanings, in the same way that sometimes you want to say I’m hungry and sometimes you want to say I’m starving and sometimes you want to say I’m ravenous. I think it feels special and meaningful because it allows us to communicate even very basic things in a deeper, more nuanced way.

JA: I think your stories do the same thing. And I think, in many ways, the characters in your stories probably wouldn’t be able to express themselves without the accompanying languages—or their emotional experiences wouldn’t be able to be communicated without them—Let me just quick check on the pretzel rolls. They’re done!

MB: The soup is ready too.

JA: Parfait, let’s eat.

(walking over to table with soup and pretzel rolls in hand respectively)

MB: (reaching for a pretzel roll)

I’m very grateful to the editors, both at the magazines that originally published these stories and at LSU Press, which published the collection. The formal constraints for this project added a layer of difficulty not only for me but for the editors too. Oh, these pretzel rolls are a masterpiece!

JA: Merci beaucoup, I had to work with my own constraints because we ran out of yeast.

MB: Zut alors.

JA: In thinking again about constraints and experimentation, I’m wondering about Hybrid Fictions, the course you’re currently teaching at my alma mater, The Gallatin School at NYU. Aussi, the soup is trés bien.

MB: Merci beaucoup, Parfait. In Hybrid Fictions we exclusively read and write interdisciplinary fiction: fiction that incorporates subject-specific language, forms, and concepts from other fields of study. Biology, physics, etc. We’re writing stories in the form of architectural blueprints. We’re writing stories in the form of chemical compounds. So, it’s a workshop in a hyper specific subgenre of experimental fiction.

My students registered for this course voluntarily, of course, but still, sometimes these writing prompts make them nervous. I think it can be terrifying, as a young writer, to even conceive of, let alone to actually dare, to break from tradition and to try something new. I think another great fear for young writers is that, if they do attempt something new, that their work will be perceived as gimmicky. Which is a legitimate fear, of course. I try to emphasize that it’s not enough simply to tell a story through some new interesting lexicon, or language, or structure, or form—that it’s still crucial for the story to have an effect on the reader, emotionally and intellectually, and that ideally the experiment should be used to tell a story that’s only possible to tell in this new way.

JA: It isn’t enough to be flashy. It has to actually do something. It has to be affecting.

MB: (dips a pretzel roll into the soup)

To me, that’s the difference between a gimmick and a story that’s worth reading. There are people who write experimental fiction in which there’s absolutely no connection between the experiment and the actual story—the plot and the characters. It’s just an experiment attached to some random story. No matter how brilliant and innovative the experiment is, work like that doesn’t interest me. It’s like watching somebody who’s invented a rocket shoot a rocket into the air for no other purpose than just to show everyone that they can build a rocket. Just to make a loud noise. A bright light in the sky. The experimental fiction that I love, the experimental fiction that excites me, are experiments that are done for a purpose: writers who aren’t just shooting a rocket into the air to show off, but because they’re trying to put a satellite into orbit, or because they’re trying to land astronauts on the moon.

JA: It seems fitting for us to end with space. Both you and your stories are not quite of this world.


Jenessa Abrams is a Norman Mailer Fiction Fellow and a Columbia MFA graduate in fiction and literary translation. She has been awarded fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center and Columbia University. Her writing has been published in Tin House Online, TriQuarterlyJoylandWashington SquareBOMB MagazineGuernicaThe Offing, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Recently, she was named a finalist for Narrative Magazine’s 30 Below Contest and both Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award and Fiction Open Award. Her work was nominated for the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She currently holds a research fellowship at the New York Public Library and is pursuing a graduate degree in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University.

Matthew Baker is the author of Hybrid Creatures, a collection of stories written in hybrid languages, and the children’s novel If You Find This, which was named a Booklist Top Ten Debut and nominated for an Edgar Award. His stories have appeared in publications such as American Short Fiction, New England Review, One Story, Electric Literature, and Conjunctions, and have been anthologized in Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions. A recipient of grants and fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Ragdale Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, Prairie Center of the Arts, Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, he has also taught at Vanderbilt University, where he was the founding editor of Nashville Review.

[REVIEW] The Möbius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone

Tin House Books, 2018



Bianca Stone’s The Möbius Strip Club of Grief is a tricky, multilayered poetry collection that lures readers in with its ease of access and wild, entertaining premise before slashing their throats with sharp doses of pain, truth, and a its pull-no-punches exploration of grief. The books door open into the loud, colorful immediacy of a burlesque purgatory where everyone is either watching of being watched, judging of being judge (by other and by the inescapable self), performing or being part/witnessing a performance. It looks, sounds, and feels like a festive place, but the underlying pain is as present as a bad rash on the face. Take, for example, the stripper in “Lap Dance”:

I think everyone’s glad I’m dead, said the stripper

with the caved-in face. Her fingers were bone and no

sinew. She flapped her arms at the two wrens

caught up in the rafters, staring down

on the empty dance hall. Chirps rained like sparks

from the electric saws in their hearts.

No one here is glad anyone is dead. But

there is a certain comfort in knowing

the dead can entertain us, if we wish.

The vivid, somewhat chaotic first third of the collection is an illustrated map of the place. However, the spatial specificity begins to fade away as the writing begins to tackle a plethora of themes that reach beyond the confines of the imaginary place. Soon death, math, pain, Emily Dickinson, memories, insecurities, and even murder show up to make the universe of the place richer and to obliterate any sense of safety the imaginary walls may have granted the reader. Eventually, the writing inhabits different spaces that range from pure memory to poems that read like (de/in)struction manuals for loss, which is the case with “How Not”:

Be completely dispassionate about the theoretical five stages.

This is an old death, but it’s your death. Complete the stages

in blurring fits of inebriation. Eat everything in sight. Fight

with your mother. Marry Ben in the woods. Fly across

the country. Stand in the street with the raging legless

angel. Hold a brick wall very close to your face.

The success of The Möbius Strip Club of Grief comes from Stone’s ability to constantly surprise and entertain. Her mother, memories, literature, (self)destruction, grief, and confusion are some of the elements that give the collection cohesion, but they are always dealt with differently, so turning the page is always a new adventure regardless of the elements being dealt with.

As the poems progress, the reader becomes discovers the mother as an almost omnipresent figure, the poet’s knack for phrases that turn around and loop themselves, the brevity of some of the strongest poems, and even the bizarre, chameleonic nature of the collection. Then reader becomes part of it. Part of it comes from the fact that there is only so much grief we can deal with before starting to feel it ourselves. The second reason is that, toward the last third of the book, the writing touches on the universal, on the hidden realities that affect us, inhabit us, and shape us. The perfect example is “Apes,” probably my favorite poem in the book:


If it happened at all

it was the apes who won,

shimmering stark-naked

and sitting a little apart from Adam,

who was deep into his clothing

the cuff links and soft leather,

pulling the zipper up Eve’s back

and she, clasping the bra shut like a jewelry box—


What to do with this mind?

Throw everything

into the fire and scream

into the internet

that there’s nothing to do

but stand in the dark recesses

throwing a bright red dodge ball

against the bone facade

and fall in and out of love

with suffering?

The Möbius Strip Club of Grief is unique in its structure and execution, and proves that Stone is a voice to be reckoned with, a writer who’s not afraid of suffering and blood, naked flesh and exposed emotion, weirdness and ennui. Now enter the club…if you dare.


Life Within the Simulacrum: My Name Is Not My Name

Life Within the Simulacrum is a featured column focusing on technology & social media, travel & literature.


Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to truly be an artist. I walk a tightrope between two worlds. One as a creative soul who constantly lives on the brink of an existential journey, and then one where I’m just here to make money and survive.

See, I was never a person who just threw caution to the wind, said “fuck it” and despite all the risks, threw themselves into being a full-time creative dreamer. As a Type 1 Diabetic I literally can’t survive without health insurance. It just wouldn’t be possible without putting me into a crippling debt. Thus, I’ve always tried to maintain a full-time corporate career while straddling the world of art in my spare time. The thing is, in today’s internet world maintaining a full-time job often times maintaining a clean, Google-able record. Especially in client facing roles.

So I made a pen name.

And now my name is not my name.

For the reasons listed above, the practice of using a pen name is becoming more and more popular. I’m not the only one. Having a pen name means one also has multiple email addresses, people from one’s past commenting on status updates with said person’s real name, while said person’s name is displayed on all social media as their fake name. People who have known me outside of writing attend events and pause before addressing me, remembering I’m someone else. Thus, I’m a woman in two world – one where I’m me and then another one where I’m also me.

So how does life really change for someone who’s living between two names? It’s a bit bizarre at first but not the worst thing in the world. It doesn’t really split your identity. If I lived in two complete personalities which were devout of each other that would be easier. The tricky part is, you learn to live as one person, which a personality where certain attributes are more “highlighted” at times. At work I’m more aggressive. In writing I’m more open. In both scenarios, I’m confident, forthright and funny (if I do say so myself).

So does it really matter then, to have a pen name? For the most part, no. I’m a person and that’s that. But to others who have to live a semi-false existence due to personal paranoia when it comes to one’s career and “the man” I’d recommend the following when choosing your pen name:

Either chose something so fake it’s obvious it’s fake (like ‘Star Unicorn Fantasy’), OR use your original first name with just a new last name. If you choose a name that’s too normal it just feels like a lie. Which it is. So make it obvious it’s a lie, or just use your damn first name.

Ensure said name is highly searchable / Googleable and that nobody else has it. If you’re going to go through the trouble of changing your name for writing make sure you benefit to the fullest!]

Commit to it. Make sure everything you do, your emails, your bylines, every single article is in that name going forward. Make no compromises, or your identity as a writer will start to split into several Horcruxes like Lord Voldemort.

At the same time, be ready to admit that name is not your name (kinda like I’m doing by writing this damn article). It will come up, eventually. Whether you’re referring someone you know from writing to your job, or you get close with a fellow writer to the degree that they meet your brother or sister, your pay for a round with your credit card, it’ll happen. Own it. It’s okay. We’re all living within the simulacrum with a false sense of self anyway.

And Godspeed. I can tell you my name is not my name. And yours doesn’t have to be either.

Dallas Athent is a writer and artist. She is the author of THEIA MANIA, a book of poems with art by Maria Pavlovska. Her work, both literary and artistic has been published or profiled in BUST Magazine, Buzzfeed Community, VIDA Reports From The Field, At Large Magazine, PACKET Bi-Weekly, YES Poetry!, Luna Luna Magazine, Bedford + Bowery, Gothamist, Brooklyn Based, and more. She’s a board member of Nomadic Press. She lives in The Bronx with her adopted pets.

Life Within the Simulacrum: Status Update

Life Within the Simulacrum is a featured column focusing on technology & social media, travel & literature.


If you’re reading this, it’s probable that you follow or are friends with a lot of writers on social media. Perhaps, you, yourself are a writer. You are on PANK, after all.

Assuming this is true your social media feed probably looks similar to mine. Every day I see at least 10+ links a day shared by other writers about how grateful they are to get again have a poem or story published. It usually goes something like this:

“I’m so honored to have [x] published in [x]. Thanks to [person tagged] for being such a force in the literary community.

[insert link].”

I, myself, have posted such statuses. I’m sure you have too.

On each post, the hearts start flying. The tagged individual who’s responsible for publishing said piece will not only “like” the writer’s post themselves, but then comment or reply with an additional “<3” emoji. The rest of us writers will continue to like said post. Sometimes we even love it. Who doesn’t love it when a person we know gets published?

There, technically isn’t a problem with this. I’d be a horrible person if I thought support for fellow writers was a bad thing. (Truth be told, I may be horrible, but for different reasons.)

My bigger question, however, is out of allllll of those likes, how many people are actually clicking the link and reading? Dear reader, I regret to say that I think that number is likely dismal; I personally confess to only going out of my way to read 1/10 of the links that I “like.” While that’s literally embarrassing to admit I know I can’t be the only one adding hearts to things I never have any intention on actually reading.

As I ponder this truth, I even realize I’ve probably liked things in the past that are probably, in fact, abysmal with no idea since I never clicked the damn link!

The thing is, we can’t possibly read everything that comes through our feed each day, but does that mean we should keep reacting to it? In the past I’ve done this to show I’m somehow supportive of the person who shared the post, even if I knew I didn’t have the time nor mental capacity to read it.

But I’m starting to realize this is more harmful than it is helpful.

Being published seems to have become more about having a status update to share with people about being published than having people actually read said piece. So here’s a pop quiz question for 2018:

Which is more valuable to a writer’s career:

  1. Having one person read their work, and really getting something out of it
  2. 100 people seeing on social media that the writer was published but not reading their work at all

Honestly, I don’t know for sure so don’t feel like you failed anything if you don’t agree with me, but it certainly seems like the latter, and that’s, well, just downright depressing. But you know what? I have faith we can change that.

Dear reader, I call on you. Stop hearting things you didn’t read! Join me and stop it.

Stop. It.

Because the truth of the matter is, this does nothing for the literary community. It forces us to live within a simulacrum of success, meanwhile the hard labor we put into writing goes into a vacuum and is swallowed up by yet more links and publications. In a desperate attempt to move literature forward and be noticed not as a craft of the past, we mistakenly believe the more we boost each other’s posts the more we’re giving visibility to poetry and fiction, and this is actually doing the opposite. It’s causing us to have a larger sense of engagement, when nobody is really engaging at all. The best thing we can do is try and entice people who aren’t into literature to read our sites by NOT liking anything we don’t read, try reading at least one thing a day, and then actively commenting on what we thought of it. It may feel as if we’re taking away support, but in fact, it will put responsibility back on the literary community to be strategic, purposefully and create an overall, better experience for online publications.

Long story short, let’s just stop aimlessly clicking in an effort to be seen, shall we?

Dallas Athent is a writer and artist. She is the author of THEIA MANIA, a book of poems with art by Maria Pavlovska. Her work, both literary and artistic has been published or profiled in BUST Magazine, Buzzfeed Community, VIDA Reports From The Field, At Large Magazine, PACKET Bi-Weekly, YES Poetry!, Luna Luna Magazine, Bedford + Bowery, Gothamist, Brooklyn Based, and more. She’s a board member of Nomadic Press. She lives in The Bronx with her adopted pets.

Salt Houses author Hala Alyan talks Immigration Through Poetry and Her Upcoming Collection of Poems


Hala Alyan is an award-winning Palestinian American poet, novelist, and clinical psychologist and most recently, the author of Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). But after the long-form fiction, Alyan’s already back to working within poetry, a place she knows well–past collections include Atrium (2012), winner of the 2013 Arab American Book Award in Poetry, Four Cities (2015), and Hijra (Southern Illinois University Press, 2016), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry.

I talked to Hala about the work, its thematic concerns, and her poetic process.

Laura Metter: Why poetry after a novel?

Hala Alyan: These pieces came organically after I was finished with Salt Houses and had sent the novel off to my publishers for editing. I wrote many of them during a trip to Marfa, Texas last year. I don’t usually plan which genre follows the other; actually, most of the time, I’m working on several projects at once. It helps me stay excited about what I’m working on.

LM: Is there a connection between these poems and your novel?

HA: My new collection is a meditation on the transforming landscapes of womanhood, wifedom, loss and exile. To a certain extent, both the collection and the novel use language as a cultural vehicle of sorts, trying to create a dialogue between two worlds: my American existence and my Arab one, exile and the rebuilding of life in its aftermath.

LM: What went into your process of selection or sharing?

HA: They were painful ones to write, but completing them felt particularly cathartic. Given the legacy of immigration and war in my ancestral homelands, I wanted to share poems that examine that migration, both literally and emotionally.

LM: How do these poems connect to yourself?

HA: They were all written during my actual twenty-ninth year, which was a strange and difficult and marvelous one. In many ways, this collection is my most honest, the one in which I am most transparently myself.

LM: Is there a theme?

HA: If I had to pick one, it would be—the creation of home when all one knows is exile and flight.

LM: What were some of your biggest challenges getting this book finished?

HA: In terms of Salt Houses, I would say discipline when it came to editing was particularly overwhelming. I would keep losing interest and want to start writing something new. I have the easiest time with the “freeflow” part of the writing process, and am most stumped by editing, rereading the same passages over and over. I get so bored…

LM: What helped you finish this collection?

HA: I was lucky enough to secure a couple of residencies over the last year that gave me enough time and space—not to mention access to nature and inspiring artists—to put the final touches on the manuscript.

LM: Do you see yourself continuing more with novels or poems?

HA: Hopefully both. The one thing I’m really excited about experimenting more with is non-fiction, especially personal essays.

LM: What do you want your audience to take away from this collection?

HA: Honesty requires a little fear, at least the way I do it. I’m hoping readers can recognize the truth in these pieces, that they felt urgent and necessary to write. Also, I hope I’ve done the narrative of immigration—as I experienced it in my family—justice.


Laura Metter is a young fictionist and poet based in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her poems and essays have appeared in Adanna Literary Journal and The Artifice among other magazines.


Below is an excerpt of Hala Alyan’s forthcoming poetry collection:


Dirty Girl


See, I knew I’d make my mama cry if I stole the earring and so into my pocket it went. I asked America to give


me the barbeque. A slow dance with a cowboy. Pop goes the grenade. Pop goes the Brooklyn jukebox. Give me male hands, oleander white, hard, earnest, your husband in the backseat of his own car, my jeans shoved down, the toxic plant you named your child after, a freeway by the amusement park that jilted girls speed across, windows rolled down, screaming bad songs at the top of their lungs.


After the new world. Before the New one. The Peruvian numerologist told me I’d be trailed by sevens until the day I died.

Everything worth nicking needs an explanation: I slept with one man because the moon, I slept with the other because who cares, we’re expats, the black rhinos are dying, the subway pastors can’t make me tell the truth. Tonight Z isn’t eating and five states away

I’m pouring a whiskey


I won’t drink.


I count the green lights. Those blue-eyed flowers your father brought when I couldn’t leave my bedroom. The rooftop, the weather, the subway empties its fist of me, the red salt of my fear. A chalky seven stamped on the pale face of the sleeping pill.                          What I mean to say is


I’m divisible only by myself.



Gospel: Texas


Poison ivy I

never got. My grandmother


asking the Burger King cashier

for pommes frites.


First shooting

star. First silverfish. First carrot


in snowball. Kansas on the

weekends, the blade


of I-35. Permission slips.

My mother


dressing me as a

pilgrim for a school trip.


Arabic word for girl

longer than


English word for

no. First valentine card.


First grasshopper.

The seventeen windows


of that simulated

colonial town,


peering in every

single one. Pretending


the air we churn

is butter.



The Female of the Species


They leave the country with gasping babies and suitcases

full of spices and cassettes. In airports,


they line themselves up like wine bottles.

The new city twinkles beneath an onion-moon.


Birds mistake the pebbles of glass on the

black asphalt for bread crumbs.




If I drink, I tell stories about the women I know.

They break dinner plates. They marry impulsively.


When I was a child I watched my aunt throw a halo

of spaghetti at my mother. I’m older than they were now.




In an old-new year, my cousin shouts ana bint Beirut

at the sleeping houses. She clatters up the stairs.


I never remember to tell her anything. Not the dream

where I can’t yell loud enough for her to stop running.


And the train comes. And the amar layers the stones

like lichen. How the best night of my life was the one


she danced with me in Paris, sharing a hostel bed,

and how sometimes you need one knife to carve another.




It’s raining in two cities at once. The Vendôme plaza

fills with water and the dream, the fountain, the moon


explodes open, so that Layal, Beirut last daughter,

can walk through the exit wound.

Unraveling Trauma and Title IX: An Interview with Sarah Cheshire


I don’t know what the other entrants’ chapbooks in the 2017 Etchings Press Chapbook Contest were like, but I know Sarah Cheshire’s win for Unravelings was well-deserved.

After becoming romantically involved with a trusted creative writing professor and mentor, “Jane Doe” is forced to recount the details of the relationship––including its varied manipulations and abuses of power––for a Title IX investigation. Unravelings is a fictionalized memoir in the sense that names, locations, and other identifying information has been obscured for privacy reasons, though the Title IX proceedings Unravelings describes mirror what Cheshire herself experienced as an undergraduate.

At only 51 pages, Unravelings is the epitome of “though she be but little, she is fierce.” Through primary source documents like texts, emails, and Title IX reports, as well as lyrical verse and prose poetry, Unravelings guides the reader into the complicated truths between confidant and abuser, victim and survivor.

As a cord of twine unravels, it becomes frayed––so too does this story as it progresses. Paragraphs lead to speculation and ask unanswerable questions that boil down to how did we get here? Each time, the reader is brought back to center through vibrant repetition and verse––almost like a prayer for understanding in the labyrinth of institutional bureaucracy that oversees even the most intimate matters.

In this way, the chapbook is both a literal and metaphorical unraveling––one that resolutely echoes the thought patterns and stages of grief felt when healing from trauma.

I talked to Sarah about the writing and healing process.

Mandy Shunnarah: I appreciate the use of screenshots––like the texts, Facebook messages, and emails––and the official-looking Title IX documents. Tell me about your decision to add in those elements rather than making the chapbook text-only.

Sarah Cheshire: As a part of my writing process, I spent a lot of time re-reading old emails and text exchanges between myself, Professor X, and others implicated in the story, trying to reconstruct what happened and how it felt. I was really just trying to jog my memory, but found that these documents in and of themselves told a story.

Much like the experience itself, the social media exchanges were fragmented and nonlinear; oscillating rapidly between moments of clarity and moments where logic seemed to be suspended. There was a frenetic, yet poetic quality to them that conveyed the state I was in that year almost perfectly. I also think that, as collected “evidence,” these screenshots provide a bridge between Doe’s memories and the story the institution is trying to tell. They were the last thing I included, but ultimately I think they are what ties the piece together.

MS: What challenges did you face in the writing process?

SC: Going into my M.F.A. program, the situation I wrote about in Unravelings was still very fresh in my conscious. Whenever I would sit down to write, I would still feel like I was writing under the critical eye of the man who evaluated my creative work throughout college; whose mentorship both sculpted my creative voice and ultimately undermined the confidence I held in that voice.

This might sound melodramatic, but throughout my process of writing Unravelings I kept thinking of a line in one of Virginia Woolf’s essays: “Killing the Angel in the house [is] part of the occupation of a woman writer.” To Virginia Woolf, the Angel in the House represented the pressure women writers face to write the versions of themselves that men want to read, rather than their true selves. To me, the Angel in the House was the looming feeling that I was still writing to appease my college mentor’s toxic gaze. I knew that I needed to, metaphorically speaking, “kill” this gaze in order to reclaim my own voice.

Unravelings was the first piece I completed as a graduate student. It was a very hard piece to write, partially because the events of that year still felt so convoluted in my mind. Basically, I wrote it because I felt I wouldn’t be able tell other stories until I’d fully unraveled this one.

MS: I found it interesting how, despite Professor X taking advantage of Doe, she protects him in the Title IX proceedings. Statements that might identify him are redacted at her request and she requests an informal investigation, rather than a formal one. Often trauma victims’ actions are misunderstood––can you talk more about that element of the story?

SC: Well, this was a man who dragged me through the mud, but who I was also in love with. He was coming from an incredibly traumatic past, which he shared with me privately (in retrospect this was also a violation of boundaries) and which added an extra layer of nuance to my perceptions of him.

I included redacted moments (which, in the text, mainly consist of striked-out but still legible details about his past) because, rationally, I knew that his past shouldn’t excuse his behavior but, in the moments where I was asked to hold him accountable for this behavior, I still felt an emotive need to contextualize it. I knew that he really fucked up, but we had also seen each other in incredibly vulnerable moments and I still felt a sort of convoluted tenderness towards him.

Essentially, I think I defended him because I was having a hard time reconciling his abuses of power with the tender moments that we shared, both in intimate spaces and in our writing. I am told this is common amongst survivors. Sadly, I think many survivors end up justifying the actions of abusers because they have seen the goodness in these people and want to believe that this goodness still exists, even when it’s being shrouded by anger or violence or manipulative behaviors. I believe that trust and emotional sensitivity—the ability to, as Rihanna would say, “find love in a hopeless place”––are beautiful, radical qualities that a lot of survivors possess.

In the feminist utopia of my dreams, these qualities would be celebrated. It’s only when others exploit them, and we find ourselves searching for ways to love those who continue to hurt us, that they become curses. Ultimately, I think this was my problem; why I ended up protecting him. I truly believed that he was better than his actions and he just needed more time to prove it. I believed this until his actions subsumed me, and my own story got lost inside of his.

MS: As I read Unravelings, I got the impression that formal proceedings like Title IX ask things of abuse survivors that are often difficult or impossible to give––such as linear memories and externally identifiable examples of gaslighting, for example. Based on your own personal experiences and the research you did for Unravelings, do you think Title IX effectively seeks justice for victims?

SC: This is a complicated question; one that I actually find myself grappling with often when thinking about Title IX, as well as the court systems, the police, and other forces survivors are told to appeal to when seeking justice.

Over the course of my four years in college, Title IX saw many positive reformations. I witnessed huge strides in the extent to which survivors have been able to access certain forms of justice through the institutional apparatuses in place, mainly due to the tireless activism of campus survivors and the founding of advocacy organizations such as KnowYourIX. This it is not to say there isn’t a huge amount of work left to be done; I find it nauseating that, in the year 2017, we are still seeing cases of women dropping out of school and even taking their own lives because the system has failed them.

In my case, however, I actually felt like the Title IX system was working to the best of its ability—I was treated with humanity and validation by the officers involved, and for the most part, felt agency over how the process played out. My issue isn’t with Title IX per se, but with the task that it holds people to; the task of creating clarity in narrative, when stories, trauma, and people themselves are innately so very messy.

Something I thought about a lot while writing the book was the notion of grey matter; the spaces between black and white, right and wrong, good and bad. In my opinion, the most genuine stories come out of these grey spaces. These are the spaces of nuance. The whole purpose of a formal Title IX process is to weigh evidence and determine which side of a story is “right” and which side is “wrong.” This need for clear delineations of truth inherently puts survivors of trauma at a disadvantage because in moments of trauma, it is common for linear memory to become disrupted.

I also think that the way that these systems box people up in their individual sides of a story can inhibit perpetrators from engaging in the deep critical self-reflection necessary to truly hold themselves accountable for their actions––and, ultimately, to rectify and change. But I’m less concerned about them.

I think justice means different things for different people. I, personally, don’t feel like justice, on a fundamental level, would have been served simply as the result of him “getting in trouble” for his actions. Maybe this is because of some lingering twisted desire to protect him, or because, if I’m being completely honest, I partially blamed myself for how everything unfolded (and still do, which I’m working on). But I like to think that I feel this way because something in me resents the notion that the messiness of stories and human emotions can be resolved simply by weighing facts and legislating right and wrong.

I think that Title IX is necessary in that it holds institutions accountable to survivors and is effective when implemented correctly and compassionately. But I also think punitive models of justice have their limitations. If we’re ever going to see shifts in sexist paradigms, we need to find additional ways to hold people accountable for their actions, ways that give space for healing, restoration, and consciousness-raising rather than just punishment and deterrent.


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 Citron Review, The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.

Best Books of 2017

The year is almost over and it’s time to revisit some of my favorite reads of the year. As with any list, this is not as extensive/inclusive/comprehensive as I’d like it to be, but having to do other things besides reading severely cuts into the amount of time I can spend inside books (if you have any leads on a gig that pays you to read whatever you want, get at me). In any case, this was a fantastic year. I made a list of best crime reads and one of best horror books, but some of the best books were in the enormous interstitial space between genres. Anyway, here are some books I hope didn’t fly under your radar:

Where the Sun Shines Out by Kevin Catalano. I was ready for this to be great, and it was, but the pain and violence in its pages blew me away. This is a narrative about loss, guilt, and surviving, but the way Catalano builds his vignettes allows him to show the minutiae of everyday living and the sharp edges of every failure.

Absolutely Golden by D. Foy. Funny, satirical, smart, and packed with snappy dialogue and characters that are at once cartoonish and too real, this is a book that, much like Patricide did last year, proves that Foy is one of the best in the business and perhaps one of the most electric voices in contemporary literary fiction.

I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) by Tatiana Ryckman. I met Tatiana when we read together at Malvern Books in Austin in late 2017. She read a chunk of this and it blew me away. I got the book that same night. Imagine your favorite philosopher deconstructing weird relationships while trying to simultaneously make you cringe in recognition and laugh at yourself. Well, this is what that philosopher would write. A short, powerful read that I will soon be reviewing here in its entirety, this was a blast of fresh air.

Itzá by Rios de la Luz. This short book destroys patriarchal notions of silence, abuse, and growth. Rios de la Luz wrote about a family of water brujas and in the process redefined bilingual bruja literature. This is a timely, heartfelt book that celebrates womanhood in a way that makes it necessary reading for every gender.

Pax Americana by Kurt Baumeister. With Trump in the White House, this novel is more than an entertaining look at the dangers of unchecked religion and politics. Yeah, call this one a warning that should be read by all. It’s also very entertaining and a superb addition to the impressive Stalking Horse Press catalog.

The River of Kings by Taylor Brown. I don’t want to imagine the amount of research that went into this book. However, I’m really happy that Brown did it, and that he turned everything he learned into a novel of interwoven narratives that is a celebration of a river, of people, and of language. This was so stunning that Brown immediately joined the ranks of “buy everything he publishes authors” before I’d reach the tenth chapter.

Human Trees by Matthew Revert. If Nicolas Winding Refn, Quentin Tarantino, and David Lynch collaborated on a film, the resulting piece of cinema would probably approximate the style of Revert’s prose. Weird? Yup. Smart? Very. Beautiful? Without a doubt. It seems Revert can do it all, and this is his best so far.

In The River by Jeremy Robert Johnson. The simple story of a father and son going fishing somehow morphs into a soul-shattering tale of anxiety, loss, and vengeance wrapped in a surreal narrative about the things that can keep a person between this world and the next. Johnson is a maestro of the weird and one of the best writers in bizarro, crime, and horror, but this one erases all of those genres and makes him simply one of the best.

The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan. A slice of Americana through the McClanahan lens. Devastating and hilarious. Too real to be fiction and too well written to be true. Original, raw, and honest. Every new McClanahan books offers something special, and this one might be his best yet.

In the Distance by Hernán Díaz. This is the perfect marriage of adventure and literary fiction. The sprawling narrative covers an entire lifetime of traveling and growing, and it always stays fresh and exciting. At times cruel and depressing, but always a pleasure to read. I hope we see much more Díaz in translation soon.

Beneath the Spanish by Victor Hernández Cruz. Read the introduction and you’ll be sold on the entire book. Multiculturalism is fertile ground for poetry, and Hernández Cruz is an expert at feeding that space with his biography and knowledge and then extracting touching, rich poems and short pieces that dance between poetry, flash fiction, and memoir.

Some other outstanding books I read this year:

Dumbheart / Stupidface by Cooper Wilhelm

Inside My Pencil: Teaching Poetry in Detroit Public Schools by Peter Markus

Something to Do With Self-Hate by Brian Alan Ellis

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi



SOMETIMES I THINK ABOUT IT: ESSAYS (Graywolf, 2017) author Stephen Elliot talks about his web series DRIVEN


“The key to life is figuring out how you’re fucked up, and rolling with it.” And Stephen Elliott should know. Elliott’s gone from The Adderall Diaries to his web series Driven to his latest book of essays, Sometimes I Think About It, which came out in November. The founder of The Rumpus is essentially a prolific artist. He’s taken the sum total of his life experiences and has made a web series that provokes, pokes and jabs us into being woke in a post-election climate that put us in a stupor, until #metoo illustrated how normalized bad behavior had become.

 Driven co-presented by Slamdance is a fresh variation on pithy content in the age of information overload. It’s essentially the basis of self-reckoning as writer turned ex-writer and now a sort-of rival Uber-esque, Panda driver, Paul (Elliott) passively shepherds New York City’s wounded souls.

There’s something deeply profound about Driven, about the elegance of the quotidian and the banal of the interesting. It sort-of flips tropes. In the first episode – as in many debuts – he cleans his closet out and introduces himself: we learn that he is a writer – and relatively accomplished at this – when a fellow author, Michael Cunningham steps in, mentions no less than three times in earnest that he should consider writing for his new TV show his turning down of the offer possibly suggesting that this writer shopped a show in real life. We also learn that his girlfriend (Jennifer Missoni) is also living the life as a professional mistress, and that they haven’t had sex in a while (and although this is problematic for her, neither want to break-up, indicating either co-dependency, hope for the future or both. We also hear jokes about Williamsburg mentioned and Airbnb. Score two for the NYC bubble.

Like fellow gen-X author Bret Easton Ellis’ series, The DeletedDriven also keeps its baroque moments off-camera to create an ominous tension, navigated by individuals reconciling difficult pasts. Our cabbie has his own troubled history, and in avoidance of the cabbie-sum-father confessor trope, his passengers are more mirrors of his mind-state than he is of theirs. Think Less Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and more Willem Dafoe as John LeTour in Light Sleeper. Just go to Elliott’s website and look at a clip of The Adderall Diaries and you’ll see that he has a lifetime of agency to explore any broken aspect of our society.

Visually, Driven has the production values of a high budget, well-funded, scripted series. Elliott’s literary style ranges to a natural economy with pacing, framing and lighting. The first shot in episode three of Driven, comes from the perspective of a cat in a carrier watching the Panda car pulling up. Cut to Jorge (Brian Luna), the cat’s nervous looking owner in a superman hoodie who is not made any calmer by making conversation with his feline-allergic driver, Paul (Stephen Elliott). By the end of the episode, there will be a shared custody arrangement of a female cat named Bruce Wayne, a break-in, a delightful scene in a comic book store, a cat-napping and Elliott’s perfectly dry delivery of the statement, “dogs are loyal, cats don’t know who you are.”

The artistry onscreen of any episode of Driven is economy. Elliott tells a story with an arc in anywhere from eight to twelve minutes with production values that rival a major theatrical release, with each episode coming in for the impossible tight budget of $800.00. Anyone who is familiar with Elliott’s writing knows that he has a way of synthesizing complex information into clear and relatable language. His cross-genre memoir, The Adderall Diaries, has the tidiest explanation of a database kernel. Without a computer science degree, it is almost impossible to wrap your head around what the internal structures of a database engine actually is, which is funny considering data is what rules our lives online.

I had the chance to sit down with Stephen Elliott at Grumpy Café in Chelsea and by phone. We chatted over tea and pastries (I think I’m the only one who ate) to talk about his web series, Driven. It’s a rare interview, when all the interviewer needs to do is ask one question and the subject generously dictates the rest of the piece:

Jennifer Parker: What are you working on now?

Stephen Elliott: That is a good question. I think that the main thing I’m doing really is I’m working on the Driven web series. Making a few more episodes. Teaming up with Al Madrigal’s company, All Things Comedy. They host podcasts but now they’re going to start doing video content. They’re going to start hosting my web series and helping with the production and getting the word out as well. So, I’m pretty hopeful about that.

JP: I was struck by the cinematic quality of the production values. How did you manage to consistently produce what are tantamount to miniature movies?

SI: I don’t know. I mean I’m sure it is something to do with white privilege but. I just think that I was lucky that I worked with a lot of great people on other projects. And they liked working with me and I appreciated all the things they did. And I was able to convince these really amazing people to keep working with me on things that pay way below their rate. Like the guy that shot After Adderall (Adrian Correia) which is a $10,000 movie. He’s the cinematographer now for the second season of Glow, the Netflix’s show. So, this is a big-time guy who gets paid a lot of money, has a really coveted job amongst cinematographers, really well respected. Like most artists if he really likes the project, he’ll work on it.

There’s this thing about movie making that’s actually very Marxist.  When the budgets get higher, everybody gets paid more and when the budget’s lower, everybody gets paid less, which is really beautiful actually. And great people work on really low budget stuff all the time. But you have to be able to convince them. They don’t want to work for really low pay on something that’s not going to be good. If they trust you and particularly if they like the script, then that’s most of it—really.

The other thing I think is it’s a lot easier to make a movie for no money than not enough money. People feel shortchanged when you don’t have enough money and they’re not going to give you their best. Because you’re only paying them not as much. But if there’s no money and everybody working on it is working on it because it’s an art project and they want it to be good and there’s an understanding that nobody’s going to make any money on it. We’re all doing this creative project. Like with Driven or like with after After Adderall, there was no chance of me ever making any real money off those things. I don’t even have contracts with anybody, I can’t sell these things; I can’t sell After Adderall to a distributor. I don’t have contracts for the people who work on it so everybody knows this person has no money, they’re really making an art project, something creative they care about and believe in—they want any part of that.

Whereas if you’re making something that’s a commercial project then and you’re really concerned with doing all the right paperwork and making sure that you can sell it and make money even if you don’t end up making money, but you leave that possibility open and you make people sign their lives away then of course they want to be paid more for that. I think it’s mostly finding good people and working with them over and over again. Also, when I write something that’s low budget. I write toward the budget but I don’t have any money so I try not to have more than two locations. And when I’m writing those locations, I’m writing places that I already know I can get.  With a poem when you start, you have certain rules, like maybe 14 lines, and this many syllables, or whatever the rules are. Similarly, when I’m writing a script. If I know I have $500 to make this so I’m not going to put in something like a location that I don’t know that I can get that I don’t already have access to somehow.

JP: Happy Baby (Graywolf Press) was just reprinted in November. Congratulations. The first time we spoke you mentioned that this was the only book that you gave yourself a set of literary rules to follow when writing the book. How did that work?

SI: Yeah, I was really kind of like a literary fundamentalist. I’d really bought into this idea of show don’t tell. I’d been doing a workshop for the first time really in my life doing the Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. And so, I was with all these people that had done a lot of workshops because they all had MFA’s. They already considered themselves writers and they studied creative writing and then they either had an MFA or a Ph.D. in creative writing. I’d never studied creative writing before doing the Stegner Fellowship so with these people. I didn’t study for a long time and I’m learning a lot from them but I’m also realizing that. In workshops when people don’t know what to say they often say “why.” They want to know why this character is doing something. There is a real search for causation, and I realized that I really didn’t like that. I didn’t want to say why character was doing something because I don’t really think things. I don’t think most the things I do or don’t have one cause and effect. I did this because of that. All these different causes add up, we don’t really know why we do. I just blanked out. So, I had this rule that I was never going to tell you why, I was never going to answer the question of why. It only had “to.” The only thing that had it to be is it had to be true or it had to be possible. Is it conceivable that this character would do this? If it was conceivable and not impossible then I would never explain it. It’s enough that it’s possible that they do it.

There’s no backstory in Happy Baby and there’s no narration at all, the whole entire book is unseen. It always moves forward in the present tense even though each chapter is earlier than the one before it. I Had all these rules: No explaining, no narration, everything is seen you know. No adjectives, no adverbs, really lean and really fundamentalist. And the problem with that was it was great for that book. But then after that I got really stuck. You can’t you can’t write every book that way because you’re writing the same book over and over again. I didn’t know what to do after I’d written Happy Baby, I’m kind of written myself into a corner.

JP: In Driven and in Happy Baby and somewhat in The Adderall Diaries you incorporate BDSM so casually, it makes it almost commonplace.

SI: I don’t know if it is or it isn’t. It exists, it’s a thing. I think BDSM plays a role in a lot of people’s sex lives but there are so many different degrees of it. Like my entire sex life is BDSM. I don’t do anything else. I only do one thing and I’m 100 percent hardwired this way. Most people, their kinky stuff is just a plug in. it’s like your Safari browser and your browser is like just basic fucking and then you download the bondage plug in or the leather plug-in or the foot fetish plug-in and then you go from there, but for me, it’s the entire browser. So, I think I think power exchange is a huge part of sex for most people, but it’s just the amount or different degrees. So, in other words, in some ways it’s very niche, in other ways it’s very universal.

JP: Ok, that’s a great answer.

SI: People that are like me who are just really hard wired to only do kink, that’s actually pretty rare I think.

JP: Do you feel like there’s any parallels between Driven and any of your earlier work?

SI: Driven is kind of a way to get back into writing short stories. There’s consistent themes but ultimately, each one is an individual short story.

JP: What would you say are some of the consistent themes?

SI: Connection is a real big theme and. I’ve been writing a lot about love and the impossibility of love. So those are some basic things but also almost every episode is a commentary on the new political landscape. It’s very subtle, but most characters are dealing with something that they weren’t dealing with before Trump was elected if that makes any sense. They’re funny but they’re quite a bit more political than they may seem at first blush.

It’s a lot about connection. I’ve been working on this novel and there’s this character in the novel who realizes he’s incapable of love. And I’m kind of obsessed with that idea. I just want to explore that and write about what that means.

JP: Do you think that people are incapable of love or do you think we fool ourselves into thinking we are capable of it?

SI: I think the main thing is that every single person has a different definition of love. There’s no wrong definition there’s no wrong reason to love somebody. I think people get disappointed a lot because we love someone whose definition of love might be different from ours. Because that’s a very normal thing to have happen, really people radically diverge in what they think love is. The two main characters in a novel, that’s kind of one of the biggest conflicts. Diametrically opposed definitions of love. To one of them you know love comes and goes. It’s not it’s not something safe. If you fall out of love with somebody then it means you never did love them. It’s impossible. Love is a permanent state of flux. And. You can see through accomplishing two characters that marry such radically different ideas of what love is.

JP: Anything else you want to touch on?

SI: I have four episodes of Driven in post. One is based on the Martin Scorsese cameo from Taxi Driver, except played by Madeline Xima as a young lesbian. There’s also the immigration episode, starring Sakina Jaffrey and Al Madrigal. So many car share drivers are immigrants so that episode is particularly relevant.

Catch Driven on the Slamdance website http://slamdance.com/Slamdance-Co-Presents-New-Web-Series-by-Stephen-Elliott-DRIVEN and on Stephen Elliott’s website http://www.stephenelliott.com/. Elliott is generous with his content and makes it available for free.


Jennifer Parker is a Manhattan-based writer and mother. The editor in chief of StatoRec, Jennifer’s film criticism and author profiles have appeared in Fjords Review and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

[REVIEW] Trench Town Rock by Kamau Brathwaite

Lost Roads Publishers, 1994


In “Trench Town Rock,” Kamau Brathwaite accounts for the broken third, people who live out a violent inheritance in a world where the criminals are no longer discernible from the officials who are assigned to stop them. The title is a nod to Bob Marley, as well as the Jamaican neighborhood where both the author and the singer spent time formulating their messages. In an interview Marley once said, “There is America, there is Russia, there is Rasta.” The statement forces the reader to look beyond everyday power structures. What exists in this third state? How is society evolving in the forgotten corners of the globe? Rastafarians are a minority with a weak political voice; their strongest avenue is art. Like Marley, Brathwaite reminds us that the artistic voice has the imperative in an otherwise broken society. Brathwaite embodies the harsh reality of his culture with unconventional strategies that make the reader feel his experience viscerally—jammed words, run-on lines, misspellings, and varied font sizes—to create louder and softer sounds. He uses myriad sources from the world he portrays: news clippings, radio transcripts, and West African mythology. He mixes and matches his indictment to show us the disintegrating state of postcolonial Jamaica.

Brathwaite awakens the reader to the dangers of life in Jamaica from the opening page. The narrator is asleep when a murder takes place in his apartment complex. The reader understands quickly what is at stake, feels it in his body through the use of telling action, font size, and unconventional spelling. Brathwaite brings us into his bedroom and we are “aweakened by gunshatt.” We hear the Jamaican voice in our head, feel his fear as he fumbles “into the dark with its various glints & glows: mosquito, very distant cockcrow, sound system drum, the tumbrel of a passing engine.” Sound is mixed together with darkness and suddenly, without punctuation, we launch into “TWO SHATTS” and the text grows bold and large to replicate the startling sound of a gun fired. When the police arrive they scurry in like insects, the line that describes them running on “with salaams & slams & semi-automatic acks, revolvers slung from belts and holsters or tucked like asps into their waist-line trousers; & evvabody walkin fass fass fass . . . “The language mimics the emotion and action. The message he wants to convey—busy movement around the scene of the crime—enters the reader’s vision with a scurrying transience. His stylistic conveyance continues throughout the book without getting tired because of the variety of information he presents.

Relentless images involving unsolved crimes and violence carry the reader forward. There is a dead man with “beautiful long hair curled around his body making snakes like dance/like dancing . . .” The snakes sway menacingly and remind us of a time when the people on this island were considered no better than animals. He describes a dead policeman by first describing him as a “big, dark, meaty guy” before reversing to negate X his presence in the world. “But I can’t tell you what he looked like: features, the human face, I mean: both eyes shot out/stabbed in, his nose unhinged, a huge gash in the right side of the throat, his tongue there black & smooth . . .” He cancels the man’s presence in the world with the words “can’t tell” before the passage folds back towards the police: “yet all his skin & flesh still firm & natural like if he flash & living still & not a ant or insect (here he uses a carefully planned line break) coming even near his blood & no one say a prayer . . .” The margins on this page, combined with the line break and indentation, imply that the police are the insects. Brathwaite makes use of a line break to convey dual meanings: the police return as insects, yes, but there are also actual insects crawling all over the crime scene, insects taking advantage of what has been spilled. Insects steal what is wanted and desired even as the body is still warm.

The way the society turns on itself, the way people betray each other for small gains is examined in the second half of the book. A woman gets her arm chopped off for her bracelet, people dig around dead bodies in a car crash for shoes and coins. The community has become so desensitized to death; death has become such a part of their mental landscape, the crowd witnesses with an unblinking eye. In turn, Brathwaite portrays this fact with such shocking calm that the reader feels a rising horror. By the time we get to the end of the book’s first section and Brathwaite writes, “so that these crimes we all embrace the victim and the violate the duppy and the gunman so close on these plantations still so intimate the dead/undead,” we see. The words— plantation, the embrace, the dead/undead—are specifically chosen. The vocabulary is laden with associations that have the strength to imply we are embroiled in this world’s historic errors, bound and complicit, not able to escape our responsibility and wonder.

A bit of history is introduced in a radio interview in the section labeled “Straight Talk.” A one word page follows—it says “ttortt.” Double tt’s, both sides confused and potentially responsible—the government official in the conversation refers back to the 80’s when crimes were at their previous height. The new surge of violence has everyone thinking about revolution and revolt. At one point in the interview Brathwaite interjects during an argument, “[Perkins had in fact retailed a similar story just before McKenzie phoned]” and the reader sees that they are fighting less over differences than they are posturing for gain. Who gets credit for telling the story? In a society where power means money people lie. People manipulate the political possibilities in order to benefit their own interests. “McK” begins to sound like shorthand as his name gets shortened, like a preacher he says I “want to bring you back, Mr. Perkins, to 1976, Mr Perkin when those very same people, Mr. Perkins . . .” The repetitions of a Sunday school class and a discussion is launched about observing and reporting. The reader sees that these men are discussing reality versus truth. The reader sees that the discussion about observing and reporting has a subtext: the problem is a question of reliability or the manufacturing of reality through the organization of facts. The truth is that no one has the answers anymore.

Finally Brathwaite himself is a victim of violence. When he calls his manager for increased security in his apartment the guy tells him he is “concern” but then basically tells him to stop complaining or leave. “If I continue to feel threat at MMA, I ‘should’ (I quote) ‘look into the possibility of alternative (sic) accommodation (sic).” No one cares. How do these impoverished postcolonial countries establish a new, functioning community when the criteria for what is good and stable have been lost? It is fitting then, after pages of news clippings that illustrate more violence, Brathwaite turns toward a Jamaican story from West Africa about “Anansi.” Anansi is a trickster, a rebel, the sneaky one who manifests a spirit of rebellion and is able to overturn the social order when he so pleases. For oppressed people trickster conveys a message from one generation to the next: dignity can be had, freedom can be found, only if a person keeps trying. Brathwaite’s essay sits on the margins. It comes back at us again and again. It uses large and small font, unconventional spelling, dashes and brackets, clippings and dates, transcripts and memory, sound that mimics the cadence and volume of violence. He uses everything at his disposal in the attempt to keep trying. He is Anansi. He uses Anansi strategies in his structure, story, and spirit.