This Modern Writer: I Got Your Crazy: On Estrogen, Neuroses, and Britney Spears by Megan Burbank

I am writing a love letter to pop music. Not particularly respectable pop music. I am not even talking about the Robyns or the Adeles or the Kate Nashes of the world, nor anything that you might feel even remotely comfortable to be caught blasting should your roommate walk in on you dancing around your room when you thought he was at work. I am not talking about music that you announce proudly to the people that you know. God bless Patti Smith, but this certainly does not concern her. For the moment, Justin Vernon is welcome to stay in his cabin in Wisconsin. I am talking about the soundtracks to awful breakups and lengthy road trips, weeks spent studying for the GREs or learning how to file one’s taxes. I am talking about three-sheets-to-the-wind karaoke. I am talking about music for which you are not the target demographic. Which is to say, I am pretty much talking about dreams.

I imbibe pop music the way middle-aged housewives in the Midwest imbibe romance novels: with reckless abandon, minimal intellectual engagement, and few regrets. I can’t say for sure when my obsession with bad taste began. What I can say is that my Saturday nights in college were routinely spent making gin and tonics with my housemates and dancing to “Toxic” by Britney Spears in someone’s room, while singing along in the earnest manner with which we did everything, an earnestness you are unlikely to find anywhere outside of a women’s college dorm room on a weekend in western Massachusetts. Our dance moves would naturally devolve into a synchronized run to the fountain near our house. At this point, clad only in underwear and jewelry we had forgotten to take off, towels spread out behind us like a little boy’s imitation of a superhero, we would look up at the stars and slur our college’s official song as we ran around the fountain in drunkenly careful circles, an accomplishment when under the influence, since the fountain was small, and our school song happened to be in Latin.

Sometimes we tried to go to frat parties at the coed schools across the valley, but in our pursuit of what we thought surely must be the typical college experience, we mainly just got bored, or referred to as snobs, or offered too much Jaegermeister, or our rarely-worn stilettos became too muddy from sinking into damp grass, and anyway we had blisters. Defeated, we would take the bus back to campus where we would nervously watch “Chelsea Lately” while drinking cheap wine and feeling deeply concerned that we would probably never, ever have boyfriends. Sometimes we felt like we had signed up for a four-year purity ball instead of a progressive liberal arts college. Then we remembered that Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan had gone to Smith, and then we felt guilty, and also like bad feminists.

Britney Spears may have been our patron saint of weekends, but during the week, we would rarely admit to liking anything but indie rock. We would talk about Regina Spektor and Andrew Bird like they were our friends. We would occasionally get into obscure band knowledge fights with the snobby girls who ran the radio station and wore fanny packs. However, this all changed the day Britney Spears shaved her head in Tarzana, California hair salon.

That day, I was reading a hefty volume of seventeenth-century poetry I didn’t really understand when my friend Huelo shoved open my door, and announced, with a look of simultaneous bemusement and abject terror, “Britney Spears just shaved off all her hair!”

“What!” I said incredulously, slamming John Donne shut.

“For real! Look it up on the internet!” said Huelo. John Donne was relegated to the floor beside my bed, while we proceeded to gawk at a video feed of Britney Spears holding a razor to her freshly bald scalp, a tangle of hair she hadn’t yet gotten to trailing down her neck like a rattail. The reporter, a smug blonde woman, said something about how Britney Spears didn’t want people to touch her, at which point, there was a shift. Laughter became impossible.

“That makes me really sad,” said Huelo.

“Me too,” I said. “I just…” I couldn’t finish my sentence. It was then that I realized how dismayed the news report was making me. But that did not make sense. I was better than pop music. I listened to the Clash. I was an art minor! I read John Donne! And sort of understood parts of it. But it didn’t matter. In that moment, it had become cool to root for Britney Spears. Furthermore, sort of involuntary. “I just. I really hope she’s okay.”

“Me too,” said Huelo.

Once we became emotionally invested in Britney Spears’s well-being, it was like a switch was flipped in our lives. There were our lives before Britney Spears went crazy, and our lives after Britney Spears went crazy. In the days following Britney Spears’s involuntary psychiatric hold, we took careful note of her progress, glued to Perez Hilton and E! like football fans in a pub. During the Superbowl. Possibly during one of those high-stakes moments in sports people get so wrought up about.

Increasingly, we set down our papers and lab reports to watch the Britney report. We listened to “Stronger” on the treadmill at the gym, hoping to send her vibes of strength through our maximum incline settings. We talked about her at dinner while we ate extra dessert while occasionally getting into arguments over which one of us had the most papers to write. We played her music at our parties. We rediscovered the campy-as-hell video for “Toxic” and watched it repeatedly on Youtube. We watched her so-called disastrous performance at the 2007 VMAs and deduced that ladyface would have been fine if she’d just had a better weave. Our obsession was real and did not leave our tiny campus.

That was also around the time the Dalai Lama came to our school. Students from the five colleges in the valley packed our indoor track facility and I don’t really remember anything he said, but I do remember he talked about compassion. And while our obsession with Britney Spears was never not voyeuristic, maybe compassion, or at least empathy, was at the root of it. Because in that moment in the barber shop, Britney Spears seemed more vulnerable than a calculating Kardashian or a Jessica Simpson announcing her virginity pledge in 1998 or even an affectedly precious Joanna Newsom or us, with our occasional tendency to couch our anxieties in arguments over workloads and obscure bands.

For better or for worse, Britney Spears was a mentally ill woman living out her nightmare in the pages of Us Weekly. She had also become human to us in a way that was identifiable. And if anyone could relate to a woman who was going a little crazy, it was surely the women of Smith College. We were a rare mix of estrogen and neuroses. Most of us were on antidepressants. We went to our six free counseling sessions every semester like it was our job. After about two days at Smith, you learned that if you saw a girl bawling on the steps of the library, you let her do her crying in peace. It wasn’t so much that we were unhappy as that we were swimming in age-appropriate confusion, and trying to be proactive in the face of our anxieties. And we were beginning to suspect that Britney Spears was one of us.

In fact, in a way, she was us. When we talked about Britney Spears, we may have been talking about something else entirely. We may have been talking about ourselves. Somehow, a pop star we hadn’t much thought about before 2006 had given us license to discuss our very real fears about anxiety and mental illness in a safe, coded way. Britney Spears became the ultimate in, “Oh, I’m just asking for a friend.”

If it seems strange to say that Britney Spears made us feel less crazy, I would argue that sometimes comfort comes from strange places. When Britney Spears finally put out a new album in 2008, we listened to it nonstop, and when she released a music video for “Circus,” we noted that her tattoos were kept visible and her eyes looked less dead, and her weave, in 1920s pincurls, actually looked really good. She looked happy, like she was possibly even maybe having fun, and this gave us hope. It’s possible that her handlers were just doing a better job. But we were nothing if not earnest, and if Britney Spears could fight obscurity and bipolar disorder and even temporarily win, anything seemed possible. We listened to “Circus” for an entire semester after it came out, and long after, and talked about how much we appreciated it “as a pop album.” We never said anything more about Britney Spears’s mental state, emphasizing instead the distinct possibility that we just really liked to dance.

Megan Burbank is from Seattle, and now lives in Chicago, where she is an MFA candidate at the School of the Art Institute. Most recently, her writing has appeared in The Stranger and is forthcoming at elimae.

This Modern Writer: Fragments on Openness by Amanda Silbernagel


One commits a categorical error when one says that artists create out of an inherent masochism. Masochists enjoy pain despite consequences, artists enjoy consequences despite pain– generally speaking.

One creates art not because one believes it is worth dying for; one believes art worth dying for because one creates.

Rupture is a form of violence: violence to form. Artists are those who through violence to form create form.

The goal of art is to create the effect of rupture without creating the appearance of rupture as such. The same is true for philosophy; only here the disclosure of violence is far less avoidable.

When an artist admits that there exists no “right interpretation” to a body of her work, we are willing to overlook this fault. When a philosopher admits the same, we throw his body to the wolves.

Most will agree that the purpose of art is not to sooth-say. Now if only we could come to this same understanding about Philosophy.

The joy of understanding—be it a text, an idea, or a person—consists in its ephemerality. It is what makes love possible.


A dike breaks, a blood vessel pops, and the liquid content for which the tunnel was prime and sole medium becomes altered—in the sense of unconstrained. The destruction or removal of a constraint through rupture for conscious subjects comes the introduction of another, different constraint: the feeling of responsibility for being’s outflow, for where it ought flow.

(Closed Circuit, Fig 1) No rupture: no decisions: no responsibility: no history: no interpretation: no meaning: no interpretation: no history: no responsibility: no decisions: no rupture.

(Open Circuit, Fig 2) No rupture: no decisions: no responsibility: no history: no interpretation: no meaning: no interpretation: no meaning: no interpretation: no meaning:

And what if the center of a system is nowhere to be found?

Our age maintains a remarkably high tolerance for tangents: as reflected in the technologized and Wikified attention span which has patience for only that movie, that novel, that article, that conversation which unravels as fast and as far and in as many directions as a dried-out dandelion head: a chase we perhaps find intoxicatingly reminiscent of a simpler past, a past we never had.


A world reduced to a series of accidents (or unbreakable chains of causation) is a world our understanding of which is futile at worst, impossible at best, and in any case artless.

Repetition is the indicator of intention. If an image recurs in several of my poems unbeknownst to me, if I repeat the same mistake multiple times without noticing the trend and intervening: repetition is here indicative of a double-negative, or unconscious positive, intention. I did not intend not to repeat myself.

(Possible instances of rupture, Fig 1) I change the channel, I quit my job, I scan the radio, I divorce my wife, I click on a link, I drop out of school, I put X on hold to intercept a call from Y.

(Possible instances of rupture, Fig 2) My friend changes the channel, I get fired from my job, the person in the passenger’s seat scans the radio, my wife divorces me, an ad for product X pops up on the screen while I’m searching for product Y, I get suspended from school, X puts me on hold to intercept a call from Z.

Where blockage differs from rupture is in its relation to content. The flood wall forces back the rebel current. The current forces back the trapped army, or caravan of slaves. It is often a parental gesture, and so “in your best interest,” that the block or blockage performs for (and on) you, the subject. The only emancipation to speak of here is of the sort whereby a child who leaps out into a busy street is said to be “rescued” by the hand that yanks him back to the sidewalk: the safe, the bloodless, well-lit, unobscured, good old fashioned, straight, conservative, republican concrete slab, where the child may transport to school from home and back to home from school, unharmed and accounted for.

(Possible instances of blockage, Fig 1) I change the channel, I quit my job, I scan the radio, I divorce my wife, I click on a link, I drop out of school, I put X on hold to intercept an incoming call from Y.

(Possible instances of blockage, Fig 2) My wife changes the channel, I get fired from my job, the person in the passenger’s seat scans the radio, my wife divorces me, an ad for product X pops up on the screen while I’m searching for product Y, I get suspended from school, X puts me on hold to intercept a call from Z. Blockage is tantamount Christian grace. The negative freedom in which it consists is freedom-from danger, harm or risk: eternal for the Sheep, finite for the child; and so also with the corresponding illusion of freedom-from responsibility. Hence: if I die before I wake…

The search for an answer, an imaginary case in a posited set, is an instance of blockage of the question, and hence a negation of movement—opening and force.

I rape my intellect by refusing my body to the poem.

I’ve been told that the function of image in my philosophic works is, among other things: morbid, inappropriate, wretched (!), unsound (?), distracting, arresting, politically incorrect, metaphorically exacting, entertaining, intriguing, tolerable—and in each case I’ve wondered, stifling a slightly maniacal laugh, what the commenter would think of my poems.

We call “accidental” those elements which appear in a work, and appear integral to that work, of which the artist was unaware during the creation process. Yesterday we called the cause of the accident “chance,” today “the unconscious,” tomorrow “linear feedback shift register.”

Tell me your greatest fear, and I’ll tell you what you look for in art.

As the mystery element that makes the brilliantly and technically constructed work soar, the accident in art is context-sensitive: hinging in part on the viewer’s perspective, and in part on the design that houses the accident—and therefore, in part on the creator: her careful placement and installation of windows and doors.

It is not surprising that many pilots were also photographers. It is no accident that certain photographers were also pilots.

It is surprising, but no accident, that many philosophers were also poets.

Analytic philosophers of his time and at large considered Nietzsche’s aphoristic style to be a dangerous scam. A scam, due to its presumed lack of rigor, or its displaced or misused and/or abused rigor, in short: its misrepresentation of the word. A danger, due to its capacity to seduce, coaxing readers through the tightly wound corridors of his psyche, where the way is obscured by the flare ups and outages, the play of the light, of the mood; where the entire visible portion of the course is riddled with metaphor and devoid of Truth.

The aphorism is a threat to today’s discourse: not for the reasons that Nietzsche’s aphorisms were perceived as a threat by his contemporaries—the lack of a fixed center therein, the concealment of this lack—but for our decreasing ability to distinguish between brevity and fragmentation, ambiguity and incoherence.

Brevity is insufficient as a condition for aphoristic writing. The text message with its 160 character limit, the “tweet” with its 140 character limit, does not by virtue of this limit automatically constitute an aphorism.

Just as the placement of two or three letters before a name does not designate a philosopher, but rather only a profession that bears the title “philosophy,” the placement of a question mark at the end of a statement does not transform that statement into a question.

What is called a question? Does this statement count as a question? (Click yes or no.)

A question frequently posed to artists: why this? what do you mean by this? It is interesting to consider, by comparison, with what bafflement and even offense a similar question would be taken by a parent, regarding their children: why this? Why conceive this?

That seriousness and indifference, work and play, are contradictory concepts is seen as obvious by most people. A critical distinction too often goes unmade between indifferent work and serious play.

Sincerity is a weapon that can easily become the artist’s fatal flaw. As a famous poet once said, it is conducive to the poetic process to feel at liberty to incorporate into the poem as many birds as one desires; when the poem is done, he then simply deletes all the birds. Here “birds” can be substituted with any subject about which the artist is “sincere.”

Poetic creation is an economy of indulgences and restraints.

When the audience quit responding in the manner which the artist, armed and blindfolded, had come to expect—the artist, blind and ineffective, lost faith in her weapon.

Nowhere does the artist feel more alive than at the threshold of creation, where the life she breathes into her work is sacred insofar as it is both first and last breath.

***Some content may have been borrowed from the author’s poetry.

Amanda Silbernagel is a writer from Fargo, North Dakota who currently abides in West Texas. Amanda’s poetic and philosophic works have been published in print and online journals, such as Ouroboros, PANK, Arsenic Lobster, Breadcrumb Scabs, Thirteen Myna Birds, Hamilton Stone Review, Red Weather, Yellow Bicycle, and Love Child. Other works can be found on Amanda’s website, “the philosophy of poetry // & v.v.” (

This Modern Writer: I Would Not Be in the Least Surprised… by Christopher Forsley

I Would Not Be In The Least Surprised To Learn That My Wife Is A Kangaroo, For Any Hypothesis Would Be More Tenable Than The Assumption That She Is A Woman

Flann O’Brien, author of At Swim-Two-Birds, was one of a kind.  No, that’s a lie.  He was also Brian O’Nolan, John Hackett, Father Barnabas, John James Doe, and George Knowall.  Then there was his Gaelic speaking version named Myles na Gopaleen.  It’s fucking confusing.  All I know is that a serial pseudonymist of a drunken Irishman wrote At Swim-Two-Birds in the 1930s shortly after graduating from University College Dublin.  Actually, I know a few other things too: I know that if I eat too much raw oatmeal I’ll fart for days, that if I get the Fish Flu I’ll want to bang a Pink River Dolphin, and that if I don’t choose one name for the author of At Swim-Two-Birds – I’ll go with Flann O’Brien since it’s the name on my book jacket – and stick with it, the words that follow will confuse you.  They’ll probably confuse you regardless, and you can blame Father Barnabas… I mean Flann O’Brien for that because I first read his book, At Swim-Two-Birds, at a vulnerable stage in my writing career – if you want to call writing little pieces about books I love for free a writing career – and it’s the kind of book that will, for reasons I’ll reveal to you, permanently damage a young writer’s brain.

This vulnerable stage of my writing career was when I was in college and, just like the unnamed narrator of O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, “I was accustomed to stretch myself for many hours upon my bed, thinking and smoking there.”  In those days I spent so much time lying around thinking that if the uncle of the unnamed narrator in At Swim-Two-Birds asked me the same question he asked his nephew – “A boy of your age…who gives himself up to the sin of sloth…what in God’s name is going to happen to him when he goes out to face the world?” – I could have thought up an answer:  “I’m going to travel to Dublin and become a famous underwear model of Ireland’s finest garments,” I would have said.  And that’s exactly what I had planned on doing after graduating from college and going out to face the world.

But then, just before getting my diploma and three decades worth of debt, I read At Swim-Two-Birds and in it O’Brien’s physical description of Finn Mac Cool, the magical giant of Irish folklore whose exploits make up a third of the novel:

“Each of his thighs was as thick as a horse’s belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal. Three fifties of fosterlings could engage with handball against the wideness of his backside, which was large enough to halt the march of men through a mountain-pass.”

And I realized that the Irish, if that was the kind of physique their heroes possessed, probably had high standards for their underwear models – standards I could never fulfill.  So instead of moving to Dublin after college, I moved to San Francisco and focused on establishing a solitary, literary career that would forgive my pale, malnourished body covered in tattoos, varicose veins, and bleeding moles.

I was writing before O’Brien and his description of Finn Mac Cool crushed my dreams of becoming a famous underwear model, but I never wanted to make a career of it.  I never wanted to die from cirrhosis of the liver with nothing to leave my illegitimate children except a briefcase full of rejection slips.  But reading At Swim-Two-Birds made me realize I had no choice.  It made me realize that, since posing in my underwear on billboards wasn’t going to happen, it was only through the written word that I could fully express myself to strangers without getting locked-up in Susanna Kaysen’s old room.

If O’Brien got At Swim-Two-Birds published in conservative 1930s Ireland without getting committed to the loony bin like poor Susanna, then I figured I could get away with writing whatever I wanted, no matter how crazy.  What’s so crazy about At Swim-Two-Birds?  Well, there’s a lot crazy about it, but one example involves Pooka MacPhellimey, “a member of the devil class,” and the Good Fairy, “a voice unsupported by a body.”  These two characters argue, page after page, about kangaroos and whether or not they are human.  Pooka says the kangaroo’s pouch was one of Man’s first pockets, and the Good Fairy says the kangaroo isn’t human.  And from these stances the argument begins…

Good Fairy: “In regard to the humanity of kangaroos, to admit a kangaroo unreservedly to be a man would inevitably involve one in a number of distressing implications, the kangaroolity of women and your wife beside you being one example.”

Pooka: “I would not be in the least surprised to learn that my wife is a kangaroo, for any hypothesis would be more tenable than the assumption that she is a woman.”

Good Fairy: “There is nothing so important as the legs in determining the kangaroolity of a woman. Is there for example fur on your wife’s legs, Sir?”

Pooka: “I cannot say whether there is fur on my wife’s legs for I have never seen them nor do I intend to commit myself to the folly of looking at them…”

And the argument continues, intermittently broken by excursions into philosophy about the Good and the Bad Numerals, until the two agree that kangaroos probably have the ability to shave their fur off and disguise themselves as women whether they are human or not.  So the Good Fairy declares that the tail is the only way to spot a kangaroo, but Pooka says that he personally belongs to a “class that is accustomed to treat with extreme suspicion all such persons as are unprovided with tails,” and he reveals his own tails, one made up of loose hair and the other hanging from the back of his pajama top.

Such dialogue only begins to expose the craziness that O’Brien’s pen conjures throughout At Swim-Two-Birds.  The entire novel is crazy – but also genius.  What’s the difference?  I don’t know.  I do know that if you asked me to describe this indescribable novel before I moved to San Francisco, I would have said, “Man… um… how about… trippy.”  Yeah, I would have said it was a trippy fucking book.  But then I surrounded myself with San Francisco’s literary and academic types – those floating brains attached to bodies almost as non-existent as the Good Fairy’s – and I learned that At Swim-Two-Birds is what they call, “Postmodern Meta-fiction.”

O’Brien would have hated having such a pompous label attached to his novel, because At Swim-Two-Birds is, at least on one level, an attack on the over-romanticized view of the artist and the novel.  So you can call it Meta-fiction, or whatever the newest catchphrase among the floating brains is, if you wish, but, for the sake of O’Brien, I will again start describing At Swim-Two-Birds to people, you included, as trippy.  It’s not a suitable description, obviously, but if this plot isn’t trippy, than I don’t know what is:

An unnamed narrator writes a novel about a man named Dermot Trellis who is writing his own novel, a Western, whose cow-KOing protagonists eventually become fed-up with Trellis’s authority as narrator and decide to find the Western writer’s son who they pay to write a novel in which his father, Trellis, is captured, tortured, and killed… or something like that.  Graham Greene, who recommended the novel for publication, compared the antics experienced while reading At Swim-Two-Birds to “the kind of glee one experiences when people smash china on the stage.”
I’ve never watched people smash china on the stage, and these days The Stage and all the people on it belong to China so I doubt I’ll ever get to experience such glee, but I’m sure it’s an inspiring sight.  I’m sure it would be just as inspiring as my first reading of At Swim-Two-Birds was, and that it too would show me that you can write or smash whatever the fuck you want – whether it’s an argument concerning the humanity of kangaroos or the newest World Power.  With At Swim-Two-Birds, O’Brien showed me that there were no limitations to the written word.  And my young writer’s brain was permanently damaged.

I now write stories without plot-points, characters without realism, dialogue without quotations, and, when daydreaming of more ambitious ventures, novels that “have three openings entirely dissimilar and inter-related only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.” Since reading At Swim-Two-Birds and all three of its openings and endings, I have also developed an unquenchable taste for beer because of its inclusion of the poem, “Workman’s Friend,” which goes like this:

When things go wrong and will not come right,

Though you do the best you can,

When life looks black as the hour of night—


When money’s tight and is hard to get

And your horse has also ran,

When all you have is a heap of debt—


When health is bad and your heart feels strange,

And your face is pale and wan,

When doctors say that you need a change,


When food is scare and your larder bare

And no rashers grease your pan,

When hunger grows as your meals are rare—


In time of trouble and lousy strife,

You have still got a darling plan,

You still can turn to a brighter life—


How could a young man resist the lure of beer after reading such a poem?  I couldn’t, and so, just like O’Brien and most of the characters in his novels, I began a love-affair with that king of alcoholic beverages that continues to this day.  My young writer’s brain, like I said, is permanently damaged because of At Swim-Two-Birds.  I can’t write when sober and I can’t be sober when writing.

So nothing good came from my At Swim-Two-Birds induced brain damage.  It turned my writing into anarchic gibberish that no publisher pays for, and my drinking into a black-hole for the money I don’t get from publishers to disappear into.  And it could get worse yet.  All this rejection and drinking could eventually turn me into a Trellis-like character:

“…a man of average stature but his person was flabby and unattractive, partly a result of his having remained in bed for a period of twenty years. He was voluntarily bedridden and suffered from no organic or other illness. He occasionally rose for very brief periods in the evening to pad about the empty house in his felt slippers or to interview the slavey in the kitchen on the subject of his food or bedclothes. He had lost all physical reaction to bad or good weather and was accustomed to trace the seasonal changes of the years by inactivity or virulence of his pimples. His legs were puffed and affected with a prickly heat, a result of wearing his woolen undertrunks in bed. He never went out and rarely approached the windows.”

Or I could face the consequences of what the creator of Trellis, the unnamed narrator of At Swim-Two-Birds, had heard happens to those who indulge too freely in alcoholic beverages: “unhappy throughout their lives and met with death at the end by a drunkard’s fall, expiring ingloriously at the stair-bottom in a welter of blood and puke,” which is how O’Brien, the creator of both the unnamed narrator and Trellis, ended up.  And I don’t want that.

I don’t want that because I don’t want the good people at PANK to worry about keeping me away from the drink when interviewing me at the end of my glorious writing career just before I expire at a stair-bottom, which was the main worry of the interviewers of O’Brien in 1964.  They had to interview him at eight in the morning so he could return home before the pubs opened and so he couldn’t start drinking before the interview.  All went as planned until O’Brien went to the bathroom where he remained until the interviewers dragged him out twenty-five minuets later, drunker than W.C. Fields ever got, and holding an empty whiskey bottle that he had hid in the toilet.  According to legend, the questions went on – O’Brien demanding more booze between them – and now the only interview in existence of the writer responsible for At Swim-Two-Birds is unfit for publication.

I don’t want the interviewers from PANK wasting their time like that, but I fear that I read At Swim-Two-Birds too early in my writing career.  Maybe, if I remove it from my nightstand and drop it in the “free” box in front of Dog Eared Books for some other poor bastard to get influence by, I’ll be fine.  I’ll put the newest bestseller on my nightstand in its place and read it over and over until its perfectly arched plot, its realistic characters, its flawless grammar, and its single opening and ending reverse the brain damage that O’Brien’s novel caused me.   But that won’t happen.  I love At Swim-Two-Birds too damn much.

I love it so much that I revisit it every year – and certain passages every week.  It’s a burlesque slapstick of an orgy that satirizes contemporary Ireland, and all of the Western World for that matter, with a narrative structure and a style – a dozen styles actually – so flawless that the reader is forced through layer after layer of parody, allusion, and unrelenting satire. Some of it is outdated, and some of it is obscure.  A few readings are required to grasp it all, and even more to understand it all.  But one reading, with the help of a six-pack, is enough to enjoy the hilarity, wordplay, and craziness that O’Brien, through At Swim-Two-Birds, has blessed us with.  Yeah, it will cause you brain damage… but it’s brain damage of the best kind.

Christopher Forsley writes and lives in San Francisco. He contributes to 16th & Mission Comix and his book of satire, Bums of the Bay, was recently published by SEVEN7H TANGENT. His first graphic novel, A Joe Story, illustration by his brother, Cameron Forsley, is coming soon.

This Modern Writer: The Year I Lost Math by Art Edwards

At the end of my freshman first semester at Northern Illinois University, I was shocked to receive my first ever D on a report card.

I’d flirted with Ds a little during high school. There was the typing class in 10th grade where I never really learned to type with more than two fingers. There was the gym class in 11th that seemed to require a sadistic number of pull-ups. There was the physics class in 12th where our teacher decided on the last day to curve our grades, pushing my futile attempts at proving physical theories into the C category. I’d come to believe there was a force field between me and the 60-69th percentile. My sister didn’t get Ds, I didn’t get Ds. They didn’t run in our family.

The really odd thing about this D was that it was in Trigonometry. Before college, I was something of a math whiz. In grade school, I was the king of Around the World, a game that involved going head to head with other students and trying to be the first to get the answer to a multiplication problem. I glided easily from desk to desk, barking answers and leaving each classmate in a pique of frustration. In high school, I was in accelerated math, taking Algebra and Trig well before others and getting A’s along the way. I’d gotten into Trig in my first semester at N.I.U. because I’d pre-tested well. All the other freshman on my dorm floor were in a catch-all class called finite mathematics.

I’d spent that semester at N.I.U. either ignoring or taking haphazard stabs at my Trig assignments. Despite having aced the subject in high school, I wasn’t getting some of the basics, and I didn’t know how to ask for help. The class was early in the morning, three days a week, in an auditorium-like room with 100 other students. I wasn’t great about making it to every session.

Annoyingly, everyone on my dorm floor couldn’t stop talking about how easy finite math was. “We barely have to study,” my roommate Felix said, giving me this incredulous look that made me want to punch him.

The D knocked my whole intellectual self-image askew. I’d always relied on my math skills for a certain amount of my identity. I’d given up sports in junior high when it was clear I’d never excel at any of them. I was a musician but, to that point, undistinguished. There were plenty of people smarter and stronger and more talented than me at my high school. Math was my way of maintaining dignity in a world that seemed to value little else of me. It didn’t matter that my GPA for my freshman semester at N.I.U. was a stomachable 2.4. Math was my lowest grade. Something was wrong.

This poor showing, combined with flubbing my financial aid for my entire freshman year, combined with wanting to punch my roommate, led me back with my tail between my legs to my hometown of Moline, Illinois. I would attend Black Hawk Junior College, where I would have to finish my two-year degree before venturing out into the real college world again. This was a blow for me, not so much because I had to go to junior college–which actually suited me better at the time–but because I had to go back to my hometown, which was a fate worse than death.

Ever since Laverne and Shirley had moved from the cold Midwestern climes of Milwaukee to Los Angeles, I knew I would someday follow a similar path out of Moline. I’d disliked my hometown since I was five. All of the Moline adults worked at places like John Deere and International Harvester, and they complained non-stop about their jobs and their lives. I always wanted to ask them, “Why don’t you move? Haven’t you seen Laverne & Shirley?” But I never did. I just knew I would move, and as soon as possible.

So after finally making it a pitiful two hours outside of Moline to Dekalb and N.I.U., I was forced back home, and with a D no less, fumbling through Black Hawk’s schedule for the winter of 1988, trying to figure out what classes to take.

I couldn’t believe it when I came across finite mathematics in the catalog. If I’d had finite math my first semester, I might have managed to stay out of Moline, maybe becoming just another N.I.U. student on my way to a cushy computer science degree, which I could’ve taken to Silicon Valley and made millions. I signed up for finite math at Black Hawk because I wanted somehow to right this wrong, and I wanted the easy A.

I also came upon an English course called “Introduction to Mode.” The title meant nothing to me, but the class required the reading of eight novels. To that point in my life, I wasn’t much of a reader. Sure, I read school assignments, and I faked my way through Huckleberry Finn and A Tale of Two Cities in high school, but no one ever mistook me for bookish. I read a little for recreation, mostly music magazines and a few rock bios like Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga; No one here gets out Alive: The Biography of Jim Morrison; and ‘Scuse me While I kiss the Sky. As a kid, when Sunday NFL wasn’t enough for me to get my Walter Payton fix, I went to my grade school library and found a couple of books on him. I also, for reasons I can’t explain now, read the entire Beverly Cleary oeuvre, sitting in the library and flipping through the pages during what must’ve been rainy recesses. I’ll never forget, in The Mouse and the Motorcycle, that half ping-pong ball used for the mouse’s crash helmet.

But now I was in college, and I realized that, if I were going to finish a degree, I was going to have to learn to read books, whole books, important books, and relatively quickly.

Also pushing me toward reading was a recently adopted love of the rock band REM, whom I’d discovered at N.I.U. I couldn’t get this Rolling Stone article out of my head that said, while photographers changed film during a photo shoot, Peter Buck took a paperback novel from his pocket and read until it was time to pose again. Something about this image stuck with me, and made it necessary that I try novels too.

So I signed up for “Introduction to Mode.” I wanted to be smart and cool, and the class would count as one of my general requirements.

My finite math class met twice a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, at a reasonable hour in the early afternoon. It was taught by tall, helpful Mr. Tompkins, who diligently worked with students until they got it, one-on-one after class if necessary. The material was “easy,” the class small. I should’ve had no complaints.

But as I started the first few weeks of the course, I was as befuddled by finite math as I’d been in Trig the semester before. I couldn’t follow the formulas as they were presented, and I couldn’t make myself focus on what the teacher was saying. I was confused when I did the homework, and completely lost when I took the tests. All of this led me to start skipping classes. It was college Trig all over again. Toward the end of the semester, right before the final, I learned that if I passed the final I would pass the class (another D), and if I failed the final I would fail the class. I asked Mr. Tompkins if he’d drop me from the course should I fail the final, to keep the F off my record. He agreed, and good thing, because I failed the final.

So in my first year of college math, I’d gotten a D and what was basically an F. Math as my best subject, and now, suddenly, my worst. What happened?

I can’t talk about any change in myself as an eighteen year old without talking about my relationship to rock music at the time. Rock had been at the center of my life since the summer of my fourteenth year, when I discovered Van Halen and bought a bass guitar from a friend’s older brother. The next five years took me on an ascending journey through glam metal bands like Def Leppard and Night Ranger, through more accomplished acts like Rush and Led Zeppelin, then through a brief flirtation with U2 and jazz fusion, and finally to REM.

This last shift was the most significant. All of the previous acts were filled with larger-than-life characters. Eddie Van Halen, who played ridiculously complicated riffs while doing scissor kicks; Geddy Lee, who casually strolled around the stage while playing impossible-to-replicate bass lines; Jaco Pastorius, the self-proclaimed “Jimi Hendrix of the bass”; even Bono, who seemed preternaturally inclined toward being a front man and entertainer. These people were “stars,” ten-feet-tall, otherworldly creatures. I liked them, was entertained by them, even mimicked them when I could, but it never crossed my mind I could be them.

Contrast this rock type with Michael Stipe. The first REM song I ever heard was “Gardening at Night,” the single from their first EP Chronic Town. On it, Stipe’s voice sounds small, childish, insecure, but somehow determined to do this, to sing with this band, to get his words out. With Stipe, singing and performing always seemed a way of willing himself out of his own doubts about his talent and worth. The desire to pull himself up through singing was his talent and worth. Starting with REM, rock people came down from mighty Olympus and shook hands with me, sheepishly asking me along on their journeys.

I was prepped by Michael Stipe–and the river of punk and post punk that led out from REM to acts like Hüsker Dü and the Sex Pistols–not to respect the absolutes of bands like Rush, Van Halen and U2. Those more mainstream bands were still pretty amazing, but somehow less real than before. Stars were fine to gaze upon at night, but on what planet did I live? And what did I want to do here besides stargaze?

I can’t help but see an analogous relationship between the progressive rock of my high school years and the math that came so naturally for me at the time. Math was also this untouchable absolute: numbers with perfect relationships; formulas that led to right answers; equations, when performed correctly, always making sense in the end. Listening to REM and other such bands didn’t answer questions, it asked questions, provocative ones. How much bigger is the range of expression than you ever knew? What does that mean to you as a musician? As a person?

The instructor of “Introduction to Mode” was Erskine Carter. Erskine was a big guy, and smart, and a little intimidating for a non-reader like me, and he had an unsettling way of sitting on top of the his desk when he addressed the class. Still, he was very forgiving of people who didn’t know the first thing about fiction, and he loved rock music, which from my perspective didn’t hurt.

Forgiving? Yes. Easy? No. We were assigned eight novels to read over the sixteen-week semester, one every two weeks, and the longest, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, was first. I had to read fifty pages of it before our next meeting.

I picked up Tess during every spare moment of those two days, trying to get the fifty pages read in time. My mom almost lapsed into cardiac arrest when she saw me on the living room couch, television off, reading a book. I managed to get the assignment read for our next class, but more than that, I actually liked reading it. I was attracted to what I would later learn was the naturalism of the book, the idea that Tess was doomed from the beginning to her tragic fate, that no amount of effort on her part could have changed much of anything for her. This message ran so contrary to everything I’d learned to that point. You can be anything you want to be was the mantra of just about every cultural institution I’d been involved with, and here was a book saying the opposite: You’re going to be what the fates allow you to be. It struck me as shocking, revolutionary.

And I related–from my relatively safe working class/junior college vantage point–to the character of Tess. In retrospect, I also felt doomed to return to Moline after my first semester at N.I.U. I’d made a poor choice for a roommate. I’d spent too much time focused on things besides schoolwork, and I had no one around to snap me out of it. I can remember walking home drunk from a bar one night and thinking, “I can’t believe it’s no one’s job to keep tabs on me.” I was just floating along, enjoying college freshman life, relying on whatever brains and natural instincts had gotten me to that point. But the stakes were higher than I thought. My future was being mapped out for me by my college performance. In hindsight, it didn’t seem like I had much of a chance. No doubt Tess felt the same way on her Stonehenge altar, waiting for the mob to take her.

After reading those fifty pages, we were to come to class prepared to talk about theme. Erskine asked us, swinging his legs as he sat on top of his desk, “What do you think is the theme of the book?”

Someone raised their hand. “There’s a theme of love that runs–”

Erskine stopped her. “That’s not how we talk about theme in this class. In here, themes are complete thoughts. Try it again, and this time put it in the form of a sentence.”

After a few go-rounds with other students, I eventually said, “Love, while never feeling false, can lead to false hope.” This wasn’t brilliant, but I liked the way it felt trying to formulate it. It was like exercising a muscle I didn’t know I had. I thought, This is how smart people think.

Erskine also insisted that people not just say how they felt about elements of the books, but cite passages within them. Some classmate would start talking about a character in a conversational way–“I don’t like the way Tess is always complaining about how bad she has it”–and Erskine would stop him with a raise of his eyebrows, then motion to the copy of the book in his hand. This instructed the student to cite a passage that illuminated his thought. With such guidance, Erskine was teaching us to have an intelligent conversation about literature. Don’t regurgitate ideas like you would about some movie you’ve just seen; stay grounded in the text, and form your feelings into communicable thoughts.

After Tess we read 1984, with its scorchingly accurate portrait of the future; then Lord of the Flies, with its poignant dystopian worldview; then A Clockwork Orange, a book that had to invent an entire slang language to tell its story. Each book struck me as the endgame of one writer’s distinct experiential path, a train of thought followed as far as it could go and then communicated back to us through the pages. These books were rare, valuable. I felt lucky to get to read them. And that glossary at the back of A Clockwork Orange was more rock than any rock I’d heard in a long time.

I read every word of every one of those eight novels, and I tried to formulate sentences for the feelings they conjured in me. I wasn’t good at it, but being good at it wasn’t the point. Working at it was. What I’d learn wouldn’t be some trick I’d picked up somewhere and could take for granted. That semester, books became the new center of my intellectual and aesthetic life, filling the space left by the abandonment of math. I’ve been reading a book ever since.

So, where did my math go? Did it leave me forever? No, I still have it. I can still formulate answers in my head to mathematical questions others would need a pad and paper to do, but by the time I was in college I was ready for something else, something that didn’t purport to have all the answers, something more like life. In that sense, math was the easy stuff.

ART EDWARDS’s third novel, Badge (unpublished), was named a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s Literary Contest for 2011 in the Mainstream category. His second novel, Ghost Notes, released on his own imprint Defunct Press in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. His first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, is being made into a feature film, which is scheduled for release in 2012. His writing has or will appear in The Writer and Writers’ Journal, and online at The Collagist, elimae, JMWW, The Rumpus, Girls with Insurance and

This Modern Writer: How to Cross the Street in Saigon by Erik Wennermark

(Not to be attempted after dark.)

1. Don’t look both ways. Don’t look at all. Close your eyes and imagine ponies. Deer, crabs, clouds, a rainbow. Things that scuttle or trot, loom; appear across the sky, on both sides at once. Embrace this vision of evanescence and apparition. Hold it for a fragment of a moment. Let it go. Remember: there is always another street to cross. Another bridge yet to pull from the mucked sediment of the churning river.

2. Keep you eyes closed. Step forward. Step again. Imagine you are backing away from a ferocious grizzly stalking you upon the Alaskan tundra. Like that except don’t move backwards. Like that except don’t wave you arms. (Your personal space has shrunk to within an inch of your skin.) Don’t shout or curse. Feel the wind on your arm, your cheek, your lips. Taste the heaving smack of a passing rearview. Now is the time to scream.

3. A small child held in her mother’s arms is laughing at you. “Phucking tourist,” she says and spits a mass of phlegm to the thirsty ground. Her mother grins sheepishly.  You say, thank you. You are glad of your place upon the earth. You are a student, grateful and obedient. Kiss the child’s brow. Kiss the mother’s palm, her wrist. Kiss the ground; bring the dirt upon your tongue. Take the woman’s calloused feet into your soft hands. Bathe and perfume her feet. Life is a blessed event.

4. Try looking left. The sight of 10,000 rushing motos may alarm you. Do not let it. They will be gone soon, only to be replaced by 10,000 more, and more again. Learn to trust. Close your eyes. Step. Turn your head and look. Watch the machines’ rapid departure; hear the diminishing putts of 100cc motors; see the men astride pass a cigarette back and forth. Like them, know your ease, yet exist within yourself. Disregard the delivery truck that has veered into the oncoming lane. It is a figment. This is your time. Step again.

5. When you were a child, your mother would hold your hand as you walked to school, the crunching snow underfoot echoing in the preternatural quiet of the winter morning. She would remove her glove and you your mitten. Your yearning was mad and unknown for the feel of skin, the warmth of blood. You suspected the truth. Your body, your face cold, scarf wrapped tight around your mouth, it caught the condensation of your breath, the dribble of snot from your nose; lips, tongue and teeth caressing the stiffened undulations of frozen cloth. Your fingers grew together, your thumbs sunken. Your hand aches now, searching for her absent touch.

6. You have lost a flip-flop to the melee. Disregard. There are replacements available on every corner, cheaper and hardier than your own. You’ve had your shots. You are in no immediate danger and have taken out a traveller’s insurance policy as a suitable precaution to the unbidden acquisition of tetanus, dengue, and the like. (Any claim you make will be used in a high-stakes grudge match of trashcan basketball; know that your trans-continental whine became a fine shot taken from well beyond the copier. Hear the whoops of celebration.) Take measured even steps to the midpoint of the street with appropriate knowledge that this space too is a construct. Divisor a tool meant for angels and their braying kin. Show no fear. (Do you remember the bear? The tundra?)

7. If you are clipped, pay no heed; cherish your bruise as a mark of life’s bounty. You are foolish to complain anyhow: she was a small girl, not going so fast, dark almond eyes flashing a lurid welcome above her Hello Kitty pollution mask.

8. If you have not yet arrived to the other side of the street, return to Step 4 substituting “right”for “left” and vice-versa. If safely across the street, move on to Step 9. If your wounds are more grievous than originally suspected seek medical attention. A passing moto driver will be happy to give you a lift (for a small fee).

9. There are moments in life when everything crystallizes. Everything seems to make sense again. This, perhaps, is one of those moments. Accept it as you do all things. Individually and with discretion. It too will pass. Like the rushing motos and your most tenderly held dreams, only a hollowed keening will remain. There is no 4A.M. without regret, only ever less adhesive plasters of denial and repetition. There is only this, until the next: when the next intersection calls and you’ve walked up and down the block 3 times and still found nowhere to cross. So marooned you stand, hands in pockets, thumbs resting on the paunch of your money belt, staring meekly at your freshly polished shoes.

Erik Wennermark recently relocated to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where along with struggling to cross the street, he’s grappling with his chopstick and language skills. He is confident however that he will dissolve to the requisite fluidity of all tasks, and move past solely fish-out-of-water prose. Exciting projects on the horizon include documenting the filming of a low-budget action movie in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Past works include fiction in PANK #3. Check out for updates and more.

This Modern Writer: Of Yeats, Ireland, Maud, and Myself by Michael Derby

William Butler Yeats is my Ireland. He is the rocky shores whose froth has yet to kiss my feet. He is the booming Gaelic voice with pint raised high, a hard cheers and the hopps baptizing me in Dionysus’s church. He is the fawn in the dense forests of Irish lore and mysticism. He is Ireland’s lost youth and her strife-battered senses. He is the purest incarnation of all I’ve fucking got — films and fictions, whiskey and dirty limericks, and National Geographic photos of the passion and the wisdom that floats, ethereal, between the blades of grass.

I’ve come upon him later in life than I’d’ve hoped, his poetry giving me histories and prophecies and explaining questions I hadn’t thought to ask. And there are many questions unasked when the best of the last four and a half years can be set to the unspecified tune of “A Drinking Song” — and though I understand the syllabic necessity for using “wine” in the first line, it would have made my memories seem more like poetry had he wrote “whiskey.” Still, only most of half a decade can be spent with drinking. Before and after and during and in the microseconds between, there is the only other thing “we shall know for truth.”

Yeats doesn’t speak to me of Ireland and bold young men and starched old men and art and pain and war. He speaks to me of love and not so that I may see his, but my own. There is a love and a lust in me for all manners of the brave and the noble but Plato can have his Truth in these matters. My truth, the truth of everything I know horrible and beautiful “comes in at the eye,” and the art is not by man’s hand or man’s tongue but by man’s rib and God’s breath.

Yeats poetry creates a multiplicity of Maud Gonne as she becomes not just herself, but Helen of Troy, the Ledean body, and other symbols of femininity and beauty.  The many beauties of Yeats poetry can be condensed to a singular muse but they resonate in me with memories of several Mauds past and dreams of Mauds future. The “truth” has come to me in fractions and has left me for another man or another woman or God or the lack of grandeur in my still budding soul, but most often for the indifference in me which follows the attainment of truth — an indifference with many fathers but none greater than fear. A fear embodied in the closing lines of “Words”: “I might have thrown poor words away/ And been content to live.” It’s contentedness that would’ve killed his verses, that would make subjects of the Irish, and make mediocrity of myself. So perhaps I choose my Mauds for their inaccessibility and curse them when they falter. And perhaps I fear Ireland, whom I call Maud as well, for the grandeur reality could steal from her.

Grandeur grandeur grandeur. It runs along the shore with a t-framed kite, grows watching its father wipe his brow in the field, then wipes its own beside him. It laughs loudly, voice lost in the crowd at the pub. It learns the rifle when the British assault its brother and kisses a fair lass for the first time before saying goodbye. It survives the war to fight another and writes a verse and keeps the parchment in its breast pocket. It dreams at night of a thick, red steak and a potato split open with butter melting atop. It dies one day of being shot in the lung. It dies another day of old age with the fire from the hearth keeping dead toes warm. And with time it is the barley, shaking in the wind.

And every Irish woman is Maud Gonne, with cheeks a rose and heart a lion. And no Irish woman can be. And every Irish man is Major Robert Gregory, “soldier, scholar, horseman, he,” who cannot be a mortal man even with his mortality proven.

All this is Yeats’s fault, resizing Ireland so it will fit in my pocket, redefining a sex so that “she” means only “Maud.” He imbues himself with the authority to put Ireland at the tips of my fingers and has the audacity to use that power. And where am I to leave my prints when fearing the smudges that could be left behind — a notebook filled with thick letters of dark pencil, and as the pages are read and pondered and turned over again the letters rub into each other, out of themselves…. There is ink in Ireland.  In the second drawer on the left side of Maud’s desk, there is ink. In spite of the turmoil and turbulence, the ever-changing political face and political climate, there is a permanence to Ireland and her children that transcends it all — there’s something born into every baby and every blade of grass which goes beyond the pettiness of wars and governments yet still shows glints of itself in the seemingly prosaic. And with a keen eye for minor refractions, Yeats recorded the grandeur grandeur grandeur.

Michael Derby is currently a graduate assistant teaching composition at Southeast Missouri State University. He is formerly the prose editor of Windfall literary magazine out of Truman State University. He also makes damn good curry chicken.

This Modern Writer: Alone in the Dark by Ashley Farmer

I’m no athlete.  My days are spent in front of a classroom or on a laptop: little heavy lifting involved.  But at nine each night I knot my laces, close the building’s iron gate behind me, and hit the street slow.  I’m a reluctant starter, gaining momentum at the corner of Ocean and Orange as I play pop songs on repeat (three, four times each), drumming sometimes, often singing.  I breathe two split-breaths out, two split-breaths in.  I follow the same path (beneath the stars, if we had them): to the edge of the next beach town and back again.

I know intimately the sidewalk cracks, which yards get colder at dark and which walkways warm up, who dines late, who smokes what.  I observe television flickers against apartment walls and police interrupting domestic disturbances.  I’ve cultivated loves: for the man around the corner, a careful attendant to baby marigolds placed with mathematical precision and his mini-pond, enthusiastic blue lights and plastic lily pads bobbing; for the woman who receives with regularity elaborate bouquets—not the kind you buy yourself but full-fledged special occasion arrangements.  Then there are deeper affections: curve of beach shaped like a pale animal, the people praying to a statue in the park above.

When I run, I write, or work towards it.  I collect as best I can what I see. I steal the mansion’s red walls and white baby grand and conjure myself at the bench playing Bach.  I create the missing family for the glass cube construct with zero landscaping and the single barstool against the kitchen wall.  Prose makes space for young boys leaning fixed gears against the liquor store.  The slap-slaps of palm fronds insert themselves.  And so a run is also a kind of cataloging, a taking in of this newish city that used to feel strange and strangerly and sometimes dangerous.  By moving outside, I’ve made myself at home and claimed my place here.  I’ve embraced this as my territory both literal and creative.

But the connection between running and writing extends beyond appreciation of space.  For me, the desire to run and write—the weird, wired need for the body to go and do it  (and even more so, the euphoria of having done it, finally, finished)—are likely rooted in the same human heart spot.  It’s inexplicable, and split apart from the rational and real-world, a hunger disconnected from anything I could defend.

For this reason, running tethers me to the writing process and vice versa—when there are plenty of reasons not to do either.  Yoga would be kinder to the knees, my hours could be better spent on XYZ.  And the ghost questions arise from who-knows-where, tangling me, causing me to trip if I’m not careful: If you’re not gonna get sponsored by Power Bar or sign some three-book deal, what are you even doing this for?  Are you serious in your devotion?  Shouldn’t you already be better at this?  But as I press myself toward longer strides, tamp down the brain’s blaring of “tired, quit”, and develop discipline both against and for myself, I consider the page differently.

As writers we endure rejection (no news to anyone who writes or even anyone who doesn’t).  It’s necessary, a part of our existence, and some of the messages are more painful to receive than others depending on the hopes or hours we’ve pinned to a project.   While we’re connected in this same shitty experience of anti-success, the pummeling is often private.   That doesn’t mean we don’t share our failures with one another, but the second in which one absorbs it—or gets stung by an attendant fear that races up alongside it—is often felt in the body when one is alone.   It was when I started really questioning the value of this enterprise—revising manuscripts, sending work out, staying up too late to keep touching all of it—that I began my first plodding jog around the park.   I was slow and didn’t last very long and I was alone in the pain of it.  I made fists and pushed off the balls of my throbbing feet and thought I’m done with this.  But I was surprised when I became fortified by a kind of physical defiance.  A toughening up.  And so maybe I run and write for the same reason: because sometimes I believe that I can’t.

When I realized that this was part of my motivation, the gratification in words and miles was almost immediate. So was the realization that there’s no failing at something “senseless”, something you do out of devotion, not reason.  I’m not sure what it would mean to “go pro” at writing, and with running, whatever that might mean is out of the question.  And if our injuries, those mild or harsh bursts of pain, occur in private, so do the victories.  There’s likely no one awaiting us at the end of a run with champagne and pink carnations like a finish line (since I haven’t raced yet, it’s what I choose to imagine).  And when we write, our best lines—in the moment we feel them created from either muscle or magic—aren’t celebrated by even those who love us most.  At best we can hope to have a friend or lover or sister who wants to see us do our best, who understands what we’re aiming toward, and who’s waiting for us to finish up in time for a too-late dinner.

Bad metaphors are sometimes true metaphors: writing isn’t a race but a process.  It’s not about competition with anyone else, just one’s self.   This work is about discipline and personal best. Etcetera. I’m certain parallels can be made between almost any other physical endeavor and this pen/page business. But even as I type this—for no good reason at all, for no one but myself—I feel my heart pump beneath my shirt, my fingers tingle, my breath speed up.   I’m no athlete and maybe not even a writer.  But tonight I’ll pound hard along the water and feel myself moving alongside my invisible, far-flung brethren, this pack of us optimistic and willful.  Each of us traveling alone through dark.

Ashley Farmer lives in Long Beach, CA with the writer Ryan Ridge. Recent work can be found in The Collagist, >kill author, Mud Luscious, Stoked, and elsewhere.

This Modern Writer: Closing Thoughts by Carmela Starace

Although I have deeply enjoyed my time in an MFA program, as I prepare to leave it I have to wonder, what the hell was I doing in an MFA program in the first place?  Obviously, I like to write.  But my tastes are way too parochial for a graduate program in writing literary fiction.  In fact, just my use of the word parochial makes me think that the MFA program has actually ruined me.  Parochial?  Who do I think I’m kidding?  I’m the fifth child of first generation Italians and the only person in my family to go to college.  I don’t have a literary bone in my body.  Or if I do, it is a small unimportant bone – a single phalanx perhaps, as opposed to a femur or a fibula.

I’ve never been a member of the intelligentsia.  I’m from Long Island for God’s sake.  Not the fancy Fitzgerald East Egg Long Island either.  No way.  I was raised in a town filled with tract houses built in the seventies on top of what used to be potato farms.[1] When I was growing up, Western Long Island was like the Sodom and Gomorrah of the suburbs.  Amy Fisher, the seventeen-year-old Long Island Lolita, shot the wife of her forty-year-old lover.  She was a year behind me in school.  Hitler’s nephew (literally – his nephew) lived on the south shore and died the year I was in the eighth grade.  Also that year, high school junior Sean Pica murdered his girlfriend’s father.  Sean went to a rival school a few miles down the Long Island Expressway and my older brother used to play against him.  The actual Amityville Horror house, where Ron Defao shot and killed his parents and four siblings the year I was born, was on the bus route when I took the Number 9 to the Roosevelt Field Mall.  Remember that Sesame Street song from when you were a kid “Who are the people in your neighborhood?”  Well, these were the people in mine.

Meanwhile, I was reading every trashy piece of crap I could smuggle out of the library.  Even back then, the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn could not begin to compete with incestuous gothic horror of V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic.  Pretty much anything trashy by V.C. Andrews or S.E. Hinton was in my hand from grades six through eight.  I still have the original copy of The Outsiders I got in the seventh grade.[2] “Stay gold” and “Do it for Johnny” are still part of my vernacular.

What I’m trying to say is that while I was never all that into school as a kid, I was raised on high drama.  I know characters.  I know plot.  I know dialect.  Shit happened on Long Island and I had a front row seat.  Perhaps this is why spent so many days in these past three years thinking please, spare me your quiet literary fiction, MFA instructors.  I haven’t got time for the pain.

**         **

In my lat twenties, just before I joined the MFA program, I had my feet deeply entrenched in the “genre” of chick lit.  From Bridget Jones to Girls’ Poker Night, my bookshelves were an embarrassment of riches.  I read for pleasure for long stretches on the weekends.  I read while I ate breakfast.  I read while waiting in line at the bank drive through and at red lights.  I read in the bathroom.  Those were good times.  The reading was easy.  I was transported.

Then I got into an MFA program.[3] And long story short, it ruined me.  I’ve outgrown all my guilty pleasures.  Now when I read the old books I used to love I think things like – what’s the temporal distance?  Why is this first person, present tense?  How can I know what Jenny is thinking when the story is from Jack’s third person limited point of view?

And then I look up and wonder – what the hell happened to me?  Where’s the girl who read mass-market fiction as if her life depended on it?  Where did she go?

Maybe it’s a fair trade.  These last three years, while it’s true I’ve lost my appetite for reading, I’ve become a fanatical writer.  I’ll leave UNM this semester with over a thousand pages of writing[4] that I’m not embarrassed by (and another two thousand pages that I will never show anyone).  That’s about one good page for everyday I was an MFA student.  I’m grateful for that.  I wouldn’t have written those pages otherwise.

What I won’t be leaving with, however, is an MFA degree.  That’s right.  After all that, I’m not even going to graduate.  And you know why?  Because I’m stubborn.  Because I can’t manage to take the three literature classes the curriculum requires.  I won’t take them on principle.  First, the program ruined my lifelong love of reading and then the program required me to take three literature classes?  That is some twisted shit.  And true to my Long Island upbringing, I’m cutting off my nose to spite my face and leaving without the degree.

I don’t mean to whine about or disparage my MFA program.  A lot of good things happened while I was an MFA student.  For one thing, I’m a better writer now then I was when I got there.  And probably just as important, I’ve found lifelong friends in my fellow grad students and professors.  During the last three years, I’ve had great experiences.  I had margaritas with Dorothy Allison one night in a cowboy bar in Taos.  I had dinner with Margaret Atwood twice.[5] Junot Diaz hit on me at a party.  Later that same summer, I went to Breadloaf and had the full Breadloaf experience.[6] The following year, I transferred to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for a semester and then decided no school ranking was worth that kind of weather and promptly returned to UNM, where the classes were just as good and the grad students were a lot more fun.  The more I look back, the more I have to admit, I don’t begrudge a single day of the three years I spent not getting my MFA degree.  I’d even go so far as to say being in the program might have saved my life.

**         **

When I was about midway through my time in the MFA program, I was diagnosed with brain cancer.[7] I found out in April and spent the cruel month in bed with the sliding glass door open so I could smell the lilac bush that bloomed and died so quickly every Spring.  This was the beginning of a dark season of surgeries and treatments.  There was one particular week that I was so physically and mentally ill from the radiation to my frontal lobe that I started to believe it would be easier to be dead then to be alive.  But by some miracle, I managed to get out of bed one afternoon, stumble to campus and catch Louise Glick, who was reading a survey of poems from her long career.  She was so much smaller than I had expected, maybe ninety pounds soaking wet, yet her voice sounded like Maine in the winter – fierce, unconquerable, seductive.  She lulled me into a state of grace.  I think hearing her that day may have saved my life.  That may be my best MFA moment.

Now, a year and a half later and fully recovered, I’ve come to the end of my time in graduate school.  I didn’t make the finish line, but I have no regrets.  I’d go back and do it all again.  But sometimes, even when an experience is a good one, you just know when it is time to say good-bye.

And although I won’t leave with a piece of paper that will allow me to put the initials M.F.A. after my name, it’s okay.  A voice inside me has spoken up and said, “It’s time to move on.”  Even though nothing is wrong, even though I’ve enjoyed my time in grad school, even though I’ve got my health back and I know I’m probably not going to die from cancer, time is still passing.  Long ago, I thought I needed some kind of validation, something I could point to that would prove I was a writer.  I thought I couldn’t call myself a writer until I was published.  Then I was published and I decided I couldn’t call myself a writer until I had an MFA.  But in working towards that MFA what I’ve learned is the only thing I need to do to call myself a writer is write.  Maybe some day someone will buy one of my novels or screenplays.  It’s an exciting fantasy that I keep alive.  I’m not giving up.  I’m not quitting.  I’m just standing up and walking on to the next thing.  I’m just letting the seasons change.

[1] Maybe it was the leftover pesticides from those farms that drove people to do so many crazy things.  Like a cancer cell – only instead on Long Island it was an insanity cell.

[2] Later, when I was a junior high teacher, I read the entire book out loud to my Language Arts class.  I still get facebook postings from them ten years later every time Rob Lowe is on the cover of a magazine.

[3] Getting into an MFA program was an accident.  I just happened to be on campus at the University of New Mexico where I had gotten my law degree when I ran into the director of the MFA program.  I’d taken a writing class with him years before.  I told him I hated my job. You should apply to the MFA program, he said adding that that Friday was the deadline.  So I applied.  And then I was accepted.  And then it just seemed like bad manners to not go.  So I went.

[4] The thousand pages includes: the complete third draft of my first novel, the first 180 pages of my second novel, the first fifty pages of my third novel, three decent short stories, one dramatic screenplay, one horror screenplay and the first thirty pages of a romantic comedy screenplay.

[5] She’s a vegetarian.

[6] Not with Junot Diaz.

[7] If you have to get cancer, get it while you’re an MFA graduate student.  It gives you plenty to write about and all of your friends are usually free during the day.

Carmela Starace is a storyteller. You can find some of her writing online. She has a Twitter account but she has never tweeted. Follow her at carmelastarace.

This Modern Writer: On Beds by Jessica Machado

In my twenties, a bed was not a place of comfort. Nor was it sexy or alluring. While others my age were finding forgotten pairs of underwear in the tangle of their bedsheets, or snuggling up to Prince Charming Enough, I was lying next to my mother, who had fallen under an avalanche of diseases and broken bones. Beneath the cancer, lupus, vertigo, fibromyalgia, fractured foot and several dislocated vertebrae was the woman who once spoon-fed me baby mush and let me cry in her lap when Angela Peacock wouldn’t be my third-grade penpal. Now this woman was inches away from me, clearly dying, and the last thing I felt between us was intimacy.

I usually showed up to my mother’s house, ninety miles away from my shifty Hollywood apartment, hungover. In my mother’s room, the air conditioner was set to a moderate freeze, with only a crack between the drapes revealing the relentless bright of the Southern California that was going on without us. The television was turned to some sitcom that rattled the walls with recorded laughter, and awaiting me on my vacant side of the mattress was the bounty of her catalogue and magazine subscriptions—People, US Weekly, TV Guide, Land’s End. On the other side was where she laid, flat on her back, a styrofoam pad cradling her spine, her bed made under her. Even though she spent nearly every hour of every day in that bed, never did she ever get under the covers. Instead, casually strewn across her legs was a throw blanket, as if she could fling it off, leave at any time, and no one would suspect that an invalid had ever been there.

“Is that you,” she cried out from her room, at the opening of the front door. “Of course it’s me,” I said. “What are you doing?” she called out. “Nothing,” I yelled back, putzing around the kitchen. A few minutes later, I was in her bedroom doorway with a snack in my hand. “That looks good,” she commented, the plate hovering above her eye level. “It’s just toast, Mom,” I said. She stretched out her arm and patted the emptiness next to her. I exhaled and propped myself up against the headboard, tearing off pieces of bread, one at a time. I knew once the last bite was eaten, I had to settle into my regular position—back flat, head propped up by a single pillow, eyes on the screen in front of me—not in, but on her bed.

My hangover usually started to recede a few hours into our Friends-Seinfeld-General Hospital marathon. That’s when remorse started to brew—the cloud of numbness colliding with the last traces of boozy depressants and the reemergence of my hyper-analytical self. Most times I could override this agitation with other things to worry about—what bar I was going to meet my friends at later, when I’d make time to do my laundry. Other times I could not.

I looked over at my mother on this particular afternoon and noticed the curls falling around her porcelain face, spilling onto her pillow. Her eyes, an already diluted green in color, were watery and glassy, somewhere between the verge of tears and a Zen-like plateau staring through the television screen. I turned on my side and scooted closer. “Tickle my arm,” she asked, feeling me nestle in. She maintained her focus on Joey, Chandler and Monica, as I ran my fingers up and down the loose skin of her arm, my body continuing to inch my way toward her pillow. Her curls felt soft and springy against my nose. My mother, though 50 pounds heavier than the one from my childhood, still made sure to look her best, or as best she could. Her mascara was clumpy and her bangs were curled under, tasks done by lifting her head for a few painful seconds at a time to look into a folding mirror placed on her lap. Near the back, however, I could I could see a few wispy hairs, flattened and tangled, popping up behind her nape.

I moved into her neck. A whiff of night cream, stale hairspray and the Oscar de la Renta I used to spray on my teenage wrists smelled so warm, so permanent. I inhaled. I inhaled again. I nuzzled into her shoulder, then pulled away. I wanted to breathe in that smell forever, yet it only reminded me that there’d come a time, most likely very soon, when I wouldn’t be able to recreate that chemistry from memory alone.

I flipped over and gave her my back. She could see my body, know I was there. I’d stick around, but giving her my shell was all I was capable of.

This scenario was much different than how my mother and I spent summer afternoons as a child—she and I sprawled out on her mattress, where posts jutted out from the corners, connecting in branch-like patterns over our heads. We salted watermelon wedges and ate them from tin pans. Read Nancy Drew and The Sun Also Rises with our feet in the air. Shaded and traced pictures from coloring books in silence, sharing an occasional tidbit of gossip about a classmate or one of the other teachers in my mother’s English department. Back then, I felt like her confidant—privileged she brought me into her retreat and making me feel like her closest girlfriend.

Now any conversation we had between flipping through magazines and over commercial breaks was not only light, but also tedious. “Are you growing out your hair, Jessica?” “Did you see that dress that J-Lo wore to the Grammy’s?” Like a pubescent child, I gave her one-word answers—yeah, lame, whatever—and ignored the little ways she was reaching out, attempting to make our mother-daughter interactions neutral and everyday. The sicker she became, the more irritated I grew over what neither of us could say. It was easiest to sit in silence, frustrated, and let the laugh track wash over us.

I could tell by my mother’s little sporadic pouts that she was disappointed by my huffiness and disengagement, but most of the time, she hid any feelings she had through a haze of painkillers and antidepressants. Brands and dosages I never bothered to learn. One bottle I remember read Ativan, which I later learned is prescribed to schizophrenics. Otherwise, the doling out of her medications was part of my stepdad’s duties. He was the handler of illness logistics (taking her to doctors’ visits, picking up prescriptions) and could be found in his office, the second bedroom, if you needed him. My job was to just to lie there and keep her company, a position he’d relinquished, when he transitioned from lover to nurse, long ago.

My sedative of choice was a vodka haze. If I knew I had to go over to my mother’s the following day, I made sure to stay out way past midnight. As soon as I got off my waitressing shift, a job I fell into after college, I drove to the nearest bar with my coworkers. If I noticed my neighbors, the Stoners, still had their lights on when I got off the elevator to my apartment that night, I joined them for one last beer. Around 3 or 4 a.m., I stumbled into bed. Sometimes, all I managed to take off before passing out—face first onto my mattress—were my shoes.

Around ten most mornings, I started to squirm in my sheets and groan. My body was either too hot or too cold. My feet felt dirty. The smoke in my hair made me want to vomit. And I usually did. But as uncomfortable as I was in my own bed, it still took me a full twenty minutes to gather enough strength to fling off the covers and head to the bathroom. It took me another two hours to chew on some bread, shower and pour myself to the car for a two-hour drive to my mother’s.


In my own bed, I didn’t have much more to offer than a random moment of consciousness either. If I was in it, I was usually alone. During the last eighteen months of my mother’s life—the only time I’d been single since high school—I only slept with a handful of men and those men were usually as drunk as I was when we rolled around together for a sloppy seven minutes.

My most memorable one-night stand was with a Playgirl model. That night at the club, my drink finished, our conversation on pause, his stare saying “Now what?” I decided to invite him back to my place. It’d make a great story to tell my friends, I thought. “He was definitely qualified to be in Playgirl,” I bragged after our encounter. But looking back, I didn’t even care about the sex or his status. What mattered most to me was that I was the one he chose to have sex with that night. For a few seconds, I had his attention. And later that night in bed, when I shivered at the touch of his lips on my neck, his mouth lingered there longer, wanting to please me. A stranger was considering my desires at a time when I wasn’t even sure what my desires were. This is the detail that stands out to me now.

But like all of my one-night stands, once the sex was over, he left. Usually, I was glad to see them go. For whatever fleeting moment we had together, I got to physically feel something enter me, something connect my body to another human body. Then a release. I didn’t want ruin the release by waking up to some stranger’s feet brushing up against mine or having to feign sleep while I waited for him to leave quietly.

However, with Mr. Playgirl, I felt different. As he started to put his pants back on, I had an urge to pull him back into bed, to make me feel wanted and filled again. “Is it okay if I take off?” he asked in the dim of the streetlights coming through the window. I shrugged. He finished buttoning his fly. Fill me, FILL ME, my eyes prayed to the top of his still-perfectly gelled head. He swept his shirt from the floor and raised his hand in a goodbye. I turned away from the door, feeling the emptiness inside of me expand again, reminding me that our connection was immediate, singular, over.

On my mother’s bed, when that abyss in my stomach, that hollowness in my heart grew wider, I filled it with food. This was usually when the remorse kicked in. I too had put on 20 pounds in the last few years, and by 4 in the afternoon, I was either concocting some sort of low-carb weight-loss regiment or planning an escape to her gym’s treadmill. Or I was countering those attempts by subtracting the minutes until dinner. After dinner was over, the countdown to meeting a friend for a drink would begin. (If I leave here by 8, will I have enough time to meet my friends at the bar? Will they be done with work? Could I wait for them at work? Would that seem desperate?) The only way I could think to end the incessant plans and countdowns was to get out of bed, and the best excuse I had was to eat. “Mom, you want a Peppermint Patty?” I asked. Yes, she said. She always said yes.

Once the candy was eaten and the wrappers were between us, I felt guilty about my weight again. Every few breaths, I slyly tucked in my stomach and pinched my love handles. I planned for a stricter workout routine tomorrow. Then I looked at the clock again. 4:15. Two hours until I could grab dinner, I thought. Reward. Punishment. Repeat.

When I left my mother’s house every week, the last place I wanted to go was home, where an empty bed awaited me. I often met up with my coworkers, especially Dan, the only straight guy I worked with, the man that was literally the most accessible in my day-to-day life.

He too was twenty-four, and a fellow sleepwalker floating through a cycle of working and partying. Unlike me, however, his greatest daily concern was making enough tip money to fill up his gas tank and buy pack of Parliaments.

Dan and I usually stopped at a bar after our shift, and even though I preferred his bed to mine, I still procrastinated entering it. Like most twentysomethings, this guy liked sex, but by this point, it was hard for me to get through the minutes without thinking about the minutes; working up a sex drive had become not just unfathomable, but completely uninteresting. I hoped that by ordering a fourth or fifth beer, we both would just go back to his place, get under the covers and let the dark drown out the heaviness of the day.

But I knew to keep him around, I had to satisfy him. So I figured out how to get him off as quickly as possible. A hand job, a deep moan, a breathy whisper in his ear. I didn’t care about foreplay or him pleasing me. I was no longer interested in the promise of “release” because I knew it wasn’t a release I could hold on to. My body was a vessel, something to get me from A to B, and I just wanted to get to the part after he came, when I would curl up in a ball and feel the warmth of his chest behind me.

In the last few months of my mother’s life, I saw Dan more and more, and even after she died, we continued this ritual—after-work drinks, a half-attempt at fooling around, passing out, intervals of cuddling. Though I was relieved to no longer be obligated to lie in a bed with another person, I craved the company. But as soon as it arrived, I resented it.

One night after sex, Dan read in bed while I lay awake with my mind spinning. My dead mother creeped in and out of my thoughts, along with questions I didn’t want to know the answer to like “Where is this relationship heading?” The twitch to get out of bed had become a full-blown throb, but I had just used the bathroom and pillaging through my sorta-boyfriends’s cabinets around 1 a.m. seemed, at the very least, unattractive. Instead, I looked over at him, his eyes soft, his defenses down. “What?” he asked half jokingly, half suspiciously. His head was out of his book but his body hadn’t moved any closer. “Nothing,” I said. He went back to reading. His thick, masculine hand turned one page, and then another. He was unbothered by my non-answer, and unlike me, could actually concentrate on the task at hand. I imagined that when he’d eventually shut off the light, he’d fall straight to sleep. He’d have pleasant dreams and wake up unfazed. I hated him.

“Dan, did you have a crush on Kelly before you dated me?” I blurted, referring to a coworker of ours.


“I can tell you always liked her.”

“Why are you asking this now?”

“Because I don’t know, I wanna know. I don’t want to be with someone who secretly wants to be with someone else.”

“What? Why do you always have to be so crazy?”

We went at it for a few minutes, hurling silly accusations at each other, until he eventually flipped off the light and turned over on his side.

This line of questioning slowly became part of our repertoire and I’d like to think, night after night, I was looking for a different result when I started in on him—some newfound maturity from either us, reassurance that he cared, or that whatever we had, it needed to be what it was for now. But it also felt good to get a reaction, even if it was anger or annoyance.

Most mornings, however, the day would start just like the last—with frozen moments and invented dialogues awaking me. These scenes were so jumbled, so much something I tried to forget, that even now, it’s hard to explain their form. (The last image of my mother in her nursing home bed, her mouth wide open, possibly in mid-scream? The boniness of hand when I put my fingers through hers? The formality of the printed words “wishing you another year of happiness” in her last birthday card to me?) Whatever they were, I couldn’t shake them, nor could I express this nervousness when I looked over and saw Dan’s eyelashes peacefully shut. So I jumped out of bed and put my clothes on before he started to rustle.

I thought about walking out the door and driving into nowhere. But I never left without saying goodbye. Most of the time I couldn’t even bear to leave at all. Instead, I paced around his living room carpet until it seemed like I had overstayed my welcome, or he threw on a tank top, grabbed his basketball and motioned toward the door.

My greatest goal back then was to get to nightfall. When the moon came out and the bar closed in the evening, I knew this guy would be there again, ready to climb back in with me. Sometimes I didn’t go there; sometimes it wasn’t enough. Other times, it felt good to simply land.

Jessica Machado is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Bust, The Awl and The Economist’s More Intelligent Life, among other publications. You can read more about her mistakes at

A PANK Submission Reader (Court Merrigan) Speaks

As a reader, I don’t have editorial control at PANK; I can only suggest.  Roxane has accepted a couple pieces now that I wouldn’t have, thus delineating the Land of Editors from the Land of Readers.  However, Roxane has not declined a piece I felt strongly about, so I feel like our tastes mesh to some degree, and that the common knitting is a shared understanding of what constitutes superlative writing.  More simply, I hope it shows I have some taste.

But I wonder: what is the standard?  Do we at PANK seek to have words as good as those in, say, Necessary Fiction or Word Riot or Storyglossia?  Or do we aspire to the university literary magazines – Shenandoah, The Southern Review, Subtropics?  Is the bar yet higher– The Paris Review, say, or that penultimate arbiter of literary tastes, The New Yorker, and writers like Lori Moore and Brad Watson and George Saunders and Chimamanda Adichie?  Do we aim higher still, the standards of the dead, Hemingway and Nabokov and Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver and (here I reveal fully my tastes) Nagai Kafu?  The world already holds stories by these great writers. What does PANK, or any magazine, contribute if it cannot bring equally great work into the world? Does it even make sense to have this hierarchy?  I don’t know, but it seems to me that we have one, whether we like it or not.

I have struggled a lot with this, and I’ve concluded this: if the stylistic fireworks don’t make me shiver, then a story had better tell a damn good story.

There are always more stories to tell.  Even if there are only three or seven or thirty-six plots, we will never run out of stories, nor will we tire of hearing them.  I know this because it’s what my three-year old says to me every night at bedtime–tell me a story, Daddy.

(If I have less to say about poetry, which I also read at PANK, it’s because I feel less confident evaluating it.  What I look for is an emotional punch, something to smack me on the nose, even if kindly.  Lines that are too abstract or too personal to the writer, that emanate from a private universe we can do little more than glimpse, are unlikely to move me.  Give me a handhold in your world and I’ll go along for your ride – and I think readers will, too.  My view of poetry may be intensely naïve, and if any poets would like to disabuse me of my notions in the comments below, I would be very glad to discuss this with you.)