Big Loves: Zach Falcon on William Gaddis’s JR

FalconToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Zach Falcon. Falcon’s debut short story collection,  Cabin, Clearing, Forest, was recently published by University of Alaska Press. In sharp and lyrical writing, Falcon’s collection explores the interior lives and domestic relations of people shaped by Alaska, in all its isolation, beauty, and brutality. Here, Falcon shares his love of William Gaddis’s JR.

I am oppositional. Confronted with a task, I buck and tug like a willful puppy introduced to the leash. For instance, at the time of this writing, I have three pressing deadlines, and I just spent the last two days unnecessarily painting our bathroom. It’s a character flaw; I’m not proud of it. But it once led me to read JR by William Gaddis, for which I am grateful. It was during the fall exam period in my first year of law school, when I should have been reading anything but fiction.

After a full semester, attending every class and taking copious notes, I had no idea what I was doing or what the hell the law was even about. The worst of it was civil procedure, a subject which, near as I could figure, concerned postal regulations. On the off chance I was mistaken (I was), I elected to spend a leisurely afternoon in a bookstore searching out an easy-to-read study guide. Instead, I found myself in the fiction section. I noticed a paperback with an inch-and-a-half-thick spine. JR. I eased it off the shelf: 826 pages. The book was a very large bathroom to paint while deadlines loomed. “You should read that,” I told myself. “It won the National Book Award in 1976. You should finish that, and then study.”

Perhaps the sole benefit of an oppositional temperament is that you can make real headway on a project so long as you are ducking something more pressing. And a reader needs to make quick headway to enjoy JR. Much has been made of JR’s impenetrability (one reviewer dismissed it as “unreadable”), but it’s not actually difficult. It is written primarily in unattributed dialogue, without chapter breaks, and it takes about forty pages to find your feet. Before that, the reader may feel at sea. After, you can JRnovel (2)lock in and make sense of what the book is about, which is America. And Wall Street. And entropy. It is a bleak Long Island satire concerning business and education and culture and art. The title character is JR Vansant, an 11-year-old boy who hustles surplus plastic forks and penny stocks into an unhinged financial empire. It crystalizes the difference between the disingenuous and the naïve, and rages against the relentless debasement of the authentic. As compelling as its subjects are, however, the genius of JR does not lie in its content. That’s not why I love it, anyway.

I love JR because of what happened to me after those first forty pages. After I locked in. The book is a carnival of voices, dozens of voices, tumbling over each other, each with their own tics and patterns and echoes and repetitions. There is Miss Flesch: “PRwise it can’t hurt us educationwise.” And Mr. Whitbeck, “Yes well ahm, yes of course that does make things simpler.” JR: “Hey wait, I mean you’re not mad are you hey?” And the ranting Jack Gibbs: “God damn it listen!” The book is built of ellipses, interruptions, dissembling, babbling, hemming, and hawing. Here is the chaos of a crowd, including a school field trip, exiting a subway:

— Okay look what do you want for it, look I’ll . . .

— We can’t hey, we’re there . . .

— Boys and girls? Let’s wait till everyone gets out . . .

— Boy this train should have had a wreck hey look at all the lousy teachers on it . . .

— When we can’t even get room in the cafeteria for driver training because they took the Senior Citizens’ painting class out of the gym when they started the prenatal care program there what’s going to happen to the adult hobby show?

— For the kind of evaluative criterions you find in these kind of environmental settings . . .

— With the educational discount a lawnmower like that should be about forty-two dollars, so I said. . .

— When they tried to tell me I didn’t know enough math to teach it I showed them enough units for the certificates and you should have seen their faces . . .

— Like they do in Russia, so I said . . .

— Nine, eleven twelve are there? thirteen? You didn’t happen to count them Mister Bast?

The genius of Gaddis is that he absolutely trusts the reader to participate, to remember, to pay attention. His sentences resist passive consumption; they invite collaborative engagement. The voices become recognizable and familiar. They play in your head like old-time radio, immediate and three-dimensional. By the time one reaches the subway scene above, it is as clear as overhearing family in the kitchen. Unique among novels, JR leaves an exquisitely designed space for the reader to occupy—the text is incomplete until it’s read. As one character, a composer, explains: “I mean there are some things you can’t really write down especially simple things, they just have to be left for the performer and till the music is actually performed it doesn’t really exist at all.” Collaborating with JR, calling it into existence through thought, remains one of the most giddily thrilling reading experiences of my life.

I consumeCabin Clearing Forest Cover (1)d JR in a three-day fever, almost without stopping. When I did occasionally set the book aside, it was often to look up a word, usually a legal one. Several subplots concern the litigation that sprawls from JR’s schemes. Many of the voices belong to lawyers, arguing about trusts, corporate law, and yes, even the finer points of civil procedure. “There is no question of justice, or right and wrong,” I learned from Mr. Coen. “The law seeks order.” Which turned out to be a fine thing to know when I finally returned to my studies, oppositional fit extinguished, forever changed by Gaddis’s brilliant chaos.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Rick Barot

This week’s poetry spotlight column features Rick Barot, whose third book, Chord, was released by Sarabande Books this summer.

RickBarot_NewBioImageRick Barot has published three books of poetry with Sarabande Books: The Darker Fall (2002), Want (2008), which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and won the 2009 Grub Street Book Prize, and Chord (2015).  His poems and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including Poetry, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Ploughshares, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Artist Trust of Washington, the Civitella Ranieri, and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace E. Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer. He lives in Tacoma, Washington and directs The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at Pacific Lutheran University.  He is also the poetry editor for New England Review.

We were thrilled when Mark Doty selected your poem “Child Holding Potato,” which originally appeared in issue 17 of Memorious, for Best American Poetry 2012. And now, of course, the poem appears in your new book, Chord. Can you tell us a little about that poem?

A few years ago my sister was very sick, and part of the struggle I felt was between the desire to avert my gaze and the desire to go fully into the experience of being present for her. I remember getting the phone call from her and then, a few clicks later, feeling the great need to be surrounded by art. And so, without questioning the logic of my own need for art, soon afterwards I bought an airplane ticket to New York City to look at things in museums, instead of buying a ticket to the Bay Area, which is where my sister was. I got to New York and everything I looked at was, of course, completely inert and without meaning. What I felt instead was guilt—a sourness in the mouth and mind. For a long time I had believed in art as a source of powerfully positive things—solace, beauty, depth, complexity—and here was a moment when art could do nothing at all. This was very instructive, learning in a very real way that art has its limits, even to those for whom art is life. Art as avoidance, as escapism—this was the lesson. Ironically, I wrote “Child Holding Potato” during that same trip to New York, late at night, in a hotel room, in one very fast draft that required virtually no revision afterwards.


Several of the poems in Chord engage with works of art, and one of the most striking ones is “Black Canvas,” which examines poetry and art together: “Art in its intention/wants to be in the condition of poetry, /but most art is in the condition of prose./This is not a slander to prose.” What role does art play in your poetry?

As I suggested above, art—especially visual art—has been a central part of my way of being for a long time. Responding to the art produced by others is something that I’ve done as a poet from the very start. One reason I do this, I think, is to celebrate the way someone else has crystallized an idea or image that has been in my own mind—my response is a way of noting the resonance. Another reason is to critically think about, maybe even disagree with, the argument or significance that the artist presents in the artwork I’m looking at. Surrounding all of this is the constant, low-fever questioning that many artists probably have about art itself: is art useful at all? is it valorous or foolish to be an artist?

For myself, I don’t have firm answers to the two questions posed above. My answer to each question changes each day—depending on whether I’ve had a good day as a teacher, or whether I’ve written something that says something true, or whether the state of the world puts into relief the radiance or frivolity of art. One thing I do know is that my posture towards my own poetry has changed over time. When I was younger, I thought of poetry primarily as a means of transcendence, as a means of aesthetic pleasure. A little later, I thought of poetry as a way of recording personal experience and story. Now I’m invested in poetry as a form of disruption—as a way of disrupting my own complacencies, and perhaps my reader’s, too.

In “Black Canvas,” I was ostensibly thinking about some beautiful all-black paintings by Robert Rauschenberg. However, that mode of appreciation kept being interrupted by the other images that appear in the poem—a dying rat, a sick uncle’s birthday party. As a younger poet, I would have segregated those different things into different poems, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to realize that the task for me now as a poet is to create the poem that allows everything to inhabit the one poem. Whether the juxtapositions are ugly or harmonious doesn’t really matter—what seems to matter to me these days is that the juxtapositions are there.

So much of this book is an investigation of grief, not only in terms of immediate personal losses, but also of larger family and national histories, such as in the tremendous “On Gardens,” which opens with this stanza:

When I read about the garden

designed to bloom only white flowers,

I think about the Spanish friar who saw one

of my grandmothers, two hundred years removed,

and fucked her. If you look

at the world colony far enough, you see it

travelling back to the Latin

of inhabit, till, and cultivate….

How did the personal and the global emerge or merge together for you within these poems and across this collection?

The global—and I take this to mean the political, the historical, and the social—couldn’t really help but appear in the poems in Chord, many of which are personal poems. A big chunk of the book was written during the 2000’s, a period of turmoil and violence that has extended into the present. If you’re an artist and you’ve been half-awake to the things going on around you in the last fifteen years, your work has been inevitably stained by those things—even if only in the sense that you’ve tried very hard to keep the political and the social out of your work, because your notion of art adamantly doesn’t include those things.

And so, for me, the personal and the political were unavoidable elements in the poems I wrote for the book. Given these two elements, the problem—which I didn’t know was a problem until I was years into the problem-solving—was how to bring these elements together in a poem. A big part of the solution was understanding what it meant to write political poetry. For many, including myself, “political poetry” means poetry that responds directly to some happening in the world. There’s certainly great value in writing these poems of immediacy, but because it’s nearly impossible for me to write poems like these, I’ve had to figure out how my poems can somehow participate in these larger energies and conversations. This has meant enlarging what the political means to me as a poet, so that the political includes the daily, the personal, and most importantly, the notion of justice, which I think undergirds the political. In practice, this expansive view of the political has translated into an embrace of juxtaposition, which I noted earlier.

In the classroom, I tell my poetry-writing students that each of us often writes from a couple of default identity positions, and we write from those positions for years and years without knowing that we’re doing so. But what would it mean to write poems out of the other selves whose voices we neglect or avoid or deny? If you’re interested in writing “political poetry” but don’t know how to begin doing that, maybe writing towards these other selves within yourself is one way of writing a political poetry. In my own case, I have all these constituencies within myself—the male self, the queer self, the writer-of-color self, the privileged self, the social-justice self, the American self, and so on—and they don’t necessarily get along. Trying to write poetry that brings these various selves into some kind of consonance is, to me, very political—because it means writing out of difference and wholeness.

The imagery in this collection is so striking and precise, such as in the “Virgin of Guadalupe,” which has this opening image of the Virgin: “as though my heart/were a cabinet with another cabinet in it,/a wooden box the size of a small safe,/and the Virgin within in a white tunic,/blue cloak, a sash the pink of a pencil eraser.” Where do your poems begin? Do you start with image?

I’m probably no different from other poets: I’m always gathering bits of stuff that I hope will end up in poems. Images. Phrases. Overheard language. Riffs of emotion. Riffs of sound. Random facts. And I keep these things in notebooks. At some point I’ll get a notion for a poem—a poem about tarp, say, or a poem about seeing a lighthouse—and this compels me to look at the gathered-up things and find the materials that belong to the poem I’m hoping to write. The process feels both very specific and very abstract. I love the gathering and collecting part of being a poet because it’s the part I can control: I read, I look, I listen, and material naturally accumulates from those acts. The other part of the process—coming up with a good idea for a poem—is dreadful. Months can go by without a good idea to tell you what to do next, which basically means having a house full of materials and not knowing, for months, whether you’re supposed to build a clock or bake a carrot cake.      

This next question has been so popular, that we keep bringing it back: If you were to draw yourself a poetic family tree, which poets do you see yourself descended from?

This is an awful question, mostly because I can’t imagine a linear set of influences that would look like a reasonable family tree, or that would resemble a tree at all. The better metaphor for me might be a big party with all my favorite poets filling the room, and I among them like some child wandering around, eavesdropping on everything, too little to be noticed. I could list a few dozen poets who would be in this fantasy party, but I’ll go with this line-up, which I’ve intentionally made an all-women line-up: Elizabeth Bishop, Amy Clampitt, Lucille Clifton, Deborah Digges, Louise Glück, Jorie Graham, Cate Marvin, Susan Mitchell, Adrienne Rich, Susan Stewart, Lois-Ann Yamanaka, and Monica Youn. And in another room would be a couple dozen prose writers who have been very important to me, including John Berger and Virginia Woolf. And in still another room, a couple dozen visual artists, including Vija Celmins and Richard Diebenkorn.

What’s on your reading table, your turntable, your writing table, and your kitchen table right now?

Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm. Made in Heights, Without My Enemy What Would I Do. Carl Phillips, The Art of Daring. Figs.


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2015 Memorious Art Song Contest

We are pleased to announce the 2015-2016 Memorious Art Song Contest, featuring guest composer Elizabeth A. Kelly. Kelly will select a poem or set of poems from one poet to set in an original work that will be recorded and published in an issue of Memorious. Finalists for the contest will have their work considered for publication. For guidelines for this no-fee contest, please visit the Memorious Submittable page. To learn more about art song, see this introduction by our former contest producer, Eric Malmquist.

ElizabethAKelly_headshotElizabeth A. Kelly is an American/British composer currently based in the United Kingdom. Her works have been performed at major venues throughout the United States and Europe including Carnegie Hall in New York, the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in the UK and the Gaudeamus Festival in the Netherlands. Her compositions have been commissioned and performed by diverse ensembles including Alarm Will Sound (US), the ASKO Schoenberg Ensemble (Netherlands), the Curious Chamber Players (Sweden), the Liverpool Philharmonic’s Ensemble 10/10 (UK), the Albany Symphony Dogs of Desire (US), and the New York and Netherlands Youth Symphonies. Her work has been recognized with two Morton Gould Awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and numerous other prizes. Kelly earned a Ph.D. in music composition from the Eastman School of Music. She also holds degrees from Yale, the University of Michigan, and The Hague Royal Conservatory in the Netherlands. Her compositions have been published by Donemus, released by Huddersfield Contemporary Records and Centaur Records, and supported by a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She is an Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Nottingham. For more information, please visit

A little history of our Art Song Contest:

The Memorious Art Song Contest was born in 2009 through a collaboration between editor Rebecca Morgan Frank and producer Eric Malmquist, director of Singers on New Ground (SONG), after Frank met our first guest composer, Randall West, at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. West selected three poems by Jill McDonough to set, and these works were performed as part of SONG’s Ars Poetica Concert in Curtiss Hall at the Fine Arts Building in Chicago in April 2010 and appeared in Issue 14 of Memorious. In 2011 our second guest composer Luke Gullickson, selected Katie Peterson’s “The Accounts” as the contest winner, and this work was performed as part of SONG’s Ars Poetica Concert in Curtiss Hall at the Fine Arts Building in Chicago October 2011 and appeared in Issue 17. In May 2013, guest composer Brian Baxter’s setting of Richie Hofmann’s “Old World Elegy,” the winner of our third Art Song Contest, was performed at the Poetry Foundation and published in our tenth anniversary issue, issue 20. This year we continue the tradition of bringing poets and composers together. Please join us!

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Nancy Reddy

Reddy photo 1Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), a National Poetry Series selection, is contributor Nancy Reddy’s first book of poems. “It hurt at first, having a body,” Reddy writes in “My Girlhood Apothecary.” The speakers of this collection’s taut, surprising poems respond to the vulnerability of female embodiment with magical thinking: they identify as wolf offspring, consider being forests, invoke the power of Nancy Drew. The poem “Lent,” which first appeared in Memorious 16, enacts the tension between personal mysticism with its seductive Christ and the adolescent asceticisms traditional religion inspires. Longing for elsewhere/otherness permeates Double Jinx: rather be… better to be… but the soft, evasive textures of wistfulness are offset by striking attention to form and play, arriving at an overall assertion of alert, gleeful, resilience.

doublejinx-230x355How did you arrive at the form for “Our Wilderness Period”?

“Our Wilderness Period” is a crown of sonnets that follows a settlement of pilgrims through their difficult first year in the New World. The poem originated with a phrase from a Lucie Brock-Broido poem, “a wilderness lord.” And that led me to thinking about the wilderness period – Christ wandering in the desert, a period of exile that’s the stopping point toward self-discovery. While the pilgrims as a group struggle with starvation and a sense that they’ve been forsaken by the god who propelled their journey, the speaker is tormented by a particular notion of her inherent badness – that she’s somehow the one who’s caused her community’s suffering.

In terms of the form, I’ve long been attracted to the rigor of formal constraint. (I have Jeff Oaks’s wonderful forms workshop at Pitt to thank for that.) I think I took on the crown of sonnets initially as a formal challenge – a kind of dare to myself. I’d watched Rebecca Dunham craft a knock-out sonnet sequence (it’s in her book Glass Armonica) on an email poem-a-day we were doing, and I decided to take on a slightly more modest version of that. The crown of sonnets, like other forms that repeat lines or phrases (villanelles, pantoums, sestinas) requires play and attention to detail – how much you can alter a line while still keeping it close enough to echo across the sequence. And the sonnet sequence lends itself to narrative, but also, I think, a certain sadness and stuckness, since the poem ends with a variation of its first line.

“Better to be a forest instead…”; “You’d rather be a hayfield”… “my father was a wolf”.. it seems that nonhuman alternatives to (female) embodiment hold appeal for Double Jinx’s speaker. Can you talk about what the nonhuman as an alternate identity allows you (and your speakers) to do and say?

I love this question, in part because my doctoral research (I recently completed my PhD in Composition and Rhetoric) examined the role of the nonhuman in supporting extracurricular writing. (In other words, I looked at how desks, weather, landscape, and other nonhumans make writing possible, particularly for those without institutional support for their writing.)

I hadn’t thought quite so precisely, though, about the role of the nonhuman in my poetry, but you’re exactly right. Girls in this book are always turning into other things – birds, often, but also trees, flowers, a mimeograph – and I think this must have to do with the limited identities available to girls in our culture. One speaker, in the poem “Lucy in Chrysalis,” decides that she’s “sick / of being a girl” after she realizes she won’t turn out to be Cinderella, won’t find out she’s secretly been a princess all along. So those nonhuman alternate identities offer additional possibilities. And adolescence is so strange, anyway – it makes a certain sense to want to become a hayfield, or a grocer, or an acrobat – any number of those are preferable, at least on certain days, to being a teenage girl.

I found myself emotionally riveted whenever your reimagined vulnerable and brave Nancy Drew figure came up. “She’s off the plot”, indeed. Apart from the shared “Nancy” name, do you feel—as writer, woman, or both— some kinship to Nancy Drew?

I read the Nancy Drew books growing up, of course; my grandmother had a stack that had belonged to my mother and her sisters, and I read those while visiting her. To be honest, though, I really got interested in Nancy Drew as an adult. They’re actually quite strange stories! Nancy’s always in disguise, and there are all these cases of mistaken identities. I grew up in a family that valued ladylike behavior in its women, and perhaps Nancy is appealing because she’s always pushing at the edge of that. Her transgressions are so precise – she’ll ignore the chief of police’s warning to not pursue a dodgy character into an abandoned building, but she does it politely. And her hunches always pan out. She’s always the smartest woman in the room, always the propulsive lead in her own story.

After I wrote the first Nancy Drew poem, “The Case of the Double Jinx,” Quan Barry, who was one of my professors in my MFA, read it and said, “needs more sex.” And so I wrote “The Secret Nancy,” which became the last poem in the book. The Nancy of the book is such a good girl; it was fun to imagine her getting to have a little excitement after Ned’s been dispatched.

“Her story rises / like woodsmoke / from these fractures”, you write in “Inventing the Body”. Is this an apt description of the relationship between your own autobiography and this book’s lyric mode?

I’m typically a bit hesitant to talk about autobiography, largely because I find that the question is often aimed at finding out what really happened, and it’s always my hope that the poems themselves are more interesting than whatever autobiographical details they may happen to contain. I grew up Catholic, but the poem is not, for me, a confessional. (Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s great poem “Are All the Breakups in Your Poems Real?” is a great take on this subject.)

Of course, you’re not actually asking if the breakups (or the beatings, or the birds) in my poems are real. I’d say, in these poems at least, that the relationship is actually the reverse – that details from my story, as well as stories I’ve collected, are scattered throughout the poems. Often a memory or an image will incite a poem, but I depart from there. So while it’s true, for example, that my father did often say my sisters and I were like crows, no one ever actually turned into one, as happens in one of the early poems in the book.

Interviewer Sarah Green is the author of Earth Science, forthcoming from 421 Atlanta, and the chapbook Skeleton Evenings (Finishing Line Press 2014).

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Summer Reading with Contributing Editor Derrick Austin

Summer’s not over yet–there’s still time for summer reading! We asked a few of our contributing editors what they’ve been reading this summer, and  here’s what we heard from Derrick Austin, whose first book of poems, Trouble the Water, is forthcoming from BOA Editions in 2016.

I must confess, I feel as if I haven’t read very much this summer. Plenty of writers have been through this, the first post-MFA reorientation summer where one tries to discover what’s best for themselves and their work—while attempting to find a roof over their head and a job to pay for said roof and the bills and a cocktail or two. Traveling defined the first half of my summer and that strange feeling of being unmoored has dominated late summer. Funnily enough, the books I devoured have are often about wanderers, people in transition, folks in those in-between spaces, simply looking for home be it in another country, another person, or in themselves.

  1. James Merrill: Life and Art by Langdon Hammerbook-merrill

To say I’d been waiting for this book for centuries would be an understatement. Merrill is a touchstone for me; his “chronicles of love and loss” as he called his poems taught me invaluable lessons about poetry. Hammer’s book is a fabulous excavation of Merrill’s life, all the more stunning for the potential biographical pitfalls. Wealthy and cosmopolitan, Merrill’s life could easily be reduced to a gossip column; and his poems, often autobiographical, could be analyzed solely in relation to the life. Hammer avoids these traps and shows us Merrill in all his ambition, kindness, folly, and sorrow. One thing I’m most thankful for in regards to this book is how Hammer opens up Merrill’s more hermetic poems. Illuminated by the life, I entered those poems anew.

  1. 51BKfYK8RHL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector

I’ve barely cracked the surface of these endlessly varied and rich stories, but I’m fascinated by her work. They’re explosively intimate. She writes the inner lives of her characters—particularly the women—like no one else. There are moments when the world encroaches deeply and sharply in her character’s lives, and then the epiphany, that short story convention of absolute clarity and revelation—except in Lispector’s stories I’m not sure one could call them epiphanies. They are often so quickly swept away, like the tide, a sudden rush and then a drifting out, before their lives continue.

  1. servicesWe The Animals by Justin Torres

Four years late to the party, but better late than never—I finally got around to reading this brilliant, slim novel. It’s one of the best coming of age novels I’ve read in a long time in language both chastened and lyrical. Truly a poet’s novel.


  1. 51NhMAL9cTL._UY250_Other books I’m enjoying: Martha Serpas’s third collection of poetry The Diener is absolutely stunning. An evocative exploration of life and death through the eyes of a hospital chaplain as well as a Louisiana native watching her native wetlands dissolve the place she calls home, this book stuns me every time I read it. I’ve carried it with me all season. Robert Hayden has been on my mind a lot lately. His Collected Poems are endlessly rich. I’m always finding new gems to treasure among his masterpieces. Lastly, I’m about halfway through Helen Oyeyemi’s novel Boy, Snow, Bird. At times darkly comical and others deeply vulnerable, I’ve been charmed by the novel’s wit and truly invested in its engagement with race and class.

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Big Loves: Laurie Foos on Steven Sherrill’s The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break

authorphoto2 (2)Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Laurie Foos. Foos has published five previous novels with Coffee House Press: Before Elvis There Was Nothing, Ex Utero, Portrait of the Walrus by a Young Artist, Twinship, and Bingo Under the Crucifix. In her newest novel, The Blue Girl, mothers in a small lakeside town bake their secrets into moon pies and feed them to a silent blue girl. At turns lyrical, absurd, and heartbreaking, her fabulist novel about this strange blue girl explores the strangeness in all of us. Here, Foos shares her love for Steven Sherrill.

It was the cover that got me: the image of a half-man, half-bull sitting on a milk crate wearing work boots and a white cook’s coat with a red neckerchief, a cigarette between the thick fingers of his right hand, black horned head leaning into his left hand. And then of course there was the title above the image: The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break.  I remember thinking, If ever there was a book up my alley, this is it.

Of course it’s a risky premise, and part of the joy of a novel like The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break is watching Steven Sherrill walk that high wire to see how well and how long he can stay up, which, thanks to the verbal calisthenics and often startling beauty of the language, he does for the entirety of the novel. We meet the Picador-Minotaur-320x478Minotaur five thousand years post-labyrinth, where he is known only as M.—a Kafkaesque nod if ever there was one—and lives in the deep South in a trailer park. He works as a line cook at a steakhouse, an obvious joke, perhaps, though a writer as smart as Sherrill knows  you have to go for the obvious scenario, the one anyone can think of before you can spin it on its head. Poor M., who says little in the novel save for “Unnhs” and “Mmms,” though the other characters in the steakhouse are always asking him to repeat himself—”What’s that, M? You say something?”—is trapped within the physicality of his bull’s head. With “the cavernous expanse of his throat and…thick bovine tongue, his words (coming) out tortured and mutilated, deep, almost whining,”  he wants only to say, “I am tired of these horns and all that they mean.”  Prone to accidents in the kitchen and in love with a waitress named Kelly, who suffers epileptic fits, M. manages one painfully hilarious articulation early in the novel when he reveals to his fellow employees at the steakhouse, “I am a tit man.”

And there are many hilarious moments, but as the novel progresses, we watch Sherrill delve into the humanity of M who is painfully aware of the “transitional skin” where his human self meets his bull self. Sherrill, also a poet, writes, “On the Minotaur’s back the transition is less decisive…Sometimes this place, this division, throbs, swells, deepens, becomes a chasm, within the Minotaur that he will never span, though he will spend eternity trying…to believe for an isolated moment that he is a singular and whole being.”

We move through the novel with M., who is also quite good with his human hands. He is able to fix most any machine and has a special affinity for cars.  As we come to know M. and his life in the trailer park in the South, where he is often besotted both by memories of his thousands of years in the labyrinth as well as a painful awareness of his own alienation, it becomes increasingly clear how well the premise of the novel is so much more than the punch line the title might suggest. After a brief encounter with Kelly, the waitress M. pines for, we get a glimpse into his isolation as Sherrill describes “the architecture of the Minotaur’s heart”: “… the blood it pumps—the blood it has pumped for five thousand years, the blood it will pump for the rest of his life—is nearly human blood. It carries with it…the terrible stuff of human existence: fear, wonder, hope, wickedness, love. But in the Minotaur’s world it is far easier to kill and devour seven virgins year after year…than (it is) to accept tenderness and return it.”

The-Blue-Girl-356x535Certainly part of Sherrill’s premise concerns his satirical depiction of the American South and the crappy restaurant job that M. is relegated to, though the novel evolves, as we least expect it, into a kind of love story punctuated as much by Sherrill’s flair for gritty realism as for the absurd. The Minotaur, out of the labyrinth and into a trailer park where he drives a beat-up Vega and smokes menthols, wants only what any of us wants: to figure out how to be human.

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Poetry Spotlight: Dave Harrity interviews Adam Day

89o0Y5TV_400x400I first met Memorious contributor  Adam Day at Louisville’s InKY Reading Series where we shared the stage for an evening at the Rudyard Kipling, a dive tavern in town known for gathering fringy bohemians, intellectuals, and artists. Cheap beer and decent food made for a perfect place to hear poets, hometown and far a-flung. Just before Adam took the stage to read, I spilled an entire glass of water on his manuscript. Embarrassed, I apologized emphatically, and he was gracious, though—justly—a bit disoriented from the fumble. His pants and shirt partly soaked, he stepped up to the mic and read, holding up wet pages by the corners, still dripping. He read with command from a poem now titled “Diorama—(Scarlet and Liver)” which appears, varied from my original listen, in his first full-length collection, Model of a City in Civil War, winner of Sarabande Books’ Linda Bruckheimer Series in 2014.

That poem stuck with me and I was glad to encounter it again in this new book. Day’s poems are animal with lucid fixations and powerful fires—elemental intuitions woven through fragmentary micro-narratives that traverse personal, historical, and cultural experiences with bewildering range of voice and ironic, not insincere, balance. Whenever I would recall Day’s poems in the years to come after the first time hearing them that evening at The Rud, I could easily intuit the stark utterance and tonal shifts between restrained and flagrant violence, Day’s code-switching composites in language and picture amid discrete, original descriptions. I’m glad his poems are just as alive on the page as they’ve been in my head all those years since I first heard them.

Model’s potent lyrical renderings are typical of Day’s manifold voices, which are sweeping, but without ecstasy, and vivid, though without the ostentation that often categorizes such variety. The book is diverse and complex, effortlessly navigating the peculiarities of the broken and breaking incompletenesses of personhood, family, marriage, and society. Pitting the peculiar against the political, Day is aware of the tensions inherent in human obscurity, our potential to act and damage, debilitate and unadorn. As readers, we are looking into a model of a world born strange and familiar, with Day’s speakers soberly articulating the tragic and comic via the eroding material of language alive to it’s own paradox, modulating between failed shots for salvation and flourished reaches into humane insignificance.

The following is a series of questions I pitched to Adam, hoping he might discuss some elements of his process and style, the writing of his new book, and some of his experiences that brought him to the place where he is now. In it, he discusses his views toward writing and experiencing violence, reading widely with depth, and the challenges of writing contemporary lyric poems.

Day.MODELCITY.webModel of a City in Civil War is filled with poems of intense violence written in a restrained, distant, and otherwise detached voice/s. It is one of the trappings of the book I like most, I think. Can you talk a little bit about how you write violence into poems and what might account for that vivid detachment in your work?

Well, the human body is a huge source of engagement for me, and Merleau-Ponty has always been influential for that reason, and that engagement is probably linked up with how I write violence into poems. Kafka imagined the multi-layered horror of the human waking to the body of an Ungeziefer, but imagine the horror of the “verminous insect” waking to the body of a human. A body at loss of definition. Merleau-Ponty, Rabelais and others, as a corrective to the philosophical history of finding consciousness to be the seat of knowledge, placed the body as the fundamental site of discerning or knowing the world, and insisted that the body and that which it perceives cannot be extricated from each other.

My sense is that the world is violent, though that’s relative, of course, and I don’t think of violence pejoratively. But whether it’s accidentally running over a raccoon, breaking up with a lover, integrating mutually enjoyable rough stuff into one’s sexual relationships, instigating a coup, giving birth, going to war, tearing out the evergreen shrub in front of your home, giving a patient stitches or your kid their insulin shot, &c. it’s everywhere, and more often than not it’s interesting and nuanced. The Greeks and Romans certainly found room for violence in their poems and plays. In any case, I do feel that (American) poetry too rarely reflects that kind of content. And, too often, when it is addressed it is done so in a way that memorializes, sentimentalizes, or prettifies it. Though, my inclusion of violence in my poetry is not part of some polemic or mission. These thoughts are only retrospective.

Rabelais, Beckett, Elfriede Jelinek, Jean Genet, Pinter, Pynchon, Kafka, Chaucer, Ellison, Jakov Lind, Ionesco, Sterne, Joyce—there is a compelling viscerality, an urgent grotesque, an engaging grittiness that isn’t stunt or shtick, but rather a more objective, and fuller reflection of life. I think poets like Dan Chiasson, HughesCrow and Prometheus on His Crag, Catherine Wagner, Ikkyū, Sandra Simonds, Aase Berg, Berryman, Gro Dahl, Phil Levine, Fred Moten, D.A. Powell, and others work to speak to the violence in our lives, in the world outside of our own lives.

My restrained voice is probably related to my sense—though, again, I’m thinking of this only after or outside of writing—that violence is not strange, or unusual, or inherently personal or dramatic. Alternatively, part of what is compelling about it, is that it can be both everyday and of magnitude. It seems difficult to do justice to the magnitude of something if you can’t address it with some objectivity and distance; otherwise you take something you care enough about to write about and simplify it, leak it of its subtlety and complexity.

I grew up in a part of Louisville that was relatively run-down, had a low-education rate and a healthy jobless population, but was otherwise was very working class—picture mullets, professional wrestling, Quiet Riot and Trans Ams—with the requisite trailer park up the street, and where there were some gangs. My neighbors belonged to one. And I’d see or hear about fights involving table legs, bike chains, pool balls in tube socks. Some of that was racial violence, though most of it wasn’t. One of my aunts and her sons lived in some projects a few blocks from our house, and those were the most racially diverse place you could find in that area of town. Though it was an area that also attracted a lot of immigrants new to the States—Vietnamese, Laotians, then Central Americans (many escaping U.S. proxy wars: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, &c.), then people from the former Yugoslavia, then Sudan – you get the idea. It was more of a simmering to boiling pot than a melting pot, I guess. Walking home from the bus stop was often an “adventure.”

As I got older—by middle school (about 1989)—I was skateboarding and going to local (punk and hardcore) shows, two things that went hand-in-hand, and skateboarding gets you fucked with a lot. Or at least it did then. And the shows were going at an historical moment in American sub-culture when (racist) skinheads were coming back to prevalence in the scene, and the straight-edge movement was strong, and you also had S.H.A.R.P.s (skinheads against racial prejudice). That’s all a way of saying that it wasn’t unusual for shows to turn violent. But because back then very few kids of color were going to shows, it was mostly the skinheads versus anyone they felt like going heads up with, often straight-edge kids or S.H.A.R.P.s, but just as often with anyone for no good reason, at all. Later, very ironically, a lot of those same guys who were skinheads at 14 years old, were listening to hip-hop, wearing track suits and wife-beaters, selling crack and blow, and flashing guns at 18 years old. What didn’t change was their penchant for violence. This was crucial for me, though, this time—I became so aware of social issues and politics through that music scene. I was listening to music—much of it local, but also bands like Born Against, Minor Threat, Big Black, Operation Ivy, Bad Brains—that spoke to sexual violence, U.S. intervention abroad, racism, the monotony of a certain kind of adult/domestic life, poverty, corporate exploitation of the environment, &c.

Anyway, the common theme throughout all I’ve said is, primarily, financial disadvantage. You got low-income kids, with parents who are frustrated because they can’t pay the bills or afford their families the lives they wish they could, and that frustration gets taken out on their kids or is simply present for their kids to stew in; and because their parents are also working their asses off and/or are under-educated, and because their local schools blow (as is common in low-income areas), their kids are largely mentally unengaged and bored, and all of that frustration and anger is going to find an outlet somewhere: whether it’s through starting a band, finding a cause, dealing, moving to California to turn pro with Blind, beating the crap out of someone, or becoming a poet.

These poems also draw on discrete historical narratives, events, and various contemporary media (books, articles, etc.). With all this compositing of texts, stories, and ideas, what kind of work do you do in your writing process to keep the voice unified, exacting, and clear? From where do you draw the impetus for the occasion of a poem?

I seem to have worked in bricolage for some time now. I suppose it’s fitting, given how much I value the work of artists like Schwitters and Rauschenberg. I’m not sure how I keep the voice unified; I seem to assimilate the language pretty thoroughly, because honestly it doesn’t occur to me “how” to utilize those other texts (using the term broadly) in my own. They tend to stick with me long before I try to write with them; that may have something to do with that assimilation at the time of writing.

I’m actually just finishing up work on a book-length site-specific poem that utilizes a travel article from the New York Times: “36 Hours in _____” series as its template, over which is written a confusion of that article’s geographical context with an alternative geo-political context. There is a central character/speaker, but overall the poem is spoken in five different registers.  Within the poem, concepts and ideas function with as much import as traditional aesthetic and content concerns. And I’m just beginning a longer “poem” that reworks the really, just laughably horribly-written sex scenes penned by authors like Updike, Roth, Franzen, Henry Miller, Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Styron, Brodkey, and others, in the context of a few things: the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in the UK (1981-2000), protesting American nuclear cruise missiles being based there, as well as in the context of two great, radical art house films; the former French, the latter Belgian: Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967), and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (Chantal Akerman, 1975), and in the context of the visual art of Justine Kurman, Laurel Nakadate, Robert Melee and others. Further contextualizing the “poem” is work from Ikkyū, an iconoclastic Japanese Zen Buddhist Monk who wrote eccentric, often crude and sexual poetry; the “Circe” section of Joyce’s Ulysses, which usefully confuses gender and sexuality; and Rabelais’ intelligently, flagrantly vulgar, and scatological, Gargantua and Pantagruel.

As far as my impetus for the occasion of a poem, I have no idea. I don’t have a writing schedule, but neither do I believe in some kind of divine inspiration. I don’t really write if I’m not reading or consuming film. Though, I rarely write in reaction to poetry. I certainly almost never use language from the poems of others. That is one instance where I find it impossible to assimilate the language of an other.

These poems, it seems to me, work against both the ironic and sincere conventions that are often characterized to be separate streams in contemporary American poetry. Whether they’re lyrically rendered persona poems or sweeping and engaged narratives, they seem to be trying to resist both cynicism and epiphany at once. Could you comment a little on this aspect of your work, whether or not you feel that’s a fair categorization? And how you see your work resisting this classification?

Yeah, that feels like a fair categorization. Some of the poems in Model of a City are older and some of them are relatively new, so the book probably captures an evolution away from a certain kind of earnestness. I like this idea you’ve put forth of the work being neither maudlin nor glib. There is definitely irony in the poems, but it is, I hope, born out of engagement rather than detachment. A good deal of irony in contemporary American poetry is simply a way to avoid actual confronting of difficult experiences and ideas, or a way to simply entertain. It bugs me. The funny thing is, the Brits are always complaining that Americans don’t get actual irony, and it’s pretty true. Danes, Argentines, Indians get genuine irony. It’s easy to be glibly ironic. In turn, the epiphanic/cathartic/revelatory poem feels just as naïve, one-dimensional and disingenuous. If an idea, event or issue really seems worthy of memorialization or capable of bringing about catharsis or epiphany—clearly, complex experiences, in themselves—then it must demand sophisticated engagement and writing. One of the reasons that Carl Sandburg is little read today is that while he wrote about important class and labor issues, he did so with a sentimentality and simplicity that likely did not do those issues justice. Oppen or perhaps even Levine, on the other hand, seem to have written with a nuance and complexity about those issues.

I wonder how you might feel about that tricky and commonly discussed idea that poetry is a political act, or an act of witness to the death and chaos in the world. Do you feel any political responsibilities as a poet? If so, to whom or what? If not, then what/who should a poet have allegiance to?

I feel kind of ambivalent about that. Also, it’s hard to answer those questions without sounding preachy. In any case, holding a protest in your family room is a political act, but its effectiveness is suspect, to say the least. Writing poetry is a political act, but on a spectrum, and also within a matrix where context matters a great deal. The act of poetry in Zimbabwe is not the act of poetry in Finland. The family room protest is less politically effectual than the act of poetry, obviously, but those two things are far closer on the spectrum, to my mind, than say community organizing, or working for the ACLU. That’s not to say, by any means, that I don’t think the teaching of, learning about, reading of, and writing of creative writing isn’t or can’t be politically impactful. That seems obvious, of course, but I feel like a lot of poets are pretty defensive about the whole poetry/politics thing. No one wants to think that their life or work is effete. Of course, we also live in a culture where most poets, or very many, seem to think that teaching at the post-secondary level is the primary way one might spend one’s life as a writer. I think the art and the politics of our country would be greatly enriched if there were more poets who pursued work as therapists, gamblers, engineers, journalists, attorneys, stockbrokers, &c.

I feel political responsibilities as a person, regardless of being a poet, to what? I was a political science major, as well as a creative writing major, in college, so maybe political and social issues are more at the forefront of my mind than for others. I don’t know. I suppose I don’t think about who or what I’m “politically responsible” to. But class, race, gender, sexuality, the environment, power, immigration, geopolitics, &c. are things I see in the news, books, films, and art I engage with, and those issues find their way into my thinking and writing. And they would be of concern to me even if I weren’t a writer/poet.

I do think if you spend a life writing poems and aren’t actively engaged by, and engaging with, politics, social issues, &c., then, yeah, I mean, I don’t really know how that’s possible. I’m sure many would argue that practically every poet, at some points, does take on such issues. I’m not saying you have to write agitprop—some of the worst poetry is concerned with political and social issues, because it reads as one-sided, polemical and pedantic. But Thomas Sayers-Ellis, George Oppen, Laura Sims, Brian Teare, Fred Moten, John Yau, Phil Levine, Timothy Liu, Juliana Spahr, Catherine Wagner, Nathaniel Mackey, Jason Schneiderman, Sandra Simonds, Douglas Kearney, Fanny Howe, among others usually do a great job of tackling such issues. I’m simply saying that I don’t know how you could be thinking analytically about your experience of life and the world and not find yourself actively coming to terms with larger political and social issues. Of course, this engagement doesn’t have to take place in the arena of one’s writing, necessarily.

Contributor Dave Harrity’s work has appeared in Memorious, Revolver, Killing the Buddha, The Los Angeles Review, Confrontation, Softblow, and elsewhere. His first full-length book of poems is Our Father in the Year of the Wolf” forthcoming from WordFarm in 2016. He teaches at Campbellsville University and lives in Louisville.

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