Big Loves: Paula Whyman on T.C. Boyle’s “Greasy Lake”

 

WhymanToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Paula Whyman. Whyman’s debut collection of linked short stories, You May See a Stranger, is out this month from TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. In the book, she follows Miranda Weber from her teens through her late 40s as she struggles with sexuality, marriage, politics, and the fate of her disabled sister. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly writes that these “smart, artful stories capture a woman’s life and the moments that define her.” Her fiction has appeared in many journals including McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Paula is a Fellow of The MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. A native of Washington, DC, she now lives in Maryland.

We were nineteen. We were bad. We read Andre Gidé and struck elaborate poses to show that we didn’t give a shit about anything.

When I was in high school, I remember short stories being examined as if they were curios or warm-ups for the authors’ longer works. These were classic stories—“A Rose for Emily,” “The Bear,” “Barn Burning”—great stories, don’t get me wrong, but the message was that the novel was the real game: Faulkner and Hawthorne again, plus Dostoevsky and Melville. In college, there were more and more and more novels, in my case, 19th century English novels; novels by Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford; novels of the existential and the absurd; and, in a survey of American lit, novels by Didion, Bellow, Morrison, Vonnegut, Heller, and Roth. I had not yet read the short stories I could relate to, by Ann Beattie, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, and others; all of those would come later.

Then, sometime in my early twenties, I was working on the production of a free 600-page apartment shoppers guide, a job that still involved a linotype machine, paste-up, and bluelines, in an office like the one that later became a hit TV show. I was living in a government-subsidized apartment that was not advertised in the magazine I produced, and my main entertainment was seeking out the happy hours that served the best free Buffalo wings, which would become my dinner, while hanging out with other disillusioned and financially strapped co-workers. In other words, just when I thought my life could not be more absurd, I discovered the early stories of T.C. Boyle, and I nearly drowned in “Greasy Lake.”

Greasy

“Greasy Lake” is a story of teenage boys who want to be seen as bad, set out to prove it, and almost succeed. The narrator is a likable screw-up whom you root for even as he gets too close to the edge of “true” bad. After they run out of bars to go to and mischief to make, the boys park at a local lake where they unwittingly anger a dangerous character who’s making out with his girlfriend in a car. This happens:

 The first lusty Rockette kick of his steel-toed boot caught me under the chin, chipped my favorite tooth, and left me sprawled in the dirt….The three or four succeeding blows were mainly absorbed by my right buttock and the tough piece of bone at the base of my spine.

This is not “A Rose for Emily.” Boyle’s stories are about regular people doing regular stupid stuff. To some readers the Technicolor language and lurid scenes seem over the top—the lusty Rockette kick? the favorite tooth?—but to me, this is the way a certain kind of clever boy that age will describe and embellish his experience.

Even when imminent danger leads the narrator to reach under the driver’s seat for his crowbar, he admits he’s never used it for anything but changing a tire. The boys skirt the edge of serious transgression when they nearly gang-rape a girl they call only “the fox”—the girlfriend of the mean character they’ve accidentally riled. That they are stopped just in time doesn’t make them less bad. But it does save them.

cover1-683x1024One of the features of T.C. Boyle’s stories that I’ve always admired: the inevitable downward spiral. As a writer, it can be hard to allow your characters to hit bottom. Boyle’s characters often don’t stop, they can’t stop, until the worst has occurred. But in “Greasy Lake,” they stop just short of it.

While hiding in the lake to escape from angry steel-toed boot guy, the narrator stumbles into the drowned body of a drug-dealing biker. Everything seems alive, even the lake, even the dead body:

[I] was pitching face forward into the buoyant black mass, throwing out my hands in desperation while simultaneously conjuring the image of reeking frogs and muskrats revolving in slicks of their own deliquescing juices.

 A 19-year-old boy who summons up the word “deliquescing”? This feature of Boyle’s stories always gets me. His narrators may have poor judgment, but many of them have big vocabularies. They’re underachievers with a ready store of SAT words at their disposal. Sure, you could accuse the author of putting words in his characters’ mouths, but here, at least, the words fit.

The sheer exuberance and surprising sensitivity of this narrator strike me as distinctly contemporary and American. Will these boys become as bad as that dead biker floating in the lake? In the end, they pass on the chance. For how long? One can only guess.

Why love this story? For god’s sake, why not?

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Fiction Spotlight: Becky Hagenston

Hagenston_Becky_M3B1627Becky Hagenston’s third short story collection, Scavengers: Stories (University of Alaska Press) Scavengers was published mid-March, 2016. The collection won the Permafrost 2015 Book Prize in fiction, with Memorious favorite Benjamin Percy serving as final judge. Hagenston is no stranger to prestigious prizes. The associate professor of English at Mississippi State University has two previous prize-winning collections, A Gram of Mars (Sarabande Books; winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize) and Strange Weather (Press 53; winner of the Spokane Prize), and has twice taken the O. Henry Prize. Her work has also received nods from Best American Short Stories, Best American Mysteries, and the Pushcart anthologies.

Memorious is thrilled to be publishing Hagenston’s “The Celebrity,” a story that does a million things in 1,000 words, in the upcoming Memorious 26. We’re also thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to Becky Hagenston about Scavengers, a collection so jammed with great stories, it’s impossible to decide on a favorite without breaking it down further. “Let Yourself Go,” for example, takes the prize for most brilliant ending; “Ivy Green” wins most virtuosic point of view. “Secrets of Old Time Science Experiments” is a marvel of compression and a playground for the reader questioning whether supernatural forces are at work. And Hagenston makes it all look easy! Memorious fiction reader and contributor, Wendy Oleson, had a chance to email with Becky about her recent collection.

Thank you for agreeing to talk with us about Scavengers: Stories. Which story in the collection gave you the most trouble and which came the smoothest? What did the experiences of difficulty and ease teach you about your work and process?

Of course, it’s far, far from easy. I can tell you that the story that took the longest to get right is “Secrets of Old-Time Science Experiments,” which I workshopped in my first fiction class ever, in (I think) 1993. The draft was drastically different, with Aunt Julep being a trouble-maker who had recently died. But there was something I liked about the story—the narrator’s voice and her family—and so I put the story away for years but never gave up on it. I’d take it out every few years and give it another go, but it just wasn’t working. Maybe it was when I started reading George Saunders’ and Aimee Bender’s stories that I realized I could take fanciful leaps into weirdness.

“Cool” was probably the smoothest process. I wrote that in a couple of months—which is very, very fast for me. I did end up cutting a lot of backstory to make it more cohesive, and the ending gave me some trouble, but overall it came together pretty easily once I figured out how the flashbacks and current action connected.

In this collection, being seen, heard, and understood by another person can be a double-edged sword, as it often precipitates moments of painful self-reflection; the same might be true of putting oneself in the position of really seeing another person. In this light,“Good Listener” feels like the keystone of the collection: the precise unspooling of the narrative even participates in the protagonist’s struggle to communicate after a tragedy. It dares readers to pay close attention to Laura’s thoughts and fears, to believe we understand her pain. Could you talk a bit about this story—how it fits in the collection and how you found the perfect timing and balance in revealing and concealing the circumstances of Laura’s life?

This was the first Mississippi story I ever wrote, and I’d been living in Mississippi for about three years already. I think of it as a story of displacement, of trying to find your place in the world, and also for Laura it’s about the moment when she realizes what she is and isn’t ready to accept for her life. It’s sometimes really difficult for me to know what line of work my characters should be in, but making Laura a high school guidance counselor opened up a lot of possibilities. The story took off for me when I added Kayla, the high school student, and Patty, the hard-drinking engineering post-doc. I think those characters are the key to the revealing/concealing that goes on, the things Laura reveals and doesn’t reveal to them. Those characters helped me begin to understand Laura’s thoughts and fears and pain.

Your endings are, to borrow Brad Watson’s term,“heart punches” as much as gut punches. They’re both startling and satisfying, an effects coupling so difficult to achieve. How do you write endings? Do they ever come first?

I do a lot of rewriting when it comes to endings. Sometimes I’ll think I have it, and I’m completely wrong. On more than one occasion, I’ll have what I think is a brilliant—evocative but not overstated—ending, and I’ll give the story to a trusted reader who will say, “Huh? This makes no sense.” And then as I’m trying to explain why it does make sense, I’ll realize: Hey, I shouldn’t have to explain the damn ending! Back to the drawing board.

Sometimes the ending will shimmer in the distance when I’m about halfway through the story. Sometimes it’s a mirage. The endings that I love the most are the ones that surprise me as I’m writing them, and this did happen with “Let Yourself Go.” I think endings should make a story feel complete without tying anything up or solving anything. And that, as I’ve discovered, is really hard to do.

I love what Flannery O’Connor says in Mystery and Manners about the ending of “Good Country People”: “I didn’t know [the Bible salesman] was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable. This is a story that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason for this is that it produced a shock for the writer.”

The story “Cool” first appeared in One Teen Story (One Story’s magazine for the many, many passionate readers of Young Adult fiction). How, if at all, did you revise the story for Scavengers?

Patrick Ryan, the editor of OTS, is such a great editor that there wasn’t really anything left to change! He was great at pointing out some confusing moments in the story, and he suggested perfect ways of rewording clunky lines. He suggested changing the title from “Cool Mom” to “Cool,” which I thought was an excellent idea. The only real change I made for the story collection was the name of the mother. Her name was originally Patty, but there was already a Patty in “Let Yourself Go.” So now she’s Jenny. That’s one of the unexpected challenges of putting together a story collection: realizing how often I reuse names!

Your characters behave idiosyncratically—even eccentrically—without it feeling forced. They drink too much at a dinner party and end up under the hosts’ kitchen table kissing the Labrador. They say things like,“‘Oh ho! That’s cranberry sauce!’” They tweet and take great pleasure when a stranger tweets back. Their vulnerability and disillusionment forge humor and pathos. Even when the stories skew fantastic, there’s an emotional honesty present. Your work evokes a dazzling range of contemporary authors, from Lorrie Moore to Aimee Bender, Ken Liu, and Carmen Maria Machado. Who and what inspired you as you wrote these stories?

I am absolutely a fan of Aimee Bender and Lorrie Moore, and I haven’t read Ken Liu or Carmen Maria Machado but now I’m definitely going to. I teach great stories like “Sonny’s Blues” (speaking of brilliant endings!) and “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and every year or so I read “The Dead” out loud to myself. The ending of that story actually had a huge influence on the ending of “The Afterlife.” I was inspired by Kevin Brockmeier’s fables to write “Puppet Town.” And maybe it was when I started reading Haruki Murakami’s, George Saunders’ and Aimee Bender’s stories that I realized I could take fanciful leaps into weirdness.

I wrote and revised these stories over a span of many, many years. I wrote them in grad school in Tucson and New Mexico, and I wrote them as a newbie and then a not-so-newbie to Mississippi. I wrote them in between travels to Russia, France, and England. Travel always inspires me, as does talking to people. I’m very, very nosy!scavengers

And I’m always reading: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, occasionally graphic novels. I love biographies of doomed royalty. I’m addicted to gruesome true stories of adventures gone awry. For me, it’s about just filling my brain with stories all the time. I just finished reading Kelly Link’s new collection, Get in Trouble, and that inspired me to go down a much weirder route in a story than I’d planned to.

Would you be willing to share a bit about what you’re working on now?

I think I’m finished with collection #4, which mostly takes place in France and Mississippi. So now I’m just working on more stories, and I like to have stuff in every possible stage of the process. There’s one I feel pretty good about, and I’m revising two that I think have potential, and I’m also taking notes for stories that may or may not turn into anything—or may turn into something years from now. And even though I’ve written five novels that don’t have enough plot to be publishable, I’m still always trying to get that right!

 

Wendy Oleson’s recent stories appear in Cherry Tree, Quarterly West, and Carve Magazine (as the winner of the 2015 storySouth Million Writers Award). A 2015 Vermont Studio Center fiction fellow, Wendy teaches creative writing for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and writes about people who do very bad things for Bellum Entertainment. Visit her (@weoleson) on Twitter or her handsome dog (gr8winstoni) on Instagram.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

 

 

 

 

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Big Loves: Katie Chase on Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping

chase_photoToday’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Katie Chase. Her debut short story collection, Man and Wife, is out this week from A Strange Object. In these funny and subversive stories, marriages are arranged over tea, blood feuds simmer beneath football games, and cities burn while their characters struggle between holding on to their families and seeking out new ways to live and love. Publishers Weekly calls Man and Wife “a consistently provocative debut collection.” Chase’s fiction has appeared in the Missouri Review, Narrative, ZYZZYVA, Prairie Schooner, Mississippi Review, and the Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize anthologies. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Born and raised outside Detroit, she lives currently in Portland, Oregon. Here she shares her love of Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping.

As a writer of short stories, I’m addicted to the sprint, to the puzzle. That out-of-breath hurtling toward an ending always in hazy sight, that picture-perfect sensation of clicking in the final pieces in revision (both fleeting: hence the addiction). I can’t be the only one constantly scouting for ways to cheat at novel-making: Do others have favorite novels that seem to have stumbled upon shortcuts to the finish? “Seem” being the operative word, for even the novella, even the novel-in-stories, necessarily has moves utterly distinct from those of the short story.

Let me take you back to a pre-VIDA Count 2004. This was the year that the National Book Award shortlist was scandalous and scrutinized for being composed entirely of women—little known women; women who had all written difficult, little books; women all living in New York, no less (as though we should picture them together at brunch, scoffing at the very Middle America in which I lived, plotting the takeover of just such a list). What is the purpose, went the debate, of such awards, and had the committee, led by known experimentalist Rick Moody, failed in their task? Writing for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Laura Miller calls Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Madeleine Is Sleeping “novel-ish,” one of the “two weakest” on the list: “Neither book merits a spot…let alone deserves the award itself.” Yet, I am grateful for this uproar, and to this list for doing what one might think it should: helping into a reader’s hands a book she loved. I’m grateful even for Miller’s diss, as it puts a finger on what it is about this book that I love best, that it is novel-ish, that it just sneaks beneath the ribbon cordoning off that category.

MadeleineWritten in short, titled chapters—some only a sentence, none longer than a couple pages—Madeleine Is Sleeping conjures a familiar nineteenth century-ish world of corsets and castrati, and then melds it with the tropes of familiar fairy tales, from “Sleeping Beauty” to “Bluebeard” to Ludwig Bemelmans’s twentieth-century Madeline. The result is something far less familiar. As Madeleine sleeps, tucked into bed at her mother’s house in rural France, we enter her dreams. We’re introduced, piece by piece, to a cast of misfits and oddities: a hirsute woman resembling a viol; M. Pujol, aka Le Petomane, a “flatulist” sharing the name of an actual entertainer in nineteenth-century France. But are we in Madeleine’s subconscious, or in a reality tangential to her sleep? Soon it becomes clear that the pattern is not simply one of alternation between the real and the dreamed; the two will converge even as they diverge. On page four, a village woman described as “grotesquely fat” sprouts wings and raises herself to the sky. We are in her point of view. Later this same woman lands on the family’s roof and exchanges words with the mother.

Many of these short chapters seemingly could stand alone, stories in themselves. The language is detailed and lush; images recur, are repurposed; and in this way, many chapters—as with the short story—have more to do with the poem than the so-called novel. But before long, this misfit cast meets up, as Madeleine embarks with a “gypsy” troupe on an adventure that has her practicing as a contortionist, posing for pornographic photography, and falling in love. Yet even as the novel’s momentum begins to rely less on the mystery of its structure and more on the energy of a plot, its pieces remain parts to a puzzle: the truth behind why Madeleine sleeps and sleeps, why the fingers on her hands have melded together, deforming them into “paddles.” I will refrain from spoiling, but let’s just say that, as in a short story, there is much left off the page.

During this summary, you may have been plucking phrases for evidence that this book is not for you: “bearing resemblance to a viol,” “sprouts wings,” “’gypsy’ troupe.” Let me assure you that I too felt wary, at first, in the face of such quirkiness. Yet I am a lover of style in art to the extent that it’s possible I overvalue it. Never at the expense of substance, but the best stories, to me, are those in which the two are inextricable: How they’re told has everything to do with what they want to say. And ultimately, this book is so much more than clever acrobatics. It’s a profound portrait of adolescence, a subtle examination of the mores and undercurrents of society, and a celebration of and lament for the body, in all its beauty, grotesquerie, and attendant shame. Beneath an unconventional structure and a “voyage and return” plot, is a story fully under the sway of its own interior logic, laid line by line. Its ending holds such magic that it truly no longer matters what is dreamed and what is real.

cover-man-and-wife-finalIn Madeleine Is Sleeping, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum has on display all I want to read in a book, all I hope to write in one: lyrical writing with a sense of humor, metaphor and rhythm, subversive intentions, and a wide and generous imagination. It may not be a book for everyone, or even for a national award meant to stimulate book sales as much as honor good writing. But it belongs to a tradition that is, to me, much more illustrious, one of odd, difficult little books by women. Books judged for being little because they are short, as though unassuming, when among their aims and accomplishments is to shoot cracks through the ground that traditions stand on. I’d put among them Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and Joy Williams’s The Changeling.

I love this book for its inventiveness, its audacity, its utter originality, and most of all, for its answer to the question, What can a novel be?

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Poetry Spotlight: Maggie Dietz

Maggiedietzphoto

Poet Maggie Dietz is one of Memorious‘s first contributors, having appeared in Issue 1, and the University of Chicago Press has just released her second collection, That Kind of Happy. The collection manages to feel deeply personal without being limited to the interior concerns of just one self. Dietz’s gaze is alertly trained on the wide world, and her speaker’s entanglement in it—its strangers, links on globalization’s unwieldy, unjust social chain, its hillsides and music and hospital rooms.  “Mankind cannot bear much Reality,” Eliot wrote, but Dietz’s poetry seeks it, passionately.

Dietz is the author of a previous collection, Perennial Fall, winner of the Jane Kenyon Award and a Wisconsin Library Association Literary Award. She is the recipient of a Grolier Poetry Prize, a George Bennett Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy, and fellowships from the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. With Robert Pinsky, she coedited the anthologies Americans’ Favorite Poems (1999), Poems to Read (2002), and An Invitation to Poetry (2004). She teaches at Boston University and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

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“Kempie” is one of the poems in the book I loved immediately on first reading. It’s eerie and wonderful the way you shadow-puppet childhood snapshots and leave the reader to figure out that these are just wishful imaginings, for the time being (if I’m reading right.) I love the metrical/maternal certainty of the ending: “You’ve got a mother, / Kempie, and you’ve got a name.” But I have to admit: I’m baffled by the poem’s first sentence! Would it ruin things if you were to give me a few clues here?

“When I was like you no one/spoke to me…” The poem presents the problem of how to speak to a person who doesn’t exist. Maybe that is helpful? The line break may offer a clue as well. I guess I don’t mind it’s being mysterious, although it’s never my intention to baffle anybody. The distinction between mystery and befuddlement is something I bring up often with my students—the one being desirable, the other not so much.

Probably my favorite “move” here is the tempering of longing with sharpness and sass (“Remember / when you didn’t have the croup? / I stayed up all night making steam. / Remember when you didn’t win / the spelling bee? / We were so proud.”) There’s what you could call a Syzmborskan resilience-by-humor in there. Were those negations—we didn’t, you didn’t— there in early drafts, or did they come later? 

Those “Remember when you didn’t…” formulations were part of my initial thinking about the poem, the kind of almost subconscious writing that happens before anything is written down. I guess there’s a dream-as-wish-fulfillment thing happening there. It’s as if those things—the croup, the spelling bee—both did and didn’t happen. This poem and much of the book take up dream and imagination as equally real and sometimes more significant that what we call “real life.” In her essay “Against Sincerity,” Louise Glück examines the distinction between what is actual and what is true. I love that essay. The statements “I stayed up all night making steam” and “We were so proud” mean to be true.

In “Thin Ice,” your lines  “The frozen river’s like a place / in me I mustn’t go”makes me think of Frost. What is your favorite Frost poem, and why?

I have several—“‘Out, Out—,’” “Directive,” “An Old Man’s Winter Night,”—and Frost has been important to me, and influential. “Home Burial” is the poem that above all others feels endlessly complex and difficult. Frost never read that poem aloud—there’s no recording of it—because he said it was too sad. There’s nothing quite like listening to students who’ve encountered the poem for the first time discuss it: the initial impulse to take a side (the husband, the wife) usually dissipates, and the talk turns to different ways of grieving. I won’t write an essay about it here, but I’ll say that what amazes me most about the poem (beyond the brilliance of the conversation fitted so naturally to blank verse) is the physicality of it. There’s the movement on the staircase, of course, but most striking to me is the moment when the wife, Amy, recounts to her husband the act of his having dug (“With your own hand—how could you?”) their child’s grave:

Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And run back down the mound beside the hole.

You can hear her mounting anger there, and also understand that she is physically mimicking the act of digging. It’s as if she demonstrates the catharsis her husband may have experienced in that physical action without understanding it’s possible that’s what it was.

I have a question about the poem “Another Day, Another Dolor,” which includes the lines

we angled in to hear if he’d say something
wise—and he did he said ‘I guess
you’re wondering why I called this meeting’

Why no comma in “he did he said”?  (I love the rush the commalessness creates.) Was there ever a comma? Did anyone ever suggest one? Tell me the story of this comma-lack.

The absence of commas imitates, I suppose, the breathlessness of story-telling in a poem that is a conversational retelling of several family anecdotes. There are some commas in the poem, but many of them, those that would introduce dialogue, for instance, I left out. Denise Levertov likens punctuation to a score for the reader’s breath, and I’m with her on that. The omission you mention is probably the boldest one (in terms of ignoring grammatical rules), and that has to do with momentum for me. If someone had suggested I stick a comma there, I’d have ignored them. But I don’t remember that happening.

I’d like to quote from Marie Howe’s poem “Pain” (from What The Living Do):

… a day came when he said, Marie,
you know how we’ve been waiting for the big pain to come?

I think it’s here. I think this is it.
I think it’s been here all along.

And he did take the morphine, and he died the next week.

The 90%-iamb “he did” is satisfyingly percussive, of course, but I’m wondering if (you think) both of you were drawn to the assertion of “he DID” as defiance toward, in each case, a deathbed?

That’s a powerful Howe poem. Hmmm….it’s hard for me to see or hear defiance in it. I hear anapests in her construction with the “ands,” and a sense of acquiescence in the sonic echo there, a rhythm of attrition: “and he did…and he died.”

In my poem “he did he said” is more iambic (“and he did he said ‘I guess / you’re wondering why I called this meeting.’”) If there’s defiance in the assertion, I think it’s the speaker’s defiance: an insistence on humor as a kind of wisdom, maybe even especially in the darkest and most serious moments. Is humor in the face of death a kind of defiance? Yes—I’d not thought of it that way, not in the “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” sense. Another way to look at it is that humor is a way to accept and acknowledge death without making the people who have to go on living discomfited. There’s wisdom in that—a kind of wisdom only the dying have access to—and, as I’ve experienced it, tremendous generosity.

I first read the poem “Zoloft” in Threepenny, and was so excited when I learned it would be part of a new book. I got glasses for the first time a year ago, and was stunned like your speaker, for whom: “where the branches had been a blur / of fire, now there were scalloped oak leaves.” That stanza begins “it was October and I could see the edges / of everything” and adds, “It was wonderful. It made me / horribly sad.” This contradictory emotional simultaneity feels *true*, but I’m wondering why it’s true. Is it that the rush of heightened awareness of one’s sensory environment is unavoidably paired with the poignancy of not being able to hold on to it? Or am I just projecting?

I’m glad it feels true to you, and I don’t think you’re projecting. But I do think it’s an impulse to try to align one’s own experience with the experience of a poem—to summon or recall some parallel or similar if not life experience then emotional circumstance. Your association—having gotten glasses—seems only natural. People seek solidarity in art even if there’s not so direct a connection.

I wasn’t thinking of Keats and negative capability when I wrote the poem, but it’s always knocking around up there and it’s what you’re describing, I think, in pointing to the simultaneity of opposing emotions. Paradox is often at the center of truth, because nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and two truths can seem to contradict each other. Kids even understand this. Not long ago my daughter looked up from what she was doing and said, “Mom, you know that yeah-no feeling?”

I can only guess what readers might draw from that stanza: the rush you mention and its connection to loss, a sense of what one’s missed, of what one doesn’t get to keep, a sense of the fragility of the body, the reliance on technology as we age, the notion that the world’s available beauty can be veiled to some of us. And perhaps things I can’t imagine as well. If some readers find something true there, as you say you have, than the poem has done its job. What more can we hope for?

Interviewer Sarah Green is a reader for Memorious and the author of the chapbook Skeleton Evenings (Finishing Line Press) and the poetry collection Earth Science (421 Atlanta).

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Fiction Spotlight: Ranbir Singh Sidhu

rsnewheadshot-smallWe were lucky enough to snatch up Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s hilarious short story “‘Cross-eyes’ Thorpe Hits The Mark” for Memorious 25. Though he has spent the better part of the last two decades in Brooklyn and Crete, Sidhu is a writer with California in his blood. This is a component of his backstory—Sidhu was born in London and raised in the Bay Area—but also a central focus of his remarkable debut novel, Deep Singh Blue.

Sidhu, the author of the short story collection Good Indian Girls (Soft Skull Press) and a recipient of both a Pushcart Prize and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, presents us with a version of Northern California in the mid-80s as experienced by Deep Singh, a complex and highly-charged narrator. At the start of the book, he has transferred out of high school to enroll in a community college, hoping to put some distance between himself and his suffocating home, where his parents, first-generation Indian immigrants, subject him to their own ideas of the good life. Indeed, the California of Deep Singh Blue, with its cheap motels, liquor stores, and rent-by-the-hour hot tubs, seems a place where ideas of the good life have festered and soured, a place that contains within itself many of the forces that would come to characterize the country in the decades that followed. Kirkus calls the novel a “heart-wrenching coming-of-age tale in which survival depends more on compassion than rebellion.” Sidhu was kind enough to talk with Memorious fiction reader and contributor Chris Arp about his writing process, the state of the novel, and his weird home state of California.

 From the very first pages, the Northern California of Deep Singh Blue is an awfully claustrophobic place, both in Deep’s home and the wider environs. I’m thinking also of his driving trips, which seem to promise freedom but also an aimless kind of wandering.

 It’s set in the middle of the 1980s, in the heart of what was Reagan’s America, and even in California I think you felt the chill of that world. Certainly to me, as a recent immigrant at the time, I remember finding that world still closed in on itself and that surprised me. I knew kids in school who had never left the city limits, let alone hopped on the BART train and taken it to San Francisco or Berkeley, which was only a half hour away. And in such an enclosed world, which I think is what so much of American suburbia was back then, an aimless kind of wandering was the only real recreation, beyond drinking or making out, the latter if you were very lucky.

As far as how I approached it in the novel, I wanted Deep’s wider world to reflect his inner, and not so much as a literary device but to reinforce that this is how he sees the world because this very much is the kind of world he’s grown up in, if that distinction makes sense. He isn’t yet able to imagine a wider, more generous reading of what the world could be, even in the admittedly claustrophobic universe of the Northern California I paint here.

screen-shot-2016-01-21-at-3-09-44-pmOne of the triumphs of the book, to my mind, is the way the environment can be read as both subjective and real. Deep’s world is symbolically resonant, while at the same time drab, under-stimulating, and altogether uninterested in our protagonist. And isn’t that exactly what it feels like to be a teenager?

I wouldn’t think of Deep’s world as “symbolically resonant”—I’d just think of it as Deep’s world, and painted as clearly as I can with a mind to how he interacts with it. This is his world—whether the world he sees is different from some idea of a so-called “real” world I couldn’t answer. But that particular agony of teenagehood interested me, and in particular, Deep’s teenage years as a child of immigrants and growing up in a world that had absolutely no room for that experience.

It’s an interesting tension. He is at times explicitly interested in his parents’ lives, and at times not. On the first page, he says of his parents, “They weren’t doctors or engineers, neither had much of an education, they were the other Indians, the ones that don’t get talked about and whose stories don’t get written…” Now, this is told from a position of the somewhat older Deep, and when I read it I was prepared to learn their stories. Yet Deep spends most of the novel regarding his parents through the haze of his own frustration and rebellion. Sympathy only comes at the bitter end. Why portray his parents’ experience through such a narrator?

 I wanted to anchor Deep’s voice in that moment of his teenage years, and paint the world through that lens, which seems to me very interesting. And Deep’s older voice, which only comes in a few brief times, does give a larger sense of the world, or of a person who’s come to see the world as larger, but he doesn’t yet. I don’t want to undermine how horribly enclosed his world is and how intensely he finds himself shut out from larger conversations. That’s a very real experience of the world, and I didn’t want to devalue it by suggesting it was a false experience—it’s not, it’s as real and valid as any other, just more painful than many.

Yeah, the outside world trickles in, and is somehow twisted in the process. References are made, throughout the book, to the Sikh and anti-Sikh violence in the Punjab in the 1980s. Yet Deep hears about all this through Uncle Gur, whose reactions seem as outsized and impulsive as his comical business dealings. Who is Uncle Gur? How did his character come about and why was he chosen as the conduit for so many of the larger conversations?

 He grew out of a lot of people I know personally I suppose—and his reactions don’t seem particularly outsized to me frankly. As far as this question of why he was “chosen”—I really have to say he wasn’t chosen at all. I mean he’s just one of the characters in the extended family, and he certainly has a presence and a far greater interest in what’s going on in Punjab than Deep’s father does, say, but he wasn’t written in for that reason, rather all of that grew out of his character. I never write with an idea that I have something to say about a particular subject, and any larger meanings or connections come late in the process, and are usually a surprise to me.

You must have access to more passionate uncles. The only one I’ve ever known rarely spoke above a murmur. That’s interesting about your process. Who were the first characters in the genesis of the novel? Did it grow out of the central storyline between Deep and his initial love interest, Lily, or was the family there from the start? Or both, or neither?

 It very much grew out of Deep and wanting to look at his life, and actually the relationship with Lily came in quite late in the process of rewriting. It was their relationship that catalyzed so much of the novel for me, and made it considerably stronger, and she also gave him so much to play against and allowed him to look at some really quite dark parts of himself.

She’s a dark character. In one of the novel’s most electrifying sequences, she nearly runs a car off the road. She is half Chinese—“a fucking half-Chink, half-cracker,” is how she introduces herself—and so is the family in the car. Afterwards, she says, “At least the Chink had balls…Usually they shit their pants.” Deep’s reaction is really interesting. She insists that he refer to himself as a Paki. “‘Paki,’ I agreed, thinking there it was, the cages we both lived in, for her Chink, for me Paki, like she was shining a light on the bars.” You say the relationship with Lily came in later, but she reads as essential to Deep’s development, as well as a central and uncompromising character in her own right.

Of all the characters in the book, I think I have the deepest affection for Lily, and the true disaster she’s made of her life, or is making of it. Not that you can blame her, I don’t, and I find a lot of myself that lies buried is expressed rather forcefully on the surface with her. She’s obviously self-destructive, but I think a lot of people who act in outwardly self-destructive modes often understand intuitively that this might be the only viable escape route for them, by that I mean it’s almost a rational choice—whether they can clean themselves up before they do actually destroy themselves is another matter.

And what is she escaping from? We learn a good deal about her home life and her past, both of which are very hard, but is there something more? Early on, Deep wonders if it is a “rootlessness of the soul” that makes him most properly a Californian. He seems to find a kindred spirit in Lily.

 Definitely he does, and yes, to me California felt very much like a place where you wandered rootlessly to, and got stuck because often you couldn’t wander any farther. That’s not the case any longer, as it’s become so expensive, at least in the cities. In some of the desert communities you still have that feel, but it’s also a feeling of crushing economic hardship as there are few jobs. I think of this California, the 1980s version, as a last holdout of a dream California, but it was one that was already dying or dead. Then the 1990s tech boom came along and basically just tossed the body over the cliff and into the ocean. As far as what Lily’s running from, other than how it’s described in the book, I feel that’s very much the reader’s decision to ask themselves if that’s whey want to find out.

And what was the dream California? What was killing it by the mid 80s?

 I doubt there ever was such a California, thus the dream part—but there was a much more working class California, and a working class Bay Area, and a much more multi-layered city (I’m thinking mainly of San Francisco here), which was swallowed up by the tech boom. These things happen, and that city isn’t ever coming back—it’s one of the reasons I don’t live there anymore. But there was a time when money didn’t have to be such a determining factor in where you lived and who you knew and what you did with your life. I think the latter is so much the case now, and not just in large parts of California, but across this country. I miss that other world where money mattered less, even though we had so much less of it in general.

Forgive me widening the lens here, but do you think this shift in America has changed the novel? Do we need different kinds of novels? Has it changed you as a reader, or as a writer?

 No, please do. And I don’t know if it’s changed the novel, or how it would, but I do think that how we imagine America has changed dramatically. In that sense I hope the novel, for all it’s surface bleakness, brings to life a more potential time, a more possible time. I feel these days we find ourselves pushed into ever narrower realms, into ever narrower ways we are described and how we describe ourselves. This happens in fiction in the abundance of genres and sub-genres, which I find troubling, because it posits a world where we read with expectations of a particular experience, and also in the larger sense, live with expectations of how we will experience a certain moment. I’m all for cross-genre writing, multi-genre writing, but I’d much rather break the back of genre altogether and watch it happily die. I like writers who try all types of different books, and different stories, and ways of telling stories—but that’s a tough sell in the bottom line-driven world of corporate publishing.

And do you see these tropes or types cropping up in literary fiction?

 I find much literary fiction these days to be highly genre-defined. For me good writing breaks boundaries, and these days I feel few established writers, especially at the major houses, are interested in that at all—they want to rehash the same book that was written twenty years ago, maybe fifty years, or longer. That’s fine, but let’s say it’s a genre as much as self-styled romance novels are, and in the larger sense of whether it moves the form forward, then let’s agree that it most definitely does not. There’s a lot of really great writing out there—I’m currently totally hooked on Ron Currie’s extraordinary Everything Matters!—but we’ve allowed literary culture to be largely defined by the marketing departments of the big houses and the soporific tastes of pretty much universally white, privileged editors, and much of what they put out is as dull as wallpaper paste.

Amen. And aside from Currie, where else might the desperate reader turn for some originality? What other writers do you see as fighting the good fight?

 Two books I recently read that I think push hard against how we imagine modern literary fiction are Alex Shakar’s Luminarium, and Jan Morris’ Last Letters from Hav. They’re very different works, and imagine two very different approaches to writing, but both engage with literature from the sentence level upward. Two of the writers I grew up reading are both British experimenters—Alasdair Gray and Brigid Brophy. Again, they produced very different works, and with both authors, each of their books is often very different from previous ones, but they’re enlivened by a spirit of pushing against form and expectation. They struggle with the material at hand.

Chris Arp is a graduate of NYU’s MFA program in Fiction, where he was a finalist for the Axinn Foundation / E.L. Doctorow Fellowship. Since then, his work has been published in Storgy Magazine and the Cumberland River Review, and is forthcoming in Memorious 26. One of his stories was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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Memorious 2015/2016 Art Song Contest Winner & Finalist Announced

We am thrilled to announce that guest composer Elizabeth Kelly has selected Trenton Pollard as the winner of the 2015/2016 Art Song Contest! Kelly will set Pollard’s poems into an original work and the new song cycle will be premiered by Sabine Wüthrich (soprano) and Daniël Kramer (piano) at the inaugural Nott FAR (Nottingham Forum for Artistic Research) concert in the UK on November 11, 2016.
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Trenton Pollard’s poems have been published in The Chicago Quarterly Review, Paper Nautilus, Assaracus, The HIV Here and Now Project, Codex Journal, and elsewhere. He has received scholarships and fellowships from The New York Summer Writer’s Institute, Wildacres, North Carolina State University, and Columbia University. Originally from Michigan, he lives in New York City.

 

We would like to congratulate finalists Michele Battiste, Paula Bohince, Joyce Peseroff, Joshua Rivkin, Quang Vo, and Claire Wahmanholm, who have all been offered publication in the Art Song issue, scheduled for release in Winter 2016/17. Thank you to everyone who sent us poems for our guest composer to consider: it was an incredible pool of submissions.

For original fiction, poetry, interviews, and art song, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Megan Grumbling

Bio-1Megan Grumbling’s first collection of poems, Booker’s Point, was just released by University of North Texas Press as the winner of the Vassar Miller Prize. Her work has been awarded the Poetry Foundation’s Ruth Lilly Fellowship, the Robert Frost Award from the Robert Frost Foundation, a Hawthornden Fellowship at Hawthornden Castle, Scotland, and a St. Boltoph Emerging Artist Award, and her poems have appeared such places as Poetry, The Iowa Review, Crazyhorse, The Southern Review, The Antioch Review, Verse Daily, and Memorious. One of her poems from Issue 14 of Memorious, “Leaving the Room,” was selected by Claudia Emerson for Best New Poets 2010 and was a finalist for Best of the Net 2010. Her latest poems in Memorious 25 are part of the spoken opera Persephone in the Late Anthropocene, a co-creation of Megan and librettist and composer Denis Nye, which will be produced by Hinge/Works in May of 2016, at SPACE Gallery, in Portland, Maine.

Grumbling serves as Reviews Editor for The Café Review, a poetry and arts journal, and has since 2004 written weekly theater criticism for the Portland Phoenix. She teaches at the University of New England and Southern Maine Community College.

Can you tell me about the origins of this book, and particularly about the character Booker?

When this book began, I thought I was compiling an oral history of the land around where I grew up. I had just returned to Maine from grad school in New York, and was feeling a prodigal’s need to reconnect with my home town, Wells, and Ell Pond, a lake down the road from my childhood house. My father introduced me to Booker, the old guy who lived across the pond who was its unofficial “Mayor,” and who I’d somehow never met, despite all eighteen years of growing up there. This woodsman, surveyor, and jack-of-many-trades knew about the pond, land, trees, stones, and everything else I wanted to know, or had never even thought to want to know. We tromped around the woods together, I helped dig holes or look for white stones, and I listened – and recorded a lot of – his stories. And I found myself unexpectedly moved in many ways by our work and connection. Soon enough I was writing a portrait, and poetry, and eventually I made my way into the poems myself.

This book exemplifies what is often called “poetry of place”– how does your relationship to your home state of Maine, and the particularly geography of where you grew up, shape this book?

Booker’s Point is steeped in the landscapes of my home state, some histories of those landscapes – the imagery of pond and wood, the former grazing lands returned to forest, the various town lines and how they were run. But I also meditated on more ambivalent or complicating factors of this place: What I didn’t know or even knew wrong, after all my years of living there; the human hand in the pond’s natural history; the challenge of holding the home of a place in the face of change. I wrote about these matters in the context of my Maine hometown, but very conscious that I was writing about wholly universal questions that I hope will resonate with many.

What led to your formal choices for this book?

Much of the book’s formalism – blank verse, sonnets, some nonce stuff in pentameter – was a very conscious nod to Frost and the heritage and grace of his conversational voices. This is the case particularly in many of the poems that center on Booker himself, his stories, or history in general. In the poems in which my own voice, experience, or ambivalence are more central, I often found style, music and lineation sometimes becoming more modern, more lyric than narrative, more leap-y and expressionistic.

And sometimes the interweaving of Booker and myself – and occasionally of multiple time frames in a given poem – gave rise to little experiments in a kind of poetic montage. Also, working with many hours of transcript from my recordings of Booker presented interesting challenges, including how to get documentary quotes into pentameter! Frost was again helpful for thinking about this puzzle, as was my work as a reporter and ethnographer, and, though this may sound weird, I kind of had Shakespeare’s myriad pentametric voices in the back of my mind, as a reassurance maybe.

Grumbling Book Covers V4-2You do not have an MFA, but an MA in journalism from NYU, but you have published widely in journals such as Poetry and The Iowa Review, and you’ve received the Ruth Lilly Award, the St Botolph Award, and many others awards for emerging writers. How did you come to poetry, and how would you describe your alternative path of studying poetry?

I was writing and reading poetry even as a kid, but chose not to pursue it in my higher ed – I wound up studying American Studies, oral history/ethnography, and cultural reporting and criticism. While that decision means I’m not as well networked in the academic writing realm as I might otherwise have been, I think that my path has provided really interesting alternative ways for thinking about story, telling, and voice, and for working with the notion of “no ideas but in things” on very practical levels. I think there are a lot of parallels between good criticism and poetry – using the small and sensual to meditate on the expansive – and my reporting and interviewing really attuned my ear – and my affinities – to people’s tellings.

You have a few poems in the latest issue of Memorious, and I know that you are working on an opera and a book-length collection that include poems. Can you tell us about both of these projects?

The project, Persephone in the Late Anthropocene, re-imagines the Persephone myth in the age of climate change – she comes and goes between worlds erratically, drinks too much, takes a human lover. It’s essentially a story about our narratives: how we tell ourselves and what we’ve done to the planet, which I think is fundamental to how we understand, grieve, and respond. The opera version of Persephone is co-created by myself as librettist and composer Denis Nye, and it premieres this May in Portland, Maine, with a site-specific installation as set and an amazing team of artists who have been committed to its development for nearly two years now. Denis’s score is a gorgeous, post-Romantic post-Romantic chamber work for oboe, violin, viola, and cello, filtered live through a digital delay to evoke the disjunction and crisis – as well as the beauty – of our modern world; the libretto ranges from lyric verse to edgy, magical realist prose poems and an imagined Farmer’s Almanac.

Now that the artists are in rehearsals, I am trying to finish the book form of this project, which tells the same story but includes additional threads and layers. A book is the form I started in, but I finished it in libretto mode, when I had grown immersed in writing for voice and staging rather than the page. So now the challenge is to make that translation back to page, and it’s an interestingly confounding one at times. It’s really making me think about form and page space in ways I haven’t had cause to before.

For stories, poems, interviews, and art song, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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