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In this installment of “Between the Lines” we talk with Issue 5 contributor Wesley Rothman about poetic process, the creative relationships between different art forms, and the cultural state of contemporary poetry.
FWR: Your poetry likes to locate itself at the intersection of different artforms: blues music and lyrics, for example, or the relationship between text and visual art. Is this just a part of your aesthetic or the result of a conscious poetic project on your part?
WR: I think it’s a little bit of both. I’ve always been addicted to music and visual art, and maybe more importantly, the artists that create these mediums. Clearly I’m in love with Frida Kahlo, and I don’t think you can talk about Frida without at least thinking of Diego Rivera. I’m also obsessed with Nina Simone and David Bowie (who were dear friends), as well as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Billie Holiday, Van Gogh, ’90s hip-hop artists, and Salvador Dalí (who was an intimate friend of Federico García Lorca’s). So I’m obsessed with these people, the art they made, what they did to society and history, and in terms of a conscious poetic project, I’m interested in how they are remembered, what their legacies look like and become over time. I want to make poems that serve as snapshots of these legacies, or make us wonder about legacies and how they morph. Art to honor art and artists. It’s interesting that we make poems about figures and by doing so we may be affecting, in some small way, how future generations remember these figures.
FWR: That’s interesting, especially since it’s still fashionable to talk about poetry being this opaque, elitist, stodgy art form that’s fading out of relevance. How do you respond to claims like that?
WR: It is fashionable, isn’t it? This has been on my mind for quite some time, and I’ll try to compress my thoughts about these sorts of claims, but it will be a bit oversimplified, I know. It seems to me that most people making claims that poetry is opaque, elitist, and stodgy say this because they don’t understand the craft decisions of the poets they read (if they do read any). I think “they” also say this because they have been miseducated about what poetry is, how it happens. People who tear poetry, as an art form, down do so because they don’t understand and are frustrated by this lack of understanding, like not understanding a Jackson Pollack painting. People who aren’t interested in investing time and energy to understand artistic/historical/theoretical context typically dismiss the work at hand in favor of something easier. I frequently teach a Susan Sontag essay/excerpt about boredom (or frustration) to my students to wrestle this disposition. This brings me to a cultural and historical consideration. When Eliot wrote “The Waste Land,” people thought it was crazy, “opaque, elitist, stodgy, and fading from relevance,” yet it’s absolutely canonical for us. I think younger generations love Langston Hughes and Robert Frost because they rhyme, and that’s what they expect of poetry. Younger generations also love Bukowski and Ginsberg, because they’re rough and bombastic and bold, things that younger people seem drawn to like honey or bright light. In short, I think poetry was better, or more commonly, taught to generations 50+ years ago. And if it wasn’t that much more prominent in education, it was more prominent at home; parents read poetry for leisure. As education and home exposure of poetry has declined, as public recognition of poets has declined (or turned attention toward media figures), new generations are less prepared to tackle the challenge and rigor of poetry, as they are with other difficult or abstract artforms or topics. This is obviously a generalization, but I think it’s demonstrated by widespread practices like No Child Left Behind which prefer mastery and memorization of concrete facts, typically hard sciences and “hard-ish” social sciences, rather than strengthening of critical and independent thinking skills. All of this to say that I think our society has in many ways conditioned new generations to feel this way about poetry. ON THE OTHER HAND, I also think those who have been encouraged to read and internalize and wonder about poetry or other challenging art forms are coming into the arena more than ever. Even though many people feel poetry is becoming obsolete, there has been an incredible surge in recent decades of new, young poets, journals, online forums, reading series, MFA programs, high school poetry programming, higher educational development with creative writing as a valuable and valued process. Poetry is thriving in many ways in spite of a cultural preference for simplicity/entertainment/empty wittiness.
FWR: It’s frustrating, how otherwise complex and fascinating poets end up anthologized and then taught at the secondary level in the most insipid ways. Gwendolyn Brooks comes to mind. Are there any writers whose work you wish was taught differently?
WR: I wish people would teach more than “We Real Cool.” I wish anthologies would include more of her poems. Sadly, I think most poetry and literature is simplified and bastardized at the secondary level. Contemporary education standards require hard answers, meaning, and measurability. Poetry and literature actively defy these things, I think. I can’t think of any writers or poets I wish were taught differently, per se, mostly because I can’t say they’re taught in universally similar ways, but I wish writing and reading were taught differently, and I wish poets other than Whitman, Dickinson, Eliot, WCW, and Frost were taught in high schools. It’s important to become familiar with the canon, but teach high school students poetry that speaks about their world, not the world of their great-[great-]grandparents. Teach them Natalie Diaz, Marcus Wicker, Amiri Baraka, Wallace Stevens, Roger Reeves, Matthew Zapruder, Natasha Trethewey. Something that I can’t put my finger on at the moment is making history and historical context difficult to process for younger generations. We have to find a way to help young people find poignance in what happened 200 years ago before we can help them find poignance in Coleridge, Wheatley, Blake, Austen, and Wordsworth.
FWR: A lot of us have extremely complicated relationships with the canon. You wrote a great essay about Terrance Hayes responding to Wallace Stevens and that mixture of resistance and devotion, a kind of helplessness in the face of an otherwise problematic writer’s tremendous talent. Has that been something you’ve had to personally navigate?
WR: That’s a great way to describe it! I think everyone’s relationship with the canon is indeed extremely complicated, based on breadth of exposure, taste, historical and social perspective, and the list, I’m sure, goes on. Thanks for the kind words about that piece. As I become more and more familiar with Stevens, I feel a little bit of what Hayes is talking about in his poem—primarily on an ideological level. I don’t know that I’ve navigated this elsewhere. Every now and then I come across a canonical or contemporary poem that is problematic in its content or perspective, but well-crafted. I think this is less expansive than what Hayes is wrestling. In other words, Stevens was generally and consistently bigoted, but I think when I experience this conflict of resistance with admiration of craft, it’s more often a single poem (rather than a body of work or a person’s problematic social beliefs) demonstrating an uninformed perspective. I think this comes down to a person’s understanding of themselves and their beliefs. I don’t know that Stevens was problematic in many ways, but his work does demonstrate on occasion a very problematic social belief system concerning culture. Not all of his poems present this bigotry, but it’s there enough. I can’t think of another poet with whose work I’ve encountered this in the same way, but there may be other poets whose personal views I find problematic, shown in their work or not. (tough question).
FWR: It’s a really tough question. You mentioned before that you include social justice as a major priority in your writing and your teaching. How do arguments about “art for art’s sake”, or “divorcing the art from the artist” strike you, then? There have been some pretty high profile versions of this debate in the news recently.
WR: I have fishy feelings about “art for art’s sake.” I don’t think we just make it to have it in the world, that it comes from some impulse simply to create. Something drives us to make art. The specifics of that something are important and are motivated by vibrance and burning and terror within us. Art’s about passion or curiosity, and I think my passions and curiosity are served by poem-making. I kind of like the idea of divorcing art from the artist…once it’s been made. I don’t think an artist should blankly make art, but I think readers or viewers should absolutely divorce the art from the artist. That is, the art can’t help but be divorced from its maker. This happens when a poem is published or a sculpture sits in a gallery or museum. The artist isn’t alone with it anymore, the relationship is publicized and a wedge comes between the piece and the artist’s intentions or context. In many ways, I think, the artist abandons the piece when this happens, and vice versa, I suppose.
On a similar but different note, when making a poem, I think losing some control is usually, if not always, a good idea. Improvising with language, sound, syntax, and form leads to some of the most brilliant mistakes, phrases and verbs and metaphors that never could have come through a controlled hand or mind. It’s also important to not know everything that’s going into a poem, to search for something yet unknown, to be dumbfounded sometimes by the language that comes into a line, to discover something. All of this comes from a very personal drive to make a kind of art, and I think the art is populated by passions, obsessions, questions, and a kind of alchemy.
FWR: Speaking of passions and obsessions, your poem in Issue 5 was entirely about Frida Kahlo and, to a lesser extent, Diego Rivera. Why Frida? Are you more interested in her artwork, her status as a cultural icon, or something else entirely?
WR: She’s stunning. The image of herself that she painted over and over in various scenes and circumstances is stunning. Her metaphors are stunning. Her paintings’ color is stunning. The only other visual artists that have struck me the way she has are Basquiat and Van Gogh, and maybe Gerhard Richter. She’s a wonderful bundle of complexity, both artistically and personally. Her personal life is tragic and richly beautiful. Her work is like nothing else before or since. For me, she has a voice that is like a really well-done love poem, full of visual rhythms, a voice loaded with feminism and honesty and force.
FWR: So you respond to feminist voices (which is awesome). Do you view yourself as a feminist writer?
WR: I appreciate feminism as a concept and practice. I’ve learned a great deal, and I hope adopted a feminist lifestyle, from reading, thinking about, internalizing, and trying to practice feminist ideals. But I don’t know that I’d call myself a feminist writer. I’m not necessarily trying to convey feminist ideas with my poems, but I hope they are there. I think I respond to voices of witness in general. A pillar of my teaching and writing philosophies is “diversity and inclusion,” or striving for better social equity. I’m particularly interested in examining and undoing white male privilege. James Baldwin is one of my greatest influences/guides/sparring partners. He has challenged me and taught me more than anyone. Kiese Laymon, bell hooks, Jake Adam York, Danez Smith, Jericho Brown, Lucille Clifton, Natasha Trethewey, Yusef Komunyakaa, Terrance Hayes, Carl Van Vechten: these writers tug and mold what I’m most interested in, and I think, I hope, some of my writing adds to this wide conversational awareness and art of social engagement.
FWR: You mentioned early experiences with Whitman and Dickinson in another interview, with The Missouri Review. You could almost call them diametrically opposing forces in American poetry. Do you feel that your own writing has developed a position between these two influences?
WR: The things that Dickinson does with language—the sounds and semantics—are bewitching, not all that different than what Frida accomplishes with meaning/message/metaphor and color. Whitman messes with syntax and line, but his poems have always been, for me, about washing this thick layer of water over whatever subject he happens to be exploring. His poems feel like heavy blankets that cover everything and cozy me into a way of thinking or feeling. If his poems were paintings they would be gobbed with oil, lunging off the canvas like a Van Gogh. I don’t know that my own writing has developed between these two poets. Whitman has been more present than Dickinson. But I think I’m balancing the scales, discovering and revisiting more and more of Dickinson as time passes. Everyone who hasn’t read some of Leaves of Grass lately, or has forgotten the sting of Dickinson’s metaphor, should pick up or buy a book soon, now.
FWR: Have you found that working in an editorial capacity, especially for a respected publication like Ploughshares, has influenced your own development as a writer?
WR: I think editorial work has done a lot for my own writing, but most notably it has helped me gain a sense of distance or objectivity with my own work—somewhat. It’s incredibly challenging to forget “what you meant” or avoid defending writerly decisions during the revision process. I think editorial work has served as a reminder to treat my own writing as I do that of submitters. Expect the work to be well-rounded, polished, poignant, well-crafted, and meaningful. I don’t know if all my writing accomplishes this, but editorial work has helped me reach for this.
FWR: What poetry are you reading currently?
WR: Currently and very recently: Jake Adam York’s Abide, Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, David Tomas Martinez’s Hustle, rereading Leaves of Grass, Lisa Olstein’s Little Stranger, Roger Reeves’s King Me, Ruth Ellen Kocher’s domina Un/blued, rereading Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead (always rereading it), Shane McCrae’s BLOOD, Victoria Chang’s The Boss, Harryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed, rereading Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec.
FWR: What poetry do you really dislike?
WR: I’m actively trying to expand my taste, but the kinds of poetry I’ve disliked are overly casual in tone, gimmicky, weak prose in a really bad poetry mask (i.e. because a thing has line breaks doesn’t make it a poem), precious in the worst ways, lackluster without a purpose, and/or archaic-sounding for supposed fancy’s sake.
FWR: You already mentioned the difficulty of distancing yourself from your own work. Could you talk a little more about your writing process?
WR: My process isn’t very interesting, I don’t think. It’s very difficult to force myself to write. So instead, I read and search for things that get me thinking, then poems need to come out, and I’m often excited or hopeful for what I’ve first written down. After a week or so, I usually start to notice what needs to be tweaked, but more often, I leave the poem alone for awhile (a month, six months) or I submit it, and when I come back, sit down with it, I realize what’s terrible and am more comfortable slicing and adding and moving and changing. And I’ve recently noticed something about my own process that I never hear poets talking about: sometimes poems just don’t work out, no matter the tweaking or full-scale bombardment I give them. Sometimes poems need to be abandoned. This sounds an awful lot like giving up, but I think it’s more about learning from unsoundly built poems. It might seem daring or revolutionary or intriguing to build a house out of shoes, but no matter how you arrange that structure, that shit’s gonna fall apart.
FWR: Maybe no one talks about that because they don’t like to acknowledge that they do it all the time. There’s a kind of folk wisdom in poetry circles that everything is useful, that you can mine even your worst failures for the seeds of new, great poems. It’s almost more revolutionary to admit, “Yes, I tried to build a house out of shoes. That was idiotic. Moving on!” Why do you think poets are so uncomfortable doing this?r
I think there’s something to mining the worst failures for seeds of new, great poems, but it can sometimes torture you in unproductive ways. I’ve tried to make new poems from failed bits, but the phantom of what I wanted the original poem to be and do was always hanging over the new work. Maybe that’s a failure on my part as poem-maker, but I couldn’t shake it. I think it’s sometimes useful to hang onto those remnants, but other times cracking on is refreshing. I don’t know if poets are uncomfortable doing this, but maybe it’s just a matter of being uncomfortable admitting they do this. If they are uncomfortable abandoning a poem, maybe it’s a matter of proving their resourcefulness, maybe it’s a matter of intimacy. I often hear poets refer to their poems as children, and I hope everyone is uncomfortable abandoning their children, barring extreme or peculiar circumstances. I guess this means I don’t think of my poems as children.
Read “Bathing with Frida” in Issue 5
Milena always reminded me of a backdrop to a bleak landscape, a woman unlikely to arouse much conscious consideration, though she hovered around like an uncertain but inescapable future punishment. She popped in and out of our lives at random, insignificant moments. There was, for instance, that typically drab October afternoon in Frankfurt. I was strolling along the river with my mother and her friend Sandra. The harsh wind was blowing dead leaves around our feet, and we were getting our first bitter taste of German fall. I was only half-attending to the adults’ conversation, as I recalled that morning’s history class. The teacher had called on me to summarize the assigned reading. I’d pretended I hadn’t read it, embarrassed by the thought of speaking in front of everyone in my broken German. “I don’t know,” I’d quietly murmured and shaken my head. My classmates bore silent witness to my humiliation, as my heart crawled under my desk in shame.
I caught fragments of Sandra’s story about a recent date with a German banker. “Nothing special,” she snorted, and pulled her mink coat more tightly around her. “He’s insignificant. I’m a bombshell compared to him.”
“You didn’t have fun?” my mother asked.
“How could I? I could smell his bad breath from across the table. At least I got a free dinner out of it. I should focus on Bosnian men again. They understand me so much better.”
Someone suddenly called out my mother’s name.
“Lili, is that you?”
We turned around, and there she was, Milena. Like some preordained misfortune that had finally caught up with me.
She lived in our dilapidated apartment complex on the outskirts of Frankfurt. The place was a hub for Bosnian refugees. Our families gravitated towards each other, grasping for any sense of familiarity in their new world, for people they could talk to easily, without having to string together awkward words in a harsh, foreign tongue. Milena came from our hometown of Jajce. Her husband Dalibor and my father had been high school classmates, bonded by shared memories of long bygone days, when their pranks had been the talk of the town and a promising future awaited – steady government jobs and apartments in one of Jajce’s new building complexes, vacations on the Adriatic and cars on credit, all the comforts of small-town Bosnian adulthood they could rightly expect to be theirs. And yet it had all turned out otherwise.
My mother always begged me to befriend their daughter Sanja. “Sanja’s your age. Be nice to her. She doesn’t have a lot of friends,” she pleaded. I sometimes halfheartedly tried to draw her out. But attaining popularity among my German classmates was no easy feat for an awkward Bosnian refugee girl, and the last thing I needed was a strange friend like her to set me back. Sanja, with her translucent cheeks and the prominent dark blue vein on her forehead, didn’t seem to care that much for my friendship anyway. Though every once in a while, she did look away from the TV screen and open up to me. Once she fleetingly whispered into my ear, “I hate growing up. It’s so stupid. My period won’t stop. I’ve been bleeding all month.” She’d seen a doctor, she told me. He had advised her to relax. But that must have been difficult in a household like hers.
As Milena hurried towards us, her long, brown scarf blowing wildly around her, I realized we had not seen their family in a while.
“Are you on some crazy new diet? Have you stopped eating?” my mother asked as she embraced her.
“It just peels off. I don’t know why,” Milena said, and nervously waved her hand into the air. As she did so, the scarf slid to the side and revealed a set of brown bruises along her neck.
“I called you a few times. Nobody ever answers the phone.”
“I haven’t been home,” she said and moved closer to us. Then, with her eyes darting around, as if she were on the lookout for some looming danger, she volunteered in a confiding voice, “I don’t live there anymore.”
“What do you mean? Where did you go?”
“Not too far away,” she whispered. She straightened her back, looked at us and continued. “It’s a shelter for women. Visit me sometime. Sanja’s with me.”
“We’ll come soon,” my mother said and nudged me, a quiet admonishment to stay silent, just as I was about to open my mouth to ask questions.
Milena’s hushed allusions to marital strife were not surprising. All the Bosnian couples around us fought. Alcohol, religion and our many bitter losses were their arguments’ steady themes. The walls in our apartment complex were thin, and gossip about the latest screaming match spread with unbounded fury. Except for a couple of childless newlyweds, who’d married ecstatically in the midst of the worst fighting, as if the unraveling of everything around them had been a dream and not their reality, I could not think of a single family that was unaffected by the complex mess our transient lives had become.
But Dalibor and Milena’s fights seemed more ominous. Like so many Bosnian couples, they had different religious backgrounds. Dalibor was a Catholic Croat and Milena, an Orthodox Serb. Dalibor sometimes complained bitterly to my father, a bottle of beer attached to his hand. “She should convert to my faith. Shouldn’t she?” What am I supposed to do with that woman? If she won’t, she can go to the river and live under the bridge. Or float away with all those ugly container ships. Someplace far away.”
We didn’t talk to Milena much longer that November afternoon by the river. “Don’t tell Daco where I am. He doesn’t know,” she said and walked away from us towards the bridge underpass. As her bony back faded into the distance, blending with the flock of gray ducks that were resting peacefully under the bridge, I wondered about Sanja. Was she still bleeding every day? Or were things better for her in the shelter?
After our encounter by the river, I did not give Milena or her altered circumstances much further thought. Perhaps it was more pleasant not to think of women like her. Or perhaps my own, well-worn worries preoccupied me too much to leave any emotional space for the sorrows of casual acquaintances.
A few months later, Sandra mentioned she’d seen Milena shopping with her husband at Aldo’s. “They seemed happy,” Sandra said, puffing on a cigarette.
“I guess this means they’re back together,” my mom replied slowly, in a flat voice.
Soon afterwards, we received an invitation to Milena’s baptism. She was to convert to Catholicism in Paulskirche on a Sunday afternoon. We did not attend, and we never went to Dalibor and Milena’s house again. We moved to a different neighborhood where there were no Bosnian families, cutting us off from that epicenter of gossip that was our old apartment complex.
Still, news of Milena and Dalibor trickled in now and then. They were part of the initial wave of refugees that returned to Bosnia when the war ended. I wasn’t surprised. Dalibor had always said he’d be the first in line to go back. To him everything was better in Bosnia, the tomatoes and the cheese, and the air he breathed and the water he drank. But there were food and fuel shortages when they returned, and Dalibor could not get back his old job at the Elektrobosna factory, which he’d been counting on all along. At first he did some construction work for the United Nations peacekeeping force. In later years, he opened a shop in the town’s center, near the waterfall.
My grandmother still lived in Jajce, and she mentioned Milena to me over the phone. “She looks like an old woman,” she said. “I didn’t recognize her at first. I almost walked right past her.”
Milena wasn’t seen out and about much. Dalibor took over the grocery shopping and other household chores, full of some newfound, seemingly inexhaustible energy. Local women made fun of him when he cheerfully bargained with the peasants over cheese prices at the marketplace. The only time Milena left her house was when she visited abandoned Orthodox monuments near Jajce, or the ruins of the Orthodox Church of the Most Holy Mother of God, near the catacombs. The church was bombed during the war. Nobody had bothered to clean up the ruins, though some stone slabs and fragments of icons still littered the church grounds. She did not seem to mind. She sat among the wreckage, her eyes fixed for hours at some vague spot in the distance.
People also sometimes saw her walking along the Pliva river near the waterfall. She’d stand at the shore and stare at the currents, a brooding, solitary woman who’d aged abruptly and unkindly. Nobody bothered to talk to her or tried to penetrate behind the half-veiled sadness that encompassed her. That is, until the day her body washed up on the Pliva shore at Jajce’s exit, swollen and with some dead leaves and branches tangled in her hair. Then she was suddenly the only thing on everyone’s minds.
Dalibor buried her in the town’s Catholic graveyard. It was a miracle he found an open spot of land amidst the many overgrown, forgotten graves of Jajce’s dead, whose families had emigrated too far away to tend to them.
My grandmother, who was always up to date on the latest local tragedy, was well informed about Milena’s case. “Of course she died of guilt. She never wanted to be a Catholic. Her conscience wouldn’t give her any peace. Why did he bury her in the Catholic graveyard, people ask. It was the final straw. That rogue should have known better.” I wondered what else there was to the story, and what had really been going on behind Milena’s house curtains while we’d treated her as a mere shadow.
For a while, Milena was all that people talked about. But they tired of the topic eventually. The gossip slowed to a trickle and Milena’s story was supplanted by some other, more current tragedy. For some reason, I kept my silent tabs on the remnants of her world. Though I’d never thought much of Milena when she was alive, in death my preoccupation with her grew. I periodically inquired about her daughter and husband. Somebody told me he still had his small store. Sanja worked there, too. After closing the shop at twilight, they usually strolled together across the bridge towards their house, their steps aligned in silent harmony.
After Milena’s death, Dalibor took up gardening. “When it’s nice out I bet you anything he’s out there weeding the flower beds in his dirty blue overalls,” my grandma said. “He’s obsessed. As if nothing else exists. It’s the most beautiful garden in town, though. That much I’ll admit.” I asked her to send me a photograph of the garden, which I now keep in a drawer with some old letters and other sentimental trinkets. Every once in a while, I pull it out and study the image, searching for who knows what, as I behold the neat rows of red and white roses in their springtime bloom, the potted yellow geraniums by the entrance gate and the lilac jasmine trees lining the garden’s edges.
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Not being stupid
I took what was offered: the job
was waiting and I did it
with sand and mirrors, in glitter
while I paced. I waited, I fell
in love with waiting
covered in jewels washed
in from the sea. Summer
kept me in sugared fruits,
shiny shells, mother-of-pearl.
My job was undressing
the sea, what it wanted, shovel
and droplet turned sun to roving dots.
Waiting threw its necklace back,
was work, was softened glass.
I dug a shallow wide hole in the yard
for a tree that might grow or an animal’s grave.
Dog in the hole, white fur and fill dirt.
Better to bury it. It was my birthday.
A dogwood in winter has berries the birds like.
A winter rose in the window. A sugar
rose. We will take it in the snow. We’ll fill
a hollow log with heated rocks.
It is my birthday. It keeps on, it occurs.
For my birthday I am given a window.
By you I am given. A view, a gift, a tree, a dog,
a stone. Everything I have I give to winter.
Flood deeps the shallows.
The rivers get covered.
We difficult our dinners.
In times of hunger, if only
a rock on which to perch.
In sleep we choose a dream:
lure a gull and water lock it,
meet a boy and get feet.
“Like syntactical pinwheels, Ginsburg’s word choice disorients then reorients the reader in a new, slightly off-kilter universe. Like a perennial Alice through the looking glass, for the speaker, seeing the world, let alone being in the world is not a habit. The speaker sees the world in its particularity: birds animate cables; light, dust and shadow are caught in the dearth of a moment. Ginsburg’s vision—embracing everything and refusing nothing—gives the collection its spine.” ~ Review by Amy Pence, online at The Rumpus
In this installment of “Take Four,” we speak with Issue 4 contributor Joseph D. Haske about narrative structure, blood feuds, drinking, and the pleasures of writing in and about Michigan’s U.P.
FWR: Your novel North Dixie Highway is very much about place, but it seems just as much about time, especially its ability to deepen wounds instead of healing them. It is painful to watch the book’s narrator obsess about killing his grandfather’s murderer, a man who, for very practical reasons, he can never reach. This kind of abiding hatred—this concept of “blood feud”—is often associated with small, rural communities like the novel’s U.P. Do you think that these wounds really do run deeper there, or is the distinction just a cultural fantasy?
JDH: Based on my experience living in both small towns and in cities, I think it may be a bit of the two things, tendency and cultural mythology. In American literature, particularly in rural fiction, as you’ve pointed out, the wounds do run deeper and vendettas tend to linger on, and I think that the blood feuds represented in rural literature do convey a sort of truth about how problems in general are handled in small towns as opposed to cities. Of course, with the globalization that’s occurred in the past couple of decades, and the unification, albeit superficial, that results from our cyberspace connections and the subsequent instant gratification, I’m not sure if these urban-rural distinctions exist in the same way they used to, or at least they aren’t as marked as they were before. Traditionally speaking, though, small town people have handled feuds differently than those in the city. That’s another reason why time is important in North Dixie Highway, because the novel takes place during the decades leading up to this shift, before the widespread use of the internet and the movement toward globalization. Up until that time, rural areas were much more ideologically isolated from urban centers than they are now, which, perhaps, made small towns more distinct in character. This fact was not lost on writers such as Twain, Faulkner, Caldwell, O’Connor, and others, and they did well emphasizing these differences to add another layer of sophistication to their respective fictional masterpieces. I believe that these writers recognized that there were real differences in how people handled problems in the city as opposed to rural areas, and they realized the importance of conveying these differences to demonstrate how the concept of community varies from place to place.
Simply put, the city has typically symbolized progress, and in much of the fiction set in the city, people handle traumatic situations differently than country folk. City dwellers may feel less able to act on the murder of a loved one because of the relative anonymity one experiences: there are so many people living in the city, where does one even begin to search for the murderer? Also, there are more random acts of violence in the city, so a person might become desensitized to some extent, and you might learn to mind your own business if the crime does not directly involve you or your family or friends. Having fewer people involved in these situations could accentuate this feeling of helplessness. This is certainly not the case in a small town. Everyone typically knows one another in rural areas, knows more than they should know about everyone’s business, and it’s much harder to keep a secret, to hide a murder, for example, without people finding out. For better or worse, the entire community would be affected by such an event, which might just as easily agitate the situation or help lead to resolution.
FWR: The chapters in your novel alternate between two consecutive decades in the narrator’s life. In the first he is a boy just shy of adulthood and in the second, a man just on the other side of it. It is easy to discuss the novel as a collection of linked stories, or as two intertwined novellas. When did these stories come together for you, and why do you think such modular forms appear to be gaining popularity?
JDH: North Dixie Highway actually began with a few independent stories, not as a novel per se, but I noticed a consistency of theme, voice and conflict and knew that it had to be a longer work—that the storyline deserved multiple angles and the kind of complexity that is more easily achieved in the form of a novel. You’re right that one might classify the book as intertwined novellas, or, perhaps, a unified collection of stories. Once I decided that all of this would end-up as a longer project, I tried to achieve an elusive, if not impossible, task: to write a novel constituted of chapters that work autonomously as stories. In some cases, I think I was able to achieve these story-chapters, and with other pieces, maybe the chapters are less effective as stand-alone pieces. In order to create unity in a longer work, a writer must, in most cases, sacrifice the autonomy of individual sections, whereas a truly effective story should be self-contained, so this can prove sort of contradictory. I admit that some of the chapters in the book are quite dependent on the book as a whole for their effectiveness, but they have to be in order to carry the work as a novel. The novel and the story, at least in a traditional sense, are truly distinct art forms in many respects, but such boundaries are often blurred in contemporary writing, and I suppose I was working to capture some of the elements that make both of these forms successful, combining the intensity of effect in the short story with the unity and development of a novella or novel.
The temporal shifts, I believe, are useful for showing what has changed and what’s stayed the same with the narrator and his physical setting as the story progresses. There are major gaps between events, of course, using this method, but I tried to follow the model of many great contemporary writers and tell the story through everything that is both there and not there, with multiple narrative lines boiling just under the surface.
I don’t know if I can speak for the popularity of modular forms, other than acknowledging that there has been a trend in this direction in contemporary literature. It probably all started with the fragmentary nature of the early 20th century modernist movement and the stream of conscious narrative. Then, at some point, it became a real trend in books, then film, especially in the 90’s and beyond. In the case of North Dixie Highway, it just seemed like the best approach to tell the type of story I wanted to tell: the narrative pattern reflects the state of mind, the consciousness of the protagonist. That may or may not be the goal of other writers who utilize this sort of modular form, but it was my primary motivation.
FWR: How important to you is faithful representation of a character’s consciousness, compared to more technical concerns like plot?
JDH: I see where you’re coming from, but from my point of view, with the way that I work, representation of consciousness is intertwined with plot—the two things can’t be exclusive of one another. I certainly care much more about representation of consciousness than some highly-structured, Victorian notion of plot, but I pay a great deal of attention to the structure of the work as a whole and how the story unfolds, even if the plot isn’t organized in a “logical” manner. The human mind isn’t logical, after all, so even though it’s impossible to mirror the function of the human mind through literary artifice, works such as Ulysses, for example, or even earlier examples of the novel, such as Don Quixote, or Moby Dick, come closer to achieving the desired effect. I guess that the point is that there is often more attention to plot in a novel than meets the eye when one considers that what seems to be a lack of structure, the elements which are not there, often serves as a catalyst to propel the narrative. I think the plot in my book manifests itself as a representation of a sort of selective memory process.
FWR: The characters in your novel do a lot of drinking. The male characters especially seem drawn to both its danger and its necessity, much the same as they are to the prospect of avenging their grandfather’s death. In the end, the two are brought explicitly together with the poisoning of his murderer’s scotch. Why, for these characters, do you think drinking and violence are so important, and so intertwined?
JDH: When I first spent significant time away from the U.P. as a young adult, one of the first things that I noticed was how people in other parts of the country seemed to drink so much less than many people in the U.P. do. I’ve often sat around with friends and speculated about why drinking culture is so akin to the lifestyle of many in northern Michigan. Maybe it’s the long winters, widespread unemployment, geographic isolation—I’m not sure why, exactly, but it’s a significant part of the culture there. Not everybody living in the U.P. is an alcoholic, but I think we have more than our share up there. The characters in NDH are representative of the region in a very real way, and that’s one simple explanation as to why drinking is so prominent in the novel. As a literary device, a character’s choice of alcohol is certainly a mode of developing that character; one can learn a great deal about a person by what they drink. Also, in NDH, as is the case in life, at times, alcohol is used to form bonds, or destroy them, as the case may be.
FWR: Do you have any objections to being known as a “U.P. writer”?
JDH: Not at all. When I was still living in the U.P., I was aware that writers such as Hemingway and Longfellow had written about the area. I knew that Jim Harrison, a native of northern Michigan, although not technically from the U.P., spent significant time there and that he had written extensively about it. He still does, along with fellow best-selling authors like Steve Hamilton and Sue Harrison, the latter a writer from a town that neighbors my hometown.
More recently, however, it has come to my attention that there is a thriving literary community centered on the U.P. that includes people who either live there, use it as a backdrop for their literature, or both. At the center of the movement to bring more attention to Upper Peninsula literature is the playwright, poet, editor, and author of the novel, U.P., Ron Riekki. He recently put together an anthology of new Upper Peninsula works with Wayne State University Press, The Way North, and it just earned a Michigan Notable Book Award. Through his efforts, I’ve come in contact or reconnected with U.P. writers such as Mary McMyne, Eric Gadzinski, Julie Brooks Barbour, and many other talented people. Many of the authors included in the anthology were names that I’d recognized from other important national venues, people like Catie Rosemurgy and Saara Myrene Raappana. Needless to say, there is a burgeoning literary movement centered on U.P. writers, and there are certainly countless other talented writers that I’m forgetting to mention here. The literature of the U.P. includes a broad range of styles and themes, but I’m glad to see that the writers of the region are getting some much-deserved national recognition.
“Lyrical, passionate, unflinching, Joe Haske’s fiction grabs hold of you and shakes you to your core. He is one of the most exciting young American writers of his generation.” ~Richard Burgin
Read “Red Meat and Booze” in Issue 4
GINGIVITIS, NOTES ON FEAR
I hesitate invoking that doubled emptiness: open—
my daughter’s mouth in the bathroom mirror—
not her first vanity but first blood inkling
she tastes & smoothes with her tongue. She turns
her chin this way & that, anticipating her future: new
bones replacing the fallen. If the body survives,
it repairs itself: two pillars—wider, stronger
forming new words: adolescent declarations
brushing past seasoned gums
What is the tongue- span
between trauma & terror?
Incident & accident?
Think on these things.
There is so much to fear. How will we fear it all?
& now my second-born, my son: If I don’t
brush, he says, a disease will attack my gums.
When God says, “Meet me tomorrow
at the corner of Seventh Day & Salvation
just as the sun before nightfall strikes
the fender of a red hatchback parked
outside Worldwide Washateria,” you
fitted in a dress the color of cloud-cover
& hold a feathered hat
to your delicate hair, newly picked &
haloed with a small brim. &
like a fleck of Antique Black in a gallon
of European White, you make everything
like itself, which means you
eloquently than the lampposts
boasting their specters of light,
or the woman
clutching her daughter’s shirt
above a basket, the sedative twilight
of the gods trapped momentarily
in the pane, which separate
steadfast against the wind picking up,
the men desiring your attention,
the traffic held
in the ceaseless straight ahead.
Concrete barriers, a few
lopsided cones, abiding
are all that separate
onward & stalled, here & gone.
Not even this poem
can move you, or change
the motion of your scarf—
that furious red flag—
or the stilts—your legs.
do not mutter or
complain or ask directions.
Why don’t you?
Your autograph haunts
the covers of books
I know who I am I know who I am I know who I am
lyrics layering air:
Describe the sound of His voice.
To walk the black, wired bars
is to follow a sound
so peculiar you
the ink gone out.
2- 3- 1- 2- 3- 1- 2- 3- 1-
Your stilts on the ground.
Channeling the collection’s muse—jazz composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams—Hemming the Water speaks to the futility of trying to mend or straighten a life that is constantly changing. Here the spiritual and the secular comingle in a “Fierce fragmentation, lonely tune.” Often mimicking fairy tales or ancient fables, Yona Harvey inhabits, challenges, and explores the many facets of the female self—as daughter, mother, sister, wife, and artist—both on a personal level (“To describe my body walking I must go back / to my mother’s body walking”) and on a cultural level (“A woman weighs the price of beauty—”).
For the last hundred miles, Brooks’ ten-year-old son, Adler, had been yelling profanities out the window. It started during a break from driving. To stretch their legs they jogged down a rural road along the wire fence separating the pavement from endless rolling hills of grazing land. The red-hued cattle saw them coming and turned parallel to the road, their stampede kicking up a billowing cloud.
Adler kept chasing them. “Stupid cows,” he yelled, as they dashed in the direction he was going, never doubling back or turning away from the road, where they’d be free of him. It was only when Brooks got tired, over a mile from the car, that he had the boy turn back.
“Can you believe that,” Adler said, walking backwards so that he could keep taunting the cattle. “Dumb Cows.” Then he sucked in his breath and bellowed, “Asshole cows!” while eyeing his father to gauge his reaction. When there was none, he yelled it again. “Asshole Cows!”
Back in the car and driving with his window down, Adler screamed into the wind, emptying every cuss word he knew at the animals. Brooks didn’t interfere. He hoped bringing the boy to open, wild places would help him purge whatever anger was knotted up inside of him, and if this was the sound of that happening, he was okay with it.
“Look at that candy-ass, schmuck of a baby cow,” Adler said as they passed a Black Angus calf that had somehow gotten through the fence and was separated from its braying mother. Adler undid his seatbelt and reared around so he was propped on his knees, looking out the rear window of the car. “I think we should help that one.”
This was in western Idaho. That day alone they’d passed hundreds of miles of rolling landscape sectioned off by barb wire into pastures full of Black Angus and Indian ponies, and as they had no real schedule, no time frame, Brooks did a U-turn and pulled onto the side of the road. When he cut the engine and heard the sad bleating of the mother cow, he imagined himself silently lifting the calf over the fence and seeing the look of understanding and pride on Adler’s face.
The shoulder of the road dipped down a twenty foot embankment that Brooks had to jog to keep from falling. At the bottom of the slope he realized how wrong he’d been about the size of the calf. It must have weighed several hundred pounds. Seeing Brooks dash toward it down the incline, it tried to force itself back through the wire. The barbs bit into the fat part of its hind leg and tore back some of the skin. The calf spit out a terrible Muurrrr. Mawwww. When its mother stepped closer, Brooks saw that she was easily a foot taller than he was, and he leapt back. But the calf was stuck. Its struggling moved the wire up and down like a jigsaw blade, and the pink gashes in its body widened as it writhed. Muurrrr. Mawwww. Brooks stood back up and reached for its leg to pull it loose.
“Push that son-of-a-bitch through!” Adler yelled from the road.
Brooks stepped forward and planted the sole of his sneaker against the flailing calf’s leg. He booted it through, tearing its skin worse, but freeing it back into the pasture. The mother ran to it and they both trotted away. Brooks studied the tufts of bloody skin and black fur shaking on the barbs. The calf had probably stepped through the wire easily enough, and would have found its own way back had he not scared it. He felt foolish, and hoped Adler hadn’t seen the cuts.
“That was smooth,” said Adler as Brooks climbed back up to the road, but he didn’t look to see if his son was serious or mocking and he didn’t want to know. A familiar wave of uneasiness appeared to descend upon him from the vast blue sky. His mind went numb except for some hot, dark presence in that corner that he tried to avoid, the corner from which emanated his sad, mealy-mouthed self-doubt.
They got back into the car and kept traveling, west by northwest, the way they’d been for the last three weeks, slowly finding crooked back roads to lead them across country. Brooks tried to shake the fear such wilderness raised in him and to remember that he’d wanted this—a chance to give Adler the wonder, the essential miracle of the world. This was the opposite of where he came from. In Illinois, where his marriage had imploded, he had ached for wild places, for some geographical feature to make him feel peaceful and humble, opposed to the traffic in his suburb, which made him feel frantic and small. For a long time Brooks did not say anything.
Then Adler pointed out the window to a river that cut a serpentine path through the wilds. “Dad, God damn, will you look at that,” as if offering a foul mouthed benediction to the unfolding road.
Want great poetry and fiction every month?
from Ambivalence and Other Conundrums (Omnidawn, Fall 2013)
Beckoned by the things you’d go back for but can’t, you push on, dragging the past behind like a vestigial tail, out of use but undeniably a living part of you, the thing, really, by which you define yourself: lizardo, can-kicker, backward-glancer tripping over a ripple in the road.
Yet you do go on, determined to get to where your dreams can expand to fill the space of their container, the wild sky just beyond your mind. It’s a shame to be cynical here, in only paragraph two, but necessary for the sake of the truth, which, dressed as the obvious, is counting on you.
You can go back. But only after you have read this far—the beginning only matters from a certain distance.
Two pigeons meet in the park and fight over a bit of bread and have no bearing on any of this. You can follow them into the night: they coo like horny machines outside some apartment window, but instead your mother is dead and you are too busy digging a tunnel back to childhood with a spoon.
Sip by sip, life becomes tolerable, then pleasant, then milky—as soft and gregarious as a lamb. The promises you made seem as silly and unimportant, old pieces of paper crumpled at the bottom of your bag. You are asleep before you realize, and there was no cow blocking the path toward your dreams, which carried you all the way to morning, when life intervened again, a fact smack in the face.
Now the long day stands before you, with its thousands of gnats horroring every possible path.
You had promised yourself, years and years ago, never to drink alone, like your father drank. Then you thought one or two might be ok. Then, after many drinks, many evenings spent stewing in your sour juices, the sin you’d committed seemed so far in the past an apology wouldn’t matter. So now all the evenings roll in this way, moist and comforting, hugging you how you always needed to be hugged.
Maybe age will set in like this too, so slowly you won’t have to notice, except for a few acidic moments that will be easy to black out. Hopefully death will be like entering a dream half-awake, half in control, just enough to slip into the swampy drama.
There is no real accounting for what you owe. Even those who cry and lament and rage when you die will die too, their echoes far too faint to trace to a source. For now, sleep well. Not even happiness feels this good.
WHAT YOU LOVE
Well, you’ve got to do something. On the one hand, the options are limitless. On the other, obviously, most options are unavailable to you. Those that are are obscured by the black hopelessness of possibility.
How many times did you tell yourself you knew what you wanted?
Some people are able to follow a single desire like a rope tied off just beyond the horizon. Some, annoyingly, will even say it’s a curse; of course it isn’t. How justified is our hatred of the blesséd and their blessings.
It’s good to have a hobby. I read books about jazz while listening to albums in the evening, after work, once the kids are in bed. My wife thinks it’s noise but puts up with it, barely. I can’t decide whether to go on or off my diet: indulge or withhold, sew happiness while I can or fortify my character…a hobby offers at least the illusion of a still point toward which one’s compass needle is trained.
A calling in life is just another decision, meaningless in the grand scheme, of which there isn’t one; no one is calling. The one who feels called is pushing against the great, indifferent weight which falls like an ocean on everyone’s shoulders—thankfully we are all in this together.
You must follow your heart, though all hearts are heading to the same place, a place for hearts only.
It takes 10,000 hours of repetition to achieve mastery, but don’t think about that or you’ll never start; all mountains rise slowly, perhaps a little too slowly, into the one sky.
Mary Lou Buschi
James Allen Hall
Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick
Victoria Lynne McCoy
Molly Rose Quinn
William Kelley Woolfitt