It is my birthday ritual but every year I am surprised
to see my optometrist still alive, seeing me. He must be
past eighty, mustache and skin of a former smoker, stale breath.
I must have so much time left.
I’ve been returning to this chair since I was seven, but have yet
to memorize the chart. The majestic “E” that reassures
all doctors use the same measure
is all I can recall.
Today he begins too many sentences with
As our bodies age
and he is not referring to his own but to mine. The astigmatism
changes, its clever nomenclature once with-the-rule turns
against-the-rule. Fifteen years ago my corneas were footballs
lying on their sides. Now they stand on end.
Which do you prefer: one or two?
What should be a snap judgment
to me is anything but.
The lenses click in, click out
and although I can tell they are different, neither seems
better than the other.
Are you in a relationship?
Do you prefer to be alone?
The curvature gets trickier
to measure, requires confirmation
through multiple methods. We must
duplicate the results.
Or perhaps one of us is just
unreliable. He steers out of reach
the suspended mechanical arm
to retrieve a vintage contraption:
thick eight-pound glasses
I must hold up to my face,
like watching opera through a periscope.
He slides lenses in and out of the armory
as my arms tire.
Would you like to have children?
Which sounds worse to you:
being alone forever
or never being alone again?
RESOLUTION TO RECOVER LOST THINGS
Whereas the streets have glazed over in a quiet havoc
of black ice and the mail truck
glides sideways into a parked Chevrolet; and
Whereas the skulk of red foxes from the side yard
wood have barked their alarm one night
too many and the litter is one kit too few; and
Whereas the barred owl has flown from the willow oak
where we’d carved our initials and we no longer
know who cooks for whom; and
Whereas the dog stands atop the dining room table, nose thick
with mashed sweet potatoes, teeth wresting the pink
from the ham bone; and
Whereas the tea kettle’s whistle has grown
so weak we miss its whimper until the smoking
copper bottom pierces our nostrils; and
Whereas the child’s mitten hangs snagged
on the chain-link fence in a tangle of red
unthreading, unlooked-for; and
Whereas the bed holds the shape of the body, the cup
clings to the pulp of the orange, the door
swings, and the door swings; therefore
Be it resolved. Therefore the pavement, and therefore
the tires, the steering wheel, the hands upon the wheel;
therefore the fox, the wood beyond the clearing,
the red mitten, and therefore the child;
therefore the owl, the song of the owl, the tree
that held the owl, that holds the symbols
of our names;
therefore the tea and the leaves of the tea
and the kettle, the kettle,
and therefore the food, therefore the service,
the child, the dog, the child,
therefore the bed, and therefore the cup,
and therefore the door at rest.
The night I try to kill myself a boy
is shot in the shoulders at the gas
station next to my apartment.
I don’t flinch. I lie
on the rubber of my bed that keeps
the bugs away and stare at the black
poles holding the bunk bed together.
The mice play sought and found
in the shoe closet filled with all size 10’s.
What miracle can I conjure tonight?
I sleep till dawn and the spirit that wants me gone
slaps my eyes to rise: Through the kitchen window,
the dark clouds are yoked with life.
I know the sharp knives in my home
but draw the thin butter knife because
I don’t want a mess for my mother to clean,
I don’t want her to weep as she dips
a rag in Clorox and stains the floor to reverse
its memory. My burial must be neat.
I trace the peak of the blade across the linea
negra on my stomach; the one to appear
only when I am pregnant. I am yet to meet
a man: how do I leave this earth with ease?
by Jennifer Stern
Where is Liu Xia?
This is how you try to erase a person after he’s died: you delete all mentions of him. You ban the phrase R.I.P. on blogs. You arrest those who mourn him. You spread his ashes out in the ocean where no memorial can be built. You take his wife, the woman who now stands for him, and make her disappear.
This woman is the poet and artist Liu Xia.
The past few weeks have been devastating for her and for all of us who care about human rights in China. Liu Xia’s husband, Liu Xiaobo, died on July 13th from cancer he was diagnosed with in prison. He was an activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, poet, deeply human in his writing, and deeply symbolic of the fight for democracy in China. He died of what many are calling “political murder” under guard, and unable to leave the hospital chosen for him, far from all of his friends and family, save Liu Xia. There in the hospital, it is believed, Liu Xia was allowed to touch her husband for the first time in seven years.
Liu Xia did not choose to be a political figure. She is an artist who fell in love with a poet she hung out with at salons she often hosted. She writes about Kafka and strange dreams and birds and smoking and her mother-in-law and Nijinsky and her brother and language and watching her beloved transform from man to figure and back again.
Liu Xia was placed under house arrest when Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize. Since then she’s been trapped in her home, barely allowed visitors or phone calls or guarded trips to the store. She hasn’t been able to sit with a friend and hear her own voice in response to another’s. Under house arrest, her health has deteriorated, and those few friends who’ve spoken with her say that the vibrant, specific woman they knew has become fragile, and is on the verge of breaking apart. Liu Xia was never accused of a crime. She was punished to punish her husband and as a lesson to a nation. And now no one knows where she is. No one knows where the Chinese government is hiding her.
Many of us here read and write poems to know that we exist and that we are entwined with others through an art form that exists all over the world. Liu Xia is one of us, a poet. I wish there was one way to stop the erasure of a human, but I don’t think there is. Yet we can do this: read Liu Xia’s poems. They exist. We can enjoy them, or not. We can argue with them. We can pass them on to a friend and say, “Read this, this poet exists.” We can teach her poems or keep them for ourselves. We exist. And because of that, Liu Xia’s poems can speak even when her voice can’t be heard. I want to believe that it’s harder to erase this person, specific in her words and life, when we’re in the middle of a conversation.
~ Jennifer Stern, co-translator of Liu Xia’s poems
Four Way Review is featuring Liu Xia’s work and this introduction alongside Bat City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Poetry Northwest, Scoundrel Time, Tupelo Quarterly, and other publications in an effort to draw attention to the life and writing of the poet Liu Xia at this critical moment. The poems, translated by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern, are reprinted from Empty Chairs: Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2015) with the permission of the translators and Graywolf Press.
—for Xiaobo’s mother
Suddenly, you’re gone.
Two hours after entering
the hospital you took
your last breath.
This is the way you longed to die.
You did it, mother,
leaving us choking on blood.
When the call came with the news
we were drinking with friends,
and I was reading a poem by Kevin Hart
called “Praying for the Dead.”
I saw you for the last time at the funeral home.
You seemed tiny in the new clothes,
your face caked with makeup.
I was afraid you would turn into a doll,
one of the dolls possessed by rage
in my photographs.
I wanted to run out
but Xiaobo took my hand firmly.
I couldn’t even move.
I know you never liked me.
All along you suspected I had planned
everything: your son imprisoned,
his refusal to live with you in Dalian,
and even your illnesses—
all my fault.
You couldn’t stand my laugh.
You asked me to leave.
The first time I went to your house
it was full of plastic sheets and bags.
The sofa, mattress, carpet, heater, the drawers,
and even the cutting board and kettle
were covered or filled with plastic.
I couldn’t breathe.
You looked lonely in your plastic house
as a queen.
Every month during the three years
when Xiaobo was in that Dalian prison,
I had to bite my tongue
to enter your territory.
Each time, with a sawtooth voice,
you said to me, “You don’t need to come again.
I’m his mother. I will take care of everything.”
As for the things I brought from Beijing—you
didn’t bother to take a look.
I couldn’t make you soft.
The ocean of Dalian wore me down.
For a year and half
I couldn’t see Xiaobo,
so I asked you humbly
“Mother, how is Xiaobo doing?”
You said he lost weight
so I tried to find nutritious foods.
You said his face was terribly swollen
so I sought medical advice from everywhere.
You said he was getting too fat
so I told him in a letter
not to add sugar when making powdered milk.
Under your magic wand
I moved around desperately.
You were always right,
and I had to tolerate you.
I tried to be a well-behaved daughter-in-law.
I gave you new clothes, cotton socks,
and gold bracelets, but you put them aside,
When I offered to take you out to eat, you said
the food was poisoned.
There was one thing you didn’t reject,
the medicine I brought you.
You liked taking medicine
more than any food in the world.
Your pickled veggie pot
was full of worms.
so many plastic sheets separated us.
Love for the same man
split us apart.
We couldn’t get close to each other.
When we needed each other’s comfort
we became enemies.
One day you came back from the prison
and talked to yourself:
“Let Xiaobo die. Done with it.”
From that moment on I didn’t
need to hide my hate.
You are finally gone.
Those plastic bags are in the trash.
I don’t pray for reconciliation,
but you appear regularly
in the shadows.
Xiaobo was startled by you in his dreams—
you were moaning helplessly.
You’ve forgotten to take your dentures
which are biting me,
making me doubt
if this is the right ending.
please do not block the light
that illuminates my pen.
Let these words survive.
Let me finish reading
“Praying for the Dead.”
francine j. harris is the author of allegiance (2012), a finalist for both the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the PEN Open Book Award, and play dead (2016). She won the 2014 Boston Review Annual Poetry Prize and her poetry has appeared in many journals, including McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Poetry, Meridian, Indiana Review, Callaloo, Rattle, Ninth Letter, and Boston Review. She was a 2008 Cave Canem fellow, and was awarded a NEA fellowship in 2015. She currently serves as the Writer in Residence at Washington University in St. Louis.
FWR: The “pink pigs” poems from your book Play Dead started as a personal essay for Tran(s)tudies. At what point did you decide to turn that essay into poems? Are the headers and footers in the poems a relic from the original essay, or were they something that came out as you worked on the poems?
fjh: I think it may have been the other way around. The poem began as a poem, and I used it in an essay I wrote for Tran(s)tudies; the essay was about code switching and I used it in this part where I was talking about speaking back to people that I grew up with, in kind of an indirect way into my writing. I can’t answer the question about ‘who you’re talking to in your poems or in writing in general’, but there are moments where talking back to folks that I couldn’t have certain conversations with. And in the essay, I believe I was talking back to some of the girls I grew up with and it was an example of one of those internal conversations turning into a piece. This piece was an amalgamation of a few specific people.
Actually when I wrote it, I had been reading Donald Barthelme; he has these little short narratives through dialogue and it just triggered something as I was reading it… But after I wrote it I realized that I was reaching even further back in terms of influence. It wasn’t exactly Barthelme who was triggering that voice, but Gayl Jones, who in the novel Eva’s Man has this very particular way of men and women talking, or not talking. There is a way in which their dialogue says and doesn’t say lots of things about consent and passiveness, and about things happening under the surface. I think all that stuff was playing into that, and when I originally wrote it, it was all one long piece but that didn’t quite work in the book, so I pulled it apart and let it intersperse throughout the whole collection.
FWR: Throughout the whole manuscript, there is this feeling that there’s this conversation happening between the past and present or imagined present and imagined past.
fjh: When you say imagined, what do you mean?
FWR: Looking back upon events that have happened, one tends to recreate them, but in that recreation they’re never quite the same as they were.
fjh: I think what I like about that conversation is that I don’t think it’s that idealistic, though. There’s just as much failure in that conversation as there might have been, or would have been, or was, in the relationships themselves. I think art allows a different kind of failure, a failure that can be productive. But I think, partly that’s what I gathered or what inspired me from Gayl Jones, that these imagined conversations are not any more romantic than the original. It just sits differently in the psyche, manifests differently. Does that make sense?
FWR: It does, and it speaks a little bit to that tension in the form and structure of your poems: between who is speaking, or when there’s an attempt to say or an inability to say. Is that fair?
fjh: Yeah, I think that’s fair. I’m definitely one of those poets who began writing because I didn’t know how to talk. I still don’t know how to talk. A lot of times I say things wrong, all the time. Ha! I think sometimes if I could just stop talking, and just do poems, everyone might be better off. Ha!
FWR: When you’re writing, do you see the poem ahead of time? For example, in “kara, you wild.andIdon’tknow” or “tatterdemalion,” were those the shapes you wanted because of the tension that you wanted that syntax to create? Or was it only through the playing through different forms that you realized that that’s the form you were hoping for?
fjh: I think that started– I get a lot of questions about this– I think I’ve realized, I don’t write towards visual structure. I’m interested in it, but maybe only in revision. I appreciate visual structure on the page. It’s not like I look at it and think it’s gratuitous or that I don’t find beauty in it, but I don’t think I come to it for that reason. It’s always something I’m thinking about in hindsight. So in answer to your question, no, I have no idea what shape it’s supposed to take.
I draw a little bit and sometimes if I’m drawing, I think, “what if this was text that looked this way?” I’ve tried that and it hardly ever works. It’s usually very forced. But I think because I do appreciate things visually, it’s become an editing point for me. It’s become a fun way to edit things. So those boxes, I started making those boxes and I didn’t know why I was making them, but it seemed to make sense because that’s what Kara Walker in “Cut”, which is an illustration she has of a girl figure with these really slashed off wrists, and so it just kind of made sense. But I was just doodling, and then I realized that this has a kind of resonance considering who I’m talking about and what I’m talking about in the poem. I guess I play with [visual structure] and if I like it, I’ll keep it.
FWR: Do you have a favorite poem to teach? How do you open up that conversation?
fjh: Every semester I gather things. And there are things that I come back to, and usually the poems I keep coming back to are because I can teach them for so many different reasons. Mary Ruefle’s “White Buttons” [for example]: I keep teaching this poem, because there are so many reasons to teach this poem. I can teach it to talk about how images reinforce themselves over a period of time because it’s a little bit longer, so these images just develop out of thin air– almost literally- there are these text pages, these book pages, like petals, and you don’t know how it happened, right? There’s a way that the images build, and I can teach it for that. I can teach it for the associative moves she makes, like that weird move she makes where she suddenly says:
(I am sorry I did not
go to your funeral
but like you said
on the phone
an insect cannot crawl
I can teach it as a second person address, that interrupts the speaker. I can teach it for so many different reasons. One of the poems I’ve been teaching on and off for years is Yusef Komunyakaa “You And I Are Disappearing” for almost all of the same reasons. There are so many reasons to teach that poem: listing, cataloguing, subtext, how you can read a poem have two entirely different experiences with the poems based on your experience with the subject matter, imagery. I’m always grabbing poems for imagery… The funny thing is, I feel like, and maybe this is an essentialist statement, I’ll say poems today that stay with me, stay with me for the same reasons– because there’s a lot going on in them. Every time I come back to them I’m thinking of something else, something else that makes it work.
The thing that– I hear it like dinging. This is the thing this time around that jumps.
FWR: Who or what is inspiring you right now? If you could recommend one piece of art to anyone in this world, who might it be?
fjh: You know, it’s funny when you asked me this question, I had a weird moment, because I think the question you actually asked me was, ‘is there an artwork or a poem that you would share with anybody?’ and the first thing I thought was, ‘what I’m supposed to say is if there’s a piece of art I could give to someone like Trump that would somehow change him, what would it be?’
I was thinking about the artworks that I like, thinking, would it make a difference for Trump to walk through a gallery of any of those artists, or would that matter? Would it make a difference for someone to read Dawn Lundy Martin into his ear while he slept? But I had this moment where I realized how personally I view art. I’m kind of selfish about it. I don’t want to share anything with someone I have so little respect for. So if I were to show art to someone, it wouldn’t be for the thought of changing them, it would be for the thought of giving them something.
Sometimes I just gather things to show friends at appropriate occasions. I was going to tell you about this artist I’ve just found, whose work I really love, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, just because I was so excited about her art and her process, and it is the kind of thing I would want to share just, over a moment, over coffee. That’s how I think of sharing artwork, not as changing the world.
We’re proud to announce our 2017 Pushcart Prize nominees!
From Issue 9
From Issue 10
How I by Melissa Stein
Three Poems by Jenny George
Creation by Gerardo Pacheco Matus
Argument for Loving from a Distance by Katie Condon
Two Poems by Marlin M. Jenkins
Mission Creep by Jeffrey Morgan
Understanding Heavy Metal by W. Todd Kaneko
Two Poems by Tyree Daye
Dear Miss Gone by Ben Purkert
Two Poems by Hannah Dela Cruz Abrams
Hurt Music by Melissa Cundieff-Pexa
Two Poems by Leslie Harrison
Citizen by Tariq al Haydar
Rainy River by Eric Lloyd Blix
Self-Portrait as Han to Leia, On Hoth by Amorak Huey
Fire and Jewel by Sydney Lea
Bullet by Dennis Hinrichsen
Haptic Perception by Athena Kildegaard
Maria of the Rotting Face by Emily Jaeger
The Day After a Girl Sprouted in the Flower Bed by Kathleen McGookey
Two Poems by Carly Joy Miller
Two Poems by Sally Wen Mao
Two Poems by Derrick Austin
Four Poems by Tommye Blount
The Intended by Rebecca Berg
Pivot by Wendy J. Fox
Meditation frequently asks its practitioners to ground themselves in their bodies through a series of structured “noticings.” You are gently urged to press yourself into your chair, press your feet into the floor, press your fingertips together, press your lungs out into their little cage of ribs.
It is easiest, it turns out, to notice your body when it meets with a measure of resistance. The floor is a fact your feet cannot change. To live in a body, we are told and retold, is to forget about this all the time.
When I solicited poems for this issue, I asked for work that “enacts or inscribes the feminine in fresh, unusual, or surprising ways.” Noting that gender is both inscribed upon the body and enacted by the body, I wanted to see how gender could visit the text, or the site of inscription. It is, in fact, near-impossible for many of us to forget about our bodies. This is not a failure to live within them, but a ricochet from resistance to resistance, reminder to reminder – “You do not inhabit this body. To the world’s eyes you are this body. Here is what that means.”
I’m delighted by the poems in this issue, in no small way because they make the original phrasing of my solicitation seem deeply small and beside the point. They embrace the mystic and the vulgar. They are funny, heartbroken, and kind. They dig deep for inner voice and reassemble the voices around them in a gorgeous echolalia. With plums. And hoofprints. And Kim Kardashian. I hope you like them.
Assistant Poetry Editor
DRAG NOTES – FROM A CONVERSATION WITH KINGA
by Justin Engles
by Danielle Mitchell
by Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick
PRAYER TO ST. MARTHA
by Leah Silvieus
Artwork by Lexi Braun
The idea of voice has been hot on my mind lately. I think the ongoing work of folks like Amanda Johnston (one of the founders of Black Poets Speak Out), has made me think closely about how I move through the world, speak for myself, for and with others. Voice is subjective, relative. It’s also incredibly relational. Although I’m not a thousand percent behind Naomi Wolf’s talk of vocal fry, I know well the phenomenon of adapting one’s voice to suit one’s audience. The question is, then, from which conventions and collectives does one draw? And why? A writer performs on the page for a hypothetical audience, introducing herself to strangers again and again. Whatever voice that writer inhabits at any given time should be considered and relevant, and it should always feel true.
Since this is my first monthly curation of Four Way Review, the theme feels apt. As editors, we think about our own voices, our voices in conjunction with other editors’, and how the pieces we celebrate reflect upon us. Last month, Ken Chen, Executive Director of the phenomenal Asian American Writers Workshop, wrote an article excoriating certain white artists whose so-called transgressive work does little more than parrot the language of violence, racism, and patriarchy. Another recent editorial at Apogee raises the idea that it is as impossible – and unethical – to “read blind” as an editor as it is to be colorblind in the way we engage with each other in the flesh.
Here’s my secret: I was a little tempted to name this issue The Anti-Rachel Dolezal Life & Times, for the sake of those of us who have worked very hard to be ourselves, to own where we come from, and to make art from that space. The aforementioned – now-infamous – identity thief, who has worked with visual media in the past, was, unsurprisingly, once accused of plagiarizing a landscape by another painter. The appropriation of style, voice, and culture all converge so neatly in her story, it’s remarkable.
With all of this roiling in my head, I found myself, more than anything, wanting to read gorgeous, powerful voice. Just that. Inventive, not necessarily confessional, but representative of the artist in an elemental, charged way. When I started feeling tired of tired voices, avery r. young and Juliana Delgado Lopera came to my mind immediately, as the balm I wanted and needed most.
I bet you’re going to like reading these folks. Their styles are very different: young’s work boasts spareness and abbreviation, often using the architecture of parentheses to slow the reader, to encourage and reward re-reading. Lopera’s narrator, on the other hand, has fluidity and grace that’s enviable. Both are immediate. Neither backs down.
It wasn’t planned, but I don’t find it at all surprising that, in young’s suite of poems and Lopera’s excerpt, both use Christianity as a springboard for their characters’ voices. Owning one’s voice often comes from looking directly at structures of power, the stories we as a culture swear by. I think it’s important to reclaim power this way. And maybe it seems naïve, but I feel the connection between the art we make and support and the way we engage each other in the world is very real. These two artists are doing the good work.
~ Laura Swearingen-Steadwell
excerpt from FIEBRE TROPICAL
by Juliana Delgado Lopera
by avery r. young
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