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“How Multiple and How
Simultaneous”: An Interview
with Éireann Lorsung

Interviewed by Elizabeth Fontaine, Evelyn May, and Sarah Degner Riveros

Poet Éireann Lorsung is the author of Music for Landing Planes By (Milkweed Editions, 2007), which was followed by Her Book (Milkweed Editions, 2013) and the chapbook Sweetbriar (Dancing Girl Press, 2013). The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, Lorsung has taught at De Montfort University in the U.K., Ghent University in Belgium, and in the Iowa Summer Writing Workshop. Originally from Minneapolis, Lorsung earned an MFA in Poetry at the University of Minnesota and a PhD in Critical Theory at the University of Nottingham. She currently teaches at the University of Maine–Farmington. In addition to poetry, she is currently working on a novel and a collection of essays.

In the spring of 2019, Lorsung participated in an online interview with Elizabeth Fontaine, Evelyn May, and Sarah Degner Riveros of Augsburg University’s MFA Program. The conversation originated with a discussion of Music for Landing Planes By, but Lorsung’s answers go far beyond that single book.


Question: The title Music for Landing Planes By refers to the 9/11 tragedy, and the book examines human connections and responsibilities. Does community play a role in how you write? For instance, in the endnotes you say you composed the poem “In the Wide World” while traveling by bus, with references to the tangible world (“babies waking up their sleepy parents”) alongside surreal images (“seven fish swim in the air”) and the unexpected (“a homeless man’s teeth”). How does the place of writing affect your craft? Do you have examples of places that inspire you to write, and the types of poems that come to you in those places?

Answer: Here you refer to the method of being-with-others in writing as craft; I think of it as ethics. Writing in public places has been important to me in many ways: as someone who lived as an immigrant for many years, for example, writing in public was a way of making a space in which I belonged within larger spaces where I was often reminded I didn’t, and it was a way of asserting my identity, refusing to assimilate, being myself, reifying my own ways of seeing and knowing and perceiving.

Writing in public also means that I don’t have as much responsibility for “genius.” (I don't really believe in individual genius anyway.) Other people and the places I find myself generally suggest much more interesting things than I would be able to come up with if I were alone.

In practice I don’t always write in public or shared spaces, although these spaces (especially public transit) are really fruitful for me. All of my writing at this point comes from shared spaces—the classroom, the church, the archive—that I enter the same way I enter shared architecture: with questions about what it means for me to be there, reflection on the way power moves, a critical eye to history, and an ongoing effort to be humble, playful, open, and attentive to the spaces, the people who’ve been there (or not) before me, and the meanings I might not have access to or receptors for which are nevertheless in play.

Q: We were drawn to the poem “Gnosis” because of the analogy of a woman being treated like a mannequin. Is this inspired by an actual story? How did the poem change during the process of rewriting and editing?

A: I wrote “Gnosis” in the spring of 2006. At that point I was sewing a lot of clothing, both for myself and to sell. I had a very old dress-form that someone had repaired with duct tape, and I had been slowly taking the tape off and repairing the form.

That spring I spent a little time with a woman my age whom I didn’t know well but who seemed to need a friend. She lived relatively near me in an apartment she shared with her husband. It was always dark and cluttered and a little smelly. I didn’t like to be there. Her husband made me uncomfortable. But I did have the sense she was very lonely and didn’t have anyone to talk to, so I would frequently stop by for a short visit on the way somewhere else or on the way home.

At one point I got a call very late from a number I didn’t know, and it was this woman, very upset. She revealed to me that her husband had been hitting her, she had called the cops, and they’d taken him away. She was distraught. I was twenty-five years old. I had never encountered domestic abuse before and I didn’t know what to do. I don’t remember what I did—probably talked to her for a while.

After a few months, she and her husband moved away and I never heard from her again. Poems have always been one way I theorize what is happening in my life and that is definitely what happened here—I didn’t know how to understand or make sense of this woman’s trauma or my reaction to it, or of her orthodox Catholicism and my own very unorthodox Catholicism.

But it’s not exactly a true story; it’s a poem, the synaptic alchemy of all that was happening at that time, but not a photograph of it. As for the process of editing/rewriting, I honestly can’t recall—it was too long ago, my cells have all changed, and I’m not that person anymore! I know it would have received good and generous feedback from my MFA peers and my professor at that time.

Q: “The Way to Really Love It” and “Exclusion Pregnancy” are remarkable for their balance of sheer beauty and social critique: “Listen to the empty / fields where slate blows / into dust and everything built / glows at night” is such a beautiful image and has a lovely rhythm, and it displays a dark reality of our climate crisis. We see this as well with “you had better / be quick, keep it trimmed, burning—” How do you hold an intentional space for beauty as you write about tough subjects?

A: This is an interesting question. I suppose the simplest answer is that I just don’t see or imagine a world where the beautiful and horrific are not always totally entwined. I have only ever lived in such a world.

The Chernobyl disaster happened when I was five and formed my imagination in an indelible way (the poem “Exclusion Pregnancy” is thinking about the exclusion zone/ nuclear disaster). I remember being excused from reading class in elementary school and allowed to read in the library on my own. I found the area where books about the atomic bomb and the Holocaust were kept and I read everything in the library about those two things.

What is beauty? I guess it’s one kind of thing that makes it hard to look away. Horror is another of those things. The sensation of beauty and the sensation of horror can sometimes share a wall. In the moments you identify in these poems I doubt I was thinking about beauty per se. In “Exclusion Pregnancy” you note the image and rhythm and I suppose the irradiated, glowing landscape is beautiful. Knowing what it is makes it horrific. But this isn’t the landscape; it’s a poem, and poems are aesthetic objects (concerned with what beauty is rather than keeping themselves busy replicating an extant idea of the beautiful). So (this was not conscious; I don’t remember writing this poem; I am reconstructing via analysis rather than depicting something that actually happened), I must have been drawn to something that could encircle and contain the Chernobyl disaster and the long-reaching effects on human health, large-scale and individual.

Form contains and communicates. Those short lines—what I notice about them is how tight they seem and how each of them annotates the syntax, making the line work against the sentence as its own kind of mutation or growth.

The other line you mention is biblical—and I find what I would call resonance with things like that, old things, things that just float in public language. I think some of the beauty comes from that resonance, a feeling of recognition not necessarily to do with belonging to one particular tradition. I am not trying to make my poems “beautiful” although I might have been back when I wrote this book. I just want to reflect how multiple the world is and how simultaneous. People are, are, right now, being tortured, and people are dying ordinary deaths alone or with others, and people are being born, and flowers are starting to bloom, and the stars are out there, and someone has gotten a paper cut, someone is listening to music . . . beauty is just the co-presence of all this. Thought is beauty, and difficult thought is, especially. Thinking about horror is difficult work and we have to do it. If we do it well maybe it makes that wall resonate and what is horrific resembles what is beautiful. I don't know. I feel like this is a question that could be answered by a book that begins by thinking about what beauty is, what intention is, and what poetry can do. What beauty can do? What pain is. A bookshelf.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

Solar Perplexus

Dean Young
Copper Canyon Press ($22)

by Thomas Moody

I don’t know what people mean
by reality.
Is it the ocean
which I’ve always loved
no matter its chitinous claws
or the sky everything falls through
or those scary-ass mites
that live on our eyelids
or the rain of diamonds on Saturn?

These are the opening lines of Solar Perplexus, Dean Young’s latest collection of poetry, his sixteenth. They are from a poem ironically titled “Reality,” a state of things that anyone familiar with Young’s poetry over the past three decades knows is rarely described (the ocean’s “chitinous claws”), but somehow, through a web of absurdist avenues, is always encountered, represented, and uncannily felt. No matter how surreal the images Young conjures are, or how unexpected their associations, they are always rooted to an emotional truth, so that in his poetry we recognize both the scattered external world around us, and our equally discordant internal lives. Reality, as the poem suggests, is not fixed and objective; it shifts, disassembles and reassembles, always elusive but ever present (something we have sadly become all too aware of in the past three or so years). “Whatever it is,” Young continues, as if to confirm the trajectory of the collection, “I’m sure I’ve tried to avoid it.”

But there are, of course, agents of reality that cannot be avoided, and although all the hallmarks of Young’s singular style are on display in Solar Perplexus—his hyper-paced collage of disparate images laced with pop-culture and literary references, not to mention his wit, irony, and pathos—the tone of these poems is, on the whole, less wry than previous collections, and more candid, both somber and ecstatic. In his third book following a heart-transplant in 2011, after suffering for years from congenital heart failure, Young muses on the body, its temporality, vulnerability, and the estrangement we can feel from our very own organs. In “My Collage Life,” Young acknowledges that his body itself has become, through the process of his heart transplant, mimetic of his poetic style: “So after being chopped apart, / sewn back together from mostly / the same stuff, some 70s prog rock / still sticking out, some Kafka fluff, / how’s it feel to still be alive where you are?” In “Flight Path,” the body is “a shoe box, precious tanglement / of kelp, china doll-head fit perfectly / in the palm crushing it or not.” In “Corpse Pose,” which details the fraction of time during the transplant the poet was a body without a heart, Young comically speaks to a Cartesian dualism: “My body hates my soul, how / it stays so skinny thriving on air, / never hungover, never hit with fist / or restraining order, defying / that old dualism, flirting at the party / like it's never been spurned.”

Solar Perplexus also confronts death, both Young’s own precarious adjacency to it, and the death of his contemporary and friend, the acclaimed Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun: “I don’t know if Tomaž / was scattered into the Hippocrene / or baked into a heavy, seedy peasant bread / to break among his young acolytes / like wedding cake but everyone says / his death mask smiles.” Young’s poetry contends, however, that while there may be no physical means to avoid existence’s coarse realities, be they illness, death, or even turgid English departments (“My studies in human potential / collapsed when I joined an English department” he writes in “The Institutionalization of American Poetry”), they can at the least be palliated, if not entirely eradicated, by a genuine engagement with one’s imagination. For Young, the imagination is a means to salvation, not puerile but sacred. It is through the imagination, via poetry (“All poetry is a form of hope” opens one poem), that we reach a place of empathy, excitement, and equanimity of a kind: “The skull / permanently smiles so what / is there to worry about.”

Young is Whitmanic in his appreciation of the imagination (there is a sly reference to Whitman in the lines “and there’s no such thing as death, / just darkness / and darkness never hurt anyone”), often challenging the reader to embrace their own: “Friend, lift yourself from / your webby substrate. / Inoculate the daffodils! / Inculcate daffodils! / Do fucking something with daffodils!” He also seemingly asks for approval of his poetry in real time: “Knock-knock joke in ICU. / No one knows who’s there / so keep guessing. How about / a burning scarecrow taking blood donations?”

These last lines are from “Pep Talk in a Crater,” which includes all of the finest elements of a Dean Young poem. Here are a few lines:

Often I too have been chased barefoot
by I know not what. Often a meadow
struggles to mention itself. Thus
someone can start out a column of flames
and be moth-dust by afternoon.
Thus another can collapse in on herself
like a neuron star. All we know for sure
is Mozart took a lot of hammering
and all those trees had to be screwed in.
Once the little green wings are smashed
from the wedding vessels, it’s okay
to feel like you’re watching your own murder
with a butterscotch in your mouth,
like how laughing makes the coffin
easier to carry, the usual rueful decorums
masking the want-my-mommy,
this-ain’t-my-planet wail.

There is a rush of excitement here, in part because the poem is alive, as if it has managed to retain the raw materials of language itself (as is Young’s wish for his poetry, stated in his brilliant essay-length book The Art of Recklessness, required reading for any poet looking for validation of their vocation). Whole universes of thought are packed into it through a propulsion of words, and while the manic shifts in imagery permit little time to reflect on any one in particular—despite whether they demand our reflection (“it’s okay / to feel like you’re watching your own murder”)—they build upon one another without erasure, so that a swarm of shadow lines and ghost images trail throughout the poem, sometimes to return, sometimes merely to hover in our subconscious. This deft construct of images allows for Young’s poems to be greater than the sum of their parts—the various and conflicting sensations that both the process of collage and its aggregate arouse in the reader are far more powerful than the sensations caused by any individual image itself. It is this achievement that often separates Young’s poetry from those that it influences.

In “Dance Event”, the most affecting poem in Solar Perplexus, however, Young strips the words of their propulsion, breaking them down into a series of fragmentary utterances; the language devolves so as to arrive at the essential message. The poem ends:

Simple test:
Approach a strawberry.
A pulse is kid stuff.
Dance in live ash with feathers
through your earlobes.
Converse with a sapling.
Walk cloud.
Macerate in Cointreau.
Estivate and call home.
Feed a fever fever.
Cradle dawn.
Love everyone.

The last instruction is also a directive to the imagination, for love relies on empathy, and empathy can only be achieved through imagining the condition of the other. “The heart has nothing / to do with it. The heart has everything / to do with it,” Young writes in “My Process.” Are we to take these lines, due to Young’s medical history, to be referring to the literal heart? Sure. But they are also concerned with the metaphorical heart, just as fragile but equally vital to our survival. In an era marked by a near bankruptcy in empathy, where realities are fractured and decidedly antagonistic, a rich imagination can provide a needed corrective—and there is no greater arena for the imagination to be celebrated than poetry, Solar Perplexus affirms, where “The blood may be fake / but the bleeding’s not.”


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At the Last Minute

Estha Weiner
Salmon Poetry ($20)

by Walter Holland

Precision, wit, timing, and agility are important to an actor. The ability to speak “trippingly on the tongue,” making yourself understood in the upper galleries or to groundlings below, to play both tragedy and comedy at the flip of a coin—these are the merits of the Shakespearean performer.

Estha Weiner studied the dramatic arts in England before returning to New York to continue her training. Born in Maine, she grew up in a Jewish household, bearing the brunt of jokes from her parents: “Who do you think you are, Sarah Bernhardt?” But tenacity, talent, and moxie prevailed, although perhaps she encountered criticism regarding her “too-Jewish” looks, as she was daddy’s “dark / little girl.”

However, Weiner watched and listened, honing her theatrical craft as well as her ear for Shakespeare. She studied poetry and literature as well, becoming a teacher at The Shakespeare Institute in Stratford, England and the City University of New York, among other places—while remaining, of course, an occasional actor.

Written with an easy informality, Weiner’s poems are short and deft, replete with nimble precision, careful line breaks, rhythmic mastery, rhyme-sense, Shakespearean allusions, and, above all, simplicity. These are traits vividly displayed in “Exit, pursued by bear,” that most famous of The Bard’s stage directions from The Winter’s Tale:

When I was paid
to wear a mask,

I lauded authenticity,
off-stage, as well as on,

transparency, the open
book, the open vein: my song.

All the world is still
a stage, though I’m a different player.

It seems the mask works just as well
off-stage as it works on,

taming that unruly shrew
we nick-name honesty.

Here Weiner plays figuratively with one of Shakespeare’s most famous conceits, “All the world’s a stage” from As You Like It, but teams this with a reference to The Taming of the Shrew, in which the character Kate attempts to deny her socially defined role or mask, eschewing behavioral expectations and obligations. Kate transgresses both social and gender boundaries and asserts an “honest” and “authentic” self.

These are favored Shakespearean motifs: disguise, mistaken identity, and the clever lie. Weiner suggests that the social “mask” works in real life “off-stage” as it does on. In fact, there is a tinge of feminist sarcasm in Weiner’s final couplet, when she compares “honesty” to an “unruly shrew”—something to be “tamed,” subdued, and discouraged. But Weiner resists reductive thinking and simplistic labeling. Like Shakespeare, she goes for the universal and the individualistic in human nature.

“Who do you think you are” mentions Weiner’s Jewish parents, who tease their daughter about her unrealistic goals and inflated ego, woefully inadequate compared to the Jewish thespian Sarah Bernhardt. Concise, revealing far more than stated, this poem conveys her complete family history:

“You, with the drama,
enough already!” My mother
acted, on stage and off;
my father acted like he wished
he were in the audience. I became
an actor, and missed his last
hours upon the stage
that all the world is,
because I had a second audition
for a show,
which must go on.

Here again, a clever Shakespearean conceit is employed to bittersweet effect. The parents’ roles of active mother and passive father; the daughter’s sense of regret at not having “been there” for her father in his final days; the blinding dedication to a career—all end in the sobering realization that life must go on, that selfishness and ambition are necessary tasks.

Weiner’s poetry is deliciously fun; like that of her poetic mentor, William Mathews, it is droll, unaffected, and erudite. Works such as “In the pool of the jury there are many vowels” with its stanzas “’A, I, E’ make Maine’s / accent haven for lobstahs / and home for Estha,” and “Venom drips / through my neighbors’ Virginia / vowels, as they pronounce / the word ‘Jews’” are priceless. “Fedora,” for her deceased father, is touching and tender. After discovering his beloved hat missing:

In her 50th year,
(his age at the birth of this dark little girl),
she lost it.
She searched madly, constantly,
madly, quietly.

“. . . to the sea again” is a lovely treat, a parting bouquet of emotions. And, in “At 5:45 pm in The Conservatory Garden,” where Weiner tells us, “That dark bird, out / of place amongst the lavenders / and roses, takes / off, with me / tempted to follow,” is when I realized I’ll follow the work of this “madly” accomplished poet anywhere.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

A Shaming, Damning,
Beautiful Moment:
An Interview with Stephen Markley

photo by Michael Amico

by Benjamin Davis

Stephen Markley was writing about opioid addiction and rust-belt voters before the issues hounded the headlines. Those stories came together in his debut novel, Ohio (Simon & Schuster, $16.99), a book that began as a murder mystery and became a large-scale social commentary. Called “a kind of fiction/op-ed hybrid” by The New York Times, Ohio, in its prescience and politics, is a book for the present. I reached out to Markley after attending his reading at Houston’s impressive Brazos Bookstore; in the following interview, we discuss writing about the Midwest, gender in literature, and the question of home.


Benjamin Davis: In his Paris Review interview, Jim Harrison claimed that there’s no such thing as regional literature; either it’s literature on aesthetic grounds or it’s not literature at all. Ohio flags a region from the very title. Can you say more about how the novel nevertheless speaks broadly in this moment?

Stephen Markley: Ok, I don’t want to kick off this interview sounding like a dumbass, but can I admit I don’t know what Jim Harrison is talking about? I literally just do not understand. All I know is that I never go in for lit that feels airless and floating, that tries to be “timeless” but in doing so just comes off as plastic, sterile, and antiquated quickly anyway. Something I adore and admire is when an author makes you feel like you know and understand a place you have never been. Or even better, you have been there, and you can’t believe how much they’re nailing it.

BD: Bill is an activist who has been through a lot. Where did the inspiration for him come from?

SM: I’d say there are two components involved. First, after college I thought I’d dive into politics and/or activism of some kind, and it’s not like I’ve never been involved in those realms since, but I quickly discovered I do not have the temperament for it. It can create this womb around a person, this detachment from the perspectives and experiences of anyone outside the womb, an intellectual cloistering. It’s also extremely frustrating work. You fight like hell your whole life for dignity and justice and all that, and at the end of it your neo-fascist reality show star president walks you off a plank into a pool of sharks to great ratings. This is not to denigrate the people who do that kind of incredible and grueling work, but instead of an engaged and energetic citizenry, we have a model where activism becomes a full-time identity until it breaks your heart and you burn out. You either drink yourself to death or go work on Wall Street and tell yourself Ayn Rand had it right. That’s where I found Bill, attempting the former.

He’s also proven the most controversial character. Some people hate him, can’t even get through his chapter, and some love and/or identify with him. This bookseller in Pennsylvania told me, “I couldn’t understand why everyone hated him. I adored Bill! I dated him in college.” Which made me laugh because it’s not the first time I’ve heard that. Then I was talking to my friend Nancy, who was a total lunatic in college and also one of the smartest people in the entire student body, and she said, “Oh, I thought Bill was based on me.” And she’s kind of right in that I’ve always had a fascination with people who give zero fucks what people think of them, who do not care about anyone’s pieties and who have the intellect and precision to back up their bluster. They’re volatile and mesmerizing and nasty in a lot of ways, like the plutonium of human beings. If Nancy somehow gets famous she’ll be canceled after her first thirty-five seconds on Twitter. (I’m mostly just kidding, Nancy’s great.)

BD: What guided your decision to tell this story through point-of-view characters, weaving different experiences together around a single night in a single town?

SM: It’s hard to remember the exact evolution of those decisions. What I can remember is that I always, always, always had those four voices in my head. So much so that by the time I sat down to write the actual words that would make up the book, I’d been living with these characters for quite some time.

BD: Did you at any point feel a pull to write about Chicago, Los Angeles, or other cities you know?

SM: Nah, not really. I mean, I wrote a bit about Chicago in my first book, but I don’t really approach storytelling like Oh, now it’s time to write about L.A. (“Traffic sucks, it’s too sunny, this Bumble date thinks I have way more money than I do, The End”—terrible novel).

BD: It’s worth noting that the book is rural in its focus. I look for Ohio when I travel now, and I see it selling at little bookstores in hip neighborhoods and in wealthy liberal enclaves in cities, yet it is a book about a small town. Thankfully, you avoided writing as one of those “here’s how to understand Trump country” books that are now popular. Still, did you have a readership in mind when writing it?

SM: I take that as a great compliment because the last thing I ever want to do is claim to speak for anyone about anything. I wrote the entire novel and was well into, I think, the fourth draft before Trump was even a gleam in the eye of a thirsty media conglomerate. So I didn’t set out to write about the zeitgeist; I wished upon a monkey’s paw, and the zeitgeist crashed into my book (“Please let me have a successful debut novel, and I don’t care what socio-political circumstances arise to make it thus!”). As for the readership, I’m just glad someone read it besides my mom.

BD: You write about deindustrialization in New Canaan, then note “but nowhere in the Midwest really escaped.” Can you paint in broad terms what aspects of deindustrialization you wanted to cover, what specific elements stay with you that we see across the Midwest?

SM: Keep in mind, by the time I was old enough to be aware of much of anything, the Midwest had already gone through the worst spasms of deindustrialization. I wasn’t born yet when the steel plants in Youngstown started closing, so I grew up in the Walmart-ized version of a once-great industrial region. But I always found an odd beauty to a closed factory sitting abandoned in some weedy, chain-linked lot because it’s impossible not to let it capture your imagination. This place used to make something, and people were friends here, and there were stories here, people met their husbands and wives here, and now it’s gone, and all those stories are confounded ghosts, wandering, and likely no one will write them down or remember them. There’s something heavy about that.

But politically speaking, the most deleterious effect of deindustrialization was capital’s war on organized labor. The main reason capital began the project of offshoring was to break the backs of the unions, and it worked exceedingly well. Now what do you have? A lot of big box stores and Amazon warehouses where the managers are mostly trained in union busting. So not only are you losing the union’s power to negotiate for wages and working conditions, you’re removing the primary political organizer for a community of working people. I don’t think it can be overstated how toxic this is. Putnam’s Bowling Alone touched on this: that de-unionization tracks precisely with economic inequality and, beyond that, the decline of social capital (people’s networks and connections within a community). As wages stagnate and social capital vanishes, what moves in? Opiates, meth, pills, alcoholism, sure, but also political philosophies constructed of grievance that seek to place blame, usually on some convenient Other.

BD: You have said that you started out writing a murder mystery, but realized you had a lot more to say. And indeed, the book takes on a lot more, including political questions. How did you realize you needed to say this “a lot more”?

SM: I’d been writing opinion pieces for a while, so I’d always had a political bent, but my fiction was sort of a separate category—I didn’t necessarily see it as political. This allowed something important to happen, which is that the politics arose organically from the viewpoints of the characters, none of whom precisely shared my particular worldview. And that’s the beauty of writing fiction: when you’re really doing it, you are Really Doing It. You are this other person, and you inhabit their mind and their thinking, and it just makes a certain sense to you because that’s the way this make-believe person sees it, and there’s nothing weird about that. So I set out to write this complex mystery in which you had no idea what the mystery even was until the last twenty or so pages, but then reading the first draft, I got a sense of the rage and sorrow each of these people felt, and how that rage and sorrow was connected to the events of their adult lives, including war, addiction, homophobia, recession, and the other themes the book touches upon.

BD: As a Minnesotan, I can testify to your getting a lot of Midwestern language right, such as the way people start sentences: “Thing was, Bill had a hard time . . .” How important is colloquial language to you?

SM: I love the way people talk—it’s such a specific fingerprint, right? But you can’t really fake it, so I guess I didn’t even notice that I’d started sentences that way. Here’s an even bigger bombshell: I don’t think most writers even know what the fuck they did until they’re on the book tour and people are asking them questions. Then we’re like, “It was very important for me to utilize colloquial language . . .”

BD: You have a way of reminding us that our actions go home, that what we do is not only informed by where we’re from but also returns there. “What an important lesson for every young person to learn: If you defy the collective psychosis of nationalism, of imperial war, you will pay for it. And the people in your community, your home, who you thought knew and loved you, will be the ones to collect the debt.” Can you say more about this phrase—“the collective psychosis of nationalism”?

SM: I can’t recall who I stole that phrase from, but I don’t think at this point it’s remotely controversial that nationalism is toxic and that its permutations can defy all attempts at reason. My perspective is that I came from a generation that reached adulthood almost exactly on the day of 9/11 (literally, two of my best friends turned eighteen on 9/12, and I turned eighteen less than a month later). So to slip into Bill’s perspective, here’s what he might say: “And what came of 9/11? A burst of hyper-nationalism not seen in a generation, followed by two catastrophic wars, which are probably going to cost between five and six trillion dollars when it’s all tallied. There are now stories of fathers and sons having gone on the same patrols in Afghanistan. Iraq remains a broken country littered with the bodies of innocent people. And this is to say nothing of disastrous interventions in Libya, Syria, Pakistan, all across North Africa, and you better believe if Donald Trump wants his war in Iran or Venezuela, some not insignificant faction of the American polity will go along with it, and a whole new tragedy will commence. This is to say nothing of the concentration camps rising along the U.S.-Mexico border, which will likely expand in scope well before any future administration manages to shut them down. To call all of this ‘madness’ is an insult to madness. But we go along with it, and some of us love it. Because nationalism is like religion in its power and ability to rally people to just about any half-baked notion you can dream up.”

Again, when I wrote Bill Ashcraft, I didn’t really expect him to be this correct about everything.

BD: There’s a lot of masculinity going on in Ohio. For instance: “Adolescent identity is an odd thing, formed mostly for hypermasculine young men by their chosen extracurricular activity.” And: “his dad shook hands with Mr. Clifton, because he literally could not converse with another man without a firm handshake first (even if it was a neighbor and friend of nearly thirty years).” Why was this important for you to comment on?

SM: You have to keep in mind that those two instances are from the POVs of the two male characters (the female characters, of course, have their own less-than-pleasant experiences with masculinity). Again, because the book was written so long before the MeToo moment, it’s like the zeitgeist crashed into the themes I was working on. Something I keep in mind is what my mom once said to me, “The patriarchy isn’t just bad for women; it’s bad for you too, bucko.” In that it confines men to these dangerous boxes, fuels them with horrific notions and demands, drives them so easily to despair when they have no shot at living up to those demands. Bill probably knows all this, but he’s somewhat helpless to fight against it. Dan intuits some of the absurdities of masculinity, especially because he grew up as someone who was having his masculinity challenged—a bookworm who decided to join the military.

BD: What were your working habits on the book? Did you return to the state frequently, making the book a kind of ethnography? Or was it written by memory from Iowa?

SM: I mostly wrote it while attending the Iowa workshop, but I didn’t really need to research Ohio per se because I was going back home fairly often, as I have been in the years since I moved away. Most of the research revolved around Dan’s experience in the army and Stacey’s doctoral thesis, of which I ended up cutting about 98%.

BD: At one point you take on a story of an Ohio Union colonel who switches, through his experience fighting in the Civil War, from an anti-emancipation Democrat to someone opposed to slavery. “It must be a shaming, damning, beautiful moment to understand such a thing. To have your heart changed.” Do you think a novel can contribute to this? Or, how do you think about the role of the social novel—the “Big American Novel,” as it’s been called.

SM: As smarter people than me have pointed out, the “Big/ Great American Novel” moniker adheres a bit too frequently to white bro authors, so I sorta throw my garlic and crucifixes at that phrase and run away screaming. However, of course I think novels contribute to an inner life and a higher consciousness and an ability to feel empathy and reason and passion in a way almost no other art form can possibly accomplish. I have to believe this or I wouldn’t do it. And from my perspective, I live in the most consequential economic and military empire in the history of human civilization, which is also undergoing a series tectonic shifts—some good and most not so good at all—so that’s pretty interesting.

BD: There’s a lot of talk these days about who can write what and who can read what. I doubt the response to a white man’s attempt to write an indigenous female protagonist would be similar to Louise Erdrich’s blurb on Jim Harrison’s Dalva: “Monumental . . . Bighearted, an unabashedly romantic love story . . . There is no putting aside Dalva.” Can you talk about your approach to writing Stacey and Tina?

SM: I get that question an awful lot, so here’s a chance for me to give my long answer, which will use the equivocating phrase “having said that” twice, and hopefully inspire a media firestorm that will sell more books:

We are in a moment when people from marginalized communities and identities are stepping forward and saying, “Hey, what the fuck? It’s my turn, you fucking bearded white guy.” This, I believe, is unabashedly one of the Good developments I referred to earlier. In terms of the light speed with which society and capitalism has reorganized itself to recognize and celebrate LGBTQ rights, it’s sort of astonishing. If you had told me in high school that someday Verizon would be sponsoring Pride floats, I’d ask what alternate reality you’d flown in from. This is also leading to a proliferation of art and ideas and public figures from corners of the human experience that simply weren’t reaching mainstream audiences before. It’s really fucking awesome, and when I’m staring at the ceiling in the dark of night worrying that our slide into fascism is unstoppable, I remind myself that the most important American politician right now is a Puerto Rican bartender from the Bronx promoting the most confrontational vision of social democracy I’ve heard in my lifetime.

Having said that, I believe it is the prerogative of the artist, the writer, the filmmaker to believe totally and fully that nothing is ever, ever, ever off limits. To write with invisible social critics on your shoulder is total doom, and part of the journey and the POINT of creating literature is to imagine yourself into someone else’s shoes, to envision what this stranger’s fears and heartaches and hopes are about, and in the process to let that change your heart, even if just by a little bit. And I seriously don’t care if I’m the last person on that flooding island, clinging to the rocks by my fingernails. I doubt I’ll ever write a novel told solely from the perspective of a straight white man because that is seriously boring, and not even in accord with my own experience of living in the world and the people that matter to me and the building of my own consciousness from the influences of all the non-white, non-male artists, leaders, and visionaries that I have so desperately adored. If tomorrow it becomes unacceptable to write from anything other than your own “lived experience,” and the whole of the publishing world refuses me, I’ll gladly just keep writing and leave the pages in my drawers to be unearthed after the seas rise and civilization collapses and is then again reborn and everyone finally looks around and says, “Oh yeah, I guess we were in this thing together the whole time, weren’t we?”

Having said that, I’m definitely not arrogant enough to believe I can truly ever know what it’s like to go through life as a queer woman in a place hostile to your identity in every way. I’m under no illusion that this is an experience I can in any way own or claim to speak for (like I said, never speak for anyone but your own dumb self). My formula therefore is to write with bravery, but edit with humility. I told the story I had to tell because it was screaming inside of my bones to get out, but when I turned to the editing process I of course sought advice from some of the smartest women in my life, who also had the energy to read and comment on a 500-page novel. Going through the journey of writing Stacey and Tina was something I never treated lightly, and I kept in mind my responsibility to people who’d had those experiences.

BD: “Home is a roving sensation, not a place, and for a large chunk of his life, the feel of that bullet to the chest, that was home.” Is Ohio a kind of homecoming for you? What did writing it teach you about home, place, belonging?

SM: Home is a kind of spirituality. It inhabits you and influences you no matter where you are, who you think you are, or who you think you can become. Watching one’s home suffer degradation, depredation, or tragedy, you realize how fragile it is, how foreclosures, recession, opiates, or any number of exogenous influences can rock it to the core. Thinking about one’s home in this particular historical moment, it all must be framed within the context of displaced peoples, refugees, asylum seekers, and the greatest mass movement of human beings since World War II. Much of that movement is the result of those aforementioned catastrophic wars in the Middle East, North Africa, and West Asia but also the early onset effects of our ecological crisis. The UN tells us over 65 million people have been displaced, and given that nothing is being done to arrest climate change, that number could be as high as 250 million by the middle of the century, according to some estimates. In that context, the idea of home is going to take on vastly different dimensions in the human imagination, even for those of us in the comfortable West, because in the midst of unpredictable climatic and political convulsions no one’s home is going to be safe. Not really. So I think the idea of home should remind us not that we’re a part of this cloistered region or that protected enclave but that, again, our individual fate is bound up in the fate of the entire human community, in ways both obvious and subterranean.

BD: What’s next for you?

SM: I’m burning through the first draft of my next book, which is going to be such a clusterfuck to edit, but I’m definitely excited to get back to it every day. It’s that feeling that comes over you, this fugue, where the people in your book are as real and vital to you as anything in your own life. Also, I optioned Ohio to MGM and am hoping to adapt it into a limited series, but until you’re sitting down with the popcorn watching the first episode, you’ve got to keep your expectations with Hollywood in check. It’s just so remarkable to me that I actually made it to a place where I’m writing and living my life and waking up every morning to go play in the sandbox. I don’t want to take even a moment of it for granted.


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Every Mask I Tried On

Alina Stefanescu
Brighthorse Books ($16.95)

by Ralph Pennel

In Good and Evil, Nietzsche argues that, “All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks, in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity.” In her debut fiction collection, Every Mask I Tried On, author Alina Stefanescu does just that by means of critical analysis of the personal through the interpersonal, and by exploration of the self as an articulating component of literary craft, all in order to give shape to the “unshapable.”

In “My Name is Not Rita,” the third story in the first section, the author takes a discerning look at the creative process, especially the manner in which we render representations of ourselves. Immediately, we catch the narrator on the defensive, reclaiming herself against those close to her, those who profess to know her better than she does: her lover, the assistant at the radio station where she works, even the author herself. The lover, it is revealed in the first few lines, is writing a book about the narrator. The assistant at the radio station exclaims the narrator is two people, intimating the person she is on air is stronger than who she is off, that she “came across confident—bluegrass this, bluegrass that—but in the studio [she] looked tired and less full of life.”

It is in these renderings that we find the author struggling with representations of the self, though they resist such narrow definition at every breath. The author, of course, is all these characters (as the narrator was in the lover’s book), and is in conversation with herself about what the creative process reveals about how little we know ourselves—except, perhaps, in a character’s constant refusals of ever being known precisely, toiling on and on in the persistent ambiguity of discovery.

At the very end, the lover has moved to Maine and finally published his book. In the book is a dedication to Rita, whom he claims “inspired all of the characters,” a desire he expressed earlier, saying, “he wanted to spread me out into various characters” and that “you’re too much for one woman.” As the title informs us, however, the narrator’s name is not Rita, asking us to examine the failings of intentionality in process. From here, a blueprint is set for how to navigate the stories that follow.

In the fourth section, “There Was No More Blood than A Period,” Stefanescu takes on the approximations and distortions of language, how we rely on it to keep ourselves from disappearing all together. In “Wind Words,” for example, the narrator, a young girl, is translating the world as defined by her parents’ interpersonal communications, especially the ways they make meanings based on failures. Stefanescu sums up this experience at the bottom of the first page through the narrator’s own method of navigating gaps between the meanings of words; her voice, when attempting to speak her mind, “comes up just a tad shy of a somersault and no one but me is spinning.” How easily we take meaning for granted, that what we are attempting to communicate will be understood as we meant it to be.

The wind slips itself around the way we allude, the way we infer, the way we inflect. As it turns out, all words are wind words, “the way the wind rambles through all the words regardless,” even words as tightly wound as “knots.” All are porous. All mere reflections. All have room to squeeze more meaning through and from. But, as the mother of the narrator assures us near story’s end, “It’s okay when the boat rocks . . . It’s okay, we are at anchor.” No amount of wind will blow us so far off track that we will be lost to vast horizons, we will find common ground in a common language.

In the final section, “Not Without Some Pain,” the author reflects on the art of art in the story “The Romanian Part”—how we are art’s meaning’s messengers, and how, “What we see becomes the thing we can’t see past.” But what happens if what we can’t see past is the mask itself? “The Romanian Part” is smartly broken up into different sections with titles like “Her Best Romanian Child” and “The Kitchen Saudade,” in order to show the author’s intersecting identities as Romanian, American, mother, wife, author, subject and object, vehicle and mode. The perfect way to illustrate how, “What we make of a thing is the story of us. . . . If I weren’t dying of every symptom I google, I might find time to save this story.” Identity is fluid, layered, and complex, a myriad of masks we don’t even see until we remove them for the next, each story a thread in the fabric of the visage.

Alina Stefanescu’s debut collection of stories is a triumph of highest order, at times both “monstrous” and “terrifying” in its honesty. Every Mask I Tried On is a collection each of us must try on for ourselves in order to see more clearly the scaffoldings of our own invented artifices.


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Two Roads Diverged:
Jack Kerouac and Robert Creeley

“In the other room wild women are dancing as Creeley of Acton Massachusetts and I of Lowell beat.”
- Jack Kerouac, letter to John Clellon Holmes May 27, 1956

by Jonah Raskin

They both cast long literary shadows across American letters in the second half of the twentieth-century. Jack Kerouac was mostly a novelist though he also wrote poetry. Robert Creeley was mostly a poet though he wrote fiction, and a huge body of essays and reviews that ranged over nearly all of modern literature, from Samuel’s Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature to Ezra Pound’s poetry and William Burroughs’s fiction.

Few writers compressed their own experiences at the typewriter as succinctly as Kerouac, and then made them available to wanna-be authors in a kind of ten-step program, except that he offered 28-steps in no particular order of importance. Beginning in early boyhood, Kerouac thought of himself as a writer and threw himself into the world of books. Ironically, even after Creeley wrote and then published books in the 1940s, he was reluctant to describe himself as a writer. As a young man, he was also wary of books and book culture, though that had changed by the time that he met Kerouac in 1956.

Who influenced whom is a matter of debate, though literary historian Steven Watson insists in The Birth of the Beat Generation that Kerouac helped “free” Creeley “from the imposition of plot.” Curiously, on his 1976 list of literary “heroes,” Creeley offered more than a dozen writers, including H.D., Gertrude Stein, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Ed Dorn, and Ted Berrigan, but not Jack Kerouac. Many different writers helped to free Creeley from his New England Puritanism.

Contemporary writers might learn from both Creeley and Kerouac—who came from opposite sides of New England—how challenging it is to pinpoint influences and how difficult it can be to resist the temptations of ego and competition. Creeley and Kerouac both might have identified with the narrator in Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” who observes, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,/And sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveler.” They each carved out their own roads that others have followed over the last 50 years and helped enshrine their reputations.

On his “List of Essentials” for “Belief & Technique of Modern Prose,” Jack Kerouac urged writers to be “submissive to everything, open, listening.” He did that the night when he and Creeley attended a “big 40-people party” in San Francisco in the spring of 1956, when they both consumed a great deal of alcohol. Drinking linked them, though it also divided them. Kerouac would pass out. Creeley became belligerent, though neither one caused trouble at this event; instead, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky stole the show when they took off their clothes and stood naked in the crowd.

Kerouac described Orlovsky as a “mad young Russian Kafkean saint with wild hair.” By comparison, Creeley seemed rather tame, though the patch over his left eye lent him a certain mystique. “Distinguished Buddhists,” including Alan Watts, chatted with “drinks in their hands,” Kerouac wrote, while “wild women” danced with one another in another room.

Kerouac added a brief sentence about himself and his newfound companion that hinted at submerged personal histories: “Creeley of Acton Massachusetts and I of Lowell beat.” Creeley was, indeed, from the town of Acton, about 15 miles south of Lowell, the city where Kerouac was born and raised and where he attended high school. Creeley was born in 1926, four years after Kerouac. In the spring of 1956, when he and Kerouac attended parties, poetry readings, and raucous events, Creeley turned 30. Kerouac was an older brother Creeley never had; Creeley briefly replaced the brother Kerouac lost.

When he wrote the word “beat,” Kerouac meant it to work as a noun and a verb. Lowell was his beat, and he and Creeley were beating drums and behaving like two beat characters in the midst of a brief bromance. On another occasion, also in the spring of 1956, which took place at the Cellar in San Francisco, Kerouac wrote, “I walk in there with Creeley and we drum and beat.”

Years later, Creeley would remember that he and Kerouac attended a party in 1956 where they were “banging on upended pots and pans” and were “keeping the beat.” In San Francisco, they exemplified the spontaneous, improvisational spirit of “beat,” though Creeley was not part of the Beat inner circle that included Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs.

In Kerouac’s company, Creeley became, albeit briefly, a part of “the Beat scene,” as the incipient Beats called it. In the spring of 1956 there wasn’t yet a “Beat Generation,” and there wasn’t yet a “Black Mountain School of Poets,” either, though Creeley had taught writing at Black Mountain College, which was imploding in 1956 while the Beats were coalescing and ascending. “The seedbed” for the “new culture” was “the San Francisco ‘Renaissance,’ the Beats,” Martin Duberman observed in Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community, though as he also noted, just a few years earlier, Black Mountain, San Francisco, and New York all contributed to the movement “to break the hold of previously accepted models of behavior and art.”

Two of Kerouac’s biographers, Tom Clark and Gerald Nicosia, both argue that Creeley and Kerouac were cut from the same regional cloth, though neither Clark nor Nicosia looked closely at the communities and the families that shaped them and from which they emerged. Clark interviewed the poet from Acton at length for his biography of the writer from Lowell. He wrote that “Kerouac and Creeley had much in common—both were northeast Massachusetts natives with French Canadian blood—but the main bond between them was that they were intense, engaged drinkers.”

In fact, Creeley’s ancestors were English while Kerouac’s were French-Canadian. Creeley thought of himself as Puritan while Kerouac regarded himself as Franco-American. Clark quotes Creeley as saying, “I always felt very at home with Jack.”

By the time that Clark wrote his Kerouac biography, Jack was already dead. The two volumes of Kerouac’s letters, which offer his story of the coming together and drifting apart from Creeley, were not yet in print, nor were Creeley’s letters. In his biography Memory Babe, Nicosia echoes Clark and emphasizes the bonds that alcohol created. He also wrote that Kerouac and Creeley were both “sad” and imbued with a streak of “wildness,” though in the spring of 1956 Creeley was wilder than Kerouac—wild enough to be arrested and go to jail, which Kerouac mentions twice in his letters.

Nicosia also quotes Creeley as saying that he and Kerouac both “shared the ‘New England apprehension’ that big city people were out to ‘run a number on them.’” That might have been true for Creeley, who preferred small towns and medium-sized cities, but Kerouac thrived in New York and Mexico City. Soon after he met Creeley, he realized that Acton was, culturally speaking, a long way from Lowell.

“Damn . . . his New England,” Kerouac would write. Soon after Creeley read Kerouac’s novel Doctor Sax, which is set in Lowell, he remembered the city he knew as a boy. ”I used to go to Lowell once a year to buy a suit,” he told Kerouac in a letter and added, “You were the kids I never saw!” Creeley was the boy in the suit; Kerouac the kid in denim.

In his very fine book The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, Michael Davidson complains that Beat writing “has been valued for extraliterary qualities.” Indeed, books about the Beats often indulge in Beat trivia and avoid discussion of the form, style, and language of Beat novels and poetry, though for Beat fans there is no such thing as trivia. For the most part, Davidson adheres to literary topics. Occasionally, he veers away from them and discusses “the Eisenhower doldrums” and “contemporary American life.”

In fact, distinctions between the literary and the “extraliterary” break down with the Beats and Black Mountain, as Martin Duberman makes clear in Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community. Duberman goes back and forth from books to marriages, children, personal relationships, and the social fabric at Black Mountain College, which informed both the teaching and the writing.

“The competition for the few women was rough,” Duberman writes; “There was a hierarchy in the community.” Like the world of the Beats, the world of Black Mountain was dominated by men. Denise Levertov was one of the few women at the college and in the pages of Black Mountain Review, which Kerouac referred to as “BMR.” There was also a pecking order when Beats and Black Mountain writers, including Kerouac and Creeley, got together, with rivalries and name calling on both sides. Robert Duncan resented what he saw as Ginsberg’s arrogance; Gregory Corso targeted what he felt was the Black Mountain literary mafia.

Creeley knew about Kerouac before Kerouac knew about Creeley; he admired Kerouac’s work and was eager to publish it in BMR. Kerouac, who was rarely published between 1951 and 1956, was delighted, and offered Creeley and Duncan a small part of his story, “October in the Railroad Earth”—which would be published in 1960 in Lonesome Traveler, a collection of prose pieces, under a slightly different title, “The Railroad Earth.” There it ran to 46 pages in a 183-page paperback.

Creeley and Kerouac were an odd couple, indeed, as their letters to one another attest, and as Kerouac’s letters to his friends corroborate. Yes, they came from the same part of Massachusetts and belonged to the same generation, but Kerouac was working class and Catholic with a deeply ingrained sense of suffering, redemption, and resurrection. Creeley was Protestant and middle class and eager to leave his background and to venture into uncharted waters that would take him to the sensual, the body, and to a view of human beings that went far beyond the New England Puritanism of his ancestors.

Creeley and Kerouac would both come to realize the social and economic divisions between them. Creeley came to see Kerouac as The Other, while Kerouac would regard Creeley as a kind of square who didn’t dig jazz as he did.

Kerouac’s father was a printer. His mother worked in a shoe factory. Creeley’s father, who died when Robert was four, had been a doctor. His mother worked as a nurse to support the family. Kerouac’s parents came from French-speaking Canada. Like Creeley, he suffered an early emotional loss: the death of his older brother, whom he would write about in the novel, Visions of Gerard. Visions counted greatly for Kerouac, along with the blues, haikus, and myths. Creeley was more domestic and everyday, akin to Emily Dickinson and William Carlos Williams, while Kerouac turned to Melville, Dostoevsky, Jack London, and Thomas Wolfe. Surprisingly, Creeley wrote a long enthusiastic essay about Walt Whitman’s poetry in which he quoted Dickinson, John Ashbery, and Gregory Corso, and argued that Whitman’s late poems were magisterial.

Creeley and Kerouac lived through and were shaped by the Depression of the 1930s, World War II, and the nuclear age that was born in 1945 when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kerouac had enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but had found himself unsuited for military life. He was honorably discharged with a diagnosis of “schizoid personality,” which he seemed to accept. In lieu of military duty, Creeley joined the American Field Service and spent two years, 1944-1945, in Asia.

More so than Kerouac, Creeley had a keen sense of the shifts in the zeitgeist and an ability to summarize them. “The forties were a hostile time for the writers,” he explained in his introduction to The New Writing in the USA (1967). “The colleges and universities were dominant…poems were equivalent to cars.” Kerouac had a similar perspective on the post World War II era, though he looked at prisons and hospitals, not at colleges and universities, to take the pulse of the nation. “The Beat characters after 1950 vanished into jails and madhouse, or were shamed into silent conformity,” he wrote in his 1957 essay “About the Beat Generation.”

Creeley and Kerouac had both enrolled at Ivy League colleges—Creeley at Harvard, where he studied with F.O. Matthiessen and adopted some of his intellectual rigor before dropping out; Kerouac enrolled at Columbia, where he played football briefly and later mythologized his athleticism. At the New School, he took Alfred Kazin’s class on the American novel and asked Kazin to help him find a publisher for his work. He didn’t want to teach Melville, as Kazin did, but be Melville. “I’ve invented a new prose, Modern Prose, jazzlike breathless swift spontaneous,” he told Kazin in 1954.

Creeley and Kerouac both married early and were divorced by the time they met in 1956. Kerouac had a daughter, though he refused to accept her as his child or help support her. By 1956, Creeley had two sons and a daughter who had grown up with him and their mother, Ann MacKinnon—Creeley’s first wife— and who traveled with their parents. Creeley could be as myopic as Kerouac about women. In 1956, after a divorce from MacKinnon, he wrote to a friend to say he had a new wife, though he didn’t mention her name until the friend inquired. Only then did he say her name was Bobbie.

Like Kerouac, Creeley was often on the road and not just in the U.S—he went as far as Southeast Asia, and to France and Mallorca, where he founded Divers Press—and then to Black Mountain, North Carolina, where he edited BMR, which often included work by students and members of the faculty. By 1956, Creeley had a book of short stories to his name and four books of poetry, all under the imprint of small presses, while major publishing houses put Kerouac’s fiction into print. Still, as Ginsberg noted in February 1955, “you’re legendary already without having published.”

Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,1950), introduced the concept of “Beat,” along with a cast of Beat characters and the theme of the road, though not the style that would come to define his work. In 1955, New World Writing #7 published his fiction piece “Jazz of the Beat Generation” under the name Jean-Louis; it was widely read and served as a kind of teaser for On the Road, which came out two years later from Viking. A note from the publisher that accompanied “Jazz of the Beat Generation” read, “This selection is from a novel-in-progress, THE BEAT GENERATION. Jean-Louis is the pseudonym of a young American writer of French-Canadian parentage.”

In The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, Davidson makes two significant claims: that Creeley had much in common with the Beats; and that male bonding was Kerouac’s main theme. What Davidson doesn’t point out is that real human beings— Kerouac himself, along with Cassady, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder, and others— inspired Kerouac’s fictional characters.

Art and life blend and bleed into one another in the Legend of Dulouz, the series of fourteen interconnected novels that begins chronologically with Visions of Gerard and ends with Satori in Paris, and that cover the life of the protagonist who goes by a variety of names, including “Smith” and “Paradise.” When Kerouac writes, “I first met Dean,” he was drawing on his own personal experience and simultaneously creating a fictitious persona.

As Creeley noted in an essay published by Le Roi Jones and Diane di Prima in their Beat inflected journal Yugen, the “I” and the “self,” rather than the “we” and the “they” were “a mark of the new poetry” of the 1950s. He added, “And that’s a good thing.” No American poets and novelist in the second half of the twentieth-century perfected the use of the “I” and were more versatile when writing about “the self” than the Beats, though Saul Bellow also used the first person pronoun to great effect in The Adventures of Augie March (1953).

When Creeley wrote “Jack’s Blues,” he was thinking about Kerouac and mimicking Kerouac. He began the poem, “I’m going to roll up a monkey”—with monkey as code for marijuana cigarette. The 16-line poem in four stanzas borrows from Beat idioms and reflects some of Kerouac’s marijuana experiences, but the lines and the stanza are too neat and tidy on the page to be Kerouac.

In the untitled poem that begins “If there is such a thing as fact/it is possessed by happy Jack Kerouac,” Creeley wrote about Kerouac, but “Happy Jack Kerouac” is a misnomer. Creeley wanted Kerouac to be happier than he was. As Kerouac noted, Creeley certainly needed to get out from under his own sadness.

If Kerouac’s novels are about male bonding, as Davidson writes, they’re also about the displeasures and dissolutions of male bonding, which mirror the disintegration of the author’s real life friendships. With Creeley and Kerouac the bonding was almost instantaneous, while the break-up was quicker than with Kerouac and Neal Cassady, for example, who went their separate ways, and prefigured the ending of On the Road, where Sal Paradise leaves Dean Moriarty behind and rides in a Cadillac to Carnegie Hall to hear Duke Ellington perform.

Creeley found the ending of the On the Road especially powerful. “The fade off on Neal is very moving,” he wrote. “He just stands there as one moves out—it hurts to read it.” Curiously, Kerouac never described his bonding, and its opposite, with Creeley, not in The Dharma Bums (1958) or in Desolation Angels (1965), the two books that cover the mid-1950s. Kerouac already had enough male bonding to last a lifetime when he met Creeley in the spring of 1956, that unique moment of cultural ferment that provided the backdrop to the strange time they shared and that had a far more lasting impact on Creeley than on Kerouac.

After Kerouac separated from Creeley, he moved to the East Coast, witnessed the publication of On the Road (1957), leapt into the writing and the publication of The Dharma Bums (1958) and then the recording and the release of three LPs, one with Steve Allen on the piano and another with Zoot Sims and Al Cohen on saxophones that was called Blues and Haikus (1959). Kerouac was eager to let go of the time he spent with Creeley, though he would dredge up unhappy memories and share them with friends, including Gary Snyder and Phil Whalen. To Snyder he wrote, “I don't prize him like I do you because he starts fights.” He added, “I’m afraid of him.” To Whalen, he exclaimed, “damned Creeley got me smoking again in Marin in 1956. Damn him and his beard and his New England.” He was good at blaming others and not taking responsibility for his own actions and habits.

In the early 1960s, when Creeley invited Kerouac to visit, Jack begged off. In 1962, Creeley wrote from Albuquerque, New Mexico to say, “I wish you could get here.” Kerouac replied politely a month later, “Certainly I would love to see you, but I havent [sic] any way of stopping off at Albuquerque.” He added, “I’m expected in Paris by my old buddy Burroughs.” Creeley sent Kerouac invitations on other occasions and Kerouac found reasons not to accept them. For a time, he was worried that Creeley thought that he had sold out, which wasn’t a far-fetched conclusion. Creeley had written to say, “I like you being famous. You make money, you hear.” Kerouac wrote to Whalen to say, apropos Creeley, “I thought he thought I was ‘commercial.’” Commercial success and fame was forbidden in both Beat and Black Mountain circles, though Ginsberg would go on to enjoy both.

Not surprisingly, Kerouac set condition for meeting Creeley. “If we go driving let me do the driving,” he insisted, though he added, “I don’t even drive, myself.” Kerouac also distanced himself from Creeley’s work, and from Creeley’s identity as a writer. He told Donald Allen, who edited The New American Poetry and included work by Kerouac and Creeley, that Creeley was a “very strange writer.” On the subject of Creeley’s seventh book of poetry, For Love, Kerouac noted, “there’s not enough swing in it.”

Kerouac never offered Creeley criticism of his work in any letter he wrote and sent, nor did he say anything negative to Creeley about their time together in 1956. In his letters to Kerouac, Creeley only offered glowing remarks about Big Sur, which he described as “a completely articulate, human and beautiful thing,” and about On the Road as “a beautiful solid & completely heart-open thing.”

Why Creeley and Kerouac never reunited again after their time together in 1956 is a mystery, though clues abound. From the beginning there was a sense that a lasting friendship between them was not to be. Ginsberg arranged for the initial rendezvous, which occurred at “The Place,” a bohemian bar in North Beach that was managed by two Black Mountain College alumni, Knute Stiles and Leo Krikorian.

Kerouac arrived before Creeley arrived and took a seat at the back of the room, eager to meet the author that Duncan told him had “written a thousand pages in which the only apparent physical action was a neon sign over the storefront flashing on and off.” That was an exaggeration, though the story impressed Creeley, who entered The Place with Ed and Helena Dorn not knowing what Kerouac looked like. Ginsberg hadn't bothered to describe him. Creeley and the Dorns “waited, peering about to try to figure out which one of the others was Kerouac.”

Creeley kept looking at a man who was “sitting up against the back wall . . . seeming alone, sort of musing,” though he didn’t approach him. Shyness stared at shyness. When Ginsberg arrived, he asked Creeley if he had seen Jack. “No,” Creeley said. “There he is,” Ginsberg replied and pointed to the musing man at the back of the room. Ginsberg added, “He’s sittin’ right over there.” Kerouac had been drinking and was “comatose.” Later, at the apartment Kerouac shared with the writer and petty criminal Al Sublette, “Jack passed out on a bed,” Creeley remembered. When Creeley woke Kerouac, he stared at Creeley who felt, he said, ”like a didactic idiot.” Creeley noted that there was “little conversation that night, unhappily.”

In San Francisco that spring, Kerouac and Creeley had limited time for conversation; they were often in a crowd, surrounded by noise and music. “Weird things going on around here,” Kerouac wrote and added, “Allen Ginsberg is famous in San Francisco.” It was seven months after Ginsberg performed parts of Howl at the 6 Gallery, where Gary Snyder, Phil Whalen, Philip Lamantia, and Michael McClure also read. McClure read some of his own work and some of Creeley’s poems. Kenneth Rexroth served as the lively MC.

The evening belonged largely to Ginsberg not to Kerouac, who had ambivalent feelings about Ginsberg’s newfound glory and fame. When Ginsberg introduced Kerouac to people they would ask, “Who’s this?” Kerouac told John Clellon Holmes that Ginsberg was “a great saint concealed in a veneer of daemonism.” [sic] Aside from the Place and the Cellar, (and cafes and parks, where Ginsberg read from Howl), the main gathering space for the poets was the home of Kenneth and Marthe Rexroth, where Creeley fell in love instantly with Marthe.

Kerouac broke the news about them to John Clellon Holmes and also to Snyder, explaining that Kenneth blamed him, Kerouac, for his “domestic troubles.” Ginsberg also wrote Snyder to say that Kenneth was “flipping out,” “threatening” to commit suicide and predicting that Marthe would take her own life. Kenneth remembered the death of Natalie Jackson, a young woman from New Jersey, who was part of the Beat inner circle in San Francisco. In December 1955, Rexroth told Ginsberg, “He’s not going to make a Natalie of my wife.” According to Kerouac, Creeley read his work “nervously before a disapproving audience of women because Kenneth Rexroth’s wife is going to run away with him somewhere.”

Even before Creeley arrived in San Francisco and began his relationship with Marthe, there was bitterness on Rexroth’s part about BMR and its editor. Rexroth had been a contributing editor to BMR. He resigned to protest what he regarded as “attacks” on Dylan Thomas and Theodore Roethke. Creeley didn’t apologize. He also published Michael Rumaker’s negative review of Howl, which contained comments about Kerouac that could be construed as snide; Black Mountain faculty members were not all of one mind about the Beats in the mid-1950s.

Creeley genuinely cared for Marthe and she genuinely cared for him. Briefly, they considered marriage and a new life together in New Mexico. Aside from her bed, which she shared with Creeley while Rexroth was out of town, Marthe gave Creeley a typewriter. He hire himself out as a typist and also typed a stencil of Ginsberg’s Howl, which was then used to make mimeographed copies of the poem that the poet used at readings until Ferlinghetti published Howl and Other Poems in the Pocket Poets series.

In New Mexico, in the summer and fall of 1956, Creeley looked back at his relationship with Marthe. “It’s god knows lonely, and I hate the failure of it,” he wrote to Kerouac, who served as a kind of confidant whether he wanted to or not. Creeley noted wistfully that he and Marthe “very nearly married.” He added, “It was very great no matter” and ended the letter, as he so often did, “My love to you.” He sent love to almost everyone with whom he corresponded, including William Carlos Williams and Charles Olson. Kerouac would sign his letters with more than a dozen different names, including John Kerouac, John, Jack, Jacky, Jaqui, Jaqui Keracky, St. Jean Lavesque, Zagg and Zaggo. It's no wonder that in his introduction to Book of Dreams, Creeley wrote insightfully that Kerouac was “the many in one,” and that “the ‘Jack’ I found in this book was not a consistent or necessarily integrated presence.” His up close, intimate time with Kerouac helped him reach those conclusions.

After Kerouac and Creeley caroused in San Francisco—after the brawling and the parties and the ruckus with Rexroth—they migrated to Mill Valley in Marin County. In May 1956, Creeley had the rare opportunity to watch Kerouac at work as a writer. Years later, he related his impressions to Nicosia, who included Creeley’s comments in his biography Memory Babe, published 14 years after Kerouac’s death.

Kerouac had the “ability,” Creeley remembered, “to translate immediate sensation into immediately actual language.” Drawing on his interviews, Nicosia explained that Creeley observed Kerouac “not figuring out how to get it down in writing but virtually writing it in his head, so that the actual putting down of words on paper was but a mechanical extension of the process. Often he’d grab his notebook and do just that.”

Still, Kerouac’s techniques were mostly not “mechanical” but rather organic and fluid—sometimes surrealistic and dream-like, as Creeley would explain years later in his Introduction to Kerouac’s Book of Dreams in which he recalled the time he spent with Jack in Mill Valley and at a farewell party for Snyder, who was going to Japan. In that Introduction, Creeley wrote that Kerouac loved “the muffling, displacing edge between consciousness, as it’s called, and the dream-filled sleep one leaves to come back to it.” He did know Jack.

There was something unfinished about the relationship between Kerouac and Creeley in large part because Kerouac never communicated his feelings. “Submissive to everything, open, listening,” he advised writers but didn’t follow though, much as he didn’t live up to his suggestion, “Try not to get drunk outside yr [sic] own house.”

Ginsberg scolded Kerouac on more than one occasion, and had opportunities for communication denied Creeley. After he attended the Vancouver Poetry Festival in 1963—along with Creeley, Levertov, Olson, and Duncan— he wrote to Kerouac, who avoided the event, to say, “You put me under a spell for years.” Under that spell, he explained, he was unable to express to Kerouac his hurt feelings. Now in 1963, he finally said that he didn’t like it that Kerouac called him repeatedly “a hairy loss,” though he also admitted that the comment helped to dislodge him from “his high head.” Ginsberg added, “You coulda saved me faster by calling me tender heart, honey.”

Kerouac rarely if ever called any of his friends “tender heart, honey.” His own sense of loss, especially the loss and the pain associated with the death of his older brother Gerard, impacted his relationships in adulthood with Ginsberg, Cassady, Snyder, and Creeley. Having lost Gerard, he was wary of intimacy and loss. Still, he expressed his pain in novels and poetry such as Mexico City Blues. In the “241st Chorus,” the next to the last in the book, Kerouac wrote, “Charlie Parker, forgive me . . . / Charley Parker, pray for me— / Pray for me and everybody.” In that poem, Kerouac refers to Catholicism, turns Parker into a jazz saint, and begs for absolution.

Like Kerouac, Creeley wrote poems for his culture heroes, among them D. H. Lawrence. Creeley’s meditation on the English novelist and poet, titled “Poem for D.H. Lawrence,” is as much about himself as it is about Lawrence. It derives much of its force from the image of “the figure by the window,” which is repeated five times, along with the phrase “In the beginning,” which provides an echo of Genesis and lends the poem a Biblical solemnity.

The spirit, rather than the letter, of Christianity informs both Creeley’s meditation on Lawrence and Kerouac’s ode to Parker, though Buddhism also lies behind Kerouac’s work. Indeed, it’s “Nirvana” he wanted.

Kerouac and Creeley will always be linked with one another, if only because they’re both in Donald Allen’s 1960 landmark anthology, The New American Poetry, though they were also uncomfortable with the kind of geographical designations and discrimination that inform the book.

Creeley spoke for himself and for Kerouac in his review of the “San Francisco Scene” for Evergreen Review—which included work by Duncan, Rumaker, Rexroth, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. There was “a danger in promoting geographical relationships,” Creeley noted; “They are rarely significant, and add somewhat specious labels to writers who have troubles enough.” Troubles and joys touched both Kerouac and Creeley. They both transcended geographical boundaries, even as they remained in separate worlds, neither willing to take the other’s road, though they occupied the same time and the same place in the spring of 1956.


Bibliography

Charters, Ann, Ed. with an introduction by. Beat Down to Your Soul: What was the Beat Generation? New York: Penguin, 2001.

Charters, Ann. Ed., with an introduction and commentary by. Selected Letters of Jack Kerouac, 1940-1956. New York: Viking, 1995.

Charters, Ann, Ed. The Portable Jack Kerouac. Viking: New York, 1995.

Clark, Tom. Jack Kerouac. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.

Davidson, Michael. The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Gifford, Barry and Lawrence Lee. Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin’s, 1978.

Hyde, Lewis. Ed. On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, 1984.

Kerouac, Jack. Mexico City Blues. New York: Grove, 1959.

Kerouac, Jack. Lonesome Traveler. New York: Grove, 1960.

Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac: New York: Grove, 1983.

Morgan, Bill. Ed. Deliberate Prose, Allen Ginsberg Selected Essays 1952-1995. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.

Morgan, Bill & David Stanford. Eds. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters. New York: Viking, 2010.

Morgan, Bill, ed. The Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009.

Rosset, Barney and Donald Allen. Evergreen Review, vol. 1, no. 2. New York: Grove, 1957.

Smith, Rod, and Peter Baker and Kaplan Harris. The Selected Letters of Robert Creeley. Berkeley: University of California, 2014.

Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944-1960. New York: Pantheon, 1995.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019

A Body of Work: The Tour

by Don Cummings

Good thing I came down with the flu. My shepherd into the publishing world, Lisa, and her husband, Vito, came to Los Angeles for a visit. We were on our way to Cambria, a small town four hours’ drive north, and we stopped in Buellton at Industrial Eats for lunch. As we were finishing up, I knew something terrible was happening at a cellular level; by the time we arrived at our Airbnb, I was an unhealthy disaster. The disease lasted three weeks.

But I lost weight—tons of it. So instead of having to get on our new elliptical machine in the garage, I just had to get better. And I did. Ready for my book launch, my cheekbones cut back into existence, I could show off my bio-bag without too much embarrassment. I learned, however, how quickly weight can return, especially when eating at overly-rich restaurants and drinking a bit too much to deaden the anxiety of having to talk to too many people. I also learned it’s never a good idea to be over fifty on your first book tour—even if you still have a little hair on your head.

I wrote a memoir about my penis, the part of my body that was suffering from Peyronie’s disease, entitled Bent But Not Broken; my aim was to discover my emotional relationship with my body, my husband, and some of mankind. I was sort of happy to go on the road to read out loud. Memories from when I was young, thin, and handsome reminded me that it was a joy to parade in front of people. But now? Why on earth was I leaving the house when unwanted pounds can boomerang back so quickly? Writers are introverts, and by brutal will I had become one just like the rest of them; happy to be peacefully sitting at my desk in sloppy drawstring pants, I loved not being looked at by anyone.

It took a while for me to get here. Jayne, a writer I knew when I used to be an actor and had a side job in a production office as an accountant, was once a performer, and was ten years older than me. She mostly ate raw vegetables at her desk to keep her figure. I was young enough to eat enormous plates of enchiladas and still come out the other side attractive, so being a writer like Jayne, especially one in the middle of middle age, looked like torture. I could never survive on carrots. But I was sure that if I were ever to become a full-time writer, I would still be someone you would want to look at—I did not believe growing round and unappealing could ever happen to me. Ah, youth. Even worse, there was no way of guessing that I would end up with a condition that would hack away at my lovely penis, and thereby my self-esteem. Good thing the future can’t tell you what’s in store for you.

With my memoir I was happy to help the world, “one penis at a time,” but I did want to look good doing it. Ten years ago, I had a reading of one of my plays presented at the Public Theater in New York City, and the lineup included Meryl Streep. It came off well and my play was optioned for Broadway. I was being ogled by the entire commercial and not-for-profit theater community of that noisy city, and though I felt insecure, I also felt safe beneath my powder blue, not-too-tight DKNY shirt and my black chinos. All I could think of after that night when things were rollercoaster-ing along was, “At least I looked good.” And I did, though it was probably the last time I looked good in public. Three years later, I stained the shirt with tomato sauce too strong for any stain remover, but no matter, I was too fat to wear it anyway, so I threw it out. And the play that was optioned—well, let me know if you ever see it playing anywhere.

Maybe it should be considered a triumph to appear in public as one continues to look worse and worse. My Great Aunt Rose appeared at my Great Aunt Helen’s eightieth birthday party in a peach pants suit hugging every curved bit of her—but somehow, she was able to hide the lump of her colostomy bag. Perhaps it was there and we just couldn’t see it because our eyes were watering from the liters of cologne she had dowsed herself in so no one could smell her effluent. We’ll never know. But she was defiant while vulnerable: Aunt Helen told her not to wear that outfit, and yet she persisted. I have no one warning me about bad peach pants, but I don’t need outside help to put on the sartorial breaks. I know my body should be hidden, so in shame I drape my sagging, bent corpulence.

Perhaps it’s from the wine. Or the pork chops. The sitting. The aging. Of course, it’s caused by all of these and more. Drinking makes me puffy. Pork chops make me want more pork chops. Sitting hunches my back. And aging, well, as Philip Roth warned, “It’s not a battle, it’s a massacre.”

I still can’t live on carrots. I’m only half a drunk. I have to sit to write because standing makes me want to organize drawers, and I’d rather procrastinate in a more relaxed manner. And aging, I simply can’t help it much. I wanted to help others, publicly if necessary, by informing them about Peyronie’s disease—to make sure they get to a urologist to treat their penises as soon as possible, and to teach them how to deal with the psychological torment of diminishing sexual function—but like the event at the Public Theater, I wanted the safety of looking good while doing it.

No such luck. My neck was sagging at the Los Angeles launch party at Skylight Books. In New York, the venue was so hot I had to strip off my outer layer and present my material in a gut-hugging T-shirt the color of earthworms in spring puddles, showing the world just how thick I am. In Minneapolis, in a subterranean bar, it was cold and dark so I was luckily hidden under long sleeve denim, but certainly not anything special to look at. I wore a black T-shirt under my button-down, so when I had to strip down—because it got hot in there, too, under the lights—I wasn’t as disgusting to behold as I had been in New York, but old men in black T-shirts look like old men in black T-shirts.

Back in California now, I have an event coming up in Santa Barbara, and I am starving myself. Have you ever been to Santa Barbara? All the people there hike twenty miles every day when they’re not surfing, and everyone is wealthy—at least everyone who will be at my event will be—and the rich tend not to be obese. And these books only net me between two and four dollars per unit! I can’t make enough money to save up for a fat farm. I could beg my wealthy cousin, who is flying in on her private jet for the event, but she would just wisely tell me to do what she does in order to look so good: train for marathons.

I just can’t. I hate running. It makes me nauseous and hungry. They say that every author now has to be their own brand, that we are in business for ourselves, that we must market not only our work but our personas. This is the failed actor’s nightmare. Happy to forget all my lines, I left the stage and screen long ago so I would no longer have to be watched as I bloat, wheeze, and drip into senescence. But hams will be hams, just in new cans. Fate insists upon it. Oink.

Can’t I just finish my next book and have my agent pull up to the side of my house so I can toss the manuscript over the wall for her to whisk it off to New York without anyone seeing me? I mean, should writers really be watched? And knowing that we will be looked at, doesn’t this, perhaps, change how we write? The presentation of the less-than-perfect-decaying-self demands some kind of self-deprecation. Knowing this, perhaps our work suffers. It can be forced into a kind of Nora Ephron style, the hating of the neck and all that.

Or maybe Ms. Ephron was simply presenting the absolute truth of writers from antiquity to the present, and her tone is the tone of writers for all time. We all really do hate our necks. But let’s forget that vengeful part of the body. Wasn’t this all about my penis anyway? Such a relief. At least that’s something we don’t have to look at it in public—for the most part.


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Arcana: A Stephen Jonas Reader

Stephen Jonas
Edited by Garrett Caples, Derek Fenner, David Rich, & Joseph Torra
City Lights ($21.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Arcana brings together the first major gathering of work by Stephen Jonas in over two decades. Jonas, a poet of Boston who died in 1970 at the age of 49, is an American original, as brilliant a wordsmith as any in what might best be termed the poetics of the New American vernacular. The intensity of Jonas’s poetry surprises and delights as his words burst across the page. He introduces a gay, gender-bending, street hustling voice into the Modernist tradition, deeply immersing his work in Ezra Pound’s use of collage in The Cantos while paying due diligence to the intricacies of William Carlos Williams’ poetics of the variable foot and the American idiom.

Like some other recent projects, this book offers an archival resurrection of what Gerrit Lansing rather infamously phrased, in his original introduction to Jonas’s Exercises For Ear (1968), as “an occult school” of Boston poetry. With Arcana, Lansing once again provides context for Jonas; an unpublished notebook entry of Lansing’s serves as epigraph, describing how “the old Boston vortex still swirls / thru the lives of us poets forever old forever young.” The poets of this 1950s vortex were Jonas, John Wieners, and Ed Marshall, along with mid-century drifters-in from out west, Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser. Lansing himself mingled in this vortex, of course, as did Ammiel Alcalay, who grew up literally at the feet of these poets, alongside magisterially larger than life figures such as Charles Olson, just north in Gloucester. Some of the editors of this book likewise came of age as poets under the tutelage of the same vortex.

Jonas is a figure who has often gone missed in discussions of his peers. He’s the outcast, the true outrider of this tradition who undeniably impacted the work of all those who surrounded him. His home provided a central gathering hub for poets from the 1950s through the 1960s, while also serving as a friendly crash pad for assorted associates trading in various illicit practices. Jonas himself was involved in some light fraud and petty crimes from time to time, but the driving force throughout his life was a passionate dedication to the poetic powers at work upon the page.

As John Wieners declares in his introduction to Jonas’s slim volume Transmutations (1965): “Here is Steve Jonas, here is the language he makes real, the city he lives by and that has died under his grasp, the gods he lives with, the poets he meets, and the men he has loved, and the painters, that are thrown in for good measure. Here is the poetry he makes come alive.” And Gerrit Lansing, once again from his introduction to Exercises For Ear, is spot on when claiming “it is a Boston lingo Jonas tunes up.” The poems frequently capture language straight from the streets, hip yet focused, nothing loose to it. Jonas remains in tight control, as in “The Music Master (after a Mozart divertimento)”:

“that’s it
for today, baby.”
Now he calls me “baby”.
This to be follow’d by
my dishy
sister’s voice:
“did-DENT you
make him
YET?” Hell noe
besides, he’s straight. Letz go
ovah to grease alley

Though at times some poems might at first appear sloppy or demonstrative of an uncared for free hand, Jonas’s grip is ever firm. He captures unmistakably living speech patterns drawing out exquisite musical forms imbedded in everyday sorts of spirited exchanges. As Wieners explains in a 1965 notebook entry published in Stars Seen in Person: Selected Journals of John Wieners (2015), echoing his statement cited above—the notebook was likely where he worked out his ideas for his introduction to Transmutations—it is

here in the order of Steve Jonas’ poems
that the orders are given.
And not in the poems, alone. But
by the life also.

Jonas offers palpable demonstration of how poetry should not be pushed aside or separated out from any other daily affair. The poems also provide an endless number of tutorials on how spacing a poem out upon the page should operate, where to break a line to get at the rhythm of what’s being said. In “Poem,” a 1959 culling from unpublished work, we see:

the excitement of their laughter
like leaves
moving together

to no other purpose
than this
that they move
laughingly

While in “One of Three Musicians,” Jonas compares his “first time” hearing Ornette Coleman perform to Picasso’s Three Musicians, describing how the painter’s imagery came alive for him under the influence of the sounds made by the jazzman:

They reproduce the spears, the screams
the outbursts of dark religious ex-
orcisms. These are not the
shoed peasant feet out of Brueghel’s
painting The Kermess, these are
bare black feet pounding
delta clay

Jonas did not balk at embracing the scorching blast of the seer’s oracular voice:

like an Egyptian mummy
whose guts have been excerpted
i tell you

there is a bourgeois
dullness
that settles plumb blank upon
the blobs of american cities
(from “Back O’town Blues”) 

The poem was where the world as lived in became transformed by powerful forces:

To separate elements
by introduction of
additional elements is to use
this opaque substance
we call reality
(from IV Orgasms/Dominations)

Jonas frequently celebrates the act of creating the work, recognizing the hazards and the splendor of the poetic calling he shared with his friends:

it is a Poet’s madness
driving him
willy nilly
howbeit to his own destruction
maskd or
metamorphosed into
some wondrous animal guise
centaur, unicorn or faun
repeat
my sweet will be twenty
on sunday next
so even to the birds
whose calls
the ancients invoked
& unabashedly coo’d
their canzones
to wit-a-woo
all of it i bring
again, my sweet, to you
in the spring-time of the Poem
(from “A Revel” for John Fusco)

The real treat offered up in Arcana is the inclusion of previously unpublished work. There is a small portfolio of singular poems as well as two private notebooks: One, relatively short, delves into alchemy, while the other is a “tarot diary” reproduced in facsimile on facing pages with the typescript. In the tarot notebook, Jonas appears to have recorded his own take on the cards while giving himself a tarot reading, yet it isn’t so much a reading regarding his person as it is of the cards themselves. Jonas describes the imagery on the card, along with offering his own impressions surrounding the root causes and concerns at work within humanity as he sees them reflected within the subject of the card. This results in some startling instances of insightful clarity, for instance:

Justice XI: exact, bilateral
equilibrium—Scales are symbolic of
equilibrium; of good and evil.
Also The Word of God—The enigma
is related to libra. Justice
is astrea. The Devil is the
product of human lies. Men
invented the Devil in order to
have justification for themselves—
to regard him as the cause
of wrongdoing.

Jonas has little time for either the superficial or artificial formalities of society. He is after the full rush of impassioned living. The connections which are made person-to-person in the heat of the moment. His poems are tender avowals of his commitment to those he loves:

Tony, your head is for
dark kisses; it is
the rear’d heads of stallions.
(from LXXIV Exercises For Ear)

These poems are for lovers as much as they are for hustlers, let alone poets themselves.


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POSTCARDS FROM MONA

by Nor Hall

A selection of fifty-six postcards "from the plenum described by the philosopher Leibniz, a kind of a celestial earth space where all matter and movement come together," Postcards from Mona is a companion volume to Hall's earlier chapbook, Traces, a poem sequence published in 2010 by Rain Taxi. (For more on Traces, see here!) In these missives from various times and places written by "Mona" to her artistic collaborators at home, author and archetypal psychologist Nor Hall imagines history, myth, identity and more through the lens of a fascinating and timeless persona.

62 pages, perfect bound. Limited edition of 250 copies.

$10 includes S&H in the U.S. Shipping costs added for overseas shipping.
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Practice Dying

Rachel Stolzman Gullo
Bink Books ($13.95)

by Andrew Draper

In the late 1980s, a young boy from the Upper West Side walks into the 92nd Street Y and meets the Dalai Lama, setting in motion a lifelong spiritual journey. Twenty years later, a young woman browsing the stacks of the Strand has a “meet cute” with an expatriate chef from India, who is taking a year to work in NYC for reasons that are initially hidden from her, and from the reader. These two encounters instigate the plot of Rachel Stolzman Gullo’s latest novel, Practice Dying, and they illustrate the way various forces (religious, political, cultural, economic) intersect, bringing people into collisions or convergences that shape their lives. The novel gets its momentum from people moving from their centers, with all their confusions and contradictions, but its depth is found in the awareness that our movements are shaped by forces larger than ourselves. It’s a delicate balance, but Gullo finds it, and with it the pleasures of a story where the characters have meaningful choices within a matrix of connectedness.

Practice Dying is about a pair of twins: David and Jamila. The first chapter is narrated by Jamila, just turning thirty, who works at a center for pregnant and parenting teens. With the next chapter, we transition to the point of view of David, who separated from the family somewhat dramatically as a teenager when he became a devotee of Tibetan Buddhism and a disciple of the Dalai Lama. As Jamila has a crisis of alienation, precipitated by a brief but passionate relationship with Salam, the chef, David is having his own crisis: sent away by the Dalai Lama to study in Tibet, he has arrived in Sichuan only to ignore his leader’s instructions, derailed by a desire for connection with a man who will not connect with him. The chapters continue to alternate the point of view. For the first third, whatever happens in New York City belongs to Jamila, and whatever happens in Tibet belongs to David. Once the twins are reunited and their lives begin to overlap, there are times when we see events that center around David from Jamila’s perspective and vice versa. It’s a structure that marries the predictable and the unpredictable nicely.

Gullo builds a story that explores the challenges of cultivating a life of wholeness when the only materials at hand, those we inherit from this world, are inevitably incomplete. This might mean trying to forge romantic and sexual intimacy with another person when our understanding of them is always partial, marked by fault lines and gaps. It might mean trying to follow a religious path, in which both the self and the tradition shaping it are subject to revised understandings. It’s fitting, then, that the novel is structured as a braid of two distinct but related narratives that are incomplete by themselves but together form a satisfying whole.

As Gullo has fictionalized him in Practice Dying, the Dalai Lama leads one to new places without any overbearing direction or coercive strong-arming. This seems to be true of Gullo as a writer as well. In both Practice Dying and her earlier novel, The Sign for Drowning, Gullo strives to communicate in a way that is never obscure but also free from tedious over-explanation; she is always opening up possibilities for understanding rather than closing them off. Clarity is paramount. In The Sign for Drowning, the narrator muses, “How do you tame or whittle or lure one memory into telling the truth? Show me how to look at a child without seeing another child, or its mother, or the place where she came from.” These words would make an equally good mission statement for Practice Dying, a novel that strives to see each person for who they are and the worlds they carry with them.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Fall 2019 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2019