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Light it Up


Kekla Magoon
Henry Holt ($18.99)

by George Longenecker

Although young Black people have often been the victims of police shootings, their voices have been seldom heard in young adult literature. Kekla Magoon is part of a wave of writers changing that. Her novel Light it Up follows up her earlier novel, How it Went Down, in which sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson dies from gunshot wounds. Magoon, who is Cameroonian-American and teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts, has established herself as a young adult novelist with 11 books including Camo Girl. She’s received the NAACP Image Award, two Coretta Scott King Honors, and was the Kellogg-Hubbard Library Honored Author of 2019.

Light it Up is written in multiple voices, including Tina, Tariq’s sister from the earlier novel. The place, Peach Street, has a voice, reminiscent of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. Peach Street, like Beale Street, is a place where justice seems elusive and futile. Magoon’s fictional Peach Street in Underhill could be Ferguson, MO, or any one of dozens of places where similar shootings have happened.

Shae Tatum, a 13-year-old Black student, is returning home when confronted by a white police officer. She’s big for her age, and she has learning disabilities. With her ear buds in and hood up, she doesn’t even notice the cop, who yells and barely gives her time to respond before shooting her.

Each chapter and character bears witness. “Tina,” “Brick, “Eve,” a “Witness,” and many more give the reader first-person perspectives on the shooting and the community protests that follow. We also hear from community organizers, from a white supremacist internet personality, and from the shooter’s daughter (who’s been ostracized at school in the wake of her father’s actions). Magoon succeeds in giving multiple perspectives without diluting the message that Black lives are being taken needlessly and heedlessly. The many protagonists and perspectives can be hard to keep track of, but this doesn’t detract from the message. Their voices are clear and direct.

There is no closure in this novel, and we are left wondering about the fate of at least one character and of the fictional Underhill. So it is in the Black Lives Matter movement. There has yet been no closure and no conclusion—except that being a Black kid can get you killed.

Kekla Magoon is a talented young adult author who will reach her target audience as well as older readers with Light it Up. Call them personal narratives or soliloquies: These are gripping testimonials to injustice in a community poorly served by oppressive law enforcement. There are times when fiction speaks truth more simply, effectively, and eloquently than nonfiction. This novel is one of those times.


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Be Not Far From Me


Mindy McGinnis
Katherine Tegen Books ($18.99)

by Olivia Vengel

If you chop off your own foot in a possibly abandoned meth lab in the wilderness and no one is there to hear you scream, are you still whole? Seasoned YA author Mindy McGinnis’s novel, Be Not Far From Me, explores woman versus nature against a backdrop of the perilous Smoky Mountains. Her protagonist Ashley, like many narrators in wilderness novels before her, has been placed in an uninhabitable landscape and must fight for survival, as after running away from her friends during a camping trip, Ashley wakes up with a severely injured foot and no way home. Fast-paced, dangerous, and maybe a little bit cliché at points, McGinnis’s prose carries the reader along, unharmed, as Ashley fights her way through the forest.

McGinnis’s greatest strength lies in her narrator’s voice and her close connection with the natural world and its harsh realities. From the opening, Ashley is shown to be more in tune to nature than the other characters, having instincts in the wilderness that her friends don’t. She understands the brutality of nature and the way of life in the wild, and it shows in beautiful passages of description and introspection: “One animal’s death is another’s dinner; that’s just the way it is. What remains will go to the earth, yesterday’s bones sinking into today’s dirt, the only bit of life left where a mouse nibbled, leaving tiny indentations that say there was once something of worth there.”

Such musing on life’s tragedies and the road through them, intertwined with Ashley’s matter-of-fact tone, is for the most part done well, allowing the reader to stay in the character’s head without tiring of her. As she wanders through the mountains Ashley reflects on her past, specifically an old friend who met his demise in the very woods she walks through. While we don’t quite get a complex view of him or their relationship, the subplot highlights how comforting it is to read from the perspective of a narrator who thinks so deeply and realistically about tragedy and its lessons.

There are moments where McGinnis’s hand feels a bit heavy, most often when Ashley interacts with other characters. For example, when comparing herself to her best friend, Ashley says, “She is constantly horrified by the bruises on my legs that blossom under poison ivy rashes; I’m equally turned off by her manicures and the fact that she wing-tipped her eyeliner before coming on this hike.” As with many YA novels, these eyeroll moments come whenever Ashley points out a bit too obviously that she is Not Like Other Girls.

But she isn’t, and this novel isn’t quite like others either. It’s rare to find a book whose protagonist is a self-sufficient young woman who surmounts physical conflict with only her own mind and will power, and does so likeably. McGinnis gives us that and more.


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Bleach or Pinot Noir?
Susan M. Gaines and Jean Hegland
in Conversation

Novelists Susan M. Gaines and Jean Hegland have been exchanging and discussing drafts of their books for nearly thirty years. Earlier this year, they found themselves sheltering in place together in Jean and her husband’s northern California home. At the beginning of March, Susan traveled from Germany, where she has been living and working for many years, to the AWP Conference in San Antonio, the first stop in a book tour for her new novel, Accidentals (Torrey House Press, $18.95). A week later, she was at Jean’s house preparing for the rest of the tour, but in rapid order her book tour was canceled, Germany closed its borders, and California issued “stay at home” orders. In the conversation below, conducted over ten weeks of quarantine, Susan and Jean reflect on their communal writing life in the midst of pandemic.

Susan M. Gaines is the author of the novels Accidentals and Carbon Dreams (Creative Arts, 2000) as well as the science narrative Echoes of Life (Oxford University Press, 2008). Her stories have appeared in the North American Review, Missouri Review, Best of the West, and other anthologies, and been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. She is founding director of the Fiction Meets Science Program at the University of Bremen in Germany.

Jean Hegland’s first novel, Into the Forest (Calyx, 1996), has been translated into seventeen languages and adapted as a Canadian film (starring Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood) and a French graphic novel. She is also the author of Windfalls (Atria, 2004), which tells the parallel stories of two mothers, and Still Time (Arcade, 2015), about an aging Shakespeare scholar’s final encounters with the plays.


The rains have ended. Despite all the news of death and mayhem, they feel the pull of spring in the forest—the buoyant air, the mating birds and wildflowers, the lengthening days. . . . They go for afternoon runs or walks—Jean scanning the ground for scat and tracks, Susan scanning the canopy for birds. The days are punctuated by the household’s ritualistic inquiries: Did you sleep? Did you get time with the book? Whatcha working on? What should we make for dinner? Is it late enough to open the wine? Do we want to watch a movie tonight? They write or try to write. They watch the movie Honeyland, but it’s too sad. They try Picard, but it’s too violent. They order lots of books. Susan makes a trip to Safeway for supplies, which they decontaminate on the deck. They’re some three weeks into their quarantine, but already losing track of time.

Jean Hegland: I’ve long dreamed of the two of us sharing a months-long writer’s retreat—or at least not living so far apart. Now, of course, as wonderful as it is to have you installed in our back bedroom, I keep thinking about how awful it must feel for you to be stuck in our forest right now, so far from your own home, watching the pile-up of deaths and collapse of the world economy and ever-more-idiotic and dangerous pronouncements from the White House, instead of traveling around talking about the magnificent novel you poured your soul and intellect into for so many years.

Susan M. Gaines: It’s not awful here. It’s beautiful. I’m stuck in a place, if not a house, that is as much home to me as any. We’re in the woods, and the sun is shining. I can run for miles without seeing another human. Every time we have this conversation, I can only think about how privileged we are out here, basically doing what we always do, still healthy, finances not unaffected, but more than sufficient. What I feel is guilty. Every feeling of disappointment comes with a disclaimer attached.

JH: Accidentals is such a rich, intelligent mix of science and natural history, politics and family history, and fabulous storytelling. I’m heartbroken that it was released at such a bad time, just as everything shut down.

SMG: It’s a bad time to release any book. But I actually think it’s precisely the right time for Accidentals to be out in the world, just as people find themselves turning to both science and the natural world for comfort and meaning. It’s a story that reminds us of how the past shadows the present and shapes the future—of how easily and how often the existential problems of mass extinction and climate change have been eclipsed by seemingly more immediate, concrete threats such as the Cold War, terrorism, financial crisis . . . and, now, a deadly pandemic.

This is what’s so frustrating to me—it’s the perfect time for Accidentals to be released, but with bookstores closed and everyone’s attention riveted on pandemic news, I wonder how readers will ever find it.

JH: That’s the same problem the new Spanish edition of Into the Forest is facing. It was released just days before all of Spain was quarantined, and while the press, Errata Naturae, has done a heroic job of trying to bring En el Corazon del Bosque to the attention of readers, I suspect its readership will also be much diminished due to this infinitely larger tragedy.

SMG: The pandemic is affecting the literary world in so many different ways. Torrey House Press, for example, is a nonprofit environmental and literary press with a small salaried staff of publishing professionals, and I hate to think what the financial failure of Accidentals and their other spring and summer releases might mean for their future.


Four weeks into their quarantine. Susan sprains her little toe and can’t run. They spend whole days on the phone and Zoom with relatives and friends. Jean applies her rusty sewing skills to making masks. Susan accidentally kills a little brown wood rat that the cat brought in. Jean braves a trip to Costco. They see a tiny coral colored snake they’ve never seen before. Jean and Douglas clear dead trees along the road, preparing for fire season. On the second Yahrzeit of Susan’s husband Stephan’s death, they huddle in the alcove near the router to attend a Zoom Baz Mitzvah for Jean and Douglas’s twin granddaughters, from their living room in Chico. They sob and laugh. It feels strangely hopeful.

JH: While it’s one thing to consider what this pandemic means for the books we’ve already written, it’s yet another to consider its impact on the books we’re currently writing.

SMG: For me, it’s hard to separate the impact of the pandemic from all the other circumstances of work on this new, half-conceived novel. The thing about working on a book for as long as I worked on Accidentals is that you forget how to start something new, how to face the blank page, how to hear a new voice. And in this case, the whole process was aggravated—blocked really—by Stephan’s sudden death, and my endless, debilitating grief. But I thought I had at least settled the major issues and characters for this story, and I was looking forward to digging in—this book tour had some free weeks built in that I was hoping to dedicate to research and writing… And now, you’d think I’d have all the time in the world . . . But, well.

JH: In that sense, I think I have it easier than you, because my new novel is much closer to being finished than your new project is. I’d like to think that the first three-quarters of the book are in pretty darn good shape, especially thanks to the months I spent in residence at the Jan Michalski Foundation last fall. So as hard as it’s been for me to concentrate on writing of late, at least I know what I want to try to accomplish when I do manage to show up at my desk.

SMG: The other day, you came in from your writing hut with this completely jubilant smile on your face. You mumbled something about “generating new messes,” and you looked like you’d just launched yourself off a cliff and realized you could fly—you’re in the end-run, for sure. I can’t wait to read a complete draft with our writers’ group, hear what the guys think about that marvelous, quirky voice—I’ve come to think of that book’s main character as if he’s some mutual acquaintance of ours, rather than a character you invented. Maybe the four of us can actually get together, sit around the big deck table, six feet apart…

JH: I’d be utterly sunk if I were trying to begin a new project right now.

SMG: My non-existent new novel suffers from a lot of pre-existing conditions that I can’t blame on the pandemic. But I thought I was ready to leap off the cliff and fly with it, generate some nice messes. . . . And now the pandemic has me second-guessing each of my decisions about the timing and setting and even the main themes of the book. We never know the future circumstances in which a book will be read, but we assume—we have to assume—some coherence with the past. Ironically, that’s precisely the reason Accidentals seems so timely right now. It’s about the society that bred this moment, the past that shadows it. But as I face the blank page now, I have the feeling we are facing such a paradigm shift—or universal breakdown—in society, that anything I write will instantly be rendered irrelevant for future readers.

JH: Remember how in the aftermath of 9/11 it seemed impossible to write anything that didn’t somehow take it into account, even if what we were writing was set pre-9/11?

SMG: Imagine deciding to plot out a novel that features both a pandemic and a raving sociopath—the leader of the richest so-called democracy in the world—who tells citizens to drink bleach to get rid of the virus—

JH: Our writers’ group would have shot this down in the first draft.


Six weeks into their quarantine. A pair of Hutton’s vireos build a nest on the back bathroom window sill. Susan convinces them to stay on the nest while she showers. Jean’s new hive of bees is thriving. Susan is running again. Jean signs up for an online Shakespeare class. Susan attempts to go birding, but hears more than she sees. They attend a few Zoom book readings and benefits. Susan feeds the sourdough with powdered sugar from a clearly labeled jar, but redeems herself by making an admirably crusty, sour loaf of bread. The evening entertainment choices are reduced to Stephen Colbert or Mozart in the Jungle.

JH: Finally, hovering over the question of what this pandemic means for the books we’ve written and for the books we’re trying to write is the biggest question of all—the existential motherfucker that keeps all of us writers turning on the spits of our own devising—and that is the question of why we are doing any of this, whether stories and poems and essays can ever have any true or lasting impact.

Sometimes I really do think it's a worthless enterprise, that drinking bleach—or at least a nice pinot noir—might be the best response to this world-wide catastrophe, after all. But in my more sanguine moments I remind myself of what cognitive neuroscientists tell us—that Homo sapiens is indeed the “story-telling animal.” We are hardwired to see the world in terms of narrative. We depend on stories to teach us, challenge us, comfort us, entertain and distract us. I can’t imagine my own life without the solace, inspiration, and education of stories.

SMG: Of course we need stories—they determine our understanding of everything, including, I should mention, science. But how do meaningful stories get out into the world? How do they exert their power? Their dissemination and reception are so interwoven with capitalism and the market. It’s hard to separate the power of stories—and the ways they are used and abused—from economic power.

JH: I really lament all the important and beautiful books I’ll never know about because our culture so often promotes only the simplest, most status-quo-reinforcing stories.

SMG: In my daily writing life, I usually dance around the entire question of why I do what I do, why I devote myself to a vocation that fails to keep me fed and housed—and also has questionable social impact in the world at large. My habitual sidestep is to tell myself that writing is all I really know how to do well, so I should just focus on telling the best story I know how to tell—the most necessary story I can imagine, a story that no one else is going to tell—and after I’ve done that, I’ll worry about how to get it out in the world where it can find readers to engage with. But with the natural world and our entire civilization in such deep trouble, isn’t it just another cop-out? Perhaps I should quit writing novels altogether and do something useful, like take out the president or work at a grocery store.

JH: Both of those would be heroic occupations, but I’d still like to think that if you can just tell the story you want to tell in your next novel—and if other fine writers are also telling their best stories, and if dedicated presses, committed booksellers, and passionate readers are also doing their parts . . . then we can seed our culture’s thinking with post-pandemic narratives that are more meaningful, empathetic, and sustainable than the narratives of greed, fear, rampant nationalism, and viral capitalism that led us into this mess.

SMG: Well. At least that makes for a good story!

Ten weeks into quarantine. Susan and Jean—and husband—are still friends. Three baby vireos fledge without saying goodbye. Accidentals finds some readers, and Susan makes virtual visits to a few enthusiastic book clubs. The sourdough starter is quiet. Susan adds random thoughts to the notebook for her novel, working title Anthropocene Blues. The summer heats up, fire season looms. Their writers group of four meets—outdoors, properly distanced, hugs forbidden—to discuss a draft of Jean’s novel. Susan sees the first non-stop flights to Germany and books a return in late June.


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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

My German Dictionary

Katherine Hollander
The Waywiser Press ($17)

by John Bradley

A book of poetry can sometimes function as a time machine, and that’s what happens with My German Dictionary. “I couldn’t be / a good historian,” Hollander confesses in the opening poem, “Confession (Invitation),” “so I wrote poems.” These poems take us to Europe in the years between the two world wars, the landscape of Osip Mandelstam, Rosa Luxemburg, and Kathe Kollwitz. Over and over, the author turns her imagination loose on history.

To write historical poems, a writer must do much research, but that alone won’t bring a poem alive—the language must drive the poem, and the reader must feel transported. This happens constantly with these poems. In “General Strike, Berlin, 1920,” for example, we see a family brought to a standstill by the titular event:

Now the woman stands

at the stove, one burner on,
a blue water lily of light.
In the pot, the stew is rich
and black. The man sits at the table

his hands open like gray gloves.
The girl lifts a dish and light
licks the edge like a tongue of oil.
She passes the dish to her mother.

The woman fills it with the dark stew.
The man lifts his spoon like a beacon.

The scene feels like something out of a painting or a folk tale, yet it’s grounded in a specific moment of history. The mix of beauty and tragedy keeps the reader transfixed. Though nothing extraordinary happens, we feel it could at any moment.

Hollander’s book closes with a section of poems drawing inspiration from German words. This could easily become an intellectual exercise, but that rarely happens here. In “Das Wörterbuch,” for example, a poem on the word “dictionary” reads like a biography. An anonymous “he” “climbed inside the horn / of a phonograph. It was deafening, / and three times a day the leader’s voice / washed over him, like acid.” It sounds like a folk tale, magical and dangerous.

The only poem that breaks the spell of this book is “Dear Union,” a work mourning the death of the European Union. Opening with an epigraph by Marine LePen, who called the E.U. a “monster,” the author’s anger is certainly justified. Yet the poem often veers into sentimentality: “I want to touch down, like days of old, / board the beloved Tegel bus / and careen into your goodness.” This is the rare misstep, however, in a volume that much deserves the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize it was awarded.

The closing words to this resonant book are “Take my hand. Let’s go.” For many readers, the only place to go is back into the magical world of My German Dictionary.


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Family of Origin


C.J. Hauser
Anchor Books ($16)

by Jeremiah Moriarty

In Family of Origin, C.J. Hauser’s wistful second novel, a family’s troubled past—and their attempts to reckon with it—provide a frame for much larger questions around fighting inevitable failures, the long shadow of parental rejection, and the looming climate catastrophe. It’s a story about losing your way and keeping the faith, and while some of the book’s formal flourishes don’t always land, its wit and big-hearted approach to contemporary dilemmas make it a welcome addition to the growing body of American climate fiction.

Hauser’s first novel, The From-Aways, was set in a small coastal town in Maine, and Family of Origin similarly begins where shipwrecked land-dwellers find themselves coexisting with the sea’s enduring mysteries. Adult half-siblings Elsa and Nolan Grey journey to Leap’s Island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, where their father Ian, a once-renowned biologist, has recently drowned. Nolan has asked Elsa to accompany him, but the Greys are estranged—one obvious reason for their estrangement becomes evident early on, but their time on Leap’s Island with their father’s former colleagues gives this estrangement ever-unfolding depth and dimension. Ostensibly the siblings have come to collect their father’s belongings and settle his affairs, but the question of his suicide leads them to what forms much of the novel’s structure: conversations with the other people on Leap’s Island, an eccentric group of scientists and writers and seekers who call themselves “Reversalists.”

The Reversalists believe evolution has begun running backwards, a preoccupation that tidily reflects the Greys’ own suspicion that they have veered off their course toward happy, well-adjusted adulthoods: “Whatever inner thing guided normal people in their choices—a diviner’s stick in the ribs, a magnet of the hips, a compass of the skull—Elsa’s was broken.” Elsa and Nolan find the Reversalist’s work preposterous, particularly because it’s based on observations of undowny buffleheads, a species of duck that flutters and floats around Leap’s Island. Their late father’s dedication to studying the buffleheads, though, means the Greys also try to understand their intrigue. It’s a charming, oddball development, and Hauser rightfully teases out all its provocative implications for time’s slippery nature and the politically dangerous way that we can idealize the past. Also among Family of Origin’s many strengths is that the Reversalists’ logic is always convincing enough to create real emotional resonance. As Elsa and Nolan interview the Reversalists about their emotionally distant father, someone seemingly “too rational for suicide,” the reader quickly realizes that they are also looking for an explanation—and a new language, really—for their own personal shortcomings.

The Greys are self-loathing creations, understandably mired in millennial ennui as they both flirt with nihilism. Initially, the scope of Elsa’s angst seems broader than Nolan’s lingering troubles: while he is mostly consumed with the self-diagnosed meaninglessness of his romantic partnerships and professional endeavors, Elsa sees no hope for the planet’s future and has turned her attention to flying to Mars—literally. The half-siblings have a complicated relationship even to their own estrangement, arguing about a shared history and issues that were “never resolved because they were always finding the rot in different apples.” They are both acutely aware of existential issues plaguing their worlds—climate change as well as the consequences of unbridled capitalism and an unregulated internet—but have very different approaches to dealing with these issues. A teacher who believes “her job had started to feel like lying,” Elsa looks to a citizen-manned Mars mission for healing: “This is why she had to go to Mars. She couldn’t bear to look over her shoulder and see one more sad, wounded bird laid out behind her.” Nolan reads more as a typical white millennial liberal, overwhelmed by the world’s problems but lacking any real initiative to face them given the potential for failure: “Nolan thought perhaps there was a quiet dignity in doing nothing rather than doing something well-intentioned but stupid.”

In their time on Leap’s Island, though, Elsa returns her attention to earth with Nolan’s help; together, they find ways to articulate their grief for their father as well as their deep frustrations with themselves. They grapple with complicity and practice vulnerability. They spend quality time observing ducks. They do what we all hope to do at some point, which is the deeply uncomfortable work of getting over ourselves. Hauser shoots off some formal fireworks later in the novel, a lyrical section about Leap’s Island’s history that feels undercooked next to the author’s no-nonsense but nonetheless complex characterizations, but the novel still hits, regardless. In fact, Family of Origin’s ending feels like a productive throat clearing, a transitional moment that sees its characters set down their own individual narratives in the hopes of writing a better ending for our collective one. As Hauser puts it near the book’s end, “if she could untether herself from what seemed inevitable, from her own inevitability, maybe Elsa would find other possibilities. Surprise herself. Maybe there was a difference between ignorance and forgetting. Maybe the past was no reason not to do anything at all.”


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Summer 2020

INTERVIEWS:

Bleach or Pinot Noir?
Susan M. Gaines and Jean Hegland in Conversation

Two writers unexpectedly became roomies during the pandemic lockdown, and they reflect on their experience in a weeks-long conversation.

FEATURES:

Pandemic Reflections on Girl in A Band by Kim Gordon
Kim Gordon’s 2015 memoir is helping one reader get through the 2020 plague in the way that Punk’s attitude was born to do, achieving strength from a position of weakness with honesty and compassion.
by Sean Smuda

POETRY REVIEWS:

My German Dictionary
Katherine Hollander
Hollander’s poems take us to Europe in the years between the two world wars, letting her imagination loose on history. Reviewed by John Bradley

YA FICTION REVIEWS:

Light it Up
Kekla Magoon
In her follow up to How It Went Down, Magoon revisits the aftermath of the death of sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson by police. Reviewed by George Longenecker

Be Not Far From Me
Mindy McGinnis
This woman versus the wilderness narrative is a fast-paced ride, following Ashley as she fights for survival alone in the perilous Smoky Mountains. Reviewed by Olivia Vengel

FICTION REVIEWS:

Family of Origin
C.J. Hauser
Hauser’s wistful second novel provides a frame for the larger questions of failure, parental rejection, and the looming climate crisis. Reviewed by Jeremiah Moriarty

Pandemic Reflections on
Girl in A Band

photo by Mark Von Holden, Getty

by Sean Smuda

Originally published in 2015, Kim Gordon’s memoir Girl in a Band (Dey Street Books, $16.99) has been getting me through the 2020 plague in the way that Punk’s attitude was born to do. Gordon’s attitude in her writing, and in life, is to achieve strength from a position of weakness; she is honest, factual, political, and compassionate in a genre where many are not. And just as Sonic Youth’s standing waves of noise and fragmentary lyrics entwine mystery, obsession, and violence, pushing through and beyond them to deeper connections and freedoms, this book both is and is not Rock. After years of seeing and following the band, I had burned out and into other musics, but COVID-19 and living outside the U.S. rustled the desire and opportunity to re-trench to a pre-internet world and to think about its future.

Gordon’s story is highly apt for a present in which we are all vulnerable and missing parts of our lives, thinking about how they could be different and how they are going to continue. The first time I saw her with Sonic Youth was at Folk City in New York, after hitchhiking there from Minneapolis via New Orleans and Athens. My companion and I had put up with too much Top 40 radio in our rides, so on spotting a notice in the Village Voice about a band that played with screw drivers and non-rock tunings, we were sold. Straight from recording their second album, Bad Moon Rising, the band set up on the peripheries of the small room with two drummers and Super-8 movies of the LA desert. They surrounded and engulfed the audience with dissonant rocking trance, and the finale, “Death Valley ’69,” invoked America’s S&M signposts from the outside in. Disaffected as if staring down ghosts, Gordon gave the impression of being alien, distanced, and under great burden; in this book she owns it and fleshes it out.

Throughout Girl in a Band, Gordon’s consciousness of the difficulty of family dynamics and individual fragility resonate. Hers is a clear line from a childhood conflicted by admiration for and emotional abuse from a paranoid schizophrenic sibling, to a maturity that evenly deals with spousal betrayal. She re-orders the dominant into the equitable, and writes of how hard it is to make emotional space around people, especially when this is perceived as being removed. She also explores (ironically) how the Germans have a word—Maskenfreiheit—meaning the freedom conferred by masks. Performing is a space in which she can be both brave and vulnerable, masculine and feminine, and switch.

Gordon’s witnessing of cultural changes since the Reagan era taps the country’s spirit, and she shows in both life and art how beliefs firmly presented counter business-as-usual: take the proto-#MeToo song, “Swimsuit Issue,” or her deconstruction of body image, “Tunic,” or one about the ambiguities of coming from Westward Expansionist stock, “Brave Men Run”. In her writings, she further notes the contradictory fascinations of gender, "guys who have crossed their guitars together, two thunderfoxes in the throes of self-love and combat, that powerful form of intimacy only achieved onstage in front of other people, known as male bonding." To embody such nuances in these “re-open it” days seems impossible.

In a post-internet world, the heroics/transcendence of the entertainment industry are at a rhizomatic level, a place where Gordon and Sonic Youth were always at. Despite the end of band and husband, she continues to represent and push ideals—ones that give the middle finger to a system that capitalizes on fake news and class and race difference through viral dissonance. The clarity and pointed anger with which she details her changes is epic and incisive, boomeranging from the Beats to now. Her current art projects and band, Body/Head, poise images and slow time down to work with meaning as something physical, ritualized, dance-like. At this point, I think we can all relate. Coupled with her music’s limpid, driving cosmos, Girl in a Band is far away and close, drawing the reader to the now of reckoning and ecstasy.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Beats at Naropa: An Anthology

Edited by Anne Waldman
and Laura Wright

Coffee House Press ($15.95)

by Peter Conners

“The poet archivist represents a community of memory that predates church and state and, if we play it right, will outlive them. The Tewa Indian anthropologist Alfonso Oritz said that rather than seeing the tribe as a step in the evolution toward the state, we could see the tribe as an alternative to the state. Tribes, particular communities of memory, act against the vast, homogenizing fog of amnesia that is the state.”

Steven Taylor—poet, musician, ethnomusicologist, and longtime faculty member in Naropa University’s Department of Writing & Poetics—closes Beats at Naropa with this bold declaration, one that could serve as the unifying thesis of the collection. The anthology collects talks and interviews culled mainly from the voluminous audio archives of Naropa University’s writing program. Founded in 1974 by poets Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman as a place to blend contemplative practice (namely, Buddhism) with creative writing, the program goes by the memorable name The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. [Disclaimer: I attended Naropa’s MFA program for one semester in 1995 and have since returned as a speaker to the campus on one occasion]. Ginsberg described the original mission of Naropa’s writing program as “a way of teaching meditators about the golden mouth and educating poets about the golden mind.”

As paterfamilias of the school, Ginsberg gets his say throughout this collection, as does its presiding spirit Anne Waldman, who co-edited the book with librarian and Naropa alumna Laura Wright. Many other heavyweights of the Beat Generation also speak through its pages: William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, among others. However, it’s the lesser-known figures of the Beat scene that make this book a valuable addition to the library of Beat commentary. After all, despite the sensationalized legacy often tragically fulfilled by many of the Beats, the numerous writers who could fit under the label “Beat” (whether they like it or not—and many do not) were also masters of that old fashioned pastime: conversation. Genius bullshitters, intellectual street-hustlers, blunt shamans, yarn-spinning revolutionaries—these folks knew how to talk and they did it, sometimes all night long.

Diane di Prima is one of the sharp, active, under-appreciated writers who shine through in Beats at Naropa. In her July 9, 1997 talk, titled “By Any Means Necessary,” di Prima encourages students to use “whatever you’ve got, whatever comes to hand, to get your work out.” She goes on to recount her role as a poet and publisher over a 40-plus-year period, and while her talk is a personal account, the cumulative effect is a history of small press and underground publishing in late 20th-century America. She describes the process of having artists “draw straight onto the mimeograph stencils with a stylus, and that would be the cover of the issue” for The Floating Bear, a magazine she co-edited with Amiri Baraka (who was, at that time, LeRoi Jones). She also joyously recounts how one of her “biggest kicks” as a publisher was making broadsides because “you could put it up any place—go out with a pot of glue or a staple gun, and start sticking it up wherever you wanted—really getting the word out, or giving it away free…” To those of us who tweet, blog, and otherwise “post” frequently, this process may seem tedious, but this is where it all began.

David Henderson’s in-depth reclamation of the life and poetics of San Francisco poetry legend Bob Kaufman is another valuable contribution to Beats at Naropa. While Kaufman’s name does appear in various Beat histories, a casual student of the scene could easily miss him. Henderson seeks to correct this omission by placing Kaufman firmly into the lineage of West Coast jazz poets and guiding presences that have forged that city’s reputation as a cradle of bohemian culture. Like Baraka, Kaufman was also one of the few African American poets who had a strong presence within the Beat community. Kaufman spent years in self-imposed silence (he literally didn’t speak for years), and died destitute, having lived in various rundown SRO (Single Room Occupancy) hotels in San Francisco.

Other entries in this book that have unique value to Beat scholarship include “Women of the Beats” (a panel featuring Hettie Jones, Joanne Kyger, Janine Pommy Vega, and Anne Waldman), “An Interview with Edward Sanders” by Junior Burke, and Philip Whalen’s enlightening explication of the eco-poetics of Lew Welch via his poem, “Springtime in the Rockies, Lichen.” As with many poets of the Beat generation, Welch’s contribution is in danger of disappearing from the histories. However, Welch also carries one of those haunting, epic backstories that both adds to and detracts from his legend: on May 23, 1971, he walked into the mountains near Nevada City with only a 30-30 rifle and was never seen again. (He was camped near Gary Snyder’s house at the time, so it was left to Snyder to discover the suicide note.)

If I were to pick a nit with this anthology, it would be with the book’s overall structure. In a promotional interview for Beats at Naropa, Waldman states that the editors organized the collection “thematically rather than chronologically,” following William Carlos Williams’s vision of a magazine as “all these bedfellows in the same bed.” Yet a thematic structure is hard to discern. The book is thematically tied by the nature of the speakers and their subjects, but one suspects that deeper, more coherent themes are lurking in the annals of the Naropa archives. This lack of tight thematic focus makes the “conversation” of these fascinating intellects that much more engaging, as if we are at the best cocktail party in history; however it often leaves the reader wishing for a more immediate connective thread to tie the book together. It would also have been helpful to have the dates of each talk provided at the start rather than having to hunt for it at the back of each section, because ultimately—as with di Prima’s view of online publishing as it relates to her own experience—it does make a difference when these talks happened. In computer years, 1997 (when di Prima gave her talk) might as well be 1969 (when she was mailing out her “Revolutionary Letters” to the Liberation News Service).

These structural quibbles are, however, small in comparison to the ultimate value of Beats at Naropa. If, as Steven Taylor writes, “The poet archivist represents a community of memory,” then Waldman, Wright, and the Naropa creative writing program as a whole have here emerged as valuable and responsible presenters of the collective Beat ethos. Given the wealth of material in Naropa’s archives, one can only hope for future cullings such as this.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

OUR ANTI-RACISM PLEDGE


Rain Taxi opposes racism and discrimination in all of its forms.

As an organization and as individuals, we are committed to working in solidarity with the Black community, indigenous people, and other people of color, and unequivocally condemn predatory policing and other forms of systemic oppression and white supremacy. We are committed to working on behalf of anti-racism and to adding, in voice and in practice, to the development of systemic change, particularly in our corner of the publishing industry, which has a long history of excluding and marginalizing the voices, contributions, and artistry of BIPOC individuals.

Rain Taxi’s mission to champion aesthetically adventurous literature is driven by several core values, foremost among them to explore challenging work from diverse voices in multiple genres and formats. We are proud to have focused on a lot of great writing by and about people of color through our various publications and programs—but we can and will do better. As Board Members of an anti-racist organization, we commit to the following:

1) We will continue to identify, discuss, and challenge issues of race and color and the impact they have on Rain Taxi and its community. We will also challenge ourselves to understand and correct any inequities we discover and gain a better understanding of ourselves during this purposeful process.

2) We will continue to focus attention on literary art by and about people of color through our print magazine, website, and events, including our annual Twin Cities Book Festival. As well, we will expand our efforts to attract reviewers and artists who are people of color to represent their voices and interests in our pages. We will also increase our outreach to BIPOC book lovers so that the community within our pages and at our events will more accurately reflect the diverse communities in which we live.

3) We will expand our efforts to increase the diversity of our Board and working groups by proactively seeking ways Rain Taxi can support and engage with BIPOC literary artists and include them in our leadership to more fully represent diverse literary voices and perspectives. As part of this, we will initiate a Board mentorship program designed to attract younger people of color in our community who may not yet have experience in nonprofit governance.

4) Because our organization’s home base of Minneapolis has been a key site of sorrow and aspiration regarding racial injustice, we will publish, this fall, a chapbook anthology of poems by Black writers in the Twin Cities responding to events here.

These are not the only actions Rain Taxi will take to pursue greater equity in our own communities and in society at large, but they are a start. In all ways, we will continue to seek opportunities to use our platform to promote anti-racist thought and action in our participants and audiences.

Sincerely,

The Board and Staff of Rain Taxi, June 2020

Volume 25 Number 2 Summer 2020 (#98)

Volume 25 Number 2 Summer 2020 (#98)

To purchase issue #98 using Paypal, click here.

INTERVIEWS

Maggie Dubris: A Prayer for St. Clare | interviewed by Zack Kopp
Wanda Smalls Lloyd: Creating Family Along the Way |
interviewed by Jessica Sparks
Sue William Silverman: The Now-ness of Memory | interviewed by Tatiana Ryckman

FEATURES

Louise Erdrich: An Appreciation | by James P. Lenfestey
Resurrecting Leo Tolstoy | by Tim Brinkhof
The New Life | a comic by Gary Sullivan

PLUS:

Cover art by Jil Evans

FICTION / DRAMA REVIEWS

A Beginning at the End | Mike Chen | by Jessica Raskauskas
Black Girl Unlimited | Echo Brown | by Linda Stack-Nelson
The Resisters | Gish Jen | by George Longenecker
The Shape of Family | Shilpi Somaya Gowda | by Rajiv Ramchandran
The Sweet Indifference of the World | Peter Stamm | by Susann Cokal
In The Beginning: A Stage Play | David Heidenstam | by Bryon Rieger

NONFICTION REVIEWS

Asemic: The Art of Writing | Peter Schwenger | by Jeff Hansen
Me & Other Writings | Marguerite Duras | by Fran Webber
The Shadow of Vesuvius: A Life of Pliny | Daisy Dunn | by Walter Holland
The Devils | New Juche | by Alex Kies
Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life after Which Everything Was Different | Chuck Palahniuk | by Chris Via
The Painted Forest | Krista Eastman | by Dustin Michael
Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier | Victoria James | by Jack Sartin

POETRY REVIEWS

DMZ Colony | Don Mee Choi | by John Wall Berger
Elementary Poetry | Andrei Monastyrski | by Michael Workman
The Elegy Beta | Mischa Willett | by Lee Rossi
Year By Year | Lynne Sachs | by John Bradley
Maids | Abby Frucht | by Nick Hilbourn
Cement | Sarah Menefee | by Patrick James Dunagan
The Hospice Orgy | Phillip Lee Duncan | by Zack Kopp
Black Case Volume I & II: Return From Exile | Joseph Jarman | by Greg Bem
Amalgam | Sotère Torregian | by Patrick James Dunagan
The Distant Sound | Eliot Schain | by Lee Rossi
Hull | Xandria Phillips | by Tyrone Williams
The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write | Gregory Orr | by Mandana Chaffa

COMICS / ART REVIEWS

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. IV: The Tempest | Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill | by Greg Baldino
In Dreams | Dennis Hopper | by Ruth Andrews
The Man Without Talent | Yoshiharu Tsuge | by Jeff Alford

To purchase issue #98 using Paypal, click here.