Tag Archives: Summer 2018

Paul Takes the Form
of a Mortal Girl

Andrea Lawlor
Rescue Press ($18)
by Jeremiah Moriarty

Both fable-like bildungsroman and exhilarating ode to mid-’90s queer culture, Andrea Lawlor’s debut novel Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is the story of Paul Polydoris, a gay man in his early twenties with the uncanny abilities of a shapeshifter: he can magically change his body from male to female at will, shifting from Paul to “Polly” with youthful zeal. Full of laugh-out-loud insights and dreamy escapades, the novel takes Paul on a journey to chase love (or something like it) across the binary and across the country, into record stores and cafés and dark Boystown backrooms. Along the way it posits questions about identity, pleasure, and queer theory with winged lightness—which is to say, it’s fundamentally, as Michelle Tea writes admiringly in her back-cover blurb, a “deeply cool book.”

The year is 1993 and Paul is a bartender at a gay bar in Iowa City, a college town rife with angsty punks, activist queers, and mysterious out-of-town visitors. A film major from New York with a very Gen-X love of zines and mixtapes, Paul is a disaffected student more interested in whatever lessons can be learned from a night out. The only person who knows his secret shapeshifting skill is his queer best friend Jane, a stylish grad student, though his activist roommate Christopher—an ostensibly stable counterpart to Paul and his wanderlust ways—is so unphased by Paul’s already gender-blurred aesthetic that it’s not initially clear if he knows or not. One of the novel’s many strengths, in fact, is its descriptions of clothes, style, and general aesthetic, as Lawlor demonstrates in this early scene where Paul is dressing himself before going out:

He changed into a clean tee shirt in the walk-in, carefully rolled the sleeves of his Viyella shadow-plaid above his biceps like the picture of Jean Genet on the cover of that new biography, and stuck a clean faded green bandana in the left pocket of his 501s. . . . Paul shrugged into his River Phoenix coat, dark blue corduroy with fleece lining, and walked out of the kitchen like he was walking into Studio 54.

Lawlor’s prose can be maximal in its use of cultural references, in its collaging together of keen observations and pop culture signifiers, but it also flows easily. It does occasionally, like Paul, take strange detours; the closed third-person perspective will sometimes loosen to omniscience and give way to fairy tale-like passages, complicating any simple origin story a reader might expect from a character like Paul or a story like this one. The warm tone and livewire voice remain consistent throughout, however, and the multiple origin stories add a radical potentiality to the novel. The breezy pace of the text feels like a fittingly swift slide for someone like Paul, who moves fluidly between sexes and states of being, between literal states and the relationships (if not responsibilities) that take him there.

Lawlor uses male pronouns for Paul throughout the novel, which likely has more to do with readerly coherence than anything else, but this fact—as well as Paul’s negotiation of historically female-only spaces like the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival—might complicate the experience of reading the novel, depending on the social positioning you bring to it. But culturally-identified queers of most persuasions will find themselves reflected back here, as the text largely eludes rigidity or judgement, and bringing a rigid politics to the proceedings would feel almost beside the point, as the delights of mutability—of desire, of life paths, of presentation—are intrinsic to the novel’s appeal.

In its nuanced treatment of a conceit that could easily yield to gimmick or cliché, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is a dazzling novel about the ordinary magic of inventing ourselves, about the uses of the body, and about containing Whitmanian “multitudes.” Lawlor is a magician, and a very good one, too.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Three on Nietzsche

What a Philosopher Is: Becoming Nietzsche
Laurence Lampert
University of Chicago Press ($55)

Nietzsche’s Final Teaching
Michael Allen Gillespie
University of Chicago Press ($35)

Nietzsche’s Search for Philosophy: On the Middle Writings
Keith Ansell-Pearson
Bloomsbury Academic ($29.95)

by Scott F. Parker

You might not know it from the recent and very public haranguing Steven Pinker delivered upon Nietzsche in his book Enlightenment Now, but more than a century after his death the “philosopher of the future” is every bit as studied and appreciated as he anticipated he would be.

Nietzsche, infamously, is one of those thinkers who can be made to say whatever one wishes. For one thing, his thinking underwent substantial revisions over the course of his writing; early, middle, and late Nietzsche regularly contradict one another in robust—Nietzschean!—language. For another, Nietzsche often favored an elliptical style that left it to the reader to connect the dots in his arguments, leaving himself susceptible to being taken out of context and used toward maleficent—or at least contrary—ends. “Most thinkers write badly,” he writes in Human, All Too Human, “because they tell us not only their thoughts, but also the thinking of their thoughts.”

These seeming ambiguities help explain the frequent misunderstandings of what Nietzsche’s writings mean. Sam Harris, generally more circumspect than this, has intimated on his podcast that Nietzsche is a proponent of nihilism and claimed that he is “irrelevant” to discussions of religion. Considering that the nihilism Nietzsche anticipated as a consequence of the loss of the religious worldview was among his most profound concerns and that his insights into the history and psychology of religion are among the most penetrating on offer, Harris proves to be as idiosyncratic in his thinking about Nietzsche and as superficial as Pinker, who finds Nietzsche’s anti-humanism culpable for “the megadeath movements of the 20th century,” thereby endorsing the Nazis’ own worst possible reading. Who, one wants to ask Pinker, has been more critical of nationalism and the herd mentality than Nietzsche?

But it is the sensitive reader whom Nietzsche most rewards. Thankfully, while Nietzsche is undergoing another of these periodic rounds of disparagement to which he has always been prone, scholars are reading his work carefully. We are right now amidst a spate of new monographs that bring sober and thorough attention to bear on Nietzsche’s project, ignoring the strawmen Harris, Pinker, and others make in his image.

In What a Philosopher Is: Becoming Nietzsche Laurence Lampert examines Nietzsche’s early writings through what he calls the first mature work—the fourth book of The Gay Science, known as “Sanctus Januarius”—in order to reveal the coherence of Nietzsche’s seemingly disparate projects.

Lampert’s method for telling this story follows two related tracks. The first is patiently scholarly. He writes, “Nietzsche’s thinking is a continuous development; what he advocates is discontinuous. The continuity he kept hidden in the workbooks is far more important than the discontinuity prominent in his books.” Readers might quibble here about what important means in this context—Nietzsche, for one, apparently did not understand it the way Lampert does. But reading the workbooks themselves does allow Lampert a convincing account of the continuity that is otherwise hidden. He shows, to take the most prominent example, that Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal recurrence of the same didn’t come from nowhere. It can be thrilling to see Nietzsche’s ideas contextualized this way, their coming to be documented exactingly—but a little goes a long way. Lampert’s recountings, detailed to the exclusion of all possible doubt, come across as excessive at times for the non-specialist reader.

The second, related, track Lampert takes to get Nietzsche to cohere follows what the philosopher himself set about to prove with the forewords he added to his earlier works after writing Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the first book of Nietzsche’s final phase—and the one that changed everything for him. In those forewords, Nietzsche reads his early books as necessary steps on his journey toward becoming the philosopher that with Zarathustra he became. By Lampert’s reading, “what drove him from the start, [was] the need to understand the Philosopher and the Artist in the context of modern culture.” We can see Nietzsche’s first attempt at an understanding in his early writings about (and deference to) the respective representative figures Schopenhauer and Wagner, the two looming influences from under whose shadows Nietzsche would emerge to enter, first, his Enlightenment-influenced middle period (about which, more below) and, eventually, his third, or “mature,” period. It is in the mature period, beginning with “Sanctus Januarius” (which Lampert dubs “a January of a Book, ending an old ‘year’ of human achievement and opening a new ‘year’ in Nietzsche’s work and beyond”), that Nietzsche is able to get a fix on the two types—an understanding made possible by his most profound idea and the conditions that allowed it: “Nietzsche became what he was as a philosopher and an artist during the hard summer of 1881, when his sickness granted him enough good days to take his daily six-to-eight-hour walks and gain his most fundamental insights and compose their fitting sentences.”

Picking up where Lampert’s account leaves off, Michael Allen Gillespie, in Nietzsche’s Final Teaching, treats Nietzsche’s theory of “the eternal recurrence of the same” as the linchpin of his mature philosophy. Gillespie argues that this idea, which first struck Nietzsche in 1881 as he walked around Switzerland’s Lake Silvaplana, resolved the questions that had preoccupied Nietzsche before 1881 and that orient all of his writing until his breakdown in 1889.

Most of us, stuffed with common sense, look askance at Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. It strains against our modern worldview even to consider it. Time is a loop? All of this repeats forever? How do we not but continue from there: Nietzsche was a bit of an eccentric, wasn’t he? Let’s appreciate his wit and style, let’s draw on his criticisms of Christianity, let’s acknowledge his contributions as a psychologist. But eternal recurrence—are we meant to take that seriously?

Gillespie takes it very seriously indeed. As he explains, Nietzsche thinks that eternal recurrence offers an escape from the meaningless and nihilism that follow the death of God. But only if one can affirm all things absolutely, by what Nietzsche calls amor fati. Unlike Faust, who affirms one moment, for Nietzsche eternal recurrence means that “in order to truly will any one thing, it is necessary to will all things.” It is this willing of the whole that makes each moment meaningful: it is vital.

The eternal recurrence establishes what Gillespie calls Nietzsche’s “(anti-)metaphysics”; it provides the ontology that coordinates what we can recognize as a corresponding anthropology, theology, cosmology, and logic, each drawn from Nietzsche’s most enduring ideas of the 1880s (the Ubermensch, death of God, will to power, and perspectivism, respectively). Of these, it is the logic in Gillespie’s account that is the awkwardest fit. Gillespie’s own writing demonstrates that a rational account of Nietzsche’s worldview is possible and that offering it can eliminate much of the ambiguity that otherwise attends. The rub, though, is that as clear a writer as Gillespie is, there is only one Nietzsche.

Gillespie shows how Twilight of the Idols and Ecce Homo, two works of 1888, are structured as sonatas and advance a musical rather than rational logic. Nietzsche’s “fusion of image, emotion, and form” in this period constitute what Gillespie calls “a mosaic of words”—or, as Nietzsche has it, “each word streams out its strength as sound, as place, as concept, to the right and left and over the entirety.” This is not, obviously, how we’re used to reading philosophy. It is also, again, why we love to read Nietzsche (and to a significant extent why we sometimes struggle to interpret him).

Even if “Nietzsche’s goal is not to persuade but to enthuse, entrance, and overpower the reader, to initiate him into sacred mysteries and impel him to action,” the question remains: to what end? Gillespie’s list of the thinkers and movements inspired by Nietzsche is too long to quote here. This consequence is due as much to what Nietzsche’s corpus doesn’t say as it is to how he says what he does. Gillespie argues compellingly that all of Nietzsche’s writings after his 1881 walk at Lake Silvaplana build toward a magnum opus—a thorough articulation of the eternal recurrence of same—that was precluded by Nietzsche’s collapse in 1889.

The eternal recurrence—Nietzsche’s “deepest thought”—is the hollow core around which the rest of his project orbits unsteadily. One open question is whether Nietzsche could have completed such an account if he had remained lucid. We might wish he’d completed the project so we’d have an easier time accepting or rejecting and preventing it from being adopted willy-nilly. But as we should expect, Nietzsche was up to something subtler than a naive naturalism. As Gillespie explains,

Nietzsche does not present the eternal recurrence as an absolute truth, but as a perspective, a perspective that is affirmed not because it is true or false but because it is most life-enhancing. Indeed, from Nietzsche’s point of view, we cannot possibly know whether it is true or false. To affirm the doctrine is rather an act of the will and means adopting a stance toward life that treats the doctrine as if it were true, and that consequently eschews all negation, affirming every possibility not merely as possible but as necessary. Affirming the eternal recurrence in this sense does not entail the rejection of any path or way of life, and indeed requires affirming them all.

This is a pragmatism of meaning, and it’s one Nietzsche adopted personally before extending publicly. Nietzsche “became convinced not only that he had a task that could give meaning to his life, but that this task was of world-historical importance . . . His task, he came to believe, was nothing less than the revaluation of all values, the complete transformation of European civilization.” The nihilism that he had confronted following the death of God was the nihilism that was bearing down on Europe. This is the neat circle of Nietzsche as destiny that eternal recurrence demands. Once he recognizes the problem, he becomes the (possible) solution. “Nietzsche thus claims that he is a destiny not because he wants to be but because as part of the unfolding of all things he is the moment in which the whole affirms and wills itself, the moment of the appearance of the god who in his eternal birth and death wills the constant renewal of the whole.” His destiny is to write the books that will bring about the future. In so doing he has so done. The texts perform themselves.

Nietzsche’s Final Teaching suffers slightly as a collection of stand-alone essays that repeat themselves—rather blatantly sometimes. But this is a small price for the reader to pay for such a resounding synthesis of Nietzsche’s later work. Gillespie makes an admirable attempt at completing the picture that Nietzsche didn’t.

Compared to the well-known works of Nietzsche’s “mature” period, his middle period has historically been given short shrift. For Lampert this relative neglect is warranted; the middle period represents for him a necessary failure. While Things Human All Too Human (Lampert’s preferred translation of the title) represents an important shift for Nietzsche away from his deference to Schopenhauer and Wagner, Lampert instructs that we “think of his first book on the free mind as erring in the modern way, deferring to Enlightenment orthodoxy as if that were true free-mindedness; treat it with the suspicion its deference deserves; count it too among the works in which he was not yet himself.” So a failure, but a necessary one: the free-mind books (Human, All Too Human; Dawn; and The Gay Science) allowed him to grow through his deference by requiring “the Enlightenment to perform intelligent surgery on itself: slice away that part that would consume its most valuable part; its mind, its Greek-science root, must cut away what seemed its heart, its Christian root.” Through this period lies what Nietzsche has always pursued: truth and an individual strong enough to bear it.

Again we see Lampert here following Nietzsche’s lead. Human, All Too Human is the book Nietzsche would come to see as a failed introduction to Zarathustra and which, before his idea for the Forewords Project, he wanted to destroy. In Nietzsche’s Search for Philosophy, Keith Ansell-Pearson takes a very different approach to this period. Reading the books not as gates to be passed through on the way to the real Nietzsche but as valuable works in their own right, Ansell-Pearson finds the middle period to be a success—possibly the high-water mark—for Nietzsche.

The core argument of Nietzsche’s Search for Philosophy—that we should not ignore the middle period—is impossible to disagree with. Ansell-Pearson’s discussion of the works in question describe a thrilling series that readers will likely find themselves inclined to consult directly. This is an inevitable challenge with Nietzsche: he provokes myriad responses, all of which suffer by comparison to their source. It is perhaps this way for all truly original writers. A critic can be inspired by Nietzsche to his highest articulation and still be just a critic. Ansell-Pearson himself is “mindful of Lawrence Hatab’s warning that when we ‘translate’ Nietzsche into our professional philosophical agenda, we do what must be done, but in so doing we bring to ruin something special and vital. . . . It seems we must ‘murder to dissect.’”

Nevertheless, the Nietzsche that Ansell-Pearson reveals is curious, grounded in science, and committed to his pursuit of moderation and sober thinking. But even in his Enlightened mode he is never simplistic. It’s easy to forget that when his madman delivers the news of the death of God in The Gay Science, one of the things Nietzsche is up to is criticizing “the village atheists . . . [who are] too easily satisfied with a secular materialism.” Pinker, Harris, and our other own village atheists might do well to give this Nietzsche another read.

One of Nietzsche’s fundamental insights from this period, to which Ansell-Pearson ably draws significant attention, is into the fetishization of truth as a substitution of one god for another. Inspired as he is in this period by Epicurus, Nietzsche pursues naturalism insofar as it is conducive to a “full and excellent life.” Metaphysics, in other words, is subordinate to ethics—and, for Nietzsche, to aesthetics too. “Gay scientists are ‘too experienced, too serious, too merry, too burned, too profound’ to have belief in a simple-minded love of truth.” Philosophy, for Nietzsche in his middle writings, is not a matter of articulating correct views on things. It is “a set of practices or exercises that seek to transform one’s way of life, indeed, one’s entire way of being and fundamental orientation in the world.”

Ansell-Pearson, along with Lampert and Gillespie, reminds us that Nietzsche has plenty to say to our time and to many of our conversations, if only we have ears to hear him. Likewise, these three books remind us that nuanced writers demand careful readers.

Click here to purchase
What a Philosopher Is: Becoming Nietzsche
at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase
Nietzsche’s Final Teaching
at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase
Nietzsche’s Search for Philosophy: On the Middle Writings
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Poetics in These Here End Times:
An Interview with Paula Cisewski

photo by Autumn Pingel

Interviewed by William Stobb

Poet, memoirist, arts activist, and tarot enthusiast, Paula Cisewski’s been turning the Queen of Cups upright for the Twin Cities literary scene since the 1990s. The author of four poetry collections and several chapbooks including a lyric prose memoir, Cisewski has curated a number of reading series, mentors poets and writers of all ages and interests, and sees the work of community-building as the heart and soul of the literary life. In 2017, her two most recent collections hit the shelves, Quitter (Diode Editions, $18) and The Threatened Everything (Burnside Review, $13). I caught up with Cisewski on a blustery spring afternoon in northeast Minneapolis to talk about rage and joy and laughter in apocalyptical poetics.

William Stobb: You’re experiencing something right now that must be a rare moment for any writer, having two books out at the same time. What’s that like?

Paula Cisewski: It’s an embarrassment of riches, and I know what that saying feels like now: like a stroke of luck that may make it appear I’m more productive than I am. The Threatened Everything was accepted in 2014 and Quitter won the Diode prize in 2016. The set of circumstances that caused them to come out simultaneously (and seven years after my last poetry collection)—different lengths of time for each manuscript to find its home with a publisher and then the different production times for each—felt almost unbelievable. The boxes with my author copies of both books actually arrived on my front porch on the same day—I’ll probably never get over that.

WS: That’s wild.

PC: It’s extremely lucky, and I only hope to be a good enough shepherd of them both into the world. They’re very different projects: I was nearly dead when writing The Threatened Everything and the poems rail against feeling trapped there. Quitter spirals forward from that place, however lost for any solution (which is its partial resolution).

And it’s also been interesting hearing from a few people who’ve given me personal feedback: there’s almost always a strong preference for one book over the other, split about 50/50 in favor of each.

WS: I’m one of those people, I know. I like Quitter, but I fell head-over-heels in love with The Threatened Everything, right from the opening poem, “The Apocalypse Award Goes To—.” It strikes me as a great introduction to a lot of things that the book does in terms of themes and tones and voice, and it introduces this interesting idea that we’re living inside of an apocalypse, that the apocalypse is happening and we are in it. That resonates with me in terms of growing up in the Cold War era, and growing up as a Christian and a sci-fi fan—we get ideas of the apocalypse as something that’s going to happen on a given day, and then maybe there’ll be something after that, kind of like Mad Max or The Walking Dead, you know? But maybe it’s more realistic to look at what’s happening in the world right now as an apocalypse. Is that an artistic concept that the poem is built on, or is that a lived experience for you? Do you feel like we’re living in an apocalypse?

PC: First, thank you for spending time with the books and caring enough to have a preference! I don’t know about the apocalypse. I think about self-fulfilling prophecy and it almost seems—well, it doesn’t almost seem, there are people actively praying for the End Times right now, right? As salvation from perceived evil or as a relief from suffering or as a kind of cause and effect that makes sense. Because uncertainty is worse? Plus we as a species have increased our capacity for destruction in ways that seem inhuman to me. So much is terrible, looming indefinitely, and yet there have to be ways that we can know and engage with what is actually here, not what we hope or fear will be. Poetry is one way to connect rather than to succumb to despair or distraction or disinterest. I’m not sure if that exactly answers your question, but those are some of the concerns of both books, I think.

WS: The epigraph to The Threatened Everything from Virginia Woolf is telling: “The beauty of the world which is so soon to perish has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart, asunder.” Your poems work through painful situations with a very light touch and with a lot of tonal range—I find a lot of laughter and brightness of wit and brightness of observation in the poems. Do you recognize that in the poems? How can a poem be funny and also tragic? What do you think about tonal diversity in that way in your work?

PC: I suppose laughter is elemental to who I am—both as a dumbfounded response to frequent wonder and as a coping mechanism—so humor does show up in my work. The final section in The Threatened Everything is called “The Laughing Club,” because I spent a lot of time thinking about laughter: when it expresses joy, when it connects us, and when it’s derisive or divisive. As one part of my research, my husband and I attended a laughing club, which is a real kind of yoga that involves some willingness to be physically vulnerable in public and to make a lot of eye contact with strangers. I’m an introvert, and my husband said he kept his eye on me the whole time in case I bolted and he needed to follow me out.

Ultimately, almost nothing is just one thing. There’s hopelessness; there’s also hope. The “Empty Next Syndrome” poems in The Threatened Everything, for example, explore the altered identity of a parent whose child is becoming/has become an adult. The pain and joy of that experience quite literally shattered me. But it wasn’t about me, was it? It was about my son, who has grown into a loving, generous person in the world. Plus, I’m now grateful to have had the chance to reassemble myself.

WS: I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about the laughter epidemic in Tanganyika and how you encountered that history, which is the basis for the final poem in The Threatened Everything.

PC: I stumbled across the story in my laugher research—I don’t remember where. There was an actual episode of contagious laughter in a school in Tanganyika, which is Tanzania now. Reports vary, but I recall it was a manic, physical reaction to postcolonialism. That breaking apart. I felt that was a thing that tied all of the book together. It wasn’t just laughter as release. It held the possibility for healing, but it was also a symptom, and it was dangerous.

WS: What’s your sense of the possibilities for poetry as a force of social activism? I think of Auden, you know, “poetry makes nothing happen,” but then also of Williams and other people who’ve made arguments for poetry as the news that we need. What’s your feeling about poetry as a mode of expression that has some cultural impact? How do you feel about working with social activism energy through poetry?

PC: Well, Auden’s not wrong, but also, he doesn’t only mean the one thing, because something is being made to happen in that poem. Spending time, “in the valley of [poetry’s] making where executives / would never want to tamper,” is a kind of spiritual practice, which is so embarrassing to say that I’m not even going to take the statement back. When I’m writing and reading, I’m engaging with what is most beautiful, vile, impossible or possible, mundane, lofty, absurd, or lost in the world and in myself. And poets around the world are all doing the same thing. Coming together around that energy can be powerful. Not always. There are endless ways any gathering of people can result in nothing more interesting than a bunch of bruised or blustering egos, but still, I’m really interested in different ways poets make space: from longstanding reading series to house readings to work-in-progress salons. At our best we grow together, circle around each other in times of crisis. The 100,000 Poets for Change global events every fall take on their own identity as they take up a cause. Or, another very micro example, I’ve curated this Poetry Fort at art crawls and other events, which is a tent that can’t seat more than six or so people, two or three of whom are the “featured” poets. There’s an immediate reciprocity; a poet will read a poem and then a member of the quote-unquote audience will say, for example, “I know a song about that” and will sing it. Nobody’s going to achieve literary stardom in that space, but people bring to it and take from it something of real value.

WS: I really like the poem “Super Moon Report” in Quitter. It’s a bit of an homage to the Minneapolis community, where you’ve been central in building community. What’s that work like for you? Does it come naturally, and do you have projects now that you would like to talk about?

PC: I have been thinking back very fondly about when I started hosting an open mic in the late ’90s at the Artists’ Quarter, an amazing jazz club where I worked. I didn’t know any other poets and I needed them. But I was also a single parent and a student and a waitress, so I really needed to multi-task. I rushed in like The Fool in the Tarot deck, fully enthusiastic and totally inexperienced. The organizing work I did then and in later series—sometimes collaboratively—felt necessary. Space needed to be made, and people needed to come together, and it mattered, and so it didn’t occur to me that it was exhausting (a good kind of exhaustion).

Any of the MANY other curators and editors and micropress publishers and culture makers who keep our literary towns so vibrant could tell you the same thing. It is an incredibly fortunate place for a poet to live.

I am not curating more than a pop-up something or other nowadays, but I am thrilled to have recently joined you on the editorial staff at Conduit! It has been on the top of my literary magazine favorites list for decades.

WS: Your work seems to seek community with visual arts and other art forms. How does ekphrasis work for you? Are you actively seeking out visual arts to work with in your writing? What’s the balance or relationship in your life between poetry and other art forms?

PC: Partly, I am a would-be visual artist. I draw and collage mostly. In my office there are two desks: one for writing and one for making objects. When language runs out, I switch seats. Partly, I married a visual artist, Jack Walsh. We collaborate under the name JoyFace, and I can see that my ekphrastic output has increased drastically since we began to influence one another full-time. And partly, there is another great reading series in the Twin Cities called Talking Image Connection, founded by Alison Morse and now run by Luke Pingel, where writers are invited every few months to respond to installations, and I’ve been invited to do that a few times. The creative work of others is profoundly inspiring; responding to it is like picking up a conversation. The poetry manuscript I’m finishing right now is largely ekphrastic.

But I’m not only inspired by visual art. Quitter is full of Chopin and Bowie and Husker Dü and other music.

WS: There’s a lot of doubling and mirroring in both books—imaginative twins, a good one and a bad one, and this concept of an inner wolf/cave problem that your poet-speaker is manifesting. Where do these doppelgangers come from? Are they philosophical or symbological? Do they relate to personal experience?

PC: Even the books have each other as fraternal twins! I mentioned earlier that I was broken in half when writing the poems in The Threatened Everything. And as a culture, too, it feels like we’re divided—not just between antagonistic groups but within ourselves, and many of the poems process that kind of internal split. For instance, in “Cathedral Song, Part One,” the wolf/cave problem reflects on a part of oneself that is denied, or feared, which is probably the part that needs the most attention. In “Cathedral Song, Part Two,” the wolf, who the speaker feared will attack her, leaps out and it turns out that it was just starving, dying of neglect.

WS: Is that part specific for you? What is that part that needs attention but that hides and tries to get your attention?

PC: In this book, I think it was anger. I wasn’t raised with a lot of examples of people expressing anger in ways that were productive or healthy, so I really learned to tamp it down, to deny it existed in myself. I would think, “I am a rational person. I don’t get angry. I look for solutions.” But there’s plenty to be angry about, really, which is, among other things, where the poem “Rage Essay” comes in later.

WS: I don’t know if it’s okay for me to ask, but “Rage Essay” refers to a lost brother, and I’m wondering is that autobiographical? Can we talk about that?

PC: Yeah, it’s . . . yeah, we can talk about that.

WS: What happened to your brother?

PC: I have an older brother who was incarcerated and who was chewed up . . . entirely devoured by that system. I haven’t seen him since I was fourteen. He makes appearances in each of my poetry collections, and I’ve been struggling with how to communicate that loss in a memoir for nearly a decade (The chapbook Misplaced Sinister is part of that bigger project). Our nation’s incarceration addiction is devastating, destructive, dehumanizing, deeply racist. That’s about all I want to say about it.

“Rage Essay” is a pretty traditional sonnet, by the way; I hoped the strict constraint of the form would make the content feel caged.

WS: I hear the poem saying that you don’t want to lose contact with your anger. One of the things that’s trying about this political era is how it seems to be fueled by rage. The last election and some other aspects of our public discourse seem like examples of what can happen when rage takes control. Is there any argument that maybe suppression of rage could actually be a good thing?

PC: Losing contact with the anger wasn’t a choice really, since it existed. I was just choking it down, and so it couldn’t resolve or transform or get put to any good use such as fueling activism. It would come out in weird other ways that were also unproductive and unexamined. And, yes, in that way I was just another broken part of our system.

I don’t think there is any good argument for suppression, but for examining whatever feeling is coming up, without reacting or giving into it. Rage can be self-righteous and deeply ignorant. Sometimes it can provide cover—just a lot of noise so that you don’t have to think or feel anything about complicated solutions which might involve looking at the terrified or ugly part of yourself. That kind of rage can be a drug, really.

Click here to purchase The Threatened Everything
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Deep Calls to Deep

Jane Medved
New Rivers Press ($17)

by Gwen Ackerman

In her debut poetry collection Deep Calls To Deep, Jane Medved immerses her readers in a world of contradiction as evoked by Jerusalem, the city she calls home. It’s a place where each stone has a story, if a person chooses to listen, and Medved does. The poet takes her readers through an ancient gateway into a universal subconscious, exploring the permeable membrane between time and place in a collection of poetry divided into five sections—the last, tellingly, titled “Prologue,” a clear display of belief that time is circular.

Time is also a force to be contended with, escaped only in sleep as the heavens look down on earth in “Month of Dreams”:

Who can blame the single-footed angels
if they pause in their appointed tasks
to stare in boundless curiosity

at our nightly impudence. These humans
who will not stay put, but venture out of
their domain with infinite audacity.

The section titled “The Ninth Villian” gives the reader Medved’s rendering of place, a Jerusalem that is never firmly situated in the present. In “The Last Time I Saw Herod,” the king’s vicious murder of his wife Mariamme lurks right above us:

He was banging on the gate
even though there is no way
to know that we are in here.

He was looking for his wife,
aren’t they all . . .

Place, time, and Medved’s interior life flow together in “Leaving a Note at the Western Wall,” a concrete, spiritual act at a sacred place where routinely

the matriarchs and their children press letters
into fists of stone while God sends back his answers—
No and no and no.

But all is never lost, as time is circular and there will always be a chance to begin again, as seen in the book’s closing “Prologue”: “Look, a piece of moon is carved off. That means we must start over. / That means we are counting again.” This is a collection in which ancient wisdom confronts modernity, the secular faces the sacred, and death is presented with life. Deep Calls to Deep is a fitting title for all the depth that is explored here.

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BK Fischer
Mad Creek Books/Ohio State University Press ($16.95)

by Kimberly Burwick

Consider the following timeline:

  • April, 1989: Madonna's “Like A Prayer” hits #1 on the charts.
  • June, 2016: An official decree issued by Pope Francis raises the liturgical celebration of the memorial of St. Mary Magdalene “to the dignity of a feast, the same rank given to the liturgical celebration of the Apostles.”
  • January 2017: The “pussyhat” protest lands a spot on the cover of Time and The New Yorker.
  • February, 2018: B.K. Fischer’s Radioapocrypha is published by Mad Creek Books, an imprint of Ohio State University Press.

Ask yourself what these events could possibly have in common. The answer—unequivocally—is feminist ideology. Such is the meditation Fischer delves into in her third collection of poems, Radioapocrypha. Casting Mary Magdalene as Maren and Jesus as Callahan (her high school chemistry teacher), Fischer drops us into a 1989 Maryland suburb for us to reconfigure what it means to worship and be worshipped.

Radioapocrypha has much to say about how teenage girls in 1989 were caught in a kind of trickle-down feminism, or (more aptly) a lack thereof. “Mapplethorpe died // in March but what we did know while we / maneuvered through First Ladies at the Smithsonian: / ghosts of peach faille, ivory silk twill, / copper shantung. We were dreaming of simulacra / in polyester nylon, practicing our up-dos and / feathering the front . . . ” Maren is caught in paradox: she views Callahan as a contemporary Jesus-figure (and has conceived his child) but tonally, she is desperate to ascend from this tired parable. Satirically Fischer writes, “If you put an ear-piercing gun on the dash / in the first act, it’s going to go off / in the car.” Subverting Chekhov’s dramatic principle, Maren turns the proverbial pistol into something women use to adorn themselves with jewelry. In subtle moments such as this, readers must recalibrate what it means for Mary Magdalene (a.k.a. Maren) to take ownership of the complexity of clandestine sexual relationships.

Not only is the collection unconventional in subject matter, Fischer largely makes us reconsider the traditional poetic line. Written as a novel-in-verse, these are not strictly prose poems, nor uniformly narrative. In fact, her most lyrical moments are reminiscent of the chorus women in Act III of Aeschylus’s tragedy, The Oresteia. Just as the Furies seek transformation from their outcast status and cultish acceptance into Athenian society, Maren begins, “This is she. // Speaking. // Sorry, I didn’t mean to / hang up on you, you / caught me off guard—.” The real beauty of Fischer’s work culminates when lyricism and narrative merge. In the way that a warm-front collides with a cold-front, Fischer’s lyric “she” soon plows into Callahan, who “sat us down to settle the score. He / was a master of sarcasm, the master of ceremonies. He was / a lover and a healer. He was a real son of a bitch.” Subtly, the female voice takes power.

The etymology of the verb “to judge” dates back to the Latin jus (law) and dicere (to say). More than anything Radioapocrypha is about moving beyond the presence of judgement. The poem “(Litmus)” begins, “You think you can a piece of pH paper up to a person and tell if / a taste of him will burn the tongue?” and ends with, “Equilibrium is not peace.” In Fischer’s world, she demands that we move beyond blaming the young woman for her illicit affair and begin to examine the unity of word and action. Fischer furthers this concept by pairing italics with direct narration:

he laughed, held my bangs back from my forehead

chain of forgetfulness

parted my mouth with a fingertip

the first form is darkness the second is desire

fingertip across the lip

you’re ok with this?

As readers, which lines draw us to judgement—the narrative or the philosophical? This is Radioapocrypha at its best. To complete the narrative means that we must participate in the reconfiguration of feminist thought that does not stop at equilibrium, but only pauses for meaningful dialogue that must continue to evolve.

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The Ghosts of Monticello:
A Recitatif

Carmen Gillespie
Stillhouse Press ($17)

by Sean Pears

At one point in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856)—a brilliant and underappreciated slave insurrection narrative—the eponymous character tells his friend to read to their fellow fugitive slaves one of America’s founding documents. “‘Harry,’ said Dred, ‘when they come, tonight, read them the Declaration of Independence of these United States, and then let each one judge of our afflictions, and the afflictions of their fathers, and the Lord shall be judge between us.” Dred’s point is that the grievances of the founding fathers—unfair and arbitrary taxation, the quartering of soldiers—do not come close to those of enslaved Africans. Slavery was the contradiction at the heart of the founding principles of America. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration and himself a slave-owner, knew this, but lacked the conviction, or the will, to address it head-on.

In the antebellum period, pointing out this contradiction (and Jefferson’s confused and confusing attitudes toward race and slavery) was generally confined to fringe, radical abolitionists like Stowe. Today, more than 150 years after emancipation, talking about this contradiction has become part of the cultural hegemony. In the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture (across the street from the Washington Monument), a statue of Jefferson stands in front of blocks engraved with the names of the slaves he owned, above a placard that reads “The Paradox of Liberty.”

A key figure in the excavation of this paradox is Sally Hemings. She was owned by Jefferson. She was also the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles. After Martha died, Jefferson ‘took up’ with Hemings, and the precise boundaries and nature of their relationship is a continued debate among historians. As writers and historians try to represent the life of Sally Hemings, the challenge they face is similar to that faced by Stowe in her portrayal of black revolutionaries in the 1850s: how do you balance a desire to portray the intelligence, agency, will, and talent of slaves in antebellum America, while acknowledging that their enslaved status denied and suppressed those very qualities? Historian Annette Gordon-Reed puts it succinctly: “Hemings was, by law, Jefferson’s property. But she was also a human being.”

Carmen Gillespie’s new book, The Ghosts of Monticello: A Recitatif, is an uneven but fascinating attempt to bring this past into the present. The book began as a libretto for an opera performed at Bucknell University in 2015, and is largely structured as a series of dialogues and dramatic monologues. The central dramatic tension is the relationship between Martha and Sally. On her deathbed, Martha made Thomas vow to not remarry. Gillespie portrays Martha’s lament from beyond the grave over her husband’s infidelity, though she also laments her half-sister’s mistreatment under the system of slavery. Her mourning is often conveyed in abstract terms: “In my heart, there will / always be a space for each lost / face, to fill what was / with what never can be,” she says in “Sistersong III”. Sally’s laments, by contrast, tend to be fiercer, and more precisely rendered. “You, gone at thirty-three,” she replies to her half-sister in the same poem, “but not Christ, dear Missy, // white dead widow wife.”

While the tension between the half-sisters is portrayed as a blend of regret, betrayal, anger, and mourning, more surprising are moments in the book when their voices blend, united by their dispossession at the hand of Jefferson. In “Martha and Sally Chant,” their voices are undifferentiated, both addressing Thomas Jefferson: “this nation’s acquisition, his release / become increase: her children // his slaves, / his caprice, / his possession // the U – S / and us.” Married women and black slaves shared aspects of legal dispossession under antebellum American law, including the denial of voting rights and the inability to own property. Nonetheless, collaboration between abolitionists and the women’s suffrage movement was often fraught. Stowe may be one interesting counter-example. The Ghosts of Monticello, too, gestures toward a utopic space in which Martha Wayles and Sally Hemings find terms for political solidarity, if only in death, “Our truths / unhitched from the wagon // of time.”

Sally Hemings’s biography is remarkable. In her adolescence, she lived with Jefferson in a mixed-race neighborhood in Paris, where she taught herself French. When she was sixteen, she refused to return to the United States, and only acquiesced once Jefferson promised to free her children. After Jefferson’s death, she lived as a free woman with her children and grandchildren in a house they owned in Charlottesville. Gillespie’s book offers an opportunity to consider and celebrate that life. But at certain moments, formal abstraction obscures the significance of this history, rather than revealing it. The book has a tendency to indulge easy rhyme and repetition. In “Sally Speaks from the Entrance Hall,” Gillespie writes, “all will fall, / these walls call // all walls fall. / all walls will fall.” In “Martha, We Know this Walking,” she writes, “Who is this woman walking? walking? walking? / We know this woman’s walking. We know this woman’s walking. / This woman walking, walking, walking. We know this woman walking.” In the context of a performance, one can imagine this simplistic repetition serving as a kind of backdrop for creative expression; it is hard to know what to do with it on the page.

The most lucid moments in the book come when it is driven primarily by image and narrative. “Betty Remembering John Wayles: Full Virginia Power” is a spare but rich portrait of the life of Sally Hemings’s parents from the perspective of her mother, Betty. Her morning routine is infused with a complex erotic energy:

When the skillet was hot,
I would empty the lot
into black iron.

The smell aroused him.
Eggs recall the hard
shell of his unvarying
I broke the yolks
and started the grits,
He would go upstairs while
I stirred in honey and pears.

The punctuation is confusing, and the line breaks somewhat arbitrary, but the blend of affection and predation in the language of this simple scene is gripping. As Sally was by Jefferson, Betty was owned by John Wayles. His arousal, then, cannot but contain a sinister element. But there seems to also be care and intimacy in the preparation of this breakfast. Such a textured and ambivalent scene does not come easily, especially when dealing with historical figures with so much freight. But such moments breathe life into our understanding of Thomas Jefferson as a complex and contradictory figure, and of Sally Hemings as a slave who managed to break the yoke.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

States of the Art:
Selected Essays, Interviews,
and Other Prose, 1975–2014

Charles North
Pressed Wafer ($15)

by W. C. Bamberger

As a poet, Charles North is known for the creation of a new form of poem, the "line-up." A long-time baseball fan, North creates teams of names or of quotations, labeling each with what he intuits would be their corresponding position on a team. For example, in "A Midwinter Lineup," a prose line-up included here, we find a quote from Gertrude Stein—"I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it"—labelled "c," for catcher, and Robert Service's "A silence seems a solid thing, shot through with wolfish woe" taking the field as shortstop. The possibilities these assignments (and the title, which carries its own weight of suggestion) open up for fresh insights into the writers are comic, puzzling, and could even become profound, should we persevere through enough innings of thought. In the spirit of this same pastime we might say that North's stance is clear from the moment he steps up to write prose about poetry and its reception: his stance is that of a calm questioning of the usual premises, the supposed givens of his favored subjects (poetry and, to a lesser degree, visual art) and, at times more aggressively, to what others have written about them.

This stance is clear from the first essay of States of the Art, in which Harold Bloom's early enthusiasm for the poetry of John Ashbery makes North uneasy, instinctively so. The piece, "Life in (Mis-) Prison," allows us to observe North's sorting through of his feelings and Bloom's words until he pinpoints the problem: Bloom's enthusiasm is genuine but, "characteristically he manages to subvert, if not swamp, the praise with one of the most elaborated (not elaborate) critical apparatuses to appear in modern times." For anyone familiar with Bloom's theory of misprision, that "characteristically" and the emphatic (not hectoring) parenthetical comment convincingly uncover the self-congratulation at the very center of Bloom's thought.

North looks at how we read poetry—particularly, in "The Indulgence Principle," how we read our favorite poets: indulging "the bulk of their (inferior) work in order to have their very best." He offers a take on what he sees as its other side, the side that "grants a poet the right not to please a reader in every respect: it recognizes that the 'highest thing' is not only rare but inextricable from all the rest." North has his own favorite poets, of course: among them John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Schuyler—on whose work he performs an almost microscope-close reading of the minute revisions Schuyler would make in a poem, and what ripples these would send through the poem as read. Other poets favored here include Joseph Ceravolo, Paul Violi, and Frank O'Hara.

As this list of names shows, North displays a preference for cleaving to the poetic landscape of New York City. He surveys its (expansive and varied, even while easily identifiable) poetics again and again, like radar sweeping a particularly busy piece of the sky. Rather than feeling any provincialism while reading these pieces, the reader comes away with an impression of depth and originality unusual in simple reviews and surveys. The only shortcoming of this is that North ranks Frank O'Hara higher in influence than anyone outside the city's five boroughs would now be likely to do. Of course, as O'Hara died the same year Ashbery's Rivers and Mountains appeared, no one can know what he would have accomplished or become—and North does offer clear and robust explanations for his claims for O'Hara's work.

North feels that the "New York sensibility or aesthetic has by this point filtered down, around and through much of what is being done in the name of American poetry today. . . . Then how come, appearances and awards to the contrary, the state of American poetry isn't in fact very healthy?" North, at the end of this talk, chooses not to answer that complex question, but the observations and considerations here offer ample material to any reader who might want to think this through in a more expansive way.

North does concern himself with more than poetry here, and with places other than NYC (though none at the length of these two core interests): Keats's house at Hampstead Heath makes an appearance, as does the art of Manet, Edith Schloss, and other painters. The art reviews, however, are more traditionally descriptive than the deeper, more digressive pieces on poets and poetry. The contrast suggests that while North likes art, even likes some of it very much, it isn't part of his core self in the way thinking and the art of poetry (and baseball) are.

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Pontus Hultén and Moderna Museet:
The Formative Years

Edited by Anna Tellgren
Foreword by Daniel Birnbaum
Text by Patrik Andersson,
Annika Gunnarsson, Ylva Hillström,
and Pontus Hultén

Koenig Books ($30)

by Richard Kostelanetz

Of the many impresarios of contemporary visual art, Pontus Hultén (1924-2006) ranked for a while among the more prodigious. He moved from institution to institution, from country to country, always as a chief who apparently understood early that he’d better speak several languages fluently and own a big suitcase. As director of Moderna Museet in his native Stockholm from 1958 to 1973, he built an international reputation with such exhibitions as Nikki de Saint Phalle (1960), Movement in Art (1961), American Pop Art (1964), Claes Oldenburg (1966), and Andy Warhol (1968). Every two years at least, one exhibition was devoted to new American art, which Hultén helped make more acceptable in Europe. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he also guest-curated The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age (1968).

Hultén then became, in 1973, the founding director of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. There he mounted mammoth exhibitions with Paris in their title, associating the city with Moscow and New York. By 1980 he was in Los Angeles establishing its Museum of Contemporary Art. Less successful in California, he went in 1984 to Venice, Italy, taking charge of the Palazzo Grassi. In 1985 he joined others in founding an art college in Paris. From 1991 to 1995 he directed a museum in Bonn, Germany, and later the Jean Tinguely Museum in Basel, Switzerland. Just before his death, Hultén gave his private collection of several hundred art objects, many no doubt acquired as gifts directly from artists, to his original launching pad, Stockholm’s Moderna Museet, with the stipulation that they be exhibited not within the museum itself but in a separate warehouse.

Ponthus Hultén and Moderna Museet: The Formative Years is a collection of scholarly appreciations, all in English sometimes askew, ostensibly about the first phase of his museum career. This footnoted collection smells like the transcripts of some institutional conference, though none is acknowledged. In the preface is this crucial sentence: “One of his greatest gifts was his sense of timing, his ability to be at the right place at the right moment and to home [sic] in on the most interesting things going on.”

While this quality is evident in his Swedish career (and perhaps in his Parisian one as well), Hultén evidently lost his touch once he went to California. After Hultén quit Los Angeles and returned to Europe, he was curatorially broken, so to speak. Perhaps the hidden truth of Hultén’s meteoric career is that California, especially LA, irrevocably alters American easterners and Europeans—and rarely for the better.

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The City Whispered in Her Ear:
An Interview with Cristina García

photo by Isabelle Selby

Interviewed by Allan Vorda

Cristina García was born in Havana in 1959, and although her family fled Cuba for New York City in 1961 (shortly after Fidel Castro came to power), her home country has made an indelible mark on her fiction. Prior to becoming an acclaimed writer, however, García received a B.S. in political science from Barnard College and a master’s degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University. For almost ten years she worked primarily as a journalist for several publications before deciding to devote herself to fiction in 1990. Her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, was published in 1992 and was nominated for the National Book Award; her seven novels since include The Aguero Sisters, which won the Janet Heideger Kafka Prize, and King of Cuba, which is being adapted into a play as we speak.

García’s seventh novel, Here in Berlin (Counterpoint Press, $26), was released in 2017. The story revolves around an unnamed Cuban narrator known simply as “The Visitor” who travels to the German capital in 2013; she then recounts thirty-five varying tales of Berliners she meets, many of whom recall personal episodes of World War II and its aftermath. It is a fascinating addition to García’s body of work, one that expands upon her recurring themes of politics, cultural memory, and how identity can be constructed from multiple viewpoints.

Allan Vorda: Here in Berlin is narrated by the Visitor, a Cuban-American middle-aged woman who has been divorced and has a daughter living in Barcelona. What was the inspiration for the Visitor (who is perhaps not unlike yourself), as well as the concept of relating thirty-five vignettes in which Berliners discuss their past?

Cristina García: The Visitor was the hardest character for me to write. At first, I used her as a kind of scaffolding to elicit stories from the characters and fully expected to cut her out once the stories were harvested. Eventually, I realized that her presence was essential. Listeners are as crucial to storytelling as storytelling itself.

AV: “On her twelfth day in Berlin, a young father asked the Visitor for directions in German, to which she correctly replied. . . . Thus, her mission began.” Are the stories you tell based on people you met or read about, or are they purely fictional characters? If they are based on actual people, then how did this come about?

CG: The characters are fictional but emerged out of a great deal of historical research, eavesdropping, casual conversations with Berliners, and, of course, my hyperactive imagination—such as the story about the Cuban boy who was kidnapped by the crew of German submarine during World War II. But I wanted the format to blur the distinction between fiction and fact.

AV: In one of the early “The Visitor” chapters you state: “Berlin was altering the Visitor, carving out space for silence, hallucinations, distortions.” Then in a later chapter you write: “People asked her: ‘Why are you here? What do you want?’ Her reasons had changed. Now it was war that kept her here; also Eros and pathos, the impossibility of looking away. A different mission.” Did your perspective change in any way the longer you stayed in Berlin? Also, did you feel that because you are an outsider, your writing might be criticized for bringing up a past that Germans want to but cannot forget?

CG: Yes, I went to Berlin, much like The Visitor, in search of stories about Cuba’s relationship with the old Soviet bloc. But the city itself seduced me, provoked me, coaxed me into telling stories other than what I had planned. The city whispered in my ear continually for the three months I was lucky enough to live there. Also, I felt that my outsider status gave me the freedom to probe where others might not.

AV: You have so many memorable characters in this book, such as Ernesto Cuadra (a Cuban who is kidnapped onto a German U-boat), Sophie Echt (a German-Jew whose husband helps her hide in a sarcophagus), and Christine Meckel (a nurse who kills her patients). Out of the thirty-five stories, is there a particular character you like the most?

CG: I think I’m most fond of the characters in the opening and closing stories of the book: Helmut Bauer, who was a young boy during World War II and gives us the wonder and horror of that perspective; and Lukas Böhm, who grows up to be a classical clarinetist. Both boys lost their fathers—a zookeeper, and a musician, respectively—during the war and carried those scars, with a poignant dignity, their entire lives.

AV: You use a quotation by Klaus Filbinger, a former Nazi judge, to open the chapter titled “Hunters”: “What was right yesterday, can’t be wrong today.” This is a fascinating sentence, since several of your characters try to justify their actions for Nazi Germany during World War II. How did you deal with coming up against such examples of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil”?

CG: History of all kinds—official, revisionist, national, familial, personal—endlessly fascinate me. To create narrative, to choose one version of events over another, tells us everything about the storytellers themselves. Every narrative has an emotional urgency that conforms to what the storytellers need to convey for their own reasons, conscious or not.

AV: There are numerous references to the atrocities committed by the Russians when they entered Berlin at the end of World War II. Were these stories ones that still linger in the minds of the Germans who still remember those days? What are your thoughts about the Russians and international diplomacy today?

CG: There were no shortages of atrocities on both the Russian and German sides of the war. Yes, I believe the horrors that were perpetrated live on not only in the survivors themselves but in those who come after them. There is a whole new branch of brain research focused on the intergenerational inheritance of trauma. In my opinion, the best chronicler of Russia today is the fearless journalist Masha Gessen. The Road to Unfreedom, the most recent book by Yale historian Timothy Snyder, is a brilliant, penetrating look at contemporary Russia. I defer to them.

AV: While you do not mention Gunter Grass’s allegorical novel about Nazi Germany, The Tin Drum, you do allude to its two main characters, Oskar and Roswitha. What made you bring up Grass’s novel in this subtle fashion?

CG: I remember reading The Tin Drum in college and the huge impact it had on me as both a work of extraordinary literary merit as well as historical testimony. The novel took me deeper and further into the damaged psyches of war than any history book ever could. I couldn’t have known it then but Grass ultimately opened up this possibility as an ideal for my own work.

AV: Rudolf Hess was convicted of Nazi war crimes and was incarcerated at Spandau Prison from 1947 to 1987. He lived out his life as the sole prisoner in the entire prison until he committed suicide at age ninety-three. The utter loneliness he had to have experienced is incomprehensible. Was there any consideration about using Hess in your novel?

CG: His story is an astonishing one and I was riveted by it. But Hess’s story is also one of World War II’s most well-known ones. I was more interested in exploring the hidden interstices of the war—particularly in Berlin, the epicenter of the Third Reich. The stories that rarely, if ever, get told.

AV: Several of your characters have problems with their vision, such as needing cataract surgery. Lukas Böhm is one such figure, who states at the end of the novel: “My eyes are clouded, my hands no longer steady. And I wait for death, without Father’s courage, to end it on my own terms. Dear Visitor, upward of two hundred sparrows a year die against my windows, blinded by what they can’t see.” Essentially, many of the old Berliners have a distorted vision of their past. Did you find this to be true even in the 21st century during your time in Germany?

CG: I’m married to an ophthalmologist so I have more than a passing acquaintance with eye disease. More importantly, I thought it an apt metaphor for examining the distortions of memory. What, how, and why we remember what we do is inextricably connected to what we allow ourselves to see.

AV: In 2015, Angela Merkel’s stated that Germany would accept hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Do you think Merkel’s decision is based on a sense of guilt about Germany’s haunted Nazi past, which is also a theme in your book?

CG: As unpopular as her resolve was with her own citizens, I believe Merkel’s decision was an ethical, humane, and generous one, no doubt informed by Germany’s Nazi past.

AV: Do you foresee a backlash by conservative German groups against the Syrian immigrants, especially in light of such books as Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe?

CG: I’m not an expert on the refugee crisis in Germany. However, history tells us that the newest immigrants anywhere—especially in times of political and economic upheaval—often become scapegoats. We need look no further than our own shores for evidence of this.

AV: I’ve heard that a play based on your 2013 novel King of Cuba is coming out this summer. Can you discuss how this came about?

CG: Yes, I adapted King of Cuba as a two-act dark comedy and it premieres this summer at Central Works Theater in Berkeley on July 21. I’m thrilled! After twenty-five years of writing novels, I wanted to try my hand at another genre—and this is the result. I’m loving the collaborative nature of it, too.
Here’s a link: http://centralworks.org/king-of-cuba/ .

AV: The epilogue you use to close the novel is wonderful: “And now? What did she want? Quiet, resplendent days in the light. Her daughter a breath away. And a butterfly net with which to swipe the air, trapping bits of flying color here and there. Yes, she might spend the rest of her life doing nothing more than that.” I hope you are not implying that your writing days are over.

CG: Not at all! I don’t think writers ever retire, do they?!

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