Tag Archives: Winter 2016

Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America

Patrick Phillips
W.W. Norton ($26.95)

by Spencer Dew

In 1912, the white residents of Forsyth County, Georgia, forced that county’s African American residents into exile. A lynching—three men killed—turned into the threat of pogrom. What Patrick Phillips calls “a racial cleansing” was a simple enough threat: if you stay, you will be killed. This threat was on a massive scale. The black population had been 1,098; in their wake, houses and stores, schools and churches were all abandoned, to be quickly looted and claimed by whites. And the threat lingered, with a legacy continuing into the present. Oprah Winfrey visited the town for an episode of her show in 1987, at which point no black person had dared move back.

Phillips grew up in Forsyth County, and, as he explains his initial familiarity with the local history, he thought the forced exodus was “a kind of tall tale” and “questioned whether African Americans ever really lived in Forsyth.” This book is as much memoir—the naïve, white writer discovering America’s racist past through the lens of one particularly horrific and neglected case study—as it is history of that case study and of various related horrors, such as the phenomenon of lynching photographs generally and the 1943 racial violence in Detroit. I write this review in the immediate wake of two more videotaped killings, by police, of unarmed black men, and I am tragically assured that by the time this review is read, another cycle of such horror will be being replayed in the media.

The story of Forsyth County needs to be studied; this manifestation of racist terror is relevant for the contemporary American moment, a moment in which the same Confederate flags and racist insults deployed by crowds of counter-“Brotherhood” protestors in 1987 are still very much in use, as is the more subtle and pervasive racism of confusing the social status quo with a state of nature. But the events of the 1912 terror campaign have been examined elsewhere. Marco Williams, for instance, directed a film that deals comparatively with the Forsyth County case, Banished: American Ethnic Cleansings, which aired on PBS’s Independent Lens in 2015. The question is whether we need this book, this particular engagement with Forsyth County’s history.

Blood at the Root is misconceived as a project, giving too much attention to the author’s growing awareness of racism while neglecting to pursue too many questions raised by his investigation. Crucial aspects of both historical context and contemporary detail are simply not here, which, along with a clunky prose style, makes the book a frustrating read. Phillips ignores the sexual paranoia and fantasy at the heart of lynching; he ignores, likewise, the broader obsession with virtue as part of Lost Cause ideology’s construction, via nostalgic counter-history, of a new South constantly pining for a utopic Dixie. The choice to include multiple lynching photographs, some of tangential relation to the case at hand, could be justified if Phillips had engaged in any analysis of these images; we hear only of their importance as souvenirs with none of the due reverence or force of James Allen’s Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America. What led to men posing with their hunting dogs in front of a corpse? And what to make of the gallows humor, the signs attached to corpses, the proximity to and participation in but also dehumanization and denial of death at play in this communal ritual? Phillips’s use of these images feels like padding for a term paper.

While the book is structured around the autobiographical, there are moments where even those aspects seem unexamined. Phillips says “it was surreal to watch” a VHS tape of a Klan rally from 1987, but other than a kind of struthian insistence that we were, by the age of The Cosby Show, moving collectively as a country into a state of postracial harmony, it’s unclear what would make watching such a tape surreal. I write this as a former Imperial Wizard of the KKK spent the weekend campaigning for a US Senate seat in Louisiana, speaking explicitly of a future for white America and a need to revere the values of the old South; I wish I had the luxury to consider such a scene surreal, but I fear, by Phillips’s standard, we live in entirely surreal times. And Phillips, furthermore, is blunt about the fact that seeing the Klan march alongside his Little League in the Fourth of July parade, while he was growing up, seemed “normal to me as a kid.”

Which leads to the question of the present. Forsyth County is now integrated; what led to the change? Phillips suggests it was capitalism, business interests (that a “delegation of business leaders” invited by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce “had been stoned and cursed by furious white men who’d tried to lynch their black chauffeurs” wasn’t good for the local or state economy). A major, nationally-supported civil rights march plays a role, too—though Phillips, to his credit, expresses doubt that seventy-five years of insistent “racial purity” could be changed by “one afternoon of imported racial harmony.” In the end, however, the best answer he has for the question of Forsyth’s supposed transformation is this:

In the twenty years after the Brotherhood Marches, time, money, and economic growth slowly but steadily changed Forsyth—into a place that tolerates a small minority of black residents and no longer violently enforces its century-old racial ban. As tens of thousands of Atlanta commuters and new corporate employees moved into the county—increasing its population from 38,000 in 1987 to more than 200,000 in 201—the old guard of Forsyth and the traditional defenders of ‘racial purity’ were simply outnumbered by newcomers with no history in the county and only the faintest inkling of its racist past.

As a conclusion, this is unsatisfying for two reasons. First, the tidiness of presuming this story can be closed, which plays too much to the white guilt underlying the memoir aspect of this book—Phillips seems too invested in finding resolution to his hometown’s racism. Second, there are so many practical questions about life in an integrated Forsyth County that demand attention. Is the police force integrated? What are community/police relations like? What happened to all those shuttered black churches? Have such institutions been replaced? Is there any legal hope for reparations, for the families of the displaced? By the end of this book, I couldn’t help but think that a book addressing Forsyth County now would be a much more interesting text, and one more useful for the urgent demands of the moment.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2016/2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

The Problem with the Future: An Interview with Alexander Weinstein

photo by Jessica Spilos

Interviewed by Garry Craig Powell

Alexander Weinstein is the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. His stories have received the Lamar York, Gail Crump, and New Millennium Prizes, have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, and appear in the anthology New Stories from the Midwest. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Siena Heights University and leads fiction workshops in the United States and Europe. His collection, Children of the New World (Picador, $16), is one of the most exciting debuts of recent years. As The Atlantic puts it, “By turns satirical, jarring, ludicrous, and sad, Weinstein’s stories take present-day anxieties about pornography, cloning, social media, and digital isolation, and follow them to their logical extremes.”

Garry Craig Powell: In a recent interview with 0s&1s Reads, you cite the influence of filmmaker Charlie Kaufman and mention that in spite of his metaphysical concerns, he grounds his stories in a gritty world. It struck me, reading Children of the New World, that you do that too. Unlike some cerebral writers, including some that you acknowledge as influences, you create complex, well-rounded characters with whom we can empathize. In the title story, for example, a couple has to ‘delete’ their virtual son when his program is plagued by a virus—and incredibly, we feel sorry for them. You seem to want the reader not only to consider where the future is leading us, but also to explore universal human problems. Would you agree with that?

Alexander Weinstein: Absolutely. I think the future is intrinsically linked with our universal human problems. In fact, it’s these very problems, and how we deal with them, which will determine our future. I set many of my stories in a gritty “realist” world, but one that is plagued by an overuse of technology, which is akin to the world we find ourselves living in now. The problems we have with our current technology often reveal our own human foibles, and it’s these new emotions of cyberspace which reveal our struggles. What is the emotion of an empty inbox? An unliked Post? An ignored dating app message? I think there’s a great loneliness that much of our society is running from, and we search for relief in our phones and computers, our online communities, our social networks of friends, the OK Cupid lovers we meet for awkward first dates. We are growing less able to keep ourselves entertained during down moments, so we fill our time by searching for Pokemon, but underneath it all are the same human questions we’ve always been asking: Who Am I? What am I doing here? How can I be loved? I think the challenge for humans remains the same as it has always been: to learn the skills of kindness, compassion, and love. Without these sacred skills, all technology can do is grow the shadows in our lives.

GCP: On a philosophical level, most of the stories seem to be exploring the boundaries between empirical reality and what can be imagined and brought to virtual life—what Plato would have called Ideas. In “The Cartographers” a man falls in love not with his own projection, which is an old theme in literature, but someone else’s. That’s a fascinating new angle.

AW: I was really interested in this ability for others to create virtual memories for us. In “The Cartographers” I explore this through Adam Woods, and the company he works for, which produces virtual memories that people can beam into their consciousness. While the technology is sci-fi, the story is also a metaphor for the way love relationships create memories in our minds. When I wrote the story, I’d just gone through a breakup with a woman I’d loved dearly. Without this other person in my life, the memories we’d shared often felt like phantoms. Who was this person I once loved? Did she still really exist? The answer, on a metaphysical level, was that this person didn’t still exist. She’d gone on to become a different person, an individual with new hopes and dreams which no longer involved me. And yet, there were still the memories of jokes we shared, replete with punchlines that no one else would ever understand. Movies and songs which have the ghosts of our times together hidden within them. There are the residues of our ex-lovers, unseen by anyone else, still shared across vast distances with people we may never speak to again.
This became the narrative, which drove the story, of Cynthia and the narrator who still loves her even in her absence. And this idea, of falling in love with other people’s projections (à la beamed memories), is akin to how we fall in love with the real memories we create with others. In “The Cartographers” it just becomes more sinister, because of the awful memory company the main character has helped create.

GCP: Most of the stories have a political dimension too; they often read as critiques of current human blindness and selfishness. For instance, there’s environmental catastrophe in “Heartland” and “Ice Age,” and the moral degradation of virtual pornography in “Heartland,” “Children of the New World,” “Migration,” and “The Pyramid and the Ass.” You’ve called your work “speculative fiction,” and this collection is set in the future, mostly the relatively proximate future. Why have you chosen to do that rather than write more stories with similar themes set in the present-day USA?

AW: I don’t think the critique would be as clear. One of my central approaches to writing speculative fiction is to take an absurd situation, which we presently feel is normal, and then push it to an even further absurdity. It’s only in this light that we can see the reflection of the disturbing state of our present-day affairs.

I came across an old story of mine that I’d written a decade ago. The main joke of the story is that a mother is telling her children about how she met their father online. The majority of memories the mother has all have to do with really funny links he sent her, a music download that she loved, etc.—and because of these superficial details she fell in love with the father. Reading it today, it’s hardly a dystopian story; it’s simply a realistic story about how people actually meet. Parents are already telling their kids about falling in love online—there’s nothing “frightening” or “dystopian” about this. So, the critique doesn’t work, because we already consider our dystopic state of affairs normal.

In much the same way, the environmental catastrophes we’re presently seeing are considered “normal” though they’re horrific. Fracking has made drinking water flammable, families are dying from planned lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, mountaintop removal is killing families throughout Appalachia, and oil/mining companies continue to denigrate Native American and indigenous rights throughout the world (see North Dakota Pipeline presently). This is horrific—and yet we somehow consider it normal. Realistic writing/reporting about this is vital, and I’m a big fan of Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco’s book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, where they visit what they call The Sacrifice Zones of America and report on the current state of our environmental calamity.

However, in my fiction, I want to give an even further warning of where we’re heading. And so, in “Heartland,” you have people selling off their topsoil, and an underwater oil spill that has lasted over three-hundred days. These are just further extensions of what is already occurring, and by making it one step more “absurd” my hope is that we’ll be able to see our present state of affairs more clearly.

GCP: In spite of the bleakness of that vision and the seriousness of your themes, one of the delights of the collection is its dry humor. In “Moksha,” for instance, you satirize those westerners who seek instantaneous enlightenment. Could you tell us more about the inspiration for that story?

AW: The truth is: “Moksha” is really a satire of myself. I’ve always been interested in Eastern spirituality. I’m a big fan of Chogyam Trungpa, Ram Dass, Jack Kornfield, Krishna Das, and I’m particularly interested in enlightenment and the spiritual pursuit to liberate ourselves (I’m a Buddhist at heart). During my teenage years, I imagined I’d end up going to India to become a yogi; study with the last living saints in a cave; give up all my worldly possessions; learn to levitate. And there’s still part of me that can see myself “disappearing” for some years at an ashram somewhere.

And yet, I also realize that I’ve had a very idyllic vision of what spirituality looks like. Honestly, most of Western culture has an idyllic and simplified idea of what enlightenment entails. You find this watered-down enlightenment sold in mass quantity at yoga studios, high-priced shamanism retreats, DJ-fueled Ecstatic Dance parties, ayahuasca ceremonies, and self-empowerment seminars. There’s a hope for a quick fix—if only we have the money and right drugs for it.

While I’ve always been critical about this peddling of spiritual materialism, it wasn’t until I went to Nepal that I came face-to-face with my own spiritual materialism. The thing is, Kathmandu is noisy, and dusty, and crowded, and everywhere you go you see these same Western yoga teachers, hashish-smoking backpackers, and fair-trade shop owners, all seeking the stalls filled with amazing Buddha statues, hand carved mirrors, beautiful yak scarves, and thangka paintings. And everyone is buying stuff! I found myself purchasing these beautiful items, too (they were so cheap!), in hopes of . . . well, in hopes of what? Perhaps to adorn my home with spiritual paintings and Buddha statues so to bring a little bit of that spirituality back to my daily life. And here I was, stuffing my bag with holy objects, just like all the other lost and wandering tourists—everyone seeking some piece of enlightenment.

So, in Nepal, I realized a certain part of my spiritual search had come to an end. I wasn’t ever going to live in a Himalayan cave (I like electricity and a soft bed way too much), and I sure wasn’t going to find enlightenment so easily. Near the end of my trip to Nepal, I climbed the mountains and ended up at the Muktinath Temple (just like Abe did in “Moksha”) and I got to pass beneath the ice-cold waterspouts of the gods, which promise enlightenment. I’ll let you guess if it worked or not.

GCP: As someone who’s also been to Nepal and Ladakh, and has tried to follow the Middle Way too, I’d say it’s not something you “achieve” for once and for all—it’s something that happens moment by moment, through attention. That may be an over-earnest answer!

Another of my favorite stories is “Fall Line,” in which an extreme skier struggles to come to terms with his loss of fame after a near-fatal accident. Apart from the environmental situation, which isn’t as bad as that yet, and an invention that makes taking selfies even easier than it is now, that story could be set here and now. Again, it seemed to me that you were exploring an almost universal human problem. The ending is brilliant. In general your endings are very strong. You don’t usually resolve the conflict overtly, but end with an epiphany, particularly with epiphanies that connect the characters to meaningful moments of their lives or to nature, as Chekhov often does. Is that too far-fetched a comparison?

AW: I’ll take a Chekhov comparison any day! He’s of course one of the great masters at the short story form, and has helped define traditional conflict as we understand it. And, it’s true, I do love the semi-epiphany. For example, in “Fall Line,” the character’s final decision is less epiphany than imbecility. He makes a choice, which the conflict hangs upon—whether to seek fame or actually change his life—and so, his decision is tied to the central conflict and his own hubris.

In this way, while my stories are experimental, they’re also very traditional. I love the works of the great Russian writers like Chekhov and Tolstoy, and their ability to portray our human struggles and joys. And I love the Russian absurdists—Gogol, Kharms, and Bulgakov. Even within the Russian experimentalists, there’s a lineage of traditional narrative, conflict, and character development, which I find vital to my storytelling. It’s of course not the only way to tell a story, and I really admire the experimentalists who challenge traditional narrative—writers like Ishmael Reed, Michael Martone, Donald Barthelme, Tatyana Tolstaya, George Saunders, and many others.

GCP: A couple of your stories do dispense with characters and scenes, and thus are perhaps veering more in the direction of experimentalists you mention who challenge traditional narrative. “Excerpts from The New World Authorized Dictionary” and “A Brief History of the Failed Revolution” both purport to be scholarly writing. The latter particularly, with its MLA footnotes and parody, reminded me of David Foster Wallace. You have to be witty and imaginative to pull that off.

AW: David Foster Wallace was a brilliant experimentalist who I deeply admire. His ability to do formalism helped me understand how to tackle stories like “Dictionary” and “Failed Revolution.” “Dictionary,” in particular, functions against narrative in many ways—each of the definitions are their own mini-story or prose poem, and the collection of them adds up to create a different effect than the traditional Freytagian Pyramid story. Borges is a writer who plays with this beautifully as well. Wit and humor seem to always factor into this—there’s a tongue-in-cheek tone you get when you take on a formalist story—because there’s an inherent voice you’re trying to copy (and often to satirize).

GCP: One of the funniest stories is “The Pyramid and the Ass,” in which a future incarnation of George W. Bush is President again, unfortunately for Americans, and has invaded Tibet for its quartz crystals! Still more hilariously, the protagonist, Douglas, who is a courier of souls, is terrified above all of the Buddhist terrorists of the Sword of Transcendental Wisdom. Plus ça change . . . I suppose?

AW: Yes, that particular story was written during the dark days of the Bush years. George W. Bush had just been “re-elected” (or elected for the first time, depending on how you count the stolen election) and it seemed like the horror of his presidency would last forever. We were in the early days of the “War Against Terror,” our country was invading Iraq while ceding leases to Halliburton, and America was seizing oil reserves (what’s new). Bush’s presidency was one of the great nightmares of my life to date.

So, in the story there’s this war against the so-called Buddhist Terrorists. As we find out, they’re not really terrorists at all, just good folks trying to liberate people from technology and fight against an American government/corporation trying to coopt our souls. The inherent racism and Buddhist-phobia in the story plays into the present demonizing of Islam—and of our loss of knowledge about the great, spiritual history of the Sufis, for example, or the cultural heritage from the middle east.

But, honestly, I’m just worried that the technology I invented in that story will become real, and George W. Bush will be able to clone into a new body and be “re-elected” due to a clone-bill passed by him and his cronies. God forbid!

GCP: It could be even worse than that if a certain crypto-fascist is elected. I agree with you on the demonization of Islam; having spent eight years in the Gulf, I am aware of some of the riches of the culture, and Sufi mysticism and the great Persian poetry it inspired are some of the greatest glories.

You have some very sad stories too, like “Rocket Night” and “Openness.” Again, apart from the technical innovations you’ve imagined, both of these are about problems that engage us today—how we deal with people who don’t fit in, and whether it’s possible for a romantic relationship to survive complete honesty.

AW: Both of these are questions I still ask myself—particularly the latter one. I’m a big fan of the relationship/sex podcaster Dan Savage. One of his pieces of wisdom is that a relationship isn’t a deposition—total openness and revealing every detail of your soul to a partner shouldn’t be a prerequisite for a committed relationship. “Openness” ultimately asks this same question—can a relationship survive complete honesty? As a romantic, I want to say “Yes, of course!” But, over time, I’ve come to agree with Dan Savage.

“Openness” also deals with our public level of disclosure. We’re being asked to continually be “authentic” and “honest” with the world through social media. There’s a demand to post our wedding pictures, baby pictures (only minutes after the birth), our relationship status, and our grief and joys on Facebook and Instagram. Similarly, we construct persona through dating apps and networking sites. All of these social media networks exert pressure on us to share the personal details of our lives with unknown masses. So the pressure on the characters in “Openness” isn’t merely romantic, but public/social as well.

“Rocket Night” is my take on bullying culture. I think this is getting better, thanks to the anti-bullying work being done by my generation. But there’s a way that coaches, teachers, parents, and administration officials can conspire against our students who need the most support. Presently we’re seeing these kinds of battles for our most vulnerable students—such as Trans and LGBTQ students. You have a lot of conservative parents/school boards making life much harder for these children by trying to ensure bullying remains in place. For example, in Michigan, the religious right lobbied to put a stipulation into anti-bullying legislation which would allow bullying to be permitted when based on “personally and deeply held religious beliefs.” So, yes, the sadness within “Rocket Night” is all too present in our current society.

GCP: The last story, “Ice Age” is a tour de force. At first sight, it’s the most familiar plot, set in an overtly post-apocalyptic future, in which men are reduced to hunting with bows, and bloodshed is promised. You set up the suspense in the classic way and then subvert it, which I thought very clever. Can you tell us why you did that?

AW: I chose to end the story this way because I wanted to explore the themes of male-dominance and community more deeply. The “classic” way to end a fight between good and evil is to have a violent battle where good ultimately wins (think of every single modern-day superhero flick). But, in our lives, we rarely get to have these epic battles. We shuffle out of office buildings after being laid-off by draconian bosses; we sit on hold for ten minutes only to be told by a supervisor that the charge on our cable bill can’t be removed; we click a crying emoji on Facebook as our last whimper of protest. So rather than end the story with the expected violence and destruction of evil, I wanted to focus on the way the characters end up sabotaging their own community though their attachments to the consumerism of the old world.

There’s a kind of classic, Norman Rockwellian Americana that I love to satirize. So I take a time-worn classic trope, like a family drama (in “Saying Goodbye to Yang”) but then subvert it with robots. In “Ice Age,” there’s this male-dominated Western narrative going on—the men with their bows and arrows, the threat of blood, the standoff between good and evil. Like you say, it’s a classic trope, and I find a lot of humor working with the kitsch of this—the wonkiness of this ridiculous male-driven world, but they’re all living in igloos!

GCP: I hope Children of the New World has the success it deserves. And thanks for the interview, which was fun and thought-provoking.

AW: Thanks so much for the wonderful questions—it was a pleasure!

Click here to purchase Children of the New World at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2016/2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Multiplicity: An Interview with Ian Hatcher

Interviewed by Steven Wingate

Ian Hatcher creates digital and print literature, but resides in the borderlands of each, where computation and language inform and embrace each other. He collaborated on the digital/print hybrid book Abra: A Living Text (Center for Book Arts, 2015) with Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin, and his solo books include The All-New (Anomalous Press, 2015) and most recently Prosthesis (Poor Claudia, $17.50). I met Ian when our work was exhibited side by side at the International Symposium on Electronic Art in Hong Kong this past May. When I saw him read from Prosthesis, I knew this was a young writer whose career I had to start tracking.

Steven Wingate: Your poems in Prosthesis strike me as actively breaking down human utterance into its component parts—fragments of words, syllables repeated, rhythms uncovered—the way one might do computationally. But instead you’re doing it with the very analog instrument of the human voice. In that way your work invokes software in the body. Could you talk about the relationship between computational operations that can be done on language and the voice-driven ones that you use in this work?

Ian Hatcher: I'm interested in how we coexist with abstract processes that we construct and inhabit. Language is a system flowing through people and other systems in various forms. And now, on top of it, we have all these digital layers of data and correlation and collection and circulation, which feed back and have effects on language. It’s a tangled hierarchy. Prosthesis is about being part of an external system, having it be part of you, but that system still remaining resolutely "other." So a condition of self and other simultaneously, of entanglement. Which is the experience of pervasive digital technology, but also the experience of a lover, or family, or close friends, or even reading or breathing.

I think of fragmentary language as part of a dynamic range of material that evokes systemic alterity and complicity. Software can do insane things like explode and aggregate colossal amounts of data, or repeat the same action every half-second forever tirelessly. But timed repetition is also inherently musical, and people instinctively respond. There's a push-pull with repetitive broken language. It's off-putting and abstract, yet familiar and sensual, especially when articulated by a human voice. It suggests a human entity subjected to an inhuman process, or restrained by it. The effect can be powerful, which is why you hear it so often in electronic music. The paradoxical qualities of broken language resonate with how I feel about technological devices generally, and a lot of the themes I write about, particularly in this book.

SW: Seeing you in performance, it was impossible for me to avoid thinking about the the tradition of sound poetry—particularly the late Canadian poet bpNichol, who in the 1980s was integral not only to sound poetry but to computer poetry. What is your relationship with that tradition? What parts of it do you embrace, and in what ways do you consciously depart from or query it?

IH: I came to the way I write by following a path through music and code and performance art, and not by way of sound poetry as such; to be honest I was mostly unaware of that history until recently. Though it seems obvious now that I'm a sound poet. I love bpNichol's work. Sound poetry, as a tradition, involves a heightened treatment of language as dynamic textural (not just textual) material, and of embodiment and extremity, and all those things are important to me.

One way I think I diverge from that tradition is the way my work is pretty narrowly conceptually focused. The vocal rhythms and textures in my work are designed to evoke digitization in relation to the body, and I use only my live voice to produce them, without effects pedals or any other processing. I've been working lately on switching registers very smoothly, so I can deliver a line in, say, a warm, faintly Southern colloquial accent, and an instant later sound like a speech synthesizer from 1999. Or crossfade those two voices gradually over a stanza, or bend a line so that just a few words have traces of synthetic affect.

For me the writing itself, the text, is the primary element. The rhythms are ultimately in service of semantics, even when I go into noisy territory. I like the wild dynamics of the Four Horsemen, but tend to have a hard time with sound poetry that focuses on texture and timbre to the exclusion of understandability. I do listen to a lot of vocalists who use extended techniques in explicitly musical contexts, though: Meredith Monk, Theo Bleckmann, Pamela Z, Joan La Barbara, Yoko Ono, Sidsel Endresen. Endresen especially was a huge influence on me. What she can do with glottal stops is just amazing.

All that said, I spend a lot of time making crazy sounds in my apartment, trills and stutterings, which probably sound like more traditional sound poetry than what I do on stage. But I usually think of that as research. Or technique, like playing scales.

SW: Can you talk a bit about the history and development of Prosthesis? If I remember correctly from when we talked, it was originally a series of audio poems and not designed for the page. Did you expect it to become a book at some point all along, or was there a point when it became one?

IH: I had no idea at first. I started Prosthesis in grad school. I went to the MFA writing program at Brown expecting to create digital poetry, interactive work for screens. But once I got there I pivoted to sound within a few weeks. In part because I'd been doing freelance coding for a living and was burnt out, but also because there was something about screens I found unsatisfying. It's hard to do experimental writing for screens that people will actually read. People look at it, but don't process it. Whereas with time-based work, you have a lot of control over how it's experienced, the arc and flow, especially when performing live.

Prosthesis came out of trying to figure out what a reversal of my previous approach might look like: what if, instead of putting language into a computer and mediating it with a digital system, I attempted to mediate digital systems with my own body? At the time I was writing music for a dance company, so I was already thinking about physical presence in space producing meaning. And I've always thought a lot, rather psychedelically, about how individual people are collections of others—how our bodies are colonies of bacteria, and our minds are full of fragmentary reflections of others’ experiences, and models of others’ value systems. The notion of the individual self has long seemed like an illusion to me. A useful one to be sure, but one that breaks down more and more the closer you look. So I was thinking about writing and performing from the perspective of a structure of multiplicity, a distributed network, like the internet or even language itself.

Prosthesis was my thesis, with John Cayley as my advisor. There was a 40-minute culminating performance. But I had to turn in a paper version as a requirement for my degree. While compiling that document I started wondering, oh, maybe this thing could be a book? But it took another couple years for a manuscript to come together.

SW: I suspect that moving from audio poems to the page for the materials Prosthesis in wasn’t simple and straightforward.How would you describe that process?

IH: I did have the text already. Even the most abstract pieces had scripts, or scores, that I'd perform from, usually reading from my phone. And some of the poems in the book, like “Gene Study,” never had voice versions at all.

The tricky part was figuring out the book's layout. I wanted the visual experience to do some of the work that my voice does live, and for the pages to be clean and austere, to suggest code without being corny. My editor at Poor Claudia, Travis Meyer, was really great to work with. He's a coder himself, and a graphic designer. We collaborated closely, passing an InDesign file back and forth dozens of times. I kept screwing up the margins and he'd have to repair them. But he was patient and supportive, and understood what I was going for. I'm an extreme tinkerer. I probably spent 20 hours just arranging the text of the longest poem, “The All-New.” If you look closely at that one, lines are subtly spaced out or contracted, so letterforms align from line to line, and the shapes often mirror each other. I wanted the typography itself to impart a feeling of uncanny tension and repetition, even if the reader was never consciously aware.

SW: You were part of the team behind another project that straddles the border between the print and the digital—Abra: A Living Text, a kinetic text iPad app in which lines of poetry mutate, erase, etc. Abra has a life as a both app and physical book—and indeed a combined life, as an iPad can actually become part of the book. How does Abra, in its hybridity, relate to your other work?

IH: Abra was a long collaboration with Amaranth Borsuk and Kate Durbin. They wrote the text and I coded the app, and we all jointly designed the accompanying artist's book, which was printed by the Center for Book and Paper Arts in Chicago. There's definitely resonance with my other work in the sense that Abra explores digital/physical hybridity and multiplicity, and has a sensual dimension. I wanted the app to feel alive, ever-evolving, a black box that could perpetually surprise you, that you'd never fully understand or control. It's a more playful project than most of my work. The app is really a toy, that's how I think of it. A rainbow-hued language sandbox.

At one point we wanted it to incorporate an online database, so if you entered words, other people running the app would see them show up too. And the vocabulary of Abra would evolve and expand over time to incorporate the contributions, and languages, of all its users. But the problem was granting anonymous people the ability to put words in Abra's mouth, and by proxy our own. We didn't want anyone opening up the app and being trolled with racist or homophobic garbage. And we recoiled at the idea of filtering or censoring other people's words. So we let that one go, which is just as well.

Abra is probably the last app I'll ever develop. It was great to work with Amaranth and Kate, who are brilliant, but writing software for iOS is a nightmare.

SW: Your recent performance work has been presented under the title Drone Pilot. What kinds of source material—in language or in thought—are driving you in this particular creative direction? Do you see it turning into a book like Prosthesis?

IH: Drone Pilot extends the themes of Prosthesis into a military context, thinking through complicity with systems of power. I was reading a lot about drone warfare, and thinking about the role of the pilots, who conjoin with drones through this vast apparatus of telepresence, technology, and bureaucracy, in order to kill people in faraway places. Yet the pilots are there just sitting in chairs, staring at screens, getting traumatized in a bizarrely prosaic way. The text of Drone Pilot speaks from a blended subjectivity—the pilot as a person with a life, a narrative character, as well as the pilot as the system, and the system as the pilot. I was also trying to indirectly engage, as an American citizen, with the degree to which I'm complicit with unsavory activities of the state: military interventions, surveillance, systemic cruelty, and so on. I performed the work last summer at an American embassy, which felt strange and oddly cathartic. My own patriotism is largely linked to appreciation for avenues of dissent encoded into American culture. They feel very necessary right now.

A recorded version of Drone Pilot is coming out in early 2017, on vinyl and mp3, through a German label called cOsmOsmOse. I think that will be its final form. Especially now that there are new political horrors to address. I'm working on a pile of material, provisionally titled "Attentions," that focuses on attention itself, its mechanics and ethics, and attention's role as a barometer of power. Maybe that will be the next book.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2016/2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Magpiety: New and Selected Poems

Melissa Green
Arrowsmith Press ($20)

by M. Lock Swingen

When Melissa Green’s debut collection The Squanicook Eclogues was published in 1987, it received awards both from the Poetry Society of America and the Academy of American Poets. The poems in the collection were something of a shock to the English language, falling into a certain tradition—that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, and Hart Crane, for example—which renders English into startling and unrecognizable shapes, patterns, and textures. When a reader reads Hopkins, Dickinson, Crane, or Melissa Green, in other words, she gets the impression that she is reading a foreign language, one she has never encountered before but somehow knows and understands intimately. Reading this kind of poetry resembles the kind of nostalgia you feel when you ache to return to a place you have never actually been.

The beautiful oddity of Melissa Green’s poetry, like all lyric poetry, derives from a source that is inseparable from the poetry’s music. Listen, for example, to this passage from The Squanicook Eclogues:

. . . I watch magenta clover drone
On sleeping epaulettes and know the sun-soaked earth
Is breeding still: in torpid pools, in stagnant ponds,
Rebellious nature sets her offspring quarreling
For food and territory—in-bred stone-flies riot
For their rations where the water striders run
Their useless marathons; inflammatory toads
Attempt a revolution, all in vain. In time,
The planet’s microscopic battles merge and fail,
Leaves of drying blood consumed, a season’s compost.

The ear perks up to catch the antiphony of sound clusters that Green overlays in this passage; her vowel music carries along with it an impressive consonantal repetition. Here, we can also see how the highly-wrought compression and crystallization of Green’s poetry depicts, somewhat ironically, the primal theme of nature, for the poems in Magpiety disclose Green’s communion with the changing seasons, the flora and fauna of the Massachusetts woods, and the swift current of rivers there. Describing nature’s sometimes merciless savagery, she writes:

Father, she’s made the wolf a widower and orphaned us.
The world lies ruptured to the root, its harvest crushed
By her fallen heel, a maddened heaven thrashing white
Across her unforgiven dust, and shrouded elms weighted
In mourning . . .

As in Dickinson, Green’s portrayal of nature is always caught up in ecstatic and extreme states of mental distress. Green’s gift as a poet perhaps lies in taking classical forms—the eclogue, the epic, the pastoral— and deploying their rhetorical structures to illuminate the intense introspection of a troubled mind. In an interview with Green on the poetry blog Stylus, the poet describes how the cinctures and discipline of poetic form can serve as a kind of tonic from her turbulent inner life: “In poetry the constraints of form . . . work like a series of mirrors: when the poet reaches them, they reflect back the content, meaning, sound and shape of what’s been created so far, and bend the light in the direction of what must by needs come next … Form presents the essential signposts by which you can find your way to the heart of the poem, and by which you can never be lost.” In her poem “Daphne in Mourning,” for example, Green writes:

Palm fronds have woven out the sky.
Fog has infiltrated every vein.
My hair has interlaced with vines.
Cobwebs lash their gauze across my eyes.

I’ve stood so since the world began,
and turned almost to stone some years ago.
Who passes by perceives a lichened post,
my girlish features, ghostly, nearly gone.

My bark is warmer than the dead’s.
Human blood still lulls the underside of leaves.
My fingers hold the very dress I loved
to dance in, when dancing mattered—and it did.

In addition to the harnessed pressure underlying the poems’ classical structures, a pressure which sublimates anguished mental states or personae, the greatest tension in the poet’s work is perhaps the insistent intensity of the language itself that threatens to supersede her themes. It is as if Green’s radical craftsmanship attempts to allegorize the density of the New England flora and fauna that the very language describes. And yet, of course, this allegory of form as content is the mark of a true poet. In her poem “Routine,” Green writes:

Tundra of the white paper. Steppes of emptiness and ice. Equipped
with crampons and picks, I notch out a poem on gneiss, frostbitten,
winded, afraid to die.
Between the typescript’s withes and raddles,
soft-nostrilled animals of meaning poke inquisitive noses through caesuras,
enjambments, metaphor, to me. I lift a serif, duck under and enter the world.

Whether Green writes of her terrifying communion with nature, Greek myth, or the trappings and anguish of her own mind, the poet demonstrates a remarkable resilience in the power and wonder of language. Thanks to the publication of Magpiety: New and Selected Poems, which amasses the best of the poet’s career into a single volume, we can now “lift a serif” with her and enter into Melissa Green’s world of awe.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2016/2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Whiskey, Etc.

Sherrie Flick
Queen’s Ferry Press ($16.95)

by Erin Lewenauer

Author of the 2004 chapbook I Call This Flirting (Flume Press) and 2009 novel Reconsidering Happiness (Bison Books), Sherrie Flick has been steadily mining her own past and the sometimes buried pasts of others. Her new collection, Whiskey Etc., offers readers only those slices of the whole picture that Flick wants us to receive. Like certain dishes, only certain ingredients are prominent and there’s much beneath. Perhaps most powerful is the pulse, constant throughout all of Flick's work: the pulse of waiting for something, of having that slight weight in your chest and heels, helium in your head.

Flick’s characters often seek wildness, even if only as a respite from domesticity. In “Breakfast” she writes, “The chickens scratched quietly in the yard. Mother and Evan had only the smell of fresh-brewed coffee. They had only the noise of Evan’s TV in the den. . . . Evan’s thin voice carried like tangled yarn down the hallway. Mother sighed and raised her hands above her head, beseeching some otherworldly power. She leaned back in her chair until her fingers touched the yellow wallpaper.”

At other times, Flick channels the specific brand of nostalgia that’s dreamt up when you’re young. The main character of “All Night Long” finds herself in this mood in her favorite bar: “She’s here to drink, to inhale the smoke and sweat, to relive a life or two she’s left behind.” Flick is in her late forties, yet in these stories she reveals a deep caring about the moments of one’s early twenties, a viewpoint hard to come by. Many dismiss this slim pocket of early adulthood as an experimental, frivolous time. Flick argues it is that, and a lot more: a fiery introduction to diverse worlds and magnified emotions.

Occasionally the collection departs from its main theme—as in the humorous story “Heidi is Dead,” about friends telling “dead- and nearly dead-dog stories late into the night.” No matter the tone, however, Flick’s facility with flash fiction transforms her subjects into Herkimer diamonds. The heart of her work is never hidden, merely sometimes lost in the middle of a sticky morning or a slow afternoon, “these days so long and wide, you need a compass just to pass through them.”

Perhaps Flick’s talent is best exemplified in the fierce story “You Have a Car,” a tale that feels like a conclusion and a beginning at once: “Assume you have a car. It’s blue. Get in. You want to drive west; you start the engine. You brush your hair and apply lipstick. It’s red. The brush, black; your hair, blond.” Here, via expert use of the second person, Flick brings us to ourselves: “You are only lit by the scattered drops of rain, by the sad distant motel signs, by the single red ash on your drooping cigarette. You will hear a train in the distance and you will know there have been real reasons to not understand just a few things. You will know surely this is what momentum becomes.”

Flick’s work is adamant. It points to having the strength and stupidity to ignore advice. To see your own and someone else’s beauty. And then to get in your car, slam the door, and drive toward something else, or just away.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2016/2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Only More So

Millicent Borges Accardi
Salmon Poetry

by Rachel Slotnick

Millicent Borges Accardi’s recent collection of poems, Only More So, navigates a strangely familiar territory through a chorus of forgotten and persistent voices. In this challenging and rewarding book, the poet births grotesque monsters to awaken her audience, and then coaxes them to sleep with remnants of a song.

Accardi’s characters and unheard prayers radiate through the poems’ haunting glimmers of imagery concerning topics such as World War II, immigration, and the sexual objectification of women—all presented through language that hovers with the intimacy of ghosts. As the title poem chants, “Why do trees mean? and / What does water stand for?” Through this contemplation of signifiers, Accardi unravels any semblance of understanding the contemporary world. As readers attempt to parse her sentences, she swirls them on “the proud canvases of flat language paper / that once told her everything she needed / to know. // It was like this, only more so.”

And so, Accardi begs the question that is central to the notion of metaphor—there is something to unpack beneath the words. Her biting conclusions eat away at our sad dependence upon denotation, and then she turns down the temperature: “more understandable than her or me or any / pronoun she whispers out between no and help, / she shuts her eyes, imagining cold weather.” The women in these glimpses are traversing ghosts who must navigate the historical past, and the ghostly world they inhabit is cold as ice.

Additionally, Accardi makes the sphere of her world even more mysterious by breaking down physical laws and imbuing these nameless objects with magic. “The sharp wool collars / of the soldiers pointed south; inside, / the crudely made benches evaporated into firewood.” There is an oxymoronic tension in wool that is hard and benches evaporating, a strange reversal that gives rise to an eerie chorus of voices. Accardi conflates all of these hovering characters into one large mono-character with the use of the pronoun “they.” From a schizophrenic woman who thinks her oldest child is God to those who name their adopted cats after favorite writers, “They like Miles / Davis and not just because an ex-husband did.” And again, the words are cast as forlorn empty shells removed from a direct line of communication: “the syllables curl into insignificant / worlds.” Through this breakdown of pronouns and the materiality of the world around us, Accardi beckons the reader to connect the dots. In places, she leaves a thought unfinished, querying the reader to ask just what it is they are seeking: “while the mother stirs / on her axis, while there is a promise for- / While there is still—” As such she leaves an audience grappling with a lack of conclusion that points directly into the empty space waiting on the cold, snowy expanse of the next page.

Within this silent territory of negative space, Accardi’s amassed “they” characters wait and listen through winter weather, always hoping for music. The poems dial back and forth between slower and faster rhythms, as though this army of lost women is turning the radio dial, questing through the static, searching for memories buried beneath the snow. In “Amazing Grace,” an elusive “I” shops for Halloween candy and school clothes with her dead mother, and Accardi weaves a trance through the lexical ambiguity of her pronouns: “It fit me perfectly, and I just knew it would / have lasted me her lifetime.” Ultimately, this erasure of labels and distinctions leaves everyone floating along with the “slow slippage / Of time back into the sea.” A young woman is simultaneously wife and grandmother. Dentures and gray hairs haunt the living. Whole skylines flutter in the tub, expanding and evaporating towards nothingness.

This collection celebrates communication through poetry in a contemporary landscape, even though at its core it is about a breakdown in communication. It is like a hope for the past, a memory of the future, a waking nightmare as beautiful and horrifying as the female body. Only more so.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2016/2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Augustine: Conversions to Confessions

Robin Lane Fox
Basic Books ($35)

by Douglas Messerli

Robin Lane Fox’s Augustine: Conversions to Confessions is an informative, highly scholarly, and, at 657 pages, voluminous study of the great Christian thinker of the third century AD. But it is also a history of Augustine’s times, concentrating almost equally on what Fox describes as a “triptych”—like those on a medieval Christian altar—which includes Augustine’s younger Greek-speaking contemporary Synesius (a Christian bishop and philosopher) and Libanius, a pagan born years earlier but devoted, like Augustine, to oratory.

As Fox makes clear, both Synesius and Augustine left us versions of the “confessional” genre, a tradition that perhaps grew out of Petronius’ bawdy Satyricon, while Libanius composed in the form of complex philosophical hymns. Learning how their contributions to their chosen genres differed and how their philosophical views varied helps to reveal Augustine’s immense importance and explains his continued influence—even if within his own lifetime he did not see his work widely read.

Fox also permits us to comprehend just how important the North African Christian communities were to the early development of Christianity, before the later Arab conquering of the region. Perhaps, most importantly, the author brilliantly details Augustine’s slow transformative conversion, expressed in the Confessions as “what I once was” and “what I am now.”

Augustine was born in the small town of Thagaste in what is now modern Algeria, where he was baptized by his mother Monnica as a Christian. He became attracted to the theories of Mani, the Iranian prophet who argued for a vision of the world as existing in a condition of equally powerful forces for good and evil, symbolized by the light and the dark. Although many of their values shared much with Christianity, the Manicheans did not believe in the divine birth, and their dualities of dark and light gave more emphasis to the evil in the human soul than did Christianity. Moreover, in the East, in particular, the Manicheans also adopted aspects of Buddhism, Zoroastricism, and Indian Hindu and other traditions. And its believers rejected the biblical psalms and the entire Acts of the Apostles (later to become some of the most important texts for Augustine) because of the idea that the “Holy Spirit” had been bestowed upon Christians at Pentecost.

Fox does not fully explore how the Manichean tradition of personal confession influenced Augustine’s own Confessions. What Fox does show us is how Mani’s beliefs, Cicero’s writings, and Platonism all fed Augustine’s gradual movement toward Christianity. Perhaps just as important was his mother’s determination to see her son’s conversion to Catholicism, as well as Augustine’s own struggles against his human lust. The man clearly loved sex before his retreat “into the Garden,” where he determined to “let it be done now,” fell back, and fought with himself and God in giving up sexual acts, finally recognizing that it was Adam’s sin that was behind all human failings: “Grant me chastity and continence,” he prays to God, “but not yet.”

The rest of the story reads almost like a soap opera, as Augustine moves from oratory to philosophy and Christian thinking, is influenced by Ambrose and other great churchmen, begins writing, and moves back to North Africa, where he is eventually raised into a position as co-bishop. Enemies claim sexual intrigues based on his former Manichean beliefs—the utterly flabbergasting tale of the supposedly Manichean activity of engaging in sexual activity on a floor sprinkled over with flour, after which, disengaging from sex at the very last moment, the male ejaculates into the flour, later baking it into a bread to be sent off to a would-be female lover, reads like something out of a porno thriller—but they help to make the great saint into a human figure who did not live a sheltered or totally sacred life, which is largely why we still read Augustine today.

And finally, of course, Fox’s book excites one to read or reread Augustine’s Confessions, one of the great texts of the centuries. Yes, it is an autobiography of sorts, but it is also, as Fox makes clear, a testimony of the self in abnegation of a sinful past and a kind of prayer for a more perfect future.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2016/2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017

Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook

Clive James
Yale University Press ($25)

by Mark Dunbar

Clive James’s life has been in certain respects a remarkable rags-to-riches story. Raised by his widowed mother (his father died in World War II when his return flight home from Japanese internment crashed in the Philippines’ Manila Bay), James suffered unsuccessfully through his childhood and adolescence in Australia. Eventually he immigrated to England in hopes of finding something more intellectually nutritional than surfing and motorcar racing, and while down and out in London he found just that and more: He did sheet metal work, obtained his second undergraduate degree, spent time as a library assistant, started PhD work on Shelley, performed in the theater as both an actor and a film-reel operator, and, finally, began his career in freelance journalism.

It’s here that an aspect of James’s success story often is overlooked, for James made his transition from lumpen-bohemian to one of his generation’s best cultural critics by first sitting on a couch and gorging himself on television. This equipped him to earn his first livable wage by writing weekly columns for The Observer on everything from BBC documentaries to sports punditry.

In due time, James became a messenger in that very medium, hosting his own television program discerningly titled Clive James on Television. So the essayist who could write poignant and refined prose on the likes of Raymond Aron and Jean-Francois Revel also was at home discussing matters regarding the twentieth century's most fixed and universal cultural signifier. It’s to this universal reference point that James has returned in his latest book, Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook, in which for 200-pages he writes perceptively (if not always compellingly) on some of the most influential and popular television series of the last twenty years.

With the “thematic collapse and ethical putrefaction of the film industry,” more of us interested in being entertained from time to time with something less strenuous than the poetry of Frost or the paintings of Goya have turned to television. According to James, Hollywood has become too dependent on inheriting its story material from comic books and videogames, and since it’s impossible to fully separate content from its original form, most movies have become mere exhibitions in special effects and choreography. Sophisticated audiences want the cerebrum-stimulating aspects of the art only turned down, however, not off.

Play All has eleven chapters, each of which more or less acts as a stand-alone essay on different series (besides the first chapter, which serves as an introduction). Heavy-handed transitional passages end most of the chapters; this attempt to give the book continuity often comes at the price of coherence. James has always prided himself on showing how seemingly unrelated things tie together, but he's always been most successful at describing how things feel from the inside as well as pinpointing their vital organs.

Writing on The Wire, James sees its central tenet to be that the “war on drugs” is unwinnable: “The show conveys no other message . . . Entertainment never looked more bleak.” Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing president is “omniscient, energetic, an ethical giant, a poet king,” with all the internal conflicts those entail; “Sorkin is inspiringly good at giving us a father figure and then proving that the father figure has, if not precisely feet of clay, then certainly a mind that suffers.” Game of Thrones’s “real spine is in the daring of its analytical psychology,” as we are not so shocked by “what Joffrey’s evil streak can accomplish but in what Ned Stark’s virtues fail to prevent.” These are wonderful sentences verified by impeccable observations.

Not all of James’s commentaries sparkle, though. For instance, one reason he dislikes Breaking Bad is that he finds the consequences of Walter White’s criminal career so repulsive. As a lifetime reader of Shakespeare—he has said that he brings the Bard’s collected works with him on all his flights—James would be expected to be much more comfortable with invocations of tragic heroism than the average viewer. After all, is Walter White any more morally reprehensible than, say, Macbeth or even Lear?

James also sometimes seems unable to stop himself from disgorging right-wing talking points. Never far from his mind is the civilizational menace of Islamism, the culturally-weakening affectations of political correctness, and the corruption of union bosses. The failure of the short-lived, maudlinly militaristic 2005 series Over There is blamed on its Arab enemies “being nothing like us.” For James, they “might as well have been Transformers.” Rather than blaming the show’s creators for these walking-dead adversaries, James finds fault in the flesh-and-blood people they are meant to dehumanize. As for Western women, James thinks they ought to be thankful they aren’t “over there,” where the real humiliation and suffering takes place.

James credits corporate higher-ups listening to their customers for the rise of television's success. Television “serves the producer, but only because it serves the consumer first: capitalism the right way up.” It’s doubtless James has always seen himself as little more than an enlightened dilettante, so it isn’t surprising to read him professing more trust in the consumers of culture rather than its students, nor is it much of a surprise that he is sure books are still where we need to turn for subtlety and knowledge. The best television can do is "not tell us outright lies about . . . reality. For subtleties we still need books.” Clive James’s preferably.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2016/2017 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2017


photo by Nina Subin

by Laurie Sheck

Why do we assume a mind is just one single mind, the hallucinating woman in my new fiction Island of the Mad says as her symptoms from fatal familial insomnia (a genetic illness) increase. As her hallucinations intensify, she experiences herself at times as Dostoevsky, whose life and work she knows well, and at other times as the epileptic Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

It is a curious fact that often those who live isolate lives feel this multiplicity of voices most strongly. I am thinking of Mikhail Bakhtin, who lived for decades in internal political exile in Russia and was often bedridden with osteomyelitis—under these conditions he worked and re-worked his ideas concerning the polyphonic novel and the self as inseparable from its ongoing dialogues and contact with others. For Bakhtin the self is shape-shifting, unfinalized, a dynamic entity taking on the colorings of ever-changing contexts—others’ spoken voices, one’s own responsive listening, thoughts, actions.

Porous, unstable, partly mute, resistant to categories or labels —how is a self identifiable, distinct, and at the same time an accumulation of varying angles, the felt reality of others?

The following interview was conducted in November 2016 in Geneva, St. Petersburg, Moscow, London, New York City, and several undisclosed locations.

Q. Who are you?

A. But I am not confined to my own identity. I am still here still thinking still existing.

(Mary Shelley)

Q. Why this fictionalizing? Why not write directly out of your own experiences?

A. I had lived in black dirt and silence for so long. But when after all that time I was finally able to speak again I spoke of myself . . . I was looking at you, thinking only of you, yet when I opened my mouth I said ‘myself.’ And even if I hadn’t spoken of you, there still would have been so many things more interesting and important to speak of than myself—conductivity, electricity, the discoveries of continents and planets, the Arctic, silkworms . . . why didn’t I speak of them? I told myself then I would speak to you of Venice, of the suffering that happened here, that I would bring you anything but my own narrowness.

You were alone . . . I would bring my facts to you, and those facts would build a world that didn’t hurt you. I didn’t know what else I could offer, what else to do.


Q. What do you think about when you look at the night sky?

A. The scientists say there is no such thing as empty space but Dark Energy Dark Matter, our galaxy our sun and all we can observe the barest hint of what exists. . . .

(the Sleepless Woman)

Q. What are you thinking about now?

A. In my mind’s eye an astronaut is spacewalking outside the capsule. It is summer, I am 8 or 9, I have been picturing him for weeks. His suit is equipped with a new PLSS device which enables him to walk without a tether. Even mission control can’t reach him . . . Space is noisier than he thought, and smells of gunpowder, burning metal.


Q. And now?

A. One day the stars will go out and there will be no life-bearing planets.

(the Sleepless Woman)

Q. Do you always have such dark thoughts?

A. “The soul of another is a dark place,” Prince Myshkin thinks to himself in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot as he walks in his own darkness, “and what chaos is found there.”

(The Idiot, quoted by the Sleepless Woman)

Q. But you must sometimes think things that are less dark?

A. Loveliest of what I leave behind is sunlight,
and loveliest after that the shining stars, the moon’s face,
but also cucumbers that are ripe, and pears, and apples.

(the Monster, quoting Praxilla of Sycion, ca 450 B.C.)

Q. Do you worry that what you write is too fantastical, exaggerated, dream-like?

A. Turgenev worried that one of his ghost stories was too fantastical, but Dostoevsky countered that in fact it was not fantastical enough. That the ordinary is stranger than anything if only we could see it.

(the Sleepless Woman)

Q. Can you give an example of something real that also seems fantastical?

A. Today I am remembering the Ospedale degli Incurabli in the plague year of 1575. What is it now? An empty lot? A music school? But in that year it was inhabited by the ill who weren’t sent to lazarettos. And it was there that one day a man with a horrible pestilential mange called out in anguish to one of the young fathers. These were the years, of course, when each living being was afraid to touch or draw close to another. The young father was terrified but scratched the patient’s back as was required, then violently convulsed with nausea. But even then he didn’t draw his hand away. This man is suffering he said to himself (he wrote this down later), I must not shun him, what would I be if I shunned him? Then suddenly, almost without thinking, he lifted his pus-covered finger from the man’s oozing back and placed it in his mouth and sucked it.

And what of my own mouth? What of yours?

I wonder what you think of what he did.

What does it mean to truly feel the living flesh of another, the presence of another? I ask myself this often.


Q. I know from other interviews I’ve seen that you’re quite interested in Dostoevsky.

A. It seems he finds the many wordless, invisible things and speaks to them and in their own way they speak back.

(the Epileptic)

Q. Dostoevsky believed in the radical, almost fantastical nature of fact. His novels are certainly full of extremity. Was this true of his own life as well?

A. One morning he was suddenly taken to Semyonov Square where he was given a white death shirt to put on. He was sixth in line for execution, standing in the second row, with only minutes left to live when the announcement came that the Czar had decided to spare the prisoners’ lives. Apparently this had been planned all along.

(the Sleepless Woman)

Q. You’ve commented elsewhere that Dostoevsky suffered from a form of epilepsy with “ecstatic seizures” now also known as “Dostoevsky syndrome.” You’ve also noted that The Idiot itself can be seen as one long seizure or a series of seizures. The ecstasy, as I understand it, would come in the few seconds before the actual convulsion. What made those seconds ecstatic?

A. Suddenly among the sadness, spiritual darkness and depression, his brain seemed to catch fire . . . His mind and heart were flooded with a dazzling light. All his agitation, doubts, worries, seemed composed in a twinkling, culminating in a great calm and understanding.

(The Idiot, read by the Epileptic)

Q. Can you give an example of a few sentences you prize from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot?

A. . . . it’s sometimes even good to be ridiculous, if not better. We can the sooner forgive each other, the sooner humble ourselves; we can’t understand everything at once . . . And if we understand too quickly, we may not understand well.

(Prince Myshkin, quoted by the Sleepless Woman)

Q. You have written one book centered around Mary Shelley’s “monster,” and another that involves itself, in part, with Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin. On the surface, at least, they seem so different. Do these two have anything in common?

A. The last consolations are torn away—

(Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s step-sister)

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t asked you?

A. Facts are merciless—My ignorance as real to me as anything—

Isn’t everything contradiction in one way or another—A mind can’t look at itself, not really—

(Mary Wollstonecraft)

Q. Are you sure there’s nothing else you would like to add?

A. Oh, I only don’t know how to say it…but there are so many things at every step that are so beautiful . . . Look at a child . . . look at the grass growing, look into the eyes that are looking at you and love you . . . I don’t know how one can walk by a tree and not be happy at the sight of it . . . And what beautiful things there are at every step—

(the Epileptic, quoting Prince Myshkin)

Laurie Sheck’s most recent book is Island of the Mad (Counterpoint, $26). She is also the author of A Monster’s Notes (Knopf, 2009), a re-imagining of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was selected by Entertainment Weekly as one of the 10 Best Fictions of the Year and long-listed for the Dublin Impac International Fiction Prize. A Pulitzer Prize finalist in poetry for The Willow Grove (Knopf, 1996), her work has appeared in numerous publications including The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and The Nation.  She has taught at Princeton, CUNY, and Rutgers, and is currently a member of the MFA faculty at the New School. She lives in New York City.

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100 Chinese Silences

Timothy Yu
Les Figues ($17)

by John Bradley

“If you are not having a fight with somebody, then you are not sure whether you are alive when you wake up in the morning,” claims Tom Wolfe. If Wolfe is right, then Timothy Yu must wake up each morning wearing boxing gloves—at least that’s how the poems in 100 Chinese Silences come across. The poems can be read in several ways: as stand-alone works; as parodies of other poems (eighty-seven of the “Chinese Silences” target a particular poem, which Yu names); or as texts designed to prompt debate about cultural appropriation.

Many poets are guilty, in Yu’s eyes, of perpetuating Chinese cultural and literary stereotypes: Billy Collins (who inspires by far the most poems—twenty-three), Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Hayden Carruth, Gary Snyder, Kevin Stein, Mary Oliver, Norman Dubie, and many others. At times, Yu’s satire is right on target, although often the satire feels too broad to be effective, and the author goes after poets whose sole offense seems to be that they were influenced by Chinese poetry.

Ezra Pound, whose interest in Chinese and Japanese poetry helped shape Imagism and Modernism, took great liberties in his Chinese translations and deserves to be lampooned, as he is in “Chinese Silence No. 87”: “And E.P. also died silent. / He tried to embrace an empire / In an ideogram.” Pound, using the notes of Ernest Fenollosa—an “American Orientalist,” to use a term from Fenollosa’s lifetime—believed that Chinese ideograms presented a visual picture of a word or phrase; Yu nicely skewers this fallacy in just two lines.

Much of Yu’s satire, however, is painted with a broad brush, as can be seen in this excerpt from “Chinese Silence No. 19,” which targets Billy Collins and his poem “Kathmandu”:

Meanwhile the Laureate is riding
in the backseat of a New York taxi
blackening his lashes with ink
and pulling his eyes up at the corners . . .

Here’s the passage in Collins’s poem that prompts Yu’s satire:

On the ride back to the hotel,
in the backseat of a taxi
I blackened one of my thumb pads
with a pen and then pressed it to my forehead,
to show the world my belief
that even though we will all turn to ashes,
there may be an afterlife for some of us—

Yes, Collins’s depiction of using ink to create a dark spot on his forehead to imitate a religious rite is offensive. But so is Yu having Collins “pulling his eyes up at the corners.” Does one offensive act justify another?

More problematic is when Yu implies that some poets are guilty of cultural appropriation for use of the word “China” or “Chinese,” as in “Chinese Silence No. 35,” written “After Dan Gerber, ‘Often I Imagine the Earth’”:

Often I run out of ideas
for poems and the metaphors they’re made of—
clichés, dull
clichés everywhere—
but then I remember I am an American
and so can end my poem with something Chinese
and call it original, like that
ancient American railroad
built miraculously by silent hands,
helping me drive my golden spike home.

Here is the full text of Gerber’s “Often I Imagine the Earth”:

Often I imagine the earth
through the eyes of the atoms we’re made of—
atoms, peculiar
atoms everywhere—
no me, no you, no opinions,
no beginning, no middle, no end,
soaring together like those
ancient Chinese birds
hatched miraculously with only one wing,
helping each other fly home.

The image in the eighth line appears to have triggered Yu’s anger and derision, raising the following questions: Is the poem riddled with clichés? Is the use of “ancient Chinese birds” an act of cultural appropriation? And what does Gerber or his poem have to do with the racist treatments of Chinese laborers to build the American railroad? While readers will no doubt vary in their responses to these issues, Yu’s spoof is more a springboard for his agenda rather than a critique of Gerber’s poem.

One poet is conspicuous in his absence. I’m referring to Michael Hudson, who had a poem selected by Sherman Alexie for the 2015 Best American Poetry. Hudson stated in the issue that he uses a Chinese woman’s name—Yi-Fen Chou—when he cannot get a poem published under his own name. Hudson certainly deserves inclusion here.

100 Chinese Silences works best when read as a work provoking debate on literary issues often ignored. However, if Yu’s satire is meant to intimidate or silence—quite ironic given his use of this term through the book—and to steer poets away from reading or being influenced by Chinese poetry, then his book does a disservice to the literary community.

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