Tag Archives: Winter 2017

The Clouds

Juan José Saer
Translated by Hilary Vaughn Dobel
Open Letter ($14.95)

by Erik Noonan

For the most part, contemporary fiction consists of dreams just about to come true, except that now and then a voice interrupts our slumber party, to invoke the tradition of Don Quixote and Lazarillo de Tormes. In this spirit, the anglophone reader who craves some profondeur in her divertissement will take pleasure in a new translation of The Clouds, a 1997 novel about madness in a millennial wasteland by Argentine author Juan José Saer (1937-2005).

His wife and sons having gone ahead to the seaside, Pinchón Garay, a Parisian academic from an unnamed city in the Southern Hemisphere, receives a disk from an old friend containing a transcription of an 1835 manuscript passed on to her by an archivist, and sits at his computer to read. The narrative relates a journey from Santa Fé to Buenos Aires, undertaken in August 1804 by a psychiatrist named Dr. Real, his guide Osuna, and five people who will become the inaugural cohort at Las Tres Acacias, an insane asylum soon to open at their destination: Prudencio Parra, who has gone mute and concentrates all his energy in a balled-up fist; Sister Teresita, a nun who has been reformed by the ladies of the evening she set out to reform; Troncoso, an aristocrat more at home in the company of the elemental forces of the universe than in society; Juan Verde, who crams everything he wants to say into the phrase Morning, noon, and night and never says anything else; and Juan's little brother, Verdecito, who expresses himself with every vocal sound imaginable except articulate speech. Beset by the terrible heat of the llano, the interpersonal dynamics of the group, their own maladies, and a gang of marauders led by the dreaded violinist-bandit Josesito, the little caravan makes its way to the closing pages of the story, whereupon the weather breaks, in the form of the clouds of the title, followed closely by a wildfire that lays the countryside to waste while the travelers take refuge in a lake until the blaze surrounds and passes them.

In this fiction, a doctor, the safeguard of the community's health, is the transmitter of civilization. The ruling passion of our narrator is bureaucratic—this is not an intrepid adventurer, but an efficient administrator—yet the chief pleasure of the book is Dr. Real's subtle commentary upon the action. Fearing public exposure as a psychiatric patient, Troncoso only ceases his antics when the doctor appears, while the latter remarks: "By revealing that connection to reality, he eased my concern, though only to an extent; experience has generally proven that, beneath that deceptive meekness, frenzy often grows impatient." When some local prostitutes adopt an adversarial stance toward the hypersexual Teresita, Real observes that "what the women took as an affront on the little nun's part, was, in a way, an homage she paid them." Reflecting on human behavior, Real reveals himself to be a naturalist: "A group of butterflies that all unmistakably perform the same motion at the same time puts our categories of individual and species to shame." In Saer's neoclassical prose, the simultaneity of the themes—life as a mere sojourn in the midst of transience, sanity as fortitude before dissolution, the cultivation of habit as the survival of culture—recapitulates the balance of the diction (epithets qualifying substantives) and the complexity of the syntax (subordinate clauses qualifying main ones), and this architectonics traces a line at the edge of barbarity, somewhat like the one that was thought to exist during the Enlightenment, but did not.

The trek of this crazy crew, a society in miniature, is an allegory for the transformations of a post-colonial, post-global Hispanosphere, gone astray in a wilderness of totalitarian regimes, corrupt democracies, and popular revolts, monsters born from the union of Evil and Reason. In Hilary Vaugn Dobel's excellent English version of the text, Juan José Saer visits us from an era that is like and unlike our own: "We were the effervescence of what lived," he writes, "things that vanish, in the very instant they arise, to that place we call the past, where no one ever goes," except sometimes in a novel.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

The Science of Things Familiar

Johnny Damm
The Operating System ($26)

by John Pistelli

In the interview that concludes this hybrid work, poet Johnny Damm confesses, "I'm a cis, white, straight man: I have privilege on top of privilege, and my voice certainly doesn't require amplification." While such a confession, with its histrionic air of noblesse oblige, almost always sounds more like self-aggrandizement than self-criticism, it does help to orient the reader ethically and politically in Damm's aesthetic world. The Science of Things Familiar is a collage whose startling juxtapositions try to shock readers into awareness of the various subtexts—emotional, sexual, racial, environmental—of twentieth-century American popular culture.

Damm explains in an afterword, "Poetics and Process," that the "things familiar" of his book's title-itself borrowed from a nineteenth-century textbook-are "music, film, and (comic) books." The "science," he leaves the reader to understand, is the critique of ideology: an explanation of the material circumstances that brought these "familiar things" into being, with an emphasis on the exploitation and oppression underlying them.

Damm works in the disparate modes of appropriation, pastiche, and confession, sometimes all at once. Bookended by faux-scientific textbook diagrams with poignant titles—"Diagram of Your Breath," "Diagram of Your Touch," "Diagram of What Remains Unsaid," etc.—The Science of Things Familiar also includes comic-book cut-ups, mock entries in a biographical dictionary of film, a critical essay with confessional footnotes, and more.

In The Science's first third, Damm arranges collages of panels from old Classics Illustrated comics and replaces their expository and grandiloquent narrative elaborations on canonical literature with his own bittersweet lyrical prose:

Walt Whitman feels a sharp need to look out the window but pauses over the drawn back curtains and rolls the sinewy fabric between his fingers. There's a word for this, he thinks. There's a word.

The irony in this section, with its clash of the stagy old comics' pomposity against a contemporary so-sad-today sense of self-conscious sorrow, has a light touch.

The book's next two divisions are more polemical. In the middle third, Damm explores, via a Borgesian parody of a film dictionary, the exclusion of women from cinema. The third section returns to comic-book collage, this time to explain the class- and race-based marketing decisions that segregated American popular music into white middle-class norms (pop, rock) defined against poor-white and black music construed more as folklore than art.

Damm certainly addresses serious topics, and his treatment of them is often arresting—for instance, in the last section, machine-gun onomatopoeia ("rat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat") borrowed from war comics exemplifies the racial and economic violence underwriting the music industry. As important as this subject matter is, though, Damm's information is not new, and his implied outrage, while well-intentioned, has become a somewhat rote gesture among right-thinking writers. More impressive because more unpredictable, and thus riskier, is the impassioned re-writing of Classics Illustrated comics that opens The Science of Things Familiar. In these pages, Damm fulfills his title's implied promise to return the familiar—whether canonical literary works or old comics—to the strangeness from whence they came.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Irradiated Cities

Mariko Nagai
Les Figues Press ($17)

by John Bradley

"we are still in the before the after : before the before the after," writes Mariko Nagai, reflecting on the nuclear disaster that took place in Fukushima in 2011. The nuclear focus of this book-on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, and Fukushima-feels quite timely, given our nation's stance on North Korea, which means it makes for uncomfortable reading, as it should. The book, with both its prose and photographs, is quietly and chillingly effective.

Not only the topic, but the consequences of nuclear warfare confront the reader here. Take this description of a victim of the Hiroshima bomb: "something is dismantling him from within : hair keeps coming out in fistfuls, & he is sleeping more : bloody nose & erupting ulcers on his lips : he cannot keep anything inside his body & lies there in his own vomit & diarrhea : things are breaking down inside, the body is collapsing from inside out & they don't know what it is . . . ." The use of the colons, as can be seen, blurs cause and effect. Everything is connected to everything else. Nagai uses the colons this way in all of the thirty-two prose poems in the book, even for the closing. There's never a period to provide closure, even at the very end of each piece. The colon is the perfect punctuation for this book, as it's logical, neutral, and inevitable.

This punctuation usage creates a challenge to the reader, however, as each piece (usually a page long) must be read without pausing. Nagai holds the reader's attention, though, with her shifts in tone and voice. In the piece on the Japanese fishermen irradiated by an American bomb detonated in the Pacific during a test on March 1, 1954, for example, the author weaves in this statement from Edward Teller, dismissing the death of a fisherman: "it is not from radiation, but from underlying liver cirrhosis compounded by an infection : it is unreasonable to make such a big deal over the death of a fisherman . . . " One wonders what the U.S. would say if Japan or Russia or North Korea gave this response to us.

Interspersed with the prose, the book features eighty-eight black and white full-page photographs. While the prose makes the reader confront the effects of the radiation, the photos approach the nuclear legacy much more indirectly. For example, the photo that accompanies "This Mysterious Disease," which contains the graphic description of the "dismantling" of the body, we see earth and shadows. The photo is titled "Shadows in the Hiroshima Peace Park," and the shadows soften the harsher prose. This happens throughout the book. In a photo found in the chapter on Fukushima, entitled "Farm Boots at a Temporary Dairy Farm," we see only farm boots, two of them numbered with a black "23." The ordinariness of the boots, the reminder of the chores of the farmer, brings to mind the safe images of cows and milk. Only implied are such questions as these: Is the milk being checked for radiation? What are the standards? How can the consumer know if food and beverages are really safe? The boots can also remind us of the boots of the workers in Fukushima, trying to "clean up" the nuclear disaster.

In "Rumors of Distant Disaster," Nagai closes with this calm yet frightening observation: "on a distant shore, a government is making hundreds & hundreds of suns, to reorder the politics of the world : on this short, all is well : because they tell themselves : on a distant shore : it all happens on the distant shore : it can never happen here :" This ironic warning should be heeded by all, and yet the reader may wonder: Will these words be heard by those making the "hundreds & hundreds of suns"? The author deserves much praise for making us gaze with her into the nuclear abyss.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Habit of Mind:
An Interview with Jennifer Egan

photo by Pieter M. Van Hattem

Interviewed by Allan Vorda

Born in Chicago and raised in San Francisco, Jennifer Egan is known by readers of The New York Times Magazine as a journalist, and to many more readers as one of the pre-eminent fiction writers of our time. Since her first book, a collection of short stories titled Emerald City (1993), she has published the novels The Invisible Circus (1995), Look at Me (2001), The Keep (2006), and A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), the latter of which won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the LA Times Book Prize.

Egan's new novel, Manhattan Beach (Scribner, $28), is set during the World War II era, a time when women were newly permitted to take on industrial jobs that once belonged to the men, now soldiers fighting in the war. The novel follows the interwoven stories of Anna Kerrigan, the only female diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, her father Eddie Kerrigan, a bagman for the mob who has vanished under mysterious circumstances, and nightclub owner Dexter Styles, Eddie's mobster boss.

I interviewed Jennifer Egan on November 6, 2017 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Houston before the author's reading at Rice University for the Inprint Reading Series; we ended up discussing her latest novel of course, but also travel, beauty, and Rockford, Illinois, among many other topics. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation (transcription by Shawn Vorda).

Allan Vorda: Before getting into your latest novel, Manhattan Beach, I would like to briefly discuss some of your earlier writing. Emerald City, a collection of short stories, often depicts characters who initially might be described as not worldly or perhaps naïve, yet who experience some epiphany or awakening. I am thinking of Sam in "Why China?," Sarah in "Sacred Heart," and Rory in "Emerald City." Was there a particular enlightening experience that you can share that contributed to your own self-awareness.

Jennifer Egan: Yes. I took a year off between high school and college, and I went to Europe and traveled with a backpack. I flew to London, got a Eurail pass and traveled around Europe, which a lot of European kids did and probably still do. I didn't see too many Americans. It was very alienating in certain ways because my family was in San Francisco and, of course, those were the days without cell phones or the Internet. It's hard even now for me to imagine this. I felt very cut off and I think in that cut off state, I discovered that writing was an essential part of my connection to the world. It was an epiphany, although I don't remember a specific moment when it happened. I remember by the time I came back I knew I wanted to be a writer. I guess you can't really ask for more from a year off, right? I knew what I wanted to do with my life, but like so many discoveries I've made, it really came through adversity.

In other words, it was not a fun trip in many ways. It was very hard. I felt very isolated. I wonder sometimes whether anyone experiences that isolation anymore. I wonder whether without that isolation I would have discovered I wanted to be a writer. I don't know nowadays if I would have. I don't know if I would have been just chatting on Instagram the whole time and never reaching that discovery.

AV: How have your other traveling experiences affected you as a writer?

JE: I think a great deal, because I'm very influenced and informed by place. That's my entry point into fiction. I think it starts with the fact that I'm originally from Chicago, but my parents divorced when I was two. I moved at seven to San Francisco with my mother and stepfather, and the textures and feeling of that place were very different than Chicago. Right from the start I was attuned to the fact that in some ways geography and biography intersected. I used the places that I had been and experienced as both a traveler and a citizen very heavily. In fact it's the only part of my own life that I knowingly use in my fiction. So, in some ways, the places I've been offer me stories to tell. They're my access points.

AV: Several of the husbands in Emerald City are unfaithful leading to divorce. Charlotte Swenson, the protagonist in Look at Me, observes of her one-night stand with a married man: "It was obvious he was a regular cheater. So many were." You are a happily married woman with children, but should readers read into your characters that you do not have a high opinion of men in general?

JE: I think that would be presumptuous on the part of the reader because I think there are also a great many happy marriages in my work. However, it is fair to say that I have witnessed a lot of broken marriages. My parents divorced when I was very young so I didn't grow up with an example of a very happy marriage in front of me.

AV: Taking a line from Look at Me, Charlotte ponders: "Seeing her mother beside her annihilated that hope, leaving Charlotte to wonder whether someone so unbeautiful as herself would be allowed to go on, to have anything. Wouldn't someone more beautiful get it, whatever it was?" You seem to have a lot of references to women's beauty or even their unattractiveness. I'm curious what your concept of beauty is and its importance to women in general.

JE: I think we live in an image-saturated world, a culture in which physical appearance ends up having excess importance, in which people of all sorts are focused, have to be focused, especially younger people, on this self-marketing. That's really what social media is on some level. I think physical appearance has outsized importance in our culture and no one has much of a choice but to care about it. I think that's unfortunate in certain ways. It impacts people in ways that are different for every person, and I think it often has very little relationship to their inner lives. I guess I feel that physical appearance is a bit of a distraction, but it ends up mattering more than it should in a culture permeated by mass media.

AV: Throughout several of your stories you mention Rockford, Illinois. I believe your mother grew up there, but did you spend any time there and what is it about Rockford you like to use as a reference?

JE: I did spend a lot of time there because my grandparents lived there. Until they both passed away, I would go there in the summer and other times. I think what interested me in Rockford is it is a quintessentially industrial, mid-sized Midwestern city, but whose industrial peak gradually subsided over the last century. When its industry gradually began to die out, and to some degree its economy, its identity also changed. When other changes happened, like the highway systems in the 1950s, which left downtown Rockford sort of like a shell of itself. There were a lot of trends one sees all over America that were manifested in Rockford. I guess what I found interesting is it seemed like a way to look at a larger phenomenon in the progress and decline of American cities; yet it was also a place that I knew well and for which I had an affection because of my childhood.

AV: When writing fiction and doing your research, do you have time to read for your own pleasure? If so, do you feel this distracts or energizes your writing?

JE: I am definitely always reading for pleasure. For Manhattan Beach, I was reading mostly about the first half of the 20th century for several years. There's always the danger that what I'm reading starts to make a stamp on what I'm writing. What I find is if that happens, the influence tends to fall away in later drafts. I don't really worry too much about it. I love reading and I'm very inspired by it. I'm always looking for ideas and approaches. It's true I might grab onto an idea or approach that doesn't really fit in the context that I'm working in, but I can usually spot that at a later point and let it go.

AV: You state in the book Why We Write: "Read at the level at which you want to write. Reading is the nourishment that feeds the kind of writing you want to do." What kind of writing provides nourishment for you?

JE: First of all, I like to read fiction and non-fiction, but ideally writing that has a strong intellectual bedrock and a deep structure of ideas. Writing that is ambitious and pays attention to the music and rhythm of language.

AV: Manhattan Beach is your first novel since A Visit from the Goon Squad. What was the genesis of the story? Tell us about Lucille Kolkin—did you base any of Anna's character on Lucy?

JE: Lucille Kolkin was a woman who corresponded with her husband during World War II in a series of letters that are now at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and they're wonderful letters. I discovered them in 2005 and it took me a few months to read them all since I had limited access to the library. The reason I was reading these letters was to try to learn about the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where Lucy was working after her husband, Al, had joined the navy. I did not base Anna on Lucy, but I felt like Lucy was kind of an inspiring spirit in all of it, because she was sassy and strong. Lucy was crazy about Al—head-over-heels in love—so it was very sweet to read the way she wrote to him. Certain little anecdotes from her experiences did find their way into the book, but it's hard to remember because I read interviews and interviewed so many women who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. So I can't quite say to what degree I've used details from Lucy's experience, but certainly she was one of many voices in my head that provided a kind of texture of women's experience at the Yard, apart from all the stuff I made up.

AV: Since we are talking about the letters that Lucy was writing, hasn't this become a lost art? Nowadays people just correspond by email and writing by script is gradually disappearing.

JE: They don't know script, even my kids don't know script. It's very unsettling. First of all, who prints their email to save it? What are we going to do? We'll have no correspondence of which to have a record. Not only is the handwriting in Lucy's letters wonderful, but she and Al also made diagrams of things for each other. For example, at one point she kissed the letter paper, which was so eerie because you could see the little creases of her lips. It was like she did it yesterday! There was a human element that is simply not present if you read email. You're interfacing with a machine, not a person. One time Lucy was on a streetcar and her handwriting would be messy and she'd say, "Oh, my stop is almost here!" and it's just so much more intimate than reading email. There were a few letters that were typed, but I think that was because someone had typed them later to make them easier to read. Even a typewriter was an unwelcome intrusion into this prose. I wrote letters for a lot of my life. I have lots of letters that people wrote to me. I still save cards and notes, but no one writes letters. Yes, you might get a thank you note, but who writes a handwritten letter? I don't even do that, and I handwrite my first drafts. Future generations are going to have nothing. We're going to have screenshots of people's Instagram accounts to see what they were doing and thinking.

AV: The story of Manhattan Beach is set primarily in the 1930s and ’40s in which ethnicity plays a key role. "Dexter liked the Irish, was drawn to them, although time and again they had proved untrustworthy. It wasn't duplicity so much as a constitutional weakness that might have been the booze or might have been what drove them to it. You wanted a mick to help you dream up schemes, but in the end you needed a wop or Jew or a Pollack to bring them off." Can you explain to readers, who were not part of that generation, what it was like to be Irish and the ethnic differences that existed that you bring out in your book?

JE: First of all, it was very strange to use terms like that. My husband is Jewish, and when he was reading the book the first time, he was really shocked to find that I was using the term shylock or shyster in the first chapter. He was brought up short by that because it's an ethnic slur and the book is full of ethnic slurs. There was no way to be true to the period without making those characterizations. I spent a lot of time talking to the painter Alfred Leslie, who was very much a part of the abstract expressionist movement, and had a wonderful career and is still very active in his 80s. Leslie said people identified each other ethnically, but there was actually less ethnic prejudice than today. That was the first thing you wanted to know about someone, right up front—you're a mick, I'm a wop, he's a Jew, and this person is a Negro. Once our ethnicity was established, now let's move on. According to Alfred, we now have this fallacy that everyone is the same, which is not true, and ethnic tensions are actually made worse by the fact that we don't acknowledge our differences right up front. If you read someone like John O'Hara, it's striking how insecure Irish-Americans were. The Irish came to America in large part because of the famine, which was a catastrophe arising from the really cruel and negligent treatment they received from the English. The Irish already had a chip on their shoulder. Then they came here and they were treated pretty badly. It's amazing to think of how that prejudice has disappeared. I mean, who isn't Irish? We're everywhere! But there really was a strong sense of ethnic identity and also of insecurity and inferiority.

AV: This was a long time ago, but I remember my grandfather in Evanston who would look out his window and refer to a neighbor walking down the sidewalk and say, "There goes the Swede." I was just a kid, but to call your neighbor by his ethnicity and not even his name was very telling of those times.

JE: I never even thought of my name as an Irish name until much later. Chicago is one place where Irish-Americans have an ethnic identity, and definitely Boston, but not so much in New York.

I remember when I first moved to New York and got my phone number. I was working at a temp job calling the phone company. The woman gave me this great number that was really easy to remember, and I said, "Wow, thank you, that's such a nice number!" And she said, "One Irish girl to another," and it was so surprising. She had recognized my name as Irish and she was looking out for me. I don't think I'd ever had that experience before.

It's interesting to think about it in light of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the idea of whiteness as a construct. I really understand why he says that, because you rarely hear the word "white" in the first half of the 20th century. White—what did that mean? You were a wop, you were a mick, you were a Pollack, you were a Jew. The idea of all those people being combined into a category called white is something people from those ethnic groups would have had trouble comprehending. The Irish, for example, tended to hate the Italians. They certainly didn't see themselves as bound to Italians by any shared "whiteness."

AV: I once read the Irish were paid less than black people in the late nineteenth century because they were considered the lowest class of people. And yet due to Irish fortitude and pride, they built themselves up and made great lives for their children.

JE: The Irish had a lot of problems—alcoholism was extreme, physical abuse was rampant, and consequently so was a lot of abandonment. There are a lot of similarities with the urban poor that we now think of as being more often African-American: a lot of children raised without fathers which often leads to further fatherlessness. A lot of strong mothers holding families together. My character, Eddie Kerrigan, grows up in the Catholic protectory in the Bronx, and I think some of those buildings—or at least the grounds—still exist. A lot of the guys on the Irish waterfront did come from that protectory, but growing up in an orphanage did not necessarily mean you were an orphan. A lot of these "orphans" were kids whose families just abandoned them or couldn't raise them because they had so many children. Actually, it was Alfred Leslie who first that told me about this. He didn't know about the Catholic protectory because he was Jewish, but there was another orphanage where members of his family were placed, even though they weren't orphans. This kind of fatherlessness and rootlessness and trauma really existed in these Irish-American families, and it perpetuated a lot of pain that took quite a while to work through. And the alcoholism persists: my father and my uncle were alcoholics for decades before they became sober.

AV: Anna Kerrigan has a special relationship with her handicapped sister. Why did you create Lydia? What secrets does she know about Anna?

JE: I don't really create characters. I start writing and I see who enters the story. Lydia was there right from the beginning. I questioned that. I was unsure that I wanted to write about someone who was handicapped. But she felt inextricable. She's in some ways the fulcrum around which a lot of the story turns. So I rolled with that. I often don't feel I'm in control of who populates the stories. As long as I feel they organically need to be there, I just try to the best job I can to tell their story.

I think the main thing she knows about Anna is that she has a sexual history, which was not an acceptable fact for an unmarried girl at that time—certainly not a young teen. Although there was plenty of sexual activity going on, which is another thing Alfred Leslie talked about. He said in these tenement neighborhoods there was a lot of promiscuity among young kids. This placed girls in a strange position because the mores governing their behavior were very different than they are now. This often had very little to do with the reality of the situation, yet it led to a lot of guilt and bad feeling. Anna's parents are somewhat estranged, partly because of Lydia. Her father finds it impossible to feel good about his handicapped daughter and his difficulty in being affectionate towards her has created a huge divide in his marriage. Anna alternates time with her mother and her father; yet she says very little about either world to the other parent. Lydia, in a way, is the only person that synthesizes Anna's family life. She's the connection. It's through Lydia that Anna experiences her whole self, her whole life, and that continues when she develops another secret life that neither of her parents know about.

AV: Manhattan Beach is partly about the evolution of women's rights brought about by the Great Depression and World War II when women got involved in the workforce. Can you talk a bit about the role of women during this transitional period in our history?

JE: It was an incredible period for women. I always knew this in a vague way. Women were called upon to do work that they'd been told all their lives they could not do. The fact is they did it very well and then they were told they could not do it anymore. Rosie the Riveter was a propaganda campaign designed to get women to do industrial work because they were needed so badly. One of the women I interviewed for the oral history project, who was an amazing welder, talked about how she had become so proficient and so excellent at welding during her time at the Brooklyn Navy Yard that she wanted to use those skills later, but she was laughed at when she applied for welding jobs. All of this came home to roost in the women's movement and the '60s counter-culture. There was no way to make this discovery go away and I think it was a really head-spinning moment for women. Interestingly, I think a lot of them really did just go back to much more domestic women's work and lives. They were back to the telephone company or to be secretaries. It's not true that they stopped working, although that's what some people say about the '50s. But that wasn't possible for working class families. The women still had to work. A lot of the women that worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard had already been working; they were just doing more of these 'women's jobs'—lots of telephone operating, secretarial work, and childcare. So they went back to that kind of work. If they could afford not to, then they didn't work. It was really their daughters that had to lead the charge and say we need to rethink all of this. The war in general was such a time of tumult. Women's lives were one of many different kinds of accepted patterns that were disrupted. I think that a lot of what happened in the '60s, in terms of the civil rights movements and all kinds of other things, were the result of that disruption. They sort of skipped a generation and then they really came to the fore.

AV: Anna wants to be a diver to repair naval ships which was considered a man's job. Why did you choose this role for her and what kind of research did you do?

JE: I don't know why I chose it. I was interested when I learned that deep-sea diving was a part of ship repairing and I saw a picture of an old diving suit, with the spherical helmet. I was very moved by that. The sea is a deep inspiration for this book. In a way I followed the sea into the various different elements of the story. One thing about using the ocean in fiction is that it's both real and metaphorical. I guess it was exciting to follow the sea into its physical manifestations and also reap its metaphorical rewards. Anna is trying to understand things that she can't see. The thought of her physically walking around the bottom of the sea just seemed incredibly thrilling to me. I couldn't resist.

AV: It is not just Anna but many of the female characters in your novels and short stories who exhibit mental toughness and the ability to eventually make sound decisions. Is this a theme you consciously try to address in your fiction?

JE: I'm always interested in strength and weakness in both genders. Stories of surmounting odds are not that interesting. We've all read those stories. I'm just as interested in marginal people who cannot master mainstream culture, both male and female. In the end, I'm more interested in those people than the ones who manage to triumph.

AV: Dexter Styles has a high opinion of himself. How should we judge Dexter?

JE: I guess the only way I can answer that is that in art and in life, I'm not very interested in judgments. I think that people are contradictory and imperfect and my job as a fiction writer is to try to capture those imperfections and to try to condense some form of the complicated mess which is human life. Judgments don't interest me; they're always reductive.

AV: Literary critic Matthew Carl Strecher wrote that Haruki Murakami has the unique ability to "include movement in and out of the protagonist's mind." I think the same is true of your work. How do you make each of your character's thoughts ring so true?

JE: That's one of the key things I think about with a character: their unique habits of mind. I think we all organize reality in our own way and a lot of that has to do with our individual past and our experience which is unique to us. Finding the way a person interprets reality and makes it legible for him or herself is the number one thing I try to find about every person. I have to find it. If I can't find it, maybe that means I shouldn't be in that person's point of view.

In other words, if I'm going to go into a point of view, I am making a promise to the reader that I can deliver the habits and mind of that person; if I can't, I haven't earned the right to represent that person's point of view. This actually happened a little bit in Manhattan Beach. I go in and out of various points of view, mostly with my three major protagonists, but a little bit here and there with other people like Lydia and her mother Agnes. At one point I was in Agnes's point of view a lot more, but what I found was that I couldn't give the reader much more than the reader already knew about her. So I pulled back on her point of view because I was not delivering on my promise to the reader to justify my presence inside her mind.

AV: All of your books are excellent, but is there one you personally like the best?

JE: Look at Me is my favorite. It's flawed, but it's the most ambitious in my opinion. I have not topped it. I'm still trying. It is all about understanding the deep mental landscape of individual characters. This is the number one goal I have as a fiction writer. This is one thing fiction can do that other types of media—film, YouTube, video games—cannot achieve, which is to deliver a deep knowledge about how someone else's mind works.

My fear was that lovers of Goon Squad—and that's where I found a lot of my audience—might not like Manhattan Beach. I've had that happen before. For example my novel The Keep, which was a gothic thriller, is where I found a whole world that loved the gothic. Yet the gothic readers weren't so thrilled with Goon Squad since there's nothing gothic in the book. I feel I ask a lot from my readers to make these transitions with me, but I'm finding that I'm getting a better reaction than I thought I might from people who loved Goon Squad. A number of people have said, "Look, I don't like it as much." They're honest with me about that. That's okay, they've given it a try and in some cases really enjoyed it. I'm hoping my next book will be a companion to Goon Squad. I'm happy to keep those readers with me and move back into that territory. If I can do it well is the big question mark.

AV: To quote from Goon Squad: "Time's a goon right? You're gonna let that goon push you around?" Your readers have waited seven years before Manhattan Beach was published. How long before Jennifer Egan knocks out that goon so we can read your next book?

JE: [Laughter.] Very fair question. I'm hoping, and hoping should be italicized, to be publishing every three years from now on through the rest of my career. I can't have those long gaps anymore or I won't get done what I want to get done. There are a number of reasons that this book took so long. One reason was that Goon Squad had such good luck, and I spent a lot of time trying to capitalize on that luck by speaking and traveling. Also, my kids were still young so I was with them the rest of the time. Now that they're teenagers—they've got their own lives to some degree—they don't want my help and involvement to the degree they once did. In fact, they're probably a little relieved that I'm not at home constantly right now. Frankly, it's just time for me to pick up the pace. I hope it will be every three years, max four, and never again seven. Of course, you say never and you find out you're not in total control, but I feel adamant that I don't want to have those gaps anymore. One concrete way I try to prevent it is while I was writing the first draft of Manhattan Beach, I also worked on the first draft of another novel for the first eight months. I actually have a lot of material which I need to type and get into, but that's very different than having nothing. That is where I found myself in 2012, two years after my last book had come out, and starting on page one. I don't want to let that happen again.

AV: Winning the Pulitzer Prize must be a blessing and a curse. You get all this popularity and sales, but then you're sitting at your desk writing you must feel this enormous pressure that you need to duplicate that success. Can you share what this has been like?

JE: I thought that I wouldn't feel pressure, but I totally felt pressure as it turned out. I think because of the delay, and I was very rusty when I finally started writing again, and the fact that I was taking on writing a book outside of my lifetime, was especially hard for me. I had always used times and places from my life. I did feel a worry about doing a horrible job and really being pounded for it. It was hard. I'm relieved that Goon Squad is not my last book anymore. The goal is always to keep getting better. The danger with having a book be so rewarded is that it starts to take on this iconic quality, and it can be hard to move past it. The big danger is not that you feel bad or that you feel worried, but that you actually cannot continue to improve. That's the biggest concern. I really hope that I've moved out of that weird loop of worry.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Of Mongrelitude, The Absolute Letter, and In Memory of an Angel

Of Mongrelitude

Julian Talamantez Brolaski
Wave Books ($18)

The Absolute Letter

Andrew Joron
Flood Editions ($14.95)

In Memory of an Angel

David Shapiro
City Lights Publishers ($14.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Every year a number of poetry books are published that seemingly don't receive the attention they deserve. Three such titles published in 2017 are Julian Talamantez Brolaski's Of Mongrelitude, Andrew Joron's The Absolute Letter, and David Shapiro's In Memory of An Angel. I discovered myself deeply engaged, for different reasons, with each of these collections. All three are fine examples of small press experimental-leaning poetry and each poet dazzles with an approach to language uniquely their own.

Of this group, Shapiro is the elder statesman, now in his seventieth year. He has published many collections of his own poetry since co-editing, along with Ron Padgett, An Anthology of New York School Poets (1969), including New and Selected Poems in 2007. In Memory of an Angel, borrowing its title from Allen Berg's violin concerto, charts the wondrous course poetry has wafted across his life. As remarked in the opening poem, "1963," "It is you, it is you / I keep following." No doubt Shapiro wasn't cognizant at the time that he was heralding a romance with the ubiquitous "you" of poetry that he has relentlessly pursued ever since:

I want to do for you
what the wheelbarrow
did for the good doctor

I want to do for you
what the lipstick
does to the lips

I want to do to you
what a naked foot
does to clothed grass

I want you to do to me
what the moss
does to the moss garden

I want you to do with me
what a stone garden
does to Eternity

The delight Shapiro takes in language's play is found upon every page here. He pays testament to the avowed nature of the relationship of poet to word. "Oh word your friend / Formless astonishing and alone." The poems achieve a natural balance, demonstrating poetry's role as interaction site between the powerful poles of playful engagement and sacred practice. "You send me longish letters. / Therefore, God exists." Shapiro mixes literary tropes with a slight frivolity, delighting in light-handed mercurial whimsy that is nonetheless heartfelt when shifting from one line to the next: "It's morning. Dawn has brought the ships out. Dawn keeps breaking our ships. // Can I tie your hair again?" Best of all, he knows that it's poetry's prerogative and not his own to decide what poems he's been given to write: "No, I didn't write my poems, but I heard the mermaids / singing, and they were singing to me."

Andrew Joron's The Absolute Letter opens with "The Argument; Or, My Novalis" a mini-manifesto calling forth a poetic practice established around how "letters of the alphabet" may be witnessed "dissolved into vibrational patterns." This idea fully informs Joron's approach to writing poetry. He is devoted to the belief in an aural assonance existing between words, a direct organizing alphabet of reality: "The world is itself composed of the letters of the Absolute." His approach is musical as well as mystical at heart: "& the wound so wound, the sound so wound." Words are unveiled then veiled then unveiled again, each instance being a further unfurling of divergent combinations of sense and sound. Vowels are exchanged and rearranged, words bounce off one another in an ever-transforming cascade of echoes. Reading becomes utterly tonal, heavily invested in the cosmic play of language's ephemeral presence:

No surer treasure than the trap of my ape-shadow.

Starting from the homonym of home—

My nature a frame in fracture.

Shall I then pose X, expose my scar tissue?

Empirical to tough, the cost of empire—

What sound so wound, so round, so ruined?

As words get unpacked in a poem the meaning is examined. What's said gets unsaid, only finally to be said—sometimes expanded, other times contradicted. The examination is one of the ultimate pursuit, a chase after what informs our understanding of the real:

The Person wears a headdress, a dress of thought.

The Person is male with female characteristics, fallen into autumns
of stain & substance. His sin is a cinema of seeming, a body—sign of
both & neither meeting, teeming.

The Person wears what is: a "melancholy cloud." My closed system.

His signs point backward. His eye wants what it cannot have.

Taste waste, the One without mouth, the Eye ever over I.

Icon of the blackness of Blankness, icon of the Whiteness of Witness.

Cite I, seer: O deafened hour, defend ear.

Julian Talamantez Brolaski captures the terrain of poetry's future. These poems look backward within Western literary traditions while projecting ahead to what's yet arriving. This is the language of song society and is in dire need of hearing. Not to pay heed is to risk the peril of failing the continual advancement of our arts:

to have not foregone ones ancestors
to have rilly meant what one said
to have earlier been one way and than another w/o contradiction
above all to have not playd ones friends false

I gather that "mongrelitude" is Brolaski's own coinage, and it calls to mind the state of being a mutt, a haphazard result of incongruous yet happy joining. Brolaski's spelling of many words is also idiosyncratic, with just the right hint of archaic Old English. The language of these poems is itself thus mongrel in nature. Brolaski celebrates the visionary free mixing of all peoples, languages, and sexes into one, rewriting poetic lineages to align with present necessity:

marcabru uses the word 'mestissa' to describe the shepherdess his
dickish narrator is poorly courting
which paden translates 'half-breed' and pound 'low-born'
and snodgrass 'lassie' but I want to say mongrel, mestiza, mixedbreed
melissima most honeyed most songful
what catullus called his boyfriend's eyes
honey the color of my dead dog's eyes the stomach of the bee

Decidedly gifted lyrically, Brolaski is the poet set down in the right time and place to point out to the rest of us the direction our tongues are headed. Here's where they're going and the means for us to get ourselves there as well, if we listen.

zukofsky reciting hiawatha
in yiddish on a lower eastside streetcorner

artur schnabel doing bach
lipan apache singing in lakota

of all the bill and coo
that makes es wooing parlous

who swindle a soup
divers' showers and thir shammies

one star in thir square
of skye

amador you don't need
to get fucked up to see visions

All three of these poets confirm what many readers can palpably feel: it's an exciting time for poetry.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

Twelve Flags, Books 1 - 3

Klaus Kolb

by Jim Kozubek

In the spring of 1938, four-year-old Klaus Kolb wakes up to a rhythmic "shrap, shrap, shrap" of Nazi Stormtroopers marching past his house in Goerlitz, the oldest city on the eastern angle of Germany. The black, white, and red flags with cross-like symbols that the soldiers carry became the first flag in his life in a vivid 800-page memoir that spans four paperback volumes.

Klaus and his childhood friend Norbert spend much of the first volume growing up plying the German forests and schools in their Lederhosen emblemized with Edelweiss flower and stag shields, roughhousing and getting into trouble, and managing to slip enrollment into Deutsches Jungvolk, or German Young People, the Cub Scouts equivalent of the Hitler Youth.

To be a child born into the era of the Third Reich is perhaps as conflicted a struggle as to grow up being persecuted by it. German phenomenologists gave us the term lebenswelt, or lifeworld, for the given, shared world of everyday experience; if Heidegger was right, a life has no explanation or ethic outside of its context. Klaus shows living under a nativist, autocratic regime, seemingly grasping for control amid a nihilistic undertow-is impossible to sidestep. He must learn quickly. Give the kid a break. He's only four. But, then again, he can already sense he is into something deep.

Klaus had an older brother, also named Klaus, who while under negligent supervision of a babysitter, had climbed to the top of a 1,000-foot water tank along the railroad tracks, where his father had worked. He fell. His mother was not yet through coping with the first Klaus's death, and after the narrator, the second Klaus, reports his sister dies in childbirth, his mother takes her own life. The only thing young Klaus has to remember of his mother is her wedding picture. Klaus's father soon remarries Irmgard, a courthouse secretary. His father takes a job as a master mechanic of air conditioning units for Wiessner Maschinenfabrik. This is a family already living on second chances.

• • •

In our moment, memoir is in vogue with the rise of multivolume efforts by Karl Ove Knausgaard, some notable contributions by Paul Auster, and others, which may represent a countertrend to the technocratic rise of big data, machines, virtualization, and a marginalization of the world of experience. There is no more physical a world than the one reported here. There have always been masters of the quotidian, such as Nicholson Baker, who also wrote extensively about the forces that shaped the rise of Nazism, and mind-shifting metaphor writers, such as Michael Chabon, whose Moonglow recollected his step-grandfather's survival through World War II. The memoirist inherently struggles with a sense of memory at risk of disappearing and an urgency to write, and at the same time, with doubts of who exactly is qualified to write a memoir. As Chabon's friend tells him in Moonglow, the only difference between you and me is that you wrote it down.

If a memoir requires something more than writing down an encounter, it's a keen sense that things could have always gone differently, a report of a world of contradictions, and a chronicle that reports on culture and interlocks with major events. Klaus's memoir-edited and co-written by veteran Florida Today newspaper reporter Linda Jump-reads as a storybook with photographs and drawings that chronicle the times. As a six-year-old boy, he receives a Zuckertuete, or sugar cone, which is a kind of giant Christmas stocking that children receive on the first day of school and includes not only candy, but school supplies. He learns that not all children get them from their parents-his first lesson in economics. But as his gifts soon run out, he learns to be industrious. He includes drawings of a three-person bicycle he built; a four-stall rabbit hutch he built during the emaciating times of war, when his family runs out of food; a picture of a wagon he and his childhood friends build to collect scrap brass. "If you don't help, then you are responsible for our solders' deaths, if they can't get cartridges from your scrap brass," the children are scolded.

For Klaus the absurdist plot throughout his life is that one authoritarian regime, the nationalist Nazi, is replaced by another, the communist Soviet, and his only channel to independence seems to emerge from the rugged survivalist ethic of his apolitical father who repeatedly evokes Nietzsche: "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger." Whether Klaus will survive never seems to be a given, and just as he comes to loathe his father's unbending personality, it proves to be the ethic that saves him. In the end, he earns his freedom and proves to redeem his own father, helping him through a work conflict. The arc of their relationship is what turns a chronicle of war-torn eastern Germany into a story.

• • •

Klaus is a boy when his father moves the family down into a valley. Klaus suspects his father may have done this to make their lives harder, since the nearest city Goerlitz is now "five miles up a hill" and an overhead tram clatters by at 2 a.m. waking up his step-mother, to whom his father comments "you'll get used to [it]." One night that tram did not come, and his mother woke up. Looking out the window, there was eight feet of snow. His father was right. "The void had startled her."

Irmgard, her daughter Ilse, new baby sister Anne, and Irmgard's mother Oma, become Klaus's family. A mirror apartment on a second floor holds the Jobke family, whose only child is Norbert. "He was a sweet-looking blonde boy with blue eyes and dimples in each cheek . . . the epitome of Aryan beauty." Klaus's father encouraged rough play like wrestling so they would "grow up to be 'real boys.'" "Frau Jobke didn't like the roughhousing, probably because her son usually lost," Klaus writes.

The parents build a fenced-in sandbox in back, which Klaus and Norbert jokingly call "the animal cage." Father asked each day "did you nail Nobert?" One day, throwing rocks, Klaus hits Norbert in the head, and he "fell to the ground, bleeding profusely" while he "screamed like a pig in a butcher's hands." Klaus received an angry strapping, but Norbert never seems to win, and things get even harder for him as his mother babies him, washing the greasy patina from his Lederhosen and breaking the "unwritten rule about Lederhosen; never, ever wash them." Apparently Frau Jobke hadn't heard of that rule. Norbert gets ridiculed at school with lashings of "Lookit the sissy" in his "bright, new-looking stiff shorts."

Downstairs at the Milchgeschaeft, or milk store, the cash register rings each time the clerk sells milk in a half-gallon aluminum can. There is no chocolate since it is spared only for military officers for mood improvement, but the children get an occasional orange or lime since Hitler's army had occupied southern territories in Italy. Grocery store customers pay to use the "ironing machine."

Klaus and Norbert form a unique bond. "Still each of us boys lived as an only child. The Third Reich encouraged large families, and in fact rewarded and created idols of women with large families." Klaus recalls women with at last four children received a bronze cross, those with six a silver, women with eight children a gold cross. One woman, Frau Haberland, did have eight. For it, she was disheveled and "looked like a witch in my Hansel and Gretel book," Klaus recalls. Younger mothers were bitter and despised her for getting extra grocery vouchers, "the exact opposite effect expected by the Nazi government."

The reality of war continues to seep into their lives. Onkel Ernst learns to alter a radio crystal to listen to the BBC under a bed blanket to hear their version of the political news broadcast in German, even as listening to foreign stations and Allied broadcasts was strictly forbidden by the Nazi government. Klaus's father, a mechanic, manages to avoid the military by focusing on manufacturing textiles and machines needed in the war effort. When Aunt Erika gives Klaus a toy tank, his father makes him return it, citing his family's policy of no "war-related toys." At the same time, his family encourages self-reliance, his father teaches him blacksmithing and Onkel Ernst tests him to "tell him with my eyes closed which type of bird was singing, based on their voice."

This was the way of the old world. His father grew up "following centuries of journeymen who traveled mostly by foot from master to master through Europe to lean a variety of trades. He followed secret symbols to find master blacksmiths, master wagon makers, and other professionals in their trades who were willing to take on a journeyman. . . . Those symbols, written in chalk on the frame of the front door by the other journeymen, might indicate, for example, a taskmaster, a master who paid poorly, a place with sparse or poor food, or a poor tradesman. At one, father told me, the symbols indicated that the master's wife was troublesome."

His father wants Klaus to spend time learning the trade of a blacksmith on Sunday morning, while his mother sometime secures his escape across an old iron bridge spanning the Neisse River, to a simple church masterfully crafted oak wood doors. Norbert's parents were atheists, so he never attends, but both the boys suffer tutelage of Klaus father in the blacksmith workshop. When they bang their hands, his father chides, "Hey, you wimps, hurting and bleeding are part of the fun. Go outside and piss on your hands. It's antiseptic and warm."

One Christmas, Klaus and Norbert both receive tricycles, and form a tricycle gang, albeit one with no leaders. "I think we practiced unplanned, some sort of junior democracy while we grew up in a National Socialist dictatorship under Hitler's regime." At the same time, he was only allowed to play with "approved" friends who spoke High German, and at school, the Russian Bolsheviks were depicted as growling wolves attacking children and children learned to repeat the slogans of the party. By June 1941, the school was chosen to be an active producer of raw material for silk production, for military parachutes. The students planted mulberry bushes, and school officials received thousands of silk moths, which were kept in teacher's conference room in cartons and crates on top of the huge table. Each student is responsible for one hundred moths, kept in 72 degrees Fahrenheit, while each moth makes three hundred to four hundred eggs, each the size of a pin. Twenty-five silkworms produce a pound of silk, and if a German parachute canopy weights sixteen pounds, it takes forty thousand silkworms to one parachute. The classroom takes field trips on Sundays to sing folk songs to injured military men back from war. The moment is troubling for the young children, and the first real confrontation with the realities of war.

• • •

Klaus father moves the family to the country to a tiny little village of Garsedow, northwest of Berlin, which is not even on a map. His father declares this is "a wonderful opportunity for our family" which will "toughen up the kids." His father is part of a new project to make fibrous materials for military uniforms using a new technique that creates fibers from straw. The plant works to remove of toxic gasses that are a byproduct and puts to work 106,000 war prisoners.

In the country, Klaus is exposed to farming, and unhappily witnesses the "blood-letting and cooking of all the parts of the animal"; on one occasion "a farm hand slaughtered a pig but it continued to squeal and wiggle after the axe plow." His father gets eels from the marshes at night. "They are still-wiggling eels were put into the hot fry pan, I could sense their pain." He finds maggots in soup, one afternoon, and nauseated, involuntarily vomits. His mother sees the maggots ahead of dinner but his father makes them put the food on the table. The country life will make the family stronger. "You baby them too much at home," he tells the mother.

In May 1942, Operation Millennium is conducted as a thousand-bomber raid by the Royal Air Forces, dropping 1400 metric tons of explosive in just over an hour on the city of Cologne. Young German street fighters held up 20 mm cannons which fired 800 rounds per minute, and heavy pivoting search lights guided air defense cannons shooting two-pound self-exploding rounds. Klaus father watches the firestorm outside a bunker in the open air, positioning himself atop a bridge. "It was beautiful," he says.

Early in 1945, Klaus senses the tide is turning. He meets Dorle Sonnabend, a 15-year-old girl who lives a flight above, and her sister Hanna, who introduces them to a friend who participates in the Hitler Youth. Germany needs soldiers. Klaus qualifies for Adolph Hitler Schule, to train to be an elite leader of the third Reich. "I'm afraid," he lets slip to his father, the only thing, perhaps, he could have said to seal his fate. "All right boy, then this would be the perfect place to cure your damned rabbit heart." Germany has manufactured underground, the first jet fighter, the Messerschmill Me262, but it is too little, too late. In March 1945, families hide in a fortified bunker, walloped by five-hundred pound bombs. Klaus is secretly hoping for an Allied victory.

On April 12, 1945, American tanks come rolling in. A black soldier breaks into their house. He snaps a stick of some sort in his hand. Putting it into his mouth, "his tongue was bright red, his teeth were the whitest I had ever seen. He motioned with his finger for me to come closer, to take the rest of that stick. My sisters froze to the spot as I walked toward him, past the rail gate. The man kneeled to my level, and handed me the stick. 'Danke,' (thanks), I said. I looked at the stick, but was unable to read the writing on the label around it. I broke off a small piece and slid it into my mouth, the same way the man had. 'Oh my God,' I told my sisters when I rejoined them. 'This must be chocolate."

• • •

In the summer of 1945, the children reclaim the forest. Norbert's father was missing from deployment on the western front, and was never seen again. The boys are free to wander in this post-war wasteland for what are months in this summer and explore abandoned barracks at Leschwitz Strasse, which had its barbed wire perimeter bulldozed down with tanks. "In order to survive, we sometimes had to throw our convictions overboard, and had to lie and even steal. Stealing for food was even sanctioned . . . small lies were tolerated by parents and authorities."

Norbert finds a handful of bullets, a few yards of machine gun belt, and they fill their pockets with the rounds. A classmate tells them how to put the munition in a sturdy hole to pry apart the bullet from the casing and retrieve the black gun powder, which Klaus and Norbert spill into their pockets. "We created our own fireworks. . . . I placed a handful of powder in a rotting tree stump. Next, I rolled up a piece of newsprint and lit the top of it by focusing a sunbeam through my magnifying glass."

"Fire in the hole!"

The boys singe their eyebrows and front hair and return home with blackened faces, but return to the abandoned camp many times, stealing wood, copper wire and any resources. One of the boys, who pees out fires, earns the nickname "firetruck." Klaus's father takes the group camping, teaching them which mushrooms are edible and identifying their names, which he said he learned from "an old Bush woman." By morning, the boys notice that father had slept in the same tent with Frau Jobke.

It had been so cold that it was necessary to keep her warm, he said.

• • •

By October 1947, two years after the invasion, the family moves to a small village in Weinhubel. On the eve of 47th birthday, German police officers knock on the door and take his father to the police headquarters in Goerlitz. The Soviets have a collective punishment program, and begin to document father's items, now in hands of Soviet occupiers. His family is thrown out of the apartment, and move in with grandmother Oma. Since then, mother is high strung each time the doorbell sounded.

Klaus is into his teens as Hitler statues are replaced by statues of Stalin, Marx, Engels, Lenin. A Soviet flag is replaced by an East German flag. The Gestapo is replaced by the Russian Stasi and the German People's Police. Most of the institutions he once knew are now people-owned properties. In school, he is bombarded with a narrative that everything he ever knew was invented in the Soviet Union-the lightbulb, the postage stamp, steam and combustion engine, bicycles, airplanes, subs. This is simply a new authority. "Germany, above all," is now replaced by "Trust your party, your party is always right." Families are torn apart. Klaus never sees Norbert again.

Oma's brother Otto marries Frieda from Minneapolis, Minnesota; they send pictures of Frieda working at her new publishing house which recently acquired a Mergenthaler Linotype typesetting machine. They also send CARE packages which are residual from the war and can be purchased. "In truth, nobody in East Germany had a family in the Soviet Union capable of helping anybody," he observes. Surprisingly, one CARE package includes a cake in a box. When they look at the instructions it says "just add water." No one can believe it. When they pull it out of the oven, it is so impossibly delicious that Klaus declares it to be a "miracle in a box."

One day, the doorbell rings. It is a letter to his mother informing her that her husband is still alive in Bautzen, twenty-five miles east. When she goes to see him, he is "but a shadow of a man who was taken away from us, skin and bones and hollow eyes. He walked upright, but did not have even the hint of a smile." The family learns he was sentenced to twenty-five years in labor camp.

In the meantime, Klaus finishes a three-year apprenticeship in twenty months. He once managed to avoid joining the Hitler youth, but now he is tasked to enroll in Freie Deutsche Jugend, or Free German Youth, a socialist youth movement. The boys are eager to use their energy and skills from the war on anything. One shows how he trained to parachute jump, and can leap from tree, falling into a shoulder roll at the last minute. He knows he must join in order to advance to master mechanic. The youth movement is voluntary, but without it, impossible to be admitted to a university. His collective group is led by Lawd Jowl, a socialist leader, who hypocritically wears yellow crepe-soled West German shoes. Klaus wishes to abscond westward, but he has free education and must take care of his mother. "I disliked the politics of the new ruling socialist/communist ruling class . . . I blamed the system for deporting my father, and confiscating my family's private property."

Klaus must join the "circle," and he picks Yokstanzgruppe, folk dance ensemble, in which he plays the accordion in Youth World Festival, and is able to travel to West Germany for the first time. He sees a Trabant, and a Cadillac six-cylinder engine which "whispers while it works."

"None of the engines in East Germany ever whispered."

Klaus receives a scholarship for college in Meissen. He goes, fearing his father wouldn't respect his son as an intellectual. There he buys a motorcycle with roommate, takes up jazz music.

• • •

On June 17, 1953, Klaus and his bandmates are returning from a concert, when they are stopped by the Volkspolizei, or German People's Police, and held up. The rowdy boys disobey their orders and begin marching in lockstep. They don't get too far. A Russian UAZ 469-type military jeep stops them ahead. One of the boys, Christian, mouths off, and due to this he is banned from school. Klaus later learns a worker's strike named the People's Uprising began the morning before, a strike blamed on western films and agencies, but triggered by rising quotas. Three hundred masons at a building on Stalin Allee in Berlin put down their trowels and marched. Soon the uprising had swelled to forty thousand protesters there, and it grew to more than one million protestors in over seven hundred localities. This is the sort of crime and uprising which led to the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961. Twenty thousand Soviet soldiers and eight thousand German police quelled the uprising. Klaus and his friends, under the stars in the country, had no idea what they had been caught up in. "My friends and I had unwittingly joined the cause, in a small way." By now, enervated, by the Nazi and now the Soviets, they sing a song.

Our thoughts are still free; No one man can guess them
They slip and flee past, like light nightly shadows
No one man can know them. No hunter an shoot them
Therefore it is so true: Our thoughts are still free.

He is now entering his rebellious teens. Meize, his girlfriend, is in the picture, as he takes up music as a semi-serious occupation. He is fascinated by arts, rather than the blue-collar ethic of his father. He buys a Leica camera-indeed, the first professional style camera-and takes it with him to photograph the 15th-century Albechtsburg castle. A bridge guard confiscates his camera, bashes it open and steals the film and destroys it, disrupting the intricate mechanics.

By September 1954, he is a working on a college radio broadcast, and leaves a secret code over the air to the dates his band should meet and join up to play swing numbers from Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Louie Armstrong. Among their favorite tunes soaked up from an AFN broadcast from West Berlin is a swing time version of "American Patrol," by Glenn Miller. The boys spend time barnstorming the countryside and playing Western jazz music in an East German underground music scene. Klaus works as a camp counselor as part of his socialist duties, and pulls off a magnetic performance one night as an armchair hypnotist, which wins him the affection of a 40-year-old counselor named Marianne. He is startled when, waking up in the middle of the night, she is in his room, "her small perky breasts bobbing up and down, faintly lit by the moon."

Then there is a surprise. His father returns, after seven years, and "looked better than I remember," but Klaus knows his father will be tremendously disappointed by his dropping out of school, his obsession with music and his bent into an "intellectual." His father asks to go for a walk. The walking gets faster. His father explains that he joined the Ministry of Heavy Industry, a Stasi work camp, and was home with an eight-day pass. He is chief reviewer of German briquette factory. "How did he advance from a political prisoner to a government position?" Klaus wonders.

"I will tell you some day, but not today, not yet," his father says.

His father now has a spy identification name, and was himself informer, an also was being monitored by the Volkspolizei, the German People's Police. He says they must leave East Germany.

Klaus and his father surreptitiously flee to West German, and despite some tense moments at a train station crossing the border, are able to make their break.

• • •

Father's brusque personality doesn't work well in the professional world of Western Germany. His company Stuttgart-Kaltental wins a major contact with Christian Dierig AG in Augsburg, a maker of weaving machines. His father takes the company owner's son under tutelage to expose him to their "revolutionary air conditioning technology," but he is abusive to the young man, at one point scolding him, "Don't you have anything but fodder in your brain, fellow?" The owner's son decides to pursue college and gives up interest in the plant. The owner chastens Klaus's father. "I recommend that you not be so harsh on your son Klaus either. Don't break his interest and enthusiasm for the job. He has a great potential with our company, and could become a great field engineer."

But the men are doing well in East Germany, and move to a new flat in Stuttgart, deciding it's finally time to send for their family through a letter in code to elude the Stasi. "The males of a certain breed of birds have been building nests in the Swabian countryside. Ornithologists are waiting for the females to arrive anytime now." But not all the women come. Oma stays, noting "An old tree should not be transplanted." Ilse stays, now engaged. Mother and Anne travel to East Germany, where they find Klaus and his father living in a 1950s-style modern apartment with an "obligatory kidney shaped coffee table." Mother notes "this place is worse than where we were in East Germany."

By the third volume in the memoir, Klaus is now in his twenties, but the writing begins to read like a travel log. There are Instagram-style pictures of food, beer, and cars-many, many cars-as he travels to through Europe, Iran, Pakistan. It is exactly what to expect from writing from someone who is incredulous that they are free from the confines of Eastern Germany. By now, I know way too much about installing and maintaining commercial dryers and air conditioning systems, which is the trade that continually sends Klaus on remote assignment around the world. But the redeeming plot feature is that for the first time in his life, Klaus is finally close to freedom, but still is tasked with busting through the lock of the last authoritarian in his life: his father.

Klaus takes to learning the business of installation and maintenance of textile dryers. While in France, one night he slips out with some friends and has Pernod, making it to work the next day, not to give father pleasure of saying "I told you so." Work is tough. Once he is hit on the head by a twenty-five-pound chunk of concrete, to which his father says "just work if off." And Klaus can never do right by him:

The next day Father discovered a flaw in the work my crew and I had done. I was in the process of correcting a mistake my crew had made. He decided to call up my entire group of helpers to reprimand me in front of them. He did it long and loud. I was ashamed, appalled and disgusted. . . . I started crying, as my anger against him welled suddenly. Why in the hell do I have to go to this job? Why does he make me hate him? What's the fastest way to get back to Germany? Now that he doesn't have my little sister Anne around to pick on, that makes him terrorize his son? Why is he so narcissistic? Did all those years in prison remove all compassion and feeling? In that moment, I lost all interest in working with my father. His harsh criticism of me in front of coworkers was too much for me. The walk along the railroad track back to the hotel was solemn. We did not talk.

Klaus takes a hiatus. He travels to a war monument in the Epinal American Cemetery in Vosges, France, the resting place of five thousand U.S. soldiers. "The beauty and solemn silence of the resting field, overlooking a bend of the Moselle River a hundred feet below, overcame and touched me. I thought, if I had been born a couple or three years earlier than 1934, I might have been one of the young men who fought in World War II. Perhaps my body would be in a similar graveyard on the German side of the river. I slowly walked back to the railroad, overtaken by a deep sadness." Outside of authoritarian rule, Klaus perhaps for the first time confronts a deep void.

• • •

In February 1957, the plant manager gives Klaus approval to work on his own. He is finally able to buy his first car, a Volkswagen Beetle. He heads out on maintenance assignments to Holland, Austria, France, Czechoslovakia, United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Iran, and Pakistan. Klaus takes a ride on Comet D106, one of the first jet airplanes, and builds his travel log. We get pictures and stories of snake charmers and lessons of how Iranian carpets are made, and taken down to pools to wash and prepare them for sale. He takes pictures of Dutch wooden shoes in Holland, an Alphorn performance high in the Swiss Alps. He takes a hike, and for the first time, encounters an Edelweiss flower on top of Swiss Alps. This is his world.

But his father needs him in the end. He fails to grasp the culture of Pakistan, and the textile workers revolt on him, preventing him from completing his installation project. Klaus, who has experience in Pakistan, returns with his father to Lahore and mends fences on his behalf to salvage his career. Meize, his former girlfriend, tracks him down. She also needs him. He admits he and Meize are "infatuated with each other," but he tells her he is unable to make a commitment. This is where attachment theory might come into application. But he has to keep traveling, has to keep moving.

He meets a young girl who lives downstairs, Silvia, who is apparently fine with him traveling the world and rarely being at home. (One has to wonder what the women in his life really think). When he gets married to Silvia, his sister Ilse doesn't attend, he recounts, for fear of Stasi. He dedicates the book to Ilse and Anne, "although their recollection of specific situations in our early lives at times tend to differ a bit from what I remember."

Klaus is obsessed with cars, but even they cannot enable him to exceed the limitations he still seems to be trying to break away from. He buys a Ford Taunus 12 M, a sports car, and while traveling racing down the Autobahn in the drizzling rain with Silvia's mom, he somersaults the car. He experiences a blackout. Both survive, miraculously unscathed. He promptly returns to work, walking forty-five minutes to work each day, and scolding himself for the mistakes he made driving. You've got to hand it to the guy, he takes his hits-no excuses. But by now, even Europe seems too small, and as the fourth and final volume of the memoir begins, he is heading to America.

Click here to purchase Twelve Flags Book One
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2017-2018 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2018

A Path Through the Wilderness: An Interview with Charles Potts

Charles Potts on his farm. photo by Paul E Nelson

by Paul E Nelson

Based in Walla Walla, Washington for decades, Charles Potts says he has "blazed a clear path thru the wilderness of the times I was fated to live in." An author of numerous volumes of poetry whose work first appeared in Wild Dog magazine in 1963, he's also been a publisher (of Litmus Magazine and a press of the same name, which published the likes of Philip Whalen, Amiri Baraka, Ed Dorn, Charles Bukowski, and others); an editor (of the anthology Pacific Northwestern Spiritual Poetry and the magazine The Temple, A postnational journal of spiritual elevation to create and maintain a state where the state has no jurisdiction); a curator/producer (of at least seven versions of the Walla Walla Poetry Party); and an author of creative non-fiction (most notably How The South Finally Won the Civil War, published by Tsunami, Inc. in 1995). In extra-literary pursuits, in the last decade he's become a breeder of Appaloosa horses. We spoke at length this past summer about his poetry, which I asked him to read several times during our session, so the reader of this interview can get a taste of this fine writer.

Paul E Nelson: How'd you sleep last night?

Charles Potts: I slept really well last night, if briefly. But my sleep pattern got interrupted early in March by waiting for a mare to give birth who was a full sister to a mare who had given birth two weeks early a year ago. Because horses tend to be similar to one another, I started watching her two weeks early. She didn't give birth till a week later so there was three weeks of sleep deprivation that was unnecessary to begin with, and then I had to go through the other foals that were being born and so forth. I had that chair over here by the window so I could look out at the barn and I have foal cameras and so forth.

PeN: Foal cameras? Cameras in the stable?

CP: Yeah, there are cameras in the barn so I can tell what's going on in there.

PeN: This is quite an investment that you have.

CP: Yeah, if you're a breeder of horses, getting a live baby horse is really important. I lost one once, and it's very difficult. An old friend of mine said he had seven this year and lost three. That must be really difficult. Losing one was bad enough, but I don't want to lose another one.

PeN: How long have you been doing this?

CP: Well I've been doing it this time around, I'm going on nine years at this point. But I went forty-eight years without having any horses. I had horses when I was in high school, and then we lost our ranch and had to sell everything at auction, and that included all my horses.

PeN: Was it just the economy that forced that?

CP: Well, it was the economy and the social deprivation/amalgamation of industrial farming, putting people off the land.

PeN: Tell us how your most recent book, Coyote Highway, came into being.

CP: Well I asked my publisher Bree if she would do it, and she said yes. Bree is a poet and an artist from Cleveland who was an admirer of my memoir Valga Krusa. I met her maybe fifteen, eighteen, years ago in Cleveland; she worked at a bookstore and she's a writer, a very good one, very peripatetic, energetic, she's kind of like a . . . I don't want to mischaracterize either one, but a female version of DA Levy in Cleveland. And she has lots of friends, lots of supporters. Anyway, she did both of my previous books, Pilgrim and Martel and The Source.

PeN: I would love it if you could read the title poem.

CP: I'll give it a go. I don't know that I've ever actually read it out loud to anybody.

Coyote Highway
(For Amalio Madueno)

The baby coyote scampering across the road
In front of me and into the wheat fields
Eternal coyote grin of the hanging tongue
I imagined on his face
On her face
A coyote has two faces
(So too the road going both directions
And nowhere simultaneously)
Janus and dramatic
The happy and the sad
Bisexual and two sexual
Scampering sin embargo
Nevertheless there should have always been
An embargo on sin
We have coyotes to thank
For making it stick.

Nevertheless time has found my tongue
Hanging on a key signature
Making it stick on frozen steel.

A few days before the Blue Creek Fire
The coyote pup got ran over
Almost exactly where I'd seen it cross
A few days earlier
In the Janus-in-July crunch signifying both
The beginning and the end.

For the rest of the summer I've watched
The coyote's tiny fur bearing body
Get impressed flatter and flattest
Into the pavement
Making it stick
Flatter than your father and mine
Both of them and all others
Becoming a coyote grease spot with hair
Over time by the over bearing weight of the wheels
Of a hundred fire trucks
Coming and going after
The Blue Creek fire
Driven relentlessly by over-dressed fire-proof
Department of Natural Resource men mostly
Pretending to be fighting fire snared
In a stronger force by orders of magnitude:
They were really fighting (and losing to) inertia.

The fire bifurcated my life into
Before and after the fire.

Before the fire the coyote's body
Sang in its sleep
The howling vocal chords of my signature
Yearning to merge with the magnificent
Tempo of geologic time.

After the fire
Which was a month ago
And feels like many years
The coyote is wearing out
His welcome to the pavement
Beyond the crushed paw of Lorca's
Kitten in New York.

The intermittent grease stain
Of the coyote surrendering and rendering its fat
To the artificial rubber of its meeting with the road.

I too disappear in stains
One revolution after another
Imprinted on the road
Every tire takes
An image of me around and around
The Mill Creek Road to Walla Walla
Blue Creek a burned out memory
Tributary to what now?

Houses, trees, buildings, grass, several thousand acres,
That used to belong to me, my friends and the animals
A thousand acres of my own pine and fir
Destroyed by a careless wheat farmer
Exporting topsoil.

This coyote is not starving
No Nezahualcoyotl in Nahuatl
This coyote is extinct
Extinguished temporarily by
Industrial strength transportation.

Nevertheless sin embargo
The coyote is stronger than death
And despite its disappearing act
Will outlive the road.

I did not expect to be impressed this way
Molecule by molecule into the asphalt
Spread out in the summer heat.
I have no idea what happened.
I don't know what hit me.
Suddenly everything was a blur of blood and pain.
I am now the watchman of this road.
I couldn't get up if I wanted to.
I don't have a leg to stand on.
I can't tell you how much this means to me.
I don't believe anything anymore.
With my mouth mashed down into the asphalt
It's hard enough to spit clichés out sideways
You would find it difficult too
If you no longer had any teeth.

But I've been thinking about it.
Dead as a coyote nailed
I have something to tell you
That has waited seventy years of summers.

You can't get off this road
The semi royal road to ruin
Non-parallel to the King's Highway
The Road to Cibola
El Camino unReal
Coyote Highway.

If you follow the Blue Creek Road
Far enough
You come to a black forest resembling
Pages ripped off Cormac McCarthy's
The Road.

Every tank of gas
Every bag of groceries
Every text is taken
Up with futility.
It's all going to burn.

I at least have become a permanent resident.
Not a citizen exactly.
I never felt like I belonged here
So I took up residence both
Above and below the law.
Alien by birth in my own time and country.

While I was gone the rains came
And for a while seemed to loosen
My grease into the aggregate
Nourishing the nearby weeds.

Since I can't get over it
I have to rise above it
To reassert my claim on the philosophic kingdom
My great uncle Neza set the standard.

A search for correlatives
Objective and otherwise
If a weed is a plant out of place
What then is an animal out of place?
But an orphan of philosophy
I am too short to trespass
My corpus delicti
Completely committed to a body
Still missing but still counting up the crimes
A formerly fur bearing weed
Speaks right into the mike
You can't let me any farther down.

PeN: Holy shit Charles, we have to find out about a devastating fire by reading your fucking poems, I mean it's crazy! I'm not one to share my tragedies, either. But I mean, you have a heart attack, you have a fire that destroys your whole ranch, and when I find out is when I start reading your book.

CP: Well, I'm naturally fairly discreet about that stuff. I used to write a lot of personal things—

PeN: Valga Krusa is an example of that.

CP: Yeah, if that book taught me anything it was to keep my mouth shut.

PeN: Oh, you got that out of your system fifty years ago, is what you're saying?

CP: I did. For many years I would hand copies of that to youngsters and say, "This is a cautionary tale. If you can't find at least ten things in here that you should never do, then you haven't read it correctly." And then there's the other part of that which is, as they're advising some of the miscreants in public office these days, you should really stop talking if you're about to go to court, and the first attorneys I had representing me and some of the other plaintiffs in this fire said don't talk about it. I wasn't planning on doing it anyway, although there are some things that I would like to bring up.

PeN: You dedicated the poem to Amalio Madueño; tell us about why you did that and about your friendship with him.

CP: Well, Amalio is probably the best under-appreciated poet in this country. I can say that without fear of contradiction, Amalio Madueño is a great poet and he should have many, many books distributed in all kinds of manners; instead he has to crank them out more or less by himself there at Ranchos Press [his own imprint], although that's not a bad idea in many ways because if you're publishing your own books, you're in control of the process. Amalio, he is just a super, super, intelligent, musical, sensitive individual. I had no idea how important he was when I went to the Taos Poetry Circus, which was a year after my first heart attack—I thought, I'm going to go down there, I better go down there before it's too late. I don't know how the Taos Poetry Circus was put together, but I get the impression that he was pretty much the engine room.

PeN: For about ten years. And it was a production, it was a show.

CP: Yeah, it was kind of like entertainment of a sort. I don't mind that poetry turns into entertainment at one level, because they had big crowds. It was probably one of the most important series of readings that ever took place on this continent. And the guy who started it, Al Simmons, he is a great writer himself. And he started that stuff in Chicago.

PeN: Right, Mark Smith sort of took his method and turned it into the slam, which has its own story.

CP: Anyway, I enjoyed Amalio's presence and his poetry and I've reprinted a lot of it, published it in The Temple magazine when I was doing it again.

PeN: "Coyote White Tail War" is the next poem I'd like you to read. I think that reading the poems gives us the background for understanding the deeper picture which will emerge after I ask a question about that.


Coyote Whitetail War

Let's imagine one side
Never completely wins

Taking sides rends my being

How anyone could have ever
Described this nature as a balance

Juggling from a great height
The appealing solo participants

Both sides lose way more than enough
To vulcanized artificial rubber

The fast chew of the fawn jaws
Adumbrates the rest of their speed

The cruel chew of the coyote's teeth
Making peace is never going to happen

PeN: I look at your facial expression when you read that first couplet, and the look on your face is like, come on people, this is what's happening. There's a nihilistic undertone to all of this.

CP: I don't think nihilistic is . . . I think there's a realistic tone to it. I am a realist.

PeN: You're a glass half empty kind of guy?

CP: Well, it's not half empty—the glass is empty, it's full, it's broken, it's not even there, you can't get a drink, you're going to die of thirst, it's whatever.

PeN: Says the man who's had three heart attacks and watched a thousand acres burn.

CP: There's a lot going on there, the little successes that individual actors, a fawn, a coyote, you, me, our children, the little successes we have are all on a pathway to personal oblivion. I admire natural history in a big way and I think that cultural history, that is to say the people part of it, is pretty much irrelevant to what the earth is doing. But the book never got as much attention as I wish it had.

PeN: This book?

CP: No, a book I wrote called Nature Lovers—it's a satire on nature lovers in a sense, and there's an afterward in which it's a paean to Wordsworth's "Ode on the Intimations of Immortality." What I think Wordsworth was getting at is there was a time when birds, beasts, and flowers seemed apparelled in celestial delight. Nothing can bring back that hour "of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower." The way we used to feel about things as children, when it was all very delightful and beautiful and our parents were lying to us about how great it all is. That's really not about personal development. Now I think there's no way to bring back that once upon a time, before we became chimpanzees with a gene for speech. We're no longer part of natural history. Language has separated us from natural history, we're cultural history now. I think that insight, and I attribute it to Wordsworth, really matters.

PeN: Next up is "Coyote Stretcher" or as you'd say, kiot stretcher.


Coyote Stretcher

Dad had three or four
Coyote hide stretchers of various sizes,
A cross between a surf board
With the shape of an ironing board,
Fur side in for drying hide turned
Fur side out for later sale and display,
Pointy nose at the tip
Face minus the philosophical eyes,
A Coyote tube with empty throat
From which no call further comes.

Spreaders at the hind end,
Some Coyotes are thicker than others.

PeN: (Laughter.) And the purpose of stretching the hides is to sell them . . .

CP: Well, it's to dry it evenly to make it as big as it gets. If you just skinned the Coyote and had the hide laying around on the floor, it would wrinkle itself out. While it's still moist within probably 24 hours from the time it's removed from the animal itself, it's placed on the stretcher.

PeN: And the reason for retaining these hides, is—

CP: Selling them, for fur. My dad was a trapper. He was paid by the federal government to trap beavers and he trapped other stuff, freelance. There's a little poem called, "Hide" an old poem of mine, do you know it?

PeN: I may have seen it, yeah.

CP: It's germane to this discussion here and I think I know where I can find it.

PeN: If it's in The Portable Potts, I've read it yes.

CP: Yeah, I'm sure you've read it and it's . . . if I could put my hands on it and . . . in a large book like this, it does matter to have pages, this has 258 . . .


I am a boy again,
Riding shotgun in a black and red
1948 Dodge pickup with my dad,
Crossing the Arco desert
With our cargo of cured hides.

My father was a government trapper
And I'm a government trapper's son.
Halfway to the hidehouse on
Yellowstone Avenue in Idaho Falls,
We plow through an Atomic Energy Commission plot.

The mink, the muskrat and the coyotes,
To say nothing of the beaver,
Have turned themselves inside out
Into Levi's I might get to wear,
Clean new clothes to school
With the animals under my skin.

PeN: Wow. Let's do "Shakespeare Was in Real Estate, and I'm Buying a Farm."

CP: This was supposed to be a song. If I had more talent . . .

Shakespeare Was in Real Estate and I'm Buying the Farm

Shakespeare was in real estate and I'm buying the farm.
Every day I die a little; every day I live a lot.
The Enlightenment presents a challenge to learn how to think for yourself.
I go deeper into debt and by inversion think I can turn my money into dirt.

Blue Creek sings as it slides over rocks it hasn't quite yet washed
Out from under itself, particles adhering to one another like
Molecules of H2O have to to avoid puddling up:
If there's enough of us and a slope it's all downhill from here.

Then the ocean waves us back toward the beach we thought we'd left
Intact as the land's edge, land's end, land's creepy disappearance
Under water so big it's hoarding salt
Never mind the minerals in suspension that make up the earth.

The earth is not a made up thing.
It was put together by force.
The force that brings the human mind to attention.
No suspense in that.

The dirt by water becomes boot sucking mud
That drags the feet into itself at great depth.
The drought is everywhere and still we're all surrounded by
Wastrels at the village water trough and well.

How steadily the decline of the west slants
From Shakespeare into mud.

PeN: (Laughter.) These pithy endings . . . I remember your book How the South Finally Won the Civil War and Controls the Political Future of the United States which has only proven to be more true as we see the people running this country. . . First of all, "every day I die a little, every day I live a lot." This is evident, you could tell just by the beauty of this place and your love of animals and to see that month-old colt bound around near the end of the party last night.

CP: Wasn't that amazing? It's why I do it. You see a little horse at full tilt, you know it's okay.

PeN: A month old, not even a month.

CP: Oh, she could do that when she was three days old. Her balance wasn't as good at three days as it is at thirty. But the speed was there, and the desire. And then when they lay down to dream with their head flat on the ground to have REM sleep, if you can get close enough to them without waking them up you can see their eyes fluttering. And they're dreaming about running, I know they are.

PeN: And then there's a line in this poem, "The force that brings the human mind to attention." What are other phrases or names for that force in your mind?

CP: Well, it's kind of like gravity and centripetal force. One of the consequences of aging and losing my hearing, I'm also losing my sense of balance. There's a poem in the book Slash and Burn called, "Gravity." I talk about how gravity holds me up and keeps me pinned to the earth because you have only seven degrees that you can walk around it. My favorite line in that poem is "the earth is not a made up thing"; I felt like I was channeling Robert Duncan when I said that. I like Duncan a lot.

PeN: You live in Walla Walla, and there is a very palpable, traditional, religious, sentiment and community here. "The force that brings the human mind to attention" might be described by locals as God, or divinity, or some kind of . . . Charles Olsen in the essay, "Projective Verse" used the phrase, "the single intelligence."

CP: There's a lot too what goes on here and on the planet earth that is not available in this galaxy, move along. There's a poem in this book called "Auden in Egypt" which is more like how I really feel about it. What I dislike about theology is that people . . . I can forgive them very easily because I know how weak people are . . . but they give up. Now I'm really excited for this year because it's the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther. Martin Luther's premise was Catholics are wrong about one thing. My premise is Catholics are wrong about everything, and these are the papal states of America. Five of those assholes on the Supreme Court of the United States are Catholics, three of them were personally recruited by a Catholic named Leo who finds these judges and passes them along to the Republicans because they're . . . what Luther did was released information to the general public, that's what the Reformation was about. The Catholic church was wrong about Copernicus and Galileo, they're also wrong about Freud and Marx and Darwin and Einstein and everybody else . . .

PeN: So your issue is with religion.

CP: Theology. Blocking the path to information.

PeN: Yet the force that brings the human mind to attention, if we throw all the religion out, there's still some kind of divinity, there's still some kind of good, there's still some kind of intelligence there that obviously is informing you in some way.

CP: Well, I think it's dazzling in many ways. We're a tiny little relatively insignificant part of, if we could just figure it out from our end instead of mumbling about our inadequacies to some divinity, I'd be a lot happier with my fellow creature.

PeN: "Midnight Equestrian."


Midnight Equestrian

He was a promising intellect
A Passionate advocate for
Good public policy
A poet with world class
He turned it all in
For a handful of horses.

(This was composed the evening of the day
He caused his second heart attack, May 30,
Which didn't manifest itself until June 11th.)

PeN: We could see that on a tombstone. I guess that's a devastating fire and your third heart attack might make you think about death a little bit.

CP: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I read this little poem the night before when I was doing my little epigrammatic stuff; everything we are and everything we hope to be, we owe to horses.

PeN: Which leads to the next poem I'd like you to read, "The Naming of Horses."


The Naming of the Horses

Each horse deserves a name as exquisite as his or her soul
Since you will be saying them over and over again
Make them beautiful as only horse souls are.

Shandalupa out of Patchy by Foz
Is a Chinese mountain merged into an Arabian desert
On the Celtic peninsula of Iberia.
We sing the praises of the distances you've come.

Pahsimeroi is a river
And a valley
With a single grove of trees
Where my great grandparents
Robert Latreille Jones and
Cora Florence Lewis Jones
Homesteaded in the 1880s near Goldberg.

Fudasan is a filly with the feminine mispronunciation of
The Japanese word for real estate
Fu-doh-san for products that don't move.
Born not much bigger than a rabbit
Fuda moves her hooves across the real estate
In English her name is Flying Spider.

PeN: And the little colt's name here?

CP: The colt's name is Waatnuwas.

PeN: How do you spell that?

CP: W-A-A-T-N-U-W-A-S. I dropped the S, but it means spirit seeking place. It's Sahaptain Indian.

PeN: Amazing. I was recently asked to read for a whole two minutes at a party, and I thought I've got time for two short poems, one by McClure from his new book, which I have in my bag and I can read to you later, but then I also read this next poem, and I tried to channel my inner Charles Potts when I read it. The party was in Seattle on Capitol Hill, so imagine an audience that's not particularly religious or theological or however you want to say it, but it's this poem here, "The Hermiston Horse Sale."


The Hermiston Horse Sale

Standing in front of steel stud pens
A man and his son from Elkland, Missouri
Inquire about the bloodlines of my horses.

Preliminary to flashing me
His holier than thou card
The father says with grey beard earnestness,
"May I ask where you worship?"

Up to my knees
In horseshit and Christians I reply,
"Right here where I'm standing."

CP: It is true. It's not made up.

PeN: And this is the way you worship.

CP: Yeah.

PeN: And anyone who's heart is working half way can see that, don't you think.

CP: Yeah, they should be able to.

PeN: So what you're saying here, in pure imagery, is that your religion doesn't seem to be working if you can't recognize this.

CP: Right, yeah. That's a good way to put it.

PeN: It's what I get from it! Because you can see if you have basic human perception. I almost thought this should be the first thing to read, so people can get a sense of your wit and your ability to nail down a poem. I think the next one is, "The Well Fed Horses of Du Fu." Now before we get into this, you lived in Japan for a year with your wife and daughter and you're very interested in Chinese poetry; you brought Chinese poets here to Walla Walla and to Seattle. Can you tell us when you first developed an interest in Chinese poetry?

CP: I did some Li Bai translations with a really fine poet named David Wang, who passed away very young. He was from New Mexico. He used to do poetry readings with people performing martial arts behind him. But actually my interest in Chinese poetry came from a guy I don't often give enough thanks to, Ezra Pound. With David I also rendered a poem called "Changsha" that Mao Zedong wrote; it's the title poem of Mao's most important book of poems. He was a great poet, and the right person for the revolution, just the wrong executive to try to keep running it, not that he got any help from the assholes who ran our system. They might just as well have moved into China with the Marshall Plan in 1950.

PeN: My dad said, "The Chinese will take us over without firing a shot."

CP: Or everybody's favorite line: we'll surrender to the Chinese in Spanish. Here's the poem:

The Well-fed Horses of Du Fu

in Wuling their robes are light and their horses well-fed
—Du Fu, translated by Red Pine, from Poems of the Masters

Turns out on closer examination that the horses
In Du Fu's "Autumn Inspiration II" are not
Du Fu's at all but those of successful old friends from his youth.

I should give up a million dollar title
For the granular truth?

I hear my horses dancing on the land.

When I was sixteen in 1959
Bankruptcy was circling in on my family
Forced to sell at auction
Our ranch and everything on it
To satisfy Republican creditors driving
New cars and wearing new clothes
(Such as "light," ie silk, robes as in Du Fu above).

Everything on it included
My horses.

48 years without any horses.
Eight years ago I bought four and
Spring of 2016 I will have five foals.

I am still deep in debt
Successful enough, in a banker's opinion,
To feed my horses well.

PeN: Living well is the best revenge huh? I've written two more poems to potentially read but I'm thinking one more; I'll give you the choice whether "Windy One Week Out," or "Palo Duro Sunrise."

CP: Let's do "Palo Duro"—it's not as successful as a poem, but it's very important material.

Palo Duro Sunrise
8:00 AM March 10, 2015

The red edge of the disk surfaces over
The thinly fogged horizon.
Rising to sphericality the still red sun
Accelerates over Texas.

At the end of the road an equestrian trail
Leads downstream on the Prairie Dog Fork of the Red River
Towards the battle site
Where afterward Ranald Slidell Mackenzie,
First in his class at West Point, 1862,
Youngest brigadier general in the Civil War,
Killed nearly all the horses captured
From Quanah Parker and the Comanches.

Next day I feel I am walking directly into the sun,
Over the fence, out of the park,
Keeping my eyes down on the trail looking for the horses.
The sun is too beautiful to look at.

Peeling from the dead branches of cottonwood,
Bark soft enough to make a babies bed.

Bad Hand Mackenzie
Before he committed suicide
Was out here doing scut work against the Indians for
Ulysses S Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Beyond scorched earth to toasted horses.
The horse of my enemy is my enemy.

I toast the horses one more time:
When you run out of Confederates
Indians and horses to kill
You have to kill yourself.

PeN: I was going to ask you how does it all end, but you already said that. It's us surrendering to the Chinese in Spanish. But it is the fate of all empires to go down—

CP: Oh yeah.

PeN: And Morris Berman figured that we were in the final stage of empire twenty years ago, and now we've got El Caudillo Analfabético as our illiterate strong man leader. So what happens? You've studied the history enough to know what happens. What is the fate of all empires and how does it manifest?

CP: Well, there's an algorithm for how empires disappear and it's based on the size of the asset base, how intelligently the asset base is managed, and the quality of intelligence of the leadership. Unfortunately for people like me who would like to see this empire end yesterday, I don't think it's anywhere near the end. Because we're at a point where we assimilate a little bit. Like the Roman Empire . . . I have two competing ideas about how this takes place. Toynbee, who was right about almost everything except Chinese history, thought that the Chinese had gone away. The Chinese operate a system like a pulsar. They put together a dynasty, the first half of a Han, lasts for a couple hundred years, and they fall apart, and then there's a second half of the Han, lasts for another couple hundred years, they go in for a warring state period and that preoccupies them for sixty or seventy years, and then the Tang dynasty shows up, and it lasts for almost three hundred. And then it falls apart, and then there was a period of chaos and bullshit, and then the Sung dynasty comes on, it's for two or three hundred years. And this one that's going on now, the Mao dynasty as I refer to it, it's still got two hundred years to run. The Chinese are going to be . . . I wrote a poem the other day that said, "Mars belongs to the Chinese." So the Chinese operate on a pulse. Our system is more or less linear.

PeN: You mean the U.S.?

CP: Yeah, the U.S. system. The Roman Empire put together in its ultimate form by Augustus and the Augustinian age lasted for about a hundred years, and it came to a halt with a Trajan who was born in what we now think of as Spain who spent his entire eighteen years as emperor out in basically Romania, hassling people. He conquered the Tigris-Euphrates valley. He was only emperor to go to where the emirate of Kuwait is, he tried to operate clear out there. He couldn't do it, spent his whole time out there just fighting one battle after another . . . because just like anybody else that you run over, you know there's a few guys left standing saying, "Fuck this." And they'll just resist you, they'll sabotage you, they'll hassle you, they'll steal your food—

PeN: They'll put bombs on their back and . . .

CP: Or as Mao would say, "The enemy is the source of supply." Let's just takes these horses from these Romans while they're asleep or whatever. And Trajan was succeeded in office by Hadrian, who understood that empires have limits. He said over here, anything that goes beyond the Danube River is out of our fucking control, skip it, let it pass. And that's the line there. They abandoned the Tigris-Euphrates, said in the north, the limit of the Empire is the Rhine. We're not going to go beyond that, we can't manage it from here. The supply line gets too big and so forth. He built a wall in Scotland to keep the Scots out of England. He knew where the limits were. And so the Roman Empire stumbled along for a couple hundred years under Hadrian's principles. Then it fell to a guy named Diocletian, who divided it into quadrants. He had a sub-emperor for the Iberian Peninsula, Gaul, and England, he had a sub-emperor for the Italian Peninsula, he had one for the Balkans, and he was in charge of the shit in the East—he was from Constantinople, we would call him a Turk. I see a touch of Diocletian-ism with the Western United States Empire being Washington, Oregon, California, and Mexico, just kind of operating independently of Washington DC.

PeN: That's amazing. I think a better way to end the interview is with that other poem that I wanted you to read.


Windy One Week Out

It's been a week since Windy died
Her chin whiskers protruding beyond her lips
That will never nurse
Nose that never breathed
Fresh air

Her eyes were closed
An air of peace surrounded her
Before the sand and gravel of her grave
Pinned her down in thrust position
Hind legs extended to the max
Front drawn up as if leaping

Into the hard space of tomorrow
We bring the dead with us
Until they become
Too heavy to handle.

Inside every living person,
Especially the elderly
But some youngsters have it too,
Is a walking mausoleum
Of the dead:
Parents, siblings, friends, relatives, and
The famous dead like Kennedy and King.

Joining this parade of past tense witness
I have a baby horse inside me.

PeN: Thank you, Charles.

CP: Thank you!

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Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change

Ashley Dawson
Verso ($29.95)

by Chris Barsanti

To an SUV-driving climate change skeptic living in some sidewalk-less exurb, most solutions proffered by environmentalists for saving the planet must seem like a kick in the teeth. Those plans' underlying assumptions are usually that energy-guzzling cars and big suburban houses are selfish and wasteful. They also assume that the cramped quarters and public transit networks of the city—where, let's be honest, a good many people who believe in environmental action already live—are virtuously efficient, by comparison. Ashley Dawson, in his scorching jeremiad Extreme Cities, wouldn't disagree with the root of that equation, but he rails with jackhammer force against the self-congratulation delivered by one set of city-dwellers to all the rest. Don't get too comfortable, Dawson says here, because cities "are at the forefront of the coming climate chaos." After all, most great cities were built around ports, and sea levels are rising.

In Extreme Cities, Dawson sets out not just to prove how cities from New York to Jakarta are gravely threatened by climate change, but also to illuminate the ways that capitalism and class feed into and even exacerbate that threat. For Dawson, a Marxist-inclined professor of English at CUNY and author of Extinction: A Radical History, cities are hardly a solution to climate change. In his anti-capitalist critique, they are emblematic of the mentality that drove humanity to this current state of affairs. He describes modern cities as money "sinks" where "real-estate speculation provides a way for economies to grow as production." So, even though logic would dictate transforming low-lying shorelines into storm surge-absorbing wetlands, planners in cities like New York and Miami continue building right up to the water line. Meanwhile, even conservative modeling has seas rising over six feet by 2100. Set against that inexorable future, Dawson's description of a "feckless capitalist culture of ruinous growth" has the ring of truth.

Extreme Cities is an angry book—as it should be. Dawson spreads his contempt around, though not always evenly; he spends little time bothering with those who doubt the reality of climate change. Rather, he conserves most of his ammunition for the impressive-sounding but ultimately futile and even harmful plans to make cities more resistant to destructive flooding. For one, those plans usually focus on protecting high-net-worth areas like lower Manhattan and pushing floodwaters into lower-income areas deemed less worth of protection. For another, Dawson argues, resiliency strategies "inadvertently build up risk by creating a false sense of security and hope."

To buttress this rationale, Dawson analyzes several urban resiliency plans. He finds nearly all of them lacking in both foresight and economic justice. A typical blueprint hatched to protect New York is the so-called BIG U, which proposed a ten-mile-long series of landscaped berms around the financial and business core of lower Manhattan. Dawson's acerbic note is a lesson in common sense: "storm surges of the future will certainly not stop in their tracks at 42nd Street, where the berm will end." He contextualizes such plans amidst a future of truly catastrophic urban environmental challenges, which he says are "likely to unfold as a slow cascade of rising mortality rates punctuated by spectacular disasters." Set against that backdrop, high-end environmentally-focused urban planning will at "at best . . . produce gated green enclaves." He excoriates the inattention to protecting working-class urban people and neighborhoods, in examples ranging from the deprioritizing of areas like Red Hook, Brooklyn after Hurricane Sandy to the lack of resilient and sustainable building in low-income areas. (Cities aren't exactly asking for LEED certifications in public housing.) At worst, according to Dawson, high-minded and highly-paid urbanists are fiddling while Rome drowns.

Heavily informed by Marx, Mike Davis, and Naomi Klein, Dawson's view of the environmental threats facing modern cities is useful for its emphasis on the interlaced nature of economics and political power structures when discussing the allocation of resources in precarious times. But there are times when this normally tight and fiery book could have used some reining in. His analysis of the decentralized, ground-up manner in which Occupy Sandy provided effective post-storm relief in underserved parts of New York is on the nose, but repetitive after a point. Dawson gives lip service to looking at the issue globally but he only truly drills down when it comes to New York. (Dawson hopefully will be able to address the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey in future editions; he doesn't include Houston as one of his "extreme cities," but Houston's toxic brew of unplanned sprawl, unprotected petrochemical and fossil-fuel facilities, and extreme racial and economic disparities—all mashed together in a flood-prone plain whose vulnerability to climate change—exacerbated super storms was heightened by the loss of wetlands to unchecked development-works as an excellent case study for all the problems Dawson highlights.)

Like many writers before him, Dawson also falls prey to the temptation of the ever-expanding holistic viewpoint. It's one thing to point out that capitalist impulses are trapping more and more capital in doomed coastal cities. It's quite another to lambast a hero like environmentalist Bill McKibben for comparing the climate change fight to World War II. Dawson pedantically carps about this analogy because the Allied powers "were both capitalist and imperialist." Certainly that's true. But it doesn't mean the Nazis didn't need defeating.

Where it matters, though, Dawson outlines the existential dilemma facing coastal cities, and the refusal of various powerbrokers to acknowledge that reality, in bold and frequently horrifying terms. One of the book's most vivid moments comes when he's talking with Hal Wanless, a geological science professor at the University of Miami, about the status of that slowly drowning city. "I get Wall Street people calling me all the time," Wanless says, "asking if they can get eight or nine years out of a condo on Miami Beach." How many other urban districts, one wonders, have already been written off, with their residents none the wiser?

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To Each Unfolding Leaf: Selected Poems (1976-2015)

Pierre Voélin
Translated by John Taylor
Bitter Oleander Press ($25)

by Greg Bem

Nothing more born on your lips
neither words nor the tress of screams
no breath
save the astonished shadows
the unstitched thread of the violets

("In a Hay Meadow" Words and Famine, 1995)

This first major collection of English translations of Pierre Voélin's poetry is monumental. Translator John Taylor shows himself capable of taking these works in their original French and, through impressive translation, reinvigorating their mental and lyrical capabilities. Here, the voices of the poet observantly command a landscape of promise and distillation, of past and present. These are works of statement and presence and trust. Despite countless contexts and a sprawling range of subject matter, To Each Unfolding Leaf is primarily about existence as fully lived and fully received, exquisitely open yet vulnerable and bruised. These poems hold many faces, and carry the weight of lineages followed and embraced by the poet.

How do these lineages become represented, though? As a poem describing and commenting on the tragic final moments of Paul Celan demonstrates, there is a timeless full stop in Voélin and his determinations:

Off goes the star to the grass
and the poet on the bank stands speechless

No more shortcuts are left
The curious earth is cooling
at his ankles

Once again he opens the black pages of the nettle
before a river suddenly sweeps him away

("Night of November First," from The Calmed Woods, 1987)

Heightened by a slow, simple language juxtaposed with symbolic frames and images, the subtext of this poem, like the bulk of Voélin's poems, holds a deep capacity, bridging the qualms and quirks of in-between and often-unheard. All of this before the swoop and the sweep moves the reader to the next iteration.

Along with exasperation and release, there is a deep, unmistakable, and profound empathy traceable from book to book, sequence to sequence, breath to breath, line to line. Voélin follows in the footsteps and carries forward the energy of those writers whom he praises, acknowledges, mourns: from Celan to Char, Chappuis to Dickinson, Mandelstam to Bishop, and many others, including some of his contemporaries, there is a networked resolve of compassion vibrating out of these concise tides of conjoined bravado and humility. Poems are charged with the brilliant light and decay of universal awareness as it plays out in the days and travels of our poet. Balancing an aesthetic of philosophy and a range of scaffolded imagism and surrealist play, these works approach the end-death and the lack of existence-just as they approach the rebeginning, the retaining of memories of activity and action. The concept of nothingness feels futile here; there is burst upon burst of rejuvenation and recitation:

and then the dead-enveloped in bark
those who die in the peat
or stick to the sap

I seek the language of memory
we listen to it-it is feverish-it straightens itself up

("A Squawking Sky," from Voices in the Other Language, 2015)

Life and its boundaries, capable of a personalized yet open crystallization, are described in full here, from the minute to the macrocosmic. The individual moment, experienced through feelings of urgency, simultaneity, and awe, is a moment precisely spoken for and through with a language of angled mirrors. This writing is deeply personal and spirited, but it is infestation too, at once a blessing and burden to the outsider.

As with many of his French-language translations, Taylor offers readers an extraordinary opportunity here. As he describes in his significant introduction, this project has been one of friendship, exploration, and a commitment to the emotional and intentional core of the original works, paying respect to the ideas and the original language in unison. Channeling these many fine lines covering the themes of loss and intimate memory as described above, Taylor's translated realms of Voélin find an appropriate binding in their book-length presentation. The voice of Voélin, its varied tones appreciated, finds a home and homeliness in the English portal of Taylor's craft. An excessive but valuable body of research, both in the book's introduction and in footnotes, provides explanation and authority to the poems and their own intimate histories, many the result of Taylor's own meetings with the poet.

It is fortunate that such collaborations have successfully allowed the transcription into English of so much of this extraordinary poet. The book feels full, rich, overflowing, and yet the collection brings together just eight of the author's published and unpublished books, most but not all in full display. The door remains open for what will hopefully be continued gifts of Voélin's poetry to audiences of the English language.

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Many Lives Passed Through Place: An Interview with Roz Morris

by Garry Craig Powell

Roz Morris is a novelist, book doctor, and writing teacher, and has sold 4 million books as a ghost-writer. In her first collection of essays, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without a Sense of Direction (Spark Furnace), travel writing intersects with memoir. Morris visits off-the-beaten-track spots, mostly dwellings in rural England such as architectural follies, medieval gatehouses, and a leaky stone fort built to thwart foreign invasion. She has a weakness for houses that are unfinished or have a mystery about them. She is funny, perceptive about what these eccentric places say about her country, and like all great travellers, she manages to meet unforgettable characters who would not be amiss in fiction. Anyone who writes travel books must wrestle with the narrator's persona: does the writer try to erase it, or highlight it? Morris is in the latter camp. Although she and her husband often poke fun at her Tigger-like enthusiasm, that's precisely what makes her such a delightful traveling companion. Not Quite Lost is an entertaining, insightful book that invites comparisons to Bill Bryson's British odysseys.

Garry Craig Powell: First, I found the book delightful: amusing, entertaining, and often thought-provoking. It's not exactly a travel book—perhaps we can talk about that—but it certainly does something that most good travel books do: it makes us want to visit some of the places you describe. And I'm guessing that was intentional, since you give more information about some of the places where you stayed at the end of the book. Did you set out to write a book of essays about visits to unusual places, or did you discover that you were writing such a book as the essays piled up over the years?

Roz Morris: Definitely the latter. I've always scribbled in notebooks, and I have a particular notebook I keep in my suitcase for when I'm off my home turf. It's a bit special—bound in leather, with the word 'visitors' stamped on it in gold. I like the Alice in Wonderland logic—a visitor's book is the book I write in when I am a visitor.

I'd been keeping it for more than twenty years and discovered I had quite a collection. My husband Dave, also an author, suggested I organise them into a book. At first I misunderstood him, thinking he meant use them as material in novels, but he thought they'd make a standalone book of essays. I'm primarily a fiction writer, so I didn't take him seriously. But I came to like the idea. It set a challenge. The pieces were personal and random, a diary of place and curiosity, but maybe I could work them to invite others in.

As I reread the book I had a surprise—these travels were prequels for my fiction, long forgotten. Some of the locations had worked their way into my novels as settings—a seaside town out of season, honest and dowdy; a group of cottages built within the ruins of a crumbled mansion, full of romantic relics. Also, my themes were there, colouring the questions I wanted to ask—ideas of what lies beneath the surface and the unusual ways we can be haunted. Rereading this book was like following a string backwards through time and discovering where I came from.

GCP: The first essay, "Eve of destruction: a childhood home," is about Edge Croft, the large Arts and Crafts house you grew up in, which has an elegiac quality about it. It's sad—and perhaps revealing—that your parents' renovations made it "look like a bus garage." You leave a great deal unsaid about your family life, but it's very suggestive that after your parents' divorce you became estranged from your brother, and I believe didn't see your mother for a long time afterwards either.

RM: That's correct. When you describe it like that, I realise it looks unusual. But every family creates its own norm. That was simply how we operated.

GCP: In a way, it's typically English to avoid an emotional examination of what went on, isn't it? I can't imagine an American writer doing that. And yet, perhaps precisely because you say so little, the effect is very moving. I was left wanting more.

RM: Thank you—that's what I'd hoped it might do. That piece, "Eve of destruction," wasn't even planned. It was a late entry, happening in real time as I was editing the other pieces. Here's the story—a school friend messaged me to say my childhood home had been demolished. Immediately I felt the need to collect as much of it as I could. I looked on Google Earth and it was still standing. Streetview had more recent pictures; the demolition had begun. The house had always been a source of wonder to me—it had features from a more elegant age. Old fireplaces were hidden behind the plasterboard in the bedrooms. When I heard that the house had gone, I felt the need to write everything I remembered about it, to write its obituary.

There certainly is a lot under the surface of the piece; there are many longer stories that deserve more time and attention. But this wasn't the place to tell them. Is that restraint typically English? Perhaps it is. When you're on the inside looking out, you never know how typical you are. I'm certainly very fond of writers like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh for the way they use surfaces with devastating power. And I also love a more detailed and open style—I'm currently rereading Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, which savours each emotional shift in detail. But for "Eve of destruction," I was thinking in short form, with a clear container, like a songwriter.

GCP: In "Staircases to nowhere: Torrington, Devon" you quite explicitly state your fascination for houses with hidden parts, and this house, Stevenstone, was also demolished, like the family home, which made way for a professional footballer's four-storey pad, which "will look like Lidl" (a supermarket). In other essays, you and your husband Dave stay in medieval gatehouses, eighteenth-century follies, a Martello tower, a Palladian villa . . . It strikes me that there's a theme here. A taste for the emblematically romantic. Would you agree? It seems to me a kind of Elysian yearning, a longing for a mythical world one feels must exist, which also feels quintessentially English.

RM: I think the English have a tradition of stories centred around beautiful houses—Daphne du Maurier with Manderley (from Rebecca); Charlotte Brontë with Thornfield Hall (Jane Eyre); Evelyn Waugh with Brideshead; and of course, the TV series of Downton Abbey. These houses are more than settings; they are invested with memories, representation of their times, qualities of the psyche.

I certainly find places fascinating, especially if they have been extensively altered. I love to see the patterns of former use—if a house was divided, say, or walls have been reconfigured. And, of course, if it has gone altogether. There's something ruthless about the way we colonise and remake for our own purposes.

What draws me to them? An interesting question. I'm not thinking life was better in those older times. That would seem sentimental. Taking those houses as an example, although they had glory days, life was generally harder—there were few educational opportunities, no legal rights, no healthcare, few of the scientific advantages that mean we're not beaten by infections or bad eyesight. What fascinates me is this sense of a continuum, of how many lives have passed through a place, doing what they needed to, leaving footprints. Not lives that I think might have been better, or simpler, or innocent—or, conversely, harder. Just lives. Life.

I love the sense that we're fitting in with places that have already seen so much—and not just places. I'm drawn to furniture and books that are second-hand because they come with a patina of experience. My writing desk is an old dining table that a neighbour put out for the dustmen to collect. I painted it and it has sat under my computer for my entire writing career, and I love the idea that it was once the centre of a completely different home. My house in London has leaded windows, and some of them are bent from a bomb blast during the Second World War. I think it would be a shame to replace them as they are a postcard from the past.

I'm also drawn to objects that can be framing narratives, which brings us back to the house in "Eve of destruction." A bit like a fable, where something can be apparently simple but surprisingly rich.

GCP: I'm a fan of framing narratives and old objects too; when you're in a place that's redolent of history, you feel how illusory time is. That's very poignant. Of course, many of the essays are quite simply straightforward comedy: "Pardon our French," for example, or "You are not Morgana and I am not Merlin," which portrays the Yoda-like ex-solicitor Michael, who has premonitions, believes in a goddess figure, and is in love with a far younger woman. In these, in classic travel writer fashion, you often use the practical, down-to-earth Dave as a foil for your own giddy excitement. Here's a laconic example from "Travels without a sense of direction" in which you persuade him to stay at a Martello tower. Dave says "It's a stone pillbox." Roz: "It's got a moat and a drawbridge." Dave: "It looks . . . like one of those public conveniences on Clapham Common." These are hilarious contrasts.

RM: I think I'm lucky that he still agrees to travel with me! That is genuinely how our temperaments work. You've seen Spinal Tap, right? If I were an amplifier I would be on 11 all the time. In real life, Dave tames some of my excesses and lets me laugh at them. Happily for this book, he worked very well on a narrative level. I guess that's one of the bonuses of marrying a writer.

GCP: I should think so. But even in an essentially comic episode like this one, in which you are kept awake all night by "The drips [which] formed a chorus of sounds as extensive as an orchestra," there's a touching and thought-provoking ending. You visit a bookshop, in a decommissioned chapel, in which there's a notice on the front table saying "Please bash can with stick to get attention"—again, so delightfully, eccentrically English—and you end with this: "If the Sea Devils ever triumph and we have to hide in Martello towers, or the ocean churns our towns into rubble, or the murmuring voices drive us out of our power stations, we will build our civilisation again from places like this." That's characteristic of your style, I think, which might be described as "restrained lyricism." You have a pitch-perfect ear for the language, but you pick out only a few details, the telling ones.

RM: I try to! I admire writing that the reader can surrender to. Part of that is the use of detail—show the reader what they need, linger only for as long as necessary, then move on. George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, Hilary Mantel, Stella Gibbons (to mention just a few I've read recently)—they're like fine musicians with their sense of pacing, expression, and colour. I'm a slow reader because I become trapped by a well written sentence. Really, I have so many books I want to read but I need several brains so that I can get round them all.

GCP: You have a background in journalism, don't you? Do you think that helped? There are two schools of thought on that.

RM: I think I understand what you mean about the two schools of thought. For many years I've worked as a magazine subeditor, which means ruthlessly wielding the scalpel. It's taught me to edit for accuracy and flow—to strive for precision and to grip the reader's attention.

Journalism is a terrific start for creative writing in some ways. It banishes the stage fright of producing copy that will get a lot of eyeballs. But it's not so good for style—
especially narrative styles where you give characters room to speak. I've met a lot of novelists who've crossed over from journalism and they have to unlearn some of the reporting habits, particularly when they write novelistic scenes.

Here's an example. The journalist's instinct is to present a conclusion to the reader, then the evidence to stand it up. E.g. "Jane was not very confident before her driving test. 'I'm really worried,' she said." But if you were writing a novel you might not present it in that order. Instead of telling the reader that Jane was unconfident, you might want the reader to experience it. So you'd write a couple of lines that showed Jane wiping her sweaty palms on her jacket and revising her Highway Code even though she knew it by heart. This lets the reader add the conclusion about how Jane feels and it has much more impact—the classic "show not tell" principle.

GCP: Right. That brings me to the fact that you also tutor people who want to learn to write for The Guardian. I suppose that means that you think formal instruction can be useful?

RM: Yes I do, but there are two elements here: aptitude and development. Every profession on the planet involves using an aptitude. For instance, I would be useless in any job that involves maths because I have no natural ability with numbers. But I'm lucky to have a flair for words; I notice them; I enjoy using them carefully. So I'll gravitate to professions where that sensitivity will be an advantage. And it also happens that I have a creative urge—I find it easy to invent.

Neither of these qualities can be taught. You're either wired for them or you're not.

But each one of us, no matter how naturally gifted we are, has blind spots, so we need development and work. There are a number of ways to get this; it's not all formal instruction. We learn by feedback from other writers. Also by reading—any books, not just craft manuals. But at some stage we'll need the input of somebody who can see what's missing, and that's where a tutor might help.

I never took a formal writing craft course, but I had a lot of people I learned from. I hung around with good writers who enjoyed talking about technique and critiquing each other's work. But my broadest education was a critiquing group run by a literary agent, Juri Gabriel. There was a wide range of writing styles and genres in the group, and Juri was able to nurture and guide them all with insight and firmness. Listening to him each week added up to a wide-ranging education in how fiction works.

After that I did a lot of ghostwriting, and had hands-on individual feedback from editors to fit their readers' needs.

So I think we have many, many teachers in our writing lives. Formal instruction is a part, but the biggest factor of all is the writer's own persistence. A tutor can guide and steer, but the writer has to put in the hours. All arts are, in the end, learned by self-directed study and dedication.

GCP: And what do you think of graduate creative writing courses?

RM: I think they're a mixed blessing. If taken at the wrong time in a writer's development, they can stultify. We've all seen the "MFA novels" that follow predictable patterns and lack originality or spirit. But I have a number of writer friends who've already published novels and are taking MFAs to guide their next long work. I think that's valuable mentorship because you already have some solidity in your own style and identity. The guidance will enrich your work, rather than bury you alive. If I had the time—and the money—I'd love to develop a novel that way.

GCP: Let's get back to the book. In "A bad cold and a village of lost voices: Purton Green, Suffolk," you again find yourself in a remarkable historic house. Here's just a bit of the highly evocative portrayal of it:

The house looked stranded, as if it had been dropped straight onto the grass by a giant on the top of a beanstalk. A thatched roof that looked too big for it, like an outsize helmet. White walls striped with silvered oak beams, which gave it the cosy look of favourite pyjamas that had faded through many years in the wash.

That's such good writing: it's not only vivid, but manages to evoke fairy tales, a comic image, and the nostalgia of childhood. You're not only revealing the place to the reader but how you feel about it. And you're a very personable guide. I suppose most good travel writing makes a character of the narrator, although some famous travel writers, like Jan Morris, try to keep themselves out of the writing. I wonder if you've been influenced by anyone we might know?

RM: When I was growing up, my favourite writers were the ones with great warmth and personality: Gavin Maxwell, James Herriot, Gerald Durrell, Eric Newby. And of course, Charles Dickens, the ultimate big-hearted intrusive narrator. I loved their empathy and affection, their own particular flavour of humanity. I was captivated by that as much as by the facts of an experience.

I've always liked the personal essay, too. When a writer can take a thing and turn it inside out, and turn themselves inside out too, you feel stitched into their soul. An example I liked recently was Stephanie Gangi. She lives alone and she wrote about how many times she was touched in a week—it's bold, simple and so poignant. I won't try to say what it communicates, because her piece does that better than any explanation.

I like poets that do this too. I'll pick out one of my favourites: "Before You Cut Loose" by Simon Armitage. He describes how difficult it is to abandon a dog because it always comes back to you, but these simple statements carry much more.

So in my book I'm describing places and events that aren't, in themselves, notable or dramatic. I didn't go to a dangerous or notable place, like the Antarctic. I didn't go on a whacky quest like dragging a four-poster bed around the M25 motorway. But still I had rich experiences. So I wanted to invite people in, make them see what I saw.

GCP: Although I enjoyed all the essays, my favourite is "Strictly faking it," in which you, a writer who takes occasional dance classes for fun, audition for a part as a dancer in a commercial. It's funny and fascinating, partly because we learn so much about what it takes to become a dancer and work in an ad, and partly because you interweave your reflection on the experience with your thoughts on writing. Here's an extract: "From the first moment I was offered the job, I looked for people who would reassure me I could do it, give me permission to be there . . . But all I needed to do was give myself permission." And that's as true of writing—or anything else—as of dancing, isn't it?

RM: So true. And as I wrote that sentence, I realised I always think that way. When you write you sometimes end up as your own analyst. I was talking to another writer about this piece because she also felt it struck a strong chord. When I start a project, I think I won't be able to do it, that I've been too audacious in my hopes. And then I have to trust the process and inch along with it—"bird by bird," as Anne Lamott would say. But my writer friend added this: if we didn't feel that frisson of possible failure, we might not care enough to do it justice. And she's dead right; the fear keeps us on our toes.

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