Parents cited sex scenes and references to rape, abuse and abortion. In emails and at meetings, parents said high school students should not be exposed to some of the hardships and controversies of adulthood.
Hey Texas, I think you might’ve misunderstood the meaning of Banned Books Week….
Welcome back to the working week! Get it started off right with this discussion with poet Hedy Habra, the author of debut collection Tea in Heliopolis. Press 53 talks to Hedy about knowing when a poem is finished, and her former life as a pharmacist, below.
P53: Inspiration or perspiration?
HH: They are part of the same equation. Inspiration is essential and welcome whenever it occurs, but it is unreliable. I have found that inspiration can be summoned by hard work, and will revisit in unexpected manners. I revise extensively, so perspiration is indispensable. For me, inspiration comes in the way of epiphanies when a feeling or an aesthetic emotion is associated with words that resonate in my subconscious. I always take note of these fragmented thoughts that demand further exploration and will eventually trigger new associations.
P53: Drink of choice?
HH: It has to be coffee since it accompanies me daily. I religiously start the day with a double cappuccino sprinkled with cinnamon and then take the time to savor at least one cup of Turkish coffee.
P53: If you could meet any person living or dead, who would it be?
HH: I have always wanted to meet Jorge Luis Borges and Octavio Paz, so it would have to be both. I have been rereading their work for decades and love their poetry, their distinctive prose, and the complexity of their thought. Although they each attract me for different reasons, what I like most in both is their multicultural influences and the way they seek to pursue the elusive core of reality and reinterpret the hidden symbols of their inner self. I would have tons of questions to ask them and would delight in every one of their words.
P53: How do you arrange your personal library?
HH: The first division depends upon the language: French, English and Spanish. I have very few in Italian. I separate Latin American authors from Spanish authors. In the English section, I separate poetry from fiction. There are shelves dedicated to theory, philosophy and the Classics. I have added cabinets in the basement but the books that go there are not the ones I keep rereading or dream about rereading. Shelves carry multiple rows and layers, it is not a very organized library, but I can easily retrieve the book I am looking for.
P53: How do you know when a poem is finished?
HH: I guess I never know. I don’t know what a finished poem is. I think a poem can always be improved or transformed. I usually spend a lot of time on a poem and work on it off and on, oftentimes for years. I seek a certain sense of completion, even an erroneous feeling, the personal satisfaction that what is on the page reflects what I have been trying to achieve. This is when I decide to send it out.
Three Facts About Hedy:
1. I am an art lover.Wherever I go, I spend as much time as possible in art museums.
2. I was a pharmacist in an earlier life and know it has left sequels in me.
3. I have a passion for learning and have been taking Chinese ink brush painting for the past couple of years.
My father called to say that my mother had died in her sleep, unexpectedly but peaceably, and that now he could eat, drink, and make merry. He manufactured security gates that trucks of bandits could not ram through.
He said my mother had died holding one hand over her eye, the other arm held out, three fingers extended. Tell me if you see the letter E. An optometrist’s gestures. She had crusaded against river blindness, the plague of groundnut and plantain farmers who lived near rivers, where bred the tiny flies that deposit larvae in human tissue, causing lizard skin, leopard skin, and at last, irreversible scarring of the cornea.
I hung up the phone. I wished that I could have seen my mother again, given her a final chance to tell me if there was anything I could do to make her happy, anything that was within my powers. Though she didn’t believe she should be made happy, or that I had any useful skills. She considered me a selfish middle-aged nobody, no wife, no child, no spine, no guts.
I flew to the country of my childhood with a suitcase of eyeglasses.
My father kissed my cheek at the airport. He drove recklessly, overtaking trucks on blind curves, veering around bicyclists, pedestrians, and stray goats. He ate a different meat at a different restaurant every night for a week. He drank so much waragi and banana wine he could barely walk. “Maybe you should take it easy,” I said. On the seventh night, he collapsed while dancing at a disco on the roof of a hotel, wracked with spasms, coughing up blood. There was nothing peaceable about his death from food poisoning.
I had him cremated. I opened the can of my mother’s ashes, poured his ashes on top. I turned to comforting myself. My father would have recommended excess; my mother would have prescribed stripping away.
In the market, I walked among piles of bananas, shoes, and sweet potatoes. Children asked me to buy sodas, batiks, live grasshoppers to snack on.
A small crowd gathered around a performer. He was a beautiful boy, tall, slender, with arms that moved like birds, perfect teeth, scabby hands and blistered lips. He put a torch into his mouth, pulled it out, and the fire was gone. A meat vendor brought him a coal from her brazier. He pretended to swallow it, rubbed his throat, patted his stomach.
When he spat out the coal, his tongue looked black and swollen.
After his performance, the boy went to a booth of jerrycans. I followed him. He traded places with the man working there. I continued to watch. He seemed ordinary now. He did not toss a jerrycan to make it spin through the air before landing in a customer’s hands, or juggle the change, or sing the virtues of his wares.
I left the market at dusk, passed a procession of children. Girls in pastel orange dresses, boys in pink button-down shirts and khaki shorts. Too many to count, and one more on the hip of the woman at the back, a scrawny boy with stick-legs and stick-arms that swung as she walked. She gave me a paper slip with an address printed on it, said that her children made greeting cards from recycled paper, I should stop by. I decided I would attempt to communicate. I said, what a big family you have. Or at least I tried to; I was still rusty with her language. She said that the children had been orphans and street beggars, they slept in a church basement now. Her name was Ruth. I asked if I could carry the boy on her hip. She said that he would attack a stranger, and I said, with what, and she said, with his teeth, he was a biter.
I mailed postcards. I read any novels I could get my hands on. I bought strange vegetables, choosing them for bright colors or unique textures, chopped and threw them into a skillet of peanut oil, and dined on stir-fry. My father would have bought ice cream for Ruth’s children, and yoyos, jacks, and rubber balls. My mother would have organized donations, provided them with vaccines, vitamins, mosquito netting, ink pens, and writing tablets.
I went by minibus to the Kasubi Tombs, took off my shoes, and entered the round wattle-house roofed by a great dome of thatch. The granddaughters of the royal kabakas were old women now, and they were sitting on mats and animal skins, weaving baskets from grasses. They were lingering near their familial dead, buried just beyond the red barkcloth curtains. I heard a whispering tour guide say that the bodies of the kabakas had been dehydrated on drying racks, and that the curtains concealed not just another part of the house, but a great forest, the home of the spirits.
My mother had said that if a thief broke into her house, she would give him her rings and fix him a meal. She shaved her head, wore sack dresses, cooked matoke that was bland as paste.
She said she had been given a treasure, the knowledge of how to let everything go.
I walked into the yard of my parents’ house. The high wall around their property was topped with barbed wire and busted bottles, jagged-side-up. I thought that if I looked carefully enough, if I listened long enough, then surely I would be spoken to. The clouds were so pale I almost could not see them. The sky was blue as a whisper.
At the market, I looked for the fire-eater. I had been thinking about the sores on his lips. I had no words for “petroleum jelly,” but I could hold up the tube I had bought, and the bottled water, and I could say, can I give these to you.
I wanted to take his picture, to drop coins in his cup.
Your Monday doesn’t have to be blue—just check out this interview with Jeffrey Condran, author of the short story collection A Fingerprint Repeated, to perk yourself up! Jeff talks to Press 53 about his favorite stories and the personal significance of Cyrano de Bergerac, below.
P53: When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer?
JC: I had always loved books and reading, and like many only children, found an outlet to a larger world through books.It was maybe natural to want to be a writer then, but the real moment of decision came in college. For years the people in my life advised me toward more practical careers—business, the law—but ultimately they weren’t for me. So at the last minute one semester, I decided to take the plunge and become a writing major. Nearly all the creative writing classes were closed, but thanks to a glitch in the registration system, I was able to enroll in Kathleen George’s Playwriting class without any of the prerequisites. When she discovered that I had no experience as a writer, she told me I’d have to drop the class. I traveled home dejected and a little freaked out because the add/drop period had ended and I no longer had enough classes for full-time financial aid. So, I decided to go back and beg. I arrived just before the class went on break and Professor George, thinking I had been waiting outside the whole time in some grand show of dedication, took pity on me and let me sit the class. It felt vaguely providential, and from that moment I haven’t looked back from the writing life.The class was wonderful, especially for writing dialogue, and Kathy George has gone on to write a series of well-received Richard Christie detective novels set it Pittsburgh.
P53: What are some of your favorite short stories and short story collections?
JC: I am, without question, a complete devotee to James Salter. His story collections Dusk and Other Stories and Last Night have the ability to horrify the reader with their examination of our humanity while at the same time enchant us with the lyrical beauty of the prose. He is, for me, the absolute master. Perhaps my all-time favorite story is Salter’s “American Express.” There’s no way, though, that I could have become a story writer myself without the work of Richard Ford, Andre Dubus, and Tobias Wolff. All these men! Which is funny because lately my favorite stories are by Amina Gautier, Caitlin Horrocks, and Laura Van Den Berg. I’m thinking of At-Risk, This is Not Your City, and What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, respectively. Oh, there are so many. My answer to this question could go on and on!
P53: What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
JC: I was teaching the other day and noticed that all my students had these very personalized earbuds lying on their desks—different colors, different styles. They made my plain white ones seem pretty boring, so I mentioned this to them.
This one young woman said, “Yeah, mine are from Victoria’s Secret. They have little dogs on them.” To which another student replied, “Sure, you want your earbuds to match your panties.”
It was an interesting class.
P53: Do you have a favorite book-to-film (or TV) adaptation? How about a least favorite?
JC: I’m often a fan of Roman Polanski’s films. A few years back he did a film adaptation of the Spanish writer Arturo Perez-Reverte’s novel, The Club Dumas. The film is called The Ninth Gate and stars Johnny Depp, who plays the role of Dean Corso, a self-described “book detective.” Very cool film. I don’t think I have a least favorite, meaning only that I don’t go to see an adaptation of a novel with expectations that it will be “like the book.” They are different mediums with different narrative needs. Usually I’m just impressed that films based on books ever manage to get made.
P53: Inspiration or perspiration?
JC: Perspiration. Absolutely. When I was in graduate school, I had a great conversation with Richard Ford about who makes it as a writer and who doesn’t. He said, it’s rarely the “stars” of writing programs that go on to be published. Many who demonstrate talent and charisma when they’re young hit a wall—everyone does—but if you’ve had too much success too soon it’s likely you won’t develop the fortitude to persist when things get difficult. Writing prose is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes true dedication.
Three Facts About Jeff:
1. My wife and I own what’s called a “lemon” Dalmatian. The dogs are just like regular Dalmatians except that they have a slight genetic “defect” that makes their spots smaller and a sort of yellow-brown color. They are the perfect dogs for adopting as those unusual spots make them less desirable to those looking for pure-bred Dalmatians. She’s almost four now, and her name is—wait for it—Miss Lemon, after the secretary in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries. We continue to try to instill the same level of organization in her life as that of her namesake.
2. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, I discovered Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s version of Cyrano de Bergerac starring Gerard Depardieu, Anne Brochet, and Vincent Perez. The film was running at The Pittsburgh Playhouse, an ornate theatre that had been converted to show artsy films. It was the first film I’d ever seen with subtitles, and any French I know I learned from this production. I also fell a little in love with the actress who played Roxane, Anne Brochet. Okay, perhaps more than a little bit in love—I saw the film in the theatre seven times. It got to the point where I had memorized whole exchanges of dialogue in French. My favorite, and the moment that I’ve taken with me for the rest of my life is Cyrano’s death scene. To paraphrase now, Cyrano says that the best fight is the one we know is in vain, the one we know we will lose. And so what’s important, more than anything, is the gesture we make in those circumstances. It’s a little fatalistic, perhaps, but it’s also a beautiful idea.
3. When looking at a book for the first time, I immediately turn to the back to where the author photo and bio is located. My wife thinks this is weird; I think she’s confused.
It’s Friday!! It’s the best day of the week, so here’s a kinda depressing story to make sure you stay sobered until five o clock, courtesy of Ray Morrison and his debut collection, In a World of Small Truths.
A sharp wind cuts across the rooftop, pressing my father’s cape flat against his back. He is standing on top of the short, narrow wall that rings our apartment building’s roof. He teeters in the gust and I take a quick step toward him, but he holds out his hand to stop me. For twenty minutes, I have been trying to get him to climb down from the ledge, to give up his suicide plan. Another blast of wind raises goosebumps on my bare arms.
When my father turns from me to look down, I use the moment to steal another step closer to him. I have managed to close the gap to no more than fifteen feet. My best hope is to keep my father talking.
“Any people down there?” I ask.
My father lifts his head but doesn’t turn toward me. He stares straight ahead, at a thick, pear-shaped cloud moving steadily across the sky. “No, thank God,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone else.”
It takes me a minute to realize he’s not referring to himself, but to my mother. He does turn then, and I can see how ridiculous he looks in that Superman getup of his. A flash of anger races through me at how embarrassing this will be for me if he goes through with the jump. But this is quickly replaced by the shame of having such a thought. Mostly, though, my eyes fix on that giant S stretched tight across his chest, the color of fresh blood, and it mutely screams the recent, drug-hazed words from my father’s hospital bed that he says he never really meant and which I mostly believe. “See? See what you’ve done? If only you had come with us like we’d asked.”
I sneak another step. “Shit, Dad, it was just an accident. Tragic, yes, but together we can get past it. Now please come down. You’ve got to stop trying to assign blame.”
“Why not? There is always blame,” my father says. “I was the one driving. I was the one looking down. I was the one who didn’t steer away from the truck in time. Goddammit, I was the one who should’ve died! We’ve been through this a million times, Garrett. How many doctors have said I shouldn’t be alive? That I must be superhuman to have survived?” He swivels to face me, extending his arms so I can see fully the Superman costume. Superman, gray-haired with a beer belly. “Well, here I am. And if I am a Superman, then I can’t get hurt, right?”
He moves so fast I cannot react. In one motion he turns and steps off the roof. I run to the edge and lean over. I catch sight just as my father hits the sidewalk. He lands on his back. Our apartment building is ten stories high and he seems so small, yet I make out the widening halo of blood around his head, which is bent away so that I can’t see his face. The only thing I do see clearly is that large red S on his chest. I am unable to move, to remove my eyes from it and I don’t know how long I stay there, leaning over the roof, staring at that S, screaming, before unknown hands pull me away.
Autumn is beginning to show itself in North Carolina already, and I’m loving the way this Cathy Smith Bowers poem goes along perfectly with cloudy gray skies and a good hot cup of coffee.
We love these old caves—Lascaux, Altamira—and walk carefully the way we always enter the past, our hands bearing the artificial light of this world.
We imagine those first hunters crouched, conjuring luck, carving into rock-swell their simple art—whole herds of bison, the haunches, the powerful heads, floating orderless along the walls. And some are climbing sky as if they were stars, planets orbiting something they cannot see. Centuries will pass before they right themselves, their hooves coming down onto the deep wet floor of leaf-fall. Remembering earth. Remembering where it was they were headed.
This week we talk to Pinckney Benedict, author of the collection Miracle Boy and Other Stories. His surreal Southern stories are the perfect companion to a fall breeze, a rainy Monday morning, a very strong cup of coffee, a beloved flannel shirt.
P53: Who are the people that have most influenced your writing (both in the literary world and outside it)?
PB: First and foremost, Joyce Carol Oates. She was my first (and really, my only important) writing teacher. I took classes from her at Princeton, wrote my thesis—which became my first story collection, Town Smokes—for her. She and her husband, the miraculous Ray Smith, published my first story and my first book. Any time I sit down to write, inevitably I think about Joyce. What would she make of what I’m about to do? I suppose it’s a juvenile impulse, but I still do it, thirty years after first meeting her, and so I don’t suppose I’ll ever stop.
Tons of other folks as well, of course. Terrific teachers, friends who pressed certain books on me at the right time in my life, my parents, who were both terrific readers. My older brother, who was an athlete, and so that route was closed to me. Too many to name.
P53: What have you done with your rejection letters (that is, if you have ever received any)?
PB: Very many. When I was a younger writer, I took them very seriously and tried quite hard to address the weaknesses they adduced in my work, if the letters were more than just form rejections. I’d really put labor into it, fixing whatever those letters said was wrong.
At a certain point I realized that rejection letters were, like bad reviews, not much more than idiosyncratic expressions of the editor’s, or the reviewer’s personal views rather than universal judgments from some all-knowing Overmind. I don’t mean that they’re being cynical when they point out what they say are the reasons they rejected a story: no doubt it seems to them that if you’d submitted a story that did they things they say they wish it did, then they’d have accepted it for publication. If you’d submitted that story, though, I believe that generally they’d find some other problem with it. The reasons an editor—as an editor of an anthology series, I feel in a pretty good position to say this—takes or doesn’t take a story are largely instinctual, unphrasable.
This is all assuming it’s a pretty good story, of course, of publishable quality. If your story isn’t a good one to begin with, then all bets are off.
Same with acceptances: if an editor had a particularly hearty breakfast that morning before reading your submission, then it might get accepted. If, instead, a car hit the editor’s dog, then you are likely to get a rejection, particularly if your story had a dog in it. Should you then avoid writing about dogs or other things that might get hit by cars? How can you know what quirks or eccentricities inform the opinion of the editor, particularly since the editor is probably blind to them, and they likely change from day to day or hour to hour? You can’t, unless you know the editor or are the editor, and even then, probably not. You can only do your work to the best of your ability.
That realization made my life much easier. Now I just put rejections aside and think, Ah well. Wish that person had had a nice cheesy omelet for breakfast, or maybe brioche. Andtoo bad about his dog. And then I go back to work.
P53: Drink of choice?
PB: Anything somebody else is paying for. Not much of a drinker, not much for cocktails. I like beer but am not snooty about what sort of beer it is: my wife worked for Anheuser-Busch when we met, and I developed a taste for Michelob then, and it still tastes like fancy beer to me. Though a grad student of mine introduced me to the vodka gimlet a few years ago, and I liked that. So, vodka gimlet. My son told me not long ago that vodka means little water in Russian. I like the sound of that.
P53: What are some of your favorite films? Do you draw any parallels between film and literature?
PB: I like films a great deal, probably too much. I’d rather watch a movie than almost any other activity I can think of. And I talk about film a great deal in my writing classes, because I see a lot of films and because my students tend to know film—contemporary film, at least—better than they know literature, which is only natural, because film is the great narrative form of the age (until computer games and simulations take over—which is a development that I know word-people dread, but it’s going to be a great thing, when computer narratives mature fully, which they will).
So, favorites, a necessarily wildly incomplete list: Seven Samurai. Apocalypse Now (not Redux). Alien. Blade Runner. A weird little Uwe Boll film called Rampage that’s about a guy who—no surprise—goes on a rampage. Ghost Story. Recently I’ve been watching a lot of Korean horror films, because Netflix streaming makes them easy to find, and they’re uniformly astonishingly good and original, unlike recent American horror product.
Speaking of Netflix streaming and movies I like: check out Four Days, starring William Forsythe, Colm Meaney, Lolita Davidovich, and Kevin Zegers. I wrote that one.
P53: What is the best thing about being a short story writer?
PB: No requirement to get up early in the morning. But that’s obviated by parenthood, for a while longer at least. So the second best thing is the ability to give my characters gifts of things I’d like to have in the real world: guns I’d like to own, or cars, or characteristics like courage and indomitability and unquenchable curiosity. Then I can pretend for a bit that I have those things.
Three Facts About Pinckney:
1. In the early 2000s, I had a bout with cancer. Chemotherapy but no radiation. Have been clear of the disease since about two-thirds of the way through chemo, which they finished anyway for prophylaxis. It was an awful time, of course, for me and particularly for those around me; but the perspective that it gave me was utterly priceless. I wouldn’t have volunteered for it, of course, but I’m glad I got drafted, in the end. Best thing that ever happened to me.
2. On August 17, 2011, I got to ride in the #7 plane of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s flight demonstration team. I broke the sound barrier and withstood 7.2 Gs (though I did black out, briefly). I did not barf. Came away even more impressed than previously with the BAs and with naval aviation generally. One of the most exciting things I’ve ever done, and I’m glad I did it. Wouldn’t do it a second time, though. Once was enough.
3. Possibly related to 1 and 2: I have absolutely no fear of death. Of the possible causes of my death? Sure! Don’t want to be crushed or burned or shot or beaten. Don’t want to suffocate from lung disease. Hate suffering. But fear of being dead, of death itself? None whatsoever.
One of the best things about the weekend is that it can be viewed as a whole, or your can separate it into days, or nights, or moments. The same is true of a linked short story collection—it’s a powerful whole, but it’s made up of a lot of small pieces that make it something a little more special. So, start your weekend with this short piece from Bonnie ZoBell's linked collection, What Happened Here. Happy weekend-ing, everyone!
Edgar here, from the old neighborhood. I can’t stop eyeballing the TV, searching for some kind of answer. My body feels about dead on the couch. We’ve had another plane crash in San Diego, and it’s all over the news. Not right here in North Park but a few miles up the coast. Close enough it’s hard to stomach after what we went through in ’78. I don’t want it in my head anymore, but I can’t stop watching.
I got your new address a few years ago from Mrs. Jawarski down at Jubilee Seniors, where she’s staying now. I’ve been meaning to write, but can’t seem to sit down and do it. Guess it’s always the ladies who keep track of these things. You probably heard Betty passed on, and I’m alone now.
I really need to talk to you, buddy. Nobody else understands what we went through back then. The folks living here now had some kind of party on the thirtieth anniversary, but they don’t know, not really. Couldn’t go myself since the leg was acting up. Couldn’t even get into the wheelchair. They invited me, though.
Now the news is showing two homes burning up as I write this. North of here. Military jet. The houses are all but gone as I watch. I can’t seem to get up or out of my slippers since I saw the black smoke out the window and turned on the tube. Couldn’t go to work today. They keep playing the same segments again and again, plain as day. It’s all too much.
I got myself a part-time job at the gas station by Dwight and 32nd. A couple of times a week I go in and sell gas and a few candy bars while the guys take lunch.
The family up in University City is crying and trying to get past the police tape to see if their loved ones are alive. It’s all happening right in front of me as I stare at the set in the same old two-bedroom bungalow I always lived in. Remember the cactus out front? It’s about twelve feet tall right now. A baby and two ladies killed right in their home. You’d think I’d have all this stuff figured out by now, why some people get picked and not others. People are running to get away from the burning gas and fumes, getting into vans and rushing for the freeway.
You remember the refrigerated vans all over the neighborhood, don’t you, bud? The SWAT team picking up body parts, throwing them inside? Endless sirens. You remember not knowing when it’s safe to go back. I’m not sure it’s ever safe, Sam. No matter where you go.
University City grew out of nowhere around the time you left and all those people started emptying out of the Midwest and coming this way and needing a place to stay. Course, they had no idea this would happen. Korean fellow, husband and father of the ones that were killed, comes out on the news a little bit ago and says we got to pray for the pilot who parachuted so he doesn’t suffer. Says it wasn’t the pilot’s fault. Damnedest thing.
You spend your life hoping the dangerous parts are over, but never quite believe it. When Betty gave me the slippers just before she went on, they made me feel safer. Still do, no matter how old. I wouldn’t tell most people that. Or the part about never getting out of my sweat pants today, into respectable trousers and a work shirt. First, all the clean ones are in a heap in the bedroom. The kids say I should get someone to help, but what do they know, living all over the country like they do? I haven’t seen the bottom of that pile too many times since Betty passed.
Scary, ain’t it? Remembering the day the Boeing hit? Everywhere you looked legs were hanging off fences and phone wires and acacia trees. The Shermans’ old cocker spaniel died on the front yard, and that was it. Betty couldn’t stop crying. I don’t blame you a bit for moving on after what it did to your house, Sam. Not after the place boomed and lit up like World War II. Sometimes I wish I could get out of here, too. The older folks are mostly gone now—either to homes, like Milly Jawarski, or in with their kids. I figured I may as well stay here and dare the gods. If you can get singled out once by a 747, you can get singled out again no matter where you are. But the neighborhood doesn’t feel safe, no. Sometimes I think I can still smell flesh burning.
Yeah, the younger folks have moved in and taken over. Bright colored houses instead of all the little white bungalows like it used to be. Probably got more of those parrots than we used to. Mostly I wish they’d stay away because of all the spots they leave on the house, but I got a turquoise one that likes to collect himself on the neighbor’s roof when I’m sitting on the front porch. We keep an eye on things. The kids grow plants now that don’t need water since they say we’re living in a desert here and shouldn’t waste the resources. You ask me, it’s not a waste to have a little greenery around. I miss the old Italian Cypresses and weeping willows.
The neighbors take out the aerial photos that got took all those years ago, right after the crash, and think they can imagine, but they can’t. What do they know about friends and neighbors losing their homes in a second? Some of us are just plain cursed. They’re okay, though, these new kids. Ask me how I’m doing when I can get out of the house.
Albert’s still down at the corner. I see an old Mexican gal pushing his wheelchair through the neighborhood, and I try to get out and wave, but I’m not sure he knows it’s me anymore. I’d go on over and tell him about this current situation if I could just get myself out of the house. But I don’t blame you, Sam. Really I don’t. I might leave here too if I had anywhere to go.
It feels like poetry came early this week (!!), what with the shortened work week. Whatever, I’m totally cool with it. Check out this poem by Carmen Calatayud (taken from her collection In the Company of Spirits).
To snuggle up with god and you and the blue horizon on the other side. No bloodshot eyes/no tough love. Can’t trust my mouth, my ill-timed wild ideas. I can’t outrun the voices that make me ask you secrets, that long for you to pry me apart as best friends do. I’m sweating out the anger & drooling with love at once. Last night I moaned like a moon out of gas. Tried to sing myself to sleep. The tea leaves in my cup mean nothing. I tuck in the corners & excuses. Excuse my prayers. I want tête-à-têtes that break the dam. So I dig through your underwear drawer & smell. It’s true: you’re the salt sucked out of the flood. I’m still sniffing when I realize you’re better off without my personal questions.
This month’s judge is Press 53’s fiction editor, Christine Norris! The guidelines have changed slightly, so please read carefully—entries run from the 1st to the 21st of every month, and a new prompt and the previous month’s winner will always be listed on the 1st of the month.
September’s prompt: Write a 53-word story about a secret.
Guidelines and Information
-53 words—no more, no less—titles are not included in the word count.
-1 submission per person.
-e-mail your submission directly to firstname.lastname@example.org by 5 PM Sunday, September 21st Eastern Standard Time. The winner will be announced on October 1.
-Each quarter, Prime Number Magazine, Press 53’s online literary journal, comes out with a new issue. All winning 53-word stories will be published in the journal, as well as on the Press 53 blog!
-The 53-Word Story App is now available for download in the Android App Store (it’s called 53Words)! For those with other smart devices, check out the web app (developed by Daniel Krawiec) at 53wordstory.com.
It still feels like summer here in North Carolina, but we’re taking you to Frozen Latitudes today with poet Therése Halscheid. She talks poetry with us in the interview below. I can’t think of a better way to kick off September!
P53: Tell us something about the secret lives of poets.
TH: I have often thought of the poet as both the fly and the fly on the wall. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think most writers are observers. They are taking a walk, but also walking for words—opening their senses to note what they come upon or what comes at them. This kind of disguised watchfulness can ignite the muse. They hardly ever speak of it. It’s a private act.
P53: How do you organize your personal library?
TH: This might sound strange, but I do not have my own place. I have been an itinerant writer for years, since 1993. I do this by house-sitting. And so I pretty much live without possessions, only essentials such as a laptop and printer, clothes, and oh yes, some books. About the books. My mother still lives in the house where I grew up, and so I have books in the attic, which was my bedroom as a child. There are two small rooms up there, and one is devoted to books. There are two built-in bookshelves, and a couple that I’ve designed. This little library—low enough for gnomes—is arranged according to genres. One shelf is for poetry, one is for art, one for fiction and another, creative nonfiction. There is one for academic textbooks, and one for the literary journals in which my own writings have appeared. When I visit, I will pluck a few favorites and take them with me. This moving library switches around according to what I feel I need to read/reread at a given time. There are always a couple favorites that I have with me at all times. Only recently have I been combing through iBooks, and downloaded Dostoevsky and Annie Dillard. I’m the kind that loves to feel a book in the hand, but the idea of having an entire library in a hand-held machine is growing on me, especially when I need to fit all of me in a car.
P53: Was there ever a time you thought you’d never write again?
TH: I don’t think I have ever experienced a time where I thought I’d never write again. But I have had fears about my writing life, which can curtail confidence. And I do worry about sustaining a long body of work. The start of a project is exhilarating but as the series builds (whether poetry or prose), it can be hard to maintain that initial momentum. These are the fears that can hinder me, but they cannot stop the writing process. They are more like pauses.
P53: Who are a few of your favorite poets?
TH: This question has always been hard for me to answer. This is because I like to select a writer and then penetrate their work, and spend a number of months submerged in their life as well as their writings. There is always something to be learned about craft, whether or not it is my aesthetic. Each poet has an individualized voice/style, they bring into the world. In the end, I’d say there are many that I appreciate, but do not rank. I’ve done this kind of immersion with Whitman, Emily Dickinson, James Wright, Mark Doty, Stephen Dunn, Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, Marie Howe, Mary Oliver, Philip Levine, Arthur Sze, Patricia Fargnoli, to name a few. There are many others.
P53: What is your biggest non-literary influence?
TH: The natural world. Over the years, living in different environments, particularly rustic settings, I have come to love and appreciate the communicative nature of nature. It may not use human words but it transfers thoughts and feelings through vibration.
Three Facts about Therése:
1. I don’t have a house, but am at home in nature.
2. I write for myself, but enjoy being and sharing with others.
A long weekend calls for an extra short story! This week’s comes from David Jauss. Take a moment to appreciate the people you love this weekend. We’ll see you again in September.
What They Didn’t Notice
Frank When Frank stepped out of the doctor’s office, he didn’t notice the sky. If he had been sixty years younger, perhaps he would have noticed that one of the clouds scudding up from the southwest looked like an enormous white horse. Its long neck was outstretched, as if straining toward a finish line, but it had no legs. Still, its mane and tail were flying. Nor did he notice the ground. The soil in the flowerbeds that flanked the sidewalk was unnaturally black for this part of the country—imported, no doubt, from some northern state. Had he noticed the dirt, he might have thought about the clay that lay beneath it, damp and tinged with red, as if so many animals had died here for so many centuries that their blood could not be completely rained away.
In a nearby tulip poplar, a gray-green bird with a yellow breast sang over and over a deep-throated song, fracturing its melody each time with four or five abrupt, awkward pauses, but Frank did not see or hear it. If it had been another day, or another place, he probably would have noticed the mask around its eyes—like a raccoon’s, only yellow—and recognized the bird as a yellow-throated vireo. Though he’d been an ardent birdwatcher since the year before he retired, it was a species he had never seen before, one he could have added to his Life List. But he did not see it, so it would have to remain on that larger list of things that were part of the world’s life but not his own.
And when he reached the parking lot, he didn’t notice how long he stood there beside his car, holding the key in his hand. He did not notice his hand either, how it looked like his father’s—liver-spotted, the knuckles gnarled with arthritis. It had been thirty years since he’d seen his father’s hands, crossed upon the black lapels of his last suit. If he had noticed, perhaps his hand would have started to tremble. But it didn’t. It was still, like a small animal that freezes where it stands, hoping it hasn’t been seen.
He stood there for nearly two minutes, a full minute longer than it took for the doctor to change his life.
Ellie When Frank left the house that morning, Ellie didn’t notice how his voice quavered when he told her he was going to meet a couple of his friends for coffee.
And when he came home, she did not notice how quietly he closed the door, as if he didn’t want to wake someone who was sleeping.
The Doctor The doctor did not notice: (1) The way the carotid artery in Frank’s throat pulsed while he listened to the biopsy results. (2) The squeak of his nurse’s shoes as she walked past the closed door. (3) The way he kept clearing his throat, as if hinting that Frank should say something now, anything, whatever he was thinking or feeling. (4) The fact that he nodded as he spoke, as if he were secretly agreeing with Frank’s silence. (5) The fact that he kept repeating the word options. (6) A bird’s song outside the window. (7) The telephone ringing at the nurse’s station and Loretta’s bored voice saying, “I’m sorry, he’s with a patient right now.” (8) His hand lightly shaking Frank’s shoulder, as if to wake him. (9) The coppery taste of fear on the back of his tongue.
The Vireo The vireo did not notice the man passing below him on the sidewalk. It was also unaware of the obsessive repetition of its song, or even of the fact that it was singing. Least of all was it aware that this day could be unlike any other, or even that there were such things as days, as time, as death.
Ellie That night, after they made love for the first time in weeks, Ellie did not notice Frank sobbing silently. And when, finally, his voice shaking, he told her what the doctor had said, she was not aware that the fingers of her left hand curled up slowly, like an animal dying, while her right hand stroked the back of his neck, the stubble left there by the barber.
Frank After he told her, Frank looked at his wife’s face in the dim light the moon cast through their window, but he did not see it, not really. He was seeing her face as it was forty-five years before, when they first met, and he was wondering where that young girl had gone, and where he had gone, the young man he was then, tall and thin and so strong from lifting hay bales that she couldn’t stop touching his arms, his shoulders. Because he was thinking these thoughts, he did not notice the anger that tinged her voice when she asked him why he hadn’t told her about his symptoms or his trips to the doctor. Nor did he dare notice that he was angry too, offended even, that she would go on living without him.
The Vireo By the time first Frank and then Ellie finally fell asleep, the vireo had been sleeping for hours, its feathers fluffed against the cold and its head tucked under its wing. Torn clouds were streaking overhead, scarring the moon, and a wind was stirring the leaves that surrounded its nest, but the bird was oblivious. It noticed nothing, nothing at all. And in the morning, when it would wake, it would begin to live once again the one day of its life, singing its beautiful, broken song.
This Monday, poet Felicia Mitchell gives us some wonderful insight on how she writes, where she writes, and the development of poems that would eventually appear in her latest collection, Waltzing with Horses, which is due out September 1. Do you need a little inspiration to kick your week off? We think this interview has exactly what you need.
P53: What initially drew you to poetry?
FM: Being born. Also, my parents loved to read. We had more books than furniture. I learned to read with Dick and Jane and also Sappho and Edward Thomas. The first poem I memorized to recite at school was Sara Teasdale’s “The Coin.” I began writing poetry as soon as I could write. My first poem (age six) was “The Cave Pearl,” a deeply philosophical poem about female identity and the puzzling nature of language.
P53: Describe your writing space.
FM: I take my space with me. Sometimes, at home, I write in the back room, near the woods. I do write in a study but more often revise there. It is in a new space, and I have not fully bonded with it. I have written a good bit in the main room, by the hearth. Some of the poems in Waltzing with Horses were composed in the front bedroom, which used to be my study and is now a guest room where I keep the sewing machine. In my bedroom, I write in a daybook and a dream journal. I don’t write too much at work, but I have surprised myself with some poems in the office (including “My Turn Out of the Box” and “In the Realm of Grass”). When I feel blocked, I take a journal and a pen and go off into the woods, sitting on rocks and fallen trees. If I am hiking and have no paper, but want to remember something, I speak ideas into the recorder on my phone.
P53: What kind of music do you listen to? Do you ever listen to music when you write?
FM: I listen to all kinds of music, yet not when I’m focused on writing. Lately I have been entranced by the Debussy channel on Pandora. A few of my other Pandora channels include Folk Uke, Donovan, Francoise Hardy, Jewel, Nina Simone, Sara Watkins, Hot Rize, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Dolphins & Whales. I have always loved Edith Piaf.
P53: What books could you not live without?
FM: You would have to take a look at my shelves. There are many books that I keep nearby, including a first edition of Laurel’s Kitchen and my great aunt Nell’s Joy of Cooking. I have books that belonged to my grandmother and great-grandmother. When my father died, my mother gave me his books that introduced me to poetry, Edward Markham’s anthologies of “the world’s greatest poetry.” I cherish a copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that belonged to my brother John, who is deceased. I have saved my son’s books and the children’s books I bought for my mother when she had dementia. I have the first book I ever bought with my allowance at the grocery store, a 1963 Golden Book of Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone. I depend on various identification books (birds, flowers, trees, bugs). I could go on…. I use the public library. And let us not forget the biggest encyclopedia of all, the World Wide Web.
P53: You can only eat one food for the rest of your life; what is it?
FM: When I was in graduate school in Austin, the first months, I ate lentils and rice with a little cheese most evenings. I would add different vegetables (peppers, onions, etc.). I could live on that.
Three Facts about Felicia:
1. I love to play “All the Pretty Little Horses” on the piano late at night.
2. I am the fourth person in my birth family of six to get cancer.
3. I grow Jerusalem artichokes, which I call “my crop.”
Happy Friday! We hope your weekend is going to be filled with fantastic literature, and that we might contribute with this story by Nahal Suzanne Jamir. Her debut story collection, In the Middle of Many Mountains, is seriously amazing stuff. Do you like time travel, oral history, family/culture issues, the fourth dimension, and masterful storytelling? Then it’s probably right up your alley.
She was born in curtains, curtains with a pattern of flowers and curtains that felt like flowers but smelled clean, like midnight from her second-story bedroom window. These curtains, they aren’t thin like paper. That’s what a smarter girl would say. These curtains, they are thin like flower petals. Try looking through a flower petal. And this is how she first sees her mother, on a leather recliner that creaks and moans. This is her mother, silent.
Her mother is gone now, left them for some other city far away. Noise fills the house because of her father, a tall man with hair that crackles when he runs his hands through it. He cries and yells at the ceiling. He throws food into the sink and then lets the garbage disposal run too long. Empty metal clanging.
Finally, one day, he stops the noise and brings the young girl out from the curtains. “What are you doing there?” he asks. And when she doesn’t answer: “Well, I’ve got you now. We’re going to be okay.” A smarter girl would not have believed him.
*** The envelope says overdue, like library books. She got her own library card a month ago. She reads stories about old things, like swords and magic and large trees. These make her feel safe. She reads and the house is quiet but the words are loud in her head where the dragon and dragon-rider bond and kill danger. Where the magician saves the princess. Where a stone is not a stone, a flower not a flower.
The envelope is new, thin like paper. The girl opens it because she knows how to take care of overdue library books. Inside, a large bill for what are called utilities. Water, gas, electricity. Just add wind, she thought, and you’d have all of the elementals. She’s read about elementals. Without wind, or any one, the elementals wobble out of balance.
For a while, her mother’s things disappeared. They return now as the girl turns thirteen. An eight-by-ten picture of her mother sits on the scratched dining room table, next to a vase of tall flowers. A feminine jacket, practical but almost as soft as velvet, hangs on a brass hook next to the front door. If the light shines through the side window just right, the girl can see the holes her mother darned. Don’t let anything in, her mother used to say in the winter months. Her mother’s voice on the answering machine, asking you to call back. Come back. Backwards motion picks up speed. Her thirteenth birthday races toward her from long-ago, and she braces herself with all she can find.
Something has changed. Her father spends hours in the bathroom. Tonight, when she asks, he says he is praying.
He’s got her trapped. Tonight, she’s supposed to present her AP biology project at an open house. The Destruction of Hydrogen Peroxide by Various Catalases at Varying pH Levels.
Tonight, she knocks and he doesn’t answer, so she picks the lock with a paperclip, and there he is, silent. He clings to himself and sighs in response to her questions. The pungency of rubbing alcohol. He has written “see her die again” in permanent marker and then tried to scrub it out. She can’t leave. A piece of her father’s crackly hair has fallen onto the counter. The girl places it on her thumb, blows and makes a wish. A smarter girl would have cried.
She’s on her first date, wearing a thin dress. Here is a boy with light hair and full-round eyes. He asks serious questions. They both stare at their plates as she tells him about her mother leaving. The whole time, the boy holds her hand and puts light pressure on the veins, one at a time. Does this make her blood stop? He doesn’t ask questions about her father, and she decides she will fall in love with this boy. A smarter girl would have.
On the way to the car, he picks her a pink azalea. She can feel his hand through her dress. And she wonders if this is how it begins. If this is how you forget to protect yourself from sadness, how you forget to leave your child with a kind shepherd. But then, the boy kisses her, and she is back in that garden of clean flowers, watching.
The hole in the air is clearly visible when I get out of bed, blackness so complete it shimmers around the edges. Photographs of us are scattered through the house, broken glass under my feet like a trail of seashells. I know I won’t find you. There are two kinds of people, you once told me, the kind who stay and the other kind. I smell rain in the kitchen, remember the taste of it on your lips—perfume of wet soil and inevitability. I’ve had a memory of your leaving since the day we met. The moon, its glimmer fading like an old lightbulb, swings by a rope from the fig tree.
The Amazon v. Hachette dispute has gone viral with posts on Facebook and Twitter, with an email sent to millions from Amazon decrying Hachette’s pricing of their e-books as “unjustifiably high,” and with a two-page ad in the New York Times signed by 900 authors calling on Amazon to stop punishing authors and get back to the business of selling books. So far, neither Amazon nor Hachette have budged.
As the owner of a small press, who owes much of our success to Amazon for selling our books when most bookstores showed no interest, I hope Hachette doesn’t budge. And I hope readers will stand beside them and think about where they buy books in the future. Hachette is only one publisher out of many who have had to deal with Amazon’s games and bully tactics. This includes Press 53.
Until I read Amazon’s email, I struggled to understand why so many of our titles at Press 53 began showing up on Amazon last October as “Temporarily out of stock” or “Usually ships within 1 to 3 weeks,” even though our printer, Lightning Source, Inc., can print and ship any of our books ordered from Amazon within 24 hours. I now understand that Amazon’s mission is to push readers to purchase e-books. Print books no longer fit their business model. As the Amazon letter said, “With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs…”
So this scrum match with Hachette is really about Amazon using its position as an industry giant to sway readers toward e-books, a medium that is more profitable to Amazon. It’s about Amazon flexing its muscles to prove dominance over “a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate” to fall in line with Amazon’s vision or suffer the consequences. And since Press 53 e-books are priced lower than our print books, Amazon is passive-aggressively nudging our readers toward the e-book by listing our print books as out of stock.
Large companies like Amazon and Walmart derive their power from consumers who voluntarily support them. My family no longer shops at Walmart because we refuse to support a company that pays its employees poverty wages, leaving many to rely on government assistance programs to survive. In essence, we, as taxpayers, are subsidizing the Walton’s, America’s richest family.
Shoppers have a choice to continue buying goods from these large low-margin, high-volume businesses like Walmart and Amazon, while we all watch them continue their march toward complete control of the marketplace, or they can choose to spend a little more with companies who appreciate their business and only want to co-exist in this world, not control it.
Hachette should be free to set e-book prices that are in line with their own goals, not Amazon’s. And Amazon is free to leave the print book market to other booksellers and focus on the more lucrative e-book market, should they choose to follow their own advice. But using its position and power to force other businesses to get in line or go down should earn Amazon a time-out from people who value fairness and choice in the marketplace.
What we are witnessing with Amazon v. Hachette is not a battle for lower e-book prices for the good of readers. We are witnessing the corruption of power, where almost having it all isn’t the same, or as satisfying, as having it all. We are seeing how the desire for complete control will allow someone to set conscience aside while the lives and careers of others are toyed with like chess pieces, all while telling the world with a straight face that this power-move is for the good of us all.
I’m really thrilled this morning to present an interview with Wendy J. Fox, the first ever winner of the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction—she stunned me from the first story, and the stories only kept getting better from there! Her debut, The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories, is out in October but is available for pre-order now.
P53: What are a few of the books you couldn’t live without?
WJF: Melanie Rae Thon, Sweet Hearts; Ivan Doig, This House of Sky; anything by Alice McDermott; John Banville, Eclipse.
P53: What kind of movies do you like to watch? Do you draw any parallels between film and literature?
WJF: I can’t really say that I like to watch movies—the last time I went to a movie theater was 2008 on a date with my now-husband. I think I thought going to see a movie was something we were supposed to do as part of the overall process. That said, if I like a movie, it’s something with a strong narrative arc or stunning dialogue, like good books have. I never seek films out, but occasionally I run into something that is compelling. If asked about a favorite, I default to No Country for Old Men because I like it the best (thus far) of the McCarthy films.
P53: Was there ever a point where you felt like you might give up on writing?
WJF: There was never a point where I felt that I would give up on writing, but many times I wanted to give up on publishing. Now, my alphabetized catalog of rejections is more of a travelogue and less of a bummer. The rejections continue to grow at a steady pace, but I have learned to not take it personally. Press 53 rejected my (as of now, still unpublished) novel Deals, for example, but later took my debut short-story collection. The business end of writing is a reality that we aren’t all always super keen on, but independent publishers, small presses, and literary magazines still care. I had work come out last month in two magazines who had said “no” more than one (okay, four and six) times before saying “yes!”
P53: What is your biggest non-literary influence?
WJF: My biggest non-literary influence is my parents, by a long shot. My folks are split up now, but what I got from both of them was a sense of what anyone can accomplish through work. They both encouraged the writing life (my mom used to bring home a typewriter from work so I could hack away on it), and they both had, and still have, this kind of reserved optimism, a sense of Well, you won’t know until you try, and they always have advocated trying.
P53: Drink of choice?
WJF: White wine when it is warm, red wine when it is cool.
Three Facts about Wendy:
1. While I do have an MFA, my other three-letter degree is a GED.
2. My favorite color is orange.
3. After living in the same place for my entire life, between 1996 and 2009, I moved 17 times.
They continued on, farther down the shoreline, passing women throwing nets into the water and gathering reed moss from the shallows. He thought they would be naked. He subscribed to National Geographic. He thought their breasts would be like round rocks against their bodies. But they were wearing tunics that went past their knees. He felt himself being pulled toward them and he leaned out, pressing the side of the boat deeper into the water.
He noticed how they did not speak back to him. But he called out anyway.
The sea was not shocking to them.
They waded out. The bottoms of their tunics were sheer. The moss from the bottom had been dyed and the kimono color bled in ribbons across the current.
He bowed the boat deeper into the water, whispering. He could hear something ancient. Leaning his ear closer, nearly dipping it in, he heard it again. A low voice that sounded like fish scales being rubbed from raw skin.
Jacob, the boat driver, warned him that a piranha could jump out and grab him by the throat. But still he listened.
“There is music under the water,” he gasped.
“There is nothing but fish,” Jacob said back.
He rowed them away from the women. From the shore where a girl waved, her arms laced with strings and pebble beads, her tunic soaked to her navel. She had hair that melted into the water. He believed it looked like black glass. As if her eyes were all that illuminated and he was running into the night sky.
53-Word Story Contest Winner (July): Kathryn Kulpa
Congratulations to Kathryn, whose story “Seapowet Mills Picnic, Purgatory Lake, 1912,” was chosen as last month’s winner! The story will appear in a forthcoming issue of Prime Number Magazine, and Kathryn wins the Press 53 book of her choice! Read her winning story, below.
Seapowet Mills Picnic, Purgatory Lake, 1912
He’s the boss’s son. You’re nobody’s daughter, a Bridget, a Maggie. That won’t matter soon, and won’t the girls in the thread room die of envy? He leads you down Widow’s Walk to see the chasm. Your whispered secret echoes, your steps clumsy on the stones. His hand at your back is firm.
We’re beginning our Monday with a chat with Joseph Mills—Mills’ latest collection of poetry, This Miraculous Turning, is due out next month (and is available for pre-order now!). He tells us about his favorite writers, and a few of the ways he goes about his own writing, in the interview below. Read a poem from his last collection here (it’s about Jane Austen!).
P53: Who is your favorite author and why?
JM: Although it’s hard to pick just one, I continually go back to the work of Mark Twain. His language. His vision. His range. His willingness to tackle difficult issues. His commitment to writing. I’ve spent more time with Huck, Jim, and Tom, than most “real” people I know.
And, although Twain disliked Jane Austen, I fell in love with her work when my wife started reading it out loud to me. I cannot casually pick up her books without losing myself in them.
I also became a fan of J.K. Rowling as I read her second book and realized she had much more on her mind with “mudbloods” and “purebloods” than just entertainment.
I could list a half-dozen more favorites in a blink: Dawn Powell, Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman, George Simenon, E.B. White, René Goscinny, …
P53: What kind of music do you listen to? Do you listen to music while writing?
JM: I listen to a lot of folk music. For years, I’ve been inspired by the songwriter, Greg Brown, and his lyrics like “love ain’t a hug/love ain’t a kiss/love is everyday/doing this that and this.” Or, “Life is a thump ripe melon/so sweet and such a mess.” For the same reason, I continually return to the work of Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, The Decemberists, Dan Bern, Kate Nash, those musicians who love language and narratives.
I used to listen to music a great deal as I wrote. I would repeat an album over and over, such as Ben Folds Five’s “Whatever and Ever Amen” or Death Cab for Cutie’s “Plans.” I found this helped me focus, and it created a Pavlovian response. The song is on that means it’s time to write. Now, however, I tend to find music hard to tune out, so I write a lot in coffeeshops where the ambient sounds help me focus.
P53: Inspiration or perspiration?
JM: Definitely Perspiration. The inspiration is good for the initial draft. It’s exciting, but it doesn’t get the work finished. It wears off, and, if I relied only on it, I would have even more half-drafted hulks of work lying around than I do, and almost nothing would be finished.
That said, inspiration leads me in unexpected directions. Sending Christmas Cards to Huck and Hamlet has a number of poems that I was “inspired” to write, but they’re the type of poems that I said I never would. So, after the initial drafts, I didn’t want to do the perspiration part and work on them because a younger me said things like, “I’ll never write poems about writing poems.” But, I find as I get older that I’m less willing to live according to the absolutes of my younger self.
P53: If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?
JM: I would like to say donuts, but I think one consequence of that would be a much shorter life. I already eat bread every day, and I suspect that will continue for the rest of my life. So, I’m tempted to say bread. Good loaves. It would be nice to have some butter too. But, the smart choice for me would be potatoes. I love potatoes in all their forms: French fried, hashed, mashed, baked, pancaked, made in chowders. Then I could have potato bread as well.
P53: How do you handle writer’s block?
JM: Getting started is the hardest part. Once I actually sit down, I usually can write something. Plus, I have so many partially done pieces that, if I have no other ideas, I can start to work with one of them and something comes. At the moment, far more crippling than writer’s block is writer’s distraction – checking email and facebook, making a cup of coffee or toast, or suddenly deciding that it’s absolutely crucial that I make an oil change appointment.
Three Facts about Joseph Mills:
1. I was on a championship soccer team in high school. As bench ballast. So, I have an appreciation of those guys in the clean uniforms who run out on the field at the end of the game and wrap their arms around the periphery of the sweaty victory pile.
2. The first record album I ever bought was John Denver’s Sunshine on My Shoulders, and I did a book report on him in elementary school. (His real name is Henry John Deutschendorf.)
3. My first “paycheck” job was at a donut shop. The secret ingredient of the chocolate icing on the cake donuts was coffee.
Here’s a harrowing story to leave you a little bit cold even in the hottest days of summer, courtesy of Arthur Powers and his award-winning short story collection, A Hero for the People.
"Son of a whore!”
The driver slammed his fist down on the steering wheel of the stalled truck. The boy on the seat beside him looked up, frightened by his anger, frightened by the fear he sensed lurking beneath the anger. He watched the driver with wide-opened eyes.
“Son of a whore,” the driver repeated, but this time quietly, intensely. He turned and looked out the window, and the boy looked too, out over the flat, barren land, still visible in the twilight, empty to the distant hills except for half-starved scrub trees. Empty, but—the boy knew—not empty.
“What are we going to do?” the boy asked. It was awhile since the sun had set behind the distant hills, and it was quickly growing dark. The lone paved highway stretched straight north in front of them, south behind them, its two lanes also empty.
The word galvanized the driver into action. He reached under the seat and brought out a flashlight, a wrench, and a short iron bar. He pushed the door part way open, paused a moment, then reached across the cabin and opened the glove compartment. He took out the revolver and put it in the boy’s hands.
“Hold this,” the driver said. Then he pushed against the door and swung to the ground. For an instant the boy saw him standing there in the dusk, knees bent, his lithe body ready to fight, the iron bar clutched in his fist like a club. Then he slammed the door and moved quickly around to the front of the truck, opening its snub-nosed hood.
The boy sat holding the gun, huge and heavy and awkward in his hands. He was sweating. The windows were closed against thick masses of tiny buzzing insects, but a few had gotten in anyway and they hovered around his eyes and ears with thin, irritating whining. The rain had started just three days ago, he knew—after how long?—bringing with it night heat and bugs and dark skies that closed out moon and stars. But not bringing food. Not yet.
And that was what they were carrying—food. In the shiny aluminum square back of the truck, inside the rear doors, doors padlocked against thieves and marauders, it lay stacked in boxes. Boxes of food for the black markets in the northeast, the drought land, where people were willing to pay twice, three times the prices in São Paulo. Their fortune. But the truck had broken down. He could hear the wrench moving under the hood, searching futilely, a lost metallic ringing. Then the driver’s hand appeared over the edge of the hood and slammed it shut, and the driver, looking once behind him warily, came back and opened his door and swung up into his seat. A swarm of insects followed him into the cabin.
“What is it?” the boy asked.
The driver threw the wrench and iron pipe on the floor and muttered something. “Fuel line,” the boy thought it was, but it didn’t matter. Whatever it was, they wouldn’t be able to fix it. The boy sat, still holding the gun in his sweating hands, drops of sweat running down inside his shirt, his forehead and neck drenched, the insects angry in his eyes, his ears.
The driver moved. The boy looked up and saw two specks of light—headlights—far ahead. “Thank God,” the driver said, and he felt along the seat, picking up the flashlight. He swung his door open again and jumped down onto the road, turning on the flashlight and waving it, came back to the cabin, reached in and blinked the truck’s headlights twice, then was back out on the road, dancing around, flashlight in hand. The open door let slightly cooler air in, and the boy gave up fighting the insects and rolled down his window, feeling almost cool in his sweat, feeling better. The headlights were drawing close now; the driver waved the flashlight again. The headlights came on fast, then passed in a flash, and the boy saw it was a truck, a blue-bodied snub-nosed Mercedes truck just like their own. And then it was gone, and they heard the dying whine of the other truck’s engine as it sped south.
They saw the first figure just after eleven o’clock.
It flitted off to their left, a thin darkness against the darkness, and the boy probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all except that the driver suddenly tensed and the boy looked where he was looking. A quick flitting, then it was gone.
“Give me the gun,” the driver said.
The boy handed it to him, glad to be rid of the dead, heavy weight.
“Close your window,” the driver said.
The boy closed it most of the way. The insects had died down, but the night was humid, hot. He left it open a few inches at the top.
“Is your door locked?” the driver asked.
The boy tested the knob with his fingers. “Yes,” he said.
They sat in silence for a minute, and then the boy thought he saw another figure off to the right, then another. Circling. Closing in tighter. The driver moved his hand slowly to the headlight knob. Suddenly he switched on the headlights. Three figures slipped aside quickly, out of the lights, vanishing like spirits, and the boy could only see that they were sticks of men—men or women—all bones, like a child’s drawing. But they were gone, as though the light scared them away. The driver left the headlights on a minute or so—they could leave them on until the battery went dead, the boy knew, but what would they do then? The driver switched off the lights.
And again, after a few moments, the figures flitted across the edge of their sight. Again the driver flashed on the headlights, but this time he didn’t catch any of the figures in the light. A faint, eerie laugh sounded off to their left.
They heard the first voice about a half hour later, off to the left, the driver’s side, close by.
“Brother,” the voice said quietly. “Brother, throw us out the key.” A thin, rasping voice. “You and your truck won’t be harmed.”
Silence. The driver said nothing, but the boy could hear him breathing, breathing.
“Brother,” another voice said. It was a woman’s voice, whining and high.“Brother, we only want the food. We’ve eaten nothing for days. Have compassion, brother. Throw us the key.”
“We all have pistols,” the driver shouted, as though the cabin held three or four armed men, though there were only the two of them, and one gun.
Silence. A rattling on the outside of the truck as someone touched the running board, the door. First on one side, then the other.
“I’ll shoot,” the driver shouted.
The boy screamed. A thin hand had reached through the partly closed window, grabbing his hair. In a panic he rolled the window shut, felt it close on the arm. A grunt of pain outside, and then the arm disappeared. He rolled the window up the rest of the way, his stomach turning over inside him.
“I’ll shoot,” the driver shouted more loudly.
“Would you shoot an old woman, brother?” The driver jumped—the voice was just outside his door. “Don’t you have a mother? Would you shoot an old woman?”
As if answering he half opened the window and, aiming wildly, high, shot into the night.
The sound came a minute later. Metal against metal.
“They’re prying at the back,” the boy said.
The driver said nothing. The boy could feel his tenseness.
The sound came again, metal against metal, a crow bar, the boy thought, levered against the lock. Then a loud banging. Then the crow bar again.
The driver half turned, holding the gun high.
“Let them be,” the boy said.
There was tense silence.
“Everything we have is back there,” the driver said. He spoke quietly, intensely. “Everything we own.”
“They can’t break the lock,” the boy said.
The sound of banging.
“Yes they can,” the driver said. He pressed the keys into the boy’s hand, flung open the door and leaped to the ground, clutching the gun. The door slammed shut.
The sound of metal stopped. The boy waited. Suddenly a shot barked out—once, twice. The sound of something soft hitting the back of the truck, soft pounding. A third shot.
The boy sweated in the closed cabin, trembling, his fingers hurting and tight around the keys. Slowly, as he listened, the sound of metal against metal started again.
“But the thing about country people is, they can move to a new geography, be thrust into routines that seem normal for the rest of the world, but they still have the dust in them. They still feel the kickback of a rifle on their shoulder, they still expect trouble. And because they look for it, they find it.”—Wendy J. Fox, The Seven Stages of Anger
It’s an especially exciting Wednesday in the Press 53 office this week, at least for me, because it’s my last day this week before I head off for a long weekend at the beach! Don’t worry, though—I’ll load some great literary content into the queue and you won’t even know I’m gone! And to ease your jealousy and the mid-week blues, here’s a poem from Felicia Mitchell’s new collection, Waltzing with Horses.
My Mind Has a Body of Its Own
Cars wrecked on purpose and set on fire. His hand-tailored suits ride shotgun, singed. We’ve seen it in movies on TV.
We wait for the rip, the smell of tobacco, some habit she starts not related to him. Something he won’t know.
We listen. Inappropriate lovers in inappropriate places. A see-through office, a loaded train, the toilet in an airplane.
We know it’s almost here. We want to put both hands on it. Stand witness. Measure her before and after.
We stay for it. Each strand down her back, shorn, evidence left on the linoleum, everyone’s reminder.
While typos are usually harmless little annoyances, sometimes they can completely change the meaning of a religious edict, embarrass a nation, or cause an engineering project to end in disaster. Here are some particular doozies from the history of typos.
We like to get the week started with thoughts on writing, and that’s exactly what Adrian Rice has provided us with in this interview (along with thoughts on his native Ireland and much more)! His book The Clock Flower is out now; Seamus Heaney was a fan, and said of Rice, "Adrian Rice has a nice sense of what he is up to as a poet: I like and admire the way his district and his diction are so artfully tongue-in-cheek and hand-in-glove."
P53: What do you do with your rejection letters?
AR: I honestly don’t have many, as I have arrived at the age of not caring to send stuff out—too busy writing to bother. I have also been very lucky to have been invited to publish down through the years. However, any rejection letters I have received are stashed away in my filing cabinet as incriminating evidence against those editors with such clear bad taste!
P53:What is your favorite place in the world?
AR: Ireland, particularly the North, is home, and is hard to beat, especially the Mourne Mountains and Tollymore Forest Park, Co. Down. But I absolutely love the English Lake District, and often dream of inheriting a wee cottage for me and the family somewhere near Grasmere, out of which a new fireside band might even be formed called The New Romantics.
P53: Was there ever a time when you thought you’d never write again?
AR: Before coming to Hickory in 2005, I worked for a long time back home as a freelance poet—you can do that back home, if you have the gift of the gab, as Ireland, North and South, definitely values the Arts. I was also a Founding Editor at Abbey Press. During those years, I didn’t write that many poems at all, and was often worried that the well had run dry. Looking back, I think I was far too busy giving out, and wasn’t making the spare time to recharge and ‘receive’ new work. Settling in Hickory has forced me to do various adjunct teaching stints to help pay the bills, but without as much freelance work, I’ve been able to sit and read and listen for poems on the evening porch, and have become strangely prolific, at least for me.
P53: What’s the last movie you saw in the theater?
I honestly can’t remember. It may have been a Lord of the Rings installment, one of my go-to movies. I tend to avoid the public theater as I would go mad watching folk texting on their silly cell phones—their adult pacifiers—throughout the movie. I would be ejected for complaining about being distracted by The Distracted!
P53: What kind of music do you listen to? Do you listen to music while you write?
AR: I listen to all sorts … but faves would be Irish traditional like Plantxy, The Bothy Band, etc., and other faves like Van Morrison, U2, Dylan, Cohen, Prine, and a Belfast friend called Brian Houston, who is currently living in Raleigh—great guy, and talented boyo. His album, Sugar Queen, is wonderful. And I love the new CD—Love Is Covered in Dust—by my Belfast Boys buddy, Alyn Mearns.
I tend not to listen to music while writing, unless it’s the music of the avenue and the garden from my beloved roadside turret.
Three Facts about Adrian:
1. I once drove a car into the living room of a house. (No one was hurt!)
2. I don’t own a cell phone, by choice.
3. I had to turn down dinner with Van Morrison because I was committed to reading for the Duchess of Abercorn (I’m still in shock!).
“I was both scattered and stymied, surrounded by unfinished songs and abandoned poems. I would go as far as I could and hit a wall, my own imagined limitations. And then I met a fellow who gave me his secret, and it was pretty simple. When you hit a wall, just kick it in.”—Patti Smith, Just Kids (via fiction-magazine)
Get your weekend started off the right way, with a dreamy, quick story about floating on water that will definitely put you in vacation mode. From Curtis Smith's flash collection Beasts and Men, we present “The Dress.”
The woman hung a dress on the back of her bedroom door. Black dress, white door, and caught in the hazy fringes of sleep, she often believed the dress was floating, a dark fish circling her dreams. The dress was a size six. This was her goal. She dieted. She exercised. At first, she attended meetings, but then she discovered a more intimate communion sitting on her bed and studying the dress.
In summer, she swam in the lake. She could float for hours. The waves undulated beneath her. The lake’s shores touched other states, even another country. In the lake, she did not feel large. She floated and swam and floated and swam until the city’s buildings and smokestacks dwindled. With the sun warm on her face, she tried to imagine the day she would fit into the dress, but the scene, so deeply wished for, proved difficult to conjure. Instead, she pictured the unseen world beneath her. The menagerie of the forgotten and the lost. Treasures waiting to be washed ashore by the restless tide.