Tag Archives: Winter 100

A Landscape of Dignity:
A Conversation with
Ai Weiwei and Ian Boyden

by Stephanie Elliott Prieto

It is a tradition for intellectuals to speak out against power. This is why artists and poets are so valued by society.
—Ai Weiwei

In 2015, the artist, writer, and curator Ian Boyden contacted renowned artist Ai Weiwei about exhibiting Ai’s work at the San Juan Island Museum in Washington state. The resulting 2016 exhibition, Ai Weiwei: Fault Line (a virtual tour of which can be seen here), presented three pieces from his ongoing investigation into the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake—a magnitude 8.0 quake that killed over 60,000 people, including 5,196 schoolchildren, in Sichuan province, China. Boyden hoped that among other things, the exhibition would raise awareness about the lack of preparation for a major earthquake in the Pacific Northwest. In the case of the 2008 Chinese earthquake, the destroyed schools had been built under government contract, quickly and cheaply, ignoring the government’s own building codes; the title “Fault Line” was thus a double entendre, referring to both the geological feature and the corruption that caused political leaders to fail to protect citizens. In China, the massive death toll was covered up by the government; even parents of the dead were intimidated into silence.

Working on the exhibition had a profound effect on Boyden, and out of it was born a body of poems. An entire wall of the exhibition was a monumental piece titled “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation”—and indeed, it listed the names of all the schoolchildren who died. As Boyden installed this wall, he began translating the meanings of the children’s names and sharing them on Twitter, but he found the names often defied a single translation, so he began to render them as short poems. Boyden spent a year translating the names and writing poems, and the result is now published as A Forest of Names: 108 Meditations (Wesleyan University Press, $15.95). The collection of spare poems meditates on language, translation, societal responsibility, and human dignity. It calls us to reflect on the faith we put in our governments and the immense power the state holds over our fragile human lives.

As Boyden’s book is the result of his long-term engagement with the work and thought of Ai Weiwei, I was privileged to correspond with both of these creators to discuss this project, cross-cultural artistic collaboration, and why “poetry is a dangerous act.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ai Weiwei’s responses were translated from Chinese by Ian Boyden. Stephanie Prieto is the publicist at Wesleyan University Press and serves on the Association of University Presses Committee for Equity, Justice, and Inclusion.

Stephanie Prieto: Do you think poetry and art play a role in understanding and upholding human dignity? If so, how do you view this role?

Ai Weiwei: Art and poetry are the most exceptional manifestations of all human emotional and cognitive activities. They cannot be replaced by rationality, science, or anything else. In today’s society, the spirit of art and poetry exists, but the modality of language has shifted. Every day, I witness ordinary people on Twitter expressing poetry unconsciously. Art is actually ubiquitous within reality, it is simply that this art is not necessarily made by artists from the academy. Regardless of whether it is poetry or art, both are important standards by which we can measure the spiritual quality of humanity.

Ian Boyden: I love this observation that the modality of language has shifted. This shift has allowed us to see and express ourselves in novel ways. When I first started this project, I was writing these poems on Twitter as a conversation with . . . well, mostly with myself. I felt like a firefly pulsing light in the darkness. Every day a few names would pulse from Weiwei’s account, and I would then pulse a poem in return. It was the conditions of Twitter that gave these poems the shape and rhythm they have. The 140-character limit required concision. But slowly, as the project grew and the novelty of the modality wore off, I began to understand that what I was wrestling with was something very ancient and central to what it means to be human: dignity. How do we describe dignity, how do we nurture it, protect it? In the names of these children, I saw dignity take the form of a vast landscape that is a profound expression of our shared world.

Forest of Fireflies

For a lifetime we pulsed
messages of light into the void, and waited,

until we understood our message
was also our answer.

SP: Do you think the poems from A Forest of Names will find their way to Chinese readers? How do you think the work would be received?

AW: First of all, poetry itself is an intermediary, it’s a soliloquy, the poet thinking out loud to themself and in their own language. Poetry is a means to come face to face with language, history, and emotion, and as such it is a very personalized expression. If one writes poetry only to find readers, then poetry loses its most important layer of meaning. I don’t want to say Ian’s poems are unlikely to have many readers in China, but even a person who writes in Chinese in China doesn’t have many readers. Today, society is growing farther and farther away from poetry. The subject that Ian has addressed is considered politically sensitive. In addition, it’s related to part of my work and I myself am politically sensitive, which means my work is subject to censorship. You could say, the possibility of his poetry being openly circulated in China is zero. However, despite this, there is a literary magazine in China called Survivor, which is an underground publication. Some of Ian’s poems were published in this magazine, and so there are a few people in those circles who are aware of the existence of these poems.

Ian Boyden and Ai Weiwei reviewing an early draft of A Forest of Names at Ai Weiwei’s studio in Berlin, December 2017. Photograph by Zhipeng Liang.

SP: Ian, did you ever consider how Chinese readers might receive your work? Even if you didn’t necessarily think that would be a reality, did it affect your writing?

IB: How to translate these children’s names was, and continues to be, the subject of conversation with Chinese friends. They have been overwhelmingly supportive of this work, not just because the poems address an enormous humanitarian tragedy, the poems appeal to something very ancient and treasured at the very heart of Chinese linguistic reality—the primacy of names. At the center of Confucian philosophy is what is known as the “Rectification of Names”; for social harmony to exist, names must point to a specific truth. A is A; B is B. And yet, the opening line of the Tao Te Ching reads: The name that can be named is not the eternal name. Thus, the fabric of language must refer to truth, a truth that is the foundation of a healthy body politic, and, at the same time, names must transcend their own limits to embrace that eternal mystery that is each individual being. A power of poetry is that it both names and triangulates what exists beyond articulation.

And this leads to another subject at the heart of this project: How do we identify ourselves? How does identity relate to language? How does identity relate to memory? How does the relationship of the individual to the state affect our identity? Names are the very first forms of identity we are given, and in the case of these children, they are virtually all that remains. What happens to our identity when the state actively censors the names of the dead? What happens when it censors the grieving process? What happens to our identity when the state weaponizes the legal system, weaponizes language? What happens when the state actively creates false reality for its own end? To censor these names is to go to war with truth and dignity.

SP: Could you comment on the potential afforded by cross-cultural artistic practice in exchange, and how this is threatening to larger political bodies/states?

IB: A critical component of that potential is translation. Translation is the primary process by which a structure of thought born in one language can enter another. By its nature, this practice is disruptive, even subversive. Maybe not when we are trying to order a plate of food, but when it comes to a poem or a novel, or, say, trying to make sense of a monumental philosophy like Buddhism or Marxism, the effect can be overwhelming, reweaving the entire linguistic fabric. When language shifts in structure, it shifts what we are capable of perceiving, it shifts who we are capable of being, and thus upsets the balance of power.

AW: I think poetry is a dangerous act. In this regard, it’s just like art. Its potential and subversiveness are formidable, but first it must be allowed to exist. If systems of dissemination and/or censorship forbid its existence, then its subversiveness will disappear. This is why, with regard to art and literature, the establishment of fundamental human worth and freedom is the first requirement. I believe that in an open society this kind of discussion can exist, even if it may be trivial. People are entangled by various forms of popular discourse.

Myriad Container

The urn shattered,
ten thousand questions scattered
in the stone dust.
But each in its own way asked,

Are we still one?

Beichuan County, Sichuan, May 2008. Photograph by Ai Weiwei. Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studios.

SP: What does it mean to you, to have an American author publish a book in response to your invitation to consider the names of the children killed in the Sichuan earthquake of 2008?

AW: What Ian has done is an exceedingly isolated and very poetic act. It is as if he suddenly discovered a pearl in the middle of a desert. Looking into this pearl, he sees clearly the universal value of human life and of our humanity. And yet in today’s world to hold these values has become a rare thing. It is very rare to find a person who sincerely cares about the suffering of other people, other ethnicities; to turn this kind of concern into poetic experience is even rarer still.

SP: Ian, how do you feel? Did you have any reservations, as an American responding to this horrific tragedy that happened to a nation that is often considered an adversary of the United States? Particularly a tragedy that is so politically sensitive?

IB: This question defies a simple answer. First, I would stress that I did not respond to this tragedy as an American but as a human. It was a tragedy that fell upon individuals and communities, first as buildings collapsed and then again as their government responded in such a horrific way.

There is a curious event horizon surrounding China, a pervasive illusion that what happens within its borders somehow bears no effect upon the outside world and vice-versa. It’s as if all the laws of causation and the dynamics of responsibility were somehow suspended. The cultural genocide of Tibetans and Uighurs—are those “politically sensitive” events truly internal affairs? An affront to one person’s fundamental rights, no matter where or who they are, affects us all. I responded to this tragedy as another human.

“Politically sensitive” is a way of acknowledging that fundamental rights are being violated. Taboo is the tool of the oppressor. The PRC has waged an all-out assault on language since the 1950s—destroying the plurality of languages across the country, severing linguistic continuity with the past by changing how the language is written, developing a vast system of censorship, constantly employing doublespeak, dictating what can and cannot be said, controlling the flow of information at all levels. Political language is used to undermine reality in the service of the few. Freedom of speech is not recognized as a fundamental right. Now, perhaps more than any time in history, the names need to be rectified.

SP: You have said of A Forest of Names: “I see this work as conceptual as can be. It is a beautiful and persistent effort of a poet’s heart and mind working together, dealing with our tragic reality.” In addition to considering the importance of the message in a piece of writing or other artwork, could you comment on the importance the method of approach, or aesthetics, in creating a piece of artwork?

AW: The nature of a work of art is determined by its feeling, its understanding, how it spreads through its creative use of language. If it abandons any of these fundamental levels, it cannot possess implicit meaning. Although artistic or literary acts are quite rare, they are an important part of the innate character of human beings. That such things appear or come into being, is, by itself, already an exquisite circumstance. The difficulty in this day then becomes how to disseminate this work of art or poem more widely. However, I stress that its coming into being is important in and of itself. This is important because it proves that people are beings that possess spirituality and compassion. It proves the possibility of a dialogue with an imagined world, an imaginary world that actually exists parallel with our own.

IB: The Chinese term Weiwei used here, translated as “implicit meaning,” is 含意, pronounced hányì. This is a very important aesthetic term in Chinese poetry. It literally means a meaning held in the mouth, unspoken and thus withheld from language. How to say something without saying it? This might be because it is too dangerous to say something directly. But it also speaks to a truth about language itself. One of the great ironies of language is that it often imprisons, or limits, the very idea one wishes to express. In Chinese poetry, there is a deep appreciation for generating conditions where meaning itself is granted freedom. So, we can see dignity is at play in this type of method, and this symbiosis of the spoken and unspoken was certainly a quality I sought to engage in the writing of these poems.

Detail of the installation of “Names of the Student Earthquake Victims Found by the Citizens’ Investigation” (2008–2011) by Ai Weiwei. Photograph by Ian Boyden.

SP: Ian, I read that you taught yourself Chinese by reading Ai Weiwei’s father’s poetry. That seems like fate.

IB: When I was nineteen, I went to China as a foreign exchange student. Before I left, a mentor of mine, the late poet Tom Crawford (1939–2018), gave me a bilingual volume of Ai Qing’s collected poems to take with me. My Chinese teacher at Nanjing University was so surprised when I showed her this book. Ai Qing (1910–1996) had only recently been allowed to return to Beijing from twenty years of exile in a labor camp in Xinjiang—the camp where Ai Weiwei was raised. I was young and naïve; at the time, it never occurred to me that this poet had a family, that he had a son named Weiwei. I really loved Ai Qing’s poems from the early 1930s that are filled with raw and ardent rebelliousness. I studied those poems—they were kernels around which the rest of my Chinese grew. Language is not truly separate from the speaker. Just a few words, a few vibrations of sound, can shape the subsequent patterns and conditions of the rest of our lives. I think much of life is spent trying to make sense of that. Ai Qing has a poem that speaks to this mystery, and I offer my own translation of it here:


One tree, another tree—
each towering and motionless,
each standing alone from the others—
the wind and air
tell of their distance apart.

But enshrouded within the earth,
the trees’ roots stretch out
through the invisible depths
where their finest tendrils braid together.

There’s a visible landscape we all see. And there exists an invisible landscape that not only grounds us but is also a conduit of mind. Perhaps those roots reaching out through the earth are an image of fate, inseparable from curiosity and determination, empathy and fundamental dignity.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021

The Selected Poems of Tu Fu

Expanded and Newly Translated
Tu Fu
translated by David Hinton
New Directions ($18.95)

by John Bradley

“The original is unfaithful to the translation,” Jorge Luis Borges once wrote, making light of the eternal debate about the reliability of translations. Certainly this thorny topic arises once again with The Selected Poems of Tu Fu, as David Hinton also published a previous Selected Poems of Tu Fu thirty-one years ago (New Directions, 1989). Hinton, a well-known translator of classical Chinese texts, has revised the poems in the earlier collection and included more; this is exciting news for poetry readers, though the new volume is not without some problems.

Tu Fu (712-770 CE) is considered one of the greatest poets of China. He lived during a period of cultural richness in the T’ang Dynasty, but he also witnessed a devastating civil war, and was often ill during this time of turbulence, suffering from asthma, malaria, and rheumatism. Despite social unrest, poor health, and dire poverty, however, the last decade of his life was when he wrote most of his poems. While many translators have tried their hand at rendering Tu Fu into English, a new attempt is always welcome given the challenges of translating Chinese (no articles or pronouns, for example). Hinton certainly brings years of expertise to the task, having also translated the I Ching and Tao Te Ching, as well as works by Chuang Tzu, Confucious, Mencius, Li Po, and so many others. He recently added to his voluminous oeuvre Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry (Shambhala, 2019), where he studies in depth nineteen poems of Tu Fu.

One of the most striking aspects of the new Selected is Hinton’s belief that Tu Fu was deeply influenced by Taoist/Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism. These teachings gave Tu Fu the perspective, in Hinton’s words, of “the empirical Cosmos as a single living tissue that is inexplicably generative.” He even refers to Tu Fu as a Taoist/Ch’an “adept,” which contrasts with his previous notion of Tu Fu as a poet steeped in a Confucian worldview that valued service and ethics. While Hinton may be correct about the influence of Taoist/Ch’an Buddhism on Tu Fu, unfortunately his use of philosophical terminology often feels imposed upon the poems. Take the opening line of “Yin-Dark Again”: “Dark-enigma winter bleeds through dark-enigma’s yin-dark / frontiers.” In Hinton’s notes, he explains that “dark-enigma is functionally equivalent to Absence—the generative, ontological tissue from which the ten thousand things spring—but Absence before it is named.” While it’s helpful to have this mysterious term defined, it would be even better if the translator had found a way to make the unwieldy term function in the poem itself, rather than as a philosophical concept that sends the reader to the back of the book for a rather dense explication.

Other problems in this translation also arise. As mentioned, there are no articles in the Chinese, so it must be tempting for a translator to avoid them altogether. But this solution isn’t ideal, as can be seen in this four-line “Cut-Short Poem”:

River sweeps moonlight across stone.
Stream empties mist-fringed blossoms.

Perched birds understand ancient Way.
Sails pass, spend night in whose home?

The missing articles, for some readers, will have the whiff of an Orientalist impulse to use broken English in an attempt to sound like a non-native speaker. To say “The river sweeps moonlight” may sound more prosaic, but it avoids inadvertent stereotyping.

Some readers will also feel confused by Hinton’s literal translations of place names. For example, the city of Ch’ang-an, now called Xian, in Hinton’s new translation becomes “Peace-Perpetua,” and Chengdu becomes “Altar-Whole City.” While these literal translations perhaps sound more poetic, they make the poems feel unlocated. In his 1989 Selected, Hinton used the transliterated names of towns in the poems, as when he opens “Moonlit Night” with the line “Tonight at Fu-chou.” Contrast this with his revised translation of the same line: “Tonight at Deer-Altar.” The new version sounds like the location of a religious rite, rather than a city.

As Tu Fu has been much translated, some readers may want to compare Hinton’s new translations with versions by others as well. Here is Hinton’s “Thoughts Brimful: Cut-Short Poems,” number 9, in its entirety:

Delicate willows swaying outside my door—slender,
graceful as a girl’s waist at fifteen: who was it saying

Just another morning, same as ever? That wild wind
broke them down: the longest, most elegant branches.

And here is Kenneth Rexroth’s translation of the same poem, which he entitles “The Willow,” in One Hundred Poems from the Chinese (New Directions, 1971):

My neighbor’s willow sways its frail
Branches, graceful as a girl of
Fifteen. I am sad because this
Morning the violent
Wind broke its longest bough.

Rexroth’s version offers a clearer poem, though he takes the liberty of adding “I am sad” and does not include the “Who was it” question Hinton does. Still, Rexroth created a poem in English that has focus and grace, which—however difficult—should be the translator’s aim.

Hinton is at his best when he avoids philosophical terminology and provides Tu Fu’s voice and sensory detail, as seen in “Returning Late”:

Past midnight, eluding tigers on the road, I return
home in mountain darkness. Family asleep inside,

I watch the Northern Dipper drift low to the river,
and Venus lofting huge into empty space, radiant.

Holding a candle in the courtyard, I call for more
light. A gibbon in the gorge, startled, shrieks once.

Old and tired, my hair white, I dance and sing out:
goosefoot cane, no sleep . . . Catch me if you can!

Though some might argue that the phrase “goosefoot cane, no sleep” should come before “I dance and sing out,” the poem stays grounded in the incident and the emotion. Tu Fu’s sense of playful foolishness shines through.

Perhaps it was poverty and bad health that made Tu Fu feel so vulnerable and so empathetic in his poems. He speaks not as a scholar, but as one who has witnessed the consequences of war on his fellow citizens. The poem “Asking Again” shows his awareness of the cost of war even on those far from battle:

Couldn’t we just let her filch dates from the garden?
She’s a neighbor, childless and without food, alone:

only desperation would bring her to this. We should
treat her like family. It will ease her fear and shame.

She knows us now, but strangers from far away still
frighten her. A fence would only make things worse.

Tax collectors hound her, she says, keeping her bone
poor. How suddenly war rifles thought, leaving tears.

The resonance of the line “A fence would only makes things worse” shows readers how a poem written over a thousand years ago still speaks to us today. Tu Fu’s vulnerability is even more touching in the poems about his family, as seen in the closing lines of “Hundred Worries Gathering Chant”:

and when I return home, everything’s the same as ever:
cupboards empty, old wife sharing the look on my face.

Silly kids, still ignorant of the ritual esteem due a father:
angry, screaming at the kitchen door, they demand food.

Over and over, it’s Tu Fu’s humanity and humility that make him worthy of the attention he continues to attract from generations of translators and readers. The new Selected only confirms this. Even with its problems, Hinton’s book deserves wide readership, as Tu Fu’s poetry offers so much: insight into a historical period, into a prominent nation and culture, and, most of all, into the human psyche. One may wonder, though, if the poet’s “Catch me if you can!” doesn’t stand as a call to future translators of his work. While Hinton’s new Selected is a cause for celebration, let’s hope that following translators bring their craft to give us yet new versions of the poetry of Tu Fu.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021

The Bangtail Ghost

Keith McCafferty
Viking ($26)

by Don Messerschmidt

Keith McCafferty’s latest novel, The Bangtail Ghost, begins with a strange and violent death at the end of a forest road in the mountains of Montana. Blood in the snow, a puma whisker, paw prints, and drag marks lead to the remains of a woman’s mutilated body. If these first few clues were all there were, Sheriff Martha Ettinger might have declared it an unfortunate misadventure, but when the mystery deepens with screams in the night, a flickering light, and a growing list of missing persons, she hires the private detective Sean Stranahan to help sort it out.

After the dead woman’s profession and some of her clients are exposed, what looked at first to be a straightforward case of mountain-lion-kills-innocent-woman turns into a conundrum. Then, with evidence of more than one mountain lion and human interference, a professional tracker with hounds is engaged to help Stranahan hunt them down, only to wonder if they, too, are being stalked.

Once you’ve read a Keith McCafferty mystery you’ll recognize the style, a rapidly rising drama that turns into a whopping good whodunit—or in The Bangtail Ghost, a what-dunit. The author is a master at writing tense, gripping page-turners. His Montana-set Westerns, however, are unlike the classics of Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey. Rather, starting with his first novel, The Royal Wulff, McCafferty has written compelling, contemporary, and adventurous mysteries. Each plot reflects the author’s combined expertise as a Field & Stream magazine editor, an angler, a hunter, and an expert on camping, hiking, backpacking, and fishing. Adept at weaving passion into his stories, it is no surprise that he has become known as the founder of a unique sub-genre known as “fly-fishing noir.”

McCafferty’s characters are modern, earthy Montanans whose lives reflect openness and good humor—and, at times, darkness. They have come from all walks of life to settle in the changing American West. They live, talk, walk, hunt, fish, drink, and shoot pool together, and occasionally get caught up in strange doings. Sean Stranahan, the series’ protagonist, is also a talented painter and a popular fishing guide who demonstrates while working his cases both where to cast the best hand-tied flies and how to entertain readers.

Each of McCafferty’s novels reflects his own experiences in the wild, combined with in-depth research to sustain realistic plots. For example, Cold Hearted River (sixth in the series) involves the (fictitious) discovery of a trunk full of fishing gear and some early writings that once (in real life) belonged to Ernest Hemingway. A Death in Eden (the seventh) derives from actual public outcries over a proposed copper mine in the head-wa¬ters of the Smith River and the likelihood of it spewing environmental destruction. In The Bangtail Ghost (the eighth novel), McCafferty reveals his immense knowledge of mountain lions that sometimes become man-eaters, intermixed with some nefarious activities attributed to one or another of the novel’s shady characters.

It’s been said that all books are mysteries, and Keith McCafferty’s award-winning Westerns prove it. His books are worth reading because what lures us all is something the tracker points out to the private eye while stalking and being stalked in the mountains. “We like a yarn,” he says. Indeed!

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021

Oceans of Memory: An interview with Chris Wiewiora

photo by Kristen Houser

Interviewed by Ashley Inguanta

Chris Wiewiora knows how to begin and begin again. He was born in Buckhannon, West Virginia, and then as a child he started a new life in Warsaw, Poland, with his parents, who were undercover Evangelical missionaries there. Wiewiora grew into an adult in Orlando, Florida, beginning his life again in the United States with his parents.

In 2010, Wiewiora graduated from the University of Central Florida with an Honors in the Major degree in English. He dedicated himself to The Florida Review as an assistant editor while completing his thesis, attending a close-knit writing group and crafting espresso drinks at a corporate coffeeshop. Wiewiora’s time at UCF prepared him to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, where he also joined the masthead of Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment as the managing editor.

Wiewiora’s travelogue memoir, The Distance Is More Than an Ocean (Finishing Line Press, $14.99), encompasses so much of his life in such a small space—like a poem, but not quite. Here, readers get the chance to open this book like a gate to a duplex with halves in two countries, observing one human being, both as a boy and as a man, discover his voice. In this memoir, an adult Wiewiora wisely and patiently questions his memory, but at all ages, he courageously seeks something inside of himself, something like belonging, but deeper. As a former Florida Review intern and UCF alum myself, I was pleased to interview Chris Wiewora about this work.

Ashley Inguanta: The Distance Is More Than an Ocean is a beautiful book. I can feel the water leading me through young Chris’s story, from his mother soaping up her hand injury, to the swimming pool at the Polish school he attended, to the rain pouring on his older self and his aged father. Young Chris wishes to return to West Virginia and this wish somehow leads him down a path that unites his Polish and American pieces.

There are so many moments of joining in this travelogue memoir. The first moment of joining I noticed is the poem that opens the book, “Patching up the Past with Water” by James Seay. Tell me about how this connection to Young Chris’s journey originated. When did you read this poem, and when did it strike you how deeply it connects with your memoir?

Chris Wiewiora: My undergrad poetry thesis adviser at UCF, the poet Judith Hemschemeyer, gave me books. Every week I came to her office and she would read a poem or two of mine, mark the pages with blue pen (apparently less harsh than red), and then send me off with a book off the shelves lining an entire wall. Hemschemeyer (I could never call a woman nearly as old as my grandmother by her first name) was in her final years of teaching and she was passing along the treasures she had collected; she didn’t hold onto her hoard. She gave me Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist, Yusef Komunyaka’s Neon Vernacular, and a signed copy of Czeslaw Milosz’s Bells in Winter. What gems! These were books of language meant for me to hear the world, voice, and the past.

Hemschemeyer gave me the gift of reading, which lasts much longer than the gift of writing—we learn more as writers from reading than from writing. Isn’t that the point of the workshop, to learn about our writing by reading others’ writing? Somewhere in all of those books, Hemschemeyer gave me Water Tables by James Seay. It wasn’t until I was in grad school at Iowa State that I connected deeply with the poem “Patching up the Past with Water.” From 2009 to 2013 or so that poem just sat between the book’s covers between so many other books on one of my shelves.

I had wanted to use an epigraph for my graduate thesis that was as true as what my friend Andrew Payton had in a Donovan lyric that encapsulated his novel, Blasting at Big Ugly, about resisting mountain top removal. I wanted something that considered the fluidity of memory; how it can be contained, but also acknowledging that it spills. I sat in front of my bookshelf and pulled out poetry collection after poetry collection, many from Hemschemeyer, until I opened up Seay’s book and the lines of that poem shone like quicksilver. I knew that that stanza would be the epigraph and through several changes of containers and spills of my manuscript that epigraph remained as the place for readers to begin.

AI: The Distance Is More Than an Ocean is structured in a way that feels like the ocean. We have multiple sections here that begin, pause and roll back, and then begin again. We move forward into modern-day Chris’s life in Orlando, writing essays among the palm trees and egrets; and then we move back to young Chris, wishing he could dive deep into reading and writing in English, all the while being strongly encouraged to learn Polish. The structure of this memoir feels anchored by beginnings. When did you start writing about your time spent living in Poland? What pushed you to continue?

CW: Death started and ended this exploration. In 1996, my maternal grandmother Almond died just before my parents moved our family from Warsaw, Poland, to Orlando, Florida. As a child, I poured the two moments—her death and our move—into the same container of memory. I didn’t open that memory for years.

In her poetry workshop, after some awful poems about losing my faith as well as some about Ted Hughes and Silvia Plath (I had gone through a breakup with a Christian girl), Hemschemeyer suggested I write about something particular, something about my family. I wrote a poem called “Hometown” set in Buckhannon, West Virginia, where my mother was born and where I was born—both beginnings. But the poem was about the small town and my grandparents and them both dead and buried where I was birthed. That poem felt like the first poem that only I could write.

But none of that poem was about my time spent in Poland, it was only about my maternal side. My paternal side was from Poland, where I also grew up and where we ended up returning for a father-and-son trip when I was in college. Hemschemeyer must have known that I had more to write and she kept encouraging me as my poems began to explore my father’s Polish neighborhood in Chicago and our Orlando suburb. Around this time I found out via my friend Tina Kopic about the Honors in the Major thesis that an undergrad could do at UCF. And so I started what would become a poetry collection titled Side by Side.

I began writing poetry as an undergrad, but by graduation I had begun to feel that I didn’t possess the craftsmanship with meter. I understood and could conjure imagery. I became more interested in truth—or at least, perceived truth—and actually, I began writing what would become The Distance Is More Than an Ocean with an essay that I thought was just a one and done requirement for the Honors College. In the essay, I wrote, “We moved back to the States, because my grandmother died.” My father, a copy editor, read my essay and gave it back to me with the word “because” circled with a question mark in the margin and then offered the replacement, “around the time.” I had poured the death of my maternal grandmother and our returning to the States from Poland—those two moments—into the same container of memory.

In graduate school I wanted to explore that dynamic: between the moment and the memory. I didn’t return to poetry. I began again in nonfiction—a genre defined by what it isn’t, instead of what it is. I wouldn’t yet figure out what my manuscript wasn’t until I wrote what it was. So, I overfilled the container of my graduate thesis, including essays about going back to Poland with my father as well as essays about West Virginia and Florida and my family’s Evangelical faith. During my defense, my graduate thesis chair and then later a university press editor told me that I needed to find a through line—a major narrative thrust—for my manuscript. I was told it was about my Polish grandmother who survived the Nazi slave camps; I was told it was about my parents’ Evangelical faith.

It wasn’t until after grad school, after my paternal Polish grandmother’s death, that I began what would become the final version of The Distance Is More Than an Ocean. I began writing my poems about family in 2008; I began again with my nonfiction about growing up and going back to Poland with my father in 2018. I wrote and re-wrote through a decade because I was captivated by my past—shaped by my grandmothers—and I wanted to distill it into a container, a way to hold onto something as slippery as memory.

AI: One of my favorite things about this book is how you explore your relationship with language. Young Chris’s connection to the English language feels sacred. I know you spent a great amount of time studying at the University of Central Florida with Judith Hemschemeyer (who is also a translator), Jocelyn Bartkevicius, and the late Jeanne Leiby. How have your Orlando teachers shaped you?

CW: My teachers—more like godmothers who gave me gifts of their practices—revealed the timeline of language.

Hemchemeyer gave me books. She gave me the gift of reading the past. She literally gave me her books from poets who cornerstoned modern cultures of poetry, for instance, Milosz and Polish poetry.

Jocelyn gave me insight. She gave me the gift of writing in the present, while considering the past. She understood how memory takes shape in the way we remember it.

Jeanne gave me literary magazines. She gave me the gift of publishing in the future. She valued the word that was read and the word that was written and knew the writing that would be read.

My first publication was an essay in South Loop Review—a now-defunct Chicago lit mag—that I had first read in the office of The Florida Review and that I submitted to during a break from my poetry, after taking all of Jocelyn’s classes, and after apprenticing with Jeanne.

AI: When returning to any memory, even your memories of studying writing at UCF, there are layers: The memory itself and the moment it originated. You remember a lot of details: The red tie your principal wore, the “puke-green” tiles around the pool at the Polish school. What techniques do you use to bring back these memories? Tell me more about your relationship with memory and nonfiction writing, especially as you moved from studying and writing poetry to dedicating yourself to prose.

CW: As a beginner writer, I had to discover the techniques that worked for me. I explored the senses in poetry. I don’t remember where I acquired this technique, but I call it a 5x5. On lined notebook paper, I would write the words taste, touch, sound, smell, sight with five lines between them. Then, I would imagine a moment—later, a scene—and I would write down the senses that came to my mind. I would list 25 sensory words and phrases, but I wouldn’t plan to use them all. I would circle the best—be it unique or expected or just my favorite that I wanted to return to—line from each sense. But I wouldn’t use those five different senses. Then, I would consider those five and cross out all but one.

Who knows if that one sense was the best? But the process of considering all of the senses in that moment was more important than what I might use. I’m a writer when I’m writing, but I had to get myself to start writing and sometimes that took 25 words or just one.

AI: Let’s roll back into the memoir itself, focusing on the scene where young Chris is turning nine. He is in Poland, and he is about to move back to the States with his family. Your parents were Christian missionaries in Warsaw. An ocean separates Poland and the U.S., but, as you write this memoir, the distance is more. Like the moon shapes the ocean waves and the ocean shapes the land, religion shapes many things about who we are. Can you tell us more about how your family’s faith has affected your relationship to these two places?

CW: In Warsaw, during the late ’70s until the early ’90s my parents served as Evangelical missionaries, meaning they told Polish people about Jesus. They served in Poland during Soviet Communism when being a missionary was illegal. My father had a “furniture business” as a cover for them being overseas. My mother said she was a student and took Polish classes, but only learned to speak in the present tense. After I was born in the States, they brought me to Warsaw where the capital was home, but church was family.

Both of my parents helped found the Warsaw International Church where I got to know Poles and Canadians and Koreans. I remember walking through the rebuilt old town. I remember the cement-gray days and the dots of dandelions like promises of spring sun. I remember checking our coats in the lobby. I remember the hymns sung by the Polish choir. I remember the pastor’s show-and-tell children’s sermon. I remember doodling on the bulletins. I remember eating kimbop and playing with kids when my mom did Bible studies. I remember drinking tea in pewter mugs that held glass cups. I remember a guy who showed us his prototype for a board game he called Flip-Flash, which was kinda like Bananagrams and Scrabble.

Flip-Flash felt like our move back to the States, to Orlando. My parents took us to University Carillon United Methodist Church, a nearly-mega church near the soon-to-be mega-university UCF. We drove along Lake Underhill when there were still cattle in the fields instead of storage units for overstuffed suburbs. We drove past the new Waterford Lakes and the still being built 408 expressway and an open lot where dirt bikes jumped from pile to pile. We parked under a lone tree in the goopy asphalt parking lot and then chilled under the air conditioner. We worshipped to a rock-n-roll band hailing Jesus and listened to a pastor preach into a handless mic. We held hands in the benediction with mostly white—non-specific European heritage people—and also Caribbean, Latin, and Hispanic families. Only I drank coffee, but we all ate donuts under the awning. The humidity sucked up into the rolling clouds that would crack open on our drive home back to Deerwood where there are no deer and not much wood.

AI: We learn in The Distance that the memory of West Virginia is important to young Chris, especially as he is longing for the English language in Poland. With desperation to return to the States—to return home—he remembers strawberry patches at his grandparents’ house, hills, their dog. When you wrote this memoir, or really when you write anything, you could say you are re-sparking that voice you couldn’t wait to use as a kid. Your Grandma Almond eventually paid for you to attend an English-speaking school in Poland. What would you like to say to her, now that you’ve published your first book?

CW: “Thank you; I love you.” I would say that over and over again.

But really more than me saying something I would want to hear her. I don’t remember Grandma Almond’s voice or her laugh or her songs. I only remember her face from photos. I can’t recall her smell, even though my mom says that she always wore Chanel No. 5. I can’t even remember her lap where I know she read to me. Again, I would want to hear her and I know that it would be as lovely as the trill of her favorite bird (also the mascot of Iowa State) the cardinal saying, “What-cheer, what-cheer!”

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021

I walk around gathering up my garden for the night

Marie Lundquist
translated by Kristina Andersson Bicher
The Bitter Oleander Press ($21)

by Greg Bem

The speaker in I walk around gathering up my garden for the night, Swedish poet Marie Lundquist’s debut poetry collection from 1992 now translated into English by Kristina Andersson Bicher, is concerned with constraint and liberation, the effort “to survive in a bounded space.” It is a book of small but mighty blasts of verse: The poems often have no more than ten lines, and they present startling and dense combinations of image and reflection.

Lundquist’s careful tweaking of tense and perspective provide the book its critical charge. Take the following poem, composed of just two lines, which opens the book: “Two women watch over your grave. / Me and the person I could have been.” Here Lundquist combines reality and an alternative to create, at once, a schism and a spectrum of experience. Each succeeding poem similarly slices open expectation to reveal additional layers and depths, which the poet then leans over, peers into, and conveys to the reader.

Throughout the book, Lundquist opens her poems by merging the abstract with the cinematographic, and the result is both terrifying and exhilarating, as in “The night porter reaches out his hand”: “His nails are shiny like windows. / I fall from the seventh floor.” Playful to the point of risk and danger, Lundquist constructs brief moments that are difficult to interpret. The form of relatively linear poetry serves as a marvelous and disruptive arena for this iterative, jagged movement, and reflects a mature and dominant mind behind the individual lines, akin to Sylvia Plath or Adrienne Rich.

With a sometimes cynical sense of humor, Lundquist uses the objective world to support, like scaffolding, her cinematics. Each ordinary object feels exquisite and otherly, even Lynchian at moments:

We sit at the kitchen table and eat our
meatballs. You don’t understand why I
am drawn to your body. I just want to stick
my hands in.

Humor meets horror meets feminist incising, strikingly similar in tone to the visceral works of South Korea’s Kim Hyesoon. Occasionally Lundquist’s images stretch themselves into the realm of the absurd, offering moments of respite in their ability to stun: “One time her handbag opens like a / revelation. Its contents consist of burning / meat.” The images strike and pummel their way into otherwise drab and forlorn circumstances, experiences of cruelty and vague disdain.

The Kafkaesque reality that plagues the speaker is one that reflects a variety of nightmarish paradigms, just as the book’s title suggests a certain fatigue but continuation through it all. In “A grown man gently lays a woman down,” Lundquist briefly sketches the disturbing similarities between objectification of women and a child’s play with insects. In “She was more afraid than her child was,” the speaker’s clearest understanding of domestic conflict is through the most violent image in the poem: the thunder.

As translator Kristina Andersson Bicher remarks in her useful introduction, “There’s authenticity in league with surrealism. Earnestness holding hands with irony. While the emotional terrain explored is intense, devasting even, Lundquist’s tone remains arms-length. The voice is calm but never seeks to comfort.” That calmness and comfort is especially entrancing as Lundquist brings together an array of experiences that define entire lives.

Perhaps the work of I walk around gathering up my garden for the night is best summed up as both world building and deconstruction at once. It often involves a movement through the anthropomorphic and absorptive, the speakers and characters merging with each environment. Whirling and blending, as destructive as it sounds, reflects harmony and universality. Ultimately this process allows for the speaker to “Become grief,” as one poem directs; Lundquist indicates over and over, from blurry scene to blurry scene, that this process if one of both pain and healing, affording clarity, catharsis, and reconciliation to a world built upon harm and conflict.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021

Burnt Tongues Anthology

Edited by Chuck Palahniuk, Richard Thomas, and Dennis Widmyer
with illustrations by Rachel Jablonski
Turner Publishing Company ($17.99)

by Ben Arzate

Burnt Tongues is a collection of twenty stories from authors who frequented Chuck Palahniuk's The Cult website. Originally published in 2014, it went out of print when the publisher Medallion Press went out of business; it's now being brought back with new artwork by Turner Publishing. As one would expect with understudies of Palahniuk, the stories are often gross, transgressive, full of dark humor, and written with direct, minimalist prose. While the least of them just read like rote copies of Palahniuk, the best take these elements and use them to make unique stories.

The anthology doesn't put its best foot forward with “Live this Down” by Neil Krolicki, in which three high school girls recount their bullying and humiliations as they plan their suicides. It contains exactly the kind of gross-out and trivia obsession typical of Palahniuk's work, and doesn't feel much like its own story. There is a similar problem with “Heavier Petting” by Brien Piechos, in which a stripper tells a story about a friend of a friend engaging in bestiality. I'm fairly certain there’s a Palahniuk story about almost exactly the same thing.

However, the majority of the stories do find their own voice. One that stands out is “Bike” by Bryan Howie; a simple, almost Raymond Carver-esque story about a father repainting his son's bicycle, it builds to a single sentence at the end which is ambiguous but gut-punchingly effective. It's probably the best example in the book of the power of simple sentences.

Tony Liebhard’s “Mating Calls” takes the trope of a narrator dropping trivia, often used by Palahniuk, and repurposes it to great effect. The narrator is a lonely college student who finds a phone that belongs to a popular, pretty girl. He finds himself resenting his need to hold onto it until he can get it back to its owner and annoyed by the constant calls she receives from friends that emphasize how socially isolated he is. He tries throwing himself into his schoolwork and fantasizing about becoming romantically involved with the phone's owner, but none of it eases his mind.

“Invisible Graffiti” by Adam Skorupskas is like a Tom Waits song made into a short story. A mute, alcoholic home inspector meets a homeless junkie in an abandoned building; the two go out drinking, having fun, and end up falling in love, though the story ends on an ambiguously tragic note. One would think that all these elements stacked on top of each other would result in a grotesque self-parody, but the excellent prose, sincerity, and humor make it come together very well.

Almost all of the stories are realist, however one clear horror/speculative fiction piece ends the book, Daniel W. Broallt’s “Zombie Whorehouse.” A journalist goes undercover to expose a brothel where all the women are zombies. Zombies have become a bit of a dead trope, so to speak, due to overexposure in the past decade, yet this story puts a unique spin on the idea. While it includes images common to zombie tales, such as being overwhelmed by the mindless hoard, it also includes a feminist subtext and one of the darkest endings in the book.

Despite a couple weak stories, Burnt Tongues is a solid collection of new voices in transgressive fiction. It goes without saying that it’s not for those with weak stomachs, but those who like their fiction edgy and dark will love this book.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021

Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage

Bette Howland
A Public Space Books ($18)

by Daniel Byronson

John Berger once wrote that “very few stories are narrated either to idealise or to condemn; rather they testify to the always slightly surprising range of the possible.” This truism illuminates the stories in Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, which are selected from Bette Howland’s three collections published between 1974 and 1983. Howland, the child of a working-class Jewish family in Chicago, writes about daily life, which is not always good, without belittling it as a subject. What would be unflattering in other writers’ hands is shown here without idealization and without contempt, in all its contradiction and wholeness.

In these stories, Howland reports with frankness the stubborn customs of her milieu: some poignant, some futile, all unlikely to change. When homeless people complain that the neighborhood is getting worse, Howland grants them the point (in a good neighborhood, we realize, they’d wouldn’t disappear—they’d have homes). Howland’s own father is too frugal to fix the light switches, so the family turns out the lights by unscrewing the bulbs. The branch librarian leaves her keys in the book drop after locking up, so she never loses them. These are the imperfect but practical solutions of people who may be beset by their lives, but have not given up on them.

The way Howland writes the library testifies to the wideness of her vision. Her librarian turns down a promotion to the central branch, too attached to her regular patrons. They are homeless, lonely, mentally ill—but Howland, through the eyes of the library staff, treats them with evenhanded acceptance. The library welcomes them in their differences, in their failure to fit smoothly into the logistics of society. This is fiction that admits the most important clientele of the library are people who need a free place to gather and—occasionally—to read (or, these days, to use a computer).

It is refreshing to hear, in Howland’s stories, a strong voice merged with a diligent stance of compassion. Her style, vivid and idiosyncratic, seems like an effect of this determined attitude. Take, for example, this observation in the aftermath of an awkward family wedding: “My uncle is a blunt and mysterious man to me. His life flows in another direction; I shall never understand it. And yet I felt closer to him than to anyone I had seen all day.” His life flows in another direction—Howland turns life into the subject. She affirms with simplicity that another person’s life does not merely pass by, but moves in its own right.

Howland’s stories sound, in writing, the way they would be spoken to an intimate listener. All of her protagonists are voyeurs, and all the stories resolve their watchfulness in moments of reflection. Partly autobiographical and partly fictional, they are private exercises in coping with the duress of a difficult life. Does watching it carefully make it more manageable? For Howland, it seems so. Over and over again, she trains her attention on basic details as the material of culture; the world in common, she seems to be saying, is composed of a million tiny gestures. Raising these moments from their semi-consciousness into the light of the page, she lets us join in her slight surprise at what, after all, was possible.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021

Ezra Pound, Italy, and The Cantos

Massimo Bacigalupo
Clemson University Press ($120)

by Patrick James Dunagan

Ezra Pound, Italy, and The Cantos unveils an intimate portrait of both poet and poem. Massimo Bacigalupo’s study is conversational in tone, yet nevertheless scholarly and astute, offering an overview of Pound’s many attachments to his adopted country. The book is composed in a series of snapshot-like chapters written in first person and covering the decades from Pound’s first visits to Italy up to his final years there, with a diverse assortment of stops in between. Bacigalupo had the serendipitous fortune to grow up in Rapallo, on Italy’s northwestern coast. A renowned locale celebrated for its great natural beauty, the hiking is excellent and the water is clear. Rapallo is also where Pound first rented an attic apartment in 1925, soon settling down there with his wife Dorothy, eventually relocating his parents from America and enjoying notable visits over the years from W. B. Yeats, Basil Bunting, Louis Zukofsky, and James Laughlin, among others.

Pound would compose much of his monumental lifework, The Cantos, in and around the small coastal town. Pound’s additional life partner Olga Rudge, mother to Pound’s daughter Mary, also came to live atop the hillside above Rapallo, in Sant’Ambrogio. Bacigalupo recalls Rudge’s visits with his parents when he was a child and in later years his own growing interest in the arts led him to interact with both Pound and Rudge on his own terms. This was after Pound had returned to Italy in 1958 from his decade-long imprisonment at St Elizabeth’s hospital outside of Washington D.C., where he had been placed under psychological care for possible insanity following a life-threatening charge of treason for the anti-Allied radio broadcasts he made from behind enemy lines during WWII.

There have, of course, been many previous books written on Pound and The Cantos, yet by focusing on interesting gaps in the record, Bacigalupo manages to extrapolate upon the work of others, filling in details while commenting upon the poem itself in a surprisingly refreshing manner. He admirably takes on the difficulty of reading Pound, acknowledging that, “This work requires full immersion, a capacity of suspending disbelief (and even, sometimes, moral judgement), and may look arid and unpromising,” and he usefully suggests that, “The discontinuity of language may appear an obstacle until we remember that the reader of The Cantos is expected to be equipped with Pound’s own knowledge” before continuing on to make the rather startling yet utterly revelatory claim: “In fact, The Cantos are primarily written for one reader—Ezra Pound.”

This is excellent guidance for any reader struggling with Pound’s colossus of a poem. It is worth being reminded what an unusual mind Pound possessed for pulling together incongruous (if not contradictory) elements within the labyrinthine layers of his poetry. He may not have always been entirely accurate in regard to the associations he drew together, either. Bacigalupo claims that need not matter, at least in so far as there was a larger goal: “Pound himself probably forgot in time what many of the names and references in The Cantos were about. He remembered, perhaps, his interpretation of them, which wasn’t necessarily correct. The feeling, not the meaning. What he wanted to say, not what he in fact said.” Seen in this light, the poetry is intended to evoke not literal reality but rather the poet’s vision of reality, what the reader is only capable of seeing if they look through the poet’s eyes.

Staunchly supportive, Bacigalupo nevertheless recognizes Pound’s linguistic limitations. He describes the controversial and (for a time) suppressed Cantos 72 and 73, as “experiments by Pound in a language, Italian, which he never mastered but for which he doubtless had a very good ear.” And when it comes to Pound’s version of Italian writer Enrico Pea’s “Moscardino”, “the sheer number of misreadings . . . is staggering and reveals that his knowledge of Italian was largely inadequate. Either he could not see the words on the page, or he just didn’t care what the original text said so long as he thought he got it right.” Bacigalupo sees a similarity with Pound’s earlier Sextus Propertius: “A common trait of both works is that Pound rarely departs from the letter of the text—he perverts it and transforms it, but he is always working on textual material.” Having such concise and keen critical insights into Pound’s working poetics expressed so matter-of-factly is quite refreshing.

Bacigalupo does not offer up many details from his own personal interactions with Pound and Rudge. Pound is known for his silence during his later years, so it is not too surprising to hear that “Ezra didn’t speak but was a friendly presence.” Bacigalupo does, however, possess an innate feel for directly communicating essential takes on Pound’s poem that are indispensable for readers approaching it. In his Afterword he describes how “The Cantos are a collection of stories, or allusions to stories. The talk of a life,” and he cautions that “Pound is the stuff of legend, and he also, somewhat like William Faulkner, did little to set the record straight.” Maybe, as he reports, “Nobody today reads Pound,” yet Bacigalupo gloriously insists “we will not be bored” for “There is in The Cantos a whole world.”

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021

Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls

Nina Renata Aron
Crown ($27)

by Erin Lewenauer

“Living with a junkie involves a lot of effluvia. Everywhere, there are oozes that must be wiped away,” writes Nina Renata Aron in her gutsy, searing addiction memoir and first book. She dips and swoons through the darkness, freedom, and close encounters that add up to, for her at the time, a risk worth taking. Aron and her paramour K live together amongst their secrets in Oakland. He's always short on money and she can't tell if he's working at all. “His waking hours are careful calculus. To get from sunrise to sundown, he needs forty dollars—thirty for heroin and ten for crack.”

The timeline of Aron's story shifts as it does in many an obsessed mind. Her writing is verbose, harsh, and absorbed in place. With some pop psychology under her belt and in the throes of revenge, she’s intensely focused on portraying K’s "monstrousness" but also their shared passion. “It was an old-world romance, loud and lively—roaring with violent uncertainty—into which some tears and some lies were bound to fall,” she writes.

When K reappears in her life, she has a two-year-old and a two-month-old. He's sober when she leaves her husband for him—until, of course, he's not:

Sobriety, it turned out, was not a thing I could expect from him. The things I could expect, however, seemed to be the important things, to me, perhaps sadly, the only things—protection, fun, laughter, extraordinary sex. Drinking Slurpees together in my car on a street corner was pure joy. The once soul-deadening errands that defined my days—food shopping, dry cleaning—were, with him, extravagantly entertaining.

Her story then travels fifteen years earlier, before the blood, to when they met in 1997 at San Francisco's Tower Records where then-18-year-old Aron worked. She came to San Francisco in a fit of romance and to escape her parents' divorce with her three best friends from New Jersey: riot grrrls, into bands and piercings. She was busy crafting her image, as a young adult does. K waltzed in, in his twenties, “the tender tough guy” abused as a child. He’d had cancer and the opiates prescribed began his addiction. “I wanted to curl up in that warm coat pocket and be moved by the weight of him,” she writes, “all over this city I didn’t yet know.”

Aron details her long history of protecting addicts and codependency. Her older sister Lucia has "star quality" and a heroin addiction; “I carried her secrets around like a backpack full of body parts, guilty, angry, and exhausted.” She helped her parents by digging into her sister's privacy, but it came at a cost. “There was something intimidating about the way she held her secrets. Addicts are like celebrities or politicians in this way—the information they share is carefully controlled and you can never entirely trust it.”

Aron’s writing is gripping, filled with intricate loops of pain and anger. Despite her toughness, her "ironclad feminist politics", she asks, “Why did taking care of other people feel so good and hurt so much?” Even though she has educated herself on addicts and codependents, she's stuck in the spiral, alongside her tight-knit Jewish family and their house in emotional disarray.

Some of the more fascinating parts of Aron's memoir are when she ties in her graduate studies of Russian literature and feminism. "Love is women's work," historically, she notes, nestled between her descriptions of all the gory details of living in the shadow of an addict you're in love with, all the flashiness and danger. She never short-changes the freedom of youth and the deep knowledge that it's fleeting. It's enlightening to witness Aron claim her experiences and come to terms with herself: “Full-tilt me was crooked-faced, stormy, and dark. A slutty, sloppy Modigliani in sunglasses.”

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021

Moving Minds and Manners:
A Talk with Steven Dunn

by Zack Kopp

Steven Dunn’s first book, Potted Meat (Tarpaulin Sky, 2016), introduced readers to his spare, powerfully evocative voice. The novel, about growing up poor and Black in Kimball, West Virginia, proceeds in elliptical fragments as opposed to a continuous narrative, giving it a timeless quality. Yet despite the universality of his writing, Dunn is often pigeonholed because of his race. For example, he tells me that “a photographer for a magazine (I don't want to say who because the magazine handled the issue immediately after I told them about it) wanted me to put my hood on and ‘make a mean face like when I'm doing my jam poetry.’ I think he meant slam poetry. On top of that, I get emails every January from white organizers in Denver asking me to be a featured slam poet for the Black History Month event. I used to direct them to actual slam poets, but realized that was messed up of me to put that on real slam poets, sending these insincere organizers their way who probably just want to make themselves feel better for having ‘diversity.’ Man, and this type of shit got worse during the pandemic/recent police murders of Black people. Often, white organizers ask me to come on podcasts, magazines, etc., to talk about ways I've experienced racism, but they haven't read my work or know much about me as a writer.”

Potted Meat was succeeded two years later by Water & Power (Tarpaulin Sky, 2018), Dunn’s fictionalized account of his service aboard a nuclear submarine, where he was relegated to rations stamped UNFIT FOR PRISON USE. Water & Power is delivered in a similarly spare, evocative style, and includes, unlike Potted Meat, a series of reproduced, official documents exemplifying bureaucracy and war profiteering at the expense of soldiers’ lives. “Water & Power's political statement is largely anti-war, and a statement against singular heroic military narratives that are often created and glorified by straight, white men. I feel somewhat responsible to my Blackness as a writer, because I'm the writer I am because of a community of Blackness, legacies of Blackness, inherited Black culture, and a wide spectrum of Black arts. I always think about what those things have given me: beauty, joy, lamentation/celebration, a sense of belonging, ugliness, a love for the discarded and decayed, Black imagination—and I try to also return those gifts the best way I know how. In a way, I'm always creating out of Blackness, and I hope the impact I have on Black writing is one of reciprocity.”

Where white writers might spend years attempting a writing style comfortably accessible by people of all races, genders, and educations, this feeling of statelessness is born of advantage, from never having had to uphold their cultures. Dunn says, “I still don't strive for or know what's universal. I'm always torn on the idea of what's accessible writing because readers are so wide. Years ago, at a reading, Fred Moten was asked about accessibility, and he said, ‘It's not a good idea to assume someone else's ability to understand.’ That stuck with me and complicated everything I thought and continue to think about universality and comfortably accessing writing. I read a lot books by queer women, and it's not comfortable for me to access because that's not my lived experience, and I don't think it should be comfortable for me to access because I should be doing the work to listen and try to understand. I think this idea of ‘universal’ is a very white thing and a very male thing and a very upper-middle class thing and a somewhat U.S.A thing. I say that because as a student/reader in the world, it seems that most books that get talked about as being universal are written by who I described above. I've heard The Great Gatsby, and the like, praised for their universal qualities. Whiteness (and a lot of white people, for the most part in the U.S.) has had a long history of self-imposed importance and arrogance that leads to the ideas that their concerns are universal, that their voices are neutral, that their version of English is standard, and that their skin tone is what ‘flesh colored’ is for commercial products like band-aids and stockings and shit.”

As a reader, Dunn prefers writing that makes him feel like he is part of the story’s unfoldment, and that includes “a lot of children's books, especially Berenstain Bears Get in a Fight (because I had a younger sister), and Beverly Cleary books (because I grew up running around in the woods too). I also feel acknowledged by architectural books because I wanted to be an architect, and still do, so I read a lot about it. About my philosophy on good writing: I don't have one, but I love writing that makes me feel like I'm participating in the creation of it, and where I'm able to use my full spectrum of senses to feel my full spectrum of emotions. I don't like being led along mostly; I like to feel like I have the agency to explore. But that's not always true because I love Fast & Furious movies and that's totally being led along [laughs]. Oh, and another thing about good writing, I love writing that shakes the shit out of me, that breaks me open. I know that's pretty abstract and broad, and there's a lot of ways to go about shaking the shit outta somebody, but I like that broad and open idea because I get to keep cataloguing ways it's done. Examples where I feel like a co-creator: Selah Saterstrom's novels, The Pink Institution, The Meat & Spirit Plan, and SLAB; Nikki Wallschlaeger's Houses; Khadijah Queen's I'm So Fine; Gail Scott's The Obituary and My Paris.”

Dunn’s current writing project is a book on Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones (aka Nas), the hip hop artist from Queensbridge widely considered one of the greatest rappers in history. “I don't have a title yet, none of my rough titles even sound that good. Maybe I'll have a title by the time I finish the book. I haven't been putting together soundtracks for each chapter, because most of the chapters are based on one song, or a few of the songs that have common themes and narrative structures. The interplay of rap and writing for me is 1) Rap is literature so they're not that separate. 2) I just wanna write some shit that I been joyful about, had fun with, and studied my whole life. 3) Part of it is questioning this idea that in order to be a writer you have to have read or currently read a lot. I read one book from ages 12-21, and I turned out to be a writer. But I listened to a LOT of rap, and that's the first shit I went to ‘read’ when I started trying to be a writer. So what the fuck is reading? Is it listening, is it reciting rap lyrics for decades?”

“The one book I read from ages 12-21 was The Old Man and the Sea, which I really like. I haven't thought much about how that book affects my writing today, other than it being a short book, which I write short books, so maybe there's something there. I don't see any threads with that book and my book about rap, but I'll think about that more. That's a good-ass question! You know, because Hemingway is an old white dude that's in the canon, I've been resistant to even think about how that book affects my writing about rap, which is a traditionally marginalized form of literature made mostly by marginalized people. I didn't realize that until you asked the question. I'm not placing a value judgment on my resistance, but there's something there in terms of what is accepted literature and who is allowed to write it. So I don't know, I'll keep thinking: does Hemingway's book affect my writing about rap, should I allow it to if it doesn't? When writing about Nas, am I inspired to a higher degree of cultural identification as usual? I haven't thought about that. I don't think so, because I've had a lifetime of identifying with that, so that's taken care of, and I think I'm inspired to honor rap and the ways we often discuss it, listen to, and play with it in our communities. Shit, I guess that is culture identification. Okay, the answer is yes [laughs].”

My would-be universal perspective in writing, uncorrupted by cultural imperative, has always been tempered by the range of my experience. For all my years of self-immersion in Black arts, I remain fundamentally, separately white. When the cops show up, I worry maybe I’ll end up in jail, not be murdered. “I think it's a very white act to assert or imply the idea of transcending race, which is definitely writing out of whiteness,” says Dunn. “I'm not saying you, or people who think like that, are being malicious, but it's a result of whiteness/white culture. All of that ties into my response to your question about writers having a political responsibility. I think it's all political; our very existences, what jobs we have, who we live around, what types of characters populate our books and how they behave, is all political. It's a political act to assume a non-racialized set-up, or to feel politics don't belong in art, because it's already there. So I'm opposite in the belief that politics don't belong in art, and I do think writers could have more of a political responsibility. Like me (or anybody writing about Black people), I think we have a responsibility to show a full range of humanity within Blackness, because we aren't afforded that privilege in a lot of other areas outside of art, and that's a political act.”

“I love watching popular movies, the ones I love and even the ones I hate, like Star Wars, just to see what they're up to narratively and socially, and just for plain ol' fun sometimes. I actually learn a lot about storytelling from watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians and other reality shows. I think Moonlight is a political movie because it addresses systemic poverty and shows gay, Black men being joyful, experiencing pain, being tough, and being tender. I also think Star Wars was political, because there was only one Black dude, Finn, in a galaxy far, far away, with no Black family, but his job is to help a white lady hero. And I think stuff like that is a result of white writers unintentionally overlooking, or intentionally ignoring their political responsibility. In the Star Wars writer's imagination, there is one Black person in the future. To me, that's a real horror movie.”

Dunn maintains the responsibilities of a husband and father while holding down a day job in Denver and embodying a presence in the local spoken word scene. “My family is great—we support each other in whatever we're doing. It takes a lot of flexibility for them to support me as a writer, like me traveling to do readings and getting my MFA, or giving me some space to write and do homework. I know writing takes up a lot of space in our lives, so I try not to take too much. Like, I don't write much when everyone is awake, I'll try to save it for my own time.”

His clear-headed, deliberate approach has resulted in a well-deserved deluge of acclaim, including the filmic adaptation of Potted Meat in 2019. The result, entitled The Usual Route, directed by Cory C. Warner, met with praise at the Los Angeles International Film Festival. “I'm glad it was filmed in my hometown and that everyone in the movie is from my town. Oh, and we'll be releasing it online in November for free, probably on YouTube.”

Amid wildfires resulting from climate change, an erratic egomaniac at the nation’s helm, and in the time of COVID, when everything feels possible and powerful and unexpected and fertile, and when white artists might feel dazed by some imagined ultimacy of purpose, Steven Dunn is practical and sensible in every observable measure. My conversation with him has deepened my respect for his work; he is skilled at moving minds and manners with a few well-chosen words.

Click here to purchase Potted Meat
at your local independent bookstore
Click here to purchase Water & Power
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Winter 2020-2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020-2021