The winner of our 2016 chapbook competition, Raven Jackson, stars in a poetry film shot on location in Piermont, NY, by Felipe Vara de Rey. The short film is gauzy and dream-like, and features stunning visuals of Jackson sitting by a tree-lined lake and walking through a golden field. Jackson also provides the voice-over of her poem "jar," which is featured in her winning chapbook little violences (available for purchase through the CutBank store).
The Underworld by Kevin Canty (2017)
Review by Bryn Agnew
Kevin Canty’s latest novel The Underworld tells the story of a disastrous fire in the mines beneath an isolated town in Idaho in the 1970s. Inspired by true events, the novel depicts the rippling effects of tragedy, leaving no one unscathed.
Canty’s characters are of the blue-collar variety, and the novel’s multiple points of view invite us to view their world through many pairs of eyes. There is a college student trying to make a new life for himself in Montana, a young widow with twins, and a lifelong hard-rock miner struggling against the thick, black smoke. The multiple points of view offer the reader an all-inclusive look at a catastrophe where everyone has lost someone—a friend, a lover, a brother, a father.
Canty’s prose is sharp and honest, never obscuring an image or character. The reader is immersed in the world of Silverton, Idaho as if they themselves were a resident of the silver mining town. The world is rendered vividly from the music playing on the radio to lines like “Their wives burst out of the crowd and through the gate and into their embrace, the filthy work clothes and the pretty pastels of their dresses.” But the marvel of The Underworld is the novel’s humanity. Canty’s characters drive the novel and crackle with life. They struggle with what is lost or could be lost and cling desperately to hope and love.
The Underworld features an overarching metaphor of light and darkness. Canty writes of the “thick, opaque, greasy-looking” smoke and the dead silence of the dark mine shafts, invoking a sense of dread in both the characters and the reader. It is a dread that permeates all of Silverton, and no one is tough enough to escape it. Yet, there is light. Even trapped in the depths of the smoky mine, a character thinks of his ex-wife. He wants “to see her, to say hello, see how she is getting along. It doesn’t seem like much. It isn’t much to hope for. But it might be enough.” The earliest manifestation of this metaphor is when David—the college student—is in the botany lab: “They’re quantifying phototropism, the rate at which a plant will grow toward the light. The light has come and gone and come again, dazzling sun punctuated by blizzards. The other day, a snowstorm full of lightning. Spring is the good news and the bad news both.” As the reader reads, Canty’s characters are in the act of their own phototropism. They grieve what is lost—and even though some will not make it—they grow toward the light.
Kevin Canty is the author of numerous works of fiction including A Stranger in This World, Into the Great Wide Open, Nine Below Zero, Honeymoon, Winslow in Love, Where the Money Went, Everything, and The Underworld. He has been published in The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, and the New York Times Magazine. He currently teaches at the University of Montana in Missoula.
Bryn Agnew is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Montana and a bookseller at Missoula’s Fact & Fiction. His stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Mid-American Review, The Nottingham Review, and North Texas Review. He received an MA and BA in creative writing from the University of North Texas.
Lent is upon us, folks. Yes, it is the season of ascetic self-denial. But fear not! CutBank is here to provide you a literary/culinary survival guide for your time of penance. Prepare yourself for the dog-days to come, the days of gazing slack-jawed at the new season of Chef’s Table, dreaming of the grand Easter meal to come.
But what of Fat Tuesday? Even though the last day of revelry has come and gone, we can still look back at Literary Hub’s list of ten great works of New Orleans literature to help you remember the festivities you probably don’t remember.
And the Pope, we can’t forget about the Pope! The Paris Review features the story of Bartolomeo Scappi—the head chef for Renaissance popes and cardinals.
Or maybe you’re the practical kind—stoic and studious. The Millions offers you a literary reader for Lent—forty reads for forty days.
Have you ever wondered about the eating habits of your favorite writers? If so, check out Entropy’s feature aptly named Dinnerview. The feature explores the culinary lives of many writers such as Bonnie Jo Campbell, Julia Elliott, Rebecca Makkai, and Mary Jo Bang.
It is important to remember the simple things during Lent, the small delights that make the world bearable. Butter, for instance. Over at Electric Literature, Ted Wilson reviews butter (5 stars). Need I say more?
CutBank wishes you only the best in your time of atonement.
Fight the good fight.
The Woodshop is a feature examining the work spaces and habits of writers both big and small. Joan Didion spent the night in the same room as her work when it was almost finished. Don DeLillo kept a picture of Borges close by. When, and how, do you work? Our latest contributor is novelist and short story writer Erika Krouse.
1. Where do you do your work?
I work in two places—one is my home office, and that's boring. The other place is my friend's tree house. He’s a master craftsman, and he built the tree house on the side of a mountain outside Nederland, Colorado, a town I used to live in. It's about forty minutes from my house now, and I work up there on Sundays unless there's a blizzard.
It's a very luxurious tree house—propane heater, windows, electricity, a compostable toilet...It’s more like a Tiny Home in a tree. This time of year, I can usually see my breath for the first few hours of work, and I’m neurotic about checking the heater to make sure that the propane is burning instead of hanging in the air, killing me. I get more done in the first couple of hours there than I can in an entire day down in the flats.
2. Do you have any routines that help you get into the flow?
Getting up there is a routine in itself. I pack extra clothes, my computer, food. Produce is half-rotten in the mountain grocery stores, so I usually buy the owners fruit, since they won't take money. I drive up into the mountains, gaining about 2,500 feet in elevation—Nederland is at about 8,200 feet. After parking and chatting with the owners, I put on extra gear, load up my backpack, and hike to the tree house.
This time of year, the switchback trail is filled in with a few feet of packed and sliding snow. So I wear YakTrax over my Sorels, choose a line of trees to grab, and pull myself up the steep mountainside by walking sideways and clutching saplings and tree trunks. I have to stomp to post through the snow’s crust, and step near the tree trunks to get traction. It’s not far, and it’s worth it for the moment I arrive, separate from everything, the wind washing the pines and snow.
Once inside, I stomp the snow off and shed the YakTrax before they catch on the rug. Every surface is frozen. Space heater on, propane heater on, pull out laptop, food, water, power cords. Then I usually head up to the roof for a quick look at the valley below, unless it's too slippery.
After work, I head back down at sunset, clinging to trees, a little scared of mountain lions. My ending ritual is to stop by Barker Reservoir in Nederland on the way down. There’s usually a slight blue glow behind the Continental Divide. The water’s depleted, having been drained for the winter, so I’m essentially walking on the lake bottom. It smells rank, like rotten fish and frozen leaves. I like to throw rocks onto the ice. As it gets darker and colder, the lake begins to gently refreeze and shift, popping and cracking like bones as the water crystallizes below the surface. It sounds like plastic bags and cooling radiators and ice in a glass. I love that sound, the lake expanding upon itself as it changes form.
3. What do you keep on your desk?
At home, my desk is a disaster (stapler, pens, pencil sharpeners, dirty mugs and bowls, exploding papers), but at the tree house, the desk is empty except for lamp and a candle that I never light. The desk is one of those old kitchen-y tables that fold down, and it rattles when I type. I keep the space heater underneath in the hopes that it'll heat up the wood faster. I have to wear fingerless gloves, which make the words feel meaty and warm.
4. What's your view like?
I’m surrounded by windows and light and wood, lodgepole pines outside, and animals in the trees. Crows, woodpeckers, chickadees, and there are these cool black squirrels up here with tufted ears. The weather can get unfriendly. The donkey in the valley brays in the wind and sounds like a train. Massive gales sometimes blast from the Continental Divide, so the tree house shudders and slides along a dynamic connector the owner installed. My whole view shifts a few degrees, and it feels like I’m writing on a boat or in an earthquake.
5. Have you made any rules for how you use this space?
The owners gave me the wi-fi password but I conveniently lost it. I’m mostly unreachable. I keep teaching prep and grading to a minimum, and mostly write fiction. A spreadsheet keeps me on track with goals. On a practical level, since it’s hard to get up there for the owners, I make a rule of sweeping up before leaving, and try to leave nothing behind, not even a tissue.
6. What do you eat/drink while you work?
I have a magic thermos that keeps water hot (for tea) no matter the outside temperature. During the summer, I eat samosas at the Kathmandu Restaurant in town, but during these cold months, it’s easier just to pack a bottle of cold chai and a turkey sandwich with mustard (ridiculously good together, try it). Salmon salad, a hunk of cheese, apples, nuts, carrots, anything edible...I eat constantly when I work. My laptop is probably compostable.
7. Do you have any superstitions about your work?
They're more like anxieties—every time I finish something, I think, That's it, that's the last thing I'll ever write, I'm dry now. But I don't have any real superstitions. I don’t think I have that luxury, frankly.
8. Share a recent line/sentence written in this space.
Lately I’ve been writing about Omaha:
“When you steal a car from a white supremacist, the safest place to stay is in a black area of town.”
Erika Krouse's fiction has appeared in magazines such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, and One Story. Her novel, Contenders, was a finalist for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Her collection of short stories, Come Up and See Me Sometime, is the winner of the Paterson Fiction Award and was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the year. Erika teaches at the Lighthouse Book Project and Ashland University's low-res MFA program.
By Lisbet Portman, CutBank Nonfiction Editor
Recommending a book to someone can feel loaded, like asking that person out for the first time by suggesting a short trip to O’ahu. I’ve never recommended a book so fiercely as I did Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts—I’m talking mass texts, Christmas presents, chain emails: read this.
I even went so far as to assign it, perhaps irresponsibly, to a class of undergraduates in a nonfiction writing workshop. Because suddenly I was standing in front of twenty-two students, foaming at the mouth, expected to speak plainly about a slim, dense book in my hand. We made out all right in the end, but the way there was as messy, loaded, and as meandering as could be expected from this picnic of a memoir to which everyone and everything has been invited.
The Argonauts is true to its name—Argo (the Greek ship manned by a crew of heroic sailors—nauts), which was reconstructed so many times that eventually every piece had been replaced, only its name an original. In this book, Nelson conducts an intensive, playful, holy interrogation of her performance in the world as a queer woman, a lover, a mother, a feminist, a writer, and a body. The story lives in chunks of varying sizes, each of which read as a poem or mini-essay when lifted from the bulk. Nelson invokes theorists and philosophers not to support her claims, but organically—these are the voices she has swallowed, their words now entwined with hers. Quotes are embedded in the chunks of text and italicized. The authors' names are kicked to the margins where they hover in white space—at once cast aside and memorialized.
To Nelson, artist Harry Dodge is that “someone with whom my perversities were not only compatible, but perfectly matched.” What follows is a story of their relationship as lovers and intellectuals, the trials of trying to conceive, their “summer of changing bodies” when she was four months pregnant and Harry was six months on T, her experience of pregnancy as someone who had spent years “harshly deriding ‘the breeders.'” What follows is an erotics of the anus, motherhood, discourse, dicks, art, constipation, intimacy, cocktail parties, virgin daquieries, writing, semen in a salsa jar, parenting, fucking, Prop 8, feminism, cruelty, florida, falling forever, clits, vanilla sex, white ceramic horns, death, ceiling fans, etc.
To a few students who found the language difficult to understand, I encouraged them to read as they might listen to a piece of music. There is no way, no need to keep close tabs on the violin and snare drum activity, that kind of focus would in fact detract from hearing the song as it is—buzzing, oh very much alive. Listen to how it moves, pay attention to the lines that pierce. I’ve read the book four times, and each read was different. This experience aligns with certain insistences within the text: Nelson strains against our impulse to “name” things as a way of congealing “difference into a single figure,” and assumes “we are always moving, shape-shifting.” In an interview with ARTFORUM in 2015, she said, “We might not literally be able to call something into being. But we can always sing.”
The internet is fat with reviews of The Argonauts and interviews with Maggie Nelson the poet, the critic, the essayist. I’m not unique in falling for the book and I don’t have anything of note to contribute to the conversation, I’m just telling you that one afternoon I got pinned to the couch and forgot to eat, forgot to pee: read this. And loads of people have. Whether Nelson likes it or not, since its publication in May 2015, The Argonauts has also been taken up by straight people in book clubs in hopes of learning more about the queer and transgender community. While the book interacts with these “names,” it won’t sit tight in any genre: “it’s the binary of normative/transgressive that’s unsustainable, along with the demand that anyone live a life that’s all one thing.” Although fully aware that she is partaking in a longer history by telling her own, Nelson didn’t set out to be a spokesperson: “I am interested in offering up my experience and performing my particular manner of thinking, for whatever they are worth.”
The Argonauts is a production in which Nelson both betrays and honors a multiplicity of selves by asking “a question from the inside.” She can’t bring herself to address her unborn child until the very end:
I want you to know, you were thought of as possible—never as certain, but always possible—not in any given moment, but over many months, even years, of trying, of waiting, of calling—when, in a love sometimes sure of itself, sometimes shaken by bewilderment and change, but always committed to the charge of ever-deepening understanding—two human animals, one of whom is blessedly neither male nor female, the other of whom is female (more or less), deeply, doggedly, wildly wanted you to be.
Lisbet Portman is an MFA candidate in nonfiction and a writing instructor at the University of Montana. Her work focuses on addiction policy in the US and sometimes, glitter. She is originally from Ohio and earned a B.A. in American studies from Smith College in Northampton, MA.
On September 23, 2016, during the Montana Book Festival, CutBank's online managing editor Nicole Roché had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Gregory Pardlo, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection Digest. The full interview can be found in our latest print edition, CutBank 86.
NR: I have to ask you about the Pulitzer. In a New York Times article from last April, you were saying after the announcement, you felt like you were following around another guy everyone was congratulating. I’m wondering if a year and a half later, if it’s finally sunk in that you are that guy.
GP: Yes, it has sunk in. I mean, it’s been a learning curve. I think I’ve always had a problem with accepting praise and congratulations, so that’s just a character flaw that I’ve always had. But I’ve also had to learn—I’ve had to learn how to give interviews. It’s something that I never thought about doing, or thought would be a part of my job, as a poet. The whole learning curve has just been rethinking how I can be effective in the world in the way that I want to off the page as much as on the page. I guess in that process I’ve integrated the formerly alienated self.
NR: Ira Glass talks about this gap that exists between a beginning writer’s intentions and what actually makes it onto the page. I’m wondering if there was a moment, a period in your writing, when you sort of said, “Hey, you know, I am starting to close that gap?”
GP: No. I think I might be a little different, at least process-wise. I don’t start a poem knowing where it’s going to go. I pretty much have no clue what I’m getting myself into, so I don’t have any expectations on the back end. So whatever happens, and I think this is true about my work in general, it’s process-oriented. What I think is most demonstrated on the page is my thought process. My thinking through formal restraints, or thinking through the historical and social intersections. I just keep shoveling information into the poem and see what comes up, see what I can make of it. So the result is I don’t feel like it hasn’t met my expectations.
Now, of course, it never meets my expectations. Not to say I’m happy with the work. I don’t jump up from the desk patting myself on the back every time I finish a poem. But I can sort of keep pushing to do something beyond what I may have thought was in the poem.
NR: Digest says so much about history, about the burdens of history or the burdens of legacy, including legacies that are played out in increasingly sanitized or domestic ways, like the boys shooting off fireworks—“the household paraphernalia of war”—in “Problemata.” Do you think history leaves a tangible imprint on a place, on people, on the here and now?
GP: Yes. So, it’s kind of reactionary against the notion of realism in literature. We celebrate Hemingway, for example, for this stripped-down style. And the way I had been sold that style is that it gets to the bare “real,” to things as they are, and I distrusted that without knowing why. Part of what I’m interested in in terms of time in this book is that—first of all, I think realism is as much of an affected style as any other form of literature, and it is not getting any closer to the stripped-down real, and why should the stripped-down real itself be something we should want to pursue? So then, step two, I started thinking, why should we want the stripped-down real? Well, we want the stripped-down real because we are so desperately anxious and haunted by the history in our landscapes and in our environments. You can’t look at the American prairie without evoking the ghosts or the crimes from which we all benefit. Faulkner’s “history is in us”—whatever the quote is. You can’t look at a Southern plantation and render that scene with realism, because it’s unreal to do so. It is a contrivance to do so. For example, when I walk across campus at Columbia, I don’t look at the campus without thinking about all of my heroes that have gone to school there, all of the history. The reason I’m there is because of its romance. The reason I’m in New York is because of the romance that I have with New York. I want the history, as sordid and as beautiful as it is. It’s a part of human perception, first of all, that we only perceive place through the associations of time. If it’s a new place, we’re bringing our own projections to this new place. So A, I don’t think its humanly possible not to associate history with a place. And B, I think it’s unethical to ignore the fact that history and place are intertwined.
NR: What are our responsibilities to that history?
GP: I don’t think of it as a responsibility. I’m hearing responsibility as obligation to history. I don’t think we have an obligation to history. But I do think it is a distortion—it’s the motive that I have a beef with. So, if I want to render place minus history, I have to ask myself why I want to do that. And if the reason I want to do that is because the history that is entwined in a place makes me uncomfortable, then that’s a dishonorable motive in my worldview. I guess I want to leave the door open for projects that want to reimagine the history that’s present. So I don’t think there is a rigid record of what has happened in a place, I don’t think there’s a single record of place, but some of those records indict us. And some of the ways we think about place indict us. If I have a guilty motive, that’s a problem. If I have an aesthetic motive… I’m uncomfortable with that, because it seems dodgy. But I think that gets to the basis of what I mean by ethical. Who am I protecting? Am I protecting my ego, or am I genuinely trying to create something?
NR: In that NY Times article about winning the Pulitzer, there’s this grinning picture of you and you sound so incredulous. And now, hearing your thoughts about it—well, you’re such a personable guy. But I think a lot of people would say, “That guy’s made it. He’s totally made it.” Do you feel any pressure now to live up that expectation? Do you fear it has any effect on your work?
GP: To be honest, yes. Of course it influences my work, and it influences how I conceptualize the reader. My reader is much farther abroad now. My reader could be anywhere in the world now, as opposed to a reader within proximity. Changing that relationship fundamentally changes my approach to the poem. That said, I am nonetheless self-doubting and insecure, and a perfectionist. So none of that stuff goes away. Nothing has been lifted from my shoulders. I still agonize. I’m still an anxious wreck when I sit down to write.
NR: As someone who has “made it,” throw a bone to us MFA students and other beginning writers. What advice can you offer up?
GP: Find your superpower. What do you do that no one else can do? What can you put on the page that no one else can put on the page? I think so often in MFA programs, the culture is a competition to write the Richard Hugo poem or to write the Sharon Olds poem. We want to prove our cred by doing what someone else has done before. Some people will say you need to find your voice—I think that’s kind of trite, overworn, and not helpful. But there is something to say for a healthy self-awareness. We’re flawed, we’re beautifully flawed, damaged, and all-powerful beings. And the more of that we can accept in its uniqueness, then the more we can allow to be on the page.
Gregory Pardlo's collection Digest (Four Way Books) won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His other honor include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts; his first collection Totem was selected by Brenda Hillman for the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. He is also the author of Air Traffic, a memoir in essays forthcoming from Knopf. Pardlo is a faculty member of the MFA. program in creative writing at Rutgers University-Camden. He lives with his family in Brooklyn.
Nicole Roché is the online managing editor and a fiction editor for CutBank. She is a second-year MFA student in fiction at the University of Montana.
Who ever said you had to be a poor, highly-educated, no name to be a writer? Who said you had to struggle through a sea of ramen to one day wield the authorial power of an MFA and/or PhD?
Why not just be a celeb?
Mick Jagger wrote a memoir apparently. But he also forgot he wrote a memoir. That might be the most Mick Jagger thing I’ve ever heard.
But this begs the question: what celebrity books do we really need to have? Fortunately, the good folks at Literary Hub have answered this question.
If we were to follow this line of questioning further down the rabbit hole, who is the best fake novelist on TV? Electric Literature hands out their fake Pulitzer.
All right, all right. Let’s reel this back in. Did you know that the one and only Marcel Proust starred in a movie? Take a gander here.
And for all you celeb and not celeb writers out there, Brain Pickings has compiled a list of famous advice on writing to help you as you slog forward with your next prize-winning manuscript.
As always, keep scribbling.
Our stunning new winter issue, CutBank 86, is here!
CutBank 86 features the winner of our Big Sky, Small Prose Flash Fiction Contest, Alysia Sawchyn, with her piece "Riverbanks and Honeysuckle," along with runner-ups Daryl Scroggins and Derek Updegraff.
Other contributors include Kyle Ellingson, Rae Winkelstein, Juliana Gray, Roxanne Banks Malia, Rachel Morgan, Alison Ruth, Lacey Rowland, Patrick Kindig, and Michael Parker. The issue closes out with an interview by our online managing editor, Nicole Roché, with Gregory Pardlo, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
Is this year's conference really already over? What a weekend.
Everyone knows the offsite events are where it's at. Thank you to everyone who came out for ours this past Thursday night at the Colony Club, where we heard the winners of our 2016 chapbook contest read their amazing work—Raven Jackson (our winner, pictured), Lisa Hiton, and Wendell Mayo. We're so jazzed to publish these authors and to be able to meet you all in the flesh!
If you didn't get your copy of these gorgeous books, you can purchase them through our online store.
Our reading period for the 2017 chapbook contest, which has a $1,000 cash prize, is currently underway through March 31. Read more deets here and send us your work!
Until next year, everyone. TAMPA.
Things I said way too much this week:
1) He did what?
2) Have you seen Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men?
Are you ready for the Cheeto-glazed descent into the dystopian future? Did you get your copy of 1984 before Amazon ran out of copies?
The Los Angeles Times reminds us that dystopias are “a great place to be a tourist. Not a great place to be a permanent resident.”
So, what can we do to help?
Hope? Yes, yes, a story of hope! A story of resistance. No, not Rogue One. How about the story of an all-but-forgotten American diplomat who resisted the Armenian Genocides of 1915 and 1916?
Or perhaps you would like a drink? The fine geniuses at McSweeney’s have compiled a list of presidential cocktails for every occasion.
Not thirsty? Maybe a trip to the movies can cure your growing despair. I Am Not Your Negro hits the big screen today. Go see it. The screenplay was written by the great James Baldwin.
But really, why not just join the resistance? AWP is in D.C. this year, and numerous protests and rallies are being organized to coincide with the arrival of over 12,000 writers, editors, students, teachers, and publishers.
Above all, resist.
Make America Read Again.
A week from today, our fearless CutBank editors will be setting up our table at the 50th (!) annual Conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in Washington, DC, February 9-11.
Come to our table and say hi! We'll be there chatting with fellow writers, MFA students, editors, CutBank contributors, and all the rest of your smiling faces. Our latest issue, CutBank 86, is hot off the press, and will be available for purchase at our table, along with the winners of last spring's chapbook competition, our rad new shirts (wait 'til you see these puppies—more than a few of us will be sporting them), and other swag.
We hope you'll also join us for our offsite event, where we'll celebrate the publications of our most recent chapbook contest winners: Raven Jackson, Lisa Hiton, and Wendell Owen. See you there.
- Thursday, February 9, 2017
- Colony Club (3118 Georgia Ave NW, Washington DC, 20010)
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball (2016)
Review by Bryn Agnew
Jesse Ball’s How to Set a Fire and Why is a novel of loss and destructive redemption. Told with his narrator’s searing wit, How to Set a Fire and Why is both a work of fiction and a timely treatise on injustice and resistance.
Ball’s teenage narrator, Lucia Stanton, deservingly takes her place among fiction’s most captivating and radical characters. Reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, Lucia is introduced to readers as she is being kicked out of her most recent high school for an incident involving a pencil and the neck of the town’s young basketball darling. Her father dead, her mother in a mental institution, and her impoverished guardian aunt barely scraping by, Lucia has seemingly lost everything. Yet driven by a will to tell the important truths, she becomes involved with a secret arson club and sets out to burn down representations of hypocrisy and injustice.
Fragmented into short chapters, the novel’s prose is accessible, inviting, heartfelt, and honest. The language proves that simplicity, clarity, and subtlety carry great power when each paragraph, sentence, and word build to the totality of the author’s intent. Lucia and Ball present us with clear and painful truths, but also talismans to cling to. In a pamphlet on arson, Lucia writes, “The world is ludicrous. It is famished. It is greedy and adulterous. It is a wild place we inhabit, surely you agree? Well, then we shall have to try to make some sense of it. That is part of the reason why I have made this pamphlet. It is a kind of grip that you can have on the world. You can hold on to this, and find your way forward. That’s what I’m promising you.”
In many ways, How to Set a Fire and Why seeks to prepare all of us for the fires we must set—the work we must do. The novel begs our minds and hearts to see the truth and burn away the cruelty and greed of our world. Lucia tells us, “Do not be in a hurry. Remember—there is all of your life prior to the great fire you will set, and all of your life thereafter. That transition will require grace, thoroughness, and a deep compassion that stiffens into an unbreakable resolve. If it takes you some years to become the person who can burn a building, so be it. Carry your matches in your pocket, look at the faces of those who surround you in the crowd. Are we not all the same? Do we not all strive to simply have enough?”
Jesse Ball (1978–) was born in New York and is the author of fourteen books, including The Curfew, The Way Through Doors, Samedi the Deafness, Silence Once Begun, A Cure for Suicide, and How to Set a Fire and Why. His works have been published to acclaim in many parts of the world and translated into more than a dozen languages. He is on the faculty at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, won the 2008 Paris Review Plimpton Prize, was long-listed for the National Book Award, and has been a fellow of the NEA, Creative Capital, and the Guggenheim Foundation.
Bryn Agnew is an MFA candidate in Fiction at the University of Montana and a bookseller at Missoula's Fact & Fiction. His stories and essays have appeared in Mid-American Review and North Texas Review. He received an MA and BA in creative writing from the University of North Texas.
Today, amid simultaneous outcry and applause from a deeply divided country, Donald Trump was sworn in as the forty-fifth U.S. president. The day after the election, Dan Piepenbring of the Paris Review posted the following under the headline “Writers, Start Writing.” His call to arms bears repeating today:
“This site is dedicated to literature, arts, and culture. Electoral politics are usually beyond our remit. On a morning like this, when America has chosen a bigot and a xenophobe as its next president, my job feels pointless. But I don’t want to add to the chorus of despair, because I do believe there’s a role for art at a time like this, and I don’t say that lightly—words like these don’t come easily to me. I would rather make fun of things, and I’m struggling against an inborn fatalism. (My iPhone just reminded me to water my plants, and I thought, why bother?) The creative impulse is such a fragile thing, but we have to create now. We owe it to ourselves to do the work. I want to encourage you. If you aspire to write, put aside all the niceties and sureties about what art should be and write something that makes the scales fall from our eyes. Forget the tired axioms about showing and telling, about sense of place—any possible obstruction—and write to destroy complacency, to rattle people, to help people, first and foremost yourself. Lodge your ideas like glass shards in the minds of everyone who would have you believe there’s no hope. And read, as often and as violently as you can. If you have friends, as I do, who tacitly believe that it’s too much of a chore to read a book, just one fucking book, from start to finish, smash every LCD they own. This is an opportunity. There’s too much at stake now to pretend that everything is okay.”
Entropy Magazine, beloved by writers for its lists of "Where to Submit" throughout the year, has included a section for "Post Election Calls for Submissions." (Deadlines include Jan. 27 and Feb. 28., with Anti-Heroin Chic taking submissions through midnight tonight "on Trump, the election and the trauma/coping/resistance surrounding this event.")
If the muse fails you, and you instead feel the need to turn to the writing and wisdom of others, (a move Piepenbring also suggests), you might pick up one of (former!) President Obama's recommended books, as shared with New York Times chief book critic Michiko Katukani in a recent interview, itself well worth reading.
If all else fails, try my recipe for an essential oils blend I call "Feel Better": Frankincense (6 drops) for grounding, Cedar (6 drops) for grieving, Lavender (6 drops) for calming, Ylang Ylang (6 drops) for boosting mood, and Mandarin (2 drops) for energizing.
Review by Claire Venery
How to Unfeel the Dead by Lance Olsen is an assemblage of new and selected fictions that are expressive, emotional, and entertaining. The volume is split into five different sections from different books Olsen has written.
My Dates with Franz (1993) opens with “Two Children Menaced by a Nightingale,” a lyrical tale filled with meticulous color and detail. With post-apocalyptic undertones, multiple points of view, and vivid descriptions, Olsen couldn’t have picked a better story to introduce the reader to his haunting and memorable style.
The same details reappear throughout Olsen’s stories, like little breadcrumbs the reader can pick up along the way. There is something satisfying in recognizing a character from one story to the next. In “Watch and Ward,” the narrator is an English professor who meddles with his neighbors’ lawns, gutters, and houses with the best of intentions, but his actions have severe consequences. Later, in “Moving,” Murphy is also an English teacher who, after losing his job, clears gutters for money. “Small But Significant Invasions” mirrors “Moving” in tone. Both contain a couple that care deeply about each other, and each ends with the couple leaving their home hand and hand. The reader cannot help but feel like they know these couples. They feel like old friends.
As seen in the third section from Sewing Shut My Eyes (2000), Olsen’s tales often contain fantastical elements inserted into modern-day moments. “Cybermorphic Beat-Up Get-Down Subterranean Homesick Reality-Sandwich Blues” and “Strategies in the Over-Exposure of Well-Lit Space” do not disappoint. These stories are both a little bizarre in content, and the lines between reality and fantasy blur, where a poet is actually a robot and the infamous Zodiac Killer makes an appearance. It is a whirlwind of activity, and by the end, the reader no longer knows what is real and what is not.
No event or person in history is out of reach for Olsen. He mentions Wittgenstein, Donald Barthelme, Hegel, Bataille, Czeslaw, John Cage, and Alexander Pope, among many more prominent figures. However, perhaps the most notable historical character appears in “16 Jackies” from Olsen's Hideous Beauties (2003). The protagonist of “16 Jackies” is none other than Jackie Kennedy, and the story follows how she deals with the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Jackie recalls “coming awake in [her] nightgown in the middle of the night in [her] room at the Whitehouse, and how [she] just stood there watching [herself] cleaving, coming apart like amoebae do under the microscope.” This tale once again calls upon the reader to accept the impossible. Perhaps, in this piece, Olsen is commenting on how grief can split a person into different versions of themselves.
Olsen’s description remains excellent throughout, especially in “The Doll,” where the narrator describes the day as a “frisky blue Sunday afternoon.” The word “frisky” implies the characters’ sexual activities before Olsen reveals what has just occurred in their apartment. This story describes two characters in an unhealthy relationship who begin removing their toes and eating them for dinner. Gradually, this activity morphs into cutting off all their body parts until only their heads are left. Olsen could be using shock value in these gruesome actions to represent what happens when a person gives too much of themselves away in a relationship.
In “Where Does the Kissing End?” Olsen finally has reality fall upon his characters, where fantasy can no longer be sustained. The main character is a young girl who has just heard the tale of a princess kissing a frog and how the act turns him into her prince. The girl is enamored by the story and takes it upon herself to kiss every frog she can find. As each kiss fails, she realizes her mistake. Upon kissing her last frog, she reflects, “you retract your tongue and wait and stoop and fan your fingers open and set the frog among the weeds and watch him watch with his dead gold eyes watching and wait till you realize only gradually that the world has not changes one mite because the frog is still the frog and you are still yourself and the sky is still blue and your heart is still your heart.”
The fifth and final section of How to Unfeel the Dead showcases eight new fiction pieces from the years 2004–13. At this point the writing becomes experimental, both in structure and content. The first three pieces are the most obscure. “Art Lecture” is less of a story and more of a snapshot of historical moments. The second story is called “Status Updates” and is composed of a steady stream of sentences with a different character in each one. The story begins and ends with ellipses, suggesting the never-ending flow of information being posted day in and day out. Here Olsen comments on the mindless and endless drone of social media outlets of today.
Although Olsen’s writing grows and changes throughout the years, he is consistent in his unique descriptions, stark character voices, and distinct word choices. “Maybe” and “über” are uttered by many characters and he never misses an opportunity to describe the “blue sky” in his multitudes of stories. Lance Olsen is clever, articulate, funny, and thought provoking, and his short stories are nuggets of wisdom that should not go unread.
About the Author:
Lance Olsen’s more than twenty books of and about experimental fiction include the novels Theories of Forgetting (2014), Calendar of Regrets (2010), Head in Flames (2009), Nietzsche’s Kisses (2006), and Girl Imagined by Chance (2002), as well as the anti-textbook Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Writing (2012) and critifictional meditation [[there.]] (2014). His short story, essays, and reviews have appeared in hundreds of journals and anthologies. A Guggenheim, Berlin prize, N.E.A., and Pushcart recipient and Fulbright Scholar, he teaches innovative narrative theory and practice at the University of Utah.
About the Reviewer:
Claire Venery is an undergraduate majoring in English at the University of Montana.
Sometimes, you just have to fake it.
Whether you need to wing that last-minute term paper or just charm a stranger at the office holiday party, Lit Hub humbly offers “An Incomplete Guide to Proper Literary Name-Dropping.” If this nifty article doesn’t do the trick, you can always turn to Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read, which extols the virtues of skimming and/or gleaning information from what others say about a text, among other approaches.
Recently, the editors of the New York Times offered up their picks for the ten best books of 2016—perhaps, in a pinch, these shall be your favorites too? Of course, there’s always the chance you won’t have to talk about the books themselves, but can get by on a critique of their covers.
Meanwhile, over at Book Riot, Michelle Anne Schlinger presents her ode to “dirty books” and the good old fashioned reading that makes them so—books that have been read to death, books with broken spines and torn pages, books that take on that beloved “old book smell." Schlinger notes, “To be in such disrepair, for a book, means that you have been enjoyed.”
As the holidays approach, and with them a handful of precious lazy afternoons, I ask myself, Remember reading for pleasure?
Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit cutbankonline.org/submit/web. To submit to our chapbook contest, please see cutbankonline.org/submit/print or email email@example.com for more information.
Dear Carl Sandburg,
I looped and wandered across the continent for twelve months. In the thirteenth, really the last of the year, I live in a single spot again. My childhood home sits seventeen miles from your childhood home, door to door. You’ve left yours, but I’ve returned to mine, for a bit.
Living in one place for more than a few days feels less odd than I thought it might after fifty thousand miles on the road. I swim each morning at the YMCA and then read and write until dinner. Winter means that temperatures dropped fifty degrees overnight but not enough to freeze memories.
Apropos (I never get to use that word) of this letter, I read your long poem, several times now. “Honey and Salt”—
Is there any way to measure love?
Yes but not till long afterward
Not as much time needed as you’d think, Carl. I have to start measuring with a bigger stick and remembering more softly because these forgotten girls suffocate.
Oh, the ghosts eased me back in, sure. The old high school. (Did you ever visit?) The park where Lesley and I played on the swings at sunset. My first vehicle, the pickup where Nevine and I first fogged the windows—hauled off on a flatbed to the junkyard when it died last week, outliving the relationship but not the echo.
As I settle into the familiar specifics of this place, though, memories surge ahead guided by increasing abstraction. A scratched silver car becomes her scratched silver car, with Kailey and I and the tire flat at 4 a.m. miles and years away. A sidewalk becomes the sidewalk of distant city where Alexis sat and I spoke, but not the right words.
Even at the pool, every push off the wall washes into my mind faces I thought I’d left in oblivion and also delivers an underwater view of legs. The morning water walkers. No torsos and nobody younger than seventy. Maybe they have some answers.
Do you still believe, like in that poem, that love endures in the forever-space of oaths between hydrogen and oxygen? I’m drowning over here and searching for my next breath.
Yours in small-town truths,
Dustin Renwick runs, writes, and does not drink coffee. He is a Tupelo Press 30/30 Project alum, and his latest nonfiction book, Beyond the Gray Leaf, is a biography of a forgotten Civil War poet. See more of his work at dustinrenwick.com.
A Bestiary by Lily Hoang (2016)
Review by Nicole Roché, Online Managing Editor
From its opening line, A Bestiary interrogates and subverts myth. “Once upon a time—,” author Lily Hoang writes, “shh, shh—this is only a fairy tale.” From there readers are thrust into Hoang’s world, a world both deeply personal and achingly universal.
The acclaimed collection, which won Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2015 Essay Collection Competition, reads like pastiche, collage, glimpse memory. Its form follows in the tradition of works by Jenny Offill, Mary Robison, and David Markson, works which play with fragmentation and white space while eschewing a traditional narrative arc. Hoang’s contribution to the form comes via the power of nonfiction, the resounding, undeniable ring of truth—of Hoang’s truth.
Throughout A Bestiary, various motifs are interwoven, both in individual sections and throughout the work as a whole. Loss, friendship, divorce, body image, ambition, the writer’s life, assimilation—it is the culmination of these motifs, and the nuances of meaning they accumulate, that gives the collection its power. The white space separating each section invites readers to consider the connections between them, the invisible thread that completes the web of not just Hoang’s experiences, but those of us all.
Hoang draws on myths from Ovid to Vietnamese folklore to Hans Christian Anderson. At times she refers to herself as the Little Match Girl standing outside her own life, salivating over “all that is not [hers].” Elsewhere, she creates an alternate mythology through a character she calls Other Lily. This alter-ego lives life perfectly, altruistically, and above all in accordance with her parents’ wishes. Hoang writes, “Other Lily doesn’t fail at marriages, and her husband is Vietnamese. He respects her too.” Yet this is one fairy tale Hoang rejects outright, stating, “Face the facts: There is no Other Lily, and I’m pretty satisfied with my life.”
Toward the end of this stunning collection, Hoang admits, “I have tangled the fairy tales I write with my life.” What is the purpose of myth if not to trace, to explain, to validate? Like the best of literary nonfiction, A Bestiary does not pretend to offer answers. Rather, it invites readers to step back from the chaos of a life, to see it for what it is, and to stand in awe rather than despair.
Nicole Roché is a second-year MFA student in fiction at the University of Montana.
By Anna Blackburn, CutBank poetry editor
The woods of Alice Oswald’s Woods etc. at times yield pathways like those I walk here in Montana. Glacial creeks cutting through the abrupt yellow tamaracks, giant Scots pines fur to the tailbones of mountains; in her poems we are sensitized to the immensity of granite and ether. Yet at other times I find myself in landscapes like the deciduous northeast, where each curled fern and dislodged rock seems wakeful to my presence, in the way that a dull stone becomes luminous if dipped in water. Amidst the simple objects of Oswald’s terrain the mind opens into surprising chasms of feeling, those insights “like glass, concealed but not lost in light” (“Poem for Carrying a Baby Out of a Hospital”). Through her organically pitched rhythms, we are shuttled into deeply inhabited lyrics of the natural world, untethered mythologies, and whimsical fable-like meditations on the circularity of life. Poems of earthiness and imaginative reach.
Oswald’s logic is ecological: consciousness migrates through animal, vegetal, and mineral forms. As metamorphosis counters the gravity of death (a stone becomes a flower becomes a circle of light becomes…), we feel the tension between the eternal whole and the perplexed groping of our lives; in these poems the individual must travel “the whole series of endurable pains” (“Autobiography of a Stone”). Oswald summons elemental personalities with violent intimacy:
This is the dandelion with its thousand faculties
like an old woman taken by the neck and
shaken to pieces.
This is the dust flower flitting away.
This is the flower of amnesia. It has opened its
head to the wind, all havoc and weakness, as
if a wooden man should stroll through fire…
How fragile our connections, she argues. Like “the wind-bitten dandelion,” each thing “a flower of no property… / worn away to its one recalcitrant element” (“Head of a Dandelion”).
Yet, as Simone Weil writes in Gravity and Grace, “stars and blossoming fruit trees; utter permanence and extreme fragility give an equal sense of eternity.” Reading these poems, I feel myself invoked in states of acute limitation (as Sisyphus, who “has to think one pain at a time, like an insect / trapped in a drop of water”), even as I am asked to occupy the field (“Sisyphus”). The field may be an artery of consciousness, a birch grove, a system of galaxies. Though full of their own voices, such spaces assert the pressure of silence. This silence functions like the creative landscape of a canvas; though the world in its instability is the medium of exploration, Oswald’s poems also celebrate the void between forms, the potential underlying each expression. Against this eternity we feel the awe and humility of mortal life: traversing “Five Fables of a Length of Flesh” and floating with Voyager 1 “among those homeless spaces gathering in that silence / that hasn’t yet had time to speak” (“Sonnet”).
Anna Blackburn is an MFA candidate in poetry and a writing instructor at the University of Montana. She grew up in Vermont and earned a B.A. in Writing and Literature at Marlboro College.
Well, the election happened, and Donald J. Trump is going to be our next president. That is a sentence I never thought I’d write, and it is a sentence, so many of us fear, in more than one sense of the word.
The L.A. Times argues one way to weather the Trump presidency is to head to your nearest public library. Why? Because it is the one institution most Americans still champion. In the meantime, you can read a collection of post-election-results tweets from famous authors—everyone from Stephen King to Joyce Carol Oates (who in turn quotes Samuel Beckett)—compiled by the Times.
Garnette Cadogan, a Jamaican immigrant and Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, speaks about the importance of “staying and fighting” despite Trump’s well documented stance on immigration, as well as the importance of “finding strength in poetry.”
But maybe it would be better to just slip into cushy escapism. This week the New York Times listed its top illustrated children’s books of 2016, along with a review of two new nonfiction publications, Following the Dog into the World of Smell by Alexandra Horowitz and How House Cats Tamed Us and Took over the World by Abigail Tucker.
Dogs v. cats? Now that’s a debate I can always get into.
The Woodshop is a feature examining the work spaces and habits of writers both big and small. Joan Didion spent the night in the same room as her work when it was almost finished. Don DeLillo kept a picture of Borges close by. When, and how, do you work? Our latest contributor is Tayler Heuston.
1. Where do you do your work?
I work in the living room of my apartment where there's tons of light and space. My desk is in the corner of the room next to the doors that open out onto my balcony.
2. What do you keep on your desk?
My desk has shelves built into its hutch where I have the start of my library (organized by color, genre, then author right now), postcards of paintings I found really moving when I visited the MoMa in NYC this summer, a picture of me jumping into my mother's arms as a toddler, a picture of the kids I nannied all of last year, the oatmeal box I painted to look like an oven last Halloween so I could go as Sylvia Plath, and post-its with lines I want to remember:
"...work is / keeping the wolves from your door..." Kwame Dawes
"Mother, I / understand how you have could have..." Leila Chatti
"You'll never know what your mother went through." Sarah Manguso
"What are you pretending you don't know?" Rachel Eliza Griffiths (by way of Leila Chatti)
"Rise to the occasion of your one and only heart." Steve Almond
My desk changes every so often. I might re-arrange my books, or replace the postcards, or find new lines that resonate with what I'm thinking about. I've also got practical things here like my stapler, desk calendar, the flash drive I keep misplacing, and a ceramic hedgehog that holds my mail.
3. What's your view like?
The view to my right, just outside the glass panes in the balcony doors, is the courtyard of my apartment building. It's full of light most days, and I can see stands of oak trees just beyond a neighboring parking lot. To my left, the wall is hung with a framed photograph that I bought from Emma Tillman when I turned twenty-five, a celestial map, and an illustrated calendar of the local, seasonal foods in North Carolina.
4. Have you made any rules for how you use this space?
My only real rule is to be flexible. I've been working very hard in the last two years to shed all of the early notions I had about writing, discipline, and structure. My process has to change a lot so I don't feel stagnant. Lately, I've been revising old work at the desk, or transcribing new work that I handwrite in my notebooks at a coffee shop in the heart of downtown that I love to walk to on the weekends.
I also pay attention to how my body feels in the seat, how tired I've been after a long week or intense pair of workdays, or if I'm feeling stir-crazy or flat when I come to the desk. Then, I know I need to step back and meet those physical or emotional needs before I'll have a good day of writing.
Some nights, though, I'll have that moment where a line that I really like occurs to me and I'll rush to my desk to type it up the way I used to when I was getting my MFA and I'd be half-awake in bed at 3 a.m. with the start of a story that I had to get down and I'd write past breakfast time, not even brushing my teeth or getting dressed, until it was all done around mid-afternoon. I can't write that way anymore, though—my body and work schedule just won't allow it. Now, I'll write down that one line and maybe it'll turn into an opening paragraph, but I let myself walk away and go to bed. I think I've learned to trust that it won't vanish forever if I don't set it all down now. I've also learned how to enrich my work and to write fewer drafts by pacing myself, letting things simmer.
5. Do you have any routines that help you get into the flow?
I write primarily in the morning, so it's usually a quick breakfast, turn on some music that is familiar enough to fade but still suits the tone of what I'm working on, and then I sit down with my cup of coffee and read over what I've already got on the page until something sparks. If I'm writing away from home, I get my coffee and, before I start drafting in my notebook, I open a books of poems—right now I'm reading Tarfia Faizullah's Seam and Safiya Sinclair's Cannibal. I've always loved poetry for its focus, urgency, and attention to language. I find starting with poetry really re-centering in terms of craft and the emotional terrain of a story.
6. What do you eat/drink while you work?
I drink coffee with way too much cream and sugar—really, I'm a total monster and will ruin a beautiful cup of locally roasted, full, fresh coffee with very little remorse. I usually eat before I sit to write, but I might snack on something easy and contained like a bowl of yogurt and granola or those to-go apple sauce packs for children.
7. Do you have any superstitions about your work?
I might not have any superstitions, but in a small jar that I keep in my bedroom next to hand-drawn portraits of Jane Austen and Wonder Woman, I've gathered every fortune from every fortune cookie I've eaten in the last five years, all the four leaf clovers my friend and mentor Belle Boggs has given me, and thick pieces of metallic confetti from the Beyoncé concert I just went to. They're items that feel very auspicious to me. I like having them in the same space.
8. Share a recent line/sentence written in this space.
"At night, when Kate was sleeping, I stretched out on the ground and touched every part of my body, reclaiming its terrain – brushing the fine hairs on my arms and legs, memorizing the ridges in my bones, reciting the names of the veins and arteries that carried my blood through me, feeling for the organs hiding beneath my skin, and dreaming of what it would be like to eat the flesh of my own hot heart."
Tayler Heuston, a California-native, holds an MFA from North Carolina State University. Her work has appeared in At Length, Carve, NANO Fiction, and Two Serious Ladies. Her story Hostages—winner of the 2015 Kore Press Short Fiction Award judged by Roxane Gay—is forthcoming through Kore Press this November.