review: AN ARRANGEMENT OF SKIN by anna journey

Sometimes being a poet means something inside you snaps, but not like a balloon too close to the ceiling. It bends and begs and burrows, and you, flailing like a sad firefly, break all the things you’re not supposed to break, trying to find it. You start with the things that keep you sane, and move outward, until the most feral version of yourself is alone on the phone with a stranger.

You call a stranger because of the shame, or because other lines have been cut. You’ve cut them, with the breaking. Except the phone call isn’t really about the things you’ve done—it’s not about the recitation. It’s asking someone, anyone, if you can still exist apart from your mistakes. Can you see me? Can you hear me?

For Anna Journey, it starts at the University of Houston, during the last year of her PhD program.

full review here

review: TELL ME HOW IT ENDS by valeria luiselli

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 3/9/17

Here’s a challenge: tell me a story, without knowing the beginning, middle, or the end. Now, tell it in your second language, or one where the handful of words you know transforms you back into a child. No, let’s say you are a child. Let’s say this conversation will be recorded, and what you say—and how you say it—will determine where you are allowed to live. Let’s say you came alone.

This situation happens every day at the immigration courts in New York City, where novelist and essayist Valeria Luiselli volunteers as an interpreter. In her expanded essay Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, Luiselli outlines the intake form for undocumented minors. The procedure, on paper, is simple: Luiselli presents the questions, the children speak, and Luiselli transcribes their answers in English for the lawyers who will fight to secure their legal status.

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review: IN FULL VELVET by jenny johnson

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 2/3/17 

The trope with invoking the muses is that it is always a request. Whether it is pleading or demanding, pedantic or indignant, the epic tale is something owed. For her debut collection In Full Velvet, poet Jenny Johnson’s address begins with “Thank you,” and it is radical, as if a muse might peer over the edge of her throne and say, “My, those are words I have not heard for some time.”

“Dappled Things” spans eight pages, each with two stanzas. In a meditation too specific to be anything but genuine, Johnson names gratitude for everything that is “still somehow / counter, original, spare, and strange,” like “the alien markings on my girlfriend’s cheek and how / they form a perfect triangle.” She comments on the weirdness of “[generating] a realm / where we can always see, never see” and the optimism that remains relentless despite all: “Where’s Hope? Hope’s a weed, obscene / on my head, springing white hairs.”

When Johnson does ask for something, it is from herself, rather than the universe. With “Summoning the Body That Is Mine When I Shut My Eyes,” she employs the oddities of nature to remind her that she is here now, sentient and present:

Come belted kingfisher flapping
Come lavender asters wheeling
Come loose, a sapling lengthening
Come honeysuckle Come glistening

Each image has a sense tied to it, perhaps with the hope that conjuring these things can remind what a privilege it is to witness them.

The title poem, as the cover implies, explores the vascular skin that grows on deer antlers during their development. Here, again, is a fascination with the body: “Gut a body and we’re nothing left but pipes whistling in the breeze.” Johnson describes watching a scientist severing the wing of a cassowary (“Because it made me want to turn away”) and quotes a taxidermist giving instructions about deer:

Now we’re going to put a puncture in the tip.
So, we’re not just hitting the one vein.

That’s what we want to see.

It is gruesome but Johnson is reaching for something, trying to understand the oddity of being alive. “Love, we are more than utility, I think,” she writes, and it is both a declaration and a question. “I know my body’s here,” she writes, “when the turkey vulture comes out of the thicket, wings spread wide, smelling all of it.”

However, it would be wrong to categorize this book as a collection of “nature poems,” as it were. “The Bus Ride” is Johnson’s joy of looking at her girlfriend as the light comes through the window, making her glow. “In The Dream” is the transcription of a nightmare that begins with her “alone in a dyke bar.”

In “Souvenirs,” the last stanza is about an ex-girlfriend calling years after a bad breakup. Now living a thousand miles apart, the ex-girlfriend asks Johnson’s permission to build a model of her new home. The ex-girlfriend is a sculptor and wants to use sugar cubes but does not know the measurements. Johnson does the work with grace:

I cannot explain my consent
that evening, alone, at home,
the yellow tape unspooling, I measured closet widths,
calculated the feet between hedges—
I wanted her to craft it perfectly to scale.

If In Full Velvet is a map of Johnson’s mind and memory, it is one worth saving. Johnson is precise with herself, patient with others. These poems celebrate the feeling of spinning in tight circles until all that is left the spiral, rushing from the inside out.

interview w/ sharon olds

This article was originally published at BrazosBookstore.com on 11/8/16

It’s hard to intimidate me. But give the universe a dare, and it will call your bluff. This past week, I drove Andrés Neuman to the airport and spoke on the phone with Sharon Olds. Can anxiety be measured? In my car, the memory of Neuman digging in his fanny pack for his glasses to help with directions; at the bookstore, hiding behind a case pack of alkaline water in the back office while the line connects Texas to New York.

If there is a living poet canon, Olds has always been on that list for me. Not because she herself demands it, but because the people who read her talk about her work the way I babble about The Swell Season.

Earlier this year, I made a pact with WHISPER HOLLOW author Chris Cander: I would read STAG’S LEAP if she would read MY FEELINGS by Nick Flynn. (We were sold out of SOME ETHER at the time.) Before this, the only poem I’d ever read by Olds was “Crazy,” as part of a poetry anthology assigned in my freshman year poetry workshop.

I read STAG’S LEAP in one night and cried for hours. Months later, when the phone interview with Olds was finalized, I imagined it would be like my fantasy of seeing Amy Hempel read in person. I would stand there in silence then leave afterward without meeting her because I would have nothing good to say. Alas—walking away is more difficult on the telephone.

When she answers, Olds says, “Hello, this is Sharon Olds,” and she is so chipper that all I can do is laugh. “How are you?” she says, and I confess I’m nervous. I’m nervous, and I can’t even see her. Then it’s her turn to laugh at me, and what she says is “Oh, you should see me. I’m sitting here in ten year old pajamas, full of holes.” She says, “I’m just a person, like you,” and I don’t know how to tell her that is exactly the thing that scares me, not her CV. It’s that she is a person I could meet at the grocery store, and not have any idea the talent she contains.

###

For those who don’t know, STAG’S LEAP illustrates the death of a thirty year marriage. Olds shows the marriage and the undoing, from talking about his affair to him telling her that he has since married his (now former) mistress. Olds does not pretend, at any point, even in the epilogue when she sees her ex-husband and he tells her the news and she does not hate him. They agree that it was not the other woman but a slow split at the root, a slow tear until a back broke.

Still, I don’t think I could write another book after that—at least not one that I would want to publish. What else is there to say, after? Olds, though, says that by the time STAG’S LEAP had been published, “half the poems or three quarters of the poems in ODES had already been written.”

ODES, published in September this year (four years after STAG’S LEAP), is just that, odes on everything from her sister to her whiteness, from tampons to the penis. In other words, the opposite of STAG’S LEAP, but is it a joke?

“The way it works for me, which is not the way it works for every poet, is that I don’t write books,” Olds says, “I write poems.” She writes them all in “a grocery store notebook” with a ballpoint pen, wide lines. She writes them all out, one at a time, by hand because ink is “not percussive like hitting piano keys, like typing is,” and “my thumbs are too big to dance on that little screen, on my phone.”

After five years, give or take, she goes through the “collection” she’s created, to see if it is enough or if any threads emerge. During the writing process, she might type some of them up, but not all of them, and even that step is more of a thinking-through. The transition from page to screen is not just transcription, but an editing process.

“Once I type it up, I change it for the better, I hope,” she says. In the case of STAG’S LEAP, she “tried to rewrite each one to get it right.” When arranged in chronological order of events, the poems told a story, and that story became the book.

“I write poems,” she says. “That’s what I do.”

###

We talk for a minute about her teaching, but after that, she wants to know if there’s anything else I’d like to ask about, any subject. And it’s hard because I do have one question, but it’s not one I think is smart or even fair to ask. It’s a question I have for her not as a faux journalist or fellow poet but as a human being. Olds waves her hand at me with her voice and says that I am free to ask her anything; it’s her choice whether or not she would like to answer.

Again, I did not think that this moment would ever materialize so when it does, the words come out like a postcard she might receive from an elementary school student: “Are you still sad?” She pauses for a moment, intrigued that I think of STAG’S LEAP as a sad book, then offers this: “It seems to me that each of us in a lifetime has some real mourning to do.”

Already, she goes on to say, “Children have things to mourn!” but I am so moved by her first answer, this idea that grief is not a punishment but a task that each of us completes, a thing that no one escapes. Somehow, it makes it smaller and larger, at the same time. “Citizens of this country are in a time of fear and mourning,” she says, “and fear of future mourning.”

If STAG’S LEAP has a thesis, it is this: “Sadness and anger are just as important as joy and happiness.” When she says it, it’s so simple, and not a concept that I think anyone would dispute, but Olds wrote it out regardless, in a book that is not meek, maudlin, or morose. It captures a time, this ugly awful time, and paints it as just that: layered. It says, “You are allowed,” the way that Olds says to me now despite the distance between us, in years and miles.

For ODES, Olds says, “There isn’t a test. There isn’t a correct amount of humor to respond to.” Instead, “it’s meant to be a gift.” Not a free one, of course—“that’s how I can afford to pay my rent,” she says—but “what I care about is that you have whatever experience is right for you about the book. We want each other to get whatever each of us can get out of what we give each other in a work of art.”

I was promised fifteen minutes with Olds but she gave me twenty. Before I had even dialed the number, I knew that her other callers slated for her afternoon may well be The New Yorker or The Atlantic, somewhere—someone—more worthy. However, she uses our last minute to ask if there is one more, anything else that I would regret not saying if she were to hang up now, and that kindness and generosity is so pure that I can only say no and thank her for taking the time that she did. She says she is looking forward to meeting me, we say goodbye, and here come the tears.

interview w/ monica youn

This interview was originally posted at BrazosBookstore.com on 10/21/16

There are exceptions to everything but for the most part, living artists are the be all, end all for me. I like the connection and contradiction between a piece of art and the person behind it. The only type of surprise I savor: the one where somewhere in Houston, I am waiting to hear the speaking voice of a writer I don’t know.

The first time I try to call Monica Youn, she asks if we can reschedule. “I’m sort of having a baby crisis,” she says, and at the time, knowing nothing about Youn outside of BLACKACRE, the thing I think is that I am not a mother—meaning yes, of course. That world comes before this other one.

Three days later, I start by asking her to tell me about her book, which is maybe the only question I ask every person I interview. Since the title draws on legal jargon for a hypothetical estate—“Blackacre” is the equivalent to Jane or John Doe as applied to physical property—I suppose I had a mild expectation she would say something about that, or allude to her years as a lawyer.

She starts three times. “It’s not about one thing in particular,” she says. Then she offers the poet version: “Coming to terms with necessity and to what extent the imagination can transform what is given and to what extent the imagination has to come up against the limits of what is possible.”

There is a pause while I finish typing the last thing she says but she takes the moment as though I am standing there with a microphone, eyes big and face shiny. Here is the heart of it: “my own inexperience dealing with infertility and its aftermath, especially the shame that surrounds the concept of infertility.”

This is what it means to talk to a living poet about her work and hearing what it means to her. Because Youn, on paper, is elusive and dense and steeped in structures that I never studied in school. She is, to say it plain, too smart for me. There is no amount of time that I could have studied her meditations on Villon’s fabled hanged man, “Epiphyte,” and cycle of various -acres and found a baby at the bottom of it, unless she told me it was there.

The kaleidoscope of emotion is easier to speak about now that the baby is two, BLACKACRE is out, and she enjoys teaching at Princeton. But it was not always like this, and the book is a physical talisman that represents the five years her and her husband spent trying. “At the same time I was going through this issue with fertility, I was coming to the end of my legal career,” Youn says. “I was coming to an end of a lot of things in my life.”

It is one thing to choose not to produce children; the inability is the ultimate female failure—at least, according to certain stigmas. Youn and her husband, during this process, were “required to deal with a lot of side taboos in the States but also in Korea, where my family is from.” In the end, Youn and her husband decided to use a donor egg, and Youn tells me that the pregnancy itself was a positive experience.

The egg donor process, pregnancy, and writing happened in tandem. “I wanted to get all that darkness out of my system before I became a mother,” Youn says. The memory is still there, of course, and Youn acknowledges that. But better to focus on and try to understand or weave through that before needing to jump headlong into this other thing.

On the top of the questions I never ask is what the writer hopes readers will find in her book, but it seemed like a good question to ask Youn, given that the inspiration for the book and my experience of the book were so different. “You know, after readings, women come up to me and they tell me about their experiences with infertility and they’re always speaking in whispers,” Youn says. “They’re personally ashamed in a way that they wouldn’t be ashamed of another medical issue. And I think part of the reason I wrote this book, even though it was quite difficult to be this public about something this personal, is that I want to sort of start a conversation about that shame and what it’s about, and to try to dismantle it.”

Right away, I think of Lacy Johnson and her memoir THE OTHER SIDE and how it was published at a time when America was beginning to open up conversation about rape and sexual abuse. It went on to be a finalist for an Edgar Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. BLACKACRE has been longlisted for this year’s National Book Award for poetry, following her previous collection IGNATZ, which was an NBA finalist.

“Perhaps [BLACKACRE] would have been different if I wrote it at a different time during the process,” Youn says. “I wrote it when I knew there would be a happy ending.”

BOOKSELLING IN THE 21ST CENTURY: WHEN YOUR BOOKSTORE GETS ROBBED

This feature was originally published at Literary Hub on 9/29/16

Anything can happen in twelve hours. Twelve hours: we close the doors on Sunday, September 18, and arrive the next morning to find the front door shattered. Inside, the usual signs of petty theft: the cash register broken, anything that had been locked now torn open like a wound. That call—the one that demands leaving the house without a shower, that summons for police reports—is never wanted, but it comes regardless.

No victims, no suspects, no witnesses. It is just a thing that happened. A thing happened and we did what is done when things happen: fret some and plan our next move. Phone calls are made; emails are sent. We do what we are supposed to do and hope the rest of the Monday is kind. We gather in front of the now pixelated front door and take a photo for our social media: six of us put up our middle fingers at someone who may well never see them. We tweet, “To whoever broke into our store & took our monies & hurt our door—screw you! #IndieBookstores #riseabove #alsowhy”

We laugh and it is enough. In Tacoma, Washington, fellow indie bookseller Kenny Coble sees our post, calls the store to order a book, and posts this tweet: “Someone broke into one of my favorite bookstores, @BrazosBookstore. Let’s show them some love and buy a book. brazosbookstore.com.” The hope? That a few people might follow his lead.

Coble, after all, has over 4,500 followers but often, it is hard to measure what that means, outside the abstract non-country that is the internet. Soon, we find out. Twelve hours: Coble posts one tweet and 21 people from 13 different states order from our website. Some orders are from friends—you know who you are—but many more are people who have never been to our store, or even the state of Texas. A few orders arrive from Litsy members (despite that we have yet to create a Litsy account).

It was not always like this, as Scott Esposito can attest. Founder of Quarterly Conversation, Director of Publicity and Senior Editor at Two Lines Press, and author ofThe Surrender, whose original publication was funded partially by Kickstarter, owes much to the internet. When I ask him about social media over email, his response is that social media is “the glue that holds it all together.” He reminds me that 20 years ago, it would be impossible to have “regular, day-to-day interactions with people in Los Angeles, Houston, New York, Paris, Melbourne,” where we can trade book recommendations and quotes we love “without paying thousands of dollars” to do it.

What social media does, Esposito says, is “[allow] a new kind of group consciousness to arise among the different parts of the literary worlds… the emergence of various online literary scenes that are not bounded by geography.” Today, the book community now reaches beyond publishers, bookstores, state lines, or any other arbitrary limits. That is how people from Ohio and Massachusetts can cross another book off their To Be Read pile by poking through our online store, because we are part of the book community which has no borders. “When I saw what was happening with Brazos… I thought how much I love being in this community and how many good people there are here who care about things and will take the time to do the right thing,” Esposito writes.

Total, we had almost 30 orders from 14 states and one from D.C. We had retweets from readers, writers, booksellers, bookstores, publishers, literary magazines, publicists, every type of bookish citizen. At the time of this article, our original tweet had over one hundred retweets with over three hundred likes. In what other industry could this happen? In what other time could this happen?

Perhaps most surprising was the kind note we received from the lovely Valeria Luiselli, author of many titles including The Story of My Teeth. In an email addressed to store manager Mark Haber, she writes, “my humble contribution to Brazos’s convalescence” and attached this talisman, a relic from the days when she dreamed of opening her own bookstore:

ATTENTION BIBLIOPIRATES

Stealing books is a centenary Practice. It is not a good Practice, though in some cases it can be deemed respectable, as it may come to constitute a form of redistribution of our greatest Wealth. But even in a trade like this one, there is a Code of Conduct. Any Bibliopirate worthy of his or her Guild, must follow at least three norms:

1) Never steal a book by an author who is still alive.

2) Never steal a book published by an Independent Press.

3) Never steal a book from an Independent Bookstore.

VL & Brazos Bookstore & Bibliopirates

No books were harmed during our robbery but the message remains the same: where there are books, there will always be book people, and where there are book people, there will always be ideas, and people willing to support and protect them.

Twelve hours: we asked each other why anyone would choose a bookstore as a mark. Twelve hours: we remember a bookstore is more than its building.

review: UMAMI by laia jufresa (translation: sophie hughes)

This review was originally published at The Rumpus on 9/8/16

Dr. Noelia Vargas Vargas, MD explains it like this: “There are two basic human conditions, being a child and being a procreator.” Inhabiting both conditions, see, makes you two people—a daughter and a mother. Dr. Vargas Vargas chose, for much of her life, to be “only” a daughter—an eternal offspringhood, as she liked to tell her husband Dr. Alfonso Semitiel, PhD.

It is 2002, and if Dr. Semitiel’s life were a photograph, its caption might be “Sabbatical as Grief: To Be a Widow Is To…”

It is 2003, and Marina Mendoza starts going to therapy to learn how to get angry. She takes her medication, smokes her cigarettes, and makes names for colors that don’t have names: blacktrick for electric black, scink for “the pale pink after you pull off a scab,” briefoamite for “the ephemeral white of sea foam.”

As translated by the great Sophie Hughes, Mexican author Laia Jufresa’s debut novel Umami is a kalaeidoscope. In four parts, five characters tell the story of the last four years within their hovel of Mexico City, the Belldrop Mews. The millennium arrives and leaves trauma in its wake: Pina’s mother leaves, six-year-old Luz drowns on a family vacation, and Dr. Vargas Vargas, famed cardiologist, dies from pancreatic cancer.

But Umami is not a dystopian treatise or hipster metafiction. It is not one of those books about a group of people who come together and decide that life is good because they laughed at the same joke at some picnic. The Belldrop Mews folk—though they see each other every day, though they share their separate grief—are not a family. They are fragments of four separate families struggling through their own fog.

The book starts with Ana in 2004. She is twelve and has negotiated her way into staying at home in Mexico for the summer. Per an agreement with her parents, she will plow, plant, and tend the yard—the goal is to build a traditional milpa—while her brothers are in Michigan at “camp.” Camp, here, is not kids in cots getting eaten to death by mosquitoes, but more “just a coded way of saying that my siblings and I spend two months with [Mom’s] stepmother, Grandma Emma, swimming among the weeds and feeding pebbles to the ducks in the lake by her house.”

It is three years since Luz’s death, and Ana’s mother Linda Walker still won’t leave the house. “She gets worse in the summertime,” Ana writes. “Like a dirty river carrying trash, the summer drags the anniversary of my sister’s death to our door. She was the youngest.” Luz, in her own chapters, is the little one who speaks with honesty, her voice rough like a dog tongue: “They all start talking weird when we come to the lake. And that’s why I’m not going to speak English. I’m never ever going to speak English.”

The book contains two mysteries. One, it seems, is for Jufresa’s audience: What are The Girls, mentioned in Dr. Semitiel’s chapters (and in one of Ana’s)? The other is for Jufresa’s characters: Why did Luz drown if she knew how to swim? English is a constant source of tension. Marina wants to learn and takes lessons from Walker for a brief time. Ana judges her parents on whether or not they can hide their accents when they speak their spouse’s mother tongue.

“English takes the edge off things, makes them feel less serious, a bit like scribbling mustaches on photos,” Marina thinks. She is distraught when her favorite bands are “changed from abstract poetry to random nouns.” To her, “translation simplifies, it schematizes: something that seemed potentially profound falls from grace and lands on its head, turning out to be nothing but a doodle.” As for the people who speak English? “Bilingualism confirms what she’s always suspected,” Jufresa writes. “If gringos were drawings, they’d be drawn with markers.” In other words, they are childish, not lasting, meant to be outgrown.

In a novel that is so wholly Mexican, in philosophy and setting, it is both comforting and disconcerting when totally American art appears. Marina’s favorite bands include Smashing Pumpkins, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cranberries; Dr. Semitiel names his laptop after Nina Simone; Pina’s mother Chela plays Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” during the last family car ride Pina can remember.

Grief, though, is neither defined by culture nor constrained by time. Yes, Jufresa could have written Umami the “normal” way—a single perspective in chronological order with first person the whole way through—instead of this backwards telescope, alternating voices and switching perspectives between first and close third. That version of Umami would be a dark, bitter thing, like molasses in the coffee grounds. Instead, Jufresa and Hughes offer a version that is complex without weight, a saffron purée. Dynamic and delicate, Umami draws our attention without pretense.