August 2009

From the Editor:

I just need to share this place.
it makes it   less permanent
if I give the pieces away

as if, by seeing  someone else knows

I weave and weave


From “Stretch, Wait,” by Alexis Vergalla

Like last summer, I’ve been spending some days with my family at the beach. There’s nothing quite like watching an almost-four-year-old romping around in hot sand, stuffing a bucket with melting jellyfish, wading through a seaweed-choked ocean, and especially watching her tumbling and rolling with each briny wave, dipping her head in the foam and then lifting her head up to say, “Daddy, I have a beard just like yours,” or later, perfecting the proper pitch to feed a button-eyed seagull that’s suspended above as if tied to a marionette’s string. These sights can make you forget about whatever, and words even. But just as soon as I get lost in her joy, her madness, her delight, the reverie is shattered by some talk about the latest fad, quotes from televised nonsense, some bobble-headed babble, yadda yadda, or some such.

How many words are kicked around like so much sand in your face? How many words are dumped like junk in the ocean? How many words are wasted? I can’t help but reflect on Annie Dillard’s incredible essay “Total Eclipse” where she writes that “[t]he mind—the culture—has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel. With these we bluster about the continents and do all the world’s work. With these we try to save our very lives.”

Dillard’s words aren’t mere hyperbole. A grammar and lexicon is a kind of salvation. And we’re lucky to have writers who demonstrate what can be done with these tools, writers like Thomas Cooper whose Phantasmagoria is skull and bones, meat and muscle, grist and gristle, like Tina May Hall whose All the Day’s Sad Stories is really a gift, a treasure that will break your hard of hearing heart, like Alexis Vergalla’s whose Letters Through Glass will date you, envelop you, and send you, like MRB Chelko who dreams about a grandfather planting a leaf in his wallet, about cutting dead people’s names from a damaged book, about a friend who tries to drown in a cup of java, like Francis Raven who offers a kind of architectonic poetics, if you will, in C&O Canal, like Kathryn Regina whose whimsical I Am in the Air Right Now, a chapbook where “the air is empty” and “time is encased in skin,” where “there is not enough room for a swollen heart,” will float your boat, will spin you right round, will take you higher, writers like Tim Horvath whose librarian imagines that books “choose their recipients as much as they are chosen,” that can, like wild animals, “camouflage themselves such that at times they blend in with their surroundings as readily as a tree frog, hugging the walls of the shelves around them, appearing less palatable than the plump bestseller they lean against,” and like James Iredell who observes fog coming

like a cat—perhaps a bear—as it stalks the coast and harbor, pounces artichoke fields, sinks its claws into the browned hillsides, and the fog’s teeth settles in bones like a cold stalk of broccoli, like the earth in which it grows, sunless black, the recesses of space, above the moon, past the atmospheric edge, far beyond this Pacific cloud cover, and below water the shark’s missile-cruise the forested kelp for seals, for the succulent fat beneath their skin, and between the shark jaws, in place of teeth, flex rusty bear traps, and if the sharks could, and you could maneuver it, they would let you gnaw yourself free and swim a strawberry trail to the shore for the lettuce ripening in the valley, and the strawberries reddening in the hills, because fog is also good for this.

And we’re also lucky to have a writer like Rufo Quintavalle whose Make Nothing Happen speaks of “a whimbrel on the grass,” “clouds / festalenting across the sun,” “a burr like the music of history,” and figs that “swell in an October sun.” His book’s title is an inversion of Auden’s admonishment that “poetry makes nothing happen,” and like Yeats (to whom Auden addresses his elegy), Quintavalle’s book too “survives

In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

We are also lucky to have such writers as Andrew Borgstrom, Matt DeBenedictis, Christina Hall, Michael Leong, Ryan Manning, Josh Maday, Alec Niedenthal, and William Walsh who are not only pushing the envelope with their own fiction and/or poetry, but who are all also focusing their critical lens on the aforementioned chapbooks above.


John Madera Interviews Thomas Cooper

Madera: “The Lady in the Closet” seems to me to be a kind of tribute to Kafka. One of the things I liked about that story, besides the play off the “skeleton in the closet” theme, is how the wife and the woman with the “delicately boned face,” the so-called “closet lady,” are symbiotically linked. What was the genesis of that story?

Cooper: The genesis of that story, like many of my stories, was equal parts circuitous, serendipitous, and strange. Initially, the story was based on a news article I’d read about a woman who’d been living undetected in a man’s closet. We’re talking months. Maybe even a year. Can you imagine? Either that was one big-ass closet or the man was more than a little bit out of it.

Or maybe the woman was just extraordinarily considerate?

At first, it was a very literal spin on that story, but it didn’t turn out right. I filed it away for a while. After a few months I approached the idea more obliquely.

Madera: When I read “The Old-Fashioned Way” I thought of the kinds of yarns that Mark Twain would spin. I also thought of Faulkner especially when I came to this sentence: “I settle this the old-fashioned way, shooting out a big calloused fist that hits him square in the face, because when you get to be my age, history is the only thing that you have left, and I’ll be goddamned if anybody’s going to take that away from me.” I also turned back to find that in the previous story, I’d found you ended it as well with a cascading cumulative sentence: “Just when I thought she couldn’t get smaller, she would shrink more, and then more, until she was pin-sized, until she was smaller than that, and then so small I couldn’t tell if I was looking at someone real or imaginary, or just the size of a memory?” This approach, that is, ending your stories with some kind of compound sentence, happens again at the end of “Bounty,” “Lost and Found,” “Postcard from Mykonos,” “Dunking Booth Man,” “The Other Kind,” and “The House at the End of the Street.” What is it about this kind of sentence that you find attractive?

Cooper: This is a good question. I wasn’t aware that I ended so many stories this way. Jeez, now I feel like an automaton or something. Maybe I’ve found a formula? That would make things a hell of a lot easier.

At any rate, I work hard on my ending sentences. I try to make them musical and resonant. Of course, not all of them turn out that way. Far from it. Some of them end up being Bronx cheers.

I think your description of their being “cascading” is apt. I do hear a kind of winding-down rhythm, a final breath trying to squeeze in as much as possible. I suppose this is a tic of mine. I dislike endings that seem to fall off a cliff. I remember that old John Keats description of how he knew when he’d found the proper ending of a poem, likening it to the neat click of a jewelry box snapping shut. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

Madera: Death and grieving are primary themes in these stories, most explicitly in the first four stories. And it’s threaded within “Who’s Who in America,” where the narrator recalls how his wife died and recounts: “I put seven dogs to sleep. There comes a point in your life when you start measuring your life not in years but dogs. And the one day you realize: this is the last, and he will probably outlive me.” It’s imminent in the comical “House Tornado,” implied, perhaps, in “Postcard from Mykonos,” hurled as an insult in “Dunking Booth Man,” and rears its ugly head again in “Tricks” and “The House at the End of the Street.” Why this obsession with death?

To me, it’s irrational that more people aren’t obsessed with death. I wish I weren’t, but I am.

I think the preoccupation owes to a confluence of factors, probably quotidian. Some scary Catholic schooling when I was a kid. Lots of Old Testament stuff, fire and brimstone. Childhood health problems. A few doctors telling me that I might have a serious heart condition. Hypochondria. Accidentally watching Faces of Death that one time in friend’s basement so many years ago.

So, that stuff left an impression.

Hopefully this doesn’t sound too sophomoric, but it’s a large part of our culture. North America has a strange relationship with death, doesn’t it? We’re told to ignore it, not to talk about it, to shove it in the corner of our minds until later, but it’s omnipresent. Take this pill because you might die. Is Mrs. Celebrity dying? Why did Mr. Celebrity die? Make sure to wash your hands after touching anything, even yourself, because there’s this strange new virus floating around and, well, you might die.

Madera: After reading “The Lady in the Closet,” I was surprised that none of the other stories (although “House Tornado” and “Lost and Found” flirt with it) are fantasies. Are you writing any other speculative fiction?

Cooper: I hear that term a lot these days, speculative, and it seems to mean different things to different people. As pretentious as it sounds, I’m not sure I want to classify anything I write. But you’re right. Some of my stories do flirt with the surreal and fantastic, or depart from traditional realism.

Right now, I’m drafting a novel that’s probably weirder than anything in Phantasmagoria. Forget probably. Definitely weirder. It’s too early yet to tell if it’s going to work, but I have a feeling that it will.

Madera: I’d like to back up and ask about your influences, but before I do that, I’d like to ask what were some significant events/circumstances that first inspired you to write?

Cooper: I don’t think there was any big bang moment. Or at very least I don’t remember it. I recall always wanting to write.

For me, a significant and encouraging moment was receiving a first writing check, from Stephen King’s Castle Rock publications, when I was fourteen years old. A year after that I wrote book and movie reviews for a few magazines until they caught on and realized I was just some clueless kid trying to convince people that he knew what he was talking about.

Aside from a short stint as a music journalist in my twenties, nothing else followed for many years, because I did much more talking and worrying about writing than actual writing. In retrospect, I realize that this was probably for the best, because it spared me a lot of embarrassment, and most importantly spared a lot of people from some atrocious stories.

Madera: Who were some of your favorite writers in your youth? And then, what
writers helped to shape you as a writer now?

Cooper: I grew up reading a lot of horror and fantasy stuff, beginning when I was twelve or thirteen. Stephen King, of course. H.P. Lovecraft. Ray Bradbury. August Derelith. Joe R. Lansdale. Richard Matheson. Harlan Ellison. Jonathan Carroll. Philip K. Dick. Things like that.

Then I read Catcher in the Rye when I was in ninth or tenth grade, and that broadened my horizons. I started reading John Updike, Charles Bukowski, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My reading habits were all over the place. I didn’t know many kids who read, so I sought out stuff on my own. Maybe this worked to my advantage.

These days, I try to read as much as I can, but it always ends up being less than I’d like. But there’s so much great stuff out there, and I think I end up learning a little bit from everything I read.

Madera: Do you have a writing routine/rhythm/ritual? A mantra?

Cooper: Sometimes, because of my teaching schedule, I have to take long breaks, which always turns out disastrous. It’s very hard recapturing voice and rhythm and energy. My writing muscles atrophy almost immediately. After a month passes I turn into some kind of verbal invalid, reduced to groaning and grunting and beating on hard objects with sticks.

I find the time when I can find it. Writing is still a luxury for me. An avocation and not a vocation, though I approach it in a very workmanlike way if given a deadline. I wish I had more deadlines. That helps.

In the last few years, I’ve done more writing than in the previous ten, and I like to think it’s because I’m approaching the craft in a more disciplined way. I tend to either chip away slowly, say a page a day, or work in manic bursts, working fifteen or sixteen hours at a stretch. I’m trying to find a happy compromise between the two. Trying.

As for motivation, sometimes I’ll think, Well, if you don’t finish this page today, then you won’t be able to watch Dexter or Mad Men tonight, or you won’t be able to have that beer. Then, of course, I’ll end up watching the shows no matter what, feeling like a bum, drinking not one but two or three beers to console myself.

Madera: As a teacher, what are some strategies you use? Do you use writing
prompts? What stories do you assign?

Cooper: I try to assign the things I think they might like, rather than the old chestnuts. Don’t get me wrong, I think reading all of those is important, essential, but I always assume a kind of base knowledge from the outset, so we’re free to explore stories that might be a little unfamiliar to writers just starting out. They seem to love George Saunders, Thom Jones, Barry Hannah, Junot Diaz, Lorrie Moore, Joy Williams, and Dan Chaon, just to name several. Or I give the impression that they are supposed to love these stories, so they pretend to love them, laughing and nodding and so on, almost always at the appropriate times.

I use a few writing prompts, but I think the most important thing is fostering an atmosphere in which a student feels safe to be him or herself freely, exploring and pursuing idiosyncrasy, but not just for its own sake. They’re so used to writing essays about My Satanic Prom Night or Who Died During My Summer Vacation or Drugs: My Side of the Story that they come in reflexively writing that kind of thing. So, you try to steer them away from the sensational and encourage them to chase after small personal truths in a more subtle and metaphorical way.


John Madera Interviews Tina May Hall

Madera: First of all, congratulations on winning the Caketrain Chapbook Competition. How did it feel when you found out the news?

Hall: I was absolutely ecstatic. Joseph and Amanda (of Caketrain) let me know on January 4th and I was just so pleased and so happy to be starting the new year with such good news.

Madera: What, if any, kind of dialogue happened between you and Brian Evenson?

Hall: Brian was very generous with his praise of the manuscript, and he had a couple of suggestions. I took one of them—to draw less attention to the titles of the sections by taking out the table of contents—and I ultimately rejected the other, which was to change the title of the novella. I tried out a bunch of other titles, even made a list of 50 (really awful) others, which is an exercise I assign my students sometimes, but it had been All the Day’s Sad Stories for a long time and I was pretty immune by that point to the moroseness of it, so it stuck.

Madera: Some of these pieces have the strength of standalone pieces (I’m thinking of “Roadside Attractions,” “The Catherines Sew Grandchildren’s Costumes on Their Breaks,” “On the Way Home,” and “In February, Mercy Imagines Summer”) and so I wondered how you put together this book. Did it begin with a vignette, or a series of them, that then developed into a full-length story? Did you have a number of seed ideas that you built on? Did you approach it in a sentence-by-sentence manner? Or was it a combination of all of the above, or something else entirely?

Hall: It’s funny you mention “Roadside Attractions” because that is the first section I wrote, and it started like everything I write, with a sentence. Actually in this case, two sentences: “Bone loss, birth defects, mammogram. These are the words that float up to her from the car radio.” From there I just started getting intrigued by this character and also by the idea of things drifting to the surface, whether they were public service announcements or weather reports or tensions in a marriage. I wrote each section separately and with the idea that it would be able to (sort of) stand alone. I usually work very short; in fact, at the time I was writing this, it was the longest narrative I’d ever constructed. So it made it more manageable for me to think in terms of vignette and scene and to use the white space as breathing space—a coping strategy, I guess!

Madera: The lyricism, not to mention the muted sadness, throughout All the Day’s Sad Stories is reminiscent to me of the fiction of Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels. Both of whom are accomplished poets. Do you write poetry as well? Who are some poets that you regularly enjoy?

Hall: First of all, thanks for the very kind comparisons—I love both of those writers. I admit I tend toward the more narrative (even if it is skewed narrative) poets—Robert Hass, Lyn Hejinian, Susan Howe, Anne Carson—and fiction from writers who are almost poets—Gertrude Stein, Carole Maso, Virginia Woolf. Some of the fiction I write plays a lot with negative space, even between sentences, so sometimes people take those stories for poems and I’m always honored by the mistake. I used to write poetry and edited poetry for a couple of literary magazines, but really, my poetry is crap. There is something I still don’t quite get about the line and how the shape of a poem works. Whereas, the sentence feels very comfortable for me—I can really play with that form and push it around and relax into it.

Madera: I wondered about the use of curly brackets in the book. Is it like how it’s used in some programming languages, that is, as a way of enclosing blocks of code? Or like in math, where it denotes a set? Was it a strictly visual or aesthetic thing?

Hall: Don’t you love those brackets? I can’t take any credit for them. They were entirely Joseph Reed’s idea. He was meticulous in his editing of the novella, and he is a brilliant designer. It is wonderful to see how the book becomes a collaborative product and how much grace good design and editing can bring to a project.

Madera: Which writers were guiding lights for you when you first began to write, and then which ones helped to shape and/or hone your style? Who and what were you reading while you wrote this book? Music? Films?

Hall: Hmm…definitely Jane Austen, who I read first when I was too young to realize how witty she is (I was shocked when I revisited her in high school and college). Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Jayne Anne Phillips both changed my understanding of what fiction could do. When I’m reading these writers, or someone like Kathryn Davis or Carole Maso (who I mentioned above), I get so excited about what they are doing to fiction that I actually have to stop reading and catch my breath sometimes. As for writers I have actually worked with, I have to credit Trudy Lewis for keeping me on track and demonstrating a level of care and attention to detail in her own stories that inspires me.

When I was writing the novella, I was reading and teaching Don DeLillo, and it is quite clear to me how much I was affected by his work, particularly a certain blandness of affect and the interjections of floating bits of pop culture.

Madera: I also wanted to ask you some general writing questions. Do have any kind of writing ritual? Are there some mantras you employ while writing.

Hall: I have a two-year-old son so my writing ritual is pretty much to type as quickly as possible whenever I find myself alone in front of the computer. I am very prone to stopping sentence by sentence to fiddle until the sound pleases me, so I guess my informal mantras are Keep moving and/or Let it go. But I also try to be kind to myself, and if I only get a couple of sentences written after a few hours working, I tell myself that it will go faster the next time I sit down and I’ll write ten pages at the next sitting, even though I know it is a lie.

Madera: What’s the drafting and editing process like for you?

Hall: As I said above, I work pretty slowly, but I’m always working on three or four projects simultaneously. So I end up with fallow periods where everything is in flux and then bursts of completion. I revise a lot and over time. It seems to be that it takes about a year after I get the first complete draft done before I realize what the story really needs. I wrote the sections in the chapbook over the span of about 14 months and then spent about a year revising them before sending them out. Revising is the most fun for me—I love to tinker and worry about syllables and work the repetition, so undoubtedly I spend too much time on this step.

Madera: What are you working on now?

Hall: I’m working on a series of found stories—stories that I construct out of Victorian scientific treatises. They are great fun and feel almost entirely like play. And I’m writing a novel which is sort of a murder mystery/postmodern gothic about a woman who writes encyclopedia entries and gets stuck on the Arctic. Her story is interwoven with the story of Lady Jane Franklin who was the wife of the one of the most notoriously ill-fated Victorian arctic explorers, and it has been fascinating doing the research for it. I have definitely gotten bogged down in maps of the search for the Northwest Passage and in diaries of all those old crazy stoic explorers, but I don’t regret it.

Madera: What is your teaching style like? What are some strategies you employ? Do have some particularly effective writing exercises and/or prompts? What are some readings you like to assign? How do you see teaching helping/hindering your own writing process/output?

Hall: My students would tell you I have a notecard fetish, and it is true that I love to have them write things (character types, favorite words, a setting in a sentence, an action-provoking problem, a line of dialogue) on index cards and pass them to the right or left and then write a scene based on the cards they have in front of them. I like to pile on restrictions in the in-class exercises. I do the same thing to myself whenever I am feeling stuck or flat—I have found that trying to work the word “chicken” into a story invariably invigorates it.

I assign a lot of reading—you really can’t be a writer without being a practiced reader. My husband is a writer too, and he and I sit around and do that geeky writer thing of listing “perfect” stories. So we read a lot of those in class—Ishiguro’s “A Family Supper,” Carver’s “Cathedral,” Denis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” Karen Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” anything by Alice Munro or Stuart Dybek. It is still amazing to me that someone pays me to sit around dissecting narrative arcs and diagramming sentences and figuring out how an author gets away with so much exposition.

Generally, I say that teaching feeds my writing—both literally, in the sense that it keeps me in chocolate and my son in diapers, but also that I am inspired by my students and their joy in language. And I genuinely mean this about 98 percent of the time. And then two percent of the time I am fantasizing about having some kind of beach hut somewhere or a garret in Paris or a cabin in the Rockies where all I have to do is just sit and spin stories and wait for someone to bring me a glass of wine.

Madera: When you mentioned coming up with new titles I remembered that Fitzgerald had considered a number of names for The Great Gatsby like (according to Wikipedia) Gatsby; Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires; Trimalchio; Trimalchio in West Egg; On the Road to West Egg; Under the Red, White, and Blue; Gold-Hatted Gatsby; and The High-Bouncing Lover. So what were some other titles that you considered?

Hall: Oh, most of them are too awful to reveal. But, just to give you a sample, A Year of Small Disasters; Omens Mistaken for the Changing Seasons; Small Graces; and because I am a fan and proponent of the long title, When an Unborn Child Goes Missing, Look to the Fallen Leaf, the Weather Report, the Stolen Kiss, Anything Small Enough to Be Covered by the Hand. So you can see why I stuck with the original title.

Madera: What distinguishes lyrical fiction from the prose poem for you? What is it that makes a work like Woolf’s The Waves, with its incredibly heightened language, not to mention its exquisite re-envisioning of form, fiction? Why are Woolf, Maso, and Stein (all of whom I also adore) “almost poets?”

Hall: I don’t really distinguish (short) lyrical fiction from the prose poem. To me (although I have had heated debates on the topic with colleagues at the campus pub of a Friday), the terms prose poem and short short story (or flash fiction) are interchangeable. By my reading, Woolf and Stein and Maso are fiction writers because they work at length with what seem to be sentences rather than lines and because they claim that designation for themselves. It makes sense to me to think of them as fiction writers precisely because they are “re-envisioning” the form—they aren’t working outside of fiction, but rather on fiction.

Madera: When you mentioned DeLillo’s influence especially the “blandness of affect and the interjections of floating bits of pop culture” in his work, I immediately saw the parallel in All the Day’s Sad Stories. However, it wasn’t something that was evident to me while reading the text. And while the pop cultural detritus in DeLillo is often wonderfully overwhelming in its exuberant celebration of and obsession with media glut, in your work it’s much more subdued, integrated into the emotional fabric. So how did this happen? Or perhaps I should ask: how are you influenced? After a period of absorption, does a transmutation period follow? Is it even evident to you while you’re writing? What is influence anyway?

Hall: I don’t think one can help being influenced. Nor is it something a writer should worry about or try to avoid. One of the pleasures of writing is the feeling of entering a conversation with other writers, and influence is a part of this. That said, DeLillo is such a different writer from me—as you point out, his obsessions are far removed from mine—that I felt absolutely confident that whatever I was doing would be distinct from his project. Sometimes my students will tell me they are afraid to read much because they don’t want to lose any sense of their own originality, and I always advise them to read more (and to read a range of writers) and to write more at the same time so they can learn to recognize their own particular voice. I think when you feel relatively secure in your own voice, it gives you a stable center and allows you to read widely and be thrilled and inspired and still safe in your own work.

Madera: Gertrude Stein, in “Poetry and Grammar,” famously states: “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences…I like the feeling the everlasting feeling of sentences as they diagram themselves.” So since you mentioned it, would you diagram some of your favorite sentences and then also talk about why you’ve chosen them?

Hall: Oh boy, I would need a big old blackboard to really diagram sentences properly. Generally, I like to look in class at a series of sentences, to see how a writer sets up certain rhythms. So, for example, the following first few sentences from Raymond Carver’s story “Feathers”:

“This friend of mine from work, Bud, he asked Fran and me to supper. I didn’t know his wife and he didn’t know Fran. That made us even. But Bud and I were friends. And I knew there was a little baby at Bud’s house.”

The first sentence is interesting because the use of the nonrestrictive subordinate adjective clause, “This friend of mine from work,” and the embedded additional nonrestrictive adjective clause, “Bud,” is such an oblique way of getting into a story. Also the use of “this” instead of the indefinite article “a” and the “he” (which makes the first clause nonrestrictive) give the sentence (and the story) an instantly colloquial feel. But then he breaks up this kind of circuitous, talky syntax with the simple conjoined declarative sentence, “I didn’t know his wife and he didn’t know Fran,” which is brilliant, not only because it anchors the rhythm on a sentence level, but also because it performs the “evenness” alluded to in the next sentence through its parallel structure. This parallel structure also accomplishes some important exposition—we know by the end of the sentence that Fran must be the narrator’s wife or the equivalent. Following up these two very simple sentences with two sentences beginning with coordinating conjunctions introduces tension into the story because there is some question about which clauses the conjunctions are meant to be joining. Does the “but” complicate the statement that the narrator and Bud are even? Or does it gesture back to the problem of them not knowing each other’s wives? The “and” also seems to indicate that the following statement is problematic somehow, that it has some part in the narrator’s decision to go to dinner. Also, starting the two sentences with the conjunctions eases us back into the colloquial flavor of the story.

I won’t go on, but when we do this kind of close analysis in class, it really highlights the control a skilled writer can exert over his or her material. I jokingly exhort students to respect the sentence, but it is true that this is our responsibility as fiction writers. It is our unit of meaning, and too often, its possibilities are ignored or left to intuition and chance. The most valuable exercise might be diagramming one’s own sentences. For instance, when I sit down and diagram part of a story, it becomes very clear to me that I tend toward parallelism in threes and embedded prepositional phrases. Knowing this makes me attentive to overuse of these strategies and gives me an easy place to start cutting when I am revising—I always start with a hard look at the prepositional phrases.

Madera: Who are some of those writers who have gotten “away with so much exposition?” And how did they do it?

Hall: I think a writer like Carver, who is a very voice-oriented writer, gets away with exposition precisely because of the colloquial tone he manages to sustain. For instance, “Cathedral,” a story which really centers on the scenes with the blind man, is set up by a big old chunk of exposition at the beginning of the story which Carver can manage because the voice is so conversational. He draws the reader in by creating the feeling of someone talking just to you. Interestingly, “Cathedral” starts with a sentence constructed much like the first sentence of “Feathers”: “The blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on the way to spend the night.” Again, there is that redundant “he” which instantly signals the tone to the reader.

Another story that is interesting to look at in terms of exposition is Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” That story is extremely exposition-heavy, but it manages to stay buoyant due to the specificity of detail and the self-conscious conceit of listing. Somehow the listing energizes the exposition, gives the story a source of tension to pull the reader along. It is a great story to examine with students to see how technique can create tension as well as event. The amount of exposition in O’Brien’s story also focuses attention on the few scenes we do get, all of which touch in some way on Ted Lavender’s death, so that Lavender’s death becomes a lodestone for the story, like Lieutenant Cross’s good-luck pebble, the thing the story itself carries.

Madera: What were some ways that Trudy Lewis kept you on track? I also don’t know her work, so what would you recommend I read as a start?

Hall: Trudy was my dissertation director, so she kept me on track in a very literal way, by shepherding me through my comprehensive exams and the dissertation and my first job search. But she also is a grounding force through her example. She has an amazing work ethic, writes complicated, witty, perfectly-structured fiction, reads voraciously, researches a range of interests from turn-of-the-century mill workers to Colette to roller derbies, and is a fantastic teacher, dedicated and careful—all while balancing a life with her big bear of a poet-husband and two very active sons and a border collie. So Trudy has been showing me for the last 13 years or so how one can manage to be a working writer and have a full life and still stay somewhat sane and responsible and happy. The Cream City Review has a wickedly funny story of hers online HERE.


Matt DeBenedictis Interviews Jamie Iredell

When I walked into the bar to chat with Jamie Iredell I was greeted by a Jamie I had never seen. Only a few days before, Jamie did a reading at one of the local colleges (not the one where he teaches). It was there, after getting comfortable in a chair, I saw the Jamie I knew, the one I’m used to seeing, the Jamie that greets you with a smile. When Jamie read that night he took to the front of the room, the makeshift stage where all the remnants of the last play practiced in the room had been pushed away, his smile crept in from under the cover of his goatee. The smile “held it down,” as some say, waited for the perfect moment to show itself off to the crowd, the moment when Jamie’s playful words hit the audience, where delight is undeniable. The smile was let loose.

But Jamie wasn’t smiling when I walked up to him; he was hovering over the bar, lamenting over a tall PBR. The whole bar felt different. It was still loud but something was different, maybe it was because all the TVs were switched to different news stations rather than assorted sports and reruns of The Simpsons. All the screens had the same background—a hospital—but with a different reporter and different headline. The bar felt steamy, like the air conditioner was off, but I could hear it buzzing in a fight against the hot air God throws at Georgia. “I guess Michael Jackson is dead,” he said.

In the last year, Jamie had three chapbooks released: Before I Moved to Nevada (Publishing Genius Press), When I Moved to Nevada (Greying Ghost Press), and Atlanta (Paper Hero Press). These chapbooks all connect as one story, but each section, each tightly woven page, can work on its own as well. Later this year, a full book version entitled Prose: Poems, a Novel, containing all three chapbooks, will be released.

Debenedictis: Where did poetry begin for you?

Iredell: I started writing poetry in earnest when I was a freshman in college; I think because I thought it would be a very cool way to impress chicks. So I began writing these really bad rhyming poems about girls, for girls, stuff like that.

At my undergraduate college there was an introductory creative writing course, which I enrolled in. My professor at that time (Gailmarie Pahmeier, author of The House on Breakaheart Road)—she ended up becoming my first mentor—explained that they had upper division creative writing courses, but at that time at the University of Nevada, in Reno, you had to submit work to even be considered for enrollment in one of those classes. They would only take the best of the undergraduates to even take those classes, so she told us: “If I think any of you may have particular talent as writers, I’ll pull you aside at the end of class and encourage you to take the advance courses.” She did that for me. She told me “You’re a fairly talented poet,” and it was one of those moments where it was the first time someone really tells you you’re good at something. So that’s how I ended up studying poetry.

Debenedictis: Were the chapbooks written all as one piece?

Iredell: No, no. In fact, the chapbook you just pre-ordered, When I Moved to Nevada, was the first group that I wrote and I wrote everything in it as individual pieces. By the time I had written fifteen or so I knew I had at least a chapbook, as they were all related to each other. I was really thinking about it as a section that would go into a book that would also contain line poems.

Of course, in the course of revising that book there were a number of people who read that book (like Mike Dockins and another poet Laura McCullough). They were both like, “You may consider this section that is all prose poems as a book by itself.”

At first, I was resistant to that because I was like, I’ve put together an entire book here. I don’t want to break it into two books. After a couple of people said that, I thought they really must be onto something and I knew I wasn’t done writing in that mode yet, so I kept on writing them. I wrote all the pieces in the chapbooks as individual pieces with individual titles, so when they came out in magazines they came out as individual pieces. But I knew they all worked together, so when I fashioned them into a book that was conscious.

Debenedictis: I know so much of the scenery comes from your own life but where did the idea to start writing this whole book come from?

Iredell: I went to The Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 2007 and at that time I was working on more traditional long length fiction and lineated poems. I had written a few prose poems before but I hadn’t really worked in that mode. But, during the conference, I drafted this poem—that was a lineated poem—but it had this feel to it. It had a hyperbolic metaphorical register, where every single line and every single verb was a metaphor and I just started writing in that mode.

The first one I drafted was from the middle chapbook; it was about cats. The speaker ends up getting a cat, and as you said, many of these poems come from my own life, and I was thinking about when I got my first cat and some of the details related to that and just talking about it in an overly metaphorical way like “the trees are like hands.” I was really trying to heighten certain details to get the sense of a story happening but not really telling you a lot about the story like, the neighbors pounded on the door and I lay free of headaches, and I hadn’t yet scrubbed my teeth with Crest. It just sounded like a far more interesting way to say brush my teeth.

I knew I was playing with language in such a way that the details felt very surreal, which I think is one of the key elements to prose poems and by virtue of that short short stories, often. They’re often very surreal; you only get a snippet of the story. It’s like that old Hemingway quote: a short story is like the iceberg. You only see the tip of the iceberg because most of it is underneath the water. That’s a traditional short story. The short short story is like an ice cube and only the top of the ice cube is floating on the water while the rest of it is underneath.

But really, I would just think about shit that happened to me. Frankly, I’ve had a lot of crazy shit happen in my life.

Debenedictis: How much is autobiographical?

Iredell: In a certain sense, everything was autobiographical, but I’ve changed a lot of details. Like in one of the pieces the narrator is camping with a friend. They are both on LSD and they are jumping off cliffs into this pond formed by a river in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. That really happened to me. I was tripping with this friend of mine but I reversed the roles of the characters.

There is a character named Smokey, but that’s what a lot of my friends used to call me. I made myself this friend of mine instead of… he’s talking to me essentially. I don’t know, when I was on this weird acid trip I said, “Hey man! Wouldn’t it be really cool if I got real obese. You could just hang out at the house and make me peanut butter banana sandwiches and I’ll just lie in bed and see how fat I can get, and then try to lose all the weight.” And he said, “Yeah. That’s a great idea.” Then I broke my finger that night. Shit like that happens and it makes for a good story.

At this point in the conversation my phone went off, a text lit up the screen, hiding the clever wallpaper I had cleverly cropped onto it. “Looks like it’s official,” I said, “Michael Jackson is dead.” Jamie then said, “We are watching the literal end of the analog era. TV just converted over to full digital and the icons of the analog era of music are dying faster than we can record them.” Jamie took a quick shot of his tequila. “But writing itself is still pretty goddamned analog,” Jamie’s face lit up, “I don’t care if you have a computer, you still have to make words that function in space and time, in our case with English (words), from left to right and from up to down. A story is still linear in its own space…that’s one of the fantastic things about literature. It’s always going to be multidimensional.”

Debenedictis: One of my favorite elements in these chapbooks is the bitterness that kind of sneaks into recollections and stories.

Iredell: The book—I’m talking about the book as a whole—lends itself to a retrospective point of view because the speaker is looking back on how he got to the point where he is now. At one point, there is a line where the speaker actually says, “Looking back, it’s only now that I realize what kind of idiot that I’ve become.” Which calls attention to that tone you were talking about.

I crafted that sentence on purpose. Looking back, right. I’m retrospectively looking back on the past, it’s only now in the present tense. But I can see what kind of idiot I’ve become. So he’s become this kind of idiot, but as we read the story we know this guy was doing stupid shit back then, so it’s an ironic sentence. The guy has the distance to look back on his past and say, “Oh I did a bunch of stupid shit, but I didn’t do anything to stop that. I’m still stupid now.” So that one sentence has a kind of wisdom to it, which I think only the retrospective point of view can produce.

This is another point where the pieces of all these chapbooks cross over from just prose poetry into fiction. I really was paying attention to point of view, which is probably the most complicated and important tool of the fiction writer. Poets, not all poets at least, really pay that much attention to it. You have the speaker of the poem, you don’t usually refer to speaker as the narrator even though the term is interchangeable… I don’t want to generalize. I would just say that many poets are not thinking about that first and foremost; they are thinking about language. But I was consciously thinking about point of view in the crafting of all these pieces. I think that’s where the story of these prose poems, or flash fiction, or whatever the fuck you want to call them, comes out.

Debenedictis: The line about the character Ike needing a beating is that point of view.

Iredell: That’s the one way to sum that up.

Debenedictis: The bitterness just jumps in all of a sudden.

Iredell: Yeah, exactly! The speaker says, “I wanted to beat him like anyone named Ike deserves to be pummeled.” And then I forgot about it. Period. “Until now”. It’s obvious the narrator hasn’t forgotten about it since he’s telling you the story. Wait a minute, since I’m thinking about it, I’m still pissed. And then again, I’m a real big fan of irony, and that’s an ironic moment in the story, or prose poem.

You were asking earlier about the autobiographical nature of these pieces and I literally went to high school with a guy named Ike. My sister literally did date this guy. You can’t make this shit up. It really does work. Ike really was a fucking asshole; he still is. This guy is one of the biggest self-centered pieces of shit I have ever known in my life. It wrote itself that his name is Ike. Everybody’s whose name is Ike is doomed to be an asshole. I’ll bet you President Eisenhower was a fucking cocksucker.

Debenedictis: All three of the chapbooks have very different art and style to them, what’s going on with the art for the full book version?

Iredell: I designed this one (Atlanta). Christie Call designed this one (Before I Moved to Atlanta). In the full-length book there is going to be artwork scattered through the book. I had created a series of pieces that are related to this book on my own. Some of them are stencil art, some of them are pen and ink drawings and Christie Call, since I asked her to do the cover art for Before I Moved to Nevada, I asked her if she would be interested in doing some more art pieces for the full-length work to kind of compliment it.

The way it’s looking like what’s going to happen is on certain pages throughout there will be full color drawings, and in some cases black ink sketches, and there will be stencil art scattered throughout the book. What I’m doing right now, as I’m designing the book—I do design for C&R Press so I’m designing my own book—I’m pairing those up with bizarre little anecdotal inserts, like in one case there is a picture of an ear with a bite taken out of it, ‘cause I have a story called “Tyson,” which is not directly about Mike Tyson biting Evander Holyfield’s ear but it’s alluded to in the story. The caption for the ear is about the inner parts of the ear taken from a medical textbook.

Debenedictis: A couple of nights ago at the bbq at your house I noticed a copy of Before I Moved to Nevada that had maps of Nevada spread throughout the chapbook’s layout. Was that an idea for that chapbook?

Iredell: Actually, I think Adam Robinson from Publishing Genius Press sent me a couple of author copies and I think he specially made that one to be mine because none of the other chapbooks included that. I really like that one because it had the map in it, so I was like, I’m keeping that one. If I could find reproductions of maps that are really good and have the printer put them into different sections of the full-length work I’d love to do that. Already we’re at the point where the book is going to be prohibitively expensive by having full color insert art. FUCK! If only money was made out of cotton and wood pulp and pressed into a paper form that had letters and numbers and pictures of presidents on it. If only that were to happen, well shit, I could afford to do whatever I wanted.

Debenedictis: You mentioned this on your blog, but didn’t you get a harsh rejection because of the drug usage?

Iredell: When I was sending out the full book I got one rejection from a publisher who was like, I really love this but I don’t glorify drugs. There have been far too many lives, my own and others I know, that have been affected by drugs in terrible ways. I could not condone a book that romanticizes them.

The immediate thing that I thought when I read that rejection was that the editor didn’t read too far into it. She might have read the first couple of sections but obviously didn’t read the full thing as an arch, because the book is about a character’s salvation from drugs.

Debenedictis: By the time you get to Atlanta, the character has a totally different attitude towards those things.

Iredell: Oh yeah. In Atlanta the character is still kind of bumbling along, still making stupid mistakes, still doing drugs, but almost in a poem or a short short story itself you get to climax and resolution. It is implied because there is no time to get to it. In a novel like War and Peace you got lots of time to talk about how things resolve themselves, but in these pieces I could not do that.

In Atlanta the character decides “I don’t want this kind of life anymore,” and is working hard to change his way of life so he can live with the woman he eventually falls in love with. That’s why I felt this editor certainly didn’t read the whole book. I think probably all of us know, even if you’ve only seen some stupid fucked Hollywood movie, that a drug lifestyle only leads to a fucked lifestyle. It isn’t a healthy situation.

I don’t condone that. I lived through it and I got better and I think other people can too. It enriched my life in many ways.

Debenedictis: As a professor have you had to deal with the same type of criticism among other teachers for the drug content?

Iredell: It’s no secret that the academy tends to be stodgy and professors of creative writing are in a kind of weird position in that we are both professors and artists at the same time. You’re an artist while we have a responsibility to meeting the obligations of the department or the university, and meeting the responsibilities of teaching our students and advising them.

One of the weird things is that in most cases in the academy the creative writing program is part of the English Department. There are a few places where the creative writing program is part of the Art Department. Most art departments in colleges have artists that are teaching art and then you have the art history professors who are critics and scholars of art history. But in the English Department the vast majority of the faculty and graduate students are scholars of composition and rhetoric or lit criticism. And then you have your handful of literary artists.

There has always been the superficial stupid idea that the creative writers don’t like the scholars and the scholars and critics don’t like the creative writers, which of course is nonsense. However, to use a Nietzschean term, the creative writers tend to be Nietzsche’s idea of free spirits, they’re just like, I don’t give a fuck what the academy thinks of me, I write my stories. I certainly know my discipline better than anyone else, aside from those who do the same thing.

I would never tell a literary critic how to discuss new historicism in a novel. That’s not my job. It’s also likewise not my job to tell a new historian that they shouldn’t have gone to the department party and drank sherry and tea because it destroys their rep as a professor. Likewise, I don’t think anyone should look at a creative person and say, “Oh my god! You smoked pot! You shouldn’t be a part of the academy.” I’m not running for fucking president. I’m a professor. And I’m an artist. If you want to criticize me, then make me into a politician.


co-canalThe C&O Canal

E-chapbook by Francis Raven
Publishing Genius, 2009
32 pages

Reviewed by Michael Leong

Canals and their locks, aqueducts and other “works of art” (as the canal engineers called them) are the ancient castles of the New World.

—The American Canal Society

In his 1866 The Hudson, From The Wilderness to the Sea, popular American historian Benson Lossing wrote: “Unlike the rivers of the elder world, famous in the history of men, the Hudson presents no grey and crumbling monuments of the ruder civilisations of the past…It can boast of no rude tower or mouldering wall, clustered with historical associations that have been gathering around them for centuries.” Indeed, 19th Century American painters and poets could contemplate neither the picturesque decay nor the pathos of “rude” and antique structures as easily as their European counterparts, but now, almost a decade into the 21st Century, the “American ruin” is becoming a fascinating subject for writers and artists. Arthur Drooker’s photography book American Ruins (Merrell, 2007) is a case in point as is G.C. Waldrep’s fascinating chapbook The Batteries (New Michigan Press, 2005) which was inspired by decommissioned naval batteries on the Marin Headlands (they are currently a part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area).

We can now add to this list Francis Raven’s The C&O Canal which, in its chapbook length, seems so much like a modernist epic in miniature, a Williams-esque foray into local history. This slim documentary text begins by remarking that “we have very few American ruins; we have Native American ruins (like Mesa Verde) and houses of famous people that are preserved (like Monticello) but very few actual European-American ruins.” Raven’s interest lies not, per Lossing, in the “historical associations” derived from remote civilizations but rather in a more recent history of American commerce and industry that, while receded from public memory, is still a significant part of our inheritance.

Although Raven was impressed by how the C&O Canal—short for The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, a project begun in 1828 to link Georgetown and Cumberland along the unnavigable Potomac River—“looks so much like Roman and European ruins,” he does not aestheticize the canal’s structures with a 19th Century gaze despite the National Park Service website’s observation that “the masonry parts [of the canal, now a National Historic Park] …were termed ‘works of art’ in the canal company’s documents.” In Raven’s poem, we aren’t offered detailed, ekphrastic-like descriptions of the canal based on first hand observation—instead, much of our knowledge of the canal comes from statistical lists. We learn about the mule-powered barges that lurched from

Cumberland to Georgetown:

4-5 days

2-3 mules
6 hour shifts

crew of 5

We learn about the “prism” shape of the canal as well as the astronomical cost of the project:

Engineers final report:

Surface: 40 ft. wide
Bottom: 28 ft. wide

4 ft. deep

“totaling $22,275,427.69” //

One of the primary impulses of The C&O Canal is to critique America’s fetishism of “free trade”—that desideratum that animated the construction of the canal—as well as to warn us about the tricky issues surrounding technology and obsolescence; in 1842, the B&O Railroad rendered the canal obsolete when it reached Cumberland eight years before the canal was completed. Considered by some a spectacular failure of engineering, the C&O Canal may be considered the troubled brother to the triumphant Brooklyn Bridge, a structure in which Hart Crane found his symbol for the mystical synthesis of America. As opposed to Crane’s sublime “One arc synoptic,” Raven writes of a “tether…[of] narrow hope / in times of change” and the grave tone throughout his poem reflects our current economy’s dire state.

If Raven doesn’t rely on sensuous detail, neither does he employ the subjective “I” as the poem’s centripetal and organizing principle. Engaging the larger historical and institutional forces outside of the self, he invokes the collective “we” to address the body politic:

// we are not just us
we belong to institutions
we belong to country
we are owned

by methods of carrying

While The C&O Canal importantly reminds us of the infrastructures on which we depend, the risk of this kind of public (and pedagogic) poetry is that it can sound too abstracted from the particular, and the reachings for aphoristic wisdom and judgement can come across as forced. But when the rhythm and rhetoric is right, Raven can nail such wisdom with epigrammatic accuracy such as in this nimble use of antanaclasis: “under the spoils system / things spoil.”

In certain stretches, I sensed a flatness and homogeneity of tone and thought that this might be a work-in-progress that could be thickened and further striated (à la Williams’ Paterson) by incorporating heterogeneous sources like newspaper articles or civic documents.

At its best, The C&O Canal achieves a streamlined clarity, a kind of Objectivist sincerity:

the sides of a canal
are its heart

without the sides
there would be

to hold
what flows

I particularly like this last tercet which neatly holds within it lines of one iamb each—and here we have the implicit argument that form itself constitutes the “heart” of the poem. “[T]he sides of a canal” also call to mind the double virgules (//) that frequently punctuate the text as they act as both rhythmic markers as well as visual symbols for the canal itself.

In many ways, Raven’s text displays attributes of what Stephen Burt has recently called the “New Thing” (his May/June 2009 Boston Review essay has sparked much lively discussion throughout the blogosphere), a recent tendency in contemporary poetry that represents, unlike the elliptical poetry of the 90s, a turn to reference, a focused attention on facts and things. New Thing poetry is restrained, unornamented, and concise—as is The C&O Canal. But according to Burt, the New Thing poem “finds, and emulates, some permanence” and aspires to the state of durable inscription. Raven’s poem, however, is more complicated as it assumes its own ephemerality even as it strives for a New Thing-like accuracy; the prefatory note ends with the claim that “[t]hese poems are a bit like those ruins, falling apart, but factually accurate.” And the poem proper begins with this compressed, assonantal rhyming couplet:

by the time the words reached
they were obsolete //

Raven reminds us of the noncoincidence between sign and referent—that his words will always be falling away from the object which they are supposed to represent. Yet, in a curious twist, this recognition of obsolescence, in fact, reinforces a correspondence between obsolete thing and obsolete text, between the C&O Canal and The C&O Canal.

Raven’s concern with ephemerality and obsolescence also seems to point to The C&O Canal’s own textual condition—that, first, it is a chapbook, a more fragile and fleeting object than the full-length book, and, second, that this poem, while it can be printed and staple bound, is primarily electronic, viewable as a PDF or through the relatively new publishing service Issuu which elegantly mimics the codex format with animated page turns. Will The C&O Canal eventually become part of a full-length work (a B&O Railroad, if you will) thereby making the chapbook version “obsolete”? Will Issuu catch on and continue to “reach” further audiences? These are suggestive questions that are looming on the horizon of this text.



By Tim Horvath
Sunnyoutside Press
ISBN 978-1-934513-14-9
5 x 7, 64 pages

Reviewed by William Walsh

About a month ago, I won a copy of Circulation, a novella by Tim Horvath, in a contest sponsored by What to Wear During an Orange Alert. I entered because the publisher, Sunnyoutside, released one of my favorite collections a while back, Breaking it Down, by Rusty Barnes, and because I knew that Horvath was a fellow alum of the Writing Program at the University of New Hampshire. So this book had to be good.

And it is. Horvath writes a bit like Paul Auster, using digression and coincidence and a charming expository style. The narrator, who we learn is a Director of Circulation at a small public library, recounts his father’s failed attempt to produce a book called The Atlas of the Voyages of All Things. Though much family time was devoted to researching and exhaustively discussing the book, it’s possible that the father—evocatively named Gus Pardo—had written only the bloated dust jacket copy for the book, which he described as “a lavishly illustrated book that documents the marvelous, intricate, globetrotting chain of events by which things come to be what and where they are.”

The family falls apart undramatically. The narrator, his brother, and mother move on, but Gus is left to pursue his writing fantasy, a sort of failed Edward Tufte. When and aging Gus enters the hospital with a final illness, the focus shifts to the book he was able to produce in his lifetime, Spelos: An Ode to Caves, a 137-page, self-published spelunking memoir. Gus is curious about the life his book has had in his son’s library. Horvath’s Director of Circulation provides a disheartening précis on the life of books (“books go unread, tumble out of print, serve as doorstops”) then delivers to his father several extended deathbed fictions about the men and women who have checked out Spelos over the years. The narrator jokes that he is like Scheherazade, but the stories he’s telling keep his father alive.

Circulation is a warm-hearted novella that celebrates storytelling and the writer’s drive to tell stories. It’s an engaging story about how place inspires narrative, how stories are “conjured from anywhere and nowhere at once.” In the end, we follow the Director of Circulation, book in hand, into the cave of personal myth and family legend. And like him, we emerge without the book but with the story.


I Am in the Air Right NowI Am In The Air Right Now
By Kathryn Regina
Greying Ghost Press
5 1/2 x 8 chapbook printed on high quality paper with color end-papers.
Printed in an edition of 99.

Reviewed by Ryan Manning

Kathryn Regina wrote a book. I read it. I will now attempt to review it. This is a book I felt a desire to read and The Chapbook Review owned a review copy of it and I thought, well, hey, I can write a review, despite the fact that I know I cannot. I know I cannot write a review based on past experience and the fact that I’ve never really tried to ever. I offered to review this book because I wanted to read it and also in order to become involved with The Chapbook Review. So, I read it. Here is my review.

This is a review. I’m not entirely certain if this review is going to be about the book it’s about. I think the review might be about itself. This review is an erotic thriller. I am kidding. This review is actually about Kathryn Regina. I love you, Kathryn Regina. Will you marry me? I am the air right now. I lied. I haven’t even read this book yet. I am going to read it now. I’ll be right back. There, I read it. Now that I’ve read this book I feel that I want to marry each of the poems in this book. I want each of these poems to do it with each of my poems. Is that a review? It is not.

If this book were a female human, I feel that I would see it at the post office and quietly wonder how much time and energy would be required in order for her and me to achieve domestic status together. I would also intuitively realize that no amount of time and energy will result in her and me ever achieving domestic status together, and I would feel compelled to weep uncontrollably while waiting in line for stamps. I would then go to the library and write a poem about it.

There are a lot of lines in this book. Many of them are pleasurable. “[T]hey are generally unhappy people” is probably my favorite line of text from this book, if I had to choose one. Although I can hardly imagine a scenario in which I would be literally forced to choose a favorite line of text from anything. This book uses the word “air” a lot, which causes me to wonder if the author doesn’t have a bit of an air fetish. That’s hot. This book should probably be taught in elementary schools all across this great nation. This book makes me want to hold the author very close to my heart and then eat her heart.

I think my favorite poem from this collection is “sorry i didn’t catch you as you plummeted to the earth,” which to me feels like something from a Craigslist “missed connections” posting. The narrator, who’s riding in a hot air balloon, witnesses a man falling from the sky and fails to connect with him for primarily circumstantial reasons. Despite this, she still shows a sincere interest in being able to connect with him at some future point, if at all possible.

I think what I like about this poem is how much I relate to it. I often feel as if I am in a situation where it is highly unlikely for me to connect with someone, though I may indeed feel a genuine desire to do so. I think this poem captures the bittersweet quality of longing for something mysterious and yet also realizing the improbability of realizing such a longing.

One of my other favorite lines from this book is “i think too much about people.” which is from a poem called “there should be a word for each kind of hot air balloon that exists.” This line is located approximately midway between two other lines which are seemingly direct contradictions of one another. Within a span of ten lines the narrator first declares love for another character, and then ultimately denies that very same love. I like something about the progression of events here. Our narrator seems particularly fickle in love (among other things) which is also an experience I can personally relate to.

Some of my other favorite lines include “everything that is good is bad for you” and “that chameleon has opened my heart in one thousand ways.” These lines seem to suggest, on the one hand, a kind of melancholy feeling regarding the paradoxical nature of what is healthful versus what is pleasurable, and on the other, a kind of susceptibility toward the whimsical nature of things which inhabit a world beyond our understanding.

According to the index page, the author stole sentences from other people. If so, I’m glad she did. She is doing them a favor by immortalizing their words. Words are immortal. Here are some words I would use to describe this book: clear, sweet, sentimental, naïve, innocent, curious, wondrous, marvelous, Mark Rothko.

I like Mark Rothko. This book contains illustrations, and I like them.

Some words taken out of I Am In The Air Right Now’s context which might be used to describe the book itself: fish, murder, native americans, rejection, puppets, diet coke, pollution, soup.

There is rain in Virginia right now. Rain is the air right now. Kathryn Regina is the air right now. Kathryn Regina is rain. Which reminds me, I need to replace my shower curtain soon. It’s getting moldy. Mold is caused by mold spores having sex with moisture, I think. Therefore, nevermind.


Letters Through GlassLetters Through Glass
By Alexis Vergalla
Finishing Line Press; 1ST edition (2009)
ISBN-10: 1599243873
ISBN-13: 978-1599243870

Reviewed by Alec Niedenthal

Letters Through Glass resurrects letters you might have for(e)gotten. It is a chapbook of letters.

Recall that letters through glass cannot communicate.

The sender must break the glass, then send the letters, but by then the violence will have been done, the letters sent.

Letters Through Glass will ask, Which letters are not through glass?

Letters Through Glass begins with “Letter to Vallejo.”

The note to Vallejo is one of mourning. A letter to the dead:

Vallejo how am I here
and how is it
that I am not in Peru
singing in Spanish and preparing ceviche?

And later on:

and how is it
you have no answers for me,
only rainy afternoons in Paris
where you died;
where you never died?

We learn that the speaker asks for the impossible: an answer, a letter in return. Or perhaps, more likely, “Letter to Vallejo” is a letter addressed to no one, en route to nowhere; likely, this letter simply is, unmoving, never transmitted, or rather transmitted to nowhere but the space of its death (of its subject’s death, which is, consequently, its own, radically the same).

The letter does not meet its addressee. Its path is broken by some thing, an obstruction, a place where it suffers, dies incessantly, misrecognized: glass. The letter does not meet its addressee because there isn’t, never has been, a “name” for it to reach, a place of delivery, a chance for its survival.

Letters Through Glass will not survive what happens when the glass breaks.

I am reminded of Paul Auster’s novella City of Glass, of its winding dialogues, its psychologies high on Lacan, its dead or dying speech, the force of the failure it describes but cannot name.

I am also reminded of this passage from William G(l)ass’s The Tunnel:

A book, I wrote, is like a deck of windows: each page perceives a world and tells a fortune; each page at least faintly reflects the face of its reader, and hands down a judgment; each page is made of mind, and it is that same mind that reflects a world within, and it is the same mind that stands translucently between perception and reflection, uniting and dividing, double dealing.

The Tunnel is probably my second favorite book by William Gass.

In “Issues of Translation,” we learn how to translate a letter when you do not know the language. How to translate a letter when you do not know the addressee.

The answer is you cannot.

Lately, I am discovering
inconsistency in translation.
Spaces instead of punctuation
phrases that seem a bit off
but how am I to know?

We experience the longing for a means to express. We long for a re-living of the experience itself. “Months ago you and I / lit matches and watched the wind / blow them out eventually.”

We hear the language we name “ours”: “I only know this language.” We hear the language gone unsaid, spoken now in silence, only to emerge again as what we have heard before in a “present always already past.”

We have a catalog of the everyday: “I have, thus far, / three switch plates a soda can a melted candle.” The sender longs for the reterritorialization, so to speak, of the object, of what has been lost to a flawed memory, a poem: “Endless letters and letters / signed / yours” (italics mine).

Lost to a poem, reclaimed by the “voice from elsewhere,” the “other voice” from nowhere at all, sent in haste to no one, to nothing, again—with each letter never sent another sigh of paper falling flat against a newly erected pane of glass. But it is the same pane of glass. Absolutely the same.

Some of the letters in Letters Through Glass converse with other letters, though it is all the same letter; it is all one letter; there is no other letter. The letter you spy on the “other side,” the “other letter,” is a reflected image of the letter you are holding in your hand. The reflected hand is your own. There is one letter, a single hand.

The addressee of “Letters” is a lover overseas and at war, whereas the sender teaches, and presumably writes, literature. The latter imagines him- or herself taking up the violence, the firepower, of the lover:

There are days I almost think
I could do it too I could stand
with a gun in my hands and rock
back with the recoil

But “I record :: I do nothing.” You begin to draw a parallel between the violence of taking a life and the violence of recording, of taking down, of placing in between time and counter-time. Both nihilistic, both to “do nothing,” both entering radical ambiguity. Both infinite. Only one, possibly, perhaps, ignores the other’s call (to suffer in the other’s name, or lack of the same) and the other heeds it.

You: no one, no-body; let us say the trace or remembrance of a body.

You: who are you? I wish I could remember your address, your name: unpronounceable, incessantly being pronounced. I would send you a letter. I would return your call.

I am simply here, scrawling

This afternoon, it smelled of autumn for the first time

asking How hot is it? Must be brutal, I can’t

even imagine You must tell me everything

I am scrawling, madly; I am murdering, divinely. “And language fails me,” and it will, always.

“In the Kitchen” confronts the experience of cleaning a kitchen, engulfs it, hurls it like a bullet. “A girl thinks feminine thoughts, is domestic in her inclinations, / and is fundamentally gentle in her relation to others.” I can feel your loss. I know how it feels to have lost the will to destroy. The will to—and it could be gently, it could be domestically—destroy the other, “others,” to save the other. You have succumbed to erasure, to the obscurity of a day that only happens in the dark. I would have warned against it.

While I’ve been writing this, I’ve told her that I don’t like the way we have sex. She is in the bedroom; I can hear her crying. I was thinking of you.

“The Slow,” the last letter, undying, without end, a recursion of what has never taken place: “We no longer write real letters.” I’m obsessed with this line in particular. What could it mean? Have we ever written real letters? What do we write instead? “You are too tired and I use my words / for other things.” For what do I use my words? Tell me. You can whisper. Speak clearly.

“Some day you will read this / and it will be my letter.” Perhaps now we are no longer writing letters; we are writing poems. Or rather, we may begin to write poems. A beginning that never begins, the day of the poem forever postponed. Some day.

I will write you a letter, some day.



Make Nothing Happen

By Rufo Quintavalle
Oystercatcher Press
A5, 24pp.
ISBN: 978-1-905885-12-1.

Reviewed by Andrew Borgstrom

Things I thought when Make Nothing Happen by Rufo Quintavalle arrived in the mail:

Is this John Madera’s clever way of dumping me?

Is Quintavalle aware that Madera is using Make Nothing Happen in such a manner?

Why is Madera breaking up with me?

Would Quintavalle use his book in such a manner?

Could this be qualified as a text breakup?

Is that one of George Saunders’s gappers of Frip on Make Nothing Happen’s cover?

Will someone please hold me?

First sentences of numerous attempts at reviewing Make Nothing Happen:

This review should be perforated in the center.

This is the fifth chapbook I’ve reviewed for Madera, and doesn’t that require a more formal farewell?

I decided not to smash the mosquito with Make Nothing Happen.

I decided not to cry while listening to Mother Flux.

Quintavalle’s poetry appeals to me, which is saying something, or writing something, or making nothing.

Will someone other than John Madera please hold me?

Things I wanted to write instead of this review:

All the poems I haven’t written using all the words I haven’t used, which Quintavalle used, which Quintavalle wrote.

A text-message telling off John Madera.

Nothing, which is what—, which is I—, which is usually—, which is what James Thurber said would happen.

A letter to John Madera.

A letter to Rufo Quintavalle.

A letter I wrote to Rufo Quintavalle but sent to John Madera:

Dear Rufo Quintavalle,

Oh, Quintavalle, have I told you I lived in a dentist office basement for two years? When you pay rent each month, the dentist tells you to go ahead and take all of last month’s magazines from the waiting room. I was a month behind for two years. I missed all four dental appointments. Did you know in dental waiting rooms 75% of the patients read the magazine from last page to first page?

Oh, Quintavalle, I read your book from first page to last page and then from last page to first page. One of the places I read your book felt like one of your poems: “Empty / streets, / a line / outside / a film.” And the rest of the page is empty. Nothing surrounds the poetry (well, the title). If the nothingness could speak, would it say, like Williams, “men die every day / for lack / of what is found / there”? or would it say, like MacLeish, “A poem should not mean / but be”? or would it say, paraphrasing Frost, that the worst thing you can ask a person to do is paraphrase a poem in duller language? Did you know I have stigmatism in my left eye? That is why my eyes are red and swollen. Don’t believe John Madera if he tells you otherwise. What aren’t you making happen right now? I will stop asking questions after you say, “I have not done much / but I have seen the trees.”

Oh, Quintavalle, when I read your last poem,“The trees,” I wanted to look at the trees outside my window, but I didn’t. When I read “Rocks,” I wanted to look at the rocks in my path, but I didn’t. When I read “Peace, the sun, a whimbrel,” I wanted to read Thomas Hardy’s “Neutral Tones,” but I didn’t. When I read “I went outside to a white sun in a grey sky,” I wanted to read “Neutral Tones” again, but I didn’t even read it the first time. When I read the line, “home, James, fuck the horses,” I wanted to rewatch the short film titled after the line you twisted, but I didn’t, then I wanted to finally watch the bestiality in my backyard made beautiful in Zoo, but I didn’t. When I read “I went down in the basement,” I didn’t think of God, and I certainly didn’t want “to speak to God, my Id,” but I did want to find a way to mention the dentist’s basement I lived in, and I did.



A conversation using Quintavalle’s text:

Madera: “All that porphyry to say suffering”?

Andrew: “I can’t guarantee / anything, but that / would be something, no?”

Madera: “When you pray, do you pray to pain?”

Andrew: “I try not to aim / anywhere as such, / head nowhere special.”

Quintavalle: “Which explains nothing / but without which we cannot explain.”

A good place to end:

“Each time it must have seemed / that this was it:”



Chapbook by Thomas Cooper
Keyhole Press, 2009
Perfect bound, 44 pp.
ISBN 978-0-9821512-3-5

Reviewed by Josh Maday

Piecing together a definition of phantasmagoria:

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, 11th Edition:
1. an exhibition of optical effects and illusions
2. a: a constantly shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined
b: a scene that constantly changes
3. a bizarre or fantastic combination, collection, or assemblage

One Look quick definition:
A constantly changing medley or real or imagined images (as in a dream)

Yahoo Education Dictionary:

A fantastic sequence of haphazardly associative imagery, as seen in dreams or fever.
A constantly changing scene composed of numerous elements.

The assemblage above along with Michael Martone’s blurb—one of those rare book blurbs that are accurate and insightful—will give readers at least a sense of what they will encounter in Thomas Cooper’s brilliant collection of flash fiction, Phantasmagoria, winner of the Keyhole’s 2008 Fiction Chapbook Contest (judged by Martone). Cooper magnetizes characters and objects with mystery. He brilliantly balances detail and implication, a necessary tool in crafting successful flash fiction (any fiction, really).

Each piece works on its own, but Cooper weaves a web, stimulating the reader’s recognition of themes, characters, and objects, and then twists these involuntary connections into something different yet slightly similar. The first few stories involve relationships or death (usually both in some way), and are linked by a few shifting events: woman/wife/mother dies, infidelity, death, man/husband/son dealing with grief/death. Cooper does a fantastic job of warping whatever coherence or linearity this linkage may tempt the reader to impose on the material, in keeping with the above definition of phantasmagoria (though Cooper’s fictions are anything but haphazard).

In the opening story, “The Lady in the Closet,” the narrator, a middle-aged man who, while he grapples with the surreal horror of his wife’s sickness and slow death, develops an appropriately bizarre relationship with the strange and mysterious woman he discovers has been living in his closet. Next, “The Old Fashioned Way” is narrated by an old man sitting at his wife’s grave. The old man gets angry at another man who keeps bringing flowers and weeping at the grave too, and swears that he knew the woman buried there. Cooper neither confirms nor dispels the nagging suspicion that this other man was perhaps one of his wife’s lovers. Later on, in “House Tornado,” the narrator (an older but not elderly man) and his wife are in the kitchen when a tornado picks up their house a la The Wizard of Oz, and in the last moments of his life the narrator wants to have sex with his wife one last time; however, she refuses him and uses her last minutes to phone a man named John: “Never mind that the cursing is so unlike Rita. Never mind that now she’s starting to gasp and moan as she works her hand beneath her bathrobe, calling out this man’s name. It’s her voice that gets to me, breathy, orgasmic, profoundly intimate, as if this man has just finished telling her the final thing she ever needs to hear.” Cooper continues this many-faceted metamorphosis from beginning to end, working on many levels.

Changing modes, Cooper explores the power that objects and characters can have over people, beginning with “Lost and Found,” where a man who could only be described as “definitely American” leaves an inexplicable and ominous “foreign object” with a receptionist who eventually becomes responsible for it against her will and is forced to “get rid of it.” Other unexplainable objects show up in Cooper’s fictions as well: a monogrammed baby spoon that no one seems to own, postcards written to total strangers as though to the closest of friends, and seemingly irremovable “black and kinky” hairs. Each object or character, by their persistence, becomes a psychological affliction for their respective victims.

In “Dunking Booth Man,” fueled by the strange atmosphere of the carnival, Cooper taps into the wild desperation of denial when said dunking booth man says the perfect words to unhinge the man walking past with his family.

As for my victims, I always look for the ones with the most to lose, men I was once like. Take this guy right here, with his pretty Japanese wife and two little girls, strolling along the thoroughfare in the giddy carnival lights. Hammered in my clown suit and slumped in my dunking booth chair, I wonder what I can say to this man that will pierce him to the core [. . .] what I shout now is the perfect, unforgivable thing and it comes out with shocking force [. . .] I say the unforgivable thing again, clearly enunciating each word. Love. Death. Decay. Then say, “Trust me, I know what I’m talking about. I’ve lived through it.”

By holding back and not quoting the “unforgivable thing,” Cooper avoids having to come up with something that will live up to this description, and also allows the reader to imagine, if only vaguely (and yet more powerfully), what the dunking booth man could have said. One of the liberating aspects of flash fiction is what Martone calls “bounded boundless space,” the paradoxical way in which the form’s extreme boundaries open the potential for invention that often cannot be sustained for the duration of a short story. Reaching into that “bounded boundless space” requires the balance of detail and implication that is essential to flash fiction as when the other man comes to grieve at the grave of the old man’s wife. If Cooper isn’t planting scenes with elements ripe for inference, he is returning an openly fabulist story to the grounding of real life conflicts, like when a man’s wife decides to use her last moments to call her lover after the house is picked up by a tornado Without question, Phantasmagoria confirms that Thomas Cooper is a master of flash fiction.


sixrecurringdreamsSix Recurring Dreams

MRB Chelko
sunnyoutside, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-934513-16-3
Paperbound, 6 pages

Reviewed by Christina Hall

In a publication with only six pages, and not one containing more than twenty-five words, everything matters: the words used, the ones that aren’t, the page count (why six? why not five, a basic counting unit, or even seven, like the number of days?), it’s publication style. Chelko’s Six Recurring Dreams is a small book—folded paper bound with thread. It’s light, easily misplaced, much like a dream. And while an easy read, it isn’t necessarily a quick read. Or perhaps it is a quick read without being an easy read. The sentences are straightforward, and to reiterate, each poem is brief, but this piece of literature does what any true work of art should: it makes you think.

The words and images stay with you. I’ve read them as poetry, and I’ve read them as prose. Quickly, slowly, silently, loudly. Each page expresses so much more than twenty-five words normally could. The text entreats you to break it down and explore it, and as dreams often do, these texts beg for psychoanalysis. I’ll simply use one of Chelko’s intriguing dreams as an example (Ironically, the review as it currently stands is almost twice as long as the text.):

I am running, fast as in a silent film,
Into the street where there is no procession.
No parade.

He starts out “running,” running in excitement or fear we don’t initially know, but the following phrase, “as in a silent film,” brings so much imagery to the scene. Devoid of any sounds of nature or people, everything submerged in black and white, I imagine the narrator running into an empty street, colorless, a void. Loneliness. And you wonder about what the narrator does not tell us; for instance, why would he expect a parade in the first place?

Chelko has an unusual talent for saying a lot with few words. Imagine explaining a dream to someone, searching for words, details, and emotions to evoke in them the same surreal sequences and strange feelings you encountered during sleep. But in one or two sentences Chelko conveys the imagery and tone of an entire dream. Publishing your own dreams could be a narcissistic move, but Chelko has written poetry, an insight into intra- and interpersonal relationships in general. His short text is well worth the read, and will leave you thinking long after you’ve turned the last page.


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