thechapbookreview

June 2009

From the Editor:

Welcome to The Chapbook Review’s first issue. The overwhelming response to the idea of this journal was as supportive as it was emboldening. The time is apparently ripe for not only the production of chapbooks, pamphlets, and minicomics by innovative writers (prose writers following poets’ massive lead) and presses, but also for a venue offering critical examination of the work. This first issue boasts an interview of Blake Butler by Christopher Higgs regarding Pretend I Am There but Very Little. They tinker with ideas about influence, craft, process, the so-called “aura” of printed versus electronic matter, and, in a seeming nod to Deleuze and Guattari’s idea about desiring machines, Blake compares people to “meat machines.” After this, Butler returns the favor and interviews Higgs on his chapbook Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously. Their conversation shifts from the mainly visceral to the mostly cerebral. Another close look at process ensues, and astute references to Breton, Chomsky, cummings, Godard, Lutz, Stein, and others fly by.

The interviews are followed by a series of reviews. Tobias Carroll’s sets everything off with bull’s-eye criticism of Lawrence Millman’s Going Home: A Horror Story. Sean Lovelace’s wildly disjunctive multi-media response to Matt Bell’s How the Broken Lead the Blind follows. Brainy as it is gutsy, it turns reviewing on its head and explodes into a “rethink” piece of its own. And yes, Lovelace makes words up. Andrew Borgstrom flips it with his playful glossary-as-review piece about Aaron Burch’s Molting. Kimberly King Parsons examines the prevailing dark (albeit sometimes infused with light) themes of Alan Catlin’s Only the Dead Know Albany. Following that are two reviews of Mathias Svalina’s poetic game manual Play. Matthew Simmons adroitly demonstrates how Svalina connects two oral traditions, namely, children’s games and poetry. And Borgstrom imagines a time when he was browbeat by a word-bully. After this is J.R. Angelella’s probing examination of the macabre elements of Ryan Call’s Pocket Finger. The review turns into a tale of personal transformation.

Nicolle Elizabeth’s review of Shya Scanlon’s Poolsaid brought Alice Fulton’s extraordinary essay, “Fractal Amplifications: Writing in Three Dimensions” to mind (it may be found in Fulton’s Feeling as a Foreign Language, a book Higgs mentions in Blake’s interview of him). In it, Fulton expands on her theory of “fractal verse,” a theory that borrows heavily from Mandelbrot’s intuitive approach toward understanding and deciphering nature’s complexity. For Fulton, fractal verse has the following characteristics: Every line contains the same complexity as the larger piece from which it’s derived. The poem is comprised of infinite nesting patterns. Digression, disruption, disintegration are privileged over any conventional notions of continuity. They exist in a paradoxical space of movement and stasis. In the essay, Fulton draws similarities between writing and painting:

The poem plane is analogous to the picture plane in painting: a two-dimensional surface that can convey the illusion of spatial depth. Painters use perspective, colors, texture, and modeling to suggest three dimensions on the flat canvas. If objects are painted progressively smaller and closer together they will seem to recede. Space also can be suggested by juxtaposing oncoming warm with introverted cool ones. By alternating thickly textured impasto with turpentine-thinned washes, the artist can create opaque areas of positive space and radiant glazes of negative space. Objects of the same scale can be modeled differently to create depth: a hard-edged rendering will appear nearer than a hazy one….The motion of reading is horizontal and vertical: Our eyes skim across and edge down the flat planes of print. Poetry has held language to this single plane rather than using linguistic properties as a means of constructing three-dimensional space….What I’m suggesting is that poetry take advantage of synesthesia that attributes physicality (color and texture) to language. For me, and I think for many linguistically addicted people, words have an unignorable materiality. It is not only the meaning of words that holds my attention, but their sensual, and especially tactile, presence. Passages can have an ultrasuede nap, like the velour finish of a petal, or they can feel prickly as hairbrushes. I am bored by poetry constructed solely of thin, homogenous tones because it reads like a field of gray plaster. Fractal verse develops this ability to feel language as a 3-D tactile surround. Perhaps its greatest urgency exists in its potential for limbic awakening.

Nicolle Elizabeth’s review draws similar parallels between Scanlon’s approaches to language with the act of painting, particularly the work of a renowned abstract expressionist. My initial read of Poolsaid brought Gertrude Stein’s fragmented language and Lyn Hejinian’s heady hijinxs—where words collapse into recurring patterns instead of moving linearly—to mind. But Elizabeth’s likening Scanlon’s approach to painting strikes me as more evocative, more immediate, and therefore more apt.

Finally, Josh Maday’s examination and extrapolation of The Squid and the Whale-like communication breakdown in Mike Heppner’s Talking Man is an object lesson on the expository essay. Maday deserves a special shout out for his enthusiasm for this new venture.

Thanks to all the writers for such great work. And thank you for reading. And be sure to drop us a line to let us know what you think. Also, check out the books we have available for review HERE.

Christopher Higgs Asks Blake Butler Some Questions About His e-Chapbook Pretend I Am There but Very Little (Publishing Genius Press, 2008)

Conducted via email, April 2009.

HIGGS: I’m always interested to learn about other writer’s processes. Do you remember the particulars of your actual writing routine at the time when you composed Pretend? (late night, early morning, one sitting, many sittings, intoxicated, sober, by hand, on laptop, in bed, in kitchen, at morgue, etc?)

BUTLER: I think in this case I mostly wrote in the late evening, on my mother’s computer, when there was more light inside the house than out. It took two or three sittings mostly. I usually write in short periods of attention, i.e. I will write for 5-9 minutes of intense focus and then stand up and go get something small to eat or look at some shitty website, etc. That helps cause a kind of endless “refresh” in my head. In this case, I think I wrote each section fully and then quit in between. Some of the sections, I think primarily the letters from the narrator to the woman, were lifted from my blog when I would be typing deliriously. One of the letters actually happened to me.

HIGGS: I’m also interested to know if you can recall what music you were listening to at that time, what movies you were watching, what books or magazines or other things you happened to be reading that might have contributed to your frame of consciousness while composing Pretend.

BUTLER: I know right around this time Inland Empire came out. That was huge on me, in all walks. I don’t even know exactly what about it—so many people, even Lynch fans, hated it. But it had everything about his films that is important to me, and in many ways seems so much exactly what everyday life feels like: disconnected rooms, people’s heads distorting, monologues with no clear distinction, acts of violence, insertion. After typing that last sentence, I’d say that Inland Empire was clearly a huge influence on Pretend, and I ganked a ton from it. Just the whole fucking thing. According to my notes, I also read Norman Lock’s Grim Tales during this time, which I think says a lot: the brief bursts of strange, lapping everyday embedded with big black nails. So yes, now that you mention it, I didn’t write Pretend at all, it seems.

HIGGS: Do you recall what sparked Pretend? A word, a phrase, an idea?

BUTLER: Like mostly everything I write, it was a sentence. In this case, the first sentence, though the spark isn’t always what ends up first, but in this case, yes, I remember clearly typing: After I sold my dick to the museum, I used some of the money to buy a Dachshund. I think that sentence appeared in my mind—simply appeared—and then I wrote it down in a blank email to myself and saved it on Gmail. That is what I do with most of my sentences that just occur to me in that way, in a rush, unless I am in bed, which is where many of them come, and then I either write them on my hand or on a little scrap of paper. Otherwise, my Gmail drafts box often has a bunch of random things in it. One of these, “Randall Sax Fucks Gods Mouth,” I’ve had for years there, which I think I’d meant to use as a title. I need to write that story. Anyway, in this instance I changed “dick” to “teeth” after I realized I was going to say this sentence to people.

HIGGS: Was Pretend planned out in advance and then constructed or was it more spontaneously created, or would you describe it as being the product of some other mode of composition? And as a follow up, did you originally write it from beginning to end or did you write the parts and then rearrange them, or did you do something else entirely?

BUTLER: I didn’t plan, and mostly never do, with almost anything I write. Sometimes while I am working on something I will get ideas or sentences that I know need to come later, and I often notate them on a page or pages at the end of the document so that whenever I feel “stuck” or like I need a turn of some sort in the text, I go rummage among other ideas. Other than that, I don’t care for constructing in advance. I have tried to do this many times, including several failed novels that I wrote during my MFA time and prior to that, which all suffered in various ways, each mainly stemming from the idea that I only feel in the presence of magic when I am handling the or an unknown.

A lot of this, too, I think can be more palpably understood as “writerly considerations” via the maxim: if you aren’t surprised by your own writing, how the fuck could you expect anyone else to be?

HIGGS: Here’s a quote I pulled from your blog’s backlog, I wondered if you might elaborate on a few of the particulars:

“I finished a draft of what I want to make into an ebook today. It is about 3700 words in 14 short sections. Right now I like the title PRETEND I AM THERE BUT VERY LITTLE, which accidentally came out of an IM conversation with my girlfriend last night.” (1-7-08)

Particular #1: How come you knew you wanted Pretend to be an ebook? Was there something special about the material that presented itself during the process of writing it or did you intentionally set down to produce something that would be an ebook?

BUTLER: I knew it was going to be of “chapbook” length I think, and to be honest I kind of hate paper chapbooks. They seem so fleeting and not quite there for me—though obviously it’s not a reflection of the words there contained. They just have very little aura, in my mind. That might seem damaging or crass to some people, but I honestly just don’t respond to the form that well, and can think of very few chapbooks for me that “hold up over time.”

Ebooks, on the other hand, last forever. Anyone can open them, anyone can have them, they are free, have so much more availability to design, and the amount of attention they get is just astronomical in comparison to print. An average chapbook run might be 100, whereas most any ebook, when it is accessibly placed, likely beats that in a single day of viewing. The stats are just ridiculously lopsided toward the web over the object: I think like 7000 people viewed Pretend in less than a year. Can you imagine selling 7000 copies of a chapbook, in endless time? Or even a real book on an indie level?

So, for Pretend, I knew I wanted it to be online, and I knew it wasn’t quite a story, and not quite a novella. Plus there are a lot of exciting places doing ebooks now, so I had planned to send it to those. Even in ebooks, though, I greatly prefer the HTML format, where all pages can just be clicked and there are no downloads, to the PDF versioning.

HIGGS: As follow up #1 to Particular #1, did you have Publishing Genius in mind at the time or did you come across it after the fact?

BUTLER: I think my original intention was to send it to Bear Parade, though it doesn’t quite fit their aesthetic. I think I knew that when I finished, but tried anyway, because I think I wrote it with Bear Parade in mind to some extent, without being able to control that it wasn’t in the vein of things they use, and sent it to Gene anyway, who confirmed it didn’t fit. Publishing Genius was my immediate next place to send, as I had read all the ebooks they had done so far, and really liked them, and liked Adam, and wanted to work with him. I never really sent it anywhere else (actually I sent it to One Story as a story for some strange reason, which they rejected, duh). And even though the format Pretend exists in now contradicts in certain ways my previous answer (in that it is print and PDF-viewer only, though through Issuu, which I now have mixed feelings about) I am really happy with what it became and how it turned out with Adam. He is doing really vital stuff.

HIGGS: Particular #2: How many drafts did Pretend go through before being published? Did it change dramatically or subtly throughout the process—how, why, and in what ways?

BUTLER: It didn’t change very much throughout. I think I wrote the first draft, then edited it from end to end a few times, including changing the ending, which in the final version is much more open and powerful I think than it had been the way it ended before. But really, besides the ending, I didn’t change it much except on the sentence level after the first draft. Adam had some great small suggestions on minor things like that, rearranging of certain orders of sentences, but the order of the sections remained the same I think, and that is something I am a big fan of: getting as much right the first time, and then having future drafts, even when you have urges to change big flow issues, being more about editing syllabically and spatially, as opposed to narratively or otherwise. For me, great narrative and voice comes from great sentences, great syllables. So in redrafting, that is where my attention lies.

HIGGS: How would you describe the form of Pretend? Do you consider it to be experimental? If so, in what ways? If not, does it bother you to be labeled experimental?

BUTLER: I don’t really think about labels like that, even if the labels are “edgy,” and not just simple devices. I don’t know, I think the narrative does some things that other narratives do not, and has a voice that might seem newish, but at the same time it has some clear influences to me.

What is not experimental?

Eating breakfast cereal seems experimental to me. So does driving. But those both happen every day, if you are a cereal eater and own a car.

At the same time, you can call me anything you want. Except “poet.” Anything but that.

HIGGS: How would you describe the content of Pretend? Would you consider it a work of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or both or neither or what?

BUTLER: I don’t know. My favorite term for anything with words on it and a spine is “book.”

People are too horny to say what is what and what isn’t what, and where is this and why. Why? Are they scared of things? Are they goners?

“Are you a poet?” “Are you an author?”

I have a dick, I know that much.

A lot of the time, with words, if something isn’t a little bit of everything all at once, I tend to get really fucking bored really fucking fast.

HIGGS: Do you see Pretend as arising from, or elaborating on, any particular tradition, literary or otherwise?

BUTLER: It might arise some from the tradition of Saturday morning cartoons, self-imposed mysteries in rooms you’ve been living in your whole life (like when I was a kid and would build machines out of balance beams and paperclips and plastic Smurfs), and maybe from wishing I was Roald Dahl but being confused with getting out of bed, and from being hungry a lot and from the Internet.

HIGGS: What qualities do you particularly admire about Pretend —& on the other hand, what qualities do you disdain? (in other words, what do you consider to be your strengths and weaknesses in Pretend?)

BUTLER: In one way, I can be critical of Pretend in that it exhibits many of my most avenued devices: being that, there are habits of mine on display here, at least for me, that I can not, and might never, be able to get away from. I see myself repeating myself in most anything I say, I think.

Though, in another way, maybe that is what I like best about writing, and writers (if I have to say that word): that each person is a meat machine making their own brand of meat for others to put inside them, and there are things about that meat that you will never shake, and are what make you you, and therefore are the only thing about you that makes one set of sentences on white paper different from anything else, and therefore maybe worth for a little while remembering.

Between those two ways together, I am pretty happy with the things I am obsessed with, and my repetitions, and in this instance, the ways they came out of me sounding at least in some way to me new.

HIGGS: Looking back at it now after almost exactly a year since its publication, and thinking about it in terms of your writing career so far, how do you feel about Pretend as it fits into your oeuvre? Sorry for using the word oeuvre but I must confess I like that word, plus I’m interested to hear how other writers think about their creations in light of, or in relationship to, their other creations.

BUTLER: I will always have a spot for it, I think, any time, in that it was the first piece of writing of mine that stood by itself on paper, and was something I had made. Even if it is “just a chapbook,” that experience is one of the ones that make the whole process worthwhile. Something you made. Something there. I also think that the ways I said certain things here are things I had been trying to say and had not been able to beforehand quite so, and won’t be able to say that way again, which is why I’d like to think, and maybe anybody with any words would, is why I said them in the first place, to myself.

In a way, too, the blood of Pretend is in the blood of EVER, certainly, perhaps even connected door-to-door, and is and will be in many other things I have written or will write. A lot of the time I like to see everything I’ve written as all part of one enormous, many-floored house, but that’s just me being happy sometimes with my mind.

HIGGS: Is the chapbook a medium you see yourself working in again? How do you see the chapbook in terms of other literary forms?

BUTLER: Though the book as object will never die, I think the future of the chapbook is electronic. I think short, edible works available to anyone anytime is really important to literature, and to thinking. The quick rise of many places doing ebooks and other such things seems obvious, and refreshing. Plus it weighs a lot less, and if my house catches on fire, I’ll still have some shit left to read. As for myself, I never know what I am going to do again.

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Blake Butler Asks Christopher Higgs Some Questions About His e-Chapbook Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously (Publishing Genius Press, 2009)

Conducted via email, May 2009

BUTLER: One of the most immediately exciting things about this text I think is the way it plays with and mishmashes syntax both syllabically and structurally. There is a certain tone about the ongoings that you manage to establish in the very first sentence: a way of speaking that sounds wholly new. Can you talk some (a) about the state in which you approached this, or (b) how you began to write it, and/or (c) what outside influences or impulses led you into the mode, if any?

HIGGS: I approached the construction of Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously in two ways:

1. By remixing previously written texts

2. By process of what André Breton called “automatic writing”

In the case of #1, (“Lonely…”; “Escape…”; “Of Her…”) I wrote these texts in a straightforward manner while in graduate school at U Nebraska (2004-2006) as pieces of conventional realism with beginnings, middles, and ends. I liked them okay, but they had no real oomph. Like most works of conventional realism, they were boring, so I kept them stashed away figuring maybe someday I’d do something to make them interesting.

In the case of #2, (all the other pieces) these texts were written more recently (in the past year or two) and came from sessions in which I sat down and allowed the voices in my head to speak through my fingers without censorship. These voices tend to speak in rhythmic/sonic ways rather than narrative ways.

In terms of outside influences, there are gobs (Gertrude Stein, Gary Lutz, e.e. cummings, Jean-Luc Godard, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, etc.); but one I would like to mention specifically is a short piece by Darby Larson called “Journal Entry: 2-13-03” [http://ir.interserver.net/stories/story83.html] which appeared in the online journal Insolent Rudder. I remember reading that while I was in my first year of graduate school at the University of Nebraska and going: oh hell yes—this is a style I must try to expand upon!

BUTLER: Would you say that any one sentence in this text could signify the whole, i.e. could “Complain nor explain a single lie and that is true.” in any way speak for the whole here? Can a text be reduced?

HIGGS: That question makes me think about Alice Fulton’s concept of fractal poetry. She borrows Mandlebrot’s model of “a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole” to describe a poem in which each sentence acts like a representative of the whole (you can find out more about this in Fulton’s brilliant collection of essays titled Feeling as a Foreign Language).

Even though I think her ideas are fascinating, especially when she suggests we should “look to chaos and complexity theory as touchstones for contemporary aesthetics,” I don’t purposefully construct fractal poems—i.e. I’m not an adherent to her methodology—and Colorless was not constructed in this manner.

I do, however, wonder about how each sentence fits into the community of sentences that encompasses the text. If you think about a text as a community of sentences, then you can think about each sentence as a citizen in that community. One citizen can’t express the totality of a shared community, but nevertheless, one citizen does reflect similar (inherited and simulated) cultural values, behaviors, beliefs, dreams, and characteristics. For example, I can’t possibly encompass the entire concept of America. I can’t even encompass my local community here in Clintonville, Ohio, even though I share the experience of living in these communities, am part of these communities, and help to construct these communities. Individually, I believe each sentence in Colorless contributes to both the heterogeneity and homogeneity of the text, same as how each citizen contributes in a community. I also believe each sentence both represents aspects of the text and differentiates itself from the text, same as how citizens both reify and reject aspects of their community.

BUTLER: In some way, some of the tone is a mishmash of what seems like an instruction manual, and a series of observational reports, some of which, in another way, seems like a great long apology for the present and the future at once. A philosophical spit up of “what the fuck have we done?” Do you consider this a political document? A personal document? Is this a document?

HIGGS: I am resolutely apolitical: I don’t believe in politics and I abhor the use of politics or the application of political theory in literature. Art is art because it is useless. As soon as art becomes useful it becomes decoration or propaganda or something else other than art. A good analogy would be sex. As soon as sex becomes useful it becomes procreation. To say that a piece of writing should have a purpose or should be about something or should convey something or should do something is akin to saying sex should have a purpose, that sex should produce a baby. (Here we can see the connection between conventional realism and crazy fundamentalist Christians, not to mention product-obsessed capitalists.) I humbly disagree. For me, sex is valuable in-and-of-itself. Art, too, is valuable in-and-of-itself.

I really like your idea of Colorless as a philosophical spit up.

In terms of it being personal, I would say it is personal by virtue of being written by me. However, the content—which is always secondary to me—is completely fabricated. I revel in falsification. This whole notion of “honesty” or “truth” or whatever it is conventional realists find so appealing about “writing what you know” or “keeping it real” makes me gag. To me, the attempt to replicate reality in literature is as much of a complete waste of time as the last season of Battlestar Galactica. Mimesis is no more relevant today than bloodletting: you could do it, but why?

BUTLER: I found it interesting that you labeled and set off sections within the text. Did this occur as a series of creations that were then strung together? Or was it written as one long piece?

HIGGS: I sort of answered this in question #1, but what I left out was the fact that the final published version is significantly different than the original version I constructed and submitted to PGP. When I sent Colorless to Adam Robinson [Publishing Genius’s publisher] it was twice as long. Once he sent the proofs, or whatever they’re called, we looked at it and we both agreed it was too long. I chopped the hell out of it and rearranged the hell out of it. Some days I think I made the right choices, the right cuts, the right configurations; and some days I think I should have done it differently.

BUTLER: Please tell me about your creative process, how you approach the desk, how you sit at the desk, how long, what interrupts you, what you let in, what you do not let out while you are writing.

HIGGS: I write on my laptop, most of the time while listening to music. I only allow myself to be interrupted by my two true loves: Caitlin and Beatrice.

BUTLER: You are very concerned with music, can you tell me about the influence(s) of any music(s) on you during this period, or on the text directly?

HIGGS: Because the text was written in two different time periods, over the course of three years, I couldn’t possibly remember what I was listening to when. But I do know that the Wu-Tang Clan’s double disc album Forever has always been a source of inspiration. During the sessions of automatic writing that I mentioned earlier, I would listen to that album and attempt to ride the beats with my fingertips. Sometimes I need hip hop beats to fuel the words, sometimes I need abstract sounds like Meredith Monk or Sigur Rós, sometimes I need the calm of Erik Satie or Glenn Gould.

BUTLER: Please tell me about the title, a Noam Chomsky quote, and how it spoke to you as the leader for the text, how you came across it?

HIGGS: The Deleuzian in me loathes Chomsky’s grammatical hierarchies. But he is certainly one of those thinkers I see as a productive adversary. If you watch or read the Chomsky/Foucault debate you can see what I mean.

Straight away, I should admit that my main areas of research are experimental literature and critical theory. I am not a linguist nor have I received formal training in the field of linguistics. What knowledge I have acquired on the subject comes from independent inquiry, which is my way of saying that I approach this subject as an armchair enthusiast. To shed some light on my position vis-à-vis generative grammar (i.e. Chomsky) I’ll briefly point out two (of the many) issues I find particularly problematic. First, generative grammar is predicated on the binary assumption of Either/Or: a sentence is either correct or incorrect. To this I would counter with Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of a rhizomatic grammar predicated on multiplicities engendered by the binary Both/And. I should think this distinction would be particularly appealing to anyone in the creative arts. Either/Or is limiting and creates negation. Both/And is open and

creates affirmation.

Second, the “generative” aspect of generative grammar refers only to the surface structure of a given system, based on the assumed existence of an inalterable deep structure. In essence, what Chomsky’s generative grammar proposes is a finite system of possibilities (again, a limiting approach), which is to say that difference, according to Chomsky, is a superficial attribute. AsDeleuze would argue, difference is not merely cosmetic; difference is the constitutive element of individualized assemblages.

Aside from those two issues, the title just felt right from the beginning because the project for me was about form, about grammar, about syntax, about exploring the interstitial landscape between sense and nonsense. I wanted to see how far I could push a sentence before it broke, before it lost all semantic value—which is something I’m not sure is possible.

BUTLER: Please tell me about one (if any) of the things you have hidden in any one sentence here. A joke you might not have meant to be seen. Please let me see it?

HIGGS: After I read this question, I went back and reread the text to see if such a secret existed. I’m afraid I came up relatively empty. I think this is because I don’t write from myself or from my life, in other words I don’t code reality into my work. I begin with words as things, removed from personal connections of signifier/signified and proceed from there. But now that I’ve written that, I think maybe personal elements seep in: there is a repetition of smoking or attempting to quit smoking, which rings confessional. There is also an overwhelming sadness and loneliness in the text, which I suppose could describe my years in Nebraska (save the companionship of my super cool brother, Matthew). But particular word-level or sentence-level secrets were not encoded purposefully.

BUTLER: How did you get involved with Publishing Genius, and how did it come about that you put Colorless out with them?

HIGGS: I actually learned about Publishing Genius when you published Pretend with them. I remember reading your chapbook and thinking how cool it was—I don’t think I’d read an e-chapbook before then. I went and read all of the other chapbooks Adam had published and loved the hell out of them.

Colorless was/is a section of a novel I have just completed, The Collected Works of Marvin K. Mooney. I knew I wanted to try and get more parts of the novel published before I went looking for a publisher, so I began to toy with the idea of pulling out sections and submitting them as chapbooks.

I went searching for potential places and when I read the Publishing Genius submission guidelines where Adam writes: “What is coherent? Why do we think we understand something while we think something else is nonsense?” I knew it would be the perfect place for Colorless. So I sent it to him and he dug it. We clicked right away. It was a great experience working with Adam. He’s smart, sincere, understanding, and truly invested in promoting innovative literature.

BUTLER: Why are chapbooks important? What is it about chapbooks that influenced your perspective of chapbooks or books as an enterprise separate from any other form of printing?

HIGGS: I think chapbooks in general are important because of the function they serve: bringing work to life that doesn’t necessarily fit in the profit-oriented framework of the publishing industrial complex. I like the ethos of chapbooks. They feel anarchic to me.

I think the specific chapbooks that made me go “whoa! chapbooks are awesome!” are the ones that Octopus put out a few years ago to commemorate their eighth issue. The designs were amazing, the artifact itself felt good to hold, and the diversity of poetry was killer.

BUTLER: How do you see the future of electronic texts and the work of ebooks/echapbooks in relation to traditional print distribution?

HIGGS: This is tricky for me because I am in academia. For academics, the internet is considered (at best) a second-class citizen. Internet publications don’t matter, don’t count, and are not considered prestigious by any measure. Academia seems only to care about centers of established credentials, which, at this point in history are predominately in the print medium. As a member of academia I am forced to play by their rules, to publish work in “respectable” journals, if I wish to advance my career.

That said, as a writer I am all about electronic publications. The number of people who read work online far outnumber those who subscribe to literary journals. (This is one big disconnect between academia and “real life”) Also, I believe the prestige aspect will come for electronic publications when the generation of people who grew up on the internet rise to power. As it stands, the establishment is skeptical of the internet like how any old person is skeptical of any newfangled thing.

BUTLER: You also curate an e-museum-esque blog that documents some of the web’s most interesting art/media/texts/oddities/etc. What made you begin this blog, and how do you come across the items you feature, as in: what draws you to the pieces or kinds of pieces that you include on Bright Stupid Confetti? How does BSC influence your writing?

HIGGS: Wow, this question could be its own interview! I’ve been doing BSC for maybe four years now? It is something I look forward to every day, but I’m not sure it influences my writing any more or less than any other aspect of my life.

BUTLER: The response so far to Colorless has been interesting, in that certain people have made a point to express befuddlement with it, in the face of so much other potential texts, and yet many others also have expressed a wonder in that befuddlement. Would you talk about, perhaps, the experience of writing such a challenging text as this one and the way your level of expectation of its reception has met with the actual reception, and perhaps even talk some about the community of writers/readers that seems to have burgeoned among certain strands of the internet?

HIGGS: This is a big and troubling question. Obviously, I wish more people would dig what I’m doing, but I feel like people who respond negatively or who respond with befuddlement do so because of their conditioning. I don’t blame readers as much as I blame Aristotle. He is my chief enemy because he is responsible for establishing the conditions from which contemporary readers approach literature, whether they know it or not. When a reader fails to engage a text, any text, one of the primary reasons is because they have determined the text to be lacking in some aspect of what they believe a text “ought to be.” So at a very basic level, it has to do with assumptions.

Just look at the concepts people use to discuss literature, especially what is called fiction: the necessity of a protagonist/antagonist, the necessity of conflict, the necessity of a beginning, middle, and end, the necessity of unity of time, place and character, the necessity of moderation of excess and deficit, etc. These all come from Aristotle (see: Poetics, Rhetoric, and Nicomachean Ethics). Readers assume a text should contain these elements for no other reason than because Aristotle told them they should (or more likely because a teacher indoctrinated them with these values). My claim is that although these beliefs have become doxa, they are not evidence of truisms nor are they proof of necessary conditions for literature. They are simply outmoded beliefs that need to be reevaluated.

Colorless is an attempt to take up this challenge.

BUTLER: Here’s a funny/unfunny one: why do you write?

HIGGS: I write because I had an amazing high school teacher named Diane Panozzo who encouraged me.

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Going Home: A Horror Story
A Chapbook by Lawrence Millman
sunnyoutside, 2009
28 pages. 5″ x 7″, hand-stitched binding
First edition of 200
$8
ISBN-10: 1934513156, ISBN-13: 978-1934513156
Reviewed by Tobias Carroll

The subtitle of Lawrence Millman’s Going Home is a giveaway that the title’s implied homecoming will be an unsettling one. Further confirming that there might be a more unconventional sensibility at work here is the cover’s central image, a trope of Gothic fiction: the bathtub, shower head poised to strike. But is “horror” too strong for what follows? Millman’s story does traffic in horror, albeit of a (mostly) emotional variety, but “terror,” the sort of stomach-wrenching reaction that can only arise from interactions with those closest to you, might be more apt. That Going Home’s protagonist, Peter, is a writer of horror fiction adds a slightly metafictional level to the events described here, that is, a bleakly comic account of a family’s last surviving members meeting, a family whose dysfunction is epic in scale.

Outlining Going Home’s plot is best done in the leanest of fashions. To describe the story’s action any more is inherently problematic. Millman’s construction here is tighter than one might initially expect, and an easily overlooked detail in the first third turns out to factor significantly in the story’s denouement. In terms of its style, Going Home awkwardly straddles between anxiety-ridden psychological realism and a much more stylized sense of dark comedy. This tension works in a section depicting Peter’s football-hero brother’s adversarial relationship with their mother’s parakeet Pretty Boy. But sometimes the stylization seems out of place; the monstrous is rendered in slapstick terms. This is most evident in how Millman fashions Peter’s father, treats his predilections and fate. The stylization seems out of place, rendering the monstrous in slapstick terms.

Later in the story, Peter tells his mother: “I was cut out to be a horror writer almost from the cradle.” Given what we learn of his history, this seems fair—but it’s Peter’s work as a writer that is least explored in this story. We learn of his fears and anxieties, receive thumbnail summaries of a few of his novels, and even, at story’s end, learn a bit about his working methods. But at the same time, the notion of someone with a horrific upbringing channeling that into horrific art seems overly self-conscious, something from which Going Home suffers on occasion. And when the implied wink of Peter’s recurring castration anxiety is considered along with his name, it detracts from the story’s dark tone.

Whether or not Going Home’s overall feel—a sort of cringe humor blended with Brass Eye-style pitch-black comedy—works for the reader will likely vary. Regrettably, some of Millman’s most skillful craft elements are used to set up an ending that utilizes a longstanding horror story cliché. And while Millman’s final words strive to shift the story’s tone from familial dysfunction to psychological confusion, the reversal lacks the space to resonate. The memorably, monstrously, screwed-up mother-son relationship at the core of Going Home deserves a more iconic conclusion than the one Millman ultimately supplies. That said, he does have an assured command of fictional anxiety as well as an unsettling skill at rendering intimate moments in ways to raise gooseflesh, both traits that make me hope that this won’t be Millman’s last foray into horror.

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How the Broken Lead the Blind
Chapbook by Matt Bell
Willows Wept Press, 2009
55 pages
Sold out

Reviewed by Sean Lovelace

I read this chapbook from Willows Wept Press twice. I generally don’t read things twice. I don’t watch movies twice (except Woody Allen films [early ones] and Caddyshack—I watch them over and over). I know a lot of humans post about how they read books two, three, fourteen times a day, etc., in between screenings of black and white Swedish indie films (gulls and waves crashing) and writing their memoir(s), and DJing off their Ipod, but not me.

I got disc golf practice.

[I am hungry now. What should I eat?]

A mortgage (implies a house).

Why does the kitchen drain guffaw and sputter? Why does one bathroom smell like mottled banana, and the other like a waterfall? [Why can’t I eat that pink cotton candy that covers my attic?] Does anyone know how to make a flower live? I’m close to done with flowers. I’d rather landscape my mind with Dos Equis. My throat hurts like an economy. And: How do I use my programmable thermostat? It looks all neon and modern, but just blinks at me green, like E.T., or some bored cashier at a health food store.

A crushing existential crisis on my hands. Lots of night-thoughts. Dogs howling, or is that a siren? Etc.

So.

How the Broken Lead the Blind is obviously a drug.

No. You can not trade me a Cornish hen for that cough syrup. Get a hobby (I suggest bocce, or parkour.)

The title glitters and pulls like “a present wrapped in purple and gold.” (p. 35) I keep teaching my fiction students about titles and here is Matt Bell summarizing all I teach. Make your title a drug, people. Make it grab me by the subtropical Wendy, the rumbling Atlanta. Make it a metaphor umbrella, eclipsed and reddening. I went to the mailbox slightly drunk and pulled an envelope out of the mailbox and ripped open the envelope and Matt’s chapbook appeared. It bloomed there.

On the cover (by Christy Call) were two fucked up cranes. One of them looked like it stuck its neck into an episode of Will It Blend? Here is the one where they blend an Iphone.

I read the title of Matt Bell’s book and thought:

1.) This reminds me of a quote, I think Auden, wherein the evil of the world are motivated, speak out, actually act—as opposed to the peaceful, the good hearts, who keep quite, and therefore useless, in the big picture. Dictators as great speech-makers. Jim Jones. That idea. Or maybe that no one really feels or speaks with real conviction anymore. When is the last time you heard a speech with real conviction? Or gave one?

2.) Who are the blind? A Flannery O’ Connor (To the hard of hearing you shout, to the almost-blind you draw large and starling figures.) feel to the blind. Are we, as readers, the blind? Will our eyes be opened?

3.) This is the second time a Matt Bell story made its way into my skull and classroom. I have preached and preached for years to my students to GET-A-JOB! That’s the best advice for a writer. Get past the reality of the situation, behind the counter/the swinging door, into the kitchen, the stock room, the office, where all the insanity takes places. Get a job. Grab material and 34 bread sticks. Bring a notebook, or a memory cell.

An aside: Do all chefs smoke weed? I have worked in 3 restaurants and all the chefs smoked weed. Anyway.

[I wonder what is in my fridge. It is 11:30 and I am hungry. Do I have hot sauce?]

Matt wrote this gem about work, about PLACE: Alex Trebek Never Eats Fried Chicken.

*

This book can levitate.

How the Broken Lead the Blind has blurbs (see all here) the way War and Peace has characters (600 of them, if you are counting).

Matt must have many friends. Or at least compromising photos of many people. Also the writing is good, so that helps.

(If I gave a blurb I would have mentioned detachment. Characters seem to float. They want to communicate more fully, but cannot. Example (pubbed in Night Train). Very Chekhov in this way. I would have also used the word fuck in my blurb. I would just want to see if the word fuck could make it into the blurb, as genre question. Also I think I would have mentioned the obvious: this fucking book can levitate.)

William Walsh says, “Matt Bell is a maker of fine fictions.”

I like that: Maker. Fine Fictions. A fiction being fine as whole, complete, every word in its place, every sentence, to create a sensibility in the reader, to move me place to place, to hinge the text open, to work. Flash fiction as art, as science, as intricate machine.

When I say art of flash fiction I mean just this, a done thing. As in the right words. As in recipe—one more grain of salt, too much, one less, too bland. I think some of these flashes out-delect the others, out-born them–as if arrived formed and complete (all connotations), that word.

Example:

Surely, “How the Broken Lead the Blind until They Both Become Something Else Entirely” (Jesus, what a title!) is the best work in the chapbook. It flows, it blooms, runs forward like the endearing and rather remarkable blind woman, her seeing-eye dog, both on “new found running legs,” both “accidental artists” in their running free, acceleration and verve, embrace of possibility, of crash, of actual free-will-ness—finally.

Everything about this story is surprising, yet inevitable. A well-wrought thing, this art. That’s what I mean.

A close second in pure skill and quality is “Once She’d Been a Brunette.” Again, the words lead to their own world, create it, and the ending line (“She touches his hair with both hands and for just one moment she swears she can feel it flourishing, can feel the new cells pushing through the skin, like a springtime she’ll never see.”) is a fine example of epiphany (not an attempt, but the actual thing: the character brought to a state of enlightenment, a realization of significance).

Well done, Mr. Bell.

*

I am always one with an eye and admiration for structure, especially the organic form, the forms and functions of the world. Martone selects a travel guide. Mcphee uses a Monopoly board. Lorrie Moore an entire genre of pop culture writing as scaffolding for her fiction. Etc.

Matt does several interesting structural things here. “Ten Scenes from a Movie Called Mercy” uses the language of film, footage and jumpcuts and candlelight and tracking shot and wardrobe and high-angle somethings and symbolic use of music and/or guilt and frames-per-second and cellulose nitrate as highly flammable (note: there are many factoids scattered throughout this text, and I wish more writer’s would follow Bell’s example—I like to learn something new while I read [besides theme]).

In “Her Ennead” the author uses the technique of repetition to convey the utter absurd surprise of pregnancy, the awe and disequilibrium.

“Excerpt from Volume H-HN: Hair Boxes” (surely the strangest and freshest text in the entire chapbook) appropriates an encyclopedic voice, a hint of Barthelme (or do I dare say Borges?), as it weaves a human tale of odd construction. As the author writes, “In the end, an urge always proves too strong for the maker to resist.”

Sounds like writing, eh?

Chapbook as box of hair?

[I need nachos now, that’s it]

Yes. Images. Poetry.

Words. I said WORDS…“touching us one at a time until finally all of us are healed.”

Fuck yes.

There you go. “A laying on of fucking hands,” that’s what I would put in my blurb. Hey. You.

Consume.

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Molting

Chapbook by Aaron Burch
Mud Luscious Press, 2009
ISBN13: 9781161669060ISBN10: 116166906x
$2.00

Review by Andrew Borgstrom

reviewer (ri-ˈvyü-ər) noun – definition no longer in usage.

inability (ĭ-nə-bĭ-lə-tē ) noun – lack of sufficient ability by reviewer to write a review of Aaron Burch’s Molting without the review being longer than said story and wishing to just reprint Burch’s story here instead.

molt (mōlt) verb – to shed stuff, such as cuticle, feathers or skin, only to have it all come back again.

Molting (mōlt-ĭng) noun – a story where hands turn into birds while everything else remains normal.

penny (pe-nē) noun – 1. a girl whose hands turn into birds in Aaron Burch’s Molting. 2. a monetary unit used to purchase MLP chaps when multiplied by 200.

into (ĭn-tū) preposition – the condition or form of, as in, “MY HANDS ARE TURNING INTO BIRDS, Penny said.”

remarkable (rĭ-mär-kə-bəl) adjective – a description used when referring to the extraordinary nature of Aaron Burch’s Molting.

how (hau) adverb – in what manner, as in, “Do you know how to fold origami birds?”

origami (or-ə-ga-mē) noun – the art of folding paper into a representational shape of a bird.

chapbook (chap-buk) noun – the art of folding paper into a representational shape of a book.

wow (wau) interjection – used to express pleasure upon seeing origami birds or upon reading Aaron Burch’s Molting.

original (ə-rĭj-ə-nəl) adjective – archaic spelling of origami (apocryphal), as in, “BIRDS? CAN’T YOU BE A LITTLE MORE ORIGINAL?”

zero (zî-rō, zē-rō) noun – 1. the number of people who considered this a review. 2. the amount of literary pleasure experienced without Aaron Burch’s Molting.

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Only the Dead Know Albany

Poems by Alan Catlin
Sunnyoutside Press, August, 2008
ISBN 978-1-934513-11-8
5″ x 8″, chapbook
32 pages
$10

Reviewed by Kimberly King Parsons

The Drunkard’s Lingua Franca

“You see them everywhere,” begins Alan Catlin’s poem “Zombies for Loose Change,” from his collection Only the Dead Know Albany. Yes, we have seen junkies on the street, and yes, we have braced ourselves for each approach, each familiar plea. But the junkies in Catlin’s Albany are unlike any we have come across, for their language is not

a language of humility, nor

a poverty vow, not a language

at all, more an argot, polylingual,

self-referential, post-reason and

logic, knowing like an idiot

savant…

These zombies exemplify Catlin’s greatest strength, and the strength of Only the Dead Know Albany as a whole: to make everyday hardship heartbreaking.

For twenty-five years Catlin poured drinks at the Washington Tavern in Albany, New York. Twenty-five years commuting by bus, twenty-five years serving regulars at his well, and, most importantly, twenty-five years of astute observation go into this latest collection of poetry. Mining his day job for gems is nothing new for this 17-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Bartending has heavily informed much of his work, including Suffering Bastards (2008 Evil Genius Series winner), Short Shots, and Drunk and Disorderly: Selected Poems 1978-2000. Of course, Catlin’s reach extends beyond the bar—Effects of Sunlight in the Fog is a brilliant meditation on the artist’s relationship to his art—but Catlin, currently at work on a fictionalized memoir called Chaos Management, keeps going back to Albany.

Catlin’s Albany is rain-streaked and snow-glazed, a “city paralyzed / moving forward slowly on bent wheel rims.” These descriptions themselves are deliberate and unhurried, scenes that unfold from the window of a barely-moving bus. It’s an Albany made up of “side-alleys, cock-fought streets / buildings in / full flame.” An Albany populated by characters at once familiar and matchless, archetypes of the hard-knock life. In “Queen’s Gambit,” a “half-dead / teen angel” prostitute pulls out her wares, tells takers “how much

the full ride would

cost for a bareback

trip with frills…

As confining as they are confined, inhabitants of Catlin’s Albany are “double-parkers,

triple-parkers, placing bets, running

numbers, trading stolen goods in pawn

shops[,]

making it “impossible to / back out, impossible to navigate once / the lanes are blocked.” Authority only adds to the oppression—citizens bristle at the uselessness and hypocrisy of licensing procedures, contracts, BCI agents, social services. In “Civic Duty,” the democratic process is described as knowing “which lever to pull… the only one / that works is the Democratic Party line.” Once civic duties are fulfilled, the government provides voters with a wooden coin worth a free drink at participating bars. In Catlin’s Albany “all the bars / participate if they know what’s good for them.”

“While his characters tend to be tragic figures, Catlin does not wallow in a single morose register. In “Attention Earthlings,” a bum calls “God on his

spaceship from

a disconnected

public phone,

goes evil on you

when you refuse

to pony up fifty cents

for the righteous

cause of interstellar

communications…

Comedy is part of the barman’s bag of tricks—it’s a way of putting the drinker, or reader, at ease in a city where there is one bar “for each corner and / another in between for those who / can’t walk as far as block’s end.”

Catlin is at his best when he resists sentimentality and heavy landings, which, for the most part (“Underage” and the ending of “Queen’s Gambit” notwithstanding) he does. There is nothing experimental or surreal about Only the Dead Know Albany. Realistic observation of minor details and generally unnoticed gestures comprise the people and places in these poems, and this thematic and stylistic consistency makes the collection cohesive, even seamless. Scenes take place in the same cluster of bars; characters from different poems seem to collide in the streets after last call. In only 30 pages, Catlin manages to fully realize and populate an entire city of downtrodden people, their “eyes cloudy with want.” In spite of our better judgment, our instinct to keep our heads down and walk a little faster, Catlin’s zombies, drunks, prostitutes—in a word, derelicts—command our full attention, and compel us to take another look.

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Play

Pamphlet by Mathias Svalina
The Cupboard Pamphlet Series, 2009
36 pages
Tape-bound
$5.00
Book design by Todd Seabrook, Cover design by Randy Bright

Reviewed by Matthew Simmons

Growing up, on a bookshelf we had a dictionary-sized hardcover full of games and home art projects of the rainy day fun variety. Now it seems a pamphlet by the writer Mathias Svalina from The Cupboard will replace it—at least when I have children of my own. Play is a collection of prose poems, the formal conceit for each piece being that they are the rules for games available for children with nothing to do. From “Drop the Handkerchief (for 7 or more players)”:“Children must be taught not to play favorites. One child is born It.”

Svalina’s chosen an appropriate form, really. The games children play are passed on from child to child by word of mouth, much as poetry is an oral tradition that made its way onto the page as the written word evolved and spread. Children’s games start with a small group, rules bandied back and forth until they codify, go formal, concretize. Poetic forms, too. Svalina is a smart poet: he has taken advantage of this subtext. From “Rat & Cat (for 10 or more players)”: “One child is the Cat. Another is the Rat. The other children join hands and form a circle. At a given signal the Cat tries to catch the rat…No child likes the Cat. But one child must be the Cat.”

The function of a game played by children is to socialize them, move them from childhood to adulthood with the skills necessary to live in culturally acceptable ways. The function of Svalina’s games seems to be to socialize readers to poetry. And poetry, it has always seemed to me, is a way to embrace the culturally unacceptable—the absurd, the surreal, the nonsensical, the beautiful. Everything that is not in any way useful or pragmatic. Everything that makes life good.

From “Jiggle the Handle (for 2 players)”: “One child is the hunter & one child is the knife. One child is the ocean & one child is the sliver of metal stuck in the pad of the thumb. One child screams with pleasure & one child holds a heat-flaccid candle. One child bears the pain & one child stares at the spinning rims on a shiny Toyota…”

Play plays with its readers like that—in “Jiggle the Handle,” clear is the relationship between hunter and knife, but harder to unpack is the one between ocean and sliver of metal in the pad of the thumb. Play also mines the psychologically rich language and rules of games: “One child is born It.” Children stand in a circle, hold hands, keep some within, some without. The songs are call and response.

It’s a madcap little book, by turns funny and disturbing. And though merely 30 odd pages, Play is deep enough for multiple readings. The language is direct and conscious of its rainy day fun book ancestry, but the games are surreal, impossible. Svalina is an artist at play in the fields of his imagination, at play with language on the page, at play with reader expectations, and it gives the book a light tone—at least on the surface. Deep within, though, the darker, id-driven, sometimes narcissistic side of childhood lurks. And it is the way one’s reading of these very different tones, the shuttling back and forth between very different themes, that makes Play more than an exercise in forms, but instead a really remarkable book.

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Play

Pamphlet by Mathias Svalina
The Cupboard Pamphlet Series, 2009
36 pages
Tape-bound
$5.00
Book design by Todd Seabrook, Cover design by Randy Bright

Reviewed by Andrew Borgstrom

Mathias Svalina intimidates me. I’m scared to review his book. When we were kids, Svalina came up to me on the playground and said, “Yo, Borgy, I bet my words could beat up your words.” I didn’t say anything back because he was right. My words had run out on me. I was raised in a single-word home. I used to watch Svalina from under the slide on the playground, except I didn’t really watch him because Svalina made me wear a box on my head. Svalina told me I was playing a game called “I See You.” He told me the game was for one player.

Svalina had a thousand of these games. Well, like twenty-nine of them, but for a kid, well, that’s just about a thousand. I remember Svalina’s “Hide-&-Go-Seek.” He said, “The weakest children will close their eyes & will return home where they will never be allowed to open their eyes again.” Svalina wasn’t really a bully. He just had these powerful words that turned into games that turned into who we were. Like his game “Everything Costs $20.” When he explained the rules to that game, I thought he was telling the other kids about my life. I wanted to tell Svalina to shut up, but my words, well, you know. So I wanted to hit him, but I had no limbs because Svalina taught me how to play “Making the Jam” the week before.

When Svalina wasn’t telling us how to play games, he was telling us all the fancy things his words could do. He told us he could make words stand on their heads. He could make words wear boxes on their heads. I said, “What?” Svalina said, “Shut it, Borgy.” Svalina said one day he would put all his words in the cupboard. Well, not all of them, but thirty-two pages worth of them. He told us we hadn’t seen anything like these cupboards. The outside of the doors were painted green, the insides were wallpapered with bumblebees, and the hinges were covered in decorative black. I could picture the hinge beautifully.

That’s when Svalina told me the rules to “I See You.” He said, “Each child is beautiful when still inside the box.” Then he ran off with the other kids to play “Bury the Shards of the Broken Light Bulb Where No One Will Ever Find Them.” When I could no longer hear Svalina, I took the box off my head. I was ugly again. I ran home. It took years. When I got there, I found an email from John Madera. John wanted to know if I’d review Svalina’s book Play. It was the newest installment from The Cupboard. I told John I’d do it, but I knew John doesn’t read the reviews; he just checks the word count. So I’m not reviewing your book Svalina. “The game ends when there is only one child left.” This time I win. What do I win?

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Pocket Finger

E-chapbook by Ryan Call. Illustrations by Christy Call.
Publishing Genius, 2008
20 pages

Reviewed by J.R. Angelella

A World Utterly Dissected

When I finished Pocket Finger I disliked it. Technically, all the basics were in place (characters, story, setting and so on) but so many nagging questions remained unanswered: Why did this story disregard classic literary standards of conflict and situation? What significance do these seven sections hold? Why this story paired with these pictures? Why does passivity prevail in the prose? How is this story intended to be read—real or surreal? What are these characters’ motivations? Why should I care?

But don’t despair. Like the father in this story, I, too, changed.

Pocket Finger is the tale of a brother and sister of young but indeterminate ages living with their parents: a sick mother and a possibly insane father. Told in seven numbered sections, it’s set in a dreary nameless place of overwhelming poverty. The story centers on the father fishing for food to feed the family and hording found objects. According to the kids, the father believed that “by stacking the world around him, he could somehow control it, keeping us safe.” The mostly bedridden mother suffers from seizures, and the children act mainly as the eyes of the story, never engaging in forward action, but instead stand still and passive.

As the sections continue, the father’s desperation builds (desperation about what we are never sure), before he acts out like a nutbag: contorting his body on the front lawn in various incredible positions and randomly appearing one morning hairless and burned. But perhaps most disturbing is when we find the father fishing, using deboned fingers as bait:

My sister and I looked down into the jar to discover slick masses of bloody fingers: long, gnarled fingers; short, rotten fingers; the stubbiest, fattest fingers we had ever seen . . . pale, pinkish fingers, perhaps from children no larger than ourselves . . . fingers with nails gnawed down to the quick. And upon one finger we saw the golden glint of a simple ring, an odd, startling delight in all that gore.

Wait, it gets better.

The father ratchets up the crazy by cutting himself into individual body parts. “He looked like a different man, a man broken apart by forces beyond his control.” But the father has no monopoly on madness. With the sister taking care of the mother (still suffering the effects from a recent seizure), the brother breaks off one of the father’s fingers and keeps it in his own pocket:

I . . . put it in my pocket to celebrate the only way he had ever loved me: the beckoning finger, the shaking finger, the magic finger, the pointing finger, the goose finger, the shaking finger, the trigger finger, the walking finger, the puppet finger, the tickle finger, the double-jointed finger, the lightswitch finger, the finger pressed to the soft pulp of my trembling lips.

This is how the story ends.

Words like gothic, ethereal, and savage are immediate and easy hot-button words to describe a story like this, but the questions of conflict and situation plagued me. The language: spare and elegant. The pictures: desperate and deeply disturbing.

Aesthetically, the prose crawls around the edges of the drawings—a call-and-response of direness-to-salvation. The distorted, nightmarish images are the sad sketches of a serial killer, something one might find scribbled on the exposed brick of an abandoned basement.

But still I was unsatisfied. The story felt bigger somehow. Deeper.

Could this be my problem? Was there something in the way?

So I re-read the piece, examining and dissecting the e-chapbook form, in this case a short story with illustrations, for answers.

Then, I got it—an adult picture book.

I trolled the borders and boundaries, examining the Shel Silverstein-on-Ambien art and Ray Bradbury-on-absynthe prose. And the structure came into focus. The minimalist drawings evoke the text’s desperation by focusing on distorted body parts: fingers, heads, chests, legs, and hands. This theme of disfiguration and deformation plays not only to the text’s literal representation, but also to the deeper examination of family: the power, position, and placement of parents and children in a fractured world.

Pocket Finger is not just about amputated fingers. Nor is it using the theme of self-dismemberment as socio-economic commentary on middle America. Here the real rules of the literary world do not exist. Pocket Finger is not a love story or a character study. It is not an examination of dementia. It is not a metaphor for poverty. Character motivation and story morals are unnecessary. Mainstream story structure complete with dénouement is completely irrelevant.

Instead, this story is allegorical in the most absurd sense.

Even more, this story wails.

This story pleads.

This story moans for familial forgiveness.

It insists to survive.

These characters function, but barely. They are dysfunctional—a family on the brink. But a shift occurs. The story breaks from literary convention, shying away from the clichés of insanity and rests solely on the idea of survival. The Call’s depiction of dismemberment is an existential exploration of the self, its interiority and territory. The father, out of shame and failure, breaks his own life apart. For his children. For their future. There is an honesty and serenity in this work, something I incorrectly read as mere circumstance. To understand a unique work of art, one must first understand the rules of engagement. War and Peace cannot be compared to The Old Man and the Sea. Nor should they.

Sometimes a story mugs you in an alley and all it leaves behind are questions.

The questions raised by Pocket Finger will never be answered and, frankly, if they were, the answers would offer no meaning. This story distills the frill and folly of fancy prose down to bones, revealing a world of desolation, yes, but with light off in the distance. This story sticks like gum under a shoe. Haunts like a grandmother’s attic. Cuts like broken glass. Chases like a hunting dog. Relentless. Obsessive. At some point, surrender is the only option.

These characters are survivors; this story, their conflict. Each has a handicap. Each has a demon. But each has the need to survive in a world utterly dissected.

My initial dislike Pocket Finger had nothing to do with the story, but with the sick pit it left inside me. It is a devastating story. And yet that devastation is just another word for redemption. The unanswered questions, the overall lack of mainstream story structure and action, the absurdist twists and turns—leave them be. This story has the most important element of classic structure: a hero takes a journey. The journey? A hint of the religious—a selfless act of violence for salvation, for redemption, for the possibility of hope.

So what is the point of it all?

Break it down to build it up better.

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Poolsaid

Web Chapbooks by Shya Scanlon

The Literary Review Series #3

Reviewed by Nicolle Elizabeth

*“This Mortal Coil”

Shya Scanlon’s Poolsaid has more layers than a DeKooning painting. The trick with DeKooning is in how he throws the paint, the matter is the matter, and therein lies the depth: in addition to the depth within the subject and the subject coming through within the paint. A lot of pink on the right, some royal blue up on the left. In goopy, sticky strokes, thin lines slicing a breast, an inhale. An exhale and a splatter. Or maybe that’s just me seeing people in paint, I don’t know. Poolsaid breathes an unequivocal, intentional understanding of the female psyche, more specifically, a realistic rendition of a woman battling cancer. Everybody’s a meanie in Poolsaid—despicably human and unforgivingly self-centered, unforgivingly self-absorbed, forgivingly miserable. DeKooning showed us you can throw it any way that you want. Scanlon bravely walks the line between confessional meditations and “airing dirty laundry,” almost runs the risk of being exploitive, by his subject matter alone: a chapbook about a woman who has had a masectomy, is self-medicating and ignoring her children, could be seen by some as a magic show, but it’s not. Well, it is, in the best way possible. As a woman and as a woman who (sometimes publicly) deals with a very private illness, I’m going to say this: Shya spiritually conjured what it can be like to be a person dealing with an illness in a very true, raw, real and intensely delicate and elegant way. In a chapbook world of first person characterless characters, Poolsaid is an indictment of the American family, and of existential longing through self-deprivation of love. Or perhaps, it is a portrait of a “Mother” character who loves her children so much that she cannot bear to love them more, knowing she is dying. The work is reminiscent of William Gay’s “Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You?” (Tin House, 2006) in which a character loves a woman so intensely he feels he must kill her, and then does, and then digs her back up, and the last sentence is something like, “he just feels more deeply than the rest of us.” Here, Scanlon has given us the “Mother” whose combination of longing for life and intense love and hatred of her children and self are a catalyst for her greater problem, which the pool in the work works as a gorgeous metaphor for. The woman is an alcoholic and her family is underwater, drowning in their own square of familial community, while losing a battle to cancer. Poolsaid begs for a matriarch and gives us a deliciously evil, drunk, mortal character, and I just love the damn thing. Secondary characters are tortured throughout the narrative. In a moment of quiet after chaos bone chillingly real, a Cassandra-esque daughter, a wrestling father, an asking son, all taxing to and ignored by the Mother—a whirlpool of want. Poolsaid begs the American family to stop asking why in the wrong direction and start asking why in the right one. And the word choice throughout the work is just gorgeous. “‘I’m minding,’ she reminds.” Scanlon repeatedly uses devices and techniques like blue plastic tarp to house the subtext in such a refined way I felt like reading the work aloud, and when I did, found myself spitting Scanlon’s indictment all over the room. His masterful use of consonants is wherein the keys to the Emerald City lay. A skeleton map in fluorescent arrows pointing toward the truth. Parallelism remixed, chopped, screwed and abbreviated: “Mother, left behind. Mother, envy of another month.” Alliteration building as the intensity of the narrative rises, high tide, full moon, at this family’s pool: “Her fresh face falls, but suffers home along that bright abuse of arm. Mother pops one snapped back pill, and swallows. “Mommy, please.” “Am I, dear?” Mother says.” Scanlon’s ability to maintain this sort of intensity would be diabolical were it not for the inarguable touchdowns of heartbreaking want: “I must have missed something,” Mother says. The how-to. The the.” It doesn’t feel like Shya’s “beating up” this woman, it feels like he’s giving millions of them a voice.

*“This Mortal Coil” is a song by the Cocteau Twins

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Talking Man

Chapbook by Mike Heppner
Small Anchor Press, November 2008 (2nd, trade edition)
32 pp, $7.00

Reviewed by Josh Maday

At first glance, Talking Man by Mike Heppner is about a boy humoring his father’s rambling attempt at a life lecture about expectations and disappointment, and how he looks away, staring at the kids next door playing in their back yard, while his mother slaves away in the kitchen. However, Heppner quickly weaves a vision of contemporary family dysfunction, showing how there is always another layer, another thread to the story. Through ten-year-old Jim Stebbin’s eyes we see that although highly educated, successful, and wealthy, his family is falling silently apart.

Without being heavy-handed, Heppner poignantly handles the hypocritical, dubious, and self-serving way that adults often address children. An art teacher’s praise of Jim’s “wonderful use of color” and “keen eye for details” prompts his dad to tell Jim how it is, how one should not take frivolous praise seriously. Stebbins seems like a guy who rarely emerges from his own orbit to engage his family, one who can’t handle someone else being praised, even his son, and so intends to put him in his place. Awkwardly, instead of talking to his son, he keeps talking about himself instead. Heppner addresses both parental hypocrisy and the difficulty parents often have negotiating a relationship with their own children. The opening of the story, for example:

And I want you to know I’m saying this because I love you and I care about you and I want you to do well—in life, that is. I want you to do well in life. See, you can tell I’m no good at talking like this. I’m much more comfortable around people my own age. I’ve always tried treating you like a little adult, and maybe that’s wrong of me. Maybe that’s bad. Maybe I should make goo-goo faces and talk down to you like some parents, but that’s not my style. That’s not how I do business. Your mother can tell you, I’ve never been comfortable around children. The truth is I don’t like kids much, which is why I prefer thinking of you as a young adult.

And so Heppner builds the reader’s first impression of Mr. Stebbins. While presumably addressing the meaning of the teacher’s praise, Jim’s father continually gravitates back to talking about himself. Although a professor with a PhD, he is a frustrated would-be author and a failure as a husband, and was recently overlooked for a promotion. He says, “You may not realize this—we don’t talk about it much at the dinner table—but I’m one of the world’s foremost experts on theoretical aerodynamics.” Statements slipping through like this make it clear that Jim’s father is hoping to at least not fail at being a father, though he suspects he may already have done that.

Heppner does not create a straw man, however, but rather a complex character. The more Stebbins talks, the more he reveals his hurt, resentment, and fear about all of his failures. He’s obviously self-absorbed, but he’s also a conflicted man-child for whom life seems to have been a bitter disappointment especially since he was dethroned from a borderline incestuous oedipal childhood game he and his mother had played:

You never knew my mother, but I suppose you’ve got a little of her in you. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, so she focused all of her attention on me…We had a little routine where I’d sit in my play chair, which she’d painted gold to look like a throne, and she’d bow to the floor and ask “His Royal Highness” what His orders were for the day, and I’d wave my tinfoil scepter and bap her on the head with it, and we both had a great time doing that for years and years. My father didn’t see the humor in it. I seem to remember calling her “my servant girl,” which was part of the joke. This went on until I was grown and out of the house. Not the throne and scepter part—we gave that up around high school.

Throughout Talking Man Heppner carefully molds his characters, brings the nuance of their humanity into focus. There are moments when Jim’s father makes potentially devastating value judgments about him. For instance, when finally getting back around to talking about the teacher praising Jim’s artwork: “I’ll be honest. I’m just not seeing the glow.” While it’s clear that he wants to impart some wisdom to his son that will help him avoid repeating his father’s midlife disappointments and to be successful in life, he just keeps fumbling.

Heppner’s choice of third person narrative enables him to weave together the many threads of perception, giving the story more texture than if it were limited to Jim’s first person point of view. Like most children of crumbling marriages, Jim finds himself in the middle of everything, able to observe the mess from many angles, and Heppner captures this by mimicking Jim’s attention drift, with each paragraph shifting around the cycle, from Jim’s father’s monologue to his mother in the kitchen to the neighbor kids in their back yard to his memories of all of these.

Heppner also touches on some forms of class division, notably parent/child, scientist/artist, as well as strata of intellectual ability and accomplishment. The most overt example is how Jim’s parents underestimate his intelligence the way most kids are underestimated by adults. Jim’s dad is aware of this tendency, and yet, despite his conscious attempt not to “talk down” to Jim, he still does it: “Artists are wonderful, amazing people—painters, sculptors, musicians . . . well, you know what an artist is. I don’t need to tell you what the word means.” Sure, Jim doesn’t know everything: he certainly doesn’t quite understand Scott and Randy, the two brothers next door, being an only child and “having trouble decoding the language of siblings,” but he can at least see that his own family is no happier than Scott and Randy’s next door, even though his “reading scores were much higher than theirs.” And their parents are “deadbeats,” a word he seems likely to have learned from his parents.

Heppner artfully frames the reader’s perception and interpretation and then reverses and complicates them both without breaking the flow of the narrative, making this short story rich and complex, keeping the reader thinking about the story long after the last line. When Jim finally gets his chance to talk, the tremendous power and responsibility of this act becomes clear. And while his mother prepares dinner, she seems like the good mother, the victim of an egomaniacal husband. However, once she’s drunk a few glasses of wine, she has same difficulty as her husband trying to connect and talk with her son. She admits that cooking new spicy food all the time is mostly an attempt to give Mr. Stebbins indigestion. Her hurt and resentment are also glaringly apparent. It’s no wonder Jim can’t help looking away at the neighbor boys “roughhousing,” or daydreaming about a religious sect, the meaning of their vow of silence, and what it might mean to breach that promise. Jim thinks about the word “roughhouse”: “‘Roughhouse’ was another of those words that sounded made-up. At some point there had been a house where things got rough, and that’s where the word came from.”

Talking Man operates on many levels, tells many stories: it is the story of a typically dysfunctional family where the parents make silent war never realizing that they are being recorded by their child’s acute senses; it is the story of a boy fathered by a man who is still a little boy; it is a case of every worldly advantage still not adding up to greater happiness; it is the inability to be supportive of others’ successes when we ourselves feel unfulfilled; it is cultivating a façade, a game face, while underneath we are nursing our wounds or dreaming of another life; it is the inability to really communicate despite torrents of words. Heppner weaves a kaleidoscopic narrative of varying voices, mirroring perfectly the complex dynamic that connects each person within the inextricable tangle of family and human relationships.



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