A MELTING: Vouched Presents (+ The Rumpus + Omni Commons!)

19 Mar


 Our favorite literary angels, Mike Young and Luke Bloomfield are in town for their Western Snowmelt Tour!

In a related story: TONIGHT Vouched,  The Rumpus, and Omni Commons are throwing them a party! Featuring readings from people we love, a Vouched table full of new goodies, and a Very Serious Contest, wherein you stand to win a book-prize from the Rumpus! As usual, there will be donuts.



This is a FREE event with readings by:

Mike Young

Jayinee Basu

Na’amen Tilahun

Leora Fridman

Luke Bloomfield

We can’t wait to see your faces at 7pm! Confetti!

The Rumpus is a place where people come to be themselves through their writing, to tell their stories or speak their minds in the most artful and authentic way they know how, and to invite each of you, as readers, commenters or future contributors, to do the same. What we have in common is a passion for fantastic writing that’s brave, passionate and true (and sometimes very, very funny).

The Omni Commons is comprised of several Bay Area collectives with a shared political vision—one that privileges a more equitable commoning of resources and meeting of human needs over private interests or corporate profit. We invite you to join us in establishing a safe, productive place to pool resources for the collective use and stewardship of the greater community. A space that fosters an ethic of radical collaboration across disciplines and between individual collectives, creating a living model for future radical spaces.

Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1558927211044106/

Pop Quiz: The Book of Joshua by Zach Schomburg

17 Mar

The Book of Joshua 02j

Answer the following for Zach Schomburg’s The Book of Joshua.

The experience of reading the poems in the first section of The Book of Joshua, “Earth” feels like:

  • It’s hard to know what’s hell or not
  • Hearing the hum of refrigerators when none are present
  • Listening to your voice on an answering machine
  • Realizing words are tiny blue swans you can only hold awhile before they melt

While reading The Book of Joshua it’s most important to know:

  • The years are not really years
  • “I am not/ you you/ are not me” is the “message” of language
  • This is only further proof of your badness
  • Blood will float a boat as well as water

In “Mars,” the second section of Zach Schomburg’s The Book of Joshua, we see which theme explored?

  • Estrangement
  • Estrangement
  • Estrangement
  • Estrangement

Reading The Book of Joshua feels like:

  • Being called the wrong name for your entire life
  • Listening to a recording of yourself sleep
  • There will soon be a difference between sadness and suffering
  • Scrubbing blood off a horse

The significance of titling the final section of The Book of Joshua “Blood” is:

  • The blood of a poem is words
  • There is no such thing as a “body”
  • The difference between correlation and causation is language
  • A telephone ringing behind a locked door

Review: Rag by Julie Carr

16 Feb


Julie Carr’s fifth book, Rag, is a book characterized more by the way that it looks than what it looks at. Rag is more about the process of contextualization itself than staging a context for the meditations or anecdotes of a cohesive “I” “behind” or “outside of” the text. Carr wants a poetry that is atmospheric—not the dictation of an imaginary I, but rather a glimpse of the network of exchanges that I participates in. As Carr writes in the opening poem, “One’s body is in response” (11). Rag is a book of self-abandon, but not in the terms we usually think. Carr forfeits a cohesive self to see the larger strictures—such as gender, race, narrative, and memory—inside which a self is structured.

In Rag, this self-abandon as abandoning the self is a desire to diffuse back into the larger law from which the self first demarcated. For a speaker to exist, she must be defined as “other than.” This difference is what makes her subject to the law (which guarantees intersubjectivity) but simultaneously makes her blind to it (since “she” is a product of—not a participant in—these exchanges). In Rag, the speaker becomes negative space, a kind of absence the text can fill. Car writes:

 To my own face with its endless changes endless sameness its eyes

I said no. I wanted to be a hole. In the road, the garden

Dust across my keys, sugar in my teeth, to the jaw of the bus driver as I boarded the bus

I said no. Today I will not remove the isolated hair from my basin. Not figure

Some cleaner end (83)

By relinquishing subjective cohesion, the speaker in Rag becomes extra-narrative. Causality becomes less clear as everything moves from order to contiguity. The poems themselves are mimetic of this entropy as well. Rag moves between pages of fragments, frequently bookended by dashes, to long blocks of prose broken only by the margins.

And so Rag is a book of continual disruptions. A “thing” represents a closure as its “use” becomes solidified in the symbolic order. A new thing only becomes possible at sites of disjunction. Carr is not interested in “product” in the form of narrative, anecdote, ect… Rather, Carr wants the static of thought before it reaches a symbolic channel. Carr writes:

And we with eye averted sat by the crying woman. Resting elbows on our knees in a posture of care/disregard. Just as on a plane a woman three rows back, seated between two suited men, suddenly began to sob—loud and unabashed, not othering to wipe her tears, not covering her face, just sitting staring forward, wailing like a baby. No one said anything. Not the men—one gazed out the window, the other continued to read his screen as if nothing—not the attendants, who did not come. Now in heavy spring snow, a tree loses a limb. And we are glad—an opening where was a thing. Then she stops crying and her face clears to resemble the sidewalk beside the DMV. Without anything to create shade, anything at all, the people come and go— (18)

For Carr, the page is a pane of glass. She writes: “Between the law and the living being—the unnamable being with no nation—/ is a point of imbalance, steadied by no home/ Hanging from clouds, intricate environments I will come to miss/ You cannot stop time. Seeking paradise, invent glass” (46). The poems in Rag are a way into, gestures of looking and not things made.

The paradoxical goal of the self-abandon Carr’s speaker performs is that by removing herself from the symbolic equation and instead providing us with the hidden productive forces of individual conscious, she regains some measure of ownership of herself. Or, as Car more succinctly writes, “Whose theatre is it now?” (34). Car’s speaker exists in a kind of conscious-unconscious, an inverse of unconscious-conscious of an unexamined “I.” Unfortunately, the forfeit in both cases is a humanist version of a self-determined “I.” Car writes:

In the passivity of belonging to an order

she was the first disappearing term

The more others are heard the more she is lost

And drivers consider their destinations

consider their destination to be worthy (115)

The speaker of these poems exists in suspension, moving without destination between the ego and the larger symbolic network that both allows for and forecloses the possibility of its existence.

While all this may make the text seem laborious, Rag isn’t forced. Car keeps her philosophical investments while still creating moments of real lyric beauty. There’s something about Rag that feels as if the whole text is something overhead. Rag manages to be haunted by itself. Reading it feels like listening to it on a tape recorder, locked in room with no key.

Review: Everything Was Fine Until Whatever by Chelsea Martin

15 Jan



Everything Was Fine Until Whatever is a whacky and bizarre collection of poetry/flash fiction, artwork, and footnotes by Chelsea Martin. Martin writes about: a baby’s first words, which were “Obviously imported from China,” acronyms, a to-do list, and the reasons Martin writes poetry. I am amazed by the amount of content that Martin is able to fit in only 111 pages. On top of that, she starts her collection off with a letter to the reader where she states that she wants the reader’s life to become consumed with the idea of her. She ends it with a bold, and I mean bold, statement:

“I want this love for me to be our only talent, and I want you to eventually realize that it isn’t even adequate, and that I really deserve better.”

That line got me fired up for this collection. Martin isn’t afraid to push the reader around, and that’s absolutely wonderful. If her writing is any indication of the direction where new literature is headed, I am beyond excited. With just that one line Martin gives the reader the lens to the rest of the pieces. It heightened the stakes of everything. There were times where I felt like I shouldn’t be reading this collection because of that letter. I felt guilty for reading and enjoying it. I felt guilty because with that letter Martin creates a very delicate relationship between herself and the reader. I felt bad for loving the poems that I did because I felt like it would never be enough for her. It reminded me of a dysfunctional relationship between a disappointed parent and their child. No matter what the child did, no matter how much love the child professes it would never be enough for the parent. Martin plays with this relationship throughout her collection.

Throughout the collection Martin sprinkles in these microscopic footnotes that are treats for the reader. They can range from extreme emotional vulnerability to something like this: “I accidentally shat on a person once. There I said it.” Not only did the absurd footnotes balance what was happening on the page, but they feel like secrets being whispered to the reader. It creates a stronger connection to the pieces because the reader feels as if they knew something that wasn’t completely out in the open for everyone to see. Sort of like a sneak peek for a movie you’re really excited for. That strange battle over the emotions of the reader sealed my love for this collection.

The titles of her pieces just get stuck in your head and refuse to leave. Not only are they a bit wacky and funny, but they provide an additional lens for the reader. Some of my favorite titles include: “I’m writing about love because no one else ever has and because I’m wearing jeans that made my butt look good,” “I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I shouldn’t work in customer service,” and “Manipulation, Energy Drinks, and Time Travel.” Martin uses these titles to spark interest, but she also uses them as a way to mask a deeper takeaway through absurdity. In “Manipulation, Energy Drinks, and Time Travel,” the narrator talks about all of the things she is willing to do for someone:

“I’ll buy chocolate covered cherries and drop them into your mouth from skyscrapers as you unknowingly walk by. I’ll put my name on them somehow, so you know they’re from me. I’ll teach you Braille. Tongue Braille.”

That is a strong commitment to teach some person Tongue Braille. This piece talks about the hoops someone would go through for the person they loved. It was touching. The story goes on to talk about how the narrator would destroy other guys for the entertainment of the guy she’s talking about. She even makes the final leap and says:

“I’ll cancel Netflix, I don’t know why, but I swear to god I’ll do it.”

Martin does a fantastic job of masking these strong emotions of love behind absurd acts like canceling Netflix and dropping cherries from skyscrapers. That is one of the biggest strengths in her writing. She just takes these towering subjects like love, and breaks them down into these bite-sized chunks that she stitches into her own Frankenstein creature. Her voice is strong and sounds like someone in their early twenties going through life. To me her voice is becoming the brand for twenty something’s making their way through life. She is sporadic, heartfelt, sincere, and not afraid to spill herself for any and all to see. Something anyone struggling through their twenties would understand and connect with.

Everything Was Fine Until Whatever is Chelsea Martin’s debut collection. Through this collection she has asserted herself at the forefront of indie literature. She shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon. Her most recent collection Even Though I Don’t Miss You published through Short Flight/Long Drive can be purchased through Hobart.

Everything Was Fine Until Whatever can be purchased on Chelsea Martin’s website or the publishers’ Future Tense Books.

Strange Things Have Happened Here: Vouched Presents ( + The Rumpus + Fiction Advocate!)

3 Jan

We’re so excited to team up with The Rumpus, 826 Valencia, and Fiction Advocate TOMORROW for a night of fun readings from our favorite writers! It’s all your literary dreams come true, packed into San Francisco’s foremost Independent Pirate Supply Store.

Plus: a Vouched table full of new goodies (including freebies!) and a GUARANTEED ACCEPTANCE table. What does that mean? Come find out! It’s like the exact opposite of going home for the holidays!

Strange Things Flier image

Readings by:

Vladimir Kozlov

Maisha Z. Johnson

Siamak Vossoughi

Joshua Merchant

The Rumpus is a place where people come to be themselves through their writing, to tell their stories or speak their minds in the most artful and authentic way they know how, and to invite each of you, as readers, commenters or future contributors, to do the same. What we have in common is a passion for fantastic writing that’s brave, passionate and true (and sometimes very, very funny). http://therumpus.net/

Fiction Advocate is a litblog and micropress founded in 2009. http://fictionadvocate.com/

826 Valencia is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students ages six to eighteen with their creative and expository writing skills and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. Our services are structured around the understanding that great leaps in learning can happen with one-on-one attention and that strong writing skills are fundamental to future success. http://826valencia.org/

Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/682658425184925/

Best Thing I’ve Read Today: “Bulls-eye” by Jac Jemc and other good stuff on the Fanzine

4 Dec

The Fanzine, as usual, has been getting after it pretty hard: Jeff Alessandrelli’s essay about creating in Portland, OR — “what you ‘create’ is going to come down to not the city you live in but the extent of your own personal effort and investment in that effort.” And Daniel Beauregard’s intelligent thoughts on Harmony Korine’s 2009 film, Trash Humpers — “Korine’s film occasionally seems more akin to a series of found footage dreamscapes, void of any overarching narrative, but one can be found–a subtle narrative is threaded throughout Trash Humpers, and it comes together beautifully at the end.”

To go with all this goodness is Jac Jemc’s, “Bulls-eye,” the story of a lonely woman who attends a weekly Bingo night — “Phyllis waited for this night every week. She slogged through her schedule of television shows each evening, drifting off more often than not, left to dream about the resolution of each episode. Thursday nights, though, represented the climax of the week.”

What’s so impressive about this piece is how Jemc draws so much real emotion from Bingo, a game most of us would say is boring as shit to read about, but Jemc is bad ass and makes the readers feel the tension and subtle drama that can come with playing Bingo:

22 was her number and she would prove it. If she won, it was possible that she might avoid the vicious boiling down of her choices for an entire week. She might buy the nicer brand of decaf coffee at the store. She might treat herself to the full rack of ribs from the takeout place on the corner so that she’d have leftovers for lunch the next day. She might sift through the bin at the dollar store and pick out a new pearlescent pink nail polish to cover the white, hard ridges that had started showing up on her nails.

We can hear the creaking chairs in the Bingo hall (a church basement), feel the AC from the vents, hear the daubing of Bingo boards. Jemc makes us understand the protocol for behavior in the Bingo hall and gives us the collective emotion that develops as the game proceeds and how all of that can come to an end when somebody actually wins:

She was also equally embarrassed to call BINGO when it was a legitimate winner; a sadness accompanied the motion to ending a particular game, a sense of letting the rest of the group down, taking away the private hope of the others in the room to bask in her own singular success, one game closer to the end of the night.

Jemc provides a rich portrait of Phyllis, her town and her family while having Phyllis do little more than play Bingo and return home.

Check out more of Jac Jemc bad assness at her website. Buy her books, send her your love and baby teeth.

More Wreck More Wreck by Tyler Gobble

21 Nov

photo (8)

Like Dean Young and Mary Ruefle, Gobble takes words to the playground, earnestly indulging their whims and curiosities, keeping them close with his sincerity and language that changes shape as fluidly as shadow puppets.

More Wreck More Wreck by Tyler Gobble

Coconut Books

Awful Interview: Jon Irwin

14 Nov

This is Jon Irwin. He wrote a book about Super Mario 2 for Boss Fight Books, and has a lot of things to say about video games in general. He also happens to be reading at the Phoenix Festival today in Atlanta! You should come see!

Vouched: So Jon, you’ve written a book about Super Mario 2. Can we talk a little bit about the Princess in that game? Also, why Super Mario 2? Why not the RPG Super Mario and the Legend of the Seven Stars? Princess Peach fought with a frying pan in that one, which I find more than a little misogynistic. I’d love to hear your thoughts on that.


You want female stereotypes? Go play Super Princess Peach, a game for the Nintendo DS where the Princess finally gets her first starring role. Instead of running or jumping, she uses her “power of emotion” to defeat enemies. Specifically: Joy, Gloom, Calm, and Rage. If you activate her Rage power, she catches on fire (the better to burn up baddies). Use the Princess’s Gloom power and she begins to cry; the tears hit the ground and cause plants to grow, giving you platforms on which to jump and reach new areas. On one hand, the use of emotions as actual gameplay mechanic is rather brilliant and like no other game I’ve played. But then there’s the whole “self-immolation” thing and the depiction of women as overly emotional tear buckets. What’s that? Answer the first question, you say? Why yes, let’s re-focus our attentions…


Gabe Durham, editor and co-founder of Boss Fight Books, reached out to me after reading some of my game criticism and essays in Kill Screen’s print magazine and daily website. He was starting this new press inspired by the 33 ⅓ series, where an author writes a short-ish book about a single music album. He thought the same model would work for video games. So last summer, he got in touch with prospective authors and laid the groundwork for a Kickstarter campaign to help the press get off the ground. (A campaign for Season Two is taking place now.) I was the last author he contacted; he wanted a book focused on a big franchise, something mainstream and something most people, avid gamers or not, were familiar with. The Super Mario franchise is one of, if not the biggest one out there. But the first sequel for the NES also has a weird history and has always been thought of as an outlier in the series since it looks and plays so differently. I thought the game had an interesting story to tell.


Vouched: It certainly does! What are some other video games that you believe deserve a time to shine. You know, maybe ones from less heralded series? I’ve got a lot to say about the entire Kings Quest series, as well as Myst/Riven, Lunar Silver Star Story, and Chrono-Cross.


Oh man. There’s so many crazy-interesting games. Gabe’s press could run for a hundred years and still have ample and worthy subjects. I’d love to read a book about the Rhythm Heaven or WarioWare games. Each are made by the same studio, and each are bizarre, frantic, and surprisingly skill-based. Rhythm Heaven is centered on keeping time with music, and WarioWare is more about instinct and quick decisions. Both have this zany humor that is also very sweet, a marked difference between the cynical, sarcastic humor one sees in a lot of “funny” games. The creators clearly care about things outside of gaming culture, which shows in the musicianship and variety of visual influences, and I’d love to hear how something so rich and weird and unique to an interactive medium (WarioWare could never be a film; the audience would go into epileptic fits) gets made.


I think video game culture is rife with fascinating stories to tell, and this goes beyond single games. The hardware itself can be a great foundation for narrative, between the building of its technology and the marketing of it as a consumer product to the people behind the scenes who orchestrate it all. I’d devour a book about the TurboGrafx-16, a system nobody talks about that competed with the SNES and the Sega Genesis. It tanked in America but was a huge success in Japan (known there as the PC-Engine). I had one as a kid and still have an odd fondness for it. In fact Ian Bogost, professor at Georgia Tech, co-edits a series that investigates computer hardware in this way, called Platform Studies. The high water mark for such writing, in my eyes,  is still The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. It’s about bringing a new computer to market in the ‘80s. The summary sounds dry and insider-y, but Kidder’s story is totally accessible, a fantastic, page-turning human drama.


Vouched: What’s so evocative about it for you? Would you write a Single Sentence Review of it for us? Right here right now?


“”The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder is about bringing a new computer to market in the ‘80s, and while the summary sounds dry and insider-y, Kidder’s story is totally accessible, a fantastic, page-turning human dram.”


That’s the Jerk Answer. Here’s another attempt:


“In Kidder’s Machine, we learn that what we build, using silicon and plastic, is no different than what we build with chromosomes and DNA: our inventions are our children, and they outlive us all.” Or something.


Vouched: Ha! Totally fair. Say, wouldn’t it be creepy to have a robot for a kid?


Oh, I don’t know. A “Sleep” button for restful nights. Duracell AA batteries for food. The high school track record in the 100M! Maybe having a robot would be awesome.


I really like the movie Artificial Intelligence, or A.I – you know, the one where Haley Joel Osment is a robot-child after a couple loses their real child in a pool accident. Was it a pool accident? I forget. Anyway, point is, lots of people railed on that movie for being over-long and too sentimental. But it’s also kind of messed up and presages a not-so-unrealistic future where people are engineered and manufactured. A hundred years ago farmers probably didn’t think potatoes could be “genetically modified.” Today robot-children seem like some Asimovian bedtime story to freak kids out you’re babysitting, but who knows? Maybe in another hundred years it’ll be common.


A question for you! Why “Awful Interviews,” and not Terrible ones? Or Interminable Interviews? I have the phrase “Awful Annie” in my head, and I’m wondering if that’s some doll from when we were kids… but then I Google’d it and apparently there’s a restaurant with that name and they have “the best omelets in town.


Vouched: Oh, I don’t know, awful ain’t the worst, but it ain’t great either. I like occupying that strange middle territory. Is this not awful enough? Or is it too terrible?


Is that your next question? Is the antecedent of “this” in “Is this not awful enough?”  our actual interview? Or are you referring to a hypothetical interview, the platonic INTERVIEW you had in mind when creating and naming said “Awful Interviews”?


In case of the former: Yes. This is awful enough.


But yeah, I’m all about the strange middle territory. My wife’s belly-button is like some undiscovered landmark tucked away in a deciduous forest, hiding in the corner of a western state, let’s say Montana. Soft and undulating. But with a kind of mysterious depth. Like: Does it stop there? Or does it go on?


Okay. NOW this is awful enough.


Vouched: Shit just got awkward. This is wonderfully awful, indeed! Say, are you pumped for Phoenix Fest? Tell us about it!


I’m so pumped. Did you know there’ll be live glass-blowing demonstrations? Glass-blowing! I love how the readings are a part of this larger melange of artwork going on throughout the day. Music! Glass! Murals! And good ol’ fashioned spoken words. A little for all the senses. Wait–will there be tastings? I think “taste” has been left out. This is a travesty. Since I’ll be reading from my book Super Mario Bros. 2, and since a notable item in that game is the turnip, I request some ambitious festival-goer to whip up an exotic turnip dish and serve it to happy passers-by. Perhaps turnips could take the place of potatoes in a delicious mashed turnip souffle?  Or roasted turnips, the natural sugars carmelizing under the high heat, lending the earthy veggies a hint of sweetness. Regardless: I can’t wait to see what happens on Saturday. And I hear we’ll be reading in an abandoned motel? Vacant for so long, but soon filled with strangers… sounds like my childhood.

Review: Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine

12 Nov

Posted by Theresa J. Beckhusen

Written by Zachary Lee

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine is an intriguing, swashbuckling novel that places the reader on a ship destined to sink and tells them to hold on for dear life. And hold on I did: I read the book within two days, dreading any moment I had to put it down. As the reader, you become as obsessed with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island as the unnamed protagonist is, although it might just be the protagonist’s absurdity and poor judgment that keep you hooked.. The novel itself is only 172 pages, but the story and its frame are so expansive that you feel like the novel is twice as long as it actually is, which you’ll be glad for, I’m certain.

The plot of the story is rather straightforward. A girl is given a copy of Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, and then becomes obsessed with the book and tries to live her life according to the four codes of the book:


And of course everything then goes wrong in the best way possible. The most interesting aspect of the story is the unnamed anti-hero protagonist who blocks or destroys herself every chance she gets. No matter the situation or circumstance, the protagonist finds a way to implode everything. It’s as if the protagonist is allergic to anything going right in her life. I thought the use of an anti-hero was really intriguing, and extremely entertaining to read. How will she shoot herself in the foot again? And again? The tension built up just waiting for the protagonist to fail is palpable, but I believe it actually adds ambiguity. You have a vague sense of what’s going to happen or what may happen—and with this protagonist, it could be almost anything—but you’re ultimately left in the dark, only able to guess. Levine’s self-defeating protagonist finds the most outlandish ways to get in her own way.

Since her protagonist is really an anti-hero, the other characters in Treasure Island!!! must carry some of the burden of the protagonist’s choices. The protagonist is unable to handle simply returning Treasure Island to the library, so there is no possible way she could handle a break-up, getting fired, the death of a pet, and uncovering a double affair. The supporting characters are forced to carry the consequences of all of her questionable decisions. Take Lars, her boyfriend. The protagonist and Lars move in together and he’s forced to work more hours as well as take on household duties because the protagonist is too caught up in Treasure Island and is incapable of identifying and taking on any responsibilities. Lars seems to be the only own between them who understands the difference between right and wrong when he discovers the reason for her being “let go” from the Pet Library, her former place of employment. (The protagonist stole “petty cash” from the owner):

“‘Oh come on! Nancy thinking I stole her money, that’s out of line.’

‘You did take it—’

‘But it was petty cash. And I’m her employee. She’s putting the worst possible spin on it. She goes about as if she’s St. Francis of Assisi!’”

Levine refreshes the classic coming-of-age and hero-worshiping story and pushes it into the frame of an insane and awkward obsession. Throughout the novel the protagonist constantly refers to her hero, Jim Hawkins, and how he would behave in certain situations. The protagonist then attempts to live life in his footsteps. And if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. But I think the way Levine subtly weaves the message of growing up through the lens of Jim Hawkins is absolutely brilliant. It’s brutally honest while coming off as naïve. The protagonist lets Treasure Island and Jim Hawkins speak for her, which means she’s further able to ignore responsibility and live in a fantasy world:

“‘Not now, Lars.’ My speech was roughly modeled on the one Jim Hawkins gives in the enemy’s camp, and I was extremely pleased to realize I knew so much of it by heart. ‘I’ve had the top of this business from the first,’ I went on. ‘You can do your inexplicable intervention or you can leave me alone, but I no more fear you than I fear a fly.’

‘You do fear flies,’ Adrianna said blandly.”

The main, and only, issue I had with the novel is the way it transitions from order to chaos to a feeble attempt at restoring order. The novel’s trajectory from order to chaos works, but the book just becomes too sporadic when it tries to wrangle everything back together for an ending. At that point it’s hard to follow everything going on, but the characters and story are just so intriguing that you hardly realize that Levine is fighting to gain back control. You really have to pay close attention to see the signs of the tussle.

The novel may struggle with control at times, but its humor, characters, and intriguing, but disturbing, story pull you through without any issues. I had a lot of fun reading this novel and seeing how deep in hot water the protagonist could get herself. So I leave you with this: the motto of Richard, the protagonist’s pet parrot, something to urge you to take on some responsibility in your life so you don’t end up like Levine’s protagonist: “Steer the boat, girlfriend!”


Zachary Lee is a Vouched Books Indy intern and senior Creative Writing student at the University of Indianapolis. He hopes to attend an MFA program after graduation. He can be reached on Twitter @_Zach_Lee.

Review: Butch Geography by Stacey Waite

10 Nov

Posted by Theresa J. Beckhusen

Written by Mirna Palacio Ornelas

When I picked up this book—Waite’s first full-length poem collection—I expected to see the journey of a non-binary gendered person. I expected to go through the pits and falls, the confusion, and eventually a self-awareness. I found exactly that in Butch Geography, but in a way I didn’t see coming.

Waite’s poems take you back and forth through time, juxtaposing the confusion of a child that could never really fall into one of the binary slots of gender with the understanding that forms after having examined and reexamined oneself over time. Many of the poems come from childhood memories; there are instances in which the narrator is confused by the way adults around them behave and react to their appearance. In these, such as “Self-Portrait, 1984,” you’re reminded of that blind confusion that came with being a kid, where you know something is amiss, but you don’t know why, or what.

“Sometimes no one can keep my mom
from crying, I think the frying pans
get grease in her eyes when she cooks,
so I always say I don’t like anything hot.
It’s okay to lie about food, I think.”

In these poems, there is also a sense of detachment, as if the narrator has now come to accept the events that happened. It’s like that breath you release after letting disappointment settle into your bones.

The poems in which the narrator seems to be older, more aware of their being, are not only more lyrical, but also contain a small seed of pride in their acceptance. Moving past the struggles the narrator has faced, the tone of the poems clearly conveys some of the insight that comes with growing up. There’s a certain maturity there. In “Changing the Names,” there’s more of that feeling. It’s settled.

“In Pittsburgh, the rivers want to freeze over,
but can’t stay still long enough. So, for a while,
I call them ice to honor their wanting,
their leaving and returning, always the
slow shift of hands and water.”

The poems that fall in line in feeling with this one create an acceptance that soothes the confusion from the other poems. The narrator is almost taking their younger selves by the hand and wiping away the tears with reassuring murmurs.

The way the poems are written caught me completely by surprise. While there are a few prose poems sprinkled throughout the book, the enjambment in the others does nothing to break up the complete sentences in some poems. “On the Occasion of Being Mistaken for a Man by Security Personnel at Newark International Airport” is a good example of this structure.

“But when I hold my arms straight out
and he traces the outline of my underarms, he makes
that face, the face I’ve seen before,
the ‘holy-shit-it’s-a-woman’ face,
the ‘pretend-you-don’t-notice-the-tits’ face.

By using this structure in combination with this word choice, the poem is presented to you rather than slowly experienced. This writing style can be ingeniously helpful. As a cis-gendered reader, I’ve not had the experiences the narrator has. I’m distanced in a way that can really affect my reading of the poetry. By putting it in such a plain way, by making the poems read as stories, Waite makes these experiences accessible.

There’s much to say about the layout of the book, the way the poems are organized. The poems, for the majority, weave back and forth through time. One that takes place in the narrator’s childhood is followed by one with a more “adult” experience, be it a lover, or a more serious look at gender. It creates an intricate balancing act that is maintained throughout the book. For example, there is “Kimberly,” which ends with the lines,

“Kimberly, I should have been Kimberly.
I would have felt some loyalty to a name like that.”

It is followed by “It Has Always Been Frankie Cossinelli,” with the lines,

“the kind of girl who wore stretch jeans and black concert t-shirts
so you’d know she was a piece of the night sky,
the kind of girl who didn’t blow her nose,
but just sniffed all day long.”

Those two poems give two very different self-depictions from the narrator. It was like a roller coaster, or even just (get this) natural geography. These highs and lows make the difference between the attitudes toward gender and sexuality more stark. You get to see the struggle referred to in some of the other poems. Unfortunately, this layout also has some complications.

The combination of structure and writing style left out something crucial: a sense of completion.

As I read the book, I kept waiting for that big, obvious “OH!” feeling, but it never happened. There were some poems, like “Kimberly,” that took me right to the cusp of an epiphany-like sensation, but the following poem made it all crumble down. This didn’t take away any enjoyment from reading the poems, or even that kernel of truth poetry forces into your meaty center, but it did disappoint. I was waiting for that tangible feeling of being able to walk away having learned something. Notes in my hand, so to say. Instead, I was left wondering if maybe it was just the subject matter: maybe it’s one of those things that never really has a neat, wrapped up ending.

A second reading, however, completely turned this around. I let the poems marinate for a couple of weeks, and when I came back to them, there was a definite sense of completion I didn’t feel the first time around. I found that the poems had already found their way inside me. Not in the obvious etched-into-my-skin way, but not in the written-in-my-heart way, either. Instead, I found them under my skin, under the following layers of fat, and seared into my muscles and ligaments. As an outsider to the world within Butch Geography, this could be the best result. I don’t know if Waite wanted to serve as an educator through these poems, or if just the sharing of these experiences was the goal, but the poems have done their job as a medium, reaching out past the world they were created in.


Mirna Palacio Ornelas is a Vouched Indy intern and is currently a junior at the University of Indianapolis. She’s a poetry writer that dabbles in the publishing world. Mirna spends most of her time in the dark with Captain America looping in the background on the lowest volume and light settings while collecting boxes of steakhouse dinner rolls on her desk.


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