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.

Awful Interview: Jason Koo

6 Nov

Yup, it’s time for another post about how stoked we are for The Letters Festival! Next up to bat? The formidable and dashing poet Jason Koo, who’s trekking all the way from New York City to share his words with us. His most recent book of poetry, America’s Favorite Poem, was released by C&R press. As a patriot, I adore it. (More on that later.) Jason’s going to be reading alongside Lindsay Hunter, Morgan Parker and Jamie Iredell on Saturday, November 8th at the Rodriguez Room at the Goatfarm Arts Center. It’s definitely a “Don’t Miss” in our book. You can get yourself a ticket to that here.

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Vouched: Hey Jason! So, your most recent collection of poetry was “America’s Favorite Poem.” As a xenophobe, I’m really stoked about that. When did you realize that you had America’s Favorite Poem in you? Did Bruce Springsteen really like it too?  

The moment came a long time ago at a diner in Houston when I looked at a Heinz ketchup bottle. The label said “America’s Favorite Ketchup.” I thought that was absurd. Just calling your ketchup America’s favorite. Maybe they had the stats to back it up, but how would anyone know? So I decided to write America’s favorite poem. How would anyone know it wasn’t? I was thinking a lot about consumerism at the time and wrote a poem about all the shopping being done in Houston and beyond and called it “America’s Favorite Poem.” I published it, then didn’t like it anymore, so I kept it out of my first book. It may have been America’s favorite, but it wasn’t mine.  Later I wrote another poem about shopping in Target and becoming obsessed with brands almost against my will as I flipped through magazines like GQ. I was searching for a title–and thought, Fuck it, why not call this “America’s Favorite Poem” too? It’s not like anyone read the first one. Even though it was published–and America’s favorite! The new poem is also not my favorite, though it did make the second book–and became the title poem. Now, of course, I have to write America’s Worst Poem. Some people may already think the two America’s Favorite Poems are already America’s Worst Poems. All I know is I’m always introduced now as the “author of America’s Favorite Poem” and can take that shit to my grave (i.e. on my tombstone).

Bruce, of course, has always been a huge fan of my work.

Vouched: I really like that it all started with a bottle of ketchup. What’s your favorite condiment?

Salsa. Or barbecue sauce. Barbecue sauce seems to go well with everything. Salsa not so much.

Vouched:  Any specific kind of BBQ?

I guess Kansas City style? Or St. Louis style? Missouri style? Texas style, too. Perhaps because I did all my graduate work in Texas and Missouri. I wrote poems and ate a lot of barbecue. Poems, too, taste better with barbecue sauce.

Vouched: I eat a lot of BBQ when I’m writing too! Was it The Phantom Tollbooth where they eat word sandwiches or something like that? If your poetry were a sandwich, would it be BBQ or something else?

I actually have a poem in my first book called “I’m Charlie Tuna” that details my sad obsession with–or overreliance on–a particular lunch plate while living in Missouri: tuna salad sandwich, barbecue chips, pickle. So I guess I’d have to say that my poetry would be a tuna salad sandwich with a side of barbecue chips. And a pickle. Or to put it another way, my poetry is written with fingers covered in “barbecue pollen.”

Vouched: Why are BBQ chips so great? I mean – they’re REALLY great. Oh, and not to change the subject, but who’s your all-time favorite athlete ?

I don’t know, but as most athletes like to do at the start of post-game interviews, unlike almost all poets, I’d just like to thank God at this moment for BBQ chips, because clearly all the credit goes to him.

My all-time favorite athlete is a difficult question because there have been many favorites–and many of those have gone on to become enemies when they left one of my Cleveland teams through free agency. Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez were my favorite players on consecutive Cleveland Indians’ teams from 1994-96 (Belle) and 97-2000 (Ramirez), but I hated both of them after they left Cleveland for more $$$$. (Manny a little less so, because he was, after all, Manny.) LeBron James is an interesting case because he was by far my favorite Cleveland athlete while he was with the Cavs the first time around, then quickly become my most hated athlete of all time after The Decision, and now he’s quickly become one of my favorites again after The Letter and The Return. Perhaps if he leads us to a title this year he will be my favorite of all time. But I don’t know if my love for LeBron will ever be quite the same again after our initial breakup.

My favorite Indians’ player right now is Michael Brantley, simply because of how he plays the game: always calm, in control, clutch. Just seems effortless. And he’s got this swag to his step, real style to his movement. He’s also got the best game glare I’ve ever seen from an Indians’ player, even better than Belle’s famous snarl.

But my favorite Indians’ player of all time is Victor Martinez, who played catcher for us from 2002-09. I like Brantley because he reminds me so much of Victor: our best clutch hitter, our most consistent hitter, just a joy to watch play on a daily basis. Victor had this great way of clapping his hands together in an upward stroke (as if he were high-fiving himself) as he popped up from a slide into second base after an RBI double. And he loved the Indians, crying when they traded him to the Red Sox. I will never forgive the Indians for trading Victor to the Red Sox. We got Justin Masterson in return, who for a while was our ace and made that deal look respectable, even necessary; but now that Masterson has gone from being our ace to sucking so much that we had to trade him, the Victor deal looks even worse, especially because every time he’s faced us in a Tigers’ uniform the last few years he’s deposited a back-breaking three-run homer somewhere. I know my love for Victor is everlasting because I never hate him, even when he’s killing us with those three-run homers. I just get angry at the Indians’ front office.

My hope, now that LeBron has given Cleveland one miracle through his return, is that Victor will somehow sign a four-year deal with the Indians for like $20 (pretty much the max they can offer him) and take us to the World Series. Because I’m pretty sure if we can sign just one hitter like Victor this off-season we’ll go all the way next year with our badass starting front four of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar and Trevor Bauer. Our #5 starter, T. J. House, is no slouch either. I’ll just keep dreaming here while you ask me your next question.

Vouched: I mean, that is pretty much a dream team. If that miraculous turn of events were to happen, how much do you think you’d spend in tickets during the season? Be honest.

Well, seeing as how I don’t live in Cleveland anymore, probably not that much. But if the team looked World Series–bound, I’d go home to watch as many games as I could during the summer. And if the team were on the cusp of winning the World Series at home, I’d pay pretty much whatever price to be there. Like, up to $500 for a ticket, probably. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and when you’re talking about Cleveland, that “lifetime” is longer than most.

Vouched: What are you most excited about for the Letters Festival?

Meeting writers I haven’t met before and hearing them read, and reading with peeps from my own hood like the badass Morgan Parker. Always a pleasure to be invited to read in another city–especially when you get flown out and put up in a hotel room!

SSR: I Was A Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac

5 Nov

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I Was A Fat, Drunk, Catholic School Insomniac by Jamie Iredell
Future Tense Books
200 pg // $12

When we strip our adolescence of its hangovers, drunk stupors, the existential crises, angst, and adolescent missteps – what we’re left with is the sobering toxicity of youth.

 

Awful Interview: Kate Sweeney

4 Nov

Atlanta, that wonderful time of year is descending upon us again. No – not the holidays! (Though I’ve been jonesing for a turkey leg ever since exiting this year’s Ren Fest.) The Letters Festival! I mean, holy smokes, we’ve got three days of Independent Literature about to descend upon our fair city. I’m swooning. You swooning? You should be.

So we’ve got a bevy of fun stuff to help get you riled up. First up to bat? A second round of Awful Interview with Atlanta’s own Kate Sweeney, author of American Afterlifeand all-around gem. We’re not sure why she was up for letting us awfully interview her… again. But boy were we glad to do so! Kate will be helping kick-off the festivities this Thursday evening at BURNAWAY’s beautiful office space, alongside Aaron Burch, Esther Lee, and Jason McCall. You can snag your tickets for all that literary goodness here. In the meantime, let’s get to this interview, shall we?

Vouched: So, Kate – it’s been almost 9 months since the release of American Afterlife. How many bizarre, unsolicited stories about death have you heard whilst promoting the book? What was the weirdest?

Oh, my. I’ve heard so many GREAT stories from people about their experiences with funerals and ways they chose to remember their loved ones. One of my favorites is the family who filled their pant-legs with the ashes of their family patriarch,  and then took a casual group walk through the football field of his college alma mater, allowing the ashes to spill out onto the field as they did so, like in “The Great Escape.”

Vouched: Record scratch – wait, what? I mean, i figured you would have weird stories, but that’s pretty out there. Do you have really epic notions for your own funeral now? (I would worry that that’s a morbid question, but I mean, you wrote a book about death rituals, so it feels like fair game.)

Actually, I do have more notions regarding my own funeral than I did when I began all this. I’ve even sat down and made a plan–something I never would have done as a regular, unleaded 30-something who had never heard stories from so many people who’d experienced epic memorials, horrible memorials, as well as exhausting memorials due to a total lack of pre-planning. It’s actually a great gift to those you leave behind to let them know what on earth you want before the time comes–and, almost more importantly, where key documents are. Because you don’t want to leave your significant other/sons/daughters/parents the burden of dealing with all this crazy minutia on TOP of mourning, too. And the hard fact is this: There is a lot of minutia and rigamarole involved. And we don’t know when we’re going to go.  Sure, it feels weird to have these conversations and make these plans, and it feels doubly weird in a society in which even thinking about death is considered to be weird–but it makes a huge difference to everyone we love.

Vouched: Wow, you’ve become quite the advocate! Would you be willing to share a bit of your plan, or is it a surprise? I have a perpetually late friend who wants to have his coffin arrive at the funeral parlor 15 minutes late when he dies (honestly, it would be out-of-character if it didn’t) … is that something that can happen?

That IS something someone could make happen, for sure. I love it! Folks have told me stories about doing traditional funerals with the hearses and the cemeteries and vaults, about opting for direct cremation with no service, choosing green burial, about writing funny or even bitter obituaries for their loved ones, having their loved ones’ ashes made into plant mulch, LPs and artificial coral reefs. (Not to mention our forebears from the 1800s, who made jewelry out of human hair and invented memorial photography! Now they were a party people.) Seriously, though: For every one of these types of memorialization, someone had a story about how scarring and awful her experience was, and someone else had a story about how this was absolutely the right decision, and how it was healing or cathartic in some way.

So, you know, I went into this experience with some prejudices–the kind we all have–about what’s right and what’s weird when it comes to memorialization. But having heard these personal stories, those prejudices have been stripped away.  And not to paint myself as some Grand Authority to whom everyone’s paying attention in terms of her opinions on memorialization, but it’s because I’ve learned this that I’ve actually decided not to speak publicly about what I’ve chosen, personally. I just don’t want to come across as having any sort of bias, because what’s right for me may not be for you, and I get that.

Vouched: Totally fair. Okay, so – I have to ask – is Six Feet Under your all-time favorite television show by default now?

Had there been no Six Feet Under, there would have been no American Afterlife. That is the literal truth.

Vouched: WHOA! I’ve stumbled across interview gold! Would you elaborate on that, plz?

Sure! I was obsessed with that show. It was the first show I ever binge-watched and which moved me to have imaginary conversations with the characters while, say, walking my dog or driving to the store. So naturally, I read everything I could get my hands on about it. One story I came across was an article about a green burial cemetery in California, written by Tad Friend in the New Yorker. The cemetery had served as a setting for something that took place on the show, I believe. Almost as a footnote, the story mentioned that the nation’s very first green burial cemetery–which began the trend of ecologically-friendly burial spaces in the US–was in South Carolina. I was really intrigued, and it looked like no one had written a major feature article about the place, so that’s what I did. Oxford American published the story in its Spring 2008 issue, and things snowballed from there. Suddenly everywhere I looked, there were fascinating stories about how we Americans remember our dead, from third-generation funeral directors, to roadside memorials, to all the stuff we’re doing with ashes, to our Victorian forebears who made jewelry from human hair. I had to write about them.

Vouched: Six Feet Under really is one of those shows where you miss the main characters after it’s over. At least that’s how it was for me. Say, if you could pick one character from Six Feet Under to attend your reading at the Letters Festival, which would it be? And why? What would you say?

Oooh, good one. Well, clearly, it’s the father. It might be kind of unnerving, but I’d love to see his ghostly presence standing in the back, laughing and shaking his head at some of the  stories from the book. I think that in the end, I’d simply shake his hand–if you can do that. Can you shake a ghost’s hand?

Awful Interview: Blake Butler

25 Oct

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This is Blake Butler. He’s quite a guy! Most people know him for his writing (you know, Sky Saw, Nothing, Scorch Atlas, etc.), or his work up at Vice or HTMLGiant and whatnot. Which is pretty cool. But Blake is also just rad as hell as a person, which is why Atlanta is celebrating him and the release of his latest book, 300,000,000, tonight at the Highland Ballroom. Come and see?

Vouched: So, Blake. Your new book is called 300,000,000. Is that your favorite number? Why?

It’s the number of people in America, rounded down. So it’s my least favorite number. I think my favorite number is five. I’ve really claimed five as my favorite number before but for some reason it’s what came out when I typed my favorite without thinking, which is how I usually try to write everything. Wait, I hate five. I like zero, and I like eight.

Vouched: I’m worried that a lot of people are going to wrongly assume your least favorite number is your favorite number. Let’s clarify a couple other favorites, just so we can have all this stuff on the record. Color? Superhero? Gum?

Is it too whatever to say my favorite color is black? It’s black. But I hate the Cure, especially their music. When I was a kid my favorite superhero was Gambit, though I can’t remember why at all now. He actually looks kind of ridiculous and the guys they get to play him in the movies make him seem like a foof. I guess if I have a fav superhero still now it would be something like the planet in the original cartoon Transformers movie voiced by Orson Welles. It’s like huge and quiet and in the middle of nowhere and godlike without anything to god over. I like gum that tastes like fake fruit: cherries, apples, pears, the fruitiest fruits. I usually only like to chew gum for the 30 seconds it takes to make the flavor disappear.

Vouched: Rate these four gums: Super Bubble, Bazooka, Juicy Fruit, and a Nerds Gumball

How big is the Nerds gumball? Can you customize the ball? I like those gum things you can get that are so big they don’t fit in your mouth, but then you force it to fit anyway and then you have a new mouth size. Actually, the Nerds one struck me weird the way they cram all the Nerds in the center, which felt like chomping through a tiny melon to burst into a den of ants. No. Nerds Rope is tight, though. That’s not gum. Shit. I’mma go with Bazooka for its timelessness, and how it reminds me of the color of a brain. So, rank, okay: Bazooka, Juicy, Super, Nerds.

 

Vouched: Wow, you’ve kind of ruined Nerds gumballs for me with that imagery. Say, remember Warheads?

RIP Nerd Gumball. Say, for sure! I sold Warheads out of my backpack in seventh grade during a period when our class developed a minor economy based on who sold what candy for how much to whom. Like a little shit entrepreneur I bought a vat of Warheads from Sam’s Club with my mom  and sold them for a quarter each, mostly to this Mexican kid named Hugo who the only thing I ever remember him talking about was the show Martin. He would give me a dollar for the Warheads and go “You so crazy, Gina” and laugh to himself and walk away. On and on like that through the annals of time. I think I ended up eating most of the Warheads by myself instead of selling them, which is how I ended up here I guess. Did you eat Warheads? What color was your color?

 

Vouched: I liked the black cherry one I think. Oh, and blue raspberry. I mean damn, those things are good. Do they still make them? Also, when did you toss in your entrepreneurial hat for a writerly one? Or are they actually the same hat? Are you wearing two hats at once?

It’s a good question, because from the creative perspective, the kind of writing I spend most of my time on, it’s pretty much the inverse of entrepreneurial pursuit; I would be terrified to calculate the amount I’ve made per hour spread out over all the text I’ve banged out and how much I’ve been paid for it; but to be paid for that isn’t the point, and in another way it helps fuel the other half, which is writing for money, which I’ve basically been doing since I was seventeen; my first job besides mowing lawns and as a cashier at Media Play was writing reviews of independent albums for allmusic.com.

Once I realized I could use writing for the internet to make money and not have to get a real job that ate my time, which I could then use to force the majority of my time into the writing that I loved most and for a long time paid absolutely nothing, I made it my goal to do that as long and hard as I could. Somehow I’ve been able to cobble together enough work running my mouth on websites to make a decent living, and the time to salary rate is pretty great, since at this point I’m so used to busting out content that I end up with most of the day to my whole self. Which is the only way I want to live. And so yes, two hats at once, probably ten hats, or two dozen, though no fedoras please. My skull is too large for most real hats unfortunately.

 

Vouched: Really? What’s the circumference of your head? I have a good haberdashery – in case you want a hat.

I am afraid to measure it but I once received the gift of a one-size-fits-all hat that did not fit me.  I would like to be buried naked, holding only that hat. In the meantime, I will fashion trash bags into headbands and wear them in the sun.

 

Vouched: That sounds really rad. How would you describe your sense of fashion?

My sister says I dress like a bruise. My main rule is: try to dress like you don’t feel bloated. At home I wear what has been deemed “R. Kelly shorts.” If I had it my way I would always be wearing R. Kelly shorts. What is life.

 

Vouched: What do you think R. Kelly’s favorite number is? Do you think he’d like your book?

Some people would probably guess his favorite number is 69. I know it is actually 90210. I hope he would like my book, because he dies in it. For some reason I’m now imagining R. Kelly sitting on the shitter reading The Bible. I think it’s time I let myself get a tattoo.

“The Hat” by Sam Wilson

16 Oct

Posted by Theresa J. Beckhusen

Written by Zachary Lee

“The Hat” by Sam Wilson is a quirky travel story with that turns the ordinary to the unordinary. Wilson snags the reader and gently pulls them through. “The Hat” is the tale of an unnamed male protagonist on his flight back home, and ends up following his wife into a Pendleton wool shop, and he ends up finding his perfect hat.

As soon as the story started, I fell for the characters. I felt pity that they got too hungover to enjoy their vacations, I felt a bit of excitement when the flight was delayed, I felt a bit of adventure wandering into the Pendleton shop. Wilson writes characters that seem to be real actual people that he just watched and copied:

“I knew I couldn’t buy the shirts I’d envied because wool makes me itch, but I kept trying them on anyway, soaking up the saleswoman’s compliments and not looking too closely in the mirrors.”

Wilson also subtly threads in the idea of getting old, and how that affects how we see ourselves. He demonstrates this by having his protagonist constantly question how he compares to his counterparts, and struggle with the look of the sweaters. Combined with his attention to the microscopic details, this really adds another layer to the story. They emphasize the human element that the protagonist brings to the story, and explain a driving force behind the protagonist. In this passage we see the protagonist wrestling with age:

“There is nothing good about being prematurely bald. My head gets cold and wet in the winter, and sunburned in the summer. Plus, it makes me look older and more staid than I actually am.”

And with the passage below we see where the microscopic details come into play:

“She was a young flight attendant wearing a navy blue skirt and white blazer. Her hair was pulled into a wet ponytail, and her lipstick was brighter than I imagined could look good on a person.”

With that being said, I felt the protagonist’s wife, Sherri-Anne, was a flat, 2D character. At times I forgot she was in the story. Her character just seemed to be a way to get the protagonist in the shop, and not something to help drive character development, or add anything to the story. It was a bit disappointing to see that, but Wilson’s writing made up for it ten-fold.

Overall, “The Hat” is an interesting read helped by Wilson’s amazing characters, and his ability to play with details. I believe that Wilson’s career as a writer is on the up and up. This story is something that readers will be talking about for some time.

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.

“Horrible Things Happen” by Adam Lefton

15 Oct

Posted by Theresa J. Beckhusen

Written by Zachary Lee

Adam Lefton’s short story “Horrible Things Happen” is a wonderfully dark but difficult read. There is no issue with plot or character, not even an issue with the word choice. What makes this a difficult read is Lefton’s head-on approach to what it means to suffer, and the effects that come from suffering. The first thing that strikes the reader is the size of the story. The story itself barely fills two paragraphs, but sends shivers down the readers’ spine by breaking down walls. Once those walls are down, Lefton turns what we know about suffering upside down with the precision of a surgeon. Lefton’s writing style is quick and to the point, and refuses to let go of readers until the very end.

The main plot of the story is rather straightforward. There’s a fascination with turning suffering into fame and teaching suffering to teenagers. The theme of the story is dissected to the most basic building blocks, and then built into a beautiful nightmare. Throughout the story Lefton talks about issues with funding with collegiate studies, the religious idea that we are born suffering, and what happens to those who see and understand their suffering. I particularly love the way he plays with the idea that the Midwest is a vacuum of suffering, and then juxtaposes that with the irony that most of the graduates move to the heavily influential coastal areas.

One of the major things I enjoyed about reading “Horrible Things Happen” is Lefton’s ability to bypass any defense the reader has and attacks their emotional core directly at the source. As seen with:

“For these students, the horrible things that happened to them were too obvious to miss, too visceral. They’d cried or wanted to cry or taught themselves not to cry at some point in their lives.”

Near the end of the piece, Lefton challenges the idea that through suffering we grow, by writing: “Only the rare and talented pupil arrives on campus cognizant of his or her suffering.” By the end of the story Lefton has the reader on the edge of their seat and throws in the most powerful sentence in the entire story: “The feeling has been described as close to a nightmare.”

Overall, this story left me numb and left me questioning what it means to suffer. This story was a wonderful rollercoaster ride that every reader should struggle with.

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.

“In the House of Flying Words” by Juan Carlos Reyes

13 Oct

Posted by Theresa J. Beckhusen

Written by Mirna Palacio Ornelas

When I finish reading something, I usually talk about the piece for days. The thing is, though, Juan Carlos Reyes’ “In the House of Flying Words” in Used Furniture Review has left me at a loss of, well, words. He’s taken them all and carefully sculpted a dizzying image that leeches the air from your lungs. I was only left with “holy shit.”

It starts out with a pretty gruesome description of what words can and will do to your infant daughter, attacking her in her cradle until there’s only a little skeleton with a bib left. That’s the entire first paragraph. Reyes makes words out to be these living things, while still referring to them in a metaphorical sense. These words are very much a real threat to the sleeping baby, something that will physically harm her when given the chance. They lie in the shadows, waiting for their chance to pounce. They plan their attacks, and throw themselves at the house to get to the sleeping child. That being said, the flying words in this piece are still only words. How much can words possibly hurt, right?

Reyes continues to use words in this sense for the rest of the piece, coming back time and again to demonstrate how much they will mutilate your daughter throughout her life.

“They’re coming as the always do, they arrive, and you will do everything to protect her but they will leave a mark.”

Aside from the vast vocabulary Reyes uses, his sentences also have the effect that is often seen in poetry. It’s essentially a poem, but it’s not a poem. He blends his phrases together, stretching the sentences to just below their breaking points in order to make them house raw emotions. The words meld into each other, and you don’t realize how the words weigh against your sternum until you see that period at the end.

“You watch her sleep, the night passing quickly and measuring evening and words still unborn, those moons carrying slurs suggestions and ridicules, all those jabbing words looming huddled down street, primed by the garden, crowding parking spaces like impending tanks on the night of shattered glass.”

All fancy words and form aside, Reyes uses this piece to reach the bone-biting truth. Words do hurt. And they’re not something you can control, not like physical violence. We have no defense against words, no matter how hard we try. We have to stand by as words hurt our loved ones, or worse yet, while they distance themselves.

Reyes’ grammatically incorrect sentences work for the humanity of the piece, but they also make it hard for the reader keep up. It might be a minor issue, but it is also the only one. Even then, it can be easily solved by reading the piece out loud. Reyes’ words anchor themselves in your gut, leaving your head light from panic, and making it more than worth the trouble.

The distanced tone in this piece is often found in his other pieces. Reyes keeps readers on edge with this creepy little trick. The gruesome details that he embeds in them help achieve that ambiance as well. There’s always an off-putting event amidst a seemingly normal setting; this is almost a branch of magical realism. Almost.

 

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.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: A Bad Penny Review

13 Oct

This past weekend I had the joy of reading in Athens with some folks at one of my top-five all-time favorite bookstores: Avid Bookshop. Janet Geddis and her team do a really wonderful job of carrying a varied and wallet-emptying selection of tomes. Mainstream stuff, graphic novels and oodles of small press and poetry titles. It’s here that I finally came across a copy of A Bad Penny Review, which also hails from Athens and is a total beauty to behold. The anthology is printed by Double Dutch Press, who does a really wonderful job on all-things-aesthetic: the type layout, print quality, paper choice and ink are all gorgeous. And since the collection itself is unbound, I have every intention of framing every page and displaying them proudly about my home – because these works aren’t just good literature, they’re art. I snapped this picture when I was reading and drinking my morning coffee on the front porch of our AirBNB – the makings of a completely dreamy morning. A Bad Penny Review

This piece was done by Claire Stephens and really made me swoon. The pacing of the whole thing is brilliant too – this specific piece was quickly followed by some pretty lustful counterpoints by Terri Witek, and the stark contrast in tone between them was provocative and jarring. Also of note? A diagram sentence poem by Amanda Dorsett titled, Sex Dream With Five Words, that tugged at my grammar-loving heart just as much as it did my love-loving heart. The whole thing is mesmerizing, I don’t want to rob you of the thrill of actually reading it yourself by giving you a blow-by-blow account. Just know that if you see a copy of A Bad Penny Review on a bookstore, you should go ahead and do yourself a favor and buy it. You won’t be disappointed.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: Range of Motion by Meagan Cass

10 Oct

rangeofmotion_cover

Meagan Cass’ chapbook, Range of Motion, is filled with quiet moments of indecision, small pains, and good but misguided intentions. The characters peopling her stories are trying, really trying to do right by the other people in their families—indeed, Lindsey Hauck’s review on The Collagist says as much—but there remains an undercurrent of fate. The world is working against these people.

Rooted in realism with a touch of the fantastic, Cass invites you into a small world but one full of high stakes: one where kids advancing into an upper-level soccer league can lead their parents astray, one where a family dog only pushes a mother deeper into depression, one where a new hot tub drives a wedge further between a husband and wife. Cass’ attention to detail throughout magnifies the depth of these everyday sadnesses. A father works away at his exercise machine, eschewing almost everything else: “My running shoes are un-scuffed by the craggy world outside the portholes.” He’s developed such tunnel vision, such devotion, that nothing else matters but mindlessly working out in the basement.

Many of Cass’ stories happen in basements, making me think of the many origin stories of the world, where humans emerge either from the sea or from the earth. It also reminds you of Hell, or Purgatory. Characters stuck in cycles of motions until someone from above calls them up, breaks the pattern: “It was summer…when our mother stood at the top of the stairs and told us to come on up, it was time to quit playing [ping-pong], time to pack our things, I was going to college and she was selling the house, buying a smaller one without a basement, without room for a ping-pong table.” Leaving the basement means facing the world and taking on responsibility, things many of Cass’ characters actively avoid. In “Greyhound,” the husband buys a greyhound under the mistaken assumption that the dog will pull his wife out of her depression. Rather than face facts and help her treat her illness head-on, he prefers to live in a fantasy world: “He imagined woman and dog coursing the trails of FDR Park in the blue-black mornings, her coming home flushed, downing a glass of orange juice, making them bacon and eggs. She’d laugh at his jokes. They’d make love. She’d finally get better.”

Each of Cass’ stories echo the title of the collection in that her characters have exhausted their abilities and have atrophied, are impeded, or fail to recognize their capabilities and take responsibility accordingly. They’re trying, Cass shows us, but is it enough? Nowhere else is this better illustrated than in the collection’s final story, “Portrait of My Father as a Foosball Man, 1972-2012.” Cass focuses on one figure on a foosball table, gets inside his imagined brain and his past, ultimately coming to rest when the foosball table is left abandoned in a basement: “It’s just that it’s been so long since anyone turned his metal spoke heart with purpose, so long since he’s shone his twitchy, hummingbird grace, so long since he’s listened to human players laugh and talk smack and howl in victory and defeat…” Life is passing this foosball figure by, a fear shared by many of the other characters in the collection, a fear we all share.

If there’s any drawback to Cass’ collection, it’s only a similarity of tone among the stories, but her economical and deft prose keeps the reader hooked, turning pages, wishing to delve deeper and deeper into this family, despite their problems and doubts. Cass’ chapbook is a funhouse mirror maze, flashes of yourself and other wanderers blurring together as you debate which way to turn. You try your best, but you’ll always get lost along the way.

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