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Review: Normally Special by xTx

5 May

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The phrase “big things come in small packages,” is normally cliché, but it’s completely true when it comes to Normally Special by xTx. Her collection of flash fiction fits snugly into any back pocket, but carries the weight of a ten-ton anvil. The pieces cover a broad range of topics; father/daughter relationships, standard relationships, abuse/neglect, regret, and stalkers. The writing and content doesn’t allow you to put the book down. I was in awe and instantly fell in love.

xTx’s writing style is simple but breathtaking. She pours herself every word to get that fire between the lines. Every sentence breaks you down and leaves you begging for more. xTx has the ability to lead the reader to the edge of something resembling an emotional epiphany and turns them away, but at the last second the dagger comes out and gets you. That’s especially how I felt when I read “Father’s Day”:

“He’d always be the opposite of melted and I’d never felt like a princess. Even when he’d call me princess soft and soft, then louder and louder as if he were trying to make it true.”

Those two lines forced me to set the book down and stop everything for five minutes while I pulled myself back together. xTx paints these terrifying pictures that haunt the reader, that remind me of a car crash whose image you can’t shake. It’s terrible but you just cannot stop looking. She creates this game of tug-of-war over the emotions of the reader. There is no buffer. xTx has clearly picked each and every word meticulously to wring out as much emotion as possible, like in “The Mill Pond”:

“Mister Dean watched and Mister Dean made me say please two more times. Later on the only please I would say would be followed by the word, ‘stop.’”

xTx doesn’t mess around when  there’s a point that she feels needs to be made. There’s no concern for what the readers may think. She is bold and not afraid of anything. I loved that as a reader. I felt closer to the prose; it made me connect more with writing, and it left an impression on me that I still cannot shake off. I got a better sense of who xTx is not only as a writer, but also as a person. She pours herself on every page, and encourages the reader to drink all of that up. All of that combines for one intense and emotionally draining read.

One of my favorite aspects about xTx’s writing style is her ability to make certain off-the-wall subjects drenched with emotions, just like her story “Because I Am Not a Monster.” The story talks about how the narrator is dealing with the end of a relationship. She constantly references all of the terrible things she could do, but she always finishes them up with: “Do not worry, I will never find you. You are safe.” The rest of the story follows suit. Narrator saying she could drive, bike, or walk to the person she is addressing until the very end. That’s when things get turned upside down. It turns into this grand scene between the narrator and their ex to meet for the final “confrontation,” and the narrator believes that their ex is egging them on and wants the narrator to find them. She then ends it with the chilling lines:

“But you and I both know I wouldn’t. You are safe. Do not worry. I will never find you. But I could. If I really wanted to.”

The only real issue that I found was the discrepancy between the emotional barrage and the reader’s ability to recuperate in the stories themselves. Each piece is designed to demolish the reader, but there is no time to catch your breath. The pieces are relentless. I found it slightly unbearable after reading a few pieces back to back. It left me wanting a bit more of a gap between each stab of the dagger. I started to leave my guard up; losing some of the “oh snap” effect of the pieces.

Beyond that one thing, I loved absolutely every aspect of this collection. She has a mastery over flash fiction and the gift to rip out your heart and make you ask for seconds. xTx is an unstoppable force, and there seems to be no signs of her slowing any time soon. Her new book, Today I Am A Book, is available from Civil Coping Mechanisms.

Normally Special can be purchased here.

Review: Everything Was Fine Until Whatever by Chelsea Martin

15 Jan

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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.

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 Read This Week: Date and Time of Loss by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

3 Oct

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee’s essay “Date and Time of Loss” in Sundog Lit’s Road Issue combines the best of Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” with upfront introspection cuts to the chase. Lee doesn’t mess around. She tells her story, unflinchingly, full knowing she’s picking at old scabs, tracing her fingers over old scars—literally and figuratively, we discover. From a car accident in Seattle to a few years later when her husband tells her, over the phone, that he wants a divorce, Lee’s essay knocks the wind out of you.

Opening with a police report that gives us just the facts, Lee then enters to explain and flesh things out, describing what exactly flashed before her eyes when she turned and saw a Mitsubishi hurtling toward her. Even though she lists everything she didn’t remember in a sequence recalling “Bullet in the Brain”—and if you’re gonna imitate, good choice—we still learn about Lee, her travels, her past, her husband, her family, her values, the things she holds dear. Her language in this section, while loaded with imagery, never tips into effusion or begs for pity. She simply states her case: “I remember vertigo and disorientation. I remember wind as I flew. If I were in Murakami novel, that would have been the moment cats began talking.” Clearly, this experience is for her like something out of magical realism, something she never imagined would happen to her, could happen.

In the wake of the accident, Lee searches the asphalt for her scattered lipstick tubes, clutching onto small things to avoid or to deal with the very big thing that just happened. The driver cries and apologizes over and over. Lee calls her husband, who’s in the middle of a business meeting, and, while in conversation, is astonished to see her shoe feet away from her, near the curb. She grapples with this, feels the rough asphalt beneath her, tells her husband she doesn’t know if she’s ok. An ambulance wails. Throughout the ordeal, Lee references movies (the EMT does not care for Love Actually), Space Mountain, her Chanel lipstick, as if it is these things that will pull her through, these things that will allow her to make sense of what’s happened, of her being struck by a car.

Lee is blindsided again, a few years after the car hit her in the Seattle crosswalk, and this figurative accident at first felt too pat, fit too neatly into the arc of the essay. But when you remove your hardened outer layer and compare the vulnerability Lee felt in crosswalks for years after her accident to the pain she feels after her husband says he wants a divorce, the piece balances like a Calder mobile, something that looks improbable but remains upright and works. On her blog, Lee writes about this piece: “Another event in my life intersected with this trauma; the end of my marriage. That the two feel the same…I didn’t begin writing Date and Time of Loss with the intention of intertwining the two events. But that is what the work wanted me to do.”

Some of Lee’s balanced imagery comes off as a little trite—the bruises and the lavender aura of invisibility—but it’s mostly forgivable. By combining these two events, comparing her bruises and the damage done, Lee hopes to use one event as a lens to deal with the other and vice versa, as a means to cope and move on. Lee’s honesty and attention to telling detail and imagery elevate her essay, inviting you in just enough, like a long-time friend finally sharing the secret of her scar.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Month: Sprezzatura

10 Sep

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Sprezzatura
Mike Young
Publishing Genius 
132 pp // $14.95

 

Mike Young doesn’t fuck around – but does he? This collection will make you pause and think things like “Wow, it’s great to be alive” but also it will make you think, “I wonder what the weather’s like in Switzerland right now?” What I’m saying is that you’ve got to follow the thread, follow Mike Young. The thread is a colorful thing that’s all tangled and strung in odd, unexpected ways. If it gets dark – don’t worry! – it’ll lighten up soon. If it’s too bright just shade your eyes and squint a little. It’ll all even out soon enough.

 

 

 

Best Thing I’ve Read Today: Annie Bilancini’s “Little Miss Bird-in-Hand”

4 Feb

Besides allowing me to keep in easy touch with friends and family, Facebook also acts as a repository of stories and articles. Friends post Buzzfeed listicles that end up with me wasting 40 minutes on the site, other friends post interesting trend pieces, and still others aggressively but wonderfully push stories. Such was the case with Annie Bilancini’s story “Little Miss Bird-in-Hand,” a 2013 Booth Story Prize Runner-Up.

Amber Sparks’ Facebook post sharing this story went like this: “If you guys have not read this story by Annie Bilancini, you need to read it now. NOW. I’m not kidding. Drop everything. Then come back and tell me how right I am, and how grateful you are.” I did all of that. I took a break from my workday to read this apparently magical story that would make the reader grateful to the person who shared it. It was that kind of story.

There’s a pageant in a small town in county named Bird-in-Hand. Twelve 13-year-old girls compete, girls with names like Clem and Junie-Rae and Sweetie and Charlene and Darlene (the latter two identical twins). The twelfth contestant, Gray, is the odd one out. She’s quieter, and the barbs the other girls toss her way in the make-up room slide off of her.

Bilancini roves around this pageant from all angles, focusing here on Ms. Bondurant, the pageant director, and her desire for every girl to feel special; zooming in on the pageant judges and their personal Two Truths and One Lie; describing one contestant’s sound and color synesthesia; transcribing the reaction of one young male audience member to Gray’s talent portion. Bilancini’s use of these different styles adds a flair to the story that reminds the reader of a detective or madman pinning related articles to a wall with fraying yarn drawing connections between some stories. Maybe it’s not quite that frantic, but I could see each piece of her story adding to the dossier of the events of the pageant.

This is the kind of story I love. The details are rich, the tone is cool but interested–almost scientific in its reporting and recording of the events–the tension is built slowly with some deviations, you learn about the contestants and their lives and motivations. You see how inaction can be as horrible as action.

To say much more would diminish the story. So I’ll echo Amber and entreat you to read this story right now. Seriously. Stop reading this post and go read Annie Bilancini’s story and revel in it.

(One of the) Best Things I’ve Read in the Past Year

25 Jan

The moment I loved best in Michelle Orange’s Sicily Papers (published by Short Flight/Long Drive Books, a division of Hobart) was this:

But I’m terribly nostalgic. Been that way since I could pronounce it. Always afraid of time passing, hating change. I tell this story a lot but I remember feeling like my world was ending when my dad changed our kitchen garbage bag under the sink from a paper bag that sat on the floor of the cupboard to one of these new-fangled plastic jobs that screwed into the inside of the door. I was inconsolable, I begged him not to do it. I felt it was the end of an era. Everything was before and after for me. I was four years old.

I can’t be the only person out there who absolutely identifies with Orange’s expression of loss, of terror of the unknown and new and different. When my parents painted our kitchen cabinets white (over a color I can only describe as rotten avocado), I was totally thrown off. I was also four or five. What’s so perfect about Orange’s above passage is the specificity of the moment, the tiny thing that completely upset her.

This relatable specificity runs throughout the pages of this compact volume chronicling a month in Italy (it’s made to look like a passport! gold stamping and everything!). Orange’s wry humor makes me want to sit down with her over a cup of coffee and laugh. She writes in real time, so we learn about the bros that sit near her on her flight—one of them is looking forward to “hott” Swedish girls—and her terror of an “ancient white spider” in her skirt while she’s resting near some ruins. She sounds like that friend you have that’s crazy enough to always be fun but stable enough to be able to listen and give some kind of meaningful advice.

She’s also not afraid to confess her fears and shortcomings or to express her displeasure or bouts of dislike for B, the person to whom she’s addressing all of the letters in The Sicily Papers. We don’t learn too much about B. We assume that Orange and B are together, in some sense of the word, since she talks about missing B, wishes B were with her in certain moments, chastises B for not writing her more. But it’s apparent she’s in love to some degree. She plans to surprise B in New York at the end of her trip in Italy. My stomach turns a bit when I read this. There’s just something about not seeing B’s replies. There’s something about what we don’t read, even in Orange’s letters. It’s what’s left unsaid. Orange is meticulous in describing lava formations (she uses the word credenza!), the faces of young Italian boys, and the awkward configuration of her first apartment’s shower (too many windows for construction workers to peep through). The letters are firmly not love letters to B. There is no pining for B’s presence. Orange writes that every year she has extended her stay in Italy, attempting to retain the peace and relaxation the vacation gives her Italy is her love affair. She expresses distaste for the 9-to-5 grind and yearns for the sunny carefree-ness of Italy. Of course, she has a vacationer’s view, even though she sticks to small towns and shuns hotels in favor of apartments. She improves her Italian and practices her French. She chats with locals and suns on beaches. She doodles to B while taking a break from tours of ruins and catacombs. It’s no wonder she prefers this life to Toronto.

Yet she’s restless. Orange never stays in one town for very long before she’s picking up and moving on. She gives herself no chance to settle, to nest, to make more lasting connections with those around her. Is this what she savors? She writes to B that she loves traveling by train—“Something about being trapped in motion.”—and her later ferry ride enchants her. She glories in moveable stasis, where all she has to do is go with the flow. Her love of this type of travel, the limbo it puts her in, loops right back to her fear of change when she was younger, her current fears of change. While she’s on a train or ferry, things remain relatively the same. When she disembarks, that’s when she’ll need to engage with the wider world.

The Sicily Papers captures Orange in her 20-something limbo. She yearns for her group of friends from when she was 20: “I miss those people, that group of friends I had. That was the happiest time in my life. That’s the last time I remember feeling that I had a network of people around me I really liked and trusted.” After college and without grad school, it can be difficult to recreate that network of friendship and trust and love and support. Orange isn’t necessarily desperate for this company, but her touch of melancholy pervades the book and pulls a cloud or two over the brilliant Italian sun.

But Italy is that privileged space that lets her decompress and write and wander and eat fruit and admire Italian style (especially how leather jacket-clad teenage boys greet each other with cheek kisses). She, for the most part, eschews technology and e-mail in favor of old-fashioned, molasses-slow letter-writing. Everything was before and after for her, but Orange has found a way to escape that terrifying dichotomy: she travels to Italy so she can put time on hold and live in the in-between.

Best Thing I’ve Read This Week: A Review Of The First Four Books Of Sampson Starkweather by Kelin Loe and Caroline Cabrera

3 Jan

So, here’s a new year confession: I’ve never read The First Four Books of Sampson Starkweather as a million of my friends and co-internet poetry travelers have. I have no doubt it’s wonderful–have seen Sampson read a time or two, have read his work on these interwebs, have been enthralled by the talk of others regarding this here book. And that right there is the hold-up I think; removed and ignorant from the book’s total glory, I’m chomping like a hog at the slop at the goodness others offer up about the book.starkweather

Then along comes that stellar combo of Kelin Loe and Caroline Cabrera in the new Octopus Magazine. There they go through the books of the book and inch their fingers at what makes these poems tickle. I don’t think I’ve ever presented a review here. But in the process, they capture what I love about reading, what I believe a good book does: the experience of living with a book inside your life, how it butts against your memories and feelings, your moments and your forests. In their letters, Kelin and Caroline exhume what makes these poems important to them–as Caroline says, “The one-line-to-the-next-ness and how I am always with them and always nodding my head yes yes. But not because they are obvious. Just intimately of our generation. Or our type of brainspeak, too.” But that “to them,” that bleed into the personal, the real, the pulsing “real-time,” is what makes this review vouchable–as Kelin says, “I bought this book for Michael as his AWP present. I’m not in love with Sampson. He’s letting me get more in love with Michael.”

A little bit of Kelin:

I got up early to start The Waters, and I think that’s where the day got off wrong. I was expecting childhood, romance and dark underbelly ha-ha’s, poems that spun magic while I sat on my porch and held the book. Poems that made me feel healthy. Like sessions when you tell your therapist about something brave you did. Instead, like you said, weighty and somber. Like when your therapist points out that most of your thoughts are rooted in anxiety and not in actual thinking and you thought you were just detail-oriented. I feel humbled by these poems. Not the kind of humble like getting a compliment, the kind of humbling that you get losing a rap battle. “RUN, SAM, RUN.” I’ll try to keep up. (I also marked a perfect poem, XXXIX).

A little bit of Caroline:

But now, after reading Self Help Poems, I don’t think it’s a gimmick. I think I’m convinced that this is one book. They certainly benefit by the closeness. If this whole book was CAMP SAMPSON, Self Help Poems was the fire circle on the last night where we tell each other that we know its okay to be who we want to be because our camp friends are all also being that way. (This actually happened to me at the end of a camp. It was a writing camp. We were all eighteen and everyone cried.

P.S. I think it’s time I finally read this damn book, am I right? No chatter about it is gonna be better than this.

Best Things I’ve Read This Week: Three New Issues of Rad Magazines

9 Dec

Got all unsituated for a sec but here, I am back. Missed this Vouching raft. A few good mags popped open their newest caps for us recently. ENJOY:

The real as hell Vinyl displayed this big huff thing “Aaahhh” by Steven D. Schroeder, like it too “exhaled jet fuel and ozone holes.” With bottom gut oomph like this issue in general does, this poem brings the noise with the knob turned up two or three spots. And that end squishes the breath outta me.

Here starts the burn:

No, not smell that honeysuckle!
or what a refreshing Coke!
or you solved the equation for oxygen!
As the only plants that manufactured
air outsourced to Singapore,
our breath burst, swarmed, burned,
turned every vowel plosive,
laughed a feral mongrel’s cough.
When it vented verbs skyward,
we exhaled jet fuel and ozone holes.
When it ran low at grocery stores,
the choice was paper or plastic bags
for our faces.

“My Own Dead American” by Matthew Harrison in the new issue of Sixth Finch is its own sort of devil, swaying between truths, singing your name (well, Diana), eating and fucking and losing. I’m awed by this poem’s allure. I am the I and Diana and “the Jacuzzi at the spa where you left/the final body of your message.” I’m broken at the end as we find out America is what we feared all along: “long and lonesome.”

And then there was Laurel Hunt with her own brand of splattering in the 2nd anniversary issue of Smoking Glue Gun. These speakers press a thumb out and down, remain wildly optimistic and charitable. Addicting is what they are, beginning to end.

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Best Thing I’ve Read Today: Feng Sun Chen in Similar:Peaks

4 Oct

The first of the three begins “I want someone to watch me pick the dirt under my fingernails.” Which came first the scratching or this view? Feng Sun Chen’s poems here in Similar:Peaks burst each one of themselves from the grave of the moment, the untidy corner where “the garbage of dirty ghosts/courses enthusiastically through my fatty tissue.” Maybe it was just my groggy eyes, but probably not, but did the lights just flicker? The reaction to an exposed world where questions are not questions, where statements are questioned by their maker. As in “without scale? her exotic trauma? precede my own? but it is always a lie?” As in “is porn the opposite of solipsism or is it tautology.” [period there is mine okay] It is rare to open a (bunch of) poem(s) like a nut you’ve eaten before and find in it a weird diamond that reflects and refracts your terminal illness (life) so unbullshittedly, super soaked in fantastic ruin. The day has been battered, but we are continued and better yet, Feng Sun Chen gave us these marks.

Feng Sun Chen