by Jeff Von Ward
A History of Broken Love Things(Punk Hostage Press), by SB Stokes is the author’s debut collection of poetry, an expansive and regenerative look at identity through the tumbled stones of broken relationships. I recently had the opportunity to speak with the poet following a string of successful Bay Area events and readings. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our discussion.
Q: When I told my high school guidance counselor I wanted to be a poet, he tried to talk me out of it. Do you have any cool stories about peoples’ responses, good, bad or unexpected, when you declared your entry in the field?
SB STOKES: Michael McClure refused to read any of my poetry while I was his student at the California College of the Arts (CCA, then known as CCAC, The California College of Arts & Crafts), and when I pressed him, he quoted Alfred Jarry to me, saying: “You know, Mister Stokes, ‘the armature of the absolute is the absurd’.” And then he smirked, winked at me, and walked away. He also refused to teach any poetry classes at the time, he was touring the world doing spoken word with Ray Manzarek, keyboardist for The Doors.
Q: That must have been in the early nineties? I remember seeing flyers for what would become Love Lion all over Santa Cruz, where I lived at that time.
SB STOKES: That sounds right. Then, when I was forced to drop out of art school (but still required to be enrolled full-time at some college-level school to continue living rent-free at my parents’ house), I went to Diablo Valley Junior College (DVC), where an Advanced Poetry instructor gave the assignment for the rest of the 35 students in the class to write a poem in MY poetic style. I was shocked, horrified, embarrassed, and humiliated. I sincerely didn’t know how to take that. Was he mocking me, trying to teach me a lesson? Complimenting my already defined personal style? (Yeah, right.) Was he trying to get me to take a good, hard look at how my poems were becoming formulaic? I sincerely have no idea. I tend to think the first idea was probably the most accurate. Any way you slice it, it sucked big-time.
Q: What is poetry anyway and why does it have such a bad rap?
SB STOKES: This question should be posed in the reverse order: poetry gets a bad rap because it is so very difficult to define generally. It is a myriad of different perspectives and voices and cadences and phrasings and lineations and formats and forms and structures and experiments and expressions and languages and vernaculars and it is constantly growing, expanding, and changing. That’s why!
Q: How do you make poetry relevant to a contemporary audience?
SB STOKES: Speak about contemporary concerns. Use the topical to be universal. Be present and relevant. Be honest about real human experiences.
Q: What are some of your poetic influences? The high and low diction reminded me a little bit of Ashbery, in a good way.
SB STOKES: I’m flattered by the Ashbery comparison! Wow. He is a poet whose work impressed me from the moment I was exposed to it. And now, I apologize in advance for the length of my answer. Well, like most people who first came to poetry as a teenager, in high school, I think my initial influences are pretty common nowadays: Shakespeare, William Blake, e.e. cummings, Charles Bukowski, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Diane di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And my Mom was always a big Rod McKuen fan, so as a small kid I was exposed to his books too. In college and grad school, the instructors I studied with most closely became truly influential. Daniel J. Langton, Camille Dungy, Truong Tran, Maxine Chernoff, Paul Hoover, Donna de la Perriere, Barbara Tomash, Toni Mirosevich, Myung Mi Kim, Aaron Shurin, Michael McClure.
Nowadays, of course, my compatriots in the SF Bay Area literary scene, especially my closest running buddies (dubbed “The Beast Generation” by Zarina Zabrisky), are probably my greatest and most immediate influences. The people I love to read with, would love to read with, or would love to read with again: Cassandra Dallett, William Taylor Jr., Joel Landmine, Jennifer Brown, Zarina Zabrisky and Simon Rogghe, Charlie Getter, Hollie Hardy, Sarah Overton, Jason Schenheit, Brontez Purnell, Alexandra Naughton, Sarah Wisby, Daniel Suarez, Justin Etc., Sandra Wassilie, Evan Karp, Cynthia Atkins, Tim Kahl, Bill Gainer, Justin Etc.,
Lately I’ve been wondering if I’m not the poetic offspring of David Meltzer… Music and lyrics are a huge influence on my poetry as well. I have a lot of poems that talk to or about particular bands or songs. And movies, oh my gawd, movies flashing in my mind constantly.
Q: That’s a dynamite list. Hoping someone reading this will find a new muse for a while. So how does your background in art inform your poetry—or does it?
SB STOKES: My background in art is a lifelong exposure and immersion and participation in the world of art, on various and varied levels. I know, that sounds like a bunch of windy bullshit, but I’ve been drawing and thinking in pictures for as long as I can remember, since I could hold a crayon, since before I knew there was such a thing as “art”.
Q: One of the things I think you do really well is the elliptical… following a stream-of-conscious “line of thought” with a quivering second and third guessing, an almost neurotic compulsion that seems both funny and true, making the speakers of your poems vulnerable and tender, even if they’re afraid sometimes of the repercussions. How much distance exists between you and the speakers?
SB STOKES: It varies widely between poems. It’s like an endless strand of Xmas lights: some of them are nearer the plug than others, and sometimes they get moved around too.
Q: How do you modulate personal pain and make it universal? Is writing poetry actually therapeutic?
SB STOKES: Poetry, for me personally, is beyond therapeutic. Sometimes it is downright cathartic. It is always necessary, even if what comes out seems like pure crap. Necessary is what poetry is for me.
As far as personal pain goes, I guess I just try to represent it as best I can, with a sincere attempt at accuracy and honesty. I try to modulate it in the same ways I try to modulate it in daily life, I guess. I think the few times when I am successful at that, that’s when it strikes a chord with the greater human heart, whether it be in writing or in person.
Q: Can you speak about the order of the poems in a history of broken love things? The poems seem to start small before moving on to encompass larger and larger spaces, greater complexity, more unsolvable problems. Is the stumblebum making some kind of moral progress or merely marking time?
SB STOKES: Honestly, A. Razor had some influence, as my editor (in addition to being half of my publisher duo, with Iris Berry), on the order of poems in my book, but mainly I was trying to create thematic clusters that seemed to relate to one another in either subject matter, voice, or overall perspective. I wish I could say that I had the forethought on this, my first book, to be so organized as to follow the progression you suggest!
Q: What is your revision process? How do you know when a piece is finished?
SB STOKES: Uhhhh. I’m not sure how to answer this one. I revise until the music and rhythm are as clean and tight as they can be? Some—very, very few—poems are done when I write them, but for the most part, it’s a matter of hours to weeks to months of reading them out loud to myself and subtracting (or adding) words to lines to balance (or knock out of balance) the meter of each line. I feel like I’m just stating the obvious right now.
Q: Tell me about your book launch in SF? That was one of the coolest readings I’ve been to this year.
SB STOKES: I was out walking the lake (Lake Merritt in Oakland) with my friend and fellow poet Cassandra Dallett and I was complaining about how a book release reading just felt like too much of giant ego trip: “Hey, everybody! Look at me! And come listen to me! Reading stuff I wrote! And celebrate MY book with ME!” So, I started thinking about how I could possibly use my book release party/reading as a means of drawing attention to other talented poet friends of mine, while necessarily highlighting and hyping my recently published book. The best idea I could come up with was to have a dozen of my female poet friends come up and read their favorite poem from the book. This idea was based on the fact that several different people, writers and non-writers, had commented to me that in some of my poems, the narrator’s voice seemed female, or of an indeterminate gender. I thought, “Just how different will these poems sound in a female voice, read by someone who has real skill at reading and/or performing poetry?” And then I thought about how many bad-ass female poets I know and it became a no-brainer. I had a truly successful book release. I sold something like forty copies of my book that night, over one hundred people attended, and the readings were stellar! I was stunned and grateful.
Q: Why did you decide to publish your debut book with Punk Hostage Press?
SB STOKES: In all honesty, because they asked me! And when I met and talked with A. Razor at Beast Crawl a few years ago, I thought, “This is a man I can relate to. Someone who will understand what I’m trying to do with this poetry thing.” I felt like we had a pretty clear kinship with one another. And I really respected Punk Hostage Press and Words As Works’ nonprofit mission to spread good, truthful, well-written, and well-produced poetry and prose books to folks who are incarcerated, homeless, or otherwise disenfranchised. It was really one of those moments of recognizing family when you first meet someone. So I said yes, and Razor and I busted out my book.
Q: You’ve maintained a blog, Mass Communications, for quite a while now. How does this fuel your poetry writing process? Is there any writing you began there that ultimately became a part of your collection?
SB STOKES: Mass Communications started out as an experiment, back when I first got on the web and really started considering another attempt at being a serious writer, at trying to become a real published poet. I wasn’t writing much at all at that time, but I had a backlog of one-off poems and short-short prose pieces I had written, off and on, during the ten year hiatus I took from actively writing, reading, and submitting poetry.
Q: You’re very active in the Bay Area literary “scene.” You read frequently at events and also help curate Beat Crawl and guest curated one of my favorite Quiet Lightning shows. What have been the advantages or disadvantages of having such a public presence?
SB STOKES: I do more than “help curate” Beast Crawl. I am one of the people who originally created and produced Beast Crawl, and I’m still one of the folks responsible for the event’s annual production, with a handful of very smart, hardworking, and dedicated folks. We do the whole event annually for zero dollars—it’s all free and that’s the way we are trying to keep it. I’m very proud to be a part of Beast Crawl. Additionally, I curate an annual reading at the event, called SKINLESS: New & Raw Writing, which drew a bigger crowd at Beast Crawl this year than ever before. We actually had to turn folks away at the door for lack of space, with an audience of over 70 people, it was hard to believe. Truthfully, I’d like to be out reading and performing and producing more, but I work between five and six nights a week most weeks, so the numbers of readings I can attend as either a reader or audience member are actually quite few. I don’t really feel like I have that much of a public presence. Like, I never worry about over saturating the local audiences, because, like I said, I’m actually out listening and performing far less than I’d like to be, and far less than most of my poetry compatriots. And as far as producing readings or events go, I do that even less frequently.
Q: Do you have any advice for other writers?
SB STOKES: If you feel like you must write poetry, like you might die if you don’t get it out of you, like it is an undeniable compulsion, like your head might explode, or your might drive your car into a tree on purpose if you cannot write out your poetic ideas and phrases and lines frequently, then you cannot rest until you have edited, hacked at it, sanded it down, refined it to its purest essences (with or without food, or sleep, or whatever else), then by all means—by any and all means—keep writing. If you’re not sure, or it’s something you’re only vaguely interested in, or you’re not all that excited about poetry, then please just stop. There are enough talented poets out here starving already.
Q: Good advice. What are you working on now?
SB STOKES: I am currently writing and editing like a madman, as usual. My output varies widely, but lately, since the publication of my book in January 2014, I have about 140 unpublished poems that are either finished, or damn close. My hope is to have another book length manuscript ready for publication in early 2015.
by Jeff Von Ward
Yeah, Well (Punk Hostage Press) by Joel Landmine is a debut collection of poetry that really packs a wallop. I recently had the opportunity to talk about the book with the author. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our discussion.
Who is Joe Clifford and why does he hate poetry so much? (Editor’s note: Joe Clifford wrote the introduction to Yeah, Well.)
Hahahaha! Joe is a crime fiction writer I know from readings. He wrote an excellent memoir called Junkie Love about his experience as a junkie in San Francisco in the ’90s. He wanted to shoot a book trailer to promote it and needed someone to play him as young drug addict. He contacted me. We were just acquaintances then. He said he liked my “street” look, which was really a polite way of saying “Hey! You look like you could be a junkie!” He knew from my writing that I’ve had my own struggles with addiction, so we were really able to connect on that level. We spent a (sometimes harrowing) St. Patrick’s day shooting the thing down off of Sixth Street.
I think his problems with poetry are the same ones I have, that a lot of people have. So much of it is pompous and inaccessible. The language serves to obscure meaning rather than create it. In short, I don’t understand it, it doesn’t make me feel anything. Some poets use a lot of words to say very little, which to me is the inverse of the goal. The poetry I like tends to use poetry itself as a storytelling medium in a way similar to photography.
I tend to try to to write poems for people who don’t like poetry (and hopefully also for those that do). So I really wanted somebody who was not a poet to write the introduction, and I was very lucky that Joe agreed to do it.
Tell me a little about your background? You seem to have come into poetry in a more roundabout (i.e. honest) way than most. When did you know you wanted to write poetry and why? What were some of your first audiences and how has your work evolved?
I started writing poetry in high school. Typical angry-misfit-kid-discovers-cummings-and-Bukowski kinda stuff. I liked writing, and I had a couple of teachers who were very supportive. It was one of the few times I felt encouraged in school. I just found some of that stuff in an old box. It was predictably awful. At some point it just faded out, I stopped doing it. It was never something I took very seriously, and I kind of lost my way for a while, not just with my writing.
Later in to my twenties I managed to mangle my life up pretty badly. I’d been at it for a while, but the bottom fell out all at once. It was a situation where it took me a couple of years to get back even to the point of starting over, just some baseline normalcy. It was such a dark time, it almost seems maudlin now. But it was very painful, so I started writing again, just for myself, as a coping mechanism.
So when the smoke cleared, I was living in San Francisco. I had worked as a bar DJ for a long time, and had started doing that again for work, started taking some classes at city college. I was doing a weekly ’60s Soul night at a bar in the Tenderloin with the multitalented Jonathan Hirsch. He told me one night he was thinking about thinking about doing a reading series. So I told him I’d been writing and showed him some of my stuff, and he liked it and asked me to read.
That ended up being The Tenderloin Reading Series. He did it quarterly for a couple of years and that’s where I started out. Then other writers who did reading series started asking me to read or submit, and it turned into a little career. I was really lucky to get thrown in on my first shot with some really talented writers like William Taylor Jr., and Paul Corman-Roberts. I’m still a little baffled by the whole thing, I didn’t really chase it, it just kind of snowballed. I’ve never been ambitious. People seem to like what I do, and they ask me to come do it, so I do. It’s really that simple.
Living in the East Bay now, I’m really lucky to have such high caliber peers. Alexandra Naughton, and SB Stokes both put books out on Punk Hostage the same month mine came out, and Hollie Hardy just put one out this month. I’m really inspired to keep working by a lot of my peers out here: Mk Chavez, Cassandra Dallet, Tomas Moniz, John Panzer, Tom Pitts and many more.
A lot of your poems are really short and funny. It seems like you’ve spent a lot of time at open mics perfecting the timing. Is that instrumental to keeping someone’s attention? How do you know when a piece is finished? How is contemporary poetry different than a good stand-up routine? Or, say, a punk rock concert?
That’s funny, I actually mention in the book that I write poems, not monologues, you know? Like they’re intended to be read, so in that way their brevity can be a little deceptive. There are some things that come out when someone reads a thing that doesn’t happen when they listen. I’m not great about submitting, so there are a lot of people that have only heard my work, but never read it. That always bothered me a little, because though they’re conversational, I write them to be read. But there’s a performance aspect, too, that you get used to. There are pieces in the book that I’ve never read in front of an audience because they don’t always translate, it’s a different medium. Frankly it’s kind of ironic, because there’s something about the written word being read aloud that’s always bothered me. Anyway, I hope they’re not just funny.
I’ve spent a lot more of my life at punk shows than I have at readings. And I wanted to be a standup when I was a kid. So short and fast makes sense to me. But I like being at home in bed by myself way too much to ever be a good punk musician, and I’m not funny enough to be a standup. So I do this.
I tend to think of my work as being quiet, even if the subject matter isn’t always. But in the writing and the performing, it’s that get in there say what you need to say, and try and make it entertaining attitude. I’m always more comfortable doing readings at bars and places like that. I’ve done a couple of readings where that were a little bit more “literary,” where people express enjoyment by polite attentiveness. It’s confusing to me. If I can’t hear the audience, I think I’m bombing. There has to be a give and take in a live setting. If people are squirming in their seats, or looking around the room, it’s time to shut the fuck up.
What are some of your poetic influences?
I’ve actually been influenced far more by storytelling forms outside of poetry. I enjoy sentimentality, but usually textured with some humor or nastiness. I’ve always gravitated toward the personal as opposed to the epic. I like short stories a lot as a form. Roald Dahl’s adult short stories, Denis Johnson, Kafka, there was a really good book by this guy Breece D’J pancake. Vonnegut was really influental in that he showed me that cynicism and sentimentality don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Raymond Carver is HUGE for me. A lot of people that I like wrote prose poetry as well. I like Jimmy Santiago Baca a lot, and there’s another writer on Punk Hostage named Dennis Cruz that I really look up to as a poet. Shit, the first time I ever ditched school was to go to a Douglas Adams book signing, so…
I’ve also been obsessed with movies and music since I was very young. So like John Waters, and Jim Jarmusch were big influences aesthetically, and lots of old horror and cult movies. Songs show up a lot. I really like old blues and honky tonk from a writing perspective because they so deftly combine poetry and storytelling.
A few singers are also really good writers. A handful of them have probably influenced my writing more than anything else. Tom Waits, Biggie Smalls and John Prine are all really great storytellers. Jonathan Richman is a big one for me. He has that whimsical persona that sometimes can seem gimmicky, and I think for some people that stands in the way of seeing what a GREAT writer (and guitar player, for that matter) he is. He can phrase really complex life shit in such a simple, straightforward way, which is what I aspire to. There’s another guy, Dan Reeder, that probably wins for the most stuff where I think “MAN! I wish I’D written that!” His song Maybe is probably the most articulate reflection on death I’ve ever heard (and ain’t that something people have been trying to figure out forever). Again, the work is deceptively simple. Writing something that seems simple and actually says something is much more difficult than it seems.
One of my favorite poems in your collection is “Chicharrones.” It’s a pretty sexy story and told with a certain kind of panache. I think the speaker and the girl really do love each other, even if it’s complicated. What was the inspiration for this poem?
I’ve gotten more feedback on that one piece than anything else I’ve written. A lot of people said it made them cry, which is high praise for a writer.
The story’s right there, it happened. That girl was trouble out the gate, so I dumped her. But then I realized that I missed her and then spent a summer chasing her around (mostly chasing my own tail actually). It was toxic and painful for both of us, but we absolutely loved each other. That one night really distilled the whole experience.
I see a lot of stuff about about relationships on the internet that is firmly grounded in reason. It’s all very prescriptive, like what are and aren’t acceptable ways to love. But love doesn’t fucking work like that. Feelings are rarely rational. I like to see that acknowledged. Carver’s famous story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” articulates, or that Buzzcocks song Ever Fallen In Love, it in a somewhat similar way. Knowing you should or shouldn’t love somebody rarely has any effect at all on whether or not you do. It’s an experience a lot of people can relate to, but don’t like to talk about openly.
Can you speak about the order of the poems in Yeah, Well… ? What if anything has the speaker learned about life, women, drinking, and rivalries by the end of the epilogue?
They’re not in any kind of thematic or chronological order. The editor divided them into three major themes and played with the idea of dividing the book that way, but I wanted them to mixed together. I thought it would have more texture that way. But some of the like poems ended up clumped together anyway. I don’t tend to read books of poetry or short stories in order, I’ll put them down and come back to them, jump around. I hope it holds up to read front to back.
As far as the second part of the question, well… It’s in the book. Those are questions for the reader to answer.
Why did you decide to publish your debut book with Punk Hostage Press?
Razor and Iris and I had some mutual friends. People had actually been telling me to submit to them for some time, that it would be a good fit. Then Ben told me he wanted to get in to editing, and he took some of my work to Razor. I’m really grateful to them, it was very personal, I had a lot of creative control. They’re great people, they’re good to their writers, and there are a lot of very talented people on their roster.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Don’t trust whitey, Lord loves a workin’ man, see a doctor and get rid of it.
You also recently wrote and directed a film. Can you tell me about that? How was that experience different than writing poetry?
Yeah, I made a documentary called Ladies & Gentlemen, Phatima Rude. I didn’t direct, I made it with my friend Paul King, who directed and produced. I shot and edited most of it, as well as the story editing.
Phatima is a punk drag performance artist in San Francisco. He’s been on the scene for upwards of 20 years and has been really influential on that scene, but still leads this very marginal existence. At the time we were shooting the film, he was living and working out of his van. He’s been a part of all these liminal scenes, the drag scene, the gay club scene, the queer scene in general, but in a lot of ways has been an outsider even amongst outsiders. The film touches on performance, gender identity, addiction, homelessness, but Phatima really comes to all of those things with a really unique perspective. A lot of people only know her club persona, which is very confrontational and larger than life, but as a person she is really sweet and soft spoken.
So as filmmakers, it was really important to us not to present a caricature. Phatima was very generous to us to share his story in such an intimate way. So it was my job to maintain all its texture while editorializing as little as possible. In poetry, I have more artistic license. I can rearrange or fictionalize as it suits me, as it serves the work. But here, I really had a responsibility to tell the audience Phatima’s story as it had been told to us.
That story really got its shape in the story editing. We had like 12 or 13 hours of footage with a bunch of long interviews (we ended up with two final cuts, a 25 minute, and a 38 minute). So we had everything transcribed, and it was left to me to reassemble it in to a coherent whole. So assembling the working script was where I really had to utilize my skills as a writer. Then in the actual editing, sometimes stuff from the working script we made didn’t work. There was a lot of stuff (same as in writing) that was really great, but just didn’t work in the context of the larger piece. I’m much more comfortable mercilessly cutting my own writing than I was with some of that footage. But it was kind of the same principle, like, what is the absolute minimum I can use and still tell this story? It was a learning experience for sure. The three of us collaborated pretty intensely, and I think we’re all very proud of the finished product.
by Jeff Von Ward
“We write about what matters most to us, about what we believe to be true of the world and of humankind, and that’s what shows up on the page…” – Ethel Rohan
Goodnight Nobody: Stories (Queen’s Ferry Press), by Ethel Rohan is a collection of short and short short fiction set in Dublin and San Francisco. I recently had the opportunity to talk about the book with the author. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our discussion.
Q: You’re a master of compression. I feel like you cover more ground in a few short pages than most writers do with much longer forms. What is it about the short-short story that attracts you? In other words, why have you gravitated toward this form?
ETHEL ROHAN: Less can be more. Storytelling is the art of selectivity and I enjoy whittling down my work to its bare essentials. I find it enormously satisfying to parse and rewrite my early, dense drafts until I’ve cast off the extraneous and brought forth the juice and heart of the work. I’m attracted to the short-short form because I believe in the potential brilliance of brevity and I delight in how contemporary writers are broadening and elevating just how much we can do with compression.
Q: When I was in an MFA program, we were told “the publishing industry” has no interest in short stories. They simply aren’t best sellers in the same way that novels are, so most debut collections are paired with to-be-written novels by enterprising agents. I suppose I find it a little ironic in an age that heralds the wit of 140 characters or less. Do you feel like there is anything afoot in contemporary life that might rekindle interest in the short story?
ETHEL ROHAN: I give the adage little credence. Thanks to a plethora of excellent independent publishers and literary magazines, both in print and online, the short story is flourishing. While agents and the big publishing houses might insist on keeping the flag at half-mast for the short story, don’t heed the pessimism. This is an exciting, opportunity-filled time to be writers and readers. We need to celebrate that more. Praise be for the Internet, editors, indie publishers and bookstores, literary magazines, savvy readers, and writers who are willing to repeatedly show up to make art of our stories.
Q: What, as readers, can we do to prevent the further marginalization of fiction in all of its forms? Or do you think that’s an issue?
ETHEL ROHAN: Support books and writing. Buy, read, and talk up books and literary magazines. Writing teachers, use stories from literary magazines in your classes and workshops. Everyone, support your local independent bookstore and writing communities, not just by buying books, but also offer to write reviews on index cards for display, volunteer to work events and the shop floor—anything you can do to share your enthusiasm for your favorite writers and books. Also, attend literary events and readings, they’re often free, fun, and can be excellent.
Q: What inspired you to write Goodnight Nobody? How did you know the individual stories would work so well as a collection?
ETHEL ROHAN:I didn’t write Goodnight Nobody so much as I wrote the individual stories and arrived at a point where I realized I had produced enough work to compile what I hoped would be a strong collection. I’m a serial writer and thankfully I had a lot of stories to choose from to include in Goodnight Nobody. The original manuscript Queen’s Ferry Press accepted for publication contained 40 stories and during the editorial process I decided to parse the collection down to 30 because, as with my individual stories, I wanted to cut away at the overall work until I felt only the best remained. I compiled the collection based on a number of criteria, largely choosing those stories I felt were strongest, those that contained themes of loneliness, and, ultimately, those stories that when put together inside a book hopefully delivered a sum greater than its parts.
Q: I noticed a series of repeating motifs in the stories (families (mothers and daughters), tattoos, adolescence, immigration, violence, drinking) and I enjoyed how the stories resonated and riffed off of one another. I wondered, from a craft perspective, how consciously were you surfacing these moments for the purposes of overall cohesion, say in the editorial phase? I guess I’m asking the age-old question: Does the writer choose the themes or do the themes choose the writer? If the latter, how do you modulate and control them with the sort of precision you’ve brought to bear here?
ETHEL ROHAN: We reveal ourselves in our writing. I never consciously set out to write on any particular theme or thing, but inevitably the same obsessions and preoccupations surface. We write about what matters most to us, about what we believe to be true of the world and of humankind, and that’s what shows up on the page. The repetition of motifs in my work has sometimes frustrated me. This again? I’ve thought, exasperated. I’ve found, though, that when I consciously try not to write about certain things, the work stalls. Now I allow the repetition to come out, particularly in the early drafts. In revision, I decide whether or not the repeating motifs best serve the story or if they’re born from habit and that same tired old tool box, and that’s what determines whether they stay or go.
Q: What is your revision process? How long will you typically work on one story? How many are you writing at the same time usually? How do you know when a piece is finished?
ETHEL ROHAN: Some of my stories begin as strong first drafts and those take less revision and time. I’ll usually focus exclusively on strong first drafts and complete the work over a matter of weeks. Most stories begin as meandering messes, though, and those take many rewrites and months, sometimes even years, of revision during which time I’ll work on a number of projects at once, leaving one for another and returning after time has lapsed and distance has been gained.
There’s a certain satisfaction the work has to deliver and a level it has to reach for me to feel a piece is finished. It’s always a bitter-sweet compromise, though, an admission that I’ve done my best and this is as good as I can get the work. For me it’s less about the work feeling finished as it is about letting the work go, confident that I’ve taken it as far as I can. I will say that I’ve learned the hard way to wait beyond the point of first feeling a piece is finished before I submit it for publication. I’ve been guilty of excitement and impulsiveness when I’ve “finished” a piece and too often I submitted work prematurely. I’m more disciplined now and I let the work sit when I think it’s finished for a week, two, three, and then return to it, always striving to do better.
Q: From your perspective, what is it that makes someone an Irish writer? Do you consider yourself one? Are these kinds of labels useful or instructive?
ETHEL ROHAN: I was born and raised in Ireland. I immigrated to San Francisco when I was 22. I’m Irish everything, so, yes, I consider myself an Irish writer. Labels are convenient in that they order things. Labels also have their limits because they box things. The label “Irish writer” explains my origins, my sense of identity, and my deep connections. It also encapsulates the great legacy to which I aspire.
Q: What is the SF Writer’s Grotto? How does it help to be a member?
ETHEL ROHAN:The San Francisco Writers’ Grotto is coming up on its 20th anniversary. The downtown office gathers narrative artists–writers, filmmakers and the like–who welcome structure in their work lives and the opportunity to interact with a community of peers. Residents rent private offices and communal corrals. The grotto has provided me with hallowed space to work amidst a collective charge and allowed me the opportunity to make some wonderful friends. I find it a warm, inviting, instructive, and inspiring place.
Q: What’s the one thing you’ve learned since Goodnight Nobody has come out that you wish someone had told you as you were preparing for its release?
ETHEL ROHAN: That Goodnight Nobody, no book, will ever matter as much to anyone else as it does to me, and the self-promotion needed to try to get the book into readers’ hands is exhausting, and often uncomfortable, and sometimes crushing.
Q: Do you have any advice for other writers?
ETHEL ROHAN: Write and read. Persevere. Network. Don’t get paranoid, bitter, or stuck in self-doubt. Be a good literary citizen. Write and read.
Q: What are you working on now?
ETHEL ROHAN: My tiny memoir, Out of Dublin , published on May 14, 2014. Out of Dublin is an ebook single from Shebooks, a publisher devoted to publishing women writers in fiction, memoir, and journalism. I’m also hard at work on what I hope is the final revision of my novel manuscript. We shall see…
by Jeff Von Ward
The Wolves, Jason R Jimenez’s debut novel, is the story of two men’s obsession and possession of two women, separated by 600 years of history. I recently had the opportunity to talk about the book with the author. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our discussion.
Q: Congratulations on your debut publication! How would you describe your novel, The Wolves, to the uninitiated?
JASON R. JIMENEZ: The Wolves is an erotic historical novel. It’s broken up into two sections. The first, Wolf, is about two people who do a lot of drugs, have a lot of sex, but then also starve themselves. All sort of set to the tune of early 1980s New Wave. They are trying to transcend their reality. The second section is historical. It’s based on a real book called The Life of Catherine of Siena by Raymond of Capua. For my retelling I’ve made it much more about Raymond and his relationship to Catherine. Instead of doing drugs Catherine and Raymond recite from the Bible. They don’t have sex but the erotic is still present in their relationship, in Catherine’s relationship to Jesus, etc. The songs of monks would be heard here. Both sections have to do with bodies, obsession, the imagination’s limits. It’s also political, because Catherine of Siena is/was a political figure. The same could be said about the character Wolf. It’s also about love and the unbearable nature of it. Loving someone or something so much you want to become them or devour them as in the book. I like the idea of people initiating themselves into a wolf cult. All are welcome.
Q: When did you know your novel would consist of a story told in two parts, one set in contemporary San Francisco, the other in 1370 Siena?
JASON R. JIMENEZ: To start it was just the story of the two nameless characters in San Francisco/Oakland (before I even lived here). I set it in the Bay Area because, when I began, I wanted the Wolf story to appear as if it were about me and my friends. That idea generally went away, except for the location. Now I think the modern and urban environment of San Francisco/Oakland contrasts well with the medieval town of Siena. Catherine’s story came to me via John Waters’ late night special. He tells this story about these crazy Catholic saints and they starve themselves. At the time anything about anorexia piqued my interest because I was already writing the first drafts of the Wolf story. At some point I decided to bring the stories together in one volume. I knew I didn’t want to mix them together. I wanted to keep them separate. I didn’t realize writing a novel split between two different stories would present so many difficulties when it came time to publish, but obviously, explaining what The Wolves is about takes almost twice as long as a more traditional novel would. But I don’t think I could separate the two parts. They wouldn’t function as well without the other.
Q: How do the two parts relate to one another?
JASON R. JIMENEZ: I knew the historical Catherine of Siena’s story and used it as I wrote the first part, Wolf. So Wolf is roughly based on Catherine’s story and then as the writing developed Catherine began to transform into a retelling of Wolf. They share each other’s DNA. The historical Catherine was a high point in terms of women’s access to the spiritual for Catholics. After her there was less reverence for female mystics. That her story and life were then appropriated by her confessor, Raymond of Capua, is saddening and typical. I think what is true then is true now—so you have the story of Wolf and her narrator who tries to consume her.
Q: Are Wolf and Shark based in whole or part on people you know?
JASON R. JIMENEZ: When the story was first being sketched out, it was much more autobiographical and so Wolf and Shark were based on real people. There are people in my life who go by the names Wolf and Shark but mostly as a joke. Now the two characters bear no resemblance to the real life people who share their name.
Q: What were your sources for the story of Raymond and Catherine and what have you hoped to accomplish by retelling or recasting their story?
JASON R. JIMENEZ: As I mentioned, Catherine of Siena and Raymond of Capua were real people and how I’ve portrayed their story is roughly equivalent to their actual lives. Naturally, I’ve falsified and altered their interactions to my own ends, but essentially, this was their life. Or rather it was Catherine’s life and Raymond played a small part in it. However, she likely wouldn’t have become a saint without Raymond’s help. Their story is fascinating and I hope people are prompted to seek out the history of it after reading the novel. I started out with a lot of fictional accounts of Catherine’s life written by women. I think she was in vogue in the 1930-50s. Then I read Raymond’s actual Life of Catherine of Siena—which, though exciting for me, would probably bore most people to death. What I hoped to accomplish by recasting their story was to illustrate Raymond’s own pride in being associated with Catherine. His status was elevated by his proximity to Catherine and he rose high in the hierarchy of the church because of it. That’s what I saw him doing in his hagiography of Catherine and so I just distilled that into the wildness of The Wolves. At some point though they became their own characters and so like Wolf and Shark, Catherine and Raymond don’t always bear a perfect resemblance to the real life people they are based upon.
Q: What is the trick to writing something sexually explicit in a way that is new and not pornographic?
JASON R. JIMENEZ: This question has come up frequently. It was at its height when I was in grad school and Wolf was called pornography often. If pornographic means explicit sex or just sex for sex sake then I would say The Wolves is not pornographic. People could see the explicit language I’ve used, most often in the Wolf section, and say that it is pornographic, but then I would think they’re missing something. The characters use sex and their bodies to achieve something they cannot achieve on their own. It’s not symbolic of anything else but it isn’t just getting off. No one’s just getting off. Definitely I am not. How is it new? I would say I’m continuing a way of writing about sex which has been around for at least 25 years with the New Narrative writers. So I don’t know if it’s new. It might be surprising to some because of the specific ways I’ve written about the body and sex. On the other hand, I’m intrigued by titillation and arousal. And I don’t want there to be any sense of shame in displaying and openly discussing sex and the body. In the end, I don’t really want to bother with anyone who would call writing or any other type of art “pornography”—whether it was or wasn’t, whether that meant good or bad. There are clearly more productive ways to talk about sex.
Q: What if any influences did you turn to as examples of models to potentially emulate?
JASON R. JIMENEZ: Cunt Ups and The Letters of Mina Harker by Dodie Bellamy. I modeled almost all the hyper sexual and disembodied scenes in Wolf on how Bellamy mixed up the bodies of Cunt Ups. Margery Kempe by Robert Glück. This was the first novel I read where Jesus became a character of flesh and blood. I can’t really think of anything as intriguing. The story “Trolley’s Kind” by Rob Halpern. There’s this part in Rob’s story where he’s describing a mole or something inside his lovers armpit. That moment has meant everything to my own writing. I want to recreate that moment in every story I write. I actually borrowed a lot from Rob’s story. For the Catherine section I modeled a lot of the scenes on David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I love Mitchell’s storytelling. In Thousand Autumns he has a particular way of narrating a scene which I tried to follow for Catherine. Like I said before, I was also reading fictional accounts about Catherine’s life from the early-mid 20th century. I borrowed heavily from them. Outside of writing, I feel like Todd Solondz’s film Storytelling gave me permission to split a narrative into two completely different parts. Other influences worked on me in various ways (sometimes specified in the book), like the artists Kiki Smith, Adrian Piper, Robert Mapplethorpe, Vito Acconci. I have to thank my partner for introducing me to all those artists.
Q: You have one of the best book trailers I’ve ever seen. How did this come about?
JASON R. JIMENEZ: The trailers were made by my friend Jessica Yatrofsky. She began this project called I Heart Boy, where she takes photographs of attractive young men. I was drawn to her art first because her photographs are beautiful but then second because she was sexualizing the male body—a needed reversal. I think we are doing different things in our creative projects but we are more alike than dissimilar. So I wanted to promote the book and I like collaborating so I reached out to Jessica. We emailed back and forth about ideas but it wasn’t some long drawn out discussion about what she would shoot. We had similar ideas about what the book was about and what should happen. It was really easy, and it was exhilarating to see Jessica bring the characters to life, even for that brief moment. I am still hoping she emails me back sometime to tell me she wants to make a full film out of the story. Oh I would also like to acknowledge the actors/models Jessica used in the trailer because I think they did awesome: Rhyan Hamilton and Rachel Rossin.
Q: What are Publication Studio and The Fellow Travelers Series?
JASON R. JIMENEZ: Publication Studio is a small press and printer based in Portland Oregon, though they have them all over the US, Canada, and some in Europe. I first heard about Publication Studio when they published Dodie Bellamy’s book the buddhist. Later they published Kevin Killian’s book Spreadeagle in the Fellow Travelers Series. The Fellow Travelers Series is based on Olympia Press’s Traveller’s Companion series of the 1950s and 60s, and is meant for books which have been effectively censored by the market.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about how the book came into print and what the response has been so far?
JASON R. JIMENEZ: I did receive my fair share of rejections from other agents and presses. When I was sending it out to agents and publishers the response was always something like, “We like your writing but this is just experimental for us.” That was frustrating. Both Dodie and Kevin championed The Wolves. Kevin sent Publication Studio the manuscript and asked them to consider it for the Fellow Travelers Series. A few months later Publication Studio emailed me and said they wanted to publish the book. It ended up being a really easy process. The response has been great so far, though the book hasn’t been out that long. I think people appreciate the sex and wildness of the book. Like anyone else who publishes I appreciate hearing what people think about my work.
Q: Do you have any advice for other writers?
JASON R. JIMENEZ: To other writers who are attempting to publish I would just say keep hope alive. Trying to publish a book is a humbling experience. It’s often frustrating and nonsensical too. As for the actual writing part, obviously this is the most important thing, I can offer what I think has helped me the most and that is the revision process. I might as well have thrown away my first drafts, that’s how terrible they were. I rewrote almost everything, multiple times. This took a lot of time sitting alone in my house and just working. I guess that’s it. If a writer finds herself talking about what they’re going to write more often than they do actually writing then she needs to stop that.
Q: What are you working on now?
JASON R. JIMENEZ: I started writing another novel about a year ago and I’m still working on it now. The book is tentatively titled The Infinite Revolution of Axel Fersen. It’s going to be an epic. I’m modeling it after books like Les Miserables and The Idiot. The main character is Axel Fersen, the real life Swedish count who was supposedly Marie Antoinette’s lover. So Axel and Marie escape from the French Revolution and time travel to the modern day US where they meet and befriend a struggling family. This family’s ancestors are all tied together in a series of historical narratives having to do with different revolutions. I’m still planning it all out. I am responding, though, to our current political and spiritual situations. I won’t be disguising in this new book my hope for a revolution. If I can’t have a revolution here in the real world then I will make my own through Axel’s story.
Born in Subic Bay, Philippines, Mg Roberts is the author of not so, sea. She is a Kundiman Fellow, Kelsey Street Press member, and her work has appeared in the Stanford Journal of Asian American Studies, Bombay Gin, Web Conjunctions, and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland where she anxiously awaits the birth of her third child with two moxy daughters, 4 hens, puppy, and husband.
Q: What inspired you to write the poems in not so, sea?
Mg-I suppose you could say that not so, sea was inspired from a site of deep failure. I’d just finished a two year MFA program and the manuscript produced over those two years read like a giant self lament rather than a cohesive work of art I was proud of writing—folks that know me well they can attest I’m very hard on myself. To address the failed aspects of my MFA thesis I decided to embark upon an exercise to bring me closer to the source/trace/origin/root of desire. The what is the what of what I wanted to say in that failed thesis. In the summer of 2007 I began writing a series of letters addressed to the characters, events, and themes of that failed project, a project that later became a hand-stitched chapbook entitled Missives of Appropriation and Error (2008, The Adjunct).
Q: When did you realize the poems here would work well together in a collection?
Mg-At some point I began narrowing the scope of the themes that this project wanted to touch: the immigrant body, diaspora, relocation, the mother daughter dyad, syntax, and the ways in which memory serves as a sort of fragmented alphabet. Perhaps as my writing became more image focused and the narrative more incongruous the poems were forced to trace/record/document/evidence/chronicle the surfaces of a flat plane, a disc of pulsing external information on a repeating loop.
Q: Can you talk a little about the way you’ve organized your work in this book, including the section breaks? It feels like we’re undertaking a very personal odyssey, a mixture of memory and tropes of immigrant stories.
Mg-not so, sea utilizes a series of missives to work as a scaffold for the larger narrative structure of the collection and the section breaks serve to guide/ground readers in event. The first section of not so, sea is entitled UNEARTH literally sets the tone for analysis or further examination, while the last section entitled BRIGHTLY is a direct address as to how the immigrant—specially a woman’s brown body—physically and metaphorically arrives, speaking to Bhanu Kapil’s Working Note on Humanimal:
What does the shape of her [nomads, immigrants, cyborgs, wolf girls] mind look like as she moves through the world? (A woman who, in the narrative, precedes and follows her own birth. The whole body has the same tone, thus no ellipsis, no separate commentaries or asterisks.) That is my experiment: to make the line travel towards a confused origin—hyper-organic, splitting the skin, still livid
(HOW(ever) v. 1, 5, 2001).
Q: A lot of your work also evokes visceral landscapes. How important is scene and setting in your work?
Mg- I’m acutely interested in imagery. The way in which the concrete has the ability to warp abstraction or bring clarity to a moment is something I find tremendously powerful and tangible. Because so much of my work is seen as “inaccessible” or “nonlinear” the landscapes serve as visual markers or signposts, the promise of something to ground.
Q: Has becoming a parent changed or informed your line, form, or meter?
Mg- With two small children and a third on the way my time is extremely compressed. Parenting has added depth, empathy, and a certain urgency to my writing: I feel as if have permission to be truly honest with myself. When things fail to move forward, I feel good about abandoning projects and making art with my kids, cooking dinner, plucking eyebrows, trimming nails. I suppose all these kids allow the psychic space to divine revision: Everybody/thing wants to connect. Everybody/thing wants to belong. How to stroke this line?
Q: Can you talk about some of your writing influences?
Mg-I’m a member of Kelsey Street Press and so naturally I’m a huge fan of experimental women’s writing. Bhanu Kapil, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Etel Adnan, Amber DiPietra, Helene Cixous, Ariana Reines are my go-tos for Bibliomancy and inspiration. I’m also taken with Brian Teare, Fred Moten, Truong Tran, and CA Conrad.
Q: How do you know when you’re done writing a poem?
Mg-Because I’m a poet I live in a constant state of revision. A poem published years ago in Web Conjunctions, which appears in my book and several anthologies lives in several different iterations. You can check it out one of the earliest versions here.
I’m not sure if anything is ever finished.
Q: How important is your Philippine ancestry to your work?
Mg- I suppose what I find most interesting about culture, nationality, class, being an immigrant, being a woman is the ways in which one is/can be negated via intra and inter racism. The desire to belong seems like a more apropos a longing for me and not so, sea, “ We know that even those that look like us can also hurt us,” (from the manifesto of Fight The Tower). But of course my personal ancestry or narrative is further complicated by the legacies of imperialism, the history of the Philippines and militarization. Years ago I was told I was Amerasian by a very prominent Fil-Am writer. It’s insulting to be called or labeled anything than what you are or feel you are. Which again loops back to being a parent: Everybody/thing wants to connect. Everybody/thing wants to belong.
Q: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Q: What are you working on now?
Mg-Currently, I’m in the final stages of producing an anthology of critical essays forthcoming from Kelsey Street Press, Nests and Strangers: Asian American Women Poets. This fall I’m set to begin production on another anthology of critical essays on avant-garde writing for/by writers of color. I’m super excited about this work!
My second collection, tentatively titled Anemal Uter Meck is slowly underway (it took me 7 years to write not so, sea). It is a collection that frames the body through memory, defect, cells, geology and family constellations. The poems chronicle birth, therapies, perceptions of beauty, the environment in relation to what gestates, is born, created, planted. Is.
Here’s a link to this new work.
Alexandra Naughton is a San Francisco Bay Area author, originally from Philadelphia. Her debut book of poetry, I Will Always Be Your Whore: Love Songs for Billy Corgan was recently published by Punk Hostage Press. She runs the popular website Tarista Explains It All, as well as the Be About It zine, reading series, and now an e-book publisher. We sent her some questions following her recent Bay Area launch events in San Francisco and Oakland.
Q: Congratulations on your book launch. What inspired you to write I Will Always be Your Whore?
AN: Winter, insecurity, living with someone and longing for something else, and solitude.
Q: Are you happy with the way the book came together? Is there anything you would do differently now?
AN:I still can’t believe I made this. Some of the poems are embarrassing for me to read now, but I think that sometimes happens to me when I’m working on new material, the older stuff is just like, “wow I used to really worry about this.”
Q: How do you know when you’re done writing a poem?
AN: When the urge to vomit passes.
Q: Does Billy Corgan know about your book? If not, why not?
AN: I contacted the venue he owns in Chicago, Madame Zuzu’s Tea House, about possibly doing a reading there. They were not into it, but they wished me the best of luck in my future endeavors.
Q: Can you explain about syncing the poems with songs from Smashing Pumpkins? Were these the songs that inspired the poems, the songs you listened to while writing them, or are we intended to yell or whisper your lines over the music? If the latter, should readers expect a Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon convergence?
AN: I was listening to a lot of Smashing Pumpkins while writing the book. I listened to live performance and studio albums almost constantly, whenever I was in front of my computer, writing and editing, and whenever I had the chance to listen to my ipod, on the train with a pen in hand and a notebook in my lap. The songs inspired the poems and served as company for me while I was writing them. I was alone a lot, and writing the poems made me feel lonelier, so playing the Dublin live performance of “Blank Page” on repeat was really comforting to me. Those swooning guitars.
I haven’t tried the Pink Floyd/Oz experiment yet, but I’ve been meaning to. I really would like to do a live performance with the songs playing in the background. Maybe one of my more musically talented friends will accompany me.
Q: How does one remain vulnerable and take risks in such a cynical world? Or should one even bother?
AN: The world fucking sucks and we probably shouldn’t bother to do anything because it feels like there literally is no point, but that would be an extremely futile experience and I’d rather expose my wounds to something acidic and feel something even if that something is awful rather than laying around in my bedroom and wondering what could be. I’m a masochist. I embarrass myself constantly and show people stuff that I should probably just keep to myself but I can’t stop. I think it’s innate.
Q: What is Punk Hostage Press?
AN: Punk Hostage Press is a nonprofit independent publisher where “all rights belong to the artist” and “the publisher/editor is a vessel for the work to be disseminated.” There is an emphasis on publishing the work of writers involved in social and environmental justice, and Punk Hostage donates books to women’s shelters, jails, prisons, homeless shelters, and treatment programs, in an effort to give back to those survivors. All rights of the work belong to the artist, as they should. I appreciate Punk Hostage’s attitude and aesthetic, coming from the do-it-yourself zine tradition myself. When PHP first approached me, it was to congratulate me on my zine. Iris and Razor, editors and rulers of PHP, were thrilled that young people was still making paper zines.
Q: What is Be About It?
AN:Be About It is my little literary zine that I put out twice a year. I solicit work from writers and artists whom I admire, and receive open submissions from folks who have heard of the zine over the web and around the Bay. I stared Be About It zine in 2010 when I was unemployed and had nothing else to do, and starting my own magazine was something I had always wanted to do, so I took the opportunity and just started, not really having any idea of how to operate a publication. It’s been trial and error all the way along, but it’s been fun. The next issue is themed “rich” and will be coming out soon.
Q: Can you talk about your own press?
Be About It Press (http://beaboutitpress.tumblr.
Q: What does Alt Lit mean to you?
AN: Alt lit, as far as I care, is writing published on the internet. There is a small community online that designates itself as “alt lit,” but there are communities of writers all over the internet. I don’t think about it too much, but I try to use the resources available in the communities to introduce people to my work and to become familiar with other writers.
Q: Do you have any advice for other writers?
AN: Write. Don’t put everything you do online, just the stuff that really makes you say ‘wow.’ Edit. Proofread. Edit again. Delete a bunch of shit. Does it sound good when you say it out loud? Don’t be afraid, but don’t be pompous either. Be nice. Don’t be too much of an opportunist or social climber. People can smell opportunists from several yards away and won’t want to fuck with you, unless you already have hella hot connections. I guess if you already have hella hot connections, don’t worry about your writing too much, but try not to piss people off. This is your life now.
Q: What are you working on now?
AN: I’m working on a compilation of poems and short stories called ‘Sad Storys.” That’s the working title. I might change it.
You can purchase Alexandra’s book, I Will Always Be Your Whore: Love Songs for Billy Corgan here.
by Jeff Von Ward
Zarina Zabrisky started to publish her work in 2011. Since then her work appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada and Nepal and three of her short stories are nominated for Pushcart Prize. (Nominations by Eleven Eleven Journal of Literature and Art, Red Fez Literary Magazine and Epic Rites Press Publishing.) Amy Hempel has picked her short story for distinction as Finalist in The Normal School’s Normal Prize in Fiction, 2012. Her debut collection of short stories, IRON, was recently published by Epic Rites Press. She has been touring and reading all over the western United States in support of it. I recently caught up with Zarina to ask about her amazing book.
What inspired you to write IRON?
IRON is a tribute. Each of the four stories is inspired by the people I loved and lost and my whole lost generation, the generation that came of age during the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Is there a uniquely Russian sensibility to literature and, if so, do you feel like you’re writing in or against this tradition?
Like many Russians I do have a passionate love affair with books. I arrived in America with a cat and a couple of suitcases, one of them filled with my family’s books. I could not leave them behind. It’s fairly common. Do I follow the tradition? I think we all internalize parts of our culture, only to rebel against it later. What results might be our true unique selves.
What does the title refer to, beyond the specific item that Vera uses in the title story?
The Iron Curtain. Iron lady. Iron maiden. Iron symbolizes power. Iron women are strong women. But pure iron is soft! Steel is hard, not iron. What is the real power? Is there power in softness?
I loved the nicknames of the characters in “Weeping Poppies”: Pilot, Philosopher, Legs. Do you consider yourself an allegorical writer?
The underworld’s nicknames are always poetic.
Also, it recently occurred to me that Europeans grow up with allegory all around. The statue you walk by on the way to school is not just a woman with a shell in her hand, it symbolizes the sea, the port, the motherland and the victory in some long forgotten battle. The hand with a stick represents the supreme power and the dynasty of monarchs long gone. You grow up learning this language of secret signs. If you happen to be a writer you most likely will use it at some point, one way or another.
Is it Philosopher’s sensitivity that leads to his downfall?
All philosophers are doomed, junkies or not. You know the legend about Nietzsche’s last mental breakdown, when he saw a horse being flogged and covered the animal with his body to stop its torture? Sensitivity is a gift but it comes at an enormous price.
Is “The Hungry Duck” based on a real location?
Yes. I lived close to there. The Hungry Duck was an infamous Moscow bar of the 1990s. It was called the Den of Sin. The Duck’s “Ladies Night” was exceptionally popular, bringing almost one thousand women in a single night. Women danced on the bars and stripped. It was fun, but also dangerous—the bar tops were slippery and narrow. The Duck was owned by a Canadian businessman and Georgian mafia—like pretty much everything else those days. Everything belonged to expats and mafia.
You write really strong female protagonists. Do you consider yourself a political writer? Is the book, in part, about the political made personal? I’m thinking, in particular, of the title story. It feels like there are both geopolitical and gender issues at play, but ultimately it is a kind of hair-raising escape.
I feel that in life everything is mixed, politics, personal and gender issues. A young woman losing her fiancé because he is killed at war—is it political or personal? A family leaving their home to become refugees? The women in my stories are survivors, not politicians. But by making their choices they make history.
Is Marina too naïve or just a romantic? Is there any problem with that? How does one balance “street savvy” or cynicism with being open to new experiences?
Marina is a dreamer. Blinded by her dream, she refuses to see reality. Young people tend to think they are invincible and immortal. Songs of Innocence and Experience. I think the question is: How does one learn life lessons and stay optimistic?
One of my favorite minor characters was Sergey, the ne’er-do-well brother and hanger-on who perpetuates the family curse in “The Hungry Duck.” I feel like we’ve all known people like him. Have familial bonds for people become more or less important in Russia since the arrival of capitalism?
Depends on the family, really. I left Russia a long time ago, and it is hard for me to tell. I like Sergey, too. Impossible to live with, hard to leave. Also, the Russian intelligentsia stereotype: bookish, bright, super-sensitive, yet hopeless.
“The Cross of David” was the only story in this collection set in America. Do you share David’s cynicism about religion? When it comes to magical thinking, are Russians and Americans both guilty of the same excesses?
My position is very similar to the protagonist’s view. I am a bitter atheist. I’m not cynical about religion or faith. It is lonely here and people want to feel protected and loved. I respect that. I’m cynical about those who use religion to control, brainwash or profit off others in need.
Religion in Russia is a whole different animal. In the last hundred years Russia went from burning churches and banning crosses to mandatory religious education in schools. I think Americans are way more subdued.
Can you talk about your treatment of violence? For example, in the stories “Weeping Poppies” “The Hungry Duck” and “Iron”? Is it harder to write about violence than to see it in a Tarantino movie? How do you know what to imply and where to linger?
Sadly, I’ve seen a lot of violence in life. It is not exciting. I don’t like writing about rape, fist fights or shootings. I don’t like writing about death either. But… as Siddur, a Jewish prayer book, says, “It is darkness which makes us aware of the stars.”
I write from moving pictures in my head. It is like a movie so I don’t really decide about the scene. I can choose details to cut or to leave when I’m editing. I prefer a minimalist style.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
I don’t feel like I’m in a place to give advice. I think it would be: Write, read and never listen to anyone telling you that you can’t write.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel and two short story collections. My novel, “Light Catchers” is a story of three artists pursuing perfection in art and finding deadly passion instead. One short story collection explores love and death in the extreme conditions of a remote Kazakh oilfield. The other one is based on my travelling in Europe and Africa.
Zarina Zabrisky started to write at six in Russia. She escaped the aftermath of a collapsing communist empire and wrote traveling around the world as a street artist, translator, and a kickboxing instructor. Her work appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada and Nepal. Zabrisky now lives in San Francisco. IRON is her debut short story collection.
by Jeff Von Ward
Twenty-three hours worth of eternity, reliving each piece of a lifetime; thinking in strings of thought, helplessly conjuring the ghosts of the past. Then escorted down the hall in silence for a solitary shower. Which is the only thing that goes by fast…
From the void of solitary confinement comes Paulie Gaeta’s harrowing story of crime and glory; from his Boston roots with an Italian crime family to his climb up the underworld pedestal as a bare-knuckle champion.
With dozens of illegal prize fights under his belt, Paulie loses a gamble with fate, and earns a 24-year sentence for narco-trafficking. In prison he finds himself surrounded by potential enemies and impossible choices, losing touch with the outside world which cast him out. Faced with insurmountable odds, Paulie must fight his way to the top again and again as he battles images of his past. And through it all, a recurring choice: death or quarter.
Death or Quarter is a dark saga of triumph and suffering, rooted deep in the mind of a philosophical killer, and underscored by shocking brutality and surprising sensitivity.
I sat down with Paul recently to talk about his debut novel.
What inspired you to write Death or Quarter?
I don’t know that I was inspired so much as a world opened before me and I couldn’t help but hitch my skirt and dive right in. I came in contact with this guy who said he had been a bare-knuckle fighter. We talked about doing a book, and he told me some stories from his life. Some crazy shit he spun, which is woven into the novel. And then he had some legal troubles—something, he said, about Whitey Bulger—and then I haven’t heard from him since.
The book, through one guy’s knuckle-scarred experience, is about what it means to be a conscious human, alone and flailing in this chaotic and capricious world. My characters tend to be thinkers—and whether bare-knuckle champion or high-class hooker, they are very much self aware. This is a direction I think humanity is (and has always been) (and maybe should be more) headed in; it’s a question only of how to represent it.
What does the title refer to?
The title sort of brings the piece together. It’s the rug from Big Lebowski. It’s what life’s about. Connections. A Unified Theory justification. A set of indelible choices: cease to exist, or suffer a deadly blow to pride and our aggressive competitive instincts. Who ever wants to surrender? The character, Paulie Gaeta, lives on the edge of death at all times. His life (and ours, by extension) boils down to the universe’s responses to choices. The old action/reaction thing, on whichever scale you choose to measure by.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The hardest part of writing is always the actual Sit Down And Write part. We are very good at distracting ourselves, at finding innumerable other activities that need to get done before we can write a word. Moments of focus were few and far between, until I passed the 100-page mark, and it flew pretty fast from there. Then, the hardest part becomes figuring out which connective tissue I needed between certain scenes.
Why did you decide to self-publish?
We’re at the edge of something here, a breakthrough decided by folks who live the philosophy The only things necessary in this business are writers and readers. And that was said by a middleman millionaire. I don’t like the idea of rotting in a slush pile. I prefer the Valhalla hell of direct marketing; of side-stepping the rank-and-file and scraping by on my own bootstraps. Where every measure of success is one I’ve had my fingers in. In many years, I may look back and bemoan the worst decision in my life. Or I may look back and congratulate myself. There’s only one way to find out…
Do you have any advice for other writers?
There’s really no way for one writer to advise another. We can share techniques, tools, knowledge. But when it comes down to it, writing is about as individual an experience as you can get. You’re alone; no one really understands, but you’re trying anyway, you’re reaching out to embrace unfathomable concepts, and you have to express them in a series of dots, lines, and curves arranged in well-established, alphabetized patterns. My only advice is Listen. Listen to the universe, to your muse, to the humanity all around. Your perception is all there really is.
What are you working on now?
At some strange point in my MFA career, I decided I wanted to turn in a bit of constrained writing as my thesis. Why not do something outrageous, to really earn that title of Master? But then it turned into “the first English book with no verbs.” About a revolution and a trio of young rebels. The more people I told about it, the more committed I was. The only problem is, it has been difficult enough to build the obstacle, let alone climb over it. That’s what I’m working on now.
Paul D Blumer is the author of the new novel Death or Quarter, and an MFA candidate at California College of the Arts. He invites you to visit his website, Paulblumer.com.