In a dream, she inhabited a new self—not a mere fusion of her other selves, but a self existing separately and wholly, operating with a kind of strict movement and grace that she hadn’t known her whole life, a self whose every decision day to day remained focused toward the completion of some goal and, when that goal was finished, began working toward its next goal—and there was nothing it couldn’t accomplish—an impossible self for Laura, who, by her standards, accomplished very little—nevertheless, if she was being honest, there were perhaps times when this other self was the one that she liked to tell the world existed all the time, and it was enough to know that the world believed her, so much so that Laura almost believed herself—and sometimes believed completely—that this dream self was who she was, even with all the evidence, day to day, to the contrary—and in the dream this ideal self began laughing right in the middle of what she was doing, which happened to be an online course in the Russian language, began laughing uncontrollably, which caused Laura to wake up—also laughing, but with the feeling that the laughter was connected to nothing, a strange feeling like the emptiness of a wagon left out in the rain.
She thought she heard someone say her name—not loudly, but not loud enough that she could make out the melody of vowel sounds that comprised her name—Laura, it said—in a way that asked her to look quickly, as if there were something to see suddenly alighting just behind her on the shelf of the bookcase—but she didn’t see anything—and things like this happened to her once and a while, but not so much that she thought it odd. She’d certainly heard of others having the same thing happening to them. Ghosts were out of the question. She didn’t believe in them at all. No, she thought, it was just myself, my other self reaching out to me from the backseat of wherever it goes to when it hides itself away for a time, absorbed, she thought, in its own dark and desolate thoughts—though that’s wrong, maybe it remained absorbed in her—like a lover—she laughed, “Oh Lord, now I’m my own lover.”
In the film, Harvey Dent, known as Two Face, says something about heroes and villains, something about how we all become the villain, and Laura thought that maybe this was ridiculous—a pretty one-lined peripeteia—that there were no villains, no antiheroes—just heroes of a different narrative, one from their points of view, one that remains unwritten, unspoken—in those narratives, those deemed villains were given souls with which, however objectively and morally reprehensible, the reader could connect with—but then again, she thought, maybe that’s saying the same thing, maybe I’m just saying the same thing, but rephrasing it in a way that makes me feel like I’m saving the villain—Laura, she thought to herself, always trying to explain away the evil of the world—and she became uncomfortable and confused, and turned off the television—Laura, who believes in salvation without damnation, who makes herbal tea when the bad thoughts come around.
Oh, and the dialogues she had with this other self of hers.
“I don’t remember ordering this bed curtain, as lovely as it is, and I haven’t even a way to hang it.”
“I ordered it one day, on a whim, because I thought it would be so nice to have one—the way they do in those old movies and books—the way they close them, as a way of finally shutting off the world—even the world of their bedroom for a while—and I thought, for that reason, it might help us get to sleep on time, darkening that which kept us up.” Oh, I know what I’ll say, she thought—something about luxury of it, implying the needlessness of it.
“Well, if you already know what I’m going to say, what’s the point?”
“But it isn’t needless if it helps and it makes you feel better.” And before any reply could come at all. “I know. I should be looking inward to feel better, not looking for outside things, but you know we can’t help it. It’s not as if we buy something like this every day. If you would take the time to just try it, I’m certain it’s all you’ll need to sleep.”
Laura paced back and forth holding the curtains in the box, staring at the receipt—which was not insubstantial for one cotton curtain meant to surround your bed—finally she put the box on the kitchen table, took out the curtains and put them to her face. Her other self sighed—for it knew that this meant she was keeping them.
Sometimes she would be running, and it would happen, the other self within her breaking free, mid-stride—sometimes right in the middle of the city’s busiest intersection with the walk light flashing yellow and counting down—she’d stop. It happened just the other day. The cars honked furiously like caged animals trying to move—but she was done with running just then, wanting something else—maybe to be one of the ones in the car, off on her way to somewhere with someone special—maybe an ice cream cone from Joe’s—maybe just a beer.
One day one self left awhile, and Laura did not know why—or even where a self could go on its own in a busy city, uninhabited by a body. She imagined where she thought this self would go, but could no longer inhabit it in a way that allowed her to understand it—as if it had completely separated, as if it never existed within her at all, as if the man who sold water ice at the ball fields was, not only never there anymore, but had become a woman in a business suit preaching about the hell that awaited those who have abortions—and what’s more, it’s as if you now believed that it was always the angry woman, that the man must never have sold water ice here, but maybe in a different town at a different time, and you must have misremembered—so it was like that when it left, and Laura realized that she could manage without it, but had grown used to it—that there were purposes it served for her—helping her sleep for instance, or allowing her the space to consider regret, bringing her to important tears—and she did not know for how long she would live without it or what she might have done to cause it to want to leave.
She had men come in and out of her life, since she could remember. There was Joe who loved his mother very much, and Terry who she never saw for more than thirty minutes at a time, and Vick who caught stray dogs and liked to bring them home with him, and William who taught swing dance lessons down at the community center and was a bit too energetic generally, and Keith, and so many more—but, she knew it wasn’t all their fault. She knew that there was one side of her that was lovable to each of them and, in the same respect, only one side of her that was capable of loving them—that the kind of back and forth that she exhibited was making it impossible for any stability. There was one guy, however, Brent, who she saw for almost a year, who seemed to adapt to her own adaptations—a real trooper she thought, and a nice guy—but, and she felt bad for even thinking this, there was something she couldn’t trust in him—and it was due to the very ability that allowed them to function together—namely, his way of shifting tones and personas to better suit her own. Who could manage that, she would think, and who knows who he really is—and she began to hate him, she began to hate the thing in him that made him most like herself.
She went out looking for her other self, though not the way one typically looks for something so dear to them—which is to say, in a frantic and hurried way, often involving speeding from room to room, from road to road, and having conversations with yourself that try to help you narrow down the possibilities and remember the particular path you took when you last had it—no, Laura knew that this was unnecessary for what she was looking for, that there was no logical way of finding it, that wherever it went to would be both far away and near, and no eye could hope to spot it amidst the sun and leaves, and no hand could reach out to it in the hopes of gripping it—so she started by just taking a slow walk around the block, which is something that she had never done—and at this pace she could really see each house. She saw her neighbors busy with their outside labor, and their kids doing kid things like writing on the sidewalk in chalk and yelling loudly something about some video game. She even had the opportunity to exchange a few pleasantries with one of her neighbors, who said they lived in that house their whole life and their parents did, too, which is phenomenal Laura thought. She always thought that the city was inhabited only by twenty-something new arrivals looking to escape the comfortable suburban lives of their parents, only to create the kind of comfort that they hoped to escape right here in the city. Indeed, Laura thought, the walk was rewarding though she never found herself. Once, she thought she saw herself scurrying between a few small bushes, but it was just a rabbit rightfully scared of everything that moves.
Laura had one good friend because—as Laura told herself—any more than that left her too little time for anything else. She found she’d spend too much time nurturing those relationships. She didn’t understand how some people could have a whole fleet of close friends that they managed to keep in touch with all the time, and still manage to read a book or go grocery shopping or even go on a date. Evy, her one friend then, thought the whole missing self thing was just another existential crisis of Laura’s. Evy found herself constantly listening while Laura questioned the meaning of everything that happened in her life—as if it was written down somewhere ahead of time and her job, as the person living it, entailed dissecting the meaning of it—as opposed to just experiencing it. Though Laura knew that the idea that her “other self” might exist as anything more than just an idea never entered Evy’s mind.
“Evy …” she said over the phone one particularly difficult evening.
“Yes … what is it, honey?”
“What if it’s cold somewhere? And alone?”
“What if what is?”
“My other self.”
“Your other self? What are you talking about?”
“I mean … what if it wants to come home to me, but it’s scared—scared that I might not take it back maybe or that I’ll be mad at it?”
“Your other self. Honey, are you still seeing your therapist?”
“No, but just listen to me a for a minute. Let’s say you just up and left Frank for a few weeks without a word—wouldn’t you be scared to go home to him?”
“Well … yeah, I guess so, but listen …”
Laura sobbed a bit. “I’m sorry, Evy. I’ve got to go.” She hung up the phone before Evy could protest. Laura opened the front door and felt the cool air immediately on her hands and ears. She looked around, half expecting to see her other self peeking at her from behind a parked car or some hedge. But it was just a quiet, chilly afternoon on her street. She bent down and straightened the welcome mat, before going back inside.
After a few months, she gave up on looking for it entirely. She figured that it would come back on its own or it wouldn’t—like a missing cat, but, unlike a missing cat, she couldn’t exactly just post pictures on the telephone poles and trees in her neighborhood. What would the photo even be?—it would be her, she guessed—and the neighbors would think she was psycho, which Laura couldn’t exactly argue too well against anyway. And what would it even say?—Missing: Laura’s other self. Last seen falling asleep on Laura’s couch to a book about windmills (not Don Quixote). Has no collar, but does occasionally wear a necklace of Laura’s given to her by her father (gold with a fake emerald pendant). Will not bite and is not dangerous, but will likely run away should you approach it. Reward—well, and what would she even offer for herself? Was a hundred bucks enough? Two hundred? She checked her purse—Reward: $43.
Once when Laura was a young girl she thought she saw a zebra in the patch of trees that ran along the perimeter of her back yard. She was standing on a chair and stuck her little nose against the glass of the kitchen window. “Mom,” she yelled. “Mom.” But her mother was upstairs in the shower. Laura watched the black and white stripes moving in and out of the misty background. She could see the steam from its nostrils, as it bent down to eat a little tall grass. She had only ever seen one on those television nature shows or drawn and colored in morning cartoons. It was bigger than she imagined and more majestic in real life. Laura’s small eyes opened wide. It was the most beautiful thing she’d seen her life—that was for sure. “Mom!” Laura became afraid that the zebra might leave. She walked over to the back door, and managed to unlock the little door handle lock—but there was still the upper lock which was bigger and harder to reach. Even on her toes, she could just barely touch the bottom of it—so she tried jumping up and down, swinging her arm at it—but she just didn’t have the strength to turn it. She went back to the kitchen window. The zebra was still there, but its ears were up and it was looking at the door—alert maybe to the noise she was making. Laura became even more worried it would run off. She thought for a moment. A long wooden spoon hung just to left of her head. She grabbed it, hopped down and ran toward the door. It wasn’t the spoon-end of the spoon that she used, however, but the handle—particularly the little loop of string that her mother would use to hang it next to the sink. Laura, after a few failed jumping attempts, hooked the string neatly around the lock, and pulled straight down like she was ringing a heavy bell. It worked. Next thing, she was outside and walking with slow steps toward the zebra, lest she scare it off. Everything not in focus appeared to tremble for her, as if an earthquake were disturbing the whole world that surrounded her and the zebra. The zebra, however, remained still. It watched her approach. It let her approach. When Laura got close enough to the zebra, she said, “Hi, there. My name is Laura.” The zebra appeared relieved at hearing this in a way, and bent down to continue eating grass—letting Laura move freely around. As she got closer to the zebra, what she thought were stripes weren’t stripes at all—they were long paragraphs of text spaced evenly apart. She got closer. On the top of the zebra’s neck was written, in big letters, THE BOOK OF LAURA. Laura gasped. She read further. There was written below her name things about her life thus far—her birth was there, and her first day of school, her trip to Disney world, the day her daddy left for good—each event had lots of details, details that even Laura hadn’t remembered—she skimmed them right up until that very day, where it was written that she saw a zebra and that she read THE BOOK OF LAURA. She looked at the rest of the zebra. There were many more stripes with things written in them. This must be my future, Laura thought. She rushed to read further.
“Laura! Come on honey. It’s time for your bus,” her mother yelled from the kitchen. The zebra looked up at Laura, as if Laura had betrayed it—as if whatever trust the zebra had in her vanished at that moment—and the zebra ran off through the trees, disappearing in the mist.
Laura never forgave her mom for that. “Either the zebra or the book may have been invented,” she told her therapist once, “but not both;” then, a bird flew in the open window, singing its panicked tune as it flew around the office and alighted on a sconce near the door. Her therapist, whose name was William said, trying to be funny, “Ah, look…the book of William just flew in.” She never saw a therapist again.
A year went by, and—just like that—on a day of no particular importance—she saw her other self. It was evening. She was washing the dishes in the sink of her kitchen, and she looked up—and what looked back at her was a face in tears—a face that looked to have no particular reason to be in tears, but nevertheless was crying, nevertheless it’s nose was turning red and the hair that hung down into its face was sticking to its chin—and the face was barely visible at times but it was there—and she thought, this is you, isn’t it?
“You know it’s me, silly.”
“You’ve come back.”
But it said nothing. She shut off the light, and it seemed gone again. It wasn’t though. She could feel this other self return to her, as if settling down into her body through her skin and sternum. After a while, it took over again for a time—and she thought, I should be running now, then a shower, then a snack, then tea and maybe a book about windmills.
Note on title: What’ll I Do, as sung by Judy Garland
M. A. Vizsolyi is the author two books of poetry, Anthem for the Wounded, and The Lamp with Wings: Love Sonnets, (HarperPerennial) winner of the National Poetry Series, selected by Ilya Kaminsky. He is also the author of the chapbooks, Notes on Melancholia (Monk Books) and The Case of Jane: A Verse Play (500places press). He teaches in the BFAW program at Goddard College, where he edits the online journal, Duende. This is his first published short story.
REPEAT AND AGAIN REPEAT TOGETHER
Each moment of the day drops
straight from the sky as a sliver,
dropping in a vertical line,
lodging itself into our skin—
revealing the pure darkness that hid
behind the blue and cloudy mural above,
to leave thin, translucent spikes
sticking out from our arms, our legs.
And as the curtain above turns
to black with the absence of time,
we lie here, backs on grass,
dew climbing up and over our thighs.
If I remove your needles, will you
remove mine? Take your time—
we will pull each out, breathe on the spots
left behind, and put them in a satchel.
We will carry that bag every day—
and every day, gather a new one,
and every day, wind up in darkness again.
Pollution in the hardware—
there’s no escaping,
the low hanging clouds spell
your name in wet cotton cursive
and fill themselves
with sludge, with oil, with a mass
of slurry just waiting to release
and here, we rush from storefront
to storefront trying to open a door
but no help arrives—in one, an old man
locks his palms to the handle
and sways back to block us out
and we are on the street open, naked,
unprepared for what is coming our way,
this pension of suffering
that is inevitable, but also so easily remedied
as that man disappears behind the blur
of his own breath, masking the glass.
Robert Krut is the author of This is the Ocean (Bona Fide Books, 2013), which received the Melissa Gregory Lanitis Poetry Prize, and The Spider Sermons (BlazeVox, 2009). More information can be found at www.robert-krut.com.
By Silas Hansen
Silas Hansen: First of all, I wanted to say that I love the book. As another academic and essayist with an anxiety disorder, I kept finding passages where I’d stop and say, “Yes. Yes. That’s how it is. That’s exactly it.” You also did such a great job of making your experience accessible to the reader—even in the places where my experience or understanding of my anxiety has been different from yours, your writing made it so clear and concrete that I still understood exactly what you were saying. I want to ask you more about that later, but first I’m curious to know more about the process of writing the book.
When did you first realize you had a book here, and not an essay? How long did it take you to write it? How has the book changed from the planning stages to the published version?
Sarah Fawn Montgomery: I’m so glad it resonated! It’s daunting to try and make the “unreal” seem real for others who might not have experienced it, or at least not in the same ways, so I’m thrilled it was accessible.
I originally had no intention of writing about mental illness, much less America’s history of medical treatment. My first foray into writing about mental illness was an essay mostly about noise pollution, but that also mentioned anxiety. One night at a dinner party, a colleague and dear friend who’d come across the essay in a literary journal brought it up, leaning across the table and saying, “I didn’t know you were so crazy!” I was immediately embarrassed, angry, sad. I’d always concealed my mental illness, but this moment is when I decided to write the book. I wanted to dispel the notion that mental illness should be concealed at all, interrogate why we have expectations about who is expected to be “crazy” and the treatment they should seek, and confront the dismissive nature with which we often discuss mental health.
Quite Mad took several years to write—early drafts were mostly stream of consciousness with little organization, later ones were rigidly linear and relied too heavily on research. Finally, I played with form, resisting linearity, moving in time, embracing fluidity, confusion, gaps in memory, and reducing the research in order to add parts of the story I’d previously been too timid to write.
The greatest change, however, came in my understanding of mental illness. Writing from a place of illness rather than the privilege of health was important—the largest change from draft to draft came from my own understanding of illness as an inherent part of my identity. I could not have written this book early on in my illness experience when I was still immersed in the language of cure and subscribed to the linear narrative of symptoms, diagnosis, prescription, recovery.
SH: That’s probably the thing I love most about writing CNF: the challenge of confronting the subject matter as well as issues of craft. On that note, I was wondering if you could talk more about the non-linear nature of the book. Why did you choose to write it in this way? Was it difficult for you to write—or did it seem like a natural fit?
SFM: I very much wanted to resist the inspirational narrative we so often see in mainstream representations of mental health—one that follows the arc of symptoms as conflict, the performance of suffering as character development, diagnosis as climax, and prescription and recovery as denouement. The world often seems unwilling to listen to stories about mental illness unless they are somehow tidied and involve recovery, which is not always the case. I wanted the book to disrupt reader’s expectations of illness narrative, through its architecture and with a seemingly unreliable narrator who does not necessarily find resolution in cure.
In addition, my experience with mental illness has been nonlinear, shaped by the fragmentation of trauma, anxiety’s quick bursts of panic and slow periods of dread, and OCD’s compulsive circling. Thus, the book structure follows suit—jumping back and forth in time, as I piece together the story of my illness; some moments slow motion, others full frenzy, missing moments occupying pages with their silence, absence, erasure, for mental illness leaves memory full of stopgaps. I also play with space—the literal space of a paragraph or sentence might be cluttered and claustrophobic like a panic attack, or the quick pointed fragment of PTSD. Form renders reality on the page, so my hopes are that reading Quite Mad will be reminiscent of experiencing madness, both a reframing for those who haven’t experienced it, and a kind of recognition for those who have.
Nonlinear form also allowed me to play with truth, which is essential for nonfiction, but suspect when writing about mental health. Those of us with mental illness are never quite trusted to report accurately, our reliability when speaking about pain or healthcare always framed by our tenuous relationship with sanity. Our experiences, however accurate, are often invalidated if they do not meet others’ expectations. I wanted to play with the spectrums of reality and sanity by encouraging readers to reflect on their disbelief. As a mentally ill person, my memory and experience are different, “unreal,” sometimes even to me, so experimenting with the concept of reality invites readers to question and frames a larger discussion of the doubt we place on those with mental illnesses, the reasons we do so, and the very knowability of abstractions like illness, health, truth, and narrative.
SH: I love what you’ve said about wanting to resist that typical narrative and the reader's expectations. It’s definitely something I’ve struggled with when teaching essays in my classes that deal with topics like mental illness (and, to a certain extent, in writing my own essays). Readers have expectations for what that's going to look like, and I have to talk to them about how real life isn't always that neat and tidy, and so good essays often aren’t, either.
That actually makes me wonder how much you think about the reader as you write. Do you worry at all about how to make your experiences accessible (or to use a word I actually hate, and have banned from my own courses: relatable, ugh) to a reader? And maybe this leads to a bigger question about nonfiction: what is the purpose of reading CNF? What do we want readers to be getting out of reading about our experiences?
SFM: I rarely worry about being “relatable,” because that leads to performance, to writing (and often revising) ourselves for others. Instead, I hope immersion makes my writing accessible. It was important for me to render mental illness for readers who might not have experienced it, but rather than abide by “normal” rules of logic and narrative, I wanted to embody those of mental illness, rendering insanity and refusing to justify my experience, because often the only way to explain mental illness is to edit or translate it for others, which is a kind of erasure. So while I don’t expect every reader to relate to me, and I try not to worry about their potential judgment, I do want readers to come away from the text having accessed my lived experience.
This is why I read nonfiction, after all—to immerse myself in the worlds of others. I want to experience the human brain at work, slog through memory, geek out on research. The act of reading can reflect my reality, but it also renders new ones—if an author does it well, their experience is accessible even if it isn’t relatable.
SH: That’s absolutely why I read CNF, too—and it’s one of the things I love most about the genre. I have vastly different life experiences than Roxane Gay, Cheryl Strayed, Hanif Abdurraqib, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, etc., but reading their essays makes me feel like I have a better understanding of someone else's life, and how their experiences have shaped their thinking.
It’s interesting that you brought up your own reading practices in this answer. My semester just started and we read the first chapter of Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories for my undergrad CNF class this week. In it, he talks about how “reading is writing.” Is reading a large part of your writing practice? Who are the people you read—for fun and/or as models for how to write your own work?
SFM: Absolutely! I probably read more than I write. And I try and resist the urge to dissect what I’m reading in the moment or to think about my own writing. Instead, I follow the reading where it goes—reading inspires such pure emotion I don’t want to muddy it by bringing my writer’s ego to the page. There is no feeling like geeking out to a great passage or line, feeling passion or excitement or awe and going with the feeling further into the work. Reading is so transformative, creating such emotional but also physical responses, for we often read out loud, the words part of our body and breath, our fingers quite literally clutching at stories.
I do, of course, go back and make notes and take inspiration on subject and style. For the past year or so I’ve read primarily poetry because so many utterly devastating and joyful collections have been released, and their timeliness reminds me of the political power of poetry. They are art and artifact, matter and mirror. In the past month or so, I’ve read the latest by Kevin Brown, Lynn Melnick, Tracy K. Smith, Ada Limón, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Rachel McKibbens, Tarfia Faizullah, Victoria Chang, Amy Meng, Analicia Sotelo, Natalie Scenters-Zapico, and the list goes on.
SH: I love a lot of those poets, too—Rachel McKibbens, Tracy Smith, and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo are three of my favorites! I’m definitely adding all of the others to my to-read list.
I wanted to go back to something I mentioned earlier. One of the things I really appreciated about the writing in Quite Mad is the concreteness of the scenes, and the powerful imagery you used to pull the reader into those scenes. As I said, even in those places where my own experiences and understanding of anxiety differed from yours, the writing was so clear and concrete that I never had trouble understanding your experiences and accessing the emotions you were getting at in those moments. It actually reminds me of poetry, now that I think about it—the clarity of the images, the conciseness of the language, etc.—so I’m not surprised that you read a lot of poetry!
Is this something that comes naturally to you, or is it something you realized was needed later and had to consciously work on when you revised? One of the things I liked most about it was that it felt so natural, and also the conciseness of it. Do you have advice for writers who struggle with this? Were there specific revision strategies that helped you, or specific writers you’ve looked to as models for this?
SFM: I’m so pleased! Clarity was a main focus, in part because I wanted to make the mental and physical symptoms as concrete as I could for readers, but also because mental illness is often discussed in abstract terms, and being specific is essential to counter the mystery and vagueness, as well as disbelief and suspicion that can be so damaging to patients and our healthcare system. At the same time, however, much of my experience with mental illness has been about embracing ambiguity, contradiction, and the seemingly unreal, and understanding there is much beyond my power to name or control. So while I wanted to be as detailed as I could in terms of image and scene, I did not want to render my experience with the expected language. Clarity—and thus honesty—meant I had to allow the writing to embody madness, to utilize its rhythms, tones, and forms, and to share, without filter, those comparisons and descriptions that while accurate, often seem illogical or perhaps even untrue.
My best advice is something a dear reader said about my early drafts. The reader said that they appreciated the parts where I allowed anger and frustration to slip into the prose. At that point, I was still trying to self-edit the personal as opposed to the prose, and the reader responded to moments where the desire to over-explain to the reader vanished and the real story surfaced. Not only was that invitation and permission welcome as a woman and someone with mental illness, but it has also been some of the best writing and revision advice—to edit for accuracy rather than performance. To be cognizant of cutting to the core of an experience, cracking through the protection of bone to scoop out the marrow, rather than editing for a reader’s expectation. We share our stories to hopefully move others, so we’ve got to be honest, even if it is painful, shameful, or odd. We must own our experiences to own the page.
SH: That's such great advice! It’s something I struggled with a lot as I started writing CNF, and something I still struggle with, if I’m being honest, particularly when it comes to wanting to come across as a certain way—smart, likable, put-together, etc. It’s so natural to want that, but the honesty and reality is so much more important than performing in a particular way.
One last question: Now that the book is out, what are you working on next? What projects are you excited to focus on?
SFM: I’m currently working on two projects. One is a nonfiction book about the cultural performances of motherhood and the ways domestic responsibility is often fraught with violence and erasure. The other is a book of poems that deconstructs the mythos of historical, literary, and pop culture wicked women, examining how gender expectations construct what is perceived as evil. I’m in the midst of them both, researching, drafting, all energy and rush, which is, of course, my favorite part.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, and the poetry chapbooks Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women, Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide, and The Astronaut Checks His Watch. She has been Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Editor since 2011 and is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University.
Silas Hansen's essays have appeared in The Normal School, Colorado Review, Slate, Redivider, Waccamaw, Best of the Net, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor at Ball State University and the nonfiction editor for Waxwing.
The morning after it happens, the men at my Burning Man camp say some version of this: Show me who he is, and I will break his arms.
Our unofficial camp leader, a woman a few years older than me, says: “We don’t have to be assholes to him. We can give him a chance to see what he did was wrong and help him be a better person.”
This is what’s wrong with women, or at least what has always been wrong with me. This is what I have always done at least—we try to “help” men become better versions of themselves, which amounts to accepting unacceptable behavior. But I wasn’t playing along anymore. I said, “That was his mother’s job, and quite frankly, she did a shitty job. He’s a sexual predator, and if he comes near me again, I’m calling law enforcement, not a Black Rock Ranger, but the police, and having him removed from the playa.”
And of course, in my own way, I am one of those women-blaming women—his mother’s fault? That’s what I said, but I realize that’s so very wrong, too.
You know whose job it is to make sure he’s a good person?
It’s his own fucking job.
At Burning Man, you’re supposed to resolve your issues with a Black Rock Ranger, someone who can come and negotiate problems on the playa, but I was beyond that. I wanted to call someone with handcuffs and a squad car, someone who could take him away. But would they? I didn’t know.
I know what you’re thinking about Burning Man. And if you haven’t been there, I probably can’t convince you that before this, it felt like one of the safest places I have ever been. But let’s say that stereotypes mean more than my lived experience: I was a woman in a place that wasn’t safe. How safe is the disco, the bar, the streets at night? How safe is the workplace, the classroom, the church?
Any place can be the wrong place. I know that. And I guess I have always known that, but never wanted to accept that knowing and everything that goes along with it.
Until recently, which in my case has come late. I’m 47 years old. When is it finally old enough to know better?
That afternoon, I am riding my beach cruiser across the playa, which is an ancient lakebed, at Burning Man. Wind tumbles into a white cloud on the distant horizon—a dust storm. But I’m not afraid, even though I probably should be. I’m headed for deep playa alone, past the art structures and art cars—the one-eyed cyclops blasting house music and bumblebee, the wooden Phoenix and the wise owl. I know could be caught in a white-out, but I don’t care. I’m too angry to be afraid. And I am thinking, “That fucker!”
But then I realize that I have finally done the thing, which for so many years I could not do—I stood my ground with a man in a way I hadn’t done before.
I know it’s taken me too long to get here, but I think only this: here I am at last.
I had been camping with my friends from my hometown, and our Burning Man “gift” was a bar. My friend Tammy and I were scheduled to bartend, so she stood behind the bar, and I went out onto the street to bark in our “customers”: “Get your drinks here! Organic juice and vodka. Bad advice. Cupcakes,” I shouted into the megaphone. A man in a sarong and a straw hat came walking up, though it was more of a swagger. He wanted a drink and advice. I told him to tell me a problem, and I would solve it.
I love nothing more than to give advice. If I couldn’t solve my own problems, then the next best thing would be to solve someone else’s.
He told me about his neighbor at Burning Man, how he had been with her but didn’t want to sleep with her again. I told him to be upfront with her, that there are plenty of other men, I guessed, who would gladly stand in and become her new Burning Man boyfriend. The man with the straw hat told me that was terrible advice and swaggered up to the bar. I continued shouting pithy slogans into my megaphone.
Yes, I should have realized at that very moment that he was seeing how far he could go with me, because “been with her” and “slept with her” are my translations, my approximation of his language—he had said he fucked her, didn’t he? I’m not sure, but looking back, I think, yes, he must have said it in this way. Even my memory has learned to translate for men.
And this is also where I tell myself I should have known better, but why do I always blame myself?
Because I always have, that’s why.
When my bar shift was over, I poured myself a vodka with organic juice and pulled up a lawn chair next to this man with the sarong and straw hat. We introduced ourselves, using our Burning Man names. I told him I was Sassy. He went by Dizzy. We were about the same age and ended up talking about the music of our youth and then moved onto other aspects of popular culture from the 70s, 80s, and 90s—the Bee Gees, roller skating parties, the time the Brady Bunch stole the Hawaiian idol and were cursed until they returned it. And all those Twilight Zone episodes! It’s fun to remember these things with somebody else, especially with organic juice and vodka in your hand, the sun on your shoulders, the desert stretched out before you.
I want to say this: It’s okay to sit down next to a person and laugh with him. It means nothing other than you are sitting down and laughing. Maybe it’s for myself that I am saying this.
His pupils were pinpricks. I guessed he was on something, but I don’t know how to read pupils. I had to use the restroom, and he said he did, too, so we walked to the porta-potties together. Within minutes, a dust storm tumbled toward us, and by the time we finished in the porta-potties, we ran through a white-out and back to camp for cover. We banged on the door of my friend’s RV, seeking refuge.
By now, Dizzy was complimenting everything from my freckles to my feet, but none of it seemed overly flirtatious—at least that’s what I told myself. He was a massage therapist, and kept telling me that he could see that I was tense. I told him I was married and he was not allowed to touch me. Yes, I said those words: “You are not allowed to touch me.” Burning Man can be a sexually charged place, but also a place that promotes boundaries. I wanted to be clear.
In the RV, Dizzy gave Tammy a shoulder massage, and I felt relieved that his attention had turned elsewhere, told myself he was on something—maybe ecstasy and just wanted to touch someone. It had nothing to do with me.
After the dust storm, I said I was going out onto the playa. The sun was setting and the light would be perfect for photographs. He asked, “Can I come with you?” I told him that I was taking my bike. He said his bike was at a camp next door. I shrugged and said, “Sure, why not?”
We watched a giant marionette strut across the playa, and then stopped at a dome with fish lens eyes holes, and I went inside to take a photograph. Just as I did, Dizzy stood outside in front of the small window and flashed me his dick.
“Seriously?” I said even though no one was listening. I was shocked but then angry. Fuck him, I thought. I have to get away from him.
And I will say this also: His dick was not impressive.
While I was still kneeling at the small window, I deleted the picture off my camera—I wanted to erase him. I came out of the dome, and Dizzy was there, rubbing a woman’s shoulders. I saw this as my chance to escape. I got onto my bike and pedaled away without his notice.
On my way back to camp, I stopped at a party and saw some friends and listened to music. By the time I returned to my camp, it was dark. Dizzy was still there, sitting in our makeshift bar with some of the others. He came up to me and said, “You left because you were jealous, right? You saw me talking to those other girls, and you got mad.”
“I was mad,” I said, “but not because of that.”
“Then what?” He smiled in that way men smile when they are trying to be charming. When they are trying to get beneath our skin.
I stood where I was, not wanting my campmates to hear this exchange, not wanting someone to tell me that getting flashed at Burning Man was no big deal. Hadn’t I had coffee and eggs with the shirt-cocking campmate from next door? I knew this was different but wasn’t sure how to explain it. Dizzy came over to me, into the darkness. We stood in the shadows of an RV, and I said, “You flashed me.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said. But he laughed, as if I was being silly to make such a fuss. Especially at Burning Man.
And then I did that thing I wish I did not do—I told him that we could be friends, that his attention was flattering, but, but, but. The same shit I have been saying for years to men who act like assholes: It’s okay. You’re okay. Don’t worry, I’ll shoulder this again.
As a young woman, I knew my charm was my power. Hadn’t my own mother told me this? To be the wrong kind of bitch was to give up the only power I held. And had I really told myself that we could be friends because we both liked the same episode of the Twilight Zone? That that was enough to make up for the dick flash?
I was guilty of allowing for the erasure of a man’s bad behavior because I had learned it was easier, or maybe just too familiar. And this is where I want to apologize to other women because I have never properly stood up for myself. I have let men think that the lines they crossed—into sexual harassment, assault, predation—have been annoying but on the whole, all right.
But here’s the thing: they never were.
But somehow, I didn’t have the right words—only the shame I felt. Or maybe I was too embarrassed to make a fuss. I mean, shouldn’t I be grateful someone was paying attention to me? Wouldn’t that give me power like my mother had suggested? And if it went badly, as it so often had, wasn’t that somehow my fault?
“Just don’t do anything like that again,” I think I said to Dizzy.
He agreed. We might even have hugged. I hope we didn’t, but I can’t say for sure. By then, I had had a couple drinks. And I was in a hurry, leaving again to cross the playa to Celestial Bodies Bar for my friend Blondie’s memorial. I do know this for sure: Dizzy asked me if he could go with me, and I said he couldn’t. I went to my pick-up truck, got some water, a sweater, more lights for my bike, and I pedaled off.
After Blondie’s memorial, I rode back across the playa to my own camp. By this time, it was near midnight. Dizzy was still sitting at our bar, but I was able to sneak past to my camp without him seeing me. I crawled into the back of my truck and fell asleep.
When I had told my husband my plans to sleep in the back of the truck, he had said, “But it doesn’t lock. Someone can reach in.” I told him this was Burning Man, and no one would ever do that, that I would be completely safe. This was my eighth year at Burning Man, and I had never felt threatened. It felt like one of the safest places I knew. I may have even called my husband silly.
But from a deep sleep, I emerged, thinking I heard someone trying to get into the cab of the truck and then shrugged it off and turned over—maybe one of my campmates came home drunk and mistook my truck for theirs?
Then a few minutes later, someone turned the latches of the shell, opened the window and started to pull down the tailgate. I shot up: “Who’s there? Who is it?”
“Me? Me?” I said. “There is no one here named Me!”
Only my husband, my mother, and sometimes my best gay boyfriend called themselves by the name Me.
“It’s me,” he repeated and then gave me a name I had never heard before. Then said, “It’s me, Dizzy,” realizing I didn’t know his real name.
That’s when I started screaming: “Get out of here!”
After I repeated my screams, he shut the gate and the back window and must have backed away. And I lay there, stiff as a hairbrush, afraid to go back to sleep. And this is what I thought: He can come back and rape me if he wants. I thought about what might make a possible weapon: my Swiss army knife, my lantern, a bottle of wine? I stayed like that, clutching the sheet around my neck, a wine bottle at the ready, terrified until dawn.
The next day, I asked my campmates if anyone had heard me shouting, and no one had. Everyone was wearing earplugs and with BANG, the drum set camp next door, no one had heard me scream.
And then he came back.
The next afternoon, I was putting my things into my bike basket, ready to ride away, and he appeared back at my truck. He said, “I just wanted to apologize for scaring you. I didn’t mean to. Everyone was asleep and I just wanted to see if you wanted to go out on the playa.”
“Listen,” I said. “You did scare me, and you better never come near me again, nor do that to anyone else on the playa. Or anywhere else.”
“I apologized,” he said again, as if he should get a Boy Scout badge for apology.
“I’m glad,” I said. “But you came, uninvited into my camp, into my personal space. Where I was sleeping. I set boundary after boundary with you. Please go away, and don’t come back here again. If I see you near my camp, I’m calling the police.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“Okay,” my voice was now shaking even though I’d rehearsed this in case he came by. “Now go away. If you don’t go away now, I’ll scream. We have a ranger in camp, and I will have him call law enforcement. Not a ranger but the police.”
At that he walked away. Then he stopped, turned around, and walked back toward me. I stared at him, incredulous. I was trying to attach my water into my bike basket with a carabineer, but I was trembling.
“Does that mean you’re mad at me?” he asked.
I laughed. “Mad? Mad? Yes, I’m mad. And I’m going to stay mad. Like forever. Go away.” I pointed out toward the dusty road. “Now. Get out of here. I mean it.”
And it was true: I wasn’t cajoled nor flattered. I was fucking pissed.
And this was new. And I felt something new: a surge of power.
He turned and left, and I hopped onto my bicycle and pedaled away without looking back. I had planned to bike across the playa to visit my friend Jim at Patsy’s, his local gayborhood bar, but instead I headed for deep playa, no longer frightened, only angry.
And then something else happened—the realization that I have finally stood up for myself. Dizzy expected me to try to make him feel better when he came back and asked me if I was angry. And a younger me would have said some version of this: It’s okay. Don’t worry about it, and worst of all, I’m flattered.
I might have complimented him for his courageous act of apology. I’m sorry. Don’t worry. Thank you. I’m flattered.
Flattered. As if all it takes to prove our worth as women is the attention of a man—any man, even one who makes inappropriate advances, who was most probably fucked up on drugs, one who tries to make light of predatory behavior.
And who doesn’t even have a nice dick. It’s okay for me to get that in, right?
After saying, “That’s okay,” my younger self would have scrutinized every detail, trying to decide if it wasn’t her fault, if she hadn’t been the one to blame—like she did with her junior high science classmate who grabbed her crotch during dissections. And for the time she was told she was a “tease” in a Hawaiian hotel room and barely escaped, clothes ripped. And for the time her college genetics professor tried to kiss her in the elevator, and the dean said there was nothing to be done, so she had to accept the failing grade because she said no. And the random pussy grabs in crowded elevators and city streets, the thousand cat calls, and all the rest. Was she too friendly? The neckline of her dress too low? The paint on her toenails too flirty?
My younger self believed that she had to be worthy of his wanting—just enough without asking for too much. And when he crossed the line, it had to be her fault. These memories flip through my mind as I ride across the playa. I pass an art car, blasting tropical music, revelers dancing under papier-mâché palm trees in the hot sun. The echo of a distant drumbeat rolls across the ancient lakebed. I taste the alkaline dust and the smoke from smoldering fires from the previous evening’s burns. And I cringe at all the moments in my life where I acted flattered in the face of sexual harassment.
The etymology of the word “to flatter” comes from the old French flater, which means “to deceive; caress; fondle; throw and fling (to the ground).” A later definition is to give a pleasing but false impression.
So, as it turns out, it always was flattery. But now I finally understood it for what it was: deceit and being flung to the ground.
I rode into the dusty wind, the burden of my shame finally lifted—as if I was seeing my life through another window, and all those past transgressions are no longer mine.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award) as well as four collections of poetry. Her work has been published recently in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, Brevity, and The Rumpus. She teaches for the low residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College and serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate. She lives in South Lake Tahoe, California.
Elizabeth Zaleski is a writer, primarily of checks for small sums of money. She lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, and has an appointment to refill her meds this Thursday.
Kevin Abt, alleged conspiracy theorist, confirmed conspirator.
Chad Miller lives and works in Ohio.
The choices are boys bobsledding Matterhorns
& baseball-capped dads in queues locking horns.
Water from Br’er Bear’s face sprays the tourists,
like blood of the bullock. A goat shaking its horns.
Star Bright Nighttime Spectacular—all fireworked
wishes, Jiminy’s reproofs fading to French horns.
Bambi kneels in a pit of smaller Bambis, muzzled
by the plastic molding of Maleficent’s horns.
Find Guzman in a gift shop of family crests—snakes
entwining a basket. Like a medusa: hornless.
Like all beasts wandering on the edges of cities, I turn my head
toward the highway. The sun sets across six lanes of idling engines.
On the fourth floor of a hospital, my father sleeps underneath a painting
of coconut palm fronds, his skin the color of petrified wood.
A car slides across the asphalt into oncoming traffic.
I cross the streets and light a cigarette by the decorative trees.
My father likes to talk about baseball. I listen to the game on headphones.
The deejay defines kalopsia as the delusion that things are more
beautiful than they are. I take the elevator to the fourth floor.
Outside my father’s window, the city lights look like dawn.
A Normal Interview
Ryan McDonald Talks with Steven Church
A Normal Interview: Ryan McDonald talks with Steven Church about The Spirit of Disruption
The Spirit of Disruption: Landmark Essays from the Normal School Edited by Steven Church Outpost19, 2018 ISBN: 978-1944853464
Contributors: Joe Bonomo • Kristen Cosby • Timothy Denevi • Silas Hansen • Caitlin Horrocks • Todd W. Kaneko • Matthew Komatsu • Dickson Lam • EJ Levy • Patrick Madden • Brenda Miller/Julie Marie Wade • Thomas Mira Y Lopez • Ander Monson • Rick Moody • Dinty W. Moore • Jaclyn Moyer • Aimee Nezhukumatathil • Jericho Parms • Elena Passarello • Lia Purpura • Colin Rafferty • David Shields • Margot Singer • Ana Maria Spagna • Natalie Vestin • Jerald Walker • Rachel Yoder
Featuring 28 writers, The Spirit of Disruption: Landmark Essays from the Normal School is an anthology containing an eclectic array of traditional and innovative creative nonfiction essays that were published in the Normal School during the ten years since its launching in 2007-2008. Over email, editor Steven Church spoke with me about it in-depth.
Ryan McDonald: Reading through The Spirit of Disruption, I felt like I was reading the All-Star lineup of current essayists, with there being essays by Elena Passarello, Dinty W. Moore, Jericho Parms, Brenda Miller & Julie Marie Ware, Ander Monson, David Shields, and so many more talented writers, whether emerging or emerged—all of which made for an entertaining, thought-provoking, and fun anthology. Could you talk about the process of making it? What was it like for you to edit and see this "All-Star Game" come together?
Steven Church: I love the "'All Star Game" analogy because, honestly, I felt that as I was putting the anthology together—as if I was a manager tasked with creating the ultimate "Dream Team" of essayists. I remember sitting down one day and just looking at ALL the essays we've published in ten years and thinking how incredibly fortunate we've been to work with so many incredible writers, both established and emerging. We've had "rock stars," in our pages, but I think I've enjoyed as much or more working with the writers in this anthology who are just bursting onto the scene and whose career we've been able to follow and celebrate; and I really feel that part of the mission of the magazine is one of literary citizenship and, in particular, proselytizing for and celebrating the essay form.
When we started the magazine, we wanted to publish more essays in each issue than many magazines publish in a year; and we're averaging around 20-30 essays every year in our pages; so as you can imagine, narrowing the anthology down to 28 essays was extremely difficult. I felt like I could've put together two or three volumes of amazing nonfiction. At one point, I was compiling alternate indexes organized around themes, forms, or other principles, and realized we could touch on so many elements of the contemporary essay, so many different themes and subjects, and put together a bunch of mini-anthologies—but that clearly wasn't what my publisher wanted. It was also really important for me that the anthology represented the breadth, depth, and diversity of nonfiction and contributors that we publish.
So yeah, pretty quickly I began to feel the weight of my task; and I'll be honest and admit that I'm already compiling a Volume 2 in my head. But it was a lot of fun to work on this project, in part because I was able to revisit some of my favorite work from the first ten years of the magazine but also because I really enjoyed reading the reflections from the writers and thinking of this as a resource for teaching. I suppose, on some level, that's how I approached it—as a teacher thinking about what essays would be fun to use in a nonfiction class, or what essays would get someone excited about the possibilities of the contemporary essay.
Many of the reflections are essays in themselves, and taken as a whole they make up a fascinating "second anthology" on nonfiction form, craft, and theory.
RM: The reflections were hands-down my favorite part of this anthology. They're wonderfully rich stuff for anyone who calls themselves a writer or reader. Like, on her essay "The Mindfuck," Rachel Yoder writes, "After I was done writing tomes of boring drafts, I re-opened this document and came to terms with the fact that Crazy Narrator was much more interesting, compelling, and honest than her sane version." That's brilliant and so satisfyingly idiosyncratic. I sometimes wonder if we don't talk to each other about our writing processes enough, but here, you get to see 28 writers talk about the many different ways they more or less "failed forward" towards the finished essay presented in this book. What interested, surprised, or even inspired you reading through these reflections?
SC: I'm so glad you mentioned Rachel's essay. That was one of those pieces that I vividly remember reading. I was sitting at my local pub and as I read it, I had to remind myself to breathe. I know it's a cliche but that piece, that VOICE, took my breath away. I emailed her immediately and accepted it. And then to read that it was an abandoned draft, a "crazy" narrative voice that had been largely edited out and abandoned, was so fun and I think a great message for young writers to hear. I guess I'm also thinking about how many times writers send us a piece and say something like, "Well, I just figured you guys might like this," because it's often something a bit outside their comfort zone or an essay that other places might not have understood or appreciated, a piece that "failed forward."
I WANT to be the magazine where people send their craziest, most experimental, fun writing. But at the same time, I'm proud that we also publish some very traditional kinds of essays and memoirs. And it's especially interesting to hear writers talk about their own work and its origins. These questions are so often difficult for me to answer about my own essays, so I loved reading the variety of origin stories behind these pieces, whether it's Aimee Nezhukumatathil talking about writing the essay for her mother or Colin Rafferty breaking down the reasons and choices he made when tackling a piece on the Columbine shootings, there's so much fascinating insight into both craft and inspiration. It's also just fun to see Ander Monson give us an origin story combined with an expansion of the essay or Rick Moody basically give us another essay that doesn't even touch on the origin story of his original piece.
RM: And you mentioned intending for this book to be a resource for teaching, as an educator and writer yourself, how might you envision these reflections being used in the classroom?
SC: One thing we did was also ask the anthology contributors to think of a generative writing activity that is somehow inspired by or informed by their essay and we've got a collection of these that we'll start rolling out this Fall through our website and social media. I think the essays combined with the reflections lend themselves to not only such generative kinds of writing prompts or challenges (i.e. Read essays and reflections by Levy and Moyer and write about your relationship to bread.) but also to critical discussions of craft choices as well as questions of inspiration and theme or subject matter. At one point I also started working on some "pairings" of essays along with discussion questions that we may put up on the website as well. For example, if you wanted to do a unit on lyric essays or hermit crab essays, we'd have suggestions for pairs or groups of essays that could be read together. For the "hermit crab essay," we might recommend essays and reflections by Patrick Madden, Silas Hansen, and Caitlin Horrocks; or if you wanted to talk about humorous nonfiction, maybe you'd assign essays and reflections by Dinty W. Moore and Rick Moody. Perhaps you're teaching a course on multi-ethnic literature, you could use works and reflections by Dickson Lam, Jericho Parms, Jerald Walker, Todd Kaneko, or others in the anthology to show how vital the personal essay is in such critical studies of literature.
I guess my goal was to create an anthology that could be sort of like a Swiss Army utility knife and serve many functions. I wanted a book that could be taught in creative writing, literature, or even rhetoric and composition classes.
RM: A Swiss Army utility knife is a great way to put it. Up there with one of my personal favorites, Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women, this anthology definitely felt like one of the most comprehensive and enlightening representations of contemporary creative nonfiction out there. I want to circle back to something you were just getting at, The Normal School's goal of challenging what we "perceive" as normal in creative nonfiction. There are so many great things that seem to come out of that—the fact that so many writers unsure of an experiment or chance they're taking found success at The Normal School, the educational mission of the anthology, the juxtaposition of traditional creative nonfiction with innovative creative nonfiction, etc. For you, what else about this anthology makes you feel like what you all set out to do founding this magazine ten years ago has been successful?
SC: You know as an Editor, you do an issue and move on to the next one. In my case, the magazine is also a class that I teach, so each issue is a new semester. And you don't often have an opportunity to sit down and look at the whole body of work. It's sort of like a "tenure review" putting this anthology together; and unlike an actual tenure review, this was pretty fun.
It was edifying I suppose to see that so much of what we intended for the magazine in terms of its emphasis on contemporary nonfiction has come to fruition. We wanted to be one of the first places writers and readers thought about when they thought about great essays. And though I'm glad that we are often a place where writers send their noble experiments, I sometimes bristle at the suggestion that this all we do, that we ONLY publish formally innovative, weird, or experimental work; and I hear this from people who say, "Oh, I don't have anything that you'd be interested in." I want to just hand them some back issues and ask them to take a look. In fact, almost all of our poetry is pretty straightforward narrative poetry, our fiction largely character-driven realistic narrative; and our nonfiction runs the gamut from traditional memoir to lyric essays.
As an Editor I'm not interested in a magazine that solely reflects my aesthetic, so I work hard to choose essays that appeal to a wider reader-focused aesthetic. I think about what readers might want from an issue in terms of subject matter and style and try to make sure that each issue is engaging in an ongoing conversation about the norms of nonfiction publishing. This is how I've always thought of the magazine—as a conversation—so the anthology becomes a kind of "greatest hits" of this now ten-year conversation, one that just keeps rolling along; and it's been immensely satisfying to step back and kind of assess what we've done as we enter the next phase of the magazine and venture out into book publishing with this anthology and with The Normal School Nonfiction Series from Outpost19.
RM: Over the past ten years, as you aimed for each issue to engage in the ongoing conversation about the norms of nonfiction publishing, how much have you noticed your aesthetic and readers' aesthetic develop and/or stay the same? How do you see that being represented in the anthology? And based on that, if you were to guess, what do you imagine a Normal School anthology published in 2028 would look like?
SC: This is a great question and one that I can maybe answer a couple of ways. We've certainly seen that forms and styles of nonfiction that were once perhaps considered "experimental" or eclectic have become almost canonical. "Hermit Crab" essays and "Lyric Essays" are published and taught all over the country now. I find that readers of nonfiction are increasingly sophisticated in their tastes and thirsty for new voices and new ways of essaying on a subject. And while this may be an aside/broadside, I think that the book sales and marketing world has been slow (or completely inept) at recognizing and responding to this. But perhaps more importantly and significantly, as the magazine has grown in presence and influence over the past 10 years, we've tried to acknowledge whatever power and privilege we have in the literary world and to use that to try and elevate not just non-traditional forms but also to actively promote intersectionality and celebrate marginalized voices. For us the work that VIDA does has really provided inspiration for us to expand our understanding of what's "normal" in nonfiction now, to read with an eye toward greater expansiveness, toward building a new canon of diverse voices and styles; so I'd hope that an anthology of "normal essays" published in 2028 would reflect this mission.
RM: I look forward to reading that anthology in 2028! And of the present anthology, what are some "craft moves" and/or voices that you found especially appealing or notable?
SC: Oh, man, there's SO many. I mean, pretty much every essay is doing something interesting or admirable in terms of craft. I'll mention a couple, though, that really stand out to me in terms of the level of artistic intent and design. One of these is Matthew Komatsu's essay, "Calling Jody with the Ghost Brigade," which turns out to be this incredibly complex layered and braided essay that both makes and manipulates time, an essay that is at its heart about loss and grief. I also love how Jericho Parms in, "Still Life with Chair," and Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade in their collaborative essay, "Bridges," or Anna Maria Spagna in "So Many Rings," use meditations on a singular object as the lens through which to explore so many big ideas; or consider how essays by Jaclyn Moyer and E.J. Levy both use "bread" to explore family relationships and identity. It's incredibly fun to see writers like Dickson Lam, whose first book was recently released, take risks in form and style that pay off in ways that made all of us at the magazine sit up in our chairs and take notice; and Todd Kaneko's essay, "The Manly Arts," comprised entirely of quotes from wrestlers will always be one of my favorite pieces, and I have to admit to loving it when Todd admits in his reflection how labor intensive it was to write this piece.
RM: What else do you want people to know about or take away from this anthology?
SC: I guess my hope is that The Spirit of Disruption will find its way into the hands of readers who just love great essays, but also that it might become a go-to resource for anyone teaching creative nonfiction at the undergraduate or graduate level. I do believe it not only represents the first 10-years of The Normal School and our commitment to publishing great nonfiction but also, in many ways, the breadth of possibilities in the contemporary American essay.
Ryan McDonald is a writer who grew up in Massachusetts and now lives in Northern Virginia. His essays have been published in the Normal School Online, the Rumpus, Catapult and forthcoming in 1966. He is currently working on a collection of essays about commodities and the way they affect our lives globally, locally, and personally.
Steven Church is the author of six books of nonfiction, most recently I'm Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear and Fatherhood, and One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals. He's the Editor of The Spirit of Disruption: Landmark Essays from The Normal School and Series Editor for The Normal School Nonfiction Series from Outpost19. He coordinates the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Fresno State and teaches for the Low-Residency MFA Program at Sierra Nevada College.
Kristine Langley Mahler's creative nonfiction received the 2016 Rafael Torch Award for Literary Nonfiction from Crab Orchard Review and has appeared/is forthcoming in The Rumpus, New Delta Review, Quarter After Eight, Sweet, Storm Cellar, and elsewhere.
Kevin Mahler holds degrees from The University of Iowa and Michigan State University. He lives in Nebraska.
By Molly Gutman
When the Devil comes for Christmas he brings
a casserole. He wears an argyle crewneck,
too expensive, pilling, starting to smoke. We stir
chocolate and cayenne in our coffee. We sing carols
from the billows of our lungs, and then, all at once
we stop. How rarely are we in silence.
Quiet like this shocks me, as if I was born
into the world at an altitude and with no warning
dropped down a glacier. We kiss for a little while.
When he flushes his skin scabs over. He crisps under me.
Later we eat the casserole, take care to pick glass
from our teeth. He says he’s had enough of fire, so
we leave the grate unlit. We sit on the rug
and look out the sliding door; the rhombus
of sun pursues our slippered feet. He says
he remembers the first snow, how the noise
made him think he was dying. He pours us
teeming glasses of Babylonian wine. We cup
our hands around the tree lights, watch our palms
illuminate. He calls them tiny worlds, malleable.
We bunch our fingers and those worlds condense;
we separate our hands and they explode.
He assures me creation did not look much different.
Light crept in through the space between the black out curtains hanging over the bedroom window. Ron, her husband, shifted in his sleep. His shoulder twitched slightly as if reacting to a breeze. Soon the alarm would go off and he would stretch and get out of bed, not bounding exactly, but with enough gusto that Leigh would feel guilty. She was always tired. So, so tired, ever since their son was born.
The trill went off and Ron immediately silenced it. He propped himself up on one elbow and leaned over her. She closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see the look of concern on his face.
“What are you going to do today?” he asked.
She grunted and rolled over, balling the covers in her fists. He walked into the bathroom. These were the same sheets they’d had since their son was born. He’d spat up on them, played on them, she’d heard his first laugh while he sat on them and grinned toothlessly at her, in love with his own newfound ability. Despite washing them every two weeks she felt like they never truly got clean.
Ron came back into their room after showering, naked and smelling of his anti-dandruff shampoo. Leigh pushed back the covers and got out of bed. As her feet hit the floor she stared at the pouch of hanging skin that was her belly. Damn mirrored closet doors. Should have replaced them like she’d wanted to. But there was never enough money, certainly not for “design” things as Ron called them. She wanted a bigger, better fridge, with unbroken shelves and an icemaker that worked. She wanted new light fixtures, new windows, and pretty flowers for the window boxes. There was enough money. They both made a lot. Or they used to, before she took maternity leave.
In the shower, the one place she still enjoyed, hot water pinged against her skin like a barrage of acupuncture needles. Her hangover started to recede. The coffee maker would be on downstairs. Ron didn’t drink coffee but he always turned the machine on for her. Today she was going to get a hair cut.
“Do something nice for yourself,” Ron had said earlier in the week. He’d said it kindly, but it had made her feel bad, and she didn’t know why. Maybe it was because she didn’t need another reminder. Or maybe it was because she didn’t deserve it.
They were still young, so many people remarked at the funeral. A veiled statement that Leigh knew meant, you can have another. She turned off the shower and tried not to look at the empty hook where a third towel used to hang. They’d all used the same towels, eschewing the animal-hooded terry cloth ones so many of their friends had. At the time, she thought: why change her entire life because she’d had a baby. Towels were towels.
Now, it was one less item to pack up. Dealing with his room had been hard enough. What to do with all the things? Save them in a box? Give them to another family? Donate them to the Goodwill? She tried to outsource these decisions to her mother, who flew in from Oregon, only to spend the entire week sitting in the nursery. She left without touching a thing.
Leigh walked back to their room and picked out a respectable dress from the closet. Respectability was important, she’d learned. You had to at least try to look like you had it together. Otherwise you invited unwanted attention. This would be the first time she’d left the house in two weeks. The new salon was a few blocks away, near the fancy coffee shop and overpriced wine bar. To avoid temptation she’d decided to drive.
Downstairs, she placed a cup under the coffeemaker. Ron said goodbye on his way out the door.
“Send me a picture,” he said.
“Of what?” she asked.
“Right,” she said. “I will.” She nodded.
Ron gave her an extra long look, as if trying to ascertain if she’d be there when he returned. She wished he’d cared so much when their son was still alive. It would have been nice on those mornings when she felt like throwing the baby down the stairs. The shame of those thoughts left a stain on her memory. She’d never told anyone. At a company party in December one of Ron’s co-workers had cornered her to ask about the new baby.
“Any day you don’t drown them in the bath is a good one,” she’d said conspiratorially. Did she wink?
Leigh was shocked. That was early on, after only a few weeks without sleep. Later, when sleepless nights turned into sleepless days and the baby cried, and cried, and became heavier every day in her arms, she understood, even though she didn’t want to.
Hot coffee streamed into the cup. The first sip would burn, the next three would be amazing, and the last would be cold and she would throw it out and make a fresh cup. She’d drink three cups this way, and it would help the morning go by. Ron complained about the cost, but she didn’t care. Coffee was the only thing keeping her going, besides the wine.
Her appointment wasn’t until noon. Outside it was hot already, August in the suburbs of northeast Los Angeles. Warm stuffy air leaked in around the splintered window frames and single panes she wanted to replace. Little rivulets of sweat gathered in the folds of her skin. The house was getting hot. By the outlet on the wall her hand went limp in the air, remembering. The switch for the air conditioner was right where the baby monitor used to be.
Their son had colic. He had to be held and walked constantly. He screamed unceasingly. He never slept, not in the day and not in the night. She was addicted to the baby monitor, just so she could put him down for a few moments. With the monitor on she could take a quick shower, or run to the mailbox at the end of the driveway, pay the utility bill, or make another cup of coffee. There was never enough time to do more than a five-minute task before his screaming got too intense and shattered her concentration.
So turning on the air conditioning was a mistake. Leigh went back to the kitchen table and sat down in front of her cup of coffee. Her phone buzzed. It was a text from Ron.
How R U?
Other messages popped up, from her mom, her best friend, her boss, and she started to read them, but the words blurred together. Her mind wandered. Inevitably her thoughts settled on the one night everything changed. It was imprinted in her mind like a date etched on a glass Christmas tree ornament. Somewhere in that maddening time snatch of midnight and two a.m. she’d been pacing the space in front of the crib bars, the baby in her arms. She was physically and mentally exhausted from months without sleep.
Ron had been asleep for hours. She couldn’t wake him; he had a big day of meetings. Leigh’s arms ached. Their son seemed to get heavier by the hour. Looking up at the gray ceiling, she begged God. Please let him go to sleep. Please let him go to sleep. PLEASE LET HIM GO TO SLEEP!
Desperately she racked her brain for what to do. She was not a good singer, but she decided to sing the first song that came into her head. Taps.
Taps is a difficult song to sing, so she hummed it, quietly at first. She’d learned it at Girl Scout Camp. Under the stars hundreds of little girls sang together. It was surprising how much she’d liked that feeling: of being alone and yet belonging to a group. All of their voices commingled underneath a sky vaster than the oceans.
Then: a miracle. A tiny slight smile, so quick she could have missed it. No, she wasn’t mistaken. He liked Taps! Or humming, or her, it didn’t matter. There was a smile, and for one shining instant Leigh knew she did something right.
At camp Taps was always the last song they sang, when all the girls, including her, were sleepy and restless, clutching stuffed animals and flashlights, itching the occasional mosquito bite. The last night of camp she’d wept. She didn’t want to go home. She wasn’t ready to leave the stars and the lake, the wooden cabin with its creaky beds, the other girls. Each day was an adventure! At home she was lonely. After school she ate the snack the housekeeper left out and watched TV for hours by herself.
This is why she’d wanted a baby so desperately. Ever since she was little she dreamed of having a big family. The idea of being surrounded with people, with all their noise and chaos seemed blissful compared to the silence and loneliness of her childhood.
Taps should have been her victory lap with Noah, but she’d felt sad then too, because she didn’t love her baby, and she wanted to. When he finally, finally, closed his eyes, she placed him gently on the mattress and slowly backed out of the room. In the hallway she turned on the monitor. All night she stayed glued to the screen, worried he’d wake at any moment. That night she didn’t get any rest, but compared to now, when the only relief was drinking into a dark coma, it seemed like heaven.
Her phone buzzed again with a message from her doctor. Staring at the screen gave her an idea. She left her coffee cup on the kitchen table and raced up the stairs. In the nursery, she opened the top drawer of the dresser. Nestled in between the ordered rows of white diapers, the baby monitor lay like a boiled egg in a nest of snaking wires. She clutched it in her hand. Lifting the lid of the toy basket she found the doll their neighbor had brought back from New Zealand. Wrapping the doll in one of the swaddle blankets their son had never liked she set it down in the crib, facing the wall. She flicked on the camera, still mounted to the ceiling.
Downstairs Leigh plugged in the monitor as if it were any other day. Then she made some toast. She ate it slowly, licking butter and crumbs off her fingertips, staring at it the whole time. At a quarter to noon she left for her appointment.
At the new salon Leigh paused in front of the door. She was nervous. A small bell tinkled as she walked inside. The woman at the reception desk took her name and waved her over to a station at the far end of the room. Standing by the black leather chair was a girl in her mid-twenties with tattoos on both arms. The girl was picking a salad leaf out of her teeth. She looked Leigh up and down and Leigh almost wilted to the floor under her gaze. Leigh wasn’t used to interacting with people. What would she say? She felt words running out of her like rainwater quickening down a storm drain. She started to panic.
The girl motioned for her to sit in the chair.
“I’ve had the same haircut for ten years,” Leigh said. “I’ll be your easiest client of the day.”
The girl nodded, but it was clear from her expression she didn’t agree.
“Just straight across.”
The girl started to cut. Leigh closed her eyes. Leigh’s hair was long and thin, and as the girl bent near her she felt her concentrating very hard, and hesitating at the same time. It was an unlucky combination for her first haircut at this new place. She wished someone with confidence were working on her. The scissors made a noise like slippers on dry leaves. The girl stopped, as if considering her next move, and then, snip. This went on for a very long time. With each cut Leigh cringed. The feel of the blades against the ends of her hair made her feel unprepared, and ashamed.
A haircut is insignificant in the scheme of things. Leigh knew she should be able to handle it. Yet inside her baggy abdominal flesh, her stomach rested like a concrete tombstone. After it was over, she brought her fingers up to her face and felt the freeway-sized section of hair that was missing. She looked unbelievingly in the mirror. The shock and terror of it was like the morning they discovered Noah wasn’t breathing.
“Do you want to see the back?” the girl asked.
“Yes,” she said. It was brave of her. She even tipped the girl, because she was polite.
Afterwards, she sat outside on an uncomfortable wooden chair and called Ron.
“It’s awful,” she said. Tears streamed down her face. She didn’t care if anyone saw. She reached in her purse for a cigarette and lit it.
“I’m sorry,” Ron said. “You’ve had the same haircut for ten years, how could it go so wrong? Do you want to go to the old place and see if they can fix it?”
“No, that would only make it worse.”
She didn’t think she could handle trying again.
They hung up. Leigh walked around the street for a while, smoking. She wore dark sunglasses to cover up her red eyes and fudged mascara. It wasn’t her fault. They all said the same thing. The doctors, Ron, her mother, her friends, and the therapist they’d made her see after she tried to poison herself with pills. Sometimes it just happens, and no one knows why.
But she didn’t love him! She wanted to scream at them. If only she’d loved him, he wouldn’t have died. And then there was this: her secret hope that in time, she would have come to love him. Now that chance was gone and would not be returned to her.
She lingered outside the wine bar, looking in the darkened window with longing. A child of indeterminate age, somewhere between four and five, approached her, holding his mother’s hand. He stared at her as if he knew her. He came closer, dragging his mother like a dog pulling on a leash.
“What happened to your hair?” he asked.
Self-consciously Leigh fingered the raw, butchered ends of hair unevenly framing her head. The boy laughed. His mother’s expression turned to dread. She looked from Leigh to him, as if she didn’t know what to do. Then she chided him and nodded disapprovingly.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “He doesn’t understand.”
As if Leigh had cancer, or there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for her horror of a haircut.
“It’s fine,” Leigh said. “It was a mistake. It will grow back.”
She wasn’t thinking about her hair anymore. She was thinking about how sometimes your children were monstrous and yet, you loved them anyway.
“Honey, say you’re sorry,” the child’s mother said. Leigh didn’t want to hear the boy’s apology. She could barely stand up. The boy looked away.
“Sorry,” he said. He refused to meet her eyes. Did his shame match her own?
The mother tugged on the boy’s hand and they made their way down the sidewalk. Leigh watched their backs for a moment. She’d been holding her breath for a long time without realizing it. Then she went into the wine bar, where it was dark, and no one would talk to her except the bartender, who knew she preferred to be left alone.
At the bar she ordered a glass of ginger ale. She sat down at her usual table, smoothing what was left of her hair behind her ears. Bubbles rose to the lip of the glass. She took out her phone and opened the baby monitor app. There he was, sleeping soundly. She called Ron. She wanted to tell him the good news from her doctor’s message earlier. They were pregnant, with twins.
Zeke, looking up into the trees on a cool autumn afternoon, trying to be perfectly still, listening to how the leaves turning in the breeze make the air sound dry. His grandfather calls out to him from the porch.
“What are you up to, Zeke?”
Zeke continues to stare up into the trees. “Lotsa stuff,” he says, gruffly. Yellow-orange oak leaves are twisting against the dull sunlight. He strains his eyes, trying hard to make the leaves stand still. If he watches closely enough, the leaves will never fall.
“Well,” says his grandfather, “Come on in for lunch.”
“Not hungry,” says Zeke.
“Come on, son, come on inside.”
A brittle leaf twitches, sways. Zeke squeezes his eyes tight, and the leaf is just a vibrating shadow. Then it detaches from its branch and falls slowly to the ground. “I don't want to,” he says.
Now Zeke looks at his grandfather. A thin old man always stooped over, the ridges of his spine bulging against his flannel, baggy corduroys hanging from his bony hips. He’s standing in the shadows of the porch, dusty shadows crammed with old wooden chairs split at the seat and mildewed couches sagging under milk crates stuffed with odds and ends. All this leading into a narrow house just as dark and just as choked with dust, the whole house tottering into its last stage of disrepair. Zeke wants to scream at everything and he wants to smash it all.
The old man sighs and says, “Zeke, son, I’m doing my best. Could you please just come on in for lunch? Maybe we can do something fun this afternoon.”
“After your nap, you mean?” Zeke snorts.
“Maybe before,” he says, trying to smile.
“There’s nothing to do anyway. I hate this place!”
“I’m running away!” says Zeke, and he does just that. Runs down to the narrow road, follows it up past the house, past the neighbors, straight on to where the road dead-ends at a row of twisted pines lining the edge of the canyon. He turns at the pines and follows the lip of the canyon up into a wild tract of land littered with sun-faded beer cans. He runs and runs. Eventually he comes to a soggy little creek and he follows it up, away from the canyon, to where someone has built a little dam to form a murky pond. Some boards are laid across the creek to make a small bridge, and Zeke stands on it and looks into the water. The pond is dark and muddy or else hidden beneath gently spinning swirls of floating leaves. He is out of breath and tired and the reasons he ran seem vague and pointless.
He walks past the pond, comes to a rusted chicken-wire fence sagging out from termite-gnawed posts. He pushes the fence down and walks across it. He is at the base of a little hill and at the top of the hill he can see a barn. The barn has a musty, wet smell. It's empty. There is a gaping hole in the roof, birds’ nests in the rafters. But past this barn is a double-wide trailer ringed with flower beds, and next to the trailer is a new barn, red and white. There is a woman walking from the barn to the trailer with a metal bucket.
“Hey,” she says when she sees Zeke. She points at him with her bucket. “What are you doing there?”
“I ran off,” he says and is surprised to find that he is ashamed.
The woman sighs, hands on hips. She's a big woman, wearing a tattered pink robe over mud stained jeans, galoshes.
“Who do you belong to?”
“Nobody,” he says, kicking at the ground angrily to make up for his sagging heart.
“Hmph,” says the woman.
Zeke turns and starts to walk away, but the woman calls after him.
“You want to see something?” she says. “It's pretty cool.” She sets the bucket down and puts a smile on her face and beckons to Zeke. She is big and strong, and her cheeks are rosy.
He goes over to the woman and she takes his hand in her rough, chapped grip, and walks him over to the new red barn.
The barn is open; it smells like hay. A couple of horses quietly swishing their tails in their stalls, a few chickens scratching around on the open ground in the center, and a single cow, a big cow as black as a shadow, standing off in the corner, eating from a trough.
“A cow,” says Zeke, unimpressed.
The woman laughs. “Not just any cow,” she says. They go into the barn. The cow looks up from its meal. With one head, two heads. Three eyes, two mouths. The heads meld together in the middle, spread out from a single point as if one head was just close to a mirror. At that single point is an eye, they share an eye, a big watery eye with an elongated pupil like a figure eight. A bright green horsefly walks across the red, veiny eyelid.
“What's wrong with it?” says Zeke.
The woman shrugs. “She’s got two heads. She was born like that.”
“It's gross,” says Zeke.
“Yeah, kinda. You get used to it though. Her name is Janine. You want to pet her?”
“That's okay. Anyway, she does a really neat trick, you want to see?”
“What kind of trick?” says Zeke.
The woman drops his hand and goes over to Janine, pets her absently on the top of the heads, and reaches for something on a shelf above the trough. She brings it over to Zeke. It's a wooden, triangular block, painted black with strange white shapes on each side. Out of the top and the bottom of the triangle are two wide metal rings.
“Janine can tell the future,” says the woman. “You take this rune, put it in front of her, and ask a question. You get your answer depending on what she does with it, and I interpret it for you.”
“Sounds like bullshit to me,” says Zeke.
The woman frowns at him. “You're a pleasant little fellow, aren't you? Anyway, how d'you think I paid for this new barn? Lotsa people pay good money to hear what Janine says about their futures. But I'll give you a free one, if you go on home where you belong after. Deal?”
Zeke looks at the strange rune. He is tired, and hungry, and his shame has become a distant, calm sorrow. “Sure,” he says.
The woman hands him the rune and he holds it up in front of his face. “Janine,” he says, “Where are my parents?” and he tosses the rune to the ground in front of the two-headed cow.
Janine considers him a moment, then considers the rune. She leans down and with the mouth of her left-head picks it up by one of the rings, then tosses it up into the air. It lands in front of Zeke on one edge, so that two of the painted sides can be seen: on one is a thick circle with an x inside of it; on the other are three straight lines on top of a semi-circle. Zeke and the woman stare down at it; the woman says, “Huh.” Janine goes back to her trough.
“So what's it mean, lady?” says Zeke.
“Well,” the woman chews on her bottom lip. “Where are your parents, kid?”
“Dead,” says Zeke.
“Ah,” says the woman. “The oracle isn't clear, honey. The future is one thing, but the, ah, hereafter is something else. Not sure that's really Janine's forte, you know?”
Zeke stares down at the rune and feels hot and angry inside. “What a ripoff,” he says quietly. “Can I ask another question?” he says.
“You got any money?” asks the woman.
Zeke goes slowly back the way he came. The woman watches him until he has crossed back over her fallen-down fence. When he gets to the pond, he stands again on the little bridge. There is a large, open spot in the middle of the pond now, the leaves washed away, and the sky is reflected on the water. Clouds, light blue sky, the jagged tops of trees. And then, a fish. A big orange fish passes right through the clouds. The water ripples away from it, and the fish disappears beneath the leaves. Excited, Zeke goes running home, tells his grandfather about the fish. “Two feet long,” he says, “and bright orange!” After lunch they go up to the pond, Zeke with a fishing pole. They try for awhile that evening, and Zeke goes back every day for two weeks, standing on the boards, his line out in the middle of the pond, but he never does catch the fish. In fact, he never even sees it again.
Dustin Heron holds an MA and an MFA from San Francisco State University. His work has appeared most recently in Watershed Review and Craft Literary, and is forthcoming from Long Island Literary Journal. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net, and his nonfiction has won the Mary Tanenbaum Award. His first book, Paradise Stories, was published by Small Desk Press.
Photo by foter.com
Editor's Note: For our newly released anthology, The Spirit of Disruption: Selections from The Normal School, we'll be running a series of author reflections excerpted from the book. If you like what you read, you can order the book here.
Reflection on “Visions” by Kristen Cosby
I wrote the first draft of “Visions” seven years ago. It was my second attempt to write about living aboard my family’s boat. At the time, I was in my late twenties, happily teaching and writing for a small but well-regarded science magazine. Sailing and family were two aspects at which I considered myself a failure and I saw no reason to display myself at my weakest. Until I wrote this essay, I was a writer who hid her personhood behind her writing. I used esoteric vocabulary and complex syntax to make reading my work more difficult. The production of this essay demonstrated a huge change in my writing process and my willingness and ability to represent my memories without pretty distractions. I’d finally understood the necessity of being vulnerable on the page.
Writing the piece didn’t feel like a calculated strategy. I sat down one morning at my computer and an essay about how living on the water changed my way of seeing the world began to happen. I didn’t understand what the piece was about until long after I’d finished it. I don’t mean to say it was effortless; it required a huge amount of discipline and it pushed the limit of my skills at the time, but it was as if the decision to write about my family-life aboard had been made by someone else. I submitted the essay to The Normal School’s nonfiction contest with much trepidation. At one point, I almost called the editors to withdraw from the contest because I couldn’t stand the idea of showing something so raw.
As with most of my projects, when I came to the end, I felt the work was incomplete. I tinkered with it constantly. That urge to improve and amend the piece did not stop after it was published. I continued to pursue and grow the piece into a book manuscript, which I am still working on six years after the first appearance of “Visions” in The Normal School. In a manner of speaking, the essay hasn’t ended, it just became much longer. I’m uncertain when it will “end” or whether or not it has, or will ever, succeed in capturing the complexity of a family as crew.
The metaphorical journey of writing this piece, and, by extension, the manuscript that’s emerged out of it, has led me on several very real journeys. The pursuit has taken me to from Pittsburgh to Texas, Virginia, New Hampshire, Maine, Barcelona, Budapest, London, and San Francisco. It’s caused me sadness, stolen sleep, appetite, and many precious hours with beloveds. And yet, I continue to prize this piece and to enjoy the opportunities it’s afforded me. Whether or not the essay succeeds in displaying how living on the ocean changed my perspective, it gave me the idea for my first book-manuscript and instilled in me new skills and standards for my craft.
By Optimism One
The definitions of music and poetry are similar enough to trouble distinction. In fact, descriptions of poetry often, if not always, include allusions to its musical qualities—its rhythms, its repetitions, its tone, its accents—all words that could also describe a song. And the formal study of poetry, even in our modern privileging of free verse, still includes at least some discussion of prosody, “the patterns of rhythm and sound used in poetry.” Those musical qualities might explain why poetry is often better heard than read, just like the average person would prefer hearing a song rather than reading its notes from a sheet.
Given the common ground between the two art forms, it is no surprise, then, that creatives throughout history have combined music with poetry, poetry with music. And that pursuit continues today, whether it is at your local open mic, the Lincoln Center in New York City, or on record. Two recent examples of the latter can be found on The Interplanetary Acoustic Team’s 11 11 (Me, Smiling), conceived of and directed by poet Brian Turner, who uses the written and spoken artifacts of the poet Ilyse Kusnetz, also his late wife; and on The Poetry of Jazz, a collaboration between saxophonist Benjamin Boone and the late poet Philip Levine.
Both albums deserve deep and repeated listening, but before doing so, readers, writers, and musicians alike can find great inspiration from hearing Brian Turner and Benjamin Boone discuss their respective projects.
OO: To start, will each of you talk about your relationships with the writers whose words grace your albums and why you wanted to make these records?
Brian: After my wife, the poet Ilyse Kusnetz, passed away from cancer, I’ve tried to discover ways to continue to ...
... collaborate with her. I recognize the natural impulse to memorialize—and that drive exists within me, too—but I’m hoping for something more than that. My intention with this album is to create art that is in response to her work and in conversation with her. At the very root of it all—I want to keep falling in love with her. And I want to share this work so that others might fall in love with her, too.
Ben: The similarity between Brian and me is that neither of our collaborators is with us any longer to share in these releases. But besides that, I think my experience is the inverse of Brian’s. While he knew Ilyse intimately and was her soulmate, I only knew Philip three or four years, and our conversations revolved mostly around jazz. I met Phil when I was asked to do a fundraising concert where he would be reading. I called Phil and asked if he wanted to collaborate, rather than do separate sets. Of course, I knew about Philip Levine even before I moved to Fresno. My writer friend Danny Foltz-Gray first introduced his work to me in 2000. I had asked him whether I should consider applying to California State University Fresno, and he said, “Fresno? My absolute favorite living poet teaches there, Philip Levine! If they have retained Philip Levine all this time, it must be a great place.”
So I checked out Phil’s work and there was an immediacy to it that resonated with me. I love that his poems speak of the working class, of toil and drudgery, genocide, race relations, and what work truly is. All as relevant today as ever. And the poems were understandable, at least on some level, to non-poets like me. I also fell in love with the musicality of his voice. My dissertation dealt with a musical analysis of speech, and I could certainly hear music in Phil’s recitations. They were more like performances. ...
... So we did the concert and then decided to see what a recording would sound like. That experiment was a success, so over the next three years – almost right until his death – we recorded twenty-nine of his poems with music.
OO: In terms of similarities between The Poetry of Jazz and 11 11 (Me, Smiling), on the simplest level, we hear music and the words of a poet. But in many ways, these are very different projects. Benjamin, you’re working with Philip Levine’s completed poems while playing in a traditional, albeit expansive, jazz format. And Brian, you’re sometimes working with Ilyse Kusnetz’s completed poems but also bits and pieces of her words from a variety of contexts while using a wider variety of instrumentation. Will each of you tell us about the freedoms and challenges of your chosen approaches?
Ben: Well, you are right, Op. I knew from the moment we began the collaboration that Jazz would be the main musical style. I’m a classical composer and a jazz saxophonist, and Phil had gone to school in Detroit with jazz greats Kenny Burrell, Pepper Adams, Bess Bonier, Tommy Flanagan, and Barry Harris. One of his teachers was Harold McGee, who played with Charlie Parker among many others. He was a true jazz lover who understood and appreciated jazz on a deep level, so jazz records, musicians, and concerts were what we talked about. It was our common thread. So I knew a jazz quartet would be the core ensemble. But within that restriction was freedom to alter the sound world and the style for each track to form an appropriate setting for each poem. I didn’t feel restricted at all. The challenges were all compositional – how to amplify the meaning of the poem with music or how to sustain an emotion for a really long time – not stylistic. I am a huge fan of composer Igor Stravinsky, and he supposedly said, “In music, freedom is found within the bounds of restriction.” I think the tracks on this disc demonstrate this quite nicely.
Brian: In the long shadow of September, deep in the waves of grief, I tried to find and preserve every image and sound file of Ilyse that I could find. I rummaged through closets and boxes, old drawers that hadn’t been opened for years. I reached out to friends and family to gather more. I remember sitting in a window seat and viewing America from 30,000 feet, and the earliest idea for this album came to me…. Years back, Ilyse wrote a poem called “Before I Am Downloaded into a Most Excellent Robot Body” for her first collection, Small Hours. As part of her larger work, she’d continued to write poems in this vein, but she wasn’t able to complete that specific project (which we often referred to as ‘robot’ poems).
I decided to listen to Ilyse over the wide arc of recordings (from poetry readings, radio appearances, interviews she conducted as a journalist, and more) in order to isolate her poems and conversations connected to one basic neighborhood of ideas: cybernetics/robotics/uploading of human consciousness/the cosmos. Although it sounds like a full-on Sci-Fi thing, I needed to listen beyond the circuitry and technology of it all because—and this isn’t overstating it—Ilyse’s words trace a spiritual journey into the great mystery facing us all. That’s the very core of this album.
The primary challenge was to create a sonic landscape for her words to navigate and explore.
OO: Aside from your primary collaborators, Ilyse and Philip, can you tell us about those who contributed to your respective projects and why you chose them?
Brian: The core of the band includes Benjamin Kramer, who is a jazz bassist and the engineer on this project. Kramer’s contributions and creativity are evident in every note on the album, and his keyboard playing also added sunlight where it was needed. Jared Silvia (aka Pressurewave) created modular synth parts that gave us a certain ‘feel’ for the album. I love that Jared often creates music by starting with a signal, splitting and amplifying it before applying parameters to affect the waveform, pitch and timing—to create electronic music that’s hand-crafted directly from Jared’s imagination. He’s become a kind of mentor to me in the field of electronic music. Sunil Yapa brought in guitars and pedals with such heart to the playing, such gorgeous sonic textures, that collaborating with him must be recognized as a gift from the universe.
And that’s true of all who contributed to this project. I didn’t even realize that Stephen Leathley, one of my friends I’ve known for years in Orlando, played guitar, but once I discovered that and asked him to add some parts I was knocked off my feet by how incredible he is on the guitar. One of Ilyse’s favorite bands, The Parkington Sisters, joined us on the last song, too, singing backing vocals and adding acoustic guitars and a harmonium part. (Ilyse would be thrilled to hear herself performing together with The Parkington Sisters.) Friends of mine in Sweden, a band called Hello Ocean, added layered backing vocals with incredibly subtle and complex harmonies, along with piano and synth parts on a couple of songs. Sarah Cossaboon and Cameron Dezen Hammon added wonderful vocal parts to a song each. ...
... Arlo Cherry even added the sound of his heartbeat while still in his mother’s womb.
On one of the songs, I asked many of Ilyse’s closest friends and loved ones to record themselves saying “one” and “zero.” I then worked with Benjamin Kramer to create a kind of binary chorus—spreading their voices out across the audio spectrum and anchoring it into the rhythmic patterns of the song.
There is much more to talk about, of course, but the main point of this is to express how many great souls have kindly joined in to collaborate and create something of beauty, something in search of the profound and the sublime, and all of it in conversation with Ilyse.
Ben: Well, this question piggie-backs on the last one, because I used several guest musicians to help each track sound unique and add to the core sound of Phil with a jazz quartet. For example, I brought in a second pianist, Craig von Berg, for specific tracks because I think he plays the piano as an orchestra, doing things like adding crazy piano sounds to “A Dozen Dawn Songs Plus One.” I ended up using three bass players, two drummers, and two pianists, all in an effort to make the sound of each track unique. I also added German violinist Stefan Poetzch to both “Dawn Songs” and “Our Valley.” In “By the Water of the Llobregat,” I used only solo piano and wrote out every note. Singer Karen Marguth added vocalizations to “Gin” and “Music of Time.” My sons, Atticus and Asher Boone, joined me to form the backup “horn section” on “I Remember Clifford,” and Max Hembd added harmony parts on several tracks.
I also decided to have some jazz superstars replace me on four tracks about jazz greats Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and ...
... Clifford Brown. I recall listening to what I thought was the final version of “I Remember Clifford” about trumpet legend Clifford Brown. I thought, “It’s just wrong for me, a saxophonist, to be taking the lead on this track.” So my producer extraordinaire Donald Brown got famed New York trumpeter Tom Harrell, who was deeply influenced by Brown, to do it. That logic extended to Chris Potter, who gets the big sound of Sonny Rollins, replacing my playing on “The Unknowable” about Rollins’ hiatus from the public eye. Greg Osby, who sounds like what Charlie Parker would have sounded like had he lived longer, replaced me on “Call It Music,” a poem that recounts a story related to Levine by his teacher, Harold McGee, the trumpeter at the famed Dial recording session of “Lover Man,” where Parker was intoxicated. And lastly, Branford Marsalis, who I knew through a connection with the New Century Saxophone Quartet’s Steve Pollock, recorded “Soloing,” in which Levine compares his aging mother’s isolated existence to a Coltrane solo.
It was tempting to have them play on more than one track, but that would have defeated my primary reason for having them on these particular tracks. Donald Brown and Mike Marciano, the primary mixer, helped create unique sounds for each track in the mixing process too. All these folks chimed in with ideas and helped shape what you hear on the disc. On Volume II, you will be able to hear more of our freely improvised playing, and you can hear the synergy between the band and Phil even more.
OO: What records that combine music and poetry—or even more mainstream records—inspired you or at least resonated in the back of your minds while writing and recording these albums?
Brian: Some of the influences might include The Flaming Lips (especially Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots), David Byrne (The Forest), along with, perhaps, Philip Glass, Thievery Corporation, Radiohead, Rjd2, Iron and Wine, Andrew Bird, Damien Jurado, Beck, Ali Farke Toure, Pink Floyd. Maybe some Belle and Sebastian. Maybe some Richard Buckner. A lifelong love for The Beatles must be evident, too.
Here’s an example, diving into a song: Part of the modular synth line near the beginning of “Goodbye Earth, Goodbye Solar System” reminded me of Bowie, and that spurred me to add an acoustic guitar to try to get a chunky pick strum in the middle of the song—to get a sound along the lines of “The Bewley Brothers” (from Hunky Dory). I’m playing a nylon string acoustic there, and Rose Parkington (of The Parkington Sisters) doubled the part with a steel string.
Thematically, Ziggy Stardust surely played in the background of my thoughts, as it’s a foundational album for me, though it wasn’t an overt presence in the thought-process behind the album.
Jared Silvia has some Rodelius influences, along with many artists from the earliest days of electronic music and the rise of the synthesizer. I didn’t learn of Rodelius until after the album was completed, but as I began to experiment with creating modular synth parts myself, I picked up a 4 CD boxed set of music—Popular Electronics: Early Dutch Electronic Music from Philips Research Laboratories (1956-1963). I especially enjoyed Tom Dissevelt’s work, and there’s a musical nod to his work hidden in one of the songs.
When I was younger, I wasted many years nurturing a prejudice against synthesizers. I’ve definitely evolved away from that stance!
Listening to the work that Benjamin Boone has done with Phil Levine will surely influence my own thinking as I lean into the next album with Ilyse, too. The Poetry of Jazz is a kind of masterclass in collaboration.
Ben: When I first knew I would be collaborating with Phil, I did investigate several recordings of poets with musicians. ...
... But frankly, the lessons I learned from many of them is what I did not want to do, rather than serve as model for what I wanted to do. To my musical ear, the music was all too often reacting to surface-level action of the poems – doing “word painting.” In others it sounded to me more like a books on tape – the music was only an underscore to the reading. That is okay, and I know many people like many of these collaborations, but it’s not interesting for me as a composer or a performer. Instead my inspiration musically was from the jazz canon.
OO: What were the guiding questions or themes you had when you began these projects?
Ben: I decided early on that if I were to do this, my self-imposed challenge would be to find a way music could enhance the central meaning of each poem and have the music be an equal partner in communicating that emotion. The listener must experience the words in a different way than if it were a reading. One of my thoughts was that music can give the listener time to contemplate what they have heard – time for it sink beneath the surface – time for the listener to feel on a deeper level what is being expressed. This is especially true in poems like “By the Waters of the Llobregat” about genocide (listen to the long sustains in the piano), or “What Work Is” (which compels us to think of lost opportunities with loved ones), or “A Dozen Dawn Songs Plus One” (aid in digesting the horrid existence of workers). If the music doesn’t enhance the poem and give it added value in some real way, and serve as an equal partner, then to me it’s not artistically interesting – at least for the duration of an entire CD.
Another guiding question for me was, “What can I learn from Phil Levine?” I love interdisciplinary collaborations and always grow from them, and there I was living only two miles from a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. So I wanted to learn and grow from making art with Phil. And indeed I learned a great deal about truth-telling, emotional honesty, flow, pacing, and mostly being confident in myself as an artist.
The famous opera composer Jake Heggie says that successful collaborations stem from the stakeholders consciously drawing from the same emotional well. Phil and I didn’t discuss this but we both have a true love of music, a respect for jazz and of the emotional worlds it creates, and a love of the music of words, and so we drew on that throughout the process.
Brian: I love your guiding question, Ben! “What can I learn from Phil Levine?” I was guided by the same question, albeit with a different poet: “What can I learn from Ilyse Kusnetz?”
I think the most obvious choice made, from the very beginning, was not to include drums on the album. The storyline of the album takes place in the cosmos, in space, and I think of space as a cold and digital landscape—while drums are rooted in the earth. We do cheat throughout the album, but hopefully in unusual ways that remain true to this initial rule to exclude drums. Jared crafted electronic drum-like sounds in the first song, but that’s also the song that welcomes the listener in and then slips into the digital world.
In the final song, we’re given the album’s title in a poem recited by Ilyse. ...
... The binary code she mentions thus became my overall structural guide. There are 11 songs on the album, and the last song is 11 minutes, 11 seconds, and 11 milliseconds long.
OO: What did you discover in the process of making these records that surprised you?
Brian: I was surprised to discover similarities between painting and songwriting. Many of the songs on the album, for example, began as layered modular synth drone pads. Layer by layer, we built the songs up in the studio, and some of the songs shifted and changed over time. It’s reminiscent of a painter priming a canvas, with that initial treatment serving, in some ways, as the early oxygen or atmosphere of the visual field that will only fully appear after several more layers are added.
Similarly, I’ve learned how to erase parts of a song and then build it back up again, as a sketch artist might do, working from circles and cones until the fully-inhabited image emerges, clear and defined.
Ben: Well, firstly, I discovered even deeper meanings to Phil’s poems. They are like Baroque music – the deeper you look, the more you find. I discovered ways music can interact with poetry to enhance the poetry. Like Brian, I had to throw away lots of music I really liked in the best interest of the poem. But mostly, I discovered, and this is directly from my interactions with Phil, a level of self-confidence that had been lacking.
Phil taught me so much, not only about poetry and how to be a creative artist, but perhaps more importantly to tamp down my inner anxiety and insecurity and believe in myself and my creativity. This gave me the courage to ask top musicians in the world to collaborate on the project and to really push this CD.
OO: Since you’ve both also written and recorded albums that were not collaborations with poets, how would you compare those experiences with the writing and recording of these new albums?
Brian: I have a very limited experience in this process, nothing along the lines of the wonderful range and catalog of music that Ben has created and composed, but this current project is definitely different from work I’ve done before.
In previous projects I’ve been a part of, I mostly participated in riff-based, music-driven songs, with the words overlaid upon the music. The process for this album was so different. And I think that’s crucial. No matter the medium, we often need to create new inroads into the work before us. This forces us to abandon the ‘moves’ or ‘go-to’ approaches that have become part of our process. It might not work out, but I’ve found this process allows me to meditate, musically, in ways I couldn’t otherwise do. If we change the process, it should change the music that rises out of that process. It reminds me of Robert Frost: “No surprise in the writer; no surprise in the reader.” By approaching the art in this new way (for me), I create a dynamic that contains a greater chance of providing surprise (for the musicians involved and, hopefully, for those who listen to the music).
Ben: Well, what Brian says is so true. If you give yourself a unique creative challenge, then you have to think in new ways to make that work, and hopefully that makes the end result fresh to both you and the audience. So though I’ve written for opera, orchestras, jazz singers, music theater, classical instrumentalists, and jazz groups, this was a unique and special project. I think it is fresh. I had to think very hard about leaving space for the words to be heard, and how to keep energy going in a different way. How is this for a challenge?: Write music that allows people to process genocide, or the horror and violence of race relations. You have to think in new ways.
OO: How do you think the writing and recording of these new albums will influence your future writing and recording that does not combine music with poetry?
Brian: We’re already at work on the next album, and it appears that we’re continuing to ‘treat the canvas’ with layered drone patches first. We’re creating the acoustic space, the atmosphere, so that Ilyse can walk out into it—with her voice leading us further in.
To answer the question, though, the idea of creating an atmosphere is now central to my thinking about studio-based music projects. It’s about space, which is not synonymous with a void. Space has vibrancy, frequencies, layers. When the guitar and the human breath fall into silence at the end of the song, for example, there’s often a kind of sound-field that isn’t silence. Ambience. I’m curious about the properties involved in this, and its connections to mood and meaning.
At a deeper level, one lesson rings clear in the making of this album. Music must rise from love. Every decision in the creation of music and art must be connected to this initial source. Otherwise, we risk skimming the surface of experience.
Ben: Great question and one that I probably won’t be able to answer until I look back in five years and have a clearer perspective. But I suppose I am even more aware of the underlying intent behind a song, sort of like what Brian is talking about when he spoke of creating a positive space – a space full of potential -- and also what he said about the music coming from a deep emotional place.
Right now, I am in Ghana, immersing myself in the world of complicated polyrhythms, which is a huge challenge to me. What they can do blows my mind. How they think of music and perceive beat is so different than how I do. I can’t see beyond that right now!
OO: Since you are both connected with Fresno, which has such a rich literary history and which is such a unique place that is represented in its literature, in what ways does place—the location where you created or recorded these compositions or even the locations addressed in the words—factor into each of these albums?
Brian: I can’t remember which radio station did this (KVPR?), but there used to be a late-night show that encouraged listeners to call in and speak or sing along with soundscape recordings in real time. I clearly remember hanging out at my best friend Brian Voight’s home, early 1980s, and reciting fragments of verse over the phone with my voice, slightly delayed, layering in over the music. I simply made up things on the spot. It was revelatory. I hadn’t heard recordings of Kenneth Rexroth or Gil Scott-Heron yet, but I was hooked already. That’s one of the seeds that led to the making of this album, and it’s one of my favorite artistic memories of living in the Valley. That DJ made it possible for me to begin thinking that my voice—the voice of a kid who lived a remote and often isolated life situated between orange groves and cattle rangeland in Madera county, with the bright lights of megacities and distant countries still decades away—that my own voice might join in the construction of meaning and beauty ...
... just like anyone else on planet Earth. It’s a powerful conviction that’s grown to saturate my DNA as an artist.
Ben: I think the clearest example on this project is the poem “Our Valley.” My challenge was to somehow create the sense of expansiveness, space, and searing heat Phil describes so well. I’ve lived in Fresno eighteen years now and know exactly what he was trying to show. I also intimately know the music of the jazz greats he mentions, so I was able to channel those sounds, and have been in factories, and have worked construction, washed dishes, dug ditches, and other hard-labor jobs, so I think I was better able to channel those feelings into the music. At its core, this is a Fresno CD. It was born from a fundraiser for Fresno Filmworks; it was championed by KFSR, local art critic Donald Munro, former Fresnan Sasha Khokha, and Valley Public Radio’s Joe Moore; it was supported by Fresno State and the Dean’s Council of the College of Arts and Humanities; and it was recorded at Maximus Media in Fresno. Also, almost everyone on the CD lives or lived in Fresno. Phil and I performed there for local audiences at the Rogue Festival, and a huge focus group of Fresno musicians and poets critiqued the project all along the way and helped shape it. Fresno knows hard work, and hard work was put into the project by the people of Fresno. It is in every track.
OO: Because the sounds of words matter so much, particularly for poets, in what ways did the notes and sounds you chose to play represent the words in conversation with the actual words?
Ben: I mentioned before that I hear speech as music and that my dissertation analyzed speech as music, so this is a topic near and dear to my heart. I did not transcribe Phil’s recitations into music for this project, but I could tell that Phil, because he was a musician at heart, altered his tempo, dynamics, timbre, and pitch contour to match the music of the band. And the musicians instinctively did the same. You can clearly hear this on all tracks, but especially on the track “Gin.” Compositionally, on all the tracks, I used the tempo I thought appropriate and gave Phil clear directions on when to start, when to pause and for how long, and places he should listen for musical cues. If you want to blow your mind, read about the psychological phenomenon of rhythmic synchrony. I think our tracks demonstrate this phenomenon quite well. We were in total sync in the studio, so we imitated each other naturally.
I did literally and consciously use Phil’s speech as a musical instrument in my orchestral composition, “Waterless Music,” ...
... that I wrote shortly after Phil died, and is dedicated to his memory. From the recordings made for The Poetry of Jazz, I took excerpts, grouped them by topic, and put them together to form a narrative about water, life, and the environment. Here is a link to that video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQ4KUSQYvSk. In this piece, you can hear Phil’s voice used literally like an instrument.
Brian: Early on, engineer and bassist Benjamin Kramer and I realized that Ilyse’s voice, in terms of the album’s narrative, would require a digital, cybernetic quality to it. That choice is completely connected to content. And so we experimented, shifting between different sound aesthetics, most often opting for a slightly grainy, static-filled, transmission-like quality that echoed work Jared and I were doing in some of the modular synths used in the songs, for example.
That said, Kramer mentioned something during the recording of the very first song that stuck with me and became one of the signature approaches we used throughout the album. He said that he liked the merging of digital music with non-synth instruments, which brought a kind of warmth into the song overall. I made that approach our ethos from that point on. Again, this decision was based on the storyline within the text/language for the album—the merging of the human into a digital life.
OO: Why is it important for these types of art—music and poetry, combined or separate—to continue pushing the boundaries of traditional forms?
Brian: The collaboration between music and poetry is an ancient one, of course, and it’s deeply rooted in the human experience of sound and meaning. I wasn’t composing with an audience in mind, at least not at the beginning. And so, my thoughts early on were nearly all focused on collaborating with Ilyse and figuring out ways to nurture that collaboration.
Ben: Steven Johnson, in his book How We Got to Now, discusses the conditions necessary for life to have evolved and for good ideas to take root. One is that ideas need to clash. A proper environment needs to be created where elements rub against each other. This is how I view interdisciplinary collaboration. It is fertile territory. So I am in no way trying to be a radical and push any real boundaries, or even thinking about whether the forms I am creating are new or not. These are just natural outgrowths of thinking of the artistic creation. One of the reasons I am in Ghana is so my perspectives and biases and preconceptions can rub up against another culture so I can become more self-aware, more empathic, and grow.
I mentioned before that I am in a group now with xylophonists who think of music in a completely different way than I do, and I love it. My head hurts as I try and play what they play, and I am better for it. I think it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “A mind expanded can never retract to its original dimensions.” Well, interdisciplinary collaboration expands my mind and I hope it never retracts. As for influencing the art form, it would be cool to me if more folks did interdisciplinary work. In fact, several poetry and jazz projects have been released recently. Steven Johnson, the historian, would say this is how ideas happen; many people get the same basic idea at once. Go figure.
OO: Can you tell us more about how you plan to explore the connections between music and poetry in the future?
Ben: There are fifteen tracks I recorded with Phil that are not on The Poetry of Jazz, and these, as well as three instrumental versions of these tunes, will be released on a Volume II.
For another poetry-music project, I’ve recorded with Fresno State colleague and US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, as well as Marisol Baca, Lee Herrick, and Dustin Prestridge. That was an amazing experience, and we will release that on CD, tentatively titled The Poets Are Gathering, at some point. Congolese poet Fiston Mujila Fiston, now in Austria, heard The Poetry of Jazz, and we are hoping to collaborate at some point. I love doing these type of projects, and I hope there will be many more.
Brian: I can’t wait to hear Volume II! The music that Ben has created with Phil is a great gift to us all. I studied poetry with Phil at Fresno State, and I remember him asking for my headphones to hear what I was playing on a Walkman (far too loud, I’m sure) and Phil immediately pulled the loud rock away from his ears and reminded me that hearing was crucial to a poet’s craft. The relationship between poetry and music was so clearly evident, just as Ben says. Levine was born into the age of jazz and matured as an artist at the same time that jazz developed and matured as an art form—and so this collaboration between Boone and Levine has a kind of magic to it that’s steeped in a lifetime of deep appreciation and love for these two art forms.
Herrera? Baca? Herrick? And more? Amazing. Can’t wait to hear it all.
As I mentioned, the next album is under way, and I’ve gone back to repeat the process of listening to Ilyse. I’ve brought in a new instrument for myself (a Resonant Garden from Folktek), and I’m sure Ben and Jared and the rest of us will add a variety of instruments to the album before it’s complete. My job is to bring in Ilyse’s words and story now that we have drone pads in place. I’ve already recorded two harpists in an Irish chapel, along with another frequent collaborator—opera singer Sarah Cossaboon.
The second album will chart a lyric journey to distant moons and planets. The Interplanetary Acoustic Team is set to explore the flora and fauna of these different planets, sending the album back to us as a kind of musical lens through which we might experience Ilyse’s ongoing discoveries and experiences.
Brian Turner is a poet, essayist, and musician living in Orlando, Florida. He recently edited an anthology called The Kiss: Intimacies from Writers for W.W. Norton & Company (2018). He is the founding director of the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College.
Benjamin Boone is a saxophonist, composer, and theorist who has taught at California State University, Fresno since 2000. He is currently serving as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar to the University of Ghana. Volume II of The Poetry of Jazz with Philip Levine will be released in January 2019 on Origin Records.
Optimism One’s essays have been published by The Normal School and In Fact Books, among others. He earned his MFA from Sierra Nevada College and teaches writing full-time at Modesto Junior College in California. He’s currently working on a memoir called Goodbye, Suicide.
In the Grove of Self-Charging Trees
Darling do you remember
the [one] you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.
It is early enough that fog still skeins,
like moss, the highest branches.
And twining each tree: a cable
rough-creped as wild grape vine,
with both ends socketed
into the trunk. Murmur
and fizz of power pulled
from the sky, from the earth—power recirculated
by the cables, nothing wasted.
In a clearing
no bigger than our cabin’s double bed, you spread
a blue blanket. We make a picnic
of a peach and a plum. Then, with no top sheet, no
clothes, not even a bracelet—How long has it been,
love, since we touched? Even
our kisses are given on the way
to something else.
Yet here, our bodies
do not just tighten but seal
fast around the other and we
kiss the kind of kiss that’s like entering
a glass cathedral, a structure that exists
to emphasize the space it contains
while leaving visible all it does not.
And we move
into that kiss as we move
into each other—with gentle
force, a matched insistence—
and all the trees begin to hum. Self-charging circuits,
all of us, drawing from the world
a stream of heat and light, which we pass between us
like a fire that burns but does not consume.
I wake to your back; to the dream, over. To your body
like an early-morning house
in which all the inhabitants are still
asleep, the lights extinguished, the doors locked. Yet
beside the bed, the marigolds you brought me
burn like paper caught in the act of ignition, orange and red
petals of flame. And on each of our ring-fingers, the same
silver band: my promise to you,
my charge, that through the forest and the fog, through
the busy thicket of daily brambles, I will
never stop finding my way
to your door. All I need from you
is to answer;
all you have to do is let me in.
Jessica Jacobs is the author of Pelvis with Distance, winner of the New Mexico Book Award. Her chapbook In Whatever Light Left to Us was published in 2016 and her second full-length collection Take Me with You, Wherever You're Going is forthcoming in 2019. An avid long-distance runner, Jessica has worked as a rock climbing instructor, bartender, editor, and professor, and now serves as the Associate Editor of Beloit Poetry Journal. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, with her wife, the poet Nickole Brown.
Photo from foter.com
“Maybe I’ve lost too many brain cells from too many Slurpee-induced brain freezes.”
That’s my brother Phil. I’ve asked him and my other siblings if they can recall how “Dance the Slurp,” a 1966 promotional single released by the 7-Eleven chain of convenience stores, ended up in our house in Wheaton, Maryland. “If I’m the one who first acquired it, I don’t remember how or when,” he admits. None of my other brothers or my sister can remember, either, but the journey wouldn’t have been very far. There was a 7-Eleven less than half a mile from our house on Amherst Avenue, and, over many years, we ducked in to escape the sticky summer heat, and to load up on cherry or lemon-lime and cola Slurpees, wads of gum, fistfuls of comics and magazines. The 7-Eleven was a regular stop on my solitary Saturday afternoon allowance walks, yet I too don’t know how it ended up in the house. For many years it was on high rotation on the Bonomo family turntable.
Born in Chicago in 1924, Tom Merriman graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington, and then studied music at Julliard. In the early 1950s, he moved to Dallas, Texas, the “Jingle Capital of the World,” where he quickly earned a reputation as one of the most original, reliable, and productive jingle, radio advertisement, and station ID writers in the South. Merriman created jingles like you and I breathe air. In his long career he wrote and produced music for luminaries (including Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington), won a Cannes Film Festival Award, toiled profitably as an independent producer at various production houses, founded and helmed the Commercial Recording Corporation, led the Liberty Network Band, and for many years was the Music Director at the elite Hockaday School—but he will chiefly be remembered as the Jingle King. Radio DJ Ron Chapman worked with Merriman at KVIL, a Dallas–Fort Worth FM station where Merriman was an early co-owner, and recalls that Merriman could compose arrangements “like Lincoln did the Gettysburg Address, on the back of an envelope.” He added, “My first recollection of being with Tom was on a session for a jingle I had written for KVIL in its Glory Days. The song was called “Thank You for Making Us What We Are” and I wanted the finale to sound like the last chorus of Hello Dolly, where the waiters come down the stairs carrying trays of champagne. Tom nailed it and even added a chorus of tap dancers, for a radio jingle!”
Such attention to arrangement and production details became Merriman’s signature on the hundreds of compositions—not only jingles and commercials, but corporate musical events and theme-park-ride music—he produced over an impressive fifty-year career. “I learned music on my own,” Merriman remarked in 2003. “I learned the technical side of transposition and all the things you have to know as a music writer. But it seems that there is something that has to be within you, native to your own abilities.” At Indiana University, Merriman studied composition and counterpoint, “all the things you do as a serious composer,” and at Julliard “a lot of legitimate techniques,” but, he added, “with serious music or pop, there are many common tenets that apply, natural basic laws and the things that are part of your experience.” At an industry tribute held in Dallas, Jon Wolfert, president of radio jingle facilities JAM Creative Productions and PAMS Productions, Inc., lauded Merriman: “To use a horrible ’60s term, we were the ‘jingle freaks’ and we were enamored, mesmerized by the work that was coming out of Dallas from all the different studios, but in no small part, the work you were doing,” adding, “and that’s the reason why I’m still making these jingles, because I was attracted to it by listening to all this great stuff during all those years.” That evening, Merriman was presented with a custom jukebox stocked with hundreds of his jingles and commercial spots, and was praised in video tributes from Patti Page and Pat Boone. “He wrote hundreds of spots, for Coca-Cola, Lone Star Beer, many of the jingles and themes for Marriott’s Great America,” Tracy E. Carman, Executive Director of the Media Preservation Foundation, who was also at the tribute, told me. Consumed by the millions, lodged into the collective pop subconscious of America, these jingles remained anonymous to all but industry insiders. “The list goes on and on, showing that he was very prolific in his abilities to adapt to the current music styles of the day,” Carman said, adding that Merriman was scoring music “pretty much up until the time he died.” (Merriman passed away in 2009.)
In 1965, the Dallas-based Southland Corporation, which owned a growing chain of 7-Eleven convenience stores, struck a licensing deal with the ICEE Company to sell the popular Icee drink, under the condition that it be renamed and its sales confined to 7-Elevens. Thus was born the Slurpee, an immediate, sugary hit named for the indelible sound made by inhaling, straw-wielding enthusiasts. Hopeful to branch out nationally, and eager for a clever and memorable promotional angle, Southland looked to Merriman Productions. (The company is now named TM Studios). In the previous decade, Merriman had written and voiced the wildly popular “Otto the Orkin Man” commercial spot; now, 7-Eleven charged him with composing a catchy song extolling the virtues of the frozen sweet drink, to be issued as a 45 single and given away with Slurpee purchases.
Merriman and his co-writer, Jim Long, went to work. “Not being a musician, the way I worked with Tom was to find tracks from records that we would use as a reference track to the basic style and the groove of the project,” Long told me. “To the best of my recollection, the references I pulled for this project were from an album called Bachelors in Space.” Alas, research reveals that no such record exists. Half a century later, Long admits to being stumped. (“Just spent a few minutes on Google looking for the ref track,” he wrote me after our initial conversation. “There’s too much stuff in the ‘bachelors in space–lounge genre,’ and finding it 35 years or so later would be finding a needle in haystack.”) In any event, Merriman and Long had their ears tuned to the radio. “Tom could write in any style if you gave him the reference,” Long says. The writing duo chose a Dance of the Week template, hoping to ride the (by then diminishing) wave of popular dances, such as the stroll, the pony, the twist, the mashed potato, the monkey, the dog, the Frug, the hully gully, the watusi, the swim, and the rest. Merriman and Long swiftly banged out an instrumental arrangement and set about finding the words to match: these lyrics had to be simple, easy to remember and sing along with, and, most importantly, brand-specific. Merriman and Long soon realized that they only needed a single word.
“Dance the Slurp” was likely cut in or around May of 1966, in downtown Dallas, at Sellers Company, a recording studio located at 2102 Jackson Street, now a parking lot paving over a fascinating history. In 1935, James Earl “Pop” Sellers established a studio at his electronics store, at first producing high-quality recordings via an old phonograph. Over the years, he updated his equipment to state-of-the-art quality, recording countless obscure Dallas-area performers and singers who’d performed at the Big D Jamboree, the popular barn dance and radio program, but also early country and rockand-roll musicians, including Gene Summers, Gene Vincent, Light Crust Doughboys, Trini López, the Stamps Quartet gospel group, and Hank Thompson, who recorded his first session at Sellers. Sadly, no documentation exists of the “Dance the Slurp” session, or sessions. No log of takes, or of the personnel involved. Long can’t recall the recording session down the years, let alone if he was in attendance. Over at TM Studios, Greg Clancy, the General Manager and Vice President / Creative, assures me that any recording notes for “Dance the Slurp” are long gone, citing the tumult of multiple mergers and the moves from building to building over the years.
Hopeful for more information, I logged in to an online radio history forum. In response to my post, a helpful member responded, “Try looking up George Gimarc. If anyone knows about that or has a copy he would.” He knows, and he does. In fact, Gimarc, a Dallas-area disc jockey, record and radio program producer, author, and music historian, sells a few copies of “Dance the Slurp” annually, mostly to buyers in northern Europe—Sweden, Norway, Denmark—willing to pay up to seventy-five dollars for the single. As Gimarc and I spoke on the phone, he posted and monitored his eBay record listings, scanned arcane online research, and moved among the more than 60,000 records in his office. Providentially, he’d just been up to some Southland sleuthing himself. “I’ve been poking through the remnants of the Sellers Company archives, trying to buy all of it,” he told me. “That’s a hundred boxes of paper, and thousands and thousands of reels of tape. I’ve already purchased a small taste of it, and in it I found a lot of stuff from the Southland Company. I bought a lot of stuff that went all the way back to the mid-fifties through the mid-seventies. Commercials, jingles, what have you.” Sensing my excitement, he added, carefully, “I haven’t found the ‘Slurp’ master tape yet, but I’m sure it’s in there. Everything else is in there.”
For nearly an hour, Gimarc and I held our copies of “Dance the Slurp” under bright light and squinted through magnifying glasses at the runout, the band of vinyl between the end of the song and the label, excavating among the mysterious acronyms and seemingly random letters and symbols emblazoned there, clues to the song’s production history. (A record’s matrix stamped in the runout groove can indicate, in addition to the song’s unique filing number, supplementary information, such as take number, record pressing plant codes or logos, initials or signature of the disc-cutting engineer, cutting or copyright dates, and so on.)
As we each scoured the record, Gimarc provided some background. “Starting around 1959, there were several products aimed at children, especially in Dallas, that were a record-merchandise pairing,” he explained. “There was a coloring book called Muley—The One-Eared Mule, which came with a free one-sided record of the song. Mr. Peppermint, a popular children’s TV show, put out a coloring book that came with a little seven-inch record of songs, tucked inside the book.” Well-known performers cut promotional tie-in records as well, including Trini López, for Fresca (“Presented by your local Coca-Cola Bottler”), and Bobby Darrin, who, in the early 1960s, inked a deal with Scripto Pens to issue a free record with purchase of a Wordmaster ball pen (and an ink refill, of course). “Putting a sound recording with a product was a thing in advertising culture to reach teenagers,” Gimarc continued. “Since around 1961 or so, Coca-Cola had been doing commercials with rock and pop stars, like Roy Orbison, the Drifters. Over in England, The Moody Blues did one. And you’re in the era after the twist—well, to be fair, ever since the bop, in 1956—when there was a new dance coming along all the time for the teenagers. So tying what they thought was contemporary rock-and-roll music to a product was definitely in the wind.”
Sometimes that wind kicked up a storm of concern. Scotty McKay, a rockabilly musician from Dallas, cut “Let’s Do It,” a 45 on the SS label that was issued with the purchase of a long pole (or the other way around). “A guy and girl were supposed to face each other and put this pole at basically belt-buckle level, and then dance while supporting the pole,” Gimarc laughs. “So you couldn’t get any closer. So the Lord could limbo between you, I’m supposing. I’m sure this was invented by some Southern Baptist who was appalled by the twist.” (The record label provides a helpful illustration of a decorously dancing, pole-separated teen couple.) Production and distribution of “Let’s Do It”—the irony of that title slays me—were arranged by PAMS, or Production, Advertising, Merchandising Service, the major jingle company in Dallas. “I wouldn’t be surprised if PAMS had some hand in the Southland 7-Eleven stuff, because it kind of has that sound,” Gimarc remarked. At one point in his career, Tom Merriman worked at PAMS.
The trail had warmed a bit, yet the information in the matrix runout of “Dance the Slurp” was proving unhelpful, the string of letters and numbers failing to ring a bell for Gimarc. He is confident that the song was recorded at Sellers. In the archives he was able to track down the master recordings for other Slurpee “new flavor” jingles, as well as the masters for the B-side of “Dance the Slurp”—a mock interview conducted by Bob Stanford (a Southland advertising executive who’d coined the name Slurpee) with men and woman who experienced “strange things” while slurping—and definitively date those recordings to May 12, 1966. It’s a safe bet that the A-side was recorded around that time. Gimarc and I were able to determine the acronym “SJW” on the runout, which may refer to Wakefield Manufacturing, a Phoenix, Arizona, record plant, owned by Sidney J. Wakefield (“SJW”), where “Dance the Slurp” may have been pressed. Beyond these scant clues, we were stumped.
• • •
Gimarc might yet stumble upon the “Dance the Slurp” recording masters in the vast Sellers archives. (He’s promised to keep me posted.) For so many years I’d hoped to be able to put names and faces to the session musicians who played on “Dance the Slurp,” and perhaps track down other recordings on which the musicians had played. Chop-rich, they were likely hired to bang out a tune in the morning, another in the afternoon, producing agreeable playing and singing that were ideal for the beguiling hooks of radio jingles and station IDs.
Their names are lost to history; still, I want to know: who played the spare and surprisingly funky drums, blared the bright, variety show–style horns, stabbed at the hokey, teena-go-go compact organ, sang the word “slurp” in its many cheery iterations? And who are the musicians, tethered to headphones, who created the most fun and identifiable sounds on the record—the slurps themselves that sent my brothers and I into hysterics? “Tom and I both would work the lyrics out, and in this case the in-house ad agency had provided the basic theme,” Long remembers, “but one of the things we added when we did the rough audition was the sound of the straw slurp.” Slurp sounds used as percussion instruments—and in syncopation, no less!—was irresistible to me, as a fan of Slurpees and 1960s AM rock and roll and of-the-era go-go dancing. But Long dashed my childish conviction that the slurps were produced with authentic Slurpees, cups wielded in the studio by session musicians with as much aplomb and style as Jerome Green wielded his maracas. Rather, the slurp sounds were created via studio effect, though having known this at the time wouldn’t have stopped me from trying to recreate them, as I did, Slurpee in hand, in my suburban basement.
One thing is certain: “Dance the Slurp” was concocted with a singular objective, to move units. “7-Eleven were trying to hype themselves in creating, basically, the 1966 version of a viral video, something they hope becomes a massive hit,” Gimarc says. “But look who’s writing it and putting it together, a bunch of forty-year-olds, which, in 1966 was doom.” “Dance the Slurp” begins with a Peter Gunn-on-a-sugar-rush bass riff laid atop a danceable drumbeat. The musicians pause at the second bar, and the sound of two noisy, reverb-laden slurps fills the space. Following a brief drum fill, the groove resumes, only to pause again at the fourth bar, the space now filled by a man and woman singing “Slurp! Slurp!” doubled by an exuberant horn line. The following four bars repeat the musical themes, as bass, drums, and then horns and slurps fill out the sound and set the groove in motion. After the first verse, an additional bar is added (another thirsty slurp) and then sixteen bars follow as an organ and the horns answer each other in half-bar phrases, merrily joined by the singing Slurpers. A four-bar bridge follows, leading to an extended fifteen-bar passage where—spotlight on!—the slushy slurps thrown down on top of the drum beat in a syncopated, dance-floor whirl. The strutting horns and vocalists reenter for eight more bars, and then a sugar-crash sluuuuurp crescendo, and then the fade. It’s over in two minutes and ten seconds. The song’s as ridiculous as it sounds in translation, and as equally, and as ridiculously, fun and catchy.
The folks at Southland and 7-Eleven included an insert with the record, illustrated with a cheerful go-go-ing couple. The “How to do The Slurp” instructions explained, “Just follow the beat of the music naturally,” before helpfully adding, “Do The Frug and The Jerk.” The copywriters pedantically explain the steps:
When the chorus sings “Slurp-Slurp!” the boy and girl look over each other’s shoulder, first one side then the other, right in time with the “Slurp-Slurp” words . . . When the chorus sings the drawn-out “Sluuuurp,” the boy and girl reach wide with one foot and then slide the other up to it, once again in time with the “Sluuuurp” word. A little after the middle of the music, actual slurping sounds come out loud and clear . . . the boy and girl now rock their bodies backand-forth about as fast as they can!
By the middle of the 1960s, mini-skirted girls and their dance partners were getting a little weary of grooving. Unluckily, “Dance the Slurp” was recorded and released at the tail end of a highly commercial era: Shindig! aired its final episode on January 8, 1966, and Hullaballoo closed things down three months later. The Top 40 chart in May of 1966 was, at best, inhospitable to teen dance numbers: the Rolling Stones’s “Paint It, Black,” Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” Cher’s “Bang Bang,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound,” the Byrds’s “Eight Miles High,” and other iconic singles were vividly exploring interior states and sensual pleasures, pushing against and dissolving limits and boundaries in a way that made the twist sound and look like your parents’ dance. Indeed, I imagine that most kids who spun “Dance the Slurp” heard adults’ overeager if well-intentioned vocals exhorting them to slurp. This unhappy discovery, vying with a major sugar letdown, was a bad trip indeed.
By the time my brothers and I were listening to “Dance the Slurp,” over a decade had passed since Joey Dee and the Starliters tutored kids on the “Peppermint Twist”; years since Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon sang about his history teacher, Ms. Abigail Beecher, who dug red surfboards and doing the monkey; and more years since Chris Montez whipped up “Some Kind of Fun” dancing the stomp, the wobble, and the watusi (“Locomotion, here we come!”). My siblings and I were aware, in the longhaired Watergate and Patty Hearst era, that protest songs and FM radio and mind-altering drugs had long booted The Jerk out the back door, but we didn’t care, we just danced with adolescent joy, rocking our bodies back-and-forth about as fast as we could while laughing until irony caught up and lifted the needle.
• • •
A jingle is a song’s little brother, the one who’s forced to tag along at the game or the party and who ends up being a lot of fun to hang around with. He can do goofy imitations, make funny noises, and comes up with little sayings that people repeat the next morning. The girls think he’s cute. At the next party, someone asks if the little bro’s coming again. He’s a riot.
A few centuries ago, the word “jingle” referred simply to noise—pleasant enough noise, to be sure, small tinkling bells, a loosely linked chain, stray pieces of metal. Another usage developed earlier in history, and has run parallel: repetition of those sounds, or similar sounds, such as we hear in poetic language, and in any arrangement that results in a pleasing sound without having to make a whole lot of sense. In a word, catchy. This jingle is the basis for the irresistible nursery rhymes that live in us for a lifetime, of a memorable doorbell chime or vanity car horn, of your local auto parts radio commercial’s earworm, and NSYNC (and hundreds of other band’s Top 10 smash hits). By the 1930s, our contemporary usage of jingle was at hand, as advertising began to dominate middle class consumerism, and small, likeable musical passages were employed to get us to buy things, or to want to buy things, and to feel left out if we didn’t. You can’t help but hear the word “jingle” and think of the coins in your pocket or bag, clinking pleasingly, glinting in the jangly fluorescent light of the convenience store or supermarket after you’ve retrieved them. In Australian slang, “jingle” does indeed refer to pocket change.
In a sense, a jingle is the purest kind of music: notes arranged as a hook devoid of expression beyond itself. It gets in you as a featureless, transparent passage that might’ve been hummed a thousand years ago if not in the car on the way to work today. Paired with simple, easy-to-remember words, a jingle works because it works. Crass, a jingle’s frowned upon as purely commercial in intent, shallow in impulse; really, the pious songwriter is envious, wishing he could wield a hook as devastatingly memorable and enduring as the recognizable commercial jingles of the last seventy-odd years. I apologize in advance for the earworms, but think of the enduring Buy Mennen . . . . My Balogna has a first name . . . . Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there . . . . I’d like to teach the world to sing . . . . Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh, what a relief it is . . . . I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys “R” Us kid . . . . Not to mention countless regional examples.
At Creative Ready, an online radio and production site, Jamie Aplin cites the work of Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch, who in 1974 “discovered what is now referred to as the phonological loop. This process consists of the phonological store (your ‘inner ear’) remembering sounds in chronological order and then the articulatory rehearsal system (your ‘inner voice’) repeating those sounds in order to retain them.” He adds, “This incredible brain function is vital to children when developing speech and vocabulary as well as adults when learning new languages.” At the jingle auditory level, the process is involuntary, and deeply pleasurable. If we judge a jingle because its primary function is to move units absent any complex artistic expression, do we betray our goofy smiles when we hear it, and sing along with it with our kids? Where’s the line—and is it a precise one?—between music as commodity and music as art? That old story.
• • •
On a gray, chilly day in March of 2006, Thomas Middleditch and Fernando Sosa, two Second City improv student-comics, stood on a sidewalk near a McDonald’s in Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood and filmed a lo-fi, rudimentary rap about Chicken McNuggets, sending up a current commercial. “McDonalds was just starting its, like, urban campaign,” Middleditch explained to Sean Evans on Evans’s First We Feast YouTube series. “It’s all, like, Hey, two guys playin’ basketball, ‘Let’s go to McDonalds, like, whatever.’ And I just thought it was so transparently pandering. It rubbed me the wrong way.” Sosa beatboxed a hip-hop rhythm as Middleditch nerdily rapped over it in an obvious satire of white teens’ co-opting of African-American street style—and the rap was so funny, catchy, and smartly scorning that tens of thousands of YouTube viewers watched, commented on, and, most importantly, shared the video in its first year or so. Executives at McDonald’s noticed, bought the rights to the video (netting Middleditch and Sosa a nice chunk of change), and repurposed the rap into a consciously DIY ad extolling the virtues of McNuggets, squeezing out most of the duo’s irony. What began as a jeering satire of corporate pandering became a viral video and a million-dollar boon—from goof-off parody to slick promotion. It wouldn’t have happened if the jingle, however mockingly, wasn’t first an earworm.
“I love the backstory of songs that have these odd, unintended second lives,” Gimarc told me. “There was a song by Susan Shirley called ‘True Love and Apple Pie.’ It came out in 1971. It’s sung in English, and became a big hit in Denmark, Holland, and France. And then that song was purchased by an ad agency in America and had new lyrics put to it, and got turned into ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.’ And Coca-Cola probably used it for a decade. How’d you like to own the publishing on that?”
• • •
A couple of decades ago, my brothers Phil and Paul visited me in Illinois, a stop on their cross-country drive. While we were catching up, I pulled out my scratchy copy of “Dance the Slurp,” which I’d spirited from the family house when I’d moved to Ohio for graduate school. None of us had listened to the record in years; fifteen seconds in, we were collapsing in laughter, melting in nostalgia. Around the same time, in northern California, disc jockeys and music producers DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist were also listening.
“The first thing I think any child hears is commercial jingles and cartoon music and songs on Sesame Street. But I’m not going to pretend like that was a great, enormous influence because, at that time, you’re soaking up anything and everything that’s around you.” That’s Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow speaking to writer Eliot Wilder. Davis grew up outside San Francisco, and while a student at University of California, Davis, in the early 1990s, began experimenting with making four-track mixes of obscure soul, funk, and R&B records, which he eventually distributed, building his reputation, first locally, and then internationally, as a genius turntabalist. His debut album, Endtroducing…, is a highly regarded, innovative masterpiece of trip hop. “And that is one thing I’ve always thought about, that music is just pervasive in our lives. But I also learned, at a certain point, that most people just don’t even think about it. They’re not affected by it either way, from the music that they hear in a department store or grocery store or on the radio.” He adds, “Some people, it affects them, and other people, it doesn’t.”
“Dance the Slurp” clearly affected Davis, and Cut Chemist, the stage name of Lucas MacFadden, a Los Angeles–based DJ and producer who’d been a member of the hip-hop groups Unity Collective and Jurassic 5. Davis and MacFadden sampled “Dance the Slurp” on their collaboration Brainfreeze, an astounding, fifty-two-minute live mix released in 1999 on Sixty7 Recordings, pressed in limited quantities of a thousand. (Due to high demand, the duo pressed another thousand, and then ceased production; Brainfreeze has since been bootlegged numerous times.) The CDs were sold during DJ Shadow’s 1999 U.S. tour and during Cut Chemist’s Word of Mouth tour with Jurassic 5 (as well as at two authorized record stores in California). The cover is a grainy color photograph of Davis and MacFadden posing in front of a Slurpee machine, each holding a copy of a “Dance the Slurp” 45 and peering through the center hole; the CD label features a reproduction of the original single’s label. Promoted on its insert as a “nonstop live mix of strictly 45s and exercise in vinyl destruction,” the two-track CD is comprised of fifty-six samples, ranging in length from several bars to several minutes, from seven-inch singles in Davis and MacFadden’s enormous, storied record collections. The sampled artists range from the recognizable (Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Chuck Mangione, Albert King, the Mar-Keys), to the fairly well-known (Eddie Bo, Rufus Thomas, Original Soul Senders), to the obscure (the Mohawks, the Nu People, Wilbur Bascomb & The Zodiac, Singing Principal, the Vibrettes, et al.). The samples range from chunks of anti-drug PSAs and talky movie commercials to funky drum breaks, raw guitar solos, and blissy choruses from soul and R&B numbers.
If you’re paying attention and aren’t ecstatically zoned-out by the DJs’ hypnotic spell, thirty-five and a half minutes in to Brainfreeze you’ll hear a recognizable sound, a slurp deeply buried in the mix and then rising like a sonic bubble to the surface of Eddie Bo’s 1966 single “From This Day On.” The horns in Bo’s tune sound familiar—and soon enough Davis and MacFadden mix in the horns and vocals from “Dance the Slurp” and allow the song to play, virtually uninterrupted, for two minutes, one of the longer samples in Brainfreeze. The DJs slow down the tempo of “Dance the Slurp” by a tone or two for a few bars, more graphically for longer stretches, add reverb to and scratch the slurp sounds, manipulate the horns, loop the drum break. Mixing, Davis and MacFadden subtly change the form of “Dance the Slurp,” and thus its sound, and thus its meaning. And possibly its very purpose. They fundamentally alter the reasons the song might need to exist in the 21st century: less a commercial for a Slurpee than a context-free, pure sound groove, a smoothly moving piston in an engine of funk.
Merriman and Long, toiling in their jingle factory in Dallas, working with analog recording equipment, wouldn’t have dared imagine (and, given the unprecedented race of technology at the end of the century, likely couldn’t have imagined) what occurs in Brainfreeze: a spiked Slurp’s at the center of a wild all-nighter with a guest list as unlikely, and possibly as dangerous, as it is preposterously fun. “When I sample something, it’s because there’s something ingenious about it,” Davis says. “And if it isn’t the group as a whole, it’s that song. Or, even if it isn’t the song as a whole, it’s a genius moment, or an accident, or something that makes it just utterly unique to the other trillions of hours of records that I’ve plowed through.” The effect in Brainfreeze is to elevate the obscurity of a generically performed, novelty merchandise tie-in song to the level of prime and righteous, if sometimes equally obscure, soul and R&B. The nearly hour-long Brainfreeze invites Tom Merriman and Jim Long to the party, dynamically dramatizing, as the best sampling does, the egalitarian impulse behind music: mixing turns up the volume of the ongoing rhythm behind human expression, whether sampling a song that stiffed on the charts, was issued as a promotional record with no hope or interest in the charts, or sold in the millions.
Sometimes a sample leaps genres in startling ways. That’s Eva Gabor—aka Lisa Douglas, from the Green Acres theme song—in the chorus of Deee Lite’s impossibly fun 1990 dance-floor jam “Groove Is In The Heart.” Listen to the “I” in the line “I couldn’t ask for another.” That’s not the charming Lady Miss Kier but Lisa D, who’s actually proclaiming, a quarter century earlier, “I get allergic smelling hay!” A catchy hook’s a catchy hook. That Davis and MacFadden edit “Dance the Slurp” into Kraftwerk’s “Numbers,” from the band’s 1981 album Computerwelt, shows how tuned their ears are to the absurd, surprising, body-moving pleasures of sonic, culture-spanning simultaneity: a danceof-the-week number already hopelessly square when it was released grabs the glossy, cool hand of electronic avant-garde krautrock synth-pop and . . . well, the point is, don’t think too much about it, just hit the dance floor.
Describing Endtroducing…, Davis says, “I was trying to find a sound different from everybody else’s, so the source material had to be different from everybody else’s. I was looking for records that I felt like were really obscure. Whether those were funk 45s, which nobody was up on yet, or kind of weird rock albums.” Co-conspirator MacFadden shares Davis’s take on the possibilities opened up by sampling. “I really appreciate novelty records with drum breaks,” he told me. “It’s something I think beat diggers are attracted to probably because it’s the least likely place to find one.” MacFadden first heard about “Dance the Slurp” from Z-Trip, a Phoenix-based DJ and producer. “He’d found out about it from an extended Beastie Boy member named AWOL, and I immediately was intrigued.” He added, “I told Shadow, and, of course, he found it fairly soon after. I think I got mine from a seller out here in Los Angeles a little bit after Shadow got his.” Mixing and “playing old music for a new crowd” intrigues and moves MacFadden. “I doubt anyone had ever heard this jingle, and to blend it with Kraftwerk just seemed to be the right context to put it in. ‘Slurp’ became a household name with 45 collectors after that. We’ve since moved on to using Cola and Milk jingle drum breaks for later projects.”
My brother Paul carried “Dance the Slurp” inside of himself for decades as he dragged his record collection with him from suburban Washington, D.C., to San Francisco to Manhattan—where he worked for several years in a jingle factory—to Berlin, where he now lives, and DJs and releases music under the name Snax. In 2002, he collaborated with the musician Kahn in the electro-disco duo Captain Comatose. In “Theme From Captain Comatose,” the lead track on their album Going Out, those old drums and horns from “Dance the Slurp” pop up, repurposed as the jumpy foundation and funky, leap-from-the-turntable breaks in a dance-floor jam. Some music just gets in and stays in.
• • •
Crate diving, beat digging, Shadow and Chemist recognized and celebrated one of Merriman and Long’s prime goals: get up and dance, kids. The kinds of jingles that Merriman, Long, and so many others composed in a different context, in another life, now take on new values—rhythmic, cultural, sensual—in the hands of turntabalists. But sometimes this new value comes at a cost. Witness the waves of lawsuits brought by copyright holders against DJs and artists in recent decades: once a record with samples begins to sell, the boundaries of permissions and uses can quickly tighten up. I broached the topic of such legal issues with Gimarc when we spoke. He searched the records of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music), the two largest United Sates performance rights organizations committed to controlling and protecting artists’ copyrights. After a minute of silence, he muttered, with a tone of mild disbelief in his voice, “Did they really never register this thing? I’m looking through ASCAP and BMI, and I don’t see it under Merriman. He’s an ASCAP guy. I’m just really shocked. I would’ve thought that once it started getting sampled that somebody would’ve registered it, just to makes sure. Southland did have something to defend after Brainfreeze was released, but they probably never had any intention of it going to a place where it would actually get used on the radio or in a movie or a TV commercial, or something outside of their control, which would be the only way you’d necessitate registering with ASCAP or BMI.”
I asked MacFadden about a lawsuit that the Southland Corporation was rumored to have brought against him and Davis. “It never went beyond a cease and desist letter,” he explained. “It was being bootlegged all over the world and making tons of money that didn’t go to us. Although we didn’t press more than 2,000 copies, the project went on to gain so much traction that they saw us as the ones being responsible, so of course we complied, even though we never planned on making anymore, and we explained to them that we weren’t in control of the bootleggers, so it may still be manufactured by someone other than us.” Meanwhile, MacFadden was struck by a bold marketing idea of his own. “I was trying to pitch them putting me and Shadow in a television commercial mixing doubles of ‘Dance the Slurp’.” Southland passed.
“I think they really slept on a hip campaign idea,” MacFadden sighed. “Oh, well.”
Joe Bonomo's collection of music essays is Field Recordings from the Inside. His new book, No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell, a Writer's Life in Baseball, is forthcoming in 2019. Find him at No Such Thing As Was (nosuchthingaswas.com) @BonomoJoe.
Ahead of his arrival in Fresno for CSU Summer Arts this July, where he will take part in The Normal School’s Nonfiction Workshop and Publishing Institute, we got to chat with the incomparable Ander Monson.
In a far-reaching half-hour, our assistant managing editor, Matthew Kenerly, reflected with Monson upon March Shredness, talked up his forthcoming projects on emotion and Predator, and what it means for intrepid writers, emerging and experienced alike, to strike out into unfamiliar territories with their work.
Matthew Kenerly: First of all, I have to give both you and Megan Campbell props for another successful iteration of March—What are we calling it in general, March X-Ness?
Ander Monson: X-Ness, though I have to come up with a better name.
MK: So, first and foremost, I’m curious about your overall reaction to how this year’s Shredness tournament unfolded because, kind of like last year’s March Fadness, there were a lot of higher seeds that got cut down early. But at the same time, this year’s eventual champion, Loudness, never really mowed through the field like Natalie Imbruglia did. How did the response to this particular era, its values or its sound, conform to your expectations? Or how did it surprise you?
AM: Well, you know, I’m not surprised that a lot of the big hits got eliminated for the same reasons that they did in Fadness, just because of overplaying and overexposure. The thing that we were maybe most surprised by was what we take to be the effect of the bands playing themselves in the first round. I think that really accounted for the elimination of a lot of the one- and two-seeds because people were pretty pissed when the song that they voted for – of the two GnR songs, for instance – did get [a win], so they either disconnected or kind of spite-voted against the one that they would’ve otherwise probably voted for.
I think that did not have the effect that we’d hoped. We thought it would be energizing but I think it was enervating for those bands. Or maybe that those bands were not likely to go as far, but I don’t think so. It’s really bizarre to me that so many of them lost that early, so next year we’re not going to be doing that in the first round.
The upside of it, though, is that it made the bracket much harder to predict, so that just blew up everyone’s brackets, which I thought might have been a nice feature, but it may have also just pissed some people off.
MK: It’s funny, though, because the eventual outcome reminded me of something you’d written in the prologue of How We Speak to One Another. One of the things you’d said was that our ability to network online enables us to find “fellow travelers” who appreciate the interrogations we put forth in our essays. And that really stood out to me in W. Todd Kaneko’s essay on Loudness, that it can change how we’ve long thought – or at least how I’ve long thought, anyway – about the idea of hair metal.
AM: Yeah, big time.
MK: So do you think being unified by a genre, rather than a feeling or an era, makes that more possible, or more accessible?
AM: I think so. There’s definitely an aspect of revisionism that people were engaging in, which I think is natural and sort of necessary. We were involved in a genre but, at the same time, there’s hair metal stuff that’s come out in the last ten years that we didn’t include, so it’s a time era as much as it is a genre.
The essays that did it best were the ones that really created a connection, that really spoke to other people. Think of Berry Grass’s essay – that was the other one, on that shitty TNT song – that defeated a couple of big names pretty early for the same reasons. And that was really cool to see. I love that aspect of it. But both of those songs are also songs that almost no one had any experience with before. Both of those were late additions to the tournament, partially an attempt to try and make it a more diverse field within a very un-diverse field. And I really got to like that [Loudness song] more, it got to essay more, got the ability to speak to others and make those connections. It gathered a lot of steam as the tournament went on.
MK: Definitely. It ended up being a Cinderella, ironically.
AM: And without any interaction through social media or anything. We know that’s what happened with Natalie Imbruglia; she wasn’t responding to us on Twitter, but we know there was something going on in a social media string that we were not privy to which really helped buoy her early. And that really helped some of the bands in the first and second round. I mean, Nelson doesn’t get to the Sweet 16 without involving the Nelson Nation, who were surprisingly gung-ho about doing it. With Loudness, though, there wasn’t any of that.
MK: This might be shifting gears a bit, though maybe it’s not since you have a hand in many different things. I’d noticed recently that DIAGRAM released its latest issue online and, perhaps coincidentally, there’s a really awesome piece from former Normal School contributor Sarah Minor that, to me, really challenged traditional ideas of narrative form. As the editor for that magazine, what kind of insights can you offer to emerging writers who might be initially reluctant to take those kinds of risks?
AM: Sarah is a great example of that because she’s sort of created, in her career, her own idiom and her own genre. She was an MFA student in our program [at the University of Arizona] and this was, I think, the first piece of hers we’ve run, but there’s a real value in—it’s kind of why we started DIAGRAM, when I was trying to do work that was outside the stream of what was getting published in literary magazines. And this was eighteen years ago. I started the magazine, in part, to try and make a space for those kinds of things that were weird enough or involved enough or formal enough, in the sense of being in a form, that they didn’t speak to a lot of people.
It’s a hard road to hoe, in a certain sense, because she doesn’t work within a genre where you can name ten people that are the canon of the visual essay. There aren’t that many, she’s one of them now, but the benefit of it is that when you see her work, it’s unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. You get the sense that she’s changing the conversation with a lot of her pieces. And I love that, she’s trying to create her own space for it.
It’s something that I think we all, as writers, want to do. To innovate, you want to make it new, you don’t want to do what everyone else has already done, but it’s hard to do that, particularly as a young writer. The more you read, the more you come to understand that, actually, a lot of people have already done cool shit; you know, Tristram Shandy is one of the first novels in English and it’s got a whole page where it’s just black when a character dies. You’re like, “Oh, wow, so people were doing that well before what I thought of as the beginning of literature.” In a way, it’s helpful not to recognize what you’re up against.
But why not do something that’s more of an object? She did two MFA theses here [in Tucson] and one part of them was this fairy tale installation that you would walk through and you had the experience of being in it and you realize, well, no one else is even trying this shit. And that’s a really powerful notion, that this is new territory that we’re investigating. That’s a big part of what she’s interested in, and it’s certainly what I’m interested in through my teaching and in my writing, opening up new spaces, even when it hadn’t occurred to me there could be a space.
Take Neck Deep, my first book of essays. I tried to inhabit in that book, as much as I could, all of the various parts of the book including the dedication and the index and all of those other things. Because why not try to do that? All of these things that authors don’t normally have access to. One of the benefits of the era that we live in—well, one downside is that power is devolving from big publishers to the writers, the responsibility. We’re supposed to self-promote, we’re supposed to edit. Editors don’t really edit half the time, but the benefit is that now there are these spaces available to writers that otherwise were unavailable. Ten or fifteen years ago, you couldn’t do that. You probably wouldn’t have thought of it.
I still get in fights with editors when they ask for something and I demand that I have to be able to have a hand in the InDesign file when they lay it out, because that’s not what writers do. That’s what their design people do. And I find that is a kind of challenge. Why can’t that be something that writers do? What could we do with that space if we were allowed to do that? I’ve always being taken told no as a kind of challenge, which has not always served me well in my life but has taken me to some interesting places, for sure.
MK: That’s an interesting thought, though, the availability of space to do things encourages doing things without being so self-conscious about it.
AM: Yeah. Necessity is the mother of invention, that kind of thing, but if you have to do it or you’re aware that it’s there then why not? See what happens. I even think about Microsoft Word, you bring it up on your screen and it’s weird how much of that actually apes the physical page with its little drop shadow around this 8-by-11 thing and you don’t really think about that. We’re actually processing words, we’re apeing this typewriter, basically. And yet there’s this other stuff around it, including in the margins, that we don’t get to type in unless you open it up.
MK: I’d like to talk a little bit about your upcoming projects. I noticed you have not one, but two different projects coming out with Graywolf Press in the future, so how would you describe those projects to people who are unfamiliar with them? What can you say about how they’re coming along so far?
AM: They’re both done enough to have been accepted and I’m in the process of reworking and tuning in both of them. One of them, the nonfiction one, is called I Will Take the Answer, and it’s from a story that I think was posted in The Normal School.
MK: The mixtape essay?
AM: Yeah, and it also includes the March Sadness essay (author note: featured in TNS Volume 10, Issue 1). It’s a book that’s trying to think through, to some extent, the experience of living in Tucson which is – you know, I’m from Michigan, so Tucson is kind of an alien landscape – but also the experience in trying to work through some of my anger and grief, as well as the city’s, in the aftermath of the Jared Laughner shooting when my congresswoman was almost assassinated and a bunch of other people were killed by this psychopath who shot up a Safeway. That’s one of the big questions of that book, they’re essays but it’s a fairly tight collection trying to figure out how we process something like that, how we process emotion, which connects to how we think about sadness and March Sadness.
There’s some more experimental, visually or formally experimental, stuff in there because it’s an Ander Monson joint, but it’s trying to think through some of those social issues and ideas. So people who liked Shredness or Sadness will find something to like in that book.
The books are going to come out the same day, and the other is a story collection called The Gnome Stories. And those are, to some extent, Southwest-inflected, also written in the aftermath of that shooting. Guns are something that have been on my mind for a while because they’re also part of this Predator project I’ve been working on for a while and I’m hoping to finish this year. This is the downside of working on two projects at once: Your ideas for one, even if they came from somewhere else, end up interlocking and overlapping, which is fine since they’re coming out in different directions. But they have a lot of relationships.
I don’t know how well to describe what I’m doing there. They’re a little bit magical, a little bit deranged, a little bit fucked up.
MK: So that’s an Ander Monson joint, too.
AM: Yeah, that’s true.
MK: You actually beat me to one of my next questions because you do have that Predator project which, by the way, congratulations on becoming a Guggenheim Fellow last year.
AM: Thank you.
MK: But I had a couple of questions about that because, with Predator in particular, it stands as a unique monument to a schema of what I call American masculinity. So I was curious about what the interrogation of those ideas feels like on a day-to-day basis, especially as someone who grew up with Predator?
AM: It’s a tricky project because it is a very specific kind of masculinity and one that I inhabited fully as a 13-year-old, when that movie came out. Schwarzenegger, in that movie, was my dad’s age at the time, so there’s a way in which I learned a lot, more than I think I was aware of, not just that but from Running Man, Commando, all of those cartoonish, hyper-violent, hyper-masculine, homo-social, shoot-‘em-up movies. And we live in a time where mass shootings are almost every day, they’re not in danger of going away.
This book came specifically out of the Giffords experience, after watching a bunch of coverage about that when I still thought she was dead. I was in a sort of shock, trying to figure out a way to process anger and frustration and grief, but I was playing this first-person shooter game, Fallout 3—
MK: I love Fallout.
AM: It’s a wonderful series and a great game, but it’s also a game where you’re stalking around Washington D.C., a place I’ve visited and knew sort of well, and I was struck by the collision of ideas: A congresswoman being shot and me, just head-shotting people with my sniper rifle and taking great satisfaction and solice in that. That’s kind of a disturbing pairing of things. I’m trying to think about, you know, not that I feel watching Predator growing up in the 80s made me enjoy blowing up stuff on screens or enjoy shooting guns and so forth, but there is a way in which all of us are products of, and digest aspects of, the cultures that we grow up within. It’s part of our job to reckon with that and to try and disentangle what that meant. It’s very much like March Shredness, the same era and the same ideas of masculinity popping up, so partly the book is about unpacking some ideas about guns and violence and aggression and masculinity.
But it’s also about watching Predator and re-watching Predator. I’m not interested in making a one-to-one argument – watching a violent movie makes me a violent person – and I think Predator is a brilliant film, really beautiful and amazing, by far the best of them. It’s the one that’s lasted because it has the most interesting mythology, because it speaks to the most people. I’m interested in it as a kick-ass film. I re-watched it frame by frame, looking for surprises. It’s also the first movie I can think of where you actually get the perspective of the alien, which is really radical in a monster movie. The cool heat-sensing effect. That sense of being the other changes the game and it creates the game, for instance, with Alien vs. Predator on Atari Jaguar, which also imprinted itself on me pretty strongly at the time.
I don’t know how much watching a 1987 action film can reveal about being a guy of my age in the Trump era, but I think there’s something in there that needs interrogation. And try not to be boring about it.
And, you know, Predator is awesome.
MK: I will definitely agree with that. My last question is about your presence at the forthcoming Normal School Workshop and Publishing Institute.
AM: I’m excited about that.
MK: As an established writer, as a prolific writer, what do you get out of engaging with emerging writers in such an intensive setting? What do you hope learners will take away from your being there as a part of that course?
AM: In part, I get to revisit to where I came from which is, “Alright, let’s play around with some stuff.” The downside to being an established writer, I guess, is that I have a sense of what my brand is supposed to be, or what people expect from me, and it’s hard not to operate within those expectations. And it’s really poisonous to feel like you’re living up to whatever that version of yourself you’ve projected, or people have read. But what’s really cool is getting to work with young writers and re-engaging with them, who maybe aren’t burdened with those expectations and come into it with that spirit of directed play that I think is crucial to any kind of invention or any kind of progress you make as a writer.
If you’re doing it right, teaching ought to also feed the writing part of you. It eats part of the writing me, for sure, less so these kind of intensive short-term workshops, but you also get a bounce-back and energy by seeing what people are doing. By seeing what people are watching and what they’re playing and what they’re reading, and then what they’re making.
Coming back to Sarah Minor, she was one of my students and it was always really awesome to have her in class because we’d have good conversations and she’d make stuff that made me want to make stuff. A good teacher also does that to you. Being in a class makes you want to make things, too, and then having good students makes the teacher want to keep making things. That’s my hope, that we can talk a little bit about what that is. I hope it’s going to be really generative, I’d like to generate some material myself and see where we can take it.
Ander Monson is the author of eight books, including the forthcoming I Will Take the Answer and The Gnome Stories from Graywolf. He edits the magazine DIAGRAM (thediagram.com) among other projects, and he directs the MFA program at the University of Arizona.
Matthew Kenerly is a recent graduate of the Fresno State MFA program, where he served as The Normal School’s assistant managing print editor and social media coordinator. He writes and edits for Mountain West Wire, part of USA Today’s Sports Media Group.
By Christina Legler
In Slay the Dragon, Robert Denton Bryant and Keith Giglio lay to rest a few misconceptions aspiring game writers and players alike often have about game writing: gameplay and narrative, they argue, must work cooperatively in a video game. As Slay the Dragon clarifies, there is a certain gap between these two elements of the video game that gamers do not understand about writing, and writers do not understand about gaming.
* * *
Christina Legler: To start, how did you get into video game writing? I understand that both of you have been involved in film and screenwriting, and you both hold MFAs in film and television. How did your backgrounds and professional experiences lead you to game writing?
Robert Denton Bryant: I’ve actually never held the title “game writer,” although I hope to someday. I've been writing all my life . . .
—that’s what got me interested in screenwriting and filmmaking—but I entered the games industry as a tester and then moved up as a lead tester, quality assurance manager, producer, executive producer, and studio director. Along the way I filled in there and there, worked with developers and writers, and saw that very often game designers have an awkward relationship with narrative. When I hired Keith to write a big virtual world game I was exec producing, we experienced that awkward relationship first-hand. And that gave rise to Slay the Dragon.
Keith Giglio: I went with Bob to E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, one year. The room was filled with monitors displaying the new AAA video games . . .
. . . The “trailers” for these games were fascinating. I was instantly taken with the new arena for narrative storytelling. Years later, during the WGA strike, I needed a job and was lucky to land one working for Bob. My assignment was to help turn a toy company’s intellectual property (toys, dollars) into video game content. It was like putting together a puzzle. I had all these assets (setting and characters) designed, but no story.
CL: In an early chapter of Slay the Dragon, you, Bob, relate a tale of when you had an awesome idea for a He-Man video game while working for Mattel that did not fly because your story idea exceeded programming limitations. How did you both handle this transition into game writing when you realized that the limits of game development affect storytelling?
RDB: I think it was much less about programming limitations; everything I wanted to do in that game was do-able in 3D game engines at the time. The problem was scope (my pitch was epic), and, more specifically, I was much more enamored with telling a story than with creating an experience for the player. I had that humbling moment that every writer has when they start talking to game developers. It’s That Moment When you realize that in a game it’s not the writer’s story that matters; it’s the player’s story.
KG: I like a current trend in movies and television of “breadcrumb” storytelling. The audience has to piece together narrative by things they see or hear in the game narrative. Information is there for you to gather and deduce what the narrative or backstory might be. You can see this type of storytelling cropping up in more Hollywood content. A Quiet Place is basically a survival game. No one is telling us about the aliens, we can figure it out by what we see on the walls. Then of course there is Ready Player One, which feels like a video game come to life. Spielberg really knows how to push the tropes.
CL: Game writing is a collaborative effort, something that we as writers of short stories, novels, essays, and poetry may not understand or like. How does working on a collaborative team of developers and writers for a video game compare to, say, co-writing a book with a friend, such as Slay the Dragon? Where is creativity compromised?
KG: By the designers and game producers who do not involve a game writer early in the process. Look at the new God of War. It was rebooted for story. Video game writers are guns for hire unless they are brand name. Engineers know how to code; animators know how to draw and design and bring sketches to life. These are skills which no writer has. But everyone who works on a game thinks they are a writer, because they have played games. They figure if they can write a sentence, they are writers. Sadly, not true. So creativity is compromised by lack of narrative education on the part of the game makers. Game creators like Ken Levine and David Jaffe are literate in screenwriting and narrative structure. This shows in their creation. I remember writing something for the toy company and was told that scene didn’t work because the level was already designed and we did not have enough polygons. Polygons? They didn’t have enough story!
CL: And, if I may humbly add to that list of mastermind game creators, Neil Druckmann! If these creative geniuses, who not only develop but write as well, were involved in the process from start to finish, we would end up with games that are a more even mixture of story and gameplay/development. If, of course, story matters to them, or if story is the objective.
RDB: Most definitely. We discuss Neil and [The] Last of Us extensively in the book. It’s funny—I misread the question as “when is creativity compressed.” I think the short answer is that creativity is compromised the moment you ask a third party to mediate between you and the audience whose money you want. If you’re not expecting any money from anyone, ever, you can have virtually unlimited creative freedom. If you can sell directly to your audience, ditto, although you have to be mindful of their expectations if you want them to continue buying your work. But if you want a studio to buy your script, or a publisher to finance and distribute your game, there will be collaboration, and some of it may be brutal. This is not always a bad thing. I think limits and boundaries—set by formats, genres, budgets, partner expectations, audience expectations, or your own eagerness for a challenge—can force any artist to grow creatively by turning them into problem solvers.
CL: I understand that you both teach or have taught game writing at universities. What does such a class entail?
RDB: We got started teaching game writing because of the arguments we would have working on our game together. It was obvious that this creative tension between storytelling and game design was worth exploring in a class. Keith had already been teaching screenwriting through The Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension, so he suggested we pitch a game writing class so that we could present this problem to students and have them tell us how to resolve it. Students in The Writers’ Program were, typically, writers and not game developers, so we found that we had to spend a little time getting them ramped up on basics of game design. In the same way, when our students are mostly game developers, we have to focus a little more on such writerly topics as characters and story structure. The more writers understand gameplay, and game designers understand the emotional journey of a character, the more involving the games they create will be.
KG: Gamers are the original Netflix “bingers.” The kids who take any video game writing course know every game and game characters. They are a passionate group.
CL: In Slay the Dragon, you explain that story depends upon gameplay rather than the other way around. Do you believe that with games like The Last of Us (which focuses heavily on character and story), storytelling is becoming more important in games than it used to be?
KG: Yes and no. I think sadly games have moved to more cooperative play and less you-are-the-hero games. Also with the rise of mobile gaming, there is little or no room for narrative.
RDB: I think any time you talk about “games” as a monolithic, homogenous medium, you’re in danger of running off the tracks.
CL: Good point, because not all games follow the same formula or fit into one big, encompassing genre.
RDB: Exactly. I get frustrated when folks, even players, make sweeping generalizations about “all games” that would be laughed down if they were similarly broad generalizations about “all movies.” Games are a giant, complex, diverse medium. You can point to tens of thousands of recent, popular, and profitable games in which storytelling occupies a very marginal space, if at all, and that’s okay. There’s not much storytelling in Fortnight’s Battle Royale mode, beyond its crazy Hunger Games-like premise, yet it’s one of the hottest games right now. What’s also clear, though, is that for those players who are looking for involving stories, the number of choices have never been better, ranging from indie games like Firewatch and Kentucky Route Zero to story-driven triple-A games like the new God of War.
CL: I would argue that video games have become more “mainstream” nowadays than they were decades ago. By this, I mean that people who play games now don’t necessarily identify as gamers, but simply as people who occasionally play games. Do you agree with this?
RDB: What we know now about the medium, that it took several generations to understand, is that a substantial number of game players play games for life. When they have kids, they’re more understanding about letting their kids play games themselves. Both daughters and sons—every year, the number of women who play video games gets closer to 50 percent of the total audience. Plus, the fact that in the smartphone era, millions of people have a powerful video game device in their purses or pockets, means that games are available almost anywhere, at any time. We’ve come light years from when we were small kids and you had to go somewhere where there was a food-truck-sized computer, or to an amusement arcade, to play a video game. But I think you need look no further than the fact that lifelong video game player Steven Spielberg just released Ready Player One, with a strong third-act message about putting down the controller. The medium of the video game is absolutely within our cultural mainstream—and has been for some time.
KG: All about the tech. But it’s been a while since World of Warcraft pulled so many people into the world. Interesting, that as mobile games exploded, table-top narrative games have resurged. Dungeons and Dragons? Wizard? Create your own fun.
CL: And now for a sort of meta-question: What do you think about an interview with a game writer, about game writing, in a literary magazine? In what ways do game writing and literary writing intersect or differ?
KG: In literary fiction, a writer can spend many pages getting into the mind of the character, so the reader gains empathy to the character or situation. If you wait that long in video games, you’re going to have a very bored player. Games are more like genre fiction. Every chapter/level ends with a turning point and the narrative surges forward. My favorite book last year was Lincoln In The Bardo by George Saunders. To me, it was the Citizen Kane of literary fiction. A game changer. Celebrate the differences between all writing platforms.
RDB: I think it’s awesome, and quite humbling, to be talking to you in a literary magazine. If we define literature as “narrative art,” I think it’s very easy to consider the best story-driven games rising to fit that. In the book we point to Bioshock as a prime example of a game that works not only as a harrowing adventure tale, but also as a thoughtful meditation on the relationship between game designer and player. It’s pretty meta itself.
Robert Denton Bryant is the Director of Video Game Development at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. He has also taught game writing and narrative design at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. He holds an MFA in Cinema-Television Production from the University of Southern California.
Keith Giglio has written and produced for a number of feature films and television movies, from Disney’s Tarzan to A Cinderella Story. Presently, he teaches screenwriting and video game writing at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University in New York. He holds an MFA in Film and Television from New York University.
Christina Legler is a graduate student in Fresno State’s MFA Fiction Program. She has been playing video games since the age of four, when a next-door neighbor made the mistake of allowing her to play Sonic: The Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis.
By Tara Williams
Angela Morales will join us in the summer of 2018 for The Normal School’s Summer Nonfiction Workshop and Publishing Institute, July 16-29, on the Fresno State campus.
Tara Williams: If I were your fairy godmother, and I gave you a credit card with no limit that was good for one weekend only, with the conditions being you could go anywhere and do anything for that weekend with two other writers of your choice (past or present, living or dead), where would you go, and who would you take with you?
Angela Morales: Where to begin…? First, I’d narrow down my choices to spending time with dead writers as opposed to living writers because, A. I’d want to take advantage of the magic, and B. My list of living writers is too long.
That said, I’m taking my credit card and heading to Yorkshire to the home of Charlotte Brontë. She and I will embark on an all-day walk across the moors, and maybe Anne and Emily would join us? After the chilly walk, we’d cozy up by the fire and eat scones with jam, and the sisters would reveal to me all their storytelling secrets.
TW: Okay, I have to ask: why the Brontës? And I have to qualify that by confessing my expectations of romance were hopelessly distorted by reading the Brontës in my adolescence. Recently I watched a new movie adaptation of Wuthering Heights and found myself thinking, Oh my God, Heathcliff was a sociopath! That explains so much!
AM: Why the Brontës? Well, I have always admired Charlotte Brontë because she wrote her novels in the first person, with a narrator’s voice that I’m almost positive was her own voice, with novels that are very much autobiographical. Her voice is clear, steady, and stubborn. She is realistic and very no-nonsense, but quietly passionate, and I feel that, in this way, we are kindred spirits.
TW: Your credit card isn’t maxed out yet.
AM: Then I’d take the train back to London and find a good happy hour in some pub and buy drinks for Chinua Achebe, Herman Melville, George Orwell, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, the Romantic Poets, E.B. White, John Muir, Chris Hitchens, and Flannery O’Connor. Oh wait… I’m only allowed two writers, so I’ll have to stick with the Brontës, I suppose, even though, technically that’s three.
TW: As your fairy godmother, I say if you go to the pub with the Brontës, you’re still technically in compliance with the conditions. And if let me know the name of the London pub where you'll be, I could kind of happen by…
AM: Any English pub will do… the smaller the better, anywhere for a nice brown ale and a baked potato.
TW: I noticed River Teeth, in their write-up for your Literary Nonfiction Prize award, described your “escape” from your parents’ appliance store, wording that also appears on the back-cover copy of the book itself, and it occurs to me to wonder if you feel you have “escaped” the influences of your earlier life. What does writing about your childhood do to the way you remember it?
AM: I’m pretty sure that I will never escape the influences of my early life, nor do I want to escape or deny or forget about those influences, even the painful ones. I’ve always felt that writing about childhood helps me to understand it better and to make order out of chaos. Maybe I’m a bit of a control freak, but I like to take the pieces of my life, or the memories, and tell the stories in a way that’s as true to memory and fact as possible, but to paint the picture of those stories in a way that finds the beauty and the meaning within them. When I write about a childhood memory, I feel like I’ve dragged it out of a burning house, cleaned off the ashes, dressed it up in its best outfit, and pushed it back out into the world, hoping that someone else will love it as much as I do.
TW: That’s a powerful image. Is there anything you can’t or won’t write about?
AM: If an idea or story appears to me and if it feels important, I hope I would be brave enough not to banish it or suppress it, no matter how embarrassing or personal. Thus far, I haven’t come across any topics that make me feel like I’ve hit that brick wall. In nonfiction, however, writers must always consider the ethics of writing about other people and how those people are portrayed. I think if your intentions are pure (meaning, that you don’t aim to destroy anybody) you can write about living people with respect and goodwill, even if it’s a difficult topic.
TW: In the intro to your book The Girls in My Town, you mention your essays growing from recollected images, such as that of your grandmother dying, which you elaborate on in “Nine Days of Ruth.” It reminded me so much of being with my own grandmother, as a mother myself, during her last days, reading aloud to her from her favorite Psalms. Do you have any further thoughts on the role of faith in parenting, in making sense of life and death?
AM: I am not a religious person, though I find much meaning and comfort in being in the wilderness and living in the world. It’s been very important for me to make sure that my children experience solitude and a kind of “nothingness” when they must “unplug” and sit in the deserts of Death Valley or maybe play on a deserted beach on the Channel Islands for days at time. I believe in God, but I think God is everywhere and that the best I can do for my children is to help them to be more mindful of the world around them. As seagulls are squawking overhead and all around us, we might find a dead seagull and notice how the seagull’s body is being eaten by flies and how the ocean waves are pulling it back to the sea. If my children can contemplate that fact of life and death right before their eyes, I think that reality is more valuable than anything I might say to them. Now that my children are a little older, we can talk about how life is really one big mystery and all we can do is search for meaningful ways to understand it.
TW: It looks as if you have so many events coming up in 2018! You’ll be with us here in Fresno for CSU Summer Arts, you’ll be with River Teeth in June, you have a steady schedule of readings and appearances. How does that busy schedule affect your writing? How do you keep it all balanced?
AM: I’m so excited and honored to participate in all these upcoming events! I’ve felt so grateful for all the positive feedback I’ve gotten on my book over the past year, and I’m still trying figure out how to schedule my life so that I have time to write. I teach full-time at a community college, so I’ve learned, over the past decade, if I want to make time to write, I must claim that writing time, no matter what. I’m trying to think of writing time the way you’d think of exercise—it’s an hour or two that you must take to be a healthier person, whether that means getting up before dawn or staying up into the witching hours. My husband, Patrick, my accomplice, has helped me to sneak away to the library or get back to my office late at night. Last month, I was lucky enough to visit Yaddo, an artists’ colony in upstate New York, for an entire month. I got a ton of work done while I was there, and Patrick made sure that the kids got fed and the dogs got walked. So many people are helping me to keep writing, and for this, I’m so lucky. So far, so good.
Angela Morales, a graduate of the University of Iowa's nonfiction writing program, is the author of The Girls in My Town, a collection of personal essays. Her work has appeared in Best American Essays 2013, Harvard Review, The Southern Review, The Southwest Review, The Los Angeles Review, Arts and Letters, The Baltimore Review, The Pinch, Hobart, River Teeth, Under the Sun, and Puerto del Sol, and The Indianola Review. She is the winner of the River Teeth Book Prize, 2014, and has received fellowships from Yaddo and MacDowell Colony. Currently she teaches composition and creative writing at Glendale Community College and is working on her second collection of essays. She lives in Pasadena, CA with her husband Patrick and their two children, Mira and Leo.
Tara Williams is an MFA candidate in Fresno State’s Creative Writing Fiction program. She has previously published interviews with Bich Minh Nguyen, Leonard Peltier, Julia Butterfly, and former WIBF world champion boxer Lucia Rijker.
Light the lasers! Turn up the fog! Prop the door with a cinderblock, ignore—for once on
purpose—the record winter heat. Let a duct-taped laptop chop and screw primordial soup,
let beats blast like broken filters: chipi chipi, draped up dripped out, bidi bidi bom bom.
Let bongos hump air opaque with pheromone confetti. Let it be happy hour.
The city is a two-headed lizard scaled with private parking, the mist is full of drones, particulates
and used blue gloves—
but here, may we get super SUPER weird. May pipeline moguls buy juicebox after juicebox
of bubbly for trippy cholos in bolo ties. May loafers, Jordans, steel-toe Westerns and huaraches
share buckled linoleum, denim hips kiss cufflinks till hazy dawn. May all awkward flesh
shimmy on the present’s acid-eaten rim—Papi,
yours and mine in particular. The way you irradiate the room makes my eyes water. Before your
Suburban mutates into a pumpkin and we scuttle off to separate bunkers, let’s dance. I’ll
be the last grindable abdomen left on earth, you be the neon serum with the hazard sign:
let’s repopulate the floor with our footfalls, strip
to our tracking devices, for one last lunar half-life skinny-dip in the star-clogged
catchment pond, go down as weird as Houston.
JP Allen is an MFA candidate at The Johns Hopkins University. His poems in English have appeared in Cactus Heart, After the Pause and elsewhere. A series of his bilingual micro-stories was published in Minificción y Nanofilología (Iberoamericana-Vervuert 2016).
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