The Healing Art: An Interview with Elena Fanailova

By Philip Metres

A Normal Interview with Elena Fanailova:

The symbolic power of poems in current culture, the state of Russian poetry, fusing identities, and a deeper look at her poem, "Lena, or The Poet and the People."

I love the power of freedom; I changed social roles in this period, like a huge number of my fellow citizens. I like excitement, and I go to my own zone of fears, in a certain sense; they are my research material.
— Elena Fanailova

Philip Metres: When did you start writing poetry? What poets and writers have influenced you?

Elena Fanailova: The first poem I wrote in the second grade, and I’ve been writing ever since. My childish poetic experiments were corrected by my mother, who was a literature teacher. Her favorite poets were by [19th and 20th century Russian poets] Nekrasov, Lermontov, Mayakovsky, Apukhtin, and she recited a lot of poems by heart, so I suppose as a child I was influenced by these poets. Of course, Pushkin. At fifteen, I read Dante’s The Divine Comedy, translated Michael Lozinski; I was greatly impressed its structure. In early adolescence, I read the poets of the Silver Age, the Symbolists and Acmeists, everything that one could get in the Soviet period. My main love was (and remains) Osip Mandelstam.

The second most important influential figure during the late 1980s-1990s was Joseph Brodsky. Although it’s difficult to detect the direct effect of his work on my poems, his corpus—and the way he constructs ideas and technique—are very important for me as a poet. I really love the OBERIU poets; like Kharms and Vvedensky, I use the art of paradox, like Mikhail Kuzmin. Of the deceased poets, I loved my contemporaries Elena Shvarts, Viktor Krivulin, Aronson, Parshchikov, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. Of the living, I love Olga Sedakova, Alexei Tsvetkov, Stratanovsky. In my poems from the 2000s, I’d admit the influence of the prose of Vladimir Sorokin—its absurdity and rhythmic structure, its use of repetitions, its construction by musical principles. In general, absurd and automatic writing for me are very important, although I use them in my own way, within the strict limits of rational organization of the text.

I’ve been constantly thinking about Czeslaw Milosz, for the past five years; he is important as a thinker in poetry. I’m very influenced by everything that is written by my peers. We have many common techniques and methods of writing. Among my peers, I’ve been watching Ukrainian authors, long before the recent political developments; I actually read in Ukrainian. I love classic English and American literature of the twentieth century. Recently I re-read Faulkner and Hemingway. I avidly read Evelyn Waugh, in Russian translations that date from the period when there was a great school of translators (alas, my English is enough only for simple texts from the news).

I’ve been influenced by the movies, as a provocation for the mind. I try to watch von Trier, Haneke, Patrice Chereau, Tarantino—they are usually the main statements of the modern world. I look forward to the second series of “Sin City.” Earlier than the provocation of film was rock music, both American and Russian. In the eighties, I was listening to Pink Floyd; in the nineties, Guns ‘n’ Roses, garage rock. I listen to the music of many other countries, and now, more German and Eastern European—both pop and avant-garde. Sound is very important for the poet. Writing is associated with rhythm primarily, meaning organized in rhythm.

The world of contemporary art, its techniques, also seriously influences me. I follow the major trends in contemporary art. I’m very interested in the sociology and psychology of Europe in the second half of the twentieth century; I’m less interested in the Americans, because Europe is closer and more understandable due to the trauma of the Second World War. And Eastern Europe, because of its connection with the Soviet world.


PM: Do you think your poetry is a continuation of Russian unofficial poetry? In a sense, the gap in American poetry between “experimenters” and “mainstream” also existed in Russia, even when I started this project. But your poetry seems to bridge this gap.

EF: Yes, it’s true. From the late eighties to the early nineties, when my poetic generation began to write and publish, there was a sense that poetry should move away from Soviet language. And what was very helpful was having knowledge not only of the Silver Age, but also of the texts of uncensored poetry in St. Petersburg samizdat journals, and with Moscow conceptualists—the poems of Prigov and Rubinstein, the SMOG circle [a group of young poets established in 1965 dedicated to samizdat publication], the Lianozovo School. The journal “Vesna” once played a crucial role in my taste of the time, which was published in Riga; from this publication, I learned about the German expressionists, Paul Celan, American poets of the late twentieth century, Latvian avant-garde artists of a century ago. Generally, my generation of writers was omnivorous; we tried to combine the tradition of Russian modernism, killed off by Stalinist cultural policy in the late thirties, with all the contemporary practices of the world. I am grateful to all my friends and poets who were involved in translation. Basil Kondratiev played a special role in this process, the young St. Petersburg poet and translator who died young. His major work, which Alexander Skidan continued, was The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. The task of our generation was to become citizens of the world, to bring Russian poetry from conservative existence, associated with the self-imposed isolation of the country and the Iron Curtain.” I think we succeeded in doing it for the competent Russian reader. Another thing is that the institution of translation has not kept up with the work of Russian poets. In this sense, the efforts of the American and German translators are most significant. But it’s silly to complain, the best Russian translators have not kept pace with the best American and German poets). There are efforts between Russians and Poles to translate each other; it’s amazing, but we hardly know each other, and we’re such close countries.

PM: On the state of Russian poetry. When I began the interview by Russian poets in 1992, there was no formal education in creative writing as an academic discipline, but poetry still had cultural value. Now, it seems that while poetry does not have “mass appeal,” it has its own institutions—both in the United States and in Russia. On the one hand, it seems that Russian poetry is as culturally weak as it is in the United States, from a symbolic point of view. On the other hand, reflecting on Pussy Riot’s trial and incarceration based on their Punk Prayer, it seems as strong as ever. What do you think?

EF: I think the comparison between American and Russian situation would take a long article. One would need to disassemble the principles of education and cultural management, which are very different. In the last 10-15 years in Russia there are philological departments now engaged in contemporary poetry: in Moscow (Russian State Humanitarian University and the Higher School of Economics); St. Petersburg (Smolny Institute); major provincial centers, like Samara, Saratov, Yekaterinburg, Perm, Novosibirsk and Voronezh. There are good publications, workshops, and scientific work.

But few contemporary poets now work as teachers or supervisors in education; this is due to the fact that the specialty of “creative writing” is not recorded in the documents of the Ministry of Education, and the fact that the salary of teachers is quite low. That is, the poet as a university lecturer is the exception rather than the rule in Russia. Institutes of poetry in Russia are extremely weak and hold only the enthusiasm of its fans—that is, philologists and poets themselves. The Russian state does not support programs of modern poetry, and in light of the new conservative policy in all areas of life, such a program is not expected.

Poetry does not seem as important as it was in the sixties, when the “light modernists” Vosnesensky, Rozhdestvensky, Akhmadulina, Yevtushenko coincided with the period of the Khrushchev Thaw. Poetry is connected with politics more than they would like, although poets still often joke on the theme of Yevtushenko’s line, “A poet in Russia is more than a poet.” [Contemporary] poets who know how to combine political topicality and lyrical simplicity—like Vera Polozkova, Vsevolod Emelin, Andrei Rodionov—or use other media platforms, like Dmitry Bykov’s “citizen poet” project—have been able to reach beyond the narrow circle of poetry readers in Russia to achieve real popularity. Bykof’s poems are actually limericks on news of the day, very witty. The symbolic meaning of poetry does not disappear; even Dr. Freud has spoken about the therapeutic power of metaphors, rhythms and rhymes. Do you think the man who painted the star on the Moscow high-rise in the colors of the Ukrainian flag was a poet? In terms of working with symbols and the collective unconscious, I think he is, definitely.

PM: I was thinking about the fact that you were a doctor and now you are a journalist. Can you say that your three major labors—as a physician, as a journalist, and as a poet—have a common metaphysical goal, of diagnosing and naming disease (whether the body of society, or spirit), and healing these diseases? Or do you think that your work as a doctor and a journalist is more direct in its responsibility to others, while poetry is more free from specific duties? Your poem, “Lena , or The Poet and the People,” for example, clearly shows the dilemma of the modern poet in Russia.

Lena, or The Poet and the People


There’s a clerk in the all-night store

Where I stop after work

To buy food and drinks

(I hate that word, drinks).

One time she said to me, “I saw you on TV

On the culture channel

I liked what you were saying.

Are you a poet? Let me read your book.

I’ll give it back, I promise.”

I say, “I don’t have a spare copy right now,

But when I get one,

I promise I’ll bring it to you.”


I wasn’t at all sure

She’d like the poems.

That actor’s urge to be liked

Is astonishing, whorish,

It disappeared

After Sasha d–d,

But now it secretly returned.


Eventually an extra copy of my book

The Russian Version turned up

A poet has to get involved

Distributing books, after all

Publishers don’t do much on this front.

I handed it over. Right there, as I was paying for the food and drinks.

(Kefir for in the morning, one gin and tonic, a second gin and tonic,

Plus a little vodka,

And farewell, cruel world,

To quote Lvovsky’s version

Of two Nizhnii Novgorod boys’ conversation.

No question, I remain a provincial teenager.)


It turned out that Lena and I were namesakes.

I hate that word, namesakes

And even more I hate the word connect

It arouses physiological spasms in me

Possibly because

The word has echoes of coitus and sex,

But I prefer pure fucking, pure and simple.

After all, I am my own highest judge.


“Could you autograph it,” she says.

To Elena, I write, from Elena.

I hand it over nervously.

For a few days she doesn’t look me in the eye.

Then one day there aren’t many other people,

She says, “So, I read your book.

I didn’t understand a word of it.

Too many names of people no one knows.

I had the feeling that you write

For a narrow circle. For friends. For an in-group.

Who are these people, who are they, Elena?

The ones you name?

I gave it to my girlfriends to read,

One of them knows a little bit about literature.

She felt the same way:

It’s for a narrow circle.”


I say, “Well, the part about St. Tikhon of Zadonsk,

You didn’t get that?”

She says, “No, I got the part about Tikhon.”

I say, “What about Seryozha the drunk, did you get that?”

She says, “No, I got that.”

I say, “And the essays, you didn’t get them?”

“I got the prose,” she says,

I even wanted to read more

About the people you were writing about.”


So I say, “Lena, believe me, I didn’t do it on purpose.

I don’t want it to be hard to figure out.

It just turns out that way.”

She looks at me sympathetically

And says, “Okay.”

I keep on justifying myself, “You know,

I write plenty of articles,

And if you understand the ones in the book,

Then you’d get the other ones too, right?”

She says, “Okay, I get it.

So, do you want two beers and menthol cigarettes?”

“Yes,” I say. “Lena,

I’m going to work on myself.

The balloon came back, a sign of wealth.

Look, that’s almost a rhyme.”


Why in the world do I care if she gets it?

Why am I trying to justify myself?

Why do I have this furtive sense of unease?

This forgotten

Wish that she like me?

Do I want to be beloved by the people,

Like Vodennikov (poet or pianist?),

Am I conducting a purely socio-cultural experiment

Like D. A. Prigov?

I already conducted one experiment

In his memory

At the election of a king of poets

At the Polytechnic Institute

(I read and anti-Putin ditty

At a festival sponsored by his Administration.

The pure wave of icy hatred

That rushed at me from the audience —

Students from provincial theater institutes --

Was more than I had felt in a lifetime.

Now that’s a useful experiment.)


I always used to say:

Never show your poems

To your children or relatives

To workers or peasants

You have to show factories and production plants,

To the poor – other people’s problems, to the rich as well

But I

Show the work of native speech

In a country of natural resources

I am not fucking anyone over,

Like that poetess, Johanna Pollyeva.


Obviously, this is an unthinkable claim

And an illegitimate assertion of power

My father was right to be angry

When he read in my adolescent diary:

I would not want to pretend

That I am the same as everyone else.

(“What, do you think you’reabove the rest?”

He asked me with a passion

That bordered on sado-masochism.)

I was fifteen

And depressed for the first time

My parents didn’t notice a thing

I wasn’t a complainer

And wasn’t used to asking for attention.


I don’t think I’m better


My claim is tougher than that

I think I’m different – male, female, other, the others

Like in the movie by that name

With Nicole Kidman in the lead


I don’t understand why

On New Year’s Eve

People run around looking for a tree

And for gifts

I don’t understand the dumb habit

Of waiting around

For the President’s speech on TV

Before the drinking and eating


I spent this New Year’s Eve

On a train

From Moscow to Voronezh

With Chinese workers

Their Year of the Rat begins in February

So they went to sleep at eleven

And I fell asleep with them

As opposed to my usual habit of

Staying up until four


I like to look into

Windows all lit up

Aquarium fish

Live there among the seaweed

This is all terribly interesting

But I do not understand how it works

Who thought up the idea

Of drinking champagne

At the Metropolitan Opera?

On the other side of the world

It could have been entirely otherwise


In short

I can’t pretend any longer

I walk home, thinking:

Who is she, this Lena,

A clerk in an all-night store

Heavy-set, fifty years old, with glasses

I love the word heavy-set

She is plump, not all flabby, tall

A solid, bleached blonde

She watches the Culture channel

When she’s not working around the clock

Coming out to smoke on the stoop

And joke with the security guard.

Who was she in that previous life?

An engineer? A librarian?

I have to remember to ask next time

If there’s aren’t too many people around


And of course, she’s right:

It’s a complicated text,

Even when it pretends to be simple,

Like now


2008 / (translation by Stephanie Sandler, reprinted from Jacket Magazine)

EF: Of course, I try to think responsibly about all three statuses of my work and professional identities. You are right, they are very connected. My education and experience as a doctor does not leave me; they give me special research optics on information, whether the information is from a news feed, or from the field of shamanic free verse. A doctor gathers information, and analyzes it; the doctor’s intuition is important, and it’s not by chance that in ancient times medicine was considered an art and a science. I try to remember the writers and poets who were doctors. In my secret list, Somerset Maugham, Mikhail Bulgakov, the terrible Russian conservative Konstantin Leontiev, the Russian saint Luka Krymski—he’s the great surgeon of Voino-Yasenetsky, the author of classic books on surgery.

By the way, is it clear that “Lena, or The Poet and the People” is a parody? A parody of Pushkin, Nekrasov and Tsvetaeva simultaneously, with their poems and reflections on the role of the poet in society and its relationship to the public (and it is also a secret dialogue with Ortega y Gasset, with his “Dehumanization of Art” and “Revolt of the Masses”)? I think the American translation is fine, thanks to Stephanie Sandler. When I read this poem in American universities, the students laughed, and that’s the appropriate response, as an author I told her I was happy. At the same time, this text is an analysis of the anthropology of the poet, in the style of Charles Bukowski, as he represented his life of sin to the reader. Doctors usually look after their own health, and the diaries of Chekhov are also a model for me. “Lena and the People” was a poem of self-hygiene, if I may say so.

I relate to my work as a poet with the same degree of responsibility and a practical understanding of my work as a journalist and a former doctor.

PM: Despite the fact that Russia remains a very patriarchal society, there are a lot of great poets today who are women: Olga Sedakova, Olesia Nikolaeva, Vera Pavlova, Polina Barskova, Anna Russ, yourself, etc. Your poetry recognizes the heritage Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva (and others, of course), but it also moves in new directions. For example, you are a thoroughly postmodern poet—you employ slang and mix several discourses, you mix formalism with free verse, etc. Is the present moment a kind of golden age for women poets in Russia? What intrigues you about Russian poetry today?

EF: You ask how the ideas of feminism influenced those beautiful women authors on that list? Firstly, all of the authors you’ve listed are well-educated and know the history of the feminist movement. Secondly, life in a patriarchal society provides an excellent opportunity to test the strength of their beliefs in everyday social and family life, in family disputes about politics, finally, in their religious beliefs (you mentioned Sedakova and Nikolaeva, and we can see clearly how these Orthodox women differently describe their relationships with men). We love our men, I think it shows in our poetry. But we also know how to criticize their prejudices inherited from their fathers and mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers. We women have these prejudices too, don’t we? Modern life is far from patriarchal; intelligent men and women can only sneer at the old stereotypes about gender roles.

By the way, when I write about love, my addressee is not always a man; it can be a woman too, as an object of admiration, or a role model. These are different discourses, formalism and free verse, slang and classic style. In the relations between the sexes there should be improvisation, not just rules. Artists, as well as all thinking people regardless of gender and personal preferences, are obligated, even, to break them. This includes the gay canon, which ranges from positive developments (to speak broadly, homoerotica in poetry) to negative ones (macho chanting in texts by women). It is a question of a common future, an important humanitarian issue. That’s what intrigues me: How does Russian poetry cope with the conservative challenge? Is it free from any internal restrictions? I certainly don’t know what they would think when they read the poem “Lena and Lena” and what the subtext, erotic and political, they will want to find.


PM: When I started this project of interviews, Russia was under Yeltsin. There was excitement and great fear—fear of the unknown, fear of freedom, fear of the savagery of capitalism. I remember how many people were affected by historical and economic changes—the loss of economic security, as well as the loss of ideological certainty. Now we are in the Putin era. What does the era of Putin mean for you as a poet, and as a citizen?

EF: I liked the Yeltsin era’s unpredictability. I love the power of freedom; I changed social roles in this period, like a huge number of my fellow citizens. I like excitement, and I go to my own zone of fears, in a certain sense; they are my research material. I’m pretty critical of this era and the figure of Putin, in both my poems and articles. I wrote several practically poetic pamphlets where he is referred to directly. I was inspired by the experience of Catullus, Dante, Octavio Paz, Lorca, Lermontov, Mandelstam, Brodsky, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, who wrote political poetry. Putin is my challenge from the 2000s, and my challenge now is modern Russia. The main challenge for Putin and Russia now is now the Ukraine—its rejection of the Soviet world, a serious challenge to the Soviet empire. So, for me it’s become the time of Ukraine, in all its complexity.

Born in Voronezh, Elena Fanailova graduated from the Voronezh Medical Institute and earned a degree in journalism from Voronezh State University. She worked for six years as a doctor at Voronezh Regional Hospital. In 1995 she became a correspondent for Radio Svoboda, and has lived and worked in Moscow since the late nineties. She is considered one of Russia’s best contemporary poets, receiving the Andrei Bely Prize in 1999 and the Moscow Count Prize in 2003. Her work has appeared in English in The Russian Version (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008), translated by Stephanie Sandler.

Philip Metres is the author of Sand Opera (2015), A Concordance of Leaves (2013), abu ghraib arias (2011), and To See the Earth (2008), etc. A two-time recipient of the NEA and the Arab American Book Award, he is professor of English at John Carroll University.

A Normal Interview With Joshua Harmon

By J. J. Anselmi

Recently released by Dzanc, Joshua Harmon’s first essay collection, The Annotated Mixtape, is a journey into the mind of a true music junkie. His essays invite you into his musical obsessions through personal narrative, social criticism, and beautifully precise language, making you care about bands you’ve never heard of before. An excerpt from the book, “The Annotated Mixtape #6,” was published in the Fall 2012 issue of The Normal School. Joshua is also the author of a short story collection, a novel, and two collections of poetry.

J.J. Anselmi: Many of the essays from this collection have been published in magazines like Believer, Make, The Rumpus, and, of course, The Normal School. The pieces all compliment each other, but they also stand alone. So I was wondering, did you start writing these essays knowing they’d be part of a collection?

Joshua Harmon: In 2001, when I began writing “The Records”—the first gesture I made toward this book—I’d originally considered it a companion piece to a similar essay I’d written about cars as consumer goods and the site of various, often conflicting desires and fantasies and fears about how consumption relates to identity. But I’ve always liked records way, way more than cars (lately, days when I don’t get into a car feels like minor victories), and in 2001 the income from a visiting professorship let me spend way, way too much money on vinyl. After I finished “The Records,” I found I still had more to say about music: first, about coming home to Massachusetts (sort of: I lived a few miles across the border, in Rhode Island) via the Scud Mountain Boys, and about junior high French vs. junior high Spanish (the rest of the essays in the book aren’t in the order in which they were written), and on and on from there. I think originally I thought the series might be a half-dozen essays, but I started (though didn’t finish) at least forty-five or fifty of them. I’m still writing a few “outtakes,” god help me.

JA: In addition to essays about albums by the Beatles, U2, New Order, and Rush, you also write about several obscure bands. But, unlike a lot of journalism about underground music, your essays feel very inviting. How does your approach to music writing differ from that of many rock journalists?

JH: Thanks—I guess that’s because I’ve never considered myself a rock journalist, or read much rock journalism. I have copies of Lester Bangs’s Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung and Ellen Willis’s Out of the Vinyl Deeps on my shelves (though I bought both after I’d written much of this book, and still haven’t really read either, just skimmed here and there). I don’t think I own anything else that would qualify as rock journalism in the sense of it originally having been written for news or serial publication and then collected later. I like reading Simon Reynolds and Simon Frith, but as an apprentice writer I was too busy reading novels, and as a young music fan I fancied myself way too cool to read magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin. I read ’zines in the ’80s and early ’90s, but before the internet, buying something like NME or The Face or Sounds—if I could even find them in the record stores in my hometown—meant spending about as much as an LP, and I always preferred buying the LP. Later, I discovered magazines like Forced Exposure, Ptolemaic Terrascope, and The Wire, but I still mostly used them as music buying guides rather than music writing guides.

In writing the essays in The Annotated Mixtape, I tried not to have an approach, but rather multiple approaches. I wrote about songs or bands that seemed to prompt me to write about them, which means that the essays don’t necessarily cover my favorite music so much as music linked to various ideas and memories that might dramatize those ideas. I interviewed three members of Black Tambourine via email back in 2005, but otherwise the research I did probably falls more under the category of essayist than journalist. I spent more time getting books via interlibrary loan than making phone calls or getting out in the field.

JA: Throughout the book, I kept thinking about how you use music as objective correlative, particularly in the essays about Section 25, Cocteau Twins, and Scud Mountain Boys. Can you explain the idea of music as a reflection of personal and cultural identity?

JH: When I was younger, music didn’t reflect my personal identity, it was my personal identity. I think that was true for a lot of my classmates as well. Liking bands was a form of social and subcultural claim-staking, a kind of public declaration depending on how far one took it, and we all judged each other by those bands as well as other things (jeans, sneakers, haircuts, whatever).

As for the way music evokes complicated emotional responses, well, I guess trying to answer that question is what the book’s really about. To take your example of the Cocteau Twins, their music is so bound up in such a particular moment in my life—everything I discuss in that essay: the old clichés about figuring out who I was and what I was going to do with myself, essentially—that to listen to those records now, as I did while writing that essay (the last one I wrote for the book, thanks to my editors Guy Intoci and Michelle Dotter giving me an extension), brought back those memories in intense detail: the blood on my arms from the boy hit by the car, the old bus terminal at South Station, the airport lights and fog during our midnight picnic. And by the time I finished the Section 25 essay, I had my first nuclear war nightmare since the ’80s. So I do think music can evoke—or provoke—all kinds of complicated, unspoken feelings.

Maybe the reason so many of us use the tired metaphor about how certain songs or bands “soundtrack” our lives is that we use music deliberately and strategically: mood music at dinner or when friends come over, up-tempo music for workouts, favorites for headphone listening to block out the world on the street or in an office, mellow music for falling asleep to, etc. But despite that, music’s also inescapable, and we’re always encountering it even when we don’t want or expect to. And since researchers have determined that certain kinds of music make us buy more than other kinds when we’re inside a store, that’s probably evidence that music affects us in ways we don’t understand, even when we think we know what a certain song “means” to us.

JA: For anyone who hasn’t read your essay about the saxophone from the Fall 2012 issue of The Normal School, can you describe your feelings toward this instrument? Maybe it’s just me, but you really seem to have it out for the saxophone.

JH: Well, it struck me as strange even in the ’80s—and much stranger in retrospect—how prominently that instrument featured in pop and rock music of the era. It seemed super fashionable all of a sudden to have a sax solo in a song. And, except in a few cases, the sax always seemed to be soloing, rather than part of the song’s general instrumentation. I’ve always preferred the understated to the in-your-face, I guess, so maybe that’s why I don’t like the saxophone: it’s hard to ignore. Does anyone still really use saxophone in a pop/rock context the way bands used to?

JA: You fluidly mix research and criticism with personal narrative. But your analytical writing doesn’t feel stuffy, and your personal writing isn’t solipsistic. How do you balance these modes without falling victim to the downfalls typical of each one?

JH: Thank you for saying so. I can’t say that I deliberately set out to achieve a balance between these modes. I like talking about myself as much as anyone, I assume, but generally feel that no one else is especially interested in, as I put it in the book, hearing about “the dude staying up too late, rattling his keyboard to describe the fundamental effect some crappy pop song had on his teenage self-understanding.” So for me, trying (if not always successfully) to link the songs I write about to something more than just how they made me feel, or what happened the first time I heard them, etc., seemed important, whether that’s nuclear dread or amateurism or trickledown economics or teenage abjection or whatever. Certainly plenty of the essays do focus on personal narrative—although most of those came later in the sequence, when I felt a little more autobiographical relevance/resonance would help tie the essays together, in terms of chronology and character. The research and criticism happened mostly because each essay was prompted by an idea or a question, however much that idea might be linked to my history.

In any case, I wrote these essays over a long period of time, always in the background of other books. Some of the essays—including the one about saxophones—existed as half-written drafts I didn’t touch for years. The project took off in the late ’00s for a couple of reasons: Carolyn Kuebler and Stephen Donadio at the New England Review kept accepting all the essays I sent them, and then asked me to write something for them at a point when an assignment with a deadline felt profoundly helpful at getting me to sit down and look through all those old drafts; a few of my other books found homes; my friend Hua Hsu would come to my house and we’d drink whisky and listen to records and talk about music all night.

Then, not long after the 2008 recession, I became an “extreme commuter” for a couple of years, and spending so much time in the car, alone with my thoughts and my iPod really spurred me to finish the book, because those ideas and questions that inspired the essays suddenly happened all the time. I’d been digitizing my vinyl for years at that point, so almost 80 GB of personalized music accompanied every trip. Most of the time I just let the iPod shuffle, usually on some playlist sorted by date, and since I was driving on pretty empty roads through beautiful countryside, my meditative mind took over. I was on the Taconic Parkway when the 1975–1983 playlist spun up A Flock of Seagulls, and for some reason my brain recalled Def Leppard’s similar song. Section 25’s attitude toward nuclear war clarified itself during another drive when I listened to one of their songs I’d heard countless times previously. The Flying Saucer Attack essay explicitly invokes one particular day’s commute. (I could go on.) I used my iPhone’s voice memo app to start a bunch of those essays, and on some drives I made eight or ten brief recordings. (Some days I made recordings about one song on the morning drive, and recordings about another song on the evening drive.) When I transcribed them later, I could hear the songs playing in the background.

JA: As you say in “The Records,” you’re a vinylphile. Do you think digital music can have the same significance as physical music in terms of a cultural artifact?

JH: Like 99% of music collectors my age, I went through a phase where I bought more CDs than LPs. (Unlike a bunch of my peers, I didn’t get rid of many of my LPs in order to replace them with CDs—I either kept both formats, or bought one instead of the other.) In my case the reason first had to do with perceived fidelity—this was in the early ’90s, when I had a relatively crummy turntable and cartridge—but later had a lot to do with the weak dollar and the high price of shipping from the Royal Mail. I bought a lot of stuff on vinyl, but, for example, I got the limited CDs of Boards of Canada albums the weeks they were released instead of the limited vinyl, because the CDs cost £1.50 to ship instead of £6.50, or whatever the rate was then—and, again, I could put that extra five quid toward a couple of 7”s that were also relatively cheap to ship.

I think a CD, like any object, can acquire its own aura, though it’s harder for me to see how an AAC file might do so. But I’m biased—as I say in the book, I’ve always liked objects, and I still find pleasure and security and a certain amount of dismay in surrounding myself with records.

Joshua Harmon’s collection of essays, The Annotated Mixtape, was released from Dzanc Books in November 2014. He is also the author of two books of poems, Le Spleen de Poughkeepsie and Scape; a novel, Quinnehtukqut; and a collection of short fiction, History of Cold Seasons.

J.J. Anselmi holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from CSU Fresno, where he also worked as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of The Normal School. His first book, Heavy: a memoir of Wyoming, BMX, drugs, and heavy fucking music, is forthcoming from Rare Bird in Fall 2015. You can check out more of his writing at

A Normal Interview with Justin Hocking

By Rusty Birdwell

Justin Hocking on surfing, the White Death, Melville's ghost, and his new memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld which was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great Writers selection, and of which he says, "I took my cues from Moby-Dick—a sprawling, polyphonic, multivalent work that blends the personal with the political and the metaphysical."


Rusty Birdwell: How did you decide on the book’s structure? The titled sections range from one paragraph to several pages (one of my favorite sections being ‘Samsara’)—how do the short and long sections, and white space, serve the book?

Justin Hocking: Wonderworld revolves largely around my longtime preoccupation with the life of Herman Melville and his novel Moby-Dick. Writing about a classic work definitely involved some risks, and one thing I wanted to avoid was any sort of literary ventriloquism. On the other hand, I did allow myself to draw inspiration from what I found in Moby-Dick's unconventional structure, which is that all things are admissible within the bounds of a single work: short sections, long sections, fiction and nonfiction, stagecraft, slapstick humor, reportage, meditations, environmental writing, literary criticism, etc. This freed me up to digress and meander and experiment with form. I organized one of the longer, crux sections, "The City Swell," as a series of surf reports. Within the shorter sections, I was striving for a kind of economy and compression of language that we find in work by poet-memoirists like Nick Flynn. Flynn and others allow for white space and gaps in their poetry and nonfiction, in a way that trusts the reader to make their own connections, without leaning too heavily on conventional, linear narrative. Most poetry collections rely on a slow accretion of resonant images, themes and language, and that was definitely part of the effect I was hoping for in the memoir.


RB: The best books strive toward the universal and the personal; this book steps seamlessly between the two. In some ways this could occur without the larger tale of the American spirit’s dark journey. Why was it so important for you to include the political, industrial, American-spirit landscape in the book?

JH: In the narrative I took some deep dives into my own messy emotional territory, but I also tried to repeatedly bust out of the traditional memoir format. I needed to get the reader (and myself) out of my head quite a bit, to hopefully avoid the sense of claustrophobia that can sometimes plague a memoir or any first person narrative. So I did quite a lot of outward expansion and weaving in news of the wider world, in hope of rendering the deeply personal material more balanced and bearable for the reader. I also wanted to risk some of the grand, sweeping historical/political/philosophical gestures that Melville did, especially since much of the story took place at the height of the war in Iraq. I got fascinated, for instance, with the history of surfing, and how it ties in with the history of American colonialism in Hawaii and elsewhere. And the more I read Moby-Dick, the more I began noticing parallels between the historic whaling industry (which was all about whale oil), and our contemporary petroleum industry. Another chapter deals with the environmental repercussions of the this industry, specifically a massive oil spill that took place in North Brooklyn in the mid 20th Century. It was a much larger, more insidious spill than the Exxon Valdez disaster, but most people have never heard about it, even though it happened in a city populated by eight million or more people. These are all important issues to me, and again, I took my cues from Moby-Dick—a sprawling, polyphonic, multivalent work that blends the personal with the political and the metaphysical.

RB: Melville eventually becomes a physically present character, following you around, sort of torturing you or communing with you in your own dark period. From the first hint of his almost-presence on page 61 to his finding you in bed or in a bathroom stall, how did this come about in the book?

JH: I'm a big fan of literary writers who delve into the surreal—George Saunders, Karen Russell, and Borges all come to mind. I wanted to see if I could pull it off in nonfiction, as a way to lend some narrative immediacy to this sense I had, while in New York, of feeling both haunted and inspired by Melville. It was another somewhat risky move that I worried might come off as maudlin. There were a couple moments, though, where I utilized Melville's specter as a kind of stand-in or body double for some of my darkest emotions, in a way that I hope actually helped me avoid melodrama.

RB: Could you talk a bit about the L train becoming sentient and somewhat omniscient? It tells a random woman on the subway a lot about you, about some pretty deep moments of internal turmoil for you. It’s the train that really introduces us to you starting to lose your shit. Did this have something to do with the book needing narrative distance at that point?

JH: It was absolutely about narrative distance. Revealing my struggles with anxiety and phobias wasn't easy; the shift from first to third person allowed me, as the writer, a little distance and perspective. I also hoped it would give the reader some respectful breathing room while I explicated my personal problems. Utilizing the L Train voice was also another way to experiment with the surreal, and to channel some of the of chaos and noise and weird allure of New York City life.


RB: You give us plenty of examples of other writers and artists who have suffered the White Death. This is the form of obsession the book uses as a lens for all sorts of ailments of spirit and addiction. Do you consider the White Death beneficial if it runs its course without killing the carrier?

JH: During my research, I was surprised to discover how many other writers and artists struggle with bouts of the White Death, which I define as an all-consuming obsession with Moby-Dick. The visual artist Frank Stella spent twelve years creating fifteen hundred abstract paintings and sculptures, each inspired by Moby-Dick; he claims the obsession nearly destroyed him. More recently, illustrator Matt Kish made one drawing a day, every day, for all 552 pages of his version of Moby-Dick. The writer Sena Jeter Naslund grew obsessed with Moby-Dick at age thirteen; she later wrote the 666 page novel Ahab's Wife. So yes, I think the White Death is more of a creative catalyst than a disease. Probably my favorite example is the playwright Tony Kushner, who claims Moby-Dick as the single most important influence on his work, and that he learned from Melville that it's better to risk total catastrophe than to play it safe as an artist.

RB: Much of the book deals with obsession and addiction—from emotional need and drug addiction to American’s continuing petroleum binge—are these in some way, necessary first steps in a Nekyian journey?

JH: I first encountered the term "Nekyia" in a book called Melville's Moby-Dick: An American Nekyia by the Jungian analyst and critic Edward Edinger. Edinger defines the Nekyia as a kind of "night sea journey" through despair and meaninglessness that we all embark on during our development as individuals and a society; he interprets Moby-Dick as a quintessentially American version of the Nekyia. The word Nekyia derives from the eleventh book of the Odyssey, wherein Odysseus descends to the underworld to commune with the dead. These archetypal voyages often begin with a literal or metaphorical descent, and the potent darkness we encounter there is often a necessary first step in the circuitous journey back home.

RB: Overall the book seems to beg us to see dark times as first passages toward journeys that involve revelation and self-awareness. Reaching something good also seems to come out of a sense of community—deliverance through interdependence (not codependence) seems like a big theme of the book as well. Is this the best track for the deepest problems in the realms of both the personal and the social?

JH: When thinking about or discussing Moby-Dick, most people focus on the narrative of Ahab's revenge against the White Whale. That's certainly a huge part of the story, but it brings up the question of ownership. To whom does the story really belong? In my opinion, the narrative of Moby-Dick belongs principally to the narrator, Ishmael. And his is a story not of revenge, but of interconnection and survival. So I'm much more interested in the book as a survival story. Not just our survival as individuals, but also survival in a larger sense, as we continue to encounter massive, late Holocene extinction of species. And especially as we enter this new, Anthropocene era, where the entire planet's survival will require that we challenge the notions of humankind's disconnection from and dominion over the natural world.


RB: Surfing definitely brought you closer to Melville’s understanding of the ocean—can you talk a little about the process, about how surfing changed your understanding of the ocean and of your internal self?

JH: I grew up in Colorado and California, so the lack of true open space in New York was definitely a shock to the system. The one true open space I found was the coast, at spots like Rockaway Beach, in Queens. As I grew increasingly disillusioned with city life, I gravitated toward Rockaway. Surfing became my solace during an otherwise difficult time. The combination of salt water and physical exertion leaves you feeling scoured out and completely at ease in the world. Melville literally spent years at sea, whereas I only dipped my toes in, so to speak. So I don't think I came anywhere close to his level of understanding of how the ocean can connect us with a sense of primal universality. Melville wasn't a starry-eyed Transcendentalist, though; he was keenly aware of nature's tremendous dark side. As things got more emotionally precarious for me, I started taking some unnecessary risks in the ocean, and eventually had my own modest yet terrifying experience of what Melville called the "sledgehammering seas."

RB: Any trepidation about calling the book a memoir? In recent years memoirs have gotten a bad rap. Does this categorization worry you at all?

JH: Not really, because all my favorite works in recent years are memoirs: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn, Lit by Mary Karr, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, just to name a few. These books all push hard against the traditional boundaries of memoir. They take big formal and emotional risks. I challenge anyone to read Another Bullshit Night or Chronology of Water and then try to tell me there's something inherently "wrong" or "bad" about the genre. Memoir has gotten a bad rap because every time some asshole like James Frey fabricates an entire narrative, people use it as an excuse to bash the genre as "failed journalism." But memoir is not journalism. To me, it's one of the most elastic and dynamic literary forms out there, especially when handled by writers who stretch its limits and expand our notions of what it can accomplish, both as an art form and as a vessel for deep communion between writers and readers.

Justin Hocking’s memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, was published by Graywolf Press in early 2014 and was a Barnes and Nobel Discover Great New Writers selection. Hocking is a recipient of the Willamette Writers' 2014 Humanitarian Award for his work in publishing, writing and teaching. His nonfiction and fiction have appeared in the Rumpus, Orion Magazine, Portland Review, The Portland Noir Anthology, Poets and Writers Magazine, Swap/Concessions, Rattapallax, and elsewhere.

A Normal Interview with Hayan Charara

By TNS Fiction and Online Editor, Randa Jarrar

Hayan Charara talks about growing up in Detroit and living in a community of Arab American artists in New York City; how he uses the lens of the mundane; and the story behind “1979”, his poem about flipping the bird and vehicular assault. His new book, Something Sinister, comes out in 2016.


Randa Jarrar: I love how subtle these two poems (“1979” and “GAZA”) are. Both deal with large subjects through the lens and intimacy of family. Why did you make that choice?

Hayan Charara: I often make that choice in my writing. A war, for example, is never just a news story, never just an abstraction I can turn off. The wars we’re involved in now and have been for some time are taking place where my parents grew up, where my father still lives, and where friends come from or had to flee. Growing up in Detroit, every time the economy collapsed, so did the lives of friends, neighbors, family who lost jobs, lost livelihoods. The house I grew up in is worth less today than it was in 1974, when my parents bought it. I don’t know how not to talk about the big issues when these are the lenses I see them through.

Obviously, though, knowing the larger subjects intellectually still matters. But if you happen to know the subjects, to experience them, in an intimate way, then they don’t feel so out of reach. They become familiar, and that familiarity—what I think of when you say “intimacy”—gives me a way in, which is also my reader’s way in. It allows for the larger-than-life to enter into everyday life. Then you can see the larger picture in a way that makes it once again what it ultimately is—something that shapes the lives of people, something personal.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that a lot of people lose their minds if they can’t get an Internet connection but they don’t miss a beat over what’s happening in Gaza, for example, or to Arabs living in America. I can complain about this, and I do, but I also use this knowledge when making poems. Often, the person I have in mind—the person I’m trying to teach—is the one who doesn’t give a shit. “War” and “racism” bore this person to death. But a guy getting run over for giving the finger—he’ll pay attention to that.

I should also say that I wrote these poems while teaching Homer’s Iliad. Homer describes a battle between the Greeks and Trojans this way: “It was glorious to see—if your heart were iron/And you could keep from grieving at all the pain.” I write the way I do believing that a good number of people possess iron hearts. Ultimately, I want them to see the pain and to grieve at it. One path back to this most basic perspective—to open up your heart—is through family, through the lens of the everyday and the mundane.


RJ: You've been writing and publishing poems since you were a teenager. Can you tell us about the Arab-American community in New York that nurtured you?

HC: When I moved to New York City Lawrence Joseph, who I’d met a few years earlier, was welcoming and helpful. Like Larry, D.H. Melhem also generously offered her time and wisdom. She’d gotten in touch with me after hearing me read poems on Barbara Nimri Aziz’s show on WBAI. D.H. and I ended up becoming close. We’d often meet at her favorite diner on the Upper West Side to talk poetry, among other things, usually over coffee and pie. And Barbara, of course, had founded the Radius of Arab American Writers, a few years before I got to New York, and RAWI played a huge role in connecting me to other Arab American writers and artists, and it still does today.

The younger writers I came to think of as friends included Suheir Hammad, who lived on the same street as me for a few years. I regularly saw Nathalie Handal, Kazim Ali, Ahimsa Timoteo Bodhran, and many others—poets, but also novelists and story writers, journalists, visual artists, filmmakers, photographers, musicians. It’s really incredible, when I think back on it, all those people living in the same place, at the same time. Even more so when I consider that most of us had started our lives as poets and artists feeling that, at least as Arab Americans, we were doing it alone. We found the opposite to be true. We reached out to each other, we supported one another, and we became friends. In every sense of the word, we were a community. And since then, though many of us who met in New York went to live in other cities, we still come together when possible—at AWP, at the RAWI or DIWAN conferences—and when we do, it feels like a family reunion.

RJ: Your new book, Something Sinister, comes out in 2016. Though your poems have always dealt with identity, otherness, loss, and grief, this new collection seems to be more of an indictment of US policy in the Middle East. Can you talk more about that?

HC: You know, a while ago I ran the numbers on the poems in Something Sinister. I calculated the percentage of “political” poems in the book. And I was pretty liberal with what I considered to be a “political” poem. So, roughly 20% of the poems fall into that category. Of course, not all of the “political” poems deal with US foreign policy in the Middle East. Put another way, 80%, the overwhelming majority of the poems, are not political. They’re deeply personal. Just the same, even I consider the book the way you describe it, and so have others.

But when only 20% of a book, at most, touches on US foreign policy in the Middle East and the book counts as an indictment of that policy, it’s maybe indicative of a culture and a poetics in crisis, not to mention in deep denial, especially given the fact that US foreign policy in the Middle East is basically the political crisis of our times. Poets do write about this, and some devote large portions of their books to it, if not entire books. But the number, relative to the poets who do not write on these issues, and relative to the daily reality of the crisis...well, there’s a reason the book makes a point about “something sinister” going on.

The other thing, my being an Arab often makes for circumstances in which the political and the personal, the public and the private, come together. One of the hardest tasks for an Arab to accomplish is to live nonpolitically. Plenty enough times, when an Arab experiences grief or loss, politics plays a role. When questions arise about his place in the world, in his own country, among his own people—whether in the United States, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, France, the UK, or wherever—I would bet the farm that US foreign policy plays a big part. At that point, the separation between the personal and the political gets blurred or else it altogether disappears.


RJ: "Gaza" has a surprising turn-- it mentions the phenomenon from this past summer when Israelis would watch bombs drop in Gaza from mountaintops and cheer. How did you find the space and energy to create a poem out of that, especially so soon after the event itself?

HC: I’ve had years to think about it, actually. Nearly every incursion by Israel into Gaza, or elsewhere—like Lebanon—comes with stories like this one. As far back as the 80s and 90s, I remember seeing images of Israelis—men, women, and even children—writing messages on missiles, which they took to be cute or funny, like “From Israel, with love.” These are missiles that kill people, crushing them to death, exploding their bodies, scattering them into bits and pieces. So why didn’t I write about this until now? I have children now—two boys, a two-year-old and a three-year-old. With this latest invasion of Gaza, I had a very basic reaction. As a parent, I imagined my own children in the shoes of these other children. The thought kills me. But I was more devastated by the realization that this perspective, that of a mother or father, could be so comprised, so corrupted, that mothers and fathers were dancing and singing over the deaths of other people’s children—boys and girls like their own boys and girls.

Something in you is dead when you celebrate the death of children. My writing a poem was a pushing back against that kind of destruction—of human life, yes, but also the destruction of what makes a person humane and human.


RJ: "1979" works spectacularly even without a reader's knowledge of the energy crisis of that year. But it's such a powerful poem if a reader has that knowledge-- that the "camel jockeys" use the gas in an American Buick to literally run over a racist by pushing down on the pedal. Where did this poem come from?   

HC: “1979” is a true story, unfortunately. I took some liberties with it—I was six, not seven, for example.

I don’t think I ever told anyone about that day, and I took thirty-five years to write about it. What I imagine the reader goes through is what I did at the time and, maybe more importantly, what the guy who called us camel jockeys experienced. No matter the circumstance, anyone who realizes he’s about to get hit by a car experiences shock. But this guy’s shock was two-fold because I have no doubt he believed he could say what he did without consequence. I remember vividly that he showed no fear, no hesitation when he told us to “Go home” and gestured his “Fuck you!” at us. Had he known my father’s rage, maybe he would’ve kept walking.

The thing is, things aren’t that different today. Maybe they’re a lot worse. Whether it’s some guy on the street, a politician in front of a news camera, or a supposedly intelligent and respected writer, actor, or whatever, people can and do speak with impunity against Arabs and Muslims, not to mention a whole host of others. In this way, unfortunately again, “1979” is a quintessentially American poem.