Sunday, December 16, 2012


to you they were not
they were not

avatars in your videogame
          mind, you forgot
they would not fight back
they would not shoot
or bludgeon or stab you

you forgot they drew
pictures of their houses
and played with their dogs
and dreamed of being
superheroes and movie stars

you forgot they were afraid
of thunder and the dark

you came to show them
your close friends Glock
Sig Sauer and Bushmaster .223

extras in your action movie
          mind, you knew
they would scream and run
but you forgot the smell
of fear and blood would
          fill your brain

you remembered your heroes
from Virginia Tech and Tulsa
Aurora and Oak Creek
Minneapolis and USC
Café Racer Espresso and

but you forgot the parents
whose hearts are gone forever
and the children

you forgot
          they were innocent

- James K. Zimmerman

copyright by James K. Zimmerman 2012 - All Rights Reserved


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Puzzles of Faith and Patterns of Doubt

We are pleased to announce the contributors to our fifth themed anthology, Puzzles of Faith and Patterns of Doubt: Short Stories and Poems.
We received over 370 individual pieces for this anthology, and it has taken us quite a long time to read through and consider all of the work. We are grateful to all who submitted and acknowledge their support. Of course, we could not accept everything – we had to make difficult decisions and eliminated some very fine stories and poems. In the end, we have accepted only 9% of what was submitted, far below our usual 15% acceptance rate.
Each anthology has been different, and this one is no exception: we had some general ideas about what we wanted to read (what we thought we’d receive on the theme of faith and doubt), but then we were pleasantly surprised (as always) by the creativity of the writers (and their different reflections on the theme), so we followed that lead.
Some names you might recognize from previous anthologies, but we have quite a number of new contributors to add to our roster. All are accomplished writers. Unless we change our minds, we provide here a preliminary breakdown of how the finished book will be laid out, after a Preface by Gregory and Fredericka and a Foreword by the Reverend David Rommereim (Pastor, the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Brooklyn).
Compiling the accepted submissions in the proper layout, copyediting and proofreading (by several people, including our current editorial interns Tyler Perkins and Kimberly Resnick), all have yet to be done. Gregory was responsible for the cover photography on all of the anthologies so far, but we are pleased to note that Puzzles of Faith and Patterns of Doubt will most likely feature photography (an angel in the garden of the Carmelite Monastery, Dublin) by Mary Kenefick Keating. In spite of the work, we enjoy the process of these book projects and ask, again, for your patience as we move forward to a February 2013 publication date.
Accepted authors and works, probable sequence:
§  Larry Lefkowitz, “The Shoemaker”
§  Patty Somlo, “Since Leticia Williams Saw Jesus”
§  Arthur Powers, “Padre Raimundo’s Army”
§  Frank Russo, poems, “In the Museum of Creation,” “Nativity of Christ Cathedral, Riga,” “Blind Faith,” “Good Friday, Lake Victoria,” “The Caves of Atapuerca”
§  Rivka Keren, “Zipora”
§  Michele Merens, “Hilde’s Son, The Rabbi”
§  Julie Nichols, “One Traveler”
§  Atar Hadari, poems, “The Empty Synagogue,” “Aroma,” “Honey,” “Mr. Taylor,” “Prayers,” “High Windows,” “Healers,” “Silence”
§  Gary Guinn, “The Scar”
§  William C. Bamberger, “In the Details”
§  Andrea Vojtko, “Searching for Life on Mars”
§  Bill Scalia, poems, “Dawn, Day 1,” “When God Called Adam from the Dirt,” “The Mass of Pallas Athena,” “Intercession (The Authenticity Dream),” “The Revival,” “Vastation,” “The End of Time”
§  Edie Cottrell, “Pumpkin Patch”
§  Joey Dean Hale, “Access Closed”
§  Roberta Allen, “Odd”

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Inside Battle Runes, by Chandra Persaud


Inside Battle Runes: Writings on War
Selected Works and Interviews with Their Authors
By: Chandra Persaud

War is more than physical acquisition, more than human rights or civil liberties. It’s more than human power, money, artillery, or politics. War is individualistic, drawing out different emotions and perspectives depending on its intensity, cause, and even battlegrounds. The collection of writings in Battle Runes: Writings on War places a strong focus on the psychological aspects of war, speaking a language none of us can truly understand unless we’ve been immersed in it in some form – seeing our homes destroyed, witnessing friends and loved ones perish, enduring personal demise, or attempting to acclimate to normal routines after discovering some of life’s darkest secrets. Recent interviews with specific contributors reveal their inspirations and unique perspectives regarding how war changes the lives of those who come to know it.
A recurring theme in this anthology is the loss of religious belief or hope due to war. God or spirituality seem very distant as bombs drop on homes, bullets pierce the bodies of the innocent, and fear spreads like wildfire. Humankind is left expecting very little in the form of a miracle, a sudden change of events seems almost impossible, and even prayers seem to be left unanswered. The protagonist in Hunter Liguore’s “Pieces” no longer depends on religion to save him or those affected by war: “I used to pray to Allah, until I realized that he could not hear my prayers over the bombing and gunfire” (6). In turn, the protagonist finds his own way to alleviate the troubles and heartaches caused by war. During times of gunfire and attacks, the protagonist risks his own life in order to pick up the remains of a victim, store them in a plastic bag, and hand it over to family and loved ones present at the moment, ridding them of the burden of doing this themselves – “every piece is sacred” (7). In this way, he keeps love, humanity, and hope alive.
Liguore offers an interesting view on the effects war has on faith and religious belief: “For me, war and spirituality/religion come together much the way an audience and a theater performance do – through the observation of the exterior war, we can be reminded of the spiritual war that is being waged daily. Most of the existing sacred texts deal in wars, but so often, they are allegories for the spiritual war . . . Perhaps the effect [of war] should be to be more conscious of our own spiritual battle, that in coming closer to one’s deity – that is, seeking silence and peace through prayer/meditation – the exterior war would essentially be eliminated.” Thus, religion and spirituality should be used to tame humankind’s inner demons – those feelings that must be controlled and traits that need to be rectified. This in turn will eliminate much of the chaos in the world. This gives rise to some thought-provoking questions: If we are not using religion to conquer our spiritual battle, how can we expect to see its inexplicable effects? When one is at peace internally, how can he or she not want the same externally? Is war a result of our own inner turmoil? How much of war is influenced by our lack of distinction between emotions and facts?
On the other hand, some of the pieces in Battle Runes speak of the need for and trust in spirituality and religion during times of war. The belief in a power greater than ourselves, capable of abruptly changing circumstances, compensates for our lack of control. Margaret Kingsbury’s “The Consequent Phrase of a Melody” sheds light on the plight of families left behind because of war. While the protagonist maintains a strong exterior and attempts to carry on with life while her husband is overseas, she reveals her pain, loneliness, and desire for her husband’s return through her tears at night and her conversations with God. “Religious belief is integral to my protagonist’s ability to cope with the devastation and loneliness of war. The capacity for hope and the ways in which individuals seek out and establish that hope has always been inspiring to me. Belief in God is how my protagonist finds solace from her loneliness,” says Kingsbury.
The protagonist in “The Consequent Phrase of a Melody” also gives voice to the many women who are left alone and tasked with raising children, running households, and keeping their families together while their spouse is at war. While the protagonist is no longer the woman she was when she fell in love with her husband – “she no longer knew her own melody” (77) – she refuses to allow her loss of identity to affect the well-being of her family. She hides her pain, frustration, and worry and displays her strength to protect, care, and provide even when her life seems to be falling apart. According to Kingsbury, the protagonist represents “an amalgamation of women in my life, especially my sister and mother, who are the most important women in my life. Both had husbands who were stationed overseas during wartime and were left to raise their children by themselves. What I remember from when I was a child and my father left for Desert Storm was my mother’s loneliness and her attempts to keep that loneliness and desperate worry at bay, both from us children and herself. There is always a lot of concentration on the mental state and well-being of the solider while at war and when they return home, as there should be. I wanted to explore the sometimes parallel I saw in my mother, although the protagonist is a very different kind of woman than my mother . . . My characters are inspired by real-life experiences and people, but take on their own voice and needs. The mother in the story is both similar and different to the women in my life.”
Apart from faith and spirituality, Battle Runes: Writings on War also speaks about adapting to life after war. When an individual is transplanted to a foreign land or forced to accept bullets, explosions, blood, and death as the norm, readapting to one’s “normal” lifestyle may become an arduous task. Pushing aside experiences at war and embracing past routines, duties, and interactions may leave one feeling misunderstood, guilty, or lonely.
Inspired by a memorable story shared by a war veteran on a radio show and a recent visit to Grand Marais, Minnesota, Norah Piehl’s “Going Somewhere, or Coming Back?” speaks of the difficulties a young solider encounters as he attempts to readjust to life after war. He seeks not to be constantly reminded that the aftermath of his time at war creates a gap between him and the long-time residents of his town, simply because he witnessed events and endured emotions that they did not. Thus, he searches for a way just to blend in, to remain hidden. Yet, it’s the very act of doing so that prevents him from coming to terms with his war experience and fully integrating back into civilization.
Piehl says, “I think one of the biggest struggles veterans encounter is the difficulty of putting into words and sharing an experience that they don’t really understand themselves. They may want to talk about their war experience – whether as part of their own healing or as part of a desire to raise awareness or (re)form connections with their civilian friends, family, and acquaintances – but until they are able to articulate their own narratives to themselves, to intellectualize their experiences, this kind of conversation can be very difficult to have.”
While war is associated with death, trauma, and separation, there still remain certain aspects that are admirable – putting one’s own life at risk to save a fellow solider, the formation of lifelong friendships based on a shared experience, and unity with strangers grounded on a common goal. Battle Runes: Writings on War also captures camaraderie, love, selflessness, and maturation that take shape on the battlegrounds.
John Gifford’s “Chance of Rain” demonstrates the camaraderie and selflessness that are often exhibited when war brings times of perceived imminent peril or death. During a missile attack, Richard Juergens, leader of the First Battalion, hands over his gas mask to a fellow solider in order to keep that solider safe and ease his fears. Juergens is willing to put his own life at risk in order to protect another individual under his care, which according to Gifford, is “a selfless act that’s also the hallmark of leadership.”
“Chance of Rain” is based on some of the author’s experiences as a U.S. Marine during the Persian Gulf War and a particular friendship that formed during those days of battle. The trigger for action in this story – a missile attack – was a terrifying truth that Gifford was forced to encounter practically every night. “I was an expert rifleman and could hit a dinner plate-size target at 500 meters with my M-16. But during the missile attacks we couldn’t use our weapons. We were helpless. All we could do was don our gas masks and hope the missile didn’t fall on us. It was a terrible feeling,” says Gifford. Yet, John always reassured Gifford that those moments would pass. John was a fellow, more experienced solider and friend of Gifford’s, an individual whom the author admired for his wisdom and collected composure during times of chaos. Richard Juergens displays similar qualities in “Chance of Rain,” standing as a firmly rooted tree for all the men under his care.
Thinking about camaraderie and war, Gifford says, “I think back to all the friends I’ve had in 42 years of life and some of the best were the guys I served with during the war. Other Marines. Other guys who lived through the same challenges and struggles I did. There is something special about the people with whom you share a common adversity. Especially when it’s one of the defining moments or events of your life. Thereafter, you’re inextricably linked with these people, and as time goes on, as you move, temporally speaking, further and further away from that event, these people remain vivid in your mind because they’re direct links back to that time and place, which is gone forever. Consequently, you feel you share something that no one else can understand, even if you never talk about it or never see those people again.”
Thom Brucie’s “A Deepening Heart” also hits on the more humane side of war. Set during the American Civil War, this short story tells the tale of Nathan Branchwell – a young man who joins the fight not because he is particularly passionate about the war’s cause, but to earn the hand of his beloved. Nathan is willing to put his life on the line to earn enough money during the war to prove himself worthy to his (potential) future father-in-law. Similarly, when he lands upon a scene of carnage and devastation, he is willing to risk it all to save a battered mule – the only form of life left, a symbol of survival. Nathan renders up every piece of gold he saved during the war to rescue the mule from death, jeopardizing his chances of any future with his beloved when he returns home. Just as Nathan begins to question his decision, readers also wonder why Nathan would do such a seemingly-foolish thing, especially when he winds up shooting the mule to put it out of its own misery.
Yet, at the end of “A Deepening Heart” we see that Nathan’s war experiences teach him that love is not measured by gold, status, or material assets. Love is how far one is willing to go when put to the challenge, how often one is willing to listen to his or her conscience, how much one is willing to sacrifice. Nathan’s war experiences change him forever, giving him a newfound confidence, allowing him to realize his own potential – “He [Nathan] thought for a moment about the absence of gold with which he would return to Agnes, but he did not worry about it, for now he knew what he was capable of in the name of love, and Rev. Perser would know too, one way or another” (66).
That final sentence of “A Deepening Heart” forebodes what may come to pass when Nathan returns home. Brucie offers an intriguing explanation: “If, for example, we accept the notion that his killing of the mule is kindness, we will expect a gentle reunion with Agnes and her rigid, self-righteous father, with a humble Nathan having no say in the matter of his love for Agnes or in his marriage to her. However, if we foresee Nathan’s return as the culmination of his unique individuation, we might intuit a warning from the line, “and Rev. Perser would know too, one way or another,” for Nathan will have Agnes as his wife, no matter what. The mule then acts . . . as text, the non-verbal writings of Nathan’s desire to live in peace; but he will live in a peace of his own making, and he will construct that peace through his own design, using his own rules . . .”
If probed to extract a “message” from this story, Brucie would offer this: “Each individual must live his or her life with courage in order to live in hope, for without courage, we dare not think, and without hope, we despair.”
It is courage that those, who have been immersed in some aspect of war, display long after the dust settles or while on the battlefield. It is courage that can be found in significant doses scattered throughout the pages of Battle Runes: Writings on War – in the stories and poems of husbands, brothers, and fathers who leave their comfortable homes without a guarantee of a safe return; mothers who carry on with life, while only shedding what seems to be an unshaken persona in solace; ordinary civilians or soldiers whose selfless acts are symbols of love and comradeship; war veterans who return home, picking up from where they left, pushing aside emotions and images their families and friends often cannot relate to.
It is courage that allows those who have experienced war to use what they’ve endured to come to appreciate their countless blessings. As author and war veteran, John Gifford describes beautifully, “I was 20 years old when the war [Persian Gulf War] began and like any young man who finds himself in a combat zone for the first time, I found the experience of war both surreal and life-changing, so much so that, in many ways, the event has since served as a kind of barometer by which I measure my current life. Today I live in a brick house instead of a tent. I can eat my dinner without worrying about a rocket attack. I can go for a walk or a drive anytime I feel like it, rather than having to dig a fighting hole or fill sand bags. It’s the small things you miss when you’re captive to a war, and later, afterward, you have a new perspective on the value of these little liberties. I guess today I am enjoying an earned freedom and it reminds me of how far I’ve come as an individual.”
Battle Runes: Writings on War takes readers inside the hearts and minds of characters who share stories that often go untold, whose realities mark them forever, whose experiences stay with them, in some form, indefinitely.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Traveling With a Gun: Janyce Stefan-Cole on Writing

Janyce Stefan-Cole

As a kid I already knew something was up. I was a little different from the others in my family. I remember being relieved when my mother showed us a portfolio of her paintings on paper – most in bright colors. When I was older I was able to see she had flair. She was also known for writing good letters, and at one point she studied French which for some reason excited me and I began wearing a beret around the house. I knew the French to be artists; I was in love with Paris – from photos and movies. But before all that I’d begun creating little worlds on paper: figurative drawings that I would then tell stories about in my head. So I’ve been a narrator with a visual bent since I can remember.
Artistic endeavors were not encouraged in my family and I kept my creations secret. I have a sense my mother had a voice that never found its form. That seems to me a crime against human expression, like a limb allowed to rot, infecting the whole tree. I guess I was louder in voice than she, or more willing to take a chance. I had a terrific teacher in high school, Mr. T., who wanted me to go to art school, but I contracted mono and jaundice from drinking out of another kid’s cup at a party (he got hepatitis so I was lucky) and I missed the first semester of my senior year, and had to have a tutor at home. Art portfolios were due in November so I never had a chance to apply. I did have a story published in our school journal which was my one claim to fame in an otherwise lackluster academic performance.
I studied philosophy and religion at Boston University – subjects also not encouraged by my businessman father. I was painfully sincere at the time and discovered books in a personal way and began devouring them, everything from the Brontës to the Russians – Dostoevsky was a hero – to Camus and Kierkegaard. The book that launched my consciousness as an artist was James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In particular the relationship to one’s name. I understood others had hidden questions of identity too, and difficulty naming themselves, as in, who am I? In a subtle way I think A Portrait influenced my recent novel, Hollywood Boulevard, about a successful actress, Ardennes Thrush, who quits in spite of her very public achievements.
After graduating I was at a crossroads and briefly went to art school, immersing myself in Boston’s many museums. Then I took off with a guy. We spent an entire summer crisscrossing Canada and the U.S. in a converted Hostess Twinkie van. I made drawings as we traveled; they became a kind of glue as I moved farther from anything familiar. The journey ended in San Francisco and after a year or so there, we went south to Mexico where I painted, studied and taught. I was living by my wits; looking back I think I was pretty brave. I did learn how to travel. The problem was I didn’t have a plan and I took the road into visual arts somewhat haphazardly. Having written stories in college, with one or two things published, I could have gone either way: visual or literary. Two and a half years later I left Mexico alone and returned to New York where I began to try to show my work. I did show, but I didn’t feel satisfaction. My paintings became increasingly narrative but it wasn’t enough. The road I’d not taken re-emerged when I decided to paint my studio and came across those college stories hidden in a folder. I sat on the floor to read them and knew I wanted to finish the group. I felt instantly in my right skin. I never did paint the studio and I’ve never looked back.
Thus began my second apprenticeship. I wrote stories about what happened along the way, creating characters that were amalgams of people I’ve known. I’d met a lot of people on the road. Coming up with ideas is tough if you look too hard. I don’t think good fiction comes from dogma, but a writer’s ideas should inform the story. I would say ideas generally find me. With Hollywood Boulevard, Ardennes Thrush came to me unsolicited with a very strong voice. I was in Hollywood at the time (my husband Brandon was at work on an independent feature film he co-wrote and was co-producing) and it made sense to place Ardennes’s story there, and for her be an actress. The idea of quitting ties into the idea of identity, a la Stephen Dedalus, and I followed the thread into researching personality disorders.
A good story is one that draws the reader into a world. This means, in addition to creating a sense of place, taking a character’s journey with her. I’ll follow a good character almost anywhere. Plot for me surrounds the protagonist’s internal dilemma. My writing may not appeal to readers looking to escape or be titillated. I’ll introduce sex – organically – and guns that go off, and I have nothing against a book being entertaining, but I get antsy if that’s all that’s going on. I think I ‘play’ each of my characters; I need to know them very well. I’ll shamelessly steal from all aspects of my own life. Writers are spies, and sponges; not much slips past me. Everything is game once it finds its way into the text, while of course protecting the innocent, or unsuspecting. I create from what I know: people, places and events, but – for good or ill – my characters are all my own inventions. If I am very lucky my writing takes me into a kind of parallel universe where the characters are with me at all times whispering, telling me who they are, to the point where real life begins to interfere: the phone, emails, emergencies, dinner . . . It’s an enchanted place and painful to leave once a book ends. Family and friends know by now I’ll get back to them when I disappear into my work.
I don’t know that I consciously have a message or philosophy for readers to take away from my work, but I do return to the idea of looking within. This would be along the lines of the unexamined life as not worth living – or, perhaps, that God is within – though there’s plenty of distracting candy out there to suggest the opposite. I would encourage readers to take my character’s journey with them; their trip from the inside as the plot unfolds, perhaps leading to greater awareness of the reader’s own journey. Mostly I just want people to read.
I’m in awe of great writing. Not self-conscious pyrotechnics but subtlety, having my breath taken away by an author’s voice and choice of words, characterizations. When I write well I marvel at it later but cannot retrace my steps to see how I arrived there. The opposite has occurred often enough, recoiling over my own bad writing. A book takes so long because each sentence must be gone over many times. Syntax matters. Normal Mailer once said when he can read his manuscript without wincing it’s done.
My writing day begins at my desk by 9am, like any other job. If I am not in control of my time I grab a minute when I can. If ten minutes is all I can sneak in, I’ve learned to take them and write. Ideally I’m alone when I work, with distracting sounds and rhythms at a minimum. In the city I like big fat snowstorms when all the hyper-activity is muffled and hushed. In the summer we go to New Hampshire where the interruptions are few: a snake in the cellar, a porcupine waddling along an evening path, deer grazing, maybe the resident bear showing up. “Conversation With a Tree” was written in New Hampshire. I’m not at liberty to say if the tree spoke or not, but, like the local creatures, the tree doesn’t know or care what a writer is or does: Perfect. I know writers who work in cafes. The author alone is supposed to be passé, and we’re expected to be available to tweet everything from sex to shampoo in so many characters or less. I try to reach people through my writing. I don’t see how I can do that if I’m tooting, hooting and honking all day. It takes up so much time, time being equal parts friend and enemy.
I don’t think in terms of genre as I write, I guess that is the job of publishers and publicists, how to package a book. Hollywood Boulevard has been called a psychological thriller with a noir tone. Psychological works for me because my protagonist’s mind, his or her journey from the inside, is what drives me as I write. To the degree that there is intrigue, characters finding themselves in harm’s way, thriller applies. I enjoy the old fictional noir detectives – detectives in general, perhaps because, like writers, they are always searching for clues. The noir tone appeals, the un-heroic hero, the fumbling protagonist who manages to do the right thing in spite being flawed. It’s fair to say I’ve fumbled a fair amount through my own life, sans outline, following clues.
Jean Rhys of Good Morning Midnight is a writer I admire. An emotionally unafraid writer, personally troubled by demon alcohol, she looked truthfully into her characters’ eyes, and was ahead of her time with an unflinchingly present voice. I saw a sign in a country shop recently: “Well-behaved women don’t make history.” That’s Jean Rhys. I like that. James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime is a wow, a genuinely sensual book with a spare style, not a wasted beat. Monica Ali in Alentejo Blue creates a rich tapestry of types. I admire almost any Alice Munro, Denis Johnson, E. Annie Proulx (The Shipping News in particular), writers I would be proud to keep company with who have perhaps influenced me, though I take no responsibility for comparisons. I recently read Padgett Powell’s coming of age, Edisto, a book where nearly nothing happens, and only the boy’s voice takes the reader along to an unvarnished humanity. This summer I read Edward Falco’s reluctant male of his novel Wolf Point, and Emily St. John Mandel’s mesmerizing, The Lola Quartet. I’m not drawn to wordy books, believing if there is a simpler way to say something without sacrificing meaning that is the way to go. I suppose Hemmingway comes to mind. I just read Varley O’Connor’s under-rated biographical novel, The Master’s Muse.
Several years ago I was at an art colony with the poet C.D. Wright. I read a short piece one evening and the next morning at breakfast she told me about Michael Ondaatje’s novel Coming Through Slaughter, saying what I’d read reminded her of his writing. I was badly hung over because I’d drunk wine to find the courage to read in front of writers like her and Louis Nordan, and then more wine to get over the nerves. I asked her to repeat the title three times. A few of us had stayed up most of the night, deep into the Virginia countryside full of crickets chirping under a star ceiling, and life seemed good and scary and full of crazy hope. When I looked up Ondaatje I was astounded at any comparison with his poignant, pared-down prose poem style in Coming Through Slaughter, and was probably shamed into wanting to be a better writer.
My aim is to write, to keep at it, and die in the saddle. As long as characters present themselves and tell me their stories I’ll write. Read, certainly, and travel some more. Travel shakes out the cobwebs with new sensations and unexpected turns. The world is still a richly wonderful place, problems and all; greed and power aren’t all people are about, though lately it looks that way. My next novel involves an NYPD detective in Brooklyn. It’s a character driven search; there are foreigners, a real estate bubble forming, and there is a gun.
Visit Janyce’s website and buy her book.
Copyright 2012 by Janyce Stefan-Cole

Friday, June 8, 2012

Ivanhoe During Arithmetic: The Soul of a Writer

Photo: Angela Wong

We dipped our pens in inkwells back then, and wrote properly using the “Palmer Method.” We sat there, upright, endlessly repeating the motions that turned marks into letters: a, b, c, d, e, f, g . . . And if learning to write was boring, learning to read was even more so. We used a book titled “Bob and Judy.” The story was very repetitious: “Bob runs. Judy runs. Bob and Judy run.” As I had already learned how to read at home, I often made up my own plots for these stories. This was my first attempt at being a writer.

As I went to a small grammar school that combined two grades in one room, with one teacher, I usually was required to spend half of the day sitting at my desk doing busywork. If I was in the lower of the two grades I eavesdropped on what the other class was doing. The problem with this was that the next year I already knew what I was supposed to be learning, and so had to provide some amusement for myself, while still appearing as if I was paying attention. I smuggled in books and read them during class. My father, who was away in the Army at the time, was a high school teacher so we had a lot of the classics around the house. I was caught reading Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe during arithmetic and punished. Rather than risk being caught again, I took to writing my own stories, my note papers being easier to hide than a bound book.

As a child I was small for my age, and had started school a year early, so was constantly bullied by everyone, long before that word became fashionable. Back then there were no Twitter messages or Facebook posts – your enemies just hit you with rocks, kicked you in the shins, or bloodied your nose. And so, after school and on weekends, I preferred to stay in my room immersed in my artistic activities.

I wrote comic books and illustrated them. I also made a little theater in a cardboard box and put on plays with people I had drawn and cut out of construction paper. These plays were usually improvised, or sometimes written down, but then, as now, I never had a shortage of ideas. As I had lived little of my life, most of these “tragedies” were based on things I read in the newspaper or heard on the radio. Although I would find that later on I enjoyed being a “stand-up comic,” I was never much for writing comedy.

When I got to high school I spent a lot of my time participating in extracurricular activities. I wrote pieces for the yearbook, and had a regular column in the school newspaper. I also did art, theatre, debate, the model airplane club, and sang in the chorus. My essay took second place in the “I Speak for Democracy,” contest, but was declared the winner when it was found out that the original number one had copied most of his text from an article in American Legion Magazine. I won a trip to New York City to see the United Nations building. This was my first trip to Manhattan and I realized then that this was where I wanted to be someday. I also won the Kappa Alpha Delta Literary Award given to the “outstanding writer,” in the senior class and got to sit on the stage at graduation with all the important people.

The next four years, spent studying at Wilkes College, were probably the dullest four years of my life. My father could not afford for me to go away to school, so I lived at home and commuted. After my classes I worked in a discount clothing store called “Bushels of Bargains” and in the summer at an automobile repair shop. Both of these jobs would later provide material for numerous short stories and an unpublished novel. I had to take business courses in college. I was ostensibly preparing to become a partner in my father’s small insurance agency, as he had given up teaching when he returned from the war. I did very poorly in my required writing courses; my choice of essay topics tending to rankle the professors, or so their comments on my papers seemed to indicate. I did do well in a course called “Business Correspondence and Reports.” My final project, a marketing study on Little Golden Books was much praised and received an A+ grade. I did not reveal that I hadn’t spend any time at bookstores interviewing the ninety-six people that supposedly had responded to my survey, but merely used my fiction-writing skills to make the whole thing up. In my free time I painted pictures, and acted in the college theater and in summer stock. In my senior year I wrote a one-act play, “How Like Roses,” loosely based on my mother’s relation to her three sisters, which won the Wilkes College play writing competition. I also wrote a highly lauded paper, “Bottomry Bonds and Respondencia: the Passage of Title in Maritime Law,” for my course in Legal Contracts. For a brief time I even fancied myself becoming a lawyer.

In my first three years after graduating, I lived in a number of different places and tried my luck at a number of different things. I was an insurance agent, a sign painter, a commercial artist, a designer of party favors, a screen printer for a billboard company, and a high school art teacher. While teaching in Gettysburg, PA, I rented an old stone farmhouse that had been used as a hospital during the battle and was supposed to be haunted. There I wrote dozens of unpublished Civil War poems. After that I traveled to Miami, the Bahamas, Cuba, Mexico, California, and Canada, before deciding to settle on East 10th Street in Manhattan.

I studied painting, drawing and aesthetics at the New School, where I wrote a paper on aesthetics in the philosophy of Spinoza. I also continued writing poetry and even submitted a poem to the Village Voice. They rejected it with the comment that while it was a good poem they just did not publish poems that rhyme. The other writing that I was doing at the time was mostly anti-war letters to my draft board. My number was up. I had scored high on the pre-induction tests. It was suggested that if I enlisted I would be sent to an officer training school. I told them that I was not interested in anything but a conscious objector status. I was stalked by the FBI, and threatened with time in jail. But then someone with some authority must have read my letters, as I was reclassified as unfit for military service.

Unable to get a decent job due to my draft status, I was reduced to doing construction work and preparing canvases for other artists. I rented a storefront on East 12th Street where I worked on my paintings and made prints using a small screen printing table that I made. I had taught myself to screen print in the basement of my parents’ house using a booklet I had gotten free from a Sherwin Williams paint store. Alfred Jensen, an artist friend known enough to be having an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, asked me if I would do some screen prints for him. We worked together and did four editions. He then sold one copy of each print to the Museum of Modern Art. The story spread around the art world, and I was subsequently besieged by artists wanting to do prints. I moved to larger quarters and hired assistants. For six years I was at the center of the New York art scene doing screen prints with people like Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Louise Nevelson and Helen Frankenthaler. Most of my writing at that time was technical articles on screen printing that were published in printmaking journals. I no longer wrote poetry, but did keep copious notes about the art scene and the people I knew, planning to write a book about this someday. I also wrote a short story which was published in Straight, the magazine of The School of Visual Arts. And I got to write my obituary for the New York Times. I was told that this was a mark of my success as the Times only kept on file obituaries of those people whom they considered to be important.

Nevertheless, I was becoming tired of my screen printing shop and all that it involved: fickle artists, paying bribes to everyone – the building and fire inspectors, the garbage man, and the police, and of art galleries that didn’t pay their bills. Then I was invited to teach screen printing at Cornell University. The prospect of being rid of all this business and to be paid regularly for working two or three days a week, and having the summers free to do what I wished, was something I could not pass up.

In Ithaca I learned to fly. I eventually became quite good at it, even attaining an Air Transport Pilot rating. I became skilled enough at aerobatic flying to fly in air shows, and to win numerous competitions. I also did art performances in the sky, which I called “Aerial Theater” and which were very highly regarded in Europe. During this time I wrote articles for popular aviation magazines and essays on the relationship between art and flight for literary journals like Leonardo and Shiny in the USA, D’Ars and Spazio Humano in Italy, and the anthology Himmelsschreiber in Germany. After 33 years of teaching I retired from Cornell. It was then that I decided to devote my creative activity mainly to writing fiction.

So what makes a good story? Apparently I have very little idea, as I have written 193 short stories, and only managed to publish 21, despite having sent out over 3896 submissions. I have written 12 books, and been able to publish five, one with a small press and four which I published myself. I have also had two books accepted by top NYC agents who were then unable to place them. I suppose this lack of interest in my work could be that my role models are not necessarily today’s heroes, very few of whom I read. My favorite authors, and whose books I read over and over are: Gabrielle D’Annunzio, Georges Bataille, Witold Gombrowicz, Fernando Pessoa, Bruno Schulz, and Robert Walser. My favorite among my own books is my unpublished novel, Johnny Z’s Ultimate Video Memories. Alison Lurie, who read the book some twenty years ago, remarked that although it was well written it was the “filthiest book” she had read since Tropic of Cancer. I am currently going through this manuscript yet another time, probably the sixtieth revision. I may send it around again since books with perverted sex seem to have become popular.

And so now I look up at my clock and see that it is almost 11:00 pm, time for me to put aside this text. I usually work every evening from 8:00 until 11:00. I am not one of those serious writers who start in the morning and work all day long and then again in the evening. Writing for me, as with all my other creative activities, has always been a recreation. In the evening I sit quietly and engage my fantasies, not that I have not been thinking all day long about what I was going to put down on the page when the time came. Now, in my seventy-fourth year, I find that writing occupies my mind and fills my soul. It is the activity that matters. If no one publishes my work, or no one reads the work that is published, it does not concern me for I have already had the enjoyment of doing it.

Ithaca, NY, 3 June 2012

Text Copyright© 2012 by Stephen Poleskie. Photo Copyright© 2012 by Angela Wong

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Remembering Davenport

Guy Davenport via Wikipedia
Two Visits with Guy Davenport
(Followed by an Angel)

W.C. Bamberger

In 1991 I drove alone to Lexington, Kentucky in a borrowed Dodge van (borrowed in fact from my ex-wife, Janet) with layers of Abstract Expressionist paintings on paper shifting around in the way-back. My goal: to politely strongarm two writers I admired, neither of whom had I previously met. The most daunting of the two was Guy Davenport, classical scholar, painter, professor at the University of Kentucky, brilliant critic and author of some of the most unusual and beautifully written fictions I’d ever read.

I had recently reprinted Guy’s book length poem Flowers & Leaves. In the course of our business and ever after, Guy was unfailingly gracious; if I wrote him a letter he would feel obligated to respond, however busy he might be. Over the years I learned to end my letters with “No response necessary,” to save him the bother. If I phoned and interrupted him he would always end our conversation by saying, “Bless you for calling.” On this trip I was deliberately taking advantage of this graciousness: I knew that Guy had said, more or less, “I like people, but not meeting them.” He disliked having fans invade his privacy. When Guy had suggested to Erik Reece, a former student, that he send me a manuscript, I’m sure he hadn’t realized he was opening himself up to such a visit from me. But Guy did no readings, had given up participating in conferences, never traveled (in fact he had never had a driver’s license), and very rarely gave interviews. If one wanted to know the man behind the brilliant work, a home invasion was the only open route.

Erik, who has since gone on to well-deserved renown for his books Lost Mountain and An American Gospel, was at that time a young poet whose first book I was planning to publish with my small press. I was hoping to strongarm Erik into choosing a painting by Roland Rayburn, a painter I knew, for the cover of the collection, My Muse Was Supposed to Meet Me Here. This would likely be easy enough; I was, after all, publishing his book. But the shamelessly acquisitive side of me was as engaged as the literary: I was also in hopes of convincing Guy to sell me one of his amazing paintings – I had tried by mail but he was dismissive of the idea, resolutely so it seemed.

Once I’d checked into my motel, I called Erik and went to his home. We sorted through the piles of paintings until he found one he thought would fit, and – to make myself feel like a real publisher – I gave him a (tiny) advance on the book. We travelled to a nearby Shaker colony, a wonderful experience. Erik also talked me into trying a Subway sandwich, a much less wonderful experience.
Memory grows hazy after 21 years, but I’m reasonably sure that I went to Davenport’s home by myself just after dinnertime, with Erik joining us later. Guy met me at the door, dressed casually, his glasses dangling around his neck on a string. He showed me around his home: pointing out such treasures as Louis Zukofsky’s chair (which a friend had surreptitiously saved from a dump when the poet’s son had tried to throw out all his things to keep them from just such collectors), the Picasso prints he had salvaged from a printer’s “reject” barrel, the trestle-style writing table he had built, and more. We sat and talked about his work, and Guy was at once serious about the ideas inherent in it – Charles Fourier’s regimented utopianism, Pound’s “rose in the steel dust,” Buckminster Fuller’s insistence that “nature doesn’t use pi,” the cosmology of the African Dogon people – and self-deprecating about himself. A number of his stories and some of his art include naked children, images Guy used to explore the tipping points between childhood and adulthood, innocence and sexuality, utopian community and society’s fallen state, and these images had proven controversial. At one point Guy said, approximately, “Carloads of Yalies drive down here from New Haven and are disappointed to find no tow-headed boys wandering nude about the house. Those who read literature literally are always going to be disappointed.”

Guy also told stories about writers he had known – Zukfosky’s phobia of drafts, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s shell-shock induced fear of enclosed spaces, which meant in order for him to be able to ride in a car he had to keep the door open and drag his foot along the road as the car slowly proceeded. But what made the drive worthwhile, what made me (however guiltily) excuse myself for intruding into Guy’s personal space, was the private art show he gave me. Walking up and down the stairs to the second floor again and again, Guy brought down, one or two at a time, a few dozen of his paintings: portraits of writers and thinkers from James Joyce to Randolph Bourne (who observed that “War is the health of the state”) to Wittgenstein; collage paintings that juxtaposed shells with birds or Roman coins or words in Danish. There were also geometric abstractions, grids and color fields and stripes, with a wonderful vibrating life and structural balance that engaged eye and mind equally. I asked (again) if he ever exhibited or sold his paintings. He told me a story about his department head “ordering” him (his word) to have an exhibit at the university, and of what a humiliating experience it had been. There was a “don’t ask” look in his eye – a resolute “don’t ask” look. In the end I didn’t ask, my own graciousness eking out a victory over my stalking acquisitive side. A few years later Erik wrote a long study of Guy’s art that was published by New Directions with a number of beautiful reproductions of the works; I bought two copies. This is as close as I ever came to owning any of Guy’s art.

Erik joined us after sunset, and we spent the rest of the evening discussing books, ideas and art while sitting before the fire Guy built in his fireplace. When I left he said, “Bless you for visiting.”
A few years after this visit, I intruded again. I spent a long afternoon negotiating endless construction zones through southern Ohio and on into Kentucky in my ex-wife Janet’s van – but this time she rode with me. I had told Guy I planned to arrive in Lexington around 3:00 in the afternoon and would call him then. With the construction delays in this pre-cellphone time, it was nearly 5:00 when I called from the motel. Guy was not happy. I explained about the construction, but it seemed he had stopped work hours earlier than he had wanted to, in preparation for my visit, and this time was now irrevocably lost. I could hear in his voice that I would not easily be excused for this. I made matters worse by asking if he could give me directions from the motel to his house. “Me? I am the last person to ask how to negotiate Lexington in a car!”

When we finally made it to Guy’s house he was graciousness itself – to Janet. She was a children’s librarian, and they discussed children’s books. “Children’s book illustrations are art!” Guy told Janet, with a beaming smile. They discussed Maurice Sendak; I said little. When I did speak, Guy repeatedly corrected my pronunciation of foreign names (“Claude Lay-vee Stroowwwss” was particularly vehement), faulted my memory, and generally brushed off any and all of my thoughts. After a time, however, this flinty exterior was put aside. Guy’s voice trembled as he talked about a book that told the story of children from a Polish orphanage being marched to a train, pennants flying, to be taken away and gassed by the Nazis. A tear came to his eye when he played a CD of a young countertenor singing beautiful lieder. I cautiously said little. By the end of our visit Guy’s pleasure in meeting Janet had warmed him to the point where he gave us each a half-hug when we left.

I felt badly about the events of this visit for days, even after receiving a short note from Guy graciously thanking me for visiting. But then I suddenly realized that I had gotten exactly what I had wanted from the visit. I had wanted to get to know “the man behind the work,” and this I had done. I had been given a privileged glimpse of the Guy Davenport I most admired, the dedicated, deeply intellectual writer, translator and painter reacting to having been robbed of a good half day of work time for the sake of having two people sit in his living room and ask (for him uninteresting, because about him) questions. Readers of Guy’s essays and of his few interviews can get just a glimpse of this jealously-guarded dedication, the tetchiness of the brilliant mind having its time wasted, but I’d been privileged to experience it first hand. A fan’s (mildly masochistic?) dream come true.
I never visited Guy again. One of our last exchanges by mail came a few weeks before his death from lung cancer. Art was again involved: I had bought a small ink drawing of an angel by British artist Stanley Spencer, a favorite of Guy, though Guy didn’t own any of Spencer’s work. When I heard he was ill, I mailed him the little drawing. He wrote back, “There are no words adequate to thank you for such a wonderful gift, so I will not belittle it by even trying.” Gracious to the end.
W. C. Bamberger is the author, editor or translator of more than a dozen books, including the novel On the Backstretch. In 2007 he edited Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters for W. W. Norton. Recent publications include a SF story co-written with his daughter, and his translation of two early essays by Gershom Scholem. He lives in Michigan.

Copyright 2012 by W.C. Bamberger

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Inside the Common Boundary

Order a Copy
By Meagan Meehan

When one contemplates the noun immigrant, seldom, if ever, is the word communal meditated upon. That is not to say contemporary individuals are incognizant of the multitude of immigrants who admirably find their niche in ethnic communities, but are more inclined to perceive immigrants as foreign and exotic, rather than readily assimilable. Thus, what intrigues modern readers of Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration (Editions Bibliotekos 2010) is the anthology’s very title. Comprised of two seemingly simple words, the book’s main title makes a commendable statement of its own: the juxtaposition of “common” – an adjective connotative of sharing – and “boundary” – a noun denotative of a dividing line – suggests that, despite stark boundaries, a unifying (yet, underlying) aspect exists. Not surprisingly, then, Editions Bibliotekos has utilized its second anthology to consider the implications of such a paradoxical metaphor. The stories published in Common Boundary explore how immigrants themselves can be a part of others, while simultaneously being divided from them. In a recent interview, several authors from Common Boundary answered inquiries pertaining to their respective works; each response offers a glimpse into the author’s intentions, as well as – in some cases – his or her thoughts regarding immigration.

In “La Santa Papa,” a short story featuring the struggle of a Mexican immigrant to make sense of a giant Peruvian potato displayed at a state fair, author George Rabasa offers a reason for the story’s setting: “To a foreigner the phenomenon of an American State Fair is exotic, including the fetishization of produce and livestock. And while she doesn't think for a moment that the potato is God, she would recognize the ritualization of a relic or religious image from her childhood experience of a Mexican village church. Her sense of alienation is enhanced by her solitude and so in the dark quiet of the tent leads to her hearing the potato speak to her. Whether this is imagination or an auditory hallucination will vary according to the experience a reader brings to his or her reading of the story.”

In another story entitled “The Unmasking of El Santo,” Rabasa claims that the character’s decision to become a wrestler was fueled by a desire to assert authority in a society where his immigration status denied him freedom to do so: “Benito is overcoming his sense of impotence as a minority and a foreigner under the powerful influence of the dominant social order. He overcomes this sense of subjugation by donning the powerful symbols of the unbeatable Santo, easily the most admired of the Mexican wrestlers, a leading figure in the sport since the 1950s. The mystery of his identity has been long concealed behind the silver mask. So, Benito can become El Santo simply by wearing the mask. But secrets and good deeds beg to be revealed. So, Benito is dying to tell who he becomes after his shift at the bakery is concluded. He wants credit for persecuting bad guys, for contributing to the security of his community.”

Patty Somlo’s story “How He Made It Across” uses death as a metaphor to describe a loss of self after one immigrates to a new country: “The poor Mexican farmer that he was before crossing the border has died. My point there was that people become Americans almost as soon as they come to this country and leave the people they once were behind.”  As a former journalist writing frequently on topics such as immigration and Latin America, Somlo used her story as a kind of platform for public awareness, an opportunity not only to voice her own opinions, but also to enhance one’s knowledge of the American immigration system: “The story is one of a series I wrote on an undocumented immigrant named Alejandro. The stories were, in part, an effort to look at what I consider to be an unfair system, in which so many American businesses hire and rely on the work of undocumented immigrants, mostly Latinos, at the same time that there is an immigration system whose purpose is to keep them out of the country or, if they make it in, to deport them. To the immigrants, the entire immigration system is a faceless bureaucracy that they fear, and they refer to it in its entirety as ‘la migra.’”

Like Somlo, Omer Hadžiselimović “An Immigrant's Deal: Two Lives for the Price of One” serves as an account of Hadžiselimović’s personal views on immigration. When asked what made him think of America as strange and exotic, Hadžiselimović replied that it was about “cultural distance,” everything from America’s language to “the natural and built-up landscape, architecture, human behavior, and body language.”  Hadžiselimović particularly stresses the importance of mastering the language of the country one has migrated to: “Generally speaking, for an immigrant, learning the new language is essential, for it is the most important entry ticket to full integration. A people’s language is deeply connected with the life of that people, both past and present, so to know a language means to have a deeper understanding of the culture that has produced it. Words and expressions do not exist in isolation, and one cannot function fully in a new culture with a limited knowledge of its language.”

John Guzlowski’s biographical story “Wooden Trunk from Buchenwald” features a poignant story about his parents’ wooden trunk from Buchenwald, the site of one of Nazi Germany’s major concentration camps. When asked about the trunk, Guzlowski states that his regret for leaving it behind varies: “Sometimes I regret not having the trunk. Other times, I don't. When I wonder whether it was a mistake leaving it, I think about what my mother and dad would say to this. They were not sentimental people. Their experiences in the war taught them not to be sentimental. They were both people who had lost so much and left so much behind. I think that my parents would shrug and say, ‘So you left it, don’t worry.’”  Thinking retrospectively, Guzlowski agrees that, if given another chance, he would act differently – but personal circumstances prevented him from doing so: “Yes, if I had it all over to do again, I would save the trunk. I didn't because after a month of sitting with my mother and watching her die in a hospice, I was exhausted every way. Getting a trunk from Arizona to Georgia seemed impossibly difficult.”

Mitch Levenberg’s “The Plain Brown Envelopes,” highlights an anxious father preparing to bring his newly-adopted daughter home from China. The transition from China to her new home, Brooklyn, New York, is believed to bring the child “towards a future of hope and promise.”  Although Levenberg confirms that the narrator did feel “somewhat” guilty for taking his daughter away from her native culture and heritage, the narrator is confident that his child’s new home will ensure a bright future.
The stories published in this anthology explore the notion of a common boundary – a metaphor connotative of the paradoxical treatment countless immigrants endure on a daily basis: while immigrants do indeed share a commonality with the native population (they live in the same country, have the same government, etc.), they are also divided from the native population. Even among various immigrant groups (as these stories demonstrate), similar tales of hope, strength, courage, and love are told – a humble testament to the existence of a common boundary.
[Editor’s notes:
1. The writing of this article derives from questions generated by students of a freshman Honors seminar taught by Professor Ghazala Afzal at St. Francis College, which used Common Boundary as a course text. In preparing this article, we assume readers have some familiarity with the anthology.
2. Join us in congratulating John Guzlowski. His story, “Wooden Trunk from Buchenwald” (first published in COMMON BOUNDARY: Stories of Immigration by Editions Bibliotekos) has been selected by Pearson Longman (a global publisher) to be reprinted in an upcoming anthology with a print run of 200,000 copies.]