Tag Archives: Issue 1

Justin Quinn Interview

MH: Let’s begin with a question you sometimes seem to balk at by suggesting that your path has evolved by chance and that at times you simply engage with what is at hand. Granted that chance operations—including certain aspects of our lives—become the basis of discovery and choice, nevertheless, will you tell us what sparked your creative and personal journey from Ireland to the Czech Republic and including the United States? Looking back, what has been the most interesting creative or artistic development in your multinational, polyglot professional experience?

JQ: I very much dislike house repairs and tend to leave things half broken until they finally have to be dealt with. Until that showdown occurs, I tend to find ways to work around this without disturbing the flow of things. This may not seem like an answer. But I found myself in Prague in the early 1990s largely because Ireland at the time was a frustrating place for someone in their early twenties. So I leave and I’m in a country whose language I barely speak, a literary culture I barely know. I start to find ways around the problems. And those hacks, or temporary fixes, then slowly become a life, a way of living. It goes for poetry as much as earning a living. I strongly believe that making decent art of any kind has less to do with imposing one’s will on words or colors—say, using those materials to express oneself—but rather in a kind of openness to the materials themselves, or in the case above, to my circumstances. That way you find yourself, as Stevens says, more truly and more strange.

MH: Much of your poetry, such as your collection Waves and Trees, draws from your experience as an Irishman living in the Czech Republic. Specifically in terms of your artistic and scholarly influences, how have the two nations helped you define your voice and your use of craft?

JQ: I only learned to use the Czech context for scholarly purposes in the last few years (more on this below). In terms of the poetry it’s not so much a question of the confrontation of Irishness and Czechness (whatever those two things may be), but rather, I suppose, being a resident alien. I’m not sure I’m grateful to either nation for their influence on the poems I write. Certainly, as an Irish citizen, I’m grateful to be allowed to be resident in the Czech Republic. But my gratitude goes rather to the poets of the English language, whether they be from Ireland or wherever, and to those Czech poets, who are most dear to me. Claudio Guillén said writers have a special relationship to their second language—they are not so intimate with its literature, as they are with that of their mother tongue, but this distance can also be enabling. It’s like an extra dimension, or an extra wavelength, that other anglophones can’t quite catch. They hear murmurs, intimations, but not the words. That’s been a tremendous privilege: to have my ken extended in just this way.

MH: You’re something of a “hyphenate”: an accomplished scholar of modernist and contemporary literature in three countries; a poet; a critic; a translator; and, a novelist. Translation may be a central metaphor for the conversation between forms, languages, poets, and cultures that permeates your work. How do you feel these things “talk” to each other in your work? Can you describe one specific example where you have experienced multiple “voices” affecting each other in a passage or line of your own writing or your translation?

JQ: This is a difficult question, as I’m not quite sure how it works myself. On days that I’m writing poetry, I do it early in the morning, sometimes getting up around 4 a.m. (at least in the summer). Then I stop around 11 a.m., do some exercise, lunch, doze, and work on a critical essay in the afternoon for a few hours. The poetry is ticking over in my head when I’m writing the criticism and vice versa. In all types of writing, I try to be clear, or if I’m being vague, then I myself have to be clear on why that’s necessary. I dislike criticism and poetry that has a troubled relationship with grammar. I’m not really disposed to write about the same themes in my poetry as in my criticism, so I’m hard put to see any crossover. But I have experienced a strong crossover between poetry translation and my own poetry writing, more or less in the terms described in the previous question.

MH: Your poem “Seminar” draws from your experience teaching American literature to students in Prague. What is there in American literature that you believe is beneficial to Czech students? Setting aside McDonald’s™ and KFC™–the vulgar accoutrements of late capitalism–how has United States culture affected Czech culture? Are any of these effects positive?

JQ: Many are positive. For a lot of Czechs, the US is an ideal example of democracy at work–a state to be aspired to and befriended. Many people here are very grateful to Reagan for forcing the Soviets’ hand and bringing an end to the Cold War. Some of the journals and magazines try to emulate American examples like The New York Review of Books or The New Yorker. The downside of this has been a reluctance to see the pernicious aspects of American foreign policy, especially in Latin America during the Cold War, when the US exaggerated the Soviet threat and aided and abetted “right wing death squad democracy” as Allen Ginsberg put it. As for the literature, Ginsberg himself was a transformative presence, and then a later wave arrived that included Elizabeth Bishop and others. Because Czech is a small culture and language, the literature has to be attentive to external influences, and one of the major ones is that of the English language.

MH: Your critical reviews are balanced, but always have an edge. What do you value most in the critical discourse, both as a critic and as someone whose work receives critique?

JQ: As a reader of reviews, I want primarily to be informed by the piece. The reviewer should be able to deftly and briefly characterize the work, and only then offer an opinion. If it’s going to be trashed, I want the reviewer to tell me why it’s worth the trouble of trashing. Most reviewers as they become more established get to know writers and lose their independence. The same goes for reviews I’ve received of my own work. What I appreciate most is the response of an intelligent and sensitive reader—whether the review is positive or negative is always secondary to that.

MH: Much of your critical writing also addresses in one way or another complex relationships between poetry and politics. In your discussions of the social and political implications of poetry, you appear to be skeptical of the conventional notion that language is a valuable shaper of national consciousness—or at least feel that this idea has changed or is problematic. We have several questions about this topic: what are your current views about the relationship between poetry and politics/social issues? In your view, which poets are doing the most compelling work in this area now? And, what nations or locales do they represent—or does locale matter in such work?

JQ: Although these things preoccupy me, I like to find a wide range of pleasures in poetry. For instance, I recently enjoyed the American poet Joseph Massey whose lyrical minimalism finds no place for an abstraction like politics. And though I’ve just done it in the previous sentence, I’m wary of labeling poets as American, English, Irish, etc. Perhaps Massey is better described as a poet of the Pioneer Valley in Massachusetts. Above all, he and all poets belong to their language, which is something that easily exceeds the limits of the nation. As for poetry and politics at the moment, a lot of the work is a little predictable. In the US it takes the form of kneejerk criticism of foreign policy, racism, etc. If your sole aim is to express sympathy with the suffering of others, then you’re probably best off donating some money to charity or going on a march, instead of saying so in a poem. If you want to express your ethnic identity, then, once more, there are many better occasions to do so than a free-verse reminiscence about your ancestors. Warm feelings usually lead to limp lines. I think Paul Muldoon plays brilliantly with ethnic identity and politics, constantly surprising. In his last few books he’s dealt with the various wars the U.S. has been engaged in, but he refuses to use poems for moral grandstanding.

MH: Your forthcoming book, Between Two Fires: Transnationalism and Cold War Poetry (Oxford UP, September 2015) examines the transnational movement of poetry during the Cold War. In particular, using alternative analytic frameworks and postcolonial theory, you argue that Czech poetry had more influence on the Anglophone tradition in this period than has been previously recognized. Will you give us a sneak preview of this argument through an example?

JQ: Primarily I was interested in the way in which the Cold War created a particular framework for the transmission and understanding of culture, and specifically poetry, even at times when it seemed irrelevant. Some poets were right at the centre of the action, like Allen Ginsberg, zipping around the various flashpoints and catalyzing changes in widely divergent cultures. Others seemed external to it. The first idea of it began when I discovered that the Czech poet Miroslav Holub was famous and influential in the US and UK in the 1970s and 1980s (spoken of as a possible contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature), and yet a minor figure in the Czech context. Obviously some weird forces were at work in this case. I started pulling at that thread, and eventually came to understand what was going on in the reception of postcolonial poets like Seamus Heaney and Derek Walcott in the US. It was a kind of outsourcing of politics in culture. Poets like these could tell a story of oppression without any connection to US foreign policy, whereas if American audiences had looked to poets of similar standing south of their own border, they would have been forced to question the involvement of successive governments, both Democratic and Republican, in that part of the world. We warm to the story of an Irish writer in his struggles against a British oppressor, but are made uncomfortable by other writers whose work implies that we are the oppressors. Of course, this is something that several US editors and critics twigged to in the 1980s, especially Carolyn Forché, but there was still a strong aestheticist line that insisted that politics spoiled the poetry of Latin America, but not of Ireland or the Caribbean, because those places told us stories that were altogether more heartwarming.

MH: As we’ve noted, you operate in the “in-between places” (in terms of forms, cultures, languages, influences, etc.), places that Terry Eagleton in After Theory says can be the most creative. One of the “in-between” things we love about your poetry is its subtext. Under the surface, through a use of ironic double meaning that might almost be called clever, are layers of allusion where things meet. An example of this subtext is in your poem “Russian Girl on Přížská” with its lines such as “The way you walk is slash and burn./Like understatement’s now a crime.” These interstices in your poems are serious fun. Are they fun for you? How and where does this play with gaps and overlaps arise in your discovery and working process?

JQ: Right there is the delight of the whole endeavor. The fun of it is most intense at just such turns. As for the interstices, it’s harder to say. I have such a limited awareness of the process. I’m too absorbed in it when it’s happening to be able to give an accurate account of it afterwards. This is not to say that it’s like a trance. I do, mostly, answer the phone and I like to think I would notice if the building was burning down. But your question, which is fair, is perhaps one that artists are singularly ill equipped to answer.

MH: Another thing we love about your poetry is your use of given forms. For example, “Recession Song” is a Spanish sextilla and “Russian Girl on Přížská” is a contemporary sonnet that fuses the 16-line sonnet of George Meredith’s sonnet cycle Modern Love with iambic tetrameter and a Shakespearean rhyme scheme (ending with an unconventional ghgh rhyme in the volta). The strictures of given forms seem to lend your poems a singing quality. Will you talk about your use of and experimentation with strict forms in your poetry?

JQ: The form for “Recession Song” I found in an anthology of 17th century English poetry. It was a particularly beautiful short poem, and I started to wonder what would happen if the same form dealt with a more modern idiom and theme. That’s often how it works. It’s a more tactile and semi-feral activity than it might seem at a distance. Something in you goes, “That sounds nice. I’d like to make a song like that.” Obviously with rhyme you have to train yourself before it becomes natural, but the pay-off comes when the form leads you beyond yourself and your narrow intentions and emotions. That’s when the language starts doing some of your thinking and feeling for you. Given how limited, vain, and uninformed most of us are, or at least I am, that will always be an improvement.

MH: Your poetry employs what might be called a gentle pastoral lyric with images of landscape and domestic life, yet the associations within the poetry’s images and diction invoke subtexts of displacement, catastrophic war or genocide, economic distress, and other imminent dangers in social or political relations. In your essay “American Sublime and Allen Ginsberg” you spoke of “the ligatures between private ecstasy and political vision.” For you, what is the relationship between lyricism and politics in your poetry?

JQ: Perhaps a little glibly I have to point back to the poems themselves. That’s where I think about this stuff to the best of my abilities. Outside that enclosure I think I resemble most a drunk at the bar shouting his predictable opinions about the state of the world. It’s precisely because poets aren’t good at answering questions like this in prose that makes them poets in the first place. I can’t really talk straight and analytically about these things, at least not in relation to my own work.

MH: In a 2010 interview for Radio Praha, you spoke about first moving to Prague. You mentioned the initial difficulty of not hearing your native language spoken around you, in addition to the difficulty, as a writer, of not being able to feed off of the contemporary speech that surrounded you. Did this experience shift the way in which you conducted your own creative process? What did it teach you about the idea of “inspiration”? As you’ve become fluent in Czech and now stand immersed in it as the culture in which you live, how have your perceptions of the creative process evolved?

JQ: Funnily enough, I don’t think in terms like this. I’m unanalytical about these issues. Throughout my writing life I tend to concentrate on the practicalities and leave the larger abstractions to work themselves out. Thus, in my case, I know I write best in the early morning, with a pencil on loose A4 paper which rests on a Brampton folder. I’m either on the couch or on the armchair. As I said above, I’m up early and drink a lot of coffee. This creates a strange state of consciousness, when I’m still half dreamily asleep, and yet also wide awake. That’s ideal as stuff floats into my head from left field. I like peace and quiet, and a computer open to check the OED and Thesaurus occasionally. More generally, all I really know is that my adopted country seems to suit me, even after two decades. I don’t know why that it is. I imagine that my diction has become a bit distant from the demotic, but other poets probably do slang better than me in any case.

MH: In a 2010 interview for Radio Praha, you spoke about first moving to Prague. You mentioned the initial difficulty of not hearing your native language spoken around you, in addition to the difficulty, as a writer, of not being able to feed off of the contemporary speech that surrounded you. Did this experience shift the way in which you conducted your own creative process? What did it teach you about the idea of “inspiration”? As you’ve become fluent in Czech and now stand immersed in it as the culture in which you live, how have your perceptions of the creative process evolved?

JQ: Rejection is integral to any career, including an artistic one. It never disappears. Some rejections are like body blows, others one forgets a few minutes later. If it’s particularly bad, I usually wallow for two to three days in self pity. It’s important at that point to assess the exact contours of the rejection. Is it from someone you respect? Was it an informed and considered decision? If the answers are yes, then you’d be stupid not to think about the matter long and hard.

MH: The Soap Bubble Set section of Mistake House is partly where we wish to connect the student with the professional. Naturally, we have some questions of interest to student writers:

Was there a moment where you felt like your work started to move from the student state to that of the professional?

JQ: Perhaps when my first poem was published in a national newspaper in Ireland. What had previously been a rather furtive activity was now public knowledge. In terms of the writing itself, I was fairly convinced from my late teens that I was willing to arrange most things in my life to allow the writing of poems. Simply put, little else seemed quite as interesting. That said, it demanded and still demands quite a lot of worldly wile and time management to pull off the trick.

MH: You’re a busy man—juggling family, teaching at Charles University, and writing and translating in several forms. What advice do you have for the busy about how to maintain a work ethic and a creative practice?

JQ: Apart from the wiles mentioned above, it’s important to have people around you who take your writing seriously. I don’t purely mean that they should consider you a genius, but rather they should know that the writing is an integral part of who you are. My wife has what at best could be described as a polite interest in the art of poetry, but she knows how important it is to me and helps me make time. I would hope she thinks I reciprocate in similar fashion. This is grading into marriage counseling, but no less valid for that.

MH: How do you feel about your earlier works when you compare them to your current works?

JQ: I don’t think about this very much, and haven’t much to say on it.

MH: What do you value most deeply as a teacher?

JQ: Serious passionate engagement in the work at hand. In some cases, because of the particularity of the student, this isn’t reflected in grades. But those are always of secondary importance–which is not to say that grades are unimportant, just not as important.

MH: Do you ever play hooky (we hope you do)? And, if you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a dérive?

JQ: Frost said that the best bit about farming was shirking chores. I’m in agreement. As mid life responsibilities descended on me in the last decade it’s become harder to play hooky, or as we say in Ireland, to mitch. You skive off and someone doesn’t get their letter of reference written and perhaps they don’t get the job they deserve. I write the letter, but only promise to do things I know I can deliver well and on time. So the upshot is that I don’t really play hooky. You aren’t playing hooky unless there are bad consequences either for yourself or others. Thus I plan my dérives, which sounds like a contradiction. I arrange my affairs so I can take off for a walk for a day or a few days. I’ve had a lot of longer waits in airports in the last year, and I’ve become preoccupied with trying to get out to the open countryside from them. To my surprise, you can’t get out of some airports at all, unless you’re in a road vehicle or plane—you’d need wire-cutters, etc. The best, though, was Amsterdam. I walked out of the terminal and within about twenty minutes I was strolling through sunny meadows, being observed by a colony of rabbits. They seemed happy, and I lay there for an hour.

Justin Quinn Bio
Justin Quinn Poetry

Dirt Road to Nowhere

Enough was enough. Anevay Jaimson left work early and sped off in her pickup truck, the man’s sly touch still crawling on her skin. The sexual harassment had become a regular occurrence —something she couldn’t ignore. She drove past run-down gas stations and dumpy antique stores, along streets where listless old men stood on corners and cornfields were landmarks. She drove until everything she knew became unrecognizable. The road, not the winding kind that wandered through pastoral scenery, seemed endless. It continued straight ahead like a metaphor for life, or death. She drove like she was at gunpoint— recklessly, impulsively to where she would end up. The date of her father’s birthday echoed in her head, yet her steady hands intuitively adjusted the steering wheel. As she drove, she untied the apron still clinging to her hips. With one swift motion she tossed it onto the seat beside her.

She was sure this time she’d be fired, imagining her boss eyeing her slowly as she pushed through the diner’s double doors. He would look at her long and hard. He was the type of man who never got a passing glance from any woman, the boy who desperately wished for the comfort of strong, tender thighs wrapped around him. Anevay took out a cigarette and lit it, taking long drags and watching the smoke fly out of her open window. It made breathing one less burden for her.

She made a sharp right turn onto an unmarked dirt road and slammed on the brake. The truck stalled. A few feet away a thick mass of spruce trees obstructed her vision. Looking into them was like peering into the pitch dark with no moon. She knew she had arrived, but she made no sudden movement. Her hands gripped the wheel tightly, her arms locked into parallel lines like oak plywood. Anevay let her foot off the brake, and the truck rolled forward voluntarily. You shouldn’t have come, she told herself. It had been a decade since she had last been here.

Anevay felt the rocks crunching beneath the truck, wedging themselves into the rubber cracks of the tires. She imagined her fragile body rolling over shattered glass. She bit her tongue hard, tasted blood, as her truck approached the vacant lot. The trailer, once white, now had rust stains trailing from the windows. An awning drooped over the front porch steps. A pink tricycle lay on its side, abandoned. Other toys were displayed like an exhibit of her childhood. Nothing had changed. It was as if she had entered a memory.

Anevay shut off her engine and extinguished her cigarette. A neighborhood dog barked ferociously in the distance. She imagined its square head constricted by a metal chain, its powerful jaw snarling and spitting.

“Damn dog,” its owner said. Anevay heard the dog yelp.

Its whimpers reverberated through the woods, echoing in distress. Anevay traced her fingers over the smooth scar hidden in her thick black hair, recalling the screaming and crying; the fists swinging and shoving; the curses polluting the air; the dank smell of bourbon oozing from his pores. That time she had gotten too close. The jagged edge of his broken bottle had skimmed her head. She remembered a red rush of blood and then a mad rush to the hospital for stiches, the sickly medicinal flavor of the cherry lollipop her reward for being a good girl.

That day she and her mother had left for good.

 

In the car ride from the hospital her mother had told her they weren’t going back home. Anevay had shrieked and tried to slap her mother, but her blows could not reach her from the back seat. Her mother did not turn her square Cherokee face around. Instead, facing forward, she told Anevay to sit still, so Anevary cried at the top of her lungs. She cried until her voice became an angry whisper. She cried until she fell asleep.

When Anevay woke up she was on a hotel bed. Her mother was lying on the twin bed beside her, flipping through TV channels. Anevay pretended she was asleep, watching her mother through the curtain of her eyelashes. Her body was propped up on starch white pillows. She seemed relaxed with one leg stretched out and the other bent at the knee, but her face remained rigid. Her dark, almost black, eyes rarely blinked. Anevay studied her mother’s face, noticing the small crows feet starting to form by her eyes. She was nearly thirty. Above the corner of her mother’s left eye Anevay could make out a purple reddish bruise underneath her concealer, still fresh. Fearless yet broken, her mother stared blankly at the static television. She flipped hypnotically past digital images as if she was searching for something, as if the dotted pixels on the screen were codes that could explain secret truths.

Pulling herself out of her memory, Anevay lifted her finger from the scar, dropping her hand to her side. Even the coarse black wires of her hair couldn’t hide the scar. She knew it was still there. Anevay wanted to suffocate the emptiness inside her.  She reached for her lighter and a pack of cigarettes in her purse. The cool metal in her palm steadied her as she lit the cigarette between her shaking fingers.   The sweet, sticky vapor spurted out of her mouth in quick puffs. Sometimes she wished her tired body would simply break down, decompose like the minerals in animal bones, and go back to where it came from.

“Why did I come back to this god awful place?” she said out loud. She opened the truck’s door and stepped out.

Her tan midriff showed slightly between her jeans and a black t-shirt. A few freckles dotted her arms and cheeks and her left cheek displayed a darker birthmark. As she walked to the lawn her sharp jaw line clenched, her arms swinging beside her.

Looking around, Anevay could see her father everywhere, in fragments. She remembered his big white freckled hands, his smell of pine soap and mild sweat after returning home from his carpenter jobs, and his short rare bursts of laugher. The memory of her father taking her to a pawnshop flooded her mind. He had held her hand, driving the car like a father should for once, not dancing back and forth on the dotted line. His usually blood shot eyes had been as bright and clear as crystal lakes that day. Inside the shop, he told her to buy anything she wanted. Anevay peered into the glass display cases. Her eye landed on a plastic Tweety Bird watch. “That one,” she had said, her stubby finger smearing the glass as she pointed. On the car ride home she unrolled the car window and stuck her hand out. She felt the current travel through her fingers spread like eagle’s wings, the yellow watch securely strapped around her wrist.   She had worn it every day afterward, pressing it close to her ear to hear the seconds tick by.

Anevay looked down to where the brown grass met the edge of the dirt road. It was the spot she had last seen him stumbling outside with his hands reaching up in the air as the nauseating motion of the car carried her away, dust intruding on her innocent eyes until he was nothing but dirt.

Anevay took out her lighter and played with it in a daze. The cigarette still dangled between her lips as she watched the blue flame rise and die by the flick of her thumb. She sat down and smoked, still playing with the lighter. The sun began to move inch by inch across her face, half of it darkened with shadow. The lighter fluid was running low.

She looked over her shoulder. On the dead lawn the ugly hunk of rotting metal mocked her. She imagined burning the trailer to the ground to make her mark, to say ‘fuck you’ to her father, dead but never gone. She imagined the soot and ash rising higher and so far away from her that not even the burnt smell of fire would remain on her clothes. She reached down and untied her shoes. The dead grass pricked her feet as she walked over to her truck, yanking out a spare container of gasoline. She unscrewed the cap as she walked over to the trailer. Walking along the edge of the trailer, she doused the bare, rusted exterior. She threw the empty plastic container across the lawn and reached into her back pocket. Flicking the lighter on, she stepped forward, her naked feet behind the line that divided her from her past and what was left of her. She extended her hand down to the gasoline like a thirsty dog. A surge of fire surrounded the trailer, climbing and eating its way up to the sky. Anevay jumped back and watched, the blaze heating her entire body. For the first time in her life Anevay felt the meaning of her name: superior. She never wanted to forget the feeling of her bare feet rooted on solid ground, but she had to go.

 

Anevay took a detour, pulling into a gas station to buy another lighter.

 

The door made a jingle sound as she entered. Rows of fatty foods and cheap-boxed dinners sat on the shelves. Making her way through an aisle to the front, she grabbed a bag of gummy bears and a lottery ticket and placed them on the counter.

“Feeling lucky today?” the teenager behind the counter asked, scanning the lottery ticket.

Anevay smiled faintly, not looking at his face. The nametag on the boy’s red vest read, “Sid.” The doorbell jingled again as a family walked in, laughing. A few miles away a fire truck siren echoed wildly in the distance.

“Oh and this,” Anevay said, quickly placing a lighter on the counter.

“I’m trying to quit,” Sid said, scanning the barcode. The cash register beeped.

“ Good for you.”

“Twelve dollars and sixty two cents. Oh, I forgot to ask. Did you find everything you’re looking for?” Sid asked.

“No,” she replied, handing him exact change, avoiding his confused stare as she walked out, the doorbell jingling loudly behind her.


Gabby Martin…

Gray Blob

Emily lay on her bed in underwear and a tank top, her body balanced precariously on the edge of the mattress and her hand suspended above the dusty wooden floor. The room was dark, and the floor was littered with clothes and trash.

Emily’s chest felt fragile—her skin like glass, her papier-mâché ribcage shaking with each breath. She turned her head to look at the calendar once more. The date had been circled with a fat red marker almost half a year ago with the words “Frank’s birthday!” written in the small box.

She reached for her phone, caught herself, and dropped her hand again. She rolled over and turned her face into her duvet. The excess material made it hard to breathe, giving her the impression of being caught in a place somewhere with horribly muggy weather.

Emily smiled at the idea of being somewhere else. Getting away from Boulder City. That sounded nice. Maybe she could go somewhere with a beach. She’d always loved the ocean. Emily pictured herself lying on the warm sand, waves caressing her skin and sunlight flooding her senses. What if she quit her job, packed her bags, and left? California was right next-door, and besides, she had had worse ideas. It was two hours to the Nevada-California state border. Long Beach was only eight hours away. She didn’t really care how long the drive was as long as she was on a beach by the end of it.

Emily’s phone buzzed on her nightstand, and her breathing stilled. Her chest suddenly felt full. She seemed a little more solid. Frank?

Her hand shot out so fast that she knocked her cellphone to the floor where it continued to buzz face down on the hardwood. When she picked it up the phone felt heavy in her hand. The rectangular shape didn’t fit comfortably in her palm like it used to.

The screen read, Missed Call: Mom, and her chest felt hollow again. Pressure built at the back of her eyes, and her head dropped onto the bed. The fabric bunched around her, shutting out the rest of the room. She pressed the material into her face, imagining it enveloping her and snuffing out her life.

The sound of curtains sliding along a metal rod alerted Emily to the light breaking through her darkness. She pushed herself off the bed and turned. The window was open, sunlight streaming in through the glass, caressing her skin.

“What the—” Emily slid off her bed and walked to her window. Her heart beat heavily against her ribs and her legs felt weak. She drew the curtains together again, making sure the fabric met in the middle.

Emily studied the pattered curtain, still grasped tightly in her hands. Had they caught on something? Had she opened them unknowingly? She backed away from the window, acutely aware of her small underdressed frame.

“I would appreciate it if you didn’t close those, thank you. It’s too dark in here. I can’t see.”

Emily screamed and turned around. Her room was still, darkness surrounding her.

She was aware of every breath that expanded and contracted her papery lungs, the sound many times louder than usual in her ears. Her eyes darted around the room, never settling on a single object for long. She moved to her bed and fell onto her mattress, legs shaking slightly.

She placed a hand against her forehead. “No, maybe I’m just sick.” She gave a small laugh. “Yeah, that’s it. I probably never even closed the blinds, I just thought I did.” Speaking her thoughts gave her some comfort but her heart fluttered weakly in her chest.

“Oh, you’re sick now? I wouldn’t be surprised. I passed by your kitchen on the way to your room and it’s a mess. You probably got food poisoning or something.”

Emily caught her breath and her blood hitched in its circulation. The room felt strangely silent, pressing into Emily’s skull and chest. Each breath felt grossly unsatisfying, as if she was breathing in tar.

“Frank?” She called, her voice dry and cracking. “Frank, if that’s you, it isn’t funny, damn it.” She tried to laugh but it came out sounding like a deflated balloon.

She inched towards her bedside table and wrapped her fingers around her lamp, slowly lifting it into the air. Although the lamp wasn’t overly heavy, her arm still shook under its weight.

“Frank?” She called again.

Her curtains flew open once more, and light fell upon a small figure at the base of the window. Standing at about three feet, the figure had two short legs, two short arms, a very little neck and an oblong head. It was gray and hairless, with no distinguishable facial features. In fact, it didn’t even have a face. Emily thought she was looking at the back of it until she realized it was probably looking up at her.

Emily’s scream was raw and sudden. It welled up from somewhere deep within her, starting as a whimper and escalating to a piercing screech.

“Oh my God!” Emily tried to throw the lamp but it caught on the outlet and fell short of the Gray Blob.

The Gray Blob scurried out of the way, holding up its short arms, its mitten-shaped hands held up in way of apology. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

Emily threw a pillow but it bounced off the window and onto the floor.

The Gray Blob ran forward. “Please stop throwing things! I can explain.”

Weapon, weapon, weapon, Emily thought, the words becoming a desperate chant in her mind. She groped around her and found a used fork on her side table. She lifted it above her head and clenched her jaw.

“Wait, stop!” The Gray Blob touched her knee and Emily gasped.

She was sitting on the edge of the bed, her feat dangling just above the clean hardwood floor. Light filled the room and soft jazz played from the speakers on the desk.

Frank danced into the room, jeans hanging low on his hips and a towel tossed over his head. He did the grapevine past her, snapping to the beat of the song. Emily’s chest filled with warmth watching him, and the warmth spread to her extremities.

Frank stopped at the desk and frowned. He pulled out the chair, looked under the desk, and stood up again.

“Honey, have you seen my shirt? I had it here before I went into the shower.”

“Oh, I thought you’d left it lying around so I put it away for you.”

Frank’s shoulders sagged and he sighed. “Of course you did. That’s what I get for taking up house with a neat freak.” He smiled at her. “Come here.” He placed his large hands on her knees to brace himself, his fingers spreading out over her legs like rays of sun, warming everything they touched. He leaned in.

Emily gasped and she was back in her room, the Gray Blob still touching her knee.

“What—” Emily’s words fell from her lips and her voice died in her throat. She looked around the room, half expecting to see Frank with the easy going smile still on his face. The vision had been so real, so vivid. She could still feel the warmth from Frank’s hands on her knees.

Her raised arm fell onto the bed, the fork clattering to the floor, and she began to knead the duvet with her fingers. She touched everything within her immediate range of motion making sure they were solid

The Gray Blob removed its hand from Emily’s knee and took a step back. “I’m sorry. That must have surprised you.”

Emily turned her head, her realm of consciousness expanding to include the little figure. “What are you?” The words barely left her mouth in a rush of air. After a beat of silence, in which the Gray Blob wrung its hands together, Emily spoke again, impatient for answers. “Where did you come from? How did you get in?” Her voice came a little stronger now.

The Gray Blob began to shuffle its shapeless feet. “I came in through the front door, I’m surprised you didn’t hear me. I came from you.”

“Me?” Emily grabbed her stomach.

The Gray Blob began shaking its head. “No, not like that. You’ve been steeped in your emotions for so long, brooding and remembering and re-remembering your past that you eventually created me. Unconsciously. I’m a compilation of all of your strongest memories and emotions.”

It took an incredible amount of effort for Emily to shake her head . “That doesn’t make any sense. How could I just create you?”

Gray Blob shrugged its shoulders. “I’ve sort of been copied and pasted into reality from your memories. For the past month I’ve been suspended between reality and consciousness. I didn’t become something solid until a moment ago when you,” Gray Blob left the sentence unfinished and Emily looked away, her hair swinging down to hide her face.

“Does this normally happen to people?” Emily pulled her knees into her chest.

“I don’t really know much beyond your realm of consciousness, so I wouldn’t know. But I don’t see why not, since it happened to me.”

Emily wrapped her arms around her legs. “What happened a moment ago, when you touched my knee?”

The Gray Blob looked—or Emily could only assume it looked, as it had no eyes—at its hand. “Probably a memory from your past. That’s what I’m made up of, after all.”

“A memory? About Frank?” Emily released her legs and sat up straight.

“Well, you haven’t been thinking of much else recently.”

“So, if I touch you here—”

“No, I wouldn’t do that if I were—“

Emily placed her hand on the Gray Blob’s arm and was thrust into another memory.

Frank was at the stove making dinner, humming to himself as he stirred the contents of the pan.

Emily walked up and leaned over the stove. “Smells good. If only you could make something other than stir fry.”

“Whatever. You love my stir fry.” He nudged her with his elbow. “Hey, Em, watch this.” He began to tilt the pan, sliding the meat away from him, a small smile tugging at his lips.

Emily grabbed his bicep. “Careful, master chef. If you flip it and the meat falls into the stove, it could cause a grease fire.”

Frank let out a sigh that carried something unspoken with it. “Okay, Mom. I’m not completely incapable.” When Emily loosened her grip on his arm, Frank turned to her and smiled softly. “I’m joking. Thanks, Em.”

Emily jolted and removed her hand from the Gray Blob’s arm. She wiggled her fingers, the feel of Frank’s bicep still etched into their tips. Why did that memory seem sadder than she remembered? Had Frank’s sigh always been so heavy? Was his tone always so short?

Emily extended her arm, “What other memories do you have?”

The Gray Blob took a big step back, stopping just outside of Emily’s reach. “You probably shouldn’t do that anymore.”

“What do you mean?” Emily felt something in her chest tighten. “They’re my memories. Who are you to keep them from me?”

“It’s not going to be healthy for you in the long run,” the Gray Blob said, wringing its hands again . “You’ve been re-playing these memories in your head for weeks and look where it has left you.” The Gray Blob motioned with its arm to the rest of the room.

“No, thinking about them and re-living them are different. If I can just re-live those memories one more time I can make sense of everything.” Emily stretched her hand forward once more, straining her fingertips to brush the Gray Blob.

But the Gray Blob took another large step back. “You’ll just get sucked deeper into this hole that you’ve dug yourself. Frank left you two months ago. I think it’s time for you to face the facts.”

The Gray Blob’s words resonated in Emily’s core. And she sat up straight, folding her hands into her lap and staring at her duvet.

The next morning Emily found herself across from the Gray Blob at her dining room table.

Emily scooped cereal into her mouth. “So what’s the deal with you. Are you, like a girl, a boy, both?”

The Gray Blob turned a page in the newspaper. “I’m not really certain myself.” Gray Blob shook its head. “Forest fires are getting pretty bad out in California.”

Emily spooned more cereal into her mouth. “Okay.”

“And you still wanna move there?” Gray Blob asked, turning a page.

Emily stirred her spoon in the bowl. “My cornflakes are soggy.”

“Hm?” Gray Blob lowered the newspaper.

“My cornflakes are soggy,” Emily repeated. “I can’t stand it when they’re like this.” She got up and dumped them in the sink, running the garbage disposal.

Gray Blob lifted the newspaper again. “You still could have eaten them you know.”

“No, I honestly can’t stand soggy cornflakes.”

“Then how can you stand to live in your apartment right now?” Gray Blob let the newspaper fall slightly.

Emily let her eyes travel over the mess that had accumulated over the past month. Her eyes picked out every piece of trash and speck of dirt.

Has it always been like this? She asked herself, turning in a circle. Emily’s hands itched to pick up the discarded wrapper on the floor next to her, but she knew that if she started cleaning now she would never stop.

“I think you should leave,” Gray Blob said.

Emily turned to it. “Leave? And go where? California?”

Gray Blob shrugged. “If that’s what you want.”

“It’s too expensive.”

“Good thing you have a lot of money in your savings account.”

Something in Emily’s chest constricted. Gray Blob made it sound so easy. “Where would I work?”

Gray Blob turned a page in the paper. “You have time to find a job.”

Emily crossed her arms, her fingers leaving red blotches on her skin. Gray Blob insisted it knew what was best for her, yet it made her problems seem trivial, like they were all in her head. Then again, Emily supposed most problems were in her head.

Gray Blob folded the paper and set it aside. “Look, Nevada isn’t the place for you anymore. You’re smothering yourself up here in this apartment. I It’s too full of Frank. You’re twenty-seven and still have plenty of life to live, but you’re acting like an old widow.”

Emily’s lips pressed together, a knot forming between her shoulder blades, and she turned to face her kitchen sink.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Gray Blob extend a hand. “I understand it’s hard. Four years is a long time to spend with someone, but you have so many more years. You can’t just waste them on this apartment.”

Emily rubbed the back of her neck, her nails digging into her skin. Her lungs felt constrained by something tight and heavy, making it hard to breath.

Gray Blob lowered its hand. “Sorry. I’m giving you a lot to think about. Here, we’ll start small. Let’s clean up the kitchen.”

Emily once again became aware of the mess surrounding her. “You call that a small step?”

“I’ll make a deal with you.” Gray Blob scooted its chair out. “I’ll help you with the kitchen, and when you finish I’ll let you see a memory.”

The muscles in Emily’s shoulders began to unclench. “You’d let me do that?”

Gray Blob sighed, “Yes, I don’t like it, but if it helps you clean this place up then I’m willing to compromise.” Gray Blob jumped from the chair and made its way into the kitchen.

“Wait,” Emily called after it. “Why are you doing this?”

Gray Blob turned to her. Emily stared at the smooth gray surface of its face, feeling like part of her was chipping away with each passing second. Gray Blob shrugged. “I’m also made up of you’re deepest wants and desires. In fact, I’m probably being pretty selfish right now.” Gray Blob didn’t say anymore, just motioned to the kitchen. “Now come on, we have work to do.”

The next few weeks Gray Blob helped Emily clean her apartment. As the piles of clothes and trash disappeared, fear began to settle in Emily’s core. The more she returned her apartment to its previous condition, the less she felt Frank’s presence.

Gray Blob did not follow through on its promise to let Emily re-live a memory. She was forced to remember on her own, relying on her own recounts, which she no longer trusted. Every time she found something that reminded her of Frank, she wondered if the memory and the emotions it held were real. She could not touch or feel them in that moment. She could only rely on what was already gone.

She began to try and catch Gray Blob off guard. If it was leaving a room or folding laundry, Emily would strain her arm and hope to brush it with a finger. Aware of her actions or not, the Gray Blob always avoided contact.

The day they finished cleaning her living room, Emily decided she couldn’t handle any more. Rain smacked against the windowpane as she and Gray Blob sat on the couch and watched television. Gray Blob flipped through channels, its blank face did not seem to register the images that passed on the screen.

“I want a memory,” Emily said.

“No, you don’t.” Gray Blob continued to punch the buttons on the remote.

“I want a memory,” Emily repeated, her voice strong.

“Trust me, you don’t.”

Emily pulled herself up off the side of the couch. “Who are you to say what I want and don’t want?”

The Gray Blob stopped channel-surfing and looked at Emily. “I’m just saying it won’t make things better.”

“Who says I want things to be better? I just want things to make sense.” The more Emily spoke the more each breath rattled her small frame and threatened to rip her seams.

“But they won’t make sense. Can’t you see that?” Gray Blob tossed the remote onto the table and turned to face Emily fully.

“I need to know the facts.” Emily’s breath came faster now, her heart fluttering feebly.

Gray Blob leapt to its feet so it was eye to eye with Emily. “You want the facts? Frank left because you were you. That’s it, end of story, done.”

Each raindrop that hit the window sounded like a gunshot. The water soaked Emily’s skin, leaving water-stained trails on her face. Something heavy settled in her stomach like a stone, a stone she knew would never fully go away.

Gray Blob sat back down and grabbed the remote. Emily remained still, trying to remember how to feel solid.

A month and a half later, Emily sat on the stoop of her apartment. The buds were just beginning to break on the trees, the sun’s rays caressing their soft green curves, nurturing their growth. A breeze floated past Emily, and she tugged her sweatshirt tighter around her.

“Are you still out here? We’ve put off packing long enough. We need to start today.”

Emily turned and saw Gray Blob in the doorway.

She placed her chin in her hand. “I was just thinking about something. What happens to you when I leave?”

Gray Blob hesitated on the threshold of the apartment building. It tapped its foot a few times and swung its arms. Finally, it stepped onto the stoop and sat down next to Emily.

“I’ve been thinking about that too, and I suppose I disappear.”

The wind blew past Emily a little more forcefully. “You—”

“Disappear, yes,” Gray Blob finished.

“Why?”

Gray Blob tapped its foot on the ground, its knee bouncing up and down. “Because I belong here, in this part of your life, just like the memories and feelings I am made of.”

“But, don’t people say this stuff stays with you forever?”          

Emily furrowed her brow.

“Yes, and in that sense I will stay with you forever. I’ll be in the memories you carry with you. But when you leave this apartment, when you leave Nevada, you will leave behind your baggage.”

Emily’s stomach twisted. “I don’t think I like thinking of you as baggage.”

“But in the end, that’s all I am.” Gray Blob’s knee stilled.

Something in Emily’s core twisted uncomfortably. “But it feels like you’re more than that. Sometimes it feels…I don’t know.” Her shoulders sagged and her limbs felt heavy suddenly.

An ice cream truck rolled slowly by her apartment complex. A group of children chased after it, their screams and laughter piercing the air. Emily flinched.

“I still don’t feel like I’m solid,” Emily confessed. She wasn’t sure why, but she needed Gray Blob to know.

“But of course you are. You always were.”

Gray Blob’s words didn’t completely comfort Emily, but she turned to it and said, “Thanks for sticking with me. I couldn’t have made some of these changes without you.”

Despite its featureless face, Emily could practically see Gray Blob smile. “Ah, but you could have. All this time you wanted to get on with your life, but you just were too scared to start.”

Emily put her chin on her knee. “So then you’re really just in my head.”

Gray Blob shrugged, its line of vision focused somewhere on the ground. “I’m as real as you believe me to be.”

Emily turned to rest her cheek on her knees. “I think you’re very real.”

“Good,” Gray Blob said, looking up at her. “I like that.” Gray Blob stood. “Now come on, you move out in a few months, and we haven’t started packing all your useless junk.” Gray Blob entered the building. Emily listened to the soft sound of its feet padding up the stairs.

She sat still, relishing a moment that would soon become a memory. She soaked up the sinking sun and the feeling of her fingertips brushing the concrete beneath her. The air smelled fresh with the promise of hope. This too, she thought, would become a memory. .

Emily promised not to forget this one. It seemed really important that she not forget it, though she couldn’t say why.

The breeze blew once more through the trees, and Emily stood and entered her apartment building after Gray Blob.

Outside, the buds on the trees unfolded in the afternoon light.

 


Kristin Manker has lived in the St. Louis area for most of her life. She attends Principia College, studying Creative Writing and Asian Studies with a focus in Japanese studies. Though not sure how yet, she hopes one day to aid others with her writing.

I Stack Things, I Tear Things Up

1.
By way of introduction I offer as my own an explanation of my artistic methods provided by a student attending a lecture I’d just given about my work. “So,” he paused before asking his question, “your art is tearing stuff up or stacking things?” I paused myself before replying, “well . . . basically . . . yes.” I tear stuff up; always paper, mostly pages. I stack things; mostly books, but sometimes more organic materials. On occasion I cut printed papers up and paste some pieces down. From time to time I stack things up (again, mostly books) in front of a camera and make photographs. In recent years I’ve sloshed paper pulp around in vats, lifted masses of it up in screens, deposited the wet sheets on tables and festooned them with strands of string or yarn before pressing and drying them. On other occasions I’ve painted on paper or pages (not, so far, on canvas). Before, during, and after all of this, I’ve made drawings, or else written words that sometimes can be read as art.

2.
I tear pages. I stack books. On given days these processes, or others that seem similarly inane in summary, occupy me in the studio. I assert that I am an excellent tearer of pages or stacker of books, but what then constitutes my virtuosity? Look at one of my altered books and you can see the torn edges of every sewn or perfect-bound sheet that formerly comprised its text block. My systematic excising of pages leaves a form whose organization in itself challenges the suggestion of random harm within the word, “tear,” commonly used to describe what I’ve done. As for my stacking, it’s the ordinary work of aggregation, whose oddness arises from what it is I’m building up with. Books in a row could be on anybody’s shelf, but books in a stack raise some interesting questions.

3.
As an art student I acquitted myself well enough in the sculpture, printmaking, and painting studios. I could do a very good job of drawing the elements of a still-life. I enjoyed sketching the figure or a landscape. Indeed, the first ten years of my exhibiting career consisted almost entirely of drawings, although of a more process-oriented kind. In a sense I became the artist I am now through an act intended as a negation. Let me explain: In 1972 I read about the work of Robert Ryman in an essay, by Robert Pincus-Witten, in the June issue of Artforum. Looking at the black and white reproductions of Ryman’s white paintings, my thoughts ran something like, “This is not art. This is just white paint. It’s not even white in these pictures. They’re white paintings that look gray in reproduction because halftone images can’t ever be completely white.” Irritated and fascinated, I decided that if a white painting was art, then a pencil drawing which was merely shades of gray was also art, and I set to work straightaway. This exercise in shading was easier said than done. Wherever my crosshatching overlapped, a darker band emerged in the graphite, and after many hours of working and reworking the paper, my field of gray was visibly traversed by many horizontal bands. It was beautiful, at least to me, and also a way to understand something of what Ryman was doing with that white paint.

4.
When you tear pages out of books, you accumulate a great many torn pages. Now and then I would make collages out of this material, at first by carefully cutting away the text on one or several pages, but saving the strips of the spaces between lines of type. Since I had cut the words out at what type designers call “x height,” the tops and bottoms of some letters were left behind. The bowl beneath a lowercase “g” made for an especially evocative graphic residue. Little fragments of letters, still almost readable, peppered my otherwise blank Page collages, and thinking of my cutting away process as a form of erasure led me to think about erasing images. The exemplary object for such erasure was the postcard. Souvenir par excellence, the postcard is writing for from one to another, and putting one into the mail validates both the experience of the place pictured on the front and the bonds of whatever nature joining the sender to the recipient. I make grids of old postcards, whose images I have partly or almost completely sanded away, into arrays of ghost images ─ windmills, bridges, castles, and flowers are among my assortments ─ over which I sometimes paint the silhouettes of stacked books.

5.
In 1999 I was invited to spend a free day in the studio with a Polaroid 20 x 24 camera. One of the small number of these special large-format cameras was then on loan to Columbia College Chicago’s photography program, and invitations were being made to artists unfamiliar with the machine and its capabilities. I’d previously used film cameras mainly to document my work, but was familiar with the exceptional physical and chemical attributes of large format Polaroids from seeing the 1979 installation, at the David and Alfred Smart Gallery (now Museum), of a life-sized Polaroid photographic reproduction of Raphael’s The Transfiguration of Christ, from the original oil on wood painting in the Vatican Museum. I decided to make my own version of a transfiguration by photographing all of the books in my library by or about Dieter Roth, whose extraordinary work with artists’ books had greatly influenced my thinking about the book as art. I loaded a cardboard box of Roth books into my car and drove to Chicago. Once in the studio I realized that the accidental arrangement of the books in that carton was at least as visually appropriate to the image I had in mind as any of the sketches I’d made, so the finished work includes that box, upended and still filled with books, plus a few more stacked on top or leaning against its sides. All of the books are placed with spines turned away from the camera. The titles are unreadable, but slightly open pages can be seen here and there.

6.
“So how might things proceed from here; how to stall a sentence so that it lingers over a nothing-in-particular in order to make the duration of its reading stand in for a silence of some sort.”

This sentence, writ large, is the text of Sentence, a pencil drawing of mine from 2003. Here’s another, from an ink wash drawing, Life Sentence, I made the same year:

“A BRIEF MORNING – THOSE SCREAMS OF RAGE OR JOY – THEN THE LONG BECOMING OF BODY
AND SELF– CONSCIOUSNESS OF POWER AND REGRET IN THE WANING DAY– BREATHE IN AND OUT.”

7.
Another invitation, in 2002, brought me to papermaking. In January of that year I was invited by the College Art Association to contribute an editioned work to their ongoing series of commissioned artists’ prints, benefitting CAA’s Professional Development Fellowship Program. The edition was to be produced at the Rutgers Center for Innovative Print and Paper (now the Brodsky Center for Innovative Editions) in the Mason Gross School of Art on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Most of my work as an artist has been on, or of, paper, yet I’d never made paper until my visit to the Brodsky Center. My initial impression of the paper studio was of rank, fecund aromas. Anne Q. McKeown, a master papermaker with the MFA from Yale, presided over this area. My first thought was of making a little book with handmade paper pages, but I was enthralled by a small paper piece Anne had made to show me, consisting of strips of abaca fiber and linen over cotton, in which lengths of string had been embedded. Pulling the strings out created torn edges in the paper strips that resembled the torn pages in my altered books. I tugged at one string and then another, enjoying the process but not especially liking the look of the tears. It wasn’t until that evening, over dinner at an Ethiopian restaurant, that it occurred to me to use lengths of string to form words in script. But what was there to say? I thought about recycling the last sentence from some writing of mine, “only the text is total,” but that line, which so neatly closed my essay, seemed pretentious by itself. I dropped the vernacular “as if” into the dinner conversation at some point and immediately realized I’d found my phrase: “as” to be torn out from the sheet; “if” to remain as a string capable of being pulled. The next day Anne and I quickly worked out a procedure for making the edition: first a layer of black cotton, then white string spelling out “as,” in cursive, then a layer of overbeaten abaca, then a red string cursive “if” (except for the dot over “i,” made from pigmented overbeaten linen), and a topmost layer of white overbeaten hemp. I let the ends of the strings emerge from the left margin of the sheet. Once the proofs had dried, I tore the white string away, revealing the sheet’s black interior. The red string remained, dangling from the side of the work, inviting viewers to give it a little tug.

8.
Much of my art consists in removal (all those torn pages), occlusion (all the books inside those stacks), or excision (the rest of the images in those collages of photographic details). What I’ve taken away from view could be seen as metaphors of forgetfulness, but I am more interested in acts of taking away that are also transmogrifications of the object. I remove such stuff as could make visible the remainder as armature of a different value.

This essay first appeared in the exhibition catalog for Buzz Spector: Shelf Life: Selected Work at Bruno David Gallery in St. Louis, MO in 2010.

Buzz Spector Bio
Buzz Spector Interview
Buzz Spector Artwork

Who Will Perform the Rites

It has only been three nights since I decided that you didn’t love me                                              
   enough. Tonight, trenched in silent anger we feign sleep in some alternate universe,
      some parallel hell where we stare dead-eyed at the same ceiling, the same
   eggshell white. Laid to rest in separate rooms, I swelter under winter blankets 

left on the bed too long; it is April now. You shift on three inches of air,
   which slowly leaks from the blue inflatable mattress in the living room. Odd
      that you chose that room as your campsite, since what we’ve been doing
   can hardly be called living. I’ve felt bound up in my own body, like those Egyptians

whose souls still managed to slip out of yards and yards of cloth. They packed
   their tombs with amulets, statues of gods, took every gilded thing 
      into the afterlife; once you're gone, this small apartment will become 
   an exhibit of our love. I will have an empty bed, not grand, but engraved 

with the unyielding shape of your body. I will have the gaping closet which held 
   your shirts, a shadowy mouth shouting now what? I will have pictures 
      of us, which I will peel from the frames I picked so carefully; I matched 
   the fake-gilded scroll work to the gold sweater I wore, the dark faux-wood 

to your dense hair. I will remove the pictures, and in the hollow frames I will place 
   my organs for safekeeping, ceremony: intestines, bittered with the dinners 
      I will eat alone. The stomach in the blue acrylic frame will hang grey against 
   the pop of color, riddled with ulcers. The fear that you may never want children 

left my tenderer parts in disrepair. The lungs have shrunk, wasted with the cutting breaths 
   of wails, the shallow panting of questions unanswerable. I will put those 
      in the small oval frame we purchased from a run-down highway thrift-shop, 
   now a memento mori, an anatomy-theatre attraction. In the darkest frame, 

my liver, my poor seat of passion, my other heart which I now drown in elixirs, 
   wrap in linen, sprinkle with perfume. How odd that once they thought 
      it was a place of humors; I would rather have it on the wall where it cannot pump 
   its heat into my blood. I wish to sleep the sleep of the embalmed. 

Originally from St. Louis, MO, Amanda Williams is currently in her first year of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Hollins University in Roanoke, VA. She received BA degrees in English Literature and Theatre at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, IL and spent a year studying Early Modern literature abroad at the University of Oxford.

Artwork

Buzz Spector Interview

MH: You work through multiple media–drawing, painting, the sculptural construction of books and pages, collage, and sometimes end your process with photography. For example, your piece My Fiction begins with a sculptural process and ends in a photographic one. How does the procession of media filter the ideas you wish to convey? Does this metamorphosis alter concepts or suggest their malleability?

BS: Most art today applies more than single mediums to the task of its making. This is more a question about the role of photography as one of the mediums I use. I’m interested in the way photography replaces the object with its image; in how reading the photograph—both for its mise en scène and as a thing in itself—makes a space for us to associate what we know of the books whose titles we can read with what we remember of our own experience of reading some of them. In My Fiction, the fact of my ownership of those books is unconfirmed by the composite image. Neither, of course, is my having read any of them. All that’s certain there is that I stacked the books. Unlike the actual structure, however, the focal plane of the photographs makes books further back into blurs. I’ve exhibited My Fiction several times over the years and on each occasion the conversations among viewers about the books they see in the work and their own histories of reading comes up against the indecipherability of those stacked books receding into the distance, a distancing into space as well as time.

MH: In works like Red C/Red Sea, your acrylic painting of a boat is coupled with a more conceptual presentation of the scattered or stacked post cards. How does painting, with its conventional implications of “originality” and “creativity,” converse with the “cheap and easy” images in postcards?

BS: To be specific, the framed pair of postcards in Red C/Red Sea is one component of a work whose other portion is a stack of printed postcards of the same passenger ship on blue and red water. The cards in the frame are identical vintage postcards. I carefully painted the ocean red on one of those cards, while the other is unaltered, except for an “X,” applied by a previous sender of the card, indicating where her stateroom was located on the cruise she’d taken in that liner. The several thousand postcards I had printed to make this work are both from photographs of the first card— the one without the “X”—before I painted on it. The “red sea” in half of the printed cards was made by switching around the cyan, magenta, and yellow plate assignments of the four color offset press run. The red cards, then, are as “original” as the vintage card I painted because they are not reproducing the appearance of their photographic subject. Instead, they convey the consequence of my intervening in the conventional method of their printing.

MH: In many of your exhibits you display books in unconventional ways, either as scattered parts of a conceptual piece, as in Malevich (with Eight Red Rectangles), or as sculptures, as in Toward a Theory of Universal Causality. Could you speak to your fascination with books, both their content and their physicality?

BS: I had the eight oversize books built for use in my Malevich installation. Actually there are four sets of books, two of which are now in institutional collections while the other two sets are stored in my studio. The Malevich books need to be seen in conjunction with the wall element, whose apertures are in the same spatial configuration as in the 1915 Malevich painting to which my title refers. What’s “wrong” about the situation is that the equal depths of the apertures won’t accommodate any of the books on the floor, each of which contains a different number of blank pages and, hence, a different depth.

My book stacks are, in sum, a commentary on the lives of books in libraries; on their connection to ideas of archives, vaults, or institutional memory as something distinct from individual recollection. Alberto Manguel refers to the spatial aspect of this in his majestic book, The Library at Night, “. . . when the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but the space of books remains in existence.” I usually stack my books on the floor rather than the shelf. Books on floors are unusable for browsing purposes, since only the outermost titles can be read. I have a further ambition to “randomize” all the books of a library—a private one, of course—to demonstrate how little effect on browsing such reconfiguration would have when the volumes are still shelved.

MH: You mention in an interview with James Hyde of the Journal of Contemporary Art that your work is meant to be understood “in terms of the excavation or displacement of its objects from their situations.” Could you give an example of a work that operates in this way and then speak to the concepts that result from this displacement?

BS: At the time of that conversation, I thought of my book altering as excavations and my book stacking as displacements. The displacing aspect of my stacks is apparent, but I’ve come to think of my page tearing as more a graphic exercise than a sculptural operation. A former student of mine, Ted Lowitz, once told me my procedures turned books into more of themselves, and I’ve stayed happy with the idea that my excising of successive leaves of a book could supplement the symbolism of the resulting artifact to such an extent that my lessening made for more meaning in what’s left.  

MH: In your 1993 interview with David Pagel, for BOMB: Artists in Conversation, you said that you believed that people often take reading more seriously than they do in viewing a piece of art, because of the shorter amount of time one can spend looking at a piece of art in comparison to reading a book—regardless of its quality. Do you use the forms of books to lampoon the glibness of looking? Or, do you use the forms of books to lampoon the pompousness of reading as a serious pastime? If so, how does this parody operate?

BS: I don’t think of my work with books as being parodic. The differences in attention span I point out aren’t a means of discrediting books or artworks themselves but rather a way of drawing attention to armatures of absorption we apply to reading much more so than for gazing at art. As I’ve said in another context, “We dress up and go out to look at art. Undressed, in bed, we read.” Pierre Bayard points this out in his How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, “When we talk about books . . . we are talking about our approximate recollections of books . . .” and he goes on to note, “What we take to be the books we have read is . . . an anomalous accumulation of fragments of texts, reworked by our imagination and unrelated to the books of others, even if these [other] books are materially identical to ones we have held in our hands.” 

MH: Why do you think spending time with art is so difficult for many people? And, do you think reading is taken as seriously in a visual culture as it used to be prior to the internet and digital/media culture?

BS: This arises from the same assumption as in the previous question, that conditions of viewing art are neutral so what’s “difficult” must be something within the objects. I sometimes ask audiences at my public lectures to tell me the longest interval of time they have spent looking at an individual artwork. It’s a trick question of a sort, coming as it does after my having projected images of my art in installation views or studio set-ups. A typical response would be in the range of five-ten minutes because the assumption is being made that art is something you see in a gallery or museum. So far, nobody responding to my question has included time spent with artworks on their own walls, tables, or floors. When domestic space—that space where most reading takes place—is considered, the differences in timespan between reading and scanning are obviously mitigated.

MH: Do you try to make your work accessible to those who take reading seriously or to those who take looking seriously?

BS: I think accessibility in my work is more a matter of its material and procedural affects than the self-identification of my viewers in relation either to reading or looking.

MH: Books might be called physical containers for ideas. The way you make art, you appear to use the containers to create another container (the artwork) for new idea. Does this layering of container and concept parallel the simple idea of books as layers of text and subtext—as a hidden place that must be mined or explored?

BS: The books I’ve altered haven’t stopped being books. They are as present and available for handling as any other books, except when the institution owning them prevents one from touching. The physicality you refer to is of embodiment beyond shelf life, so to speak. When I touch my beloved, the expression of care is directed toward the inner life of a mind but the application is of hand to skin. Looking and holding are simultaneous in reading print books, but also in e-readers. Even reading from a desktop screen requires a mouse or keyboard at hand, so some vestige of touching continues to accompany most situations of reading today.

MH: We have to ask, where do you get all your books? Are you a fanatic reader? Do you keep every book you acquire?

BS: My library is being acquired volume by volume. The books I use for installation purposes are borrowed from local sources. At first I kept a material inventory of some 2,000 books in my studio, but I learned over time that public library systems and used bookstores have thousands of discarded books they’re very willing to give away for my purposes. I no longer transport any books-as-material to the site of an installation project. There are always plenty of books nearby. I’m really less of a reader now than in years past, in part because I can make use of my history of reading in developing the lecture or discussion courses that comprise at least part of my teaching. My love of fiction and poetry continues unabated, but I more frequently check such books out from the library, buying a copy after one reading if I am particularly moved, or else if the book I’m curious about isn’t yet available in my university or community library. I do not keep every book I acquire, and am now thinking about dispersing parts of my library as gifts to special collections libraries or, in the case of certain older rare books, to auction where selling them covers my studio rent. I will never sell a book inscribed to me.

MH: Tearing, cutting, stacking, pasting, arranging and rearranging, inhabiting: all are physical and perhaps spontaneous activities. What is the place of physical action in your work?

BS: We’re all acting physically as artists. Even when our art is about ideas someone has to apply the letterforms to the wall. I believe in thinking with my hands as well as my head.

MH: How much planning vs. improvisation happens in your work?

BS: Every artist has a plan; otherwise it’s impossible to even start. But the negotiation with one’s materials is where one makes a better or lesser work of art. This is the substance of teaching art; helping students to see the difference between their intentions and what they’ve made.

MH: You sometimes depict yourself within or surrounded by arrangements of your books (and your books sometimes seem to be a stand in for yourself). Can you talk about “inhabiting” an idea and a world of ideas?

BS: As long as I’ve been constructing book stacks, now more than thirty years, I’ve been aware of the place I occupy in relation to my books. That is, within them.

MH: The Soap Bubble Set section of Mistake House is partly where we wish to connect the student with the professional. Naturally, we have some questions of interest to student artists and writers:

Was there a moment where you felt like your work started to move from the student state to that of the professional?

BS: I can almost pinpoint the date in April 1972. I’d been working on a graphite drawing at home as part of my participation in an advanced drawing studio. It took many hours to complete it according to the protocol I had set for myself. When I brought the drawing to class my instructor immediately asked me if I was interested in trading for it. My confidence in the work I’d made was confirmed by that request. I said “no” to the trade, by the way, and I still have that drawing.

MH: You’re a busy man—juggling teaching at Washington University in St. Louis with critical writing and ongoing art projects in multiple media. What advice do you have for the busy about how to maintain a work ethic and a creative practice?

BS: Everybody’s busy yet some people get more done in whatever sectioned-off interval of time, than others. Students are all familiar with the imposed deadlines of semester’s end and often, after graduating, they think they’ll begin treating their studio work as a continuum rather than episodes of one semester in length. This is a mistaken idea that can lead to, in my case, staying home on a New Year’s Eve in order to finish a drawing that I could sign and date for the year I graduated so as to say I’d finished at least one artwork in the six months since I’d left school. No, the best way to get stuff done is to keep your calendar going. Mark off studio times for each week or month, and when things come up, remember to block in “replacement” time later.

MH: How do you feel about your earlier works when you compare them to your current works?

BS: What I can say about my concern with this issue is that it has kept my standards high in judging whether any just-completed work of mine has succeeded or failed before I let that work go out to the world.

MH: What do you value most deeply as a teacher?

BS: Teaching artists teach by demeanor as well as demonstration, and assessment of particular studio pedagogy is as much a matter of students recognizing attentiveness on the part of their instructor as it is the learning of art techniques. It is a general characteristic of great teaching that heartfelt enthusiasm for the subject and those who study it is joined to thorough knowledge of the field. There’s more to it, though, when studio art is the subject. It is at best a minor pedagogical virtue to teach the making of art in such a manner that the work of one’s students mimics one’s own. I think about how the traces of the attention paid by a dedicated teacher can subsequently flourish in students’ own work, helping them to see what they’ve made outside of the shadows they themselves cast by their ambitions, their anxieties, or their ideological bent.

MH: Do you ever play hooky (we hope you do)? And, if you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a derive?

BS: How long is “playing hooky”? I take a few minutes off every morning I sip my coffee and work the New York Times Crossword puzzle. It used to be said of me, by people I love, that I don’t know how to take vacations. For this question I will propose that a vacation must be the long form of playing hooky. That criticism was true enough when I was still employed in academic administration, but nowadays I am happily (all) there when I am ensconced with family and friends in a cottage by a lake in the Adirondacks, especially when the annual Friends of the Schroon Lake Library summer book sale takes place.

Buzz Spector Bio
Buzz Spector Artwork
Buzz Spector Essay

Poetry

WOOD SONG

I remember the world in spring —
those few weeks when the blooming trees
let go their pollen for the breeze
with unexpected force to swing
sky-high, multitudes milling round
at different speeds of draught and drift
so many metres from the ground —
a festival, a stunning airlift.
Maple, walnut, beech,
alder, plane and ash.They say the world will end (again).
A few weeks till the dead of winter
when we’ll be iced or burned to cinder.
What do I know? Women and men
tell kids it’s certain that the trees
will change to green again in spring.
Outside the roots and branches freeze
while the burning logs whistle and sing —
maple, walnut, beech
and all the rest now ash.

 

LOST CHILD

They call and call around the neighbourhood,
but still the child won’t come. He’s here somewhere,
he must be here somewhere among the bushes.
He’s found the only crawl-space in the briars,
a secret chamber cut off from the world
surrounded by the canes hooped like barbed wire,
as well as burdocks’ large deflecting leaves
that nod indeed, indeed, there’s no-one here.
The stalks incline to hint that over there,
not here, the parents might have better luck
than hacking their way through this messy tangle.
Indeed they don’t. Perhaps, they start to think,
he’s wandered from his stretch of asphalt road
in curious pursuit of colours flecked
and stippled through the plumage of a jay,
that flits through foliage in fear of him,
as though the child could sprout wings and fly up
to snatch this bird out of its native realm.
But really what this jay-bird thinks is nothing
to what begins to run through their two minds.
It’s also possible that he has found
a new friend in the tall apartment building —
behind one of its concrete panels, he
is trying on new masks, playing hide and seek.
If they stand looking at the hundred windows
for long enough they might just catch a glimpse
of their child in a skeleton costume,
or Batman, not reflections of the sky.
The world is suddenly large and intricate,
a labyrinth with slots of awful darkness
in its design, trap-doors and oubliettes,
that only hours ago had flattered them
into believing that it was transparent,
that it was mastered pole to pole, and that
a child could wander safely round these parts.
Now everything gets in the way — the roads,
the walls, the glass, the glare from off the cars.
Even the blue sky’s in on the deception
in ways they can’t explain but only feel,
as if the earth’s face is shoved up to them
to block their sight or usher them to where
their child is once again not to be found.
Whatever path the boy now walks along
seems further shadowed by the early dead
whose stories hang around the neighbourhood.
There was the man who one night flung a rope
around the strong branch of a linden tree
and swung from it until they cut him down
at daybreak. Then there was another who
fell off a rock face in Tibet or Nepal
and left his parents decades to outlive him.
And then the man who tends the common land
about the buildings — his son in his teens
was taken in a way I’ve yet to hear.
When or if the child comes round a corner
at last (most times they do, sometimes they don’t)
and has a tale that could be even true,
the neighbourhood is once again transformed —
the early dead return to background colour,
the details blurring in the foliage
(Tibet or somewhere else?); the surfaces,
textures, volumes that constitute the street
move back and now are passable once more.
The briars unhook themselves, the windows open
to show the dark interiors of rooms,
the birds are merely soft noise in the trees.
The world releases itself back, a road
that’s wide and brings you anywhere you like.
Which is yet more deception. I am the child
or panicked father standing in the road.
I am the neighbour watching from a window
wondering if I should go down to help.
Events will turn and make me with their will.
I might become the man who works the land
in common, whose eyes look upon the earth
most steadily of all these different people,
and still he works, at one with happenstance.
Each year he takes the strimmer from the garage
to mow the spears of grass and outsize weeds
that shoot up by the paths and on the waste ground
(that isn’t waste ground but remaining plots
of orchard and of vineyard stranded here
amidst the villas and apartment buildings
that sprang up over the last century),
then rakes and gathers all the green that falls.
He neatly stands his three beers in the shade,
spits on his aging hands and goes at it.
Some days I wish he had a bigger scythe
to take down every standing block of concrete
and give us farms and woodland once again.
Some days I wish he’d leave the wild worts grow
and let them take dominion everywhere.
And every day I greet him with good will
which he returns then gets back to the job.

 

ON KRIŠTOF KINTERA’S INSTALLATION UNDER NUSLE BRIDGE, PRAGUE
beginning with a line by Jan Neruda

The earth’s a child and doesn’t think
to draw the people in so fast
that they’re transformed to pools of blood and cartilage
at the very last.

For instance when they climb the railing
held up four hundred metres high
above the parks, the buildings and the roads,
and step into the sky

the earth wants them so much it says,
‘Now come to me.’ It’s had enough
of barriers keeping them apart.
Who could resist such love?

And so they come down in their hundreds,
these ones who wanted quickly out,
so tired of leaving things to fortune — some
in silence, some with a shout —

as streetlamps twist their necks to look
up at the heights and finish gazing
down on a human heap against the earth,
whose love still proves amazing.

 

CONVERSATION GALANTE

She says the dead come back for a mere flake, fleck
or fume of favourite food. A fragrant air
we hardly know is more than they can bear.
For them the speed of our bored talk is breakneck.

She says when we lean in to catch the scent
that rain showers summon from the April earth
dead millions groove themselves into the berth
of our one sense. They are engulfed, content.

He says let them do what they want, these dumb
sad hordes of shades. Do you think that they’ll come
the moment I push back the floral hem

of the summer dress you look so lovely in,
and lift it off, leaving you just a grin?
What do you reckon that will do to them?

 

EMBASSY DINNER

A square of twilit lawn seen through French doors.
Summer evening. Aperitifs. A roast.
The affable minister murmurs to the host.
Breezes glide across the parquet floors.

The waiters move in silence. Now the wives
draw dutifully together for a talk
of family and schools, and watch the clock.
Two years to go till our first child arrives.

We live five floors up in a block of flats
across the city. Half a mile of muck
to walk through from the Metro. Like diplomats,

we say, ‘No, after you,’ and fall in bed,
still laughing, stripping off to fuck.
Nothing of those hours has touched us yet.

 

TO-DO LIST

It’s like some awful joke:
my young son in my arms
before he goes to bed,
pressed close, not dead,
a tiny bloke
with bones his blood still warms.

He’s full of chat, age six,
of schoolyard push-and-shove
and big plans for next day.
I might as well say
a sack of sticks
has taken all my love.

His bones, in time and times,
like mine will fall apart.
OK. First job to do
tomorrow: go through
the ancient rhymes
for words like love and heart.

 

SALUTATION

If you’re fine gazing through the sea
— mid-ocean, in a mid-sized boat —
at the giant shadows that agree
to keep you for a while afloat,

then go on, look into the ground
that shoulders your whole house’s weight —
the chalk and dirt packed pound for pound,
the limestone strata, and the slate,

in mile-long waves that kindly crest
to this spot underneath your feet.
(They’ll take you with them as their guest
when they move on from your smart street.)

That’s why your neighbour, his old clay
still quick enough, like a ship’s boy
comes whistling shanties. Every day
for fun he hails you with, ‘Ahoy!’

Buzz Spector Bio

Buzz at Z-L opening_2010

Buzz Spector was born in Chicago and was educated at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and then the University of Chicago, where he received the master of fine arts from the Committee of Art and Design. Internationally recognized as an artist and critic, his work has been exhibited in museums throughout the United States and Europe, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), Mattress Factory Art Museum (Pittsburgh), and the Luigi Pecci Center for Contemporary Art (Prato, Italy). Spector is also a highly accomplished teacher who received the College Art Association’s Distinguished Teaching of Art Award in 2013. Having taught previously at Cornell University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he is currently Professor of Art at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis.

The subject matter of Buzz Spector’s art typically involves an exploration of the idea of the book, the text, and the individual experience of perception through wide-ranging media including sculpture, photography, the artists’ book, printmaking, and installation. In 2012 Sara Ranchouse Publishing issued Buzzwords, a collection of new page art and interviews with Spector spanning thirty years of his work and ideas.

Buzz Spector Interview
Buzz Spector Artwork
Buzz Spector Essay

How to Keep

“You can’t touch them,”
my babysitter warned
about the bunnies burrowed
in a hole at the corner
of our front lawn.
I’d see puffs of fuzz float
from their home and land
soft in the grass as I drew with chalk
on the driveway.
I’d peer in at the tight-eyed lumps,
barely furry hides heaped
on top of one another.
“You can’t because the mother will smell you
and won’t come back to teach them hopping.”
I listened
but thought Babies, don’t go.
So I reached my hand inside to feel
the puddle of wriggling
smooth skins.
The next morning
half a rabbit hind
lined the walkway to my house.


Alice Stanley holds a BA in English from Principia College and an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Arizona State University. Her recent play Truth Wars won Chicago Dramatist’s New Play Bake-Off at The Goodman. She currently lives in Chicago performing as an ensemble member with The Second City and Music Comedy Live theatres.

Daily Routine

Walking awhile at night
Each house got personal.
-Jon Anderson

Then impersonal again, in the old style of repetition.
All the houses with their minor domestic differences.
It seemed dishonest somehow to find comfort in them,                                                                                                                                            those gestures: the manicured lawns                                                                                                                                                           with expensive sprinkler systems, the garbage bins
pulled to the curb for Tuesday pick up, the recycling.

Still, I admit, I did find comfort in them, & was troubled
by that. I’d go to coffee shops & talk like a philosopher
regarding death & sex. At home I’d hunch over poems
as though they were important, but then I’d sleep to the hum
of the television. Wasn’t it all…?

I wanted to live without distraction. I became
obsessed with the little deaths of daily routine. I was made
to speak grandly of the mundane things.


J.S. Belote earned his BA in English from Principia College and is an MFA candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The Simple Life

Paris & Nicole have perfect manicures
and they are milking cows. They look so good.
Nails hard as a spell of hail.

Doctors recommend daily usage of SPF 40,
at least, 60 for extra protection—if things get too bright.

Like contemplating a rhinestone. Nicole’s
all like oh my god, it’s too hot outside.
Palm tree decals almost melting & Paris concurs.

Then udder hanging with a cipher’s weight,
the milk spilling; the girls tan against the grass looking good.

Agreement: the easiest kind of knowledge.
We’re always saying a lot of things we don’t mean
to each other. The book fell open on its broken

spine and it said flos for flower, sol for sunlight.
But meant everything. Paris suffered, sighed.


Rebecca Beauchamp is an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. She will be studying at the Ashbery Home School in New York this summer.

Become a Color

                in the golden light of dawn rising 
                                 walk the woods and become a color

                strip the sinews off your body                 breathe each molecule bare as
                                 the violet breath in your lungs blooms purple algae

robin-egg haze grazes the tips of grass              a blue sun rises in pulses of silver 
                                 while your muscles blend in bass tones of shadow

                let skin explore the icy burn of                snow melt in the brook

     let tendril vines take your vertebrae in         hand cradle capillaries and sink 
                                                                                                      into your soft palate

                wild roots need an anchor body             to become a color

Cameron Price is a poet living in Ann Arbor, MI with his partner. His experimental video poems and text-based poetry have appeared in Small Po[r]tions, Humble Pie, Sixfold, Mount Island Magazine, Written River, The Destroyer, the 6th Cairo Video Festival, and is forthcoming in DIAGRAM. He graduated from Goddard College in May 2015.

A Late Night Thought

What a dangerous thing a late night thought can be. A late night thought can torment like a leaky faucet, dripping endlessly. Our eyes widen to reality as it slips slowly away from us—our dreams slowly become the newer, richer world. It is stripped and stretched and mangled, the once calm thought. Thinking of an almost. All those almosts, so close. Spread out like a cadaver, the original intention dies, and taking its place comes a mangled Frankenstein idea. That Frankenstein thought, unlike the original, is misunderstood—fearful of a fire like truth. But what is the human mind but a warehouse of incomplete thoughts put together by some monkey while the big boys upstairs smoke their cigars and laugh about their success? We are slaves to the late night thought. Do you not believe me? If not, then you’ve never had your enchanted life bursted by love–or so we call it. A late night thought is like an itch, that, no matter how hard you scratch, will always be an incessant step mother to that infinitely small point on the back of your head, nagging at your closing eyes. Your eyes slowly become pebbles drifting to the bottom of a river—vision distorted, along with your thoughts. A cloud drifts by in the night sky and you believe it was sent to rain on you, but maybe you aren’t the only one that cloud is there for. As if there is a center to anything but ego. Shall we move away from this cardboard “big” picture and climb back into a smaller, more concrete understanding? I know we could, but the late night thought is stubborn; it won’t face facts; it just drowns it itself in a pool of imagination. In a weird way, that’s what makes us human: a late night thought strips away logic and replaces it with a stain glass sphere of emotions. It is the true nakedness of a sleepy driven drunken human spirit. No other being can feel the way we do with a late night thought. Let us at least admire for a moment the idea that our complexly trivial emotions are Gods, immortal in lieu of the bane harsh reality we view…So what do we do with a late night thought: let it run rampant through the streets, or silence it before it gets too cocky? Like a crackling fire, we must be careful with a late night thought: let it grow too fast and it will burn everything, but if left unfed, then there will be no splendor to keep you warm. The answer, I suppose, is lodged somewhere in our hearts between each gushingly boisterous beat: Buh boom, buh boom, buh boom.Late night thought, I envy and hate you; I admire and scorn you. I wish my mind could control you. But for now, I’ll let you wander about my mind and my heart….Buh Boom, Buh boom… buh…boom….


Colin Aslay is originally from Southern California and currently attends the University of North Texas. This is the first appearance of his poetry outside of social media.

There’s No Place Like

I’ve seen a hermit
crab make a can of Sprite home,
and she seemed happy.


Alice Stanley holds a BA in English from Principia College and an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Arizona State University. Her recent play Truth Wars won Chicago Dramatist’s New Play Bake-Off at The Goodman. She currently lives in Chicago performing as an ensemble member with The Second City and Music Comedy Live theatres.

Karyn with a Y

Oh my God, remember that roll of nothing
but the crew pretending to be
more buzzed than we were
from jello shots? No one ever saw those. It was before Facebook.
Aw. I miss that.
And then the next year we were seniors, and we all had
MySpace, and the morning after
prom there were, like, 200 pictures tagged of me
and Greg Poccono. Aw.
It made me miss prom.
And, like, sometimes I just click back a few pages.
My first night of college. Aw. Look
at those little rooms we shared.
Aw. Look
at the caps, gowns, lipstick.
Aw. That shitstain Jenny who was my best friend
at Applebees
before she got obsessed with going
to Zumba every day.
I miss her.
This morning I had time to snag
a white mocha Frap. It was so yummy, and now I miss it!
Work was basic, but me
and Kayla snuck into the storage closet and ate half a gallon of tortilla chips,
and, like,
I miss that.
This screen used to be blank,
and I miss that. Aw.
That last line was deep.
I miss writing it. Aw.
I’m nostalgic for the period
at the end of “Aw.” Aw.


Alice Stanley holds a BA in English from Principia College and an MFA in Dramatic Writing from Arizona State University. Her recent play Truth Wars won Chicago Dramatist’s New Play Bake-Off at The Goodman. She currently lives in Chicago performing as an ensemble member with The Second City and Music Comedy Live theatres.

Justin Quinn Bio

quinn7

Justin Quinn was born in Dublin in 1968 and received a BA and PhD at Trinity College Dublin. He co-founded the Irish poetry magazine Metre, which ran for seventeen issues from 1995 until 2005. Quinn currently resides in a Soviet-era housing project on the outskirts of Prague in the Czech Republic. He lectures at Charles University in Prague and the Department of English, Pedagogical Faculty of the University of West Bohemia. He has translated extensive works by Czech poets Petr Borkovec and Ivan Blatný and is currently translating the work of Bohemian poet Bohuslav Reynek. 

Quinn’s poetry has appeared in the Yale Review, TLS, Poetry Review, Irish Times, New Yorker, Poetry Ireland Review, Souvislosti, The Literateur, Body and the Irish Review among others. He has published six poetry collections, and a monograph entitled Between Two Fires: Transnationalism and Cold War Poetry will be published by Oxford University Press in September 2015.

Justin Quinn Poetry

Solitary

I.

John’s brother Colin went to jail when he was twenty-three.

Colin stole cars and used them to pick up kilos of cocaine from the docks at the edge of town, then drove in to the city to sell. He later told John he would leave the cars somewhere no one would be likely to find them—behind abandoned warehouses, inside abandoned warehouses, in fields next to abandoned warehouses. Colin would then call one of his boys to come pick him up from wherever he was and do the same thing the next day.

Colin had been running drugs in the city for years, but he’d only been caught at twenty-three because he’d cheated one of his boys out of a couple thousand dollars and had been ratted out. Colin found out and beat the man to the point of brain damage only moments before the cops arrived to put him in handcuffs. When they shoved him in the cop car, he said, simply, “I can’t survive in prison.” He had ten years left.

John spent every Thursday afternoon at the prison visiting Colin, or talking to him on the phone, or at his apartment waiting for one of the guards to call and tell him his brother had been locked in solitary and therefore John couldn’t visit that week. Knowing that someone would call, one way or the other, weighed heavy on him, heavier than the image he had of Colin sitting on a metal folding chair with his socks pulled up on his calves and his ear to the receiver. If not on Thursdays, John went on Tuesdays. Visiting the jail twice in one week was often too much; having to walk through the metal detectors and go through the process of being patted down was just too much. But he still went.

John knew Colin had run drugs. He’d known it for as long as he could remember watching television with his father and seeing news clips of women who’d lost their husbands to drug warfare, babies in the crook of their arms. Colin had started when he was seventeen, used to come home early in the morning looking haggard, dustings of white under his long nose, smudges on the backs of his hands.

John never said anything, because their father never said anything, just used a third of the money Colin brought home to pay the electric bill and keep the television going. Before he got sick, their father had worked at the coffin factory in town and had spent all day drilling wood planks together for someone to be laid in after they died. When the boys’ mother died, he built the coffin for her funeral. John went to the funeral; Colin was in the city that day and didn’t get back in time for the ceremony. Their father said nothing.

And then Colin ended up in jail, and John ended up living in an apartment they’d rented once John turned twenty and had finally moved out of their father’s house. The apartment was in the bad part of town, out near the docks, which was why Colin wanted it. John didn’t really care. He worked at a body shop in the center of town. He’d come home with grease on his forearms, take a shower, watch a movie, and go to bed. Colin would come in around the time John left for work in the morning. John took money for rent; he did not know what Colin did with the rest.

Colin had a girlfriend named Renee who sometimes came along when John went to visit the prison. Renee was the daughter of the man who owned the body shop where John worked, and the two got along well enough that the hour’s drive to the prison each week wasn’t so bad. Renee would paint her nails in the car on the way because she wanted to look nice for Colin, who’d never once said anything about the color of Renee’s nails.

II.

In December, Colin had been in jail for two years and three months. It was John’s second time seeing his brother that week. He hadn’t been able to come the previous Thursday, since Colin had been in solitary for kicking a guard in the face. When John arrived at the visiting room, Colin was stretched out in a chair, his long legs crossed at the ankles. The sleeves of his jumpsuit were rolled up and a fresh tattoo of a skull, raised and red, was on his right bicep.

“Long time, no see,” Colin said.

Colin’s voice was as long as the rest of him, drawn out vowels and consonants that hissed at the ends. He stood half a foot taller than John, and his hair was buzzed close to his narrow head. His face was purple from left eyebrow to chin; his right hand was bandaged, and John could tell Colin’s shoulder was dislocated from the way it hung loose in his jumpsuit.

John sat down on the other side of the barrier from his brother and looked at his body cut into circles through the hole into which one spoke. Renee always scooted her chair up close to the barrier when she was here; she hated that other people could hear her conversation. John didn’t care. He figured the type of people who visited other people in prison had bigger things to worry about than what he might say to his brother.

“Hey.” John adjusted his body in the hard chair. Colin re-crossed his legs.

They talked about nothing for a few minutes. John didn’t mention his brother’s injuries. Colin told him about spending the weekend in solitary, which was always the same: “pretty damn solitary.” Eventually Colin asked about their father. John told him that he wasn’t getting any better, and that the treatments were eating away at what little money their father still had from their mother’s life insurance. Something bitter flashed in Colin’s eyes, a dark stroke over the irises, and was gone.

“How much does he have?”

“Not enough,” John said. “I don’t know.”

Colin sighed, ran a hand over his head and realized there was no hair to grab, a nervous tic he had.

John listened to the woman next to him tell her husband that their son had started walking. Her voice was flat. She held up an iPhone with a video of the child taking steps. The husband crossed his arms and watched. This moment, like every second John spent in the prison, was like pressing the jagged edge of a key into his palm, and then pressing it harder.

Colin started talking about religion, about a book he’d read this past week and how people turned every day occurrences into holy things, like the way their food was shaped on the plate and how that could mean something miraculous. Colin never really talked about things like this. Faith, to John, was the chill of winter and the steady belief that the days would, eventually, get warmer. John didn’t know what faith felt like to Colin, if it felt like anything anymore.

“What was your lunch shaped like?” John asked, scratching his wrist.

“Like getting out.”

John looked up at his brother. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“My lunch was shaped like getting out of prison.” Colin blinked steadily. “I can tell, John. I can tell they’re gonna let me out early.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“Well, it’s true. My green beans looked like Renee’s face and my mashed potatoes looked like the apartment. I just know they’re letting me out.”

John ignored this. It hurt him to hear the earnest seriousness in Colin’s voice. He sounded younger, and it didn’t match his hollowed cheeks, his lean, tense body. John had never thought of his brother as naïve, but at this moment, he saw something had shifted. “Letting you out for what?” he asked. “Good behavior? Yeah, right.”

Colin narrowed his eyes, sat up straight, spoke defensively. “It could happen.”

“You kicked a guard in the face last week. You’re not going to be let out anytime soon. I’m sorry.” John’s throat hurt. He swallowed twice.

Colin stood up abruptly. Two of the guards yelled something and made their way over. One put his hand on a nightstick.

“Colin. Come on,” said John.

“Fuck you. I can tell you don’t believe me. I’m not gonna waste my time talking to someone who doesn’t have any idea about what it’s like to be in here. You’ve never even asked. You just come here and complain about your own life.”

“Anderson! Sit the fuck down. Visiting hour isn’t over yet.” The guard with his hand on the nightstick patted it. “I’ll tell you one more time.”

Colin didn’t move. “How about you just listen to me when I talk about the one thing that’s given me hope?”

John swallowed again. When the guard grabbed Colin by the forearm, John heard Colin’s shoulder popped loudly.

“Anderson. Are you fucking listening to me?”

“Colin,” John said. “Just—”

John watched his brother be led away, gray-eyed and angry. He tried not to listen to the sounds he made when the guards pulled out their sticks. On the drive home, he tried to think like Colin and looked for signs in the clouds, something telling him it would get better.

III.

Two weeks later, John was back to visit, one cubicle over from the last time.

Renee was not with him, since she had come last week. John had not. Colin hadn’t called him last week either; John had thought about phoning the prison but had decided against it.

Colin was led in. His shoulder was back in place, and the bruises around his cheekbone had faded to brown, edged with yellow. He didn’t look at John.

John wanted to make easy conversation, but there was none, so he told Colin about the most recent round of their father’s treatment.

“At least he’s not getting any worse,” he said finally, because it was the only thing he could think to say about it.

“I knew it,” Colin said.

“Knew what?”

“It’s not going to get better,” Colin answered. “I know it’s not.”

“Don’t tell me that. Don’t tell yourself that.”

“I saw it, John. He’s going to die.”

“What do you mean you saw it.”

“I saw it the other night, when I was eating dinner. I saw a tombstone.” Colin crossed his arms, stretched his legs out in front of him. “It was Dad’s.”

John saw his father’s thin hands in the light of the television, imaged their absence on the sides of the recliner.

“Fuck off,” John said. “Are you still talking about that bullshit miracle-in-the- meat thing?”

His brother’s face darkened. “You don’t know.”

“Actually, I do. I know that it’s all a load of shit and that if you believe it, you’re finally letting this place get to you.” John knew his voice was shaking. He wondered if Colin had been like this when Renee had been here. Maybe that’s why she hadn’t answered John’s call about coming today.

“I know you think it’s crazy. But the more you think about, the more sense it makes. John, Dad’s gonna die, and it’s gonna be soon. That’s just the truth. I didn’t have to see the sign to know. But it just made everything so much clearer.”

“Did your dinner tell you when, exactly? I’d just like to be fucking prepared for the day my father dies. If you can see that information for me, that would be really helpful.” John’s hands tightened into fists at his sides. “I didn’t come here to listen to you talk like this.”

“Of course not,” Colin said. “You came here so you didn’t have to sit with Dad and listen to him choke when he sleeps and lean over him to make sure he’s still alive.”

John didn’t say anything. He stood up. The girl in the cubicle next to him looked up, saw his expression, and looked back down. He realized his voice was getting too loud but he couldn’t lower it.

“I’m leaving. You’re crazy. You’re being crazy.”

Colin just sat there. John knew his brother watched him leave.

IV.

Colin’s face was thinner the next time John went to visit, his shoulder blades jumping nervously at his back.

“Renee,” he said when John sat down.

“John,” John said.

“No. Renee. She’s pregnant.”

John looked at him. “Whose?”

“That kid that works with you guys at the shop. Max.”

“Fuck.”

They sat there for a moment; John drew a circle on the knee of his jeans. Colin stared at the tile, his mouth set in a proud line.

“What happens now?”

“I love her,” Colin said. “I just keep loving her.”

John asked him if he was eating, rubbed at his own shoulders to indicate his brother’s. “You look…not great.”

“How am I supposed to eat the face of God?” said Colin.

He looked like any one of the other prisoners, sullen and close-shaven. There was no seven year-old boy, draped long-limbed over the seat of their father’s motorcycle. Maybe that was someone else’s story now.

John walked out.

V.

Four days later, the phone rang at noon. John paused his movie and answered it. One of the guards at the prison said that Colin had been asking for him before they moved him to solitary on Friday, that he was unresponsive now and hadn’t eaten in three days. He wondered if John could convince Colin to eat something. The prison would make an exception for a visit.

“What’s he in solitary for?”

Someone was yelling in the background so John missed the guard’s answer. He said he’d be there later.

Colin was sitting in the room alone when John arrived, since it was before visiting hour. John sat down across from him and said nothing. His brother looked bad. His lips were cracked open and the side of his head was swollen, his ear bloody.

“What the fuck happened to you?” John finally said.

Colin shrugged.

One of the guards behind them answered, “Hit his head on the cell door. Said we needed to let him out because he’d seen it coming, and we weren’t doing anything. When we ignored him, he hit it harder.”

John felt his stomach flip. “What is wrong with you?” he asked Colin. He wasn’t sure he wanted an answer.

“I told you. They have to let me out. I saw it.”

“Colin, that’s not…that’s not how it works. I’m sorry. You have to behave if you want them to let you out.” He felt like he was talking to a stranger; Colin’s eyes were on the floor and his shoulders were hunched. John could smell his brother from across the barrier, piss and sweat and blood and something even sharper.

“You need to eat, okay? You have to. Stop being like this. It’s not helping your case.” John wished he could reach out and put his hand on his brother’s arm, his index finger light on his tattoo, wished he could feel his pulse and know he was still in there somewhere.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” Colin said.

“You need to eat.”

“I can’t. It doesn’t show me anything anymore.”

VI.

On Saturday, after a cancelled visit the Thursday before due to Colin’s time in solitary, the phone rang just after ten a.m. John picked it up and there was static on the line. It popped, and he was reminded of Colin’s shoulder, the way the guard had yanked it, the sound it had made.

“Sorry?”

“It’s Warden Darren Harvey, down at county.”

John held the receiver tight. His hands had begun to sweat.

“John, I’m sorry. I’m calling to tell you that your brother died last night. He hanged himself from the water line in solitary.”

John was silent.

“I’m sorry. I’m very, very sorry.”

He threw up on his sweater.

VII.

John and Renee went to Colin’s funeral. John’s father couldn’t leave the house, couldn’t breathe now that it was below freezing. He had maybe two months left. They had enough money for one treatment, which meant they had to choose between it and pain medication.

Renee held onto John’s arm and didn’t cry. He wanted to say something to her, like she would be a great mom, but he couldn’t say anything. John hadn’t cried at all, but when they were asked to throw handfuls of dirt onto the coffin that his father didn’t make, he felt it starting in the back of his throat.

There hadn’t been a spot left next to their mother, so Colin was buried in one of the back rows. There were only a few tombstones there. John saw one belonging to a girl who had died when she six. It was snowing and quickly covered the dirt John had thrown into the hole where they’d put Colin. John felt like he was the one who had died.

Renee dropped him off at the apartment after the service, told him to visit soon. John went to Colin’s old room and sat on the edge of the bed. Colin hadn’t been in this room in over two years and four months. John thought about calling his father but couldn’t make himself pick up the phone. He hadn’t picked up the phone since he’d gotten the call from the warden, although it had rung many times. Each time it rang, John almost picked up the receiver, imagined he would hear Colin on the other end of the line, his long voice over the static.

He realized, sitting there in Colin’s room, that Colin had always been a kind of oracle, a kind of light that could find other lights, things John wasn’t able to see. The day of his arrest: “I can’t survive in prison.” Looking at Renee when she was playing with a child in the park: “That girl is going to break me.” After their mother died: “Dad’s not going to make it”—all of it said so frankly and without a doubt. John had just pretended he hadn’t heard and looked away, always looked away.

Now John picked up a photo of the three of them, him and his brother and their father, their father dressed for work, Colin tall and proud, that had been tucked into the corner of Colin’s mirror. John was smiling and Colin was looking across the frame, his face in profile. Their father was healthy. Colin looked just like him. John looked at the photograph and tasted the stale air of the gravesite, noticed the dirt still on his fingers, leaving prints on the edge of the paper. He put it back in its place, smoothed the edge of the comforter back straight, and left the bedroom.


Morgan Blalock is a junior at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, where she edits the literary journal Cargoes and studies creative writing and ancient philology.

Incantation

I dreamed my father cracked

a wishbone
over my head and blessed me.

The sound like lit match.
Anointed with the heart of the carcass.

I wondered why he was being so good.

Of course in dreams
bones shatter like teeth: the two prongs

unsinewed, gnostic, meaning

it could happen, it can’t not happen.
So the choice was easy.

All good dreams begin with my father

blessed me, even if the blessing muddles like gravy
in the morning over crossword, bread, glass misted.

Stir it

in my coffee with a finger,
one half of the philter, his the other, somewhere out there,

black milk of daybreak and you drink and you drink—

The flesh singed gently, as in all good dreams.


Rebecca Beauchamp is an undergraduate at the University of Virginia. She will be studying at the Ashbery Home School in New York this summer.