Authors Talk: Elizabeth Naranjo

Elizabeth NaranjoToday we are pleased to feature author Elizabeth Naranjo as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Elizabeth discusses “The Woman in Room 248” and reveals how some of Mary’s experiences are loosely based on her own nursing experiences. She also expands upon the characterizations of Mary and Shirley and shares how she can relate to both characters.

Elizabeth also discusses empathy in the piece and explains how she “wanted to explore how we often misjudge others.” She reveals, “I think the best fiction challenges our assumptions about people. It…should make us consider the motivations and the feelings of others who we wouldn’t normally look at twice or think about in a more compassionate way.” Finally, Elizabeth briefly discusses the piece’s evolution and submission history.

You can access Elizabeth’s piece, “The Woman in Room 248,” in Issue 18 of Superstition Review.

Guest Post, Once Upon a Time, Recall

Laura Esther Wolfson

“All of my stories are true, but this one really happened.”

Anonymous

 

Laura Ester Wolfson bio pictureI’ve been spending a fair amount of time in the dementia ward of late. To get to where I’m going, I pass through the large common room, where some two dozen men and women sit at long tables, all alone, every single one of them, many slumped over, foreheads nearly grazing the formica. The sight makes me marvel at humans’ capacity to curve inward, forming thereby something infinite.

High up on the wall, images flicker. Something mid-century is playing on mute, starring a woman with broad shoulders and marcelled hair who is bantering, apparently, with some square-jawed man of few words. They’re in a dim, cramped office, playing at being reporters, probably, or maybe he’s a hard-boiled private investigator and she’s his glamorous, distraught client. They wave their cigarettes around. It is a scene—smoking indoors, for heaven’s sake—that is now the purest fiction.

In the room, a man points at me and says, “Hey, look, a muchacha!”

“A girl!” he then explains, though no one is paying attention. (I’m past 50, but if a man likes muchachas, he will see them everywhere.)

In the corner, a woman, her head crowned with white braids, calls out over and over, “Pomogeetye!” which is Russian for “Help!”

My knowledge of languages, which got me hired as a translator at a large international organization, is useful in this place, too. Each time I hear the woman with the braided crown—which is often, because she’s always calling out, every single time I come here, her powers of speech worn down to this nub of a single word that succinctly expresses all she has left to say—I think that I should go over and address her in her language, which I also speak, briefly breaking her isolation, or joining her in it. I see no sign that there is anyone else on the ward, resident, staff or visitor, who could do that.

 

I think now of a character in Un roman russe by Emmanuel Carrère. (In the English edition, three words have been added at the beginning of the title for some reason, expanding it to My Life is a Russian Novel.) The story is a true one, so the character is a person as well as a character, but the French are nonchalant about the non/fiction distinction, and so in France, Carrère is a novelist.

I don’t have the book at hand, and it’s been a while, so I’ll just recount it as I recall it. Feel free to fact-check, should the urge strike.

As World War II is coming to a close, a Hungarian prisoner of war washes up in a remote Soviet town. Because he speaks a language that no one in the vicinity can identify, let alone understand, and the townspeople conclude, not unreasonably, that he’s speaking gibberish, it follows that he ends up in an insane asylum. Where he remains for about half a century.

And maybe he actually is a touch insane, because during all of those decades surrounded by the Russian language, completely immersed, he learns not one single word, not one single expression—not ‘hello,’ not ‘thank you’ and not even ‘fuck your mother.’

I mention ‘fuck your mother’ because it’s nearly as frequent—in Russian, I mean—as ‘hello’ and ‘thank you,’ especially in god-forsaken provincial towns soaked in vodka and despair. You will say that this cannot be true, that no Chekhov character ever says “fuck your mother,” no matter how much despair is swirling about, but the reason for this omission should be blindingly clear: Chekhov wrote fiction.

At last the error somehow emerges, and our Magyar protagonist, no longer a prisoner of war, but of something else, is returned to what remains of his family, in Buda, or Pest, or perhaps further afield. Fanfare greets the prodigal son. Through an interpreter, an official Russian delegation that has traveled to Hungary to attend the welcome-home event proffers apologies for the lost decades.

The mayor gives a speech—in Hungarian, of course, which everyone there understands, not counting the Russians. It’s remarkable what a change of scene will do; restored to his native surroundings, the man is no longer a lunatic.

 

But if reading good books is supposed to make you a bigger, better person, then in my case it has failed; in the dementia ward, I do not cast off my disguise as a monolingual person—I do not step forward to speak Russian. If I were to approach the pomogeetye lady and address a few Russian words to her, she would surely cling to me and make impossible demands—I’ve experienced this with Russians who are not in dementia wards—taking me away from my mother, who I have come to see.

 

Next, I pick my way through the jetsam piled up near the far end of the hall: a bed frame, a scale with a platform for weighing the wheelchair-bound, a stack of walkers, a few chairs, and I see now that there is a wheelchair stranded amidst the debris, and in it, a woman, who must have miscalculated the width of passage she needed to get through.

With some words intended to soothe, I pry her loose, turn her chair around and set her on another path I think should satisfy her equally well.

“Bastard!” she howls after me.

But I’m leaving the hallway now, and entering my mother’s room. Velcro screeches as I pull away the cloth barrier stretched across the doorframe. Placed there by the staff, the barrier has a big red stop sign on it, to deter those residents who have a tendency to wander.

The woman I freed from the debris is still cursing as I step inside.

 

I used to own a tattered paperback by Elie Wiesel called Legends of Our Time. Held together with a rubber band, it continually shed small scraps. The book had come to me in that state, I don’t remember how. When it became too dilapidated to keep, I relegated it to recycling, saving a single page from the introduction, a page that I sensed I would someday need.

On that page, which I keep attached to the refrigerator with a magnet, Wiesel refers to an old rabbi he’d known in the little Romanian town where they both lived, a town that was wiped off the map during World War II. Decades after the war, Wiesel, a New Yorker now, calls on the rabbi, who is ensconced in Tel Aviv. Nearly as old as time, and a man of God to boot, he is of course served up as some kind of sage.

Wiesel tells the old man that he’s become a writer.

“Is that all?” says the rabbi in reproachful disbelief.

Wiesel adds that he writes stories, true ones.

The rebbe asks, “About people you knew?”

Yes, about people he might have known.

“About things that happened?”

Yes, about things that happened or could have happened.

“But they did not?” presses the rebbe.

No, says Wiesel, not all of them did. In fact, some were invented from almost the beginning to almost the end.

“That means you’re writing lies!” says the rebbe.

Things aren’t so simple, says Wiesel. Some events do take place but are not true; others are true—although they never occurred.

 

She’s in palliative care, which is like hospice for people who aren’t dying yet. ‘Palliative care’ means they don’t make her do anything she doesn’t want to, so she gets to spend most of her time in her room, in bed, instead of at one of the formica tables by the TV, and when she’s not up to the ordeal of being put into clothes, she passes the day in a hospital gown.

She can no longer walk, or even stand. She has to be lifted into bed from the wheelchair and back again, and she sleeps almost all the time. She regularly forgets what a fork is for and that food is meant to be swallowed.

On her nightstand are a few books I brought in when she landed here, months ago: a volume of Thackeray, pages uncut, from the matched set she kept on top of her wardrobe, a spy novel about the French Resistance and a book on modern dance, with a chapter about a choreographer, largely forgotten now, who was her teacher and friend.  She doesn’t dip into the books at all.

The drawer of the nightstand is crammed with chocolate—bags, boxes and bars. The chocolates get unwrapped and popped into her mouth by whoever happens to be at her bedside at any given time.

The large window frames a stunning view of the Hudson and, on the other side, the Palisades, but she’s largely unaware. She has some vision left, but she never turns to the window—she’s always been averse to the sunlight—and she’s probably lost some ability to process shapes and colors into recognizable objects and landscapes.

In fact, when I put my face close to hers, smack in the middle of what ought to be her field of vision, I’m never sure she knows it’s me. It’s my voice she responds to, and my name.

“Hello, Ma! It’s Laura.”

Her face softens. A smile dawns.

“Hi there, baby girl,” she says to me.

 

Wiesel wrote something we call fiction, and he called it true. I write things that I remember, have seen or lived—I think. I’m not making it up, but I cannot swear that it all happened.

From opposite sides of the divide, Wiesel and I agree: stories live according to their own logic. They are ungovernable and uncategorizable, like schools of fish that sometimes unwittingly straddle international borders as they swim about, swishing their tails to and fro—to whom do they belong, those tranquil creatures of the sea? Turgid international treaties have been negotiated in the attempt to pin this down. Stories are also this way: blithely unaware, as they navigate the depths, of transgressing the boundaries that humans draw.

I am not a reporter, and I am not a chronicler, and I am not beholden to the facts, which are merely raw materials in a random heap. I am beholden to story, which is sculpted, intentional. I fashion aesthetic objects from found materials, not reports that say: here is what happened. In fact, the nature of what I write may depend on not being fact-checked. It may depend, to an extent, on the vagaries of memory, on misremembrance. The refractions of memory are part of the story.

While I do not think that my life story holds exceptional interest, I am more drawn to the lived than to the made up; more drawn to observing and shaping than to imagining and concocting; and more drawn to speaking in an authentic first person voice than in an imagined third that I myself don’t really believe.

On the one hand, an opera production with ruffled costumes, powdered wigs, abundant avoirdupois, scrims sliding on tracks at the flip of a switch, smoke machines, choruses, a corps de ballet, a pit orchestra and a plot that involves interlocking love triangles, multiple suicide pacts, cross-dressing, pilfered letters, goblets of poison and a masquerade ball followed by a duel at midnight. On the other hand, a lone chanteuse in a small circle of light surrounded by a larger circle of darkness, confiding ballads of heartbreak to a rapt room.

Oh, those made-up characters with lines of dialogue distributed among them and placed in their mouths, like coins under the tongues of dead Greeks, to pay their passage to the far shore; the creaking scenery and mechanisms of plot; the godlike omniscient third, godlike, alas, only within the confines of a single, small story—I just cannot work with these materials any more. As the world skids further and further off into the unbelievable, they are less and less convincing.

 

She never, ever talked about her life before motherhood. When I was a child, my attempts to find out about her past were efficiently shut down. I knew her as morose yet playful, and slashingly witty, so that on her lips, bile often blurred into hilarity, so long as it was not discharged in my direction. And then sometimes she was more slashing than witty (‘gasbag’ her preferred epithet for the longwinded professors who dominated my parents’ dinner parties).

She was a rigorous housekeeper, upholder of etiquette and reader of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Nabokov, Mrs. Gaskell and both Trollopes, especially Frances. She never wore makeup, only lipstick (and that on rare occasions), but she was the Imelda Marcos of sweaters. An aficionado of the afternoon nap, upon rising she would quaff a tumbler of something grapey sloshed from a jug, then tap dance nimbly about the kitchen in little canvas shoes, a shirtwaist and a striped butcher’s apron—she had studied under Martha Graham, that I had gleaned, and she was a mean dancer, no matter the style—accompanied by the drone of Huntley and Brinkley and the sizzle of onions on the stove, crooning a ditty of her own invention—“Twinkletoes,” she called it.

Of her previous life I knew only the barest outlines. Now, though, she lives more in that past, gets lost in it, stuck amidst the clutter at the far end of the hall.

She often asks now about people long dead. Where is my mother? she demands. Why can’t I talk to her? she wants to know, her voice trembling slightly.

I remind her that my maternal grandmother—who we always thought she didn’t particularly care for, so why is she calling for her now?—departed this world in 1970.

“Of course!” She slaps her forehead. “I get mixed up about who’s alive and who’s dead.”

Then, “And what about my sisters? Are they alive?”

Dead, I tell her sadly.

“They died in a car accident, didn’t they?”

They died in bed, ten years apart.

She hesitates. But her need to know is greater than her embarrassment.

“And … what year is it now?”

As I get her unstuck and set her on another path, I see that barriers have fallen; I wander into rooms previously closed to me. I ask questions. It is my first opportunity to do so. Also, my last.

 

On this particular day, we’re talking about my Aunt Bea and her boyfriend Ed, who were an item in high school, during the Great Depression. (Bea was the oldest of the three sisters, my mother the youngest by many years, and, for a long, long time now, the only one still alive.)

“He was called Ed, but his real name was Isidore,” recalls my mother.  “I mean, you can give your child a Jewish name, but does it have to be that Jewish?”

She chuckles.

“The whole family loved Ed; he charmed us all. And, oh! He and his brothers were so handsome, they could all have gone straight to Hollywood.”

“Why did Aunt Bea break up with him?”

She looks at me in astonishment. This all happened decades before I was born, but it’s clear what she’s thinking: you mean you don’t know?

“Oh, she dumped him when she met Paul.” That would be my Uncle Paul, whom Aunt Bea later married.

“And then she went back and forth between them for a while. Whenever she was on the outs with Paul, she’d take up with Ed again, and then she’d go back to Paul. She used poor Ed terribly. Oh, the sweet young men who got mixed up with my sister Bea!”

Mirth bursts out of her again.

“Ed eventually married Viola, who was the director of a puppet theater.”

I’m trying to memorize every word, but she’s going very fast. I can’t retain it all.

“And then, years later, after Ed and Viola split, Ed got pally with Esther…”

Esther was the middle sister, glamorous yet earthy, a divorcée when that was still a pretty louche thing to be. Her I do remember—this was long, long ago—waving a cigarette around: outdoors, indoors, in bed, at all hours, in the shower, her back to the spray as she reached around the curtain to where an ashtray teetered on the edge of the sink.

“Ed used to drop by and visit Esther sometimes, in her apartment. Remember that view of Lake Michigan from the balcony?”

I do remember, very well. I used to strap on my roller skates, tighten them with the key, skate to the end of the block, then let the wind off the lake push me back up the street to where the liveried doorman stood, smiling benevolently.

But I’m trying not to breathe or make a sound. Keep going, Ma, I think. Just keep going.

“And one day, Ed and Esther fell into bed!”

My mother, talking about sex?  About someone she was close to, having sex? Talking about it in a light-hearted tone? What is happening in the world?

“Afterward,” she presses forward, and it occurs to me that she’s racing to entrust the story to me before she loses it forever, “Ed came stumbling out of the bedroom, tucking in his shirttails and exclaiming,  ‘I fell in love with the wrong sister!’”

I can see Ed, whom I never actually met, gorgeous in a fortyish way. So clearly do I see Ed, in fact, that at first I think my mother must have been sitting right there in Esther’s living room when he emerged from the bedroom, bowled over by midlife sexual revelation. Otherwise, how could she tell it so vividly?

Eventually, I will realize that no, she’s simply repeating the story as she heard it from Esther. Esther would never have seduced her older sister’s old boyfriend, or anyone else, with her younger sister, or anyone else, sitting in the next room. Of course not. But she wasn’t above bragging about taking a man to bed and making his toes curl with delight, especially if said man was her big sister’s old flame and the audience for her story was her baby sister, who was by then, I’m guessing, a grown-up, married lady.

 

I rush home to broadcast the tale of Ed and Esther. Family and close friends are delighted. My father claims a vague memory of it, but no one else in the family has ever heard the story.

To think that this might have been lost. As so much is.

 

Once upon a time, before Oprah, recall, nobody got all worked up about the whole fact/fiction distinction—except maybe ancient, very literal-minded rabbis.

Take Marcel Proust, a novelist who named his first-person narrator Marcel and based the eponymous Swann on an actual art connoisseur and collector, the scion of a Jewish merchant dynasty with branches in Paris, Vienna and Odessa.

Or novelist Thomas Wolfe, largely forgotten now, except as a character in a movie starring a fearsomely miscast Nicole Kidman as his zaftig, dark-haired mistress. Wolfe changed all the names, but still he couldn’t go home again, because the folks back home were personally acquainted with and recognized the characters who peopled his books, each and every one: the alcoholic doctor; the grasping woman speculating in real estate; her semi-estranged husband the semi-crazed stonecutter, also alcoholic; the stonecutter’s stone angel; the idlers at the soda fountain; the part-time prostitutes of Niggertown, as the wrong side of the tracks was then known.

Decades ago, I knew a woman who was from the same town as Wolfe. When Look Homeward, Angel came out, she told me, her parents penciled in the real names in the margins of their copy. Then someone borrowed the book and didn’t return it, so you can add that to the list of things that never made it home again.

Anyone who knows me (and many who do not) can identify my writing as sculpted from the unadulterated raw stuff of my biography, but the end product is actually more like that game Three Truths and a Lie: most of it’s true, I mean, ‘true’ as in ‘happened’ (pace Wiesel), but there’s some other stuff that creeps in, and after a while, I’m not always sure which is which.

I don’t quite know how that other stuff gets in, because it occurs in the white heat of creation, and little of what goes on in there survives in conscious memory. I start describing, in great detail, something I don’t remember all that well, and I go on, and on, losing track of time, growing short of breath—I get whipped up, the scene becomes overlaid with more and more detail that surges up from god knows where, and this is some of the best writing that I do.

That said, the section above, about the dementia ward, contains not a grain of the invented. It’s all real. Oh, except that the muchacha incident and the woman getting caught in the debris in her wheelchair did not in fact happen on the same day—I combined them, for maximum narrative density. Does that minor change make it fiction? Or is it still nonfiction, but a kind of unethical nonfiction?

It’s a mosaic; it’s a medley; it’s a mash-up.

 

I don’t worry too much. It’s writing; it’s a story, not reportage; not news, fake or otherwise.  It’s mine; I wrote it; call it what you like, as long as reading it lifts you, however briefly, above the quotidian—or plunges you into it more deeply.

(Filmmaker Chantal Ackerman, who made both documentaries and feature films and believed that each genre contains elements of the other, said, “Once you frame the shot, it’s fiction.” This from a documentary about her work.)

The part about the pomogeetye lady is real, though, because that happens every single time. It happened on the muchacha day, and it happened on the wheelchair-getting-stuck day, and it happens on every other day as well. But lots of other things happened on all of those days, some that I cut or omitted, and many that simply washed through the memory sieve, floated downstream into increasingly murky waters and came gently to rest in the silt.

 

The following week, my mission is to find out more.

“Mom, remember that story you told me about Ed? In Esther’s apartment?”

“Ed who?”

I remind her about Isidore, known as Ed; his movie-star handsome brothers; Viola and the puppet theatre; Esther; the view of the lake; Ed stumbling out of the bedroom tucking in his shirt.

She looks at me blankly.

There’s a pause. Then, she stretches luxuriously as after a long nap and says, “I really must pull myself together one of these days and get over to the library.”  It’s six months since she was last off the ward, one halcyon October afternoon when she allowed me to wheel her down to the river’s edge.

Why the library, why now?

I wait.

“I need to lay my hands on a copy of Tales from Shakespeare, by Charles Lamb,” she says.

“How come?”

“I’ve been trying and trying,” she says with a weary air, “to remember the story lines of Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Can you tell me what happens in those plays?”

I regard her blankly.

Romeo and Juliet I could recount, maybe. Hamlet, in a pinch. But there would definitely be some gaps.

 

Guest post, Natalie Sypolt: A Retreat from Distraction

Natalie Sypolt bio photoIn my last Superstition Review blog post, I wrote about how to have the best possible experience at writer’s workshops and conferences. At that point in my life, I’d started branching out from the big conferences, like AWP, that can feel overwhelming, and finding smaller, more personal conference experiences that combined a little workshopping and a little craft. I still find great value in these experiences and attended the Kentucky Women Writers Conference this September for the first time in several years; however, what I’m coming to understand about myself, is that the most productive experiences for my writing–times when I can actually get the job done–are not conferences or workshops, but residencies and retreats.

Of course, I am not saying anything revolutionary here. Writers and artists have been going to residencies and colonies for a century or more, communing with other artists, secluding themselves from the “real world” to create their craft. There is a certain romanticism that comes with thinking about places like Yaddo and McDowell. One imagines lots of champagne, and long walks, and beautiful people lounging around thinking deep and beautiful thoughts. There is a certain prestige connected to attending these colonies, and what writer doesn’t want to find themselves among the small and elite group accepted to the “best places”? Here is the truth, though: we aren’t all going to get there, for a variety of reasons. Another truth: just because these are the “best places” for some, does not mean they are the best for all.

In 2015, I decided I needed to see what this writer’s residence business was all about, and applied for entrance to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. VCCA is on a beautiful compound about six hours from where I live (so driveable) and not far from family members that live in Fredericksburg, VA (in case, you know, I break a limb or something). I am lucky enough that I could take two weeks in the summer and head to Amherst, VA (just outside Lynchburg). I was doubly lucky to receive a grant from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation that paid for my stay.

I was assigned to a coveted location (though I didn’t know that at the time). I was in one of the apartment studios, so I slept and worked in the same location, which was separate from where most of the other residents were staying. There were sculptors, painters, composers, other fiction writers and poets. Every evening at dinner I listened to people talk about their amazing projects, and felt incredibly inferior. I don’t know that I was, and everyone was very kind to me, but my own insecurities and social awkwardness were inhibiting the work I’d set out to do.

It was only towards the end of my time at VCCA, when I’d begun finally to adjust to my surroundings, take lots of walks, and relax at dinner, that I became a bit more productive. I came away with a couple of new stories–one that I know I would not have written had I not been inspired by some things that happened there.  It was also very helpful when my friend, the excellent writer Laura Long who lives in nearby Lynchburg, rescued me for an evening, took me out to dinner and a poetry reading, and told me that she’d felt much the same way her first time at VCCA, that–in fact–lots of people do. Someday I might go back, give it another shot.

Last summer, I decided to try and arrange my own little retreat. I would not spend money on applications, but on rent. I posted a general question to Facebook, asking for ideas about a place where I might seclude myself for a few days. I had a ton of amazing suggestions for rental cabins and resorts. One friend offered her entire house while she was traveling. Another suggested Friends of Silence, a retreat community here, in my own state, not far from where my friend Melissa lives. I started looking into Friends of Silence and, even though the dates I wanted were pretty close to the date I started my queries, I was able to confirm a reservation for a cabin (which actually turned out to be a pretty large house). I was too late to reserve the smaller places that would been a little cheaper and more suitable to a solo resident (like the yurt–yes, the yurt), but the price was still very reasonable and the location ideal.

There’s remote, and then there is remote. My cabin was at the very top of a long, windy road. Actually, there was a road, which then turned into a gravel road, and then turned to dirt. From the large back deck of the cabin, I could look out over the mountains. Somewhere down below was the Potomac River. I was there for four days and saw not one other person. I heard a bear, but luckily didn’t see one. I walked the labyrinth, a meditative rock garden.  It was totally magical. And I did almost no writing.

I was distracted by my solitude. When I did finally sit down to write, I wrote about being alone. Again, it was also near the end of my time with Friends of Silence that I was able to settle down and do some work.

For some, being completely isolated–no people, no outside influences (like tv, radio, internet) is just want they need. For me, though, I’ve realized that when I’m completely isolated, I think a lot about being completely isolated. I miss tv because it helps my brain calm down a little and then I can get back to work. I’ve decided to stop feeling guilty about this. I want to be out of my house, but I also need some of those familiar comforts in order to feel like myself. Too many people is too much, no people is not enough. What is a girl to do?

So far, the very best and most productive experiences I’ve had have been at the Troublesome Creek Writers Retreats at Hindman Settlement School in Hindman, Kentucky. These retreats–which happen twice a year and last from a Friday evening to a Sunday morning–take place at the same location as the famous Appalachian Writers’ Workshop. If you’re a writer living in the Appalachian region, chances are you’ve been told that you need to get to Hindman, and I concur. The retreat is a smaller, condensed version of the workshop with only about 20-25 people attending.

The very first time I stepped out of my car there, I knew this place was different. It felt like home, like a place I knew and understood, and that understood me. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s how it was.

The retreats are loosely organized. Each as a facilitator, a writer who organizes a couple of optional craft classes and a community reading at the end of the weekend. Primarily, this is a weekend designed for writing. You are encouraged to do what feels best for you. There are community dinners where people sit on rickety chairs and eat excellent home cooking and talk. I have never come home from Hindman without having written a new story–sometimes three. I’ve done as much there in a couple days as I did at VCCA in two weeks.

The difference, you see, is me. And the moral of my story here is to find what works for you. Just because everyone says the thing to do is to “go to Breadloaf” or “go to Yaddo”, doesn’t mean that these will be the best, most productive experience for you.

It’s also really important for you to determine what “productive” means for you at that moment, and what you hope to get out of the experience. For instance, I expect very different things from AWP than I expect from Troublesome Creek Writers Retreat. At AWP, I want to learn from other presenters, fangirl when I see some famous writers, and hopefully find some good books. I know going in that I will likely not write a word. That conference is not productive for me in that way.

Also, don’t be afraid to try a bunch of different things until you get what you want. In April, I’m going back to Hindman, but my friend Melissa and I have also talked about going to a resort in Maryland for a weekend or getting a cabin in Hocking Hills, Ohio for a self-made retreat. That will be a little isolated, but not so much so that it will be distracting because another person will be there, sharing that creative spirit. We’ve also both applied for the first time to Barrelhouse Magazine’s Writer Camp in August. Who knows how that will be, but I’m excited to find out.

Stay tuned. My next dispatch may be from a yurt high in the Appalachian Mountains, a cabin along Troublesome, a hammock at Writers Camp, or maybe even near a lake in Wales. Happy retreating!

 

Contributor Update: Victor Lodato Waxes Romantic In The Times

Hey there dear readers! Superstition Review is back after a brief hiatus with more good news: past contributor Victor Lodato’s essay “When Your Greatest Romance Is a Friendship” has been published in The New York Times‘ “Modern Love” column. Lodato was featured in our Interview section of Issue 8 in an interview conducted by former intern Marie Lazaro. In addition to being a recipient of the PEN Center USA Award for fiction, Victor Lodato has also been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Institute as well as the National Endowment for the Arts.  His latest novel, “Edgar and Lucy” is out now from Macmillan, and can be found both online as well as at most major bookstores. Do yourself a favor and check out the essay here, and buy one (or two, or seven) copies of “Edgar and Lucy” here. Congratulations Victor, we couldn’t be happier to know you!

Read the essay and buy the book!

Victor Lodato, author of “When Your Greatest Romance Is a Friendship” and “Edgar and Lucy.”

Guest Post, Meghan McClure: In Praise of the Physical World

Matthew Nienow’s House of Water

Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2016. 57 pages. $15.95.

 

Picture of the book House of Water by Matthew NienowFor the past few months I’ve been unmoored, I feel against everything. I think a lot of us do. During this time I’ve turned, as I always have in difficult times, to books. I’ve found myself drawn to two types of books, both of which seem relevant and necessary. The first kind are those that teach me to see through the eyes of others, show me the history of how we got here, give voice to the often unheard, teach me to resist, give me strength to fight back. The second type of book I’ve been drawn to are those which praise the physical world, look with wonder at the earth and its inhabitants, draw the eye to the light. The books of the first kind have been my maps and guides. The second kind of book has been an anchor for me. In these times of upheaval and uncertainty I am seeking things that ground me to the world, that re-invest me in this place. I want to hold something in my hands, to know that it is real, to remember I’m not against everything. The poems in Matthew Nienow’s House of Water are as close to that as poems can be.

Built in to each of the poems in House of Water is a commitment to the physical world. Readers cannot escape the smell of seawater, the heat of fire, the shavings of wood beneath their feet, the laughter of children, or the rock of a boat. The book begins with a prayer to the tools of his trade (he builds boats) and continues with odes to those tools (“Ode to the Belt Sander & This Cocobolo Sapwood,” “Ode to the Steam Box,” “Ode to the Gain,” “Ode to the Preacher Jig,” “Ode to the Slick”), joy in the work of creation, and quiet moments of watching his wife and children. Nienow begins with the tools, but from there goes on to praise the body which uses the tools, the life that is created, and the work it all takes.

These poems are about learning to look closely at the things we hold daily. In Nienow’s case these things are tools and woods I’m unfamiliar with, but came to admire as I read through the book. In “Ode to the Belt Sander & This Cocobolo Sapwood” Nienow holds up a block of wood to the belt sander and:

 

A single knot blinks

out of the small block & becomes

 

the eye of a hummingbird, its beak

bending around the edge of the wood,

 

its song captured in the annular rings.

To think, this block was tossed in

 

with the scrap. That the bird

could have been lost. Or burned.

 

How quickly the mundane scrap of a day can become a thing to behold. The world still holds mystery and wonder. Sometimes that mystery is locked away in a block of wood, sometimes it is hidden in a page of scribbled notes waiting to become a poem. Nienow shows the reader how to hold a scrap in their hand, hold it to the light, and get to work uncovering its beauty.

At first glance “The Handshake” seems like a shout against the body and work:

 

God damn my hands

and the inward ache

that is the echo of every

 

hammer swing; God

damn every struck thing

and the impulse to make.

 

God damn the scars

and the memories they bear,

the fists I carry with me

 

everywhere; God damn

all that my hands fail

to hold…

 

 

But in the refrain of  “God damn…” we hear the echo of “God bless.” Instead of reading of anger and resentment, the pain and shame of this poem become an ode all their own: to the hands (“my two best tools”) that long to create, that come from a long line of hands (“I remember / my father’s father”), and that get to shape their future:

 

I consider

the road. My handshake

 

will not tell you

what kind of man I am.

 

This poem is a reminder that we can howl against the pain in our lives and still hold our lives dear. We can see the darkness of the world and still want to make it brighter. Sometimes the very hands that hurt are the hands that will create something that gleams.

Halfway through the book, in “Song of Tomorrow,” the speaker wants to give the world, whole and shining, to his children: “I will give / them whatever I have, whatever I can acquire.” But he also knows he will not be able to give them all he desires to, he is “ a man trying / to hold water in cupped hands” knowing he “will fail / to hold it.” But even in that failing he knows “what joy there is in feeling it pass.” Throughout the book Nienow balances praise of the physical with the knowledge that it will never be enough. Nienow’s book is not a glossy ode to the perfect, but an ode to the scraped and dented imperfect life we create with our hands. There is joy not just in the material or the tools, but in the process of creation – the life we live.

By the time we get to “Making a Rabbet Plane in the Machine Shop on the Hill” we have praised the materials, the tools, and the process of creation, but here we watch the speaker work. The worker has to dig into his collection of tools with his aching hands and put them into action. In this collection of poems, the speaker is never more than a line or two away from work. Above all, the work is to be praised:

 

I turn

the idea of the tool over in my hands.

That it works makes me want to work.

The work, it carves that want away.

 

 

Nienow shows, through his writing, the work it takes to chisel, bend, and sand raw material down to a useful object and how that work itself is beautiful. When we look at the world there is endless wonder, but wonder alone won’t change anything, it takes work. This is not a book merely of ideas, but of tools, material, and what they create. Nienow finds beauty in the world because he works to make it.

We need things to tether us to this earth. We need to find reminders of the immensity and wonder this earth holds – it will give us the energy to move forward when it feels like we can’t. We need to create wonder of our own and to find joy and solace in the work of creating. As writers, this book is a reminder to stay observant and alert and curious in our work. And above all, to love the work.

Stand up, march, protest, yell, read to inform yourself, carry a sign, volunteer, donate. And when you get weary and start losing hope, recharge with a book that tethers you to this world. Because we have to stay invested in this place, in each other. Writers need to keep writing about the things that matter to them, sharing their stories because like the famous Maggie Smith poem, “Good Bones,” says: “This place could be beautiful, / right? You could make this place beautiful.” To work to make it beautiful, we have to remember it’s worth it.

More book recommendations for mooring you to this earth:

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón

System of Ghosts by Lindsay Tigue

World of Made and Unmade by Jane Mead

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay

Trouble the Water by Derrick Austin

Contributor Update: BJ Hollars

Hello, readers! We are happy to announce that B.J. Hollars, a contributor featured in the Fiction Section of our 6th issue, has written a new book available here, titled Flock Together. A chapter preview is available here and provides a sobering glance at the ivory-billed woodpecker, now gone due to deforestation. The book follows a journey to investigate many of America’s now extinct bird population. Flock Together cover art

From Hollars’ website:

After stumbling upon a book of photographs depicting extinct animals, B.J. Hollars became fascinated by the creatures that are no longer with us; specifically, extinct North American birds. How, he wondered, could we preserve so beautifully on film what we’ve failed to preserve in life? And so begins his yearlong journey to find out, one that leads him from bogs to art museums, from archives to Christmas Counts, until he at last comes as close to extinct birds as he ever will during a behind-the-scenes visit at the Chicago Field Museum. Heartbroken by the birds we’ve lost, Hollars takes refuge in those that remain. Armed with binoculars, a field guide, and knowledgeable friends, he begins his transition from budding birder to environmentally conscious citizen, a first step on a longer journey toward understanding the true tragedy of a bird’s song silenced forever.

Told with charm and wit, Flock Together is a remarkable memoir that shows how “knowing” the natural world—even just a small part—illuminates what it means to be a global citizen and how only by embracing our ecological responsibilities do we ever become fully human. A moving elegy to birds we’ve lost, Hollars’s exploration of what we can learn from extinct species will resonate in the minds of readers long beyond the final page.

#ArtLitPhx: Spillers No. 7

spillers no. 7

Spillers is Phoenix’s premier short fiction storytelling event. Spillers makes its Valley Bar debut with installment No. 7.

Spillers is the voice of Phoenix fiction. Every season, cohosts Robert Hoekman Jr. and Brian Dunn handpick 5 incredible writers, put them on a stage, feature them in 2 episodes of the award-winning Spillers After Show podcast and publish their stories in a collectible book.

The event takes place Tuesday, March 14th, 2017 @ 7:30 PM at Valley Bar. Tickets are $5 general admission or  $12 general admission with theSpillers No.7 book. Attendees must be 21 years or older. Books are available for purchase for $10 at the event.

Check out the Facebook event page for more event information.

All Spillers events feature walk-on music, take-home programs, and a custom cocktail crafted just for you by Valley Bar’s fabulous bartenders. This is a seated event, so get there early to save your spot. For more information, visit Spiller’s webpage.