Guest Post: Robert Detman, Letter From Japan

On Not Knowing

 

View of the roof in Japan

Photo by Robert Detman

From the window of our Tokyo hotel, we overlook an economics college on whose balconies and roof deck congregate about a dozen students. A couple of them throw a football; some go off and stand alone on the roof to smoke cigarettes. I haven’t seen a lot of activity at the school today, compared to yesterday; it’s a Friday evening. As I scan the brick facade, in another set of windows I see a man practicing what appears to be agile karate moves. When I look again, the group is making their way down to the fifth level deck. Several in this group run around, in what appears to be an aggressive game of tag. Much good-natured yelling and hooting is going on.

It doesn’t matter that this is Japan. It could be in New York City and I still wouldn’t know what those kids are doing, although I’m culturally closer to understanding the activities of a group of American college students.

I’m writing this near the end of almost two weeks in Japan, and what has struck me about the country is how little I know about what I see around me. As well, how in the dark I am with the language, having picked up some while here. But as this is rudimentary, I struggle to communicate.

A few observations: How are the streets so clean they look like you could eat off them–yet how can there be no trash bins to be found anywhere? Why the high-tech toilets with a control panel that looks like it requires a Ph.D. in rocket science to operate? How come I can’t find any fruit and when I do, it’s outrageously pricey? Why are there only five brands of beer (all Japanese, all lager)? Why is everyone in such a hurry to get where they are going, at any time of the day (even the Metro signs read “Don’t Rush” in English)? In the Tsukiji fish market—a warehouse about the size of three football fields–where will all that fish go? And what is the obsession with baseball, and American jazz, the latter of which is like muzak, it’s everywhere. As are vending machines.

Photo of Robert Detman on the streets in Japan

Photo by Robert Detman

For a Californian who is making his best effort to match the symbols on the map with the ones he sees on the street signs, this is Japan.

The people, I should add, are generally nice, even uncannily respectful. An old man shook my hand when I held the door open for him. Japan is a curiously orderly society. I’m reminded of what first intrigued me when I watched Chris Marker’s 1983 experimental film, Sans Soleil, which is only indirectly about Japan, but contains enough enigmas about the country to pique a writer’s curiosity.

Looking out my hotel window, I feel like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. I get that lazy voyeuristic survey, waiting and expecting, or not, to see something, all of which would barely register in my awareness but for the fact that I am curious.

So much of my writing practice is inward looking. To write is to imagine. Usually I write fiction, or I write about what I am reading. I often write on what I’m thinking about. The notes I make for myself are a few steps removed from my attempt to put them into a context where I might utilize them.

I’m much less versed in the task I set for myself in Japan, writing about what is happening around me. As I want to document my trip, I attempt to catch myself in the act of noticing. This could be too obvious, perhaps to the point of self-consciousness. But on the other hand, it is not, because I lose myself in the unfamiliar, the people, their mannerisms, the general conforming of a populace to local customs. Being 5500 miles removed from my usual day to day experience, I am immersed.

There’s not much practical use I have for these observations, unless of course I can apply them to a character, but it’s hard for me to see how I would extract from the general, into the particular. And to know a character, I need particulars. To inhabit an unfamiliar culture means that I can’t really know what motivates people, nor in what I’m going to find. I’m trying to do this without any Western bias of interpretation, yet the process of observation seems to get me no closer to understanding.

This dovetails with a notion I have about the writing process: writing is so generated by unknowable impulses that it cannot help but enfold a mystery. And because of this, the result itself, whether fiction or nonfiction, is often an illustration of the process.

Photo of bikes in the street

Photo by Robert Detman

On the other hand, so many writers seem to pay lip service to this notion of not knowing what it is they do—am I making the mistake of trying to demystify the process?  I’m only concerned if it takes away the motivation, or places undue expectation on what I will write.

The workings of writing are unconscious. If I know ahead of time what I’m going to write, why should I bother to write it? I let the mechanism work unimpeded. Writing is 99% not knowing what I’m going to write, and 1% knowing only that I’m going to write. The unknown for me—and I’d suspect, for a lot of writers—is in, what will I write?

But to return to the economics college roof deck. I still have no idea what those students are doing. I have seen, and will see, before the trip is out, many more things I have no clue about, and have no basis for understanding. And so I make notes.

I love the inherent mystery of not knowing. Maybe this is what keeps me writing. Maybe I never know, even after I try to convince myself of what I’m writing, what I’m writing about. This is a metaphor for my experience in Japan. It’s also a metaphor for my writing. I remind myself that the more I write, the closer I get.

SR Pod/Vod Series: Poet Nick DePascal

Nick DePascalEach Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Nick DePascal.

Nick DePascal lives in Albuquerque, NM with his wife, son, three dogs, and three chickens, and teaches at the University of New Mexico.  His first book, Before You Become Improbable, will be published by West End Press in summer 2014. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Narrative, The Laurel Review, RHINO, The Los Angeles Review, Emerson Review, Aesthetix, and more.

You can listen to the podcast on our iTunes Channel.

You can read along with the work in Superstition Review.

Guest Post, Brad Modlin: When Not Singing Into My Spatula Microphone, I Play Metaphor Games

Here´s a game I play in the kitchen: I rip out pictures from magazines and tape them to my cabinets. 

Selected at random, their only similarity is that they’re interesting enough to look at for a while. (No ads for Xerox machines or anything like that.) The game is that you find what these pictures can have in common.

pushing daisiesOnce I ended up with a saxophone player, a train track, and an ad for the TV show, Pushing Daisies.

For weeks, while I was stirring soup or waiting for my pasta pot to boil, I looked up at these pictures and built bridges. Maybe the Daisies couple had pressed their ears to the ground to hear the music of the approaching train. Or, a different bridge—the bell of the saxophone was circular like the wheel of the train and the center of the daisy. Also, the saxophonist’s hair was grass-like. Or maybe he was a hobo who hopped trains searching for the brunette he once loved in the grass. Each picture contained death: the TV show about the girl who died, the abandoned train track, and the jazz of a New Orleans funeral.

saxophoneIt was a simple—and surprisingly fun—way to build my metaphor muscles. And the longer those same pictures were on the cabinets, the more challenging it became to find new connections. 

Plus, as several other writers have reported on this blog, we can all go through spells when we’re not exactly writing. In those times, this picture game can be a way to trick yourself into staying in shape.

When I tape other magazine cutouts to the chalkboard and share the game with my students, they really get into it and always create similarities I hadn’t anticipated. Poetry classes often find sensory connections: the noisy motorboat probably screams like the pregnant woman will do when she goes into labor. Or they easily do what teachers frequently hope they will—explain an abstract concept via a concrete image. The Egyptian queen from the museum photo, they say, is proud and stubborn and as unflinching as the blue mountain from the magazine cover. 15257638-railroad-tracks-surrounded-by-green-grass

The fiction students find narratives. They link five pictures together into one story, and then I add a sixth picture, and they come up with a complete different plot or character. Maybe the desert that was the setting becomes the loneliness that motivates the main character. 

If you want to give it a try yourself, here are some pictures:

staircase

tattoo

cancer cowboys

kittynew

Maybe the fight with cancer is like the dragon tattoo versus the Godzilla toy. Maybe that’s The Grim Reaper on the staircase. Maybe smoking makes you cough like a cat with a hairball.

Or, maybe the cat is waiting for someone to feed her, the ghostly staircase figure is floating to the dining room, the little boy wants someone to fix him an afternoon snack, and the cowboys are on their way to campfire soup. Maybe everyone is hungry and wishing the cook would pay more attention to the pot on the stove, and less attention to the pictures taped to the cabinets.

Teague Bohlen Talks Superheroes

Professor Teague Bohlen recently visited ASU in partnership with Superstition Review and Project Humanities to discuss the evolution of the superhero in narrative. Along with providing a closer look at spandex tights and masks, Teague presented the history of comics as it relates to the rise, fall and comeback of the narrative. It was fascinating to learn how such seemingly small stories have affected the development of narrative structure over the last several decades.

Superheroes in Narrative

Teague began his talk by explaining that comic superheroes were not always the same virtuous characters they are today. In fact, he pointed out several instances where the early Superman and Batman figures instigated violence and actually killed people out of rage. Hollywood’s version of Clark Kent would never commit such an offense, so how did this change in character come about?

At first, comics served a wide audience of children and adults with edgy story lines. In fact, comics were so popular in their early years that they became a strong force of advertising and propaganda during WWII. Who can resist the pressure when even “Captain Marvel joins the Navy”? However, after the war, comics returned to stories involving monsters, crime and homeland violence.

In the 1950’s there was a shift in the content of comics with the adoption of the CCA—Comic Code Authority. While some people viewed the reduced violence and “criminal content” in comics as a benefit to society, Teague discussed the devastating effect these restrictions had on the narrative plots within comic books. As he put it, “Imagine if everything on television had to be appropriate for a 5 year-old.” Suddenly comic storylines became surface-level and simplistic, and a few publishers replaced the dialogue almost entirely with comic art. Fortunately, over the last decade comics have made an impressive comeback as publishers have bypassed the CCA and returned to a more creative approach to storytelling.

Overall Teague’s talk left us with countless nerdy facts and a much greater appreciation for the role comics have played in the history of storytelling. I can speak for everyone present when I say it was a delight—and the superhero cookies weren’t half bad either. Thank you for a wonderful presentation, Teague. We do hope you come again.

You can view a video of the presentation here.

The Masters Review Call for Submissions; Deadline March 31

The Masters ReviewEach year The Masters Review pairs with a guest judge to select the 10 best stories written by students in an MA, MFA, or PhD creative writing program. This year’s guest judge is AM Homes. The Masters Review aims to expose the best among emerging writers by producing fiction and narrative nonfiction that is progressive, diverse, and well-crafted. Only students who are currently enrolled are eligible, and we only accept work under 7000 words. For full guidelines and information please see our submissions page. Deadline for submissions is March 31, 2013.

For writers who are not in a graduate-level creative writing program and have not published a novel-length work, please consider sending us work for our New Voices category. New Voices is open year round and represents the work of emerging authors that we publish online. To submit, go here.

Guest Blog Post, Patrick Madden: Finding My Way

So without stopping to choose my way, in the sure and certain knowledge that it will find itself—or if not it will not matter—I begin the first memory.

— Virginia Woolf “A Sketch of the Past”

Patrick MaddenOne of the earliest writing lessons I learned (I refer to creative writing, not elementary school writing) is this: that I should allow my writing to guide itself instead of beginning with my conclusion already in mind. This is common advice, something you’ve likely heard yourself, but I repeat it here because I can remember how I struggled with it, how I tried to believe it in theory without putting it into practice. And I see again and again student pieces that seem to be transcripts (sometimes elaborations) of a predetermined narrative and meaning with no room for detours from “the point.” The writing in these is sometimes very clean, even beautiful, but it simply serves the goal, without being part of the process.

Now I would not say that I have arrived at any fully formed writing abilities, but I have learned to trust in the notion that I should write without knowing where I’m going. Whereas I once tried to express in words the lessons I’d already processed from highlight-stories I’d experienced, I now attempt to find or create connections between seemingly dissimilar things that flit into my consciousness coincidentally. The act itself is as fun as it is rewarding, and even when it fails, it gives me good exercise.

One recent example, among many, came to me as I was sitting in Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario watching the Uruguayan national team play a World Cup qualifier match against Ecuador. I knew I wanted to write something about Uruguay’s improbable and, frankly, amazing soccer tradition, going back nearly a century and including two Olympic championships followed by two World Cup championships, and I wanted to tie this to the team’s recent resurgence as a FIFA powerhouse. Soccer is a great source of pride for Uruguayans, and I, who’ve lived in the country for four years and who’ve married a Uruguayan, share the sentiment. But I did not want to write a straightforward narrative (“I went to the stadium to watch Uruguay play against Ecuador… It was a 1-1 tie… Let me tell you about Uruguayan soccer history…”). So I kept my eyes and ears open in the stadium for other entry points to help me essay the theme instead of simply writing the story.

I thought I found my hook when I was startled by a loudspeaker promotional jingle playing all through the stadium during the middle of the match. It was hawking ball bearings. How strange, I thought, that someone would think it worth their advertising pesos to blast such a commercial to a stadium filled not with auto mechanics or race-car fans, but futbol aficionados.

But just as I didn’t understand the advertising strategy, I couldn’t see how ball bearings and soccer could work together in my essay, other than in a superficial way (the one happened during the other). So I began to write. The sentences themselves suggested what might come next, and from the process of stringing words together I got to what I think is a halfway decent connection. I’ve not achieved literary brilliance, but I’ve discovered something I didn’t see before, and my essay is a new creation that never was in the world before. In any case, it’s reaffirmed the lesson about letting the writing find its own way, which I took so long to learn.

NOTE: The essay I refer to can be read at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, along with others I’ve written, at this link: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/columns/dispatches-from-montevideo

Guest Blog Post, Joan Colby: Old Lady Poems

“An old lady poem,” was the judgment of a friend recently. I was offended, then considered—at 73, am I getting to be an old lady? How could that happen!

Yet, the poems I wrote in my 20s were sharper and less reflective. Many had to do with self-discovery, the landscape of the young. As time passed, I found this investigation tiresome. It was easier to accept the person I have always been, or through decades have become.

My poems shaded into narrative. Though I write short fiction, I found my natural rhythm and voice more suited to the poem, yet story increasingly intrigued me. Subject matter changed too. Poems on the struggles of relationships—parental, sexual, marital, social gave way to less personal, more external topics.

I wrote a series of poems on criminals and on saints (featured in The Lonely Hearts Killers), a chapbook on art (The Chagall Poems), on the natural world (The Boundary Waters) and most recently on decades of country life with a noir flavor (Dead Horses). It seems a predictable progression. While I am still interested in, and write about, a variety of subjects, with the passage of the years, elegies replace love lyrics, ruminations on illness, loss, loneliness and death, for good or ill, are new preoccupations.

I hope I’ve retained the sardonic outlook that speaks to my dread of falling prey to “old lady poems.” Hera forbid, I become a character in one of my own such as “Red Hats.”

RED HATS

A hat tribe based on a poem
Praising a notion of insouciance.

The intention to wear purple
With a red hat when old

Incited not a revolution
But a convention of the like-minded.

Not the war bonnet
Prescribed

But a herd of red hats
Grazing their salads.