Guest Blog Post, an Interview with Laura Esther Wolfson

Cover of "For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors."

Photo courtesy of the author.

This past summer, the Review’s Student Editor-in-Chief Jackie Aguilar interviewed Laura Esther Wolfson, author of For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, released this past June with University of Iowa Press.

  1. Did the essay “For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors” inspire you to write the essay collection of the same title? If not, what inspired this collection?

There was no single inspiration for the entire book; each section had its own inspiration. I remember the triggering moments for only a few of them. I wrote the sections sporadically over the course of a decade and half, and one by one, they appeared in magazines. The title essay, written around 2013, was among the last to be written and individually published.

As those years of writing were passing, I did not conceive of the parts as a collection. Only very late, when almost all of them were written, did it occur to me that they belonged together.

  1. What was the most difficult part in the process of creating For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors [the book, not the essay]?

It was difficult to write regularly while working full-time, caring for infirm, elderly parents, managing a degenerative illness of my own, and sharing a studio apartment with another person plus two cats, the latter, bellies bulging, stretched out across my keyboard or patting my pen with their chocolate point paws. It was difficult to pursue the essay form (or whatever it is that I write; readers, including reviewers, do not agree), given the ubiquity and primacy of the novel and unceasing reminders from gatekeepers that collections don’t sell. Finally, it was difficult to resist the seductions of social life and the Internet. I failed again and again, at all of these things.

  1. Writing is at times a healing journey for writers. Was writing these essays a healing journey for you? What did it give you?

I approach writing as a process, with little thought to outcome. It’s true that each section is about some sort of loss, and that I fashioned each loss into a written creation, so that the writing resulted in certain gains. Writing these pieces did make me into a better writer, and publication of the book did make me into an author, serendipitously providing me with a readymade new identity just as my health worsened to the point where I could no longer continue at my day job.

However—and what follows here is a catalogue of many of the topics the book covers—(the) writing and authorship did not save any marriages, remedy childlessness, restore health, or make up lost income. In fact, writing and publishing the book heightened my awareness of those lacks and losses.

None of this is a disappointment, though; I did not write in order to heal.

  1. Your work as a Russian linguist looms large in many sections of For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors. Can you expand on how your knowledge of other languages and work as a translator/interpreter has affected your writing and transformed your view of writing?

An awareness of the world as a large and multifarious place led me to languages, and languages then increased my awareness of the size and diversity of the world. Between my awareness of the world and my interest in literature, history and international affairs there exists a similar circularity.

We translators and interpreters often fret that our work is not ‘substantive,’ i.e., that our language expertise is in service to the thoughts, information and knowledge of others. However, deep and sustained language study and language work (as a translator, interpreter, transcriber or terminologist) lead inevitably to a grasp of whatever topic is taken up in the documents or meetings assigned (for example, international humanitarian law, nuclear physics, renewable energy, etc.), as well as a general familiarity with geography, geopolitics, history, international affairs, foreign cultures, language acquisition and immigrant adaptation, both linguistic and cultural. It is these latter topics especially that find their way into my work.

Knowledge of other languages gives me a varied palette, providing access to more—of everything: more worldviews, literatures, stories, current events, histories, jokes, folktales, proverbs, syntaxes, grammars, etymologies, words, and most of all, more meanings, and more meaning.

As a translator-turned-writer, I am of course obsessed with accuracy and style; le mot juste is crucial. For the translator, this means fidelity to the source document. For the writer, it means fidelity to the thing depicted, whether that is something that exists in the world outside the creator’s mind and soul, or within.

  1. What writing project are you currently working on? Does it have a connection to your essay collection “For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors”?

I’m now at work on a long autofiction about love, infidelity and chronic illness, with embedded nuggets of flash literary criticism and flash international affairs punditry. Super-Pricey Royal Blue French Lace Bra is the working title. The voice is recognizably mine, and it partakes of many of the same obsessions present in For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors. However, it is an entirely separate work.

#ArtLitPhx: Mesa Arts Festival

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Event Description:

The Mesa Arts Festival is the best place to kick-start your holiday spirit and finish off your shopping list. Snack on culinary delights as you stroll through the wide array of handmade offerings from local, regional and national artists. Enjoy fun for the whole family with artist demonstrations, roaming entertainers and two stages packed with amazing talent.

FREE parking and admission!

https://www.mesaartscenter.com/mesaartsfestival

Guest Blog Post, Edmund Sandoval: The Things You Put in Your Head Sometimes Make It into the World

An anatomically drawn brain.

Photo credit on hover.

This much is true: I haven’t been writing much lately. At least not creatively. Or with any kind of fervor or grace. I have been writing, though. I’ve been writing copy. Like that scruffy guy in Mad Men. The one who eventually cut off his nipple. Ginsburg. I’ve been writing ads and newsletters and product descriptions and stuff like that. Content for websites. It pays the bills and then some. It affords a life of minor plenty. But it does not inspire. It’s commerce, it’s not art. Though, sometimes, and only sometimes, I like to joke that it’s the other way around, and that it is in fact art, not commerce, as periodically an occasion presents me with the opportunity to splash a bit of that woebegotten grace around the page/screen. You’ve seen the work I did for that luxury hotel? In Chicago? So I’ve been writing but I haven’t been writing. I’ve been losing writing. Displacing water. Something-something.

In lieu of writing, I’ve been thinking of writing. I’ve been reminiscing. Pulling notes of old harmony from the sticky depths of my glial stew. It has given me that subtle kind of joy that’s so often associated with nostalgia for things gone by: years, cardigans, cross country trips with my brother.

To that end, I have been thinking of firsts. Not those kinds of firsts. These kinds of firsts. First story written; first story/essay published; first book (what book?); and so on. You’ve been there right? Not writing like you feel you ought to be. That self-generated guilt. Rafts of the stuff. Right. So here we go.

First Story: I started writing my first story outside of Orland, California. I was living at the Farm Sanctuary. I was living in a communal home and surrounded by hills and the smell of cows and ducks and pigs and the like. There were three donkeys and no horses. There was a herd of skittish sheep that ran through the hills like dirty laundry possessed of a poltergeist.

I was younger, then. Twenty-two, I think. I was a vegan, then. And strong. And kind of angry. But mainly happy. And careless.

There wasn’t much to do out there. The internet connection was spotty.

Out there, you could spend time with the staff who lived in the communal house and those who didn’t. You could walk the hills. You could run them. You could go into the forests if you could catch a ride or to the Black Butte Lake Reservoir on an old mountain bike. You could suck down beers and smoke a single cigarette while watching the sunset with a woman named Anne. Those are things I did.

Too, there was downtime and alone time. So I read and napped with a cat whose fur was a luminescent shade of gray that trended blue when hit with the sun. I read Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Haruki Murakami. Toni Morrison. Yukio Mishima. Pearl Buck. Borges. Peter Singer. Whatever was leftover from staff that had come to live in the communal house before eventually leaving. I read magazines. Sometimes the cat would pee on my shirts. The staff who’d been there for awhile said it was because it liked me and didn’t want me to leave, though I, too, eventually would.

It was after I closed the back flap of One-Hundred Years of Solitude that it struck me: I should write a story/I will a story/Let’s write a story! And like in fairy tales of and the lore of writers new and old, the story came to me prepackaged and ready to use.

All I had to do was write it.

Which I did.

In between my chores and after dinner in the communal house. While I emptied feed troughs and mucked barns. It was about an old guy who was friends with a ficus tree. As it goes, the story was called: “Ficus Tree.” It was probably clichéd as all get. But I had to write it. Like a new tooth coming in and shoving aside the old. A tendril pressing through the hull of its seed.

There was a scene I remember liking, the man leaning against a pane of frosted glass in winter and the skin of ice evaporating around his profile as he sat and drank.

When I was through, I printed it out and shared it around with my housemates. It was momentous (for me, at least), as it laid bare the roadmap my life was looking for.

That story, though, is long gone. I’d saved it on a hard floppy but who knows where that ended up. Maybe my mom has a copy somewhere. Probably it is full of typos and tense errors and springs too tightly wound. I’d like to see it again, if possible. I’ll ask her if she held on to it. I wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t.

First Published Story: I was spinning my wheels and waiting to get into graduate school when my first story was submitted and accepted for publication.

I was living with my mom and stepdad in Carbondale, Illinois. It was a good time. I hadn’t a job yet had some money. I drank whiskey with my town friends. I ran fast around the lake situated on the campus of the local university.

The story? Well, it was accepted by the Paris Review!! It was such a shock. Like realizing, suddenly, I could levitate at will. I’m kidding. It was accepted by The Thieves Jargon, an online-only publication. You remember it? I feel like people liked appearing in that one. Like getting something accepted and published by elimae. Like elimae, The Thieves Jargon has gone the way of the ghost. Even its archives are extinct. Scraped from the face of the earth. Like river silt washed into and swallowed by the ocean.

The story was heavily (and I mean heavily) influenced by Rick Bass’s “Mississippi.” My story was called “Agnes is Gorgeous.” It was about a guy and a woman named Agnes. I don’t think the guy had a name. I think it was in written in the third person. Or maybe it was the first?

(I’d started working on it New Orleans, on the floor of my friend’s apartment, writing under the swirl of the ceiling fan and caressing the keys of my gigantic Dell Inspiron laptop.)

In the story, the couple were together, though I don’t remember what they did together or what drove the story. My sense memory tells me that they were nice enough to each other, that they were perhaps too dependent on each other, that they had a box fan in the window. Probably they drank iced tea and were familiar with each other more often than not.

Anything else, I don’t know.

What I do know is that when I received the acceptance email from the editors at Thieves, I damn well did levitate up the stairs from my mother’s basement and into the kitchen to tell her and my stepdad that I was to be a published author. It was the most incredible feeling I’d felt in a long while, as I’d already been loved by someone not my parents. It was validation that my work had some merit, however fleeting or thin. While Thieves was still up and running, I’d come to publish another tiny story or two in the magazine. Stories about deli workers wrapping steaks in thick white paper. Laborers. The times I knew when I was between schools and standing on ladders and swinging sledge hammers and breathing in crystalline silica dust and coughing it up at night after hours and hours of drinking.

First Published Essay: The one season of little league I participated in, I tried my best to emulate Will “The Thrill” Clark, first baseman (at least when I was a player) for the San Francisco Giants.

He wore number twenty-two.

His first homerun occurred during his first professional at bat, off of Nolan Ryan.

I admired him because, when in the box, he held his bat like a hobo held a bindle stick, slung carelessly behind the back, its end tipping toward the ground in a careless little wag and dance.

I was living in Wisconsin when The Thrill would come to feature in my first foray into essay.

I was working for the state, at the time.

I was most definitely hating life, at the time, and my own in particular.

I had a cubicle, then, and was checking my Twitter account and in the doing, saw that a literary magazine I followed had a call for writing having to do with baseball. That magazine was Hobart Pulp. I hadn’t any thoughts of sharing pieces of myself through writing or writing of baseball until the moment I saw that tweet. But when I did, I said to myself: Let’s write about little league and Will Clark and being a kid with a younger brother being raised, at that time, primarily by our mom, who was doing her best but who did not, when taking me to the Hibbett Sports Store at the Carbondale mall to buy an aluminum baseball bat and white leather (fresh!) batting gloves, did not buy me a protective cup (I already had a ball glove). And I, being in fifth grade, was too terrified and shy to ask for one, as doing so would implicitly/explicitly imply and foretell that I was growing up, so off I went into the fields and dugouts of the sporting complex with nothing but my reflexes and a polycotton fabric blend to protect me from the potential energy stored within a baseball.

As mentioned, I had a stupid job (it really was) in a stupid department in a stupid state and though I didn’t like to, I did my work and still had plenty plenty of time to sit there in my desk chair, idling with my two screens open, my official work stuff always up, my writing stuff off to the side, always ready, at first, to minimize the page, and always ready, later, to just keep it up.

So when the prompt hovered in front of me in my cubicle area, I pulled up a fresh Word Doc and started typing away about Will Clark and being from a broken home (ha), the only one among my friends with divorced friends.

I wrote about striking out all the time and Will Clark’s beautiful swing, as gorgeous a thing as Ken Griffey Jr’s, and how it was almost more gorgeous than KG’s because Will Clark looked more like a guy who’d just clambered down from a deer stand than an athlete who could loft balls out of the park as easy pressing a glass to the little piece that made ice fall from an automatic ice dispenser.

I wrote it sent it out and it was accepted and published, I think, in 2015, April, the usual month Hobart holds kicks off its baseball theme.

I guess it was a coming of age piece, in a way.

It was so much fun to write while sitting in that drab cubicle, in the sense that it provided a kind of sanctuary from the doldrums I was so often kicking around in those days.

It was a pleasure to think of Will Clark and how I saw his glove and cleats in Cooperstown, a place he’ll probably only ever visit as a guest. In the years since, I’ve had the pleasure of having a poem and short story accepted by Hobart and asides from my own personal sense of accomplishment, they’re just a damn fine journal whose staff work tirelessly to highlight excellent writers across the board.

We’re at the end now. This mosey down memory lane is the most writing I’ve done in awhile. It was fun. It felt good. It said to me, as I was writing, stop taking on so many freelance projects, guy. Your job is enough. Writing is more important than a few extra bucks. And it is. So I should. And maybe I will. If I know what’s good for me.

#ArtLitPhx: Piper Writers Studio Showcase

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Event Description:

See what the students and faculty of the #PiperWritersStudio have been up to with short readings of fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, and more.

Piper Writers Studio Showcase
Sunday, December 9, 2018, 1:00 to 3:00 p.m.
Changing Hands Phoenix (300 W Camelback Rd, Phoenix, AZ 85013)

For more information and to RSVP, visit http://piper-writers-studio-showcase.eventbrite.com

Readers will be announced in mid-to late November.

If you are interested in reading and have taken or taught a Piper Writers Studio class within the last year, you can send the Piper Center an email at pipercenter.info@asu.edu for more details.

Authors Talk: Joe Bardin

Today we are pleased to feature author Joe Bardin as our Authors Talk series contributor. In this podcast, Joe discusses the process of envisioning and writing his essay “Trenton into Time.”

Joe reflects how he first realized “that there was an essay to write” during a conversation with his housemates, where he “started talking about this period of my life…And I realized… that the things I was recounting were, in some sense, remarkable.” He affirms that “I think there’s a kind of epiphany that some writers experience, when at different points we realize that… our experience matters, that it has some kind of meaning or substance,” and states that, “That’s what got me going onto ‘Trenton into Time.'”

“We all sort of live ‘on top’ of these stories and experiences that have happened to us,” Joe declares. “We may remember or not remember [them] clearly, or consider or not consider [them] important, but underneath lie these moments in time that are part of who we are.” He calls the exploration of such moments “a kind of archaeology,” stating that “the person we are now is like the city built on top of a hill that’s full of relics of the past.” He emphasizes that “there’s something very intimate about remembering… and making some kind of sense of it now.”

You can read Joe’s essay, “Trenton into Time,” in Issue 19 of Superstition Review.

#ArtLitPhx: HFR Issue 63 Release Party & Open Mic

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Date: December 7, 2018

Time: 7pm-9pm

Event Description:

Please join the ASU MFA program and Hayden’s Ferry Review in celebrating the release of Issue 63 during the First Fridays Art Walk in December. This year, we are partnering with Rosemarie Dombrowski, curator of the Phoenix Poetry Series and professor of English on the downtown ASU campus, to host a reading and open mic.

Our editorial team will start with readings from the new issue and then we will open up the stage to the public.

About the issue

Issue 63 of Hayden’s Ferry Review has willed itself into an (unofficial) women’s issue. The writing we are publishing navigates, among other things, the myriad hues of womanhood. We have griefs & ecstasies, the defiance of gender roles, she-wolves & deer women, the literal & mythical possibilities of what it means to be called or call yourself a woman. The journal features art exclusively from women, including LA-based Phoenix artist Elizabeth Brice-Heames, Julia Justo (Argentina), visual artist & poet Saretta Morgan, & Phoenix’s own Maria Nancy Thomas. This issue is representative of the possibilities that words & the spaces for words can create, voices of the “othered” sing, the vulnerable reclaim their power & the marginalized defy their relegation through their embodied humanity. These are works that demand your attention & hold it through tenderness & risk, that move you to move, to do more than feel for but to be there, & most of all to listen.

Location

The event will take place at 407 E. Roosevelt, the patio space situated between Modified Arts and the historic house on the corner.

Guest Blog Post, Darrin Doyle: No Laughing Matter

Cover of "Scoundrels Among Us" by Darren Doyle.

Photo courtesy of Tortoise Press.

Spoiler alert: My new story collection Scoundrels Among Us isn’t going to win the National Book Award. It’s not even going to be nominated. It’s not going to take home the Pulitzer Prize or the Pen/Faulkner Award, either. None of those accolades will be mine.

But am I crying? Heck no! I’m not bitter because truthfully, the deck is stacked against me. I never had a shot in the first place. And I’m not alone, either. Thousands of terrific writers aren’t going to win these prizes – not because they’re bad or inferior to those nominees but because of the kind of books they write. Plain and simple, these writers are: Just. Too. Funny.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that what our culture deems Great Art is typically synonymous with Serious Art – subjects containing gravity, tragedy, emotional heft. The story must deal with dramatic circumstances, and with a straight face. War. Divorce. Poverty. Oppression. Think Grapes of Wrath and A Farewell to Arms. Think To the Lighthouse and Beloved. (All amazing books, by the way!)

To make the audience laugh, to spin yarns of absurdity, parody, satire, or – Heaven forbid – slapstick is akin to the artist not wrestling meaningfully with anxiety, trauma, sadness, anger, or pain. This is what our culture implies, anyway, through its judgement. Just look at the track record.

Peruse the winners of the big literary awards – National Book Award, Pulitzer, Pen/Faulkner – and you’ll find a few outliers (Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, John Kennedy Toole), but in general the majority of prize-winners tackle dramatic subjects using dramatic voice and tone. Sure, humorists like Twain and Vonnegut wiggle into the conversation of “serious” literature. But these are the rare exception. Over the past sixty years maybe a dozen comic novels or collections have taken the top prize – in all major awards combined.

The disparity is equally pronounced in film. According to filmsite.org the Best Picture Award has been given to a comedy just 14% of the time (and that’s only tracking data up until 2001; anecdotally, I can’t remember a full-on comedy winning in the past seventeen years). Sure, a few have been nominated, but not many; and the fact that they never win tells us a lot about how our culture ranks their importance.

(Let’s not even mention humorous songs. These get banished to the novelty graveyard faster than you can say, “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.”)

So it’s apparent that our cultural critics poo-poo the value – the seriousness – of a good laugh. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. Even philosophers have historically beaten up on comedy like a bunch of drunken footballers.

However, there might be hope. The tide may be turning. New research has discovered all sorts of evidence that comedy is no joke.

For starters, people who dig comedy are smarter. Plain and simple. Psychologists now say that understanding jokes is directly related to intelligence and social IQ.

Then there are the numerous health benefits of laughing: stress reduction, lowered blood pressure, improving your immune system, and even “stimulating your organs” (woah!).

And a couple of years ago, Writer’s Digest came out with a cool list of the storytelling benefits of comedy.

By the way, I’m not arguing that comic fiction is better or more valuable than dramatic. I’m saying down with these sorts of stratifications! There’s room in our lives for all kinds of art.

The truth is that humor is a powerful way of coping with, raising questions about, and addressing the grave, troubling, frightening issues. After all, “Suffering is the destiny of all of God’s creatures; but to laugh in the face of suffering . .. that is distinctly human.” Someone famous said that, didn’t they? Wait, I said it. It sounds kind of right to me, though. Anyone can suffer, but to bring joy out of suffering? To raise questions about inequality, war, life, pain, and death while also making us laugh? That’s special. But it’s not simply a matter of giggling at agony; it’s that laughter brings us together. It binds us.

There’s a feeling of connection in sharing a joke. Humor welcomes us into its world. Humor takes us by the hand and says, “You’re going to like it here.” Humor lets our guard down: not only the guard of the reader, but of the writer. Humor embraces cognitive dissonance and critical thinking, and perhaps most importantly, humor is democratic.

It’s the voice of the people. In a day and age where diversity is crucial; when more than ever we strive to become a multicultural society and finally live up to the promises of our American Dream, in which all people are created equal – in this day and age, embracing the concept of comedy as serious literature might be the key. Laughter is the song of humanity, the salve for our burns, the spigot for our grief that floods the parched soil of tragedy with life-giving water. (Exaggeration is another nice form of comedy.)

But don’t just take it from me. Take it from those philosophers, who eventually came to value the democratic power of laughter: “In comedy there are more characters and more kinds of characters, women are more prominent, and many protagonists come from lower classes. Everybody counts for one.”