Issue 15 Superstition Review contributor, Les Kay, recently released a poetry collection, The Bureau, withSundress Publications, and it is announced here in a press release.
Enter a daring dystopian high-rise where revolutionary language craves a new kind of survival. The high stakes these poems ante up beneath fluorescent heat to forge addictive identities. Imaginative traps and creeping Stockholm syndrome throughout are signed, sealed, and delivered fresh from the mail room in Kay’s potent arrival.
“Les Kay’s The Bureau is unlike anything I (or you) have ever read. A brilliant series of interconnected poems, it’s like Kafka and Berryman drinking poison tea while discussing the new normal. Funny, strange, and horrifying. Visionary. Bartleby the Scrivener on acid. Rimbaud’s appearance in these poems seems completely natural, inevitable really. Kay has his finger on the pulse of a monster here—a monster called The Bureau.” -Jim Daniels, author of Birth Marks and Eight Mile High
Les Kay holds a PhD with a focus on Creative Writing from the University of Cincinnati and an MFA from the University of Miami,where he was a James Michener Fellow.After he survived the dot-com boom of the early 2000s, his poetry appeared widely in journals such as decomP, PANK, Redactions, South Dakota Review, Southern Humanities Review, Sugar House Review, Whiskey Island, and The White Review. The two maybe related. He is also an Associate Editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection. He currently lives in Cincinnati, teaching writing, caring for three very small dogs, and contemplating the distribution of systemic power and misinformation. The Bureau loves him.
I’m starting my writing day, and just about everything is ready: coffee mug and banana are on the table beside me; my notebook’s open to my last feverish jottings; laptop’s aglow— as Hemingway advises, I left off yesterday in mid-sentence. I’ve even drawn the shade to my study window, heeding Annie Dillard’s counsel to avoid a room with a view “so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” But I’m still not ready to begin work—and I’m momentarily paralyzed by the fear that overnight I was transformed from a real writer into a clueless “wanna-be.”
How do I condition myself to begin? If writing were a 5K race, I’d know how to warm up—light jogging, stretches, a few sprints. But once I’ve coerced imagination and memory to join me at my desk, how do I induce them to converse? How do I create the mood for writing?
This final stage of my daily writing prep is highly personal—I’m sure all writers have “getting started” tricks of their own, and I offer mine only as an example, not as a prescription. (Can you sense that I’m delaying, tip-toeing around my revelation?) Okay—what I do to get started is dig into my vast store of humiliating moments, pull one out, and relive it until I feel my fingertips quiver and the blood rush to my cheeks. When I’ve exposed myself to myself—when I’m as raw and as honest as I’ll ever get, I’m ready to write.
Kafka wrote that a work of literary art “must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” My practice, when beginning to write, is to polish to transparency a patch of my own ice-covered sea—and peer down into the dark waters for a familiar flash of scales that makes me squirm. The feeling I’m looking for—the sense of heightened awareness—is something like Rosencrantz’s in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead when the Player challenges the character to “[t]hink, in your head, now, think of the most . . . private . . . secret . . . intimate thing you have ever done secure in the knowledge of its privacy. . . . Are you thinking of it? Well, I saw you do it!”
What I’m describing is the use of my catalogue of personal humiliations as a stimulus, not as a sourceofsubjects. (With the understanding that this catalogue is always available when I am at the subject-searching stage.) And I should make it clear that by “humiliations,” “embarrassments,” and “mortifications,” I’m not talking about revisiting the tragedies we encounter in life. Tragedies are too grand in scope to suit my purpose—I can’t contemplate a personal, historical, or literary tragedy quick enough for a useful warm-up exercise. And the relief that comes from catharsis, the purging of pity and fear that Aristotle claims to be the end result of literary tragedy, is the opposite of what I’m looking for when I’m beginning my writing day. Bring on Rosencrantz’s shock at being caught—at something.
What about happy moments? Not for me—too warm and fuzzy. Like Tolstoy’s happy families, happy times are basically all the same—picture the cast of Disney on Ice skating to canned cartoon melodies, performers and audience blissfully unaware that Mickey and Minnie’s glittering blades threaten to slash through the surface of Kafka’s frozen sea.
Exhuming a past humiliation requires not warmth, but a tolerance for a kind of lonely coldness — I choose a mortifying moment to suspend in memory, and its icicles drip onto my cheeks. When my chill blush seeps down my neck to my shoulders, my shiver tells me I’m prepared for work: by daring to hide from nothing, I’m free to write about anything.
One of the first (of many) rejections of my novel Revenge of the Teacher’s Pet was from an editor who wrote, “I fear that not even Nabokov’s literary skills could make Mr. Portwit into a likable character.” The character he referred to was Dale Portwit, one of the protagonists of my novel. Mr. Portwit is a 50-year-old middle-school teacher who is, to put it kindly, self-serving, obnoxious, and stubborn. One of his quirks, for example, is insisting that everyone refer to him as “Mr. Portwit” instead of “Dale” because he believes “first-name usage is a privilege, not a right.”
When my second novel, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo, was released, it received some fine praise in a few local newspapers and literary blogs. But the Publisher’s Weekly review was the one I had been waiting eagerly to read. They called my book “relentlessly inventive.” I was thrilled. However, the PW review went on to assert that my characters were “irredeemably unlikable,” which made it difficult to care about the “bizarre goings-on.”
Suddenly all the positive comments I had received didn’t matter: What stuck in my craw was that phrase – “irredeemably unlikable.” I pondered it: Are my characters really that unlikable? In what way? What makes a character likable, anyway? Is it essential to readers that they “like” the protagonists of the books they read? What does it even mean to “like” a character? The concept felt foreign to me.
In 7th grade, I read To Build a Fire by Jack London. It was life-changing. I loved the story so much that I even read it aloud for a class presentation. To Build a Fire is the story of a man (known only as “the man”) who is trekking in the Arctic on his way to another research outpost. The temperature is so cold, however, that all of the “old-timers” have warned him not to venture out alone. He ignores their advice, believing himself to be a capable enough outdoorsman to make it easily. Spoiler alert: the man makes a few crucial mistakes and ends up freezing to death in the snowy wasteland. His supersized ego, his belief that his intelligence and rational thinking are more powerful than nature, ultimately leads to his downfall.
In retrospect, I realize that To Build a Fire was a template for the type of story I loved. Nothing touchy-feely or overly sentimental, yet packing a powerful emotional punch. Something that pushes us to question our role on Earth, the very essence of human existence. No feeling of closeness or affection for the main character; “the man” is not someone I idolized or felt a kinship with or “liked” in any specific fashion. But certainly I was invested in him. Certainly I enjoyed living briefly in his skin. My 8th grade was spent blazing through Stephen King’s novels (and Peter Straub and Dean Koontz – I liked horror). By high school, I had moved on to more so-called “literary” authors: Kafka, Poe, John Kennedy Toole, Dostoevsky, Camus.
The opening passage of The Stranger encapsulates the personality of the narrator, Muersault: “Mother died today; or maybe yesterday.” This is only the beginning of Mersault’s journey of detachment through the novel. He ends up confronting and killing a man on a public beach, apparently for no reason. When Muersault is brought to trial, he offers no defense whatsoever for his actions. In other words, a loveable guy!
Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, Twain’s Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, Wright’s Native Son, Nabokov’s Lolita, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Frank Norris’s McTeague – the hall of my literary heroes, when I step back and catalogue it, is a rogue’s gallery of unlikable characters. I doubt that most people, myself included, would want to spend an afternoon with any of these folks if they were made of flesh and blood. So what does this say about me, as a person? Am I a miscreant, a misanthrope, a misfit?
The honest and boring answer is that I’m none of these things. I don’t like to use the word “average,” but I’m a pretty average guy, at least on the surface. But maybe it’s because I’m a fairly average person that I’m drawn to these unsavory characters. Fiction allows me to walk in the shoes of people who are nothing like me; to observe from a safe distance as characters explore the dark, the absurd, the tragic, and the comically misguided aspects of the self. I can safely live inside the mind of an oddball, a criminal, a buffoon, and then retreat into my own drab routine. The truth is that I read and write stories, in part, in order to live things – people, places, philosophies, beliefs, fears, desires – that I don’t get to experience during my daily grind.
So if my characters are “irredeemably unlikable,” if they are grotesque or “weird,” I can be OK with that – as long as they aren’t predictable or flat. Above all, they must be capable of redemption. Their likability may be “irredeemable,” but I hope their souls aren’t. I’m not interested in perfect characters. I’m not looking for drinking buddies or racquetball partners. I’m not interested in someone like me. Lord knows, I get enough of myself seven days a week.
I don’t seek repellant characters. I don’t set out to create monsters. But I do seek difficult, flawed characters that will push me out of my comfort zone. Three-dimensional people, warts and all; people that are good and bad, ugly and beautiful, sinful and heroic; characters in need of grace.
Don’t misunderstand: there’s nothing wrong with likable characters. I love a charming, personable narrator as much as the next person. I love Scout and Bilbo Baggins and all those adorable and valiant rabbits from Watership Down. Readers seek camaraderie and friendship in the novels they love; or a feeling of connection to experiences and personalities that are familiar.
But as I continue to write, I’ll remind myself that there’s no way to predict what readers want. It’s impossible, and it’s a losing game. The amazing thing about storytelling is that it’s a two-way street; the reader brings their own life to every text they pick up, and they actively help create the characters on the page. All I can do is keep seeing the world the way I see it, trying to push myself and write characters that are living, breathing people, and raise the unanswerable questions about why we’re here.
I am a burner of books. The blasphemers Nietzsche and Rimbaud. The madmen Kafka and Borges. I have burned them all.
It started on a jaunt into the wilderness. A day off from working at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. I was the maître d’ of the restaurant, an odd job for a rural teenager just off the high plains of nowhere Wyoming. I seated customers from Europe, Asia, and towns like Gallup, New Mexico. I didn’t like it. I hadn’t read Sartre yet, but already had an inkling that hell is other people. I craved silence.
When the chance came to get away into the woods for a day, I jumped on it. A work acquaintance (I can’t remember his name or where he came from) drove to a trailhead and, daypacks slung on our backs, we set off into the woods. Blue sky. Quiet. The makings of a good day. I brought some books to read.
We hiked the trail for a couple of hours following the neon orange markers tacked seven or eight feet high on the trunks of pine trees. I assumed the markers had been placed so high for the benefit of snowmobilers. It was Yellowstone, after all, and the snow really piled up in winter. Yellowstone Park was a snowmobiler’s dream.
Suddenly, the trail was covered with snowpack. It was early May, if I recall correctly, and though we had been steadily climbing, we didn’t expect it. We stopped and consulted the map (no GPS in those days). According to the topographic, the trail looped back around and down to the main road in a few more miles. We decided to risk it. We walked into the snow.
The going was tough. Our feet got cold. We had failed to bring coats and shivered in plaid flannel shirts. We were stupid and we knew it. We had made up our minds, though, and the way forward, according to the map, was shorter than the way back. We kept at it, feet breaking through four-foot drifts.
I had just wanted to get away for the day. Find a spot under a pine or in a meadow and sit and read and bask in quiet.
A bank of metal gray clouds, intrepid and menacing, appeared out of nowhere muffling the light. Cold breeze. By dusk we were in trouble. Snow fell from a sky we could no longer see. The neon markers on the trees became less and less visible. My companion wanted to go on. I disagreed. We needed fire and daylight. Then, like good boys, we’d turn around and head back the way we came.
By the time the decision was made, it was almost dark. We gathered wood by breaking dead twigs and branches from nearby pines. There wasn’t any kindling so I did what I had to do. I tore pages from Thus Spake Zarathustra and wadded them up and lit them. Snow fell thick. We warmed our stiff fingers and curled next to the meager flames.
By the time morning dawned, blue and icy, I had burned all four of the books in my daypack. I rolled the pages into tight little cylinders and fed them to the fire.
When we made it back to the Old Faithful Inn, I locked myself in my room and soaked in a hot bath. Blisters covered my thighs and shins, so close had I been to the fire of burning words.
I refused to go to work that evening, exhausted from exposure. The manger fired me and told me to leave by the next day.
I replaced the books upon returning to civilization. It was the least I could do.
Every now and then, when backpacking in the Gila Wilderness, I burn a book in my campfire after I finish reading it. I burn only those books that I deem well written and deep. The others I donate to the used bookstore back in town. Ceremony. A way with words.