Join Superstition Review in congratulating one of our past faculty advisors, Sara Sams, on her forthcoming book, Atom City, out May 14th. Atom City is a collection of poems exploring the topic of the atomic bomb and The Manhattan Project’s creation of the city Oak Ridge. Inspired by historian Peter Bacon Hales’ Atomic Spaces, Sara’s work takes the perspective of an observer contemplating and witnessing such concepts as, “the rhetoric of the Manhattan Engineering District, the militarization of scientific conversations, the mythologized stories of the local residents of Oak Ridge Valley before it was condemned, the use of such myths to underscore the morality of the bomb, current exhibits at the American Museum of Science and Energy, [her] own family’s participation in the Project and the stories they’ve hot-potato’d since, the atomification of so much of [her] hometown (including [her] high school’s logo), and so on.”
“Sara Sams’ Atom City shows us what violence and invisible interiority and tenderness is at the core of the American Hometown.
Sarah Vap, author of Viability
Click here to pre-order Atom City. Be sure to also check out Sara’s website and Twitter, as well as, Issue 22, in which she helped create and advised on.
For the past thirty years my grandfather has kept almost every single issue of Golf Magazine he’s received in the mail. A constant source of vexation for my grandmother, these issues fill the shelves of armoires, stand knee-high in his closet, and serve as a veritable fortress surrounding his TV stand. Every now and again, he’ll take one from a pile and peruse images of Jack Nicklaus captured mid-swing, Arnold Palmer lining up a putt, and advertisements selling everything from Big Bertha drivers to golf gloves. Being the stoic and laconic man that he is, my grandfather’s obsession with golf always made sense to me. It was a game he could play alone; a brief time during the week when all he had to contend with was himself and weather conditions. As far as obsessions go, it’s about as harmless as you can get. We’re not exactly talking Sartre’s mescaline-induced chats with crustaceans here- more like Tarantino’s frequent call back to Fruit Brute cereal, or Hirschfield’s habit of hiding his daughter Nina’s name in most of his drawings. There’s a familiarity there- one that evokes some element of order or existential meaning in its preservation of an artifact- in keeping it close and ever-relevant. And despite her aesthetic objections, I think my grandmother recognizes this as well, because not once has she ever asked him to get rid of them.
As for me, I’m only just beginning to recognize the nature of my own obsessive gestures.
A couple of weeks ago, I revisited Spinoza’s Ethics for the first time since undergrad and came across the passage in which he discusses the mind-body problem by examining the nature of sleepwalkers; how they often wake, surprised at the actions their bodies were able to execute while the mind seemingly took a backseat. As is typically the case, the text elicited a different response this time around. In terms of morality, this conceit provided interesting jumping off points that I had never really explored in my own work, and that led to a bevy of questions, such as: if mind and body are ontologically inseparable, is there any difference between the moral agent who only thinks of committing an immoral act and the agent who actually commits said immoral act through bodily extension? And isn’t imposing an etiological framework onto questions of morality further proof that it can’t be objective, because it relies upon the individual’s subjective conceptions of what constitutes cause and effect? And do we merely perceive something as good only by virtue of its being desired? And doesn’t the notion that a person’s ability to dictate what is genuinely good presuppose the existence of an idealized model human? And, by extension, if mind-independent moral properties don’t exist, then wouldn’t each person’s concept of an idealized model human be constructed in their own image and therefore be inherently fallible? I think you’re starting to see where I’m going with this…
Within three days I had written six poems entitled “Sleepwalker,” in an attempt to deal with the existential aftermath of this curious deluge. At one point, I even expressed concern to a fellow poet and friend, saying that I was worried about devoting too much poetic capital to a singular device for fear that it become gimmicky. But being the ever-supportive and wise friend that she is, she cautioned me against questioning it too much. Just go with it, she said. There’s a reason for the obsession. Since then, I’ve written five more “Sleepwalker” poems. Of course, I’m not so naïve as to believe that one poetic sequence will effectively bring about any sort of resolutions to the questions I have regarding morality, but resolution isn’t necessarily the goal. It’s enough to simply participate the act of recollection and extrapolation; to know that, when the mood strikes, there are artifacts of experience that I can return to again and again, because they represent something foundational to my understanding. At different times I’ve written poems for various reasons. Lately, I’ve been trying to write poems that examine how I know a thing; the calculus behind my knowing it. Because more and more, writing and sharing that writing with others is becoming a way to put my worldview in conversation with theirs; to allow my own subjective experience to be complicated, altered, and influenced through reciprocity.
As artists and writers, it’s not always easy to resist the inclination to impose our own ways of making meaning onto others. Because so much value is put on the unique elements of our individual style, syntax, point of view, and what have you, we tend to want to apply those when considering another’s work. But I do think there is a moment that precedes this reflex; a moment in which we want another’s experience to stand unqualified. Perhaps, that is a bit of an oversimplification. But mostly, in a lot of my daily interactions, I think I often get in my own way; I sometimes default to the notion that another’s perception somehow discredits or calls into question my experience. But there is something that occurs during the initial reading of a poem that actively opposes such qualifications and encourages me to reserve judgment. Coming to a poem is an act of surrender, or if not surrender, it’s at least an act of reception. In this way, I’m often surprised by poems- not just by their direction, scope, ambition, etc. It’s more like I’m startled by the gravitational shift away from egocentricity; how it feels to melt into a poem; how it takes a while to become solid again.
Much of my mental energy as of late has been devoted to a pre-prelim reading list of critical theory texts; so much so that on more than one occasion different friends have joked that I’d be perfectly justified in moving forward with that Bakhtin 4 Eva tattoo I keep threatening to get. I mean, you can only be that person who brings up polyglossia during casual conversation for so long until something needs to be done about it, right? But, truthfully, obsession has its place in art, in writing. And as much as I’ve hesitated to utilize the same subjects, objects, ideas, and figures in my poems, there is something to be said for paying attention to such patterns of cognition, for being aware of the through lines that are inherent to one’s intrinsic, critical thinking. After a somewhat creative drought, it’s been extremely productive to revel in this latest obsession. By not constantly trying to determine the source or validity of it, I’ve come to see it not as intrusive, or as a failure of my singular imagination. Rather, I can accept it as an antecedent to wonder… or as Spinoza might say, a point of origin from which infinitethings follow- one I intend to ride all the way to the ground.
Years ago the catchphrase “What Would Jesus Do?” became popular, abbreviated to WWJD, and I have to confess I was always a bit leery of this mantra as a guide for life, considering that Jesus, albeit an admirable fellow, came to the kind of untimely demise that we would all rather avoid. I think my attitude to the WWJD phenomenon was also colored by how the Christian conservatives in my neck of the woods (a Colorado mountain town) seem inordinately fond of firearms. There’s a Christian resort above my home on Hermit Mountain, and more often than not what you hear from that direction—instead of the lovely sound of choirs singing angelic hymns—is gunfire. A target range is one of their most popular “activities.” That’s caused me to wonder “What Would Jesus Shoot?”—a question that may be logical, but also sounds a bit blasphemous. I know the answer as to Who: no one.
But as I’ve been writing a novel for about three years (and which is almost complete, thank you very much), and as I spend most of my time writing novels now, I’m often lost in a reverie of “What would he/she do?” You come up with a situation that seems interesting—an autistic boy being held hostage by a substitute teacher, though he’s not really being held and he’s not really a hostage you have to read the book—set the plot in motion, then imagine what would really happen. That really is the kicker. What would really happen implies an epistemological attempt at Realism, about which I don’t give a fig. But then again, I don’t want to be phony, or to write phony fiction. This is one thing when you’re describing what a substitute teacher would offer her student to drink if he rode his bicycle over to her house (Dr. Pepper? lemonade? vodka?). It’s another thing when you mix in the substitute teacher’s disgruntled ex-husband, who still pines for her, but who is so misguided that he expresses this lost love by watching her windows from a perch in the trees behind her backyard.
With this guy, I sense the looming shadows of a violent climax and conclusion, and I resist it. Although I know that violence occurs all the time in the world, I don’t want to insert it just for drama’s sake. Recently the news has been dominated by the terrorist killings in Paris, and closer to home, a mass-shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs—a city I often visit, not far from here. These acts of violence may be “senseless” in a general way, but if you knew the tangled, misguided emotions (anger, resentment, fervent beliefs) of the perpetrators, I imagine you would be able to understand the mayhem. That’s part of what novelists do: tell a good story, hopefully an important one, and imply some understanding. While contemporary writers tend to be big on implication, some of the greats weren’t shy about that role of understanding: I’ve been rereading Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) lately, and when describing the importance of the Battle of Austerlitz, he just comes out and tells you. So there.
Still I admire those who can tell a complex story without making the meaning explicit. Cormac McCarthy excels at depictions of gruesome violence, mayhem that usually occurs in a world with a moral center, even as it questions this morality. There’s a famous quote about McCarthy’s vision of the West in Blood Meridian (1985) as being one of regeneration through violence. For my money, McCarthy gives us a vision of the horrible reality of the frontier West, with civilizations locked in battle, and you figure out what it means (perhaps not unlike our own times.)
That brings me back to the novel I’ve been writing, and whether to “go rogue” or not. Much as I admire McCarthy, I don’t want to paste a McCarthyesque ending onto my novel just because I like what he does. Part of originality is offering your own (hopefully captivating and interesting) vision of the world, and for my money, a Coen Brothers goofball is more pertinent to my imagination than McCarthy’s Judge Holden—or, the flip side of that coin, Jesus. As most movie buffs know, The Big Lebowski (1998) is a great tragicomic film, leaning heavily toward the comic. Yes, Steve Buscemi’s “Donny” does die of a heart attack while he and his bowling buddies are being attacked by nihilists in a parking lot, a scene that includes John Goodman’s “Walter” biting off one of their ears and spitting the bloody hunk into the air, but most of the film conforms to expectations of classic comedy: It presents a (somewhat manufactured) plot problem—Bunny Lebowski is sham-kidnapped—that is resolved happily (the frisky sex kitten Bunny returns to her mansion home, and exits off-stage naked in a swimming pool, her sports car wrecked in the fountain). The thing is, for all its fantastic moments—Sam Elliot as the Stranger appearing magically in the bowling alley bar, beside Jeff Bridges as the Dude—The Big Lebowski never seems phony. Many contemporary novels (on the best-selling list, often) depict violence that just seems fake. Maybe I have a lingering touch of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in me, in that of all things, I can’t stand a phony.
So in those fictional moments of when push comes to shove, I don’t wonder what Jesus would do (merciful, compassionate, all-suffering) and no, I don’t think what Jeff Lebowski would do (weed-addled, harmless, stoner-charming) but what my character would do, really do, given the particular jamb into which he/she has fallen. But all that said, I’ll admit that the Dude is certainly more up my alley than the Big J, or any of McCarthy’s great characters, either. The trick is to imagine compelling personalities, and have them do something memorable, even if it’s groveling, as in the Coen Brothers Miller’s Crossing (1990), when John Turturro is on his hands and knees, begging his would-be executioner (Gabriel Byrne) to spare his life: “Look into your heart.” Which is, now that I mention it, always a good idea.