Join Superstition Review in congratulating past contributor Matthew Gavin Frank on his forthcoming book. Matthew will be releasing Flight of the Diamond Smugglers: A Tale of Pigeons, Obsession, and Greed Along Coastal South Africa on February 23, 2021.
Equal parts memoir and investigative reporting, the latest from Frank … is a page-turning tale of suspense…With novelistic writing, Frank masterfully weaves a fast-paced history of South Africa’s Diamond Coast, and the impact of De Beers controlling both the land and the government. His thorough reporting on mineworkers, their pigeons, and towns that have struggled in the wake of mine closures makes for compelling reading. The author excels in allowing people to speak for themselves, adding personal touches to a history of greed and trauma. VERDICT Frank writes a fascinating story of grief and history that will draw readers in from the first page. Must-read narrative nonfiction.
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.
I enjoy afternoons sprawling out on my roof (toasty shingles at my back) while drinking a six pack of beer and reading flash fiction. I’ll bring several books, collections, anthologies. Usually I haul them up in an orange bucket. A bucket is an excellent bookcase, when reading on your roof. As I drink, the pages flutter and unspool along with my synapses. Crackle, caterwhomp, hum. Words and bubbles rising in glass elevators. The mind, the mind’s eye, two dragonflies on the chimney edge, mating. I’ll start with a realist, Kim Chinquee (North America’s Queen of Flash), wander over to the imaginative minimalism of Ana Maria Shua (South America’s Queen of Flash), onto Bruce Holland Rogers’s expressionism, then into stranger territories, Magical Realism (the terrific Amelia Gray), and, finally—clink, fzzzzzz—I’ll crack open the final beer, watch a V of geese overhead as they honk in all their glorious goose-ness, and then the last book of the day (the sun kneeling out like an exhausted llama), all the way sideways, yes into the wonderfully absurd, the madman of flash, Danill Kharms. I likewise enjoy beer while eating nachos, usually Dos Equis in an icy mug the size of my forehead.
Nachos were invented in 1943. They are a contemporary genre. Many flashcists (denigrators of the flash genre)—in a reductive attempt to link the genre’s sensibilities with the ephemeral ether of the Internet—claim flash fiction is also contemporary. They attempt to minimize the genre to bits of media, basically dash-offs and lollygags for our “modern attention span” These critics know not of what they speak. They are jackals chasing their own tails in miserable circles. They smell like scabby knees or lower math. They are wrong. Flash fiction is a proud and venerable genre, eons old. Fables, folklore, parables, mythology, all flash fiction. From Nubian creation myths (6000 B.C.) to Chinese Pangu (350 B.C.), to the wellspring of more modern authors (though still hundreds of years old), miniature stories have always been essential to human life and art.
Flash fiction can be consumed as an appetizer or a meal. Same with nachos.
Nachos go from hand to mouth to stomach. Flash, by its very essence, goes much further, off the page. All of the glorious white space that surrounds a flash—everything that isn’t shown, paradoxically leading to an even further telling. The writer brings technique, all of the tools to create a breathing genre, a living thing. The reader has to arrive! To flesh out the context, to meet the writer, to shake hands and bang heads. To create together. Flash is collaborative, like all of the finest imaginative endeavors.
Though invented in Mexico, nachos are international. Irish nachos are a ponderous dish based upon potato wedges. Italian nachos utilize mozzarella cheese and banana peppers. Greek nachos are best eaten alongside the sea (or at least in the bathtub) and consist of pita, hummus, and feta. Japanese nachos (Machi Cure), a light and delicate treat, use juniper berries and tuna. American ballpark nachos are a combination of tortilla chips and Ricos, a cheese product that resembles a polymer used in the construction of lava lamps. Flash fiction is also international. Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata felt the essence of his life’s work was contained in his flash collection, Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. The French are prolific, both in the prose poem, the flash, and the hybrid. See Paris Spleen by Baudelaire. See Ponge or Jacobs. See Bertrand. From Italy, I suggest Calvino. From Austria, Peter Altenberg (a man who wore flip flops all winter). From Russia, many choices, but I suggest Before Sunrise, by Zoschenko. The Pearl Jacket and Other Stories is a good place to start for contemporary Chinese flash fiction. Oh, and the Latin Americans. Mexico to Chile, I wish you luck. Why? Because the Latin Americans adore flash fiction. They call them microficciones. From Shua to Cortázar to Gracián to Dario to Bolaño to Arreola to Monterrosso to Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez (hell of a name) to Borges (his powerful shadow cast over everything), you could be reading Latin American flash authors for the rest of your life. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Like: To make nachos you usually need a knife. To make flash fiction, you usually need a knife. It’s the DELETE key.
One time, during dinner, this young lady ran off with my heart and my Camry and I dropped her plate of homemade nachos (cold, uneaten) on the floor and drank two bottles of red wine and everything (I do mean everything) shattered and I stumbled outside (the wind raw, like an onion or a tax audit) and shook my fist angrily at the moon and screamed out an unraveling stream of spittle and obscenities and later woke up completely naked on the kitchen floor. This hasn’t happened in my life with flash fiction. Yet.
There is no limit on the ways to make nachos. I should know. I personally have made over 414 different varieties. Same for flash. Real to surreal, lyrical to narrative, traditional to experimental, any form, any style, any technique, mode, method, way. Flash fiction is as endless and unique as art itself.
A fully realized flash fiction takes inspiration, intellect, execution, and meticulous care in revision. You can make a decent plate of nachos while drunk.
Obsession. I once ate nachos for 141 day straight. I just had nachos (spicy crawfish over blue tortillas, with a painful dollop of Dave’s sauce) for lunch. My last two books were written in the flash fiction genre. (My upcoming manuscript is flash and is about Velveeta.) I spent last year reading only flash fiction. I teach university classes dedicated to only flash fiction. I have a flash fiction blog. On that blog, I also discuss other things. For example, what I am having for dinner. Usually nachos.