Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Marylee MacDonald.
Marylee MacDonald has won the Barry Hannah Prize, the Matt Clark Prize, the Ron Rash Award, and the ALR Fiction Prize. Her stories have appeared in Yalobusha Review, New Delta Review, Briar Cliff Review, StoryQuarterly, Folio, Reunion, Broad River Review, American Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, North Atlantic Review, River Oak Review, North Atlantic Review, Blue Moon Literary & Art Review, Briar Cliff Review, and the anthologies ROLL and NEW SUN RISING: Stories for Japan. Her novel, MONTPELIER TOMORROW, is forthcoming from ATTM Press. She lives in Tempe, Arizona.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Lori Jakiela.
Lori Jakiela is the author of two memoirs – The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious (C&R Press, 2013) and Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette, 2006) – as well as a poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist! (Turning Point, 2012), and several poetry chapbooks. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Brevity, KGB BarLit, Hobart and elsewhere. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband, the author Dave Newman, and their two children. She teaches in the writing programs at Pitt-Greensburg and Chatham University.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Martha Silano.
Martha Silano is the author of four full-length poetry collections—What the Truth Tastes Like(1999), Blue Positive (2006), The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception (winner of the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize and a Washington State Book Award finalist), and Reckless Lovely (2014), also from Saturnalia Books. Her work has appeared in Paris Review, North American Review, Kenyon Review Online, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. Martha serves as poetry editor of Crab Creek Review and teaches English at Bellevue College.
In July, just outside the back door at elbow height, I discovered an orb weaver, Argiope aurantia, growing more and more enormous each week, clinging to its web. The pattern of its weaving was mostly invisible except for one thick white zigzag down the web’s vertical axis. Each time I opened the door, the whole edifice swayed and swung. The spider hung in wait.
A bestiary I found on the plush seat of a chair in a used bookstore in August opened naturally to a full-page photograph of this very spider, as if the book had been placed there, marked for me. Aha, I thought. Now I’ll know what it is and whether I should be afraid. The book, however, was written in Spanish and so I noted araña tejedora and came home to look up the second word, not a cognate like the arachnid that I imagine poses in araña. The search engine brought back “weaving machine,” “loom” when I typed in tejedora. Where I had hoped for clarity, I found only the obvious. So, it must be its beauty and the peach-pit size of its body, its long striped legs, I decided, that rate a whole page in full color. But once I knew its Spanish name, I had other questions: How long would it last, protected under the roof of the porch? Would it go before I needed the rake and snow shovel, their handles bound with spider silk to make one pillar holding up the web?
Then, September sun began to brighten lawns with its slight touch of yellow. Crickets increased their volume. I watched from my chair a patch where leaf shadow flickered through the doomed leaves of a pin oak. That moving light fanned from chair legs to table legs, disappeared soon, and on the loom of days autumn came on.
I discovered the spider has other names: garden spider, corn spider, writing spider, the one who reweaves her web, or at least the zigzag, every night. I noticed in mid-October as nights began to cool that she was a bit off-center in her web and found myself thinking that her death must be near, caught myself, made sure I didn’t wish it, having known her so long. A day or two later, I found the web empty. I worried she had tried to get into my warm house, so I glanced at my feet and the rugs on both sides of the door. I looked for her under the web on the porch step. Finally, I looked up and found her body hanging high over the web, legs bent toward her huge torso. It was near freezing the night before. I wondered if she is built only for summer, her fragile mechanism like a watch’s once-wound gears. I don’t know how she lived, and then I needed some explanation of how she died.
A naturalist would have more to say than genus and species, scrupulous research standing in where I have only this willingness to look, and a list of mysteries:
Did I watch because I recognized the spider or her labor? Did I covet her design because I strain to find my own? Or did I envy the sharpness of her zigzag, that she could resay it every night, whiter, cleaner, clearer each time, and that saying it seemed to make her bigger and more powerful each day?
What do I know about the spider? Only my response to her, my fascination and desire to see up against my side-eye fear of looking too close. I know this: scale is part of my bafflement – I could never get small enough or close enough to understand or feel how it is to be her. And part of this puzzle is my revulsion when I leaned in to see. I loved her web more than I love her? No. I loved them both – but I was able to see web and zigzag in ways I could not see the spider.
The day after I mourned her empty web, I wrote: The spider awakes! As the day warmed, I watched her flex one or two of her folded legs, then another two or three. By dusk, she was back at the center of her web, gathering her silken glamor. I tried to lean closer to memorize her shape before the frost, but her size and grasp made something tickle at the back of my throat.
November, and the spider’s egg sac hangs like a plum from the porch roof. She spent her last days suspended near it, abandoning the summer web, its white line tattered and blurred. Each day of her death I opened the door slowly, looked for her before stepping out, watched as each cold night left her smaller, long legs folding closer to her body.
I read that her nearly violet brown sac could contain up to a thousand offspring. The females will emerge in spring looking just like her, only much tinier, and will grow a leg-span almost as wide as my hand over a summer, carrying the knowledge of web and weave in their impossibly expendable bodies. If they survive, every night they will remake like their mother from the substance of their spider selves a thick white line in even stitches, and when it’s time, they will construct the fruit-shaped sac to shelter their eggs.
A web yawns wide as out-flung arms. An egg sac keeps its secrets, dangling purse holding everything she spent.
Across the room, the little thrift shop Royal I bought for its sleek silver chrome despite its broken mechanism catches on its fancy keys a glint of sun as it rises. A naturalist would remind us that it is we who descend, our dangling pod turning out here, fixed to the star.
I did not rescue her body after it fell, after it lost its beauty and symmetry and became simply fearful. I cannot make my home out of the elements of my body as the spider taught. I use my house, solid uninspired stucco and plaster, to shelter the meander of my thoughts, the pattern I make with my notebooks and the flexible net of intention. She is gone now, blown away or crushed to dust. I keep vigil by marking off each writing day of oncoming winter, holding close with these stitches the seethe and foment of life inside.
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Catherine Martin.
Catherine Martin is currently a grad student in Emerson College’s Publishing and Writing MA program. She has a BA in English and Spanish from Smith College. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Nimrod and Else Where magazines. Catherine grew up in Athens, Georgia, but has spent the past five years in Massachusetts. She regularly returns to the South, but is building a career in publishing in Boston. Catherine has been writing poems since she was 13.
Here’s a thing. Finish your story and print. Then read that sucker out loud. Does it sing? Does it have rhythm? Have you driven all music from the mouth? Even the best of us run a few sentences to bedlam. Myself, I used to whittle, say, five thousand worn down to three. I believed I’d done the piece justice, a day’s good labor. From there, I believed, there would be little in the way of heavy editing. Just a bit of spit shine here and there.
But think back to my last essay. A good spit shine is neither about whittling nor bulking. Those are just the crude transactions we make upon the page. No, a good polish only comes through purposed editing, a thorough break down of every sentence to better fit it to the writer’s natural rhythms and voice. It’s less the work of rough demolitions, more a careful tailoring. I got another name for it. I call it filling.
Barry Hannah was the master of filling. Take a gander at this excerpt from the Tennis Handsome:
“Please,” begged Word. “Something to eat. But no coon, no turtle, no snake.”
Daryl went to a wooden box and lifted out a whole cabbage. He walked to the cot Word lay on and slammed it down into the empty pit of Word’s belly.
Word lost consciousness.
Note the second sentence of the second paragraph. A lesser writer might be tempted to trim some of the fluff from that sentence—“the empty pit of”—to get what many of us seek: tight, concise sentences. But such a cut destroys the music, the tone. The threatened clause lends a layer of detail to the scene, informs us on Word’s condition, his gauntness, his privation. When taken with the dialog it’s altogether pleasant medicine whose effect is felt in the belly, the ribs. The next sentence, broken into its own paragraph, is effect. Word blanks out. So too the narrative eye, switching lenses in the following paragraph to the abusive captors until a sudden shift sends us back.
Filling must be used cautiously. That’s about as close to a hard rule as I like to get on it. But I’ll go a step further: filling must be used to preserve the natural rhythms of the storyteller provided it does no harm to narrative functions (plot progression, character development, and so forth). That’s a good deal clunkier than I’d like but you get the idea. Filling’s not about the length of the sentence. It’s about delivery, tone, rhythm. It’s about music. No coincidence music played such a big part in Hannah’s life and stories. The man understood that a good ear for rhythms and melodies, pitches and refrains and all the many parts of a good tune make for a perceptive writer. And mind, I don’t mean perceptive in the traditional sense, that of the eye, the voyeur. I’m talking something else entirely, an awareness of and fondness for space, for sound. I mean a real love for the music of human beings, human things.
What makes Hannah’s work so unique is the abundance, the clarity of the man’s music. It’s in every sentence, rich but never saccharine. Good writers pull it off once or twice per book. Hannah threads it in every sentence. In the strictest sense, his beats are up tempo, somewhere in the range of one hundred and ten, twenty. Unlike Baldwin, Hannah is pure rock and roll, aggressive and driven and rarely cacophonous save for the finer moments of entropy. Late in The Tennis Handsome Mr. Edward, father to French, struggles to get his mind straight. He’s got animals upstairs, a naked wife, beauteous. He’s got noise. He leaves on a rather apt note:
“Mr. Edward’s eyes went shut again.
Olive, the music.”
But here’s a thing in closing. I don’t think such music is beyond the ken and craft of other writers. We can learn from Hannah, take his lessons to heart. We may not have Gordon Lisch but we have Hannah himself. We can break his sentences down, figure out the notes, the melodies. We can ask ourselves probing questions. Where is my music? Where are my notes?
Each Tuesday we feature audio or video of an SR Contributor reading their work. Today we’re proud to feature a podcast by Andrea Beltran.
Andrea Beltran lives in El Paso, Texas, and moonlights as a poet and student. Her poems have recently appeared in Acentos Review, Blood Lotus, caesura, and Pyrta. She blogs at andreakbeltran.wordpress.com.
It’s never too late to be what you might have been – George Eliot
When I was fifteen, I saw South Pacific and, imagining my name in lights, I signed up to audition for Play Pro, my high school drama club. But before my name was called, I chickened out, fleeing to the bathroom. My best friend, performing Juliet’s balcony speech, was just too good.
That was that, I thought—until a friend, fifty years later, asked me to join OnStage, a group of closet actors, all over 55, who met weekly with a director named Adam. “We learn theater techniques and do documentary theater,” she said. Which meant gathering stories from the community about senior memories and experience and performing them at libraries, schools, senior centers, hospitals— “whoever wants us.”
I’d just retired from fulltime teaching and this sounded like fun, something different —with “scripts” more like stories you tell over lunch or hear on a bus. What do I have to lose? I thought. The pressure of youth was off.
Every Wednesday afternoon, at the Community Room, I do theater games like becoming a watermelon to my partner’s grapefruit, each of us conversing with our one word –“Watermelon!” “Grapefruit!” “Watermelon!” “Grapefruit!”—saying them loud and soft, sexy and timid, fierce and giggly. A whole range of emotions, just like that.
I like morphing into someone else, sometimes younger, sometimes older—all is possible. I like moving my body on stage, feeling braver than I did at fifteen. And I like how audiences connect to our stories as if we were telling theirs.
Take the large, wild-haired grandmother at the Metuchen Library, who came to see “You Win Some, You Lose Some” –-about everything from losing your false teeth on the subway to dating after 60, to end-of-life decisions. Afterwards, in a lively post-show discussion, she told everyone: “The beach week story is just what happened!” She pointed to me (I had played the grandmother). “Like you, I didn’t want to go to beach week again. Like you, I told my daughter that the bed too uncomfortable. And then she, too, dialed my grandson.” I tried to explain it isn’t really my story, but she ignored me, “How can we say no, right?” She delighted in having her story validated, and I delighted in her delight.
A week later, on a roll, we enter an assisted living/nursing home, our first. Wheelchairs, maybe thirty of them, are lined up. Some residents are sleeping; most are just staring straight ahead. No one except the aides seems to interact with anyone else, and talk is about rearranging wheelchairs. Please God, don’t let me land here! we whisper to each other as a squat, indifferent man hurries our group into a cluttered room beyond “the theater space,” really the cafeteria. A guy is mopping the floor, something easy to slip on if it doesn’t dry fast.
No post-show discussion, we decide quickly. These people don’t talk; they don’t smile. It is too risky. The floor hasn’t quite dried, but we start anyway–with the refrigerator buzzing and the loudspeaker interrupting every few minutes. Some people keep sleeping (Are they drugged?), but others smile and nod, especially about stories of love, marriage, and sex. Lines like “I learned that a second marriage can be better than the first” get a big whoop.
Forty minutes later we take our bows and head towards the glass front doors as if lingering is contagious. I edge past the wheelchairs waiting to roll back down the long corridor, and that’s when four people take my hand, grip it, saying thank you for coming. Their silence was not a given, their isolation not inevitable. They want to be reached, need to be reached, and we…I… fled too quickly—as I did when my grandmother was in a place like this. I couldn’t conjure up her elegance and what her magic cookies tasted like—and that scared me. I was nineteen.
Suddenly I realize our mistake. We should come back here for a post-show something, despite the sleepers and the silence—for those who gripped my hand or might, you never know. Theater can do that, erase the self of now enough to become who we might be—or once were.
We’d have to ask our director Adam to help, by using his magic to unlock some of what he unlocked in us: that bit of risk that leads to a smile.
It’s worth a try. After all the boundaries between ‘them’ and ‘us’ are fading with each passing year.
 Adam Immerwahr’s is Associate Artistic Director at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey and Resident Director at Passage Theatre in Trenton, New Jersey.
Garfield is a small city in northern New Jersey, not far from Manhattan, that sits on the Passaic River. This is the same Passaic River that William Carlos Williams wrote about in Paterson and the same Passaic River my grandmother repeatedly wanted us to throw her into: “I don’t want to be a bother – just throw me in the river.” Garfield is still a very blue-collar place with a large Polish population, enough so that the early Easter Mass at St. Stanislaus’ my grandmother would take us to was conducted in Polish. She was the only one of us who understood anything other than the three Polish words the rest of us knew: Jezus, Chrystus, and Amen. It was, and I imagine still is, an unusual place to find oneself thrust into poetry.
20 years ago or so, in Garfield, there used to be a bar on River Road, running along the Passaic, which tried very hard to be Tony Soprano-ish before there ever was a Tony Soprano. On one night a month, though, they hung a thin scrim to separate the bar from a small area with tiny circular tables and an even smaller stage and held poetry readings. My first dose of poetry outside of a high school classroom (and the worn copy of Oscar Williams’ Immortal Poems of the English Language that I carried around with me for years) was on those nights when I would sneak into that bar. I don’t know how many normal 18 year-olds sneak into bars to see poetry readings, and don’t actually buy a beer, but few poets that I know are what most people would categorize as normal anyway.
Essence, the student-run literary journal from William Paterson College (now University) is still put out every year (to the best of my knowledge) and most of the readers were students whose work made it into those pages. The thrill of sitting in that bar, someplace I shouldn’t have been anyway, with the lights low, tea candles lit at the tables, and real live poets reading their work just feet away created a seismic shift somewhere inside of me that previously had been used for common sense and sound decision making. I had wanted to study film, or go to art school, but sitting in that bar, holding a copy of that little magazine filled with poets who were never heard from again but remain larger than life to me today, utterly convinced me that I was going to be a poet.
Of course back then there was never a thought of MFA programs or AWP or competing for residencies or fellowships. There was never even a thought of actually publishing a poem beyond making a bunch of copies of some 8 ½ by 11 sheets at the library to hand out to friends (and I’m not sure I even realized that there were magazines that published poetry). This was before email, so we would have to hand deliver or mail poems to each other and we kept them in different colored folders separated by which ones we thought were real poems and which ones were just cool. And then we’d occasionally sneak into the bar.
I vividly recall one night where one of my favorite poets (whose name I no longer recall and I doubt I even knew then) read a poem about waiting for a train, backed by a guy playing a standup double bass. It was like the poetry reading scene from So I Married An Axe Murderer. Later, another reader started reciting his poem from the back of the room, slowly walking towards the stage holding a lit candle. He finished the poem as he reached the stage, then turned toward all of us and blew out the candle. Our minds were collectively blown.
Of course as soon as I was a regular I got pinched by a new guy working the door and was told never to come back. I tried to explain that I was just there for the poetry. He laughed. Hard. So I drove away and found a diner to sit in and drink coffee.
Now, having two very little kids, I don’t get to as many readings as I used to, but I still manage to get to the KGB Bar in New York every other month or so. Some days I sort of miss that innocence, that feeling that everything ahead was going to be new. But that’s the beauty of poetry, even this many years into it: there is always something new. So even as I write this, waiting for the blizzard that will apparently slam into the entire Northeast, I’m thinking about finding a good poetry reading next week, and maybe trying to sneak in.
The South’s a weird place. Don’t tell me otherwise.
I spent twenty years mucking about in Florida, various parts. A few in Gainesville, a few in Clearwater, a whole bunch in sleepy New Port Richey with its crab shacks and pawn shops and dangerous proximity to US Interstate 19. You’ve never seen a more dangerous stretch of state pavement. Drivers fall to its rhythms, froth with rage. They seem destined to ram something—each other, poles, the titty bar. I’ve been struck by all manner of vehicle while en route. There was a garbage truck, a limousine, a sleek silver scooter no bigger than ninety in the engine. The pilot, a small woman with frosted hair and aviators, came right up to my window and struck me with her sandal. She was barefoot on scorching asphalt just to make violence and she hit me. The whole time she wanted to know what my problem was, where I was deficient. Did I or did I not see the sign? Was this a turn lane? Who was I?
That episode, quite real, seems tame compared to what happens in Barry Hannah’s fiction. Take the deranged couple across the lake in Yonder Stands Your Orphan, the orphans themselves, their heavy armaments. Is their assault on the barge, their curious fortifications truly otherworldly? Is Man Mortimer, the deranged antagonist and protagonist of the novel? How about Ned Maxxy and all his watching, his secret touches? Part of what makes Hannah’s work so vivid is the wild imagination at work. Therein lies a peculiar weirdness, one drawn from the strange fiber of the South. This was, after all, a region punted into mechanization after a prolonged and staggered war, a hot bed for carpetbaggers, post-Reconstruction vultures. Is it any wonder madness takes up so much of the stage in Southern fiction? My own theory points to the move from the rural to the urban. It just didn’t take, not like the North. We’re dealing not with two minds but many, cracked prisms with twangy accents.
But the weirdness in Hannah teaches far more important lessons to the wary student. The first is that imagination unleashed is a boon, not a hindrance, to the writer with genuine talent, grit, heart. There’s no accounting for all the movements of Ray. You flat out couldn’t outline it. What you get are characters with desires, a thing sadly lacking from much contemporary fiction. Then you get the land, the richness of the place around them. But that’s not on the page, in the paper. It comes from the characters, first and foremost. It springs out of their eyes, their mouth, all the little movements. More than tact, it’s nuance. Gordon Lisch taught Hannah how to trim everything down to the proper rhythms, but the rhythms come from the characters. That’s where we who pretend to the pen need to sit up and take notice. Did your story, your book, spring from your character? Or have we built everything in lieu of them, a way of explaining who and what they are? The latter, we learn from Hannah, is folly, the bone road.
Too, we learn the difference between volume and clarity. This one’s a doozy. How many of us have powered through a workshop (MFA grads, y’all know, oh yes) and heard some cabbage head say, “I want to know more about this character.” This is said with total sincerity, great caution. So and so practically simpers as speaks, paws the desk. Were it allowed, he might lick the table, taste the salts of human nearness. Meek as a doe. And you might be tempted to revise, add in another paragraph or two or three and ruin an otherwise good piece. Because it’s not about volume, friend. It’s about clarity, precision. Go back to your Hannah, The Tennis Handsome. Pick up on Professor Word after French ruins him on the court:
A nurse and a man in white came up to quell the noise from Word. Levaster went back into the closet and shut the door. Then he peeped out, seeing Word and his brother retreating down the corridor, Word limping, listing to one side, proceeding with a roll and capitulation. The stroke had wrecked him from brain to ankles. It had fouled the center that prevents screaming. Levaster could hear the man bleating away a hundred yards down the corridor.
Five tidy sentences are all that’s required to understand James Word post stroke. Much could be made of this neat paragraph, even more extracted in craft and technique. But precision is what we’re after if for nothing more than to silence the cabbage heads. What better way to deliver the weirdness of the South and its many inhabitants than a targeted strike, word by word, into the very heart of the thing?
How’s this for targeted. After that woman beat me with her sandal I didn’t know what was what. I never got her name or insurance, never called anyone. There wasn’t even a dent. At home in the mirror I glimpsed the red imprint of her sandal, a swath of dirt across my face. I might have loved her. I hung around the intersection hoping her scooter would plow into me, mar the door, bust a window. I was ready with a baseball glove, a pen and some paper. The plan was to ask her out, make sweaty love, marry her. But it wasn’t to be.
A month later I saw her at the store. She was buying pickles, all the varieties, a whole cart full. I went up full of my own juice, testy, moral. She didn’t recognize me. Just gave me the eye and went on with her shopping. Me, I slithered away. I went home and checked myself into a chair with some beer. There was no accounting for it. What a weird, weird way to live, to love.