Curtis White: An Interview

conducted by Jeremy M. Davies and A D Jameson
as part of “Writing’s Dirty Secret”

WDS: Do you use specific materials when writing? And do you have any particular rituals?

CURTIS WHITE: For each work I have a different set of rituals and devices. In my mind at least. Mostly it has meant writing with a fountain pen on long yellow legal tablets. But once it meant writing on a small, portable, cheap typewriter and pretending I was playing the piano.

Which project was that?

My first story, “Mahler’s Last Symphony.”

Do you prefer a specific type of fountain pen?

I have a little harem of them. One is a stout, chrome Cross. It is tumescent in my hands. Two others are hand made by a local guy who harvests his own wood for the bodies. Lovely things. I love the skritch-skratchy feel of the fountain pen. Quite sensuous. And the way the ink flows. When it flows. When it isn’t driving you mad by emptying out in the middle of a sentence. I think my lengthy current project (see below) is just an excuse to write with a fountain pen.

How about computers? Do you use them?

I’m ashamed to say that my last book, The Barbaric Heart, was written entirely (almost) at my laptop. Much to my surprise, the prose was more fluid than usual.

My current work is being done in 10 case-bound, 8 ½ x 11 ruled notebooks. My plan is to fill all 10 (@2,000 pages) and then die. This will be the first time that I have included dying in the composition process.

Can you tell us anything about this new work? Is it fiction or nonfiction?

It’s everything done all at once. Kind of like trying to create the infinitely hot, dense dot that the universe banged out of.

The computer has been a big deal in one dramatic way: you don’t have to retype things if you make revisions. Endless revisions. The revising process is now infinitely richer because you can sit there and dream away, or find things and insert. Revision is now a joy comparable to the original act of creation. Okay, you got me to say something nice about computers. Happy?

Sure, although computers sometimes make revision too easy. Do you ever find that to be the case? Are the specific dangers?

No, I love sitting at the computer playing with the text. It has really freed me to get things exactly as I want them.

Is there a practical origin for your distaste for computers—that is, a way they’ve interfered with your work rather than aiding it?

Not really. It’s interfered with the publishing and promotion of my books, but that’s a familiar problem about the movement of book reviewing to blogging.

What other materials do you feel you need to have at hand in order to write? Do you prefer to have any favorite foods or drinks while writing?

Cappuccino. Mas café. And I sit in my 1880s Eastlake rocker with the pillows propping up my bulging cervical disc. My disc which was destroyed by spending too much time at the computer, craning forward, writing things like this. That feels better.

Each project seems to have its own set of fetishes. Some are constant (coffee), others change. I wrote The Middle Mind in a small arbor in my yard. That seemed to be the place for that book. Haven’t written there since.

Do you think these locations or sets of fetishes have any reflection in the finished book? Is that arbor anywhere in The Middle Mind? (Adam: I first read The Middle Mind while flying to Bangkok for the first time, and it’s now difficult for me to reread that book without thinking about that trip.)

Funny. I watched the first two season of The Wire sick in bed with the flu. Now I can’t think about let alone watch the series without feeling that I’m somehow sick. Your first question is too metaphysical for me. The fetishes are just part of the sensuality of writing.

How often do you write? Do you have a set schedule?

I’d like to write every day, but it seems as if I write intensively when I have an idea then I have longish breaks. Up to a year. When I am writing, it seems to flood easily and pleasurably. Like coming. I always write in the morning right after breakfast. First thing. Sometimes I revise in the afternoon or write in the evening if music has inspired me in some way. That is often work that I regret the next day. That’s why it’s good to have the “scratch out” option.

I’m only good for 1–2 hours. After that, I’m stupid. Might as well play tennis or ride my bike. I suppose I could write longer but it wouldn’t be as good and I wouldn’t take the strange erotic pleasure in it that I do. I’m all too Freudian. Sublimation of erotic energies from all those orgies I don’t have anymore. I say “anymore” because I know writers are supposed to be scoundrels and real swinging dicks. I don’t want to disappoint anyone.

Have you found it necessary to adopt, or develop, a certain persona in order to work? You’ve elsewhere said words to the effect that everyone is playing out some movie role in their head, or a mix of roles—is that something you do when writing? Is there someone you’re trying to be, or not to be?

In the fiction the persona making is all in the characters. I was surprised to find late in my development as a fiction writer that I had a real talent for creating very particular voices for characters. In the non-fiction the only persona is Me. The voice of the brilliantly cranky rebel who makes revolution through critique and humor. I have to admit, that’s a persona that is very close to me. I “hold him dear.”

What kind of environment do you prefer to work in?

I used to listen to music but now it’s just distracting. I always read something first, usually philosophy or history or biography, because I find that reading suggests things to me. I can always find a way to integrate what I’m reading into what I’m writing. That often makes me seem academic and pretentious, but it’s really just me being playful. Also it makes it easier to steal from people that I know are smart. Like Freud. He was smart. I’m stealing a lot from him at the moment.

As for adverse circumstances, I can write while my parrots are screaming. Try that.

Can you name some of the previous writers who were important for your earlier works? And do you think that there’s been a particular progression?

Nabokov. Nabokov. And Nabokov. A little James and Wallace Stevens. After the first book, though, I pretty much declared myself an autonomous and self-governing state. I think about books always, but I keep them at all cool distance from the real work of creation.

Do you keep a diary or any other kind of record of your thoughts during the writing process?

I keep a reading journal. Occasionally if things aren’t going well I’ll look there to see what I can steal or do a riff on. I only keep notes on really piquant stuff from the Great Books. Stealing from Tacitus feels better (to me) than stealing from some wet rag writing for an MLA audience. The literary criticism and most of the philosophy of the last 30 years should be burned. The MLA should be dissolved. AWP should be subjected to some sort of gulag. No Hyperboreans there (that’s stealing from Nietzsche).

The only things that I take notes for tend to be things that I never end up writing. Little idea pages in my reading journal. Almost as if it was interesting to have that idea but not interesting to do anything with it.

What do you think has changed over the past thirty years that has resulted in your finding contemporary work so uninteresting? (For instance, is it due to changes like the commercialization of publishing, the rise of small presses, the institutionalization of writing, lack of funding, etc.?)

Mostly it’s just that I got old and experienced and stopped finding anything new to learn especially from new work. I can admire and even be astonished by work without really learning much from it. So I’ve gravitated to reading mostly philosophy and history and listening to lots of music. Just discovered Benjamin Britten. Learning lots there. Too bad I’m not a musician.

Do you see your own work as happening in stages?

Varies. With America’s Magic Mountain, I began with a draft of paragraph by paragraph paraphrases of Mann. When that was done (first 150 or so pages), I went back and rewrote the whole thing without looking at Mann. All longhand drafts on yellow legal tablets. When that was done, I did the same thing again. There are at least three complete longhand versions of that book. Then I entered it on the computer and revised it again. Rewrote the whole thing. Finally, I couldn’t remember what bits were from Mann or not. Now if I look at Mann I’m honestly surprised to see language there that I thought was mine.

Adam: I read America’s Magic Mountain side by side with The Magic Mountain; it seemed to me necessary, as I’d never read Mann’s novel—or anything by Mann—before.

Jeremy: When you talk about language having migrating from the original Mountain to yours, are you talking about a particular translation?

Yes, I use the old Knopf Lowe-Porter. There was a new translation a few years back, but I prefer reading old books that I find in used bookstores. Again, sensuality.

Could you talk a little about the motivation behind such a committed involvement with another writer’s language (even at the remove of translation)? Does the process you describe above bear any relationship to your other work? Are any other projects of yours based on particular works of literature?

Yes, actually, I based two books—Requiem and America’s Magic Mountain—on David Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Infinite Jest. It was so good for me to be here at ISU with David. I was finally in a place where I had someone around me to challenge me to do better work. They weren’t so much influences on my style as opportunities to conversation. As if I were saying, here’s how I’d do that. It was a truth that sadly I was never able to talk to Dave about.

How long does it take you to finish a project?

Usually about two years. I always want them to last the rest of my life because I don’t really want to write more books because then I seem to get trapped into publishing them and that is usually a very dismal experience. I won’t go into the bitter details.

I never want another project, but then I don’t like the emptiness of my mornings, the putzing around with the bird feeders, and I don’t like not having the sensual pleasure of scratching paper with a fountain pen, so it’s rarely long. I’m usually working on something before the last thing has appeared in print.

We wouldn’t mind hearing some of those bitter details. Has publishing gotten worse over the past thirty years, or has it always been unpleasant for you?

All the sad stories about editors and agents and reviewers and rejection are beside the point. Every writer has a small basket of letters from editors and stupid reviews. But I think there is a bottom line.

It is still possible to write in good faith. When I’m sitting in God’s lap, that’s as it should be. Writing in bad faith is thinking about anything other than the work itself, especially thinking about “is this publishable?” How can I write this so that I’ll get lots of 5 stars on Amazon? You might as well say “Think I’ll go make some ideology. Think I’ll do some propaganda work for the status quo.” Bad faith. Unhappily, 95% of writers don’t know this. They just want to have success or even fame so that they can fill the hole in them. I have written in bad faith. You see the opportunity and you run with it as far as you can. In my case, commercial and mass publishing finally said, “What are we doing with this guy? Let’s stop. He’s too weird.” Which was fine with me. I’d always known that; in fact, in many cases I said, looking around at all the religion titles in my editor’s office at Harper’s San Francisco, “I don’t fit here. Why do you want me?” He said, “We’re going to change and you’re going to help us.” Of course, once their owner, Rupert Murdoch and HarperCollins, found out they said, “No you’re not going to change, and no you’re not going to publish any more of this guy’s crazy talk.”

But even under the best circumstances, when one rises from God’s lap, and sets out to publish, it is something completely alien from the writing process, if what you plan to do is publish in established venues (commercial, academic, magazine). There the writer finds herself a stranger in a strange land. She is suddenly confronted by the “ideological apparatus” genotype “literature.” You ask agents/editors/publishers to like what you do and they reply, “But it’s not like what we do.” Never mind that what they do is grotesque, self-serving, and a literature for slaves. Wanting to publish so that you become part of the NY driven national culture is to submit yourself to culture cops, the enforcers of what-can-be-said. It’s different with small presses where you have an intimate relationship with the editor and you share a world view. The problem there is that too is managed by the cops: you are in a ghetto. You try to break out, you maybe sell a whole thousand copies (if they’re not just sitting lost in an Amazon warehouse somewhere) and you call that a success. Once again, you have freedom of speech as long as it doesn’t matter.

For me, writing is beatitude. Publishing is fighting. In the end, like it or not, as Ishmael Reed said, “writin’ is fightin’.”

How much outside involvement do you prefer to have? Do you seek out comments from others?

No, I want that others should not say a word. I don’t want to know what others think. I accept suggestions from editors, and those suggestions are usually right on because I have had great editors. Ron Sukenick, John O’Brien, Gideon Weil at HarperCollins, Roger Hodge at Harper’s. When they say that there is something wrong, I work on it. The end result is always better.

I don’t ever think about readers. They have their own problems. As for my own reading, it is the same thing as writing. No difference.

Adam: I’m somewhat surprised to hear you say this, given how at other times you’ve described the author’s task as being to “design a reading machine”—that is, to take care to build a text that will keep the reader moving through it, page after page. Can you talk about that? Has your thinking here changed?

That’s what I say to my students. The only reader I think about is myself. Like John Hawkes, I just want to write books that I’d like to read. The places where I’m doing something that I think will please a “reading public” are always places where I disappoint myself. Usually when it’s too late to do anything about it.

What do you find to be the discomforts of writing? Has your writing practice had any discernible physical effects on you?

The thing that I find uncomfortable is the pain in my cervical disc from years of bad posture. Otherwise, my writing process is a form of beatitude. I hardly exist without it. God talks to me there, in my Eastlake rocking chair. He loves me there. So I stay there to please him. Apparently, it’s a good deal for both of us. And when I’m done, he says, “Go on now and play. You’ve earned it. Tennis, cycling, whatever. See you tomorrow.” Now if only he could do something about publishing. Like a download directly into the brains of the .01 percent of the population capable of enjoying what he and I produce. But no that’s unrealistic! And probably crazy of me to think that God is helping me with my little intellectual/artistic adventures. Fine. Whatever.

Otherwise, it’s freed me to be a beast of a man.

I don’t know how many real writers there are left. Writers who understand these questions. Who see them as something more than an opportunity for posturing. (“Ooh, this is how I do it.”) Sometimes I think that the real writers are buried now. Like corpses, murder victims that have been stashed around the lot. No one cares that they’re missing, no one seems to want to dig them up. Here’s a fuck poem in the name of those who like to scratch with their fountain pens, sitting in God’s lap, making things with more dignity than this bitch of a world deserves.

Fuck content providers,
Fuck bloggers,
Fuck search engines,
Fuck Wiki,
Fuck the faceless Facebooks,
Fuck social networking,
Fuck editorial boards,
Fuck dipshit reviews like Kirkus,
Fuck marketing,
Fuck book promoters,
Fuck Kindle,
Fuck free downloads,
Unless they come from ghosts,
Fuck wholesalers and
Fuck retailers,
Fuck writing programs and
Fuck their Associations,
Fuck Po-Biz,
Fuck front of store displays,
Fuck those nasty chain stores,
And Fuck the brainless independents,
Fuck open mikes,
Fuck the ugly dull “slam”,
Fuck wanting to be a writer,
Fuck MFAs,
Fuck NEA,
Fuck NRA, and AMA while I’m at it,
But oh boy especially fuck moral poetry, and
Fuck the poetry of social awareness.
“Poetry is damned from one end to the other.
I’ll write what I like when I like
And it will be good if the authentic spirit of change is upon it.”
Something like that,
I’m too lazy to look it up.
(Anyway, its WC Williams, bless him.)




Curtis White is a novelist and social critic. His most recent books are Requiem (Dalkey Archive Press) and The Barbaric Heart (PoliPointPress).

Rosemarie Waldrop: An Interview

conducted by Jeremy M. Davies and A D Jameson
as part of “Writing’s Dirty Secret”

WDS: Do you write by hand, or do you use a typewriter or a computer?

ROSMARIE WALDROP: Used to write in longhand, but now compose directly on the computer

Do you have preferences as to certain materials?

No.

Has your approach to writing changed as new technologies have become available?

The computer may have played a role in my turning from verse to prose poems, but this turn also followed my novel, The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter. I suspect working on prose for the novel was much more of a factor.

Did you write that novel by hand or using a computer? And: If you used a computer, do you think that the computer helped enable this move to fiction/prose?

I must have begun it by hand or on my typewriter in the late 1970s, but at some point put it on the mainframe at Brown, in “Fress,” the language the Brown computer team had devised. I remember this because when The Hanky was finally to be published (1987), I took the saved reel back to the mainframe and got the message: “Fress is no longer supported. If you need help contact Reinhard Kuhn.” This was eerie: Reinhard Kuhn, head of the French Dpt., had died several years before!

What about your second novel, A Form/of Taking/It All, and other works where you utilize text from other sources? Do you transcribe directly onto the computer?

Yes.

What other materials do you need to have at hand in order to write?

A table with books on it. A window.

Does the way you write remain the same, or do your methods change from project to project?

It isn’t method so much as pace that changes. Some projects come in an intense, continuous manner, others in painfully slow dribbles.

For how long do you prefer to write?

I need long stretches because I need an inordinate amount of staring out the window or engaging in irrelevant little activities before I can settle into working.

How often do you write? Do you have a set schedule?

I always thought it would be a good idea to have a set schedule, but I’ve never managed.

Have you attempted it at times?

Yes.

Do you write at different times of the day? If so, do you think that you write differently at different times? (Does it matter if the view outside the window is sunlit or moonlit?)

I certainly don’t think about any of this.

What kind of environment do you prefer to work in? Do you listen to music when you write?

I prefer having music, but once I really concentrate I don’t really hear it any more. I also work well with silence.

May we ask, what sort of music? A particular composer or player or genre?

Mostly classical, some jazz.

Can you work under adverse circumstances?

No.

Do you record information on your own writing? For example, do you make notes, or keep a diary?

No.

Do you begin by taking notes?

Sometimes.

Do you work from an outline or other kind of plan?

Not usually.

How often do you revise?

There is constant revising, but I often start another poem before I have finished revising the first. This is especially so when I work on a sequence.

How do you revise?

You might as well ask, how do I write.

Well, in a sense, we are! Looking past revisions, how long does it take you to finish a project?

Depends.

How do you know when you’re finished?

The energy has run out.

What do you do when you finish a project?

I set it aside to get distance on it.

How far aside? How long does distance take?

At least a month.

How long passes before you begin another project?

Depends. There are often translation projects that intervene. Or our small press needs all my attention for a while. If the interval between real writing projects gets too long I become very grumpy. Then I’m in “the Book of Torment,” as Edmond Jabès called it.

How many different projects do you work on at once?

I often start out with two projects, but after a while one always takes over and becomes the exclusive one.

What happens to the other one? Do you complete it, or is it more of a spur for the other?

I set it aside to go back to, later.

Do you discuss your work with others? Or is writing a more solitary process for you?

I have a wonderful in-house reader in Keith Waldrop, but I have learned not to show him the work until I think it is at least more or less finished. In the early days I tended to exhaust him by showing him too many drafts.

What do you find to be the discomforts of writing?

The anxiety—and sometimes despair.

If you could change any one thing about your writing process, what would it be?

Set a regular schedule.

How connected is the practice of reading to writing?

Totally. I cannot imagine writing without reading. I am always writing on a palimpsest of other texts, even when not quoting or stealing from them directly.

Your own texts, or others?

I took “reading” as referring to my own reading of other writers.

What about your own work?

I always read the poems out loud to myself while working. It is a way to catch problems, especially rhythmic ones. Reading out loud to an audience works even better.

When writing, do you think about reader’s physical experience with the work?

I do not think about the reader at all, except perhaps at the very end when I might consider if I need to clarify.

Has your writing practice had any discernible physical effects on you?

Not that I know of. The middle age spread would have happened even without sitting at my desk.




Rosmarie Waldrop’s Driven to Abstraction came out from New Directions at the end of 2010. Other recent books of poetry are Curves to the Apple, Blindsight (both New Directions), Splitting Images (Zasterle), and Love, Like Pronouns (Omnidawn). Her Collected Essays, Dissonance (if you are interested), was published by University of Alabama Press in 2005. Two novels, The Hanky of Pippin’s Daughter and A Form/of Taking/It All are available in one paperback (Northwestern UP, 2001). She has translated 14 volumes of Edmond Jabès’s work (her memoir, Lavish Absence: Recalling and Rereading Edmond Jabès, is out from Wesleyan UP) as well as books by Emmanuel Hocquard, Jacques Roubaud, and, from the German, Friederike Mayröcker, Elke Erb, Oskar Pastior, Gerhard Rühm, Ulf Stolterfoht. She lives in Providence, RI. where she co-edits Burning Deck books with Keith Waldrop.

Bad Mother: A Story in Five Paragraphs



Once there was a woman with four children under the age of ten: two boys, two girls; two blond, two dark; two boisterous, two subdued. When the eldest complained that she loved him the least, she said, “No, no. That’s not true, and besides, I loved you first,” which satisfied him for a while. Sometimes she could hear him not quite repeating her words, gloating to himself or to his siblings, “Momma loves me first.” When her younger sister asked her which child she loved best, she said, “Don’t be ridiculous! I love them all the same, just as our mother loved us the same,” even though she knew that their mother had not loved them the same. On her deathbed, their mother had pulled her close, hand on her shirtfront surprisingly strong. “I always loved you best. Remember that,” she whispered like a threat. On sunny days when one child suddenly broke the family’s harmony, she told herself, “I don’t love one more than another. I just love them differently.” But this was a lie. All of it was a lie. She did love one best, and not the baby as you might expect, but the second eldest, a boy whose greatest pleasure, it seemed, was to slip his hand into hers then quickly out again, and leave something behind in her palm. She loved him better than all the others.

She loved him better than her oldest son. Her best friend, who had only one child, said, “I didn’t have another because I could never love anyone as much as I love him.” She, on the other hand, had had a second child specifically because she loved the first so much. She’d wanted to experience that love again, to feel it multiplied. Then, what a surprise to experience a love even wilder, fiercer, stronger, deeper. Her first child was quietly willful, and brilliant, and totally focused on the task at hand. Told to clean up his room, he put the toys away but then also got out the dust rags, the vacuum, and the Windex. He excelled on tests of all sorts, both physical and intellectual, but his mother had to admit that while she found his persistence admirable, she found his fastidiousness trying and his need for approval exhausting. Whenever he brought home a report card, he sat on the front stoop until she returned from work and wouldn’t let her go inside, despite the December snow or June heat, until she had noted every grade and every glowing comment. Neighbors remarked on how proud she must be, but privately she preferred the second child, whose grades varied—high in the subjects he loved (which changed every year), low in those he had no patience for, whose room always looked like a ransacked casino, and whose favorite phrase, gleaned from a self-help book he’d found on his aunt’s bedside table (happy to read that as anything else) was “Sometimes good is good enough.” His memory was terrible and his ability to reason logically was limited, but the minute he touched something he thought of a question to ask about it.

She loved this second child better than she loved her third one too, the one she’d had in an attempt to diffuse the either/or relationship she had with the first two. For a while it worked. It helped that the third was a girl, and that the woman could go out and buy new clothes for her (girl clothes) rather than relying on hand-me-downs, shallow though this might be. This baby destroyed pink though, and knew how to throw herself into a rage for apparently no reason at all. Once she grew teeth, she ate everything: corn cobs as well as kernels, chicken bones, her blanket, pages torn from books—like a beautiful goat. For she was such a beautiful child that strangers stared in the grocery store and told her to sign the baby up for a modeling contract, so beautiful that she, herself, couldn’t stop looking at the little girl’s perfect oval face, her eyes such a light blue they seemed to reflect the sky, her golden curls. The second child had golden curls too, but while the baby’s were lovely ringlets, his were disorderly and knotted, frizzy on one side of his head, loosely loopy on the other. And his nose was bulbous, his lips too thin, his large ears stuck out, his neck too long—the kind of child who prompted relatives to remark that true beauty is on the inside. His mother loved his puppy ungainlyness but also hoped, for his sake, that he was merely an ugly duckling, destined to grow into a swan.

She loved her second child better than she loved her fourth too, the second girl, called Baby, always the baby, who told funny knock-knock jokes, and was so ticklish that she giggled even before your fingers found the sweet spot on the side of her waist, and laughed at everything, even her siblings’ falls and failures—not because she was malicious but because she really and truly saw the humor in everything. She assumed that when they tripped, they did so just to amuse her, and that when they quarreled, it was for her amusement too, like the Punch and Judy show she had seen once on TV. The second child didn’t laugh at the comics, could never remember his own punch lines, and looked blank when other people told jokes. “I don’t get it,” he said until even his kind youngest sister rolled her eyes. “Perhaps his seriousness will lead him to do great things,” his mother thought.

She’d planned her children two years apart, and had imagined them as stair-steps, littlest to biggest, youngest to oldest, separate but equal. She had pictured their photos marching tidily up the wall alongside the real steps in her house. In the heart, though, nothing is separate but equal. In fact, she stumbled up, stumbled down, stumbled among her children. Sometimes she wondered if her great love for her second child grew out of pity, or guilt, or the fact that she most closely recognized herself in him. Of course, she hoped that his lack of ambition, timidity, and imperfect sense of humor wouldn’t make it difficult for him to find his way in the world! Of course, she worried that she was treating her other children unfairly and hoped she hid this as well as her mother had hidden her own unfair feelings. Of course, she worried that she identified with him too much. She too had been dull-witted, unattractive, and clumsy compared to her siblings. All this. But mostly she loved him because he demanded nothing, and her love grew every time his hand slipped into hers, even once he’d become a teenager, and from the berry he left behind, the bluebird feather, the striped pebble, the coin, the glove she’d dropped two blocks back, a meticulously drawn space ship on a scrap of old envelope. These things made her long to pet him, his unruly hair, his dirty shirts, his puzzled expression.








Maya Sonenberg’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Web Conjunctions, Hotel Amerika, and South Loop Review. New fiction should appear soon in Diagram and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Chiasmus Press published her second collection, Voices from the Blue Hotel, in 2007.

Kin



I brought the girls cigarettes and magazines. Everyone told me not to; the doctors were quite clear. They’re dying, I said to the orderly who saw me slipping these treasures out from beneath my oversized black smock. She shook her head. I dressed now under the influence of the girls, everything too big for me. Tunics and flowing pants that a drawstring only tentatively secured. Hair pulled back tight, bright lipstick. The girls were not fooled. Underneath I was nothing like them. Tunic descending not in a wide line but hugging my breasts, and when I sat my pants’ legs taut with the muscle and flesh of my thighs. Even my hands were unlike theirs, when I pushed magazines across the table or took out my voice recorder, my arm seemed exaggerated, slim as it was there was a softness to it the girls did not share. The bones of their wrists and elbows pronounced enough to construct a landscape in shadow, lines of sinew and vein straining the skin. As though these women abhorred the concealment in which the ordinary body endured.

Tell me why you’re here, was my first question in every interview.

Some shrugged, or looked at me scornfully, their appearance its own explanation. Some, like M, told whole life stories: teen rebellion, heroin, sex, a band whose name I recognized but which I was surprised anyone could have taken so seriously, the clichéd reactions of Mom and Dad, and then—her hands thrown wide to encompass the tasteful institutional room, the sounds of television and whir of the one feeding-tubed girl in her purgatory in the corner—and then they sent me here. To recover. With this last phrase she made air quotes, a twin twitch of her red-polished nails, and snapped her gum. Her breath was terrible, which she must have known.

This is my boyfriend, one girl said—I call her L, very sweet—and showed me a photo. It was an artifact, in the photograph her face still rounded like the recent child she was, so that she looked bobble-headed, her hand pressed to a boy’s chest and her hips turned toward his in a pose normal enough but which her childlike body made look obscene. He was a regular-looking boy, frosted hair, graphic T-shirt, athletic shorts. She too was wearing a sort of high-school basketball outfit, the waist of her mesh shorts rolled over into a thick rope that sat low on her hips. This was junior year, she said. You guys look so cute, I said. Does he come to visit? It was too far for visits, as it turned out, a five-hour flight from her home to the center. She was not alone in this, the girls here came from all over—the center had received so much attention recently, its star in ascendance, as I myself had written, that the waiting list for admittance was now well over a year long (though with exceptions possible for those in medical crisis). Unlike other treatment programs, the director had told me, we radically remove women from the family environment.

Arriving in the leisure room I surveyed the girls playing cards, listening to iPods, watching TV (its offerings pre-filtered, the center’s own channel, as it were), or even, though many were old enough to vote, attend college, have families, drawing quietly, sharing boxes of colored pencils that one girl took it upon herself daily to sharpen. The girls bickered and were in moments, I knew, very cruel. But looking at them it was natural to think that they must in some way have birthed one another, arose together out of a mythic sea, surf and light masking their spectral forms, salt glistening in the hair that furred down their arms. All my girls stay in touch with me, one of the psychiatrists had told me, pointing to the bulletin board behind her, which was indeed lined with postcards and snapshots. Skinny women sitting implausibly in front of birthday cakes; a girl embracing what must have been the family dog; and two perfectly normal women at the beach, in oversized sunglasses and matching orange-and-white-flowered bikinis, and I searched their faces for a hint of which one might have been a resident here, in a body now left behind, disappeared. Thirty to forty percent recovery rate is the norm, the psychiatrist said, we have hopes that we’ll improve on that drastically, and so far our results are encouraging. But it’s too soon, of course, to say conclusively.

I toured the grounds, the riding stables and ring, the vegetable garden, a badminton net billowing in the wind. There’s no pool, my guide, Dr. Harrison, said. Harrison treated the medically urgent cases, those patients who were transferred here directly from hospitalization elsewhere; the center had five fully equipped rooms. Several of the girls you have met came to us in that condition, he noted. Two sprites with half-braided hair, their knees as large as apples, walked past us, lugging between them a bucket of carrots presumably meant for the horses. The two youngest, Harrison said, fortunately they get along very well.

At all the centers I’d been to thus far for my feature I’d asked to observe mealtimes, and this was the only institution at which I’d been refused. We take a strict disciplinary approach, they said, and engage in direct therapeutic intervention, I’m sorry. The girls told me little more when I asked. I was provided several weeks’ worth of menus so I could assess nutritional values, as well as the CVs of everyone involved in the meal planning and food preparation. I returned to my interviews with the girls, determined to speak to each one of them. I like your bracelet, B said, her fingers following the filigreed silver. The girls were, I’d discovered, unexpectedly tactile, always touching one another, the orderlies, even me. Often just to cross the room they threaded their wrists through one another’s elbows, or walked down the hall to mealtimes holding hands. When the feeding tube broke out in its wretched beeping, a girl sprang up to massage its blockage clear, the girl to whom it was hooked up only murmuring a thank you from her doze on the couch. B’s fingers were cold on my wrist; and her clavicle, I thought, extraordinary, a pool of shadow dark enough one could hide a coin in there, pull it forth as a trick to amuse children. Thank you, I said, touching the bracelet myself—It was my grandmother’s.

Really? All my grandmother’s jewelry is so ugly, T said, from where she was sitting at the far end of the table, playing solitaire and listening in. Oh, mine too, I said, this was in a box of things she never wore.








Hilary Plum’s first novel, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, is forthcoming in spring 2013 from FC2. “Kin” is one in a series of pieces on journalists and journalism; others have appeared in DIAGRAM, The Collagist, LIT, and Route 9. She is a contributing editor with the Kenyon Review.

Philistines



The wave ripples like the blade on a chainsaw drenched in Kailua. We ride the peel through the metropolis, our swiftboat rattling underfoot past skyscrapers, banks and cathedrals.

“It’s peaceful tonight,” Milly says. She drops her robe and flaunts her fishnet hosiery, her high cheekbones rouged and belly low. “Pleasant temperature.”

“I agree,” I say. “Feels like summer.” I polish off a Red Dog and cast the can into the water.

She segues off her leg pegged below the knee and wheels the helm, verging the vessel through a vermouth chop ensconced in the plume of a fireball mushrooming through the barrel of a distant smokestack. We watch it morph into a sulfur cloud reflected in the surface of water as the surge recedes in the streets, smoothing like a soup reduced to tar. Smoke continues to trail from the chimney and the wind spreads it like a fungal garland through the moonlight suffused to the buildings about where only the tallest stand illumed while the rest lay in darkness.

I stir through the lapel of my lifejacket, produce my Smartphone and peruse the markets. Milly maneuvers the swiftboat around a downed Boeing with broken wings and a dangling tailfin.

“The NASDAQ broke even,” I announce. “But don’t ask about the Dow.”

The fuse of a musket butt flares from the roof of a looted Duane Reade.

“Hide your cell!” Milly screams. “It’s drawing fire!”

I sheath the phone and hit the poop a second before a mist of bullets pepper the swiftboat’s starboard bow. Milly lunges for her bazooka, locks her crosshairs on the rooftop and launches a missile at the target, engulfing the building in a flame.

A few blazing skeletons run screaming from the torched fortification, waving their arms and leaping into the moat. Their impacts splash on the hallucinatory void and fade into nothing.

“Bull’s-eye,” I say. I take Milly by the bonnet and plant one on her just as another round of muskets burst from the opposite flank. An immediate heat flares through my lungs and throttles my neck chords. Milly stocks the muzzle and fires on the vicinity of the second assault. I keel over, clutching my chest, eardrums exposed to the concussion of the shoulder cannon.

My eyes roll back and my head goes foggy. For a second, I think I can see The Light and then Milly rolls me over and applies the feverish Heimlich. I see her lips move as I come to though no sound comes out.

“I can’t hear you,” I say. “I think I’m deaf.”

“I didn’t say anything,” she says.

“Oh,” I pause. “Then nevermind.”

“Are you hit?” she says.

I sit up and pat my abdomen. White sparks pop through a hole in my lifejacket. I sift through my coffers and unveil the Smartphone now encrusted with a bullet welded to a cracked screen spritzing little worms of electricity.

“No,” I say. “This phone saved my life.” The heat of it singes my palm and I drop it.

“Well it almost got us killed,” she says.

The swiftboat rocks and the phone slides across the poop into a puddle of chum and sizzles.

“I’m screwed,” I say. “That had all my numbers and emails on it. All my pictures. My music too.”

“Damn,” Milly says. “I hope you have a good memory.” She reloads the bazooka and scans our peripherals, finger on the trigger, ready.

“Is the coast clear?” I say.

She fires a conciliatory shell and the Duane Reade’s remains. The windows on the buildings around it shatter. She says, “It is now.”

As we buoy amongst the flotsam, a small silhouette appears on the horizon, riding a riptide almost out of sight. I brace myself against the winch and squint. Milly whips out a pirate monocular and aims it at the apparition.

“What is it?” I say.

“It’s a polar bear on an iceberg,” she says, twisting the lens into focus. “It’s ferocious.”

She throws me the scope and I hone it on an emaciated mammal balancing on white chunk of remnant floe. The animal looks in my direction and snarls, and then bows, licks its ribbed haunch and growls.

“It looks like a crack whore,” I say.

“I bet she’s an orphan.”

I collapse the lens and hand it to Milly. She takes it and props herself against the mast and squats. I watch her unscrew her peg and attach a prosthetic galosh to the nub. She rises slowly and bounds forward with an awkward gait in my direction.

She rights herself beside me and I offer her a clove from an ivory cache. She takes one and smokes it, and then lights a kerosene lamp hanging from the masthead with the cherry as she picks a wedge in her hosieries from her whiskered camel-toe.

The hull makes a rapturous groan as we beach upon submerged bough of antennae poking through the surface like electrified reeds. The brunt of the impact throws me forward and I clothesline the jib. Mangled poles flail from the water like the tentacles of a giant squid, wrapping the vessel and dragging it downward. Our propeller tangles with a cable of a traffic light and we stall in an intersection before a superdome, the moan of metal echoing from depths.

I clutch a handrail unable to stand as the swiftboat rotates counterclockwise and t-bones the wake. Milly spits her clove out and hustles to the helm. She tries to pull it steady but the handles roulette from her grip and the waves pitch.

“Shit,” she says. “I broke a nail.” She darts across the poop towards a tiny porthole, unscrews the hatch and works her head into the outlet, peg pointing upward as she wiggles her tits through the threshold, slipping inside with a pop of suction.

I hear her land on her head below deck and cuss helplessly. “Are you okay?” I say.

She pokes her head through the porthole. “Nothing’s broken,” she says. “Everything’s fine.” She disappears again and a mechanical clamor commences.

“Are you sure?” I say. “What’s happening down there?”

“We’re stuck,” she says, her voice muffled by the frisk of rust on winding alkaline.

“On what?”

“I’m not exactly sure,” she says, reappearing at the hatch. She climbs through and stands crooked on the deck before me, shuttering in the face of a storm gust meandering towards the city.

“What happened?” I say.

She fidgets her prosthesis in a notch on the poop. “I did all I could do.”

“What was that?”

“I powered the engine down.”

I hug myself and shiver. “It feels like not enough.”

“It’ll have to do,” she says.

“What kind of engine is it?” I say. “Yamaha?”

“I wish,” she says. She stops and clutches her throat. “It’s, ahem, it’s, ahem. I mean, Suzuki. It’s a Suzuki.”

“What’s wrong?” I say.

The swiftboat eddies off balance through the current. Black froth laps the gunwale. Milly trembles and faints onto her back then starts to dry heave upward.

“What is it?” I say. “What’s happening?” I take her hand and her body seizes in the throe of a phlegmatic hack.

“Spit it out!” I say. “Spit it out!”

Her body gradually unfurls and sighs with a weary ineloquence. “Don’t know how to say this,” she says.

“Are you pregnant?”

“No,” she says. “I can’t swim.”

The ship abrades on the subaqueous terrain, sending a crack from the stern up to the bow. I try to ignore it and attend to her. “Can’t you even doggie paddle?”

“I tried it once but I drowned,” she says. “I was dead for ten minutes then a Hell’s Angel gave me mouth-to-mouth.”

A light rain begins falling sideways and then hastens into a deluge thick as fog across the watercourse, entombing the swiftboat.

My stomach muscles contract and I begin laughing hysterically. “I guess you shouldn’t be on a boat.”

“Seriously,” Milly says. Her eyes pan nervously up and down the torrent. “It isn’t funny.”

I detach from my lifejacket and offer it to her. “Here,” I say. “Take my floatation device.”

She shakes her head and shoos me. “That’s okay,” she says. “There’s a Blow-up Doll in the hold.”

“Does she float?”

“She does but it doesn’t matter.”

“Why’s that?”

“The water is full of alligators.”

“Alligators? Really?”

“It’s global warming, man,” she says. “These here waters are slewed with’em.”

A white-capped breaker lashes the bow, spewing froth around the capstan. The vessel seems to contract as we tilt in the angered surge, churning with sewage slopping the hull with brine and debris.

Milly swings her peg around and scurries into the cabin, disappearing through a privy and reappearing a moment later.

“I forgot what I went in there for,” she says, scratching her head confusedly.

A bolt of lightening strikes a building truss beside us and sends a cluster of shrapnel earthbound, crashing through the surrounding surf, sending the swiftboat awry on a wake, impaling the bow on the steeple of a church.

The jostle shakes the kerosene lamp from the mast and it explodes on the water rising around us. I see my visage mirrored in the sweltering muck hugging my cankles. A loose can of Red Dog bobs by and I grab it and watch the lurid swirl of thunder uncoil above the craft as it thwacks and splinters.

Milly returns to the cabin and reemerges with two rubber buckets. She tosses one in my direction. It skids across the fiery film and melts immediately.

“Whoa,” she says, wobbling, her face aglisten with jetsam and kerosene.

“What’s wrong now?”

“Sorry,” she says. “I got a head rush.”

“Slow down.”

“We need to hurry,” she says. She stoops and scoops several bucketfuls of water overboard with a frenetic energy. “Help me bail.”

The swell pins the vessel against a gargoyle, tearing the boat in two. I crack the beer as a sheet of water covers my thighs and slashes about in the gust of the rising sea.

“Pull up the anchor!” Milly says. “Batten down the hatches!”

I take a swig. The lukewarm foam bubbles down my gullet. My innards curl as I forage for thoughts.

“It’s too late,” I say. “We’re going down.”








Adam Moorad is a poet, salesman, and mountaineer. He is the author of Oak Ridge (Turtleneck Press, 2012). He lives in Brooklyn. Visit him here: adamadamadamadamadam.blogspot.com.
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This is Not David Markson



David Markson was not born in Quincy, MA 1974.

He did not weigh 8lbs 12ounces upon delivery.

He wasn’t not circumcised.

David Markson did not start walking at eight months.

His first moment of self-consciousness did not come while sitting in the cool stairwell of a brick two-family on West Street after a hot summer day of jumping through the sprinkler, his skin goose-bumped, nipples erect.

David Markson did not experience his first fully conscious boner while watching an episode of I Love Lucy on a black and white TV set, sitting on a forest green shag rug, Lucy and Viv showering in a glass stall with their clothes on, the water level inside rapidly rising above their heads, the live studio audience laughing all-the-while.

At five, David Markson did not share his first kiss with the upstairs landlord’s daughter, sitting on his father’s weight bench in the musky basement, surrounded by assorted dumbbells, not to mention glossy photos of a rock-hard Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane.

He did not feel his first breast at one o’clock in the morning, on a pull-out sofa at the age of twelve while watching Friday Night Videos, David Lee Roth hosting, and as he introduced Madonna’s newest song “Papa Don’t Preach,” this girl, this daughter of a jailed Irish gangster did not lustfully push David Markson’s hand against her barely formed womanhood, whispering into his ear, “I love this song a wicked lot.”

David Markson did not reach third base for the first time on the carpeted floor of a police detective’s den, a dying grandmother behind the closed door of an adjoining bedroom, and a best friend spying through the window who would later ask, “Can I take a whiff of your finger?”

David Markson would not prematurely ejaculate into his pants while the police detective’s daughter dry-humped his leg on the bed of her recently deceased grandmother.

His first sexual encounter did not occur at fifteen with the daughter of his father’s former weight-lifting buddy, a man who killed himself ten years prior after finishing second to David Markson’s father in that year’s Mr. Bay State bodybuilding contest.

At eighteen, David Markson’s first real sexual encounter as an adult did not occur with the woman he would eventually marry, she becoming the only woman he would fuck for the next eighteen years, a fact that wouldn’t necessarily bother him until the seventeenth year, when his best friend would die in a car crash, leaving behind three kids and a wife whose womanhood he’d once sniffed when said dead best friend pushed a finger under David Markson’s nose as payback for the police detective’s daughter.

David Markson would not have sex for the first time since divorcing his wife with dead best friend’s younger sister, in early winter, against a stacked cord of firewood, outside the living room window in the cold and rural dark, listening to dinner guests toast best friend’s short, but well-lived existence, their words inspiring him to remain inside of her during climax, a literary device that the actual David Markson never injected because he wisely understood that plots and procreation do not go hand in hand, nor dick in cunt.

At 39, David Markson would have driven his dead best friend’s sister to Planned Parenthood because he would have understood that all plots lead to death and therefore loss, and in that way you can never make a real or fictitious someone anew, not in body, not in tale.

It did not take him forty-seven years to cheat on a wife for the first time, having twice resurrected his dead best friend’s genes via his younger sister’s uterus, resulting in two daughters who looked nothing like their late uncle nor David Markson, not to mention his loosely autobiographical novel being countlessly rejected by publishers, causing him to seek existential accreditation in a top student, a buxom, redheaded sophomore in his Narrative Design course.

David Markson did not have farewell sex with his dead best friend’s sister on the day he moved out of the house, in the garage, from behind, against the driver-side fender of her Honda Pilot, reaching around her waist and stroking her down there so that minutes later, on his way to newly rented hole-in-the-wall, he could caress his own cheek with the cheap and easy scent of dénouement.

It would not take him forty-nine years to deflower his first virgin, another student (bony blonde), another Narrative Design course, but this time around David Markson gets through it without tearing up, without going the least bit soft.

David Markson did not tell a gorgeous brunette in his Writers Reading Fiction course that having sex with her was better than having a short story published in Agni (not that he’d know), but surely not as good as having one published in The New Yorker (not that he’d ever know).

At the mid-century mark, David Markson had published a hell of a lot more than fifteen stories in second-tier literary magazines.

In the year 2025, David Markson did not have sex with eight of the creative writing department’s seventeen graduating females.

Still universally handsome at fifty-three, David Markson did not have sex with the portly, sixty-eight year old chancellor as a means of covering his ass.

David Markson did not die of a heart attack at sixty-four, jacked on Johnny Walker Red and a little blue pill, a forty-two year old adjunct poet riding him, riding that dick which had always been way too big for his heart, which in the grand scheme of this story, isn’t saying much.








Eugenio Volpe has published stories with New York Tyrant, Post Road, Superstition Review, Exquisite Corpse, Thought Catalog, Twelve Stories, Waccamaw, the delinquent, matchbook, decomP, and more. He has won the PEN Discovery Award for his novel-in-progress and been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web prizes. He blogs about surfing and Don DeLillo at mebeingbrand.blogspot.com.

Oscar



In the other world we act worse than wolves. We gather near the gas grill and decide that any deviation from the group’s way of eating ought to be taken as a sign of other deviations, therefore should be halted early and often. Oscar’s backyard is surrounded by a black iron fence which is surround by more black air which is discouraging to look into. We chant in response, pointing our knives at the tree tops.

Rob is the first to eat outside of our prescribed diet. He grills a rabbit. We confront him and wrestle him to Oscar’s backyard. We tie his hands together and push him towards the end of the diving board. The pool’s water presses against the humid night’s air. Rob sweats raindrops. It was really just a blip he says, too many rules to keep straight. Then why is everyone else keeping them straight, we chant. Oscar steps on the board, a few feet behind Rob.

What do we say about rabbits, Oscar says. He has his favored serrated knife today.

Rabbits are small, Rob says.

Our rule states that we will eat animals that are big. Animals that are difficult or impossible to carry. Oscar turns to all of us. Does this seem fair, he asks.

We chant. We point our knives toward the trees. Rob moves his mouth, maybe offering some more explanation. Maybe his rabbit was huge, maybe he wasn’t sure exactly what constitutes size in this particular case–maybe he was just very hungry.

We chant louder. Oscar raises his arms as if to calm us. We chant louder. Okay, Oscar motions. He approaches Rob from behind, grabs his hair, pulls taut the neck, and saws through that skin. Blood like thick sweat. Rob’s body is still quivering when it tips forward into the pool’s warm water. We congratulate each other on the safety of our community’s future.

A few weeks later Wanda eats some stringy wheat thing brought over on a boat. Oh Wanda, we all think, though we also show surprise that she wasn’t the first to break the diet. This rule was too obvious though. Nothing that came here on a boat! We shove her onto the diving board at Oscar’s later that night. She doesn’t argue, or maybe she does but no one gives her any attention. We are entering our fourth month of summer heat.



Stephen Daniel Lewis lives in Colorado. He edits the online journal, Robot Melon.