Tessa Meyer Santiago Interview

INSCAPE: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

 

TESSA MEYER SANTIAGO: I don’t know that I was interested in writing until I got to Brigham Young University and took Bruce Jorgenson’s 312 class as a freshman. He gave us a personal essay and told us to copy its style. That essay is the first thing I remember writing. So my first publication was in Insight back in 1986, inspired by Jorgenson’s class.

 

I: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

 

S: I read weekly and recently read a piece by Kate Gibbons. I can’t remember the exact names of the other books I’m reading. There is one by Doyle, he writes Irish comedies and he is brilliant. I am reading a novel about a chef in an English kitchen. The best book that I’ve read in a long time is a mythic about a Wyoming cowboy.

 

I: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

 

S: The challenging thing is to not get carried away by emotion. You can start with something, an image for example, and explore around it, embroider it, make it bigger, larger and fancier, and think, “Oh, this is the most wonderful thing.” When you really look at it, though, it’s not authentic anymore. It’s got frosting and sprinkles, and, because I write personal essays, it’s not what it needs to be. That’s my challenge: to not go where the emotion is.

Phillip Lopate Interview

Phillip Lopate was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1943, and received a BA from Columbia in 1964, and a doctorate from the Union Graduate School in 1979. Some of his most recent publications are Portrait Inside My Head and To Show and to Tell: the Craft of Literary Nonfiction. After working with children for twelve years as a writer in the schools, he taught creative writing at multiple schools and now the director of the nonfiction graduate program at Columbia University, where he also teaches writing.

 

INSCAPE: In your chapter “To Show and To Tell” in The Art of the Personal Essay, you talk about making yourself into a character. You also suggest having distance from yourself and to be both self-amused and self-curious. How can a learning writer come to achieve those things?

 

PHILLIP LOPATE: Well, you can keep a diary for one thing. And every time you get into a situation where you’re making the same mistake over and over again, you can take a step back and ask, “What’s going on here?” You could listen very carefully to people who criticize your character. But I think that the main way you can do it is by reading a lot and seeing how other writers do it and how they achieve some sense of irony and perspective toward themselves. I mean, you can go into psychotherapy. There are lots of ways to do it, but it is a lifelong discipline, how to see yourself somewhat dispassionately and not too defensively.

 

I: The other notion that I’ve picked up from reading some of the interviews you’ve done, as well as some of the introductions to your collections, is the idea of being friends with yourself in your writing. Is that similar to the process of being able to make yourself into a character?

 

L: Well, they’re all related. I do think that sometimes people get caught in a spiral of self-disgust or self-dislike, and perhaps their standards of perfection are too high; they just don’t understand that we’re all flawed or broken creatures. Initially, it’s important not to be too boastful or too cocky, but you do want to be able to not be too hard on yourself. That is so important. For me, I try to write well, and then I reach a point where I say, “Well this is good enough.” I’m not going to lie on the couch and beat my head against it because I’ve used the same word twice in two pages. I think it’s important to accept a certain amount of imperfection, and that’s one way of being friends with yourself.

 

I: Yes. That sounds like being a good writer, in some ways, is kind of like being sane, or mentally healthy.

 

L: Yes, very much so. Before you can be a good writer, you have to be a bad writer. You have to be willing to fall on you face, and you have to be willing to try things that don’t work out, and eventually you discover that you have certain ways of expressing yourself that seem to be working out. Sometimes writers, especially learning writers, get impatient with the things they do well, and they want to just try something different, and that’s understandable, but I do think that it’s important to pay very close attention to when you actually are writing well and try to bring that forward into your new innovations.

 

I: How can you tell when things are going well in your writing?

 

L: Usually other people respond well to your writing, but you yourself know. For instance, if you’re rewriting a piece over and over again, and there’s a certain passage that makes you chuckle, or that amuses you, or that moves you, or that you simply feel good about, you can build on that.

 

I: And that kind of becomes part of your relationship with yourself.

 

L: Exactly. In writing workshops, sometimes people get into the, “Give it to me, sock it to me, I can take criticism,” but they also have to be willing to listen to praise, what they’re good at, because that’s very important to build on.

 

I: You mentioned that you can tell when things are going well by how other people are responding to your writing. In the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, you talk about the relationship between the writer, or the self that’s in the piece of writing, and the reader. At one point, you describe it as a contract, so what is that relationship like when things are going well?

 

L: There’s a real give and take—there’s dynamism. It’s not just a question of getting the reader to like you. Sometimes you can get the reader to question you or dislike you, and the writing is just as good. What you really want to do is to keep the reader stimulated. And one of the ways you do that is by internalizing the reader, so that you’re not just writing, but there’s a reader inside of you who’s saying, “Yes, okay, get on with it,” or, “You made that point already.” So when you begin to internalize the reader, then you can tweak the reader sometimes, or show that you’re aware that the reader is out there, and that becomes another kind of friendship. I do think that the personal essay is a very conversational form, so there’s more explicit contact between the writer and reader.

 

I: Shifting gears a little bit, I wanted to talk about some of the things that you wrote about being with students. There are these moments of closeness that you describe with certain students, like with the photograph poem. What do these moments and relationships do for the student?

 

L: Well, these moments and relationships, as with any instance of love or caring, are enriching. I do think that a lot of teaching occurs between the lines, or as an undercurrent, and it’s a feeling undercurrent, and it’s a sense of protectiveness and being understood. The student feels understood. I know for me, when I was growing up, there would occasionally be encounters with strangers who didn’t talk down to me as a child, but seemed to take me seriously as an individual, and they contributed to a sense of wholeness. Whenever you encounter somebody who pays you that respect, who takes you seriously, it really helps to crystalize your own sense of self. To put it simply, love, concern, engagement, or interest are some of the ways that you teach. And that can happen in the classroom, or it can happen one-on-one, and it’s as important for the teacher as it is for the student to get that kind of emotional current going.

 

I: What does that relationship or those moments do for the teacher?

 

L: There’s a sweetness to those relationships. I think because there has been such an emphasis recently on child abuse and sexual abuse, there’s a reluctance to acknowledge that there is a kind of erotic current that occurs between teacher and student, and the important thing is that it shouldn’t be acted upon literally, but it’s still there. It’s a current of feeling, and it keeps the teacher alive. The teacher’s not just communicating subject matter. And this was sort of recognized by the ancient Greeks. The connection between pedagogy and love was a strong one.

 

I: I’ve been reading a little bit about what you write about teaching, and your love for it, and I wondered if that was part of it.

 

L: Yes, I do really love to teach, and it has to do with the relationship with the students. As I get older, it’s important to stay in touch with the young minds too.

 

I: I have one last question that will tie back into what we were talking about at the beginning. It seems like there might be some connection between the relationship between teacher and student and learning writers’ relationships with their selves. What do you think that connection might be?

 

L: I think that when you’re learning to write, you split yourself off into several different selves or identities, and I think one of the first pieces of consciousness that you get as a writer is realizing that you have a divided self, that there may be a sense of wholeness in terms of your core, but that you know the closer you get to it, you realize that you are divided, and you start to get those different parts of yourself to talk to each other. One of the ways to overcome rigidity or self-righteousness is to recognize that you yourself are split, and whenever you advocate a position, you must listen to the other side of you that’s saying, “Yes, but . . . ” or, “There’s another way of looking at this.”   Part of it has to do with thinking against yourself. If you can think against yourself, you can not only overcome your own rigidity, but you can empathize more with other people.

 

I: So maybe the teacher’s relationship with the student might aid in increasing that awareness.

 

L: Yes. The teachers may say that they like all the students equally, but that’s not true at all. There are the students who immediately click with them, and then there are these students who exhibit all kind of resistances, and that becomes an interesting challenge, how to get past some of these resistances. The resistances that exist in the teaching experience, in the pedagogy experience, are not that dissimilar from the resistances that the writer encounters on the page. As soon as I am assigned to write something, I am sometimes aware of resistances: “I don’t want to write this. Is this something that’s coming from me, or is it coming from the outside? Do I really have a connection to this?” In order for me to get on with the job, I have to start to analyze these resistances.

 

I: Excellent. Your insights are enlightening, and I appreciate the interview.

Ron Carlson Interview

INSCAPE: Not every great writer is a great teacher, but you have a reputation for being one of the best teachers of writing craft. In the introduction to A Kind of Flying you wrote that “the university is where writers disappear,” but that doesn’t seem to have been the case for you. How have you managed to balance being a serious writer and a serious teacher?

RON CARLSON: Well, I said that and meant it as a warning to myself and to my friends because you start to get comfortable in a community and then pretty soon you lose your grip. It’s really about paying attention, and as a teacher I began to see that certain things that I was doing made a difference. I was trying to figure out what kinds of things would have helped me when I was cutting my teeth. I began to focus on those and that’s when I began a sort-of diagnostic approach to fiction, fiction exercises, scene, and elements of craft; it all got my attention. It continued and even now as I’m sure that I’ll retire in the next year or two or three, I’m still kind-of captivated. It still has my attention.

There’s another feature, and that is I’m really proud to be a teacher. It’s not what I do second. It’s as real as anything I do. It’s certainly as real as my writing. I think that notion has been really instrumental in keeping me well in both worlds. Of course I love to write, of course I love to have this body of work behind me, but I feel the same way about my teaching.

I: What of writing can be taught?

C: Well, craft and the elements of craft can be taught by model and by explanation. The idea of how sentences might build a scene, point of view, and the elements of character that might be effective. And there’s never a single answer. There are always lots of things going on. But the things that can’t be taught are attention that a writer would bring, all of her spirit and attention to the moment of writing so that sentences are fresh and real. You can’t teach empathy, which is not talked about very much in writing classes, the idea of really understanding and occupying your characters. You can’t teach a vision, the world view that comes with the writer. It’s just part of the fabric that comes with her or his persona or character. And you can’t teach what a writer chooses to write about. It’s terribly important that a writer choose something that matters to her or him. The old story was, “Money can’t buy you happiness, but you can buy the big boat and go right up next to where the people are happy.” That’s the same with writing. I can’t teach you how to write, but I can take you right up next to where it’s done. Then, with your efforts, with empathy, attention, vision, and what you choose to write about, you can make the leap.

There’s a spirit in the best writing that’s inimitable. You can’t fake it and you can’t borrow it. Everybody knows that, and that isn’t what we’re trying to do with writing programs. We’re trying to make better readers and better citizens and a lot of times writing helps us to discover and clarify what we’re thinking.

I: What does this “inimitable” writing look like?

C: That’s a huge question. It’s a little bit like, “What is art?” Well, there’s a certain density, there’s a certain number of threads per inch. It’s not dilute and it’s not overwrought. Solid work that has a kind of reach that understands. The characters are knowing without being elliptical and there’s an understanding between the manuscript and the reader about the condition of the character. That’s created by what’s included and what’s left out and it’s that ineffable balance of good fiction that I call “reach.” But it’s not the best, simple, confident manuscript because there’s a lot of really impeccable and well-made prose. But this is a prose that has a deeper look, a perspicacity and insight into the condition of the character. That’s the best I can say it. I read hundreds of stories looking for these things and they emerge.

I:  After your reading today you mentioned that writing students tend to be “language rich but story poor.” What did you mean?

C: Well, they’re afraid of their stories, their confidence, and their ability to handle material, and also they won’t give people occupations. The thing I say most to undergraduates is, “Into what life has this moment come?” Their stories are very much like a character who was born in the minutes before the event, and that’s not as valuable or as resonate as knowing how this moment might matter to this person because of where she’s been for two weeks or for ten years. That little bit of exposition on page two or three can really determine the value of the current moment. When we have these zero lives, these generic boys and girls, you know the story is in high trouble.

I: What other struggles do think beginning writers have?

C: They start writing about mediated experience, about things they’ve seen in movies. It would be so much better for them to write about going into the cafeteria with a Band-Aid on their nose than to write about a car chase. A person writing about the Band-Aid will have to invent it, I mean there aren’t that many scenes where we see what it’s like to be a girl with a Band-Aid on her nose. I try to get them closer, to choose venues for their fiction closer to home. Then there’s those age old questions of language, of hearing language that’s not been really thought about, a phrase like, “They made their way to the cabin,” or, “He exchanged glances with Doreen.” It’s a mild peccadillo, but we want to start sharpening that, get a little bit more muscle in.

I: What kind of a reader do you teach your writing students to be?

C: Steady. A writer needs to be steadily reading and in a range of work. It’s fun to find a writer you’ve admired, read all of her, read all of her friends, read all the other related work, and then see what else you can find out. I did that when I first encountered Scott Fitzgerald as an undergraduate, and I just went left and right through all his people. Then I eventually ended up with Cheever and Updike, and these are all American men, but they led me back to the women, through Grace Paley and Flannery O’Conner, young Ann Beattie. But there’s another feature of reading that is overlooked. We think as a writer you’re just reading to read because this is the world, you’re not really reading for instrumentation. You don’t read a story to find out how to make things left-handed or make the wind cold, but you end up finding those things out. They’re inadvertent, they gather, there’s a compendium of information that comes from reading steadily. You can’t really reduce it. It becomes part of a writer’s character and a writer’s toolbox, and all that information will be brought to the next story.

I: In Ron Carlson Writes a Story, you mention your teacher Edward Abbey and his credo: “If you want to read a good story, you’re going to have to write it yourself.” Does this “I-can’t-wait-to-finish-this-so-I can-read-it” mentality still sustain you as a writer?

C: Yeah. There’s a curiosity about what we’re making. I think, “Oh my god I thought this was going to be oblong, it’s actually square and inverted.” It’s just a curiosity, it’s not really pride. I’ve had people mistake it saying, “Well you’re proud of this or that,” and the truth is that eventually you can be, but there’s a distance. That’s not the initial thing as you’re going through. Usually you read it and think, “I’m not even sure if this will sit straight. I’m not even sure if the tires have got air in them.” It’s ineffable how you have more in your head than you know and it’s one of the great joys of writing, being able to look around in that closet, in your cranium, and find that thing that you didn’t know you had or that thing you thought you had lost. In the second thirty minutes of writing you should always look to have something creep up that you didn’t know, that you could not have told anybody on a bet that morning that you’d be writing.

I: Was there a story that surprised you the most?

C: The story that was shocking, that actually gave me chills when I wrote the last sentence, was the baseball story, “Zanduce at Second.” From the beginning I followed that story wherever it went, and when I finished that last sentence I sat there sort of sizzling. There are some places in that story that are as good as anything I’ll write. “Zanduce at Second.” Bang.

I: Do you ever write with your readers in mind?

C: Well, you don’t know your readers. I think that I work alone and that I’m my own reader. If I want to read the story then I think my readers will too. While I’m writing I also never think about who I’m going to send the work to, and it seems like when I finish a story and it’s ready for my writers’ group, or an editor, or an agent, I’m constantly apologizing for my work. I’ll say, “Dear John, here’s another story I wrote. I don’t know what you’re going to do with it because it has a this in it and a that in it.” So, I don’t know what to say about that question of the reader. I really caution my writing students to write as well as they can for themselves, but certainly there are times when you’re getting ready to take a story out of your room and you change the language in it, change some references, sometimes you change some names. But that’s simply for public consumption, safety reasons. I changed some of the language in my first book because my mother was going to read it and I’m glad I did. You can’t have your mother in the room while you’re writing, but in the end, there goes the book and you wrote it at full speed, grab it and change it! That’s just the way it is.

I: How have your concerns as a writer changed over the years?

C: We evolve as writers. I think we come out of the chutes looking to writer flavorful rites of passage stories. Without even knowing it, you’re writing what you know. You never have to look far. I began to write stories using what I knew and moving toward what I didn’t. In this way a vacation in Martha’s Vineyard evolved and an incident with my brother evolved. Those were the first two or three stories I wrote in college. After I left college to teach prep school, I began writing a novel about my college days. It was a love letter from a graduate’s world, Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Then I wrote a plot novel called Truants—I’m giving it a B+ (I was a young guy). Then I was going to write a novel called A Thousand People Later, just a great title, and I wrote seven or eight chapters of that novel before my children arrived. When my children arrived, I didn’t care if the two people in that novel got together or not, I had kids! And I couldn’t not write about those kids. All of a sudden, I went into the house of my heart, and there were other rooms in there that I didn’t even know about. So I started writing about that. My ability didn’t change as a writer, but suddenly my concerns got real and very close at hand. My prose improved just because my subject dragged me deeper. These rooms are my concerns. Then I wrote about relationships, marriage, then other people’s situations, contemporary American life. I’ve written a lot of stories lately about what it’s like to be a man living alone, what’s rueful about that and what’s glorious, the light and shadow of such a world. This last year, I got out from under a book I really didn’t want to be writing and I wrote a western, and now I’m writing a detective novel, which really has my attention. It’s fun to bring some of the understanding and skills I’ve developed to this conventional plot novel. I’m also playing with notes on a play; I would like to write a play. I have friends who are involved with the theater so there’s a way to have the thing read, which would be delightful. I’ve not started it yet, but I’ve got the world of the story. In the meantime what I’m going to do is finish this detective novel—hopefully this year—and then write a story or two. The idea of not having any obligations is really delightful for me.

I: You mentioned publishing Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald right out of graduate school. What was it like getting so much attention so young?

C: You know, I never thought of it. When I think of it now, I think, “Holy hell! I was twenty-nine when I published that!” But I didn’t think of it then, and I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve had this and that successes, and none of it has turned my head. I still love what I do. I wouldn’t have traded it. It makes me smile, it makes me happy, and it makes a few other people I know happy. It’s odd because I know some important writers who act important and I don’t want any of that. I’ve had some fancy stuff happen in some fancy places, but I would just like to get another dog and make a road trip. That’s where I am.

I: You mentioned in an interview that Five Skies and The Signal were written as straight narratives partially as a reaction to what you called “the great thickets of irony in which so much of American discourse is now struggling.” Are there other tics or trends in contemporary fiction that worry you? Any you’re optimistic about?

C: Well, I think the story that stands up, where something happens, something that we can read, a story that is written in strong and intelligent prose, that is something that will never go away. There it is. I’m optimistic about the story. There’s a lot of irony today as I’ve said. There’s a certain kind of fanciful, speculative edge. It seems like every story you read is about some guy that can’t afford a swing set, but his neighbor bought a really nice swing set, and the story has to have some kind of terror, fantasy, or subsurface, postmodern glint at the “other”. I’m not sure of that. That’s really fun and anything goes, but it can be oddly mute. That’s what I’m seeing. It’s hard.

I: Some critics have called you “the master of the rare happy ending,” but you seem wary of the idea of a “happy ending.” I think Michael Cunningham was perhaps more to the point when he said that you have an uncanny ability to chronicle human kind’s “quirky, unreliable potential for grace.” What kind of role does grace play in your stories?

C: In a way, I think you’re asking me if I’m optimist. Well, I like to improve the quantity of kindness is the world without being caught at it. That’s my goal. I think that even in the stories in which my characters get a little drubbed, get a little defeated, there’s a sense that they’re okay, that they’ll be redeemed. I don’t think that’s coming from any particular dogmatic view on my part; it’s the way I live in the world. It’s a little bit like what I was talking about before, about visions not being teachable. I don’t know if I got it from my folks, which I expect. I don’t know if I got it from my experiences, which I also expect. But I believe in the best.  I think all of us, even those of us who end up short of what we were going for, are still better for our struggles. That’s the way I feel. That’s as close as I can say it.

C. Dylan Bassett Interview

C. Dylan Bassett is a teaching fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of two collections of poems, The Unpainted Shore (Spark Wheel, 2015) and The Invention of Monsters / Plays for the Theater (Plays Inverse, 2015), and six additional chapbooks. His recent poems are published or forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Columbia Poetry Review, DIAGRAM, Gulf Coast, H_NGM_N, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Salt Hill, West Branch, and elsewhere.

INSCAPE: You seem to have a Wallace Stevens renaissance going on. What is it about him? And what is it about him recently?

C. DYLAN BASSETT: Wallace Stevens and I agree with each other. So for Wallace Stevens, God is dead, right? For a lot of people at this time, God is dead. So then, Wallace Stevens is now interested in this question: if God is dead, then what replaces him? In other words, if religion is outdated in the contemporary world, how do we replace it? And his answer, in part, is poetry. Another part of the answer is the imagination. The imagination is a dialectical genesis. So what is real is what we imagine to be real. In that way, he is breaking down the distinctions between the world and the consciousness which perceives it. You might call it poetic epistemology, which is to say his poems are concerned with the relationship between the mind and the world, or thoughts and things, and how much of our perception is based on anticipation. Do we see things a certain way because we expect to see them that way, and what if we tried to imagine them another way? Then would we see them another way? He and I agree with each other in that what is real is what is imagined to be real, and also that poetry becomes a kind of surrogate religion. But poetry functions as a devotional practice, which in turn creates community and allows us to see each other as human beings and not abstract entities. I think that’s enough to say.

I: So if, like Wallace Stevens, we believe what is real is what we imagine to be real, is poetry the highest order or function of imagining real things?

B: For Wallace Stevens, yes. Poetry is a way of meshing the exterior and the interior worlds—breaking down the cultural binaries between real/imaginary, object/subject, self/other, one/many, body/mind, emotion/thought, etc. So then, the epigraph, “the unpainted shore accepts the world as anything but sculpture,” is to say that the world is not permanent, and is therefore in need of constant reimagining—that’s what I mean by dialectical genesis.

I: Right. Where sculpture in that line is a sense of finality or structure that we reject. So did your collection come into being as a result of this new idea or this new order, this new way of looking at things, or is it more a culmination of your work and representative of it that way?

B: It’s more of the latter of those two things, I think. I wasn’t thinking of poetic epistemology when I was writing that book. Not overtly, anyway. I had it in the back of my mind. But I was mostly trying to enact the way in which spaces—mental, literal, physical, bodily, emotional, psychological, metaphorical—change in the aftermath of loss. So I was thinking of the relationship between the body or the mind and the exterior world, yes. That’s the primary concern of the book, I think. Maybe I’m wrong about that. As an elegy, it is concerned with the departed, but even before that it’s concerned with the relationship between the body and the space that the body occupies. The body-slash-mind.

I: One of the things we talked about was body as enclosure, and this idea of both captive but a whole space at the same time. So how does this idea relate to the collection at large?

B: I think the book oscillates between being an enclosure and a grandiose fission of the stars or something. The self is rooted in the world because of other selves and then when those other selves are gone, the self must reimagine its ontological position. The oscillation between enclosed, small, particular domestic spaces and broader landscapes or the cosmos, is  the motion of a mind doing the work of finding its place, in an external reality independent of self. Does that answer your question?

I: Definitely. My follow-up to that would be this: what’s the prevailing effect of these poems, and what is it examining? To use Poe, what’s the unifying effect here? He’d say everything has one unifying effect. What we just talked about with Wallace Stevens and loss and grief and where people go and where we go when people leave feels like a huge part of what this collection’s exploring. What’s your take on that? Specifically in terms of grief and losing people in these permanent ways, like death, or semi-permanent ways, like a dissolved relationship?

B: Oh! So you’re asking whether it’s different to lose someone to death, as opposed to a failed relationship. On one hand the book is undoubtedly about the death of a father, no way around it. On the other hand the book—like I mentioned before—is about loss generally. When I first started writing poems I was thinking of the father as not just a literal father but also as a God figure. The book happens to take as its subject matter the death of a father. But it’s also about the loss of religion in one’s own life, or the absence of God. I hope that is applicable to all forms of loss or abandonment.

I: So let’s talk about the prose form for a minute. First talk about why you used it, and its place in your works, its place in the collection.

B: I have a simple answer: when I was writing those poems I was afraid of line breaks. It still surprises me that poets have the audacity to break lines. I think it’s rarely done well. When I tried to lineate my prose poems in the book they just didn’t work as well. Also, the prose form has a more clinical, formal, reserved quality, wouldn’t you say? The verse, by contrast, is more conventionally lyrical. It takes an almost journalistic form. Also, in the final elegy when the text vacillates between prose and verse, I wanted to enact the movement of the mind between introspection and attempted objectivity. The prose is a little more introspective, a little more subjective.

I: So if I were to map it, the lyric sections are more like the interior mind at work, like trying to name things or rename things or situations. And then as we move to the prose portions, it’s about this place and the body being outside itself, sometimes at many levels outside itself, and trying to move through space that way. I wonder, though—if there is no tension because of enjambment, where does the tension come from? The image? The strength of the image?

B: The tension comes from the brevity, the parataxis, the associative leaps, the irregularities in grammar and syntax, the disruptions to the protocols of semantic coherence, the unsettling of readerly expectations in prose…I could go on, but you get the idea.

I: So what do you say to detractors of prose poetry if they find those conventions inaccessible, like the lack of semantic cohesion or loose narrative? Because this is a major complaint of anyone who’s reading prose poems now. I really would love to hear you speak to that, because there’s folks who say that’s all surrealism is—just something to hide behind. so how would you respond to the detractors of prose poetry who attack it as “word salad,” random images, and hiding behind surrealism as a shield for the craft?

B: Wow, I have so much to say about this I don’t even know where to start. First of all, “word salad” is ridiculous. There is no such thing. The term is lazy. It’s a word people use when they’re confused and frustrated with a text, because they believe the text should have some kind of consumability—that they text should have an exchange value, that it should give them something tangible, in a capitalistic sense.

Also, you’re really asking me two questions here: 1) What do I say to the detractors of prose poetry? and 2) How would I defend surrealism?—because, of course, the prose poem isn’t inherently surreal, and surreal poetry isn’t necessarily prose. So, okay, here goes. The prose poem—and any hybrid text for that matter—is necessarily engaged with identity crisis. The mode is such that the speaker inhabits an in-between space. The prose poem therefore resists the cultural tendencies that seek to identify and fix material and turn it into a product; it resists reduction and commodification. It disrupts readerly demands and expectations and form, as it advocates for an essence over identity, becoming over being, fluidity over fixity. In other words, what do we expect from prose? What do we expect from poetry? In rejecting easy genre classification it subsumes genre—it is everything and yet nothing. Poem and prose, narrative and anti-narrative, organic and artificial, approachable and wholly unrecognizable all at the same time. Reliant upon literary tradition even as it rejects traditionalism. We find it in the middle of evolution and therefore unevolved.

Regarding surrealism, I’ll say this: it’s not random. Even “automatic writing,” which was a popular practice of early surrealist writers, is not really automatic. In fact, it’s painstakingly calculated. Surrealism is not representative. In other words, it’s not trying to depict or represent a physical location or tangible reality, the way realism does. Instead, it enacts and emotional state of being, so that the reader experiences that state—both mentally and physiologically.

There are two kinds of surrealism: capital S surrealism and lower-case s surrealism. Surrealism with a capital S is of course for Breton and Dali. Let me give you an example. I could say to you, “I pulled a chicken’s foot from behind the moon,” and that’s surreal, and that lacks an emotional quality. It’s just very surreal, and you don’t totally know what to do with it. It has a nice texture about it, but it doesn’t convey an emotion to you, whereas there’s a really great James Tate poem where he opens the poem by saying, “Dear Reader / I’m trying to pry open your coffin with a snowflake.” And you get that line. Emotionally, you understand what he’s saying. It’s surreal, it’s kind of cartoonish, but it’s also a little devastating. Or there’s this great line from Neruda where he says, “I cast my sad nets over your oceanic eyes,” It’s incredible and it’s surreal but it’s also emotionally accessible to you. So you understand what he’s saying even if it’s an image that you can’t actually imagine in your head. I tend to employ the lowercase surrealism. Do I think of myself as a surrealist? No, not at all. Am I upset if someone calls me one? No, I don’t care.

Finally, I would tell these “detractors” that poetry is not meant to be gotten, and it is not something to be possessed—it is a being possessed! It seizes us and immerses us in the present moment. A poem is to be understood intuitively. You don’t understand a poem in the same way that you understand a mathematical equation or an empirically derived, scientific hypothesis or theory.

I: Or even the way you’d understand a straightforward plot in a fiction piece.

B: Right. I’ll use the analogy I use with my students: you don’t “get” the Sistine Chapel. When you walk in and you look up at the ceiling, you don’t think, “What does it mean?” You don’t question its semantics. You just experience it, and it’s purely emotional. The same could be said about the statue of David. You turn the corner—and you see the statue! And you think, WOW! It seizes you! you don’t analyze its curves. you don’t ask why he’s standing in the position he is. You just feel it, and then, maybe, later on you’ll ask question of form, history, and medium. You could say similar things about music. I think poetry should be experienced in the same way. I mean, it’s not prose and it’s not philosophy in a can. It’s art. It’s not artifact. It’s not documentation. It’s not craft. It’s art. So if you don’t get it, that’s because you’re trying to understand it with the wrong brain.

I: I also feel that these poems are among the most accessible poems you’ve ever written. So let me ask you this: how do you workshop your kinds of poems? Because it’s also harder for folks to find endpoints in a prose poem like they can do in a lineated poem.

B: Closure is an illusion. The demand for a tidy, well-packaged, or memorable ending is archaic—and it disagrees with lived experience. Inevitably you’d have to talk about the prose form because no one should write prose poetry without good reason—although the same could be said of any form. I wrote in prose because I wanted both to perform an identity crisis and to create an in-between space—something neither this nor that. The consciousness of the book is neither wholly before nor totally after tragedy. It’s au milieu—right in the middle of loss, which is an in-between space. I couldn’t write an essay, which seems very much after the fact. I couldn’t write straight poetry either because I wanted something never fully grounded in a single vantage point. I tried to resist the urge to monumentalize experience. So, what would I say to people who want to find an end point? I don’t know. I’d probably ignore them.

I: Okay. So, we’ll wrap up here. Talk to me for just a minute about your success, about coming from BYU as an undergrad writing poems to publishing a book and being at Iowa. What was that like? What’s changed, in your poetry and in your mind?

B: I’ll tell you: poetry has become a way of life for me. Poetry has to be a way of life, if you want to be a poet, I mean. It can’t be a hobby. It can’t be something you do when you feel like it. It has to be something that you’re constantly doing. You have to cultivate a mind on which no detail is lost, so in that sense you’re always writing. Even right now I’m noticing that door slightly ajar and I’m thinking of Emily Dickinson. And these objects over here on the shelf, all very sad and very upright. So what I’m saying is, you have to train your mind so that it’s always paying attention to details, objects, people. In that regard, everything you read, everything you hear and overhear is material for writing. And then you just have to force yourself to write. If you’re not putting yourself in front of the computer every day then you’re losing time. You’re not gonna write something good everyday but you at least have to give yourself the chance to write something good. Even my last year at BYU I was very much aware of this: I woke up at five a.m. every morning to write. Because I knew I just wasn’t going to have time in the day with classes and soccer and everything else. So I wrote in the mornings.

I hate to think of poetry as a purely intellectual endeavor. Instead it’s an invitation to be more attentive in the world and to be more present and to be kinder and more compassionate. It’s really who you are, I think. you have to eat it for breakfast, and breathe it, and dream about it. And when you have five minutes of nothing to do, then you should be reading or writing down a line or something. That’s really how I live, which is kind of exhausting. In addition, I read eclectically, and a lot. I read philosophy, theory, religious texts, even science books.

I: Last thing. The flies in your book. Fly here, fly there. “A fly loosely banging into a—”

B: Yeah, I remember that one. Are there other flies? Oh, the fly in the sugar. So what do you wanna know about that? Was I thinking of Emily Dickinson? I was. I am always thinking about Dickinson. She might be the smartest poet of all time. I was also thinking of Michael Dickman who has a book called Flies. Flies are scary, and they’re also kind of grotesque. And there’s something about a consciousness that is willing to observe a fly and not attend to it. Not try to shoo it away or clean it up in the case of a dead fly. Someone who’s willing to note the fly but not do anything about it.

I: And what’s interesting about that is it’s like a parenthesis and there’s a lot of parenthetical moments in this collection.

B: There are. The whole book works as a giant parenthetical statement. That’s how I thought of it, honestly. I wanted to put the title in parentheses, actually, but they wouldn’t let me do it. I wanted to put it in parentheses because I was trying to make an enclosure. I actually wanted to call the book Enclosures but a book came out from Ahsahta Press this last year called Enclosures. So I decided against it.

I: I love The Unpainted Shore.

B: Yeah, The Unpainted Shore works nice. Thank you, Wallace Stevens.

Seed

Ashley mae Christensen

The days and nights were so hot and so humid our second summer together. I loved you, even then. There was a big town thermometer in the front lawn of a cinderblock home, ten blocks from our rented house. It spindled like a skinny soldier, just taller than the tin roof of the humble house. The thermometer preceded what little technology the country enjoyed; it stuck there, its metal stand pushed into the hard, black soil, the weeds growing up around it. Rambunctious boys vandalized sides of buildings, abandoned cars, and park benches, but they never touched the thermometer. They must have recognized that the crudely painted, tin device was a sacred reminder to us all that what we were living was difficult, and therefore significant.

The red line of the thermometer rose and fell each day. The older, knobby gentleman who lived in the home moved the metal strip up and down through the afternoon as he took note of the temperature. He was the most important man in the city between the months of November and April. The higher the temperature, the more the neighborhood reveled. “Worst summer in twenty years, do you know that this part of the country gets hottest of all?” “I once was hospitalized in heat like this—stayed three hours on an I.V. I’m likely to end up back there if this keeps up, you know?”

No matter that the man in charge of keeping the thermometer had no accurate way of anything exact; Uruguayans lean toward the dramatic. So you and I wrote letters home telling of record temperatures.

Our misery grew simultaneously with our joy. Or perhaps they both simply made us feel alive, and thus have always been the same thing. It took me a while to catch on, but I learned it was easy to engage conversation about the crippling heat and humidity, the best way to make life-long friends in a new place. So I did talk. I spoke fluent Spanish with an American accent, but was always well received when I exclaimed, “¡Qué horrible! ¡Qué calor más brave!” Everywhere I went I made a sport of lively complaining.

You and I even began to complain to one another in our kitchen, not because we needed to say it, but because even married people will do anything to feel a little closer, to share one more experience. We walked each morning before school to the fruit stand and each day I noticed that my stomach touched the inside of my dress less and less. I wasn’t wasting away, but I was losing weight. Maybe it was adjusting to a foreign country, maybe it was standing day after day at the front of a classroom full of illiterate adults who were not convinced that this would get them a job, maybe it was learning to be in love that made me skinnier. One year later, my stomach would grow the other direction.

Salto, our town, was known for its variety of oranges: navel oranges, red oranges, oval oranges, ruby oranges. They were all I wanted to eat. Oranges and the popsicles frozen in little baggies, homemade and sold from the front door of every other house for a peso.

We ate oranges for breakfast while sitting on our beds, the sun low, just above the line of the tall grass in the backyard. There was one spindly lemon tree standing in the corner near the dilapidated fence. The tree was shorter than it should have been, more brittle, too few leaves, perhaps a symbol of the country in which it was born.

Near the top, in a place where one could reach up above one’s head and stand on tiptoes, a small lemon was slowly ballooning outward into the world, taking up a little more space every day, aware of its taking and needing a place in a world where not everyone had even a plate of rice to eat for dinner.

We were also aware of the lemon, though we didn’t begrudge it for its selfish need for material, air, and space for growing. Rather, we pointed to it, from its very conception bud, to its flowering childhood, and now, into the thick-skinned green oval hanging shyly from a firm stem from the top branches of a small brown tree. In the coming month, in spite of, or perhaps thanks to the heat, the skin would yellow, pull tighter, thinner and more porous.

One evening, before dusk, we walked to the edge of the yard and because you were just a bit taller than me, you reached up and plucked the lemon down, turning it in your hands, letting the roundness fill in the deep C of your palm. We looked close and rubbed the smooth skin against our cheeks; you rubbed it against mine and said, “the only lemon of the year, la primera limón del ano, quizás la única.” We could look deep into the shadow moons of the lemon’s skin and perhaps it would speak to us of its history.

We might see a scene two hundred years ago: ships full of sailors and explorers and men longing for faraway wives, ships rolling across the sea from the eastern shores of this country. Did the men on those ships ache for home? The lemon—not this lemon, but its ancestors—were on that ship then. The fruit, a rich source of vitamin C, was known to ward off the dreaded paleness, open sores, and depression that came with scurvy, and from being thousands of miles from home. Perhaps their wives sent them with lemons, in hopes that they might return to them, safe and in love.

Later that week, you made me tea from the lemon when I was sick and throwing up. Looking at the lemon, we pondered what it means to be home, what it means to be so close to one another and still ever treading into the unfamiliar.

One round window on the lemon’s yellowed skin might show us its particular origin, might tell the two of us how a scraggly, dying lemon tree came to live in the backyard corner of our house in this poor neighborhood. It might show us the stray cats fighting and forcing love all night under its branches, the noises so awful. I woke up and threw a cup of water through the metal bars and out the open window once, in hopes of ending any injustice. Then I lay back down and turned over to you, your skin rounded like baked clay in the white moonlight. Were you thinking of names for our children then?

A Swimmer

Zac Cianflone

He knew that the guys on TV were hacks, amateurs.  Sure they were fast, but they practiced a mongrel method. They treated the water like a mere medium between two walls, a barrier between a goal and a stopwatch.  He swam at the local Y, but there too the hacks congregated, forever fighting against the water and babbling like idiots in the cramped sauna. He avoided the sauna. He showed up to the pool in the early morning, around 5:30 when the place opened. The air was murky with chlorine and sometimes the surface of the water was smooth—the hacks still tucked away in bed, he chuckled to himself.  Usually though, he wasn’t alone, an ambitious kid here or there getting in extra pool time, etc, and they were even talking about starting up some kind of early morning water aerobics class. One day he would retire and dig out a single lane in his backyard, he thought as he lowered himself down. He swam now.

At times the tiny bubbles delighted him, cascading off his thumbs like an endless stream of carbonation from the bottom of a glass.  But they alternately dismayed him to no end:  to cut the water was an art, a bubble an imperfection.

In the end, two ambitions tormented him.

 

One: to disappear into the water, to cut the liquid clean with the plane of his outstretched fingers—to be swallowed into the wakeless mass.

Two: to totally give into the imperfection of bubbles, to be dissolved whole and destroyed by the mad water like a tablet of Alka-Seltzer.

The Face of Gertrude Stein

by Tyler Moore

I first read Gertrude Stein when I was sixteen years old.

She was one of the Modernists, a group of writers who sought to revolutionize the functions of grammar and prose, and a bunch of whom all moved to Paris and ended up knowing each other. My American Literature class and I studied their capstones: Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” I was mind-blown. These masterworks taught me that good literature can enchant and entertain in the same way that good movies do.

Then we read Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. And I did not like it. I thought it was a dumb book and that Stein must have just been a historical accident, who only got studied because she had powerful friends. I quickly dismissed her as just another of the “crazy modernist lesbians.” (I am sorry to say that in high school I was not very nice.)

But Gertrude Stein kept coming back. The more I learned about Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Pound, the more her influence on them kept getting emphasized. She read their books and helped edit them. She probably edited The Sun Also Rises! Hemingway asked her to be his son’s godmother!

So when my professor assigned Tender Buttons for last week’s reading, I figured I might enjoy it this time around. But I was taken straight back to junior year when I got to this paragraph:

Book was there, it was there. Book was there. Stop it, stop it, it was a cleaner, a wet cleaner and it was not where it was wet, it was not high, it was directly placed back, not back again, back it was returned, it was needless, it put a bank, a bank when, a bank care.

(That paragraph is even more fun if you read it out loud.) Was I missing something? Did anyone else find this paragraph to be absolutely bananas? Were there people out there who would pay money for this kind of stuff? And even if there were, why are we studying it? Literature like this, though it often has critical and influential value, is simply not what I enjoy reading. I gravitate towards works of connection–ones where you feel like you’re there with the author, having a conversation. Rather than that sense of synchronization, Tender Buttons gives me the feeling I’m being largely ignored.

Next to Tender Buttons, though, in our anthology, was a small biography of Stein, and a picture, taken by Man Ray in 1922. In it, Gertrude Stein sits on the right, next to a portrait painted by Pablo Picasso. Of herself.

A lot of cool things converge in the picture. First, the obvious joke: Gertrude Stein is in a picture with herself. Because the image on the left is a painting, it seems like it should just be part of the backdrop of the photograph. But Stein is her own background, and Ray has positioned them to sit facing each other, as though they have just stopped a conversation with themselves in order to look at the camera.

Then there’s the comment on the artistic moment. Picasso experimented with cubism and surrealism, which attempted to paint the heart of the thing, not necessarily how it appeared visually. His vision of Stein has an unnaturally geometric, oval head, and her eyes are two different sizes. Her face is lean and young, while Stein’s is full and weathered. But regardless of those differences, the resemblance between both Gertrudes is spot-on. The painted work sustains all of Stein’s dignity: her tightly-kept hair, her round, inviting back, and her soft, quiet hands. When people complained to Picasso that Stein did not look like her portrait, he responded, “She will.”

Still, though, something about the photograph is inexplicable. How did Stein feel when she got to see her own portrait? What thoughts ran through her head while Ray took this picture? She got to see herself as the Modernists saw her, and that floors me with jealousy. What would I have looked like to a Cubist? How would Picasso have painted me? What would Hemingway have thought of my notes?

You can picture them all standing there, behind the lens of the camera— Fitzgerald and Pound and Matisse and Hemingway and all of them—watching and smiling. The face of the painted Stein is curious and sly, like she knows the joke that’s going on but doesn’t want to talk about it. But the real Stein has a face of gravity. She knows the joke too, and she knows how important her group is. She knows what Hemingway’s next book is going to be about, and she knows the world of World War I. She knows that her book is crazy. She knows the artist’s burden, to create good art in the shadow of her predecessors. She knows what Hawthorne and Emerson and Rachmaninoff and Cervantes and Caravaggio and Shakespeare and Chaucer and Moses all knew. She knows Picasso. She knows what’s next.

At Newport Beach

By Emma Richey Natter

In November the water at Newport Beach is pretty cold, but I still swim for a good half hour before the waves wear me out and my arms and legs start to chill and I walk-hop to my towel while the waves push me from behind. When I sit down I watch my aunt Chari, who’s still swimming in the ocean wile grabbing handfuls of sand, the grains sieving through my fingers. When a smooth-faced wave rises up, I can see Chari’s body shadowing the top layers of ocean before the pile of water comes crashing down and her body jolts to the sandy bottom. She stands up, shakes her head, slicks her hair back, spits a couple of times, and then dives back under the next wave to do it again. I watch Chari get pummeled to the ground again and again.

My dad told me that when they’d go fishing, Chari was the one who’d stay next to the river afterward, slitting open the fish from the tail to the throat and rinsing out their guts in the river to bleed swirling ribbons. I like to picture her, sliding two fingers between the flaps of skin and peaking in, like checking a patient’s chart before flipping it open. She counts the pulse of her patients, taking their blood pressure, and the muscles and blood and other organs slide down her fingers, back into the cool river.

When she grew up and she and her boyfriend, Steve, got pregnant and they got married and moved away from my dad’s family to Kansas City and had four children, Steve would spend all of their money and blame Chari for their problems because she hadn’t gone to college. Then he’d threaten to kill himself if she ever left him. But one day when he went to work, she packed up everything in their house into black garbage bags and buckled the four kids into their seat belts while they sucked on fruit snacks and she drove to her sister’s house in Utah. Steve was surprised when he came home and no one was there, so he kicked a few things and broke a few pictures and shouted and then he turned on the TV while he waited for her to call. But she never did. Instead, she went to college, got a nursing degree, they got divorced, and she married a kind man.

I think about this while I watch her because of, well, because of a recent break up. I felt I had learned how to compromise and to please and to give and what I got in return was an unexpected avalanche of white, salty water in my sinuses and kelp in my swimsuit. And the whole experience has been getting retrospectively worse. But as I watch Chari fall to the sand again, her skin slick and shimmering, she flops first like a beached fish and then stands, strong enough.

Luna and I

by Megan McManama

I have no memory of learning to ride a bike, but if my parents taught me, my dad would have played a dominant role. He would have been the one to secure my knee guards, helmet, elbow pads, then hold the handles and jog on both sides of the back wheel as I pedaled. I would have jerked myself out of his grip and fell. As I cried and ran back to my house, my mom would be the one to fart and then blame it on my brother to get me laughing.

My dad continued to play a protective, dominating role, especially in whom I dated. I remember one of my first dates.  A sixteen-year-old boy, was taking me to get ice cream. My dad insisted that I shouldn’t go. He followed me around the house as I got ready. He had disapproving creases on his forehead. My mother jokingly yelled from the other room, “Have fun, bring me back a beer!” I laughed and wished my dad could ease up. As I ran for the door when my date’s car pulled up, my dad screamed an elongated “Beee gooood!” out the front door.

My dad offered his opinion so much that I began to rebel out of spite, and soon I didn’t know what I wanted. I fell in love with boys, my dad would offer his harsh opinion of them, and I found myself quickly out of love with them. I didn’t know what to love anymore. I resented the power he had over me, yet I leaned into it to ask for advice often.

. . .

I woke up early and made eggs and toast. I packed energy packets, gummies, and granola bars into a small bag that I crunched under the metal rack above my back tire. I looked at my phone; the GPS bike route was already pulled up. The next four hours and 47 minutes I would be cycling 59.4 miles through eleven towns. It was my first long ride. My ex-boyfriend Josh, the one who got me into cycling, had always talked about riding his road bike from Provo to Salt Lake City in Utah. I laughed at him when he said that—it seemed ridiculous to ride that far; why would anyone want to do that?

Now here I was doing it without him.

My new friend Vaughn was waiting for me by the bike racks of our apartment complex. We had met only a few weeks earlier at a neighborhood gathering. When we discovered our common love for cycling, we planned this trip. He was wearing thin black shades and had a professional red and white cycling helmet. This was his first ride on a road bike, and I was excited to be the more experienced cyclist. The day before we had went shopping and bought cycling shorts, the black spandex kind with a sewn in pillow under the bum. I felt professional, even though I had been cycling only four months. I was surprised to see him with red basketball shorts on. “Where are your new shorts?” I asked.

“I’m wearing them under these one.” He said.

I didn’t understand. “Vaughn you’re going to get really hot. Why not just wear the cycling shorts?”

He laughed and said, “I’m not ready for that yet.” I laughed right back at him and we started to ride.

Fifteen miles in, we finally got off the roads and onto the bike trail that would take up three fourths of our journey. Vaughn and I would shout when we had something entertaining to say, but mostly we were silent. Most of the times we stopped, he tried to twist his foot out of the bike’s pedals, unsuccessfully, and he would fall. I helped him as much I could but eventually found myself laughing. 

        As I rode on the trail overlooking the Utah valley, I continued to think of my dad. He had disapproved of me buying a bike, and I hadn’t asked his opinion about cycling 60 miles. Occasionally, Vaughn and I would pass a couple longboarding or some morning speed walkers. A fit cyclist passed us going at a ridiculous speed. He had a red light flashing under his seat, telling me that he had started his ride before the sun rose. I envied his speed and form; the competitor inside me called to Vaughn, “Let’s keep up with him.” Vaughn nodded, with his huge smile, and we pedaled harder. I pulled the little metal switch between my handlebars and shifted gears. I moved my hands to the curved lower handlebars, letting my back become almost horizontal, so I could slice into the air. I had only had my bike for fourth months, but already I felt more freedom with her than I had in most other relationships in my life.

. . .

On the day I bought my bike, my ex-boyfriend Josh was trying to find a robin-egg-blue Bianchi road bike. They were adorable. “They’re not adorable, they are classic,” he would say. He would also say things like, “It’s not a seat, it’s a saddle” and “that’s not a sprocket, this is a sprocket.” I then mumbled at him, “You’re a sprocket.” He laughed so loud, like thunder, so surprising and exciting. Many things I did or said were purely just to hear his thunderous laugh. It wasn’t a deep, sexy thunderous voice; it was a high-pitched crack through the air—and I loved it.

That Saturday we were exploring a vintage bike shop. I test-drove a silver road bike. A Bianchi from 1980. It was lightly raining, and there was that delicious smell in the air that rose from the wet cement. I squinted to see; the steel frame wobbled under me. The seat was so high that I had to awkwardly curve my back to reach the low handles. There were brief moments of exhilaration. I felt like I was floating. The bicycle was so light that with the slightest adjustment of my hands, it would smoothly turn. When I clenched the brakes to stop, there was a moment of terrifying teetering, I didn’t know which side I would fall toward. After we got back in the building, I told him, “I can’t buy it, it’s a road bike! I’ve only ever rode mountain bikes. And I can’t ride on the roads.”

“Mountain bikes are for tools. And they are like ten pounds heavier.” He told me about the amazing rides we would have, he told me of the thrilling feeling of cycling. I had heard this passionate thread many times before. He always had a way of assuring me. By the bold way he talked, I really believed he knew everything. Even when I knew he was wrong, he said things with such confidence, that sometimes I felt better being wrong with him than being right without him.

But I was persistent, because buying this bike was a big commitment. I knew I would have to pay for tune-ups, and ride it on roads. “I have a weak back though, this might kill me,” I said. “Maybe,… maybe I am just not be a biker. I mean, I’m saving up for a car.”

He was a few inches taller than me. He looked down into my eyes. “It’s not a ‘biker,’ it’s a cyclist, and this will make your back and core so much stronger.” He looked down at the bike at his side. “We can find nice neighborhood roads you can bike on. You don’t have to ride the busy streets.” He stroked his hand down the bike’s frame, petting it slowly. “It is such a nice bike.”

. . .

Thirty minutes after we accelerated, the cyclist in front of us became a distant red light in the foggy morning. We were riding past the large homes in Lindon, with their backyards full of horses and corn. I enjoyed the smells that came, some that I would not normally have enjoyed. I smelt fresh cut wet grass lying in piles, and brown meshy earth under old men’s work boots. Smells took me back to the time that I had ridden on this trail before. Josh had brought me there only weeks after we’d bought my bike.

. . .

I had watched Josh “dance” as he called it, with his bike, Francesca. I tried to mimic him; standing up and swinging the bike side-to-side under my body as I pedaled fast and hard. I would often swing the bike too much to the side and make wide curves on the bike trail, unbalanced, and fumbling.

I named my bike Luna because she is silver and Italian made. As I gained balance and a love for Luna, I began riding her everywhere. I rode Luna up the hill to work; it took fifteen minutes. I would rest for twenty minutes before I clocked in—that’s how long it took for the burning legs, jumping heart, and occasional nausea to go away. I learned what a derailleur was, and why a bent tire rim would ruin a ride. I paid even more so that Luna could ride smooth. I was amazed at her obedience. With the slightest movement, she followed.

Each day I could get to work in a little less time; the game was exciting. My heart began to enjoy sprinting. I felt a heavy burn in my thighs about the time when my breathing became audible. That’s when I pushed down the little metal gear that was in between my handlebars. I stood, swinging Luna under me as I pedaled. My breath was deeper now, loud. There was a point when moving the pedals became almost impossible, so I sat and gave my thighs a breather. On the ride home, I would try to make my back as flat as possible, avoiding potholes, letting my hands rest on the curved bars under the brakes. I knew if I needed the brakes, it would take a moment more to reach them from this position. The wind wrapped around me and whipped the zippers on my backpack, and I could hear them tap the fabric.

I began to ride Luna to school. On the days after Josh and I broke up, I found myself crying less. It seemed weird that such a trying event would stop tears and not wield them. On the days that getting out of bed became hard, it was often the anticipation of the ride that got me up. I could feel the eyes of walking students glued to my back as I sped past them, on my other side cars galloped by me, but I didn’t care.

She understood me and I understood her. Don’t shift the front gear up, she’s broken there, it irritates her chain. She followed my hip sway and the turn of my wrist. I learned how to fix her tires when they went low. My fingers became accustomed to her grease. I learned how to break a nozzle off the tube (she forgave me for that). The tube still hangs on my wall. I even taught Vaughn how to fix a tire. That was the night we learned what it’s like to explode a tube by pumping it too much.

Eventually I stopped taking the neighborhood roads and took the main route to campus. At times there was no clear bike lane. Yet I felt that I belonged there. I merged to wait in line with the cars to turn left, as I had seen many cyclist do. When the light turned green, the adrenaline shot through me. I stood and began to dance the silver-moon steel frame under me.

. . .

I could sense that Vaughn was watching me dance with Luna. My hands were grasping the fleshy gold-tape crescent moon handlebars. Wind was rippling over my fingers then and sliding down my forearm, and rolling off my bladed shoulders. I rode flat as an arrow. No one had told me that hills and talking are a bad combination unless you like the taste of bugs. Perhaps it should’ve been common sense; but eventually Vaughn and I had got it and stopped talking. It was in this silent time, that I felt something unique. I was filled with an indescribable power and sense of freedom, that no relationship or sport has ever brought before. We were pedaling near the point of the mountain, where two towns, Lehi and Draper touched. The highway was on my left, cars going 70 miles-an-hour were only 50 yards from me. I briefly glanced at some colors in the sky, paragliders. I wondered how they felt up there, was that how they felt indescribable power and freedom? Bringing my eyes back to the downhill trail, I saw the Salt Lake valley unveiled below me. Canopies of green trees were sporadically placed in the valley that was guarded by dangerously tall mountains. Past the frozen valley beneath me, I saw my destination, thirty miles ahead—Salt Lake City.

I held my body low so that I was diving into the air. I was invisible. The hill leveled out and I became vertical again, letting myself glide, breathing in the valley, inhaling God. For weeks after I wanted to tell my whole family about this place. I wanted to buy them bikes and take them here.

. . .

I left the bike shop that Saturday and sat in the car with Josh. I called my dad and told him about how I wanted to buy the bike, about how it could save me money, how I would always wear a helmet, how it might be a good thing for me, but that I was just a little scared, and asked what he thought. My dad reacted the way that he often reacted.

I could hear his eyes pressing close and his hand rub his worried face. “Oh, honey, I don’t think you should get it. Those things are really dangerous. I just don’t trust it. I heard about a biker just last month that got killed on the road. Bikers just aren’t meant to be on the road.”

Cyclist, I thought.

I looked at my Josh’s face, it told me, just get the bike.

My dad said, “Just save your money. I really don’t want you getting hurt, honey.”

I thought of going home without the bike. The air was gray and rain was breaking on the windshield. I decided to get it that second that my dad was waiting for me to respond. “Dad. I appreciate your opinion. I’m going to buy the bike.” I heard a sigh on the other end.

. . .

Our muscles were begging for rest, so we stopped a ways down the hill once we reached the neighborhoods. I leaned Luna on a church fence and ate a granola bar. Vaughn stretched reached his hands up his red shorts to readjust his cycling shorts, jumping and laughing. There were birds screeching, awful, loud noises above us. I looked up: two eagles flew in ovals in the sky. I looked in the distance and saw two more circling the valley. I said, “Vaughn are those eagles?”

He looked at them for a moment and continuing to stare at them, he said, “Yeah. That’s crazy.”

“I’ve only ever seen eagles in a zoo.” We watched a while longer, sensing this moment was special. Squinting over the valley, my eyes lowered and noticed a field in front of me. Wood-like antlers were hovering above tall grass. “A deer!” I screamed without thinking. As I said “deer,” the buck raised his head to look at me. I gazed into his black eyes.

“He is so close!” Vaughn said quietly. Vaughn’s words seemed distant. The deer and I were glued to each other. I felt that this moment was sacred, yet I didn’t understand why. Moments later the buck broke the gaze and turned. His body was broader and taller than I had anticipated. I admired him even more. “Well, let’s keep riding?” Vaughn said. I agreed and mounted my bike but kept looking at the buck. He’d turned once to look at me, then continued.

We found that sitting was too painful when we reached South Salt Lake, fifteen minutes from the cafe that I had always loved. We rode, standing, past the kids getting out of school. Braids twirled in the wind as girls chased one another.

We arrived at the cafe and found an empty table on the terrace and left Luna and his bike on the fence next to us. I felt the bones popping in my back as I sat down, my muscles were tingling; they felt like cold liquid running through my taut legs. I felt empty; I’d eaten all my gummies. There was a hand reaching from the depths of my stomach and clawing at my skull behind my eyes. Vaughn was tired too, we gave each other a high five. We told the server what we’d just done, but didn’t really have any other words. So we were silent and drank our water from the tall translucent glasses, then poured and repeated this until our meal arrived.

The server brought the order fast and gave us a free dessert. Chicken Panini’s with potato chips and a slice of marzipan. The food was not as delicious as I remembered, yet it was the best thing meal I ever had. We inhaled it. I felt a sensation expanding in my chest, almost overflowing into tears as I ate it.

Rocks

Dallin Law

Rocks rest black, volcanic, and half buried in reddish-brown sand. Heavy to lift and yet out of place, strangers just passing through. If I wanted, I could root them up, carry them away, moveable and mortal. I could roll them to the striated cliffs filling the horizon and introduce them. Ponderous witnesses to volcanic rubble once heaved out of magma, hurled out into this older, foreign, sandy place to cool.

Frail clusters of hermit grasses, miniature shrubs, tiny flowers, and stumpy trees huddle close to creeping rocks. The wind deflected by the cold, frozen mineral, the plants couched between gaps of stone. They shiver and cower with only rocky comfort. I am like these.

A cold convulsion. My hands are white and red with cold—scaly, alien. A warm creature growing cold, sitting on a frozen stone. Body’s heat leaching from my shrunken buttocks, my presence is at best temporary, more likely meaningless.

There have been times when I felt old like the cliffs—perspective found standing still for a long time. I became aware of transient things. Bacteria in a petri dish—multiplying, dividing, reproducing, growing at a rate difficult to conceptualize. Compared to the cliffs, I am small, but compared to the single-celled, I am a cliff. I’ll eat yogurt like a cliff eats humans, crushing.

These are terms much too small, too embarrassingly short-sighted. I detach the cliffs from their place and time, bring them back to thoughtless origin. In silence they orbit a slowly gathering, heating pre-sun—dully throbbing red. I trace invisible filaments of gravity that connect all matter everywhere, loosely gathering dust clouds slowly swirling inward. A coming together. I watch as one cliff, after millions of years of circling, finally finds the other half of the canyon. Their matters mated, their energies expelled on one another, heating through a loving, violent attraction.

I lay my body down on the rock and place our two matters together. Carbon meets silicate. Re-creation of the sole creative movement, how life was born. We two floated together once as siblings, everything in common. The sun floats above me as it did then—ultimate, generous in emanations of heat born in entropic orgies of fire.

One day the sun’s hydrogen core will all be burned into helium. Ravenous, the sun will metamorphosize into a larger, redder, angrier star relearning to consume itself from the inside out, an insatiable hunger ending with explosion. Explanation and origins for what I see. Suns, long since exploded, are what this rock is made of. I’m a star corpse walking, thinking thoughts my creators never did.

How long can I sit still—distancing, broadening—until I am subsumed in massive cycles and processes too big to see the smallest fraction of their revolution? Purposefully, I fill my lungs, pushing my ribs out and stretching my stomach, straining my navel until I exhale. I make a fist, feeling the skin stretch over my knuckles cracking, drying, becoming ugly. I feel where my clothes drape over and cling to me as if I had shingles, acutely surprised. I shift my lower body by pushing against the rock with my hands, a shift to the right buttock; it’s warmer.

I’m taking up the Zen Buddhist’s project of awareness of things, the origin, connection and relation. I take up the secular geologists and astronomers’ vision of the past in the transient surface of present. Cutting away superfluous, crowding, competing voices, I rediscover not myself, but instead, for a moment, the cyclic past and find myself temporary and blissfully empty. Realization comes suddenly, violently, and forcefully—an anticlimax.

The past has become hypnotic to me; I see it everywhere, in everything a bulky, turning wheel without holds. Like musty boxes of silken fabrics from my great grandmother’s attic unearthed by curious nostalgia, the substructure of each folded bolt formed of thoughts, emotions, memories—each sensation woven on top of uncertain stories, hinted origins. The past has become both a source of quixotic enlightenment and an eternally reinterpretable symbol. It affirms my existence, showing I’ve lived, but proves too deep to safely plumb.

Out of habit, I reach for my knife and it feels familiar. A year ago I looked for a pocket knife. I started noticing more knives protruding out of pockets. Surgical, tactical, sterile and menacing knives. Precisely harmful for the pseudo-military paranoid. Other men wore woody knives with OLD TIMER etched on plastic woody cases, housing wide blades. I saw in them my dad as he carefully opened his knife to teach me how to clean a fish, where to cut.  Each knife was pregnant with past, with latent association. I needed something blank or at least uninterpretable, a tabula rasa.

Plain, my knife is constructed of three pieces. A round wooden cylinder for a handle. It feels oily smooth though it’s dry. On one end a metal ring turns with pressure from my thumb. I turn it until the small slit in the metal aligns with the blade tucked inside the handle. The knife unfolds and I turn the locking ring again to keep the blade from folding in. The blade is thin, strong, and sharp. The mechanisms, the materials, the ideas of the knife are plain—understood and unadorned.

But I especially study the blade. High carbon steel, able to be honed to a razor sharpness, but a finicky metal prone to rust, staining, and quick dulling. Even after cutting an apple, the perfect shiny gray color had tarnished spotted black. The humid summer showed its effects in a proto-rust. At first I scrubbed it away, kept it clean, the tabula rasa, but then I stopped. Each time I thumb open the lock ring and pull on the blade I read its signs—blackened past etched in rust and preserved in tarnish.

I don’t cut things everyday, but I have the knife with me among the uncuttable rocks. A tangible meditation, a reminder to myself that things have pasts, arcane names—the stellar dust, the rock-visitor, the human. The knife becomes a steel diary affirming past existence, distancing present from identities held in origins. I hold the stained blade up, playing the glint against my eye. Up to my face, I look from the knife to the cliff face and back again. Matching patterns.