Interview with Robert Pinsky

October 3, 2014, BYU English Reading Series Q&A

Robert Pinksy was born and raised in Long Branch, New Jersey. He graduated from Long Branch High School, as had his parents, and went on to college at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and then to graduate work at Stanford, where he held a Stegner Fellowship. His Selected Poems (Farrar, Straus,& Giroux) was published in 2011. His previous books of poetry include Gulf Music (2008). Jersey Rain (2000), The Want Bone (1990) and The Figured Wheel: New and Collected Poems 1966-1996. His best-selling translation The Inferno of Dante (1994) was a Book-of-the-Month-Club Editor’s Choice, and received both the Los Angeles Times Book Prise and the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award. His prose books include The Life of David (2005), The Situation fo Poetry (1976) and The Sounds of Poetry (1998).

AUDIENCE: How would you say somebody could best develop their talent as a writer and poet?

ROBERT PINSKY: The answer is to read the way an ambitious athlete watches excellent athletes, to read the way a cook eats, to read the way, if you’re ambitious to be a filmmaker, you would watch Kurosawa and Keaton and Scorsese, whomever you admired.

My recent book Singing School–I call it an anthology/manifesto hybrid– has a subtitle: “Learning to write poetry by studying with the masters.” Here is the most specific, practical thing I can suggest (besides buying my book!): create your own anthology. I mean actually. Type up or write out with your own hand the poems you love by, it might be, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Shakespeare, Constantine Cavafy. Whatever it is you love, style it up, and save it in a computer file called “anthology.”  You might cut and paste, rather than typing you more distinctly notice the lines of verse and their relation to the sentences.

In other words, if you’re serious young poet or writer, keep what people used to call a daybook. I’m making that daybook or anthology exercise the central requirement of “The Art of Poetry,” the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that I am teaching right now. If you go to favoritepoem.org–which I recommend for the videos– a little red stripe or banner at the top of the home page sends you to the “Art of Poetry” MOOC. I’m asking all of the tens of thousands of people registered for the MOOC to do this anthology exercise. People have used the assignment with eighth graders; I used to require it of PhD students of Berkeley. The exercise combines autonomy–your taste and your choice, nursery rhymes, song lyrics, whatever you want, it’s your anthology–with the physical experience of typing the poem. Autonomy and corporeality. That’s my practical answer to your question about developing one’s talent.

AUDIENCE: When you translate, do you translate into modern language?

ROBERT PINSKY: In the passage you heard me read from the Inferno, I hope you heard an idiom that sounded plausible and clear: a kind of language that sounded like someone would say it: an idiom not quite your American English and mine, but not old fashioned or archaic, either. I hope the idiom of my Inferno of Dante conveys some idea that this was not written last month or last year, in the USA. I try to create a language that is familiar enough. A created but attractive language: It’s like painting a stage set, an attractive, serviceable language: It’s like painting a stage set, an attractive, serviceable illusion. To me it wouldn’t be interesting to create a slangy American version. That would be too easily ironic, and Dante is not ironic in that distancing or smirking way. The goal was to create an idiom that the reader won’t much otic, something relatively transparent: not especially of your same time and place, and not sounding antique. Something with the fluent, varying immediacy of Dante’s Italian.

AUDIENCE: When you write your own poems what is your workflow?

ROBERT PINKY: It’s important to answer all questions about process with a very important sentence: Everyone is different!

Whatever you personality or your way of working– whether to get up early and work all morning or to sleep all day and work late at night; to write spontaneously and never revise, or to revise carefully and extensively; to make an outline, or to hate outlines– someone has done great work with that procedure. That is no one recipe, so each of us must think about our own habits, proclivities, strengths and weaknesses and try to make them effective. I guess the goal is to understand your way of working and being, while being open to buy them.

I speak to your as someone who in the eighth grade was placed in the Dumb Class. I got very bad grades. I can’t make an outline. I can’t proceed methodically. I don’t do well with routines. I’d much rather improvise than be prepared. All that is neither good nor bad, I think– it is me, or a version of me on which I must try to play the best variations.

Everyone learns differently, everyone writes differently, everyone speaks differently, everyone creates differently, and in my case I love to make it up as I go along. I hate plans. If I’m interviewed, I need to tell the interviewer, “Please don’t tell me what you’re going to ask me.”

Everybody is different. And those of you who go on to be teachers, I hope you will understand that principle and try to use it in a generous, though stringent, way. It’s not a way to excuse people from working hard, from doing their job. But the job should be defined and presented in ways that encourage people to use their strengths, which vary amongst humanity. So with that said, here’s how I, personally, tend to work. I write–a better word might be “compose”– with my voice. I can “write,” in that sense of “compose,”” with my hands on the wheel while driving or while I’m taking a shower. Some of the composing is the way I’ll play with the consonants and the vowels, like somebody smooshing paint on a surface or manipulating clay or noodling on the piano. I’m not recommending that to anyone–just trying to answer the question!

AUDIENCE: Given modern technology, what direction do you see poetry going?

ROBERT PINSKY: I sometimes think that the interest in art, including poetry, has been enhanced by improved technology, partly because the availability of great performances on a mass scale. If I decide to watch a great movie like Kurosawa’s High and Low, or if I want to watch Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Junior tonight, I can. If I want to see Sandy Koufax’s pitching, I can–whatever I want–and it’s on a mass scale. It’s very available and it’s due to performance.

A poem is on a individual scale. It’s one voice; it’s very intimate. And technology makes the voice available in an intimate, immediate way. Not as a performance art, but as a vocal art. That’s why I love the videos at favoritepoem.org.

To illustrate what I mean, here’s a two line poem written in the nineteenth century: “On love, on grief, on every human thing, /Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.” Hearing that as I say it gives me an experience of the poem that is quite different from looking at a screen, or hearing audio of an actor or poet read the poem. My mouth, my breath, my ears, become the medium for the art of someone who lived two hundred years ago. “On love, on grief, on ever. . .” those six words were composed long ago by Walter Savage Landor, an upper class Englishman and Latinist; I am not an upper class English Latinist; I’m a lower middle-class Jew from New Jersey–but my upper teeth went over my lower lip three times at the beginning. “On love, on grief, on every human thing.” And three times at the end of the poem I pursed my lips: “. . . Lethe’s water with his wing.” That is an ancient technology at the center of the evolution of human intelligence. Singing, dancing, poetry, are not at the fringe; they are at the core of who we are. We use them to survive, to pass knowledge through the generations, It’s an ancient technology. Oddly enough, now technology makes that more available.

I urge you all–I beg you–to go to favoritepoem.org. At that Favorite Poem Project web site you will see the FPP videos. You will see a construction worker reading aloud, and discussing, lines by Walt Whitman. You will see a young woman in California, whose parents were immigrants from Cambodia, read a Langston Hughes poem and relate a Langston Hughes poem to her family’s horrible experience during the Pol Pot regime.

Thanks to technology, those videos make available to you examples of this experience I am trying to describe: having a poem in one’s voice, on a very individual level. I believe that experience involves the dignity of the individual. It is widely available on the web.

AUDIENCE: Do you prefer to have your poems read silently or aloud?

ROBERT PINSKY: In the literal or imagined voice of each reader. I’m not interested in making a hit as a reader or poetry. I write with my voice, as I–and for your voice. I want you to imagine saying my words. Ideally you say them aloud, but the moment of poetry for me is the moment when you see the printed words “On love, on grief, on every human thing,/Time sprinkles Lethe’s water with his wing.” Instead of using your silent reading habits, mutter it to yourself. That somatic moment, that moment at the border of your mind and your body, when you imagine saying those words: that’s what interests me. The medium for a poem is each reader’s body. It’s your breath, not me giving a poetry reading. It’s you, on your scale, saying the words.

AUDIENCE: What theory of criticism do you prescribe to, and how has theory impacted you?

ROBERT PINSKY: The word theory is based on the Greek word theoria, which is to behold, to see something. So a theory is a system for seeing and understanding. And the most influential theory on me is the theory of action in Francis Ferguson’s book The Idea of a Theatre: a quite practical book, as well as profound theoretically. Based on Aristotle, the theory has to do with the idea of imitation: that a work of imitates an action. Action in the sense of a movement of the soul.

The literary theory currently of the academic world, in my own life? At about the same point in my life that I stopped eating McDonald’s and Burger King I decided I was going to read only things I really enjoyed. Things that felt urgent, or beautifully composed, preferably both. As a result, I haven’t read much literary theory; because often, when trying to read it, I’m not having a good time. This is a self-indulgence I have allowed myself. I don’t mean to be superior to a body of writing, but I only like to read things that give my pleasure. At the age I am now, it to force myself would feel wasteful. I am aware of how very finite is the time I have left. I’m much nearer to the end than the beginning, and I am no longer in junior high school I’m just going to read things that make me feel good. Recently, with a grandchild, I went back and experimented in having some Kentucky Fried Chicken. I didn’t like it. I thought “this may be good,” and I knew I didn’t think so. The grandchild didn’t seem impressed, either.

Interview with Carlo Rotella

Professor Rotella is Director of the American Studies program and Director of the Lowell Humanities Series. He has held Guggenheim, Howard, and Du Bois fellowships and received the Whiting Writers Award, the L.L. Winship/Pen New England Award, and The American Scholar’s prizes for Best Essay and Best Work by a Younger Writer, and Cut Time was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. he is an editor of the “Chicago Visions and Revisions” series at the University of Chicago Press. He writes for the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post Magazine he is a regular columnist for the Boston Globe, he has been a commentator for WGBH FM, and his work has also appeared in The New Yorker, Critical Inquiry, American Quarterly, The American Scholar, Raritan, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, Transition, Harper’s, DoubleTake, Boston, Slate, The Believer, TriQuarterly, and The Best American Essays. 

INSCAPE: Your writing recognizes people, individually and in small groups, as primary enactors of cultural change and representation. You mentioned the concept of writing yourself into the place where these subjects find themselves. What has been your experience with these immersions, and how has your behavior changed as you continue to immerse yourself in new scenes?

CARLO ROTELLA: It is true that I think one of the best ways to tell the story of a big transformation, a big change, is to tell the stories of individuals or small groups living the consequences of those changes. A lot of what I do is finding characters to put in the foreground, to show what these big and often very abstract changes, things like globalization or deindustrialization–anything I think that ends with a -zaztion–to show how those huge transformations are lived on the ground by people. Over time, I think it’s become more true that I’ve become a character in these stories; that some of the time that person in the foreground–well, if not me–is a least my sensibility, so I’ve become much more willing to be a character inhabiting the world. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m more intrusive or more present when I’m interviewing people. I’m pretty unobtrusive. In fact, that’s pretty much my only marketable skill–that I can disappear in plain sight. But when it comes time to write it, I’ve become more and more comfortable with saying “well, some of the ways in which these big changes show up are in the ways that I think, react, and use myself as a filter more than i did in the past.” I was much more of a fly on the wall when I started, less willing to be present.

INSCAPE: For undergraduate writers who are trying to do the same, what would be the best way to transition into a less presumptuous and more research-motivated manner of writing?

CARLO ROTELLA: There is no substitute for legwork. Journalists have a kind of contemptuous term for not doing any legwork, which is “think piece.” What they mean by that is you don’t have time to do any reporting, you just write your own thoughts and feelings. I have limited sympathy for that idea, but I do have som. When I teach writing, I encourage my students to gout and get someone else’s story, even if their objective is to write their own. The training that you get in getting someone else’s story is very valuable. There’s set questions that you start to ask when getting someone else’s story: Am I satisfied with this version of the story? Am I getting the whole truth? Can I corroborate what’s being said? All those questions can travel into your examination of your own work, even if what you’re doing is writing about yourself.

So, I am a big believer in legwork. I don’t actually believe writer’s block is possible for a non-fiction writer if all you need to do is go out and get someone else’s story. People are crazy, they’re always up to something interesting. You just have to go find them and find out what that is. I do think it’s entirely possible to get writer’s block if your subject is yourself.

INSCAPE: Your other work, including articles and personal, even family-oriented, essays always seem to come back around industrial urbanism, specifically through individuals. What has made you stick so firmly to that material?

CARLO ROTELLA: Part of that is just my upbringing and where I’m from. I grew up on the south side of Chicago in the middle of this particular transformation from a city organized around its factories and train lines. It was in the last throes of shedding that identity and becoming a city organized around its high rise office buildings, universities, airport, and highways. That transformation has really colored the way I see city life. It also happens to be the big transformation that’s happened in my lifetime. I now live in Boston, and before 1980, Boston was really a kind of provincial, backwater dump, but around 1980, it started to become this high tech, happening research hub, and now Hollywood is in love with Boston, or at least it’s in love with the film tax credit in Massachusetts, and Boston is gone from being a real backwater, which had peaked more than a century before to being a really happening urban center again. And so I think it’s inevitable that that big story about that old Boston being replaced by new Boston, that old Chicago being replaced by newer Chicago, is often the big picture against which my characters move, against which my character go about their business, and often their business is creativity: making music, or writing, or–I often write about people who are good at something, and I’m interested in how they got to be good at something, and how that something they do expresses the conditions in which its made, and those conditions are often a city that’s being transformed in some way. Not always, but often, that’s the story.

INSCAPE: You stressed that your focus has shifted more to neighborhoods, I’m guessing as opposed to the city as a whole, but given that your writing is focused so  much on these types of neighborhoods that you’ve always been familiar with, what are the parallels and differences that you’ve recognized in the other communities that you’ve experienced, both American and foreign?

CARLO ROTELLA: The very fact of neighborhood itself is a continuity, a human universal, that all cities have neighborhoods. I’m still trying to figure out what it is about this that I find so compelling. The neighborhood is a really strong way in which I organize my experience in the world, so I’m interested how neighborhoods affect other people. For instance, I did a piece on a country musician, Kacey Musgraves. It was really a piece about the music industry, the changing nature of the country audience, and how this woman was trying to thread this needle, introducing change into country music but also being this really big star. Not a marginal or alternative star, but a really big star. But really what that meant was that I had to go to Nashville and take a look at and move in the incredibly developed world of music in Nashville. It’s very different from, say, the world of blues in Chicago, but the landmarks are kind of similar. There’s a kind of continuity. It wasn’t a Nashville story, but moving around Nashville gave me a sense of how the industry worked. Nashville is one of those places that’s both a place and an industry worked. Nashville is one of those places that’s both a place and an industry, much like Hollywood, and the Nashville that refers to the place was very useful for getting into the music-industry side of Nashville. That was a magazine story that was not primarily interested in cities at all, and yet in my experience of cities, starting with Chicago and the blues business, was my template for navigating How do clubs work? How do the record labels work?  How do people flow in from the hinterlands and plug themselves into the system  and move up? The way she plugged herself into the system was very 21st century. She was on a reality show, Nashville Star, in which she finished 7th. It felt a lot like the way blues men talked about plugging themselves into the Chicago scene in the 1950s. In that sense, I’m finding a lot of continuity.

INSCAPE: Congruence and not so much difference?

CARLO ROTELLA: There’s a larger model operating here. I think of creative people as having an inchoate impulse in them, to make noise or to use language, that has to find shape. The way it often finds shape is by pouring that impulse into the containers that are available to them in the culture. Certain genres, certain styles, but also certain institutions like a university’s creative writing program, or a particular magazine, or a music club, or a record label. That model really travels. There are lots of people with all kinds of inchoate urges, lots of institutions that they can get connected to, and lots of genre and style choices that they can make. But the fact of a creative person’s situation doesn’t change that much in the different examples that you might encounter. It’s just a question of “what was her inchoate impulse, and what were the vessels available in which to pour that impulse?” That Nashville industry gives you these very clear containers. The three minute single has to contain a pick-up truck in it, etc. That’s another thing that I find really common. I write a lot just about creative people and how their impulse finds form.

INSCAPE: It seems like your writing could be assigned to a sociology class.

CARLO ROTELLA: I end up reading a lot of social science. I think that they are so good about legwork, about getting out there and finding out what people are up to, hanging around. They do a lot of hanging around, which I think is irreplaceable. They tend not to do much explanation of change over time, which is what historians do. Social scientists fill up my tool kit with the ways to figure out the structure of a scene, figure out who’s doing what, figuring out how it connects to the economy, but you need historical training to then put that in motion, and see how change over time is affecting it. You need the skills that get taught in English and Art History departments to closely interpret the work they do, to say “I see the flow of money, and I see the flow of people, but what about the flow of meaning in the texts that they create?” The thing with American Studies is you need all these different kinds of training to do it right, and you constantly need new training for each project, and I like that.

INSCAPE: I’m intrigued by your writing and explanations of the layering of human interaction, for example the article about the scene around a women’s boxing match, what is happening in the scene with all the spectators. I think that’s beautiful and one of the most amazing things you can capture in writing, the layered human interaction.

CARLO ROTELLA: That’s totally true.

INSCAPE: And how do you feel that analysis of community fits into your more personal essays?

CARLO ROTELLA: Yeah, well I’m still working on that!

INSCAPE: Yeah I think you definitely do it, I just want to know how.

CARLO ROTELLA: I’m still working out the form to connect the personal experience of neighborhood to these larger theories of neighborhood So far, my presence in my writing tends to be that I’m just a sensibility moving through the world trying to put things together, but if I’m writing about my old neighborhood, growing up, I am, on some level, writing about myself. Not in a memoir, but kind of a first person essay. I’m still fumbling my way towards that form. I don’t know what that is, exactly, But to go back to the first part of what you said, the layering is very important. I’m much more comfortable talking about the layering of society and experience that I am about my role in it, and also the layering me’s, layering of selves inside of me that are produced by this historical change over time. But one thing that is pretty clear to me is that people are remarkably adaptable, even wonderfully adaptable, but they’re not as flexible as money. So in a place like Chicago, the economy change faster than the lifeways of the people in that city. Or, in the case of this boxing match, which was in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the economy of Bethlehem changed faster than people’s conception of what a man is what a woman is and what work is and what leisure is. When people go to the fights, those old layers of what it means to play and to work and to be good with your hands and to be masculine or feminine are still in the air, and the newer ones are also in the air. That’s very exciting and compelling. I know how to write about that, I think, but I’m not sure I know how to write about when all those layers are happening inside my sensibility. There’s the 1970s me responding to the neighborhood, and there’s the me who hasn’t lived in that neighborhood for more than 30 years, responding to the neighborhood as I see it.

INSCAPE: I’ve enjoyed reading the essays that are more about your personal, family life, such as “Ghosts.” You wrote about things that were telling about you, but they left so much mystery still. Mystery in a good way. I feel like self, especially in undergraduate work, is such a delicate thing, because people either write too much about themselves, or people avoid it like the plague because they don’t want to be too much. I’m wondering–and like you said, it’s still something that you’re working on–but what do you think for yourself and for your students is the best way, a good way to approach self?

CARLO ROTELLA: When I’m writing and myself or my sensibility is close to the center of what’s going on, I’m usually describing things that are happening, so that if you’re learning about me, you’re learning about the way my eyes work, the way my ear work, and what I’m filtering out of it, as opposed to lots of paragraphs that begin with “I thought this, I felt that.” I think that one of the things that you’re responding to very astutely is that when I write more personal, more first person, I do more showing and less obvious analyzing. There are fewer topic sentences that advance and interpretation of what happened, and there’s more “There was this dog, it lived on the corner. This is what it was like to walk past that dog,” instead of me saying “Here’s a topic sentence that analyzes that dog and here’s a last sentence of the paragraph that delivers the kicker.” I tend to show more. That showing is not about me. If you’re learning about me, and I think you’re always learning about the writer, it’s just “This is how I looked, this is how I saw, and this is what I made of it,” as opposed to “Then I went down the street and did this, and then I had this feeling when I went down the street and did this.”

I also just think that there are writers who live really interesting lives and can write about their lives in interesting ways, but I don’t think I’m one of those writers. I don’t feel like I’ve had the kind of experiences that need to be recorded. Whereas, I do think that I see things that other people do or have done, or bits of landscape or juxtapositions in city life that I think are worth recording. And so that’s the trick: write a first person essay that is not a memoir. I know I don’t want it to be a memoir, but knowing what  you don’t want it to be isn’t the same as being able to write.

INSCAPE: What do you teach at Boston College, generally American Studies or English classes?

CARLO ROTELLA: I teach classes on the critical side, that are more like English classes. I teach this class on the City of Literature and Film, and then i also teach straight writing workshops. I teach a course every year called Writing for Magazines, and part of the point of that course is that you don’t get to write about yourself. We remove that first person prompt. YOu have to find out what other people are up to and write about that, unless you’re already famous, which none of us in that room is. nobody wants to hear about your life, so we set aside that first person question, or that personal essay question, and we’re thinking about the profile and other features, reviews. That doesn’t mean we don’t use the first person, but we’re not writing memoirs, because magazines don’t run memoirs unless you’ve already won the Pulitzer Prize. They don’t really care about your individual experience.

INSCAPE: First off, in light of what you’re saying, I love the line “dogs and people wanting what they want.”

CARLO ROTELLA: That is a nugget!

INSCAPE: It recognizes it in a way that people can understand, but doesn’t oblige them to indulge in themselves.

CARLO ROTELLA: That’s very well put, that’s the ambition. Essay writing is a lot like short story writing. The great short story writer Stuart Dybek just gave a talk at BC this week, and he was talking about the different kinds of endings short stories can have, saying, “Well, they can have a punch line, you can have a realization, and epiphany,” and essays are like that, too. That one’s kind of realization essay, but I didn’t want to lean too hard on the realization. I did want a slow building awareness in the reader to finally find expression somewhere of dogs and people wanting what they want. Those who have less want more and those who have more want to keep it. That’s the end of the short story realization. That’s the climax of what is actually an analytical point. If you look at these episodes that I’ve just described, this is the main idea that comes out of them, but it’s not “Thus we see, here’s the main idea.” I feel like you do owe it to the reader to give them a least a scaffolding on which to build that realization, and not leave it totally up to the reader, not to just say, “Hey. Decide what you want to discuss.”

INSCAPE: That’s excellent advice. What is some writing advice that you have received that has shaped you?

CARLO ROTELLA: That’s a good question. It comes in the weirdest forms and from the strangest directions, and I didn’t often recognize it at the time. I got my Ph.D. in American Studies, and writing was not really the focus. It was much more the content of the work, and at one point, I was talking to my dissertation adviser, a guy with no ambitions to do any kind of nonfiction writing other than scholarly work, but I was saying, “Well, how am I going to do what I want to do?” and he just said “You can tell a story!” And that turned out to be the thing I needed to hear, it didn’t have to be just an analysis. So sometimes it’s just like that. Sometimes it’s something you read. I love reading writers on writing, so Raymond Chandler is one I think about, his advice: “Just write scenes that work.” Even when I’m writing scholarly work, a piece of criticism, I think of the analytical equivalent of just write scenes that work. Write the bits and chunks of it that you can write, and then later, worry about how they fit together. Write some piece of it you can write. So there’s practical advice like that. But I think the main thing, and it’s come from a lot of different people, is to not think of the writing and the legwork as separate. The writing generates the research agenda, and the research agenda generates your ability to know what to cut and what to keep. Instead of thinking, “I’m going to do all my research, all my reporting, and then I’m going to write it up,” I think “I am now embarking on an intertwined process o writing and gathering more evidence, and it’s going to go back and forth, and I’m going to write and fail, and wherever I fail, that will tell me what evidence I need to gather, and I’m going to gather evidence, and the more I gather, the more sure I’m going to be about what the point is, and the surer I am about the point, the more I can cut and revise and make my writing lean,” and I’ve banished the idea that there’s a research phase and a writing and moved to a “there’s a dialectical relationship between them.” You need to keep that in play all the way though.

INSCAPE: What is something that you see in undergraduate writing that generally impedes them from fulfilling a purpose in a productive manner in their writing?

CARLO ROTELLA: Well, I read a lot of undergraduate writing that I really like, that I’m impressed by. Students are very professional these days, the ones that want to be writers say, “I’ve got my blog going, and I’m already engaged in the world of writing, which I think is great. I guess if I were to say “what do I frequently see that’s holding people back,” I’d say there’s a couple things. One is an unwillingness to do legwork. Sometimes I feel like “If you would leave the house, this would be better. This feels like you wrote down everything you could gather by googling, or you’re still focusing on yourself in a way that it might be better to go find out what other people were ip to in the world.” So that’s one, it’s just an unwillingness to leave the house and do the work. And it’s not just students. People in general these days, especially for technological reasons, are just less and less willing to get out there and use up shoe leather. Another thing holding them back is a dutiful voice that–this is more true the academic–that students think I want to hear, this elevated diction of “Throughout all time, man has struggled to…” I’m not telling them to write like that, but I do think you need to invent the voice and the style of the work to match what you’re trying to talk about. You should try out different stylistic approaches and voices and don’t be afraid to imitate. If it’s for school, as opposed to writing for a magazine, and you say “Well you know what, I”m going to go check out this band that’s playing downtown, and I’m going to cover it the way Tom Wolfe would cover it, and then when I’ve done that, I”m going to write it up the way Joan Didion would write it up, and let’s see what the relationship is between the two.” That’s a perfectly legitimate exercise to do, just to fool around with voice and be aware of it, as opposed to a general, “this is how smart people talk” voice. So there’s the legwork question, and the question of voice, or the two.

Look, I sat down to write a hundred times in my early twenties and didn’t write one word, so I’m the worst kind of zealot. I’m a convert. I had to go to graduate school in order to have something to write. Let’s start with the fact that I’m impressed that they’re writing anything at all, because I didn’t until much further along.

INSCAPE: In your writing, you show how different generations add a layer to the community. What distinguishes this generation?

CARLO ROTELLA: There’s a couple things about it. One is that this is obviously a club that the 18-year-old me would not have been invited to join. I would not have gotten into BC. These are people who aced adolescence. I’m sure it’s true here, and its true lots of places, that these are people who nailed adolescence in a way that is now necessary, and which I did not do. They are professional students in a way that I wasn’t. The other thing that I think is true of these layer is that they’re coming of age in a time when the middle class is hollowing out, and it’s much more of a country of haves and havenots, and there’s a general feeling that the aperture that lets you into the haves is narrowing. They are under a lot more felt pressure to do something great and get up over the top into the category of the haves. When I went to college, everyone expected us to be better than our parents.The students I teach would like it if they could get back to where their parents are. That is a really big change in outlook, in expression, in what’s possible. I think that they’re under a lot more self-imposed pressure to make it. And they have also done a much better job of making it, just to get into college, than I ever had to do. It was fairly easy to get into college when I went, I went to Wesleyan, and it was pretty much understood that when I left there, I could just go get a job making money. The really question was, are you going to accept that job making money, or are you going to do something bohemian phase that everyone has to go through, like you’re going to be an unpaid intern until you’re 30. We don’t have a job for you, there’s no job security, no benefits, and I think that the knowledge that that’s coming trickles down into the classroom. It makes my students professionally much more hungry, but also much more aware that they can mess this up.

INSCAPE: So last question, Inscape is our literary journal, and we talk about what the purpose of a literary journal is. What would you say is something that is essential for both selecting submissions for a journal and helping in the revision of such pieces?

CARLO ROTELLA: That’s a hard question to answer. The doing it well is really the point of it. It think the most important way that you learn is by making other people’s work better, which also the premise of a writing workshop. You become a better editor and that makes you a better writer. The whole idea that it’s an enterprise, that it’s an undertaking, that there are issues that must be put out, there are people that submit the work, and you see the work, and you have to decide “does it fit with our mission, does it fit what we want to do? How could this work be better?” that whole process of applying your analytical powers to another’s work is how you hone the ability to do this with your own work. I think it’s nearly impossible to do that with your own work just out of the gate, from scratch. It’s very hard to ask someone who’s just getting started as a writer to say, “Okay, here’s your work, this is a good as you can make it, now make it better.” But you can do that with other people’s work. What is the intention of this work? How can I help it meet its intention? And the more you do that, the more that becomes a part of trying to put out the best issue you can of a literary journal is essential cross-training for your sitting there with your own work and thinking, “Is this good, how can it be better?”

Vientre by Rebekah W. Olson

“The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.” Jonah 2:5

When Habib stepped into the road in front of the Santa Marta Airport his shoes sank into the mud up to the knobby bone in his ankle.  two women selling odds and ends on the concrete beside him clocked their tongues.

“You see,” one whispered to the other in Spanish, “he is not Colombian.  To step into the mud, and in white shoes…”

The other, on a bucket beside her, swatted at flies over the plantains.  “Then he is a tourist,” she said, raising an eyebrow and pointing at the man with her chin, “and he needs new shoes.”

“Meester!” she cried in English, standing up to wave a long, sagging arm at the assortment of plastic sandals they sold, “Meester, we have shoes!”

Habib sighed.  The clinic in Philadelphia felt very far away.While he scraped the mud from his shoes on the concrete, the women watched him.  Habib was short, shorter than any of the other medical students in his year.  His name and darker skin often led those in Philadelphia to believe he was Indian, but he wasn’t.  Habib was a name his mother found in a newspaper, a paper half-submerged in mud.  He was Colombian; he was home.

The women watched with lazy curiosity, one standing and the other seated.  Once he had both shoes on and was clapping the mud from his hands, the first woman hobbled to his side.

“Meester, you need shoes?”

Habib smiled, but shook his head.  In Spanish, he replied, “No, thank-you.  I can wash them.”  Both women blinked in suprise and laughed and laughed, patting his shoulders, his back, his head.

“Where are you from?” they asked.  When he just smiled weakly and looked at his hands, the women decided not to press the issue.  They patted his shoulders again.  “Welcome,” they said, and then walked back to their buckets.

Habib waited an hour for a taxi, a duffel bag with a few clothes and his medical supplies tucked under his arm.  He looked down the road to the north.  That’s where he was expected.

The medical clinic for the Red Cross was in the middle of the northern hills of Colombia, an area lush with bamboo, ivory nut palms, and orchids.  He had tried to apply to residencies everywhere else but here–the Cleveland Clinic, Duke University Hospital, Venice Regional Medical Center–but couldn’t outshine the competition.  In the end, he used his irth certificate and fluent Spanish to secure a last minute position with doctors in the Colombian Red Cross Society.  The country was always at war with itself in some way, and American medical volunteers and professionals had been in the country for years.  Habib had avoided the memories and mud of his country for more than fifteen years, and within thirty minutes of his plane landing, both were already firmly secured to his white American shoes.

When Habib was a boy, Colombia was always red.  Med, beans, blood.  When he was nine-years-old, his father came into their shanty with a rust revolver in the basket of goods he brought back from the village.  Habib remembered that he watched his father’s short, square fingers as he lifted the gun and turned to his wife.

“Sophia,” his father said, “I will go to Riohacha in the morning.” He put the gun high on a shelf above their matted blankets.  “My brother is there.  He’s in trouble.”

Habib remembered that his mother stiffened, then turned away.  She picked up a plantain with her thin fingers and as she peeled away the thick membrane from the fruit she nodded her head without speaking.  Three weeks later, when his father’s body was sent home, they could not recognize it.  Habib had to peel away the clothing before they could washing him for burial.

More than twenty years later, the memory still sent a dull buzzing down his spine and he shivered, looking away from the road toward his home.

When the taxi still had not arrived and the sun had begun to set, the women pulled out great tarps to roll their goods in, placing the large parcels on their broad, bony backs.  As they walked away, one turned and called out to him.

“If you want to get somewhere, you should cross the street and ask the truck driver.  He is taking a load of laborers to the fields in the south, and will help you if you ask.”  She turned and waved her hand over her head.  “Or wait for the bus heading north.  It should be here when the sun sets.”  Then she hobbled to catch up to the other, their bodies bent from the weight of their loads; old women bobbing through the crowd like wounded crabs.

Habib looked to the horizon and determined that the bus should be there in a few minutes.  In a few moments he would head north and would arrive at the clinic by midnight.

He followed the road with his eyes, the red of the mud diminishing into a needle-thin line as it got closer and closer to the horizon.

Red. It would always be red here.

His shoes, his father, his profession.

All red.

He felt the buzz in his spin again and realized, finally, that it was fear.  He knew he was not strong, or talented, or determined.  He’d known it a long time, but in this place he could not hide from it.  His father , and eventually his mother, died believing he would save his family, but he became a doctor to escape.

He was a doctor, and he was afraid of blood.

At this thought, he turned away from the horizon, away from the direction of the clinic and away from the bus that would carry him there.  He couldn’t get back on the plane, but he could stall until he figured out what to do.

He stepped gingerly through the mud until he found his way to the other side of the road to the truck.  A tall man–taller than any Colombian he had ever seen–stood at the back of the vehicle connecting a large metal frame and tarp cover to the bed.  As Habib approached him, the man stopped, wiped the sweat from his suntanned forehead, and put a hand on his bony hip.

“A storm is coming tonight, a large one,” the man said, grabbing the tarp cover and shaking it to check that it was secure.  After a moment he wiped his hands on his pants and pointed at Habib’s luggage.  “They sent you over.” It was more a statement than a question, but Habib nodded.

“The women said you were going south,” Habib said. “I’ll pay you to take me with you.”

At that moment, a group of young men in thin, faded shirts and dirt-stained jeans came out of the building in front of the truck, laughing and raising dust.

“If you can find a place in the truck,” the driver said, “I’ll take you.”

Balancing himself on tools and old woolen blankets between the others, Habib gribbed the side of the truck bed and listened to the conversations of the young men.  The ribbed tarp above the truck shielded them from the cool night breeze.  Most of the men casually ignored him.  He could tell they had worked together for a while.  They had a way of relying on nods and winks to tell jokes, hiding the punch line that everyone knew except for Habib.  The sunset over the hills and the hostling of the truck, combined with the friendly banter of the laborers brought Habib to a fitful sleep.

In his dream he saw himself at the clinic in Philadelphia, the blinds of the windows cutting strips of sunlight across IV drips; rough, thin blankets; anguished faces; empty chairs.  He marveled at his hands, which seemed bloated and pink.  He watched himself, with a clipboard at his side, lead over a patient.  With a bump of the truck his dream shifted, and Habib found himself holding a torn cloth, blood on his hands.

“They took her behind the trees,” he heard someone say.  He turned to face the voice and watched himself move as if in water.  The cloth in his hand rippled in unseen currents.  There was no one behind him, but water flowed under the door of the office and swirled around his feet.  Habib could hear the sound of the truck and the men, but could not escape the foggy hold of his dream.

“Your mother was at hte post office waiting for your letter and they took her behind the trees,” he heard again.  In his dream, he took a step back and tripped.  He stumbled, looked behind him, and saw his mother standing beside the hospital bed with her eyes closed.  Her long, think fingers were clasped in front of her chest, her lips were moving as if saying a silent prayer.  She opened her eyes looking at Habib, and said nothing.

“Amigo!”

Habib startled awake.  The men were fathered around him in the truck.  Habib felt his own forehead and closed his eyes.  Rain thumped against the tarp above them.

“Here,” a man across from him held out a beer, “to bring you back to earth.”

Habib nodded weakily, took the beer, but did not drink it.

Another man, nearer to the cab, whispered under his breath, “He was whimpering like a child.  Like a stray dog.”

The man who had given Habib the beer beat the side of the truck and pointed at the man near the cab.

“Shut your mouth, Luis!  You embarrass yourself with your stupidity.” Luis jumped at the unexpected reprimand.  After a moment he curled his lip in disgust, and shrugged.

“Drink it,” the man prompted Habib again. “It will help.  I’m Ramon.”

Habib shook his hand and took a swig from the beer can.  He hadn’t had a drink for ten years.  He felt the liquor reach his fingertips and buzz beneath his nails.

“You’re not a laborer,” Ramon stated.

Habib nodded.  “I’m a doctor for the Red Cross.  I just got here from America this evening.”

The men around him started to whisper excitedly.  Habib put down his beer and looked around the group.

“Excuse us,” Ramon said, “but we were just talking about the revolt in the North.  We all have family there.  We heard a doctor would be coming.”

“It’s getting worse there,” another man whispered.  “They say the revolt has left hundreds dead.  They are left to bleed in the streets.  The volunteers refuse to leave the clinic.”

Luis brought a cigarette to his lips and turned to Habib, Luis’s eyes narrowed to thin, dark slits. “It you are the doctor for the Red Cross clinic in the North, why are you heading South?”

The men were silent.  Habib felt their eyes on his face, his shaking hands, his chest as he breathed.  He looked down at the beer he held.  He thought of his dream, of his own bloated hands.  He thought of the bloody strip of cloth rippling at his side.  He looked up at the men watching him.

“Because I am a coward,” he said.

The wind whipped the truck around the slick mud road and the rain fell so steadily and violently that a metallic hum began to fill the truck bed.

“You should not be here,” Ramon said quietly.

Luis grabbed the metal frame of the tarp above his head and stood up in the truck bed. “This man is running way from our families.  There are people dying because of him.” He looked at Habib, the cigarette between Luis’s thumb and index finger now.  “You can be a man and choose to go, or we will choose for you.”

The men looked from Luis to Habib.  There was a clap of thunder and the truck swerved in the mud.  Each man grabbed the truck side.

“Perhaps we should vote,” one man ventured.  He looked at Luis.  “To be fair.”

Luis sniffed and sat back down.

“Please,” Habib stood up shakily and put out his hand to calm the men. “You…you don’t need to vote.  I will get out myself.”

Ramon shook his head. “You can wait until we reach Cienaga.  That’s where we will stop tonight.”

“No,” Habib shook his head, “Luis is right.  I deserve this.”  He pointed at the storm, at the wind whipping the rain against the tarp.  “I’m afraid of the North and the people there.  I’ve been running away when I should be rescuing your families.”

Luis folded his arms across his chest and inhaled deeply from his cigarette.  “Then jump,” he said, “prove you’re not a dog.”

“Luis!” Ramon shouted.  “That proves nothing–what’s the point of forcing him North if he dies before he gets there!  We will stop at the next town.”

It was silent in the bed of the truck.  The other men looked from Ramon to Luis; both men sat ridgidly staring at the other from opposite sides of the truck.  No one looked at Habib.

Eventually, Luis exhaled a puff of smoke and closed his eyes.  “Do what you want.  I don’t care about stray dogs.  They carry viruses.”  Ramon stood up in a rage, one fist raised and the other rested protectively on Habib’s shoulder.

Habib looked down at Ramon’s hand.  It was the hand on his shoulder that was the worst insult of all.  In that instance he knew how the men viewed him.  Despite Ramon’s kindness, he was not equal to them.  More to prove something to himself than anything else, he pushed his way to the end of the truck, knocking knees with several men, and jumped headfirst into the storm.

The hum from the truck was instantly replaced by the gust of wind and rain.  When his face hit the mud, he felt the shock of sudden pain as his cheekbone and jaw absorbed the impact of his fall.  He rolled violently for several feet, his arms and legs whipping wildly.  When his mind caught up with him, he pulled in his arms and straightened his legs in an effort to reduce damage.  He slowed down a few moments later; mud caked his clothes, his nose, his hair.  He turned his head to look for the truck.  Through the rain he made out red brake lights in the distance, and heard distant shouting.  He did not move.  He allowed the rain to beat his bruised face.  A moment later, the lights disappeared and the sound of the truck’s engine bounced haphazardly through the wind.

Habib forced himself to stand.  With the adrenaline he still had, he began walking down the road in the opposite direction, rain pounding his shoulders, mud between his teeth.  As he took a few steps, he felt the air begin to vibrate wit hthe sound of another truck.  He saw the headlights move over his back and light the path before him.  With a screech, the truck swerved to a stop beside him.

“Are you crazy!” the driver shouted through the rain.  Habib was relieved to see it was not the driver from before. “I almost hit you!”

Habib raised a hand and apologized.  “Do you have room for me in your truck?  You’re heading North, no?”

The driver was a fat man, with splotched, stretched skin.  Empty beer cans rolled around his passenger seat.

“You have a strange accent,” the fat man said.

“I’m Colombian.  I studied in America.  I need to go North.”

The driver rolled his small black eyes at Habib and jabbed a finger toward the uncovered truck bed  “You’re too dirty to sit up here.  You can ride in the back as far as Santa Marta.”

Habib walked slowly to the back and pulled himself into the truck bed.  A second later the driver sped off, the tail whipping in the mud and wind.  Habib struggled to grab the side of the truck.  The driver seemed unaware of the wild slipping and jerking of the truck in the mud and wind.  Habib felt himself grow green from the shifts and jerks of the drive and threw up as he grappled for a steady handhold.  Through the cab window the driver laughed and called out to Habib.  “How are you feeling, little minnow?  Are you done swimming in Colombia?  Does it storm like this in los Estados Unidos?” He laughed heartily to himself again and drank from a can in his car.

Habib trembled from the effort to hold on in the rain.  As the truck swerved along the road, Habib closed his eyes and wondered what time it was.

As the truck sputtered wildly up one of the hills, a flash of lightning illuminated the entre landscape.  The driver gasped and choked on his beer, twisting the steering wheel violently to the left.  Habib clung desperately to the rusted holes in the bed of the truck as it flipped through the rain.  He felt the tires under him lift off the ground, his body floating in the tumble of dirt and metal.  When the truck crashed in a few yards downhill, it landed upside down, the cab crashed a few yards downhill, it landed upside down, the cab crushed and the bed of the truck caging Habib in a box of metal and mud.  Habib still held to the rusted holes in the truck bed, which were not above him, and realized he was still screaming.

When they found him later, Habib did not initially tell them his name.  They found the truck three hours after the crash, when the storm had stopped, and it tool eleven men to lift it enough for him to crawl out.  They gathered around him, gently patting him on the back as he stumbled between them.

“You are a real hombre,” they said excitedly.  “Trapped in a smoking truck for three hours!” They watched him intently, waiting for him to explain.

Habib looked down at his hands, bleeding and raw.  He looked at the mud on his clothes, his white shoes.  Then he looked up at the crowd of men around him.

“I’m Colombian,” he said.

Vientre

by Rebekah W. Olson

“The waters encompassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.”
Jonah 2:5

When Habib stepped into the road in front of the Santa Marta Airport his shoes sank into the mud up to the knobby bone in his ankle. Two women selling odds and ends on the concrete beside him clucked their tongues.

“You see,” one whispered to the other in Spanish, “he is not Colombian. To step into the mud, and in white shoes…”

The other, on a bucket beside her, swatted at flies over the plantains. “Then he is a tourist,” she said, raising an eyebrow and pointing at the man with her chin, “and he needs new shoes.”

“Meester!” she cried in English, standing up to wave a long, saggy arm at the assortment of plastic sandals they sold, “Meester, we have shoes!”

Habib sighed. The clinic in Philadelphia felt very far away.

While he scraped the mud from his shoes on the concrete, the women watched him. Habib was short, shorter than any of the other medical students in his year. His name and darker skin often led those in Philadelphia to believe he was Indian, but he wasn’t. Habib was a name his mother found in the newspaper, a paper half-submerged in mud. He was Colombian; he was home.

The women watched with lazy curiosity, one standing and the other seated. Once he had both shoes on and was clapping the mud from his hands, the first woman hobbled to his side.

“Meester, you need shoes?”

Habib smiled, but shook his head. In Spanish, he replied, “No, thank you. I can wash them.” Both women blinked in surprise, and then laughed and laughed, patting his shoulders, his back, his head.

“Where are you from?” they asked. When he just smiled weakly and looked at his hands, the women decided not to press the issue. They patted his shoulders again. “Welcome,” they said, and then walked back to their buckets.

Habib waited an hour for a taxi, a duffel bag with a few clothes and his medical supplies tucked under his arm. He looked down the road to the north. That’s where he was expected.

The medical clinic for the Red Cross was in the middle of the northern hills of Colombia, an area lush with bamboo, ivory nut palms, and orchids. He had tried to apply to residencies everywhere else but here—the Cleveland Clinic, Duke University Hospital, Venice Regional Medical Center—but couldn’t outshine the competition. In the end, he used his birth certificate and fluent Spanish to secure a last minute position with doctors in the Colombian Red Cross Society. The country was always at war with itself in some way, and American medical volunteers and professionals had been in the country for years. Habib had avoided the memories and mud of his country for more than fifteen years, and within thirty minutes of his plane landing, both were already firmly secured to his white American shoes.

When Habib was a boy, Colombia was always red. Mud, beans, blood. When he was nine-years-old, his father came into their shanty with a rusty revolver in the basket of goods he brought back from the village. Habib remembered that he watched his father’s short, square fingers as he lifted the gun and turned to his wife.

“Sophia,” his father said, “I will go to Riohacha in the morning.” He put the gun high on a shelf above their matted blankets. “My brother is there. He’s in trouble.”

Habib remembered that his mother stiffened, then turned away. She picked up a plantain with her thin fingers and as she peeled away the thick membrane from the fruit she nodded her head without speaking. Three weeks later, when his father’s body was sent home, they could not recognize it. Habib had to peel away the clothing before they could wash him for burial.

More than twenty years later, the memory still sent a dull buzzing down his spine and he shivered, looking away from the road toward his home.

When the taxi still had not arrived and the sun had begun to set, the two women pulled out great tarps to roll their goods in, placing the large parcels on their broad, bony backs. As they walked away, one turned and called out to him.

“If you want to get somewhere, you should cross the street and ask the truck driver. He is taking a load of laborers to the fields in the south, and will help you if you ask.” She turned and waved her hand over her head. “Or wait for the bus heading north. It should be here when the sun sets.” Then she hobbled to catch up to the other, their bodies bent from the weight of their loads; old women bobbing through the crowd like wounded crabs.

Habib looked to the horizon and determined that the bus should be there in a few minutes. In a few moments he would head north and would arrive at the clinic by midnight.

He followed the road with his eyes, the red of the mud diminishing into a needle-thin line as it got closer and closer to the horizon.

Red. It would always be red here.

His shoes, his father, his profession.

All red.

He felt the buzz in his spine again and realized, finally, that it was fear. He knew he was not strong, or talented, or determined. He’d known it for a long time, but in this place he could not hide from it. His father, and eventually his mother, died believing he would save his family, but he became a doctor to escape.

He was a doctor, and he was afraid of blood.

At this thought, he turned away from the horizon, away from the direction of the clinic and away from the bus that would carry him there. He couldn’t get back on the plane, but he could stall until he figured out what to do.

He stepped gingerly through the mud until he found his way to the other side of the road to the truck. A tall man—taller than any Colombian he had ever seen—stood at the back of the vehicle, connecting a large metal frame and tarp cover to the bed. As Habib approached him, the man stopped, wiped the sweat from his sun-tanned forehead, and put a hand on his bony hip.

“A storm is coming tonight, a large one,” the man said, grabbing the tarp cover and shaking it to check that it was secure. After a moment he wiped his hands on his pants and pointed at Habib’s luggage. “They sent you over.” It was more a statement than a question, but Habib nodded.

“The women said you were going south,” Habib said. “I’ll pay you to take me with you.”

At that moment, a group of young men in thin, faded shirts and dirt-stained jeans came out of the building in front of the truck, laughing and raising dust.

“If you can find a place in the truck,” the driver said, “I’ll take you.”

Balancing himself on tools and old woolen blankets between the others, Habib gripped the side of the truck bed and listened to the conversations of the young men. The ribbed tarp above the truck shielded them from the cool night breeze. Most of the men casually ignored him. He could tell they had worked together for a while. They had a way of relying on nods and winks to tell jokes, hiding the punch line that everyone knew except for Habib. The sunset over the hills and the jostling of the truck, combined with the friendly banter of the laborers brought Habib to a fitful sleep.

In his dream he saw himself at the clinic in Philadelphia, the blinds of the windows cutting strips of sunlight across IV drips; rough, thin blankets; anguished faces; empty chairs. He marveled at his hands, which seemed bloated and pink. He watched himself, with a clipboard at his side, lean over a patient. With a bump of the truck his dream shifted, and Habib found himself holding a torn cloth, blood on his hands.

“They took her behind the trees,” he heard someone say. He turned to face the voice and watched himself move as if in water. The cloth in his hands rippled in unseen currents. There was no one behind him, but water flowed under the door of the office and swirled around his feet. Habib could hear the sound of the truck and the men, but could not escape the foggy hold of his dream.

“Your mother was at the post office waiting for your letter and they took her behind the trees,” he heard again. In his dream, he took a step back and tripped. He stumbled, looked behind him, and saw his mother standing beside the hospital bed with her eyes closed. Her long, thin fingers were clasped in front of her chest, her lips were moving as if saying a silent prayer. She opened her eyes, looked at Habib, and said nothing.

“Amigo!”

Habib startled awake. The men were gathered around him in the truck. Habib felt his own forehead and closed his eyes. Rain thumped agains the tarp above them.

“Here,” A man across from him held out a beer, “To bring you back to earth.”

Habib nodded weakly, took the beer, but did not drink it.

Another man, nearer to the cab, whispered under his breath, “He was whimpering like a child. Like a stray dog.”

The man who had given Habib the beer beat the side of the truck and pointed at the man near the cab.

“Shut your mouth, Luis! You embarrass yourself with your stupidity.” Luis jumped at the unexpected reprimand. After a moment he curled his lip in disgust, and shrugged.

“Drink it,” the man prompted Habib again. “It will help. I’m Ramon.”

Habib shook his hand and took a swig from the beer can. He hadn’t had a drink for ten years. He felt the liquor reach his fingertips and buzz beneath his nails.

“You’re not a laborer,” Ramon stated.

Habib nodded. “I’m a doctor for the Red Cross. I just got here from America this evening.”

The men around him started to whisper excitedly. Habib put down his beer and looked around the group.

“Excuse us,” Ramon said, “but we were just talking about the revolt in the North. We all have family there. We heard a doctor would be coming.”

“It’s getting worse there,” another man whispered. “They say the revolt has left hundreds dead. They are left to bleed in the streets. The volunteers refuse to leave the clinic.”

Luis brought a cigarette to his lips and turned to Habib, Luis’s eyes narrowed to thin, dark slits. “If you are the doctor for the Red Cross clinic in the North, why are you heading south?”

The men were silent. Habib felt their eyes on his face, his shaking hands, his chest as he breathed. He looked down at the beer he held. He thought of his dream, of his own bloated hands. He thought of the bloody strip of cloth rippling at his side. He looked up at the men watching him.

“Because I am a coward,” he said.

The wind whipped the truck around the slick mud road and the rain fell so steadily and violently that a metallic hum began to fill the truck bed.

“You should not be here,” Ramon said quietly.

Luis grabbed the metal frame of the tarp above his head and stood up in the truck bed. “This man is running away from our families. There are people dying because of him,” He looked at Habib, the cigarette between Luis’s thumb and index finger now. “You can be a man and choose to go, or we will choose for you.”

The men looked from Luis to Habib. There was a clap of thunder and the truck swerved in the mud. Each man grabbed the truck side.

“Perhaps we should vote,” one man ventured. He looked at Luis. “To be fair.”

Luis sniffed and sat back down.

“Please,” Habib stood up shakily and put out his hand to calm the men, “You… you don’t need to vote. I will get out myself.”

Ramon shook is head. “You can wait until we reach Ciénaga. That’s where we stop tonight.”

“No,” Habib shook his head, “Luis is right. I deserve this.” He pointed at the storm, at the wind whipping the rain against the tarp. “I’m afraid of the North and the people there. I’ve been running away when I should be rescuing your families.”

Luis folded his arms across his chest and inhaled deeply from his cigarette. “Then jump,” he said, “Prove you’re not a dog.”

“Luis!” Ramon shouted. “That proves nothing—what’s the point of forcing him north if he dies before he gets there! We will stop at the next town.”

It was silent in the bed of the truck. The other men looked from Ramon to Luis; both men sat rigidly staring at the other from opposite sides of the truck. No one looked at Habib.

Eventually, Luis exhaled a puff of smoke and closed his eyes. “Do what you want. I don’t care about stray dogs. They carry viruses.” Ramon stood up in a rage, one fist raised and the other rested protectively on Habib’s shoulder.

Habib looked down at Ramon’s hand. It was the hand on his shoulder that was the worst insult of all. In that instance he knew how the men viewed him. Despite Ramon’s kindness, he was not equal to them. More to prove something to himself than anything else, he pushed his way to the end of the truck, knocking knees with several men, and jumped headfirst into the storm.

The hum from the truck was instantly replaced by the gust of wind and rain. When his face hit the mud, he felt a shock of sudden pain as his cheekbone and jaw absorbed the impact of his fall. He rolled violently for several feet, his arms and legs whipping wildly. When his mind caught up with him, he pulled in his arms and straightened his legs in an effort to reduce damage. He slowed down a few moments later; mud caked his clothes, his nose, his hair. He turned his head to look for the truck. Through the rain he made out red brake lights in the distance, and heard distant shouting. He did not move. He allowed the rain to beat his bruised face. A moment later, the lights disappeared and the sound of the truck’s engine bounced haphazardly through the wind.

Habib forced himself to stand. With the adrenaline he still had, he began walking down the road in the opposite direction, rain pounding his shoulders, mud between his teeth. As he took a few steps, he felt the air begin to vibrate with the sound of another truck. He saw the headlights move over his back and light the path before him. With a screech, the truck swerved to a stop beside him.

“Are you crazy!” the driver shouted through the rain. Habib was relieved to see it was not the driver from before. “I almost hit you!”

Habib raised a hand and apologized. “Do you have room for me in your truck? You’re heading north, no?”

The driver was a fat man, with splotched, stretched skin. Empty beer cans rolled around his passenger seat.

“You have a strange accent,” the fat man said.

“I’m Colombian. I studied in America. I need to go north.”

The driver rolled his small black eyes at Habib and jabbed a finger toward the uncovered truck bed. “You’re too dirty to sit up here. You can ride in the back as far as Santa Marta.”

Habib walked slowly to the back and pulled himself into the truck bed. A second later the driver sped off, the tail whipping in the mud. Habib struggled to grab the side of the truck. The driver seemed unaware of the wild slipping and jerking of the truck in the mud and wind. Habib felt himself grow green from the shifts and jerks of the drive and threw up as he grappled for a steady handhold. Through the cab window the driver laughed and called out to Habib. “How are you feeling, little minnow? Are you done swimming in Colombia? Does it storm like this in los Estados Unidos?” He laughed heartily to himself again and drank from a can in his car.

Habib trembled from the effort to hold on in the rain. As the truck swerved along the road, Habib closed his eyes and wondered what time it was.

As the truck sputtered wildly up one of the hills, a flash of lightning illuminated the entire landscape. The driver gasped and choked on his beer, twisting the steering wheel violently to the left. Habib clung desperately to the rusted holes in the bed of the truck as it flipped through the rain. He felt the tires under him lift off the ground, his body floating in the tumble of dirt and metal. When the truck crashed a few yards downhill, it landed upside down, the cab crushed and the bed of the truck caging Habib in a box of metal and mud. Habib still held to the rusted holes in the truck bed, which were now above him, and realized he was still screaming.

When they found him later, Habib did not intentionally tell them his name. They found the truck three hours after the crash, when the storm had stopped, and it took eleven men to lift it enough for him to crawl out. They gathered around him, gently patting him on the back as he stumbled between them.

“You are a real hombre,” they said excitedly. “Trapped in a smoking truck for three hours!” They watched him intently, waiting for him to explain.

Habib looked down at his hands, bleeding and raw. He looked at the mud on his clothes, his white shoes. Then he looked up at the crowd of men around him.

“I’m Colombian,” he said.

Interview with Kimberly Johnson

Kimberly Johnson is a poet, translator, and a literary critic. Her collections of poetry include Leviathan with a Hook, A Metaphorical God, and the forthcoming Uncommon Prayer. Her monograph on the poetic developments of post-Reformation poetry was published in 2014. In 2009, Penguin Classics published her translation of Virgil’s Georgics.

Her poetry, translations, and scholarly essays have appeared widely in publications including The New YorkerSlate, The Iowa Review, Milton Quarterly, and Modern Philology.

Recipient of grants and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Utah Arts Council, and the Mellow FOundation, Johnson holds an M.A. from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and M.F.A> from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature from the university of California at Berkeley.

Kimberly Johnson lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.

INSCAPE: The third section of your book, Uncommon Prayer, relies on different organization than the previous two sections. Recognizing your use of prose poetry and the military alphabet, what factors did organization play while you were composing this last section of your book?

KIMBERLY JOHNSON: I was experimenting in terms of organization. Poetry is a mode  of writing that relies on organization of  some kind, but I wanted to figure out what principles or strategies I could bring when there is no organization built into the language while dispensing with the use of lines, rhyme, and meter. I used the military alphabet as a way to translate something ordinary, the alphabet, into something that has denotative and connotative meaning. For example, an M is also Mike. J happened to be Juliet. This language is shouting to be played with. I was trying to impose structural organization onto chaos.

INSCAPE: You co-edited the anthology Before the Door of GodAn Anthology of Devotional Poetry, which traces the history of devotional poetry in its historical traditions of religion. how does the poetic practice, the process of creating poetry, influence the spiritual practice?

KIMBERLY JOHNSON: Poetry and spirituality have been fused together for thousands of years. Some of the earliest poems we have are hymns and prayers and some of the earliest rituals we have are experienced through poetry. There is a closer relationship. Lyrie is utterance with no expectation of a response. It speaks itself out into the world; nobody talks back, nor does it expect a response. This is just like prayer. The auditor remains inaccessible, in-apprehensible. Poetry and religious practice have natural affinities because their strategies of communication end up being identical in the way they constitute speech and desire.

INSCAPE: You have often been identified as a devotional, religious, and metaphysical poet. Do you pay attention to these terms? Do you find them listening?

KIMBERLY JOHNSON: It is certainly true that I am interested in the history of the devotional lyric, as a scholar and poet, but I am more interested in the language. The most urgent crisis that I experience is the fact that words don’t mean. Our experience exceeds any representation of it. I’m very interested in how poetic language tries to compensate for that lack. This isn’t so much a theological issue as it is a representational issue; however, the term that has become the preeminent metaphor for the unknowable in Western culture is God. It’s a read-made metaphor for me to return to over and over again. when I am dealing with questions of meaning, meaninglessness, or the disconnect between how we experience the world and how we put things into language.

INSCAPE: At the risk of being a selfish question, what advice would you give to a twenty year old poet?

KIMBERLY JOHNSON: Read everything. Read in the shower, read magazines, read the back of your cereal box, read crappy novels, read science journals. You never know what might be interesting to you. Poetry is about language and you have to be sucking it in all the time in order for it to strike your ear. Your goal is to have a perpetually defamiliarized relationship with language. You never want to be so comfortable that you start to not see what the words are doing. You want to feel the texture of each word. You can only do that if you’re exposing yourself constantly to different modes of language. The best way to make language seem strange is to learn a different one. Each word becomes a choice, and that’s exactly where you want to be as a poet.

Heartbreak 101 in 3-Part Simile by: Jim Davis

Grilled sweet corn, baby. Hawks 3-2 over the Blues and an apron that said London, Paris, Rome, St. Louis in red stencil. When he slept, white grubs with black heads covered him from jaw to splintered toenail, cracked heel, he’d been walking and said maybe I was born to walk, or maybe I was born to hold onto things which can’t be held: sunlight, dream , more soup since his passing away, in the traditional sense since there was nothing left to do. he could unite anything

 

with his teeth: dependent arising. Fire, red wide long and terrible. He lived into his 80s with his sister in the bed beside him-two misers eating rhubarb pie, drinking chicken stock, raising rare birds, cleaning fish bowls of water, neon gravel, ceramic divers, castles…no fish. I wish I had been good enough for Allegheny, he said, the college he couldn’t get into, but his sister did. He would have found a wide there, career, new shoes. He drinks black tea, orange

 

slices dipped in sea salt. The ghosts of their garden apartment have rearranged the furniture, bent rabbit ears on a heavy Magnavox. he watched a lot of local hockey. He looked up a stalk of potpourri, named it “wet wood lying in water” and used it to stoke a fire, which he named “dependence” and let it do what it did which he knew would someday end. he named his sister Gotama, braided her hair every morning, brushed it nightly. It is easy to fall in love with heavy silent snow.

Paperclip by Zach T. Power

this is the story about michael. he is a novelist. or was a novelist. it’s hard to say, seeing that he could be anything by now. but he was the kind of novelist that would take a rather large and wide piece of paper and sharpen a tiny pencil. he would start to write a story on his paper. but when michael started to write his story, he didn’t know what to write. he looked out the window and saw a bird fly by in the sky, and wrote down on his paper a bird flew by in the sky and then someone knocked at his door, and he wrote someone is knocking at my door. well, the person at his door kept knocking at his door kept knocking, and he wrote this person at my door is knocking persistently. he rather liked that line. so, gaining courage from a mediocre line, he wrote about the person who was knocking at his door. with his tiny pencil, he wrote that it was his mom knocking at the door, whom he invited inside his house and asked her, what are you doing at my house. and she said that she wanted to run a race with him. michael hadn’t run any races since he was a boy, and he was caught off guard. mom, he said, I can’t run a race with you. I am writing a novel. he folded his arms. so his mother held out running shoes and asked, what’s a novel. he folded his arms. so his mother held out running shoes and asked, what’s a novel. and he told her that it’s a story on a really big piece of paper, sort of. she said, well, what is your story about. it’s about a dragon that goes into town and eats a bunch of sheep, michael said as he walked back to his aper. oh, dear–how morbid, she said. michael looked at her. mom, the story is about a dragon. dragons aren’t morbid, they blow fire and fly in the sky and besides, this dragon was getting sleepy after eating so many sheep, so he went to his cave and he fell asleep and then he started to have a dream. the dragon started to dream about a herd of goats that were climbing the mountain and looking for a little boy goat. and the little boy goat was at the top of the mountain painting a picture. his mom and his dad were looking for him because they wanted him to eat his dinner and go for a walk around the neighborhood, but he was painting a picture of a man who was trying to catch a really big salmon in alaska. and the man who was fishing had his son next to him. his son was trying to catch a shark, and his dad laughed and said, son, I love you, but there aren’t any sharks in alaska. and then the son started to reel in his fishing line. it was really tight and the boy was trying so hard to reel the shark in, and the dad said, woah, son, I think you are catching a shark. and the son said, dad, this is a big shark. and the dad said you can do it son, and the son did it and they took the shark home and they ate it for dinner, and the dad said that catching a shark in alaska reminded him of his grandpa, and the dad started to cry, and the boy wanted to know what a grandpa was and told his dad that he was okay. it’s okay da. we caught a shark and I love you. and the dad said thanks son. they listened to the stars and then the boy asked his dad, what is a grandpa. and the dad told his son about his grandpa. who was an old man who had a library of books and the books were all sorts of colors. there were blue books and red ones, and books that had every color on the cover and tehre was even a book that wasn’t any color at all. and the old many would stand at the front of his library with a smile with lemon drops in his pickets, which are little candies that look like magazines. and the old man would give lemon drops to all the people that came to his library, but nobody came. and the old many would smile even though he was alone without any friends. and someotimes he would eat his own lemondrops, and sometimes he would stand on a box and read his favorite books out loud with his voice so everybody could hear him tell a story about a lonely pillow. you see, this lonely pillow lived in a lonely place called an orphanage. and in the orphanage there were lots of little boys and lilttle girls who didn’t have moms or dads. they were just kids, and they loved being just kids, but they missed their moms and dads. and they would sit around the dark with all their little heads on their lonely pillow and tell each other stories about how they were going to find their dads or meet their moms at a park that had a pond that had a boat, and the little orphan boy would go on a boat with his mom and the mom would hold his hand and tell that she loves him. and a little orphan girl would say, yes. and I would see you, little orphan boy, at the park with your mom, and I would say hi and my dad would say hi to you, but I would yell hi really loud and not with my hand because I have ice cream in my hand and my dad does too and his other hand is holding mine and we can’t wave because our hands are holding ice cream and family. and my dad would take me home and his shoulders and he would tell me stories about my mom as we walked home to meet her. and the dad would tell the little girl who wasn’t an orphan anymore, you have the best mom in the world. one time she went to your brother house and knocked on his door, because she wanted to run a race with him, but he never answered the door. we went inside and he was spilled all read on a large piece of white paper. he had shot himself in the head. after the funeral I saw that he written: dear mom, a bird flew by in the sky. I thought of you and the dragons we slayed together when I was young. I thought about the time you and dad found me in the mountains, I thought about fishing and the books, and, now that I grown, about how absent I . . .

Stoop by Jim Davis

Sitting on the front steps as the rain comes in. Call me
one’s demeanor through the doorway of a yurt, or
entering a psychic’s dojo through glow-string beads, or
talking to a child, or sitting on the steps
drinking Corona, listening to Dusk Ellington play rain.

When I sit I wear a bag on my head, painted like my downstairs
neighbor. Talking too much to a girl with a boyfriend, texting
as the page stipples with hushed early drizzle, warp.
I will map the brain someday. My childhood had a rooster
put to sleep–now there’s no way for me to wake.

Sometimes Sheila comes to sit, three hundred pounds soaking wet,
and she is because she walked here from the bus. She brought
baggies of honey baked ham, spiral cut. I like the smell
of her neck, a mix of sweat and perfume. If I asked her to
name every worm-eating animal, she’d forget me.

When we sit every color’s terra cotta, every shape is butter
lettuce fussing in the breeze. Someone else is living
in my hand-me-down sneakers. My favorite pain is too much
ginger. Tonight if I fall asleep standing up, there will be no noise
to wake me. I am especially regretful, as Sheila is

incapable of love. Music begins in the teeth
of the piano I haven’t bought but imagine hoisted up
the building to a window, where I’d look out over the stoop,
listening as it plays itself into the rhythm of the highway
and the dogs and birds and rain. They told me if you leave the city

you come back haunted. Deign. Stained with gallant imaginings.

And the Heat Goes On by Ann Howells

October: the sure finger of God has set
the Texas oven on high,
construction crews drip like candles,
office towers rise like muffins,
and a rapist stalks East Dallas–
choosing victims on jogging trails
and grocery store parking lots,
hiding behind an ordinary face.

There are those who claim
he’s sure to be illegal;
others blame an unidentified black man.
FBI profiler says he’s white, single,
20 to 35, un- or under-employed,
resentful of women. No shit, Sherlock!
The artist sketch resembles Homer Simpson.

The clerk at Kroger says women ask for it,
but we’ve already pegged him:
a creepy little twerp 20 to 35,
under-employed, resentful, but
not resembling the sketch.
Jo says our have/have not economy
produces thieves and rapists;
Sidney ties rape to ice cream sales. Uh-uh.

Summer is on overtime,
every blazing sun a golden dollar,
cumulous fails to accumulate. The heat
goes on, and cool won’t come.
We hear rattles at our doorknobs,
glimpse shadows at windows,
sweat in our locked rooms,
stalked relentlessly in unrelenting heat.