A History of Viola Jones Taylor

by Madelyn Taylor

Derived from “History of Viola Jones Taylor,” written by Viola’s sister, Ruth Jones Lang, after Viola’s death

Madelyn Taylor is an English major at Brigham Young University. She grew up in an Air Force family and moved around most of her life. Her interests include the history of oral poetry in the United States, radio broadcasting, and terrible adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. Viola Jones Taylor is her grandmother.

Detroit

by Carl Boon

When our nightflesh wasn’t enough
we put on Bob Seger Mitch Ryder
and sometimes Smokey Robinson
to remember America
when it was Cadillacs and soul
and we were the center of it all.

The old guys in the back of the bar
reminisced about Al Kaline
and Hank Greenberg and beer
five cents a pint and the night
Henry Ford waved at them
on Gratiot Avenue from a car
that looked like an aeroplane.

And the women they wore
such dresses such bangles
to their elbows you’d have thought
Egypt or Babylon and one day
F. Scott Fitzgerald rented two suites
at the Hotel Charlevoix.

I wanted to be an American then
a chrome American
playing cards at the Eddystone
a dagger in my vest a blonde
in my pocket and the jazz
Mississippi pushed north
tilting the ceiling so we’d dance.

I walk down Vermont
of soap on the windows
shuttered doorways and whores
passing cigarettes back and forth.
I’d die for a drink at Jacoby’s
a Bricktown bratwurst and time.

Carl Boon is the author of the full-length collection Places & Names: Poems (The Nasiona Press, 2019). His poems have appeared in many journals and magazines, including Prairie Schooner, Posit, and The Maine Review. He received his Ph.D. in Twentieth-Century American Literature from Ohio University in 2007, and currently lives in Izmir, Turkey, where he teaches courses in American culture and literature at Dokuz Eylül University.

Lexington Avenue

by Carl Boon

I shall speak of blue flowers, Blake,
and graceless boys.

I shall watch you behind the glass
of a bar on Lexington

and pummel you with half-rhymes
and the certitude of God.

You’ll fall and I’ll make sure you rise
again, for you must

in this metropol of dragons and chance.
I am the chosen one,

your private savior, superstitious
and lean, lingering where

saints touch men and men cannot
believe. Look at me

and my enjambment, my glass-eyed
superpower. I’m fond of you—

I kiss your breasts as if they were
my own and tell you:

things grow, that’s the only miracle
there is on earth.

Carl Boon is the author of the full-length collection Places & Names: Poems (The Nasiona Press, 2019). His poems have appeared in many journals and magazines, including Prairie Schooner, Posit, and The Maine Review. He received his Ph.D. in Twentieth-Century American Literature from Ohio University in 2007, and currently lives in Izmir, Turkey, where he teaches courses in American culture and literature at Dokuz Eylül University.

The Dark We’ve Grown Used To

by Carl Boon

1.

I sit on the steps in the dark
we’ve grown used to and braid
Ingrid’s hair. There’s milk tonight,
and Rote Grütze—Grandfather shielded
the berries all July barehanded
as the bombs dropped east and west
of Dresden. It seems a paradise,
this unusual fruit, a pair of fireflies
at the window. Father listens to the radio
where Goebbels speaks of dragons,
mythology, and what is right.

I’ve only seen the Führer once, and wept.

2.

I’ve taught my fingers to move in the dark,
to know what’s there and what could leap
from thresholds, Prager Strasse,
the blanket between my mother’s thighs.
I’ve been taught to forsake demons,
the Soviets, the secret Jews
down the block who hide their Talmud
in the trash among potato skins
and tins of powdered milk.
I fear nothing but Ingrid’s breathing
when she wakes before curfew

wanting coloring books and solitude.

3.

Her hair recalls to me American cornfields
I’d seen in movies: Ohio, Nebraska…
I don’t remember, except the boys
wore purple shorts and played
trombones while their aproned mothers
waited at windows. Someday
I’ll take Ingrid there and see Errol Flynn
in California and touch his hair
when the war’s forgotten.
Sometimes I forget who the enemy is
and wear Mother’s mascara, remembering

Klaus who never kissed me.

4.

How are we to know the difference
between the raven and the songbird,
the Kaiser’s world and ours? I comb
Ingrid’s bangs then stroll through Edeka
for cooking oil and raisins, flour
and oatmeal. I watch a woman in yellow
who could’ve been a bride
tear the flesh of her neck
with her fingernails and cry.
The metal shelves wink at us all
in triangles of sun, and nobody speaks.

The wind stirs forth its ghastliness.

5.

We’re drinking tea and waiting for
a thunderstorm to swallow the blasts
swirling down from Chemnitz.
Ingrid keeps her dolls arrayed
on the living room floor and Father irons
his Reichmarks, pretending they’re enough
till winter. He says the war will end
when Stalin gives up Leningrad;
he says the Americans won’t die
for what they cannot have. I scrub
errant berries from Ingrid’s favorite dress

and draw black x’s on my notebook.

6.

Each one’s a woman I might’ve been,
each a fury and a wish. Ingrid believes
in magic, but I know we’re going to die here
among stacks of old Christmas cards
and the Führer’s face on the calendar,
among the smells of enamel and cement
as the city redefines itself. Ingrid
sits at the kitchen table now,
a saint who’s lost the knowledge
of light and dark—she sits like a girl
in a postcard in the shadows of the valley
where the Elbe curves

south.

Carl Boon is the author of the full-length collection Places & Names: Poems (The Nasiona Press, 2019). His poems have appeared in many journals and magazines, including Prairie Schooner, Posit, and The Maine Review. He received his Ph.D. in Twentieth-Century American Literature from Ohio University in 2007, and currently lives in Izmir, Turkey, where he teaches courses in American culture and literature at Dokuz Eylül University.

The World in Sinhalese

by Carl Boon

Recall when you were mesmerized—
a parlor of rococo design, the curves
ascending into hips, rivers
as witnessed from above.

You’d had three martinis
& wine with dinner, many scallions,
& waited for the lines to reconnect.
A girl with alabaster skin,

tattooed, brought Sri Lankan tea
& pastry, & suddenly your hands
began to blossom into webs
as delicate as prayer in rain.

You didn’t want to step away
nor the newly-found to cease;
the girl was an airplane made of lace
& the room grew softly against you—

so softly it seemed your grandmother
listened as you asked for salvation,
& you saw the threads of her blouse
instead of her blouse

& were satisfied. & so it is
to leap into another world, make love
there where the sand’s condemned

to sand, where the dismissal

of fruit foretells an avalanche
so powerful & weird it cannot hurt,
so surrounding & sweet you
could bear to breathe no longer.

Carl Boon is the author of the full-length collection Places & Names: Poems (The Nasiona Press, 2019). His poems have appeared in many journals and magazines, including Prairie Schooner, Posit, and The Maine Review. He received his Ph.D. in Twentieth-Century American Literature from Ohio University in 2007, and currently lives in Izmir, Turkey, where he teaches courses in American culture and literature at Dokuz Eylül University.

Out of Touch

by Madelyn Taylor

When I was young enough to know everything–and know
being grown was sleeping in nothing but sheets
and other people–I shivered into bed
next to my sister, giggled guilty against
her chicken-bump legs, bare belly, bruise
on bruise, read books, and grew too warm.
                                                                               And Mom called out to me, “Where are you?”
Tonight I shiver seven layers deep–and know
nothing–have grown big enough to bruise
other people, bump guilty into bed,
read a book, twist restless, nesting loops
‘till the ground seems better roost. My sister
is in Croatia. I sleep upon my belly.

 

Madelyn Taylor is an English major at Brigham Young University. She grew up
in an Air Force family and moved around most of her life. Her interests
include the history of oral poetry in the United States, radio
broadcasting, and terrible adaptations of Sherlock Holmes.

A Million Kinds of Happiness

by Karina Andrew

Monday. Sunny. Low of 68. High of 94. Nineteen percent chance of rain.

The scent of dirt follows me into the house. People say “dirty” like it’s a bad thing, but I like dirt. It clings to me, to the knees of my jeans, to the undersides of my nails, to all the tiny lines and crevices in my skin.

I scrub my hands with lots of soap, watching that dirt run off my skin and down the sink. It leaves tracks in the white bowl.

“Avie.” Mom’s voice is gentle and perky, like pink carnations. “Don’t leave the water running too long.”

Right. The drought warning. I turn the tap, and the water stops.

Mom doesn’t make me change clothes for dinner, which I appreciate. Hallie’s already at the table, her pink nails clicking against her phone screen. She’s wearing makeup, too, something she never did before I left for college. Granted, her makeup is poorly done—an early attempt at painting over thirteen-year-old insecurities—but I can’t help her fix it. I haven’t worn makeup in months. I wonder if she expected me to be more . . . something when I got back for the summer. Cooler, funnier, more interesting. I’ve likely disappointed her in all categories.

I help Mom set the table. Dad comes home as I put the last fork in place, towing a dirty Logan into the house behind him. I give Logan a smile. Of all the family, he is the only one who shares my affinity for nature. He flashes back an impish grin and rushes to the table.

“Wash your hands,” Mom reminds him, eying his grubby fingers. 

“But it’ll waste waaaater,” he rebuts, eyes twinkling.

“Wash them really fast.”

He runs to the kitchen sink. He’s been bursting with energy since I got back three weeks ago. Four weeks ago? Each day morphs seamlessly into the next with little distinction. I don’t pay attention.

Logan reaches for the potatoes.

“Logan,” Dad says, “wait until we say grace.”

It’s the only time of day we talk about God. We all close our eyes while Dad thanks the ceiling for the food Mom made, then start in on our chicken, potatoes, and broccoli.

“Savannah and David should arrive tomorrow,” Dad says. Savannah is Dad’s sister. “We’re going to put them in your room, Avie, is that okay? I know it’s not ideal.”

“No, it’s fine. I understand.”

“With their neighborhood being evacuated—”

“I know. It’s really fine.” I force a small smile, so he knows I mean it—it’s not like the wildfires tearing through California are his fault—but Dad’s still opening and closing his mouth like a Venus Flytrap, forehead wrinkled in guilt.

“Well, when they get here, we’ll just have to do something fun as a family,” Mom says, spearing a potato with her fork. “Take a day trip out to the beach or something. Hey, isn’t the summer fair next week? They always have those stands with the hand-made jewelry you love, Avie, remember?”

I do remember. I remember being fascinated with them as a kid, with the way the sunlight filtered through the beads and changed the color of the sand. I remember walking through the stands with my high school friends in the months after graduation and talking about the future with glittering eyes and high hopes. I remember going there with Grandma, until she grew too sick to get out of bed.

I shrug and shove a piece of broccoli across my plate with my fork. “Yeah, sure.”

Mom and Dad exchange glances. My gut drops a little, and I quickly turn my lips up at the corners, so they won’t worry. I finish my food hurriedly to escape the feeling of their concerned gazes like searchlights on my face and head back out to the garden.

The flowerbeds line the porch in front of the house like a dense, brown moat. I kneel, feeling the dirt squishing beneath my knees, the moisture soaking into my jeans. I inhale and taste the metallic scent on the back of my tongue, cool and rich and alive—a breathing bank of precious metals. I dig my fingers into the earth, clearing space to make my deposit.

I’ve planted halfway down the length of the porch since coming home. To my left grows a plethora of flowers, my own porch-side Eden: geraniums, daisies, lilacs, even two rose bushes. To my right stretches a blank canvas of earth, waiting to be painted from nature’s own pallet.

I work well into the evening, tending carefully to my little buds, adding fertilizer, pulling the tiny beginnings of weeds, planting new rows of flowers in meticulously dug trenches. I don’t notice the darkness creeping in from the east until Mom flicks the porchlight on and comes outside.

“Looks good,” she says in her carnation voice. Sandals separate her feet from the cool evening grass.

“Thanks.”

“It’s getting late. You want to finish this tomorrow?”

“Finish?”

“Continue.”

“Of course, I’ll continue tomorrow.”

“I mean, how about you come inside for tonight? We’re putting on a movie.”

I sit back on my heels. “I don’t like movies.”

“Since when?”

I pluck a blade of grass from between two geraniums.

Mom’s eyebrows pull together a little in the middle, but she tries to keep her lips smiling.

“We’ve missed you while you’ve been gone, Avie. Come inside and be with the family, okay?” I can’t deny her that. My eyes run once more over my garden. It glows golden in the sunset. No weeds spring up between the flowers. No leaf or bud is out of place. Immaculate.

I stow my unplanted flowers on the porch in their plastic containers, next to my spade and hand trowel, and haul the bag of fertilizer up the steps after. It slumps against the porch rail.

I do change clothes this time, so I don’t get dirt between the sofa cushions. Mom has done my laundry for me, and the detergent she uses smells better than the discount stuff I bought at school. It’s a soft scent, clean and fluffy and vaguely reminiscent of cherry blossoms, though the bottle advertises lilies.

I want to call it a night, crawl into bed and lie with my eyes closed until the world spins around and puts my garden back into the sunlight. I want to skip the night, fast-forward through the darkness. But it isn’t fair of me to wish that the night would pass faster, because I suppose the sun is shining on someone else’s garden somewhere—maybe the palace gardens of a queen, or the garden of a single mom growing food to feed her family—and why should my comparatively inconsequential garden get priority? So I go downstairs and join the others in the family room. It’s a secluded space in the basement where I’ll be sleeping once David and Savannah arrive.

I pause in the entryway. Logan is sitting where I usually sit, in the corner of the sectional, his knees tucked under his chin like a bomb of energy liable to explode at any moment. Hallie lounges to his left, her neck arched pompously like the stem of an orchid, her face lit in the darkness by her phone screen.

“Stop bouncing,” she snaps at Logan.

“I’m not,” Logan taunts, stretching the one syllable into three.

“I can literally feel you shaking the whole couch.”

“Well, what if I do this?”

He launches to his feet and starts jumping on the sofa, each hop getting him closer to landing in Hallie’s lap. 

“Mom!” Hallie says.

  “Logan, sit down,” Mom says without turning around from the Blu-ray player.

“But I’m not touching her!”

Dad gets up from his recliner, his eyes twinkling in that mischievous way only dads’ eyes twinkle before they do something dad-ish.

“No jumping on the sofa!” he says, grabbing Logan around his small waist and flipping him upside down.

“Stop—stop—” Logan gasps between giggles, kicking his legs in the air and barely missing Dad’s face. I slip behind their play-fight, dodging one of Logan’s flailing limbs, and reclaim my corner spot. The family dynamic is much the same as it was before I moved out, but I can’t seem to find my place in it anymore. As if, in my absence, they all grew to fill in the places I used to occupy. Maybe I never played that big a role at all.

They pick a feel-good family movie with wide-eyed animated characters, only it doesn’t make me feel good. I might have enjoyed it more before college, but now it seems the cinematic equivalent of eating unsalted potatoes. For a moment I entertain the idea that my year of university education has refined my taste in media, but then I remember the art gallery Mom took me to a couple weeks ago as a “welcome home” outing, and how that, too, had been bland. That was the day she’d started pulling up her eyebrows when she looked at me, lowering her voice like I was something fragile—glass that might splinter at the slightest shiver.

I hate it when she looks at me like that, hate that I’m causing her distress. She’s got Dad giving me the look, too, but they don’t get that they don’t need to worry about me. People change. That’s life.

I get up and slip out of the room just before the end credits roll. In the reflection of the TV screen, I catch Mom giving me that look.

 

Tuesday. Sunny. Low of 71. High of 97. Eleven percent chance of rain.

David and Savannah arrive a couple of hours after the sun. Their tires sound hot and dry against the driveway.

“Avie!” Savannah sounds unnervingly chipper for someone whose house might burn down any day. “You’re back from school already?”

“It’s June.”

“Remind me what you’re studying?”

“Biology. With a botany emphasis.”

“Explains the gardening.” Savannah’s smiling eyes roam over my work, then return to me. I stand up but instantly regret it, suddenly too aware of my stained jeans and dirty fingernails and the fact that I rolled out of bed and fumbled my way out here without brushing my teeth. I try to smile back at Savannah, but it feels unnatural, like I have weights attached to my cheeks. I don’t know what to say, but Mom opens the door, and I don’t have to say anything.

“Savannah,” she says. “David. How was the drive? Have you had breakfast?”

“Not yet. You didn’t happen to make those banana muffins, did you?”

“You know I did.” Mom smiles, pulling Savannah in for a hug. “How’re you doing?” she murmurs.

“Oh, we’ll be alright.” Savannah is still smiling. It doesn’t even seem fake. I turn my spade over in my hands while Mom hugs David, and they exchange more encouraging sentiments. 

“You coming in, Avie?” Mom asks. “You’ve been out here for hours, you must want something to eat.”

“Hours?” David asks, checking his watch. “It’s only nine.”

“Oh, Avie’s been getting up at the crack of dawn to fix up the yard for us,” Mom says. “It’s been her project all summer. I guess one of her botany professors . . .”

Mom chats David and Savannah into the house, and I trudge in behind them, leaving dusty footprints on the white tile. The house does smell like bananas. Mom’s muffins are famous among family. Everyone gets outrageously excited about them, as if they aren’t made of the same ingredients that comprise every other baked good known to man.

Hallie makes her way downstairs, and Dad follows close behind, carrying Logan piggy-back into the kitchen. Greetings bounce off the cabinets and loud voices ring in cacophony until all our mouths are filled with warm banana mush. 

I wonder what makes banana muffins any better than German chocolate cake, or sourdough bread, or peanut butter cookies, if they’re all made of flour and sugar and butter. Why do some come out dense, while some are fluffy? Why are some desserts, while others are breakfast?

Humans are the same way, I suppose. All made of blood and bone and muscle. But sometimes, one will come out different, wrong. I have the same ingredients as my family, the same DNA. But they all seem like banana muffins, and I feel like a crusty grain roll. 

“Avie?”

“Hm? Yeah?” I tune back in. Savannah is looking at me, smiling wide like a daisy.

“I asked if you were planning on planting sunflowers anywhere.”

“Oh. Um.” I glance out the window. “I hadn’t thought about it. I could, I guess. Down the side of the house.”

“Sunflowers are my favorites,” she says. “We were going to plant them this year, but . . .” She leaves a space in her sentence for the fire that’s burning down her house, then goes on. “But I’d love to help you plant some! Since we’re here for a while, anyway.”

  “Sure,” I say automatically, but my stomach sinks at the thought of letting someone else in my garden, which is stupid, because it’s in the front yard and anyone can walk in whenever they want, anyway.

The conversation turns to other topics, and I take the opportunity to slip back outside. When the sun sets and I go back in for the night, the couch in the family room has been fitted with sheets for me.

 

Friday. Sunny. Low of 76. High of 101. Six percent chance of rain.

White bits of skin flake off my sunburned neck and dust the soil beneath my hands. I’m putting in another row of geraniums today, orange and yellow, like a hundred tiny suns. Savannah sits on a quilt on the grass, watching me work, getting tan. She keeps apologizing for not being more helpful, but I prefer it that way. The same way a painter can distinguish the stylistic differences between his work and that of another artist, I can see the places where other hands have touched my garden.

Mom steps outside with glasses of lemonade just as I pull the hose around and begin a gentle spray.

“Do you need to use so much water, Avie?” she asks, frowning.

“Yes.”

“We really need to cut back. The city is asking that we don’t use sprinklers—”

“The sprinklers have been off all summer.” The lawn itself is dusty and brown. “This is just for the garden. The flowers need water.”

  “Well, just try to be careful about it, okay? Don’t waste a drop.”

I press my lips together and watch the soil beneath my flowers darken with moisture. Savannah joins my mother in the shade of the porch. I don’t hear their low voices over the steady flow of the garden hose, but when Savannah returns to her quilt, she’s wearing that same, pitiful look Mom always gives me.

 

Saturday. Sunny. Low of 74. High of 99. Three percent chance of rain.

“You know why I love sunflowers so much?”

Savannah has started planting a row down the side of the house. It’s late in the season to start planting, I warned her, but she was sure they’d grow just fine. “Why?”

  “Because they’re heliotropic.” She pauses proudly, as if expecting praise for knowing the term. “They always look toward the sun.”

Of course I know what heliotropic means, but I don’t want to make her feel bad, so I just smile awkwardly.

“I just think that’s lovely,” she goes on. “And people can learn something from it, too. No matter how bad things get, just keep looking on the bright side, and we’ll bloom.” She looks up at me hopefully.

I sit back on my heels, thoughtful. “Sunflowers aren’t universally heliotropic, though. Not all species follow that pattern, especially not wild sunflowers. And at this point in the season, these ones will likely never develop the turning flower heads.”

Savannah blinks at me, and a pit churns in my stomach. I’ve said something wrong—I can see it in her slack jaw and disapproving squint. I don’t know what I should have said.

“So, what got you into gardening?” she finally asks.

I shrug, leaning forward with my clippers to prune the rose bush. The buds should be plumper by now. Must be thirsty. “It feels good out here, I guess. Like being alive.”

“Right, like you’re not alive the rest of the time.” She’s laughing but I’m not.

“Plants are easier to connect with than other living things.” I don’t know why I’m still trying to explain it, but it suddenly feels urgent, like I need to make her understand. “They don’t have to think or feel—they don’t do anything. They just are. They just exist, and make the world pretty, and . . .”

She’s blinking again, and I trail off, because even if I could explain it, she wouldn’t get it. She wouldn’t get it.

I go inside early, climb into my makeshift bed, and stare at the ceiling.

 

Sunday. High of 102. Zero percent chance of rain.

Mom is already up by the time I come upstairs.

“I’m glad I caught you,” she says, yawning. “Don’t go out to the garden this morning, okay? We’re taking a family outing, and I don’t want you getting dirty.”

I stare. “No one else will even be awake for another three hours.”

“Then how about you sleep in, like a normal college student?” She says it with a smile, running a gentle hand over my hair, but the comment still stings. Not normal. Broken.

“What are we doing?”

It turns out Mom’s idea of a “family outing” is visiting my grandmother’s grave. She and Savannah make us all dress up like we’re going to church, and we drive forty-five minutes to the cemetery. The grass here is thin and yellow. It strikes me as strange that the city won’t even use sprinklers in the cemetery, but I guess the people buried here don’t know or care what the grass looks like.

We stand by the plot, looking at the tombstone sparkling in the sun. I think about the same, scorching light blaring down on my little plants. They haven’t had water today. Savannah takes Dad’s arm and leans her head on his shoulder.

“I can’t believe it’s been a year without Mom,” she whispers. Dad nods his agreement. Logan isn’t bouncing around for once. He looks up at Dad. “Is Grandma in heaven?” 

Dad smiles at Logan and nods. “She’s an angel now. And she’s with Jesus, just how she always wanted to be someday.”

But she’s not in heaven, I think, frowning at the dried-up grave plot. She’s right here, rotting under our feet. Dissolving slowly into soil, feeding the withered grass with her body. Disappearing.

The family is smiling at one another, clasping hands and patting shoulders and bringing up fond memories of Grandma, and I want to join in, but I feel like I’m watching them from the far end of a tunnel. Nothingness like a fog grips my mind, crawling in from the edges of my consciousness and resting firmly in the center of my brain. I drift over to a bench sitting in the sparse shade of an oak tree. The fog follows me. I stare at nothing.

“Avie?”

A voice emerges from the nothingness, and eventually a body. Savannah sits next to me on the bench. How long have I been sitting here? She drapes a tan arm around my shoulders.

“How are you doing?”

“I’m good.” The words come automatically, but they taste stale in my mouth, the same way off-brand Oreos don’t taste quite like the real ones.

“I know you miss her.”

“Yeah, well. That’s life.”

Savannah, for once, doesn’t say anything else.

“Do you really believe in God?” I don’t know where the question comes from, but it spills from my mouth before I can process it.

Savannah considers my question a moment before answering. “Yes. I just can’t imagine that there isn’t . . . something out there. It doesn’t make sense to me that all this”—she gestures vaguely at our surroundings—“could be meaningless.”

I turn that comment over in my head, my forehead creasing. I don’t see how the existence of a God factors into life meaning anything. Either there is no God, no one listening in the ceiling when we say grace over dinner, and meaning dies with our bodies, lies with us in the ground until that inevitable day, billions of years in the future, when the sun expands in its final stages of life and swallows us up and leaves no one left in the universe to remember that human life ever meant anything. Or, there is a God, and the droughts and the wildfires and the emptiness of life will eventually give way to eternal bliss in heaven, in which case we would all be better off under the grass with Grandma, anyway.

But it’s not a normal thing to say, so I make an indistinct noise in my throat and watch the yellow grass quiver in the pathetic breeze until Mom comes over to pack us all back into the car and take us home.

 

Monday. 101. Zero percent chance of rain.

My alarm doesn’t go off, so I don’t get up. I just lie there, and the longer I lie there, the more overwhelming the task of getting up seems. The numbers on the clock keep changing, nine, ten, eleven, and I think that maybe I ought to feel bad that I’m wasting my day, but I don’t feel anything at all except a muted sense of dread, like something bad will happen if I push off my covers. So I don’t. I just keep lying there.

The garden.

I hear footsteps on the basement stairs. Someone coming to check on me. I close my eyes until I hear the click . . . creak . . . snap of the door opening and closing again.

The garden.

My Eden. My roses and lilacs and geraniums. No one will water them if I don’t. I pull my covers off, swing my legs over the couch, and fumble up the stairs. My mind is groggy, drunk on an excess of sleep. Savannah and David are putting together sandwiches for Hallie and Logan, who sit on the counter barstools with their legs swinging. David asks if I want one. I shake my head, stumble out the door in my pajamas and grab the hose.

The rose buds are still too skinny.

 

Wednesday. 103. Zero percent chance of rain.

Mom and Dad call a family meeting before dinner. We’re still using too much water, they tell us. We’ve got to cut back. Scrub dishes with soap and get all the food off before rinsing them. Don’t leave the tap running when you’re brushing your teeth. No one should take a longer-than-five-minute shower.

“And Avie, honey, I’m sorry, but we really can’t be watering the garden anymore.” My heart plunges into my stomach with dizzying force.

“But . . . Mom,” I say. My voice creaks, barely louder than a whisper. “It’ll die. The roses . . . everything. They need water. They’ll die.”

“And I’ll die if I can only shower for five minutes!” Hallie interjects. “How am I supposed to wash my hair, ever? It takes longer than that, Mom!”

Hallie keeps whining and Mom tries to calm her down, and everyone forgets that my garden is going to dry up and turn brown and disappear to a place where I will never be able to bring it back to life. My throat goes dry at the thought, drier than the godforsaken California dirt. My heart picks up speed and my brain feels fuzzy and no one notices. No one else seems to understand how urgent, how crucial it is that the garden stays alive.

The oven timer goes off, distracting us from the argument. Dad serves the food and asks me to say grace. I only ask the ceiling for one thing.

Rain.

 

Thursday. Zero percent chance of rain.

I wake up early, too early, and grab two mop buckets out of the closet. I use my five minutes of water to fill them up, then rush them outside, like a surgeon in an emergency room running to deliver life-saving medicine to a patient on the cusp of death.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, emptying the buckets over my little plants as the bluish glow of dawn creeps over the eastern edge of the neighborhood. “I know you’re thirsty. This is all I have.”

Their leaves, sickly yellow around the edges, curl downward, betrayed. You’re going to let us die, they accuse me.

“No, no!” I whimper, hands quivering, but my tongue is dry and they can hear it, hear the uncertainty. They weep tearlessly.

I grab my clippers and prune away their yellow parts.

 

Saturday. Zero percent chance of rain.

Savannah has stopped joining me in the garden. Her sunflowers will never send up shoots. I don’t waste water on them.

 

Tuesday. Zero percent chance of rain.

Dad cuts us back to one five-minute-shower every other day until the drought is over. Five minutes of water every forty-eight hours is not enough for my garden, not in this heat. I sneak into Hallie’s room and use her perfume when she isn’t in there. My nails are permanently black with dirt and my hair is heavy with oil. Getting out of bed grows more daunting every day, but I do it, because no one else will give their five minutes of water to my garden.

 

Friday. Zero percent chance of rain.

Logan runs into the house late in the afternoon, his face lit up in a big, dandelion grin, yelling that he saw storm clouds while he was playing outside. Savannah and David and Mom and Dad and even Hallie come running outside to see their salvation. They file onto the lawn, and stare in dense silence at the huge, black billows of smoke creeping up from the southwest.

 

Monday. Zero percent chance of rain.

Dad has bad news when he comes back from work. The wildfires have taken on an unexpected trajectory, putting our house in the path of danger. We should all have a bag packed, in case they evacuate the neighborhood. Hallie and Logan whine loudly, but Dad pinches the bridge of his nose and tells them to do it.

“And try not to go outside, okay? There’s a public health warning, the air isn’t safe,” he calls after them as they run upstairs. I sneak out to the garden before he can turn around and tell me that the public health warning applies to me, too.

 

Thursday. Zero percent chance of rain.

The stench of smoke clings to my sweaty skin and greasy hair, clings to the yellowing leaves and cracking dirt in the garden, clings to the house and everything in it as if with millions of clammy, gray hands. I stop using Hallie’s perfume. None of us ever smell clean, now.

 

Monday. Zero percent chance of rain.

Mom wakes me before my alarm goes off, before the sun has started peeking through the narrow basement windows.

“We’ve got to go, Avie.”

I stir groggily. “Huh?”

“They’re evacuating us today. It isn’t safe to stay any longer.”

I sit up, rubbing my eyes. “I can’t today. I have to fertilize, prune . . . ”

“I’m sorry about the garden, honey. Really, I am. But the National Guard is clearing everyone out. We can’t stay.”

Her words sink through my sleepiness, sink through my fog and my nothingness. I open my eyes and focus on my mom’s face in the darkness. “No.”

 “Avie—”

“No.”

“We’re not discussing it.” Her voice hardens for the first time, thorns prickling out of her lips. “Go upstairs and pack up what you can—Savannah and David are already out of your room.”

The thorns in her voice cut deep. She doesn’t care about my garden. She doesn’t care.

I sit up and push past her, leaving the blankets in a tangle on the floor, and run outside. Even in the dark, I can see how yellow the garden is. I kneel in the dirt, rubbing the wilting, thirsty leaves between my fingers. There’s commotion in the street—neighbors calling for family members, National Guardsmen giving instructions, dogs barking. A siren blares somewhere in the distance, and that cloud of smoke hangs in the air, too close, an extra layer of blackness against the sky. It chokes me with its long, clammy fingers.

I don’t bother with my pruning shears—I just pull off yellow leaves with unnervingly steady hands. I watch those hands, as if they belong to someone else. The sun sends up shoots over the horizon, turning the sky purple.

“Avie.”

A hot breeze scatters the pile of yellow leaves. My little plants need water, but I don’t have five minutes for them today. I gave them seven yesterday.

“Avie, let’s go.”

I look around, dazed. My whole family stands in the driveway, dragging suitcases and backpacks—I recognize my own luggage among their load. Hallie cries frustrated tears. Logan slumps, still half asleep, against the porch rail. Dad, Savannah and David are loading up the cars, and Mom stands expectantly on the lawn behind me, a scarf tied over her nose and mouth.

“I’m not going.”

“I grabbed your suitcases from school—they were mostly still full. If you need anything that wasn’t in them, you should go grab it now.”

“I’m not leaving them,” I whisper.

“And we’re not leaving you.” Mom kneels beside me and strokes my snarled, greasy hair. “I know it’s hard. But you can plant another garden next year.”

Not if the house burns down, I want to say. But then I remember that I’m supposed to be hopeful, heliotropic, looking toward the future and all its blazing inevitability with a blind grin, so I don’t say anything. Instead, I pick up my spade, but I don’t know why, because I don’t need to dig for anything. I jam it into the ground anyway, like maybe I can dig a hole big enough to crawl into and escape Mom’s prying gaze.

“Avie, you haven’t been yourself all summer.”

I jam my spade hard into the earth again. It gives with a dry crunch.

“Is this about Grandma passing?” Mom asks, her carnation voice wilting.

I don’t know how to answer that, how to explain that it isn’t Grandma, but the questions left in her absence. Too many questions about life and death and meaning and time, ending only in dead ends and complications, and I am unequal to the daunting permanence of their answers.

So I say no, and punctuate the word with another jab with the spade. “It doesn’t matter. That’s just how it goes.” I don’t know what I’m digging for, but my spade keeps flashing and my throat feels hot and suddenly all these stupid words are spilling out of my mouth, putrid like vomit, and I can’t contain them. “Things leave. People”—crunch—“time”—crunch—

“ happiness. It all leaves and it doesn’t come back and you just have to live with it.”

Mom gives me that damn look again and for some reason, it makes anger boil up inside me, hot and rancid and guilty. I hate myself for putting that look on her face.

“You’re right,” she says. Infuriating. I want her to disagree. I want to argue. I want to scream. “But there’s more than one way to be happy.”

“But has it ever occurred to you that some kinds of happiness are better than others?” My voice comes out shrill and ragged. My family members all turn to look at me, some startled, some pitying, but I can’t stop. “Effortless happiness. Real happiness. Not fabricated happiness. The kind we have to convince ourselves we have, force ourselves to have.”

“You don’t have to force yourself to feel anything.”

“But everyone else has it!” Crunch. “Everyone else is normal. Why can—” my voice breaks. “Why can everyone else feel it?”

A drop of water lands on my right hand, and for one wild moment I think it’s started raining, but then my vision fuzzes over and the heat from my throat stretches up behind my eyes and I realize that I’m crying.

Stupid, I think angrily, watching more drops spatter onto the dirt. Stupid how the human body can produce so much water, but not enough to drink, or put out forest fires, or water the garden. Useless.

Soft footsteps on the grass behind me. “You ready?” Dad asks.

I palm the tears off my face, horror crashing over me like a heat wave. “No.” I look at Mom, frantic, but she just shakes her head.

“Avie—”

“No. No!” More tears burn hot in my eyes, but I can’t wipe them away fast enough. “I can’t leave them! They’ll die!”

Dad reaches for my arms to pull me up, but I jerk away from him. “Don’t! You don’t care!” I hear weeping, but I don’t know if it’s me or my garden, mourning my last betrayal. Another set of strong arms wraps around me and hauls me to my feet. I pull against them, but they bind me, constrict me, pull me to the car.

“No!”

The door slams shut like the lid of a coffin. I press my face to the window, tears streaking down the glass like the rain the traitor ceiling never sent us, like five minutes of water drizzling into a mop bucket. It didn’t matter. None of it mattered.

The car lurches beneath me. We follow the line of traffic from the neighborhood, and I watch my poor, yellow plants grow smaller and smaller until we turn a corner and they disappear from view.

 

 

August. Zero percent chance of rain.

We watch the news coverage from my mom’s cousin’s house upstate. I don’t look at the screen—don’t want to see the blackened remains of our home. Instead, I look at my hands. Clean, soft, with trimmed, white fingernails. No dirt.

Mom and Dad say we can’t come but I stand up from the sofa and get in the car anyway and they don’t stop me. The drive seems an eternity, but when we get there, I wish it had been longer. I wish we could have driven and driven until we reached the line on the horizon, the end of the world.

The street is silent, except for a few of our old neighbors milling around, speaking with National Guardsmen and fire-fighters. Everything is gray and black and the air scratches my throat when I inhale. My body feels numb. Blank. Empty.

I turn my eyes back onto the remains of our house for the first time. They trail from the partially-collapsed roof, to the blackened windows, to the front porch, to the—

My heart punches into my throat and my lungs clench. I step forward. A gentle hand lands on my upper arm, trying to stop me, but I shrug it off. It doesn’t touch me again. Slow steps, up to the side of what used to be the porch.

It’s gone.

My knees hit the sooty remains of my Eden. The geraniums, the lilacs, the roses. The last piece of happiness, the last thing that had mattered. All gone. I dig my fingers into the soil- turned-ash, breathing in gasps, and sink into this pathetic grave for the flowers and the time and a million intangible parts of me I can never bring back to life.

My burning eyes land on something green. I turn my head slowly, the nothingness stifling any incredulity that might have sprung up at the sight.

Impossible.

By the side of the house, a single, tiny sunflower shoot pokes out of the ash.

A ragged, primal pain tears through my chest. I press my forehead to the ground and water the garden.

Karina Andrew grew up in rural Ohio, but she’s a big city girl at heart. She dreams of moving to New York City someday, after she completes her degree in journalism at BYU. When she’s not writing, she can be found attending concerts, burying her nose in a fantasy novel, or, if it’s early in the morning, repeatedly pressing the snooze button on her alarm. 

Interview with Darlene Young

by Micah Cozzens and Elizabeth Ross 

Inscape: So my first question is about the form. A lot of your poems, such as “Frequencies” and “To a Red Traffic Light,” are in free verse, but you have ten-syllable lines. Many poems in your book are like that. So, I guess I’m just wondering why that form? Because it seems to work for you.

Darlene Young: Yeah, form is a funny thing. When I draft a poem, it’s usually either in a big, messy paragraph or it’s in that shape, lines of about ten syllables-ish. Not so short that the line breaks distract me from what’s happening, but not so long that they carry over onto another line. I cut them off at that, just when I’m drafting, but then I come back and say, Okay, now I have to make the line break do something. There has to be a reason for it to be in the shape it’s in. Sometimes at that point I’ll structure it another way and find some other form for it. But sometimes I think, No, that’s feeling right, so I’ll leave it.

When I write in a specific form, though, like a sonnet or a villanelle, something that’s highly structured, I often start with an assignment to myself: I’m going to write a villanelle. Then I search for content. What kind of subject fits a villanelle well? Because if it’s going to be that structured, I can’t be married to the content because otherwise it’s going to feel forced, right? So, I have a messy paragraph or lines that are about ten syllables, and I’ll ask, Are these lines the right length to show what I want to show in terms of how I’m using language? If I’m using more dense language, I might adjust the lines so that they are in good tension or in good proportion to each other. If I’m using really accessible, or essayistic, not very dense, language, I might do something different with the line to get some kind of tension in there. I might vary it differently in some surprising way, or I might make it longer. Like I said, it’s usually something I address in revision unless I’ve set out purposefully to make the form super important to that particular poem. 

Part of it depends on the origin of the poem. Many, many poets write because they love language and love playing with language. They’re going to draft differently and actually construct lines as they’re drafting. Kim Johnson does this; she’ll spend a whole week on one line. And you can tell when you read her work that it is crafted, the line is everything—really rewarding. My poetry usually starts with something other than language. It’s usually an experience I want to tell about, something that happened to me. I’m more interested in the meaning than most poets are, so I tend not to craft it quite as much in the beginning. I’m chiseling down from a big, messy, prose-y beginning, and then trying to bump up the language to make it more poetic. I think that if I were more into thinking about form from the beginning, my poems would look different.

Inscape: But they wouldn’t be as successful, probably. 

DY: Maybe not. I am the kind of poet that likes accessibility. My favorite compliment—and I don’t know if you should quote me on this—is when someone says, “I don’t usually like poetry, but I like yours.” I love to speak to people that don’t read a lot of poetry—which might mean I’m not that intellectual, that I don’t write that high a level of poetry, but that’s okay with me. I care a lot about whether people can share the experience with me, and some poets don’t care as much about that. They’d rather have their cool language tricks, and there are rewards to that, too, but it’s just not what I’m interested in.

When you have a specific form in mind—let’s say you want every line to be in iambic pentameter, for example—you have to be willing to give up some of your meaning and content, because otherwise it feels like you’ve just wrestled and forced the language into place. You have to be willing to go somewhere else with the poem or maybe not say what you originally meant. If I decide I’m not willing to give up on meaning, I’ll put it in free verse so I can keep my meaning. But the more easily a poem that’s formal reads, the more work it took to get that way. That’s kind of hard for beginning students to understand. They think there are people who are good at rhyme and people who are not, and the poems that are good just came out that way. But no, to have the rhyme feel easy and natural takes much more work than to leave it feeling stilted with Yoda-speak and messed-up syntax in order to fit the rhyme. It’s lazy to resort to messing up the syntax in order to get a line.

Inscape: Is it weird to read your poetry in front of people? Is it different from reading prose?

DY: At first it was really hard. I’m not shy about speaking in public, or teaching, or giving talks in church, or reading someone else’s work. But the first few times I had to read my poetry, it was really hard. Part of it was because it was more personal, and part of it was because I’ve been to poetry readings where the reading feels so affected—which drives me crazy, you know? So, I’m always pushing against that, but if I mumble and rush through the poem, that isn’t giving respect to the words. Now I’ve done it enough that I’m getting more confident. It helps if you feel like your work is getting better. My first poems weren’t very good, so they were harder to share. But it is harder than just reading prose. You have to decide how you’re going to break the line

Inscape: A lot of your characters are women. When I’m reading poetry or prose, the religious women are caricatures—you know, either total hypocrites or total angels—and it’s nice to read something where they’re more complex. Your poem “Angels of Mercy” does that particularly well. I loved that poem just because it’s so funny and loved the line, “the worldliness of D-cup ambition.” Complex women are not only in that poem but throughout your collection. How did you do that? 

DY: Well, first of all, I only write what interests me, and it’s not interesting to me to not tell the truth about my experience, about my culture. I love my culture, but we have a problem with how we talk about women. This “angel mother” thing that we get over the pulpit is really detrimental. Consequently, I’m always pushing against that. It’s typical for women to hate going to church on Mother’s Day because they hear all this stuff like, “We love what you do, and what you do is important,” because the men are trying to be complimentary, but it comes across as “We have angel mothers and you women are angels.” What we women say to ourselves is, I know I’m not, and I know that you know I’m not, so this is just making me feel worse. I think telling the truth about experience is much more inspirational than building those caricatures. 

The best art is art that we recognize, where we say, Okay, that’s familiar to me. If we can tell the truth in really specific details, that’s more inspirational. Even telling the truth about the flaws. So in some of those poems in there I tell hard truths about what it’s like to be a mom. But also, I hope that readers can see I’m someone who loves being a mom, who gets joy out of it even though it’s hard. I think if I didn’t say that it was hard, it wouldn’t be as believable when I say it brings me joy. Poetry has to do two things: It has to make the familiar strange, but it also has to make the strange familiar. If we’re not finding something in common, you’re not able to enter the poem with me and have an experience. If somehow we can find common ground so that you recognize, “Okay, women are like that,” then I can put a funny metaphor in there that makes you think in new ways, and you’ll be with me on that experience. If I talk about our culture with honesty, but also with affection, then that’s resonant to people. I want people to celebrate our culture even with its quirks. 

I think that’s how God feels about us too. He looks at us and sees our flaws, right? He has great affection for us, and I think He wants us to feel that way about ourselves. Which means we can’t ignore the quirky things we do—you know, looking down on so-and-so because she had a boob job but also wanting to try to serve her at the same time. About that poem, everybody asks, “Is it true?” They want to know whether I had the boob job or was in on the Relief Society discussion. My answer is, “Absolutely yes, and absolutely no.” That specific thing hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve been in many discussions in ward council and Relief Society presidency meetings about whether someone deserves to have meals, whether they’re truly needy, whether they even want help. We’ve all been in a place where we need help, but we don’t really want anyone to know we need help. We’ve all been in a place where we judge someone else or we feel judged. There are so many things about that that are true for me and that are true for a woman’s experience in the Church. One of my delights is to put things in my poems that are both true and funny, showing how we do think about each other, “Did she have a boob job? Should she have had a boob job? And should I bring her meals or not?”

Inscape: I just really like the female characters. I guess the short answer is that you’re a woman, so of course that’s what you’re going to write about.

DY: Yeah, and we just don’t have enough poetry about our experiences, do we? Especially as a Mormon woman, I think there’s not much out there, and if I can just be really true about it, hopefully other people can relate. 

Inscape: I really admire that. Going back to the language that you talked about earlier, I do feel like so many of your poems have language that’s just really lush, like that Keats line says, “load every rift with ore.” Almost to the point where it’s excessive, but for me as a reader, it never crosses that line. Your poem about Joseph Smith says, “Not immaterial / his fumble and slop, his gimpy stuttering lope towards loft.” It’s such a thick line, you know, but I like it. You do a good job balancing the accessibility of the poem and what you’re talking about with your thick, dense, verta language.  

DY: Well, thank you. You’ll notice that I don’t do it in all the poems. I was just talking with my friends here about “In the Locker Room at the Temple.” That’s a really popular one, and people pass it around. I heard that people are handing it out at temple training sessions because they love to think about the temple that way. That poem is so un-dense. There’s really not much going on in terms of sound, and sometimes I’m a little embarrassed by it, with so little going on in the lines. So language has to be different for different poems. Part of it depends on the generation of the poem. Like, I remember when I was writing that Joseph Smith poem, some of the work I did was riffing on sounds. That was part of constructing it from the beginning. With some poems you can tell I wanted sound to be a big part of it, you know, the more dense language. With other poems, I just wanted a really clean experience where it’s mostly focusing on meaning, and the language doesn’t get in the way. So, they’re not all dense that way, but it is nice when you put a lot of work into the language, jacking up the language, to have someone appreciate it. I really like that. Sometimes I’ll take a draft and it feels like there’s not much going on, and I’ll say, Okay, I can do better in this line. I can do something better, or I can change the line breaks to show off this language a little bit more. Or I’ll say, There’s no surprise or interesting thing going on in this line, and so how about I jack up the sounds a little bit? Or, I’m going to make a whole list of possible images and find the ones that are more sonic or that fit with the line better, that fit the rhythm or make an interesting rhythm. Sometimes I just feel like there’s little enough going on that I want to find a place for tension, and maybe that tension will be language that makes your heart thump, thump, thump, you know? 

Inscape: So, do you feel like the content in your poems matches the sound? 

DY: Yeah. Or I might specifically want meaning to cut against sound. I may start with the content and then want more tension to come from sounds and language. But I didn’t bother with language that much for “In the Locker Room at the Temple.” I don’t know if I should have, but that’s an example of me just not wanting to get in the way of capturing the feeling of the temple locker room. It’s very simplistic and maybe more pure—I don’t know—but less sonically rewarding. 

A lot of my language work happens in revision. When I’m revising, there comes a point when in the making of a poem—I don’t know if you get to this point, too—where I start turning to the thesaurus. I’ve got a draft, and I say, Okay, I can do better than that. I start opening a thesaurus. I love that stage of a poem because it tells me that I’m well in, that I’ve found my angle, and I’m ready to struggle on the language level as opposed to the approach and framing level. At that point it feels like I’m doing a crossword puzzle because I’m just fitting things together. It feels like filling out a sudoku or something. I love that part—the play part. The hard work comes before—when I’m getting it down and finding the approach, but once I get to the word level, it’s a lot more fun. 

Inscape: That’s kind of a fun way to think about it. It’s just really refreshing because I feel like a lot of poets talk about it like there’s a sense of intangibility. It’s kind of refreshing to hear you say, “No, it’s a very tangible experience.”

DY: Right. But I agree that there’s a stage in the production of the poem where you really have to be open to the subconscious, of unconscious jumps and surprising things that you weren’t expecting. Maybe that’s kind of what they were referring to. But unconscious jumps have to be followed by hard work, you know?—sitting down and analyzing each thing, asking Can I make it better? It’s building with Legos, and it’s work.

Inscape: This is sort of a religious question. Do you see being a poet as your responsibility? 

DY: Well, so this is an interesting thing for me to think about. I don’t feel like I have any responsibility to myself or God or anybody to be a poet any more than I think anyone has a responsibility to use their—I don’t even want to say gifts because I don’t mean talent, I mean the thing that makes you you, your particular interests. I think God puts that little idea in you and your responsibility just as a child of God is to enjoy it and play with it and make use of it. I don’t think it’s a thing where He’s going to hold me responsible: [deep voice] “Did you use that gift I gave you?” Part of that is I don’t feel all that gifted. Maybe if I felt super-gifted, I’d feel some big responsibility to the world, but I don’t. I feel that once I know that I have this interest and this desire to do this thing, God expects me to use it in a way that brings me joy and not in a way that adds to the darkness in the world, you know? I don’t think He necessarily wants me to preach with it, but I think that by telling the truth I’m bringing more light into the world. I like that. I think that I have a responsibility to myself, if I’m going to do it, to be really honest in my work, to not sugarcoat or try to impress people just for the glory of the world—that I should be honest to what I love and what I’m interested in. I have a responsibility to myself to be the best I can at it, meaning that I put the work in. I feel it’s really irresponsible when a poet, for example, just dashes a poem off and then, there it is! Like, not be willing to say, I can make it better. I can use all of my training and my skill to make it the best it can be. I don’t feel like I’m called to produce this thing and put it out into the world like that.But I feel that, once I’ve decided to do it, my responsibility is to do it the best I can and do it in an honest way.

Creativity is a godly attribute. That’s what makes God God. He’s a creator. He just loves to see us be creative. That may be writing a poem or choosing the right flowers to put on your fireplace. It may be the way you break down the barriers with your roommate who’s lonely. There are so many ways to be creative, and I think God loves seeing us being creative. It’s not really a responsibility but a way we enjoy what He has given us.

Inscape: Yeah, I love the first poem of the collection, “Lord, Make Me an Instrument of Thy Peace.” I mean, as you’re talking about gifts, I love how in this one you say, “Make me a tool,” and then when you were talking about poetry, I thought, He has made you an instrument.

DY: And poetry can do that. It’s fortunate and unfortunate that this poem is the first one in the collection. Because I think—I didn’t realize this when I arranged it this way—that it kind of looks like I’m saying, Here’s my poetry collection. This is me being God’s instrument, and the rest of these poems are my special music that I’m going to play for you from God. Right? Like I’m a prophet or something, and I don’t like that. But when I wrote it I was trying to speak to—everybody has their thing, and my poems are not violin poems. They’re not trumpet poems. They’re more like kazoo poems. I don’t want that poem to be like, I’m all inspired and now you should listen to me, but more like I’m kind of quirky, and these may not be that great, but they’re what God gave me. This is the skill He gave me, so I’m going to still play.  

Inscape: As a Mormon writer, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, just watching people in my life who are part of this faith, trying to write, I feel like it can be hard to find your niche. It’s either Deseret Book or Segullah or the highway. And I love Deseret Book. I love Irreantum. All great. I don’t want to project my experiences onto you, but was it hard to find your niche or was it pretty quick?

DY: It was really hard. I think if you want to take your writing seriously, to put work into it, you want to know there’s a potential audience. If there’s no way to reach that audience, it’s really hard to care enough to put work into it, right? I can write my thoughts about being in a Relief Society presidency in my journal, but if I’m going to make it into art, I need an audience. You’re right that there’s a real problem right now with finding that audience. It’s a catch-22 because artists are hesitant to put time into producing work about the Mormon experience if there’s no way they’re going to get it published, and publishers are hesitant to publish it because they aren’t sure that there’s a market and they’re not seeing a lot of quality work. You see how the two have to go together, and it has been a hard thing for me. In fact, I didn’t start writing seriously until I discovered potential audiences and places to publish. The time when I started actually saying, I’m going to take this seriously, produce something and revise it and work on it, was when I discovered there was a place I could publish it.

The very first place I published was in a little newsletter that Orson Scott Card produced, called Vigor. I got the newsletter, and I thought, Okay, here’s a place I could publish. So I wrote something, and it got published there. Then I discovered the Association for Mormon Letters. They had a listserv where people were just talking together, and it was a lot of people whose work I admired. Richard Dutcher was on there, and Marvin Payne, and James Goldberg—I don’t know if you know these people, but anyway—all talking together and having these conversations, and I thought, These are the people who would like any literary writing that I could do about my culture, so I want to write for them. I sent poems to Irreantum, which thank goodness was publishing then. Then I discovered Segullah and wrote for that journal. Exponent II. But those journals can’t accept a lot of work. We’ve got Sunstone and Dialogue, but certain very conservative members of the Church won’t read those. I feel like those members of the church are people I’d like to reach with my writing, but I wouldn’t reach them there. It’s super hard. There are a few publishers who are doing literary Mormon writing. Obviously I found a publisher (BCC Press), and I’m so grateful to them, but they are super, super small. All volunteer. They only publish print-on-demand because they don’t have enough money to run a whole bunch of books and then try to get them in bookstores. Bookstores are reluctant because they don’t think they’re going to sell, so my job is to hope people will share with their friends and ask the library to buy it, and pass it around. Part of the work that I do with the Association for Mormon Letters and my friends that I know in LDS publishing is just trying to get the word out that there’s an audience. People are thirsty for this stuff, and if we write it well, they’ll buy it. But it’s really a hard sell. I wish it were looking better. 

Inscape: It seems like the agents are limited, and the publishers that’ll talk to agents who would be interested in this are limited.

DY: I’m not sure, but I don’t think there are any LDS publishers that use agents–at least not for LDS-specific work. They can’t afford to because the Mormon market is so small. If you take the people in the LDS audience who read poetry, it’s not a big group, and if you then take the people among them who would buy poetry, it’s even smaller. We’re frugal people, right? Most of us just get books from the library. It’s tough. Really tough. I’m in a position where my husband provides for me, so I can teach, and I can produce poetry, but it doesn’t matter to me that I don’t get a lot of people buying my book. I don’t care. I don’t mind if they just loan it to each other, but I would like it to be read because I want people to see that it can be done. It’s possible to write literary poems for Mormons. I want future writers who are interested in writing about their culture to say, “Hey, look. Someone else did it. I can do it, too.” I want publishers to say, “Oh, people like this! They’re spreading it around to each other.” So, for that reason I want my book to go around. Other than that, I don’t need it to be purchased. Other writers do, and that’s really hard for them. They say, “Why should I write for a market where I’m not going to get any money, and nobody buys these books?”

Inscape: Even though I’m obviously at the beginning of this process and I’ve got a lot to learn, that’s kind of where I’m at, because why would I write something–

DY: –that’s not going to get published. 

Inscape: Yeah.

DY: You do it out of love, and you teach on the side because in the real world hardly any writers make a living. You have to understand that. But most of the writers out in the world have a better chance of selling than Mormon writers. 

Inscape: It’s true.

DY: Except for Mormon genre writers! Mormon romances sell really well. Mormon historical fiction. Mormon—well, it’s not really Mormon, but Mormon writers writing fantasy and science fiction, that kind of thing. Those things sell well. So there are exceptions, but who is going to buy Mormon poetry, really?

Inscape: Did you come to poetry or prose first? I guess you can’t really pick a favorite, but what do you like about the two genres?

DY: I’ve always written all three genres (poetry, essay, and fiction), but probably more poetry than the others. The thing I love about poetry is that you can have a really small frame for the piece. I’m more interested in just a little moment or just a glimpse. I have less attention and energy for the slow buildup of cause and effect over time that you need for a novel or even for a short story. I have written some, but it’s just not as interesting to me. I find myself feeling I have to get from here to here in a novel, and it’s just like yawn. I’d rather focus on this, and then talk about something else.

I’m very interested in essays. I’m also writing and  publishing them regularly, and I like both essay and poetry because they kind of embrace surprise and the juxtaposition of interesting things. What Mormon grows up not writing essays, really, if you keep a journal, right? We have a little bit more practice with that, but I love the genre for its open-endedness and its exploration. So, those are the two that I do the most now. As a child, I wrote a lot of poetry, but it was like Dr. Seuss-y kind of stuff. Then I hit high school and started reading real poetry and thought, Oh, my gosh. Everything I write is trash compared to this stuff. So I quit. It’s funny because those two things are connected–the reason my stuff was trash was that I hadn’t been reading good stuff. The best way to get better is to read a lot more. When I decided later that I wanted to get serious about writing, I started reading a lot more, and that helped my poetry get better. Those things are connected. 

Inscape: So what kind of reading did you get into? 

DY: At first it was really hard. I told myself, I’ve got to read more poetry, and I need to read what’s being published now. Because you can go back and read your Tennyson and your Blake and you know, the old classics—and they’re good to learn some things from. But if that’s all you study, you’re going to write like them, and that kind of work is not being published anymore. So I got The Best American Poetry of whatever year that was. I read it, and it just scared the bejeebers out of me because most of it I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t tell what they were doing and couldn’t tell why their poems were better than other people’s poems. They didn’t speak to me, and now I know that it’s because the editors are trying to cover this huge variety of aesthetic variety in one book. So, I tell my students, “If that happens to you, don’t freak out. Pick the two or three that you really love and go read those poets’ collections.” Because, you know, there were a few I liked, but at the time I thought, Oh, I must be way out in left field because I don’t relate to any of this. But then, slowly over time, people would say, “Here, read Billy Collins,” you know, and other more accessible poets. Then it was just a matter of finding the people who spoke to me. I took one class in which the teacher required us to find and read a poetry collection, a different one every week, and write a review of it. That was great. Six of the twenty I found I liked, so then I went and read more Kay Ryan and Philip Schultz and whoever it was that spoke to me. 

Inscape: Very wise. Thank you.  

Interview with Clinton Crockett Peters

by Tyler Parsons and Candice Boren

Inscape: In one of your essays, you talk about your time in Europe and how you tended to make detailed plans earlier in your life. I know the essay genre doesn’t really go with plans necessarily. So how did you balance that: your need to make plans with writing in a genre that avoids making specific plans?

Clinton Crockett Peters: One of the key things about writing, for me, is spontaneity. I have to have a natural curiosity about my material. I really need the freedom to diverge and do something unexpected. It is a weird thing that you kind of have to schedule or make space for this creative chaos.

 At some point I started including the publication process as part of my creative process and that was a weird melding of impulses because for me to create is more chaotic and almost instinctive whereas to publish is mathematical. Here’s this place, we accept this number of submissions. I feel like pushing for publication balanced me out a bit.

 In life, spontaneity is a little harder. Especially if you want to be in a position where you can be doing the things you love and be financially sustained. I don’t know if you guys are worried about the job market or if you need to worry about that yet. If you want to do what I do, which is teach college, you have to really love learning and writing. And you have to really, really have the credentials. By credentials I mean publications and experience, and even then it’s just luck. 

I tried working sales for about seven months, and I couldn’t do it. I would bring books to work and they’re like, what are you doing here? Reading on my break was weird. They were frightened. I don’t know what that was about. Dude, I’m clocked out. It’s my free time. Why can’t I read a novel, like what? But now you’ve freaked them out, and they just don’t like it. Weird. I couldn’t succeed as a writer in that environment. Some people do. Some people work all kinds of jobs and write on the side. Whatever works, but for me I knew that that wasn’t going to be a healthy way to do all the things I wanted to do.

School is actually a really great place to write. You’re in this space where yeah, there are assignments and due dates and deadlines, but there are also a bunch of people who are reaffirming the importance of what you’re doing. So that can actually really help create that space to do that. For me, getting an MFA was super pivotal, and then I got a PhD in creative writing which is an extra commitment and not everyone wants to take those extra years.

If you do it right, though, you can get funding and get paid to teach and take creative classes. It’s not much money, but at least it’s a job. Some kind of structure, but still enough freedom and space and people giving you ideas and reaffirming what it is you’ve been doing which I find very validating.

Inscape: Do you ever intentionally plan experiences you want to have?

CCP: Oh yeah. I do some—like you mean do I plan out an experience in order to write about it?

Inscape: Yeah. Like, I’m going to China and that’s going to be so cool so I’m going to do this and this and this.

CCP: You should keep a journal every day. You might not use any of the things you wrote. Like when I was in Japan, I kept a journal irregularly. I look back and most of it was pretty bad—I didn’t really use most of it—but I’m still glad I did it. The details stay.

Yeah, so I don’t plan events as intentionally as I think I used to. But every now and then I do. Like I went down to Tallahassee to look at some Florida panthers, and I was doing it so I could write about it. At Berry College, where I teach right now, there are bald eagles that nest on campus, and the school set up a bald eagle camp that got really popular. Now bald eagle enthusiasts hang out by the eagles and spy on them, so they have like their own little cult culture. They’re batty, but  I’m into it also. So I said, I’m going to go hang out with them with the intention of writing about it. I always try to look for where there is tension and where there is energy. I don’t go to parks thinking I’m going to write about this because I don’t feel like there’s tension or energy. But these eagle people are batty and combative, and they have a weird relationship with the school itself. There are some politics involved, which is great. If you have environmentalists and then freedom-loving, good ole boys, treasuring the eagle as the US symbol come together, then what’s that like? I just want to see. I want to see the sparks fly a little bit. It’s kind of like watching a boxing match. There’s going to be tension there. They represent different sides of the equation, so I can maybe get some cool meaning or metaphor there.

I feel like I’m not as good about doing random stuff as I used to be. I’m a dad now. I have a full-time job, and my wife doesn’t let me travel—I’m kidding, but it just doesn’t happen as much as it used to. When I was doing my master’s though, I kind of was too hardcore. I flew to Asheville, North Carolina to see the Biltmore Estate, and I didn’t end up writing about it because there just wasn’t enough tension. Oh it’s a big rich house. Then what? What do I do next? So that was a waste of a thousand dollars right there. I kind of got burned a little bit on that, so now I try to reign myself in. 

But I guess if you do have the chance to do something weird, do it. Yeah, do it. Do weird things. 

Inscape: You mentioned earlier that it’s tough to sustain yourself as a writer financially. In creative writing you want to do things that speak to you, but if you’re trying to get published, you might want to look more at what would sell. So how do you balance writing what most interests you with writing what will help you succeed?

CCP: That’s a great question. Again, every person is different, and I’ve gotten all kinds of advice. Some people will say don’t worry about trends. Don’t worry about marketability because when you do, you won’t write as well and trends change—which is very true. To write for a trend might not matter in a few years. Other people will say to at least be aware of the market. I try to be a little bit aware of the market because I feel like I have all this creative energy and maybe I just need a little bit of direction. Not a massive directional push but a little one.

 I will say this: I didn’t start publishing hardcore until I started reading the publications I wanted to get into hardcore. That was actually a huge help. I also think working for one is a big deal because you see all the people who submit. I’m an editor at Pleiades. We see some good writing, but there’s also a lot of really not so good writing. Compared to some of this stuff, I know what I’m doing, so I don’t feel so bad now. Sometimes people are great writers, but they’ll just poop something out and send it off. I’ve done that. I look back at some of the essays I’ve submitted, and I’m like, Oh God, that’s awful. So reading journals has helped me because it’s a financial incentive and gives me a sense of the conversation that I’m taking part in. Another thing I am very aware of as an editor—and maybe you guys can agree with this—is how important openings are. I mean, if you’re not grabbing someone pretty quickly, the writing becomes onerous, so you really want to hit them hard initially. 

I know that might reduce the space in journals for writing that is a slow burn; I acknowledge that. But as an editor, I reject things pretty quickly now, within a couple sentences. I don’t even care. It’s like, I see where this is going, done. I don’t feel bad anymore because if it’s good enough and they’re committed to it, they’ll publish it somewhere else. Rejection isn’t going to hurt them very much.

 Inscape: In “Rejection as Sustenance” you write that you eventually became okay with rejection, and it actually fueled you. What’s that like? I’m still in the state where if I get rejected, my life has ended.

 CCP: It’s great because it just means I’m doing my job. Every time I get rejected, it’s like, Okay, good job, Dude. In that essay, I mentioned the rejection party some grad student friends had with me. That was actually pretty pivotal. When I was getting my PhD, we decided that we were going to count who would get the most rejections, and whoever got the most rejections got a free party, free food and everyone else had to cook. That was great. It was like you wanted to win. It really helped change my mind away from, Oh rejections are horrible, you know? I came in second by the way.  

Now when I get a rejection, I know that’s when it’s time to send another thing out. And that automatically makes me feel better. I’m like, Okay, another rejection. Boom, I’ll send something else out again. It’s gambling. I mean, to an extent. I’ve definitely sent stuff out before it was ready. One hundred percent, I’ve done that. When I get a batch of rejections, I’ll go back and look at the piece again and work on it, tinker with it.

I remember when rejection hurt—so I get that—but it’s just like send it to someone else and then again. I’d rather get a rejection than nothing. I think it is actually worse when a journal doesn’t respond to you. I’d rather get a hard no. Also as an editor, I realized how unpersonal rejections are now because I don’t even tend to look at authors when I read through the slush pile, right? So that has really helped me understand that they’re not going to remember me.

 I don’t know about you, but I also think fiction is harder to place than nonfiction. Or maybe it’s because I’m better at nonfiction.

 Inscape: But you do write fiction. What inspires you to write a short story as opposed to an essay?

 CCP: In my own trajectory, I think fiction is my first love. I read a lot of fiction as a kid, and when I was in junior high, I fell in love with Stephen King. I think I read 51 of his books. I counted one day. But he’s got like 5000 books, right? So that was a small number. I really liked his raw power of imagination. I loved how he captured me with his scene setting and characters. There’s a power in that. Then there’s John Gardner. He creates a dream for the reader, and I love that. I love how fiction creates that dream, you know? But even though you’re inside a dream, fiction also comments on where you’re at now. But it’s removed, so it feels like a safer place and you can touch it. 

The problem with fiction is that too much is possible. Everything is possible. It’s like, Well why don’t birds start talking? and Why isn’t there a Roman army coming? Everything is open which made writing fiction hard for me. Whereas with nonfiction, I can reduce it to specific parameters. I can use building blocks straight from the world in order to assemble a collage. So the world gives me the clay. In fiction, you have to make the clay first, right? So it felt easier to me. I still write fiction though. The fiction I’m really a fan of is the what ifs. Like you have a normal situation, but what if this happened?

 Inscape: I was wondering because you mentioned the Florida panthers and Godzilla movies, do you feel like you are drawn to predators and other dangerous beings? 

 CCP: For sure. I have a high interest in monsters, mostly because we, as humans, like monsters. It makes no sense. Why do we make monster movies? Why do we make stories about things that want to destroy us? Also, look at all of our mascots. I wrote this other essay called “Becoming Mascot.” It’s about college mascots and how so many of them are predators. What’s up with that? Why do we choose mascots from things that could harm us? Well, at UC Santa Cruz, their mascot is the banana slug, but that’s the exception to the rule.

 Why do we like both real and imaginary monsters? David Quammen explains in his book, which I quote in the Godzilla essay, that it actually feels weird for us to not have things around that might eat us. That was once normal in human history, and now it’s not. So we feel weird without the feeling of danger. I think that’s an awesome theory. Who knows?

 Inscape: We create that opposition. 

CCP: Exactly. Creating the opposition. Because most of us don’t have predators around us that can kill us. I don’t want to say all humans; some people still live like that. 

 You have got to read Quammen’s book Monster of God, if you like nature stuff. He has profiles of predators and people who live around them. It’s funny though because, for people who actually live around wild creatures, it’s just an everyday thing. There are people who walk among lions like it’s normal. Or today a leopard got in their house, and it’s nonchalant. And that actually made me realize, we’re surrounded by metallic predators, right now. These things could eat us alive, every single one of them. I walked down the street today, and one second of bad behavior and I could have been done. Like, doneskies, you know? It’s just so funny.

Inscape: Do you feel like there are any similarities between the writing process and raising a child?

CCP: Oh, good question, yeah. Patience is key, and I’m not a very patient person. I wish I was. My wife is a lot more patient than I am. Patience and a little flexibility. It’s like the writing process, I try not to beat myself over the head if I get stuck on something or if I want to change projects, as long as I keep the momentum going. I feel like with raising my daughter I just try to be flexible. Like this thing that always worked is no longer working: Oh, we just bought these giant Legos and now she doesn’t like them. Okay fine. Let’s go for a hike. Oh she doesn’t like to hike. Let’s go . . . You know what I mean?

 I ask myself, Why? This was your favorite thing. She’ll beg me to bake banana bread. Then I do, and she doesn’t eat it. So it’s like drafting. Not everything’s going to be—well—nothing’s going to be right the first time. Everything takes multiple drafts.

Inscape: How does your wife feel about your writing? 

CCP: Oh man, she’s been great. That’s actually been key because some partners, spouses, they don’t support your work, and that’s like a death sentence. 

My wife does not write. She grew up in a very blue-collar family, and it wasn’t a thing for them to write. She didn’t even remember reading much as a child. It just wasn’t a thing. Having said all that, she’s very supportive. Very cool. But I can easily see her not being that way. It’s not like my writing has been making a lot of money until now. I spent three years in a Master’s program and five years in a PhD, and she was with me through all of that while her friends had spouses who were working jobs and making money. She’s been very cool. Very, very cool. She does like my writing, but I don’t expect her to read it. She doesn’t read all my writing, and that doesn’t hurt me.

Inscape: It’s so crucial to have support, and it’s all right that she doesn’t read everything.  My dad’s a surgeon, and we don’t watch his surgeries.

 CCP: Right, exactly. In fact, that’s probably more normal, right? I don’t know what my wife does when she goes to work. We share things, but work is a separate deal. My dad’s family was not cool with him doing anything besides making money, so he wasn’t able to become a writer until he was about fifty, when he became a sports writer. I’m just glad that my family was supportive. I got very lucky. Their only rule was get good grades in high school and in college.

 Inscape: In my creative writing class, we’ve been reading and writing about difficult experiences. I know you have an essay where you talk about your dad. What did you do to get to a level where you could write about these painful experiences?

CCP: Time helps obviously. It was easier to write about my dad after he was dead than before. Actually, I did write an essay about him, and I set it on the counter—not for him to see, but because I was taking it to workshop. He picked it up and read it. That was awful. He was crushed. I was a little brutal in that essay because it was an early practice. I think that actually kind of traumatized me from writing about him until after he died.

So again, time. Distance. I think any kind of distance is good. I don’t know if you like Hemingway. He said he couldn’t write about Michigan in Michigan. He needed Paris. Then he couldn’t write about Paris until he was in . . . you know what I mean? I feel like there’s something in that. The real kicker for me was that the “I” that’s on the page is a character. The material is nonfiction, but I think of the material as if it were fiction. Turn the “I”—the narrator—into a persona because you’ll never get your entire personality or anyone’s on the page. All you can do is create sentences and words and stories and essays that just move people. That’s all you can do. You get an approximation. My emotions are so complex that I don’t even understand them all. I can put enough down that the reader feels satisfied, you know what I mean? And when I realized that, it was liberating—that I don’t have to put all of me down.

So there’s this guy who read all of Montaigne’s essays, like I watched all of Godzilla’s movies, and he wrote about it. That was his thing, his persona. They call it the invented “I.” Different “I’s” get written for different subjects. That helped a lot.

The other thing is my family doesn’t really read my writing, so I’m safe. I still don’t ever want to write anything that’s a rant or a hit piece. I try to be fair, but if they can’t see that, then maybe that’s on them. You’re never going to encapsulate a person entirely on the page. Also, I just don’t tell them I wrote about them. 

I will say that not everyone agrees with me and instead chooses not to write about people that are close to them. I feel that’s fair if you are worried about it, and a lot of my students are worried about it. One thing I will say—and this I definitely believe in—is don’t worry about it at first. At first, get it down. Get a draft. Work it out. Show it to some writer friends. Then when you’re ready to publish, then sit back and ask, What am I actually afraid of? What’s going to hurt somebody? Maybe that’s the question to answer. What is the harm I will cause? If there is any, is that worth the art that I’m creating, or will that truth actually help someone?  

Inscape: You just said that if someone’s afraid of hurting others, then they shouldn’t write about people who are close to them. How do you balance that with the idea that you need to write?

CCP: Well there are different types of fear. You should be afraid of playing in traffic, right? I think you can be afraid of hurting people. I think that’s fine. But if the fear is more that you’re afraid of what you want to say or that you’re afraid of what you might find out or afraid that you won’t be able to handle the truth, then those fears might be worth mining. Your fear might be a personal hang up rather than something that is fearful to the rest of the world. So I guess it depends on the fear.

When you’re afraid of something, it’s worth thinking about because, again, there’s energy and tension. Ask yourself what’s the fear about? What’s causing it? I also look at other things like disgust. Why am I disgusted? What’s triggering that? That might be worth investigating. What other emotions can we recall? Like do you have anger? Can you investigate that? Will investigating these emotions say something about me and in turn hopefully the reader?

Inscape: Thank you so much; this was awesome.

CCP: Thanks guys.