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Archive for June, 2011

Everyone knows that Ethel Rohan is one the rescuers of domestic realism, snatching the notion of family from the gums of academy hacks to re-energize it with her own lyric volatility. Her latest collection, Hard to Say, is a vampiric stunner of a book, very dark and soulful. Check out this sampler of first lines, some of which read like horror fiction:

“While Mother lay in the hospital dying, my aunts gathered in our dirty kitchen and brewed tea, cried and laughed together.” —Corruptionists

“I didn’t believe my brother was real.”–Kriegspiel

“Disease ate away at Mother’s eyes.”–Stung

“At dusk, at the bottom of our street, fear grabbed at the front of my coat and held me dangling.”– Robbed

“Mother opened the fridge door, her knuckles yellow, and removed the bloodied bag of calf’s liver.”–Raw

My reading tastes, especially in summer, are escapist/prurient, so Thank Pank for the irresistible design of this “Little Books” winner that I might have otherwise back-burnered for a more somber season. Mother-daughter chaos, even the kind set in Dublin, is not a subject I relish, but once I started reading Hard to Say, I found its linked stories absorbing, especially as the narrator struggles to identify the mechanisms of altered understanding—it’s all so mysterious:

“Once, for no good reason, one of our dogs bit an old man in the meatiest part of his calf. Prince tore the man’s skin and drew blood, left holes like BB blasts. The man’s face was a dark tangle of feelings. Prince licked his lips and seemed to smile. Ever after, I was a camera carrying around those pictures. I loved Prince so much, and he loved me, but it was hard to feel the same way about him after that—all the rules changed. That’s how it was with Mother too.”–Corruptionists

By design Hard to Say defies cherry-picking and should be read in a single sitting. BUT—and I tested this—despite its mostly chronological organization you can read it backwards, peeling away from the dark purge of “Mammy” until you reach the lonely mysteries of the self destructive child in “Crust.” In case you ever need to illustrate how a literary work can be identified by its complex dependencies, Hard to Say is a wonderful example. Rohan may well be marching us through time, but that illusion, like cause and effect, is for comfort only. Which brings me to the potency of the material we’re given, as well as that which has been held back. In the final three stories the narrator is an independent woman, living far away from Mother. The glimpses of her autonomy are fascinating, leaving me wanting that dreaded more.  I am so sorry, Ethel. The concentrated pleasures of this little book has me wondering when, if ever, we’ll see the big version.

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From his consistently brilliant musical projects like Kill Me Tomorrow, Tender Buttons, and The Dabbers to his boundary pushing periodical, New Dead Families, to his own wonderful and often bizarre (in the best way) writing, Zack Wentz is one of my very favorite people. And I’m very glad and thankful he could take the time to answer some questions regarding the relationship between writing and editing and more.

Q: What was your motivation in starting New Dead Families in relation to your various other artistic projects?

A: That’s a very complicated question, and I hope I don’t bore you in the process of trying to answer it.  I think it’s fairly safe to say that my motivation didn’t directly relate to any of the musical projects I’ve been involved in, although I would like to start running spoken word/music pieces along the lines of certain tracks I did with Kill Me Tomorrow and Tender Buttons (which were science-fiction themed bands).  I create very little visual art these days (and when I do, it literally is “little”), but what I do create I try to push toward something that is science-fictional, you could say, without being illustration work, comics, graphic art, etc.

It really had more to  do with my reading, than anything else. Like many readers, I enjoy work from a broad range of genres, and hope for the best of all worlds.  There is a sort of vague batch of ideal aesthetic models floating around there:  many “if only’s.”  Early on I would be reading, say, Philip K. Dick, and thinking, damn, if only he had had more time to write some of these things, had had a better editor, or maybe just a better ear; then I would be reading, say, Hemingway, and thinking what a fine stylist; if only his imagination had extended beyond himself, his experiences, and stories he had simply heard.  You start to do mash-ups of sorts in your mind.  I’m unloading a bookshelf, and there goes Philip Jose Farmer next to Faulkner, Knut Hamsun next to Heinlein, Henry James next to Shirley Jackson; not that those authors didn’t each already produce a number of perfect, or near perfect, works, but if only you could find some unique ways to blend them together, just for the fun of it, to see what would happen.  I’m not talking about some sort of silly Pride and Prejudice and Zombies publishing stunt; I’m talking about making something truly wonderful, in every sense of the word.

It also has to do with a certain “rebirth” I had as a reader in my early 20’s, which I think was probably quite typical.  As the son of a writer and extreme bibliophile, I gravitated fairly quickly toward what I thought of as fine writing.  I wanted to read (and, hopefully, to write) “the best.” Well, that meant pursuing literature with a capital L, and after spending a fairly massive portion of my adolescence in the bookish dark, I ended up with a good chunk of the classics under my belt, ruined by James Joyce and post-modern theory, with impeccable “taste” and savagely developed critical faculties, but little-to-no capacity left for genuine joy-in-reading/writing.  A kind of depression set in, and a large part of me wished I could somehow cough up that bitter bit of fruit and go skipping back into the Library of Eden.

One day I was at a thrift store, disconsolately pawing through stacks of dusty paperbacks, and I came upon a Dashiell Hammett novel, The Glass Key, saw it was published by Vintage, and thought, what the hell, maybe I’ll read this thing; at least it might be a different flavor of disappointment.  So I began to read, and was thinking, this isn’t too clunky so far. Actually quite smooth.  Hmm.  That was rather well done.  Perhaps this fellow actually knew what he was doing.  Hmm.  Cripes, this is rather addictive.  So on and so forth, and well before the end I am utterly captivated and delighted with this thing, this fine little book, going hot damn, I need to find the rest of this Hammett’s stuff, and see if there’s anyone out there like him.

Ho, ho, ho . . .  Anyone out there like him . . .

At any rate, I quickly expanded my digging into other sections during my bookstore visits, and was researching madly outside of those to find who might be “the best” of all these mysterious genre folks.  I also went back to the genre authors I had read indiscriminately as a child from my father’s massive library: Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, Fritz Leiber, A. Merritt, etc., to see how they held up.   Just fine, it turned out.  There was much I had missed in my youthful readings, but the fact was that I had enjoyed them then thoroughly, and again later in many different ways.   That was wonderful.

In taking it all in, I was re-discovering that “fine writing” was not the be-all-end-all.  In fact I found that I could derive more enjoyment and satisfaction at being in the world, and often gain more insight into it, from an original, vividly-imagined fantasy that was quite clumsily written than from a self-consciously crafted, highly compressed literary work that was very clearly created by a person with an advanced humanities degree, thinking through language about living the life of a typically advanced human to that certain, qualified degree.  Beyond that, I was finding writers who had published books with gaudy, unfortunate-looking,floppy covers that actually possessed a greater command of their language than many who had had the luck or connections to end up captured for posterity in more solid, dignified hardcover volumes.  In accidentally chipping a hole through the mighty edifice of my snobbism, I began to see my problem elsewhere.  “Literary”was just another genre, and in many ways a much more limited one than those I had for so long shrugged off, particularly the genre of science fiction.

It doesn’t sound like much of a paradigm shift now, especially to serious literary people who came of age reading David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Ben Marcus, Haruki Murakami, Mark Z. Danielewski, and others who are very clearly writing “literary” work that is also science fiction, fantasy, horror, noir, what have you, but at the time I became “serious,” everybody was up to some sort of post-beat, Bukarverian, pseudo-autobiographical business, and your level of accomplishment was only indicated by how esoteric and/or involved you could get with your prose.  True literature was about the ego of the author, which was the character(s), story, and everything else.

In other words, we were fucked, but now I feel like we are less fucked.

We seem to be in the middle of something like the late 60’s and 70’s, when magical realism and picaresque black humor fantasies where the hip thing in mainstream fiction, and the new wave was sweeping through SF.  Inevitably, many faddish“moves” became established as a result, enabling innumerable authors to fake their way through it, burning out readers in the process, but overall I found it a more interesting period than the whole menace-of-the-mundane thing that dominated the 80’s and 90’s, and I’m happy to see something like it coming back into vogue.

So here I am, motivated and eager to celebrate the best of the new mutations and hybrids that come my way.

Would you consider NDF a creative outlet?

Fortunately, there’s little in my life that I don’t consider a creative outlet, but then again I just might not really understand what the term means.  Each issue of NDF is a multi-faceted object, to me, and I assemble them with as much care and pleasure as I would anything else.

How does the work you have published and are looking to publish in New Dead Families relate to your own fiction?

Well, I haven’t received anything from anyone that’s at all like my own stuff, or what I’m working on, which is probably a good thing.  I suppose I am trying to stretch open a space that would be ideal for my own ideal work, but the catch there is that I would never publish myself.

Unfortunately for me, I really don’t create “short” things these days, and online still really isn’t the proper place for anything long or large that must be read as a single piece.  Online, however, is where everything is going.  Classically constructed “big novels” will continue to fall out of fashion, not just because of publishers’ un-willingness to risk the expense, or because readers don’t have the time, but because newer authors will continue to think and write in terms of more fragmented, ever-shrinking structural elements, due to very recent developments in communications technology.  It can’t be helped.  Compression is taking place across the idiomatic board, on all levels.  Not to say this is a “bad” thing, but it is a reality.

It has made me more aware of what I’m doing and want to do with my own fiction, but mostly in terms of cultural contexts and contours.  As far as NDF goes, I cope/compromise by regularly publishing “self-contained” portions of larger works.

Could you talk a little about your approach when working with contributors?

Once I’ve decided to accept a piece, and gotten back to its creator, I’ve usually already started going through it for mistakes and rough patches. I’ll generally print up a copy to read over several times, red-pen it,then add those marks as comments to a Word document, send it to the author, and back and forth it goes until we have the finished piece.  Sometimes there isn’t much to tinker with, sometimes there’s a great deal.  It can be slow, and occasionally my suggestions will involve a fair bit of re-writing, but I do, ultimately, really see things from the author’s perspective, and simply want the most effective version of the work to appear.

Have your experiences as a writer shaped this approach in any way?

Of course.  I am trying to be my own ideal reader and editor.  I am certainly not ideal in those capacities for all writers, but it is the most sincere approach I can muster: following the golden rule to the best of my abilities.

Has editing other writers helped or impacted your own writing?

Much less than I imagined.  I’ve always been fairly available as a reader and editor, just not to this degree, and, of course, not with total strangers.  It has helped me to become more sympathetic to other editors, and the people who keep these sorts of venues running.  It has certainly taken away a bit of the time I have available for my own writing, but I knew that would be the case going into it, and still felt the whole endeavor was worth pursuing.  I still do.

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Here’s how it is: I’m going balls out and offering an open round of applause here at Plumb for our curator Charles White for receiving a fat cash writer’s grant from the North Carolina Arts Council for his prose work this past week.  That’s how I’m rolling today.  Dig it.

So give it up people.

I can’t hear you.

That’s better.

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How high can you go?

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Prize Winners is a take on human behavior and what we spend a good portion of our lives doing, everything from inexplicably idolizing celebrities to nursing an addiction to obsessing over intimacy issues to having and/or thinking about sex, sex, and more sex.

There were tender moments that hit hard, moments strategically masked with contemporary voice in pieces like Motherhood. Take this excerpt: “Girls in porn have never been mothers. Molly knows this. They haven’t felt the pain of pushing eight and a half pound miniature humans into the world through their vaginas, or had their nipples bitten and sucked raw by thirsty infants. This is what Molly tells her husband, Bill after she checks the history on their internet browser and finds he’s been looking at sites like milfbang.com or wankstop.com. Sure, the sex has been closer to unusual than infrequent, but shouldn’t Bill be happy he’s getting any?”

And there were stories about damaged relationships intermittently interrupted with a sex scene or two: “It’s been a month since we lost the baby and we’ve been fucking like a tornado ever since. I slam into her like I’m trying to punish her uterus, and she clinches tight around me like she wants to be torn in two. People say there’s a first time for everything. When we got pregnant my father told me marriage was a lifetime of firsts. But sometimes you have to test the mattress a thousand times to make sure it’s right. Sometimes you have to act like every moment is the goddamned last.”

Many stories focused on people with OCD-like compulsions or character flaws fueled by some subconscious desire or internal void. The protagonist in A Culture of Bacteria was driven to madness because he found his girlfriend’s huge dildo. Then there was relationship drama induced by petty arguments like the lack of gifts in funny-because-it’s-true observation, “So I go through the perfumes at Macy’s, Mervyn’s, and every other store in the mall. The bottle is nearly thirty bucks. For two ounces. I think about all the shots of Jack Daniels I could be doing for thirty dollars. The lap dances I could get when my boys and I go out after work. But I want to make Beth happy, so I buy the perfume.”

Sometimes it’s hard to absorb the constant mention of bodily things like periods, semen, boners, and it seemed like someone was always naked, having sex, jerking off, getting sucked off, spanking or fantasizing about being spanked. Occasionally, stories crossed into the bizzaro: “Once, when I fucked Tinkerbell, thirty glowing lights sprang to life in the dark static air of the by-the-hour motel room.”

I’ve read a good portion of Bradley’s published and unpublished material, and Prize Winners may not necessarily represent his finest work, though I do look forward to what he has in the wings with Black Coffee Press, Artistically Declined Press, and his design ventures.

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More than just about anybody, it was Blake Butler who inspired me to reach out toward a larger literary community  with his blog posts, his journals, his books and stories. So, I am particularly thankful that Blake took the time to chat with me about his role as a writer, editor, and publisher.

Q: A few years ago you wrote a blog post on the idea of literary citizenship. I’ve always found it an eye-opening and inspiring post–in part because for a long while I believed that a serious writer or artist should focus entirely on creating art–somewhat out of fear of being distracted or writing for the wrong reasons and somewhat because for me writing was always something done behind closed doors and when my parents weren’t looking. Was this idea of being a literary citizen natural for you? Has being an active part of a larger group of writers influenced your writing and your idea of being a writer?

A: I don’t know about being a literary citizen, but the idea of being open to ideas and motions and building off of other people in not a creative way but an energy kind of way came naturally, I think. Primarily because of it being online, and that you could do it from home on your ass, which is conductive to me because I’m bad at being motivated physically to correspond as often, particularly about books. The main value the internet has for me is this way of being able to connect with people who like the same shit you do, so why not use it and build a kind quasi-structure in this way, like the way one would in a quest videogame. If anything, it’s a wish to destroy the ego that has often surrounded literature and made it seem like a classroom rather than the yard around the school.

One thing I’m particularly interested in and impressed by is that all of your output–from journals you edit and publish to fiction to non-fiction to things like tweets–seems to share a remarkable consistent and distinctively “Blake Butler” voice. Do you have a particular voice or tone you are looking for when you begin a journal or edit an issue? Or are you just accepting work you like or soliciting writers you enjoy?

As an editor I think the common element of what I want is that it be raw: that is, not sloppy necessarily (though sloppiness can be used effectively at times), but more so a concision of vision and power that kind of ignores why it’s being made or what is being made and instead is the thing itself. A lack of formality, maybe, though as well a formal tone can be used in the manner I most like. Something that burns, perhaps, or operates out of a destructive center, where destructive can also mean becoming larger than the thing itself. I like to not fully understand, and I like things that feel full already: if I have to make suggestions or edits or something, I’m less interested, even if the edits are copy-based: I like typos and weirdism and mess ups when they contribute to that center. It should almost be as if the thing were published before it were even written.

Do you have any concerns about opening things up too much? Maybe not for you, anymore, but for younger writers or writers who are working their way up. I mean, there are benefits to being obstructed, right? To having an authority at the front of the room saying “this is how you should do things”?

Yeah I mean it’s easy, particularly online, to come off sounding like a snot no matter what you say. I think particularly early on in typing into these places I would just blather off at the head however it came on, and even if I thought I meant it at the time, and even if I meant it all with the implied “no one really knows anything about anything I’m just a fuck,” it definitely can end up blowing up in your face or seeming like too much. No tone online means people will often assume the worst about you as a person, and I guess I’ve made splashy sounds that made others think I’m some kind of Mussolini in my mind when really I think everyone is the same person. So, the longer I’ve been around it, the more careful maybe I’ve become about knowing when is the right time to spout off, and when to just keep it to myself, or to return to the truest thing for me, which is just sitting quietly and listening and doing what you need to do in silence.

I can certainly see that as a common thread in your work and in the work you publish–and it was certainly something I found particularly compelling when I discovered it.  I wonder where that moment of perception happens that there is a beauty in mistakes and weirdisms. After all, as writers we spend so much time learning how to polish and being told to polish and reading the most polished type of writing.

Did this interest in and openness to ‘raw’ writing come from editing or was it something formed out of your own work or maybe another medium?

I guess it came from having had a certain kind of excited feeling about creation when I first sat down at the machine for years, and writing basically alone without these online forums much and just banging the buttons and working in a kind of nowhere of my mind. When I went to MFA school, and the more I was around the mind of a certain kind of literary journal culture, which I became obsessed with, I went through a phase of trying to ‘act like a real boy’ or something, to try to clean away what now I think of as my best strengths because they didn’t seem to fit this idea of what things are supposed to be, based on this very specific sect. And as the online world took off more and I started doing my own journals and finding more in my own original spirit of doing it for yourself and letting things fall where they lay, and just feeling way more at home and open and free in the original spirit of working in my own mind but now paired with this kind of open void spirit place where things both had no stakes and therefore had a totally different kind of brain to it, which thereby at the same time ended up turning me further inward, in my own work, and further outward, in the approach and in the milk of other people. So it was kind of just an inherent, fleshy reaction, like when one contracts a terminal disease, in this case one where the symptoms require, in my body, prolonged periods of sitting and staring into a light, and eruptions of control in the lymph and fingers.

Where is American literature going at this point, as an industry and as an art? Where do you see the future and what should our goals as writers, editors, and publishers be?

I have no idea where it’s going. I don’t see the future. I see a hole. Our goals should be to break shit without moving.

I think you’d run an interesting press. Have you ever put any thought into starting a press of your own and publishing books? And, building off of that, have you ever thought about publishing your own work?

Shane Jones and I put a book out together last year. Kristina Born’s One Hour of Television. (http://www.laminationcolony.com/LIQUIDATOR/born_ex.html). If I had more energy I’d do it again. It’s a good feeling. I don’t know what I’m doing with my mind anymore. I’ll probably end up publishing my own stuff one day, sure. I have a couple novels on my hard drive that wouldn’t probably come out any other way, but I’ll more likely just let them sit there and remain published only among the community of their peers: the jpegs and the spam. Every day I say things out loud I might do to see how it feels to say them. I do like 1 out 1,000. The one that is most inside the hole.

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Knuckleheads

Jeff Kass comes out of the gates hard in his debut story collection, Knuckleheads. I asked him some knuckleheaded questions and this is what came of it:

CDW:  Your stories are charged with a violent, contemporary realism. How do you see this as fitting in with the writing that’s being done by your peers today?

JK:     There are a number of writers of stories who are writing similar worlds to the ones I write. I look at Junot Diaz, Lewis Robinson, Michael Delp and Ben Percy in terms of short stories, and a novelist like Adam Mansbach. I also think writers generally associated with crime or detective fiction like Dennis Lehane and Richard Price are trafficking in similar neighborhoods. All of us on some level are exploring how men encounter violence in their lives and how they respond to a situation that could potentially turn violent – will they react quickly and throw a punch? Will they get punched? Will they look for some other resolution or just try to avoid such situations? Do they lust for them? Dream of them? Do different circumstances call for different responses?
I suspect one thing I’m concerned with which these other writers are concerned with is that acts of violence don’t necessarily define a character completely. They can reveal something, but they’re not the whole story.
CDW:  What’s the difference between a guy and a man?
JK:   Labels are interesting – guy, man, dude, knucklehead, douchebag – what are the subtle shadings of difference between terms? A knucklehead, for instance, I think has less cruelty about him, a douchebag something more petty, a streak of meanness. A guy seems more anonymous to me than a man. He’s a back-up singer, a henchman, a third wheel. A man’s out front, screwing up or doing the right thing, but making some kind of attempt to control his destiny, whether misguided or not.
CDW:   Does redemption matter in the short story form?
JK:   Redemption matters in all forms. Even poems. Not every character needs to be redeemed, of course, and some stories are better left in the midst of the struggle, or somewhere headed along the way either toward redemption or away from it, but, absolutely, can redemption can matter if it’s an important part of any particular story, regardless of length.
CDW:   What’s your favorite beer and why?
JK:  My taste for beers runs to simple and mid-priced. I like a good Heineken, a Molson’s. Temperature to me is often more important than anything else. I’ll drink a Keystone as long as it’s cold enough.
CDW:   What makes for good fiction?
JK:   I like a story to transport me out of my own life for the time I devote to it. If I feel like I’ve been taken on a journey and buffeted along to the point where I forget my present surroundings, that’s probably a pretty good story. I like character-driven narratives with narrators that have compelling voices. I like a little snark, but not too much. I’m not terribly interested in stories where the point seems to be, oh, well, life is meaningless, stuff happens that we can’t control. I don’t need a writer to find meaninglessness for me. I need writers to find meaning. I get bored when writers make pets important characters in stories. I like to read about struggle, psychological and physical, but I get frustrated if struggles are presented and never confronted.
CDW: cigar or pipe?
JK:  Pipe.
CDW:  Describe what would happen after you sat down to a steak dinner with Ernest Hemingway.
JK:    We’d probably talk sports. He’d want to compare everything to bull-fighting. I’d want to compare everything to wrestling. We’d both be wondering who could bench-press more weight. The answer is that I could. I’d ask him about lakes and rivers in Northern Michigan. I’d pretend to know more about fishing than I actually do. I’d tell him how I saw a lion once in Kenya in the wild and how it moved with a a confidence no human being can possess. I’d tell him how I don’t stand up to my principal as much as I should at staff meetings, how I feel like a fucking coward walking out of those meetings. We’d talk about writing. I’d ask him what he thought was the best way to test the character of a character. He’d look at me as if that were a really stupid question. I’d ask him if he’d look at my novel manuscript. He’d say, sure. I’d send it to him. He’d never look at it.

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