Announcing the 2014 Franz Kafka Award Finalists http://wp.me/pMtRv-8nk
*You wake up one morning and for no apparent reason, everything has changed. Your mind is caught in a dark loop, endlessly repeating that you have no friends, you’re ugly, you’re fat, your writing is worthless, you have been teaching twenty years only to become a disorganized, boring, overly complex and uneasy teacher. And it’s not all in your head, because there was that comment from an acquaintance, that shaming rejection from publisher, those 30 agents who passed on your novel that was supposed to be your resurrection, that sidelong look from a colleague, and those student evaluations. When you stand at a party, no one comes up to talk with you, or people’s eyes go dull when you talk because you are so shallow. And why aren’t you like Karen Russell who at 24 got a story published in Zoetrope and now has a MacArthur genius grant? Anger builds at all the people who wronged you in big and little ways. You find yourself going over this same, dark, messy ground for the umpteenth time despite years of therapy.
You know this isn’t real. Only four days ago, you were thinking you were a loving, fascinating, beautiful person, as good as any published writer.
You know you should clap your hands over your ears, get out of bed, walk up the mountain past the shadows that tear at you, whispering. This isn’t real, you say to yourself, stumbling forward, not real, not real, not real, not. But the knowing comes from some part of your mind that has no flesh, and the voices aren’t on the outside, they’re inside. They’re the very cast of your blood chemistry, the design of your atoms, so real, so real, so real, that you think you would rather die than fight this invisible battle again, this civil war that makes you seem self pitying, irresponsible, disorganized, irritable, and erratic to others. And maybe you are, maybe it’s all just a matter of will, and you are lazy, lazy, lazy. Will you ever be free? The only honorable thing to do is quit your job so that the healthy people who deserve it can have it, or kill yourself so that you don’t have to walk this walk again.
If you have chosen badly, your spouse tells you he or she is sick of your shit, but if you’ve chosen well, he smiles sadly when he sees the signs and stands back knowing you’ll figure it out. Later he cleans the house and does the food shopping to lighten your load.
The survivalist part of your brain tells you that you have to exercise and eat right, and people will tell you to take medication, and maybe you should, but they scare you, so you don’t. You push yourself outside, because in the end that is the thing that has always saved you. And as you walk you call the right friend, and she, instead of trying to talk you out of it, says, yes, that’s how it feels, and it’s hard. And then the tears come, and the two sides of you, the chemical and the rational talk, taking turns with each other and your friend. And you remember not to ever judge others again, because this is how it feels to be inside depression, and no one from the outside knows what it’s like. It looks like nothing. It sounds like a head cold.
A half hour later, after the walk, if that was the particular cast of your genetic dice today, you feel better, but jittery. Your brain feels like it has been wiped clean. You can’t quite remember which street your house is on, because it looks different somehow, the angle has shifted or the light, or you are seeing it from a different time in your life, a time kicked up by that sudden bout of depression. The words threw, through and thru don’t look right, and you know that you knew which was which only yesterday, but for now, you don’t. You swim back through the murk to reclaim your former self and hope others don’t notice. You remember that it’s important to be who you are even if only a fraction of the world wants it, that it may not be the right time for you to become a successful writer, but that you must carry the flag of who you are until that time comes, even if it comes after you die.
This is one of the places magic realism comes from.
*Note to my friends: Don’t worry, I wrote this over a year ago. Thanks to the anti-depressant duloxetine building on years of therapy, I’m fine. This really is just a rumination on one of the many ways that fantasy and magic realism represent a facet of reality.
In June, my story, “The Opal Maker” had the good fortune of being published in the 59th issue of The Collagist, which had come to my attention via Amber Sparks, who writes humorous, magical realist fiction.
I asked editor Gabriel Blackwell for an interview to try to get a sense of whether there was a certain type of story the magazine was trying to promote, something we writers are always trying to figure out when we decide who to send to, and something editors usually ask us to try to do when they say, “Read the magazine before you submit.” I am also interested in questions of genre, as I find I’m devoted to the literary fantastic, though there are many realist stories that I also adore.
As you will see in the following interview, he wonderfully eludes all my attempts to pin him down, and in the process describes the difference between an artist’s approach to art vs. an academic’s or publisher’s approach.
Flannery O’Connor once said, “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.” which paradoxically suggests that all those literary analyses we read in school and were taught to write are not really an explanation of a story, but rather a completely different message that uses the story as a spring board.
In much the same way, Gabriel Blackwell urges us to experience literature without the confines of preconceptions and genre frameworks, and to write what we want. I, on the other hand, am of two minds. On the one hand, I’m a low-brow academic, meaning I see the usefulness of trying to define things, but understand that no definition is truly adequate. The experience of life can never be be fully quantified. On the other hand, I’m a fiction writer who has never written anything that truly fits in one genre or another. What do you think? Is the concept of genre limiting or helpful as we seek to understand, write and publish literature?
LD: On your “about” page, you say that The Collagist publishes “powerful, progressive literature.” What does that mean to you? Does the magazine have an aesthetic or a pattern that tends to show up either by unconscious or conscious design? Many of the pieces that appear in The Collagist seem to fall under the category of magic realism or fabulism. What can you say about these choices
GB: Our “about” page precedes my time as editor of the magazine, so I can’t take credit for it. I do of course hope others will find the work we publish powerful, and so, without intending to dodge the question, I very much hope readers of the magazine will spend more time reading its contents than its “about” page; those fictions and poems and essays are far more complex and interesting than any description I could possibly give of them. (Or, as the case may be, a predecessor may have given of them.)
As far as genre (and aesthetic, I suppose) goes, I’m interested in reading all kinds of different work and mostly uninterested in categorizing that work. Genres are marketing devices—if you like x, you’ll love y—and they can be very useful in getting things read, but I’ve always been a wretched salesman.
I don’t know; I think you’re probably right to say that many people would categorize much of the fiction we publish as fabulist or magical realist, but the number of stories I read and don’t publish that could be considered fabulist or magical realist dwarfs the number that we do publish, and the same goes for submissions in most other genres I can name.
What I mean to say is: I’m not attracted to whatever defines a piece of writing as fabulist (or K-Mart realist, or experimental, or horror, or Alt-Lit, or etc.), I’m attracted to the experience I have while reading that piece of writing.
LD: Other than a marketing device, can genre identification help us to understand the inner workings of a piece – how it achieves the reading experience it provides, how it can be distinguished from other reading experiences?
GB: That’s a fair question, Lale, but not one for me to answer. The Collagist isn’t a genre magazine. All of our readers are free to bring whatever expectations they like to each piece we publish—we don’t set out to put a frame around them. That’s what genre is: a frame, a set of expectations, a way of thinking about a piece of writing. That we do put a frame around what we publish—the Collagist frame; no grandness implied—is probably inevitable, but the existence of such a genre, such a frame, also presupposes some familiarity with the magazine, which I would never presume.
LD: John Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction was famed for shaping an entire school of science fiction by sounding a call for a particular aesthetic and then selecting those who adhered to his ideas. Other editors try to keep their finger on the pulse of the literary zeitgeist of the times and select works to represent it. Which role more closely describes your approach to editing The Collagist? What role should the editor play in the creation of literary movements?
GB: I have no interest in making the fictions that we publish conform to my own personal aesthetic preferences (except of course that I will have chosen them in the first place based on those preferences; that’s unavoidable, though, and doesn’t make me any different than all of the other literary editors out there). When I want to write something, I write something, you know? I’m not a top-down kind of guy. So I find it difficult to think in terms of literary movements or my particular role in them, especially as an editor.
I do think that there is isn’t enough literature being published that has much of substance to it—I mean beyond or above melodrama or language-play—and I’d like to believe that The Collagist is helping at least some of that literature find readers. I should maybe say that I think that’s always the case—literature with substance is always in short supply—and that there are other excellent magazines also doing the hard work of publishing such fiction. Fortunately.
LD: In your mind, what constitutes literature of substance? Could you articulate patterns you tend to find in those “unavoidable” personal aesthetic preferences?
GB: Yes, sorry—I’ve just substituted one vague and reductive description (literature of substance) for another (powerful, progressive literature). In the end, neither really satisfies me and so my attempts at their elaboration probably won’t satisfy you.
I do think good examples of “literature of substance” (and of my personal aesthetic preferences) would include but not be limited to the forty-four stories I’ve published in my tenure as fiction editor of The Collagist. I really don’t mean to be evasive or vague, but I have misgivings about any attempt to reduce literature to a set of characteristics (genre, aesthetic, etc.), no matter how broad those characteristics may be.
In his introduction to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, William H. Gass writes, “reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes.” I can’t agree more. To say Hamlet is a tragedy is to say something about oneself: “I find Hamlet tragic.” Hamlet exists apart from that feeling and cannot be reduced to that feeling. One may say that Hamlet is a play, sure, but what does that tell you about Hamlet, exactly? That Hamlet is more or less like The Importance of Being Earnest? Is it? If we go down the list of characters in Hamlet, can we be said to have taken in some part of Hamlet? Even if we give those characters some basic characteristics? If someone tells me the plot of Hamlet, should I assume that I then don’t need to pay attention to it when I see Hamlet? And even if we put all of those things together, as CliffsNotes does, will we have anything even approaching the experience of reading or seeing Hamlet? Of course not; we will not have the pleasure of the thing, either—we will have learned much about what others think about the thing, but we will not have any idea of the thing itself.
LD: How has The Collagist changed since its inception?
GB: We went through a fairly big change last year, when Matthew Olzmann and I took over from Matt Bell. We got a new reviews editor, Michael Jauchen, a new interviews editor, Liz Morris, and a new podcast editor, Rachelle Cruz. That’s pretty much the entire staff.
Even though Matthew has been our poetry editor since the beginning, and even though I’ve been with the magazine for four years, it was a shift. I mean, I can’t help but be a different editor than Matt Bell was—I’ve been a fan of the magazine from Issue #1, so I don’t think my taste is so different from his, but it is different. I’m indebted to him for all the hard work he put into making the magazine what it is, and I have always been proud to be a part of the magazine. That said, I’m not trying to carry on a legacy, I’m just publishing things that I believe in.
Format-wise, we haven’t changed much. I’m a bit more open or agnostic than Matt Bell was, genre-wise, in terms of what I excerpt (we’ve had a couple of excerpts of book-length essays, and a couple of excerpts from hybrid or cross-genre books since I started editing that section), but we’re still doing four fictions, four poets, an essay, and four reviews every month.
With all of the changes going on last year, we didn’t do the chapbook contest, so I’m excited to bring it back this year, and Matthew and I are always talking about ways to make the magazine better, but we have a really good template to work from and neither one of us wants to mess things up just for the sake of doing something different.
LD: How would you describe the relationship between The Collagist and Dzanc Books?
GB: Dzanc is our publisher—they’re completely hands-off, editorially, but they’re also really supportive and easy to work with as a publisher. In addition to hosting the website, they publish the winner of our annual chapbook contest, and they help out with design and are, in general, very helpful.
“That’s when Death decided he wanted to become a stand up comedian. The idea reverberated with rightness. This laughter thing was invented by humans, completely unforeseen by God. Immortals didn’t get it. That’s why he had to, because, a good joke was like a thunderclap, a convulsion of life and death coming together in perfect balance, a hybrid.”
I’m delighted to announce that my story, “Death’s Debut” appears in this month’s issue in Eclectica Magazine at eclectica.org. I hope you’ll check it out along with all the other excellent stories and poems published there. I’m proud to be published along side them.
The idea for the story came from three sources, watching my 91 year old father “rage against the dying of the light,” a book by Steve Martin called The
Ten, Make that Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make that Ten, and a folktale called “Death in a Nut” collected by Duncan and Linda Williamson from the Traveling People of Scotland. In this last story, a boy called Jack stuffs death in a nut and throws him out to sea to prevent him from carting off his mother. Chaos ensues. The idea that death might want to become a comedian was entirely my own.
My father curses when he can’t buckle his belt, or cut his food with a fork, or find the word for computer. “What the devil’s the matter with me?” he says.
“When I can’t find words, I wave my hands around like this,” I say. “Try it. It’s kind of fun.” Sometimes in my writing group (all women of a certain age) we all just wave our arms at each other.
Most days, the only silver lining of old age appears to be what little hair is left on my father’s head.
Fight fire with fire, mystery with mystery, death with laughter, I say. That’s why I wrote the story. I hope that one day, when death comes a knockin’, we’ll all be able to welcome him like a long lost friend.
Remember the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? Sometimes I think that’s what’s going on in academic, literary and writing circles. I’ve seen it at readings. The poet intones and everyone nods. Afterwards, at the reception, people talk about how brilliant so-and-so’s volume is. But if you pull one of them out of the room and down the hall and say, “Yes, but I have no idea what most of it means. Tell me,” they will sometimes admit that they, too, have no idea. Occasionally, if you are standing too close to the punch bowl where others can overhear, your companion will answer you incomprehensibly, using academic code words to say something quite ordinary, like, “utilizing first person plural invokes the contemporary zeitgeist,” an idea, which, if you used regular words, would be “no, duh” moment.
I am not suggesting that poetry should be more accessible. The difficulty demands a reader’s engagement. And we are more willing to work hard for a poet that has been anointed. It is often the case that you can’t really understand the poem or a story until you read the whole collection. Then you begin to understand the way a writer is defining certain words, or what they are using certain images to signify. Take Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.”
Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal.
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
At first blush, it’s pretty incomprehensible. But if you read a lot of his poetry, you come to see that white represents the void – the incomprehensible abyss that forms the backdrop of our existence. Ice-cream is white. So he conjures all these fleshy, bawdy, physical images, and then says – but, remember, all comes to nothing. When he says, “let be be finale of seem, “ he’s saying, try to see what is actually here. See life as it actually is. Perhaps, if we understand that we will become nothing, we will love life more. In the second stanza, he tells a tiny story of a woman who is dead, but she lived an ordinary life, much like ours, with missing dresser knobs and hobbies. She created beauty, but now she is dead. See how her feet are just objects of death. The whole poem is a kind of joyous/despairing tap dance on the head of a tombstone.
I’m building to two points here. One: if we pretend to understand when we don’t, we are missing an opportunity to collectively share in one of the chief joys of art: figuring it out together. Two: we writers/artists are sometimes are victims and perpetrators of double standards. When a writer has been given the nod by a press or a magazine we admire, baptized into publication, become one of the anointed, we all stand back in admiration. We take the time to study their work until we get it or we find their incomprehensibility acceptable. But in a workshop, when a colleague submits a story we don’t understand, we tear it apart. We tell the writer they have an obligation to explain themselves more. The anointed are allowed to be incomprehensible, but the un-anointed are not. The anointed deserve our attention to decipher them, but the un-anointed do not. Perhaps it’s a failure of courage or respect. We don’t want to put time into someone who isn’t worth it and we can’t tell whether they are worth it or not, because no one has given them the nod.
I wish in workshops, instead of asking themselves “Did I like this? What does the writer have to do to help me get it?” more people would ask themselves, “What kind of a story or poem is this? What is it trying to achieve? How is it operating? What are the internal rules of this piece?
I wrote this story and committed it to memory for a show at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge NY, Whispering Bones, 2012. It is based on the true story of the death of my father’s infant sister and takes place in the now demolished house of my Uncle Harrison. Here I am telling it for the open access TV show, Story By Story, hosted by Kate Dudding and Joe DooLittle. A version of this story is also part of my Tina Davidson’s opera, BILLY AND ZELDA.
In a hemlock grove atop a snowy mountain, silence blooms. Minutely needled branches quiver. Water drips from a crotch of snow between crossed logs into a black pool. More silence. Nothing is as beautiful as this. No poem, no words, no sculpture, no painting. Nothing human-made can approach this three dimensional physical plane, where the points of depth and dimension are plotted by each hemlock needle.
Don’t listen to the theorists who have traveled so far from the physical that their heads float like balloons above their bodies, attached only by a tiny string. They have tried to convince us that reality is perception, that we shape what we see with our language, and therefore can never truly see the world as it is.
We know better. If you stop, breathe and look, you will see.
They got it backwards. We are part of nature. The landscape shaped us, shaped the brains that made the language. Landscape shaped our stories. The fallen logs beside the still water tossed up the elves. The creek burbled fairy laughter, the snow-covered boulder created Hansel and Gretel’s frosted house impossibly far from the path of human treading. When you hear a woman screaming in the forest and follow the sound into the mouth of a mountain lion, a thousand myths are born. The seal’s soft round eyes created the selkies who shed their skins and became us. The change of seasons, the unceasing variety of bird call and flower petals commanded our tongues to shape new sounds. The order of the needles divided our sounds into segments, giving birth to language. And now, when we go back to the source, the land speaks us, and we call it magic.