Wordsmith Wednesday: Kurt Vonnegut “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets”

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Our words this week come from Kurt Vonnegut’s essay “Wailing Shall Be in All Streets” from his posthumous collection, Armageddon in Retrospect.

The excerpt reads:

“The facile reply to great groans such as mine is the most hateful of all cliches, ‘fortunes of war,’ and another, ‘They asked for it. All they understand is force.’ Who asked for it? The only thing who understands is force? Believe me, it is not easy to rationalize the stamping out of vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored when gathering up babies in bushel baskets or helping a man dig where he thinks his wife may be buried.”

A veteran of WWII taken as a POW during the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut’s writings on war and the institutional machineries that create it have informed my perspective on pacifism and patriotism since adolescence, specifically in thinking about the human costs for soldiers and civilians. Vonnegut spent the first part of his career writing directly or indirectly about the sickening inhumanity and personal trauma of the American firebombing of Dresden, a mission that killed tens of thousands of innocent people, including women and children. He’d spent the days during the bombing hiding in a slaughterhouse and the days after working alongside Germans to search for survivors while stacking burnt bodies for mass cremation. The American media hardly spared a headline for victims and vets alike, the government sparing even less. I can only imagine Vonnegut’s anger and despair at this, a young man recovering from the suicide of his mother. His humor, calm criticism, and emotional generosity in the face of trauma taught me a ton on how to navigate heaviness and injustice, how to use art and voice to make something half a century ago halfway around the world feel present and vital and human.

Despite the art of people like Vonnegut and idea that we are the most advanced civilization in the history of our planet, the United States has been at war in one capacity or another for well over half of my life. Recently we elected to give an unstable old man access to the largest nuclear arsenal in history, a cyberbully with the foreign relations tact of an aggressive fifth grader in the schoolyard and the empathetic capacity of a rock. The fear of the Cold War is creeping back into the collective psyche through the language of politicians and the media. So, as the flag waving of Veterans’ Day fades until next year’s brief show of nationalist pride and social media posts, I suggest we build a statue of PFC Vonnegut holding a basket of burnt babies in front of the White House, the Capitol Building, and the Pentagon with a plaque simply saying “The Fortunes of War.” Just as a friendly reminder.

– NR

kvonne

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Wordsmith Wednesday: Kenneth Calhoun’s Black Moon

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday comes from Kenneth Calhoun’s novel Black Moon.

It reads:

“Maybe it was the hurricane upsetting a sealed storehouse of voodoo, Dr. Ferrell considered as his daughter hovered over them.

He distracted himself with his ongoing mantra of maybes.

Maybe it was the toxic dust from fallen towers, the ash creeping into our lungs. Maybe it was some ancient spore released by the melting ice. Maybe it was the earthquakes and the tsunamis they summoned. Maybe it was the hole in the ozone, the collapse of the upper atmosphere. Maybe it was the betrayal by the banks. Maybe it was the dead surpassing the living. Maybe it was the ground choking on garbage and waste. Maybe it was the oil blasting freely into the ocean, or the methane thawing at the bottom of the sea. Maybe it was the overload of information, the swarms of data generated by every human gesture. Maybe it was the networking craze, the resurrection of dead friendships and memories meant to be lost, now resurfacing like rusted shipwrecks to reclaim our attention and scramble our sense of time.”

We’re constantly handed so many options within every interaction that our brain is wired to ask the possibilities of each outcome. The “whatifs” and the “maybes,” the vast landscape of opportunities, they have begun to hinder us, to seep into all aspects of our daily life. As humans, it’s natural for us to want to explore the future and the past for answers. What this ends up doing though is stopping us from living in the present. We are unable to move past certain life choices because we are ceaselessly racking our brains searching for every other decision we could have made, every cause that could have led up to this effect, and how it could have been different.

Calhoun brings us into a presently apocalyptic world that is inhabited mostly by people whose thoughts are never-ending, whose brains cease to shut off at night, who don’t sleep. This “mantra of maybes” is one way that this disease takes over people’s minds and tips them into a sleepless abyss, filled with ramblings and incoherent monologues. Though terrifying to see on paper, this is not far from our own thoughts, the neurons in our brain firing constantly looking for answers to our own questions. Dr. Ferrell embodies the beginning stages of this process, shows us how getting wrapped up in these thoughts, though sometimes important to ask, can steer us away from living in the present, from returning to a collected state of calm and moving forward in action, not solely in questions and thoughts.

– KK

calhoun

Wordsmith Wednesday: Stephen King’s IT

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Today’s Wordsmith Wednesday is from Stephen King​’s “It.”

The passage reads:

“The energy you drew on so extravagantly when you were a kid, the energy you thought would never exhaust itself—that slipped away somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four, to be replaced by something much duller, something as bogus as a coke high: purpose, maybe, or goals, or whatever rah-rah Junior Chamber of Commerce word you wanted to use. It was no big deal; it didn’t go all at once, with a bang. And maybe that’s the scary part. How you don’t stop being a kid all at once, with a big explosive bang, like one of that clown’s trick balloons with the Burma-Shave slogans on the sides. The kid in you just leaked out, like the air out of a tire. And one day you looked in the mirror and there was a grownup looking back at you. You could go on wearing bluejeans, you could keep going to Springsteen and Seger concerts, you could dye your hair, but that was a grownup’s face in the mirror just the same. It all happened while you were asleep, maybe, like a visit from the Tooth Fairy.”

Known in pop culture as a master of modern horror, King’s ability to evoke the magical, endless quality of childhood relationships and events may be his true gift. His ability to make tangible the formless, vibrant feeling of growing up naturally builds characters you invest in because you can see yourself and your life in those experiences, regardless of the setting. Children and characters with mental abnormalities often occupy a role connecting the rigid adult world and the supernatural in King’s stories precisely because they have not been boxed in by the cold comfort of dead logic, but rather view logic as just one tool in conquering fear in all its forms.

I’m currently past the backend of King’s aforementioned transition period and, thus, lie squarely in early adulthood. Reading this passage gave words to something that’s been happening in front of my mind for the last few years. I’ve felt the air leaving my wheels, in morning commutes, pointless meetings, endless deadend job applications. However, I feel fortunate in that I at least have known there’s a hole to be patched, with friends, art, learning, love. I know the kid in me will keep leaking out, slow and steady, but I’m going to keep rolling as long as I can.

– NR

sking

Wordsmith Wednesday: Carl Sandburg’s “Chicago”

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Our words this week are from Carl Sandburg’s famous poem “Chicago.”

They are:

“Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities”

I am not a well-travelled person, but nowhere feels like Chicago to me. I’ve ran as a kid through its tiny south suburban backyards and scraps of forest, ridden my bike down over busted curbs on avenues that stretch straight from the city to the cornfields, started high school nights in farmland and ended them in a packed basement venue on the north side, cruised slow down side streets on the south and west sides, felt intimidated and invigorated by the bustle of downtown. I’ve driven down Lake Shore at night and stopped to spit in the water. My family has called no other place in this country home for generations. Late third wave immigrants, they walked the same streets as Sandburg. At least some of my family butchered hogs in the Union Yards. There is still a coarseness and a strength to the city not acknowledged in campaign speech propaganda or in the talking points of ignorant media pundits. Outside forces stay trying to exploit the city, but they underestimate its cunning. They mishear the vitality in its high hats and bass knocks, in its feedback and raised fists, in its screeching airbrakes and late night cries. They sneer at its schools and desperate students, at its streets and crying mothers, at its sheer determination to keep existing in face of forces that want it to fail, inside and out.

But I’ve tasted giardiniera submerged in red sauce on a summer night. I’ve smelled exhaust mixed with sweat and something sweet cooking inside. I’ve seen the wonder in the eyes of a child at Kershaw Elementary. I’ve felt the warmth in the smile and salutation of the cashier at Harold’s. I’ve heard the ancient rhythms of buckets beating out the song of the city. A century after Sandburg, Chicago still sneers proudly above big shoulders at the charlatans and cowards that keep its name in their mouth.

– NR

carl-sandburg

Wordsmith Wednesday: Kelly Link’s “The Summer People”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday stems from Kelly Link’s short story “The Summer People,” in her collection Get In Trouble.

It reads:

“When you do for other people (Fran’s daddy said once upon a time when he was drunk, before he got religion) things that they could do for themselves but they pay you to do it instead, you both will get used to it.

Sometimes they don’t even pay you, and that’s charity. At first, charity isn’t comfortable, but it gets so it is. After some while, maybe you start to feel wrong when you ain’t doing it for them, just one more thing, and always one more thing after that. Might be you start to feel as you’re valuable. Because they need you. And the more they need you, the more you need them. Things tip out of balance. You need to remember that, Franny. Sometimes you’re on one side of the equation, and sometimes you’re on the other. You need to know where you are and what you owe. Unless you can balance that out, here is where y’all stay.”

So much of life is transactional. Currency can take form as physical money, or time, or advice given and taken. We often forget that at the base of almost every interaction is an exchange of goods. If we forget this, if we begin to give and give and give, we lose ourselves in the process. Our individuality becomes intertwined with those whom we are looking after.

In “The Summer People,” Link explores the loss of identity and individuality within a family and, particularly, at a young age. Franny is indebted to The Summer People. Her Ma was indebted to them. There is no other life, there is no other option, she must always listen and do what they ask. They gift her with useless, beautiful, unique, outdated objects/toys/knick-knacks, as a thank you for scouring the city for their needs. Though this relationship has tilted to one side, this is all she knows, this connection with The Summer People is what defines her.

It is easy to lose ourselves in our relationships with others, allowing what we do for them to validate us as human beings. Reminding ourselves where we stand in the midst of these transactions helps us to keep a firmer grasp on our individual identity.

– KK

Kelly-Link

Issue 6 Authors

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We proudly present our Issue 6 authors!

Prose by:

Irving Greenfield
Helen Grochmal
Thomas Elson
Riley Lalumendre
Reggie Mills
Alison Roland
Ashley Roth

Poetry by:

Emily Allison
Amy Bales
Robert Beveridge
Kersten Christianson
William Doreski
Brian C. Felder
Jonathan Greenhause
Ann Howells
Selina Kyle
Sean J. Mahoney
Christopher McCarthy
David Stevens
John Tustin
Georgette Unis

Issue 6 Flyer

Wordsmith Wednesday: Foxing’s “Indica”

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This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday comes from the song “Indica” off of Foxing’s album Dealer.

It reads:

“And if so, do I haunt their parents’ dreams?
And in so, am I summarized by sounds of young lungs screams?
Their young ones screams (…)

And if so would I bring their parents peace
And if so, could I give back the sounds of their children’s screams?
Let go of what I’ve seen”

Often when we think of what defines us, we see it as what we surround ourselves with or what we hope people’s perspectives of us are. Our actual physical actions and consequences are peripheral. Though here, within these lyrics, we are faced with the lingering, haunting effects of what we have done. How it feels as though it becomes and defines us. Foxing points to the unanswerable questions we are faced with when we return from war and the constant questioning and enduring reminders of our actions. The immeasurable weight that is on our shoulders and the inconceivable horrors we have committed and attempted, successfully or not, to come to terms with, these are the things that sometimes feel as tough they define us. A past that is out of our control. A past that we can’t shake off. A past that can endure as a summary of our existence.

Though often impossible to move out of the forefront of your mind, these past actions do not have to act as our identity. We are more than that as long as we allow ourselves to be. We can not change what has already happened but can change what we do next.

– KK

foxing