Wordsmith Wednesday: George Saunders’ “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”

Standard

Our words this Wednesday come from George Saunders’ 2005 novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil.

The excerpt is:

“Suddenly Phil didn’t seem like quite so much of a nobody to the other Outer Hornerites. What kind of nobody was so vehement, and used so many confusing phrases with so much certainty, and was so completely accurate about how wonderful and generous and under-appreciated they were?

‘Boy oh boy,’ said Freeda.

‘He just comes right out and says it,’ said Melvin.

‘Thank goodness someone finally has,’ said Larry.

‘As for you Inner Hornerites!’ bellowed Phil. ‘Please take heed: You are hereby testing the limits of our legendary generosity, because of how you are, which is so very opposite of us. Friends, take a look at these losers! If they are as good as us, why do they look so much worse than us? Look how they look! Do they look valorous and noble and huge like us, or do they look sad and weak and puny?”

If some of the rhetoric in this excerpt seems to echo what you’re hearing in the current political discourse, that’s because the language of nationalism and it’s dumber, more violent cousin, jingoism, often rest on the vilification of the “Other.” This is the language you heard on the campaign trail and it’s the mindset behind border walls, travel bans, and threats of nuclear war. Throughout the book, Phil’s populist approach and appeal to Outer Hornerites, similar to that of Trump, is almost entirely built on expressing their superiority over Inner Hornerites, of using single incidents or accidents to generalize about “Them” and using fear to quell any dissidence among the Outer Hornerites themselves. Originally meant to be a children’s story in response to a challenge to write a book where all the characters are conglomerate objects, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil uses satire to simplify, and clarify, factors that lead to conflict, subjugation, injustice, and, in this case, genocide. This story’s cautions against blind faith in authority, national hubris, sensationalist media, and compliance with injustice seem a lesson to navigating our current sociopolitical landscape, a shifting lesson I’m learning every day. I don’t have the answers, but be careful of those who try to win your heart and mind by vehemently spouting confusing phrases with certainty.

– NR

saunders

Wordsmith Wednesday:

Standard

This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is a poem from Nayyirah Waheed’s collection salt.

It reads:

“remember,
you were a writer
before
you ever
put
pen to paper.
just because you were not writing
externally.
does not mean you were not writing
internally.”

It is often difficult to remind ourselves of this. We do not stop or start becoming a writer at any point just because we aren’t physically writing. Our minds are constantly writing novels of their own, coming up with stories, drafting scenarios, reiterating our feelings and thoughts, all internally. This is the most constant and unrestrictive form of writing. In this form we do not hold back, there is no one around to judge but us. We/society is the only one that holds us accountable to this arbitrary definition of a writer. We are always, constantly, writing, do not let the physicality that is placed behind writing hold you back from being/feeling productive as a writer. We all do it in different forms at different times in our lives. How is not what is important, it’s the fact that we do that is.

– KK

Nayyirah

Wordsmith Wednesday: Ross Gay’s “Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude”

Standard

Our words this week come from Ross Gay’s eponymous poem “Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude” from his 2015 poetry collection.

The stanza is:

“And to the quick and gentle flocking
of men to the old lady falling down
on the corner of Fairmount and 18th, holding patiently
with the softest parts of their hands
her cane and purple hat,
gathering for her the contents of her purse
and touching her shoulder and elbow;
thank you the cockeyed court
on which in a half-court 3 v 3 we oldheads
made of some runny-nosed kids
a shambles, and the 61-year-old
after flipping a reverse lay-up off a back door cut
from my no-look pass to seal the game
ripped off his shirt and threw punches at the gods
and hollered at the kids to admire the pacemaker’s scar
grinning across his chest; thank you
the glad accordion’s wheeze
in the chest; thank you the bagpipes.”

Gay’s ability to shine warmth and love into dirty crevices and tease beauty from everyday experiences is what I believe puts him at the forefront of contemporary poetry. He doesn’t stray away from darkness or sadness, but he also doesn’t wallow; he shows it and says “This is what being alive and being human is” with an inspiring generosity. In a poem in which he expresses gratitude for a number of things from a lone lady on the bus to a patient, listening ear to finding the dreadlock of a murdered friend, I chose this passage because I find the images breathtaking, moving snapshots of human goodness and strength and life. I love the gentle men helping because it’s the right thing to do, I cheer and laugh for the old man proudly patting the pacemaker in his chest. These tiny actions, these little victories are the most beautiful parts of being alive to me and Ross Gay’s ability to show that beauty without overstatement and with a knowing smile is what keeps me waiting on his work.

– NR

RossGay2

Wordsmith Wednesday: Rupi Kaur’s “milk and honey”

Standard

This week’s Wordsmith Wednesday is from Rupi Kaur’s milk and honey.

The poem reads:

“you said, if it is meant to be. fate will bring us back
together. for a second I wonder if you are really
that naïve. if you really believe fate works like
that. as if it lives in the sky staring down at us. as
if it has five fingers and spends its time placing us
like pieces of chess. as if it is not the choices we
make. who taught you that. tell me. who
convinced you. you’ve been given a heart and
a mind that isn’t yours to use. that your actions
do not define what will become of you. i want to
scream and shout it’s us you fool. we’re the only
ones that can bring us back together. but
instead I sit quietly. smiling softly through
quivering lips thinking. isn’t it such a tragic thing.
when you can see it so clearly but the other person
doesn’t.”

Kaur’s milk and honey has become a companion to me. Something I carry and reference constantly. Each poem a beautifully crafted image of the daily internal and external struggles we face, pointed and direct. Though they are short and clear, I have spent hours indulging in certain poems, their words weighing heavy. I’ve read and reread them until my shock towards the raw, unadulterated realness subsides, leaving me that much more connected to my present state of mind.

In order to alleviate responsibility, we often find intangible concepts to take on our own difficulties. They act as surrogates to ourselves, relinquishing the blame of indecision and inactivity. If we leave the decision up to an omnipotent being, or “fate,” then we no longer are accountable. The reality of the matter is that we are the ones who must make the choices that propel us to where we want to be. We do not leave it in the hands of “the world” to guide us or shape us. This is much more difficult than the former. Working hard to achieve the job you want, the relationship you want to work, or the mindset you’d like to be in is not easy. It takes time, effort, and a realization that you want this change. The end result, the satisfaction received from knowing that it was your actions, you in your entirety, that got you there, is what makes it worth it.

– KK

rupikaur

Wordsmith Wednesday: Girlpool “Before The World Was Big”

Standard

Our words this week are from Girlpool’s eponymous “Before The World Was Big” off their 2015 album on Wichita Records.

The words are:

“My brain is like a rolling snowball, I’m a firetruck,
Trying not to think of all the ways my mind has changed
Mom and Dad, I love you,
Do I show it enough?”

Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker’s co-writing/co-singing approach seems to reach towards something simple/elemental/childlike in me, something indivisible. Blending bright imagery with introspection brings out that emotion that sometimes fills me in the middle of the night when I feel what it was like to hide behind my elementary school at sundown, push against the weight of all my daily responsibilities, and realize that my parents are going to die, all at the same time. This feeling can be overwhelming and comforting simultaneously because it’s undoubtedly my own to process, to project or repress. It’s a thoughtful break by the reservoir, grass on your neck and bike next to you on the bank. These are the words that go through your head just before you dose off for a nap, hidden from the world but not yourself.

– NR

girlpool

Wordsmith Wednesday: Jose Saramago’s “Death With Interruptions”

Standard

Our words this week are an excerpt from Jose Saramago’s 2005 novel, Death With Interruptions.

They are:

“It seemed that families, suffering an attack of conscience, had passed the word from one to the other that they were no longer going to send their loved ones far away to die, that if, in the figurative sense, we had eaten of their flesh, then now would have to gnaw on their bones as well, that we are not here just for the good times, when our loved ones had strength and health intact, we are here, too, for the bad times and the worst, when they have become little more than a stinking rag that there is no point in washing.”

In a book split between an exploration of the ramifications of a country blessed/cursed with a mysterious cessation of death and the personification of death herself, Saramago spins and blends seemingly unfathomable ideas into surreal yet plausible human situations. This excerpt, taken from a passage in which the living begin to feel the guilt creep in after normalizing a practice in which a state sponsored mafia discreetly disposes of near-dead bodies just over the border, highlights an element of human  sociology worth focusing on. Too often relationships, even intimate ones, find themselves on foundations of mutual benefit rather than commitments of support. Life is hard and for many it’s easier to shed the stress of caring for those in their life at their lowest rather than sacrifice without certain benefit. Sometimes your friend relapses regardless of how much time you spend. Sometimes your brother makes the same self-destructive mistakes regardless of your guidance or warning. Sometimes your parent’s disease drags them on the edge of death indefinitely regardless of whether you can shoulder the emotional weight. I think love has a lot more to do with sacrifice and selflessness in times of pain and need than we’d like to believe. That actually might be what it’s mostly about. – NR

josesaramago

David Bersell’s “Dear Chris Crutcher”

Standard

We are honored to host an essay from Issue 4 alumni David Bersell’s new collection The Way I’ve Seen Her Ever Since out now on The Lettered Street Press.

Read “Dear Chris Crutcher” below.

Dear Chris Crutcher

My name is David Bersell and I am in the seventh grade. You are my favorite author. I’ve read all of your books. Running Loose is my favorite. When the runner found out his girlfriend died in a car accident I felt terrible. But I also felt good. Like I was him. I read Stotan first. I picked it up at the library because of the swimmer on the cover. My brother started swimming in high school and got eighth place in the breast stroke at State’s. I play backup point guard on my school’s basketball team. Some of your book covers don’t make sense. There’s a hurdler on the front of Chinese Handcuffs but the main character does triathlons not hurdles. Also I was wondering if you’ve heard of Walter Dean Myers and Carl Deuker. They also write really good sports books. My school’s having an Author Fair and I picked your books for my project. I need to write a summary and draw a scene for each one. I think I’m also going to pick my favorite characters and write your biography. Usually I don’t try at school. English and Gym are the only classes I like. I read in an interview that you used to hate school too. You said you picked your college because you went to look at all the catalogs in the library and it was the only one that was red. The rest were black or blue. When I was in fifth grade I forgot I had a book report due so at the start of class I scribbled down a report for an imaginary novel. I remembered a cover I had seen about a math nerd so I made the story about how he has no friends but then he wins a math competition and gets to go to Washington, DC and the kids at school think he’s cool. My teacher gave me a B. I think I’m going to try writing a book soon. In class during notes and every night before I fall asleep I imagine stories.

Your fan,

David

David,

Thanks for taking time to write your responses to my stories. Sounds like you (and your brother) are quite an athlete. It also sounds like you have already figured out some of the things I figured out to get through school with minimum effort. That works, but I should let you in on a secret. Someday there will be something you really want to go after and you’ll find yourself putting your entire intellect into it. Trust me. You’ll love it.

I know what you mean about some of the covers. I complained about that hurdler on Chinese Handcuffs, too. So much that they changed the cover.

I have read a lot of Walter Dean Myers. He and I know and respect each other a lot. Don’t know Carl Deuker as well, but I hear great things about his work.

So, good luck with your writing and your athletics. Sounds like you have a lot going for you and you know how to enjoy it.

Sincerely,

Chris Crutcher

Dear Chris,

I was barely friends with Steve—spring track, he charged the hurdles with anger, then lay in the grass, listening to Hendrix—and I only knew Carl because I had a crush on his ex-girlfriend.

We were seventeen.

That means I loved them.

The next weekend, Carl and Steve’s friends gathered at the crash site to drink in their honor. I wrote a poem, and when that wasn’t enough, I wrote a short story, imagined the violence.

The road curves to the left, but the car speeds ahead, no swerve, no breaks. It only takes a second. The metal and plastic and rubber blasts from the ground. I know this is supposed to be sad, but isn’t it also magical, the car transforming into a spaceship, Carl and Steve alive and weightless for one more second, angling up from the earth, shooting higher, through the branches and swallowed moonlight?

And I know the spaceship doesn’t stay up. I clipped the photographs from the newspaper. I know about the graceless fall, the snap of foreheads against windshield, the after.

But what if Carl and Steve were driving even faster, what if the tires kissed the rounded incline of the road’s edge just right, what if the exhaust malfunctioned at the perfect moment so the pipe sucked blue fire into the night?

What if the Carl and Steve kept flying?

Picture the car rumbling through our atmosphere, above our houses and hideaways and parents pouring coffee and sighing, all our dogs and Saturday mornings, Carl and Steve curling around a cloud of purple gas with the bass turned up, Carl and Steve nodding at the rind of the universe, how cute, how fragile, Carl and Steve closing their eyes and waiting for whatever mystery comes next, all those minutes, all those galaxies and unlived lives, all that open space, hanging like a sail, waiting to be filled.

Chris, you were right.

When I was seventeen and couldn’t sleep, I read passages of Less Than Zero, by Bret Easton Ellis, aloud in my bedroom. “The water turned colder, raging, and the sand became wet, and Blair would sit by herself on the deck overlooking the sea and spot boats in the afternoon fog.”

And when Ashley had a nightmare, or I was too sad to speak, we read The City of Women, by Sherod Santos, a lyric collage about ex-lovers and divorced parents, one more time. “Who we are is composed of what, perhaps only what, we can never reclaim form the rubble.”

I owe so many: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, We the Animals, Chloe Caldwell, Major Jackson. “The Fourth State of Matter.”

My friends.

I teach at summer camps and in high school classrooms because I know how writing can be a superpower for the adolescent and hungry.

Is that why you write Young Adult?

After I read at a teen writers workshop, a student asked why I always wrote sad stories.

I said, “I don’t try to be sad, just realistic.”

Then she said, “Isn’t it sad how love’s dead?”

She meant it.

“There’s love, just not how you think,” I said. “It’s there, it’s just hard. Like writing. It’s hard, beautiful work, but it’s worth it.”

“But there’s no romance.”

“No, there’s romance, too. Believe me. You just have to wait.”

She told me about watching her little sister grow up. “The loss of innocence, it’s already starting,”

I wanted to cradle her and stop telling stories, but I knew protection was a child’s myth, so I needed to write the truth. I needed to describe the pain, because there is always pain, and the glory, too, crafting pieces into a quilt, a window and a mirror, my love.

Chris, I’m sorry this is so belated: thank you for writing back.

All the best,

David

bersell book