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Current Issue: Winter 2016
Current issue: Winter 2016
Today, the Missouri Review presents the third installment of the Summer Reading series, designed to provide recommendations for summer reads from authors and Missouri Review staff members. This installment is written by Matthew Baker. His story “The Golden Mean” appears in the Summer 2016 issue.
As research for my novel in progress, this summer I’ve been rereading some books very dear to my heart: Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin; Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro; His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman; My Side Of The Mountain by Jean Craighead George; and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.
This summer I’ve been reading a pair of “books in boxes,” Composition No. 1 by Marc Saporta and The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson. Originally published in French in 1962, Composition No.1 is a stack of loose pages in a box; given no indication where to begin and where to end, the reader is left to order the pages at random. The Unfortunates came later, originally published in Britain in 1969, and operates somewhat differently—the book is composed of twenty-seven unbound chapters, two of which are marked as the first and the last, while the rest can be read in any order. As a writer interested in interactive storytelling, I’m fascinated by these pre-digital experiments with interactivity. (A new edition of Composition No. 1 is now available from Visual Editions; The Unfortunates is back in print thanks to New Directions.) Incidentally, for a comics version of the “book in a box,” I would also recommend Chris Ware’s Building Stories, which is worth every penny of its $50 list price.
Matthew Baker is the author of If You Find This, a Booklist Top Ten First Novel of 2015 and an Edgar Award Nominee for 2016. His stories have appeared in publications such as American Short Fiction, New England Review, One Story, Electric Literature, and Best of the Net. A recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, the MacDowell Colony, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, he has an MFA from Vanderbilt University, where he was the founding editor of Nashville Review.
Today, the Missouri Review presents the second installment of Summer Reading, a series designed to provide recommendations for summer reads from authors and Missouri Review staff members. This installment is written by Kate McIntyre, Managing Editor of the Missouri Review.
I came to the job of managing editor at the Missouri Review from a visiting professor position where summer reading meant two or three books a week, consumed one after another after another, a reading feast after the famine of the busy term. Those summers were perfect for series: all the Patrick Melrose, all the Neapolitan Novels, every Muriel Spark (I recommend all Spark except the essay collection and her strangely close-lipped autobiography).
Now that I work more consistently, though, my reading pace has slowed and my appetite has broadened: I don’t want too much of any one thing. I’m finishing Dreamland The True Tale of Americas Opiate Epidemic, Sam Quinones’s exploration of the ways in which prescription opioid abuse and heroin abuse have grown in concert, facilitated by drug company advertising and a dearth of research into opioid addiction. For a long time, the conventional wisdom was that opioid painkillers weren’t addictive, and this idea was founded on the thinnest of evidence– a short letter to a medical journal that through wishful thinking grew to the status of an important, authoritative study that guided prescription practice for years. The most remarkable figures in the story are the young men from Nayarit, a very small state in Mexico, who travel north to sell heroin. Mostly sons of farmers, they are known for their politeness and good customer service, and none of the addicts and former addicts Quinones spoke to had a bad word to say about them.
Before Dreamland I read Scarlet Thomas’s The Seed Collectors, which I learned about via The Millions here. Thomas has been billed as a latter-day Spark or Murdoch, but I seemore of a Bulgakov-David-Mitchell hybrid. But funnier and more profane.
When I finish Dreamland, I plan to pick up Rebecca Solnit’s Paradise Built in Hell The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, which will be a pleasure for me, as is all Solnit, but also, I hope, inspiring for my collaborative novel project. Solnit argues that humans are capable of great kindness and altruism in the wake of a disaster. I’m very willing to be convinced.
Kate McIntyre is the managing editor of the Missouri Review. Her stories and essays have appeared recently in journals including Denver Quarterly, the Cimarron Review, and Copper Nickel, and she had a Notable Essay in the Best American anthology.
Today, the Missouri Review presents our sixth installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by Allison Pitinii Davis, whose poems appear in our Summer 2016 issue.
The Ethics of Address: Writing to the Rust Belt in the Age of Trump
Once I saw Chrissie Hynde, the lead singer of the Pretenders, play a show in her hometown of Akron, Ohio. I grew up about an hour away, and Chrissie Hynde symbolized everything I wanted: to leave northeast Ohio and become an artist. Before she sang her iconic song “Brass in Pocket,” a song I associated with getting the hell out of Dodge, she said, “I feel pretty silly singing this song in front of my parents. Hi Mom and Dad.” I understood then that it’s easy to make art for strangers. What’s difficult is coming back to northeast Ohio where your bad attitude isn’t poetic. It’s the same regional scowl of the old men at the bar.
Eight years after that show, I was still in Ohio. My poem about my family’s trucking motel was just picked up by a national magazine: it was going to be my first major publication. In my graduate-school mind, this poem was a feminist exploration of my experience cleaning motel rooms. My father, who runs the trucking motel, focused on the parts of the poem that were potentially bad for business. We fought about it, and I published the poem under a pen name to remove any connection between the poem and the business. While I still doubt that customers would have canceled their reservations based on a poem, I now see his point: one person’s subject matter is another person’s livelihood. Sometimes when you try to be a feminist, you end up being classist.
It required a lot of reading and fights with my family for me to learn this. When I started graduate school, I edited poems by thinking, “What will the professor/poetry community think?” For me, fitting into this community was daunting—only weeks earlier, in a teaching training workshop, I learned that “further” and “farther” were different words and that “the dog needs walked” was improper English. I didn’t start writing feminist poems because I finally had the bravery to write them—I started writing them because before I got the privilege to go graduate school, my exposure to feminist theory didn’t extend much past the Spice Girls. I felt like I had to choose between the world I knew and academia—I had no model for how to have both. A professor talked me out of dropping out. I began writing more about the motel and my home—the area in and around Youngstown, Ohio—and I edited these poems by asking “What will my subject matter think?”
When I asked this, I learned two things: 1) I don’t know what people think and 2) I especially don’t know what people outside of my limited experience think. Taking these into consideration, I only feel (somewhat) qualified to write about a specific Rust Belt experience: that of white, working- to middle-class northeast Ohioans with Southern European or Jewish heritage. The kinds of people with mezuzahs on their doors and basements full of commemorative, plastic Cleveland Browns cups. The kinds of people with a sweet, hard-working Papou yelling “liberal pinko” at the TV news.
This created a new problem—what if even this limited group didn’t need someone with comfy poetry fellowships documenting their experiences of working on assembly lines and selling six packs of Coors at trucking motels? I posed this concern to another writer who also focuses on his upbringing. He said, “Your (or your ancestors’) life experiences are material. One doesn’t treat one’s subject material as property: it doesn’t belong to you, it is you.”
This combination of “what will my subject matter think” and “it doesn’t belong to you, it is you,” allowed me to rethink poetic accountability. I was raised to prioritize family, labor, and heritage—to be myself is to think with a mind that thinks about these things. For example, my recent poems in the Missouri Review focus on my Ashkenazi Jewish Rust Belt experience. In “Arriving in Canada,” my great grandmother escapes Nazi Germany and comes to work in a sweatshop in Canada. I go to Canada to meet her in “Language Loosened Back,” a poem that juxtaposes generations of Jewish misunderstanding at the familial and national levels. My grandfather washes English out of my father’s mouth while Lenny Bruce is arrested for obscenity. I cannot understand my great grandmother’s Yiddish while Abbie Hoffman screams Yiddish at a broken American justice system. In “Greetings from the End of the Line,” one generation defends the ways in which it has tried to be true to its heritage even though the methods may look like assimilation. For example, in “The Motel Clerk Gets Bad Reception of Cleveland 100.7 FM,” a young motel clerk spends Shabbat listening to the radio and lights a joint instead of candles, but, with the help of Cleveland DJ Murray Saul, he reaches a sense of sincere, if contradictory, spirituality. I recently read these poems in downtown Youngstown, and my family came out to support me. My dad used his business and marketing expertise to help me sell chapbooks.
While I and many other writers have been thinking carefully about the ethics of addressing the Rust Belt—while Chrissie Hynde’s been singing “Where’d you go, Ohio?”— a racist xenophobe who’s made billions exploiting workers has been flying into our hometowns on his private Trump jet and receiving thunderous applause. Most of the people I know at home aren’t voting for Trump. But some are. Why? Because his hate speech isn’t directed at them. Because unemployment and deindustrialization continue to lead to desperation and anger. Trump exploits this anger and, like any good businessman, directs it away from himself and towards groups facing the most oppression. It’s an old maneuver: businessmen used it to create the Steel Belt, a region built (like all of America) on racism, xenophobia, and class exploitation.
My poems aren’t just about preserving my specific experience—they’re complicated love-arguments to the culture that made me who I am. Poetic remembering can serve as a tool of resistance, and I, unlike Trump, actually remember one family’s version of what it means to be from northeast Ohio. I and other writers will keep writing about the Rust Belt until, together, our work puts forth some kind of complicated, collective accuracy. Because the many communities of the Rust Belt deserve to be thought about seriously. Because we know what our families went through, we collectively know that the perfect Steel Belt that Trump promises to restore is an illusion. It only exists in the minds of billionaires who didn’t have to work to build it.
Allison Pitinii Davis is a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her work is forthcoming in Crazyhorse and The Best American Poetry 2016. She holds an MFA from Ohio State University and fellowships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program and the Severinghaus Beck Fund for Study at Vilnius Yiddish Institute. She is the author of Poppy Seeds (KSU Press, 2013), winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. Her full-length collection, Line Study of a Motel Clerk, is forthcoming from Baobab Press in 2017.
Summer Reading is the Missouri Review’s new series featuring recommendations for summer reads from authors and Missouri Review staff members. This first installment is written by Susan Engberg. Her story “Breath of the Trees” appears in the Summer 2016 issue.
The book I’d just read, with deep enjoyment, when I was surprised in early spring to be diagnosed with an eye tumor and to need treatment with proton radiation, was Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets, by Wendy Lesser. Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee. And from our local library I’ve just copied the CD’s of Nabokov’s Lolita read by Jeremy Irons and Susan Sarandon. I also expect to be turning even more than usual to books of poetry, with their easier-to-see lines set in restful white space; here beside me is the current read, nearly finished, Moon Before Morning, by W.S. Merwin, long one of my favorites, who himself I believe knows about troubles with vision.
Now, about that book on Shostakovich: I’d been drawn it because I already admired Wendy Lesser’s voice in Why I Read The Serious Pleasure of Books and because the Shostakovich quartets have for many years been truly essential listening for me. In fact, in the weeks when I was working with the last few drafts of “Breath of the Trees,” my story in the current Missouri Review, I listened almost non-stop to the last several of the quartets. They felt so intimate to me, like my own secret extra engine.
Susan Engberg’s stories and novellas have appeared in many journals and have been collected in four volumes: Pastorale, A Stay by the River, Sarah’s Laughter, and Above the Houses. Awards include publication in The Pushcart Prize Anthology and The Ploughshares Reader and three times in Prize Stories, The O. Henry Awards. She was born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa, of Danish and German heritage, and educated at Lawrence Uni- versity in Wisconsin and the University of Iowa. She lives in Milkwaukee with her husband, Charles. They have two grown daughters.
Today, the Missouri Review presents our sixth installment of Contributors on Craft, short craft essays from the writers we publish. This post is by John W. Evans, whose essay “The Polish Prince” appears in our Summer 2016 issue.
On Family Stories and Secrets
Certain family stories seem to have no beginning. My great-grandmother’s love of professional wrestling is one such story in my extended family. It was curated over the years to include a cooler of beer (that, in subsequent tellings, grew warm and cheap), an easy chair (floral-patterned, with a lever and swing hinge), and, in the pre-cable days of local broadcasts, a television with magical receptivity for broadcasting the squared circle day and night. With each retelling, Granny’s wrestling passion became a caricature, and eventually, a euphemism. Whatever else the news, one often said, “Yep, still watching wrestling.” Or so I imagined. I heard these stories second and third hand, after her death, and to this day, I can’t quite say who told them to me, or when, or why.
Of lesser note to family lore, but perhaps more significant to understanding wrestling’s origins in my family, was the actual pro wrestler in the family. Up the family tree and across several branches, my father’s second cousin, Ed Wiskowski, wrestled professionally, well and famously, locally and nationally, to earn a living for all of his adult life. Ed stood toe to toe with some of the greats of his era, and a few from before and after his time. He wrestled in character as “The Polish Prince of St. Joseph, Missouri,” a New York City heel, a maharaja, and, most famously, an apartheid-sympathizing South African colonel. Take a deep dive into the material-rich and surprisingly well-archived world of pro wrestling, and you’ll see Ed Wiskowski as the wrestling world’s Michael Cimino, or Emil Nolde, or Guy Clark: an artist’s artist who earned high praise from those who follow the spectacle and believe its performance can, on the best of nights, approach art.
I never saw my second cousin once removed wrestle. He retired around the time I started watching professional wrestling, as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bangladesh. Every week, the men in my city would gather at a friend’s house to watch World Wrestling Entertainment’s Monday Night RAW, which arrived on a bootleg feed from New Zealand, via India. This must have been one of the first great digital hacks of the internet era, and for me, beyond letters from family and the steadi-cammed DVDs of first-run movies I could rent for a few pennies at the local shop, the gathering was a precious connection to an American culture I had been especially eager to flee. Most days, between sections of primary school English classes, I drank tea with the school faculty or read dog-eared copies of whatever books were being mailed among the volunteers. Most Thursday nights, I sat with a bowl of watery lentils on Babul’s giant four-poster bed—he worked for the local utility, or the union, or maybe it was the rival political party, I never really understood—and watched, transfixed, as the busy RAW IS WAR titles flashed across the screen, followed by (J.R.) Jim Ross’s growling welcome to “the most electrifying night in sports entertainment.”
To paraphrase Robert Hass, it took years to translate the path from that village to the present moment, and a few years after that to see that wrestling turned in the other direction as well, back to my youth, and a youth that preceded it. When I sat down to write a first draft of “The Polish Prince,” I had no idea what I meant to say about Ed Wiskowski or Granny. I did have a few salient details, and a terrific family secret, neither of which I was entirely sure was true or real. I had no one to verify facts and secrets, but I did remember the name of the cousin, which yielded eventually more facts that I knew what to do with. Ed had won his first title in my father’s hometown about a week before my birth. He had wrestled some 1,700-odd matches recorded in various online databases as wins, losses, and draws: nearly thirty-six days’ worth of time in the ring, annotated with YouTube links, comments, analyses, and in one case, a sweet note from a neighbor insisting that Ed was a kind man in retirement, his various characters were an elaborate act, and anyone who couldn’t tell the difference didn’t deserve to watch his matches anyhow.
No one in my family really ever talked about Granny Wiskowski’s passion for pro wrestling, except to laugh about it. Anecdotes about her fierce manner and temper were given polish and charm by the comic absurdity. I tucked a blanket over her shoulders and turned off the television or So I asked her, how many times can a big fat guy sit on a little guy before he gives up? It was precisely this colorfulness that intrigued me about Granny Wiskowski. Could the fierce, God-fearing woman of my kindergarten memory, so distinctly proper and Midwestern, really recognize a suplex? Had she ever watched the Polish Prince wrestle, and if so, did she enjoy it? I had no answers but I had a few questions that interested me, and so, I started writing.
The monster, Annie Dillard calls the origins of such writing in her preface to An American Childhood:
This has happened to me many, many times, because I’m willing to turn events into pieces of paper. After I’ve written about any experience, my memories – those elusive, fragmentary patches of color and feeling – are gone; they’ve been replaced by the work. The work is a sort of changeling on the doorstep – not your baby but someone else’s baby rather like it, different in some ways that you can’t pinpoint, and yours has vanished.
As I finished one draft, and then the next, I started to see what really interested me about Granny Wiskowski and The Polish Prince. Not a story about family, or a series of questions whose answers I might never adequately imagine, but rather, a binary. Good and evil. Right and wrong. That, to love wrestling, one must love villains, if only so that the villain so devastates the moment that a hero must rise to right his wrong. Dillard writes later in the preface:
My advice to memoir writers is to embark upon a memoir for the same reason that you would embark on any other book: to fashion a text. Don’t hope in a memoir to preserve your memories. If you prize your memories as they are, by all means avoid – eschew – writing a memoir. Because it is a certain way to lose them.
I don’t know that “The Polish Prince” was, in the end, a piece of memoir. It certainly wasn’t reportage. But around my binary I began to explore details that interested me, too. A physical resemblance between Ed and me. A curiosity about the gap between the person and the character. The difference between being a villain to strangers and a villain in a family story, and what a hero might look like in either case. Eventually, how one often mistakes the villain and hero, or loves one for the wrong reasons, or, from some mix of compassion and curiosity, loves the villain and forgives the wrong. I’m sure that I missed some facts along the way. I did not seek out Ed, though I imagine that I will still call him up, or fly down to Arizona and ask him questions, check my facts and stories. I can’t believe he used our real names was what my nephew later told me my uncle said about the essay. Which is how, I think, I ended up in a vein of storytelling by which my family seems to thrive, and many writers, too. Some tell stories in order to reveal the truth. We tell stories, it seems, just as often to complicate it.
John W. Evans is the author of three books: Should I Still Wish: A Memoir (University of Nebraska Press, forthcoming in 2017), Young Widower: A Memoir (University of Nebraska Press, 2014) and The Consolations: Poems (Trio House Press, 2014). He teaches at Stanford University.
Genre Convention is the Missouri Review’s new blog series exploring literary genres and subgenres, written by those who love or loathe them. Upcoming entries will include apocalyptic fictions, locked room mysteries, and gothic children’s stories.
Don’t Shoot the Horse
I spent my youth in Texas not galloping across the sun-baked plains, but riding my Schwinn high-handlebar golden bike through the broad oak-shaded streets of suburban San Antonio. My closest association with cowboys, in fact, occurred as a teen when I was mugged by a dozen of them when they invaded a party of long-hairs that had spilled out on the front lawn of a neighborhood house. Though my hair was long, I didn’t really have the credentials to be a full hippie, but I was categorized as a “surfer” though I had never actually surfed. Alas, cowboys didn’t like surfers any more than they liked hippies. While my chicken-hearted friends ran inside, the cowboys cut my path of escape off and surrounded me on the lawn. Though I politely offered to arrive at terms and fight just one, a big-hatted, bandy-legged cowboy grinned and said, “Nah, it will be easier if we all just jump you.” With a good team effort, they showered me with punches, knocked me to the ground and kicked at me, a beating cut short by my impromptu defensive tactic, which was letting out a shrieking blood-curdling death howl, which reverberated in the air, then subsided to a rattling sound in my throat. One cried out, “We killed him!” And they ran off in fear of the cops and long imprisonment.
Despite this, despite you drugstore cowboy bastards, despite even that, I’ve made cowboys the heroes, such as they are, of some of my stories.
In fact, I owe much to Western stories. My first story was a Western, written in 1968, when I was a freshman at a Catholic high school. Memory fails and I can’t recall if there was actually air conditioning in the school or not, but I think of May in Texas as blistering hot, as hot as the desert my characters, my first creations, desperately stumbled through. As our last task of the school year, our English teacher Brother Al assigned us to write a short story. He gave no instructions. “We’ve read short stories this year,” he said, “now go and write one.” We had two weeks.
I learned several things from this assignment. One may be that minimal instruction is sometimes the best. Baffled at first, I began to form characters and a storyline in my mind. For two weeks, day and night, even during other classes, I toiled away in longhand, in my pre-typing days, handing off my nearly indecipherable scribblings to my mother, standing over her shoulder and narrating the words she couldn’t read. If my attention slipped, she had a penchant for inserting some of her own sentences and for softening the more obscene conversations of my characters. A wagon train had been attacked by Apaches. Three survivors were left: the hero, who was a rangy fellow named McCracken, a bad guy whose name I can’t recall, and a beautiful woman, and I can’t recall her name either, though she had long black hair and an upbeat attitude. They had one horse between them, little water, and the only hope for anyone to survive was to ditch the others and make off with the horse. Because each distrusted the others, no one rode the horse. They only plodded along beside it, kicking up desolate little clouds of sand. After a day or two of mutual attraction, a sense that in better days they might have hooked up, McCracken was willing to have the girl take the horse. But, of course, the bad guy wasn’t. So they kept walking, eyeing each other warily, gun hands twitchy on their hips, having a few coarse, semi-philosophical conversations, McCracken stating his view, delivered in a terse manly way, that one should do some final good in life, the bad guy hawking sandy saliva at the notion. Finally, the two men draw their guns, fire away, miss each other, and kill the horse. The story ends in an existential nightmare as the three characters stare at each other and the dead horse as the sun sets in the horizon.
In writing the story, I learned that I liked my stories to have some sort of twist or surprise. My stories that play off Western motifs – not that all my stories are Westerns by any means, the majority in fact are not – have been described as “Weird Westerns” or “absurdist Westerns” or as “the old West meets magical realism.” Any of those descriptions might fit “Back in Town” which appeared in Missouri Review in the 1990s and opens: “Before I drive my wagon into town, my wife makes me promise that I will not go into the saloon where No-Nose Ed and the other bad men hang out.” A reformed outlaw trying to go straight, of course our sad protagonist does go into the saloon and is drawn back into his days of “drinking and whoring and looting and stealing horses and robbing banks and shooting up the town and using foul language.” In another story, a modern day couple find themselves in the battle of the Alamo, and in another Alamo story, Colonel Travis’s ghost laments that he feels used, goaded to his death by the allure of glory. I’ve written other strange Westerns, and yet I’ve been influenced by reading more traditional Westerns. Some of my favorite books, and movies, too, have been Lonesome Dove, The Searchers, Shane, True Grit, and, in nonfiction, Son of the Morning Star. Television in my youth contributed its influences: Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, Have Gun, Will Travel, Maverick, a host of others. My mother, whose grandmother had homesteaded on a small ranch in Texas, added to the milieu with her tales of bandits and Comanche raids and blue Northers descending in fierce squalls of rain and wind on lonely cabins. To this day, dramatic frontier tales, Western Walter Mitty fantasies, lurk in my mind. Combine that with some affection for Donald Barthelme, Borges, and Marquez, and there you go–Western weird.
I owe something else to that first Western in that long ago May, my freshman year in high school, at the tail end of an unimpressive academic year. And I owe something, too, to Brother Al, a kindly young guy just starting out himself, a guy I haven’t thought of much in many years before writing this. If someone were ever inclined to ask me why I became a writer, I would have to think about the question, approach it from various angles, and I’m not sure my answer would be very satisfying either to the interrogator or to myself. But if I were asked when I became a writer, I would say, without hesitation, it was during the course of writing that Western story, in that hot May at the end of freshman year at Antonian High. During those two weeks of bringing the story along from a glimmer of an idea to its completion, I found for the first time a kind of total immersion in my task, a kind of obsession, my own way of galloping across the sun-baked plains.
Robert Garner McBrearty’s many short story publications include two appearances in the Missouri Review, with other stories in the Pushcart Prize, North American Review, Mississippi Review, and New England Review. As well he’s published three collections of short stories. His most recent book is the novella The Western Lonesome Society, which has been described as an “absurdist Western.”