Staff Roundup: May 2015

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What we’re loving this month: Julie Carr, E. L. Doctorow, Slate’s Culture Gabfest, & David Mura’s essay on being a student of color in an MFA program.

For the past month I have been calling around to lower Manhattan bookstores – desperately trying to avoid the behemoth Amazon – to get my hands on Think Tank (Solid Objects), a new book-length poem by Julie Carr. I finally purchased a copy at McNally Jackson last Friday, and have spent a good portion of my weekend grappling with the book’s finely textured and non-linear language.

“To tank thought” – as Carr writes in her chapbook The Silence that Fills the Future (Essay Press) – “is not simply to seek irrationality. It’s instead a mode of desire, but one that doesn’t yet know, and may never know, its desired object. Think Tank, then: a love poem with no object, an imperfect giving over to the other of sound.” Though Think Tank operates on this relationship with “the other of sound,” it is certainly not devoid of narrative or lyric moments. The refrain of “A man walks into…” recurs throughout the work. It ostensibly points to the set-up of a joke, but the lines that follow the appearance of “man walks into” subvert narrative expectations: “A man walks into a table/ onto a wind-driven/ drive// have come closer even now to streaks of water between panes of/ glass–” (2). By focusing on the physiological act of hearing, more than the psychological act of listening (as she states in The Silence), Carr weaves the sounds of her hearing into a “net of branches or an unidentified language” with which “the couple couples” (2).

Think Tank is a book that actively investigates the materiality of language without sacrificing intelligibility. Lines like “Gripping onto the self, eating it from the inside” and “Shadows under cars. Grief under/ summer’s leaves” resist immediate comprehension, but draw me in with their magnetic sound and loaded implications. Though I have only had Think Tank for a couple days, I suspect I will return to it regularly as a model for how much one can let “breath surround my book” while maintaining a level of poignancy that shines “[n]ot by concrete but by owl-light.”

Nicholas Fuenzalida, assistant layout editor

I have a standing appointment with the Slate’s Culture Gabfest, a weekly discussion of trends both pop and academic between a couple of total snobs who also happen to be insightful and funny. Slate’s Editor-in-Chief, Julia Turner, and its movie reviewer, Dana Stevens, do great work as panelists. But the show’s host, Stephen Metcalf (a critic whose writings have appeared in, see if you can spot the pattern here, the New York Times, The New York Observer, and New York Magazine), speaks most directly to my sensibilities. This gem on modern personality was occasioned by a discussion ostensibly about the rising normcore fad:

“Once upon a time people were born into communities and had to find their individuality. That describes the entire trajectory of the novel as a literary art form. Now people are born individuals and have to find their communities.”

And here he is turning a conversation about online dating into a much broader observation about how the internet poisons personal growth:

“My takeaway is that the internet really does produce a kind of psychosis against the notion of finitude, against the idea that you need to choose, that your horizons are small and limited, which is the essence of the mature personality that’s ready to make a commitment. I just think that internet dating sites are the disease for which they purport to be the cure.”

But my favorite is his endearing apology for The Bachelorette:

“[The first two-thirds of the season] seems entirely debased and contemptible and silly and exhibitionist and all the things that reality tv is. In the last third of the show, something very bizarre happens, which is, in spite of everyone’s better nature, some degree of real emotion gets engaged, and then you think, well, kind of every relationship is a bizarre, I mean, every relationship is basically backfilling on a leap of faith, a completely absurd leap of faith, right? There’s no circumstance under which two people find each other the right way, or the natural way. Why couldn’t it be that you would do it in something out of a dystopian novel, right? I mean, we’re all kind of living in a dystopian novel, where we’re acclimated to just these kinds of bizarre conflicts where we’re unsure whether our relationships to other people are purely instrumental. We’re unsure whether the way we present ourselves to one another is entirely performative. We don’t really know in our own lives, and so, bizarrely, this show over time has come to me to seem oddly, trenchantly analogous to the way we actually live now.”

(Julia Turner: “Whoa.” Dana Stevens: “That sounds so much better on paper than the experience of watching the show.”)

The show posts on Wednesdays to your preferred podcasting platform, and the experience of listening is just as good as it sounds on paper.

– Michael Sarinsky, assistant interview editor

I would not trade my MFA experience at NYU for anything. The professors and students at NYU always have and continue to inspire me, and I am incredibly grateful for them. I also appreciate that the MFA program at NYU is relatively diverse – the key word being “relatively.” Still, a space where the majority is white will most likely see tensions and (micro)aggression toward people of color. I recently read this essay by David Mura http://gulfcoastmag.org/online/blog/the-student-of-color-in-the-typical-mfa-program/ which recognizes that “[s]ince writers are generally a liberal lot, the white faculty and students in these institutions profess the most progressive views on race.  They see themselves as people who are generally without racial bias.  Racism and racial bias can be found in the country, yes, but presumably that would be in the Republican Party or the Tea Party, not in a population of liberal white artists … Unfortunately, that is not the experience of many MFA students of color.” I’d like to share this article for other students of color in MFA programs and other spaces, to say that we are neither crazy nor alone.

– Emily Yoon, award editor

In working on a long project, a series of linked poems, I’ve been struggling to find the right voice. The majority of the poems are in the third person, but then something changed, and I couldn’t shake the implacable I. I turned to an unlikely poetic source – E. L. Doctorow’s 1971 novel The Book of Daniel. Loosely based on the story of the Rosenbergs, Doctorow imagines what would happen to the children of a couple executed for treason. The story begins with Daniel at 25, driving with his wife and baby, to visit his sister in a sanatorium after a failed suicide attempt. Daniel is a graduate student, supposed to be working on his PhD dissertation, but he cannot stop writing about the past. Profoundly damaged and ruthlessly self-aware, Daniel is almost unbearable at times. Basically he’s a terrible husband and father, both outright abusive and subtly cruel. But one of the reasons that he remains continually fascinating is how he throws his voice. Whenever he slips into the third person, the reader is aware that Daniel is still holding the pen. I first read this book when I was 18, the summer after high school – and I was relived that six years later, it’s as good as I remembered. Multivalent, repellent, radical, and sympathetic, Daniel Isaacson Lewin is Doctorow’s best and most enduring creation yet.

Without saying much of anything, without even caring if he was there, Susan could restore in him the old cloying sense of family, and suggest that his wife was not in the same class and his child a complete irrelevance. That it was their thing, this orphan state, and that it obliterated everything else and separated them from everyone else, and always would, no matter what he did to deny it. Actually I don’t try to deny it. But I reserve the right to live with it in my own way, if I can. In Susan resides the fateful family gift for having definite feelings. Always taking stands, even as a kid. A moralist, a judge. This is right, this is wrong, this is good, this is bad. Her personal life carelessly displayed, her wants unashamed, not managed discreetly like most people’s. With her aggressive moral openness, with her loud and intelligent and repugnantly honest girlness. And all wrong. Always wrong. From politics back to drugs, and from drugs back to sex, and before sex, tantrums, and before tantrums, a faith in God.

Laura Creste, web & public relations editor

2015 Contest Announcement

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Congratulations to our winners!

We’re pleased to announce the winners of our 2015 contests in Poetry, Fiction, and Flash Fiction: Sophie Klahr for her poem “Summer Job, June”, selected by Eduardo C. Corral, Justin Bendell for his short story “Fire Complex”, selected by Jacinda Townsend, and Melissa Sipin for her flash fiction piece “This First Breath” selected by Tope Folarin.

Winners were selected from finalists per genre. Congratulations to our finalists in poetry: Natalie Eilbert, Julie Henson, Sam Sax, and Nicholas Wong. In fiction: Philip Carter, Baird Harper, Timothy O’Leary, and Landa wo. In flash fiction: Thomas Andes, Claire Luchette, and Rosanna Oh.

Winners receive $500.00 and publication in the forthcoming issue of Washington Square Review. Be on the lookout for their outstanding work in our 36th issue, alongside other established and emerging talents.

Thank you to everyone who entered for the opportunity to consider your work and to our esteemed judges!

Staff Picks: Asian American Writers’ Workshop

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By Emily Yoon

In my wallet is a lucky two-dollar bill that a taxi driver gave me as change on February 20, 2014. It was a rainy evening, and I was attending my first Asian American Writers’ Workshop event: a question-and-answer with Chang-rae Lee, moderated by Catherine Chung. Chang-rae Lee had just published On Such A Full Sea. After the Q & A, I bought a hard copy of the new book and quivered my way to him.

“I’ve been reading you since I was eleven,” I said, feeling sweaty and gross. “You were the first Korean writer I read.”

He said thanks and signed my book: To verse forever. 

“I’ll see you at AWP!” I squeezed out.

Then at AWP, I actually did meet him again. He was with his writer-friends including David Mura, Daniel Chacón, Sharline Chiang and Christine Hyung-Oak Lee. They were all so warm and genuine that I felt encouraged enough to send them all friend requests on Facebook afterwards (which they accepted).

Later that year, I applied for a summer internship at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. AAWW is “a national not-for-profit arts organization devoted to the creating, publishing, developing and disseminating of creative writing by Asian Americans.” (from aaww.org) AAWW also promotes and supports works by non-Asian artists of color as well (recent example is the Undocupoets reading held at the Workshop, in which NYU alum Javier Zamora and current NYU student poet Christopher Soto a.k.a. Loma were involved in). Fortunately, I got the internship that summer and served as an author events intern, mostly helping plan and execute various events. I met many writers and learned a lot about office duties and event management, but the most valuable gain was an expanded community of people of color. I am extremely lucky to have friendships with people of color in New York; I am always learning from my poets of color friends at NYU and the past interns and staff at AAWW. I think about all the conversations and events about social justice, politics, and race that I participated in, and don’t know how I would have survived without these friends.

Before working at AAWW, I had no idea how much I could involve myself with the organization. I quickly learned that the staff there doesn’t have a steel wall around them but rather that they are really looking to give the interns many opportunities. They were always open for event or article pitches and organized luncheons with editors and artists for interns to meet. In fall 2014, I was offered the position of Poetry Editor for The Margins, AAWW’s literary magazine. Ken Chen, the executive director of AAWW, and Jyothi Natarajan, the Managing Editor of The Margins, are not only interested in publishing poems by established writers but are also very much looking forward to publishing more emerging writers. Recently, The Margins has featured poems by NYU student Monica Sok and 2015 Margins Fellow Wo Chan. Poems by NYU student Marco Yan are also forthcoming.

Needless to say, AAWW has had a big influence in my life. I grew a lot working for the AAWW, both as a writer and as a person of color inhabiting New York City and the literary world. It provided a safe space for me to question and learn about my own existence, and gave me the nourishment and affirmation I needed.

To volunteer, join the listserv, find out more about opportunities, or submit to The Margins, email me at jungminy@outlook.com (though The Margins will have Submittable set up soon). Check the website at aaww.org to read recent publications and look at the upcoming events.

Staff Picks: Pitch Perfect 2

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by Michael Sarinsky

Cinephiles gearing up for the release of “Pitch Perfect 2″ may be unaware that the original movie (which, no jokes, makes my desert-island top five) is based off a non-fiction book by Elle magazine writer Mickey Rapkin. Published in 2008, Pitch Perfect documents Rapkin’s yearlong foray into the delightfully raucous worlds of three college a cappella troupes: the University of Virginia Hullabahoos, the Tufts Beelzebubs, and Divisi of the University of Oregon. (Fans of the form will recognize those groups as topnotch mainstays of the undergraduate music scene. Newcomers should take a quick diversion to YouTube, right now.)

Campus novels rarely succeed. Or at least, credit where it’s due to Nabokov and McCarthy, they rarely succeed any longer. But Rapkin captures something essential about the college experience that, for instance, Eugenides and Harbach missed with their recent attempts at fictionalizing campus life. Any worthwhile portrait of higher education has to foreground a sense of diffused responsibility, of evolving talent obscured by lingering adolescence. And Rapkin’s bumblebee-in-the-punch-bowl journalistic style perfectly captures that tone. Notice how he adjusts the lens when discussing the genre-founding Beelzebubs:

The sale was contingent on the new owner leasing the house to the Bubs for the 2005-2006 school year… Until, that is, Sean Zinsmeister ’06 decided to have a barbeque. (“I’m not talking about this,” Zinsmeister says.) Details are scarce. What we do know is that sometime around two in the morning a gust of wind knocked over the barbeque, spilling hot coals and ash onto the wood deck… No one was hurt, though all were shaken as they watched their beloved Bubs house burn to the ground.

Those hoping only for lighthearted immaturity and youthful braggadocio, though, will be disappointed, because the book also movingly portrays the sentimentality that accompanies finally growing up. When Marissa, a Divisi senior, replays her family’s home movies as part of her thesis project, the entire group attends and shares a moment of tenderness. “Santa looks like [her grandfather,] Papou!” Marissa’s younger sister says in the video, taped at Christmastime. “Why does Santa look like Papou?”

Marissa grabs her sister by the ponytail and yanks hard. “Leave him alone!” she says. “It’s Santa! It’s Santa!”

Marissa stops the video and turns to the audience. When she looks back on that moment, she’s still not sure where it came from. But Marissa turned to her little sister, pulling on her ponytail even as the little girl repeated, again, “Why does Santa look like Papou!”

“Because Santa looks like the people you love,” Marissa said.

I was a senior in college while Rapkin was collecting the book’s anecdotes, during the 2006-2007 school year, and now it reads to me as a summation of my college experience. Though I can’t hold a note, I see myself reflected in the personalities that Rapkin tracks. It’s a mirror to a certain age group, the internet-boom into Iraq-war generation that learned about sex from Monica Lewinsky and now gets nostalgic for slow news days. Rapkin’s subjects included future lawyers, bankers, doctors, consultants, and actors. But they weren’t citizens yet. Nor was I. We sang because, for four years, we were under the protective college bubble that gave us the unfortunate liberty not to care.

This summer’s bloated sequel may or may not live up to the standards set by its predecessor. I’ll be among the first to know, in a Times Square theater on opening night, blocks away from where the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella finals are hosted each spring, also recommended. But in any case, it’s likely to lack the strange and perhaps embarrassing emotional force of the acca-awesome book that spawned the franchise.

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