What We’re Reading

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A summer reading list by Nicholas Fuenzalida, ONSQU layout editor:

1. Farther Traveler – Ronaldo V. Wilson (Counterpath Press)

In the follow up to his incredible Poems of the Black Object, Ronaldo V. Wilson collages poetry, prose, and memoir to investigate the interstices of race, sexuality, and popular culture.

On Farther Traveler, poet and critic Fred Moten writes: “There’s a Fanonian trumpet Fanon couldn’t imagine, a dance all his own he could neither own nor step to, Ronaldo V. Wilson’s otherwise inconceivable graph, whose beauty and power reaches new depths and new heights in Farther Traveler, an erotic history of loss that is, therefore, an erotic theory of finding, its iridescent contacts, its eruptive grammars, its fluid, fleshly, aromatic loves. In the fabric of the general catastrophe, every silver and impossible daddy, every soft and possible father, gone further and farther away, Wilson works something new for us, an encounter of which we are made wonderfully aware—texture, scene, caress.”

2. James Schuyler: Collected Poems – James Schuyler (FSG)

James Schuyler is a poet whom I encountered only relatively recently in a craft course at NYU, While reading his Selected Poems, I was amazed by the level of attention bestowed upon small quotidian details, and the emotional affect that Schuyler’s musings deliver. I recently picked up his Collected Poems, but haven’t had the chance to make my way through them, but plan to very soon.

3. Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night – Morgan Parker (Switchback Books)

If you spend any time reading literary magazines, chances are you’ve stumbled across and been amazed by a Morgan Parker poem. Other People’s Comfort is Parker’s full-length debut, and I am excited to finally get the chance to read a collection of her stunning work.

On Other’s People Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, poet Tracy K. Smith writes:”Honesty, says one of Morgan Parker’s speakers, ‘is uncomfortable and funny.’ And how apt, how acrobatic and unflinching Parker is in bearing this thesis out. Her work roves the surface of our American Lives–gathering up material from reality TV, from the many products we consume and are shaped by, from the sound of American in our mouths, and the racket of it in our ears. These poems are delightful in their playful ability to rake through our contemporary moment in search of all manner of riches, just as they are devastating in their ability to remind us of what we look like when nobody’s watching, and of what the many things we don’t–or can’t–say add up to.”

4. The Musical Brain César Aira (New Directions)

The Musical Brain is Aira’s first story collection to be released in the US. It was released this spring, as has earned some well-deserved praise (Aira has published over eighty books). Now that summer has begun, I am looking forward to reading some fiction, and can’t think of a better way to begin than diving into Aira’s stream-of-consciousness style that can turn the arc of a narrative with a single phrase.

5. Remembrance of Things Past – Marcel Proust (Vintage)

Speaking of stream-of-consciousness, Proust’s magnum opus has long been on my reading list, but I haven’t had sufficient time to really immerse myself in it. Hopefully this summer, I will finally take the plunge. I’m going to end this now, because I clearly have a lot of reading to do.

A Frolic of His Own: on jury duty and revisiting Gaddis

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by Michael Sarinsky

“Justice? – You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law,” begins William Gaddis’ A Frolic of His Own, the 1994 National Book Award winner that I have occasion to revisit as I plan a subway route to the Kings County Supreme Court to serve my roughly sexennial jury duty this July. Frolic is Gaddis at his least accessible: five-hundred breathless pages of mostly unattributed dialogue, interspersed with legal opinions excerpted from increasingly burlesque cases. The book’s title is the operative quote from Joel v. Morison, the oft-cited 1834 English High Court case that helped to establish the modern understanding of vicarious liability, a legal doctrine that determines when employers are responsible for the extracurricular activities of their agents. (“The master is only liable where the servant is acting in the course of his employment… [I]f he was going on a frolic of his own, without being at all on his master’s business, the master will not be liable.” C & P 501, at 503 (finding defendant employer responsible for his servant’s negligent cart-and-horse accident that fractured plaintiff’s leg, and setting damages at a weren’t-1830s-prices-cute thirty pounds)). As a satire of the labyrinthine American judiciary, you can do much worse than Frolic. Gaddis is as sharp a political critic as he is a humorist. And I don’t know who softened ol’ Merriam and Webster, but “sexennial” doesn’t have nearly the lurid definition you’d want it to.

In 2010, before ever opening Frolic, I argued an appeal in the First Judicial Department of New York State Court’s Appellate Division on behalf of a Belizean immigrant I’ll refer to as Oscar.* I’d been assigned to Oscar’s case through a third-year law-school clinic, and worked in tandem with the tirelessly empathetic lawyers at the Office of the Appellate Defender at their downtown offices. We contended, (I’ll summarize here because, otherwise, how much time’ve you got?), that Oscar’s conviction for assault in the second degree ought to be overturned on account of his counsel’s failure to effectively assist him at trial. That Oscar had admitted on the witness stand to swiping at his accuser with a small paring knife from his silverware set (“I’m not a friendly guy,” he also told the jury) was none of our concern. He was my first client and was sure to be deported if he didn’t win his appeal.

*You know the drill re: names.

On a Tuesday night in the Bronx, not far from the Alexander Hamilton Bridge, Oscar was repeatedly punched in the face and dragged down flights of stairs by his ex’s new boyfriend. The boyfriend broke Oscar’s phone by throwing it out of the stairwell window, and then told Oscar that he needed to “get fucked in prison.” Oscar didn’t fight back. All of this was undisputed, consistent with testimony from both men. The next morning, the boyfriend was hanging out a block from Oscar’s apartment, and the two met as Oscar returned home from breakfast. Their stories diverged at this point, vis-à-vis who initiated the violence, but everyone agreed that Oscar swiped a knife he’d been carrying (for bicycle maintenance, Oscar later claimed – I don’t know) at the boyfriend’s abdomen, causing the kind of gash that irrefutably requires legal investigation.

This is called admitting to the elements of the crime, and it’s going to land you on the wrong side of a guilty verdict if you can’t convince the legal system that your actions were warranted. Yet Oscar’s trial counsel objected to the court impressing upon the jury the legal requirements for a self-defense justification, and so disappeared Oscar’s least congested avenue toward acquittal. He was quickly sentenced to five years of imprisonment. (If any of the terminology here goes ever-so-slightly over your head, keep in mind that it’s already being significantly simplified and then imagine washing up on the country’s shores without so much as a high-school education and, some fifteen years later, being police-escorted to the absolute middle of absolutely nowhere to serve a half-decade term for a Wednesday-morning crime that you still maintain was the surely-not-illegal act of protecting yourself against a violent aggressor.)

Oscar enjoyed writing us letters. His notes displayed a passing familiarity with English spelling, a better grasp of syntax and vocabulary, and a whole lot of heart. He repeated many times that he hoped the truth would reveal itself so that he could be reunited with what remained of his family. He addressed each message: “Dear Sir/Mom.”

Here’s some advice for your next visit to Mohawk Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison in Oneida County: after you’ve been properly metal-detectored and glared at, head to the cafeteria’s vending machines and buy your client a Coke. A dollar purchases you a ton of goodwill from a convict who hasn’t seen a single family member in two years. Oscar peppered me and my supervisor with legal precedents that purportedly somehow proved his innocence. He explained that he’d refused to plea out because he believed too strongly in his own case. His legally damning self-appraisal aside, he was a friendly guy to me.

I argued the appeal before a panel of five inquisitive judges, just off Madison Avenue. Oscar wasn’t permitted to attend. I don’t remember much of the proceeding, which lasted eight minutes, except for the chief jurist asking me: “So that’s your argument and you’re sticking to it, eh?” After my time expired, the judges wished me well on the Bar Exam, which I’d taken a few months before. As coincidence would have it, the New York State Board of Law Examiners later that afternoon accidentally leaked a list of candidates who’d passed the test. (Server-overwhelming and furious screen-capturing chaos unfolded. It’s a whole other story, really.)

Within hours of arguing the appeal, I was among a growing cadre of young lawyers celebrating our newly-minted titles in an East Village bar, while, in a thirsty cell upstate, Oscar had whatever passes for a normal night in prison. And, three weeks later, the Appellate Division announced that he’d lost his appeal because a justification defense would have had little or no hope of success at trial, and a competent attorney could have concluded that the jury was more likely to return a favorable verdict without being instructed on the legal definition of self-defense.

The last we heard from Oscar was a note of appreciation, in which he thanked us “from the bellows of [his] heart.” For a final time, he addressed us as “Sir/Mom.” I still love that. All the sentiment, none of the tools. The only guy in the room to ever, at any point in the entire process, say something pleasing to the ear.

Oscar found the law in this world. My understanding from the New York State Penal Department’s website is that he was deported back to Belize after serving his sentence. And as the wounds heal, I recognize that there are plentiful reasons for society to imprison the knife-wielders among us, just as there were solid legal arguments for rejecting Oscar’s appeal and expiring his immigration status. But when I show up for jury service at 360 Adams Street at 8:30 a.m. on July 9th, I don’t know how many of them I’ll choose to remember.

Werner Herzog on Insanity, Antiquity and Wrestlemania

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by Laura Creste

Last night Werner Herzog spoke at the New York Public Library’s main branch as part of its “LIVE from the NYPL” series. Herzog is endlessly quotable and mordantly funny, so I took down some notes to paraphrase here. He was in conversation with his old friend Paul Holdengräber about “Salt and Fire” – his newest movie starring Michael Shannon, his family’s history in Greece, and other oddities.

Because the talk was presented in part by the Onassis Cultural Center of New York, the conversation repeatedly circled around the importance of Greek antiquity for understanding our roots as Western civilization – Herzog urges us all to read Thucydides btw – and Greece’s floundering economy of the present. It turns out the school Herzog attended had a focus on the classics, and he spent nine years studying Latin, six years Ancient Greek, and then “a little English, not much” in his last year. When asked to, he can still recite the first few lines of the Iliad in their original Greek.

The classics reappear in our lives in surprising ways, if you know where to look. Herzog is interested in Wrestlemania as a “crude form of mythology and drama,” not in the fights, he was quick to add, but in the McMahon family’s performances. The owners feud in the ring, with the father fighting his son; then fighting his daughter; at some point his mistress attacks his wife. (I fact-checked this for you guys and ended up watching all 14 minutes of the spectacle, unable to look away. The acting is so bad it hurts to watch, like a grade-school play. However I couldn’t confirm Herzog’s reference to the wife sometimes appearing in a wheelchair and dark sunglasses because she is “blind from grief.”)

Because Herzog is curious about so many things, his conversational detours are pretty unexpected. He spoke about humans having a cultural memory (basically invoking Jung’s collective unconscious though not in those words) that appears over and over again in our art. He spoke about the Chauvet Cave in France, which contains the oldest known prehistoric cave paintings – and was the subject of his 2010 movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams. In the cave the only human representation is of a woman’s lower half juxtaposed with a bison head. Herzog likened it to Picasso’s etchings of the Minotaur and a woman as all part of the same cultural lineage.

Many of my characters make a lot of sense. Even the mad ones.

He sometimes sounds a bit mystical when describing images that recur across time, or how one must learn to read patterns in landscapes. “I try to understand and decipher the signs. And they resist.” Although seeing patterns where none exist is a sign of madness. He knows this. Once while traveling through the mountains of Greece, Herzog came upon a valley of windmills and found it hard to recognize them for what they were, instead of the flowers that they appeared to be. He briefly wondered if it was a “deranged landscape” or if he himself were mad.

Holdengräber then asked: “What separates your consciousness from a consciousness that goes mad for real?”

Herzog hesitated. “I better … shouldn’t know it. And don’t want to know it. There is a reflex of sanity inside of me that doesn’t want to approach that question to the very last step and look into the abyss. I’ve looked into abysses in my films – but I don’t want to look into that one.” The audience chuckled until he clarified: “No it’s not funny. I mean it.”

Of course, at some point in the talk, he had to take a shot at my generation for reading Twitter instead of books – why that would be mutually exclusive I don’t know, but the complaint is de rigueur by now. He did offer us these solid tips to make movies, or at least to lead interesting lives, which I’ll leave you with now:

  1. Travel on foot.
  2. Read, read, read.
  3. Earn money with your own hands.
  4. Don’t work in an office. Work as a bouncer at a sex club or a work as a guard in a lunatic asylum.

You can listen to the entire conversation here at the New York Public Library website.

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!

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