For a long time I clung to punctuation. I felt like a poem that didn’t scoop each pause with a little comma spoon wasn’t letting me breathe right. Or that a poem that didn’t end with a stern full stop wasn’t finished. It was like the poem was still making up its mind, and that indecision (like all indecision) frightened me. Look at me, even now, reassuring myself with little regulatory marks.
The first of KMA Sullivan’s three poems typifies all the reasons I finally let go. I love her intersection of visual and written art and feel like it wouldn’t be so sharp if she allowed the reader the luxury of a comma to tell them when to pause. I know ‘between the lines’ is a horrid cliché, but that’s where the synthesis (the ‘almost ekphrastic’) occurs. In that first poem we find these lines:
[...]Pissarro’s work flourished
butter skies and violet trees
showed us who we are
in color and light
The clean lineation opens up a multitude of meanings here, and compelled me to return again and again to Sullivan’s poems. In “burned / butter skies” is “burned” the verb or part of the adjective? It’s both, at the same time, and it’s exhilarating.
I also love Sullivan’s pieces because they are just a little too real. The kind of real that will break your heart and make you laugh aloud in the same short text. ‘Postmodern’ opens “I wonder how long / this is going to take / to be free of you” and closes “my younger self / feather earrings and tasselled skirts / squeegee my face”. Now tell me you don’t know what I mean.
Sullivan has the two things I have always thought essential for poetry: an eye and an ear. The result is lines you can rejoice in, even if they’re only two words long (for example “sonorous color”, which embodies what it describes).
Ekphrasis is when verse pours libations to art. This is not what Sullivan does. She distils image into text and produces something that belongs definitively to neither, because it remains too human to merely be called a product. There are strains of visual art, yes, but what is offered here is only its most vital moving parts.
“poetry, that wild beast / could take what is left”.
If there existed a natural world miracle scale, one might place the Grand Canyon on one end and the brief, delicate connection between two human beings at the other (modern air travel would fall somewhere in between). Molly Prentiss presents us with both the big amazing/little amazing and the relationship between these phenomena in her story “The Grand Canyon Brings People Together.”
The piece is brief, the language precise and taut and just a little bit muscular, and here we see prose that inhabits its space fully. So, too, do the characters—a girl who has to pee and a “mean lady” who we learn has been “bruised” by her life—occupy fully the few inches of legroom and chair trays they’ve been assigned. We don’t know their names or destinations, but the characters flying above the west feel fully realized and full-fledged.
There’s tension in flight: even someone like me who likes it wonders how the machine stays up. The chairs are uncomfortable, there isn’t enough space for our joints or limbs, and we’re pressed up against strangers in ways more intimate than almost any other public situation. In this story, the tension extends to both the bladder and psyche of the girl who needs the restroom and who wonders if this “bitchy bruised lady” at her side might have ever had a childhood. Even the woman’s pants (“They were khakis maybe. Capris”) suggest rigidity, the tightrope of flight and travel, of occupying a closed cabin with people you’ll never know.
If we readers feel a bit claustrophobic, worrying about the girl languishing in her seat or wondering if the mean woman will display the nastiness we’ve anticipated—or if technology may fail, a possibility in plane pieces—this tension is released when the girl sees the Grand Canyon beneath the plane. Floored by it, she invites the woman to look out over the gorge that’s “Like a life, but bigger, physically. Emotionally smaller.”
Here, for me, is the conflation of miracles. It’s in this moment that we see how these characters are emotionally bigger than we can imagine, that we’re passengers glimpsing them from a distance and for a moment only. The story ends with the woman confessing that yes, she did have a childhood once—a poignant moment and amazing not simply because the girl had never actually asked (not out loud at least), but because it’s always astounding to see a chasm bridged between our lives and the ones they brush up against.
For the same reason I love seeing the insides of other people’s houses, I love B.N. Landry’s story “Free Architecture.” Call me voyeuristic, but I like to see how people arrange their objects. I want to see whether a couple shares the same tube of toothpaste, whether or not someone still has a land-line, what magazines are delivered to their house each week and how and where they stack them. In “Free Architecture” we are allowed into the rooms that contain the lives of John and Laura (John’s apartment, “an important new restaurant,” an art museum), whose indoor universes distort the very objects that they contain. It is only when we get to Laura’s place, where “the land was covered with tall green trees,” that we realize we have been cooped up inside for so long, contained in the walls of a (second? tenth?) date with John and Laura, attempting to translate the language of their objects and the object of their language: are these people in love or what?
But the reason it’s fun to see other people’s stuff is not because you actually want to know more about them, no. Precisely the opposite. You want to think you know. You want to see one little thing – the sock on the floor or the weird floral potholder – and you want to make up the story behind it, you want to imagine it yourself. Landry lets us do this at a micro level, letting his sentences cut before the story is entirely told. “When he looked in the mirror,” Landry writes of John, “he saw not himself but another person, who had made different decisions.” Do we get to find out what these decisions were? No. Never. Instead we are left in a nondescript room with John and his “large stomach,” imagining how the stomach got so large, how the bad decisions were made, why, and for whom. It’s like a song in which an important note is withheld, and in the space where the note should be you fill it in in your head. Those are the best songs, because the space allows for possibility and for invention, and for the meta-voyeur, the wonder at what the author himself imagined in that space.
But in all of Landry’s withholdings, in all his sparse, vague spaces and moments – the “large, white rooms” and the “clean and transparent” cities – there is an immaculate specificity. On the white walls of “Free Architecture” there are hairs stuck in the paint, in its transparent cities there are very definite reflections. The curator – “she wore a suit and new glasses” – is a curator that we all know, despite the fact that she has been so thinly defined. We all know the important restaurant with no customers, its suited, happy waiters. We all know the line “Everything is so fresh!” coming from the pretty mouth of our discomfited date. We understand the particulars of John and Laura’s universe, we have just never seen the particulars architected like this.
Architected, yes, but free: the story moves, or should I say holds itself up, in the manner of its title. It has a foundation and it will not fall, but it is built associatively and sporadically – it has windows in the strangest places, landings in the middle of the stairs, spurts of awkward extra space, hallways that lead to nowhere. John and Laura wear food instead of clothes, oil paintings are served for dinner instead of food, and museum curators are available for quasi-spiritual montages, while lying on the floor. Laura’s bedroom, for crying out loud, is in the middle of the forest! In these amorphous portals lives the magic that drives this short story. Some might call it magical realism, these almost hallucinatory distortions of what we know to be normal, but I’d call it a keen tap into the core of the world in which we actually do live – don’t we all feel like the glass of the coffee table we are laying under is too low sometimes, too low for us to move? And isn’t this noting of the surreal nature of real life at the essence of good fiction?
Of course we can’t ignore the splendid spiral staircase of a conversation at the end of the story, where Laura proclaims that she doesn’t think she could “ever have sex with a man so uncomfortable with spending money.” Money, a very real, very bland subject, is deliberated in the bizarre manner of the rest of the story – it turns into a captor (“Before you were a prisoner of not having money, now you are a prisoner of having money.”) and then shape-shifts into the chicken pox (“…once you get it and then lose it, you will never get it again”). And then, with the same perfect randomness with which we were given Laura’s apples and John’s banana, the narrator himself (the narrator himself!) cuts in to verify the truth of this last statement. And this, my friends, feels like picking up the telephone and hearing someone else’s conversation, and they’re talking about sex or personal embarrassment or cheating on their significant other. Not only the voyeur’s jackpot, but one of those wise moments, where you think, alongside the narrator, Which is true, Which is true.
In “All Activity is Silent”, Tania Hershman shows us a couple that is slowly, in the course of “a year, another year, another year” drifting apart. Their drifting is personal, it’s intimate. It is well-nigh impossible for anyone outside a relationship to say what’s going on in that space carefully probed and explored by the author. At least this is what I felt when I read the piece and when I listened to Hershman’s own well-paced, meticulously accentuated delivery: that I was standing outside listening in, that it was perhaps wrong to listen to these two. The saddest moment of this story is when the words of remembering “tell her nothing. Or something, but she doesn’t see them.” There are moments in this short piece that bring back the best of Beckett. Dialogue that really is monologue and that could go on forever, painfully so. The author’s gaze upon this couple is somewhat surgical: they’re active like the busy microbes working inside them, but they’re drifting apart nevertheless. Or maybe I’m all wrong and these are two actors doing improvisational theatre. Or they’re robots from a distant future trying to sound happily married but not getting it. So many possibilities—that is the art of this piece, that the spaces between the few words written are so large and leave so much space for my imagination. I experienced the strain of having to fill them and I might have got lost in my own thoughts had there not been this wonderful moment when “all activity is silent and they are right right where they belong.” I loved this ending—and the way Hershman pulls it off using repetition to stretch stretch time.
The beauty, for me, of Marcus Speh’s “Three Berg Passages: a Triptych” is that it doesn’t altogether make sense. It’s a trio of disjointed, isolated pieces. I spent quite some time reading and re-reading them, trying to find some links between them, and I don’t see one. Maybe there is and I just don’t see it. Maybe I’m just not that smart. I don’t really care. The joy, for me, in this kind of writing is in the odd, subtle absurdity of it all. Am I meant to find these stories funny? Because I do. But I find Kafka hilarious. Maybe there’s something wrong with me.
There is, of course, another kind of beauty – the beauty of the language. Speh’s writing is, for the most part, terse, precise and minimal. But when the desire takes him, he unleashes wonderful flourishes, such as “This hallucination, too, was part of his father’s heritage, as were the stark fishtail blue eyes and the fine, sensitive hair on the back of his hands. They had to make up for this distorted vision of half of humanity.” I imagine him like some kind of wordsmith boxer, hopping from foot to foot with deliberate ease, only to suddenly let loose a flurry of blows that leave you gasping.
My favourite piece is probably the last in the three, “Passages”, in which a boy pulls a horrible face and then reaches down into his own stomach to pull out a magic ring, only for the assembled crowds of people to be thoroughly disappointed when the boy cannot tell them if the ring is special or even what it does. This to me feels like a pointed critique at aspects of the society we live in now, where it is the end result that is interesting, magical; it is instant celebrity. Hard work, the effort, the path to that goal is unimpressive — “Anybody can find a ring”.
As J. Bradley says in his guest introduction to the latest issue of > kill author: “Word choice in writing, in speaking, is powerful”. And our fifteenth issue brings with it a wealth of writers who make some very powerful word choices in their prose and poetry, that’s for sure, with many of them giving voice to their contributions in accompanying audio too. So whether you read or listen or both (even just look at the pictures), whether you browse online or download one of our e-book versions, we hope you enjoy reading this issue as much as we enjoyed putting it together.
(And though we don’t often mention the deceased writers whose names form the title of each issue, Ann Quin does deserve a few moments in the spotlight. She’s not nearly well-known as she should be, so do yourself a favor and pick up one of the four books she published during her far too short lifetime.)
Carissa Halston, who brought Kris and Tyler Compete to Issue Fourteen, discusses her highlight from the same issue, Everything I Think About When I Am Trying Not To Think:
Robb Todd’s narrator’s attempt to dehumanize himself emerges in his every action. He animates inanimate things: subways, lunches, words—“It occurred to me that ‘take a nip’ might be a nipple reference.” Also, he tags every negligent, thoughtless person he encounters with the ironic, reverent label, human being, the best example, “Another human being said this: ‘It’s weird watching movies where people aren’t getting shot.’” The reversal of what it means to be human is so obvious here as to be staggering. But it could easily be written off as irony for irony’s sake if the narrator didn’t liken himself to a machine or an absence, “I walked home and a bunch of birds, a lot of little brown dots, flew at my face and I blinked and while I blinked they must have flown through me.” Something about registering birds as little brown dots sounds like the way a robot might see things, but the fact that the birds flew through him insinuates that he’s not there at all.
That said, the narrator is the most thoughtful, humane presence in the story. Therein lies his charm.
He’s surrounded on all sides by racism, artlessness, and narcissism, which may be why he’s compiling this list of inconvenient, invasive thoughts, but he’s also afflicted with a sponge-like capacity for others’ grief. He takes everyone else’s awful facets and says, I feel bad for them. Further, “I am vulnerable to other people’s all-caps and emoticons.” The sensitivity inherent in the statement aside, it’s more telling that he’s willing to confess it at all. Also, it leads to Todd’s later heartbreaking use of an emoticon sad face, which would have otherwise felt out of place, if not cloying.
As with any realist fiction, I’m aware of the meaning-within-meaninglessness that authors attempt to dole out. But it’s the awareness of Todd’s narrator, his willingness to play the target for his own judgment, that lends depth to what could be dismissed as a list of thoughts meant to distract when life becomes overwhelming. Pusillanimous though Todd’s narrator believes himself to be, I feel drawn in—into his life, into his sink with its orange peels and egg shells—and despite the implication that he is any less human or present than anyone else, I care more about his absence than their existence.
Megan Martin’s three shorts and Sam Rasnake’s three poems tied for my favorite works from a luminous Issue Fourteen. Candid dynamic narrators and their delivery of lyrical, yet tactile surprises tied these six gems up in a word-loot-laden bag of bookie booty.
I’ve been working even harder lately at balancing stylized prose with attainable sentences, to add support stilts to stories that are, admittedly, more like language puzzles. I’m assembling a wider, tauter net in a way — casting for all readers rather than writer/readers or myself, the writer/reader.
It’s vital to earn readers early so the coming recreation with astonishing admission or bouncy language has unwound some narrative slack.
In ‘On a Cellular Level,’ Martin caused me to consider digging up the sympathy I felt for her narrator right after she had planted it — ‘You arrive. You do mean things to me… new mean things which are exciting...’ And then, a sentence later, an odd image arrangement rubs in plumb to the piece’s anchored foundation — ‘There is so much meaning in the world, for example how you just said rat’s nest on top of the cereal factory and slapped my tit.’
In Rasnake’s ‘Sketches: a Study for Three Heads, 1962,’ the story rests for a saucy series of tri-prefixes. We are cued to stop and soak in this sly poem within a poem. The narrative tangent then returns to its tangibility, rescued by the direct blued perspective ‘Three things to tell you, loss, loss and more loss.’
After a run of artist and character word-search name-dropping in the fun, very different ‘A Day in The Life,’ Rasnake craftily symbolizes the reader — “a stone for story.” I assume other readers, like me, used the flattery of unique inclusion to tighten focus for the next and final stanza, so we can be ultra-receptive to a closing line and image that any reader can digest (with options to digress imaginatively) — ‘the road’s dark hum disappears into Mobius belts of a starless sky.’
Rasnake’s gift for reading is most vibrant in the final piece, ‘For Now,’ which more than the previous two made me wonder if the work was etched hundreds of years ago on a clay tablet or cave wall, say. It smells like it has already lasted. The Wild West voice shutters through the first paragraph discernibly faster than in the previous two poems, using conversational remarks as convenient-platform’d pit-stops: ‘and it’s snowing — did I tell you that?’, ‘- meanwhile the phone doesn’t ring and that’s a good thing — and the letters aren’t mailed and there’s no one to read your thoughts.’ Then the tempo downshifts and rumbles steadily up to the final poignant detail of an edgy stare.
Martin’s ‘This Bitch Will Never Have a Dress’ opens with a clear setting and circumstance – Minnesotans put off by the bride’s breast hat at a wedding – which balances the paragraph’s quirky image of a bride in a sparkly leotard and fuzzy thigh-highs riding a unicycle down the aisle while the audience looks down at their spaceship phones.
Here again, a narrator, like a good friend or nurse, stays by our side carefully telling, to ensure that we process her experience in the same color and shape that she did.
This one closes with my favorite line of the issue: ‘I believe so ferociously in art.’ The adjective ‘ferocious’ suggests aggression and activity. I expect this narrator will not only create art, but fight for it. ‘I will keep on believing so ferociously in art, I say.’
But in the post-swell lulls, I’m vulnerable to forgetting believing. So I thank these two authors for the motivating reminders.
For our fourteenth collection, Megan Martin brought us three short fictions. Here’s her choice pick from the other pieces in the same issue:
You can’t really not get excited about something titled ‘Raymond Carver’s Dance Party,’ or I couldn’t, because the idea of Carver plus dance party is so totally absurd and engaging. But the title also alludes to the piece’s gifts: it’s fantastical, over the top, bawdy, absurd and hilarious, but also admirably smart. I’m an impatient reader these days—a story has to grab me right away or I put it down—so lately what I appreciate in a piece of fiction is that it takes huge risks; I want to read things that destroy my expectations of what a story can or should be from the get-go. In part, what that means is: I don’t want to be bored; I want to be surprised/shocked/unsettled; I don’t want to read a story that is like anything I’ve ever read.
J. Bradley’s piece is surprising (and not boring) in the best of ways. A few highlights: the opening, wherein one character asks another: ‘fill me with your seed...[in] the handicapped bathroom’; talking ice cubes inhabited by ‘the ghost of 1992′ (who offers advice in the form of 80s song titles); a fruity drink described as a ‘pureed island.’ This is the kind of fiction I want to read, the kind that contains a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure book titled A Night At The Club’ where ‘Hillary and I were on the cover in our club clothes.’ I want ridiculous; I want things that would be utterly offensive and unacceptable to the New Yorker.
While the language and fantastical elements are what grabbed me initially, the real treat of the piece is how smart it is. In the middle, as the narrator tries to decide whether to take character Hillary up on her ‘seed’ proposition, the story takes this terrific and surprising turn toward metafiction by running through options of what would happen if this story were sci-fi, romance, after school special, etc. It suddenly moves in a direction I didn’t expect and creates this rocky ground where the reader suddenly has no idea where she’s located, what genre has to do with anything, or what’s about to happen. And when the piece finishes with the two gloriously ambiguous phrases, typical of Carver’s endings, it all comes together in this brilliant way: ‘The fourth ice cube said nothing. This is not how I helped make you, Bobby. One day, I’ll tell you how you were made. One day.’ Well, that just knocked my socks off. This smart, playful, funny piece made me feel refreshed and excited about what fiction can and should be.
By now you’ve hopefully had enough time to soak up the general awesomeness that was Issue Fourteen of > kill author, so here’s the first of our blog posts in which writers from that collection discuss the favorite piece that caught their eye. First up, here’s Rose Hunter:
At first glance I felt I could not understand the narrator of Kevin Tadge’s ‘Golden Brown, since I love grilled cheese sandwiches. I cannot make grilled cheese sandwiches because I don’t have a griller or a stove, but if I did I would make them and eat them and not hoard them let alone ‘trade them with the air in my mattress’ because that would get moldy and stinky real quick. However, the idea of having an addiction to something that (on some level at least) you can’t stand, is one that I can relate to. Oh yes... I’ve had a couple of those. And how in this story/word object we have the return of the repressed, or the inevitability of relapse in some sense — or the way it makes me see giant grilled cheese sandwiches everywhere. The tide nibbling at their toes. The house on the edge of the cliff... OK by this stage he (I believe he’s a he which I realize is not stated, but to me he seems like a he so I will call him a he) has been taken in by a good waitress and is making other types of sandwiches. But it seems inevitable that this woman who is/was loved by the narrator’s dog is chopped cheddar when compared to the force of his original obsession as the cliff erodes onto the beach, like landsliding cheese coursing down a hot slice of bread, and of course the place floods and they have to sleep on the roof, where there is sand. Sand? Just like the dreaded grilled cheese: it ‘cools and hardens into rock. So smooth. So tasteless’.
I had never heard of Kevin Tadge and have not read anything else he has written, although I did click on his blog and look at some of his photographs. The first one is a chicken, I believe. His bio is also curious with that addition of the girl.
The fourteenth issue of > kill author has arrived, spreading its words across the web or into your electronic reading device of choice. Yes, we know it’s a Sunday, but we’re not God-fearing editors. We realized that Sundays can be a bleak time, with nothing to do but mope around and dread the start of the working week only a few hours away. So forget all about the chores and the things you’ve told yourself you have to do, and instead sink down into your favorite old chair and immerse yourself in the work of the twenty-six writers who have honored us with their words on this occasion (plus an introduction by Gregory Sherl).
A few readers have previously told us that some issues of > kill author can appear to have a theme running through them. We remain puzzled by this, because if there are such themes present we can never spot them for ourselves (or maybe we can but we’re just not confessing to them). So once you’ve read through this latest collection, give us your best shot at what might have been on our minds this time. Sex? Religion? Catholic guilt? The economic crisis? Whether there’s life on other planets? Psychoanalyze us and reveal our deepest, darkest preoccupations. Just don’t charge us for your services.
Hope you enjoy the latest issue.
Back in September last year, we were really excited about the launch of Zine-Scene and its focus on online literary magazines — so much so that we invited Richard Mocarski from their editorial team to write a guest post right here on our blog explaining more about the project. Since then, we’ve kept a close eye on their various zine and author spotlights, as well as The Reprint, Zine-Scene’s literary journal which “liberates” words from the printed page (just our little joke there, you understand) and puts them online for all to read.
Now they’ve introduced another innovation with the Online Literature Calendar. The name tells you all you need to know — this is going to be a fantastic resource to find your way around the various publication schedules of the ever-growing number of literary magazines, whether they unveil a new issue every month, every other month (like us), or even just once a year.
If you’re an editor of an online literary magazine, make sure you get your publication signed up. Email Richard at editor [at] zine-scene [dot] com with your release schedule, a link to your journal, a one to two sentence description of what it’s all about, and your logo. And if you’re a reader, Zine-Scene is on Twitter too, so follow them to get all those quick 140-character updates on new online literature.
Three poems by David Tomaloff featured in our most recent issue. Below, he tells us about one of his particular highlights from the same collection:
I’m humbled to be included among the excellent authors featured in Issue Thirteen. I feel as though every piece is deserving of positive reaction; however, J. A. Tyler’s ‘[ the fourth house /// rebuilt ]’ stands out to me as being particularly enchanting. J. A. Tyler has a knack for authoring almost freakishly limber sentences that manage all at once to be fluid, dense, poetic, heady, and, despite all of this, lean and effortless to read. His use of repetition and cyclical language dances in all of the right places, propelling the prose forward, allowing it to gather steam as it goes.
“A bear crept into this fourth house, and I was standing in the darkness, an open knife, waiting to take guts in my fingers, to feel the warmth of once was living. In this fourth house in this cave in this mountain in these woods, smearing bear-blood on black walls, a brother mine-field in front of me.”
“I am in search of my deer-brother because I want to tell him what it means to be like this. I want him to see beneath my own deer-skin that there is a brother-core, that there are love-words and moments of sky unencumbered by clouds. I want my deer-brother to see his deer-brother, no matter. Instead it was a note of dying, the death he handed me, dear brother, and the lost woods always circling, fourth houses built and burned and built and burned.”
Tyler’s fluidity is often punctuated and carefully guided by terse verbal uppercuts—sentences which provide contrast and tension to the freefall.
“In these woods I burn down everything that I don’t understand.”
“In these woods, the always instead.”
The cumulative effect is both gut-wrenching and exhilarating. It’s the kind of writing that makes me forget I’m reading; which is about as much as any writer can hope for.
We’re really honored that > kill author — and specifically Issue Eight — has been awarded second place in the inaugural Saboteur Awards for literary magazines, which is run by Sabotage, the site that reviews “pamphlets, small presses, poetry and fiction magazines, manifestos, online journals, stapled pieces of paper, installation poetry, performed poetry.” Thanks to all the judges involved in this decision, and for all the reviews you’ve done.
We were in good company, too. In third place was Issue 24 of La Petite Zine, while Issue 7 of Moon Milk Review was highly commended for its integration with the web. We’ll admit, though, that he winner, Polarity, was a new publication to us, but we’re certainly going to be checking it out based on what Sabotage had to say about it.
With so many publications around, online and offline, all competing for our time, we certainly recommend checking out the comprehensive reviews on Sabotage to see what’s caught their eye.
Anderson Holderness’ ‘How to Eat an Oriole’ takes a heavy stone and heaves it into the air with such convincing certainty that wings emerge from the stone and it begins to fly.
This post office is an infinite dimension filled with mail slots, wood paneling, and birds which the mail clerk oversees with a strangely benign malevolence. His violence would be heart-rending if the birds had not developed a curious protective adaptation. The narrator comes to comfortably inhabit the strangeness of this world, and while at the end the action seems about to take a turn for the Hitchcockian, Holderness makes the macabre roll over and beg for its belly to be rubbed.
As with my favorite pieces of magical realism it leaves me yearning to explore the rest of this world, but also convinced by the unique truth of this sequence.