A new piece of flash fiction by alumni Matthew Muller (fiction, ’10) appears in Stone Highway Review:
The small family takes a road trip, husband wife and daughter. The husband drives, full of vigor, the road before him. The wife wears a serene expression and wind blows through her hair. If you had to, you might say that they were an archetype of man and woman, at least this is what he tells himself, this is what the set-up of a family on a trip in a car suggests. Man. Woman. Child. The open window shows low green mountains and yellow fields passing. Later, he pulls the car up by a gravelly bend in the river, the water deep, a swimming hole. The husband grabs the rope, extends out, drops in yelling and comes up blowing water. Among them, he is the big wild one, the man. The small child giggles and screams “Daddy!” But he feels strangely fraudulent in the water, knowing others who are in fact, more wild than him. The wife laughs too, and with a kind of heaviness in his chest he grabs and lifts the water in a grand gesture up into the air where it becomes a glistening sheet distending drops. At night, when there is a sound from outside the tent, he is first to jump up with his flashlight to see what is there. He knows it is not bravery really that makes him do it, it is more his duty as man, a role he is playing. Unthinkingly he zips open the tent door. Realistically, he knows there will always be men in the darkness stronger than him. His wife often calls him brave and says he is the best of this, of that, insistently, even though they both know it isn’t really true. Right? Does she know she is lying? There have always been better men than him, stronger men, smarter men, men more sensitive, this is true no matter how hard he tries to make it otherwise, and in her smile, when she tells him the opposite, she knows it too, she has seen them. As he stands outside the tent, staring into a darkness he cannot truly parse, he is beginning to feel that he doesn’t actually care about the dark trees surrounding them, their constant threat, and the kind of insecurity and rebellion they foster in him, trees rushing in a night wind with a tremulous and ominous peace all their own, a peace that is age old and seems to both frame him individually and erase him simultaneously, trees all down the valley, all up the mountainsides, endless prairies of trees, and the small family among them, the dim ray of the flashlight moving from trunk to trunk.
Alumni Greg Pierce’s (fiction, ’12) new collaboration with Broadway composer John Kander is featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered”:
Broadway composer John Kander is a living legend: With his songwriting partner, the late Fred Ebb, he created the scores for the smash hit musicals Cabaret and Chicago,as well as the enduring anthem “New York, New York.”
Now, at 86, Kander has a new writing partner — and a new musical, The Landing,opening off-Broadway Wednesday.
“Life Goes On”
For a guy with such an illustrious history, Kander isn’t terribly nostalgic. He’s a writer, and he likes to write. And despite the pain of losing a collaborator of more 40 years, he knew the time had come to move on.
“Fred and I had a wonderful long time together, and it was a huge part of my life, but life goes on,” Kander says. “And I never thought about living in the past. I just don’t.”
So a few years ago, Kander called up Greg Pierce, a young playwright and short-story author he’d been mentoring, and asked him if he wanted to work on a small-scale musical.
“The idea was to have four actors and four instruments, and have it be very, very, very, very, very small,” he says.
And that was OK with Pierce.
“When I got that phone call from John, I mean — that was one of the most exciting phone calls I’ve ever gotten,” he says. “And the thought had crossed my mind that maybe we could work together. I would never have asked him, because of, you know, where I was and where he is. [But] it’s just been a real joy. Every work session has been a joy.”
And working with the 35-year-old playwright has made Kander approach composing with a new vigor.
Greg Pierce and John Kander, on the carpet at a cast photo session for The Landing in September, are 51 years apart in age, but the two report working smoothly together.
“Working together as we do has made me write in a different way,” he says. “And it’s been a great adventure.”
Everybody Wants Something
The Landing is an evening of three small musicals that play like short stories. Each one has a narrator, and each ends with a surprising plot twist.
In the first story, a bright but lonely boy befriends a carpenter and learns about the constellations and the mythology behind them, as well as some painful life lessons. In the second, a woman who loves gangster movies buys a brick from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and it comes to life, with comic and crazy consequences. In the third, a gay couple adopts a boy who seems too good to be true — and it turns out he is.
“In these pieces,” Pierce says, “someone wants something really badly, and they don’t know what they’re in for!”
Walter Bobbie, who directed the hit revival of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago that’s still running on Broadway, has staged The Landing, eliciting finely etched performances from the tiny cast of four, each playing multiple roles.
“The consequences to everybody’s desires in each of these stories is remarkably different — and sometimes, both simultaneously sad and romantic,” Bobbie says. “There’s kind of a lyric quality to these pieces that I found beautiful.”
November 7 at 6:00
NYU Main Bookstore
726 Broadway by Waverly Place
Please join Elizabeth Arnold, Stuart Dischell, Reginald Gibbons, Maurice Manning, Martha Rhodes, Daniel Tobin and Eleanor Wilner.
A new issue of Tupelo Quarterly features work by several Warren Wilson MFA alumni, including a story by Peg Alford Pursell (fiction, ’96).
An uncle is a babysitter in a pinch, which happens rarely, only when Mother has to run out to comfort her friend Suzanne, an emergency that isn’t that rare, in Dad’s opinion, but an uncle is someone who doesn’t take sides in the matter. He comes to the rescue, and sits on the sofa watching a wrestling match on TV, and says Stop it now! after you and your sister have slapped each other’s arms burning red with your Barbie dolls. He gives you a look that makes your stomach heavy and you feel pretty sure he knows you’re to blame – you’re the oldest. You sing all the Beatles songs you can think of, to impress him with how you know the words to so many songs. He’s like your dad in the way that’s he’s not that interested and stares straight ahead at the action on the screen. You brush all your hair from the back of your head forward, smooth it down over your forehead, past your eyebrows and into your eyes to look like Ringo, who isn’t the cutest Beatle but has something special. “Look, Uncle Lew!” He glances over and gives a snort, and you feel a little better.
An uncle is someone your mother likes a lot, and when he drops by unexpectedly, she turns off the iron and sits down with him at the kitchen table, where they drink Pepsis or RC Cola if it’s on sale at the Shop n’ Save, and eat snacks, probably chocolate macaroons, and his voice flows low from out there, and she giggles and giggles again. There is something high and twinkly about that laugh, like the sound of the glass wind chimes suspended outside the neighbor’s door that you wish you could talk her into buying to hang on your porch – but one day. When you grow up and you live in your own house, then. Then.
A new issue of Tupelo Quarterly features work by several Warren Wilson MFA alumni, including a new story by Joan Frank (fiction, ’96).
The man and the woman slammed themselves into the car with relief.
Certainly, the little beach cottage had been all they might have wished for. Its heating didn’t function, but they’d managed. The fireplace had finally more or less done what it was touted to do. They’d eaten well, walked on the cold, wet sand (a silver wafer of sun for an hour; better than none)—watched a funny video, made love. The hot water out of the taps was weak and intermittent; they’d solved that by soaking in the little outdoor tub. A real retreat. They’d kissed and joked and nuzzled like Mr. and Mrs. Bear.
Now they were pointed toward home, laughing, eager to be thoroughly warmed by forced-air heating, amid strong reading lights again.
But the fog was a new element.
The fog was a stranger who’d entered the movie of themselves.
It gulped the scenery: majestic miles of beach. The green gentle hills rolling back, back. The apple groves gilded with autumn leaves like burnished coins, rows tumbling toward the roadway in amber light. The eucalyptus groves, the serene river. The little towns nestled in the leafy middle distance.
A new issue of Tupelo Quarterly features work by several Warren Wilson MFA alumni, including translations of Sarah Kirsch’s poetry by Abigail Wender (poetry, ’08), with Hella Von Bonin.
The Little Prince
My eyes have messed me up, so I see Earth
Above me walk on clouds now, where
Directions are, no paths, the mountains
Hang down under as do the trees
With birds inside, out of the houses
Fall pillows, scribbled papers
Now and then a threat, the people
Walk on their heads—their certainty
Frightens, I can’t reach their chimneys
The twinkle of my abandoned window
As in the past the evening star
A new issue of Tupelo Quarterly features work by several Warren Wilson MFA alumni, including two poems, “Withdrawl” and “After Picking Apples,” by Nate Pritts (poetry, ’00).
All the leaves on the trees
are yellow explosions.
They’re dead or they’re dying.
It’s too beautiful to process
& it never relents.
I look out over the lake
filled with so many chemicals.
The water is grey like the sky
is grey like even
the grass. I can feel the war
I know nothing will be left.
I create a fake Facebook profile
so I can check on the people
who I’ve blocked or who blocked me.
I name him Robert Lowell.
Enemies upon enemies.
I can’t believe this is my Wednesday
There’s too much
psychic backlash these people
interacting with my persona.
I telephone my boss tell her
I can’t teach any classes today
since I have already seen how this ends.
A new issue of Tupelo Quarterly features work by several Warren Wilson MFA alumni, including an essay by Elizabeth Eslami (fiction, ’03) entitled, “Spikes and Rivers: The Work of Joe Wilkins,” followed by an interview with Wilkins:
What I’m looking for, always, is writing that works me over like a crowbar. That bruises, yes, but also that breaks the skin, so it can slip under and stay put. Writing that fractures bone, so some part of me has to forever knit around someone else’s story. I don’t want writing I can shake off or walk away from.
It’s pretty simple. Great writing does damage. And I don’t want to heal from it, ever.
Mary Szybist’s poem “Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle” is featured online at The Kenyon Review‘s Weekend Reads:
Are you sure this blue is the same as the
blue over there? This wall’s like the
bottom of a pool, its
color I mean. I need a
darker two-piece this summer, the kind with
elastic at the waist so it actually
fits. I can’t
find her hands. Where does this gold
go? It’s like the angel’s giving
her a little piece of honeycomb to eat.
I don’t see why God doesn’t
just come down and
kiss her himself. This is the red of that
lipstick we saw at the
mall. This piece of her
neck could fit into the light part
of the sky. I think this is a
piece of water. What kind of
queen? You mean
right here? And are we supposed to believe
she can suddenly
talk angel? Who thought this stuff
up? I wish I had a
velvet bikini. That flower’s the color of the
veins in my grandmother’s hands. I
wish we could
walk into that garden and pick an
X-ray to float on.
Yeah. I do too. I’d say a
zillion yeses to anyone for that.
A new interview with Megan Staffel discussing her forthcoming collection, Lessons in Another Language, appears online at the Four Way Review:
FWR: “Like “Saturdays at the Philharmonic,” many of the stories in your book Lessons in Another Language portray characters in the midst of some form of sexual awakening. Though the stories are set in the late sixties and early seventies, the characters’ experiences with sex seem more painfully emotional than the narratives of freedom and personal autonomy we so often associate with that period. What are your thoughts on the relationship between subject and chronological setting?”
MS: Culture changes so slowly we don’t see the changes until we hold a memory against the present. In my last collection, Lessons in Another Language, I was compelled to revisit the period I grew up in through fiction because I understand it differently now that I am an adult. I feel a bit wiser because of experience, but I’ve also gained a different perspective through the cultural changes I’ve lived through. That’s where sex comes in. As a culture, it seems to me we are less naïve. I believe (I hope) we are more nurturing of young women. These are generalizations of course, and they’re suspect because they are generalizations, but that’s why we need fiction. Fiction gives us the specifics.
There was a house in my childhood that contained all of the things I didn’t understand. I’ve revisited that house in dreams and in stories. It’s a house my mother spent her summers in as a child and I visited as a child, a big and forbidding stone house built by my grandfather at the foot of a wooded hill in Connecticut. It had a distinctive sound, a wooden screen door snapping closed, and the distinctive smell of old fires in a stone fireplace, and these sensory memories are what launched me into the group of stories that make up Lessons in Another Language, most of which are about characters in the in-between territory after childhood, but before becoming independent adults.
There was a secret in every drawer of every cupboard in that house and in the early sixties, as I wandered about by myself, pretending I was Nancy Drew searching for clues, I found only the mangle sitting by itself in the center of a small room in the attic and in my grandfather’s dresser drawer, a collection of pornographic photos. At nine years old they were both frightening and compelling, but thinking about them now, they gain meaning. My perspective now, influenced as it is by the culture of the 21st century, prompts me to ask, why was it necessary to sleep in ironed sheets, and what an extravagant waste of time it was for the woman of the house to create them, and behind that question is a more interesting one: did my grandfather ever tell his wife his fantasies? I think not. I think they were both constrained by their ideas of married life. He spent his days on the golf course while she was in the attic, running wrinkled sheets through the hot rollers on the mangle, making them crisp and smooth.
When a story takes place is as important as where it takes place, and I would say that the word “setting” includes both place and time and gives them equal importance. The story you mention, “Saturdays at the Philharmonic” was written after the publication of Lessons, but it was written from the same retrospective point of view that inspired the stories in that collection. And yes, you’re right, the sixties and early seventies urged us to enjoy sexual freedom, but that was a reaction against the constrictions of the fifties and also, probably, a direct result of the development of a birth control pill for women. Yet as freeing as the pill was, it also wreaked emotional havoc because we were girls formed by the sheltering mores of the fifties. That’s what’s so fascinating about history. The extremes of one decade “correct” the extremes of the previous decade. For instance, that ubiquitous Beautiful Hair Breck blonde whose pale features were on the back cover of every Life and Look magazine I saw, was the utterly convincing messenger for Breck shampoo and the icon I and many other young girls worshipped. Her every hair was in place and her face was so calm it was death-like. That purity was the ideal of beauty we sought. That is, until the sixties bottomed out and Jimi Hendrix screamed, “Are you experienced?” Then, she was no help to us at all.
Where a story sits in time gives the writer a perspective to work from. It provides the particular images, sounds, and smells that bombard our characters, but perhaps most importantly, it gives us the context that pressures the choices a character makes in his or her life. When is often the subject of the story, but at the very least, it’s a supporting element, one that’s impossible to peel away from character or events.