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.
MFA faculty member Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine (Graywolf, 2013) is among five finalists for the National Book Award. Also nominated in poetry are volumes by Frank Bidart, Lucie Brock-Broido, Adrian Matejka, and Matt Rasmussen. Winners will be announced on November 20 at the National Book Award ceremony in New York City.
See the full announcement at the National Book Award website.
Warren Wilson alumni and faculty gathered for the 2013 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award Ceremony and Reading in New York last month. Alumna Margaree Little (poetry, ’12) was awarded the prize, among five others:
Left to Right: Margaree Little (poetry, ’12) with fellow award recipients Jill Sisson Quinn, Tiffany Briere, Kristen Dombek, Ashleee Crews and Kristin Valdez Quade. Joan Wickersham, the guest speaker, is pictured at center. Photo Credit: Star Black.
Left to Right: Ray Daniels (fiction, ’10), Lia Greenwell (poetry, ’13), Margaree Little (poetry, ’12), Director of the MFA Program Debra Allbery, Nathan McClain (poetry, ’13), and Catherine Barnett (poetry, ’02).
The Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award recipients’ reading at NYU is now available as a podcast:
Alumnus Paul Michel’s (fiction, ’98) story, “Angels For All She Knew,” currently appears in the online and print editions of Writing Tomorrow as the magazine’s 2013 Fiction Contest winner.
Angels For All She Knew
Orville. Wilbur. The names were absurd. It was no surprise that these men had made bicycles. They might have been bakers or street sweepers. But the fathers of flight? The idea made Vincent Molnar laugh. His laughter rumbled up from deep within: some secret secret place of spite and bile. It had festered there, in one Molnar man after another, for nearly one hundred and fifty years.
“Kitty Hawk,” he sneered, shaking his balding head.
“Kitty Hawk my ass.”
Vincent had just turned forty-one. He had a thirteen-year-old son named Rudy, who at the moment was hunched predictably in a desk chair in his bedroom, riveted on a game of galactic warfare that flashed its pixels mere inches from his nose. His thin fingers flew deftly over the keyboard. Civilizations rose and fell at his command. He was paying scant attention to his father, though it was largely on his account that Vincent was cursing the Wright Brothers in the first place. On his account, for his own damned good, and for the honor of his family.
A new poem by alumnus Michael Puican (poetry, ’09) appears online at Prick of the Spindle:
The Man Was Either Discussing Death…
after Anne Carson
The man was either discussing death or he was not.
If he was discussing death, the listener was either visibly moved or was unaffected.
If she was unaffected, either the words were not understood or she was not in church at the time.
If she was not in church, she either went to an earlier Mass or she lied about going to church.
If she went to an earlier Mass, either she told the priest how much she enjoyed the sermon or was distracted from the sermon because there were too many valves open in her heart.
If she was distracted from the sermon because there were too many valves open in her heart, it was brought on either by sunlight streaming through the stained glass or the limits of form.
If it was the limits of form, the natural world was enjoying a moment of strength. Either that or she had been thinking of the uncertainty between skin and what’s recalled as touch.
Or maybe it wasn’t skin and touch at all. Maybe it was the black of a closed mouth or an open one caught in a voiceless cry and set against the pattern, the pattern of no longer returned human love.
A new poem by alumnus Brendan Grady (poetry, ’12) appears online at the New England Review:
We know the moths circling the porch light,
the dolt among them breaking orbit,
dusty Icarus drawn to his demise.
This isn’t new, but seventeen others
stuck on the wall have turned their wings
against it, like stoics, as if the light isn’t light,
and if they move, it is only a slight flutter,
a twitch of motion, before they still again.
My mind should stop here—but we see
one push off from the wall, flying
erratic, as if whiskey drunk or possessed,
and we know the ones that lap around the light
were once still. Love, I know I could
just flip a switch, that’s not the point.
I count seventeen windows on our street
still lit—hundreds of lights
in our neighborhood, millions in our city,
each one attracts an asteroid belt of moths
flitting like dust motes, caught in the wind.
Of course, when seen from a certain distance.
I really should stop. It’s so cold tonight
when I shut my eyes, I can picture
floating in space—the porch light
becomes the red glare of the sun,
morphing shapes, like reflections
fluttering on an astronaut’s helmet,
or the threshold of light, shadowed
when my father came home late, paused
at my door. He hardly ever entered. If he did,
I’d pretend to be asleep, so he’d feel safe
to kiss me on the forehead, or pick me up,
instead of just saying good night, shutting
the door behind him. Let me tell you,
love, my father was no hell-bent lunatic,
nor Daedalus, just a doctor who kept the appropriate
distance between men, and I was merely a son
who’d blush in his father’s shadow. This isn’t new.
Right now, the body of a moth has become
a shadow in the light bulb. You aren’t here to see it.
You’ve been gone awhile now. I could say
I’ve been a shadow since you left with a man
more like my father. But that would be a lie.
We knew a breach opened between us
like a tiny nick in an astronaut’s suit; we knew
our touch felt like moth wings fluttering on skin.
You’ve been gone for a while. When I think it through,
I haven’t been speaking to you at all. I’ve said love
but meant him, meaning you, Father. Wasn’t it you
who taught me what it meant to fall?
The force of gravity is constant, the force
of gravity is actually the downward
acceleration the Earth imparts to all bodies,
equally: the child dropped on the bed after kissing
his father on the lips, a moth with burnt wings.
We’re happy to announce the faculty for the January 2014 Residency. For full biographies, see program website.
Debra Allbery (Director)
Ellen Bryant Voigt
A new story by alumni Ryan Burden (fiction, ’13) appears online at JMWW:
Trevor, staring through the green film on the apartment window, watched two boys play on slick chromed skateboards. The boards flipped and hovered in blurring spirals between their feet as they tried to beat gravity. They were much older than Trevor, who was only seven, and they wouldn’t have let him play with them. But that was all right because he didn’t want to flip skateboards. He didn’t even want to go outside. In summer the cracks in the sidewalk gushed heat like the air that poured from his mother’s oven on Sundays when she baked bread. He preferred to stay indoors, away from the sun and the sour stink of water in the gutters.
“Trevor,” said his mother. “Come and say goodbye to Mr. Gorman.”
Trevor opened his mouth wide because it hurt in the back where he had clenched his teeth shut whenever one of the boys fell. He cringed at the gristly crackle of bones in his jaw.
Mr. Gorman’s hands were puffed up like the red leather cushions on their couch. “Always a pleasure,” he said.
Trevor’s mother smiled and Trevor went back to the window. For a time the two adults stood whispering by the door. Mr. Gorman’s voice was like the muffled rumble of a cement truck in an underground tunnel. Trevor heard the apartment door open with a rubbery sucking sound. Then it closed again and he could tell that Mr. Gorman had not left. Outside, the older boys took their shirts off and hung them like limp, wrinkled snakes around their sunburned necks.
A new essay, “Before the Inevitable Ending: Time, Nâzım Hikmet, and the Sweet Potato Boy of Tahrir Square,” by alumna Andy Young (poetry, ’11), appears online in the Los Angeles Review of Books.
SINCE 2011, one of the mainstays of Tahrir Square, and the advent of its on-and-off occupation, is the presence of sweet potato sellers. Among the flags and protest banners, the throngs of citizens, and the hawkers of gas masks and cotton candy, the black metal potato stoves puff like small train engines. Twelve-year-old Omar Salah had been selling sweet potatoes for two years when he died in early February this year. He was shot twice by an Egyptian army conscript, “accidentally,” outside the gates of the US Embassy.
In Egypt, over the last two and a half years, thousands of people been killed by some type of authority attempting to contain protests — the police, the Central Security Forces, the Ministry of Interior, or, in Omar’s case, the army.
Regardless of who does the killing or holds the power, each death represents a stopped narrative, a ripple of grief, a person. As the deaths and their implications accumulate, as the blame is (or, in most cases, is not) assigned, the names blur and are replaced with numbers. Living in Egypt, I am constantly aware of, constantly overwhelmed by, the number or protests, the number of arrests, and especially the mounting number of the dead. Still, there was something about Omar’s death that stopped me, that made me want to know who he was. To remember his name.