Application for Release from the Dream
Graywolf Press, 2015
Don’t Tell Anyone
Hollyridge Press, 2014
Tony Hoagland, as he himself said in a recent interview, is a poet who began writing sharply introspective autobiographical poetry but who more recently has aimed his poetry toward issues of social concern. Always funny and brutally honest about himself as well as our problematic society, Hoagland in the last five or so years has written some of the most spot-on, take-down, and laugh-out-loud poetry about our 21st century public life. What are the mores of our public life, how we act when out and about? Well, the title poem from his chapbook sums it up . . . sort of. There, the narrator’s wife turns to narrator during breakfast one day and mentions that when she swims in the local community pool, she screams underwater. The narrator, in the funny way characteristic of these lyrics, is taken aback by the off-handed way this intimate bombshell is dropped, ie, big private news over eggs and toast. It’s as if his wife doesn’t even want a response, or to be comforted, held, or to discuss. She will just go on, after the poem closes, swimming her twenty laps while screaming underwater in the community pool. This is the type of silence, the dialogue beneath the dialogue, that Hoagland’s Don’t Tell Anyone, which is included in the larger collection Application for Release from the Dream, both books seek to address, uncover, and move into the sunlight of articulate speech. Hoagland’s poems are discussion starters. Whether as direct addresses to the reader, or to someone off-stage, or in monologues overheard by the reader, these poems engage. Don’t tell anyone, but this is necessary reading. Like medicine, these poems are a bit bitter. They open eyes wider.
Amber Sparks is the author of the just-released short story collection The Unfinished World and Other Stories, out from Liveright. She’s also the author of a previous short story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, and co-author of a hybrid novel, the Desert Places, with Robert Kloss and illustrator Matt Kish. She blogs sporadically and posts stuff sometimes on her website, ambernoellesparks.com, and wastes time generally on Twitter @ambernoelle. She currently lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, infant daughter, and two cats, though she originally hails from the upper Midwest.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on The Unfinished World. I always like to hear about how a book came into being. Many journeys have interesting twists. How was your experience?
Amber Sparks: It was definitely a typical experience for a short story writer, I think. Many editors liked the book; few wanted to touch a short story collection by a relatively unknown writer. So my agent and I stopped shopping it around and I wrote a novel instead. When we were shopping around that novel, one of the editors asked if she could see a short story collection (!!!) and that part, of course, is not typical. And she read it and loved it and thought the novel would make a much better novella (which it did) and I was so excited by her admiration for the work and willingness to take a chance on it that I said yes. And here we are! I hope to prove, as always, that people do want to read short stories, that there really is a market out there for the art form. Which IS an art form – and not just a stepping stone to a novel. (And of course, I’m working on a novel – but it’s a novel in stories, so!) Read the rest of this entry »
On a bicycle, she’s standing to pedal uphill.
She’ll have to pedal the bike nearly as hard
to go back down. Once a gift, it’s old now.
She longs for responsive. A frame aluminum-
light, thin racing tires, high saddle, cables,
derailleurs, brake levers, 10 speeds or more.
But because it’s out of reach, she sweats
in the cool weather, tops the hill, pants
three flights to a new girlfriend’s walk-up.
As they chat, she peels off her sweater—
bulky gray knit with a loose, rolled collar.
In the ‘60s, young women wear no bras.
She’s bare from bluejeans up as they drink
cups of herbal tea. Honey incenses the air
when a brother and his friends clatter in.
Who’s most shocked is a toss-up. The men
gape at two breasts that stare back at them.
There are nervous introductions, small talk.
One woman says, My eyes. Look at my eyes
when you speak, then indicates by gesture,
Up here. And laughs as though a woman
half naked is nothing new. If faces redden,
no one notices. Young men open the ‘fridge
and then back away. They’ll remember this.
Read the rest of this entry »
Among The Wild Mulattos
by Tom Williams
Texas Review Press, 2015
With its dizzying mix of lush, florid syntax, deadest-of-deadpan humor, and – for lack of a better word – unusual plots, Among the Wild Mulattos stands as its own style, its own genre, its own unique voice, much like the unique characters who populate Tom Williams’s strange, almost surreal worlds.
Each of the ten stories in Among the Wild Mulattos explores identity from a fresh angle. The at-least-semi-aggrieved narrators of these stories each have their own complex relationship with racial, national, and/or moral identity, revealed through their struggles to, say, retain their own identities as artists or purveyors of Internet smut, or to attain new social statuses by hiring entrance coaches or establishing a successful network of author lookalikes. That is the core pleasure of Williams’s work – being surprised by both the off-the-wall plots and how each one, so wildly different from the next, is woven together so deftly by the exploration of biracial identity, or (I think Williams would argue), the very idea of identity, full stop.
by Amber Sparks
What is life but day after day of searching? No, searching is not the right word. More like yearning, an intense and urgent longing. A longing for nothing more than to “be worth something, weigh something” (199). And yet, it is so rare to find a collection of stories, such as Amber Sparks’ The Unfinished World and Other Stories, that so carefully narrates these stories of searching. With Sparks’ words, these urgent longings–of belonging, of dreams, of love, and of life–resonate with each and every one of us. Read the rest of this entry »
After two and a half weeks in Egypt, we thought about pivoting, leaving for good. We had just picked up our passports after extending our visas at the Mogamma complex off of Tahrir Square in Cairo.
Extending our visas was easy, if complicated. The building was filled shoulder to shoulder with people applying for everything from refugee status to residencies. A crowd of languages and personal anxieties down every labyrinthine turn. Cats ran through the hallways; stacks of paperwork reached the ceilings. There wasn’t a computer in sight. Passports were handed back out of a cardboard box, the woman behind the counter holding each one up, and its owner squirming through the push of bodies to retrieve it. It was like something out of Kafka.
by Michael Seidlinger
We’re different today than we were in 1946, when Albert Camus’ The Stranger debuted. Featuring a social outcast who didn’t understand or empathize with his role in society, The Stranger explored an uncomfortable post-WWII world. Michael Seidlinger’s update, The Strangest, does the same thing for the world as it is today, only with social media and cell phones. Times change, people don’t.
Empathy is an underrated resource. It’s how we stopped bashing each other over the head for a loaf of bread or a mate back in yester-years, a resource that Meurks, the “protagonist” of Strangest, deeply lacks and takes pains to explain to us. Most of the novel is the thought processes and relayed conversation as Meurks attempts to navigate a hostile and unintelligible world. He doesn’t understand questions about how he’s doing or about why he doesn’t cry at funerals; he answers with simple yeses and nos, regardless of the correctness of those answers.
In a world of complexity, he seeks simplicity.
When The Stranger came out, it must have been a startling experience. Sociopath was an uncommon word and a fair depiction of such, from the perspective of the one lacking empathy, likely was an “ah-ha” moment. But does a 1940s definition hold up a lifetime later? What does sociopathy mean in this internet era of likes and comments?
Throughout much of The Strangest, Meurks only seems to care about two things: his own biological needs and about his online persona. In a way, he’s the most actualized person. He knows what he needs and what he wants. In another way, he’s a grim reflection of society’s malaise. If he isn’t fulfilling a biological imperative (food, water, shelter, sex), he’s crafting posts online to maximize Internet attention. If one doesn’t work, he deletes it. If another does, he emulates it.
How is that different from the rest of us who engage in online lives and worlds? Are who we represent ourselves as online the real us or only facsimiles?
While The Strangest raises discomfiting questions about the world around us, its devotion to the source material has a tendency to undermine the answers. Divided into two parts, the first deals with Meurks’ navigation of everyday life, of small failures and missed connection. It’s fascinating and engrossing, especially with the introduction of foils in a love interest and antagonist. How Meurks responds to a world that begins to empathize with him clarifies our understanding of mysteries. If the book could have stayed on that path, or found a different road to parallel that of The Stranger, it might have emerged stronger.
Instead, mirroring the path of the inspiration, Seidlinger writes a murder, a trial and the bewilderment of Meurks in the face of society itself. Some might enjoy the journey from the personal to the massive, to the deeply intricate musings of an imprisoned man. And it’s fair to choose that route as Camus did. But what might have been gained by exploring new worlds or new avenues of indictment? With the proliferation of internet crusades, in doxxing, endless tweets and Facebook picture filters (e.g. Paris, gay marriage, Star Wars, etc), what would have happened to Meurks if that world had been invaded?
Regardless of the literary choices, The Strangest is an intriguing, remarkably literate update of a classic in existentialism. Meurks is a fascinating, living character and the prose with which he reaches the reader is lovely and intricate. For those who missed Camus’ classic or who are looking to broaden their understanding of what makes humanity, Seidlinger’s The Strangest is the perfect choice.
Exquisite Duet (formerly Exquisite Quartet) is not so much a composition between two writers, but rather something created within the murky midlands of each author’s mind, yet set off by the same first sentence. Meg Tuite chooses two writers each month and gives them a first sentence to start with and a 250-word limit to finish an exquisitely mesmerizing story or poem. These duet-dueling writers will craft two completely different cosmos that have rotated, pitched, and blasted from the depths of their cerebral cortex to the twitching nerve endings of their digits onto dueling keyboards and separate screens until their sublime duet is prepared to see the light of an audience.
by Sheila O’Connor
I bought a gutted-out trailer on the far edge of Waconia and moved into it alone, hoping that love or God would find me. There were stars stuck to the ceiling and a finger-painted picture of blue trees taped to the wall. A life that someone left. I’d left my life; it didn’t amount to much. An efficiency apartment in the city. A job working the switchboard at an ammunition plant. The man I’d planned to marry was in love with my best friend.
I’d planned to start again in that trailer. Buy a blow-up mattress for a bed. Survive on pork and beans. Cook suppers on a salvaged Coleman stove. Take in a ragged stray for a companion. Commune with rabbits and raccoons. Alone, I’d learn the language of the land.
It was months before I brushed my teeth or combed my hair. What use was daily hygiene if I never met the world?
At night, sleeping naked in the heat, I’d rise up from my bed, walk out to the cornfield, and howl under the moon.
How hard it was to hope for happiness ahead.
How dumb it was to hope.
Home on the Road
by Marty Case
I bought a gutted-out trailer. Stop running back and forth to the nursing home, interstate, interstate, interstate. To the hellhole where the ex-Marine was caged, reduced to prowling hallways at half his fighting weight. Where the old hospital administrator imagined she was running the asylum, another circus of delusion, bewilderingly familiar. Relentless televisions every ten feet, sports and politics, advertisements for larger televisions and Big Pharm, in certain cases may cause death. In the common room on Saturday nights, Lawrence Welk, bandleader without soul, reruns from 60 years ago, all the performers dead now. Crashing on my brother’s couch, learning stories of childhood betrayal that I’d never heard, all certainties slipping away.
And just to arrive there, that final trip, the winter highway, ninety percent perfect and ten percent ice, everyone driving seventy except the people in the ditches. Dreams of skidding off the road into a snow bank at evening, the prairie sky as peachy red on the horizon as the sad, color-saturated tuxedo of Joe Feeney, Irish tenor, it’s you, it’s you must go and I abide.
When I saw the trailer it was love. I could park it anywhere and stay a while. It was aluminum, an easy load to tow. It was only a shell, nothing material in it to tell me how I should feel, a grandma’s teapot place, empty in a way all things eventually become.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Sheila O’Connor is the author of novels, poems, essays, and stories. She teaches in the MFA program at Hamline University where she serves as Fiction Editor for Water~Stone Review.
Marty Case is a writer/researcher whose work focuses on treaties and the spread of the American myth.
by Steve Karas
[Warning: Slight spoilers ahead]
A better title for Kinda Sorta American Dream – the recent short story collection from Steve Karas (Tailwind Press) – I cannot imagine. These tight, focused stories encapsulate the hesitant optimism of characters struggling, kicking, scratching for some piece of traditional American success. The stories in Kinda Sorta American Dream are histories of the fractured twenty-first century, histories of the young (and not-so-young) adults coming of age during this singular moment in time, histories of a society’s upheaval.
What I find most striking about Karas’s collection is the stubborn continuation of hope that remains at the end of each story; even after the most horrific events, even after their identities are questioned or even obliterated, characters in Kinda Sorta American Dream plug on with their lives, finding either some comfort or even defiance in their apparent resignation.
Andrew, the lead character in “It Takes a Village,” finds himself at the end of the story being transferred to a far less meaningful job (as a social worker for elementary school students, as opposed to high school); his wife has just suffered a second miscarriage; his family and social/support network is over a thousand miles away, after he and his wife had moved from Chicago to Florida. How does Andrew cope? He “turned on the Zen fountain and checked his schedule. He breathed in, exhaled, and waited for the next appointment, the next young life he’d do his best to save.”
Almost every story ends on notes like this; the characters have been in fist fights, have cursed out their fathers, have infected themselves with parasites, have been reduced to mall Santas, and yet they push forward, they carry on, they keep clawing for their own version of the “American dream.”
Wayne, the main character in the collection’s title story, offers perhaps the best summation of Kinda Sorta American Dream: “I do my best to stumble through it without letting on how lost I am.” Every lead character in the collection is doing the same thing, through moving to Los Angeles or quitting their IT jobs or running out on the town with their old middle-school buddies. In their attempts to hide how lost they are, however, each character seems to find a new, (at least potentially) happier path for themselves.
That’s really all one could ask of an American dream – the chance for something new.
Sean L. Corbin
by Erin Fitzgerald
We often say that one of the reasons we read is to live life through different lens. Limited by our own perspectives, with every new story we willingly plunge into another world to learn—to experience—what it’s like to be someone else. More often than not, such worlds are molded by a distinctive environment which revolves around a well-developed character wielding a sense of individuality. It’s how characters become concrete in our minds.
But, what if there’s a story where that’s not the case?
Erin Fitzgerald’s unconventional novella, Valletta78, reevaluates very intimately—and darkly—what it means to be mutable in an era of social networking. Told through a series of flashbacks, reflections, and virtual conversations in chat rooms, Valletta78 is a story about identity, or the search for one. The narrator, known only to us by the screen name Valletta78, is a bored newlywed living in Valletta, a suburban community populated with housing developments and chain stores. As the narrator is quick to point out, this Valletta borrows its name from the capital city of Malta. Surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, the real Valletta has buildings painted cream and orange, with the sky and sea “two different shades of brilliant blue” as the view.
“That Valletta has drinking and dancing and vacationers and sunshine,” the narrator remarks dryly upon recollection. “This Valletta had car washing and spin classes and in-law suites and air conditioning.”
The irony is evident. The narrator has everything she could ever possibly want, including a house and a husband, Brandon, who she met while on a cruise. Yet, she feels lonely and vacant. As if smeared by the tip of a perfectly round but rather dry and cheap eraser, the narrator has a vague sense of who she is as a person—or, who she’s supposed to be.
So, she pretends to be other people on online support forums.
In every forum, from agoraphobes to insomniacs, the narrator constructs a new identity with a unique tragedy. In one instance, which is explored more in depth in the story, she becomes Valletta78, or Val, the sister of a cancer survivor. Even when juggling various disguises and creating friendships online, the narrator remains hazy. Ghost-like. This is exemplified beautifully through Fitzgerald’s prose, which is both delicate and pensive, even seductive, capturing the all-too-real experience of what it’s like to feel disoriented in this day and age: “Brandon said the house was a little underwater, and I knew what he was actually trying to say, that we were a little underwater, but I imagined the house underwater anyway. Sometimes it was in a moat. Other times, it was a submarine. Most of the time, Atlantis.”
Even as the narrator attempts to find a voice for much of Valletta78, she draws back as suddenly as she appeared, leaving us with the task of filling in the gaps most of the time. The novella has no beginning or end, but it’s meant to be that way. In just a little over 120 pages, we’re given the opportunity to examine a fragment of the narrator’s life as she transitions into adulthood, trying to make sense of the woman who stares back at her in the window late at night. Valletta78 is by no means a feel-good story, but Fitzgerald does leave us with much to think about, particularly about the human experience online and offline—how, even when trapped between desire and disillusionment, we’re often left wanting more.