Thank you to everyone who came to our fourth
Words at WAM on February 18th!
Much gratitude to WAM, the stupendous WAM Collective, featured readers Paula Cisewski and Peter Bognanni, musical guest Charles Asch, and the rockin’ Hazel & Wren staff members Timothy Otte, Aaron King, Jessica Mayer and Taylor Trauger.
Extra-special props to our awesome open mic-ers: Mark East, Russ Van Heel, Walter Horishnyk, Sun Chi Som, Michael Penfield, Mary Lee, Jesse Green, Ali O’Reilly, Thorwald, Jake Skillings, Claire Fallon, Eric Komosa, Monika Hetzler, Zach Simon, Autumn Wetzel, Toby Grace, Anne Piper, Jacob Maybe, and Maddie Chicoine.
For the first time ever, we were able to make it through the entire open mic sign-up list! Huzzah! It felt so good to not have to turn anyone away.
Fantastic night all around!
Oh No Everything by Brett Elizabeth Jenkins (Pockets Press 2015)
Editor’s Note/Disclaimer: Aaron, one of our Hazel & Wren staff members, published this book. I, however, was not involved in publishing it at all, and I dig it. So there.
As the cover suggests, this chapbook has a medical theme running through it’s veins. Doctor visits, pills, and bodily discomforts resurface again and again within these poems. This furrowed brow reaction towards the world of medicine lends itself to the other main theme of this collection: anxiety. There is a poems titled “List of Fears” which is just that. Anxiety also translates into hypochondria, which comes to life in the poem “Web MD”, which begins:
Symptoms: pain on the left side of the body in what feels like kidney
or possibly ovary. Strange feeling in the chest, like someone very s mall
has lassoed me around the sternum. Increased output of farts. Heaviness
in legs, especially when karate kicking walls in the house. […]
There is a constant analysis of symptoms and worry generated by the results of the analyses that builds anxiety while reading this book. Yet Jenkins adds levity to the otherwise tumbling rollercoaster of anxiety with her use of dry humor as seen in “Web MD”, and most of the other poems. She walks the line between an unstoppable current of worry and spit out your coffee giggles, which makes the panic attack-inducing lines digestible.
The symptoms listed throughout are treated in various ways; some through pills, but sometimes through pursuit of zen. Jenkins lines seem to fight back and forth for real estate between quiet poetic moments and dry humor poking fun at anxiety. This battle comes to live in the poem “To Get To Zen” which begins:
you must first lose your
shit in an elevator
in front of a man you do not know.
but ends in poetic thoughtfulness:
Breathe as deep into your bones
as Houdini might have
Forget what you know.
Or, at least,
These poems almost veer into self-deprecating humor, but Jenkins manages to not go too far, and balances it out with humor and genuine thoughtfulness. This idea of balance reoccurs throughout; we see the full spectrum of emotions, including extremes — but we also come back to moments of balance, however brief.
The question of or, in the case of the poem “Leave of Absence”, ridicule of God is another sub-theme within this chapbook:
Yes, I have been trying to find a way
to tell you I have the Stigmata. I have been
going through our company hand-
book and there is no section on miracles.
I know, my insurance representative
is likely to be stumped. […]
Jenkins’ writing style is straight forward and conversational, which lends itself to her matter-of-fact humor, as well as her matter-of-fact medical analysis. It doesn’t get more straight forward than in the poem, “Telling it Like it is” (which again touches on the idea of God as a question mark):
I probably won’t even be thin (there, I said it!),
and I don’t know if God is real.
I am suspect of anyone who is certain of anything,
and I obsess over whether or not I remembered
to lock the door while I’m in bed at night,
but I don’t get up to do anything about it
because I’m lazy and so I must convince myself nightly
that my life is not really that important.
Jenkins uses her poems to explore questions: How do I pull my shit together? Am I going to die? Is my life important? Is God real? We sit with Jenkins’ questions until we begin to realize that they’re strikingly similar to our own questions. The chapbook feels like a coming to terms with the unknown, with living with these giant question marks lurking in the corners of our minds. It’s a struggle, but it’s one we’re all in together.
Nab your own copy and meet the poet at the OH NO EVERYTHING launch party next Fri, Mar 6, at 7:00 pm at Boneshaker Books. There will be readings from Jenkins herself, plus Paula Cisewski (one of our featured readers from last week’s Words at WAM!), Katie Rauk, David Bayliss, Kristin Fitzsimmons, and Erica Anderson-Senter. To top off an already festive evening of poetry, there will be birthday cake and beverages, in honor of Jenkin’s birthday.
I haven’t acknowledged the weather at all this season. Perhaps I hoped it would come and go in a quick and painless manner this year, or maybe I was afraid that looking in its direction would somehow goad the beast into a further fury. Today, though, I’m in the mood to look it straight in the eye. Winter: hello, you.
Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960. Photograph.
Andrew Wyeth, Spring, 1978. Tempera on panel.
Todd Hido, #6037, 2007. Photograph. www.toddhido.com
Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2014)
Lydia Davis is a master of short fiction. Whether it’s ten words long or two hundred, Davis packs emotions, connections, and an astute reflection on the human condition into each and every story in this collection. Her writing is so captivating and evokes so much emotion that I found myself turning each page with fervor, eager for more, even though it’d be an entirely different story with a different narrator, setting, and point of view.
The stories began to bleed together, but not because they were indistinguishable; they flowed well back to back. It was a fun challenge to discover the next new protagonist and plot with each page turn. Just as often as I’d quickly turn the page for a new story, I’d also stop and pause, dropping the open book onto my lap and gazing out the bus window during my snowy commute, contemplating the last brief story.
Davis’s observations and character struggles are deceptively simple. Flash fiction is quick and easy to read and comprehend, but, when done well, the story sneaks up on the reader. Whether it reminds you of a personal experience or makes you look around and imagine the lives of strangers, these few well-organized words can make an impact. The best part of reading flash fiction is that you can easily read the piece again, two or three times in a row, to soak up the depth of emotion that flows in such a shallow, short story, as in “The Dog Hair”:
The dog is gone. We miss him. When the doorbell rings, no one barks. When we come home late, there is no one waiting for us. We still find his white hairs here and there around the house and on our clothes. We pick them up. We should throw them away. But they are all we have left of him. We don’t throw them away. We have a wild hope—if only we could collect enough of them, we will be able to put the dog back together again.
Of course, not all of the stories in Can’t and Won’t qualify as “flash” fiction. Some of them are four, even five pages long. I am overwhelmed by the amount of information Davis crams into a single page, inspiring the reader to wonder more about the life of the narrator. However, it is just as important to consider what isn’t written. What she omits is just as important as what she leaves on the page, especially when it comes down to telling an entire story in one page.
For example, “On the Train” is ten sentences, four characters, and one setting. There aren’t many descriptive words about the characters, but I instantly relate to them, because I know the sudden bond that connects strangers experiencing something together.
We are united, he and I, though strangers, against the two women in front of us talking so steadily and audibly across the aisle to each other. Bad manners. We frown.
Later in the journey I look over at him (across the aisle) and he is picking his nose. As for me, I am dripping tomato from my sandwich onto my newspaper. Bad habits.
I would not report this if I were the one picking my nose. I look again and he is still at it.
As for the women, they are now sitting together side by side and quietly reading, clean and tidy, one a magazine, one a book. Blameless.
It seems unfair to describe fiction writing as “vague”, but Davis uses it to her advantage. Her characters become more relatable the less we know about them. We see just a small moment of their grand lives, and it makes us dig internally for the rest of that story. Even when it’s just a snippet, simply an observation by the character, as in “Circular Story”:
On Wednesday mornings early there is always a racket out there on the road. It wakes me up and I always wonder what it is. It is always the trash collection truck picking up the trash. The truck comes every Wednesday morning early. It always wakes me up. I always wonder what it is.
In not so many words, Davis describes the feeling of being jolted awake, and for a moment not knowing why, and then calmly remembering the pattern. I, too, do this every Wednesday when the trash collection truck comes.
Throughout the collection, some of the stories are inspired by dreams. They may be something Davis herself has dreamt, or she heard the recount from a friend. Either way, they provide a surprising jolt of imagination amongst all the day-to-day observations and mundane reality that Davis captures so well.
She also works as a translator and has translated many of Gustave Flaubert’s works from French. Sprinkled throughout are stories inspired by Flaubert’s letters. It’s difficult to say how much is translated and how much is original content by Davis, but I found myself not caring. Nestled between some simple, modern flash fiction by Davis, you’ll find a story about somebody in the 19th century, and their challenges and wishes are not far off from our own today.
That’s the magic of Davis’s writing. No matter how brief, whether real or imagined, each story is relatable and could be pulled from an entire novel on that subject. When I finished reading a story, I found myself wanting more, but I was mainly impressed that she didn’t need to provide more to the story to keep my interest. I can just wonder, and sometimes that’s exactly what I want to do after reading.
Which short stories make you wonder, eager for more? Any writers inspire you to keep it concise?