A review on About the Dead by Travis Mossotti
It's officially Halloween! Which is why I decided to unearth one of the most alluringly eerie books that has been on my bookshelf since Utah University Press published it in Fall 2011. Although, with the title About the Dead, why wouldn't it be?
Winner of the 2011 May Swenson Poetry Award, Travis Mossotti weaves together compelling narrative language and form in his collection of poems About the Dead. Garrison Keillor writes in the introduction that, "reading it [About the Dead] was like following the poet up a steep climb on a rocky slope as he improvised his route, and at every step I was struck by the rightness of his choices." I too, found this book a map of sorts, not only of physical landscapes but also of lingering dreamlike realities. Mossotti is a brilliant navigator of words: raw, unforgiving, and unapologetic--the characteristics of death.
The book begins with the poem "Decampment," set in Aynor, South Carolina. The speaker introduces the land as soil "full of ache: bleeding, giving birth." Later he tells of a dream about a girl named Grace Kissee, where he "wanted to open her like a mason jar / from a cellar hold." He then brings us into the poignant moment: "Our house sank two inches / the day my father died."
And this is just the introductory poem. We not only follow Mossotti up the rocky slope, he leads us "curve after potentially deadly curve," written in the poem "Crossing the Gap." Along this climb there is death, and there is re-birth. That is to say, if you don't believe in ghosts, you will after you finish this book. About the Dead asks questions that haunt all of us; invisible entities appearing again and again like magic tricks.
Questions like what can save us and is there such a thing as redemption are explored in fragments from the speaker's life. There is the "holy ground" found in the poem "My Brother's House": small town living, the so-called American dream. The ideal of manhood is also explored, starting with the speaker's deceased father mentioned in the line above. "The dead fascinates me," Mossotti writes.
In Western culture, people do not linger on death. Notice our funeral process, our quiet cemeteries. There is a hush and a shuffling to move on. However, what's wrong with dwelling among the dead? We too are going to die. But, like in the last poem, "Only Then": "We / don't talk about such things / in polite conversation although / I wish we could."
This book is that conversation.
Travis Mossotti received his MFA in poetry from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He has been a faculty lecturer at the University of California Santa Cruz and McKendree University, and his poetry continues to appear widely. Mossotti was awarded the James Hearst Poetry Prize from the North American Review in 2009, and his poem "Decampment" was adapted to screen in 2010 as an animated short film. His first collection of poems, About the Dead (Utah State University Press, 2011), was awarded the 2011 May Swenson Poetry Award by contest judge Garrison Keillor. Mossotti currently resides in St. Louis with his wife, Regina.
Josalyn Knapic is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago. She is currently editor and managing editor of South Loop Review: Creative Nonfiction + Art. She also serves as an assistant editor for Another Chicago Magazine. You can find her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’ve met Dan Shapiro, you remember. It’s like 9/11 or the JFK assassination. His figure is impeccable (think Carl Weathers in Predator) and at 7’4” he’s hard not to notice. If you turn to leave the conversation too fast, your elbow might accidentally brush against Shapiro’s bulky washboard abs, creating among the ten most heavenly sounds to be heard outside of the pearly gates. He’s all manners and pleasantries and a cretin in Chicago comedy writing.
If you live in Chicago, Dan Shapiro or that awful awful man Mason Johnson have probably tried to get you to go to their entirely ageist reading series, P. Fanatics (which, not even remotely sadly, ended this month). P. Fanatics took place at the Logan Square butthole Cole’s bar and was mostly composed of Chicago writers getting just a little bit too drunk and reading things that make you uncomfortable. (Not that I would know, because Cole’s would never let me in because they love crushing the dreams of innocent 19 year olds who just want to see their friends make asses of themselves.)
If you still live in Chicago, Dan Shapiro wants you to come see his new reading series. Which seems to me will end up gathering the same type of crowd and promising the same type of show.
Dan Shapiro’s first Rigged Open Mic will take place at Cole’s on September 9th (all information on the facebook page). To really get people talking, Dan and I sat down in Oprah Winfrey’s abandoned Harpo Studios last week to talk about the life of a true artist and scholar.
CG: Dan it is a delight to have you in the studio today. So, the Dan Shapiro open mic night was originally a P. Fanatics reading theme. For those familiar with P. Fanatics, how would you say it will be different/the same? Less Mason Johnson? (We can only hope.)
DS: Thanks for having me, Cassandra. Might I add that you look just darling in your pink leotard and tutu with matching S and M mask and cape. This is all just the product of Mason Johnson bossing me around. He's like, "Do this. Do that." And I'm like, "Okay." P. Fanatics was a good opportunity for Mason and me to showcase our talented friends as well as our own work every month. Whereas Dan Shapiro's Rigged Open-Mic will be more of an opportunity to showcase my "Home Improvement" fan fiction. There'll be an open mic too probably. But it'll mostly be a showcase of my fiction in which Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor continues to bumble in the world amatuer carpentry in a post 9-11 environment.
CG: What exactly is a rigged open mic?
DS: It's like any other open mic only more so. I'm honest about it. I'll say it. If you're good you get to go before everyone else and perform as long as you want. Hours if you want. As long as it doesn't cut in to my three hours of "Home Improvement" fan fiction.
CG: Do you have any plans to use a big hook to drag bad acts from the stage?
DS: That's definitely something I've thought about. I know that if someone sucks I'll walk out in front of them and start dancing. No music. Just me dancing.
CG: Will there be body contact or will you give them space? I definitely know what I'd like to see.
DS: Every performer is encouraged to rub one of my breasts for luck before they perform. In fact I kind of insist. No squeezing.
CG: Tell me more about your Home Improvement fan fiction. What kind of fic are we talking? Romance, erotica, slash... Is there a Home Improvement OTP?
DS: I don't know. I think I've said too much already. My "Home Improvement" fan fiction is hardcore. It will probably get me shot. I put my "Home Improvement" fan fiction online, and the government "strongly suggested" that I take it down. I sat back and meditated to the words they said. Skipped town for a month and grew some dreads. Had a friend tell my family I was dead. I'm sorry. Those last few sentences were by Killah Priest from the GZA song Beneath the Surface. I have a disease where I suddenly burst into Wu-Tang lyrics.
CG: Will this disease affect your ability to be a good open mic host?
DS: I have a plethora of diseases that would affect my ability to be a good open mic host. Sometimes when I'm onstage in mid sentence I'll just stop and yell, "Shut up! Shut up!" at no one in particular. That's because the voices in my head are heckling me. Stuff like that. It's fun. I've deliberately stopped taking my pills in the lead up to the show. It should be fun.
CG: Who are your hosting influences?
DS: I saw a collection of Ed Sullivan clips, and he was like, "Congratulations for being on the show." He was congratulating someone for getting to appear on his show. That was pretty pimp. Other than that Kermit the Frog and Chuck Barris from the Gong Show.
CG: Dan, you are very mysterious. Could you tell me a little bit more about your childhood? Open up?
DS: I was a wild animal. When I was five and six I had my hand down my pants all the time. In kindergarden I was bigger than the other kids, so I was a bully. Then I was the class clown. I was always getting in trouble. When I was seven I molested my uncle. Other than that it was the typical American childhood.
CG: Beautiful, Dan. One last thing: If you had to say one final thing to get people to come to your new series, what would it be?
DS: That's a good question. I have no idea what the answer is. You've stumped me. Damn it. You're good. [laughs maniacally] You! I knew you'd get me.
CG: Thanks again for joining me in the studio. I'm sorry we had to break in here. I didn't mean to get my blood all over you when I smashed that security camera.
Cassandra Gillig can do more push-ups than your mother and has a blog.
I am a Chicago enthusiast. Evangelist, you could say. This city is my birthplace and I came back for college and it was like finding a new home, really my first true home. I have a special section on my shelf for Chicago-related books, and I’m studying geography because I love cities, but mostly this one. So I picked up Michael Czyzniejewski’s Chicago Stories (Curbside Splendor, 2012) with special interest and high hopes. Chicago Stories is a collection of 40 “dramatic fictions”--flash fiction, you could say--based off of famous and infamous local luminaries like Barack Obama, Dennis Rodman, and Rod Blagojevich. Czyzniejewski doesn’t limit himself to human figures, including pieces inspired by the Water Tower and Italian beef sandwich.
Maybe this is obvious, but this city evades description. Chicago is just teeming. It contains multitudes. And the way I encounter Chicago is intimately mapped to my personal experiences, my associations. Yet there’s some general essence of Chicago, some spirit, that we can maybe draw a fuzzy outline around. Before the fact, I would have expected Chicago Stories to explicitly try to pin down the city’s soul, to capture in its own way how Chicago is “stormy, husky, brawling/City of the Big Shoulders” or the way it’s “an October sort of city even in the spring.” Something in the grand tradition of Sandburg and Algren and Bellow. Man, Chicago goes hard. Yet these touchstone writers portray a Chicago that’s resolutely different than the one we’re living in now, and one that is richly textured but almost two-dimensional at times. It’s a very particular Chicago, but only one Chicago.
Czyzniejewski, on the other hand, delves deeper into the essence of this city, looks at a different one of its many dimensions. He’s concerned more with showing than with explicitly telling of the city’s spirit. And crucially, Czyzniejewski has a wider scope than Algren or Bellow, sweeping from Chicago’s earliest days--Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the city’s earliest settler--to Mrs. O’Leary and Leopold and Loeb, all the way up to Oprah Winfrey. It’s an open question whether his representation is faithful, though, or whether he successfully encapsulates at least some of the many Chicagos.
I’m not sure if the answer to that question is unequivocally yes. Czyzniejewski looks at a different dimension of the city than those famous Chicago authors, but it’s one that anyone who’s familiar with the figures his stories center around could “get.” In my mind, that nod of resonance and gut recognition would be less prevalent in a general audience that’s reading Algren. Like Algren’s speaking a language that rings especially true to Chicagoans, whereas Czyzniejewski can be heard by all. I wonder if this is a byproduct of the fact that by and large each fiction is based off of people, and not so much off the physical form of the city (cue my “As a geographer...”). I was going to write that he doesn’t much focus on my native South Side, but he really doesn’t talk much about the North Side either. The Chicago of Chicago Stories isn’t the “city of neighborhoods.” By and large it’s a city of historical figures and larger-than-life characters.
I don’t mean to say that this is entirely a bad thing. We should show people a Chicago that’s not the industrial hardscrabble one of last century (though I’m sure as heck not discounting that that’s still a part of our heritage). Taken together as a whole, these stories do give a sense of Chicago’s essence that’s distinct from the representation given by Algren and his ilk, yet a cousin to that. Czyzniejewski draws a circle around the city’s soul that relays a broad understanding of it to the reader; someone like Algren breaks your nose with more of a pinpoint representation. They’re just different methods of conveying what Chicago is.
I enjoyed many or most of the dramatic fictions in the book. They seemed to draw a picture of a Chicago that sits comfortably in a dim bar, clearly a regular, elbows back, feet up, gesticulating confidently and passionately about politics and sports. There are a crop of figures, like David Hasselhoff, that should be familiar to non-Chicagoans, making the book more appropriate for a general audience. This is probably good, at least for Czyzniejewski. It’s just a different fictional Chicago than what I had hoped for.
So after all this hand-wringing about faithful representations and the soul of the city, what’s the verdict? Ultimately, I don’t think it’s fair to measure Czyzniejewski against the standards of my Chicago. I should just go write my own stories or poems if I don’t feel he captured the Chicago I know. Because that’s the thing that Czyzniejewski has made me realize, shaking me out of my solipsism--there are infinite Chicagos, and they’re all legitimate. Czyzniejewski puts forth a fresh, creative perspective on my city. I’m glad he didn’t go the Algren route. There’s too much else out there.
As the author of two rejected RateMyProfessor.com educator ratings of Kathleen Rooney, my grasp of her work is impressive and nearly peerless. Rooney was my creative writing professor during my first year of undergrad and is the type of academic cool most commonly found perched atop a desk, rappin’ life with the kids (though she--thankfully--prefers chairs and discussing course materials).
Outside of the classroom, Rooney is involved in an absurd number of things (including her role as editor for her non-for-profit Rose Metal Press and the impending release of Robinson Alone, her newest poetry collection), but her recent endeavors as a portable and commissionable poet via poetry-vending collective Poems While You Wait have been way captivating. At the PWYW pop-up booth, Rooney--alongside writers Dave Landsberger and Eric Plattner--will write you a poem on the topic of your choice for the meager suggested fee of $5 (all money going to local lit charities, of course). PWYW has been a charming element of Chicago street fairs and festivals since its incarnation and raises a lot of interesting questions about the relationship between artist and patron.
My facebook-comment probing about the newest set of pictures posted to the PWYW blog led to a discussion with Rooney on the complicated and ever-evolving relationship between art and commerce, the task of writing for an audience (literally), and multimedia’s importance in the poetry world.
CG: After looking at the PWYW tumblr, I'm totally curious about how you're so error-free on a typewriter. Do you start a new sheet if you mess up?
KR: Good question--this answer might be boring, but: my mom made me take a typing class in summer school back when I was about to start high school and that made me a super-fast relatively error-free typist. But! When we *do* mess up, it's part of the charm of the poem-as-one-of-a-kind-made-object. The hand of the craftsperson and all that.
CG: Ah, incredible. I have, like, big dumb 21st century laptop-delete meatfists.
KR: Partly because I'm used to laptops, I do have to go slower on the typewriter, but that is kind of nice too for the composition process since we're very first-thought-best-thought on PWYW--no drafting.
CG: I've also been wondering if you tailor your poems to first impressions of the people you're writing for? Or if you think that's kind of a subconscious element regardless?
KR: I think it's both--an on purpose and an inadvertent/subconscious reaction to the people asking for the poems. Some people, for example, you can tell are going to like a poem with the title "Sorry I Hit You, Asshole," whereas others are going to find that distasteful. So you calibrate your approach accordingly.
CG: Have you ever been completely off-mark about someone? Do you normally get to see people's first reactions when reading the poems?
KR: So far, none of us, not me, not Dave, not Eric, have been embarrassingly/disappointingly off-base, no. At least not to our knowledge. And I'm pretty sure we're correct about that because unlike with page poetry where the reader sees your stuff in a book or journal or on a screen and you are not physically present, we see just about everybody read our poem for them for the first time. I mean, most people are likely too polite to read a piece and tell us "Wow, guys, that sucked," but more often than not, people LOL, or hug us, or read it to themselves and then have us read it to them out loud, ask if they can take a pic with us and their new poem, and even--in the case of elegies, usually, both for humans and pets--cry. The immediacy of all that is one of the reasons I like PWYW--you get to have an audience instantaneously, and the poem becomes an act of interpersonal communication in a way that you can sort of argue a poem always is (or could be), but you get to actually *see* that communication happen in real time.
CG: I think that sort of feedback is what sustains a lot of the internet-centric literary community right now--capacity to comment/respond. A lot of writers depend on it. Do you think this sort of rapid response has notable downsides? I feel like the "ego-boost" of a successful piece has led a lot of the writers I adore into weird places.
KR: Great comparison. And yes, I think sometimes--both in person and online--"interactivity" becomes interruptivity, for better and for worse. Whether it's ego, per se, or just a desire to please/make people happy or make people like "you"/your writing, that immediacy of response can become an obstruction like any other. And that obstruction can be "good" like the obstruction of writing a sonnet, or "bad" like pandering-bad.
CG: Seems to drive a lot of unfortunate imitation in the spirit of what is hip/in fashion, too. Which isn't necessarily unhealthy, but people aren't being allowed proper time to process what they're reading.
KR: True. And I think that's a way that PWYW would differ, somewhat, yet also be similar in that what you're reading is also not fully processed, but what you're reading isn't poems but people.
CG: (Sorry, my computer keeps crashing because I'm going too hard on eBay and it is--I think--from a year that predates the invention of said website.) That last part would make an excellent and endearing slogan. Do you guys have one already? Capitalism loves slogans. I adore how PWYW is openly a business venture--the commercial spirit of it is kind of fun in a perverse way.
KR: Speaking of capitalism, I hope you win big on all your ebay bids. And yeah, we nakedly embrace the pay-for-poem model. The notion that it's somehow icky to mix money and art seems needlessly high-minded and largely unexamined. Paying for something--an object or an experience--makes that something worth more. It literally ups its worth. So why not up the worth of a poem? Also, fwiw, we donate all the money we make to nonprofits, usually 826 Chicago or Rose Metal Press. So we're not like, taking the money and using it for sports cars or drugs or trips to the Bahamas. Not that that would be "wrong," but we like the charitable component as well. Also? Paying for a poem enhances the poem's intelligibility. By giving people a familiar social script (I give someone money, they give me something I want in return), PWYW also helps get around the pesky but-I-don't-understand-contemporary-poetry concern that a lot of readers feel as though they have.
CG: The mailman just came with a Blake Babies 7" I paid $15 for; capitalism wins. It's kind of strange how much the commercial component of art/media consumption complicates the consumer's experience. I was just reading an Eileen Myles essay the other day where she talks about a "free show" a friend of hers put on (basically, you take what you want from the gallery, and it's all open to the public). She mentioned how everyone has an "it's about time" attitude about that type of thing. Like art owes them something. It's probably interesting to observe how people in the art community respond to paying for something versus people less engaged.
KR: Yeah, it's an endlessly fruitful subject to contemplate for sure. My sister Beth who is a professional photographer, both for "art" and commercial projects, actually got in a tiff with a woman at Whole Foods on the topic the other day. The woman was looking at a food magazine in the checkout line and wanted to possibly buy it and she asked the clerk how much it cost. When the clerk said "$5.99" the woman got all huffy and said "That is entirely too much money!" and Beth said, "Excuse me, ma'am, but it costs that much because they have to test all the recipes to make sure they work out, and to pay the writers for writing the pieces, and to pay the photographers for taking the pictures, so if you think about it, it being less than $6 is really a bargain." The woman remained pissy and implacable, but I am thinking Beth has a point. I'd add that part of this art-owes-me attitude probably stems from the relatively recent development of attention itself into a sort of commodity. Like idiomatically, we have been "paying" attention for quite a while, but these days, people really do seem to think that attention is a form of actual payment and that looking at art, literature, whatever at all ought to be enough. I mostly disagree, though free stuff can be great, too.
CG: That's totally true. Some people are just so used to getting certain things for free, also, that having to pay for them is a strange concept. Literature really seems "free" to some degree--especially in academic settings (where you pay for books beforehand and without associating the fees with the actual books), which is where most people will get their first and only exposure to it. On top of that, online literary magazines, libraries, blogs, and free e-books make paying feel unnecessary in some scenarios. Working with bands--and I think this is something the writing community is starting to explore--a lot of people couldn't care less about owning a physical copy of the music, but are completely enamored with buying things like pins and patches and t-shirts. How do you feel about the way that merchandising and advertising has started to trickle into publishing? I saw the trailer for your new book a couple of weeks ago. Are these obligations or exciting new prospects?
KR: Great analogy to the music community. And the merch mania that is now working its way into the lit community is both, I think, an obligation (the more people do it, the more other people will come to expect it as part of the overall package), and an exciting new prospect. Abby and I were ridiculously psyched about getting a designer to help us make some Rose Metal Press buttons, for instance. Meeting these expectations is probably as affected by attitude as anything else (exercise, cooking, etc.) that can fall along the spectrum of boring chore versus super-fun hobby. Like if one is all "Darn it, I have to make another dullsville book trailer," then making the trailer will be drudgery, but if one is all "Sweet, it's time to make another book trailer!" then it could be fun, artistically fulfilling, etc in addition to necessary and functional.
CG: For me, what has been really exciting about book trailers is the interaction between different types of media. I think one of the best examples of this is the trailer for Matt Bell's Cataclysm Baby. It's incredible to see what visuals and music can do to aid writing; it's not that it is necessary for these things to be appealing but that something with an ostensible intellectual barricade can grow into a piece that competes with anti-intellectual media.
KR: Exactly. I've seen a lot of knee-jerk dislike of book trailers (grumble, grumble, why use video to promote reading, etc.) on blogs and websites, but it's a genre like anything else in which some examples of the form are high-quality and compelling and others are less so. Overall, the multimedia possibilities seem full of so much potential and well-worth trying.
CG: Is that something you see becoming a part of your work in the future?
KR: I thiiiiink so. I'm hesitant to publicly make too many promises in that direction. But yes, visual additions to verbal/print projects are intriguing me right now. It might sound barely significant, but Eric, my fellow PWYW-er gave me one of his two busted iPhones (he dropped the one that is now mine over the winter on the ice by Lake Michigan and its screen is semi-smashed) which works only as a camera and I've been having what seems like a disproportionate amount of fun "getting into" photography, for example. What about you? What's on tap?
CG: That is way good to hear; make promises! Some of the best art happens when artists enter new fields, I think. Right now I'm most focused on the beginnings of what will be a hyper-link driven "ASCII art" image/text project that functions kind of like a choose your own adventure book; each character in the ASCII will lead to a different page, so it's more dependent on random chance than linearity. I want to make it a kind of terrible mess--no way to backtrack and lots of "page not found"s. I love writing for "the page" and striving to create things that are powerful without what seems like bells and whistles, but it is--I think--an incredible thing to be able to succeed in a lot of different areas and make things as an "artist" and not just a writer. I have one more question for you regarding PWYW. Have you ever written a line in one of your poems that you've been really hesitant to "give away"? Would you feel comfortable reusing a part of one of the pieces you've written for another piece?
KR: I can't wait to see your new image/text project. And I agree about the entry into unfamiliar artistic fields. I love what can happen when one has a beginner's mind and can make "mistakes" that often turn out to be not-so-mistaken. And to answer that last Q: yes--I have! But I'm also not afraid to plunder my own work. I think repetition can sometimes be annoying, sure, but also, it can be seen as a theme or concern, so reusing something in a new context does not strike me as cheating.
CG: Ooh, I admire your honesty and am so on board with recontextualization. On the note of happy accidents: thank you for answering all my questions!
KR: Aw. You're welcome--thanks for being so inquisitive.
Cassandra Gillig is an honorary member of popular, French Canadian chillwave band Sand in my Sandsandwich.
With AM I COOL (available as free ebook via scribd), Chicago-based musician and writer Heiko Julien has mastered the use of diction-based cultural satire. Rather than--as is common--drawing attention to the absurdity of popular speech patterns, Julien uses universal emotions and experiences to prod readers into taking a step back and assessing their place in the society that fosters this culture. He is not distracted by the task of becoming campy or hilarious (these do happen, though; they're especially inevitable considering his aesthetic goals); all efforts present are invested in the sincere depiction of the "simple" task of life. The language present--the strangely beautiful centerpiece of AM I COOL--is eloquent and naturally dips into a foreign yet necessary intellectual lexicon.
Of course, there is also dad humor, a "dank" spice rack, and an open invitation to hurl shrimp at Julien's corpse. What is most impressive is--unlike most things compiled in such a fashion--each stanza of Julien's poems feels like a natural next step. Though they should be jarring non-sequiturs, lines are invisibly connected through the portrayal of the complicated human mind. Everything is interwoven.
AM I COOL is worth reading because it is entertaining, but worth thinking about because it is written in a way that both satirizes and praises the erratic nature of thought. Julien has created a new standard for writers operating in this particular style and it’s exciting to know that possibilities for this type of pop culture-loving minimalism are nowhere as limited as I've come to expect.
Cassandra Gillig is a person that can be found on the World Wide Web.
Today we get an all-access inside peek at Mark R. Brand's personal work space, a true delight. Brand has just recently been named [along with ACM publisher Curbside Splendor] one of the top 5 Chicago indie authors & publishers to look out for, so this is your last chance to see Mark's space before he ends up on MTV Cribs.
Ever wonder what inspires this amazing Chicago writer to write (I'll give you a hint, it rhymes with "cheese")? Ever wonder how long it takes Mark to solve a rubik's cube (I'll give you a hint, 2:26 flat, HAPPY NEW YEAR!)? Check it out:
I acquired the monolithic slab of mahogany that is my writing desk in 2004 when my wife's parents moved from their large house on Lawndale in Evanston to a smaller home in Wilmette. This desk belonged to my father-in-law (the artist, Dennis B. O'Malley) when he was a vice-president of a now-defunct Evanston bank several years ago. Their new home had no space for such an admittedly massive desk so, being the opportunist I am, I snatched it up, and with me it has remained ever since. I took some photos when we moved it into our former home and I went through about two bottles of Liquid Gold making every surface of it glow.
The desk is 3 feet deep and 5.5 feet wide, made of solid mahogany with brass drawer pulls. It has nine full-width drawers that pull 3 feet out to reveal several large interior storage spaces. The top, as you can see from the photos below, is removable, which is good because by itself that piece probably weighs around 100 lbs. I use a regular protective office blotter pad over the top of it because it's of the variety that will instantly show marks if anything cold or hot or wet is left on it, let alone scratches from my metal-bottomed keyboard.
By Michael Zapata
I first found Ray Bradbury in a labyrinth, a place for wanderers, ghosts and parallel universes, a place for those facing detention (which is, itself, a form of exile for adolescents…I was often exiled); I first found him in my junior high library.
It was a place that smelled like dust – the best smell in the world according to Mr. Bradbury, as if there are no other smells, as if in a billion years there will be no other smells. It was in that library, in exile, that Ray Bradbury first introduced me to literature. Once that happens to an adolescent, it is the beginning of the end, which is to say there’s no going back.
By way of The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, andSomething Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury introduced me to H.G. Wells, Melville, and Poe. Even Kafka. He prepared me to daydream – about literature – for the rest of my life. He prepared me for the horrors of Stephen King, the unreality of Borges, and the insanely perfect science fiction novel The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, published in Buenos Aires in 1940, two years after Ray Bradbury published his first short story, but not translated into English until 1964. In fact, Ray Bradbury was our greatest champion and defender of literature. In his hands, literature was imagination without boundaries. His short story, “The Veldt,” in which two children use a type of virtual-reality machine to murder their parents, still haunts me twenty years later. “The Veldt” is Poe and H.G. Wells and Rousseau in a knife fight. Or take this first paragraph, from “The City,” in which a city takes revenge upon humanity for destroying its civilization ages ago:
The city waited twenty thousand years.
The planet moved through space and the flowers of the fields grew up and fell away, and still the city waited; and the rivers of the planet rose and waned and turned to dust. Still the city waited. The winds that had been young and wild grew old and serene, and the clouds of the sky that had been ripped and torn were left alone to drift in idle whitenesses. Still the city waited.
If John Steinbeck had been a visiting alien, he might have written like this. These are voices from outer space. Voices acting as echoes of vengeful, alien ghosts.
Ray Bradbury also warned me to never grow up. He knew that adults burn books, turn politics into perpetual war, and give up their dreams for flat screen TVs. He knew that adults, faced with the instability and fear of the world, suffocate their own childhood. They force their younger selves underwater, great stretches of Prussian-blue water, until they drown. He knew that the only adults who make it out intact are those who face their nightmares head on and then pursue their childhood dreams. When I read (Bradbury, Asimov, Eco, Bolaño, any writer who makes me daydream), I am not only re-entering the labyrinth of my junior high library, but the entire labyrinth of my childhood. How do you thank a writer for that?
By reading more. That’s how. And by listening to Bradbury’s advice to do what you love and love what you do.
Ray Bradbury died on June 5th, 2012, the same day there was a transit of Venus. The next transit of Venus will occur in 2117, a year Bradbury is more familiar with than the rest of us. I re-read his story “The Long Rain,” which takes place on Venus and which is unforgiving. I can’t help but think of coincidences, although, I don’t believe in fated coincidences. Let’s just say then that I believe in literature, which desperately tries to make sense out of coincidences.
Ray Bradbury was extraordinarily prolific and, as only the masters can do, he wrote about the greatest themes in life, what Dostoevsky called the Abyss of Heaven and the Abyss of Hell. Bradbury understood that the abyss, whether found in the poetic vastness of outer space or in the scientific formulas of the atomic bomb, would inevitably and lovingly destroy mankind. Yes, lovingly! His writing encompassed crystalized landscapes, Martian cities, and the curious child who lives or dies in us all. He knew that nothing of mankind would remain but books, or rather, the written memory of fear and love. He faced the abyss smiling and he wrote down what he saw, which is to say Ray Bradbury was prepared to live forever, or the next thing to it. That is the only way to understand his work.
Michael Zapata is an educator and writer living in Chicago. He is a founding editor of MAKE: A Literary Magazine. He is also a 2008 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship recipient for prose. Currently, he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and works as managing editor at ANTIBOOKCLUB.
James Tadd Adcox has a new book coming out, It's called The Map of the System of Human Knowledge and he wants to read it to you. Literally. You. Personally. I would take him up on this offer. I have heard him read pieces from it. Not only is his North Carolina accent subtly pleasing, but the stories are good. (Tadd, do people really call toilets "commodes" in NC?)
Monday through Friday next week, I will read you a story if you contact me through Gmail or Skype. The story will be from my first book, The Map of the System of Human Knowledge, which came out this week from Tiny Hardcore Press. I will be at my computer working from 10 am to 6 pm, Chicago time, so that’s the best time to contact me, if you want me to read to you.
All of the stories are fairly short, between 1 and 5 minutes maybe.
This is a good thing to do if you are wondering whether you would like the stories in this book, or also if you just want someone to read to you for 1 to 5 minutes.
My Gmail address is jamestaddadcox AT gmail DOT com. My Skype name is jamestaddadcox.
I am excited about this.
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