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Voices From Outer Space


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

Mason Johnson: (Not Quite) In Defense of Marie Calloway

Fiction staff member Mason Johnson on the Marie Calloway debate (view his orginial blog post here):

Everyone has been weighing in on this Marie Calloway person and I thought I’d weigh in because, dammit, I like attention too.

Here are my two opinions about Marie Calloway:

1. I don’t know if she’s a good writer.

2. She seems like a perfectly fine human being.

I don’t mean that in a jerky way, like I’m insulting her writing, in that I don’t think she’s a bad writer either. What I mean to say is that I haven’t read much by her, so I’m not actually equipped to decide whether she’s a good writer, or whether she’s a bad writer.

No, I have not read Adrien Brody. I will eventually, I’m sure. I’m just in no hurry. Is it bad? I don’t know. Is it amazing? I have no clue. I know there are words in it. I can say that with confidence. So, if you want to quote me, you can quote that.

Mason Johnson, “Adrien Brody has words!”

I have read bits and pieces of her blog. She’s a passionate person with opinions. How terrible!

Here are some thoughts that are tangential to  Marie Calloway and people’s response to her:

Sometimes, we don’t respect each other in this little, writing community of ours. This is real goddamn annoying. It’s especially annoying to me when we’re not respecting women. On a whole, I like to respect women. Are there others out there who do not?

I think there are a lot of men out there in the literary world who work very hard and are inadvertently assholes. (Or maybe it’s intentional). They see a woman (or anyone that’s different from them) getting attention, and they scream, “why can’t I get away with that? Whatever it is they’re doing! It’s because I’m male, isn’t it?”

No, not exactly. The reason you can’t get away with it is because you put very little thought into it. You’re set into your ways and don’t want to change because, on the whole, they’ve done right by you. They’re not always right though. Why rely on critical thinking and empathy when you can tear something down though? When you can whine and complain about it?

It is possible that these male writers are trying to do good by the world. By criticizing women who write about sex, they’re taking the role of the older brother. Half resentful, immature and jealous, and half protective, as if a young woman like Marie Calloway needs to be saved from her “bad writing” and “poor sexual judgements” by the likes of you, Super-white-grad-student-man. The best super hero of all!

Well, fellow men, allow me to let you in on a little secret: women don’t need you to save them. Or to correct them. Or to help them. Marie Calloway, a young woman with strong opinions and apparent talent, does not need you to save her. By judging women through thinly veiled literary comments, you’re not coming off as an asshole for the better of the community. You’re just coming off as an asshole.

Hope you can live with that. I’m sorry to generalize, I know all white men aren’t like this, it’s just the easiest way to get my point across. At the end of the day, we all make horrible judgements like this about each other. Maybe, once in awhile, we could get out of our skin and attempt to respect one another just a tiny bit more.

Or we can say fuck it and keep on keepin’ on.

Which will it be?


More on Marie Calloway:

New York Observer article 

Roxane Gay in HTMLGiant

Interview with The Rumpus

“Is this about style?” On Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet

by Jennifer Moore

Methodist Hatchet. by Ken Babstock . Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2011. 101 pages. $14.95 softcover. ISBN: 978-0-88784-293-1.

Reviews of Ken Babstock’s Methodist Hatchet have been mixed. Most have more or less mentioned the book’s difficulty; that Babstock is “no longer intelligible” and “wilfully obscure” (Shane Neilson); that the poems are at times “so thick with sound it’s difficult for the reader to find a way in” (Abby Paige), and the sense is of “eavesdropping on a conversation of which the reader is no longer part” (Nick Mount). All of these claims are pretty much spot-on. There are some strong moments, though; unfortunately, those moments don’t make up for the book’s deficiencies.

The first poem in the collection, “The Décor,” functions as its central thematic piece, a small-scale version of the book as a whole. The reader’s initially struck by its not-so-subtle critique of conspicuous consumption, and along with that the baggage of style, money, class, and value. While the poem considers the role home décor plays in offering a picture of status and wealth to the public—“a visual/of earned leisure” (2), this concern with style extends beyond this scope to the role of style in poetry. Babstock writes “Nothing now eases the buzzing/suspicion I’m being signaled to from across/a great distance” (1-2), and we feel the same way; but it’s Babstock signaling to us through the “clutter of//the manifest image” (4). However, what he wants is clear: for the reader to


Slide an arm right through

the surface of this picture,

into whatever spatial realm lies

behind the illusion of depth, to hold

the hand of the person


wanting so badly to be seen precisely

as they feel themselves to be (ibid)


One hears John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (“One would like to stick one’s hand/out of the globe, but its dimension,/what carries it, will not allow it”), and Babstock’s interest in the visual arts (Jeff Wall, Jeff Koons and Robert Rauschenberg show up later) is clear. However, where he wants his readers to see “whatever spatial realm lies/behind the illusion of depth,” often all we’re given is that illusion. At one point he asks, “Is this about style?” (3). We worry that’s all it’s about. Throughout the book, the reader peruses the design, which has supplanted the structure itself. Methodist Hatchet is built out of surface material and little else.

Most of Babstock’s strong moments occur in the book’s first half. For example, in “Radio Tower” we read: “Everything’s the colour of rabbits, scissored/from another world and pasted on thin” (37). Or in “Nottawasaga”: “Sky a motif of cowslip in clear ice, /mayflies make moon-dials of the flagstones” (77). And in “As Marginalia in John Clare’s The Rural Muse”, a hospital is the setting for a consideration of ailment, perhaps the same sort Clare suffered while finishing his last collection. Here, Babstock depicts a view:


Hexagonal window, the moon


penned in it, and a segmented swarm sucking

up peonies (5)


The beauty here lies in its simplicity. Where the language is clarified, pared down and precise, Babstock succeeds. That kind of gracefulness is minimal in this collection, its resonance oftentimes drowned out by the buzzing of so much else.Another strong poem is “Caledonia,” a political piece centered on the protests regarding the Grand River land dispute in Ontario in 2006:


Then we came out in numbers. Organized as Canadians

we came out in numbers with flags. With flags aloft


and hooting we stepped out in anger and in numbers. In

numbers as Canadians we came out drunk and threw rocks.


We threw rocks and golf balls as our patience had come to its

natural end. As Canadians we threw rocks past our flags aloft. (10)


Again, where Babstock is strong is where he is able to pare down both language and lineation. Here, the result is a poem in couplets that works on the logic of pattern and variation, whose repetition and circling indicates a kind of futility. “Caledonia” enacts through language the difficulty in affecting political change or social action.

Where the poems are unsuccessful is where they lapse into wordplay (“Que Syria, Syria”), overwrought syntax (“Bathynaut”) or longish narratives with little momentum to carry the reader through (“Coney Burns,” “Russian Doctor”). His poems range in topic (sugar gliders, video games, Lee Atwater) as well as in formal choice (tercets, quatrains, sestets, longer stanzas, end rhyme), but this wild variance slips around the halfway point of the book. As Babstock writes in “The Living Text,” “the slipknot of visuals begins to undo” (20), and at times it’s hard to see why these poems exist in a volume together. At best, Methodist Hatchet is kaleidoscopic; at worst, it’s haphazard.

But what I’m most struck by here is the ambivalence Babstock seems to have regarding his status as a writer, and where he stands among other writers. Many poems cite figures: Theodor Adorno, William James, David Foster Wallace; the Johns Clare and Ashbery. Other writers pop in and out like snippets of conversation: T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Antonio Gramsci, Don DeLillo. At times the effect is of name-dropping, and one notices a pattern in those referenced: mostly literary or philosophical figures, and all men. In this book I hear an anxiety of influence—a man trying to understand why he does what he does—but in doing so, he overdoes the poems themselves. The reader is left with “the fuzz of bafflement” (84), surrounded by so much stuff, but with little understanding of the significance of the stuff. I wish I felt this was deliberate on the part of Babstock—that he’s making some comment about how hard it is to live in our bewildering contemporary moment—but the poems don’t resonate beyond their own boundaries. The effect of the book is kaleidoscopic, but there’s no center focus to hold the dazzle together.


Ken Babstock is the author of three previous collections of poetry: Mean (Anansi, 1999), Days into Flatspin (Anansi, 2001), and Airstream Land Yacht (Anansi, 2006), which was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize and won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. His poems have been anthologized in Canada, the United States, and Ireland and The Oxford Anthology of Canadian Literature. A former poetry editor at Anansi Press, he lives in Toronto.

Jennifer Mooreis a PhD candidate in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and serves as Poetry Editor for Another Chicago Magazine.

The beginning of the end

It's December 1, which means that a) it's time to shave, and b) it's the beginning of the end of the year reading compilations. Today, check out The New York Times's 10 Best Books of the year and The Millions's A Year in Reading Series. What do you love? What do you hate? What would you include on your own list?

Literary Meccas

National Geographic ranks the top 10 literary cities of the world. The U.S. doesn't make it on the list until 7 (Portland, Oregon) and 8 (Washington, D.C.). While it's hard to argue with much of their reasoning, I still have to say it — no Chicago? Clearly they've never been to the Printers' Ball.

BFFL: Best Friends For Life

Check out Flavorwire's compilation of "Literary Characters Who Would Be Best Friends in Real LIfe." Got any you'd like to add?

The death of the audience?

Check out Alexa Ortega's musings at HTML Giant on the best way to share poetry, and literature in general, with a public that might not necessarily be inclined to attend literary readings. Is poetry actually dead to the mainstream, Ortega wonders. And is it? I think she brings up a good point: maybe writers think so because they often write and read for a handful of critics and then don't necessarily reach beyond that. But in a city like Chicago, poetry hardly seems dead. It seems like every week a new reading series begins and a new literary journal releases its first issue. And with the Internet, "local" and a "larger audience" don't necessarily have to be as different as Ortega describes them. Yes, the Internet lends itself a certain sense of large-scale longing to "make it big." But if local artists can more easily share their work with others, then more power to them. I don't think it detracts from the intimacy of a reading or performance—if anything it can only help generate interest. Because that's what art and writing is all about, really: a way to share something meaningful.

Things Fall Apart

Over at the New York Times's Arts Beat, Sam Tanenhaus writes about literature as a response to disaster, and how language can be used to cope. Literature and catastrophe are similar, he argues, in that they defy expectations of what the mind considers to be "normal."

"...catastrophe defies logic. It faces us with disruption and discontinuity, with the breakdown of order. The same can often be said of poetry itself. It operates outside the realm of “logic.” Rather, it obeys the logic of dreams, of the unconscious. This is especially the case with lyric poetry, with its suggestion of vision and prophecy."

Does writing (and art in general), then, function best as a response to the world around us? Do these examples hold true as universal expression for all the disaster surrounding us in the news today?


Here are a few things you should be reading:

Esquire does a big piece on writer Phillip Roth, who is not Jonathan Franzen.

Howard Jacobson wins the Man Booker prize, for his novel The Finkler Question beating out  the house favorite C by Tom McCarthy, the book everyone in the UK placed bets on last Wednesday to win the Booker, because I guess there is nothing better to do in England than gambling (and loosing) on literary awards.

More stuff about the guy who punched Gabriel García Márquez here. (h/t Second Pass)