March 7, 2014 | by Robyn Creswell
The Winter issue of The Paris Review includes Kevin Prufer’s poem “How He Loved Them.” Prufer is the author of six books of poetry and the editor of several anthologies. His latest collection, Churches, was published this week. He teaches at the University of Houston.
The poem stages a scene of terrible yet familiar violence—a car bomb explodes in front of a courthouse, killing a colonel and his two granddaughters. But the poem is less about the event than the aftermath. The explosion becomes a spectacle for bystanders, who record it on their smartphones. In what ways are poems like our devices—in thrall to spectacle, turning moments into eternities?
Turning moments into eternities was truly at the center of the poem for me—the idea of the afterlife, of divine translation. I imagined that the colonel, who acknowledges he has done terrible things, dies in a moment of inarticulable love for his granddaughters. Of course, he becomes spectacle for us, his death recorded and uploaded to the Internet, where we watch it over and over again. But, in another way, perhaps he has been redeemed, has been, himself, uploaded to a kind of heaven where his love is played out eternally. At least, that’s how I like to think about him and the poem—about the moral, spiritual, digital complexities that can be packed into a single moment … a moment we, unknowing, watch play out on our computer screens.
The way this bomb works as “a divine translation” reminds me of another poem of yours, “A Minor Politician,” from National Anthem. That poem is a posthumous monologue, delivered from the crypt. The speaker is an honorable pol, though he has served questionable goals. At the end of the poem, he sees God’s hand, “like a bomb,” reaching through the catacombs to “take my body from the tatters / and lift me through the shadows / to the trees.” Are these cases of redemption through violence?
I think the same question is at play, yes. But the poems have very different contexts. When I wrote National Anthem, I was caught in a vortex during which all I could think about was classical—mostly Roman—history. I read about that to the exclusion of most other things. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were new and I was living in a small Missouri town very near an Air Force base, and heard echoes of Roman history everywhere. That ancient politician thinks he has been redeemed by God, by God’s hand breaking through the ceiling. But really, it was time and forgetfulness that redeemed him—and one of our bombs breaking through his crypt two thousand years later, shedding light on him. Read More »
March 4, 2014 | by Matt Gallagher
In late 2011, Phil Klay, a former Marine officer who served in Iraq during the Surge, published “Redeployment,” a harrowing short story about a group of Marines returning stateside from the war. It drew praise for its subject matter, its lean prose, and its psychological acuity. Klay’s first collection, also titled Redeployment, is out this week. Its twelve stories revolve around war and its aftermath. Klay’s narrators include a State Department official charged with popularizing baseball in Iraq and a military chaplain offering spiritual guidance to an out-of-control unit.
Like a young professor who is still as comfortable in the world as he is in the library, Klay has an easygoing warmth. He exudes a passion for and knowledge of his craft. He is also unfailingly punctual. Last month, we sat down over coffee to discuss his book, the state of contemporary war literature, and the pitfalls of drawing too much from personal experience when writing fiction.
First books by vet-writers often read as rough autobiography, but in your collection, every story has a different narrator. Was this is a deliberate choice?
It was. When I first came back from Iraq, I of course found myself thinking a lot about it. Not just my experiences, but those of people I talked to, friends, and colleagues. What did our deployment mean, where did it fit into the broader perspective of what we as a country were doing? What was it like going out and making condolence payments to Iraqi families? What about the artilleryman who sent rounds downrange but never saw the effects of what happened, didn’t know how to conceptualize the bodies of those he helped kill, but wanted to? Even in my earliest stories, I knew I wasn’t writing about myself.
It also felt important to convey that modern war is this huge industrial-scale process with a lot of parts making the machinery work. There’s an incredible diversity of experience. We have a tendency to think of war as this quasi-mystical thing, and that interpretation flattens the experience—by using different perspectives, I wanted to open a place for readers to compare and contrast, to make judgments, to engage.
“Prayer in the Furnace” is narrated by a military chaplain in Ramadi during one of the most violent periods of the war. How did that story come about?
A lot of the great pieces of journalism from Iraq showed how important command influence was in violent, aggressive environments, where Marines and soldiers had a constrained set of choices to make in sudden moments. Sometimes that command influence was positive. Sometimes it wasn’t. So as “Prayer in the Furnace” developed in my mind, I decided to tell it from the perspective of someone who is sympathetic to those men and the decisions they make, but removed enough to adopt a more contemplative stance. An observer who’s with them, but not of them.Read More »
February 24, 2014 | by Yona Zeldis McDonough
Santo Richard Loquasto has a big, easy smile, and an infectious enthusiasm for his work. Since his first production—Sticks and Bones, in 1972—he’s worked on some sixty-one Broadway productions, either as a scenic or costume designer, and often as both. His cunning sets and fanciful costumes have garnered him fifteen Tony Award nominations (he’s won three times), and he’s also won numerous Drama Desk Set Awards for Outstanding Set Design and Outstanding Costume Design. Loquasto is also known for his work in film—most notably with Woody Allen, with whom he’s worked for decades, most recently on Blue Jasmine. One afternoon last summer we met at the Margot Patisserie on the Upper West Side, where Loquasto talked about how he got his start, the demands of designing for dancers, and the downsides of his job.
What got you into costume design?
Well, it just always interested me as a kid. I grew up in Pennsylvania. Mine is the classic story of a teenager in the Poconos, painting summer-stock scenery because that’s what you do there. What I was really interested in was scenery and visuals. I was always creating the mise-en-scène in my backyard. The costumes were always part of it. I was interested in the scenery because in many ways it’s … well, I can’t say it’s more manageable, but it is, of course, because you don’t have to deal with people quite in the same way. People think of me as a costume designer, but in New York, the first things I did were scenery. I did a Sam Shepard one-act play off Broadway in 1970, and then worked for Joe Papp for many years. By that time, I was in grad school at Yale, concentrating on both scenery and costumes. I was designing costumes at Williamstown. When you don’t sew, you’re somewhat intimidated by that aspect of it. You’re lucky if you get to work with amazing people who make the costumes for you and with you.
I just raced from this little shop, Euroco Costumes, where I have the costumes designed for most of my dance projects. It’s two people, Janet Bloor and Werner Kulovitz. She’s brilliant at the stretch issues, and he is an amazing costume-maker of the grand school. Beautiful period cutting. I’ve only known him for about thirty years. You rely on the shorthand that develops between you and also what they bring to it, which is not only their expertise but also their passion. It’s very interesting—normally people who make costumes, who deal with the horrible deadlines and the issues of comfort and the egos of the performers, get sick of it. But I see them get excited by new projects and it’s exhilarating for all of us.
Can you talk to me about designing for Alexei Ratmansky’s The Tempest?
The Tempest you can approach in any number of ways, like most Shakespeare. I did a lot of Shakespeare in the Park in the seventies, both scenery and costumes, and for ten years, I worked in Stratford, Ontario, at the Shakespeare festival. I didn’t do The Tempest there, but I’ve dealt with the play. It was interesting to work with Ratmansky. For him, working on The Tempest is not like, say, Romeo and Juliet, which is so much more of a ballet vocabulary, both because of the great score, which so guides you, and because of his ballet background. Also, everyone knows the story so well. Whereas with our production of The Tempest, there is this much looser Sibelius score.
I follow the play, and I think you have to start there. As an interpreter, you have to follow the progression as Shakespeare laid it out, with your own understanding of where the words aren’t applicable to movement. You understand when Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love. You know what to do. There’s anger and rage and comedy. There was a debate at one point about losing the clowns, Trinculo and Stephano. I quietly fought to keep them. I said, their relationship to Caliban makes for a wonderful scene, and those things are in the structure to give us a breather, so it’s not just this man railing against everything.Read More »
February 18, 2014 | by Elizabeth Hoover
In her third book of poetry, All You Do Is Perceive, Joy Katz moves between narrative, lyrical, and meditative language, making meaning from the switches in register. Her images—a newborn, a lynched man, a woman’s mastectomy scar—are dependably urgent and resonant.
The book begins with a poem about bringing home an adopted baby as ashes from the World Trade Center settle over Brooklyn. “The woundable face of a boy” fills the speaker with terror and awareness. Other poems wrestle with the conventions of the baby as an image—Katz is intent on portraying motherhood without succumbing to sentimentality. To resist preciousness, she invents “endearments” for her baby: “my bus, my tarmac.” In Katz’s work, beauty and glamour twine with danger. An “ambulance dazzles like a cocktail ring”; a speaker befriends a holocaust and takes it to a movie; the sounds of a newborn “run over her like mice.”
A former Wallace Stegner and National Endowment for the Arts fellow, Katz lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she teaches in the graduate writing program at Chatham University.
Tell me a little bit about the origins of All You Do Is Perceive.
The title of the book is a little accusatory. OMG, all Joy does is perceive. Meaning—ask my husband—no one got to the grocery store again. On my kitchen counter, there’s a cooking magazine opened to a self-help article, “How to Savor a Moment.” I needed help figuring out how not to savor a moment—how to move through time, seeing in an ordinary, not-intense way.
From my son, I learned a deep, meditative seeing. I watched him looking at his own hands or at a little car or something. For hours. Maybe it was ten minutes? Or days at a time. I was trapped with a small baby, but I was in a trance state, like a heroin high. It was addictive. My book’s epigram comes from Bishop George Berkeley, who says, roughly, I exist because I perceive. You exist because I perceive you. Writing the poems, I came to think that regarding is a form of love, but the regarding is not necessarily accurate. In the poems, people are always misperceiving one another. But misperceptions are a part of being alive to others. You don’t need truth or beauty. All you do is perceive. That’s all you need to have loved and lived fully. Read More »
February 10, 2014 | by Sean Carman
In the 1971 Liberation War, in which Bangladesh won independence from Pakistan, the Pakistani army adopted the rape of Bangladeshi women as a military tactic. Over the course of the more than eight-month conflict, the Pakistani military raped or made sex slaves of between 200,000 and 400,000 Bangladeshi women.
In 2010, the poet Tarfia Faizullah traveled to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to interview survivors of that atrocity, whom their new government has given the name birangona, a Bengali word that means “brave woman” but might be better translated as “war heroine.”
Seam, Faizullah’s collection about those interviews, and about the experience of traveling to Bangladesh to conduct them, won the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award and will be published on March 6. Faizullah’s collection translates the Pakistani army’s atrocities against the birangona into poetry. It also investigates, and attempts to come to terms with, Faizullah’s own heritage, identity, and experience. One of her interview poems begins: “Each week I pull hard / the water from the well, / bathe in my sari, wring / it out, beat it against / the flattest rocks—Are you / Muslim or Bengali, they / asked again and again. / Both, I said, both.”
Tarfia Faizullah and I spoke by telephone in January.
The subjects of these poems have a striking, immediate urgency, and I wondered what inspired you to write them.
In 2006, I happened to go to a poetry panel at the University of Texas at Austin, where I saw a Bangladeshi writer, Mahmud Rahman. He had translated an excerpt of a novel, Talaash, by a writer named Shaheen Akhtar. Her book is about the life of a woman who had been raped by Pakistani soldiers during the 1971 Liberation War. It was the first time I had heard about such a wide-scale atrocity in Bangladesh. I became fascinated by it, and started researching and writing the first of the interview poems, just from imagination.
What made you decide to travel to Bangladesh to interview the women yourself? Was there a particular experience that made you realize you had to go there?
I realized very quickly there was only so far my imagination could go, and only so much research I could do from the States. So I applied for a Fulbright because it seemed—you used the word urgent, and it seemed very urgent for me to go to Bangladesh and record the voices of these women, and spend time in the country in which these atrocities occurred.
I was struggling to articulate the difference between being seen as a whole person versus self-fetishizing. I was starting to reckon with what it means to be a South Asian Muslim woman from West Texas, and how sometimes it was very easy to identify as one thing or another. At the same time, something about the poems I was writing felt off to me. There was something wrong in my assumption that, even if the poems were imagined, I could claim to understand what a woman who had undergone something like that would be going through, and what it might mean to her.
Even as I was trying not to fetishize my own identity, I was running the risk of writing poems that exoticized or diminutized the experience of being a victim, or being treated as a martyr, when a lot of the birangona haven’t lived their lives that way. That was when I knew I had to go. Read More »
January 30, 2014 | by Tim Small
Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel, The Residue Years, was published last fall and drew immediate notice for its amazing use of language and voice, the cadence of its sentences, and the authenticity at its center. It tells the sweet, sad story of Grace, a recovering drug addict, and her drug-dealing son, Champ, as they both struggle in an African American Portland neighborhood that was ravaged by crack in the nineties.
Critics said the novel was about race, or poverty, or America’s failed war on drugs. Big, social themes. Personally, I disagree: to my mind, The Residue Years is a personal story, a novel about love, redemption, and freedom. Interspersed throughout are a blank form for a rehabilitation center, a police report, a Baptist church member registration form, a petition for child custody—subtle reminders that this novel is also about all the ways in which we are held captive by institutions that, more often than not, fail us. Between these pauses lie some three-hundred pages of beautiful sentences that mix urban slang with pitch-perfect lyricism, resulting in a new way of expressing American English—at least to my European eyes. Victor LaValle agrees: “It’s tough to write beautifully about ugly things, but Mitchell S. Jackson makes it look easy.” Amy Hempel has said that Grace and Champ are one of the fictional families she has cared about the most. And that’s at the heart of Mitchell’s novel: family.
Last month I fired up Skype and talked to Mitchell for more than an hour—I was in Milan, and he in Brooklyn—about his novel, his writing, and the dangers of how books are marketed today.
Your language is a fantastic mix of literary, poetic, lyrical English, and urban slang—it goes up and down and back and forth. I’m curious to know if you tried to bring together those worlds consciously.
I do feel like I’m in the middle there. I have my preliterary experiences in the urban world, listening to a bunch of hip-hop and listening to my uncles, my friends. When I got in school and started reading, I found people who were writing about a similar kind of experience, and whom I thought the canon respected. But I don’t feel like I’m in a tradition. I don’t think I read deeply enough in either field to really know about a tradition. I do have influences—James Baldwin, of course, and John Edgar Wideman. But also Denis Johnson and Barry Hannah. I like to stay in the middle. I think that that tension lets me play around with voice.
What was your starting point for the novel?
I started writing autobiographical scenes and tried to string them together. I didn’t understand the characters’ motivations. It took me years to figure out what they really wanted. I had a premise—mother on drugs, son sells drugs—but that’s not human. Those are just things people do. It took me some time to figure out what the humanity in the characters was. I saw that this story was really about a mother and a son, about their will to redeem themselves from the hurt they’d caused. Once I realized that, I went back and rewrote a lot of stuff. When I started, the characters were so close to my own life that I felt like they had to speak and act and behave like the people they were based on.
Champ and Grace began as avatars of you and your mom?
At the beginning, and then they became composites. But the origin was in truth. Once you realize the characters have a life of their own and you let them do what’s right for them, the work opens up. I wish I were as smart as Champ, but I’m not as smart as him. Read More »