I was with some poetry friends in a pub near Holborn, shooting the breeze before a reading two of us were participating in. The breeze was fairly dark on that day, for various reasons. It was the weekend following Donald Trump’s inauguration for one thing; it was January in London for another. Let us hope that it was genuine curiosity, at least as much as the need to keep the conversation going, that caused one friend to ask which poet I thought of as the main background presence for my own writing. He did not quite phrase the question in terms of influence. I did not have to think to know that the answer was John Ashbery. But for some reason, the name felt a little flat on my tongue, as if this was an important fact about myself that I had not been nourishing or had grown inattentive to. Further comment seemed called for, and what I found myself saying next was that, for me, Ashbery was the sky. It was true, and of course it remains so. The sky is not something that just goes and dies one day.
J. M. Holmes’s “What’s Wrong with You? What’s Wrong with Me?” appears in our Summer issue (no. 221); it’s Holmes’s first published story. Next year, it will be included in the collection How Are You Going to Save Yourself. Like the other stories in the collection, “What’s Wrong with You? What’s Wrong with Me?” follows a group of friends, four young black men—Dub, Rolls, G., and Rye—as they navigate the tangle of sex, race, and class. The story opens with Dub pressing Rye with the question “How many white women you been with?” Rye shies away from answering amid the group but later tells G., in confidence, about a sexual encounter with a white woman that left him at once ashamed and exhilarated.
I spoke with Holmes over the phone recently, just after he’d returned to Milwaukee from a trip through Portugal, Italy, and Croatia with his mother and sister. He was laid back and cool, despite admitting that he was nervous. (“That was my first interview,” he told me afterward. “I feel like I just asked my girl to prom.”) We talked openly about intimacy in interracial relationships, the black body as sexual fetish, and shadeism.
(NB: Some of the story’s details are purposefully left out, so as not to spoil the experience for our readers. But you can read “What’s Wrong with You? What’s Wrong with Me?” here.) Read More
Amanda Auerbach’s poem “Rights” appears in our Summer issue. Here, she remembers the two voices—one from the left and one from the right—that inspired it.
I wrote the poem “Rights” in early February, on a drive up to Winter Park in Colorado, where I was going for my first ski day of the season. Back home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I’m a graduate student, it was the first day of Jorie Graham’s spring-semester poetry workshop. Even though I was missing the first day of workshop for skiing, I decided I would still make this my first day of poetry. I hadn’t been able to write since the election; there had been so many sources of anger to sort through that I was left feeling empty. I wasn’t sufficiently energized to create or do much else beyond working on my dissertation.
Attending the Boston Women’s March in January had helped pull me out of that state. I was struck by all of the politically relevant expressions of joy I encountered there. My favorite was probably the pervasive pink pussy hat, which casually baited the religious right. Though I came to the march sans poster and sans pussy hat, feeling like I didn’t have anything to add, I discovered, from participating in the chants, that I did. I had a voice I could use to say the same things as everyone else.
I wanted to try saying something in that protesting voice to see how it sounded. As my father-in-law drove me and my husband up Highway 40, the first two lines of “Rights” came into my head: “I do not do well without my chattel. / I do not do well without doing what I will with my chattel.” I assumed, after writing these lines, that my speaker was a stock Trump supporter. Then the language of the Women’s March protestors started to make its way into the poem as well. “It will bite your fingers,” the poem says. This came from the posters that said, THIS PUSSY BITES BACK. The place where these two lines meet is righteous indignation. What would happen, I thought, if I blended the language of the left and the right into a single voice? Read More
Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey appears in our Summer issue. Here, she remembers performing in a child’s production of the Odyssey as a girl in Oxford, England.
When I was a shy, awkward eight-year-old living in Oxford, England, I was moved to a new school. The transition was hard at first. I left behind a beloved best friend and traveled to a world where many things had to be learned all over again, starting with the daily routines (here we had to sit cross-legged on the rug for attendance, not upright on plastic chairs) and handwriting (my scratchy, illegible scrawl was no longer acceptable). I felt lost, as if in a foreign island or out at sea in a storm—although in fact, the school was only three blocks from my house.
But there were good things in this strange new world. It was a Church of England school, and the teachers made us sing cheerful songs about “sharing and caring.” We learned to make pot holders, quiche Lorraine, and lumpy ashtrays out of clay—talents that are still more or less the pinnacle of my domestic abilities. I made a new friend, a girl with an adorable freckly smile.
By far the most exciting thing that happened that year was the school play: an ambitious adaptation of the Odyssey, enacted by us children. I had some dark moments when my younger sister, she of the gorgeous blonde ringlets, was cast as Helen of Troy. But I had no good reason to be jealous. Helen was a nonspeaking role, and my beautiful sister spent her single brief dramatic appearance being tugged across the stage by the sweaty little boy playing Paris. I was Athena, the most kick-ass goddess of them all. Though Odysseus is the hero (acted by our class troublemaker, a clever, rowdy British Pakistani boy on whom I had a secret crush), I was vastly more powerful, and I got to tell him exactly what to do. Read More
The story behind Jeffrey Yang and Kazumi Tanaka’s collaboration “No Home Go Home / Go Home No Home,” a series of poems and drawings in our Summer 2017 issue.
Kazumi Tanaka works with wood, bone, sound, and her own hair. She works with plaster, glass, paint, and light. She’s remade the furniture of her mother’s only “tiny corner of … comfort space” in miniature—every drawer and door perfectly functional, with the use of tweezers. She’s made a bird’s nest out of hundreds of stainless-steel pins. She has indigo-dyed silk fabric using a traditional shibori-zome technique, stitching the fabric with cotton thread and intertwining it with rope before arranging it, at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia, into a rippling umbilical form on a low, square altar draped with white linen.
As a gift for a friend, Kazumi made a tiny oval “Box of Wisdom” out of cherrywood and copper nails, in which she placed utensils sculpted out of her wisdom teeth, on a pillow of her hair. For another friend, she carved an achromatic flute, tuned to the key of C, out of the leg bone of a deer. Read More
Christine Lincoln’s story in our Winter issue, “What’s Necessary to Remember When Telling a Story,” comprises no more than fifteen hundred words, but its length belies its breadth. Braiding enchantment with sorrow and hope, it begins inside a dream, with a man carrying a small woman in his mouth—“a grown woman not much bigger than a bullet”—running from a dark-skinned girl thought to be coming after them. From there, it unfurls into an agonizing, tender portrait of the nameless dreamer, once an abusive partner, who spends the rest of the story musing over the love he ruined years ago. Lincoln, born in the sixties, hails from Baltimore; having endured a period of addiction that briefly left her suicidal, she turned to fiction, which was, she told me, what she needed to save herself. She went on to pursue an M.F.A. and currently lives in York, Pennsylvania, where she is poet laureate emeritus.
I spoke with Lincoln over the phone, her voice gentle and heartening, about “What’s Necessary”; about her debut collection of short stories, Sap Rising; and about her thoughts on race and literature in America, both today and as it was for her growing up one of the only black children in her school. Every so often, she’d pause midsentence—near tears, she’d say, because she hadn’t shared this with anyone before.