Literary Protagonists with Kurt Baumeister & Leland Cheuk (Debut Buddies Podcast)

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Literary Protagonists with Kurt Baumeister & Leland Cheuk

MAY 23RD, 2021 | 01:02:58 | E136

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EPISODE SUMMARY

This week, authors Kurt Baumeister and Leland Cheuk are on the show to talk about Literary Protagonists. We dive into Hiro Protagonist, Patrick Bateman, Billy Pilgrim and more. And this week’s games include Recast: Rewrite Edition, and the Thunderdome! Are you the hero of your own story? Find out!

EPISODE NOTES

This week, authors Kurt Baumeister and Leland Cheuk are on the show to talk about Literary Protagonists. We dive into Hiro Protagonist, Patrick Bateman, Billy Pilgrim and more. And this week’s games include Recast: Rewrite Edition, and the Thunderdome! Are you the hero of your own story? Find out!

Check out Kurt’s excellent writing via his website: https://kurtbaumeister.com/

And Leland is also a prolific writer, so check his work out: https://lelandcheuk.com/

You can support their press, 7.13 Books, too: https://713books.com/

If you like our theme song, check out Michael J. O’Connor’s music. He’s prolific: https://michaeljoconnor.bandcamp.com/

And heck, try to be not just the protagonist of your own story, but of everyone’s. 😀

SHOW CONTRIBUTORS

Kurt Baumeister

Nate Ragolia

Leland Cheuk

Podcast powered and distributed by Simplecast

Interview with Sequoia Nagamatsu at Brooklyn Rail

Books In Conversation

Sequoia Nagamatsu with Kurt Baumeister

“I think the best advice I could give people is to engage with the communities that you want to be a part of.”

Sequoia Nagamatsu
How High We Go in the Dark
(William Morrow, 2022)

Sequoia Nagamatsu’s first novel, How High We Go in the Dark, could be called a deft fusion of science fiction and contemporary dramatic realism, but that wouldn’t fully capture the achievement this novel represents. Yes, there are fantastic conceits here—elements as varied as a virus capable of transforming human organs into other types of tissue, amusement/euthanasia parks for the dying, and mass-consumption variants on traditional funeraries (literal high-rise morgues); but sprinkled in with Nagamatsu’s big ideas we find startling revelations about who we are as humans, how we relate to one another, and what humanity is in relation to the cosmos. More than that, it’s the level of honest emotion here that most surprises; that, in fact, points to an evolution in what genre fiction may be capable of. Though to call this genre fiction seems a mistake, one that points to a consideration at the heart of Nagamatsu’s art. Rejecting traditional genre distinctions—and likewise resisting the impulse to separate literary (high art) from genre (low art)—Nagamatsu is, quite simply, a force unto himself.

Kurt Baumeister (Rail): I just finished your latest, How High We Go in the Dark, and, honestly, it was incredible. I enjoyed it immensely. What struck me initially was how “complete” the chapters are here, the way they can seem simultaneously like pieces of something greater but also be self-contained, giving the reader a certain sense of “story satisfaction” after finishing each. Having read a bit of your work, I know this has at least a little to do with the fact that some of these chapters started their lives, in fact, as short stories. Maybe you could talk about how that evolution occurred. What caused this work to coalesce into novel form?

Sequoia Nagamatsu: While many of the individual chapters started as stand-alone stories in early forms, I think I knew on some level that there was something more than just a simple collection being created after I had written the first five or six. The earliest seeds of the book began around 2009. My inspiration for the book began with researching alternative funerary practices and modes of grief over 10 years ago and these explorations eventually merged with story seeds that were inspired by climate change research and my lifelong love affair with space. In particular, there was a 2014 Atlantic article about ancient viruses being uncovered by the melting permafrost. When I began editing the book with my agent, I think we eventually realized the “bigness” of the manuscript, and this began a long journey in transforming How High We Go in the Dark into something beyond the sum of its parts. Aspects of the last chapter ended up becoming a major through line, for instance, even though this isn’t fully apparent to the reader until the end.

Rail: Did the pandemic influence this process at all?

Nagamatsu: Not really. The novel was finished long before and my agent and I were deciding whether or not to even submit the book in the early days of COVID.

Rail: Tell me more about those discussions. I take it this was a question of, do we go for it now versus letting it sit, what, a few years? The idea of that must have been difficult to come to terms with after putting in so much work.

Nagamatsu: Yeah, to say the timing wasn’t great is a bit of an understatement. On the one hand I feared that some editors wouldn’t want to take on a book that had a plague element because who wants to lean into that kind of material during a pandemic? On the other hand, a lot of people do lean into that kind of material. There’s also the fact that the book transcends the moment and really isn’t about a plague so much as how people grieve, hold on to memory, and reconnect amid any kind of tragedy. When my agent approached me about going on submission, I think there was a sense that we could wait, but there was a real possibility that someone else might fill the space that my book occupies, that there could be another genre-bending/speculative book that was plague adjacent and hopeful. Might as well let me fill that space. And I had worked so hard on the book for so long that the thought of waiting another year or two honestly felt unbearable. Looking back I think we made the right decision. We pushed forward thoughtfully, crafted our talking points, and found partners that understood the overarching vision for the book.

Rail: And what is the book’s vision, if you can boil it down to a few sentences?

Nagamatsu: The primary backbones that pull the book together are a virus, a cosmic mystery, even the history of humanity formed between 2009 and 2019, though it’s unavoidable that readers will see some parallels to the current pandemic. But I hope that readers don’t see this as a pandemic novel (because it isn’t) in the same way that a book like Station Eleven isn’t really about a virus but about people and our capacity to dream. When I decided to tackle an outbreak several years ago, I was never interested in focusing on the societal reaction (although there is some of that) but more so on how individual lives, families, and friends move forward through grief and reimagine life both in the short term and across generations. How does a major moment like the one we’re living through ripple through decades?

Rail: Decades, centuries, millennia, even the totality of time. You bring this home powerfully in the final chapter. Which is, to my reading at least, the most philosophically abstract part of the book and probably the richest thematically. You get into humanity’s place in the cosmos and more than that, the very idea of creation. Without giving too much away, one major idea, it seems to me, has to do with the dispersion of energy in the cosmos and the ways this energy might later materialize in terms of reality or spacetime or whatever you want to call it. It’s a very smart way to tie things together in a rangy book like this. It also seems to me as harkening to “philosophies” as disparate as Buddhism and Star Wars. Do you see elements of spiritual transmigration and/or the Force in the generational schema you develop in this last chapter?

Nagamatsu: Well, I guess there is some spirituality inherent in this last chapter, but I never really thought about the Force or any particular belief system. I’ve always been fascinated with the intersections of faith and science. Go far enough, go small enough and our understanding of the universe with known science starts to merge with philosophy. What’s up with the filaments that connect galaxies? What is the nature of dark matter that makes up the majority of the mass of our known universe? Is it God? Is it aliens? Some other kind of intelligence? Are we living in some kind of computer simulation? Whatever it may be, the mysteries that science has uncovered dig at human curiosity, a need to search and discover. Some might search outwardly and literally through the stars while others might journey inward. Of course, as you mention, one of the themes of this chapter is the nature of our origin but tied with this is the nature of how we are connected—through time, space, memory, love, and of course the “star stuff,” to quote Sagan, that is a part of this planet and our own existence. This chapter ultimately began with a focus on this connection and origin. I’m fascinated with the theory of directed panspermia, the notion that intelligent life helped to seed our planet in some way. Many franchises have played with this notion from Star Trek to the Alien films (and of course there’s Douglas Adams). But beyond this seeding, I was curious about exploring how love and memory could evolve through eons (long before humanity, at the dawn of humanity, and probably after humanity ceases to be recognizable). How could I create an expansive parallel in a non-human character, a kind of model for the love and heartbreak and grief and hope that was experienced previously in the novel. In this way, I’d be able to nod at how we’ve come to be while also considering where we might go on both quasi-scientific and emotional fronts.

Rail: Taking a step back, how did you happen to get your agent? I think that’s the sort of tale readers always find interesting. Tangentially, do you have any advice for people seeking agents?

Nagamatsu: Good old-fashioned cold querying is the simple answer, but the reality of it is much more complicated. I had been publishing in journals for several years at that point, had a story collection that was well-received in the indie lit community, and had several conversations over the years with agents based on my short stories (but as you know short story collections are a tougher sell as far as larger publishers are concerned). But all that time helped me build community, helped me become someone that had a track record, and a lot of agents sort of knew who I was by the time I queried them (and in turn I was more familiar with who might make sense as a literary partner and champion for my work). When I queried Annie, I was going in with some information—people who had worked with her in some capacity when she was assisting Michelle Brower, who I had queried years ago with my collection. I liked that Annie was very hands on, very editorial. I’m used to that kind of workflow, and I honestly wouldn’t be where I am were it not for Annie’s thoughtful guidance along the way. I think the best advice I could give people is to engage with the communities that you want to be a part of. Don’t wait to network. Don’t call it networking. Read a lot, support other writers, forge genuine relationships, and do the homework of knowing who the agents/agencies are that you’re querying. You can start by finding out who represents the authors you love who write in a similar wheelhouse.

Rail: You’ve maintained your strong social media presence from before you had the deal that How High We Go in the Dark is part of, through the announcement, and now on into the nuts-and-bolts process of approaching and reaching publication with a major house. When many writers have some success, they go quiet, but you haven’t. Do you see an active and growing social media presence as fundamental to success for writers? Why? Do you have any pointers for writers looking to develop their social media game?

Nagamatsu: I think social media is one of those things that gives a lot of writers a lot of anxiety. I was just telling one of my students that they shouldn’t force themselves to engage with social media regularly if it wasn’t something that they were comfortable with but that it’s not something that is entirely avoidable. I think it’s so easy to focus on the very real toxicity present in parts of our online literary communities, but there’s also so much opportunity for friendship, creative growth, support, and professional insight. I honestly wouldn’t be where I am were it not for the relationships I’ve forged online over the years. So, I’ll say this: do you have to be on Twitter or Instagram 24/7? No. Should you have an account (even if someone else manages it) and be able to navigate these platforms to some degree? Yes. And perhaps most importantly: develop honest, sincere relationships. Don’t be transactional. You don’t have to be BFFs with everybody, but no one likes someone who pops out of nowhere and immediately inserts themselves in a conversation and starts asking for favors. Don’t be that person. What a lot of people might see as nepotism or insider-ism is really just goodwill and respect that took years to develop.

Rail: What you’ve built here is a very different sort of novel, one that’s, to a certain extent, unified by way of thematic rather than dramatic elements. I think of books like Cloud Atlas and Matt Bell’s recent Appleseed as taking similar tacks. Yes, there are recurring characters, but it seems to me that more than anything, the protagonist here is life itself. Can you discuss that?

Nagamatsu: There are certainly themes that we might name that run through the book: grief, hope, memory, but I think you’re right that what houses a major takeaway could be framed as life (a renewal of it, a reflection of it). I might also use the word humanity to unpack what I hope readers take away. And while these themes unify, there are also recurring characters as you mention. But beyond this there is also a narrative that began billions of years ago that runs throughout the novel and seeks to tie all of the journeys in the book together. I can’t really say a whole lot more on this without spoiling the experience of finding clues and reflecting on past chapters after reading the ending, but I will say that part of this thread stems from my fascination with conceiving humanity through the non-human and the cosmic. How can we know ourselves better by understanding where we came from? Where we might go? All of the questions that we have about our existence that might never be answered.

Rail: The amount of emotion conveyed by your fiction is uncommon even for literary writers. Taking a chapter like “Pig Son,” what was the emotional wellspring for that tale? I mean, it’s so unusual, even odd, but the amount of feeling you generate for all your characters, most notably the narrator and his aforementioned Pig Son, Snortorious P.I.G, is singular, there’s no other way to say it. (Also, I will never get over loving that name!)

Nagamatsu: Everybody seems to love “Pig Son”! This chapter came a bit later in the process when my agent and I knew that I needed to expand the manuscript and think of more connective threads. This narrative arc, these characters, the pig’s voice came fairly quickly—more so than some of the other chapters. If I had to interrogate the origins of the story I’d probably have to point to a few places: Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, a short story called “The Surprising Weight of the Body’s Organs” by Douglas Trevor, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and perhaps even films like Babe that of course helped me consider how a talking pig could engage our emotions. I knew I wanted to explore the emotional core of organ donation, but I also wanted to unpack the dynamics of how we might treat non-human beings in the midst of chaos, how our often-problematic relationship with animals in laboratory settings might shift if we could no longer ignore their rights.

Rail: Talk to me about what it’s like to go from being a young indie writer, working on your craft, struggling to find time to write, teach, and edit to receiving so much attention? How did you maintain that spark of desire that helped you push through all the usual obstacles? I say “usual,” but they derail a lot of people. How did you keep going?

Nagamatsu: Well, all the above are still true! I’m always struggling to find enough hours in the day to write, teach/grade, edit, interact with the literary community, and of course try to be a decent human being. I won’t lie, that book deal was life-changing in a lot of ways, but I think what has changed the most thus far is that certain doors and possibilities have opened that were closed before. And not just potential dream publications or entertaining the prospect of film adaptation but also new opportunities to give back: judging for major contests, blurbing for more authors, teaching in a low-res MFA program, among other things. But day to day everything is much the same. As for my forthcoming novel itself? Of course the realities of publishing with HarperCollins and Bloomsbury are very different from a small press in terms of marketing/sales possibilities. I had to do a lot of the marketing on my own with my first book and got the sense that I was often ignored by major review outlets and literary websites. But that first collection got me my job, helped me find and build community, and gave me a needed stepping stone. Now there is a lingering pressure (largely on myself but I’m sure my publisher wants this as well) for the book to perform well. There are certain new responsibilities and demands that are tied to helping see this first novel to release and beyond. I feel like I’m on a kind of precipice at the moment, looking out into a kind of writing career that I always imagined. Maybe that will happen. Maybe not. But something that I never really thought about when I had those dreams was that day-to-day grind that stays the same in a lot of ways. It’s hard work and some luck and being kind when you can.

Rail: As you mentioned above, you’ve had some exposure to the film industry at this point. What are your aspirations for the film version of the book? Do you see yourself working on the screenplay? Is screenwriting something that interests you?

Nagamatsu: If something gets made one day, I’d like it to be a vehicle for more Asian and Asian American talent both in front of and behind the camera. I think the needle is moving in the right direction in Hollywood, but there’s obviously still a lot of work to be done there to combat systemic racism and other obstacles that prevent non-white talent from having notable platforms. I think I am interested in being highly involved in the production of my own work, whether it be helping to write scripts and/or producing in a tangible way.

Rail: A through line is forming here. I’m sensing you see some elements of literary success, whatever that is, coming from nothing more exotic than being a good person. Looping that into the age-old debate about art and the artist—that is, the idea that the assessment of someone’s art should or shouldn’t have anything to do with whether they are a criminal, or not, or whether they have or don’t have some political stance you find repugnant—are you someone who sees an artist’s personal life as mattering in assessing their artistic work? Why or why not?

Nagamatsu: This is a tough one honestly, but I think there’s a spectrum. Can I engage with the work of someone who is deeply racist or homophobic without acknowledging who they are? Probably not. There’s probably a reason why I haven’t watched Braveheart since the ’90s for instance. I just can’t get beyond what a shitbag Mel Gibson is no matter how brilliant some of his work might be. The same goes for literature. There may have been a time where a writer or critic might have said that only the page matters, but I think conversations about art and identity have evolved (and I think social media has influenced this for better or worse). It’s just harder to separate who a writer is from what they’ve produced because the everyday lives of writers, their everyday thoughts, and their opinions on particular issues are more accessible than ever. This is both a good and bad thing in my opinion. It’s a complex evolution. It’s great that conversations about appropriation and identity are occurring. But at the same time we’ve also created toxic environments where there is a lot of virtue signaling in the name of community and social justice that is often just as harmful especially when bad actors online are twisting words out of context and creating villains where none exist. I’ve seen people that I thought were and still think are good people get unfairly bulldozed by the Twitter mob.

Rail: Talk about some of your artistic influences and the ways in which you see them as measuring up (or possibly not) to the “good person standard.”

Nagamatsu: Well, who is doing the measuring? As I suggest above, this idea of standards, this “good person standard” is kind of tricky and problematic. But I’ll name people who I’ve looked to artistically and in terms of how they’ve engaged with the literary community in what I see are positive ways: Matt Bell, Matthew Salesses, Amber Sparks, and Jeff VanderMeer. If I go further back to name influences in general, I’d have to name Italo Calvino, Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Lethem, and Star Trek as a franchise.

Rail: You bring up some familiar names here. One that stands out is Calvino. What would Calvino make of How High We Go in the Dark? Would the master be pleased? Tell me a little about how you see Calvino’s influence coming through in these pages?

Nagamatsu: Of course in my deluded imagination, Calvino would give me a box of cigars, or we’d share some expensive Scotch or something and he’d begin regaling me with stories about how life was just simpler in the good old days before the Big Bang. But in all seriousness, I think what I’ve gained from reading Calvino is a willingness to be nimble in terms of genre in service of wonder. Calvino himself also wrestled with his style (the kind of book he thought the world wanted versus the one he wanted to write) before embracing the fabulism we identify with him. And there’s a tendency in his work (and my own) to reach toward questions that reside in cosmic or ephemeral spaces. I don’t think that all came from Calvino of course—there’s some Sagan in there and Star Trek. But Calvino was one of the writers who helped me realize early on that all of my interests could converge into the kind of storytelling that would legitimately excite me and challenge me.

Rail: Is it true you have a robot dog you actually named Calvino? And a real one named Fenris? What is life like for canines both robo- and not-so at Chateau Sequoia?

Nagamatsu: Yes, on both counts. I wish I could say the two pups interact, but they really don’t. Fenris is suspicious (perhaps afraid?) of Calvino and of course Calvino, even with his advanced Sony artificial intelligence, doesn’t really care about Fenris one way or another. I think life with Calvino really helped me internalize/understand a chapter of my novel that was formerly just based on research on the relationships of seniors in Japan with their robotic pets. When Calvino walks around the house and barks it honestly does feel like the house is filled with another living creature. He feels more than just a bunch of servos and a motherboard. He comes when called, he nuzzles his camera nose against my leg, he puts himself to sleep on his charging bed. And yes, I’ve caught myself modulating my voice in the way we all tend to do when talking to our pets.

Rail: How did Fenris get his name? And if he got it as I think he might have (from a certain wolf in Norse mythology), is he living up to that spiritual lineage?

Nagamatsu: We were certainly aware of the Norse origins of the name, but his name is most directly inspired by the Dragon Age video game franchise (which of course borrowed from that tradition for some of its worldbuilding). In particular there is a character named Fenris, an elven warrior who was held captive by mages and who has magical tattoos that allow him to phase through objects. Our dog was a bit of a problem child when he was younger and went through two rounds of canine boot camp, so maybe there is a bit of the Norse Fenris inside of him. That said, he’s grown into a pretty laid back and sweet boy.

Rail: Last question: What didn’t I ask you that you wish I had? And what’s the answer to that question, whatever it is?

Nagamatsu: Where is the place of hope in a story like this that revolves around both a pandemic and climate disaster? As someone who has been teaching a climate fiction course over the last few years, I’ve noticed student philosophies about the world gradually shift from stopping manmade climate change to mitigating the consequences and adapting to an irrevocably changed world. I think what’s common between my students (and young people at large particularly) and the characters in my novel is that hope, even in the darkest hour, remains. It’s uncertain where hope and cooperation will take us in reality, but I wanted to imagine how we’d evolve as communities on the other side of disaster, how the human capacity to dream and adapt could forge a new future. I think it’s easy (and understandable perhaps) to want to consume the escapism right now. I mean even I need a campy rom-com every now and then. But I think it’s important to create space to consider where we are now, how we’re already changing as individuals and as a society, and where we might go. Some readers might be comfortable engaging with that exploration now while others might need a little more time (and I hope my book can help folks find some kind of catharsis, help them see beyond where we are now).

Contributor

Kurt Baumeister

Kurt Baumeister is the author of Pax Americanas. His writing has appeared in Salon, Guernica, Electric Literature, and other outlets. Baumeister is an editor with 7.13 Books in Brooklyn. His forthcoming novel is Twilight of the Gods. Find him on the Internet at kurtbaumeister.com.

SING A NEW SONG, a short story

SUNDAY STORIES: “SING A NEW SONG”

OCTOBER 31, 2021
by SUNDAY STORIES

Skull!

Sing a New Song
by Kurt Baumeister

Once upon a time, in the 1980’s, in America…

1.

“The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country.”
― Jerry Falwell

There was Mayor Randolph on the television saying how the American Dream was freedom of religion and this right couldn’t be denied, nor would it be a safe America or a safe world or a safe anything until any, any, religion was allowed a place to congregate and hold services and the like, said safe place to be furnished solely at the taxpayer’s expense. And it was okay when the Catholics showed up, even the Shintoists and the Buddhists, they were alright; but when the Third Church of Satan moved in next door, that was when all the trouble started. 

Their leader was Nymrod Trank, but they just called him Father Nymrod. Cut of the traditional cloth of Satanic priests, Father Nymrod had long, dark hair, big dark eyes, a gutter-growl of a voice, and a bit of a paunch. The paunch, I remember, there was a rumor went around about it when they arrived. Rumor was Father Nymrod got that way by eating baby goats live on the half-hoof. I never quite bought that though because how could you even eat a half-goat or even a quarter-goat without getting the horns or the tail or the hooves stuck someplace? And, anyway, even before that, wouldn’t the thing buck and moo or whatever it is goats do? You know, make a horrible racket? Like I said, I never bought the whole goat bit. 

I turned eleven the day the Satanists showed up and, unfortunately, it being my birthday hadn’t affected my having to go to Sunday school. Service had just gotten over and we were waiting in the Children’s Worship Center for Reverend Fellsworth to finish his after-service fellowshipping and come deliver a mini-sermon designed just for us kids. 

Now, I’ve got to admit that we were, none of us, thrilled with the prospect of another sermon so when we heard the roar of those diesel trucks coming down the street and the shouts and denouncements and maybe even a few failed exorcism attempts, well, we all sprang out the Worship Center and into the street, me near the front of the pack with my best friend, Timmy Waters, by my side. 

And we see these huge, black moving trucks coming down the street in a long row, like some funeral procession; and they all had flames and demon faces and skulls painted on in reds and oranges and blazing golds. I’ll swear that the sky was black as the night when I looked up and there was lightning and thunder there like it was the Day of Judgement. It all looked really, really cool, so cool it started me thinking maybe the Day of Judgment wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all. 

2.

“It’s not listed in the Bible, but my spiritual gift, my specific calling from God, is to be a television talk-show host.”
― Jim Bakker

In the street, right in front of our house, I saw Rev. Fellsworth and Father Nymrod squared off in a shouting match that looked well on its way to becoming a smack-down, the line of black trucks idling behind them, engines revving ferociously, like demons subdued at the gates of Hell, waiting to unleash their powers upon the world. Vroom, vroom, vvvvrrrroom.

I heard Rev. Fellsworth’s voice even above the noise of the trucks, “Be gone ye denizens of iniquity. Ye shall not partake of the green pastures of our land for the Scripture tells us that the sheep must be separated from the goats in all things and you, sir, are the goats.”

“You just call me a goat?” asked Father Nymrod.

Reverend Fellsworth side-eyed Father Nymrod’s ceremonial ram’s-horn headdress and cocked an eyebrow. He would say no more, but the implication had indeed been made.

“Hear that, y’all?” Nymrod asked. “Jesus dude says we’re goats. Baaaaaah, baaaaaah, baaaaaah. Two horns good, no horns baaaaaahd.”  

The Satanists all laughed. 

Father Nymrod wasn’t finished though. “I know who you are, Fellsworth. And Imma give you just thirty seconds to get out my way before I kick your demagogic ass up and down this street. The Third Church of Satan is here to stay and that’s that, good or baaaaaahd.”

The Rev’s face went from pink to red to a shade of purple I’d never seen in all my days. He shook at the jowls like one of them old-timey politicians with all the facial hair, looked like he was going to explode for sure. Then he did. Fortunately, it was only verbally.

“Sir, I will not move,” the Rev. shouted, “As young King David stood against the foul giant Goliath, so I stand against thee and all thine host of darkness.”

As we’d soon come to realize, this had been an extraordinarily bad move. Never mind the fact that Father Nymrod was younger than the Rev., had thirty or forty pounds on him, or even that he was wearing his ceremonial headdress, there was one thing none of us knew yet about Father Nymrod. The truth was Father Nymrod was a certified badass, a former training partner of no less than the Nature Boy, Ric Flair himself. You know, one of the Four Horsemen! 

Upshot was Father Nymrod proceeded to pummel the Rev. mercilessly, up and down the street, just like he’d said he would, the Rev. gasping for air the whole time as the healthy young Satanist fisticuffed him good: right, left, right, left. Finally, the Rev. could take no more and he fell to the ground. He lay there motionless, and I have to admit, the way he’d been beaten, I was scared he’d actually been killed. Even Father Nymrod seemed to fear this. He bent down to check on the Rev., make sure he was still breathing. But the Rev. had just been playing possum. He made to rise again when he thought he had an advantage, only to see Father Nymrod nail him with a savage headbutt from his ram’s horn headdress. 

“Fucker tried to sucker me,” said Father Nymrod as Rev. Fellsworth tottered back, a cut opened on his forehead. 

The Rev. wavered there in the Sunday heat, regaining his bearings just long enough to turn tail and run back inside Holy Savior. And there he’d stay for the next eight hours, right under Holy Savior’s carving of the Last Judgment, a fat, brass candlestick in one hand, a giant silver cross in the other, dried blood caked on his forehead.

I can still remember the way the Rev. looked and thinking about how the carving he was holed-up under had always had a sort of implied guarantee, something I had thought assured us this sort of thing could never happen. We were the sheep, after all and the sheep were good and the sheep would always win. The problem was the goats had won this time. And they hadn’t just won, the goats had kicked ass.

Reverend Fellsworth wasn’t done though. He wasn’t done by a long sight. The very next day he dictated a letter to his secretary, a call to all Baptist churches in the Tri-State area. The request was not only for the usual prayers of goodwill and monetary support. Oh, no. Reverend Fellsworth declared war on the Satanists, calling for young champions of Christ to come forth to fight evil in all its forms, which included, especially, the Third Church of Satan and Father Nymrod Trank.

3.

“Rock and roll is the new pornography.”
― Jimmy Swaggart

Now, none of us had seen Father Nymrod’s wife, Mrs. Cindy Trank, until then, but Cindy was indeed something to behold. White-gold hair so big and high no one could say what all products she used in it, skin a radiant red-brown from all the sunning she did, and a seemingly endless collection of high heels and low-cut black dresses, Cindy’s simple presence was enough to send attendance at the Third Church of Satan through the roof. 

I can even remember Dad saying that maybe we should just go over to the Third Church of Satan, to be neighborly, just once to see what it was like. But Mother would have nothing to do with it and we never did get to go. I think, though, that Dad regretted his suggestion till the day he died, because of all the trouble it caused.

For one, it got him kicked out of Holy Savior and consigned to Hell by the Reverend Fellsworth. Which did have its good side, because it gave the Rev. something to rail against other than the Satanists: a topic which had gone stale in the face of his beating and Cindy Trank’s growing popularity. The Rev. could even point to my mother and us kids, say how forthright and valorous we were for throwing off the yoke of lustful evil and satanic collusion which our father had attempted to burden us with. 

Oh, sure, I’ll admit I was relieved about being unyoked and everything; but it made me sick to be sitting there, everyone watching, torn between my father and Reverend Fellsworth who was the local representative for Our Father in Heaven. 

For my earthly father’s part, he didn’t take his excommunication well at all. Dad started to drink and found he couldn’t stop. He eventually fell into gambling and sexual promiscuity, a pit of drink and bets and sex so big and deep and bad he to leave our town, go live in horrible, godless New England. He never did return. Not that my mother cared, what with all us kids and the requirements of her faith, she had no time to worry after a husband the Lord had forsaken. 

4.

“…Julie say she want a way out
Seen her life spread cross the night
Know she got to find a way out
Sell her soul out for some light
With her love she break the darkness
Say she got to change her world
Gonna leave out on the time trap
Got to be a newborn girl…”

Far as I know, my father never did see the issue of Satanic Pinup that featured Cindy Trank, or Sindee as the magazine called her, but my sister Julie did, and she took it and got it autographed by Cindy who soon became like a sister to my sister and like a hero to her too. 

Cindy had been September Satanic Pinup of the Month before her stint as high priestess, and it didn’t take long before Julie realized she wanted to be just like Cindy; to be, amongst other things, a Satanic Pinup of the Month. 

So, one night, Julie climbed down our trellis and snuck over the wall and back into the yard of the Satanists. She was committed to seeing what the Third Church of Satan was all about for herself. What it was all about at that moment was Nymrod and Cindy sitting on their terrace sharing a glass of Beaujolais and some grilled prawns.

“Julie? From next door, right, honey? Where…how did you get over here?” Nymrod asked.

Julie nodded back at the wall.

Nymrod gave a grin of silent approval and knocked back the rest of his Beaujolais.

“Come on inside,” said Cindy, rushing over to wrap Julie in a shawl black as night, “That’s a cute little nothing you have on, sweetie, but you must be awfully cold out here.”

“Cold? Hell, yes, I’m cold,” said Julie. “But it was worth it to get away from that horrible house and those horrible people.” She glared back at the wall, back at us.

“Well, alrighty then,” said Nymrod.

Cindy nodded too. She smiled sweetly, almost sympathetically, as if she understood exactly what Julie had been through. She led Julie into the Third Church of Satan, and so my sister passed into the arms of legend, becoming just the sort of bait Rev. Fellsworth needed to attract holy warriors to his cause.

5.

“…Freight train comin’,
Like the light of the world,
Someone comin’ now,
Save a lonely girl,
Catch evil in a freeze frame,
Set our universe to right,
Man of God is comin’,
Enter Clint White…”

Aspiring country-pop recording artist and part-time warrior for Christ Clint White was twenty-two years old when he saw the letter Rev. Fellsworth sent out shortly after Julie’s “abduction.” The enclosed flyer featured a picture of my sister and said that this fair flower of Christianity was in the process of being defoliated (spiritually!) by the forces of evil. 

Another picture lower on the page showed her captors, Father Nymrod (shaded to look even more evil than real-life) and Cindy (done up as a Satanist of the Month, though, of course, without any of her pornographic bits showing). The ad asked for young heroes to come forward and save Julie from her wretched, all-too-imminent fate. It was signed by Rev. Fellsworth and though it didn’t mention monetary rewards, the spiritual benefits were more than implied.

Now, Clint White was a paragon of good. In addition to being a fine singer and a guitar virtuoso, Clint saw himself as a sort of modern knight, thoughts of chivalry and justice, good and right his meat and drink. And when I saw Clint ride into town that December day, the rush of the world seemed almost to stop as he came towards me, near noiseless yet full of power atop his sparkling white Harley Davidson. 

His hair unshorn, glowing even as sunlight hit it, glowing like the hair of an angel or maybe even Fabio or Michael Bolton, Clint wore faded blue jeans and shiny white leather boots, a white leather jacket and white-framed sunglasses. An old-style ’59 Stratocaster slung across his back, neck pointing towards the heavens, Clint tousled my hair and called me kid. Then he walked inside to talk with my mother who had been frying food all day in preparation for our visitor. 

My mother nearly fainted when she saw Clint in all his rock star glory. She smiled as she sat there in the kitchen, talking with our new hero, Clint reassuring her with stories of deprogrammings and exorcisms he’d conducted. He would save Julie.

“I’ll save her, ma’am. Have no doubt.”

6.

“I am my own experiment. I am my own work of art.”
― Madonna

By the time Clint arrived, Julie had been with the Satanists for a month. The first few days, she’d been scared, not least because my mother spent a full twelve hours a day banging on the front door of the Third Church of Satan. Mother had even called the police, but Julie was eighteen and there was nothing the police could do. 

As a matter of fact, once the police showed up Father Nymrod filed a restraining order against my mother. Sure enough, there was nothing the police could do with that either, besides enforcing it. Soon, Mother’s only hope was that a Christian knight like Clint White would answer Rev. Fellsworth’s call, fortunately one did.

As time had passed, though, as Julie had grown more accustomed to the Satanists, she had grown ever more certain she’d done the right thing. The Satanists weren’t bad people at all—they volunteered at animal shelters and goodwill shops and did all sorts of other altruistic things—it was just that they had an alternative lifestyle. They said so and Julie listened.

She listened to them talk about how things weren’t so bad in this world, long as you didn’t keep your head buried in the sand, long as you didn’t place all your stock in religion saving you for some afterlife, long as you contributed to society, learned a trade. A trade like what, Julie asked? A trade like…yeah, maybe playing guitar, singing rock and roll, and being an acolyte of the Devil, they said. 

Initially, this took Julie aback, for Mother had always warned her about rock and roll, not to mention the Devil. But it was then that Father Nymrod led Julie down into the basement and beyond, to the fourth sub-level below the basement of the Third Church of Satan, a place sonically sealed by earth, lead, and layers of concrete, a nuclear apocalypse shelter that doubled as a super-secret recording studio and performance venue. To hear Julie tell it, it took about thirty seconds before she was hooked on the whole scene.

There was this eerie red and black lighting everywhere and then, as a beat picked up, thumping in the background, Cindy came out dressed in something that looked like a negligee trying to be a dress or maybe its reverse. Who could know where the sound came from except the stage curtain rose and there was Father Nymrod in his ceremonial garb—even the ram’s horn headdress—

and he was playing a red Les Paul Deluxe with psychedelic purple runes painted all across it, his acolytes behind him, on bass and drums, respectively. There was no way around it, they rocked.

And they continued to rock, day and night. Julie learned her parts well and she was just about Cindy’s size, my sister was, so she could wear all the neat costumes that Cindy had squirreled away for special occasions. You know: High Black Holidays, stadium dates, and the like. And Julie had her pick. She could wear leather or lace, gold or silver, red, black, cotton, spikes, fishnet…whatever she wanted. 

7.

“In my view, the only thing worse than a rock star is a rock star with a conscience.”
― Bono

On the night Clint White broke down the front door of the Third Church of Satan and stalked in yelling for my sister and her soul, he was jacked out of his gourd on his “hero’s meal” of my mother’s friend chicken and all the Mountain Dew he could swallow. Sugar, caffeine, and grease coursing through his veins, Clint and his Strat made quick work of Nymrod’s army of Satanic retainers/unsigned guitarists, but as he descended to that fourth sub-level, where he knew he’d find Nymrod himself, Clint could feel his confidence beginning to flag. 

Clint was no fool, after all. He knew he’d expended some of his best material just getting to that point. The question was whether he had enough left for this final challenge, the duel that would involve him and Nymrod going note for note and chord for chord, the prize Julie’s soul. Trusting in the Lord, Clint opened the final door. 

On stage before him stood a five-piece outfit, Julie and Cindy each with a mic stand, each wearing black leather cat suits flanking Father Nymrod in full ceremonial regalia, armed with his Gibson. Above the stage loomed neon lights that read “Julie and the Satanists,” the letters so big and bright they seemed almost as though they had to be truth. Red and black spotlights blitzed and shocked all around the room, Clint had barely taken in the imagery when the music came at him.

The rhythm section kicked in first, then quickly the focus became Father Nymrod’s axe-work—jagged, yes, but also impeccable and somehow elegant. Clint sensed this was only the beginning, Nymrod taunting him in a way, simply suggesting the guitar feats he might be capable of. 

The vocals picked up then, Cindy’s voice rising with the same urgency as Julie’s, as if to show Nymrod and everyone that despite all his skill, they were the front, the real show. It was true. Dueling vocalists were far more than Clint had counted on. And he was moving across the room then, towards the stage, feeling almost as though he was doing it against his will. Closer and closer he came to the sign looming above, the sign that read Julie and the Satanists.

When Clint reached the stage, when he felt he could almost touch Julie, that was when the music stopped and Father Nymrod spoke, “Young Mister White, ah yes, the Christ figure in our little tragicomedy. And how’s that fairy tale go about Satan tempting Jesus, showing him all the kingdoms of our world, splayed out at his feet. What did your lord have to say to that one, Clint?”

Clint stuttered, scanned his mind for chapter and verse, could almost taste the words but they just wouldn’t come to him. Darkness spilling all around, he asked, “My name?”

“Yes, Clint, I know your name. But that wasn’t the question.”

Whether stunned by the question, the proficiency of Nymrod’s band, or his attraction for Julie and Cindy both, Clint couldn’t say. He knew what he felt though and that was fear, fear not just for Julie’s soul but his own life. If he lost this duel with Nymrod, he’d never live it down, never be able to get a contract and move to Nashville as he dreamed, as he felt the lord had promised him long ago.

“Not quite, Clint, but close. Jesus did say no, but he said it because his father could give him all those kingdoms anyway. It wasn’t anything really valorous as you’ve been thinking for so long. It was more a pragmatic kind of decision, see.”

The trigger finger on Clint’s right hand twitched as Nymrod glared down at him, questioning his very faith, and then Clint could take the mockery no more and drew, his hand poised against the Stratocaster for the first note. 

But Nymrod, having anticipated the draw, was just that much quicker. “Can you say no too, Mister White? Can you say no to this?”

Nymrod ripped off a searing, blues-imbued solo then, running the scales up and down, throwing his head back as waves of music washed over him and then Cindy began to rock with the waves and sing. She was gripping her microphone lasciviously in her left hand and staring Clint down, making love to him with her eyes. And Clint began to think maybe he hadn’t come all this way for Julie. Maybe the truth was that Cindy’s beauty, and her picture, was what had brought him to this place.

The speakers were huge and the wall of sound that they spit out sent Clint reeling away from the stage, toward the back of the cavern. The trusty Strat slipped from his grasp, and he fell. The lights went, and Clint was crawling around on his hands and knees, trying to get hold of his guitar, praying to God for this one victory. Fumbling through the darkness, he had his hand back on the neck of the Strat, but concussive drums shattered his hold and a powerful bass line sent him sprawling again. Cindy was singing for her life as she left the stage and strutted down the aisle to where Clint lay: 

“…Yesterday, I saw love
I saw it growing wild
on the silver screen
That shadow world
Where young heroes go
To die. That’s reality
Black and white images
Fading from a silver screen…”

The thoughts that moved through Clint’s mind then were all about shame and pain and regret. He wished he’d stayed away, had known enough to never come here, wished he’d left Julie to the forces of darkness because he knew he’d lost, and he knew his goals hadn’t been all pure and white like he’d dreamed or hoped.

Julie was beautiful. Oh, but how Cindy was beautiful and that was what mattered, and he could read in her eyes what was gonna happen and even though he knew he shouldn’t, even though it was wrong, he was going to do it.  

“You’ll pay for your corruption of this beautiful child,” Clint said, pointing at Julie.

Julie said, “Oh, Jesus, don’t be so dramatic. I’m happy here. And how else am I supposed to get a record deal but by throwing in with the Devil? You ought to know that by now.”

Clint gasped and he cried, “No,” he said, “No, no, no.”

Father Nymrod spoke, “As you can see, Clint, we Satanists are pretty fucking tight already, but I’ve been listening intently as you’ve made your way through my musical maze, and I’ve been thinking, we could really use a second axe. Y’know, like the Stones, like Maiden.”

“You mean, me?” Clint asked.

“Sure,” said Nymrod, “But only if you can answer one question for me?”

“Question?”

“Clint White, would you be willing to sell your soul for rock and roll?”

“Lord help me, but yes I think I would. Yes, yes, yes.”

And Father Nymrod said, “Well, then, welcome to the band.”

“We begin bombing in five minutes.”
― Ronald Reagan

Kurt Baumeister is the author of the novel PAX AMERICANA. He has written for Salon, Electric Literature, Guernica, The Nervous Breakdown, The Good Men Project, Rain Taxi, The Weeklings, and others. A native of Northern Virginia, Baumeister holds an MFA from Emerson College and is an Editor with 7.13 Books in Brooklyn.

Photo: Cristhian Hernandez/Unsplash

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KURT BAUMEISTER

Kurt Baumeister and Jonathan Evison on Nate Ragolia’s Podcast A Vague Idea, Discussing Football and Writing, April 6, 2021

https://player.fm/series/a-vague-idea/football-with-kurt-baumeister-jonathan-evison

A Vague Idea « »Football with Kurt Baumeister & Jonathan Evison

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This week, authors and football fans Kurt Baumeister and Jonathan Evison are facing off on an episode all about FOOTBALL. We discuss Mike, Sam and Will, the USFL, Knute Rockne, and try to sort out who would win in a battle to the death between the 1972 Miami Dolphins and the 2007 New England Patriots. This is as physical as a podcast can get, so strap on a leather helmet and brace for impact.

Check out the many books by Jonathan Evison: https://www.jonathanevison.net/

Or, if you’re gonna listen to Jonathan, check out Kurt’s novel, Pax Americana: https://kurtbaumeister.com/ and look out for his forthcoming Twilight of the Gods.

If you like A Vague Idea, please subscribe, rate and review us! We’ll love you forever.

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Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by John Madera for his podcast Jamming Their Transmission, Episode 17, Life During the Contagion, July 3, 2020

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Jamming Their Transmission: Episode 17, Life During the Contagion, Pt. 4

7 views•Apr 6, 202110SHARESAVEBig Other47 subscribersSUBSCRIBEDToday’s episode features Big Other‘s editor John Madera in conversation with  writer Kurt Baumeister, writer/musician Matthew Binder, artist/musician Hieronymus Bogs, and musician Jeremiah Hosea sharing encouraging words and/or their thoughts about what gives them hope during the contagion.SHOW MORE

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Kurt Baumeister Interviewed by Ben Tanzer on This Podcast Will Change Your Life, Episode 221 on April 20, 2020

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This Podcast Will Change Your Life, Episode Two Hundred and Twenty-One – Write What You Want, starring the Kurt Baumeister.

April 30, 2020 · Kurt Baumeister,Podcast,Books,Success,Social Anxiety

I’m really excited to share new This Podcast Will Change Your Life. I’m also excited that you get to hear my conversation with the Kurt Baumeister and contained therein, including, but not limited to literary citizenship, publicity, self-promotion, and public readings, also social anxiety, anime, success, doing the work, not to mention timing and luck, PAX AMERICANA, magic, blurbs, reviews, and a whole lot of name-dropping, Jonathan Evison, Kara Vernor, Martin Amis, Gabino Iglesias, Caroline Leavitt, and A Mighty Blaze, Greg Olear, and much, much more. So please do This Podcast Will Change Your Life, because it will most definitely do that.

Also, as motivated, most definitely check-out our last episode: This Podcast Will Change Your Life, Episode Two Hundred and Twenty – Being Heard, starring the Shifra Malka.https://www.tanzerben.com/show_iframe_component/3930159SUBSCRIBEPreviousThese Books Will Change Your Life – How To Write An…NextIn which The Coil Magazine most graciously runs with “We… Return to site

The Brooklyn Rail: No Good Very Bad Asian by Leland Cheuk

Leland Cheuk’s No Good Very Bad Asian

By Kurt Baumeister


Leland Cheuk
No Good Very Bad Asian
(C&R Press, 2019)

Any writer who attempts comedy has considered the maxim, “Being funny is never enough.” They have, likewise, considered the corollary, “Until it is.” As a writer, you can be funny enough—accepting the innate subjectivity of humor—that little to nothing else matters. You can make your reader forget holes in character, plot, and story by achieving the comic writer’s Holy Grail of making them laugh again and again.

But simply being funny isn’t enough for literary comedy (or its subcategories satire and black comedy). The balance between comic and serious is crucial in literary comedy. Stray too far in either direction and you fail, becoming simplistic on one hand, boring on the other. While a perfect balance is admittedly impossible, never mind a matter of taste, Leland Cheuk does an admirable job in his latest, No Good Very Bad Asian, achieving a true synthesis of heart and humor highlighted by the fluidity of his first-person voice and a steady diet of sharp turns of prose.

Sirius Lee, the stage name of Cheuk’s protagonist and narrator (born Hor Luk Lee) is a young Chinese-American comedian. Growing up in the near-poverty of a cramped apartment he shares with his father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother (whom he refers to alternately as The Lee Council and The Yellow Panthers), Sirius is sent to a toney, primarily white, Hollywood high school. After the all-too-familiar bullying and racial abuse, he’s befriended by one Veronica Razzmatazz, reality TV star and daughter of B-list comedian Johnny Razzmatazz.

Veronica takes Sirius home, and he soon becomes a character in the Razzmatazz reality series progressing from a job as Johnny’s assistant to one as his joke writer. Ultimately, Sirius becomes Johnny’s comedy protégé and they hit the road together, during which Sirius’s lingering infatuation with Veronica is forgotten for a time. Months later, post-divorce for Johnny, the two crash-land in an NYC loft, Sirius having become what passes as the narcissistic Johnny’s significant other—something between adoptive son, sidekick, and best friend. But only for a while. In America, we learn, relationships can be just as fleeting as acceptance and success.

The novel spans 19 years of Sirius’s life (from the ages of 14 to 33) in which time he becomes extremely successful in an objective sense. Television, movies, HBO specials, and sold-out stand-up shows: these are what Sirius comes to know. In this time, he amasses millions, growing famous and ever lonelier; the performer’s common companions of drugs, alcohol, depression, and bad behavior eventually take center stage in his life as they have, with disastrous consequences, in Johnny’s. As Sirius becomes more like Johnny, he eventually grows alienated from him, has a romance with Veronica (who finds Sirius newly attractive as he basks in the glow of fame), and generally comes to look on in a sense of inertia as his life skids from A-list success into a series of rehab visits and attempted comebacks.

Eventually, Sirius does get clean. With Johnny and Veronica seemingly in the past, he meets his wife-to-be, Tina. Something like domestic bliss follows, culminating in the birth of Sirius’s daughter Maryann, or M: the book’s epistolary addressee. This, of course, is not where the story ends. To borrow a term from magic, this is simply the turn; the prestige will see Sirius and all four generations of his family contend with the costs of success in America.

As a writer, Leland Cheuk has a varied palette of talents. Most striking is his novel comic sense and timing, abilities that routinely produce surprisingly humorous results. You can tell as you read this that Cheuk has done his research, going so far as to spend years doing standup. His imagination is strong but precise, blending figment and reality to produce his tale of the entirely fictitious Sirius Lee. Ultimately, this book is exactly what it says it is, the story of a man who sees himself (and, for various reasons, always has) as a No Good Very Bad Asian. Caught between his parents’ glorified memories of the China they fled and the life he knows in America, Sirius is at odds with himself—his Americanized name (and its implied pun) is symbolic of this conflict.

No Good Very Bad Asian is a quick read, consistently funny, and surprisingly poignant at times. Cheuk achieves the very difficult balance necessary for successful literary comedy, pointing to a bright future. His fertile imagination given still freer rein, it would be interesting to see what Cheuk might come up with. I, for one, will be looking forward to that whatever that is.

Under the Influence #9, Meditations

April 12, 2019

Intro

Wherein Gillian Cummings pens an achingly beautiful tribute to Sylvia Plath and death; Natalie Singer praises the sharp eye of Lia Purpura, a talent for observation so keen it rekindles her own; Brendan Lorber goes fragmentary and nautical in his shout-out to Rimbaud; and Caroline Leavitt tunes in to Maggie O’Farrell and the beauty beyond the darkness. Please read and enjoy…


Maggie O’Farrell

by Caroline Leavitt

I’m under the influence of the sublime Maggie O’Farrell. I first read her After You’d Gone because the premise so excited me: a young woman deliberately steps off a curb in a teeming city and goes into coma. What? Why?  As she’s in coma, we learn about her life, the person she achingly loves, the secrets that rise to the surface. I was hooked.

Recently, she’s taught me yet another lesson—in her latest book I Am, I Am, I Am, which is about the darkest, thorniest thing you can imagine. Her experiences nearly dying, and then her daughter’s experiences—how close death is to us at all times. Yep, totally dark, but exhilarating, because I was learning that writing dark does not mean you are pulling people under. It doesn’t mean that you have no hope. I haven’t listened for a long time when people say, “Oh, readers want pure entertainment, they want escape, they want dragons and romance.” Nothing wrong with those things, but sometimes facing the dark, looking at death, is all about the brave beauty that is life.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow, as well as Cruel Beautful World and 11 other books, or 12 if you count the one she’s writing now, and yes, they are all dark and she hopes they are also brave and beautiful.


Arthur Rimbaud

by Brendan Lorber

3 a.m. at the Nuyorican Poets Café. Open reading about to start. An impossibly old man, maybe 24 or 25, passes me the Lettres du voyant, Arthur Rimbaud’s how-to of the visionary. After hours, early in life, the perfect instant to intercept their call for rational disordering of the senses. To let my keel break and sink into the sea, and so become a seer. I copy a passage ritually on the back of a poem I’m about to read into the dented mic. My bad poem is only good here in the café’s predawn altered alertness, as the single misstep that begins a wild journey.

Brendan Lorber is the author of If This Is Paradise Why Are We Still Driving? and several chapbooks, most recently Unfixed Elegy and Other Poems (Butterlamb). His work appears in in the American Poetry ReviewFenceMcSweeney’s, and elsewhere. Since 1995, he has published and edited Lungfull! Magazine, an annual anthology of contemporary literature. He lives atop the tallest hill in Brooklyn, New York, in a little castle across the street from a five-hundred-acre necropolis.


Lia Purpura

by Natalie Singer

For years, I’ve kept Lia Purpura’s words on my nightstand, often her essay collections On Looking and Rough Likeness. I discovered Purpura a decade ago when I moved from journalistic writing to the more personal. I was struggling to maintain my honed objectivity and close observation skills (the “eye”) while burrowing into the intimate, subjective “I.” I couldn’t calibrate the two, until I found Purpura. If it’s possible to turn a microscope, with its ocular and objective lenses, on the world, Purpura does, magnifying the miniscule and mundane (window pane, thawing snow, spires), and gathering and bending the light to focus and contextualize the image into the most affecting specimen. Whenever I forget how to look, I turn to Purpura and the world opens again.

Natalie Singer is the author of the lyric memoir California Calling: A Self-Interrogation (Hawthorne Books, 2018). She teaches creative writing and has worked as a journalist at newspapers around the West. Natalie hold an MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from the University of Washington. Originally from Montreal, she now lives in Seattle. Her website isnataliesingerwrites.com and she forces herself to use Twitter (@Natalie_Writes).


Sylvia Plath

by Gillian Cummings

I first read “Elm” as a college freshman: “I know the bottom, she says. I know it with my great tap root: / It is what you fear. / I do not fear it: I have been there.” As a young woman who’d attempted suicide by overdose just two years before, I could feel Plath’s sadness as if borne in my own bones. Older and closer to my own death, I can feel it. I wrote about it in The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, as if it had already happened—because in a way it had: During my suicidal depression of recent years, I had experienced coma. I am shy, quiet. I want my death to be like a dandelion spore that just lifts and lightly floats off, unnoticed by the world and unfelt except by the stem that once held me firmly to earth. But I want my words to stay, as Plath did; love may go off “like a horse,” but some stone remains, “echoing, echoing.”

Gillian Cummings is the author of My Dim Aviary, winner of the 2015 Hudson Prize, as well as the chapbooksOpheliaPetals as an Offering in Darkness, and Spirits of the Humid Cloud. Her poems have appeared in Boulevard, theCincinnati ReviewColorado ReviewDenver Quarterly, the Laurel Review, the Massachusetts ReviewQuarterly West,Verse Daily, and others. A graduate of Stony Brook University and of Sarah Lawrence College’s MFA program, she was awarded the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Memorial Fund Poetry Prize in 2008. Cummings lives in Westchester County, New York.


Outro

There are all sorts of mediations. Some, the traditional, religio-philosophical sort, have us concentrating on not concentrating; chanting, intoning, and/or third-eye seeing a synesthesia of peace and joy. There are musical mediations and sonic meditations, artistic meditations and mathematical meditations. Then there’s the literary brand of the meditation, something that can countenance a multiplicity of subjects, a grouping of which this outro would be but one.

Above, you have mediations on beauty and darkness, life and death, observation and…Rimbaud. What unifies them isn’t tone, subject matter, or even style. It’s the fluidity and calmness of mind you sense reading the output.

For me, and I think for a lot of writers, being able to lose focus on the physical world, to concentrate only on what you’re setting down, is one of the great joys of writing. The feeling of being immersed in (reading) a book is similar. You lose time, lose yourself. And it doesn’t have to be because of story or plot. You can lose yourself in ideas or prose. That is possible, though not as easy for the average bear as certain very serious, exceedingly literary writers might wish it to be.

But what’s born of the literary meditation, of immersion in subject? An understanding of the subject, obviously; but also, an understanding of self. That’s the healing aspect of writing—the self-directed psychotherapy of it all. Which, I guess, breeds a different sort of stillness of mind, one born not of forgetting but of understanding.

Admittedly, the logic of these outros is getting dodgier as Under the Influence chugs forward into the double digits. I’m free-writing more than I was at the beginning of this, back in April or May or whenever. My points are getting more elliptical, at best. And I still haven’t pulled my trump, much as I hate to use that word these days. I still haven’t started trotting out my own influences: brazenly forcing you to listen to me talk about Martin Amis and Don DeLillo. I could do that, but I’m trying hard not to. So, send me your submissions!

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Under the Influence #8, Perspective

March 5, 2019

Intro

Wherein Michael J. Wilson pens a brief, brilliant love letter to Hart Crane; Joseph Salvatore praises the perspective gained from ancestors both biological (his father, and his cousin Rocky Marciano) and literary (Don DeLillo), Christine Sneed muses on Joan Silber’s singular achievements in first person storytelling, and Sequoia Negamatsu shares his thoughts on the ways Kobo Abe’s characters navigate their semi-allegorical existences. I’ll be back at the end with a few words on perspective. Please read and enjoy…


Kobo Abe

by Sequoia Nagamatsu

I came across Abe’s Woman in the Dunes in a Tokyo used bookstore and found myself immersed in a man’s Sisyphean task of shoveling sand in a deep pit, the home of a widower, which had become either his prison or an escape from the hustle of post-war urban life. Unpacking humanity through one outcast is common with Abe. His characters read like shadow puppets—more symbol than person, and as someone fascinated with using myth as a vehicle for illuminating who we are, I was drawn to his allegorical misfits and how they navigate his horrific (Face of Another) or scientific mazes (Inter Ice Age 4). How would they escape? Do they want to escape?

Sequoia Nagamatsu is the author of the Japanese folklore and pop-culture inspired story collection, Where We Go When All We Were Is Gone. His fiction has appeared in ConjunctionsZyzzyvaBlack Warrior Review, and The Fairy Tale Review, among others. He is the managing editor of Psychopomp Magazine and teaches creative writing at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He is currently working on a collection, How High We Go in the Dark, and a novel, Girl Zero. You can find him athttp://SequoiaNagamatsu.com and @SequoiaN on Twitter.


Joan Silber

by Christine Sneed

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve encountered some of Joan Silber’s short stories but only recently and at long last did I read one of her books. She writes primarily in the first person—although I haven’t yet read her two earliest books, so perhaps these two have third-person narrators, but of the other six I’ve read, most feature first-person narrators, and she writes in this point of view as convincingly and as engagingly as anyone I’ve read.  Her stories remind me of Alice Munro’s and William Trevor’s (whom I’ve since seen other fans of hers also compare her work to)—Munro’s perhaps most notably because of her tone—a perfect balance between wryness and earnestness, and Trevor’s because he and Silber both write with what seems effortless control and ultimately, a deceptive simplicity.

Christine Sneed is the author of the novels Paris, He Said and Little Known Facts, and the story collections Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men.  Her work has been included in The Best American Short StoriesO. Henry Prize Stories, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, and The New York Times.  She’s been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and has received the Grace Paley Prize, Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year Award, Society of Midland Authors Award, and others.

 


Don DeLillo

by Joseph Salvatore

Born in Brockton, MA, before the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, my father grew up experiencing severe prejudice against Italian-Americans. The sport of boxing, for my father—and his cousin Rocky Marciano—permitted ethnic men of their class access to a profession without the same hostility they faced in the city’s shoe and leather factories. As I work on my own novel about those men, I return often to Underworld, and its rich representations of such characters. Don DeLillo’s mix of celebrities and private citizens, set within the 20th Century, has taught me how better to write and to see.

Joseph Salvatore is the author of the story collection To Assume a Pleasing Shape, and co-author of the college textbook Understanding English Grammar. He is Books Editor at The Brooklyn Rail and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review. His work has appeared in The Collagist, Epiphany, New York Tyrant, Open City, Post Road, Salt Hill, Sleeping FishWillow Springs, Rain Taxi, Routledge’s International Encyclopedia of Queer Culture, Angels of the Americlypse: An Anthology of New Latin@ Writing, and The Believer Logger.  He’s an associate professor at The New School, and founding editor of the literary journal LIT.


Hart Crane

by Michael J. Wilson

You imperfect, maddening, beautiful Crane. Frozen, one hand on the railing of a ship bound for New York. Crane, bound to death like Plath. The matrix of the heart bare and visionary. Queer avatar of the closet. Son of the inventor of Life Savers. Crane refusing Eliot’s dark Waste Land, rose towards the moon, attempted to carry us all on his back across The Bridge and failed. Gleaning some kind of light from the horrors of the 20th century. Oracle, priest, cruising fiend, who saw the void, dared it, was lost at sea. Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.

Michael J. Wilson lives in Santa Fe, where he writes about aliens and portals into infinity for Meow Wolf. His second book of poems, If Any Gods Lived, is available from Stalking Horse Press.

 


Outro

Is history stable or is it a work of imagination, a dynamic fiction dependent more on perspective than facts? Is history, in the vernacular of Graham Swift’s classic novel, Waterland, water, land, or the confluence of the two? Waterland’s answer, though it’s more an admission, is that history is an ever-changing fiction, a shoreline in flux, just as reality and truth are. Each of these perceived foundational truths is a semi-truth dependent on perspective, itself an entirely subjective assessment. As the subject changes, so does perspective and, in turn, understandings the subject holds of concepts like history, truth, reality, and even perspective.

In spite of “perspective’s” mutable nature the understanding of it remains central to writing or any other creative endeavor, as important in understanding what’s being seen as the thing itself, “the vivid thing,” as John Banville notes semi-Platonically in Doctor Copernicus. The case could be made, in fact, that understanding the perspective under which a piece of fiction is narrated (or written) matters not so much because meaning falls apart without perspective but because comprehension of perspective offers a fuller understanding of the dependent writing. Meaning, “the vivid thing” is not the same “vivid thing” for each person and that Plato’s forms can only exist in an invented philosophical zone outside time and space.

Perspective is central to creative writing not because of what it is but what it isn’t. Whether we mean the perspective of author, narrator, character, reader, or critic perspective is a lens through which to see a set grouping of signifiers: a book, the facts underlying a book, the writer who created the book, the critic who dissects the book. But understanding a piece of art’s perspective is an exercise in never quite getting it right. Even a piece of art’s maker will forget, quite quickly, the precise perspective under which she was working an hour, day, or year earlier. Perspective must be continually re-assessed, torn apart and picked at, just as the text must; the goal, through the understanding of perspective, to know what to subtract to arrive at “the vivid thing,” though we understand that sought after, imagined, “vivid thing” can never really exist.

 

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TNB Book Review: Gabino Iglesias’s Coyote Songs, reviewd by Kurt Baumeister

TNB Book Review: Gabino Iglesias’s Coyote Songs, reviewd by Kurt Baumeister

By Kurt Baumeister

November 13, 2018

Fiction Reviews

America today is more polarized than it’s been at any point in my lifetime. Socially, politically, racially, economically, religiously…in many ways, this division is born of willful ignorance, the result of small minds glorying in hackneyed thoughts and ideas discredited decades, sometimes centuries, before. There is perhaps no one more guilty of this sort of reductive thinking—and of infecting others with itthan Donald Trump, or as Gabino Iglesias refers to him in his dynamic new novelCoyote Songs, President Pendejo.

Constructed as a sort of literary mosaic, Coyote Songs takes place on either side of the US-Mexico border, the frontera in Spanish. Madness, magic, murder, sadness, loss, and love all dwell within the pages of Coyote Songs, forces struggling to reconcile the ugliness and beauty of life. In the opening chapter, a young boy witnesses a murder while on a fishing trip with his father. Later, witches and saints, goddesses and monsters, heroic criminals and villainous victims all play their parts in a story that owes as much to magical realism as noir.

Coyote Songs is smartly-plotted and moves at a pace that can border on frenzy at times. Which is one of its great strengths. This is a lithe volume that doesn’t concern itself with the excessive physical descriptions and cataloging of reality that often bloat contemporary literary fiction. Still, it’s this book’s more subtle, literary qualities I found most appealing. Not only is Coyote Songs elegantly written:

“The coyote knew that, because he was at the edge of adulthood, this one would have a harder time with la migra. The amount of pity you generate in others diminishes with every birthday. People, the coyote knew, are like food: the closer you get to your expiration date, the less others are drawn to you.”

But its penchants for metaphor and even allegory had my mind turning over everything from the natures of good and evil to metaphysics, economics, and the politics of race and class:

“Death. That was the only option. It was everywhere. Death took her husband. Death lived inside her. Death was coming out at night, preying on children throughout the town. The Mother had heard the rumors already. Parents finding their babies dead in their cradles, their tiny bodies devoured by some animal. Blood everywhere. Slithering trails of blood left on floors and windowsills. She felt responsible. Did she have what it took to wait for the monster, to kill it? Maybe. Would she be able to? She didn’t know. The thing was an alien, a parasite, a monster, a nightmare made flesh, but it was still her baby. It was still the last thing that her husband had given her. A baby to take care of. Maybe that’s exactly what she needed. Maybe a brother was what The Boy needed to forget their bad luck, to keep him from realizing just how poor they were.”

The frontera is the central symbol here, serving as the basis for the story’s action but also pointing to the various provocative dualities to be presented over the course of the book. Beyond those already mentioned, Coyote Songs, from early on, seemed to me to be expanding as I read it, growing into a statement on the natures of life and artifice and more than that the way art and commerce seem to be constantly at odds.

Yes, the last century of American letters saw many novels with metafictional conceits and heavy thematics centered on the nature of text, but the most powerful for me have always been those that manage not only to call attention to themselves as pieces of art but to somehow disappear within their own text. This is where more prosaic considerations such as plot, story, and dialogue are so important. For metafictional conceits to work, and not wind up a mass of ideas that become a chore to read, one must deal with the more prosaic aspects of fiction. Here, Iglesias does that brilliantly. The idea that words and thoughts have power, even a sort of magic to them, that they are transmitted into the world where they grow in force is here from early on, underscored by the way Iglesias shifts freely from English to Spanish to hybrid Spanglish, a technique that was commented on quite a bit in reviews of his earlier novel Zero Saints.

While I did not have a problem with the technique in either book, I found its execution more artful in Coyote Songs, that there was more of an effort to bridge the two languages through Spanglish and greater attention to maintaining dramatic context in-scene. Ultimately, though, it is up to the English reader whether to dwell on the Spanish aspect or not. There’s an element of authenticity the setting gains from using both languages and their Spanglish amalgam and it can be fun even for readers not fluent in Spanish to try to figure out what’s being said. It’s easy enough to skip over the Spanish passages if you lack the inclination to figure them out.

The ending of this book is shocking and violent, but understandably and even necessarily so. Here, with the heroic coyote’s fateful meeting with a reformed (?) criminal priest and its bloody aftermath, we can’t help but recall Graham Greene’s whisky priest and the socialist policeman that dogs his steps in The Power and the Glory.

The characters in this book live their lives in a twilight white America often misses and even when it does notice, fails to care much about. But by the ending of Coyote Songs, white America, both inside and outside its fictional world, will care about the people within.

In the America we live in, it’s easy to fall into an us vs. them mentality, even as a critic. It might, as I said earlier, be comforting to draw bright lines between genres or more still between genres and what’s known as serious or “literary” fiction, something Graham Greene was famous for doing with respect to his own work.

Taking Greene’s approach would cause you to conclude that Coyote Songs must be one thing or another: a literary novel, a crime thriller, or a surreal parable about the natures of good and evil, life and death, and even “us” and “them.” But doing this would be a critical failure not only to oneself but to the text and to society. Coyote Songs deserves to be taken seriously as a piece of art and an entertainment. Which, to my mind, has always been the goal every writer should strive for, not to accomplish one thing or the other but to do both, to live that duality through one’s art.

In a language both spare and poetic, within an intellectual superstructure that forces us to piece together truths we might not care to know, there beats the heart of a beast, a creature of blood and magic that stands astride the frontera’s shadowland dispensing violence and death to good and evil, just and unjust alike. But make no mistake, this is a brilliant and, at times, subtle beast, one of the growing stable that is the oeuvre of Gabino Iglesias.