Daily Postings
literature : interview

Michael Hofmann

by Keenan McCracken

Deep language, the “silver” figures of literature, and reader as pit canary.

My first dealings with Michael Hofmann were professional—or should have been. The publishing house I work for was printing one of his translations, and so I wrote to introduce myself.

What started formally—“Dear Mr. Hofmann”—quickly devolved into an embarrassingly ingratiating letter, in part detailing my love for his recent translation of Durs Grünbein's Ashes for Breakfast, but also asking him for any reading recommendations. I’m not entirely sure what I expected back from someone who has established himself as the preeminent translator of German literature, not to mention a brilliant critic and poet. Even a selected résumé of Hofmann’s work is formidable: translations of Joseph Roth, Gottfried Benn, Franz Kafka, Peter Stamm, Wim Wenders, Wolfgang Koeppen; six collections of poems; decades of writing for the London Review of Books. I received in return a modest email of thanks. And a PS: “Have you read any Penelope Fitzgerald?”

While Hofmann is certainly best known as a translator here in the United States, his reviews in the LRB confirm that his criticism is some of the most incisive and beautifully composed in contemporary literature. At times incendiary and seemingly ruthless in his critiques—his now infamous takedown of Austrian writer Stefan Zweig goes so far to describe Zweig’s suicide note as boring and reading “more like an Oscar acceptance speech”—Hofmann’s criticism is unpredictable, informed, personal, sensitive to inscrutability.

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literature : interview

Alberto Ríos

by Yezmin Villarreal

“A weight carried by two, weighs only half as much.”

What function does poetry serve off the page? Alberto Ríos’s “Border Lines (Líneas Fronterizas)” is a poem that may try to answer this question by both bridging the gap between two bordering countries and physically situating itself at just such a bridge. It will soon be on the wall in both English and Spanish at the US port of entry, viewable from Nogales, Sonora. His lines and their breaks hold tangible meaning in this border space: “Which way we look at the drawing / Makes all the difference.” Having grown up in Nogales, Arizona, this poem is a homecoming of sorts and a return to a time when this meeting point between two cities with the same name felt more malleable.

Poems can commemorate political figures and historical events. Whitman famously wrote of Abraham Lincoln, and there is an American tradition of honoring a president-elect at inauguration—Robert Frost of Kennedy, Elizabeth Alexander of Obama, and so forth. Similarly, Ríos has written poems for former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano and former Mexican president Vicente Fox. But does writing a poem mean you align your art with politics? Are poets, as Shelley said, “unacknowledged legislators of the world”? Ríos, Arizona’s first poet laureate, sees it his own way.

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literature : interview

Greil Marcus

by Matthew Choate

Rock ’n’ Roll and the malleability of historical fact.

The history of rock ’n’ roll seems an impossible thing to wrangle into a single text, yet there are libraries of books that have done just that, whether it is the encyclopedic tomes or the single album unravelled. It would seem the job is done and the canon is set. The History of Rock ’n’ Roll In Ten Songs, Greil Marcus’ new book, doesn’t care for that canon. First off, Marcus has written a history of rock ’n’ roll with no Elvis, no Rolling Stones, no James Brown, no Otis Redding, no Aretha Franklin, no Michael Jackson, no Nirvana, no Chuck Berry, and no Little Richard. He foregoes the key moments, performances, genres, and movements. There are no descriptions of Tupelo, Mississippi, or any disquisitions on a kid shouting “Judas” from the audience at a Bob Dylan concert. Instead, this book is a collection of stories about the songs themselves. An album’s worth of songs, that, in Marcus’ own words, “were rich enough and good enough and powerful enough that they could contain or enact the whole story of rock ’n’ roll.”

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literature : interview

Atticus Lish

by Jesse Barron

Hardship, the borough of Queens, and new American pilgrims.

It’s been a while since we had a great novel about being poor in New York where poor did not mean broke. The difference between the two conditions may be how reasonably you can hope they’ll change, and Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life is a book about people hoping to change their lives in a city that will not let them.

Preparation is a violent and unfashionable book. Unfashionable in that it's not concerned overtly with consciousness, subjectivity, voice, politics, or making art, but instead with money and the law as the impersonal determinants of fate. Lish knows—or just as validly, conveys he knows—the institutions that are often least visible in American fiction, like prison, and the parallel economy of the undocumented. To find a predecessor for this kind of cross-sectional social novel, where the lawyer’s office is as vivid as the basement squat, you may have to go back to ‘90s DeLillo or ‘70s Robert Stone.

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literature : word choice

from The Crocodiles

by Youssef Rakha

1. On the twenty-first birthday of a poet, ostensibly of our group, whom we knew as Nayf (his real name’s not so very important)—on June 20, 1997, to be precise—the activist Radwa Adel went to visit a relative in one of Cairo’s neighborhoods. I don’t remember which. There is no documented account of this journey by the Student Movement’s (or the Seventies Generation’s) most celebrated female icon (i.e. the activist, though we might call her intellectual, writer, great thinker: they’re all synonyms); there’s even a dispute over whether the relative in question lived on the eleventh floor or the twelfth. But what I have picked up over the years, in casual conversation with close friends of hers from the circle out of which our group grew, is that Radwa Adel played with her relative’s children for a little while, then took herself off for an afternoon nap in the bedroom with the balcony. There was nobody at home but the young children, and no sooner had the bedroom door swung back behind her than she went out onto the balcony and jumped over the wall.

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literature : interview

Alina Gregorian

by Sarah Gerard

Dramaturgy, flags, and tangible abstractions.

I like to imagine Alina Gregorian teaching the Odyssey to her class of Merchant Mariners. She doesn’t teach them anymore, but she once told me she was sure they’d connect with the epic’s soldiers. Actually, I like to imagine Alina starting with the soldiers and then leading them to love the Odyssey’s myth and magic. In my wildest version of this fantasy, they have made figurines of the Sirens, Penelope, and Achilles, and are moving them about on a game board, making Vines on their iPhones. Much of what I love about Alina is her appreciation for play and her reverence for technology. I think of Alina on the Long Island Rail Road, on her way to teach these Merchant Mariners, taking streaky photos out the window, or making GIFs—smashing grass, gravel, and movement into pixelated rainbows.

I first met Alina at Hofstra University, and have had the privilege of watching her unique mind give itself over to creative impulse in the forms of poetry, story, photography, painting, translation, and video. She is an artist and an educator, a champion of other artists, and a community organizer with her reading series, “Triptych.” Her poetic work is delightful and puzzling, recalling her visual work in the way it organizes images three-dimensionally—she explains, “like furniture.” Her book Navigational Clouds is out this fall from Monk Books, and Flying Bark will be published next spring by Coconut Books.

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literature : interview

Andy Fitch

by Amaranth Borsuk

Feet first, mouth second, thoughts third.

I met Andy Fitch at a 2009 MLA panel on public art. Having arrived late, I missed the introduction Andy and his collaborator Jon Cotner gave to their presentation about “Conversations Over Stolen Food,” a pranksterish project they had undertaken in New York a year earlier. As they read an exchange from the piece, it gradually dawned on me that Andy was reading Jon’s half of the conversation, and Jon was reading Andy’s. What made this ephemeral interaction a form of public art? Bewildered and intrigued, I continued to follow their work, including Ten Walks/Two Talks, published by Ugly Duckling Presse, a book that introduced me to Andy’s practice of walking composition, which provides the heart of his new book, Sixty Morning Walks, a diaristic text whose flâneur-like narrator—a roving eye or “I”—stitches together the city’s landscape by threading his way through it. Andy’s writing practice, which is often audio-based, fascinates me with its simultaneous insistence on embodiment (we are always aware of the language as emanating from a body) and rejection of bodily fixity (one has the sense this speaker would prefer not to locate himself at all, as evinced by his willingness to exchange language, and by extension bodies, with his collaborators).

In October Andy and I met in Fort Collins, Colorado to read from our forthcoming collaboration, As We Know (Boulder: Subito 2014). A book that attempts to intervene into the history of male editors redacting and reshaping the work of women writers, it uses erasure to not only reverse that gender dynamic but also explore the potential for co-authored identity. As We Know uses a summer audio diary Andy kept as its textual source, presenting his redacted transcript with “my erasures” tunneling a path through his language and toward my own narrative. Trying on Andy’s poetics has expanded my sense of what it means to walk and talk, to be a writer situated with respect to race and gender, and to acknowledge the limitations of that perspective. The best way to understand the how and why of his writing seemed to be through making, inhabiting the embodied experience of composition. So, we set out for a morning walk of our own along the Poudre River amid scattered showers.

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literature : word choice

The Golden Room (Lucy’s Lips)

by Elizabeth Crawford

We were lying on our backs looking at the tourists moving. After my intoxicating speech, we three trembled on the stone. Phragmites would not dip his feathery mind in water again. I remember saying to him: You know, that was a beautiful song, Phragmites. Fakesome weather.

It occurred to me that the back has no mouth, the back takes in what it is and only what it sometimes is is an elaborate stairwell to the mind. I slept against the rock-crusted throne. How low I was to have a throne compared to my cot on the high summit. The ovenbird was here on this lower level. I was dreaming, and in my dream Lucy was translated. Her lips were fleshy, partly opened and partly closed. The white lips were wet as vertical rectangular white blazes on the path. So Lucy was not the place itself but the melting signal and crack in the cairn. Self-housed, she moved in time as the blood moves and was not outside the running line of chronometricals.

Some people say men are chronometricals and women live as “the place,” but it is a whitewash as one corner of the hour cannot be accounted for on the grandfather clock that is no totem to anyone’s clan.

Beneath the stone was the face.

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literature : interview

Helen DeWitt

by Mieke Chew

“If you don’t like a language, you can go write your own.”

Helen DeWitt’s personal library is on display as part of The Library Vaccine, an exhibition of six distinctive collections at Artists Space in Soho. The books, shipped from DeWitt’s home in Berlin, are exhibited on one side of the gallery. The facing wall is covered in Xeroxed passages of books in different languages, printed emails, and screengrabs of her works in progress. Between, there are books on five large, white tables.

A viewer might wander around this space with the impression that to see “The Library of Helen DeWitt” is to see inside the mind of a writer. One might think the point is to view the books she holds most dear. This would be a mistake. Many of the books are included precisely because they represent a failure in DeWitt’s eyes. Without her guidance, it is up to the viewer to decide which contain great poetry and which are examples of what not to do with a book. This is not a test, but rather an argument expressed through objects.

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literature : word choice

Tilt

by Gil Lawson

I attended every single event at this year’s Left Forum.

I wore a sort of dress, though it wasn’t really a dress—that would be insane. It was a long shirt styled to look like a dress, styled to be worn as a dress. That is to say it was a dress intended to be read as a shirt, and it cost me eighty dollars. I can pull it off. My high-soy-diet breasts, or appearance thereof. At least two spatial disruptions underneath the heavy fabric of the dress I wore to this year’s Left Forum.

It was very difficult to move around freely. Each year they hire a number of volunteer seraphim. It is easy to tell. They wear the blue lanyards. It is their responsibility to make sure no one attends any event for which they did not pay, and to make sure that no men are caught in dresses. I paid for nothing and wore the dress I just described.

To avoid the seraphim, I had to crawl underneath a number of chairs. While I was in this compromising position, men fumbled at my knickers. They did this by extending one long arm beneath the seat, down to where I was crawling, all the while with their heads cocked as though listening. Early on I would yawp when they touched me, but it quickly became apparent that this was not entirely kosher. I learned to move quicker so I was touched less frequently and for shorter periods of time, and that was how I responded to the long arms of the men.

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Literature : Interview

Will Chancellor

by David Richardson

Reenactment as research, rain forest idealism, and the gods of antiquity.

Novelist Will Chancellor and I first met two years ago. He and writer Kevin Jaszek were sitting at the bar I tended, each working on the other's manuscript, each wearing a grimace of concentration. I asked Chancellor about his project. A novel, he told me, concerning one Owen Burr, a near-Olympic caliber water polo star who loses an eye. In the book, we follow him from Stanford to Berlin as he negotiates his impairment, a foray into the art world, new love, and his relationship with his father—Dr. Burr, professor of Classics. The novel, A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall (Harper, 2014), was published this July. We met to discuss the writing at Old Town Bar. In a not uncharacteristic turn, Will began his own interview.

Will Chancellor I wrote my first piece of journalism last week.

David Richardson What was it about?

WC One of the world's greatest rock climbers. He does these free climbs up some of the hardest routes in the world, up huge walls in Yosemite. He does free soloing—no ropes, no equipment—just climbing straight up a three-thousand-foot wall with shoes and a chalkbag. I interviewed him over the phone. It was funny because when I first called he sent me a text message while wedged into the face of Half Dome, saying, “Can we talk in like an hour and a half?” I told him not to worry about me, fucking climb your mountain! So I spoke to him when he was on top and, as he was hiking down, we had our interview.

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literature : interview

Juan Villoro

by Jeffrey Lawrence

Writing in the midst of political upheaval.

An inheritor of Jorge Ibargüengoitia’s sense of humor, Carlos Monsiváis’s acute perception, and Juan Rulfo’s poetic density, Juan Villoro has gracefully established himself as a central figure within Latin American literature. His versatility, evident in his prolific and protean production, is famous in the Spanish-speaking world. From his early short stories to his famous crónicas, from journalistic essays to academic ones, from children’s books to literary translations of German classics, from books on soccer to monumental novels, his capacity to intertwine, in every possible register, political reflections and literary imagination, provides each of his interventions with an impressive poignancy. His work is an exploration into the perverse social fantasies driving Mexico’s violent modern history and leaves nothing untouched.

His 2004 novel El testigo, winner of the prestigious Herralde Prize, is arguably where Villoro’s literary reflections regarding violence, history, and literature have been most brilliantly embodied. The novel tells the story of Julio Valdivieso, a Mexican émigré intellectual who, after a long stance in Europe, returns to Mexico after the ruling political party loses, following seven decades in power, the elections. His research into the figure of modernist poet Ramón López Velarde quickly leads him into a landscape of violence where history and spectacle overlap to the point of confusion. A novel about what it means to be a historical witness, El testigo remains Villoro’s masterpiece, a monument to his versatility as a writer and to his complexity as conjurer of Mexico’s social fantasies. With the recent events in the Mexican state of Guerrero, where forty-three students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers College of Ayotzinapa have disappeared, his work seems today of the utmost relevance.

Despite its uncontested centrality and visibility within contemporary Latin American culture, Villoro’s work has only recently become available in translation to an American audience. On the tenth anniversary of El testigo’s publication, and with the English translation of two of his recent titles—The Guilty and Arrecife—forthcoming from New York publishing house George Braziller, Jeffrey Lawrence and I thought it pertinent to interview him on the political as well as aesthetic repercussions of his recent novels. We wish to thank him for such an enjoyable conversation.

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Literature : interview

Ottessa Moshfegh

by Lorin Stein

Voice, vulnerability, and putting the intellect to bed.

Ottessa Moshfegh received the 2013 Plimpton Prize for Fiction from The Paris Review, where she has now published four stories, with one on the way. Her first novella, McGlue, will be published by Fence Books this month.

The following interview was conducted by e-mail during August and September 2014, with Moshfegh answering questions from New York, Paris, and Nairobi.

Lorin Stein Unlike your stories—at least the ones I've read—McGlue is set in the past. How did you come to write an historical novel?

Ottessa Moshfegh McGlue is set in 1851. It was inspired by a brief article in a New England periodical from that year. I have lost the article by now, but the moment I read it, McGlue's character emerged in full form. It was one long run-on sentence, as I recall, and read something like: “McGLUE. Salem. Mr. McGlue the sailor has been acquitted on the count of murder which he was found guilty of committing in the port of Zanzibar by reason of his being out of his mind since having hit his head when he fell from a train several months prior and because he was in a blacked out state of drunkenness at the time he stabbed a man to death.”

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Literature : Word Choice

One Poem

by Daniel Bouchard

Poem Ending with Clotbur

Alive in liverwort, a life’s worth
  among lambsquarters
and burcucumbers    purple
  dead nettle, the absurd
birdseye pearlwort
  heard by pursley
breathing in tumble mustard  
  in devil’s grip   gypsy
combs, ordinary corn cockle
  and henbit of Aaron Burr

Bought purslane   wild
  portulaca   which is best
of worts?    in wire grass
  or path rush two penny
grass, wirestem muhly 
  one day this trillium glare
broken-glass green sparkle
  bloodwort type

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Literature : Interview

Joanna Ruocco

by Micaela Morrissette

Deviance, social collectives, narrative constraint, and looniness in the groundwater.

In Joanna Ruocco’s new novel, Dan (Dorothy, 2014), the beleaguered but stouthearted heroine, Melba Zuzzo, finds herself the object of a conspiracy of criticism by perhaps every member of the titular small town in which she lives. As Melba says, “In Dan, we all live in the shadow of blame.” Yet Melba’s sufferings are smothered, to some extent, by the simplicity of the voice Ruocco employs to convey her extremely peculiar tale. The often disconcerting directness of the syntax muffles the otherwise startling use of vocabulary and the contextual absurdity; it softens but never distorts the unpredictable laws of cause and effect that rule the world of Dan. Accused of murder, of impersonating the dead, of abducting a principal, of being special, of being a succubus, of anarchy, of being hairy, Melba is dismayed, outcast, evicted, and bewildered. She faces repressions both linguistic and societal; she’s a creature in a society where desire is anxious, fervent, but sterile; limbo is metamorphic; unkindness is loving. She is threatened with the same fate as that of her friends and neighbors who have disappeared, reappeared, or are revealed to have never existed, even though, “in small towns [like Dan] … the only way to leave is to go nowhere. But that takes a certain type of resolve.”

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Literature : Interview

Claudia La Rocco

by Jennifer Krasinski

Rug pulling and responsibility in a writing practice that commingles genres.

Claudia La Rocco is a poet and critic who at the same time is not a poet and critic. Her calling is to entwine these forms, leveling their useless distinctions to lay claim to another, more promising territory. Sharp eyed and nimble minded, she is one of the rare practitioners of the slippery art of presence, no matter if her attention is turned toward a stage, or a page, whatever points in between appear in order to pique her interest. Whether her subject is a contemporary dance performance or the confusions wrought by desire, her first question always seems to be “What is this?” Then she asks, “How can I see this for what it is?” One of the many things I love about her writing is how it records the particular flicker of her synapses, swerving between subjects, veering in many directions in order to find the sharpest views, no matter if fractured or fleeting. At her core, Claudia might be a passionate champion of misbehavior. She understands that thinking and creating are messy businesses, that opinions are facts of a different stripe, and that ideas rarely arrive whole or in manageable sizes. If that wasn’t enough, she is also a teacher, collaborator, and curator, propelled by a personal velocity that seems to whir at a speed that clocks somewhere between pirouette and cyclone. A collection of her work titled The Best Most Useless Dress has just been published by Paul Chan’s Badlands Unlimited, so she and I took this occasion to talk about how she writes through unknowing, how she negotiates the rights and responsibilities of form crashing, and the reasons why confusion might be the most truthful expression of all.

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Literature : Word Choice

Four Poems

by Tomaž Šalamun

Irradiated Gnostics

As if water would have three                 
skins, one Istanbul’s, one

birds’ and one still cobbled into
fingers’ gloves’ skin. How

to pumice the skin into pavement
for two, how to define its

feathers up and down. You crumple
yourself in the fish pond.

There they stain your iron shirt.
Burda lotuses float on

the surface, Villon spat pits.
Anymore village boys

don’t spit pits. Pits fall out
their asses to the ground.

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Literature : Word Choice

from The Second Dog

by Rob Walsh

The mother opened the door but was not able to speak, not right away.

It took her a long moment to become accustomed to the idea of a town official in her home, or on the threshold of her home. Maybe the idea was gradually starting to appeal to her, to warm her sense of importance, to give her a more functional role in the community and environment she had begun to see as unchanging, but when the time came for someone to say hello, it was Kramer who stumbled forward and said hello, who kind of elbowed to the front and said hello again, breathing harder than should have been necessary for a man who had only crossed from the living room.

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Literature : Word Choice

Three Poems

by Carolyn Guinzio

Dead Links

A hammer was wrapped
in a canvas bag, gagging

the piano’s middle C.
I think you’re trying

to tell me something. Once,
I stood near the river

so long, I heard two of them
whispering in a tree. He said,

It’s about so much more
than the sound. I think

he was trying to be funny.
A group of them were shuffling

onto the top deck of a purple bus.

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Literature : Interview

Jean-Marie Gleize

by Noura Wedell

An invitation to disorder: poetry, insurrection, and concrete utopia.

On November 11, 2008, the French government stormed what they called an “anarcho-autonomist cell,” a group who had set up a store in the small village of Tarnac in central France. Accused of “criminal conspiracy to commit a terrorist act,” the members of this group were suspected of having sabotaged the catenaries of a high-speed train. Although most of those arrested were released fairly rapidly, Julien Coupat, the presumed leader of the cell, spent more than six months in jail without trial, under “preventative arrest.” What is particularly striking about this situation, and generally in line with the effects of increasingly liberticidal antiterrorist laws, is that part of the accusation included the presumption that Coupat belonged to the anonymous collective that had written The Coming Insurrection, a handbook on active exile from capitalism. The presumption of authorship as a political crime is perhaps something we thought ourselves safe from in our so-called Western democracies. Jean-Marie Gleize's book Tarnac (Kenning Editions, 2014) arose as a response to this situation, as an act of friendship, and as an experiment in what he calls another form of politics.

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Literature : Word Choice

Views

by Leah Dieterich

I am alone at a house in the middle of the California desert, looking out a plate glass window. I look past the porch, which isn’t really a porch, just a slab of concrete. And while the concrete really is concrete, it could just as well be the ashes of the thoughts of anyone who’s ever sat here and contemplated this middle view.

The middle view is perpetually between. It’s the scrubby desert plants, the skeletal remains of mattresses propped up as fences, the tan horizontality. It is the kind of view that settles the gaze but frustrates the camera.

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Literature

One Poem

by Emmalea Russo

1
One cultivates one  Each
Row   makes a simple Grr
One engenders One enters
a G One Greets One   Grd
ns   One Grammars one  A
Group of   1 Growths one
eventually  even Grows e
ast even astutely into G

 

What is G must be greater than my desire to bury G while I secure G in the earth and witness growth. If no reality exists apart from the mind. Does G. If precision is what I aspire to, then I must let G drop down from the alphabet and be here. Rows of seeds and seeds cupped in the hand. G is a gardening. In use and seemingly simple. Learning.

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Literature : Interview

Jill Schoolman

by Bibi Deitz

Archipelago Books, the hypnotic quality of Knausgaard, and the translator's role as diplomat and ventriloquist.

Jill Schoolman, founder of Brooklyn-based translation press Archipelago Books, gave a talk at Bennington College this summer. I sat rapt in the audience, wildly scribbling phonetically spelled names of writers from around the world and notes about their work. Schoolman speaks in a torrent of rapidly articulated ideas, but she slowed down at the end of her discussion to read a striking prose poem by Antonio Tabucchi called “A Whale’s View of Man” that closes, “They soon get tired and when evening falls they lie down on the little islands that take them about and perhaps fall asleep or watch the moon. They slide silently by and you realize they are sad.” This is the kind of writing that the nonprofit press publishes, by turns tender and startling and deeply literary—the bone marrow of international literature.

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Literature : Word Choice

Your Head in the Right Place

by Rhoads Stevens

Now that her mother was dead, Lucille could die, and no one important to her would mind. She could get murdered. She could die of old age or by some disease. She could take a month of medication in an evening.

Lucille was in the shower at her fiancée’s apartment. Her underwear was in the sink, and it was black. Yesterday, just before her mother’s funeral, Lucille had realized she owned no black clothing except for that underwear. When she gave her mother’s eulogy, Lucille had worn navy slacks, burgundy shoes, and a shirt so dark purple that it was almost black but not.

The black underwear was in the sink, where she often put her underwear while she showered, and this habit bothered her fiancée. Her fiancée said it was not clean to do that—a contamination. It could make them sick. Lucille would apologize and say she wouldn’t do it again but still forgot and did it often. And she could not help but feel her underwear wouldn’t make them sick and that it would be better if her fiancée were not to mind.

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