May 202011
 

Meet Cyrus Chutt Chutneywala of Baroda, Gujarat, waiting for a friend in the the Factory Tavern on Andy Warhol Square in Pittsburgh. His friend, Romesh, calls the bar to let Chutt know he’ll be late and the waitress inadvertently hits the speaker phone and public address switch and lets the entire clientele know she has a hard time getting past that name, Chutneywala. Thus begins Clark Blaise’s comic story “Waiting For Romesh” from his brand new collection  The Meagre Tarmac, just out from Biblioasis. (See Philip Marchand’s review in the National Post.)

Clark is an old friend (dating back to the early 1980s and dg’s Iowa Writers Workshop experience) who once made the mistake of inviting dg to stay the night. Clark and his wife, Bharati Mukherjee, were sharing an appointment at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs and living in palatial splendour in a huge house on Circular Street with an octagonal carriage house and mistress apartment in back. DG somehow managed to stretch that night into three months (this was in the days of dg’s impoverished apprenticeship, um, actually, he is still an impoverished apprentice), the walking definition of a Horrific Guest. Clark moved away, dg stayed in the house til it was sold. He wrote his story “Dog Attempts to Drown Man in Saskatoon” in the little glassed in conservatory.

Clark Blaise is brilliant story writer and memoirist, intelligent, cosmopolitan, a master of point of view. He has lived multiple lives and written about all of them, from his impoverished childhood in Florida, Pittsburgh and Winnipeg to his extended sojourns in India and his long and eminent teaching career. He is the author of 20 books of fiction and nonfiction. He has taught writing and literature at Emory, Skidmore, Columbia, NYU, Sir George Williams, UC-Berkeley, SUNY-Stony Brook, and the David Thompson University Centre. He has received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (2003), and in 2010 was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. Nowadays, he divides his time between New York and San Francisco, where he lives with his wife, Bharati Mukherjee.

dg

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WAITING FOR ROMESH

By Clark Blaise

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These are the random thought’s, over a late afternoon and early evening, of a balding man waiting for his friend. What is the evolutionary advantage of thinning hair? Could it be that balding apes sensed heat and rain before their hirsute brethren, knowing to seek shelter, thus having more playtime to pass on their genes?

According to theory, one monkey out of an infinite number working on an infinite bank of typewriters will create a flawless draft of King Lear. It puts a human face on the notion of “infinity.” Two or three might come close, misspelling a word or deleting a comma, which seems somehow even more miraculous, more human, and tragic. It signals a failed intent. Perfection seems just a more refined form of accident.

Higher altitudes are cooler because fewer molecules are available for collision, thus releasing energy. Given infinite time, every molecule in a confined space – even if the molecules represent the world’s population and the confined space is earth itself – makes contact with every other.

All roads lead to Rome. It is said that if one sits long enough at a café on the Via Veneto, everyone he has ever known will eventually pass by. This has not proven to be the case, however, for Cyrus Chutneywala of Baroda, Gujarat, seated this afternoon at The Factory Tavern in Andy Warhol Square, Pittsburgh. Cyrus, called Chutt by his Indian friends and Chuck by his colleagues at the Mellon Bank, has been waiting through a long afternoon, dinnertime and now early evening for his Wharton batch-mate, Romesh Kumar.

“I hope you weren’t offended,” the waitress said half an hour earlier, when she set his third narrow flute of beer – this one on the house – in front of him. She is tall and thin, wearing black jeans and a slack, black cutaway T-shirt. He searches for the proper word: singlet? Camisole? Her dark, krinkly hair is gathered in a ponytail. It was she, standing at the end of the bar, who had received Romesh Kumar’s “please-tell-Mr.-Chutneywala-I’m-late” phone call. She accidentally hit the speakerphone and public address system at the same time, alerting indoor and outdoor customers to a Chutneywala in their presence, and that she thought “Chutneywala” sufficiently amusing to ask for a repeat. Everyone had heard her giggle. They overheard her half of the conversation. “His name is what? Chutneywala? Come on, man. Who shall I say is calling? Everyone also heard “Romesh Kumar.” He had no secrets.

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May 192011
 

Volvox, first described by van Leeuwenhoek in 1700, is a close relative of Chlamydomonas.

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Reasons to Rejoice in Green Algae
By Lynne Quarmby

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Every once in awhile you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right
- The Grateful Dead

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We’ve had three hundred years of microscopy and some of us are still fascinated with the beautiful creatures that swim in pond water. To the naked eye, to the unpracticed observer, they look like cloudy, icky scum and we don’t want to swim with them. But they are also delightfully alive, they congregate, they swim (and wouldn’t care if we swam with them), they even “see” or at least sense light. And under the microscope, in the lab, in experiment after experiment, these tiny green algae are yielding discoveries that are important to you and me, in terms of health and the environment and, yes, in the revelations they bring of the wondrous reality of the molecular world.

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May 182011
 

Stanley Fogel’s ¿Que Coño Pasa? Snapshots of my Wonderful Cuban Life is the first book-length text ever published on Numéro Cinq, another first, another huge milestone in our adventure in digital publishing. I am calling it a “What it’s like living here” because, in fact, it tells us what it’s like living in Cuba today. But, of course, it doesn’t fit the pattern: it’s a book. The first chapter, the introduction, takes the lesson of Edward Said’s Orientalism and applies it to the West’s construction of the so-called Cuban historical fact. The next three chapters are very much a memoir of the years Stanley Fogel has spent living and teaching in Cuba, the personal facts behind the wall of words. Snapshots is thus a blend of the critical and the personal (with a dash of Fidel Castro’s own rhetoric added for flavour). Stanley Fogel is in a good position to see what he sees. A Canadian scholar with a yen to be “displaced,” he has spent about four months a year since the early 1990s in Cuba. He is a quirky, perceptive, thoughtful (critical in the best sense) guide to that other world. He tells a story different from the received wisdom, he fills his story with people and anecdote—our Virgil.

dg

Me: I spent 36 years at the University of Waterloo/St. Jerome’s University where I was overcome by deconstruction and taught critical theory. A travel book, Gringo Star, ECW Press, only partly captures my desire to be displaced in the world. In 1999 I was awarded an honorary degree from Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. Re. the opus at hand: I have spent c. 4 months per year since 1991 living in Havana, discovering the richness and distinctiveness of Cuban life–culture and politics transformed by the Cuban Revolution. I am retiring there shortly. (Do come visit if you’d like an ‘insider’s’ sense of Havana.) —Stanley Fogel

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¿QUE COÑO PASA?

SNAPSHOTS OF MY WONDERFUL CUBAN LIFE

By Stanley Fogel

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A mi hermano, Mario Masvidal, y la revolución cubana

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Thanks to Elizabeth Effinger and Trieneke Gastmeier
for typing and grooming the manuscript.
Thanks, also, to St. Jerome’s University for grants
towards the preparation of the manuscript.
The photos, man with libreta and man with eggs,
were taken by Giorgio Viera.

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Chapter 1: ¿COÑO, QUE PASA? An Introduction

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A loose translation of “¿Coño, Que Pasa?” is “Jeez, whazzup?” “¿Que Coño Pasa?” is a grammatically skewed version of the first phrase. Its speaker is betraying more bewilderment and/or astonishment at what s/he has witnessed or heard than in that initial formulation. Both, though, transmit the effusive, gestural nature of Cubans’ speech and flamboyant responses to what is happening locally or beyond. Indeed, to absorb the import of the remark most fully, it is best to hear it uttered by someone, steeped in Cubans’ idiomatic lexicon and delivery, who shortens the noun to “’ño,” confident its meaning will survive. If you’re planning on spending time in Cuba and want to sound authentic, work on your “’ño”; remember, the shorter the syllable the better: taking the first, small bite out of the word “gnocchi” will suffice. Despite the possibly sexist dimensions (coño=cunt) of the formulations, no offense, feminist or otherwise, should necessarily be taken by the addressee of either remark, given that both men and women have been heard to repeat them, most often in gender-free contexts.

Too often, however, the voices of individual Cubans have been muffled or overwhelmed, most noxiously, of course, by pervasive U.S. media disseminating their political leaders’ rabid and hawkish views regarding the island. “A Caribbean gulag” is the mantra incessantly uttered, one which erases any sense of the lively, polyphonic voices existing there. Much more persuasive and compelling than dogmatic right-wing comments, to my ear at any rate, are Fidel Castro’s speeches which offer the vision of utopian and egalitarian possibilities for Cuba’s inhabitants and, indeed, for the world. That impressive voice, however, has come to represent, metonymically and univocally, the diverse people who live in Cuba. In addition, it often offers idealized visions that can by no means always or easily be translated into quotidian life. Nonetheless, not least because Fidel’s speeches have been so influential in shaping Cuban government policy and because they have not had the widespread reach of American anti-Cuban material, excerpts from some of those speeches are presented here, interspersed with my own commentary. They are meant to act more as a parallel discourse than as a countervailing commentary. While it is true, that they can draw attention to a discrepancy between the ideal and the real, they also point to genuine achievements as well as noble aspirations.

These pages, it is hoped, give some hint of the richness of Cuban life, a fecundity jammed, again, to a significant extent by American efforts to isolate the country and to caricature its unique political, cultural and social dimensions. While the U.S. bombards Cuba with messages, threatening, hectoring and proselytizing, Cuban versions of itself and its interpretations of world events and tendencies don’t get a hearing of any kind in North America, unless one subscribes to Granma International or accesses granma.cu on the web. With globalization of an American-capitalist kind that has produced homogenization in much of the rest of the world, the idiosyncratic qualities of Cuba since the Revolution are even more worthy of examination, respect and transmission. In Orientalism, his groundbreaking work that in many ways launched postcolonial studies and strove to articulate a postcolonial sensibility, Edward Said pronounced on the dangers and distortions inherent in a Western imposition of meaning on the East. Surely, U.S. constructions of Cuba are no less pernicious; they may, in fact, be more deleterious given Cuba’s size, its proximity to the belligerent presence immediately to the north and its pre-revolutionary interconnectedness with the U.S.A. To that list, one could add the current constellation of political forces in Florida which dictates, in large measure, the direction of Washington’s policies towards Cuba.

I have lived in Havana for approximately three months a year since 1992, the epicentre of the “periodo especial” [special period], when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, then Cuba’s sponsor and ally, food, gasoline and electricity all but disappeared for a time from the lives of ordinary Cubans. I witnessed the seismic shift firsthand when, early in my time spent in Havana, I happened to be passing by the University of Havana Library. Just outside the doors was a large, unsightly pile of Russian language books dumped there unceremoniously by the staff. The special period’s duress may have begun; at least, though, there was the satisfaction of jettisoning a Soviet presence that many felt was joyless, arrogant, oppressive and, possibly even, racist. Traces of that occupation do remain, principally in the numerous Ivans, Liubas and Vladimirs registered in Cuba’s census. Freed from naming their children from such imperialist sources, many parents opt for such freewheeling monikers as Misleidys (my lady) or Roelvis (you’re Elvis) that augment the sense, readily apparent, of Cuban expressiveness and buoyancy. Not that politically-based nomenclatures are passé; there is always the chance of encountering a Usnavi (U.S. Navy) or, more in line with official Cuban sympathies, a Hanoi. Famously, a kid with that latter name in the early 1970s was a “one hit wonder,” singing a song demanding the release of American dissident, Angela Davis, then in a U.S. jail. When she was freed, one of her first stops was Havana where she appeared at a huge rally in her honour.

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May 172011
 
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Photo by Pedro

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Here’s a topical, relevant, heartening essay on the e-revolution and web-publishing from Martin Balgach who, incidentally, has just joined the NC masthead as a Contributor with a special portfolio in poetry. Martin and I became friends at the Vermont College of Fine Arts summer Slovenia residency in 2008 where Martin was in my workshop (a mixed workshop—poets, fiction writers, memoirists and some walk-ins from the planet Cepphebox). For a better introduction read Martin’s poem “Fighting” published earlier on NC. His poetry and criticism have also appeared in The Bitter Oleander, Cream City Review, The Dirty Napkin, Fogged Clarity, The Puritan, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, works in publishing, and lives near Boulder, Colorado. More of his work can be found at www.martinbalgach.com.

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Move It or Lose It

By Martin Balgach

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These days, many of us feel like cosmonauts orbiting an era of hyperbolic digitalization, seemingly infinite bandwidth, and awe-inspiring technologies that boast space-age ingenuity vis-à-vis a pre-determined essence of almost-antiquation. We’re living in a world that redefines itself overnight; so it’s easy to nurture a curmudgeonly preoccupation with mourning “what once was.”

But for those inflicted by the age-old, pen-to-paper desire to transcribe our hearts and guts into stories and poems and essays, we must adapt or face extinction. Friends, the literary journals have moved to the back of the store near the restrooms. Yes, ostensibly, it’s a bleak testament to the viability of our craft, but the future is rewriting itself before our eyes and I’ve decided to become part of the story.

As a longtime writer and relative newcomer to publishing, I’ve been sending out work for a few years, hundreds and hundreds of submissions to journals of all creeds and colors, from the esoterically academic, to the newly crowned cool kids and the autonomously avant-garde. After mounds of rejection, I have finally enjoyed a modicum of “success,” having seen my poems published in print and online. And do you want to know the truth? I’m rather enjoying the electronic venues: they get read, a lot, by lit snobs and family, by Facebook friends and co-workers who equate poetry with rhyme, by strangers and who-knows-how-many-more virtual viewers.

Sure, whose eyes don’t get fatigued by a computer screen’s mechanized glare? I’ll admit it—my online reading attention span is shorter than its print counterpart. But regardless of medium, as a reader, I like instantly accessing great poems, essays, and stories. And as a writer, I appreciate having an editor respond to me in a few weeks or months, agreeing to publish a piece, to give it an audience, to make it part of a collective vision and creative endeavor. I want to participate in an artistic community, to have my work become an integral component of a curated statement. Yes, I like seeing my poems sharing pages with low-fi indie rock tunes, color-soaked digitized paintings or photographs, all these consciousnesses breathing the same pixilated air.

I was fortunate to recently have a poem published in Fogged Clarity, an evocative online journal (with an annual print anthology component) that embodies editor Ben Evans’s vision that art, in its varied forms, represent a collective human experience, an emotional testament to our time. Fogged Clarity is easily one of the most vibrant, engaging, inclusive yet defined collections of contemporary creativity, music, literature, interviews, criticism, and thought on the scene. And content is added monthly! But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself—any of us can go there instantly, with a click: www.foggedclarity.com.

I’ve never believed any writer who claims that writing is primarily a personal endeavor. Sure, the solitary satisfaction is part of the act’s cathartic charm, but it can’t be the ultimate aim. Intrinsically, writers want to be read. And in a world where art budgets have been slashed and paper, printing, and shipping costs are only sky rocketing, maybe it isn’t a tragedy to see struggling print journals transmuting into online entities, going away completely, or never gaining enough traction to even get off the ground. After all, isn’t survival of the fittest evolution’s integral denominator?

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May 172011
 

The other day I posted a BBC story that pondered the lack of socially committed writers in America today. Where are today’s Steinbecks? the author asked (and I asked by extension). Mark Lupinetti wrote such a passionate and inspiring comment to that post that I decided to lift the comment out of the box and put it up as an essay. Flavian Mark Lupinetti, a writer and cardiothoracic surgeon, obtained his MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  His work has appeared in Barrelhouse, Bellevue Literary Review, Cutthroat, and ZYZZYVA.  He lives in central Oregon with his dogs, the Four Weimaraners of the Apocalypse.

Here’s what he wrote:

The salient features of 2011 America include hyperconcentration of wealth for the few, increasing vulnerability for the majority, and impoverishment for many. Wasteful wars motivated by expansionist goals consume vast resources, jeopardizing minimal standards of social welfare. While corporate power rages unchecked, fundamental rights of workers are subject to relentless attack. Were Steinbeck alive today he would recognize a society little changed from the first half of the last century, a time when he wrote his era’s most moving and cogent novels of the class war. DG raises the pertinent question, “Where are today’s Steinbeck?”

 All right, Doug. I’ll take a crack at it.

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Where are today’s Steinbecks?

By Mark Lupinetti

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Before we search for today’s Steinbeck, let us consider our treatment of the Steinbeck that we have. I use the present tense because Steinbeck will be with us always, whether we’ve read the text or listened to Henry Fonda narrate Tom Joad’s soliloquy. We can take comfort that, “Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Whenever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.” And so on.

When The Grapes of Wrath appeared in 1939 it received a generally favorable response from both critics and the public. Some, however, called it sentimental. Others condemned Steinbeck’s portrayals of “the greedy bastards responsible” for the Depression, as if the tender feelings of politicians and landowners might ache from this characterization. Still others accused him of being a socialist or a communist.

Steinbeck’s personal politics defied simple characterization, as exemplified by his support for American aggression in Vietnam. Yet today his reputation and his standing in the literary canon is jeopardized less by attacks on his politics than by those directed at his craft. Even some who sympathize with the politics of his novels consider him a propagandist.

A peculiar feature of the modern literary establishment is its demand for drilling into the core of the human being in terms of psychology, sexuality, relationships, spiritual beliefs–but as soon as the political aspect of the individual is brought into play, an additional test presents. Now it becomes necessary to prove one has no “agenda.”

And there can be no doubt that Steinbeck did write with an agenda. No one can conceive of Steinbeck contemplating, “A middle-aged guy . . . I’ll call him Tom . . . suffering from ennui. He lives in New York City and he writes books. No, he’s an accountant. Oh, wait, I’ll put him in Oklahoma, and make him bored by life in the Midwest. I’ll call it Ledgers of Wrath.”

Nobody would argue that even the most compelling and articulate political position can stand the test of literary excellence by itself, that craft does not matter, that storytelling and character may be dispensed with if the politics are sufficient. To accuse Steinbeck of melodrama or sentimentality, however, suggests that he inflated the harsh conditions of cannery work or sharecropping or itinerant labor for dramatic purposes. In fact Steinbeck softened these portrayals, believing a truer reflection would prove too troubling to the reader.

Contemporary educators show limited respect for Steinbeck. If he appears on the curriculum at all, it is mostly at the high school level, where the historical and sociological value of his work receives the greatest emphasis. Creative writing classes at any level tend to disparage his literary merit. Thus, if today’s writers don’t aspire to be Steinbeck’s heirs, perhaps one cause is the lack of honor paid to the original.

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