Sep 302011

Wendy1Author Wendy Voorsanger performing literary art on the playa. Photo credit: C. Voorsanger.



Burning Man is all about radical self-expression.  50,000 free-spirited “burners,” as they’re called, descend upon the Black Rock Desert in Nevada to create a city: an interaction, art, the performance and ultimately the whole Burning Man experience. Many burners labor all year creating stunning art installations and engineering marvels that sit surreally against the stark and eerie landscape of the playa.  Imagine Chitty Chitty Bang Bang inventions on steroids, combined with copious quantities of jet fuel.  See El Pulpo Mecanico. All commercialism is banned; creations are strangely random and come from a place deep within the mysterious subconscious. Check out this list of art on the playa.

img_07201Playa from a Plane. Photo Credit: C. Voorsanger

Surprisingly, there’s lack of literary presence on the playa.  Perhaps the community is too enthralled with the extraordinary visual peculiarities to meditate on the cerebral.  Perhaps the loud house music pumping from art cars and daytime raves might be incompatible for reading.  Every year a unique Burning Man theme guides camps toward a common launching point for communal offerings.  The 2011 theme “Rites of Passage” lent itself to some interesting variations on rites both familiar and fringe, such as beer pong, the Homecoming Dance, getting a tattoo.  The theme seemed a perfect platform to riff off literature in some way, “the first draft,” “first reading,” “first rejection,” “first publication,”—rites for all writers. I searched the playa but couldn’t find much in the way of literature, books, words.  I’d heard about a creative impromptu slam poetry happening in Buddha Camp at the Lotus Dome—Poetry Slam, a wee bit of poetry and spanking.  The description scared me off: This is not some ordinary poetry reading, nor is it your poetry contest with score paddles. But you will be paddled with poetry in this full contact open mic. Curious yet? So are we! Bring a poem, or be a spectator, but  stay away if you have a soft tush.

I did stumble upon a few open mic sessions in the Center Camp tent with poetry readings and spoken word performances.  One woman set up a 1950’s typewriter and composed poems on the spot with a one word prompts.  But really, words were missing from the playa.

img_07287Random Trojan Horse (Exploded and burned on Friday night.)

As an enthusiastic newbie burner, I wanted to embrace the Burning Man tenants, but lacked the engineering skills and pyrotechnics license.  So, I turned to my own art: literature.  I’d created my own radial self expression, writing a chapter of my first novel-in-progress Capturing the Eddy on a Japanese Zentai suit.  I’d chosen a Burning Man-appropriate chapter, entitled—A Coated Spirit.  The idea wasn’t to publicize my writing, (the novel is far from ready for prime time) but to get burners to pause and read. Meditate on the word.  Relish in a beautiful phrase.  Ponder the random sensation a sequence of sentences might stir.  I wanted to get burners to read a “novel-off-the-page,” if you will.  So the second night I pulled on my Zentai suit at sunset and walked out the playa in hopes of inspiring people to read me and enjoy a bit of literature as performance art..

img_07186Writing novel-in-progress on Zentai Suit

Turns out, I fit right in as a random object on  the playa.  I danced  and twirled wearing my  words, as the sun sank low and dust billowed  in the dusk.  When darkness oozed around, I  joined in a larger dance party and burners caught random words on my back while moving languidly to the thumping beat. “What  are you wearing?” one guy asked.  “My novel.  Wanna read me?” Responses were enthusiastic..

img_07713Wearing my words.  Photo credit: C. Voorsanger.

.img_07751Literature on the Playa.  Photo credit: C. Voorsanger.

Later, I caught a ride from an art car taxi through the playa and more people read random strings of words on my shoulders, ankles, and wrists.  I’d offered my creation to the Burning Man community and felt fully accepted and appreciated in my participation.

img_07263Pirate Art Car.

img_07493Dragon Art Car

The question I’m left with is why not more literature as performance art at Burning Man?  I ask my fellow writers: What ideas do you have for adding more a more literary influence to Black Rock City 2012? I’m thinking of something more worthwhile than a poetry slam with paddles.  What about a word labyrinth placed in the desert or signs in a selected solstice sequence that tell a story, or novel chapters embedded in the playa dust discovered randomly?  I’d love to hear ideas from you. What say you fellow writers?

—Wendy Voorsanger


Sep 292011


From last week’s collision in an intersection to this week’s collection of small caught moments in Jane Campion’s series of shorts, Passionless Moments (1983). The series is made up of ten short films co-written by Campion’s then boyfriend Gerard Lee and is narrated by a BBC-type narrator giving the films a scientific or sociological flair (further emphasizing in a perhaps misleading or ironic fashion the importance of these moments). There is, in these shorts, a fetishization of minutiae. Each is smaller and less dramatic than the collision in And the Red Man Went Green. And these are “real” people, flawed and vulnerable; they do not anticipate the camera’s gaze. We catch them at their most vulnerable and unawares.

Taken individually, I feel these are moments that read you back: what small details of our lives have escaped film’s classical three-act structure and drive for catharsis? As Geraldine Bloustien points out in her essay “Jane Campion:Memory, Motif, and Music,” “Classical Hollywood cinema concerns itself with the heightened moments of passion of individuals with whom we identify in some way because of their bravery, humour, innocence, heroic qualities and so on. In traditional feature films and documentaries we are usually introduced to the characters’ backgrounds, motives and problems. However, in Passionless Moments the characters serve only to illustrate some quirky aspect of human nature and relationships.”

These moments cumulatively tempt me to universalize: that it might be the minutiae and /or our “quirky” aspects that connect us to one another, a humanity found in the small, quiet, sometimes embarrassing moments. Though in the actions of Campion’s characters it is difficult not to see something vaguely heroic. I am embarrassed for the boy named Lyndsay Aldridge, his explosive string beans, and his manic running, but I admire his commitment too. I recognize myself in him and don’t want to at the same time. Campion’s oevre is made up of such characters, from her exploration of the author Janet Frame in An Angel at My Table, to the complicated relationship at the core of Holy Smoke.

I have to confess that the title of the series confuses me. Are these moments truly passionless? Or is the title ironic? Passionless as in lacking suffering? Or passionless as in suggesting disengagement? In a sense it reminds me of Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, an at time dispassionate analysis of desire and passion. These films contain a similar tension / contradiction and perhaps the title participates in that. And I think there’s a similar undecidability to the shorts: what significance do they amount to? To whom do these moments matter?

I heard the writer filmmaker Miranda July introduce a screening of these shorts at the IFC in New York this summer. She said that when she first saw Campion’s shorts she saw a type of filmmaking she could do (my summary). I took this to mean that July felt the films provoked and read her back too. That to watch these “passionless” moments is an invitation to reflect on one’s own moments. I see further evidence in the several “Passionless Moments” shorts on youtube that pay homage. Explore at your own risk. And maybe dare to ponder your own.


Sep 262011

I was almost finished reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring when I authorized the application of Garlon to 3300 square feet of vegetation surrounding a new commercial building. Garlon is an herbicide: a chemical officially called triclopyr—a cocktail of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, and chlorine arranged in a particular structure that makes it fatal to broad-leaved plants.

I visited the application site after a few days and the plants had already started to wither. Garlon takes a little while to act, but over the course of a week or two, the lambs-quarters and creeping charlie browned and fell to the earth. The company I hired later arrived to mow the whole thing down.

Silent Spring spends an entire chapter (ominously called “Elixirs of Death”) on how exactly the various pesticides and herbicides work. Garlon is more recent, so it doesn’t appear, but it shares many of the chemical properties of the chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphates Carson describes. “Elixirs of Death” occurs early in this seminal (some would say THE seminal) environmental work. Carson, an otherwise soft-spoken science writer, sets the book’s tone with the chapter’s title, and with stories like this:

On another occasion two small boys in Wisconsin, cousins, died on the same night. One had been playing in his yard when spray drifted in from an adjoining field where his father was spraying potatoes with parathion; the other had run playfully into the barn after his father and put his hand on the nozzle of the spray equipment.

Dwell on those words for a minute: “had run playfully into the barn after his father.”

Chemical diagram of triclopyr (Garlon)

I am a landscape architect, which means I typically come up with designs for parks, homes, and commercial properties, then leave the maintenance to others. At some level I suppose I understand that a broad array of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are being sprayed on my idealistically created landscapes. But what they do is their business—out of sight, out of mind. On the particular commercial project I mention above, though, I was thrust into a management role due to some contract discrepancies. The responsibility of maintaining the native prairie grasses I had seeded along the building’s main walkway fell to me. I called a prairie expert who told me herbicide would be the best way to get the weeds under control and allow the little bluestem room to grow. I wavered. Then agreed.

Hanging up the phone I was wracked with guilt. Carson’s book has a way of making one feel that way, if one is in any way complicit in the use of pesticides or herbicides. Silent Spring is both fact-packed and heart-wrenching. It leaves a reader feeling emotionally spent, yet unable to find relief in the possibility that the stories are either exaggerated or untrue. And that, of course, was its intended effect.

It’s hard to know exactly where to start a new essay about Carson, since of all the environmental writers in American history, she has been more researched, praised, referenced, essayed, and reprinted than anyone but perhaps Thoreau and John Muir. Certainly of all the writers covered in this series, no one sold more books and no one had a more direct effect on legislation than she did—even though she only wrote four books and succumbed to cancer a mere 18 months after Silent Spring was published, at age 56. If you want biography, read Linda Lear’s excellent and honest Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. If you want homage, go for Courage for the Earth, edited by the venerable Peter Matthiessen. You can find Rachel Carson children’s books and Rachel Carson school curricula. (I’m thinking of starting a line of “what would Rachel do?” bumper stickers and coffee mugs.)

It’s hard to know where to start with Carson because so much has been said already. What I will add is this: Silent Spring struck me in two ways. Foremost, I felt like a direct subject of criticism, because of the Garlon, and the book has made me rethink some of my professional practices, even though it is near 50 years old and wildly out of date factually. I also felt a deep admiration for Carson because she, I believe, deliberately altered her writing style in order to have the desired impact. Silent Spring, in tone, subject, and language choice, is markedly different from her earlier works about the ocean:  Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (a 1951 bestseller), and The Edge of the Sea (1955). Though this earlier trilogy—completed a full seven years before Silent Spring—has notes of warning, it is above all a paean to the sea, in all its glory and poetry. I read The Sea Around Us immediately before delving into Silent Spring, and the contrast was stark.

Indulge me in a side-by-side comparison. To make it a little more apples-to-apples, I’ll look at the same subject: water. Here is Silent Spring:

Here and there we have dramatic evidence of the presence of these chemicals in our streams and even in public water supplies. For example, a sample of drinking water from an orchard area in Pennsylvania, when tested on fish in a laboratory, contained enough insecticide to kill all of the test fish in only four hours….

For the most part this pollution is unseen and invisible, making its presence known when hundreds of thousands of fish die, but more often never detected at all. The chemist who guards water purity has no routine tests for these organic pollutants and no way to remove them.

And The Sea Around Us:

Fish, amphibian, and reptile, warm-blooded bird and mammal—each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in sea water. This is our inheritance from the day, untold millions of years ago, when a remote ancestor, having progressed from the one-celled to the many-celled stage, first developed a circulation system in which the fluid was merely the water of the sea.

You will of course have to give me the benefit of the doubt that I have selected representative samples. Yes, there are glimpses of the critical Carson in the sea trilogy and of the enraptured Carson in Silent Spring (“those woodland sprites the kinglets…the warblers, whose migrating hordes flow through the trees in spring in a multicolored tide of life”). But it’s not a stretch to say that the sea trilogy is poetic while Silent Spring is analytical.

I believe that difference is not just because of the passage of time between the works, nor is it because of the inherently negative subject matter of the later book. As Ann Zwinger writes in her introduction to the 2002 reprint of Silent Spring, after World War II “The public endowed chemists, at work in their starched white coats…with almost divine wisdom. The results of their labors were gilded with the presumption of beneficence. In postwar America, science was god, and science was male.”  Science also stood alone, in philosophical opposition to art and poetry. That dichotomy, which Loren Eiseley and others began to expose in the early 1960s, led to the intense social upheval that pitted “9-to-5-ers” and “hippies” against each other in the decades to come.

In order to have an affect on the science of the day, and on the general population, Carson needed to adopt an empirical rhetoric, mostly free of the soul-stirring prose that populates her earlier work but would be rapidly discredited in the context of her new subject. In fact, the chemical industry tried to do exactly that, launching a smear campaign that, among other things, labeled Carson a spinster and a madwoman—powerful and damning language in the late 50s. Carson buttoned Silent Spring up tight, leaving no space for the chemical establishment to set a hook and tear it apart.

However, if that had been Carson’s only trick, Silent Spring would stand as an excellent report to Congress, rather than as the “cornerstone of the new environmentalism,” as Peter Matthiessen calls it. Carson’s final book was embraced by an entire generation and many believe it led to not just the domestic ban on DDT application (for which it is best known), but also the Clean Air Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972—all of which directly address environmental pollutants like herbicides and pesticides.

The reason for Silent Spring’s longevity is that laced within the analysis are passages like this:

I know well a stretch of road where nature’s own landscaping has provided a border of alder, viburnum, sweet fern, and juniper with seasonally changing accents of bright flowers, or of fruits hanging in jeweled clusters in the fall…. But the sprayers took over and the miles along that road became something to be traversed quickly, a sight to be endured with one’s mind closed to thoughts of the sterile and hideous world we are letting our technicians make. But here and there authority had somehow faltered and…there were oases of beauty in the midst of austere and regimented control…. In such places my spirit lifted to the sight of the drifts of white clover or the clouds of purple vetch with here and there the flaming cup of a wood lily.

Or this, in reference to the “explosive power” of nature to reproduce and fill a void:

I think of shore rocks white with barnacles as far as the eye can see, or of the spectacle of passing through an immense school of jellyfish, mile after mile, with seemingly no end to the pulsing, ghostly forms scarcely more substantial than the water itself.

It has been more than a month now since I was complicit in the application of an herbicide. Today the site is a green swath of baby prairie grasses pushing their roots deep into the earth and covering the soil with their stems. Next spring there will be fewer broad-leaved plants and after another year this landscape will not need to be mowed, fertilized, watered, or treated with chemicals of any kind—ever.

My 3300 square feet is infinitesimal compared to the millions of square miles of neighborhoods, forests, and farms that used to be sprayed from airplanes with a mixture of DDT powder and fuel oil (can you imagine?!). And Carson’s last chapter gives me an out: perhaps surprisingly, she doesn’t call for outright bans, but rather a careful combination of biological control and chemical use applied where needed and for the right reasons.

She also calls for effective regulation and decision-making through sound science, and that sentiment became the foundation for the EPA and all the environmental legislation passed in the early 1970s.

So if you will indulge me in one more paragraph, I would be remiss in not mentioning current events.

I opened this series by referencing a January 25, 2012, speech by Newt Gingrich in which he proposed elimination of the EPA. He, the few remaining presidential hopefuls, and conservative members of the U.S. Congress have held that line for the past year. The standard phrase, crowed ad nauseum in debates and stump speeches, is that the EPA and the Clean Air and Water Acts are “job-killing” regulations. Gingrich and the other so-called advocates for business and jobs should take a moment to remember life before 1970: fuel oil dropped from airplanes on suburban neighborhoods, chemicals in general use so dangerous that children could die from touching a spray nozzle, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River so polluted it actually caught fire (that was 1969), cities across the nation dumping untreated sewage into local waters (yes, the Clean Water Act regulates government in addition to private business). Conservatives are holding a ridiculous and untenable position that essentially suggests businesses would pay more taxes and hire more people–if only they could pollute.

Carson described the 1950s as “an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged. When the public protests…it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half-truth.”

Silent Spring is 50 years old in 2012—election year. As I wrote in the introduction, it’s time for another reading.

Proceed to the next essay, on Joseph Wood Krutch; or return to the Table of Contents.

—Adam Regn Arvidson

Sep 242011

It probably doesn’t bear reminding, but I will remind you anyway. In the March/April issue of the AWP Writers’ Chronicle, Aleksander Hemon, in an interview with Jeanie Chung, contrasted fiction and memoir and found the latter wanting in some way, even cowardly. Sue William Silverman, my friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts and a famous practitioner of the art of memoir-writing, wrote a retort which appeared as a letter to the editor and was also reprinted under the title “In Defense of Memoir” on Dinty Moore’s Brevity. Suzanne Farrell Smith wrote a measured summary of the whole story (“Hemon, Silverman, and What Makes Good Writing“) on her blog and pointed out that just months after casting aspersions on the genre in the Chronicle, Hemon published a memoir of his daughter’s illness in The New Yorker. (In the nature of things, he probably did the interview long before he wrote the memoir, but the two came out in ironic proximity.)

Now Sue has contributed a call to the barricades, an inspirational rationale for memoir-writing which, yes, includes a small excursus into her own acts of memoir (and delightful photographs which are a memoir in themselves).

Sue William Silverman is the author of numerous books, essays, and works on craft, and she is a profound influence in the lives of her students (see the recent NC Childhood essay by Kim Aubrey as an example). Her memoir Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction was made into Lifetime television movie. Her first memoir Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You won the Association of Writers and Writing Programs award in creative nonfiction, while her craft book Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir was awarded Honorable Mention in ForeWord Review’s book-of-the-year award.


The Courage to Write and Publish Your Story: Five Reasons Why it’s Important to Write Memoir

By Sue William Silverman



I’m frequently asked why I write memoir. Why reveal intimate details about my life to total strangers? Why put myself, or my family, through the pain—some would even say shame—of telling family secrets? Why not just be quiet, keep personal information to myself?

Here is how I answer:

Growing up, I lived a double life. On the face of it, my family seemed normal, happy. My father had an important career. We lived in nice houses and wore expensive clothes. But all this seeming perfection was a veneer, masking the reality that my father sexually molested me, a reality never spoken aloud.

Later, as an adult, I continued to live a double life—this time as a sex addict. Again, in public, I appeared normal, with a professional career and a seemingly good marriage. No one knew that the shiny façade hid dark secrets: I cheated on my husband; I was close to emotional and spiritual death.

Before I began to write, I didn’t fully understand the effects of the past on the present. For years, the past appeared in my mind’s eye like faded black-and-white photographs in which no one, especially me, seemed fully alive.

Then I started putting words on the page. Finally, I chose to examine my past. Through this exploration, it was as if I slowly began to awake after living in a state of emotional suspension. I wrote my way into the darkness—not to dwell there—but to shed light on it. My entire life changed, all for the better. I no longer lived a lie.

I encourage you to explore, through writing, your life, as well. Whether your childhood was traumatic or not, whether your current life is in disarray, chances are you have a story to tell. Whether, say, you’re figuring out a divorce, finally coming to terms, perhaps, with an alcoholic mother or an absent father, struggling to repair a relationship with an estranged sibling or battling a physical disease, we write memoir to better understand ourselves, as well as to bring a reader with us on our journeys.

Here are five reasons why your life will be enhanced by writing a memoir, by telling your own story.

Continue reading »

Sep 232011


Writing a War Story

by Richard Farrell


For the better part of two years, I wrote a war story that wouldn’t come together. No matter how hard I tried, the damned thing refused to work.  It’s not that I spent six-hundred days toiling away at the same pages like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, though at times it did feel that way. No, my devotion to this story meandered over those two years. I would chip away at it for a few weeks, abandon it for a while, and then come back to it. I deleted scenes and added new ones. I switched from a first-person narrator to cascading, multiple third-person points of view. I changed the title, the main characters, the setting, the tone. Every so often I sought help, from  my writing group, from workshops and from trusted grad school advisors. The consensus was always the same: the story floundered.

But I couldn’t let it go.

I was writing about the firebombing of Tokyo, a particularly horrific incendiary attack by U.S. bombers in March of 1945. The ensuing firestorm was more grisly, more deadly even, than the atomic bombs that were later dropped. It is estimated that over 100,000 people died in a single night. Shadows of the dead were burned into sidewalks. Downtown Tokyo was obliterated.  Many consider it to be the deadliest day in history. The target of the attack was not Japan’s munitions factories, electrical grids or coke ovens; it was not enemy harbors or troops or barracks; the target was the citizenry of Tokyo, non-combatants, women and children.

Mother and daughter after raid on Tokyo. (Note: This famous photo is often associated with atomic attacks. Either way, the impact is obvious.)

Almost as troubling as the stark reality of this raid is the fact that the firebombing of Tokyo rarely warrants more than a footnote in the history books. I was (and am) both fascinated and terrified by the casual way we forget these things.

Still, these were only facts, and none of them made for a good war story. I wanted to understand why.

 In Tim O’Brien’s How to Tell a True War Story,” he writes:

A war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of the story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

Continue reading »

Sep 222011


Ruth Meehan’s And the Red Man Went Green brings the chaos and potential of one day down to a single moment crossing a street. Though it’s not ostensibly about a kiss, the narrative has much in common with Chekhov’s short story “The Kiss,” in which a young soldier is accidentally kissed by a woman, sending a shudder of changes through his plain life.

The director Richard LaGravanese also found inspiration in Chekhov’s short story for the key moment when his protagonist in the film Living Out Loud (starring Holly Hunter–the movie was originally called The Kiss) is surprised out of the grief she is suffering at the loss of her twenty-year relationship.

Each of these stories touches on sudden moments when strangers are accidentally and sometimes unconsciously there for one another.

>Meehan is an Irish writer / director and she has shot several short films. And the Red Man . . . is her second short and it did well at festivals, winning the Special Jury prize a the Tehran film Festival and the Prix Canal+ at Brest.

If you enjoy Meehan’s very short film, you can see another by her (based on a true story about an adventurous cat) here:



Sep 192011

leslie-ullman_09Leslie Ullman. Photo by Jamie Clifford.

The beginning of craft is in reading. And herewith NC presents a gorgeous essay by Leslie Ullman on reading poetry, on poetic “centers” and “dark stars,” about the nature of lyric and the links between poetry and love. The heart of the essay is in Leslie’s deft and expansive analyses of poems by Adrienne Rich, James Tate, Mary Oliver, James Wright, and William Stafford, the whole vectoring toward a lovely line from a Rich poem: “a house lit by the friction of your mind” which is as good a summation of the contemporary lyric poem as any I have seen.

Leslie Ullman is a prize-winning poet, friend, colleague (at Vermont College of Fine Arts) and ski instructor (in Taos). Also a graceful, intelligent presence whenever she is around. She is Professor Emerita at University Texas-El Paso, where she taught for 25 years and started the Bilingual MFA Program. She has published three poetry collections: Natural Histories, winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1979; Dreams by No One’s Daughter, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987; and Slow Work Through Sand, co-winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, University of Iowa Press, 1998. Individual poems have appeared in numerous magazine, including Poetry Magazine, The New Yorker, Arts & Letters, and Poet Lore. Her essays have been published in Poetry Magazine, Kenyon Review, Denver Quarterly, and The AWP Writer’s Chronicle. In addition to working for Vermont College of the Fine Arts, Leslie is a certified ski instructor at Taos Ski Valley. The essay originally appeared in Southern Indiana Review, Spring, 2001.



A “Dark Star” Passes Through It

By Leslie Ullman


An inspired, well-made poem is all muscle, all linked movement and harmonious gestures, efficient and lovely as a snake moving across rocks or blacktop or water before it disappears into tall grass. Break this good poem down, and one can see it as a construct of images, phrases, observations, maybe even statements—gestures which have practical uses and varying levels of energy when taken one at a time. Often these gestures are indeed taken one at a time, in workshops or in classrooms at any level, where “understanding” the poem is a more graspable and thus a more settled-for goal than feeling the poem. Start discussing feeling, and one is in that no-man’s land where the boundaries between one’s private experience of the poem and the intentions of the poem can blur. Language becomes untrustworthy. Perception becomes suspect. It is one thing to watch a snake move and imagine its slipperiness, and another to pick it up with an ungloved hand and then sustain and communicate to someone else the sensations of smooth muscle against the palm–at least in the arena of a workshop or literature class, where the task is to find usable terms and defend a point of view in the midst of peers and teachers. But in private, one might well pick up the snake, find one’s hand and arm moving in a dance with its body and feel the marvelous interlocking of its sinews and scales, the dry smoothness of it, not a slipperiness at all.

My first experience of the quietly electrifying  impact a poem can have occurred when I was sitting alone on a dock one summer before my junior year in college. Since then, I have sought ways to honor what can scarcely be described about a well-made and deeply inspired poem–the vatic sureness, the textured play of utterance and silence, the sense of inevitability or urgency from which a poem seems to arise, the resonance some images have, the way the last line reverberates in the reader’s mind and sends her back into the poem again and again only to find each reading richer than the last. In graduate school I was introduced to the work of Gaston Bachelard, the French phenomenologist and philosopher of science who understood reverberation as the operative word for describing the dynamics of literary expression, emphasizing the wealth of association and memory touched off in the reader, often a recognition of something deeply buried within herself, as part of a literary work’s own properties and realm of intentions. Bachelard helped me take seriously the sensations that arise from inspired reading, the literal twinges in the gut that tell me when I have encountered a particularly important image or passage even before my head tells me why it’s important. A few years later,  a conversation with my then-colleague James Ragan helped me begin to find a vocabulary for including and then using sensation as a starting point for grasping the whole of a poem, its deft and muscular movement, in a way that might appeal to readers at any level of experience.

Over the years I have played with the notion of a poem’s “center” in so many contexts as a teacher, and thus have made it so deeply my own, that I can no longer determine how much of what I have to say on this matter originates with me or with Jim. But I can say that the basic idea came from him, and that when he introduced it to me, a light went on in my head and has stayed on ever since. Jim said, if I remember correctly, that every poem has a “center,” a line or group of lines, which reveal the heart of the poem but should not be confused with theme or content. Rather, they are lines with a particular sort of energy, almost always a heightened energy, and one way to identify them is to imagine that when the writer drafted these particular lines, she could feel the force and trajectory of the finished poem even if many details still needed to be worked out—that the poem from that time forward held mystery and  potential completeness for the writer and would indeed be worth finishing. I loved this. To enter a poem in the skin of the writer, to feel the itch of important lines without quite yet knowing what they meant–this seemed an engaging and intuitively accurate way to be a reader.

I soon discovered that one cannot identify a poem’s center without dwelling within each of a poem’s gestures—each image, each transition, each close-up or wide-angle view—without, in other words, feeling the weave of the entire texture, its larger and smaller variations. This is not the work of intellect or analysis. Imagine being blindfolded, learning the layout of a room by groping your way along its walls and furnishings, letting your sense of touch replace your eyes and yield the landscape of the room in a visceral, intimate way. This is what happens when one reads a poem with the intent of identifying its center. The center derives its energy from how it works in its relation to other moments in the poem. To feel the center of a poem, one has to have felt the significance of all of the poem’s moments, moments of lesser as well as greater intensity that nevertheless are crucial to the poem’s structure and cumulative power. This is what picking up the snake—not the devious Edenic archetype, but the lovely work of nature—is all about.

Continue reading »

Sep 162011



Five years ago today Sion Dayson moved to Paris, the last move, so far, in a peripatetic existence. This essay is Sion’s contribution to Numéro Cinq‘s What It’s Like Living Here series, a vivid, intelligent meditation not so much on place but on the deeper implications of belonging, of identity and strangeness.

Sion Dayson is an American writer living in Paris, France. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Smokelong Quarterly, Six Sentences (Volume 3) and the anthologies Sounds of this House and Strangers in Paris: New Writing Inspired by the City of Light. In 2007 she won a Barbara Deming Award for Fiction. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is currently putting the finishing touches on her first novel. It recently placed as a Semifinalist in the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition (novel-in-progress category). You can read more of her experiences in Paris at her blog, paris (im)perfect, and find out about all of her work at



An Alien Feeling

By Sion Dayson


When I was a baby, I had a nanny named Josephine who came from the Dominican Republic. My family lived in New York then – the mythic New York of the ‘70s that I would love to have known.

Josephine spoke to me in Spanish, long before I could understand or form words. There’s no doubt, however, that this early exposure stayed with me. When I started studying Spanish formally in junior high school, the language came easily, my accent hardly noticeable. Vocabulary stuck like scotch tape.


Cara K., my best friend, took French classes and I teased her endlessly for it.

“What good will French ever do you?” I ridiculed.

In fact, I charged anyone who chose not to learn Spanish as elitist. By that point we lived in North Carolina where the Latino population was exploding. Spanish was not only useful, but to me, completely beautiful.

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Sep 142011

Read this as a lament, a keen. It was written, to start with, for Numéro Cinq’s series of “Childhood” essays. But this is no island idyll. It’s not even poignant; that’s too mild a word.  It is sad beyond sad. It is a trip to the heart of darkness. It is also beautiful and rich and generous to that which deserves generosity. In places it makes for nearly unbearable reading. And yet it demands to be read. Years ago, I took a chance on an unknown writer and included one of Kim’s stories in the annual anthology Best Canadian Stories which I edited at the time. In the intervening years she has proved out my intuition, growing deeper, more complex, more heartbreakingly open.

Kim lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (she chronicled her move there from Toronto for NC with two lovely “What it’s like living here” pieces).  She is a writer and artist who grew up in Bermuda and earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her watercolours have been exhibited in galleries, and her writing has appeared in Best Canadian Stories, The New Quarterly, Room, Event, upstreet and other journals. She recently completed a memoir, The Girl in the Blue Leotard. She is a Founding Member and Editor of Red Claw Press and leads an annual retreat to Bermuda for writers and artists. 



I was born and grew up in Bermuda where my father was born and grew up, and a few generations of Aubreys before him. Photos show me as a baby, sitting in a laundry basket full of oranges, fruit as bright, round and juicy as the world must have seemed back then.

Next to the plump oranges, I looked pale and thin. My parents worried I wasn’t gaining enough weight. My father bought me goat’s milk and fussed over me, helping me to sleep by bouncing me in his arms every evening when he returned home from selling jewellery in his shop on Queen Street.

Kim in the orange grove

As a toddler, I was so slight that my mother had to cross the straps of my overalls twice—first on my back, then across my chest. When a big wind rushed in from the Atlantic, she held onto me so I wouldn’t blow away. I loved how the wind pushed against my face, pressing my mouth open, promising to take me someplace new. But I loved the island too—the oranges dangling from their leafy ceiling, the crabgrass tickling my feet, the warm Bermuda earth, red-orange with iron.

When I was six or seven, my parents rented “Rocky Ridge,” a blue bungalow on a cliff overlooking Harrington Sound, where my mother taught me and my brothers, E.R. and Mark, how to swim. We’d run across our backyard to the grey limestone steps, which led down to the sea through a hollowed-out cave, its sandy walls the colour of cream. We’d rub our fingers against the crumbling limestone, stare at the small holes that seemed drilled into it, looking for the creatures that had burrowed there. Sunlight filtered through the cave, cast arcing shadows over its bright surface, enticing us to follow it out into a world of light and water.

Aubrey house with the orange trees

The cave opened onto a long narrow dock stretching out over the blue-green sound. If you stared down from the end of the dock, you might see bright fish or dark sea rays. If you looked out across the sound, you’d notice that it was encircled by land, sheltered, enclosed. But we seldom looked out; we ran for the steps leading down into the clear water where purple sea urchins raised their spikes from the sandy bottom, and shiny sea cucumbers lay waiting for us to squeeze the water out of them.

My mother taught my father to swim too, even though he’d spent his whole life on an island surrounded by water and she’d grown up in a small town in Maine at least an hour from the coast. She’d learned to swim in the cool waters of Great Pond where her aunt and uncle had built a log cabin, while my father had avoided the beach, afraid of the bullying surf that could send you sprawling under, push water up your nose and salt into your eyes.

South Shore Bermuda

The sound could be calm and glassy, or gentle waves could hold you floating. Only in a storm did the water leap up and fly against the limestone cliff, swamping the dock and filling the cave, washing away more sand from its soft walls. Sometimes, the waves would blast up over our house, and once we found a trumpet fish stranded on the driveway out front. My mother flung it over the cliff, back into the water before it could begin to stink.

Trumpet fish are long and thin. They camouflage themselves by standing on their noses amongst strands of like-coloured coral, or swimming with schools of like-coloured smaller fish on which they prey.

Sometimes, my brothers and I fished off the dock. Once I caught a squirrelfish—orange-red with a big dark eye. Squirrelfish usually hide in the reef, emerging at night, protecting themselves by raising the spines on their backs and croaking when threatened. I don’t remember if my squirrelfish made any noise. I kept it in a pail of water for a while, then dumped it back into the sea.

On Good Friday, we flew kites. My father taught us to make them out of tissue paper and oleander or fennel sticks, starting with the traditional diamond shape formed from a cross of two sticks, its flight meant to reflect Christ’s rise to heaven. We nicked slots in the ends of the sticks with a penknife, and threaded twine through the nicks, pulling it tight and knotting it, then covered this skeleton of stick and twine with different shades of tissue paper. One year, my mother could find only white paper, so to brighten my kite, I pasted on oleander petals and cherry leaves. They fell off when the wind stole the kite into the sky.

The whole island flew kites. Good Friday afternoon, the sky filled with their bright shapes and colours. Every March, a radio and TV ad campaign reminded kite flyers about the dangers of power lines, and every Easter on our way to church, my brothers and I would lean out the car windows and laugh to see all the kites stuck in the lines, or on the branches of trees.

In our backyard with its fence marking the edge of the cliff, my father would hold up the kite while I clutched its ball of twine, waiting for the wind from the sound to rustle the taut tissue paper bound within its frame of sticks and string. “Now,” he’d call, and I’d rush forward across the lawn, my kite rising into the air behind me as I hurried to let out more string, the ball of twine flipping in my hand, the kite straining against its narrow lead. Its tail, made from torn-off bits of rag my mother had knotted together, gave it ballast, weighting the kite so the wind wouldn’t toss it around and crush it. I stopped running as the wind lifted the kite higher. Its tail streamed out behind, anchoring it to the clouds.

On Guy Fawkes’ night in November, my father and his younger brothers, Dennis and Peter, set off fireworks on our back lawn near the cliff’s edge. Rockets and fountains burst and shrieked into the night sky. My brothers and I ran around in circles laughing and shouting. When our uncles lit the Catherine’s Wheel, we stopped and clung to our mother, watching the great circle of fire spin and hiss, flinging sparks into the cool damp air.

In the distance, other people’s fireworks cast brief bright shapes against the dark as we waited for Dennis to bring out the Guy. It was made from an old jacket and pants stuffed with newspaper, its head a brown paper bag, also stuffed, topped with a straw hat. I stared at its face, drawn with black marker. Its slit eyes and wide grin leered back at me like a malicious Frankenstein’s monster. I half hoped half feared the fire might spark it into life.

My father, Dennis and Peter built a small bonfire from dry sticks and crumpled paper, lit with several matches. Once the fire caught, spreading through the kindling, they mounted the Guy on top, and we watched the flames burst out from inside his dark pants and shiny jacket, consume his mean face and feed on his crackling hat. Soon the guy was one enormous flame eating away at the dark, launching flakes of ash into the sky.

One night in September, I’d learned that my mind could float free of my body, flying up like a kite or a piece of ash. My parents had gone out to dinner to celebrate my mother’s birthday, leaving my brothers and me with our teen-aged uncle, Peter. Outside, the wind tapped tree branches against the living-room window. Inside, I practiced the pliés I’d learned in ballet class that afternoon, holding my back straight, bending my knees, then rising onto my toes. The reflection of my head bobbed up and down in the darkening window. I was not yet eight and had only begun learning ballet a couple of weeks ago. E.R. was six, and Mark, who had just started nursery school, was four.

For the past year, Peter had been molesting us in the basement of his house where our parents sent us to play on Sunday afternoons, while they sat and drank tea with our grandparents. In that shadowy basement, Peter terrified and shamed us into secrecy, keeping our parents ignorant of what was happening.

If they’d told us he would be baby-sitting, I’d probably have spent the day chewing my fingernails and getting a stomachache, even though I hadn’t believed that he would hurt us in our own house. The familiar ordinariness of the wood-encased TV set, the living-room carpet we sat on to watch cartoons, the purple couch where my parents usually relaxed in the evening seemed to offer a protective spell. Besides, a summer spent visiting our New England grandparents, swimming in cool dark lakes, and picking blueberries in the woods of Maine had already begun to wash out my memories of that basement, making them less vivid, as if those things had happened to three other children.

When Peter yelled, “Stop that jumping!” and lunged after me, I froze at first, then dashed towards the hallway where the bathroom door had a lock. The TV shouted ads from its corner, the wind rattled the windows, and the walls seemed to blur as if suddenly plunged under water. Peter grabbed my arm, clamped my legs between his, pushed my face against his belly. The fibers of his shirt scratched my eyelids. I tried to scream, tried to bite him through his shirt. He gripped my mouth with one hand, forcing me to breathe through my nose, while his other hand crept up my bare leg and into the bottom of my leotard. At first, his fingers tickled, making me feel warm and shivery, then they jabbed into my flesh, sending a sharp pain up through my whole body and into my head. I tried to scream again, tried to bite his hand, but it was pressed too tightly against my mouth. My head felt light and spinny, throat dry and empty.

I learned how to run while standing still, to run until I lifted from the ground and the wind carried me up, a ballast of fear anchoring me to the ceiling. I learned how to pretend something shameful wasn’t happening, and how to clean up the evidence afterwards. Sitting in the bathtub behind a locked door, I washed streaks of blood from my thighs, learned to let the water run until all the pink had swirled away.

The next day, my brothers told my mother that Peter had shown us his penis. I told her I didn’t want him to babysit ever again. I had no words for what had happened. When we visited our grandparents, my mother and father no longer sent us to the basement to play with Peter. My brothers and I forgot what he had done to us. Memory swirled away like a pink stain in water.

Every Good Friday, we flew kites, making them as bright and beautiful as we could, multi-hued hexagons or octagons, borrowing their colours from the hibiscus, the oranges, the cherry leaves, and the clear waters of the sound. We flew kites, cheered when we managed to launch them and they didn’t get caught on a shrub, or drag our spirits to the ground. We flew kites, watching them rise unblemished into the blue, their spokes like outstretched arms, watching them shrink into distant sparks of light, longing to follow, to lift off from the red earth and climb the sky.

—Kim Aubrey

Sep 122011

A Anupama2

A. Anupama contributes five poems translated from the anthology of classical Tamil poems known as the Kuruntokai (pro-nounced Kurundohay), gorgeously symbolic love poems that work within a strict formal structure. Strange and beautiful they are, a revelation of an ancient culture and tradition to which we have as a guide, also, a lovely essay by the translator who uses, yes, Ludwig Wittgenstein as an entry point into her own considerable cultural heritage. The essay is a delight, not the least because it lays bare some of the structures of the poems and thus does what good criticism should always do–help us read more deeply.



On Translating from Kuruntokai


Wittgenstein wrote “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” This wasn’t exactly the reason I set about learning and translating Tamil, the language of my south Indian heritage, but I admit that I liked the idea of pushing back the limits.  In my work of distilling English in my poetry, I had begun to notice my many refusals to use foreign words and syntactic differences, which often correspond to my thoughts stemming from Indian philosophy. I turned to learning my mother tongue and attempting translations with the hope of finding a door through which I might reconcile these two movements in my own writing.

I didn’t have to look hard to find a compelling doorway. A.K. Ramanujan’s translations of Kuruntokai, an anthology of love poems from the Cankam era of Tamil poetry, illuminate the beauty of both languages. Reading this work was not only an opportunity for me to walk into Tamil with a brilliant guide, it represented a chance to roam in the genius of a community of poets and scholars in ancient India.

Cankam (pronounced “Sangam”) means community, and the poems in Kuruntokai are a formal genre called akam written by many different poets based on a common poetic language of five landscapes, with corresponding symbolism in the specific plants, animals, bodies of water, occupations, seasons, and more in each. These poems revolve around a love affair with a cast of five speakers: the heroine (in Tamil, talaivi) and hero (talaivan), her friend, her mother, and his mistress.  Each poem is a short monologue or half of a dialogue, part of an unfolding drama, but is self-contained, a glistening snapshot of a particular moment.

The simplicity of the verses in the translations is deceptive. I was amazed to find allusions and symmetry working together to create a trapdoor in each poem. As I worked on my own translations from the original Tamil, I found poetic devices like parallel feet in symmetric opposition representing the dichotomy of the senses and the mind. An example of this is verse 237, where the hero speaks about his heart setting out boldly to embrace his lover at the start of the second line of the poem and then speaks of his mind as hardly daring to think at the end of line 7. These are set symmetrically around the center of the poem: the image of the dark ocean and the words referring to the obstacle between the two lovers. Symmetry presents a different meaning from the literal sense of the hero’s monologue, in which it is the distance and the forests that are the obstacles. The symmetry suggests more than the literal sense of the words, creating a superimposition of meanings so that the reader’s understanding can shift away from the expected storyline, the bold heart and distracted mind, and see something more. Another set of parallels occurs even closer to the center of this poem, amplifying the effect: the image of arms clasping is set opposite the word for circling or echoing. In both cases, the references are ambiguous. The first one suggests that the heart, lacking arms, can’t embrace his lover. The other one could refer to the waves of the ocean or to the deadly tigers. The effect demonstrates the futility of trying to comprehend this sort of circling inward with one’s head-on logic. (I’m grateful, or I might have spent a lot more time trying to figure out the Tamil metrics looking for more clues.)

Sometimes the image or word in the geometric center of the poem is a hinge point or a clue. In verse 36, the central foot of the poem is about the inseparable intimacy of the two lovers. Interestingly, this word is a partial rhyme for mÀõai and for the usual Tamil word for elephant, which is not used in this poem. The effect here is that the conscious statement of the heroine is contradicted by the very way she is making her statement. The elephant is in the room, even though she denies it by her words. On another level, the deeper intelligence, sleeping under the surface, is the point here.

Sometimes the poem seems to flow backwards, with images at the beginning of the poem only making sense at the end. Throwing the reader back to the beginning of the poem seems to be one of the reasons for this device, as in verse 46. The original doesn’t begin with any mention of the lover. Ramanujan reordered this poem in his translation (and I followed him in mine) so that the heroine’s suggestion wouldn’t be lost in the poem in English. The original poem unfolds from the opening image of the wings like faded waterlilies and ends with the statement that her lover has left for another land. When the reader skips back to the beginning, automatically because of the surprise of the revelation at the end, the image of those limp brown wings suggests that no one is really going anywhere. This device superimposes that suggestion over the heroine’s suggestion that her lover will return to her, as the sparrows return to their nests, because he can’t escape the loneliness of life without her. This sort of set up, with no escape through the ends of the poem, forces the reader to circumambulate the center of the poem, where the image of the sparrows playing in the dust of dried cow dung is the trapdoor’s hinge. In traditional Indian villages, dried cow dung is used as fuel.

The mysteriousness of these love poems is even more striking because they were compiled during the legendary gatherings of Tamil poets and scholars roughly a thousand years ago. I wondered, why love poems? Why landscapes and flowers? I went to philosophy texts for those answers. (Thanks Wittgenstein!) The commentary in Edwin F. Bryant’s translation of The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali explains: “The senses can grasp only sense objects, but not vice versa; the mind can perceive the senses, but not vice versa; and the purusa [soul] can perceive the mind, but not vice versa.” So one conclusion is that the love poetry of Kuruntokai and the other akam poems of the Cankam era mean to stand firmly among the sense objects of the world and point absolutely in the direction of the soul, transcending the limits of this world.

A.K. Ramanujan’s books Poems of Love and War and The Interior Landscape offer a fascinating discussion of Tamil akam poetry. I also consulted Robert Butler’s translation, which includes informative footnotes on the language, flora and fauna, and traditional commentaries on the verses. I’m grateful to B. Jeyaganesh and my mother, who offered literal translations and discussion. None of us are scholars on these poems or on ancient Tamil, so I can only claim that these translations are my attempt to make guideposts, in contemporary American poetry-ese, pointing to the sublime trapdoors embedded in these poems. These guideposts have helped me to find my own poems, too, by inspiring a sequence based on the landscapes and poetic devices of akam poetry. Pushing away the limits of my language has expanded my world a bit; thanks, Wittgenstein.

—A. Anupama


Translations from Kuruntokai, Ancient Indian Love Poetry


Poem from the purple-flowered hills

Talaivi says to her friend—

He swore “my heart is true.
I’ll never leave you.”

My lover from the hills,
where the manai creepers
sometimes mount the shoulders of elephants
asleep among the boulders,
promised this on that day
when he embraced my shoulders, making love to me.

Why cry, my dear friend?

Kuruntokai, verse 36


Poem from the fertile fields and fragrant trees

Talaivi says—

Don’t you think they have sparrows
wherever he has gone, with wings like faded water lilies,
bathing in the dung dust in the village streets
before pecking grain from the yards
and returning to their chicks in the eaves,
common as evening loneliness?

Kuruntokai, verse 46


Poem from the jasmine-filled woods

Talaivi says—

The rains have come and gone.
The millet grew and now is stubble
nibbled by stags while jasmine blossoms flourish
alongside, their buds unfolding to show white petals
like a wildcat’s smile.
Evening comes, scented with jasmine
bringing bees to the buds,
but see, he hasn’t come,
he who left for other riches.

Okkur Macatti
Kuruntokai, verse 220


Poem from the blue lotus seashore

Talaivi says to her friend—

My heart aches, my heart aches!
My eyelids burn from holding back these hot tears.
My love, who alone comforts me, is called unworthy
by even the moon. My heart aches.

Kamancer Kulattar
Kuruntokai, verse 4


Poem from the desert road

Talaivan says—

Fearlessly, my heart has departed
to embrace my beloved.
If its arms are too slack to hold her
what use is it?
The distances between us stretch long.
Must I think of the many forests
where deadly tigers rise up roaring
like the waves of the dark ocean
standing between us? I don’t dare.

Allur Nanmulla
Kuruntokai, verse 237


—Translated by A. Anupama


A. Anupama holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her career has spanned molecular biology, legal publishing, and orthopedic surgery textbooks in her search for beauty, truth, and the marrow of life. Her book Kali Sutra: Poems was a semi-finalist for Tupelo Press’s 2011 First or Second Book of Poetry Award. She lives in Nyack, New York.

Sep 082011

Erika Dreifus and her favourite reader

In keeping with the memories of dark times we share this week, here is a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay on writing stories after 9/11. Erika Dreifus casts an intelligently inquiring eye over the issues of politics in writing, political correctness, what used to be called the ethics of appropriation—in general the swirl of thoughts and inhibitions that somehow got in the way of writing about massive public tragedy in America. This essay was written just two years after that sunny September day. One wonders if things have changed, if these concerns still roil the conscience of young writers trying to grapple with the unspeakable or if they have learned to hear Albert Camus’ stern admonition, quoted by Erika below, “to forge themselves an art of living in times of catastrophe in order to be born a second time and to fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history.”

Erika Dreifus has published stories with connections to 9/11 in The Healing Muse, Midstream, and Mississippi Review Online, among others. Her story collection, Quiet Americans, was published by Last Light Studio in 2011. Erika is a contributing editor for The Writer magazine and Fiction Writers Review, and she serves on the editorial advisory board of J Journal: New Writing on Justice. She also publishes her own amazing online writing resource site, Practicing  Writing.This essay is a revised version of a paper presented at the “Why Write?” Conference held at Columbia University in New York City, 28-29 March 2003. The essay was published originally in Queen’s Quarterly 111/1 (Spring 2004). DG is grateful to Philip Graham for drawing his attention to Erika’s work.


Having previously earned a PhD in Modern French history, I was in my first semester of a low-residency MFA program in creative writing in September 2001. Before I left for work on Tuesday, September 11 (I was teaching at Harvard at the time, and I had a full day of interviewing freshmen interested in my seminar on historical fiction slated), I submitted a new short story for my online workshop (2 other students) and instructor’s review. So fiction-writing will, for me, remain inextricably linked with the events of that day.

I was born in Brooklyn, and although I’d been living in Massachusetts for many years, most of my nearest and dearest were in the metropolitan NYC area that day. The following semester, I found that 9/11 was creeping into several of the stories I was submitting to my workshop. I was shocked by some of the reactions that this work received, and I was flummoxed further by discussions I found elsewhere. I welcomed any and every opportunity to explore all of this. Hence, my interest in calls for papers and conferences, and my need to think through all of these issues in writing.

—Erika Dreifus



 By Erika Dreifus


I noticed an announcement in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It publicized a forthcoming panel at St Edward ‘s University in Austin, Texas, that would examine “Artistic Response to the September 11th Terrorist Attacks.” The announcement provided contact information. I sent e-mails to St Edward’s University. I could not attend the panel. But I wanted to know more.

I wanted to know more because “artistic response” to crisis in the public sphere – especially literary response to national and global trauma – has long fascinated me. From my undergraduate explorations of the intellectuel engagé to my own current work writing fiction I have not escaped the precedents, predicaments, and larger purposes surrounding “response.”

After September 11, 2001, these issues resonated in theory and practice. Sometimes it has seemed that I’ve spent nearly equal time, since then, writing fiction and arguing about it.

I’ve argued with colleagues and teachers, who objected to even the most carefully crafted allusions to the attacks in my fiction. Most surprising were the comments of one workshop classmate. Responding to one story I’d written six months after September 11, he wrote that while he, a Southerner, probably couldn’t understand “how you Northerners are dealing with [September 11], it really did have an effect on everyone. And personally, I am not ready to read short stories referring to [itl yet.”

After I’d recovered from seeing myself and my subject – rather than the actual work – faulted, I continued reading: “I feel like there should be some sort of grace period before it is ok to use that in fiction. It just doesn’t feel right. Like you’re trying to capitalize on that emotion … “

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Sep 062011


At the Duomo with the Giraffes


Siena’s Palio: A Medieval Horserace Turns Viral

Text and Photographs by Natalia Sarkissian


Twice a year, on July 2nd and August 16th, after a three-hour parade in Renaissance costume has unfolded, jockeys representing ten of Siena’s seventeen factions challenge each other in the Piazza del Campo. They race for a handmade banner—a palio—and for the honor its possession confers. This is the Palio, Siena’s famous horserace, dating from the Middle Ages.


Rai Television films the event


Piazza del Campo, August 2011


At each bi-annual showing, a hundred thousand bystanders from around the globe jam bleachers, balconies, rooftops, windows and the center of the shell-shaped piazza, cheering one faction or another.

Behind the 400 Euro Seats on the Piazza del Campo



Watching from the Piazza


Jockeys line their skittish horses between two ropes stretched across the track. When the rincorsa–the last horse–enters, the rope drops the racers tear away.



The jockeys careen around the Piazza perimeter three times at break-neck speed. Frequently horses crash into mattress-covered barriers at the right-hand curves of San Martino or the Casato.


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Sep 032011

Numéro Cinq marks the 10th anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center with the publication of this achingly poignant, sweetly human story by Philip Graham. In the year following the 9/11 attacks, Philip, as is his nature, twice traveled from his home in Illinois to New York to work as a volunteer near Ground Zero, in a part of the city that had always been shadowed by those mighty towers. Now there is only a shadow of a shadow, the city skyline permanently characterized by the absent profile, those absent lives. Out of that volunteer experience, this text evolved. Philip is a poet of ordinary life, the heroic quotidian of work, family, relationship and memory that is our common lot, and so his homage to 9/11 is built by the accretion of  over-lapping points of view, all leading inexorably to 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, when the first jet struck the towers. Naturally, the people he writes about are not thinking about tragedy and death. They are thinking mostly about ordinary problems—and loved ones and beauty. And the last sentence ends without a period, consciousness interrupted by what the reader always knows is coming.

Philip Graham and I have been friends for nearly 20 years. He is also a colleague at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, his latest being The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon.  In the fall of 2012 Braided Worlds, the second volume of a memoir of Africa (co-written with Alma Gottlieb) will be published by the University of Chicago Press.  He is a co-founder of the literary/arts journal Ninth Letter and currently serves as the nonfiction editor.  He teaches creative writing at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  “8:46,” an excerpt from a novella-in-progress, was originally published in 2007 in the Los Angeles Review (issue #4). His continuing series of short essays on the craft of writing can be read at




By Philip Graham


7:16  Jian keeps a steady pace along the Brooklyn Bridge walkway, taking in a morning sky that couldn’t be clearer, bluer, and as always she loves how the filigree of the bridge’s cable wires divides the New York skyline into little segments that change as she walks. At this rate, she’ll make it to her office near the top of the South Tower in no time, maybe thirty-five minutes. On a day like today, the views will be glorious.

She can feel the vibrations of the cars cruising along the roadway beneath her and the hum of their passing fills her ears—the bridge seems alive. Jian still can’t get over this route she takes each morning from her one-bedroom walkup to work, because the first time she’d really noticed the World Trade Center was during that party her mother and father had dragged her to, for the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge. Nearly twenty years ago.

They had rented a boat with some neighborhood friends for a floating party on the East River, the ideal spot to take in the promised fireworks display, but even so Jian didn’t want to be there. The whole outing was just one half of the same old pattern—one month, a visit to the Buddhist temple on Mott Street; the next, a trip to the Statue of Liberty. After this latest American Family Experience, Jian hoped the following Chinese Family Experience would at least be a Sunday feast of dim sum.

Jian hadn’t cared for the light rocking of the boat or the long long wait for the fireworks. “Hey, give us a smile,” her mother insisted, offering a wide grin as an example. Jian did her best to comply; after all, there was another adopted Chinese girl on the boat, the one with an American name. Stacy. It didn’t matter that Stacy’d been invited to keep Jian company and it didn’t matter that she wore a party dress as goofy as her name—Stacy was okay. Together they’d be able to weather all the grownup talk until the fireworks started, probably a million years from now.

The sun had set but still the light of day lingered, still no fireworks. Then, a silky whoosh, a burst in the sky, and a barrage began that was more impressive than any 4th of July Jian had ever seen: a roaring blaze of colors and patterns like the images of an enormous, angry kaleidoscope, and all of it echoed in the water as if flames floated on the waves. The same reflected patterns lit the windows of the skyscrapers bordering the river, even the twin towers looming behind them, the pinwheel bursts and flares coursing and scattering across those buildings’ glass facades. Finally, yellow-white filaments of fireworks shot from the length of the bridge’s causeway in an arc over the water—the Brooklyn Bridge had suddenly become a remarkable waterfall of light pouring down into the river, and from all the boats around her Jian could hear cries of awe echoing her own.

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