Aug 272010
 
Naton Leslie, Photo by Jennifer May

Here is a story by my old friend Naton Leslie, short story writer, essayist, poet, teacher & mad antiques collector extraordinaire. He lives down the road from me in Ballston Spa and teaches at Sienna College. This story is from his collection Marconi’s Dream which won the George Garrett Fiction Prize. I wrote a blurb for the book. It went like this:

Naton Leslie’s passionately detailed prose wrings meaning from the lives of Americans passed over by the go-go economics of the last thirty years, the working poor of the rust belt and the old upstate New York mill towns gone to seed. His characters are desperately trying to find love and dignity in the wreckage of a society where the old verities—honesty, hard work, fair dealing— don’t count for much any more.

The rather splendid photo above is reproduced here courtesy of Jennifer May who just published a book of author photos River of Words: Portraits of Hudson Valley Writers.

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Author’s Note

I’ve always been fascinated with depression-era stories, as they always contain a certain pathos and desperation.  Sometimes I they think enter the realm of mythos as well; the story of being served up your own pet rabbit on a dinner plate has been told to me by a number of people, and nearly always the same way: the somber faces of the parents; the silent dinner as everyone digs in and devours Thumper etc. While my father also told this story, as reported in the following piece, he had other, more singular tales to tell.

—Naton Leslie

 

My father always laid claim to a Dickensian childhood, to hear him tell it. And he did, often, whenever some little triumph or tragedy entered our pale, inflated lives. When he delivered newspapers, long before breakfast, he’d pick apples along the way to keep from truly expiring from hunger. He had been close to death many times—but this is not about death.

This is about the movies. My father swept the movie theater floor for the change he’d find, and for a free ticket to the next show. Then he’d see Flash Gordon, the news from The War, Roosevelt relaxed in his seat, shaking hands with other men my father called great, or, if he was lucky, white-hatted men who finally gunned down their black-hatted foes—simple justice, simple myth-making when there was a real enemy, when there was a right and a wrong, a drunk and sober, a dirty and clean, a hungry and full, a happy and sad. On this he was adamant. His days were times of extremes, delineated like black and white film, not muddy and imperfect and phony, with our life-like living color. It was damned shame, he’d say, the way things turned out.

But my father is telling this story, mind you, not me. I’m not part of this story, or maybe simply a witness, an ear. I don’t even have to tell this story because you already know it. Your parents had their own snow drifts to navigate when they walked, often barefoot or at least bareheaded (come-on, you’d say) to school, their own pet rabbits slaughtered and served up on their own depression plates—that’s another story he told, too, and I’m sure he didn’t make it up because it’s happened to so many other people.

One time, at the Orpheum theater (a great name, I always thought, for the location of my father’s own Stygian stables), he was finished sweeping up the candy wrappers and popcorn, and the manager offered him a ticket to a show, but not to the next movie the next night because Gene Autry would be making a personal appearance, before the opening of a new feature film—even the big stars did that kind of stuff back then, he said. They weren’t primadonnas, like now. Well, my father would say, the theater owner knew he’d have no trouble filling the house with paying customers and didn’t want to waste a seat on him. He was sorry.

My father, the poor waif who swept up after the paying customers, was a great fan of all cowboys, especially those like Roy Rogers, but he tried to hide his disappointment as he left, walking home in tennis shoes that were both left feet because he’d bought them himself from the second-hand store because he’d needed them and there was a war, you know, and rationing. He tried to hold his chin up anyway, because he was strong, even back then. So he walked home, in the snow, I’m sure there was snow; there was always snow when you had to walk back then, and he left footprints that looked like they were made by someone you’d call Hopalong Cassidy, who was my father’s hero, though Cassidy had both left and right boots. He got home early so he could do his chores, for which he never received so much as a thanks, let alone a nickel, and then he’d go to bed early so he could deliver the paper the next day. It was Sunday, and the papers were extra heavy. A real burden.

But the manager had a soft heart, a common ailment back then, along with a stiff upper lip, tight fists and something my father simply called “backbone,” though I never knew if it meant you couldn’t sit down or stand up. The next day my father showed up after the show to sweep, but this time he was wearing a toy six-gun, a genuine Wyatt Earp, pearl-handled, hog-legged gun my father often described, his only toy as far as I could tell, which he bought with the sweat of his brow, I tell you. Nothing was given to him, not like children today, he’d say. But how I wanted that cap gun, all metal and nearly real.

But this is not about me. This is my father’s story. There he was, doing his job, when he heard a voice call out his name, and the owner walked down the aisle with another man, and as sure as you’re born it was Gary Cooper, tall and silent, my father’s favorite cowboy, asking him if he’d like to get a drink down at the soda fountain when he finished his work. This was better than seeing him before the movie. This was my father as a boy and his hero, Roy Rogers, walking down the street, the two of them, with everybody watching as they sat at the counter and had a fountain Coke and a hamburger too, and he usually didn’t get meat more than once a week—just my father and Jimmy Stewart or someone, I can’t remember who, but I know he was proud, and there was no snow, and he was wearing his six gun and everyone was finally envious of him. When the story ended we knew we’d never feel as proud as he did that afternoon. And we knew he spoke the truth.

—Naton Leslie

Aug 242010
 

Sex and poetry don’t often go together, to my mind at least–you know, not automatically anyway, although maybe, sometimes.  (Well, what do I know. Poets are so quiet. You never know what they’re thinking.) My friend Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, a Toronto novelist and story writer, smacks them together violently along with a hybrid motor car and a tale of old love in this new story “The Longest Destroyed Poem.” Kathryn’s two novels and her first collection of stories can be found at Amazon. Look her up.

dg

 

The Longest Destroyed Poem

By Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer



When Rosa saw him after all those years her first thought was how fleshily ugly Victor had become, and yet, if she was honest to herself, he hadn’t ever been much of a looker. He was a poet. And the second thing she thought was how easy it would have been all those years back to get him in one of his gin sleeps, and suture his mouth tightly shut. She imagined the semi-circular needle and the thick surgical thread, black and angry, and the coarse knots, like waxed midges, at regular intervals, but of course she was, in those days, not equipped with expertise in any field much less doctoring.

Victor noticed her in that split second, too, and he knew what Rosa was up to, for his face changed, channel surfing from neutral smug — well, this was his everyday face — to impending doom. The eyes dilated and he reeled ever so slightly backward. Rosa was driving. Coming up through the Annex on her way home from the hospital. It was primal instinct that led her to accelerate, and a surge in adrenaline after that, that — she could practically feel the dopamine firing her into focus — had her steering the Prius up between two parked cars over the curb and, then, right into Victor’s stomach. Whoop!

Their relationship had been a competition. Who could drink the most (him), who could over-extend orgasm (her) — like that. They were practically athletes when it came to domestic games. And now it was like the car ate him right up. Rosa paused, pulling her foot off the gas pedal, and then hitting it again, which bucked the car forward. She was excited to see him lift up, a test dummy, and fly along with the chassis of her ecovehicle through the plate glass window of the East-West Futon store.


Twenty-five years. He would be sixty-something, and she damn well wasn’t revealing her age. She looked fabulous. Better than back then, when she’d thought she wanted to be an artist, and Victor had made a point — she realized this as she realized many many things, that is she realized it in retrospect — of dropping into the conversation — the one she hadn’t actually been having with him, because she was instead focused almost solely on the fact his much younger roommate had a hand under the blanket her crotch also happened to be under — that he was off to bed early so he could work on a poem he’d been having trouble with.

A poem, she had thought, one he’s been having trouble with, like most men would say of their carburetor, or a girlfriend, things you really could fix by hitting them with the right sort of wrench or else a witty comment. But a poem. It hadn’t occurred to her that one worked on these. To her they arose genius born on the onion pages of a Norton’s Anthology.

Yet through the moist fug of foreplay, she had heard this little gem of information, and even though what the much younger roommate had been doing was more or less exactly what she wished for to happen, she discreetly pulled away and said she needed to go to the washroom, and where was it? And then Rosa followed her pheromonal imperative up the stairs to rake the door gently with her new manicure.


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Aug 222010
 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne. To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.

The personal essay as a form is relatively new to me; I enrolled at VCFA in the area of Creative Nonfiction, in fact, without a complete understanding of what the term means, and after my first residency I found I wasn’t the only one. In asking CNF faculty, I found they frequently brought up the terms “literary journalism” and “personal essay.” They almost always referred us to Phillip Lopate’s introductory essay from The Art of the Personal Essay for basic traditions of the personal essay form, and I referred to Mark Kramer’s “Breakable Rules of Literary Journalism” from the Literary Journalism anthology, which I also teach in my Media Writing classes. I’ve found that, while my media writing (and teaching) tends to follow the rules of literary journalism, the work I’ve been most interested in learning and doing recently has been personal essay. So, it makes sense that I would want to learn the traditions and conventions of the form, in the context of both my own writing and the CNF genre.

While Lopate’s introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay is a perfectly apt summation of the form for the general reader, I had my worries as a writer about applying a descriptive list of formal attributes to my own writing (and reading!). One name, though, kept coming up in both the introduction and my conversations with other people writing, teaching, and learning the personal essay form, a man who died more than 400 years ago, whom Lopate considers so important to the personal essay that he gave him his own section titled “Fountainhead” – Michel de Montaigne. I hadn’t read him since taking an undergraduate Renaissance literature course, and the only thing I remember is liking the fact that he was the only Renaissance writer we read who wasn’t obsessed with the nature of God. So last semester I read Montaigne’s three essays in the Lopate anthology, including the 54-page “On Some Verses of Virgil.” After reading all three of them, but especially “On Some Verses…,”I started to realize why Montaigne is so frequently cited, and – I’m not ashamed to admit it – I decided I want to write like him.

Which is, of course, a fool’s errand. But, at the least, I’ve decided to use his work as a model. So, for each of the five months of this semester, I’ll identify a technique Montaigne uses, show said technique at work in at least one other personal essay, and attempt an explanation of its purpose and effects. Besides my obvious hope that it will somehow ingrain some of these things in my own writing, I hope this series will be helpful to other writers struggling to come to grips with the personal essay form. And yes, I’m making this up as I go– I’ll be reading Montaigne’s Collected Essays each month as I go, annotating, denotating (okay, denoting), compiling, and analyzing as I go, god help me.

This month’s entry is on a central concern to most non-fiction writing (perhaps more so than fiction, but not exclusive to non-fiction) – the integration of “big ideas” with first-person narrative.  Montaigne does this masterfully in all three of his essays I’ve annotated so far, but none so seamlessly and extensively as the 54-page “On Some Verses of Virgil.” I’ll describe the macro pattern first, then for the sake of brevity I’ll  look at this pattern in the first two pages of the essay. After that, I’ll look at how Joan Didion employs this technique in her essay “Goodbye to All That.”

All 54 pages of “On Some Verses” generally eschew an overarching narrative, instead integrating, in order according to the amount  of words Montaigne gives to each, the following three elements:

  1. Personal anecdote, self-revelation, and opinion
  2. Aphorism, advice, and universal wisdom
  3. Direct quotations from other authors

For now I’ll concentrate specifically on 1 and 2, as 3 will probably merit its own essay later this semester. It’s also important here to note the difference between opinion and aphorism. In the (more frequent) cases where Montaigne gives his personal opinion, he generally uses the first-person and employs humor and winking self-deprecation; when using aphorism, he switches to the omniscient third person and the tone shifts to a weighty circumspection.  The fact that the personal material takes up the most space doesn’t necessarily betray a preference on Montaigne’s part – though it probably does – but rather  a necessity of the form. Montaigne’s forbear Cicero, quoted here from John O’Banlon’s Reorienting Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story, posited that narrative is “the fountainhead from which the whole remainder of the speech flows.” Most readers will attest that a story is more interesting than an argument, and the arguments people respond to most are the ones grounded in personal narrative, whether theirs or someone else’s.

Montaigne starts “On Some Verses” big:

To the extent that useful thoughts are fuller and more solid, they are also more absorbing and more burdensome. Vice, death, poverty, disease, are grave subjects and grieve us. We should have our soul instructed in the means to sustain and combat evils and in the rules for right living and right belief, and should often arouse it and exercise it in fine study. But for a soul of the common sort this must be done with some respite and with moderation; it goes mad if it is continually tense. [58-59]

You’ve probably already noticed that he’s meta-writing here, identifying and addressing some of the issues I’ve just pointed out that a personal essayist faces when writing, and reading  – we want to read and write important things – but too much weight at once will crush all but the most interested readers. (Edie Brickell’s most memorable words, to me, were “Shove me into shallow water, before I get too deep.”) Aware of this, Montaigne spends a lengthy paragraph confessing that his own body is failing him, summarizing in one confessional sequence how he went from, “In my youth [needing] to warn and urge myself to stick to my duty,” to his present state, where “I defend myself against temperance as I once did against sensual pleasure.” He continues in this vein for several pages afterward, describing – sometimes with humor, sometimes with a sigh – what a drag it is getting old, punctuating his personal confessions with aphorism and advice like “Wisdom has its excesses, and has no less need of moderation than does folly,” and “Let childhood look ahead, old age backward.” [59] In the course of 54 pages, Montaigne covers disease, depression, women’s roles, sex, love, vice, religion, fatherhood, and literary criticism, maintaining an obvious  self-awareness as a writer throughout.

Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” written roughly 400 years after “On Some Verses,” also mixes personal anecdote with universal statement; it also, at least in part, covers similar thematic territory. One of the essay’s major tropes is a Blakean focus on innocence and experience. I’ll focus on this here in context of the essay’s relationship to Montaigne’s. The innocence (or youth) vs. experience motif runs through literally every page of Didon’s essay, intermingling with the other motifs as well as narrative snapshots of her life in New York:

…one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before .(681)

She then tells of arriving at Idlewild, hearing a song on a jukebox on the Upper East Side that she thinks must be about her, and mistaking the Triboro Bridge for the Brooklyn Bridge from her apartment window in Queens. The most aphoristic statement of the essay is perhaps the one I can most endorse personally:

It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young. (682)

She segues from this into a story of a party in December which she goes to with an older male friend who has slept with five women and owes money to two men from the last party they went to, giving narrative attestation to her previous aphorism.

…I was in love with New York. I do not mean “love” in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never loves anyone quite that way again. (683)

After this, she tells of eating a peach on Lexington Avenue with the lush detail of a first kiss.

I knew that it would cost something sooner or later – because I did not belong there, did not come from there – but when you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have high emotional balance. (683)

There a delicious ambiguity to this statement – will the peach cost her something later, or is it something else? She recounts charging food at Bloomingdale’s in order to eat on $70 a week, looking in the windows of brownstones while thinking about she ways she would make herself rich, meeting extravagant people at extravagant parties, and watching the holidays and years go by.

New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. To think of “living” there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not “live” at Xanadu. (684)

Which leads into her observation that for her first year she lived entirely in other people’s apartments, and after that she had a longstanding aversion to buying furniture, eventually leaving all of her belongings in her old apartment to move into a “monastic” apartment on 75th Street, where her new husband finally moved actual furniture when they were married.

That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all the promises would be kept, that some things are in fact irrevocable and that it had counted after all, every evasion and every procrastination, every mistake, every word, all of it. (685)

This leads her to recount minute, seemingly unrelated flashes of memory, mnemonic smells, touches, sensations.

I suppose that a lot of us who have been in New York have the same scenes on our home screens. (685-6)

After this, she transposes a panoply of sleepless nights with friends at different bars with the comfort of Chock Full O’ Nuts coffee at her midtown job writing advertising copy, then describes the comforting loneliness of housesitting her friend’s apartment in the West Village with no one calling her, to the very end going to every party she was invited to.

You will have perceived by now that I was not one to profit by the experience of others, that it was a very long time indeed before I stopped believing in new faces and began to understand the lesson in that story, which was that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the fair. (687)

And here she tells of everything seeming old, like she’d heard it all before, avoiding certain parts of the city, hurting people she cared about, insulted those she didn’t, crying compulsively “in elevators and in taxis and in Chinese laundries,” contemplating the final step to becoming a New Yorker – getting a therapist – but getting married instead, and leaving New York with him.

All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore. (688)

It wasn’t until I strung these lofty statements together and summarized the stories between that I discovered the road maps they gave to the succession of short narratives that might seem to have only intuitive coincidence with each other. In fact, each story reinforces the aphoristic point made by these epic statements, and allows her to be open-ended about the ending – in fact, seems to leave her no choice but open-endedness, as that’s the structure she set up.

—John Proctor

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a four-part series of essays on Montaigne.

To read the entire series, CLICK HERE.

Aug 192010
 

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It’s a pleasure to offer here this shocking and deeply comic little story by my former student and recent VCFA graduate Jason  DeYoung (above with his son Harrison). “Mariska’s Tongue” was originally published in Gargoyle, No. 53 (2008).  It reads like a cross between a segment from The Twilight Zone and something Donald Barthelme or Julio Cortazar could have written. Chief among its charms is the evidence herein of a deeply disturbed mind at work (would that we could all find our inner cannibal and let it out on the page).

dg


Mariska’s Tongue

by Jason DeYoung



When I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to have it.  Tongue. When the waiter came to fill my water glass, I asked him what kind of tongue was it. “Human,” he said. I believe I gasped a little like some expectation had been fulfilled.  I was not nonplus, however.  The waiter had answered curtly, and when he picked up my water glass, he parried my eyes, and I sensed he didn’t want to give any explanation for this item.

In general, on a menu the indelicate items appear below what are the best things at the restaurant, maybe in the lower left column or tucked in among more mundane, unsatisfying things—squash salad, yuck. There is a rule I have: Order what the restaurant specializes in.  For instance, if it’s a steakhouse, order steak.  I do not stray from this rule, typically.

Everything conspired against ordering the tongue, the listing for which occupied a section of the menu that fully conveyed that it wasn’t the restaurant’s specialty.  The tongue dish wasn’t cheap either at $25.00 a serving, and I was short on cash.

Looking up, I saw that the waiter was still filling my water goblet; the dark hair on his rock-colored fingers looked like hunched, over-fed horseflies, and his eyes were narrowed on the goblet’s sliver-clear rim.  “Do you recommend the tongue?” I asked, when he was finished pouring.  “For some,” he said.  He was terse and respectful.  He turned on his heels and limped back into the kitchen.

I looked again at the un-dramatic listing for tongue, and then put my menu down and sipped a little of the ice-water.  How could I not take this opportunity to have human tongue?  My god, what would it be like, taste like? What would it be served with?  I looked back to the menu.  It would come with a side tomato salad and wild rice.

When the waiter returned and asked if I was ready to order, I said, “I’ll have the tongue.”

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