Apr 012014


Herewith a superb interview with Victoria Redel, the brilliant and prolific author of stories, novels and poems, also a former initiate of Captain Fiction himself, the irrepressible and undaunted Gordon Lish. Redel’s most recent books include Woman Without Umbrella (poems) and a story collection Make Me Do Things, both reviewed in NC. Conducting the interview is Jason Lucarelli, our resident Lish expert, conversant in all things Lishian, author of the foundational essays “The Consecution of Gordon Lish: An Essay on Form and Influence” and “Using Everything: Pattern Making in Gertrude Stein’s ‘Melanctha,’ Robert Walser’s ‘Nothing at All,’ and Sam Lipsyte’s ‘The Wrong Arm’.”


What is “story”? What is “necessary fiction”? What’s the difference?

It’s funny, really, that it should seem at all a daunting question—what is story?—when each day, many times a day, we hear stories, we tell stories. We make artifice of our lives almost immediately—You can’t believe what happened at work today…I heard the most amazing exchange in line at the supermarket…You’re not going to believe this but…We shape narratives inventing bits of dialogue, implying motives though describing gestures—what someone did or didn’t do, what was or wasn’t said. We shape narrative—eclipsing, conflating, inflating events, facts, and characters—because, instinctually, we know when to speed up or hold back. We want our listeners to listen with urgency and so we engage engagingly.

What we know everyday is this human urgency to express the uncanny. And we really all appreciate that family member, that friend, that stranger at the next table who pays a story out slowly, circling back through strange phrases, observations, the teller who takes us down a weird circuitous path and we go along—wary, excited—because we can’t figure out where it leads and yet the teller has made it essential that we follow. The story can be ragingly funny or plain spoken, quiet or raucous. Oddly every method of telling works if it feels authentic. Authentic—seems like an abstraction but it’s not. We are authenticity hounds, sniffing for fraudulence all day, everyday.

We know the difference between the story that never stirs us—through shape or language—and the story that jolts us further awake and alive. Somehow the witness, the telling, the engagement of the speaker feels original. By original I don’t mean that they’ve used a new-fangled anything. I don’t mean they’ve worn a clown’s nose or written in Pig Latin. By original I mean that the speaker has allowed herself to look and speak without yielding to received vision or language. It is being told then exactly as it must be told. And we listen; we can’t stop listening because we feel that we stand the chance of living better of being changed. You’re not going to believe this but…and just sometimes, right away, we feel something stunningly possible in that simple even over-used phrase. Despite skepticism, resistance to being changed, fear of being hood-winked or manipulated—right away, we inch closer to the speaker, we hold our fork to our lips, we grip the book closer to allow something new to happen to us.

I’ve told this teaching story before to students but I’ll try to tell it again. I was invited to teach a weeklong workshop at a university in the Midwest. I had students write every night and each day we’d read in class. I kept trying to get them to identify sentences in each other’s work that were essential and that were necessary. They could do it. Ears were well tuned. But they found it harder to identify a true sentence in their own writing. I sent the group home every night saying, “How did it sound in your kitchen? What is a necessary object for you?” One woman, a Spanish Literature Professor, dauntingly the most learned in the room, came in day after day with sentences, with paragraphs of prose that were so god-awful, so full of bullshit, phony, fancy-assed sentences. And I kept saying, “Nope, nope, not this.” On the fourth day the Professor of Spanish Literature came in clearly agitated. I thought, “Yikes, I’ve gone too far and really pissed this woman off.”

Then what happened was extraordinary. She began to read a piece about a blue bowl in her mother’s kitchen. The language was syntactically like nothing I’d heard before. Was it actually even English? Who cares, it was beyond gorgeous. When she finished, when we could finally breathe, one of us said, “Read that again.” After her second—or was it her third reading—I asked, “What happened? What was that?” She said, “I almost did not come to class today.” I said, “But you knew, you knew.” And she didn’t answer. “Where did that language come from?” I asked. She was quiet, looking more agitated than ever. It turned out that she came from a crevice in the ArkansasMountains where the language seemed at once to have twists of Elizabethan English and French. She was the first in her family to leave the area, to go to college, to learn to speak “proper” English. Well, she’d actually gone further, now was a Spanish Professor. She told us that after she wrote the piece, she felt certain that her PhD would be stripped away, her tenure taken away. It made her actually feel ill. That gorgeous, original paragraph of literature felt more dangerous than she could manage. She felt exposed, betrayed.

The press of a human heart up against the page. Language in necessary disequilibrium, in jeopardy, most of all with itself. That blue bowl, her mother’s bowl. The collision of event and character and language. The possibility of seeing into another human heart. “Well that’s just what some folks will do,” a neighbor said to Flannery O’Conner after reading some of her stories. That is a necessary fiction.


In a BOMB interview with Honor Moore, you talk about how “collage is the only way that [you’ve] figured out how to write something long in fiction.” But I also see this strategy at play in your short fiction too. The elliptical movement that was your vehicle in your early stories, specifically in Where The Road Bottoms Out, seems dialed down, or, at least, more subtly employed in Make Me Do Things. How do you see yourself—as of late, and in your new collection—exploring new narrative techniques?

Maybe it’s something I’ve borrowed from poetry. The poem can move by association—by image or language patterning to accrue a larger sense and a larger mystery. The stanza can often signal that kind of leap. So can the line. Extending this kind of patterning—image and language—in fiction provides you with another narrative strategy. In the novel I used collage by which I mean I wrote sections in chunks, sections that were linked to other sections by image or place or situation. I didn’t know how exactly to think about ordering initially. But I knew that once I’d created a thread I had to use it again. That was how I created plot. It made sense to have that kind of fragmentation because of the narrator’s state of mind. With the second novel I was confident that I would do it differently. More of a straight shot. No such luck. Novels have proven different altogether—maybe more compositionally like a poem.

When I began to write fiction I discovered, in a wholly new way, possibilities within the sentence. I discovered the joys of syntax. This seems ass-backwards; I should have found syntax first as poet. It seems that it was simply developmental, I was at last seeing what the music inside a sentence, the intelligence inside a sentence, the personality within the sentence might be. In those first stories things seemed possible and more than possible it felt essential at times to have three prepositional phrases jammed up together, to take the sentence in one direction and then press it into another direction. I began to consider what I could do with postponement or preponement of, for example, the subject of a sentence. I love that book of stories if, for nothing else, how dizzy and blissed out I was with just how to construct story sentence by sentence.

But how I went about the composition of a poem and a short story was kind of different. I usually write a draft of a poem in one sitting. And then, subsequently begin to mess around, add, subtract, rearrange, merge it with other poems, turn it bottom to top. With short stories I write pretty much sentence by sentence by paragraph by paragraph. The revision happens line by line so that when I get to the end I’m not revising. I’m usually done. I take that back. I often have written it too tightly and need to go back in and dilate from within.

You asked about the first book of stories and the second—which were published 18 years apart with novels and poetry collections in between. As you can see in this book I’m pretty interested in a close third person—I wanted to have a third person voice that’s as close to a first person POV as I could get. At least that’s true for a bunch of the stories. You say they are less elliptical. Are they? I probably move in real time more in these stories. And I slow down, wanting to drill into a moment longer. But I wonder if some of the shift has more to do with age. Many more of the stories in Where The Road Bottoms Out focus on children—that collective voice of children that occurs in many stories. In Make Me Do Things the focus—even when there are kids in the stories—seems closer to the adults.

But maybe, it is all developmental—a lifelong apprenticeship with language, character, how what is story. And mixed in with that are the particular fascinations—conscious and unconscious—at any given moment.


You write “sentence by sentence by paragraph by paragraph” but in that fight to get to the sentence, how do you navigate between sense and sound? How soon do you squash possibility and clamp down on character, incident, and story? For example, recently, your contemporary and friend, Noy Holland said, “I go word by word by ear for as long as I can, according to my awareness of what I’ve said and did not mean to say…The ordering impulse is crucial but I don’t want it to be dominant or inhibiting. When it’s dominant the terms we commonly use—character, voice, plot, setting—begin to make sense; the story bleeds out; it’s anybody’s.”

I think I understand your question, Jason. And I believe I understand what Noy is getting at. A single sentence could potentially spawn many potential next sentences. Sometimes it is daunting. And the challenge is to find the one that is truest—not only true with respect to the linguistics and the acoustics. But the sentence has to move forward character, stance, action, and do so with inevitability and risk. It wants to complicate the mystery. Poets talk about sound and sense, Pope’s the “sound must be an echo to the sense.” Honestly, this all makes the writing seem so much more laborious than it really is.


How do you view your evolution as a writer of fiction, and how has your growth as a poet influenced your narrative tendencies in fiction?

My hope in these new stories is probably not unlike the hope I’ve always had in writing to push into the difficult places. Sure, that has something to do with the dark places of hearts and minds. But I’m also interested in Joy—the ways we shun it, why we fear joy. And why in midst of real happiness we conspire to fuck it up. I suppose how we understand bravery shifts with age and experience. One of my internal cajoling’s has been—you have permission—which on the page can mean permission to be plain spoken or exorbitant, permission to say what feels dangerous to say and, almost more importantly, to find language that isn’t worn thin, to have the permission to make the language singular. But right now I also find myself interested in the ways I can bend and keep bending inside the story to dig up something I don’t know. Which, heaven knows, is most days most things. What else and what else and what else is right here, right now. Because, of course, everything is right there, all the old hurts and hopes, all the new ones and all the invented convolutions of the current mind. I love the way in our dark moment we say hilarious things. I am interested in the way we bungle things up. Despite our certain efforts to get it right.

You ask about my evolution as a writer. Probably a writer is the worst person to try to identify her evolution. There’s the question of fascinations—with certain images, with kinds of situations. Sometimes I fear that I’m writing the same kind of story over and over, walking around some few subjects that emerge again and again, even when I imagine I’m breaking into new turf. Okay, maybe that’s simply that we can’t escape our deep concerns, our central objects. In this new story collection, people have noticed the last story, “Ahoy,” saying something different is happening in that story. Maybe I should be bummed out that every story doesn’t seem to break new ground but I confess excitement because it’s the last story I finished for the collection. So to feel that I broke into something new there feels hopeful. I’m not sure if others mean new subject or new form, I don’t know if I care. Probably, it would frighten me too much to look closely at my evolution. Where have I slackened? Where am I repeating old tricks? Why do so many of my characters behave in kind of obsessive ways?

As for how poetry connects with the fiction, I’m not sure. I used to maintain that they originated from the same impulse, the same desire to experiment in language, to render and make witness to the world. But I’m less certain of this now.


May I ask if you, when you write as a poet or a fiction writer, do you ever find yourself responding as a fiction writer to the pieces you’ve written as a poet, or vice versa?

Wow, your question makes me sound like a strange and divided person. Honestly, I don’t think it works that way. The work is the work and you try to come at it with a rigorous sense of possibility. It’s always a balance, right? On the one side to detect lapses, opportunities not taken by failure of sight or patience or heart. And on the other side is keep the composition playful so that you allow for accident and the unconscious to emerge. That’s true in whatever form one works.

But now that I’ve reread your question and wonder if what you’re asking is do I ever take on similar subject in fiction and in poetry? And, I suppose here the answer is yes. Not intentionally. But because ultimately I am not such a divided creature I’d like to believe that different forms allow me to come at my interests, obsessions, concerns from differing angles.


In “He’s Back,” a father comes home to his wife and son together in the tub. This bathtime, a way of being rather than a common nightly occurrence, has accumulated into a breaking point inside the narrator, who’s put off by the constant bathing. He questions the closeness between mother and son (“she was no doubt letting him look at the whole thing”), becomes jealous (“there was hardly a moment she would let him have alone with the boy”), and finally annoyed to the point of action (“He would teach them both a thing or two”). While this story seems to touch on familiar thematic territory for you (the nature of family and familial relationships), you chose the first-person male point of view. In certain stories, can the choice between the gender of a narrator propel the drama?

The story “He’s Back” arrived—as many stories will—with an initiating image. A father coming home to his wife and child who are in the tub. It’s not all that strange an image. All across the world, on any given evening or morning a parent is showering or bathing with a child. Not strange or scandalous. Easier to get in that shower to soap Junior. But what I glimpsed in that initiating moment is a feeling—also common—to come into a room and see your child and spouse engage in anything—a game, a conversation, a book—and feel out of their orbit. Feel displaced by that beautiful, exclusive place a parent and child might occupy for a moment. And even as we see the beauty of the moment, happy for their closeness, at the love and pleasure they share, we feel excluded. We feel jealous. This complex rub interests me in fiction. That displacement, real or imagined, interests me. You ask does the gender propel the narrative? One could absolutely imagine a mother displaced. It happens all the time. But in this story the triangulation is rendered from the man’s point of view and I hope it is specific and particular enough to feel that it is not an interchangeable voice, it’s not a woman. Triangulation always interests me; it is inherently dramatic. Spend any time with two parents and a kid and you’ll notice the pushes and pulls in every direction. Territorial displacement can shift ever so minutely and it is felt profoundly. That is true in marriages, in friendships, in parent/child relations.  And how jealousy manifests, well that’s endlessly interesting and usually not simple. The great challenge for people everyday is not to use a third person as protection or weapon against someone they love.

I didn’t set out to write a collection that featured writing from men and from women’s points of view but clearly it happened. It makes some sense (at least retrospectively) because no gender seems to have the prize for blundering personal lives or for trying to make sense and manage a life.


In between Where The Road Bottoms Out and the publication of Make Me Do Things, you published poetry, novels, and continued to publish short fictions. Can you talk a bit about your process in assembling this new collection? For example, “He’s Back” seems like an orphan of your first collection, and, in fact, I believe the story predates all other stories in the collection. What criteria did you use to decide which stories would make the cut?

You’re right that “He’s Back” is an older story. It predates Loverboy. And I suppose has some connections to Loverboy, or at least shows a bit of my path of inquiry that I had not exhausted. It was written around the same time as “Stuff” and “Third Cycle” and “The Horn”. The stories in this collection span from those stories to “Ahoy” which was the last story that I wrote. But to confuse things, I’d written some pages of “Ahoy” years ago and then couldn’t figure my way and left it. I remember interviewing Grace Paley some years ago. Grace had just had a story published in that week’s New Yorker. She told me it was one she’d begun a decade before and that she’d put those first pages in a folder which had the stories she couldn’t get right or finish. Her dud folder. She said that she often went to the folder, pulled out a story and, reading the pages, thought, “Hey, that’s not bad.” And right away started editing and playing with it and writing a bit more. It was so different than the way I worked but, boy, I remembered it. And, well, those opening pages were something I’d looked at more than once in the intervening years. Then last year I thought, I want that story. I want to figure it out, to figure him out.

There were other stories that didn’t make the cut. I’d keep them in the mix for awhile, mostly to make me feel good that I was close to a finished collection. But when I’d write a new story, I’d let another go. And when the story was knocked out, I’d feel relieved. What’s the criteria? If I can still feel surprised by a story. If I feel there’s sufficient language or sufficient true hard looking. If I don’t think I was faking somehow. I know there’s a lot of different tones in this book. Maybe some would feel critical of that—I don’t know—maybe it shows a lack of consistent music. But I like the variation. I want it. Hopefully, others do too.


As a teacher, how do you instruct students who are interested in reconciling the differences between fiction and poetry in their own work? Do you have a list of writers you cite as lyrically inclined, yet who still stick close to story?

There are so many interesting prose writers who have great density of language, a real lyricism in their work. Hello, Christine Schutt. Hello, Dawn Raffel. Hello, Michael Ondaatje. I teach their work in poetry classes. Others too. Anne Michaels who wrote Fugitive Pieces, a book I love. I teach Robert Frost in fiction classes.

The lyrical fiction writer (student) has to keep remembering not to get so lost in language that the importance of a dramatic situation, of an instigating problem is forgotten. The key is to keep swerving, letting language become part of the dramatic insistence. Otherwise, it all spins into pretty. We lose sight of characters.


Dawn Raffel and Diane Williams edited a story or two in your new collection, if I’m not mistaken. Can you speak about the differences or similarities in editing styles between these two friends and former Lish students? At what stage of a story might you allow these particular readers to read one of your pieces?

Yes, Dawn edited a story and so did Diane. Actually, Diane published two stories from this collection. One in NOON and the other in an issue of StoryQuarterly. I trust both their judgment so implicitly that I think I took the suggestions both gave. Dawn had two suggestions that were a function of hearing an off-ness in word choice. Dawn has a great, uncanny ear and, well, she was right.

As for when I show things…I don’t show stories early. In fact, not till I’ve got them as done as I can get them. My agent, Bill Clegg, is a great reader and he pushed on some of the last stories. Finding moments where he’d felt I’d lost nerve and gone an easier route. He was right. I knew it instantly. And I could even recall the failure of nerve. So it was good to go back and carve a tougher route.


You were quoted as once saying, “Everything you need to know about the next line in a story is actually present in the words of the sentence that preceded it.” Phrased another way, Amy Hempel’s way: “You do what you do because of what is prior.” Obviously, this is something Gordon Lish preached to his students, but it’s also, I’ve noticed, a phrase that his students, who now teach, seem to preach to their students. Why is this compositional strategy so powerful? What has this recursive principle taught you about story and the degrees of so-called story?

I simply cannot imagine anyone who has truly listened to Gordon Lish speak of writing not teaching a recursive principle. Gordon Lish spoke more persuasively and generously about composition than anyone I’ve ever listened to. I’m betting that you could walk into a class taught by Amy Hempel, Mark Richard, Christine Schutt, Dawn Raffel, Noy Holland, Ben Marcus, Peter Christopher (God rest his soul), Sheila Kohler, Patricia Lear, Rick Whitaker, Sam Lipsyte, Lily Tuck, and the list continues on and on of those who have gone on to write and teach—the notion of the prior would be, as you say, preached. This principle, once grasped, is essential. And once grasped, you see it in all stories. This is because story is composed. It is made. If you think of this composition as a weave, a fabric, then it makes complete, natural sense that you are pulling threads through from beginning to end. And those threads—call them objects, call them rhetorical elements, call them syntactical events, call them parts of the sentence—all need to be utilized. Do you knit? If you knit you know that you can’t drop a stitch unintentionally without creating a hole in the garment. Same deal with story. Why would you want to forget any element that is prior? What is prior provides the deeper mystery. What is prior provides what can—no—what must be unpacked. You go vertical with it, not just forward. What is prior is what informs the sound of the story. It is the mind of the story. It’s important, Jason, to realize that recursive writing does not create any specific sound or mind. What is prior presents the terms for what is ahead. Look, going back to my knitting analogy. If—for god knows what design reason—you made a garment with an intentional dropped stitch in the first rows. You’d probably want to create drop patterning throughout the garment. It might actually have been unintentional. But by noticing it, repeating it, shifting from one dropped stitch to three dropped stitches you take that which was error and make a rightness of it. A great sweater, maybe. Maybe not. Which is also to say that just being recursive does not make a story. This is where swerve comes in. This is where actually making sure you’ve plunked yourself down in a worthy domain that provides friction and jeopardy and dramatic possibility.

Look at any writer you admire and I’ll bet you a good sum that is there is this weave I’m describing. This is how patterning begins to occur in story and in the novel. It means that the architecture of the work is inevitably built from local materials as it were. I could really go on about this. But I’ll chill out and shut up.

—Victoria Redel & Jason Lucarelli


Victoria Redel is the author of four books of fiction (Make Me Do Things, The Border of Truth, Loverboy, and Where The Road Bottoms Out) and three books of poetry (Woman Without Umbrella, Swoon, and Already The World). Her work has been translated into six languages. She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College


Jason Lucarelli is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in Numéro Cinq, The Literarian, 3:AM Magazine, Litro, Squawk Back, and NANO Fiction. He lives in Scranton, Pennsylvania.


Jan 032014



Woman Without Umbrella
Victoria Redel
Four Way Books
88 pages, $15.95
ISBN-13: 978-1-935536-24-6

Woman Without Umbrella slips out the door barefoot in spite of flash flood warnings. Without interruption is my recommendation when reading this, Victoria Redel’s third collection of poetry.

Redel is also the author of four books of fiction, most recently a collection of stories, Make Me Do Things, from Four Way Books. Her award-winning novel, Loverboy, was adapted to film in 2004. A native New Yorker, Redel earned her MFA at Columbia University and was a student of Gordon Lish: as an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Lish published her first book. In an interview with Leah Umansky, Redel reflects “I’m a poet more driven by the sentence than by the line, and I’m a fiction writer driven more by language than plot.”

The first poem in this collection is titled “The Way It Began,” and the second one is “The End.” These two poems are separated by two blank pages and a page with an ampersand, an indication of Redel’s skill in measuring and compressing time and space in the length of the collection, in the space and interaction between poems, and within single stanzas.

From this energetic opening, the collection would seem to explode outward, way beyond structures. In fact, the next poem begins with “The roof collapses.” David Orr, in his most recent article “On Poetry” in the NYTimes Book Review, concludes “poetry, unlike churches and fortresses, has never loved a wall.” Here, poetry loves a wall but for different reasons entirely, as Redel shows in “Woman Without Umbrella, Unseasonable.”

All month her city sweats and sticks,
women and men stripped down to a snarl, it’s too fucking hot.

These are steamy low-key days, south of the border,
hot-to-the-touch afternoons,

burning cement walls built for pressing him up against.

The poem next is “Suddenly,” which begins “A month after turning forty-five, every last egg in her body / is a Rockette doing the can-can. Use me use me use me, they cry.” And it goes on, describing the woman at the crosswalk, warning off any nearby men. The next poem, “Woman Without Umbrella,” begins with “Thus she waited at the corner / for the light to change.” The manipulation of time between month and month is exhilarating, as is the way Redel focuses the space, from the wide-angle view of the city to the particular woman standing on a corner.

The poems “Upgrade” and “Bottom Line,” which are a little before the halfway point in the collection, is a glorious reflection on the nature of the heart and our relationship to it, which seems sometimes strange to say, as though we could remove ourselves from it enough to say “to it.” But in Redel’s hands, this manipulation of the view through time and space is masterful. In “Upgrade,” Redel shows us the “I want,” incessantly asking, clawing-for-something heart, the font of all desire. Apart from the heart, in the wonderment of considering it—

I don’t want a refund to say it didn’t fit, never worked, or worked at first,
then in fits and starts, the switches useless, gears stripped. No, I don’t want

Customer Service, a Claims Department, complaint letters, an exchange
or credit toward the latest model, an upgrade or Lifetime Parts Replacement.

Even now, broken, chipped, in pieces, pieces lost, worn out, the original
gone—there are times, still, it comes back to me whole and I am amazed

by what is beyond fragile, by how elaborately and generously, wrecked
and beyond repair, we made use of our hearts all those years. And then.

The way her lists topple into other lists here is the glory of it. The first stanza’s list repeats the words “fit” and “worked,” and uses the assonance of the short i sound for intense energy from the start. And we don’t know what she’s talking about yet, as the second stanza takes us into Customer Service for this broken or defective thing. Third stanza, and this list parallels the first with the short-i sound in “chipped” and the repetition of “pieces.” Then in the beginning of the third stanza, “even now” starts to shift the poem away from its initial “I don’t want” and into the amazement of “and then.”

“And then” is a force in this collection. I found myself following it, catching it hiding here and there, and finding its inverse flying around in certain dark corners. For example, we move from “And then” at the end of the poem “Upgrade,” to the beginning of “Bottom Line”: “As when my father goes back under / and the doctor comes out to tell us he’s put a window in my father’s heart.” Perhaps this is the most extreme example of the way “and then” propels the reader through this collection. Or maybe it’s in the poem “Later Still, Then,” where Redel begins, “What if I told the husband everything. / How I leaned against a shoulder on the raft. Later, still. Or years earlier. And then.” In the poem on the facing page, two of the lines begin with “then.” The poem titled “And Then” precedes a page with an ampersand, which precedes the three-and-a-half-page “Kissing.” That is followed by another page with an ampersand, followed by “Holy” which begins “Then I went to a party and danced like no tomorrow.” And next comes “And, Finally,” and then “Gorgeous Present.” And this is still nowhere near the end of the book.

So, back to “Kissing.” The poem begins with a potent first line, “The first surprise of your mouth on mine.” Then it steams up quickly with a glorious list of the places where:

On streets, on staircases, in bathrooms, in the backs of cabs, in a field, against that wall and that wall and that wall, down on the floor, my hair caught in it, in hotel beds, in a borrowed bed, and in the same bed night after night after year after night, through an open window, under pines, under water, on a raft, in rain, salty with ocean, a peck at the door, a have a good day.

Our mouths, prepositional.

From this point, the poem delves beautifully into every aspect of that description, “prepositional.” Mouths act as prepositions indicating another place, “like there is another room inside and then another room inside.” Alternatively, kissing mouths are prepositional to each other, introducing the irresistible action of offering and taking: “suddenly you are turning me saying, / ‘Give me your mouth,’ and I am giving you my mouth.” The poem takes the grammar reference further with these lines: “A fluency, accented, each vowel and consonant exactly formed. / Sudden native speakers.” Later in the poem, we consider “A private syntax. / Pun and slang, slip of tongue, intentional.” The reader wonders whether kissing is a metaphor for language or if it’s the other way around.

Redel’s list of mostly prepositional phrases uses alliteration and assonance in tight sequence at the beginning of the run, and then repetition of “wall,” “bed,” “night,” “under,” “on,” and especially “in.” There’s that wall again. And that raft. Within single lines of the poem, the repetition of a word strikes the right notes of sound and insistence. In “Kissing,” this doubling of words within the line occurs with “eyes,” “mouth,” “room,” “taste,” and “drifting,” which is in itself an enticing list.

Paired with this virtuosity of metaphor and pattern is Redel’s exquisite attention to imagery and sensory detail.

Like something windy, like good weather. In winter, our mouths the
warmest place in the city.

Kissing like nobody’s business.

A lower lip flicked by teeth, pulling back just a little to breathe

 And, then, all twitch and pull and ache.

If this were a review of a novel, I’d have to stop here to avoid spoilers. In her interview with Leah Umansky, Redel said “I see Woman Without Umbrella as having a kind of narrative arc and so the thread of poems using the same titles is a consideration of time. And though “Woman” in the title is singular I think of this as a book inhabited by many women both contemporary and historical.” A couple of stanzas toward the end of the collection stand out as fine examples of Redel’s repetitions and resulting conversion of these materials into something sublime. In “Smoking Cigarettes with Brodsky,” the last stanza evokes “and then” with the surprise of “and yet.”

I’m just learning desire makes us sometimes lovely,
always idiotes. And yet. And yet. And yet
Joseph smokes another cigarette.

The first half of “Monet’s Umbrella” gives it away, too.

I didn’t have to kneel down by the roadside lilacs
and I didn’t have to go walking this dawn in Riverside

with the dog sniffing wet dirt and the red tail hawks
nesting over the Westside highway on-ramp

to know that without even trying Sweetness returns
without a Monet umbrella or a proper scarf around its neck

and that when I rush to bring Possibility indoors for a hot tea
it gathers me in for a dirty-minded kiss.

Redel’s “and then” has become “and that when” here. And there’s that kiss again, suggesting with its capitalized “Possibility” an Emily Dickinson poem, which begins “I dwell in Possibility — / A fairer house than Prose –”.

Redel leaves us in a cozier place at the end of the collection—in a theater after the show, considering the “riveting” special effects, as you might after reading this book without intermission. The deluge of brilliance in this collection could turn manhole covers into geyser spouts, recycling bins into white-water rafts, and then—who needs an umbrella?

—A. Anupama


A. AnupamaA. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

Nov 072013

Victoria Redel

Just a taste: the opening lines of Victoria Redel’s short story, “On Earth,” from her new collection Make Me Do Things. Of this story, our reviewer,  Richard Farrell writes:

The first sentence of “On Earth” certainly works: “‘What if we were the last ones on Earth?’ her daughter said after Sasha turned off the bedside lamp and put the book back on the shelf.” In this twenty-five page story, Redel teases out themes of family, marriage, evolution, infidelity and obsessions. The daughter, Ella, is a seven-year-old girl preoccupied with dinosaurs. Sasha worries that dinosaurs are a “boy thing.” Then, on the second page, the story swerves, destabilizing expectations and opening up fresh possibilities.

And on the collection as a whole:

It’s impossible to nail down Redel’s style. Each of these eleven stories is uniquely crafted, perhaps because she approaches them with a protean lens, focusing attention down on the particular details of narrative and syntax, so that the result is clarity of intention and meaning. As a writer, she is willing to let her images guide her, willing to follow her sentences and characters into whatever strange and twisted paths they seem destined to trod.


“What if we were the last ones on Earth?” her daughter said after Sasha turned off the bedside lamp and put the book back on the shelf.

“That’s not a bedtime question, buckaroo,” Sasha said, leaning to press her lips against her daughter’s cheek. Ella’s cheek in the dark seemed softer than at any other time of day, the skin almondy from bath soap.

“But what about the dinosaurs?” Ella said, holding Sasha’s arm. Dinosaurs were the new craze. Before, it had been fairies. She’d begged Sasha for the yellow wings they’d seen in the store. Then mermaids. Now it was everything Tyrannosaurus Rex. Everything Pterodactyl. Sasha was not prepared for her daughter’s obsession with dinosaurs. Wasn’t that a boy thing? Dump trucks, superheros, dinosaurs—what the morning coffee group called basic male destiny.

What was it with men and their end-of-the-world questions?

This afternoon, the lover had moved Sasha over to the window. “Look out there,” he’d said, positioning her against the sill as he pressed into her. “We’re all that’s left.”

“Ella, dinosaurs were hardly the last ones.” Sasha kept her voice easy and matter-of-fact. “There are new species evolving on Earth all the time.” That sounded right; she was pretty certain that it was right. But if it got down to particulars, Sasha couldn’t whip out the name of a newly discovered Amazonian insect or hybrid amphibian. Always risky to give new information before sleep. A comment like that could keep Ella up asking questions, calling Sasha back and back and back into the room. Best she could do then was angle for a morning research project. Better yet, by morning her daughter would be on to a new obsession.

“But what about the very last dinosaurs? Did the very, very last know they were the last?”

“Roll over, my beauty,” Sasha said.

Ella squiggled onto her stomach and Sasha worked her hand in small circles, the nightgown’s thin cotton bunching and slipping as she moved down the delicate ridge of her daughter’s spine. Sasha closed her eyes and worked to keep her breath and her hand slow, as if leading Ella to sleep by example.

“Did they?” Ella’s voice pushed up. There again, that urgent, worried thread. Not just a fear of extinction, but the sorrow of the final one, the one that endures and knows it is the very end.

Sasha worked two slow breaths, holding back from giving a response.

“I don’t know about the very last,” Sasha said when Ella asked again. “But I promise we’re good here for a while.” . . .

— Victoria Redel

Nov 072013

redel photo Ettlinger

Victoria Redel

Make Me Do Things
Victoria Redel
Four Way Books
227 pages; $17.95

Whether examining divorce, infidelity, shaved genitalia or historical re-enactors who forget they’re acting, Victoria Redel’s prose tramples fiercely over safe and familiar conventions. Zany, powerful, and at times downright heartbreaking, her raw and luminous characters set out from territories that, at first glance, seem anything but exotic. And yet when they arrive, their destinations (and destinies) are always sublime.

A poet as well as a fiction writer, Redel has just released a new story collection, Make Me Do Things, with Four Way Books. This marks her seventh book; she has three previous books of poetry and three of fiction. And though her language and imagery are always sharp and rich, there’s a tidiness about her prose, a self-contained urgency, that makes each of the eleven stories in this collection taut and trenchant. It’s not surprising that Redel studied with Gordon Lish, or that Lish published her first book. In an interview, she credits Lish with “the belief is that the story works from the first sentence on, and if it doesn’t, then you fix the first sentence and go back.”

The first sentence of “On Earth” certainly works: “‘What if we were the last ones on Earth?’ her daughter said after Sasha turned off the bedside lamp and put the book back on the shelf.” In this twenty-five page story, Redel teases out themes of family, marriage, evolution, infidelity and obsessions. The daughter, Ella, is a seven-year-old girl preoccupied with dinosaurs. Sasha worries that dinosaurs are a “boy thing.” Then, on the second page, the story swerves, destabilizing expectations and opening up fresh possibilities.

This afternoon, the lover had moved Sasha over to the window. ‘Look out there,’ he’d said, positioning her against the sill as he pressed into her. ‘We’re all that’s left.’

Notice the parallels between the daughter’s question and the lover’s remark. Note the physical space of the two scenes—both set in bedrooms, Sasha twice poised on a bed but for very different purposes. Juxtaposed as they are, the scenes render an almost diabolical rhythm to the story. And yet Sasha still loves her husband. A connubial bliss somehow survives. After having passionate sex with her husband, she thinks, “if she told the women in the Muffin about the lover, they would be surprised most of all that she had no complaint about her husband.”

Later in the story, when Sasha discovers that her morose lover is secretly obsessed with her daughter, she is faced with an extinction of her own. The scrim standing between fantasy and reality becomes suddenly much thinner than she imagined:

Heat coughed from the pipes. The room was broiling. What instinct gone kerflooey would put so much at risk? He was making survival kits, three of them. ‘Come with me, my love’ he’d said. She was wrong; she hadn’t stepped into unexpected weather. She was her own catastrophe. Her own bolide collision. No, there were catastrophes much larger—unseen shifts to the system—she hadn’t considered. Extinction. The underlying cause, the failure to adapt to changing conditions.

All the elements of this story—the obsession with dinosaurs, the passion, the infidelity, the presumptions of reality, the premise of extinction—resonate throughout the text in wonderfully intricate patterns.

Again and again, Redel plays for the highest stakes, and she delivers with remarkably clever stories that haunt us long after the final words are sounded. In “The Third Cycle,” two seemingly innocuous albeit infertile women are sitting at a café having lunch. They decide to assume new identities:

‘I could use being someone else today,’ says one of the women.
‘You? Call me Polly and I’ve got to be happier than who I am,’ the other woman says, squeezing at her arm.
‘Polly? Right. That’s perfect. You’re Perky Polly and I’ll be a Susie,’ says the new Susie.

They order fresh, viable eggs for lunch. “‘Eggs! Eggs! More eggs!’ they shriek. ‘Lots and lots of them!’ And both of them are laughing now, unladylike, practically snorting water right at the waiter.” The set up is rather breezy, with humor and a curious energy. Like Lorrie Moore, Redel blends humor and sadness seamlessly, each hinted at in the characters’ refusal to say the word ‘baby.’ But Redel never particularizes this sadness. We don’t learn these characters’ histories, and the residual gaps work to set up expectations.

Then the Blue Woman, pushing a pram, sits down next to them, and things suddenly go off kilter. Polly and Susie offer to hold the Blue Woman’s crying baby and the two friends transform into, well, witches of a sort.

Redel is summoning Angela Carter here, and retelling a Slavic folktale, “Baby Yaga,” in feverishly inventive ways. When the Blue Woman asks for her baby back, Polly and Susie refuse to relinquish the infant. There’s mounting evidence that these two women have the darkest intentions: “The baby is plump, with full, plum cheeks. ‘Is this delicious or what?’ Susie says, leaning over the baby, making smoochy nibble kisses.” We refuse to believe that these women are about to actually eat the baby, but it certainly looms as a possibility. A storm ensues, a maelstrom of biblical proportions, replete with torrents of frogs and plagues of vermin. “Of course, slaying of the firstborn has been, if not mentioned, already considered.”

Perhaps what’s most surprising about Redel’s fiction is how masterfully compelling her twists turn out to be. What began as a relatively simple opening—resting on assumptions of maternity, infertility, wish fulfillment—turns dark, intriguing and utterly unexpected.

It’s impossible to nail down Redel’s style. Each of these eleven stories is uniquely crafted, perhaps because she approaches them with a protean lens, focusing attention down on the particular details of narrative and syntax, so that the result is clarity of intention and meaning. As a writer, she is willing to let her images guide her, willing to follow her sentences and characters into whatever strange and twisted paths they seem destined to trod.

In the final story, “Ahoy,” a husband and wife, after selling an internet startup company for a fortune, move to an island for a year. Their idyllic plans and their marriage quickly begin to unravel, primarily due to the husband’s incessant partying and budding cocaine habit. Then, Olivia takes a job at the Hardwick House, a historical home where she plays the part of a sea captain’s wife. She becomes pregnant, and for all intents and purposes, starts living in the nineteenth century.

This story is rich with dreamy details, conjuring up John Fowle’s novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which actually takes on a prominent role in the story. Like the novel, the murky line between reality is driven to a desperate, dramatic convulsion. The husband even begins to assume the role of Captain Hardwick.

This, the end of my story: like me, it’s wobbly, more often than not unable to walk a straight line. I have been away, at sea, adrift. I wish I came home bearing exotic gifts, tales of the South Seas and perils of rounding angry Cape Horn, but I never left port.

Like Redel’s narrator, we journey through this book as Redel builds a geography of textured prose that emerges from her lush and prolific imagination. Endowed with an amazing gift of wit and wisdom, she offers variations on themes and reconfigures the richness of life, story and memory. Her words rush out from familiar shores toward the unsettled shoals of ontology. Her characters are wonderfully and arrestingly broken, seekers in the best sense of the word. Innocence coexists alongside wisdom, hope alongside despair, love alongside lust. Somewhere in these stormy seas, Redel navigates us through these vivid and irresistible stories, and we, the beneficiaries of her work, never have to leave port.


—Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, A Year in Ink, upstreet, New Plains Review, Descant (Canada) and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.


May 122010




Hazlitt said, “Every word must be a blow.” And that’s the way Victoria Redel writes. Every word and phrase a hammer blow, crafted along the edge of a twisty syntax that is taut, teasing, emphatic and lascivious.

Swoon is something else, is gorgeous, a complex triptych of a book, a classic three-step structure held together by the strings of eros and femininity and point of view (that woman poet) and the technical threading–the repetition of the italicized “Such Noises” prologue poems and the smaller linguistic and image parallels (see, for example, how “…bend into the microphone…” on p.4 in “Somewhere in the Glorious” transforms into “And with that she’d sing, tilting and leaning into/ the purpled head…” on p. 71 in “Tilted Woman”; and how Akhmatova, the “Russian woman” and “my mothers” in “Such Noises” on p. 3 return as the “old Jew” who kvelts in “Noisy Woman” on p. 77). And so, though the book moves through its sequence–the young lover in the throes of eros the bittersweet, to the mother, to the multiple female characters of the austere, Chekhovian prose poems in the last section–it is one complexly woven whole.

In Swoon, Redel has hit her form in a spectacular fashion. She is alive in language. She’s a mature poet, a knowing poet, a wild, romantic poet. But, in the end, what she is most besotted with (what the poet in the poems is besotted with) is language itself.

Look at that second poem already mentioned “Somewhere in the Glorious”; two lines in the middle go: “I have only all my waiting. For what have I waited/ by cross street and elbow, for what gadget of transformation?” Then, two poems later, in “Cabin Note”: “We are still waiting./ But for what?” And then in the next poem “Damsels, I”: “If not for paradise then for what/ do I rut, incorrigible in the palm of your hand?” Nevermind that I’d give anything to have written any of these sentences myself with their insistent and erotic parallel constructions, their open-ended and endless interrogatives, their theological and sexual weavings, their surprising turns of phrase. But Redel has actually managed to thread and suspend the thought through three different poems over several pages so that the mind of the reader, in the middle poem (with its acute exploitation of white space, the emptiness of waiting, quite specific to this poem), is really suspended, in suspense, unconsciously waiting for the syntactic pay-off. And the pay-off is spectacular, not because of the thematic surprise (the connection between desire for spiritual transformation and for love is an ancient theme) but because of the language, the bull’s-eye perfect “what”/”rut” rhyme in the third poem. It goes straight to the heart and the mind. It’s what makes Redel a masterful poet.

I love things like this: “What we do we do in this life with our clothes still mostly on.” A line I could write an essay on, an epigram made poetry by the atypical verb placement. Think how a line like this gets built up. It starts with the idea: We do what we do in life with our clothes on. (A slightly anti-romantic, pretty realistic view of what life is like after you’re grown up.) Redel inverts natural word order–“We do what we do” to “What we do we do”– to make the line surprising, give it rhythm and zing. What we do we do in life with our clothes on. An interesting idea but still not a line Redel would write. She adds the word “still” so that we get: “What we do we do in life with our clothes still on.” Which builds in the antithetical picture of what we do with our clothes off which, accordingly, is not what we really do in life. And finally she adds the amazing “mostly”–“our clothes still mostly on” which twists the whole sentence with a wry, ironic tweak. The epigram becomes story, it becomes the image of a couple doing what they do in life but half-in or half-out of their clothes, that sad, comic moment of struggling, half-dressed transition from passion to so-called real life.

—Douglas Glover

See also “Swoon.”