2013 Sentence of the Year Award

“Speaking as an irrelevant atom of fleeting may-fly consciousness on a dust-mote planet amid countless planets in a forgotten corner of an overlooked galaxy amid billions of such random aggregations of violent fire in a chaotic cosmos, I hope I have a few decades left before my loosely cooperating atoms dissolve their partnership and erase my memories and awareness and return to the earth to fuel dandelions and robins’ eggs, because I’m enjoying myself.”

— Michael Sims (no relation to our editor)

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Book Review: Three New Chapbooks

Marrowbone (Beetnik Press)
Relic (Appaloosa Press)
Unbridaled (Valium Vixen Press)

Reviewed by Brigette Bernagozzi

Several new chapbooks and independent literary presses have made their way into the world this week, and I’ve had the pleasure of reading three of them in particular. All three have been penned by women and all three relate to the natural world in mysterious ways. The first is Hannah Kreitzer’s Marrowbone, which has been described as a collection of “myths and fables” by the publisher: “These three stories will whisk the reader to arcane and mysterious lands, but the darkest journeys take place within the human heart.”

Indeed, Marrowbone delivers to the reader a strange world filled with unusual characters, including one of the most intriguing characters in this slim volume, a bony animal-like figure who befriends a fellow traveler:

That night the sun gave swift surrender to the butter-pale half moon. I fell asleep with ground squirrel and cold water in my stomach, the bonebuck’s ribs bracing my spine, and I dreamed a sky full of crows layered dozens-thick between the clouds and earth. Bones were strewn all through the field around me—ribs and limbs cast askew like forgotten omens. Snow came down through the crows’ wings, stacking up around the bones and settling on my boots…

The stories in this book lead the reader to some fascinating and unexpected places, and we never lose our confidence in Ms. Kreitzer’s vision and skill as we journey along with her characters. Chelsea Ardle, one of the publishers of Marrowbone and co-founder of Beetnik Press, shared with me her impressions of Ms. Kreitzer’s take on the natural world and of the chapbook itself:

Marrowbone takes the reader to places unknown, and yet, emotionally familiar—a woman going through her time of the month, trying to find some comfort; a girl trying to find her rhythm on a path unknown; a love lost. In her fictional tales, Kreitzer uses subtle symbolism to tell old stories through new eyes. In her descriptions of place, I think it is easy to recognize the author’s own ties to land.

On a more personal note, the publisher continues: “I will tell you here that Kreitzer is a strong supporter of being barefoot for as long as it is possible during the year. Her feet are calloused and knowledgeable of the places she has walked, the land she lives on. This fact, shows through in the chapbooks stories to me, especially ‘Threefold.’”
As I read this volume, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the way Ms. Kreitzer distills the mysterious into concrete terms. A native of Maine, she cites as one of her writerly influences John Prine, “who is a quiet master of earth-stained truth and humor,” and has said of her own connection to place: “I love the woods and the dirt and the shared heritage of stoicism. Being from Maine means knowing something about space and silence. I’m grateful for that.” Ms. Kreitzer has proven herself an expert in those very topics via the earthy yet elusive stories in this collection.

After hearing Lorena Williams read from her new nonfiction chapbook Relic last week in Braddock, PA, I quickly became enamored with the honest resilience of her prose. While she is currently a writing teacher at two universities, the bio on the back of the book also tells me that she has played the roles of “Wilderness Ranger… wildland firefighter…and…whitewater guide,” so by the time I open her chapbook to the first page, her well-wrought descriptions of place don’t surprise so much as thrill the restless wanderer buried somewhere within me. Her descriptions of the natural environment are shot through with a quiet kind of beauty:

My jog takes me along the ditch road past rolling hills of sagebrush, the windswept Oregon desert silent but for the tee-dee, tee-dee of pygmy nuthatches huddled together in the morning sun. The crunch of my shoes through crusty snow disturbs the tiny blue-gray birds into a chattering departure, only for them to alight on the very same branches moments after I pass.

Ms. Williams displays a finely tuned sense of place in these tales, as befits her biography on the back cover. I find myself intrigued with this description of the author’s roots: “A native of the American West, Lorena Williams has long preferred rock to brick, sage to streets.” Released by Appaloosa Press, Relic displays the tension between the Oregon landscape of Ms. Williams’ roots and the Pittsburgh cityscape that is her more recent home:

Content with the reasonably unchanged vista—the cows, the distant tractor making its way up Graham Boulevard—I turn toward home and prepare to lie.
“No—I actually really like living in a city,” I say through a mouthful of scrambled egg. “It’s great being so close to everything, you know? I ride my bike pretty much everywhere.”

Throughout Relic, Ms. Williams confides in the reader as she explores a kind of longing for the land of her childhood, and we can only respond with appreciation for the beauty of both her landscapes, real and longed-for, and her words themselves.

Shannon Hozinec’s chapbook Unbridaled, a book of poems, also makes its debut this week. According to her bio, Ms. Hozinec is a Pittsburgh poet who “is powered by an oft-lethal combination of whiskey and hairspray!” I appreciate the humor in this description, though the majority of poems featured in the book are of a far more serious nature than this brief description.

According to the publisher, this intriguing collection of poems “examines what happens in a post-apocalyptic society after a pseudo-human creature corrals a horde of lostlings under his wing. It engages with bloodlust and dominance, sacrifice and self-preservation, gender relegation and destruction—with what is earth, what is meat, and what is unalienable within us all.” An earthy kind of premise, indeed! While this description sounds terrifying to me, the poetry itself is a gifted mixture of surprising images and juxtapositions like this:

The sky ate and ate, clutching
the open spaces in our jaws where
it flashed through and became the world.

and this one from later in the same poem:

Past the hungry days, gathered,
a collective–

shudder as we remember how it felt to eat our least favorite dogs.

On the whole, I found Ms. Hozinec’s use of language to be thought-provoking and often astonishing. Witness for yourself in an excerpt from “The Melting Town”:

Besmeared with mud as we were–
as we walked, we created the ground. And oh,
we are such a wooden bunch,

wearing gristle-grain proudly on our chests–
each step turned old beasts to ash.
Her images resound and linger, long after the book has been set down.

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The Millardians

by Publius

It’s Senior Prank Season. This year’s Best In Show goes to the kid who snuck out of class, and put lubricated condoms on each of the outer third floor doorknobs. I don’t approve of this, which is not the same as saying that it doesn’t garner a certain perverse respect on my part.

Today at lunch, we had nominations for the annual Millardian Award.

Mr. Avril calls us to order, and begins, “First, an announcement. The last day of school will be March the 3rd.” Which is to say that it will be the last full day of instruction before — field trips, more fields trips, emergency field trips, cramming for the state exam, the pre-state-tests, the state test, the post-state-tests, benchmark tests, preparing for senior prom, senior prom, preparing for junior prom, junior prom, Culture Week, and senior skip day, just to mention a few.

Then the Millardian Nominations.

The Milliardian is named in honor of Millard J. Fillmore, deemed by our Social Science Department to be the president who came — and here is our single criterion for the award — as close as is humanly possible to doing nothing at all while still breathing.

In the administrator category, one nomination went to Dr. Hendricks, who, during her professional development session, showed a half-hour film without turning on the sound. It was like some bizarre silent flick without the sub-titles. And nobody in the audience said anything either. The session was so inane that the silence was greeted as a relief.

In the teacher category, we nominated Mr. Martinez. He was asked to sub for a language class. Since he’s Mexican, he goes in, lectures for a whole hour in Spanish. It was a Chinese class.

Mrs. Lane, our next nominee, began a lecture on Melville by saying, “Moby Whale is a big white dick.” Then she just dismissed the class. What would be the point of carrying on? The sweet little detail I love is that, during this one sentence lecture, she stretched out her arms as a kind of measure of length. Or perhaps hung-ness.

In the Total Dissociation category, we have Mr. White. He had a meeting with our batty vice-principal. She talks, and he stares. And stares. And stares. He becomes so dissociative that she runs into the hall for help, because she thinks he’s had a brain seizure.

The nomination for Best Announcement goes to Mr. Danbury. Danbury read a list of maybe fifteen foreign students. Slaughters, just slaughters, every single name. Then he gets confused and announces, “Ah, the names I just read, ah, you don’t need to do anything. Everybody else needs to go to 314.”

Avril concludes, “Nominations will be open until March 8th, the day Millard Fillmore died, as near as anyone can tell. Lunch is adjourned sine die.”

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I scorn to change my state with kings

by Publius

There’s an announcement, an “emergency faculty meeting” immediately after school. On the way, North mumbles something like, “Somebody better be having sex with a student, because I was planning a barbeque.”

It turns out that we, the district, need to spend half a million dollars by Friday. Someone downtown didn’t read the bit that said this grant money had an expiration date, Friday. So now, rather than spend it over the course of a year, we’ve got Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

There are some conditions. The grant it’s not for core academics. It’s for stuff like field trips, extra-curricular activities and like that. All of which have to be ordered and done by Friday. So field trips are out, as are 99.9% of all extra-curricular activities, because we couldn’t possibly get a bus, plan, get the thing done and all that by Friday.

We can also spend it on “perishables”. No one knows what a “perishable” is. North mutters, “Can you spend it on me? I’m perishable.”

There’s some talk about educational movies for the kids. I suggest “Into Great Silence” and “Last Year At Marienbad”, both of which are duly noted. I’m asked to spell Marienbad. No one ever explains “perishable”.

In the end, we settle on are three huge pizza parties for the entire school. For three days, every day from one to three. It’s being billed as a celebration. North asks for his pizza to be vegetarian. The principal gets so mad he puts North in charge of the events.

Last thing I hear is North on his cell phone ordering “854 pepperoni pizzas, and one vegetarian, for tomorrow at one. And the same order for Thursday. And the same order for Friday.”

I’m guessing that , for the first time in human history, by Friday there will be teenagers who will be tired of seeing free pizza.

The rest of the money we just throw back.
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Engaging in Life: An Interview with Barrett Warner

Engaging in Life with Barrett Warner, Associate Editor of Free State Review

By Nicole Bartley

At first glance, you may not believe that a man who raises horses at his farm in Maryland’s Gunpowder watershed is also a poetry editor for a literary magazine. Yet Maryland’s new biannual literary magazine, Free State Review, saw both its first issue release for Winter 2013 and Barrett Warner’s inauguration run as an associate editor. Warner’s lifestyle fits well with the magazine’s theme of “people doing things.”

Warner, a poet himself, concentrates primarily on poetry submissions and helps with short stories. However, much of the magazine’s content does cross his desk. He is also a reviewer for Coal Hill Review, Loch Raven Review, Rain Taxi, Rattle, Otis Nebula, JMWW, Concho River Review and Chattahoochee Review. His poetry has appeared in Gargoyle, California Quarterly, Roanoke Review, Natural Bridge, and Comstock Review, among others. His chapbook, Til I’m Blue in the Face, was published by Tropos Press.

Coal Hill Review managed to distract him from his busy schedule for an interview before a reading event in Pittsburgh on April 17, during which editors and featured writers will present at the East End Book Exchange.

Coal Hill Review: What got you into writing?

Barrett Warner: I was one of those kids that was just fascinated by letters. When I was a kid, I was constantly drawing letters. When I was in 2nd grade, I read the Magical Monarch of Mo by L. Frank Baum. It just totally set me sailing. I dabbled at [writing stories]. When I was in high school, I began writing stories in earnest. I had an ability to type three pages an hour and always had three hours. I must have three dozen stories from that period, all nine pages long.

CRH: When and why did you shift toward editing literary magazines?

BW: It was a shift that was 35 years in the making. I shifted primarily to writing poetry in 1994. I had published a dozen stories and was a finalist for a Stegner fellowship at Stanford University right out of college. I didn’t get it, but I was sort of on a real fiction track. I segued into editing by starting with revising my own poems. When I switched to writing poetry, most of my poems were outlines for writing my stories. It took me 10 years of revision to write the short story out of my poem.

CRH: How did you get the job?

BW: One of the other editors knew me and knew my work, and knew that in the past year I’d been doing a lot of book reviews and felt like I would be a good person. I had a lot of breadth of knowledge of what was out there and what people were trying to do. I’d written a lot of essays on it. It was just sort of putting a couple things together and it worked out.

CRH: How were you approached to do it? What was your reaction?

BW: The other senior editor called me up and I immediately wanted to do it. Part of it was anything that my friend Jim Clark was involved in, I felt like I wanted to be part of. I just knew instantly that I wanted to do it.

CHR: Were you part of the process to start this new literary magazine?

BW: Hal Burdett… he recruited Jim Clark and Jim recruited me. There’s another person who helps out with some of the readings we have and some of the managing. Her name is Raphaela Cassandra.

CHR: Did you set out to emulate a particular literary magazine, or to start with a clean slate?

BW: I’ve been publishing my work since 1982; Jim since 1966. Both he and I had seen a lot of literary reviews come—some make a splash—and we also saw ones that seem to stick around for a while. We knew what our own experiences had done and we just wanted to steal from the best and try to be original—just try to have our own focus. We knew what we liked and we just wanted to concentrate on that for the most part. We like the print journal, we liked activities, so a lot of the literature in our journal is not so much conceptual and speculative, it’s more like people doing things.

We really emphasize that we like literature that comes out of action. It doesn’t mean like an action-thriller. The easiest way to look at it: It used to be that you’d have a window installed by somebody that made the glass. There’s a real sort of in-touch with reality there. We go for the literature of people who are out there doing something and living life. Riding horses, rolling up nets, just engaged in life rather than a more academic sort of thing.

CHR: Were there any dreams for this literary magazine? What were the realistic expectations?

BW: Well, we sort of dream one issue at a time. Hal comes from this newspaper background, so the big thing in newspapers is distribution. We didn’t want this to necessarily be something that was read by 100 people just like ourselves—we wanted to see if we could get it out there in the world, both to be read by other writers and also with general readership. We want to be able to support print runs of 500. We want it to become a national literary magazine.

CHR: How was its name created?

BW: We were just kicking around some ideas and we like the Maryland state motto (The Free State), and just started with that. We’re all Marylanders. It’s sort of like a Maryland’s publication, but at the same time it’s also a little bit like bringing in the world a little bit and exporting the state a little bit.

CHR: How did you determine the cover image? Does it match with the magazine’s contents, or stand alone?

BW: When Mark Strand was in Baltimore, we got to know him a little bit. As a result, we had some of his paintings. I just asked him, “Mark, do you mind if we use [one] for the cover?” And he said, “Absolutely, go ahead.” The way it transferred to the cover, you can’t see it well. It’s a very sort of Prince Edward seascape. In the original painting, it … [is] as if you’re viewing a book that’s opened—viewing it from the top. Not all of that came out when we digitized it. We just thought it was a striking portrait of land, sea, and sky. I do think it matches with the content in the sense of cross-genre. We have a poem submitted by a novelist, we’ve got an essay by a poet, we’ve got a poet who wrote two short stories in plain verse. So there’s a real cross-genre element of people stepping outside themselves. Mark is much more known as a poet, so that’s why we were interested in having him as a painter.

CHR: Was there a minimum page count in mind for the first issue?

BW: We just wanted to have enough pages to be able to have a spine, so that put us in the 60s range. We ended up having around 90 pages. We were really worried we weren’t going to have enough pages. But submissions came in. The funny thing is that we had only one rejection.

CHR: How did you advertise for submissions?

BW: We just put the word out like word of mouth. We canvassed a lot of readings and talked to people. We sent smoke signals up everywhere. We did everything we could to put the word out during announcements at the poetry readings—we let people know we were up and running. We felt like we got some really nice submissions. For the next issue, of course, we got swamped by submissions. [Page count is] not a problem we’re ever going to have again.

CHR: Did you solicit for stories and, if so, how did you decide who you were going to ask?

BW: We just let people know that we were putting together a literary review. A couple of people that sort of followed my book reviews, they knew about it, so some of them sent in work. We didn’t make a special appeal.

CHR: Will you solicit in the future?

BW: Our policy is: “Hey, we’re just letting people know.” We feel really good about it. We think these issues are taking really nice shapes. I suspect if we have special theme issues, [we will solicit].

CHR: How long did it take to receive submissions after advertising?

BW: It took about two months before we got the first batch in. In the first batch was Edgar Silex, Barbara DeCesare, Chris Toll (who died after he submitted), and Jessica Lynn Dotson. The interesting thing there is that Edgar and Chris and Barbara were veteran writers. Jessica Lynn Dotson had not published anything before. But since we took those two poems, she’s been in six other magazines and has a Pushcart nomination. She’s just skyrocketing—this is all within three months. Two other authors, Bethany Schultz Hurst and Katherine Cottle, after we accepted their work, they became finalists for the Yale Younger Poetry Award.

Part of the success, I think, is that we were able to put the word out and we’ve been in the business a long time. Probably, if you ask the other writers, they would say, “I always wondered how long it would take Bar and Jim to do something like this.” The other thing is: Because we’re so involved with literature, writing poems and stories and doing all the book reviews and going to a lot of readings, we’re all able to find these authors when they’re really on the rise.

CHR: How did you determine what piece is featured on the website, like Bethany Schultz Hurst’s?

BW: We’re just basically trying to feature a different one every month. First we chose Scott King, and then we chose Bethany. Part of it had to do with the timing of when they made submissions. Scott King submitted his work early, so we had more time to fall in love with him. As for Bethany, she is somebody I’ve sort of been tracking for six months and I’m seeing her get more and more stuff out there. So I felt like I knew her a little bit as well. The point of the splash page on the website is to share a story about the author, if there’s a story to be told.

CHR: Is anyone on the staff paid, or is it all volunteer?

BW: We’re all crazy volunteers.

CHR: 14 clams?

BW: We’re happy to receive clams. We were offered a dozen oysters, but that’s not a rarity in Annapolis. We took the oysters but we still made them buy the review. None of us are used to being hustlers—we’re not used to being salesman. We’re just trying on these outfits and doing the best we can to make it work.

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Meeting Margaret Thatcher

by John Samuel Tieman

Did I ever tell you about the time I met Margaret Thatcher?

Harold Wilson arranged for me to do an interview at 10 Downing Street. I was researching my master’s thesis in British history at Oxford in 1978.

I really had no idea what to expect. Compared to the White House, 10 Downing Street is very unassuming. I was shown into a small vestibule. I remember smoking a cigarette, and putting it out in a small plate. While smoking, I admired a painting. I suddenly realized I was staring at a Gains borough. I didn’t want to think about what I’d just put my cigarette out in.

The front door opens, and in suddenly comes James Callaghan and his cabinet, followed by the shadow cabinet. What I remember about Margaret Thatcher is her smile and her handshake — they weren’t so much automatic and facile as they were spring loaded.

I did the interview for my thesis. I went to exit. As soon as I walked out, there were cameras, a bank of microphones — I felt like saying, “Well, I’m glad to see there’s such interest in my master’s thesis. Footnotes are going fine …”. But my appearance was quickly followed by a look of disappointment on the part of the reporters. It turns out that, at that hour, Britain was negotiating the transition of the colony of Rhodesia into the independent nation of Zimbabwe. That, and Tieman was researching his thesis in British history.

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The Why Jar

by Publius

Debbie came to work with her sweater tied around her waist. For that, she got a letter of reprimand from the principal. Debbie is beautiful, Phi Beta Kappa from Northwestern, and extraordinarily competent after only two years on this job. So, of course, the principal hates her. But she doesn’t ask why.

I miss The Why Jar. Lenny Gates used to keep The Why Jar. But, sadly, it is a custom that has, like so many great customs, fallen into disuse.

When I first began at this school, everyone had to put a quarter into The Why Jar every time someone asked a why-question, a how-question, or tried to use logic when confronted with absurdity. For example, one might ask, “Why am I making two copies of lesson plans nobody reads?” There’s a quarter for The Why Jar. Or, “How am I supposed to answer the vice-principal when she says, Don’t forget – What was it? – you’ll remember then remind me”? Cha-ching goes The Why Jar. Sometimes you can compound a Why Jar Violation, like “Why do they make announcements before school? How are the kids supposed to act on that announcement when some of them are not even off the bus yet? Here’s what they need to do …”. Such a compound cost Sullivan about sixteen bucks one lunch. Art The Art Teacher just drops-in a saw-buck every once in a while, this for violations he makes while ranting to himself. At the end of the year, we treat ourselves to lunch. I think the year we started state testing, we treated ourselves to The Ritz.

Speaking of the state test, rumor has it that The Great State is opting out of No Child Left Behind! Instead, there will be a leaving exam created by the state. This does give rise to consideration of Publius’ Third Law Of Educational Dynamics — A bad idea in motion tends to stay in motion until it is acted upon by another bad idea. Nonetheless, there is some cause for celebration.

I’m also a little worried about the loss of material for my blogs. Some folks are inspired by beauty. I’m inspired by absurdity. That said, beauty comes and goes, but absurdity is forever. I’m actually somewhat comforted by my wife’s notion that “We live in a stupid state,” because there will always be fresh material. And we do live in a stupid state. I thank Jesus for Arkansas and Alabama, because that’s the only reason my state comes in 48th on most shit lists.

On a brighter note, the School Board and the City Council today are honoring our basketball team for being State Champions. I’m also touched by the comment of one sports reporter, who notes how polite our kids are. And it’s true — they clean-up real good. It’s nice to have something unequivocally good to celebrate.

Speaking of good news, I just heard that Valerie this year graduates from Howard, and is going to Georgetown law school next year. I almost cried when her mother emailed me the news. I taught Valerie in 7th grade. That middle school had all the sadness, indeed tragedy, of a Black ghetto school in America. Three of her classmates were killed in drive-bys. One got killed when her older sister was driving 90 down Lakeside Boulevard. But Valerie made it to law school. And her old teacher almost cried. Why? Because today I didn’t need to ask why I do this job.

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Dance Review: Mash Up Body by Anonymous Bodies

Reviewed by Adrienne Totino

Executive Director of Pittsburgh’s Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, Janera Solomon, met Kate Watson-Wallace eight years ago at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Solomon was impressed with her creative idea for a dance trilogy called “American Spaces,” where she would create work in a house, a car, and a store. The two developed a relationship, and since then, Watson-Wallace has performed in Pittsburgh several times.

This time, she and her company, Anonymous Bodies, spent a year in residency at the theater, working on her world premiere of “Mash Up Body,” an installation piece that ran this past weekend for an intimate crowd at the Alloy Studios.

The studio was transformed into a theater-in-the-round, with black curtains draped over the floor to ceiling windows, new lighting, and a full sound board for collaborator and musician, Christopher Sean Powell.

The hour long show took place in two “acts.” In the first half, partially inspired by a David Lynch film, the performers dressed in all black, casually entering and exiting the space from the audience seating. The shape of the phrasing did have a “Lynchian” feel, random like a dream sequence, at times baffling, but always entertaining.

In creating the piece, Watson-Wallace was interested in the “random ways in which we use our bodies to play people we are not.” The dancers did use traditional movement styles, but just as we would start to see a classic contemporary phrase, the performers would suddenly stop, pose in an unusual way, model a runway walk, or even talk to an audience member. Each performer showed us their many distinct qualities, sometimes spastic and sometimes quite vulnerable.

Mostly, the work was humorous. In one section, Devynn Emory spoke into a microphone, directing the other dancers in random tasks – breathing in and out; lifting one another; and lying down to snuggle. The audience even joined in for the “tonal work,” poking fun at the vocal spiritual practice.

The second half was mostly improvised, with the idea of “mashing up” or wrecking the first half. Cori Olinghouse entered the space in loud pink and purple clothing, an orange chair slung over her shoulder before she threw it violently to the floor. The rest of the cast entered in the same bright colors, trashing the space with cords, clothing and more chairs.

One hilarious moment came near the end when Marjani Forte mimicked Watson-Wallace in a classic question and answer forum that often follows dance performances. “Thank you for having us…Yes, I was interested in having a variety of bodies on stage…Thank you so much to the Kelly-Strayhorn.”

The music grew louder over Forte’s voice on the microphone, and suddenly the entire cast was dancing, party-style, to Janet Jackson’s “All For You.”

If it all sounds like sixty minutes of random absurdity, I assure you it wasn’t. In fact, it didn’t go on quite long enough, and Watson-Wallace could have been on stage much more often.

Of Watson-Wallace’s work, Solomon said it best: “Even in the moments when she pushes her audience, she’s not simply toying…she’s inviting us into her world and asking us to consider seeing her (and ourselves) differently. I appreciate that opportunity.”

The audience clearly appreciated the opportunity as well, showering the performers with excited applause. Although we may have been unsure of what we had just witnessed, it somehow resonated with us deeply. And that kind of resonance, to me, equals success.

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Theater Review: City of Asylum

City of Asylum. Conceived of and directed by Cynthia Croot. Henry Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial Hall, University of Pittsburgh Oakland campus. April 4-14, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8PM, Sunday Matinees at 2PM, ASL Interpretation Performance Saturday, April 6th at 8PM.

reviewed by Dylan Jesse

For the first time in the long history of our species—the first to develop so complex, intricate, and varied a system as language—we have the ability to broadcast our every utterance on a global scale at the slightest whim.With the advent of ever more expansive and refined communication technologies, every bad joke, minor quip, heavy thought, and meager comment can reach from our neighbors to our friends to people we may never meet. We put ourselves so readily out to the globally connected community, but how many of us are willing to face imprisonment, hard labor, torture, or exile for the thoughts and words we proffer? This is a consequence that many courageous individuals—whether or not we ever read their works or learn their names—face across the globe even as you and I sit and read these words from the comfort of our chairs. Our words are arguably one of our greatest achievements as a species, and even in this hyper-connected age they can bear a terrifying weight. They can spark revolutions (look to the impact outlets like Twitter had on the momentum of the protests in Egypt and Tunisia for a recent example) or end the lives of those who penned them. Thankfully, Pittsburgh provides refuge for a few invaluable voices as part of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), allied stateside as part of the Cities of Asylum network with Las Vegas and Ithaca. An under-sung feature of the Steel City, this program gets much-needed exposure in the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre’s newest original production, City of Asylum.

In its 90-minute continuous run time, City of Asylum brings to the stage a stirring collage of material cobbled together from interviews, videos, online journals, poem, and other works of the authors that have been supported by the City of Asylum program operating here in Pittsburgh: Israel Centeno (from Venezuela), Khet Mar (from Burma), Horacio Castellanos Moya (from El Salvador), and Huang Xiang (from China). These four luminaries have faced horrors unimaginable to most of us for the works they authored—be them journalistic, fictional, or poetic—and it is to their credit that they had the determination and courage to say what they have. City of Asylum highlights the beauty and artfulness of their words as well as the unfathomable brutality they endured in their homelands. The production brings together the circumstance, character, and a brief taste of the content that has brought these four individuals to Pittsburgh as part of ICORN. The interweaving of the writers’ works with dramatic presentations of their personal stories and own words is a challenging task that, under the direction of Cynthia Croot, the Pitt Rep cast pulls off with acumen.

The production itself is a patchwork multimedia presentation that utilizes the fullness of the proscenium stage’s backdrop to immerse the audience in the world of each of the four featured writers, starting with the most recent City of Asylum writer-in-residence, Israel Centeno, and working back to the first, the revolutionary dissident poet Huang Xiang. Each is handled differently: the emphasis on Centeno’s own works; the childhood and eventual emigration of Khet Mar; the captivating depiction of Castellanos Moya’s journalistic background and writing process; the torment of Huang Xiang and the entrancing poetry he was able to produce even during years of torture and incarceration. City of Asylum is smartly crafted to whet the audience’s appetite to seek out the authors’ works themselves.

While the entire cast delivers emotionally challenging and memorable performances, not to be missed is the Pitt Rep debut of Weiqi Li and his powerhouse performance of Huang Xiang’s poetry (projected on the backdrop in the author’s native writing) in the fourth and closing act. The merging of a bi-lingual spoken presentation, the multimedia projection, and the otherwise spartan staging lay bare the beating heart of the writing that provided the impetus for City of Asylum. Though the other three acts are all done entirely in English (with a few words and phrases exempted), all are done with deft emotional precision. We are truly privileged to have them as part of our city, as part of our Pittsburgh literary culture, and as part of our global writing community. And we are equally privileged to have a director, a university, and a repertory theatre that are willing to help share their contributions with not just Pittsburgh, and not just the literary or theater-going audience, but with the ever-growing global voice demanding the freedom of and respect for artistic expression.

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Book Review: A Mountain City of Toad Splendor

A Mountain City of Toad Splendor, poems and prose by Megan McShea. Baltimore: Publishing Genius Press, 2012.

Reviewed by C.L. Bedsoe

When I read collections like this, I’m frequently reminded of the excellent poem (and song) “It’s Saturday” by John S. Hall which contains one of my favorite lines: “Sense cannot be made. It must be sensed.” Hall is getting at the core of art. There’s something in it that doesn’t have to be explained, perhaps shouldn’t be explained. McShea’s collection, similarly, doesn’t jump out and fish-slap the reader with obvious meaning. Rather, it gambols around meaning like an impromptu interpretive dance. Poems range from the building blocks of “Table Saw,” each line of which begins with “Table” and adds another word which changes the meaning of each successive line: “Table/Table saw/Table saw bird” etc. to surreal stories like “The Appointment,” whose imagery shifts like a stream-of-conscious fill-in-the-blank. Here’s an excerpt from near the middle of the flash piece, in which McShea describes a mother and son’s outing. They go to a building which immediately doesn’t impress. It is “flatter than we had imagined it” and has a confusing intercom: “It sounded like the ocean, but in a very high resolution, with cries of bird and shouts tossed by waves and even sand under our feet.” They undress and wait in a room:

“This is nothing like I expected,” said my mother, who had persuaded me to join her in coming here. “Well, what did you expect?” I asked. “I thought it would be rosy, like a womb,” she said. She sounded sad.

“Change your rabbits!” came a shout from up the stairs, and then again, descending closer, “change your rabbits immediately!” A man in coveralls appeared with wide black eyes. “Oh, pardom me,” he said when he saw us there. “You’re not the people I thought you were.”

But it was too late, for mother and I had already changed our rabbits.

McShea is quite playful. She’s included poems with titles such as “Four Unrelated Sentences with Unrelated Elements,” “Conditional Clauses,” and “Pledge of Allegiance,” which is a deconstruction of the titular pledge, but also an homage to the idea of the thing. “Three Large Swollen Things” is a triptych in which each line section is an acrostic spelling out “Large Swollen Things.” From section 1:

Lingering amidst our
auger brigade
rigged up with fancy
glows a bride
entirely made of cotton

sticks to sin talk
when it wants fed
options evaporate quickly then
like it never lost anything
lint
even
not without a certain inky grace

to be hewn from
huge hounds
in their suckling linens
nesting there like a
gull out of
season

“11 Irritations that Morning” is a more straightforward poem. It begins, “I want things and beautiful/light, a perfectly soft don’t.” It’s a beautiful ode to being. “On the street, that recently-cleaned texture/of things. To be alone daily makes/everyone seem interesting.” And isn’t that what poetry’s all about?

McShea is a mistress of sound and mood. “Baltimore Prayer” is a wonderful example:

Precisely this fogged window, which prevails in the cold, wet night, blinks out onto an uninhabited land of Other People’s houses and in sight of all that forgotten real estate, along with all the amiable conversations on phones across America and evenings shared in movie houses, around the corner from a recent homicide, down the block from wild lots and weeds, great unknowns, colossal, all evolving along with Darwin and his species. One’s life, assumed to be finite, ticking away. Night covers things up but you can still hear the rain.

Pressure comes from a thousand enemies buried in your heart. You practice fighting them, and then one day, it seems like they’re gone. One day, allowing for silences, it breaks. You can prepare. It’s like preaching. Ready yourself.

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Why We Have War

by Publius

This afternoon, we had a faculty meeting, during which the vice-principal explained that we need to be nice to foreigners. This is because, “When Ho Chi Minh was in Wisconsin, he hated it. They weren’t nice to him. And that’s why we had the Vietnam War.”

I found this weirdly inspiring. For decades, I’d wondered why I fought in Vietnam, and now I had the answer — people are just not nice enough. Her remarks reminded me of a poem by Ernesto Cardenal in which a lonely Hitler waits for a young lady to pass. Below is my poem followed by Cardenal’s in Spanish:

for E. C.

every afternoon she’d stroll with her mother
along Mockingbird Lane and every afternoon

where Mockingbird crosses Bishop
Boulevard there at the corner

George Bush waited for her to pass
as university students learned how to kiss

and even the little children held hands
W. never learned how to dance

and he never dared a word with her
one day she passed without her mother

one day she passed with an ROTC cadet
then one day she didn’t stroll by at all

that’s why he bombed Iraq
that’s why he tortured anyone with answers

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Todas las tardes paseaba
con su madre por la Landetrasse

Y en la esquina
de la Schmiedtor
todas las tardes

Estaba Hitler
esperándola para verla pasar

Los taxis y los omnibus
iban llenos de besos

Y los novios alquilaban botes
en el Danubio.

Pero él no sabía
bailar. Nunca se atrevió
a hablarte

Después pasaba sin su madre
con un cadete.

Y después
no volvió a pasar.

De ahí más tarde
la Gestapo
la anexión de Australia,

La guerra mundial.

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