Death and Taxes

by Songyi Zhang

This is the second year I’ve lived in Pittsburgh. Just as the Chinese New Year arrived in early February, I received two magazine-size tax return manuals—one from Pennsylvania, the other from the city of Pittsburgh. I guess once you have an identity in the U.S., (for a foreigner, it’d be your residential address, phone number and most importantly, your social security card) you’ll be reminded of filing your tax returns annually.

The tax return manuals are certainly my guaranteed new-year presents from the U.S. government.

How can I forget about this cumbersome documentation? Chatham University’s international affair officer made it clear: all international students, regardless of being employed or not, must file the Form 8843.

8843—it sounds like an inmate’s identity number. To some extent, I do feel myself, as one of the F-1 students in the U.S., am bounded by the paperwork of the Department of the Treasury. Form 8843 is a statement for exempt individuals and individuals with a medical condition. On the form, the subtitle reads: For use by alien individuals only. I don’t like the term, alien. But I guess the U.S. Federal Government sees us foreign visitors no different from the outer space invaders. 8843 actually can make a case number for the X-Files, too.

I filed Form 8843 last year, so it’s just routine, I thought. But this year, instead of filing it on paper, the international affair officer taught us to file the form through an online software. I find the process taking more time than by the traditional method.

How reliable is this tax return software? Can you really depend on the machine to take care of your personal accounting? I mean, the information you provide on the computer is not simply your name and phone number, but your annual assets, your money!

Since the day I spent money in the U.S., I’ve realized I must pay tax on every transaction. So a paperback at the Barnes & Noble is labeled US$15, the total cost is always more than the price tag. Why can’t the price tag show a tax-included price? So I won’t be overly elated when I see a cheap price but, in fact, it’s not cheap when I pay at the cashier. In China, I’d have to pay what it is priced on the item. If a bowl of noodle costs ten yuan (approximately US$1.5), I’ll only pay ten yuan. No tips, no tax, no frills. The price has included the tax.

In America, it’s so different. Customers can learn clearly the breakdown of the cost; the governments, federal and local, try to make their revenues transparent by requesting every eligible taxpayer to fill out tax forms on which list, if not hundreds, but dozens of questions. Some of these questions are interrelated and involved with some twists-and-turns calculation. No wonder an accountant is such a desirable occupation in the U.S.

As long as you have lived in America, taxes will follow you all your life. Even though you’re dead, the governments will chase your soul. I remember when I first filled PA-40 tax returns, in the column of filling status, there’s one option which reads D for Deceased. I didn’t know and wondered. Can’t the government just let the dead rest in peace? Later I learned the departed’s family is the preparer of the form. As they say, nothing is certain but death and taxes.


Once Again Publius Finds Himself the Recording Secretary for Insanity

by Publius

Brittany has been sent to the re-education camps. That’s what we’re calling professional development these days. It seems that some people have objected to the way the state is running the schools, the state test, dozens of standardized tests, class sizes, one free period every other day. And on and on. These folks, in the immortal words of Cool Hand Luke, “need to get their minds right.”

And Brittany really does need re-education. She teaches right down the hall from me. She is sweet, smart, pretty, from California, 22, so of course her name is Brittany. She teaches math. More importantly, she is a non-tenured, non-union, first year Teach For America teacher. Thus does she merit nine classes, 279 students. Unfortunately for her, she’s expressed some feelings about this. Hence, re-education.

Her core problem is that Dr. Asoka cheated too well on the last state test. The requirement for passing the state test is that the school have a 10% gain over last year. (Jesus help the school that scores a 91%.) Dr. Asoka was so frustrated that he just said, “Fuck all”, and wrote the answers on the board. The problem is that he drove up the school’s Algebra score so high that the only choice was to promote Asoka to an administrative slot, and give all his classes to … well, hence Brittany’s need for re-education.


The Meeting

by Publius

I couldn’t come up with any actual reason why I shouldn’t go to the faculty meeting. I’m healthy, of sound mind, and have no pressing engagements.

The only serious agenda, at least at my table, was why Mr. Gates has a bra hanging in a tree just outside his classroom’s window. It’s just out of reach, and, for that reason, will remain there for the life of the tree. We ask, and he just responds, “Don’t ask.” Thus are we forced to turn to the meeting’s actual agenda.

The meeting’s topic is “The High Quality Learning Environment.” We’re told that we must address the question, “What does learning look like?”

Each table is to discuss, and put on a chart, various aspects of “The High Quality Learning Environment”. Scintillating topics such as Teacher Interaction With Students, Expectations Of Learning, and Regulation Of Instruction. My gang drew Topic #4, The Planning, Managing And Measuring Of Transitions. We have twenty minutes until we are to share.

Mr. North suggests we begin by joining hands and singing “Kumbaya.” My immediate response is, ‘Well, I’m senior teacher at this table, so my teaching environment from here on is pretty much summarized by simply saying, Fuck All. You folks are going to have to …’. My buddies give me that “Oh, hell no!” thing, and elect me group spokesman.

Our next response is some minutes of numbed silence. Then Sullivan asks, “What, in the name of Sweet Jesus, is a managed transition?”

‘I think it’s something like foreplay. I think we should discuss the planning, managing and measuring of foreplay.’ At which point everyone ignores me, their leader. We’re to outline our response to # 4 on a large sheet of paper, and present this, in ten minutes now, to our colleagues. So respond we do.

The paper is three feet long. Our actual responses look a little measly —

have an agenda
sequential symmetry
remind kids of the time
remember to remind kids to work

Since I’m to do the presenting in like seconds now, my first question is, ‘What is sequential symmetry?’

Gates says, “It means do the first thing first, the second thing second, the third thing, and make sure the second thing is harder than the first, the third harder than the second, and like that. Sequential symmetry is the latest in teacher jargon.”

‘We actually have a term for this? We don’t have a term for when some wanker leaves one square of toilet paper on the old roll, and thinks this relieves him of his duty to go get a whole new roll. But we get sequential symmetry?’ But mostly I’m worried that I’m expected to present a chart full of mostly nothing.

So I say to Sullivan, ‘We need like, you know, words or something. I don’t mean words that mean anything, just teacher words. Like sequential symmetry. People are expecting me to say, you know, words. I’m the spokesman for # 4. Wait. I got it — put this on the chart. Anticipatory preparation in advance of intermediate assessment and articulation. That sounds transitional, right? Anticipatory preparation in advance of intermediate assessment and articulation? Yea. Put it up on the chart.’

Sullivan refuses to have her name associated with any of this.

When finally I hear, “Number Four. The Planning, Managing And Measuring Of Transitions.”

‘That’s, ah, that’s us. Me. OK, planning, managing and measuring transitions. First, the teacher needs an agenda.’ Which garners me blank stares from the entire faculty. Then I say, ‘Second, an instructor needs sequential symmetry.’ More blank stares. At which point I forget how Gates just explained sequential symmetry. So I add, ‘Sequential symmetry is defined as an anticipatory preparation in advance of intermediate assessment and articulation.’ I quickly finish, without elaboration, the last two points.

I’d like to say everybody laughed. My buddies laughed. Sullivan almost peed. But folks just stared. Some of the young teachers took notes.

The meeting went on to # 5, The Performance And Assessment Of Non-Verbal Duties.


On Rejection

By Publius

I’ve got a bit of free time between classes, such as it is …

Speaking of Publius, I think he’s a devout follower of Thomas Merton, who once said, “In this era, it is no longer necessary to parody. it’s sufficient to simply quote.”

University of California Press just sent me a Class A Rejection. Since I was a horny bachelor for forty years, and a barely-published writer for even longer, I’ve developed all manner of theory about rejection. A Class A is an actual missive from some living being. A Class B is the rejection slip with a note at the bottom. Class C is, of course, just the rejection note. In any case, I got a Class A for the University Of California Press. I hate when publishers tell me how they find my work, to quote UC, “an appealing submission but…”. The Utne Reader once was interested in republishing my “Ghetto Hawk”. The editor wrote to tell me how it was under consideration until the very last editor’s meeting. I feel like the guy who came in 4th in the Olympics, who lost the race by 1/2934857393023875630283 of a second.

Be the Donkey

by Michael Simms

Recently I heard someone say that when he stopped drinking, his life changed so quickly it was like being “rocketed into a new dimension”, and I remembered when I got sober a number of years ago, I had the same experience. During the first two years of sobriety, my health, my friendships, and my family relationships were transformed beyond recognition. But now, my life is not like taking a rocketship at all; instead, it’s more like riding a donkey. Slowly, steadily, reliably, the donkey and I are moving down the road. Sometimes, though, for no reason I can see, the donkey stops and refuses to go any further. My tendency at that point is to get off the donkey and beat the hell out of it — teach it a lesson. But that never works: all I get is a mean donkey that bites me in the ass the first chance it gets. What I need to do, of course, is to get off the donkey and wait for it to start moving again. Stretch my legs. Maybe have a picnic in the meadow beside the road. To borrow a phrase from the poet Tony Hoagland, I need to work on my “donkey wisdom”.


2011 Autumn House Sentence of the Year Award

submitted by Eva Simms

“A Swedish moose that is believed to have become intoxicated from eating fermented apples was discovered entangled and hanging over the branches of a homeowner’s apple tree, oblivious to its fate.”

from The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


Meet this Walmart Greeter

submitted by John Samuel Tieman

Charley, a new retiree-greeter at Wal-Mart, just couldn’t seem to get to work on time. Every day he was 5, 10, 15 minutes late. But he was a good worker, really tidy, clean-shaven, sharp-minded and a real credit to the company and obviously demonstrating their “Older Person Friendly” policies.

One day the boss called him into the office for a talk.

“Charley, I have to tell you, I like your work ethic, you do a bang-up job when you finally get here; but your being late so often is quite bothersome.”

“Yes, I know boss, and I am working on it.”

“Well good, you are a team player. That’s what I like to hear.”

“Yes sir, I understand your concern and I’ll try harder.”

Seeming puzzled, the manager went on to comment, “It’s odd though your coming in late. I know you’re retired from the Armed Forces. What did they say to you there if you showed up in the morning so late and so often?”

The old man looked down at the floor, then smiled.

He chuckled quietly, then said with a grin, “They usually saluted and said, ‘Good morning, Admiral, may I get your coffee, sir?’”


Poetry Reading at the Circus

by John Samuel Tieman

It was really interesting being backstage, as it were, at a working circus. The gathering audience is getting ready to play. The circus folks are getting ready to go to work. It’s a bit tense, actually. It’s not play to them. The folks are warming up their acts, which means also warming up the animals, ponies and little dogs and such.

We’re not in The Big Tent, but in the hospitality tent alongside it. Our by-invite-only audience is made up of various folks, legislators, dignitaries. First, there’s five performers from the classical guitar society. Then I begin to read.

That’s when I notice that, just outside the hospitality tent where I’m reading, behind the seated audience and slightly out of sight to them, is the rest of my audience. Uninvited folks who stop to listen. Two clowns, a Shetland pony, and three little dogs standing on their hind legs.

First, I projected to the pony. Later, I schmoozed with the dignitaries.


The Ultra Magic Classified Decoder Ring Secret Handshake News

by Publius

So this morning, the assistant principal takes me aside like we’re plotting an overthrow of the government. She actually clears out a room of the library, locks the door behind us. She jokes about what folks might think, B.C.I., as my students would say, booty call implications for those of us of a certain age. I’m thinking either she wants sex or I’m fired or both. Or maybe she’s got the code for launching The Bomb. In any case, I say a “Hail Mary”, for real. Finally, when the room is cleared out, the doors locked, she takes me by the arm and breaks the news.

She wants me to teach college credit English. That’s the Ultra Magic Classified Decoder Ring Secret Handshake News. That’s it. Three sections of Advanced Placement English.

It’s funny. I once got a “Secret” clearance in the army, and there was less drama than getting these three classes. This woman does this. It’s really crazy. Getting the classes is nice — they’re generally the smart, motivated kids — but the way the assistant principal did it, well, as we used to say in the army, “I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind.”

But wait, there’s more —

I go to move some books from another class. I say to Bellermine, ‘You know what just happened to me?’ And he says, “Yea, I hear you’re teaching A. P. English.” He’s not even in my department, and he knows. I go over to the Social Studies Department, and start to tell them the story — and they know. All this drama, I’m ready for a heart transplant, all this over something everyone already knows.

Of course, now that they moved me over to teach these three classes, there’s nobody to teach three sections of what I was to teach, American Literature. But, hey, it’s just literature …

There’s only one advantage to this job. I love the fact that, when I want good material, all I have to do is look up from my desk.

The World of Ten Thousand Poems

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

If you walked into my kitchen right now you’d see the cartoon I snipped from a December 2006 New Yorker posted on a cupboard door beside one of Snoopy typing away on the roof of his doghouse, and a photograph of our now not-so-new new president signing something into law.

In the New Yorker cartoon a “suit” with a briefcase stands with his shoulders somewhat slumped and a puzzled, slightly grouchy look on his face. He’s staring at the gabby snail addressing him from the sidewalk below. The caption reads: “I’m your spirit animal.”

This cartoon (along with some knowing laughter) seems like a good place to begin a short saga of writing life which Snail has guided, occasionally stepping aside for Raven or Butterfly.


Indeed I have, in the world of ten thousand poems, put together many manuscripts—both chapbooks and full-length collections—beginning with my Master’s thesis Fireweed, an early effort with a few good poems in it and many earnest but flawed attempts at poems. (I confess: Some years ago I did sneak into the college library and remove Fireweed from the shelf permanently—the kind of heist I’ve heard other poets admit to as well, especially after a glass of wine.) My next manuscript was called Confronting the Angel, a title I soon jettisoned when I was advised that angels were “out” (this was the early eighties) then reclaimed—but jettisoned again when angels were suddenly “in” once more, materializing (or so it seemed) on poetry book covers everywhere.

The new decade brought a reworked sequence of sixty plus pages called Words in Earthquake Country. I felt especially sympathetic to this title and its inherent metaphor—it felt kindred too because in real-time I live within sixty miles of several major California faults. Words was also abandoned then reclaimed again (briefly) after my experience of the Loma Prieta earthquake and my inability for a few hours to check on the welfare of my children a hundred miles away. (For weeks afterward I felt like I was seasick, walking on liquid earth. Twenty-one years later I still remember vividly the sound the quake made—the roar of a train bearing down on us.)

Loma Prieta, 1989

upwind upriver glass
shook my son into the arms

of his sister and news
telephoned their feet

they stood fast there
bold as headlines

cracked bloodlines in plaster
incisions in concrete

some true things collapsed
a bridge in our minds

snapped and fear
furrowed like headlights

in the belly of the bay
hands and knees crawled

but the way was
flashlit the way was after

shock pilgrims
everything tumbledown

and shrines of dead

Fast forward a few more years: to Water Signs, another collection and title that hung on, making a few publisher rounds even as it outlived itself, until the poems in it morphed drastically and thus cried out for more change. The transformation occurred; the new version was called Eden Street; like all Edenic stories, this one too was short-lived.

So many false starts in this world of ten thousand poems!—Many tries at chapbooks too, titles like Glassworks, Attar, Face in the Glass, Archipelagos of Old Age, among the few I can remember. Most went the way of all those others I filed in the bright blue twenty-gallon recycling cans beneath the pink crepe myrtle in my yard.

Each time I unloosed and tossed yet another stack of poetic history in, I bowed to the loquacious snail at my feet.


On Hearing that Flora the Elephant has Retired from the Circus

by John Samuel Tieman

I’ve been asked to write a poem for Circus Flora. Flora is the eponymous African elephant, now in retirement. Here’s my first try:

Tanka For Flora

Now in retirement
Flora contemplates her life —
the circus — the kids —
she recalls Africa and
knows somewhere — somewhere out there —

An assignment like this brings out the playful side of writers. When I told my friend Arnie Schnegel about it, he immediately sent me these two delightful poems:

Circus Flora

Flora, the elephant,
Is quite the dancer.
In her tutu she looks
Quite fancier.

Circus Flora has gone
Into retirement.
Now she can wear
Simpler attirement.

Naming the Elephant

Flora, Flora,
Quite contrary,
Why didn’t they
Name you Mary?

And when Phoebe Cirio, my love, saw Arnie’s poems, she came up with this one, the best of the lot:

There once was an elephant named Flora
Who liked to dance the hora
Away she did go
No longer with the show
But we do still adore her



by Arnie Schnegel

There once was a man named Osama
Who got shot in his pajamas.
The lesson to tell:
Unless you’re Michelle
You don’t fuck with Obama.


Dad’s Rhymes

by Dawn Roper

My dad, Frank Roper, was a caterer and a versifier of sorts.

Here’s my dad’s rhyme to my sister Debbie on the topic of defensive driving:

Here lies Debbie, who died one day,
While trying to maintain the right-of-way.
She was right, dead right, as she drove along,
But she’s just as dead as if she’d been wrong.

Just so you don’t think he’s some sort of genius, I’ll tell you another. He was a caterer, so he was very strict about cleanliness in a kitchen. If we would ever fail to meet his standard he would recite the following:

“What will you have”?
The waitress said, as she stood there picking her nose.
“Two hard boiled eggs, you miserable witch,
you can’t get your fingers in those.”

Dad always tried to make us laugh while giving us the gears.