On Place: Katherine Young

Letter to Tolik: Rostov-on-Don, Russia

Dear Tolik,

You won’t remember me: I’m not the person you wanted to know back then, in 1987, in Rostov-on-Don, city founded by Peter the Great several defunct empires ago. But you, your wife Tanya, and your two young daughters wanted to befriend my American colleague, and we Americans weren’t allowed to visit Soviet citizens on our own, so I was my colleague’s babysitter. Although I wasn’t that kind of babysitter: I didn’t report to anyone about who I met or what we said or did together (though when I eventually got back to America, I was invited to a basement room in Washington to share anything I thought might be “useful”). Maybe you don’t even remember the times we came to dinner in your first-floor apartment cut into the bank of the Don River – apartment with a brownish water line three feet above the floor that marked where the Don flooded every spring. Apartment where your daughters suffered from dampness and asthma, suffered so much that you were willing to do anything, risk anything, to get them to a warmer, drier home. It’s unlikely that you’re here to remember anything at all: you told us how you’d volunteered to fight the fire at Chernobyl when the reactor blew, did it of your own free will in those first desperate days. You thought doing so would earn you a better apartment for your girls. That was the Soviet Union, Tolik, we know how it was: no one worked, no one managed, cataclysms somehow just happened, and people threw themselves into the inferno. It was heroes who were needed, not Geiger counters or lead shields. Heroes were supposed to get new apartments. Heroes like you, who gave everything for love, their blackened, radiation-wasted bodies buried hastily in sealed caskets in a closed Moscow cemetery. Tolik, I’ve written poems about that time and place, about everyday Soviet people who were my friends, about not-friends like you, about those I did not know, “the armies of the everyday who woke / each morning and set patiently about / making something of their lives, despite / every conceivable incentive to do / nothing….” Sure, I’m a writer. I hung around with refuseniks and intellectuals in Moscow, I had season tickets to the Conservatory and, like Pasternak, a seat by the columns. But like you, too, I trudged through the November mud, slogged through the eternally dug-up streets where in the year of our lord 1987 they were still trying to bring indoor plumbing to the good citizens of Rostov. Past the boarded-up church and the sleek Communist Party HQ, past the little museum where they preserve a ticket from the night Rachmaninoff played Rostov back before the 1917 Revolution: I leaned, like you, into the pitiless wind that rolls in from the steppe. Later, I myself drove through the Chernobyl zone. I thought of you there, you and Tanya and your daughters. What place on earth should signify more to me than your apartment with the water-stained walls, smelling of fried fish and potatoes? Apartment where two little girls could not stop coughing as Russian snow piled high against the windows. It’s me, Tolik, with just a notebook and a handful of words that to this day I haven’t managed to tame to tell of the most beautiful and terrible sacrifice I’ve ever seen: yours. This is your book.

Hope you are well,

Katya

Day of the Border Guards, a 2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist (U of Arkansas Press), poems set entirely in Russia and the former Soviet Union, can be ordered here. Links to individual poems from the collection can be found here.

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12767549_510654682454499_28164105_nKatherine E. Young is the author of Day of the Border Guards, 2014 Miller Williams Arkansas Poetry Prize finalist (U of Arkansas Press) and two chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Iowa Review, Shenandoah, and others. Young is also the translator of Two Poems by Inna Kabysh (Artist’s Proof Editions); her translations of Russian poets Xenia Emelyanova and Inna Kabysh won third prize in the Joseph Brodsky-Stephen Spender competitions in 2014 and 2011, respectively. A full-length collection of Inna Kabysh’s poems was a finalist for the Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation. In 2015 Young was named a Hawthornden Fellow. http://katherine-young-poet.com/

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About the “On Place” Series:

In honor of my first poetry collection–I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams, in which most of the poems engage with place in some way–I have asked other writers, authors, and poets to compose blog posts about the effects of place on their own work. To enter a contest for a free copy of the book, please leave a comment on any of the blog posts in the series. One winner will be selected at the end of February and one at the end of March. If the winner already has the book, he or she may select a different book from my collection.

For the schedule of blog posts, please see this page.

On Place: Jacquelyn Bengfort

 

Thirteen years. I left North Dakota thirteen years ago, bound for the east coast, and except for holidays and few stretches of summer, I haven’t been back.

But for eighteen years, North Dakota was almost all I knew. My tiny hometown–actually quite respectably sized by Midwestern standards, with over 2000 residents–and its characters and its Craftsmans and its single stop light was my world. My parents graduated from the town’s high school; so did their parents.

For eighteen years, that town was my stage. I drove its Main Street in cars, singing to the music on the radio, and marched it in parades; I worked my minimum-wage job at its Pizza Ranch; I sacked its library on a weekly basis.

As the truism goes–”write what you know,” right? So I ought to have been writing Little Epics on the Prairie, I suppose.

Yet it took North Dakota a long time to find its way into my writing. In the same way that an anthropologist can struggle to analyze her own culture in any meaningful way, because it is natural for her and thereby invisible, for years I struggled to evoke the Midwest with words.

Finally, this past summer, a writing prompt from Midwestern Gothic shook something loose, and I wrote “All That’s Left of Cuba,” a flash-length story about a narrator driving out to find a town named Cuba. This drive is grounded in reality–I went out looking for Cuba as a teenager, curiosity piqued by a sign next to the highway.

The story poured out only hours before the submission deadline, and in the writing I found myself finally able to write about the place that had been my home for so long. I think it mattered that the prompt took the form of a picture, and that the picture showed a place abandoned. The prairie is a visual place; you can see forever, and the sky is enormous, and it feels, sometimes, like a strong wind could tear you off the earth. It is a landscape characterized in many ways by absence–devoid of hills, empty of people. Writing “Cuba,” I finally remembered how when I first came out east I felt so squeezed by the oppression of the trees that line many of Maryland and DC’s highways, how I hated having the horizon line obscured and how I lost my ability to predict the weather, how much I missed stars thick enough to serve as a backdrop against which columns of smoke could be detected.

All of it went into the story.

I remembered also how we seemed epic, there. Some people claim small-town living is limiting, but I don’t agree. When there are only a few people bound together tightly, everyone becomes a part of a story that is being written together. Lives take on the qualities of myth. The sisters I wrote of, like the drive to find Cuba–they have their counterparts in the history of my hometown. In our earthbound constellations, their stars still shine.

Since “Cuba,” I’ve begun circling back time and again to the plains, writing things that are true, and things that are fiction but could be true, and things that could never happen but feel true nonetheless. Writing what I know, at last. It’s only that it took me thirteen years to know it.

 

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JaciJacquelyn Bengfort was born in North Dakota, educated at the U.S. Naval Academy and Oxford University, and now resides in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in Gargoyle, Storm Cellar, District Lines, and the anthologies Magical and Dear Robot, among other places. Find her online at www.JaciB.com.

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In honor of my first poetry collection–I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams, in which most of the poems engage with place in some way–I have asked other writers, authors, and poets to compose blog posts about the effects of place on their own work. To enter a contest for a free copy of the book, please leave a comment on any of the blog posts in the series. One winner will be selected at the end of February and one at the end of March. If the winner already has the book, he or she may select a different book from my collection.

For the schedule of blog posts, please see this page.

 

 

On Place: Marlena Chertock

Forecasts as Inspiration

Forecast: 2085, published in OMNI Reboot, was born out of recurrent nightmares. I often dream that I’m driving along the highway and suddenly spot a tornado in my rearview mirror. The black vortex swirls closer and closer even as I slam on the accelerator. Or I’m on the beach, and then notice that the tide has gone so far out, the hermit crabs and starfish are easily visible. Which is a signal for a tidal wave. I’ll dream that I can see the wave starting to form, or that my town is flooding.

In eighth grade, I researched tornadoes for a science pamphlet. When I was even younger, I watched a program on mega tsunamis. Learning more about these events seemed to draw me in even more. For as long as I can remember, tornadoes and tidal waves have been two of my biggest fears. Maybe it’s the fact that if one of them actually happened, I would be utterly helpless.

I wrote Forecast: 2085 with a tinge of this fear in my stomach. For the past few months, I’ve been working on a series of stories titled Forecast, and Forecast: 2085 is the first of them that I have published. I wondered about the way things are going with climate change in my lifetime. How scientists are increasingly discussing sea-level rise, earthquakes, melting arctic ice, stronger winter storms and hurricanes. I thought that maybe by the year 2085, natural disasters would be so prevalent that they became normal. Like the typical forecast of the day.

That’s how Joanna was born, checking her weather app in the morning and finding that she’d face tornadoes, an earthquake, and a blizzard all in the same day, all in the same area. Joanna is much stronger than me, and opens her door in the face of these terrifying weather events, while I would probably be cowering in the basement.

Forecast: 2085 takes place in a city where people commute in and out every day from the nearby highways. They park their cars in garages in the city. I had Washington, D.C. and its suburbs in mind as I wrote, though I wanted others to be able to connect to the story.

My other story published in OMNI Reboot is Magruder Park Underwater. Last summer, I sat in a playground in a park nestled in Hyattsville, Maryland, a neighborhood right outside of D.C. After swinging and playing on the train, my friends and I wrote in notebooks. As a writing prompt, we gave each other a word to use and the setting of the story or poem had to be the park. That’s how I was inspired to write Magruder Park Underwater.

Like my Forecast series, this story includes themes of climate change, sea-level rise, and mass evacuation. I wondered what would happen to a flooded park. This tumbled into the world flooding and people evacuating the Chesapeake Bay areas. Once the park became an ocean, fish, turtles, and an octopus became residents of the playground. And so did a lone mermaid named Zina.

Sitting in the playground on that summer day, with kids running and screaming all around me, I could easily see the present and the future that I was creating in this underwater world. As kids stuck their fingers through holes that seem to be in all playground walls, I could picture tiny fish swimming through them instead. The creaking merry-go-round that kids were trying to hold onto became the octopus’ safe space, him wrapping his tentacles around the handrails. The weeping willow trees and cattails surrounding the park would be transformed underwater, their long branches swaying eerily.

Since I attended the University of Maryland in College Park, envisioning nearby Route 1 underwater was strange. I had fun making Zina explore areas of the park, then venture out onto Route 1 and the town.

I often write poems and stories based in my childhood homes, summer camp, or while traveling. Using place — especially a specific place in mind — can really help to shape a story and give it life. I hope you enjoy both of these pieces!

marlenachertock
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Marlena Chertock is the Poetry Editor for District Lit and a graduate of the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House. Her poems and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Cactus Heart, Dear Robot: An Anthology of Epistolary Science Fiction, The Fem, The Little Patuxent Review, OMNI Reboot, Paper Darts, and The Syzygy Poetry Journal. Find her at marlenachertock.com or @mchertock.
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About the “On Place” Series

In honor of my first poetry collection–I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams, in which most of the poems engage with place in some way–I have asked other writers, authors, and poets to compose blog posts about the effects of place on their own work. To enter a contest for a free copy of the book, please leave a comment on any of the blog posts in the series. One winner will be selected at the end of February and one at the end of March. If the winner already has the book, he or she may select a different book from my collection.

For the schedule of blog posts, please see this page.

 

Book Review: Songs of My Selfie

a6bf10ca-5779-4ca0-b25d-aef0f8eae828I didn’t intend to spend my snow day reading my ARC of Songs of My Selfie.

Instead, I intended to use today as a work day, to grade the never-ending composition papers sitting in my inbox or perhaps plan some promotional events for the spring.

But then I started the book.

At twenty-seven, I am just over the cutoff mark for the millennials who wrote the short stories in Songs of My Selfie, but when it comes to identifying with the stressed out, sleepless girl in the airport in Suzanne Herman’s “The Most Laid-Back Guy Ever” or Ryan Fitzpatrick escaping college loans in “Becoming John Doe,” I am just the right age.

In the world of literary fiction, most books are written by older writers discussing older things. Marriage. Children. Divorce. Not often do I read a short story like “Small Bump” or “Victoria” and think to myself Yes, that’s familiar, I’ve been there. Not actually there—I’ve never had a pregnancy scare out of wedlock or run away from home—but there emotionally, there where the heart of the story speaks of the adventure and pain of being out of college and broke and struggling to find your place in the world.

Though there is some speculative fiction in the collection, I think the realistic stories are where Songs of My Selfie works the best. Stories like “Pill Popper,” in which a customer yells at a young pharmacist, ring true for every reader. They also help the book fill an important gap in literature, not just as a short story collection about millennials, but as an anthology written by them—an anthology that conveys its themes of what editor Constance Renfrow calls “a common experience new to our generation: the quarter-life crisis” with a collective, resounding millennial sigh that any reader can identify with.

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Songs of My Selfie  comes out on April 5th from Three Rooms Press.

On Place: Constance Renfrow

Location plays a central role in my short fiction. Counter to my usually unnamed narrators and ethereal plots, I use place as a concrete foundation—the one solid element of the story for my reader to latch onto. Most often it’s New York, or small-town North Jersey—the one famous, and the other, when stripped of specifics, ubiquitous. But today I’ll focus on New York, as represented in my short story, “The Edge of Happiness,” first published in the F&M Alumni Arts Review and soon to be reprinted in my anthology of millennial fiction Songs of My Selfie.

When looked at simply in terms of plot, “The Edge of Happiness” is about a frustrated artist who asks a street psychic about the strange white “edges” she sees outlining friends and passersby. They are, she learns to her chagrin, the physical manifestation of happiness.

More accurately, however, it’s about being young and disillusioned, and more accurately still, it’s about being young and disillusioned in New York City. I won’t say this story couldn’t take place anywhere else—in any other city in the world—but New York is known as a haven for the young and the creative and those who are lost, looking to be found. It is a home to transplants, and I rely on my reader knowing the mythos of NYC in order to fully understand the narrator’s ambitions—to make it as an artist in the big city—and thus her great anguish: to realize art comes not from place but from within.

Certainly I as a writer have an almost superstitious understanding of place in connection to my ability to create. When I’m feeling uninspired, I’ll think If only I could be there, I could write—whether “there” be Governor’s Island or Fort Tryon Park. And I’ll travel for hours to get to a place, only to discover I’ve tired myself out on the journey or the good spots are taken or some other reason why this ideal location is, in reality, no mecca for art.

I tried to present this idea in “The Edge of Happiness,” with a transplant narrator who came to New York on the understanding that here, above all places, she would be inspired to create.  She says, “New York is known for its many faces, its slouching beauties” and then “I haven’t even wanted to draw them.” The psychic suggests a change of place of employ; instead of the dreary antique store where she works, perhaps a more vibrant, energetic setting would inspire her, make her joyful. The role of place in making art, I would argue, is the central theme of the piece.

But these are the intangibles of New York. Of course the story employs the facts of day-to-day life in the city. The ever-rising cost of using the subway becoming prohibitively expensive to underpaid young artists—thus prompting the narrator to walk what savvy readers will know to be roughly 100 blocks north.

As a writer, I appreciate using as settings locations I know intimately. Having worked for several years a few blocks from where “The Edge of Happiness” takes place, I could easily pull from memory the small details of setting that make a story authentic.  The street names, the people outside Penn Station, the shadow of Madison Square Garden, looming high above.

And where else can you get a tarot reading for five dollars, from street psychics who are always hunting for new business through pamphlets at street corners, or simply knocking as you pass their storefronts? Then, with New York’s tall, narrow buildings crammed together—every inch of space used to its fullest—these five-dollar psychics are relegated to tiny, cramped cells the size of phone booths. Though unspoken, the claustrophobia of the space and the cheapness of the reading fuel the urgency of the piece. The narrator’s need to find her answers and get out of there before it gets too late counters the psychic’s need to upsell her customer or get another one. And then, both characters share that notorious New York irritability—and cynicism—as each tries to tell the other why she’s wrong.

New York, arguably, is the third protagonist in this piece. Without the city, and the hopes and dreams and assumptions it evokes, “The Edge of Happiness” would just be a story about an artist consulting a psychic. But with New York City at its center, this becomes a piece about so much more.

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1797552_10208381274514385_3644309628966719435_nConstance Renfrow is a New York-based writer and editor. She is the lead editor for Three Rooms Press and a freelance editor and writing coach at constancerenfrow.com. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in such places as Cabildo Quarterly, Denim Skin, Petrichor Machine, and she hosts a monthly open mic series at the Merchant’s House Museum. A lover of nineteenth-century literature, she’s currently completing a three-volume governess novel, her first full-length work. Lastly, she compiled the anthology of millennial fiction, Songs of My Selfie (Three Rooms Press, April 2016), now available for preorder! Follow her on Twitter @MissConstance21 and/or @SongsOfMySelfie.

Enter to win an advanced copy of Songs of My Selfie on Goodreads. Contest ends February 11.

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About the “On Place” Series

In honor of my first poetry collection–I Have Conversations with You in My Dreams, in which most of the poems engage with place in some way–I have asked other writers, authors, and poets to compose blog posts about the effects of place on their own work. To enter a contest for a free copy of the book, please leave a comment on any of the blog posts in the series. One winner will be selected at the end of February and one at the end of March. If the winner already has the book, he or she may select a different book from my collection.

For the schedule of blog posts, please see this page.

– See more at: http://www.kellyannjacobson.com/on-place-series/on-place-erik-moe.html#sthash.z1Miv0bf.dpuf