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: 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.

 

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

On Place: Erik Moe

Place shapes our lives in unseen ways every day. I’m especially interested in how choices made in the distant past shape our present day landscape, affect our emotional well-being, our psychology, and the choices we make about how to live our lives. By extension, the choices we are making today are changing the shape of lives in the distant future. This is the main idea I explore in my hyperlocal sci-fi utopias project Future Cartographic Society, with which I am using stories, illustrations, and shared experiences to ask,what will your neighborhood look like in 200 years?” For that project and other writings of mine, I’ve developed a sort of personal cosmology of places I’ve known.

Minneapolis

The place that shaped my formative understanding of the world was the Minneapolis that existed in the 1980s and 1990s. How did it come to be? 200 years prior it had been wild prairie along the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, a place the Dakota people called bdote, or “the conflux of waters at the center of the world.” The United States chose to break treaties with the Dakota in order to colonize this place. Industrialists built railroads, grain mills, and factories. In 1883, the voters of that city had the foresight to set aside the most beautiful lakes, streams and land for public parks. Economic tumult in northern Europe brought my great-grandparents there to farm, or to build a new life in the new city rising. The streets were layed out in a logical grid. The houses were set back to allow grand views of the prairie horizon and an urban forrest. The wealth of this new city was often used for public good. It was channelled in to arts and culture, into public works. Museums, theaters, warehouse-sized coffeeshops, record stores, and easily accessible all-ages clubs echoing with punk, grunge, and folk and hiphop sprouted up. This became my playground.

Philadelphia

It wasn’t until I moved to Philadelphia in 2001 that I began to understand just how different place can be, and the psychological effects of those differences. William Penn’s plan for what is now Center City Philadelphia was had been laid out in 1682 and aimed to embody Quaker values of “religious, racial, and gender equality.” Those values felt present in the city in 2001, but so did the city’s long history of corrupt politics and troubled race relations. Infrastructure was crumbling. Vines and overgrowth crowded out streets and sidewalks. Poverty and rubble blanketed vast sections of the city that I rarely took the opportunity to explore. Still, punk bands, DJs, and art galleries and community-based performance artists were thriving. Often they worked and performed in the basements and grand halls of institutions of religious tolerance and ethnic solidarity build more than 200 years prior.

Chicago

My time in Chicago was brief, but affected me deeply. I devoured books on its history, which I read in cafes and on long walks by the lakefront in the summer. These included: Devil in the White City; Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago; and Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. It felt in some ways like like the Minneapolis of my youth had grown up, been complicated, remixed, and exaggerated to the scale of Batman’s Gotham. Trains meandered slowly past second-floor living rooms where family dramas and loneliness were on display for all who could afford a C.T.A. fare. The open wounds of redlining gave a visceral feel to ethnic and racial segregation from one neighborhood to the next. The city’s relentless grid stretched to a horizon where it comforted me to know that it eventually faded out to the same ocean of prairie grass that the Minneapolis of my youth was adrift in.

D.C.

D.C. is the jigsaw puzzle I’ve come to love over the past decade. I’ve taken meandering walks and bike rides through nearly all of its corridors and neighborhoods. Forgotten alleys. Distant traffic circles that only locals confidently name when giving directions. The crumbling goat paths of Rock Creek Park. In planning the capital city in 1791, Piere L’Enfant borrowed from classical ideals and philosophies of landscape, including the Gardens of Versailles. As a result, in the width of the streets, the placement of buildings, gardens, circles and monuments, one can absorb the philosophical ideals of French aristocracy and its relationship to the American revolution. The plan is sterilized, tamed, symmetrical, militarized, but also clean, elegant and poetic. Meanwhile, most of modern D.C. lies beyond L’Enfant’s plan. If you cross Florida Avenue to the north or the Anacostia River to the south you can feel a change in the attitude of those who directed the bricklaying. Practical, working class values often perched houses wherever it made sense. Grids, street names, standards and planning came later on. Wars and riots and jazz and funk pumped through these veins and arteries. Today, it’s all one D.C. woven together by culture and memory. Seamlessly stitched to some eyes. Erik MoeHopelessly tattered to others. It’s the place I’ve slowly, carefully, grown comfortable calling home.

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Erik Moe is the creator and Chief of Expeditions for Future Cartographic Society, for whom he is writing and collecting tales of hyperlocal future utopias in D.C. and across North America. He is also the curator of MAKE DC WEIRD, a conversation about “the D.C. we love, the D.C. we have, and the D.C. we want.” His website is erikmoe.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @erikmoe.
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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.