On Place: Cameron Gearen

Places I have been, places I have loved or hated: all carry a “charge.” Maine or West Texas or Chicago: as it appears in my work, it stands in for certain feeling states linked to events that happened there. The place becomes a shorthand for the feeling and can return in leitmotif, even in other poems.

Place names come up often in my work. They mean: trauma, safety, love, domesticity, family. They mean: happy, curious, confident, translucent, exotic. They mean: childhood, parenthood, adulthood, marriage. They mean, I’ve been there and lived a chunk of my life there and I want to tell you about it.

This particular poem, Fun with Dying, is set against the backdrop of Seattle, Washington. Seattle is a city I don’t know well; the only time I spent there was when my father was seeking medical treatment for cancer at the age of 39. He was living in Alaska at the time and the resources there were not sophisticated enough to treat him; hence, his extended trip to Seattle. He rented a garden apartment, but also spent many days and nights at the hospital. His health emergency, juxtaposed with a glittering and interesting new (to me) city, combined to make this poem. I played up the tension I saw—between the place and the situation—considerably, as I imagined my stepmother and me leaving him in a hospital room to explore all the glitz and glam that Seattle could offer us. I hoped the irony would underscore the difficulty we all experienced as we faced his (fatal) illness.

Years later, long after my father was dead, I remembered, through flashbacks, that he had sexually abused me for most of my childhood. The dark tension in this poem, the rage that bubbles beneath the surface despite his serious illness, might be attributed to that history that I didn’t yet know consciously when I was in Seattle with him—but did know when I wrote the poem. Unlike most of my poems, drafted over months and years, this one arrived mostly in one breath and I struggled to get it down fast enough. It was originally published in the New Haven Review and is coming out in March 2016 in my book entitled Some Perfect Year (Shearsman).

 

Fun with Dying

The year you died was gala festive. Didn’t I party dress for monthly

plane flights from my lake to your ocean? Each time you gauntly

greeted, your skin poked carbon blue where needles entered, the strange

shunt dangle from its temporary home, you St. Sebastian and your arrows.

Your girl and I ate out and brought you cheese. We tooled Seattle

like tourists, its single rainless winter we sequined, brought you

accordioned nosegays. You seemed to like hospital sleeping, fluttering

nurses to morphine drip. Sometimes we restauranted sans you.

You loved to see us glow and we obliged. Layers peeled you papery,

trapeze-artist light, your fingernails gone to skin. The drugs took your hair

and left you seal-smooth; carved chin to chisel, lashless eyes, the shell melting

and your warm core soaking sheets, turning toward the grisly plants

we windowsilled. We shopped that city, found expensive knits, boutique

sweaters with slate buttons. We bought eyeliner by the tub. Your girl,

she held my hand while yours skeletoned. Nothing you said when we asked

what gifts. I zipped my knee-high boots, she fastened her trench, breezed

out. We always smelled of apricot scrub, avocado. Why would someone stay

bedside, listen to a rattle? Rattles come from coughs and lead to comas.

We weren’t the knitting type, we had exhausted crosswords. It was you

who urged us go, a day not circumscribe our wantings. We wished you well

again and burly but turned your sick ghoulish. The doc and residents predicted

nine more months—a long time in my short life. Let’s go, he wants us to,

I told her and we left you again, bright things to be bought, a turquoise scarf

my neck needed, crème brulée I loved to its caramel end. You lay

thirty-nine mixed years quilted on your rotten body: thought things through.

Set the pillows, rode the angles, fresh from your sponge bath. You

knew the shift change rhythm like a poker hand. Nightcap nurse

took your vitals and we dropped off a confection. When months ticked through

to April, we all agreed it had been a beautiful year and a fine one for dying in.

No one could say when a starless Washington winter had glimmered so.

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223_cameron-gearen

About the Poet

Cameron Gearen published a poetry chapbook entitled Night, Relative to Day, selected by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. Her poetry has appeared in Fence, The Antioch Review, Toad, the poker, Crazyhorse, The Bakery, Spinoza Blue and in many other journals. She won the Grolier Prize, the W.B.Yeats Society Prize and the Lynda Hull Prize from Crazyhorse and was a recipient of the Barbara Deming / Money for Women Fund. She publishes essays in Dame Magazine and blogs daily at camazon.tumblr.com. Her short fiction is up at The Easy Chair podcast here. She works as a freelance writer and college counselor and lives outside of Chicago with her daughters and her dog.

Her new book, Some Perfect Year, can be purchased on the Shearsman Books site here.

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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: Miriam Vaswani

Place in Frankfurt

The stories I call good burrow into the reader’s mind, then come back like a tenacious virus. Place, for me, is what wakes the virus. I walk through the streets of a city and there’s the story, the one I read last year. It was set here, a character lived in a building like this one, smelled the smoke from that street vendor, slept on a bed that creaked a bit like this.

Frankfurt is the story of Farah, a woman enraged by her damaged career, and about her affair with Marcus. It began as a rough sketch of a woman opening a door to the garage underneath her apartment and turned into a story of the world, set in a small, impersonal space in the middle of a cold city.

 

The Apartment

I was living in Stuttgart when I wrote Frankfurt. It’s a rich, unhappy city, dedicated to the automotive companies that power the German economy. I was a contractor for one of these, and my employer organized a temporary apartment for me in the midst of its offices. It was a functional cube with good light, across from a row of corporate hotels.

Frankfurt, a banking town, is even more empty on the weekends than Stuttgart. I moved my/Farah’s apartment from the Neckar to the Main and altered a few details to emphasize her unwillingness to move in. The kitchenware is not her own, she has semi-unpacked boxes, she uses an empty jar instead of an ashtray. The garage is the same, with its Swiss and Italian license plates, as is the emptiness of the building on weekends as everyone goes back to wherever they really live.

Farah tells us nothing else of the room, and she develops few rituals. By contrast, her affair with Marcus is elaborate and ritualistic, remembered in vivid detail; we know about his fastidiousness with wine, the scar on his chest, the texture of his beard, her menstrual blood on his wedding ring, their subtle intimacies before they sleep. His body is more like home to her than the apartment.

 

The City

A few weeks ago I walked through Frankfurt Airport, a place familiar enough to navigate without much thought, and saw a reflection in a window of a woman lifting a black case onto a security belt. And I thought, there’s Farah. It’s only right that she’d haunt me in that most transitory of airports.

While the apartment is functional to Farah, the city barely exists. Frankfurt doesn’t feature in the story in any physical way. Her scorn for the place is clear; at her most animated she describes it as a money-obsessed backwater. The only image she provides of the city is her work on a collection of anonymous desks. I used Stuttgart again, transferring the worst of it to Frankfurt and to Farah. I didn’t give her the nice things, like cycling through the Schlossgarten in spring, the opera, my favorite deli, my wonderful office and colleagues. Misery magnifies bad shit, like the racist landlords Farah (and I) contended with. To make Frankfurt feel as cold and bland to the reader as it is to Farah, I needed contrast.

Frankfurt’s original title was Lahore, after Farah’s ancestral city which she’s never seen, but where Marcus has worked. Both characters exist in several places at once; another thing I lent them. Farah is Canadian, Marcus is Belgian and German. Farah’s memories of a childhood in Ottawa, a place she initially seems to dismiss, and her image of Marcus’ apartment, which she’s never visited, were written to convey warmth, though distant. Over time, she gives Marcus images of the blue streamers on her childhood bicycle and canoeing on the lakes of Ontario, and later evokes the worn, loved furniture that Marcus and his wife have collected in Brussels. Her mysterious years in Kazakhstan and St Petersburg, and Marcus’ equally murky time in Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan were written to hint at the unrest the two might be addicted to, as was Farah’s knowledge of her violent infancy. Farah’s mind is largely with the Arab Spring, in its late stages as I wrote the story. It’s where her colleagues are, where she wants to be.

Some places are hot, some are cold. Farah lives in Frankfurt (cold) in a sterile apartment (cold). It’s where the entire affair with Marcus happens (hot), but other places they’ve lived (hot) take shape in their habits and memories. There’s also a big/small contrast; the Arab Spring, Kazakhstan, Canada and Pakistan are big. Frankfurt is small and Farah’s apartment is minuscule, but at its center are Farah and Marcus, and their affair, which is enormous, and while this affair is a place where they’re free to be vulnerable, it’s also laced with war-like images of fire and blood.

 

The Internet

In the end, the internet. We’re all there, our names and images and everything connected to us, living a kind of parallel life. We have a little control, but not much, and it’s like home, but not really. For Farah it’s the place where her reputation was trashed and the reason she was exiled, more or less, to Frankfurt. She refers to ‘the Almaty incident’ that destroyed her career, and it’s understood that its stubborn place at the top of a search for her name is the main issue. For Marcus the significance seems to be less; he’s older than Farah, his career predates the internet, and his professional reputation is more solid than hers. Farah and Marcus aren’t intended to be a perfect couple, nor a particularly destructive pairing. I don’t think either of them intend to become significant to one another; it’s largely a result of the violent exposition at the end of the story that they become bound to one another in that most modern of marriages, search engine results.

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4-up on 24-11-2014 at 19.33Frankfurt was published in Gutter. To subscribe to the magazine, please click here.

Miriam is the author of Frontier, a novella published by Pankhearst in 2014. Her short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Gutter Magazine, Valve Journal, The Stockholm Review of Literature, Gender Across Borders, Tin House, Newfound, Retort and Our Penniless Write. She covered the Edinburgh International Book Festival as a columnist in 2009, 2010 and 2011 and was fiction editor of Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine from 2012 to 2014. Her short story Under Water was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2013 and her blog, Little Bones, was archived by the British Library as part of the UK Web Archive project. She lives in Tunisia. http://miriamvaswani.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.

CAIRO IN WHITE IS BACK!!!

After Musa Publishing closed its doors I was devastated, not only because I loved working with the publisher, but because they had published my first novel, Cairo in White, and had been the first ones to believe in me as an author.

I knew that I wanted to get the book back out into the world as soon as possible, so I decided to self publish the book instead of scramble to find another publisher.

With the help of wonderful book designer Kelly Shorten,  Cairo in White is now available on Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, and CreateSpace, and will be available on Amazon.com and Kindle soon.

Thank you to everyone who has supported the book since it first came out last February, or even before that, in the six years it took me to write it. I could never have gotten through all of those revisions without you!

<3 KAJ