“Saul Stories” is an Exercise in Brutally Honest Ambiguity

by Jerome Spencer

“I stood there a long time and Saul stood next to me. I kept waiting for the beauty. It felt like I was always waiting.” 

I suppose if I had to explain what Saul Stories is “about”, I’d tell you something pertaining to a 40 year-old woman who hangs out with her teenage daughter, parties with her teenage friends and has a non-sexual (?) obsession with an underage boy. What Saul Stories is actually about, though, is moral ambiguity, societal expectations/standards and that hazy fog where art and life collide and the rules become unclear.

An imposing collection of short stories linked by the characters, Elizabeth Ellen crafts a relentless narrative that twists and plummets, conflating empathy with enabling and specifically challenging preconceived notions about the unspoken rules that dictate us. In particular, the accepted ideas about friendship, trust, and who can associate with whom. The main character of Saul Stories, an unnamed narrator, is so unlikable – an emotionally stunted “artist” living of a trust fund with no direction while financing a posse of delinquent eighth graders – that distrust for her intentions is imminent and fierce. The stories, however, are told with such brutal honesty and emotional uncertainty that her humanity takes on its own form and that form becomes the most relatable character in the book. It’s so easy to find oneself rooting for the narrator to win although it’s never clear what the stakes actually are or what any character in Saul Stories stands to win. 

Ellen never hits the reader in the face with any of this, though. The stories pummel through time, leaving the inevitable conflict and ugly parts implied like whispers in the community; like dirty looks from illustrious older white men who’ve invested a lot of money in something you obviously are supposed to be grateful for. It’s there. You feel it and everyone else does, too, yet no one ever talks about it. Ellen’s writing is masterful as Saul Stories reads like a candid conversation with an affable acquaintance that just shares too much and doesn’t give a fuck what you think. She never tries to sway the reader’s opinion or stance, merely gives an accurate review of the situation from one side of the story.

Smart without pretense, discontented without angst, uncomfortably funny and painstakingly direct, it’s almost cliché to laud Saul Stories as Lolita for the internet age, but it’s also hard to miss that assessment.
 

Fifty Shades of Yellow: Talking with Poet Shy Watson

by Jerome Spencer

 Sky's book is avaliable on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other book places
Sky’s book is avaliable on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other book places

I had to read “Cheap Yellow” twice. It’s such an engaging and entertaining read that I blew through its 170 pages in one sitting. And then the words just wouldn’t sit still – resonating and rumbling through my psyche – until I read it again. I had to be sure that I’d absorbed every infinitesimal facet and buried symbol of Shy Watson’s masterful exposition. Because while “Cheap Yellow” is, on the surface, stark confessional poetry that just goes right for the gut, it’s also full of luxurious wordplay that leads the reader in another direction altogether. It’s a cohesive and dense work, but it also reads like a journal entry because it basically is.

“Some of the poems are older,” author Shy Watson tells me, “Most of them were written like a year and a half ago. I just kept putting poems together into this word doc. And it was this one mass, completely unorganized terrible thing. The working title was “Dunkin Girls” because there’s a poem in there about walking girls to an apartment by a Dunkin Donuts, which is a true thing. I think it was when I got to 90 pages or something I was like ‘oh shit, maybe I should start organizing it’. But I had absolutely no idea how to do that.”

The poems come together under headings named for different (and random) types of yellow. It feels personal and honest, giving the book a specific tempo that lifts its distinctive narrative.
“I had noticed there were a lot of yellow mentions in the document,” Shy says, “Maybe it was because My Aura is Cheap Yellow. I just got the idea one day, randomly, to organize it by shades of yellow. And I started thinking of shades of yellow that could arise from the poems. Like “Miller High Life Yellow” because I’m drinking that in there, there’s probably some piss mentioned so that might be where “Dehydrated Piss” comes from and “Stars on a Wizard Hat” just because its mystical things… Then I just made headings for them and thought ‘which poems go under this heading?’ like a sorting hat from Harry Potter or something. And it all kind of naturally fell into place.”

“I think a lot of times, some action happening has extra meaning behind it. And I try to notice those things.”

These headings make the poems flow and intermingle; the pages turn themselves, each gut-wrenching poem more riveting than the next. Reading “Cheap Yellow” is like having a conversation with an old friend, only you want to repeat it almost immediately.  It was on the second reading that I was forced to absorb the raw power of Shy’s words. No matter how many times I re-read “Pacsun Yellow.” it doesn’t stop stinging. It’s vulnerable prose that so captures the ennui of mis led suburban youth and sexualization of young girls that it physically hurts to read it. 

“Yeah, it’s intense,” Shy says of “Pacsun Yellow,” “It actually wasn’t supposed to be in the final edition, but I think it was meant to be. Michael, my publisher, sent an old version [of the book] on accident to [author] Scott McClanahan to blurb it. And when Michael sent me the blurb it was all about the mall poem.  And I was like ‘how does Scott know about the poem about the mall?’ The final .pdf I sent to Michael didn’t have it in there anymore because I felt like maybe it was too heavy. I felt embarrassed by it actually and that might be because it comes from such a vulnerable place. Everything that was in there was like ‘Oh my god, I have to delete that before the final version.’ It’s maybe too close to home literally and figuratively, but… I don’t want to ask Scott to write me a new blurb so maybe it should be in there.”

It definitely should be in there; “Pacsun Yellow” is easily the most powerful and concentrated work in “Cheap Yellow,” but it’s also to understand why Shy struggled with fitting it into the narrative. 

“I realized recently that I have a really fucked up family and a really fucked up upbringing, but I never write about that,” Shy tells me, “I don’t think about the past very much honestly so I’m always writing about what’s currently happening in my life. Recently I just had this realization that I had so much shit that I could be mining from my past and back home that I’m not.”

 She paints, too!
She paints, too!

“I got in this weird place where I was thinking about malls and how depressing they are and I was remembering stuff I’d completely forgotten about from when I was a kid – like getting fingered by that boy in the Hot Topic dressing room. It just feels really dirty thinking about adolescence in the Midwest, hoe-ing it out at the mall within a 30 mile range. It just feels like really dark shit. I definitely want to work more on that sort of stuff. ‘Pacsun Yellow’ is definitely one of the more recent poems in the book so that’s fresh on my mind.”

Shy’s prose has a sense of urgency to it and reading it is like concurrently being a fly on the wall and being in the writer’s head. “I don’t ever think about what I’m writing,” she confesses, “I write what literally happens but those things just so happen to have that extra layer. I think a lot of times, some action happening has extra meaning behind it. And I try to notice those things.”

Her poetry can make the most mundane situation seem like a life-changing event and a life-altering event seem like a shared trauma. It’s because of how deeply personal Shy’s poems are that they’re so relatable. Cheap Yellow isn’t full of hazy metaphors about flowers or meanderings on the concept of heartbreak. And if you’re a fan of vague, lilting Instagram poetry this may be a little too cutting for you; but if you’re a real, living human being who has actually experienced emotional pain, “Cheap Yellow” may as well be about you. If the last two lines of “136 Grattan” don’t break your heart, it’s because you don’t have one. 

Through her own personal experiences and through a fresh voice, Shy channels an almost omnipotent tone, channeling the ups and downs of a whole generation raised on the internet, reality TV, Frappuccinos and an obligatory Bright Eyes phase.

A Good For Nothing Artist Explores Obscenity With Pussy Power

by Shannon Jay

Megumi Igarashi, better known by her pseudonym Rokudenashiko (meaning “good for nothing”), is a Japanese manga cartoonist and sculptor who, after getting labia surgery and feelin’ herself, indirectly challenged Japanese obscenity laws.

ろくでなし子

or

碌 でなし子

[other meanings: “reprobate”, “bastard”, “ne’er-do-well”]

Light-hearted molds of her new vulva—turned decorative dioramas—quickly became a political statement when met with much criticism and backlash from members of the Japanese populace. Whether it was men disgusted at the sight of female genitalia, or perverts who sexualized her objects, Igarashi’s purpose became pushing the limits and mass-producing pussy to make the reproductive organ “casual and pop.”

This was an especially tricky feat in Japan, where female genitalia is censored in everything, even pornography. Before her molds, Rokudenashiko had hardly heard the word “manko” (meaning “pussy”) ever uttered. She had little idea what her own vulva even looked like, let alone another woman’s.

Each year, however, Japan holds an annual Festival of the Steel Phallus, which celebrates male fertility by displaying gigantic phallic-shaped shrines and plenty of penis-shaped memorabilia. Despite this, blurred pussy is in accordance with a 100-year old obscenity law where distribution of “anything eliciting sexual desire” could lead to fees or jail time.

In Igarashi’s case, she got both. She was arrested twice in 2014, her house raided and artwork confiscated. She was charged with distribution of obscene materials after sending 3D vector files of her molds to crowdfunders who helped build her pussy-shaped kayak. After much uproar, she was released from prison.

What Is Obscenity? The Story of a Good For Nothing Artist and Her Pussy, follows Rokudenashiko’s journey throughout her trial. The entertaining autobiography details the raid of her home, where cops, unable to utter the moniker of the objects that they were confiscating, squirm as a bold Igarashi defyingly yells the word “MANKO” aloud. She discusses her stint in jail, and details the wacky women who came and went. The book delightfully chronicles the artist’s difficult trajectory toward manga and manko art—an inspiring and relatable journey that begins with unsureness, but ultimately leads to a means of changing the world.