After all the tremors amassed their destruction, she somehow stood. And this, more than her excitable laugh or sophisticated shape, was what Hank Williams realized he loved so much about her.
I’m not going to pretend that This Hasn’t Been A Magical Journey So Far isn’t an odd read; it’s specific and weird and kind of obscene. It’s also brilliant and insightful and hilarious and heartbreaking. Homeless uses a storytelling technique so compelling, so masterfully crafted and so unique that it’s impossible not to get wrapped up in his bizarre adventure through what I can only assume is a subconscious gray dreamland that fades in and out of an even more gray reality. The narrative takes its reader through every possible emotion at an almost dizzying pace and is painfully visceral at times. But it is definitely odd.
This Hasn’t Been is about Hank Williams – not the famous country singer, but a guy that “could be effortlessly interchanged with the final note of a really sad, heartbreaking, old-fashioned country song” – and his road trip through his own mind with a giant talking cat named Sid in van they call Nancy. Not just any road trip, but a very harrowing, vulgar road trip on a gray highway through an endlessly gray desert while being lethargically chased by the abyss, eating everything in its path. This Hasn’t Been is also (and actually) the love story between Hank Williams and Patsy Cline – also not the country singer – in a psychiatric facility. It’s a fast and impossible love; the story of two human beings intertwined and doomed from the beginning slowly awaiting their demise. It’s about both of these things because these are the same thing.
The juxtaposition works mostly because Homeless is adept at weaving them together with purposefully obvious hints and indications, none that I’m going to give away here. The cast of characters is small and unsympathetic, lending itself to some uncomfortable moments that I don’t want my mom to ever find out I read and a very fluid moral compass. Homeless also pushes the story with the most brilliant and original similes, defying cliche almost instinctively, and the most obtuse and genius metaphors and symbolism since Lewis Carroll. It’s a fearless kind of writing and, while I’m reluctant to bring up Hunter S. Thompson, it’s reminiscent of the best parts of Fear and Loathing. The parts that actually withstand the test of time.
This Hasn’t Been had me laughing and reeling in discomfort while simultaneously enthralled and fully invested in it’s stakes. It pushes fiction to it’s most audacious limits while avoiding being weird for weirdness’ sake. It’s packed with raw emotion and unadulterated insight. I can honestly say that some of the most profound things I’ve pondered are in this overtly strange novel. It’s a hard sell – genre-bending and obtuse – but absolutely worth exploring and seeking out. If you get nothing else out of it, you’ll be wildly entertained.
“The cool thing about poetry ,” Joey Grantham tells me, “-or at least a lot of this poetry that we’re talking about- is how little is actually given to you on the page, but how much you feel like you can take away from it.”
There’s a lot to take away from Tom Sawyer. It’s a weird little collection of poems and Joey really disarms the reader with dry wit and clever observations before going right for the gut with relatable and heartbreaking sentiment. And the sadness that sneaks up on you while reading Tom Sawyer only seems to hit harder once it’s been filtered through such gloriously humorous musings. Tom Sawyer is comprised of nothing but raw honesty, whether it’s random observations from the bus, an assessment of the inconsistency of Stereolab or fragments of a lovelorn inner monologue, Joey offers nothing less than genuine and relevant poetry. The work is sweet without being hokey and powerful, but not overbearing. Tom Sawyer explores depression without feeling hopeless, while simultaneously celebrating the tiny beautiful things that are routinely overlooked; it’s the poetry of the mundane filtered through an uncanny intellect and presented as (mostly) minimalist poetry with no affectation or bluster to speak of.
Written mostly while living in New York and working at the independent bookstore McNally Jackson, Joey started Tom Sawyer organically enough:
“Sometimes I just felt trapped in that bookstore. And that’s why I would write these poems,” he says, “I wrote the majority of Tom Sawyer while I was at work. I wrote them on bookmarks and loose scraps of paper we had. Anytime I was stuck sitting at the register or information desk I would try to.”
Before McNally Jackson, though, Joey attended Bennington College in Vermont, which he describes as “a weird hippie school where you create your own major.” So Joey decided to major in writing.
“I’m sure I made up a fancy way of saying I want to write stories,” he confesses, “But really I just wanted an excuse to read and write. Bennington was where I built up the confidence to send out stories. That’s where I first wrote to Scott McClanahan and I kinda just reached out to people. And people were nice enough to reply back and help me.”
It’s at this point where the Joseph Grantham story turns into some kind of surreal independent literature fairy tale.
“I met Bud (Smith) through the press that I run with my sister because we published one of his books called Dust Bunny City.”
Oh yeah, Joey also runs the exceptional Disorder Press with his sister Mikaela, a fiercely independent press that champions some of the best contemporary authors.
“After I graduated from college and I moved to New York I was close to Bud,” Joey continues, “We were working on his book and I would call him and talk about edits. It made sense to finally just meet up in person and hang out. So I started hanging out with Bud every once in a while and after his book came out I threw a reading for him and I just started hanging out with him a lot more. Scott ended up writing to me when I was working at McNally Jackson. I remember getting an email from him saying like ‘hey, I like everything you’re doing with your press’ and he just started asking me questions like what are you reading and blah blah blah. When he came to New York to do The Sarah Book reading – him and his wife, who I’m sure you know is a really good writer, Juliet Escoria – they were like ‘you should just come live with us and work at Walmart’. And I was planning on being out of New York when my lease was up anyway.”
There’s a poem in Tom Sawyer, ‘poem for scott mcclanahan,’ that is so casually startling that I had to read it at least 3 times before I really absorbed the profundity of it. A lot of Joey’s work is like that, it just eases into the dark parts without warning. He just kind of pulls you down into the depths with his words and it’s hard to tell how you got there.
“As it got closer to the end of my lease Bud was like ‘Joey, why don’t you work at the bookstore for another month and just live in my guestroom and save up paychecks?’ So I lived with Bud for a month and then he drove me to West Virginia and dropped me off at Scott’s and I lived there for like a month and a half.”
There’s a poem for Bud Smith in there, too. It’s a bit more light-hearted, but still meticulously frank and unadulterated. It’s sort of a light at the end of the tunnel, which Joey tends to pepper throughout the entirety of Tom Sawyer.
After a stay with Scott McClanahan, Joey ended up back in his parents’ house in a suburb right outside of San Francisco – a situation no one wants to find themselves in. He eventually landed a job at another well-known bookstore, City Lights, and got an apartment in the city.
“It was just recreating my New York experience, but with less friends and less stuff going on,” Joey laments, “So that felt like some sick fucked up joke that I played on myself.”
Throughout all of this moving and getting to hang out with other brilliant writers, Joey was turning his poems into a book.
“Michael Seidlinger, who owns Civil Coping Mechanisms, asked me if I had a manuscript when I was working at McNally Jackson,” Joey continues, “I think I had maybe 40 or 50 poems and so I said ‘yeah I have a manuscript I’ll send it to you in like a week’. And I think I sent it to him two weeks later. I started finding every poem I’d written in the last year.”
So, at this point, Joey knows he’s got a publisher and he’s got the content; he just needs to turn it into a cohesive book. This part is the most interesting to me so we’re going to get into the details:
“Some of those are exactly the way they were written on the bookmarks or whatever and then others I ended up working on a lot. I started finding every poem I’d written in the last year. And things I didn’t know were poems like the beginnings of stories. And I thought ‘that’s a poem’. I’d go through the notes in my phone and think ‘this could be in my book’. And I sent it to him and it was probably 90 pages at that point. 90 poems. A week after he got it he said ‘yeah, lets publish this. Let’s do it in like a year’. So I had a year to just look at this thing. I definitely had some time to do some editing. Anytime I was bored or not working on something I would go back to Tom Sawyer and I would fuck with it and move something around. And I’d write poems for Tom Sawyer once I realized it was book. And I really paid attention to the order of the poems. That really mattered to me.”
At a sparse 119 pages, it’s easy to see how much attention Joey paid to detail while writing Tom Sawyer. Each poem is scrupulously crafted and possesses a certain type of charming, if a bit discomfited type of beauty. It becomes obvious that Joey is spilling his guts in this work and he’s not pulling back or hiding behind any of the usual pretenses. In sad poem he writes:
we live in a world
where i write poems
about one person
who made me sad
a long time ago
It’s hard to miss the simplicity in that, but the candor and disaster are just as obvious. Tom Sawyer isn’t a traditional poetry collection because it’s so much more. It’s something that feels so instantaneous and urgent, like sleep-deprived confessions in the pitch-black darkness. Many of these poems read like something you weren’t supposed to see, like you know too much. Tom Sawyer is Joey’s life, but the inner-monologue of Joey’s life, the part of other people we don’t usually get to see.
“It started to become chronological,” Joey says, “It’s amazing when you gather all this stuff from like a year of your life that you don’t think you’ve been writing as one cohesive thing how much of it fits together. And how much of it is about the same kinda stuff. Still when I flip through my book I’m like ‘oh shit that thing relates to that other thing’ or I repeated myself in that poem and this poem over here. And I’m still kinda realizing that, but that’s kinda cool.”
I’m not sure what’s next for Joey and he’s not sure either. He recently moved to rural North Carolina with Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, who happens to be – you guessed it – another brilliant writer. They met through Bud Smith, started talking online and decided to be roommates. This next part has nothing to with the creation of or the content of Tom Sawyer, I just think it’s really fucking cute:
“It wasn’t like romantic at all,” Joey assures me, “I was attracted to Ashleigh, but I made it a point to not fall in love with this person. It was just stupid of me to think that I wouldn’t fall for this person. And when I got here it took me like two days before I was like’ oh fuck, I really like this person and if she doesn’t like me back I’m gonna end up writing another book of sad poems.’ It seems to be working out right now.”
There’s urgency in Catch Business’ poetry. It’s as if she just pours her thoughts out as they come with little to no regard for a second perspective. I’m not talking about that pretentious, beat-worshipping, stream-of-consciousness word garble, though; it’s more like unabashedly candid, stark and startlingly intimate. The poems contained in Quick Fix are beautiful in their vulnerability and brave in their sincerity. There’s a cutting familiarity about Quick Fix, as well. Poems that capture that thousandth time you’ve checked your iPhone or opened the Facebook app to see if you’ve been ghosted or are just overreacting hit a little too close to home sometimes.
It would be a disservice to imply that Quick Fix is all heart-on-sleeve word-vomit and odes to smartphones, though. Catch has a knack for capturing the symbolism in commonplace situations, making the very personal appear boldly universal as well. It is because these poems are so current and immediate that they feel so personal. Catch is writing about the kind of things that happen every day and the tiny scenarios that play out in our heads, but she put a language to it. And that language is tremendous. There’s a tercet from “thinking of me” that I can’t stop thinking about:
for shock value we create miracles
i feel so small on my couch
ash on your belly
It’s so deceptively obvious, yet gets more mystifying every time I read it. And I’ve read this whole collection over and over again, each time discovering some new meaning or a different paradox to explore. No matter how often I thumb through the pages, though, Quick Fix never gets any less gorgeous.
“I didn’t have to smoke these words. They found their way inside me immediately and burned into my chest, drew heat to my face, echoed in my ears. There is no space for me. There is no space for me.”
Exploring common relationship themes and struggles through the lens of a young couple finding their way through sexual identities and polyamory, Vanishing Twinsexpertly uses ballet metaphors and the blurred lines between twins and soul-mates to walk us through a personal and astonishing story.
While Leah Dieterich’s writing is precisely executed and peppered with gorgeous prose, it’s the forthrightness and integrity of her words that really make an impact. There’s a kind of ache – a searching – to Vanishing Twins that brings a sense of fluency while simultaneously being wholly disorienting. The plot moves fast, focusing more on the vast theme of self-discovery rather than the details of a too-linear storyline; essentially skipping to the good stuff and getting to the point.
Vanishing Twins is a stark commentary on social norms and expectations, choosing to fully delve into these subjects as a whole rather than focus on singular experience. The narrator’s journey is full of well-meaning, yet uncertain behaviors that lend themselves to an intriguing read, despite being habitually insular.
Dieterich’s detailed research on absorbed twins and expansive knowledge of ballet, art and philosophy pepper the plot, giving symbolism and much deeper meaning to otherwise straightforward themes. This academic and slightly commanding technique could feel overwrought if it weren’t executed so effortlessly and with so much poise.
The topics in Vanishing Twins can certainly be polarizing in the wrong hands, but Dieterich handles them with such grace and studiousness that, whether you agree with her or not, it’s impossible not to admire her dedication to finding the answers to such emotionally-driven fare. At times, Vanishing Twins almost reads like a captivating research paper – citing sources, backing up theories and drawing surprising connections – yet it never loses its delicate touch and expressive poignancy.
In the end, it’s a commentary on individuality and self-identity while maintaining a marriage, but it’s also a reflection on love and its boundaries and limits. Dieterich has certainly delivered a timely and vital memoir, but rather than get caught up in its seriousness, she presents a stunning and fascinating narrative that delivers a startlingly touching blow.
After garnering national praise for 2009’s Bluets and 2015’s stunning The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson has become a household name (in literate households, at least). And we all wait patiently for her next endeavor, (she’s been releasing poignant literature since 2001, and it’s all worth revisiting). Soft Skull Press has released a gorgeous reissue of Nelson’s Something Bright, Then Holes and, despite being originally published in 2007, it’s easily one of the best books of 2018.
A true master of her craft, Maggie Nelson elicits genuine awe with each turn of the page. Something Bright, Then Holes is an essential 76 pages, but I’ve easily earmarked 70 of them, struck by the passion and control of such a bold display of words. The poems within these pages are so full of profundity and connotation that I’m inclined to go back and read them again yet forced to stop and remember to breathe before my entire chest caves in.
The narrative of Something Bright, Then Holes is candid and heartfelt, blurring the lines between poetry and storytelling fluently and with thoughtful contemplation. There’s real being in Nelson’s lines and while it’s tempting to dissect her craft and praise such illustrious technique, I’d rather dive into the depths of her observations and the elegant aspects of life she finds symbolism in as she expresses them until they’re palpable. These poems swathe their reader and craft a voyeuristic sense of empathy; it’s as if you’re not supposed to be there. Yet, here you are.
When Nelson describes brushing the broken teeth of her teacher/mentor in the hospital after a devastating accident, you can smell the impersonal sanitation and feel the unreasonably white sheets. When she laments a summer spent on the polluted and neglected canal, you can hear the cackling of the wayward seagulls and the whirr of the propellers. It’s next to impossible not to get enveloped in Something Bright, Then Holes as Nelson creates a world so poignant and vivid that it almost feels as if you’re intruding and stealing from her, but Nelson’s remarkable vision and rumination on love, lust, loss and letting go dissuade any guilt or hesitation and invite you in.
In honor of #PrideMonth, email Soft Skull Publishing your shipping address and a donation receipt for $25 or more towards Transgender Law Center, and they’ll ship you a copy of the book.
Send it over to firstname.lastname@example.org before June ends!
“The night before, I’d opened an empty dumpster and a tiny rat was at the bottom, jumping up and down, trapped. So I tipped the dumpster and let him go. Which, for whatever reason, hurt. Like hurt bad.”
The energy, pace and stream-of-consciousness writing in The Garbage Times/White Ibis pulls the reader along almost unconsciously. You’ll find yourself digging in, hanging on to every frenetic word and turn of phrase, laughing out loud and flipping through page after page frantically and genially until – Oh shit. This is really sad.
Two (sort-of) interlocking novellas, The Garbage Times/White Ibis follows it’s narrator from the desolate, frozen streets of Chicago to the swamps of the theme park state without ever losing the author’s dry-wit and distinctive observations. While it goes from damp bar basements, shit-clogged toilets and sharing joints with homeless guys to family parties at the country club, evening bike rides and partying with Girl Scouts, Sam Pink never loses his fruitless perspective on all that is beautiful yet inevitably doomed within both worlds. And, yeah, that sounds fucked up; but is it?
No other writer captures the complexity of human emotion and the rollercoaster that is inner-monologue – particularly while simply observing the most mundane human interaction – like Pink. Often, while reading this book, I didn’t realize my heart had been shattered because I was distracted by my own laughter. Pink’s simple observations become metaphors or, perhaps, the basis for a new philosophy altogether. Whether it’s pessimism or deranged optimism, Pink always manages to sneak the wrong one (?) into every situation, prompting the reader to question everything. Or perhaps just accept things they way they are. The Garbage Times/White Ibis is almost insidious in its power, reminding us to seize and appreciate the beauty around us while it’s there because it’s only temporary. And it all falls apart in the end. Maybe.
It would be a disservice to Sam Pink’s impressive catalogue to say The Garbage Times/White Ibis is his best work, but, if you’ve never read his work before, it would be a great place to start.
“I thought about how entropy seemed to be the natural state of the universe. How everything was coming apart, all the time, while also desperately trying to stay together.”
There are so many moments, passages and insights In Elle Nash’s powerful short novel, Animals Eat Each Other, that it’s easy to get lost in the story and forget to breath. It’s a penetrating account of a young girl’s three-way relationship with a volatile couple; A relationship so unyielding that the young girl’s real name gets lost in the surrender as the couple dubs her “Lilith.” This isn’t some quaint story about an innocent victim tormented by a Marilyn Manson-obsessed white trash couple, though. Animals Eat Each Other is a shadowy exploration of obsession, manipulation and the ruins of love and sexuality (even deeper, the fine line between the latter two). The stripped-down prose cuts through the clutter and the façade and tears you open like a dull, serrated steak knife.
Nash writes with precision and passion, narrating the tale like a retrospective and a confessional diary. Her insights are sharp and honest, exploring her own thought process with an almost bemused culpability yet showing little to no regret or remorse. Not to imply that she should feel any type of guilt, per se. Not one character in this book is what you’d call a “good person” by any standard. What they are, though, are real, complex and fully-developed people that illicit something resembling compassion and empathy. What Nash has done with this book is weave a story about shitty people doing shitty things to other shitty people that is somehow relatable and sympathetic, forcing its reader to exist in that hazy place in which right and wrong are subjective and perspective is the biggest lie and the only truth.
Animals Eat Each Other is dark, sexy and astute, the writing so concise and raw that it makes reading such heavy subject matter seem easy and intrusive. Nash’s evocative and intuitive prose pushes the story along, creating atmosphere and suspense. It’s like that train wreck in slow-motion cliché, but the beauty in this chaos that much more relevant and much more rewarding once you dig for it.
“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.