About Brooklyn, All of Brooklyn: The Millions Interviews Thomas J. Campanella

“That which seems long gone is often still about our feet, hidden in plain sight,” writes Thomas J. Campanella: a lovely evocation. Brooklyn: The Once and Future City is an ambitious and accomplished book. 

For lovers of history and of the city, this book is a dream. It feels like a book that Campanella was born to write. An associate professor of urban studies and city planning at Cornell University, he is the historian-in-residence of the New York City Parks Department. He holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His previous books include The Concrete Dragon: China’s Urban Revolution and What It Means for the World and Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm

We spoke about the urban past, Brooklyn’s forgotten figures, and how writing a book can be a “homecoming.”

The Millions: “Like many of Brooklyn’s native sons and daughters,” you write in the preface, “I went through a long period of disdain for the place”—until you were a graduate student at Cornell. Your “rediscovery of Brooklyn also tapped deep family roots”—grandparents, aunts, uncles, and more. “My very first debt of gratitude for this book, then, is owed my much-missed parents, who stuck by Brooklyn as everyone else” in your family “fled.” What has it meant for you to have written this book, considering this robust local lineage?

Thomas J. Campanella: Working on this book was a slow-motion homecoming for me, and the closing of a great circle that has literally looped the world—from college and grad school in upstate New York, to New England for my Ph.D., to Hong Kong and China where I lived for several years, to the faculty of UNC Chapel Hill, the American Academy in Rome, and—finally—back to both Brooklyn and Cornell. I have longed to be back “home” for years, but the academic job market is not much swayed by one’s hopes and dreams. Thomas Wolfe was right when he wrote that “you can’t go home again”; nothing stays the same. But you can get back to something pretty close. My parents are gone, and except for one cousin, I am the last family member in Brooklyn after four generations. Everyone else is dead, in the suburbs, or down South.

TM: “The urban past is all around us, and it conditions and qualifies the present,” you write. “The modern city is replete with palimpsests and pentimenti, stubborn stains and traces of what went before, keepsakes that beckon us to unpack and explore and to understand.” You say Brooklyn is “overexposed as it is understudied.” Why is that so? What do you hope that your book does for these “stubborn stains and traces of what went before”?

TC: This book will be successful if it gets people to look at their everyday environs, the ordinary urban landscape of Brooklyn, with fresh eyes and searching curiosity. Every corner of our city is layered with history, and this book is an attempt to peel back some of those layers—not every inch in every place, but at strategic points—to reveal the treasures concealed below. The book covers all of Brooklyn, but much of it focuses—by necessity—on the city south of the terminal moraine, below Prospect Park. If Brooklyn has long been in Manhattan’s shadow, deep-south Brooklyn is in the shadow of both. What drove me initially to write this book was the almost complete lack of historical scholarship on the extraordinarily rich Native American and colonial history of places like Flatlands and Marine Park. Or Jamaica Bay, the great building boom that turned the old Dutch farms into blocks of Tudor-revival houses for escapees from the Lower East Side. Or Floyd Bennett Field, New York City’s first municipal airport and one of the cradles of American aviation. Brooklyn is a global superbrand today; but it’s still understudied terrain, especially in relation to Manhattan. And nowhere is this more true than in the borough’s vast and peopled southern hemisphere. I have seen maps—of Brooklyn, no less!—that simply cut off everything below Prospect Park. Snip. Coney Island usually gets a call‐out box. Deep‐south Brooklyn is the flyover country of New York City. I want to make people think again, and more deeply, about Brooklyn, all of Brooklyn.

TM: Brooklyn: The Once and Future City, as you note in the introduction, is not a book “driven by a grand thesis, but rather a telling that plaits key strands of Brooklyn’s past into a narrative about the once and future city.” It’s a fine approach, and one that made me excited to encounter all of the fascinating residents portrayed in the book—like Deborah Moody. A 19th-century Englishwoman who was a child of nobility, she “was America’s first woman town planner”—now the neighborhood of Gravesend. Your book teems with characters like this: How did you decide whom, like Moody, to include (and perhaps, whom to leave out)?

TC: This book began as an eight-chapter proposal and wound up as an 18‐chapter tome. As I delved into the research I just uncovered things that had to be in the book. Fortunately my editor at Princeton is the kind that authors dream about working with. She not only tolerated multiple, years-long delays but encouraged my habit of going down enticing rabbit holes uncovered in my research. Many of these led to little more than a footnote, but others yielded entire chapters. The chapter on the search for the lost Maryland regiment and the creation of Green-Wood Cemetery was one; the one on Olmsted’s extraordinary scheme to extend green fingers from Prospect Park all the way back to Central Park was another. I was especially interested in throwing light on lost and forgotten figures, extraordinary people like Moody or Newell Dwight Hillis of Plymouth Church or the ingenious charlatan who tried to build the world’s tallest tower, Sam Friede. I steered clear, for the most part, of people and subjects well-covered by others—Roebling and the Brooklyn Bridge, for example—and only dwell on the overexposed subject of the Dodgers in terms of the postwar urban renewal. It’s pretty hard to write about Brooklyn without eventually bumping up against the Dodgers, especially when your name is Campanella!

TM: You mentioned that this book took nearly a decade to write, so I can’t help asking a process question. You start Chapter 4, “Yankee Ways,” with a lucid and concise paragraph that’s a precursor to your section on Prospect Park. In a few packed but smooth sentences, you contextualize the life of Frederick Law Olmsted, a “wanderlusting Yale dropout,” the forerunner of American landscape architecture. How did you distill what seems like an almost overwhelming amount of Brooklyn culture, lore, data, story, and more into one book?

TC: Well, the book in larval form was a very different creature than what I assume you have in front of you now. It started as an effort to tell about failed and forgotten planning projects—what the late German historian Reinhart Koselleck called “the onetime futures of past generations.” And from that it grew and grew, its reach steadily expanding as I became more confident about its thrust and scope. There are pieces of the book that I can trace much further back in time—I did the initial research on Deborah Moody as a grad student at MIT in the early 1990s—but had no idea they would end up in this book. I also had to avoid the “totality trap,” trying to cover every aspect and every age. That would have required three volumes and probably would have killed me.

TM: As a fan of periodical and publishing history, I loved your anecdotes about the Brooklyn Eagle. “Founded in 1841, the Eagle had been published without a break for 114 years and was one of New York’s oldest and most storied institutions. One of its early editors was none other than Walt Whitman.” The newspaper folded in 1955. You share a quote from Pete Hamill: Although never a great paper, the Eagle “had a great function: it helped to weld together an extremely heterogeneous community. Without it, Brooklyn became a vast network of hamlets, whose boundaries were rigidly drawn but whose connections with each other were vague at best, hostile at worst.” That’s high praise for the paper! Do you agree with Hamill? (And a side question, which you can feel free to ignore! Do you think any other publications, print or digital, have since captured the spirit of Brooklyn?)

TC: To your side question: No, not even close. The Eagle has been resuscitated in name, and its editor Ned Berke is doing yeoman’s work getting the hatchling to spread its wings. They have a superb real‐estate reporter, Lore Croghan, who is as history‐obsessed as I am and writes well. But these are not easy days for any newspaper. The old Eagle was a massive operation, with an eight­‐story building all their own. As for Hamill; yes, completely. I would have used “tribal settlements” rather than hamlets, which makes me think of towns in the Adirondacks; but the idea of boundedness and vague or hostile relations betwixt and between is spot‐on. And yes the Eagle helped bind everyone together; so did the Dodgers, frankly, and Steeplechase Park, and the Navy Yard, and the trolleys. And by the mid‐1960s every last one of these was closed, gone, or destroyed.

TM: The plans for the Linear City project in Brooklyn “were trotted out in a swirl of publicity on Feb. 25, 1967. By May 1969, the plans were shuttered. What was appealing about the plan in the first place—and why did it never come to pass?

TC: The racial politics of the era became too complex and too fractious for any compromise to be reached on the project’s many fronts, largely due to the terrible public school crisis and teacher’s strike of 1968 (which was centered on the very neighborhoods that Linear City would have served, Brownsville and East New York). It was a very convulsive time in the city’s history. What really grabbed me about Linear City was its hopefulness, its attempted reconciliation of the sledgehammer approach to highway infrastructure made infamous by Robert Moses and the yarn‐and­‐needles grassroots activism of Jane Jacobs. If Jacobs and Moses ever hooked up and had a baby, it would be Linear City. It was schools, community centers, art galleries, neighborhood shops and stores, all built atop one of the few expressway plans in New York that actually made real sense. Remember it was to run in an existing transportation corridor, the Long Island Railroad’s Bay Ridge division tracks. It could easily have accommodated below‐grade road that would have diverted a huge percentage of Long Island‐bound traffic away from the ever­‐clogged Gowanus and BQE.

TM: In your epilogue, you consider the future city, first turning back to how in the late 1960s, a “trickle of college‐educated, young, and mostly white progressives began moving” into Brooklyn. They were the “children of Woodstock, straining against the status quo,” and they “relished the borough’s working‐class grit.” For them, Brooklyn was “a place with everything Levittown lacked—a storied past, architectural splendor, racial diversity, down‐to­‐earth folk more or less tolerant of nontraditional lifestyles.” What might the future city of Brooklyn look like?

TC: Well, you can get a good sense of that by walking around any of the sought‐after neighborhoods of Brownstone Brooklyn, where most apartments start over the million-dollar mark. Lots of highly educated folks, mostly from elsewhere, mostly white and mostly well‐off—or well on their way to being well-off. An enticing array of bespoke and handcrafted, cruelty‐free and grass­‐fed. The good life, the well‐appointed life. I am certainly not immune to this. But the hungry grasping hand of gentrification can reach only so far—and you can map how far by studying the subway lines. I’ve advocated for extending the long‐promised Utica and Nostrand Avenue lines into Flatlands and East Flatbush and Mill Basin; but there is always a chance that the unique qualities of the outlying communities, trolleyburbs of the 1920s, will change in fundamental ways once you make them more accessible. It’s a delicate balance. I’ve often wished there were cafes and wine bars and galleries closer to me in Marine Park. Or a bookstore! There are only two general‐market bookstores in all the vastness south of Prospect Park. But after a long day in the city, or a night out in Dumbo or Cobble Hill, I find it comforting to be off the radar.

Trippingly on the Tongue: Featured Poetry by Maurice Manning

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Maurice Manning’s new collection, Railsplitter. Written in the persona of Abraham Lincoln, the poems are by turns lively, contemplative, and pungent—swollen with lament and anger. Lincoln, taken down in a theater, returns to the stage and the shooter often in these poems. He liked Shakespeare’s tragedies best, and here, among the lines and lore of Hamlet, we feel his struggle toward ghostly moderation: “gestures must not be over done, or else / Chaos will upend the unity desired.”

Aside. Wormwood, wormwood.
Trippingly on the tongue, so Hamlet says,How lines must be delivered from the stage,Especially when passion must be tempered,
And gestures must not be over done, or elseChaos will upend the unity desired.The groundlings, claims this son, are capableOf nothing but dumb-shows and noise, nicelyReaching beyond the stage to pander and pun,
Which makes one wonder how serious is thisEntreaty, then, to hold the mirror up toNature? In the play within the play, a mouse-Trap catches a king unnaturally.
To be or not to be, was never my pick.O my offence is rank, is the better speech—
Heaven is how high it smells, the offence—Enlivened language for murder, ironically.Low act, but elevated thought, to playLightly a scene of wretchedness and folly.

Copyright 2019 Copper Canyon Press. All rights reserved. Posted here with permission of Copper Canyon Press.

Everything Here Is a Test: Featured Poetry by Paige Lewis

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Space Struck, a deft, entertaining debut by Paige Lewis. Lewis is a poet of surprise, but never mere novelty: behind play or pun, there remains transcendence. In this great second-person piece, the narrator gives instructions on how to leave that place of permanent stasis. “Lift your arms toward / the sky and receive nothing.” The poem loops and spins, perhaps, forever.

“So You Want to Leave Purgatory” 

Here, take this knife. Walk down the road until you come across 
a red calf in its pasture. It will run toward you with a rope tied 
around its neck. Climb over the fence. Hold the rope like a leash. 
You haven’t eaten in years. Think— are you being tested? Yes, everything 
here is a test. Stop baring teeth upon teeth and leave the calf 
to its grazing. Lift your arms toward the sky and receive nothing. Keep 
walking and think about the rope around that calf’s neck. Consider 
how fast its throat will be choked by its own growing. Walk until you 
understand what the knife was for. Now forget it. Here, take this knife. 

Copyright 2019 Sarabande Books/Paige Lewis. All rights reserved. Posted here with permission of Sarabande Books. 

Must-Read Poetry: October 2019

Here are five notable books of poetry publishing in October.

Railsplitter by Maurice Manning

Manning’s collection of poems written through the persona of our sixteenth president begins, appropriately enough, with an exercise in persona from the man himself. Dated July 19, 1863, Lincoln’s short satire channels the voice of General Lee: “The Yankees they got arter us, and / giv us particular hell.” While the piece isn’t his best work (he wrote a fair number of poems), it is appropriate for Manning’s difficult project: how to write new and arresting work in such an established voice? The key, perhaps, comes from Manning’s perception of poetry as rooted in theatrics: he imagines writing poems “that could be performed on a stage with a set.” That mixture of oration, space, and the certain surrealism of theater matches well with Railsplitter. In “Transcendentalism,” he starts: “One of the things the actor’s bullet failed / to do was to interrupt the rhythm // of thought, the flow of the mind as it moves around.” Witty, whimsical, and imbued with the strangeness of the afterlife, Manning’s Lincoln is an endearing, complex narrator. A favorite among favorites is “The Smell of Open Ground in Spring.” Unmarked family graves surround the narrator. Those dead, like so many “innumerable / existences” who “have come and gone and gone / to dust.” He thinks of his mother’s death, and thinks of the power of poetry. He concludes: “While irony may wrap itself around / a poem, the true poem in the end / escapes the shroud. It’s the art of resurrection.”

Space Struck by Paige Lewis

One of the best debuts of the year. Poem by poem, Lewis builds a menagerie of mood and matter. In “No One Cares Until You’re the Last of Something,” “a line of binoculared men” have come to the narrator’s house bearing “buckets of mealworms.” An ivory-billed woodpecker on the narrator’s back porch has captivated these anxious souls. Decked in “splendid hiking shorts,” the bird-watchers “press their noses against my sliding glass door” and seek entry. At night, the narrator turns off the lights, but soon the visitors make a nest of the home: “They remove their shoes and lie down on countertops, / in closets, and underneath my staircase. Wherever / there’s space, they fill it—body against tired body— / pressed close as feathers.” A Lewis poem can go anywhere. “Saccadic Masking” is visceral, internal. “When They Find the Ark” is clever. “The Terre Haute Planetarium Rejected My Proposal” is hilarious. “God Stops By” is curious—a trademark Lewis piece. There, God offers the narrator fat from his steak, but the narrator passes: “it’s hard to feel hungry / when everything in this world tastes small  // and wrong, like rubber grapes or sun-boiled / eggs.” Space Struck demonstrates range, delivered in comedic lines that reveal a unique humor. “Build me a house with so many rooms,” one poem begins—an apt metaphor to capture Lewis’s approach. 

Nervous System by Rosalie Moffett

“I’m seeking to understand my mother’s brain and life post severe concussion,” Moffett has said of the long, titular poem in her new book, “and also grappling in a larger way with my fears and horror of having a mother, who, like all mothers, is mortal. Often, I’m casting around for a way look in—to the body, to the brain, to the ‘beyond’—but can only do it by trafficking in the seen world, in the world we all share.” Nervous System builds with sometimes bold, sometimes weary stretches toward that lost sense of understanding that comes from an injured brain. A “bright midday” head injury causes a concussion: “a shell, cool well / of clues.” Her bed-ridden mother “relearned the names / for things—flood, daughter, glove—lights // flickering on in her planetarium.” We grasp for metaphor when we need representation, and Moffett lunges and leaps there: “I’ve drawn a lot of pictures / because it’s hard for me to believe // in anything / that hasn’t been made / into something else.” Nervous System works so well because, in addition to her relational language, the long poem is steeped in flashback detail, and the inextricable link between mother and daughter: “I am gentle, patient, easy to awe. This goodness I got // from her is bound / to be yoked to a curse—no bargain / is so good.”

Can I Kick It? by Idris Goodwin

“Black art is inherently about disruption—that’s what jazz is, that’s what hip-hop is,” Goodwin once told American Theatre. Goodwin was talking specifically about his plays, but that sense of disruption is central to his new book of poems. Mixes and revisions abound here. In the collection’s first poem, “Back to the Afro-Future, 1965,” the narrator messes with stereo equipment and old record players to “blend the Temptations into the Tops.” Soon he is lost in the moment and its meaning: “I start cutting it up / crab, transform / scratch, blend”—his lines moving from sentences to phrases, a fissure in the poem and memory. “Break Down,” a poem in response to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring’s admitted 80s-era blackface, follows those faultlines of both culture and language: “Rap make you wanna be another man / You Black your face, Black your face // It’s not racist, you’re such a fan.” “Of the Lord” is a poem invoked to classic skywalker Dominique Wilkins: “We like our names with / Peaks, slopes, and vowels // We like our names to be aerial / and aural, throat and teeth and tongue / Our names gotta be songs.”  

Bodega by Su Hwang

These poems demand to be sounded-out and savored. “Manholes hiss secrets,” Hwang begins one poem. “Inside: a transistor radio with foil-tipped antennae sputters the Yankees doubleheader.” We are in a Queensbridge bodega owned by Korean immigrants, and the narrative eye and ear is gentle, encompassing, hypnotic. “Gust of wet heat enters with an elderly Nigerian man wearing a beret & wooden cane in the other—his salt-and-pepper hair gathered into a seahorse.” Hwang is adept at capturing action and setting, as well as more intangible touches: “How far do you have to travel to arrive / at dying,” she writes in an elegy for her grandmothers. Some poems swoop across the page, riding sound and form; others, like “Latchkeys,” are pointed narratives contained by closed spaces. In that poem, the narrator is with her brother, waiting for her parents to come home. When their “headlights cast shadow / puppets against the living / room wall,” she and her brother scramble to seem responsible: studying biology, playing the upright Yamaha. Her father would head into the backyard “to hit / a golf ball on a string / while mother silently made / dinner: rice, kimchi, Spam / as we three listened / from different corners / of the house / to a tiny white ball / greeting iron.” A strong debut.

We Were Born in a World with Predators: Featured Poetry by Rose McLarney

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Forage by Rose McLarney. Her poems always make me want to linger. If poetry, as an art, slows us down, then McLarney’s poems slow us and sink us and rejuvenate our sense of the surrounding world.

McLarney’s poems are so tactile; here we follow the narrator’s hands into the cold chicken, feel the “warmth of eggs / in the time when we / collected them fresh.” These moments of touch allow McLarney to widen her scope with the shift of a line—so that her abstractions feel as tangible as lemons and herbs.

After Hearing of His Passing
I kept sliding lemon under the skinand herbs into the openingsof a chicken, its cold countering
the recalled warmth of eggsin the time when wecollected them fresh
from beneath hens. Our hands,feather-brushed, found waysto come near one another.
We took the birds’ eggs. We tooktheir lives too, if raccoons didn’tfirst, eating the craw full of grain
only and leaving the bodyto waste, as the whole of himdoes now that he’s dead young.
Most waste I can avoid (I’d save hearts,sauté livers, when we slaughtered).But not the truth that I have handled
his body, intimately, and other beings’entrails. And I still make meals.We were born in a world with predators.
We have lived, from the beginning,knowing how we were created,sharp-toothed and hungry.
But not who would have the pleasureof feeding, when one would feel the painof prey. I will serve another chicken,
and I may say its cooked skin is golden,a kind of exaltation. And the sorrowwill be biting. And birds will keep surviving.
Scavenging insects and flesh from the sickof their flocks, seeds from sunflowersand blossoms from rose bushes in reach.
I kept sliding lemon under the skinand herbs into the openingsof a chicken, its cold countering
the recalled warmth of eggsin the time when wecollected them fresh
from beneath hens. Our hands,feather-brushed, found waysto come near one another.
We took the birds’ eggs. We tooktheir lives too, if raccoons didn’tfirst, eating the craw full of grain
only and leaving the bodyto waste, as the whole of himdoes now that he’s dead young.
Most waste I can avoid (I’d save hearts,sauté livers, when we slaughtered).But not the truth that I have handled
his body, intimately, and other beings’entrails. And I still make meals.We were born in a world with predators.
We have lived, from the beginning,knowing how we were created,sharp-toothed and hungry.
But not who would have the pleasureof feeding, when one would feel the painof prey. I will serve another chicken,
and I may say its cooked skin is golden,a kind of exaltation. And the sorrowwill be biting. And birds will keep surviving.
Scavenging insects and flesh from the sickof their flocks, seeds from sunflowersand blossoms from rose bushes in reach.

From Forage by Rose McLarney, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Rose McLarney. Previously published in the Birmingham Poetry Review.

Must-Read Poetry: September 2019

are eight notable books of poetry publishing in September.

Forage by Rose McLarney

McLarney has been a gifted
storyteller since her first book, The
Always Broken Plates of Mountains
, but I dare say that she’s getting even
better, more hypnotic. She’s one of our finest poets of the wild: her notes of
appreciation are grounded in a love of careful cataloging of the world through
language. There are the paired, almost petite lines of “Pet” about a cat: “How
long I watched, how I loved // to watch, and how I tried / to make him a little
home. // But what is wanted wants / to leg it elsewhere, no matter.” Gentle
lines, but the poem ends with a start: “He would slaughter // his way back to
solitude.” McLarney is masterful at those turns—an awareness of how quickly
life can jolt. That range is also present in “And Still I Want to Bring Life
into This World.” The narrator is driving home from a doctor’s appointment,
listening to a radio broadcast—the words reverberating within that small space.
The broadcaster speaks of “failed fields, washed over.” A dying world. The
narrator can’t help but turn the pain inward: “I can think only of the news //
that I may have no children, when there are more / than the world can manage to
keep alive. // Must the answer be only the variety / of grief? If not to envy
all the irrigated orchards bore, // to sorrow for the trees, sprayed and
sterile?” McLarney’s environmental threnodies move from the quick truth—“Wildflowers
tend to themselves // while all people plant these days are satellite
dishes”—to a sense that has been accumulating across all of her books: how do
we hold on to despair, and dust, and memory? A gorgeous book.   

Ringer by Rebecca Lehmann

“Elegy for Almost,” a poem
that sits halfway through Lehmann’s collection, took my breath away. “It was as
simple as this: I really wanted you / and then you were gone.” Those first
lines—finely-timed and direct—speak across the page and toward the soul. Throughout
her poems, Lehmann is well-paced, creative, and constructive, and the result in
this poem is a powerful song of grief. “I was unconscious when the doctor
slipped / her instruments in and took you out: / sac with no heartbeat,
placenta that wouldn’t / let go its hold, raspberry sized cluster / of cells
that didn’t put together right. / My love.” And then from that stanza to
17-year-old memories: driving, “stoned, around the Wisconsin countryside,”
drifting over the yellow line. Wondering: “Why do I think of those far away
days now, / and again and again?” Ringer
teems with excellent poems, including the title piece, which offers many truths
in a single page. “Each morning trumpeted into being with a chorus of baby
squawks,” the refrains of her life. It is a poem about motherhood, about
occupying space in this weary world. Snow clings to curbs, even as daffodils
push through mud. Life, all around her, tries its best. The narrator brings the
stroller around the block, again and again, the cycle bringing her back to her
son’s birth, when “two medical students / held my legs and joked about going to
the gym. The epidural coursed / strong medicine into my spine. The anesthesiologist
flitted in / and out of the room like a large hummingbird.” Lehmann, generously
and gracefully, swings us through entire lives.

Father’s Day by Matthew Zapruder

“When I was fifteen / I suddenly knew / I would never / understand geometry”; where Zapruder begins his poems, and where he ends them, are often quite different places—and that is one of the joys of Father’s Day, a heartfelt, melancholy collection. Often his columnar style naturally guides our eyes: he’s a poet of syntactic movement, often spare with punctuation, instead letting the lines themselves do the lifting. In “When I Was Fifteen,” he remembers “those inscrutable / formulas everyone / was busily into / their notebooks scribbling.” The narrator had his own talents. He writes the story of the field hockey star for the school paper, and then gives his history notes to her. She “took them / from my hands / like the blameless / queen of elegant / violence she was.” Zapruder has a great way of mapping our interiors, as when the narrator, wrapped-up in his down jacket, walks home and “listened to / the analog ghost / in the machine / pour from the cassette / I had drawn / flowers on.” Other poems are wry jabs, as with “Generation X”: “I was born the autumn / after a wave of flowers / swept the land // too late to appear in even / one poem by Frank O’Hara,” and “The Poetry Reading”: “At the poetry reading I am listening / to the endless introduction. / The young poet waits / for a cloud of applause / through which he will go / to his doom.” You’ve got to laugh at po-biz to stay alive. Also: stay for Zapruder’s beautiful afterword.

Daybook 1918: Early Fragments by J.V. Foix (edited and translated by Lawrence Venuti)

Foix is the pen name of Josep Vicenç Foix i Mas (1893-1987), a Catalan poet once lauded by Harold Bloom but largely neglected by English language readers and critics. Venuti does a necessary service in translating and curating these unusual and intriguing pieces. Daybook 1918 includes prose poems and fragments which Venuti notes “endows recognizably Catalan customs and geography with a surrealist quality” through a particular process: “Foix developed a method that favored not automatic writing, freed from rational control, but rather a combination of dream and hypnagogia.” Venuti is a sage and lyric guide through Foix’s strangeness. In one untitled piece, the narrator begins: “She assured me that two hundred young men lived in the village, each the owner of a black horse like mine.” No such thing is true, the man learns, as the “stables lie empty, as do the houses. Only my horse and I wander the village, night and day, through the labyrinth of its shadows.” Another piece, “Without Symbolism,” offers some: “The conductor of the municipal band is so corpulent that he takes up half the square. When he extends an arm, all the village children stretch out their hands to turn somersaults as if they were on the horizontal bar.” Foix’s poems are probably best read between midnight and dawn—or any similar time when we are most attuned to our shadow selves. Added bonus: a few excellent essays on poetry, consciousness, and art by Foix.

An American Sunrise by Joy Harjo

If you’ve somehow never experienced
the work of our new poet laureate, Harjo’s new book is a great introduction.
From “Seven Generations”: “Beneath a sky thrown open / To the need of stars /
To know themselves against the dark.” That reflexive turn—themselves—which could be so heavy and stodgy in the hands of a
lesser poet, becomes illuminating here. Sunrise, sunset, morning, night, pilgrimage—much
of Harjo’s book is about movement northward and drifting south. An introductory
note recalling the 1830 Indian Removal Act offers a roadmap to her central
theme: the desire of indigenous peoples to return home. In certain ways, this
happens through story: “I leave you to your ceremony of grieving / Which is
also of celebration / Given when an honored humble one / Leaves behind a trail
of happiness / In the dark of human tribulation.” She writes: “Once there were
songs for everything, / Songs for planting, for growing, for harvesting, / For eating,
getting drunk, falling asleep, / For sunrise, birth, mind-break, and war.” An American Sunrise affirms Harjo’s
identity as a poet of testimony. “Let’s honor the maker,” she ends one poem. “Let’s
honor what’s made.”

I Will Destroy You by Nick Flynn

“Haecceity,” writes Flynn,
is a word “almost impossible / to pronounce,” but means “thisness, as in here / &
now”—which makes it quite useful. Flynn’s poetry does this: a little turn
or refraction to refocus our gaze, moving from words (their sounds and shapes)
to bodies (our sounds and shapes). “In / the end I held your arms briefly /
over your head & // warned that I was in no way / safe,” the narrator says.
He is “often not filled with any great love // for—of—God,” but “then, briefly
& wholly, your / thisness, like
// beeswax, it / filled me.” Wholly and holy, Flynn’s poems feel encompassing. Yet
there’s a tender fear of that action, as in “Life is Sweet”: “I worry sometimes
// how everything can be / contained // turned into a poem.” That’s a
refreshing worry. Flynn, who has powerfully mined his own life within his
poetry and prose, carries a particular caution in his lines. In “Saltmarsh,” he
writes of finding “a book, splayed / open, spine broken, // facedown in the
flattened // grass.” Turned-over, the “words // slide off the page as if each /
were a bug // that dies in sunlight. It’s how / I want this // poem to be—unreadable—
/ not at the beginning // but by the end.” The words dissolving; the poem
becoming us and everything around us.

A Fortune for Your Disaster by Hanif Abdurraqib

“& I tell my boys
there is a reason songs from the 90s are having a revival & it’s because
the heart & tongue are the muscles with the most irresistible histories.” Abdurraqib’s
lines lunge; his titles blur into the text. There’s real energy in this book,
and there’s also a compelling sense of love, longing, and loss. His poems hold
hope, but a measured one: “If one must pray, I imagine // it is most worthwhile
to pray towards endings. / The only difference between sunsets and funerals //
is whether or not a town mistakes the howls / of a crying woman for madness.” In
a series of poems titled “How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time
Like This”—a question that is, tellingly, also a statement—Abdurraqib delivers
some of his most pointed lines: “maybe all the blues / requires is a door /
through which a person / can enter and exit.” He ends one poem: “a father
stands / over his crying son & hisses / I’ll
give you something to cry about / as if he didn’t already / bring a child
into a world / that requires neither of them.” A deft collection.

Valuing by Christopher Kondrich

Valuing opens with an apt epigraph from Simone Weil: “Everything without exception which is of value in me comes from somewhere other than myself, not as a gift but as a loan which must be ceaselessly renewed.” Her words mark this collection. “It is alright,” Kondrich writes. “You may dwell in me.” Elsewhere: “In order to be immortal you have to be invisible to the part of you that knows you have to die.” Kondrich’s poems have the curious gift of being gently abstract—not vague, but broad, perhaps even kenotic. From Caedmon: “I sit with my head in my hands, turned / against everything. I’m facing what I think // is the wind. It has the eyes I’ve sought, / the skin I’ve felt under stone.” This outward sense makes many of Kondrich’s poems feel like hymns released into the sky. Valuing is a refreshingly sincere and skilled book about the ineffable: “Friend, if you are there, / come to meet me. I am drifting devoured. / I am ready to say goodnight. / Come meet me so I can release it.”

The Space Between Silence & Enough: Featured Poetry by Nick Flynn

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from I Will Destroy You by Nick Flynn. His books are often God-haunted, with doubt and faith giving breath to each other.

Flynn has said that he writes “about Jesus quite a lot, he’s appeared in nearly every book I’ve written, it seems…distilled down to his essence, I think he’s a beautiful figure…he is a scrim for each generation to project upon—he seems the perfect ambiguous image, which forces us to figure out what he means, over and over again.”

The complex identity and legacy of St. Augustine fits that same description, and in this poem, the final in Flynn’s excellent new book, we feel the narrator’s conversation with the past. “Even as I write each word I am farther from God,” he says—a powerful song of longing.

“Saint Augustine”
Saint Augustine preached humility &the need to simply be on the ground.Do you wish to rise? he asked. Whatwould he say of these words then, which,after all, are meant to replace us? Whatwould he say of the way I go back, again& again, to the burning house, the housewe’ve already escaped? These words—so quick, the way they rise up, like sparks,or smoke, a person could get lost in the skywatching them, a person could lose trackof the important things. Spot quiz: What’sthe opposite of standing before a houseon fire, trying to understand the flames,& knowing you will never understand?I want to enter into that moment my motherstrikes her first match, but I’m still asleepupstairs. In the dream I’m walking throughthe marsh, because only there, surroundedby water, am I safe. Are your handsthe water? Are these words the flame?The reeds are taller than I am, the mudslows everything down. In some waysI cannot imagine seeing you again, but hereI am, kneeling as in prayer at your bedside,counting our breaths. What would stop mefrom taking your hand then & placing it on mychest? O Lord, help me be pure, but not yet.Even as I write each word I am farther fromGod—sometimes I just can’t find it. If only I couldhave the faith I hear coming from the radio,the way it always knows I’m listening. One daythese years will be known as the space betweensilence & enough. I still have trouble being alonein either, which is why the radio is always on.Do you wish to rise? Augustine asks. Beginby descending.

“Saint Augustine,” from I Will Destroy You. Copyright © 2019 by Nick Flynn. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.

B.J. Hollars Explores the Midwest’s Strangest Corners

During his yearlong trek spent researching paranormal claims throughout the Midwest, B.J. Hollars admits “whether discussing the mundane or a monster sighting, it’s hard to know who to trust.” Everyone, it seems, has a story.

“The irony,” Hollars writes in Midwestern Strange, “is that much of the research conducted by cryptozoologists, ufologists, anomalists, paranormal investigators, and the like undergo the same processes employed within academia’s hallowed halls—namely, hypothesizing and theorizing toward a greater understanding of truth.” He often returns to this sentiment: Strange tales demand our attention, but such research is met with skepticism.

Midwestern Strange is a fun and fascinating romp through those
tales—delivered with Hollars’s talent for connecting dots while remaining
comfortable with unanswered questions. The author of Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America, The Road South: Personal Stories of the Freedom Riders, and other books, he is an associate professor of English at
the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

We spoke about Goosebumps, folklore, and the hidden strangeness of “flyover country.”

The Millions: I like to hear of other
writers who were born wandering library stacks. You said the books of your
childhood were “part pulp, part peculiarity.” Why—and how—did books about
creatures and the paranormal especially capture your imagination?

B.J. Hollars: I think what fascinated me most about books on creatures and the paranormal were that these books were shelved in the nonfiction section of our library. I was probably nine or 10 when I fell headlong into strange and spooky tales, but prior to wandering toward the nonfiction shelves, I’d only known these subjects in their fictional forms.

I admit it: I was a Goosebumps kid. By which I mean I mowed as many lawns as I could to earn the four bucks I needed to pick up R.L. Stine’s monthly addition to his wildly popular series. I devoured the earlier books faster than Stine could write them, and once I ran dry, I travelled a little deeper into the library. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there were shelves overflowing with nonfiction books on subjects as strange as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, werewolves, and the Bermuda Triangle. I gathered them up by the armful, then spent more than a few weekend nights sidling up to the kitchen table, notepad in hand, anxious to get to the bottom of these mysteries.

Prior to venturing to the nonfiction side of those library shelves, I felt I had a pretty clear understanding of the demarcation lines between fact and fiction. But books on Bigfoot and the like dramatically complicated my understanding. Suddenly I wasn’t sure what to think. I was 10 years old and the world had doubled in size for me. There was so much to see, so much to learn, and the widening of my world was revelatory.  

TM: What is particularly
Midwestern about these cases and stories—other than that they are located in
the region?

BH: One of the things I love most about the Midwest is its chameleonlike ability to blend in with its surroundings. The downside, of course, is that as a result, we Midwesterners are often overlooked. We are, for many, merely “flyover country”—just a swath of land you pass through en route to another place. But the upside is that in being overlooked, we’ve got a lot left to explore, especially in terms of the strange. I’m a firm believer that every place has something unique, but in the Midwest, it’s not always so apparent. We don’t have a coast, we don’t have mountains, and so, our “uniqueness” sometimes requires a little digging. Many of the “case files” within the book discuss how small Midwestern towns often take it upon themselves to employ creatures or stories or legends to serve as proof of their uniqueness. As I’ve learned, those towns that embrace the strange—rather than shy away from it—often benefit both economically and culturally. In the Midwest, it’s cool to be weird. We’re humble about our oddities, of course, but we’re a little proud of them, too.  

TM: Other than Project
ELF—the Navy’s creation of “a one-way communication system to relay messages to
America’s nuclear submarines by way of extremely low frequency waves”—which of
these cases do you think is the most likely to be true, and why?

BH: Throughout the book, I try to steer clear of making too many definitive statements about my own feelings toward these subjects. For reasons of trying to preserve at least a little credibility, I let the narrative and the research do the work. As the various case files thickened, I tried to take an Occam’s Razor approach to the truth, assuring myself that the obvious solution was likely the correct one. But some of these events and creatures and phenomena seemed to defy any and all rational explanations. One interviewee said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that she likes to “keep an open mind without my mind falling out of the back of my head.” I really appreciated that candor. And I suppose I feel similarly. If you fess up to believing in phenomena such as UFOs or cryptozoological creatures, the general public dismisses you pretty quickly. But I’m always surprised by how many thoughtful and logical and rationale people come up to me in private to share their own encounters with the strange. Oftentimes folks begin by saying something like, “I know this sounds crazy but…” I just listen. And I try to do everything I can to intimate that I’m not judging them. That’s important, I think—just listening without offering an explanation. And I think that applies to most of our interactions with our fellow humans, too. Sometimes people don’t need an answer, just an ear.

Having said all that, the case that gives me the most pause is the Minot Air Force Base Sighting of 1968. It’s one thing when a single witness comes forward claiming to have seen a UFO, but what do we do when dozens of highly-trained military personnel claim to have seen something? Further, what are we to think when radarscope prints confirm that something strange was bolting through the sky? One answer, of course, is that the “UFO” seen over the Minot skies was an “unidentified flying object” of terrestrial origin. We tend to link UFO sightings with extraterrestrials, but we can’t forget the likelier explanation: that the technology is human made. That the strangeness in the skies is of our own making. Which is scarier: acknowledging intelligent life in the universe with technology far more advanced than our own, or that we ourselves possess such technology and refuse to speak of it?

TM: You reference journalist and ufologist John Keel several times in the book. Keel is best known for The Mothman Prophecies, but my favorites of his are The Eighth Tower, and “The Flying Saucer Subculture,” a 1975 essay that appeared in the Journal of Popular Culture. “Ufology has been a propaganda movement rather than a scientific movement,” he argued. “The ufologists began stumping for a myth in the late 1940s before the sighting evidence was empirical.” You include a few UFO cases and encounters in this book, and speak with several researchers. Do you think Keel’s assessment is correct?

BH: One lesson I learned throughout this book is that everyone has a motive. As I sought out interviews with folks who had stories to share, I was always leery of those who were a little too willing to talk. Most of the interviewees that made it into the book were people who were a bit hesitant. They needed to know more about me and the project before they signed on. And I appreciated that vetting process immensely; mostly because it provided me the opportunity to get to know them better, too. So much trust goes into writing a book based primarily from firsthand accounts. At every turn, I was acutely aware that I might be played for a fool. In most interviews, I tried to tease out what the interviewer might get out of the process. On occasion, people said things like, “Look, nothing good came from this incident in my life, and I don’t expect anything good to come from it now.” Their hesitancy is what solidified my trust toward them. And I hope my willingness to listen without judgment allowed me to reciprocate that trust.

I haven’t read John Keel’s work widely enough to make a proper assessment in any definitive way. But speaking directly to the quote, my gut tells me that a good chunk of the population would likely agree. And that many Ufologists would, too. Carl Sagan famously told Ufologist J. Allen Hynek, “I predict that if and when you ever get a really good case that involves hard evidence, there will be no lack of federal funds.” It’s not that Sagan was dismissive about other intelligent life in the universe; rather, he just needed science to support such a claim. All serious-minded Ufologists likely share that sentiment. Because without the scientific backing, it’s even easier to dismiss the claims. An eyewitness account always proves insufficient. But unaltered photos and videos and radarscope prints, those are the building blocks of proof.

TM: The story of Oscar the Turtle—an alleged giant turtle spotted in Indiana during the 1940s—leads you to discover a folklorist who wrote his dissertation on the subject. “For a folklorist like [John] Gutkowski, it was never a question of whether or not Oscar ‘existed’: what mattered most were the stories surrounding the creature.” You’re a professor and writer; what did you learn about storytelling from spending a year steeped in folklore?

BH: We twist ourselves into knots over the so-called “truth,” when in fact “truth”—for better or worse—seems to grow more relative with every passing day. In the introduction, I write that one of my primary motives for this book was to test “whether our grappling with such unanswerable subjects might fortify us against the onslaught of misinformation now embedded in our lives.” Following the 2016 election, I became terrified by the weaponization of misinformation. Which is to say: there are serious socio-political ramifications for how we spin a story. Whether or not Bigfoot exists is hardly the most pressing question of our time, but I’d argue that better understanding how and why some people believe fiercely in Bigfoot, while others refuse even to entertain the possibility, is a question worth considering. What information tips our belief scale? How can two people look at the same information and arrive at two diametrically opposed conclusions? Of course, it’s hardly as simple as that. But, indeed, exploring the strange might be a vehicle for testing our own critical thinking skills on an array of subjects.

Throughout the research process, I found plenty of pitfalls in my own thinking. How easy it is to get caught up in the lie. And how difficult to return to solid ground once your heart gets ahead of your head. If a story is good enough, it’s easy to suspend our disbelief. And when we do, sometimes we let down our guard. For me, that realization is both empowering and terrifying. In the right hands, stories can create positive change, but in the wrong hands, they can prove destructive to the world beyond the story.  

TM: Midwestern Strange includes stories and legends that range from the bizarre to the silly to the violent. What led you to focus on these particular cases (and were there any interesting cases that you researched that you didn’t include in the book?)?

BH: About 35 miles due west of my home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is a village called Elmwood, which claims to be the UFO Capital of Wisconsin. No matter that a few other places in Wisconsin make the same claim, Elmwood totally claims it the hardest. Not only does Elmwood host an annual summer festival called UFO Days, but back in the 1970s, following a rash of UFO sightings, a few of the village’s citizens led a grassroots effort to raise $50 million to build a UFO landing strip. While surrounding towns were working on finding funding for the library and the school, a select group of folks in and around Elmwood set their sights a whole lot higher (pun totally intended—I couldn’t resist). The story is fascinating, yet I couldn’t track down enough of the key figures in the fundraising campaign to make the story worthwhile. And so, I had to let this particular case file. As far as I could tell, there was no new discoveries to be had.

As for the cases that are
included, I selected them for a variety of reasons. First, I think they
provided a nice range of “strange.” On one end, we’ve got wolves running about
Wisconsin on two legs, and on the other we’ve got a pre-Columbian stone with a
runic inscription dredged up in western Minnesota. One’s the kind of thing
you’d see in a horror movie, the other, something you’d see on an archeological
dig. In between, we’ve got creatures like Mothman, whose sole existence is
based on eyewitness reports, as well as Project ELF—a top secret military
operation with no shortage of documentation. Each of the cases provides a new
way to view our world. As you mentioned, some of the case files are scary,
others are a little goofy, but all of them, at least in my opinion, were
totally worthy of further exploration.

TM: In your epilogue to the
book, you write “Researcher be warned: when it comes to the strange, the work
never reaches its end.” Keel has written about this; the feeling that
existentially (or even psychically), paranormal researchers are trapped in
constant inquiry. You spent a year “living strangely”—what has happened since?

spent a year leaping headlong down every rabbit hole I could, then another year
trying to dig myself out. Researching strange phenomena was like nothing I’d
done before. With this subject, the “written record” was always pretty thin. And
even when I did find written accounts, there were always questions of
credibility to consider. I began every case by calibrating myself toward
neutrality. I had to leave any and all preconceived notions at the door. Of
course, that’s virtually impossible to do. But I tried.

But the truth is, with few exceptions, the deeper I got into a case, the further from the truth I became. This was a wholly unexpected development. At the start of the project, the whole point was to let the evidence lead me toward explanations. Not necessarily to “debunk” any phenomena, but to provide additional possibilities. If I turned over enough stones, I figured, eventually I’d find something new. The problem, though, was that there were always stones beneath those stones. I turned over one and I found another.

The “Martian” section of the book was the most difficult in this regard. Information on UFOs and extraterrestrials is simply without end. I suppose this probably confirms Keel’s quote about UFOs being a “propaganda movement rather than a scientific movement.” One of the most startling moments of my research was when I tracked down a well-known Ufologist who’d been off the grid for some time. He made it clear to me that his UFO research had done real harm to his life. It ruined his career and his personal life. And he told me I ought to be careful if I insisted on going down this particular path, as he had. It really shook me.

Equally strange was the
moment when various interviewees from various case files began highlighting the
same specific detailed locations and mineral deposits, claiming that these locations
and mineral deposits seemed to attract strange phenomena. I figured this was
part of some larger theory, but not so. I searched every search engine and
found nothing. These folks, on their own accord and without prompting, were
simply mentioning a few details which they couldn’t make sense of. Having heard
these details again and again, suddenly I was in a place to try to make sense
of them, or at least look a bit closer. That was the moment I knew I needed to
either go deeper down that rabbit hole or begin to claw my way out. Coward that
I am, I chose to claw my way out. Things were becoming a little too strange,
even for me.

The biggest change in my own life is that now I view the world differently. Mysteries aren’t something to be solved, but something to be embraced. We don’t need to conquer; we just need to be curious. For me, that’s where the revelation lives—in the not-knowing.

Holy in the Hands of Old Oak: Featured Poetry by Alexandra Teague

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Or What We’ll Call Desire by Alexandra Teague. Her book is full of richly-textured pieces like “Driving After Rain,” a poem whose rhythm begins with its first line—a single sentence, dressed with complementing s and f sounds, appended with a final, single word that moves us forward. She’s as skilled moving among phrases and sounds as she is portraying bodies—our ineffable drift through this world: “we were always driving nowhere // and it didn’t matter then.”

“Driving After Rain”
The self like silverware laid out finally for a feast. Brightlanes of light along the gorge this morning, that watery rush
like the waterwheel I used to love to go see at the mill:the War Eagle gushing brown Southern babble
over sunspots of stone, dark flecks of childhoodlifted into swinging buckets, rain pockmarks of failure
or giver or grief churning not in transubstantiation but in waterrising up as water, holy in the hands of old oak;
Oh God, make them like a wheel, not a curse, but a wayto ride the whole way around our bodies
and back—like once in the front seat by an L.A. highway,I’d pull over with a man, a storm
so blinding rain blinding no one saw my skirt liftingagainst steering wheel; we were always driving nowhere
and it didn’t matter then, suspendedlike water I don’t quite understand, how it falls fast enough
to carry itself up and over and still be wholethe way I pretended I wasn’t—knowing he was lying
that he’d ever love me, throwing myself anywaylike this river was everything. As stubble before the wind.  
Inside that mill, flour dusts every skin. So whatif I’m dammed and damned and driven; some days
I’m also shining like spoons milled by water, breadmy mother kneaded as I set knife beside fork—hunger
taught to be orderly as wheels at fairs, that sky-swinging dangerwith its sturdy spokes like psalms splitting the word of God
from the water of every other word.

“Driving after the Rain” by Alexandra Teague from Or What We’ll Call Desire by Alexandra Teague. Copyright © 2019 by Alexandra Teague. Posted by permission of Persea Books, Inc. (New York). All rights reserved.

Little Islands of Faith: The Millions Interviews Tupelo Hassman

Early in gods with a little g, the story’s teenage narrator, Helen Dedleder, describes a night with her friends: “And on one of those early evenings as the light in Rosary was fading, back in the early days when the glow from those first beers still warmed us all the way home, we were christened.” The syntax and sound of the sentence represents one of Tupelo Hassman’s gifts in this novel: her ability to capture the beautiful fragility of those teen years.

That fragility is created from
the novel’s tender route between grief and faith. Helen lives each day with the
memory of her mom’s death—and what that has done to her dad: “he fell right
apart, and I’ve been collecting the pieces of him since.” He begins to date a
woman named Iris, who “is the type of person who ends statements with question
marks. She is the type of person who will use the word love in sentence after sentence until it is empty as a deflated
balloon on a dance floor.” Yet Helen loves her dad—which makes her skepticism
of Iris complicated. Love complicates everything in gods with a little g, Hassman’s second novel. Her first book, Girlchild, received the American Library
Association’s Alex Award. She has written for The Boston Globe, Harper’s Bazaar, ZYZZYVA, and elsewhere. The
first American to win London’s Literary Death Match, she earned her MFA at
Columbia University.

Hassman and I spoke about faith, doubt, and the other ways that we fill the chasms in our lives.

The Millions: I love the way Helen Dedleder, the book’s first-person narrator,
tells her story, and the stories of those around her. Early in the book, she
describes hanging out with her friends at Fast Eddie’s Tire Salvage: “Like
we’re stuck, here with each other. The best and worst of everyone we know,
doing what we must but shouldn’t, becoming who we are and always will be.
Without thinking, maybe.” How did you find her voice?

Tupelo Hassman: Helen is the kind of girl I am still not cool enough to be friends
with, she’s confident and tough and doesn’t fumble (until she does) and if I
get to live in someone else’s head, I’m checking into hers. The moments of
boldness Helen has, when taking dares, when reading dirty books aloud, that’s
when I knew I’d found my girl. Because of what she’s lost, in her mother’s
death, she worries a little less than some might about how she presents herself
and about getting hurt. Having nothing to lose is a magical thing.

TM: gods with a little g is suffused with belief and unbelief. Rosary, California, is full of “Thumpers”—nearly-fundamentalist Christians who regulate everything from tattoos to the Internet (which is not allowed). Helen’s relationship with God is beautifully strained; at Vacation Bible Camp, she would make paper flowers from pages from the Song of Solomon: “Bible pages tear quietly and easily and fold perfectly.” That feels a lot like a metaphor—in fact, listening to Helen made me think of the novelist R.O. Kwon, who fictionalized some of her own emotions and experiences in leaving religion within her novel The Incendiaries. Kwon said writing the book helped her realize “there is no resolving” faith and lost faith. She laments: “I loved God. I loved believing.” It’s a beautiful sense that I think is reflected in Helen’s life. All of this is to say: could you talk about Helen’s idea of God? Of faith? Of existence and meaning?

TH: Helen
is a believer, in an unwilling way. She’s too smart to ignore an organic
instinct for connection to something greater than herself but she’s pretty
pissed at that something at the same time. And she’s too smart to ignore the
hypocrisy around her in the performative connection to faith enacted by the
Thumpers. This leaves her in a no-man’s land, really, water everywhere. But she
has her Aunt Bev’s insistence that there is more to life than meets the eye,
and Helen has her mother’s example. Helen’s mother was a person whose way of
being proved her faith and proved to Helen that faith is worth having. Helen
hasn’t quite gotten to figuring out existence and meaning yet, but she is
beginning to think about responsibility, about serving, and she may find her
answer to those questions, if she doesn’t burn it all down first.

TM: You
have a way to make your readers feel—absolutely, intensely—the emotions of your
characters, especially Helen. The grief she has for her dead mother is
palpable. There’s a great moment when Helen thinks of how her mother would tuck
her in at night: “I’d open my eyes then and watch her go, watching until she
turned off the hall light. Just as she flipped the switch, I’d close my eyes
tight, so the light would burn her shape into the darkness, a blazing pure
white against the black of my eyelids and the night, more real than any
electricity.” Her mother’s favorite Bible verse was Matthew 28:20: “And, lo, I
am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” Her mother is always with
Helen, especially giving her daughter a sense of wonder; Helen even imagines the
shape of a human body forming “in the dirt and weeds of Rosary’s empty lot.”
How do you envision their relationship—and what role does faith (in all its
varieties) play in that relationship?

TH: Losing a mom. That’s a god-shaped hole. Helen’s mom, Evie, was one of those parents able to do the delicate work of instructing her child without damaging her autonomy. Maybe Evie was able to do this because she knew she wouldn’t be there to see the first years of her work done and maybe she was able to take a gentler hand because her parents had driven away her sister, Helen’s Aunt Bev. Of course, when a parent dies early, we have the silver-lined luxury of imagining perfect parenting that would have spanned a lifetime. But what is the relationship between Helen and her mom now? You know those kids who eat paint and dirt because they have a mineral deficiency? It’s brilliant and terrifying how we will try to fill unmet needs without even recognizing sometimes that anything is missing in the first place. The relationship now, for Helen, is a vacuum of need and her work is to figure out what will sustain her. In that process, she’s going to eat some dirt.

TM: Rosary
feels like a place outside of time. I read gods
with a little g in two days, during a heat wave, and it felt like I was
incubating within the book, within this strangely surreal town. One of the many
setting points that really resonates are the telephone poles: “The telephone
poles around Rosary are white with flyers.” Helen adds to the collection, but
the street sweepers take down flyers on poles: “Rosary’s desires are washed
away. In the mornings after, all that’s left are the naked staples running the
length of every pole like the bark of a petrified forest.” It’s a great, sad
image. Rosary feels like a beautifully melancholic place. Did it feel that way
to you during the writing of this book? How do you spatially, geographically
imagine the town (is it inspired by a place? an amalgam of places)?

TH: Rosary’s skyline is inspired by Vallejo, Califf, just north of Berkeley, where there is a…beautiful, maybe, oil refinery right on the edge of the water. You crest a hill and there it is, sometimes in fog. It is out of place, if there even is a place for such a thing, and monstrous, and it has taken my breath away (not an air quality joke) my entire life. The economic disparity in the Bay Area is increasingly segregating and I’m struck by the other kinds of segregation that come with that, purposefully or not, especially for young people whose freedoms are still limited by their age. Just across the bay from that factory and what surrounds it is San Francisco and all of its complicated freedoms. How can a kid cross that water? And what happens to them if they don’t?

I wrote most of gods with a little g after moving to Charleston, S.C. This is my first time living in the suburbs and I was, and still am, unprepared for the pristine desolation of this kind of a lifestyle. People come out to mow but otherwise, the streets are empty. After living in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York, this feels like another country, so well kept, and harder to escape.

TM: The
scenes between Helen and Bird—her step-brother and romantic crush—are so
awkward and believable. “When the food is ready we hold hands,” Helen narrates.
“And when Bird’s hand touches mine for those seconds over the table, his middle
finger circles around and around in my palm.” What attracts—compels—Helen to

TH: The heart, and various other parts of the body, want what the heart and all those parts want. Bird is shiny. He’s impossible. Bird has that kind of charisma that has to be mastered or it will get him into trouble his entire life. He needs a handler, really. To top it all off, he’s found out that he’s very good at something, sex, and can’t find any reason to stop doing this thing at which he apparently excels. Or, in other words, he’s a teenager. Helen is extremely disappointed in her attraction to Bird and this disappointment makes it harder for her to stop focusing on him. She sees herself as an original thinker, making her own decisions, and here she is, like everyone else, unable to resist being awed by Bird’s parade of sex-appeal. People in recovery have this saying about going to bars, in light of the temptation they hold to fall off the wagon: hang out at the barbershop long enough and you’re going to get a haircut. Even if Helen could’ve kept sidestepping her attraction to Bird, once they start spending even more time together because their parents are dating, well. Shave and a haircut, two bits.   

TM: Catholicism haunts this book. It is like a shadow; something a bit more incantational and mysterious than the rote beliefs of the Thumpers. Rosary was founded as a Catholic town, and a few streets still hold the names of saints. There’s a scene when Bird is at a church service, sitting “in the dusty light coming through the windows and the stained glass colors his face, blushes his cheeks…And he’s beatified, like the Bible promises it will do. If we were allowed saints here, if the Catholics weren’t cursed, I would call this a sighting.” The word and concept of Rosary, of course, are central to the faith practice of many Catholics. Why did you decide to name the town Rosary? What does the word mean to you—literally, as a concept?

love those outward symbols of faith. A person with a rosary in her hand, like
someone reading a book, is doing this thing right before our eyes: she is
believing in a world unseen. Whatever the religion, when I attend a service, I
am so moved by what in a theater is called the suspension of disbelief, and in
a place of worship, what is it? The…comprehension of belief? belief’s
un-suspension? Those moments when we remember that this need to connect with
something greater than ourselves is as real as anything else, as real as this
conversation, anyway, there is something essential there, going back, I guess,
to that god-shaped hole. To my mind, Catholicism has many of the prettiest and
most satisfying ways of evidencing faith. Because we want to touch it, don’t
we? We just want to hold this thing in our hands that we feel inside of us so
heavily but cannot manifest. Rosaries meet that need for physical connection to
what is immaterial. It makes sense to me. There are so many gaps in life,
chasms, and we fill them with faith and conceit and whatever else we can find,
rocks, to make it across. For me, I see these chasms everywhere, it’s like
there’s an insurance agent in my head with a fist full of actuarial tables,
running risk assessments for every instance: is the helmet on tight enough? how
many days until the paycheck? how far away are those sirens? here are the 100
ways to give your family salmonella. Each bead on a rosary is a way of managing
those questions and chasms, little islands of faith.

TM: gods with a little g so authentically captures the wild years of high school (and I say this about to start my 16th year as a public-school teacher). Can you talk about those years? Are they particularly ripe for great stories?

TH: Holy moly, Nick. You know a lot about teenagers. If we had a time machine and I was a student in your class, I would be…invisible. I dropped out two weeks into 10th grade and my teenage years were…a mess? a disaster? dangerous…a thesaurus entry for “unseemly adventure.” And, frankly, it is a wonder that I am here. But I had two friends, also living on edges, and though we led each other to the danger sometimes, we ultimately saved each other too, over and over again. That’s the only story there is, maybe. Those friendships we form in our teenage years can and do save our lives. And then we forget. Adult amnesia about the wherewithal of teens is a phenomenon to me. We all made stupid choices in our teens, but we also were quite more capable then most teenagers are given credit for being. How does this amnesia happen? I am guilty of slipping into this too, it’s like being slowly roofied, how as we age we succumb to this idea that teenagers aren’t the actual shit. Some child sociologists note that keeping teenagers in the category of children serves to preserve power for the older generations. Jeff Chang (We Gon’ Be Alright) talks about young people as our primary change agents. Teenage years are ripe for great stories because we make big choices then, with the power of immortality behind them. And this ability seems to escape us as we grow older and then we are suspicious of it, or jealous. We go from ride or die to bide our time in a hot second and then spend all of this old-people energy trying to stop the powerful, young, fire-bellied creatures from doing their actual jobs of fucking up and saving the world while they’re at it. I wanted to write about those kids, the ones we need now more than ever, the ones we once were.