Terms of Concealment: Junot Díaz and the Language of Masculinity

IMAGE BY: Rick Reinhard/Flickr

by Jonathan Russell Clark

Junot Díaz has pretty much made a career for himself with one narrator. We first meet Yunior, a Dominican raised in New Jersey, like Díaz himself, in Drown, published in 1996. The stories that make up Drown show Yunior as an adolescent or a young man, growing up and coming into his own. In one story, “Aurora,” we get our first taste of one of Yunior’s most distinct qualities: his rampant philandering. Yunior’s roommate, Cut, doesn’t like Aurora, and “never gives [Yunior] the messages she leaves with him.” Yunior doesn’t care, though, because the notes are “bullshit mostly, but every now and then she leaves one that makes me want to treat her better.” Through and through, Yunior is always direct about the way he treats women, and over the years it doesn’t really change. Sixteen years later, with the publication of This Is How You Lose Her, we find Yunior older but not any wiser. “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” opens like this:

Your girl catches you cheating. (Well, actually she’s your fiancée but hey, in a bit it so won’t matter.) She could have caught you with one sucia, she could have caught you with two, but as you’re a totally batshit cuero who didn’t ever empty his e-mail trash can, she caught you with fifty. Sure, over a six-year period, but still. Fifty fucking girls? Goddamn. Maybe if you’d been engaged to a super open-minded blanquita you could have survived—but you’re not engaged to super open-minded blanquita. Your girl is a bad-ass salcedeña who doesn’t believe in open anything; in fact the one thing she warned you about, that she swore she would never forgive, was cheating. I’ll put a machete in you, she promised. And of course you swore you wouldn’t do it. You swore you wouldn’t. You swore you wouldn’t.

And you did.

This extended passage displays another of Yunior’s most prominent characteristics: his voice. Díaz is ubiquitously praised for his prose style, his mix of whip-smart prose, low-brow colloquialism, remarkable rhythm, and Spanish words dotting the pages. Put together, these aspects of Díaz’s writing make it energetic, authentic and utterly singular. Notice, though, in the above passage, where the Spanish words appear. Let’s go through them. There’s “sucia,” a Spanish dysphemism for promiscuous women, and “cuero,” another derogatory term for an overly sexual person. Then there’s “blanquita,” which means “white girl,” and “salcedeña,” which refers to a person from Salcedo, a city in the Dominican Republic. What’s interesting about these terms isn’t what they mean so much as how they’re employed: Díaz always uses them when discussing relationships, both sexual and emotional. His Spanish, then (which is never translated for non-Spanish speakers), not only adds to the authenticity of the narrator, but also functions, for the English-speaking reader, as a distancing device between Yunior and his actions, his seeming lack of moral compass. This usage both emphasizes the words and obfuscates their meaning. And finally, because Spanish is Yunior’s native language, his method of obscuring his inner self employs the words of his earliest—and one might argue, most fundamental—form of expression.

Díaz has been raiding this shit since his first collection. In the title story, “Drown,” another feature of Yunior’s life is explored: his rigorous masculinity. The culture Yunior comes up in isn’t exactly the most open-minded in the world, and a male’s perceived masculinity becomes an important trait to defend. “Drown,” then, captures many of Díaz’s recurring themes—sex, masculinity, language—and subtly investigates Yunior’s relationship to all three. Yunior describes what he and his friends do for fun, which consists mostly of going out to bars and failing to pick up women. Afterwards, they’ll “pass the fag bar, which never seems to close. Patos are all over the parking lot, drinking and talking.” Alex, one of Yunior’s cohorts, sometimes stops the car and says, “Excuse me,” and “when somebody comes over from the bar he’ll point his plastic pistol at them, just to see if they’ll run or shit their pants.” Yunior tells this story with a narrative straight-face, implying that such outward homophobia permeates his peer group.

When Yunior first mentions Beto, the subject of the story, he recalls “the way we stole, broke windows, the way we pissed on people’s steps and then challenged them to come out and stop us.” More than homophobic, there is a thread of violence pervasive here as well. They’ll urinate on an innocent person’s home and then challenge them. Ostentatious masculinity does not even need to be provoked; it is offered, presented, displayed.

Some critics find Díaz’s authenticity to be dubious, as if his vernacular were outdated. Critic Rob Jacklosky claims “there is too much reliance on ‘street’ constructions that already sound quaint, such as the use of ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’ as an adverb, and ‘dope’ as an adjective.” Though Jacklosky’s intimate knowledge of American-Dominican nomenclature usage is never validated, it’s safe to say that he’s way the hell off here. He seems to believe that if certain phrases disappear from the popular zeitgeist, it must mean they’ve stopped being used by individual communities, as if we’ve stopped saying “cool” decades after its introduction into American language, or “hip” or “awesome” or “sweet.” Even more insidious is the implicit claim here that novels or stories that do not feature up-to-date vernacular are somehow automatically irrelevant. Does Jacklosky have any idea how young people speak? People still say “dope.” But he paints Díaz’s use of “street” language as disingenuous, the kind of “street lingo only an upper-eastside editor could see as cutting-edge.” Rather, Díaz’s language is filled with the kind of lingo that only tone-deaf critics would see as “quaint.”

Díaz’s stories exist in a real place filled with real people, which makes the pervasive homophobia and its underlying violence all the more rattling to read. As Joshua Jelly-Schapiro has it, these stories are “alternately set in an impoverished Dominican campo where young boys grow accustomed, each year, to shitting worms that their mamis don’t have the medicine to treat, to the scarcely-better life of public housing in New Jersey, where those same boys hide the ‘government cheese’ when girls come over.” Yunior is even shown to be a smart kid (which considering that he’s a Diaz stand-in isn’t all that surprising). When Yunior tells the reader about his now-defunct relationship with Beto, he remembers a telling incident, which involves a sign at the neighborhood pool decreeing “No Expectorating”:

Beto hadn’t known what expectorating meant though he was the one leaving for college. I told him, spitting a greener by the side of the pool.

Shit, he said. Where did you learn that?

I shrugged.

Tell me. He hated when I knew something he didn’t. He put his hands on my shoulders and pushed me under. He was wearing a cross and cutoff jeans. He was stronger than me and held me down until water flooded my nose and throat. Even then I didn’t tell him; he thought I didn’t read, not even dictionaries.

Yunior is smart, but he refuses to be ostentatious about it, quite a far cry from his otherwise masculine theatrics. Moreover, it is important to note that it is a single word that functions to show how different Yunior and Beto are, yet how similar. They’re both proud and competitive, especially about intelligence, but Yunior keeps his under wraps, as he doesn’t view himself—or maybe he doesn’t want to view himself—as intellectually curious. Beto, on the other hand, “hated everything about the neighborhood” and was “delirious at the thought” of leaving for college. Yunior, however, “wasn’t like him,” for he “had another year to go in high school, no promises elsewhere.” Yunior has no ambitions, and he seems to be suspicious of Beto’s.

Just as their competitive intelligence is highlighted by a single word, so too is their sexuality. Yunior introduces Beto as a “pato,” a derogatory term for a gay person, and uses the word again when he and his friends drive past the gay bar and make fun of the patrons. Why does this mean-spirited term keep arising? Well, it seems as if Yunior wants to distance himself from the word and its implications in his own life. When Yunior and Beto were younger, best friends who did everything together, Beto shows Yunior one of his father’s pornos. As they watch, Beto reaches into Yunior’s shorts and jacks him off. A similar event happens again, but Yunior stops it before it ends. Now, years later, Beto’s back in town from college, but Yunior only half-heartedly seeks him out, which basically amounts to avoiding him. In the end, he doesn’t see Beto, and probably won’t ever again.

Nowhere in “Drown” does the word ‘gay’ appear. All we get instead is “pato” and “fag.” Yunior won’t use the word, because if he does it will somehow turn into something permanent, something he can’t rationalize away by saying “Twice. That’s it,” as he does with Beto. He can’t face his former best friend, just as he can’t say the word that might be true, recalling Alfred Douglas’s famous phrase, “the love that dare not speak its name.” For a young man in a masculine world that’s also suspicious of intelligence and ambition, there are just some things you can’t say, some things you just can’t be.

Yet these cue (or I suppose anti-cue) words are in Spanish, Yunior’s native language, so the thematic dynamics are distinct between the text-to-reader meaning and the Yunior-to-Spanish meaning. For the reader, these terms function as a brief peak into Yunior’s inner struggles, but for Yunior, the fact that Spanish is the language of his vulnerabilities speaks to its significance. Whenever the deepest, most challenging parts of Yunior emerge, they do so in his most essential and foundational nomenclature. Spanish, to put it another way, reaches even the darkest crevasses of Yunior’s heart.

As noted above, Díaz never provides the translations for the Spanish slang he employs. This is because he wants the meaning of these terms to be one step below the surface, just slightly hidden, a way of suggesting Yunior’s discomfort with their meanings. He can’t face his issues with monogamy, referring to himself as a “cuero” and women as “sucias.” He won’t explain to Beto (or to us) where he learned what expectorating means. And he won’t see Beto, once his best friend, now a “pato,” because he can’t face what’s just underneath the surface, the meaning of the words, obscured from the reader ever so slightly by a foreign tongue, but unambiguously clear enough to everyone, even the people who don’t speak the language.

Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic and author of the forthcoming book An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom (Fiction Advocate 2017), a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. He is a staff writer at Literary Hub, and his work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, Tin House, Rolling Stone, New Republic, and numerous others.

A Promise Matters More Than Snow: Rethinking Robert Frost

IMAGE BY: Robert Frost, Newyorker.com

by Jonathan Russell Clark

The great Maxine Kumin wrote a poem describing a time at Bread Loaf when Robert Frost came to read and hang out with the students. “Magisterial in the white wicker rocker,” she writes, “Robert Frost at rest after giving / a savage reading.” He holds “nothing back” and barks at the young poets: “don’t sit / there mumbling in the shadows, call / yourselves poets.” He goes on to give some stern, hard-earned advice:

up from the page. Pause between poems.
Say something about the next one.
Otherwise the audience

will coast, they can’t take in
half of what you’re giving them.

He concludes by saying, “Make every poem your final poem.”

Kumin’s “The Final Poem” suggests something about Frost’s own poetry that many often overlook. Frost tells Kumin and the other fawning poets of Bread Loaf that the audience “can’t take in / half of what you’re giving them.” If we were to believe conventional analyses of Frost’s work, an audience would be able to get everything in one hearing, as many interpretations of Frost’s poetry don’t account for the layers of Frost’s work. Moreover, Frost is often thought of as a poet of nature and rural life, which to me feels a bit like referring to Anne Sexton as merely a poet of domesticity—these descriptions are ostensible; it is what is underneath them that defines them. Let’s take three of Frost’s nature poems—“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Birches,” and “After Apple-Picking,” which are often interpreted as laments on man’s distance from nature—and determine the way that each of these poems shows how nature only offers fleeting respite and temporary transcendence. Nature cannot save us spiritually; it can only place us “toward heaven,” and only then for but a moment. Rather than lament this ephemerality, Frost concludes, “Earth’s the right place for love.”

Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in March of 1874, and lived there until he was eleven, when the family moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts following the death of Frost’s father. As a poet, Frost has had a fascinating and ever-changing relationship to poetry criticism. As critic Charles McGrath wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2003, Frost

at the time of his death in 1963 was generally considered to be a New England folkie… In 1977, the third volume of Lawrance Thompson’s biography suggested that Frost was a much nastier piece of work than anyone had imagined; a few years later, thanks to the reappraisal of critics like William H. Pritchard and Harold Bloom and of younger poets like Joseph Brodsky, he bounced back again, this time as a bleak and unforgiving modernist.

Just last year, David Orr published The Road Not Taken: Finding America in the Poem Everyone Loves and Almost Everyone Gets Wrong, in which he argues, among other points, that the poem, rather than a celebration of “the road less traveled by” (though thanks to M. Scott Peck people usually leave out the “by”), actually

gives us several variations on the standard dilemmas associated with the romantic sensibility: How can one transcend one’s self (“travel both”) while still remaining oneself (“And be one traveler”)? What is the difference between the stories we tell about ourselves and the actuality of our inner lives? In the moment of choosing—the moment of delay—all answers to these questions remain equally possible. But when a choice is made, other possibilities are foreclosed, which leads to what Frost describes as “crying over what might have been.”

If Frost’s most iconic and ubiquitous poem is largely misunderstood, what chance does the rest of his poetry have? And does the man who refers to regret as “crying over what might have been” mesh with the image we’ve had of Frost since reading his verses in grade school? Critics have long understood that there was more going on in Frost’s work than spotted at first glance, but the greater population has yet to catch up, and it isn’t just “The Road Not Taken” that remains stubbornly misinterpreted.

Another of Frost’s iconic poems, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” is often seen as a mournful ode to humanity’s disconnection from the natural world. The speaker’s “little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near,” because, the poem suggests, the man never does this. By the end, though, the man realizes that he has “promises to keep” and “miles to go before” he sleeps. One interpretation of this would claim that this fleeting moment is somewhat tragic—man has no time for nature. He is too busy, too mired in responsibility to do anything more than stop for a brief respite. This poem, for many, perfectly captures the spirit of Frost’s attitude toward our relationship to nature.

Let us for a moment examine another poem to see if “Stopping by Woods…” truly typifies Frost’s beliefs. In “After Apple-Picking,” the speaker becomes “overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired.” His ladder is left “sticking through a tree / Toward heaven.” By the end, the speaker contemplates sleep, how his won’t be “Long sleep,” like the woodchuck’s, not a hibernation, though it feels that way to him. Instead, it will just be “some human sleep.” Is this a man who allows his desire for “human sleep,” his need for daily, human comforts, to get in the way of reaching “toward heaven”? That would make this poem match that of “Stopping by Woods…” Clarke W. Owens notes, “One cannot escape the resonance of death in the image of sleep” in this poem. Similar arguments have been made about the “sleep” at the end of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The death metaphor would suggest further that each poem’s speaker will miss out on the transcendental beauty of nature and die before they truly reach it. Is this what Frost intended?

Back to “After Apple-Picking.” When the man explains why the apple-picking has made him so tired, he says:

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.

The speaker here sees nature as abundant and tedious as life can be. Each apple is not some miracle but merely a drop in the bucket of apple cider. Now, one could read this as yet another critique of humanity’s treatment of nature, i.e., that we reduce beautiful things (like apples) to the level of machinery, the vitality of the wondrous coming from our destruction of them for our own purposes. For the speaker, though, does that matter? However humanity as a whole treats nature, the speaker still has to live in that world, and his reaction to it is less about all people and more about him as an individual. For the speaker, too, is one of “ten thousand thousand” people, “as of no worth.” Nature reminds him of this fact instead of saving him from it.

Okay, so returning to “sleep” as death: if Frost viewed “nature as an antagonist,” or at least as not so different from human life, then what do the references to sleep mean? Are they, as Owens suggests, metaphors for death? Owen’s argument goes like this:

Were the contemplated sleep truly “just some human sleep,” it would be a known quantity—because we have all experienced sleep—but it is not a known quantity. The tension of the poem derives precisely from its not being known. The image of a ladder pointing to heaven (lines 1 and 2), the image of winter, the archetypal season of death (7), the image of long experience and an over-tiredness with one’s formerly desired ends (the middle section of the poem, but especially lines 24–31)—all these things, together with the wondering, apprehensive uncertainty, suggest a nonexclusive or symbolic association of death with the image of sleep.

Owen goes further to state that “the final contrast becomes one between death as it occurs in nature—that is, a cyclical process of decay and cessation followed by birth and renewal akin to the change of seasons—and mere “human sleep,” seen as an individual’s night of dreams interspersed within a quotidian routine of work and reward.” It is tempting to see the poem in this light—that “sleep” stands for death— but this flies in the face of much of the poem’s literalness, an aspect that defies metaphor. Frost, here, does mean to contrast nature with humanity, but elevating “sleep” to death goes a little further than the poem suggests. Strip away any notion of metaphor and we arrive at a poem about the limitations of nature within a human context. The speaker picked apples for a long time and has tired of it. That participating in nature should lift him “toward heaven” means very little to him, as he is tired and overworked. “Just some human sleep” is what he’ll get, not the “long sleep” of hibernation, an extended existence in nature. Because ultimately, the speaker, no matter how heavenly nature can be, must return to life.

But this return is not a negative one. Frost does not see it as tragic. In fact, he sees it as preferable. In “Birches,” we get Frost’s most clear view of man’s relationship with nature—or, at least, his own relationship with nature. After “brilliantly” digressing about an ice storm, and describing the way the speaker imagines a boy “riding down” the branches of the birches, Frost launches into a prolonged statement about nature. “So I was once myself a swinger of birches,” he writes, “And so I dream of going back to be.” But there is something the speaker needs to clarify:

May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Frost’s speakers do not wish to be in nature forever, nor do they think it would be a good thing if they were. Nature offers something like the fun of a boy swinging across tree limbs—a temporary enjoyment, a minor diversion from the more pertinent and necessary claims of an adulthood. One could even see how Frost viewed all “visionary experience as an illusion.” And his speakers are quite aware of this. So the sadness that one detects in a Frost poem, that peculiar yearning just underneath the language, is not a lament for our distance from some life-altering and life-affirming nature, but instead for the fact that nature actually doesn’t offer much solace.

Let’s go back to “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” with this interpretation in mind, specifically the final stanza:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The repetition of sleep, rather than suggesting death, actually suggests life–a long, weary and not-so-fulfilling one, yes, but a life nonetheless. This man can’t stay and watch the snow as it softly falls; he can’t continue to contemplate the “lovely, dark and deep” woods. He must carry on, he must keep his promises, and he must sleep, eventually, after all his work is done. Rather than view this as tragic, as a commentary on the way we allow our work and our trivial lives prevent us from experiencing the transcendence of the natural world, why can’t we see this as quietly heroic? Why can’t we allow that maybe the aims of humanity—our goals, ambitions, our greatest hopes and fears—are not meaningless when compared to nature? Why must we be deemed the trivial ones? Can snow really be more meaningful than promises?

If all this sounds a little unromantic, we must remember who we’re dealing with here. Like Kumin, John Updike also has story of seeing Frost in person. After moving through his “poems rather rapidly, minimizing their music in his haste to get on with his spoken commentary on whatever came to his mind,” Frost launched into an attack on Archibald MacLeish. Updike continues:

MacLeish had recently issued a radio play, The Trojan Horse, whose message in that heyday of McCarthyism was that the United States should not take into itself the Trojan horse of totalitarian tactics. Who could dispute so unexceptionable a message and the agitated liberalism that have given rise to it? Well, Frost could. “You know,” he told his old friend and admirer in the astonished hearing of us worshipfully assembled undergraduates, “if you’re going to beat a fella, you got to get to be like him.”

Frost continued on “long enough for his anti-anti-McCarthyite drift to register,” and Updike notes that in response to another work by MacLeish—a version of the Job story called J.B.—and its moral—that “Our labor…is to learn through suffering to love”—Frost said, “People think everything is solved by love. Maybe just as many things are solved by hate.”

Readers conditioned by popular culture’s version of Frost would be stunned by these stories. How heartless and wrongheaded was this guy? Updike’s story is, of course, anecdotal and shouldn’t be used to completely demonize Frost, but there is something important in such a description of Frost, especially when one is considering his poetry. Here was a man who saw nature as “indifferent, alien, hostile,” yet wrote some of the most beloved nature poems of the twentieth century. Here is a man who preferred humanity to nature, yet is remembered for odes, not to people, but to a fleeting escape from human activity. But Frost did not, as Whitman did, contradict himself; his poetry does not contain multitudes. Instead, what Frost feared so has happened: his poetry has been “willfully” misunderstood and placed (irrevocably) in nature, or at least on nature’s side, and the great tragedy might be that now that it’s snatched away, it might never return. Is there hope that the institution of Frost will continue to venerate his poetry for misguided reasons? Can we still rescue him from the woods? In the lines directly before the ones about being misunderstood by fate, Frost writes, “I’d like to get away from earth awhile / And then come back to it and begin over.” Maybe he still can.

Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic and author of the forthcoming book An Oasis of Horror in a Desert of Boredom (Fiction Advocate 2017), a study of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. He is a staff writer at Literary Hub, and his work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, Tin House, Rolling Stone, New Republic, and numerous others.

Adaptation Across Mediums: An Interview with David Nagler

Image by kaykaybarrie

On October 26th, I got to sit down at Big Shoulders Coffee in Chicago with David Nagler to discuss his upcoming show.

Nagler is a multi-instrumentalist who performs around New York City. He recently https://davidnagler.bandcamp.com/album/carl-sandburgs-chicago-poemsreleased Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems (David Nagler & Friends, October 2016), featuring native Chicago artists. The album is based on a selection of Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems (1916).

Listen to the album here.

Interviewer: In many other mediums, there isn’t nearly the collaboration that there is with music. How did this collaboration process shape your understanding of these (Carl Sandburg’s) poems?

David Nagler: The collaboration process…sorry, by the collaboration process you mean –

I: Working with other artists.

DN: Oh, ok. Well, I have to say a lot of this was largely a solo project. I kind of have the idea for it a little under twenty years ago. I first started writing the songs about 8 years ago. Maybe, 8 or 9. That said, I knew who I wanted to work with on it, and so there were a handful of people even before the Chicago guest vocalists came into it. Like Max Avery Lichtenstein is a friend of mine who kind of helped produce it. Jon Natchez who is a multi-instrumentalist who plays in The War On Drugs and played with the band Beirut. He’s someone that I knew I wanted to work with on it because of his mastery of so many instruments that I don’t know how to play.

I: If I might interrupt for a moment, what instruments do you play?

DN: The main ones are piano and guitar and offshoots of that. So, I dabble in bass and drums.

I: You seem to have a pretty comprehensive understanding of all of them which is why I was curious.

DN: I mean – thanks. The other thing I do is – I started to doing string arrangements and horn arrangements 15 years ago, or something, maybe a little bit more.

I: I hear they’re tricky.

DN: They are. And that was just something I learned by doing it. I wasn’t in school for it or anything. I just took what little theory I knew and started figuring it out.

I: You mention in earlier interviews that music wasn’t the primary career that you wanted to go into, but you never mention how you get into it.

DN: Oh, right. Well, I went to Northwestern for film, but I’ve been playing music since I was five or so. So, I just – I’ve just done it always. It’s just always been my passion. So, I just kept doing it, and you do it long enough, you meet new people. That’s just sort of how that works. But going back to the question though, I don’t think that the project itself was conceived in a collaborative way. But it kind of became that – in terms of, I knew I wanted the band to be ten or eleven people for the recording. And then a couple of years ago, I had the idea of all the Chicago guests singing on it. And that was kind of when the collaboration started, once the project was kind of cemented to a degree. I would say with Jon and Max, those were two people that I would talk to about demos, and we’d be in touch and “Oh well maybe we’ll change this,” and everything. But a lot more of the collaborative aspects happened when everything was in sort of a certain place.

I: For me the use of percussion was evoking a menacing tone. The piano was controlling place. The strings were moving the wind around you as you were listening. But what instruments did you see taking on narrative elements during composition?

DN: Let’s see…the wind and the horn instruments were kind of the primary ones I would say for that. The strings had elements of it. There’s a couple of things I guess that are sort of worth mentioning. And these are just random ones. There’s the poem “Under a Telephone Pole” which is the final song in the collection. That is the one where the final lyric is a “copper wire,” so it’s like a “telephone wire” – that allows for communication between people; and that was one where that wire to me is that string line at the very end, where the string kind of – one of the violins just plays this long note before the song ends, and that to me was the copper wire. So, that was one element. There was also the song before it, “Gone,” the two wind instruments in that are a bass clarinet and French horn? No! Trombone. So those two combined with this sort of vibraphone that plays in it as well – those three instruments kind of have this almost dialogue going on in –  in terms of them being very much like voices that you sort of hear. I haven’t really talked about this stuff, so it’s interesting.

I: I’m very interested in it. I played the cello for ten years, and I was thinking while listening to it, I wonder what he’s going for with all of these instruments.

DN: Well it’s more than I’ve done in the past. Because in the past a lot of my strings arrangements that I’ve done either for my own band songs or other projects that I’ve done, have been more to fill a space in a sort of way. But this is more about creating or amplifying certain voices that I feel are within the poems. So, the wind instruments in “Gone” are significant.

I: Well let me ask you this – where I got this question from was, what narrative element does the accordion represent in “Happiness?”

DN: Ok, that’s the most obvious one, where he refers to an accordion and then the accordion comes on, and that’s something in doing this project – one of the things about musical theater that I tend to like the least is when it’s very deliberate, in terms of – the music heavily mirrors what’s going on in the lyrics.

I: It wasn’t obvious, to me at least. It seemed like it fit.

DN: For instance, certain styles of music and musical theater are often used to, in a very deliberate way, to mirror what the lyrics are about, but I didn’t want to do that too much. But this was the one exception that I made, where there’s a reference to an accordion and then an accordion plays. I didn’t want to go overboard, but I felt it needed it.

I: I would agree with that. I’m not a composer, but listening to it as a member of the audience, it felt like if it wasn’t there, I don’t know if the song would have resonated as much.

DN: Yeah, I didn’t want leave it out in a way where it would have been so obvious where “There’s a reference to an accordion! Why didn’t you put one?” It just had to happen.

I: Maybe because it’s just such a strange instrument, that people don’t use very often.

DN: Right.

I: What musical techniques did you use? So not just which instruments, but which techniques did you use to create the vivid imagery of Chicago in this album?

DN: I kind of went for – well, I knew right away that I wanted it to not be anachronistic. I knew I wanted it to be that if the poems were set in the early twentieth century, I wanted most of the instruments to have already existed in the early twentieth century. My one exception was there was a Farfisa organ that I had on one song. But otherwise I wanted to keep it to acoustic instruments. From then, it’s a matter of which you use to sort of evoke certain aspects of the city. Whether it’s like certain Sandburg poems like “Fog” or “Lost” – are very specific in how they depict the environment, around what Sandburg felt at the time. Whether it’s Lake Michigan or the city skyline as it existed at the time. So strings are always very good for keeping a sense of atmosphere. I would say it’s mostly the string and the wind instruments that are the two groups of instruments that are the most helpful for me in terms of evoking that sort of feeling, but hopefully also the environment as well.

I: You didn’t mention this one, but I felt it most in the first song, “Chicago.” Is the melody in that song evocative of an existing melody? It sounds like an anthem.

DN: Ok, yeah.

I: It sounded – not like I was at a ball game – but I was looking out over the lake or from a high building in this triumphant way, looking out over all of Chicago.

DN: I knew I wanted it to have a theme in it. And I think the decision was that there will be the melody, and a horn will play the melody, and then the vocal will replicate that melody. And that will hopefully introduce the whole piece. It’s like a fanfare, is the word.

I: That’s what I was looking for. Not anthem, fanfare. It’s been a while.

DN: Well, anthem, if it works.

I: Yeah, it’s close.

DN: Fanfare is what I was going for.

I: There’s another song, speaking of “Chicago,” that seems to share the melody. Not the whole song, but it’s present. It’s “Happiness.” It seems to have a small piece that mimics the melody of “Chicago.” Was there intention in that?

DN: That one might have been inadvertent, because I do it very intentionally at the end in “Under a Telephone Pole” where the strings sort of (mimes the melody), but that was intentional in mirroring “Chicago.” The “Happiness” one might have just been an accident.

I: A happy accident. Like Bob Ross.

How does place effect your creative process? Is it a resource that you draw on? What inspires you beyond the process of connecting and adapting? Is place something that has a big influence on your work?

DN: Um, yes. I mean, the answer is yes. But it’s rare that it’s this intentional or this kind of blatant. There were a couple of things in play. It’s Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, so you have poems that are written in and about Chicago. Another aspect of it was – for me – and this was after all the songs were written – is two years ago I went down to the Carl Sandburg Home which is in North Carolina. And that is this…

I: That’s where your mom got the book, right?

DN: Yes, and it’s in Flat Rock, which is twenty-five minutes from Asheville. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Asheville.

I: No, I’ve never been North Carolina.

DN: I mean, Asheville is a great town, and it’s surrounded by a lot of really beautiful – it’s near the Blue Ridge Mountains; it’s very beautiful. And so, it’s a very pastoral landscape there, and it’s really nice. Having been there, that was something I connected with even after the songs were written, but I think I had in mind, “Oh, I want bring that into the recording as much as I can.”

The sense of place hovers over this project in a way that is – obvious – but intentional, I guess. I guess I’ve never written – sometimes when you write you have a place in mind or a time of your life you’re trying to evoke. But this one is so based on Geography that it was at another level than I’ve ever had before.

I: Is it something you think you’ll explore again?

DN: Maybe. I guess this is the thing – one of the things that I talked about with this project is that I love how organically it came about. People ask, “Oh, is there another poet you’re going to tackle?” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” Or, “Are you going to do another project this ambitious?” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” That’s a lot of the significance of these, how it just evolved really organically. So the answer to that is maybe.

I: Well, I’d be happy to see more.

There’s a level of the unknown – and you say that this came about organically – and there’s a level of the unknown while creating. And once the piece exists it rarely takes on its original vision. At least that’s how I and other artists have found it to be. What do you think this collection has become? What shape has it taken for you?

DN: Well, that’s where I can come back to the collaborative part, because making a record was this interesting process where I made some of it in New York, some of it in Chicago, did my vocals in Connecticut, and mixed in Woodstock. And now the record’s finished, and I’m doing some shows. The show tomorrow night at the library has a ten-person band, but it’s also got all these guests on it as well. So they’ll all be there in one place performing at once. That’s not something that has ever happened. I performed it in New York a handful of times, but that was me and a band, and I sang all the songs. Or most of them. But this one is like, I’m going to sing three quarters of them. And there’s going to be another quarter that are sung by those guests. That’s the sort of next level of it for me, getting to perform it with people who were on the record but have never done it in this context, getting to perform it at Chicago Public Library.

I: It’s exciting. It’s exciting to think that the process isn’t completed yet. So it’s not just doing it over and over again. You get to have a new experience tomorrow.

So how do you see adaptation working between mediums?

DN: Well, it has a lot to do with artists thinking in a multi-disciplinary way. For me this came about by reading poetry and saying, “Oh, these look like song lyrics.” Then taking them from their poetic state attaching melodies and chords and everything to them, and they become something else. I think that’s kind of same for most endeavors. An example for me is someone who kind of helped me, in terms of conceiving how I could perform it – an amazing Chicago based writer/director – stage writer/director named Seth Bockley who did an adaption of the novel by Roberto Bolaño, 2666, which went up at the Goodman in February, I want to say. I flew out for it because I’m such a big fan of Roberto Bolaño’s, and Seth’s a really nice guy. I think that was matter of him and Robert Falls from the Goodman – Robert Falls in particular, reading it and saying, “There’s a stage work here.” So, he read the novel and then worked with Seth to make it happen. And that’s where I think a lot of this happens. Just being able to envision what could exist in one state become something else. There’s another example for me. A lot of this is theater based. There’s a New York experimental group called the Wooster Group, who I’m a huge, huge fan of. And I go to see their shows whenever I can. And their entire kind of raison d’être is taking a work whether it’s a movie – could be like a classic or a piece of B movie fluff or a record or a historical document and recontextualizing it theatrically. And that’s something that they do that’s always at least entertaining. It’s pretty amazing. I think it’s examples of things like that should make artist believe they can do that whenever they want. There are limitations to it in terms of the material. Because a lot of times you have to get rights. But the great thing about this project is that of his poems are in the public domain. So there’s that, and I met with Carl Sandburg home, and I just recently met with Carl Sandburg’s granddaughter. They’re all on board so it’s great. But that’s something that is really interesting to me, the idea of taking something and making something else.

I: What did you talk about with his granddaughter?

DN: We talked about his work and his reputation, we talked about the election, and you know we talked about North Carolina. We talked about her family. She’s amazing – an amazing, amazing woman. And I did the show in North Carolina, and I met her the next day. It was really great. She’s so supportive of it, and she said, “There have been other people who have taken Sandburg’s poetry and set them to music” but she really liked this one in particular. Which is great.

I: Yeah, that’s excellent. I want to go back to the discussion of how a lot of your inspiration was from theatrical examples. As I was listening, I couldn’t help but think the songs were like a musical going on along the streets. You may not know, but do you think this project may evolve into something else?

DN: No. I mean I thought about it at first. I met with – the place where I’m performing in New York is called Joe’s Pub which is part of The Public Theater – who, you know, were the ones that did Hamilton and shows like that. And they kind of – I spoke with someone and talked about it – I’ve always had a hard time attaching a narrative to this. I’ve always been more – I refer to it as a song cycle, and that’s the way I view it – and there was – one of the people I met from the public theater mentioned, “Oh, there’s another song cycle by William Finn you should check out.” So, they were helpful in that regard. I’ve never been able to fully view it as theatrical. If someone else – I guess – sort of similar to what I was talking about – my work is kind of done to a degree, and if someone else used it as something else and wanted my involvement, then I’d be happy to do it. But I’ve always had a hard time bringing it beyond where it currently is, which is like, it’s a record and a performance with heavily theatrical and biographical elements. When I did it in North Carolina, it was a solo show, half of it was songs and half of it was poems. The poems were used to kind of give a little more background. The songs were kind of amplified in a way, and I’m not sure if it worked one way or another. But that’s what the goal was. And I think that’s what I like about it.

I: I like that about it too.

DN: I’ll have that tomorrow too. There’ll be some poetry in addition to the songs.

I: My final questions are more about literature than music. What do you think makes good literature?

(David pauses)

I: Well, you saw Carl Sandburg’s poems and said, “There’s potential in this.” It evoked some something. So what do you see in other pieces of literature that make it good, or level up to what Sandburg made you feel?

DN: I mean, in a broad sense it’s communicative, in terms of its being able to impart something to the reader (or listener in this case). What I like about Sandburg’s poems were the clarity of them. Which is not to say that all poetry should have that, but it connected with me on that level. And so, I think what great literature does is it connects with people on different levels. And it depends on what level they are willing to receive it on. Sometimes that’s not even part of the issue. Whether or not it’s good is if it works. But great literature just connects with people, and it can be in a variety of ways. It could be connecting in all of them, in one of them. It’s just a matter of feeling something when you read it. It elicits an emotion which could be joy or fear or sadness or hilarity.

I: It seems like you recreate all of those different elements, being able to connect with people, being able to feel emotion within the music –

DN: Oh, good.

I: Which is incredible, to move across mediums and still maintain the elements that make something great.

DN: There were certain aspects of it, I guess that I just wanted to amplify. The way there were sort of narrators in the songs. I wanted to try and bring that out a little more. Some of them worked in ways I didn’t expect. The poem “Gone” is an example where I was always a little so so on it. I wasn’t sure if I’d actually – I was never convinced I did a really good job with it; but then when I did the show in North Carolina, before the show went on, Carl Sandburg’s granddaughter said to me, “You’re going to do that song about Chick Lorimer?” And I was like, “Yeah. It’s on the list.” I was actually considering cutting it.

I: Oh, no! Well, more happy accidents.

What are you working on right now?

DN: Ugh, not a lot. I’m trying to figure out what’s next. I don’t really know. I have a band called Nova Social that has been around for years. So I’ve been writing songs with the intention of doing them with that band. I think that’s kind of it. I have these sort of regular shows in New York that I do. One is a piano bar show called The Oracle Show where I do songs based on themes. So there’s learning and preparing songs for that. And there’s another show called Cabinet of Wonders that I play in the band for. But as far as new material goes, I’m just getting started figuring it out.

Interview by Alexandra Stanislaw

Fanfics and Message Boards as Modes of Writing

I wrote this article two years ago, but in the September 2016 edition of The Writer’s Chronicle, I was comforted by the realization that I’m not alone. I’m not the only person to find comfort in writing fanfiction (and roleplaying on message boards). What I experienced as an adolescent was not a singular occurrence. I want to advocate for the participation in these activities, because not everyone gets the opportunity to set aside their life to become a writer. However, everyone should have the ability to explore the benefits of writing and collaboration, and we should be allowed to let our imaginations work beyond the consumer norm.

I am aware of how silly it sounds to say that posting writing online or writing romance fanfiction about my favorite characters has made me a better writer. After all, E. L. James wrote Fifty Shades of Grey as a fanfic based off of the Twilight series, and you’d be pressed to find many literary scholars who advocate for James as a “good” writer.

The truth is, most of the fanfics we write should never see the light of day. But that doesn’t mean that writing them isn’t fundamental to our development. The ability to portray other people’s characters is an excellent way to exercise your writing skills.

I started out my writing career as a hopeful prepubescent child with no concept of literature other than what I had read in books. A friend of mine and I decided that the stories we read had more potential than what was on the page, and we began what I consider to be the most essential fuel to my fire: roleplaying. At recess, we would sit and write a line each of the story to each other, often focusing on one or two characters that we wanted to portray from our favorite stories. That grew into a story of our own, and from that, we discovered message boards. (Well, she discovered it, and I quickly followed.)

I’m no longer part of the community, but message boards (forums) used to be for those wanting to come together to write a collective story. The websites were usually laid out by locations within the story; you could post a message wherever your particular character was. Most often, you were asked to write in third person limited, past tense, and to only portray the character that you have chosen. (There were of course variations of this.) Your character operated within this realm of locations and around other members participating in the whole plot. All of this is the creative writing past-time called roleplaying.

When I was roleplaying on message boards, I was writing thousands of words a day. Anyone who writes knows that it’s difficult sometimes to even churn out 100 good, polished words of story in one day. But because other people were contributing to the plot and the story, because I was forced to think fast in situations I had only some control over, and because I was obligated to respond to a post I had become a part of, I was writing like the world was going to end tomorrow. And I never had more muse than during this period of my life.

By time the end of high school came around, I no longer had free time to spend writing on message boards. My inspiration suffered, among many other things that suffer when you learn to become a functioning adult. I almost never wrote, and I was miserable. I asked myself, what happened to the fire of my youth? I wasn’t very old. Why was the flame of my inspiration burning out so soon? (So very dramatic.)

I realized that I wasn’t feeding my creative soul anymore. And yes, I know that also sounds ridiculous. But I wasn’t. I was limiting myself to my homework and my jobs. I wasn’t allowing my mind to flow free anymore, and I didn’t have an outlet where I could get the feedback I needed.

So that’s just it: I needed feedback. I needed a community of writers who were as dedicated to the craft as I was, and I’d had that in part with my roleplaying community.

It was time to get serious about my writing. And that’s where Devise Literary came from. By writing about writing, reaching out to the writing community, and providing an outlet for other writers to share their opinions and allow their minds to grow, I have opened the flood gates back up.

Maybe Faulkner didn’t have the internet at his disposal to reach out to other writers. But we do, and I intend to take full advantage of it.

Message boards, fanfics, and blogs were absolutely necessary for me to become a more disciplined and prolific writer. In some ways, I miss being part of that community. But at the same time, I’ve moved on to a group of intelligent colleagues who push me to be worthy of your audience.

Image Copyrighted by Moyan Brenn

Poetry: Take off Your Clothes and Walk into the Arthropod Wildfire

by Justin Karcher


Fireflies are a summertime staple

And I’m so happy tonight that the junkies

Wandering up and down Grant Street

Are like magicians, something like Prometheus

And when they light their cigarettes

Each cigarette becomes pregnant with a firefly

And when the cigarette’s dead and gone

And the butt is cuddling with the concrete

The firefly bursts into life and flies off


Seeing all that newborn fire flying through the city

I can’t help but think good can come

From something that is broken, that beauty

Can climb out of cancer and I feel better

Because the last few nights I’ve been feeling really down

Sleeping on a Novocain mattress

And wondering what my exes are up to

Wondering why there are so many hostages

In the word, wondering how the hell car bombs

Find the time to fuck so much

Sad that they’re procreating like never before

And the honeybees are dying too fast


We spend too many nights sleeping on Novocain mattresses

Wondering if our feelings are lost

In a nightmare world of anesthesia

Wondering what suits are responsible

For all this colossal shit going down

Wondering what we can to do to right the ship

We end up doing absolutely nothing


But those goddamn cigarette fireflies, it’s nice to see

So I think I’ll skip sleep tonight

And chain smoke until I feel warm on the inside

Until the ashtray spits out an arthropod wildfire

That gobbles up the rainforests in our eyes

Until we’re dry and barren and can start over again

Justin Karcher is the author of Tailgating at the Gates of Hell from Ghost City Press. His recent works have been published in 3:AM Magazine, Plenitude Magazine, and more. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Ghost City Review, and the winner of the 2015 Just Buffalo Literary Center members’ writing competition.