Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Flash Wednesday.4

For the month of March, I’m posting a piece of flash fiction—500 words or less—every Wednesday.

Dawn In the Afternoon

Victorian Steve, who was quite a cooling commodity out there in the endless desert, had stopped by sometime around morning snack and offered to build her a doll factory, and as he sat down to his tedious work, she put all her youthful energy into willing him into a trance in which he lost every last irritating itch of time. She was determined to have Victorian Steve to herself for a very long while. And it must have been hours now, she thought, as she tracked her guest’s progress from the corner of her eye: a sound yet delicate foundation, so sugary, it couldn’t help but give fruit to several storeys. This was an unheard of attention span for the normally scattered Victorian Steve.

All the adults, of course, were at the government building, at work, for all she knew, on some updated, even more ruthless, breed of bomb. Something, maybe, that so plumbed the depths of murderousness, it was almost pleasant. Like a tall, cool glass of waterthorn tea, only contaminated, of course. She wished she had some sort of refreshment to offer Victorian Steve. She sat in the small patch of shade at the foot of the lanai, and as she watched him, intently bent over the parts he’d spread across the outdoor carpet, her mouth shriveled to a sour little void. Where did such a feeling come from, she wondered. It wasn’t quite angry, but certainly wasn’t joyful either, considering the typically calming and coveted presence of Victorian Steve. She was too young, of course, to be aware of the low-frequency unease she currently felt. Separation anxiety was a term she was on the brink of discovering and identifying with.

The book she was in the midst of reading then was something required for every child in that arid region. It discussed the point during childhood at which one first individuates. In a vaguely melancholy tone, it bemoaned the loss of the communities of imaginary friends that occurs around this time. Such creatures begin to solidify into socially accepted archetypes: princesses (pink), pixies (slender), vampires (cloaked). The book referred her to a crisis line in case she found it difficult to navigate this change.

She looked, once again, at Victorian Steve, who seemed so much paler and pointier of tooth than he had in the past. Judging by his shifty eyes and the faint sweat he’d broken, which surrounded him now like a mist, his attention was starting to shift. Having just read what she did, this came as a relief. But although the return of such typical behavior was a comfort, beneath that comfort ran a terror. As Victorian Steve got up to leave, the doll factory’s crank and masher only half complete, she lost her normally staid composure. In a wavering voice, she asked if he was ever coming back.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Kelsey Street Broadside!

The Contemporary Writers Series at Mills College hosts poets Renee Gladman and Rena Rosenwasser tonight in celebration of Kelsey Street Press. Emji Spero and I, with assistance from Lara Durback, designed a broadside featuring both Gladman's and Rosenwasser's work. The letterpress broadside is structured as a diptych that displays excerpts from each writer and incorporates chance elements: on Gladman's side, a gouache wash (shown at left) and on Rosenwasser's, a splash of India ink. The broadside is part of a series the Mills College Book Art department produces in conjunction with CWS. It will be for sale tonight at the reading, which starts at 5:30 pm and takes place in the Mills Hall Living Room. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Endless Number of Stories: An Interview with Michelle Embree

A few months ago, I got the chance to talk with writer Michelle Embree when she asked me a few questions about creativity. She also told a hilarious story about rescuing my artists’ books from the clutches of mattress warehouse junkies. This happened years ago, when we were neighbors in pre-Katrina New Orleans. Since then Michelle has written two plays (Hand Over Fist and Fish in a Barrel), a Lambda-nominated novel (Manstealing for Fat Girls), and currently lives and writes in Baltimore, where one path of her writing life has evolved into that of a Tarot reader. Over at her website, Michelle muses on the Tarot, talking about its images as a narrative bridge between the conscious and the undermind. She emphasizes the Tarot as a means of thinking rather than belief, citing John Trudell’s idea that thought is dynamic while belief is a form of death.

Since reading Italo Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies, I’ve been interested in the gray area between literature and Tarot. Constrictive devices have been really helpful for my writing process lately, and the scenario Calvino sets up in the book—a castle where visitors can only communicate via a Tarot deck—appears to unfold on a similar wavelength. It really made me want to learn more. That’s why Michelle seemed like a perfect person to talk to: as a writer and Tarot reader, she’s the ideal guide to navigate the intuitive terrains. 

Note: The collaged Tarot cards below were all made by Michelle. Also, for those not in the Baltimore area, she now gives readings via Skype!

Matt Runkle: Can you start out by talking a little about how you first became interested in Tarot?

Michelle Embree: I'd seen Tarot cards, I'd had mine read a few times, then in 2002 a housemate gave me a deck.

MR: Do you remember what deck it was?

ME: It was the Rider-Waite deck. I still use that deck, in fact it was the only deck I ever used until a couple of months ago . . . I started reading using the deck designed for Aleister Crowley.

MR: Can you compare the two decks a little? Like what about the art on each do you connect with in your practice?

ME: The pictures on the Rider-Waite were done by an artist named Patricia Coleman-Smith, her initials are in the corner on each card. She was the first to make complete scenes on the suit cards and her interpretations are good, very memorable and evocative. Her art can make the characters seem very animated, and I like that about the deck. It makes talking about what is happening in the cards fairly easy to do. When I use the Thoth deck I rely more heavily on the numerology, which I also like. There is a different feel to each deck that is hard to describe exactly. My Thoth readings tend to go into more deep psychology than conscious actions.

MR: That's interesting. I'm not very familiar with the Thoth deck, but when I picture it, I think of more muted colors. The Rider-Waite-Smith deck has this vibrancy that makes sense with it being more connected to action. I know when we were neighbors long ago, you were in the midst of creating your own deck using collage. What was that process like for you? And do you still have that deck?

ME: I have yet to finish a deck. I made a handful of cards then in 2003, a couple of them will make it into a complete deck. I make cards based on Tarot often. I put them on postcards or give them as gifts or whatever, blessings, I guess. I am, however, in the midst of making my own deck now. It has taken many years for a sense of the right aesthetic to emerge. I have mostly made cards that directly interpret the Rider-Waite illustrations, which has been good practice. But I have begun to develop my own vision, and that is exciting because I really have been looking for it for nearly ten years.

MR: That's exciting! I can't wait to see it. So at what point did you start giving readings? Was it something that evolved out of you familiarizing yourself with the deck as you artistically re-interpreted the cards?

ME: I gave some readings to friends after about a year of using them, learning about them, and then I didn't read for other people for several years. Nothing bad happened, I just stopped doing it. But I still read cards for myself and books on the subject. At some point I wanted to read for other people again. I was slow about it, though; I took my time and now it's something I want to do everyday. This past summer I spent with Dave and Janet [our mutual friends in North Carolina], it was serious business out there with the cards. That experience really motivated a desire to read more cards.

MR: And so how would you characterize your personal approach to reading Tarot? Like could you explain your philosophy?

ME: I read this somewhere: Tarot is a book disguised as a deck of cards. It's the characters and landscapes and events and personality traits that make up stories. It is an infinite number of combinations, an endless number of stories made from a finite number of traits and experiences, the essentials, every card in the deck will be part of every human life. To different degrees and outcomes, anyway, every person will encounter the characters and landscapes and events depicted by the Tarot. A reading is a discussion about life, about the relationships we have with our thoughts and our history and our motivating desires.

MR: Wow! That's great. . . . I've been interested in the Tarot as a sort of book. It's interesting that Crowley actually named his deck after the Book of Thoth. I've also been trying to learn more about the relationship Tarot has with literature. I mean, really, the definition you just gave could also be a definition for the novel, right?

ME: Yes. It is the hero's journey or the fool’s journey, the quest, and inside of that story are all the other stories, all the things that happen.

MR: So do you feel like there's a lot of intersection between your work as an artist/writer and your work as a Tarot reader? Or is it even fair to make a distinction?

ME: Mmmm . . . It's relevant. It is part of a fiction writer’s job to adequately imagine what motivates a character, and to imagine what that character might find. Should they follow a certain path, they are likely to find, what? That is writing, that is reading cards, for me, yes.

MR: That makes sense. I was just doing a little research about the Tarot's history, and the less esoteric version goes that it evolved out of a deck that was used for games. The major arcana were added to the standard deck as trump cards (around the same time as the invention of the printing press, interestingly), and allegorical pictures were added to these trump cards. It seems natural that people would start using these pictures to meditate on their own lives and the lives of others—similar to how myths function, I guess. I like the idea that as time has gone on, these images have spiraled off into a lot of different directions, interpreted and re-interpreted by artists and then again by Tarot readers. Do you feel the weight of this history when you are reading? As someone who is not very naturally intuitive, I'm just curious about what it's like to be able to tap into a tradition like this.

ME: There are so many stories. What is exciting to me about using the imagery and structure of Tarot are the number of stories we can find that relate. Create more relationships, personal connections. Recently I heard myself call the Six of Cups, The Phillip K. Dick card. Because he wrote something about giving and receiving simultaneously being the nature of God. Something like that. Something that struck me and inspired my own mythologizing.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Flash Wednesday.3

For the month of March, I’m posting a piece of flash fiction—500 words or less—every Wednesday.

The Uninvited

In any case, she thought, she wouldn’t want to be a guest at that baby shower. Marley’s sisters both had serious screws loose, and there were times, even, when she looked at Marley—the dour way she walked when she got sloppy drunk, for instance—and saw signs of that same wayward screw. She liked to think that she was the stable sister Marley had never had. That’s why girls joined sororities, wasn’t it? In search of a foolproof family?

Strange the way some refuse to hold their liquor.

She hated to blame it on their father, seeing how many positive ways the family leaned on his vision. But sometimes there’s just no getting past dear old dad. Even at his most silent, his worldview wrapped around the three girls and cinched. Like a parasite, not a houseplant: he offered not a lick of oxygen in return.

Her own relationship with him, so far, had been a bit more balanced.

She pictured the series of games the girls would play, and shuddered at the likely disparity between their practicability and their ambition. No combing the web for the older sister—she thought she was too creative to take anonymous cues. And the younger one always went at tasks from the obliquest of angles. Come bearing offerings, the invite had read when she hacked into Marley’s device, in honor of the fire-sprite and her glow-worm/descendent.

Something about this messthrough luck, though, not through insightsomething about its verdant heat suggested Marley's temper.

She wondered if their father would manage, despite his gender, to make an appearance. He was, after all, the only truly ingenious one in the bunch. For what felt like a very long second, she re-thought her relief at not being invited. Then threw back the rest of her drink.

Then reached out to him one final time. A ruthless mirror as she typed at him: she gripped him in her own worldview, and felt doubly relieved, thus renewed.

In the morning, she checked her device and there was the payoff: a hello—most likely breathy—from Marley’s father. Her hangover shriveled and disappeared with the dew. She rejoiced in the vein now pronounced on her brow, as well as her wits, which in addition to an inborn brawn, made her immune to a variety of traps. She was the type of animal the furthest shade from green, the type that ate rather than be eaten. She was amber swelling to ivory with a tiny indigo seed at her mealy core.

Her reply began with a flirtatious decline, followed by the excuse that she’d been invited to a shower. She’d never set out to be a villain, she thought. As long as she’s not missing out on any meat. 

Despite his many positive traits, Marley’s father lacked fundamental nutrients.

Two months later, when the fire-sprite gave birth to her glow-worm/descendent, an apology, gauzily insincere, found its way in among the buoyant Mylar. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Flash Wednesday.2

For the month of March, I’m posting a piece of flash fiction—500 words or less—every Wednesday. This story is from the point of view of an autocratic farmer.

At the Contra Dance

I’m really not in the mood, the Cheshire Cow tells me, as our arms link up and we spin. I’ll be free of you soon, I reply, which for the most part is true, except for the indelicate teeth, which in a ruminant like this, can only hover so long before they clatter one by one to the floor. As we part, I can’t fully bask in my joy. The unfortunate thing about progressions is that bitches like this come back around.

What a refreshing sight, however, is the Strawberry Lass. The Strawberry Lass, so adorably, reminds me she’s on her own—this despite the fact that we’re arm in arm. The Strawberry Lass breathes in, and the seeds sewn into her corset grow tenuous as they strain, and I love to imagine what might bloom as soon as—and if—those buttons finally launch, and how the noise that they make as they hit the floor, just like rain, would be soothing and perhaps prevent my teeth from wearing each other down.

That’s just how hateful the presence is of this Cheshire goddamn Cow.

Do not judge. My goal in life, from the outset, was to make a nice little profit off my tidy farm. And cows are fine, whatever, and personified strawberries—it’s only a problem, really, when they try to transcend their tertiary roles.

Tertiary? the Cheshire Cow once retorted. Not even going to offer us seconds, huh?

What’s secondary, I told her, is the whole goddamn farm. You animals and you vegetables, too—although the strawberries then, for me, were newer and stranger as animi, thus, somewhat harder to buttonhole—you animals amount to but a fraction of a greater good.

Only farmers count as whole numbers, I tell her now, now that I’ve grown to the point where even my second nature has the rhetoric down. I tell her this in the midst of what feels like an endlessly tense do-si-do.

Across the barn, I spot the Strawberry Lass, who appears to have danced her way into a swoon, and as she melts into the arms of that motherfucker Handy Apples, she pinkens, then whitens, becomes ice-like, and devoid of every last pigmentary drop.

I’m ashamed to say this disloyalty comes as no small surprise.

Stop, I tell the room—and because I’m the farmer, everyone halts mid-turn. Stop trying to individuate, I say, when you know you’re all ending up in the same goddamn trough of swill.

The band begins again, hesitantly, and I tongue what remains of my teeth.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Business of Staying Alive.3: Chat-pocalypse with Kyndall Mason

Kyndall Mason and I are both Inland Northwesterners, which means we come from a place that people think is either really rainy or—if they’re somewhat familiar with the Northwest—really creepy. It’s actually a semi-arid region known for its conservatism, and not only is it creepy, if you’re from there (and queer), it’s a little hard for it to really feel like home. Kyndall and I have traveled there together to visit our families (as detailed in “Coeur d’Alene Stories” in Runx Tales #1), and much of our friendship is based on this cultural bond. There aren't many people who understand what I mean when I say, “At least I didn’t grow up in Moses Lake.”

Kyndall and I both live in medium-sized American cities now and mostly keep in touch via online chatting. As natural (and man-made) disasters keep hitting harder and faster, and political forces seem bent on world annihilation, our chats often veer into planning for the worst. Sometimes we fantasize about setting up post-apocalyptic housekeeping in eastern Oregon. When Kyndall had the idea of organizing our chats into some sort of zine, I thought it might be good to test them out as part of The Business of Staying Alive series. Since Google probably already has all our chats filed away somewhere, I figure there’s no harm in letting the rest of the world see them too.

me: old people keep telling me how important it is to have kids so you have someone who gives a shit about you when you get old. it freaks me out. i'm hoping either the world ends first, or i die by 70, or i have enough good friends around who are still alive so we can form some sort of old folks' commune

kyndall: yes! i sort of have dreams about an old folks home for myself and friends. maybe at my grandparents’ homestead in e———!

me: yes! let's do you think the world is ending soon?

kyndall: no. unfortunately. we will just get to watch it get worse. but not end

me: yeah, you're probably right. i wonder how high ocean levels will be when we're old. e——— might be a good place to be

kyndall: oh, it will be perfect. i think north portland will be ruined by the river, but the coastal cascades will save most of it. then eventually even portland will be under water. but we will be totally safe in           e———, and by then the climate will change and will have perfect long growing seasons (my grandma told me most of this btw)

me: yes! your grandma sounds rad. do you think we'll have to arm ourselves?

kyndall: they have guns. but we should get more, just in case. and ammo. i feel like apocalyptic planning is on regular rotation for our conversations

me: ha!

kyndall: you should just make a block print zine with all our gchats

me: yes!!!!! but then everyone will know our plans. it sounds fun, kind of, like coming full circle and ending up back in the inland nw and having to shoot rednecks to protect our crops

kyndall: i'm down! gays get their revenge, finally

me: is there a good water source?

kyndall: yes! there are little creeks that run all through the valley

me: they run all year?

kyndall: there is a glacier lake that is more than 200 meters deep and tons of little lakes in the mountains. yeah! all year!

me: it sounds so nice there

kyndall: some spots they are more than 20 feet wide. it's amazing. here’s a picture of the view from my grandparents' porch:

me: DANG!!!!! I want to be there right now

kyndall: right? i haven't been there since the summer i moved to Pittsburgh. and it's awful, i have been there every summer since i was a kid and then sometimes in the winter too


me: how often do you think about death?

kyndall: um, well, a lot of young people died around me when i was in high school, so in my early 20s, i thought about it a lot. but now i feel like i mostly think about how short life is, or can be. i just don't want to burn to death. what about you?

me: i think about it a lot. do you have a disaster kit?

kyndall: no. like batteries and water and shit?

me: yes. i want to interview people about emergency preparedness. there's this book called thinking in an emergency by elaine scarry where she talks about how people are deliberately kept ill equipped for and uninformed about disasters, so that the powers that be can make us feel unsafe and limit our rights

kyndall: i would buy that. the only thing i feel like i should have is water. the rest i would kill for or steal. if shit really went down i would drive my car as far as i could, then hop a train to my grandma's house. what would you do? i know we talked about meeting at my gma's but if there was like a major earthquake or something and shit was crazy there?

me: hmmm, i would def try to get out of town. that would be my first priority. i do have a lot of water and canned food and 5-gallon buckets full of tools and toiletries and matches and stuff

kyndall: buckets? how many buckets? you gonna just carry a bunch of buckets with you as you walk out of town? or are you just going to put it in a backpack?

me: hmmmm, me and d——— each have a bucket. they are good to shit in if the plumbing isn't working. i also have a large waterproof backpack to be mobile with

kyndall: why don't you just shit outside?

me: in the city?

kyndall: yes. do you really want a bucket full of shit in your apartment? i mean where are you going to put the shit?

me: ummm it's obviously a temporary solution

kyndall: i'm thinking long term here. like where does the shit go?

me: ok, ok, i'm sure we would figure it out. i’m just thinking if there was crazy chaos outside, i wouldn't wanna be shitting out there. also, i don’t have a backyard


me: so do you have a disaster kit right now?

kyndall: no, i just think about how i should have one all the time

me: what would you put in it?

kyndall: water, first aid kit, some kind of weapon, batteries, flashlight, rope. i should probably have some kind of freeze-dried snack too

me: i need to re-stock mine. it has energy bars that have probs gone bad by now

kyndall: do you think they go bad? i mean it's hardly real food

me: true. they have exp dates tho
kyndall: everything has exp dates. just so they can get you to buy new shit

me: true. i stockpile cans of beans too. like a mormon

kyndall: so like a mormon. i have some homemade canned fruit, which i am afraid to eat. what about spam? i bet that would be like a delicacy during the apocalypse

me: totally. i feel like i've been kind of remiss in thinking about morale boosters. i haven't put any booze in because i feel like I will want to be able to think on my feet

kyndall: are you kidding me?! you will want some booze

me: i know. i'm delusional

kyndall: and weed. maybe you should put drugs in there that you have never tried, just so you can try them once things start getting really bad

me: uh. that sounds horrible

kyndall: yeah, it does. the last thing i would want to do is shoot up when the world is ending. but i would probably want a drink and a joint

me: oh yeah. well, maybe opiates would be okay if i knew everything was fucked. i was just thinking of hallucinogens

kyndall: oh, yeah, i would never want to hallucinate

me: what other kinds of seemingly superfluous things do you think it would be nice to have?

kyndall: tampons, toothpaste

me: you think those seem superfluous?

kyndall: tampons are, i think. i suppose i should switch to the diva cup. i would like cheetos puffs

me: those shits will keep FOREVER!

kyndall: i know! and i love them soo much. way more than regular cheetos

me: ha! maybe in a pinch you could use them as tampons

kyndall: you are NASTY

me: sorry

kyndall: it's funny though

me: they seem absorbent, right?

kyndall: no. they don't. when you suck on them, they melt

me: ew

kyndall: you still think i should use them as tampons

me: uh, no

kyndall: what kind of treats do you want in your disaster box?

me: hmmmmm. weed seems like a good one. paper and pens!!!! i need to put that in there. warm socks?

kyndall: warm socks is a really good idea. paper and pens would be pretty good. that's the sort of stuff that i would forget about and spend most of my time looking for during total destruction

me: money! small bills. and maps

kyndall: maps, yes. good one. big is a disaster box supposed to be?

me: i think it's relative. it's probs better to have several throughout your house. like a couple more stationary stashes with gallons of water, etc, but also a bag or something filled with supplies that would be easy to pick up and carry if you needed to leave in a hurry. someone told me it's better to spread supplies throughout your house in case part of it collapses. then you're screwed if everything is in one place and it becomes inaccessible

kyndall: damn, i never even thought about stashing shit all over the house. that's a good idea. where would you go if you had to leave in a hurry? i mean in the immediate, not long term location

me: emergency shelter. or who knows why you might suddenly need to leave town?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Flash Wednesday

For the month of March, I’m posting a piece of flash fiction—500 words or less—every Wednesday.

Laramie and Rudyard

Sometime around the end of the game, Laramie lost interest. Though the rules were complex, the art of spectating is an easy one to bluff, and Laramie could be convincing when called upon, to the point where even he himself had thought he was sincerely rapt. The spells we cast on ourselves, however, break harder and faster than most. Laramie, as if drunk, collapsed at last in laughter, and at the very height of overtime suspense, he stood up and briefly danced. Anger rippled through the stadium. Shouts came at him: Faggot, sit down! He couldn’t help it, he felt so all of a sudden much more feminine than Cleopatra.

Cleopatra was a queen who led a painful life. She suffered a series of heartbreaks—perhaps at the hand of Antony? The truth was Laramie knew nothing of the queen beyond the way her eyes were dramatized with kohl, similar to those of the athletes who now prowled the field. Laramie watched their asses, synthetically swathed and reflective, protruding in ways which in regular life, required the arching of backs. Faggot, sit down!

Rudyard, of course, had now been gone a very long time for someone who’d promised to return with beer. At which point, let’s pause to recall the awkwardness of Laramie in Rudyard’s room: that mattress in the midst of it, reputedly filled with water, that bed which must, at all costs, be skirted. That bed which must not be named.

The crowd—inexplicably—went wild. And Laramie rode this wave of joy like a cataract, cresting each ecstatic terrace on her way. This faggot is sitting down, she thought. This faggot is being carried, at last, to the vast expanse of Rudyard’s queen-sized bed.