Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A View Askew: Hotel Amerika

The Fall 2011 issue of Hotel Amerika starts with a dare. A teenage boy (or is it a girl?) slicks back his hair in a pose reminiscent of a 1950s rebel without a cause who is about to step into a fast car to find someone to rumble with, a dangerous love to wink at.

But upon closer look, one sees a camera sneaking from the darkness behind him, breaking the frame of naturalism as if to remind us that even gritty reality can be part of a carefully coiffed drama. We’re all actors, posing in some way, splitting ourselves as we create.

I’m always hooked by a good dare.

When I interviewed editor David Lazar for The Review Review, he mentioned the journal’s predilection for the aesthetic of a flaneur, so I decided to mirror that in my reading—meandering haphazardly, popping into pieces based on nothing more than the titles, the names of authors (all unknown to me), the superficial appearance of the text.

I started at the end, wondering if the last piece in a journal is placed there because it's the worst, the runt of the litter.

Au contraire. In this case, the last piece was one of my favorites. The excerpt of the late John Parker's Night Song Da Nang is categorized as an essay, but it reads more like fiction or a long prose poem. The story delivers an inter-textual, dreamy version of Marguerite Duras's The Lover combined with "Apocalypse Now" and "The Deer Hunter", juxtaposing a disjointed narrative from the steamy war zones of Vietnam with letters to “Ma Cherie”:

“Sorry for the period of incommunicado. I will clear this gulch of vermin and return to you by pony express. Skip the dime store cowboys for now and this mauvais quart d’heure will pass quicker than a comet. I have so many designs on your finely chiseled features. Don’t be cross with me. We’ll be thick as thieves after I count your coup. Book our room for hour honeymoon at Niagra Falls. Curfews have been clamped on the villages but they break them like Kewpie dolls. I long for some of your chic. Elvis is the King of Saigon.”

How could a story of love and war be anything but stitched-together shards, stray phrases, ripped pages—a startling collage of yearning and suffering?

Hotel Amerika structures itself for such driftings and juxtapositions. One of my favorite sections was Aphorisms—a section I've never seen in a literary magazine, but one that should become standard in more. I loved pondering Stephen Carter's “Human relationships might develop in very different ways if we substituted a gentle touch on the cheek for a strenuous handshake.” Or, consider John Klein’s twist on a well-hewn critique of capitalism: “Erudition is a conspicuous consumption of time.”

Such aphorisms invite new angles of reflection at the same time they smack of a certain triviality. Klein comments on the form quite appropriately with another aphorism:  “What stops an aphorism from becoming a philosophy is the next aphorism.” But, as an author who goes by the moniker “The Covert Comic” posits, “Once you're caught in the mousetrap, why not eat the cheese?”

Such a sense of playfulness mixed with a sense of the absurd laced through several pieces. One of my favorites was a prose poem by Sarah Blackman, “The 5 Strong Brothers” (which could have been included in Hotel Amerika's "TransGenre" section—a section that begs to be read in order to define what TransGenre is—yet in reading transgenre pieces, you can’t help but question the definition of genres in general).

“The 5 Strong Brothers” reads like a fairytale that explores a family's bonds—at once sweet, at once nightmarish. A mother takes her shears and cuts stray parts off of her sons—the tough skin of their elbows, the lobes of their ears—to fashion a daughter, who begins the story no bigger than a thumb. She narrates the tale with a loving tone, however, if only because she’s the baby of the family who looks up to her brothers, despite being a scarred creature whose mouth “could neither eat nor be silent.”

Blackman writes, “As an adult, I have been told I'm hard to love, but my brother kept me always at his hip like a luck note, a lone fricative sound. How would I describe my family now? We've all learned to look past the parts of us that are missing. Our mother was possessed with strange passions. She was taken by the smallest things. Half of the brown eggshell or a child's pearl tooth rolling anyhow—like a kernel of corn, like a beetle—over the door sill and into the yard.”

The poem, like a fairytale, creates a simple metaphor—that we’re all fashioned from missing parts, that we’re all creatures intrinsically lacking wholeness. The poem is at once a celebration of the glorious imperfections of life as the brothers take such loving care of their sister, and yet it's sad because in the end life tends to be about dispersals that don’t include reunions. Everyone goes their own way despite sharing parts of each other.

In my interview with Lazar, he offered the following advice for writers interested in submitting to Hotel Amerika: “I would not submit the kind of autobiographically narrative poems that you might be likely to see in a dozen other literary magazines. Something has to be different. I would not submit a piece of memoir unless it’s performing something so interesting, doing something with its language or form that it’s going to stop me in my tracks. We tend toward a more urban sensibility. Favor self-reflection. Flaneurs welcome.”

I found that advice to be generally enacted in the journal—most pieces challenged language and form in some way, and almost everything required a second reading, and a thoughtful one at that. For example, in Peter LaSalle’s story, “A Short Manual of Mirrors,” the story lists 19 instructions of how to approach a mirror, but the reflection only begets another reflection. “And while Borges is often attributed with having said all there is to say on mirrors, Borges himself would always be the first to argue otherwise.”

Some of the essays take a more conventional narrative approach, but the approach serves to tell jarring stories, such as Desirae Matherly’s lyrical exploration of the effects of her many LSD trips as she’s suffering from the side effects of the pill, and Shifra Sharlin’s confession of taking care of—and not taking care of—her dying brother in “Not Against Irony.” 

As the title of the journal itself speaks to, Hotel Amerika looks at a world with a slightly skewed spelling and challenges representations in its tellings.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Writing Residencies: A Chance to Write in One's Best Hours

One of the worst things about aging is the inevitable accumulation of responsibilities. That's particularly bad for a writer, who's inclined to not want any responsibilities at all, other than drifting through the vagaries of a tale that must be told.

It's in such a state that I live. I used to structure my life so that I wrote in my best hours, but now I tend to write in my worst hours, after the kids have gone to bed, after I've paid bills, after a couple of glasses of wine, when most sane people are reclining on a couch and watching Downton Abbey.

I try to crowd in my writing, but life tends to crowd out the imagination with muscular, pugnacious insistence. Which is why I started to dream about going to a writers residency in order to truly dream.

I just published an article in the March/April 2012 issue of Poets & Writers to guide writers seeking the idylls of simple peace and quiet: Applying to a Writers Residency: An Expert Breakdown of the Requirements.

I'm too busy to attend a residency this year, but I have hopes for next year. At least now I know the in's and out's of it all.