The Rumpus is essentially three parts: Original Content, Blogs, and Around The Web. The original content is primarily reviews of books, movies, and music as well as short interviews and personal essays along with reprints of essays published in literary journals not available online. On The Rumpus all of the blogs are themed.
The word indecency often makes me think of the often disturbing relationship our culture has with sex and violence. Indecency is usually connected to the latter, as in indecent exposure or an indecent proposal, with public sexuality and conduct, but it’s rarely (in my experience) used to describe violence. Justin Phillip Reed, in his debut collection forthcoming from Coffee House Press on May 8, muddles that boundary, and brings that idea of indecency as improper conduct of any kind to the forefront.
Consider the opening of the prose poem “The Day ____________ Died.”
i disavowed “died” but didn’t mutter “murdered” in the direction of anyone who uttered it. i collapsed the umbrella of my shoulders into circumflex over a keyboard and clicked away morning. at lunch i was nowhere i could call you back from. there, i munched granola and grew miraculously blacker. my boss’s chin tilting collarward kinda meant to mean i matter, but i thought fuck if i’m two cool fingertips to the temples / i’m not fine but uncannily coarse as the mud-eyed jerk-bootied affect of a james brown mug shot / no thanks for the talk no tongues today counting downbeats we can syncopate tomorrow.
At this point I’ve quoted two-thirds of the poem because I couldn’t bring myself to cut it. Reed starts the poem in a public space where his speaker refuses to use the neutral term “died” to describe the latest killing but doesn’t have the—energy? patience? I’m not sure what word is appropriate here—to confront those around him with the more accurate term “murdered” and all it encompasses. I’m reminded of the ways Claudia Rankine, in Citizen, described not having it in her in the moment to challenge a colleague who’d said something racist, that she knew the same moment would come again no matter what she did right then, and how wearing that was on her. The “boss’s chin tilting collarward kinda meant to mean i matter” is as close as the speaker gets to acknowledgement of what has happened again (the blank line in the title tells us how common this is). Reed’s poems are full of this kind of movement and wordplay, and reward multiple readings.
Reed’s poems are also formally inventive, especially when he works in concrete ways on the page. The poem “Orientation” looks like blurry crosshairs; “The Fratricide” is two columns on facing pages with a separate block of text in the middle divided diagonally by the use of bold text on one half, with the left side’s lines growing shorter while the right’s grow longer. He uses repetition with small variation to tremendous effect in “The Fratricide” and in many other poems, much as a jazz soloist might gradually expand the range of notes they play off a chord progression to shift the emotion slowly and subtly. The reader winds up in a new place without realizing they were being moved there.
I hope you’ll join us in April as we read and discuss Indenceny first together, and then with Justin Phillip Reed in our exclusive online chat. Subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by March 20 to make sure you don’t miss out on this challenging, worthwhile debut collection!
Sometimes, your life—and the lives of everyone else—depends on who has a bigger button. But while facing potential nuclear holocaust, you can easily project that you’re functioning regardless with a dewy Spartan glam that says: There’s fear in my heart, but not in my zits, which are totally covered.
For many of us, the hardest part of putting on makeup is getting out of bed. But once in front of the mirror, take solace: although you can’t control Earth’s destiny, you can control the wan canvas before you. And what’s more thrilling than making the world more beautiful one haggard, agitated face at a time?
To begin, if you’re dehydrated from trying to douse feelings of helplessness with tequila, then it’s best to start with a moisture-rich base.
Next, neutralize redness from news-cycle fatigue with a green color corrector; any rancid green you have on-hand will work. I call mine “Ecological Dystopia.”
Now draw your attention to your eyebrows—the pillars of the face that frame the windows to your soul. Use any pencil nearby to fill in and lift brows that might have turned concave from chronic worry. If you have a mustache—the doormat to your soul—fill that in, too, if it’s patchy. (And if you have to pluck, please note: while Kim Jung-Un is a huge inspiration for your twitchiness, he should not be your brow-spiration. As much as you don’t want post-nuclear wilderness, you do not want tiny “hyphen brows” that are trying to be an em-dash between your temples. But that said, facial hair trends are subject to change during a global arms race.)
Don’t forget to curl the lashes to look more awake (even though ugh), and apply a coat of mascara that’s blacker than a civilization’s charred ruins. The one I’m using is called “Fishnets,” which doesn’t remind me of hosiery, but rather a biblical Cormac McCarthy allusion to having plenty if we just close our eyes.
After manipulating the hair of the face, try to mask stress-induced under-eye bags with a highlighter. The beach-y glow of a cream highlighter will lift any drooping sad-face, but regrettably won’t do much for frequent visions of the ocean and its majestic creatures evaporating in a bright blast.
Though this is a nuclear-anxiety look, we’re not going for overkill. Blush might be the biggest challenge because it’s easy to go overboard—and also because its application necessitates smiling. So take a rosy shade, preferably one that mimics your natural flush when confronting destructive male egos, and dust it on the apples of your cheeks in circular motions. If this calms you, just keep layering it on. You can remove any clown-y excess later—or leave it if you always wanted to be a clown but the timing was never right.
And because beauty begins on the inside, to my daily regimen I’ve added a moment for deep giving-birth breathing and aggressive positive thinking. For example, should a worst-case nuclear scenario occur, it would resolve my monthly student debt payments, my inability to afford basic healthcare, my indoor pigeon situation, and my two outstanding parking tickets.
Lips are the final step in this look, and given the United States’s pro-Armageddon strategies, I prefer something friendlier for my lip line. So I use a warm beige pencil I call “Radioactive Sheep Meat.” Once lined, color in your stress-bitten lips with a darker red to hide the cracks and dried blood, or just go for a flattering neutral that would look great during any Judgment Day. As a final touch, a little lip gloss goes a long way—a dependable favorite of mine is this sheer coral I’ve nicknamed “No Birds Are Chirping.”
Now you’re ready to leave the house looking polished yet natural while still being haunted by global hubristic ineptitude. This look may appear effortless, but it requires serious focus to achieve without going back to sleep, or shrieking in public—and at the end of the day (or human era), commitment is always chic.
Sunday 3/18: As always, the Uptown Poetry Slam is going down at The Green Mill. Open mic starts at 7 p.m. followed by the slam itself. $7, 21+.
Monday 3/19: Essay Fiesta comes to The Book Cellar once again for an evening of live lit! 7 p.m., donations to 826CHI encouraged.
Tuesday 3/20: Visit Women & Children First to celebrate the launch of Bizarre Romance, a collaboration from Audrey Niffenegger and her husband, graphic artist Eddie Campbell. 7 p.m., free.
The Open Door Reading Series at The Poetry Foundation continues with a reading from Loyola University Chicago’s Aaron Baker and his student Elia Hohauser-Thatcher, along with Laura Goldstein and her student Cean Gamalinda. 7 p.m., free.
Wednesday 3/21: Women & Children First hosts an author conversation featuring Hanif Abdurraqib and Jessica Hopper. This event will include a reading, conversation, and book signing. 7:30 p.m., free. Register here.
From an evolutionary perspective, shame is a puzzling emotion. Guilt is easier to explain; to feel bad about what we do can stop us from actions that threaten our standing with a group. But what is the adaptive advantage of feeling bad about who we are? Recent research has suggested some clues, but for many of us who feel shame, the question of What for? remains vexing.
In her debut collection, Rummage (Little A, 2017) Ife Chudeni A. Oputa drives headlong into such unsettled terrain. In the book’s opening poem, “Ode to Shame,” Oputa approaches the emotion with respect, as someone might address an estranged parent or difficult partner. The poem’s action begins with a fitting embodiment of shame, by imploring an impossible forgiveness:
Forgive me all the years
I called you ash; I thought
you were a tree grown
inside me the way a girl
once told me a watermelon would
grow, if I swallowed the seed
and drank from her mouth,
my body already dirt.
The imagery throughout the poem identifies the speaker’s shame both with queer sexuality and racial identity, as well as the linguistic roots of her birthplace, Fresno. This intersectionality confronts one of the hallmarks of shame: while it is deeply personal, it is almost unavoidable for those whose complex identities are set against the drift of Eurocentrism and patriarchy. The speaker accepts this inevitability, telling shame, “my body is a wound / waiting to be made by you.” But rather than simply lamenting this fact, the speaker affirms her own hope to rise and be the equal of shame’s power, to be driven by and worthy of it—to become a force “that burns / one hundred degrees and more / and never turns to ash.”
The first section of Rummage unfolds by winnowing down a relationship to shame that becomes more and more binding as it closes in on the speaker. The section, titled “We Are Sitting Around Discussing Our Shame,” collapses poem by poem until we are left in the section’s final poem, “We are my shame.” As the layers of relationship to shame in these titles become stripped away, and the relationship to shame becomes more direct, the speaker acknowledges shame is “unwanted,” and claims it nevertheless as “a gift.” Interwoven through this section is an overlapping series of “Portrait of Memory” poems, in which tsunamis are trapped in jars, seals move into people’s homes to replace lost loved ones, and boys and bears become indistinguishable. These surrealist transformations complicate the apparent confessional mode and disrupt any sense of simple, linear narrative.
One of the most striking aspects of the early poems in Rummage is their complex exploration of childhood sexuality, which provides the baseline for many of the speakers’ expressions of shame. Oputa explores ideas of sexual experience at ages we don’t often allow it to be considered (except as abuse), and refuses to let that experience be simple.
For example, in “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” the protagonist at age five has been “bullied into loving a girl / who too was five and already a woman.” The blurring of childhood and adult identities immediately unsettles our expectations about kindergarten naiveté or innocence, and gives a sinister tinge to the narrative. Every verb of agency in the poem is granted to this adultified girl. She claims the protagonist’s first kiss; she takes, leads, demands. At the same time, the speaker admits to feeling that “your bodies made a strange kind / of sense,” and her memories of being manipulated remain tinged with sensual desire:
She buckled you into a kind of need only she could soothe
with seldom acts of affection—her last M&M,
the gentle bob of her knee against yours.
Two poems later, in “What the Muse Might Say, If I Let Her Speak,” Oputa reopens the narrative, giving the aggressor girl a voice to complicate the picture. “Context makes all lines a little blurry,” the girl begins, before reminding the protagonist that, “I never led you to the mouth a second time; / you had already memorized the way.” Through the give-and-take of these poems, we see the adult self looking back at the child self, puzzling out that which was agency, that which was inflicted. What was wanted, and why? And how does that want feed or predict or suppress what desire and shame mean now?
The poems in Rummage’s second section continue to confront these questions in the context of adult romantic relationships. In an ambitious sequence called “After the Hour,” Oputa cements the connection between shame and desire by returning to the ash metaphor:
I am thinking about thirst
(how strange to feel it
settle on the brain like ash)
The sequence offers lyrical renditions of the sorrows of being together and the sorrows of being apart—the rise and fall of a relationship condensed into a set of ten-minute fragments. The poem ends with a recipe for sorrow that leads us through the agonies of a hard breakup—the paralysis, the self-inflicted damage, the vain attempts to overcome—before yielding the reward of a broth “mild enough to swallow.” What makes this outcome so striking is how tempered it is; there’s no promise of pleasure or triumph, but merely of bitterness rendered mild, pain brought within tolerable range. Nevertheless, that’s enough relief for us to carry on—“to swallow”—hinting that even pain can be processed and used as sustenance.
Oputa returns to confronting the pain of loss in the book’s most ambitious sequence, “Girl as Matryoshka Dolls; or, A Brief History of She.” The poem’s arrangement applies the logic of a crown of sonnets to the sestina: each of four intricately interconnected sestinas tells a parallel story of a relationship’s demise and aftermath, as the speaker copes again with the absence of a beloved and the ongoing ache/ick of loneliness and desire in her wake. In an ingenious move, the envoi in each of these sestinas later combine into a fifth movement that parallels the action of each preceding sestina, embodying the matryoshka doll effect of the poem’s title.
Some of the book’s most moving moments appear in this sequence, as the speaker lets down her guard and lashes out with raw longing:
_______________________________________________What is a mouth
without her mouth. What is my waist, but her abandoned post.
What error of my judgment made her an absence, a lost bet,
the last wisp of heat from my waterlogged youth.
But as with the recipe in “After the Hours,” Oputa refuses sentimentality here by exercising syntactical restraint. By leaving off the question marks, she muffles any hint of self-pity and presents the error, the absence, matter-of-factly. She ends another stanza thus:
_________I am threadbare and undressed,
and in my nakedness, my body appears
a wax replica of itself—pallid, middling,
and nearly alive. Once-love, let me offer one more lie:
there’s nothing left to grow this gulf between
us; no: there’s no version of this where we were better off alone.
The speaker presents her own body as both undisguised and unconvincing, while the promise of one final lie is immediately undercut by the appearance of two. It’s as if the assured voice going forward can’t help itself, can’t bring anything to a close, can’t commit to what it knows or needs.
In these dynamics we can see the book’s most prominent strategy for survival in the midst (or wake) of shame. If shame works by convincing us that we are bad, by pinning us into a definition of badness, then the poems in Rummage resist by refusing to be pinned at all. Again and again, Oputa neglects to settle for a single perspective, a single rendition of a narrative, a single emotional trajectory.
The adaptive advantage of such refusal to be pinned is that it opens up multiplicities of action and identification for Oputa’s speakers. In three consecutive poems called “Analog”—another construction of parallel narratives—Oputa splices together syntactical fragments using Ammons-esque colons to bring contradictory realities into simultaneous being. The first “Analog” ends:
I mounted: his sapphire: her wide stretch:
the boy: the girl: once called me loose: spirit:
he held back: she took back: my grit: my
These quick alternations affirm queer agency even as they investigate the complicated fallout of queer shame. The speaker acts on desire without being limited by sexual binaries; the speaker wears labels both pejorative (loose) and celebratory (spirit); the speaker loses parts of herself to each lover, but leaves tangled the story of how. Another “Analog” confirms this pattern of refusal, characterizing the speaker’s story as “whole and full of holes” before an exhilarating close that feels both liberating and self-protective:
wired to confess: break: bless: my padlock:
my egress: I offer none of this alchemy:
none of me
The final two sections of Rummage expand beyond private wranglings with shame and desire into a broader confrontation with the body’s limits and, ultimately, with the fact of death. While Oputa’s poems here approach death with varying degrees of intimacy, ranging from the familial/private to the politicized/public, they continue to blur the boundaries between poles. For example, as soon as “How Not to Itch” begins by stating that “Someone you don’t know is dead,” it immediately makes that not-knowing bodily: “and now here he is again, / an inching, a chigger in your side.” And as in the earlier poem where a promised single lie quickly becomes two, this poem goes on to break its own promises to override the speaker’s insistence on distance:
You have learned how not to itch
ink on the underside of skin,
how not to dredge up a boy’s cool-
mud hands, smaller even than your own
firm grip on his wrist
Not only does the poem immediately dredge up the image it insists it has learned not to; it personalizes the image, makes the touch of those “cool- / mud hands” as intimate as possible, and binds the speaker to the dead “someone” through the memory of a guiding grip.
It is in such blurred borders and exceeded singularities that Oputa’s speakers have learned to live. In the book’s closing poem, Oputa writes of eyes worn “like a veil of mourning, pupils in total eclipse: / black open to black: prayer of equilibrium.” Here the source of the poet’s vision can be veiled, eclipsed, yet remain open—her syntax turns occlusion into aperture. And how can a prayer be of equilibrium? We hear it both as a prayer for equilibrium and as a prayer composed from equilibrium, placing us again between fulfillment and desire, and teaching us, as Oputa does throughout her remarkable debut, to live in multiple directions.
Carrie La Seur’s remarkable second novel, The Weight of an Infinite Sky, opens with Anthony Fry’s return to his family’s Montana ranch after several hand-to-mouth years in New York City, where he was trying to make a life as an actor. Precipitating Anthony’s return: his father Dean’s death, which occurred under shadowy circumstances—Dean was an expert horseman who died in a riding accident on his own property, with his younger brother Neal the only witness. Anthony’s return to the fold unleashes a painful series of personal reckonings: among other difficulties, his passions reside firmly with the arts, not animal husbandry.
Further complicating his arrival at the Fry ranch is Anthony’s distrust of his uncle Neal; the animosity between the two men fuels part of the intricate plot that La Seur has expertly crafted, one inspired by Hamlet.
The Weight of an Infinite Sky is also a story about the aggressive incursion and depredations of big business—in this case, the coal industry—on self-sufficient, insular communities that rely on the land for their livelihood.
Recently, I corresponded with Le Seur, a Montana-born novelist, environmental lawyer, and Rhodes Scholar, via email about her beautifully written and suspenseful novel, and discussed finding your way and standing up for what you know is right, no matter the odds—both personal and professional—against you.
The Rumpus: After the untimely death of his father, Anthony Fry returns to the ranch where he grew up. But he doesn’t feel as if he fits in, nor has he ever. I was struck by his sense of alienation, which is coupled with his contrary desire to belong. Did you begin with this internal conflict or did it gradually reveal itself to you?
Carrie La Seur: This is the ur-story that I can’t seem to stop writing. I left the rural West at seventeen to attend Bryn Mawr, where people (not many, but it made a deep impression) mocked my clothes, my accent and idiom, and my politics. It’s the classic story you hear from people who complain that college campuses are too liberal, but Bryn Mawr wasn’t too liberal—it was exactly the counterbalance I needed to the uncompromisingly conservative environment I’d grown up in. It cracked my head open and let me see the whole world. So now I carry around the crevasse between what I come from and what I grew into. Naturally, that became Anthony’s story, too, from his environmental awareness to his new understanding of the nature of sexual assault. My debut novel, The Home Place, is a story of homecoming. I didn’t set out to write another one but here it is. Even my third novel in progress, completely different in time, place, and characters, has elements of that deep wagon rut.
Rumpus: How did the idea for Anthony arrive? He definitely doesn’t seem the issue of the rugged Marlboro man mythos.
La Seur: Anthony forced himself on the book, if you’ll forgive the metaphor. He was meant to be a woman. I started writing Anthony as Abigail, a misfit woman pressured to take over the family’s agricultural operation. Gradually, as I wrote her through a couple of drafts and she stubbornly didn’t quite work in the role, I realized that in ranch culture, the pressures on girls and women are different. Leaving is less of a betrayal. For the storyline to lie true, even in 2018, the central character had to be male, which in itself says a lot about the rare corner of American life we’re looking in on. Anthony was the little boy who “thought cows were smelly and wanted to stage musicals in the barn”—not exactly every rancher’s dream for his son. I might write more about Abigail later, because she was this profane, overweight, tattooed theater lovey in the exact wrong place and I loved her, but this story belongs to Anthony, who’s a lot more of a bastard than Abigail could’ve been.
Rumpus: The Weight of an Infinite Sky is written in five acts and was inspired by Hamlet—here, too, I’m wondering if you set out with the intention to write a novel that’s a homage to Shakespeare’s most famous play, or if the idea evolved gradually as you wrote the novel.
La Seur: In a way, I backed into Hamlet and later had to back out again. I did everything backward on this novel, starting with a synopsis that I eventually had to shred. At the beginning was the drama of the misfit, who doesn’t want the thing everyone agrees he should want, which isn’t really Hamlet—although Hamlet is a lot more interested in finding out the truth about his father’s death than in taking the throne, which is also true of my character, Anthony. I’ve read enough Shakespeare that the parallels began to strike me, so in a rush of enthusiasm I embarked on a draft that was too much like Hamlet. I was dragging my characters backward through hedges to fit them into that plot and they rebelled. They didn’t want to kill anyone and there was a lot more nuance in their relationships than in Hamlet’s. I had to back off from the more tragic aspects and meander a little more through the back roads of Anthony’s world.
The characters took their own paths. They turned out to be people I hadn’t anticipated, like young Brittany Terrebonne who communicates her grief [after the untimely death of her mother] primarily through poetry, and returned Vietnam POW Dwight Maclean who hardly talks at all. They withheld themselves and challenged me to find the word or gesture that revealed them, as rural people often do. Penetrating the lives of these difficult characters was a sophomore novel revelation, when you realize that the book you’re writing isn’t at all what you thought it was, and that’s a good thing.
Rumpus: The coal industry and its questionable business practices are significant elements in the novel’s plot, and it’s difficult not to see international mining companies as anything other than terrible for the environment and the communities where they are based. Was it a challenge to write about a business that, aside from the fact it employs people who need jobs, is doing irreparable harm to the earth?
La Seur: The coal industry plot is not only ripped from the headlines but from my own experience representing rural landowners against the Panzer Division advance of fossil fuel companies. I’ve driven across grazing land all over eastern Montana where ranchers find themselves powerless to control the oil and gas companies. The law favors industry almost absolutely. I’ve listened at council meetings as the tribes struggle with the need for basic services in tension with the ecological damage done by extraction. Landowners and tribal governments are badly outgunned—figuratively and literally, as we saw at Standing Rock—in any form of resistance.
As the lawyer, you have to find new ways to fight all the time, and your best hope is a community ready to stand together. So no, it wasn’t difficult. It was a relief to tell some of those stories rather than carrying around all the outrage inside. If it sounds like I’m not condemning the industry forcefully enough, it’s because in any long struggle you get to know the opposition well. You see their motivation and humanity, how much of them is in you and vice versa. More conflict could be resolved if we could all look for that in each other.
Rumpus: What was something surprising you learned while writing the novel that you still find yourself reflecting on?
La Seur: I learned that I’m not as much of a multitasker as I believed myself to be. When I created the time to give this writing project my full attention, it was like growing a new limb—a little painful at first, then empowering. Creative pursuits—writing, violin, even learning languages, another of my passions—separate me from the people I come from. I hadn’t understood how big a mental barrier that was until it was just me and the blank page every day and I had to justify this use of time and give myself permission. It’s never been possible for me to abandon the past. Too many generations worked for me to have the opportunities I’ve had. I’m the sum of that history. I’m its voice.
Rumpus: You mention in the acknowledgments at the end of the novel that you read a lot of Shakespeare while working on The Weight of an Infinite Sky. What are some of your other influences?
La Seur: I did my dissertation on Simone de Beauvoir. Although I wouldn’t call myself an existentialist—it’s too individualist a philosophy for me—I greatly admire her project of revealing her life through her writing. Willa Cather still affects me deeply because of her intuition for the ‘crevasse’—she left Nebraska, lived in New York, traveled widely, but still saw the plainswomen and men she came from with great compassion. Lately, I’ve been digging into the life and writings of Meridel Le Sueur, another grande dame of the plains, who came to my attention because people kept asking if we’re related (not that I know of).
Women who’ve made complex, provocative works of art out of their lives fascinate me and Meridel is exactly that. She marched in the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike, worked as a stuntwoman in Hollywood, and was blacklisted by McCarthy. I also love Gabriel García Márquez and the magical realists, Louise Erdrich for her quicksilver characters, Adrienne Rich’s light-struck prose and poetry, Wendell Berry’s splendid agrarian vision, Pablo Neruda for the revolution poems—and I’m currently obsessed with Neal Stephenson’s crazy-ass world-building.
Rumpus: Along with being a novelist, you practice energy and environmental law in Billings—how has one vocation affected how you approach the other?
La Seur: Law teaches you to be deadline-oriented and stingy with your time, which has been helpful in dragging novels across the finish line. Otherwise, one career has been an escape from the other. Although my law practice has provided rich material for my writing, I’m not really interested in writing legal procedurals, so it fits into the background. Comparatively, writing makes me happier. But environmental law satisfies some deep urges for justice and having tools for the fight.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
La Seur: I’m writing a novel inspired by—not about—Meridel Le Sueur. It involves a transforming friendship between a female American writer and activist and a much younger male South American journalist of contrasting political ideas. It has nothing to do with my first two books and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had writing. It came to me more or less whole in under six months—I have a fugue state that precludes eating or remembering to pick up children—and now I’m doing archival research and interviews to flesh out the characters.
Tara Skurtu’s The Amoeba Game is her first full-length collection of poems. (She is also the author of the chapbook Skurtu, Romania.) The book begins with “Șoricel,” and the soul as a white mouse “burrowed inside the mouth/ of a sleeping child until he yawns.” It’s a collection concerned with this hidden, temporary nature of the soul. In it, Skurtu seems to be asking, how do we become good again? What is it we need most deeply?
We see sheepheads “big enough to eat,” a sister who saved the Body of Christ to feed to ducks, an English-Romanian dictionary, a train at dusk, and a noseless man playing an accordion.
In January, Skurtu, a two-time Fulbright grantee and recipient of two Academy of American Poets prizes, and I spoke through email.
The Rumpus: How did The Amoeba Game come about?
Tara Skurtu: The Amoeba Game originally came to me as an idea for a short story—I always wanted to write fiction. In one scene, the main character, who’d just come home from the hospital where her lover was dying, realized she hadn’t eaten and decided to fry an egg. And she stared at this egg flapping in the pan until it became an amoeba.
Most of my childhood I was forced to be in girl scouts because my mom was an assistant leader. I was the kid who recorded radio shows alone in my room, strived to become the child version of R.L. Stine, mastered the art of reading while walking—scout socializing was not my thing. But then one evening we played this strange game that didn’t require talking. We each became an amoeba—what that was I didn’t know, but I loved that it was something too small to see, that it couldn’t talk, and that its only job was to move.
We closed our eyes and wiggled until we bumped into each other, then latched on and continued until we became a giggling aggregate of microscopic life. This game calmed me. A simple game I played in childhood became a poem, became a section of poems, and then a book.
Rumpus: Reading while walking seems strange but it’s something I used to do a lot. I love the simplicity of “Eclipse,” and of the first two lines in particular. “The bird moved when I moved/ It was like a klonopin, it slept.” How do you know what to cut out of a poem? What to keep?
Skurtu: I’m grateful that you recognize and love the simplicity of the language in this poem.
If I knew what to cut out of a poem from the beginning, this would solve all of my poetry problems. That said, revision is what I like best, and I revise obsessively until a poem is what I call “leave-alone-able” (to say a poem is finished feels like an impossible diagnosis to me). When I’m writing and revising, I’m thinking all about the essential logic of the poem—the ordered yet nonlinear relationship of seemingly unrelatable things. I try everything until I know everything but this one thing doesn’t work. A poem is not a perfect puzzle, yet it is precisely a perfect puzzle. The first poem of The Amoeba Game, “Șoricel” (the Romanian diminutive for mouse), has six lines. For the better part of a year I revised this poem—which is to say you don’t want to know how many different variations of the line breaks I tried. I showed each draft to Louise Glück, one of my thesis advisors, and none of them quite clicked. Eventually, after many months, she said something like, “I think I liked the first one best.” I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t exhausted all the other possibilities.
Rumpus: Is there something that drives your revisions?
Skurtu: Revision is part instinctive and part learned, and I’m grateful to have had such wise and patient teachers along the way. Lloyd Schwartz taught me most of what I know about line-by-line editing and revising. The first time he returned a poem to me I could barely see it because there was so much writing all over the page. He was teaching me how not to be sentimental, how not to repeat without adding, how to use the most specific verb, how not to control the poem and its landing but to have authority over its narrative at the same time. And, going back to simplicity, Robert Pinsky taught me that sometimes the simple reordering of stanzas can get a nonfunctional poem functioning. Each poem drives its revision, and, as a result, the revision drives the poem. We poets never know exactly what we’re doing, but that, over time and with a lot of practice, we get better and better at producing this work that we have no idea how to write. I’m always learning how to revise.
Rumpus: Do you have a notebook you keep? What does it look like?
Skurtu: Yes, I hate to say it, but I’m like an advertisement for Moleskine’s unlined journals. I write by hand at first. When I teach workshops, I don’t allow computers. Writing makes you feel and shape each letter. The pen is connected to your hand is connected to your brain—you’re not just tapping a square box. Looking at what you wrote on paper is like looking at the contents of your brain. It’s messy and unordered, but everything you need is there. Every single poem from The Amoeba Game first came from notes, and then drafts, in my journals. Oh, and with brown ink. I’m a big-time fountain-pen nerd. I wear a magic pencil (that’s really what they’re called, believe it or not) around my neck. It’s supposedly over a hundred years old.
Rumpus: Who are some of your favorite poets at the moment?
Skurtu: Well, I’ll always be an Elizabeth Bishop girl. I admire far too many poets to name in a sentence, but here goes: Gail Mazur (especially her new book, Forbidden City), Lucille Clifton, Andrea Cohen (read “The Committee Weighs In” if you haven’t already—it’ll explode your brain), Frank Bidart, Jill McDonough, Derek JG Williams, Jericho Brown, David Ferry, Ani Gjika (and her beautiful translations from Albanian), Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Pinsky, Louise Glück, Lloyd Schwartz.
Rumpus: You had two Fulbrights in Romania. What were those like?
Skurtu: My Fulbrights were fantastic—and unbelievable. As a first-generation college graduate, there was always a conscious part of my brain that thought a scholarship of this level was unattainable for someone like me, from my background. And here I was in the fall of 2015 on a plane to Sibiu to kick off my Fulbright with a reading at the annual Poets in Transylvania International Festival—with Lloyd Schwartz and a virtual Robert Pinsky. A week later I found myself with my first apartment in the charming, medieval city of Brasov in the heart of Transylvania (which, by the way, is also the birthplace of my great-grandfather, whom I know nothing about—how strange life is)! And the Commission even renewed my Fulbright the following year.
Rumpus: What did you do there?
Skurtu: I taught undergraduate creative writing workshops and American literature, and I helped my American Studies students launch the university’s very first English literary magazine. I gave public lectures for CreativeMornings and the Power of Storytelling about how poetry can be accessible, how everyone is a poetry person. I blogged about my teaching and the Romanian literary scene for Best American Poetry and translated the work of five contemporary Romanian poets for a feature in Plume (co-edited with MARGENTO, who also selected and translated the work of five poets). And the project I’m most excited about is the new and growing modern and contemporary American poetry collection I started at the Transilvania University of Brasov library. Over a hundred books have been donated so far.
The strangest twenty-four hours of my Fulbright was when I participated in a Literary Death Match in an improvised boxing ring at the Bucharest Peasant Museum. I ended my performance of “Morning Love Poem” (in which I walk into a lover’s shower fully clothed) by pouring a bottle of water over my head. Fast-forward to the next morning, and I’m performing interactive American folklore to children at an international storytelling conference.
Lastly, and with thanks to the tortoise-slow, old Romanian trains, I was finally able to get the order of the poems just right in The Amoeba Game. And then Eyewear Publishing accepted it!
During this time I’d received a publishing offer in Romania, and the press wanted to print The Amoeba Game in translation before the book was to appear in English—a strange and lucky dilemma. And so Eyewear Director Todd Swift published my first chapbook during this time, Skurtu, Romania, a selection of limits-of-love poems from the Romania section of the book. And this appeared in Romanian and was launched in Bucharest at the international book festival. The Amoeba Game, translated into Romanian by Radu Vancu, will appear this spring.
Rumpus: What’s next for you?
Skurtu: Project-wise, I’m not done yet. I’m still translating, I’m thinking of a way to get Mass Poetry’s Raining Poetry on the streets of Bucharest, and I’ve married wonderful Romanian poet and translator Tiberiu Neacșu—now we’re the American/Romanian poetry-portal super duo, and we aim to get more US poets known here and more Romanian poets known in the US and beyond.
Rumpus: How do you balance writing with the clutter of everyday life? Do you have certain rules for yourself?
Skurtu: I’m laughing right now because, since last year when I moved to Bucharest, everyday life has been taking over—living in a new country takes a lot of adaptation. I wrote only two poems last year, and one could fit in my palm. But I’ve never been one to write a poem a day (and I only ever wrote a poem a week when I was in an MFA program and had to). A high school English teacher once told me that a big part of the writing process happens in the experience before writing. I didn’t believe her at the time—although it did make me feel great about my daily procrastination ritual, which is a huge part of my writing process today—but now I know it’s true: we’re always writing when we’re not writing. We’re also writing when we’re adapting, and right now I’m in the process of adaptation. I’m like a child again—I’ve been teaching myself Romanian and only understand about eighty percent of what’s said any given day—I’m hearing, seeing, feeling a lot of things for the first time. I think this might be an ideal space for creation. And, as far as rules go, I’ve found that I’m slowly breaking all of the ones I’ve set. So, in the words of Robert Pinsky: “There are no rules.”
Heh. This is very cool. Five lanes and no cars—just lots of people. Franky zooms in on the barricade. He never would have participated like this before. Something illegal like an unpermitted takeover of a bridge.
Halfway across, we stop and look over the railing. Below us the Willamette is dark and wide. “Salmon swim up every year,” I say to Franky, for the sake of saying something to Franky. He’s been so quiet, since.
“That’s cool,” he says. The camera is off and cupped in his big hand. “But this river’s never going to be the same.”
We look south, past the Morrison and the Hawthorne bridges, toward the marina in front of the condos where they think she went in. The sun has set, and down there the water is darker. At least, it’s where they pulled her out. The strap of the pink coat snagged. Half hidden under hanging foliage. No one saw, no one heard.
We start walking again. I call Fetz back. Weird how I want him nearby. A woman walking next to us yells, “We’re liberating the bridge!”
“You hear that Fetz?” I say into the phone. “We’re liberating the bridge.”
Fetzer snorts. “What’s it going to do now that it’s free?”
Franky films people flying past on bicycles. “Become a park, maybe,” I say. “Hey, community ownership of public spaces, man. It’s so wide and the view is so great, it would be a cool place to hang out if there was grass and trees and—Oh, wow!” I grab Franky’s sleeve and point over the railing. Right away he’s filming the people climbing the fence below.
I yell, “Fetz, the fence between the esplanade and I-5 is breached! People are climbing it. Wow. They’re spreading out across the interstate. Dude, the freeway is stopping. It’s, wow, it’s stopped.”
Fetzer goes “Hah!”
“Wow. There’s a chain of people sitting down across all the lanes. Facing the cars. And traffic’s backing up for miles.”
I-5. A river of gas consumption from Mexico to Canada, and here it’s stopped like a finger on a guitar string. Put a finger on the string and it plays a different note.
We should do this more often.
* * *
Back on Second the crowd is bigger. And there’s Nelse and Fetz outside the Salvation Army and we’re all hugging. The low clouds are lit up brown by the streetlights. Everywhere it’s faces flashing by, bobbing dots from candles, folks sitting in the intersection. And a girl seems to be hanging on to my arm.
“Heyyy,” she says. I’m flipping the mental Rolodex but nothing’s coming. “It’s Emma,” she says, then murmurs, “Maryville,” near my ear.
“Course,” I say, and there’s greetings all around. She spreads her arms wide. “Isn’t this beautiful?”
“Yeah!” yells a guy nearby, and he pumps his fist. “All power to the Burnside Free State!”
Emma tugs at me. “You guys should come meet Kashan.”
“Kashan?” says Fetzer, but Emma just pulls us through the crowd. Why do girls like to pull us through crowds?
A big old guy is sitting on a blanket with Brian. Brian says, “Dudes!”
It’s good to sit down. On a blanket, in the middle of Burnside Street, surrounded by singing and drumming and candles.
Turns out the old guy is Kashan. After the introductions, Fetzer says, “Jen and Franky saw people stopping I-5. And I heard Critical Mass stopped traffic on I-405.”
Kashan is wearing a long heavy coat and an old-fashioned brimmed hat. He sits cross legged with his hands cupping his knees. “What is critical mass?” he asks, with an accent.
“A cyclist group,” says Nelson in an uber-respectful voice. “They do alternative transportation advocacy work.”
“So they stop the vehicles,” says Kashan, and he waves his hand like you don’t see people do here. “It is a gesture.”
I’m about to say, It’s awesome, but Nelson looks down at the blanket. “Yeah. Just a gesture.”
“Don’t give the police your name, okay?” says a woman as she walks past. “Jail solidarity.”
Nelson leans toward Kashan and asks quietly, “Where are you from?”
“I am Iraqi,” says Kashan.
Whoa. Instant goose bumps.
“This must be extremely hard for you,” says Nelson.
Kashan stares out at the crowd. “Saddam was hard. This is also hard.”
“Mr. Kashan,” I say. First Iraqi I’ve ever met and on the day my country invades his. How fucked up is that? “I don’t even know what to say. This is the worst shit my government can do to your people.”
And I don’t have a minidisk recorder, either, dammit. The jail solidarity woman is still walking around saying, “They can’t hold you without due process.” Nearby someone starts singing in Spanish.
Kashan looks at me with eyes even shinier and sadder than Nelson’s. “Maybe not the worst,” he says. “Under Saddam, my brothers—” He grimaces and draws a finger across his throat.
Goose bumps again.
“Mr. Kashan,” I say, “would you be willing to be interviewed? We do a radio pro—”
“I see the people with the signs: ‘Not my government, not my war.’ I understand it is not American people’s fault.”
Nelson shakes his head. “Yes. And no.” His voice gets breathy. “We can’t abdicate responsibility. America supported Saddam. Then this war. We didn’t do enough to stop it.”
Brian and Emma shake heads in unison. It would be funny if it wasn’t so fucking tragic.
“What can you do?” says Kashan, and he lifts his shoulders, his hands, like he’s emoting to the back row. “When it is not a true democracy?”
Nelson breathes in hard. He looks up at the brown sky. Then his eyes close and his mouth opens and he starts sobbing. For the first time since. He covers his face with his hands. His wedding ring glints in the streetlight. The noise he’s making is cutting me up. Brian is on his knees, his hands butterflying around Nelson. Kashan shifts away a few inches.
Fetzer pulls himself up, says to Nelson, “Let’s get you out of here.”
It’s like Nelson’s trying to cough out something huge. Me and Franky coax him up. He touches Kashan’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” he gasps at Kashan. “I am so sorry.”
Kashan looks kind of disgusted. “Don’t waste your energy this way.”
All around us is drumming. Dancing. Candles. An older woman behind us says to her friend, “That’s bullshit. They keep you longer if you don’t give your name.”
“Thanks for sharing your blanket,” says Franky. “I, uh, hope the rest of your family is okay.”
There’s tears in Brian’s eyes. Kashan just stares out at the crowd.
Fetz and I each take one of Nelson’s arms and lead him away. Nelson’s bandage is dirty, even in the dark. The edge is wet. We’re leaving. We’re taking Nelson back to Kate’s. The drums are tireless. We stopped I-5. We stopped I-405. We stopped downtown. We stopped the Burnside Bridge. Put your finger on the string and it plays a different note. If enough people put their finger on the string, everything around them changes.
“I have to stay,” I blurt out.
We all shuffle to a halt. Fetzer rolls his eyes. “Figured you would.”
Nelson’s crying is quieter.
I say, “One of us should stay, right? It’s only a gesture, but what else have we got?” I hand Franky my wallet. “Rachel Corrie stood up to a fucking bulldozer. Least I can do is help keep this one stupid bridge closed.”
“Funeral’s at nine o’clock tomorrow,” says Fetzer. He points a finger at me. “Don’t get arrested.”