Some Thoughts on Motherhood, Daughterhood, and Water
by Gail Aronson
Once a man approached me while I was reaching up to a high shelf in a used bookstore. He said unrepeatable things, and then asked me if I enjoyed sex. The employee behind the front counter intervened and these two men had a conversation, while I leafed through pages, pretending I’d stopped paying attention. When the bookstore employee said to the other man he couldn’t “do that” (that meaning verbally harass me) the other man replied, “but look at her, she’s beautiful.” (Sidebar, I’m not beautiful at all, just a woman.) During this conversation I had a dissociative moment, as if I’d just submerged myself into water and the edges were fuzzy—I was somewhere else. I realized these men were talking about me but not to me, as if I wasn’t there, as if I wasn’t a person at all. There have been plenty of other situations by virtue simply of being a woman that I’ve felt more endangered or disrespected. But this conversation struck me with a sense of invisibility.
At this time in my life, I worked with children. One child always remarked that I looked like his mother. As a nanny, other mothers often told me—while walking a stroller down the street or opening my arms to this toddler and all of her buoyant joy as she bunny-hopped from the edge of the YMCA pool and into my arms—that my charge looked just like me. For a woman of age with children in tow, motherhood was assumed.
There is something I struggle to describe that feels mechanical about daily life. Necessary habits of walking down the same streets, drinking from that particular coffee mug, coming up to the wind and rain against my cheeks as I have before. Our actions are filled with circles, and our minds circle back to those repeated circular days, of rising and falling back to sleep again.
When I wrote “The Only Daughter on the Coast of Mothers” I was captivated by the expected roles of womanhood. I wished to play with an imagined future reality in which a woman comes to know herself by being surrounded by what she isn’t. I wanted to remove the personal memories we associate with our upbringings, to illustrate a space in which women exist without men, but are still performing the cultural norms of what came before. Roles we inherit often emerge from this learned automation, doing things as our mothers once did simply because that’s the way we came to know how to do that thing at all. Can mothers mother without daughters? This, logically, seems like a silly question with an easy answer. I wanted to push beyond the factually apparent. To impress upon the everyday something less usual and mechanical that contributes to my own sense of invisibility, an atmosphere distant as the sea with just as much of its substance and complexity inside, underneath.
Of course, I am a visible person living my life in the world, just like everyone else. I am a woman, a daughter. An inner life can be difficult to reconcile with reality and the way others see you. Within the surreal conceit of a coast of mothers and a single daughter who mysteriously wash up to its shores, I hope the boundaries between the interior dreamlike states and exterior reality begins to muddle and melt away.
For me, I can’t separate a sense of complicated personhood from gender. My stories often include, only or mostly, women-identified characters. Not that I dislike men. In reality, the bookstore employee did exactly as any thoughtful, kind person would do. It isn’t easy to intervene, to defend a complete stranger. I don’t blame him that, in the moment, my life felt somehow robotic, my personhood invisible.
That the repetition of everyday life can begin to feel like a kind of automation seems inextricable from how the reality of lived experience is infected and skewed by capitalist culture. Street signs repeat and the lines between who we are and how we can create ourselves through material things naturally blurs. If, as human beings, we are to change or be changed by our own creations, I wonder what is next for humans as we evolve with the earth, which we continue to ruin. An earth we continue to treat as a thing rather than as a living, breathing home. As the atmosphere is altered, how will we change? I hope that the story might subtly lean into this without a direct critique. I often think about our world of capital and how the objects of our lives might encourage a reframing of commodity.
What is a woman, a person, when seen from a distance?
Mother. Daughter. And so on.
When I am most myself, as a writer and (mostly) as a person, I am drowning and floating all at once. Away from linearity, inside the feedback and fuzz, a muffled thing you strain to understand, and yet, it draws you in.
My mother wanted, always and without exception, to be a mother. Or this is how her story goes, how she chooses to tell it. She had me and I became an adult daughter. A nanny at the time, I was also a writer-woman-person at the YMCA pool with this impossibly perfect little new life. And into that momentary nothingness, dipping underneath the waveless not-so-deep water with a child who is a girl who will be a woman, and most of all who is not mine—these are the kinds of palpable and otherworldly moments – I cherish these the most.
Gail Aronson is a fiction editor for Omnidawn Publishing and her work recently appears or is forthcoming in Nat. Brut, Midwestern Gothic, The Adroit Journal, The Offing, Dream Pop, and elsewhere. She lives and works in Pittsburgh. Find her online @gailaronson. Aronson’s fiction “The Only Daughter on the Coast of Mothers” appears in Issue 42.2 of Cream City Review.
Flash Is Not
by Jonathan Cardew/ @cardewjcardew
I am a flash fiction writer, which means I write flash fiction. When I say this to people, they usually ask me what flash fiction is and I oblige them with an explanation. It’s very short fiction. It’s like a paragraph or a page. A flash. They nod in acknowledgement. Oh, they say. Oh, right.
It’s the qualifier, of course. The flash bit. Why specify? And I don’t always—most of the time, I just say I write fiction; I’m a fiction writer; I’m a fiction writer of works of a certain length.
So the flash bit is a justification? Or a badge of honor?
I decided to hit up Twitter, asking in my tweet to finish the sentence: “Flash is not…”
I don’t know why I flipped the question to a negative; why ask what something is not? But it seemed appropriate since flash fiction thrives in negative space.
The following are twenty-two tweet replies, in no particular order, finishing my sentence and attempting to answer that question in a different way:
Flash is not comfortable (@tabethanewman)
Flash is not timid (@wreffinej)
Flash is not your grandfather’s nose hairs (@rgvaughan)
Flash is not plodding (@Christopher_All)
Flash is not written to please anyone (@taniahershman).
Flash does not settle in; it doesn’t settle at all (@fabulistpappas)
Flash is not waiting (@VeronicKlash)
Flash is not to disrupt the flow of what it’s not, but I have a pressing question about what it is… reading for a lit mag and flash coming in 5-6 pages long doesn’t seem, well, flashy. Thoughts? (@bronwynnhdean)
Flash is not compliant (@melostrom)
Flash is not a boring rambling snoozefest (@ingram_wallace)
Flash does not seek to explain itself (@Jayne_Martin)
Flash is not devoid of depth and emotion (@laurabesley)
Flash is not meretricious (@Robcodbiter)
Flash is not a poem (@karjon)
Flash is not kind of a poem (@laurabesley)
Flash is not feeble (@melostrom)
Flash is not a matter of fewer words. It’s not an anecdote or a sketch or a vignette. It’s a much longer story that is compressed and written with a lot of words that you just don’t happen to see (@francinewitte)
Flash is not to be underestimated (@writingcircles)
If flash is not a vignette, when can you write a vignette? Poor maligned vignettes. I feel they need a home, recognition, tlc. Or are they the juvenile frame for flash? (@wordpoppy)
Flash is not welcoming (@steveXisXoc)
Flash is not very long (@nlordlancaster) A banana isn’t flash fiction (@samaveris)
[Tweets republished by permission of the authors]
Jonathan Cardew‘s stories appear in Passages North, Wigleaf, JMWW, Cleaver Magazine, People Holding, and others. He edits fiction for Connotation Press. Originally from the U.K., he lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Interview with 2019 Summer Poetry Prize Judge
Aimee Nezhukumatathil is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Oceanic. Her honors include a Pushcart Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her collection of nature essays is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions and she is professor of English in The University of Mississippi’s MFA program.
Su Cho is the Managing Editor of Cream City Review and a PhD student at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she is an Advanced Opportunity Fellow. Her poems are forthcoming/can be found in Colorado Review, Cincinnati Review, Pleiades, The Journal, Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere.
1. Every time I read your poems, I can’t help but see the value of the joy of discovery, and that joy, in turn, creates community. During this tumultuous political time, maintaining and nurturing joy is not only important but also work. How does this feel for you? Do you think this relationship has changed for you over time? Or do you see it manifest in different ways as you keep writing?
Oh thank you so very much! It’s not exactly a conscious development *towards* joy and wonderment, but rather an insistence for it. And it is most definitely work—though my pals would absolutely say I’m an optimist, my very closest pals know I’m a worrier and over-thinker, especially in light of the political and environmental concerns we’ve been facing. But this is nothing new. As a woman of color, I have known for a very long time that the world operates very differently for me than say, my white husband. Add that to us raising two mixed boys who have some of the most kind and wondrous hearts I know and even though I have an overwhelming sense of dread and despair most days for the world they will live in when I am long gone—it becomes even more imperative for me to point out beauty and yes, joy on this planet for them. This doesn’t, however, mean that I ignore darkness and ‘scary’ topics in my writing. But I suppose I do try to lean toward light. I think for many people, it’s more helpful to fight for things we love, rather than out of a reflex of fear. I mean—many of our political leaders would rather women of color be in a constant state of fear and panic. So when I turn towards joy and beauty in my writing, it is most certainly work. But it’s the most beautiful and important responsibility in work I’ve ever had.
2. You’ve written so many great collections of poetry. How would you describe your journey as a writer and teacher from Miracle Fruit (2003) until now? What has evolved? What has remained steadfast?
You are too kind, but talking about my work this way gives me the heebie-jeebies—I’d rather you or other readers make such conjectures/observations. But I will say I definitely feel more comfortable to push against my love/hate relationship with linebreaks and to make my lines and white space more expansive than the tight/neat blocks of my earlier poems. Over the course of four books, I think—I hope—I’ve expanded my gaze to larger concerns of the natural world. And there’s at least one constant for my poetry: that most of my poems can be read as love poems. Or at the very least, born of love.
3. What makes a poem stand out to you? Is there a poem or a book you can’t let go of right now?
When I get to a poem, I want to be surprised—with the poem’s music, images, and/or the physical look of it on the page. I don’t ever want to be able to guess the next line or image, or know how the poem will end, and I want to also feel like I don’t want the poem to end in the first place. I want to stay in that poem’s world, like stepping into the landscape of one of those snow globes—I want to be shaken up and even after all the shaking settles down, I want to look down at my feet and know my world is not the same. I’ve recently loved Mira Jacob’s Good Talk, and a new poetry collection out any day: Former Possessions of the Spanish Empire, by Michelle Peñaloza, and just read the astonishing new one from Carmen Gimenez-Simth. Oooh—and Natalie Scenters-Zapico’s Lima :: Limón.
4. If you could travel to the past, what would you tell your past self? If you could go forward in time, what wouldn’t you want your future self to forget?
I’d tell my size-2 twenty-something self, that I wasn’t chunky in the flippin’-slightest, and to tell my twenty-something poet-self that the only advice ever worth taking in the literary world is: to floss, assume kindness in those you don’t know (unless proven otherwise), and give thanks by helping out others who come after. I was always going to write—no one needed to remind me to write and read widely. But simply put: doing these very specific things would always keep me writing, and give me more opportunities to write and teach. And I’m a Capricorn—I don’t forget things. 😉 But I’d try to forget who told me if I wanted to be a successful writer, I needed to keep writing at the forefront of my life, no matter the cost (sleep, relationships, etc). I’d argue that I’d feel better about myself when writing isn’t at the front of my life—that I’m a more expansive writer and mentor because I have other interests and people with whom I love to share them with, not in spite of. And my folks are still alive, but they live far away in Florida, so I’d remind my former self to drive and visit as often as possible back when they lived just an hour away from me when I was in grad school in Ohio. Also I’d always want to remember our family vacations: both when I was a little girl, sleeping in the backseat of our blue Oldsmobile, and also now that my boys are still little(-ish) and begging for us to stop at any rock shop they see advertised on the road.
Submissions to our 2019 Summer Prizes in Fiction and Poetry are open until August 1st. Click here for full guidelines.
Review: Virginia Konchan’s The End of Spectacle
Review by Kathy Goodkin
Spectacle is the lingua franca of the present. Though the spectacular may always have drawn an audience, we now have technology that preserves, replicates, and disseminates it, making our pockets the arena for worldwide spectacle that once was available only locally. From politics to pathology, the public’s eye is trained, by force or habit, on that which provokes the strongest response. The etymology of spectacle is, afterall, to look. Although its obsessions and methods feel very much of the present moment, Virginia Konchan’s smart, lyrical debut collection, The End of Spectacle, transcends a technology-driven zeitgeist. Instead, Konchan’s poems interrogate individual participation in the enduring human spectacles of art and culture, employing wide-ranging intertextuality, ekphrasis, and metapoetics to challenge the notion that spectators (or readers) can ever be absolved of responsibility for that at which they look.
Because of Konchan’s broad focus on (mostly Western) art and culture, the intertextuality of the poems is crucial, and is especially successful because of the diversity of texts and contexts from which she draws. Here, cultural obsession with celebrity transcends the world of film and television. Keats, Jackson Pollock, Dante, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Homer, Whitney Houston, Chopin, Li Po, Duccio, CoCo Chanel, Monet, and Virginia Woolf all appear in the book, among many others. The mix of high and medium brow source texts is established early on. In the opening poem, “Fairytale,” the“you” is hardly a archetypal prince, but instead wears a “Brooks Brothers suit,/ narrowed eyes and pursed lips.” The mix of cultural lexicons is important because it sets readers firmly in the present, which disallows us to excuse ourselves from the scene. We are asked to examine– sometimes, to indict– not a school or movement, but the foundational premises of movements that posit definitions and dualities.
“Ideas are things,” Konchan writes in the book’s final poem, “Madonna and Child.” This statement obviously responds to William Carlos Williams’ “no ideas but in things,” and Kant’s “thing-in-itself;” but most importantly, challenges the greater cartesian duality between the material and the metaphysical, the body and the mind, the very notion that the relationship between idea and thing can be delineated. How can we as viewers, as readers, separate any art object from our experience of it? “Madonna and Child,” which takes as its object the 14th century Duccio painting of the same name. can be read as a kind of thesis for the book, and its placement at the end of the collection asks the reader to return to the poems, to read again through a lens that has finally come into focus. This is an effective tactic, one that extends the experience of the book and compels the reader to find new resonances in the poems.
Interdependant to the question of idea and thing is the duality of subject/object, which Konchan also complicates by subverting literary conventions. Many of the poems in the book are sonnets, or gesture at sonnet form. Even when the poem’s length exceeds the typical 14 lines, the poems often hinge on a volta, and close with a rhyme. When considering the spectacle of literature, this is especially noteworthy because of the sonnet’s legacy as a love poem. Konchan uses the form of a love poem to dismantle (or at least challenge) romantic/Romantic conceits, which historically draw power from the separation between subject and object. The final poem in the book’s first section, “Love Story,” keenly disrupts the sonnet’s traditional subject/object duality by focusing the speaker’s attention on her own body, her own self: “My body has never been my body./ It has been a bucket of asphalt/ upside down in the puerile wind.” In Konchan’s version of the sonnet, the speaker is both subject and object. The speaker also breaks with convention by seducing the reader with a direct address: “Touch me./ Announce yourself./ Now is the heroic age.” Because of a persistent habit of subversion in the book, these poems could be read as feminist responses to the conventions of romantic and Romantic art, albeit subtle in their rendering.
The final challenge to the duality of subject and object is the reader. Konchan accomplishes this largely through the use of metapoetics, which disallow us from becoming suspended in the poems. In “Dead Metaphor,” Konchan writes:
I am a poem,
cowlick on the
I rise, octopi ink
hands, to write you…
These lines compel us to be aware of the poem as a poem, a made thing; the poem indicts the poet, yes, but readers can’t ignore that we too are responsible for constructing meaning from what we look at. When we interrogate the spectacle of art, “…the subject/ is no longer subject,” Konchan writes, “…The illusion is almost complete.” Eventually, The End of Spectacle asks the reader to assume responsibility for their own role as a spectator. We are compelled to parse the line between witness and participant, a task that, while timeless, feels especially important right now.
Kathy Goodkin is an editor for Gazing Grain Press and a manuscript consultant for the North Carolina Writer’s Network. Her book Crybaby Bridge won the Moon City Poetry Award, and is forthcoming from Moon City Press in 2019. Her writing has appeared in Field, Denver Quarterly, RHINO, Redivider, The Volta, and elsewhere.
Interview with 2019 Summer Prize Judge
Ramona Ausubel is the author of two novels and two story collections. Her most recent book, Awayland, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection, a Finalist for the California Book Award, Colorado Book Award and long-listed for the Story Prize. She is also the author of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, No One is Here Except All of Us and A Guide to Being Born. She is the recipient of the PEN/USA Fiction Award, the Cabell First Novelist Award and was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award. She teaches in the low-residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts and joins the faculty at Colorado State University in the fall of 2019.
Molly Gutman is a fiction editor at Cream City Review and a PhD student in fiction at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Her stories appear or are forthcoming in Granta, Alaska Quarterly Review, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere
1. Lots of your stories exist in fabulist worlds, where people grow extra arms to represent their love, or where a Cyclops might write a dating profile. But even your more realist stories still feel slippery—weird, magical—in the way they deal with memory and love and the human body. What does fantastical fiction offer us that other approaches to fiction might not?
I think the world is profoundly strange and surprising—the actual, real world. And human experience is an entire universe of strange and surprising, so to add a fantastical element sometimes seems like a way of holding a mirror up to regular life, regular experience and saying, “See that? Isn’t that that incredible and weird?” I always want to write toward experiences that feel true and sometimes a magical twist makes it easier to see the thing. Sometimes it’s not needed and the world’s own wildness speaks for itself.
2. What about experimental and citational narrative forms? You have stories that are (or quote from) dating profiles, acknowledgements and museum placards, fictional books, letters, and more. How do you think through these approaches? Do choices in framing and presentation come early in your drafting process?
Some of these come from things I’ve seen or read that struck me as very odd. I was in the Egypt Museum in Cairo where there really is a room full of animal mummies and it really does have a plaque listing the people the animal mummies would like to thank. I saw that and thought, “Oh, DO they?” And that became a story. Same with the dating profile. I knew I needed the chatty voice of internet advice to off-set the Cyclops’ own story. Sometimes these documents feel like a map I’m laying down to give us somewhere to stand while a large or peculiar situation takes place. It’s grounding. I’m also always thinking of how to set different elements in opposition to one another. A mundane real-world document with an otherworldly character, etc.
3. Some of your newest collection, Awayland, taps into preexisting narratives like Greek Mythology. I love retellings (they’re probably my favorite genre!) and I’m hoping you’ll talk a little about what in retellings excites you.
I love them too! There’s something about those stories that so many of us carry around, a sort of collective narrative burden/delight. They are often meant to be teaching stories too, or alternative histories, or justifications for wars or political borders. Those stories do tremendous work in our human world and it’s just really a joy to grab a thread and pull it into a new piece of fabric. It feels like invoking something big.
4. Who are you reading right now?
I am telling everyone I talk to about Helen Phillips’ new novel THE NEED. It’s creepy and gripping and profound. I have been reading Pam Houston’s beautiful memoir DEEP CREEK, Mira Jacob’s graphic memoir GOOD TALK and re-reading Louise Erdrich.
5. When you’re reading stories—or judging prizes—what blows your socks off? What are you looking for in a winning entry?
I’m always reading for ambition and bravery, even if it’s a short story. Something reached for (even if it doesn’t come out perfectly)—beautiful language, a big idea, some kind of what-if. Most importantly, I love it when I can feel how strongly a writer cared about getting this thing down. Whether the story is funny or sad or everything at once, I want to feel like it had to be here.
Submissions to our 2019 Summer Prizes in Fiction and Poetry are open until August 1st. Click here for full guidelines.