Aaron Burch, How To Take Yourself Apart, How To Make Yourself Anew (PANK, 2009)
«Aaron Burch’s chapbook HOW TO TAKE YOURSELF APART, HOW TO MAKE YOURSELF ANEW is, at its core, a dismantling of nostalgia and a call for self-awareness. In this collection of concise, often surreal commands and narratives on how to cope with, and ultimately overcome, the loss of a lover, family member, and even yourself, Burch deftly blurs the line between the real and imagined, offering a lucid dream world where anything is possible and the bricks of the past act to strengthen the foundation of what’s to come. Swirling with whimsy, meditation, sadness, and hope, HOW TO TAKE YOURSELF APART, HOW TO MAKE YOURSELF ANEW is a rare diamond hiding in plain view, waiting to be studied.» - Mel Bosworth
«How to. Construct wonderful prose. How to. Induce emotions. How to. Aaron Burch. How to. Does it all.
Aaron Burch has done it again. In his latest chapbook, released via PANK, he paints your imagination with images by developing words, phrases, and grammar exactly the way writers everywhere wish they could. How To Take Yourself Apart, How To Make Yourself Anew is something fresh for your tired eyes.
The chapbook is divided up into three sections; each cut up into instructions of sorts. Each piece of prose is persistent and non-stop. It makes it hard to put down. While only fifty or so pages, it does not make for a skimmed, quick read. Each sentence, every paragraph is so well developed that you find yourself rereading it. Like a double-take, just to be sure you really did read something so beautiful. Without doubt, you WILL find yourself reading the entire chapbook in one sitting. By my own will, I could not set it aside.
By part three, the reader desires to become something else. Something more. Aaron has evoked a new self. Yet, somehow at the same time, he tells a story that the reader pieces together while turning each page. He creates a map in your mind using carefully constructed language. And it is fun to navigate.
A very enjoyable read, I suggest you pick up your copy as soon as possible. It will take you apart and put you together and then help you repeat the process until you’re satisfied.» - Glen Binger
«HOW TO TAKE YOURSELF APART, HOW TO MAKE YOURSELF ANEW, by Aaron Burch may be as much an instructional manual on mourning as it is a examination of the imagination. Emotions are carefully reined in by taut prose:
Draw diagrams of the imagination. Use detail, be intricate; don’t let uncertainty excuse lack of specificity. Once complete, destroy, dismantle, disassemble. Erase, rip, cut, break into pieces. Copy each small piece onto your body—cover hands, feet, arms, legs. A complete transfer, put the whole back together. Tie yourself in knots. Use folds, ripples, waves of yourself crashing into each other. Think of it, of yourself, as a complicated math equation: without one small detail, the formula doesn’t work. The sum adds up to the whole, or nothing.
The collection here, though much more than simply the sum of its parts, does grow in both coherence and cohesion by accretion, by way of its deliberate fragmentation, its picking up of the pieces, examining each one, and then puzzling them back together. Here and there Burch offers hints on how to piece his book together:
When stuck, lost, confused, frustrated: do as before. Don’t fear repetition. This can be used for other moments; use when needed. Use carbon paper, stencils, mirrors, projectors. Don’t forget the tools available to you. In fact, you may want to make note of these now for later, while you are thinking about them. Writing commits to memory and, when unsure, revert to rote.
I think the first thing I’ve ever read from Aaron Burch was “Molting” (itself released as a chapbook from Mud Luscious Press), and I was initially surprised, especially after all of the imperative sections, to find it in this collection. But, on further reflection, its fabulist and horrific departures (like the sawing off of hands) makes it nest comfortably among the rest of these instructions, tales, and vignettes.» - thechapbookreview.com
«There is a vibrant and steady aggression to Aaron Burch’s writing, and HOW TO TAKE YOURSELF APART, HOW TO MAKE YOURSELF ANEW is especially thick with this wrenching, forceful language:
Try to let it happen naturally. Don’t think about it, don’t think about not thinking about it. It isn’t in your shoulders like you think. The most common misperception. A whole generation, more, all doing it wrong, a mistaken translation. Try to forget everything you know. Everything. This is the first step, though, admittedly, the hardest. Impossible for most. It is in the neck, the small of your back, your triceps. But if you haven’t been able to forget everything, knowing this is pointless. Will only make it worse. If you think about where it is and isn’t—the shoulders, the neck, the back, muscles in your arms you didn’t know you could control—you’ll never get it. But if you get this far. If you get it.
Subtitled as “notes and instructions from/for a father,” Burch mixes seemingly actual directions for cutting ourselves open, for digging inside, with vignettes of boyhood / fatherhood and the powerful distinct nature of that relationship:
Saw, back and forth. Think of your father, out in the garage, handsawing 2×4s into smaller pieces in what seemed an impossibly few number of back and forths. Try to remember what he made, the different things he’d cut himself free from. With one saw in each hand, hold them to your head like antlers; or, reach up to your head and grab your antlers like saw handles. Realize: without both, you aren’t real. A myth, a unicorn. Think of right and left, before and after, old and new. Back and forth.
HOW TO TAKE YOURSELF APART, HOW TO MAKE YOURSELF ANEW takes the tangible concrete instructions of folding paper, finding shapes in clouds, making connections with those around us, and turns them into weapons, uses them to impale us, makes a father a spearhead and launches it through our sternums. Burch is somehow lovingly violent with words and smiths a text here that hacks at our limbs and then shows its own blood. A wonder, this book—how it fits so tightly under our skin:
I don’t want to go.
I could just fold you up and put you in my pocket and keep you with me, I said.
And I did just that, in half, then half again.
I can remember only two facts from growing up: nothing can be folded in half more than eleven times, and swallowed gum stays in your body for seven years. I fold her in half and tuck her in. There, there.
Or, I fold as many times as I can, counting. I put her, folded, in my mouth and swallow, pushing her down my throat with my index finger, inviting her to stay forever.» - J. A. Tyler
"This is the first chapbook I’ve come across, though Wikipedia tells me they were common between sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, are being revitalised in the digital age. I can see their attractiveness, small volumes, literally pocket sized, constrained by limited space to focus and distil the author’s message. They are ideally suited to Flash.
Burch achieved publication of this volume (no, too big a word, better "pamphlet") by winning Pank’s first chapbook contest. He already has a number of publishing credits and his editorial skills seem to have been in full use here, paring words and feelings down to the bone.
The work splits into three sections: How To Take Yourself Apart: Instructions; How To Fold Paper Cranes: Tales, and How To Make Yourself Anew: A Bestiary. The first is a dissection (the chapbook’s eighteenth century anatomical cover illustration is apt) of memories and awareness, a stripping down and rebuilding. It is also very challenging to read in that way good writing can be, a bouquet made from the author’s intention and reader’s interpretation: each floral arrangement likely to be unique.
Here is an example from the first section, entitled How To:
'Cut from the front of scalp back to the temple. Start where the tip of the widow’s peak might be, if you had one, following the hairline. Make sure the blade is sharp to pull through the skin with ease, though be careful to not let it slip in too deep. Holding your forehead down with one hand, pull the skin above it back slow, like peeling the plastic off the top of a container. Tools that may help: tweezers, scalpel, any of a variety of dentistry instruments you may be able to acquire, the tip of the blade itself. Peeled back, the skin may stay on its own or you can hold it in place or, most recommended, pin it back with some kind of clamp, hair pin, binder clip. Retrieve the small piece of metal or plastic or even paper you’ve been keeping though you never knew why. Place it against the exposed area. You may need to move it around until in place; when there is a pang of regret or forgetting, you’ll know how it fits. Fold the scalp back into place, reattaching as you best see fit. Don’t worry about the scarring or healing. It will have already happened.'
The second section is more "traditional" a melange of short tales and observations that mix the surreal with the everyday. The final section reverts to a more instructional approach, a kind of magical imbibing of animal attributes. Together, these parts form a whole, a skeleton fleshed with life experiences.
Overall, Burch’s collection is impressive. He is an original writer (and there aren’t many of them) who can reveal the world in a new way." - Mark Dalligan
«HOW TO TAKE YOURSELF APART, HOW TO MAKE YOURSELF ANEW is subtitled “notes and instructions from/for a father”, and is dedicated to your dad. Would you talk to us about the relationships between this book, you, and fatherhood?
- Yeah, sure. I guess, more than anything, father/son relationships are just one of my default themes that I write about, without even thinking about or realizing it. Or at least, I used to not realize it. One of the interesting things about putting together a collection, at least for me, was noticing all these words and phrases and themes that I thought was cleverly sprinkled into a story or two, only to realize I’ve done it a dozen times. After I noticed the fatherhood theme running throughout (actually, more honestly, after someone else pointed it out to me) I figured the chap already had an obnoxiously long title, so why not make it even longer with a subtitle that would then make the whole thing seem more cohesive than I’d intended when writing all the pieces individually. Also, my dad is pretty important in my life and, being a writer, I tend to… you know… not really talk to people or tell anyone anything, and so I thought/hoped it would be a nice gesture for my dad.
The ending phrases of nearly every section seem very staccato and curt in their finishes. Is this something conscious in the writing/editing of this book, or is it a (lovely) symptom of your standard writing style?
- I think it is probably most of all a symptom of my writing style. The short, staccato ending is probably my short short/prose poem version of the more traditional-length short story’s epiphany, opening everything up to the larger world, character pondering the “useless” and “too distant” stars ending, that writer’s always think is clever and beautiful, but is really kind of overused and samesame.
HOW TO TAKE YOURSELF APART, HOW TO MAKE YOURSELF ANEW is like the mixture of a hug and a shove. Would you address this combination of violence and the genuine?
- Hm. I’d never thought of it like this, but I like it. I think, again, my default nature is probably to lean toward the hug, and, frankly, I often get kind of tired of and annoyed by my own tendencies to write, and so I try to throw a shove or two in there to mix it up. Usually, when there’s any kind of violence in my stories or short shorts or whatever, it is me trying to throw a kink into whatever I’m writing and then see how I deal with it. I have a kind of imaginary WWBED (What Would Brian Evenson Do?) bracelet that I consult when I start to get bored with my own writing, and that’s when I make a character cut her own hand off, or cut open their scalp, or extract their own teeth, or whatnot. Also, kind of tied to this, I don’t think I’m really a language-driven writer and so these shorts/this collection (and they were all written individually, with no intention of cohesion or collectivity, although they were also all written pretty quickly and during a similar time-span) was especially fun because they were, mostly, me trying to… well… honestly… incorporate the type of writing that I’ve been so interested in lately, people like Evenson, and Peter Markus, and Blake Butler, and Deb Olin Unferth; and I realize now I shouldn’t have even started listing names because of everyone I’m not including. Ah well. I’ll leave it at that.
This book places a high emphasis on introspection and digging—the vignettes almost always geared towards tearing something down, breaking something apart. How important do you think it is for writers to re-fold, to re-structure, to cut open and newly digest as they write and edit?
- Um… yes? Also: I like how the structure and language of these questions makes me sound smarter and better than I am. Oh wait… you asked how important, not just is it important. I think, to some degree, I got into this above. I think my favorite stories, of those I’ve written, in this book and elsewhere, are the ones where I tried to twist a story by adding some kind of element that I wouldn’t normally, and then kind of recalibrating to see how I can make sense of that.» - Interview with J. A. Tyler
Interview at The Short Review
Laura van den Berg interviews Aaron Burch
Aaron Burch, How to Predict the Weather, Keyhole Press/Dzanc Books, 2010.
"Ranging from lyrical commands to surreal narratives, Aaron Burch's short fictions swirl with whimsy, meditation, sadness, and hope; blur the line between real and imagined; and focus on loss of lovers, of family members, and even of one's self."
"Made of small parts, each its own story of breaking down and/or rebuilding, the book coheres in the way fragments of dreams arrange themselves in the waking hours to make the kind of sense that transcends the neat paraphrase of self-help and talk show vernacular. In other words, it does what literature should do: inform, entertain, unsettle." — Christopher Kennedy
"I really enjoyed what seemed like semi-voyeuristic snapshots of a life. Kinda reminded me of putting the pieces together after a long night of drinking. The descriptions are all dripping wet and gritty. The themes in How to Predict brought me back to one of my favorite album titles, Unbroken’s Life. Love. Regret." —Dave Verellen
"...takes the tangible concrete instructions of folding paper, finding shapes in clouds, making connections with those around us, and turns them into weapons, uses them to impale us, makes a father a spearhead and launches it through our sternums. Burch is somehow lovingly violent with words." — JA Tyler
"These secret instructions, these rustic observations and tiny tales, are deceptively quiet. They steal in with a few cool words and then explode with creativity and light." — Deb Olin Unferth
"I am not sure exactly what I just read, but I know I was transfixed by each and every word."
"Burch's prose, the contagion of his earnestness, so pure and guileless in its intent, hits with a quiet force. It's something to carry with you." — Corey Beasley
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