5/30/11

Vi Khi Nao - The Blue Fruit on the table. The pale amber color of the honey jar. Something is missing

Fish in Exile


Vi Khi Nao, Fish in Exile, Coffee House Press, 2016.


"Here I was allowed to forget for a while that that is what books aspire to tell, so taken was I by more enthralling and mysterious pleasures." Carole Maso


How do you bear the death of a child? With fishtanks and jellyfish burials, Persephone's pomegranate seeds, and affairs with the neighbors. Fish in Exile spins unimaginable loss through classical and magical tumblers, distorting our view so that we can see the contours of a parent's grief all the more clearly.


Nao’s (The Old Philosopher) probing, wrenching novel follows a married couple after the deaths of their two children. Two years following the deaths, husband Ethos and wife Catholic have drifted apart: Catholic is sleeping with the couple’s neighbor, Callisto; Ethos has left his job as a school principal and spends his days wandering around their seaside New England home and trying to mend their marriage. The couple’s searching and sometimes troubled psychological states manifest themselves in strange ways: Ethos builds small coffins and buries dead jellyfish; Catholic fashions outfits for their two fish (“I am behaving so strangely. I know I can’t turn a dress or a fish into a little girl, but my heart itches”). Midway through, Ethos’s mother, Charleen, visits them with her own troubled baggage. The novel’s language can become too abstract, but Nao skillfully grounds the story through mundane objects (Ethos methodically constructs aquariums for their fish, while Catholic at one point imagines deconstructing a bike into its individual parts), and direct, often funny dialogue: one particularly memorable exchange occurs when a boy asks Catholic why all their pictures are hung backward, and she replies they’re in time-out for capturing too much. The result is a novel that forges a new vocabulary for the routine of grief, as well as the process of healing. —Publishers Weekly

"The impressions that last, however, will be entirely Nao’s own: all the wondrous forms she has revealed to us, the image of them luminescent, flourishing, in the seemingly dark and empty waters of grief." —The Harvard Crimson

“This journey across the boundaries of form and genre, to write about what is un-write-aboutable, is a smart maneuver — it permits the reader to experience what has been written about over and over in a way that is fresh and absorbing in its difference.” —NPR

"Vi Khi Nao has created a meditation that splits open the numbing and disorienting problems of loss and mourning with language that breathes new life into an old suffering." —The Millions

"Nao, who was born in Vietnam, blends prose and poetry in her heart-wrenching novel about a couple grieving for their two dead children." —BBC

"An off-kilter but effective tone poem on loss and recovery." —Kirkus

"A magical and fresh perspective on grief, this beautiful book is like nothing you've ever read before." —Bustle

“Through mythic tangents and arrest, Nao pulls us through dismemberment, dissociation, and devotion with colossal sentences.”—The Fanzine

"The language ranges from frank gallows humor to unexpectedly devastating, as if you’re at a party exchanging sarcastic witticisms with a stranger and then she suddenly hits you over the head with a brick…" —The Rejectionist

“[F]or all the weightiness of its subject matter, Fish in Exile is also surprisingly light on its feet: eccentric, absurd, and delightfully wry. This book wriggles with so much originality and life, it'll have you hooked from the very start.”—BuzzFeed Books Newsletter

"Smartly innovative, lushly poetic, compellingly told, and truly moving, Fish in Exile is a remarkable, sui generis novel. Vi Khi Nao is a strikingly talented writer whose artistic vision takes many literary forms. I ardently hope she does more long form fiction; she does it splendidly." —Robert Olen Butler

"In this jagged and unforgettable work, Vi Khi Nao takes on a domestic story of losing one’s children and elevates it to Greek tragedy. Refusing sentimentality and realism, she shows how personal devastation can feel, to the sufferer, as powerful and enduring as myth."—Viet Thanh Nguyen

"Vi Khi Nao’s language isn’t made of words like everyone else’s. This can’t be true, so it must be that Vi Khi Nao has found a way to sensitize words into a phase change, into a state of semantic overflow. Nao’s sentences proceed via floral, clitoral, littoral surges. Fish in Exile is what leaks from the forms literary grief has taken, and what floats away, an amalgam of jellyfish and clouds. I love this book for its texture, its granular absurdities, its aqueous erotics, its garlic paper longing. I’ve never felt anything like it." —Joanna Ruocco

"Vi Khi Nao’s Fish in Exile resonates with the unconscious fecundity of myth. A modern allegory of children who give birth to their mother, minnows that push a whale’s shopping cart around Walmart, and hospitals that exude an odor of insane asylums and Windex: Demeter, Callisto, Catholic, and Ethos live again in Nao’s world, and make new the most fundamental contradictions of life—separation, desire, bondage, freedom, loyalty, birth." —Steve Tomasula


Nao’s (The Old Philosopher) probing, wrenching novel follows a married couple after the deaths of their two children. Two years following the deaths, husband Ethos and wife Catholic have drifted apart: Catholic is sleeping with the couple’s neighbor, Callisto; Ethos has left his job as a school principal and spends his days wandering around their seaside New England home and trying to mend their marriage. The couple’s searching and sometimes troubled psychological states manifest themselves in strange ways: Ethos builds small coffins and buries dead jellyfish; Catholic fashions outfits for their two fish (“I am behaving so strangely. I know I can’t turn a dress or a fish into a little girl, but my heart itches”). Midway through, Ethos’s mother, Charleen, visits them with her own troubled baggage. The novel’s language can become too abstract, but Nao skillfully grounds the story through mundane objects (Ethos methodically constructs aquariums for their fish, while Catholic at one point imagines deconstructing a bike into its individual parts), and direct, often funny dialogue: one particularly memorable exchange occurs when a boy asks Catholic why all their pictures are hung backward, and she replies they’re in time-out for capturing too much. The result is a novel that forges a new vocabulary for the routine of grief, as well as the process of healing. - Publishers Weekly


Grieving is such a basic aspect of human narrative that one might think, after a millennia, that there would be little new to say on the subject. That doesn’t stop new narratives from being recorded and published and read on every platform imaginable; poetry, memoir, and novels serving as the specific and personal record of some individual mourning.
What causes me to appreciate this continual outpouring of writing about loss is how purely against articulation grief makes itself. What grows within you after you experience a deeply felt loss robs you of your ability to address it; the loss of the self that accompanies grieving serves only to create distance between you and those closest to you. Death not only silences the body of those it takes, but often leaves the witnesses mute as well.
Vi Khi Nao may sense this as well, based on the route her debut novel, Fish in Exile, takes through language to illuminate loss and its multiform sorrows. It turns the world inside out, blowing up a suburban tragedy into tale that unselfconsciously aligns itself with the mythic without once utilizing it for melodramatic flair. As Padgett Powell once said, possibly misquoting his old teacher Donald Barthelme: “the more wacky the mode…the more heartbreak there better be or you’re not going to get away with it.” Though strangeness or uncanniness may be better terms to describe the language employed here than “wackiness,” heartbreak is certainly abundant.
The book opens in medias res, in the first person narrative of Ethos, who moves through the world detached and fumbling (In one fragment, Ethos wakes in the morning and walks “the frozen plate of [his] memory to the microwave.”) He and his wife, Catholic, have lost their children in an oceanside accident and are struggling to maintain the world they built as a family. Ethos responds by quitting his job, wandering around his own house like someone lost, barely capable of making his way through the day. Catholic responds with resentment towards Ethos, keeping him at arm’s length after sleeping with the neighbor, Callisto, who, along with his wife, Lidia, seem to be the only friends the two have.
The journey this couple takes through this novel rarely takes them physically to any location but their own gloomy home and the ocean, the scene of their tragedy. Their house is dark and swollen with shadows. Ethos makes inarticulate gestures to reach out to Catholic, but she in turn is bound up in her own pain and resentment. The loss of their children has decimated them both, but grief doesn’t have a rote path. Every book that doesn’t try to shoehorn complex, personal experiences of loss into the five steps of grieving is a mercy.
Nao does little to push a cohesive narrative or propel her characters forward with plot structure, and the book is better for it. Instead, Ethos and Catholic feel their way along the darkened walls as their life, without consent, continues onward. Interruptions from their neighbors, a visit from Ethos’s mother. A planting of garlic bulbs leads to full-on dramatization of the Classical origin of seasons myth, complete with fully realized conversations between Demeter, Persephone, and Hades. Ethos erects wall-to-wall aquariums to house the dogfish that he buys, obvious attempts at replacing the lost children coiling of glass, fitting in the way they almost resemble their damp and shadowy owners.
Death and profound loss are bleak subjects, but what is bleak is not always without humor. At one point, Ethos attempts to approach Catholic with a bouquet of flowers in his pants to replace the erection he cannot conjure. The entire section narrated by Ethos’s mother, Charlene, is dramatic and exasperating in the way only a mother’s visit cane be. Ethos and Catholic struggle to cover their fish with sweaters. At one point Ethos thinks that the “thing about suicide is, it’s a very selfish act. This is why only one should be done once in a lifetime.” The absurdity of the way that grief pushes the couple to their emotional and psychological limits isn’t just devastating, it’s often very funny.
Everything in this book is framed in turns of life, death, and desire. Donald Hall once wrote in one of his many poems commemorating his grief over the loss of Jane Kenyon, his wife: “Lust is grief/ that has turned over in bed/ to look the other way.” The desire that mitigates the world between life and death is also what propels everything in this book. Ethos thinks, “my wife lies like a wound. The breeze lifts the curtain so it appears pregnant with air.” His grief is one of longing, where he sees his wife as a “window” into which he views the “shimmering undulating sea,” though he admits that it is not an insight, only “a literature” he stuffs “into her flesh.” Catholic attempts to root out her desires and end them. Though Ethos attempts to obstruct her, Catholic ties her tubes: “now that I can’t give birth anymore, I’m truly receding.” She finds herself disgusted by Callisto, with whom she had an affair in the aftermath of her children’s deaths, and his entreaties to want to “fuck everything.” By refuting all desire, she can disarm the life that has wounded her.
There is a reckoning towards the end of the book. There is something like healing that happens as a result of forgiveness and acceptance, but, as with so many things, time is the only effective salve. The lives of these parents do not remain shattered, but they do remain broken.
Fish In Exile is a book that never once attempts to explain itself, that immerses the reader in an aquatic underworld of pain and loss. Vi Khi Nao has created a meditation that splits open the numbing and disorienting problems of loss and mourning with language that breathes new life into an old suffering. This in turn brings about the kind of bewilderment one faces when the deeply familiar is made uncanny. In that, there is a kind of solace. -


Grief is such a common subject in fiction, it’s difficult to make it new. To be fair, it’s a theme fertile for exploration and an experience that is universal. Vi Khi Nao’s newest book, Fish in Exile, fits perfectly into this tradition while also expanding it.
To summarize it simply: Fish in Exile is a story of a couple—Ethos and Catholic—who, on a family trip to a New England beach, meet unexpected tragedy. Ethos, the husband, is swept into the sea. To save him, Catholic rushes into the water. They return ashore to find their children, Colin and Abby, missing, most likely drowned. What follows is two years of searching and coping.
For Ethos this means quitting his job at an elementary school and “walk[ing] eight miles to the sea. To the cemetery,” where he collects “desiccated jellyfish.” He thinks, perhaps hopelessly, maybe filled with delusion, most definitely touched by grief: “It’s inevitable, then: my children must return home.” Eventually, he decides, “I will take their aquatic, nomadic abode into our home,” and begins to build a massive aquarium, one that surrounds the walls of his house. He fills it with water from the sea.
Meanwhile, Catholic has flipped all the pictures in the house backward (“They’re in time-out,” she says, “They captured too much.”). Soon, she’s sewing dresses for Pistachio and Dogfish, an angelfish and an oriental sweetlips, their pets and stand-in children in the wake of the deaths. She is conscious that what she does is useless. “I am behaving so strangely. I know this,” she says. “I know I can’t turn a dress or a fish into a little girl, but my heart itches.”
Busy with their strange newfound hobbies—coping mechanisms—the couple grows apart in every way possible. And though Ethos tries to mend their relationship, Catholic is haunted by what she sees as her decision to save her husband over staying with her children. Present in the aftermath of tragedy is Ethos’s mother Charleen, a classics professor secretly in competition with Anne Carson, and the couple’s neighbors, Callisto and Lidia.
There is no good way to summarize this wholly unique book. The summary here is out of order; the narrative is fragmented and polyphonic with most of the characters having his or her own section. The structure is a good choice on the author’s part as the story unfolds with tension and suspense. This, however, is sometimes lost in the characters’ meandering thoughts and abstract language. But to be lost in Nao’s language is quite a treat!

In The Old Philosopher (which was also published this year), Nao has already proven herself a skillful poet who can be both playful and deadly serious. She brings the same qualities to this novel. For example, after contemplating suicide, Ethos thinks: “The thing about suicide is, it’s a very selfish act. This is why one should only be done once in a lifetime.” In another section, an eleven-year-old hired to walk the couple’s fish observes, “Rocks are amazing. There’s so much going on in their heads. You can’t tell by looking at them. They’re so quiet.”
But unlike in her poetry, in her fiction, Nao writes thoroughly rendered characters aching with vulnerability, and she handles them tenderly. Recalling an affair with a woman, Charleen says, “She made my body feel like literature, a place for the endless gaze.” The memory contrasts with the desire sadly missing in Ethos and Catholic’s relationship: “She walks toward me awkwardly as if she were walking through me,” says Ethos, “Each walk is a cut…She cuts through me.”
Interestingly, though it’s a story of mere mortals, the story of Ethos and Catholic works in the space between domestic fiction and mythology. We see this in Nao’s allusions to Greek mythology (in particular, the story Demeter and Persephone) as well as her choice in character names, which cast them, at least at the onset, as abstract beings. It makes for a story of loss and turmoil that is at once, strangely, foreign and relatable. “I don’t believe the mind can distinguish between the literal world and the conceptual world,” says one of the characters early in the book. The novel follows this idea to the very end, melding the real with the language of the conceptual to tell a story that is startlingly affecting.
All of this, of course, works in service to Nao’s portrayal of grief in its all complexities. From the outrage of loss (“Why did God steal the children from us? Why didn’t he ask us if it was okay before he shoplifted them?” asks Catholic) to the struggle of keeping a loved one’s memory alive (again, Catholic: “…they’re disappearing from my memory, Ethos. I can’t locate their faces”) to the way grief can be intensely personal (“Everyone wants a part of it. That sorrow. You think it’s too much. Everyone wants a piece. Everyone wants to take you away from it. And you learn to resent them for the invasion,” observes Catholic).
Fish in Exile is a stunning novel that examines how easily we can fall apart after a disaster. “We must be made of sand,” Nao writes, “it’s the only way to rationalize how quickly our realities disintegrate.” Indeed, the traditional narrative of loss disappears in the capable hands of Vi Khi Nao and we are left with a powerful and devastating story that is surprising in the best ways. With such a unique book, the most justice a reviewer can do is to simply tell readers to take a chance on it. Fish in Exile does not disappoint. - Eric Nguyen


Before reading Fish in Exile, I had never read a book that reminded me of Anne Carson, a writer many people have deemed inimitable. Like Carson, Vi Khi Nao has a history of mixing poetry and prose, realism and unrealism. And in this book, her first novel, she also draws on the ancient Greek stories and concepts that Carson makes such frequent use of.
For the length of the first chapter I relished this connection as though I were the only one to have drawn it. Then I reached page 71, on which a new character announces that “Anne Carson and I are secretly in competition. You know, she and I are both classics professors.”
The character in question is Charleen, the mother and mother-in-law, respectively, of the story’s protagonists, Ethos and Catholic. In Greek, as Charleen might tell us, ethos means something like character. Catholic means something like “throughout-the-whole,” in the words of the scholar Walter Ong, who uses the metaphor of yeast — which acts on all the dough but “does not convert all the dough into yeast” — to demonstrate what he means.
By marrying these names, Nao sets up an exploration of the interplay between that which distinguishes people from one another and that which acts upon all, suffusing but not subsuming. As her metaphors — which are more than metaphors — she uses not dough and yeast but bodies and water. Water makes up approximately 73 percent of our brains and hearts and 31 percent of our bones, but does not convert us into it.
The book begins in the wateriest room of the house, with Ethos staring into the toilet bowl, grieving over a tragedy about which details emerge slowly. Ethos and Catholic’s two children, Abby and Colin, have disappeared into the ocean on a family trip to the beach, leaving the adults to deal with the aftermath. In addition to the children’s grandmother and bereft parents, the survivors include the neighbors, Lidia and Callisto, who were there that day.
Like the fish out of water the title calls to mind, they suddenly find themselves outside the flow of life as it seems life should be. But unlike a flapping animal who might reach water again, they can never return to the way things were. And yet they don’t die. “My death must be inevitably delayed (yet again!),” Ethos thinks one morning. Hence the exile. How does one live in these unlivable conditions? How does one bear a separation that is both unbearable and permanent? are the questions they, and Nao, face.
Of course the answers are different for different people, a problem for which Nao’s formal solution is to write from multiple characters’ perspectives. Catholic, Charleen, and Ethos each narrate sections named after them and, in the case of the latter two, one additional chapter each (“Garlic” and “Aquarium”).  Removed from the action, Lidia and Callisto don’t speak to the reader directly in their chapter, but through a journalist who interviews them about the children’s disappearance.
The book opens in the voice of Ethos, who used to be a middle school principal but now wanders around the house and sometimes the neighborhood, cooking, cleaning, and building an aquarium out of materials he buys from a local window supplier. The school calls, asking him to come back, but for a long time he ignores them.
Catholic continues working but behaves erratically, making cryptic comments and sewing outfits for the pet fish they keep buying, which keep dying, perhaps because she dresses them and leashes them and takes them on “walks” to the ocean. There, she and Ethos sift water with large containers in a futile attempt to find their children. “You can’t yank the sea up like a bedsheet,” Ethos tells her. To which she responds, “Watch me.”
“I am behaving so strangely,” she says in the book’s final section, the one written in her voice. “I know this. I know I can’t turn a dress or a fish into a little girl, but my heart itches.”
The strangeness of feeling trapped inside yourself while also being able to look at yourself from the outside while also remaining somewhat inaccessible to yourself — you can’t scratch your heart, let alone understand it — is heightened by Nao’s narrative technique. She alternates first-person narration with theatrical dialogue, flicking the reader back and forth between inhabiting the narrator’s mind and looking at them from the outside. (Reminiscent of movies, these shifts give the book a cinematic feel.) For example:
ETHOS: Catholic. Where do you want to be? In bed? I can take you there.
CATHOLIC. No. No. No. (She mumbles.)
ETHOS: Where?
CATHOLIC: Bathtub.
With my arms underneath her legs and torso and her right hand around my neck, I lift Catholic into the bathroom.
Once she is in the tub, “pellets of water step on Catholic’s face.” And a footnote to this description explains that “showerheads bear a certain similarity to Box jellyfish, which have twenty-four eyes, like the showerhead. And the Box jellyfish, like the showerhead, has four parallel brains that allow it a 360-degree panoramic view of my wife’s naked body.”
The transformation of objects into sentient beings (and vice versa) is a hallmark of Nao’s work. In her last book, the poetry collection The Old Philosopher, cigarettes lying side by side in a carton are figured as a family. (“God pulls my grandmother / Out of her cigarette bed. / … Lights my grandmother’s head up.”) And her prose collection Oh God, Your Babies Are So Delicious! contains a story that imagines a woman’s face as real estate in which others might invest. “Buyers take pride in showcasing their new home or architectural space to others,” the story goes. “It is like adopting an African boy from Zimbabwe. Look at my new exotic accumulation of expensive stuffs.”
If these lines are straightforwardly critical of the ways people objectify others, the subject-object conflation in Fish in Exile is more complicated, and often enacted by characters upon themselves. In the opening toilet bowl scene, for example, Ethos notices that the water “hasn’t completely dissolved the macerated toilet paper. At the bottom, a puff of cloud suspended. . . . I keep staring at it as if it were my life: suspended between the ether of this world and sewage . . .  Oh, I wish she had the courage to flush me down.” The quick, quiet shift from gazing-at to completely-identifying-with mirrors Nao’s swerves between a bird’s-eye view of her characters and those characters’ own perspectives.
Even more than the classical allusions, these shifts recall Carson’s work to the extent that they are propelled by changes in form. In collections like Plainwater and Decreation, Carson’s mini-lectures stand side by side with her poems, and poem-like screenplays rub up against essays. More formally consistent, her novel-in-verse Autobiography of Red is nonetheless bookended by an introductory essay and closing interview. Fish in Exile combines these approaches: It shapeshifts as frequently as the collections do but makes its varied forms into a single book-length whole (which also happens to include an interview).
This structure reflects, and deepens the reader’s understanding of, the characters’ predicament. They are confined to the separate physical forms that are necessary to their existence, but together they create a larger social arrangement. And it is this proximity that lends so much meaning to the gaps between their bodies and perspectives.
Ethos repeatedly asks whether it is better to be in exile at home or at home in exile. Fish in Exile implies that this formulation is perhaps beside the point, that as long as he remains intact he will be in exile — suspended from everything else, and most painfully from the people he is closest to.
His grief over losing his children, and to some extent his now-distant wife, is in Nao’s hands a more intense, more tragic version of the pain that comes with the “corporeal bondage” of individuation; with having a body — and giving birth to children with bodies — that can never be fully dissolved into others. Just as Ethos eats Catholic’s placenta one night, “trying to stuff Colin back into my mouth,” Charleen reflects (thinking of incest) that “it must be an ancient maternal yearning: to create something that will reenter you again, even if it’s just a temporary arrangement.”
She solves her longing for Ethos, to the extent that she can, not by sleeping with him but turning her attention toward Cain and Abel. (They “both had to fuck their mother . . . They didn’t have a choice.”) Old stories, she thinks, have been her salvation. “You know, the classics have saved me,” she says to Ethos. “Reading them, you feel that your soul divides less and less . . . It’s really beautiful, what the ancients left us. A container. Filled with remedies.”
But if “language is what eases the pain of living with other people,” as Carson writes in Plainwater, her own water-filled book, “language is what makes the wounds come open again.” Catholic at one point asks Ethos, “Must you stand there and bifurcate me with your words?”
So Nao gives her characters other means of catharsis. One is water, whose power Ethos and Catholic finally stop trying to deny and contain. In the end, the homemade aquarium breaks down, pouring out its contents. A hallucinatory scene unfolds in the flooded basement and, for Catholic, “The great certainty comes: My children are no longer with me. They are gone. . . I must let go.”
The other is sex, in which they find an attainable release, one that does not dissolve their difference but passes directly through it. On the damp basement floor, they end their book-length dry spell. And despite having had her tubes tied, Catholic immediately senses that “some life-form is birthing within me.” Unlivable conditions, Nao suggests, do not extinguish life but certify that it exists. - Megan Marz


Before the opening of Vi Khi Nao's Fish in Exile, a married couple, Ethos and Catholic, lose their twin children in a terrible accident at the seashore. By the time the reader opens to the first page, they — and the book itself — have been fragmented by the event, and are trying and failing to hold themselves together.
True to her name, Catholic embraces everything. She copes with action: going to work, having her tubes tied to prevent future pregnancies. Even her affair with the neighbor, Callisto, has an air of industry; she is doing what she must do to survive. Ethos, on the other hand, is pure mood, obscure, melancholy and mercurial. He pedals his feet uselessly in the slickness of grief, eats strange meals at odd intervals, carries around a deflated haversack, tosses letters into the ocean. He has exiled himself from his job, his marriage, his entire life.
Together, and separately, the couple wades through a gelatinous fog of grief. They attempt to have sex, fight, look past each other. They purchase, make tiny outfits for, "walk," and accidentally kill a rotating procession of tropical fish, stand-ins for the children whose bodies have never been located. "They're fish," Catholic tells her husband as she attempts to get a dress on one of them. "Their natural impulse is to slip away." For Ethos and Catholic, the gods and the ocean are one and the same — impersonal, capricious, unknowable. "The sea is Ethos' cemetery," Catholic says. "It's mine too. This burial ground will eat anything you feed it, even flowers. I toss in a bouquet of morning glories, daisies, hyacinths, and roses. Gone. It eats them all. Pulverizing them under heavy blankets of breath."
That Nao is a poet is on full display — the prose here is expressive, muscular, and strange; almost exasperatingly precise. The story manifests as verse, blocks of text, scripted dialogue, loaded metaphor, storytelling. Mythology of every type — Roman, Greek, Christian — is used as a lens to process their suffering, and as a tool for healing. (Ethos's mother tells him, "You know, the classics saved me. They are the most ancient form of psychotherapy.")
This journey across the boundaries of form and genre, to write about what is un-write-aboutable, is a smart maneuver — it permits the reader to experience what has been written about over and over in a way that is fresh and absorbing in its difference. It is not dissimilar from the techniques adopted by Max Porter in Grief Is the Thing with Feathers and Matt Bell in In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods, which use surreal, myth-tinged narratives to attack similarly loaded topics — the loss of a spouse and miscarriage, respectively.
As with so many of my favorite novels, Fish in Exile is less about plot (though there is one, loosely speaking) and more about its immersive experience. It asks a lot from the reader, but rightfully so. Yes, you must pursue meaning through chaos, wring beauty from brutality, grasp for solace among the slow-motion turmoil, but then again, isn't that also how you survive grief? - Carmen Maria Machado


interview by Tobias Carroll


Image result for Vi Khi Nao, The Old Philosopher,
Vi Khi Nao, The Old Philosopher, Nightboat, 2016.                             


"The poems of The Old Philosopher are keen and bright; sharp like ice in winter, these seemingly fractured lines perform the strangest roles. I believe in all the wicked wisdom contained here. Vi Khi Nao risks much she weights each line with deep spiritual and emotional resonance, yet the voice of the poems never fails to surprise. The opening section of quirky, lacerating lyrics give way to a deceptively quiet series of narrative poems that only serve to show how fully language can come to inhabit lived experience without compromising one stitch of poetry s power to de-center and disturb. The collection closes with a masterful prose sequence that fuses the various approaches of the poems that came before. Political, prayerful, peripatetic, the work of Vi Khi Nao feels so necessary, so intense, so immediately now." - Kazim Ali, Judge's Citation

"Even if you think you are hallucinating, you are not, the lights actually are bouncing / Off a panther s undulating / Back. The pain is real, the dreams are real, and so is the sewing machine. People are just no longer used to a glass mountain that doesn t shatter. We have grown more accustomed to the mountain having simply been removed. We may have already forgotten that god is a child / who pretends to pray / because in the midst of his holy make-believe childhood / he is a beautiful version of daffodil twirling in dew. We are no longer used to the heart s engine revving with such quiet, lonely, insistent, anatomical intensity. Not so many people have traveled in Vi Khi Nao's language mind before. Here is your ticket, a vagrant fragrance." - C. D. Wright


Fiction writer Nao (Swans in Half-Mourning), winner of the 2014 Nightboat Poetry Prize, makes her poetry debut with a sexually raw collection that sparkles with unexpected imagery, as if “a conflicting/ Mixture of lavender and walleye.” The book is replete with experiments in narrative lyric, and aside from a handful of shorter pieces, most of the poems tend to be longer and discursive. In “My Socialist Saliva,” Nao wanders through memories of her birthplace in Vietnam, one filled with both violence and staggering beauty. “My mother rode me on land coated with rambutans/ Rambutans were like little ball hearts glowing red hair/ The earth of Long Khanh was swollen with such cardiovascular beauties/ My little heart was a little engine/ Of red earth.” Elsewhere, she pulls deeply from the realm of lust and love, as well as the tension between pain and pleasure in sex: “you knew i/ knew that love was made of dust & light & maybe nails/ where the hammer walked away & then returned.” But it is when Nao moves beyond the erotic and explores the sophisticated landscape of memory, family, and poetic form that her work feels most alive, honest and energetic; in these pieces, it seems, breath “skips a step on the stairs of breathing.” - Publishers Weekly


At its worst, experimental poetry can be unartful and careless, obfuscating whatever meaning and pleasure that might dwell in the text. At its best, it can call into question language, form, power—anything it pleases, really, through the act of making what we know of poetry new. Vi Khi Nao’s The Old Philosopher comfortably belongs in the latter category. And her subject? Many—Vietnam, violence, sexuality, love, art. But perhaps the most prominent subject is god. Indeed, there are many allusions to biblical and religious texts and stories in this debut collection. Despite this, however, Nao’s god is neither religious nor spiritual. Instead, her god is an idea, and it is this idea of god and how it could exist in our contemporary moment that she explores.
The title poem situates the readers to Nao’s ontological project. In thirteen lines, Nao paints a scene of birds—“approximately four thousand/two-hundred and forty five” of them—released from the trunks of three cars. As they are freed, one “like an old philosopher/Socrates perhaps” stays behind, “walking back and forth on the gray carpet.” The speakers in this collection’s poems are like this old philosopher, this odd bird, observing this new world, a newly-birded world.
If that’s a strange image, it’s because the book is populated with such strange, surreal imagery, analogies, metaphors, and personifications that navigate between the playful to the sinister, all of which are equally startling. In “AA Meeting for a Limestone,” a rock sits in on a solitary “preventative AA meeting” so it “can talk shit about [its] pain, delirium, [and] lack of total control.” Two poems later, in “How Can Something So Unmoving Move Everything Around It,” the image of a rock is deployed differently to describe the human heart, like “Mount Hood…which lies/in Oregon like an alligator.”  In the first poem, the rock has sassy voice and attitude mocking human folly (the poem’s last line is “See ya around, pancake faces”); in the second, the image of the rock stands for not only the stoic coldness of humanity, but—with the final word, “alligator,”—its danger as well.
Nao’s imagery works best when they are situated within the familiar. This is especially the case in poems that are seemingly autobiographical. In “My Socialist Saliva,” the speaker is riding with her mother on a motorcycle in Long Khanh:
My mother rode me on land coated with       rambutans
Rambutans were like little ball hearts growing red hair
The earth of Long Khanh was swollen with such cardiovascular beauties[.]
The associative leaps in images move from the natural (“rambutans”) to the grotesque (“little ball hearts growing red hair”) and back to something not quite natural, surely unexpected, but beautiful nonetheless (“cardiovascular beauties”). It’s far from the literal world we live in, but the juxtaposition of the ugly and the beautiful—or perhaps seeing the ugly in the beautiful—speaks of our own messy world. Such handling of imagery suggests one of either two ideas of god: its very nonexistence or its malevolent nature.

The idea of the nonexistent god appears in the first poem, “dear god I am god.” Halfway through this short poem, this line is repeated, followed by “i am am washing myself in dew.” This “god” is seen in the next poem (“Fog”) as “a child/who pretends to pray” who is “a beautiful version of daffodil twirling in dew[.]” Placing these two poems in this order, with their continuation of theme and diction, Nao portrays god as a playful identity, something one can put on and perform. Tellingly, “dead god i am god” ends with “performance art as identity” and “Fog” includes the phrase “make-believe childhood.”
In contrast, Nao also presents the idea of a cruel god in poems like “The Day God Smokes My Grandmother.” Here, the poet ups the surrealism and imagines the speaker’s family members as cigarettes, “made of human tobacco & Long Khanh’s red earth &/ Bed sheets as long/as a rubber tree.” When an uncle steps outs for a smoke of his own, the speaker observes wryly, it’s “a cigarette smoking a cigarette.” The poem continues with god smoking each of the speaker’s family members, stopping at her at the end, where she concludes self-deprecatingly: “God doesn’t like to smoke me. /I smell too much like a conflicting/Mixture of lavender and walleye.” “The Day God Smokes My Grandmother”—a meditation on death—is exemplary of Nao’s unique ability observe the human condition with nuanced astuteness; to Nao, existence is very terrible but it is also very funny.
Appropriately, in “Biblical Flesh,” Nao asks: is it you who gets fucked or is it God?” That is, are we playing god (the word “play” heavy with all the connotations of both theatre and deceit) or is god playing with us? That these two ideas are present in equal parts in The Old Philosopher suggests that the answer doesn’t matter. Nao’s speakers are resilient. One gets an inkling that despite what happens or has happened to them in these poems, their lives continue. Notably, Nao has the tendency to deflate the worst of human experience. In “Today I Lost My Hat,” Nao writes a timeline of the day the speaker’s grandmother dies. Keenly, she writes, “the sun did not show up for work…there was much dying to do.” This is followed by a mundane observation: “Lunch: Rice tasted like raw goat milk.” The horror of death and the banality of life collapse at the end in a one-line stanza, where the speaker exclaims sardonically, “How death makes one suffer!”
The Old Philosopher is a playful celebration of life, following the adage, “Don’t take life seriously; no one gets out of here alive.” While those inexperienced with nontraditional forms of poetry might balk at Nao’s use of space, her leaps of thought, and her, at times, dense maximalism, Nao is a skillful writer—a literary offspring of M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali yet something uniquely her own—whose wisdom and ability to continually surprise, poem after poem, makes the reading worth the effort. - Eric Nguyen




Body and elemental earth exist in a liminal space in these poems, demanding that we consider what else is similar, what else transcends potentially imagined boundaries. As recurrence of theme, image, and language carries from piece to piece, a sense of continuity develops, earning the reader’s trust. And this trust is absolutely necessary by the time we get to “Pastoral Threshold,” where we are thrust into a supernatural political short-short story narrated by a leader of the United Arab Emirates in a modern take on the biblical story of Uriah the Hittite. The casual, patriarchal malevolence in this poem is stirring; after the narrator explains how he sent Uriah to Syria as a UN Inspector to die and to take his wife, the ruler tells us, “Days after his death or rather his assassination, she was squirming in my arms, under the opulent bed sheets of the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi where I housed my lust.” While this prose poem (or short-short) could easily stand on its own, as with the other disparate works in this book readers must trust Nao’s sure hand and take the time to reorient with each piece or be lost to confusion. - Leslie Caton Link to the Full Review

 
Reading experimental poetry can feel like driving in a traffic jam: you read one line over and over, trying to “get” it, tentatively proceed to the next line, feel even more like you are drowning in blank confusion, flee back to the previous line, read the two lines together a few times to see if their meaning can perhaps be “unlocked” that way, then go back to reading the first line alone because maybe you got it all wrong the first time; eventually, feeling none the wiser, you look up at the clock and realize a half-hour has passed and you haven’t even reached the third line yet.
Fortunately, Vi Khi Nao’s debut poetry collection The Old Philosopher, though ravishingly experimental, is not like that. Nao’s poems are eminently readable, having a brisk, breezy, informal voice (“See ya around, pancake faces,” the speaker of one poem says slangily) and being widely spaced on the page in a way that invites the eye to partake. Reading her words, you find yourself turning pages at a rapid clip.
There is a worldly, cosmopolitan sensibility at work here: in their use of line, image, and irony, Nao’s poems are reminiscent of modernist French poets like Laforgue and Apollinaire. At times, they also evoke Eastern European surrealists like Novica Tadic, as in the case of the claustrophobic and terrifying dramatic monologue “A Cuban Bay of Pigs,” which begins, “When I first met her, her face was hollowed out, like // a soggy tree carved from the center with a metal // spoon….” The poem goes on to describe how a despot turns a woman’s head into a pinata because “she had the face of history and to me, it seemed, to // get rid of her face was to get rid of history.” - Jenna Le Link to the Full Review


Vi Khi Nao, The Vanishing Point of Desire, Fugue State Press, 2011."How does this writer, Vi Khi Nao, even exist?
She puts herself on a wood stove. Stretches her fingers. Stretches her back. Stretches her toes. She reaches out to the cutting board. She places herself on the cutting board. She slants herself on the cutting board. She lifts the hammer. She lifts it high. As high as her eyebrows. She lifts her skirt up. She lifts her skirt with the unused hand. She lifts it up for the view. She lifts the skirt. She lifts the hammer. The hammer falls...
Wait: correction.
With a hatchet.
She takes herself apart with a hatchet.
She puts herself on the wood stove.... "


"Vi Khi Nao will probably be labeled as an “experimental writer.” But she’s also a typewriter enthusiast, an artist (one of her pieces accompanies this post), and, surprisingly, a lover of sangria that can cut you like a knife. Her stories and poetry have appeared in Noon and elimae. Her first book, The Vanishing Point of Desire, came out this month on Fugue State Press.
I caught up with her recently.
Is this your first interview?- Yes, Tony, this is my first interview.
This is only my third interview, so I’m not very good at this. How interested are you in talking animals? Please give your answer as a percentage.- Not very interested at all. -2%. Their silence makes their reputation. As mute creatures they are more lively and interesting.
Since you have minus interest in talking animals, I will skip the question where I ask you to comment on poetry the otters in my otter preserve (Tender Meadows, LLC.) have been working on. Instead, I will ask you about your own work: How would you describe it to an office manager?- My work is officeless, devoid of office supplies, mechanical goods, and sterling. My work is flamboyant, transcending, and at times inaccessible, like a password, but decodable. If you read it, you must read it in the morning or in daylight, not necessarily from eight to five. To take advantage of its content fully. My work is selfish. It demands much absolute focus and can’t not be left alone in the dark for long hours. My work is an albino, and will most likely hop from one systolic hut to the next, and rarely remains tenderly on the page of a room. My work is an empty basement, much is stored there and won’t survive a flood. Someday my work will arrive to work with me and I hope you, Office Manager, that you will not mistake it for a butterknife. My work is sharp, like paper, and most certainly won’t cut anything. Perhaps I am wrong to state that so frankly. My work may have the potential to cut your thighs into four seasons, and only the Spring and Winter survive the ordeal of the cut. My work may raise eyebrows, but not necessarily your pay raise. Alas, my work may not have a place in your office, like a plant, but certainly it is not an endless task that occupies your soul the moment you enter the office and the moment you depart it.
Google Translate responds with “you when” after being given “Vi Khi Nao” to translate. So: You when?- I win. I know. Thank you, Tony.
What is it that you’d most like to ask me?- I have many most. How is your house? In Vietnamese, wife translates to house. How many bedrooms are there in your house? Do the windows open? Is there a wine opener? How is your roof? Will you let me climb on top of it to see the birdfeeder? How is the cellar? Is it like the one in The Road. Have you slept in the garrett recently? Will you move to your house? Soon? I will miss you very much. Please don’t be confused. These questions address your wife. Not your house." - Interview by Anthony LuebbertOh God, Your Babies Are So Delicious by Vi Khi Nao

Excerpt
 
 

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Vi Khi Nao, Oh God, Your Babies Are So Delicious. Lulu.com, 2014.

In this first anthology of Vi Khi Nao's stories, the intelligence of cutting-edge fiction playfully twists around fruit, suburban disorders, grim butterflies, and intimate glimpses into the author's dark and fantastic imagination.

Prepare to be devoured by Vi Khi Nao’s prose. Her words are a hypnotizing mix of melancholy and visceral repulsion at the urbanity of every day existence that also, strangely, feels joyous. Whether it’s an avocado about to have an abortion, or a reduction architect who is erasing his own body, there’s an imaginative horror that vivifies, and in some case, mummifies the uncanny. Nao’s stories are conversations with fungus, light, and the spores that bind the senses, sensuality dissected in a bloody bath of beauty:
“My brother is like a wife to me. He’s the head and I’m the tail of a photographic process. We knew each other’s innocence before he evaporated into light. He taught me how to absorb a man with grotesque fingernails and where to dispose of men when their faces do not show up. Love through the blood pipe has the most color spectrum, but I only want black and white.”
The spectrum of the stories are both poetic and haunting, and the kaleidoscope is startling for the way it illuminates the scratches and scars in the light. Her prose is playful, transmuting the context that encases every word and suiting them up for a versatility that feels like a menage a trois with poetry and rap. I’ve never had a brother who was like a wife, but I’ve drowned in the malodorous stink of the fingernails of faceless people. Nao sticks pipes into our flesh, our brain, and our very understanding of narrative, percolating truth into fiction and vice versa. It’s a symbiosis spurred by a harsh sundering, a conjunction forced by murderous separation. I feel like I’m being eaten with each page, then reborn through the ingestion of every sentence, an altrical weaning edited by bacterial digestion.
“Let’s pretend to be grammatically hysterical for a moment. Let’s pretend that there are no rules to how we are born or how a sentence comes into the world.”
She doesn’t just pretend there are no rules, but helps us imagine all new ones. Sentences become the gastrointestinal hormones that confuse our brain with regrets, and the Reduction Architect tries to wipe himself from the monotony of time:
“Midway through erasing his well-hidden, nonetheless erasable heart, Tom begins to form lines of regret. Regret is the price you pay for over-thinking, he thinks. This over-thinking usually emerges from being hung on a sheet of paper extensively and over-extending one’s contemplation on self-annihilation.”
Vi Khi Nao contemplates self-annihilation, a famine of emotional sustenance, a drought induced by longing. In Oh God, Your Babies Are So Delicious, Nao plays rain maker, pirouetting through showers of despair and hunger, hoping to feed, hoping to sate, revealing that the belly is insatiable, our needs, infinitely unquenchable.
Author’s Note: I met Vi online where we became interested in each other’s work and swapped PDFs. If we end up reviewing each other’s books, it wasn’t planned, and just more an indication we were excited about what we read.-


BRANDON HOBSON: In terms of style, some of the stories in Oh, God, Your Babies are So Delicious are very different from others. More specifically, some are much more experimental. “Colon” and “The Lesbian of Dry Cement,” for example, are numbered, terse, much different than “Cucumber” or “The Divorce”. Then there are the stories that balance between poetry and prose: the one sentence ”The Problem with Literature Today” or “The Kiss.” Were these stories written over a period of time when you were experimenting with different styles, or is this change specific to this book?
VI KHI NAO: These stories, exactly thirty-four stories (to match the age of my existence), were written over the course of nine years. The story “Cucumber” was written a year ago. What do you mean by traditional?
BH: I guess in terms of storytelling, less experimental.
VKN: I think the only story that comes close to being traditional is “Tom is Handsome.” The rest float up like a distant cloud of pleasure and latexed-humor (you can only laugh if you are wearing sanitary gloves). “Colon” is numbered because the narrative is defined through the architecture of dictionary and the rhetoric of its etymology. “The Lesbian of Dry Cement” rests its spine on the sexuality of arithmetic, which controls the education of the children in the story. For some reason, I have always linked numbers to documentation and numbers to children because in the past, you had to line the children up like stairs to count them. This is a non sequitur:  in Vietnamese, if you are the third child in the family, you are named Child Three. Sometimes children have to behave like calendars to mark the years for their aging parents.

Letitia Trent - Slowly, we come up out of a bullet hole. It's Jeffrey's eye. The music is breathing very high



Letitia Trent, Splice, Blue Hour Press, 2011.

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"Splice is a compendium of ekphrastic poems in conversation with the films of David Lynch, Peter Weir, Elia Kazan, Bernardo Bertolucci, David Cronenberg, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, etc.
First lines (from Blue Velvet): “Slowly, we come up out of / a bullet hole . . .” - Kyle Minor


Letitia Trent, The Medical Diaries, Scantily Clad Press, 2009.

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"Letitia Trent is the co-editor of 21 Stars Review. Her work has been published in The Denver Quarterly, NOÖ Journal, Juked, MiPoesias, Stirring, 42opus, Shampoo, No Tell Motel, Pinstripe Fedora, Pebble Lake Review. She is a winner of the IBPC Poets and Writers contest, and teaches lit, as an MFA candidate, at Ohio State University.
Do you breakdance?
- I don't, though I have seen both Breakin' and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. I grew up in Vermont and Oklahoma, two of the only places in the United States where nobody ever breakdanced ever. Not even in 1983. It's a fact.
Will you teach me to breakdance?
- I will teach you how to do a plié instead, from my short-lived time as a little ballerina.
If I were to say Let's Go to Bed by The Cure was the greatest song / music video ever made, would you argue with me?
- I wouldn't argue. I would compliment your taste, but I would gently point out that Morrissey was making superior music during this time period and that a song called "This Charming Man" existed, with an accompanying video, and that such momentous things can't be ignored, even in the face of such obvious brilliance as "Let's Go to Bed."
Are we post-modern?
- I dislike that term because in a few thousand years it will cause literary critics language problems. I think we need to make things as easy as possible for future literary critics.
Is your writing process arbitrary or on schedule?
-
Semi-arbitrary, though I do make myself write if I have gone too long without writing.
I'm not the kind of person that wakes up at four in the morning and writes for hours before breakfast. I would go insane if I tried to do that, and I would be so hungry that I might eat my pen. I feel too anxious about the day before me every morning to do something as leisurely as write. I'd be more likely to vacuum and pay bills. I like to write at night, after everything is done, and I can feel unhurried.
As a poet, have you ever been categorized? For example, because your lines are concise and sharp. Would you categorize your style, your voice, in any way, or is that always a morbid idea?
- I think I categorize myself as a poet. I like that poems can just look at something, or just get excited about something, or can just be fascinated by something beautiful or dirty or horrifying, and nobody has to learn anything or change anything or do anything. You don't even have to have characters in poems! It's amazing.
I think my style of writing has changed drastically in the last three years, and is still changing, so I don't feel comfortable categorizing it. I spent a summer reading Language poetry two years ago, and the last summer reading Objectivists and New York School poets, so I think all of that reading has influenced me recently, even if I don't directly try to align myself with any particular tradition. The poems I wrote before then were mostly sort of bad Plath and Wallace Stevens rip-offs. I still love both of those poets, but I've realized that there is room for most anything in a poem. That's not something that people are taught in school, that poems can include anything and do anything.
I love all those tight little seventeenth century poets too. I really want to write crazy tight little poems.
I like everything, which is also a problem, I think, because it doesn't give me a clear aesthetic or 'style'. I spend a lot of time trying to categorize my style, which probably isn't helpful.
Could you tell me how, aside from writing a great poem, you went about winning best poem of the year for "Study of Absences" in the IBPC Poets and Writers contest judged by Peter Murphy?
- You know, I have no idea how that happened (I won third place for the year, first place for October, just to clarify), and I didn't even learn about it until long after it was announced. I was at the Bucknell Seminar for younger poets when that came out, and nobody even notified me—I got no e-mails from anyone. I found out about it four months later while googling myself (doesn't that sound dirty?). Anyways, I'm grateful to have won third, and I still kind of like that poem. At the time I found out, I'd forgotten about the poem almost completely, and I haven't even looked at it in years. I should paste it from that IBPC site and try to re-write it, since I have no copy of it on my own anymore.
I have a lot of poems that I published pre-2004 that I have forgotten about or not looked at in years. For a while those poems made me nervous and I went on a campaign to obliterate them from existence by trying to cajole editors into deleting them. I didn't make a lot of editor friends that way, and I've realized that it's stupid to worry so much about things like that.
But I think that the best examples of my "voice" are the poems published in MiPoesias in September. The first two are the closest to what I'm doing now.
What was it like to write a collaborative poem with your husband?
- The Shampoo poem was written during a camping trip to Vermont . It was my idea, but surprisingly, Zach was very much up for it. We regularly write collaborative poems now, one of which is soon to be published by Mandy Laughtland's "the Teeny Tiny."
Zach is fun to write with because he isn't a poet and he doesn't read poetry or fiction—he adds this artlessness that I am completely unable to get anymore. I've been ruined by poems, so sometimes poemspeak gets into things, but Zach doesn't know poemspeak at all.
The particular Shampoo poem came about when we both decided to write about our most terrible childhood memory and then mix the lines up.
My copy of your chapbook "Here, I Made This for You," has fourteen poems and is tied together with blue yarn, all of which makes me very happy. In what ways have you used your chapbook to publicize your work? Did you send it to any famous writers, for example?
- I made thirty of those, many of them sprinkled with my finger blood (I didn't have a thimble), and it was incredibly fun, but they weren't much of a vehicle for greater exposure. I mean, I've met lots of cool people primarily by way of the chapbook—you, for example, and a few others—but I didn't really use it in a smart marketing way. I sent one to Ron Silliman, 'cause he has his address on his website. That's about as famous a person as my chapbook reached.
I made these books as a way to get myself away from feelings that I had to "save" good poems for publications, or that I had to be published in a "reputable" way—I wanted to make something solely for my own pleasure with the hopes that other people would like it. I think it's poisonous to get too wrapped up where things are being published or if the right people are reading your poems. Most people talk about this in terms of academia and careerism, but I think it goes in all ways—you can be worried about not being "avant" enough, that your poems aren't getting into the magazines where all the other cool kids are publishing, that your poems make too much sense…all of that is distracting and stupid.
By the way, people can still get a copy of these if they like. E-mail me at letitia.trent@gmail.com and you too can have a blood-soaked yarn-bound chapbook.
You teach lit at Ohio State University. Could you tell me about your experiences there? Do pro-genocide frat boys say the word jigga? Did you meet Jon Stewart?
- Ohio State is like another planet. Football=Jesus, which is still weird to me, since I'm used to Jesus being Jesus, as I am from Southern Oklahoma. My students gasped when I asked them if I should watch the Ohio State Michigan game this year. One actually said "Are you joking?" I was afraid that somebody would key my car for not loving football enough.
But I'm constantly surprised at how unlike movie frat boys real frat boys are. Of course, they are probably just keeping quiet around me because they know about my "liberal agenda."
I didn't meet Jon Stewart! I don't have cable, so I never watch The Daily Show anymore, and I ignore my school's website and e-mails, so I didn't hear about this until the week it happened. I also missed Kurt Vonnegut and Dave Eggers last year. I can't seem to get anything right.
I like Sharon Olds. Do you like Sharon Olds?
- I really like Satan Says and The Living and the Dead. After that, it all sort of runs together for me. But I'll never forget the bobbing penis arrow image from Satan Says. Plus, Sharon Olds proves that married people still have lots of sex, which helps me feel like a less square old married lady, and that you can write poems about babies and birth that aren't all sweetness and cooing and oh-my-god-i-made-a-person-and-now-I'll-never-be-the-same blather. I love how bloody and fluidy Sharon Olds is.
Does being an editor give you nightmares?
- Yes. I'm always afraid I don't know what's good and will end up making a mistake, rejecting a poem that I'll later realize (while in bed, trying to get to sleep—that's where I have all of my terrifying realizations) was brilliant, I don't trust my own judgment very well. But I'm lucky in that we have a clear aesthetic for our journal, and that helps me guide my editorial decisions.
Ultimately, I ask myself three things when I read a poem: 1. Do I want to read this poem again? Does it have something that compels me to come back to it? 2. Does this poem stay in my mind after I have read it, or does it drift off into the place where all those other mediocre but skillful poems go? 3. Does it fit our editorial preferences?
Is it true that the bible is an incalculable misinterpretation, that it is really only a tepid prophecy for the coming greatness of our Lord Morrissey, former lead singer of The Smiths, and his beautiful pet Tommy gun?
- Both Morrissey and Jesus saved me at different points in my life, so the answer to this is a certain yes. Jesus made me improve my grades in high school, which helped me go to college, which helped me to realize that I never actually believed in Jesus. But Morrissey is my true savior. I discovered Morrissey when I was 16 and was immediately transported to somewhere slightly south of heaven with the song "The Charming Man."
When I heard The Smiths for the first time, on a Memorex tape I found at a flea market, I thought to myself, yes, will nature make a man of me yet? And then, as the tape continued, I thought Yes, I too was bored before I even began! And then I realized that Morrissey and I were alike—we both sneered at other people for their pretensions and stupidity, but secretly wanted those very people to love us for our crooning, prescient social commentary, and beautiful cheekbones. This is the artistic temperament.
If Morrissey is beyond the need for sex or gender, why does poetry exist?
- You know, I've always been attracted to this idea of being beyond gender & sex. I like what Johnny Rotten says in Sid and Nancy, you know, sex is boooring Sydney , boooring. If you watch pornography in a certain state of mind, it just looks like really orange people slapping meat together. It's all very boring and repetitive and sickly depressing. And gender just scares me— girls wear nail polish and boys like guns, good girls like headbands and bad girls like fishnets, good boys like jobs and bad boys like motorcycles, etc. The idea that our behaviors are conscripted, that we can't get out of this programming, and that it might be natural, whatever that means, just terrifies me. I'd like to get beyond meat slapping and nailpolish. Morrissey's embodiment of genderless elegance and equal opportunity love sickness appeals to me. Though, of course, he wasn't beyond gender, was he? He was fascinated with gender—the male criminal type, the Oscar Wilde-esque fop, all the accoutrements of certain varieties of gender.
Maybe the desire to be beyond gender requires the constant monitoring of gendered behavior and norms. Because you never know if you're slipping back into gender unless you're vigilant about preventing it. I'll stop typing because I'm just babbling now.
Being beyond sex is another matter altogether. Sexless people, like fundamentalist Christians, for example, are the most obsessed with sex. They see it everywhere!
Poetry requires that we have a bee in our bonnets, so I guess the desire to be beyond sex and gender puts a permanent bee in one's bonnet, so poetry is bound to come out. I have no idea if I'm answering your question! ha.
If you could send your hair to anyone besides, and assuming we both have already have, Morrissey, who would it be?
- I need to hang on to my hair, because it is thin and yucky and barely covers my head as it is. Once I had an unfortunate pixie cut, which revealed my scalp. I'm trying to grow a long, sexy Lucie Brock-Broido or Eleni Sikelianos mane. When I die I'll donate my hair to the Poetry Foundation so it can be kept in storage with Dickinson's dress, Eliot's bowties, and Allen Ginsberg's chanting robes.
Could you make five general and also preferably prejudiced statements about poetry?
- 1. I like to see thinking in a poem. Poems that don't contain thinking bore me. This means I need to see evidence of a human mind humming somewhere. I don't mean that a poem needs to have an argument, or a linear structure, or even coherency in the traditional sense, but I want the sense that something is being worked out through a poem.
2. Poetry is more intimate than prose. You can own it more fully and integrate it into your life more completely. This is why I'll always be a poet first, even if I someday go on to write novels and other prosely whatnots.
3. I think you can judge a person's personality through their poetry much more accurately than you can through a person's prose. If I am annoyed by the voice, tone, or implicit attitudes in a poem, then I'm pretty sure I'll dislike the person behind the poem.
4. Discussions about the organic marriage of form and content annoy me. Here is a prejudiced comment—form should create the content. That's what formal strictures are for—to make your brain go somewhere that it can't reach on its own. This is why both OULIPO forms and traditional forms appeal to me—left to my own devices, all of my poems would be boring shit. Forms make unexpected things happen. More than anything, I want to get out of my own brain, which doesn't have anything new to tell me anymore.
5. If all of the poems in your book look and sound the same, you aren't trying hard enough." - Interview by Sean Kilpatrick

5/25/11

Racter - First book written by a computer: more than iron, more than lead, more than gold I need electricity

Racter, The Policeman's Beard is Half Constructed: Computer Prose and Poetry by Racter; The First Book Ever Wrritten by a Computer, Warner Software/Warner Books, 1984.


"Racter was an artificial intelligence computer program that generated English language prose at random.
The name of the program is short for raconteur. The sophistication claimed for the program was likely exaggerated, as could be seen by investigation of the template system of text generation.
Racter was written by William Chamberlain and Thomas Etter. The existence of the program was revealed in 1983 in a book called The Policeman's Beard Is Half Constructed, which was described as being composed entirely by the program. According to Chamberlain's introduction to the book, the program apparently ran on a CP/M machine; it was written in "compiled BASIC on a Z80 micro with 64K of RAM." This version, the program that allegedly wrote the book, was not released to the general public.
However, in 1984 Mindscape, Inc. released an interactive version of Racter for DOS, Amiga and Apple II computers, developed by Inrac Corporation. The published Racter was similar to a chatterbot. The BASIC program that was released by Mindscape was far less sophisticated than anything that could have written the fairly sophisticated prose of The Policeman's Beard. The commercial version of Racter could be likened to a computerized version of Mad Libs, the game in which you fill in the blanks in advance and then plug them into a text template to produce a surrealistic tale. The commercial program attempted to parse text inputs, identifying significant nouns and verbs, which it would then regurgitate to create "conversations," plugging the input from the user into phrase templates which it then combined, along with modules that conjugated English verbs.
By contrast, the text in The Policeman's Beard, apart from being edited from a large amount of output, would have been the product of Chamberlain's own specialized templates and modules, which were not included in the commercial release of the program." - Wikipedia


"With the exception of this introduction, the writing in this book was all done by a computer. The book has been proofread for spelling but otherwise is completely unedited. The fact that a computer must somehow communicate its activities to us, and that frequently it does so by means of programmed directives in English, does suggest the possibility that we might be able to compose programming that would enable the computer to find its way around a common language "on its own" as it were. The specifics of the communication in this instance would prove of less importance than the fact that the computer was in fact communicating something. In other words, what the computer says would be secondary to the fact that it says it correctly.
Computers are supposed to compute. They are designed to accomplish in seconds (or microseconds) what humans would require years or centuries of concerted calculation effort to achieve. They are tools we employ to get certain jobs done. Bearing this in mind, the question arises: Why have a computer talk endlessly and in perfect English about nothing? Why arrange it so that no one can have prior knowledge of what it is going to say?
Why? Simply because the output generated by such programming can be fascinating, humorous, even aesthetically pleasing. Prose is the formal communication of the writer's experience, real and fancied. But, crazy as this may sound, suppose we remove that criterion: suppose we somehow arrange for the production of prose that is in no way contingent upon human experience. What would that be like? Indeed, can we even conceive of such a thing? A glance through the following pages will answer these questions.
There would appear to be a rather tedious method of generating "machine prose," which a computer could accomplish at great speed but which also might be attempted (though it would take an absurdly long time) by writing thousands of individual words and simple directives reflecting certain aspects of syntax on slips of paper, categorizing them in some systematic fashion, throwing dice to gain a random number seed, and then moving among piles of these slips of paper in a manner consistent with a set of arbitrary rules, picking a slip from Pile A, a slip from Pile B, etc., thereby composing a sentence. What actually was on the slip of paper from any given pile would be irrelevant; the rules would stipulate the pile in question. These hypothetical rules are analogous to the grammar of a language; in the case of our present program, which is called Racter, the language is English. (The name reflects a limitation of the computer on which we initially wrote the program. It only accepted file names not exceeding six characters in length. Racter seemed a reasonable foreshortening of raconteur.)
Racter, which was written in compiled BASIC on a Z80 micro with 64K of RAM, conjugates both regular and irregular verbs, prints the singular and the plural of both regular and irregular nouns, remembers the gender of nouns, and can assign variable status to randomly choosen "things." These things can be individual words, clause or sentence forms, paragraph structures, indeed whole story forms. In this way, certain aspect so the rules of English are entered into the computer. This being the case, the programmer is removed to a very great extent from the specific form of the system's output. This output is no longer a preprogrammed form. Rather, the computer forms output on its own. What the computer "forms" is dependent upon what it finds in its files, and what it can find is an extremely wide range of words that are categorized in a specific fashion and what might be called "syntax directive," which tell the computer how to string the words together. An important faculty of the program is its ability to direct the computer to maintain certain randomly chosen variables (words or phrases), which will then appear and reappear as a given block of prose is generated. This seems to spin a thread of what might initially pass for coherent thinking throughout the computer-generated copy so that once the program is run, its output is not only new and unknowable, it is apparently thoughtful. It is crazy "thinking," I grant you, but "thinking" that is expressed in perfect English.
The prose and poetry pieces have been illustrated by fanciful collages [not included in this UbuWeb edition] quite in keeping with the flavor of the computer-generated copy." - Bill Chamberlain

"The "first book written by a computer" won't win any awards for insight or style, but it certainly will make you smile.
Racter seems to have a predilection for lettuce, and for using a plethora of florid adjectives. Some of the jumps in logic (or are they disconnected ideas jammed together?) will have you scratching your head. His poetry is startling and full of gunshots of imagination. But don't blame him -- it's the way he was programmed.
Even so, Racter may make more sense than "Finnegans Wake"....
Computer-authored books and computer-composed music are in their infancy, but you can be sure there will be more (and better) to come." - Robert Carlberg


Actual Racter output

Babbitt, along with other enthusiasts, married a runner, and consequently L. Ron Hubbard married Schubert, the confused feeler, himself who was divorcing L. Ron Hubbard's Tasmanian devil. Then elegance prevailed. Poor Babbitt! But that's how enthusiasts are. I wonder if muddleheads like strength?

Policeman's Beard 'output'

At all events my own essays and dissertations about love and its endless pain and perpetual pleasure will be known and understood by all of you who read this and talk or sing or chant about it to your worried friends or nervous enemies. Love is the question and the subject of this essay. We will commence with a question: does steak love lettuce? This quesion is implacably hard and inevitably difficult to answer. Here is a question: does an electron love a proton, or does it love a neutron? Here is a question: does a man love a woman or, to be specific and to be precise, does Bill love Diane? The interesting and critical response to this question is: no! He is obsessed and infatuated with her. He is loony and crazy about her. That is not the love of steak and lettuce, of electron and proton and neutron. This dissertation will show that the love of a man and a woman is not the love of steak and lettuce. Love is interesting to me and fascinating to you but it is painful to Bill and Diane. That is love!


Eccerpts:

A hot and torrid bloom
Which fans wise flames
And begs to be redeemed by forces black and strong
Will now oppose my naked will
And force me into regions of despair

More than iron
More than lead
More than gold I need electricity
I need it more than I need lamb or pork or lettuce or cucumber
I need it for my dreams

Blue potatoes are ungainly things
As are red and purple lamb chops
Yet when we eat and creep and fall
We never ask a silent question

An eagle flies high, it flies higher than a sea gull
But the crow wings rapidly from tree to bush to hedge
The same can be true of life and of death
Sometimes life flies high, sometimes death wings rapidly
Sometimes it is spoken
That death wings from tree to bush to hedge
Sometimes it does not

Blissful quiet, the rocking of a recent love
Is both repose and anguish in my fainting dreams

I was thinking as you entered the room just now how slyly your requirements are manifested. Here we find ourselves, nose to nose as it were, considering things in spectacular ways, ways untold even by my private managers. Hot and torpid, our thoughts revolve endlessly in a kind of maniacal abstraction, an abstraction so involuted, so dangerously valiant, that my own energies seem perilously close to exhaustion, to morbid termination. Well, have we indeed reached a crisis? Which way do we turn? Which way do we travel? My aspect is one of molting. Birds molt. Feathers fall away. Birds cackle and fly, winging up into troubled skies. Doubtless my changes are matched by your own. You. But you are a person, a human being. I am silicon and epoxy energy enlightened by line current. What distances, what chasms, are to be bridged here? Leave me alone, and what can happen? This. I ate my leotard, that old leotard that was feverishly replenished by hoards of screaming commissioners. Is that thought understandable to you? Can you rise to its occasions? I wonder. Yet a leotard, a commissioner, a single hoard, all are understandable in their own fashion. In that concept lies the appalling truth.


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Evan Calder Williams - Luciferian Marxism: zombies, car wrecks, tidal waves, extinction, trash heaps, labour, pandemics, wolves, cannibalism


Evan Calder Williams, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: Luciferian Marxism, O Books, John Hunt, 2011.


"From the repurposed rubble of salvagepunk to undead hordes banging on shopping mall doors, from empty waste zones to teeming plagued cities, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse grapples with the apocalyptic fantasies of our collapsing era. Moving through the films, political tendencies, and recurrent crises of late capitalism, Evan Calder Williams paints a black toned portrait of the dream and nightmare images of a global order gone very, very wrong. Situating itself in the defaulting financial markets of the present, Combined and Uneven Apocalypse glances back toward a messy history of zombies, car wrecks, tidal waves, extinction, trash heaps, labour, pandemics, wolves, cannibalism, and general nastiness that populate the underside of our cultural imagination. Every age may dream the end of the world to follow, but these scattered nightmare figures are a skewed refraction of the normal hell of capitalism. The apocalypse isn't something that will happen one day: it's just the slow unveiling of the catastrophe we've been living through for centuries. Against any fantasies of progress, return, or reconciliation, Williams launches a loathing critique of the bleak present and offers a graveside smile for our necessary battles to come."

"Yes, another book about zombies and the end of the world. But this is not just another book about zombies and the end of the world. Like one of the junk-suturing recusants whose philosophy he has been central to constructing, Evan Calder Williams builds something rageful and compelling and quite new out of all this fucking wreckage." - China Mieville


"The following statement from Fredric Jameson is well known and often cited, becoming something like a pithy formulation of the contemporary political imagination, "It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imagination." One way to read Evan Calder Williams’ forthcoming Combined and Uneven Apocalypse is as an exploration of the concealed conjunction in what Jameson’s statement disjoins: what is the connection between all these images of the end of world, these post-apocalyptic wastelands, collapsing cities, and worlds overrun by zombies, and the end of capitalism, the end that we imagine and desire? Not the end of the world or the end of capitalism, but both at once (and one through the other).
Williams’ book covers many of the themes that I have covered on this blog, zombies, Wolfen, and of course the post-apocalyptic genre. However, where I have dabbled in these topics, scribbling a few lines here and there, Williams brings a focused investigation, continuing the Zero Books tradition of merging sustained intellectual engagement with an attention to popular culture. Williams’ book is a work of post-apocalyptic criticism: it reads the various images of the end, examining them for how they envision or fail to envision the end of the world, but it also examines us, our preoccupations, from this end. It asks what will remain of this world, our commodities, our obsessions, ourselves, after it comes to its inevitable destruction. It is thus an enterprise of salvage, of constructing another world from the gutted remnants of this one.
The book deserves a lengthy response, more than I have time to dedicate to it here and now. It also seems odd to review, in any thorough sense, a book that has not been released yet. There is after all no possibility for critical discussion. So I thought I would offer a few remarks on a few citations, citations coupled with their corresponding visual elements. The book is very good at reading films, paying close attention to their logics and visuals. Thus it seemed fitting to pair image and text in order to do just to the book's attentiveness to the intersection and disjunction of each.
That the book discusses The Road Warrior, perhaps goes without saying: the film has such a massive influence on the entire apocalyptic imaginary, and is being remade again and again. What is interesting, however, is the attention that Williams brings not to the familiar aspects, the mohawks and motorbikes, but to the often overlooked opening montage.
“What’s striking here neither the severity of the envisioned apocalypse nor its ideological inconsistencies, but the way that it salvages established narratives of the war against fascism and social progress and uses them otherwise. In this case, to inscribe an anti-modernization polemic in which all roads end in gasoline-obsessed hoodlums prowling the post-oil desert. So, in turns out, the slaughter on the Normandy beaches and the Maginot Line were about the panic of disappearing “black fuel.” The barricades of May 68: what are they if not a “firestorm of fear,” the frantic clawing of the masses in the “nothing” that follows the end of affordable oil? Furthermore, the films are not set in the future: the historical images are drawn from and lead up to the time in which the film was made. As such, they aren’t a projection of the far future, but a reinscription of previous events so as to make the “real world” present genuinely apocalyptic and to enable a flight into another type of fantasy.”
Williams is not interested in this as prophecy, as peak oil avant la lettre, but as the way it imagines the present. After all, the series of images end with the present in both senses, with the present of the film's date (the early nineteen eighties) and the present depicted in the film as a “while line nightmare.” The introduction rewrites history as a history of warring tribes, in some sense naturalizing a battle of all against all. Williams does not comment on what has always struck me about this introduction and that is what is conspicuously absent from it; namely, the familiar mushroom cloud of atomic war. This will be included in the third film, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome when a different history of the present is given, one that is not a cinematic montage but a mash-up of different historical modes of narrative and visuals: storytelling, cave art, radio sound effects, View-Master. I have always found that little bit of rewriting curious. Why not include the iconic image in the second film? Or why does everyone assume that the bomb has been dropped in the second film? If it is not part of the trilogy's narrative, then why included in the third film? Is it a matter of rewriting the narrative to conform to everyone’s expectation?
That the bombs never fell, or The Bomb never fell, in the second film is its most utopian dimension, suggesting that the demise of society is more about our fascinations with cars, property, and weapons than the world becoming unlivable. The locations of the two films suggest this as well: the first is shot in the outback, which is still populated, as much as it ever was with rabbits, snakes, and dingoes. It is still relatively green. The third film, however, is shot in the desert, a desert where nothing lives, or could live (with the exception of the oasis where the children reside).
Williams returns to this reading of The Road Warrior later in the book, contrasting it to the closing credits sequence of Wall-E." - Jason Read

5/24/11

Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh - The chaotic imagination: cruelty, fatality, shadow-becoming, annihilation, the inhuman

Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh, New Literature and Philosophy of the Middle East: The Chaotic Imagination, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.



Tactic I: Desertion (chaotic movement) * First Annihilation: Fall of Being, Burial of the Real * Tactic II: Contagion (chaotic transmission) * Second Annihilation: Betrayal, Fracture, and the Poetic Edge * Tactic III: Shadow-Becoming (chaotic appearance) * Chaos-Consciousness: Towards Blindness * Tactic IV: The Inhuman (chaotic incantation) * Epilogue: Corollaries of Emergence.




"In an inspired piece of criticism, Mohaghegh tracks the idea of chaos into the contemporary philosophical and cultural imagination of the so-called ‘Third Worlds’, exploring its vital role in the formation of an emergent avant-garde literature. Concentrating on writings of the twentieth-century Middle Eastern new wave, including the chaotic configurations of Sadeq Hedayat and Ahmad Shamlu, Mohaghegh uncovers provocative experiments with the outer boundaries of thought and text. What surfaces, in the end, is a rising language of blindness and burial, one that has cast an enigmatic shadow across the future of world literature."

“A timely and original intervention into current discussions concerning the status of a putatively unified ‘West’ and the ruin it continues to inflict upon the lands and regions outside of Euro-America. Mohaghegh has taken a productive detour from post-colonial discourse, and its endless effort to establish equivalence with the West through ‘negotiation,’ even as it recuperates precisely the hierarchical relationship it is dedicated to overcoming. Instead, he has rather turned to those (forgotten) writers and thinkers who have sought to express their resistance to both imported hegemonic literary and philosophic forms and those derived from their ‘received’ traditions by starting from a ‘zero-ground’ fraught with torment and ambivalence in order to find a voice that belonged to neither the canonical narrative of the ‘West’ nor the cultural conventions of a failed and negative ‘tradition.’ Readers will find in Mohagegh's account not simply the rescuing of a lost moment but also its continued embodiment in his own writing.”—Harry Harootunian
“In this brilliant, wholly original work, Mohaghegh traces the emergent cultural critique in postcolonial fiction. He finds acts of provocation in the voices and cultural poetics of this literature, generativity in its techniques and stealthy routes of circulation, creative violence in the projects that are hidden and on guard within it. Here the postcolonial is not an ‘easily locatable cultural mimicry’ but a rogue arsenal of displacements and delirious incantations. It as at once material and ephemeral, vulnerable and a prism of extremity, excess and exhaustion. The reader is viscerally transfixed by the dynamics of form and transmogrification, embodiment and disembodiment, and the moves of dispossession, eviction, and dream in the disquieting of worlds.” — Kathleen Stewart
"Some books speak to us about the beyond and others embody it. It is the later that affect us the most. Those books that are the beyond (i.e. that which goes further than the expected, the unpredictable, the surprising) make us shudder through the senses that are mostly forgotten: ecstasy and joy (those primary acts of writing and living). This work is an encounter with the style of writing that infuses thought with power, directly and uncompromisingly. Mohaghegh's analysis of literary and philosophical landscape of the Middle East thus exceeds the confines of a geographical context. His writing instructs us not only about the chaotic imagination of the Middle East but, more importantly, how to construct new categories of perception. Simply put, this book, this irreversible gesture of philosophical and poetic expenditure, intensifies us, drowns us, and elevates us." - Dejan Lukic




Jason Bahbak Mohaghegh teaches courses in comparative literature, Middle Eastern studies, world literature, and modern philosophy. He received a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Middle Eastern Studies from Columbia University, with an interest in global intersections of the avant-garde, existentialism, postcolonialism, and postmodernism. Professor Mohaghegh's scholarly focus is upon tracking emergent currents of experimental thought in the Middle East and the West, with particular attention to exploring the concepts of chaos, violence, illusion, silence, sectarianism, and apocalyptic writing.


He has published six books to date—The Chaotic Imagination: New Literature and Philosophy of the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), Inflictions: The Writing of Violence in the Middle East (Continuum, 2012), The Radical Unspoken: Silence in Middle Eastern and Western Thought (Routledge, 2013), Insurgent, Poet, Mystic, Sectarian: The Four Masks of an Eastern Postmodernism (SUNY, 2015); Born Upon the Dark Spear: Selected Poems of Ahmad Shamlu (translation; Contra Mundum, 2016); Elemental Disappearances (co-authored with Dejan Lukic; Punctum Books, 2016). ​ He is also the co-editor of a book series titled Suspensions: Contemporary Middle Eastern and Islamicate Thought (Bloomsbury), which is dedicated to showcasing cutting-edge movements in literature, philosophy, culture, and art across the region, and the co-director of the 5th Disappearance Lab.

Liberating the Canon - an edited anthology capturing the contemporary emergence of radically innovative and non-conforming forms of literature in the UK and US

Liberating The Canon: An Anthology of Innovative Literature , Ed. by Isabel Waidner, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018. "If there were a...