Books

Teetering on the Edge: A Review of Writing That Risks

The risk inherent in curating an anthology, any anthology, lies in the disparate forms and tones of the work, which may not all be read as belonging in flow. Like creating a mix CD, much depends on the tastes and moods of the audience, some of whom may flow through the book cover to cover, some of whom may skip certain pieces in favor of others. Writing that Risks: New Work from Beyond the Mainstream, edited by Liana Holmberg and Deborah Steinberg and published by Red Bridge Press, promises to startle, captivate, and maybe even alienate its readers. Like the cover image of a dancer’s en pointe feet balancing impossibly on the edge of a tipped chair, the work within this anthology could go either way: Balanced gravity-defiance or kersplat fall. All involved in the project seem just fine with this. It’s the purpose of experimentation. As Holmberg states in her intro, “We wanted to know what would happen if writers were given permission to go farther. Where would they go? What would they see? What would they bring back?”

An incomplete list of experimental devices employed by the authors of Writing That Risks:

Magical realism

Temporal manipulation

Point-of-view shifts

Tense shifts

Textual illustration

Mirror image text

Interstitial inset text

Strategic bolding and italicizing

Sexual deviance as displayed by god and/or children

Internet as poet

Randomized language generators

Brevity

Speculative fiction

Non-narrative poetry

New mythmaking

Form invention

Footnotes

Erasure

Strikeouts

In “We <3 Shapes,” Jenny Bitner takes a magical realism turn with the first person story of a mother whose son is a shapeshifter. The narrative takes place in a future time when shapeshifting has become a shared trait among many children. Bitner’s narrator explains to the reader what it is like to parent a kindergartener who frequently and spontaneously changes into random animals. An octopus, an ant, a Bonobo. It reads like the blog post of a real-life parent of a child with special needs. The sharing of resources, the lessons learned, the parenting strategies, the therapy stories, the tales of close calls and scares. There is the proverbial parent support group (called We <3 Shapes) as well as references to clinical research on the subject. But the fantastical element adds both levity and tragedy to the scaffolding of an otherwise common story.

One particular potent image is that of a We <3 Shapes play-date picnic, in which all of the parents of shapeshifting children bring their baby shapeshifters to a park to socialize with each other. The children suddenly change into moths, sending the parents running after them with nets and jars, frantic to catch their winged anonymous children before they get lost or stepped on or eaten. I found this image a beautiful visual metaphor for the excitement and terror of parenting small children. Later, at a shapeshifter’s birthday party, the children all shift into Bonobo apes inside a bouncy castle and commence very mammalian sexual playtime. The shocked parents have no choice but to breathe and wait it out by the cake: another humorous and unexpected metaphor for the experience of shepherding a child into sexual maturity.

The thorniness of real-life relations is explored using magical realism in another story, called “One Flesh in Floruit” by Molly English. In this story, a husband and wife undergo a macabre, clinical, yet oddly gothic surgery that lets them feel what the other person’s body is experiencing, but not their own. (The wife can feel what the husband touches, and vice versa.) It takes place in a world in which married couples follow this social norm of “fixing.” Spouses who don’t get “fixed” are regarded as luddites, backward, uneducated rebels, as if they didn’t use e-mail. English delivers the narrative in third person, but intersplices the story with first person accounts of a character we assume to be the wife nervously approaching the doctors before the surgery to ask questions about what will happen. It works as a foreshadowing (or sideshadowing?) of the absolute numbness and irrevocable erasure of closeness that the “fixed” married protagonists will come to experience. English textually illustrates this suffocating removal of boundaries by including lines where all the spaces between words are removed. This was an instance where text art really worked for me as a reader, when it often doesn’t. The lack of self and distinguishable sensations was aptly illustrated by the smooshed italicized words.

Writing That Risks also features some worthy experimental poetry. I was particularly drawn to “Estancados :: Atascada” by Jordan Reynolds, a surreal language poem that aims to use words as absolute raw material like clay. In the poem, Reynolds dictates Jack Spicer’s poem “Ballad of the Little Girl Who Invented the Universe” into an iPhone application called Dragon Naturally Speaking Spanish. The app turns the English speech to Spanish text. Reynolds then translates this back into English through Google Translate, proceeding to work the two drafts together into a poem. The cumulative effect of lines like “My flexible eyes lull” and “bilingual mouthfuls dribble holy stillness” made me feel a little like I had stumbled onto the high poetic ramblings of a Jim Morrison wannabe, but the tight couplets contain the intentional weirdness to make space for accidental gems of lines like “Last night / we got along fairly well in Victor’s coat. / Hey, there are a thousand ways to listen.”

I was also pleased by Christina Olson’s opening poem, “Dear Monday,” which also uses the phenomenon of the internet as a tool to shape the raw material of language. “Dear Monday” is “a found poem composed of lines from e-mails sent 2007-2011.” It is left ambiguous as to where the lines are delineated, or how much poetic license Olson took with constructing them. For instance, did she actually write, “Dear Monday, we are getting divorced” in a single email? Or is that line a conglomerate of even smaller lines still? Both Olson’s and Reynolds’s poems read like those popular StatusBot generators that randomize a Facebook user’s status update by pulling from the aggregate data of their total history of posts. (I’m thinking also of Kenneth Goldsmith’s New Yorker article, “The Writer as Meme Machine”.) The verdict is in: Mixing the internet the way a DJ mixes song samples and beats produces a melted Dadaist mix of the mundane, the surprisingly poignant, and the intimate. Take Olson’s line, “But think about June, / with so many fresh tomatoes / we’ll bleed tiny white seeds / if we cut ourselves. How can I worry, / when that is all that matters?”

LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs’s poem “baccha ka potRa” is complicated with references to Terrence Hayes and Gwendolyn Brooks and Fred Moten. It is also full of juxtaposed potent images of “kitchen pearls & truffula treetops,” Keisha’s mane, “creamy crack, lye ale,” “fizzled particles stuck to a flat iron.” It serves as an image-rich ode to “nappy” hair, its history, politics, textures, icons, and scents.

One prominent strength of the anthology is its curation and flow. If this were a mix CD, the segues would be nearly flawless. Lyons’s erasure story “minnows,” about a family being erased and reassembled, is followed by Sharif Shakhshir’s poem, “The Stork,” which opens with the line, “A wingful of lies.” Broken family in strike-out non-linear prose followed by broken family in verse. Similarly, “We <3 Shapes” is followed by Dan Sklar’s poem, “Flying Cats (Actually Swooping),” which begins, “A cat in a tree I am a cat in a tree.” The editors clearly took care to guide the reader through such a disparate and unfamiliar landscape of writing.

I think most creative writing students will find this anthology helpful in their pursuit of new angles, forms, genres. Certainly, there were pieces in the anthology that didn’t work for me; some had dialogue that felt too forced or affected; others had plotlines that didn’t excite as much as they promised to; a few poems had lazy enjambments. But what creative writing students can learn from even the pieces that fell short of excellence is the value of risking.

That being said, I disagreed with editor Liana Holmberg in her introduction that “few writers explore these strange confluences” of “colliding currents that churn up strange connections… sticking instead to the familiarity of mainstream realism.” We are living and writing in the age of Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, Zachary Schomburg, The Hunger Games, Sheila Heti, Maggie Nelson, Nick Flynn, Paul Legault, Kate Durbin, and hell, let’s even throw in House of Leaves. I wouldn’t say there’s a dearth of innovation or riskiness in the young, contemporary literature scene these days. However, I can always understand the cry for more. My hope for this anthology is that it inspires those writers who are just beginning to hone their craft to reach further into the experimental and the oddity.

What does it mean to risk, and what is being risked? Loss of readership? Alienation? Revulsion? Getting lost in translation? I would argue that the twenty-nine writers of Writing That Risks go straight towards those precise edges, and I would argue still that some hope to careen off of them. The result is a fresh, sometimes exhilarating view.

Lauren Eggert-Crowe's writing has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, L.A. Review of Books, and DIAGRAM, among others. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, The Exhibit and In The Songbird Laboratory. She lives in Los Angeles.