Lily Blackburn on Earthquakes in Candyland

jennifer robin

Earthquakes in Candyland by Jennifer Robin. Fungasm Press (2019). $14.99, paperback.

Jennifer Robin’s feminist gonzo nonfiction collection, Earthquakes in Candyland, is a series of disruptions; from essay to micro-flash, Robin takes the position of an intimate journalist, combining observation and interviews with poetic vignettes and philosophical inquiry that push us to question ourselves and our role as humans.

Many of the longer pieces in the book follow in the style of Robin’s statement in the story “Oxy’s Midnight Runners”: “I’m here to hear stories,” she says to her interview subjects on a trip to New Orleans, “I’m sick of telling mine.”

Anaïs Nin, an influence of Robin’s once said, “We write to taste life twice.” It could be said that Robin’s book is a result of tasting life twice to illuminate meaning and experience in her work, and the result is deeply personal, blunt and empathetic.

What Robin calls “fissures in the illusion,” these essays, flashes, and tweet-riffs are what seep up through the cracks of the candy-coated veneer, critiquing everything from our self-obsessed technology addictions, to the criminal justice system; they are meant to provoke and also to connect.

Told from bus stops, train stations, MAX rides and sidewalk encounters, the book weaves a narrative of lives lived in transition, as if Robin took a literal road trip through a Candyland apocalypse and recorded the whole thing in her notebooks.

The 125 stories (in 315 pages) tackle both deep critique and celebration of American experience from multiple perspectives. The story “Breathe Deeply,” narrates unflinching descriptions of violence in a series of vignettes revealing a history of racism at the hands of white slave owners.  “The Tarot Reader of Troy, New York” details Robin’s hitchhiking journey across the country to visit her biological daughter in an open adoption. “Oxy’s Midnight Runners” follows a pair of New Orleans teens selling pills to make ends meet, while discussing everything from ghosts to ancestry and what it means to “have no truck.”

Later, the interviewer turns the camera on herself.

“I am trying to remember everything…as if I can retreat at a later date and like an ancient scribe add up this information on sheets of pressed goatskin and it will spell out the meaning of life. And why shouldn’t it? How much do I need to know? How much does anyone need to know?”

This is how Robin gets personal on the page, with larger questions which unexpected, intimate connections naturally stir within us, if we’re paying attention.

Her fascination with the lives of others is contagious; the army-brat turned model on the overnight Greyhound. The cam girl exchanging emojis with her clients on the night bus. Lonnie, a tattoo of a star on her cheek, touting her God-love to a man at a Portland bus stop. They are the people who challenge the norm by being unabashedly themselves.

Like literal Queen Frostines or Princess Lollys, it’s the experiences of those Robin meets on her journeys who ground the stories— symbols of hope guiding us through our own sense of American aimlessness, our search for a lost King, something to believe in.

The story “The Best Flavor” is one sentence: “If we must have mind control— what is the best flavor of mind control?”

The micro stories that break up these essays prod and expose, and feel like distilled versions of what Robin cannot let us not hear; we’re fucked, but people are beautifully complex, and our stories matter.

Lily Blackburn is a Portland based writer, an editor for Typehouse Literary Magazine and a full-time bean pharmacist (barista.) She graduated from Portland State in 2017 with her BA in English. You can find her work at Little Fictions | Big Truths, Coffee People, and Angel City Review.

Presenting NMJ Volume 5

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Contributors: Featured Writer Sayuri Ayers, Katherine Fallon, Jacob Kobina Ayiah Mensah, Stephanie Valente, Grace Yannotta, V.S. Ramstack, Bruce McRae, Sean Johnson, Kylie Ayn Yockey, Margarita Serafimova, Megha Sood, Paul Ilechko, Alexandra Corinth, Lindsey Warren, Jacob Hammer, Brigid Hannon, RC deWinter, Lucas Wildner, Alana Hayes, Stephen Mead, Jeanette Salib, DS Maolalai, Matthew Dube

Lunar Notes: An Interview with Featured Writer Sayuri Ayers

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Sayuri Ayers is a native of Columbus, Ohio. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy, The Pinch, Hobart, Ghost City Review, and others.  In 2016, Green Bottle Press released her chapbook Radish Legs, Duck Feet.  Haunt her at sayuriayers.com.

Why poetry? What pulled you in, and who was the very first poet you read/heard who just clicked?

Poetry is strange and lovely. It’s a beast in a jeweled box. Through poetry, there are infinite ways to engage the reader through imagery, tone, sound, and use of white space.

The first book of poetry I read was by Sharon Olds. I discovered Satan Says in the basement of my college’s library. As a science major, I was taking a poetry class as an elective. I remember sinking to the floor in awe as I read Old’s poem, “Monarchs.”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gravitated towards Li-Young Lee’s poetry, especially his collections Rose and Book of My Nights.  What I admire most about Lee’s work is its ability to transport the reader through striking imagery.

If you were the last person on earth, and you pulled the last book from a pile of ash and cinders, what do you hope it would be? Why?

I absolutely love the book of Ecclesiastes. The questions about existential meaning are essential, especially for the last person on earth.

What space does/should poetry occupy right now?

The expansion of poetry into the hybrid forms has been fascinating to watch. The subversion of genres speaks to the shifting of cultural and political borders. I can’t wait to see how poetry will demand more space and transform personal and public landscapes.

What was the first piece you ever had published? Are you the same person who wrote it, and if not, how have you changed?

I first published “Garden of Delights” in my college’s literary journal, First Circle. In some ways, I’m still the same person. As a reader and writer, I’m drawn to strong imagery and narrative. Over time, my generous mentors and teachers have taught me to be more critical of my work, and how to better honor the work of other writers.

What are you working on right now? What is the center or focus of your work right now?

I’m working on a hybrid manuscript that weaves prose poetry together with lyric essay. The manuscript navigates the landscape of motherhood and mental illness. I’m focusing on how images can be repeated, then presented in different forms.

Name some poets youre really excited about right now. Who do you have on your shelf/in your ear/on your mind?

There are so many poets that I’m excited about!  I’m currently reading the debut book by Ruth Awad, Set to Music a Wildfire, which chronicles her father’s survival of the Lebanese Civil War. Geoff Anderson is a poet from Columbus, Ohio. He’s one of my favorite writers/people.  His collection, Humming Dirges, was recently released by Paper Nautilus. I’ve also been enjoying Li-Young Lee’s newest collection, The Undressing.

What’s the biggest adventure youve had so far? What comes next?

My biggest adventure has been becoming a mother. Writing as a parent has been a series of late nights eating ramen over a keyboard and frantically searching diaper bags for lost scraps of poems.  My most creative and productive years followed the birth of my son. I wouldn’t trade these years or him for anything.

Next, I’m hoping to mentor future readers and writers. I plan to volunteer at a local elementary school as a reading tutor this coming fall.

What advice would you give a poet just starting out? What advice would you go back and give your younger self?

Shape your writing life according to your goals/purpose as a poet. Take time to celebrate your successes and the successes of others.  Read, read, read. Don’t give up.

You can read Sayuri Ayers’ work in the fifth issue of Night Music Journal, which will be released May 17th.

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Presenting the cover of NMJ V.5! The featured writer will be announced May 10th, and the issue will be available May 17th!

There’s still room for your poetry, essays, and hybrid creatures in NMJ V.6, so please submit!

In Review: THE BLACK CONDITION FT. NARCISSUS

JAYY DODD

THE BLACK CONDITION FT. NARCISSUS by jayy dodd. Nightboat Books (2019, 96 pages). $15.95, paperback.

I read jayy dodd’s newest creation over and over, until I became only an ear, severed. Until I became only nerve, raw to each breath, feeling reverence, heartbreak, tenderness, gratitude. Feeling humility in the face of the divine, a witness of every word-cell’s tenuous tenaciousness. I kept/wanna keep this collection on replay, letting SIDE A pour in, then SIDE B, then the BONUS TRACK, crashing again and again against that inner drum, swirling all the way back, all the way down.

jayy dodd tells me so many things I need to hear, one of which is LISTEN. Listen so hard you miss meals and phone calls. Listen so hard those voices demanding your and others’ extinction break apart and dissolve back to nothing. Listen so hard that when you turn the volume down, you don’t recognize the world anymore. Trish Salah calls dodd a genius—so much YES. With this new collection, dodd shows being—”blxk trans femme” being—in all its complexity, beauty, and vulnerability. Here the self can shiver out of one’s grasp as easily as ripples can disperse one’s reflection. There’s something god-like, something permanent, in that ephemerality, that resistance to category and definition, that impossibility of being—and urgent need to be—held.

dodd shows that being—in line, in poem, in self, in world—is so much more than any one presentation, any one glimpse in the mirror, any one capture on film. dodd’s book is full of hands, always in flux, so expressive yet so mysterious, being only one part of a whole that often exists in shadow. Powerful in holding but also in letting go. Vulnerable for the same reasons. Able to show so much about a person, but also so little. Able to build up, tear down, lead and mislead. In “Manual,” the lines: “What if God was something / that could be held in the hand.” Not a question.

dodd’s book is next to, awash in, testament to the divine, writing the “blxk trans femme” body into existence, creation the first tool of divinity. In “I Know I Been Changed,” dodd writes, “you will call me out my-self, blasphemous / but i have heard on high my body is harmonic gospel / it was written in sacred memory before coming into being / now, i am here ready for rapture…”. As the speaker becomes, agency/power is reclaimed: “…As a child, / I spoke as a boy, I understood as broken, / I thought as a ghost; but when I renamed this body, / I put away childish things” (from “narcissus reads 1 Corinthians 13, Without Love”). Coming of age, coming into being, stating, “I am.” Complicating and decolonizing the statement that “we are made in god’s image.” Trans body as god-like, a reflection and manifestation of the divine.

But not immortal. After all, “Amerikkka” has declared war on such bodies, especially when they are black and femme: “in the wood / the trees say hey baby, / so i’ve accepted my body / can’t be both safe & beautiful” (“narcissus goes to the market”). Existing, out in the open where a pool may reflect beauty, where a stone thrown may disperse it. By existing, dodd gives me courage to do so. But dodd also holds me accountable, reminds me that I too have hands. That an old myth can be undone and a new one made. That I should hold “whatever / binds me to this earth” close and undo whatever doesn’t.

“…what will we make of our new cradles of tomorrow?” dodd asks in “Babylon.” I am so here for this remix, this rapture, this future-making.

Get your copy of THE BLACK CONDITION FT. NARCISSUS here, and visit jayy dodd here.

In Review: The Sea That Beckoned

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The Sea That Beckoned by Angela Gabrielle Fabunan. Platypus Press (2019, 48 pages). $13, paperback.

Angela Gabrielle Fabunan’s debut, The Sea That Beckoned, is a meditation—no, that’s too sedate—a fixation on the many ways one (especially one who migrates) looks for home—in the place one was born, in a new land, in memory, in language, in each other—and the many ways it is lost. But more than that, this is a book about the self, and how conceptions of home define, complicate, or even threaten that self. In a world reaching for the concrete, this book crashes into every certainty, scattering the concrete as a wave scatters sand. Here, home and self are as vast, elusive, and changeable as the sea. As soon as you scoop it up, it’s already slipping away.

“There was once a country I resided in, but it was neither here nor there,” Fabunan’s speaker says in “Fair Game.” In “Midway,” the speaker says, “In / or Out—perhaps there’s a place we can call home, / but right now there’s just this, an in-between…”. This “in-between” is the vessel that holds this book. The speaker, unmoored, is “neither here nor there.” All homes, all selves ebb and flow in the speaker’s mind, each dissolving a little as something new is ever-forming: “a life spent / gathering the arithmetic of loss” (from “First Day”).

This “in-between” exists in form as well: one line gives, another takes away. And imagery: spring growth replaces decay. Images from one home, fractured, slip in and are quickly replaced or bump up against images of the current home: “the shadows made from clouds appear like / dreams, the old and new mingling, the fluidity of sky and ocean / marrying the horizon” (from “Migration Story”). The place lost exists as a film over every current action, home under the ghost of home—image under the ghost of image—and “in the end, / only memory remains” (from “Fishnet”). Memory, slippery as a fish.

And language is slippery, too, like America, its promises never fully realized: “back then, we were gods, knowing nothing / but what we desired and that we’d have it” (from “The Other Shore”). Language can define what is home and what is not, or not yet. It shapes one’s understanding of the world, just as understanding shapes language. Learning the language of place can give one power. Forgetting the language of origin can fracture self. Combining language can make one other, something new that can be powerful, yes, but also threatened.

Fabunan’s glimpses of the Phillipines are vivid, and like the speaker, “you float / in ever changing phases” (from “Cadena de Amor”), swept up in the grief, the love (for there can be no grief without love), and the movement. As the speaker moves forward, becomes something new, something is also lost so that the body, the mind, becomes a graveyard. The speaker is haunted and haunting: “all I wanted to say: hello and goodbye at the same time” (from “Midway”). She will “bloom,” but at the same time, she will “wither,” and isn’t that pain, that ache, what it means to be fully human? And isn’t there, in that in-between, a kind of wholeness?

For all this uncertainty, this in-betweenness, the proliferation of questions rather than answers, Fabunan’s debut is not hopelessly adrift, not hopeless. Rather, it is the splash that ripples out, creating possibility: “we beings are more than just language, / more than accent or the drift / between homes, each / catapult into the unknown / turns shadows familiar” (from “Model Minority”). In Fabunan’s book, all things exist and can exist, even if all things are not present. Reading this lovely book is like dipping one’s toe in the sea and remembering its size and connections. This is a book for anyone who has ever lost home and searched for home, for everyone still searching.

You can pre-order The Sea That Beckoned here.

In Review: Cranesong

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Cranesong by Rona Wang. Half Mystic Press (2019, 76 pages). $15, paperback. $7, digital.

Rona Wang is, in Carissa Dunlap’s words, a “badass creator,” and I couldn’t agree more. Wang is the type of creator who gives other creators pause, who makes one ask, what have I been doing with my life? Not nearly as much as this sophomore at MIT who is already a prize-winning writer (Wang won the 2016 Adroit Prize for Prose and a 2018 Isabelle de Courtivron Prize from MIT’s Center for Bilingual/Bicultural Studies, just to name a couple) and has created a writing mentorship program, an online learning platform and community, been named one of “22 Under 22 Most Inspiring College Women” by Her Campus, and has written a gorgeous and gut-wrenching debut of short stories. And she’s only 21.

Cranesong, published by Half Mystic Press, is a collection that puts the rest of the world on mute as each story peels open. In one story, a “barely-eighteen college freshman” returns home for Thanksgiving and realizes “[e]verything [she] knew of home is gone,” and some things can’t be replaced. In another, a village is transfixed by the “Guiyang girl in the rice paddies,” her power transcending death. And in another, a young Chinese girl finds a precious moment of friendship in a war-time America determined to erase everything she cares about.

Wang’s skills as a storyteller are a joy to behold. She shifts smoothly and seamlessly from one point of view to another, from present to past and back again, from realism to magic realism and back. Legend can sit beside YouTube; each element, no matter how quotidian, jumps forward into something close to wonder, but the painful kind, like sunlight bouncing off snow. In another writer’s hands, these shifts would be incongruous. But in Wang’s, they’re magic.

And Wang’s characters are so real: they lift makeup they can’t afford, “stealing promises for the lives we yearned for,” crave connection so hard that when they look at the person they love, they “wanted to crawl inside of her, make a home out of all that tenderness,” and say yes against their better judgment because “it feels so good to be seen.” And they’re often in free fall, trying to find their place in a world that asks them to break themselves against its closed, and often locked, doors.

As they deal (but not always cope) with culture, language, sexuality, loss, and racism, and yearn for love, beauty, and home, it’s impossible not to ache right along with these complex characters, many of whom exist with a foot in two or more different worlds, watching, being watched, and sometimes targeted by those that “shimmy like they know they belong in this moneyed, neon world.” In “Liv, Liv, Lipstick Liar,” Liv says, “Some people would walk for years to have something magnificent and entirely theirs.” These are characters walking, getting a little messed up in a messed up world, and the reader gets a little messed up, too.

Wang has a talent for slipping the floor out so that each paragraph, each story, reverberates through muscle and bone to something central. Her imagery is so arresting (“skies that swung open like switchblades” in “The Evolution of Wings”), her diction so startling and fresh (“Skeins of green grains embroidered her limbs and neck” in “The Girl in the Rice Paddies”), the whole of her collection so true to the raw emotion roiling under each surface, that I’d be willing to follow Wang pretty much anywhere. Better pay attention to this bright, vibrant new voice.

Cranesong is available here.

Rona Wang: Guest Post

cranesongIn December, STYLE was coming to Los Angeles on their world tour to promote a new album. It was all the Fashionista forums could yammer about. Online magazines with short, snappy names released thinkpieces about the global rise of K-pop. I used Python to compose a script that would purchase concert tickets the minute they went on sale.

—From “Style”, Cranesong

When I was in ninth grade, K-pop wasn’t cool in America yet. I had only a few queer Asian friends, but we all loved K-pop because it was different from the Western music we heard on the radio—and, more importantly, because it was perfectly fine with being different.

Which brings me to “Style.” In Cranesong’s leading story, protagonist Kitty and her best friend Janie are sort-of-kind-of-high-key obsessed with a Korean pop idol group called STYLE. Fun fact: in the story, only the lead singer of STYLE, Yuna, is named. However, STYLE has five members, and their first initials spell out the name of their group. Cute, no? It’s not a real group, but rather a conglomerate of every K-pop artist I looped over and over when I was in high school. (To give you some context: this was right after “Gangnam Style” blew up. I had a Sony Walkman, y’all.)

I attempted to make a full-blown playlist for this blog post, but quickly scrapped that idea upon realizing that it was about 98% 2NE1 and GIRLS’ GENERATION. So here’s some of my old-school favourites:

At the time, I didn’t know that K-pop can be problematic as hell. It has been criticized for questionable business practices that devalue performers. It appropriates Black culture. But with “Style,” I wanted to tell an honest story, one starring a deeply flawed girl scrambling to survive. A girl who shoplifts from Sephora. Who lies about herself on dating apps. Who is so entrenched in her own insecurities that she turns to find comfort in a subculture that exalts heteronormativity, colorism, and commodification, all because—at least in her mind—it is everything she is not.

Despite its flaws, K-pop has steadily gained visibility in America. Last year, BTS became the first South Korean band to debut an album at No. 1 on the US Billboard chart. I wonder how Kitty would feel about that. Maybe she’d feel vindicated; she’s totally the petty type. Or maybe she’d be that one person who has a compulsive need to inform everyone, “I liked K-pop before it was trendy!” Most likely, she’d be irked at the intrusion, at everyone claiming her subculture for their own.

Yep, she’s kind of a mess. But who isn’t?

Rona Wang is a sophomore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For her writing, she has been named a Her Campus 22 Under 22 and nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. She is originally from Portland, Oregon. Her debut short story collection, Cranesong, comes out from Half Mystic Press on February 13.

Half Mystic Press’ debut short story collection—out February 13, 2019—is, above all, a bright thing. Cranesong explores the trauma that clutters our bones, the echoes that infuse our language, every dawn that insists on spinning into existence despite it all. At the same time, it lingers inside wild wind, consumes the cartography of longing, interrogates all the colors piano music can hold. These stories pinwheel from realm to realm—some fantastical, some deeply modern, and some settling in between. Yet there is an ancestral lineage that braids them together. These characters don’t exist in the same world, but if they did, perhaps they’d recognize each other. Preorder your copy here.