This What’s Your Ecotone? comes from Tracy Winn.
We make this hill our stand. We watch for life, for spring, with the cold sky waiting. Nothing happens. Maybe a raven knocks its hollow voice down the ravine. At most, a flock of grosbeaks upend themselves in the birches bordering woods and open field, tasting last year’s catkins, twittering into the silence. That’s it. Unless a plane from a far-off base practices mountain maneuvers, that raven’s tock or grosbeak’s thin whistle is the only sound punctuating the wind or stillness of the day.
Walking downhill along the one lane dirt road that would lead us out to larger roads and busier places, we see no evidence of anyone but ourselves. Turning back, we make an awful din on the crusty snow.
We are not subtle in our stay here. Smoke pours from our stove’s chimney. The glow from our gas lamps competes with the moon. A trim line of fox prints circles wide.
Tracy Winn is the author of the award-winning Mrs. Somebody Somebody, available as a Random House reader’s circle selection. Her recent work has appeared in the Harvard Review and Fifth Wednesday Journal, and is now up on Waxwing. She sends this post from Granville, Vermont.
Growing up in Northern California, I considered Los Angeles to be the worst city in America, synonymous with smog, sprawl and superficiality, Alvie Singer’s cultural wasteland and “the big parking lot where you buy a hamburger for the trip to San Francisco,” as John Lennon put it. My friends and I called it Hell-A and avoided it as much as possible, although, like the common cold, it sometimes struck: I’d visit relatives or go to Disneyland or pass through en route to friendlier, less toxic Mexico. After college at an anything-goes moment, I followed a girlfriend there and lived for six months in the Los Feliz neighborhood, where its sun and asphalt and artificiality so depressed me that Elliott Smith’s suicide in nearby Echo Park a few years later made sense.
Following two decades living in San Francisco and New Orleans and Philadelphia, I moved back to LA in 2014 for work, hoping I’d be better able to accept the city’s endless ugliness as a blunted forty-year-old than I had been as an idealistic twenty-something. What I found, however, is that it is no longer a vast, unrelenting space devoted to cars and bad movies, but has made great strides in public transportation, density, art, green space, tacos and sustainability: the whole New Urbanism fantasy. When people now say, apropos of what’s happening here versus the Bay Area tech takeover, that “San Francisco is a utopia gone wrong and LA is a dystopia gone right,” they aren’t wrong.
I don’t want to get too boosterish, because Los Angeles still has the worst air quality in the country and attracts a lot of demi-creative narcissists and is too hot, but I live in a stately Art Deco building downtown, a few blocks away from the excellent Last Bookstore and Broad Museum and historic theaters on Broadway. I walk everywhere and meet people uninvolved with Hollywood and find corners of the city where nature is reasserting itself. All this might sound like a low bar to cross, but I’m encouraged that a city of four million people, like so many other cities in America and abroad, is trading in a bankrupt dream of single-family homes and eight-lane freeways for an expanded train system and high-rise residential buildings and public art.
I’ll probably never stop fantasizing about living in a more instantly appealing place—a New York or New Orleans or Paris—but for now I’m happy to be in one that’s come so far in so short period of time.
This spring, University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Department of Creative Writing hosted visiting writer Nikky Finney, distinguished South Carolinian writer and teacher, whose fourth collection, Head Off & Split, was awarded the 2011 National Book Award for poetry. Before coming to UNCW I didn’t seek out poetry, but since beginning my MFA here last fall, and working as a TA for the Pub Lab, I’ve been inundated with poems. As a fiction writer, one prone to writing concise vignettes and flash fiction, I’m fascinated by the distinction between poetry and prose. I attended Nikky Finney’s public reading on Thursday, April 21, eager to hear her experience with words and form. The Kenan Hall room was packed with faculty, students, and Wilmingtonians, and I found a seat on the floor in the back, where I could only see the poet when a sea of shoulders in front of me shifted just so. But I could hear her speak, and between poems Nikky Finney offered habits that improve her writing, told anecdotes about her family and how they’ve influenced her work, and shared her deep connection to the beach. She spoke with such authority, intimacy, and openness I couldn’t resist scrawling down quotes in my notebook. I left the reading, perhaps just as muddled about the distinction of prose and poems, but armed with two of her books, the desire to get home to my writing desk as quickly as possible, and the intention to connect more deeply with the quiet places Wilmington offers writers. I’m excited to share her words and ideas that have already begun to nourish me, with our readers.
1) “You have to go to the word, go to the root, go to the definition.”
2) “That’s your job: you have to pay attention. Poems are walking by every day. You gotta pay attention.”
3) “If you do what you’ve already done, you’re gonna get what you’ve already gotten.” (advice Nikky Finney shared from her grandmother)
4) Keep an epigraph journal.
5) Talk about hard things in a loving way.
6) “Take the opportunity, so you don’t live with the regret.”
7) “You know, we live in a really noisy world.” Do something for yourself that is aware of how noisy the world is. “You have to figure out the noise in your life and then shut it down, it’s not helpful to you.”
8) “I listen to what makes my heart flutter.”
9) Face the thing you really need to be looking at.
10) “Reporting is the reporter’s job, but my job, my student’s job, your job, is to make something of what you know about humanity. Because that is why we’ve had art for thousands of years. To make us better…to have the kind of conversations we are having.”
–F. Morgan Davis, MFA Candidate in fiction, Pub Lab TA
We’re getting right to it this week, because we’ve got some serious horns to toot: awards aplenty from Ecotone contributors, and Lookout author Matthew Neill Null publishing fabulous stuff all over the internet. Here goes!
Ecotone contributor Erica Dawson’s won the 2016 Poets’ Prize from the West Chester University Poetry Center! Hip!
Joni Tevis won a CNF Firecracker Award for her collection The World is On Fire (Milkweed). One of its essays, “What Looks Like Mad Disorder,” first appeared in Ecotone 17! Hip!
Ron Carlson’s short story “Happiness” from Ecotone‘s Sustenance issue wins an O. Henry! Hooray!
Matthew Neill Null, seen here talking fiction with Sam Lipsyte at McNally Jackson last week (thanks to Ethan Jameson for the photo!) has been bu-usy these past couple weeks. Here’s a quick rundown:
Matt’s dad prosecutes a dog in 1980s West Virginia over on the Paris Review blog.
Matt gazes backward at a landscape of ghosts over at Electric Literature.
Matt on the twinning of the dark and the absurd on the edge of the sea over at Guernica.
Matt reflects on writers from the other Europe over at Catapult.
Man, is there some great reading here! We hope you’re having your own hip-hip-hooray moment wherever you are, or that the good work of these folks inspires something worth celebrating. We’ll see you back here for the next Roundup!
We’re thrilled for Matt, who accepted the Joseph Brodsky Rome prize at a ceremony in NYC last week. The American Academy in Rome awarded prizes to thirty-one winners this year in fields including literature, architecture, and design. The winners receive a six- to eleven- month residency at the academy, located in a 17th-century villa in the heart of Rome. Below are photos from the program, including Matt’s lovely citation. “Matthew Neill Null has set himself the heroic task of describing the earth’s fallen beauty by chronicling his native West Virginia. The task is Faulknerian but he has the back for it…”
Huge congrats to Matt. See the other winners here.
In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors and cover artists, as well as editors from peer presses and magazines, to tell us what they’re working on or thinking about or reading, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.
One of the realest places I’ve ever lived (or traveled, or remember) is actually the territory of a certain novel, Denis Johnson’s National Book Award winning Tree of Smoke.
Tree of Smoke is a long book; at 720 pages, its length is possibly one of the reasons why it really feels as if you’re living in it as you read it.
That’s also one of the things I like about it: it takes time. You have to live a not insignificant stretch of your life with it. You have to consider it when your thoughts drift throughout a month’s worth of showers, of doing the dishes, driving to work, walking to lunch. And this reading experience mirrors the lives inhabited in the book itself, in that they are inescapable. This is a book as much about the oppression of never being able to escape yourself and your own life as it is about Vietnam, or anything else.
For those of you who’ve never read it, I’m going to lean on Geoff Dyer here (never a bad idea) to describe what it’s about, from his review of the novel in The Guardian:
“However extensively the novel’s story is summarised it is going to be sold short. It starts in 1963. “Tree of Smoke” is some kind of CIA project. Skip, an operative of uncertain status but intense dedication, is working for the Colonel (who also happens to be his uncle). Skip has an affair with Kathy, a Seventh-Day Adventist whose aid-worker husband has been kidnapped, possibly killed. Years pass. History–as they used to say of shit–happens. Kurtz-like, the Colonel’s methods become increasingly unsound. At the sharp end are the seriously messed-up Houston brothers (who previously saw service in Johnson’s first novel, Angels). Trung, a North Vietnamese–who once tried to assassinate the colonel–is being recruited as a double agent, but, at the same time, Trung’s assassination is being plotted by the same guy–a German–who killed a priest with a blow pipe in the Philippines, back in 1963. Twenty years later, in Arizona, the Houston brothers . . . Ah, forget it. There may be no smoke without fire but in this case you can’t see the wood for the tree of smoke, or something.”
That one of my favorite novels ever produced one of my favorite reviews ever is not so surprising. Tree of Smoke is not a book you can not have a reaction to. But the central weirdness in this novel is key to its brilliance. Because it is a novel that indulges itself shamelessly, I’m going to indulge a little in this post about it, and go back to Dyer, this time in his summation:
“Johnson is all over the place and he is an artist of strange diligence. It is as if his skewed relationship to the sentence – not really knowing what one is and yet knowing exactly what to do with it – operates, here, at the level of structure. Tree of Smoke is as excessive and messy as Moby Dick. Anything further removed from the tucked-up, hospital corners school of British fiction is hard to imagine. It’s a big, dirty, unmade bed of a book and, once you settle in you’re in no hurry to get out.”
A “big, dirty, unmade bed of a book” is possibly one of the most accurate statements I’ve ever read in a review. It’s also true that if that sounds like something that you would find intolerable—that is to say, if you are more comfortable with a somewhat orderly or clean vision of life and love and suffering—you’re probably not going to enjoy this book. That’s okay, though. One of the things I admire most about the writing in Tree of Smoke is how little Johnson seems to be thinking about whether someone will enjoy it. As has been noted elsewhere, Johnson does seem to pick up and examine the different forms of Vietnam War narrative we have lived with in the four decades or so since it ended. But I think the truly remarkable thing is that he then sets them back down, finding them wanting. Then he strikes out into the jungle of his own vision.Continue Reading