This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor and Lookout author Clare Beams, whose collection We Show What We Have Learned was a recently named a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award and the Young Lions Fiction Award from the New York Public Library.
When we moved into our house in Pittsburgh, we found the contents of somebody’s life in our basement. Not the life of the man who’d sold us the house; this stuff appeared to have belonged (or to still belong?) to a woman who must have lived here too, maybe as a roommate, maybe in some other capacity. Among the things we found:
All piled in our dungeon-y, stone-walled basement, next to the Pittsburgh Potty—a toilet in the basement, common in houses built before 1950 or so, once used by the household help; ours doesn’t even have a curtain. All a little clammy to the touch.
From the start, we felt wrong about having these things. Whoever this woman was, wherever she was, she probably needed them. And we didn’t want them; knowing they were down there, under our feet all the time, made us feel like we were living with a ghost. We’d had contact with the house’s previous inhabitant only through his real estate agent, whom we called repeatedly to explain the situation and ask what we should do. What we heard was that the owner was gone, the real estate agent had no idea who this woman was, and everything that was left was ours to do with what we wanted. We didn’t want to do anything with it, was the trouble. The idea of cooking out of this woman’s pots, using her lamps to light up our rooms—it felt grubby, and disrespectful toward whatever misery had made her leave all of it behind.
After a while, we stopped asking. She would get in touch, we reasoned, if she wanted to. And a while after that, two years after we’d moved in, we donated everything to a charity that was willing to come and pick it all up off our front porch.
Basements fascinate and unnerve me—these spaces where we store the things we don’t want to look at. The basements in the houses I’ve lived in tend to show their age. The house we rented in Massachusetts, built in the forties, had one that at first seemed promising, like a room we could maybe use—except somehow squirrels kept getting into its ceiling, so that hollow caps of acorns would sometimes pile up ominously in the corners, like the hats of sad, absent elves. The house where I grew up in Connecticut, built in the 1730s, had a dirt-floored basement, smelled like earth, and was lined with shelves on which some enterprising person a half-century before had stored her preserves. Empty Ball jars stood there in my time, their lids reproachfully rusting. The basement of our current house, built in 1894, has raw-stone walls, and tiny insecure-looking windows, and much damp. Walking down into the basement of an old house is like walking back in—or down into—time. Upper floors get new coats of paint, new bathrooms, kitchens with running water and refrigerators. But when you stand at the house’s lowest point, the point where only mistakes and leftovers and seasonal decorations are stashed, you could be standing in 1960 or 1899 or 2017. The upper floors of the houses I’ve lived in feel like they belong to me. But their basements—when I go down there to put the broken stuff I mean to fix, the things my kids have outgrown—feel, to me, like I’m sharing them. The space, and its secrets, too, because where else do we put them but underground? And then, like seeds, sometimes they grow.
The questions this woman left in our basement weren’t as easy to cart up into the light as her belongings were. I think about her often, for a woman I’ve never met. What kind of life she might be living now, having left all of those things behind. I can’t quite stop wondering how so much of her ended up down there, in the dark, in the first place.
Clare Beams’s We Show What We Have Learned is a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lion’s Fiction Award! The prestigious prize is awarded each spring to a writer age 35 or younger for a novel or a collection of short stories. Congratulations to Clare and to all of this year’s finalists: Brit Bennett, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Karan Mahajan, and Nicole Dennis-Benn! “From high-concept premises, to the exploration of heartbreaking family dynamics, each of these debut novels [and story collection!] exemplifies the power of the written word.”
Congratulations, Clare. We’re thrilled the literary community sees all of the beauty we do in this incredible book.
The C-SPAN Cities Tour came right here to Wilmington to highlight our literary culture, including a segment focusing on the Pub Lab with the Lookout Practicum and director Emily Smith.
Check out the video here, and the rest of the segments too, including:
In early February, more than 12,000 writers, editors, teachers, and publishers descended upon Washington, DC for the annual the 50th Annual AWP Conference and Bookfair. Taking a break from the action (read: filling tote bag after tote bag with new books), four UNCW MFA candidates stopped by the Lookout + Ecotone booth to share with us those titles that carried them into the new year.
Station Eleven was suggested to me by a trusted reader friend after hearing my complaints about literary depictions of post-apocalyptic worlds that leave civilization in a survivalist state. The narrative follows Kirsten, a traveling performer, twenty years after a viral outbreak killed most of the human population. She tours with a band of actors and musicians who perform in the villages and settlements they rest at within the Midwestern United States. The troupe’s go-to performances are Shakespeare plays. I had my copy of the book signed by Emily St. John Mandel at last year’s AWP, even though I hadn’t finished it at the time. What I admire most about Station Eleven’s narrative is its devotion to the survival of the arts instead of just that of humans. It defines being human as preserving these arts, which make up our culture. Without drama, music, writing and art, what would our existence be?
—Will Dean, MFA candidate in fiction
George Harrison said, “Music should be used for the perception of God, not jitterbugging.” In Robert Ostrom’s latest collection of poems, Ritual and Bit, we see an artist not only challenging us to perceive a God but also talking directly to a God in prayers, an artist inserting himself into the story of creation. What is it to be homesick with spiritual memory, being fully aware that we’re reconstructing our memories every time we retell them? Ostrom leads us through with intimacy: “Trust me, says what you’re about to read to your beautiful ear.” He takes us to a place where words are relics—each one holding a little life, beauty, loss. And we leave haunted, but in a good way. We’ve felt an exquisite purpose.
—Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, MFA candidate in fiction
Over the summer I began reading What About This? Collected Poems of Frank Stanford. Stanford was a Southern writer who, because of his early death by suicide in 1978, was not widely read during his lifetime. This collection was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2015 and includes previously published and unpublished fragments of poems. His poems are relatively short, usually less than thirty lines, but because of their cryptic language they speak above and beyond any single moment. Stanford has the ability to talk about these strange characters from the South and Midwest without being anchored in an exact time or place. I read his work and know that whatever sense of understanding I glean could still be so far from the vast map of meaning he had in his head at the time of writing, and that is the exciting part. I am left with raw emotional data every time I read his work. His poems are like circus freak shows moving through the night on an open train; there is a history in each word but the reader only can glimpse it for a passing second.
—Graham Irvin, MFA candidate in poetry
I’d been meaning to read Eula Biss’s first book, The Balloonists, since reading her essay collection last year. The Balloonists works as a series of prose poems, one long poem, or a lyric essay; her Anne Carson-like genre defiance is one of the reasons I keep returning to her. She studied nonfiction under three poets and after reading this book—about married couples as people “not especially interested in intimacy, who somehow ended up married,” and about Biss’s mother, who tells her that she is “not a liar, but that she is not what [Biss] writes about her”—I think poetry may be the most insistent way to learn how to write in prose.
—Rachel Castro, MFA candidate in nonfiction