GIRLS GUIDE TO WAR

You’re not large enough
for a whale
and much too fat
to be a shark
said I to my love.
Porpoise
was her reply

Sleek pig
thought the mind
of my eye

Sleek pigs
are porpoises
said she
and began to cry.

I found this poem in Mailer’s book Cannibals and Christians. I would not have expected such tenderness from the boxer and knife wielder who, as Carolyn Forche told us, greeted young pretty girls (including her) on Provincetown’s streets with the flirtatious taunt: Are you a feminist? But then so much of my month at the colony was not expected—like the story of Mailer’s plaintive explanation to his last wife when she complained that all of his adulterous lovers were such ugly dogs: “Sometimes I need to be the pretty one.”

I arrived convinced I’d leave with a novel at least half finished. Each morning I dropped Nanoush at her favorite beach, “the norman mailer house beach,” as she called it, where she made her stories in the sand with scallop and mussel shells and hermit crabs and her new friend Jewel. And each morning I went to my kitchen table.

Monday. Chapter I. In a clipped voice. “I’m a professional Islamist, by accident, as most people’s lives tend to proceed. I had a crush on a long-haired biker whom I’d met one day on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, and turned out to be an Israeli and an Arabist. My life’s obsessions have always been conceived in the cradle of a crush.”

Tuesday. Chapter I. In a suspenseful voice. “I saw Ali’s form through the white slip curtain. I had his pistol. The berretta he couldn’t find two days ago. Don’t play games, he’d shouted. I denied playing games so vehemently that he began to worry—one of the hotel cleaners? Were they plotting something?”

Wednesday. Chapter I. In a breathy voice. “It was a warm night, a soft wind through the palms, the gunfire had receded. I wondered what it would be like to be with such a man. I took his arm, and washed my hand along its curves. Outside was the smell of dripping petrol and the generator exhaling and panting.”

Thursday. Chapter I. In a child’s voice. “Tahir bought me a saraj today, a little bird with an orange face and yellow wings. He put a string around its neck and though I’d like to let it go, I’m going to keep it.”

Friday, Chapter I. No more voice. “You see a narrative was forming. It was a good one. And the Afghans began sticking to it. If you were a Tajik commander you could be smug about the narrative. Like Baba Jan the old communist. When the two Arabs posing as journalists (the ones who would kill Massoud) showed up to film his ammunition sites he told his guard to send them away. ‘Tell them that Allah has sent many messengers to the Arab people, but the Arabs still haven’t got the message.’ Everyone blamed the Arabs for infecting their land with terrorism, for occupying Afghanistan, for their pan-Islamic designs, for stealing their women. Some blame the Arabs for bringing Islam to Afghanistan 1400 years ago. But those are rare. And have short hair.

Saturday, Chapter 1. “The Italian doctor told me, Your blood pressure is really shit. But I was stuck in the Hindu Kush with no way out. I took medicine and moaned through the night. Occasionally I felt Alberto stroking my head with pity and I’d drift back into dreams of dragons, turbans, burkhas, bullets, and canaries. I was going to be sick again, and dragged myself to the walled in hole in the courtyard. I had nothing left to puke but something fluttered into the hole and I pinched my matchbook flashlight to see. Ten feet below was a mountain of shit. Years of it. And atop it all were the last of my crisp green Ben Franklins. A nasty metaphor of our enterprise in this forsaken land I thought, and went back to bed.”

Sunday, Chapter 1: “If my notebooks were better they could tell you exactly what it was like, they could tell you about Dunn’s screeching voice when we got hit, and the crackle of leaves under my palm, and the smell of Connecticut woods, though they couldn’t tell you what was going on in Dan’s head who was further up the Korengal mountain. If I had sat like a spider inside the head of the Colonel, of Razzaq the smuggler, Abdullah the Taliban, Clinard the soldier who watched his bestfriend die, 12-year-old Sweeta raped by the commanders, the kind nurse who thought I must be pregnant when I wretched in the hospital from the smell of burnt flesh, then maybe I could deliver a kaleidescope of what went on this past decade.”

Monday again, Chapter 1. “I’ve started a book about an American girl who went to Iraq to find out why another American girl was killed only to find out the American girl who was killed had fallen in love with an Iraqi and only to fall in love with an Iraqi killer herself. I’ve started a book about another American girl who fell in love with a warlord and was the object of affection of a Taliban commander and caused an assassination that changed the course of one province’s war. American innocence abroad. The story never ever changes. I may not finish this book either.”

Tuesday afternoon notes. “Everyone here is writing about war. Internal, external, foreign, familial, psychic.. There is always an enemy, a fight against dying and entropy or there is no writing.”

Nanoush asked me if she could bring the hermit crabs in her bucket from the norman mailer beach back to our house on Race Road. I told her they would die. One by one she let them crawl onto her hand and then into the ocean.

Elizabeth Rubin is a writer who lives in Brooklyn with her 3 year old daughter Nanoush. She has spent the last decade and a half covering conflicts around the world. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Harper’s Magazine, and The New Yorker.

Elizabeth is also a Mailer Nonfiction Fellow. She is using the month of residency to work on…well, see above.

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I’D LIKE TO WRITE….

I’d like to write, but can’t find the words.

Even though I know a lot of them, they hide.

Webster’s Dictionary is there to help, but will I use it? Will I consult Thesaurus.com?

Words like

discombobulated, unctuous, scintillating, castigate, discountenance, extrapolate, obsequiously

do come to mind, but I don’t use them.

I choose

confused, sucky, witty, criticize, embarrass, estimate, dutiful.

On a good day (cliché) I might move beyond pretty, bad, human, thrill and job to lovely with blue eyes, mean streak, animal with two legs, dizzy with excitement and career.

Honestly, that’s the best I can do.

A paragraph about pine trees described in three-syllable words flowing together without pretention brings tears to my eyes (other cliché) and I wonder why I can’t muster the depth, craft or insight to write about pine trees any way other than towering green things that stand like soldiers.

Poetry and profound works on nature, torture, death and emotional devastation impress me. I cringe at the drunk cowboy I’ve chosen as the protagonist of my book. Surely I am missing the essential qualities and skills of a writer.

But… the story must be told. The desire to tell it, the inability to tell it and the commitment to figure the damn thing out consume just about every minute of every day. My discombobulated mind refuses the scintillating words that I castigate regularly, and with much discountenance, extrapolate to be obsequious. Scribbling common everyday gibberish, I slog on. The words aren’t enough, but they’re all I’ve got and despite their simplicity, the only ones that sound right.

Today, they will have to do.

Norman, I wrote on your porch, in your bar, your living room and at your dining room table and your spirit did seem to hover and dare me to break out, bust loose (oh, dear) and use some big words to express some big ideas.

I did try.

Bev Magennis is from New Mexico. She stared writing late, after 35 years as a visual artist. She received the Pen USA Emerging Voices Fellowship in 2010 and was selected for the Iowa Writers Workshop Summer Graduate Class in 2009. Her work has appeared in two anthologies and will be published in the October issue of r.kv.r.y.

Bev is also a Mailer Fiction Fellow. She is using the month of residency to work on a novel, getting further acquainted with a tricky protagonist.

WE SHALL NOT ALL DAYDREAM WAVES, BUT WE SHALL ALL BE CHANGED

I have set myself up at Norman Mailer’s bar to write this. There were pigeons that allegedly gathered around Mailer’s house, and he is alleged to have claimed they were the reincarnated souls of WWII fighter pilots, as they flew in formation. Such a take on metempsychosis could only be formulated at a bar, so that’s where I sit. (Since the bar is currently without spirituous drinks these days, I don’t imagine I’ll be doing any such theorizing.) It is high tide, so the water comes almost to the edge of the deck on the other side of the window, and much bobs in it: pelagic birds, humans, buoys, boats tethered to buoys. I try not to drift into the vista, but this proves difficult, the middle distance being so serenely enrapturing here: it protracts into abstracted gazes my casual glances. But this is to the good: after staring at the wall of the next building over in San Francisco for many months, the bay is an ongoing epiphany. I spend the hours staring out across it from various vantage points: the local library, which has an entire schooner on its second floor, assembled there by a man who absolutely fulfills the stereotype of “sea captain”; the decks of cafés and restaurants; the beaches; this bar. Contra Joyce, it is a grayblue, thoughtloosening sea I find each time I look up from my handwriting, a typeset page, this screen.

Michael Rutherglen is originally from Charlottesville, VA. He is the recipient of a 2012-2013 Amy Clampitt fellowhsip and 2008 Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. His work (sample here and here) has been published in Poetry, The Antioch Review, and 9th Letter. Visit The Winter Anthology, a nascent collection of 21st century international literature of which Michael is a founding editor.

Michael is also a Mailer Poetry Fellow. He is using the month of residency to work slowly and steadily on his current manuscript.

tide is up

GOOD TIMES BAD TIMES

Saturday, July 2nd, I spent the night in Providence, RI.
The next day, I drove the last hours up the Cape’s curl,
Mind burning with the Waterfires I’d seen lit
In braziers where College Hill sloped to the river.
At the Mailer Home I received my key, was oriented
And escorted, with smiles, to my home for the next month.
My roommate and I found common ground in favorite writers
And fell quickly to the task of lolling about the different rooms
Of the generous, pastel Rubix Cube we’d been appointed,
Filling it with our scent: marking it our own.

An Opening Reception at the Mailer Center,
A savage blitz on the Stop And Shop, drinks,
More drinks, and innumerable pool matches—
In near dark—beneath Governor Bradford’s Tavern,
The floorboards above our heads sagging
Under the weight of drag-karaoke.
I slept, woke, drank, woke,
Sun through the skylight casting a rainbow
Off me in the shower. I climbed
The hills behind our condo, collecting scratches
In those same woods an earlier generation
Ascended to find love and pick fights
In the dark, after the bars had closed.
Where I thought I’d see the Atlantic, and clear my head,
I saw only more hills, rank upon rank.

God help you when you wake up after days like that:
When nothing you’ve written was worth waking up for,
And your body treats with you suspicion.
When the high school’s been shipped to Eastham,
The fisheries and saltworks shrinking to a footnote,
The Portuguese packing up their language and slipping away,
The bartender at Old Colony seems overly familiar,
And your feet hurt where you took your shoes off
To dance the fool,
Just pray you’ve enough hope and character
Saved away to redeem and outlast the stale day
When flat light on Commercial reveals it a studio backlot
—empty of all who hazard to love you.

Scott Dahlie holds an MFA from the New School where he was prose editor for LIT Magazine.  He was recently awarded the Hauser Prize for prose and is featured in Chautauqua Literary Journal.  He is thirty years old and will be moving to London after the summer.

Scott is also a Mailer Fiction Fellow. He is using the month of residency to work on his first novel.

WRITING SHOULDN’T BE A TORTURE

That’s Norman Mailer’s writing desk y’all—and more about where I was going with that in a minute. When the Guardian asked writers to provide “rules for writing,” several of them had bracing advice. For instance, Anne Enright: “The first twelve years are the worst.” But the rule for writing that seared itself into my brain was the following one from Jonathan Franzen: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” Which raises the immediate question: why am I doing this instead of writing my novel? Why am I writing a blog entry when I should be working in the quiet privacy of my page-in-progress? Franzen is of course famous for practicing a form of sensory deprivation so extreme that it was later imitated by CIA interrogators at Guantanamo and elsewhere. Indeed, so acute was his regimen that the writer’s permanent contribution to the English language has been the use of the phrase “to pull a Franzen,” as in stripping your equipment of anything extraneous, wearing earmuffs and, if possible, a blindfold, etc. But I’m really, really opposed to torture anywhere. So, I’m inclined to exchange the image of the dull study above with the view, below, available from Mailer’s bar. The two spaces are divided by two flights of stairs, but the latter opens to an incredible vista. No more the naked and the dead, no sir. If you were to sit at the bar, inspiration would come in unending waves. New ideas lapping against the edge of your imagination, a stray thought rising to kiss your page. Or so I think. I intend to find out for myself as soon as I have finished this blog, unplugged myself from the internet, and sat down at the bar with an empty page. Nothing between me and the blue ocean except for a short stretch of sand and a pleasant drink.

Amitava Kumar can be found rather easily on the internet: enjoy his blog and follow him on twitter @amitavakumar. He has written about real torture in his last book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb.

Amitava has also written widely in nonfiction, fiction, and academic work. As a Mailer Fiction Fellow, he is using the month of residency to work on a second novel.

What is this. What has happened to me.

In workshop with Meena Alexander last week, our prompt was to write about nature. I chose the sky; arguably the cleanest, safest, most ubiquitous aspect of nature, but nonetheless breathtaking. Today I lay out in the sun at Herring Cove Beach thinking about that choice while watching the clouds – every kind, from light grayish smudge at the horizon to bright white question mark shifting into an airy exclamation right in the middle of my blue field of vision. I really do mourn my relative disconnection from nature – something I truly didn’t realize I’d been missing.

I grew up in Los Angeles, but loved nature as a child. I remember a field trip to someplace north of the city where I knelt happily in shallow, grassy pools with a magnifying glass, looking for tadpoles. I remember mud fights with my sisters in the rain. I remember planting watermelon seeds in the front yard, how the dirt coated my fingers, burrowing richly beneath my chewed-down nails. I touched pill bugs, pet lost animals, collected autumn leaves and taped the stems to notebook paper, arranged by color and shape. And I loved the beach, the squish of wet sand and the salt on my skin.

What happened to me? Motherhood? Allergies? The Great Recession? Now all I can think about is how much it costs to get there, make sure we have enough to eat, be entertained, get back home, and then the sand I have to sweep up afterward, the sopping wet clothes to launder before they start to mildew, the inevitable scrapes or bites to attend. “Communing with nature” has thus turned into a chore and even a luxury over the years; being in Provincetown has thrown that new insight sharply into relief, and I would lose a tremendous opportunity if I let it go without scrutiny.

When we left Herring Cove today, I obeyed the impulse to fill a paper cup with a dozen marvelous beach rocks that I’ve placed near my “writing spot” in the condo. And, yes, I will cart them back to the city with me, not as souvenirs but as a reminder of how a question mark can transform into a quiet exclamation.

Khadijah Queen is the mother of an 11-year-old Bey Blader and Pokémon Trainer. She tries to keep up with the powers and levels and “evolutions” of the characters, if only so she can understand what on the great earth her son and his friends talk about. Read Khadijah’s work in Esque and visit her website. Her second book Black Peculiar, winner of the Noemi Press book award, is forthcoming this fall. Her poems, three times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, appear widely in journals and anthologies, including The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010 and the current issue of jubilat.

Khadijah is also a Mailer Poetry Fellow. She is using the month of residency to work on her third book, which deals with her experience in the Navy and concomitant struggle with fibromyalgia.