Don’t Box Me In: Finding Confessional, Self, & Dirtbag, Massachusetts

Published July 19, 2022 by Bloomsbury Publishing.

(Trigger Warning: This article contains reference to suicidal ideation and suicide-related behaviors. Please read with care.)

Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional is not about dusting off the skeletons in the family closet after leaving home. Instead, these essays are Isaac Fitzgerald clearing off the mirrors of his current makeup to better reflect on himself. The collected pieces in Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional are the stories of Fitzgerald finding himself and a substitute family, starting from his grade school years through his twenties before returning home. The book is not only about Fitzgerald raising himself from an early age when his parents are unable to care for him but also about picking himself back up time after time throughout his life.

The subtitle lets the reader know that this is a confessional and one of the main themes is, who do we choose to confess to? The piece “Forgive Me” deals with Fitzgerald being a former Catholic and walking away from the church at a young age. This essay also goes into how heavily involved his parents were in the Catholic church and the scandals of the Archdiocese of Boston. “Forgive Me” examines the questionable behavior of priests in Fitzgerald’s presence and how some of the events sent Fitzgerald on a different path than his parents. With that stoic form of confessional removed from his life, Fitzgerald looks at nontraditional places to confess, such as in bars, in the essays “Hold Steady” and “Home.” After moving away to the west coast, it is through working in the San Francisco bar scene that Fitzgerald finds a family amongst his coworkers. They also devised personal commandments to follow when going out to other establishments. These commandments helped remind them why they did their service job, as they dressed up for an evening and showed some respect to their fellow service industry professionals. As a young man, these commandments gave Fitzgerald a focus and foundation not found in the home he grew up in.

Confessions also lie at the heart of the book’s second major theme: when your house isn’t a home. Dirtbag, Massachusetts deals with Fitzgerald coming to terms with his parents’ rocky relationship. They were both married to other people when they met and had him. Though they divorced their other partners and married each other, his father would still continue to have affairs. Financial circumstances would cause an eight-year-old Fitzgerald and his mother to move to rural western Massachusetts while his father still lived and worked in Boston. Fitzgerald’s mother would soon start confessing her suicidal ideation to her young son. She had nowhere else to turn since the church she was so committed to consider the act a mortal sin. Soon, young Fitzgerald would become the parent, raising himself and rescuing his mother from her suicide-related behaviors. Dirtbag, Massachusetts deals with how Fitzgerald grew up not allowed to talk about his mother’s suicidal ideation and keeping secret what was going on at home. “When you can’t talk about something, you’re prevented from naming and describing it, from making it real,” Fitzgerald writes, addressing the stigma around mental health awareness.

The secrets of his home life uncover more heavy subject matter in Dirtbag, Massachusetts. Fitzgerald writes about the recklessness and self-destruction of his youth—drinking and the drugs he took when trying to find his footing in different social circles and when processing his relationship with his parents. From being a poor rural kid at a private school in “Dirtbag, Massachusetts” to climbing the Himalayas in “High for the Holidays,” his smooth writing style helps tell of his healing without bulldozing any details of the rough road traveled in finding closure. This is a book about recognizing ourselves for where we are truly at in life when we look in the mirror. Fitzgerald also learns about not being judged or judging people by their environment from his life in rural Massachusetts. You find yourself rooting for him as he goes beyond its borders and finds clarity through his travels throughout the years.

At its heart, confession is putting to rest shame or embarrassment so the person can move on. Dirtbag, Massachusetts is about seeing our present self and being comfortable in our own skin, as Fitzgerald does in “Confessions of a Former Fat Kid.” There is also the discussion of living with our real selves, not fictional copycats like when he writes about his teenage Tyler Durden self in “The True Story of My Teenage Fight Club.” Apart from exploring the concept of confession, Fitzgerald also makes a point to examine finding purpose in life. In “Maybe I Could Die This Way,” he examines his self-destructive behavior and travels overseas to join the Free Burma Rangers. At the time, Fitzgerald thought that if he was going to destroy himself, it might as well be for something but in giving himself to a mission he found a reason to go on living beyond his time in Myanmar (FKA Burma). The heights Fitzgerald is willing to travel to return to a relationship with family can also be found in “High for the Holidays,” when he writes about climbing the Himalayas with his father and sister. But the throughline of the book is recognizing that we are not the sins of our parents. As Fitzgerald states after addressing the generational trauma of his father being beaten as a child, “We are all sinners, forged out of others’ heat, sinning and sinned against.”

Dirtbag, Massachusetts is a quick read and I would recommend it to anyone trying to find themselves. It is also a book that can reach readers who walked a path similar to Fitzgerald’s and use his experience as a guide for coming to terms with their relationships with one’s self and others. Isaac Fitzgerald knows his truth and his faults and speaks honestly about the work he has done to find a healthy relationship with himself and his family, which is what anyone struggling to better themselves would want to read. Dirtbag, Massachusetts is a collection of essays that encourage any reader to put together their own confessional in order to seek closure with the past.

An Interview with Drea Washington

The current season of Scream, Queen! podcast has discussed more TV and movies in the body-horror genre. Can you go into what body horror is for people not familiar with it?

The most general way to describe body horror—it’s just gross-out, super offensive violations to the body. When you see these things happen, it will affect you in a very psychological way. A good example of that is Society by Brian Yuzna, a movie that is really over the top with things like mutations of the body, incest, and other stuff that adds to the disturbing elements of it. The Thing is also very clearly going for that. Also most David Cronenberg stuff—not everything, but most of his early work—is not for everybody. I had a very hard time watching The Fly remake.

If body horror plays on our anxiety by facing us with disruptive imagery, does the recent popularity of this horror genre alleviate or lean into anxiety during these current uncertain times? Are there times when body horror has been pushed too far for you?

It’s interesting when you look back at your podcast and see people getting things out of it that you didn’t even realize. I didn’t realize we chose so much body horror this season, but there seems to be a lot of that content out there right now. I guess that really says something about the state of mind people are in.

I was a child when I first saw The Fly. I watched a lot of stuff as a kid that most kids couldn’t handle, and for the most part, I was able to process those things. But something about The Fly was just too gross-out for me. I had a visceral reaction to it. It didn’t matter how much I liked Jeff Goldblum or Geena Davis, I just could not. I’ve recently tried, and I just cannot do it. It’s very rare when a horror film does that to me. There was another one—I think it was called Necromancer—and it’s really gritty and fucked up. It’s really popular amongst some people, but I’m not one of them. I can’t do it. Cannibal Holocaust also falls into that category. That’s really hard to watch.

Building off The Fly, you discussed Mosquito State in an episode. How connected is body horror to insects?

What they did with Mosquito State was really clever, and yeah, there is a connection. It’s a good way to not generalize society, but show how we can work as robots in a sense. Mosquito State is taking place during the housing crash in 2008, so that’s what’s really going on in this guy’s world. The mosquitos are feeding off of him and he finally becomes one with them. I was pleasantly surprised by that film, and I didn’t think I was going to be able to handle that. The mosquitos alone were very irking, but the way they did it was haunting and very thoughtful. I would’ve never thought to put a movie together like that, but I’m glad that director did. It was unexcepted. I didn’t know I needed to see a film like that.

Do you find that a show or film dealing with a theme may get you through those grosser images? Like how John Carpenter’s The Thing carries over themes of paranoia from the original remake of the 1950s film.

It’s all about how the gore is done. Certain makeup artists have a certain technique and a certain way of getting something out of the audience. Certain textures and the way things are applied have a lot to do with the overall outcome. It’s biological horror when you see the body being affected like it was in Mosquito State. I thought that was going to leave me feeling not great and I was not going to be able to handle that film. Instead, something about the way it was directed left me not even thinking about the mosquitos—I was thinking about the story. His body was becoming grotesque, but people in the movie were deliberately ignoring him and his appearance because they were more interested in the numbers and what he could provide. So visually I do react to certain things, and if it looks a certain way I might not be able to handle it. But for the most part, I’d say I’m a trooper.

Drea Washington

Is there any correlation between finding the beauty in the grotesque when watching a body-horror film like Clive Barker’s Hellraiser and being able to better sit with one’s anxiety? 

As a person that loves horror films, there is absolutely something to gain if you can get over whatever’s been put in your mind and poisoned you on the ideas of what horror can be. Horror is incredibly diverse, and it can unlock things in your brain that you didn’t necessarily know were there, and it’s not a bad thing. It can definitely be a release and sort of an anti-anxiety aid. But I don’t know what it would take to get a person who doesn’t care for horror to sit down and appreciate it. It is interesting how many people are watching Squid Game, though. I was surprised, but I also completely understand that everybody is watching this show during a pandemic. But I was also just like oh, ok, that’s interesting. I think it was, or is, the most-watched show ever on Netflix, and that show is fucked up.

Your episode on the Netflix series Brand New Cherry Flavor made me want to watch the series. How does a show about movie-making and deals gone wrong resonate with the “being responsible for our creations” message of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein?

I’ve watched Brand New Cherry Flavor twice, and I got so much more out of it the second time. I didn’t really get it the first time. It’s a show that you need to pay attention to, and if you get distracted, you’re just going to miss some of the gems. The lead actress in this film plays against—I can’t think of the other actress’ name—she makes these extreme horror films that are lowkey snuff. What comes of that—what she’s willing to sacrifice, just for this film, for her art—she destroys a lot of shit and creates a lot of chaos. SPOILER ALERT: she makes it out in the end, but not unscathed.

I think we always have to be thoughtful of the things that we create, and responsible for the content we’re putting out into the world. Some people say it’s just freedom of speech, but I think there has to be a certain amount of responsibility and accountability. If you’re intentionally trying to make something to wake up somebody, to provoke thought, then cool. But if you’re intentionally doing something to bring negativity, to cause harm, that doesn’t come from a thought-out place, I think that’s the kind of work that can be very dangerous. When people fuck up, they need to be called out on it.

Are there any works of body horror that you wish to recommend which haven’t yet been mentioned on Scream, Queen!? And how can we listen to the podcast and follow your work?

I like the director Brian Yuzna who did Society. He also has something called Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation. I was watching it last night and it’s just as fucked up as I remember. I believe he also wrote Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker, which is also worth a watch, but part four has a lot more body horror in it. Cronenberg did Videodrome. I think we discussed Thinner and Raw on our show, which are both awesome. Last but not least, I’d say check out Titane, which I watched recently. It’s by the same director of Raw, and this lady has sex with cars and . . . yeah, it goes from there. It’s a really outrageous film, but very cool.

You can find us on Instagram @screamqueenpodcast. And you can find me on Instagram @heygrlhey. Our podcast is available wherever you listen to podcasts—Spotify, iTunes, or Apple Podcasts—so tune in. We’d love to have you. I also want to do a shoutout to my podcast partner, Tommy Pico, who just got nominated for a Golden Globe for his work on Reservation Dogs. He and his all-Indigenous writer’s room were nominated for the Best Musical/Comedy Series Golden Globe. I’m super proud of all of them and really proud of my boy, Tommy.

A Review of Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century by Kim Fu

Published February 1, 2022 by Tin House.

In Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century, Kim Fu creates eerie, unsettling worlds in all twelve of her deeply vivid short stories. This collection features a young girl who grows wings on her legs; a Sandman that envelopes one in wholly dark, uninterrupted sleep; a doll that belonged to a young, dead girl and now takes on a life of its own; and other human and nonhuman monsters. Nothing is impossible within these pages. And while the stories never stop being surreal and imaginative, at their core, they are stunning tales of the human condition. In one story, one of Fu’s young female characters says, “The realm of pretend had only just closed its doors to us, and light still leaked through around the edges.” In reading—experiencing—this book, I found myself submitting to this realm of pretend in a similarly child-like and awe-inspired manner, getting completely immersed in its many diverse offerings.

Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century is instantly arresting. In the first story, written entirely in dialogue, we are introduced to an operator who helps people experience lifelike simulations of events and occurrences they imagine and desire. But when the protagonist requests to see her dead mother and stroll around a garden with her, the operator, constrained by rules surrounding death in the “handbook,” says this is not possible. The conversation between the two is at once humorous and illuminating. Although it is set in a dystopian, futuristic time and location, it grapples with political ideas of the present with extreme nuance and subtlety. When the protagonist asks how simulations of murdering someone or being a “gun-slinger in an old Western” are okay but simulations where someone is momentarily brought back to life are not, I could not help but think about our own world, how we do not shy away from violence and its glorification but are terrified by the softer parts of ourselves, like grief. The book is populated with such examples harking back to our own reality, where Fu employs the fantastical to say something meaningful about the world we find ourselves in.  Her writing here is crisp and evocative, and she relays powerful emotions through what is left unsaid, displaying masterful control over her craft.

What is sensational about Fu’s book is how easy it is to find yourself equally swept up in each story and the rich world that comes with it. In “Time Cubes,” time is everything, and yet, it is also a mere construct, elastic and malleable. In how she paces the story and in its ebbs and flows and momentum, Fu establishes an interesting relationship between form and content. By illuminating modern human loneliness, this story shines. One of the other stars of the collection is “#CLIMBINGNATION,” which, among other things, is a story about social media, optics, death, and human cruelty. Its ending is devastating and surprising, illustrating one of Fu’s consistent talents—how she is able to conclude each story with impossible power and impact. “Twenty Hours” is an unnerving tale about a couple who own a machine that allows them to kill each other but then also bring each other back; it is dazzling in its ability to shift from a dark, gruesome tone to one of surprising tenderness and domesticity. In “Bridezilla,” people resign themselves to the existence of a sea monster and it barely makes the news, which is not very different from our current attitude towards the climate crisis. The passivity of the bride’s fiancé seems to mimic our passivity towards global warming; Fu skillfully infuses these sharp and telling parallels throughout the collection.

Fu’s writing is incisive, lyrical, and inventive. I sped through this collection as if in a trance and felt dazed for hours after. In this spellbinding book, the real and unreal exist simultaneously and in complete unison. This dreamlike quality is threaded through each story, making this collection surreal and uninhibited while also incredibly human and fresh. Reading it is like waking up from an afternoon nap, disoriented yet completely satisfied.

A Review of The Traditional Feel of the Ballroom by Hannah Gamble

Published June 30, 2021 by Trio House Press.

Hannah Gamble’s second poetry collection, The Traditional Feel of the Ballroom, never shies away from the violence of her themes, which address misogyny and rape culture. Her direct and often conversational tone makes the collection accessible to new readers of poetry—the speaker often pausing to explain her process, including her hopes and aims for a piece. The first poem in the collection establishes this rapport with the reader immediately:

I’ve wanted to give people

who come to see poetry a little something extra,

and me, blabbering, is all I’ve ever had

to give or to keep or to be with on my own.

There’s really very little art in that.

You’ll never hear me say it’s noble.

This delicate balance of egalitarianism and artistry does not always succeed, however. Certain sections of the book feel like there’s little room for trusting the reader in thinking critically about the collection’s themes. More experienced readers of poetry may feel frustrated, at first, as they wait for the collection to find its bearings. Later poems, however, dive delightfully into surrealism and extended metaphors that outshine the rest of the collection—a quiet sigh builds in my chest in the release at the end of Gamble’s poetry.

Many readers, myself included, will find themselves grappling with their own internalized misogyny while reading poems like “Always Given,” because Gamble never shields her readers from difficult themes.

I knew I couldn’t fight him off, or that even if I could,

there would be 5 others like him waiting.

I chose to welcome him, in my way.

Other women were nearby

so I wasn’t afraid.

He kissed my neck and I said “Oh, yeah,

people tend to like that.”

He bit my earlobe and I said “Oh, yeah,

goin’ for the ear.”

I was trying to be above him.

Above the doorway, above the street.

Above the other women who wouldn’t have

“handled it as well.”

Even as the speaker tries to “handle” the situation, she is looking at herself from a disassociated perspective, showing us how self-defense can appear like self-sacrifice. We see it from the women standing by, “grinning—in on the joke I was / trying to make of the man,” perfectly illustrating the way discomfort and powerlessness can only be met with a nervous grin, a fleeting grasp at controlling a situation. In the volta of the piece, the illusion of control shatters for the speaker: “Only upon seeing my friend’s face did I see that / I had been mistaken about what was the joke, / and who was the joke.” In these moments, the simplicity of Gamble’s writing brings these everyday occurrences into sharp clarity.

In other pieces, in which Gamble finds her poetic muse in the surreal, she allows an extended metaphor to express her themes, rather than the speaker’s direct reflections. In the poem “Growing a Bear,” she creates a keen contrast between whimsy and domestic decay:

You haven’t even considered how your wife will feel

when you have finished growing your bear. You could

write a letter to her tonight, explaining how your life

was so lacking in bear.

“Janet, it’s nothing you’ve done—

clearly you have no possible way of supplying me with a bear

or any of the activities I might be able to enjoy

after acquiring the bear.”

The bear is the elephant in the room, a sex life like beating a dead horse, an unexpressed middle-aged desire, a receding masculinity. The use of second person and passive voice adds to the dubiousness of this experiment and how the husband plans on explaining his needs within this marriage. The speaker is attempting to convince us of his need to fill the bear-shaped hole in his life, but the reader must extrapolate their own meaning out of the bear, the wife’s isolated nighttime routine, how friendships between adult men in suburbia wax and wane now that they are “past the age of college athletics, / most friends don’t even know what each other’s bodies / look like, flushed, tired, showering, cold.” This poem, alongside the curious bestiality of “The Queen,” evokes the ferality tucked in the guts of our patriarchal society. Gamble joins a tradition of poets using a persona to express the viciousness of girlhood and womanhood—the act of unmasking through the use of a mask—similar to Claudia Cortese’s Wasp Queen or Franny Choi’s Soft Science.

However, some poems unfortunately fall back on bioessentialism in their critique of rape culture as they illustrate the societal connotations of vaginas and penises. “The Sun and Open Air” and “Cabana” felt like they were over-simplifying that binary, making it difficult to parse what was tongue-in-cheek and what was meant earnestly—especially when the tone of the collection emphasizes directness. Other poems succeeded gloriously in their commentary because of their humor and specificity: “your dick would have rowed you through / the world like a paddle—[.]” While others felt like gross generalizations: “The man who, rejected . . . was biologically programmed to put things in” or a couple of stanzas later in the same poem: “if it weren’t for dicks, all vaginas would be naked at the seaside—always.” These lines rub me the wrong way—they stray from the specific moment and speaker, creating a synecdoche in which the vagina represents all of womanhood and dicks are “biologically programmed” to threaten anyone with a vagina.

These poems feel like they are doing a disservice to the collection as a whole and its mission to explore the nuances of rape culture. While every poet writes from their own experiences, when writing about sex-based violence, the writer should also consider how cisnormativity plays a role in moralizing genital metaphors.

The Traditional Feel of the Ballroom finds its place among narrative feminist poetry and is ideal for readers who are new to reading poetry and would feel intimidated by an experimental collection. The pieces inside highlight the everyday trials of being perceived as a woman in a misogynistic society and the ways it makes one rage and cry and sometimes just sit in quiet contemplation. The collection comes to an end as simply as it began, with the speaker’s earnest voice, “Now I don’t have to tell you / anything more about it.”

Book Review: Selected Tweets by Tao Lin & Mira Gonzalez

Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project. In the interests of accuracy we have retained the original wording of the interview.

A critical review of Selected Tweets, comprised entirely of tweets:

This review was the absolute worst I’ve so far had to write. Ad litteram everything I tried in regular format didn’t work out.

I inadvertently ended up avoiding this review quite a lot, to be honest, as I didn’t know what exactly to say.

You’ll find, I’m sure, it’s almost impossible to write about a collection of things which—in and of themselves—seem inconsequential.

And this is what tweets are, or rather more-so what they appear to be: inconsequential.

But I wanted to look into a proper method of demonstrating that these things can, in fact, be used properly as a medium.

And so I had the absolutely poor and unfounded idea to get creative with the project—this review being the result:

Selected Tweets is the result of a joint collaboration between alt lit writers Tao Lin (@tao_lin) and Mira Gonzalez (@miragonz).

It ostensibly collects about 5-7 years’ worth of tweets from the two figures, the majority I can assume weren’t written in the…

“publication” mindset. For as candid as tweets can get, these are basically the epitome of genuine.

I make this disclaimer only because the collection might otherwise seem to have been sponsored and funded by Xanax and Xanax alone.

Appearance-wise, Selected Tweets is a work of art: Illustrated, naugahyde-bound, and its cover silk-screened with faux-gold and silver.

On public transportation, I actually took measures to communicate to people that it wasn’t the bible I had, but probably the total opposite.

It’s split almost directly in half between Mira and Tao, with collections from various accounts and “bonus” essays to cap them off.

There are also drawings by the two contributors scattered throughout, be they of their various subjects…

Or in Mira’s case, of the same face plastered onto different objects, animals, what have you.

I think it’s probably avant-garde.

And Tao, though the covers of his books may suggest otherwise, comes off in these bits as a very poised artist.

I’ll probably be focusing primarily on Mira’s half for two different reasons:

  • Because Lin has recently been the subject of some controversy which I have no strong feelings one way or the other toward…
    • (It’s a fire I’d wish to inform of, but not to stoke in the meantime.)
  • And because Mira’s half is really a lot more interesting both in structure and in content.

Tao tweets the same way he writes; if you want a redacted Lin novel, there’s no better place to find that than his Twitter.

This, however, is not to say his half should be ignored—I would simply have enjoyed to have seen more done with it.

(Of course I would be asking to restructure a true-to-form and candid assortment, going against much of what the collection is)

(Very neutral feelings regarding this half—it’s witty, it’s smart, but it’s not as ambitious as I would have liked it to be)

Mira’s tweets, however, usually run the gamut from hilarious to sad to a kind of amorphous gel made up of the two.

They’ll leave you not knowing what emotions you should be feeling. Should you laugh? Should you empathize?

There’s a kind of efficacy in this medium which breaks down the proto-narrative wall between speaker and participant.

My guesstimate is that this is probably because the audience has to some extent a knowledge of what twitter is/does…

That in the eyes of the participants it’s left synonymous with the most direct thoughts, the most quotidian ideas…

And what Wil Wheaton is having for his fucking breakfast.

And when coupled with Mira’s (and I guess Tao’s) looks into (t)he(i)r daily activities and exploits, the collection gets very real very fast

One very poignant example which returns often to me whilst writing this review is @mira_crying.

This account details just what its name suggests, and if anyone out there thinks that tweets can’t convey what regular writing can,

I dare them to read this and retain that thought, because even its opening disclaimer manages to sting just a little.

Really, I’d suggest upon reading this collection, the participant hold firm the idea that instead of just tweets, they’re reading…

Something more along the lines of a *very* redacted essay, as that’s more what these come off as:

The throwaway thoughts which, while they can’t be expanded, are no less important than the expandable ones.

(Some of them maybe a little.)

There’s a lot I could go into with this collection: how funny it is, how absurd it gets, its often white-knuckled grasp on dark humor…

But those are facets I decide to leave for the reader’s discretion, because while a bit on the experimental side…

This collection definitely deserves its fair share of readers.