Kitchen Table MFA: An Interview With Dogfish

This interview is part of the Kitchen Table MFA, a series that showcases writing communities through interviews and creative writing.

After the interview, be sure to check out the work of Dogfish members, Laura Mattingly and Benjamin Aleshire. Also, read Nancy’s essay on the Kitchen Table MFA series here.

Dogfish is a monthly reading series and open mic in the St. Roch neighborhood of New Orleans. Since 2015, its readings have featured New Orleans writers including Megan Burns, Cassie Pruyn, Alison Pelegrin, Ladee Hubbard, Jami Attenberg, as well as writers from elsewhere—like Cave Canem founder Toi Derricotte. Since 2018, it’s hosted the opening night of the New Orleans Poetry Festival, which this April featured Henk Rossouw, Chen Chen, Lee Ann Brown, and Oliver Baez Bendorf. 

One of the things that makes Dogfish so special is that it takes place inside the home of series coordinator Jessica Kinnison’s, a former art space and bakery that was featured in Curbed New Orleans. The series is run collaboratively by Kinnison and three other writers—Alex Jennings, Taylor Murrow, and Cate Root—who are all chiming in here. 

Nancy Reddy (NR)

New Orleans has lots of literary activity connected to the universities in the city. What do you see Dogfish’s role as in the literary scene? What need or niche did you want to address? 

Cate Root (CR)

Our goal was to host a true community space, not an affiliate of a university or a store. You don’t have to spend any money at Dogfish, and that’s important to us. The idea is that if you can strip down as many barriers as possible—greet and welcome people at the door, ask them to make themselves at home, help themselves to food and drink, and just exist in this space with other people who also want some kind of connection—the space becomes its own sacred thing because of the intention people bring to it. There is a lot of ugly hierarchy and brutality in the world, and we can be a balm and bulwark against that, but it takes genuine work. 

NR

There’s also a relationship between Dogfish and the New Orleans Writers Workshop. How do the aims of the reading series and the writing classes intersect or complement each other? 

Jessica Kinnison (JK)

Taylor, Cate, Alex, and I challenge one another to build community and make a safe, welcoming space for everyone, particularly new writers. Writing can be a lonely pursuit. Finding your tribe–the folks who will urge you on—is so important. My hope is that our New Orleans Writers Workshop students know of at least one literary space where they will be welcomed with open arms. From there, and this has happened over and over again in recent years, I hope they will form writing groups, events and literary partnerships that will help them reach their personal writing goals.

NR

The landscape of neighborhoods has changed so much in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. Could you talk about what it means to have Dogfish located in St. Roch? What’s the neighborhood like, and what is the series’s relationship to your neighbors and the neighborhood?

JK

My house was a neighborhood bakery for more than half a century. As Cate said, while it is my personal living space, it takes on a sacred feeling once a month that, in my view, ties directly to the building’s long history of being a place of nourishment and restoration.  Thinking of how our environment—neighborhoods, weather, buildings, opportunities, and physical landscape—has changed on so many levels since Hurricane Katrina, and continues to change, is heavy. I worry about respect daily. My chief goal is to respect my neighbors. Show up—move our trash cans back from the road, look out for the kids at play in the street, give folks who live nearby a heads-up when Dogfish is happening so it’s not too much of an inconvenience, roll the Dogfish ice from Brother’s corner store with neighbors offering a hand and always answer questions from neighbors and passersby about what the event is all about. We are just one of the house readings now present in New Orleans, including Rubber Flower Poetry Hour, Under the Creole Chandelier, Gathering of Sparks, and I’m sure many others I don’t even know of. Each space means something different to different communities. We try to listen to what works, what doesn’t, and shift along the way to keep things safe and keep them good.

NR

What other organizations (either literary or not) inspire you, or have you learned from? There are so many nonprofits and social entrepreneurship ventures operating in New Orleans right now. Are there any groups in the city that you’ve learned from, or that you’ve worked with or would hope to?

CR

I’m a member of the New Orleans chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and in many ways, I feel like Dogfish was the first organizing I ever did. The fact that we put on Dogfish as a gift to the community, that no one earns money on it and you don’t have to spend money to be there, is really important to me. Also everything I know about literary community I learned from Megan Burns, who runs the New Orleans Poetry Festival and Trembling Pillow Press. When I first started reading my poetry in New Orleans more than a decade ago, I was at Megan’s open mic. She’s kept the lights on for poets for so many years, and I’m blessed to know her.

JK

So many friends, teachers and communities helped us build our event. My teacher Christopher Chambers gave us the name. My teacher Sherrie Flick gave me advice gleaned from her wildly popular Pittsburgh series Gist Street. Taylor and I worked on the 1718 Reading Series at the Columns Hotel when we were students at Loyola University New Orleans over a decade ago now. Through that experience, we got to learn some of the basics of running a series and had the opportunity to spend time with some of our favorite writers.  Writers whose readings I can still recall include late New York Times writer David Carr, poet Cate Marvin, poet and nonfiction author Rodger Kamenetz and poet Richard Siken. It was huge for us as young writers to have that time with our heroes. 1718 Reading Series is still run by Tulane and Loyola students at the Columns Hotel today. Other communities and groups that have challenged and inspired me include the compassion and hope shown by neighbors involved in the St. Roch Neighborhood Association, the collective spirit of Antenna.Works, and the fierce passion for poetry I’ve witnessed while helping Bill Lavender and Megan Burns coordinate the New Orleans Poetry Festival. Those two have taught me so much about building community, sustaining nourishing friendships, and making art. 

NR

Any big hopes or plans for the future? What are your goals and hopes for Dogfish moving forward?

JK

Never get comfortable. 

Alex Jennings (AJ)

Stay sustainable and keep the magic going.

CR

Replace ourselves. Meaning that our space inspires others to keep the lights on for poetry. 

Taylor Murrow

Keep the community growing and leave it in good hands if/when we ever decide to step back.

Kitchen Table MFA: An Alternative to the NYC/MFA Binary

This essay is part of the Kitchen Table MFA, a series that showcases writing communities through interviews and creative writing.

When I was finishing my undergrad degree in poetry and trying to figure out how to become a “real” writer, I saw one obvious path forward: get an MFA, then get a job teaching at a university. After all, every writer I knew was in a college classroom—either at the head of a workshop table, assigning writing exercises and weighing in on drafts, or in one of the student desks, passing out their photocopied pages and plotting how to get into the magazines, how to get a job that would put them at the front of the room. Writing, as I knew it, existed on college campuses.

Fortunately, I decided not to get an MFA right away, and when I moved to Houston to teach high- school English, a friend pointed me toward Inprint, a literary nonprofit, and their low-cost Teachers as Writers workshops. At Inprint I found a rich writing community outside a college campus. In the Inprint workshops I met serious, talented writers who were writing not because they’d get a grade, but because they loved the craft of it. That community sustained my writing practice through demanding years teaching at a high-intensity charter school. All week long, I was Ms. Reddy, grading vocabulary quizzes and teaching literary analysis and telling kids to tuck in their shirts and spit out their gum. But on Saturday mornings, I was a poet, and I sat at the long workshop table in the Inprint house alongside other writers, all of us writing for love and not for credit.

In the years since then, as I earned an MFA and had the chance to travel to give readings from my books, I’ve been encouraged to see that writing communities like these are the rule and not the exception. In nearly every community across the country, you can find writers meeting in libraries or coffee shops or independent bookstores. In some places, this work is supported by a literary nonprofit like Inprint, Madison’s Arts and Literature Laboratory, or Philadelphia’s Blue Stoop., While in others, it’s loosely connected to a university, sometimes through continuing studies or an outreach division. Rutgers-Camden’s Cooper Street Writing Workshops and the Drexel Writers Room are just two examples of this kind of university-supported programming. And in many cases, this work is truly independent, sustained by writers working together to build community. These organizations sometimes serve particular populations, as in Keri Bertino’s Writing Through Motherhood workshops; Warrior Writers, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that works with veterans; and Tintero Projects, a Houston-based reading and workshop series that aims to build to community for Latinx writers.

This series, which profiles four community writing organizations, demonstrates just a small portion of the excellent writing and supportive communities that exist around the country. It includes interviews with leaders of the organizations as well as writing done by community members. It’s my hope that this series will inspire you to find or build community in the spaces that matter to you. 

Click here to read the first interview in the series.

On Poetry: Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds and the Means of Survival

I am afraid of poetry. I don’t read it often as I used to and have long since stopped writing it, but I’m envious of people who do. Poetry reflects all of my uncertainties. When I pick up one of those slim poetry volumes and flip through its pages, all at once I’m that awkward kid in a classroom again, raising my hand to ask the teacher, “Did I get it right?” As if there’s only one answer for how to read a text, as if I have to ask permission for how to feel.

Many of the writers I know compose poetry, and when they speak on the form, they often do so in the context of survival. I have to wonder why. When it comes to poetry, I’ve started to not just think about the integrality of communication but also on the importance of its form. Why do so many people claim poetry as their ultimate means of self-expression, relying on it to feel vulnerable and powerful and all of the polychromatic emotions in between? For me the answer lies in the odd balance poetry strikes between emotional accessibility and deliberate obfuscation. I would argue that both elements contribute to our survival.

Last summer I visited America for the first time. I was at a workshop in San Diego, and I confessed to one of my classmates, “I can’t read poetry.” She suggested I read the poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, so I spent the last few lazy days of summer at home searching libraries and bookstores for a copy.I read it and was amazed.

In her essay “emotions/feelings” in Poetry, Nova writes of being a poet, “I have to acknowledge the courage involved in gathering myself—my honesty, my hurts, and my triumphs—to share with people.” It is this sharing, I would argue, that helps us survive. For the reader, poetry grants us access to what others are feeling so that we can empathize with, and even find ways to ameliorate, the emotions others might be experiencing. So when the speaker says, for example, in “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” “Ocean, don’t be afraid./The end of the road is so far ahead/it is already behind us,” I may not be the person addressed—I am not Vuong—but I can feel the tremulous comfort and self-defeat he might have experienced, and I am reminded that while we are separated by many things, we are united in our humanity.

We need this empathy now more than ever. I had the opportunity to attend Comic-Con for a day during my workshop, and walking outside the San Diego Convention Center, I had seen a mob with megaphones and signs condemning us of sin. My American classmates told me that gatherings like this were normal here when such highly publicized events like Comic-Con were taking place. One of my classmates—who, like me, was not from this country—raised her camera and scoffed, “Only in America.” But America, I’m beginning to realize, is not the only place of conflict, and such conflicts can and will build on one another, regardless of borders or boundaries.

I’ve been waking up with headaches—a tension right between my eyes—for the past few weeks. One morning I checked my Facebook feed to try to find some respite, but I ended up scrolling through article after article on the latest school shooting. When I told my mother about my headaches, she said, “Stop thinking.” But how can I stop thinking when I’m shown, time after time, how we fail to connect with one another; when I find something ugly taking place in every corner of the world; when my home is either slowly becoming unrecognizable or I have finally come to see it as it is, and I don’t like it? Lately I’ve been thinking, “Is the world becoming worse?” And, if so, “Will I survive it?”

As much as Night Sky with Exit Wounds invites me to understand Vuong’s perspectives on society, I also wonder about how much it hides his views from me. Nova claims, “It makes me feel so good to know that being a poet means that one can give so much of themselves—create so much feeling in others without losing any part of what makes them special.” But how do we avoid this losing? That’s where the obfuscating part of poetry comes in, since we also survive through self-preservation. What I mean by this is that if giving others access to what we’re feeling is a way of sharing ourselves, then keeping these emotions hidden is an attempt at keeping ourselves intact.

What, for example, do the lines, “Depending on where you stand/your name can sound like a full moon/shredded in a dead doe’s pelt” mean in “Eurydice”? The words are evocative, for sure, and I can infer as much as I want in terms of how they may relate to Vuong’s life, but the reality is that only he knows what they signify to him. Poetry can therefore be intensely personal for the poet; it allows them to achieve a level of catharsis that I’m not sure would be possible in any other genre. It also, importantly, requires me to invest effort into understanding Vuong’s traumas and, if not to fully understand them, then to respect them in the ways in which I might be contributing to and/or mitigating their exacerbation.

When I think about poetry, the speaker in “My Father Writes from Prison” comes to mind as he admits that “there are some things/I can only say in the dark.” There’s a lot to this line that I think overlays so well with our lives. We are each trapped in our own psychological prisons, constructed over time by the harm done to us by others and the pain we inflict upon ourselves. Poetry is the darkness here, revealing in some ways and muddying in many others. It’s where we can become intimate, because the power to either disclose or hide our blemishes returns fully to us. If only momentarily, we can forget the prison walls that separate us in favor of trying to learn what lies out there in the dark, and it emboldens us, makes us a little braver, rasher. Enough, at least, to believe that when we speak a truth, there will always be someone out there to receive it and feel it in the same way as you. Now we are finally communicating, finding comfort in each other’s company. And in this way, we can imagine enduring another day—we become resilient. In this way, we survive.

Shattering Utopia: A Review of Pet by Akwaeke Emezi

Published September 10, 2019 by Make Me a World

Utopia means a great many things to a great many people. My personal utopia, for example, would have to include a box set of Sex and the City and an endless supply of Starbucks e-gift cards. Generally, a modern utopia would entail a world run on sustainable energy, an end to suffering, and hover cars. Akwaeke Emezi’s strikingly imaginative second novel, Pet, offers up a different kind of utopia, one in which abusers have been eradicated.

After an earth-shattering revolution, the town of Lucille is finally safe. The monsters have been removed, punished by the angels, who have now taken control of this picturesque place. Fifteen-year-old Jam and her best friend Redemption have grown up in a worry-free Lucille. A town where history is taught so that it will not be repeated, where a fifteen-year-old trans girl can choose when she speaks and when she signs, where love and happiness are palpable in the air. Jam’s transness was so uncomplicated, so naturally included that I didn’t realize the importance of such a character until I’d already turned the last page. The small details—her hormones, her afro, her father’s fried plantains, and her mother’s accent—it all contributed to a feeling of complete belonging. These characters belonged on the page, in this story, just as they belong next to us on the train, or in class.

But when an angel comes to visit her, Jam quickly realizes that all is not as it seems. There are still monsters in Lucille, and now Jam is entangled in the hunt.

Pet is an angel, but it looks nothing like our understanding of how angels are supposed to look. Despite its intentionally abstract appearance, I could picture it so clearly—its horns, its dismembered hands, its eyeless face. When it tells Jam that the monster is in Redemption’s house, she refuses to believe it. Even when they find proof, Jam still holds onto the possibility that Pet has made a mistake—there can’t be monsters in Lucille. They were all brought to justice…right?

Why can’t we ever look the truth in the eye? Pet explores the complexity of abusive situations and our knee-jerk tendency to deny that which we don’t want to be true. Jam does not want to believe there are monsters in Lucille, doesn’t want to believe that someone she knows is being abused—but Pet, the terrifying angel, will not let her look away.

I couldn’t look away from this heart-wrenching read. It hits close to home, especially in a post-#MeToo world. How many excuses have we heard? People find any reason they can to justify abusive behavior and keep secrets to protect abusers. Jam’s reluctance to believe in Pet’s purpose—to hunt monsters—isn’t ignorance or naivety, it’s human nature. We want to believe there is good in people, even when all signs point to the opposite. Pet taught me that this isn’t a weakness. We must all be vigilant, we must all be aware, but we must also be kind. Jam knows that kindness is the only way to foster happiness; if we don’t allow people and communities to learn from their mistakes, what’s to keep it all from happening again? Fear doesn’t bring change, gentleness and understanding does.

In Lucille, the monsters look just like anybody else. They could be your teachers, your boss, your parents. In our world, they are. Pet doesn’t just shatter the untruthful utopia of Lucille, but ours as well. Abusers are everywhere, and it will take a lot more than a hunt to banish them from our reality.

Emezi’s voice is incredibly distinct; I’ve never read anything quite like it. Pet breaks all the rules; it’s full of metaphors and odd phrasing where other authors might play it safe. The metaphor of monsters as abusers hits you over the head sometimes; it’s painfully obvious, the point Emezi is trying to make. Monsters are among us—there’s no getting around it.

Emezi’s beautifully spun novel reminds us of three things: that the ugly is beautiful, that everyone deserves to have their story told, and that the world is never as perfect as we might like it to be—but we should never stop fighting to make it so. Though there may be monsters among us, there are also angels, and they are beautiful.

Tuesday

Today is Tuesday.

Mother Earth has a cancer, and there isn’t enough Jesus to cure it. The ships leave on schedule, rocketing high into the sky, off to another “home,” with signs inside reading “ Yes Smoking,” as if to punctuate humanity’s churlish sense of humor. There are competing estimates, but none of them are kind—all of them have an expiration.

Sure, there are summertime blizzards and wildfires in the winter, but outside of that, everything is normal. The news broadcasts carry on as they always have, reporting with a sense of calm, a real professionalism about the whole thing. The workers go to work. The school children go to school. The church ladies go to church. I’m sure there’s an atheist on a couch somewhere. Maybe this is all a part of it. There is death and maybe what we are witnessing is life en masse. I’ve always been so impressed by how well people seem to hold it together. Life is hard. Life has always been hard. It was hard when the trees were green. It was hard when the weather was temperate. I guess not everybody holds it together all the time, but for the most part, people carry on. Why wouldn’t they now?

I was never prepared for the bigger things in life, but I guess you never truly are. The big things always seemed too big. I was scared of everything—relationships, successes, heartbreaks, sickness, and especially death. A funny thing happened along the way. Relationships found me, and I found them to be quite normal. Success found me, and I found it to be quite normal. Heartbreak and sickness found me, and I found them to be quite normal. Eventually, death found me. Someone I loved died. I still woke up the next day.

I heard someone say, “Boy, the kids sure are acting strange.” I don’t know, I think they’re acting pretty normal. The kids were born into this. This is their normal. The ships have been going up for years now. They go up once a week. They learn about weightlessness in kindergarten. Mandatory curriculum prepares children for if they go up, or if they stay down. It’s a random selection. It happens on a random day.

Today, I saw the kid next door sobbing. He was sobbing because he had to say goodbye to his best friend. The kid next door was staying down, while his best friend was going up. His best friend had just boarded a ship, Today is the day of the week that ships leave to go to Mars. It’s Tuesday.

Refusal

And so, death showed up every morning
as a first thought, with our school principal
shepherding us seven-year-olds down the streets,
making us chant, “Death to America,” setting
fire to the stars we were yet to count, wishing
death on a nation none of us
could begin to know.

We were the children of the dead, priding
ourselves on all the “heroic” ways in which
our dads had died as “martyrs,” mastering
words that denied us an idyllic childhood:
shrapnel, missile, and RPG, which sounded
like the coolest word to leave our mouths

War-loving men fail to understand:
your father being summed up in a stack
of letters and a stoic portrait; seeing your
friend’s blind dad walking his son
to the school bus every morning,
waving to him (the son would wave back);
eyes rolling at the curious question:
Where is your dad?
 
“Dead,” I’d respond, refusing to dignify
death—the finitude of flowers and the
persimmon trees in my grandmother’s
house yard. “Dead,” I’d say, though
he died in a war with his Iraqi enemies who
could have been his brothers in another life.
 
But I do not want John, my best friend
from my time at Saint Mary’s College,
who happens to be serving in the US army,
to simply scan my hometown with unseeing
eyes from thousands of feet above;
a “reconnaissance mission” over
the city where I have grown up,
dreamed and fallen in love.

Why Not Minot?

You don’t know if it’s the windchill or the chill of what you’ve just seen that’s making you shiver. But you cling to a wet glove and take baby steps across the field.

Who will you tell first?

Of course, you’ll tell your parents. Let them do the hard part of telling the neighbors. You’re just twelve. You’re not supposed to break that kind of news to grown-ups.

Your right hand has gone numb, and you imagine it’s frostbitten, but don’t know for sure what that even means. You’ve heard that whole arms and legs get taken off when winter’s bite goes straight to the bone. You wonder how you’ll wear your baseball mitt if that happens.

Carthell, the eighth-grade boy whose father beat him with a garden hose yesterday in front of all the neighborhood kids, asks why you’re crying, and then tells you to get off his front yard or you’ll be doing more crying. You can’t see the yard or the sidewalk, so you move to the edge of the snow bank right next to the road.

You have to speed up. You really don’t want to go home, but your whole right arm has turned itchy cold, and you don’t want to be replaced at third base by some kid with two hands when Little League season comes around.

Your house is just ahead on the left. You haven’t even practiced what you’ll say. Maybe you’ll just burst out crying and hand your mother the glove, his glove.

You drag your snow boots back-and-forth on the rubber mat for minutes until your father tells you to cut it out and come inside.

###

It’s not your idea to visit the Sherwood’s house—it’s the MP’s; and he doesn’t look a bit like the police officers you’ve seen on TV. He looks like the soldiers you’ve seen in war movies. You don’t tell Mr. and Mrs. Sherwood what happened, even after the MP tells you to. You just stare at their feet, holding the white and blue-tipped snow glove, and let your mom do the explaining.

When Mrs. Sherwood cries out, “Why did Drew go out there?” you feel a smile crackle onto your face until you don’t. Your mom just pinched your arm, which you thought only an hour ago was going to be lopped off. That pinch reminds you of Drew’s terror when the ice cracked beneath his feet. He went out there, and that’s all. You’re damned if you’ll say that you egged him to get those toys that somebody pitched out in the middle of the pond. He was only ten, much lighter, so why shouldn’t he have gone?

As you’re led to the front door, you want to clear up one thing. Your smile was only a reminder of the question, a joke really, that Drew had asked, and you’d answered about the city’s lame slogan to find more visitors.

“Freezin’s the reason,” you’d replied, and he’d agreed.   

Half and Half: A Review of Virginia Pye’s Shelf Life of Happiness

Virginia Pye wrote two award-winning works before her newest release Shelf Life of Happiness. When I heard about it, I was really, genuinely excited. Happiness does exist on a shelf, doesn’t it? It expires, sometimes going unnoticed until you twist open the top and find your jam has gone green and hairy while you were in the other room. My interest was piqued. I was intrigued. But oh, it’s a bag of mixed feelings, this one.

In Shelf Life of Happiness, Virginia Pye explores the fragility and elusiveness of, well, being happy. Adults have a hard time with happiness, she suggests. In “Crying in Italian,” Sara’s marriage has lost its fervor. She and her spouse have become two people with kids, and Sara is leaving for more passionate pastures. In “Redbone,” Tom discovers he was happier before, though he hadn’t known it at the time. It’s that “we didn’t know how good we had it” concept. For Tom, the greener grass was his life before he was successful. Before he’d decided to leave his wife. When he could still go home and hang out with his girls.

Kids are better off, however, as Pye shows us. Kids understand something about happiness that the rest of us don’t. In “Easter Morning,” a nameless boy tries to take care of a dead bird. And there’s something about caring for things, about something living on after death, that a group of mothers want to preserve in this child. To care despite death, to treat something as a living thing after it is no longer, is something important—and this kid knows it. In “An Awesome Gap,” Patrick, a fifteen-year-old skateboarder, wants to show his dad how to “live in the now.” He’d never become “a slave to work” the way his father is. He’s going to live in “real places” with “real people.”

But this brings me to my first point—what are real people and real places? Not a clue because, unfortunately, Pye writes in generalities. In “White Dog,” we get: “Like Dunster himself, [his granddaughter] had been to hell and back.” We understand Dunster was in the war, which must be what Pye is referring to here as “hell.” (What sort of hell, what it looked like and felt like for Dunster, we will never know.) What his granddaughter’s hell was, however, is a true mystery. There are no clues, hints, or even assurances that Pye knows herself.

In “Easter Morning,” there’s the line, “In one brief moment, her son has become fully-grown and capable of deception, as well as sacrifice and love.” But how does one deception prove a person’s maturity, or their ability to love and to sacrifice? Can someone really grow up in the space of a moment? Maybe. But I think you’d have to give a pretty good case for it.

What’s perhaps more problematic in this book, and even unsettling, is the now too-traditional, outdated, and awkwardly misogynistic themes so present in the stories—everything from one character’s ambitions being “manly” to the wives being referred to as “the women” and the husbands “the men” in “Easter Morning” (because it’s always best to define a group of people by their gender).

Every time a character in Shelf Life of Happiness is extraordinarily successful in their field—be it art, literature, art distribution—it’s a man. And not only that, but these men are big names in their businesses. Comparatively, the few women who do have jobs are librarians or teachers (caregivers, in one role or another) despite Cambridge educations, as in “Her Mother’s Garden.” The sole exception to this rule is Gloria, who works in publishing. When speaking with her male writer friend, who is a Big Name in his Business, she says that ambition is a “big” and “manly” quality. Gloria works behind a desk making her reputation by making sure her male friend’s work gets printed big (that is, actually, a line from the book). He suggests—out of doe-eyed love it seems, for it’s unclear he cares to read anything of hers—that she must be a great writer after her father. Gloria refutes him. “Oh no,” she says, “that’s you.

I would have liked—would have needed, actually—one woman to take charge of her future. I needed Annie from “Her Mother’s Garden” to break up with Fred when she realized she was just “his interest.” Or when he said that with her mothers’ “cataracts, she probably [couldn’t] see past the whatever-you-call those” flowers: the moment Annie realized she hated him. I would have needed “one of [those] mothers” to have a moment with the boy who had kept the dead bird, to tell him what he’d done was right, whatever his father said. I needed Gloria to submit her own work, or to decide somehow what she wanted professionally, besides what was in Nathan’s best interest.

I would have needed these things because those are the women I like reading about, who I can relate to. Who inspire me. And even though all the female characters don’t have to be wonderful and brave and courageous, some of them do. Because lots of us are.

Pye tackles so many characters and settings in this book. We go from the young skater to the old artist Dunster, and the in-between, like writer Nathan—everywhere from Italian ruins to skating parks. Pye plays around in these settings and with these characters, giving us so many different spaces to inhabit. It’s a dizzying cast.

It’s just that Shelf Life of Happiness reads like a glass half-full of whiskey, half-full of water. The collection lacked tangible, graspable descriptions, and clear, pointed insight. The more general you get, the more water you add. I like my stories neat, so to speak. But it is so much about taste with these things, and perhaps half-and-half is just your cup of whiskey. If so, have at it.

Daisy Chains and Cigarettes

“Jeez, find a more difficult hiding place?”

Ty started in surprise when Ari dropped down beside him in the viewing room.

“I’m not hiding,” he mumbled. He made to move the object in his lap out of Ari’s sight, but was too slow.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing!”

“Wow! Is that—”

“It’s not!”

“Let me see.”

“No!”

Ari grabbed the object as Ty wrestled to retain it, but Ari had always been stronger. Ty let it go, freeing his hands to send Ari a violent gesture.

“I can’t believe you brought an actual book with you.” Ari laughed, ignoring the gesture. “Were all the other useless items already taken? Did you have to settle for this, what, romance novel?

“Shut up,” Ty muttered, without any real bite. He fixed his eyes on the viewing window. The dot he had been watching was already so much smaller.

“You know they downloaded near everything onto the shipboard computers, right?” Ari was saying, flipping through the book. “More importantly, there are actual girls on this ship that—huh?”

Ty hunched his shoulders, knowing without looking that Ari had reached the real reason he had smuggled the book into his meager allotment of personal belongings. He had to give up his sweatshirt in order to fit the space requirements the government set, but he counted the sacrifice as minimal. Not like he’d be going outside much when they reached Mars.

Next to him, Ari sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said, handing the book back over. Ty took it without a word, slipping his fingers to the marked page where a daisy chain lay being preserved.

“I miss it,” he confessed.

“We’ll be back soon,” Ari reassured. Ty snorted. “Okay, not soon soon, but… someday.”

“Sure.”

“Dude, the Earth is, like, stupid resilient. Two decades, she’ll have fought back all those nasty chemicals, and the world will be overflowing with daisy chains.”

“Twenty years,” Ty repeated.

“Tops,” Ari assured him. When Ty said nothing, Ari shuffled around, pulling a carton from his pocket. “Here. This will cheer you up.”

“Cigarettes. Really?”

“A manly toast to our future lives as Martians.” Ty took a cigarette and pretended to take a drag. Ari smiled, reaching into his pocket again to produce a lighter.

“Open flame is forbidden,” Ty recited automatically, lowering his cigarette. Ari waved blithely.

“Shut up and have a smoke, daisy chain.”

Soon smoke was drifting about the boys, causing distortions in the artificial light. Ty kept one hand on the daisy chain and stared in the direction of the dot that was Earth. It was now barely distinguishable from the others stars, and he had to strain to see it.

He wondered if Earth really could fight back against the destruction they were leaving behind, if he could find his way back to his home planet, and if daisy chains could still exist beyond the pages of a book.

Ty blew out a cloud of smoke, obscuring his view of Earth.

Twenty years. Tops. 

The Dead of Summer

Oklahoma, the dead of summer.

When I was younger, the Oklahoma sun would hang low on the horizon like a fat fruit from a tree, so low you could wrap your fist around it ’til the peach guts came gushing over the bike-blisters on your palm.

It used to be that the tornadoes only came in the spring, salsa dancing down the alley. Now they’re here all summer long. We even had one on Christmas day, two years ago. It was seventy-six and storming ’til the rain stopped, the sky went green, and we knew it was time to hide. We dragged the stockings with us to the cellar, waited ’til the sirens stopped wailing their Christmas hymn, then later came back up to eat the Christmas turkey and glare at the wind damage littered across the yard.

Now, in the dead of summer,  we’re standing a few feet back from the bank, watching the water rush.

“It’s really bookin’ it, huh?” I ask, cocking my head to the side, eyes following the brown water rippling downstream.

“Never seen it like this before,” she says. Her eyes are so dark that you can see almost anything reflected in them, even the refinery blowing big red clouds into the sky on the other side of the river.

She steps closer and I grab her elbow. “Be careful. They’re saying the bank’s eroded. People have been swept in, gone under, and haven’t been seen since.”

“I just want to see in the water.”

I don’t know why she thinks she could; the water’s always been muddy brown, too thick to swim in, let alone gaze into. I don’t let go of her. I’m not taking any chances. Imagine if we survived the last tornado, drunk off our asses in the hall closet with her baby brother’s mattress over our heads, only for me to lose her to the damn river.

“Come on, baby. Let’s go home.”

She turns and follows, but I know she doesn’t want to. In her eyes, I watch the refinery light up the sky, until she blinks and we get back in the pickup.

After two days of constant rain, the river’s up to the refinery’s front door. They evacuate who they can, but they can’t stop production completely. Everybody in town keeps whispering about the oil and gas fire at the refinery out east. I’m thinking, Great—if a tornado doesn’t get us, the river will; or if the river doesn’t, a giant fire’s gonna try.

She tells me it’s alright if we die in all this, ‘cause we had it coming. At first, I think she’s gone preachy on me, about how we’ve been kissing in sin all this time. But then she says, “Mother Earth’s gonna kick our ass. And we deserve it.”

By the end of the week, the refinery’s practically underwater. No explosion, not yet. But I’m starting to think the tornado cellar and her baby brother’s mattress aren’t gonna be enough.

Secondhand Smoke

When Mother Earth wakes up with a fever, she knows that something is wrong.

She wakes in a cold sweat, her ice caps slipping into the sea. The heat swirls around her, thick with greenhouse gases. Her head swirls, too.

“You’ve grown a cancerous tumor,” the doctor tells her when she arrives at the hospital. “It is called Mankind, and you don’t have long to live. Maybe a few years. Maybe less. Your only hope is chemotherapy.”

So she signs the papers. She downs the drugs, a dose of poison each day.

The only way to fight back.

After the first week, her hair begins to loosen at the roots. The leaves begin to flutter, and the next dose comes with chainsaws. Metal teeth hack away at her flowering trees.

Mother Earth wears a baseball cap to hide her baldness. To hide the leftover stumps and splinters.

Meanwhile, the tumor swells like a balloon. Her belly jiggles with each labored breath. It screams in pain when she tries to roll over. The tumor’s a monster that she has given birth to.

Too late to cut the umbilical cord.

The termites writhe inside her, jostling for space. Pushing nine billion. But still her skin stretches, and still she grits her teeth. Two years pass, and then three, and she breathes in. Keeps breathing.

The Earth fights back.

What have I done with my life? Mother Earth wonders. And the answer is, not enough.

She flirted with Man once. It was he who planted this tumor inside her. He ate steel and guzzled oil. Smoked chain-cigarettes and blew smoke rings in her face.

His smoke filled her sky-lungs, made them thick and congested. Made her eyes burn with acid rain.

“Hey, baby,” he drawled. And she fell for him. She fell into the haze of secondhand smoke. But that was before he forced his way into her, before the oil drills pierced her skin.

She wishes she could take it back.

The ice keeps cracking, the moss keeps growing, and the sunlight stops bouncing back. There’s nothing left to reflect it, so she just accepts the UV rays pounding down on her. She absorbs their punches.

Mother Earth stops fighting.

Before long, her pillboxes stack a mile high. “Swallow this one with water,” the doctor says. But the water makes her sick. The oceans keep rising like bile in her throat.

Finally, she can’t take it anymore. She stumbles to the garage and starts her car. The rusty old junker, the last gift that Man gave her.

The engine rumbles, thunder on the horizon. And she kneels beside the tailpipe to greet those greenhouse gases. Ozone and methane and carbon monoxide. Secondhand smoke.

She breathes them in. Keeps breathing.

When there’s no oxygen, your world turns sideways. You laugh and laugh until you can’t breathe anymore.

Mother Earth dies sideways, the worst way to go. The baby Man unborn inside her.

She dies laughing.

The Bombing of Water Valley

It wasn’t like a metaphor, but Satan for real. The neighborhood witches had summoned him for fun but then lost interest in their prize. The kids’ test scores went down. The wind blew the smell from the chicken plant down Main Street. Slow internet.

Two points I want to make: There should have been enough Jesus in this town, but we were forsaken. Second, the trenches along Panola, which were for the rain, could fit a crouching soldier.

I was not optimistic. The road West, which was usually the route to see turtles crossing or to get to the movie theater, had been cordoned off. If closed for another 24 hours, the kudzu would form a wall. East was our foe, Atlanta, and a long way, with Birmingham in between. Highway 7 North was so full of lumber trucks it was impossible to merge. South was the hurricane.

I shaved my head and gave my son his great grandfather’s Zippo. I told him there’s basil, bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes in the garden, which should keep the family alive for like two days. I kissed my wife and promised to write.

We soldiers bivouacked against the propane tanks and soda machines at the Piggly Wiggly. We watched Satan pull out of the Sonic through our binoculars, while we listened to the home team lose on the radio. There was noise overhead, but it was just the medevac to Baptist Memorial in Memphis. We needed more helicopters to escape this doomed town. Where were the Alderwomen? 

A different authority: we broke camp when the manager fussed.

I returned home with no good hero stories and an occurrence of trench mouth, not contagious but not sympathetic either. Listerine burned, which meant it was working, but it took a few hours to get back in the family’s good graces. Yes, I saw the devil, no, I did not attack.  What did I look like? An angel?

However, my garden continued to grow, despite the fear and tumult that I’ve heard plants can sense, and I imagined I could make a kind of dull salad while we waited. For what? What did the fiend have in store? An earthquake? He liked those, or maybe he’d send his red squirrels to chew the power lines, and his frat boys to crowd the meager country club.  

Looking back, it was like when one dog notices something, barks, and then the whole neighborhood starts up. A heavy boom, which could have been something to do with a big truck, the loading of something heavy into a big truck, or that big truck hitting something. But then two more, then five, then we stopped counting. We just didn’t know what was making that sound.  Do I need to say pestilence, famine, war and death?

The sirens. The sirens and the smoke. My happy family cringed but shouted to the rest of the country—remember when we used to say—hey, if you’re there, pick up, it’s me.