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Only a Considerable Hole in the Ground: Twain’s Hawaii Volcano

BY KIM STEUTERMANN ROGERS

Outside the glass wall of our restaurant, a plume of sulfuric gas rose from a churning lava lake. There was no ocean view at the Rim Restaurant, but who needs an ocean when you’ve got a living, breathing volcano right outside your window?

As the sun set and the lava lake started to glow in the darkness at Kilauea, on Hawaii’s Big Island, I pulled out my camera; my traveling companion, D, hardly gave the volcano a second glance, preferring instead to study the restaurant’s menu. She debated between a skirt steak served over locally grown arugula and vegetables, and a pasta dish with the same locally grown vegetables.

In D’s defense, I’d dragged her here. Besides, this wasn’t the first time for either of us. This visit was supposed to be purely for writing, holed up in a cabin in nearby Volcano Village. I hadn’t planned to slip away and poke into Mark Twain trivia, but earlier in the day I’d read about Twain’s “crimson waves” and “grand jets of molten lava” and decided I had to see the volcano again—to see if it looked the same as Twain described it during his four-month tour of the Hawaiian Islands in 1866 as a travel correspondent for the Sacramento Union.

Our waitress, Cassie, appeared. “What’s cavatappi pasta?” D asked, and Cassie twirled her finger in the air as an explanation. “So it’s corkscrew pasta?” D simplified for us all. Then D wanted to know about the vegetables. “Which local farm?” she asked, and when Cassie answered, I could have sworn D rolled her eyes. “I drove two hours to the other side of the island to eat vegetables from my neighbor’s garden?”

D and I met up earlier in the day at her home in Waimea and drove halfway around the island to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Of course, the volcano wasn’t a national park in Twain’s day—that act would take place in 1916. However, Kilauea was already a tourist attraction, with a one-room grass shelter to host visitors. But Twain stayed in a wood-framed, four-bedroom structure that opened just before his visit. In his last dispatch for the Union, Twain wrote, “Neat, roomy, well furnished and a well kept hotel. The surprise of finding a good hotel at such an outlandish spot startled me, considerably more than the volcano did.”

While we waited for our entrees, I took more photos. I heard D mutter, “How many times can you look at steam vent?”

Thing was, back in his day, Twain tapped into D’s very attitude.

“I was disappointed when I saw the great volcano of Kilauea (Ke-low way-ah) today for the first time,” he wrote. “Only a considerable hole in the ground—nothing to Haleakala [on Maui]—a wide, level, black plain in the bottom of it, and a few little sputtering jets of fire occupying a place about as large as an ordinary potato-patch up in one corner—no smoke to amount to any thing. And these ‘tremendous’ perpendicular walls they talk about, that inclose the crater! They don’t amount to a great deal, either; it is a large cellar—nothing more—and precious little fire in it, too.”

Apart from the lava, which is mostly hidden from view as it flows through an underground plumbing system, Kilauea is a pretty inconspicuous volcano. The volcanic summits of Mauna Kea—which I could see gleaming in the sun from D’s house on the north side of the island earlier that morning—and Haleakala on Maui, both of which are dormant, feel and look different. At elevations two and three times that of Kilauea, temperatures are much cooler, the drives to their summits more taxing on a car’s engine, and the landscapes desolate.

With Kilauea, you don’t quite know when you’ve arrived, except for the National Park entrance cut out amongst a profusion of greenery. Indeed, less than a mile away, an enclave of artists had settled in. A good belch from Kilauea could cough up a hot rock into their backyard.

Thing was, Kilauea was just not that scary.

On a second viewing of the volcano, Twain, however, changed his mind: “I suppose no man ever saw Niagara for the first time without feeling disappointed. I suppose no man ever saw it the fifth time without wondering how he could ever have been so blind and stupid as to find any excuse for disappointment in the first place. I suppose that any one of nature’s most celebrated wonders will always look rather insignificant to a visitor at first, but on a better acquaintance will swell and stretch out and spread abroad, until it finally grows clear beyond his grasp—becomes too stupendous for his comprehension.”

After numerous visits to Kilauea myself, I think it’s the idea of it. The idea that you’re a few hundred feet away from hot, roiling, lava—and maybe it’s just a few feet below your own two feet.

No matter how big or how spewing (or not), it’s the novelty of the place that gets to me. How many places can you go in the world and see an active volcano without getting out of your car? Or stepping away from your dinner table?

When Twain went back to see Kilauea of an evening, he wrote, “The first glance in that direction revealed a scene of wild beauty. There was a heavy fog over the crater and it was splendidly illuminated by the glare from the fires below. We arrived at the little thatched lookout house, and we rested our elbows on the railing in front and looked abroad over the wide crater and down over the sheer precipice at the seething fires beneath us. The view was a startling improvement on my daylight experience.”

He went on.

And on.

Paragraph after paragraph about the striating and exploding lava. Fountains that boiled and coughed. Sprays of stringy red fire. Showers of brilliant white sparks. Lava streaking across the caldera floor. Cataracts of lava.

Twain’s descriptive powers ran for six pages as he painted a picture of the volcano, turning to imagery when needed, as in, “Some of the streams preferred to mingle together in a tangle of fantastic circles, and then they looked something like the confusion of ropes one sees on a ship’s deck when she had just taken in sail and dropped anchor—provided one can imagine those ropes on fire.”

That’s not quite what I saw. I think of the volcano caldera of Kilauea as a sunken bathtub drained of lava, except for one pit at the far end known as Halemaumau.

But I wasn’t entirely convinced Twain saw ropes of fire either. He was prone to hyperbole. Was he exaggerating?

According to Richard W. Hazlett, geology professor, Hawaii Volcano Observatory research technician, and interpretive ranger at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, just two years after Twain’s visit, a tremendous earthquake hit the area. The caldera floor collapsed as magma escaped through a weak spot on the southwest flank of the volcano.

By 1871 lava had refilled the caldera to its previous levels, but in 1894 Halemaumau collapsed, creating today’s world-famous funnel-shaped pit crater. In 1912 the Hawaii Volcano Observatory was established on the grounds of the current Volcano House hotel.

Since then, Halemaumau has emptied and refilled again and again and, on occasion, when ground water penetrates the crater walls, dramatic fountains of steam and explosions of rock result. Lava has paved the entire caldera floor dozens of times since Twain’s visit—raising it several hundred feet—and the whole thing has even cooled and solidified throughout this period.

So, no, I suppose Twain wasn’t exaggerating, and yes, my view of Kilauea caldera differed from Twain’s. But thanks to his words, if I squinted my eyes just so, I could still see his.

When our waitress reappeared asking about dessert, now I was the one studying the menu. I wanted strawberries. In Twain’s letters to the Union, he mentions food, but I wouldn’t call him a foodie. His food notations were just that. Notes.

“One could not easily starve here even if the meats and groceries were to give out,” Twain wrote about the Kilauea area. “For large tracts of land in the vicinity are well paved with excellent strawberries. One can have as abundant a supply as he chooses to call for.”

Everyone except me, apparently. I examined the menu up-and-down and front-and-back, and I found raspberry and lilikoi and pineapple and banana and mango and coconut. But no strawberries.

D pointed out there were strawberries two hours away by car in Waimea, her hometown.

Kim Steutermann Rogers lives on Kauai, where she’s researching a book about “place attachment”; in particular, Mark Twain’s for Hawaii. Rogers holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the Missouri School of Journalism and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree from Antioch University Los Angeles. No disrespect to her alma maters, but her three chickens, two dogs, and one husband hold a closer place in her heart. Rogers blogs about life and Hawaii at www.kimsrogers.com.

On an Ohioan Autumn, Remembering Reetika

BY DIPIKA MUKHERJEE
(In Memory of Reetika Vazirani, 1962–2003)

Dipika discovered Reetika Vazirani’s poetry during a writing residency in 2002, when a copy of Vazirani’s collection World Hotel had been placed in her room. Dipika notes that Vazirani’s poetry is frequently about the anomie of a migrant:

   Culture shock is not your reflex upon leaving the dock; 
   it is when . . . someone asks your name 
   and the name of your religion and your first thought is 
   “I don’t know,” or you can’t remember what you said last time; 
   you think there is something you forgot to sign . . . 
   and you are positive 
   that those green-shirted workmen in the room right now 
   want to take you in for questioning.

                                                  — Reetika Vazirani, from White Elephants [5]

Dipika and her family moved from Singapore to Lima, Ohio, in 2003—just two years after 9/11. In the process, her 11-year-old son was detained for four hours at Chicago O‘Hare Airport. That same year, Vazirani killed her infant son and herself. Out of shock and grief and Dipika’s own sense of anomie came this poem.

Standing at the serrated edge
of a Goghian field,
the stalks, like jagged fingers,
stabbing obscenely at the sky,
I think of another woman.
A poet,
a mother,
she killed her child and then herself.

There is the dull gold of decay,
corn husks and dying light of day
and one lone blackbird.

I, who have traveled
from a place of excess fecundity,
a land so pregnant
that the undergrowth teems,
I stand in this aridity,
a dark desiccation,
a Foreigner.


This poem was previously published in The Palimpsest of Exile in 2009.

Rubicon Press published Dipika Mukherjee’s poetry chapbook, The Palimpsest of Exile, in 2009. Her poems have appeared in publications around the world, including World Literature Today, Asia Literary Review, and United Verses. She has performed at the International Stage at Het Huis van Poesie in Rotterdam, been the featured poet at the Hideout in Austin, Texas, and read at the Shanghai International Literary Festival, the Sugar Factory in Amsterdam, and the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. Reach her at dipikamukherjee.com.

Review: Jeff Greenwald’s Shopping for Buddhas

BY DIANNA COSTELLO

No matter what’s going on in your life, if you walk down the streets in Kathmandu you’ll run smack into a metaphor for it. That’s what I love–and fear–most about Nepal.
[130]

After reading the first chapter of Jeff Greenwald’s Shopping for Buddhas, I couldn’t help but think it’s a miracle he’s still alive and had the chance to write this book. In 1987, while he and a companion were staying in a primitive lodge in the Nepal Himalaya, a blinding blizzard with whiteout conditions came out of nowhere. Rather than face the uncertainty of being trapped for days on end without food or water, they joined a Swiss couple and began a harrowing descent in waist-high snow and howling winds down the cliff-hanging mountainside. After finally arriving in Kathmandu, they found out that the stock market had crashed that very same day. Realizing the transitory nature of both life and wealth, Greenwald reasoned that the sanest and most logical thing to do was to purchase a Buddha. At least it could serve dual purposes: provide him with a piece of art that would appreciate in value and, at the same time, provide him with spiritual lessons in nonattachment.

So begins the obsessive quest (and hilarious romp) that transports Greenwald and his readers through Nepal and Tibet as he searches for the perfect Buddha. But as he quickly learns, searching for perfection becomes an impossible task. There are just too many different types of Buddhas and poses to choose from, too many sizes and colors, and hundreds of different traits that one must learn in order to positively identify an authentic Buddha. Whoever thought buying a Buddha could be so complex? Certainly not Greenwald, but as he visits village after village, shop after shop, he becomes an expert himself, learning how to identify the most esteemed and sought-after Buddha features.

In celebration of the book’s 25th anniversary and a newly published edition, Greenwald made a recent appearance at Distant Lands bookstore in Pasadena for a presentation and book signing. Describing his first visit to Nepal, in 1979, he told the crowd that he experienced an overwhelming feeling that he had returned to his spiritual home. In the book, he sums up why we are mysteriously drawn to a particular place. “We go where we need to go, and then try to figure out what we’re doing there. It took a surprisingly long time for me to realize that all these trips to Nepal and environs were united by a single fundamental theme: The need to steep my cerebral cortex in the culture and religion of the region, in the hope that as much of it would soak into me as possible.”

This soaking-up of Nepal continued in subsequent trips, until he decided to use shopping for a Buddha as a conceit for writing this story, as well as a foil to explore his own personal problems. As he says in the book, it became a way to focus his trip and find the perfect Buddha pose that would “embody the state of mind that would fix me up once and for all.” Secretly, his hope was to reignite his stalled efforts in writing this book and talk about his conscious fear of success. “I mean, if the problem is fear of success and you can somehow eliminate the fear, then all that’s left is success: gleaming out there on the horizon like an illuminated skyline, brilliant, inevitable, you couldn’t miss it if you tried.”

When Greenwald begins shopping for Buddhas with his friend, he pokes fun at their bargain-basement approach to spirituality and enlightenment. “It was as if here, in this distant exotic land, we were compelled to raise the art of shopping to an experience that was, on the one hand, detached and almost Zen—our ultimate goal was, after all, enlightenment—and on the other hand, tinged with desperation, like shopping at Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s during a one-day-only White Sale: viciously predatory, and laced with the fear that the choicest Buddhas would be gone, snatched up if we hesitated too long or neglected to visit each and every shop the very day that new work was due to arrive.”

As we follow Greenwald on the mythical path of a hero’s journey, he encounters tests and trials along the way that challenge his misleading assumptions and beliefs, whether it’s his inability to recognize the high lama he has been seeking when she finally appears or his smug dismissal of a “self-styled guru” who predicts Greenwald will end up in a mental institution because of all his neuroses. Throughout his search he examines statue after statue, almost making the big purchase multiple times, but ultimately rejects them all for some minor flaw that makes him lose interest. We begin to wonder if he’ll ever find the perfect Buddha, but when he finally does, he is speechless and we are relieved. “I felt like a kid at Christmas time, staring through a frosted windowpane at the Flexible Flyer of his dreams. Images of coasting fearlessly across the thin ice of this particular lifetime, my new Buddha by my side, danced giddily in my head.”

Yet even when he’s finally reached his goal after a time-consuming search, he resists buying this perfect Buddha and walks away; it’s double what he planned to spend. As readers, we’re ready to strangle him at this point, but in a flash of insight, he changes his mind and justifies the expenditure. “What, I asked myself, is $650 if it can help me sizzle those two words—‘I’m afraid’—out of my life? What price enlightenment? Is it a bargain-basement commodity, or do you get it when and where you can, and damn the expense?”

The eve of his departure from Nepal, Greenwald takes an evening stroll under the full moon through Kathmandu’s market district and finds himself bewitched by it. “Time and again I could have sworn it was stage lighting, and that I had wandered onto a Hollywood set or into a dream. Every alley was a nook-filled diorama, ancient and crumbling yet awkwardly modern, still off balance after the past decade’s rough shove toward Westernization.”

As he watches troupes of musicians and parades of worshipers walk by, he suddenly realizes that he’s sitting in front of the chaotic marketplace where he has shopped for the last few months. “And as I sat there, marveling at the seemingly impossible transformation, the whole catalog of disguises that Kathmandu slips into and out of suddenly flashed across my inner eye with dizzying, flipbook animation. A city, I realized, becomes far more than a passive repository of its people; it can also play the role of magus, mask dancer and sage.”

As Greenwald heads home to the United States the next day with his statue, he learns than not even a perfect Buddha can work magic. A customs official at the Nepal airport examines his bag and confiscates the statue. Greenwald doesn’t have the necessary clearance tags, something he forgot to do in the frenzy to replace his lost passport and ticket. Despite arguing endlessly with the official, what happens next is the true source of his enlightenment and the invaluable lesson he was meant to learn on this journey.

Greenwald’s fascination with the many disguises of Nepal, which he calls “a vast spiritual fermentation tank,” is interwoven with his fascination for the many facets of Buddhism and the belief in bodhisattvas, something he discusses at length in the book. Bodhisattvas are beings who have attained the level of buddhahood or nirvana, and even though these enlightened bodhisattvas don’t need to be reborn again, they choose to come back to help all human beings become enlightened. As examples, during his talk he showed slides of people he believes are living bodhisattvas: people from the conservative end of the spectrum, such as philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, to the radical end, such as members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot, who are trying to reform prison conditions for female inmates in Russia. Instead of looking up to so-called “heroes,” Greenwald suggests that we cherish the bodhisattvas who surround us in our everyday lives, for they are the real heroes, the people who devote their entire lives to service. Greenwald ended his presentation with this parting thought: Don’t try to buy the perfect Buddha but try to be the Buddha of your dreams.

Dianna Costello is an award-winning writer/producer who has worked in film and television since 1986. She holds a master’s degree in film from the American Film Institute (AFI), a master’s in television/radio from Syracuse University, and a bachelor’s in English from the University of Massachusetts. Her short film Graffiti, produced while she attended AFI, has won numerous national and international awards, including an Academy Award nomination. Dianna lives in Los Angeles and is currently finishing her first novel, a supernatural mystery set on Nantucket Island.

A Poem on Thoor Ballylee

BY DIANE KENDIG

Diane wrote this poem when she visited Ireland with her one-quarter Irish husband the summer of 2003, after nursing her younger sister for two years until she died of cancer. It it is based on a trip to Thoor Ballylee (County Galway), summer home of poet William Butler Yeats, about which he wrote the following poem:



  To Be Carved on a Stone at Thoor Ballylee

  I, the poet William Yeats,
  With old mill boards and sea-green slates,
  And smithy work from the Gort forge,

  Restored this tower for my wife George;
  
And may these characters remain
  When all is ruin once again.

Diane’s poem also refers to the Yeats Memorial on St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin.


After standing in his long shadow
in a Dublin park, both of us heavy,
wearing loose long clothes, having lost
our dearests, I drove out
and wept upon arriving at this place,
reading its name on a plaque at the door,
here where he planted no bean rows
but came with his family, away from the war.
So we had that in common.

Then, I climbed the tower. 
I did not climb into his bed
as another writer told me she did.
I did not punch the buttons to hear
sonorous voices intoning his poems
against the stone stairs.

I climbed in the echo of my own steps
to the parapet, where, all around
I saw kilometers of green, blotted with white
so far off I couldn’t hear them bleat,
could not hear anything animal, nor
human, so far below, not a car
on gravel even. Not even wind.
Just a deep quiet, as of sleep, of rest.
I did not weep then but descended
ready to go all the way back, begin again.


This poem was previously published in the anthology Moments of the Soul (2010).  

Diane Kendig has worked as a poet, writer, translator and teacher for more than 40 years and authored four poetry collections, including The Places We Find Ourselves. A recipient of two Ohio Arts Council Fellowships, she has published recently in J Journal, Wordgathering, and qarrtsiluni. Find her on the web at  dianekendig.com and http://dianekendig.blogspot.com/.

The Notebooks

BY LOIS MARIE HARROD

Harrod re-read James Wright’s poem “With the Gift of a Fresh New Notebook I Found in Florence” after traveling in Tuscany, where she had lost her notebook. Still upset about it, she wrote the following poem.

Mine. Lost. Not found.
No amazing grace. Lost like a saint.

Left on the balustrade on the top floor
of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena.

Left to shuffle its scroll in the air.
The opposite of James Wright’s,

Fresh New Notebook Found in Florence . . .
This secret field of the city

down over the hill from Fiesole,
the gift of a fresh new notebook.

His empty.
Mine fat and full.

Child come almost to term.
Perhaps someone found it, saved it

passed it to another, said
someone left this up on the portico,

or shrugged, E ’in inglese,
laughed at the sketches,

non tanto di un artista.
tossed if before reading the lecture notes,

Christ’s foreskins
multiplied like loaves and fishes,

the degrees of relics and artifacts,
who touched, who did not.

Lighter and lighter as the seasons pass.
But, so far, this field is only a secret of snow.

Earlier we had been standing
in the Sala della Pace,

looking at the “Allegory
of Good and Bad Government.”

Even in that well-ordered city
the dress of one dancer

had disappeared,
that botch of empty fresco.

Afterwards we walked
through the rain.


Note: Italics (other than the Italian phrases) are excerpted and re-ordered from JamesWright’s poem “With the Gift of a Fresh New Notebook I Found in Florence” (1982).

Lois Marie Harrod’s 13th and 14th poetry collections, Fragments from the Biography of Nemesis (Cherry Grove Press), and the chapbook How Marlene Mae Longs for Truth (Dancing Girl Press) appeared in 2013. Harrod is widely published in literary journals and online ezines, from American Poetry Review to Zone 3. She teaches creative writing at the College of New Jersey. Read more of her work at www.loismarieharrod.org.
 

Interview with “California“ author Edan Lepucki

BY SETH FISCHER
(Reprinted with permission from The Rumpus, where it appeared July 8th, 2014)

Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, disturbed the hell out of me, but it also wrecked many of my assumptions about humanity, apocalypse novels, and how to think about fear. California is a novel built on a couple, Frida and Cal, who flee Los Angeles to the countryside after Frida’s brother decides to suicide bomb a busy LA mall, helping push an already breaking world past the tipping point. It’s by far the most terrifyingly realistic apocalypse novel I’ve read. It’s also—and I hope this soon stops being true—one of the most prophetic.

I’m lucky enough to teach for Writing Workshops Los Angeles, the outfit Edan Lepucki runs, so a little while ago, we made plans to get together to talk about teaching and her novel, California. By the time we finally chatted, all hell had broken loose. Amazon had just begun a long dispute with Hachette Book Group over pricing, leaving first-time and midlist authors as collateral damage. Stephen Colbert, upset that Amazon was using its clout as a bookseller to make it harder to buy or preorder Hachette books (including his own, of course), decided to invite Sherman Alexie on The Colbert Report to help him declare war on Amazon by publicizing a book by a new author and encouraging readers to buy that book through independent online booksellers like Powell’s. That author was Edan, and the book was California.

Ahead of the book’s release, Edan was featured in the New York Times, mentioned by Colbert countless times (both on his show and on Twitter), and increased her first printing from 12,000 to 60,000 copies. We chatted about publishing, the craft of writing, teaching, and what to do about the end of the world.


The Rumpus: The Colbert Report. What happened?

Edan Lepucki: My publicists at Little, Brown (whose parent company is Hachette) called me and asked, “Are you sitting down?” Then they said Sherman Alexie was going on Colbert to talk about the Hachette-Amazon dispute and he wanted to talk about a debut novel. I guess he really wanted to talk about a debut novel. I guess he really wanted to plug a new writer, and Little, Brown put California in his hands.

Then a few hours later he called me, and we chatted about the book and my background. Later that day, they told me it might not happen. And then the next day they said it was indeed happening. Sherman called me once more from the green room.

So that’s how it happened. Amazing people called me.

Rumpus: Had you ever met Alexie before?

Lepucki: No. I’ve been reading his work since college, though, so when he called me, it was like George Clooney saying, “Hi, Edan?”

Rumpus: What did he tell you about your book?

Lepucki: He said to me, “I can see why people are taking about it.” And then he said, “It’s really, really sad.”

Rumpus: He’s such a motor mouth, that guy.

Lepucki: Ha! He is such a nice, generous, funny, humble guy. The issue is that my book, and so many others, are not available for pre-order from Amazon. I hadn’t realized how much that mattered for new authors. And how much Amazon is hurting us.

Rumpus: Well, it’s funny, because reading the book, I couldn’t help but notice Amazon was one of the entities that was building creepy Orwellian “communities” where rich people could go to be safe. The others were Bronxville, Walmart, and Scottsdale. What company!

Lepucki: Yes! I have been waiting for someone to see my Amazon mention in the book.

Rumpus: It got me thinking. California has one of the most terrifying apocalypses I’ve ever come across, and I think it’s because of these little, true-to-modern-life touches. How did you go about inventing your apocalypse?

Lepucki: Thank you? No. Thank you!

It wasn’t so much a matter of me sitting down and creating the apocalypse but more like: I know LA in this future is fucked up. I don’t know why, but here I have two characters who have fled LA. Why? And I extrapolated from there.

It was an exercise in if . . . then, if . . . then.

Rumpus: So rather than build a whole speculative world and inserting characters, you built a whole speculative world from these characters?

Lepucki: I couldn’t have done it any other way. It’s small details, sensual experience, and brief memories that make a story. Frida’s memory of the Grove, which is this huge mall here in LA, made the whole apocalypse happen on the page. I ruined that mall, and from there I saw the whole city like that. But I could only see that through her eyes. For Frida, it’s the ruined mall she thinks of, and the stuff she no longer has, like coffee.

Rumpus: Well, the terrifying part was its banality, really. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing. In many other books, apocalypses are really extreme or sudden, even if they’re subtle. McCarthy has his “A long shear of light and then a series of low percussions.” Atwood has her genetic engineering gone wrong.

Lepucki: I am glad it’s resonated with people because, for me, most apocalyptic novels aren’t scary, because they feel so very far off.

I love The Road and Oryx and Crake, but they feel like they’re distant from our own world. California takes place in the 2050s, so it’s not that far off.

Rumpus: Right, and I think doing it that way means it’s not as heavy-handed. It’s not zombies. Not volcanoes. It is slow and grinding, unstoppable, and partially human-caused. Everybody can see it happening, but no one knows what to do about it. It sounds a little too familiar.

Lepucki: Right? It’s a bit scary to see my book come true: the recent (if minor) LA earthquakes, Hurricane Sandy, the Boston bomber, and so on—much of it stoppable, I think, and yet I, too, am also guilty of passivity.

Rumpus: I saw your son on Facebook today talking about your fear of camping. And I was like, Uh oh, how would Edan do in the world of California?

Lepucki: Oh my goodness, I hate camping. I would not last a day in Frida and Cal’s world. I am like Frida times 1,000. I have always been attracted to wilderness stories, à la the movie Badlands, when Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen are in the woods on the lam—maybe because it scares me a little.

Right, fear. California seemed to me to be all about secrets and the need for safety. And this leads to this thematic messiness I’m still trying to figure out what to do with. I mean, when it comes to the themes, this is nothing like an Atwood novel.

The messiness is nothing like an Atwood novel. For me, the deeper subjects are secrets versus intimacy, and how both beget safety but also threaten it. And there is a lot for me about loss, too.

Rumpus: Cal says, shortly after losing his mom, “The only reason to bring a kid into this godforsaken world is to give it a mother.”

Lepucki: Oh Cal.

Rumpus: I can’t shake that line, and I wanted to ask an unconventional question about it: How would Edan respond to him if she met him and he said that?

Lepucki: Well, first, I would totally want to make out with Cal. He is so tender and earnest. But, I think, honestly, I would squint at him and ask, “What happened to you?” Because there is something so sad to me about that line. I don’t know why.

Rumpus: It’s so sad—hopeless, even—and the question I’ve been dancing around just hit me. What got you interested in the types of questions that come out of writing an apocalyptic novel?

Lepucki: For me, even when I was pregnant, I wondered, Should we even have children if we’re bringing them into this horrible, scary world? But I did have a child, despite these fears—or because of them—and these fears are both contemporary and as old as time.

It’s funny, though, because I am not sure I knew what I was doing, writing an “apocalypse” novel, when I started this book. Now that the book is done, I can own that I have in fact written an apocalypse novel, one that speculates on a dark, dark future. Why I did it, I really don’t know—every time people read my work they comment on its darkness, its sadness. I suppose that it’s my impulse to mine, as a writer, these scary parts of ourselves and the world.

That said, a novel is a book about people—messy, flawed, inept, beautiful people.

Rumpus: Do you hope the novel helps readers see the world differently? Or changes things for the better?

Lepucki: I am not sure how a novel changes the world. I think it alters a reader’s perspective by asking him or her to see the world through another consciousness. That can perhaps cause people to see their own lives differently. Or just give a single day, a single moment, a slightly different sheen.

Rumpus: I can’t speak for the world, but for me, it raised a lot of questions about my perspective. I’ll start with feminism. There is a constant battle there between Frida’s desire for her own empowerment, the fact that she has to rely on men for safety, and the increasingly patriarchal society she’s living in. There was one line where the narrator says, “If she was honest with herself, she could admit that Cal’s gesture of protection turned her on a little.”

Lepucki: Yes, yes, yes.

Rumpus: And I live in an angry left-wing Internet bubble a little bit, so I kind of did a double-take.

Lepucki: Ha! I was interested in writing about gender in this future world where progress has not only halted but turned backward. On another note, sometimes the personal is not so politically correct, and what we are turned on by can’t be made to behave.

Rumpus: This is very true. But there seems to be a consistent theme that goes against my view of human nature, shaped in college, where I was taught that there was no such thing as a brutal state of nature. For example, in Calfornia, there are these mythical, brutal, sadistic, evil, feral pirates mentioned at the very beginning of the book. And even though it is totally obvious they were, I thought the pirates weren’t going to be real.

Lepucki: Oh, me too.

Rumpus: Really?

Lepucki: Ha! What a surprise when they were! You know, I tossed off a mention of the pirates early on. And they became integral to the backstory. Sometimes now I imagine them in the woods. They scare me. All men. Dirty and wearing red.

It’s not that I don’t support the idea of equality, and the liberal fight for justice. Of course I do. But I was also interested in a more complicated vision of society where there isn’t just one rich bad guy.

Rumpus: In California, the “do-gooders” who try to change things are called “the Group.” I don’t want to create any spoilers, but man, I think I can safely say that they do not come off looking very good.

Lepucki: Oh, but they start off so well intentioned! They are trying to change stuff, in their way. I think I struggle with the question of how to make a difference. Voting? Sending fifteen dollars to Planned Parenthood? Occupy Wall Street? Protests? Violence? Campaign contributions? Eating food you grow in a community garden?

Rumpus: What fascinates me most about this as a writing teacher is how you created this whole world, the Group, pirates, these fictional entities that bring up all these questions. And I imagine this is a new thing for someone who has written mainly from a more realist perspective.

Lepucki: Well, the book is realistic, even if it’s speculative, so that didn’t actually feel that different.

Rumpus: That’s a really important distinction. But you still needed to do more speculation, building backstory, no?

Lepucki: I did a lot of this through writing flashbacks. Many of the flashbacks took place at Cal’s school, and I eventually cut them because they didn’t seem essential and they slowed the pace of the story in the first third of the book. They were essential to me, though, in that I learned about my characters.

Rumpus: It’s funny you mention the pace because I was in awe of how much tension there was in this book and how the pace flowed because of that. I’m always wondering how people keep tension going throughout a whole book. I get short stories, but books are so damn long.

Lepucki: For one, I have a much harder time writing stories than novels. I need the expansiveness of a novel and the propulsive energy it provides. When I think about scene—and when I teach scene writing—I’m thinking about questions. What questions are raised by a scene? What questions are answered? What questions persist from scene to scene to scene?
I think that sharpens the intention of a scene and clarifies a story’s arc. Of course, I don’t seek the questions until after I’ve written a scene—or maybe after I’ve daydreamed it.

With my students, I don’t offer any simple tips like that, maybe because my own process is pretty messy, but when we workshop we talk a lot about the deeper subject, which is what the story or novel is about. I think defining a narrative’s themes can lay bare a narrative’s tensions.
With California, their fear and the secrets they’re keeping were always immediate, which gave the book a certain energy and dramatic tension. It was there right away and I was not about to let it go!

Rumpus: Given all this talk of the end of the world, I wanted to end on a happy note. Has your publisher told you how well this book is doing since it appeared on The Colbert Report?

Lepucki: Yes. As of this interview, it’s sold 6,400 copies from Powell’s alone, and it’s gone into its third printing. It’s insane, a miracle!


Featured image by Bader Hower.


Seth Fischer’s writing has appeared in Best Sex Writing 2013, Buzzfeed, Pank, Guernica, Lunch Ticket, Gertrude, and elsewhere. His Rumpus piece Notes from a Unicorn” was listed as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2013. He was a 2014 Lambda Literary Emerging Voices Fellow and a 2013 Jentel Arts Residency Program Fellow. He also teaches at Antioch University Los Angeles and Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Find more writing of his writing at www.seth-fischer.com, or reach him @sethfischer

With His Nora, O’Casey Strolled

With His Nora, O’Casey Strolled
Liz Dolan on Seán O’Casey
Dublin, Ireland

Seán O’Casey was born and raised in Dublin, but because his play The Plough and the Stars (third in a trilogy) received such a violent reaction at Dublin’s Abbey Theater, W. B. Yeats urged him to take his work to the world. He left, but sad to say, he never wrote anything as powerful as the trilogy of plays he wrote in the charming city of Dublin.


through the tall grasses of Stephen’s Green
and over the Liffey Bridge, sipped coffee
at Bewley’s on Upper Grafton Street.

She was a simple girl who needed not
his terrible dreams but a simple life.
Yet he felt as much at home with her
as when he chatted with his mother
by the fiery grate about the doings of the day.

Take your words to the world’s great cities,
Yeats urged. Beneath the shade
of the old ruined tower he took leave
of Dublin’s cobblestones and Nora
and his kin but could no longer
hear them talk a door off its hinge.

Liz Dolan’s second poetry manuscript, A Secret of Long Life, was nominated for the Robert McGovern Prize. Her first poetry collection, They Abide, was published by March Street Press. A six-time Pushcart nominee and winner of the Best of the Web, she has also won an established artist fellowship in poetry and two honorable mentions in prose from the Delaware Division of the Arts. She recently won the Nassau Prize for prose. She has received fellowships to attend residencies at the Atlantic Center for the Arts and Martha’s Vineyard. Liz serves on the poetry board of Philadelphia Stories. Her nine grandkids, who live one block away, pepper her life.

In the Hands of the Weaver

In the Hands of the Weaver
Deborah Guzzi on Cesar Vallejo
El Salvador, Lima, Peru

The poetry of Cesar Vallejo and the search for Pachamama, Mother Earth, brought Deborah to Peru. Vallejo’s book of verse Black Messengers [Los Heraldos Negros, 1918] expressed well her own feelings after seeing the slums of Lima.

There are in life such hard blows . . . I don’t know!
Blows seemingly from God’s wrath; as if before them
the undertow of all our sufferings
is embedded in our souls . . . I don’t know!

– Excerpt from Black Messengers


 

The air is heavy like a dirty woolen blanket
each colorful strand pulled through the warp.
Horns blare, traffic skids and screeches
unborn accidents aborted
by fancy-pants cops.
City slickers in posh clothes
zip toward the outskirts avoiding
dirndl-shaped pollera skirts
and monteras hats
as if ashamed
of their own roots or the neglect.
The road to Lima’s slum city
weaves along rough Pacific shorelines,
wefts past fishing villages
and cement factories with tangerine groves
each lane bringing the colors of modern life.

The oranges, reds, and pinks of fine fabric repeat
in on the metal surfaces of trucks, buses, motor cabs.
Each person’s destiny pulled and pushed
by the action of man, earth, and tide, forward,
ever forward through the dunes of Lima’s desert.
Invaders hug the hillside, thousands upon thousands
of rural poor driven from the teat of the Mother
by earthquakes and the terror of the Shining Path.
Mao lives on in the upheaval. Yet so does ayni,
the helping hand of neighbor,
the brown-skinned hand, more used
to the bobbin than the gun.

Here in El Salvador, they have come in oneness
a finished soul on a backstrap loom
dyed and drying in the heat
of Lima’s desert
they bloom.

First published at the age of sixteen, Deborah Guzzi has continued to write for the past fifty years. Her work has appeared in the literary journals of Western Connecticut University; she has also published two illustrated volumes of poetry: The Healing Heart and Heaven and Hell in a Nutshell. She lives in Monroe, Connecticut.

El Capitán of Isla Negra

El Capitán of Isla Negra
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo on Pablo Neruda
Isla Negra, Chile

Though many know Neruda for his love poems and odes, Bermejo’s introduction to his work came with a collection of allegorical prose poems called The House in the Sand (1966), inspired by his home in the small fishing village of Isla Negra. His stone cottage, sitting along a rocky stretch of Pacific ocean, inspired his “mystic sea” in such poems as “The Key”: “That is how I lost my key, my hat, my head. They were carried off by the ocean in its swaying motion. I found them on a new morning. They are returned to me by the harbinger wave that deposits lost things at my door.” Bermejo notes that with all his interest in the sea and sailing, he never sailed his own boat, which sat grounded at the back of the house and, according to a tour guide, was used only as a makeshift bar now and again.


He was known as El Capitán of Isla Negra,
But never manned a ship, nor was his isla
An island or black. For his wife, his corazón,

He built a home out of wooden planks
And sails in sand. Filled it with gifts of butterfly
Wings, unicorn horns, and pearled seashells

Hand plucked from the beach. At dusk they sipped
Rich red wine poured from enormous bottles
Of tinted blue glass, and toasted to their good fortune

Of their Camelot by the sea. But this perfection
Left El Capitán’s spirit swaying like the rolling
Water he watched from a bedroom window.
They say he feared white frothy teeth biting
Fiercely on the shore, but it was his corazón that kept
El Capitán on the sand. He witnessed how the
Ocean discarded lost things at his door, felt
Loneliness shivering in his back, and knew
He or she could be just as easily swept away.

El Capitán bottled his desires like he bottled
His boats, which he lined against the windows
of the house in rows. And caught wooden maidens

From the heads of ships, and locked them in
The parlor of his sandy hull. The tears of his
Captives grew so fat that the wood planked house

Began to sink under the weight of wanting.
To save them the ocean roared up thrashing
The shore and storming the foundation of the house,

The windows, and doors. Like that the house lifted
From its earthly holdings. Floating on waves, this is how

They say El Capitán made his first ocean voyage.

An earlier version of this poem was first published in PALABRA, fall 2009, issue 5.

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo is the poetry winner of the 2013 Poets & Writers California Writers Exchange. Her manuscript, Tonight She will Dream, is inspired by her grandmother, Los Angeles, and the Arizona borderlands. She is the creator and curator of Beyond Baroque’s quarterly reading series HITCHED and has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Award. Her work has been published in The Los Angeles Review, PALABRA, CALYX, and The Acentos Review. A short dramatization of her poem “Our Lady of the Water Gallons,” directed by Hollywood director and Chicano activist Jesus Trevino, can be seen at latinopia.com.

Going Into the Wild

Going Into the Wild
Joseph Aultman-Moore on Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild
(based on the true story of Christopher McCandless)
Interior Alaska

“Reason is the slave of passion” – David Hume

It’s been two days since my last ride. My right arm aches, thumb suffers from rigor mortis. The enormous backpack hangs on my shoulders like a toddler. The sun is sweltering; temperatures of 90 degrees are not uncommon in Interior Alaska. The two-lane road curves into the distance; spruce forest stretches to infinity around me, up to the snowcaps and dry tundra of Denali, a hundred miles distant.

I suck my water bottle dry and refill it with tea-colored creek water. The road is empty, which means another day of walking. A motor sounds behind me and I turn, stick out my thumb. Surprisingly, the clanky Range Rover stops in the dust ahead of me. Alaska plates, grimy windows. A middle-aged man is driving, belly brushing the wheel; a young woman sits silently in the passenger seat. They look nervous.

“You’re not a killer are you?” asks the man, whose name is Ken. I say no and try to laugh the tension away. They say nothing. The car rattles.
“Well then, get in.” I stuff into the backseat and we drive off.


When I first met Christopher McCandless, in Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, I had the joy of meeting a new friend. It was that rare emotion you feel when you click with someone. It would be a bittersweet friendship though, one that I knew ended in tragedy. Clearly, Krakauer felt something similar, as he writes in the introduction,

I was haunted by the particulars of the boy’s starvation and by vague, unsettling parallels between events in his life and those in my own.

I read Into the Wild when travel was peripheral to my suburban existence and books were central. Adventure books were a flash of excitement and I gulped them down, idolized the authors. National Geographic and Ernest Shackleton and Sir Edmund Hillary. I read Heyerdahl like Holy Scripture, Krakauer like the Koran. But Chris– Chris was someone like me. I never wanted to be him; I wanted to live with that same conviction, that lust for seeing and feeling and living. Chris’s death morphs him into a tragic figure; the story becomes more tantalizing. Could one do it right, make fewer mistakes and survive? Wasn’t it the ultimate dream of youth?


The first person to pick me up, Walter, is a man in his sixties. Horn-rimmed glasses and overalls. He is towering, thin, and so sinewy it looks like his bones are tied together with bass strings. The pickup truck is just as lanky. A handmade white canvas cover over the bed reminds me of a horseless Conestoga wagon. It feels like we are embarking on the Oregon Trail.

“What do you do, Walter?”

“I’m a contractor, looking to retire soon. Headed up to Anchorage for a new furnace–that’s why the bed’s empty, cheaper for me to drive up then have them ship . . . ” and he goes on. Walter is a good talker: soft, measured, and continuous. “. . . and I’ve been prospecting in these mountains for decades. There’s the creek! C’mon!”

He pulls the wagon to the side of the road and gets out. I watch, dumbfounded, as he plunges into the thick bush, then I jump out and follow. He steps over brush, mooselike; I whack through with my arms. There is a tiny stream, arched with alders and looking like it flowed out of a Sierra Club calendar. Walter wades in and inspects rocks, a clump of silt. He squints up at the mountain. “Yeah . . . yeah, there could be gold up there.”


When I decided to hitchhike around Alaska, I had been traveling seasonally for a couple years. Fresh out of college, no career, no girlfriend. It was my second summer in Alaska, and I wanted to see more of the Great Land before retreating from the wicked northern winters.

Why Alaska? What is it about this place? Alaska!–the word sounds like a mountain. Americans have been obsessed with the idea of the frontier since the days of westward movement and Alaska retains some of the mystique California held during the Gold Rush. Barry Lopez writes in Arctic Dreams: “This is a land where airplanes track icebergs the size of Cleveland and polar bears fly down out of the stars. It is a region, like the desert, rich with metaphor, with adumbration.” It drew Chris and it drew me.

I was sharply aware of the storylike quality of my surroundings–everything was more Alaska-y. The animals were wilder, the mountains higher, the roads longer, the people more caricature than I anticipated. I wallowed in it. “I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road!” I belted into the woods. I read Kerouac’sOn the Road and listened to the soundtrack of the film Into the Wild. I wrote letters and put my return address as “Park’s Highway, AK.” Sometimes I felt like I was watching a movie about someone hitchhiking Alaska.

I noticed that Chris wrote in third person, using his alter ego, Alexander Supertramp. He scrawled on the headboard of the bus:

Two years he walks the earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is The Road…. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the Wild.

Chris knew he was an idealist, a romantic. He knew he was young, naive, and inexperienced. That’s the thing about wanderlust, you can be fully aware of its insanity, its self-absorption, its sheer danger–and it doesn’t make a shred of difference.


The night is cold, black, and I’m a thousand miles from the people I love. Darkness lies like a damp shroud; my tiny campfire, a circle of flickering light, pushes back on it. Coyotes–what I hope are only coyotes–howl in the distance. I feel fear rising and suffocate it, drown it by singing. “Trailers for sale or rent, rooms to let fifty cents.”

I have never been so alone.

What am I seeking? Maybe nothing. Maybe just the romance itself, a story. But stories themselves, the stringing together and relating of events, exist only in our heads. The loneliness of solo travel is the realization that all of it– the pain and ecstasy and misery and hilarity and wonder–are yours alone.

In the most poignant moment of the book, a month before starving to death alone in the Alaskan wilderness, Chris scrawls in the margin of Doctor Zhivago,

HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.

Isn’t this why we tell stories– to try connecting the islands of human minds, to see the reflection of your face on another?


Ken, the Texan driver of the Range Rover, who took me all the way to Denali and then picked me up again on my way back down, said, after a sidelong look, “Sometimes you just got to do something, logic and reasons be damned.”

Lyrics from “King of the Road,” recorded by Roger Miller, 1964

Joe Aultman-Moore lives in Morgantown, West Virginia. He is a recent college grad and therefore loves any way of traveling cheaply. He and his brother have recently worked on farms and hitchhiked all over Ireland. Joe’s writing has been published in Verge Magazine and on his college’s web site, which doesn’t really count. A video of the trip can be seen on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBe9AZmcic8.