Mural Speaks!

by Ben Miller

For two years I’ve been on an unusual mission. It involves collecting translations of the famous American poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” (William Carlos Williams) in each of the 140 plus languages currently spoken in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The effort is part of the preparation for a duel event in Sioux Falls and in New York City celebrating the often-unpublicized diversity of the urban Midwest.

Translators of all ages and skill levels—located anywhere—are welcome to participate in this public art project designed to build community across boundaries of many sorts—regional, economic, generational. To learn more about the genesis of the project, click here.

The project was inspired by my appreciation for the Meldrum Park mural created in 2013 by artist Dave Loewenstein and the children and staff of nearby Whittier Middle School. Each morning the seamless flow of mural faces and flags stands tall against the day’s Dakota weather—blue sky or storm clouds. It foists forth a bright vision of America as a place of harmony and rich cultural exchange.

Are we defined as a nation by our differences and divisions or by the greatness of our commonalities as human beings? Will we let our lives be debilitated by the poison of paranoia or urged forward by the healthy aspirations of freedom?

Though it might seem otherwise, these are not questions a discordant American election year has minted afresh. These are queries all people, in all epochs, have confronted and then answered. Questions that—whether we know it or not—shape every moment of our every interaction with loved ones, co-workers and anyone else with whom which we share offices, store aisles, sidewalks, roads.

When I think of these questions, I recall September 14, 2001, when I, and my wife, and millions of other New Yorkers, returned to our desks as World Trade Center rubble burned downtown. The quiet of the subway train. Its faces of all colors in pain, and how that hurt did not inspire violence but the opposite—words of gentle kindness as commuters shuffled in and out of doors at stops. “Take care,” we chanted to the strangers on either side of us. “Take it easy.”

We were armed with what? Our humanity alone. And it was somehow enough to carry us forward through that difficult day, and the many to follow.

The current translation count stands at 98.  These translations come from as far away as Kurdistan and Japan and Bangladesh, and from as near as the Black Sheep Coffee House located behind our home on West 10th Street. The youngest translator was a seventh grader at Edison Middle School in Sioux Falls last year.

To this point the project has progressed without a cent of formal funding (although staging the events will require some small measure of financial support). I have gathered the wide gamut of original translations via personal outreach and Internet postings, weaving—poet by poet—a cultural literary tapestry. I am particularly cheered by the fact that often the contributor from afar is a person who was previously oblivious to the existence of South Dakota but now knows otherwise—that there is such a state and in it, a city welcoming of art and artists.

A little over fifty languages still need to be covered before the events can take place in Manhattan and in Sioux Falls.

To participate:

  1. Pick a language from the list below and consult the poem’s English version. (Or send us a translation in any language you like: we accept duplicates in order to give readers alternate versions to choose from.)
  2. Put pen to paper or fingers to keys. Remember: perfection is not the aim here. Let your personal response to the poem’s images, and spirit, guide the work when word choice isn’t obvious.
  3. E-mail results to, along with a three-sentence biography, and the name of your favorite poet in the language you picked. This information will be included in the program to create a global bibliography of poetry that event attendees can take away and spend years exploring.


The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

LANGUAGES: European: Croatian. African: Acholi, Akan, Avokaya, Bari, Burundi, Erapice, Grego, Gurage, Hiadi, Kabila, Krahn, Kuku, Lango, Lakoka, Lango, Luganda, Mai Mai or Bantu, Mandinka, Mawo, Mondari, Moru, Murule, Ndogo, Nubiar, Nuer, Nyambara, Nyangwana, Oduk, Ogoni, Pojulu, Rafica, Ruel, Shilluk, Sholuk, Tekamah, Toknath, Zande. Asian: Bhutanese, Cambodian, Cantonese, Dari, Gujarati, Hindi, Lergdie, Nepali. Central and South American: Kiche, Mayan. North American: Ojibwe or Chippawa, Dakota, Nakota, Omaha, Ponca, Winnebago.

(Translations donated are for community events, and will not be published in any form. The author retains all rights: use is strictly joyful and informal.)

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anmural1Ben Miller, 53, proudly lives in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, with his wife, the poet Anne Pierson Wiese. His prose has appeared in Best American Essays, AGNI, Kenyon Review, Raritan, Yale Review, New England Review, Antioch Review and many other journals. He is the author of River Bend Chronicle (Lookout Books) and the recipient of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts (fellowship), the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University (fellowship) and the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America (research grant). Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.





by Laura Kolbe

I live most days in ritualized chaos, a condition hardly unique to medical residents, though perhaps the profession renders the tumult more starkly. I bike through Jamaica Plain and Mission Hill at 6, sliding between grocery trucks and Green Line trolleys. Every two-hundredth ride or so, I have an accident and fall over the handlebars like a fish to an ice chest. Most days I don’t. I pick out my white coat and stethoscope from the polyester haystack in the corner of a windowless computer room near the top of the hospital. I make my pager available for messages, and immediately the pages start, asking for medicines I hadn’t thought to order, kinds of food and drink I’d previously restricted, nudges to the front of the line for MRIs or CTs.

The least of these pages is instructive: other people are full of desires; they feel the snug, insistent wrap of their bodies as I do; they are extending themselves. I don’t like asking for things, and I assume most people don’t either. But here we necessarily are: quivers of punctuation, exclaiming and asking, glancing into each other. The pager beeps the same for men and women, whether what’s wanted is Tylenol or chest compressions. No one, thank God, is asked to set his or her parcel of need on a scale. I see all my patients before formal rounds; I hear them breathe and I squeeze their ankles for edema. I apologize for my cold hands.

I write when I can, which is more often than I would have believed before starting my medical residency. When someone skips her appointment in my outpatient clinic. When a lecturer is ten minutes late. When I come home at 2 am from the “twilight” shift, too sharpened by the night’s work and the bike-sprint home to sleep right away. While my boyfriend revises his novel; while our dog pushes a plush monkey into my non-dominant hand. I write on my phone, my palms, on duplicate EKGs. I should form a notebook-habit but I’m superstitious of it all drying up, the way weather does for the bearers of umbrellas. Plus I like to be a shade disastrous and iffy, when so much of my day is a clench towards control.

Little wonder that I’ve been drawn to series as a way of repeating the discontinuous, or continuing the unrepeatable. I started the “Imagining Marriage” series in my final year of med school. It was, at first, a chat with Marianne Moore; a way to talk to partners past and present without, you know, talking; and a place to confess and prod some of my more morbid and self-involved identifications (in the first poem: the cosmonauts of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, so deeply in exile from reality that they’re hypnotized by paper strips pinned to a space station airshaft, which rustle like a real backyard—c’mon, Laura, ICU shifts aren’t that long…). I went on, talking to the weirder scenes in War and Peace, to my childhood love of frontier tales, talking to my gluttonies, my intoxicants. Why do I continue to need others, and should I feel angry or grateful for this sticky dependence? The order of the poems changes as I find out where the story is going, so all numbers are provisional. When the arc feels wrong, I shuffle. When the arc feels right, I shuffle too, for the goad of discomfort.

Lately I’ve been doing the same in fiction, following a young medical student named Frances who’s more than a little Faustus. Like him, she wants to know everything; like always, the world’s holding out on her. She’s both meaner and more thoughtful than I am in real time. By putting her together sidelong and hopscotch, in unstably-sequential short stories that sift through shards of her larger story, I’ve made something smarter, more rancorous than I know how to do all at once.

Could I ever write a book-length poem, a novel? Maybe I’ll learn to stay put, attend to my breathing, to fix myself in some less slapdash sense of the present and glide calmly from there. I have to say, I’m not seeing it.  Right now it feels good to jump and pivot. One of the cliché admonishments among doctors is, “Don’t just do something; stand there.” The idea is that nine times out of ten, the sustained thought is more helpful than the scurry and the panoply of tests. Which is true, for humans healing humans. But when it’s my writing on the table—let’s order all the bloodwork, let’s turn it inside out, let’s tinker piecemeal at all the odd hours of the day and night.

Our emerging dire political moment requires, of course, all of the above: attention and sustenance, the dignity of the long and slow-fleshed thought—but also, yes, speed of response, speed of cry, the scattershot heat of the old stove that warms unevenly—here a spark against glass, there a blue coal rattling unkempt. I don’t know how I, we, will do all this with even mere adequacy, much less grace. There is altogether too much to learn and to do. But I don’t see a way to opt out without abandoning the first principles of poetry and medicine both. Find the pulse. Go where the blood is. Brave the surprise.

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Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbHLaura Kolbe’s poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Awl, The Cincinnati Review, The Colorado Review, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. Her fiction, essays, and criticism have appeared in Bookforum, The Literary Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. When not writing, she works as a resident physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Another section of “Imagining Marriage” appears in the forthcoming Yale Review. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

The Business of Observing the World: Annemarie Schwarzenbach in 1940

by Padraig Rooney

Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s third and final visit to America in the summer and fall of 1940 quickly raised old demons. This time the woman in her life was Margot von Opel, a Baroness married to Fritz, a wealthy car manufacturer. When Germany invaded the Low Countries on 10 May, the three of them were mid-Atlantic on the Manhattan bound for New York. On 10 June Mussolini brought Italy into the war and on 14 June Paris fell to the Germans. In the first of her articles written at this time, Annemarie reported on American preparations for war and her own misgivings. She shuttled between the lavish world of the Von Opels at the Plaza and Klaus and Erika Mann at the Bedford Hotel (now the Renwick) on East 40th Street—a bolthole for German and Jewish refugees of the “better sort.” There was more “tuna,” her and Klaus’s code word for morphine.  She had been a user since the early Thirties.

Carson McCullers in 1941

It was through the Mann siblings that she met the twenty-three year-old writer Carson McCullers, quickly smitten by Annemarie: “She had the face of a Donatello, her soft blond hair cut like a boy’s; her deep blue eyes examined you closely; her mouth was child-like and soft.”[i] This encounter led Annemarie to review McCullers’ prize-winning The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and the two writers exchanged letters over the next couple of years. Her meeting with Annemarie precipitated McCullers’ split with her husband and her move to the infamous rooming house at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn, in the company of W. H. Auden, the stripper Gypsy Lee Rose, Benjamin Brittan and his partner Peter Pears, the poet Louis MacNeice and a host of other luminaries. Writing to Annemarie in June 1942, McCullers looked back on their emotional encounter:

“I am glad you are going back to Switzerland. I wonder if you ever remember any of our talks in New York. You told me once about Sils, the house with the trap door and the ladder leading up to your bedroom, the room with the great stove. I never forget anything. Or at least I never forget anything about you. Let us try to believe in the world after this war. I feel so close to you. It is true that in the past I asked of you more than you were able to give. But all that is over, thank God. Remember only that I do love you.”[ii]

New York was awash with war refugees. Annemarie thought she might make a go of becoming a journalist in English, and drafted a typescript about Afghanistan on Nantucket in July-August 1940. As early as January 1937 she had had prints made of her negatives by the Black Star Agency that supplied magazines such as Life, Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post. In 1940 she acquired a New York literary agent and was beginning to sell her photos and articles to reputable outlets.

She followed Margot von Opel to the Vesper Country Club in Lowell, Massachusetts, in June 1940, where she wrote the piece on Carson McCullers that I translated (AGNI Issue 84). A couple of summer months on Nantucket brought matters to a head. Photos of Annemarie show her emaciated, blue under the eyes, wearing a natty blazer at the wheel of a Ford coupé. She took to the bottle and relations with Margot deteriorated. Annemarie liked causing scenes, indulging her own suffering and self-involvement at the expense of present company. Erika Mann’s letters suggest that ‘Princess Miro’ or ‘The Princess,’ as she referred to Annemarie, could be hard work.

Annemarie Schwartzenbach on Nantucket 1940

The Thirties were ‘a mixed-up and foreboding time,’ as the writer Sybille Bedford puts it. Much of that foreboding, and a punchy quality, make their way into Annemarie’s view of American democracy. As a Swiss woman—Swiss women had to wait until the 1970s and later for full voting rights—she is in a position to compare democracies, large and small.

Here she is in Pittsburgh describing those who have done well out of the Depression:

“On an early evening in January, under mizzling rain, we drove along Fifth Avenue where all the wealth of the city is concentrated: the Carnegie Museum, the Greek temple-style Mellon Library, all Parian marble and hewn stone. The soulless décor of the Webster Hall Hotel reverberated with the sound of several competing orchestras. Negroes manned the bar, heaving with commercial travelers, rich sons of good family, students, women in showy evening dress, accessorized with artificial nosegays and costume jewelry.”

By the second half of 1940 her personal demons and addiction had begun to take center stage. There was a noisy scene with alcohol and drugs at the Plaza Hotel on New York’s Fifth Avenue. An attempt to strangle Margot von Opel in her sleep, the death of Annemarie’s father in November, and a suicide attempt all played their part in unhinging a mind already bewildered by addiction. A sanatorium in Topeka, Kansas, was mooted. In December, after three days in a psychiatric clinic in Greenwich, Connecticut, she smashed the windows with her feet and had to be restrained in a straitjacket. At Christmas she escaped to New York, where the Mann family cold-shouldered her. In January 1941 she called up Carson McCullers who immediately took the train from Columbus to New York, where Annemarie attempted suicide again. She was taken in a straitjacket to Bellevue, the United States’ oldest public hospital, and after three days was committed for treatment to a private clinic in White Plains, Westchester County, New York. Her doctors, however, declared her insane, perhaps as a way of having her deported from the United States with no possibility of return. On 1 February 1941 she sailed for Lisbon.

A year and a half after she had been deported the United States, following travels in Portugal and the Congo, she returned to Switzerland. The “devastated angel,” as Thomas Mann called her, was seriously injured in a fall from her bicycle in Sils-Maria, and died on 15 November 1942 at the age of thirty-four.

Schwarzenbach’s writing and a fascination with her nomadic life revived in the nineteen-eighties with the emergence of gender politics. Her star continues to rise, and she is in print in German, French and Italian. Photogenic looks, cross-dressing, and a rock-star’s early death make of her a lesbian icon. The druggy traveling, the sharp suits and cars, seem contemporary. Posthumous fame is scant reassurance for writers, but she was able to get on with the business of observing her world in a range of formats.

Her America—post-Depression, racially divided, split along Civil War lines, exploitative—has come round again in our own time, if it ever really went away. In the year of Sanders, Trump, and Hilary, it is salutary to remember that a strong American left once fought for rights. Labor rights were a matter of survival—for the worker, the union member, and the Black underclass. Schwarzenbach had few illusions about the American Dream. She is an eternal Leftie commenting on dog-eat-dog capitalism, and as such deserves to have her voice heard in English in the land she came to observe with acuity and sympathy.

It has been a delight to return to the translating life—the translated life—begun a half century ago cribbing Latin into English and English into dog Latin, Irish into English and visa versa. That kind of multi-lingual education has gone by the wayside, but its translator’s joys returned to me in the small hours of the morning while working on this project—homework done in the nick of time before homeroom.

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rooney3 Padraig Rooney is an award-winning Irish poet and journalist who lives in Basel, Switzerland. The Gilded Chalet: Off-piste in Literary Switzerland (Nicholas Brealey, 2015) was described by Edmund White as “a superbly amusing guide to all the writers who’ve been drawn to or emerged from Switzerland.” Rooney is translating Swiss writer Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s American journalism from the 1930s.

[i] Carson McCullers, unpublished essay quoted by Josyane Savigneau in Carson McCullers, un coeur de jeune fille, Stock, 1995, p. 95-96.

[ii] Carson McCullers letter in the Swiss Literary Archives, Bern.

Use Your Words: The Political Power of Literature

by David Ebenbach

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.”
-George Orwell

It may be nonsense in our time, too.

In his essay “Why I Write,” George Orwell reminded us that lots of good writing springs from a “desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” He continues: “No book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

And writing has pushed the world. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was such a powerful and mobilizing call against slavery that Abraham Lincoln was said to have called Stowe (in a comment that is, strangely, both dismissive and admiring at once) “the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, an outcry against inequality and injustice, famously forced reforms to the food production industry that had been so harmful to its workers and consumers. In Stalinist Soviet Union, poets were persecuted because they were feared for their ability to nurture and inspire popular resistance; the poet Pablo Neruda was exiled from Chile for the same reason. Chinua Achebe changed the way the world looked at Western imperialism; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale galvanized a generation of feminists to take on misogynistic political forces; Orwell himself has left us properly wary of doublespeak and unchecked governmental control. The history of the written word is a history of impact.

Of course, in the 21st century, the picture may be more complicated. The potential reading world is inundated with captivating alternatives to words on paper: TV, movies, social media, streaming video, and all the other usual suspects. It’s probably harder to reach people with our writing. And yet the world still needs pushing—desperately. How can we continue to have influence?

Well, one thing we can think about is indirect influence. Many writers are also teachers, or participate in Writers in the Schools programs, all of which puts us in contact with emerging generations of people—people who will go on to shape the world. As it turns out, getting books into young hands is a powerful thing. For starters, literature has repeatedly been shown to increase readers’ empathy—something we need a lot more of in our time.

Or there’s the influence that comes from the power of literary community. Poets Against the War didn’t bring the second Iraq war to a screeching halt, but it ultimately produced Split This Rock, an organization that, year after year, raises up “poems of provocation and witness” and that has, through festivals, conferences, and youth programs, rallied many people to do some much-needed pushing themselves. Literature produces countless communities, big and small, that inspire and hone and launch voices into the public sphere.

But let’s not discount direct influence, either. Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen has shaped a national conversation on the ways racism can permeate our everyday social interactions; Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex has helped to complicate the public understanding of gender; novels like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, and Mahbod Seraji’s Rooftops of Tehran have brought a wide range of history into global view. And sometimes our work affects powerful people indeed; President Obama, for one, has cited novels like Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook as a major source of influence in his life. Even if we don’t quite reach the president, there are a lot of decision-makers in our world, nearly countless people we might find with our work. And each person we affect has the ability to affect others.

Besides, of course we can jump off the page if we need to—screenplays that get turned into movies reach a lot of people, good blog posts go viral, and after Jennifer Egan released her story “Black Box” in 2012 as a series of tweets, social media became fair game for the rest of us.

The point is that we probably still feel the desire to push the world—many of us more than ever in these troubled times—and that we have the leverage to do it. One thing we have learned from this election is that words still move people; they can incite fear and resentment—we’ve heard plenty of those kinds of words, lately—or they can inspire justice and empathy. We need a lot more of the latter.

If you’re a writer, you have gifts and skills that not everyone has. The world needs those gifts.

Put them to use.

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David EbenbachDavid Ebenbach is the blog editor for AGNI, and also the author of seven books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the poetry collection We Were the People Who Moved. He lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Georgetown University.

Sleeping Like Other People (or, Writing with Others)

by Ioanna Carlsen

I have a night out with the “girls”—what we do is write. Maybe it’s a kind of therapy, but I think we have something else on our minds. I think we are trying to be something rather than understanding what we are—we’re trying to be people who write.

One night a week this winter, even in snow, always in darkness, we leave our various lives and drive to an apartment downtown and write for ten minutes and then read what we’ve written. We do this three or four times during the two hours we spend in a room cluttered with chairs and filled with the scratching of pens moving across paper and the intermittent noise of a space heater.

We come from different parts of town—some of us are always late. We are all very different—some of us miss class occasionally, some of us never do. Some of us have families we have left to come here, others go back home to an empty house. But at some point, in writing, we all stumble onto the same things—mothers, husbands or lovers, and death. What we know of each other we find out here, in these fragments from our lives that get elicited by the subjects our clever teacher puts before us.

Altars, she says, or Porches, and everybody—their heads bent over blank paper, one with her boot heel stuck on a rung, another with red nails holding a blue pen—writes until the teacher, looking at her watch while winding down on her own piece, says stop.

Why do we want to be people who write—why are we here instead of putting children to sleep, or quarreling with a husband, or making soup? For all I know, some of us want to learn how to keep a journal, or some just want to get in the habit of writing, or some just want to meet others who write. And doubtless there are some of us who want more…one or two will be wanting the secret, the one that takes interesting ten-minute writings and turns them into stories or poems.

Some of us are shy and just trying their hand at this craft; some of us are old hands at it, and given the usual ten minutes will often produce a fairly finished piece, rounded out with a beginning, a middle, and end. But dutifully we all begin when told to and push a pen across a page on the subject of Aunts, or Moving, or The White Shirt, until time is up. Most of us will get no further than this class; one of us actually got published; most of us come back again.

Writing in class shows you, even if you’re an old hand, that you can write about anything and make it your own. Any subject, however odd, turns into a path you can follow into yourself. You can see your mind showing the direction it likes to take, the corners it wants to hop down into, the darker streets it turns down, and even the dead ends where it stops. You start to recognize your subjects, and the places you don’t want to go, which are, supposedly, just the places you should go.

Sometimes you stumble onto a subject that’s really “hot” for you. It could be anything, a phrase like “your tone has an attitude,” or “It was a common thing, “she said, “that you see in the city.” It could be anything, but it’s not—suddenly you’re deep in your own territory, writing about what you’d thought you’d forgotten, remembering what you didn’t know you knew.

You may not be sure of everyone’s name, but it would be easy to read through a pile of writings at the end of an exercise and attach each one to its writer. “What is Sylvia’s secret?” To one of us it is that she doesn’t have one, another doesn’t care and uses this as an excuse to write about a sunset, to another it’s erotic, to someone else it’s a mouse. You never know what oddity in the subject each person will hook onto, dragging it into the peculiar and idiosyncratic net of their life—those specific things it is only theirs to show. “My mother calls every week; after she hangs up I always cry.” Only one person in the class could have written that—the rest of us jot it down and take it home with us, maybe see where it gets us, and, for sure, think about it when our mother calls, or doesn’t.

Choosing to write for ten minutes on a given subject trains you to write at a moment’s notice, teaches you that writing can be a habit. E.B. White said that he found writing tiring because he had to look at everything as a possible subject. Everyone in class is getting to know what he meant. They also probably understand what Thurber’s wife meant when she said, (rather irritably I imagine), to him at a party, “James, stop writing.”

Some of us will return to comfortable houses, leaving what they did in class behind; but some will go home as to a cool cellar in which what they did in class will ferment like wine. Some of us will get the bug, if they didn’t already have it, of writing every day, writing in the mornings when the kids are at school, or at a bar after work, or while the phone rings and the timer on the stove buzzes. Some of us will write in the afternoon, and wonder where it went, and why it was so much fun losing it, and looking down, find whatever it was that was so engrossing—those black and gold high heels you wore last week-end, and where they went on paper.

After you’ve been looking at things this way long enough you can’t stop. Sometimes you get into bed and it’s late and the lights are off and you see a star outside the window just above the alarm clock’s round orange face on the sill—they’re parallel, defined by a window pane, and you think, I’m so tired, please don’t be an idea, please let me just sleep like other people.

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Ioanna self portrait croppedIoanna Carlsen’s poems and stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines, including AGNI, Poetry, Prairie Schooner, and Glimmer Train Stories. She received the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award for Poetry, and won the 2002 Glimmer Train Poetry Open. In 2014 she published a poetry collection called The Whisperer. She lives in the country outside Santa Fe, NM. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Living the Process of Dying

by Kelly Cherry

Writers who continue to write in old age—and as we live longer there are more and more such writers—often seek to write about death, which is not a pretty subject. Not a poetic subject. Except that it is a poetic subject by virtue of the poets writing about it. In other centuries many poets touched on the subject of death—we think particularly of Keats—but in our current century medicine stretches out the dying process, and poets are spending more of their lives living the process of dying. Dying is incremental, as a friend once pointed out to me when I exclaimed that I was falling apart piece by piece. “You don’t get it,” he said. “That’s how we die. Piece by piece.”

Well, that woke me up. Until then I must have been under the illusion that time would continue at its normal pace. To me that meant that I would go on writing more or less forever. Until, that is, some unforeseen tragedy shattered my world. A stroke, I figured, as I’d already had a silent stroke. I told my husband I didn’t want any extraordinary measures taken. I said, “If I can’t read, can’t reason, can’t write, or can’t listen to good music, let me go. In fact, shoot me.”

“Good” means Bach and Beethoven, a little Mozart, some modern compositions. Brahms’s Symphonies. Some Mendelssohn. Shostakovich. Hindemith. I could go on, but I won’t.

Having been awakened, I made lists of what I wanted to get done in the time remaining. A handbook about how to write better. Several collections of poetry. A book of flash fiction. A New and Selected Stories. A Complete Poems.

Now, I am not famous. I don’t have the big prizes. But I believe in my work. In spite of myself. Yes, in spite of myself, I believe in my work. Is this irrational? Maybe so. Other writers have been irrational, although I think I’m pretty sane. I’m so sane I make lists and check stuff off and send out Christmas cards and send toys to my deceased sister’s step-grandchildren. I fret about our finances. I pick off the grasses and small sticks our little dog brings in in his fur. Could one be any saner?

Long ago I planned to write a bookshelf of books. A number of them have been published. Some of the books I abandoned. Some I finished but couldn’t place. I have no agent. Though now that I’m focusing on poetry, an agent is unnecessary.

I’m still trying to finish the bookshelf. Naturally enough, now that I am as old as I am, some of the poems are about death. Death in WWII. In Vietnam. In Syria. Other poems curate memories of travel and the things I have seen. And still others explore the phenomena of physics. It takes me a long time to finish poems but I love writing them. I also love revising them. I like them. I’m proud of them.

I thank my friend for waking me up. Without his warning, I might have waited too long to do what I need to do. I will keep doing what I need to do as long as possible. May that be long, or long enough.

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KellyPhoto1Edit Kelly Cherry has recently published Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories (Press 53); A Kelly Cherry Reader (SFASUP); A Kind of Dream: Stories (U of Wisconsin); and a poetry chapbook titled Physics for Poets (Unicorn Press). A new full-length collection of poems is forthcoming from L.S.U. Press in 2017. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Losing My Self in Myriad Things

by Perle Besserman

The 13th-century Zen master Dogen wrote:

To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly. 

When I forget my self and am “taken over” by a character, there is no longer an author present to experience emotions from the outside. Occupying another person like this (or being occupied by him or her) leaves no gap between you, only the living embodiment of the varieties of human suffering or longing that might eventually drive a person to confront the existential human dilemma of impermanence. There are times, when writing, when I lose touch with the person I think of as myself, and start thinking and talking and even moving like the character in whose voice I’ve been narrating. So that, at the end of the day, my husband has to remind me to come back to myself, as it were, by commenting on my facial expressions or humorously referring to me by the name of the character I happen to be “living” at the time. It may sound complicated, but it’s really no different from experiencing water by letting go of thoughts about water and simply immersing yourself in it.

The same thing goes for place. I’ve always been extremely sensitive to my surroundings, wherever I find myself. The sheer physicality of an experience like walking through a market, for example, is so powerful that I am often entirely overtaken by its smells, sounds, and sights. And when I write about that experience of walking through the market afterward, I am just as immersed, just as fully “there.” Jerusalem, Kyoto, Brooklyn, Melbourne, Shanghai—where I’ve been, and even some places I’ve only imagined—are all me: pleasant or nasty, happy or sad, beautiful or ugly. Living in Hawai’i on and off for almost thirty years has taught me that nowhere, not even “paradise,” is free of what being human entails; unfulfilled love, spiritual disappointment, physical and mental illness, misplaced trust, and loss are all on the menu of myriad things available to the writer willing to lose her self in them.

Dreams, too, provide a vehicle for embodying the people, places, and experiences that constitute the myriad things of the world. Like losing the self in writing, dreaming is not a conscious process. You don’t deliberately construct a dream, nor do you look in on it from the outside or comment on it while it’s going on—you are simply one with it. Losing your self in characters and places and encounters that rise up to meet you in your dream as they do in waking life extends the range of myriad things that dissolve the boundaries around daily experience, too. My writing is at its best when my dreams and my daily life crisscross each other so there’s no distinguishing between them. When I wake up, I am sometimes so deeply at one with the scenery accompanying the action of the dream that it takes me several minutes to exit back into the world of not dreaming. Often, an image or a fragment of dialogue from a dream will result in a story, its setting, themes, and characters arising simultaneously from my daily-life encounters with people, places, and events. The connections between them and the forms they take are illogical, emerging into waking life like non sequiturs from the depths of my dream. Like the glimpse of a rat crossing my jogging path in Central Park while vacationing in New York this summer that merged with a line from the dream of the night before—“Get out of my garden, Ennis”—and became a writing prompt for a story about two sisters engaged in a fierce struggle for their gardener mother’s favor.

Depending on the time and condition, whether dreaming or awake or dreaming while awake, any aspect of an event or person or place can spark a “self-forgetting” creative moment actualized by the myriad things. One of my favorite writers, W.G. Sebold, included in his novels photographs from a variety of factual sources he found in newspapers, family photo albums of people he didn’t know, historical documents and maps—becoming a precursor of today’s radical genre-bending novelists, poets, artists, videographers, and musicians whose work is a mélange of sounds, bits and pieces of music and street noise, snatched café conversations, internet videos and Twitter postings. This is not to say that everything is art. (I still can’t agree with Jeremy Bentham that “Pushpin is as good as poetry.”) Just that, from a certain perspective, the myriad things of this world are always storying forth, crossing the boundaries of “fiction” and “fact,” “dream” and “reality,” “me” and “you,” in a continuing stream of narrative. The task for me as a writer is to lose my self in all that brilliant diversity.

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BessermanRecipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artists’ Colony in Jerusalem, Pushcart Prize-nominee Perle Besserman was praised by Isaac Bashevis Singer for the “clarity and feeling for mystic lore” of her writing. She has published three novels—Pilgrimage, Kabuki Boy, Widow Zion—and a linked story collection, Yeshiva Girl. Her forthcoming book, Grassroots Zen: Community and Practice in the 21st Century, co-authored with Manfred Steger, will be published in 2017. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.