AGNI at AWP 2017!

Hey, AGNI readers—are you going to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Washington, DC, next week (2/9-2/11)? Well, if you’re there, you can visit AGNI at our bookfair table (518-T), or come catch AGNI staff at any of these events:

Thursday, February 9:

  • 9:00-10:15 am: AGNI Poetry Editor Sumita Chakraborty will be on the panel “The Craft of Editing Poetry: Practices and Perspectives from Literary Magazine Editors” (Room 209ABC, Convention Center, Level Two)
  • 3:00-4:00 pm: AGNI Blog Editor David Ebenbach will be signing his new short story collection, The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories, at the University of Massachusetts Press table (872)
  • 4:30-6:30 pm: AGNI Social Media Editor Rachel Mennies will be reading in the off-site reading “RHINO Reads!” hosted by Rhino Poetry (Sixth Engine, 438 Massachusetts Ave NW)
  • 8:00-10:00 pm: AGNI, along with Pleiades, American Literary Review, Boulevard, cream city review, Gulf Coast Journal, and PoemoftheWeek.org, is hosting a “Magnificent Seven” reading of magazine contributors, including Chen Chen, Alice Elliott Dark, Matt Donovan, David Keplinger, Shara McCallum, Gregory Pardlo, Caitlin Pryor, Maggie Smith, and Ryo Yamaguchi (Bayou, 2519 Pennsylvania Ave NW)

Friday, February 10:

  • 3:00-4:15 pm: AGNI Editor Sven Birkerts will be on the panel “Susan Sontag and the Authority of Authorship” (Marquis Salon 6, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two)
  • 4:30-5:45 pm: AGNI Blog Editor David Ebenbach will be on the panel “Writing Neighborhoods: (Re)Creating the Places We Live” (Liberty Salon M, Marquis Marriott)
  • 7:30-10:30 pm: AGNI Non-Fiction Editor Jennifer Alise Drew will be reading in the off-site reading “Selected Memories Book Launch & Gathering” hosted by Hippocampus Magazine (Capitol Yacht Club Clubhouse, 660 Water Street SW; RSVP requested)

Saturday, February 11:

  • 9:00-10:15 am: AGNI Social Media Editor Rachel Mennies will be on the panel “Money, Power, and Transparency in the Writing World” (Marquis Salon 6, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two)
  • 3:00-4:15 pm: AGNI Blog Editor David Ebenbach will be on the panel “Small Press, Big City: 45 Years of Washington Writers Publishing House” (Marquis Salon 5, Marriott Marquis)

We hope to see you at AWP—come on up and say hi!

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Reader Response Theory? A Participatory Review of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick and Amazon’s I Love Dick

by Emily Stone

Dear Dick,

Oh, God. This is so good. This feels so right. I am breathless.

I have only ever written about infatuation. Now I have a cat. I had to disentangle myself from her, all of us in bed together, to write this.

I first met you on Amazon Prime, jetlagged and longing, my partner sleeping in the next room. You were Kevin Bacon on horseback in a series pilot without a series, getting at some kind of elusive, disjunctive truth. Digital editing keeping you in sharp focus while everything was soft behind you, digital distribution making this kind of ruminative ironic project possible on a television screen. As a character, you were every possible combination of person and fantasy, of interpretation and adaptation, a memory of a review essay about intertextual imaginings of you in the New Yorker. From the first time I met you, you were a palimpsest of other people’s projections, Chris Kraus’s epistolary novel of ricocheting between New York and LA as an independent filmmaker in the 1990s superimposed over Ben Lerner’s Marfa, a “weird meditative lyric” cannibalizing its own influences. Time, place, and critical context shifted, the game continuing. When I saw the new paperback, Kraus’s original novel reissued by the press run by her ex-husband, in an art bookshop in East London, I felt for the first time in a long time that I could participate.

Is it possible that I was supposed to vote for you on Amazon, to say that I wanted to see more? Did I have some kind of weird power after all, deciding whether the series would ever be made?

Back at my hotel, where I rediscovered that luxury of being by myself, where I had been upgraded to a suite with a table and chairs and a couch running the length of the room in sweatpants motif, I gave my silent consent. I agreed to enact Chris Kraus’s project. For Chris, too, the counterpoint of this and every story was Guatemala. I discovered longing there, and so writing. I met my first Dick there, playing with the name. That was 2001. He was an Air Force pilot. He was a Republican. I wonder if he survived the Bush years. I wonder now what he has to do, if anything, with Donald Trump. I was in London for a photography course, a course on visual culture and Instagram and competing and finding an audience. In one or two interstitial moments, my classmates asked me, relic of a time when the internet was about text and not image, for writing advice. “Why bother?” is advice I really have given, not meaning to be ungenerous. “Who’s listening?” This time I said, try writing for an audience, even if it’s private, to help you decide which choices to make. Was I inspired by you? I don’t even know you.

At the end of 2016, I woke up in this same light, unable to distinguish between my partner’s breathing and the sounds of a snow shovel hitting the pavement outside our window, outside our lives. That is true. That is private. This morning, I woke up wondering if I should cultivate an audience on Instagram, colleagues on LinkedIn, and friends on Facebook. What is Twitter for? My professional life is like my personal life. I want to be alone, so I don’t write, then others don’t write, and I feel lonely. As an author previously published here, I have been invited to write about my work on the blog. I have wanted to participate.

How to write? I said I let the connections, the links, build up. The perfect time to write is when I see enough connections to put something together, before I see so many that I’m worked up into a frenzy. Last term, one of my own students, a college freshman, pointed out that, speaking from experience as an individual with bipolar disorder, seeing connections between ourselves and everything we encounter is a hallmark both of clinical mania and of the first-person essay. This student, I came to understand, was unsatisfied, both in life and in my class. I sympathized deeply, on both counts, but I kept my distance in the hopes that such an experience could be a private, personal, independent one for my student.

There is a sunset clause on this letter, or a sunrise clause. I have to be finished by the time my partner gets up to go to work. Because I have to get back to my bourgeois life. Goodbye, Dick. I loved your solitude before I ever met you. I have always loved your chest exposed to the sun, your memories of your childhood in the English Midlands, your house at the end of a desert dirt road. I sincerely apologize for all invasions of your privacy.

Yours,

Emily Stone

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27ef868543abf9c4e16439c1aeb8f0bdEmily Stone is very proud to have published her first “literary” piece here on AGNI Online in 2008, and her work has since appeared in Tin House, Fourth Genre, and The North American Review, and been included among the notable entries in The Best American Essays and The Best American Travel Writing. She teaches expository writing at NYU and maintains the website Chocolate in Context.

Don’t Get Hysterical, Get Historical—and Mythical

by Rachel Hadas

Precisely a week before the dreaded inauguration, I found myself thinking about work written by Euripides, W.H. Auden, Walt Whitman, and—a couple of months ago—by some of my students at Rutgers-Newark. In however zig-zaggy and haphazard a fashion, allow me to try to join this constellation of dots—or as Auden put it in “September 1, 1939,” these “ironic points of light.”

A graduate seminar on myth in literature I taught this past fall met on Wednesday afternoons. On November 9, I walked the students through “September 1, 1939.”

To the best of my recollection, not one of the dozen of them (both MA and MFA students) was familiar with Auden’s work at all. Marilyn Hacker, in her trenchant essay “Poetry and Public Mourning,” reminds us that “Auden wished to excise some of his early political poetry from his oeuvre because he had ceased to hold the convictions there expressed: many readers go on reading these poems, wherever they stand in their politics.” It’s well known that “September 1, 1939” was widely circulated on the Internet after 9/11. It’s also the case that some people quickly began to refer to November 9, 2016 as “11/9.”

The reading on our syllabus that week was Euripides’ play Iphigenia in Aulis. And although for part of the afternoon Iphigenia yielded air time to Auden, her compelling and nightmarish story continued to preoccupy the students. In addition to Iphigenia in Aulis and Iphigenia among the Taurians, we’d read Barry Unsworth’s hard-hitting 2003 novel The Songs of the Kings, also about the sacrifice of Iphigenia by her father Agamemnon and his henchmen, and we had seen Michalis Cacoyannis’s 1978 film Iphigenia, which adheres closely to Euripides’ language. An ambitious father, a nubile daughter, an angry mob: “Iphigenia? Ivanka?” asked my student Ariel. Logical? Not exactly. Compelling as a parallel? Undoubtedly. For her final project, Ariel, a poet, wrote a short play on the subject. Another student wrote a dialogue, another a sequence of poems—all works that took these young women (all women) outside their usual generic comfort zones and that considered the ugly but endlessly ambiguous story of the sacrifice from multiple angles. No myth has a single or simple meaning; to understand it, you almost have to retell it, and in retelling it you can’t help changing it a little. “The forms of the tales that work survive, and the others die and are forgotten,” writes Neil Gaiman of myth in The View from the Cheap Seats. True enough; but just think of all the teeming life forms stories take before they become (as some certainly do) extinct.

Are the classics irrelevant? Walt Whitman thought so. In “Song of the Exposition” (1871) he wrote:

Come Muse migrate from Greece and Ionia,
Cross out please those immensely overpaid accounts,
That matter of Troy and Achilles’ wrath, and Aeneas’, Odysseus’ wanderings,
Placard “Removed” and “To Let” on the rocks of your snowy Parnassus…”

Whitman calls for “a better, fresher, busier sphere, a wide, untried domain.” But his breezy optimism, his airy dismissal of stale grievances, didn’t seem to pertain to the world we found ourselves living in last fall. Instead, my students were mesmerized by the darkly compelling, ironic, and multi-faceted story, which varies in every retelling, about the ruthless father and his daughter and the political backdrop against which the drama plays out.

Myth, I tell my students over and over, presents not a lesson but a vision, and lets us make of that vision what we will. At the tail-end of 2016, I was drawn back to Auden—not “September 1, 1939” this time, but to New Year Letter, a long and immensely eloquent poem Auden wrote a few months later, about politics, art, and much else. I’d remembered and sought out again the ominous notes this poem strikes at the start, his matchless evocation of global jitters leading up to World War Two. But I’d forgotten the wonderful passage, also quite near the beginning of the poem, in which Auden authoritatively puts the case that art offers neither realism nor an easy set of instructions but rather

An algebraic formula,
An abstract model of events
Derived from past experiments,
And each life must itself decide
To what and how it be applied.

What does all this have to do with the Trump era we’re being pulled into? Well, that words matter; that the classics retain their relevance, even if only because (as Auden puts it in “September 1, 1939”) “we must suffer [it] all again.” That we have to keep thinking for ourselves; even great literature of the past presents no easy answers. That the insistent tweet of the present mustn’t drown out the past or the future. Robert Frost reportedly said at a dinner party in 1960, “Don’t get hysterical, get historical. If they get some sense of historical background they’ll see how these things happen over and over again.”

Writing, teaching, journalism—these occupations, these vocations and avocations are more important now than ever. In the immediate future, they may become endeavors that call for more courage than many of us have at our disposal. Maybe we won’t need our courage; maybe we will. Some of us will find it. Time will tell—mythic time as well as the other kind; the past as well as the present.

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rachel_hadas_hiRachel Hadas is the author of many books of poetry, essays, and translations. Her most recent titles are a memoir, Strange Relation (2011); The Golden Road (2012) and Questions in the Vestibule (2016), both poetry; and she’s completing verse translations of Euripides’ two Iphigenia plays. She is Board of Governors Professor of English at Rutgers-Newark. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Lorca the Marginal on the Marginal

by Matthew Landrum

I read on a panel at Signal-Return letterpress in Detroit during banned books week this October. Taking a step beyond banned books, the panelists were asked to read work about or translated from authors who had been imprisoned, exiled, or killed. I read Federico García Lorca, a poet who wrote about the marginalized of society while being marginalized himself.

I worked up a version of “The Ballad of the Civil Guards” for the reading. It gave me chills delving into Lorca’s imaginings—a black-clad militia storming a festival, setting fires, shooting indiscriminately, assaulting and mutilating gypsy women and girls—knowing his fate at the hands of Franco’s soldiers, arrested and summarily executed on charges of socialism, freemasonry, and homosexuality.

The poem opens with civil guardsmen riding toward a city, their horses’ hooves muffled. Against this impending menace, Lorca sets a scene of surreal beauty and calm. City of cinnamon towers, of moons, pumpkins, and cherry preserves, / who could look at you and not be love-struck? The threat and the surreal festival meet when the civil guard enters the city—pandemonium ensues.

In October, the poem’s depiction of the wanton use of excessive force seemed immediate enough. Events since have brought to sharper relief the importance of Lorca’s poetic witness on the oppressed and disenfranchised. Lorca’s took its stand through poetry. He spoke for his beliefs, his lifestyle, and for the abused fringes of society. His brave outspokenness cost him everything.

Lorca writes about the aftermath of the raid—The soot, the ashes, the bodies, the mosquito song / of stray bullets—you will see them on our brows for years to come. Those silent marks on the body, the private griefs and pains that follow atrocities. His work brings those into the public sphere. It stands in the solidarity of witness. His time and place needed poets to speak up and ours does too. It’s always a time for witness.

I hope I’ve done some justice to Lorca’s vision and voice (I take comfort in the fact that he himself did experimental translations transmogrifying traditional Arab, Galician, and Andalusian sources), especially in his depiction of brutality and injustice. One of the things I love is how the act of devotion and deep reading that is translation brings me closer to another author. And in this, it’s also my hope that his vision of justice and witness can help me better speak to this time and place.

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landrum
photo by Kurt Simonson

Matthew Landrum holds an MFA from Bennington College. His poems and translations have recently appeared in The Michigan Quarterly Review, Glass Poetry, and Image Journal. He lives in Detroit. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.

 

Writing to Speak to the Dead

by Radhiyah Ayobami

I write as a way of speaking to my dead. I never consciously acknowledged this until I had a conversation with my mother recently. We were reminiscing about my grandmother and her deep orange-brown sweet potato pies, her way of sitting outside with a cigarette and cup of peppermint tea and heckling people from her porch—Hey man, why your head so little? It has been five years since she transitioned into the Great Big Yonder, and she still lives in our stories. At the end of our conversation, my mother said, I wish I could tell her how much I enjoyed her. I said, I’ll tell her. There was a pause.

Back when me and my mother lived in the same city, and sometimes even in the same house, I never said things like that to her. But I live in California now, 3,000 miles away from Brooklyn where I was born, and I’m old enough to have traveled a little bit, seen a little bit, and have a teenager with hair on his chin. I’m also finally brave enough to say who I am. I could make her less uncomfortable and speak into the pause. I could laugh my statement off as a joke, ask about her dog, and the weather in New York. Rainy? Windy? Snowing Yet? Weather is always safe. But I remain silent and finally she says, I don’t know what you’re talking about—I don’t talk to dead people. I say, But I do.

It’s hard for me to think about my ancestors as dead people—to me they’re just folks who live in the Great Big Yonder. I feel like I know them as well as people I see right in front of me, and this is probably my grandmother’s fault. The first stories I remember were hers, and all about growing up in a small town in Virginia, ten miles wide. Today, that town is an exit on the freeway that boasts one buffet, a discount store and a couple of budget motels. Back in her time, it was a town of farms that one drove through on the way to bigger and more exciting things. There she was raised, by parents who were sharecroppers, with her eleven brothers and sisters. (My grandmother would have never used a word like siblings. And since this is her piece just as much as it is mine, I won’t either.) I would never meet most of the people in her stories—they had long ago traveled to the Great Big Yonder. But when I sat at her feet as a little girl, playing with my dolls as she weaved stories, the people she conjured up were just as real as the neighbor next door who brought us over fat slices of homemade red velvet cake in Saran Wrap or the white-bearded preacher in his flowing robes that hollered and sweated and fell out every Sunday. The people in the story became real—and they were mine.

My grandmother’s stories were not child-friendly, and had she known about that concept I’m sure she wouldn’t approve. She was born in 1931, and black Southerners of that generation generally didn’t believe in hiding things from children. If it was grown folks business then a child knew better to question or comment, but survival for everyday living had to be shared. To hide the facts of the world might mean severe trouble or death in a land where they lacked human rights. So even before I started school, I knew how my great-grandmother, Mama Mary, had been snatched by a man when she was just a girl and had given birth to a baby boy who was later raised on an Indian reservation. And I could see what my grandmother called the boy’s hang-dog look as he crouched near the porch wanting to see his mother, while her new husband forbid it. I knew how Mama Mary had taken a child from the arms of a mother who was giving him away because she was going to jail for killing her husband—and how that little boy became one of the rowdiest uncles in the family. He wore the loudest suits, toted the longest rifles, drank the stiffest moonshine, and was always running from the law. I knew about the light-skinned and the dark-skinned side of the family—how the lighter side lived up on a hill and had a little land and looked down on the darker side, who were sharecroppers. I knew Mama Mary was magic—how she went around the town with her midwife bag and bundle of herbs grown in her garden, and she delivered babies of the poor and healed the sickly and had an extra plate for everyone—while her own son was chased from her door.

My grandmother didn’t do morals; she told her stories and you got what you got. Sometimes they were sorrowful and sometimes they were full of life. She loved to talk the years after the family migrated to Brooklyn and became settled. Back then, Brooklyn was a city where everybody was from down home and you could walk into anyone’s kitchen and smell pig feet boiling or be served a plate of fried chicken necks, backs and gizzards. Every woman kept an endless kettle of greens, white potatoes and fatback on the stove while Mahalia Jackson or Shirley Caesar wailed from a big floor stereo. Somewhere in each of those houses was the Holy Bible on its own stand, a shining picture of Martin, and the long-haired Jesus. All up and down Eastern Parkway were the organizations people had formed to survive, and when these folks weren’t busy surviving in the factories and rooming houses and storefront churches, they were celebrating—the down home folks had got citified. There were the dances kept by Daughters of the Eastern Star and the Masonic Temples, and regular old house parties and rent parties where folks propped speakers in the windows and the women in the house cooked down a full plate with a drink for a little pocket change.

And my grandmother was beautiful. Even though she wasn’t from the light-skinned branch of the family, she wasn’t what she considered ‘too dark’ and her eyes were hazel and changed color with the sun. Her hair was thick and black, and when straightened it curled limp and glossy over her shoulder as she stepped out in her sequined dresses and heels, splashed with rosewater. She was twenty years younger than her husband, and could read, write and mingle easily with anyone—and her husband had none of these abilities. He was the son of sharecroppers who had only done one year of school and had a Southern drawl that could be hard to understand. He knew two things well: hard work and drinking. And he did them every day. He also did things like mix up lye and boiling water in a bucket and threaten to kill his family, and drank up his wages so my grandmother had to take her small children downstairs to the neighbor lady and leave for work at the hospital early in the morning while the sky was still dark. Sometimes, softhearted male co-workers dropped her home, and her husband cursed at her and accused her of cheating. In this marriage, my grandmother stayed for decades.

My family would sit around the kitchen table and laugh as they told these stories. They would start, Remember when… and it was ultimately some story of a man in the family who hurt someone by stabbing, mixing up a deadly concoction or pushing someone through a plate glass window. (All true.) The women were also equal opportunity assaulters, but they were more subtle—they poisoned with a handful of leaves or a sprinkle of dust tossed into the stew. Or got hold of a few of your short hairs and burned a candle and Lord knows what could happen then. Some of the stories were funny to me, but whenever I heard about my grandmother and her husband, I wanted to cry. I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to mix up something in a bucket to kill her when she laughed all the time and called everyone chile and shared everything she had in her sweet southern way. I wanted to know why the men in our lives were allowed to behave so badly. And because these weren’t questions I could ask my older relatives, I became a writer.

In my writing, I can ask the questions never would in real life. I can dream up the things I don’t know and make my own endings. I can let the women be warriors and still be loved by their men. I can imagine the women with their long rifles, aimed steady and sure, declaring they and their children won’t be abused. And I can see them sitting in the porch swing with their men at night, watching the stars and the long grass in the fields rustle.

Finally, I can give Mama Mary a happy ending. In my version, her teenage son lopes up the steps like her husband once did, and she peers out the window and sees him standing at the door. She places a lemon cake, warm from the oven, on the center of the table next to a butter knife and two shiny clean saucers. On the table, a pitcher of lemonade, chock full of fresh cut lemons and plenty sugar. The doorbell rings and her smaller children shuffle in the living room, ready to meet their big brother. She opens the door and finds herself looking at the young man with her face, and the family’s trademark honey eyes. The boy is thin, fidgety. Not knowing if he will be accepted. And all she can do is open her arms wide and say to him, Welcome. The story shifts, and we heal. This is why I write.

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radhiyah-blue-1 Radhiyah Ayobami is Brooklyn-born with Southern roots. She holds a B.A in Africana Studies from Brooklyn College, a MFA in Prose from Mills College, and has received awards from the New York Foundation of the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Currently, she lives with her teenage son in Oakland, California, where she is at work on her first novel and the trees give her poems. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Things Ayurvedic Doctors Have Told Me

by Shahnaz Habib

One of my favourite things to do when I go home to Kerala is visit an Ayurvedic doctor. Ayurveda is an ancient medical science that originated in India. In America, Ayurveda is delicious-smelling creams at Whole Foods, plush spas, soy candles and massages in exotic sandy beaches that seem to exist only in travel magazines. In Kerala, Ayurveda is poor people’s medicine. It is wizened vaidyas in small, dark offices that smell of herbs and hard work. It is bitter brownish-black potions that you drink while pinching your nose to avoid smelling them. There are of course high-end resorts with tall walls that are laced with pieces of broken glass. But Ayurvedic clinics and hospitals tend to be matter-of-fact places where doctors tell you unpalatable truths. Over the years, I have heard some, and in this, its bleak view of life, Ayurveda is very much the fruit of Kerala soil. In my essay in AGNI 84, “A Letter to my Daughter About Palindromes,” I write about the rudeness of my mother-tongue, its can’t-do attitude, its tough love. When I visit Ayurvedic doctors, and they shake their heads and dispense their glum wisdom, I know I am home.

  • Here is your medicine. A bitter potion for the morning and a very bitter potion for the evening. Do this for six months. Wash your feet with warm water twice a day. Avoid eggs and tomatoes. That’s the first phase of the treatment.
  • You won’t be able to do it. You will eat tomatoes. I can just see from your face. You will not be cured.
  • The face says everything. What you say is nothing compared to what your face shows. You think this is superstition. It is, in fact, a science.
  • In the old days, the food was made at home, and the toilet was outside the house. Nowadays, the food is from outside and the toilet is inside the house.
  • Yes, we have room for patients. But I am requesting you, unless you are seriously ill, don’t get admitted. There are thousands of people who are sicker than you. They need us. If you want a massage, go to a resort.
  • This is what elephants eat in the forest when their stomach aches. They are smarter than us. If it is good for them, it is good for us.
  • Yes, this oil smells. It has a special herb that can be harvested only once in six years. That’s if you can find it at that time—in the mountains. We do not ask such a herb to smell nice.
  • This medicine will not work in America. It was meant to be used in the weather here. The weather is an important element of every cure.
  • You want an appointment this Wednesday? Can you come at 3 AM?
  • You think you are eating organic food. How can it be organic when so many people in the world cannot afford it? What is organic about that?

Why is such pessimism so medicinal? Several years ago, I was unemployed and some boy had broken my little heart and I was walking around the city feeling doomed in the way only twentysomethings can. Then one day, I was talking to a monk. We sat under a tree and I cried, “I just want to know that things are going to get better.”

“It will not get better.” he said. “This is how life goes. You suffer and you suffer. You might forget this boy and you might get a job, but then you will suffer about something else. Life is just an endless series of suffering. Do not expect it to get better.”

And immediately I felt better. Immediately. What? I didn’t have to be happy? I didn’t have to get better? Sadness and suffering is normal? So there was nothing wrong with my suffering? My monk friend was not lamenting that life was suffering. He was simply stating it as a fact. The tree we were sitting under, the bench we were sitting on, the green coat I was wearing, his ochre robes, the suffering in life: these were simply realities, to be accepted. It was not his job to make these facts more palatable.

When pessimism becomes the new optimism, you stop expecting life to treat you like a server you will be tipping heavily at the end of the meal. Instead of asking “why me?,” you start asking “why not me?” You feel the softness of the ground underneath; you notice that the river of melancholy is always flowing nearby.

But sometimes, the tyranny of niceness can mask this perspective. The banality of “It’s going to get better,” “I am fine, how are you?” “Everything happens for a reason,” and “This is great!” can make us forget that every little joy has to be deftly fished out of the river of melancholy as it flows by you quickly. This is why I savor the loving rudeness of Malayalam. When I visit Ayurvedic doctors, I know I will not hear polite nothings. When the person you are talking to does not feel obliged to be likable, your interaction with them can become more honest, more intimate. And so in my own writing, I try to resist the temptation to be likable. I am curious about the relationship that opens up between a writer and a reader when the writer’s goal is not niceness, likability, happiness.

A few weeks ago, during the Malayali harvest festival of Onam, I heard about a Kerala restaurant in the outskirts of New York, where they were serving the sadya, the traditional banana leaf feast. I gathered some friends, persuaded the only one among us with a car to drive, and off we went. I spent the whole ride worrying if the food would be any good, if this Wednesday afternoon wild goose chase into the suburbs would be a waste of time. When I walked into the restaurant, the chairs were arranged in a long row (as they would be at a sadya at a temple or wedding in Kerala), not facing each other the way it is in restaurants. “Can you rearrange those chairs around a table for my group?” I asked the server in Malayalam.

“Absolutely not,” he replied.

I knew then that the meal would be delicious.

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shahnaz-fidel-photo Shahnaz Habib has been published in Agni, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Elsewhere, the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, the Caravan, Afar, and other magazines. Shahnaz is the founding editor of Laundry, a literary magazine about fashion. Born and raised in Kerala, India, Shahnaz works as a press officer for the United Nations and as a creative writing instructor for Gotham Writers’ Workshop as well as Bay Path University. She has received awards and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, I-Park Foundation, and the British Council. Find out what she’s published in AGNI here.

Big Five: Our Top Blog Posts in 2016

Happy New Year! As we look back on 2016, we thought we’d revisit the posts on the blog that have drawn the most readers. Check them out if you haven’t read them yet!

#5: Designing Time: The Idea of Plot in the Lyric Essay
by Tyler Mills

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“The lyric essay must transform our ‘erratic assemblage,’ moving them into meaning like the night sky that turns toward morning. The constellations change positions, and we pick out their patterns from the chaos of darkness. The crisis that spins everything toward the main thing is realization. Realization is what the mind does with these observations. Realization is what the mind does with the world. Realization is the heart of the lyric essay—what makes it move, what makes all of its light-riddled parts hold together.”

 

#4: Stanislavski in the Ghetto
by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

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“Someone much smarter than me once said that the act of writing while black is a political act. But the idea is broader than race. I believe the principle is true of all groups who don’t have access to the full panoply of human rights.”

 

#3: The Ultimate and Decisive “Is Poetry Dead” Article!
by David Ebenbach

David Ebenbach
“The ‘Is Poetry Dead?’ articles are coming. Often they show up in National Poetry Month (April), but they can appear at any time. Spring or Fall, day or night. Maybe you’re in the middle of writing poetry, or reading it, and you look away from the poem—only for a second, but still—and there, on social media, out from behind a curtain or something, jumps the article, screaming: IS POETRY DEAD IT’S TOTALLY DEAD ISN’T IT DON’T LIE IT’S DEAD I TELL YOU! DEAD! DEAD?

 

#2: Living the Process of Dying
by Kelly Cherry

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“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.”

 

and…our most-read post of the year:

#1: Is Poetry True or False?
by Ben Purkert

Purkert
“I now teach my own creative writing course spanning three genres: non-fiction, fiction and poetry. Invariably, poetry proves the hardest to define; it plays by a different set of rules, while seemingly breaking all of them. But if the formal conventions of poems can be tough to untangle, just as challenging is poetry’s relationship to lived experience. Non-fiction and fiction announce themselves on a basic level: the first is what happened; the second is what didn’t. So where does poetry stand, my students ask. Is it true or false?

Thanks, everyone, for a year of conversation, and we’ll see you in 2017!