While you’re waiting to hear the results of our 2014 Fiction Prize, or getting your essays ready for the November 15 opening date of our inaugural nonfiction contest, why not check our this interview with Lisa Beebe–the venerable finalist for our 2013 Fiction Prize–whose story, “Wildflowers,” appears in Indiana Review issue 36.1? Answered here are questions asked her about her piece, the benefits of being open to discovery, and using your phone to this end.
After your check out the interview, be sure to read “Wildflowers” online here.
2013 Fiction Prize Finalist
I am tired of data, tired of spreadsheets, tired of life, but I have to be at work in forty-five minutes. Half awake, I put on my glasses, and notice something strange on my arm. Little spots. No, not spots. Strange dark hairs. No, not hairs either. My eyes focus. Plants are growing out of my skin.
“This can’t be good,” I say to myself. I don’t freak out, though. I’ve always been hairy. The little sprouts feel like a new kind of hair, another sign of getting older that I hadn’t known to expect.
I go into the bathroom, poke around in the drawer under the sink, and find the tweezers. I choose a stem at random, one near my left wrist, and pluck it out.
Mary-Mother-of-Jesus-in-a-Bathtub, that hurt.
Often a debut collection will satisfy a reader’s hunger pains only to be wiped away after the initial reading like stubborn crumbs. Laurie Ann Guerrero’s A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying defiantly demands a place at the table. This collection offers sweet and savory poems that invite the reader into a domestic sphere where all is not as it seems. Poems like “Babies under the House,” “Esperanza Tells Her Friends the Story of La Llorona,” and “My Mother Woke a Rooster,” signal the intensity of full-bodied language that is delivered throughout this tantalizing debut.
Guerrero’s complex narratives rely on powerful bodily tropes such as bone, skin, and tongue. In the introductory poem, “Preparing the Tongue,” she writes, “In my hands, it’s cold and knowing as bone.” Language assumes the form of a tongue “Shrouded in plastic,” which the speaker carefully unwinds. She craves “to enchant it: / let it taste the oil in my skin, lick / the lash of my eye.” Instead of employing domestic language generally associated with meal preparation, the speaker forcefully admits that she will “lacerate the frozen muscle, tear / the brick-thick cud conductor in half to fit / a ceramic red pot.” It will be painful, if not bloody, and by the end the “frozen muscle” will be transformed into sustenance for the body. These poems are crafted out of urgency for consumption.
Throughout the collection, Guerrero asks what it means to have a tongue with no voice, to suffer quietly, to rewrite history. A series of poems titled “One Man’s Name: Colonization of the Poetic,” explores the caustic relationship between heritage and language. In the final installment of the series, Guerrero writes:
Write the body well, I say.
Pink man, write well, write body.
Little pink man: write books,
write history, white history: Cortéz
and I have the same hands: grandmother.
Bodies ripped with babies and men: molcajete:
pounded, blood-red dust, pigment
for painting. Art. Framed in gold.
In her visceral debut, Guerrero hacks away unnecessary language “like an axe murderer.” By relying on careful lineation and striking imagery, she weaves a complex tapestry that displays a body ravaged by history. She sews images together with language like a skein of blood red embroidery thread. A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying reveals what it means to conquer with, and be conquered by, imagistic language.
Guerrero’s poems are not silent. Like a raging rooster clawing its way across a tin roof, these poems demand the reader pay attention. In “Put Attention,” the speaker remembers her grandmother’s inability to translate Spanish into English, thereby butchering her own demand for the speaker to “Ponga atención.” “Put attention, put attention. Put it where?” the speaker asks. “Shall I put attention in my glass and drink it soft like Montepulciano / d’Abruzzo? Like Shiner Bock? Horchata?” With each poem Guerrero petitions, “Put [your] attention somewhere large.” A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying repeatedly dismembers large issues like family, race, and history in an effort to make them more digestible. Through careful construction, these poems become palatable bites that leave the reader feeling satisfied instead of overfed.
There are some writers whose work tends to itch the insides of your ears long after you have put the book down and gone on to do your usual things. Although there are many writers whose works stay with me, Matthea Harvey’s Sad Little Breathing Machine is a poetry collection I feel very lucky to have grown acquainted with. Portions of Matthea Harvey’s writing find me when I am making figurines out of bubbles in the dish soap or humming to the white noise of the A/C in my Elantra. I find the music in this collection meticulous and sentient. ‘[This] little Narrative is so adorable’ quips one of the characters in Harvey’s “Once Upon A Time: A Genre Fable.” I also find this to be true. I cannot think of many works I think of as both adorable and melancholic. The fact Breathing Machine pulls of both makes reading it a pleasure to come back to, and the kind of book one continues to develop a different relationship over time, as one matures, like The Little Prince and its heart-breaking love between a boy and his rose.
Much like the writers Indiana Review celebrates with the Half-K prize, Matthea Harvey does not burden Sad Little Breathing Machine with a definition for the kinds of writing we are witnessing. Is it a collection of poetry? Are portions of it micro-fiction? Breathing Machine is more about the recognition that different stories demand different types of narration—different states of embodiment. I relish the ambiguity of genre in “Baked Alaska, Theory of.” I love how a “country song” resides over the narrative’s complicated protagonist like a benevolent soothsayer to the perils of father-daughter relationships: “O the flesh is hot but the heart is cold, you’ll be alone when you are old.” Not even the enchanted princesses of this other realm are immune from the friction of a family dinner. As a reader, each time I go back to portions of Breathing Machine, I feel continuously delighted by what I uncover in these well-crafted pieces. As a writer, each time I return I gain a greater appreciation for the cogs maneuvering this machine and its craftsman’s quiet handiwork.