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unnamedWhat or Who is Lum? Why is Lum the title of your book?

Lum is the name of the main character, short for Columbia. She tried to get rid of her childhood nickname and have people call her Columbia, but it didn’t stick. She is a thirty-three-year-old intersex woman living in Depression era Virginia. I tried to come up with other titles, but Lum sounded right.

 

Intersex? Is that like Trans?

No, “intersex” is an umbrella term for many conditions where a person’s genitals are not consistent with what is considered normal for males or females.

 

So she’s a hermaphrodite?

Intersex is the preferred term. Hermaphrodite indicates that someone has all the parts of both genders, which just isn’t the case. I picked a syndrome that Lum has, congenital andrenal hyperplasia (CAH), and then used the manifestations of that condition in her story.

unnamedA trail of fencing rode up and down the hills, cutting through the farmland. Small hand-lettered signs surrounded by black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace advertised tomatoes, squash, honey, apple cider, and peach wine. Al wasn’t slowing down, so Lum realized she’d have to ask. “Al, you mind stopping at Smiley’s a bit?”

“Sure thing. It’ll have to be quick. I could spend hours looking at his stuff.” Al pulled off the highway and Smiley strode toward the truck. Large freckles sprinkled his broad nose, spilling across caramel-colored cheeks.

“Howdy, folks.” He opened the door for Lum.

“Hello, Smiley.” Lum had known Smiley for most of her life. Five years younger than Lum, he’d accompanied his mother, the washer-woman, to their farm. “How’s your aunt and uncle?”

flgcy_main01

In the box where I keep this story, the woman in the doorway of the hotel room was tall and blonde. She had swept-back bangs in the process of growing out. At 2 a.m., the Flagstaff air was crispy outside. Jacket-weather already. Winter was on deck with its frost threat. Besides the front desk staff I passed on the way to the room and this blonde woman who was in my way, I hadn’t seen another person since I’d arrived. Most people were done for the night. I stood in front of room 234 of a Courtyard by Marriot waiting to be validated.

I was 20-years-old, and believed in terrible things. I thought Savage Garden made some pretty good music. Folgers made some pretty good coffee. And Drew loved me. Love, like lust-love, like he needed me in the middle of the night because the middle of the night is when you truly realize what you want, like it was crazy but understandable how he’d always burned or bit his tongue and that’s why he couldn’t ever kiss me.

“Drew is sick,” this woman said.

Not sick-sick. Drunk-sick. Curled in a ball while his body expressed poison. The metamorphosis. Toxic to non-toxic.

“He called me,” I said in the key of I don’t know who I am, my voice rising in pitch.

biosaraAfter school, Rachel comes over and we climb through the craggy hole in the fence and into the park. Everything is wet because it always is but we don’t care. We climb across the hillside to a patch of trees where Rachel likes to smoke cigarettes. We lie back on the grass and I listen to the leaves tap against one another.

“We should have a party at your house,” Rachel says for the hundredth time. Rachel loves parties and lugs me along on weekends. Parties are too chaotic for me but I am a teenager and that’s what we are supposed to do. Says who, I don’t know. Says Rachel. Rachel has streaks of blue in her hair because of course she does. She glitters everywhere she goes.

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Tell us about the most recent poetry reading you gave.

Last weekend I read for a series in Nashville called the Et. Al. reading series. The series has been happening for a while, but last weekend’s was the first to take place in the Sauvage arts space, run by my sister Lydia Gamble and her friend Ashley Boyd Jones. Both are talented photographers. Ashley collects and sells very good clothes (including a nice supply of vegan fur coats) and Lydia does a variety of fine visual art, including woodprints and some glass pieces. The reading felt extra-special to me because my mom, one of my brothers, and both of my sisters were there. The poems I read were some of my most personal and revealing I’ve ever written, I think, so it was really good to have my family there.

—After Catullus

My house disgusted me, so I slept in a tent.
My tent disgusted me, so I slept in the grass. The grass disgusted me,
so I slept in my body, which I strung like a hammock from two ropes.
My body disgusted me, so I carved myself out of it.

My use of knives disgusted me because it was an act of violence.
My weakness disgusted me because “Hannah” means “hammer.”
The meaning of my name disgusted me because I’d rather be known
as beautiful. My vanity disgusted me because I am a scholar.

My scholarship disgusted me because knowledge is empty.
My emptiness disgusted me because I wanted to be whole.
My wholeness would have disgusted me because to be whole
is to be smug. Still, I tried to understand wholeness

as the inclusiveness of all activities: I walked out into the yard,
trying to vomit and drink milk simultaneously. I tried to sleep
while smoking a cigar. I have enough regrets to crack all the plumbing.
I’m whole only in that I’ve built my person from every thought I’ve ever loved.

JT_Pic_EditThe back cover describes Academy Gothic as “hardboiled mystery meets academic satire.” How did you come to blend these two seemingly disparate genres?

The year I started Academy Gothic I was living on a steady diet of novels by Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. Those writers are remembered in part for their world-weary tone, and to a slightly lesser extent for their plots, but I’m not sure they get as much credit as they deserve for their sense of humor. This was around the time my teaching colleagues and I endured a never-ending procession of what might charitably be called indignities. Our offices, for example, were relocated to a former swimming pool in the school’s abandoned gymnasium. That our move paralleled the fate of the title characters from Revenge of the Nerds did not go unnoticed. A few of us, recognizing the futility of anger, appreciated the Kafkaesque qualities of our plight and persevered accordingly.

AG-FrontTwo yellow streamers formed an equals sign in the dean’s door frame. No one told me it was his birthday. The news might have been in one of the e-mails I deleted without opening. With the constant threat of staff eliminations, it seemed like a good idea to check the door for a card and add my signature. I got a few inches from his door. My eyesight is bad. Legally blind is one way to put it. It’s not how I like to put it.

Banasky photo1Your book seems a little morbid, just from the title. Is it morbid? Why are you so obsessed with death?

I’m not! At least, not any more than the next weird writer. The Suicide of Claire Bishop isn’t necessarily about suicide. It is about the fear of death more than it is about death. And sometimes what we fear most is actually what we desire, which is what Claire discovers in each episode of her life. She is very much afraid of and shies away from looking at her own depression. The book opens when she is sitting for her portrait, but instead the artist paints an image of her potential suicide. This painting of what she’s most afraid to look at in herself knocks Claire out of the stuck-place she’s in. We stick with Claire from her thirties to her eighties. As time goes by, she clues into what she really wants, who she is, what she’s hidden from herself—and it has little to do with what she’s been chasing (stability, a “normal” life, a nuclear family). So, no, I don’t think my book is overly morbid. I would call it hopeful, in fact. It’s about the connections forged between people who feel very separate and alone—often more alone with others than on their own. It’s about people getting comfortable in their own skin, shedding others’ expectations, and trying to figure themselves out.

the-suicide-of-claire-bishop-coverThe Escape

1959

 

They drove north in midday traffic, Freddie snotting on the steering wheel and Claire resting her forehead on the cool glass of the passenger window. Central Park. Then the Bronx and the Bronx zoo, the children standing on street corners in thin coats, their fists hidden inside sleeves, sleeves holding radios. She caught pieces of songs. At a stop sign she heard Ray Charles, his bent-branch moan. She nodded her head to it, and they drove on.

Q. So, tell me a bit about myself.

A. See Figure 1.

 

Fig1

 

BOTR_CoverDearest Elswyth,

All is lost. I am far from the road, and several times during the nocturnal hours, when my eyes were wide and no sound broke the stillness, I imagined I heard wagons in the distance, like the uncanny creaking of ghostly ships. A hunger dream —I imagined it was a supply of provisions. The cries of the men were punctuated by the cracking of whips, the clatter of hooves and wagon wheels. The sky was lit by a full moon and a host of stars, but I only saw gray silhouettes moving in the night. Animals, riders, whole caravans that flew from my eye when I tried to view them dead-on.

When dawn broke and the crying of the coyotes ceased, I was exhausted. I built a shelter against the sun with my blanket and some straight branches from a desert plant that has no name I know of. During the day and much of the night I vacillated between sleep and waking, trying to rest my weary mind. The sun is large and vibrates heat without ceasing. There was no shade in the desert, and the condition of my skin worsens.

Brooklyn Book Fest  2014

Jane: So Before Passing is great weather for MEDIA’s fourth poetry and prose anthology, with submissions opening for the next on October 15. As always, it’s a mix of fun, excitement, hard work, and very difficult decisions. David, we published you in our first collection, It’s Animal but Merciful. Any surprises moving to the editorial side?

David: When I agreed to working as an editor on the anthologies, I told myself to prepare to read a lot of bad work in order to find the good. What I have found is that there is worthiness in almost all the submissions we read. The challenge is identifying the pieces that belong together in a given book. Which is why writers should not despair over rejections.

By Rebecca Audra Smith, from Before Passing

***

I was kissing you, necking on
the Canal Street love boat. We edged up
in our seats and made some space for Jesus
to sit down. Tight squeeze, my kneecaps
knocking yours, my tongue still in your
mouth, not much room for his words.
Still, he started to preach. Jesus
is the man to call when you want
two women to pull apart. Jesus
is the place to go when you want
us to rearrange our bodies till we
sit decorous as flowers in a vase.
Jesus is the man to speak to
when you want to unlink our hands.
I haven’t space enough on this paper
to tell him that I will kiss you
wherever I fucking want to.

By Bob Hart, from Before Passing

***

Who knows how many worlds
have been ground into detritus
but they make such pretty stones.
One can collect them for
their sparkles or
their dullish characters;
ably make fairy tales about them;
wear them as
a savage wrapping around the
wrist or
round the loins; bed them
in a chapel floor or cavern’s casino copula;
press their patterns into flesh
as fashion or as torture;
grind out one’s eyes with them as guilty;
give them as worth
and still not guess
the distances they came from—
the processes that formed them.