Over the weekend of June 25, 2016 at the Bronx zoo, two separate individuals were arrested for trespassing after they crossed posted boundaries and entered two exhibits separately—the  snow leopard and red panda. One of them, a reporter for the New York Post, was just trying to get some good pictures for a story. On May 28, not even a month earlier, a four-year-old boy slipped away from his mother and fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati zoo, and the tragic ending to this story suddenly made everyone in America an expert on parenting, gorilla behavior, and zoo design.

While troubling and often shocking, these stories are hardly new. Instead, they partake in a long history of sublime and violent encounters between humans and zoo animals, a history that resists easy explanations and online punditry, a history that repeats itself.



For an environmental writing conference, no one’s smoking pot. Not to my knowledge. Not to my discerning nose. Instead, participants, maybe seventy in total, are skipping the evening barn pubs to secure an easier early morning of bird watching—experts, as makeshift rock stars to this cohort, identifying fowl based solely on song. Our feathered friends remain elusive to Vermont’s dense canopy; we walk the trails in contemplation. Later, after breakfast, the afternoon workshops, classes, and readings commence. We fill our notepads with the wounds of the world.



Thank you. I’m thrilled to be here, and I appreciate the chance to talk with you about my new essay collection Be Cool—a memoir (sort of) from Dock Street press.


Well, great, congratulations, truly, should we get right into the questions?

Yes, of course, soft ball questions, right, I hope.


Yeah, sure, anyway, so, navel-gazing…?


becool-coverSplit Screen

We are hunkered down around the little white television we use to have.

The television was my then girlfriend Debbie’s when we were in college, and it fits our current surroundings: a somewhat dingy, much too small, yet hoping to be more, one-bedroom apartment, that is really just a studio with a wall.

It is June 17, 1994.

We are watching Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the Knicks are playing the Rockets at the Garden, and we are hoping to watch them go up 3-2 in the series.

We want this win, we are focused on the game before us, and we are not moving.

The Knicks deserve our full attention and they must have it.

This is their night.

This is our night.

At Daybreak

By Jasminne Mendez




Alabama. 1984. Mami is very pregnant.


Open your eyes and breathe life into your belly still swollen

with pain pills from the night before.


Papi is working the night shift as a guard on base

and his gaze is on the moonlight hovering over

Mami’s room in the barracks across the street.

She came with him “por si acaso.”



In the strip club, we watched the girls dance and Ben told me they were molested as children. Ben will move soon to study law in Virginia. He was above it—all those dancing girls. He said that without saying it. What he did say was that he couldn’t get into it about them, because he just knew what most of them have been through. No need to discuss. Then he bought his friend Dave a lap dance. Then he began to rub my leg.

“I don’t even know how we ended up here,” I shouted.

This was how I expressed feeling uncomfortable in a strip club—one that we had walked into through an alley. The alcohol wasn’t wearing off but it was turning inside me. The lightness of the first part of the night always gave away to the dread, the magnification of all the bad things. We did more shots as all the others bars had closed up shop. We smoked cigarettes. We were in the club because we ran into people who had better ideas than we did about where we should be.

Scott and Jen


By the time my debut novel came out in 2013, I had honed a one-word answer for when people asked me what the book was about: loneliness. Of course, it was about a lot more than that (immortality, magical realism, an enchanted herb, partition-era Poland, World War II, 1940s country music stars), but people can relate to loneliness—who hasn’t felt, at some point in their life, on the outside looking in? But now my second novel, The Summer She Was Under Water, has come out, and I’m struggling with that one-word answer. Often, I say the book is about a dysfunctional family, another great sales generator (just ask Jonathan Franzen or Gillian Flynn). That answer feels disingenuous, though, because there is a much more direct (and more uncomfortable), word to describe it: incest. Brother-sister incest, if you want to be really specific.

aaron-burchMy wife [Elizabeth Ellen] and I drove three hours to Ohio for a birthday dinner for her 93-year-old grandmother and drove back the same day. I drove there, got a little drunk at dinner on two Manhattans while Elizabeth had club soda, and then Elizabeth drove us home. I’d been putting off this self-interview because I’m a procrastinator, and also because I wasn’t sure what to ask myself, so I talked Elizabeth into helping me ask myself questions even though that didn’t really constitute a self-interview.


Blood comes before the scar; hunger before the apple.

–Leslie Jamison, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”



1. defending or protecting someone or something from attack: helping to keep a person or thing safe

2. behaving in a way that shows that you feel people are criticizing you


It’s not my fault the new rosebushes didn’t get watered. I was running errands, taking the kids to soccer and music lessons, and I have an essay for American Lit due tomorrow. Why didn’t you do it?

When my husband complains, I first point out that it’s not my fault, and then point out why he is culpable instead.

It’s not my fault the dinner burned. I had to get our son into the shower, and make our daughter do her homework, and couldn’t you hear the oven timer?

But more often than not, my husband was merely stating that the rosebush was suffering because everyone forgot to water it. He didn’t mention the burned dinner other than to ask, what’s that smell?

I grew up in south Louisiana’s Bible Belt. I read my Picture Bible, with its comic strips, until I knew all the stories. There were plenty of moments where Jesus gave women grace and forgiveness—the Samaritan woman at the well and Mary Magdalene come immediately to mind. But the women in the Old Testament were out of luck. Jesus wasn’t born yet.

BurchcoverI am fascinated by beginnings. I think this has always been the case, but it has certainly amplified since I began teaching. In part because they’re important, obviously; in part because they’re easy to teach. Middles, endings: those take context. It’s harder, if not impossible, to look at a large selection of endings, side-by-side, and analyze what works, and why. They work because of everything that came before. Conversely, beginnings work because of everything that comes after, but you don’t know that yet at their time of presentation. A good beginning should pique your interest, it should make you want to read more. It should make you start asking some questions—once your brain starts inventing questions, you’re involved, you have an interest, and now you want to keep reading, because questions need answers. A good beginning gives you all that and, too, in the parlance of creative writing classroom, it teaches you how to read the piece itself

morganandstefanyMorgan and Shuffy (Stefany’s nick name), why did you write a book about dead people?

Would you prefer that we write a book about live people? No, better the dead…


Are the essays in this book eulogies?

Yes…and no. We did try to take each of these dead persons seriously and therefore to write with some sympathy. In general, even with the living, we try to take people seriously and on their own terms. But the job of writing about recently deceased persons of note is not to say something nice simply for the sake of saying something nice. It is about digging and scratching at the lives in order to see what comes to the surface. Sometimes, this creates surprises.


deadpeoplecoverSun Ra

(1914 – 1993)

In the Egyptian section of the Penn Museum stands a man. He is next to a 12-ton sphinx and is wearing a multicolored dreamcoat. His beret shimmers; a red cape hangs about his shoulders. “Planet Earth can’t even be sufficient without the rain, it doesn’t produce rain, you know,” he tells the camera. “Sunshine… it doesn’t produce the sun. The wind, it doesn’t produce the wind. All planet Earth produces is the dead bodies of humanity. That’s its only creation.” The man pauses and slides his hand across the sphinx. “Everything else comes from outer space. From unknown regions. Humanity’s life depends on the unknown. Knowledge is laughable when attributed to a human being.”

IMG_7228 (1)


I don’t know how to write this essay. It’s smarter than me. I’m overthinking every line, every angle. I write it, and I take it apart. I hold a broken piece and try to fit it in somewhere else and stare for a long time and take it out again. Writing about family is complicated. Reading what I write about my family is complicated. Write, delete. Hold back, unleash. Delete, delete. I’m exploring the idea of family because I have some sort of family identity struggle going on because I always have a family identity struggle going on. Is this what happens when your parents get divorced? When your parents break do you break too? Divorce or separation doesn’t equate brokenness—doesn’t have to but usually does. People don’t get divorced because their relationship is going well. Divorce means something is wrong—so wrong the animosity between my parents is still palpable after twenty-five years.

I want to tell you stories about my parents, and I want those stories to reflect me with big psychological terms. I want to contain my identity in a manageable, cohesive space. This essay. I’m starting to think this is impossible.




July 8, 2016

To: Nelnet Education Loan Servicing, The U.S. Department of Education, the FSA Ombudsman Group
, and the Better Business Bureau of Nebraska

CC: Loretta Lynch, Barbara Lee, Barbara Boxer, Dianne Feinstein, and Barack Obama

BCC: The Nervous Breakdown

From: Ariel Gore, Oakland, CA


I am writing to make a formal complaint against Nelnet Education Loan Servicing and, by extension, the U.S. Department of Education that empowers them, for a pattern of willful incompetence that I believe amounts to fraud.

I entered college as a young single mom in 1990. I was told that an education was the road out of poverty. I did not take out any private loans. I took out the maximum government student loans recommended to me, and was assured they were reasonable based on the educational products that were being sold to me. Those loans amounted to less than $40,000. I did well in school and graduated from Mills College with honors in 1994. Instead of studying creative writing at the graduate level, I opted for a more “practical” master’s program in journalism and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1996. I have been on an Income-Contingent / Income-Based Repayment Plan since 2002 and have always made the required payments on time.

jacket copy smallerSwan Huntley’s debut novel We Could Be Beautiful is as literary and character-driven as it is a cleverly plotted page-turner. Forty-three-year-old Catherine West grew up with money. Eighty thousand dollars gets directly deposited into her bank account each month from the family trust. She owns an apartment in the West Village and spends her days with her masseuse or shopping for designer clothes. At an art gallery she meets William Stockton, who is rich, handsome, and happens to be an old family friend. As they fall in love and then plan their wedding, Catherine’s mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, faintly remembers sinister things about William’s past, including a letter from a nanny stating, “We cannot trust anyone…”

I found myself completely immersed in the world Huntley created, and not just because I read We Could Be Beautiful while living in Manhattan this summer and surrounded by the types of characters she details perfectly on the page. As scary as it is the narrative felt possible, maybe because Huntley wrote from experience. After receiving her MFA from Columbia University, she lived in a commune in Brooklyn and worked as a nanny for a family in Soho. Today, she lives in Northern California, where she was when I called her for this interview about We Could Be Beautiful.