@

Claire_Hoffman_Greetings_from_Utopia_Park

So Claire, why did you decide to write a memoir?

I don’t know. I mean, I’ve been working on this project forever. I’ve always felt like it was really important and meaningful despite a number of obstacles. But now, on the eve of its publication, I can’t help but think of all the other things I could have done with my time.  Why didn’t I use all that grit and perseverance on something…bigger?

 

Like what?

I could’ve gone to medical school.  That’s just like one thing that comes to mind.  Or, you know, written a novel. Or been a better mother.  Or become an international newspaper correspondent.  Or maybe all of those things—I could have become a medical doctor who wrote a novel on the side while also being a much better parent and also doing some dispatches from war zone.

Natashia_DeonHey, Natashia Deón!

Hey, gurl!

 

Do you mind if I ask you questions that you’ve been asked recently? Can I start with what that silly lady asked in the Take-Out line?

I have nothing else to say about that lady. I’m happy now. I have snacks.

 

What are you eating?

Chicken tamales. And this is Tapatio sauce.

51KRen5JVcL._SX331_BO1204203200_-275x413Flash

Faunsdale, Alabama 1838

 

The knockin’s always there behind the wall in Momma’s room. I call it Momma’s music. My sister Hazel calls it Momma’s tired tune, a shrill note sucked and blown from a stiff reed.

Hazel’s the closest thing I got to a good daddy so she never beat me for misbehaving, never leaves me long, and never tries to touch me the wrong way. She keeps me safe in this world, keeps me safe from the knockin.

We sit in the back of our dark two-room shack, huddled under a blanket together. She’s trying to drown out Momma’s song with her hand cupped over my ear, fogging it up with her whispering, telling me we gon’ play a game called, “Let’s see who can fall asleep the fastest.” But after ten minutes of trying, even the late of midnight cain’t shake my eyelids free so now me and Hazel gon’ play a new game. It’s called “Who can be the quietest the longest.”

Song

By Anton Yakovlev

Poem

I will move into a dream home to enhance my image.
I will furnish it with an elephant, build an extra loft and a hearth.
After I shop, the coziness aisle in the department store will be empty.
But at night, I will dream that we’ve never properly said goodbye.

I will put a stuffed bear in a microwave, make him toasty
and hold him to my heart, imagining his affection.
I will floor passersby with space-age flower shows in my windows.
But at night, I will dream that we’ve never properly said goodbye.

mom_profile (1) (1)

 

What I hide by my language, my body utters.

—Terry Tempest Williams

 

When she teaches me, I am six or seven, afraid of letting go of her hand, but with her gentle push I finally find my balance on those two metal blades, alone in the middle of the ice, everything spinning around me.

My mother claps her hands for me then circles wide, taking flight. One foot over the other, her skates scissoring madly, the breeze blowing back her bell-bottoms, her arms swaying freely at her side.

She is light, beam first then scatter.

In many ways, the greatest praise we can bestow on a piece of art is to say it inhabits its world so fully as to define it. Whether we’re talking about Flannery O’Connor or Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway, the writers we come back to, the ones who maintain readership and critical attention, often capture their environments to such an extent that their claim on the territory comes to supplant the reality they once sought to depict.

What would 19th century England mean to us without David Copperfield and Oliver Twist? What would 20th century Paris be without The Sun Also Rises? Even though film’s more overt, incandescent iconography has overtaken the literary in the popular consciousness, one of the written word’s chief uses remains its role as historical document and anthropological source, a record of the things that animate geographies and eras, nations and civilizations. And let’s be clear: Even today, there would be no cinema without writing. Whether in the form of novels and stories that provide jumping-off points for screenwriting or the scripts themselves, the production of the images that become our shared memories could never happen without the written word.

The Nervous Breakdown’s inaugural Microbrew showcases the diversity of American letters. Realist and fabulist, lyrical and metafictional, novels and stories, novellas and poetry. Drawn from small and big presses alike, this is a group of writers engaged in the work of claiming their territory, defining their worlds with such linguistic precision and clarity of vision that those worlds, if we’re lucky, begin to feel like our own.

Claire_Hoffman_Greetings_from_Utopia_Park

Claire Hoffman is the guest on the latest episode of the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast. Her new memoir, Greetings from Utopia Park, is available now from Harper Books. 

Get the free Otherppl app.

Listen via iTunes.

Cathy DaveCathy Alter: We spent a lot of time thinking about celebrities and thinking about what our crushes (and by “our,” I mean the collective our) meant to us back when we had them and what they mean to us now. So the first thing I want to ask you after bathing in the stew is this: If you could be any celebrity for a day, who would you be?

CRUSHcoverWhenever I am asked about my favorite books, I inevitably mention the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. As a child, I read these books with devotion and obsession. They were so full of vivid descriptions of settler life. Oh, how I wanted to make candy with maple syrup and snow. Laura, aka Half Pint, was bright and willful and charming. These books showed me that it was possible to tell stories about being a girl from the Midwest, like I was, and have those stories matter.

And then, of course, there was Almanzo “Manly” Wilder. If I have a first love, it is that man of good Midwestern stock. I loved him because he was always steady, true, handsome, courageous, strong. He tamed wild horses. He was a hard worker. He was good in a crisis. He loved fiercely, deeply, and knew how to be romantic in subtle, unexpected ways.

Transcendental Meditation 

51VevgN9+YL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_When I was five, my father, an alcoholic playwright, left $50 on the kitchen table and vanished. My mother quickly found herself broke, unable to keep up with the rent for our Upper West Side apartment in New York.

She had no money, but she did have something else very precious to her: a guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who earlier that year had issued a call to his followers around the globe. Come to Iowa, he’d said, to meditate and create world peace. So after a tumultuous year of moving, getting evicted, and living with my grandmother in Florida, my mother decided that our path to stability would be found in the endless cornfields of Fairfield, where Maharishi was founding a Transcendental Meditation community, complete with a university and a private school for the children of his followers. My mother, my brother, and I moved to the heartland along with 7,000 others. It was 1982.

jericho_5

In your most recent collection, The New Testament, you wrote in one of your poems, “Hustle”: “I eat with humans who think any book full of black characters is about race.” Overall, your work seems to revolve around issues of sexuality, love, violence, masculinity, family, spirituality, mortality, and race (among other things, of course). When someone attempts to categorize you exclusively as a “homosexual” or a “gym rat” or a “Southern black man” or a “’religious’ poet,” etc (while misrepresenting or failing to acknowledge the other parts of your identity), how do you resist such curtailment or oversimplification of your identity? 

Well, I don’t exactly “resist” any identifiers because I don’t automatically think of it as “curtailment” or “oversimplification.”  So yes, the parenthetical phase in your question is of utmost importance.

You come with a little
Black string tied
Around your tongue,
Knotted to remind
Where you came from
And why you left
Behind photographs
Of people whose
Names need no
Pronouncing. How

100257a

 

Ho Chi Minh City, 2000. A US Marine in plain clothes sat in the waiting area. I’d done enough overseas trips as a White House advanceperson to guess he was a Marine Security Guard detailed for this presidential visit, the first since the war ended.  He exuded youth and boundless strength, with the kind of pectorals earned on a family farm. He looked at me sheepishly. Did he feel caught? I wanted to laugh with him: this wasn’t some neon-lit storefront we were patronizing. This was the hotel spa—where the clerk looked sharp, posh even, his polo shirt buttoned to his neck, like everyone else in this Vietnamese five-star hotel, all of them making wartime seem forgotten. The same hotel where the leader of the free world would stay just as our advance teams had for days. If there was anything sordid about this place we wouldn’t be here.

Cyntha_DAprix_Sweeney_The_Nest

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney is the guest on the latest episode of Otherppl with Brad Listi. Her debut novel, The Nest, is available now from Ecco Books. 

Get the Otherppl app.

Listen via iTunes.

Your signature scent is the apple pie
Yankee Candle on the toilet in your grandmother’s
powder room in La Jolla, which I light
just after I finally shit for the first time in a week
full of casseroles, cobbs and clubs, plus
the hours of sitting in your grandfather’s Lincoln
driving through desert hills decked out in
ranch-style manses, old money, oil and gold,
a wheeling and dealing history as he tells it,
feeling something acidic push up in my throat
as we cruise and swerve through what should be just desert.