From the apocalypse-tinged meditations of his first collection, The Waiting Room at the End of the World (2007), to the frustrations of love dissected in his second, In the Shooting Gallery of the Heart (2009), to the more formal and cinematic engagement with darker subject matter in his third, Film Noir (2011)— Jeff Rath has carved out for himself a distinctive poetic terrain. Each of his books constructs a metaphoric landscape that allows associations to accumulate into something larger. This effect is perfected and complicated in The Old Utopia Hotel, which was published in June of 2016 by Iris G. Press. In this most recent collection, Rath inverts the idea of the apocalyptic by layering darkness with love, and working to contextual the violence, frustration, and existential confusion of ordinary people within the larger machinations of history.
The Old Utopia Hotel is undoubtedly the peak of Rath’s decade-long poetic project. The slim collection of 24 new poems realizes what Rath has been grasping for in his earlier work—it constructs a convincing analog for what happens when we trick ourselves into believing the uniquely human folly that we can, if we try hard enough, bend the world to our will. That metaphor takes shape in the last section of the book, where a series of poems describes the life cycle of an old hotel, its barroom, its coffeeshop-diner, and the voices of the disenfranchised patrons that haunt it.
The origin of the word “utopia” in English comes from Thomas More’s famous satire, Utopia (1516), which described a theoretically ideal country. But, More constructed the word for his ideal nation from the Greek roots “ou” and “topos,” literally meaning “no place.” So, the ideal place is also the place that cannot be. The Old Utopia Hotel is situated—or perhaps another word would be better (lodged, embedded, entrenched?)—within this tension between perfection and limitation, between dream and illusion. And it is precisely this positioning that makes the collection so deeply universal and so tenderly human.
Jeff Rath reading from The Old Utopia Hotel at the Midtown Scholar Scholar Bookstore, in Harrisburg, PA.
Rath’s powerful metaphor of decaying hospitality, is so resonant perhaps because it captures Pennsylvania’s intense sense of metaxis—of being lost in between, of being in a state of constant suspension. This sensation is one Rath knows all too well as a lifelong Pennsylvanian. But, let’s think about Pennsylvania for a moment: it is neither coast nor heartland, northern nor southern, conservative nor liberal, innovative nor stuck in the past, urban nor rural. It is a state people tend to drive through on their way to other places. It is the state that has seen its heyday and is now floating uncertainly through the aftermath. The glories of colonial Philadelphia, of being a Quaker-inspired religious sanctuary, of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s phenomenal wealth, of the anthracite coal region, and of Bethlehem and Pittsburgh steel—all boons to the rise of the modern industrial era—are simply gone. The Pennsylvania of today (as well as many other places around the United States) lacks a coherent narrative frame to help shape a regional identity, and so, many of its citizens—like the folks who frequent the Old Utopia Hotel—have no place to go other than straight through the cracks.
Jacques Derrida, in his famous lecture on the subject, stated that “The act of hospitality can only be poetic.” What he means, perhaps, is that in the postmodern, late-capitalist world, the idea of being hospitable is alien, but somehow also deeply, beautifully embedded in all of us. From a certain perspective, an increasingly post-human world means that courtesy to our fellow travelers—friendly public gatherings, collective faith, communal identity—are less and less meaningful. For Rath, poetry is a way of both navigating that loss through elegy, while also savoring the last vestiges of hospitality that we have left—a familiar place to have a beer or a cup of coffee, a place to play a Coltrane song on a juke, a place to reflect on life’s screw-ups, wrong turns, and its occasional, miraculous moments of grace. Perhaps, it is enough to assume that those who frequent such places at the Old Utopia do so for the same reasons: to wonder “How the hell did we get here?”. This question is the battered heart of The Old Utopia Hotel, rendered firmly in the tradition of writers who are willing to explore the underbelly of American society—think Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesmen, John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, or Nelson Algren’s Somebody in Boots.
Yet, as much this book is so tightly unified by its brooding theme, it also displays Rath’s incredible poetic range. He can handle the bureaucracies of history, as in “Company Town” and “Visionaries.” He can start a poem with a sidewalk chalk image and bend it into an uncanny spiritual jeremiad, as in “Martyr Fish.” He can be funny, as in “Desperados of the Heart,” or bitingly political as in “Psalm.” And he can, for all his serious intensity, render the tendernesses of human connection so perfectly, as in “The Way It Will Be” and “Coffee Shop Miracle.” Rath makes his talent for metaphor twist and turn and work for multiple ends within a larger vision. There are simply very few poets who can do that, let alone do it convincingly.
Rath’s body of work is a poignant mythology of love and loss, mistakes and missed chances, all imbued with a not-quite-nostalgia for some other sphere. In The Old Utopia Hotel, he takes an unflinching look at the ordinary lives of people caught up in the rise and fall of 20th century in America, giving poetic voice to the unpoetic, the lonely, the criminal, the hardscrabble workingman, and his perpetually disappointed woman. With precisely tuned language, subtly rebellious sentences, and a steady cadence, Rath achieves a gruff, pared-down, world-weary wisdom that takes absolutely nothing for granted and refreshes itself reading after reading.
As a little girl, I nearly wore out our VHS tape of Disney’s animated Cinderella, watching once, twice a day. I loved watching Cinderella, but more than that, I wanted to be Cinderella. I called anyone who interrupted my playtime (namely, my mother) a kill joy. I practiced running down our big font staircase so that one of my dress-up shoes would be left perfectly angled a few steps from the bottom.
My life was nothing like Cinderella’s—loving parents, no talking mice—but the idea that a life could change so drastically was magical to me even as a four year old. It wasn’t until later that I started to wonder what happened to Cinderella after she married the prince. What happened after the happily ever after?
Christopher DeWan’s Hoopty Time Machines: Fairy Tales for Grown-Ups, published by Atticus Books on September 22 of this year, picks up where fairy tales leave off. In 45 stories, most flash-length, DeWan has assembled a collection of modern-day myths that are equal parts hopeful and heartbreaking. Readers will find a labyrinth in a corporate office. A bullied boy who waits for his real people to take him away. A voice beckoning from the bottom of a well.
DeWan’s voice shines in stories like “The Little Mermaid” and “Rapunzel’s Tangles,” which investigate how these familiar fairy tale characters keep living after their happy endings. His writing is crisp and clear, tinged with the bite of dark humor, and he repeatedly creates images and metaphors that feel simultaneously fresh and familiar. In “The Little Mermaid,” the narrator gives up singing to have a family, and even though she is happy, “it wasn’t anything like she imagined: it was so plain and unglamorous, so simple that the word ‘happiness’ seemed like a poor fit, its smoothness all snagged on life’s complexities.”
Not all of the stories in Hoopty Time Machines are based on fairy tales or myths. One of my favorites in the collection, “Stolen,” is about a young woman who imagines the adventures her car might be having after it’s stolen from a grocery store parking lot. Her imaginings are mixed with fear as she realizes that thieves also have her address. Even though “Stolen” is a relatively realistic piece, it feels just as much at home in this collection as its more fabulist counterparts, exploring similar themes of change and its consequences.
Another theme that’s woven throughout the collection is the idea of the American Dream. Like their fairy tale counterparts, the characters in “Conestoga Wagon” and “An American Dream,” which bookend the collection, are faced with what happens when they do (or do not) get everything they ever wanted. The title story also touches on this dilemma, as the narrator watches his father work on “a hoopty car in the driveway.” The car is “a family joke,” and it’s just as much a part of the father’s routine as going to work and sharing a family dinner. It’s not until the narrator’s father reveals that “‘It’s not a car. It’s a time machine. It’s how I’m getting out of here’” that we realize that this story is a very different, but perhaps more authentic, take on the American Dream. The father uses his derelict time machine to escape the present he created and try “to correct his past mistakes,” an ending that feels especially prescient amidst a turbulent election cycle in post-Great Recession America.
The world of fables and fairytales that DeWan conjures up in Hoopty Time Machines is not the world of Disney’s Cinderella. Rather, he reinvents and cross examines our beliefs about the fables we live by, and makes several old familiar stories new. In a way, these stories are “hoopty time machines,” taking readers away from life’s complexities into a timeless place where we can see those complexities just a little more clearly. Though there are no conventional “happily ever afters”—in these stories, or in life— that doesn’t mean there is no room for joy, no cause for hope.
Christopher DeWan will be coming to Lancaster’s DogStar Books on Thursday, October 13, at 7 PM to read from Hoopty Time Machines as part of The Turning Wheel, a monthly reading series that takes place on the second Thursday of every month. Check out the event page for more information. Hoopty Time Machines is available for purchase at Atticus Books, Indiebound, and Amazon.
Christopher DeWan has published more than forty short stories in journals including Hobart, Passages North, and wigleaf, and he has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. As a screenwriter, he has been recognized by CineStory, the International Screenwriters’ Association, the PAGE Awards, and Slamdance. His debut story collection, Hoopty Time Machines, is available from Atticus Books. Learn more at http://christopherdewan.com/
Seriously, if you’re into the DIY arts scene or creating poetry/art/music of any kind, owner Dave Jones is your muse. He’s interested in showcasing your work either in his store BohoZone (looking at you painters, artists, carvers etc.) or during a performance set in the back room gallery, ZoneToo. Monthly, open-mic poetry readings also include a featured poet and live streaming for those who want to tune in online. It’s also open to musicians. For anyone up-and-coming looking to read some of their work or hear new voices—this is the welcoming space where you can do just that.
Dave has used ZoneToo for Mini-Concerts (nearly 90 so far!) on First and Third Fridays every month as well as the poetry reading every third Wednesday, still his openness to new community events remains. He’s hosted everything from writing workshops to meditation sessions in the versatile back-room gallery, and he’s always considering new suggestions.
The shop, BohoZone, is aptly named. Stepping through the front door is a portal into a bohemian world with vinyl, local art, sketch books, paint brushes, mini notebooks, temporary tattoos, and a smattering of vegan odds and zen ends. I’ve already gladly paid for pocket notebooks, old school hip-hop mixtapes, a large sketchbook, even what have become some of my new favorite sunglasses at the tiny boutique.
BohoZone’s inventory is constantly rotating with new curiosities.
Finally, for anything he can’t fit into his shop or schedule in for ZoneToo, Dave maintains a crowdsourced blog that publishes your poems (along with a recording of you reading them!), an album review of your choosing, or even just a think piece about your approaches to a balanced lifestyle.
Dave currently offers $5 in store credit for anyone interested in contributing an article, review, or some other piece of original media and content to the blogspace. It’s the opportunity to put your work out there to new eyes, earn a coupon you’re going to want to actually use, and lend a hand to a friend that’s done so much for the community already.
Pitch any blog content ideas directly to Dave at: email@example.com, or reach out to sign up for his PoetryZone, MusicZone, and Dreamer’s Collective mailing lists.
Blog post by Christian Stock.
On August 12-14, Hippocampus Magazine brought to the Lancaster County Convention Center: 3 keynote speakers, 42 presenters, 216 attendees (representing 28 states and 4 countries), and infinite stories and conversations shared over plentiful meals, cocktails, or snacks of milk and cookies. Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon, this group engaged in panel discussions, author readings, and breakout sessions. Some elected to participate in a workshop or a pitch session with industry agents and editors. This second annual event managed to top the inaugural gathering in number of attendees as well as the increased number of offerings.
Photo credit: Lisa VanMark
I would be mistaken to go any further without telling you that Mary Karr, award winning memoirist, was the featured keynote on Saturday evening. Poet and nonfiction writer, Mary Karr is a professor of literature at Syracuse University, but her stories are rooted in her tumultuous childhood in the desolate oil-refinery town of Leechfield, Texas. Her memoirs include The Liar’s Club, Cherry, and Lit, and in fall of 2015, Karr released The Art of Memoir, the nonfiction title on which her talk was based. Karr was utterly disarming in her easy, intimate address, a tangible extension of the familiar persona from her work, yet somehow impossibly more vivid and endearing. In person, she embodies her poetic, spiritually reflective voice, whose sensitivity sometimes feels jolting in contrast with her frank, unapologetic diction—reminding us that authenticity means more than consistency.
Karr jokingly proposed that memoir is not a genre of “guys who wear deck shoes and use ‘summer’ as a verb,” but one that is “about being a human and feeling the beauty and difficulty of it.” She remembered her reading of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as an experience that made her feel less lonely, and it is that human connection that inspires the rigor with which she pursues her both her craft and her teaching career. She describes her writing process in a way that sounds nearly as traumatic as her childhood:
“Writing memoir is knocking oneself out with your own fist… It’s like pounding on a corpse and breathing into its mouth and getting it to rise up…. I cry every day. If I haven’t cried, then I haven’t had a good day. It means I’m not paying attention.”
Most memorably, Karr encouraged her audience: “Don’t write how you suffered. Write how you survived.” It is with this brave spirit that Karr stares down her life events as she writes six hours a day or 10,000 words, whichever comes first, a discipline she collegially advised her audience to undertake. In that same generous spirit, Karr tweeted later that night: “At hippocamp nonfiction conf, I finally met my posse—so many brave people telling stories—singing all the way home.”
In addition to Karr’s Saturday keynote, Ashley C. Ford provided an opening keynote on Friday afternoon, and Dave Cameron wrapped up on Sunday with a final keynote address. Ford, a writer, editor and speaker, is currently co-editing with Roxane Gay an anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. In her keynote, entitled “Don’t be a hero,” she addressed the importance of truth in memoir and not revising history to fit an ulterior motive of our narratives. Cameron delivered an apt topic for the conclusion of a writing conference, challenging attendees to implement writing goals and optimize writing production. Each writer needs to develop an urgency in writing that commits to putting hours in the books and words on the page. An award-winning speaker on the topic of sustainable work productivity, Cameron spoke from his 12 years experience at Ithaca College as a content marketing strategist. Elements of these two topics were resurfaced in other HippoCamp 2016 breakout sessions, along with discussions of voice, point of view, humor, writing community engagement, publishing, book proposals, and self-promotion.
A developing writer, I was personally challenged by Friday night’s Debut Author Reading, in which first-time published authors read excerpts from their work and responded to the audience. Their stories allowed each listener to peer into the dark folds of their past as they shone a thin beam of light with their craft. These excerpts revealed abuse, shame, defeat, tenuous human connection, systemic generational tragedies, but also the beauty, tenacity, and triumph of survival and voice. Creative nonfiction is authentic experience in artistic expression, and the thick empathy in the room reminded me why we showed up to HippoCamp 2016.
Lancaster’s own Donna Talarico, creative mastermind of Hippocampus Magazine and host of the annual Hippocamp conference, announced that Hippocampus will be expanding into the medium of print, from its original online publication of memoir, essays, flash nonfiction, and articles. Its first print title Selected Memories will feature selected stories that were originally printed in its online forum. The Hippocampus press division is now soliciting for publication: memoirs, essay collections, literary journalism, travel writing and craft and creativity books. You can learn more about the press at the Hippocampus website.
Blog post by Robin White.
Reviewed by Samantha Sweigert
There are a handful of books I’ve read in my life that possess the supernatural ability to neatly fold up their pages to a point and draw a deep line in the sand, marking clear “befores” and even clearer “afters.” The books that leave whispers all over your body when your light turns out the rest of the day. The ones that, after closing, you say a prayer over. Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ Haint, published this year by Gival Press, is one of those books.
Beginning to end, Cross Davis beckons her readers to shine a light and to witness the slow magic of a soul’s journey through life’s knowings and unknowings. With searing, seductive, tumultuous voice, the poet seamlessly moves us from the sweet candy wrappers and urgency of childhood in “Ode to Now n’ Laters” to the soft wisdom that comes from unmet expectations and unrelenting loss in poems like “Work Calendar” and the devastating “Knell.”
A total of fifty-six poems broken into three sections, Haint speaks its truth through poems that both reaffirm the human experience and demand a different viewpoint. Full disclosure—as a young, white (and therefore privileged) woman, there are poems in this collection which harken to experiences I never had and/or will never have. For example, “Brown Sugar,” one of my favorites for its finesse and structure, carefully navigates the universal concerns of adolescence while speaking to the deeper struggle of coming of age as a minority in America, dealing with the relentless comparisons of skin and hair. The deep beauty of this collection comes in the artistic sophistication in the author’s ability to allow the reader a small, clear window into a journey both familiar and unfamiliar.
Having experienced Haint at a time in my life when adulthood seems to be coalescing, I found myself particularly drawn to the overt celebrations and meditations on what it means to grow and mature as a woman—the power of our bodies, our movements, our inhales and exhales, our desires and our losses. “The small of my back (your hand here)” recognizes the elegance and solemn ritual in passionate love, while “He Can Get The Panties” prompts us to challenge the image of women as demure and revel in all it means to desire and be desired. At the same time, the stories told in this collection wring out the shadows of my hopes, dreams, and doubts of someday-motherhood as the author relates the devastation of uncertainty, trial and failure, the sadness of loss.
One of the more interesting aspects of Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ compilation is the way it intertwines personal narratives with the stories of others, creating a mosaic that moves through life, illustrating the relationships between one persona and another. Poems like “Fifteen” and “Dear Diary”—the former seeming to narrate the author’s burgeoning recognition of lust, with the latter inspired by the deaths of two infants in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, born of two young girls who could have been the author, or me, or you. These voices ask that we reflect, that we take a few moments after inhaling every word to admit that we may not have the answers.
This is all to say that Haint stays close. It hovers above our bed frames at night. It’s a reminder that, like the title suggests, we all have our ghosts. At some point, we will all look in the mirror and remember our scars, our quiet corners in the hospital waiting-room, our simple and momentous triumphs in finding what was once lost. Like these lines from the opening poem, “Fade To Black,” this entire collection reminds us that our lives are the unfinished business of attempting to truly see ourselves:
the close-up—a mirror, and I am discovering
how slow love is, even slower acceptance
but traveling down the road I was born to know.
Come hear Teri Ellen Cross Davis read her work at The Turning Wheel (formerly Fear No Lit), a monthly reading series held at DogStar Books. The event will take place Thursday, August 11 at 7 pm, at 401 West Lemon Street, Lancaster PA.
Teri Ellen Cross Davis is a Cave Canem fellow and has attended the Soul Mountain Writer’s Retreat, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her work can be read in: Bum Rush The Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade, Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC; and the following journals: Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Gargoyle, Natural Bridge, Torch, Poet Lore and The North American Review. Recently she has appeared on The Kojo Nnamdi Show (WAMU 88.5) and the Hay Festival Kells in Ireland. Her first collection, Haint is published by Gival Press. She lives in Silver Spring, MD. More can be read about Teri at www.poetsandparents.com.
Reviewed by Christian Stock
The magic of opening a new poetry collection from an author that you’re unfamiliar with is that you never know when the meteor is going to hit. It might be the first page, it might be half-way through, or you might be three pages from the back cover when a poem just smacks you across the face. As a reader it pulls the excitement from your eyes, and as a writer you realize that you’ve got so much more work to do.
Hayes Davis’ collection Let Our Eyes Linger is full of meteors. His poetry manages to be simultaneously approachable and deep, crafting vivid characters out of American folklore at one moment and enlightening readers about the bitter and sweet tribulations of fatherhood. A deft storyteller who knows how to position an ending, Davis’ last lines consistently satiate the appetite for a poem to feel whole.
Broken into four different thematic sections Hayes’ collection first shows off his ability to touch on his experiences and make them real for the reader. “Etiquette” invites us into the mind of a young Davis as he sits in anguish at the dinner table because his stutter prevents him from asking to be excused. His struggle with verbal communication as a youth is at odds with the eloquence he embodies on the page. He paints a picture of a youth who knows of his voice, his ability to see, but cannot yet wield it.
The second section of the text exposes the racial prejudices that Davis grew up battling against. He reveals hesitations about buying a watermelon in public and dressing to ‘fit the part’ that society expects of a young black man in “Capitol Hill, SC.” He speaks his truth without pretentiousness, stating subtly, matter-of-factly, ‘the averted eyes, clenched mouths usually exchanged pleasantries with my khakis, sweater, top coat.’
Let Our Eyes Linger uses its third section to present the untold story of Slave Jim from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Davis seamlessly transitions from his own experiences to those of Slave Jim lending him a voice through a series of seven poems to flesh out the runaway’s story line. Hayes only inserts himself once in this whole section, ‘inviting’ Slave Jim into his classroom to comment on their discussion in Jim Observes a Class. Even here Davis remains a nameless ‘teacher’ letting Slave Jim have the final say in his tale.
Without revealing too much, section four doesn’t pull any punches. Davis demonstrates repeatedly through poems like “Knot,” “New English Teacher,” “Presence,” “How to Test a Marriage,” “Make it Work for You” that the unfound voice from the boy in section one has unquestionably gained its edge, and that edge is sharp, cutting to reveal deeper truth. For instance, the meditative voice in “How to Test a Marriage” remembers thinking that the biggest challenge of marriage is simply finding someone you love, and the new-found scorn of this old naivete. Ultimately, Davis speaks with wry wisdom and a commitment to witness, revealing the peaks and valleys of fatherhood, romance, and navigating through life (even at the end of your wits) with poise.
Next week Hayes Davis is bringing his voice to The Turning Wheel (formerly Fear No Lit), a monthly reading held at DogStar Books. The event will take place Thursday, August 11 at 7 pm, at 401 West Lemon Street, Lancaster PA.
Hayes Davis holds a Masters of Fine Arts from the University of Maryland, where he won an Academy of American Poets Prize; he is a member of Cave Canem’s first cohort of fellows, a former Bread Loaf working scholar, and a former Geraldine Miles Poet-Scholar at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. He has also attended writers retreats at Manhattanville College and Soul Mountain, and appeared on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU, 88.5 in Washington, D.C. and at the Hay Festival Kells in Ireland. His first volume, Let Our Eyes Linger was published by Poetry Mutual Press. His work has appeared in New England Review, Poet Lore, Gargoyle, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Delaware Poetry Review, Kinfolks, and several anthologies. He teaches high-school English in Washington, DC, and lives in Silver Spring with his wife, poet Teri Ellen Cross Davis, and their children. Read more about Hayes Davis at www.poetsandparents.com.
Keep Moving Forward is the story of Nick Pantalone and his fight with cancer. The book is available on Amazon and proceeds go to The Four Diamonds Fund, a foundation that assists families dealing with childhood cancers. Vince Pantalone was Nick’s father and the book’s narrator. He has spent the last thirty-five years teaching and coaching in Central Pennsylvania.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Keep Moving Forward. The book’s origins are rooted in heartache, but as I look over the reviews on Amazon, I’m taken back by the kind words and statements of thanks. That must be rewarding.
Vince Pantalone: It is rewarding that those who read the book get a glimpse into the special kind of person Nick was. Our family always knew that Nick had a uniqueness to him, but when he began his battle with cancer, this inner force of strength emerged from within him. His blogs illustrate this inner force.
CS: The book has a unique structure—your son Nick kept a blog during his cancer treatments, a three-year journey of incredible ups and downs—and you took the blog and added your own voice as you looked back on his fight. It’s a structure that provides a real depth of both voice and perspective. Did this format come to you at the project’s beginning? Or did it dawn on you as you were going back through the blog posts?
VP: Actually, it was my family who suggested we publish Nick’s blogs in hopes that others with similar battles would find hope. I added my perspective to “fill in the gaps” between Nick’s blogs, to let the reader know what had transpired between the journal entries. Read More…