Why We Chose Them

Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky
March 10, 2014
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How do we select two KR Fellows from the huge pool of terrific writers who sent us their work?  Let’s face it, it’s an impossible task. A painful task, even, since reading our way through the writing samples submitted to us made us wish that we had many more fellowships to offer. But our task was to choose two writers who will come to Gambier to write, to teach, and to join us in our editorial work. We wanted them to show extraordinary promise, of course, but that’s something we saw in many of our applicants. We also wanted them to surprise us, to challenge us, to shake up how we understand what this generation of young writers will bring to us all. That’s what we found in the work of our new KR Fellows, Melinda Moustakis and Jamaal May.

As you’ve seen from our announcement, both Moustakis and May are the authors of prize-winning books: Moustakis’s first book of stories, Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories, won the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and May’s debut collection of poems, Hum, won the 2012 Beatrice Hawley Award. We got to know these two writers only through their award-winning work. But what, exactly, was it about their work that caught our eye?

We first came across Melinda Moustakis’s fiction when we received her story “Miners and Trappers” as a regular submission, accepting it for the Fall 2011 issue of KR. Her short-short story “MooseBlind” (now titled “Trigger”) appeared in KROnline in Summer 2010, and we later ran a micro-interview with her on the KR Blog in November, 2011. What struck us in her fiction is the sharpness of her writing: her sentences cut like the knives used by the gutting crews in the Alaskan canneries where some of her characters spend murderous summers doing seasonal work amid the blood and stench when the salmon run hits. As the title of her book indicates, these are stories set in Alaska, but any exoticism suggested by that setting quickly vanishes as you realize that this is writing of unequaled ferocity: There are worse things than death, she writes in “Miners and Trappers.” Such as someone who keeps trying for it and failing. What Moustakis excels at is voice and the intricate rhythm of her sentences as they expose consciousness. “Miners and Trappers” is written in second-person, a voice that can often feel over-used as an easy claim on ironic distance in contemporary fiction, but Moustakis wields it as a kind of scraping tool which peels away the layers of self-consciousness in a character trying to convince herself, against all evidence, that her life makes sense. Here’s the opening paragraph of that story:

Your sister-in-law Jean calls you because Jack has been gone for too long—one night she can understand, one night means he’s passed out drunk at Good Time Charlie’s or at his buddy Butch’s or Chako’s again and he always comes stumbling back, either by himself or because you’ve gone and driven him home. He’s never been gone past noon the next day, and she knows this is your day off and the roads are bad, but he’s probably dead and she has to keep pretending for the kids and, “You have to find him, Gracie. You have to find him and bring him home and I can’t call the police and I can’t ask anyone but you and I love him and I don’t know why but I need you to.” You tell Hyde that you have to go pick up Jack.

Three sentences, if we recognize Jean’s desperate appeal as part of that epic second sentence, which—after the banality of Jack’s drunken nights at Good Time Charlie’s in the opening sentence—suddenly explodes with the force of an anxious wife imagining the worst. Rhythm is key here, along with the strategic use of the run-on sentence to evoke what we might call the drunk’s paradox: the way this happens all the time and yet every time it happens it’s terrifying. The three sentences establish that history by the way they both take in the wife’s anxiety and hold their distance from it: the first sentence establishes the situation—a late-night phone call—with admirable brevity, then takes up the fearful voice on the other end of the line with just enough distance (“one night she can understand”) to suggest the weariness with which the central character hears this whole story again. The second sentence conveys the rush of anxiety, breaking into Jean’s voice directly at the end as her fear overpowers the distance that Gracie feels, once again. After that flood of desperation, the brevity of the paragraph’s final sentence is like the quiet click of the phone coming to rest in its cradle: all that pain, all that fear, comes down to the same thing it always does, as Gracie turns to her sleepy partner to say, simply, that she has to go pick up her brother again.

The rhythm of these sentences catches a whole history, or rather, one side of it. In the paragraphs that follow, we learn the other side: the role Jack has always played in Gracie’s life as her protector, her hero, an image of masculine grace during their fishing trips on the Kenai—and even in his drunks—with which, sadly, no other man in her life has been able to compete. It often strikes me that the hardest thing to evoke in fiction is ambivalence: the way we can feel two ways about someone we care about without those feelings coming directly into conflict. That’s what Melinda Moustakis does simply with the rhythm of her sentences. Read the rest of the story, and you’ll see what I mean. In her sharp, masterful fiction, laughing sounds like crying, and crying sounds like laughing.

What we hear in Jamaal May’s poetry is a quiet hum behind the lightning flash of poetic association. If you don’t yet know his work or his spoken word videos, let me start by saying that Jamaal is a force of nature, a whirlwind of language and metaphor that simply can’t be contained on the page. And yet, if you first encounter his work on the page, as we did when we read the poems he submitted to us, they somehow lose none of the power that he brings to them in performance, while repaying our quiet attention in complexity. The lightning in these poems is hard to miss: it’s there in the righteous anger that drives a poem like “The Sky, Now Black With Birds” (KR Summer 2013), and its sudden turn to grudging mercy, empathy, and even forgiveness, as a wished-for revenge turns, almost against the speaker’s will, to brutal repetition. (You can watch Jamaal perform this poem here.) Or you can see that flash of lightning in the brilliant metaphors and quicksilver movements of mind in a poem like “Per Fumum,” where the birds’ single “unescorted note” becomes the scent of “stolen fragrances” a boy mixes, searching for poisons, which then becomes the speculative astronomy of a father pointing out what may or may not be constellations to his children when the bus escapes the city’s streetlights, resolving finally into the personal garden of delights that tempts us all to knowledge, making the bed burst into flames and the imagination catch fire “whenever the heat from quickening blood / made the bouquet unlock.”

But what’s that quiet hum? It’s the low reverberation that we hear rising in “The Hum of Zug Island” (KR Summer 2013), a sound in the air that can’t be ignored by those who live along the Detroit River. Is it machines, the sound of snow melting, the siren call of the needle, which sets some bodies trembling? Or even, as the poem’s speaker wonders, the sound of his own body, itself a thrumming machine? Perhaps it’s “a sea / of all the outside I try to ignore, / the hum that won’t calm and won’t wait.” For the reader, it’s the reverberating echoes of the sestina, which sets that world of thrumming machines and frozen sea, needles and endless snow, whirling around us without mercy, the hum of life itself.

We can hear a slightly different version of that hum in a poem like “On Metal,” where a group of men stand around a car that won’t start, making a sound in the back of their throats that admits defeat “while not quite admitting the emergence of digital // parts means this won’t be solved by ratchet alone.” The speaker, anxious simply to take it to a dealer, knows this ritual of masculinity must be honored, but he can’t help thinking of another hum, another silence:

but I still can’t help thinking of how much the frame
is like my frame. The mystery of my Chrysler’s right side
not responding—silent speaker, head lamp dead, window
sealed shut, frozen power door lock—is no more

mystifying than my left ear’s limited frequency range
or the left eye I’m now told is blind by a doctor
who huddles over me to assess some unknown damage.

That hum we hear is the refusal to accept silence; it’s the hymn (with its echo) always waiting for the ears in “A Detroit Hum Ending With Bones,” the bird’s wing, the cell phone’s buzz, the Tibetan singing bowl, or even the hand of the convenience store clerk that trembles as he makes change for an African-American kid, the sound of coins making “the notes of a small tune / made of fear, just for you.” Most importantly, it is the sound that schoolchildren make when they don’t know the proper word, when they hold open that space to learn something that the world has withheld, in this case the names of the tiny bones of the inner ear that make all sounds possible. That’s a brilliant move at the end of this poem, and it reflects the way that Jamaal can both summon the flash of associative lightning and make it strike the same place twice, building intricate patterns of metaphor that set the reader’s mind humming at the same high pitch. In “Hum for the Hammer,” the hum is potential, promise, the energy contained in the wood and metal that demands to be swung high and brought down hard. But even here, it’s the hum of something coming into being, as the final stanzas imagine the metal seared, pressed, and cooled to hardness: “have the flash cut from you: / excess is excessive. Be cooled in water, / not air. Don’t breathe. Drown.”

It’s hard not to read this as good advice for young poets: cut away the flash. Plunge in, allow the forms to shape you, to cool what’s hot in you to the hardness of perfection. But it’s also hard not to see this image of the hammer humming with potential as what we seek both in and from our KR Fellows. We went looking for young writers whose words sang with the magic of sharp blades and finely-shaped tools, full of the promise to cut deep, to make an impact. But we also want these new voices to help us re-envision KR over the next two years and beyond, to make us sharper, more powerful, as we carry out our mission to find and publish the best young writers out there.

We’re humming with excitement.

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