characters


by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarSometimes another author’s story brings out our inner Rumpelstiltskin–that primitive urge to tear ourselves asunder in frustration. I found Dani Ripley’s Jellyfish (9/2/12) so breathtakingly astonishing that I could neither comment on it nor leave a vote when it first appeared. I felt myself out-written in the sci-fi genre for life.

I’ve accepted that now, and can say without pain that Jellyfish is a perfect sci-fi story, capturing the grandeur, mystery and terror of space with unmatched elegance and grace. Even the spelling of the protagonist’s name–Kapteyn–struck me as a way of making the mundane memorable.

“Kapteyn is dead. No, that’s not right. He’s thinking, therefore not dead. His body is lost. He floats, smaller than an atom. No. That’s not right either. He’s confused. The sensation isn’t entirely unpleasant. He processes.”

From this crystalline-pure opening, Jellyfish sustains an exquisite melding of intellect and feeling.

I was baffled that after 31 total votes cast, Ripley’s story achieved only a 3.4 rating. Eight of the nine commenters used words like “captivating” and “intriguing;” found Jellyfish thought-provoking; its prose was called “exquisite” and “authentic.” But many of them felt unsatisfied, felt a certain flatness or incompleteness.

I profoundly disagree. I’m stingy with stars; I don’t like to dilute the value of a five-star rating by sprinkling it around too freely. You’ve got to touch me with some irresistible force to pry my hand open. But I’ve made things right now, and gone back and given this story what I knew it deserved from the first read. Take a look at Jellyfish, and see why.

____________

Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.

by Susan Tepper

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Doug Holder is the founder of the Ibbetson Street Press of Somerville, Mass. . He teaches writing at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston and Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. Click here to learn more about Doug.

Susan Tepper: If I were to choose a painter analogous to your poetry, and your writing sensibilities, it would be Edward Hopper.

Doug Holder: Hopper would be a good choice. It seems a lot of his characters are “Eating Grief” and often experience that sweaty dark night of the soul.  I have also admired the work of Lucien Freud and his unsettling nudes. Many of my poems deal with a sense of alienation, and my characters aren’t ones that wrestle with suburban angst—or whether they will able to convert that farmhouse in Connecticut into their dream home. They ain’t pretty, they ain’t in vogue, they ain’t hip, they usually are not young… The poet Philip Larkin is another hero of mine—as I feel I bring the same down-at-the-heels sensibility to my work.  I loved his poem (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”) and so many others.

 product_thumbnail.phpST: Cutting right to the chase—”Eating Grief at Bickford’s” (which you aptly dedicate to Allen Ginsberg) is a place I recognize, too, like the old Horn and Hardart eateries that populated NYC, back in the days. This poem is all part of a lost dream, isn’t it?

 “There are no places anymore / Where I can sit at a threadbare table / Pick at the crumbs on my plate / And wipe / The white dust / From my pitch / Black shirt. /… “

DH: Yes the Automat—I used to go there with my grandmother as a little boy—loved the little windows that you opened for your pot of baked beans or chicken pot pie. Places like these were also havens for down at the heels poets and writers—Both H and H and Bickford’s were mentioned often in Beat Poetry circles because you could nurse a cup of coffee, write, talk or kibitz for hours on end and oh of course it was cheap. I used to see many characters in places like these that I was fascinated by… The muttering, pea-soup stained, ketchup sandwich denizens who lived on the fringes.  This was all grist for my mill. And the dream to a great deal is lost. I have been interviewing folks from the Chelsea Hotel in NYC, and this famed bohemian flophouse—that housed such folks as Patti Smith, Gregory Corso, Thomas Wolfe, to name a few—has been gutted of its artwork and the remaining tenants are being slowly weeded out. So the old Bohemian NYC seems to be a vanishing distant dream.

ST: I’ve known you for nearly a decade and I know some things about your life, your cat, have met some of your family, etc.  So when I read your funny and satirical poem titled “You know it is tough being a writer”, well, all about you kind of got summed up.  The poem begins:

“Even when I was born / My father called / Me a treasure / And tried to / Bury me. /…”

DH: Well you know life can be nasty, brutish and short. And this is very much so for the writer. Most of us don’t make a living at it, reviews are hard to come by and when we do get them at best there is faint praise—we do it because we love it. So the poem, with a Henny Youngman flourish of corny jokes maps out the life of a struggling writer. The cheap flats, the rejection of the mandarins (oranges), and so on and so on. Because life is tragic and comic…and yes wonderful too!

ST: Agreed. Tragic and comic and wonderful. I love how you find the humor in the pit, it’s the only way to get through. You happen to have a great sense of humor. On average, do you think poets tend to wallow in the muck more than, say, fiction writers?

DH: I read somewhere that of all writers poets have the shortest lifespan. I mean look at Plath and Sexton—they used to discuss who would commit suicide first. And when Plath beat Sexton to the punch—Sexton wrote a poem about being pissed off at this and how she was jealous of Plath. The old joke is: a man meets a poet at a cocktail party. The man asks the poet what he does for a living. ” I am a poet and I am going to commit suicide.”

Hell I don’t know if we are more morose—I mean there is no shortage of fiction writers who wallow in the muck. As a whole I think we think a lot—ruminate—look at our navels.. and stare into the abyss—this can make you morose.

ST: I write fiction and poetry, about 50/50. I find that I have to be in a certain emotional mindset for the poems to come out. Poet Simon Perchik always says to me: writers are working things out. By that he means personal things, troubling things. Yet he has a great sense of humor, as do you, Doug. Here is a poem of yours that exemplifies your way of looking at life through a glass not-so-darkly. You titled it “Father Knows Best–Mother Does The Rest (from the TV show)”. And it begins:

The bland tyranny / of the cardigan sweater. / His smile / creased in brutal condescension. / Mother corseted in apron strings. / …”

It’s droll, it mirrors that TV mode of the fifties time period, and it’s funny. Personally, I have never been a fan of men’s cardigan sweaters. Kind of creepy.

DH: Yes… there was something mesmerizing about the show. Robert Young’s tight-smiled patriarch—the doting mother—the dancing dog—Bud’s greaser’s look—the only totem of rebellion around. But you could feel the tension just below the broad lawns and narrow minds of the suburbs. I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, NY, and I found it stifling. It was a very materialistic culture, competitive and conformist. I was a fish out of water there. I was like a Collyer Brothers hermit—reading the stacks of newspapers in my bedroom—like some old man. I was drawn to the city, it’s variety and its anonymity.

ST: Well I’m glad you didn’t stack to the ceiling zillions of newspapers and periodicals like the Collyer brothers. Or, did you?

Also check out:

Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene
Ibbetson Street Press
Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer 
Ibbetson Street Online Bookstore

_______________________

 Susan-Tepper200wSusan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2013, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd. www.susantepper.com

 

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarI loved this story. Can’t say that enough. A sublime mixture of mundane and marvelous, Jacob Drud’s Mornings, With Teenage Genius was EDF’s 2012 Father’s Day story. I can’t think of a more beautiful celebration of the father-son relationship.

“Dad, I think I did something bad.” His head is in the fridge, but I can hear the embarrassment.

Achieving perfect pitch for two contrasting voices is a challenge for any writer; in flash, there’s no room to recover from the slightest off-note. Drud captures the bemused and tolerant parent, and the teenaged son who might have done a little too much with his chemistry set, in wry counterpoint.

That, and the interplay of advanced physics with the sensory pleasure of a morning’s first cup of good coffee makes this story magic.

The eleven commenters–almost half of all the readers who took the time to rate this story–loved it. Yet the final total was only 3.3 stars based on 25 votes.

I still can’t understand why. Perhaps some readers found it hard to enter a story that begins with what is, for most of us, almost-incomprehensible scientific lingo. Yet, even looking from the outside in, we can sense beauty and wonder, I think.

Maybe, for the occasion, readers were hoping for a more “traditional” story. But what’s more basic and primal than loving our children, regardless of the scrapes they get themselves into?

Take a look at Mornings, With Teenage Genius. Maybe you’ll see why I’m so glad I was privileged to read it.

____________

Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.

 

by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Sarah AkhtarThis story of an unmarried, middle-aged son left alone after his parents die–a too-often pedestrian theme–becomes an exquisitely tender exploration of the nature of love in Hall Jameson’s Lint (5/25/12).

All seventeen commenters loved this story; those who specified their rating gave it five stars. But after 46 total votes cast, it ended up at a total of 3.8. I’ve never forgotten Lint, and after another look I’d still put it on the top ten list. It doesn’t have the lyrical beauty or shattering power that some EDF stories do, but it touches on one of life’s truths–the deep value of “the ordinary”–as few others have.

Jameson takes an easy target for scorn or pity and makes his protagonist appealing. The story celebrates life and the loving acceptance of quirks and differences.

“George made a special effort to keep a comfortably-cluttered home.

…he was not a pig.

He was a slob.

His relaxed approach to housekeeping was how he honored his parents. He could not compete with their devotion to cleanliness, so he did the opposite.”

A less skillful writer might have asked us to pity George. Hall shows us where George was denied small choices that would have given him pleasure, and that his sense of self survived that, intact.

Take a look at Lint. I hope you’ll like it too.

____________

 Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable–the best of all possible worlds. Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine.

 

by Susan Tepper

Lexi Lerner

Alexis Hope Lerner is a violinist, composer, and biology nerd from New Jersey. A student at the Manhattan School of Music, she has been a prizewinner in multiple national and international competitions. When Lexi is not practicing or composing, she can be found in her high school’s Environmental Science Center (where she hangs out with the turtles) or watching movies with her cat Marie Antoinette. Lexi dreams of becoming a virologist, a film composer, an explorer, or some wonderful combination of all three. Next year, she will be attending Brown University as part of the 8-year Program for Liberal Medical Education.

Foreigner
by Alexis Lerner

Twenty feet from the left entrance of the Port Authority was where the man called home.

Around him was a semicircular buffer zone enclosed in broken bottles, shielding him from Manhattan’s noisy sea of taxis and commuters.

In his coat pocket: a blunt razor, half a comb and 87¢. No cardboard sign. He didn’t want pity.

He was more a grizzly bear than a man. A mother of four walked by–a swan with trailing cygnets. She huddled them into her arms’ nest. -Don’t get too close, children, or he might bite.

Through cataract-riddled eyes, the man saw the smallest break from the group and skip towards him through the snow. A six-year-old princess with Mary Janes and a mink hat. She accidentally kicked over a bottle.

“Excusez-moi. Voulez-vous un ami?”

Is she talking to me?- He grimaced, sinking deeper into himself. Only his bulbous nose and coarse beard showed between his hat and scarf.

She smelled like sugar cookies. Warmth. Safety. Protected by youth, innocence and socioeconomic status.

He hated her.

He heard a zipper; then the mother’s boots quickly clacking against the sidewalk. She snatched her daughter’s hand, hissing in a foreign tongue as they retreated.

The man lifted his gaze. In the child’s open knapsack was a teddy bear just as grizzly as he was–beady eyes yearning, disappointed.

He sighed and looked up past the Port Authority overhang, past the Times Square skyscrapers, and into the endless grey space, hoping to see some ultimate good there.

 ***

Susan Tepper: Your story takes place outside of a somewhat controversial NYC landmark. How do you feel when you enter it, or walk by it?

Alexis Hope Lerner: On Wednesdays, I intern at a recording studio in the city; to get there, I take a bus in from New Jersey to the Port Authority. Usually I have my headphones on and am planning out the long work day ahead as I go down all of the escalators and pass the various shops and cafes on the first floor: Starbucks, Au Bon Pain, Hudson News, etc. The Port Authority entrance is almost completely glass, and what I see – every week, without fail – rocks me from my complacent state. People with untrimmed beards and dirty faces, wrapped up in wooly, musty blankets, create little islands for themselves on the thick sidewalk in front of the building. To me, it is astounding how many commuters – including myself – look past them as if they were part of the urban landscape itself. It is unfortunately too common a sight in the city – especially at the Port Authority – to see the homeless in public places in broad daylight. We become numb to what is around us, and that is what I am most afraid of. The distraction of daily life allows us to look past the hunger and pain that is often right before our eyes.

ST:  In a surreal sense, the homeless, the grifters, the addicts that populate the area around Port Authority are ‘foreigners’ as compared with the lives of the day-to-day people who use the terminal strictly for transit.  Interestingly, you have given real ‘foreigners’ entry into this story.  Why not just some average Americans?

AHL: I agree with you in that the homeless are certainly “foreigners” within the Port Authority environment. But the other foreigners there are not the people whom we might expect. The fact that the French family is not native to the area does not necessarily render them “foreign” to the Manhattan sentiment towards the homeless. Actually, the only true outlier in the story – at least to me –  is the little girl, and that is for reasons other than her nationality. The point is that callousness towards the homeless is an international epidemic. Even the people we would expect to be foreigners in this story’s microenvironment – those who live across the world from the Port Authority – fit in all too well.

ST:  All too true. Did you know ahead of time that you would make them French (or other than Americans), or did this just strike you as you moved along the keyboard (or paper) writing?

AHL: I always knew there should be a language barrier between the little girl and the vagrant because I wanted her intentions and character to be clear beyond her words. The idea of making the family French, specifically, struck me as I was writing; it stemmed from the fact that our perception of French culture is often tagged with a romanticized view of its “poshness”. Consider how we view Coco Chanel, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton… or even how we idealize the concept of being a “starving artist” in a beautiful Parisian flat, eating baguettes and sipping on hot cocoa in cafes and boutiques.

ST:  As in the famous opera La Boheme.  Which didn’t end well either.

AHL:  There is a certain sense of unattainable charm and glamour associated with French culture, which many Americans covet. But when I visited Paris six years ago, I saw firsthand a surprising number of homeless men and women sitting on steps outside of bakeries and museums. Even if Paris is the “city of love”, it is not exempt from the cruelties of reality. That realization affected me deeply and was integral to this story. Although the vagrant views the family as swan-like and elite, the mother’s ugly feathers show when she huddles her children away from him and turns a cold shoulder – a behavior that breaks our romanticized view of foreign culture. Even the most posh and beautiful of us can be ugly on the inside.

____________

Susan-Tepper200w

Susan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2013, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd.  www.susantepper.com

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