Robin McLean was a lawyer, and then a potter, for 15 years in the woods of Alaska before receiving her MFA at UMass Amherst in Massachusetts. Her first collection, Reptile House, won the BOA Editions Fiction Price in 2013 and will be published by BOA in May 2015. A figure skater first—having learned to skate and walk at the same time—McLean believes that crashing on ice prepared her for writing fiction. She currently teaches at Clark University, and splits her time between Newfound Lake in Bristol, New Hampshire, and a 200-year-old farm in western Massachusetts.
Robin McLean’s “Cold Snap” was selected by Jim Shepard as a grand prize winner—along with Ian Bassingthwaighte’s “When Trains Fall From Space”—in Carolina Quarterly’s “The End is Nigh” writing contest. You can read her story in our most recent issue, 64.2.
AA: Obviously, some time earlier this year, you came across our “End is Nigh” contest. Was this story one you had already written, or did you begin writing it specifically for the contest?
RM: “Cold Snap” was already done when I learned about the contest. I had written the first draft mid-winter in New Hampshire. I was looking out at the snow flurries everyday and missing Alaska where I had lived for 17 years. I was sad. A friend suggested that to cheer myself up, I should write a story about what a “real” winter was like, since I was convinced that all these east coast people did not know the meaning of real cold. I was having trouble letting go of Alaska. Still am. That’s how “Cold Snap” got going. I had never written an end of the world story before and did not plan this to be one. The story just got colder and colder, never warmer.
AA: Yes, and foggier and foggier. The story develops through a sort of intermittent, elusive imagery. Readers get glimpses of the world you’ve created between the fogging and clearing of masks. Was this aesthetic one you set out to accomplish or did it develop as you wrote?
RM: I feel like the biggest and scariest things that happen in life sort of sneak up on us; we sort of see them, sort of don’t see them. When we come to the end of the world, the last people standing might possibly think, “Wow, look at all the clues we had. We might have seen it coming.” I’ve heard someone say that about Easter Island. The people cut down every tree. What did they think at that last one?
Anyway, the fogging and clearing of the imagery in the story was really useful for illustrating that idea: seeing and also not seeing. Also, landscape and place are very important to the story, since the natural world ends up being vastly more powerful than the human world. Perhaps particular language was called for to convey this enormous, non-human realm.
AA: This “non-human realm” feels particularly emphasized each time the story’s protagonist, Lilibeth, calls out “Hello” only to have her voice ricochet back to her, unheard and unanswered. It’s also reflected in her habit of leaving notes that will likely go unread. How do you see language—and communication, generally—functioning in your story?
RM: The story is about isolation, both physical and emotional, so there is good reason for Lilibeth to get no answers to her persistent calls. Generally, I feel like specific language — like the words “cold” or “love” or “hello” — is just an attempt at approximation or translation. Language is useless to Lilibeth in the story. It gets her nowhere, her calls, her books. I pretty much agree that the surface language is impotent, which is a weird thing for a writer to feel. I have three sisters. We say stuff to each other. One of us gets mad at something said. “You burned the rice.” But it’s never the rice. It’s for something underneath the rice, of course, some long ago history, some real pain. In this story, I’m very interested in showing the impotence of the surface of language and also the real power it has underneath. But how we cling to the rice as the subject. Try to make sense of the rice, which will never make sense.
For real communion with another human being, I think language must transmit the feeling. Just like a poem circles around an un-sayable subject, I hoped the language in “Cold Snap” would make the reader feel Lilbeth’s isolation, her failure to connect, to communicate. Also, the pain of her hope to communicate. Her hope is foolish, given the circumstances of the story. That contrast, to me, feels both beautiful and terrible.
Continue reading “the backdrop of the end of the world”: an interview with Robin McLean by Aisha Anwar
Phillips Saylor Wisor is a musician and artist living in Washington, DC. His portrait sketches are drawn on cardboard food boxes from black and white photographs. He is currently setting the poetry of Carl Sandburg to music under his moniker, Stripmall Ballads.
In your artist’s statement, you call yourself a “refugee of the Cheap Art Movement.” What originally drew you to this movement, and what does it mean to be refugee of it?
Around 1998 I was introduced to Peter Schumann and the Bread & Puppet Theater in Vermont. They live on a giant farm and make puppets and bake bread and stage productions in fields, barns and forests. They construct their puppets and sets from recycled, salvaged and repurposed material. That’s where I first heard about the Cheap Art movement. I was attracted to Peter’s work ethic and subsequent aesthetic. Really great, imaginative stuff! They are self-sufficient and geniuses at community involvement and utilizing hidden talents of their volunteers when staging large productions. I found that immensely inspirational. I existed on their periphery for a time, taking part in some performances and a pageant, and silently absorbed as much as I could. I took what I learned and primarily applied it in musical contexts.
How does the Cheap Art Movement define “art”? How do you define it?
I am not an ambassador for any art or artist or movement. There are other experts who know better than I. But to quote Schumann, “Art is not business! Art is like white clouds in blue sky!”
“Cheap Art” a broad term that one can find elements of in street art, zine culture, certain music, etc. It can be visual, performative and literary, separately or all at once.
To me, it values economy and accessibility and freedom. It’s unconcerned with profit and removes money from the equation of creating and experiencing art. Artistic skill comes from the creative process but is not needed or “required” in order in engage with the creative process. It’s not about being “good” as much as it is about “being” and “doing.” That’s empowering.
Continue reading Cereal Box Ballads: an interview with Phillips Saylor Wisor on art and music
Anneke Schwob reviews
A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
Coffee House Press
Eimear McBride’s debut, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, is difficult in almost every sense of the word. Removed from specificity of time (post-Star Wars, pre-iPods) or place (split equally between Ireland’s generically rural and the anonymously urban), McBride’s nameless protagonist fights her way through adolescence under the repressive regimes seemingly de rigeur for an Irish bildungsroman. Her conflict is familiar – an upbringing awash in patriarchal religion; family relationships both fraught and fiercely protective; a deeply uncomfortable, exploitative sexuality – but the terms of engagement feel urgent and fresh.
Given both McBride’s nationality and broad thematic strokes, the comparisons to Joyce have felt both thickly strewn and inevitable. McBride acknowledges a debt: in an essay in The Guardian, she said, “Reading Ulysses changed everything I thought about language, and everything I understood about what a book could do.” Drawing parallels, also, with Samuel Beckett, Edna O’Brien, William Faulkner, reviewers have called the book’s style “neomodernist” and “stream-of-consciousness.” This last, however, doesn’t seem quite apt. McBride’s prose resists streaming; at times, it seems barely conscious. The Girl is inchoate, her thoughts choppy, as disordered and half-formed as the title. Sentences are broken into stuttering clauses. Meaning aggregates through repetition only to be disrupted by another character’s crosstalk, lost forever. Maintaining a firm grip on the narrative is a pointless exercise; leaving plot behind to coast on waves of prose similarly futile. Rather, the text demands to be felt – affectively, yes, but also viscerally.
Continue reading Book Review: Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing
Imaginative Empathy: The Poetic Letters of Richard Howard
Hannah Star Rogers reviews
A Progressive Education by Richard Howard
Turtle Point Press
Richard Howard’s experiments in dramatic monologue and dialogue over six decades, in books like Fellow Feelings (1976) and Talking Cures (2003), have demonstrated what we might think of as his imaginative empathy—the way his poetic addresses ask readers to reconsider the situations of his speakers. His collected volume, Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003, shows how his voiced poems developed from kinship with writers and thinkers to explorations of the lives of 19th century portrait-sitters.Perhaps we should not be surprised that this poet, critic, and translator can create the worlds of others through their voices, renowned as he is for his important friendships with literary figures including Roland Barthes (for whom he acted as host in New York and, eventually, translator), Susan Sontag, and Amy Clampitt. Howard’s new book demonstrates to us once again the rewards of thinking with someone else’s mind.
Continue reading Book Review: Richard Howard’s A Progressive Education
Noa Snir was born in Jerusalem, where she graduated with honors from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. She is currently residing in Berlin, where she works as a freelance illustrator. She has worked with magazines worldwide and exhibited her work in Israel, Germany, the US, and Portugal. Noa’s work is frequently inspired, both thematically and visually, by the old world. She is interested in naive and folk art, religious art and art brut – art created by people who did not perceive of themselves as artists. Pieces from her Scheherazade series appeared in The Carolina Quarterly 64.1. You can find more of her work at www.noasnir.com
Why Scheherazade? What about this story attracted you to it?
I find the 1001 Nights stories to be an illustrator’s dream. The literary piece is so rich and unconventional. Scheherazade is the female protagonist who provides the framework for this incredible mythology and breathes life into the stories, yet we don’t know much about her. In my work I wanted to put the focus on her—a young, clever girl who finds herself in the midst of an impossible situation and uses her wit, humor and charm to keep herself and her younger sister alive, night after night, for years. The book tells us how her nights are spent (entertaining the king using whatever means necessary), but I was interested what her days looked like.
Continue reading “an illustrator’s dream”: An Interview with Noa Snir