Rumpus Blog

Reinventing Myth and Genre for Fiction


Fables and fairy tales and folk tales can compel us on their own, but they’re also ripe for reinvention. Some authors may take the skeleton of a centuries-old story and use it as the basis for something new; others may borrow the language or structure in order to apply them to something else entirely.

Over at Hazlitt, Tobias Carroll reviews Patrick DeWitt’s latest novel Undermajordomo Minor and meditates on the long-standing tradition of authors and storytellers who bend myth and genre for the sake of telling new stories.

Rihanna Talks Dolezal, Domestic Abuse, and Success


In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Rihanna talks about her career up to this moment, going into depth about the ways in which she has seen worldwide success, public shaming, and private tragedy. She also begs the question of why so many were outraged in the moment of the Internet fallout regarding Dolezal’s ethnic heritage:

I think she was a bit of a hero, because she kind of flipped on society a little bit. Is it such a horrible thing that she pretended to be black? Black is a great thing, and I think she legit changed people’s perspective a bit and woke people up.

Life Into Art: Memoirs Adapted for Television and Film


On Saturday, October 17th, join Rumpus founding editor Stephen Elliott, along with Susan Orlean, Jerry Stahl, and Evan Wright, for a panel discussion hosted by Derrick C. Brown about what it’s like to have your memoir adapted for television and film.

All proceeds will benefit 826LA! You can find more info and purchase your tickets here!


Breaking Up (With Friends) Is Hard to Do


Laura Turner writes about friendships and loss and the myths of ourselves:

What I had found was that it took the instant to make me realize how much life had changed. M and I hadn’t been friends for years, but I had lived every day of those years thinking that reconciliation might be just around the corner. It wasn’t that I thought about her, or about us, every day; it was that I had never really gone through the process of grieving the friendship. I hadn’t wanted to let it die.

Song of the Day: “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”


The heady freedom of the 1960s touched almost every aspect of society, from civil rights activism to gender equity to mass media. The ambitious “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, is a telling example of that liberal attitude. Written by Steven Stills for his former girlfriend, musician Judy Collins, the song’s sprightly guitar and vocal harmonies convey a sweet giddiness typical of the 60s, while the lyrics add a more complicated layer to this seven-minute barn burner. They sing:

 I’ve got an answer
I’m going to fly away
What have I got to lose

Notable Portland: 10/8–10/14


Thursday 10/8: Michael Golding reads from her spiritual novel, A Poet of the Invisible WorldPowell’s on Hawthorne, 7:30 p.m., free.

Mark Sten reads from All Ages: The Rise and Fall of Portland Punk Rock, 1977-1981, an in-depth history and analysis of Portland’s first punk scene, exploring the origins of Poison Idea, Dead Moon, the Wipers, the Neo Boys, and many others. Sten will be joined for a panel discussion by filmmaker/musician Mike Lastra, Poison Idea lead singer Jerry A., former club owner/promoter Fred Noize, Jungle Nausea singer/guitarist Tammy Cates, and the Neo Boys drummer Pat Baum. Powell’s City of Books, 7:30 p.m., free.


Graphic Novels, Fatherhood, and Asian-American Culture


I feel like I’m just a hair’s breadth away from a consensus that what I do is horrible.

Guernica has a wonderful interview with graphic novelist Adrian Tomine, whose latest book Killing and Dying was recently released. Tomine talks about the difficulties of capturing the subject matters of race and fatherhood, all while meditating on the challenges of writing through the comic form.

Life and Sex in a Small Town


When I talked to him that weekend, he explained I couldn’t have been pregnant because we hadn’t had sex.  He knew because he and his dad sometimes hired a bull and watched it work.  He’d had sex himself, in the past.  He’d like to again, he added.  I couldn’t trust myself not to, I knew, and I didn’t want to squander another series of days and nights worrying how I’d feel moving to a squat house with hodgepodge furniture, or wheeling my baby through Super Valu as I bought meat, eggs, Comet, Gerber products, Windex.

Debra Monroe writes about growing up and longing in a small town.

Upright Beasts

Upright Beasts by Lincoln Michel


Each story in Lincoln Michel’s debut collection, Upright Beasts, contains an element of unreality that delights even as it unsettles. Michel’s stories exist in an uncanny America, a place both familiar and strange, lending these stories an almost fairy tale-like quality. But, if these are modern fairy tales, they are more Grimm than Disney. Above all, the world of Upright Beasts is decidedly dark and unsafe. In these stories, the children run the school, unsupervised; the neighborhood swimming pools are death traps; and even the fresh air is hiding something deadly. Yet, somehow, Michel’s characters find ways to persevere under frightening and often bizarre circumstances. Even during a zombie apocalypse, everyday life doggedly trudges on.

On the first page, Michel dedicates his book to the abyss. “Thanks for always gazing back,” he writes. This might seem dark to some readers, but Michel’s heroes are anything but. In fact, they are often so cheerful and inquisitive that most of these stories read more like comedy than tragedy. Michel’s protagonists tend to heroically position themselves, often ineffectually, between the vicious world and its victims, motivated simply by the knowledge that it’s the right thing to do.

In “The River Trick,” for example, the narrator labors against his neighbors’ suicidal tendencies—“My neighbors try to kill themselves at least twice a month,” the protagonist explains. “They’re not very good at it.” But despite the narrator’s best efforts, when one neighbor’s suicide attempt succeeds, the protagonist finds himself in court, only to be indicted because he lacks the proper certification or training to intervene on his neighbors’ behalves. This is how his trouble begins. In Upright Beasts it’s difficult to know whether to laugh or cry.

But why were the neighbors suicidal? The short answer is that Upright Beasts exists in a fallen world. In Michel’s stories, ambient despair is often the nature of things. There is something here of The American Dream, but seen through a glass darkly. The traditional institutions of modern life—apartments, jobs, family, friends, neighbors—all seem to teeter on the verge of collapse. These are stories from the recession and at every turn ordinary life rises up in protest against Michel’s heroes. Life for the characters in this collection is often difficult and unfair, and things always go from bad to worse. In the last few pages of “The River Trick,” after the hero loses his job and his girlfriend leaves him, taking one of the cats with her, he explains what his life as become:

The whole city has gone to hell. My cereal is soggy, the citrus is sour. I get lonely. The cat, Spick, meows constantly. Patricia took Span with her along with the computer and most of our books. She left me the flatscreen, though.

Lincoln Michel

Lincoln Michel

Unlike fairy tales, the surreal elements in Upright Beasts are not usually some external novelty imposed by the storyteller—there are no enchanted beans, fairy godmothers or magical forests here (though, admittedly, there are some zombies)—instead, the supernatural forces are most often embedded in character. In “Almost Recess,” for example, when an elementary school teacher’s class decides to construct a gallows for a science fair project, a “teachable moment” about the nature of death goes wrong in the worst way possible.

The surreal elements, here, function as a kind of metaphorical stand-in for our 21st century insecurities, desires and strange impulses. We are a damaged people, and Michel harnesses fantasy to externalize what is hidden in in dark corners of the American soul.

Many of these stories read less like literary fiction and more like fables for our time—a storybook structure pumped full of existential dread. In “My Life in the Bellies of Beasts,” for example, the narrator learns his place in the world not by traversing the usual avenues, but in being consumed by increasingly large animals. The matter-of-fact way in which Michel handles this narrative is particularly impressive:

“What are you doing in there?” the girl said when she saw me peeking from the back of the mouth.

“I live down here,” I said, ashamed.

“Well, come on out!”

She laughed, but I was afraid and slid back down into the guts. I didn’t think a boy who had lived his life in the bellies of beasts was worthy of her.

The boy spends his young life as a guest inside a number of hosts, each belly more spacious than that last. And although he is lonely, he has the opportunity to experience the drama of the food chain from the inside out. Michel’s best stories have this wise, mythic quality, but remain complex, funny and difficult to define. They are tiny, powerful stories that continue to engage the imagination long after reading.

The back cover of Michel’s book reads: “We are the upright beasts, doing battle with our darker, weirder impulses as the world collapses around us.” These stories cast flickering shadows of our own grotesque, superficial and distinctly modern nature. Without passing judgment or imposing morality, Michel manages to reflect a familiar world through a distorted lens, combining the supernatural and the mundane into something distinctly American. The beast gazes at us in recognition and, dumbly, we gaze back.

The Whiteness of Literary Landmarks


From Alice Walker:

Standing there knocking on Flannery O’Connor’s door, I do not think of her illness; her magnificent work in spite of it; I think: It all comes back to houses.

Of all the preserved writers’ houses of the world, there are only four belonging to people of color that are open to the public. Flavorwire explains the systemic whiteness of literary preservation.

From Draft to Book


NPR took a tour of the Kerlan Collection, a formerly private library of first-edition children’s books as well as original artwork, drafts of manuscripts, and other ephemera housed at the University of Minnesota:

This is something you see a lot at the Kerlan. Authors often discard characters and add new ones. Sketches can change radically over the course of 15 drafts.

DiCamillo says those alterations basically document the creative process.

“That’s the part that really grabs me. You can come here and see how people work and you also start to see that it’s work.”

Next Letter in the Mail: Gabriel Urza


We’re getting ready to send out our next Letter in the Mail, and it’s from Gabriel Urza! Gabriel writes us a very funny letter about the changes and emotions a pregnancy brings.

Don’t miss out! Subscribe to Letters in the Mail today! And Letters in the Mail is on Facebook, so visit us there, too!

Gabriel Urza received his MFA from the Ohio State University. His family is from the Basque region of Spain where he lived for several years. He is a grant recipient from the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and his short fiction and essays have been published in RiverteethHobartErleaThe Kenyon ReviewWest BranchSlate and other publications. He also has a degree in law from the University of Notre Dame and has spent several years as a public defender in Reno, Nevada.

Reading Mixtape feature

Anna March’s Reading Mixtape #4: Water, Water, Everywhere


It’s hard to escape news about water these days. Drought on the West Coast, hurricane season raging on the East Coast, and NASA found water on Mars. No matter where you are, these books will drench you. (more…)

Notable San Francisco: 10/7–10/13


Wednesday 10/7:  Pandemonium Press presents 1st Wednesdays in the Loft at Spice Monkey, featuring Patricia Bulitt, Fred Dodsworth, Kurt Lumpkin, and Mary Mackey. An open mic precedes and follows the readers. Free, 6:45 p.m., Spice Monkey.

City Lights presents Gillian Conoley (Peace), Lisa Fishman (24 Pages and other poems), and Richard Meier (In The Pure Block of the Whole Imaginary). Free, 7 p.m., City Lights.

The Booksmith presents an Artists Talk: a panel discussion featuring David Talbot, Tony Robles, and others, on the subject, “The Preservation of Culture, Literature and Art in San Francisco.” Free, 7:30 p.m., The Booksmith.


Iran Calls Rushdie Speech at Frankfurt “Anti-Cultural”


This has been organised by the Frankfurt book fair and crosses one of our political system’s red lines. We consider this move as anti-cultural,” [Seyed Abbas Salehi, deputy minister for culture and Islamic guidance] said, according to local news agencies. “Imam Khomeini’s fatwa on this issue is reflective of our religion and it will never fade away. We urge organisers to cancel his address.

Salman Rushdie has been invited to give the keynote address at next week’s Frankfurt Book Fair, causing Iran to threaten a boycott of the eventThe author’s relationship with the Muslim world has been fraught since the publication of his book The Satanic Verses and Iran’s declaration of a fatwa against him in 1989.

Men Fail at Writing About Women’s Writing


Helen McClory, author of On the Edges of Vision, took to Twitter yesterday to challenge male book reviewers, writers, and readers to talk about contemporary women authors. The viral tweet elicited plenty of responses from male writers looking to demonstrate how in touch they are with contemporary female authors. Unfortunately, most of the responses failed at the simple task:

Rumpus readers, you can do better. Leave a comment writing about, not listing, the works of a female author you have recently read.


Four-Legged Girl

Four-Legged Girl by Diane Seuss


It happened one lunch hour, browsing on-line poetry while dropping crumbs on my laptop: I discovered Diane Seuss in “Blackbird” and immediately bought a copy of Wolf Lake, Blouse Blown Open. And oh the pleasure. Her new volume Four–Legged Girl, is every bit as wondrous, if not more so.

Magically, while feasting on this new volume, the great poet Gerald Stern’s magnificent face appeared before me. Family resemblance? Indeed. Jason Wirtz, in Poets on Inventing, says of Seuss: “Using Gerald Stern as an example, she discusses how she has imitated the length of his poems and his non-linear narrativistic turns.”

Her work in no way feels imitative; they are kindred spirits. Stern and Seuss have access to that sacred place high in the ozone where experience, deep feeling, memory, love and killer metaphors hover. Both are lyrical storytellers. Seuss says, in an interview with Geosi Gysi, “ Loss has been my subject since I was a very young child.” Perhaps loss is Gerry Stern’s subject as well. Loss and it’s cheery B-side, laughter.

It is not surprising then that Stern chose Seuss’s poem “Either everything is sexual or nothing is. Take this flock of poppies “ as the National Winner of the Cape Cod Cultural Center’s 2011 National and Regional Poetry Competition. How could he resist! It is a sumptuous piece with supersaturated imagery; an absolute delight. The first two stanzas:

smoke-green stems brandishing buds the size of green plums, swathed
in a testicular fur. Even those costumed in the burlesque of red crepe
petals have cocks under their skirts, powdered with indigo-black pollen,

staining everything they touch. Either the whole world is New Orleans
at 3 a.m. and a saxophone like a drill bit or it’s all clinical sunlight and sad
elementary school architecture, circa 1962, no broom closets opening into escape [hatches]

Seuss can be really funny, as in the mischievous “Laundromat hit by Tornado”, showcasing her virtuosity. Has anyone tried the write-off-a-bizarre-headline writing prompt?

The bride died. The girl in love
with milkweed pods and god
died laundering her sunbonnet.

The baby born into the hands
of fog and nuns who falsely
claimed she was Chinese died.

She was not Chinese, three dogs
sparring over a stolen bone died.

Young wife died up to her nipples

in dirty diapers. Widow died
bleaching her dead husband’s
shirts for donation.

And from “Do you remember that spring? The breeze smelled like cake mix”:

And something in the air of sodomy. Maybe it was the spirea,
which reeks of spermatozoa and Pine-Sol. Don’t you miss those days,
the open-mouthed kisses, lips swollen as deer twats in the springtime?
We lived a life of smutty angst and reckless kleptomania at the eye-shadow emporium.
Still pretending to be girls, and hetero, wearing lacy knickers and shit kickers.
We were, relatively speaking, housewives.
Haute cuisine was Bisquick pizza and lychee martinis.
Threw the dirty dishes out the back door into the rhubarb patch.

I love what she does with clothes. Some random lines:

“her rayon sweater soaked in beer”

“It was strange to watch my own / dresses and blouses swaying on the line. As if I’d been skinned alive.”

“and one of us is naked under a gold / skirt safety pinned at the waist and the material melts in the rain”

“I wore a white, gauzy dress with laces at the bodice”.

And two poems, “ I can’t stop thinking of that New York skirt, turquoise sequins glued onto sea-colored cotton” and the wildly exuberant “My pants are disintegrating, Yes,”. A few lines:

In one day, holes. Old hungers, yawning griefs.
Split incisions. Indecisions. Those pants, sunset
tiger striping the sky. The pink so domestic,

like girl-curtains, a canopy bed.

Diane SeussSeuss animates. Objects come alive, like toys springing from a chest when darkness comes. From the prose poem, “iii. The umbrella was the hub,”:

and the hub of the umbrella was the pole around which the cleats and skeleton ribs spun. From the hub arose many begettings. The peony was begotten, the woody stem echoing the umbrella pole, topped by the beguiling trivialities of petals, and the peony begat the Heartland Peony Society, which begat culture.

And later in the poem:

The lie begat love begat sex begat rabbits that lurked beneath the protective leaves of wild mandrake during rainstorms which begat the maypole, a hub with ribbons, and girls.

Animism is alive here: “the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena and the universe itself possess souls,” and Imagism, as in “It wasn’t love, but love’s template”:

The face of dawn, secreted beneath a gold mask.
Purple-furred dusk lifted its leg and marked the oily streets.
Skyscrapers scraped the sky until it beaded blood.
Silver light seeped through the needlemarks punched in heaven’s sheath.

H.D. and Amy Lowell in the sacred ozone nod, yes.

Before you read the long poem “ iii. Lush”, Listen to Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” if it isn’t already burning inside your brain. I suggest Ella Fitzgerald, with Duke Ellington on piano. (You tube.) The poem begins “ I can’t listen to music, especially Lush Life “ but before long she’s quoting and riffing and here’s that doomed lover who always shows up. The narrator’s obsession? From a ghostly duet with Strayhorn to a long lonely solo, Seuss stretches out. How easy improvisation looks when it really isn’t; when it flows from the pen of a fabulous poet.


An Experiment in Fiction


Atwood says this is not the time for realistic fiction — and it’s no coincidence that dystopia and fantasy are on the rise now. “I think they’re coming out of people’s feeling that things are going haywire, and you cannot depend on a stable background for ‘realistic fiction.’ And when there’s perceived instability that’s happening you can’t write that kind of novel and have people believe it.”

In a conversation with NPR, Margaret Atwood talks about her new novel, The Heart Goes Last, a book which NPR describes as difficult to define.