There is no crayon color for how
to express grief. My mother keeps making
oatmeal and bananas for breakfast. The children
in TV shows are always hungry
but never eat. We are taught to leave the table with
permission from a lord. I burn everything the day
she loses a baby. They’ve strapped
a bone to the bed. I don’t know the story
about the green line moving up
and down, getting toxic with gravity.
My two-day lover is a drug dealer, doesn’t
wear a ring, tells me about his wife
with one leg. But he feels good and I want to
sweat. He slinks off my silk. It’s dangling behind
my back and it’s empty how quickly
I am able to part the earth
like a yellow cow in a zebra skirt.
Sometimes I feel bad about his white
on my pussy, or his belly button and hair
beside my ear. When my father wants to be
gentle with my mother, he fries eggs.
In another language, he teaches me
how to serve the rice grains from the floor.
He says when a face is compressed in a dark place,
the sound is little.
– March 2017
Winner of Bodega's 2016 Poetry Contest by Diannely Antigua
There is no crayon color for how
Winner of Bodega's 2016 Fiction Contest by Stephen V. Ramey
We’ve been treading water for decades, surrounded by people with flotation devices, pool toys, inner tubes, couch cushions. Denial. Anything will do in this time of Global Warming. Does it matter? At times your saturated hand in mine is enough. We have that. Our crinkles match trough to ridge, ridge to trough.
And then I look into your eyes and they are dead. Not in the literal sense, but in the sense of endless repetition. Waves, that momentary lift, the swell, the falling like a roller coaster smoothed safe. I feel a warmth in my trunks and realize that I am peeing into this endless soup, we all are. Once upon a time, we did not do this. Once upon a time we cared. So goes the myth.
Your pool donut has lost air. We have always taken turns blowing it up. Someday we will run out of breath. We will sink into the depths and never be seen. Isn’t that what matters?
A glint in the distance, a shimmer of white. Someone is carving through this jetsam on a sailboard. I squint, hoping to see the rider. Maybe it’s Al Gore. There’s a violence to it, a chop and surge. My heart pounds in cadence. A muffled scream, a splash. Pop! goes a raft. Blood sprays from fresh-cleaved flesh. The sailboard slaps and jumps.
Around us people are awakening. Water thrashes as they kick and paddle, but there’s nowhere to go, no space to maneuver.
And still, the chaos comes, the salt spray and the blood.
by Lee Taylor
I moved to Central Switzerland in 2010, a temporary visa shellacked to the interior of my passport. The Kanton gave me one year to achieve basic German proficiency. I would then have the honor of submitting myself to the biometric identification process and becoming a legitimate immigrant in Luzern.
I studied German at the Klubschule Migros, in a classroom above the supermarket of the same name. For two months, Monday through Friday mornings, I waddled to class during the final stretch of my first pregnancy. It was, mercifully, a wet and cold summer. Each day while we worked our way through grammatical cases and conjugations, a forceful rain would roll into the valley.
We were a little United Nations: a Russian psychiatrist trying to earn her right to practice abroad, and a group of Eritrean nurses with refugee status hoping to do the same. There was the sweet Polish girl struggling to find a job, a teenager from Finland on summer holiday, a handsome red-headed Swede, and two American retirees with huge hearts and hideous pronunciation. Our teacher, Genni (Gennaro), was a force. He was a former footballer married to a former Miss Schweiz and he had far too much charisma to be contained in a Klubschule classroom. He was quick to sniff out our ticks and hang-ups and he shamed us effortlessly. The class soon became the highlight of my isolated expat existence.
Despite the efforts of their immigration policies, it remains incredibly difficult to integrate as a foreigner in Central Switzerland. One explanation is the linguistic conundrum of learning “High” German in an environment where the Swiss dialect is the street language. After six years of living there, I could thankfully understand Lozärner Dütsch. Yet although I spoke a decent hybrid of dialect and proper German, it still felt far from authentic. Standing beside the swings at the playground, it was impossible to fit in with the other mothers as their umlaut and ach-laut-laden phrases lobbed back and forth. If we did speak, there was always this moment when they would choose to continue speaking in High German with me, or switch to the English they’d overheard me using with my children. Nothing makes a Swiss person puff with pride like flexing his or her language muscle.
Mastering a language as an adult didn’t seem to be all that different from how my children learned to speak. The primary difference was experiencing humiliation as a fully formed human being. In my first few years in Switzerland, there were countless moments walking with my daughter when a kind stranger would try to chat with us and I would chuckle helplessly, praying that whatever had been said to us didn’t include a question. It was funny, but I also realize now, kind of sad. Day in and day out, in this subtle confusion, I was snuffed out. I didn’t realize the profundity of this loneliness until one autumn afternoon in a London park. My kids were running around excitedly, making friends in their mother tongue. Cheerful, comprehensible language surrounded me and I was, somehow, home. That evening I told my husband, whom I would soon divorce, that I needed to move back to New York. Waking up every morning with a view of the Alps was not going to help me reconnect with myself. I craved loud personalities, messiness and even banal small talk.
We learn languages in leaps; it’s a non-linear process. I’ve had days where my two-year-old woke up from naps speaking in more complicated sentences, as if his brain put together the technique in dreamscapes. My leaps were always experiential. When I was pregnant with my first child, a whole new world of vocabulary opened up to me. While waiting, I would study the pamphlets and signage at the Frauenarzt, or “lady doctor.” By the end of the nine months, I had the female anatomy down, as well as other pregnancy pleasantries like nausea, high blood pressure, heartburn, and weight gain. When I gave birth to my second child, my skills had advanced so much that not a word of English was spoken between the staff and I.
Yet even after bringing life into the world in German, I still felt a disconnect between the language and my authentic self. For one, I found it extremely difficult to be funny. Let’s be honest, it’s not exactly a language that lends itself to humor (see Goethe, Schiller, Grass). The other reason I struggled was just in the basic realm of self-expression. Although I had a nice selection of nouns and verbs in my arsenal, I was still not me.
Things changed in the final months I lived in Luzern, when every week I had to tell a doctor or neighbor or administrator that I was getting divorced and heading back to the Heimatland with my children. I then had the perfect linguistic challenge—find the adjectives to explain to a stranger the end of a long, troubled love story. There, in the dénouement of my marriage, with one foot in my new life and one stuck in the old, I became a fluent German speaker. In my last few weeks, I was wandering through the Altstadt with my toddler and an old woman with a missing tooth and hairy chin approached us. She asked questions about my boy in heavy, almost crass Swiss German. We talked for a few minutes; I didn’t miss a beat. In the hour of my parting, I had finally arrived.
by Jay Deshpande
Jay Deshpande and Diannely Antigua in Conversation
This winter, Bodega launched its first contest. Jay Deshpande, our poetry judge and the author of Love the Stranger (YesYes Books, 2015) chose the poem “Bargaining,” by Diannely Antigua, which you can read in this issue. We asked the two of them to interview each other about process, product, and everything in between. Here’s what they had to say.
Jay Deshpande: Hi Diannely! We should really talk about “Bargaining,” but first: have you gotten to do any writing today? What’s your usual writing mode and where do you write?
Diannely Antigua: I’ve been able to sneak in a little bit of writing while at work. I find that I do my best writing when I’m supposed to be doing something else. It’s all about small rebellions. If I’m supposed to be replying to a work email, inspiration normally strikes then. It’s difficult for me to write when I set aside dedicated time. It’s too much pressure to “perform poetry.” During today’s small rebellion, I was working on a poem in response to Bachelard’s The Psychoanalysis of Fire. It’s an assignment for my craft class at NYU with Yusef Komunyakaa.
JD: “Bargaining” struck me for many reasons, and gave me that great feeling that we hope for from poems: having a whole, untranslatable experience. The poem gives the sense of a clear persona. And I like the way it moves from sentence to sentence—there’s an elliptical quality to it, as though the poem builds its argument from distinct materials that all have some underlying coherence. Can I ask you about how you began the poem?
DA: My craft class with Matt Rohrer was all about the techniques of making things new. We started with Walt Whitman and worked our way to Stein, the BreakBeat Poets, and even flarf. What really stuck with me was the lesson on the cento form. Our assignment was to write a poem using mostly appropriated language from books found on our bookshelf. I felt so odd using another poet’s work and calling it my own, even if there was some attribution.
But I looked on my shelf anyway, found my old diaries, and thought that could be a safe loophole to the assignment. I was appropriating language from my bookshelf, but my own language from years before. Since I was a nine, I’ve filled over 28 diaries.
“Bargaining” was the first poem that I wrote appropriating language from one of the diaries, the 24th diary to be exact. The poems are collage poems, yet it is a bit more complicated than that.
JD: I’m very interested in that use of diaries. It’s an invaluable way of drawing upon a non-poetic source text, finding the lyricism and the potentiality in its language. But it’s also an appropriative act, and means changing or re-seeing something about an earlier you. It’s almost a choice to remix your own younger self. I’m curious: how does this poetic project make you see yourself (as you look back on the diaries) differently? Does it give you new appreciation for her? Or can you see the self of those diaries as fully distinct from the personae you’re writing in these poems?
DA: The most shocking experience I’ve had so far was rereading my first diary. It spans the ages from 9 until about 12. It’s completely indoctrinated with a need for God’s approval. One sentence could be along the lines of, “oh, I really like this boy,” and the next sentence would be something like, “but I’m gonna pray to God that He brings me a righteous husband.” It’s shocking but also the reality of my life then, a clear reflection of what I was being taught. Part of me is still very much the girl in these diaries. It’s not easy to separate from prior selves, but I’m trying to give her a voice. She’s been through so much.
Your book, Love the Stranger, captivated me in such an emotional way. I found that even when I wasn’t sure of the exact action of a poem, it resonated with me. I truly could feel the emotional weight of the language. I was especially drawn to the poem “On the Meaning of Love.” It’s such an erotic, strange, and surreal poem. I’m curious about the craft of this poem, and how you were able to build upon these intimate moments between the speaker and the beloved.
JD: I’m really glad that you had that experience with the poem! “On the Meaning of Love” relies in some ways on more stable narrative conventions than I usually use. It tells a story, describes the progression chronologically, works in quatrains—which are one of the most balanced homes for storytelling in a poem. I wanted to use that form to counterbalance and to emphasize the discomforts of the gesture that the speaker performs. In terms of how I started to write it, I first found the title—and the first line came almost automatically. But I also knew it would have to rise to a profession of love and disturbance all at once. I guess the challenge here was going slow enough that I could sit with the discomfort. That seems like an important lesson outside of poems, too.
DA: I feel that poets are constantly asked this question: What do you feel truly constitutes a poem? Is there a logic that must be met in order for something to be considered a poem?
JD: I love thinking about this question, even if it’s endless and unanswerable and a poetic hobby-horse! Maybe it’s because each poem has to declare its own existence on its own terms, has to formulate its own rules—and it must do so in order to surprise us—that we keep having to talk about this. If every successful poem reinvents the wheel somehow, then there are an infinite number of answers.
Lately, I think of poetry as intensified language. But I’ve also been finding a few definitions particularly useful for demarcating what is a poem and what isn’t. James Longenbach says that a poem foregrounds the event of its language over any experience that language might describe. Barbara Herrnstein Smith notes that the poem is a mimetic act, so it’s never actual— it’s fictive discourse. And Ben Lerner thinks of the poem as being a failure to live up to the Platonic ideal of what a poem might be—always pointing to a possibility it will never achieve.
But maybe the most important thing is that the language of the poem does something to surprise the reader, to call us to attention.
DA: Going back to your book, Love the Stranger, I couldn’t help but be enamored with the song-like melancholy and longing present in each poem. I think that’s love, right? I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the impetus behind these love poems. Why love poems and what makes them different or similar to other love poems that you’ve read?
JD: I’m drawn to writing pieces that could be love poems, simply because the emotional impetus that brings me to the page most often has something to do with desire, or loss, or the experience of a body pulled between desire and loss. Well before Love the Stranger started to come together, though, I was already really drawn to the power that an addressee exerts over a lyric poem. Whether or not they’re spoken to directly, having that clearer sense of someone at the other end can sharpen the urge to write. I think I’ve frequently relied on that to find what the poem itself wants to say.
DA: Who is your poetry doppelganger? (Looks and/or poetic style.)
JD: I know the answer; but by the rules of doppelganger-ing, if I met my P.D. I would have to kill them, right? And that’s not good for business.
DA: So what are you working on now, and what can readers look forward to in the future?
JD: Right now I’m playing with a few different things! I’m working on translations of a French-Egyptian poet named Georges Henein, as well as several nonfiction projects. As to poems, I’m just reading everything I can and trying to complicate or challenge my notions of who I am when I write.
Diannely Antigua is a Dominican American poet and educator, born and raised in Massachusetts. She is currently an MFA candidate at New York University and an associate poetry editor for BOAAT. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Day One, Split Lip Magazine, Rust + Moth, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn.
by Tracy O'Neill
Tracy O’Neill and Stephen V. Ramey in Conversation
This winter, Bodega launched its first contest. Tracy O’Neill, our fiction judge and the author of The Hopeful (Ig Publishing, 2015) chose the flash piece “Global Warming,” Stephen V. Ramey, which you can read in this issue. We asked the two of them to talk about craft and character. Here’s what they had to say.
Stephen V. Ramey: Hi Tracy.
Tracy O’Neill: Hi Stephen. Nice to hear from you, and congratulations on winning the Bodega contest! It was a pleasure to read your work. I found that the sentences were surprising, the tone eerie, and the world one created by a familiar apathy of conscience.
SR: Thank you! First, let me say that it's an honor to be able to have this conversation with you.
Online you've discussed the value of revision, persistence of effort, long walks, and soft pants. How have lessons learned while writing The Hopeful impacted your current works in progress?
TO: These lessons have been helpful, but of course every book is a little different. The novel I'm working on now is in the third person, is staged in more places, and unravels over a longer period of time. That presents different puzzles, different questions. How will I transition in point of view? To what extent can the close third shift formally between characters without disrupting the coherence of the novel? How does a story about the failure of connectedness end its various narrative threads?
SR: Can you talk a little more about how time plays a role in your novels or other writing? Do you feel more freedom working on a novel with a longer timeline?
TO: No, I don't really see a connection between the span of time over which the narrative occurs and freedom in the work. There's plenty of flash fiction that gestures toward a wide cut of time and plenty of longer fiction that relays a shorter period of time by attending to details in the scene or making space for lush internal phenomena or exposition. I think the sense of freedom a writer feels is probably more contingent upon the techniques the writer feels able to put to use.
SR: In an interview for BookTrib you said "I wanted to show the way in which truncated dreams may advance even a very young person into the same sense that opportunities have been foreclosed, that there is not enough time left in one human life to reach meaningful existence." Do you typically go into a story/novel with this clarity of plan, or do you find that narrative purpose evolves during the writing process?
TO: You could say both. The sense that it's too late is pretty general. I think a lot of people feel that way, whether it's about becoming a writer, making a home, or traveling. How that sense manifests in action and gesture is quite different, of course. When I started writing The Hopeful, the narrator didn't do much with this feeling besides sulk. As I thought more of the character, however, it became clear that someone so obsessive might act out against this sentiment. Her despair and anger would be expressed in the physical world.
SR: Can you speak about the physical vs. the emotional? How do you write characters that are acting out in the physical world on the page? What draws you toward creating characters that are physically reactive on the page?
TO: I am probably less inclined to see the physical and emotional as binaristic than most. It seems to me that there's a dialogic relationship, that one informs the other or even that they are entangled in a feedback loop. I try to situate any character as both a thinking body and a body expressing thought because while the internal may hold more cultural capital, it seems to me that there is some recuperative work to be done in staging the body as a site of narrative. Our bodies, after all, do seem to galvanize much of the drama of our lives. We're treated with suspicion or kept out of bathrooms. We give birth or we're asked to adopt particular technologies to communicate in the language of the majority. Our points of entry are more or less difficult. And maybe because I often find myself at a loss for words or unable to advance my thoughts in an organized unit at a given moment, I see plenty of room for people to speak through their bodies when words fail them. I think, for example of a time recently when I didn't want the tenor of a friendship to change and it seemed it was happening in a moment. I couldn't stop dropping things, and I had nothing to say.
SR: Do you more often invent a character to suit the story and then hone their voice to make them real, or does voice and character emerge to drive the story?
TO: A lot of times, the voice defines a problem, a certain tension in the character. The first story I published began, "I meant to buy a gift on discount, but the coupon expired before I wasn't hungover anymore." The voice in that sentence registered a character with a particular problem arising from the tension between his intentions and his other drives. The novel that I'm working on now is the first time my fiction has begun with a handful of situations and had to find a voice, or voices, to match. In beginning this book, I asked myself to try what did not come naturally to me.
SR: That’s such a great line because it’s telling in so many ways. We get a bit about the character's finances, time management, and general life outlook, etc. all at once. Do you have any other dialogue tips that help you accomplish double (or more duty)?
TO: I suppose a lot of fiction writing is working backwards. You're thinking about the effects you want to create and searching for meeting points for multiple effects.
Stephen V. Ramey lives in beautiful New Castle, Pennsylvania. His eclectic short fiction has appeared in The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal and Connotation Press among others, and is upcoming in The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. His debut collection, Glass Animals (Pure Slush Books), was published in 2013. He is currently compiling a collection of post-progressive flash fiction tentatively entitled We Dissolve.