from Nathan C. Martin and Friends.
"In the wrong light anyone can look like a darkness (self-portrait" by Richard Siken
"In the wrong light anyone can look like a darkness (self-portrait" by Richard Siken

Poet Richard Siken will give the keynote reading for the 7thd annual New Orleans New Writers Literary Festival at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 27, at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts’ (2800 Chartres St.). Siken is the recipient of a Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, the winner of the 2004 Yale Series for Younger Poets competition for his collection Crush, and the cofounder and editor of the literary magazine spork.

He will also give a reading at 3 p.m. on Friday, March 28, in room 197 of the Liberal Arts Building on the University of New Orleans campus. A reception with donut holes and black coffee, hosted by the UNO creative writing program, will follow.

The New Orleans New Writers Literary Festival is an annual gathering of more than 100 young writers, grades 9 – 12, yet unburdened with such mess as the ‘death of print’ and the grind of rejection. The event takes place on March 27 and Saturday, March 29.

Siken has been known for disappointing high school students in the past. Hopefully he won’t crush too many spirits during the LitFest. From an interview in BOMB magazine by Legacy Russell:

LR: So, Richard, I’m just going to put it out there—while your work can be found on a myriad of blogs, online journals, and a variety of publications, and while selections from Crush have been read on YouTube by aspiring poets, tattooed on people’s bodies, and passed around a far-reaching literary community as a publication that has been rumored to change people’s lives, you’ve been relatively private about your identity as a writer. What gives?

RS: You know, I’ve dodged this question (or answered it dishonestly) so many times now, but I’ll go ahead and attempt an explanation. You get the page, I get the rest. That’s the answer but really, you want the reasons behind the answer. I got an email from a high school student a while ago. She had selected one of my poems and was going to do a presentation for a class. Her teacher told her she should contact me, so she could understand the poem. I wrote back saying, basically, that if she needed my explanations and my biography to help her understand it—to feel it—then the poem was a failure and I had wasted my life. She wrote back, of course. She said I was rude and that now she was going to get a B.

Saturday at the LifFest features a day-long schedule of master classes and seminars for New Orleans high school students taught by acclaimed writers. Scheduled events include a master class with Siken; screenwriting with Henry Griffin; Spoken Word with Slam Team NOLA; Story Games with Mischa Krilov; Fiction with Maurice Ruffin; Poetry with Carolyn Hembree; Creative Non-Fiction with Adrian Van Young; Comic Art with Kurt Amacker; and Storyslam: Live Storytelling with Laine Kaplan-Levenson.  The day’s events will take place at from 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. at Lusher Charter High School (5624 Freret St.).

You can support the constructive hobbies of your favorite high schooler by buying tickets on NOCCA’s website.

Presenters at the Tennessee Williams Festival, clockwise from top left: Bill Cotter, Victor LaValle, Roxane Gay, Kristina Robinson, John Freeman, and Kiese Laymon
Presenters at the Tennessee Williams Festival, clockwise from top left: Bill Cotter, Victor LaValle, Roxane Gay, Kristina Robinson, John Freeman, and Kiese Laymon

The Tennessee Williams Literary Festival takes place this weekend. Room 220 recommends you find yourself at these events:

(UPDATE:) The Internet Age has seen a renaissance of the novella. If you’re a fiction writer, and are free at 9 a.m. on Friday, attending Justin Torres’ masterclass on the Art of the Super-Sleek Novel is a must.

Start out on Friday night with the kickoff Literary Dance Party, featuring DJ Brice Nice, a performance by West Bank King Doogie Fontaine, and a “Surprise Interrogation Reading” with author Victor LaValle—which, we gather, involves someone LaValle knows (but doesn’t know will be in attendance?) grilling him about whatever s/he feels like. LaValle, before becoming a hip and acclaimed author, was a fat kid addicted to phone sex (as chronicled in his essay “Long Distance”) so this could be interesting. Admission is $15, which includes a drink and food. The party starts at 8 p.m. in the Queen Anne Ballroom at the Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal St.).

The highlight Saturday will be the panel “The Great American Literary Journal,” which takes place at 4 p.m. at the Historic New Orleans Collections’ Williams Research Center (410 Chartres St.). Granta editor John Freeman—no matter that Granta is British—will talk the ins and outs of the lit periodical landscape with fellow panelists Roxane Gay (who edits for PANK and The Rumpus and publishes everywhere) and Michelle Wildgen and moderator Laura van den Berg. The panel will be preceded in the same venue by an interview with Gay conducted by Jami Attenberg. There’s also a panel earlier in the day (11:30 a.m. at Muriel’s on Jackson Square) about crime writing that features Ethan Brown and a forensic anthropologist who’s an expert on missing persons—it sounds intriguing, though I would have loved to see this panel include Joseph Scott Morgan.

Saturday night, The People Say Project is going to present a multifaceted bonanza in honor of Elmore Leonard—who, it will be emphasized, was born in New Orleans. “Elmore Leonard Is From Here” features a panoply of authors, journalists, actors, musicians, and others paying tribute to Leonard, whose prolific writing career includes the fictional works upon which the films 3:10 to Yuma, Get Shorty, and Jackie Brown were based. Tickets are $20, which includes a drink. The event begins at 8 p.m. on Saturday in the Queen Anne Ballroom at the Monteleone.

The weather head-fake last weekend that prompted the organizers of Super Sunday to reschedule it for this upcoming Sunday might present a scheduling conflict for some, but the day’s best offerings at the festival take place before noon, providing the opportunity for a chock-full day. At 10 a.m. in the Royal Ballroom at the Monteleone, frequent Room 220 contributor Kristina Robinson will moderate the panel “Writing America,” featuring Kiese Laymon, Bill Cheng, Jami Attenberg, and Laura van den Berg. This is sure to be a wheeling-and-dealing discussion from a wide variety of viewpoints on how an author incorporates their view of their country into fiction.

If you’re going to stick around after that, I suggest hanging around with Laymon for the 11:30 panel he’s on, “The Return of the Essay,” moderated by John Freeman, also with panelists Roxane Gay and Dani Shapiro. The early afternoon has a couple of good offerings at 1 p.m., most notably a panel on literary misadventures featuring Bill Cotter and Mat Johnson. There’s also a panel at the same time about how brass band music, Mardi Gras Indians, and second lines contribute to the creation of literature and visual art in New Orleans, but really, you should just go see it for yourself (and then maybe go home and write or paint).

Visit the Tennessee Williams Festival website for full panel schedules on Saturday and Sunday and a complete list of presenter bios.


In conjunction with Prospect.3, the international art biennial that will open in spaces throughout New Orleans next fall, the folks at Prospect have launched a series of literary events in New Orleans Public Library branches, P.3 Reads, that will feature artists from the biennial talking about books that are central to their work.

The next installment of P.3 Reads, for which Prospect artist Mary Ellen Carroll and WWOZ’s David Freedman will discuss The Loser by Thomas Bernhard, will take place at 6 p.m. this Thursday, March 20, at the Rosa S. Keller Library (4300 Broad St.).

The Loser is classic Bernhard—it’s the story of a couple aspiring concert pianists who, upon witnessing the genius of their contemporary (as he plays Bach’s Goldberg Variations), lose faith in their own talents and enter into downward spirals (Bernhard is the maestro of downward spirals). The novel is essentially a meditation on artistic practice, and the event’s presenters will discuss it as it relates to Carroll’s work.

Carroll is a conceptual artist from New York (though she teaches at Rice in Houston) whose art often relates to architecture and urbanism. Her installation for Prospect.3, Public Utility 2.0, will be a series of transmitters mounted under the Claiborne Overpass that use new technology to transmit “Super WiFi” via unused television channels, giving people in the area free Internet.

Roxane Gay

By Jamey Hatley

I am not entirely convinced that Roxane Gay is a single entity. I intend to find out at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, where she will sit for panels and interviews on both Saturday and Sunday, March 22 and 23, at the Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal St.; see links for times).

Gay has a cascade of titles, a few of which are co-editor of PANK, essays editor of The Rumpus, and publisher of Tiny Hardcore Books. She curates a series of essays by feminists of color for Salon. She is an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. Her list of publications is dazzling. She has two books forthcoming in 2014: Her new novel, An Untamed State, will be published by Grove Atlantic; Harper Perennial will publish her essay collection, Bad Feminist. She is also the author of Ayiti (2011), a blend of fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

Gay is a master of forms, from the brevity of Twitter to the expansiveness of the novel. Print or online, short form or long, Gay manages to shape her formidable talent to the task at hand.

What follows is our conversation via email about fairy tales, inversions, the importance of place, the intimacy of violence, and closing the distance between writer and reader.

Once upon a time, in a far off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.” —An Untamed State

Room 220: The frame of An Untamed State is a fairy tale, but an inverted one. It begins with “Happily Ever After” and ends with “Once Upon a Time.” The novel is full of inversions. The protagonist, Mireille Duval Jameson, is of tiny stature, but immensely strong. Again and again, characters act against the stock fairy tale types. Were these types of stories important to you as a child? What drew you to these inversions?

Roxane Gay: I cannot say fairy tales were markedly important to me as a child but the older I’ve gotten, the more I have come to appreciate fables, folktales and fairy—how they are passed forward, what they represent.

Because fairy tales are such well-visited territory in literature, I wanted to try and do something different with them. Inverting their structure and the significant characters from these tales felt like one way to do that.

“This is the Haiti of my childhood—summer afternoons at the beach, swimming in the warm and salty blue of the ocean. We ate grilled meat and drank Coke from green glass bottles, biting the rim, enjoying the sound our teeth made against the glass.” —An Untamed State

Rm220: Many of your short stories take place in a kind of anyplace space that gives them a kind of fable-like quality. In other works, the place is so very defined that it becomes a character. In An Untamed State, Haiti was a whole cast of characters. How do you decide what the story requires?

RG: When I think of place, I do very much consider place as character, as something that shapes and drives the story and exists in its own right. In writing Haiti throughout the novel, I wanted to show the complexities of the island—the heat, the beauty, the troubles, the joy, the grief—so I started to think about which details of what I know and imagine of Haiti would best bring out that complexity and wrote forward from there.

Rm220: Stacey D’Erasmo, who wrote The Art of Intimacy for Graywolf’s “Art of” series said at a lecture that not all intimacy is lovely. I was reminded of this in An Untamed State. The violence that Mireille experiences during her captivity is unrelenting. It functions as a language that she must learn to survive and attempt to unlearn to live. I watch all the cop procedural dramas where assault and violence have been rendered commonplace, but Mireille’s experience was anything but. Why was it important for you to tell the story in this way?

RG: There were so many things going on in how I chose to depict Mireille’s experiences during her kidnapping. First and foremost, I was thinking about how all too often, when we read or see violence, we aren’t forced to look away. The closer we get to the truth of this kind of violence, the closer I believe we get to a place where you do have to close your eyes or turn away, or take a moment. I was definitely trying to get there and it was a hard choice to make and a hard set of scenes to write but it was not done to be gratuitous. I also do think about intimacy and violence, and what happens in the circumstances Mireille faced. It is brutal but particularly in her situation, the violence is not impersonal or dispassionate. It is fueled, I think, by desperation, bitterness, and rage. Because Mireille’s experience is prolonged, there is also, as you so beautifully put, a learning of a language Mireille must do. She must figure out how to bend without breaking. She has to try to understand the men she despises most and is most vulnerable to. How could that be anything but intimate, in such a horrifying way?

“Back then, memories were everywhere, and constant, and I was afraid of everything. I thought running away would leave all that behind. I thought I might be free of what had happened and what it had turned me into.” –“Second to Last Woman I Loved”

Rm220: I enjoy so much of your writing. It is smart, funny, and just plain good, but I was trying to identify the thing that resonates with me in my favorite work by you. I noticed this quality in your recent essay, “Second to Last Woman I Loved” and encountered it in An Untamed State. As I read these works, I felt the narrative distance decrease until my own vulnerability felt at stake. I was unsettled and a bit undone. Most of my favorite writing has this kind of intimacy at its core. Is this an active goal, to achieve this kind of intimacy with your reader?

RG: It absolutely is. I want to pull the reader in so that they feel as inhabited by the story I’m telling as I do. That’s what the best writing does for me, and I certainly strive to write that well.

The Walker Percy Center at Loyola University New Orleans is gearing up for its next round of community writing classes, which begin on March 23 (deadline to register is March 21). These eight-week evening courses offer writing instruction to authors of all skill levels and, with $250 tuition, they’re much cheaper than an MFA.

For more information and to enroll, visit the Walker Percy Center website.

Writing & Publishing: in Print & on the Internet
Instructor: Tom Andes • Sundays 7–9 pm • begins March 23

Writing the Personal Essay
Instructor: Anya Groner • Mondays 7–9 pm • begins March 24

Writing Well-Crafted Fiction
Instructor: Stephen Rea • Tuesdays from 7–9 pm • begins March 25

Writing the Memoir
Instructor: Jessica Kinnison • Wednesdays 7–9 pm • begins March 26

Writing the Short Story
Instructor: Michael Jeffrey Lee • Thursdays 7–9 pm • begins March 27

Portrait by Leon Alesi
Portrait by Leon Alesi

By Christine P. Horn

Bill Cotter’s new book, The Parallel Apartments, is a fascinating, harrowing, charming, and mortifying novel that spans decades and tracks a cast of nearly a dozen primary characters through wandering, interwoven escapades in Austin, Texas, where the author has lived and worked as a bookbinder and book dealer since 1997. The novel’s Altman-esque mesh involves sex workers, sex offenders, debtors, alcoholics, booksellers, robot peddlers, chronic masturbators, the formerly incarcerated, pinochle players, and, at its core, a grandmother, mother, and daughter. It is a large, enthusiastic follow-up to his 2009 debut, Fever Chart, which also features a magnificent ensemble cast and a wildly inventive display of vocabulary that never gets in the way. It is also one of the best contemporary novels set in New Orleans.

Cotter lived some years in New Orleans. Sometime around the May Flood of 1995, his sister Karen, who had been insisting that he and I should meet, introduced us. Both he and I were of the impression that when someone tells a person “you’re really going to hit it off” with another, it is never, ever the case. We were delighted to be wrong. Our early adventures included buying q-tips and cleaning our ears, whiskey drinking, and blindfolded chess.

I will be happy to see Mr. Cotter for the first time in 17 years when he comes to town for an appearance on a panel at the Tennessee Williams Festival at 1 p.m. on Sunday, March 23, at the Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal St.). He will weigh in on the topic of literary misadventures along with fellow panelists Mat Johnson and Valerie Martin and moderator Brett Martin.

But until then, here is an exchange we conducted via email and telephone about his new book:

Room 220: Raymond Queneau wrote We Always Treat Women Too Well about the Easter Sunday Uprising without ever having been to Dublin. He based his geography on Ulysses. Have you ever been to Austin?

Bill Cotter: I have; in fact it’s been my home for almost seventeen years, give or take. (I believe I arrived in Austin—after an ugly, lonesome year or two in Las Vegas—on the day Diana was killed.) However, I’ve never been to Texas City, the setting for a chapter or two in the novel—I just prowled the streets with Google Earth. The era of remote surveillance has taken some of the truth out of Thoreau’s 1851 remark about the vainness of sitting down to write when one hasn’t yet stood up to live. I feel I can sit down and write about whatever as long as I’ve got a wall of good books and the internet. Having a first-rate research library right down the street doesn’t hurt either. (That would be the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.)

Rm220: Without revealing any of the women you may have consulted, you must have gotten a whole lotta women to talk to you about sex and their personal regimens while researching this book. I’m somewhat prudish asking this kind of question, so just go ahead and offer up what inspired the quite detailed and imaginative sex bits throughout the book.

BC: I don’t recall conducting any direct interviews with women about sex and sexuality and the consequences of—most of my information comes from observation within the relationships I’ve had with women. (However, I did participate in an anonymous online discussion with several women who had suffered miscarriages.) I am quite worried that I will be seen as baldly arrogant for attempting to write sex scenes from the points of view of women and other non-male genders, and I have no defense against that, except to say that individual sexuality is such a manifold and various business that it defies any blanket truths—viz, in the bedroom, anything goes, regardless of sexuality. In the book I wanted to make those anythings funny, and possibly hot.

Rm220: Four mothers in the story abandon their children, three mothers lose their children, one sleeps with hundreds of men to become impregnated, another pregnant character worries she will resent and hate her child, and another is so terrified of having a child she only has intercourse with her dog and a robot. Grandmothers care for children in the absence of mothers. Can you elaborate on these themes?

BC: You’ve hit on the central theme of the book. In fact, the title, up until the last minute, was The Instant of the Mothers. (It was scrapped because the “instant” referred to became “instants” in later drafts, which can be heard as “instance,” an unfitting title for one thing, plus the homophone could mislead someone trying to look up the book on Amazon or wherever, and a sale could be lost. Or so thought the editor.) But I have evaded your question—I don’t really know how to elaborate on the theme of motherhood in short form—a longish novel was the only way I knew how.

Rm220: Is bookbinding really only for “compulsive simpletons”? Why are book folk given such short shrift?

BC: No, not really for compulsive simpletons—just poking fun at my own profession. However, in bibliopoly and librarianship, contempt and loathing has long shadowed the bookbinder. In William Blades’s The Enemies of Books (London: Elliot Stock, 1888 [2nd ed.]), Chapter VIII is devoted solely to the injury and terrors historically visited on books by bookbinders. “Muttonthumper” is bygone slang for a bookbinder, probably coined for both their reputed hamfistedness and habit of using inferior sheepskin. I agree that I have maligned book folk in the novel, but you’ll notice that all malignees are booksellers, which is direct commentary on my highly cynical attitude toward the vocation. Though I know a couple dealers who comport with the highest probity, and whom I consider good friends, I find that most dealers (in antiquarian books) to be one or more of the following: unethical, disagreeable, odious, venal, condescending, biggity, and criminal. The real enemies of books. I’m getting out of the goddamn bookselling business as soon as I possibly can.

Drawings by Brad Benischek published alongside an early excerpt of Fever Chart in the New Orleans Review.

Rm220: The bulk of your major characters are unhinged to varying degrees. In your first book, Fever Chart, overt mental illness is a major theme. In The Parallel Apartments, many of the characters also endure breakdowns and hospitalizations. Tell us more.

BC: I’m really only interested in the damaged and mishandled, the abused and victimized. I don’t think of myself as any of those things, but I will say that the defining theme of my adult life has been a struggle with major depressive disorder, both the endurance and treatment of which has featured some ugly moments that I can only understand and learn to live with by examining them in characters navigating the republic of fiction.

Rm220: One character is a retired prostitute. One is a former attempted prostitute. Another was whored out by her parents as a child, and yet another runs a brothel of sorts. Please comment.

BC: I’d never noticed that there are four threads dealing with prostitution! I suppose it is my interest in the voices of the victimized—especially those that defeat their victimizers, like Justine and Rose—though of course not all sex workers are victims. In fact, one of the major characters in the book, Dot Disfarmer, is reputed to have entered the profession because she liked it, and another is a madam who runs a brothel whose single “girl” is a four-hundred-thousand-dollar male sex robot. The former is hardly a victim, and the latter hardly victimizable.

Rm220: Almost all of the male characters in The Parallel Apartments are either terrible, despicable grotesques or ineffectual, helpless failures. And some are a little of both. Why? Was this a necessary convention in a book about women? In a book about these particular women?

BC: I agree that some of the male characters are just antic monsters—Franklin, Justine’s mate in New York who takes sex classes and experiments what he’s learned on Cypriote nightclub girls, and Murphy, the serial killer who queases at the sight of blood—but to classify all the others as ineffectual and helpless and failures is maybe an oversimplification. There is Troy, who agrees to accompany Justine to vanquish Sherpa, the malevolent mountebank; there is Scaro, whose only crime was to fall in love with the wrong woman; there is Casey, Marcia’s friend and oracle of reason. Justine herself might be the only helpless and ineffectual failure in the book—the world acts upon her, rather than she upon it.

Rm220: Beds ‘ptoing,’ cards ‘ftch,’ bottles ‘kck.’ When will Bill Cotter’s Lexicon of Sounds be released?

BC: I love sounds! English, even though as rich and expressive as any language (with the probable exceptions of German and Chinese), its lexicon of onomatopoeia is inexcusably measly. I love to dissect a complex sound. Say, tearing open the wrapper on a Three Musketeers bar—-there’s an initial qls when you get the rip going, a slst as the tear splits long the length, then the wrcl as you fold the wrapper back on itself. Now you have a nice compound word, for use with any candy-bar opening that might happen along in your fiction!

Rm220: The name of the HoBots technician is Mr. C.P. Horn, which is incredibly close to my name. Do you torture all your friends and family in this way? If I put down “HoBots technician” on my resume will you cover for me?

BC: Nope, you’re the only one. And yes, I will cover for you!


Photo by Adena Stevens

Author Susan Choi, the current Zale-Kimmerling Writer in Residence at Tulane University, will give a reading and sit for an interview with local author Zachary Lazar at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 17, at the Woldenberg Art Center on Tulane’s campus.

Choi is the author of four books, most recently My Education, the story of a college student who begins an affair with her professor and then moves on to the professor’s wife. As the book unfolds, so does a spree of couplings among a variety of interested and interesting parties that provides the reader a front-row seat for a saucy and nuanced exploration of contemporary sexuality.

From the New York Times review:

Choi has taken seriously the sexual love between two women who see themselves as straight. This choice of subject matter is an exciting one, for if a number of the great novels of the past century have been stories of gay love, no really adequate literature of bisexuality exists. Regina does not concern herself with the terms “lesbian” or “bisexual,” and she is nonchalant about the sex of her new lover. It was “the least relevant factor of all,” she maintains, “that we were both women.” Her determination to bracket gender is momentarily persuasive. Her “adoration” of Martha is, she feels, “its own totality, bottomless and consuming, a font of impossible pleasure that from the start also bore down on me like a drill until at last it accomplished a permanent perforation.”

Clearly, this reviewer has not read Something In My Eye by local author Michael Jeffrey Lee, an exquisite (if sometimes creepy) bout of literary bisexuality.

Choi is also the author of The Foreign Student, which won the Asian-American Literary Award for fiction, American Woman, which was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, and A Person of Interest, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation and was selected as the inaugural recipient of the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award in 2010. She lives in Brooooklyn, New York.




The One That Got Away

posted Mar 10, 2014
Dumpy bed with laptop

By Michael Jeffrey Lee

There’s a story making the rounds on the world wide web right now, and it’s about looking for love in the city of New Orleans, a topic of no little interest to me. Just this morning as I lay in bed, trying to take it easy after contracting a throat infection over the weekend, the story appeared in my inbox, sent by a concerned friend who demanded that I read it. I noticed that the friend who had sent me the email was available to chat, so I quickly sent him a message, asking him what all his worrying was about. He explained the situation straight away: the reason he had sent it, he said, was because one of the main characters in the story was me—not even the name had been changed. And what’s worse, my friend went on, the story “trashes you ruthlessly and makes you look like a clown.”

“In what way?” I said.

“Every single way,” he said, “from your clothing down to your dancing. It even pokes fun at your breasts.”

“Well, I guess it wouldn’t be the first time,” I said. I touched my breasts then, just to comfort myself. “Anything else?”

“Sure,” he said. “In some places you look hapless and very creepy. In others, desperate and foolish, and at the very end you’re portrayed as being under the malevolent control of a woman from your past.”

“Ok,” I said. “Thanks for telling me.”

I tend to be pretty protective of my public image, even in this age of zero privacy and no dignity, and so laying there in my bed I felt myself beginning to seethe. I remembered how, just the year before, the local paper had tried to publish nude photos of me on my balcony, but I had managed to have them taken down before most of the city saw them—a small victory, maybe, but it had allowed me to keep my job working with children.

I asked my friend how he had found out about the story in the first place, and he said that he had been sent it from his grandmother, who was an avid reader of the website it appeared on—she really lapped up true-life, human stories, provided they were told boldly, with the tired reader in mind. “You can’t do anything about this one, Mickey,” he said, using my pet name. “Every outlet has already picked it up.”

“You don’t think I should read it?” I said.

“Are you still sick?” he said.

“So sick,” I said, feeling my huge glands. “My poor throat.”

“Forget I ever sent it,” he said. “Just listen to some music, or watch a movie.”

“I’m movied out,” I said. “And I’ve been listening to music this whole time.”

“Well, do something,” he said.

“But is it an alright story, overall?” I said. “If it’s a good story, I should probably read it.”

“It’s a mean, cowardly story,” he said, “written for mean, cowardly people to chortle at.”

“Is it at least told beautifully?”

“It has its moments.”

“It’s in my inbox,” I said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to refrain long.”

“I can tell you a little more about it if you want,” he said.

“Alright,” I said, picking out a new playlist to listen to. “So who is the author?”

While waiting for his response, I thought about the people I might have upset since moving back here to New Orleans, after my life went to ruins in another state. There really wasn’t a one.

Then the author’s name came scrolling across the screen, but all I could do was shake my head. “I can’t put a face to it,” I wrote. “Maybe there’s some mistake?”

“Details are spot on,” he said. “She completely nailed down your essence.”

I thought some more, but didn’t type anything.

“Think hard,” he said. “A lot of it takes place in scummy neighborhood bars and eateries, and you do a lot of drinking and bike riding. At one point, you let her dog out.”

“Oh,” I said. “Wait…it’s coming back to me. Not the person, but that time in my life.”

“When was that?”

“Almost five years ago,” I said. “I had just moved back to town, after my family had been murdered in Alabama.”

“I remember it,” he said. “You were in bad shape.”

“My only friend was a doctor who wouldn’t treat me,” I said. “We would walk around downtown together, and he would tell me about the young girl he was pursuing.”

“And your housing situation was tough too,” he said.

“My room didn’t have any doors!” I said.

“And there was the drinking,” he said. “And the hard drugging.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I remember.”

“And that one night you told me about,” he said, “where you knelt down next to the gas heater and stared at the two blue flames, and you prayed that you would wake up with the same brain you were about to go to bed with.”

“And the bridge,” I said. “I was always thinking about the bridge.”

“You were always thinking about the bridge,” he said. “The bridge was an overwhelming comfort to you, just knowing that it was there.”

“I wanted to live well,” I said, “but I didn’t know how.”

“We all want to live well,” he said.

“But it always seems so hard.”

“Right. And so one night, you got in touch with an old acquaintance.”

“A very old acquaintance,” I said.

“Just a simple greeting,” he said, “a desire to meet up.”

“Yeah, I just wanted to have some fun with someone, out there in the city.”

“Someone who you’d met only once, but whose name conjured something nice.”

“Yeah, a name that conjured something nice,” I said. “Her name does have a nice ring to it, reading it now.”

“Can you remember?” he said.

“I really wish I could,” I said.

He typed the name again, over and over, and I read it over and over again to myself in my bed, my throat burning.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “It’s coming back to me a little.”

“I knew it would,” he said.

“Not the face, really, but some of the body.” I said. “We…we had a few friendly dates, and I was growing more and more fond of her every day.”

“This sounds like that one,” he said.

“We talked about writing a lot, our tastes and preferences.”

“That’s right,” he said.

“She was fond of no-nonsense, hard-hitting stories that got to the point good and quick, and I was fond of magical fairy tales.”

“Keep going,” he said.

“I remember wanting to spend the night with her on one of those nights, to feel her warmth on top of me for a little while, but something got in the way.”

“What?” he said.

“Well, my cold sores!” I said. “I told you about those, didn’t I?”

“What about them?”

“They were raging insane during those days,” I said. “I didn’t have a moment’s peace.”

“High or low?”

“Both,” I said. “And she seemed to already have too much trouble in her life—she smelled like a bathroom all the time, everywhere she went—and I didn’t want to add to her misery.”

“That’s nice,” he said.

“I thought I could ride it out,” I said. “I thought maybe once they cleared up that I could have a steady, sober conversation with her about them. But then we went to that dance party that one night, and everything changed.”

“You fell under the malevolent spell of your ex?”

“Only for a moment,” I said. “But then I tried to find the person that had brought me, but she was nowhere to be found. And later that night, my phone fell down into the gutter and was sucked down a drain. I lost even the few contacts that I had in the world.”

“Then you were totally alone,” he said.

“That’s right,” I said.

“She was the one that got away,” he said.

“I guess so,” I said.

“It’s not so bad,” he said. “You seem to be doing well these days.”

“I do feel better,” I said, “on the whole.”

“Good,” he said, “But if you don’t mind my asking, how did you get that throat infection?”

“Oh, I think I just put something dirty in my mouth this weekend,” I said. “It should clear up soon.”

“Well, I should be going,” he said.

“Me too,” I said. “I’m going to try and go back to sleep.”

“Goodbye then.”


I closed my laptop and rolled over on my side, and then I closed my eyes and tried to sleep for a while. But I just kept seeing this sad, shadowy face imprinted on my eyelids, begging me to see it for what it was. I could get no rest.

Why is there so much hatred in the world? I heard my brain say. Why do people do the horrible things that they do? 

For money, my brain replied, for fame. To get even, it emphasized. For kicks.

But why? I said. And where does it end?

But my brain gave no reply.

So I flipped back over to my other side, flipped open the laptop, clicked on the link and started to read the story.

Because of some structural problems, and some sloppy syntax, I couldn’t actually get very far into it, but I told myself I would revisit it another day. Bold stories are always worthy of our time, I think, even the ones that seem hell-bent on murdering someone else’s character. But I couldn’t do it right then, so I stopped. I took a deep breath. Strangely, even though I had stopped reading, I found that my eyes were still glued to the screen, right at the space between the title and the actual tale, where there was a nice banner advertisement running. The first one I saw was for an international department store chain, the second was for tax season help, and the third one informed me about marketing solutions. The ads made me smile sleepily: they were simple, they were striking, and really didn’t seem so out of place in between the lines of such a bold story. And so good did these ads make me feel that I didn’t even bother to close my laptop when I felt myself drifting off, I just let them play over my closed eyes while I slept. Who knows what other messages I was able to absorb while I was out? And when I awoke several hours later, my throat felt miraculously better, so I slipped on some clothes and headed down to the bar, ready to make some new friends.

Is it cool to curate a museum exhibition about cool people? Not according to the curators of a new exhibition on that very subject now on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., American Cool.

According to one of the curators—local author, jazz critic, and Tulane professor Joel Dinerstein—“Cool means rebellious self expression.” Although the exhibit purports to nonchalantly flick a cigarette butt, climb atop a motorcycle, and unflinchingly, behind dark sunglasses, examine whether being “cool” still even matters in the present day, man—how risqué! (answer: of course it does)—we doubt it enters even the realm of one of the 100 people included in the show, Steve Jobs, who is classified as “geek cool.”

But that’s not to say the idea isn’t interesting, or that one would be decidedly uncool if he or she were to attend a presentation by Dinerstein of the exhibition’s handsome catalog at 6 p.m. on Friday, February 14, at the Maple Street Book Shop (7523 Maple St.). Though, it’s pretty safe to say assume that none of the cool people, or their local or contemporary counterparts, will likely be in attendance.

From a Washington Post piece on the exhibition:

In America, at least, cool is distinctly lower or middle class, reflecting its origins in African American culture, where it was a compensation mechanism for living under the brutal regime of racism. When Lester Young said “I’m cool,” writes Dinerstein, “it meant ‘I’m keeping it together in here against invasive social forces.’” Frederick Douglass, whose oratory was fiery, not cool, merits inclusion in the exhibition because, according to [co-curator Frank] Goodyear, he used a carefully constructed photographic identity to challenge preconceptions about race and African American men. “Though he lived prior to cool’s popularization, his cultivation of this mask of stylish stoicism presaged the rebellions of others who sought to live within yet also apart from the mainstream.”

Stylish stoicism is an excellent phrase. But as the exhibition charts the historical evolution of the cool, “stylish stoicism” fits less well with the later, countercultural appropriation of the cool. Transgression becomes more important than style and talent, even directionless, purposeless, self-destructive transgression. When Marlon Brando’s character in the 1953 film “The Wild One” is asked “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” and he answers, “Whaddaya got?” — the cool has clearly gone through a critical permutation.

One particularly evocative juxtaposition places a reprint of a 1966 photograph of Muhammad Ali with his fist thrust directly into the camera lens next to a 1971 image of Clint Eastwood, holding an enormous handgun in a visually analogous confrontation with the viewer. Clearly the concept has become elastic if it can encompass a black boxer playfully enacting an aggressive identity and a white actor appealing to working class (and often racist) fantasies of public order and vigilantism.


Big Class, Press Street’s after-school writing and publishing project for the children, will celebrate the launch of its newest publication, And Nothing Else Bad Happened: New Fairy Tales, at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 13, at the Press Street HQ (3718 St. Claude Ave.).

And Nothing Else Bad Happened is a collaborative anthology of imaginative new fairy tales by second-grade writers from ARISE academy, accompanied by illustrations by adults. Fairy tales have seen a resurgence in the literary realm as of late, and one can witness this in New Orleans. A recently published anthology of fairly tales by adults, xo Orpheus, edited by Kate Bernheimer (who Room 220 interviewed in 2011), features a fine piece by New Orleans writer and Room 220 friend Michael Jeffrey Lee. A new anthology of speculative fiction (which, we’ll argue, encompasses fairy tales) by people of color edited by Daniel José Older, Long Hidden, features another fine piece by another New Orleans writer and Room 220 friend, Jamey Hatley (stay tuned for a brief interview with her). This is all to say that the folks at Big Class seem to have tapped into the zeitgeist a bit with this one—or, at least, the zeitgeist as defined by adults who like to write fairy tales (a.k.a. Room 220 friends).

But the event on Thursday will be about much more than just fairy tales—it will also be about adorable children! How adorable are these children, you might wonder? Very. They’re also bright, creative, energetic, the future of our city, and all sorts of other things us grumpy old smelly adults wish we still were (if we ever were). They’ll be reading stories from ANEBH, as well as other recent Big Class projects, and screening a new book trailer for Big Class publications Animals Stuck in Paris and Walking on the Stars: Stories from Animals Lost in Space (animals will always be the zeitgeist).

Food and refreshments will be on hand from Garage Pizza and Marketplace/Mike’s Food Store.


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Walking on the Stars and Animals Stuck in Paris book trailer