Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Little Mermaid - Jessica Fox-Wilson

The Mermaid Sees the World

for the first time, when she was thirteen
years old. For years, she waited her turn.
Her older sisters visited first, taught her
everything they knew. They said that men
swam on land, using two long limbs
to balance upon. They built castles

from compressed sand and rock. They wrapped
soft scales around their bodies, in colors
that were brighter than any fish in the sea.
They never sang. Instead, they gurgled
and chattered like dolphins. To the sisters,
they were strange. To the youngest mermaid,

they sounded beautiful, more beautiful
than the coral and seaweed she circled
every day. On her thirteenth birthday,
the mermaid breaks the glass surface
of the sea and finds a gray swath
of sky, the same color as the ocean.

She sees water pour from the sky in columns,
blue light streaking and landing
on a wooden vessel beside her. Orange
tongues lick the structure clean. Men
scream and fall in to the water. They bob
and sink, backs curled like turtles.

She waits for them to move and kick,
dive and rise like she would. They only
float. She finds the nearest man
and swims below him. His mouth
open, eyes closed. She has seen
that look before, on old fish that float

to the surface. She rolls the man
on to his back, hears him sputter
and cough. The mermaid and the man
link eyes as she guides him towards the shore.
She sees in him the whole world
she is missing and yet, she pushes him away.

The Mermaid Loses Her Voice

Yes, was the last word she said.  Seconds later,
the witch removed her tongue. This was before

she braved the witch’s dark garden, seaweed
winding around her arms. Still before she defied
her family, abandoned their crowded sandbar.
Before her months of mourning, before
her salt tears poured in to the salt sea.
Before she knew that loss and love were both

as boundless and empty as the black sea. Before
she saved her first love, pushed
his limp body toward the surface, toward the air
he could breathe. Before his ship opened
like a hungry mouth and devoured everyone
aboard. Before she saw his unconscious,
beautiful face.  Before she learned
that mermaids had no souls, no hope of eternal life. 
Before she knew she was trapped.

Before all this, she was just a girl
with a lovely voice and a limited life.

So, she said, yes, and watched the witch slice
her tongue from her mouth with the silver knife,
watched her tongue, that slippery fish, swim
through clouds of blood and plankton, then plop
 in the burbling black potion. Yes, she had said
then mawed the water and tried to find her way home. 

The Mermaid Learns to Walk

The sand around her refracts and shines
like glass. She focuses on each glittering

grain, each new salty breath she takes,
so that she doesn’t feel her green

fin split into two milky white props.
She marvels at the way her scales,

flake off to reveal such a smooth
surface. She is naked and awake. Her hair

tangles around her body like seaweed,
binding her to the sandbar. He takes

her hand without asking and she smiles
a tongueless, toothy smile. It is true

that every step pierces the bottoms
of her brand new feet, each grain

grinds into her skin. Yet, she remains
both silent and lovely. She simply smiles

and breathes, wonders at her new world,
leaving a trail of dark red footprints in her wake.

The Mermaid Ascends

Standing above
her lover and his bride,
the mermaid
makes her choice. The knife
is heavy in her palm.

She kisses his forehead, sees
that he does not wake.

The mermaid flings
the knife into the water.
The seas seethe
red, gurgle
like blood. There is only
one thing left for her to do.

She takes one last leap
on her borrowed legs,
one last breath
with her new lungs.

The air tastes salty,
even without her tongue.
She never feels
her impact.
One moment

she is aloft
and the next she is crushed
by walls of blue. Water
floods her nostrils, fills
her mouth, fills
her lungs. She is not scared,

just curious as she feels
every molecule dissolve
into foam. But then,
just as she finally lets go
of her sinking body,

hands encircle her, fish her
out of the waves. She rises
out of her father's kingdom,
above her lover's ship, above
the crowded city. She feels

sun on her permeable skin
as she floats weightless
to her next home.

Jessica Fox-Wilson
© 2010
all rights reserved

Writers Talk - Jessica Fox-Wilson

Jessica Fox-Wilson is a poet, writer, & educator who lives in Minneapolis with her husband & cats.  A graduate of Hamline University's Master of Fine Arts in Writing, her poetry has appeared in several journals, including Poetry Motel, qarrtsiluni, Epicenter & Rive Gauche.  Her articles have appeared in print & online publications, most recently online at Read Write Poem. She blogs at

To get some sense of Jessica's writing, please check out the Writers Talk blog, where you’ll be able to read a four poem sequence.  

When did you first realize your identity as a writer? 

I identified myself as a writer once I reached high school. I struggled academically and there were a few key teachers who encouraged my writing. Their early encouragement also inspired my interest in education as a professional career. However, in high school, I participated in all of the artsy activities – I was a theater-art class-lit journal geek.

Once I reached college, I initially hoped to triple major in Theater, Education and Creative Writing. I realized pretty early on that three majors might kill me, so I dropped Theater, since it didn’t allow me enough free time to write. In college, I met some of my best writing/real life friends, including my husband. I’ve labeled myself as a poet educator ever since.  

Describe the creative process involved in any one piece you’ve written—this could be book, a story, a poem, an essay, etc.

This winter, I was writing a chapbook manuscript about my recent knee injury and surgery, and I knew I needed a series of poems that rose above my own experience. In my thesis manuscript, I wrote several persona poems from the voice of fairy tale characters or mythological figures to achieve that same goal. (I wrote more about this part of my aesthetic on my blog, in case you’re interested.) My hope was that I could connect what I was experiencing in my healing process to something larger about physicality and female identity.

I started to research fairy tales that dealt with legs, walking, et cetera and found a translation of The Little Mermaid. After re-reading the original story, I wrote a poem called “The Mermaid Loses Her Voice,” which I hoped capture the original’s tone. As the manuscript developed, I wrote the entire arc of the fairy tale as individual poems. The arc of the story served as my structure for the manuscript.

Could you describe your relationship to the publishing process? (this can be publishing in any form, from traditional book publishing to blogging, etc)
If I had answered this question in college or during my MFA, I would have said that my main goal was to publish a book of poetry with a traditional publisher.  As I’ve gotten older (and lazier), I’ve found that I don’t have the persistence for the traditional model of publishing.

For me, self-publishing is a much more sustainable model. Right now, I self-publish through my blog and my Twitter account. Beyond my blog, I hope to one day self-publish in actual book form. I’m inspired by (what I’m calling) the Amanda Palmer of self-publishing, which you’ve mentioned on your blog. Artists should take ownership of the dissemination of their work in the world. And they should get paid for it, if there is an audience who will pay for it.

Now, I just have to find the time and the appropriate format for self-publishing. I’m interested in hearing feedback from folks who have self-published through a POD or traditional printer and hearing about their experiences.

How has being a writer affected your relationships?

Writing has been the common bond for many of my relationships. My husband is a fellow writer, my best friends from college are fellow writers, and most of my non-writing friends know me as a writer.

I think the challenge of being a writer with relationships is that I feel I have to sacrifice one for the other. There are times when I have to be a bad friend because I need writing time. Luckily, most of my friends give me the space I need. There are other times when I choose to give up a little writing time, so that I can spend time with someone who is important to me. I don’t think I could ever be a recluse-writer because I need those relationships in my life.

How would you describe the community of writers you belong to—if any? This may be a “real” or “virtual” (in more than one sense) community.

In real life, my most important writing community is my husband. He keeps me honest and focused on my writing, even when I feel discouraged. It’s a blessing to have someone who believes in your art, especially when you live with him. Together, we participate in a monthly writer’s group, with two other writers.

In my online life, I am a blogger, Twitter user, Facebook user, and general community floater. When I first started blogging, I found a wonderful poetry-prompt community called Poetry Thursday, which eventually morphed into Read Write Poem. I made several good poetry friends there, before the site ended earlier this year.  Since then, I’m floating a bit. I like Big Tent Poetry quite a lot, which was founded by some truly awesome Poetry Thursday/Read Write Poem folks. I also like We Write Poems, which also started from the Read Write Poem community. Hopefully, I’ll alight on one or both of these lovely sites soon.

Without the online writing communities, I don’t know if I could have remained as committed to my writing as I have been, in the five years since I finished my MFA. There is such a great opportunity for collaboration, connection, and motivation through the internet that isn’t always possible in real life.  I can chat with writers in Idaho or India, without ever having to leave Minnesota, and learn from them. It’s pretty amazing.

What are your future goals in terms of writing?

Keep writing. In all sincerity, that’s my main goal. At this point in my writing life, the biggest threat to my writing is the accumulated competing claims on my time.  Individually, they don’t seem like much. There’s a job, relationships, and other art forms. But in aggregate, they become overwhelming. I’ve seen many writers lose the focus of their writing because everything else takes precedence. I honestly just pray that I can stick with it.

Bonus Question: If your writing were a musical instrument, what would it be?

My writing would be a player piano, with slightly asynchronous timing.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Sportswoman's Notebook - Eberle Umbach (excerpt)


Given all the time I have lived—enough time for centuries of shades, of specters clanking chains or alighting with voluptuous claws on the nightly body—it is remarkable that the first ghost I should ever encounter would smell of cheap perfume, would be, in fact, a majorette.

It was noon, a Sunday in the rainy season.  A few hours before, the air had been filled with the sounds of market-day: melodious shouts and the horns of the trucks; horses snorting; church bells and the smell of butchering up on the hill.  It struck me today that I would probably never forget this particular smell, of fresh blood and fear mixing with the thin, high-pitched smell of ripe pineapples spread out in the marketplace on an abundance of newspaper. 

Heaps of pineapples, lightly bruised and oozing—a sweetness in the throat as soft as frog-song.  We had, in the interior, an obvious abundance of fruit.  The newspaper, however, was another story—a mystery that was never to be solved by Emily or me during our stay at Treis Aguas.  There were no newspapers for sale in the region, for the fairly obvious reason that almost no one could read.  Neither could pens be purchased at the market; Emily and I bought ours at the ocean, a day’s journey away, in the stinking coastal city of Tierra Branca.

Emily, I believe, loved that stink because it meant pens and paper and lovely beer.  In Treis Aguas she made do with sugar-cane spirits like everybody else; what bothered her more was the absence of pens.  She never completely believed that no one else in our household had even a slight desire for these implements.  The night that Florissima and Antoni taught us to play dominoes she nudged me when it came time to keep score.  “Now,” she whispered, “they will have to write.”  But Florissima went into the next room where the setting hens were sleeping under baskets; when she came back, she spilled a handful of dried corn onto the table to use as counters.   

In spite of the fact that no one read newspapers, an enormous supply of them flowed continuously into the interior.  Some ended up at the market in Mbicci, for wrapping purchases of goiaba, manioc flour, soap, and hunks of the various animals freshly slaughtered whose blood made a thin wash of red run between the cobblestones outside the meat market.

It was after lunch that the ghost appeared, in the quasi-delirium buzzing with flies that takes hold after the women have cooked the weekly meal of meat and the men have eaten it.  A breeze came out of nowhere, stirring the fronds of the coconut palm in the courtyard outside my window and wafting the smell of cowshit and orange blossom across the mud yard that bloomed, each day of the rains, with green shapes like huge algae, monstrously amorphous.  She came marching across the courtyard in white boots, twirling a baton in a cloud of glittering dust—which made it immediately clear to me that what I saw was a vision.  No boots could stay white in the mud that steamed behind her, and dust was only a distant dream until the dry season.

I smiled to think that death could include intricate tricks with a sparkling baton, and I rested my arms on the window sill, leaned out farther.  The sharp little heels of her boots did not sink into the muddy clay of the courtyard, patterned with the marks of chicken and guinea fowl feet, cat and duck feet, that everyone else had to cross on a wobbly mesh of long cut twigs.  Twirling and tossing the baton she marched in front of the smoking ashes of the clay-brick stove where a clay pot still rested holding the remains of the midday beans. 

The buttons running down her milkless breasts made double rows of bright gold polished nipples and I saw the fighting cock, captive in a woven basket against the wall, twitch his green-gold tail feathers as she passed.  She marched on—so ringleted so well-fed and young-- her strong white teeth and strong white thighs part of some terrible machine of destruction that men, with their peculiar masochism, would tend to desire painfully.

Then I became aware of the sound of corn being ground for the evening meal.  The grinding of corn is slow painstaking work, performed only by women.  It seemed to be an endless task: somewhere, there was always a woman grinding corn.  As I formulated that thought, the majorette vanished into the thin steaming air.  The sound of grinding became suddenly loud, grating on my nerves as it often did.

The sound of the grinding was worse, for me, than the tiny but mesmerizing sound of cockroaches chewing all night that bothered Emily.  They were eating her manuscripts, she pointed out, and she wondered if she would ever be able to write quickly enough to keep ahead of them.  Secretly, however, I believe she liked the idea.  The cockroaches ate her words and the chickens ate the cockroaches and then we ate the chickens—so in the end, she fed us.  That was Emily’s notion of domestic economy.

I craned my neck out the window, but the majorette could no longer be seen.  The spell was broken and I flung myself into my hammock, suddenly overtaken by a dark and violent mood.  One arm over my eyes blocked out the sun as I listened to the chorus of the damned— flies the incessant sopranos, and irregular locusts deepening the pulse—a slow frenzy never breaking free of itself, always returning. 

Of course, I told myself bitterly, it would be a majorette.  I thought of the others who were like me, whom I had seen over the years and recognized—the ones with centuries behind their eyes.  Though they shared my fate in some ways, none had really resembled me.  They were men, for instance, who were reflecting together on the refined ironies of immortality—in Paris! —while I was wandering alone crashing through the stench of rain forests with screaming parrots my only teachers.  They were advising the rulers of Egypt while I was chained in the swan-plucking sheds, the endless frozen tundra around me and no traditions, no history I could recognize as my own. 
I was certain of one thing about those men: they would never be contacted for any reason by a majorette from the spirit-world.  Whatever spirits they encountered would be complex, with the elaborate ways of Medieval demons, with the smell of candle-smoke and burnt offerings clinging to them, not the smell of the majorette’s cheap perfume.  And the vision would be meaningful to them; it would not simply disappear, as mine had, without a message, without significance.  Apparently I could not escape the taint of the monstrous, even in my hallucinations.  The heat of the afternoon pressed on me heavily and I abandoned myself to the contemplation of hopelessness.

Then Emily appeared in my window, as she sometimes did, by climbing out of hers and crossing on the branches of the star-fruit tree that grew at the corner of the house.  I hadn’t heard her crossing, and couldn’t help but be delighted, in spite of my troubled thoughts, as she waggled her eyebrows at me with the impertinence of a schoolgirl.    

She crouched in the deep pale blue well of the window, framed by dark green shutters fastened open against the inside wall.  There was no window glass here, no screens, and we had always been glad of that.  She perched for a moment on her delicate haunches, then swung her legs into my room.  Behind her, the breeze moved again, rustling the deep green of the leaves and gently swelling the ribs of the star-fruit hanging in the boughs.   

Eberle Umbach
© 2001-present
all rights reserved

Writers Talk - Eberle Umbach

I’m so happy to see the Writers Talk series beginning & I’m even more happy because we’re starting it off with my dear wife Eberle Umbach.  The facts: Eberle has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College & an M.A. from Johns Hopkins, also in creative writing.  She has had her short fiction published in several literary journals as well as The Whole Earth Catalog (I've always thought that was terrifically cool), & a very generous excerpt from her Weiser River Pillow Book was published in the Impassio Press anthology of fragmentary writing titled In Pieces  (you can read the complete Pillow Book right here on Robert Frost’s Banjo.)   Eberle also served as Idaho Writer in Residence in 1988 & 1989.  In addition, as a musician she has been awarded a number of grants by the Idaho Commission on the Arts, especially for scoring work she did (with some help from yours truly) for the films of silent film director/writer/actress Nell Shipman.  In short, Eberle’s creativity, not only in writing & music but in other forms as well, is truly inspiring. 

To get some sense of Eberle's writing, please check out the new Writers Talk blog, where you’ll be able to read the first chapter of Eberle’s novel, The Sportswoman’s Notebook.  So, without further ado….

When did you first realize your identity as a writer?

In grade school and high school I wrote poems that just amazed me by how beautiful they were. In some ways, this has become more complicated over time, and in some ways not.

Describe the creative process involved in any one piece you’ve written—this could be book, a story, a poem, an essay, etc.

I had an unvarying routine for my most recently unpublished novel The Sportswoman’s Notebook - make coffee, sit with my parrot and write in the Pillow Book, then go to my studio and work. I liked having a complete outline written out very neatly, even though I was constantly not following it and rewriting it. As seems to always be the case when I write, one inexplicable image was the start of it and what I kept returning to when I felt lost in it. In this case it was an image that came to me as I was reading Turgenev’s The Sportsman’s Notebook (I’d never read any Turgenev before or since, but I was living in rural Brazil and read ANYTHING in English I could find.) I thought of how the book might be if instead of a narrator who was a hunter moving freely between classes and expressing the dynamics of feudalism, you had a woman narrator/hunter who moved freely through centuries, expressing the dynamics of masculinism. In itself, this was no more than an idly half-irritated thought – but it immediately merged with an image of vampires and other immortal monsters - of Frankenstein, and Mary Shelley encountering in herself the monstrosity of female writing, a doubled narrator - and the image of Elizabeth Bishop who had lived in small-town Brazil with the lover she called her maidservant. The tension between those ideas was what encoded the whole story immediately, in a moment, and I knew all I had to do was unravel it. I think the thrill for me is the experience of being simultaneously the silkworm who spins the cocoon and the woman who unwinds the cocoon into a single thread and weaves it into a dwelling tent. If an image doesn’t make me certain I will feel like that, I know I will get bored long before I find the story in it that is real for me.

Could you describe your relationship to the publishing process (this can be publishing in any form, from traditional book publishing to blogging, etc)

In the years immediately following graduate school, I had several short stories published in literary magazines and felt quite pleased with myself. But I knew that novels were what I really wanted to write. When my first two novels went unpublished in spite of some interest, I was really abysmally crushed though I tried not to admit this (pride not only goes before a fall but comes after it?) I started playing more music and writing less. When I started working on novels again, it was with no illusions as to their probable future. Which was, in some ways, liberating – after I’d exhausted the other emotions. I’ve been working recently with an agent who’s interested in a somewhat fictionalized non-fiction book about the friendships between 19th century women authors that I’m writing and this has been a different kind of emotional roller-coaster than outright failure – sometimes I feel horrified by the thought that I’m selling out – other times horrified by the thought that I’m not even a good enough writer to succeed at selling out – even more afraid of the fact that I’m actually coming to love this book and it’s not really selling out at all. What I’m trying to do now is just stay open to wherever the encounter of writing this way takes me, knowing that that’s the only thing, ultimately, that has reality.    

How has being a writer affected your relationships?
A movie that absolutely possessed me at a strangely young age was The Red Shoes, where the conflict between a woman’s art (as a ballerina) and falling in love leads to her take her greatest dancing role into her own life and commits suicide by dancing herself into a moving train. I also ADORED the ballet in the movie, where a newspaper dances on stage, and an ocean comes right up to the footlights (I was young enough to think these things were real.) But it was the fatal and inevitable horror of the conflict between art and love that consumed me. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I plunged pretty deeply into destructive relationships in the early adult phase of my writing life…and this conflict of identity is still one that gives me vertigo at times. But I’ve learned a lot more about it, and John – you understand this in a way that always brings me back to earth, to you, no matter how far away I’ve gone.

How would you describe the community of writers you belong to—if any?  This may be a “real” or “virtual” (in more than one sense) community.

My primary writing community has always been virtual (in book form) and intensely energizing to me. From early on in my reading life I strongly preferred women authors to the other kind (is literary sexual orientation perhaps genetic?) and in the thrill of 80s fem crit was delighted that I could justify this preference in such an intelligent-sounding way by espousing (tee hee) and even disseminating (har har) theories about the irreconcilable difference between women writing and men writing. But it wasn’t really a theoretical decision – the sense of an imaginary community of women writers that I read, as women writers before me had read, was just this incredibly powerful thing for me. One of the great historic events of my life in this in this virtual community was when I met Audrey – a graduate student in literature – when we were both waitressing in Charlottesville, and our first conversation in that frat boy bar with sandwiches named after sports heroes we’d never heard of was about 19th century women authors and the remarkable happened – I met someone who felt the same way I did about reading and about our literary ancestresses. So we developed an actual friendship within this virtual community and it has been an extraordinary relationship – for 25 years now. I think our dead sisters-in-writing have enjoyed our relationship too; they occasionally appreciate an up-to-date perspective. Ask me about St. Cecelia if you’re curious.

What are your future goals in terms of writing?

Honestly, my immediate goal is to write a publishable form of this book of 19th century women authors and then find a publisher for the novel I’m writing now, Magdala Red. More honestly and possible even more embarrassingly I’d quote George Eliot (a sister-writer whose unabashed earnestness at times makes me feel somewhat less abashed about my own):

May I reach the highest heaven.
Be to other souls a cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smile that knows no cruelty,
So may I join the choir invisible,
Whose music makes the gladness of the world!

Bonus Question: If your writing were a musical instrument, what would it be?

I would like to say an Aeolian harp, or the spangled drum of Cybele and Miriam. But more honestly perhaps, a duet between a student-grade Tibetan prayer bowl and a kazoo. A poor thing, but mine own.