Daniela Olszewska: A Micro-Interview and Three Poems


Okla Elliott: What difficulties did you encounter writing a book entirely centered around one character?

Daniela Olszewska: I started making the poems that became Citizen J while I was an undergraduate at Columbia College Chicago (so, somewhere around 2005). Originally, the character of J was known as Jane Doe and she was an autobiographical-ish twentysomething who lived in Chicago. As I became older and (slightly) less solipsistic, I became more interested in making Jane/J less a reflection of myself and more of an Etch-a-Sketchable character I could ab/use to show off the images in my head associated with my concerns over gender, sexuality, citizenship, careerism, and terrorism. Poetry gave me the permission to ignore linear narratives; it allowed me to essentially re-write the character of J whenever I wanted. This story had to be in poem form; I could not have showed all the things I want to show if I was trapped in a novel.


OE: Did your Polish heritage play into the creation of Citizen J? Did it inspire the Soviet-style atmosphere of the book?

DO: Absolutely. I was born in Wrocław, but I was raised in Chicago by my American mom. Growing up, I would see my Polish father and his maniac  ex-Solidarity nationalist friends 3-4x a month. This was just enough exposure to ingrain some sense of the horrors of Soviet Satellite Statehood, and these terrors have definitely stayed with me in adulthood and spilled into most of my writing. Also, while I was in the process of writing Citizen J, I had this misfortunate notion that I should get a masters degree in Slavic Languages and Literature, so I was also consuming a shit ton of Soviet-era media during the writing of these poems. After finishing Citizen J, I became aware of the work by this Russian fashion designer named Ulyana Sergeenko. Her Fall 2012 collection is basically Citizen J in couture form: http://www.style.com/fashionshows/complete/F2012CTR-ULYANA I wish I had known about her while I was writing the book; I would have tried to include pictures of her dresses at the start of each new chapter.


OE: What current projects are you working on or that are forthcoming?

DO: I’ve been doing a lot of writing with/about/against the Internet. In June, I had an e-chap come out from NAP. Its name is THIRTEENZ and it chronicles my attempts to run my favorite parts of Emily Dickinson through an LOLCats translator.  Interested and/or concerned citizens can find it here: http://napnapnaps.com/post/88325873183/thirteenz.

Last month, a book of prose poems  I co-wrote with the awesomepants Carol Guess came out from Black Lawrence Press. The book is called How To Feel Confident With Your Special Talents and its writings are inspired by articles from the user-generated content advice site, WikiHow. Curious citizens can trade their dollars for a hard copy of the book by going here: http://www.spdbooks.org/Producte/9781625579041/default.aspx.

I’m currently working on two projects. One is a small collection of confessional-ish poems about a bad break-up (groundbreaking territory for a poet…). The poems are formatted to look as if they have been written in Tumblr’s text post box and I’ve been having a lot of fun coming up with hashtags for each of the pieces. I am also working on a collection of short fictions “narrated” by various Men’s Rights Activists (it’s a comedy…).



in the midst of dressing
up to go messing up

the magistrate’s new
motorcade, j takes to

the motion that the insides
of her toasters are miked.

she goes to consult her pet
magic mirror, but he looks

miked too—wired to heads
that can store more than

the traditional three minutes’
worth of incriminating

soundbite. thus, j resolves
to take distance, to make

haste w/ignition
+ several cans of firewerks.



we caught j w/the help
of earnest accessory,

we made certain to make

eye contact. when j saw
the sheriffs ranging down

in zealously-patterned
ties, she tossed
her free lunch +++

++=instructed the fire
escape part of her

brain to shrink
to a little bigger

than miniature,
a little bigger       than cell.



j rendezvouses with him in public restroom and mid-sized luxury sedans. he is all gussied in ascot and champagne cork heel. speciously complimenting j’s proliferation skills as he slides a stirrup around her hot hot holster. nobody is giving anybody a heaveho tonight. casually, j twists his loose mammal skin into a party favor shape. an heir to a tin can telephone empire, he has always been an expert at getting his people to the front of the breadline. they have so many levels and layers in common. tenderly, he suggests they hire someone to hold her hair back while she’s working. it was never nothing personal. yet j aspires to one day be on his side of the business. she wants ambulances to chase her for a change. she wants, she says, to be able to act as if she is at least as infamous as him.

The Wives Are Turning into Animals


The Wives Are Turning into Animals


Amber Sparks

The husbands are almost sure of it. They have strong memories of an earlier time, of the wives with soft smooth faces and ten fingers and toes.

But lately, things have changed. Some of the wives have grown scaly patches, or sprouted thick pelts. Some wives have shrunk considerably. White, wide wings have unfolded, horns have appeared, tongues have grown longer and rougher and pinker, noses wetter and more sensitive than before.

The men have grown uneasy at night, listening to the wheezing and snorting of the wives as they sleep, as they embrace their husbands with tentacles and talons and long tails. The husbands aren’t sure what to do, whether to say something. They wonder if it would be rude to ask about the wives’ new appetites, their sudden hunger for mice and mealworms and raw, wriggling fish. They worry that they won’t be able to keep these ravenous wives fed. They worry that the neighbors will complain about the carcasses littering their lawns.

The husbands worry, most of all, that their wives will finally fly or crawl or swim away, untethered from the promises that only humans make or keep.



Amber Sparks is the author of the short story collection May We Shed These Human Bodies, and the co-author, with Robert Kloss, of the upcoming The Desert Places—both published by Curbside Splendor. She lives in Washington, DC, with a husband and two beasts.

Mr. Frost (an excerpt from the novella Life After Sleep)

Mr. Frost (an excerpt from Life After Sleep)

by Mark R. Brand

“This frigging thing.”

Frost knew without looking that Mary had gotten blood on the hemocrit analyzer lens again. She started pulling out drawers at the nurse’s station looking for a box of individually-wrapped alcohol pads. This wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Some of the other nurses, and especially the medical assistants, loved stealing them and hiding them. The stock room guy was a blatant slacker and he just nodded like a bobblehead at the office manager’s suggestion that they only keep on hand the supplies they’d need at any given moment.

This of course meant that there were never enough of three-dozen random things at all times. Some days there’d be disposable gowns but no needles, other days there’d be five times as many bottles of peroxide as they could use, and if he wanted sterile gauze he’d need to barter half a box of iodine swabs for it with one of his associate’s staff members.

The supply black market was an unforgiving quagmire of ugliness and the instant a shipment of replacements came in, they’d vanish to wherever everyone was squirreling them away. They hadn’t had enough alcohol pads to go around for about a week and a half and nobody had extras to beg, borrow, or steal.

The hemocrit analyzer had a lens on the inside that was meant to read a little plastic disposable slide with a drop of blood on it. The chief flaw of this was that if jiggled even the slightest bit while inserting the slide, the blood droplet would contact the convex lens and smudge, rendering the machine useless.

“We going to get that reading?” he asked, just trying to light a fire under her a little. She pursed her lips but didn’t frown.

Three drawers later, Mary began hauling shit out and tossing it onto the desktop. Old versions of intake forms and script pads with one or two sheets left on them, loose drug samples on their cardboard blister cards, the caps for eighteen disposable pens that patients had wandered off with in their pockets and purses, and a seemingly bottomless pile of high-quality marketing materials shoved at them endlessly by the drug reps that haunted their office during clinic hours. After un-bending the last of these, Mary thrust out her hand silently in triumph. Behind all of this detritus she had found a dusty, forgotten box of alcohol wipes. An entire box! They were rich.

“Got it,” she said, busy using a slide to push the alcohol pad into the tiny space beneath the lens and swab it clean. Minutes passed. Finally it was ready. She grabbed her tackle box, took out another lancet and a fresh slide, and set off down the hall. Frost could hear her voice come muted from the other room. “Okay, Mrs. Healy, we’re going to have to jab you again, sorry about that.”

Mrs. Healy was a good sport, hopefully. He heard a beep and the analyzer flashed up her hemoglobin count. Frost hadn’t seen Mary return with the blood. He glanced up. There were still lights on in the rooms, but all was silent.

“Mary?” he called. No response. He walked back toward the rooms at the far end of the hall and found them empty.

He picked up the phone and dialed the office manager’s extension, thought twice, hung up, and dialed the extension for Greenstein’s nurse.

“DiLeccio,” she answered.


“Mmm hmm…is this…?”

“Doctor Frost.”

“Oh, hey Dr. Frost. I didn’t know you were still here.”

“Hey. Listen, do you know where Mary went?”

“Pretty sure she hit the road.”


Silence. He glanced at his watch. It was an hour past their last scheduled patient.


“Right, sorry,” he said, choking on the awkwardness. “Have a good one.” He hung up.


X-ray machines consist of a large power generator that converts wall current to high-voltage output, a stabilizing arm, and a cylinder shaped like a large beer can. This cylinder contains an electrical anode and a rotating tungsten cone inside an airtight bath of coolant oil. This is the “tube.” The tube is encased in lead, except for the small aperture where the x-rays escape and travel at physics-class speeds through flesh, organs, and bone, finally striking a photosensitive crystal screen that imprints a negative image of the patient’s anatomy on a piece of multi-layered emulsive plastic. The rooms are generally lined with a layer of lead sandwiched in the walls to contain the photoelectric ionizing radiation that occurs when various milliamps per second course from the anode to the tungsten cone, creating a God-like arc inside the tube. All this happens in darkness, as most feats that harness the power of the building blocks of the universe do.

The doctor bounced a golf ball off of the tube in the x-ray room while the radiographer scoured the table beneath it with a disinfectant so strong it came in a glass bottle rather than a plastic one. The room smelled vaguely of feces.

“Do you get much Sleep?”

“About three hours, usually,” Andy replied. Andy had a kid at home, he knew, and another on the way. A girl named Stephanie and an unborn fetus named I Will Never Again Own a New Car. “Sometimes I get two and a half, but I don’t like cutting it quite that close. If I don’t get the full three hours, I just don’t feel right. Pretty soon I’m going to have to start Sleeping here because of the baby.”

“That sucks. You ever take naps?”

“Shit,” he said, looking sideways at the doctor. He stacked up x-ray films on a desk and started marking left and right on the corners with a black Sharpie.


“You’re a lazy motherfucker.” He could always count on Andy for the truth. “Just turn up your Bed. Try maybe three and a half hours. You won’t be able to sit still after that much Sleep. You’ll be bouncing off the walls.” The golf ball continued to bounce off the x-ray tube.

The doctor wanted to tell him that he’d already thought of that, but didn’t. He picked this little strategy up at some conference or another in Arizona in the middle of the winter. A study was done by some focus group of vicious, slobbering medical office managers who had been let out of their cages long enough to compare notes about squeezing the last ounce of productivity out of their underpaid drones. They discovered that if the support staff think the boss is ignorant or empty-headed, they tend to work harder, a motivating force not unlike that of a child overcompensating for their well-meaning but chronically helpless parent.

He missed a catch and his golf ball rolled under the generator. He didn’t go after it. He had an entire bag of miscellaneous golf-related shit in his locker that his patients had brought him. Someone even gave him a putter shaped like a foot with a laser pointer attached to it. He didn’t know what was more insulting, his patients assuming he had time to play golf or the fact that they thought he was a bad enough player to need a laser-guided putter.


At some point, he realized he was in the middle of surgery on what used to be a young woman who had been dragged on a chain behind a sport utility vehicle over a mile and a half of gravel back-road.

“I think I’m hallucinating,” he said to no one in particular.

“That’s what she said,” came a reply from someone in a mask and scrubs. He gestured to the woman, whose anesthesia had sunk in enough that she could barely manage a whimper.

“Fuck you, I’m serious,” he said. His face shield fogged slightly when he exhaled.

“So is she, apparently.”

The unfortunate ingénue of that evening’s tragedy let out a “huhnnn” that was less than heroic as he scrubbed flecks of gravel out of her rectus abdominis muscle, which was open to the air given that the flesh of her torso above it had been taken off as if by a belt-sander. Cleanliness, right next to Godliness.

“What’s the time loss threshold for narcolepsy?”


“It can’t be that, though. No cataplexy…”

“Focus, man.”

Frost wheeled on him, snake-like and covered in blood from sternum to knees. Whenever challenged, escalate.

“What the fuck did you just say?”

“Hey,” Dr. Nobody said, hands coming up, “I’m just here to help.”

“What are the risk factors for hallucination?” He had forgotten the patient on the table entirely. He picked up an emesis basin full of flesh and blood, intending to fling it at the resident if he flinched. Evidently the kid had been in operating rooms full of flying metal before, though, and held his ground.

“Uh… psychoactive drug therapy, alcohol and drug withdrawal, dementia, sleep deprivation, head trauma…”

Frost glared at him for another moment and the corners of his eyes flickered. Something like minutes went by. “That’s what I thought,” he said at last. He handed the resident the emesis basin and headed for the door, pulling off his mask as he went. Blood sloshed onto the floor, but he ignored it.

“Where are you going?”

“I need a nap,” he said over his shoulder to no one. As he hit the door he looked up to see another door. He opened this one into an identical hallway with another door at the end. And another, and another.


“Hi – this is Sandy at St. Augustine’s. We’re calling to make sure everything’s okay with our favorite doctor! Call us back when you get a minute. I’ve got a few messages for you.”

He thought he had turned the phone off, but he didn’t really remember. He had a vague vision of putting the key into his condo door and hearing it grind loudly as he turned it, and then soft blackness. Apparently he’d been unconscious for hours. The inside of his mouth felt like indoor/outdoor carpeting, and he had urinated on himself while he slept.

He hadn’t missed a day of work in seven years, twelve if you counted residency. He thought they’d be a lot angrier than they sounded. Sandy seemed nice. He made the call to the hospital and told them he’d be in later.

“Oh, that’s fine. Dr. Greenstein covered for you. He did leave a message that you should try the office Bed next time, whatever that means.”

“I know what it means.”

“You feeling okay?” she asked.



“…you’ve been more than helpful.”

He hung up. For all his lack of good taste in music, Greenstein didn’t miss much.

Every nerve cell in the human body consists of a long cable with a synapse at each end. The cable part of the cell is made up of fatty membranes that conduct electricity in the form of tiny, single-electron currents called action potentials that occur between sodium and potassium. When the current reaches the end of the cable, it jumps to the next strand by secreting a chemical that helps the current flicker across the gap. These chemicals have familiar names like serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine, and acetylcholine. When these currents jump to muscle fibers, you get a contraction. When they jump to a gland you get secretion. When they jump to your brain cells you get a boner, and so forth.

In the end, he thought, that’s all we are. Just electricity sizzling down cables made of fat and squirting across a little space between. This was another of those cases where knowing things didn’t improve on an otherwise blissfully ignorant life.

Tony Barker had this thought well in hand when he positioned the first TMS patient’s pre-frontal brain directly between the poles of an MRI electromagnet. Barker was doing this in the ’80s, so he was very progressive that way, but not so far removed from the old days that he flatly dismissed the gains made by psychiatrists in the ’50s and ’60s, when similar treatment modalities involved plugging people right into the wall current and putting a rubber block between their teeth so they didn’t snap them off. This was a kinder, gentler era. MRI was safe, as far as anyone knew. TMS was just a little current change. Hardly noticeable. The first two letters of MRI stood for Magnetic Resonance, and that’s exactly what TMS did. It caused the electrons on a molecular level to resonate. Instead of blowing the fuse entirely, the TMS just flipped the breaker on and off, on and off, thousands of times per second.

All Dr. Sid Merriweather did was discover the frequency, the note played across what amounted to a two-million-dollar electric guitar string, that reset the right sequence of synapses. Do Not Pass Go – head directly to Stage-4 REM sleep.


“There were a few pieces of ferrite dust on the magnet’s face, but not enough to throw off the cycle.”

“What is it, do you think?” Frost asked the repairman on the phone. He disliked people being in his apartment when he was not, but this could not be avoided.

“Hard to tell. You may want to just try another Bed if you have access to one.”

This bit of diagnostic wisdom was becoming tiresome, he thought while hanging up. He considered that it might be a while still before he went all the way over the high side, but he could feel it coming. Mary, prescient soul that she was, had started hiding his car keys. “Where the hell are they?” he asked her.

“What, doctor?”

“My keys.”

“Haven’t seen them.” As she walked away, the pocket over her left tit jangled.

“Mary,” he said, rubbing the blur out of his eyes, “I believe in the sanctity of the workplace and all that high-minded bullshit, but there’s only so much a professional can take.”

She shot him a look that pretended she had no idea what he was talking about.

He grabbed a random chart off of the wall and headed into the adjacent room. “That lung has to come out,” he announced firmly while walking in. There was no point being wishy-washy with these people. He gave them the straight news. The ten-year-old boy on the exam table looked up at him in terror over the cast on his leg. His mother, a woman who inexplicably wore yellow eyeliner, looked up from last April’s issue of TIME and gave him a shitty look.

“Excuse me for just a moment,” he said. “Mary!”

A medical assistant that he was firmly against hiring from the start looked up from a handful of used needles as the doctor passed him. He tried to scurry out of the way, but was too slow. The doctor grabbed the front of the assistant’s white coat and shoved him into the nearest room. The sound of hard muffled scrabbling against the shallow carpet was the only sound the kid made, as he attempted to keep his feet and failed. The doctor didn’t as much as look back. If you can’t stay out of your own way, at least stay out of mine.

The hallway overhead fluorescents started to pulse with his heartbeat. “Mary,” he bellowed down the hall, “the doctor needs you!”

She rounded the corner in a pretty flourish of professional crispness. The clean lines of her uniform threw her figure into maddening shapelessness. Only he knew that she had not taken her scrubs home to wash in over two weeks. Her filthiness was mildly arousing.

“I wonder about those armpits of yours,” he said.

She gave him a smile that said he was one charming dog. “Is there something you need?”

“I need my lung. Where did he go?”


“Where did she go?”

“Room ten.”

“No,” he said, putting an arm around her shoulder. They walked toward room ten and on the way she walked him straight into a wall. He backpedaled awkwardly. It was a long hallway suddenly. “I was just in room ten, and my lung was definitely not in there.”

“Try again,” she suggested, helpfully. It was hard not to notice how round she was in her scrubs. Even with a lab coat on top. She made him think of a mesh bag of oranges shifting around in a big white grocery bag. She had enough smoke scent on her to keep her from ever smelling clean, but freshness wasn’t everything.

He took a deep breath and pulled down the lever-action door handle. Hospital door handles are regularly cited as the filthiest surfaces in the building. “That lung will have to come ou…” Sitting at a card table were three large greyhounds counting a stack of money. They peered up at him with lively, suspicious eyes. The one on the far left gave him a look like he might owe the dog a favor.

“Pardon me,” he said, closing the door quickly. Mary arched her eyebrows and her hair seemed to straighten and re-curl in front of his eyes. “Did you do something different with your hair?”

“Room ten is at the end of the hall.” Mary motioned with a seven-inch index finger. Lids with an unbecomingly cheap brand of eyeliner flicked up slightly.

“We’re going to have to have a talk about your bedside manner,” he told her as he proceeded onward. Suddenly, the medical assistant sprung on him like a trapdoor spider.

“Sorry doctor, I have Dr. Neely on the phone for you…”

“TELL HIM TO GO FUCK HIMSELF!” he screamed, buffeting the little bastard about the head and neck with a clipboard. He smiled as he walked away, secure in the effectiveness of his intuition. The escalation principle had once again steered him clear of time-consuming negotiation.


Mark R. Brand is a Chicago-based science-fiction author and the online short fiction editor of Silverthought Press. He is the author of three novels, The Damnation of Memory (2011), Life After Sleep (2011), and Red Ivy Afternoon (2006), and he is the editor of the collection Thank You Death Robot (2009), named a Chicago Author favorite by the Chicago Tribune and recipient of the Silver medal 2009 Independent Publisher Book Award (IPPY) in the category of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He is the producer and host of Breakfast With the Author and lives in Evanston, IL with his wife and son.

Franki Elliot

Miss in Polish

by Franki Elliot

My grandma can’t tell you my name
but she knows I live in Chicago.

She knows I have a brother,
and he lives in Chicago too.

She adjusts her hospital gown and says,
“You tell them I’m not ready.
I’ll show them.
I’m gonna live another couple years.”

You drove me all the way there,
through washed up towns and stretches of oil refineries.
Wore a nice sweater and shiny shoes even though my family
isn’t the kind you have to impress.

I liked that.
It made me feel safe.
It made me feel like I meant something to someone.

Sitting in the waiting room reading
as strangers whispered grimly into telephones,
you said, “This is the perfect book but man,
is it miserable in here.”

When I go back, the hospital room is freezing and
the doctor stands with a clipboard,
asks her what day is her birthday.

She said she knows there is a four in there somewhere.
I know it because it’s the same birthday as Hitler.
I don’t think she knows that. I hope she doesn’t know that.

And my grandpa has never held my hand
before until today. He has tears quietly running down his
cheeks when he says, “How’s the violin, ponnie?
Still playing?”


Franki Elliot is a twenty-something author from Chicago. Originally self published, Piano Rats sold out of it’s first printing quickly and was soon picked up by Curbside Splendor for an October 2011 release. This is her first book. Franki’s favorite artist Shawn Stucky provided the cover art and book design.



From the Ashes: An Interview with John Guzlowski

Okla Elliott: In Lightning and Ashes, you make use of what seems like direct family sources (such as the poem “A Letter to my Mother from Poland, October 4, 1952”). What portion of these source materials is rooted in actual familial documents, what part from family lore, and what part poetic creation?

John Guzlowski: It’s a central question. When I started writing my poems about my parents back in the late 1970s, I was in grad school and very conscious of the ways memory can be manipulated and tricked out for various literary effects. My wife was working on rhetoric and the art of memory, and I was doing a dissertation on the postmodern sense of the self and how it plays out in fiction. One of the books I was writing about was Pynchon’s V., and one of my favorite quotes in that book came from what Pynchon said about Fausto Majistral and this character’s autobiographical writing. Here’s the quote:

“Now memory is a traitor: gilding, altering. The word is, in sad fact, meaningless, based as it is on the false assumption that identity is single, soul continuous. A man has no more right to set forth any self-memory as truth than to say ‘Maratt is a sour-mouthed University cynic’ or ‘Dnubietna is a liberal and madman.’”

The first poem I wrote about my parents is called “Dreams of Warsaw,” and it deals with their memories of the war and my own oldest childhood memories of my father’s telling me about the war. Right there, as the literary analyst I was training to be, I could see a lot of potential for complexity, layering, and manipulation of memory. There’s my parents’ years in the camps, my father’s retelling of that story, my mother’s retelling of that story, my childhood memories of their retellings, and then my adult attempt to place all of that within the context of my life and of course in the context of a poem.

Over the next 25 years, as I worked up the poems that went into Lightning and Ashes, I’ve had to deal with this nexus of memories, and it’s hard to say that there is a certain definite portion that is from actual family history, family lore, or my poetic creation. All three come together to varying degrees in various poems. There are some poems like “My Mother Reads My Poem “Cattle Train to Magdeburg’” that come almost completely from my mother’s telling in her own words about what actually happened. And the poem takes issue with my earlier poem “Cattle Train to Magdeburg” (based on my childhood memories of what my dad said about how she was taken to Germany by the Nazis) so that she in large part in “My Mother Reads” is trying to get at her own truth of what happened. When my mother read “Cattle Train to Magdeburg,” she told me what was wrong with my earlier poem, and I wrote it down. 90% of the poem is her words in English about her experience.

There’s very little that I did to the poem beyond breaking her statements into lines and stanzas and cutting out one significant detail from her telling that I thought would cause the reader to ask unnecessary questions about what happened to her.

That’s one extreme. The other is the poem that is essentially fiction. The prose poem you ask about—“A Letter to my Mother from Poland, October 4, 1952”—is not based on an actual letter. In fact, I never read any of the many letters written to my mother by her sister Sophie about what it was like in Poland for my Polish relatives after the war, after the Soviet takeover of Poland. I knew about these letters, of course.

As a child, I remember my mother receiving them. She was a private woman, and she could not share her grief with anyone. She would get these letters and take them into the bedroom and read them there, after closing the door. I would stand on the other side of the door sometimes and listen to her weeping as she read the letters about it was like in Poland after the war. I would beg her not to cry through the closed door. Toward the end of my mother’s life, when I would visit her to get her papers and things in order, I asked her where the letters were. I knew she had kept them and added new letters as they still occasionally came from Poland. I was shocked by her response to my question. She had destroyed them, all of the letters that came from her family in Poland.

The “Letter to My Mother from Poland” poem is my attempt to recreate one of these destroyed letters. The description of the hunger and poverty in the first stanza, the dreams of my grandmother who was raped and killed by the Nazis, the wish for reunion—all of that was invented for the letter, but the invention of course was never complete invention. My father would sometimes reference the letters when I was a child. He’d mention the poverty or the hunger or the loneliness of being separated from the family that my mother read about in these letters. These things were part of the truth of these letters, and I tried to get this truth into this poem and into the other poems I wrote about my parents.

There was a Polish writer named Jozef Mackiewicz who said that “Only the truth is interesting.” And I believe that, but the truth is sometimes hard to convey. Sometimes the truth has to get heated up (embellished, transformed, jazzed up).

For me, Tim O’Brien’s essay “How To Tell A True War Story” gets at something important about telling a war story. Sometimes the facts themselves just don’t convey the horror that you would hope they convey. Here’s an example: 50,000,000 people died in WWII. I can tell that fact to a hundred people, one after another, and they probably won’t react much, not emotionally at least, maybe not even intellectually. I need to tell them something more. I need to tell them about these dead people in a way that will carry the weight of 50,000,000. I need to tell about my mother and the letters she used to get from her sister and what they talked about, the death of their mother, the guilt they felt for being alive, the sense of emotional and physical hunger they were left with after the war, the yearning for some kind of spring that would give them peace from their memories.

I don’t know if this was what was actually in the letters my mother received, but it is the truth that they carried for her.

OE: Which sorts of historical or official documents have you used in your poetic exploration of the Holocaust, and how have you made use of them?

JG: Most of my poems are based on my parents’ stories of their experiences, but I’ve always been interested in history, especially the piece of history my parents experienced from the inside, and I’ve read a lot of histories of that period.

I can’t even begin to make a list of what I’ve read. Last month, I read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Currently, I’m reading David Stafford’s Endgame, 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II. It’s a book about the last months of the war and the period just after that. It captures something my dad talked about, the political, military, and social chaos that existed at the end of the war. On my desk, I’ve also got a copy of Hedgepeth and Saidel’s Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust. It’s the next book I’ll read.

I’ve also read memoirs written by slave laborers, Holocaust survivors, soldiers, civilians caught up in the war, UN directors of refugee camps, and refugees. One of the great things that has happened since Language of Mules, my first book about my parents, came out is that I’m hearing from people who were also, like my parents, Polish Catholic slave laborers in the concentration camps. These survivors write me to tell me about their experiences, and some have sent me pieces of their unpublished memoirs. I also hear from their children.

You ask how do I make use of these documents. I think primarily I use them to get a sense of the zeitgeist, the world my parents entered when they were taken to the camps, the world they entered after liberation. My parents at different times in my life told me a lot about their experiences in the war, but they couldn’t tell me everything. To understand their experiences, I need to know about the context of those experiences, what was going on around my mother and my father when they were young people in the camps. Histories and memoirs provide that some extent. Does this context get into the poems? I think not directly for the most part.

Where I see it play out is when I do a poetry reading. When I read a poem like my “Hunger in the Labor Camps,” for example, for an audience, I find myself using information from histories and memoirs to flesh out the poem. It’s a poem about what my dad ate in the camps and what living in the camps was like. The poem tries to stay pretty close to his experience, but I try to give my audience a sense of what was going in the larger camp around my father. I talk about how many calories a day a prisoner was given, the kind of work they were required to do, how many prisoners were in the camp, how many died each year from malnutrition or abuse, what it was like in the camps when the war ended.

I guess it’s like the poem tells one person’s story and the lead in to the poem provides the larger view of that story. Sometimes, however, things from my reading get into the poems. The memoirs, the published and the unpublished ones, are rich in detail, and the details occasionally find their way into the poems. In the “Hunger in the Labor Camps” poem, for instance, I have a list of things my dad tried to eat in the camp. Here’s the first part of the poem.


He ate what he couldn’t eat,
what his mother taught him not to:
brown grass, small chips of wood, the dirt
beneath his gray dark fingernails.
He ate the leaves off trees. He ate bark.
He ate the flies that tormented
the mules working in the fields.
He ate what would kill a man
in the normal course of his life:
leather buttons, cloth caps, anything
small enough to get into his mouth.
He ate roots. He ate newspaper.
In his slow clumsy hunger
he did what the birds did, picked
for oats or corn or any kind of seed
in the dry dung left by the cows.
And when there was nothing to eat
he’d search the ground for pebbles
and they would loosen his saliva
and he would swallow that.
And the other men did the same.

My father told me about some of these things, the seed, the bark, leather buttons; but some of the other things come from the memoirs. At the time, I was writing this poem, I was also reading an unpublished memoir of a woman who lived in Poland during the war and suffered tremendous hunger. She told of giving her children pebbles to suck on while she left them alone at home to search for food in the neighboring villages. Those pebbles got into the poem.

OE: I am almost embarrassed to ask this, since it seems such a cliche now, but it is also one of the central questions we ask in regard to Holocaust poetry. Adorno famously said to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. To what extent is he right or wrong? And, perhaps more broadly, what are the difficulties of representation unique to Holocaust representation? How do they differ from, for example, representations of other human catastrophes?

JG: I’ve spent a long time thinking about what Adorno said, reading his words, reading the people who have read his words and decided to explain them, and I hope he forgives me for saying this, but I think that what he said was correct and yet foolish.

Yes, we should all accept that poetry and all art is barbaric after Auschwitz. Poetry and art cannot tell us what happened at Auschwitz. No poem I ever wrote can tell us what my parents’ experience were like. As my mother used to say, “You weren’t there.” But still I feel a need to write these poems and people tell me they need to hear them. And my mother recognized this. Even though she knew that there were things that I wouldn’t know about her experiences and that I could never capture what had happened, she felt that that little that I could tell was better than the nothing people would know if I didn’t write what I could. Before one poetry reading, she told me, “Tell them we weren’t the only ones.”
That’s my first response to Adorno’s dictum. My second is that poetry and art are necessary. If we look to history, all it can give us finally are the numbers, the facts. It’s poetry and art that bring the human voice into what happened in the past.

Finally, I hate to be a smart ass but Adorno himself didn’t stop writing after the Holocaust. Admittedly, he wasn’t a poet. He was something that many would consider even more marginal, a philosopher, and he wrote about subjects like aesthetic theory, composing for movies, the history of music.

About the second part of your question, about what is unique to the representation of the Holocaust, let me first say that what I write about is not the Holocaust. My parents were Polish Catholics. Terrible things happened to them during the war, but they were not Jews. Having said that, I think that those who write about the Holocaust have a responsibility to tell the truth. This may sound obvious, but I don’t think it is. There have been memoirists who have lied about their experiences (Jerzy Kosinski, WIlkominski, and Rosenblat come to mind). And there have been poets and novelists and film-makers that have misrepresented the Holocaust. What they’ve done is to try to find some positive message in the obscenity, madness, and death that is the Holocaust. Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful is an example of this. Wanting to take something good out of the Holocaust, he creates a cartoon version that seems about six days long. I think doing so he commits a sin, and Adorno would probably see it that way. Benigni turns the Holocaust into entertainment.

OE: In recent scholarly efforts in Holocaust studies, there has been much discussion of “postmemory” (a term coined by Marianne Hirsch at Columbia University) — that is, attention is being given to the generation who came after Holocaust survivors (and in the larger field of trauma studies, the children of any trauma victim). Obviously, your work bears the mark of your parents’ traumatic experiences, but how would you say you have processed their experiences? To what degree and in what sense has trauma been transferred across generations? In what ways has it not been transferred (aside from the obvious non-transferal of their direct physical suffering)?

JG: Has trauma been transferred across generations? Absolutely. I grew up in a Chicago neighborhood of Poles and Jews and Ukrainians and Germans who had survived the war, men and women. They were the parents of the children I played with. Those parents like my parents had been damaged. Some showed the damage clearly, others not so much. But we as children saw and felt that damage.

Let me give you one example. There were two little girls who lived two doors away from me, There father had been in the concentration camps in Germany. He worked the 4 pm to midnight shift at a nearby factory. When he came home, he expected his children and his mother not to be there, not to be home. The mother would roust the kids up as it got closer to midnight and get them dressed and out the door before he got home. He didn’t want anybody in the house sleeping when he got home. He had some kind of fear that made him crazy about this. If he would find his kids and his wife at home when he got there, he would curse, beat them all, chase them out of the house. They could only return when he had fallen asleep. This was one family. There were many such families. There were fathers who stripped their kids naked and whipped them through the streets and mothers who smashed coffee pots across their kids’ faces.

There was violence and drunkness and madness in my neighborhood and in my house. My father was an alcoholic; my mother physically abused my sister. Not every day, but often enough. And all of this was somehow connected to the fact that they had gone through the camps and seen terrible things done. That old trauma and this new trauma were tied together, and all of it pressed against me.

How did I process this? That’s the story of my life. For years, I didn’t want to have anything to do with my parents and their memories and how all of that “camp shit” made a mess of their lives. I ran away from them and the world I grew up in. I didn’t want to know where I came from, what had happened to my parents or my friends, and I was pretty successful. Recently, on Facebook, I got back in touch with a college friend. When he looked at my info and my notes on FB, he was surprised by the poems I had about my parents and their experiences. He said he never knew they had been in the camps.

I didn’t start writing about my parents and their experiences until I was in my early 30s. That’s when I wrote my first poem about my parents, “Dreams of Warsaw, September 1939.” Before that, I wanted nothing to do with their trauma or what their trauma was doing to me. After that poem, I gradually started returning to those memories of my parents and their experiences. I started reading about Poland and the war too, and about the Poles who came to America. Maybe I couldn’t process what had happened to them before that. I don’t know. But I do know that for the last few years, all my writing and much of my energy has gone into thinking about my parents and writing about them and their experiences, and maybe what I’m trying to do is understand why my parents were the people they were when I knew them, understand too where all that drunkenness and abuse and weakness and confusion and sorrow and suffering my parents showed came from. I sometimes think that writing about my parents in the war is a way redeeming them, of making all that horrible stuff seem somehow heroic or at least explainable.

OE: Everyone is asked about their influences, but I wonder if you might talk about how different poets have influenced your work that deals with the Holocaust as opposed to those poets who have influenced your work on other subjects. What distinctions are their between these two groups of poetic influences? What overlaps and interplays?

JG: Let me start by saying that we don’t know who influences us until we start writing. Looking for influences is always an afterthought. I write a poem and then I look at it, and I ask myself, where did that shape and content come from, why does it look that way and why do I say the things I do. Before that the influences of course are there, but we don’t know who or what they are.

When I first started writing in college, I hadn’t read much poetry, or literature for that matter. Of course, I had taken some survey courses in British and American lit and was just starting to look around and think about the kinds of English courses I wanted to take. But I was writing already, and the writing I was doing was strongly influenced by the writers I was reading on my own, writers who weren’t being taught in anybody’s classes, the beat writers, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and William Burroughs. I believed in what Kerouac called “Spontaneous Bop Prosody,” a free-flowing, improvisational style of writing that tries to take the writer to the essence of his experience, to the center of himself.

The poetry that came out of this was surreal, endless, obscure, and druggy. Let me give you a short example. This is a stanza from my long poem “38 Easy Steps to Carlyle’s Everlasting Yeah”:

And be a blue angelic tricycle
And be any martyr’s unused coffin
And be you or me – it doesn’t matter which
And write poems like Pablo Neruda does
And throw them into the street/into the wind

I wrote like this all through college, poems about submarines crashing into lidless suns, airplanes unzipping the sky, Christ coming back to earth and burning up people with his laser eyes. You get the picture.

Then I started grad school in 1973, and I stopped writing poetry for years. I was too busy reading everything I should have read as an undergrad and writing all those papers we had to write about things like “Time in the Novels of Robert Penn Warren,” “Shakespeare’s Use of the Contraction ‘T’is’ in Hamlet,” The Image of the Hill in William Faulkner’s Novels,” and “The Post-Modern Sense of Self in Pynchon’s V.”

In 1979, when I first started writing about my parents and their experiences in the war, I had pretty much forgotten the beats. The surreal, flowing inwardness I found in them wasn’t what I now found myself writing. My first poems about my parents (“Dreams of Warsaw,” “My Father’s Teeth,” “Cross of Polish Wood”) had the feel, for me, of fragmented sonnets. In grad school, one of the great revelations was the British metaphysical poets, especially Donne. Those early poems about my parents had some of that compressed, image-haunted sense that I loved in Donne.

As I wrote more poems about my parents, what I found in my writing was several of the writers I really grew to love in grad school were finding themselves into my poems. Robert Frost was there. Some of the longer poems (“Among Sleeping Strangers” and “Pieta in a Bombed Church”) use the long iambic pentameter lines Frost used in “Mending Wall” and “Birch Trees.” I liked the natural rhythm of his cadences and their ability to move a narrative along. I wanted to write poems that had a story-like quality to them and Frost really helped.

What also helped with the narrative drive of the poems was the folk songs I had listened to in college. Woody Guthrie especially. He can tell a terrific story in a very short space in an everyday language that I was also interested in. A lot of my poems were based on stories my parents told me, and I was always looking to capture their voices. My mother and father didn’t have much education. They weren’t educated people, and I wanted to use language that suggested a natural, unaffected quality. I think Marianne Moore said that she wanted to write poems that dogs and cats could understand. I was the same way, and I think it was the influence of Frost and Guthrie that showed me a way to do that.

And where were the beats in all of this? I think they gave me freedom. For me, the final essential lesson of the beats is about freedom. I don’t see Kerouac and Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg in my writing, in my lines and images, but I do feel them in the freedom that they gave me to write about my parents. I grew up thinking that my parents and all of their experiences were something to be avoided, stepped away from, that it was just “that camp shit” and “that alien shit” that I as an American shouldn’t concern myself with. Kerouac and Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg with their ethnic roots and outsider perspective gave me the freedom I needed to think and write about a foreign past that a lot of people don’t want to think and write about. And did I mention comic books as an influence?

OE: There are constant debates over how best to become a writer or improve oneself as a writer. I’m thinking of the neverending squabble over MFAs and PhDs in creative writing, but also of such ideas as the ones I have propagated among my students that they should all study abroad somewhere for a year in undergrad and take a wide range of courses such as anthropology, philosophy, and foreign literatures. What advice would you give to young writers today?

JG: I didn’t go through an MFA program in creative writing. In fact, I didn’t know that such programs existed when I was an undergrad in the late 1960s. I always assumed that the way to be a writer was the way I was doing it: by learning as much as possible about literature and books and by writing all the time. My friends who wrote felt the same. They read and wrote. Most of them didn’t even take the creative writing classes that were offered at the school I attended, the University of Illinois, Chicago. I read and wrote, and I also took those courses.

I had three very good and very different poets teaching those courses: Paul Carroll, John Frederick Nims, and Michael Anania. But their methods were much the same. On the first day of class, for example, Paul Carroll said, “Next time you come to class, bring 3-4 of your poems, and I’ll make copies of them, and we’ll talk about them.” That’s pretty much what happened. We didn’t get prompts, we didn’t revise. We workshopped for the whole semester. The grade was based on those poems we turned in that first week. It didn’t matter if those poems were good, bad, or indifferent. There was no revising!

What did I learn in those classes? I learned what Carroll, Nims, and Anania liked in the way of poetry, and I learned to listen to what other young writers were thinking about and writing about. I learned to like the company of writers. I learned that pretty well and wrote accordingly.

During my teaching career, a lot of the teaching I did was creative writing. I taught it for about 25 years, and I taught it in real-time classes and virtual, online classes. We had prompts and textbooks and workshops and revision, revision, revision. We talked about how to find subjects and how to be personal and how to shape a poem and how to bring music into a poem and how to revise, revise, revise. We also did a lot of conferencing. I met with each student about once every other week for a half hour to review his work.

So was my method a good method for getting young writers to write or was Carroll’s method a better method? I think it finally doesn’t matter. The important thing is to be reading and writing. Over the years, the best students I had were the ones who came into class with a lot of reading behind them. It didn’t matter if they were reading Dostoevsky or Dean Koontz or Donald Duck. In fact, the best writers were always the ones who were reading Dostoevsky And Dean Koontz And Donald Duck. The reading itself was important, and the writing was important as well, writing all the time, writing about everything, writing like writer’s block was just some hooey that no real writer ever believed in or thought about.

And you could always tell which students were reading and writing like that. They were the ones who were on fire. My advice then for young writers? Be on fire!

OE: There are lots of paths to becoming a writer, finding one’s materials, and so on. What educational or experiential endeavors would you advise young writers today to pursue? What sorts of attitudes toward their work or habits of mind ought they to develop?

JG: We all have our own stories, and a lot of becoming a writer involves discovering what our stories are. I came to writing my own story fairly late. I went to grad school and studied contemporary American fiction and got a PhD and spent years working on the sort of academic criticism and research that path requires. Looking back on all of that now, I can’t help but think that maybe an MFA program in creative writing would have served me well. Maybe it would have had me focusing on my own writing, my story, sooner.

But having said that, I start wondering what I would have missed by going into an MFA program instead of the sort of traditional program in English studies that did go into, the one that led me to a PhD. And what I would have missed is considerable. I may never have read Chaucer and Spenser and Dryden and Henry Vaughan and Samuel Johnson and the Bronte sisters and Emerson and Thoreau and Proust and Dostoevsky and Pushkin and Yeats and Henryk Sienkiewicz and Camus and Faulkner and Graham Greene and Toni Morrison and Isaac Bashevis Singer and Tim O’Brien.

I’m not saying that all of these writers make an appearance in every line and syllable of what I write, but they are there in some way because they and so many other writers have touched me and spoken to me and stuck with me in ways I can’t begin to describe or understand. But I do know this: Who I am as a writer in fact is a dialogue between me and all of the writers I’ve read. If I had gone into a program that emphasized writing over reading, I might not have read the writers I read, and the conversation that my writing represents might not have been what it is.

When I was still teaching creative writing, I could tell the difference between the students who wrote and read and the ones who were mainly focused on writing.

The students who were writers and not readers tended to have a single voice in their writing. Their own. That’s not to say they couldn’t write with another voice. They could and did. As their creative writing teacher, I would sometimes say, “Do a poem or a story in such and such a voice.” And they would, but there would be something mechanical about this. It would be an exercise, something external, not something internal.

You also asked about what kinds of experiential endeavors I would recommend. I honestly don’t think it matters. My first creative writing teacher, the poet Paul Carroll, said that you didn’t have to live in the gutter to write about it. And Henry James suggested something similar in his essay “The Art of Fiction.” He said a writer should be the kind of person “on whom nothing is lost.”And by this I think he meant that being a writer entailed cultivating certain habits of mind. Here’s how he described these habits: “The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it–this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe.”

And how do you cultivate these habits? I think it finally comes down to writing. It’s the act that teaches us how to write.

Sunday Poetry Series Presents: Robert Archambeau

Black Dog’s Bedside Manner

by Robert Archambeau

for John Matthias in a losing season,
the black dog depression at his side

The black dog’s in the room with you,
and what to do but wait until he bites?
He’ll wolf your dinner, spill your whiskey,
piss in the fireplace when you try to write.
He’ll bar the door, he’ll stretch and lean, stare cross-eyed
at your daughters and then leer at your wife.
He’s slipped the Bishop’s muzzle, he’s gnawed the lawyer’s cat.
Despite the best prescriptions, he’s made the doctors’ cough.
The black dog’s in your bed with you,
and what to do but wait until he bites?
Spurt-sprinting in his sleep, he dreams you’re prey,
caught, clutched and carried, cradled in his gentle jaw back home.
In your dream you run from him, or write
“sit, boy” or “beg” or “heel” or “fetch.”
And in your dream the black dog takes his bitch.
Beside your bed and fevered sleep
he rests his paw upon your sweating head,
he leans in to hear you muttering
“Play dead, play dead, play dead…”


Robert Archambeau is the author of Word Play Place (Ohio/Swallow), Home and Variations (Salt), and Laureates and Heretics (Notre Dame). He is one of the editors of The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing (Lake Forest/&NOW), and professor of English at Lake Forest College. He blogs at www.samizdatblog.blogspot.com. The above poem is used by permission of the author and originally appeared in Another Chicago Magazine.