REMEMBERING OKLA ELLIOT WITH MICHAEL YOUNG

By Michael Young:

Okla Elliott died in his sleep last night. I still haven’t fully comprehended this reality. His absence hasn’t filled the days to make me believe it. But the news is everywhere echoed through FB.

There are a few people on FB that I know almost exclusively through FB or met only a few times and yet I consider them friends and not just acquaintances. There is a kindship of mind and conscience that binds us. Okla was such a person. There was a mutual admiration and respect for …each other’s work. He was always welcoming of my work for As It Ought To Be and encouraging of my writing. And I had the pleasure of interviewing him and reviewing his collection The Cartographer’s Ink. The diversity, quantity, and quality of his literary output was amazing. I was so looking forward to reading his next poetry collection, which will now, sadly, not be coming. I enjoyed just hearing what he was teaching his classes. It was a pleasure to hear him take such joy in teaching, sparking conversation among his students, or just rhapsodize about the deliciousness of tacos. He was a brilliant and kind person. In online conversations, he strove always for fairness and inclusion that never compromised intellectual honesty. He seemed to face setback with determination and optimism. I saw this most clearly in the recent election outcome, always advising people to focus on state and local elections, and clear actions to take, rather than falling into doubt and bitterness. His intelligence and voice will be terribly missed. The silence it leaves will fill the coming days with something embodied in certain winter landscapes, a kind of waiting that isn’t answered but fades like an echo. But if you haven’t read any of his work, buy some: his poetry, his translation, the novel he co-authored with his good friend, Raul Clement.



ONLINE MEMORIALS AND TRIBUTES
As It Ought To Be Mourns the Loss of Our Founder
“Some testimonies to Okla Elliott, 1 May 1977 – 19 March 2017” – Days and Memory
“Requiescat in pace: poet, novelist, translator Okla Elliott, 1977-2017” – Book Haven
“Go Read Okla Elliott’s Stuff, Please. (A Remembrance)” – Great Writers Steal
“Remembering Okla Elliott” – Mildred Barya’s House of Life


REMEMBER OKLA WITH AS IT OUGHT TO BE
As It Ought To Be welcomes art and writing in Okla’s memory. Please email sivan.sf [at] gmail [dot] com with your submissions.


Things to Worry About

Norah Vawter Parents

The author with her parents, Skip and Denise, 1985.

Things to Worry About

by Norah Buckley Vawter

Dear Mothers,

Things to worry about:

  • Worry about the planet.
  • Worry about your children’s welfare.
  • Worry about your family and friends.
  • Worry about not wasting your life.
  • Worry about kindness and love.

Things not to worry about:

  • Don’t worry about conversations you had yesterday.
  • Don’t worry about what other people think of you.
  • Don’t worry about what other people think, period.
  • Don’t worry about jogging strollers.
  • Don’t worry about jumperoos vs. exersaucers.
  • Don’t worry about getting a fancy anything unless you really want it.
  • Don’t worry about worrying.
  • When holding a newborn, don’t worry that he is so tiny and fragile you might break him just by holding him. If babies were that fragile, we wouldn’t have a human race.
  • If you had great parents, don’t worry about living up to impossible expectations of what parenting should be like. Your parents surely, surely had days when they made mistakes, maybe even huge ones.
  • If your parents were awful, don’t worry about doing everything differently to create some magical world full of goodness and light for your own child. Just do your best. There will probably be plenty of magic and goodness and light.
  • Absolutely don’t cry yourself to sleep thinking you are the world’s worst mother. You’re probably doing better than you think. In fact I bet you are strong and beautiful. I feel certain that you deserve happiness and love.
  • Don’t worry about the dark circles under your eyes from lack of sleep and lack of makeup and just being plain tired and wrung out every day.
  • Don’t worry about the fact that Mom X gives her kids all organic food when you don’t.
  • Don’t worry about what Mom X must think when you pull out a bag of Honey-Nut Cheerios and food-dye-ridden Goldfish crackers for your toddler, while she feeds her kid homemade flaxseed bread and homemade yogurt with a smattering of wheat germ.
  • Don’t worry about anything anyone posts on Facebook. Ever.
  • Don’t worry about haters in general.
  • If you had your heart set on nursing, don’t worry if you can’t.
  • And don’t you dare let any parent bottle-shame you. When you are sitting at the park with your baby in your lap, and you pull that bottle of formula out of your bag – hold your head high because you are feeding your baby.
  • If your own parents are gone like mine are, don’t worry that your kid will grow up never knowing them. They’re around – somewhere. They’re inside of you. They’re inside of your kid. They’re in photo albums and in the books they read to you, the ones you now read to him.
  • Don’t worry about how you will eventually have to explain what death is, and where Granny Denise and Grampa Skip are.
  • When your kid starts to point out “Nise” and “Skip” in the family photos on the wall, because you’ve been doing that, don’t worry if you cry in front of him. When he says, “Mama sad” – don’t worry about what to say. Something will come. And then he’ll probably want to hug you, and it will be the best hug in the world. Ever. And then you can say, “Mama happy,” and mean it.
  • Don’t worry about being the perfect mother.
  • Don’t worry about perfection, period. It doesn’t exist, and if it did, life would be a hell of a lot less interesting.

Things to think about:

  • How can I be a mother and still be a human being in my own right?
  • If I’m not happy, how can I get there? If I’m not happy with how I fit into my world, how can I fix that?
  • Am I doing my best, as a parent, as a human being, in general, etc.?
  • What tangible, specific things can I do to make my life better, or others’ lives better, and maybe even make my world a better place to live?
  • If I want to make my mark on the world, how can I do that?

Love always,

Norah Buckley Vawter

Things to Worry About Parenting

The author with her son, 2015.

***

Inspired by Scott Fitzgerald’s letter to his daughter, Scottie, dated August 8, 1933

Norah Vawter wishes time travel were possible so she could party with Scott Fitzgerald and then talk literature. She earned an MFA in fiction from George Mason University and  has work published or forthcoming in Extract(s), The Nassau Review, and Agave. Currently she stays at home with her toddler while at work on her first novel.

“Morning Glories Sensing Noon Or: When Your Student Dies During the Semester” By Angie Mazakis

 

Morning Glories Sensing Noon

Or: When Your Student Dies During the Semester

By Angie Mazakis

 

Before class, already you know that you are going to teach how the complications of humor and death in this story—the writer’s careful balance of these disparate emotional territories—make good writing, and you want to point out the specific piercing details too, you will go through and point out every metaphor (“they are all drawing their mouths in, bluish and tight—morning glories sensing noon,” the rhythm of “morning glories sensing noon”—three trochees—sang in your head all weekend), and then right before class, you’re in the bathroom three minutes before, and a student comes in and says, “I had to find you,” and you laugh because, it’s three minutes before class, and you were just in your office for three-and-a-half hours, and Couldn’t you have just waited until I got there is what your laugh is saying, but it’s also forgiving, because either way questions in the bathroom are funny, and you like every student in this class, you already know it is one of those classes you will remember—your one laugh is saying all that, and she laughs a tiny nervous laugh in response, and says, “You know A           in our class, who sits by me? He died.” And you cover your mouth in shock, because your student, a student in the class you are going to teach in three, now two, minutes died and will not be sitting at his desk, and she starts to cry, and says, “I just had to find you and tell you, because I couldn’t bear to hear you call out his name.” Couldn’t bear is what she said, and you’ve never heard anything more fragile, perforating right through you, from a student in any of your classes ever, not even in writing, let alone out loud to you in the bathroom in her sweet voice and tears, and you precipitously cry for her, with her, for just a minute, because it’s time for class, and all crying should now stop, and the short walk to class with her gives you time to feel transiently embarrassed about how facilely and involuntarily your tears materialize, and you go teach the Lorrie Moore story that is really in the end about death, but saturated with humor, and you meant to defend that humor, because in the other classes students thought that the humor was inappropriate in a story about children and death, but that’s “how I would respond as well” with that same dark wit in the face of death, you know (think) you would, at least ostensibly (you think later), and also you had already planned to read this passage, so you read it very slowly, because your voice could break at any one of the words, even though you didn’t even really know this kid, it’s only been three weeks, you barely knew him, but you had already planned to read it, particularly for how devastating, and therefore beautiful it is, but now with devastating being a reality in the room, the beautiful doesn’t seem as beautiful or beauty actually doesn’t seem relevant at all, or seems kind of very beside the point, but still, you read to them, “…he begins to cry, but cry silently, without motion or noise. She has never seen a baby cry without motion or noise. It is the crying of an old person; silent, beyond opinion, shattered.” You can barely get out the word “shattered,” which seemed to fall apart on its own. But you do. And then after class, the female student who stopped you in the bathroom is the last one after everyone has left, and you say, “This wasn’t the easiest story to talk about today,” and she says, “Actually, it helped,” and you are profoundly puzzled, one, that anything could help so immediately in class and not years from now when an image or a line comes to a student arbitrarily at the grocery store or while picking up their kids from school, but also that this story is so darkly humorous, and most students don’t seem to embrace its complications even when those complications seem eclipsed by the unequivocalness of  a death that just happened, but she says, “because there’s the part where the narrator is talking to the ‘manager’ and he says (and she quotes it exactly without looking at it, here in the third week of class; she’s brilliant), ‘To know the narrative in advance is to turn yourself into a machine.’” And then you frantically look for that portion of the story, because you just taught it—three times today—but you didn’t go over that part in class, and you don’t even remember that part, and you read what continues, “What makes humans human is precisely that they do not know the future. …There might be things people get away with. And not just motel towels. There might be great illicit loves, enduring joy, faith-shaking accidents with farm machinery. But you have to not know in order to see what stories your life’s efforts bring you. The mystery is all.” And you can’t believe you have a student so smart that she can apply the very literature we are reading today in class so instantaneously to the very consequential event that has so spontaneously happened, and has literature ever been so functional? You don’t think it has, and she should probably teach this class instead of you. And all you know about teaching is how you’ve been taught to teach or what you’ve learned from what others teach, and this kid who died, of course he is the kid who stayed after the first class to ask you more questions about yourself, of course, and was looking right at you eagerly or smiling every time you looked up in the few classes you’ve had so far this semester, and of course no one ever said, “When your student dies during the semester…” or explained how to maybe wait one more week (you’d already waited two weeks for all the drops and adds) to write their names into the grade book in ink, because now you’ll have to mark the absence forever.

 

About the Author: Angie Mazakis’s poems have appeared in The New Republic, Boston Review, Narrative Magazine, Best New Poets 2008, Drunken BoatNew Ohio Review, Everyday Genius, and other journals. She has received a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize and prizes from New Letters, New Ohio Review, and Smartish Pace.

A Review of John Rybicki’s When All the World is Old

Rybicki3dforweb

A Review of John Rybicki’s When All the World is Old

By Kirsten Clodfelter

John Rybicki opens each section of When All the World is Old, his third poetry collection, with excerpts from journal entries written by his late wife, the poet Julia Moulds. Her voice echoes in brief flickers so that as we move forward into Rybicki’s own language, we hear her still: “I worry again and again about him losing me.” The weight of that loss—of knowing what trauma is coming before it’s yet arrived, and then, when it finally has, of learning how to navigate a way through it—is explored with candor and power in his stunning writing. Rybicki honors Moulds by building this book not just to her or for her or about her but also, in using her voice in the pages, literally of her—ensuring that his devastation becomes ours as well, a burden that weighs us down as we read, but maybe, in the tiniest way, is also one that we can help shoulder.

My mother was 41 when she died, just a handful of years younger than Rybicki’s wife, but they prepared differently. For my sisters and I, there was no tender last love note, no post-bath, steam-written secret message, no treasure to decode across the mirror or window or anywhere, later, no matter how willing we would have been to “place our mouths close to the glass” and “fog it with our breath / after she is gone.”

Rybicki writes about the kind of day-to-day living shaped by the long-shadowed awareness that the minutes we have left are diminishing; he admits, “It has been too much for too long and we know it / is time to take hold of the lightening and let it kill her…” and it’s cruel, the way we are tasked with somehow being our best, or happiest, or most loving selves in that final interim before the goodbye—if we are lucky or unlucky enough to have that kind of warning—while at the same time facing down the very worst things we can imagine. Rybicki asks, “Why can’t I say yes to the laughter in my chest?” But of course we already know why. It’s because we understand, as Rybicki understands, that his “wife is the center of it all. Everything grows / from her.”

So Rybicki does not laugh, but he does put on his bravest face. At her request: “Keep me safe,” he “is on his watch,” is “trying to smuggle her / out of a burning city,” careful to offer his reminder gently, “…Whatever you do, / love, don’t look back,” the way we might pull a blanket over the folded body of a person in our care when we find that they’ve fallen asleep on the couch. But Rybicki cannot shelter us from the truth—even the most impressive love we are capable of giving is not always enough to keep someone from leaving, and in the pages of this book we are asked to stand shoulder to shoulder with Rybicki and look back with him as the city smolders, to bear witness to the depth of his adoration and anguish, watching for the moment when he finally feels ready to “stand in defiance / of our parting and go to war to make you live again.”

In the months after her diagnosis, I used to catch my mother sneaking cigarettes in the bathroom. Smoke would leak through the door when, after wandering through the entire house, I’d finally think to crack it open and look for her there, interrupting—in the sudden and unceremonious way that children are always doing—her meager attempt at disappearance. She would fan her hand in front of her face frantically—the worst fucking magician you’ve seen in your life—and after the pinched, “Shit, shit,” and the tell-tale flush, she’d study me slyly and say, “Don’t tell your father.” Maybe in those moments she was thinking of our history, of the innocuous secrets we already shared and also of all the ones we wouldn’t, the things that at some point she must have realized she’d now never get to know—the first time I kissed a boy, had my heart broken, screwed up a friendship, found my footing and felt sure of the way forward, fell in love. Her voice was always very serious when she’d say this, or maybe it only appeared that way because of how easy it was by then to see the bones of her face—but those words weren’t a warning, they were a plea.

At ten, I was too young to understand why I should have been outraged to find my mother layering this extra poison into her body—cigarettes on top of radiation on top of chemo on top of cancer on top of cigarettes, but then, by the time I was old enough to reason that this action was selfish or ignorant, I was too young to understand that sometimes these little rebellions are a small pleasure, an anchor. When you’re dying, there are still things that need doing. There’s milk that needs to be bought, litter in the cat box that needs changed, lunches to pack before school, math homework that needs checking. So from time to time she snuck a cigarette—one of only a few choices she could still control, a type of ownership of her body’s betrayal. Who cares?

It’s the smallest things that we gather into our pockets and carry with us as daily reminders. In “On a Piece of Paper You Were About to Burn,” Rybicki recounts his desperate missing in glimpses and asks us not to look away: “You rock on the kitchen floor hugging your own legs, / weeping and kissing a face so tiny / you could cover it with a penny.” He’s seeking an answer, “How do you hold the dead,” and we don’t know either, so we keep reading to figure it out with him.

My daughter, 20 months old, loves to stand beneath a certain picture collage in our living room and hold her hands above her head, calling, “Up, up,” so that she can be lifted to honk the nose of each subject in the photographs, proudly naming us as she points, “Momma, Dada, Bebe.” When I am the one doing the holding, she is the most interested in pictures of her father, and I offer tiny, sing-song consolations, “Daddy’s at work,” “… at the store,” “…will be home right after nap.” But I am capable of imagining, in a different circumstance, the exact way it would break me right open to hear the squeal of this question each morning as we looked at those photographs and not have a single way to explain that Dad won’t be home at 4:30 or with hugs or groceries or ever again, and to think of it always leaves me in tears, the pain of that loss—just the idea of it—fresh and immediate and real even when my partner is in the next room watching television or asleep beside me in our bed.

In a collection that easily calls to mind other aching and beautiful homages to the way we survive after loss, like Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy and Donald Hall’s Without, John Rybicki’s poems in When the World is Old force us toward these moments of consideration with urgency—a reminder, perhaps, to keep our perspective or practice gratitude for the collection of small, warm moments we are gifted to share with others, because eventually the people we love are going to leave us—and no matter when that is, no matter how long we’ve had to prepare—it’s going to be too soon.

John Rybicki, When All the World is Old, Lookout Books, 2012: $13.50 (direct)/$16.95.

***

Kirsten Clodfelter holds an MFA from George Mason University. Her writing has been previously published in The Iowa ReviewBrevity, and Narrative Magazine, among others. A Glimmer Train Honorable Mention and winner of the Dan Rudy Prize, her chapbook of war-impact stories, Casualties, was published this October by RopeWalk Press. Clodfelter teaches in Southern Indiana, where she lives with her partner and their awesome, hilarious daughter. KirstenClodfelter.com, @MommaofMimo