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Literary Fare

The World From Below

by Lilyanna D’Amato | Literary Fare | Spring 2021

Image by Katie Frevert

The best children’s literature sees the world from below; revisiting it as an adult is an act of returning to oneself.


The night after my 21st birthday, deep in the throes of a mid-quarantine identity crisis, I found myself sitting on the floor of my bedroom, surrounded by my favorite childhood books. Fox Tale Soup, I Wanna Be a Cowgirl, Miss Suzy, Sleepy Bears, This Land is Your Land. I had stumbled upon them late at night while digging through the linen closet for a particularly elusive fitted sheet: 15 books crammed into the bottom right-hand corner, wedged between an old school project and a long-unused hamper. I pulled the stack out, carried it down the narrow hallway to my room, and began sifting through the pile. One by one, I read them aloud, embarrassingly pretending to show off the illustrations to some imaginary kindergarten class, relishing the visceral nostalgia and momentary distraction they brought me. 

Halfway through, somewhere around A Story for Bear, I started to think about the person I had become since setting those books down for the last time. Did I like her? Was she all that different from this former me? What, really, had changed? 

When I called my Mom a few days ago, I asked her what she thought. “Well, I think you let other people get in the way now.”

***

During my sophomore year of college, I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. In my favorite passage, the beloved, ever-perceptive Mrs. Ramsay describes solemnly shrinking into her interior self, finding solace in her own wedge-shaped core of darkness invisible to others. As a child, I often felt this way: deeply familiar with my inner self, as if we were two separate people in conversation. I’ve always thought we were sort of like friends, this inner me and I. When I was younger, this deep-seated introspection about the life I saw around me allowed me to be curious and imaginative, independent and compassionate. Because of it, I was, for the most part, unafraid to belong to my own life.

As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve begun to feel increasingly removed from myself, as though I had lost a little bit of that inner dialogue which had, for the majority of my early life, defined my sense of self. It always told me how I felt and who I wanted to be. Growing up meant starting to feel adrift, disconnected and completely out of touch with who I really was.

I had spent the summer before sophomore year and the majority of the fall living with my boyfriend’s family in a small town right on the border of New Hampshire and Vermont. By mid-June, the two of us had fallen into a pattern of waking up around 9:00 or 10:00 in morning, drinking our coffee and reading for a few hours below the pear trees in his front yard, silently working on opposite ends of the long, oak dining-room table until 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon, and then driving through town around 4:30 to take a swim in the Connecticut River before dinner. I was giddily happy, content to exist in a faraway place for a little while. 

But, sometime around the beginning of August, I began to feel as though I was looking out at the world from someone else’s eyes. Instead of hearing my own voice, one that had always been so central to my sense of self, I was hearing his. I wouldn’t have the words to express it until several months later, but that summer I came to devote every part of myself to a life that didn’t really belong to me, rarely engaging with my inner self so as to fully ingratiate myself in someone else’s thoughts and opinions and routines. My self-image had become untenable because I was constantly living out another person’s fictionalized version of me. By the end of September, it became clear that I had become so concerned with belonging to someone else’s life that I had seemingly forgotten to belong to my own. When the relationship ended in November, I was left without any understanding of who I was without it.

A few weeks after, on that night when I sat enveloped by all those artifacts of my childhood, I recognized that my conception of my most authentic self and my innermost truisms were all wrapped up in those books. As I ran my fingers across the front covers of Lili at Ballet and The Adventures of Frog and Toad and The Twelve Dancing Princesses, I imagined myself at four or five years old, my auburn hair poking out from behind my ears as I sat tucked under my father’s arm in the cushy brown leather chair that used to sit in the corner of my brother’s bedroom. I can almost hear the soft rasp of his voice as he reads me Sleepy Bears before bed. Then Baby Bear yawned a BIG yawn. As he reads, I can hear my mother brushing her teeth in the bathroom down the hall, our cats Wonder and Punk mewing below her feet. My brother rustles in bed. The old oak tree that used to loom outside my bedroom window still stands tall. It fell down suddenly in 2007 after being struck by lightning, but for most of my childhood it was the last thing I saw before I fell asleep.

Now, all these years later, once again hearing the rhymes and cadences of my childhood, I felt closer to myself than I had in a very long time. I realized that the books I read as a child have come to represent a time when I was just beginning to understand who I wanted to be and yet, paradoxically, knew exactly who I was. 

I don’t think mine is an isolated experience. Children’s literature is often one of a child’s first introductions to empathy, imagination, and self-awareness. These books influence the way we navigate the lives around us; the way we come to understand the world is entirely shaped by the sites and experiences we explore as children. They offer a vocabulary for children to construct their identities, yet are never deemed especially consequential because of their seemingly elementary lessons. Unlike complex opuses like Steinbeck’s East of Eden or James Baldwin’s Another Country, children’s literature is rarely seen as self-defining. What if we considered Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon or E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web or Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are to be as powerful as any other piece of literature? Could it be that those books were some of the most formative, provocative, and honest ones of our lives?

Instead of hearing my own voice, one that had always been so central to my sense of self, I was hearing his.

In Bruce Handy’s Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, he argues that “the best children’s literature is every bit as rich and rewarding in its concerns, as honest and stylish in its execution, as the best adult literature” because it introduces ideas and stories which often go unexplored by adults. These books deal with deeply personal issues—loneliness, death, and the loss of innocence, to mention a few—in imaginative and honest ways, helping children to broaden and stretch their minds, flesh out the complex bonds they have with those around them, cope with conflicting emotions, understand their role in families and neighborhoods, and define the journey from childhood to adulthood. Even more important, Handy contends, is the act of revisiting these works as an adult. In one early chapter he quotes speculative fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin, who says that while “revisiting a book loved in childhood may be principally an act of nostalgia”—she had known a woman who reread The Wizard of Oz every few years because it helped her to remember being a child—“[in] returning after a decade or two or three to The Snow Queen or Kim, you may well discover a book far less simple and unambiguous than the one you remembered. That shift and deepening of meaning can be a revelation both about the book and yourself.”

***

A few summers back, I wandered into my favorite bookstore in New York City: the wooden cathedral that is the Housing Works Bookstore on Crosby Street. I’ve always said that buying a new book is one of the most exhilarating experiences a person can have. Curiosity swells and a desire for a new reality percolates just below as you find another world to imagine yourself in. On this particular day, I climbed the winding staircase above the mystery section to stand before the one-dollar bookshelf. There, hidden beside a monstrous poetry anthology, I rediscovered The Little Prince. I had read it once or twice as a child, enjoying its sweet illustrations and to-the-point dialogue, but only as a freshly coronated 20-something did I really discover its remarkable power.

The book begins with the narrator drawing a boa constrictor swallowing its prey whole—only to adults, the drawing looks like a hat. When the narrator shows his masterpiece to the grown-ups, he asks them whether he has frightened them. “Frighten? Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?” When the narrator tries to further explain that the drawing depicts a boa constrictor digesting an elephant, the adults advise him to lay aside his drawings of boa constrictors swallowing their prey whole and instead focus on geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar. Frustrated, he declares that “grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”

American novelist and academic Alison Laurie is fascinated by this moment in The Little Prince. She calls it subversive, because it mocks unsympathetic adult life by looking at the world from below. In her book Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature, Laurie explains that the most discerning children’s authors “have the ability to look at the world from below and note its less respectable aspects, just as little children playing on the floor can see the chewing gum stuck to the underside of polished mahogany tables and the hems of silk dresses held up with safety pins.” These books appeal to the questioning, rebellious child within all of us. Sitting on my bed that night, encompassed by my childhood memories and associations, I came face to face with the reality that I had lost my inner self to the confining realities of adulthood, narrowed my conception of myself and the world around me. Those books were a glimpse into a bygone sanctuary.

But not all children’s literature is as illuminating. The New England Primer, largely thought to be the first piece of American children’s literature, was published in Boston around 1690. It’s prescriptive and condescending, very obviously written by an adult to serve adult  expectations. In one of its numerous editions, the lesson reads:

Love God.
Use no ill words.
Fear God.
Tell no lies.
Serve God.
Hate Lies.

I don’t know any child who would enjoy that. Often, as is apparent here, unsuccessful children’s literature is filled with pragmatism, offering a “realistic” portrait of what adult life is actually like. Unimaginatively and pedantically, these books attempt to prepare children for the rigid, commercial ways of the world. But, according to Laurie, this adult society doesn’t exist: “the world [is] full of hostile, stupid giants.”

***

The most perceptive children’s book authors somehow manage to stay children all their lives, never losing the ability to see the world from below. In an interview with the New York Times, Maurice Sendak criticized contemporary children’s literature for catering too much to parents, going by the “rules that children should be safe and that we adults should be their guardians. I got out of that, and I was considered outlandish. So be it.”

Sendak’s entire children’s book philosophy is dependent upon the idea that children shouldn’t be kept from the world, locked within a safe haven where nothing bad happens. Instead, he argues, children’s authors should simultaneously reckon with childhood innocence and the harsh realities of life. His books deal with the darker sides of growing up, creatively and authentically helping children to process the hardships they face. In Where the Wild Things Are, a disgruntled little boy, Max, is sent to his room without supper. As he stews in bed, a jungle grows around him and he sails off to the land of the wild things, populated by huge monsters with claws. Fearlessly, Max tames the wild things, who roar that he is the wildest of them all and make him their king. Max screams, “Let the wild rumpus start,” and he and the wild things dance in the moonlight and hang from the trees, until Max realizes he misses his mother’s love. Although the wild things beg their king to stay, young Max returns to his bedroom, where his supper is waiting for him. 

Met with mixed reviews when it was published in 1963, the book has since been heralded as a classic, celebrated for its depiction and acceptance of children’s emotions, particularly anger. What I love most about this book, though, is that Sendak doesn’t hide anything. He’s not trying to coerce anyone to be anything other than who they are, or teach someone a valuable lesson. He has no motives other than to tell a story about the way he sees the world. It’s not a very pretty world—it’s full of seemingly cruel people who do seemingly cruel things—but it is real. And not real in the way that The New England Primer is real. Where the Wild Things Are is not prescriptive; it’s not trying to get you to be a better part of society or get you to buy into some larger conventional narrative, it just introduces you to the way you work. To the thoughts you may or may not have when faced with frustration or disappointment. It looks at the world from below, warts and all.

Although Sendak’s work will forever be near the top of my list, E.B. White, author of Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan, and—one of my favorite books of all time—Charlotte’s Web, will always remain my favorite children’s book author. In preparation for this piece, I spent the better part of one Thursday evening rereading White’s transcendent monument to children’s literature. I had coincidentally stumbled upon the book while perusing a public bookcase in Oberlin and realized I hadn’t reread it since the end of first grade. So here I was, a 21-year-old, mixed-up, hungover college student, sobbing her eyes out to Charlotte’s Web at   in the afternoon. I couldn’t even make it through the first sentence without tearing up: “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” Forget it. I called one of my friends from elementary school and we both started reminiscing about the first time we heard that sentence.

In our class, we would pick a new chapter book every month to read aloud. That April, the majority ruled that after lunch everyday, Mrs. Downs would sit back in the plush armchair in the corner of the classroom, 20 seven-year-olds nestled on the floor at her feet, and read Charlotte’s Web. I think it was the first book that made me cry. Like Sendak, White’s prose is spare, but burgeoning with fearless and beautiful honesty. The book is about death, plain and true and harsh, but it is also full of life and all of the things that make it worth living. In one of the most compelling scenes, Fern, a young girl who saves a newborn piglet from being murdered, confronts her father as she explains the horror of killing the pig:

“But it’s unfair,” cried Fern. “The pig couldn’t help being born small, could it? If I had been born very small at birth, would you have killed me?”

Mr. Arable smiled. “Certainly not,” he said, looking down at his daughter with love. “But this is different. A little girl is one thing, a little runty pig is another”

“I see no difference,” replied Fern, still hanging on to the ax. “This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of.”

A queer look came over John Arable’s face. He seemed almost ready to cry himself.

As a child, Fern sees the world from below, unclouded by convention and cynicism. White’s language is subversive, pointing out the flaws in grown-up understandings of life. Arguably, this moment is more illuminating for adults, juxtaposing the world as it is, as a child sees it, with the warped world we have all come to accept. Charlotte’s Web is about serious, traumatic experiences, and yet, it isn’t hard to comprehend. White’s portrayal of death reminds me of a sentence in Margaret Wise Brown’s children’s book The Dead Bird, which reads, “Every day, until they forgot, they went and sang to their little dead bird and put fresh flowers on his grave.” That’s how you write about death. White and Brown alike get straight to the heart of things, unfettered by wordy ruminations and tangents.

In one of my favorite essays of White’s, his introduction in the third edition of Strunk and White: The Elements of Style, he praises his former college professor William Strunk for instilling in him the case for “cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English.” The book, a collection of writing dos and don’ts, hasn’t left my side in the last couple years because I’m so enamored with its vigor and pith. Just like Sendak (and Didion and Vonnegut and Bukowski), Strunk and White don’t want to trick you. They want your writing to be beautiful and thought-provoking and electrifying, but never complicated. Never so difficult that you have to put a book down to understand what it’s trying to say. This, to me, is what makes Charlotte’s Web so important. There’s nothing superfluous; it gives the reader room to come up with how they feel on their own. 

I think this is what makes children’s books, and the act of revisiting them as an adult, so invaluable. In a way, you are returning to a thing and a time that is decidedly simple—and I don’t mean in a stupid or banal way. On the contrary, I think good children’s literature gets to the root of what it means to understand the world and people around you, to embrace selfhood, and, really, to understand the essence of what it means to be human without writing a sentence that is three pages long. It delivers information in no uncertain terms. There is no overwriting or overstating or big, scary, fancy words; there is just the world as a child sees it. There is just the world as it is. To revisit these books as an adult, Laurie says, offers “a way into a lost world, not only of childhood, but of universal power and meaning.”

She encourages readers to return to their children’s books as a way to reconnect with their childhood selves. There, she argues, lies the foundation of our most genuine, fulfilled, and actualized selves. Too often, Laurie writes, “as we leave the tribal culture of childhood—and its sometimes subversive tales and rhymes—behind, we lose contact with instinctive joy in self-expression: with the creative imagination, spontaneous emotion, and the ability to see the world as full of wonders. Staying in touch with children’s literature and folklore as an adult is not only a means of understanding what children are thinking and feeling; it is a way of understanding and renewing our own childhood.”

It is through this act of rediscovery that we begin to sew ourselves up again. Throughout our lives, having endured suffering and embarrassment and rejection, we become fragmented by judgement and cruelty, both readily given and received. As a result, we lose touch with who we actually are, with our cores of darkness. We feel the way that I felt in Vermont: like a stranger, alienated from my interior self. Children’s books help you to relearn and embrace the world as a child does, with levity and resolute selfhood, offering us a vital opportunity to return to the world as it is, without all that complicated, unreadable, pedantic junk flying around. I think we spend the majority of our lives chasing the high of childhood, chasing a time before we let our perception of the world become muddled by the hurt of adulthood. 

Now, as I sit at the desk in my dorm room, again surrounded by piles of my childhood books, I realize I don’t have any new answers. As cheesy as it sounds, I feel as though I had them right in front of me all along. In these past months, having read Fox Tale Soup, I Wanna Be a Cowgirl, Miss Suzy, Sleepy Bears, and This Land is Your Land over and over and over again, I feel as though I’ve returned to myself. I’ve found solace and comfort in this world from below, in this world as it is.  

Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Liam Ashbrook

interviewed by Clara Rosarius | Visual Processes | Spring 2021

All works by Liam Ashbrook

Liam Ashbrook, Artist Statement:

What does it mean to think and express a thought linearly? What does it mean to conceptualize yourself in a linear fashion? When trying to express who you are, at the core of your being, can you tell a straightforward story? Your creation is a compilation of many facts of your upbringing, stories you tell yourself, moments of joy and sorrow that seem crystalized in their vividness, and fuzzy forgotten days, weeks, years. It is the objects you’ve accumulated, the loved ones you’ve made and lost, places you’ve lived, dreams you once carried; it is the way you understand the world and conceptualize yourself in it. You are not a linear story; you are all these things and many more, and you are the push and pull between them—you exist in the threads that tie all these things together. 

My art practice Attempts to capture these complexities of life, taking a simple thought or Idea and stretching it to its extreme. Trying to map out a thought process, putting different thoughts in conversation with each other to make them greater than the sum of their parts. On their own, the pieces are intentionally complicated and oversaturated with visual information to more authentically express a complicated inner dialogue that doesn’t always operate linearly, which allows patterns, themes, and characters to easily repeat.

For my senior show I am making a map or network of interconnected paintings and found objects (in an attempt to) express myself. I am doing my best to holistically express complex ideas and narratives. I am being honest with myself and with the viewer, giving as much as I can, not paring down the story to make it simple or palatable.

Because of the density of these pieces there are some that reward careful looking—some of these layers and symbols are made explicit while others are obscured or require careful looking to uncover. There are coded messages, and a more complex narrative and image is available to the viewer who looks attentively. The works exist as conversations between the viewer and myself, where if the viewer engages in the conversation by looking carefully and bringing in their own experiences and vulnerabilities, they will have a deeper connection and conversation. Because of the plethora of information, there is room for the viewer to develop their own narrative from the image, to bring in their own life experiences that allow them to see unique connections and strings between the images.


Interview by Clara Rosarius:

As I walked into Liam’s studio, I was in awe of the treasure-filled wonderland before me. Paintings propped against the wall, paint-covered stools, childhood photographs, and a table with an assortment of found animal bones, some of them complete skeletons found in Oberlin. I sat down with Liam to chat about their artistic process, pandemic experience, and their work for the upcoming Senior Studio Installation.   

Clara Rosarius: So to get started, could you introduce yourself? Who are you, what do you do? 

Liam Ashbrook: Sure! I’m Liam Ashbrook. I’m a fourth-year, I use they/them pronouns. I’m an art history and visual arts double major and politics minor. And I make art. I mostly work in paintings, mostly with acrylic and oil painting, but also in collage and assemblage and work with found objects and paint on found things. I guess that’s a good introduction. 

Can you speak a bit about your daily practice? 

Well, for one I try to be in here most days because if I take too much of a break I can get stuck in my own head. But my work is pretty intuitive. I generally have an idea of what I want to express, and a general vibe that I’m going for. But I usually don’t know what a piece is going to end up as until I start working and just start building. I work messily and with a lot of layers. My philosophy is if I spend enough time with it and keep adding to it, it will eventually turn into something that I like. And I think people know when you put a lot of care and effort into a thing and a lot of the time that comes through in the end. So I just try to spend as much time and get as much care into these pieces as I can until I’ve done all I can.

Do you usually work alone? Do you listen to music or podcasts?

There are times when I’m really in the zone and can’t listen to anything. Those times are sometimes really nice. But for the most part I listen to music or listen to a podcast and it just depends on the vibe that I’m going for. I like sitting in one spot and working on detail work and I listen to a podcast where I can focus on that. And if I’m thinking of ideas and, like, running around and putting new things together, trying to come up with crazy new ideas, I’ll listen to something energetic. Listening to things just helps me get in the zone. I’ll listen to one song on repeat for like an hour, just to have something going. Embarrassingly I listen to a lot of—not necessarily embarrassingly—but I listen to a lot of musicals because they’re energetic and like, “Yeah, let’s go!” 

Do you have a notebook, or a place you start off a new piece such as a drawing, text or an overall idea before you first start on the canvas or with a found object? 

Yeah, I try to do a little journaling exercise and center myself and figure out what I’m trying to say and who I’m trying to say it to. Then I’ll do some thumbnail sketches. But there are definitely also times when I just start going and see what happens. Like with this (points to piece on wall). I didn’t really do any planning. I just was like, “I need to make something.” I’m just gonna go for it. So it’s like 50–50: some things I plan, some things I don’t. I just make it up as I go.

Are there any artists that you’re influenced by or you feel like you come back to when you’re working on your own projects? 

I’ve been trying to look at contemporary artists who use mixed media and make layered, textured, and complex work, like Mark Bradford, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Robert Bittenbender, Julian Schnabel, and Gisela McDaniel. 

I’m noticing a lot of texture in your pieces as you bring in collage, so they also become sculptures in a sense. What kinds of materials do you use other than like acrylic and such? I can see you have some photographs next to the paintings, are they part of the installation? 

Yeah! These are paintings of me as a baby and these are the baby pictures that I pulled from. And I want to have those in the installation. And this is an old sign, from outside of Stevie, a menu board for Biggs that I grabbed.

All the paintings’ “canvases” that I have around here are things that I like, either old things that I’ve gotten from Goodwill and thrift shops, or from dumpster diving and things. I really like building from already-used materials because I think it’s  an interesting practice of trying to not buy new things and trying to take things that other people have discarded and reuse them. And find the beauty and the artistry in them. 

It’s easier to start on something when there’s already something there to build off of. And these pieces still have the energy of the things that have come before them, and I get to build on that and have a new conversation. If I’m doing a bunch of paintings on the same canvas, I’ll use the same process each time. But if I’m doing a painting on a mirror or glass or plastic, it’s something different. I get to explore and discover something new, which is something I really like. 

I’m trying to move more into sculpture and trying to move things off of just the wall. So I am experimenting with clay and with other found objects such as bones. 

I tend to collect and hoard a bunch of things that have material importance to me. And then I try to think of when I can incorporate those into the things that I’m making.

Yeah. That’s really cool. I like the idea of kind of building on something that already exists, like adding to the history of it.

Yeah, there was a project I did last semester where I made this map of objects that people had left in my life that were gone either because we had a big fight and they left, or they died, or something. I was exploring how these different objects held not only that person, but also who I was in the moment that I knew them and how they let me transport back to that time and that different person. I think that’s true for a lot of objects and stuff. They hold different ideas and times in them. And that’s something that I like to think about and play with.

How does your own identity, whatever that means to you, influence your work? How does that come into play in your work, if it does?

No, I think it definitely does. My work often has an underlying theme of gender, because that’s just something that I’m thinking about often. I think that often shows up because of me being trans and always thinking about gender. And I think also about my lived gender. I don’t know if this sounds odd, but my lived experience of being trans is also very related to my spirituality and my spiritual practice, which is also important in my art-making. Most of my pieces are to some degree self-indulgent and self-reflective, where I’m trying to just express all the thoughts that I have and put them out in pictures because I don’t know how to put them into words. Just translating things that I’ve experienced into things [I make]. 

I grew up in a strict Protestant household. I think I still see that culture around us, like at Oberlin: it originated as a Protestant institution. I’ve just been thinking about the mythos of Adam and Eve and the idea that all people are inherently separate from the earth and should be shamed because of that separation. I’ve been thinking about that shame and how it relates to colonization and the destruction of the land and a bunch of other things. 

An underlying thing that I’ve been thinking about recently is this shaming and the trying to bring other people into that shame and pass it along, whether that’s through the Protestant work ethic or missionary things and the way that it’s spread. This is partly a practice in my own mind of trying to unlearn and break those things down. This is what I’ve been thinking about and meditating on while I make these specific pieces. I’m not entirely sure if it fully comes through, but it comes through to me. And I think that’s true in a lot of my making. It’s just processing what’s around me and trying to understand myself in the world and my place in the world by just making pictures about it. 

Do you feel like you’re still part of the Protestant community or connected to it spiritually?

Not really. My experience growing up in the church was mostly negative. And it’s the thing that I’ve moved away from. But I think when I moved away from it, I at first shunned spirituality and religion all together. Especially this past year, having to be with myself most of the time has made me do a lot of self-reflection and I’m trying to reclaim a spirituality, a connection with the greater force that doesn’t have this baggage connected to it. I guess both personal and also political.

There was another work that you sent me from last semester’s midterm show that also had religious elements inside, like inside the vulva was a religious figure. And then the halo around the three people dancing in a circle. Can you talk a little bit more about that piece? 

Yeah, definitely. That was a self-indulgent and self-reflective piece. Well, the other context is that I’m also an art history major and I study mostly medieval Christian iconography and have a lot of historical knowledge about Christian iconography. It’s interesting from a geopolitical standpoint, especially in the Middle Ages, which is what I study. So that also seeps into my work and seeped into that Mother Mary and the baby Jesus there. But that piece was about spirituality and a spiritual awakening that I had. Over the summer, like after quarantining and getting tested, I got to visit my friend who was living on a commune. And we had this really wonderful experience, just hanging out in nature and being together. After being so disconnected from the world, I felt very connected to other people and to the earth in a way that I hadn’t for a while. And we danced naked under a waterfall. And that was a painting of the three of us doing that. That was part of it. In all honesty, that painting was just me trying to capture that essence and that feeling of what it felt like, because I just didn’t want to lose that. It was really impactful and beautiful and made me feel like, “Oh, the world is scary and really pretty bad right now, but there is hope and beauty in things.” I’ve been also trying to tap into making art from a place of joy and connection rather than rehashing the same trauma to make art out of it.

Looking at your paintings, there is the hyper realistic mouth and hand, mixed with the simple abstracted body. That seems to be like a pattern in the work you’re doing now.

Yeah, I was thinking about this; it was partly a technical experiment for myself. I was like, “Can I make something that, from a distance, looks like a collage and then you get up close and you realize that it’s all painted?” 

I think it’s visually jarring and interesting and also just about being able to pick and choose what parts of your life and what parts of yourself you want to make permanent and put on the gallery wall of your life. 

One thing you talked about in your artist statement was stretching an idea to the extreme. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Yeah. So for this senior studio project, there were so many directions that I wanted to go in and there were so many things that I wanted to explore. I felt like every idea that I had branched off into these different ideas and those things were interconnected in different ways. And then I was  having such a hard time narrowing it down and trying to choose one thing. And then I was like, “Why am I trying to fight this impulse for complexity? Why can’t I just embrace it?” So I’m trying to just embrace it and make these things that look like my initial thoughts, like Adam and Eve but they are pushed to an extreme where it’s not entirely recognizable. They will simultaneously be like Adam and Eve and also be like other characters and other things. 

Like I said, I like working these layers. I think I’m just trying to make something that is complex enough and has these different layers of meaning so that you can sort of come into it and take away what you need and make your own connections. 

“I keep learning and relearning that there isn’t one path to being an artist.”

You also talked in your artist statement about wanting to create conversations between the viewer and the piece itself, or the viewer and the artist. What are you hoping those conversations will be like? 

I try to reward careful and close looking. I think especially last semester I included codes in all the paintings that I made. One of them has a bunch of poems and then there were highlighted words in the poems that you could put together to make a new poem. And one of them was a painting that closed and then had a lock and if you unlocked it, you could open it up to find another painting on the inside. I think I want to continue with that where I want people to be able to engage, like, really engage with the work. I’m putting effort and time and thought and emotion into this. And I want people to have the option to come in and get real close and think about it and uncover the codes. There will be more information if they want it. And if they don’t want it, they can also just look at it and it’s nice to just look at. I want it to be a choice that if people want to engage in a deeper conversation they can. There is a choice to be able to do that.

Once you come to a piece and you’re like, “I’m deciding to get up in it and look at all the close details and figure out what they mean,” you’re also bringing in your own context of your life. And then that’s another layer of interest and importance. I’m thinking about connection and community. It’s trying to make a connection, express the things I want to express. And hopefully people will understand what I’m trying to say. But I also hope that people will engage with the pieces on their own terms and like the conversation. 

Do you think there are certain classes that you’ve taken at Oberlin, or just like in general outside of Oberlin, that have really influenced or impacted how you make art and your ideas around it? 

Oh, that’s such a good question. Honestly, freshman year, I took Color Theory and that class has stuck in my head. It was the first time that I worked purely with color and not with concrete shapes; it was a new experience for me and pushed me really hard. I also took Icon Painting and then TA’ed for the class, which was where you make icons in the traditional Russian iconography style and make your own paints. You’re supposed to be making spiritual religious art, which is at least partially the vibe I’m going for. I think it was intentionally a meditative process and involved a lot of layering of things. And I think that really stuck with me. Even though I don’t work with the same materials anymore, that process still stuck with me.

The artistic practice can sometimes be really isolating. Do you find that difficult or do you try to collaborate with other artists? How do you manage being alone with your thoughts all the time?

That’s something that is really hard about this year in particular and about the senior year and COVID-19. In previous years, and in the junior studio last year, we would go and check out what each other were working on and stay in the studio late at night together or go out for drinks or whatever and become an artist community. And we’re not really able to do that this semester. I’m lucky that my roommate is also an artist and we can bounce ideas off of each other and work together in the same space. It is sometimes difficult, especially when I’m really excited about an idea or unsure about an idea. So that’s another thing I hope for in the future, to be able to collaborate more. 

Collaboration requires vulnerability because here I can show you what I’ve made and talk about it, but to collaborate, someone will sit in on your creation process, which for me is even more personal than the pieces. So that’s something that I’m slowly but surely getting better at: being vulnerable, vulnerable about throwing out ideas and making mistakes with another person also there. 

I am also thinking about the art world and wondering how you feel artists fit into society in general. Navigating the art world is so difficult.

I’ve been talking to some different artists. I got to sit down with a former Obie who’s a curator at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on Monday and have a brief conversation. And that was really illuminating where she told me her experiences. Her advice was just like find artists that you really admire and ask if they need studio assistants, and just put yourself out there and DM people and also name-drop other artists that you know because it’s a weird community.

The other thing that I keep learning and relearning is that there isn’t one path to being an artist. There are lots of ways that you can be an artist. You can sell your stuff as stickers and things online. And you can work academically and become a teacher or professor. You can become a curator or you can just make art in your free time and put it up in the world without anyone’s permission and just be a person. I don’t know if that’s entirely helpful. The truth is that I’m still discovering what the art world looks like, especially for me and how I can, and hopefully will, fit into it.

Are there directions you hope to go in the future with your work or trying different mediums or something experimental, something you haven’t worked with before?

Definitely. I want to play with bringing stuff off of the gallery wall, [causing] this conflict between the rectangular frame on a white wall and bringing stuff out of that. Part of the way I want to do that is by trying to work sculpturally, which I’m kind of scared of because I don’t have a lot of practice. Putting objects together in a not-wall space is something I want to try. I also just want to try to go bigger and see how big I can go, how crazy I can get. Those are the things that I’m thinking about, future things I want to explore, at least for the rest of the semester. 

What are your plans for after you graduate, where you want to go or… 

That’s also a good question. Well, actually, just today I sent out an application. Not this past Winter Term, but the Winter Term before, I stayed at a commune in West Virginia. And I’m applying to live there for three to six months, to keep working on my portfolio and to establish more of an online presence and to live out the rest of the pandemic. And figure out what I’m going to do next. The art world is big and scary, but it’s something that I at least want to try to give it a shot, because that’s something that I really love doing and I will probably continue to do for the rest of my life whether or not I get paid for it. So it would be nice to get paid for it. 

Is there advice you’d give to artists or aspiring artists when they’re first starting out? 

I know this is incredibly cliché, but honestly, just make work. The only way that I got better is that I just spent a lot of time making stuff. I would also say just take risks both in what you’re making and also in showing it to people. I think way more people are artists and have the ability to make art than they realize. I’ve had friends who’ve been like, “No, I’m not an artist.” And they show me their collages and they’re gorgeous. And I’m like, “you just have to have the confidence to call yourself an artist and show people or post it online.” If you take yourself seriously as an artist, other people will take you seriously as an artist. So I think just taking yourself seriously and just making stuff and taking risks, allowing yourself to try something new. These were all kinds of experiments that I just liked. And so I put it up on the wall and I said, this is art now. And people just agreed with me.

Check out Liam’s work on Instagram @lem.arts

Categories
Editors Desk

Editors’ Letter

by Nell Beck and Sam Schuman | Editors Desk | Spring 2021

Image by Katie Frevert

In which Sam and Nell say goodbye and hello.


As a collegiate publication, Wilder Voice operates within a set of nonnegotiable time constraints: the 15-week semester, the two-semester academic year, the four-year bachelor’s degree. These limits are helpful, providing a ready-made arc to our work and dictating the steady tempo at which it advances. They’re also, well, limiting. There’s only so much that can be done in a single semester, and with a collective memory that rarely extends beyond half a decade, inconsistency over time is practically baked in. But limits breed creativity; inconsistency is just a synonym for experimentation. (And besides, there’s no motivator quite like a hard deadline.)

Like last semester, the magazine you’re holding in your hands (or, more likely, reading online) took form against a backdrop of specific, coronavirus-imposed restrictions: the abbreviated academic term, the class of 2023’s conspicuous absence from campus, and a student body burnt out by over a year of Zoom-based learning. The rules might be new and different (and worse), but they’re differences of degree rather than of kind. This issue, like any other, is where the ideal rubs against the real. It’s a collective attempt to wring meaning out of, and instill meaning within, transience. A good story is a good anchor: it’s something to hold onto.

***

In the spirit of finding opportunity (and continuity) within limits, we used this semester to expand our website by digitizing previous editions of WV. You can now view any piece published from fall 2017 onward here at wildervoicemag.com. Plumbing Wilder Voice’s recent past has been an instructive experience. We saw names move up the editorial masthead from semester to semester as a generation of Obies shared important reported stories and wrote through perennial and perennially urgent concerns—gender and identity, personal history, family narratives and their multivalent meanings, political activism and performance—with clarity and precision. The pieces differ in focus, from the history of Mercy Hospital to the founding of the ’Sco, from exploring death as exemplified by a beloved family cat to a series of meditations on the body. What ties them together is a willingness to engage and reengage with big questions and established narratives, to examine what’s been received and endeavor to understand it in a new light—or perhaps rethink it wholesale.

To further this commitment to complexity, we’ve encouraged our contributors in this issue to write longer and deeper, giving their voices more breathing room on the page in order to grapple with events and ideas in all of their intricacies. Lila Templin describes their disillusionment with Oberlin’s culture of wealth and the ways that students conceal their class privilege (“Unequal Footing”). Lilyanna D’Amato returns to her favorite children’s books and relearns to see the world in a new way (“The World from Below”). And Jemma Johnson-Shoucair explores hubris in the second Star Wars prequel and the groundbreaking technology behind it (“The Lucas Effect”). As always, their work is presented alongside striking student artwork, including Vincent Zhu’s photo series Cracked and a series of collages from Katie Frevert.

“The Lucas Effect” is one of two essays appearing in this issue under the heading “Diagnoses.” In this new department, writers articulate and interrogate problems of their choosing, exploring the “why” beyond the “what.” It’s not a space for crankiness so much as a space for synthesis through criticism; the intention is not simply to dunk on vexing phenomena, but to understand them.

As the spring semester comes to a close and we enter a summer of optimism and uncertainty, negotiating limits will remain a pressing task. After an unconventional but rewarding year serving as Wilder Voice’s EICs, we are excited to hand off the first-ever summer installment of Wilder Voice to our incoming Senior Staff: Alexander Saint Franqui, Dorothy Levine, Clara Rosarius, and Fiona Warnick. Their talents have already helped shape the magazine, and we are confident that they will continue to make Wilder Voice a home for Oberlin’s talented body of writers and artists.

—Nell Beck and Sam Schuman
Editors-in-Chief, Wilder Voice

Categories
Voices

Reflections

by Jamie Weil | Voices | Fall 2020

Nell Beck, In The Space Between

Confronting identity and illness in the midst of a chaotic year.


I had just come out of the shower. I was damp, and tired. But I was calm enough that I was able to write a song for the first time in months. And it was good, I think. Maybe not. It didn’t really matter. At that point, I was happy to be doing anything but calling doctors or lying on my couch in pain or running through the same daily cycle of things I could do with my parents.

Having been alone in one place for four months, it was strange to be alone in a different place. It was relieving, actually, to feel like I’d accomplished some sort of movement, which I guess I had. Not only had I survived the five-hour drive from Connecticut to my aunt and uncle’s house in Maine, but also a six-week-long mystery illness, and the months-long process of getting prescribed estrogen. Being trans, and being sick, and being stuck in a house with only my parents for so long meant that any change that wasn’t altogether negative felt… wonderful. It’s a cliché, but, sitting on the edge of an unfamiliar bed, I genuinely felt like I could breathe for the first time in a long while. 

There’s sort of a redefinition of self when you spend time in a new place, even if it’s only for a few days. We see ourselves by reflecting off of whatever is around us: the people, the environment, the vibe. And when those things change, so do we, even if it’s just a little.

***

Last year, I wrote a piece about being—or, at the time, maybe not being—trans. It was for my creative nonfiction class, so I shouldn’t have been worried about anyone reading it and passing real, personal judgement, but I was. I revealed a lot of what I’d buried for most of my adolescence: cutting up old clothes so they would look like “girls’ clothes,” having several near-crises about my gender in my early years at Oberlin, realizing I was trans (in a planetarium in Montreal, of all places) and then recanting. But I also concealed the important part: that I’d never really felt like a person, like myself. I guess I’d thought that was too heavy to impart to anyone else. 

What’s funny is that very soon after writing that essay, I did drop a metaphysical brick on everyone in my life, and in a much more meaningful form than a college nonfiction piece: I came out. First, to my parents, then to my best friend, then to all the myriad people I loved and cared about. I don’t know why I decided to come out when I did, after returning home from the fall semester (although my rash decision to give myself bangs may have contributed). But I did. And things got so much better after that. 

I used Winter Term as a bit of a trial period for my transness; I changed my wardrobe a bit, and adapted to my new name. Gosh, did I feel so much more… alive. That feeling carried through the beginning of the spring semester: I was able to go and do things with my friends without being anxious about being perceived. For the first time, I could go to a party and not have a panic attack or melt into the walls. For the first time, it was good to be seen by other people, because I felt like they were validating my existence as the person I actually was even by saying “hi” to me. It was the happiest I’d been in a long while. 

We see ourselves by reflecting off of whatever is around us: the people, the environment, the vibe. And when those things change, so do we, even if it’s just a little.

And then the pandemic hit, and all that newfound joy in human interaction was dashed. I was to be pretty much locked in a house with my parents for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s not that I don’t love my parents, or that they aren’t supportive; it’s just that two people isn’t enough. Have you ever spent a bit too much time with a few close friends and needed to go have coffee with someone else, just to breathe different air? That was how I felt with my parents, except there wasn’t anyone to have coffee with, and breathing different air was… inadvisable.

I soon realized that this sudden change was going to end up forcing a lack thereof. As I’d learned how to be myself in Oberlin, I’d also been seriously considering starting hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I’d always felt like my body was an ill-fitting sweater that I couldn’t take off, and HRT seemed like a solution. I was bent on broaching the topic with my parents during spring break, but spring break never happened. When I got home, I was pretty certain I wouldn’t be able to see an endocrinologist for a long time. My entire transition hit an impasse. 

***

After a few days at home, it became clear that I (and everyone else) wouldn’t be returning to Oberlin for the rest of the spring. In addition to reckoning with my suddenly molasses-like transition, I was also going to engage in my studies at home. I had to make a bunch of hurried adaptations to my Connecticut life, because I could see that my routine of waking up at noon and eating two meals a day was going to get dark, and fast. I forced myself to leave my bedroom shades up; I learned how to make myself coffee; and I went on a lot of walks. To return to my earlier pseudo-psychological language, I had to redefine myself against what little positive stimuli I had within the confines of my neighborhood. 

One of these stimuli was an album by singer-harpist-bard-of-the-universe Joanna Newsom called Have One On Me. It’s an 18-song, two-hour-long album about codependent relationships (which I’ve, uh, had a few of). It was meaningful to me not only in terms of subject matter, but in terms of its overall emotional depth and complexity—it was something I could really dive into at a time when I felt life’s gravity had paused and left me hanging in midair. I listened to Have One On Me in chunks, and then as a whole, and then in chunks again, over and over and over. I also set off on the project of learning how to play all of the album’s songs, many of which had perplexing harmonies and rhythms. It was almost like a healing process for me, like the music was working me through all the quarantine-based ennui I’d developed. 

There are so, so many lines from Have One On Me that came to mean a lot to me, but one sticks in particular: “All my life, I’ve felt as though / I’m inside a beautiful memory / Replaying / With the sound turned down low.” The second I heard this line, I knew it typified a feeling I’d had for most of my life, one that was indescribable until then. I’d always been detached from myself, like I was in someone else’s delicate and muted memory. Hearing Joanna’s words when I did was particularly arresting, because that feeling had intensified in the time I’d been home. I suppose that, because I had so little to reflect my existence off of, I was having a difficult time believing that existence was mine. 

***

The school year wound down, and I began to settle into a bit of a groove. Without work, I was free to do what I wanted. I found solace in running, playing and writing music, and editing my poetry. With the pandemic calming somewhat, I was finally able to set the ball rolling on hormones. And I got a new therapist who was, at the very least, another person I could bounce my feelings off of. I was still isolated and disengaged, but I had established a comfortable rhythm. 

But in early June that all was disrupted (this is becoming a theme, yes?). I started to have difficulty digesting what I ate. At first I thought, Eh, I just ate bad fish or something, and then, Hm… Do I have salmonella? and then, I don’t know what I have but it is bad. By Independence Day, I was unable to keep anything nutritious in my body. I lost 10 pounds in a month (which is a lot for anyone to lose, but especially not good for normally 120-pound me). There were nights when I’d be greeted at 3:00 AM by intense nausea and dehydration. There were days when I had to lie in bed, not because of my growing exhaustion, but because any sudden movement I made would send me stumbling to the bathroom. And there were moments when I just broke down crying. It wasn’t the pain of being sick; it was the pain of not knowing what was happening to me, of feeling completely and totally out of control. I felt like my body was a blank gray wall, and no matter how loud I screamed, how many times I pleaded for answers, it just stood, disintegrating, silent. 

I suppose that, because I had so little to reflect my existence off of, I was having a difficult time believing that existence was mine.

Though I obviously needed a doctor, it took an extreme experience to get me to see one—because of the pandemic, and because I can be needlessly stoic. But after a rough morning when I ran a low fever, I got through to an on-call doctor, who referred me to a gastroenterologist an hour away. He took about five minutes to listen to my symptoms and suggested I have a colonoscopy, and quick. 

So I did. It was honestly not that bad; I counted back from 10 and woke up rather loopy an hour later. (And I got those hospital socks with the grip on the bottom, so that was a plus.) The doctor told me I had a raging case of ulcerative colitis, and prescribed steroids (temporarily) and an anti-inflammatory (permanently). Although it wasn’t a rosy outcome, I was glad to know I wasn’t wasting away for no reason. I was also glad to know I’d get better. At home, I’d already been mentally removed, and being sick took my physical security away as well. I was looking forward to being someone with a functioning mind and body again. 

***

So there I was in late July, four months into my forced experiment in social isolation. I’d just been prescribed a whole bunch of stomach medicine, as well as—finally—estrogen. And the day after I began taking all this in, after I began the process of healing in all the myriad ways I needed to heal, I left my Connecticut hideout for six days, to visit my aunt and uncle. When I got to Maine, I felt like I could breathe normally again. It was certainly a result of everything changing at once for me, but I didn’t realize that. It felt metaphysical. Like I’d stepped over from dusk to dawn. 

Through all I’d experienced that spring and summer, I’d been working on a long poem about my first experience realizing I was trans in a Montreal planetarium. Along with Have One On Me, it kept me going. It was one of the first poems I didn’t just pour out all at once; it was a stanza-by-stanza, section-by-section sort of deal. I would spend most of my afternoons, and sometimes the late hours of the night, writing and rewriting, destroying the paper with eraser marks. I did this even when I was at my sickest—I suppose it felt like the only way I could do something productive, despite the fact that few people were likely to see the poem, whenever I ended up finishing it. 

When I went to Maine, I was ever so close to finishing the poem, but the first four nights I was there, despite my newfound calm, I could not think of the right way to end it. I don’t know if it was classic writer’s block or if I just wasn’t spending my artistic energy in the right way, but I was stuck. 

Then, pretty late into the night before I was set to leave, I was walking out in the semi-cleared woods next to my aunt and uncle’s. Looking up at the sky, I could see the stars clearly. In the opening of the poem, I’d invoked Polaris and Ursa Major, and now they were right in front of me: “asterisms in the stars’ set order,” as Joanna Newsom would say. I had my ending. 

I sat in the grass, ignoring a thin layer of mist, and took out my phone and wrote. It was a bookend that also pointed forward, like an arrow sent through a board. I wrote feverishly, and though it ended up only being a few lines, I was satisfied. I got up and started heading back to the house. 

The poem closes with the line, “Dear god of the big mistake, / Here deserving of a small thanks.” Essentially, it’s a recognition of having come out of things ok, of having been lucky enough to come out at all. I wrote it with my transness in mind, but I think it came to represent all I’d been through that year: the hundreds of times I’d called doctor’s offices, the sickness, the stress, the isolation. But I’d gotten through that. And I was going to keep getting through it. 

As I was walking back, the fog from the lake beside me seemed to rise, but I could still see the stars looking down as I was looking up. With each step, I hit the ground, which was only getting wetter, with a squelch. And somehow, despite all known logic and physics, the wilderness picked up on that sound, reflecting myself back at me across the water. 

Categories
Voices

AIDEN

by Aniella Day | Voices | Fall 2020

Image by Leah Rosenthal

For you, as everything is now.


In August of 2018, I visited a dermatologist in order to remove a large wart on my right middle finger. She froze it, put some sort of acid on it, and told me some story about how warts can be brought on by stress in the body. She asked me, “What’s your stress?” I answered that I had been a dancer in high school and that was a pretty constant source of stress in my life. I had just quit ballet and was moving into college in a couple of weeks. She told me that my wart would disappear as soon as my stress did. 

So for a couple of months, I ignored the wart. I started school and had the most freedom I’d had in my entire life. I felt that I could do anything, say anything, be anyone I wanted to be. Then—around Halloween—I looked down at my hand again and the wart was still there. I began to notice a familiar sensation growing in my body. Dread, fear, anxiety, manifesting in sleeplessness, headaches, stomachaches, panic attacks. 

Aiden had been sick for about a month. Different doctors and nurses told him different things. First it was a cold, then the flu, then bronchitis, then a viral infection, then Bell’s palsy, then Lyme disease. Finally it was acute myeloid leukemia and I was sitting on a firm mattress in a hospital room being told about my brother’s chances of survival.

When my parents arrived the next morning around 3:00 AM, I could barely look them in the eye. I had been complicit in the ignorance surrounding Aiden’s condition for months. To me, it was my fault. In another way it was his. He lived so intensely and with such little selfishness that he refused help multiple times before he got the urgent message that he was immunocompromised and needed to get to a hospital as soon as possible. He did not want to be my burden, so he forgave me my ignorance and stuck around a little while longer to teach me as much as he could before he left.

***

There were a few weeks after Aiden was discharged from his initial admittance to the hospital where we got to pretend to be a normal family again. We drove home in the ice and snow across upstate New York, Aiden in the front seat, reclined and relaxing, eagerly anticipating the arrival at our home in Deerfield and the excited greetings he’d get from our dog, whom he hadn’t seen for over three months. When we walked in the door, the scent of evergreen trees and old, stale Christmas decorations filled our noses. It was as if we were walking straight into our childhood. Family and friends had come to our home to get it ready for our arrival, filling it with food, gifts, my grandfather’s old fake tree, and decorations we’d never thought to put up in the past. What a wonderful feeling, to return somewhere after imagining you might never see that place again.

We celebrated Christmas early that year. Our family drove up from New Jersey and New York to fill our small home with loved ones and warmth. We moved the couch out of the living room and extended our four-person dining room table so that everyone would have a seat. We were full again. Full of sweets and eggnog and cider and gifts and hugs from loved ones. I don’t think I’ll ever take a holiday for granted again.

On Christmas Day, we drove to Boston for Aiden to begin his second round of chemo. I don’t remember much about the apartment we stayed in, except for watching all of Mr. Robot and imagining I was an older version of myself living in the city alone in an apartment, completely anonymous, without ties to cancer or death or grief.

***

In January I stayed home. Aiden was readmitted to the hospital with a fever. I have a picture of him sweating while his body is covered with ice packs. He was brought to Boston in an ambulance and stayed there for a couple weeks. Again, I don’t remember much else from that time other than a day when there was a rainbow refracting through the glass of my shower door and projecting colors onto my skin.

I got a telephone call that told me I was eligible to save my brother’s life. Naturally, I obliged and began to believe in the holiness of blood and science and their ability to save a life. I was asked so many medical questions, some so personal that not even I knew the answer to them. “Do you have any tattoos?” “Have you or any of your past sexual partners ever taken a drug intravenously that was not prescribed by a doctor?” “Have you or anyone you know (in the last six months) travelled to any of the countries listed on page 13, section A?”

I drove to Boston alone on a Monday and waited all day while doctors asked more questions and nurses poked at my veins. 

I watched Aiden over the phone as he took a bite of Frosted Flakes and tasted so much more than any of us taste when we eat Frosted Flakes.

I guess at some point I must have driven back to Oberlin, though I don’t remember that first week back all too much. I must’ve gone to classes and sent emails to professors telling them I’d be missing the second week of the semester to fly to Boston and have my stem cells harvested in order to cure my brother’s incurable disease. What do you say in response to that? They said this:

“That is an amazing thing you’re doing for your brother!”

“It’s wonderful that you are helping out your brother, and he is so very fortunate to have you.”

“Thank you for the email.”

***

I flew to Boston on February 7th, one week before the transplant was scheduled, to receive a week-long injection cycle of Neupogen (filgrastim)1 in order to boost my white blood cell count. For a cancer patient, Neupogen will make you feel better almost instantly, but for a healthy individual with no problems creating new white blood cells, Neupogen makes you feel like you’ve got the worst flu of your life. I felt a pain deep inside the matter of my bones. It was unlike anything I’d experienced before, most akin to the pain I felt in high school after a particularly difficult week of ballet rehearsals.

On Valentine’s Day, after a week of these flu-symptom-inducing shots, I lay in a bed in the Kraft Family Blood Donor Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I panicked because I thought I was sick and giving my stem cells to Aiden would get him sick, so the nurses gave me Ativan and I fell asleep to my dad reading me The Cider House Rules

Aiden received my cells later that night, getting instantly red and hot upon injection (which was a normal reaction, according to the nurses). We played LEGO Star Wars on his Xbox, I read him my psychology textbook out loud, and I got used to the scent of my own hot breath recycling into my nose because of the medical mask I had to wear at all times around my own brother. I left him there two days later and he stayed in the hospital another three weeks while they waited for signs of graft-versus-host disease2 to appear. 

I was not allowed to drink alcohol for the month of February due to the donation. I was told I’d be more susceptible to illness and that I should refrain from strenuous physical activity for at least a week. I was also told I was brave for “saving my brother’s life” by more people than I can remember. The Kraft Family Blood Donor Center gave me a fleece blanket as a thank you.

***

More than a year went by. Aiden relapsed for the first time in July of 2019, received a second transplant from an anonymous German donor, relapsed for a second time in January 2020, was admitted to the hospital for experimental treatment, at which point he stayed in the hospital for about three months without visitors due to the pandemic. In late April I was told that most of the cells that had survived after his many rounds of chemo were mine. They asked if I’d be willing to donate cells again. 

There didn’t seem to be a question of if I was “willing” to do anything. I was praying to have something to do. I was desperately searching for some way to save my brother’s life. Being told again and again that my cells were special, magical, healing, I tried again. The day before my 20th birthday, I drove to a hospital in the middle of a pandemic where I was hooked up to a machine that filtered stem cells out of my blood and pumped blood back in. Because of the pandemic, the Neupogen shots were administered at home by my mother the week prior. 

My birthday this last year, May 12th, 2020, was a day of epic reunions. My father was allowed to visit Aiden in the hospital for the first time since March and someone very special to me whom I hadn’t seen since February came to stay at my house. I watched Aiden over the phone as he took a bite of Frosted Flakes and tasted so much more than any of us taste when we eat Fosted Flakes. I watched my dad give him a hug, imagining that it was all of us hugging him, all of us together again like it was supposed to be. 

Aiden came home at the end of May. His remission lasted about two weeks, then he relapsed again. They got rid of the cancer cells again and he was again in remission at the end of June. He spent July preparing for his online classes in the fall, reading books, playing Minecraft, and enjoying every minute that he was not stuck in a hospital room. He relapsed for a final time at the end of July and passed away at home on August 29th, 2020.

The end of this story is not one I am able to tell at this time. I am writing this on the first day of snow that Aiden will not see. There will be no conclusion to this story. There will be lists of first times, last times, songs he liked, movies he could recite by heart, things I said to him on his final night, times I cried. Today I went into Aiden’s room and I realised, it still smells like him. There will be no conclusion to this story. Every time I look in the mirror I will see Aiden’s eyes looking back and I will forever dream of saving him. 

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. 

1Neupogen is used to treat neutropenia, a lack of certain white blood cells caused by cancer, bone marrow transplant, receiving chemotherapy, or other conditions.

2The way I understand it, GVHD in this context is considered a good thing. It is a sign that the graft cells (my cells) are fighting the cancer cells, in addition to the host’s healthy cells. It is treatable and is associated with significantly fewer major symptoms than having cancer in the first place. 

Categories
Visual Processes

Visual Processes: Olivia Berke, Stella Mulroney, and Zoe Iatridis

interviewed by Mary Brody | Visual Processes | Fall 2020

Image by Zoe Iatridis

Four housemates reflect on their art-filled home.


When studio art majors decide to have a casual dinner party, what they are really doing is constructing a performance. Classic table settings have been jetissoned and in their place are hand-made clay figurines. Absolutely no utensils can be found, and meticulously picked out rocks from Chance Creek stand in for plates. The candle wax is to be poured and manipulated while eating, and please, consider saving the bones from your meat for some artistic repurposing. I, as an English major, am privy to this knowledge as the housemate of three senior studio art majors. I’ve been best friends with my two housemates Olivia and Stella since freshman year and have just gotten to know Zoe, our third housemate, this semester. I’ve watched them all grow and struggle as artists during this strange school year, but mostly I have been paying attention to how their artistry has taken up space in our off-campus house. I sat down with my roommates to chat about who they are as artists and to reconcile the ways in which their processes have taken on our home as their vessel during our fall semester.

OLIVIA BERKE 

Mary Brody: So, I think I know you’re going to hate this first question but, what would you say your artist statement is at the moment if you have one?

Olivia Berke: No, no, I will answer questions if that is what you want. It’s not going to be perfect though? 

MB: Yes, of course. 

OB: Right now I’m interested in the balance of or the exact moment that an object can no longer stand on its own—and also when it can. I’ve been trying to find and explore those moments through trying to create something that exists only in these very specific times and spaces. I’m also just very interested in the idea of collapse when things are placed in such precarious positions, so it’s a lot of accumulation and balancing and stacking for me right now. 

Beyond that, I think just as an artist, a general through line in my work would be making things that are kind of two things and nothing at once—basically I’m just always very interested in hybridity. I frequently use found materials and recognizable objects and then, either in a repetitive way or in some small altercation I force, try to change how you think about them.

When we arrived at our house in early August, Olivia immediately started building a wire sculpture in the backyard. It was four tall ladders made of and connected by thin wire, and no one could understand how it balanced like it did. Olivia spent weeks in the field across from our house standing on one foot, then the other, trying to understand the thing she created. 

As the COVID-19 school year approached, it seemed like the precariously positioned sculpture in our backyard might be one of the only constants in our lives. The wire sculpture withstood high winds and heavy rains. Our landlord would recklessly mow the lawn all around the sculpture, getting extremely close but never disturbing it. Then one day, a friend came over and tapped the side of one of the ladders lightly, causing it to immediately crumble over. Olivia said this was a sign, but I’m not fully sure what she meant by that. 

MB: I love the balancing stuff you’ve been working on and I also think it’s, yes, definitely a relatively new focus for you. 

OB: Definitely, and also organized chaos. Oh! One thing I think I should mention that is just very core to everything is thinking about ways of using, or really maybe forcing, materials and discovering these relationships where you’re pushing it to do something and it’s pushing back at you to do something else. I’m also always listening and trying to work with and against the materials I use.

MB: I think that kind of give and take and communication is really visible in your work and just connects nicely to your concerns with hybridity and balance. I thought of how I’ve definitely noticed in my witnessing of your artistic evolution over the years that rummaging and scavenging have become pretty huge for your practice. Could you talk about that process and what you’re looking for?

OB: Yes, I’ve always been interested in objects that would be considered not noticeable or are typically overlooked like, you know, trash or just discarded extra material. Let’s say that something falls off of a bike—then there is not only the story that that instance holds but the whole history of the object and I just see a lot of beauty in that. And, you know, I think other people see that beauty too. It’s just I’m talking about objects that we are typically conditioned not to look at. 

In my work it’s about finding these objects that have feelings and emotions, taking them out of their context, off the side of the street, and then using them as a jumping-off point. Usually if I find something I can say, “Okay, well this object needs this to make it something that tells a story or expresses something important.” But also it’s not that the work starts around an object. 

Sometimes I will be working on something and I’ll be struggling to finish it, and I can’t figure out what it needs and then I’ll walk down the street and see the perfect thing to complete it! You know? That’s it! And you take it to the studio, it’s some tree branch or something, and then you paint it and that is it! And now that we have a house I can just retrieve and collect so many massive things I couldn’t before.

The first floor of our house has served largely as a collection ground for Olivia’s strange found materials. I wake up one morning and go into the foyer, and there are scraps of roofing and tiles and other remnants of a house that was demolished nearby. (When Olivia finds out there is a house being demolished nearby she is like a kid on Christmas.) These scraps already somehow look like both art and garbage to me, but Olivia describes the whole new life she plans to bring to them once she gets them into the studio. Often, as soon as the materials arrive in the living room or foyer, they are taken away to be worked on, leaving the house feeling empty until Olivia goes rummaging again and refills the space. The garbage really makes our house feel like a home.

MB: So, shifting to the now: How has quarantine and the strange state of the world been impeding or accelerating your process? 

OB: It’s been hard. It feels like nothing is important but everything is important at this time. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what making art means right now and how my practice fits into that. What I’m thinking about right now is that the opportunity for community building is so at the center of art, but it’s so often that that is not the case. There were definitely times over quarantine when I was too sad or angry to work, but now, having the space to do it, creating and thinking about it as a means for connection, is really what keeps me going. And to connect this back to what I was saying about my interest in balance, I think that it is informed largely by the kind of emotional pendulum we’ve been living in, and looking for that stability, maybe just for my own sanity. 

MB: In terms of Senior Studio, do you have any mission or specific approach for this year?

OB: If I’m being perfectly honest, what I want out of Senior Studio is just to feel confident enough that I can do this as a career. The stakes are lower than in the real world so I want to really be pushed and told when something is bad and why. This is the only thing that I want to do so it needs to be what I do, but it sucks because it’s such a hard thing to do or make money off of. So yes, I’d just like confidence. But I also am enjoying building an understanding of a studio practice and how to self-motivate to be constantly creating and be more introspective. 

“I’m interested in the balance of or the exact moment that an object can no longer stand on its own—and also when it can”

Olivia Berke

MB: Can you speak about the pieces you have in the senior halftime show?

OB: Yes! My first piece is called Point/Counterpoint and it was the only piece that I had made weeks ago. Everything else was made specifically for this show. That piece had actually started as a floor piece, but we moved it to the wall for the show which was exciting. I’ll admit I was against the wall at first, I guess. Or I didn’t want the wall to feel like too much support for the piece, but I really think it held its own. 

Then I had Plank and Hoop, which was really about the themes I was talking about earlier—gravity, balance, and things pushing back or supporting things. The plank in that piece was really just such a great chunk of found wood. I also liked that it was next to my drawing, An Impossible Stability, to contextualize it a bit. That drawing came together sort of last-minute, but I do think it tied the pieces together nicely. 

My last piece, Forced Attraction, was truly a puzzle to put together. The tubing I used to make the structure just did not want to mold, but I think that helped with communicating what I wanted to about an uncomfortable or awkward connection and instability. I was happy with it as my only freestanding piece in the show.

MB: What is your hope for postgrad?

OB: Oh my God, just write down, “Shrieks.” But really, all I could hope for in the future is being able to create and work toward making art more accessible. It’s just such a valuable tool and if you don’t like it that’s fine, but at least you know how to make something with your hands, you know? 

I think it’s an interesting time and a real moment of reconciliation for the art community about the future of art and all of the current issues embedded in the art world as we know it. Beyond that, who knows? Maybe one day I’ll get a studio and hopefully, way down the line, I could make some money off  of my work. I don’t know, I want to be an artist! 

STELLA MULRONEY

MB: If you have one, what would you say your artist statement is? 

Stella Mulroney: I’d say it’s more of a vibe than a statement. 

MB: Sure, an artist vibe. 

SM: Well, I think a lot about dreams, you know, the dreamscape. I have really intense dreams where I am frequently visited by entities that are honestly beyond my comprehension. I also find that I have a lot of dreams where I’m experiencing a very real feeling of pain, like, I frequently have violent car-crash dreams that are almost sensory or somatic. So I’ve been focusing a lot on trying to make the things that are in my dreams represented in reality and representing bodily pain that I maybe haven’t actually felt physically—while lucid—but that I feel in my brain while sleeping. 

On a separate note, I also use a lot of writing in my work. Writing won’t necessarily appear in the final piece, but I do a lot of writing, trying to articulate what I am making as I make it. To get it out of my brain I need to write it out first, I guess. Sometimes I feature recordings or videos of spoken word in installations, too. Songs I write too, sometimes.  

On any given day in our house you can hear Stella singing a tune and strumming her guitar in her room. Her soft voice fills the taut silence of a home full of artists who quietly sculpt or paint, and in my case write. My room in the house is directly under Stella’s. Most nights, I hear her take breaks from working on her pieces for Senior Studio to sing a little song. I never fully recognize any of them, they aren’t popular or well-known, but they feel safe and familiar because they are something Stella crafted.  

Stella Mulroney, Osmosis

MB: Similarly to Olivia, when I first met you, I would have probably only described you as a photographer, but in your time at Oberlin it’s been nice to see you experiment with sculpture and, like you mentioned, video. Could you talk about that evolution? 

SM: I don’t think I came to college knowing I would definitely be an art major, but I loved photography in high school. When I got to Oberlin I just decided to take a photography class because I figured I’d be good at it, and I ended up loving it so much and falling in love with the whole department. 

I truly never thought I would sculpt in all my days, but then I took a sculpture class with Nannette Yannuzzi and it changed the way I looked at what I could do. Like, everything opened up. I got very excited about different dimensions and movement in art. I also don’t really think I necessarily want to primarily be a visual artist in life, but I have loved it here and it informs everything else I do. But I will never draw in my whole life. 

MB: The strength of your emotions around drawing brings me to my next question: a lot of the work you’ve made here is very powerful in how personal it feels, could you talk about that level of intimacy and how much of “you” is in your work? 

SM: A lot of artists, in a way I really respect, are in their work but in a very removed way; the work is still their heart but it’s not easy to identify the artist in the art. I bring a lot of personal narrative into my work. I find using personal issues in my work really cathartic and also I am a chronic oversharer so it works for me to a certain degree. I just have never seen the reason to not be candid about more personal or difficult things, so I find it easy to bring up that level of transparency in my work. Also, for myself as a viewer, I really enjoy when I see that candidness in other work because I feel such a deep connection to that. 

MB: How has working in these unprecedented times been? How has it affected your approach to your last year?

SM: There is a good amount of un-motivation. I feel, as we all do, pretty emotionally drained already, and creating art is kind of an emotionally draining activity. I’m glad to have deadlines again to get me into creative motivation. But I feel disconnected from the studio, too; I do most of my work from home because there is more space…  

Stella does have a lot of space in our house, and when she is not filling it with art, she is amassing a large army of reptiles upstairs. Close to 30 animals live in Stella’s room/studio with her: one leopard gecko, one lizard, two frogs, a few snails, and 20-some-odd exotic fish. These animals likely have a better idea of Stella’s artistic process than anyone else. Some days, Stella will move a piece she’s working on about her dream entities out of her room and into the living room. And most days, a new box of crickets or tank-cleaning snails arrives on our doorstep. Stella’s space is in constant flux—living creatures coming in and creatures of artistic imagination being pumped out.

SM: … I also have never been into a very regimented studio practice. It’s weird—I don’t want to make art about the unprecedented times, but it also feels weird to present art about my dreams. I guess it’s a nice escape but there is some pressure to respond to this moment through art, and then maybe my art could be an escape for the viewer, too. 

MB: Can you speak a little bit about the piece you have in the senior halftime show?

SM: Yes! I did a video installation titled Osmosis. I was thinking about subconscious entities or things that can weigh down on your physical form, and trying to balance fighting that off and letting it happen. It was a pretty personal and reflective piece. 

I was thinking a lot about my past life and the idea that for a lot of people, in order to grow, there has to be some kind of shedding of the past or getting rid of older parts of you that may no longer be useful, even if that’s painful. Along with that, the audio is a song I wrote in high school and the bass recording is from high school, but I sang over it again now just to think about peeling away and piling on. 

“I just have never seen the reason to not be candid about more personal or difficult things, so I find it easy to bring up that level of transparency in my work.”

Stella Mulroney

MB: What would you say you envision your future as an artist looking like?  

SM: This is maybe funny for this interview, but for me personally, I think being a studio art major in college has made me realize that I don’t want to be a visual artist in life. I’ve loved studying here, but I think it’s great that I learned that it maybe can’t be the main thing I’m doing. I’ll certainly be working in a creative field and everything I learned as an art major here will impact anything I do, so I am very glad I got to explore myself here. 

ZOE IATRIDIS 

MB: What would you say your working artist statement is at the moment? 

Zoe Iatridis: I mostly paint portraits, mostly self-portraits. I’ve always found it pretty difficult to say what they’re about because I generally don’t know when I start. I feel like the work kind of emerges from some intuitive place in me, and only after does it make sense, sometimes many months later. 

I would say, though, that I’m concerned with trying to capture some truth about the way that I experience the world and the things that have impacted me in my life, kind of knowing that that is futile. No matter how good my work is or how evocative a painting is, nothing will truly allow me to instill in someone what I’m feeling or thinking. We’re all always feeling some impossible combinations of emotions all the time, and it’s very difficult to make sense of ourselves and impossible to communicate to others in a totally true way. So that is kind of what my art is concerned with broadly. 

More specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about home and family and one’s place, or the relationships we use to root ourselves and find some sense of selfhood through. I’m always pretty focused on ephemerality, too.

MB: I only know you as a painter, and you’ve mentioned to me that painting has always been your medium. Can you talk about discovering that? 

ZI: I was always a creative and quirky kid, but I never really had an outlet for it, and would just draw on my own time, so I never considered myself an artist. I started painting during my first year of high school and just kind of never stopped. It wasn’t really a decision, either—I didn’t think about it, I just began to paint. I’ve experimented with other mediums, photography in particular, but none have felt as authentic to me. 

MB: And have portraits always been an area of interest? 

ZI: I’ve been drawing portraits my whole life. I have notebooks saved from kindergarten of learning to draw the components of a face; I was obsessed, I filled whole pages with just noses and just eyes. So it’s just been forever. My dad will sometimes say I need to find something else to paint, but I can’t! There’s nothing else for me. Only recently, I would say in junior studio last fall, is when I started really explicitly making self-portraits. Prior to that, I would paint a lot of people that looked a lot like me but weren’t meant to exactly “be” me. I love the exercise of repetition in repainting the same face, my face, over and over in this kind of compulsive way, and I think that that connects back to my concerns of trying to communicate and be known. It’s kind of like looking at yourself and trying to understand and repeat it while also allowing yourself to be vulnerable and portray whatever version of yourself needs to exist in that moment. 

One day, while moving furniture into the attic, I discovered Zoe’s collection of self-portraits. What seemed like over 20 large rolled canvases were spread out around the floor. Out of curiosity, I began to unroll them, not understanding who they were or who could have made them, but recognizing some feeling of familiarity in the eyes of each portrait’s face. I moved them near the window, allowing the light to wash over them, and I finally saw Zoe. It felt kind of like I was looking at something I shouldn’t be, that maybe I was invading the privacy of my new roommate just by happening upon these canvases. Now, I think that that intense vulnerability is just inherent in Zoe’s practice of portraiture, and the way I felt in the attic was a possible moment of artistic success for my new friend.  

MB: What has your evolution as a painter been like at Oberlin?

ZI: I came to college knowing I loved art and knowing I wanted to be an art major, but I had no idea what I cared about—I just felt like I had to do it. I actually didn’t take a painting class here until the spring of my sophomore year. I think most of my first two years were about exploring other mediums and techniques, which I think did end up making me a better painter. I was so focused on learning something new in those two years though, rather than learning a specific concept, so I just kind of felt like someone who was taking art classes but couldn’t fully connect. Then, when I got into that painting class, I started to feel the shift to actually feeling like an artist.

MB: What is painting and finishing up your college career under these circumstances like? 

ZI: I think it’s really affected my work. I’m still broadly concerned with the same thing, but I’ve gone down a narrow path of focusing on loss. I think this time has forced everyone to confront the fact that every important thing and relationship in your life is fleeting. In my work, I’ve been trying to reconcile the sadness of that fact with the happiness of having those things when you do. In quarantine I was feeling so stuck, but now I think that I was just digesting everything and I’m ready to make art about it. 

MB: Something very cool about you is that you are actually a double major with art history and you have a curatorial job at the Allen Memorial Art Museum. Could you speak about how studying art history has impacted your process?

ZI: It never occurred to me that I might want to be an art history major as well, and then I fell in love with the department. I think studying art history has informed my work in really interesting ways, and making work has informed the ways I think about art history. I really do think all artists should have some knowledge of art history; it just seems silly that you wouldn’t know the context of what you’re creating. 

Also, yes, my curatorial job at the Allen—I’ve been doing a lot of research on paintings that we have acquired from like 1900 to 1980, and it’s my job to go through the curatorial file and go through all the auction records and places that the pieces have been before. It’s really interesting to be intimate with a piece of art in that way and track its history, so I’m enjoying it. I think just being with art in many different ways as an artist can be really important. 

“I’ve been drawing portraits my whole life. I have notebooks saved from kindergarten of learning to draw the components of a face; I was obsessed, I filled whole pages with just noses and just eyes.”

Zoe Iatridis

MB: Can you speak a little bit about the pieces you have in the senior halftime show?

ZI: I am showing a portrait of me as a child—painted from a photograph my grandmother gave me—a painting of me and my mother on the couch, and a large painting of me lying on a lily pad, like a frog. 

The image of me and my mother on the couch has been something I wanted to paint for a while. I’ve been thinking about the craving of my mom’s comfort and the limitations of that as I get older. It was hard to paint sometimes because I love my mom so much and I really wanted to do it justice. It was definitely tricky and it was my first time working with mixed media, with the textures, which was actually sort of an accident. 

The portrait of me as a child is just special because it’s a moment I now know was one that I spent with my grandmother. It sort of feels like something kind of separate from the timeline of my life, so it’s a nice connection to my grandmother, whom I love so much, even though it’s not part of my memory with her. 

The lily pad painting just came from my strange dreams about frogs over the past few months. I don’t really believe that dreams are symbolic, but I truly dream about frogs in a way that is serious and… sad? Maybe melancholy? This sounds crazy. I don’t know, it’s just become a thing that serves as a marker for where I’m at in my life right now. I think maybe just seeing my paintings in the show, without an artist statement or anything, they may not seem like they’re in conversation. 

Of course, to me they are related or in conversation, and I’m excited about it because it’s like three divergent paths off of the same theme. I also think I want to continue to work on them next semester, and then one day maybe they’ll make more sense to the viewer in conversation.

MB: What is a hope for postgrad? 

ZI: I don’t know. All I know is I have to be making art and prioritizing that in my life because it makes me so happy. But I don’t really know. I want a life where I can make work, and hopefully show it to some people, and hopefully some of those people like it. There are so many uncertainties in the coming years but I know art has to be at the center of my life, so that is really just the driving force for me.

The halftime show opened on November 13th. When I spoke to Zoe on the Saturday after the show about how she thought it went, we were less than a week away from Thanksgiving break, and Zoe would be the first of all of us to leave the house and head home for over a month. That Saturday night, we all sat in our living room, which was filled with Stella’s sculptures and Olivia’s masks and a painting that Zoe had made of the outside of our house the very first week we moved in. It was sad to think about the art, which really felt like its own life force in our house, being left alone in the dead of an Ohio winter. After a wave of silence, Zoe looked up at all of us and said, “You know, it’s really dawning on me, how much I’ll miss you guys and the house and my tea on the porch in the mornings and the backyard at night and just, you know, our space.” 

Categories
Poetry

tintin in tibet

by Jamie Weil | Poetry | Fall 2020

Nell Beck, four faces

now only, i 

am listening to “tintin in tibet.”
it’s autumn, and cooler than it was,
and phil elverum says, “you don’t exist / 
i sing to you, though.” 

he’s singing this to his wife, geneviève, 
who passed a few years ago,
just after their daughter was born.

phil’s songs are great missives
often written to his wife, or to the ether, 
or helios, or raven’s feathers;
he’ll skirt around the point,
but never quite arrive at it,
such that his ideas leak
in a sort of scattered melancholy. 

… it’s autumn. in the song, too, i think. 

now only, you 

are probably not thinking of me 
and certainly not singing
to me, or to anyone else.
maybe to yourself. 

the air is drier, and i
keep sneezing into my mask. 
can i write that so nonchalantly?

this is a moment i think we’ll remember,
which is a small devastation
like when i touch the place
where you kissed my neck, not intending to cry, 
or when i realize i’ll never 
quite discern between certain blues. 
“tintin in tibet” plays on loop, 

and now i’m aware it isn’t autumn after all.  

now only, we 

should have known; the lawns are free 
of leaves, and the date is apparent
to anyone with a fair grasp of things.
i sit on my stoop and share a look

with a black bird in our maple tree. phil sings, 
“standing in the front yard like an open 
wound / repeating ‘i love you,’ to who?”

and i get the sudden sense
that he’s somehow read my psyche,
or at least my poems, and then
i feel stupid for associating my loss with his. 

and then i just feel sorrow. 

behind me, the sun sets
in blankets of glare, falling
from a distant windowpane.
i don’t notice the sky change color;
blue, to blue, to blue.
can you live in the moment
when the moment is just begging 

to be passed through?
like this weather,
like each small devastation 
breaking across my neck; 
like each aching moment of 
“tintin in tibet,” and yet
i listen. 

i listen. 

Categories
Poetry

… according to john

by Jamie Weil | Poetry | Fall 2020

Lucy Kaminsky, Time is not a clock

i don’t believe in divinity.
this much you should know, not just
because you always ​know,
but because i often laugh
about sunday school
and how quick the gospels
became cyclical and dull.

                but,
                if you will forgive my hypocrisy,
i had a moment today
when i did believe
in something somewhat otherworldly.

it was late afternoon, and your hands were shaking
from the little rest you allow;
                from mixed blessings and turns of silence.

in concern i reached across the table
to hold your shaking hand in mine, and,
as i did, a light—from your screen
                or from the ceiling—caught my eye,
                                and then caught yours,
                                                and i fell in.

                what i am saying is,
i’ve been here before,
i’ve had my fits of faith,
but never so well-phrased,
so evangelical:

                and it will fade
                ever impermanent,
                                and it will return,
                 and i will fall again, into that pool
                 of delicate waves:
                                the lightlike water.

Categories
Field Notes

Reworking

by Ally Chase | Field Notes | Fall 2020

Image by Leah Rosenthal

When everything changes, a hometown job becomes a source of comfort. 


The shop door swings open, and already, the moment is in flux. In front of me, through the familiar blast of air conditioning and pop music, every aspect of Flint Farm is coming and going. Some girls are noting the hour on their time cards, and talking idly about their dinner plans. Others laugh as they face each other, mirror each other, across the massive freezers of ice cream, packing a pint or scooping a cone. Some rush between their windows and the shallow wells that hold the scoops, and more still ask customers what they can get for them tonight. I stand silently in the doorway for a minute, watching as I gather my hair into a tight braid, and grin to myself as the bustle of the night spreads out before me. 

I take my place at a vacant window, leaning my body against the stained wood counter to stick my head out onto the porch. By now the evening has begun to cool, and the sun has reached that spot where it filters through the trees lining the parking lot, before it will settle far beyond the mulch and grass that lie on the other side of the road. People are crossing that road now, to get their ice cream, to get to where I stand waiting for them. The next person in line skips up to the counter to tell me what they want. I smile, I turn on my heels, and suddenly I have begun to jump the rope again. Finally, happily, I have dived into the water, and will stay beneath the surface until closing time.

Flint Farm is a town institution. Our humble four-window counter sells ice cream each year from April until Halloween, and the fifth and sixth generations of the Flint family operate the land themselves. In the summer we share the huge rickety barn with the farmstand that sells corn, vegetables, and, if you get there early enough, sunflowers that tower over the older women that buy them. 

Yet this place is not rural; in fact, Mansfield is so strictly suburban that if you continued down the road where Flint Farm sits, you would reach both a Target and a T.J. Maxx within minutes. Inevitably, the farm has become a meeting post for middle schoolers on bikes, an evening excursion for families on languid Sunday evenings, the perfect picnic table for a first date over ice cream cones. When I got behind the counter my sophomore year of high school, I felt I had joined a privileged sort of club, and it was in that spirit that I began my work there.

The details of the job, the tender parts of serving that no one notices, quickly became my reasons for loving it. There are so many things I never want to forget: the perfectly timed reflex of closing the cash register drawer with my hip, the bruises and dried ice cream up and down my forearms after I leave, the methodical crushing of empty tubs under my feet on the gravel by the greenhouse. I learned the regulars by name, and it felt natural to wonder about the people in line, the couples silent beside one another. 

Nobody told me that spending time behind the counter would mean those interactions would stay with me so much longer. After every shift I left buzzing, irrevocably changed. Now whenever I place my order somewhere, I turn away from the register thinking about how I can never really be just a customer again. 

And on those October afternoons when the job gets boring, you learn how to sidle up effortlessly next to someone as she scoops for the rainy day’s single customer. Everyone talks about the same things, some of them revolving around the work: what happened during last night’s shift and why our boss seemed displeased with one girl or another. But the conversation always turns comfortably to musings, and even more so to complaints. We all knew about the biology test someone would be taking the following day, or the boy that visited every afternoon during another’s shift. We also knew why one of our girls had been crying in her car, in the employee parking lot behind the field, before opening shop that morning. It is, and then it is not at all, surprising how many delicate things a person will reveal to someone they see a few hours a week. 

***

Last fall I went to college and forgot about Flint Farm, and I forgot all about being home. And then they shipped me back in March, during that mid-semester break. I worried and wept over this new wildfire illness, thinking I could stay jaded, thinking I couldn’t possibly pick up where I left off last August. Thinking there was no space for me in between wanting to be here and wanting to be away. It seemed uncomplicated for everyone else as they got their bearings between home and school, but for me such ease had always loomed so far removed, in a realm of cohesion it seemed impossible to exist in. 

Still, I felt cheated out of finding my own way; my private sense of unsettledness had come to an end, abruptly and prematurely. It was the punchline of a cruel joke, and I sat for hours, not laughing, trying to construct a semblance of meaning behind where I was.

But March passed, and time, as it tends to do, worked swiftly and sneakily against my resentment. The days got sunnier, and secretly I was overjoyed to be home in time to catch the fleeting blooms on the lilac tree beside my bedroom window. To see the black-eyed Susans spring up lazily in the front garden. To go for bike rides with my friends down to the train tracks, as we wondered aloud about what could possibly be next amidst so much uncertainty. With every passing week, every trip to the grocery store, and every night at the dinner table with my parents, college faded more and more into darkness, into otherness. Soon it was only a distant and abstract place, lonely to remember, because being alone at home and being alone hundreds of miles away are two very different things.

Then April came around again, and as we wondered how Flint Farm could possibly open in all of the chaos, it did. For the fourth summer I stood behind the counter and waited for the orders to come. So many things were different; gone were banana splits and cones, whose removals seemed arbitrary to both me and the customers. To scoop, we wore masks and gloves, and out of the 30-odd employees only 10 were allowed back on the schedule. Sometimes the girls on my shift were, apart from my parents, the only in-person contact I had all week. 

So many things were different, yet everything was the same. The old speaker in the corner still played those cheesy songs. We scooped and sampled for ourselves during lulls. We gossiped about people we knew and complained about customers, a whole new criteria available for our judgement: “How hard is it to put a mask on?” “Why did he get so close to the counter?” “Can’t they see that isn’t the entrance?”

At some point the thought occurred to me that it felt like a normal summer. The more I realized how true this was, the uneasier I became. It kept me awake, how promptly life had picked back up in Mansfield, when time had stopped everywhere else in the world. I had come back to Flint Farm eager to work, maybe a little too thrilled to put on my ratty sweatshirts and pink rubber clogs like I had every other 15th of April. 

I took for granted, in the simplest of ways, that I would assume my usual role, even in all of this. Even as the flames licked at our sides. But why? How could I be unfazed by the droves of people still coming out on a summer night for their sundaes and milkshakes? And yet, it all seemed so perfectly logical. Wasn’t an ice cream shop the cornerstone of a small-town summer? Shouldn’t it always be this way? Should it?

And at one time, hadn’t I been delighted to hear the girls criticize their parents, and divulge the details of the parties they had been to the night before? After all, it seemed a rite of passage to be hungover during a Sunday opening shift, and even more so to tell about it. But it was under a fresh cloud of vague and unnameable dread that I listened to their woes and tales, and shared some of my own. 

What I did not share was the dull, gnawing fear of how natural it felt for us all to ignore the world in pieces around us. Somehow, at Flint Farm, our lives had managed to stay intact. Maybe all along I had been the only one seeing this job in such a sentimental way, so I was the only one disappointed when the spell started to break and the sanctity of our wholesome ignorance came into question. Had it always been this way? Had I just not seen it? 

And maybe I was the problem. Maybe I had misjudged both everything I knew, and a place, whether it be Mansfield or Flint Farm, whose every corner I had explored a hundred times. Maybe, as it has been with so many things before, my expectations would never line up with the reality I should have always known, the one that always lands neatly in a spiral at my feet.

***

Late one night in the summer, I was leaning idly against the counter, looking through the windshield of a car as a woman spooned a taste of her ice cream into her husband’s mouth. He smiled as she pulled the spoon from his lips, nodding to say, “Oh, that’s good.” Between them, a face mask dangled from the rearview mirror. A second thought occurred to me then, not quite an answer to my questions, but close enough. 

Under the eyes that smiled at me, or rather at the ice cream I handed them, there was a quiet but insistent need for preservation, and it was out of this need that the normalcy in our town continued with such resilience. 

The moment at the beginning of this piece, where I am looking upon all of the magic being generated in our little shop, could have been any night during any summer, this one included. Still, I now have trouble reconciling how misplaced it felt to extract the same amount of joy from an experience that was so different, but maybe should have been even more so. 

Maybe all along I had been the only one seeing this job in such a sentimental way, so I was the only one disappointed when the spell started to break.

But like the customers I served and the people I worked with, it was out of necessity that I chose to let whatever I was feeling about Flint Farm evaporate into the sticky summer air. I stopped thinking about whether this was the right or wrong thing to do. In fact, I stopped thinking about Flint Farm altogether, and accepted it as where I needed to be. This time, the choice between here and there was mine again. I teared up whenever I let my thoughts drift to the lake with my grandparents, to that lush time of year where I should have been fishing with my grandfather or reading silently next to my grandmother, and could now do neither. 

But instead, I could pour root beer over vanilla ice cream and let the foam overflow with its sweet, rich scent. And most days I would sit alone on my porch in the morning sunshine, looking up at all of that bright blue, wishing on a cloud that I could flip pancakes for breakfast with my best friend. But I could scoop pints and make change for a 20-dollar bill and blend the strawberry frappe, extra thick, for the man I knew I would do the same for the next day. There was so much I could not do, but I could be present in that moment where the music picks up and I am rapping in the rhythm of the work. I could settle for this, because I did not want to comprehend the alternative.

All of this being said, it turns out there is no real reason I can point to, besides that time passes, for why I grew up and the job stayed the same. I remember one winter years ago, driving back from a friend’s house on East Street, I stopped at the light and looked out the window to see the sun setting over Flint Farm. 

Behind the silos it was turning the fields orange and the houses black, everything bare and raw from the frigid off-season. I stared and stared at that place I knew so well, and I felt I finally understood how something could be so beautiful it broke your heart. But after every shift this summer, lingering in the parking lot, all of my senses attuned to how Flint Farm would be exactly the same when I came back as it was when I left, I would squint once more into that line between field and sky, and think about going home. 

Categories
Institutional Memory

In Conversation With Walter Gordon ’14

by The Editors | Institutional Memory | Web Exclusive

187 North Professor Street, where Wilder Voice’s offices were located during Walter Gordon’s tenure as Editor-in-Chief.

A former Editor-in-Chief chats about favorite mistakes, the editing process, and Lena Dunham’s Girls.


What years did you attend Oberlin and what was your major?

I graduated in 2014 and I majored in English. I almost had a minor but didn’t have a minor. 

What in?

Art history. I think I had enough credits for an art history minor but I didn’t get the paperwork in or something. 

What are you doing now?

I’m finishing up a PhD at Columbia University. I work on African-American literature and energy […] literal energy, like coal, the environment, electricity, things like that, and how they show up in Black writing from the 20th century. 

What years were you a part of Wilder Voice and what positions did you hold there? 

I was just there my last two years. First I was Assistant Editor, then I went straight to EIC. I don’t know how typical that is; it felt fairly typical in a certain way because there weren’t that many options. I was kind of the most senior person on staff even though I had only been there for a year.

How did you get started with WV?

I cannot recall. At that point in my undergraduate life I had done at least one publishing internship at a literary magazine in San Francisco during one of the summers.

Which magazine?

It’s called Zyzzyva. They had me reading the slush pile and writing book reviews. And so by the time I got to my junior year I knew I wanted to do something literary, not directly publishing-related, [and at Oberlin] there were kind of two options, if I recall: there was Wilder Voice and Plum Creek Review, I don’t know if that’s still around.

Yeah, it is. 

Yeah, and they were very different from each other, they have very different processes. And I believe I worked for Plum Creek briefly because it was kind of open, you could just go to a meeting and they would be like, “Alright, you can vote on what gets put in the magazine,” and I did that for maybe a semester before Wilder Voice. And then I jumped ship and went to WV for some reason that I can’t remember, unfortunately.

Did you ever do anything with the Grape or the Review?

I never did anything with the Grape or the Review, I never have been interested in traditional journalism. Which was one thing that was interesting working at Wilder Voice, and maybe this is still the case: when I got there, I was like, “I don’t care about all of the investigative journalism, nor can we do really good investigative journalism with the time and resources we had as undergraduates in this small town—what we can do is more creative work.” So maybe there was a slight shift towards creative stuff when I was there, which I’m curious to see if that’s had an afterlife or if it’s kind of returned to being more nonfiction-oriented. 

“I tried to steer it towards something a little more, I don’t know, a little more Paris Review than Harper’s.”

Right now it’s a lot of personal essays. Some reporting, but not a ton.

Yeah, I think that’s a shift that’s happened over the last 15 years.

When you say “creative pieces,” do you mean fiction and poetry?

Yeah, that was definitely in it, but more leaning towards the kinds of essays you guys are talking about. Less things that are tightly structured investigate pieces and more things that lean para-academic, not quite academic discourse but certainly kind of intellectually engaged, more in that kind of way. 

Do you feel like you played a part in that shift via the decisions you made as EIC?

I think so. I mean, I felt generally like there were only certain things I could make decisions about, and one of the things I couldn’t make decisions about, on a certain level, was content. Because the amount of submissions we got was usually such that we printed, like, two-thirds  of what got submitted, or half, maybe. So there wasn’t really that much that I could do in terms of “I want this type of writing,” you know? ’Cause it was sort of like we were dealing with the body of writers we had available to us, which was one of the problems that Wilder Voice faced while I was there, just expanding that pool of writers to include more people, specifically people of color. But yeah, I tried to steer it towards something a little more, I don’t know, a little more Paris Review than Harper’s

In hindsight, what role do you think Wilder Voice played in your career at Oberlin? 

It was a big deal. It took a lot of my time. I don’t know if this is still the case for you guys, but it was immensely time-consuming. It took—I was just talking to my partner about this—it took just a little less time commitment than all of my other classes put together. And a lot of that was doing the kind of shit that I never do anymore and that at a normal magazine I don’t think an Editor-in-Chief would do, like arranging things on a page, making sure that the magazine looks right and has good margins and all that crap. That took an insane amount of time. And then there was something, I can’t remember the specific structure of it, but we had some kind of thing where there was a two-week period where it was a crazy crunch and everybody had to finish their articles and we had a name for it, and it was like, “You gotta finish your articles and get them from this early stage to basically being done within these weird two weeks in, like, November or something.” That period was insanely stressful. 

In terms of less quotidian ways in which it affected my life, it did push me towards continuing to work in literary magazines, something to do with literary journalism publishing, which I did do for a year after I finished college. I moved to New York, like a good literary Oberlin grad, and I worked at New Directions and New York Review of Books. And I got into grad school at that time, so very quickly kind of abandoned ship, but I was on a clear trajectory towards doing publishing stuff. And that was directly because of working at Wilder Voice and enjoying that work.

Do you have a favorite Wilder Voice memory?

I have quite a few. I have one that I really wanted to ask you about, because I have an indelible memory of this and I wonder if it had any kind of long-lasting effect, which is that—I wouldn’t say this is a favorite memory because it was the source of much stress and shame—but [to print Wilder Voice] we had to go through this crazy process through the school. Like, it was a school contractor who had a contract through Wilder Voice, I don’t know how the people who set up Wilder Voice originally did it but they’re wizards. But anyway, I wrote them a check to print however many magazines and it was some outrageous amount of money, like $9,000 to print the magazine, and I gave them the check and we got charged and the magazines came, and there were half as many magazines as there was supposed to be. And I looked at the charge and they had charged me $4,000-and-something dollars because I have really bad handwriting, and they thought my nine was a four. So we printed half as many magazines as usual, and that ended up being a really good thing because—I don’t know if this is still the case for you guys—but generally there’d be literally a thousand extra magazines that’d be sitting around, and there’d be these boxes and boxes of magazines just sitting around, so that’s a really good memory in a weird way because it was a complete accident that should have been a disaster that was completely fine. 

Do you have a terrible WV memory?

Yeah, I do have a terrible memory. I at one point—maybe it was my first or second semester at the magazine—I  publicly talked shit about a writer. Like, about their piece, among my friends on a porch or something. And I got caught, basically; it got to the writer somehow that I’d been talking shit about them and then they went to Elizabeth [Kuhr], and was like, “Walter is a shithead.” And I had to apologize to the whole staff and apologize to that person profusely and it was really shitty,  but it also… it was an interesting position to be in, to be the head of the magazine and to make the mistake that one is not supposed to make; that was an interesting experience for me. 

What’s your favorite article that you published at WV?

That’s a tough question. There was a really good one on a porn star, like on a relationship that a student had to a porn star in the virtual world, and the kind of place that this porn star held in their sexual idenitity. There was a really good one about selfies that I feel like came out at a good time when the world wasn’t yet inundated by writing about selfies. I don’t think selfies are undertheorized at this point; when this kid wrote about selfies it was still fairly fresh. That one was cool. I also had a couple of friends who interviewed a bounty hunter. Apparently it’s not a very good piece in retrospect, but I recall having a lot of fun putting it together and getting them to interview this bounty hunter and stuff, that was cool. Those are the ones that I recall the clearest. I really like—when I took over we switched the format of the visual art section. Previously there was some art and then maybe some writing from the artists about their art, and then when I did it, I had our Art Editor interview artists instead, and that felt pretty good, I remember quite liking what came out of those. Those are all highlights. 

It was an interesting position to be in, to be the head of the magazine and to make the mistake that one is not supposed to make.

Did WV have any type of “reputation” on campus? 

Honestly, not really. I feel like it was very under-the-radar, like people knew Plum Creek way better than WV and what WV was, because I think it was very ambiguous to people, partially because of the way in which it was about news but also literary. [That] was very confusing to people, and the whole super-long editorial process that we did kind of created a bubble around WV. The people who were involved with it knew what it was but I think very few others did. I would guess it had a reputation of being kind of pretentious or something, which is not a word I use very often or one that I think is very helpful, but I would imagine that’s how some people understood it, to an extent. Maybe a little less artsy than PC but still somehow intellectually prepossessing and intimidating is how I would put it. Certainly took itself more seriously than the Grape.  

What do you think is the most essential part of Wilder Voice that makes it Wilder Voice?

I mean, definitely partially it was the editorial process. As much as I hated it and bucked against it, and found it counterintuitive and frustrating, it definitely was unique and did produce a certain environment for writers that I think is kind of rare. Like now what I teach is basically a freshman seminar but without a theme, it’s just how to write for college. And the basic point of that class is it’s the only time they’ll ever get to run, like, six drafts by a professional writer and get responses constantly, and Wilder Voice did something kind of similar, even though it wasn’t professional or whatever: somebody who’s supposedly pretty good at editing, and had people above them who were even better supposedly, and so it was a unique situation, the kind of setup for helping to cultivate writing skills. So that definitely was vital. 

And then another thing was the variety of forms—which again, as much as I griped about the ambiguity of the investigative journalism shtick, it was cool that we had reporting and creative nonfiction and poetry and art and  totally weird kinds of creative writing that were something else entirely. I really felt like we could put anything in it which was cool, which I really took advantage of my second semester. 

I published a really weird thing that I wrote half of, because I was just like, “I’m in charge, I can do whatever the fuck I want,” so we did this thing that was called—I don’t have acces to any of these old magazines so I can’t look back at this so I can’t remember what it was called exactly—but it was something in Latin and it folded out and it was a bunch of word definitions or etymologies of words, some of which were completely fictional and some of which were real. And I thought that was very cool, that I could put this in that [issue] was like, what is that even? So that to me is a basic tenet of Wilder Voice: it’s kind of formless and can kind of take on whatever kind of thing can be literally put in the pages. Or even now that you’re digital, you don’t even have to deal with fitting in pages. Which is probably something to think about. How can you take advantage of the situation that you’re in, you know? 

We’d love to hear about your view on the editorial process at Wilder Voice, specifically what frustrated you about it and how you went about trying to change it or refine it.

I don’t think I did change it very much. It was one of the things that I was like, “This is too much of a fucking, like, iceberg.” I only had a year to make changes, but if I remember it was just difficult that there was often tension between writers and editors, because the writer would have an idea for what they wanted to do and then the editor [would have] conversations with everyone else on staff who were very opinionated… and the writer was not privy to those conversations, right, and so we’d come back with all this stuff and the writer would be like “Where is all this coming from? Why are you not responding to me?” So that was a major problem, there was a major emphasis on collaboration between editors which was perhaps detrimental in the way that it was kind of done without transparency. That was frustrating to me. A lot of writers just found it incomprehensible why they were being asked to produce something new. A lot of people wanted to come to Wilder Voice and be like, “Yeah I wrote this cool essay, can I publish it?” And we’d be like, “No, actually you have to start a new thing.” Why go through the editorial process itself when you have this finished thing that will just go through months of editing? So those were the kind of issues I had with it. Like I said, I think there were a lot of good things about it, that it did in certain circumstances really foster a relationship between an editor and a writer that really helped the writer to develop, but that was not the most common experience.

Do you think you would have done anything differently as EIC in hindsight?

I probably would have placed more of my energy into widening the audience and the pool of writers that WV reached. There was a really kind of depressing thing that happened where about halfway through the year a poster went up for another literary magazine that was Black-run, like everyone on staff was Black, and they were trying to get mostly Black writers or something like that, and on the poster it said they were the only magazine in Oberlin run by a POC, and I’m a POC, and so it was this real moment for me where I was like, “Damn, you know, it’s a surprise to me that I’m not always visible as such to people.” That is something I’ve come to terms with over the course of my life, obviously, but the fact was that that should have been acknowledged, that should have been passed out to people outside of the small realm in which I lived. So that was super disappointing for me. And my response to that was partially—I mean, we did a little more outreach but not much, like we didn’t really know how to do more outreach, but what we did do is I think the poetry section was all Black writers or all writers of color, maybe, for a semester or maybe two semesters. But that to me is a kind of band-aid. It’s just kind of amplifying voices, but what you really need to be doing is kind of cultivating more and creating more connections where they’re totally missing. So that probably would have been more of an emphasis—but it’s hard to do that. Again, this is why institutional memory’s important. Like, there was no evidence that that had been a project that anyone before me had taken in any kind of similar way. There was no kind of precedent for how I might go about doing that, so it’s good to talk to people and see what has been tried in the past and fix problems that are still problems. 

Is there anything we should’ve asked but didn’t? 

Not really. But I have one question, actually. One very small change I made was that the magazine looked almost exactly the same. Specifically the cover was always this evocative image and then like a bar and then Wilder Voice in full volume, and I think my first semester we were really struggling to come up with a cover and I was like, “What if we just put a circle and then a ‘WV’ inside of the circle?” and that’s what we ended up doing, and it looked really cool, so I was just wondering if the cover’s reverted to being the same every time, or if it’s looser now. I know that it changed shape, which is very exciting. Like in the two years after I left it shrunk significantly which I think is smart.

The little “WV” circle is still around.

Current (left) and former (right) “WV” circles.

I feel like that’s another thing about WV: our designers were fucking sick… I was always happy with how the magazine read. To be frank with you I was not thrilled with all of the pieces but I always liked how it looked. It looked very professional. Have you spoken to a lot of editors?

We did a big group interview with the ones who, like, took it over from Lena Dunham.

Right, right. Have you gotten Lena Dunham?

Her publicist didn’t get back to us. And it would ultimately be harmful to us.

Is she widely reviled on campus at this point? 

Yeah, we think.

That’s super interesting because when I was there it was, like, the birth of Lena Dunham. I was there from 2010–2014, and Girls must have come out in 2013, so it was like, “Woah, Lena Dunham got famous.” So there was very much a more complicated—like, everyone hated her but ultimately was just mega jealous. Half the people in the Creative Writing Department were like, “She took my shit!”

Walter Gordon graduated from Oberlin in 2014 with a degree in English. He is currently a graduate student at Columbia University.

Photo by Sam Schuman.