Last night, on the occasion of the April edition of TNY Presents, we had the opportunity to meet Chris Bowen, who runs Burning River Press, just outside Cleveland, and Michelle Reale, whose chapbook Natural Habitat (I just ordered a copy, and you should, too!) was released this month by Burning River.
Michelle's work is, as I mentioned at the mic last night, so visual and poignant. Often her stories are told from the vantage point of someone vulnerable: a child subject to the wrath or untoward advances of an adult male, an abandoned wife, a physically weakened elderly woman. Michelle paints the immensity of their emotional burdens and, in some cases, their reciprocol sadism through a series of deft strokes. Previously in a post here, I mentioned that her works were grotesques, and of course, I mean this as a reference to hyper-reality--the kind not found in soft light or abstractions, but the reality revealed by the unforgiving magnifying mirror, which exposes the pores and dermal imprefections with uncomfortable crispness. Moreover, we often recognize in her characters coincidental portraits of people we know. What Michelle's characters are capable of are also probable actions of the people whom they resemble. Still, this is not to say they are 'typed', although sometimes 'types' are inevitable. They are just very real.
Chris Bowen's work is also powerful, and full of real life anxiety and its relation to long-standing archetypes: his stories are worlds in which power relationships play repeatedly throughout history, sometimes in unexpected ways. His story, "I Speak from the Tops of Pyramids," was stunning and rich with deep symbolism. He relates his experience on a construction site, where he is called "dog" in Spanish by the switch blade-carrying Hispanic workers, who make him their slave and follow him into the building's foundation while flicking their knives open and closed. They think he does not understand their language, but he knows enough to comprehend all their intentions. Another amazing line in one of his stories was (and I'm not doing the line justice through my paraphrase here) a narrator who aknowledged how fruit can become rotten to the core after striking the ground. The narrator explained that he knew this from experience. Wow. It's a profound line, and truthful on more than one level: an example, if you're reading, students of Comp II, of symbolism with profounder meanings.
At the designated New Yinzer bar, Brillobox (Dearest Brillobox, you are the Cedar Tavern of Pittsburgh's writers and poets, and we all love you) Michelle talked about all the writers we knew and even Library Journal (LJ) folks (we both wrote for the excellent former LJ Reference Review Editor Mirela Roncevic, and we both know West Fargo Public Librarian Carrie Scarr, with whom I got to work on the E-Reference Ratings in 2008). Over drinks and later at Modern Formations, we also got to chatter about all my favorite writing acquaintances: Roxane Gay, whose writing we both gushed about; Claudia Smith; Aaron Burch; Lee Klein; Elizabeth Ellen...and many more I can't remember right this second.
It was a great, energizing night meeting Michelle and Chris and hearing their work. It's evenings like these that keep my own writing and my perspective on contemporary lit feeling energized. I truly hope they get back to Pittsburgh soon.