Tag Archives: dictionary project


Kara Walker silhouette from " Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power"

Kara Walker silhouette from “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power”


prism (ˈprizəm/) n. piece of glass or other transparent material cut with precise angles and plane faces. Prisms are useful for analyzing and refracting light (see refraction). A triangular prism can separate white light into its constituent colors by refracting each different wavelength of light by a different amount. The longer wavelengths (those at the red end of the spectrum) are bent the least, the shorter ones (those at the violet end) the most. The result is the spectrum of visible light, or the rainbow. Prisms are used in certain kinds of spectroscopy and in various optical systems.



Netflix is proposing I watch White Christmas. White Christmas is one of the many classics I watched with my grandma growing up. We would often screen films on American Movie Classics in the living room, after she popped popcorn on the stove. I got to know Rita Hayworth and Audrey Hepburn and Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire while curled up on that old brocade couch. I found the stylized nature of these films comforting, conjuring nostalgia for a time I never experienced first hand. The fancy dresses with foundation garments underneath, the finger-waved hair, the three-piece suits and wingtips and fedoras, the inexplicable breaking into song or dance at any moment. These glimpses gave me access to my young grandmother. The one with bright red hair and sweet collared dresses, who was a secretary after attending Washington University in her hometown of St. Louis.


White Christmas, released in 1954, features Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen and is mostly a remake, in Technicolor, of a film made less than a decade earlier: Holiday Inn. Filmed in black and white, Holiday Inn was the movie that first introduced the world to the now-standard holiday song “White Christmas.” In the middle of the film, a cardigan-sweatered Crosby croons “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” and pauses in playing the piano to reach over and ring the bells that are hung on the Christmas tree with a silver spoon.


The 1942 film revolves around two old buddies, Jim and Ted, played by Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire respectively, who used to have a musical act in New York City, who are intensely competitive, and who fall in love with the same woman, an aspiring performer Linda Mason, played by Marjorie Reynolds. Jim starts an inn in Connecticut—the Holiday Inn—that features monthly performances based on each month’s signature holiday. He hires his love interest Linda to perform alongside him. There is singing. There is dancing. There is a friendship strained by the friends’ mutual love of and competition for one woman. There is misogyny and stereotypical gender roles. And then there is the issue of blackness and whiteness.


I vaguely remembered the premise but mostly the feeling of sitting with my grandma in her living room when, a few years ago, I rented the DVD from a local video store. I remembered the costumes and the dancing, the coy smiles of this old school romance. I recalled the stunning solo number by Fred Astaire, who tap danced across the floor while throwing down firecrackers for the Holiday Inn’s celebration of the Fourth of July.


What I didn’t remember was the performance from Lincoln’s Birthday, which is astonishingly picked as the holiday for February instead of Valentine’s Day. Necessitated by the plot that requires Jim to disguise his beloved so as to ward off advances from his friend and competition, he makes a quick change and the number for Lincoln’s Birthday suddenly becomes a minstrel show. Bing as Jim emerges in blackface with a top hat, beard, and cane. Linda’s face is painted black as well and her hair spikes out into a myriad of ribboned blonde braids.


My jaw dropped. I had no memory of this scene at all. And I wondered: Was it because I was too young and had no context for what was happening? Did my grandma see the issues of the scene and choose not to tell me? Did she not see the scene as problematic enough? Did she avoid talking about it with me because of its problematic nature?


The song “Abraham” unfolds with Bing Crosby singing against a full orchestra also in blackface. The blackfaced banjo player sits in the far back on the ground. The waiters and waitresses are in blackface as well, the women adorned with kerchiefs and petticoated polka-dotted skirts.


The film also features a black housekeeper character named Mamie and her two young children, a girl and a boy, who also participate in the song. After Bing’s first verse, the camera cuts to Mamie. Holding her children on her lap, Mamie sings the question: “When black folks lived in slavery, who was it set the darkie free?” Her daughter sings a reply: “Abraham.”


Holiday Inn Bing Holiday Inn Marjorie Holiday Inn Bing and Marjorie


Research reveals that some broadcasts began to show an edited version of the film in the 1980s. (How that worked I’m not exactly sure since this section of the movie also reveals crucial plot points. For example, that touching moment when Jim proposes marriage to Linda while painting her face black for the minstrel show.) Turner Movie Classics didn’t edit the film because they believe in broadcasting films as originally cut. And until more recently, American Movie Classics also ran the film in its original form.


This all makes me think I saw the original uncut version.


As offensive as this scene is, as horrible as it is to think that someone deemed it acceptable to create this musical performance and then use it as a lynchpin in the film, someone made that choice. Many someones. And to revise a cultural artifact that reveals its time, who was in power and what they thought, is dangerous. Revising texts in this way is to pretend that popular culture was not feeding into racist attitudes and actions.


But even more dangerous, I think, is the outrage so many white Americans often experience about the past that can nullify or desensitize us to the reality of the present. And our present involves a system that privileges and protects white people over and over again solely because of the color of our skin. Our present praises and makes permissible a system that results in the demoralization, degradation, dejection, and death of black and brown people.


Like so many Americans, I have felt devastated and angry this last week about the lack of an indictment of Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. When I returned home the night of the verdict, my desire to hit something was so strong that I ended up punching my mattress for a while. I felt a sickening feeling in my stomach, a combination of fury and grief, a few days later when watching the video that shows a Cleveland cop shooting and killing 12-year-old black child Tamir Rice a mere second after the officer got out of his car. There is no sound in the video so all you see is a small body standing upright and then crumpling to the ground. Devastating. Not to mention the local news story that led by attacking the character of the victim’s father instead of the confounding fact of an officer killing a child holding a toy gun. These deaths are tragedy accumulated because Michael Brown and Tamir Rice (and Trayvon Martin and and and) are not exceptions but part of a long line of African-American people killed in this country because of the color of their skin and because our country refuses to look at the reality and pervasiveness of the racism that we are founded in and on.


We would like to think we are so much farther along than Holiday Inn. But that’s just not true.


Only two weeks ago, Jacqueline Woodson was presented with the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her book Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir about growing up in South Carolina in the 60s and 70s, dealing with Jim Crow and the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement. And at this pinnacle moment of her career and artistic work, Dan Handler, the author of the popular Lemony Snicket series, made the joke that he “only just found out she was allergic to watermelon.” I can’t imagine what it would feel like, on one of the most important nights of your life, to have your accomplishments smeared with insults and reminders of the very injustices your work strives to illuminate.


Woodson responded in a New York Times editorial entitled “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke.” She traces her repulsion for the fruit as blossoming out of understanding its history. The fruit went from being tied to summer traditions, the lightness of family and childhood, to the rotting mess of racism. She writes, “…by the time I was 11 years old, even the smell of watermelon was enough to send me running to the bathroom with my most recent meal returning to my throat. It seemed I had grown violently allergic to the fruit. I was a brown girl growing up in the United States. By that point in my life, I had seen the racist representations associated with African-Americans and watermelons, heard the terrifying stories of black men being lynched with watermelons hanging around them…In a book I found at the library, a camp song about a watermelon vine was illustrated with caricatures of sleepy-looking black people sitting by trees, grinning and eating watermelon. Slowly, the hideousness of the stereotype began to sink in. In the eyes of those who told and repeated the jokes, we were shuffling, googly-eyed and lesser than. Perhaps my allergy was actually a deep physical revulsion that came from the psychological impression and weight of the association. Whatever it was, I could no longer eat watermelon.”


Woodson writes in the piece about how she realized her childhood dream of becoming a writer and about how she and Handler have been friends for years. She mentions that when he served watermelon soup at his Cape Cod home last summer, she told him she was allergic. Of his comments at her award ceremony, she writes: “In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from. By making light of that deep and troubled history, he showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.”


Ignorance of history and also denial of the significance of the small things in defining the large ones. A watermelon joke is not just a joke in the face of the history of that stereotype.


I am reminded of Sam Hamill’s essay “The Necessity to Speak” in which he talks about witnessing violence in the form of war, domestic violence, the criminal justice system, and abuse. When discussing domestic violence, he references popular culture’s complicity in and condoning of it. He writes, “When James Cagney shoves half a grapefruit in a woman’s face, we all laugh and applaud. Nobody likes an uppity woman. And a man who is a man, when all else fails, asserts his ‘masculinity.’” All forms of oppression are different but all oppressed groups are ultimately linked. And they are linked by the times in which someone said or did something oppressive and demeaning that an onlooker decided was no big deal. Oppressions are linked by slurs and taunts and side-glances and critics that say: “aren’t you taking this a little too seriously?” and “can’t you take a joke?”


Back in August immediately following Mike Brown’s shooting, Jon Stewart closed a segment of The Daily Show called “Race/Off” by saying: “Race is there and it is a constant. If you’re tired of hearing about it, imagine how exhausting it is living it.”


The media reporting of protests surrounding the lack of indictment in Ferguson have focused largely on the “mobs” of people, on the intensity of people’s anger, and not on the reason for their fury. There have been some wonderful articles comparing the difference between why white people riot (winning or losing sporting events) and why black people riot (verdicts like “not guilty” for Zimmerman or “no indictment” for “Wilson,” i.e. no justice for innocent black people being killed). I am reminded too of the two almost identical photos published just after Katrina: one of two black people and the other of two white people wading through water with food from a flooded grocery store. The captions revealed that the black people were “looting” and white people were “finding food.”


Last weekend, before the grand jury released its ruling, I read Claudia Rankine’s new book Citizen: An American Lyric. Through lyrical prose about her personal experiences, politics, and pop culture, Rankine explores the perpetual presence of racism in the lives of African-Americans and the extent of the damage it does. On the front cover is a white backdrop with a black hoodie torn from its torso.


Except for the last page, written in first person, the book is in second person: firmly placing the reader in the slot of “you.” She writes in one section about Hennessy Youngman, aka Jayson Musson, who, in youtube videos, “advises black artists to cultivate ‘an angry nigger exterior’ by watching, among other things, the Rodney King video while working.”


She continues: “Youngman’s suggestions are meant to expose expectations for blackness as well as to underscore the difficulty inherent in any attempt by black artists to metabolize real rage. The commodified anger his video advocates rests lightly on the surface for spectacle’s sake. It can be engaged or played like the race card and is tied solely to the performance of blackness and not to the emotional state of particular individuals in particular situations.”


“On the bridge between this sellable anger and ‘the artist’ resides, at times, an actual anger. Youngman in his video doesn’t address this kind of anger: the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color. This other kind of anger in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness.”


“You begin to think, maybe erroneously, that this other kind of anger is really a type of knowledge, the type that both clarifies and disappoints. It responds to insult and attempted erasure simply by asserting presence and the energy required to present, to react, to assert is accompanied by visceral disappointment: a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.”


I want to repeat her words again: “anger is really a type of knowledge, the type that both clarifies and disappoints….a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.”


I read an article recounting an event in St. Louis following Mike Brown’s shooting where ten black mothers sat and talked to an audience full of mothers—of different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds—about the experiences they had in talking to their children about race and racism. Director of Racial Justice at the YWCA in St. Louis Amy Hunter told a story about a time when her son was 12 and noticed a police officer following him as he walked. He was only five blocks from home. When he arrived and told her what happened, he asked, “I just want to know, how long will this last?” She cried as she relayed to the audience what she told him, what she had to tell him: “For the rest of your life.”


Can we just think about that for a second? That for his whole life, this child, this mother’s son, this boy then young adult then man, this human being will have to walk the “right” way, say the “right” thing in order to attempt to preserve his life. And even if he does everything “right,” he is still at risk of being harmed or killed solely because of the color of his skin. How many more lives lost? How much more will it take for us to change a system that is harming and killing so many citizens of our country?


I understand that, as a white person, my perspective is limited and that I cannot fully understand the grief and anger of black individuals and black communities in seeing this same injustice and violence perpetuated over and over again. I felt myself paralyzed this past week with what to say in relationship to this, wondering when and if I should write anything at all.


I grew up in New Orleans, a city segregated by color lines. And without anyone ever needing to really explain the idea of separate and unequal, I saw it everywhere. And what I mostly saw was good-hearted white people pretending that nothing was happening. This is happening. People of color are being killed and oppressed solely because of the color of their skin. This is happening. The criminal justice system is rigged against minorities and people of lower socio-economic status. This is happening. Black kids are being killed while white kids are being given the benefit of the doubt. This is happening. People of color are not “playing the race card,” people of color are being played, by a system rigged to oppress them.


I believe that many Americans will look back at this time and be as appalled as we are now by lynchings, by blackface, by Interstates built through African-American communities. That’s not good enough, to hope that one day we will look back and be appalled. Let’s be appalled now. Let’s do something to change this.


Before Isaac Newton, people believed that pure light was colorless and that light was “altered into color” from interaction with matter. Experimenting with prisms using refraction, Newton revealed the opposite, that light included within it the whole spectrum of color. That a prism didn’t create color but rather separated it, showing what was already present.


In ophthalmology, prisms are used to diagnose and treat deficiencies and diseases of the eye. Ophthalmologists use light reflected and refracted by prisms to examine the eye for vision problems so they can be treated. It is only in altering angles, in finding mirrors, in looking in different ways that problems can be identified, that vision can become clear.




Here are some pieces I found insightful/helpful/encouraging/profound in reference to Ferguson:

On Ferguson Protests, the Destruction of Things, and What Violence Really Is (And Isn’t) by Mia McKenzie

Telling My Son About Ferguson by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow

It’s Incredibly Rare For A Grand Jury to Do What Ferguson’s Just Did by Ben Casselman

Twelve Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson by Janee Woods

This Is What Darren Wilson Told the Grand Jury About Shooting Michael Brown by Jaeah Lee and AJ Vicens

“Not An Elegy For Mike Brown”: Two Poems for Ferguson by Danez Smith

Ferguson isn’t about black rage against cops. It’s white rage against progress. by Carol Anderson

Interview with Mike Brown’s parents


Claudia Rankine’s amazing book Citizen.







Filed under other words





noun \kap-tən also kap-əm\

: a person who is in charge of a ship or an airplane

: an officer of high rank in some branches of the military

: an officer of high rank in a police or fire department

1 a (1) :  a military leader :  the commander of a unit or a body of troops (2) :  a subordinate officer commanding under a sovereign or general (3) :  a commissioned officer in the army, air force, or marine corps ranking above a first lieutenant and below a major

(1) :  a naval officer who is master or commander of a ship (2) :  a commissioned officer in the navy ranking above a commander and below a commodore and in the coast guard ranking above a commander and below a rear admiral

c :  a senior pilot who commands the crew of an airplane

d :  an officer in a police department or fire department in charge of a unit (as a precinct or company) and usually ranking above a lieutenant and below a chief

2 :  one who leads or supervises

3 :  a person of importance or influence in a field <captains of industry>





“I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

—Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself in Leaves of Grass





Robin Williams died today.

I don’t know quite how to explain how I feel about this. Sadness doesn’t quite cover it.

I miss him and I didn’t know him. I wish he were here.

Williams was a master of comedy. However, it was his serious roles that moved me most. But if you look closely at even his comedic roles, there is always something serious there, too. 

I hadn’t realized how young I was when Dead Poets’ Society came out. I was ten. And I’m pretty sure I saw it not too long after that. Maybe I was a few years older. But what I know was that I wanted him to be my teacher. The way he was on fire for words. The way he encouraged his young students. The way he told them that the things that mattered to me mattered. He made them sound their barbaric yawps and I was a scared little kid who desperately wanted to yawp, too. I wanted someone to give me permission to yawp. And when the lead character, the student he encourages to follow his dreams and be himself, commits suicide because of the competing pressures of what he wants and what his parents want, I felt that sadness deeply. I felt the tragedy as if it were happening to someone I loved, in a community I cared about. When Williams’ character is told to leave at the end and his students one by one stand on their desks, defying their old teacher and old ways of thinking and being, I felt as if the sea changes that had happened inside them had also happened inside me.

When I saw Williams as a young doctor bring to life patients who had previously been catatonic, enslaved in their frozen bodies, his joy was mine. And when the meds stopped working suddenly, when he couldn’t figure out what went wrong, when suddenly he saw the patients he had grown close to become closed off and isolated again, I wept. And not tiny tears, not a single drop rolling down a check, but full body quaking kind of weeping.

We could say, yes, Robin Williams was a good actor. And we would be right. But it was more than that. He was tapped into something greater, in who he was and what he did. I always felt like there was some aspect of every character that was him. And not in the “he always plays himself” way. He played everyone and still was himself. He drew the essence out of each character. He showed us what human looked like and in doing so, he showed us ourselves.

He didn’t show us the selves that we carefully curate and dress for the world. He showed us our whole selves: broken and flawed and terrified, risking and failing, fucking things up for the millionth time. He showed us our whole selves: fragile and vulnerable and joyful and filled with love. He made us laugh because he knew what it meant to weep. He made us weep because we understood that to be human is to be everything at once, that there is tear in every roll of laughter, that what makes us beautiful also makes us breakable.

So in this, he was my teacher. And he was one of the best ones I’ve ever had. I am sad he had to leave us so soon. I’m grateful he was here.






O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.


O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father!

The arm beneath your head!

It is some dream that on the deck,

You’ve fallen cold and dead.


My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,

From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.



–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass




Filed under other words





Here we are on this bittersweet day: the last day of National Poetry Month and the last day of napomo at the  dictionary project. Thank you for joining us as we have celebrated poetry and bibliomancy and the play and beauty that can come from constraint-based writing.


I always find it fascinating when the word that comes is scientific or mathematical in origin, as with our word today, which is explored through physics and geometry. Although not universally the case, so many of us word types were drawn to words not only out of a love of language and story but a clear sense of doom evoked from math and science. So I think it is an extra challenge to engage through words with concepts that may be outside of our normal day-t0-day processes and frameworks. But then again, when we are searching for understanding is when the most interesting metaphors and twists in language can arrive.


Please enjoy these poetic interpretations by Meg and Ari of this:






and this:




and this:





el·lip·tic·i·ty noun (i-ˌlip-ˈti-sə-tē)  1.  deviation from perfect circular or spherical form toward elliptic or ellipsoidal form.  2.  the degree of this deviation.




Ari Ellipticity 1

Ari Ellipticity2





Ari Belathar is a Mexican poet and playwright in exile. Between 1994 and 2001, she facilitated creative writing and popular theatre workshops for indigenous women and children throughout Mexico. She was also a founding member of the first Mexican community radio station during the student strike at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1999. After being kidnapped and tortured by the Mexican National Army in 2001 due to her work as an independent journalist and human rights defender, she escaped to Canada, where she became a political refugee. A winning-artist participant in Artscape’s Gibraltar Point International Artists Residency Program, she has published poetry in literary journals and anthologies around the world. Belathar served as Writer-in-Residence through PEN Canada’s Writers in Exile Network at the University of Windsor and at Brandon University in Manitoba, the latter of which resulted in her first chapbook of poetry in English, The Cities I Left Behind. In Summer 2010, Scirocco Drama published The TAXI Project—a collective play about exile, originally produced by PEN Canada, with Belathar as lead–writer. The TAXI Project was performed by Alchemy Theatre in Toronto and toured high schools and community centres in ten southern Ontario cities and municipalities. In 2012, Belathar was selected as Alameda Theatre Company’s Playwright in Residency as well as being invited to be part of Cahoots Theatre Playwrights’ HotHouse Writing Unit. She is currently developing her first full-length play, La Danza del Venado, a multidisciplinary piece inspired by her own experience of crossing the Mexico/U.S. border into the United States as a child to reunite with her father. In 2013, Belathar lives and writes in Tucson, AZ.





MegWade Ellipticity






Meg Wade was born and raised in the hills of East Tennessee.  She received her MFA from the University of Arizona, where she was the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize.  Meg is currently finishing her first full-length verse collection, Blame the Woods, and is the working Assistant Editor for an anthology of contemporary, rural American poetry titled, Hick Poetics, forthcoming from Lost Roads Press.  Her recent work has appeared in CutBank, The Feminist Wire, and Phantom Limb, as well as work forthcoming in two anthologies set to be released from Locked Horn Press in 2014.  Beginning this fall Meg will be the 2014-2015 Diane Middlebrook Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.  For now, she lives, writes, and teaches in Tucson, Arizona.




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packedHands Holding Soil


Today is the third post for napomo at the dictionary project. I’m pleased to introduce you to this pair of poets who I met at ::Throughlines:: an improvisational movement and writing intensive I participated in back in January of this year. They also have an amazing ongoing image/poem project, what they call a daily endeavor of poetic attention, which you can check out here: how we share the sky.

Speaking of attention, that is what I love so much about the dictionary project and annual series like napomo. Because it is all about attention: attention of one person at a particular moment in time to a particular word and meaning. Maybe it’s a word we’ve never heard of in our lives. Maybe it’s a word we’ve long forgotten. Maybe it’s a word that is part of our daily vernacular. In any case, we are asked to show up to that word in a new way, to see it with fresh eyes, to discover the ways in which our current mindset and circumstances and place in the world inform our understanding. What draws our attention in this word and meaning? How do make sense of it in this particular moment?

There is a majesty in this kind of micro-level attention. Because, in truth, all the micro choices we make add up to the macro of our daily existence and what we contribute to the collective. Our creativity is not only found in the novels we painstakingly craft but in that hard earned and alive sentence, in the way we set our table with consideration of color and light and texture, in the summer garden we co-create by digging our hands into the packed earth.

So thank you to Kathy (whose birthday is today!) and Katherine for their attention. Thank you to John and Jamison. Thank you to Johanna and Matthew. Thank you to the poets still to write this month and all the writers who have shared their work on the dictionary project. What a difference a word makes when you bring your attention to it.


pack  (pak),  v.t.  [< prec. pack, v.t.], to choose or arrange (a jury, committee, etc.) in such a way as to get desired decisions, results, etc.



k bio pic

Katherine Ferrier is a poet, dance artist, educator, maker and curator. She is a co-founder of The Architects, an improvisation ensemble with a performance history spanning over 20 years, and teaches and performs regularly throughout the US and abroad. Katherine curates /directs Cultivate, a festival created to nourish a growing community of contemporary dance-makers and dance supporters in Northern New Hampshire, and her writing about dance has been published in Contact Quarterly and Kinebago. Her spontaneous on-demand typewriter poetry service, THREAD, was recently featured in The Knot, and she offers ongoing writing workshops at The Gallery at WREN in Bethlehem, NH.





For 17 years, Kathy Couch has been designing and creating visual landscapes in performance and installation works. Through the use of light, language, readymade objects, photography and space, she attempts to craft experiences that allow people to linger and contemplate moments of being, that they might become more aware of the power they possess to influence and shape the way they move—alone and together. Kathy is currently engaged in the year-long collaborative photography/writing project How We Share the Sky with Katherine Ferrier. This past January, in collaboration with Katherine, Kathy created and taught ::Through-Lines::, a 4-day writing/movement workshop exploring the intersections of language, body, space and objects in Tucson, AZ. Kathy makes her home in Northampton, MA.


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Today, we have our second series of poems for the third annual napomo at the dictionary project in honor of National Poetry Month. All month we will be posting poems written from bibliomanced dictionary project words. In an added twist, this year, two poets are writing to each word. We are discovering what happens in these pairings when two different minds and aesthetics hold space for the same word.


Poets Johanna Skibsrud and Matthew Schmidt have written on screw. Please enjoy their poems and feel free to write your own poem inspired by screwin the comments if you so desire. The actual piece my finger landed on when selecting the word was the image of a lagscrew below.






screw  (skro͞o), n.  [ME.  screwe; OFr. escrone, hole in which the screw turns  <  L. scrobis, vulva],  1.  a mechanical device used for fastening things together, consisting of a naillike cylinder of metal grooved in an advancing spiral, and usually having a slotted head: it penetrates only by being turned: male (or external) screw.  2.  anything like such a device.  3.  a hollow cylinder equipped with a spiral groove on its inner sufrace into which the male screw fits: female (or internal) screw.  4.  the act of turning or twisting; turn of a screw.  5.  a screw propeller.  6.  [Chiefly British], a) a stingy person; miser. b) a crafty bargainer.  7.  [Chiefly British], a bit of tobacco, etc. (in a twisted paper).  8.  [Chiefly British] a worn-out horse.  9.  {Slang], a prison guard.  10.  [British Slang], salary.  v.t.  1. to twist; turn; tighten.  2.  to fasten, make secure, tighten, press, insert, etc. with or as with a screw or screws.  3.  to contort; squeeze; twist out of natural shape: as, screw one’s face up.  4.  to force to do something; compel, as if by using screws.  5.  to extort or practice extortion on: as he screwed me out of money.  v.i.  1. to come apart or go together by being turned or twisted in the manner of a screw: as, the lid screws on. 2. to be fitted for being put together or taken apart by a screw or screws.  3.  to twist; turn; wind; have a motion like that of a screw.  4.  to practice extortion.




Desire Must Be Taken Literally


What exists?




Even in darkness.


If not:


the idea of darkness.


Marked, therefore,

already, by


the idea of light.


What is there but that

to grow slowly


toward, or away?


What but that


to propel


that most

uncertain element,


the soul,


slowly toward

the idea of itself?


To hover, as above,

or outside of itself.


A question.


Toward which

the mind also turns


in a deliberate spiral—.


The mind, the simple



according to which


we conjoin,


and therefore



between that most


uncertain element,


from which we came,

and the world, which is


most certain, some




What, then, the soul,

but the simple


opening, carved

by the mind—


as it constructs,


like a joist or a beam,


upon which the idea



a further idea?
As it insists, if only

by virtue of its


continuous effort

to do so,


the possibility that


the mind will

also hold?


That it will still

be possible,




if only

very briefly—


to suture to the

uncertain idea


a single real thing?




Skibsrud portrait, fall 2013, 1Johanna Skibsrud is the author of the Scotiabank Giller Prize winning novel, The Sentimentalists, a book of short fiction, This Will Be Difficult to Explain, and Other Stories, and two collections of poetry, Late Nights With Wild Cowboys and I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being. A second novel, Quartet for the End of Time will be released in fall, 2014. She lives in Tucson.







Shades drawn—darkness crept scantly
scantily through slats—a cover of destiny
destination to which each day pours itself
out. Outside lined slats, thump of bass
an apartment adjacent in rhythm, enjoys
Saturday evening victuals, imbibes in whether
Sunday will ever step from shadow to show
itself, a difficult concept to grasp in utter
dark, that even through stars appear away
through several named spheres exiting the planet
seem on the verge of consummation, of consumption
in blackness which harnesses a vast swath
of earth, here, now, as somewhere else
someone else is sunning themselves by a rill
twisting grass blades, a tune upon lips
accompaniment to slow burble sluicing
submerged rock on its way to a place
any party herewith has been except tangentially
or rather mentally, in eye of idea
where a picture once seen must be
like this place where the rill—after turning
into other names, empties itself, finally
in an ever ebbing body that removes
all notion of meaning in here, now
until again a cycle is run and rain
falls on windows, behind shades
draws a party at an apartment indoors
bass fading into a dull thrum
in a different time when someone is idle
rill tricks, trickle thought into a coalescence
of sunburst over horizon, another contemplation commences.

2013-04-23 23.54.53Matthew Schmidt is an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona. His work has appeared in Asinine Poetry, Down in the Dirt, Eye On Life and The Missing Slate.

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sum·ma·tion (səˈmāSHən ) noun

1. the process of adding things together: the summation of numbers of small pieces of evidence; a sum total of things added together.

2. the process of summing something up: these will need summation in a single document ; a summary; in Law, an attorney’s closing speech at the conclusion of the giving of evidence.



The end of the year is a time when we tend to take stock, to think about what has happened over the past year, to make peace, to give thanks, to look forward.

As is always true for me, the holidays are a mixed bag. I am reminded of those favor bags from kids’ birthday parties. Sometimes you get something really cool like a paddleball and sometimes you get those wax lips. Anyway, most of the time, you get a mix. It’s near impossible for me to get through the holidays without feeling a pretty large amount of gratitude for all the blessings in my life: not the least of which are dear ones, family, friends. I have a job. I have a roof over my head. I don’t want for food or clothing. I am not consumed by worry about my basic needs being met. I have amazingly creative, smart, caring people in my life.

But the holidays often demand that we be perpetually cheery and grateful, that we shelve our uncertainty. This is not realistic or fair to ourselves. Our uncertainty is always there, and it is pretty friendly with fear and doubt. The holidays also bring with them the end of the year, and for many of us, the end of the year brings an appraisal. It’s as if our lives are our finances and we are working them out in an Excel spreadsheet. Was there enough personal growth? Can we tally a sizable number of accomplishments? How did we fare in love?  How many friends and family are we in touch with and how can we measure their love? It is always easier to remember the heartache and trials. Those arise readily. It seems like there can be a process of looking at the year, judging it and deciding if this year merited itself.

For some of us, this begins, albeit unconsciously, before we enter the holiday fray. We think about what it is we are going to talk about from our year. What aspect of our lives will make sense to our friends and family? How do we make our lives measurable? I find this process exhausting. Because the heart of the heart of my year doesn’t happen in these large moves, defeats or accomplishments but rather in moments of profundity and understanding and grief and joy.

A dear friend of mine told me last night that she is making a “Good Things Jar” for the new year. Next to a large mason jar, she will place scraps of different colored paper, ready and waiting to mark the good things that happen in her life. The small and the big ones. She will fill the jar with these things and next year, on New Year’s Eve, she will read them: remembering her year and all the good that was present in it. I love this idea. I love the ways we can remind ourselves of all that is good. Because we need reminding.

In The Buddha’s Brain, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson writes about how the brain is like velcro for negative experiences and teflon for positive ones. We are hardwired that way, because for our ancient ancestors, survival depended upon it. If they didn’t remember what could kill them, they died. The way it plays out for us nowadays is that we ruminate and fixate and mull over negative experiences, not just the ones that are going to kill us but the ones that caused us pain. What once protected us from dying can now prevent us from being fully alive.

There is a term in Buddhism called “mudita.” It means joy. However, it goes beyond that. Mudita is about experiencing genuine joy for others. And while it seems like this comes from a selfless place, it doesn’t. Mudita comes from a place of recognizing our oneness with others. If we are having a hard time but are able to partake in another’s joy, if we can recognize how we are connected to this other person, we can be joyful as well. Still, joy is something we have to come into on our own.

I have known people who will ask how I am and, when I answer honestly about having a challenging day or a hard time, will say things like: “Well, you have so much be grateful for” or “Think about all your blessings” or “Look at how many people are worse off.” And that doesn’t feel honoring. It feels like they are made uncomfortable by my grief or fear and are trying to excise it. Perhaps because my grief or fear reminds them of their own. But we cannot be coaxed into joy. We must find it ourselves.

I think the way that we find it is by being more aware, by making the conscious choice to stay with our joy when we feel it. Good things jars and recalling happy memories with family and literally counting our blessings are all ways to build our own joy, which can become a kind of refuge when fear or uncertainty or envy arise. Mostly though, we need to pay attention when are feeling joyful. As Thich Nhat Hanh would say, we need to water the seeds of joy in ourselves and others. Hanson writes in Buddha’s Brain a few simple steps to take throughout our days to grow our joy:

  1. Help positive events become positive experience: Pay extra attention to the good things in the world and in yourself. For example, notice things that go well, or people who treat you kindly, or when you succeed at something. As we know, it is ignorance, fundamentally, that leads to suffering – and not seeing the good that is actually present is a kind of ignorance.  As a mindfulness practice, focus on the sensations and the feelings in your positive experiences since they are the pathway to emotional memory.  Deliberately create positive experiences for yourself. Examples include acts of generosity, evoking compassion, or recalling a time when you were happy.
  2. Savor the experience as a kind of concentration practice; keep your attention on it for many seconds while letting it fill your body and mind.
  3. Sense that the experience is soaking into you, registering deeply in emotional memory. You could imagine that it’s sinking into your chest and back and brainstem, or imagine a treasure chest in your heart.


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Often, we will make a list of new year’s resolutions, most of which point to areas in which we feel inadequate. They point to our own sense of lack. But maybe resolutions don’t need to be about dramatic change in behavior or in circumstance. Perhaps the simplest and best new year’s resolution is to resolve to pay attention. To notice all the opportunities for joy we already have. Then our intentions for the year aren’t built on a belief in our deficiency but on a recognition of our own abundance.

Life is not a score tally for a board game. I find that the greatest pain and suffering for others and myself comes when we try to keep score with our lives. There is no way to add and subtract and compare two different lives. To do so is to pretend that we know the intimacies of someone else’s path. To do so is to pretend we know what is going to happen in our future. We simply have to honor where we are and honor that means we don’t know quite a bit.

I read an old Charlie Brown cartoon today where Charlie tells Lucy: “Life isn’t like a textbook. The answers aren’t at the back of the book.” What if instead of this becoming a source of frustration it became an opportunity for wonder? Look at how much I don’t know! Look at how much I have the opportunity to learn!

I like watching lawyer shows where the attorneys deliver their summations in court. So often they are clear and wrapped up tightly, like the bow on a Christmas present. The decision seems so simple and easy. Life is not like that. We deliver our summation and then a few days or weeks or months later, we deliver it again. At the end of the year, we look and listen and sum our lives and then we do the same thing a year later. But the words are always changing, the verdict is malleable.

As we approach the new year, perhaps we could remember all that we have learned this past year that has prepared us for the new one. Perhaps we could remember that this new year brings not one but countless opportunities to begin again. We can choose to remember in the myriad of experiences we have that they all add up to being truly alive.





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OLJ xanadu




On this last day of november and for our last post of nonfiction november, we are excited to share this piece by PR Griffis on Xanadu. Enjoy!


Xan·a·du   /ˈzanəˌdo͞o/   n.  a poem by English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: an idyllic, exotic, or luxurious place.

xanadu 800px-Xanadu_on_Map_of_Asia




I was eight years old in 1980 when Xanadu, the film starring Olivia Newton John, was released. I don’t remember much of the film itself—something maybe about Greek goddesses come to life through a billboard and arriving in sunny Southern California to rollerskate. It seems like maybe there was an older gentleman who wore a yachting outfit, or maybe that was one of those B-list-star-filled episodes of CHiPs.


Two things are important to me where Xanadu, the film, is concerned. First, I was in love with Olivia Newton John, and had been since I saw Grease at the drive-in two years before. She might have been my first cinematic crush. Good girl, poodle-skirt, bobby socks, and saddle shoes Sandy, or teased hair, black leather, high spiky heels Sandy, either one. As with Bewitched, where Elizabeth Montgomery played both blonde housewife witch Samantha and Aquarian-age party-girl witch cousin Serena, it was only different flavors of the same thing, each impossibly lovely in its own way.

Second, the thing I remember best about Xanadu is the title song from the soundtrack, sung (natch) by Olivia Newton-John. This, of course, only a year or so before “Let’s Get Physical.” Which: yes, please.


I was surprised and saddened as a child to discover that Olivia Newton-John and Juice “Angel of the Morning” Newton weren’t related. I was particularly taken with female singers—Crystal Gayle, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn—especially of the crossover type, of which there were a plethora in the late 1970s.


“Xanadu,” the song is, if you’re not familiar with it, a dreamy disco tune, ONJ’s voice undulating beneath swirling veils of layered synth. It is also personally notable as the first instance I can recall of misapprehending lyrics. I was maybe twenty before I came to understand that what I had heard as testing me wasn’t right was actually destiny will arrive.


“Kubla Khan,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from which Xanadu enters the western lexicon, is notable for beginning with the workmanlike slack-stress metrics of which junior high poetry unit horrors are made: In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree.


Coleridge claimed to have received the inspiration for “Kubla Khan” after reading Purchas, his Pilgrimage, or Relations of the World and Religions Observed in All Ages and Places Discovered, from the Creation to the Present, which ponderously-titled book details the travels of Marco Polo, who is believed to have visited Xanadu, the summer palace of Kubla Khan, ruler of Mongolia and part of China, in the late 1200s.


Also notable: Coleridge had administered himself “an anodyne for a slight indisposition” (read: opiates) and fallen asleep for a few hours after reading Purchas. The poem, he claimed, came to him fully formed during this sleep.


So, after a three-hour dope nod, he roused and wrote “Kubla Khan” the place of stately pleasure domes, the place of sacred rivers running through caverns fathomless to man.


Did I first play Marco Polo at about this same time—eight or nine years old—or shortly after? When was it that I first assumed the role of blind explorer, navigating chest deep and unseen water, attempting to reach far-flung and ever-shifting ports of call?


Coleridge claimed to have been interrupted in the midst of his writing by a man on business from Porlock, the remainder of the poem evaporating, the phrase “a man on business from Porlock” now a synonym for interrupted genius.


Grease was my favorite movie when I was seven, in 1978; “Xanadu” was my favorite song in 1980, when I was nine. Somewhere in there was Charlie’s Angels. I was in love with Kate Jackson, Jacklyn Smith, and Farrah Fawcett, in that order. I knew, deep down, I was supposed to be in love with Farrah Fawcett, if for no other reason because she was married to the Six-Million-Dollar Man, Lee Majors. She was, during this time, Farrah Fawcett-Majors.


One has to imagine that transoceanic travel, travel east from Europe to Asia in general, must have been fairly dodgy if Columbus, some two hundred years after Marco Polo’s voyage, tried to establish a route by heading in the opposite direction. Travel of that sort at that time being akin to—maybe even more dangerous than, statistically speaking—the space travel of our own age. And certainly, the desire to boldy go where no man has gone before, the human yen for discovery—equal parts a pull of the unknown and a pushing away from the known, the ultimately unsatisfactory—is well documented throughout human history.


Zeitgeist, maybe, is nothing more than a convergence of arrangements from possibilities theretofore nonexistent or inaccessible. Marco Polo, certainly, enlarged the realm of possibilities through his travels to and return from Asia, as did the introduction of culture and technology represented by the Moorish conquest of Iberia. Would the transatlantic voyage of Christopher Columbus have been within the realm of possibility without these happenings? Is it coincidence that the reconquista of the last Moorish-held Iberian lands and Columbus’s voyage both occurred in 1492?


2001: A Space Odyssey was released in 1968, three years before I was born, the year before men landed on the moon. Interestingly, Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” David Bowie’s “Star Man,” and Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love,” all of which take as their subject matter space travel, all came out in 1972. It’s as if these songs are the product of some Aquarian age that had as its focus some tenable objective correlative, a means by which we might transcend the bonds of space and time, some century after time and distance had been shattered by means of the telegraph and railroad, the means by which we might realize a place where we could make ourselves anew.


The Velvet Underground’s 1967 “I’m Waiting for the Man” is about scoring dope in Harlem, a venture much less dodgy than traipsing through Mongolia in the late 1200s, to say nothing of (a diminuendo, voices dying with a dying fall beneath the music from a farther room) rocketing into outer space.


When I was seven, my best friend Weldon and I used to take turns being Farrah Fawcett and Lee Majors. His bed was an ocean, the sheets were the waves, and we would dive under the water and kiss open mouthed. Because we were only aping what we’d seen on TV, we didn’t know that there was supposed to be tongue involvement. I don’t remember either of us being concerned who was Lee Majors and who Farrah Fawcett-Majors.


In 1980, it was Xanadu and Olivia Newton John. By 1981, I wanted to see The Road Warrior more than I wanted anything. The next year, Conan the Barbarian came out, and I wanted to see that more than anything.


Does it reflect some grimmer reality in the national zeitgeist, this trending away from disco, from dancing, from musicals and magic? Or is it a graphing of the process by which a boy who saw no difference between playing with Barbies and GI Joe, a boy with no firmly fixed gender predilections, learned his place?


Travel, journey, being the primary means by which American narrative is given structure. If you are dissatisfied with your lot, move. Move from Europe to the Americas. The primary motivation of the Spanish foot soldiers who first came to the Americas—a journey from which they might not return—was the promise of land, of gold, of glory, all of which are ways of saying opportunity. Move. Move from the East to the Midwest, the South, the West. Move out onto the oceans and hunt white whales, move out onto the plains and hunt buffalo and first peoples and precious metals and one another.


And once even space and ocean have been thoroughly explored, begin in earnest the inner exploration, the exploration that does unto self what exploration did to the oceans and the west and the south and the east. Rocket off into inner space. Is it coincidence or convergence that syringes and Saturn rockets bear a striking resemblance to one another?


Xanadu, now, is a synonym for paradise. The final frontier, inner or outer. When we were twelve, my friend Robert and I rode our bicycles out into the country—white rock roads sectioning off ten-square-mile tracts of farmland—and found a low water crossing that emptied into a small pond. The idea of a place where water washed over the road and into a small limestone pond, wreathed round with willows, it was almost too much for the mind to bear. I decided that we would call it Xanadu. Because this is what we do with places that were already there when we arrived. We name them to suit us. We name them in keeping with the breadth of our understanding (see: The New World).


I didn’t know what to call the thing I discovered I could bring into being when I was nine or maybe ten, a year or two after we’d moved to a new and smaller town, where I was at first and for some years largely friendless. Call it The Man From Porlock. Call it Xanadu. Call it The Autoerotic Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Another kind of blind exploration, in any case, there in the dark of my bedroom. Marco. Polo.


How elegant the space station in 2001. How workmanlike, how quotidian, the International Space Station. How sad that our grasp for the stars has been shuffled off, that astronauts from the country who first put men on the moon now have to fly coach. How strange that some three short years after Kubrick realized his masterpiece of humanity’s uneasy relationship with technology, that technology became firmly means to end, just one more way to speak of distance, a means of metaphor.


The space program having, of course, its roots in the Nazi V2 rocket program, the same technology used to propel our most ardent aspirations towards the stars was wedded to one of the dirtiest moments in US history, another product of World War II. Little Boy, all grown up and become the ICBM, with something like 500 times the destructive force. Perhaps the fact that Russian and American scientists now work side-by-side in the ISS is a step towards the kind of utopian ideals embraced in, say, Star Trek.


Robert and I figured out later that the creek that supplied the water to Xanadu—our found and primeval paradise—ran through a cow pasture. Which meant that the water in Xanadu, in which we’d swum and splashed with such abandon, was chock-full of cow shit and all other manner of agricultural effluvia.


David Bowie, of course, released “Space Oddity” in 1969, the year after (and inspired by) Kubrick’s release of 2001: A Space Odyssey; “Space Oddity” introducing into the lexicon the figure of the lost astronaut Major Tom.


Odysseus, of course, being a Greek soldier who had a hell of a time getting home from the Trojan War.


In 1980, Bowie sings “Ashes to ashes, fun to funky/ We know Major Tom’s a junkie.”


Coleridge wrote to John Thelwall in 1797: “I should much wish, like the Indian Vishnu, to float about along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotus, & wake once in a million years for a few minutes… I can at times feel strong the beauties you describe… but more frequently all things appear little – all the knowledge that can be acquired child’s play – the universe itself – what but an immense heap of little things?


Time speeds up as we age. The hours before it is permissible to wake one’s parents on Christmas morning, the last few weeks of summer vacation, when no more swimming or playing or reading or sleeping will satisfy—sated with relaxation—these lasted lifetimes. Now, months pass in no time at all. The three and a half years I spent in the Army, the four years I spent in high school, these seemed like a million years. Everything—time, distance, suffering, joy—is relative, is how I understood Einstein’s theory. Who, for instance, is to say a three-hour dream of paradise is not one million years slept and awoken from?


Weldon was not the last guy I did stuff with. Into my early teens, I dated girls, and I experimented with boys. Girls were terrifying in their terra incognita, as boys were terrifying in their potential, should our experimentations become public knowledge. The small Texas town where I grew up having clearly defined boundaries, and fairly heinous standards and practices for people who transgressed them, I wasn’t certain enough in my orientation—a Kinsey Scale 2, say—to risk the potential for social and physical harm to act any further than I did on what was, in any case, more curiosity than identity.


A few years after Robert and I discovered Xanadu, we found an abandoned limestone quarry outside of town. There were a couple of places where the water was deep enough to jump off the ledges into the pools below. If you hit the bottom, though, it raised up purplish clouds that gave off an awful stink. After we’d been swimming there for awhile, we saw the rancher whose farm the quarry bordered dumping a wheelbarrow-full of horseshit into the water from just about the spot where we usually jumped.


I traded one identity for another, always, I think, wanting to feel safe. To feel accepted. Musicals for post-apocalypse, disco for metal, extroverted and nerdy for stoned and jockish, push-ups and sit-ups for things that worked faster and more reliably, gender-fluid for gender rigidly defined.


Growing up in an agrarian community in Central Texas, my youth was at least somewhat defined by small bodies of water and the presence of animal shit. That, and an uneasy relationship with gender, with White Male Power that probably defined—necessitated—my movements outward, onward. As with Marco Polo, as with the conquistadors, as with Lou Reed and David Bowie and Elton John, I had to move, pushed as much as pulled. I was defined by all of these, and that discovery of personal Xanadu—and what is paradise for us here on earth but a moment’s reprieve, one moment being all we have at any time—of a dozen different sorts, of personal erasure and continuous making anew.




Author PhotoPR Griffis lives and writes in Willimantic Connecticut with his wife, the writer Mika Taylor, and their dog, Petunia Von Scampers. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fuse, Diagram, Defunct, and Devil’s Lake. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and a novel of as-yet-undetermined length, and sometimes attempts to Twitter: @PR_Griffis



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"Why You Can't Ring the Bell of 'High Striker,'" Popular Mechanics, 1935

“Why You Can’t Ring the Bell of ‘High Striker,'” Popular Mechanics, 1935


Banksy, Upper West Side, New York City

Banksy, Upper West Side, New York City


Today, in our fifth post of nonfiction november, we feature an essay by Raha Namy on the word whack. Enjoy!


whack  \hwak\  vb.  1:  to strike with a strong or resounding blow  2:  to cut with or as with a whack



You are in bed, in Denver. It is 18th of November, 2013, late at night. The lights are off and you are Viber messaging with him on your iphone. He is in his office, in Tehran, 28th of Aban 1392, morning. You send hugs and kisses and wish him a peaceful day. You tell him how much you appreciate his being supportive of you applying to the teaching position in Beirut, Lebanon. He sends you goodnight kisses.

You go on FB.  You respond to a friend’s message from Baltimore who is checking up on you to see how the edits for his translation of a TED talk on the subject of metaphors are going on. You have not even started yet, you text him. You need to get everything for the job application ready in less than a week.

The position begins at the beginning of the next academic year. You planned to stay in Denver and write and translate for another year, but the job is too appealing to just disregard. And you did not go looking for it; it came find you. A German-American friend, a colleague writer, who knows you enough to know what inspires you, texted you yesterday and said, “Do you know about this position?”

Still on FB, you get another message. The circle with the face of the friend in Tucson appears on the screen. You are to write something for the nonfiction month of The Dictionary Project. You stop yourself from immediately checking the message and continue on with the other conversation, all the while hoping for a word your ESL can handle. Even though you are a writer writing in English, the language is and will forever remain your second one.

You finally open the message box and read: “Hi. Your word, freshly bibliomanced, is: Whack.” You think, “What? What the hell does that mean?” You have a sense that it is a colloquial word, but you have no idea what to with it. You are sure you have never used it in any of your writings or in conversation. You continue to read:

“\hwak\  vb.  1:  to strike with a strong or resounding blow 2:  to cut with or as with a whack.”

That is not really helpful. You check your iphone’s Merriam-Webster app, then the iFarsi one. Now you can’t go to sleep. You get up and turn on the lights and your laptop. The New Oxford American Dictionary on your Apple tells you:


“whack |(h)wak| informal

verb [ with obj. ]

strike forcefully with a sharp blow: his attacker whacked him on the head | [ no obj. ] : she found a stick to whack at the branches.

• murder: he was whacked while sitting in his car.


1 a sharp or resounding blow.

2 a try or attempt: we decided to take a whack at spotting the decade’s trends.

3 Brit. a specified share of or contribution to something: motorists pay a fair whack for the use of the roads through taxes.


at a (or one ) whack at one time: he built twenty houses at one whack.

out of whack out of order; not working: all their calculations were out of whack.


whack off vulgar slang masturbate.


whacker noun

ORIGIN early 18th cent.: imitative, or perhaps an alteration of TWACK”


You check The Free Online Dictionary, use Google Translate, check the Urban Dictionary, the Aryanpour Online Persian Dictionary.

You then go to your bookshelf. You check your Little Oxford Thesaurus from 1998 and the word does not exist in there. You check your Longman Lexicon of Contemporary English from 1981 and the word does not exist in there. You check your Hezareh English-Persian Dictionary that is shedding more and more pages everyday. It reads:




You have no idea what you are going to do with the word. You have six days to write your essay, you tell yourself. Nothing will be resolved tonight. Go back to bed.

Sometime during the night you dream of a cemetery. In the distance a mass of black bodies moves slowly toward you. Puppets. Wooden. Much taller than humans. Women. Wrapped in black veils. Only their faces showing. They move as if being dragged on a hidden conveyor belt. You hear voices. From their direction. None of the mouths move. The voices ask, “What happened to our children?” The bodies move. The wind blows. “Where are our children?”

You wake up around 7:30 with a Viber message that reads, “Kisses. Wake up beauty.” You send a kiss back and write, “Have fun and say hi to everyone.” You know he is out with friends. You turn around in bed. You open the BBC page on your iphone. The first headline reads, “Lebanon blasts hit Iran’s embassy in Beirut.”


P.S. Three days later you send in your application documents for the teaching position in Beirut.



R. Namy is a freelance writer and translator. Wandering everywhere, she has given up on finding home anywhere.


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the dictionary project presents: deep & Diana



Last Saturday, the dictionary project presents! featured the word deep with our writers parsing out, responding to, delving into, working with the word in the multitude of possibilities the word offers. There was sex and intimacy. There was grief and grieving. There was hiding and uncovering. There was literal and metaphorical digging. There were altars and beaches and coalmines.

We videotaped the readers, but until we are able to offer those pieces, we are posting the long overdue readings from our third the dictionary project presents! event in spring which featured the word Diana.

Lisa O’Neill:

Kindall Gray:

Ian Ellasante:

Tere Fowler-Chapman:

Tc Tolbert:

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Complex mathematics



For our third post of nonfiction november, we are excited to have a piece on algebra and adding up by Molly McCloy. Please enjoy!



sum  /səm/  noun  1.  a particular amount of money: “they could not afford such a sum”  2.  the total amount resulting from the addition of two or more numbers, amounts, or items: “the sum of two prime numbers”





I liked addition. I didn’t mind carrying. It was division I hated. And subtraction. And borrowing.

In seventh grade I watched this preppy girl with a blonde ponytail just stomp all over this lesbian math teacher who was wearing an ugly vinyl coat. “You are a homosexual, aren’t you? Just admit it,” said Blonde Ponytail.

“That word doesn’t mean anything. It just means ‘same sex,’” said the math teacher, but the whole class knew that Blonde Ponytail had rattled her nerves and would rule each of their verbal exchanges for the rest of the year. I quietly removed “lesbian math teacher in vinyl coat” from my list of possible career options.

I was too slow at math anyway. I wanted to study genetics because I loved my seventh-grade science teacher, Mr. F., who taught us about dominant and recessive genes and was kind to that girl who broke down crying during her oral report about chickens.

But the bad math and science teachers added up. Freshman science teacher Mr. P. had been committed to a mental institution because he heard voices that told him he was Elvis with God living in his knee. When Mr. P. returned to teaching, he immediately did an Elvis impersonation for the school talent show, jumpsuit and all

Sophomore Biology was a madhouse because Mr. L. who was bald and had a handlebar mustache like a strongman in the circus would take attendance and then retreat to his office for the rest of the class period while we stole graduated cylinders to make into bongs.

Mrs. B. was a sour old coot who had no sense of humor and I suffered with her for two years of algebra and one of geometry. Junior year I wanted to take a chemistry class because I’d heard that class had the one good science teacher in the whole school, but on the first day I shared a table with these guys who had sexually harassed my friend, so I dropped it for study hall. I took exactly one algebra class in college taught by a guy who always ate cheap chow mein in the window of the Kung Fu Noodle Shop.

Then in 2011, a local politician demeaned my community college teaching career by saying, “You still have to teach them how to write? That’s worthless. That’s for high school.”

I wanted to say, “And who are you, lady? Some hack playing dress-up-West-Wing?”

Instead I thought, “I want to finally take that chemistry class.” Everyone seemed so happy with the STEM people. They made all the money.

To take chemistry, I had to take a math class first. Certainly working a couple of math problems would be less painful than all those years adjunct-teaching writing courses for pennies on the dollar.

It had been 23 years, so my last math class was older than some of my fellow students.  On the first day, the teacher didn’t orchestrate all the complicated icebreakers used by English teachers. She finally mentioned her own name in the last ten minutes, just tossed it in as an afterthought.

On the second day, the Iraq War vet on my right asked, “Why does it smell like formaldehyde in the college cafeteria?” and the redhead guy on my left answered, “Homeless guy smoking PCP?” It was a feasible theory for the downtown campus, so all three of us laughed. I’d already found my people, two guys half my age.

Later that class the teacher was trying to make a joke about the old Kung Fu show on TV, but when she mentioned David Carradine, Redhead said, “What a way to die,” and I said, “Yeah, Michael Hutchence from INXS went the same way,” but the teacher said, “What was the Kung Fu nickname for a young student….yes, Grasshopper, when you can solve the quadratic equation, it will be time for you to go.”

That’s when I noticed the teacher was wearing a T-shirt with the words “Hairy Potter” underneath the image of a dog wearing the little Harry Potter glasses. What had I been thinking? Of course there would be no algebra class discussion on the topic of autoerotic asphyxiation.

After a few weeks I was really hating this kind of problem, ripped up my scratch paper, almost cried actual tears over it: “Solve for x,y, and z: 3/4x -5/2y-1/3z=-14; x+3/4y +7/2z=-26; 2x-3y-4z=-4.” Eventually I realized it was my sloppiness that was screwing me up. I crammed tiny numbers into corners of scratch paper. I couldn’t read my own handwriting.

Three days after Father’s Day, a Tucson police officer entered the classroom and called War Vet’s name. War Vet exited the room with the officer and whispered, “He’s probably here to tell me my father finally died.”

He came back five minutes later and said, “Yeah, my dad died.” I touched his arm. The girl in the next row touched his arm. Redhead touched his arm. Other classmates out of reach extended their arms as if in an effort to touch War Vet’s arm. War Vet stared straight ahead, seemingly unmoved. “I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t feel anything at all.” The teacher came back in and we solved for x, y, and z for the rest of the hour.

Towards the end of the term, a student who had been absent due to the birth of his child asked me to teach him how to solve a complex equation with plenty of exponents and negative exponents and four full equations stacked on top of each other in the form of fractions. As he watched, I executed this elaborate drawing, flip-flopping the fractions to divide, drawing arrows to little subsidiary equations I had to create, changing negative numbers to positives and positives to negatives. “There,” I said, “that’s how you do it.”

I received a reaction I hadn’t experienced since the stoner in the back row of my writing class at DeVry saluted that “We Real Cool” poem with a standing ovation. My classmate, the twenty-something new father, looked at me and said, “That was beautiful.”




578548_10151786765702913_1249793942_nTucson writer and Moth storytelling slam winner Molly McCloy has published work in Nerve, Swink, and Slate. Find out more at mollymccloy.com.

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