Sunday, July 19, 2020

'The Land of Infinite Variety: Stories and Other Prose' Now Indexed on ProQuest

July 19, 2020 -- The arrival of a first-class envelope at my doorstep here in Portland over the weekend took me back about 10 years. It bore the seal of the university I've attended as a doctoral student for much of that time, and in the corner, the words DIPLOMA—DO NOT BEND. Amid the uncertainties of the global pandemic, like so many other newly-minted scholars and professionals exiting graduate programs in 2020, I'd been waiting for this materialization, some real-world sign of the terminus of my studies. This was it, complete with tissue paper, faux leather, and the digitally-rendered signatures of various officials.
Forget about commencement. The impersonality of the white envelope and its carefully-wrapped contents carried me back, instead, to memories of the Peace Corps and my smoke-filled exit from southern Kyrgyzstan via the Manas Air Base outside Bishkek, which I've narrated in previous posts. (The writer Jia Tolentino, also from K-18, our doomed volunteer class of 2010, has chronicled parallel experiences and argued for agency reforms meant to prevent other kinds of violence.)
Months after the evacuations of many in K-18, an unmarked truck with a U.S. government plate deposited a similarly-shrouded parcel at my doorstep in Fort Collins, Colorado, where I had returned to complete a master's degree in English at Colorado State. Inside the package I found assorted dictionaries, notebooks, travel guides, novels, and dusty personal effects that had survived the looting of the Melon Revolution. In other words, the rhetorical artifacts of my tenure abroad as a university educator—some 100 days of living with host families, preparing to co-teach English with local instructors, and beginning the journey toward fluency in one of Central Asia's dozens of Turkic languages. It had all ended in waves of violence that swept through the Kyrgyz provinces in mid-June 2010, for reasons still not well understood, resulting in hundreds of thousands of families displaced. And some 2,000 deaths—including the reported killing of two fixers hired to ferry my own team of American volunteers out of the chaos of an ancient city in flames.
Writing and reflecting on the broader systems of violence and colonization in which I found myself implicated that summer—and on what it means to arrive "home" in the American West—has taken the better part of a decade. And that work of self-examination (personal, fictive, familial, rhetorical) is far from finished. But this summer, along with my doctoral diploma, I can point to another kind of materiality: the assemblage, in manuscript form, of a book of stories and other prose now available on ProQuest (metadata only, for the near future). Below I'm sharing the abstract and table of contents for The Land of Infinite Variety, and offering thanks to the many generous souls who have guided this work and its author thus far.
For another window into its composition, here is a brief excerpt from my dissertation's artist's statement, which draws in part on a critical review by Patrick Madden, "W. G. Sebald: Where Essay Meets Fiction":
For Madden, then, the essay as a form is not limited to conventional genres of fact. His thought experiment maintains that Sebald’s first three translated “novels” can actually be read as nonfiction, while the fourth, Austerlitz (The Modern Library, 2001) “performs the actions of an essay” (174). In response, I might propose that we place Sebald’s works along a spectrum of essaying as a mode of discourse, rather than unnecessarily divorcing The Emigrants, for example, from the canon of literary fiction by applying the “non” prefix. More generally, however, my work asserts support for Madden’s thesis. Sebald’s and similar volumes of under-recognized “essays”—ranging from Brian Kiteley’s “novel” Still Life with Insects (Graywolf, 1989) to emerging works perhaps best captured in the title essay of Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (Houghton, 2018)—have been remarkably influential in composing certain stories at the heart of Infinite Variety. “The events of your life like an empty field . . . Invent something,” Chee muses, “that fits the shape of what you know,” then tell the story of this thing through “a character like you, but not you” (246). As of late, we find works fitting this mold in almost every kind of experimental fiction. From the lyrical fixations of Lydia Davis and Rita Bullwinkel to wartime cycles such as Phil Klay’s Redeployment (Penguin, 2014). From the New American anthologies of Ben Marcus to Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School (Farrar, 2019), with its chapters culled from essays, autoethnographic stories of therapy, fictionalized memories of high school forensics, and appearances of Duccio’s Madonna and Child, “a real painting,” in places that do not correspond with real time. Such anachronisms, explains Lerner in the back matter, work to signal his social novel’s “unstable mixture of fact and fiction” (285).
Turning to my own work, “A Fictional Essay On or About the 100th Meridian, Alphabetically Arranged,” for example, borrows its title and underlying structure from Dinty W. Moore’s enduring “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged,” which found its way from Crazyhorse to Harper’s. Moore, also a former journalist, catalogues some two dozen images of fathers (from classic television, the natural world, academia, genetics, and so on), beginning with “Allen, Tim,” then gradually intersecting with more personal entries such as “Vasectomies” (49-52). In my fictional essay’s examination of 26 scenes from a line of demarcation with “great significance” in the American West, an opening section titled “Adventure” introduces the cultural memory of “three fair-skinned, French tourists” paddling southward into the bowels of the high country. Their journey is followed by more personal “Echoes”:
It’s the same storied meridian many American families deserted—propelled less by adventure than desperation—in the year before the voyagers arrived to the land they called the Far-West. Might Antoine’s journal somehow call into question the writer’s own nostalgia for the late frontier—built on his grandfather’s late memories (1928-2013) of the Dakotas? . . . How many echoes, and how much dissonance? What of the parallels in these perpendicular lines of flight? (123)
. . . In this wayward manner, [my] work unfolds with parallels to what Sebald once described to a New Yorker interviewer: “Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way—in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field” (qtd. in Madden 170).

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

#AWP19 Roundup

Join RBM and friends for this year's Festival of Language 2019​ offsite readings, 5-8 p.m. tonight, March 27, Ford Food & Drink​, 2505 SE 11th Avenue, Portland, Oregon. Raul will deliver the closing reading, just before 8 p.m.

Along with other working writers based on the West Coast, Raul will present a panel discussion, "Selfish, Sleepless, Self-Deprecating: Parents on Children and the Writing Life," at 3 p.m. on Thursday. Beyond the panel, connect with Raul and local colleagues at Bookfair​ tables T1002 (Clark College) and T10107 (Salmon Creek Journal​). See you there, #AWP19!

Later this week, friends are invited to another offsite reading, "Voices from Across the River," hosted by Clark College on Saturday evening at 1122 Gallery​ in Portland's Montavilla neighborhood. Please see below for details.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Flash Prose Nominated for Pushcart

Along with other compositions, "Blowfish," a work of flash prose by RBM published earlier this year by Salmon Creek Journal, has been nominated by the journal for a Pushcart Prize. More on the nomination process can be found here. Please enjoy an excerpt:
The Dakotas have probably crossed the county line. The Dakotas are not the kind of boys you’ll find in a Walmart parking lot. So why this careful study of Entrance and Exit? Of tired woman and wailing would-be piano man? Inside there is Grocery and there is Pharmacy. Centers Garden, Vision, and Photo, and 1-Hour Photo. Where would the Dakotas hide? Sporting Goods? The walk-in cooler?
For the rest of this and more works by writers and artists from Washington State University Vancouver and other corners of the Northwest, please visit (Submissions are currently open to the public and close Jan. 11.) Thanks to the hardworking SCJ staff for this kind recognition.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Fastwrite: Election Night

This month, on the campus where I teach English, we're studying "living sources." Fieldwork, et cetera. Today I asked students to write for 10 minutes in a notebook about something or someone you've overheard in the past 24 hours. "Give your topic a face," Bruce Ballenger urges his curious and not-so-curious researchers. Here's what I got down.
North Portland. November 9, 2016. Corner bakery, big windows. 
The man sitting down the bench from me is on his phone. I can't make out the caller. His mother, maybe. He loves her very much—that much is clear. What's also obvious? This morning, this man is nearing some breaking point.
"You don't understand," says the man. "You're a white, straight American and you can't understand what this means for me. It's a nightmare. For someone who's gay, I mean. I'm gay, remember?" 
The man has curly brown hair and big headphones wrapped around his Adam's apple. Up-down, up-down. 
He's working, he told his sad friend earlier, for a little paper company off Mississippi. They're trying to convert a Craftsman into office space. Free beer, sans wireless. So he's working from the bakery today.
"You don't understand," the man repeats, his whisper beginning to crack. "I'm fine, I'll be fine. But I have friends in North Carolina. I'm worried sick about them. For their safety, I mean. They don't understand.
"And listen, when I get back, I don't want to hear about this. Nothing. Not at Thanksgiving. Not now. They don't understand, and you don't, and I don't either."
And I don't either. But that's what I heard today, I told the class. Who's next?

Update -- Another version of this piece appears in the 2017 issue of Salmon Creek Journal.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Snap Box

RBM has a new short story, "Snap Box," in the current issue of Drunken Boat. An excerpt:
But this too is probably a false picture. This town, like Isabel and maybe Aurelia, shares its name with debutantes—the daughters of Percy, the transcontinental tycoon. In pictures, Percy A. Rockefeller’s thick jowls and small worried eyes remind you of a picture book. Right there on the shelf in the TV room: Percy the Small Engine (1956), about a shape-shifting locomotive who sometimes prefers the look of a green caterpillar with red stripes. ¶ What has become of your daughters? The question ripples in the heat. The caterpillar rears above the wasteland.
For more fiction from DB23, and statistics coinciding with the 2015 VIDA Count, see fiction editor Sybil Baker's introduction to the issue. And don't miss the moving DB23 folio on homelessness.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Fall Readings at #PAMLA2015 and #WesternLit2015

A father-son portrait from "Thanksgiving for Aurelia"

November 8, 2015 -- This fall, RBM brought new chapters of a prose manuscript-in-progress, The Land of Infinite Variety, to the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association's 113th annual conference in Portland, and to the Western Literature Association's 50th annual conference in Reno (PDF).

At Friday's PAMLA session on "brief prose forms," organized and moderated by Megan Spiegel of Western Washington University, RBM read from a lyric essay on motherhood, "Thanksgiving for Aurelia," modeled after Dinty W. Moore's "Son of Mr. Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged." Glimmer Train recently shortlisted (PDF) a related work of fiction as a finalist for the magazine's Short Story Award for New Writers.

Slides from "The Archivist and The Voyager"
At October's WLA session on "intergenerational memoir," moderated by Megan Riley McGilchrist of the American School in London, RBM read from "The Archivist and The Voyager," another alphabetically-arranged essay. This chapter from RBM's forthcoming collection juxtaposes accounts of the American West from two journals of the late 1930s: that of his grandfather, and that of French tourist Antoine de Seynes. The story of the latter "voyager" and two companions was recently documented in a feature-length film, Voyagers Without Trace (2015), which debuted in Portland. (RBM served as a post-production associate producer; there's more on this acclaimed project at Below is a brief excerpt from RBM's reading in Reno:
One fragment, from that first westerly passage, stands out from the rest. Some measure of redemption, let’s say, for our collective memory. It’s an image of descent, under the noonday sun of 1930-something, from the high plateau of the Old West into the fruit valleys of the Northwest: peaches, pears, apples, toilets, electricity. Men crawling like so many insects over something called the Grand Coulee. Such wonders, says my great uncle, in his eulogy. The three boys gazing the whole time, I’m told, from the rear window of a 1929 Chevrolet. 
The car rolls to a stop at a big painted lodge in the basin. The youngest boy, the one usually last in line, steps out first, now suddenly a tourist. Just then, something peculiar catches the boy’s eye—a glinting transom at the peak, the very zenith of the roofline. And so the young archivist scurries up the railing to have a look. 
Staring back, through the beveled glass, is the boy’s own reflection—the sight of which sends us both tumbling back to earth.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Thirteen Ways of Looking at an Island

July 10, 2015 -- From a week of kayaking the Salish Sea with a Sigma zoom lens (100-300 mm), thirteen views of Sucia Island, an early home to the Lummi people. The island's cryptic geology, which alarmed Spanish explorers, owes its designs to intertidal erosion and the sculpting of countless organisms. Stony clams protruding from the walls of Fossil Bay, for example, tell a story 80 million years in the making.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The View from (Another) Long Island

May 25, 2015 -- Pictures from a long weekend exploring Washington's Long Island, where lumber production doubled in the postwar years, and surrounding Willapa Bay, one of North America's most extensive estuaries.

Friday, February 06, 2015

The Agronomist as Hero

February 6, 2015 -- RBM is thrilled to have new nonfiction, "The Agronomist as Hero," featured in the current issue of Quarterly West, a literary journal based at the University of Utah. Here's a brief excerpt:
My father stands at another intersection, inspecting another column of green that did not have permission to materialize. In the photo I take after turning on the recorder, he has this gleeful look about him, all rounded spectacles and crossed arms, because these spreading trunks and star-shaped canopies are now beyond question. They’ve always bordered the elementary school and the playground and the best sledding hill in town. 
For more prose, poetry, and new media from issue 84, visit the journal's dandy-looking website. Or for more on "courage, love of adventure," and "the nature of landscape," you can find a similarly-titled essay on Claude Lévi-Strauss, by Susan Sontag, over here.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The View from The Empress

November 10, 2014 -- Over the weekend, RBM attended the Western Literature Association's annual conference, hosted this year by the University of Victoria's Department of English at The Empress hotel on Vancouver Island. Along with panels ranging from indigenous literature to borderlands criticism, the four-day gathering featured a celebration of Washington novelist Jim Lynch's Border Songs (2009).

On Saturday, RBM read from a nonfiction collage, "Once More to Aurelia," which WLA named runner-up for best creative writing submission. Back in March, RBM read from the same manuscript-in-progress at this year's Native American Literature Symposium (PDF). Here's a brief excerpt from "Once More to Aurelia," and this year's full list of WLA award winners. (Thanks to Frederick Manfred, and all the award committee members!)
At the big gravel lot, the office is locked but Judy has left my keys under the mat, with a receipt and sorry we missed you scribbled in blue. Three months of parking out here on the edge of nothing has cost $212, for which I'm grateful, but only after checking the windshield. The cab lost some paint to last month's hailstorm, but at least the glass held out. So has the battery, but just barely. I power down the windows. I give the engine some gas. I whisper a prayer of thanks to Judy, and then something small and yellow begins dive-bombing the windshield, filling the nothingness with a sound I haven't heard in 20 years. It's coming from the driver's side mirror. Giant yellow wasps—streaming from the housing, pouring into the cab, knocking themselves silly against everything that shines in the August heat.
      I paw at the console, forcing one window back up, the other down. The old motors groan, sucking down the last of the juice from the hood. It seems to take a whole minute, but finally there's glass between me and the nest. I can see it more clearly now, wrapped around my reflection on three sides, each muddy cavity pulsing with a tiny angry missile. More or less exactly the picture of the Badlands that I carry in my mind’s eye. Welcome, says the sign on 44.
Congratulations, one and all! See you next year in Reno