Jordan A. Rothacker’s The Pit, And No Other Stories


Jordan A. Rothacker’s The Pit, And No Other Stories

by Melissa Ximena Golebiowski

“The Pit is a journey in itself, a ride with flashes of life and an ending in a place, in a world, you didn’t quite anticipate.”

Rothacker opens his novella with a vivid image of a small community in which all inhabitants eventually are hurled into, well, a pit. Just as the title suggests, the Pit is our central location. In a town, aptly named Pittsville, our narrator who remains as mysterious as the Pit itself has ventured down below in search of a watch promised to him by his grandfather upon his deathbed. The first chapter pulls the reader into a world where the inevitable is a focal point, and hints at it as something to strive towards. This is not a world of traditional burials and ash scattering; once someone has expired they are given to the Pit in a funereal fashion. After the narrator witnesses his grandfather “going over” with this promised watch still secured to his cold wrist, he sneaks out to see just how far he can reach to get back what was meant for him. As soon as he falls in, Rothacker changes the channel.

We land in 1959 New York City, inside the office of a private investigator in conversation with a potential client who has no more information on his target than a nickname, The Speckled Hen. Not only have the time and place transformed, the way of talking and character’s tones are completely new. There is a hardboiled feeling added to the plot–yet a dark curiosity felt with our first character remains within this American Noir portion of the novella. This curiosity, along with the Pit, continues to rise, fall, and rebuild itself throughout the remainder of the novella.

From the P.I.’s office, we are taken on a wild ride through rainy Shanghai in 1945, fast forward to a Hollywood in 1982, drop down to Chicago in 1956, eventually falling further back in time to 1812 West Africa. There is a natural attempt to piece together the characters encountered in these various time periods and locations but Rothacker turns the corner so rapidly that the threads seem to unravel quicker than they’re sewn. This isn’t a jab at Rothacker as his chapters are packed with enough life to quickly settle you into your new environment. He’s done the research and taken the time to carefully craft the people we experience within a limited space. Many of the voices we find in The Pit are as varied as the stories we find them in. There are moments of West African Islamic Law, Mao’s takeover, and UFO sightings. Some characters return while others make a single yet impactful appearance such as an American Indian grandmother from 180 BC who begins a journey from which she may not return. However, everyone we encounter eventually meets a very similar fate that is difficult to ignore.

The Pit is an existential take on the after-life, the talk of where we go afterwards except modeled by an almost tangible place. The Pit, And No Other Stories is exactly what is presents itself as, it may seem at first as if the first six chapters serve as seven different stories all beginning with our unnamed character who falls into the Pit accidently, but slowly they begin to intertwine and unwind until we realize that there is indeed, only one story here. It is a novella full of histories and ideas. It is a story about the trials and obstacles that fall into our path as we desperately try to unearth the genius within something we deeply care for.

The Pit is a journey in it self, a ride with flashes of life and an ending in a place, in a world, you didn’t anticipate but because of Rothacker’s craftsmanship, you find yourself wholeheartedly accepting.

An Interview With Jordan Rothacker:

M: The Pit, And No Other Stories is just that, what a brilliant title, it takes place within many time periods and places, with a variety of voices. When did you stumble upon this idea? Did you fear for your reader? (Meaning, because there were so many sub plots though they all tied into a bigger portrait…)

J: Thank you. I worry that the title is cumbersome, especially when people ask, “So you wrote a novel, what’s it called?” and I tell them and then they ask, “Is it a story collection?” and I say, “No, it’s a novel. It’s The Pit, and No Other Stories.” I occasionally feared for my reader, but ultimately I trust my reader. Due to television shows like Lost or really so much in film and television and literature, people handle far more non-linear narrative than they realize. And of course it’s linear when it comes down to it. You start at the beginning of the book or film and you read and watch to the end, a straight line. William S. Burroughs used to talk about, in the 50’s and 60’s, how literature was behind visual mediums, but ultimately it is the way humans naturally tell stories, we jump all over the place, we digress, we give flashbacks and even flash forwards as we hint to the punch line of the story before we get there. In some ways I see The Pit as a more accessible or dumbed-down version of what Burroughs has done in so many novels in regards to form or what Italo Calvino had a good time playing with.

M: I’ve studied many religions myself though not to your degree or level. What influence would you say your M.A. in Religion had on this novel? What about the ideas of death within the religions you’ve studied?

J: The first novel I wrote, about ten years ago, is very much a religious novel. I actually took on the M.A. in Religion as research for the book (which is set in Atlanta and the reason why I did the MA in Georgia) and my M.A. thesis was comprised of two chapters from the book followed by an exegesis and annotations. I specialized in religion and literature in my coursework. It’s a discipline mostly coming out of Chicago and it is often said to begin with a text like The Heart of Darkness. Horror and horror in the face of the Modern is explored in this study. I also got into post-colonial studies and now combine that with romanticism in my PhD work and dissertation. Both Romanticism and Post-Colonialism are a reaction to the Enlightenment in their own ways. They seek to return a voice—and power—to those marginalized by the Enlightenment Project, so that includes the feminine, the indigenous, the non-white, the pagan, and often merely the religious, for religions are irrational, like the arts. All the “Others” of the often male, rational, white, Euro-American “Self.” While writing The Pit these thoughts certainly got in there. I thought about Burroughs a lot as I wrote this book and I often think of him in a religious context, as a mythmaker like Borges, Faulkner, Danilo Kis, and Amos Tutuola, like Hesiod, or Snorri Sturluson who wrote the Eddas. The Pit for me is a roundup of how I see different American myths. As far as a religious connection with death, I mean, it’s right there in the first chapter, The Pit is a funereal site. This weird small town gothic setting has a secret from the outside world that involves how it handles death. There is a lot of death and religion in the book, come to think of it. I think you’re on to something…

M: Reading through the novel, I couldn’t help but feel similarities within other greats that I’ve read, particularly Slaughter House Five by Vonnegut. Was this an inspiration for you? What other inspirations did you have writing this?

J: I hadn’t thought of that Vonnegut book, but without giving anything away for someone who hasn’t read The Pit yet, I can kind of see it in the “outside of time” stuff. I do like that book though; I re-read it a few years ago on the plane over on a visit to Dresden. It certainly enhanced my Dresden trip. As for other inspirations, I got to meet Margret Atwood at a reading a few years ago and I was so giddy, she’s so great. One of her books that had a great effect on me I read back when I was like 19. It was a slim collection called, Murder in the Dark. It was the perfect book for that age, too. It showed me how ok it was to break down form in a really interesting way and how much can be done with so little space. The Pit was about me returning to that youthful excitement of playing with form. For some reason in my twenties I couldn’t feel legit without writing a long naturalistic novel. That novel has yet to be published, but direct inspirations for The Pit would be Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night A Traveler.
Romanticism and Post-Colonialism are a reaction to the Enlightenment in their own ways. They seek to return a voice—and power—to those marginalized by the Enlightenment Project, so that includes the feminine, the indigenous, the non-white, the pagan, and often merely the religious, for religions are irrational, like the arts. All the “Others” of the often male, rational, white, Euro-American “Self.” While writing The Pit these thoughts certainly got in there.

M: What about some subconscious inspirations, who are your favorite writers?

J: That’s always a tough question, but I guess it’s a bit easier than asking what my favorite book is. For that question I’d give you a list of books, most likely categorized. Of living writers I have a deep love and appreciation for William T. Vollmann. His brilliance, breadth, and proficiency is really seen in an artist, as well as the heart and social conscience he brings to his work. Reading him makes me a better writer, thinker, and person. Some times I say he is our Tolstoy and Dostoevsky wrapped up in one.  He is one of the great living American writers and for skill and importance I put him up with Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, Cormac McCarthy, and Thomas Pynchon of our country today. As far as other favorites go, Maggie Nelson is brilliant and the way her mind is able to harness great thoughts and deliver them with such style gets me really excited. I really love Steve Erickson and look forward to a new book from him next year and Cesar Aira blows me away. Writers of the past who get me super excited—just the first few that spring to mind—are William S. Burroughs, Anna Akhmatova, Hesiod, Ovid,  Ousmane Sembene, Frantz Fanon.

M: This novel really ignites existential thought, not only through the construction but the ideas presented, ideas many people avoid. I found myself, while reading the novel, constantly thinking and venturing into deeper places. Was this the intention you wanted for your reader? Or did you envision the reader at all?

J: I love that you read it as existential. I mean I finished it after really loving what a perfect creation the first season of True Detective was. That show brought me back to reading Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, E.M. Cioran, as well as the Ligotti and Chapman that inspired it; and Vollmann had just published his gothic masterpiece, Last Stories and Other Stories. Delving into that infectious darkness, letting the pessimism wash all over you can be an engaging journey. I have to live in the world and get up every day and experience the joy and beauty of life and the people I love, but I never stop thinking about how humans are the worst species, that ultimately we are doomed. People love going to these places, the fantasy of darkness, horror movies, and literature. The arts let us tour these dark places. That’s why I think of this as an entertainment or a jive book. I’m glad it made you think and I hope it makes others think and value life in regards to death, but there are a lot of people in this world, this country and abroad, who don’t have the luxury of dabbling in darkness because they live some pretty awful situations. There’s one book that I read last year, which still haunts me deeply entitled The Corpse Exhibition, by Hassan Blasim. He is an Iraqi who now lives in Finland. The book is a collection of stories all set in contemporary war-torn Iraq. They are masterful and horrific, sometimes even surreal, and very hard to characterize. I’ve called them “war-zone gothic” for lack of a better term. Though the stories are macabre and might feel like horror writing, the thing that hits you the hardest is to know that they are based in an awful, awful reality that is part of daily life for so many people.

M: Where does death come into all of this? Does it? You seem to bring a metaphorical sense of death and sit it next to concrete examples.

J: The pit of the title is a funereal site for many who encounter it in the book. For others it involves new life in a weird way—but I’ll give no spoilers. There is a real cyclicality about life and death that flows through this book. It’s hard for me to imagine this giant deep Pit that is described in the first chapter without thinking of Ouroboros. That ancient Greek symbol loved by alchemists. It is the “tail-eater” and like many great serpents of myth—the Midgard serpent comes to mind—it is often associated with beginnings and ends. So, it is all about death but also new life, kind of how the Death card in the tarot just represents change. In some ways, and I don’t want to give too much away, but it seems like, in the book, that inside the Pit is a sort of liminal space, or a bardo, as mentioned in some Buddhist teachings. A between life and death, a place of becoming and potency, the place where the shaman or the artist goes in their practice. Hemingway was asked once what he thought about death, and he replied that it was “just another whore.” Maybe in The Pit it’s “just another trope” or “just another metaphor.”

M: You bring life to characters from many different walks of life (Black Muslims, American Indians, Chinese, even a man who sees a UFO), what sort of research was involved with this?

J: That’s the fun of a book like this and the restrictions I had upon myself: each section and plot line involved its own problem solving. Some sections required research by studying maps, digging through histories and chronologies, and some sections were just pure imagination pouring forth. I’ve taught an African Diaspora Literature class at UGA I think 20 different times over six years and yet still I went in to telling my own original slave narrative from a cautiously researched place. The device of that narrative voice in those sections worked out pretty well.

M: Why did you choose the particular backgrounds and stories you chose?

J: The whole book began for me with that first story and writing it to try my hand at this American trope of the small town gothic, a Shirley Jackson or even Mark Twain type thing. And then it became for me all about exploring all the different American tropes I like, the detective noir, the sc-fi, the southern slave narrative, a nautical/pirate story, Native American folklore, a desert roadtrip, aliens sightings over a cornfield, the tragic Hollywood fall of an actor, and even corporate business. Some are, of course, more serious than others and I spent the most labor and worry over the Native American and the African American slave portions.

M: I took note of some sentences that stood out to me, would you mind elaborating or explaining your thought behind two of them for fun?

J: Sure!

M: “With his father gone, Quentin stopped even pretending to hide how free Amadou really was, or how integral he was to the business… The African-American experience is the most important lens by which to understand America itself.” I was really intrigued by this.

J: In Steve Erickson’s last novel, These Dreams of You, a great book about race in America—so good that I even taught it despite the fact that he is white—he mentions that the American Dream belongs most to the African-American because it was betrayed for them (their ancestors) en route and yet they have stayed for generations and made America home despite the betrayal.

M: “I watched the black bile sparkle and pour from my mouth like stars from a pitcher in the sky… But to her my front was an appetizer. And she was the most frightening and real woman I’d ever met.” The imagery in of a pitcher filled with stars is very poetic.

J: That image just came to me; I think I was picturing something astrological, like a medieval drawing of Aquarius maybe. I guess I also pictured how activated charcoal would look if one were to vomit it. I’ve never tried ayahuasca actually.
The Pit, And No Other Stories is out now from Black Hill Press. You can grab your copy here.


Jordan A. Rothacker is a novelist, poet, and journalist who resides in Athens, Georgia. He received his MA in Religion from the University of Georgia and is currently a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature. His dissertation-in-progress is titled On Cultural Guerrilla Warfare: Art As Action. Rothacker’s journalism can be found in the pages of magazines as diverse as Vegetarian Times and International Wristwatch and his fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in such periodicals as The Exquisite Corpse, Mayday, Curbside Splendor, Red River Review, As It Ought To Be, Dark Matter, and Dead Flowers: A Poetry Rag. He was also a contributor to William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion, which published this past December. Three of his favorite things to talk about are sandwiches, indigenous land rights, and his cat, Whiskey.

Melissa Ximena Golebiowski is a writer and literary marketer based in New York City. Her poetry was most recently published in Noah Literary Magazine. She is currently at work on a novel. @MelissaXimena

Black Hill Press is a publishing collective of a growing family of writers and artists dedicated to the novella—a distinctive literary form that offers the focus of a short story and the scope of a novel. Their independent press produces uniquely curated collections of Contemporary American Novellas.

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Jen Karetnick Head Shot

By Jen Karetnick:


phone calls from patients, their parents or partners,
repeating what he has already said half-a-dozen times

in the office—“I know the auras are uncomfortable,
but they’re better than grand mal seizures, and that’s

what the meds will help to prevent”— and dispensing
predictions no one wants to hear—“No, I don’t think

he’ll come home; the stroke was catastrophic”—but
are asked for over and over in the hopes they will change,

while I shush the kids in the backseat, stop them from shouting
with too much apparent joy in their voices, keep the radio

playing Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” turned down. Soon
we will dissect the Seder plate, digest the bitter

herbs, finger the salt dried on the easily torn skin
of faith. We will recite the plagues: boils, murrain,

the lice we have been visited by several times this year.
On this night, we will open the door for a rogue spirit

who might drink our wine but not heal vertigo; on this night
we will recline on a pillow that can’t fuse a broken

spine. On this night, the cell phone chirps and sings,
and there are no miracles beyond what can be doctored.


Mother, in your womb I am an experiment.
You pass on not immunity but its silvery underside,
give permission for the needle like an arrow to
birth holes in this temporary home, sip the fluid
like a taster of fine wines without the benefit of
a visible image. No bigger than a black widow
spider, the doctors must guess where I am,
and agree there is nothing to be done.
I am poison to both of us. Unsafe
harbor, you insist on mooring me to
your designated slip, tossed by rash after
rash of storms. I will remove myself early. Still ill,
of course you will not care for me right away. Of all the
eggs you might have nourished, I am the one who breaks you.


Stamina. From the Latin stamen,
meaning thread of woven cloth. Plant parts
resemble the warp and woof, but old farts?
The boost was designed for the impotent,
not the young at heart. They can’t afford
to see the blue of detached retinas
when the sky has already claimed those hues
and the days for viewing them are numbered.
How ‘bout a pill to make them remember
to take out the garbage or mow the lawn?
One to defoliate the nose hairs grown?
Or better: to spark conversational vigor.
No chance of that? Then don’t bring it on.
This is the last thing, the last thing we want.

“On the Way to Seder, My Husband Answers” was previously published in The Healing Muse. Today’s poems are from the forthcoming collection American Sentencing (Winter Goose Publishing), and appear here today with permission from the poet.

Jen Karetnick is the author/co-author/editor of 14 books, two of them forthcoming: American Sentencing (poetry, Winter Goose Publishing) and The Treasures That Prevail (poetry, Whitepoint Press). In addition to poetry, she writes lifestyle books, the most recent of which is the cookbook Mango (University Press of Florida, 2014). Her poems, prose and playwriting have been widely published in literary and commercial outlets including, Cimarron Review, december, Miami Herald, North American Review, Poet’s Market 2013, Poets & Writers,, River Styx, Spillway,, Valparaiso Poetry Review and Virgin Atlantic Airlines. Based in Miami with her husband, two teenagers, various rescue pets and 14 mango trees, she works as the Creative Writing Director for Miami Arts Charter School and as the dining critic for MIAMI Magazine.

Editor’s Note: Jen Karetnick expertly catalogues the vast and startling spectrum of life, from the mundane to the monumental, from humor to horror. Amidst the stories that unfold are stunning and heartbreaking moments of lyric: “Soon we will dissect the Seder plate, digest the bitter // herbs, finger the salt dried on the easily torn skin / of faith;” “Of all the / eggs you might have nourished, I am the one who breaks you.” And that beauty is balanced by the hilarious and the absurd. Of viagra, a group of women posit, “How ‘bout a pill to make them remember / to take out the garbage or mow the lawn? / One to defoliate the nose hairs grown? / Or better: to spark conversational vigor. / No chance of that? Then don’t bring it on. / This is the last thing, the last thing we want.”

Want more from Jen Karetnick?
Read poems from Brie Season
Buy Brie Season on Amazon
Buy Prayer of Confession from Finishing Line Press
Buy Landscaping for Wildlife from Big Wonderful Press
Read more of Jen Karetnick’s poems and prose

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The Myth of the Apolitical American Poet


The Myth of the Apolitical American Poet

by Michael T. Young



I recently heard a poet complain that the poets he friended on Facebook seemed more like activists than poets. He was considering leaving Facebook until after the election so he didn’t have to listen to the ranting and debating. I thought this was a good thing—the activism that is. It was also proof of what I’ve always argued: that American poets are deeply engaged in the relevant issues of our day.


There’s an assumption that American poets don’t engage politics or social issues. We’re believed to be only concerned with our personal lives and to write only about that. To most Americans our poets are all confessional in the worst sense of the word and write only an obscure, self-absorbed poetry and this is why they aren’t read. However, this is a myth. Although we engage personal issues, it is through them that we engage the true social and political issues of our day and this is the way to be most fully engaged. Take a poem like “Charlie Howard’s Death” by Mark Doty. Charlie Howard was a teenager who was murdered in 1984 because he was homosexual. Three other teenagers chased him down and threw him over a bridge into a river, though he protested that he couldn’t swim. Doty wrote a poem that is not only personally relevant since he is also a gay man, but one that is emotionally powerful and complex, aesthetically beautiful and socially relevant since gay rights are among the most relevant of socio-political topics of our time. Much of Doty’s poetry deals with gay issues, and these are both personally relevant and relevant to the larger cultural setting of our day.


Another poet who engages both socio-political topics and personal issues simultaneously is Gerald Stern. For instance, in his poem, “The Same Moon Above Us,” he imagines a homeless man as the exiled Ovid, which also allows him to identify with Ovid as a poet and thus the three become one and the poem on one of its levels is a commentary on poverty in America. Poverty is exile, and like the exile they are granted no voice because judged already. Who among the homeless are our exiled Ovids, which of them may be an unsung Milton or Keats? Another of Stern’s poems is “June Fourth,” which with subtlety engages the perspective of a worker and the authority that oppresses him. In a short span it ropes together everything from the metaphysical to the economic in a nuanced language about power and what creates the fertile ground of revolt. The poem is set in the world of factory life for Bethlehem Steel. It confronts the core issues embodied in the Occupy Wall Street Movement though written decades ago.


This kind of socio-political engagement can be found in many contemporary poets such as Cynthia Atkins, Okla Elliott, Barbara Elovic, Richard Levine, Djelloul Marbrook, and Joe Weil, just to name a few. Furthermore, many poets are politically active in some respect. Richard Levine identifies himself as a political activist and is quite busy working against fracking in New York. Djelloul Marbrook is a former journalist and, for many, is a source of alternative views to the standard media outlets like the New York Times or CNN. And it is not only these poets who are not nationally known or winning our biggest prizes who are so engaged. For instance, Wendell Berry, in addition to being a magnificent poet, and a recipient of a National Medal of Arts and Humanities, has spent his life writing about and defending small farmers against large corporations and monopolies. In many ways, he was fighting the power of the 1% long before those in Occupy Wall Street were born.


To highlight both their political activism and their engagement with issues in their poetry, is not to argue that our poets use poetry in service to politics or as a mere linguistic soapbox. Nothing could be worse or a greater artistic torture to endure. Our poets know this. If not explicitly, at least implicitly, they know what George Oppen argued, that “the good life, the thing wanted for itself, the aesthetic, will be defined outside of anybody’s politics, or defined wrongly.” Thus to engage the socio-political concerns of our time or any other, is to do it from the point of view of the personal, of the individual life lived. Our poets are in the position to be more clearly engaged with the real issues because they approach them from the point of view of living and not from the stance of rhetoric.


As the myth about the Romantics being non-political crystalized around their actively creating this image, so too the American poet as an apolitical writer intent only on the reality of his immediate world was created by those poets. Our poets often insist on concrete rather than abstract work, the immediate and visceral rather than the remote and intellectual. I think that insistence in theory has resulted in an image that is not true to practice. One reason for it may be that our poetry’s language is the opposite of political speech, which is always evasive, abstract, an incantation of generalizations meant to charm you to sleep and vote. Poetry is meant to wake you up.


Most of the Romantics were active supporters of the French Revolution, much of Blake’s poetry is charged with socio-political concerns and Byron himself died fighting in the Greek War for independence. The critic, Jacque Barzun, wrote a brilliant book called Classic, Romantic, Modern, which debunked the myths about the Romantic poets, one of those myths being that they had no interest in politics. In much the same way, a book could be written debunking this same myth about American poets. But I think a better thing to do is read American poetry and pay attention to the socio-political realities underlying their themes.


If Americans spent a little time reading their poets, they would wake up to the fact that America is rich with a poetry that engages every relevant issue of our time from the personal to the political, and might even learn that most poets realize these can’t be separated. To live life in a democracy is to be political. To grapple with the issues of your daily life and to write about them is to comment on and confront the reality of the republic in which we live. It might also give us, as a country, pause to wonder why exactly our poets are not more widely read since it is not because they don’t address issues relevant to our lives. They are, in fact, more concerned about what’s happening in our country than most. And maybe that’s really why they aren’t read, not because they don’t engage the important issues but precisely because they do. Most other Americans would rather watch a sitcom, wrapping themselves in its humorous triviality, like a child imagining the blanket he pulls over his head can protect him against anything that might emerge from the darkness while he sleeps.



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Think The Vampire Diaries Is Just Lowbrow TV? Your Loss

Vampire Diaries Main

Photo Credit: Art Streiber/The CW

Think The Vampire Diaries is Just Lowbrow TV? Your Loss

by Norah Vawter

The Vampire Diaries, a so-called “teen soap” created by Kevin Williamson and Julie Plec, premiered in 2009 and is about to begin its seventh season on the CW. It may not be your cup of tea: no fictional story appeals to everyone. But before you write off this show as a waste of time, you should know that it’s well-written, carefully crafted television that has no illusions of being highbrow. This is not Mad Men or Downton Abbey (both great), and part of its appeal is that it doesn’t try to be. Critics and viewers often call TVD a guilty pleasure, but if you watch enough episodes you may find you have nothing to feel guilty about.

Loosely based on a series of young adult novels by L. J. Smith, the premise (human girl caught between two vampire brothers) risks sounding like a rip-off of Twilight. It’s not—Smith published the first Vampire Diaries book fourteen years before Twilightmania. For those who like a little bit more punch in their mythical creatures, Smith’s vampires are thankfully much less sparkly and much more dangerous.

When I started watching the The Vampire Diaries, I felt embarrassed to admit I was watching it, let alone that I liked it. I was 29, a grad student studying creative writing at George Mason University, and in the middle of writing a literary novel for my thesis. I was immersed in serious literature. I even made fun of friends who read trashy mystery novels or were addicted to Survivor. However, as a reader of Smith’s series when I was younger, my interest was piqued when I heard news of the premier. I told myself I’d just watch the pilot.

Then I decided I’d watch one more episode.

Pretty soon I was hooked.

My husband laughed at my new obsession. “It’s almost porn,” he said, once describing TVD as a high-school sex fantasy. (The show’s eye candy—and make no mistake, every man and woman acting on this show is astoundingly GORGEOUS—includes characters appearing on screen shirtless at every opportunity, and those opportunities are plentiful.)

I kept watching. The show was an escape and a pleasure, and also apparently the gateway drug of “bad” TV. Watching TVD led to me trying out other series, and my eyes were opened to all the amazing things TV writers can do with narrative, things that novelists can’t because the medium is simply too different.

The Vampire Diaries takes place in the small town of Mystic Falls, Virginia. Our heroine is Elena Gilbert, age 17, a sweet girl-next-door-type played by Nina Dobrev. At the show’s opening, we learn Elena’s parents have recently died in a car crash, and Elena is (reasonably) having a hard time coping. Elena begins dating the nice-guy-transfer-student Stefan Salvatore, played by Paul Wesley, who gives his character a solemn gravitas and also an edge. We realize he’s not always a nice guy. When Elena meets Stefan’s older brother Damon, played flawlessly by Ian Somerhalder, she’s drawn to his bad-boy charm and the experience of someone already several years beyond high school. Somerhalder used Cary Grant as inspiration for Damon’s character, wanting to channel “the effortless fluidity with which he speaks and breathes and moves.” Damon is sexier than his brother, and in the first seasons he’s more dangerous.

You can imagine Elena’s surprise, and quite legitimate fear, when she discovers that the Salvatore brothers are not actually her peers but were in fact  born in the 1840s. Perhaps more concerning is that they died in 1864. Except… you know, they didn’t. Adding to the complexity of this plot is that the sultry vampire who turned the brothers immortal, Katherine, mysteriously looks exactly like Elena (and is also portrayed by Dobrev).

About halfway through the first season, I realized the show had become good.

The Vampire Diaries grew up over those first episodes. The entire cast is talented, and it’s clear that the chemistry between Nina Dobrev, Ian Somerhalder, and Paul Wesley is out of this world. Dobrev also shines when playing the manipulative and hilarious Katherine. Supporting cast stand-outs include Candice Accola as Caroline, Matt Davis as Alaric Saltzman, and Joseph Morgan, Daniel Gillies, and Claire Holt as three Original Vampires who were so good they got their own spinoff (The Originals).

Content and plot-wise: TVD is much more than a love triangle. The supernatural mythology is fascinating but too complicated to summarize well here. The town of Mystic Falls seems to draw supernatural beings to it, and you can argue that the show is about the town itself, with its various supernatural residents, vampire-savvy Founder’s Council, and a cherished history.

But the real heart of the show?

Damon and Stefan Salvatore.

The theme of “family” comes up frequently in TVD, with each character defined by lost family members as well as ones still alive, ones who can still be protected. The Salvatore brothers fight like hell but will do anything for each other, perhaps because they’ve been brothers for so long. Elena sums up their bond in Season Three, when she and Damon are trying to rescue Stefan from self-destruction. (Bloodlust is often treated as addiction in this show; Stefan’s a problem drinker.) Says Elena, “I think you’re going to be the one to save [Stefan] from himself. It won’t be because he loves me. It will be because he loves you.”

That’s what the Salvatore brothers have really been doing since 1864: trying to save each other from their dark sides.

The show’s dialogue and overall tone is a mixture of biting wit and heartbreaking (yes, at times overwrought) emotion, as the writers struggle to maintain balance between comedy and drama. Without the comedy, the show would be either melodramatic or depressing (as one might guess in a show about vampires, there’s a lot of violence and death). Without the drama and action, it would be fluff. Instead we get a show that can break your heart, go to commercial break, come back, and have you laughing your ass off as the group struggles to bury a body in the woods.

Critics and academics aren’t strangers to the way TV shows are forms of art on par with movies and literature. But critics making those arguments aren’t interested in The Vampire Diaries (though Buffy the Vampire Slayer does get some brief mentions). They’re talking about shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, Madmen, House of Cards, and Breaking Bad.

Here’s the thing: Not everybody wants their TV serious and deep. I adored Mad Men from the pilot to the finale, but it’s not exactly light viewing. That highbrow stuff can be exhausting and sad. Those shows tend to paint a bleak picture of the human psyche and the world in general. Don Draper may be a fascinating character, but he’s a terrible human being, and so are most of his cohorts. Damon Salvatore does terrible things (I mean, at least Don isn’t a serial killer), but he’s somehow more redeemable because there’s also a purity about him, a genuine goodness that presents itself in unlikely ways. Both types of shows have value—it’s snobbish to assume the only purpose of lowbrow programs is to provide us with “guilty pleasures.”

There are plenty of other dramas on TV now that combine lowbrow entertainment with artful storytelling, and they’re actually damn good shows. Among them are the CW’s Supernatural, Jane the Virgin, and Reign, ABC’s Nashville and Grey’s Anatomy, and ABC-Family’s Pretty Little Liars.

So what if a show like TVD contains fluff—so many shirts coming off, teen-love melodrama, too much angst? And so what if we have to suspend disbelief every time the town throws an event, party, or school dance (of which there are many) because every freaking time the event ends with mass casualties?

Even with the campiness, there’s a genuine sadness that permeates The Vampire Diaries. Most characters are actual teenagers: the show is a study in innocence lost. I’ve sobbed over TVD, particularly during the third season’s finale. There’s a relatability here for viewers that not all shows, even the highbrow ones, are always able to achieve.

Television programs are a relevant part of our cultural lexicon in a way great books unfortunately don’t always get to be. TV’s narratives are consumed by the masses. Many of these stories become stories we all know and share, a type of modern folktale. (Harry Potter and The Hunger Games might see this type of relevance, but there are plenty of deserving book series that never reach a broader readership). Ultimately, television dramas like The Vampire Diaries—both artful and lowbrow—can be democratizing. They can bring good stories to the masses. You don’t have to be an intellectual (or in an intellectual mood) to partake of their art.

You can’t read Tolstoy all day long. You have to throw in a little Grisham or Jodi Picoult. You can’t watch Mad Men for an entire weekend. You have to throw in a little bit of Ian Somerhalder, open-shirted and dancing on a railing, drunk on blood and Bourbon.

Damon Dancing


Norah Vawter has an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and a BA in English from the College of William and Mary. Her writing has been published most recently in Agave Magazine, Posh Seven, Extract(s), and The Nassau Review. An excerpt of her novel-in-progress, “The Rainstorm House,” was shortlisted for the Ropewalk Press Editor’s Fiction Prize. Norah lives with her husband and toddler son in the DC area.

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The Saturday Poetry Series will be on hiatus for the Jewish High Holidays while your faithful editor takes a much needed vacation. We will return on Saturday October 3rd.

In the mean time, enjoy some Israeli-Palestinian peace poetry!

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By Emma Lazarus

Thou two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate,
Didst weep when Spain cast forth with flaming sword,
The children of the prophets of the Lord,
Prince, priest, and people, spurned by zealot hate.
Hounded from sea to sea, from state to state,
The West refused them, and the East abhorred.
No anchorage the known world could afford,
Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.
Then smiling, thou unveil’dst, O two-faced year,
A virgin world where doors of sunset part,
Saying, “Ho, all who weary, enter here!
There falls each ancient barrier that the art
Of race or creed or rank devised, to rear
Grim bulwarked hatred between heart and heart!”

Today poem is in the public domain, belongs to the masses, and appears here accordingly.

Emma Lazarus (1849 – 1887): A descendant of Sephardic Jews who immigrated to the United States from Portugal around the time of the American Revolution, Emma Lazarus was born in New York City on July 22, 1849. Before Lazarus, the only Jewish poets published in the United States were humor and hymnal writers. Her book Songs of a Semite was the first collection of poetry to explore Jewish-American identity while struggling with the problems of modern poetics. (Annotated biography courtesy of The Academy of American Poets.)

Editor’s Note: I wanted to share with you today a poem for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah is a celebration of newness, ushered in by sweet wishes of the year to come. But we spend the days that follow in contemplation of those regrets we have from the year past, in asking for forgiveness, and in letting go. When I came across today’s poem I thought of the Syrian refugees, of how the plight of exile has plagued my own people in the past, and how others are suffering from it today.

5776, the Jewish year that begins at sundown on Sunday September 13th, will be a “two-faced year, Mother of Change and Fate” for countless Syrian refugees. That fate that my own people have suffered in the past is today their reality: “The West refused them, and the East abhorred. / No anchorage the known world could afford, / Close-locked was every port, barred every gate.”

Emma Lazarus is most famous for penning the words that appear at the base of the Statue of Liberty, wherein the “Mother of Exiles” declares, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, / I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” As we celebrate a new year, may the words of the Mother of Exiles find their way into the hearts and minds of ports and borders across Europe and throughout the world, “Saying, ‘Ho, all who weary, enter here!'”

Want to read more by and about Emma Lazarus?
The Academy of American Poets
Jewish Women’s Archive
The Poetry Foundation

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By Sarah A. Chavez:


I cut it all off into a trendy bob
that fades up the back. You told me
not to, said you loved my hair long.
Well, you’re not here anymore.


you stole for me at the art fair
on the green at Fresno State.
God, was I such a baby!
Poor me, I don’t have any money
to buy things.
I kept whining.
I never get to have anything nice.
And most of what we’d seen
iron sculptures, clay dishes fired
for ornament, I was only just
discovering, but still, I thought
I deserved them.
That’s another thing age teaches you –
you ain’t owed shit. There is nothing
on this flying water rock that anyone deserves.
You should’ve smacked me, echoed
my father and told me to suck it up.
But you didn’t.

It was the third time we’d circled
back to that booth. Everything
about it was pretty: the rainbow
canopy, the sunlight glinting off
the semi-precious gems and hued
glass, the hot hippie without a bra
telling every passer-by about Gaia.
I fingered a large red and black
swirled ring, slipped it over
the callouses on my middle finger,
and spread my hand flat to admire it,
its heft impressive for something so lovely.
The hippie told me, the ring
wants to be a ring. I never take
from the Earth without her permission.
I spoke to the stone, told her what
she’d be
and she gave me her blessing.

The hippie looked so sincere
when she spoke, looked into my eyes
with her large cobalt irises, the pupil a pinprick
in the blue with the sun glaring
behind me. I’m sure I said something
stupid. I always get so nervous
around people like that, who walk
through life like an open wound, their blood
and tissue exposed to the elements,
their insides shining on the outside.

I probably said, Cool and behind me,
you probably rolled your eyes.
I put the ring back on the organic
hemp cushion with the other
metamorphisized rocks, then spun
the color-tinted glass of the wind chimes
hanging from the canopy’s aluminum
frame to hear their tingle-tangle
and submerged my hand into the basket
of oddly-shaped beads, feeling what I
imagined the quiet core within a fossilized
stone felt like. As we walked away,
you said Thanks, which was weird, but
I thought maybe it got to you too –
so much unattainable beauty,
the reminder of all the things
we didn’t have and all the things
we couldn’t yet know we wanted.

Walking to 711 for cigarettes,
we stopped at the crosswalk light.
You took my hand and pressed
the weight of the ring into my palm.
I looked up at you, squinting in surprise,
but you just shrugged, said The stone told me
to take it. It said it wanted you to wear it.


a hole in my gut, the shame
of never saying thank you
twelve years ago for that fucking pizza
you bought with SSI back pay.
It tasted so good: the grease,
the sweet of the tomato sauce,
the salt from the olives prickling
my tongue – I could actually taste it.
They don’t say on those Cymbalta commercials
depression takes away taste.
Sleep, yeah, sex drive, focus, but not taste.
I never told you
how for those months, alone
in my one-bedroom apartment I tried
to eat just about anything,
but it was all so thick and waxen . . .
one night, ravenous and wretched
I tried to eat an entire loaf of bread.
Cross-legged on the kitchen floor
the light from the street lamp cast ghastly
shadows against the apartment blinds
while I took slice after slice
of Wonder Bread from the Hostess overstock
warehouse on Weldon Street and bit
into each one wanting desperately
for the next to taste
like summer,
like 1998,
like the smell of patchouli
in your room, like rain water,
like mud-stained carpet, like midnights
on the front porch,
like lying to our mothers and never getting caught.
Slice after slice – mutilated, the impression
of my teeth embossed on each one’s cottony
flesh – lay scattered
on the linoleum. I couldn’t bring myself
to swallow even the smallest
bite. Just kept spitting
slobbery hunks onto my naked lap,
into my tangled hair, until
I laid down, the floor clammy and smooth
like the palms of your hands.

Today’s poems are from All Day, Talking, published by Dancing Girl Press, copyright © 2014 by Sarah A. Chavez, and appear here today with permission from the poet.

All Day, Talking: “A stunning, gritty, and beautifully irreverent collection of poems, All Day, Talking repeatedly and necessarily corrupts the conventional elegy. Chavez mourns Carole, yes, but she also mourns herself—and all of us, the tragedy of how we see (or don’t see) one another in our contradictory identities and bodies. If you want to know the honest truth about what it means to grieve and to survive, keep these poems close and listen to this ‘all day, talking,’ which is both deeply personal and profoundly political.” — Stacey Waite, author of Butch Geography

Sarah A. Chavez, a mestiza born and raised in the California Central Valley, is the author of the chapbook, All Day, Talking (Dancing Girl Press, 2014), which was featured on Sundress Publications’ book spotlight, The Wardrobe’s Best Dressed. She holds a PhD in English with a focus in poetry and Ethnic Studies from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in North Dakota Quarterly, Stirring: A Literary Collective, Spoon River Poetry Review, Luna Luna Magazine, among others. Her manuscript, This, Like So Much, was an Honorable Mention for the 2013 Quercus Review Press Poetry Book Contest. A selection from her chapbook manuscript All Day, Talking won the Susan Atefat Peckham Fellowship in 2013. She is a proud member of the Macondo Writers Workshop.

Editor’s Note: There is a refreshing honesty to the poems in All Day, Talking that is, in equal measures, surprising, laugh-out-loud funny, and deeply touching. In this collection grief is portrayed–and love remembered–through a lens of realism that mirrors the very real and very unstable experience of loss. Memory is the vehicle through which a life lost is a life recalled, and the speaker addresses the absence with a candor and wit that seems to honor the relationship that gave rise to it when Carole was still living. Amidst a text thick with engaging and humorous stories, within the world of deeply confessional admissions and recollections, there exists the heartbeat of the lyric, “the reminder of all the things / we didn’t have and all the things / we couldn’t yet know we wanted.”

Want to see more from Sarah A. Chavez?
Sarah A. Chavez’s Official blog/website
Buy All Day, Talking directly from the poet
Buy All Day, Talking from the publisher
Rogue Agent
Broadside of “The Day the Alligators Feasted on Time” from Stirring: A Literary Collection
The Poetry Foundation: Irene Lara Silva in conversation with Sarah A. Chavez

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