Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award


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Roger Reeves on severed tongues

I’ve had the pleasure and honor of reading together with Roger Reeves on a few occasions here in Chicago. I think you’ll appreciate what this poem does to you.

Cymothoa Exiqua

cymothoa exigua*: the tongue as what it is not—blemish
and parasite: gimp and glottal stop: what question can be
answered with a truant mouth: can the lynched man hung
from the sails of a windmill taste the lead pipe wedged
between his lips: when the signifiers dangle, empty chum
lines in a cold creek: when the men in Waco, wearing white
straw hats, fraying at the crisp edges of their white shirts,
leave Jesse, leave John, leave Paul in ashes in the unpaved
streets to choke passing mules into prophecy: when we pinch
our noses to staunch the smell of the twice burnt black man
burning for a third time this day: when the boys, sweet
and good animals, come to what’s been left in shallow ditches:
false rib and femur, clavicle and severed hand—quite simply,
the language of sorrow: glyph of the gadfly rooting himself
into the rotting meat of the dead: when it is too late
to refuse our bodies being made urns: corn, unharvested
and heavy in its husks: when, in the marketplace, the butcher lifts
our tongue from a bed of ice, shouts: who will speak for this flesh:
when the tongue answers as all severed tongues do:

*Notes:
Cymothoa exigua is a parasitic crustacean that attaches itself to the tongues of spotted rose snappers and extracts blood from the tongue until it atrophies and falls off. Then the parasite attaches itself to the nub and acts as the fish’s tongue. According to scientists, the fish is not harmed in the process.

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Photo of Roger Reeves from the Whiting Foundation


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Have I ever been this nervous?

(Ok…maybe I was more nervous when I learned my wife was pregnant.)

But yesterday I received the invitation to read from Nelson Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make at The Wicker Park and West Town Lit Fest. The reading and celebration will take place at Volumes Bookcafe in anticipation of the release of the new Nelson Algren biography. A list of other readers is being compiled, and I’ll publicize when I have more info.

To say I’m humbled is…

Um…yeah…

Obviously, my novel, The Fuguehas been compared to Nelson Algren’s work. Rick Kogan did it on WGN radio, expanding what a few reviewers have noticed. While I wasn’t channeling Algren while writing The Fugue—I’ve actually not read all of Algren’s books—what I’ve read has had a serious impact on my development as a writer.

City on the Make, a prose poem of less than 110 pages, was a punch-in-the-mouth catalyst in my life and career. I was 19 when I first came across it in a writing class at UIC taught by Mike Barrett. Algren’s bloody-knuckle, gilded paean first showed me Chicago as something besides the city where I happened to be living. I think it’s natural for creative people to wish to “get away” for something like “true inspiration”. Algren taught me to start looking around and understanding where I am, to wake up to it.

What struck me was how the language was tough and gentle all at once. Algren knew the hustler and the square equally well, identified with both, could inhabit both minds, and yet his final impact somehow transcends that polarity, sees the world from an elevated position. The poem begins not with any urban brawn but an ode to the prairie and Lake Michigan:

To the east were the moving waters as far as eye could follow. To the west a sea of grass as far as wind might reach.

Waters restlessly, with every motion, slipping out of used colors for new. So that each fresh wind off the lake washed the prairie grasses with used sea-colors: the prairie moved in the light like a secondhand sea. 

Those words, for me, placed Chicago in the natural world. They oriented me, helped me see there wasn’t any difference between a city and the country except for what our minds concocted. From that moment, I was seeing my city—and by extension, all cities—with a different set of eyes.

Unlike New York and Los Angeles, Chicago doesn’t have talent for glamour or glitz. The best we can do is provide ourselves with alleys where we throw our garbage, leave it (mostly) out of sight. But our segregation and corruption and frozen sidewalks and humid Augusts are right there in the open.

My grandfather lamented when the guy who used to renew his drivers license for a bottle of scotch ended up shitcanned. That brand of corruption worked perfectly well. Why ruin it?

It took me years to learn that, outside Chicago, you just needed to kiss your manager’s ass to get ahead. In Chicago it takes finesse to learn who the real player is; the boss is normally a stooge set up to take the fall when shit got real, as it inevitably would. So the stooge is sacked, apologies are made, a new stooge is hired and the hustle’s back on. In Chicago, everything is a front that’s out in the open. You are laundering money just by virtue of working in this city, and it happens whether your know it or not.

Algren knew this well…so so well. He also knew it was unusual, particular, worth a hundred pages. It’s true that the prose is mannered, sometimes awkward. But so is the city.

To get the chance to read from this little huge book, and only a few blocks from Algren’s home in Wicker Park, is going to be…yeah…I’m just elated.

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Demise of Chicago’s insomniac culture

I got interviewed for this article about a Chicago Starfucks that changed its hours recently. It’s the only Starfucks worth going to, primarily because it has a serious late-night culture of bohemians. I had no idea the hours were going to be changed until the reporter told me about it, and my reaction to the news is featured in the article.

Among the many things that New York has over Chicago is a bonafide insomniac culture, one that exists throughout virtually the entire city. For a writer like me, a guy who really likes to work at night, and who gets bothered when he’s on a roll and ends up interrupted by some librarian who says, “I’m sorry. We’re closing in ten minutes,” all-night cafes and diners are essential. It does not have to be a clean well-lighted place. It just has to stay open and serve tea or coffee.

You know the refrain: “It didn’t used to be this way.” Chicago was an insomniac’s paradise in the 90’s, back when places like Red Caff, Green Street Cafe and Zorba’s never closed (there’s a nostalgic list, eh?), and when The 3rd Coast, still my favorite Chicago cafe, allowed all night smoking and bottomless coffee for less than $2. All of those places were a short el or bus ride from the Loop, which meant they were full of UIC, Columbia, IIT and Art Institute students, wired and looned and sharing cigarettes. There are still places that don’t close, including the White Palace and Mitchell’s (or whatever it’s called now), as well as various Frumpin Frunkin locations. There are also the all-night cabbie restaurants that sell greasy Indian food. For some reason, I just can’t write in those places. Writing in a Frumpin Frunkin is especially humliating, and reminds me of being trapped in hellholes like Akron, Dayton or Katowice, Poland where, back in the mid-90’s at least, the only place to hang out at any time of day was a Burger Ass. 

It’s easy to blame rising rents, or the fact that Chicago’s latest hours are hoodlum infested. I think the problem is more complicated, and that it has to do with what Robert Putnam argues in Bowling Alone. We just don’t care about community anymore. I doubt that the owners of Green Street made any serious amount of money between 3-5:00 am. It wasn’t worth it, not from a financial standpoint. But dammit, that multi-ethnic community of West Side smokers, readers and potheads, students and artists, bohemians down to their last dime…it was cool. And the owners knew it was cool. They were one of us, and we were one of them, even if we went there just to put our feet up and nap for a few hours, buying only a banana.

If it’s any consolation, The Hungarian Pastry Shop in New York recently also adjusted its hours, closing now before midnight, and Cafe Esperanto in Greenwich Village is long since defunct.  I spent many a late night in both places while at Columbia. So insomnia just ain’t what it used to be, not even in New York. Chicago, however, is killing faster than a major city should.

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