Book Review: Siamak Vossoughi’s "Better Than War"

by Shadia Savo

Siamak Vossoughi’s debut collection of short stories, Better Than War, is more than simply a finely crafted, exceptional book: it is a living, breathing, emotional connection. Winner of the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, Vossoughi’s book begins with a Pearl Jam quote and a story ostensibly about shoes that delves into the politics and social reality of famine and war, and ends with a story about a book that is no ordinary book. Each story is tightly written with an almost austere use of language that is reminiscent of Jean Rhys; Vossoughi appears to have carefully crafted each story down to the word—there is intent found on every page that beautifully manages to maintain readability. The starkness of language allows the reader to easily jump right into the interconnected world of each story, yet the dynamism of thought and complexity of ideas disallows for an easy take away. Vossoughi is challenging us to think, to search for truths that may not even exist, but that isn’t about to stop him from inviting us on this journey. He is welcoming, yet passionately honest.

Vossoughi is Iranian American and much of his book speaks to what it means to be Iranian American without attempting to define the experience, or to universalize it. There is a socio-political undertone (both blatant and subtle) throughout the stories that serves to remind the reader that there is more at stake than what is on the surface. In the first story, “Shoes,” which focuses on revolution and famine, Vossoughi echoes Edward Said’s “Exile begets exile” in writing about the principles of respect, in family and at work. The binaries of success versus failure and hope versus despair—and the dichotomies at work in the creation/manifestation of revolution and/or war—remain on an individual level within the stories as the reader is confronted with the lives of an array of characters and sees the beauty, the confusion, the heart, the loss, the wonderment, the exploration. Yet it is the questions raised, the thoughts and hearts and minds of these characters that intersect with the broader issues of war, famine, the everyday, politics, and even sports, that create a lasting impression.
Each story stands on its own, yet is best read in order, allowing the characters’ to build on each other, to search for meaning alongside them, rather than simply just gazing upon them. Vossoughi is a writer with a lot to say, a voice we should listen to, because we might just learn something about what it means to live in a world where war is so commonplace, yet rarely takes place on American soil.
There is an intense level of awareness in Vossoughi’s writing of what can be at stake; in “The Broken Finger,” a piece of metafiction, he turns an extremely literal story into the importance of listening, without being prescriptive: “…a man my father knew in the Shah’s prison in Iran…was having his finger pulled back by one of his jailers when he said, ‘If you pull it back any farther, it will break.’ They pulled it, and it broke. ‘You see now,’ he said. ‘I told you it would break.’ ” He explores who we do—and who we should—listen to, and how important what the unheard have to say is. This exploration is reinforced in the final story in the collection, “The Book That Was Too Good to Read,” by reminding the reader that Vossoughi is writing beyond the page. In “The Street,” he mines the depths of what makes a place, in a manner reminiscent of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place, and asks, “Is there love and beauty and sorrow in the world?”
In “The Movie Quitters,” the story revolves around an uncle asking, “ ‘I’m tired of being moved to tears by American movies. When are Americans going to be moved to tears by Iranian movies?’ ” In a time where one of the most crucial questions that has been asked this year—when is America going to love Black people as much as Black culture?—Vossoughi gets to the heart of the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural exchange by discussing something that appears innocuous—going to the movies—but is ultimately another example of an unequal power dynamic. This theme runs throughout the collection—in “The Theater of War,” he quietly reminds us of not only the folly of remaining ignorant, insular, and self-focused, but why many of the stories focus on children’s exploration of their identity and of the world: “…because the ones in front of him were kids, they were less likely to think that something was being taken from them when they learned about somewhere else.”
In the titular story, the story is told once-removed of an Iranian boy who waited to ask an American girl on a date until he knew if there would be war. The conversation between the two boys about whether or not he should ask the girl out on a date is a masterful exploration of the impact of even the idea of war and hatred and how to find connection and hope, how to be “better than war.”
Not to be missed: “In the Library” focuses on two boys reading about a woman in Iran being sentenced to death by stoning who are torn between their dream of going to an American dance with a girl and the importance of reading the newspaper the right way (which is paralleled in “Sunday in the Park”). “The two boys believed that they would want to know what was happening in Iran even if they weren’t Iranian. It was because the dance was half the story. The other half was the world.”
There are stories about shoes, running, movies, childhood games and school dances, a baseball game, a broken easel, cars, a girls’ basketball team, etc.—these are stories about everyday and extraordinary life, about war, about hope, and about heart. These are stories about people, about individuals, about places, about communities, about dreams and dreaming. These are stories about “why it’s always different when a black girl calls herself a princess from when a white girl does it.” These are stories where harmful dichotomies are destroyed—where a girls’ basketball team can be quiet while yelling and where it is okay to cry or to stop crying. Where everyone has a right to exist. These are stories that will stay with you, long after you have finished the last page.
Pre-order Better Than War on Amazon!


Interview: Rebecca Foust

by Renée


Rebecca Foust was the 2014 Dartmouth Poet in Residence at The Frost Place and is the recipient of a fellowship from the MacDowell Colony. Her fifth book, Paradise Drive, won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry. In reference to the linked narrative, Thomas Lux says, “There is great music in these poems, and sonnet after sonnet is masterful. Not sinceBerryman’s Henry have I been so engaged by a persona . . .” Fourteen Hills Press Staff Editor Renée Hamlin was excited to interview Rebecca Foust regarding her newest book and her creative process.
Fourteen Hills (14H): You’ve said you put the poems in your upcoming book, Paradise Drive, through hundreds of revisions, and you mentioned a similar process in a 2010 interview, with some poems being put away for a year or more. Now, five years later, has your revision process changed?
Rebecca Foust (RF): I think it’s still the same. I find revising vastly easier than original creation, and it’s kind of my fallback when I’m not feeling creative, to pull something out and revise it. And—knock on wood—I’ve never experienced “writer’s block” because I always have drafts of things that I can go back to, so when I’m not feeling creative, or new things aren’t coming to me, I just go back to my files and pull something out and start playing around with it. It happens two ways: either the poem comes out whole the first time and then I do slight revisions, often for years, or sometimes I just get a fragment, and sometimes it takes years for a poem to even come together as a poem, where I can revise it as a poem.
The other thing that sometimes happens, very occasionally, is a poem will come to me completely whole; it’s almost like taking dictation. Those poems I just write as fast as I can to get them down, and when you write poems like that, you always think they’re great when you’ve first written them because you’re in this flush of creation, and those in particular I like to put away before I come back to them; you’re supposed to write drunk and revise sober, so I like to come back to those when I’m not in that “flush,” and see what I think then. So I would say that my process is still pretty much the same. You know, something inspires you, you get it, capture it, so you don’t lose it, and I find if you don’t write those things down immediately, they’re gone.
14H: The way you have described inspiration is so lovely—the river above us and us raising our nets to catch the ideas that are floating by. You also acknowledge the difficulty of always being open and ready for those ideas. What ideas would you give to other writers, perhaps ones just starting to tap into their poetic potential, that might help them to keep their nets “at the ready”?
RF: Oh, I forgot about that image. I like that image, because I feel that when you’re writing poetry you’re discovering things, not really inventing things, that poetry is a way of accessing some inexpressible and not necessarily coherent truth. Bits and pieces of it float by and if your net is out you can catch them. The first thing would be to maintain an openness, and whichever side of the brain that’s creative is easily overpowered by the side that’s not. If you have too much stress in your life, if you’re working super hard, if you have kids, if you have issues, problems, whatever, the brain is full of noise. A brain that’s full is not a brain that’s open to reception. What I’ve learned is that you have to empty yourself to step in. What are some techniques for doing that? Well, last year was the first year I ever went on a writing residency. Not everyone has the luxury—these residencies are paid for, but not everyone has the time. But if you do, that’s the first thing I would say to do: go to a residency. They open vast vistas of space and time where you can empty yourself and remove all those layers and thoughts that surround us when we deal with everyday life. If you can’t do that, there are other ways. I know a poet in Pennsylvania who goes on a retreat once a year by locking herself in her bedroom. She does it in the summer when she’s not teaching. There’s a bathroom there and a separate entrance and she puts a little fridge in there, and a hot plate, and she has worked it out that she is “on retreat”; there’s no phone ringing and no one knocking at the door unless they’re dying. She manages to put a book out every other year doing that.
You have to create space in your own life. Some people use meditation. Some people get up in the morning before their family is awake. My method is to stay up way later than everyone else. I love to stay up late at night. I could never indulge that when I worked full time and when I had small children, because I had to be up so early in the morning. But I start working typically at eleven at night, and often write until the sun comes up. I don’t need a lot of sleep, so I’ll sleep for a few hours and then get back up, and I can do that for a couple of days at a time. 
In those hours, everything stops. Email stops, the phone doesn’t ring, it gets really quiet . . . I find those hours the most creative. I also take walks. I try to walk every other day, and when I walk, I walk with a notecard and a pen in my back pocket. I have found that just going outside and lying down on the grass is a great way to clear my head. I keep a to-do list, and on my list it actually says, “Sit down on the grass!”
14H& RF: [laughter]
RF: A whole day can go by in just a flurry of answering emails and you won’t have given yourself any of that space. So I think the secret to getting inspiration is to create space. The other secret is to live, experience life widely, which is one of the reasons I don’t mind that I didn’t start writing until very late in life, because I really lived a life before I started writing. I think a lot of people decide they want to be writers when they’re young and it’s easy to get sucked into the world and do nothing but live, breathe, and speak about writing. But if you do that, you cut yourself off from experience, and where are you going to get your content? I think the third thing is to read really, really widely, because if you read widely, you experience life, and it gives you great ideas. And I’m not just talking about poetry. Kay Ryan used to read prose—at least, I read somewhere that before she even got out of bed in the morning, she would reach over to her night table and get a book of essays, and read an essay before rising, and sometimes compose a poem before rising. I often get ideas from prose, from novels, and from other kinds of reading. So I think the three things are: create space in your life by clearing out all that clutter and chatter that fills our modern brain; and second, to read very, very widely; and to live, make sure you’re having experiences.
14H: You have mentioned Louis Simpson and Sharon Olds were two poets you read very widely when you were getting back into poetry. Were there any others that caught your attention?
RF: I think a really influential book for me when I was in my third semester of grad school was The Whole Truth by James Cummins. He’s a new formalist, and The Whole Truth is a book of sestinas based on the Perry Mason series in a very tongue-in-cheek way. His protagonist is Perry Mason, but it’s a bipolar, lunatic Perry Mason, and the sestinas really hang together. It could be a movie. It certainly is a story. The characters are drawn from Perry Mason, but what he does with them is incredibly creative and funny and interesting. I remember reading it and thinking, “Oh my god.” He takes a form, and he makes it alive. And I read a lot of books by James Cummins, but The Whole Truth was a book that was really influential, and I read a lot of poetry that was trying to tell a story, and I’m not talking about the narrative poem: I’m talking about books. I read The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, I readEugene Onegin [Aleksandr Pushkin]. And then I read Berryman’s The Dream Songs, and Berryman was a huge influence. Those aren’t sonnets, per se, each one of those is eighteen lines long but they are very similar to sonnets and how sonnets work. They have a beginning, a middle and an end, a turn, and each one is a thing unto itself, but they’re connected in a strange way. There are characters that continue—Henry, and the other voices—that just go through all the poems, and that’s one way they’re connected. That’s what led to Paradise Drive, when I was in grad school.
And the other thing is, I’m a really committed supporter of buying poetry books and subscribing to journals. I have a massive collection of journals, look at all these journals I have here. I subscribe to at least a dozen or probably more journals. They pile through the mailbox all the time, and it’s really hard to get through them all. I try to at least scan them, and if I see a poet that I like or a poet that I know I try to at least read that poem. That’s one way of keeping up with contemporary reading, subscribing to good journals and trying to read them. There are so many journals now, and I try to support them, especially if they've supported me, and I can't keep up with them all, but I try.
14H: Your book, All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song, is infused with myth and fairy tales. What draws you to incorporate these ancient tales into your work?
RF: Well, I'm sure it was my bedtime stories. My mother never went to college, but she was one of the most self-educated people I've ever met because she was a voracious reader, very bright, and had a great memory. She read to us all the time. I still have the books she read to us from. These were my father's books, volumes of mythology, fairy tales . . . we didn't have a ton of books in the house, we had a couple volumes of poetry that I still have on my shelves. My mother felt very strongly about having an encyclopedia in the house, so we had The World Book. I read all the way through that. It had some great stories, sections on mythology and fairy tales. I'm really drawn to those origin stories. And I'm not a religious person, so perhaps in some way, it's a hunger for spirituality and a larger connection that draws me to world mythology, and especially to making a mythology from nature.
14H: And so what place do you think mythology has—or should have—in today's world?
RF: For one thing, it's history, right? It's a poetic history. And I think we're learning in today’s incredible information exchange . . . I think we’re finally starting to understand relativity as tied to human events. What we’ve learned is “history,” no matter how hard it tries, can't present the “truth.” It's always filtered through perspective. So these things that are presented to us as “history,” it turns out, are lies. I mean, they’re worse than inaccurate, they’re actually lies because they present only one fragment of one perspective of what actually happened. Things like mythology are constructed, larger truths, with less specific attention to facts and more attention to . . . the bigger picture, maybe? And giving credence to feeling. I think the importance of mythology in terms of poetry, and any art, is it’s a way of apprehending truth . . . I don't know if it's more accurate, but it’s not as inaccurate as learning truth through conventional means, the scientific method or history books. And I think for some people mythology provides a belief structure, and it's certainly enriching or . . . when you’re trying to write, you read myth, because it’s so resonant and teaches you about levels of language and metaphor and symbol. It gives you great ideas and there are great plots in myth, great chapters. But I think it’s important to construct your own mythologies, too.
14H: Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
RF: Well, I think it’s important to go further than the source of what you’re reading and . . . I think I said before that it feels like poetry is not so much inventing as it is discovering what’s there, and there’s so much there left to be discovered. So I like poetry that reaches, and I'm happiest with my own poetry when it reaches for something. Maybe when I say “constructing mythology” I'm also talking about constructing voice or poetry that is somehow distinctive. It's really, really important to have read and explored what people call “the canon,” but it’s also really important to transcend that with your own work. And maybe that’s what I mean by “constructing mythology.” So in All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song, I’ve lived through some of these events, and some of these characters are real, like in the poem about the child who died. I felt something. It hit me . . . what was he? The kid who was the child of a drunk and kind of a hillbilly and not your traditional hero, and yet, to me he was like Icarus. So that’s what I mean about making it your own, and extending in some way.
14H: I see a lot of landscape in your poetry, from Pennsylvania but also from California. How do these landscapes differ for you?
RF: They're extremely different, and you’re right that this book, All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song, is filled with the landscape of western Pennsylvania. My other book, God, Seed, has a bit of Pennsylvania landscape, but it really has a lot of California, and one reason this book has California landscape in it is because it’s a collaboration with an artist who, like me, was born on the East Coast but, also like me, migrated to California pretty early in life. And her art is very heavily influenced by nature in California. Because I was riffing off her art to write these poems, there’s a lot of California in this book. And then, Paradise Drive is in Marin County, and, it’s a more people-oriented book, in some ways it’s a comedy of errors, it’s a social satire; there’s an awful lot of interiors in this book. But the first poem and at least one of the poems in the last section are straight-up nature poems about California. The landscapes are obviously very different: Pennsylvania has seasons, California has less defined seasons. The seasons where I grew up were extreme because it was in the mountains, so in the winter we had snow higher than my head, and in the summer we didn’t have air conditioning, and we couldn’t sleep at night because it was so hot; we’d go swimming in the pond at night just to cool off, run the garden hose on our heads.
When spring came it was an explosion. You remember that feeling when spring came? You don’t really get that in California, it just kind of wafts in. You know that poem by Philip Levine called “Keats in California”? It's a wonderful poem, and to me it captures something very seductive about living in a climate that doesn't challenge you. There's something about it I don't totally trust—kind of like being in the land of the lotus eaters. And he captures that very beautifully. The whole poem sucks you in with the incredibly rich gorgeousness of nature in California, and the last line is basically, “And that's what will break your heart.” Or break you. And I feel that sometimes. I mean . . . as an northeasterner, kind of a Yankee, I have this spirit of “challenge is good for you, you gotta get out there, fight the world, and not let anything stop you.” Sometimes I miss that, sometimes I miss that challenge.
Order Paradise Drive at Press 53. For information about readings, please visit Rebecca's website.


Revisiting 21.1: Matthew Zapruder’s “Penultimate Poem”

by Alanna Rae
In Matthew Zapruder’s “Penultimate Poem” from  fragile intimacy develops through final moments. To enter the poem, the speaker asks “us to walk one more time very slowly” to “see the ghost ship / sail off the lake and into the clouds.” Rather than invoking a universal voice from the “us” of the poem, Zapruder frames the subject with a desire for shared experience. As edges shift slightly from one line to the next, the words appear to linger on fenceless cliffs. Zapruder’s unpunctuated lines coexist with delicate images, all of which seem to be at risk in movement. At the core of the poem, transparent materials equalize small and large objects. Large windows become “glass cases the figurines / inside them so carefully painted.” Vulnerability spreads through the objects of the speaker’s wistful thoughts. The charm and melancholy of the poem exists in detailed descriptions with the backdrop of “the miraculous / unremarkable sky over the harbor.” Using ships as bookends for the penultimate journey, the poem continually moves through delicate states of being.

Fourteen Hills 21.1
To read the entirety of "Penultimate Poem," you may purchase Fourteen Hills 21.1 from Small Press Distribution.


Where We Write

by Brittany Smail
I spent a good portion of my allotted writing time today performing a neat bit of procrastination called ‘reading about writing,’ a trick that, done properly, can trigger virtuous feelings of productivity with little to no actual production required. Specifically, I was clicking through the more recent installments of The Rumpus’ online column, “Where I Write,” cadging information about where, and therefore how, other writers get themselves to ‘do the work.’ The column comes in all shapes and sizes and each is written by a guest columnist who, through their own chosen combination of forms (essay, canto, verse, illustration), muses on how where they write affects their efforts as a writer. I was posted up sideways on my couch, one leg tucked under the other, laptop perched awkwardly on a throw pillow in front of me, as I read about city benches, home offices, notebooks, note cards, sinks full of dishes, and various internal states of mind.
Each column confirmed in its own way what anyone who’s tried to make a regular practice of writing learns: writing will happen somewhere as long as you put in the effort. I didn’t get much active writing done on the couch this morning, but once I got outside for a run I found myself stopping every half-mile or so to tap a line into my phone. Later, in the shower, as ideas continued to rain down, I thought of a good friend who, in the homestretch of writing her first cookbook, realized she wrote better “in the back of my head.” “You know,” she said, “when I’m not pushing everything into the front of my brain, focusing on it too hard.” Because she was doing the work—the thinking, the planning, the preparation—her brain had material to play with once she relaxed her focus.
Some writers write at a desk, some on planes, some in notebooks, some on computer screens. My friend writes in the back of her head. I write while running or showering (or, more regularly, in crowded coffee shops, on my computer). And I ‘write’ while surfing around The Rumpus, reading about where other writers write. What about you? Where do you write?
Check out the latest installment of "Where I Write" at The Rumpus.


Exciting changes are taking place here at Fourteen Hills

Right now, we're integrating our blog with our website. To keep up with our latest news and updates, move with us to our new, spiffy home.

Have you noticed? Fourteen Hills is looking real high-tech these days! We're leaping into the digital age by preparing to accept submissions online. That's right, we're getting closer to becoming a smoother-running, green, paperless machine.

In the meantime, we're all hard at work on the next issue, 17.2, scheduled to be released later this spring, so thanks for your submissions, and keep them coming!

To our loyal subscribers, expect to receive your copy of the magazine soon (and for those of you who'd like to become a subscriber, click here). As you can see, we're busy getting copies of the latest issue ready to send.

Keep your eyes peeled for all the updates on the horizon and thanks for your continued support!


Notes From The 17.1 Release Party; Buy The New Issue; Happy Holidays

In the style of Fourteen Hills contributor Noah Gershman’s Brunch -- in which his poem details a grocery list of very interesting characters who accompany him during a meal -- let’s recap what the Dec. 16 release party entailed:

Friends, family, wine, delectables, cocktail dresses, professors, more wine, poets, editors, sock monsters, coffee (at a bar), undergrads, graduates, alumni, multi-talented baristas, engaging conversation, birthday wishes, laughter, new friends, lounging, snapshots, literary paparazzi, slick ties, undivided attention, authors, comedy, discovery, diversity, raffle tickets, raffle prizes, pie, and Brian Boitano (sort of).

If you were there, you felt it and heard it. If you weren't, please check out Litseen's full coverage of the event, including video of our fabulous readers Adam Johnson, Maxine Chernoff, Molly Prentiss, Stephen Elliott, Myron Michael, Jason Bayani, Noah Gershman, and Kasper Hauser.

If you weren't able to pick up a copy of our enthralling new issue, you can order one from Small Press Distribution right now. It will make its way into bookstores across the country in February. If you want to stay on top of future Fourteen Hills events (since you missed a helluva great reading), it only takes a minute to join our mailing list.

Until next time, happy holidays!

-Chani Mooring, Fourteen Hills staff


Why Is Everyone Talking About Brian Boitano? (Maybe Because He's Part Of Our New Issue, Available For The First Time Tonight)

Our favorite skater, Brian Boitano
Brian Boitano is an American figure skater, cook, and overall nice guy. He is the 1988 Olympic Champion, the 1986 and 1988 World Champion, and the 1985-1988 US National Champion Figure Skater. More recently, Mr. Boitano has been inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame.

Off the ice, Mr. Boitano is a culinary mastermind – wielding a saucepan and spatula with the same excitement, charm, and skill we have all come to love. Mr. Boitano even hosts a cooking show on the Food Network called What Would Brian Boitano Make? (Sundays at 1pm).

By now, you are probably wondering why a literary magazine, staffed by creative writing graduate students at San Francisco State University, would blog about Brian Boitano. After all, the two have nothing to do with one another; Fourteen Hills is an internationally renowned literary magazine and Brian Boitano is an Olympic champion. Nary the two should meet, let alone be spoken of in the same breath.

Pick yours up tonight!
Unless, of course, there’s a story involved.

The newest issue of Fourteen Hills includes Michael Reid Busk’s story The Eighties, A Brief Primer. This short story is a fictional romp through the decade, made all the better with just one sentence: “In 1989, Brian Boitano was elected President of the Eighties.” With that, we are tossed into a parallel universe where Mr. Boitano saves America from disgruntled postmen propaganda, promotes healthy life-style choices, and brings out the figure skater in us all.

But that’s not all. Oh no. Not by a long shot (or a perfectly executed triple axel).

Enter to win this book!
Mr. Boitano has graciously donated an autographed copy of his book, Boitano's Edge: Inside The Real World Of Figure Skating, to the list of raffle prizes available at tonight's release party (join us at Coffee Bar at 7pm for your chance to win).

Mr. Boitano’s generosity doesn't end there. He has taken time out of his busy schedule to send us a video greeting. Behold:

So, please join us TONIGHT for all the fun and excitement that only the combination of Brian Boitano and a new release of Fourteen Hills can bring.

Long live the President of the Eighties!

-Rose Booker, staff member, Fourteen Hills