During the past year, what I've noticed most in the writing submitted (accepted or not) to Assignment is the haunting presence of place-as-character in nearly every piece. We're still a small, local publication with traffic mostly in northeastern New England. Our contributors are primarily based out of the Massachusetts-New Hampshire area. We've had contributions written about the backyards of Manchester NH, the marinas of Newport RI, the barcrawled thoroughfares of the Merrimack Valley in central MA. In each piece, there's this overwhelming sense that the story's keystone character is not the narrator's consciousness, but the setting through which it travels. This is true for our first print issue as well: post-9/11 Manhattan (more specifically, a Portugese restaurant), the slums and suburbs of Pittsburgh, and the changing neighborhoods of Brooklyn dominate their respective stories.
Because of this, we had the idea to unite Assignment's Bay Area (Boston's Metrowest) writers for a small reading at someplace local. There, we'd celebrate some of the mag's Massachusetts-infused writing. I'm thrilled to report that myself, Online Only contributor David Moloney and good friend of the magazine Ted Flanagan will each read from some of our work on December 30, 2015 at 7:00PM at The Old Court (upstairs) in downtown Lowell, MA. The three of us are, also, either a current student or graduate of Southern New Hampshire University's MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction, which most notably saw two of its faculty members nominated for 2015 National Book Awards. Assignment's editor and SNHU MFA's director, Benjamin Nugent, will moderate the event. Admission is free, but we'd love it if you'd buy a beverage from the bar to support the venue.
Whenever I'm at a reading, I'm reminded of the last lines of Ben Lerner's 2011 novel, Leaving the Atocha Station. It is my favorite paragraph in all of American literature (it's also my favorite novel). The story chronicles the various relationships and artistic misgivings of its protagonist, Adam Gordon, an American poet, during his time abroad in Madrid on a prestigious research fellowship. In the final scene, Adam is preparing to read some of his recently published poems to a large audience in a skylit art gallery owned by one of his peers. Earlier in the story, he read at this same gallery, but did so while battling a crippling episode of panic.
Much of the novel's conflict is anchored in Adam's anxiety, as well as his warped perception of himself and how others in turn perceive him. Each of these internal tensions is at times exacerbated and mitigated by the language barrier between he and his Spanish friends. He often leans on his inability to translate English thought into Spanish speech as a conversational exit strategy when things get awkward. It also functions as the excuse he uses to rationalize why he can neither communicate with nor understand the depths of the several Spanish-speaking lovers he takes during his tenure abroad. The concepts of both concrete and abstract translation--literal and figurative--thus factor heavily into Adam's character arc: he struggles to translate the inner workings of his soul into his physical self, into the physical moment, into his relationships with others, into thought, into speech, into English, Spanish etc.
One of Adam's friends/lovers, Teresa, spends a great deal of the novel translating the poetic contents of his notebook into a cohesive Spanish chapbook. She eventually uses the press at the art gallery to publish the finished product. It is, arguably, the grace with which Teresa shuttles between her Spanish and Adam's English--her world and his previously inaccessible internal one--that has ushered the novel to this conclusion. Teresa is at Adam's side in Atocha's final scene, as the two of them prepare to read to the audience at the release party for the chapbook. The last paragraph is only two lines:
'Teresa would read the originals and I would read the translations and the translations would become the originals as we read. Then I planned to live forever in a skylit room surrounded by my friends.'
In those penultimate moments before the reading begins, the barriers that once separated Adam from Teresa and his other Spanish-speaking peers shatter with absolute finality. Perhaps, too, this helps bridge the gap that disassociated Adam from himself. In that gallery, he experiences some form of self- and communal love, and so the novel ends.
Whenever I attend readings I am, without fail, transported to Adam's skylit room described here. It is (and readings are), above all, a place of profound and unfiltered community. And so at the end of Assignment's setting-heavy year, there's no other environment where I'd rather celebrate our publication and its supporters than at this reading, in that figurative skylit and eternal place.
We at Assignment hope to see you at The Old Court on Dec. 30. We'll be upstairs, in a barlit room, surrounded by our friends.
- Daniel Johnson
We would like to thank The Old Court for hosting us. If you’re attending, please be sure to buy a beer and tip the bartender.
Please contact Daniel Johnson, Assignment's Web Editor, with any questions. For more details, refer to the event's Facebook page here.