Encyclopedia Project at Small Press Traffic

Encyclopedia Project Reading

Friday November 19th, Small Press Traffic hosted a reading for the newly published second volume of the Encyclopedia Project, edited by Tisa Bryant, Miranda Mellis, and Kate Schatz.

About the second volume and the project the editors write, “Encyclopedia Vol. 2 F-K is the second volume of the Encyclopedia Project. The 209 entries in Vol. 2, submitted by 152 contributors, reinvigorate the encyclopedia form with short fiction, critical essays, interviews, fairy tales, drawings, photographs, charts, lists, plays, and more. Cross-references create conversations among entries throughout this volume, as well as its predecessor, Vol. 1 A-E.”

The work presented Friday night was delightfully diverse, from graphic forms (Jaime Cortez’s Sexile), film (Kirthi Nath), photographs (Dorothea Lange photos appearing in Chuleenan Svetvilas and Tammy Rae Carland’s entries), art work (Amy Trachtenberg), and a variety of prose. The night’s readers and the names of their entries included:

Home—Gloria Frym

Kitchen—Tyler Carter

Job—Amanda Davidson

Grammar—Ali Liebegott

Flow—Mary Burger

Garble—Robert Gluck and Jocelyn Saidenberg

Form—artwork by Amy Trachtenberg

Favorite—Sailor Holladay

Kiss—Brian Teare

Graphic Novel—Jaime Cortez

Holy—Bronwen Tate

Jiminy Cricket—Sarah Fran Wisby

Gravity—Claire Light

Flying—Kirthi Nath

Internment—Chuleenan Svetvilas

Icon—Tammy Rae Carland

Horoscope—Christian Nagler

Here I’m including Brian Teare’s entry and two that were not read Friday night but which I find thrilling.


On Prose

One year of my life seems to me now entirely the time before a lover arrived. After I’d shower I’d read prose—how sharp the syntax then, how easily ideas seemed to have been composed—before the phone would ring and the door admit the shiny dimes of his button fly, the economy of narrative.

Fragments of small talk: slowly they’d gather their modest eros before the mattress bowed under the weight of him, taking off his shoes. They’re still on my shelves, the books I didn’t finish, marked with scraps of paper at page 40 or 15, whatever interval of understanding I had to myself before what we said was said.

As lavender is most fragrant when crushed, a poem is broken language, lines characteristically riddled with silences. Inevitably, he’d talk in the nervous way a page of prose has of being voluble, over-full. I remember waiting for him to b white space, the place where the line breaks to let in what isn’t finished, what might never finish making sense.

“Kiss” seems an inadequate word for what we did. It didn’t begin with the crack of teeth, didn’t skip the elicit with a middle too short to arouse, and the hiss at its end is a mean finale. Where is the long vowel that opened our mouths with ah at their centers, where is the word that means beginning felt it might last as long as aria, a soprano’s melisma at an opera’s climax? How thick to sink into thorough O of his throat, its texture so like what lies at the poem’s margin.

It is not solely story and it is not only a song, and if to fuck is to cross genres, getting from A to B is the least of it.

There is rhythm in a list: alliteration, armpits, ass, assonance, aureole, belly, blowjob, character, climax, cock, cockring, condom, conflict, consonance, cum, deep-throat, denouement, detail, dialogue, earlobe, flirtation, foreplay, fucking, glans, grammar, hair, hand-job, hip, image, jockstrap, kiss, knee, licking, line, line-break, lip, love, lube, metaphor, meter, moan, mouth, muscle, nape, narrative, nipple, penetration, plot, pubes, rhyme, rim-job, role-play, scene, sentence, setting, simile, spit, stanza, sucking, summary, suspense, sweat, syntax, tendon, tenor, tongue, vehicle.

There is rhythm in a list, and if the bed rocked and listed under the abecedarian of us, it was with a motion that meant we weren’t going anywhere a sentence could follow; as with the space between numbers that’s infinitely divisible, and that means, upon setting out, we should never arrive anywhere, my thighs parted whitely and he entered me and minutes fissioned, seconds split each from each, time the sunder of under the weight of another.

Sex was the virtuoso whose muscle memory leaves him free to think about music, not technique—it is hard to say where our minds went, together or alone, toward or away from each other, but we were within narrative and paying no mind to it, and wasn’t there pleasure in being prodigals with the instrument? Wasn’t some song wrung from our meeting, weren’t we lave and lavish, weren’t we push, pelvis, dental and labial, gum and tooth and tongue? How sacrum we were, it seems now, how integument.

To be lovers but not in love was the clock’s hands touching the numbers one by one, and if pornography is the gratuity of narrative, then our fucking was sub rosa, a scent set to flower beneath our skins and heat enough to taste it.

On occasion, mistaking momentarily the exactitude of his attention, his skill, for affection, and wanting to—so local and warm, his mouth on the small of my back before it began to round and cleave and lead him downward—I would need stifle a small sorrow that we were ever nothing more than lovers, how there was a refusal of attachment in him the way a sentence cannot be endlessly revised, extended clause by clause, its pleasure in delay, a dallying before the shock of its ending full-stop.

It is not regret to write this; it is a sentiment that can’t talk with its mouth full of cock.

If there were prose, there would be a titillation of expletives and the inevitable money-shots in gluts slick as adjectives; there would be the relaxed gratitude following ejaculation and the scent of salt and iron, the rough tongue of a towel after.

If this were prose, there would the humor of his hair at odds with order and name-brand clothing I helped him into, his shoes and the kneeling required to tie them; his belt would buckle around how eventually the sidewalk emptied onto a busy street where his little car leaked teaspoons of oil.

If this were prose, it would attempt a semblance of speech, little iambs of Goodbye he said I said he said.

If this were prose, the door would close and restore my silence. Our sweat would dry on my skin, and it would take with it my name in an exit so complete, each time I write I wait for it to begin.

--Brian Teare


They took to the road and immediately began calling one anther names. The road brings out the worst in us, they admitted. Retro Coco, loving what she called kitsch, enthralled by gas stations and dime stores, imagined herself very distantly. Kitsch for her was anything at all, especially nature. She invested the kitsch of the Colorado Rockies with a special, ‘high kitsch’ aura. The striations and watermarks, just so many waved lines of neo-modernist textile. Percy, herbal and not especially taken with Coco’s musings—the sky is a tacky curtain—pointed to people rappelling and said, I’d like to try that. To which Coco said, ha ha, socks with sandals. On their walks, between campgrounds and hours of driving, Coco bent over occasionally to stretch and Percy sat down. Coco said—green grass is outlandish, and mountains are brash-gas masks, she went on, and ducks and decoys, jellies, snares, Nancy Drew, and malt liquor, flip flops, kung fu, waterbeds, daisies, dolls, and anything fur, fish tanks, crinolines and garters, white clogs, post cards and aprons, cast iron, tree houses, hula hoops, babies, wigs and trumpets, lawn ornaments, airplanes, bathrobes and chewing gum, but most of all, most of all, planet earth—to which Percy did not respond. Classification was a thing that wearied her. She touched a bit of earth as if to reassure it.

--Miranda Mellis


From Incidents in the Life of Aunt Jemima: The Narrative of a Modern-Day Black Woman, Written by Herself.

Sometime in the new millennium, a large Black woman got her first full-time academic job. The Chair of the department and the Dean of the college did not mention that the tenure tack came with a nineteenth century headscarf.

Between 1933, when she was hired, and 1951, when she died, Anna Robinson portrayed Aunt Jemima for Quaker Oats. She was described as a “large, gregarious woman.” Over the years various other women portrayed the role.

Hers was the smallest office on the entire floor—but it did have a window, and she was the most junior faculty member, so she didn’t mind. What she did mind was the layers of thick, siltish dust on every surface, so she asked when the office would be cleaned, thinking it was a routine request. At first the secretaries told her “soon,” but a few weeks and a few requests later, they directed her to talk to the department chair. The young professor had begun to publicly joke and privately worry that her office wasn’t going to be cleaned at all. Sarah, a white woman who had been hired the year before, assured the black woman that that would not happen. “After all,” Sarah said, “my office is cleaned regularly without me even asking!”

In 1889 the Aunt Jemima “ready” pancake mix was first marketed; in 1890 the Aunt Jemima character was first marketed. The character was not based on a real person, but on another fictional character—one created by black-face performers.

In all, five verbal requests and two emails later, she received the following message from the Chair:

At this University the Provost likes to say that we do windows. Unfortunately, in your case, this is literal. If you want your office cleaned, you will have to do it yourself.

So, the young professor came to the university one morning dressed in overalls, with a bandana tied around her head, a bucket and a bottle of Pine Sol in one hand, and a pair of yellow gloves in the other. She made sure everyone in the office saw her that day and knew why she was there. None of them commented, or seemed surprised or disturbed. Then she cleaned her office—but she didn’t do the windows. This is how, with ire, but without irony, a modern Aunt Jemima was created.

Even after this incident, Aunt Jemima resisted her new role. She ignored other professors’ taunts—for instance, when she wore suits, her colleagues, some of whom wore t-shirts and jeans (not the unfashionable kind) to teach, accused Aunt Jemima of trying to make them look bad. They also questioned why she so often wore bright colors. Then classes started.

In 1989 the product logos was “updated” by removing Aunt Jemima’s headscarf and portraying her with straightened hair and in pearls and a lace collar.

If you like teaching, as Aunt Jemima did, the students are the best part of the job. Of course, if you are a woman of color professor, then your job includes hours of informal and unrecognized student advising in addition to teaching, research, and university committee work. Having been mentored quite a bit herself, Aunt Jemima didn’t mind the extra work. By the second semester, word had gotten out that she was tough, but fair, and that she was also pretty friendly.

That was when a group of Moslem students came to her for help. A notoriously racist and xenophobic professor was marking down the grades of South Asian students and Moslem women who covered their hair. Aunt Jemima realized that, as an assistant professor, she had very little power in the situation. She suggested the students complain as a group to the administration, but they were afraid of reprisals. So she said she would ask a senior colleague for suggestions. Aunt Jemima approached a full professor know for his progressive politics and presented the situation as though it were hypothetical. The colleague interrupted her before she’d finished her second sentence. “Him?” the colleague shrugged. “Everyone knows he’s like that. But he’s old—just wait for him to retire.” “And what about the students?” Aunt Jemima asked. The colleague shrugged and repeated, “Just wait for him to retire.” Aunt Jemima again suggested to the students that they complain en masse to the Chair, the Dean, or another administrator. They said they would think about it, but they didn’t trust those other professors.

Black faculty must perform various roles within the academy that are not necessarily requested of their white colleagues. Besides being scholars, Black faculty are expected to [perform ‘emotional labor’ and ] act as activists…

Around this time, Aunt Jemima’s colleagues began to confuse her with another assistant professor, Eva. Eva, a Latina, was shorter than Aunt Jemima and had white skin (Aunt Jemima’s was very dark). Aunt Jemima didn’t mention the situation to Eva, but when Eva said people were “confusing” her with Aunt Jemima as well, they joked that it was because they were the best-dressed people in the department. They did not discuss the other two traits they had in common, that neither of them was white and that both had very long, impressive resumes.

Aunt Jemima tried to focus on the positive—and on her work. The requirements for tenure were unclear and inconsistent, but Aunt Jemima figured she’d be safe with a book. Still, with more than 70 students each semester, the informal advising, and the committee work, she wasn’t getting much writing done. The Chair told her there was zero support for junior faculty and there was “no such thing” as course release (which Aunt Jemima later found out to be untrue). Taking pity on the crestfallen Aunt Jemima, the Chair told her that if she got an outside fellowship to work on her research, the school would be “happy” to let her take it.

So Aunt Jemima got a fellowship.

On the advice of colleagues at other institutions, she asked the Dean if the university would make up the difference between the fellowship’s stipend and her regular salary. His response was that he “didn’t see why” they should compensate her at all when she wouldn’t be on campus. He added that her healthcare and other benefits would also be cancelled for the year. So, Aunt Jemima took a $15,000 pay cut (not including the missing benefits).

While she was away, she worked on her book manuscript and secured several shorter publications. After all, she didn’t want people to think she wasted her time off. Coming back to the university the next fall, Aunt Jemima decided she was going to start as if from the beginning. She would go back with (almost) all of the excitement and optimism she had when she first got the job. She smiled at and found complements for everyone—this one’s skirt, that one’s haircut, another’s tidy desk. Her colleagues, in return, welcomed her with comments such as “Do you remember where your office is?” and “No one really thought you were coming back.” Aunt Jemima swallowed and smiled, thinking that a certain amount of hating was to be expected. She would win them over by smothering them with kindness and burying herself in work.

An Aunt Jemima is someone who can emotionally suckle multiple persons at once while enduring infinite abuse, all with no help and a large smile. Aunt Jemima does not complain, does not tend to her own needs (she does not realize she has her “own” needs), has no sexuality, does not get tired, and does not get sick. Aunt Jemima does not die; she is merely replaced by a similar looking and performing model, perhaps with a different hairstyle or clothing.

Aunt Jemima joined four departmental committees and one university committee. She also spent much of that semester preparing her annual review to the tabbed, highlighted, color-coordinated specifics laid out by the Dean. Before she submitted the binder, she took it to her official university mentor. Instead of looking through all the materials, he focused on her CV, asking Aunt Jemima how he could get his work published in the same journals.

A couple of weeks later, after the department’s promotion committee had met, the mentor summoned Aunt Jemima to his office again. “This,” he gestured to the three-inch binder filled with everything she’d done or published since coming to the university, “is too much. It will look suspicious. You need to take some of this stuff out.” Aunt Jemima thanked him for his mentoring and made an appointment with the Chair, who confirmed that Aunt Jemima should remove some of her work from the file. She asked if every professor was receiving the same instructions. The Chair sighed. “Well, you know,_________ is at the same level as you, but he doesn’t have as many publications. It just won’t make him look good.” She looked up and caught Aunt Jemima’s Ican’tbelieveyou’reactuallysaying this expression and sighed again. “But I did them, I wrote them all,” Aunt Jemima protested. “Look, you just don’t need these publications” the Chair patiently explained. “And you know____is a single father…” she trailed off.

A real-live former slave, Nancy Green, signed a lifetime contract to become a living trademark as the first “Aunt Jemima” spokesperson.

Aunt Jemima realized she had to leave. She had a feeling some white man’s—any white man’s promotion and career would always be more important than hers. When she told the story to senior colleagues at other institutions, more than one said she should sue. But Aunt Jemima didn’t want to sue. She just wanted another job.

Six months later she had more than one offer—all paying more than and requiring less teaching than her current position. Still wanting to be a good citizen, Aunt Jemima asked for an exit interview with the Chair. That last meeting was much like the others. The Chair repeatedly interrupted the junior professor and insisted she had “misheard” the instructions regarding the promotion review. (Though she did not deny that Aunt Jemima had been told to remove materials from her file, nor that different professors received different instructions.) The Chair ended the meeting by adding how easy it is for women of color to get jobs these days.

Years before Aunt Jemima had swallowed her tongue, so she kept her sharp answers to herself.

Until now.

--Aunt Jemima (the bio note says, “Aunt Jemima is a diasporic writer, artist, and theoryhead, who blogs off the plantation at jujustring.blogspot.com)

1 comment:

David Wolach said...

these are gems, Robin. "the sky is a tacky curtain" - now what do i do? i can't imagine going back to a time in some future, when, looking up, the sky will not have been a tacky curtain. ugh, & despite what the prose/poetry here is doing to invert or complicate world-as-kitsch. love miranda's work everytime i see it. & same with BT's... later, dw