Recent Work By Becky Palapala


BP:  This interview is somewhat unique, since you’re not necessarily out promoting a book or another specific project. You’re not on a junket. You’re a student from Minnesota who is currently living in Norway (more on that later), and I decided to chat you up after I saw UMN’s English Department website bragging about you because you’re the reigning Best Individual Poet according to the 2011 national College Unions Poetry Slam.

Stay-at-home, breast feeding, “naturalist,” and/or cloth diaper-using moms, be forewarned: the old guard feminists have it in for us, apparently.  We’ve set women back decades with our hippie earth mother garbage, and at least one French Feminist, Elisabeth Badinter, is actually willing to say so publicly.  In an article for Salon, Madeline Holler writes:

Sure, children have been ruining their mothers’ lives since we evolved from chimps. But what makes this snapshot in time so different, according to Badinter, is the fact that modern, emancipated mothers are so complicit in their own destruction. Lactating, co-sleeping, time off from work – that’s a bunch of “naturalist” mumbo-jumbo and a distraction from a woman’s duty to herself and a society that wants to see her as equal but can’t quite get past the milk stains on her blouse.

In case you didn’t know, we’re fucked.

The reality of the inevitable decline of humanity in the face of insufficient natural resources is described, with much more eloquence than that, in this fascinating excerpt from Wasted World:

In “The Limits to Growth,” Dennis Meadows and others concluded from one calculation that the number of humans could crash suddenly rather than stabilize gradually. But none of the other calculations showed this effect; their results suggested that the numbers of humans on Earth had to be reduced gradually, and with them, the overuse of natural resources. It seemed that this single result was anomalous and could be ignored, although its cause remained unclear.

As it turns out, Ashley Judd looks somewhat chubby or bloated lately.

I hadn’t noticed.

In fact, I had somewhat forgotten that she existed.

But apparently she is out promoting a new project, and at some point during the press junket, she was characterized as looking “puffy” or as if she’s gaining weight.

Little did they know, boy-o, the press had objectified the wrong Hollywood-actress-who-has-posed-nude-to-help-sell-magazines-and-fronted-a-cosmetic-line-but-also-objects-to-patriarchal-beauty-standards*:

The internet uproar over pink slime seems to have started as a low rumble stemming from a less-than-accurate folk horror narrative that made the email and Facebook rounds many months ago.  That particular story, which included a laundry list of titillating, ghastly assertions, including one that mechanically separated meat contained, for lack of a better description, chicken lips and assholes, could be debunked in large part with a simple search at snopes.com.


I think I was probably older than most writers are when they first realize that literature is not just books–that it is a system of ideas and ideals, a paradigm, a way of being.

I was 18 or 19.  It was the middle of July in a steaming, sucking, temperate summer, and I was in northern Minnesota at a cabin my family has rented every summer for as long as I have been alive.  Back then, the cabin got three channels, broadcast, via antennae.  After trying, unsuccessfully, to get drunk in local bars, I was suffering a dearth of shit to do.

Desperate, I tagged along with my considerably more bookish sister to the bookstore in town.

I do not feel sad or overwhelmed.

I do not feel “over the moon.”

My vagina feels like it has been mugged, beaten, and left for dead.

This.  Right here.  What I’m saying now.  Everything I will say.  People have said it.  People have asked the questions I’m asking and answered them, but here I am.  Pursuit of new answers is nothing but bargaining with old answers.


It became desperate, for me, when I was reading Jonathan Evison’s West of Here.  I enjoyed it immensely at first.  Then I had to stop reading.  I’d already read it before.  There was nothing wrong with the book.

I’ve read almost nothing since.


Crabwalk,” I said. “By Gunter Grass.  This is Crabwalk.”

“You think every book is Crabwalk,” said a friend whose own manuscript I had compared to Crabwalk.

“No, just the ones that are, but there are a lot of them.”


Crabwalk is about Nazis, kind of, old and new, not that it matters.


Scuttling backwards to move forward.


Crabwalk is also, in turn, other books and stories and movies and poems.


West of Here is Crabwalk and Crabwalk is the “Garden of Forking Paths” (this, too, involves Germans), and that reminds me of Yeats.


Of what is past, or passing, or to come.


Which reminds me.


Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.


All roads lead to Eliot.



Did he say make it new, too?




Nothing is anything but a reference to something else.  And that’s whether we mean or know it to be or not.  That, too, is Eliot.

I can’t have a thought.  Not one.  Not of my own.

Either can you.


Trying.  Even trying.  Look at what you’re up against.  LOOK AT THEM.


I bought Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind because the description on the back reminded me vaguely of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler and J.L. Borges’ “The Library of Babel”.

The fucking Library of Babel.

It’s almost too terrible to talk about.


I couldn’t finish The Shadow of the Wind.



I have a recurring dream about sitting in a study in Buenos Aires watching J.L. Borges write.


In the dream he can’t see me.  He keeps daguerreotypes and tiny dishes of loose change.  It is just like the study Eliot uses in my dreams, but Borges’ study is dusty and baroque.  The curtains are brocade. I leave fingerprints on everything.

Eliot’s curtains are linen, rocking in a maritime breeze, and the furniture is immaculate–dark wood and  indifferent ivory.  Surfaces are smooth and cool to the touch.  There are no shadows, no clutter.  He licks his pen.  He watches me watch him.


I used to believe in an embarrassing way that I was communing with them, that in the dreams, these men were the men, but they say everyone in your dreams is you.  So I return to these places to be alone with myself, I guess.  Nothing ever changes.


Ideas have archetypes.

Containers within which a finite number of related human thoughts rattle and stick.  Stick together, shake apart, rattle, stick again elsewhere.  Then it’s new.  But not really new.  And eventually all partnerships are exhausted.

Like matter, archetypes of ideation can’t be created or destroyed.

This very idea comes from a box labeled “Jung, et al”.

And then again, the archetypes themselves are items in other, larger containers.  Nesting dolls of human awareness.

The largest of which is…what?




Temporal provincialism is intractable.

Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.



On some shelf in some hexagon, it was argued, there must exist a book that is the cipher and perfect compendium of all other books and some librarian must have examined that book; this librarian is analogous to a god.


Oh God.



Other echoes

Inhabit the garden; shall we follow?


…respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.





I have an overwhelming urge to tattoo myself, basically at all times.

I have exactly zero tattoos.

I have threatened to get any number of tattoos over the years, a fact of which no one is quite so acutely aware as my dear friend Brad, who has drawn for me–at my request and even once combined with cash as a wedding gift–no fewer than four different tattoos.

When I began telling people that I was pregnant, people said ominous things like, “Your life will never be the same again,” and “This will change you forever.”  Others (generally parents themselves) took to more back-handedly complimentary, self-satisfied sentiments like “This will make you a better person!”  Or “You’ll find that pregnancy and parenthood are humbling experiences.”

(Wait.  Did you just call yourself a good, humble person for having had kids? I think you did. No. Really. I’m pretty sure you did.)

I think the ominous sentiments are probably inescapably, terrifyingly true. I think the smug sentiments are probably just there to warn me that some of my friends and acquaintances are smug.

Physically, I have escaped relatively unscathed.  No serious complications and so far free and clear of the more common, inconvenient, and uncomfortable but generally harmless physical complaints as well.  No nausea, no frequent headaches, no stretch marks, and no sign of the dreaded FATs, thank you very much.  Fiber, fiber, fiber.

Pregnancy is a fuckin’ breeze.

Or not exactly.  Not the part where I go considerably more insane and become an entirely different person, both in fact and in the perceptions of others.

I’ve quit enjoying music.  And the internet, for some reason.

The only straight man in my office has started treating me differently, cloyingly; he is less trustful of my opinions, less heedful of my warnings and advice.  He pushes back at me where I’m pretty sure, prior to my pregnancy, he found me intimidating and accepted that I was the expert on matters related to my job.

He is seemingly confused about whether the baby is in my uterus or in my brain.  About whether I am  expecting a child or I am the child.

It doesn’t help  that, as Tawni Freeland observed elsewhere, most maternity clothes look like oversized baby clothes themselves.  Lots of ruffles and lace and empire waists and baby-doll lines and floral patterns.  An overwhelming cutesy-feminine-preciousness that is simply not befitting of the fearsome creature I can be.

I’m the she-goat.  I AM YANG.


You can totally run, and you can probably totally hide, too, since I barely even fit in a restaurant booth these days. Pretty much anywhere you go, if it’s at a pace faster than “shuffle,” I won’t catch you.

I do my best not to wear shirts actually made for pregnant people unless I am entering a situation in which I think it is somehow to my advantage to be perceived, potentially exclusively, as the cute and helpless pregnant girl.  That or a disabled person.  This is not to say there is never such a situation.  But it needs to be strategic decision, not one made for me by the dearth of sane fashion options in maternity sections of the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

A friend of mine related to me that her husband had enjoyed her being pregnant because it seemed to “even out” her temperament.

In my case, my own father said to me today:  “You were mercurial, at best, to begin with; throw this in the mix and…well…It’s okay.  It will be okay.  It will be over soon.”

Thanks, Dad.

But he’s right.  My stubbornness has become inflexibility, my stoicism, iciness.  My frankness has become tactlessness, my willfulness has become belligerence, and my driving, for some reason, has gotten really, really aggressive.

I am largely free of misgivings.  About anything. My will is a juggernaut.  My resolve a bunker.  When I say “I don’t give a shit,” I am startled to realize how sincerely I mean it.  My single-mindedness is staggering, and the power and control people are granting me now fill me with a terrible, addictive euphoria I can’t quite describe.

Makes me feel, maybe, just a little, like a god.

It’s probably not good for people to just do what I say like that.  But if they don’t, I lose my shit.

Standing there in my preppy, pretty khakis and ruffled seersucker blouse, skin glowing, smelling of rose lotion and clean laundry, belly swollen with the miracle of new life, fists coming down hard on top of the washing machine, my makeshift pulpit, my eyes wide enough to look like the balls may just explode from their sockets:


A bunker in an lacy empire waist.  A missile silo with pink siding, a window box, and a picket fence.  Venus flytrap.

Sorry baby, but your soft blond mama is a loaded gun.

It’s all so incongruous.  Me.  Pregnancy.  Me. Femininty.  Me.  Nurturing vessel.

I struggle to salvage my Self.

I knew this would happen.

Part of this is hormones, I suppose.  But part of it is an adverse or compensatory reaction to being treated–suddenly–differently.  A reaction to people, even my own father, reaching out to touch my stomach without asking.  People seem to think there is no longer any reason to be afraid.  As a result, something in me is compelled to take up wanton displays of my capacity for sheer, unapologetic force.  To show that I can marshal the peculiar attributes of this “mellowing” condition to make myself even more awesome and terrible.

To show them that “for the better” is relative.  Better at what?  Throwing the viciously crazy quotient of any given situation totally off the charts?


Everyone be cool, this is a pregnancy.

Any of you pricks move and I’ll execute every motherfucking last one of you.

My dad spoke to me in baby-talk not long ago.  He said “My wittle girl is having a wittle girl!”  Mere weeks later, having forgotten he said it to me, he tried to tell me my mother said it to him about me.  Maybe she did.  Maybe people go around calling me a “wittle girl” to each other now.  Maybe he just wanted an excuse to say it again.

No one in their right mind would speak to unpregnant Me in baby talk. They would have to have a death wish.  No one should ever speak to any woman in baby talk unless she is actually a baby.

Later he said, “How’s it goin’, Mommy?”

That one I couldn’t let go.

“NO! GodDAMNIT! You don’t do that! Grown men don’t get to call me Mommy!”

This startled him.  My dear old dad is as sweet and lovable and generous and kind and well-intentioned as they come.  But I have grown up a tomboy, his only son, and I was not about to let him infantilize and hyper-feminize me.

My mother frowned at this.  He is approaching 70.  I am his daughter.  I have a daughterly obligation to allow him, in his dotage, to reduce me to an infant.  I am obligated to humor a cooing, high-pitched sentimentality that casts me as the lynch pin of a million-times recycled and fairly sexist Hallmark moment.

Well fuck that.

Mom can frown all she wants.

She knows better.  I’m her daughter.

An unexpected boon to my new-found dispassionate and largely unbending relationship style:  Like a lot of humans, the dog has become incredibly obedient.

Some archetypal energies, I’m tempted to believe, are universal.  Even across species.

I wonder if the birth of my child will cause setbacks in her training.  That is, I mean, if my temperament ever evens out.  If I am ever sane-ish again, I wonder if she will stop respecting me.

I think about her constantly.  Worry about whether or not she’s feeling fulfilled in her essential doggy-ness.  I bawl inconsolably at ASPCA commercials.  The little puppies with crusty eyes and no one who cares enough to wipe the boogers away.

You could show me a thousand videos of human children with distended bellies covered in flies, and I would not react with such abject sorrow and soul-clutching existential despair as I do to one 3-second shot of a dog with matted fur shaking in fear.

My fixation on dogs has been clear and curious.  It is basically harmless, so I’ve felt no need to stifle it.

It’s not unusual, I guess, for pregnant women to develop these kinds of fixations.  I was prone to fixation anyway, so it only stands to reason that this tendency, too, would be amplified.

It’s just that now my fixations are even less interesting to other people than the ones I used to get.

My husband appears slightly concerned that I love the dog more than I love him lately, and I very well might.

I suspect it is some primordial urge driving me towards the most vulnerable, needy thing in my home, commanding me to provide for it, instruct it, protect it, stroke its head, value it above all else.

At all costs, if need be.

Do not fuck with my dog.  Do not say mean things about my dog.  Praise my dog and her incredible good looks constantly.  As far as I’m concerned, compared to my dog, your dog and everyone you know sucks, including all your children, Mozart, and baby Jesus.  So just watch it.

It will be interesting to see what happens when my attention and concern are forcibly split between an infant human and my irrationally beloved Sydney dog.

I expect to feel a great deal of guilt and anxiety, no matter what.

The only other question that remains is whether I should continue trying to fight it or stop kidding myself and just let go.  Just go Full Lunatic right from the outset.  Revel in it.  Roll around in it.  Maybe if I let go, stopped fighting, I would become less, not more, crazy.

But, probably, I would just be different crazy.  Crazy like all those other parents I know, running around bragging about the humbling power of parenthood without even the slightest sense of irony.

I already have plans for a Christmas card that involve, potentially, putting clothing on my dog.

Maybe I’ll get one of those strollers for twins.  Buy matching bonnets, cut ear holes in one of them.

Change?  Yes.


Let’s just say some small shred enough of Me remains to  have some very, very serious doubts.

When Brad first wrote to remind us that TNB was coming up on its 5th anniversary and suggest that some of us offer our thoughts on this milestone, my response was, verbatim (though not in its entirety), this:


My teeth already hurt and nothing has even  been posted yet.  TNB’s syrup cup shall runneth over for that week.

It is my experience that writers, as a matter of habit and, probably, survival, regularly delude themselves into believing that what they do is useful, not only to themselves, but to other people.

I will come right out and say I just don’t think this is the case.

The title of this piece, for those who are unfamiliar, is a reference to Office Space.  In it, Richard Riehle’s character, Tom Smykowski, is a mid-level functionary at “Initech,”a software company.  In this particular scene, he attempts to explain to “The Two Bobs” (a pair of “efficiency experts” brought in to streamline the company’s operations), what exactly his job is and why it (and he) is valuable:


Especially considering recent trends towards approaching art as one among many entertainment and recreation industries, Tom Smykowski and writers have more in common than any writer would like to admit.

I should be careful to point out that I understand there is writing that is useful. There is writing that is more effective or less effective.  Writing might be instructive or persuasive and it may succeed or fail in its mission.  It is possible for writing to do or encourage people to do or think things.  But as a creative practice in which the genus, execution, and natural conclusion of project are almost entirely avocational–a hobby or recreation for writer and reader alike–it is tough to take too grave and earnest a view of its practical purpose without sounding like a very desperate human being to anyone who is not likewise deluded (see:  other writers).

Anyone who has tried to talk seriously about writing or books with non-writers knows what I’m talking about.  This is how we end up in “communities.”  The literary community is a thing by, for, and unto itself.  We’re a sort of glorified cat lady club that has, unlike the cat ladies, managed to convince the world that our particular obsession is at least a little important.  That they should pay $9.99 to play with our cats.  Our beautiful, beautiful cats. That everyone should support our cat-production program for the enrichment and happy-making of the people, especially ourselves.

We can’t imagine why everybody wouldn’t want an “eagerly-anticipated” cat.

(I always wonder by whom it is anticipated.  I was almost never anticipating any of those books.)

I suppose it is true that for some, writing is a vocation in a manner of speaking.  At least insofar as there is pay involved.  But, as many here are all too well aware, in most cases writers fight tooth and nail, every inch clawing, to wring mere cents out of every word.  It is not a situation where writing presents itself as a traditional vocation–where there is a need and people actively seeking out and hiring individuals qualified to fill that need.  Trying to sell writing means a lifetime of, realistically, direct mail marketing, cold-calling, and door-knocking.  In most cases, the fact is that there is very little need at all for anything any single creative writer does, and in most cases, s/he will find himself aggressively and forwardly pushing his/her unsolicited “services” on an unwitting, skeptical, and largely disinterested public rather than being sought out by anyone at all.  Not readers, not agents, not publishers.

In  the film, The Two Bobs do liquidate Tom Smykowski’s job, but everything turns out a-okay for him.  He is hit by a drunk driver after being interrupted by his oblivious wife in the middle of a poorly executed suicide attempt and will collect a settlement for the rest of his life as a result.  At a party celebrating his retirement, we see Smykowski in a wheelchair, full-body cast, and cervical halo, proclaiming, “Good things CAN happen!  I mean, look at me!”

Rationalizations on full display, a number of writers with formerly lofty artistic goals resign themselves to the whims of the market, emerge from door-knocking and cold-calling haggard, bruised and broken but nevertheless with a book that at least kind of sells, and go, “GOOD THINGS CAN HAPPEN!”

They grin gap-toothed and proud past the split lip of their creative self-respect as their pummeled integrity swells into a massive shiner, impossible for anyone but the writer in question to ignore.  Other writers grimace understandably.  Not out of spite, but at the understanding that this could happen to any of us.  That this does happen to a lot of us.  That there are only so many options.

In such cases, the writer’s traditionally romantic artistic vision of writing is replaced not by reality, as many writers who have settled will insist, but a new kind of delusion:  That which assumes their situation has improved just because it has changed dramatically or because they have traded one discomfort for another.

In sum:  No one, in the end, is really looking for any of us.  Creative writers are not necessary.  To want to be a creative writer for a job is, in the greater cultural scheme of things, a fairly scandalous, decadent thing to demand.

When thousands of people are vying for a handful of positions that only sort of exist (that is, they only exist insofar as our powers of rhetoric can convince people they do), schisms predictably follow.

Writers of one type declare another type or all other types irrelevant, impractical, failing to deliver on the “true” purpose of writing.

Literary types accuse the commercial types of bastardizing the art,  commercial types accuse literary types of partitioning literature off from the masses in violation of the “point” of written storytelling.  Creative non-fiction is ass-backwardly decried as some new bastard child of non-fiction and fiction, poetry (what’s poetry?) is declared a dying, elitist, useless art, and fiction is regarded down poets’ noses, perceived as the promiscuous C+ cousin of them all.

Allow me to clear up a few historical misconceptions.

The “true” purpose of writing, the first writing, for the record, historically speaking, was for accounting, itemization, and taking stock of material goods.  Plainly, writing was invented to make lists.  Not to make entertainment.

After that, it was “for” governmental and religious propaganda, and consisted primarily of embellished historical accounts of the conquests of empires and their leaders.  I suppose we could call those instances creative non-fiction, but that would be at least a little disingenuous.

The first fictional novels as we understand them didn’t even appear until the 18th century (generously), coinciding with a general rise in literacy.  Reading, in the broad historical sense, never belonged to the masses at all because historically speaking, the masses couldn’t (and at any number of levels, still can’t) read.  Very few people were literate in “civilized” ancient societies predating the Romans, and humanity (Western humanity, to be frank) returned quickly to a near-uniformly illiterate state for hundreds of years following the demise of The Empire, only to pick up the skill en masse again as late as the 20th century, depending on what one considers “widespread” literacy.  As of 1900, the American illiteracy rate for individuals over 14 bore striking resemblances to today’s unemployment numbers.  This means about 10% of the American population, nearly 60% of them either non-white or immigrants, could not read when L. Frank Baum was writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  Compare that to a small fraction of a percent now.

We are, incidentally, once again, becoming less literate as a species following a modern historical peak in the 70s.

All these things considered, your H&R Block representative, Joseph Goebbels, and the silky-handed, teeming faux-elite of planned McMansion communities are arguably “truer” writers in the long-term historical sense than any of us (not that there aren’t accountants, propagandists or idle bourgeoisie among us, but that’s a different discussion, and I doubt those individuals think to count these qualifications among their writerly credentials).

So to pretend that the act of writing as we undertake it has some long-standing, sacred proletariat history that we are beholden to or entrusted to maintain or that makes one type of creative writing more correct than another is simply incorrect.  The truth is quite to the contrary:  Arguably, of the arts (written, visual, performing, and musical), writing is the newest and  most exclusive of them all and its relatively recent overall democratization has served in large part to remove the luxuriousness from an item that never quite had much more than luxury going for it.

So writing–the writing we are generally talking about when we feel compelled to defend the importance of writing–really isn’t all that necessary at all.  In fact, humanity (potential readers and writers alike) got along quite well without recreational reading or writing for the overwhelming bulk of its history, and even after its emergence, huge portions of the population continued (and continue) to get along without it just fine.  Our feelings, as writers, about our own importance are almost certainly unfounded.

It’s easy to despair at the thought.  That writers are never necessary, simply tolerated. That we are of indifferent value and generally disposable.

It could be depressing.  Or it could be liberating.  After all, though the road may be a lonely one, if no one really needs you, you’re free to do just about anything you please.

If I could let go of my pride and truly embrace the idea that my writing and I are accountable to no one and that nothing I might say is particularly important to anyone, what kinds of accidentally important things might I be freed up to say?

It’s time, maybe, to knock a wall out of my cube and start cleaning fish at my desk.  To go to The Two Bobs of the world–and more importantly The Two Bobs in my head–and, when they say, “What do ya do here?” tell them exactly the truth.

“Virtually nothing.  And therefore anything I want.”

The women’s restroom at my place of employment–the floor on which I work–has two stalls.  One regular, one handicapped suite.

Because of the size of the suite, the resultant distance of the toilet from the stall partition, and the sight lines it creates, it is easy, when seated in the suite, to see the feet of the person in the neighboring regular stall.

Mother’s Day is a yearly obligation, like taxes, that sneaks up on me, fills me with dread and guilt, and forces me to tell a short series of little and white, only moderately willful–though potentially disastrous (at least if I get caught)–lies.

I know people who live for these things–these holidays and way-markers on the calendar.  I’ve felt and done it myself–even tried to do it on purpose in the manner of a deliberate outward-turning “lifestyle change.” I know that these things parse the metronomic passage of time into a reliable series of meaningful events, thereby turning the calendar into digestible avocational cycles of preparation, payoff, clean-up, and recovery.  The next life goal and feeling of accomplishment need only ever be as far away as the next major or minor holiday, birthday, or anniversary, and you can set your own cycle period by choosing to observe more or fewer of them, significantly reducing–if not eliminating completely–awareness of mortality and the indifferent siege of time.

We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us.


No one hates higher education more than I do.

Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh combined have fewer nasty things to say about the academic establishment, academic elitism, and academics.