Where were you on the evening of December 3, 1979?

I was in a living room with a brown shaggy rug, tangled curls flying, rag doll clutched under my armpit, enormous headphones clamped around my toddler ears. I was dancing, my mouth plugged by my right thumb. A stretchy black coil connected the headphones to a cord, which ran to the wooden wall unit, which held my father’s record player. A 45 spun round, the needle’s gentle connection to the grooves sending the sound—maybe the Eagles; the Bee Gees; Earth, Wind and Fire—back through the wire to my ears. My parents sat on our nubby couch smiling, looking on. This is where everything begins, and where everything ends.


Where will you be on the morning of March 1, 2018?

Probably hiding. My book, California Calling: A Self-Interrogation, comes out that day.



I’m thinking about dislocation. About place. Wondering how to set myself in it, like Wallace Stevens’s jar in Tennessee, so I can change the place and the place can change me. An exchange. A connection. But then again, I just reread his poem and the jar gives nothing back to its surroundings. This wasn’t the story I remembered from school. I remembered a more generous jar.

I’m wondering how to make a scene that another person can enter into through words on the page and feel welcome in this story of displacement. I want you to feel out of it while you’re here, like I tend to feel, but in a nice way, so you might want to come back.

Y’all come back now, ya hear!

So, I hear you’ve written another book.

That’s right. It’s called The Infernal Library and it’s a study of dictator literature, that is to say books written by dictators, that is to say the worst books in the history of the world. I trace the development of the dictatorial tradition over the course of a century, starting with Lenin, then exploring the prose of Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, et al before arriving in the modern era where I analyze the texts of Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and assorted post-Soviet dictators (among others). It’s a bit like Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, only the books are terrible and many were written by mass murderers. It can also be read as an alternative cultural history of the 20th century, with implications for our own troubled times.


How did I get from standing on the bimah for my son’s bar mitzvah three years ago to visiting my son at the adolescent wing of a psych ward? Raphael is here on a 72-hour hold, a “5150.” This is where a social worker from the Psychiatric Emergency Team (PET) evaluates a person under 18 to see if he is at risk to himself or others. This is the first time my son has been put on such a hold related to his escalating drug use. I drive somewhere down the 605 towards Santa Ana to a hospital with an adolescent psych unit. I am buzzed into a locked unit. I enter and sign in, looking eagerly around for Raphael. The large room where the visits take place has posters on the wall. Some are informational—rules—others are friendly with pleasant scenes and inspirational quotes, but it doesn’t take away from the stark, institutional look. This will not be one of Raphael’s favorite places for a psych hold. Subsequent adolescent wards and treatment centers we pass through will have bright murals, and I will not remember where this one was, that it was only a waystation to the next step that I had hoped would arrest the downward slide. But the physicality, the geographic location, of this first 72-hour hold he goes on, will mostly be a giant blank in my memory. I’ve been told that trauma can do this, above and beyond the normal menopausal memory loss.

Your book Getting Off is about your struggle with sex and porn addiction, but it’s also about your journey towards shame-free womanhood, so I’m just going to ask you what everyone’s wondering—did you ever get into bestiality porn?

That’s what everyone’s wondering?

Well you write that some porn is bad, right? What about sloshing? Is that bad too? If I like bestiality and sloshing does that mean I have a problem?

I think you may have misunderstood something. Did you read the book?

How about hentai?

Hey! You showed up! I didn’t think you would.

Well, I almost didn’t when I heard you were doing the interview.


I’m not that bad…we go way back, after all! I think of us as brothers, almost twins.

Says you. I already have an identical twin, thank you very much. Come on, let’s get this over with.


All right, all right, anything you say. So: for most of your career, you’ve published poetry and literary essays. But now you have two books out, companion pieces, one a book of poems, House of Fact, House of Ruin, while the other is a book of long form journalism, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing In an Age of Refugees. About ten years ago, you began to write these essays, in part about refugee issues in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. And you’ve also written about the situation in Libya just before the second civil war broke out a few years ago, as well as your trip to Iraq just as ISIS was establishing itself in the region. Can you explain how a poet came to write about these issues?


Sometimes a gal just needs to get away.

My sister and I had been talking about taking a trip together. No kids. No husbands. Just her and me for four whole glorious days. Our first ever sisters trip.

We would be able to talk and giggle all night. Eat ice cream in bed. Even jump on the bed. Sleep in. Walk around in our underwear. Share lipstick. See girly tourist sites and stores no male eyes want to bother observing. Go to tea or coffee and sit all day just chatting about all the things that connect us and make us sisters that share the same blood and childhood so that we know each other better than we know ourselves.

 How do you feel now that the book is out?

Like a cow jumped over the moon. Like I have landed on pesticide-free virgin grass, which for a cow like me, is bovine heaven. After all, there aren’t too many books written about cows. The Milk Lady of Bangalore may have my mistress in the title but it is really about me: Ananda Lakshmi a.k.a. Blissful Lakshmi a.k.a. Blissful Goddess of Wealth a.k.a AL. You can call me Al.

The elevator door opens.

A cow stands inside, angled diagonally to fit. It doesn’t look uncomfortable, merely impatient.

I reflexively move forward, and then stop, trying not to gape.

“It is for the housewarming ceremony on the third floor,” explains the woman who stands behind the cow, holding it loosely with a rope. She has the sheepish look of a person caught in a strange situation who is trying to act as normal as possible.

“What’s going on over here?!!”

Donald J. Trump, moments before body-slamming Vince McMahon, 04/01/07

There’s perhaps no better arena to understand the spectacle at the heart of Donald Trump than the modern faux wrestling ring, where the fights are staged, the punches pulled (unless it’s the Don), and when blood spills it’s either fake or planned.

So what fucking possessed you? A Trump book, I mean really.

My publisher, Unnamed Press, called me last January and we both wanted to do something against Trump and his minions. We threw around a few ideas, some of them legal, and came up with the idea—who would’ve thunk it—of a book. But not just any book, but one where I’d dig deep, not only into Trump, but into the intellectual, cultural and social roots of what brought us to this point. You know, context. Also, I was depressed, what else was I gonna do but spend my days obsessing over this man we had somehow elected. The old saying, write a book or get over it—someone said that, right?


But why’d anyone want to spend a few more hours inside that sociopath’s head than they already have to?

Fuck it. We Lost.

Or, an Old Man Burns in a Chair

Days before the November 8 election, while driving through rural New England, I was invited to, of all things, a Guy Fawkes Night celebration—the annual British custom of commemorating the failed plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament by burning an effigy of the lead conspirator—held at a farmhouse in northern Vermont. Champagne bottles were sabered open, a sorta Irish band jammed jigs, and a bearded guy dressed in a kilt wandered around playing the bagpipes. It was a liberal crowd, Hillary and Bernie supporters, with a local Democratic state politician glad-handing among them. The air was charged with a palpable sense of excitement. Everyone knew Hillary would ace it, the first woman president. The atmosphere was electric smug celebration. I was one of them,


By Kerry Bramhall




 Your absence has gone through me like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.

S. Merwin


Girl Mother Memory:  Six stories high. Will she make a sound as she flies? Her wisps of hair and wide forehead just like her mother. Get me out of this room. She is too small today and I can’t feel my hands. Turn your back to the windows…Don’t throw her out. That would be wrong…and very bad…Lots of trouble for me. Jail. Blood. Hard cement below. I should make dinner now. Find the warm kitchen. There is no mother here for any of us now. Windows can let me out or hold me in. I want my own lost mother to crush me with love and stop this scream inside my throat. I am thirteen. My sister is six.


This is a comic.

Not really. But okay.

Comics aren’t Media Mail.


Go across the street, right there. To the comics store. They’ll tell you. They do all their comics parcel post.

But these don’t have advertisements.

It doesn’t matter.

So a book of pictures isn’t Media Mail but a book of words is? Is that it?


But these have pictures and words.


1.  Choose a horrific moment in history you know little about, in a country, Argentina, you know little about, but which seems to have troubling similarities to the here and now. Research for years. Images from the Dirty War sear into your mind.


2.  Learn that Hemingway wrote novels at the pace of 300 words a day, no more, no less, stopping mid-sentence if need be. You’re no Hemingway, but it seems pretty reasonable. Buy a marble composition notebook. Stare at the blank page. Treat yourself to a cheap book of Dover Art stickers. Stick a Chagall painting on a blank page. Stare. The painting makes a nice dent in the white space. A box to write around.


3.  Repeat this process every day for the next few years. Chagall, Modigliani, and Kandinsky speak to your project more than other painters, fueling your three main characters. You don’t know why, but whatever works, right?


4.  Worry the 300-word chunks aren’t quite stitching together. Someone in your writing group calls your protagonist a cipher. You’re afraid to ask if that is good or bad.