An Interview with René Georg Vasicek

April 12th, 2010

 

When I first read René Georg Vasicek’s short story, “Borsig’s Machine Factory,” I was immediately drawn to the stark beauty of his words that left me with a haunted feeling of how powerful art can be in an artist’s life.  Throughout this letter of sorts, Vasicek’s narrator reveals some hard truths about the romanticism of art and writing.  Nuggets of wisdom are scattered throughout the text, turning up when least expected: “A writer without a novel is like a hitman who has yet to kill” and “At forty it is absurd: I can’t believe I am still lost!  And yet for a writer, that is precisely where he wants to be.”  I found myself dwelling on those blips of advice, much the same way I did the first time I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.  Somewhere in here, I reasoned, there must be a code, some sort of blueprint for how to become a respected artist. 

Nope.  No code.  No blueprint—just plain honesty that simply fascinated me.

I recently had the chance to ask Vasicek a few questions about the “Borsig’s Machine Factory.”  I’ve included his answers in their entirety.         

Meredith Doench:  As a writer myself, I am completely drawn to the writerly “advice” and hard truths given in “Borsig’s Machine Factory.”  In some ways I am reminded of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and even parts of Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.  Is this story meant to be a letter of sorts to younger writers or a roadmap of how artistry takes hold of a person or even how artistry can let go of a person? 

 Rene Georg Vasicek:  Yes, “Borsig’s Machine Factory” is a warning to younger writers: “Stop before it’s too late!” It’s a roadmap to nowhere. Of course, I’m kidding (and I’m not kidding) because the story was rejected thirty-two times before Camera Obscura surprised me. Sometimes I feel like a minor character in Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. His stories and novels are teeming with casualties of the “literary life,” obscure poets and writers who are forgotten or simply “disappear.” So why write? I believe most writers have no choice. A writer is an artist in awe of everyday life. 

 Doench:  A thread that I noticed that really intrigued me was that of fathers and immigration.  In the beginning, “I” is the son listening to his immigrant father celebrate hard, manual labor, and then later, “I” is the immigrant father who is doing hard, manual labor.  In terms of “Borsig’s Machine Factory,” how does immigration influence an artist?  How does Chloe and “I”s son influence the way “I” sees his own immigration?

 Vasicek:  The “I” of “Borsig’s Machine Factory” suffers from a feeling that his life is not as “real” as his father’s. This is a fairly common phenomenon between generations, but I think it gets exaggerated in “children of immigrants,” especially in America. Here the immigrant experience is mythologized, yet the immigrant family is strangely absent from most popular culture. There are stereotypes, of course. But rarely does television and film go beyond the surface. Perhaps only literature can reflect the psychological impact on the children of immigrants who sometimes feel like “immigrants” in their own family. 

 Doench:  Another element of the story that I really connected with is the random events and people that surface in a writer’s life.  I love the analogy “Like the clerk in a convenience store, you will have absolutely no control over what kind of people walk into your life.”   Immediately I began thinking of some of my random, bizarre encounters.  Did any bizarre, random encounters lead you to write this story?

 Vasicek:  I’ve lived in New York City for fifteen years now and I sometimes believe that the absurd seeks me out. I can’t buy a cup of coffee without feeling the uncertainty of the moment. My wife calls me a “Czech Woody Allen.”

I started writing “Borsig’s Machine Factory” three years ago, not long after my son was born. Those first few sleepless months as a new father were beautiful and weird. Three days a week, I had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. in order to get to work on time. Outside it was pitch-black and freezing. Stray cats stalked me as I walked to the subway station. At that strange hour, I often felt physically ill. I kept running into the same homeless man, a hunchback who wandered the underworld of Pennsylvania Station. Early drafts of “Borsig’s Machine Factory” were handwritten in a notebook on the Long Island Rail Road. Suddenly I had realized I was now more than twice the age of my college writing students, which made me reflect on my own experience as an English major. I was not yet twenty when I “decided” to become a writer. I tried to imagine what the 40-year-old “me” would say to the 20-year-old “me.”

“Borsig’s Machine Factory” didn’t really become a story until I imagined it as a sort of letter. Suddenly I had a “voice” and “structure” that gave me the freedom to go almost anywhere. But I didn’t want to be limited by the formal expectations of a letter. My solution was to craft the story as a “fictional essay” in the tradition of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. This allowed me to spin ideas and stories off each other. And although I began writing the story with a few autobiographical “elements,” the narrator of “Borsig’s Machine Factory” definitely had a life of his own.

 Doench:  There is a link with art drawn in the story between writing, painting, sculpture, and other forms of artwork through the various characters.  How does “I” view the connection between these different mediums of art?

 Vasicek:  The “I” of “Borsig’s Machine Factory” is a writer who fantasizes about being a different sort of artist…a painter, a musician, a sculptor. But he only gets one life, and time is running out! He already feels there is a growing chasm between his expectations as a young man and what he has accomplished so far. I do believe other artists inspire him and that he sees other art forms as possible languages.

The references to artists in “Borsig’s Machine Factory” and the different ways in which they work add to the age-old dichotomy of the artist.  That blistering war inside that battles over whether to write, sculpt, paint, photograph, or not.  In the end, though, Vasicek’s narrator concludes it is not an option for the artist, and as the narrator tells it: “You recently asked me: Should I become a writer?  My answer is: If you have to ask, then no.”

Vasicek’s “Borsig’s Machine Factory” is featured in Camera Obscura’s Premeire edition and was a strong contender for Camera Obscura’s first $1000 honorarium.

René Georg Vasicek is a 2009 fellow in Nonfiction Literature from the New York Foundation for the Arts. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Delinquent (UK), High Times, Mid-American Review, Minnetonka Review, Post Road, The Prague Revue, The Wanderlust Review, and elsewhere. He teaches at Hofstra University and Lehman College of the City University of New York. He is a co-founding editor of The Hell Gate Review, an online literary journal that publishes urban and immigrant stories from the Bronx, Queens, and beyond. René lives in Astoria, Queens with his wife and son.

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Camera Obscura Volume I Is Here

April 1st, 2010

 

And she is a beaut. The printer did a fantastic job. Pushed us to the limit on timing, but it was well worth it. For everyone who pre-ordered a copy (we thank you immensely), these will ship by mid-April at the latest. I am working on distribution right now.

Forthcoming on Aperture, interviews with some of the writers and photographers we published in this first issue.

Also, I hope any writers attending AWP will stop by our table and say hello. I would love to meet you.

M.E. Parker, Editor
Camera Obscura Journal

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Amateur Photography Winner

March 2nd, 2010

 

We were excited by the overall quality of the submissions in the amateur category. One of these images even made the cover. Thanks again for all who entered. Check the guidelines for the next competition already underway.

Outstanding Amateur Photography Award
Jan Luit for Free Floating

Editor’s Choice Award for Amateur Photography
Catlin Harrison for Self-Image (green)

Amateur Competition Finalists
Mary Brown for Embrace
Mark Harary for Grand Central Terminal
Hugh Jones for Reunion
Carrie Wendt for Hidden Frog
Shannon West for Transformation

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Professional Photography Winner

March 1st, 2010

 

We are happy to announce the winner of the first Camera Obscura Photography Award.  We received some great entries and narrowing down the finalists was a tough call. The winner’s photograph as well as those of some of the finalists will appear in the journal in April. Many thanks to all who entered.

Winner: (Selected by our Judges)
William Horton for I’m Here

Editors’ Choice 
Tom Chambers for The Goatherd

Finalists
Jennifer Adams for Hero’s Son
Holly Bown for A Farmer’s Peace
Sandy Edelstein for Keppela Kiss
Mindy Harris for Kissable
Chieko Tanemura for Knitting
Hao Tran for My Best Friend
Chuck Uebele for Father Daughter
Caron Van Orman for Double Dimple
Maria-Mihaela Vass for Bond
Rachael Waller for Mustang 42

Featured Photographers
Robert Alvarado
Cheri MacCallum

Non-professional announcement coming soon…

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New Bridge for February

February 3rd, 2010

 

For your consideration – Elaine Chiew’s bridge crossing Brother Heart .

Bridge the Gap attempts to narrow the divide between two photographs, between writer and photographer, between the writer and the reader, to deliver, artfully, a story born when the two images meet, or a story so intertwined in the division of the images that it cannot be unraveled, and do so in fewer than 1000 words. Elaine’s story is even more ambitious in the worlds she brings together, as though she has choosen to cross the gorge at its deepest point on nothing more than a cedar plank.

M.E. Parker, Editor

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Tim Horvath, meet Nani Power

January 25th, 2010

 

You know that Padgett Powell book that’s nothing but questions? That’s what I was hunting for in the Portsmouth Library when I stumbled onto Nani Power’s Crawling at Night. I’m not sure what exactly caught my attention about it—a cover design that looked like some lost Smashing Pumpkins album, accolades from some Names, the Atlantic Monthly Press (didn’t know they had one)—but I lingered on it. She also had several other novels. Now, by no means am I so well-read that I don’t find new authors all the time, but taking up such shelf space at the local library, she somehow seemed like someone I should know. In her jacket photo she resembled Charlotte Bacon, a former mentor of mine, but I was pretty certain it wasn’t Charlotte in disguise. The book, I could see, was about sushi, and Nani Power had worked in a sushi kitchen for a while, and that drew me in a little further. Are motives always so noble and intellectual? I was hungry, and here was some kind of sustenance.

Still, it was by no means a sure thing that I would continue to read—every second a trial. One page explained that the phrase “crawling at night” came from the Japanese “yobai,” which stems from a tradition of hosting travelling guests on futons, whereby a male guest could anonymously slip into a female’s futon and stay if accepted, slip away discretely if rejected. I kept going. By no means was the book the radical stylistic plunge that I’d been hoping for in Powell’s Interrogative Mood, but it had menus for chapter headings and lists and the opening sentence was “Lists are life.” Hey, yeah. No but yes. Lists of “dead things wrenched from the ocean floor, arriving daily in their iced beds. His needs.” All at once, the orderliness of lists, the squishy glisten of sushi, the discipline of making, the violence in it, the need. Hunger.

And language, sentences. In the end, it came down to the sentences.

“How he judges tuna for its fat content with a flashlight in the dawn fish   market alongside the haiku image on a barren branch. All thoughts whirling like flimsy scales flashing in a sink’s wetness, yet they get sieved along the way.”

Need I tell you that I checked it out?

Fast forward a couple of weeks. By some inexplicable collision of the universe’s pulp, Camera Obscura receives a story from none other than Nani Power. At first I can’t believe it; it seems too serendipitous. But the sentences in her “214″ make it unmistakable that it’s one and the same author:

“She made his stomach turn like frogs, in her new clothes, smelling like stores.”
“Her name was a bag of broken sounds.”
“You see a cat ass tear through some place; he’s like this one.”

To top it off, her story is about elements in collision; it is made out of the cloth of disparity, held together by its propulsive voices and energy, violence and need and something soft lurking beneath. I think it a very fine story in its own right, the coincidence hovering around it for me serving merely as an added pleasure, an unexpected spatter of roe in the midst of apiece of sushi that you’d assumed was solid through and through. I’m grateful to have made the acquaintance of Nani Power for the second time in a few weeks, and to acquaint—or reacquaint—you with her.

Nani Power is the author of Crawling at Night (Grove/Atlantic Monthly, 2001),a New York Times Notable Book of The Year and a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Award as well as the British Orange Award. It has been translated into seven languages. Her second novel, The Good Remains (Grove/Atlantic Monthly, 2002), was also a New York Times Notable Book of The Year, and a finalist for The Virginia Library Award. The Sea of Tears, her third novel, was  published in January 2005 by Counterpoint Press. Her newest book, a food memoir, Feed The Hungry, was published by Simon and Schuster in April 2008.

Her stories have been published in numerous literary magazines including The Paris Review, Salon, Gargoyle and Nerve.com.

Tim Horvath is a prose editor for the Camera Obscura. More about Tim at The Darkroom

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Tofu Hotdogs and a Contortionist

January 12th, 2010

 

For those of you who have experienced life-changing revelations in the deli meat aisle of the grocery store, this excerpt from Thea Swanson’s story Freeway Striper will immediately ring true. For everyone else, her vivid prose will be your revelatory guide.

The newest story to join the first issue of the Camera Obscura Journal is Freeway Striper by Thea Swanson, which begins:

“Terrence had what he considered a mystical experience between the tofu dogs and the mechanically separated chicken-and-beef kind. Truth be told, the dogs were five aisles apart from each other, but that was the thing: he spent forty-five minutes in Albertson’s darting back and forth between the two, putting links down and picking them up again, until finally, he squatted in a neutral location, knees touching ketchup bottles, sixteen dogs propped on relish jars. On a bun package, in slippery blue ink, he wrote his new hypothesis: a man can only go as far as what he puts inside himself. This he decided he would tinker with a bit—word wise—but the truth of the statement was gold.”

Thea Swanson holds an MFA in fiction from Pacific University in Oregon. Her work appears in Crab Creek Review, Image, Our Stories and The Write Mother. Though she grew up within the curbs and grids of Buffalo, New York, she now tries to locate herself within the paths and trees of Washington State where she writes and teaches at West Sound Academy.

Also, recently added is a lean piece of writing doing a lot of work with very few words just to live up to the title. Big Top Photographic Exhibit – November 2009: Georgette the Contortionist through the Years, by Cynthia Litz.

Cynthia Litz is a physician whose fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Night Train, NANO Fiction, NOÖJournal, and The Annals of Internal Medicine. She organizes writing workshops at an adventure in Dallas called the Highland Park Literary Festival.

More to come…

M.E. Parker, Editor
Camera Obscura Journal

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Water over the Bridge

January 5th, 2010

 

The proverbial ‘they’ has insisted for quite some time that a picture is worth a thousand words, and in doing so they have short-changed both the picture and the human mind. Regardless of the arbitrarily imposed limit of one thousand words, the point is well taken that the mind immediately conjures a story upon viewing a picture. Though there is often an obvious story, each is as unique and personal as the course a daydream takes as it pinballs through the mind.

If the story is not obvious, if the picture is abstract or unrecognizable, the mind is nonetheless stimulated into storytelling of one variety or the other, either with interest or with disdain (though the two are not mutually-exclusive), imagining perhaps the story of the person who would create such an image, the person who would appreciate such an image, or even the janitor who has to clean around said image on a daily basis (if it hangs in a museum) and how fortunate, or unfortunate, this janitor is that his fate as landed him in the daily vicinity of such an image.

broken bridge“Bridge the Gap” is not intended as a writing exercise or some sort of party game (although, given the right images and the appropriate beverages, I can imagine that it could liven many parties I have attended recently). Rather, its purpose to take the reader on an unexpected journey. The pictures are the ingress and egress of a story born when the two images meet, celebrating the synergy of words and images.

 Though no one satisfactorily bridged the gap the first time around, this is in no way an indictment on the intrepid writers who attempted it. Standards are high, expectations are murky and stakes are low. Each time a bridge fails, the previous $50 is added to the last. The next bridge, currently posted, will be worth $100. Happy Writing.

 M.E. Parker, Editor
Camera Obscura Journal

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Fiction in Creative Nonfiction Clothing

December 15th, 2009

 

Sometimes we find our art in faces, distorted in pain or joy, other times in the geometry of a rugged landscape or even in the contours of what we have chosen to discard, its worth hidden from view until it is revealed by the artist. And sometimes this art is only called such because of whose hand has produced it. We will, of course, know this art when we see it, won’t we?

Robert McGowan, a skillful writer, who is as well, an accomplished artist, joins a growing list of writers included in the first issue of the Camera Obscura Journal. “The McCaig Photographs,” excerpted below, is part of a recently completed story collection called Happy Again at Last: Stories from the Art World.

“Surely no class of object more mundane could be brought to the attention, there being, one might suggest, no good reason to think of them at all. Horizontal slots set in the curbs of city streets for the purpose of relieving the streets of rainwater. Everyone has seen these things, but almost no one notices them. They’re in fact so unnoticed that it would be difficult for many people even to call to mind’s eye an image of one, or for that matter to know for sure what a storm drain is, unless one be pointed out to them.”

“It seemed however that Andrew McCaig had known storm drains uncommonly well. It would be no exaggeration to assert he knew storm drains intimately,  having been very cozy with them for some time, precisely when or for exactly how long no one knew.”

Robert McGowan’s fiction and essays are published in, among many others, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Connecticut Review, Crucible, The Dos Passos Review, Etchings (Australia), The Savage Kick (UK), South Dakota Review, and have been anthologized. His work as an artist is in numerous collections internationally, including Bank of America, Bank of Korea, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), Smithsonian Institution. He lives in Memphis.

More updates as they become available.
Happy Holidays,
M.E. Parker, Editor
Camera Obscura Journal

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A visit to Otherwhere

December 4th, 2009

 

The most recent addition to the inaugural lineup of the Camera Obscura Journal is the latest unpublished selections from Otherwhere by Claire Bateman. Previous selections have appeared in Harper’s, Mississippi Review, and Blackbird. Her vivid prose and magical descriptions of a place that exists, perhaps, in the aether of a fractal dimension, or somewhere near Sonoma, make me wish I could traverse the byways of Otherwhere as a tourist with a camera, freezing snippets in time and tucking those moments away until their secrets are exposed, only later, in the faces of the inhabitants of this amazing place. Here is an excerpt:

“In this realm, all the people walk around in flowing reflective garb, beholding along the contours of each others’ bodies every change of their own expressions, as if all the tailors had one day decided to eschew textiles in order to work instead with liquid glass.”

Claire Bateman’s books are:
*The Bicycle Slow Race *(Wesleyan, 1991);
*Friction* (Eighth Mountain, 1998);
*At the Funeral of the Ether * (Ninety-SixPress, 1998); 
*Clumsy* (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2003); *Leap*   (New Issues, 2005);
*Coronology and Other Poems* (Etruscan Press, forthcoming). The title poem from Coronology is also an e-chapbook of the same name  produced by World Voices at:

http://chapbooks.webdelsol.com/worldvoices/bateman/bateman.html,

and is forthcoming as a print chapbook from Serving House Press.  She has received grants and fellowships from the NEA, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the Surdna Foundation.  She lives in Greenville, S.C.

More journal updates soon…

M.E. Parker, Editor
Camera Obscura Journal

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