Ron Carlson’s The Blue Box: Flash Fiction & Poetry

by Monique Briones

The Blue Box by Ron Carlson

The Blue Box by Ron Carlson

The fun with flash fiction is that so many traditional storytelling elements can be absent and the work still makes for a complete piece. The forgone details are often unnecessary in leaving a threadbare-yet-unambiguous image or scene. In Ron Carlson’s The Blue Box: Flash Fiction & Poetry, however, the missing elements beg the question of what type of scene to even envision.

Rather than feeling robbed of a full story, the lack of explanation in many of the works allowed me to entertain a few fruitful possibilities in how to read Carlson’s flash fiction. I was never quite sure whether any given piece was supposed to place me inside a plot inspired by a Hollywood blockbuster, an adrenaline-pumping video game, or a vivid daydream.

The first story in the collection, “You Must Intercept the Blue Box before It Gets to the City,” is a second-person narrative in which the narrator tells the reader to “go after the box and make sure it does not reach the city….don’t be fooled by other blue boxes.” This list of specific commands goes on, and the sudden urgency in the narrator’s tone is immediately immersive and downright disorienting. How is this blue box moving towards the city? What will happen if the blue box reaches the city? How was I bequeathed with this arduous and possibly life-threatening task? Yet Carlson imposes this story right in the center of the action and expects the audience to roll with it. He isn’t asking for much, however, considering how hilarious and unpredictable his stories become.

Other flash pieces within the collection, such as “Dangerous Relics” and “When the Monster is Actively Moving toward You–How to Start the Car,” work under the same structure. Will these relics actually turn me into a dragon or am I playing a video game? Am I supposed to believe that a monster is actually chasing me or is this a nightmare? Once I got over the premise of some of these fantastical works, however, Carlson’s settings would take shape in much less adventure-driven ways, taking time away from blue box-chasing to remember that there are children in the city and that “some nights in the fall, the children run and call and kick the ball until the final whistle blows.”

It was unclear at first whether the point of view was meant to be the same throughout all the pieces–someone who spends his leisure time escaping from his normal life through other outlets, such as film or online gaming. There are also a number of stories with an academic leaning, creating parallels between the narrator of all the works and, well, Ron Carlson. Even if I didn’t know that Carlson is the UC Irvine Writing Program Director, there are a number of pieces that break up the fast-paced fantasy with more pedagogical forms, gesturing towards the point of view of a professor with an active imagination. “Recommendation for Gordon Lee Bunson,” “My True Style Guide,” and “My MOOC” all embody the same voice as the narrator of the more thrilling pieces, retaining the same sense of whimsy and humor throughout. “My MOOC,” in particular, bridges a professorial reality and a surreal one in which the narrator “asked if those in the back could hear me, [and] I took the one small fire I could see there on the horizon to signify that they could.”

Carlson’s free verse poetry fits into the same vein of his fiction in that his poems are thematized around sci-fi, fantasy, or academic settings. “Teaching Evaluation” and “My Favorite Martian” do not focus on lyricism so much as a twist in expectation. While only lacking in that these poems were not made to be read by poets and should be viewed as brief continuations of the collection’s overall motifs, The Blue Box’s poetry slows time down, punctuating small moments with quiet, endearing images.

Along with Carlson’s skill at the flash fiction form is the in-your-face air of self-awareness that many of these pieces have. This self-awareness is obvious in the plots of these pieces; Carlson’s usage of film cliches and gaming tropes allows the realization to sink in that there are not so many differences between the escapism of a movie than that of a book. In fact, the way that Carlson envisions action-thriller-type settings into textual pieces of fewer than a thousand words speaks towards how we’ve internalized such methods of leaving behind everyday life. I was so familiar with Carlson’s adventure sequences that I had no choice but to step back and analyze how the prose was working towards pre-established genre norms–all to force me to think about how I was reading to escape the duties and limitations of my own reality. Talk about the power of metafiction. “Walk-Bridge,” probably the most metafictional in the collection, emphasizes how the narrator’s writing takes shape in a present moment that mixes the potential of the real world with the temptation of a fantastical one. Carlson carries this message of living in a state of constant escapism across all of his pieces in The Blue Box, inviting us to do the same.


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Thumbprints in Vinyl: Review of The BreakBeat Poets

by Malcolm Friend

The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop

The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop

Poems about breakdancing and beatboxing; meditations on twerking and juking; love letters to family members, neighborhoods, and even the original black Power Ranger—all of this and more you’ll find in The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, published last April through Haymarket Books and edited by Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall. Packed with poems styled after The Notorious B.I.G., dedicated to Lupe Fiasco, and epigraphed with quotes from the likes of Ab-Soul and Big Sean, the anthology is, as indicated by the subtitle and explained by Coval, “by and for the hip-hop generation.”

The writers are arranged by year of birth, ranging from 1961 to 1999, with aesthetics that match this diversity of age. As expected of an anthology geared toward the hip-hop generation, many of the poems do address the genre. However, the ways in which each author interacts with hip-hop varies. There are poems directly interacting with artists and songs such as Franny Choi’s “Pussy Monster,” which critiques the Lil’ Wayne song of the same name by rearranging the lyrics by the frequency with which each word is used. There are also poems which reference techniques common in hip-hop, such as José Olivarez’s “Ode to the First White Girl I Ever Loved,” which uses the remix as a tool to relate how the speaker grew into his identity as Mexican-American after being ostracized for it as a child, morphing the name José into “yo se, / yo se, / yo se.

Even in poems that do not feature hip-hop music you can find traces of hip-hop culture, such as in the political nature many of the poems take. Jamila Woods’s “Defense,” for instance, opens with an epigraph from George Zimmerman’s defense attorney and uses it to launch a discussion on how often Black boys (such as Trayvon Martin) get framed as dangerous and how this is used as justification for their deaths:


black boy touch turn

anything weapon

him Grim Reaper




him a walking

emergency / whole

body a trigger


hoodie / holster


While hip-hop is the frame which holds the anthology together, it is important to remember that, more than anything, these poets are claiming a space for themselves and hip-hop within the American poetic tradition, demonstrating that poetry is not just the domain of “dead white dudes who got lost in the forest,” as Coval puts it. One poem in particular that captures this feeling is Michael Cirelli’s “The Message,” which places hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Melle Mel (as well as those who would follow him, including Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G.) in a continuum that includes Spanish poet Federico García Lorca: “Everyone has felt this way though, / he thought. Never could he have imagined what would happen / when he pressed his thumbprint into vinyl.” This claim of belonging is highlighted by the “Ars Poeticas & Essays” section which follows the poems and features a number of the anthology’s contributors explaining how hip-hop informs their poetics. Much like Melle Mel, the BreakBeat poets are pressing their thumbprints for future generations to find, leaving us with a music, with a new American poetry.


To read a sample of the work found in The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, check out Poetry magazine’s April issue, and to hear poets from the anthology read some of their work, check out Poetry magazine’s April podcast as well as the Poetry Foundation’s video of three contributors sharing their work.

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Review of Amber Tamblyn’s Dark Sparkler

by Sierra Smith

Amber Tamblyn with her book, Dark Sparkler at AWP 2015

Amber Tamblyn with her book, Dark Sparkler at AWP 2015 (Photo credit: Sierra Smith)

In the foreword for Amber Tamblyn’s third collection of poetry, Diane di Prima warns the reader that Dark Sparkler “will break your heart.” And for me, it absolutely did. The collection documents the lives and often tragic deaths of young, female actresses, among those Samantha Smith, Quentin Dean, and Marilyn Monroe. Overall, the content of the poems were harshly worded and dark – in the best way possible – while the structure was widely varied: from the prose-like form of “Susan Peters” to the screenplay style of “Heather O’Rourke.” Through the examination of these deaths, Tamblyn once again brought relevance to the short but bright lives of these faded stars.

Out of the poems, “Peg Entwistle” really stayed with me. Entwistle, an actress during the 20s, committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood sign in California. The poem, rather than focusing on Entwistle’s suicidal mission, focuses instead on her shoes. How much she loved her shoes; how they guided her on her walks through life: “They had always/ known where she was going long before she did.” They tease her, and she teases back, reminding them that “the coyotes are drag queens/ in Los Angeles. They will come and try to wear you if you’re not quiet!” The conversation continues until she jumps out into nothingness. The poem is accompanied by artwork by Russ Tamblyn, father of the poet. The collection also features work by Marilyn Manson, David Lynch and others, further showcasing the varied talents of Hollywood giants.

Tamblyn does an amazing job of looking back in history and recounting the deaths of stars, but some of her most haunting work comes in the poems that memorialize the women of the 21st century. In the poem “Brittany Murphy” (which first appeared in Pank Magazine as “About the Body” in 2010), Tamblyn recounts the sensationalized death of the 32-year-old actress. “They say good things about the body,” and they – the media – did. Her death was of ‘natural causes,’ although tests were still being run over four years after her death. I remember the months before her death in 2009, the media releasing story after story about the actress’ continually shrinking body, but after her death they scrambled to release photos with “the least bone, the most peach.” The media wanted to showcase the young actress at her best, instead of what she had been reduced to in her final years.

“Lindsay Lohan” was another interesting poem, because Tamblyn left the page blank. Many readers have assumed that Tamblyn meant to spite the 28-year-old actress by foretelling an early death. However, Tamblyn spoke out about the poem in an interview with Vulture, stating, “I am giving this back to [Lindsay] to write.”

This collection was simultaneously dark and light: dark in the sense that these women had little peace while living, and light in the sense that Tamblyn may have given them some now. The poems are thought-provoking, and sent me to the internet many times to search a name, or listen to a story. These words will draw you in and keep you captive until the very last page. And then you’ll want to flip the book over and start again.

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